“To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day,
to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle
which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” ~ E.E. Cummings
She wasn’t the most interesting person in the room. There were celebrities, intellectuals, and people with obscene wealth walking around the art gallery, sipping on Champagne and speaking with quiet enthusiasm about her work on the walls. Their lives were by far more interesting than hers. But she was the most interested person among this eclectic crowd.
I could see her leaning in to listen, with an expression of sincerity, to each person who approached her, complimenting her work. I heard her ask questions that got other people talking about themselves, and after some time, each of her guests walked away smiling having learned nothing about her at all, but somehow feeling buoyant from the one-sided conversation.
She had that effect on people. They felt good in her company. Her effortless attention could be seen and overheard, and it was reflected in her photos as well. Each picture hanging on the walls was its own incredible story. Whether it was an image of a dog, a lake, or a mountain, each image was ripe with soft fascination.
Her name was Dahlia, a visual storyteller, and on this night, during her debut solo art exhibit, What Makes You Come Alive, Dahlia’s work was not only engaging, but it satisfied a longing we each share for the unfathomable in nature, the stuff of shivers.
On that special night, I was fortunate to have a brief conversation with Dahlia about her art, excited to hear what she had to say about her passion. Not surprisingly, her wisdom on creativity was astounding. With humility, but undeniable confidence, Dahlia shared with me three significant life lessons, all of which lifted her to greatness in her field.
These three lessons are so simple, timeless, transferrable, and profound. Dahlia not only gave me permission to share them with you, but she encouraged me to share them with you.
As it turns out, Dahlia was once broken herself. Down and out on her luck. Depressed. Hopeless. And along came a stranger, which she referred to as an Angel Thread, who gave her encouragement with these same three lessons.
Dahlia’s work was known and celebrated, but there was nothing I could find written about her life, what made her tick, or what she overcame to lead her to this extraordinary night.
No doubt, What Makes You Come Alive, was the perfect pitch for Dahlia’s solo art exhibit. It was a statement and a question. It made me want to see it in her work, and at the same time it urged me to reflect on what makes me come alive, something I had never given much consideration.
As an aspiring photojournalist myself it was only natural for me to learn more about Dahlia. I found a moment to meet with her toward the end of the night as her first solo art exhibit came to an end.
I was so struck by our conversation that I transcribed as much of it as I could remember. Here’s my interview, including her three life lessons, all of which I’m excited to share with you now.
Me: “The title of your exhibit, What Makes You Come Alive, is so intriguing. What made you choose this title?”
Dahlia: “Our basic nature doesn’t like the dull, dreary routine of eating, drinking, and sleeping. It seeks something it may have lost, that sense of aliveness. But in our busy world, it’s easy to forget what makes us come alive, and we can find ourselves moving about like zombies with no real purpose or direction. What Makes You Come Alive reflects my work, and it serves as a wake-up call for anyone caught up in zombie-mode.”
Me: “So, where do we find this ‘aliveness?’”
Dahlia: “We can find it in play, work, travel, art… It’s different for everyone. The important thing is to not wait for 'aliveness' or inspiration to find us, but to look for what inspires us. And to keep looking until we find it. Too often we get comfortable with a passing grade and settle for a lackluster life. And as our days pass, the intensity of our joy, our dreams and our hopes pass as well.”
Me: “That makes sense, but how do you pay the bills with this inspiration? How did you do it? Everyone’s a photographer, including me. Everyone has a phone with a camera. The Internet is flooded with endless pictures. What was your breakthrough? How did you rise through this sea of photographers and find such success?”
Dahlia: “You're right, anyone can take a photo, and anyone can make something cheap, write something short and forgettable. There’s even an audience for that out there. When I first got started as a professional photographer I tried to appeal to everyone and I lost track of what mattered most to me. I wasn’t selling much, and I was depressed. Rent was past due, my car was hidden from the repo man, I was angry at the world, and I was blowing it as an artist.
“So, on one of the lowest mornings in my life, I walked to a nearby park, found a bench, and wept. I was broken and I wasn’t sure how I’d pull out of this mess. And that’s when an elderly gentleman approached me with his Akita, and he asked if he could sit down. To this day, I consider this man to be an Angel Thread in my life because he knew exactly what I needed to hear to help me turn things around.
“He was an English Professor and he listened to me blubber about my life and how awful things were. We spoke about the beautiful sunrise that morning and he reminded me that my happiness is about doing work that matters... to me. He suggested I slow down and be a better noticer of people, places, and things – and photograph stuff that fascinates me.
“His words gave me the courage to become the person I am today, not the person others wanted me to be. As this nice man and his dog got up to leave, he shared a Jack London quote that put everything in perspective: ‘Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club!’”
Me: “This is fantastic wisdom. Your words are like the pictures on these walls… so relevant and uplifting. I realize it’s late and you have to go. May I ask one last question?”
Dahlia: “Of course, ask away.”
Me: “Thank you… Based on everything you’ve experienced and shared with me tonight, if you could sum up three of your most important life lessons, what would they be?”
Dahlia: “First, I’d start by asking, ‘What makes you come alive?’ Figure out what it is and start your journey there. Be willing to make mistakes but learn from them. Be eager to be successful but remain humble and grateful.
“Second, pay more attention to the world around you. Be a better noticer, a better listener.
“And third, ask yourself these questions: ‘If how I spend today is how I spend the rest of my life, would I have improved the quality of life for myself and others? Would I be happy, fulfilled, and proud? Will it have been a worthy and meaningful life?”
Dahlia became my Angel Thread that night. I hope her passion and wisdom finds a place in your heart as it did with mine. As the interview wrapped up, these were her parting words.
“If you find what makes you come alive, pay more attention, and spend your days improving the quality of life for yourself and others, I’m certain your life will overflow with the love and peace we all crave, wouldn’t you agree?”
Hello! I’m Michael Kennedy, Olympic Valley, CA resident. I’m a teacher, freelance writer, and photographer. Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, please share with others. I value your attention, it means a lot to me and it helps others see the story. If you're interested in any photos in this post, or in my gallery: click here, let me know what size you want, and I'll send a quote. My email: firstname.lastname@example.org