When I was a kid, my parents gave us coupons for holidays. One year, my dad put them in our stockings early.

“VOID if opened!” I read.

“Dad? What does void mean?”

“It means you looked in your stocking.”

pattern on manufactured tree

They were full of obscure gifts like people watching at the airport. Having grown up with it, my kids now get coupons for everything, too, and double time. Nana and PopPop give them trips to feed the ducks and to cook with Nana.

My six year old, Levi, made the request to redeem his “Take Pictures with Mama” coupon that’s been sitting on the side of the fridge for 8 months. Ice cream for breakfast was long gone.

Mom and Son in handrail reflection

I asked where he wanted to go, and thinking he might say something like a park, a train station, or a hike, he surprised me when he said, “Can we go where that high heeled shoe is that is made out of high heeled shoes?”

“Sure, Buddy.”

When he was born, the doctor told us he was quirky. He really is. He’s consistently baffled doctors with unsolvable issues that sometimes, literally disappear. He’s never shown interest in any particular thing. Not dinosaurs or super heros or hula hoops. “Levi, do you have any favorite things?” we ask periodically.

“Black,” he says. Little to pinpoint but the color black.

Last year, in the middle of some testing for his older brother, we began to realize that perhaps Levi wasn’t seeing things as a typical five or six year old. Having brothers with definable special needs, we assumed he was our TDC- our typically developing child. Didn’t take long to find out we were wrong. I guess we don’t have one.

While others in class were learning their letter sounds, Levi discovered he did like things. Like physics, atoms, nuclei, ecological preservation, and compassion for those without homes. He’d been struggling and told me life was brown like a bowling ball. That sat heavy in my heart like a bowling ball. But as were going through this season he spoke these poetic words, almost as if he got to wake his brain up to these incredible things. “Mama, it’s all white, like water. And I like it.”

reflection of water in clayton MO
Off we went to shoe statue.

In the midst of our outing, he confesses, “Mom, I only chose this coupon to get it over with. But…”

I half expected Levi to just be like any kid. Give them a camera and click, cick, click, click, click, click. The sound is half the fun.

Or to see a shoe statue and take a picture of the shoe statue. See a car and take a picture of a car. See a door and take a picture of a door.

He didn’t do either of those things.

Levi was methodical and purposeful with every single click. Of the photos he took, only a couple are specifically of a particular object, as if it could be removed and labeled for a preschool vocabulary book.

This experience for me was so powerful, seeing the lens through which my six year old sees the world. He naturally did things that were taught to me in college or through professional photography classes- things I have to remind those I mentor or teach.

Never once did I say, “Try looking from a different angle- maybe above or below. Walk all the way around the subject.” I didn’t need to. He was up under that shoe, looking above him at the lights, and hardly ever just standing at eye level pointing the camera at what he saw.

under shoe statue in clayton MO

He sees patterns, light and shadow, texture, and perspective. He sees and creates leading lines.

shadow of handrail

I’d stop him and ask, “What made you just take that picture? What do you see?” His answers were incredible to me.

“I want it to look like I’m at a dump and these shoes were just piled up there.”

shoe statue

Shifting juuuust right, “See those cones?” Yeah, kiddo, and only when you shift like that do they make any visual difference at all.

The compassion that fills him up led him to take photographs of all the dying flowers. Dried up, brown hydrangeas. Wilted impatients in need of a good soaking. He told me they are sad, but also beautiful.

He wanted to show all these different ways to look at things. An older gentleman expressed great concern to him as he was walking towards a slide at a playground. “You are going to spoil that camera!” Yes, most six year olds probably would, but he wanted to share just what it looks like to go down a slide. What a joyful, visual perspective to share!

pattern on playground

For years I’ve wanted to show the perspective of a child’s smiling face while he’s being spun around by his hands, but that’s a challenge. And here, he’s showing play through photography without any hesitation. Thankfully, that camera wasn’t spoiled in his attempts.

He finished his sentence, “Mom, I only chose this coupon to get it over with. But… I really like this.”

light through gap in walkway

Aside: I did this with my five year old about a week later, because as you can imagine, the younger wished to also use his coupon. And his was much like him in this phase of life. Fast, color-driven, low composition, focused on mom, and much clicking. :)

As winter started to wind down, I thought we really had it made as a family. We’d avoided a lot of the nasty sicknesses, and as a house with immune deficiencies, that’s a big deal. I didn’t go to the hospital. Then, we slipped into the neverending sickness. Thankfully, none of them were especially dangerous, but it did force me into much needed rest and much time cuddled up on the couch, wrapped in blankets.

Between bugs, I accompanied my parents on an amusing outing to buy underwear. I ventured off alone for a few minutes and saw this book propped up on a display. In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs by Grace Bonney. I snapped a photo, and upon returning home requested it from the library. The next day, I popped in and picked it up.

In the Company of Women book cover

Reading about these various creative women and entrepreneurs has been really fascinating. As you might expect from a collection of creative individuals, the answers to their interviews are varied and rather scattered across the board. The two big threads I’ve seen I really agree with.

The favorite thing people love about their workspaces is the natural light. If you haven’t been into the office to see it, the light is the first thing people mention when they come in (besides my wall-sized crazy purple desk!). I have two full walls of just windows.

The thing people want more of is real connection with people through relationships.

When I saw this particular quote that was answering the question, “What does success mean to you?” it resonated with me and my business.

photograph of quote in book
“As long as my work continues to foster joy, celebration, community, generosity, and simplicity, I’m on the road to success.” -Dana Tanamachi

How many times have you seen me use these exact words? These are all really important values to me. These things aren’t a trend, aren’t going to leave, and regardless of direction of my creative endeavors, these qualities are marks of what I hope my life and my work is. This is what I want to leave behind.

This has led me to reflect a bit on myself as a creative maker, artist, and entrepreneur.

Wedding and portrait photographer Nikki Dukes with lemon slices over her eyes

A few years ago, I felt like God was helping me understand the value of my work as an artist. Sometimes it’s easy to negate the value of my work because it’s not a necessity. But God made the world through both a balance of creativity and order. I think that is one reason why I love photography. It is consistently both artistic and technical, orderly.

Sometimes the urge to create is so strong in me, I must do it right away. This is often messy, disorderly, and lacks much finesse. This is when my family endures a strange dinner or snack because I was reckless in the kitchen. I often veer off the course of recipes. Sometimes I’ve painted sloppy messes. Redecorated a chair with scraps from the basement. I’ve hacked a plant to scraps in the name of pruning. Or sidewalk-chalked alongside my children, deep in the dusty process.

Sometimes the urge for order is so strong in me, I must have it right away. Counters empty. Toys hidden, each piece with its set. Dust disappearing. Schedules organized. Routines established. And inbox emptied of all it can be.

But when they are together, it’s beautiful. The creativity sparks and maintains joy. It takes my breath away. It wasn’t just the messy process I needed, it was the combination that made something worth keeping.

The dinner gets eaten. The chalk gets washed away. The chair got covered in food stains (and frankly was kind of a neon shade) and it’s sitting on Craigslist right now. Construction paper paintings are recycled.

But the photographs taken with purpose. The crafted words written. The visions brought to life. Those get to stay, at least for a season. Those have both creativity and order, and hopefully reflect well the Creator.

Often at photography conferences we’re encouraged to do personal projects and allow ourselves creative freedom, not just creating what our clients want to have (or think they want to have). This year, I set a goal for myself that wasn’t just personal photography. I don’t want to keep only that part of my life fresh and creatively invigorated. I’d rather allow the whole creative being that I’ve been made to be to flourish through creative endeavors of many kinds.

My goal is that by the end of the year I have completed 5 projects that express my heart in mediums I enjoy: photography, sun printing, poetry, writing, and painting.

“As long as my work continues to foster joy, celebration, community, generosity, and simplicity, I’m on the road to success.” -Dana Tanamachi

"Live a Quiet Life, Work With Your Hands" chalkboard-style graphic