val in real life

Back in March I wrote about why it’s important to keep your bucket full. But I realized my thoughts at the time were an incomplete picture of the tools needed to weather unfortunate life events.

A full bucket is actually about creating a foundation. When your bucket is full or close-to-full, it means you’ve been mindfully living your life. That happiness is what you need to get through the emotional struggle of life’s challenges. But there’s more to it.

The foundation you create by purposefully tending your life on a daily basis means that those actions will become second-nature. And when you need to go on autopilot during tough times, that foundation is there to lean on. Now almost four months into my recovery from January’s brutal crash, I’ve realized what’s been crucial to my process is a sort muscle memory for the things I love that fill my bucket: travel, photography, yoga, hiking, knitting, and motorcycling.

Because I practice these things as a lifestyle, I now see that I’ve been tapping into that muscle memory over the last several months. It’s a foundation I created by flexing those muscles with dedication before the crash. Deep down, I knew I could trust that the joy would return if I stayed the course in spite of the fact that my ability to undertake my favorite activities was diminished, and often painful. I had to fiercely pursue what I knew I loved even though it didn’t necessarily feel good.

This realization came to me in late March as I limped and hobbled down the path to the chapel at Callaway Gardens during my annual GNPA photography expo. It was my first trip since the accident. I’d been walking, in only a very technical sense mind you, for a week. The energy it took to simply get there was exhausting. So I flopped my weary body onto the bench by the lake to rest and consider what I might be able to shoot. I looked up at the building and laughed at the beautiful view. I thought, “Well, this is why they put this bench right here.” I lifted my infrared camera to my eye and composed an image. No tripod. No over-thinking. Just instinct. And it garnered me a third place ranking in the Expo’s competition. The juxtaposition between the difficulty to reach that spot and the ease of capturing a compelling image is so startling. It was simultaneously one of the easiest and hardest things I’ve ever done.

So even though it’s a struggle and I’m physically very far from whole, emotionally life is coming more naturally every day. It’s a very odd tug-of-war finally being mentally ready for challenges but constantly butting up against the physical limitations I still face.

With that lakeside image at Callaway Gardens though, I realized I was tapping into a place that hadn’t been aware of until then. A familiar place. One that is almost second-nature because I built the foundation. Two weeks later, when I pitched my tent for the first time in many months at Horizons Unlimited, it was another little victory. The task was still difficult but I was successful. That was unthinkable a few weeks earlier. And in another two weeks when I returned to the Smokies, intent upon finding myself again, it was there… my love of photography and nature and life.

At home, I’ve begun dabbling with some basic yoga again… and in the process I found out my strength and flexibility are the worst they’ve been in my life. It’s painfully frustrating and I’ve had to push pass the anger. But the balance is still there. And that’s something. It’s a similar story with hiking and knitting. Diminished, difficult… but the foundation is strong.

These things didn’t fail me because I nurtured them. They waited patiently until I could begin to fully embrace them again. I think this is why it’s important to make time for the things you love. Because when we do, we are building a foundation that includes a full bucket. It’s a personal investment. Having that foundation doesn’t make this process easy by any stretch of the imagination. But it does make it possible. There’s a very distinct difference and I wouldn’t be where I am right now without it. And do you know what comes with realizing what’s possible? Hope.

So I leave you with this…

val in real life
Not my best or favorite image by far. But a very symbolic one for me.



  1. Val,
    You have a real gift for distilling an entire philosophy of life into a few words. I have been on a journey of discovery recently, a bit late in life perhaps, but I’m in a better place than ever. And your post really summed up so much of what I’ve been realizing lately. My bucket was never able to stay full because it was full of holes…I could fill it up only to find it empty too soon. So I’m doing the work of patching those holes, and to my surprise, I can go to the bucket and get refreshed by a drink any time I want! Amazing!! Maybe that’s why I was drawn to you in the Smokies–we are kindred spirits, you and I. Thank you for giving words to my thoughts and to my (our) journey…

    1. Jane, you rock! You articulated something I hadn’t been able to… that even when we’re trying to fill our buckets, they often have too many holes for us to get there. That’s actually a more prevalent issue than not trying to fill ourselves up at all.

      Patching the holes… yes!

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