Picture the Time

Heather returned from the yard, her phone held in triumph.

“I did it!” she proclaimed. “Fifty-two weeks!”

“Oh? … OH!”

A smile spread across my face to match my wife’s. At long last, the photo forest was complete.

Perhaps I should explain. My wife Heather enjoys photography, especially shots that involve patterns and repetition. She’s also felt a little disconnected from the world since COVID arrived in 2020. With her various autoimmune conditions, she has to be careful about how and where she goes out, even in virus conditions that others might shrug at.

So to grab a sense of time, she started visiting the apple tree in the back yard for a brief photo session. One shot per week, always at the same time of day, always from the same angle and range. The goal: one year’s worth of pictures.

It started slow. After all, there’s not much difference between a barren tree branch in late February and a barren tree branch in mid-March. (Especially with the “second winter” that the Front Range can often get.) But over time, across 52 weeks, the changes became subtle and then profound: first budding, then flourishing, then thinning once more.

At times, it became a panic task. (“Scott! I almost forgot! I’ve got to do the tree!”) Time had started to mean something again among the sameness of home life, even if it mostly meant a date with a silent, leafy companion.

And as the leaves grew, so did her confidence.

She had set a goal. A long-term one. And she was following through.

When you spend a lot of time with chronic illness, that’s not a small thing. Plans often have to change on a dime; schedules and expectations become necessarily fluid. Friends, family, even doctors all become familiar with the phone call that starts “I’m sorry but I can’t today …”

A lot of things get torn away. And any time you can grab something back, it’s a triumph. A moment to plant your feet and say “No. I get to do this and you can’t stop me.”

And so, over time, the photos became a battle record. A simple spectrum of determination.

Fifty-two weeks. Fifty-two moments that added up to so much more.

Everything starts with a moment. It’s easy to forget that, easier still to get overwhelmed by what life asks of us. It all seems so big and our abilities so small, like sculpting with a toothpick.

But taking just a moment, claiming it, repeating it- that’s powerful. Even scattered moments built from brief flashes of opportunity add up. Georges Seurat spent two years painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”  J.R.R. Tolkien spent 17 years on “The Lord of the Rings.” Both created masterworks – but in a way, that’s beside the point.

It’s not about whether the goal resounds through the ages. It’s about what it means to you. And even what you build in yourself as you achieve it.

Heather built something lasting. She reclaimed a piece of her life. And regardless of the pictures themselves, that’s something no one can take away.

It’s amazing what can happen when you just take a shot.

Or even 52 of them.

She Shoots, She …

WHAM!

Missy grinned as I scrambled to the basketball and ran it back to her. Our fall day in Carr Park had turned out to be perfect for an afternoon of shooting hoops.

Or … well, shooting something.

WHAM!

From her wheelchair, Missy gleefully examined the target. (With her cerebral palsy, it’s easier and safer for her to shoot while sitting instead of standing.) After a moment, she reared back and let fly with an energy Michael Jordan would have envied.

Jordan, of course, specialized in “nothing but net.” Missy’s aim was a little different.

WHAM!

“Good one!”

Shot after shot sailed at the metal goalpost. Lacking elevation but never determination, Missy  had decided to shoot for a target at her own level. And more often than not, she was hitting it.

WHAM!

In the 10 years since Heather and I became Missy’s guardians, we’ve learned a lot about her abilities. We know she can remember and follow instructions (when she feels like it), that she can follow along with the plot of a novel and keep track of the characters, that she can bowl a 100 game and dance up a storm and write a recognizable “M” when she works at it.

We also know, of course, that there are limits and accommodations. Missy uses a ramp to bowl. She solves 50-piece puzzles instead of 500-piece ones. She often dances with a partner or a piece of furniture nearby to keep her balance.

In short, she likes many of the same things that everyone else likes, but she often enjoys them in a different way. Her targets are at a different level, one that engages her and even pushes her, but  without being cruel.

That’s important. And not just for Missy.

We’re often encouraged to dream big, set our aims high, shoot for major goals, whether in the personal realm or the wider world. And there’ nothing wrong with doing any of that … until it becomes a source of intimidation instead of inspiration. Until you reach a point where, because you can’t do everything, you don’t do anything.

But there’s nothing wrong with setting the bar to where you are.

Writers know this. When the fantasy author Terry Pratchett started out, he wrote just 400 words a day for his first three years. That’s about as long as everything you’ve read in today’s column so far. By the time Pratchett died, he’d written over 50 books.

Chronic pain patients know it. There’s a saying that’s gone around social media that “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” The usual example is that if your pain and fatigue won’t even let you spend two minutes brushing your teeth, it’s worth doing it for 30 seconds instead – because it’s still better than not doing it at all.

Leaders and dreamers throughout the ages have known it, winning the small battles that can be won now, even when the larger vision still seems so far ahead.

You set your aim. You give it what you’ve got. And if what you have today isn’t what Stephen King has, or LeBron James, or even a Disney Channel extra, it’s still yours. And you’re still doing it. That matters.

When the goalpost is what you can hit, hit it hard. And keep shooting.

The target may change. The sights may rise. And even if they don’t, if it moves you forward or gives you pleasure or tests what you can do –  then it’s a win.

So have a ball. And if you have it on the Carr Park courts … well, just watch out for flying objects, OK?

WHAM!