Friday, December 23, 2011

Reflecting on 2011, and a Sanderling for Laura

Photo of a sanderling reflected in the tidal flats

Time is such a funny thing. Sometimes we feel that it flies by faster than we can keep up with, and sometimes it feels like it has slowed to nearly a stop. But in the end, we mark its passage at concrete intervals, which allow us to take a moment to stop and see just how much time has passed. A year often proves to be the most logical interval for reflection, as our bodies and minds seem to fall into rhythm with the predictable changing of the seasons, and the lengthened evenings spent indoors in the winter are ripe for reflection.

There have been many years in my life that have seemed to go by without much notice, simply the formation of another tree-ring in my life story, passing by and starting new. This year, 2011, was not such a year. There have been few years that I have felt more strongly and that have been more formative than this particular revolution around the sun.

I started the year in Berkeley, California, happily plugging away as a graduate student feverishly trying to wrap up my experiments and write my dissertation. As my wife and I tried to figure out what our next step would be after graduation, I started to realize that my time in California was running short, and I increased my efforts to get out and enjoy and photograph the landscape that had truly become home for me. The spring flashed by in an instant, seemingly gathering more speed as it went, and soon enough I was walking in my graduation, and collecting signatures on my dissertation. By August I had formally completed my PhD, and we began to prepare for a cross-country move to Massachusetts.

On September 1st, we put the last of our belongings in the car and started our migration east. We said goodbye to California, and spent a glorious 10 days exploring Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The wildlands of the American West have inspired me since I was a young child watching “Marty Stauffer’s Wild America”, and it was a dream come true to spend so much time exploring that particular stretch of the Rocky Mountains. During our stay, each day seemed to stretch out to twice its appropriate length, leaving us with so many full and lasting memories. We then spent the next 4 days watching the country pass by our car windows, and soon enough, we were getting settled in Massachusetts.

All of these events were so important to the story of my life, and it was incredible to sit around our kitchen table in September and think about the fortunate changes that 2011 brought to our lives -- the grand accomplishments of finishing our PhDs and starting the next phase of our lives in a new city. But 2011 wasn’t over yet, and the steady beat of the metronome propelled us forward along the unseen arrow of time.

When we celebrated the start of 2011, we did it as a much fuller family than we’ll have for the beginning of 2012. In October, we lost my step-father to cancer. He had been receiving treatment for a year and a half, and we knew that our time together had a distinct, but unknown, limit – but we didn’t realize that this stretch of time was accelerating to a rapid finish much sooner than we expected. Fortunately, our recent move to the East Coast allowed us to be there at the end.

As we tried to recover from that loss, we didn’t know that we were again accelerating towards another finite endpoint in time. In November, my wife’s sister, Laura, and her boyfriend, Kristopher, were taken from us in a random, senseless, and horrific act of violence in Seattle. My sister-in-law was only 26, and was almost ready to write her PhD dissertation at the University of Washington. She was a fun, generous, and compassionate soul who cared deeply about improving the world with her research and education. She and Kris had so much love and life yet to give, and they certainly did not have enough time.

In the wake of these tragedies, you find a way to put one foot in front of the other and to keep moving forward, because you know that as much as it feels like it should, time doesn’t stop. It just keeps flowing with a perpetual steady beat. Soon enough the last seconds of 2011 will tick by and we’ll count down to the beginning of a new year. The incredible joys and sorrows of 2011 will always be with me, but they will also be secured behind me with the turn of the calendar – encased behind the mark that separates the new tree-ring from the last.

As my reflections on 2011 naturally turn towards the prospects of 2012, I look forward to a fresh beginning of another year full of expectations and surprises. What will I have to reflect on after the next 365 days? I’m ready to turn the page and find out – to face the challenges, to experience the joys, and to continue to share what inspires me.

I want to thank each of my readers for joining me for the journey that was 2011, and I wish you only the best for the New Year. May your lives be ever fuller by the love of your family and friends, and may you continue to make progress towards getting that perfect shot!

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The image I selected for this post is dedicated to Laura. She always commented that she loved my photos of sanderlings, and she enjoyed watching their cute way of life as they cruised in and out with the waves. As I thought through the images I could dedicate to her, my mind was drawn to the recent series I took that included reflections. While Laura’s time with us was far too short, she lived an amazingly full life and impacted an incredible number of people. Her zest for life and fierce love of family, friends, and science will be forever reflected in those of us who knew her – and we will each be a better person for carrying her spirit with us as we move forward.


  1. wow. i am truly sorry for the terrible losses you experienced this year. i do hope you and your wife have many more happy moments and events coming to you for 2012. laura sounds like a wonderful person...

  2. Well put. I am sorry for your losses. I wish you a pleasant holiday and great new year. Great work as always.

  3. So sorry for your losses ... senseless! Hoping for better things in your coming year!

  4. Very sorry to read of your losses this year Pat. Combined with your cross country move, wow, that is a lot to go through. I admire your determination to push forward with optimism for 2012 and wish you and your family all the best.

  5. A lovely tribute Pat. Life is not always fair -- your post is a good reminder of the way to deal with the bad days -- the only way we can. Best wishes for a better year in 2012

  6. Pat, I am so sorry for your losses. The way you lost your sister must have been devastating to you and your family. A crazy and tragic moment in time. I hope this coming year will be good for for you and your family. Congrats on your pHd! I wish you a happy and productive 2012.

  7. You had some very good times and some very bad times last year Pat. Here's to nothing but good times for you in 2012.

  8. Thank you all for your kind words and condolences, I really appreciate it.