We have a new baby in the house. Everyone is adjusting to new sounds, personalities, needs, expectations . . . it's a lot to process for anyone.
Our animal family is experienced. Rhys, our Dane, is ten years old. Our cats, Arden and Wean, are 16 and 14 years old, respectively. Rhys has been the "baby" of the family until this week, and although we've fostered animals since then, they seem to understand that this guy is family and here to stay.
Arden is known by our friends and family (and veterinarian) as a congenial cat. She delights in greeting visitors. When we brought home The Boy (our human boy), she was the first to curl up next to him and sleep.
As cute and as small as this kitten is, she's not opening her heart.
We've chatted about how he isn't a replacement for anyone. He doesn't require much in the way of resources and we have enough to go around, anyway. He was in a terrible situation and needed a home (much like Arden, who was a shelter kitten twice returned by families). He is young and wants to learn, and Arden's vast cat knowledge can help. She doesn't need to gush over him and our home is large enough they can have their own space if they'd like.
I want to see her stretch her compassion and remember what it was like to live in a cage, without a family. This guy came from a squalid environment we happened upon on the way somewhere else and I just couldn't leave him. He needs to be accepted as he is - a baby cat who deserves and needs love, shelter, nourishment, and care.
When I was in the early stages of learning photography, I concentrated on creating images in a particular way. That was noble.
The trouble with that was that I was part, not all, of the equation. I neglected to nurture the relationship and connection I had with the subject of each photograph.
My approach to photography is connection + intention.
The animals who have mentored me along the way have taught me this, and it is a daily practice. Whatever I envision for the result of the photography session may not happen, and that's as it should be. When I focus my attention on building the relationship with the glorious creature on the other side of the lens, then my intention can follow.
It's only when I acknowledge my amazing non-human partner as a full partner in the process that I can create anything worth seeing. If I show up and fire off 100 frames without appreciating why a companion is incredible, I've done all of us a disservice.
We all want to be seen, heard, and appreciated for who we are.
My partner studies me to learn about who I am. I do the same. Rather than pushing her into my idea of how she should stand or where she should run, I follow her lead, knowing she'll be most joyful and vibrant in the photographs when she feels secure and free.
Sometimes that means the photographs are wildly different than what I expected, and it's on that kind of day I know I've done my best work.
Conan had a chair. It was his chair, and everyone else in the house respected that. Mostly. Rhys would occasionally make a fuss about it, and Conan was usually magnanimous enough to let Rhys use the chair.
When Conan left us, the chair was empty. It stayed empty. No creature in the house would use it, and the few times I sat in it were unsettling. It felt like I was out of place. Sitting in it didn’t help me feel closer to him as I hoped. It was a gigantic reminder of Conan in the living room, and seeing it empty was painful.
The chair needed to move on.
I posted the chair on Craigslist hoping to find the right home for it. It’s what Conan would want. I couldn’t bear the thought of donating it to Goodwill and not knowing what kind of life it would have. I know it’s just a chair, but it is an important chair. Within a few hours the responses were rolling in faster than I could reply. They all started the same way – I am not interested in your chair, but I wanted to express my sorrow for your loss. People shared pictures of their departed friends and ugly furniture. I read all kinds of stories about cancer, old age, and organ failure. It was touching and darn near the last thing I expected.
Here’s the content of the post.
Dark green leather one-and-a-half chair seeks a good home. Former owner/user was a great Dane who took good care of it – it has been loved for many years but could be loved for several more.
Our Dane passed away in January and this chair has not been used by any other family member. Rather than keep it as a shrine I’d like to see it be of service to a another canine with excellent taste. It’s in good shape with most of the wear on the top of the backrest (due to the younger Dane who liked to stand on it to look out the window).
This is the best dog bed you’ll ever own, and it doesn’t look totally out of place in the living room.
The family we chose wrote to me about their 75-lb. pit bull, Charlie, and Charlie's kitty. They told stories about how Charlie liked to stretch out and roll over on the sofa while they were on it and they figured he would appreciate his own chair.
I felt peace knowing Conan's chair was going to a place where it would be respected and used. I cried when the pickup truck pulled out of the driveway and the chair left my life.
It was just a chair, you know.
It was impossible to live with it every day and heartbreaking to see it go. As much as I knew it was just a chair, it was so much a part of Conan's life that returning to life without it seemed complicated.
Later in the day, Charlie's family honored us with a photo of him appreciating his chair. He took to it immediately and made it his own.
I ugly cried.
This image of a dog I've never met was exactly what I needed. Knowing that Conan's chair was now Charlie's chair helped. I could see that Charlie's life was enhanced thanks to the chair. I could let go of the guilt I felt in letting go of the chair. And I am so grateful to have met a family like Charlie's at just the right time.
Fortunately I still carry all the best parts of Conan with me, chair or not.
This is Stella. She's a long haired dachshund and lives with a neurological condition that can make her quite wobbly. Some days her hind legs do not work properly and she gets around in a wheelchair. Her person adopted her immediately when she heard about the puppy who was partially paralyzed.
Her human wanted to commission a portrait of Stella from her canine perspective. I asked Stella if she was interested.
"I don't know," she hesitated. "I'm not creative. I don't want to disappoint her."
I didn't coax her. I explained her person's interest and communicated that there was no pressure. If she didn't want to do a portrait together, I could recommend an artist that would do a lovely traditional portrait of her from a photograph. I told her that if she wasn't really excited about it, she could tell me and I'd find a way to break it to her person.
Her human and I chatted as Stella considered her decision. She's quite deliberate and thoughtful.
The portrait above is how Stella wanted her person to see her. It's not fancy or loud. It's modest and calm. It's quietly intense. Stella most loves looking up at her person, and that's what she wanted to give her human.
Art isn't about wild creativity. It's not about technique or trailblazing.
Art exists to connect us. We create art to express ourselves and perhaps move someone else.
According to her human, that is precisely what Stella did with her piece. She knew what would resonate with her person, and she knew what feelings she wanted to evoke.
A dog-loving human and potential client recently asked about investing in photography with me. I explained my process, fees, and rates for the different kinds of art I create.
"Wow! That's extravagant! I just want a few pictures," she replied.
I sat with that for weeks, carefully examining my structure, costs, and prices. I didn't want to be excessive and I certainly didn't want to take advantage of anyone. After looking at a lot of numbers, I felt comfortable that my rates were appropriate for my costs, skill, and service.
I realized something else.
The love I have for my animal family is extravagant.
I'm betting that the love my clients have for their animal families is the same.
Merriam-Webster describes extravagant as "exceeding the reason of limits or necessity," "lacking in moderation or restraint," and "extremely or excessively elaborate."
Yes to all of those. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from animals in my lifetime is that extravagance in a relationship builds a better relationship. Express feelings more frequently than you think you need to. Check your restraint at the door when it comes to demonstrating how you feel about someone. Enjoy an elaborate display of affection or joy.
Dogs do this every day. Cats . . . not so much,
I've been called crazy because I went to school to learn how to make nutritionally sound food for dogs and cats. I've made nearly every meal my animal family has consumed since 2000. I believe real bodies need real food in a real form.
We've gone out of our way to make vacation arrangements to bring Danes with us. Kitties have never enjoyed travel, so we hire someone to come and check on them several times a day while we are away from home.
Every vehicle I have purchased since 1999 has been with Danes in mind. I considered their comfort and safety when choosing each vehicle.
When any member of our family has been an inpatient or required extensive care at home, I sat with each of them. I massaged and did TTouch. I provided blankets and hugs, I snuggled.
The living room in my home is dedicated to animal art. It is the largest room in the house. It's also the room where I find the greatest comfort on a difficult day because every family member has a presence and a space there. I can look up and see each one on the walls.
I receive the better end of the bargain. For all I give, I receive much more.
The greeting that lacks in "moderation or restraint" when I come home after any length of absence.
The willingness to sit with me (or on me) and melt into my lap, even on a day I've expressed impatience or crankiness.
The ever-attentive listening and companionship. Whether I need to talk, laugh, cry, or be silent, I know I have a partner, and it never matters what time it is.
My animal family loves me in a way I can describe as extravagant. My goal is to return that love in my own way.
I'm going to own "extravagant" as a label. It fits. It's one more way I can honor the incredible animal teachers I've encountered in my life.
This extravagance is what makes me an exceptional photographer for companion animals. Extravagance is why I talk about companion animals instead of pets. Extravagance represents my beliefs about the kind of experience I want with a photographer, and that's what I give to my clients.
In 2005 I had my first formal introduction to communicating with animals. My first Dane, Vaughn, was ill with chronic active hepatitis. His liver was slowly letting go of its work in his body and I wanted to do everything possible to help him be comfortable in his remaining days. One of his veterinarians suggested an animal communicator she used with her own animals.
I was skeptical, and I called the communicator anyway. Tracy Ann, the communicator, became a friend and much like a member of the family.
I have notebooks of the sentences, thoughts, quotes, pictures, and fragments I jotted while talking with Tracy Ann during Vaughn's illness. With her help, I was able to appreciate his perspective and fulfill his wishes. When he mentioned something was important, I did what I could to emphasize or continue it. "Knowing" what activities, types of touch, resting places, and foods he enjoyed the most helped me to provide the hospice experience he wanted.
I was able to give him 18 months of care based on his wishes, not mine.
My experience with him and Tracy Ann changed my life. Because of those conversations, which included Angus and Conan, Danes 2 and 3, I started listening. My relationships with my animal family members changed because I was willing to listen in ways other than simply looking at body language or behavior.
This kind of communication is one of the things that marks my photography as a little different. I can create photographs that require tissues because I do it with the help of animals - I don't simply follow them around and snap the shutter. There is great intention in the process on both sides of the camera.
"What does your person need to see?" I ask. "How does your person want to feel?"
These are the questions that started my work with interspecies portraits. They have served me well in photography for years. And now I'm asking variations for clients who want a conversation only with no art.
Do you love an animal nearing the end of life and want to know how to provide the most loving hospice care? Does your cat refuse to enter a particular room in your house? Does your dog eat ravenously in the afternoon and nothing at all in the morning?
Where is the best place to scratch? What does it feel like to bound through the tall grass in the meadow? Does the water from the dripping sink really taste better?
Will you let me know when it's time to go? Do you want help?
I'm offering communication sessions for up to 90 minutes for $120. I can come to you in the South Puget Sound; otherwise we'll work together through Skype. These conversations will change your lives and your relationship.
Laundry seems like a never-ending activity in our home. Sound familiar?
Rhys likes his bed outside on warm days, where it picks up all kinds of dirt. When he feels anxious, he vomits. And then there is the drool that comes with a giant set of loose lips.
Arden, our 17-year-old tortie, leaves vomit surprises. Most of those are on our bed. There is nothing quite like sliding your foot into a squishy spot at 2:37 a.m.
Wean, our 15-year-old orange tabby, sneezes catastrophically and blasts cat snot on remote surfaces. Sometimes my face, in which case he has been sitting on my chest so I can appreciate the full extent of his work.
Pillows, blankets, bed covers, sheets, and the human clothing that becomes collateral damage during clean up . . . I wash a lot of laundry. Cleaning up after our very experienced animal family members is an honor I regard. As much as I dislike the never ending pile, I know from experience that when it shrinks I mourn.
Many clients ask me about the products I use with my family and I gladly share my experiences. After trying many different varieties of soap and detergent in our HE washer, I must say I have been the happiest with Charlie's Soap.
It's fabulous. Here's what I like about it.
First, it doesn't have an odor and nothing is added to make it smell or not smell (sometimes manufacturers add ingredients to mask the smell of other ingredients to create an "unscented" product - gross). Both of our kitties live with asthma and we work hard to make sure our indoor air is as clean as it can be for them. Our laundry smells delightfully neutral, which is just what Charlie's Soap promises: "Nothing but the sweet smell of clean."
Second, it gets out stains like nobody's business. I rarely pretreat anything and have come to accept that many of the soft surfaces in our home will carry stains. With Charlie's Soap, I don't see stains on the bedding for Rhys (our Dane) or the kitties, and that bedding has seen poop, vomit, bile, blood - hospice stuff.
Third, it doesn't include anything that irritates skin, harms fish, or otherwise makes life difficult for humans or other beings. No lye, phosphates, dyes, bleach, or abrasives. I rest easy with this stuff.
I buy ours on Amazon as a Subscribe and Save item. Even with as much laundry as I do, I buy a 100-load container about every three months. That's about $5.60 per month for laundry soap, and that's a great deal. That leaves us more room in the budget for all of Rhys' Dane-sized prescriptions.
The link below is connected with my Amazon Affiliate account. If you choose to purchase through this link, I receive a small percentage.
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.