I have my husband to thank for this photograph.
This is me walking with Sophie from the trailer to her retirement home. This was eight years ago today.
When I met Sophie, I had been looking for a horse for months. I felt like I was meant to be with a horse, and that was all I was going on. I would show up at auctions in the area, hang out around the pens outside, and ask, "Is anyone here supposed to go home with me?"
I don't remember how I met Sophie's person. Our paths crossed for the first time one week before she planned to take Sophie to auction, and she mentioned that there was a man who was interested in giving her a home so he could ride her. Something about that didn't feel right to me, so before I had even met her I volunteered to giver her a home. A retirement home where she could decide if she wanted to offer riding or not.
So I bought a trailer and showed up to meet Sophie and welcome her to our family, not knowing what to expect. I saw defeat. She looked like she had given up on life. By the looks of her very small run and stall, I can't say that I was surprised. How she had been living wasn't the kind of life that any horse deserves.
Her person told me that Sophie wasn't easy with a trailer. She told me all of the things I should expect to have a hard time with, a few things that might be easy. Like she was giving me a temperamental electronic device that had to be plugged in and handled just so to work, not like she was offloading a living creature.
I stood outside of Sophie's stall and introduced myself. I wanted her to approach at her own pace rather than rush her into meeting me and then trying to load her in the trailer. That didn't seem like the best first date. I stood there talking to her and thinking that what I was doing was absolutely crazy. I told her about her new place and how she'd have a few buddies and could be turned out full time during the summer.
She ran toward the gate so quickly I thought she was going to break it down. I clicked on the lead rope and walked her out to the trailer.
She loaded herself. Then she stomped and whinnied the entire 23-minute drive to her new place.
Her person was right - she wasn't easy. I didn't expect her to be easy for my convenience. I wanted her to be herself.
She wasn't a hard keeper. Several of her teeth were missing and she needed her grain to be in a warm mash so she could eat it.
She wasn't uncooperative. She wanted to work with a partner, not a master.
She stood for grooming beautifully and patiently when I followed her rhythm. She didn't need to be cross tied.
Sophie had boundaries and was willing to enforce them. She had preferences she wanted me to know about and respect. There were things she didn't like to do, and once I learned about those I didn't ask (unless they were related to her health or safety).
Sophie was, and still is, the strongest and most compelling female leader I've met. She modeled what it was to be a beacon of light that others couldn't help but follow, not because she was the brightest light but because she shined her light on the places others wanted to be. Sophie had vision. She was cunning, honest, firm, gentle, feisty, demanding, unrelenting, playful . . . she could be all of those things without losing any credibility because she was so grounded in herself.
We were together for just over two years, and I learned from her every day. It felt like we had been together for a lifetime. The day after The Boy was discharged from the NICU, I took him to meet Sophie. I hadn't seen her for more than a month because I had been on bed rest and was then in the hospital. She whooshed warm breath from her nostrils over his head like she was anointing him with secrets that only horses know. I loved on her while The Boy was snuggly wrapped against my chest - I wanted that moment to last forever.
This is the part where you might want to have a tissue handy.
Sophie laid down in her paddock that night, just outside her stall, and died. I sat with her body the next day, weeping next to her while once again bound to my human bundle. I'll write more about how that felt another time. Today is for remembering how we came to be a family.
Soph, I don't know how you did it or why. I thank you for choosing me. I miss you every day.
What is it worth to be able to see yourself in your relationship?
We talk about honoring the life of your animal and we talk about creating art that represents you both. If you haven't thought about it, give a moment or two to consider what you give and who you are.
How do you show up? How does your animal see you? How do you think she would describe you if you asked? What strengths do you bring to share?
What have you learned? How have you grown and changed? What are your values?
We tend to focus on our animals because we are givers (and because they are incredible). We admire their exceptional qualities and marvel at their wisdom and generosity. I see this in my own relationships with animals and I see it every week in the tender humans who ask for help in telling their stories.
We get the most out of these relationships when we can reflect on our contributions, and it is often the case that seeing the relationship is more powerful than describing it with words. It's not about how you look - it's about how the two of your come together and remain distinct. It's about what you can look back and see years later that you may have missed at the time. It's about being able to see how wonderful it really was or how far you have come.
This is me and Conan in 2012, sharing a sunny meadow after an early afternoon hike (thanks to my husband for being ready with the camera). I'll tell you what I see.
I see that I adore him. I am in awe of him. Even with a funny heart, arthritis in his spine, hips, and knees, and nerve damage in his neck he found joy in the movement he could manage.
I remember thinking in this moment that Conan was so, SO . . . good. Like fairy tale marvelous, except for the part about being super reactive and downright scary with other dogs and often humans.
I see that this adventure was one of the first times in Conan's life that I wasn't calculating my value based on how much I was able to do for him or what his comfort level was. I can see in his face that he didn't give two wags about how much I was or wasn't doing - he just wanted to be together, no matter what. I remember how much I changed our lifestyle when we returned home from this trip because I wanted to hang on to this blissful, settled feeling of being swallowed by love, not calculating it. On this day I had a taste of what it was like to be comfortable feeling in a relationship rather than doing. Doing was what I was good at. Doing, in spectacular fashion, was my strength.
I could go on for days about what I see.
This photograph is so much more than a photograph of me and Conan. This is a portrait of our relationship. It is a milestone in my growth. It is a reflection of Conan's life lessons rolled into one frame: ease, love, more ease, more love. I see something different here every time I look at it because Conan continues to influence me.
That's what I want for you. See your relationship as it is now. Be able to look back and see how it was in that moment. See how the relationship endures, even after death, and look at yourself through all of that.
You deserve that.
This is Ruger.
He is deeply loved by his family. His life-sized portrait hangs in the bedroom, right over the place where he slept on the floor. It's an homage to his spot.
It's a spot that has been empty since Ruger died.
Ruger was a rule follower. A tattle tale for his Dane sister. He reserved his goofiness for those with whom he was supremely comfortable, and then he'd roll on his back and smile with his entire body. He had zoomies, as Danes do. He was gentle and kind, a bit wry with his humor.
Ruger had depth. He had a smoldering intensity and a connection to his person that defied words. And continues to defy words (hence art). You can see a hint of it here in his portrait.
It's tissue time.
Ruger's person is a kindred human to me and one who appreciates photography. She shared dozens of images of Ruger. When we initially talked about the image to inspire his portrait, she wanted to see him lying on his back with his jowls giving up the fight against gravity in that most undignified and totally joyful pose. She wanted to see that version of Ruger.
I could tell by the way she paused as she scrolled through her photographs that the Ruger you see here was the Ruger she needed. I mentioned that she seemed to have a special connection with this moment and it might be one to honor in a painting.
We both cried when she told me that this photograph is from the day before Ruger died. She asked him to go outside with her for a few photographs because she knew his death was coming, and this is what he gave her. The magnificant, stunning gift of his total attention, admiration, belief in her beauty and worth, and trust.
Honestly, I struggle with this portrait sometimes because it feels so intimate. It's like I shouldn't be privy to this moment. I shouldn't be allowed to see this connection because it is deeply personal and private.
As big as Ruger was in life, he is much bigger in death. Expansive, really. He's not there and yet he is. I can't tell you how Ruger's people feel about that statement - that's just me talking.
When I first met Ruger's family after many virtual exchanges, I was in their home for four hours. Four hours! Just hanging out and talking, looking at photographs, stroking cats and scratching a very large Daneish bottom. I could feel him in the house. I could see him in his person.
I didn't meet Ruger in life, and yet I feel like we are old friends. That may be why he was so comfortable giving me his honest opinion about his portrait as I was working on it.
Ruger's person gave me a budget window to work in and I proposed a watercolor sketch. It would be nice and light with a sketch-style watercolor wash and ink rather than a detailed watercolor portrait. It seemed to suit him. I had done all the ink work and was starting on the watercolor wash (which left areas of white on the paper where Ruger wasn't white).
"No. I don't like this. I don't want white spaces," I heard someone say.
I kept working.
"I AM FULL OF COLOR!" he shouted. "Please fill me in."
And so Ruger cleverly negotiated a full watercolor portrait at a sketch watercolor price. I don't think I'll ever forget that experience.
There is so much to love about Ruger. I love how connected to him his family remains. I adore how much they embrace him in the way he is now, even if it isn't a physical way. When they tell stories about him, he is alive again.
It is equally magical and brutal to realize how quickly he can return and and how quickly parts of him fade. This connection is one they will always keep.
It’s just a pill. One of countless pills Rhys took in his lifetime.
Have you ever administered oral medication to a dog with enormous jowls? They have so many places to hide pills. In our family, residents have a history of pocketing those pills in their mouths and depositing them between sofa cushions, into blankets, or on the floor in the corner of a room when I am not looking. It's a proud tradition.
I found this pill in July 2018. Rhys died in February 2018.
It was beneath the sofa he loved. His sofa that we got just for him, because our previous sofas had cushions that were a touch too high for him to climb onto safely as he aged. His sofa that we had to part with because it was too sad to have it in the house without him on it.
Beneath the sofa. How in the world did he do that?
On a day I was congratulating myself for letting go of the stuff that reminded me of him and resting instead in my memories and art, I found this pill on the floor. We had just moved the sofa to get it out of the house.
It was a vicious attack of Grief. I had no defense, and I didn't try. I let Grief come and sit on my chest, pull my hair, scratch my face, punch me in the gut, and club my legs out from beneath me. I sobbed. I wailed.
Grief eventually picked me up off the floor and directed me to look at Rhys' painting hanging just to the side of the sofa. Grief whispered that she always comes in love.
Grief and I are kinda tight. I love that she gets me. I love that she's honest.
I saw this pill and thought of all the caregiving. I thought of watching him age and seeing his physical capabilities diminish. I marveled as his capacity to love continued to grow. I thought of the physical pain he must have endured as the trappings of age settled in his body, and how graciously he adjusted to that.
Even if he didn't care for his medicine.
I thought of how far we had come together. I remembered the first day we met, and the day I returned to take him home. I remember the trip to the ocean beach. I remember how he would run down the stairs and leap into the truck when he saw me loading stuff that looked like things we might take on vacation. I remember how he ran like silk - strong and fluid.
I remember his grunts as he stretched and plunked his massive head into my lap. I remember the black speckles on his white chest and belly. I remember every little thing.
This pill reminded me that I am afraid to forget.
This is why I tell stories. This is why I make art.
The connection I have through this object, this pill, floods me with all of this to the point I break down because I cannot hold any more. When I can translate this into art, I can give myself permission to let go of the pills and the blankets and the chewed up toys. I can keep the photographs of those things. I can have these moments as rich tapestries of love, growth, and adventure on my walls, where all the stories come at me when I give myself the time to look and feel.
That's why I make art for you. I know you have the equal to this pill. I don't expect you to keep it or get rid of it. I hope you'll do what feels right when it feels right. In the interim, I'll help you make art that connects you to everything you access when you hold your pill.
Art can do that.
By the way, this pill is still in my cabinet. I'm not ready. And I'm okay with that.
Conan is our third Dane. He was born in 2004 and died in 2014. This photo is from 2009 (in the ancient times I wore 3" heels and pencil skirts everywhere).
I talk about him in the present tense often because he's still a part of our family and my life. Just because I don't see him lounging in his chair doesn't mean he isn't here.
I adopted Conan thinking that he would ease the trauma of Vaughn's death (Vaughn is our first Dane and my heart dog). Vaughn died in 2007, and I was attached to the idea that Conan could be just like him.
Bwah ha ha ha ha!
It never works out that way, does it?
Vaughn was small. Conan was massive. Vaughn was gentle and composed. Conan was intense and scattered. Vaughn was kind and attentive. Conan was kind and attentive.
Each animal in my family has a different place in my heart, in an entirely different way. Conan wasn't like Vaughn, not really. He was his own kind of excited hopping, squeaking, undignified brute. He did things Vaughn never would have considered.
Comparing them doesn't do me any favors because they are all just right as is.
I met a new person this week who asked me about my license plate as we walked to our vehicles. My license plate is DANEMOM.
Most people think that I have a little boy whose name is Dane. You know better. I drive a 3/4 ton Suburban, and I bought it to haul three Danes and a horse trailer.
Anyway, so this new person in my life squealed and asked, "Oh, so you have great Danes?"
"Yes, we have four in our family," I replied. I was thrilled that she was excited about it.
Usually when people ask me if I have any dogs, I say no. When I go home, there is no parade of enormous nostrils mashed against the window, fogging it with steamy anticipation. No one barks to announce my arrival. I have less laundry to wash because I don't have to launder dog beds and blankets twice each week. There is no gigantic stock pot of food cooking on the stove that will feed 500 pounds of dog for four days. When I pick up my keys, no one comes running. There is plenty of room on the sofa now, and I haven't wiped slobber off the floor, walls, and ceiling (yes, really) in more than a year.
There is no dog in our home and there are four dogs in our home.
I thought about all the times I've worked with families that have buried children and how they answer the awkward question of "So, how many kids do you have?" They always count their dead children. Always. Death doesn't remove them from their families. They don't always say that number out loud because they get tired of the awkward silences, but they count all of their children.
In no way do I compare the animals in our family to children, and I also do not compare our losses with anyone else's. I realized, though, when I told this person that we had four Danes in our family that I was being completely honest. That it was okay for me to count them. Out loud. Because they are family, because they have shaped me, and because I carry them forward with me every day.
It is with mixed feelings I announce Wean's retirement.
After years of working alongside me, both in photography and paint, it is time for him to begin his next set of adventures. Those are primarily sleeping, weighing down my lap, and eating.
I'll miss being with him in the office.
We've joked about his declining work ethic. He hasn't been able to jump on my desk in ages. I often lift him into my lap because he isn't steady enough to get there on his own without removing skin from my thighs. He sleeps in. He's late for meetings.
He still shows up, though, and that means a lot to me. It's time for him to enjoy his life in a new way.
This month Wean turned 16. He's also been showing signs of cognitive decline, and it's happening faster than we expected. He lives with confusion and more intense needs for comfort and connection than he's had before (which is significant because his previous needs were already exceptional). We live with the odd vocalizations we refer to as meowling and the uncertainty of knowing when and where we might next discover cat vomit.
Wean is so much more than an office cat. He's the one I talk through my work with when I feel stuck. He assures me that things will always work out, even if it doesn't feel that way. He helps me feel my grief, for our family as well as the families I serve. He is never far away from me.
I could not ask for a better companion and partner in this journey. While I am broken up about doing this without him, I know it's time for him to sleep more and check in with me less.
He has been my assistant for years. It's my turn to serve him.
Dexter is one of 100 Stories.
He and his person met on a blind date, as she called it. He was on Petfinder looking for a family and had no profile photo. Although he was only six months old, he had lived most of his life in a backyard.
She took him home; they became family.
This is the part where you may want to have tissues handy.
In Dexter's lifetime he experienced many health challenges, and when he was four he died from an especially severe case of pneumonia.
She credits Dexter for the valuable lessons she learned while they lived together. Family is everything. A peaceful warrior is the most fierce. Joy matters. Humor and grace are strengths, not weaknesses.
I have the honor of listening to dozens of these stories every year, and I marvel at the intensity and purity of these relationships. This is an incredible love.
Dexter's poem was especially personal and powerful (I cry every time I read it, but that's not saying much). Like most of the other poems from 100 Stories, it is deeply personal and it doesn’t feel right to share it.
Dexter was a part of the 100 Stories project, which was a limited edition offer that ended January 2019. Pop art remains available in wall art sizes, and poetry is also available.
Care to guess how many times in a week I hear people say that they'd love to be able to do what I do?
Photography is a skill that can be learned. At some point, even people that have a knack for it work on improving their abilities when they adopt it as a profession.
Honestly, photography is the easiest part of a photography business. Marketing, service, all the legal stuff . . . those are the things that tend to be most challenging. They are also learned skills.
I am opening applications for mentorship in 2019 because I want to help other people create incredible lives for themselves through photography. Words cannot describe how thankful I am to have created this business for myself and my family. I went from being "disabled" from a chronic illness to thriving because I gave myself the freedom to make this work.
It requires consistent, focused work. You'll have to do things that might be uncomfortable. It can take a while before you see your seeds sprout. The ultimate outcome is being able to give people the gift of meaningful connections to their memories and love and support yourself at the same time.
Honestly, how does life get better than that? And hanging out with animals and their people (with whom I share a sacred language and connection) . . . sign me up!
You really can do this. Just think about it for a bit. If you could trade your job that you like some days for one that made you excited to get out of bed every day, would you?
Applications are open for mentorship in 2019. The terms are flexible - we'll talk about what you want to make happen and design something to support that growth that also sticks within your budget. I promise it will be fun, because when it stops being fun you'll stop doing the work. And if you are local, you'll have the opportunity to apprentice with me on some of my sessions.
I floundered for seven years after I started by first photography business to make this a full-time career. I was doing so many things I thought were helpful and really weren't. If this is the way you want to go, I want to help you get there in less than seven years. Like, in one year or less. Please let my copious mistakes be your guide. :D
You can find the application online (https://bit.ly/2QzQGkI), and of course you are welcome to send me a message or leave comments here with any questions you have.
Occasionally I "shop" for photographers in the area to find others I would recommend to families. I may not be the right choice for a variety of reasons, and when we figure that out I want to be ready with a recommendation or two of a photographer I think would be a great match.
I noticed a pattern the last time I shopped online: in each of the 14 websites I visited, the photographer promised to "capture the personality" of you pet or something that sounds a lot like that.
A good photographer reflects the personality and mood of the subject. I want to see personality.
I like that. I want to see personality. I also want to see more than personality.
I'm after soul, not personality.
I want the story. I want to feel like I am diving into the world of whoever is in front of the lens. I want to see personality, sure. That's just the beginning.
I want to feel something. When I look at the photograph later, I want to have a visceral reaction of feeling about the animal. More importantly, I want you to see your cat in print and feel her in the room with you, even if she isn't. I want you to look at the photograph of your dog and feel the essence of him.
I can't do any of that if I focus on personality. My goal is beyond that.
When I read a book or watch a movie, I want to follow the hero's story. There is a protagonist I am rooting for, and she is on a journey. An author or screenwriter or director that concentrated on making her personality known page by page or scene by scene would have something that almost no one wants to read or watch. The hero is more than personality. She has values. She has history. She has dreams and quirks. She has a core that wraps all of that up and makes her who she is. If an author, screenwriter, or director can convince me that I know the hero, I'm all in. That's the kind of experience I want, because if I'm going to tag along on the journey, I want to be invested in it.
Your animal is the hero in his own story. He's had ups and downs. He's fought battles and learned lessons. His personality comes through in all of that, and yet it's the deeper stuff that shows who he is while he is on his hero's journey that endears you.
You know every little thing about him. He deserves to be represented as more than personality. He deserves to have his story told, and you deserve to see it in a way that's going to put him right there beside you.
I'm Shannon, and I love and am loved by four Great Danes, four cats, and one horse (four Danes, one cat, and one horse are no longer walking this earth). Here I'll share stories of my adventures in grief photography for companion animals, my own grief journey, and thoughts on caregiving.