My Life

Pearl Farmer's Market

Yesterday all my grandkids were in one place, so like any lovesick grandmother I followed them to San Antonio. Their moms (two of my three daughters) and I took them to the Pearl Farmer's Market, and of course I didn't take many photos of anything but my power trio. We ran into a dear family friend, Jessica, who had her first baby nearly four months ago - Jeremiah - and I got to meet him for the first time.  Finally, we ran across a couple selling bulldog puppies - for $2700 EACH! They had the parents on hand so I snapped a few photos. Very cute pups but I can think of a lot of other things to spend $2700 on!

In Another Life

  2006 -- Photo by Ashley Shearer

2006 -- Photo by Ashley Shearer

In another life I wrote songs and performed them. It was kind of wonderful and scary and deeply frustrating at the same time (songwriting never came easily. Neither did performing -- I never could get over the nerves.) Even so, for many, many years, writing and performing was my dream. But by the time I hit 40 I realized that music apparently wasn't meant to be my primary mode of storytelling.  Since then I've mostly orphaned my musical endeavors and have moved on to what I love most -- the written word. I'm also still very interested in visual storytelling (photography), which I hope to do more of soon, since for the time being I'm not doing it for a living anymore. That definitely frees up some space on my creative hard drive.

But last night I realized that even though I'm not doing much music anymore, and even though I'm not pursuing it at all, I still like some of the stuff I've written over the years. I've never been a very good guitarist (I'm mostly self-taught) and have always been a little timid about playing in front of people because I know I'm kind of faking it. But I got to thinking: why do we only offer up the parts of ourselves that are polished? If I were to die tomorrow, would I want to leave these little tunes as evidence that I was here? Yes. They're a part of who I am, flaws and all. And so I decided to add a few songs to my website, if for no other reason than to give my eclectic body of work a place to call home.

I recorded these three songs in 2004 (there are others, but these three are probably my favorites.) My friend Steve hauled his recording equipment to a church and we recorded these raw demos live (just me with my guitar) over the course of a few of hours. The only exception was the background vocals, which were tracked that night and added later. Two of my three daughters sang on the recordings with me. Amy, then a college undergrad, drove from Austin to Huntsville and back -- in one night -- so she could lend me her angelic voice. And Anna, a sophomore in high school, graciously helped hammer out the harmonies and then added her velvet pipes. Even though they're pretty rudimentary, I'm grateful to have these-- especially since I no longer have callouses on my fingers and am way out of practice.

Maybe someday I'll play again. I hope to take guitar lessons again soon, just for my own enjoyment. But even though I'm not doing any songwriting or performing, the music lives on in my kids. Here's a video of the three of them singing a John Prine cover at my dad's memorial service at ACL Live, Moody Theater on April 17, 2015.  Thank God my cousin caught it on her iPhone.

On Transformation and Second Chances

 

My memory is pretty sketchy, but I do know this: I had childhood friends that collected things. I don’t really remember what they collected; I just recall being more than a little envious that I didn’t have a “thing” when my friends were amassing hordes of, say, angels, or dolphins or Coca-Cola memorabilia. You don’t just pull a “thing” out of thin air (or at least that didn’t seem right to me.) It has to mean something.


And then I went through a profound loss. Several, in fact.

 

The most earth shattering was the end of my 25-year marriage. I spent years and years trying to salvage things, but eventually I had to admit defeat. Throw in the towel. It felt like the biggest failure of my life, and even though deep down I knew that it wasn’t all up to me, I was bent over with grief and shame. There was fallout from that situation that’s way too long to go in to here, but I can say that it involved profound financial ruin and chronic fear and self doubt. Around the same time, my mother got ovarian cancer. My father got prostate cancer. I started completely over at age 44, financially speaking, which involved re-enrolling in college and switching careers. I carried so much defeat over the fact that I was middle-aged and everything I’d worked for had seemingly gone up in smoke. I was way behind the curve in terms of where I was certain I should be. I felt helpless to lessen the pain of my children, who were reeling as a result of the obliteration of our family. I fractured my ankle twice in four months, and had to wear a freaking boot for more weeks than I can remember. I left the neighborhood I had lived in for 25 years, my beloved neighbors, my longtime home, and ended up moving four times in four years. I was experiencing empty nest. My children were graduating from high school and college. One of my daughters got married. I began to feel very uncomfortable with the church I was attending, which caused me to wrestle with spiritual issues of epic proportions.


And I was pissed.


Was there even ONE area of my life that could remain familiar and constant?


Apparently not.

 

I had psychic whiplash from all of the changes in my life. It was death after death after death… or so it seemed. Life, as I knew it, had died.

On my 45th birthday two of my children and a dear friend came over, and we made margaritas and fajitas. I have no recollection of how the conversation turned to tattoos, but the next thing I knew I was at the tattoo parlor. And even though it's a tired metaphor, I finally knew beyond any doubt what my “thing” was: butterflies. What better symbol of hope for someone who has suffered profound loss? Butterflies tell a story of death and rebirth. Butterflies say, “What I thought was the end was really the beginning.” I couldn’t see even one frame of what my new life was going to look like, but I decided to believe that it would be good, so much so, that I got a butterfly indelibly inked on my ribcage (and one of my girls got the same tattoo in the same place, which will forever be special to me.)


So the rest of the story is for another blog post, but the Cliff Notes version is that I did experience profound renewal, and so far it’s been more wonderful than I’d ever imagined. That doesn’t negate the losses by any means, and for the record I’m still climbing out of that rubble in many ways. Like a butterfly, I’ve emerged from it all––stronger, more colorful, and (here’s the kicker) sometimes I feel like I can fly.

But.


When I was in the cocoon, when I was in the dark and felt smothered by the grief that was wound tightly around me, it was a massive temptation to prematurely cut my way out of the silky envelope that was transforming me. I wanted certainty. I wanted to get on with my life. I wanted to just pick some butterfly colors, paint myself, and — by god if I had to hobble away, I was prepared to do so. I was like the disillusioned teen standing by the side of the road with a sign that says, “Anywhere but here.” I am loath to cite an overused reverse pop-psych quote, but I think it really does apply here: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Of course when you’re standing there, you’re beside yourself with the fear that you’ll never be okay again. But you will. Contrary to all the voices in my head, the only thing I could do was surrender and wait. And though the dust has cleared enough for me to have a little bit of faith in that process, I still wrestle with surrendering and waiting every single day of my life.


Last month, I got the opportunity to take one of our granddaughters to the Cockrell Butterfly Center in Houston. These creatures continue to inspire me in so many ways. If you’re someone who happens to be looking for hope, read up on butterflies. The parallels between your journey and theirs might just blow your mind.


Post Script: Today I was reminded of how very little I thought I contributed to my children’s comfort and healing when our family blew up. And then I thought of the song my oldest daughter, Amy, wrote for me on my 50th birthday — a mere six years later. I was so shocked at how they perceived it vs. how I thought it went down. So I thought I’d share it here. It’s not a great recording… I made her put it down in Garage Band before she left town on my birthday. But if you listen closely you’ll be able to make out the words (headphones help.)

Sonoma | San Francisco

California gets the lion's share of our vacation dollars. Not only is Craig from Los Angeles (which means we have family there), we have family in the Bay Area as well. Last August Happy and I headed up to the Sonoma area for a short getaway, and then met family in San Francisco for a long weekend. 

On the first full day we were there, we headed for the coastline and came across this little hidden gem. Here's the truth: I had to go to the bathroom. So we stopped here and ended up loving it so much we took a wine and cheese break. John, the owner, is truly all about making the experience great for his visitors, and has been curating some of the best wines of the region for more than a decade. Who is Sophie? His beloved dog.

Next we stopped at Duncan's Landing Overlook, which is just off the Pacific Coast Highway. Beautiful spot.

We ended up at Point Reyes. Craig had been there and wanted to hike down to the lighthouse. I took one look at the steps and told him I'd wait for him, but of course he talked me in to hiking down there. 

This was our canopy at the Medlock Ames tasting room in Healdsburg. I love wine country. I just didn't take many photos of the wineries because I was busy. Tasting wine.

The next day we headed up to Jack London State Park; I didn't have any idea where we were going until we drove up to the gate. Pretty cool place. London and his wife are actually buried there, and there's an incredible story behind the Wolf House. Here's an account of what happened to their dream house, taken word for word from the website:

Jack London wrote so many books about wolves and dogs that his friend George Sterling gave him the nickname 'The Wolf'. So when Jack started to build his dream house in 1911, it was only fitting that people would call it the 'Wolf House'. Jack and Charmian never got to live in their home because one hot summer night in August 1913, spontaneous combustion started a fire in the house. Nobody was living near the house so the fire was quite advanced before anyone became aware of it. The Londons were sleeping in the Cottage about a half mile away and were awakened by a farm worker who saw the red glow in the sky. They got on their horses and rode to their beloved dream house. By the time they got there, the house was completely engulfed in flames and beyond saving. Although Jack vowed to rebuild the house, he did not live long enough to rebuild. Today, we have a beautiful ruin.

I just loved these two trees.

We secured an AirBnB rental in San Francisco, and most of us stayed there together. It was my first time staying in someone's actual home while they weren't there. They were incredibly gracious and generous, telling us to eat whatever we wanted, use whatever we needed, and even left us a bottle of champagne to welcome us. I have to confess that I was a tiny bit uptight about staying in someone's home (okay, more than a tiny bit. So! Much! Responsibility!) Though we were very conscientious guests, I don't think I could ever rent out my home to strangers.

Here's our first official game of Uno. Piper is a master.

This is my fantastic niece Caitlin and her boyfriend Clay. I think they belong in a magazine ad. 

Here's most of the kid crew. We were missing Cameron and Lauren. Top Row: Another beautiful niece Kyra, Caitlin and Clay. Bottom Row: Very cool couple Holly and Caleb (nephew), and Mandy and Piper.

Mother and daughter. Love these two so much. Bonus Trivia: they have the same birthday. 

Happy and Gia.

These two. Mandy (our middle daughter) and Cameron (our youngest son) fell into total sibling mode shortly after we were married. As in, they play hard and also fight like brother and sister. The way all of our kids love each other is a really amazing gift. 

Happy loved seeing his baby. We all miss him so much now that he lives in the Bay Area. 

Here's the whole crew just after we locked the door to leave. I've named the others in earlier pix, but this one includes Lauren (Kyra's girlfriend), my spectacular brother, John, and my beloved sister (in law), Cathie.

After we said our goodbyes, Mandy, Cameron, Happy, Piper and I headed down to the pier. Mandy and Piper had never been to San Francisco so we did a little tourist jaunt. All in all it was a great trip.

Chicago

I committed a lot of sins in Chicago. And by sins, I mean I broke a lot of my own stupid photography rules. Cardinal sin: I left all of my camera gear at home. I had a smaller bag packed with my Nikon D750 body and two lenses, but at the last minute decided I didn't want to lug them there and back. (The purpose of the trip was consultation, not tourism, but that's a whole 'nother story.)

My second crime was documenting the trip with my iPhone, knowing full well I was going to put mobile photos on my blog. [Gasp!] I guess when you've spent more than a decade in the photography profession, you feel like you should at least have enough dedication to actually carry your real camera to cool places like Chicago. Leaving it at home means you're a slacker and a poser. These are the stories I tell myself. 

When we did an architecture tour on Chicago's First Lady, I decided to let myself be a true tourist for once, which means I didn't stress about getting the right angles or perfect light. I just snapped the images as we rode down the river on a big honking boat. The skyline is so stunning. I visited Chicago in the late nineties to interview the creators of Veggie Tales for a magazine article, but I came and went on the same day so I didn't get to linger. I was pretty wowed by the architecture.

I actually did pay attention to the tour guide's description of the buildings, but I didn't write anything down so I have no idea how to identify most of these. They're tall. They're pretty. They're funky and inventive and fancy. (P. S. Is it just me, or do the cars parked in this building look like they could all just topple over the edge with a little too much gas?)

After the architecture tour we took a random walk down the Magnificent Mile and ended up wandering into the Chicago Cultural Center. In addition to the cool exhibits and the Tiffany Dome, I was delighted to find Chicago's permanent StoryCorps studio. That encounter warrants its own blog post, but suffice it to say that our experience there was nothing short of amazing. I'll say more about that later.

We didn't have much time to spend at the Art Institute and it felt really wrong to just breeze by Renoir and Degas. Which brings me to my final transgression: I took pictures of some of my favorite well known paintings. With my iPhone. With no regard for angle or composition (see: time constraint.) And I'm putting them on my blog, even though if you (or I) really wanted to see them we could google them, or order a print. Like the world needs one more iPhone shot of American Gothic. 

As we headed back to the car, I snapped these photos of Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. The giant people on the sides actually open their mouths and "spit" water, but I missed my photo op and I was too tired to wait around for them to do it again.