Sarah Carter Studio » artist | photographer | writer | advocate

So every year Christmas sort of catches us by surprise.  Here in Chicago, it goes a bit like this: “Oh!  It’s so nice out!  (it’s like, sixty and sunny.  Sunny!)  I think I will walk the kids to school today.  Aw, the neighbor is mowing his lawn, again.  Isn’t that nice?”  (One week later:)  “WHAT.  The high will only be 18?  There will be snow?  THERE WILL BE SNOW?!?”

This is the midwest fall-to-winter dance.  And it happens every year.  Every year I am both completely shocked and simultaneously thrilled about the change in our weather.  I have this problem where I just love change – good or bad.  I like the thrill of it.  I like figuring it out.  I like living on the edge.

Hello, my name is Sarah. I do not like heights or going too fast (um, hello roller coasters – you represent the worst of all the things to me…) but I do, oh how I do, love the thrill of change.

So when the sun goes away and the snow starts making it nearly impossible to remember what joy feels like, I sort of huddle in and find my resolve to make the most of it.  CHANGE.  It happens.  (<— bumper sticker idea. You’re welcome.)

So, winter. Chicago.  Change.  CHRISTMAS.  It’s happening!!!  Over the years, I am still trying to figure out what our traditions will be.  Our little family is a hodge podge of history that leaves us a bit untamed when it comes to traditions.  As a result, Steve and I have been attempting to navigate what traditions and stories we want to pass onto our kids.  What are the things they will look to as they grow to give them the warm fuzzies that the best of the holidays are meant to conjure up?

Some things to know about us:  we don’t do the Santa thing.  This isn’t because I don’t like him (Santa, if you’re listening, I. Am. Sorry. It’s not my fault. My son is a five on the Enneagram and rational thought is kind of his thing. I, for one, would just love it if you would be real and make all our dreams come true. Please make notes in your big book of naughty/nice. Thanks.)  We tried to tell the big North Pole stories to our boy, but he unfailingly pointed out the flaws. And last year, we were confronted with THAT MOMENT.  The, “Is he real, or isn’t he?” moment.  We just couldn’t bear to keep the scam going.  The jig was up.  I will never, ever forget our boy, tear-filled eyes and a quivering lip, asking us why we would ever lie to him.  UGH.  So – no more of that business.  The parents bring the presents and all is once again well with our world.

So – because we are a church-work family, we do our little Christmas the week before the official date.  If you are a part of any sort of formal church profession, I know you feel me.  And if not, bless it.  We have our little traditions – we like to drive around the neighborhood with our Christmas music blasting (so crazzzzy) and look at the houses all lit up.  We chat about our favorites and sing loud and off-key and it’s glorious.  That evening we do Christmas toasts and talk about the highs and lows of our year, followed by a Happy Birthday song to baby Jesus. Then we each get to open one gift before drifting off to restless, excited sleep for the special morning to come.  In the morning we hand out gifts and drink black coffee while the kids tear into their gifts.

About the gifts:  We have adopted this concept as an effort to combat the insane amount of consumerism hurled our way during the holidays – Each kid gets four gifts.  Something to read, something to do, something to give, and something new.  That’s it.  Amen.  It’s glorious.  It solves all our problems. It is the answer to all the things.  Seriously.  Try it.  As my friend Brooke would say, IT’S BOMB.  We let Emerson pick out a book he’s excited about, we choose an activity or membership gift for him (past gifts have included zoos, museums, and overnights in the city).  We talk about those that go without and need extra love and allow him to decide which nonprofit organization he’d like to donate toward.  And we let him choose something shiny and new and fun, just for him.  That rhythm works really well for us.

I think the holidays are lovely. I can’t help the way the tree and the lights and all the smiles and happy music makes me feel.  I may not be a Martha Stewart sort of Christmas girl, but I do get the holiday thing.  It’s wonderful.  It’s a little slice of joy on earth.  Why not relish in it?  I would love to see the day when every day feels as wonderful at Christmas does.  Heaven on earth.  After all, isn’t that sort of what we are all working toward?

*I will have a post up later this week with links to the best places to shop responsibly for your Christmas gifts this year – be sure to check back then!  Also – if you have recommendations on where to shop, please link below!  I love learning about other fair-trade, sustainable companies that give back!

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I had the joy of shooting some updated photos for Michele while I was out in Southern California recently.  She is an advocate for vulnerable children and works tirelessly as a social worker to ensure their safety on a daily basis.  Meeting with her and having the opportunity to capture her in a different light – still, a warrior, but also letting her inner light shine a bit – it was so much fun!  Enjoy.  XO


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Sarah Carter Studio
 This guy – this precious baby no way he is actually a first grader guy – he is going through some tough stuff these days.  For the most part, for like 99% of all the stuff, he has transitioned beautifully into his new school.  He loves his new teacher, he already has a favorite swing and quite possibly a favorite girl as well (hang on there, fella…)  He loves learning.  I often tell people that information is Emerson’s love language.  It’s how he relates and connects with people, through the exchange of facts and tidbits of knowledge.  He can impress you with the extent of his understanding of velociraptors and cheetahs and is always excited to meet someone who can add to his information collection.  If you want to connect with E, just come prepared to swap factoids about wildlife and Star Wars and you’ll be golden.

So, this wonderful intelligent sensitive guy, he is having a bit of trouble at school with a bully.  Over the weeks we have processed it at the dinner table, prayed about it at bedtime, and checked in during walks home from school.  Emerson so badly wants this child to succeed – he is a believer in the underdog story just like his dad.  I adore that.  I want to encourage that.  And, I also want to give this bully a piece of my mind.  Not really, though.  Who I would really love to talk with are the kid’s parents, because we all know that behavior like teasing and hitting is not something we are born with, but sadly more likely something we learn as we go.

And so, this poor kiddo who knows how to hurt and abuse at such a young age – I am sad for him.  I actually want to root for him – the underdog (my guys are rubbing off on me!)  But I also want to protect my boy from the pain caused by bullying.  No one wants to be singled out, no one wants to be identified as strange or different.  Especially in school, that stuff matters.  We are who we sit with, who we associate with, who we represent.

It’s first grade, and so I can breath a little easier knowing that we are, essentially, still dealing with a kind of “training wheels” type of bullying experience.  Nothing too aggressive or cruel – and we have the resource of an amazing teacher and committed team who are ON IT.  So, I am not worried.

But.  My heart aches.  My mama heart, it does not care so much about the bigger story, or about how this is helping to develop my boy into a stronger, braver, more empathetic young man.  Nope.  My mama heart says GLOVES OFF.  It says LET ME AT ‘EM.  It isn’t interested in redemption stories, it only desires to protect at all costs.  And so, I wrestle with this.  When he comes to me and tells me of another encounter with this bully, I practice deep breathing and I silently pray for wisdom.  Because my gut instinct isn’t what is most important here.  This isn’t a case of rampant abuse (thank God) but rather, it is a cry for help.

My son, he is a part of it.  His teacher and I, we are aware and we are paying attention.  We will walk with line and practice both wisdom and courage.  I will teach my son what it looks like to face adversity, to be who you are regardless of what others think, to listen deeply to your own voice, to speak up when it matters, and to practice the art of grace whenever possible.  In the face of something I wish I could swoop in and save him from, he is becoming a man of integrity and courage because of, not despite, it.

How often do we demand easy when the best thing for us is hard?  When struggle comes, is our default to fight it and work to change it, or do we consider how the struggle might want to change us – to grow us up a bit.  What does courage look like?  It’s a question I’ve been asking a lot lately, and when I think of my son and his ability to slip on his backpack every morning and step out the door into another day of unknown and potential adversity, I see courage with boots on.  That.  That is what I want to be more like.

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I’m going to be a bit candid here, I mean – a bit more candid than normal – and let you in on a secret.  I am terrified of raising a daughter.  I am scared of what it means to be the exact human person she will look to when she wonders what it means to be a woman.  How will I measure up?  Will I be enough?  Will I even be relevant when she begins to care about things like lipstick and boys or will the years of sleepless nights and countless laundry loads have taken their toll, rendering me useless to anyone of the fashion mindset below the age of 40?

These are things I worry about.

These things and also, I worry that I won’t have what it takes.  I’m curious if men happen to worry about these things when it comes to raising sons, or if this is a woman specific fear/obsession.  My husband says not so much.  But for me, as I ponder what it means to really raise up a daughter, I find the task terribly daunting.  Given my natural propensity to be a bit disengaged with the girly-girls, I find myself drowning in a daily sea of pink tutus and dress-up dolls and approximately 500 pairs of size 5 toddler shoes.  (side note: where do these shoes come from?  Surely I do not purchase them for her.  Grandparents – I hold you responsible.)  At any rate, suddenly I am flung into the deep end of a very, very girly sort of girl.

I am aware of how she is always watching me.  She is watching the way I look at my body.  She sees how I get dressed in the morning.  She sees my whole self.  My imperfect self.  My woman self.  She sees how I interact with this.  She is absorbing all of this information.  She watches as I apply lip gloss and frown at the increasing severity of the wrinkles dipping along my mouth and forehead.  She is watching me and waiting for my signal.  This!  This, baby girl, this is what it means to be a woman!  Notice how I am carrying myself now.  Pay attention to how often I say the words, “I’m sorry.” and “My mistake!” throughout the day.  Oh baby, don’t take up too much space.  Be small, be easy, be beautiful and pleasant.  

The feminist in me rages against this sort of talk, but I know these messages exist within me, as they do for most women.  It is a nearly impossible message to escape and most of us carry some sort of it with us through this life.  I want to pass on a heritage of worthiness to my daughter.  I want her to take up her space, I want to her rock her whole wild imperfect self with bold confidence.  I don’t want her to make herself small, or quiet, or diminished as a method for approval in society.  And yet, how on earth do we prevent this?  Yes, yes – certainly by living out a more compelling and beautiful way.  Yes, of course.  I work hard to listen to my own voice, to hear the still small truth within and to honor it by making choices to live bravely right out in front of her.

But also, mostly because my own understanding of what it means to mother a daughter is a bit skewed, given a childhood divorce which resulted in a resettling during those formative preteen years, I struggle with knowing how to lead without a map.  I don’t really know what I’m doing.  For years I’ve purchased the same mascara from the drugstore because I bought it once in eight grade and it seemed to do the trick.  I don’t know if I’m doing it right – I was the oldest child and in many ways without a compass during those in between years where you figure out what you’re going to be all about.  I don’t easily identify with women.  I always – always – feel like an outsider.

And now I am raising one.  Lord help us.

Except that… I’m noticing this tiny miracle happening.  My Mercy is healing me. From the inside out, she is allowing me to find that long lost part of myself.  The one who never really played with dolls or wanted to wear dresses.  To this day, my husband owns more shoes than I do, but slowly, so ever loving slowly, I am discovering the joy of living into my own sense of femininity.  My daughter is to thank for that.

I imagine the two of us will figure it out together.  I imagine as she grows she will insist we go on outings to the mall where we try on clothes and get our make-up done by those women at the beauty counters.  I will get my bravest self on for those days, I will suck in air and I will lift my shoulders and I will remember that I do not have to pretend to have it all together.  I do not have to act like I have the map.  I can smile, and I can step gently into the healing that is being orchestrated every step of the way with my wild and precious girly girl.  She and I, we are figuring it out together.

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  • October 16, 2014 - 2:33 pm
  • October 17, 2014 - 12:22 pm

    Jenni I. - I love this. I’m sure you’ve read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly after reading this, but in case you haven’t, you would love it. I love that raising a daughter and being a woman will be a mutual thing for you and Mercy. Love it.ReplyCancel

Sarah Carter Studio // home is home

Six weeks ago my little family and I pushed a shiny new key into a door and opened up a whole new chapter in our lives together.  Buying our house felt like this: it felt like diving blindly into the deep end of sparkling lake, it felt like running full speed in an open prairie so hard and so fast that tears streak down your face and your heart beats wildly in your chest, it felt like being wrapped in the softest warmest blanket you can imagine on a freezing cold day.  Closing on our new house felt exhilarating and comforting.  It is both the bravest and the safest decision we have ever made.

For the ten years that Steve and I have been married, we’ve spent those years in a total of eight different houses in three different states.  EIGHT.  So when I think about that, I think about the ways I have lived both on the outside and on the inside so very temporarily.  I have never really unpacked.  Never really settled into a place.  Always, always, the potential of a move was looming.  In a way, I welcomed that possibility, partially because I’m an artist at heart and the possibility of a new experience is inspiring to me.  Change fuels my creativity, to a point. Don’t fence me, don’t tell me this is all it will ever be, please oh please don’t make me settle down.  But change is also exhausting.  And lonely.  The last time we packed up and said goodbye to friends we’d worked so hard to make, it nearly broke me.

Six weeks into this place, I can already see the benefits spilling over into my story.  I’m unpacking boxes without thinking about how to pack them back up next year.  I’m letting myself dream a little bit about what ‘home’ is to me.  I can take a deep breath and I can hang up some art and I can paint a wall if I feel like it.  I don’t have to ask the landlord for permission, I can just do it. Steve and I sometimes smile at each other in the kitchen and marvel at how, yes we have grown up jobs and two kids – we are RESPONSIBLE PARENTS – and yet it took buying a home together to really make us feel like vetted grown ups.  So I’ve suddenly grown up – and there is such a surprising liberation in that.

I feared I was moving into more confinement, almost as if I was getting to the part of my story where it becomes predictable, which is usually the part where I close the book and move on.  But the twist is that instead of boring predictability, I’ve found freedom.  Having a home is the bravest thing I’ve done yet, because it means I’m submitting to the certainty of my story and I’m allowing myself to settle into it.  But it’s also the safest because in this home, I can count on love and light to lead.

In this home, we laugh.  We make dinner and sit at the table, telling stories and sharing highs and lows from our days. We turn up the music loud and slap our bare feet onto hardwood floors.  We have pillow fights and color our sidewalks full of chalky flowers and dinosaurs.  We listen to our son read books to his baby sister and we try not to laugh when she interrupts his stories with songs of her own.  In this house we tell the truth.  We tell it when it’s easy and we tell it when it’s hard.  We face our pasts and we walk through the struggle together.  We let ourselves feel the ache and the sadness when we need to and we let there be space to heal.  We make time to celebrate when things are good, too.  We are one another’s biggest advocates.  In this home, love wins.

I can’t begin to imagine how this space will transform us over the years.  I have a hunch it will shape us and give us context and affect our children as they grow.  Years will go by and every memory will be collected within the walls here, covering my little family with holy stories of us.  Home is home, it is a collection of what you make it and how you make it and why you make it.  Welcome home.

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