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November 20, 2018

5 Essential Life Lessons from a National Geographic Photographer

My little feet padded down the basement stairs. The walls were lined with copies of National Geographic. I ran my fingers along the spines, and pulled out a couple magazines. Settling into the couch, I spent some time sifting through pages and dreaming of future adventures. Then, hopping off the sofa, I rounded the corner and opened the door, as I’d done countless times before. I was instantly met with the familiar and welcome scent of the darkroom. I slid in between Bruce Dale and his wife Joyce, and my eyes widened as an image magically appeared.

The Dales, a family of five, lived a mile down the road in Arlington, Virginia. I probably spent half my childhood at their home. Forty years my seniors, Bruce and Joyce were longtime friends of my parents. They were my buddies. And my buddies led pretty extraordinary lives. He is a world-renowned photographer, who published over 2,000 photos in his 30 years with National Geographic. She was a musician, publisher, gardener, and a talented photographer in her own right.

I’ve been thinking about the Dales a lot these days, as Joyce passed away over Thanksgiving three years ago. And Bruce, well, he just had his 80th birthday. I learned a lot about life in my time with them. We could all use a little of their wisdom right now. In gratitude this Thanksgiving, here are five valuable life lessons I gathered from the Dales.

Life is astonishing.

From shooting photos in the Bahamas with writer Peter Benchley—author of The Island and Jaws—to jobs in remote regions of China, Bruce’s assignments took him on countless escapades. Joyce also had a nose for adventure, and often joined him. Ever the storyteller, Bruce—with a twinkle in his eye and an easy laugh—relayed the amazing tales behind the photographs. His adventures are still going strong.

“Tell me,” Mary Oliver writes, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Our adventures may not be as wild as the Dale’s. Yet, we can still see and appreciate the extraordinary in the world around us. New and awe-inspiring experiences await us at every turn. With careful attention, even everyday moments can take our breath away.

Look around. Notice. What astonishes you in your day-to-day life?

People make a home.

When my husband and I were trying to figure out where to put down roots and raise a family, we became overwhelmed. So many incredible places to live! We mentioned our conundrum to Bruce, and he said something like this: There are beautiful places all over the world. It’s the people. The people make a place a home.

This comes from a man who has traveled to over 75 countries, so he speaks from experience. In our modern-day world, where extended families are scattered throughout the country, we often have to grow a local village from the ground up. Wherever we land, we can find our people, build a support system, and feel at home.

Think of the people in your local community. Who makes your town feel like home?

Enjoy some sweetness.

As a family that thrived on fresh produce, we didn’t have a lot of desserts in my house growing up. Joyce found it unreasonable that I might have a childhood without an ample supply of confections. So, almost always when I arrived at the Dale’s, she would have some homemade brownies waiting for me. And I loved it.

I’m not suggesting we keep our houses stocked with baked goods. We can, however, integrate sweetness through all our senses. We can breathe in the scent of rose oil.  Appreciate the colors of nature. Add a bit of honey to our afternoon tea. Listen to beautiful music. Lather our skin in coconut oil. And on occasion, we can eat some chocolate.

Sweetness is a taste, but it can also be enjoyed through your other senses. What are your favorite ways to experience sweetness?

Find fun in the humdrum.

The Dale’s youngest of three boys, Chris, was a decade older than me; I followed him around like a puppy. One day, when I was about 5, he challenged me to a cool contest: Whoever picked up the most dog poop in the yard won a piece of gum. The Dales had two dogs (and apparently Chris had been shirking chores for awhile). I filled a giant trash bag with dung faster than you can say Bubble Yum.

It was years before I realized I’d been bamboozled. And yet, it’s a testament to how we can find joy in even the most ordinary activities. While we’re cleaning up the house, we can dance and sing like we’re on Broadway. We can look forward to daily exercise as a chance to move our bodies in new and creative ways.

With some imagination, even the most mundane drudgery can feel like a good time. How do you infuse fun into your routines?

Laugh like you mean it.

When I think of Joyce, my eyes well up with tears. I miss her dearly. And then, in the next moment, I feel her deep-belly laugh wash over me. I can’t help but smile. That laugh. That feeling. She’s still with me, and her laugh continues to carry the power to heal.

We can’t deny the joy and therapeutic nature of a good laugh. A shared quality of all of my closest friends is the tendency to laugh hard and laugh often. Whether it bubbles up from deep within us, or is showered upon us by a loved one, uncontrollable giggles simply feel amazing.

Laughter therapy is a real thing. What or who in your life kindles deep-belly laughs?

This holiday season and beyond, let’s: Be astonished. Connect with our people. Experience sweetness. Have fun. Laugh hard and often.

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