Focusing in with Macro

I’ve been experimenting with macro photography lately as an offshoot of taking so many flowers pictures this spring. It reminds me of being fascinated with microscopes and the tiny world I discovered as a child.

Until just now I’d forgotten how one year for Christmas I got a pocket microscope in my stocking. Yes, if you’re wondering I was a bit of a science geek as a child. I carried that microscope around the yard, on walks to the park, and when my family would take day trips to the mountains. While I didn’t much care to look at bugs with it, there were plenty of wonders in the micro world to observe.

I loved Lego as a child, and was thrilled to pass that love on to my son. As I’ve been unpacking from a recent pair of moves – one to a new home, another from my office – I came across a few Lego mini figures my son gave me as gifts when he was younger. They had graced the office at work which I no longer occupy with a shift to permanent remote work. While I have so many more mini figures in bins of my childhood legos hidden in the attic, these were right in front of me begging to be photographed. Ideas bubbled up in my mind. I could spend the month of May making pictures of mini figures in various locales. It would be a wild & crazy adventure of #MacroMay.

Wild & crazy Lego backpacker guy.

I lined a few up on my desk and started snapping pictures, remembering to use small apertures to get some depth-of-field so the entire figure would be in focus. A few tries were meh, and then by adding a flash I got a reasonable image. Was this really worth my time? Or was this more of a flight of fancy? Still I kept at it.

A slightly delirious and maybe evil Peter Pan mini figure!?

Perhaps I should to be more serious. Become the cold and detached photographer documenting their observations. Well, perhaps not, but it’s a fun image.

Should a photographer be an ice queen line this mini figure complete with stylish camera bag?

Even after years of awareness and work, I’m still discovering things about myself and my childhood. These discoveries and connections still occur on a regular basis even after years of therapy and effort at healing. Time and reclaiming passions of childhood allow things to bubble to the surface of awareness where they can be processed. I know I still have a lot of work to do in my recovery, but fortunately I’m not alone. I have help along the way.

I’m finding out today that looking closely and focusing on the minute is another way to distract and avoid the world around me. In the present it’s mostly about observation and discovery, but as a child… It was that and more. It was a way to dim awareness of the unsafe world I lived in. If attention was focused on a blade of grass, the veins of quartz in granite, the grain of a stump, then I was able to not know about the terrible things I experienced. The micro world became yet another tool in my box to cope, to keep from knowing. I’m realizing I’ve spent a lot of my life not knowing things which were too much to process or cope with as a child.

Those same coping skills can bring joy now. Maybe not a fair trade, but I’ll make hay while the sun shines.

Spring Flowers

It’s springtime here in the south. The sun is brighter, the days are warmer, and pollen is ubiquitous. This also means flowers in bloom, which this year is all of them at the same time. Colour spouts everywhere. Walkabouts with my camera to explore my new neighborhood have been filled with bountiful blooms.

I’ve been taking pictures: experimenting with close up photos, with framing and with depth of field. It’s been enjoyable, diverting me from the stress of moving, from memories just under the surface. Having to focus on minute details and put into practice skills long unused keeps the mind from wandering to anxiety provoking topics of both the past and the present.

These are the kinds of pictures my father never took, which makes them the kind of pictures I want to take, because they are mine. I claim them for my own, inhabit them completely without being cast into darkness by his shadow.

I never would have expected to see myself interested in these vivid subjects. As a young photographer I was drawn to sweeping vistas, dark skies, and faraway things. The thought of stooping to sample the roses would never have sat right with me. It is too quiet, too sedate, not interesting enough.

I’m reminded of an evening photography class I took one summer as a tween. It covered many topics I found engaging, but it’s the one I wasn’t thrilled about which sticks most in my mind – attention to detail. We were given an assignment to shoot an entire roll of photos of a single object – a stump. I found it difficult to focus on that stump for 3 or 4 frames, how could I take all of 24? I knew I was never going to make it as soon as I started. It’s hardly surprising I got negative from that assignment, though I might still have the few photos I took someplace.

That has changed so much over the intervening years. Now even the smallest thing pulls me in if I let it. A contrast of different color flowers on the same azalea bush, a mix of orange and purple pansies in the same bed. It seems anything becomes helpful in avoiding that which I really don’t want to know or can’t deal with just now. If it’s quiet and beautiful, that makes it even easier to lose myself.

So I walk around, camera in hand soaking up the world waiting for things to draw my attention. The surroundings speak to me visually as I try to notice the wonders hidden in plain view around me instead of the dark memories within.

Every now and then something jumps out, begs to be seen where it wasn’t visible just a moment ago. So I raise the camera, snap a few images to capture an ethereal presence which won’t be there tomorrow and walk on looking for the next moment before the spring flowers fade.

Cameras to manage anxiety?

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reading about cameras. So much so, you might assume I’m planning to buy one in the immediate future, but actually no. I’m reading about cameras because, well, it’s calming. For some reason I can’t quite identify yet, reading about all sorts of different DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and some of the newer mirrorless cameras helps me manage anxiety. I *am* interested in cameras, because well… photography is part of who I am. It’s a hobby I’ve claimed since I was a child. However I’m not pining after the latest and greatest camera right now. I just read about cameras when I get anxious. Why is that? All I know is that if I find myself browsing pages on Ken Rockwell’s excellent site, I know I’m likely unsettled.

I can trace some of this back to when I wanted to learn more about my current primary camera – a Nikon D90 – after years away from using an SLR regularly. After that I started reading about the newer models which replaced it over the following 12 years, then I read up on some of the film cameras of my youth, and then some of the ones that had been in my dad’s collection. Things got a little scary down that dark alley, so I shifted back to modern digital cameras. Now rarely a day goes by when I’m not reading about a lens or camera or some aspect of technique even when the pandemic keeps me inside, away from taking as many photos as I’d like.

This has me thinking about Central Coherence Theory, which basically says that humans organize and process information within a context that gives it meaning, looking for the big picture. We focus on information which fits with the big picture and set aside information which doesn’t fit with it. It’s a concept I learned about when researching Aspergers and Autism after my son was diagnosed at the age of four. At the time there was a theory postulating those on the autism spectrum have weak central coherence. It proposed they have a reduced ability to coalesce information around a central idea, and discard the rest. The results is a flood of extraneous information which overwhelms and leads to reduced executive function which is typically seen in those on the autism spectrum. I’m not sure if it was ever accepted, but on a practical level the concepts helped me understand some of my son’s challenges. How does it apply here though?

Well, like most things with me, it comes back to trauma. My brain spends an inordinate amount of time avoiding awareness of memories of traumatic things which happened to me. Holding all those awful things in mind would overwhelm me, make it impossible to function. So those memories are pushed down out of awareness. To keep memories at bay, to keep my mind from pulling information back together and putting disparate pieces together thus finding the core idea, my brain tries to protects, tries not to know. It’s just part of how PTSD works.

How better to keep these memories from floating to the surface and coalescing into awareness of the terrible truth of my childhood than finding something else to focus on. Enter cameras.

Fortunately photography is a deep and complex topic. I can ask myself countless interesting questions based on my interest. What would be the best travel camera for when COVID winds down and I can visit interesting places again? (A Canon EOS M5 or Nikon D3500 are small enough to fit in my purse) What lenses make sense to purchase next that work with my longer term camera upgrade plan? (a Nikon 10-24mm DX ultra wide) Which camera will fit my hand size best? (heh.. none, though small SLRs are okish) What’s the best way to get film developed and scanned these days? (Turns out there is a lab in town) What’s the next book I should read about photography? (The Photographer’s Eye) Where should I take my next photographic vacation to? (Yosemite – my wife has never been there) The list is almost endless, engaging for my mind, and most importantly, far from my trauma memories.

Well, mostly distant from those memories. Actually, there are some crossovers with the more adverse experiences of my childhood. Stumbling across those connections when I’m trying to avoid knowing can be far, far too much. It is more destabilizing than a vivid flashback since it connects to the topic here and now… and then I have to deal with my trigger reactions, anxiety, body memories, fuzziness. Yay.

What surprises me most about this is that things I know be triggering about cameras and photography are losing their ability to invoke strong reactions in me. As memories spilled forth early on, I never thought I would be able to handle a real SLR camera again, much less a film Nikon, the camera choice of my father. Yet now I not only own one Nikon SLR, but two. One digital and one film. The sound of the shutter no longer makes me jump. As long as the camera is in my hand, in my control, I am ok.

As I read, learn, and distract, control comes back to my hands. I choose what happens now. I chose to take photography back. I choose to read about cameras when I am anxious. I choose to write about these things because this is my life. I am no longer powerless. I no longer have to suffer through triggers and overwhelm blindly. I have coping skills, including camera distraction to manage the anxiety that comes with my memories. I no longer have to white-knuckle overwhelming times.

It is a slow path to make sense of my experiences, to take my life back, but I work at it one click, one article at a time.

Strolling in the Light

Over the last few months I’ve been feeling photography grow ever more comfortable. When I posted earlier this year about taking photography back from childhood trauma, about making the hobby mine again, I had reached a point where it had switched from being a trigger to a pleasure. Lately something unexpected has happened – photography has become solace.

Since memories of childhood trauma came pouring forth the best part of a decade ago, I’ve often found myself wondering how to make sense of my life experiences. Though I have explored the disjoint, terrifying memories in the safe embrace of my journal and therapist’s office, I wrestle with how to translate these experiences onto the page. I yearn to tell my story, yet how to do so without scaring my readers or befuddling them with disconnected slivers of memory has long evaded me.

Since the summer, I’ve been mentally rummaging in the junk drawer of my mind, going back over experiences trying to find a common framework from which to make sense of things. Unexpectedly I discovered photography showing up all over life, not just in my trauma memories. From pictures of childhood events, to family voyages photographically assaying the American West, to images of my own independent travel and those of my son, photography is the river that has flowed through my experiences. The negatives and positives of my life are all connected by an unending spool of film.

As I worked through all of this in my journal, I actually could give attention to it for the first time. Instead of shying away because of being triggered, I was able to embrace the idea of using photography, both mine and my father’s, as a way to understand my own story.

Bolstered by this framework of how the pieces of my life might fit together into a cohesive whole, I let myself slip more into photography. I let it envelop me, become part of how I see the world again. I finally looked back over my catalog of pictures from the last 20 years and beyond. I started to write a mixed media essay with some of those photographs. I began to read about photography and cameras, which I had never been able to do before. In daily life occasional images would impress themselves on me. Bright pansies in a planter surrounded by the browning world of late fall caught my eye one day, a Christmas wreath around a streetlight another, and Thurman with a particularly vivid background on yet another. Interesting images were all around me, I simply started noticing.

I found myself wandering around the neighborhood, camera in hand allowing my eye to once again see things as the camera might. I’d found something I never thought I would experience again: the countenance between light and dark, the sharp joyful spark of color, the excitement of the unexpected caught still. Small, even inconsequential things became my subjects and created a smile as I found life in the ability to represent things as I saw them.

A crossroads in the sky.

I am no longer only tolerating capturing an image. I’m finding joy and life in creating with my camera. I’m using photography as a tool to help myself now. When I go numb, disconnect or get anxious because I am overwhelmed by memories, a walk with the camera grounds me to the earth. These walks connect me to things waiting to be seen, to life itself because in order to capture the world as I see it, attention must be given to the present instead of what is going on inside. I am forced out of the darkness of images trapped inside my mind to instead experience the light of the world around me.

In the land of the pansies, the purple queen reigns.

Somehow moving toward instead of away from memories of my father the photographer has allowed me to work on accepting the duality of my relationship with him. In turn I have felt a peace develop around cameras, photography and how they weave into the fabric of my life. Once again photos are an outlet for me to express myself as an artist, instead imprisoning me.

There is still darkness in photography for me, but as long as I walk in the light, darkness lives only in my past.

Stickers & Washi

Of late I’ve found solace in Washi tape – that fun, reusable Japanese decorative adhesive. It’s found its way into my paper bullet journal and I expect soon into my sketchbook. I suppose this shouldn’t be much of a surprise as I’ve been expressing myself with stickers on my laptop for years now.

I’ve even bought a couple of big bundles of washi tape from Amazon. It’s not the highest quality, but it’s a whole lot of fun to open a package of 30 rolls of joy! I mean just look at this, how can I not smile at all of these fun patterns?

Since it makes me smile, I take advantage of that little bit of joy in my bullet journal to make my days a little more bearable. I’m stuck home most every day now because of the Pandemic, so I’ll take a slice of happiness any place I can find it.

I use my bullet journal to take notes manage my work tasks all day. This can make it a pretty dreary place. While I like my day job, the minutes can get pretty blah and frustrating. So in addition to using multiple colors of fountain pens and markers (that’s another blog post) I use Washi to liven things up. A shiny dividing line here, a fruity border there and suddenly I don’t feel quite so dreary.

It actually can be functional too. Section breaks are more obvious with a thin line of Washi. I can underline an important item with thin Washi or give super-important ones a whole border so they stand out. Delinating columns is easy with a strip of washi. My mistakes even look good now… because they are covered by a delightful strip of Washi.

My little pick-me-up has turned out to be rolls of washi. I wonder how I will look when I go back into the office someday carrying a couple of rings of washi with my notebook and pencil case from meeting to meeting? At least it will fit with my colorful sticker laden laptop!

Cycling as Self Care

I’ve been a cyclist off and on since I was twelve. Sometimes I’ve been deeply into cycling, and others times years have passed without riding a mile. Yet no matter how long I’m away, my love of riding brings me back to a bicycle. It’s been my recurring exercise of choice time and again. Right now I’m back again after taking an enforced break because of a surgery last year. I sorely missed riding during my recovery as cycling one of forms of self care. It supports my mental health. I find it a grounding escape, which I could have really used in those long days of recovery from surgery.

When my childhood trauma started to come up again as an adult, I found solace in cycling. It turns out riding fast on a twisty forested trail forces everything else out of mind. The only focus is the next bump, the next turn, staying upright and alive. There’s actually research which shows exercise is good for PTSD. Cycling is a mindful activity for me and so I feel better mentally and physically during and after a ride.

Little did I realize I couldn’t just hop on a bike and get back to one of my best methods of self care.

Self care should feel good…

In returning to cycling I found my old favorite road steed was no longer quite the all-day-comfort mount I recall. The bike felt suddenly ungainly and uncomfortable. By the end of a short ride my back, neck and shoulders ached. I hoped things would get better with more saddle time. Alas that has not been the case. Even my mountain bike which had been even more comfortable suffered from the same problem. I was going to have to do some work on my bikes to make cycling enjoyable again. I needed to ride to feel better, and discomfort when cycling was not helping my mental (or physical) health at all!

First, I need to admit something — I prefer older bicycles. There’s nothing wrong with new bikes; they are sleek, fast, and light. There’s just something that draws me to the bikes I knew growing up. Old steel and aluminum bikes from the 80’s hold a special place in my heart. Plus, I have a difficult time parting ways with the outrageously high sums new high quality bicycles seem to command today.

When I returned to cycling after a long break in my late 20s and early 30s (kids will do that for you) I discovered the uber-cool bikes I wanted as a tween and teen had became affordable on the used market after 20 years. So I finally got to own that Specialized Rockhopper Comp and Nishiki Modulus I wished for so much back in high school.

Unfortunately, neither of them seems to fit my aging body anymore. So I actually decided to do something I’ve never done before – get a real bike fitting. I had been fit to my first real bike by standover height and a quick test ride. I’m only an inch taller now than I was when I started high school, so the bike I fit then should still be about perfect. I mean right?


Turns out I wasn’t fit well to my bike back then, and I’ve been setup wrong for decades. A few minutes with a measuring tape and the Competitive Cyclist Fit Calculator opened my eyes to truths about my body which I’ve always know but never actually thought to apply to how my bike fits.

Women’s bikes should fit differently!?

It turns out my body is similar to many women. I have a short torso and long legs for my height compared to a man. My bikes had always been fit by standover height, which for most women results in a frame that has too long of a reach. This means there is too much distance between the saddle and the handlebars. My arms are a bit on the long side, but not enough to make up all of that difference. It turns out for decades I have been riding stretched out too far. My body had simply absorbed the inaccurate fit with youthful elasticity. Until, well… it couldn’t anymore.

I had never thought much of it because I felt fine. Besides, all the other women cyclists I knew had a similar stretched out posture on their bikes. Now armed with actual factual information, I knew I had to shorten the reach of my bikes if I hoped to be comfortable again. A shorter stem (which connects the fork to the handlebars) seemed the right move. My mountain bike has been my go-to all weather cycling machine, so it was up first. A short, adjustable height stem and new handlebar made things immediately better by bringing the handlebars closer to the saddle and moving me more upright.

The seat of the matter

My back end however was still uncomfortable. So I turned to the saddle, which turned out to be the other half of the fix my body needed. I had lucked out early on in my cycling career by getting a Vetta women’s saddle on my second mountain bike. That Mongoose with 24″ wheels was probably the only bike I ever owned which actually fit me correctly until now. In fact, I suspect it was about the only well fitting women’s mountain bike available in the 80’s. It was an impulse gift from my father when in San Rafael, CA on our big Alaska trip, but that’s another, longer story. I loved that bike, but even more I loved that saddle. It out lived the Mongoose by many, many years until it too was no longer ridable. A later version of of that saddle is perched on my tandem to this day. Vetta sadly seems to have long gone out of business, and since then, I’ve been unable to find a well fitting saddle. I have had to make do with various less well conforming variations. No more. I hurt now, so it was time to fix this too.

I went on a quest for the right saddle and after much reading decided to try one that looked a lot like that old Vetta, but with a center cutout – the Terry Butterfly. In the height of the pandemic, there wasn’t a chance to test one out at a local bike shop, so in blind faith I ordered one online. Coupled with the stem/bar change, I’d found magic once again for my vintage 1989 Rockhopper Comp with the Terry. My mountian bike has become as comfortable (perhaps more) than it ever had been. I feel like I can ride this bike all day and then some. I dream of taking it on a long touring trip someday.

One down, one to go

My road bike, a beloved Nishiki Modulus (like this one – but updated) was another story. After getting my ideal frame measurements and comparing this to the Modulus, it turned out to be oversized for me. Not only is the 54cm frame a bit too big, it has a longer than average reach. It was built in the days when bike manufacturers were selling a lot of racing bikes, and it shows in the geometry and that long top tube. It’s completely wrong for me. I love the bike, but the only possibility to make it work is a French Fit. That however is not something I wanted to try to figure out now. I needed something I could ride without experimenting too much. The Nishiki was moved to the back of the storage room as possible a future project.

Fortunately I happened to have another, smaller framed bicycle I’d built up about 7 years ago. After a bike trail opened near to the university I work at, I’d decided to keep a bicycle in my office. The combination of a nearby path and the campus recreation center (showers!) across the street made morning, or even lunchtime rides possible. I quickly discovered carting a bike back and forth to work was a pain. If only I had another bike I could leave at work…

After a bit of searching, I found an early 90s Cannondale frame in 50cm for sale. It was cheap and I’d always wanted a Cannondale, so I took the plunge. I guess even then I somehow knew my Nishiki was too big when I chose that smaller frame. It was built it up with spare components from my first road bike I had gathering dust in the garage. It never saw anything except twice a week lunchtime rides for a handful of years. Later I’d brought the bike home after moving offices and it had been gathering cobwebs.

In my desperation to get a comfortable road bike, I took it out a few weekends ago. It rode like a dream, With my new Terry saddle atop the seat post it even fit comfortably. I’d forgotten how much I loved riding this old bike. After my usual 20 mile ride on a local greenway, I felt good. The frame was just under my ideal fit, but that made the reach to the handle bars slightly more comfortable. I knew I could make it fit perfectly with a few adjustments. I was happy, the world was great, rainbows and unicorns everywhere! My problem was solved! Then the front tire blew out. The old wheels which had been cutting edge new decades ago were not up to the task after untold miles. It was time to update so I could trust this steed again on longer rides.

I spent a happy couple of weeks replacing some parts of the bike — tires, wheels, chain, etc. I now have a bike that rivals anything I could hope to afford of the current generation. It’s a lightweight handcrafted classic, a new bike with an old soul, and that’s something I can’t buy in modern carbon fiber at any price.

Now you will find me on nice weekend afternoons and the occasional weekday evening out on the local bike trails eating up miles, soaking up nature and taking care of myself.

Bullet journal blues

This last week or so I’ve spent a lot of my free time looking at journaling and planners and organizational systems again. I seem to go through this form of soul searching on a semi-regular basis as a result of some external factor that shakes up my existing system. This time it was discovering the Hobonichi Techo Planner when I was looking for pen refills for my wife’s favorite pen the Otho Horizon. These amazing planners with grid paper come with fun covers in a myriad of colors (even in Marshmallow – want, so badly.) The pull of actual paper and seeing a new option threw my brain into a tizzy, resulting in hours of digging, questioning, and soul-searching around whether I really needed to change my system again. I’d once again fallen into the Bullet journal blues.

How I got here

I never used to have this problem as for so much of my life I didn’t even imagine I needed a planner, organizer, journal, or any such thing. I’d tried a few things in college, and then again when I started to work professionally. I really didn’t have a need. I tried mostly because I saw other people using day planners, portfolios, pocket calendars, or notebooks on a regular basis. They looked so cool and put together pulling them out in class or in a meeting – taking notes, jotting down dates, referring back to things. I wanted to be like that too, so I tired to use the tools too.

Pretty quickly, I discovered I really didn’t need those things as I had a good memory. I would forget to use my planner, but still remembered to do stuff. So I never wrote anything down, and I just remembered it. Sure, I might take a few notes in a class and I had a wall calendar to put important dates on. I might jot down a grocery list or some important dates from a meeting on a scrap of paper. For the most part though, my memory was good enough. My life just wasn’t that complex. My fancy day planner went unused. My pocket calendar was ignored till long after it expired and my nicely bound journals kept a shelf from getting dusty. I was good.

Then several years ago my life outgrew the basic organizational system I’d fallen into for most of my early adult life. It started when I got some more responsibility at work and I had to track my calendar closely, so I started using Outlook for more than just email for the first time. Then I had a lot of information to take away from meetings, so I used letter sized note pads for notes despite my awful handwriting. I tried a Palm Pilot for a while, though it was actually a Sony Clie which I adored, but mostly used as a precursor to a Kindle. More important dates and plans went onto a whiteboard in my office. As I became responsible for even more things, those tools weren’t enough and so my search began in earnest.

My first stop was back to a page-a-day planner. I dug my old one out of a box of stuff in my basement. While it helped a bit, I found it too constraining and small. So I went back to pads of paper which now felt too unorganized. Then I tried using OneNote for a while, and I did have some reasonable success with it for a couple of years. Though in the end I found the interface got in the way of my capturing ideas. Anything besides text didn’t flow freely on a computer and I also missed the feel of pen on paper. With the idea of paper back in mind, I did some research and discovered bullet journaling. It seemed promising, offering some organization with space for free form content using a regular paper notebook! In my further research I stumbled across the compendium of Pinterest bullet journal pages which connected to a rekindling of my artistic impulses and I was hooked on the idea.

Quickly I pulled a freebie journal that was a give-away from a trade show off my shelf and decided to practice for a month to decide if this would really work. Despite my (still) awful handwriting, the format *did* seem to work for me. I bought a real notebook and never looked back. For the first time I had a system that actually worked for me instead of hindering me. I went through a series of bound notebooks over the years, some lost to the inevitable moves and purges of the previous 5 years. Somewhere along the way though, two important things happened.

Four Old Bullet Journals
A collection of the the old bullet journals I still have. Did you notice I like Teal?!

First, at the behest of my therapist, I started to keep a personal reflection journal. A place to spill out all of the things inside my head. It absolutely did not feel safe to put things that were in my head on paper where people could just read them. Some of them were too scary to share. I was totally sure something awful would happen if I did that. It wasn’t until later I came to realize that as a childhood trauma survivor a paper journal felt incredibly dangerous for a reason, but that’s another post… or perhaps several. In any case it seemed safer to keep an electronic journal I could protect with a password, and so I splurged for DayOne at a whole $4.99 (it’s since gotten more expensive!) It worked on my iPhone and iPad seamlessly, and I became a daily writer as a result.

Second, I kept wishing for an electronic version of my planner. I missed the ability to search which I’d had with OneNote. I found I could only fit a year at most into a bound notebook which I could reasonably carry in my purse or backpack. I used my iPad & phone for my journal, calendar, email and reminders. It just seemed like there must be a way to make the leap to using a tablet for my planner/bullet journal as well. Yet try as I might, there just didn’t seem to be a way that worked for me. UNTIL… Apple came out with the iPad Pro and compatible “pencil”. I saw the promise and finally made the leap to an iPad with a stylus and using GoodNotes for my Bullet Journal. I can import documents and photos, then mark them up or take notes on them right in the stream of my bullet journal.

Built my way out of the blues

This is the combination I’ve come to rely on – a sort of hybrid bullet journal system I’ve evolved to meet my needs. It’s written, and fills pages in a virtual notebook, but since it’s electronic there’s as many pages as I could ever need. It’s all backed up in the cloud so I never have to worry about losing all of my notes and ideas if a notebook (iPad) gets lost, stolen, or accidentally used as kindling to start a fire. Thanks to the OCR technology built into GoodNotes, my bullet journal is searchable. I have an infinite number of marker/pen colors available too. My reflection journal is on the same device, and so is my kindle. The list of pluses goes on and on. I can do pretty much everything I need to from a device that fits in my purse. It even has a wireless data plan so I can use it anywhere. It’s become my one thing to carry around, my one device to rule them all.

Yet there are a few major drawbacks. First, at least until very recently, GoodNotes was a battery hog and I had a difficult time making it through a day without boosting a charge. My purse and backpack now both contain a robust charger and cable for just that eventuality. Second, I’m now looking at screens all-the-live-long-day. My eyes and head often are unhappy with me after a long day. Third, and most annoyingly, I miss paper. The feel of my writing implement on paper – a pen or pencil scraping across the not-unnaturally-smooth surface. I can’t hold 3 different pages open. My brain can think about and body can interact with a notebook in three dimensional space, but not with an iPad. It’s only mimicking paper. I’m an analog object using a digital one to impersonate an analog experience.

That longing for the feel of paper fills me at times. I find myself yearning for the imperfections of a pencil’s uneven shading, or bits of carbon scraping off from the freshly sharpened end. The smell of that freshly sharpened pencil is comforting. There is joy in the bleed of marker ink into the fiber of a page, of the smoothness left behind from a crayon filling in the imperfections of the page underneath it and yet somehow raising them up to make imperfection something pleasing to the eye. Sometimes I miss these so much it makes my heart ache and want to ditch the tablet for paper again. I’ve been in that space for a while lately.

Back to the blues…

So I was already primed and ready to fall headlong into the ultimately unconsummated love affair I had with the Hobonichi Techno Cousin Planner this last week. There was a hole in my heart which cold, digital technology couldn’t fill. It was a whirlwind week of romance and research followed by final letdown as I realized the Hobonichi wouldn’t replace my iPad, but simply supplement it. I would have yet another thing to carry around, to try to fit on my desk as I worked, another constraining planner system I’d just get frustrated with. I’m glad I didn’t buy into the siren song of a new planner half way through the year. I’ve kept my sanity for now.

And yet.

I do miss paper and ink. The rasp of the pen, the scratchy flow of a felt marker, the smooth scrape of graphite on paper. So maybe there is room on my desk and in my bag for a small notepad or sketchbook. Just enough to meet my needs. Maybe even a small discbound notebook so I can mix and match pages, customize, make it my own. Hmmm… maybe I should research that…

Guess I’m back to the Bullet Journal Blues. See you in another week!

Missing Coffee shops

In the midst of this pandemic shutdown I find myself missing something many people don’t give a second thought. It’s not the kind of thing which those I interact with on a regular basis seem mention. It’s not social gatherings or sporting events. It’s not shopping, a girls-night-out, or eating out. It’s not even the carefree ease with which life was lived before social distancing in the age of the Coronavirus. It’s something far more pedestrian. I’m missing coffee shops as humble as they are.

It’s not the coffee (or tea!) I miss as much as the place itself. The deep leather chairs and hard wooden tables, the aroma borne of countless urns of brewed coffee and kilos of ground espresso beans which pass through each day leave a blank space. I miss the hustle and background hum, the clatter and snippets of conversation that blend into a pleasant white noise which soothes my mind.

I miss the feeling of being on my own in a sea of ebbing and flowing humanity. I miss the calm and comfort I feel of being alone in a crowd. That feeling of being surrounded by people, yet by my self is comforting and calming to some tattered, wounded part of me. In that liminal space between alone and not alone, I somehow feel safe in a way that often eludes me.

I’ve often wondered why I’m this way. Questioned what it is about who I am and the way I came to be in this world makes me so comfortable in such a space. For years I’ve known that I work best in a coffee shop or similar busy place where the world passes by. If I need to get something done, I don’t seek quiet, I go to the closest Starbucks. If I really want to read, the quiet of a library or my couch is not as helpful as a diner (with a hot cup of something and slice of pie) or a coffee shop.

I’ve long judged myself for not being able to focus in ways that others could. Only now and I starting to accept that I can focus, I just need the right environment. But why? that question burns at my mind. After some thought I have a couple of ideas.

To explore the first idea, I need to tell you another story. You should know my son got into racing as a young child. I blame the Pixar movie “Cars.” He loved that movie, but the real impetus for his interest was a Memorial day weekend NASCAR race that happened to be on TV while we were at a Mexican restaurant. The big screen display with the race was impossible to miss from his seat, and the screen drew him in as usual. He watched enraptured as the *red* car (his favorite color) led the race. Later that night he insisted we watch at home, and he was excited she he found unit the next morning that the *red* car (the #9 driven by Kasey Khane) had won the race. He was hooked. At the age of six, he had a favorite NASCAR driver and a race watching habit.

I assumed it would fade after a few months like most childhood infatuations, but not so. As the summer wore on and fall approached his interest didn’t wane. Living in the south, there just happened to be a track within an hour or so drive. It hosted a fall race. Against my instinct, I decided to take him to a race. Not the big “cup” race, as I was sure he would never make it through hours at the track. I picked a shorter (and cheaper)”truck” series race the same weekend and bought 2 tickets fully planning to leave after 5 minutes.

Full of trepidation, we arrived at the track and found a spot we liked -surprisingly there was no assigned seating. He seemed calm through the preliminaries and some practices. I was worried that as soon as the noise began in earnest, he would struggle mightily. My son has some sensory issues, and I was worried the extreme noise would set him off into a full meltdown. I had unnerving visions of having to carry him out to a quiet spot.

I sat practically jittering in my seat as the drivers lined up to start and the flag waved. I missed the start of the race, because I was watching my son, just waiting to bolt with him for the exit. His eyes shined with anticipation as the trucks took off. I looked for any sign of distress, but as the trucks made their first lap I saw something unexpected.

He relaxed. His shoulders slid down a bit, and the tension eased out of his body. He calmed. My normally high-strung, overly sensory sensitive child calmed into a relaxed state. I was stunned. After a while I asked as best I could over the noise how he was doing, and he said “fine.” He seemed as calm as when he sat with his stuffed bunny in my lap on the rocking chair each night reading books before bed. He stayed that way till we left about an hour later (after the first wreck.)

I struggled to understand how this child who was normally sensitive to some of the minutest sensory inputs could calm so dramatically in the face of that overwhelming wall of sound. I pondered for quite a while until later an Occupational Therapist (OT) explained to me that in some people with overly sensitive sensory systems a massive sensory input will actually overload the sensitive part of the nervous system and allow it to function normally. Kind of like how in high school chemistry an experiment showed me that a buffered solution barely changed PH even when sulfuric acid was added to it.

The overload of noise leveled out my son’s sensory response, just like those apocryphal tales parents sometimes tell of colicky children falling asleep moments after the vacuum cleaner is turned on. So… how does this connect to the coffee shop I ache for every day now you might ask?

Well, reflecting on my son’s experience makes me wonder if some part of my nervous system is in its own form of overdrive. I suppose it’s possible that I share some of his sensory issues as 50% of our DNA is in common, but I have an unfortunately more sinister suspicion. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a childhood trauma survivor. The world I lived in for so many years simply wasn’t safe. Danger and awful things could happen any time, with almost no warning. So, early on in my life at some level I became hyper-vigilant with some part of me always on the lookout for danger. In a quiet space, every noise, change in lighting, or even air movement triggered a response to check for danger thus pulling me away from what I was doing. This hyper-vigilance is actually a feature and diagnostic criteria of PTSD.

A coffee shop provides me with a level of input that masks those little noises and changes. It in effect lowers my threshold of awareness for things that would trigger my hyper-vigilance. So I feel calmer, and more able to focus. I think this is why I first started journaling about my childhood experiences in a coffee shop, and why I’m best able to process those experiences in that kind of space. I can often write volumes in my journal at a Starbucks with my headphones on and at home struggle to get down a paragraph. That alone makes sense of why I miss coffee shops.

Yet it leads into the other reason I think I find alone-in-public spaces so comforting – there is little danger for me in a busy public space. Almost all of my traumatic experiences happened in secret – behind closed doors, in the dark, beyond the reach of public view. A busy public space is the anthesis of that. Besides I usually don’t know anybody in these spaces beyond a casual acquaintance with the usual barista or perhaps crossing the path of repeat patrons on occasion. Not only were my worst childhood experiences hidden, but like so many others it was often at the hands of those I knew. It makes sense that a public place full of strangers feels safer to me.

So I spend my days missing coffee shops. I wait anxiously for it to be is time to go back into my safe space again. Until then I do my best to find snippets of safe enough time and space to write wherever I can.


This is a post I started quite a while ago, have just stumbled across again and so decided to finish.

My wife sent me an article – What It’s Like to Live in a Space the Size of a Closet – about a writer living in a sub 175 sqft apartment in Seattle. It got me thinking about possessions. Paulette talks about how she’s actually found happiness once she got used to the idea of living in such a small space. What really struck me was a comment about stuff. It moved me to read about how she stood in her dad’s house an hour after he died and realized all his prized possessions was stuff that had no meaning to her. I’ve had my own experience being overwhelmed by somebody else’s stuff.

How much stuff we accumulate! I’ve come to be very aware of this fact. A few years ago I moved out of a house I’d spent 13 years in. I had so loved the house when I moved in because it had a basement, a garage, big closets, and a huge forested yard. I loved it for the space and I loved it for the shaded seclusion of that yard. Over the years things accumulated in all that space bit by bit. The clothes my son outgrew, the toys he never played with anymore, tools for the yard and house, implements in the kitchen, boxes of photos and more.

My Ex’s parent passed away suddenly and all of the beloved items of a remembered childhood arrived in our home to sit beloved but in boxes lining the basement and closets. The stuff grew. It felt important, as though I was less without all that stuff.

It overflowed as my mother came to live with me after she left a bad relationship of her own. Her stuff came with her filling the remaining space in the basement. When she moved out much of her belongings stayed. My child grew and his old nursery became a place to store yet more things my Ex couldn’t bear to sort through or part with.

The growth of belongings and ferocity with which they were protected overwhelmed and frightened me. I didn’t see it at the time, but they were an attempt to exercise control over things that couldn’t be controlled. The loss of a parent that couldn’t be controlled or accepted. The unwillingness to accept the growing up and moving on of a child maturing into their own. Eventually I realized my Ex controlled me too. I wasn’t allowed to grow, change or be myself. I had to be who I had always been.

As the relationship finally reached then end of its decade long crumble, I decided I needed to love myself and live my own life on my terms. I moved out and left so much behind. I moved for safety, for my own space, to start to finally live my own life. There wasn’t much to take. Some clothes, some books, A few kitchen things. Stuff that was necessary or the felt vitally important to making it through the first few weeks. Besides my Ex didn’t want me to take much of anything. Still exerting control through stuff.

What little I left with didn’t feel like enough, and yet at the same time it did. Over a few weeks as I started to settle, it became apparent it was enough, plenty in fact. Suddenly that confusion started to make more sense. The overburden of stuff had been as restrictive and suffocating as much as the relationship had been. As my Ex cleared the house to sell it, I wanted none of it. I needed to be free.

It was a chore clearing the decade of detritus in that house. I seethed with resentment at having to deal with somebody else’s problem. Not only was it somebody else’s problem, it was one I had finally felt like I had escaped, yet I was sucked back in, controlled by that pile of stuff one last time. It was a mad, painful dash against time to clear the piles before it sold. I was there cleaning until minutes before the closing.

In the end, it all happened and all the things I didn’t want or need went to a garage sale or donation. I didn’t get a penny for any of its but in the end I got something worth so much more – I was no longer tied to that pile of stuff.  I felt unburdened, clean and free. I wasted so much of my life trapped by things I never needed, by other people’s stuff.

Unwanted Holidays

Most people when asked what comes to mind when they think of a “holiday” will likely describe something along the lines of: “A time for relaxation, rest and ease celebrated through a mix of tradition and family.” You might hear a bit about the stresses around planning, travel, dealing with family, or finances. For a trauma survivor though holidays can be difficult to navigate without reliving the past.

For most people, a holiday celebration can be a bit like a trip to Disneyland, a carefree time with a joyous surprise around every corner. For someone like me it is more akin to a trip to Edisto Beach, South Carolina which has a surprising number of (mostly harmless) jellyfish.

Looking over the sun drenched sand and water, all seems right with the world. Wading out into the water, first ankles then calves swishing through the salty foam swirling in and out with the waves, toes dig into the sand underneath. Sand that washes away a bit with each wave that pulls back out to sea leaving a slightly less sure footing. Serene and calming, the water entices further steps until suddenly jellyfish surround. They wash by in the ebb and flow as the water grows slightly deeper. Wondrous forms captivating all around, the touch of them on skin tingly, fleeting and pleasant. Then a transient burning, twisting which causes a sudden gasp.

No mind, a sensation quickly forgotten, yes perhaps but a passing sensation. The calm flowing enchantment of the jellies soothes the body as the mind drifts. Moving forward again after that unreal interlude. Sun and sky above, ethereal jellies encompassing the body below as joy dawns from watching their forms. Searing, tearing unexpected pain wraps the body cutting through all. Back out of the water, stumbling up the beach, collapsing onto a towel as breath tries to cut through pain. Conscious effort to breathe, to make things at least OK with the world again…

I spend most of my life not knowing certain things, simply because knowing them would be too much to bear. I couldn’t possibly know those kinds of things and still be a functional person in our world. So knowledge is hidden, buried safely from my awareness. Yet, like the unseen stinging jellyfish, hidden memories always lie in wait to ambush me, mores on a holiday.

It seems for most people memories associated with holidays are stronger, and easier to access. Pleasant memories of the past reinforce present experiences making them more enjoyable and reinforcing them. One memory connects and leads to another. Thinking of Memorial day leads to memories of grilling, then watermelon and swimming. That may lead to connected memories such as the smell of sun screen and the feel of a blanket on the sand. Pleasant enough.

With my experiences, each of those connected memories is a minefield of stinging jellies. I never know which memory will be connected to something that will leave me remembering too much, triggered and struggling to breathe on that beach. So this Memorial day I’m actually relieved to be home, to be having a quiet holiday as are so many others.

Summer holidays usually leave me asking the universe fora day of rain to give me relief from crowds, heat, grills, and fireworks. A reason to stay home where I can limit the number of memories I must stumble across and safely manage the triggers that will inevitably flow from them. Well, and I just love rain.

Rain pulls me right down to the ground, roots my feet to the dirt below me and connects me to the earth. It blots out the world and drowns out sound. Standing in the rain it is impossible for me to be in the future or the past. Sound fills my ears, cool moistness touches my skin, mist fills my vision, the smell of a wet world floods my nostrils. There is nothing for me but this moment in time. The world, for just a moment, is right.

So here I sit on our balcony, eating hot dogs, salad and potato chips while I watch the world go by. Sad for the state of the world which is keeping me home, yet happy for the respite it gives me this day. Happy to have a chance to avoid so many of the things I can’t, don’t want to know. Happy to try to not get dragged into the ocean on this summer holiday.

Then the rain begins…