On Dreaming

What seems like a million years ago I had a baby boy. I was in college and poor and completely clueless. I dropped out of school and moved into my parent's basement. I remember rocking him one night, whispering plans for all the adventures I wanted us to go on together. I was young, and he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and in that moment, tucked deep down in the Earth like a seed in wintertime, everything felt possible. 

I've always loved books, my favorites being true stories of female resilience. Growing up poor, I learned very quickly that library books are free, and that is where I found my liberation, my faith, my fire. I've hung onto the words of others so tight I'd swear my fingerprints would be visible on their own real life hands. I once met Maya Angelou in person and for a full five minutes I did nothing but trace her face for evidence of my own. In the pages of books I found my dreams carved out in the shape of other people's impossible realities. Especially the mothers. The true stories of Mothers who make their way in the world have always been my oxygen.

If she did it, so can I. 

I believed that with all of my heart. I still do.  

But today when we began the unit on the photo essay in my high school photo class, and after we watched the Dorothea Lange documentary, and the students were struck by the fact that she sent her own children away so that she could pursue her art, I asked them, "Do you think it is possible to be a Mother and an artist?" 

And at first they were all silent and then they shared about how she didn't really have a choice back then, because women's rights were so backwards, and birth control was impossible, and it was just the way it was in those days. And then they started thinking about their own Mothers and if their own Mothers have reached their full potential and dreams.

And then one of them turned to me, and she said without blinking, "Of course it's possible because, you."

As I type this my cheeks are wet with tears. Of course that moment meant the world to me, but my emotional reaction is rooted in the fact that my very first thought when she said that was to reply, "Well, no, because I'm not really living my full potential at all."  

"Look at me, " I wanted to tell her. "I am only a tiny fraction of what I once dreamed I could become." 

And maybe it's just the curse of being someone who never feels like she's accomplished enough, done enough, helped enough. And maybe it's the universal plight of being a woman in the world. But. That basement. My baby in my arms. We were going to move mountains together. I was going to go back to school and finish my PhD and publish brilliant books and lecture in the finest educational institutions in the whole wide world. I'd have a small cabin on the water, and write write write and be the mysterious old lady who disappeared into the sunset, happy and fulfilled, like J.D. Salinger.  

I dropped out of college after my first month of being pregnant because it was too embarrassing to constantly keep throwing up in the classroom trashcans in front of everyone. One time, in Geography, the teacher actually told me to leave and not come back and I do not blame her at all. It was fine, I reassured myself back then, because I'd just go right back after he was born. I'd breastfeed in the back row, I'd hire a sitter when I needed to study. There was no stopping me. 

And look. I've published a photography book that sold out. I've been named Top-30 Photographers in the world. My work has been on the cover of hundreds of national magazines. I created a small business with healthy six-figure profits for years and years and I've met some of the most incredible human beings. I've lived an incredible and rich professional life. Because I had to. Because I had to get off of food stamps. Because I had to offer my children a life I never knew. 

But, and here is where I can physically feel my heart cracking in half right in the middle of my own chest, I haven't finished that PhD. I haven't published books of my best and truest writing. I don't have any invitations to any brilliant colleges. And I'm approaching 40 and let's be honest, all of those things don't favor old wrinkly ladies. 

I need to pause here to make something very clear. I promise you, I cross my heart, I am acutely aware that what I do have is infinitely greater than what I do not.  

Last night I fell asleep on the couch in the light of Monday Night Football on the TV. I was curled up next to a sleeping Lily with my feet rested on Thomas' lap. Braedon was on the floor curled up in a pile of blankets. We have a beautiful home in a beautiful place. We have health. We know what it is to feel love and be loved. It's more beautiful than I can ever begin to put into words. 

And yet there is a tiny tapping, a whisper, a calling. She is persistent and patient and penetrating. And she is telling me not to give up. I hold my favorite books in my hands and I hear her crystal clear:

If she can do it, so can you. 

I still believe that with all of my heart. 

And I'm sharing this because maybe you need permission to keep believing, too. 










I am so often asked why I don't share more pictures of myself online, and I am always surprised because I feel like I am always sharing all of myself all over the place. Also, each River Story™ image I take and share is a piece of my most vulnerable self and personal story. But, at the same time, I totally get it. We live in a world that wants instant access to everyone's faces. It's kind of weird, but what can I say? I google people just as much as the next person, so I really can't talk shit. 

On instagram, I share personal pictures sometimes, and that's where this one comes from. It's a crappy-quality iPhone photo that my son, Braedon, captured in our front reading room. I'm not wearing makeup and I have bedhead and there's a blanket on the arm of the couch because B and his friend jumped off it years ago and the wood snapped there. I collect pillows with Frida on them, because, I mean, it's Frida.

I'm really not sure what else to say here, except that I never want anyone to think I am hiding. I'm not. It's just that I share so much of my heart and soul every single day, and those are the things I value the most in other people, so I guess I just forget to show up in pictures. 

Maybe that will be my New Year's Resolution. A self portrait each week for a year. This could be fun... 



Black (+white) Friday Preset S A L E


Each year I offer a sale on my custom Lightroom presets. Some people think I'm bananas for offering my personal editing recipes to the whole wide world, but I love empowering beautiful imagery! This world needs deep, rich, meaningful photography now more than ever, and these presets are truly magical. 

The preset sale begins today and will run until midnight on November 24th. 

I'm grateful for you! 


Finding the time to write is harder now than it ever has been. Which in some ways feels comforting, because there is always a not so small voice in my head telling me my words aren't worth the time. It's that imposter thing, maybe, but also something softer that asks to be kept private. 

Everything is different since starting my job downtown as a teacher. Time passes differently, now. I’ve been a bit of a recluse for the past lifetime and stepping outside into the big city, day after day, has felt equal parts liberating and paralyzing. It’s that braid of being alive thing. The weaving together of the beauty and the bare bones; the remarkable and gut wrenching tapestry that proves we are here without apology. Being a human is no joke. I find myself learning how to forgive my own heart every moment of every day. And thank goodness for art. For my weekends at the river capturing incredible women. For the ability to, even if just for one one thousandth of a second, make sense of it all. To find truth in the tornado. To hold still, while we are still holding on.

I remember reading an essay once by a woman who was half Native American and half colonial, and she explained it as wanting to unbutton her shirt with one hand, while wanting to button it all the way up with the other. While I am not cut from the same fabric of her roots, I hold onto those words very tightly these days. I don't see myself in many people, and so when I do, I tuck the sentiments away deep in my chest. Her words resonate with the parts of myself that wish to remain hidden in river shadows, but/and, at the same time, knowing that I have a lot to offer by sharing my voice, and my heart, in uncomfortable places, like the big city I now work in. 

I have always been fascinated with death, in the sense that I wish I never had to die. I'd cry as a child in bed, fighting with my own mortality, wrestling with a huge sense of responsibility to not waste any seconds. I knew from a very early age that life was precious, and I also knew from a very early age that I was not born into a situation that would make savoring the sweetness of life very easy. I'm used to catching drops of syrup on my tongue, stolen from the unlikeliest of places, like stubborn trees or the pauses between words. 

When I teach I feel traces of immortality. It brushes against my cheek and then it's gone. But it's there. Those kids know I love them, I know they know, in the same way the people I photograph know, and those seeds don't ever die. I see you. I believe in you, with all of my guts. They know I mean it when I say those things. 

So, when people ask how it's going with my new teaching job, I want so badly to take them into a wide open room filled with portraits of my beloved students. To stand speechless and let them see what I see and feel what I feel every single day when I walk into my classroom and shake out the dusty sweater on the back of my desk chair. Because I don't have words for these types of things.

I get to be in the same place as my son each day. I get to keep him close even though he's oceans away in many respects, tides turning him into a man. I get to watch out my window while his soul catches fire. 

What is the word for when something is the hardest thing you have ever done, but it is also breathlessly beautiful and horrible and meaningful and important and exhausting? I suppose the closest word would be: human.

I've never felt more human in my life.

Melissa // Tonight's River Story

Someday I might have some words. But for now, I am just letting tonight's magic simmer on my still-wet skin. And maybe the words will never come. Maybe the images will tell us all we need to know about soul sisters and baby deer and teeny tiny frogs. Mothers and daughters and mothers and sons and what it feels like when a promise is unconditional. Layers of love, lifetimes deep, spelled out in freckle constellations.

I love you, Mel. And I'm forever grateful for our friendship.