Our good friend Dee recently asked us, “where did the idea for the Don’t Give Up project originally come from? was it a result of planning for a long time, or did it just organically arise in you?”
We told this story. It’s a story we tell at every Don’t Give Up Project. It’s a story I have pictured myself writing in a letter to author, dreamer and schemer, Donald Miller many a time. But I get done with the letter and literally don’t know where to send it. How do you contact a person whose life is saturated in helping others and engaging in countless stories? So perhaps someday, Don, you will run across this blog post, and you will know a tiny sliver of the role you have played in our, and over a hundred other, lives.
Five years ago, my dad, Kent Arlington Wayne McElroy was sick. And not just sick, he was dying of cancer. The rapid moving kind, the kind in multiple places in the body, not able to be surgically removed – only treated with chemo and radiation. He was given a terminal diagnosis the day before my birthday, and that diagnosis included the unfortunate estimate of “two to three months to live.” My dad is the best man we have even known. He was a giant of a man in every single way but his stature and I promise you that, if you met him today, you would love him like a father/brother/best friend in one. He was that kind of man. There are countless stories that deserve to accompany the use of his name, but you will have to come to the DGU project to hear those for yourself because there’s just not enough time or space here.
One day, my dad caught wind that Donald Miller was writing a new book. My father, an avid reader and lover of all things honest, loved Don’s other books and connected deeply to them. So he decided to do what Kent McElroy does and he wrote Donald Miller, telling him his diagnosis and that although he would love to live long enough until the book was released, he feared that might not be something he can control and would Donald mind sending him a copy of the book he was writing. You never know what might happen when you ask for the things you most desire. My dad’s entire life was a beautiful testimony to this and this situation was no different. Don sent him a copy of the book. It had no finished cover, was missing some chapters and had typos, but he – out of the goodness of his heart – offered it to my dad, telling him he would be an “honorary editor” or something to that effect.
We spent the next months passing the book back and forth. Each weekend, we would go out of town and my parents would watch the kids while we were traveling shooting weddings. Then at the end of the weekend, we would pick up the boys, pick up the book, and I would spend the week reading and perusing the book. Not only did Don fill his book with beautiful stories and desires and gut-wrenching truths, but my dad would leave his own little notes in the margins, these ones just for me. He would underline and circle and draw smiley faces or add little words like “this part … this is just for you, ash.” He read that book during chemo treatments and late at night when the side effects kicked in. I read it on airplanes and during children’s nap times. And chapter by chapter, word by word, it took us on a journey.
One of the chapters in there is about “Meeting Bob” – the first time Don met the incredible Bob Goff. If you know the book, this will be a chapter you have not forgotten. In the chapter, Don talks about Bob and the insanely wonderful man he is, the life he and his family have lived together, the story of how he became the American Consul to Uganda, and how his family’s home became a hosting place for leaders from all over the world. I had had many talks with my dad about the fact that Jeremy and I were feeling stirred in our guts to start a workshop for photographers. But I agonized over it with him. “Dad, I just don’t know what this is supposed to look like. So many workshops out there are so sterile, or all look and feel the same, just with another rockstar photographer telling people how to be like them. we want to be about something better than just ourselves. our workshop has to be different but I don’t know how.” I explained our frustration with the photography industry. So many beautiful and talented souls were living half-hearted, copycat lives because they wanted to be like everyone else, instead of discovering who they actually were meant to be themselves. My dad, as always, would smile and gentle smile, look me in the eyes and say, “That’s okay, baby. You’ll know when you’re supposed to know.” I didn’t know it then but I know it now. Donald’s words in that book were helping my dad prepare to die. And my father’s words in that same book were helping me prepare to live.
Well, death has a way of unveiling confused and tired eyes. My dad ended up living just two weeks shy of one year past his diagnosis. And as I grieved his death, I picked the book – “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” back up again, and read and re-read it all – Donald’s words and my dads. And then I got to the chapter about “Meeting Bob.” I read how Bob and his family invited the world leaders to come to their cabin and have a sleepover – because when people sleep over, you get to know them really well. And they would ask the world leaders what they put their hope in, and everyone would leave agreeing to make the world a better place. I read that and I knew. THIS IS IT. This is what our workshop is supposed to be about. THIS IS THE DON’T GIVE UP PROJECT. Since then, we have given away over one hundred of Don’s books, in three continents and we will give away even more this coming July at the next Don’t Give up project. If you are wondering what this is all about, this is a start.
We are about facing the deep and beautiful realities of life and of death.
We are about sleepovers and strangers becoming a family tribe.
We are about sharing hope, taking bricks out of backpacks and revolting against the meaningless.
We are about making the world a better place, simply through our little lives, our little stories, our little cameras, and our little beating hearts.
WE ARE the Don’t Give up Project.
Will you join us?
There’s a space at the cabin in the mountains just for you and we will be waiting with open arms.
We are really excited today.
We are exited because, in our experience, it’s really rare to find something in life that you can be a part of, something that you believe in so wholeheartedly and that brings such hope and purpose to you and countless others. And we’ve found it.
The Don’t Give Up project is worth being excited about.
It’s worth the long months of planning, the blood, sweat, and tears that go into writing the curriculum anew for each one. It’s worth the meetings with the chefs to make sure the food will tell just the right story. it’s worth the years of processing through wins and losses in order to pass on our mistakes and our hope to others in need of them. It’s worth the cost and the hours we spend packing suitcases, gift bags, Uhaul trailers and kids and drive the long, windy road up to the lodge. It’s worth the time, the cost, the sacrifice, the butterflies in our stomachs, the fear and the hope. It’s worth it all. Because after all of that is done, people start to arrive. People who were meant to be there with us, all along. People who were meant to eat the meals we grocery shopped for and hear the mistakes we have made. People who needed a long, three day breath of fresh mountain air. People who arrived lonely and left belonging to a tribe. People who had stories of their own that we desperately needed to hear. When we drive back down that mountain, we are completely refreshed, invigorated, and renewed.
it happens every time.
And now, we are asking you to join us.
We want to invite you to come be a part of the tribe. This isn’t an exclusive tribe. To be a part of this tribe you don’t have to be the cool kid. You don’t have to feel ready to go kill it. You don’t have to be full-time photographer of awesomeness, wedding blog famous or on top of your game. You don’t have to have it all together. You just have to be you. Come experience this thing that none of us really know how to put words to, we just know that we go home living differently. Come be brave and scared and real and funny and quiet and hungry and tired and overwhelmed and overworked and broke and rich and everything in between. Just come be yourself with us and a small family of others who are incredibly different than, but so similar to you.
If you are meant to be there, you know it. you will feel the pull on your gut, the stirring inside your chest cavity, your heart rate slowly starting to increase, and a small voice inside you telling you “ok, it’s time.”
let’s do this!
click below to join us!
if you try to join us, but the workshop is already sold out, please fill out the contact form and we will be sure to add you to the mailing list for the next one.
I (ash) met a stranger the other day.
he was walking down my street with a shopping cart. never a good sign around these parts, or at least one that I remain somewhat resistant to or indifferent of on most days.
but this man was different. For starters, he didn’t look filthy or homeless in any way. He was wearing a collared, button up shirt – a dark maroon one with vertical stripes on it – and some pleated business working pants with a belt and everything, and formal loafer type shoes.
ok, mister, you have my attention.
Usually the grocery cart men I see are looking for items in the trash, and usually they break all the rubbish bins open to find aluminum cans and usually they look like hobos. If I’m home alone, I don’t make eye contact and I don’t say hello. But this one was different. He was walking with his shopping cart, or a shopping cart formerly belonging to family dollar (not to be confused with the artist formerly known as prince – I mean, really? dude. not only do you have to have us all call you “Prince” but now you need to be called something “formerly known as”. Ok. Then I’m the mother of three formerly known as a size 2…but I digress)..and I am trying not to make eye contact. I’m home alone.
There’s another stranger out across the street. He’s a skinny old man who has a ritual that we witness every day. I have affectionately started calling him “the skinny old coot”. He wears the same pants every single day – old worn out grey work pants. He comes out in either a light blue western shirt – if it’s cold out or a white tank top and oversized gym shorts – if it’s warm out. Let’s just say it’s a “special treat” if he’s in the summer getup. I still haven’t made peace with the sight. He walks to the end of his driveway looks to the left, looks to the right, looks across the street in the general direction of our house and then talks loudly to the air. He’s got a “borned-n-raised somewhere south of here” drawl and it’s the kind that makes his random words really difficult to make out. Somedays, he mixes the ritual up a little bit. He will take five or ten paces to the left and then come back to the driveway, or he will say a couple of sentences about his observations about life or about “those people. . .”, or he will just find trash around the property and kick it into the street, which is what he did yesterday.
Business attire-grocery cart man is now making his way closer to our property, and he stops right across the street, in the street. He pulls out a broom, a dust pan, and bends down to scoop up the crushed plastic 7-11 cup that the skinny old coot kicked into the street yesterday. He stands up, and drops it into a trash can, which is the other thing he had in that shopping cart. He walks twenty more feet and does the same thing in the gutter in front of our neighbors house. He glances up to our porch, where I am now watching him with the enthusiasm of an eighty seven year old widow turned neighborhood watchdog, and I say “hey there.” He says hello, tells me he hopes I have a great day, and goes on his merry way.
I watched him for another block or so, as he did his work to clean up the city, one piece of garbage at a time. smiling and enjoying the weather the whole way.
Which makes me ask the question: which of these two people am I more like? I remember a day of waking up, getting a shower and getting my breakfast ready so I could jump in the car to go off to work. I didn’t particularly like the work, and I found myself counting down the milliseconds until 5:00 pm each day, but I still got up, showed up, and did what was required of me. When you are self employed and living life under the guise of “impassioned artist” it’s surprising what you (or at least I) let yourself get away with. How many mornings do I stay in bed later than I should? or skip the shower? or throw on my fat pants and the old men’s t-shirt I slept in and then proceed to fill my days – which have enough trouble each to their own – with unscheduled activities that will rob me of my efficiency? Do I go looking around for trouble, spouting my opinions into the air like incoherent midwestern babble, kicking trash around, and then go back into my shell? Am I the old coot? well.. yeah, I guess sometimes I am. But you can only wear that white tank top and those gym shorts for so long before you notice that, although it is fun to live like a crazy/lazy person for a little while, in the end it really bites you in the ass.
So what have we done? We get up, each and every day. We have a rhythm and despite having three kids, a house and tons of to-do’s we stick to that rhythm. We shower. We get dressed. We do our hair. We practice silence and solitude. We brush our teeth (even if it’s just a Skype meeting we are having.). We work during delegated hours and refuse to work during others. We get up, clean up, dress up, and show up every single day because it’s better for us than the alternative.
In the end, it actually doesn’t just feel good but it also pays off to get cleaned up, dressed in the “I am actually a part of the human race” costume, and go get your work done. Just because we are artists dosn’t mean we are the stylish, urban outfitted version of the skinny old coot. Let’s wake up, clean up, dress up, and show up like the garbage man. Because, lest we all forget, he’s the only one in the story with a paycheck. And if he can be that enthusiastic and warm about his lot in life, then I – sitting here on my front porch listening to the birds chirp and typing on a macbook pro to you, fellow artist – I should be, too.
[at the Don't Give Up project, we will not just be talking about our identities and purposes as artists, but finding new ways to live sustainable lives as creatives. if you haven't already signed up, we really hope you will join us! to find out more, click "join the tribe" above.]
We recently had an experience as consumers that made us think a bit deeper about the way we treat the people who hire us. We were in the apple store and bought a new sleeve/case for our laptop. It looked cool, we liked the rugged feel of it, plus we needed something new to put our laptop in while traveling. The price was within budget, under $50, so we bought it and took it home.
I think that we do a fine job in the beginning stages of the photographer / muse relationship. The right people seem to be finding us and enjoy looking at who we are and what we have to offer. We seem to do a good job at the “falling for us” part, too, not because we are trying to “hook ‘em” or trick people into loving us, but because we genuinely love people. We love their stories and we believe that heaven and earth are intersecting in their lives, so we gladly join in to be a part of it. The price isn’t an issue for the people we are supposed to work with. And if it is, we have seen love move mountains to get us there to the big event they feel we must be a part of.
We took the laptop sleeve home and I started to open it so I could begin to use it.
observation #1: Herschel Supply Co., the company who made the sleeve, has made a thick, card stock wrap that goes around the sleeve, with their branding on it, and lovely words about the item I just purchased. It’s important to mention that the cardboard wrapper is discretely glued into one piece, meaning there is no way you are going to remove it in the store. It’s stuck on there pretty tight.
observation #2: The card stock paper makes me feel something. The use of fonts, design and texture is all pleasing to the eye and hand. It feels like quality from the beginning.
observation #3: As I remove the wrapper and unzip the sleeve, I notice it has a lovely leather pull attached to the end of the zipper, a nice, “handmade” embellishment that isn’t necessary, but appreciated.
observation #4: inside there is a foam “place holder” the same width as our computer, showing me how it will perfectly fit. But instead of just having a brand on it, it says “thank you”. Here’s where my heart flutters a little. I just spent money I thought was well worth it on a lovely little sleeve and they are thanking me. For my less than fifty dollars.
observation #5 (also, yowsers, I need a manicure): I remove the “thank you” note and notice one last lovely touch. “Welcome to Herschel”. I didn’t just give them my money. I didn’t just pick up some random item we needed for our business. I just became a part of something. I was welcomed into this club of people owning aesthetically pleasing products by creative artists who like to say thank you.
FINAL OBSERVATION: This company went out of their way to keep giving me an experience of warm fuzzies after I had spent money on them. They knew I wouldn’t see the thank you note or the little extra embellishments if I hadn’t purchased the sleeve. They went the extra mile long after they had my money.
As I’m about to throw it away, I notice on the bottom of the cardboard “wrapper” are six little words and two periods: “Welcome to Herschel. Enjoy your stay.”
Thanks, guys. I will.
What’s the point of all of this rambling? The point is, when is the last time that, after all was said and done – money exchanged, product / photographs / slideshow / prints / albums delivered – you went the extra mile to:
1. say thank you?
2. make your people feel like they were a part of the greater mission of what you are doing?
I honestly have to say that, unfortunately for us and the dear souls we work with, we rarely do either one of those. We get so caught up in the next couple, the next edits, the next deadline, the chaos of life around these parts, and just trying to keep our severed chicken heads somewhere close to our bodies. We forget to go the extra mile. And These dear ones are spending way more than less than fifty dollars on us!
So this is actually a blog post that is unfinished. We don’t have amazing and wonderful advice to give here, rather, we have questions: for those of you exercising gratitude with your people well, what advice and tips and ideas can you offer the rest of us who are floundering? post them in the comments section and we will edit the post and add them for us all to see and ponder.
don’t be shy! we are really looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
them: You guys get to travel together for work? You are so lucky! Do you ever take your kids along?
us: um, yeah. sometimes.
them: How wonderful! I bet you have some amazing and magical stories!
us: interesting you say that, let us tell you one. . .
We thought it would be a good idea to take our kids to europe with us a couple of months ago. We had a wedding coming up in England’s peak district, a workshop scheduled in Ireland, and saw the opportunity to share it all with our kids. Three boys: ages ten, eight, and two and a half. And we survived. We survived airport security and an overnight flight with a highly emotional two year old. we survived layovers and rental car counters and hungry children. We survived hospital visits because our middle son got scarlet fever and his mother got strep throat. In case you’re wondering, there are places in the world that still prescribe penicillin. Flemming would be proud. And it doesn’t work. Flemming should be ashamed of himself. But despite it all, we still managed to watch the boys play by the ocean, sword fight in front of an english castle, pet cows on the cow farm we stayed at in england, and we introduced the kids to their ancestors – their great grandmother and great grandfather. It was sometimes amazing and sometimes magical. And sometimes not. Despite the good moments, we had worked our butts off while also taking care of three kids along the way (thanks, mops for your helping hands), we had eaten way too many “chips”, we were not feeling well, and we were really, really tired. “kids, let’s go home. It’s gonna be great to be back on U.S. soil.”
soil. interesting word. multiple meanings.
We smelled it over Nova Scotia.
It was unmistakable.
Ungodly amounts of pizza consumed the previous night in Dublin had adequately fueled the baby’s 37 pound frame and . . .well, elaborating is – ahem – unnecessary.
So of course he put it into his diaper.
In a sealed metal tube. 40,000 feet above the ground.
So here is the dilemma. Your son has obviously pooped in his pants and everyone around you knows it although you’re pretending (even to this day) that it was discrete.
Zion did what you’re never supposed to do – he dropped the bomb while on an airplane. While securely strapped into his carseat. As time passed, he fidgeted more forcefully, while his volume level reached “Power Ranger”. He was obviously uncomfortable, but Cars 2 was still playing and the iPads were available as well; we had chewing gum and fruit snacks and candy and we were bribing our two year old to simply keep him quiet and not incite any kind of anger toward us. The seat belt sign was on, we were starting our long initial descent, and we were screwed.
What you might not understand is that if we were to have removed him from his seat, he would have never returned to it, overthrowing his parents and the flight staff in order to freely roam the aisles and make new friends. He is a diaper terrorist. We know this kid. We’ve given him that inch before, and then he takes a mile. We were stuck as he actively kicked his brother’s seat in front of him and told the entire Airbus A-330 that he’d had enough, that the food was not ok, and that the USA is where his heart is.
We touched down, gratefully. As the plane disembarked, Ashley bearhugged our little man, and made a run for it – telling me over her shoulder to grab the bags. The snide passengers traveling without children seated around us give us their kindly looks, thinly veiling their anger that their nose hairs had since been cinged off and relief that we’re on the ground.
“He’s a busy guy!” someone remarks.
“mmhmm” I say, cussing in my head.
Our two older boys and I leave the airliner, walk up the jetway, and into the international concourse at O’Hare (the worst international concourse of all time). We locate the women’s restroom – undoubtedly where Ashley has rushed Zion. And we wait. And wait. And wait.
All of the passengers have gone, at this point. The terminal is empty.
“Honey?” I call into the restroom.
“Whaaat?” she wearily replies.
“You ok in there?”
. . . . .
“IT’S THE WORST!”
Emerging from the restroom, we saw Zion. Pantless. Shirtless. Wearing knee high socks, and his leg braces over them. And nothing else. Poop won this round, the rest of us were the losers, and the only other clothing we had for him was somewhere underground taking a tour of the O’Hare conveyor belt system. We wouldn’t be able to find our bags, they were checked straight through to our destination. Tossing his soiled clothing into a trash can, we looked at what we had in our carry on’s and made do. We put a dirty hoodie over his naked torso, wrapped his beloved green blanket around his midriff like a sarong, loaded him onto the luggage cart, and began to walk through the airport.
The best part? We had a 7 hour layover ahead of us.
To borrow the words of N.D. Wilson:
“When one begins to make claims about life and its storyness, one should be careful. Stories tend to follow, and stories involve unpleasantness. God calls bluffs, and makes narrative hypocrites of us all.”
Do we have some amazing and magical stories? Of course! Real life is packed full of those! And life is also packed full of the stories of unexpected emergency room visits in foreign countries and a stench so bad just the memory of it makes one dry-heave, and life is full of little stylish baby clothes in airport trash cans.
this is the life we self-employed world traveling wedding photographers are living.