Certainty in Life

She would not turn back in fear, not desperately shape herself to fit into old, tightly wedged spaces. She never thought of herself as someone who would do anything other than what was expected of her, yet there was never really an arrival at any fixed point. All that wishing for certainty, all that belief in the clear path always visible up ahead. Here she was with life before her unknown, a reluctant yet inevitable traveler on the path still uncharted.
— Excerpt from Visible City by Tova Mirvis

There was a time in my life I longed for certainty. I made big choices, life choices, based on reducing fear of the unknown. If I could only follow a charted path, get further down the road of expectations, things would be certain. Then I could relax. My younger self was sure of it.


I started my career in a time of uncertainty. In college, my family lost the business that had supported us through most of my childhood. I watched my father cast adrift, trying to figure out what he was going to do with himself without his business to run. I graduated in 1992, the middle of an economic downturn, where jobs were scarce. I was one of the lucky ones with an offer from a good company, a large corporation with a track record for stability.

Things were certain now, right?

Three months after I started there were layoffs. I wasn’t one of the ones who lost their jobs, although I was in fear of it for weeks, until one of the managers told me I was safe. “It would be cruel and unusual punishment,” he said of hiring then firing me in so short a time. Whew, I could breathe again.

Things were certain now, right?

This first job had an interesting demographic. I was the only woman in an engineering department of about 30 engineers. The closest in age to me was 10 years older, the average age was closer to 20-25 years older than me. In my quest for certainty, I looked at those older engineers with envy. They had it all figured out. Good jobs, families grown or nearly so, retirement on the horizon… To my mind, they had it all laid out. I wanted to fast forward to that point.

Things would be certain then, right?

Oh, my poor little younger self, in her quest for certainty. Now that I’m at that point I so longed to be, middle age, I understand just how uncertain life is. There is no path, no course where if you do everything right you will get the prize of absolute stability.

Life happens, life changes. Jobs go away, illnesses happen, loved ones leave us. All of the coworkers who I thought had life figured out had lots more life to live, lots more uncertainty to face, just as I did.

Looking back, I can see how naive I was to want to skip ahead. Life isn’t a destination or a goal that you can shortcut to, it is something to be lived. Something to be experienced, in all of its ranges of emotions and options. It’s the choices we make in the face of uncertainty, in the face of fear, and the lessons we learn from them, that make us whole people. It’s our struggles that make us human.

Fundamentally, uncertainty is what makes life interesting. It’s how we get to shape a life, and a self, that is wholly our own.

Like the character in the Mirvis novel, my younger self faced “life before her unknown, a reluctant yet inevitable traveler on the path still uncharted.” That young, reluctant traveler has, with time and experience, turned into a willing participant in the journey through uncharted territory. She has learned to face her fears and move ahead out of the “old, tightly wedged spaces.”

I have learned there is no certainty in life. That’s what makes it worth living.

Photo-Heart Connection: June 2014

Unexpected. That’s the word I woke up with today, my Photo-Heart Connection already formed in my head. The last couple of months have brought much that is unexpected my way: A new job I wasn’t looking for; a whirlwind trip to Ohio and my deep emotional response; a kitchen disaster that has left my house in a state of disrepair. I couldn’t have predicted the events that have come my way. I couldn’t have prepared.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that my Photo-Heart Connection comes unexpected this month, too. I didn’t even have to choose this month’s photograph. I knew, last night, as I prepared my photographs for review. I knew, this morning, as I woke up with a word in my head.

Amish Farm Boy Holmes County Ohio Kat Sloma Photography

I love this photograph. I think, quite frankly, it might be the best one I’ve ever created. There is something about the composition, the light, the moment, the processing, which all work together beautifully to tell a story. For some reason, it brings to mind the Vermeer painting, The Milkmaid. I remember seeing this painting in person and being utterly amazed by it. Vermeer masterfully worked with the subject, the light and shadow, and the moment to tell a story that spoke to me centuries later.

So, similarly, this image speaks to me. But of what? An unexpected moment. A story to be told. A story of life, unfolding before us. A story of people, individuals, that cross our path and change things. A story of events that happen outside of our control. The question is, are we there to live it? Are we ready to capture it, no matter how unexpected, and hang on for the ride? Are we ready to be jostled and tossed about as we are pulled along?

I am getting better at being ready. This photograph proves it. The time, the place, the moment – all unexpected. But I was there, and responded.

And I’ll be ready and open for whatever comes next, however unexpected.

These last couple of months have been a bumpy ride, it seems. I’m one month into the new job and still figuring it out. Our kitchen is now marginally usable and we are still getting quotes to decide what we are going to do next. My first art fair is barely two weeks away and I’m spending much of my time to get everything ready. I haven’t had a lot of time or energy for my blog, or anything online really. But my photographs, working with the images from my trip to Ohio early this month, have been an unexpected creative bright spot. I have gained so much personally from working with them, seeing the stories within them. Stories of my father, my family, me. I am amazed and humbled by this art form, which is constantly revealing layers of my heart and soul.

What have you discovered this month? What is your Photo-Heart Connection? Share it with us here. I want to thank you all for your continued participation. I love how, regardless of how engaged I am at the moment, you continue to do this practice for yourself and share it with this community. This is not about me, it’s about each and every one of you. Such an amazing and humbling thing to realize.

PS – You can now link in with Instagram photos! Learn more here.

Photo-Heart Connection: April 2014

The first thing you are going to notice in this month’s Photo-Heart Connection: For me, there is no photo. No art of any sort. I’ve not done my “homework” this month, spending the time to look for a connection. (If this is your first time in visiting, I encourage you to look at past Photo-Heart Connection posts to see what this monthly practice is all about. This month is NOT a good example!)

Rather than giving you excuses about how busy I’ve been, or how I’ve been focused on other things beside creating new photographs, or even going through the motions and picking an image to write about, I decided to spend some time examining why I’m not really interested in finding my heart connection this month. See what my heart reveals by NOT searching for a connection through my photos.

First off, all of the things I listed above are true. It has been busy and my focus this month has been elsewhere rather than creating new photographic work. But this has nothing to do with my art. From an art standpoint, I’ve never been more clear on what, how and why I create. I’ve never been more confident in what it is I’m trying to achieve in my artistic work. I’ve never been more excited to share my work with others, through speaking, exhibitions and art fairs. Connecting through my art, in person, with others. Along with creating and sharing my art in the physical world, I’m loving the connections I’m making with other local artists and how I’m becoming part of the art community here where I live.

I think my internal questions lie more in what I am doing here, online, and in other aspects of my life. How I want to engage. I came back from Italy almost three years ago with a big plan about how things were going to be, with teaching online classes and all of that. And things went according to plan for a while, until I realized I was overwhelming myself and at risk of burnout. Until I realized that the plans made in the beautiful unreality of my time in Italy didn’t perfectly fit my life as it unfolded. Those of you who have followed me through all of that have seen this change unfold, bit by bit. With this evolution, I’ve done some work to sort the questions out, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

Where I find myself this month is on the cusp of some serious personal work. It’s not so much about the art right now or what I want as an artist, but where do I want to be as a human being, a citizen of the world, a mother, a friend. I need to redefine my vision and direction, examine my values and reassess my choices across all areas of life, including this one here. I’m in week 2 of my first massively open online course through Coursera, called Better Leader, Richer Life, to help me do just that. The teacher is becoming a student for a while. It’s got me thinking, working, examining. And that’s what I need right now, I feel it deep down in my center.

I know I need the heart connection, too. Don’t worry, this practice is not going away. It’s just not right, this month, for me. As the host though, I have to post something so that you all can link in, or we don’t have the Photo-Heart Connection. This assessment of where I am and what I’m working through seemed more honest than going through the motions of the process this month, so this is what you get.

I guess sometimes the heart connection is knowing what your heart needs, without needing to look. My heart is open right now. Open, and waiting to see what comes next.

What is your Photo-Heart Connection this month? Did you look through the art you created in April, and find the one that speaks to you? Or maybe NOT find one, as was the case with me? Please share your heart connection with us here. The link up is open through May 7.

Growing Slowly

I want you to look back, for a minute. Look back at where you were in your creative journey one year ago. Five years ago. Ten years ago. Where were you? What were you doing? Could you have imagined being where you are, today, from that distance in time?

One year ago, I was still in the throes of learning mobile photography, trying to figure out how it fit in with my photography practice. This month a year ago, I was in Singapore for two weeks and the Redwoods for spring break. I was in love with trees and the freedom of mobile, but had not yet let go of my security blanket of dSLR. I still toted it along with me everywhere.

Five years ago, I was getting ready to move to Italy. I was probably just back to Oregon after a whirlwind trip finding an apartment in Italy. and in the throes of figuring out what we were going to ship to Italy vs store for the duration of the assignment. I don’t think photography was anywhere on my mind, except maybe just the occasional picture of our lives in chaos. I had no clue what the future had in store for me, creatively or otherwise. But I knew I was at the brink of an adventure.

Ten years ago, I was probably just trying to keep everything together as a mom of an almost-three-year-old little boy. It’s hard to remember that time, it seems so long ago. My spare time (what little there was) would have included lots of playing with photographs as I created scrapbooks. Photographs mostly of family and events, documenting our lives. A few artistic photographs, that I didn’t know what to do with. Photography was a growing interest, but not the primary art form for me at the time.

Could I have imagined, five or ten years ago, that I would be here today? That I would be teaching photography online and in person? That I would be exhibiting my work in galleries? That I would be a keynote speaker at a photography conference? No, I could not have imagined. One year ago, the seeds were being planted for this year’s growth, so these things were within the realm of possibility. But five, ten years ago? No clue.

It’s been a journey of long and slow growth. I think “slow” is the natural pace of artistic growth, at least for me. This is what it needs to be. There are creative growth spurts for sure, I can point to a couple of them in the last five years alone, but these are balanced out with periods of slower growth. The slower times are needed for me to integrate what I’ve learned and figure out what I’m going to do with it.

Spring Tree Blossom Oregon Kat Sloma Mobile Photography

Growth takes time, often time where it looks or feels like nothing is happening. I look at the trees blooming right now, see their amazing blossoms, and think WOW! It seems as if all of a sudden, the buds appear and the flowers burst forth. But it’s not all of a sudden, is it? The tree was working toward this, for months. All winter long, while the tree appeared quiet and still on the outside, it was working.

Artistic growth is like that, too. It’s hard to internalize, because we might not see this part when we hear about successful artists. We might see an artist with seemingly overnight success, and wonder how they got there. As I meet and talk to more and more artists, working artists who are making their living with their art, I can see that true overnight success is very rare. Most artists achieve their success through hard work, over a long period of time. Their art is growing and changing, as they are, preparing themselves for the big break, if it ever comes. They may experience a lot of rejection along the way, but they keep working, keep growing. So when an artist appears to be “discovered,” when we finally become aware of them, they have likely been working for a long time to get to that point. It only appears as if they burst forth onto the scene suddenly, like the blossoms on the tree. The work to prepare for their success was going on, behind the scenes, when no one was looking.

There is an element of luck in artistic success too, don’t get me wrong. I heard this segment on NPR which talked about why some art becomes popular while other art doesn’t. The conclusion of the study was that there is some minimum level of quality, and beyond that, there is an element of luck and crowd influence that determines which pieces of art or artists become popular or successful. That makes sense. Haven’t we all seen art that is fawned over and said, “But Sally’s work is just as good. Better even. Why is that artist so successful while Sally isn’t?” It could just be that element of timing and luck.

Now, in all of this discussion, I don’t want to imply there is one definition of success here. Fill in your own definition of success. That could be making a living as an artist, or gaining some notoriety, as is implied above, or it could simply be creating art that expresses your vision. “Success” is a personal thing. Defining what “success” really means to you is part of the growth process, too.

So what can we do, to be ready for that success, however we define it? How do we prepare, if there might be an external element of luck or timing involved? All we can do is continue to grow. Continue to do the work of becoming better at our art. Continue to take one step after another on this creative journey. Slowly, surely, moving ourselves forward. Looking out for opportunities that may arise, taking risks, and trying new things. Showing up. That’s all we can do, day by day.

Sometimes, when the growth is slow, it may feel as if nothing is happening. But it’s when we look back — one year, five years, ten years — we can see how dramatically things have changed. And we can see where our hard work made that change happen. How our effort and growth got us to where we are today, artistically or otherwise.

So let yourself grow slowly. Be the tree that is getting ready for spring. Don’t worry if the tree next to you is blossoming, bursting forth into spring, and you are not. You are still getting ready. Your time to bloom will come.

Never the Same Place Twice

Some old friends visited me recently. These are mutual friends you and I have, I’m guessing. You probably know them too: Doubt and Fear. Do they ever visit you? I would bet they do.


For me, they show up anytime I’m doing something new. No matter how much I’ve already accomplished or become comfortable doing, they like to come and whisper in my ear, “What do you think you are doing? Who do you think you are?”

There is a difference in my response these days, though. Instead of stopping me in my tracks, or paralyzingly me in place, I wearily say, “Hello, guys. I should have known you’d be along anytime now. Why don’t you sit over there, in the corner? You can watch me work. I’m busy here and don’t have time for you.” I know I can’t get rid of them, at least until this new project is over. But I can acknowledge them, then ignore them and move ahead. There is no use paying attention to them. They sing the same tired song every time.

This part of growth is inevitable for me. The Doubt-and-Fear part. Just like spring comes around every year, doubt and fear will come along every time I stretch myself into something new.

There is that one big difference though… Now that I’ve been doing my art for a while, since I’ve stretched myself over and over by doing lots of uncomfortable, new things over the last few years, their impact is not as great. They don’t hold the power over me that they used to.

Inevitable, yes. Powerful, no.

That’s the amazing thing about growth. When the cycle comes around again, you aren’t in the same place. You can look back at where you’ve been, where you were the last time you heard those voices and say, “Huh, guess you weren’t so right after all. Why should I listen to you this time?” Your response and your capacity to manage the doubt and fear grows too.

Take a moment today and think about where you are now. Is there a direction you are going that is bringing up the doubts and the fears? Then look back a year, two years, five years. Look at how you’ve changed. The things you’ve done. How you’ve grown. So when our mutual friends of Doubt and Fear show up at your door, you can banish them into the corner too. Because you know you don’t have to allow them power over you.

You’ve done it before, you can do it again. With less doubt and fear, this time.

Layers upon Layers

Aaaahhhh, Italia.

Italy seems to be coming up for me a lot lately. Just little remembrances, here and there. It’s like a soft realization that my time in Italy has been absorbed into the layers of me, of my history. No longer the most important layer, or the most fragile, raw layer. A layer that’s been safely ensconced by “before” and “after.”

Italy Sorrento Bicycle Kat Sloma Photography

Sorrento, Italy

Maybe it’s because now — heading on 3 years later — I know there is a “Kat” after Italy. Life has continued to go on. There has been more creativity, more learning. More growth. I’ve reinvented myself again, as a new person, after Italy.

My time in Italy was about reinventing myself. Beyond the scope of my normal life it was this chance in a new place to dig deeper and find who I am at my core. I uncovered the creative, artistic part of me again. I found confidence in myself outside of my previous frames of reference.

But it was still with a frame of reference, and reliance, on Italy. I took my identity as an artist, as a photographer and writer, from the place. From the travels and adventures around Europe. So, coming back I had to reinvent myself once again, in a new context. The context of “after.”

For a while, Italy was still my frame of reference. That layer was on the surface, always to be referred to, compared to, examined against. And then, when it started to get covered up, the top layer was too fragile. I couldn’t dig down to Italy, because I would damage things on the surface. I need to let it go, and move forward.

But now… I can revisit it again. It’s like picking up a treasured object; savoring a special memory. A layer of who I am, like any other. Not one that defines me any longer, but one that enabled my definition. And a layer that, because I found I could transform, allows me to continue to transform. Because of Italy, and the return, I know I can learn and grow and forever change.

I am all layers. I am adding to myself all the time. No one layer dominates. No one layer defines. The beauty is in the strata… Layers upon layers.