Cynthia Viola Photography


Appalachian Trail Reflections

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Don’t waste a whole life on just a half try. It’s all or nothing.
— Mutemath
Appalachian Trail North Carolina

“Welcome to the A.T.” he said as he laughed, “where you pour your heart out to complete strangers.”

As I considered whether or not I had anything new to say about the trail this time, I skimmed through some of my previous posts about my trail name and what I eat. I almost decided one or two social media posts would cover it, and then I remembered the people I met.

Every different type of person imaginable can be found on the trail when it comes to profession, age, where we live, stage of life etc… But one thing we all seem to share is a genuine love for humanity, the environment and connection. I feel like there is a deep seed that longs to connect with others. Whether you hike with a group of friends, your love, alone, or with someone you’ve just met, you can hear in conversations around the fire or hostel table the moments when we reach out to bridge a gap between anything that makes us different.

Stories flourish about the similar trail struggles we share from aching knees to pesky mice stealing food and the gratitude shared for trail angels who leave bottles of Gatorade at road crossings. But at the end of the day when camp is set up and you’ve got another hour of daylight, the stories drift to another level.

When my new friend started sharing why he was on the trail (to determine if he should divorce at age 64) all the rest of us began to share both our good and bad experiences with it to offer perspective for his dilemma. Before we knew it 4 people who’d never met from NC, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Austin, with 4 very different jobs, in 4 different decades had found something in common and connected in a way that made us both care for each other and desire to look after each other as we hiked forward in the coming days.

I don’t know what my new friend will decide but I know for a moment he felt valued, encouraged and connected. We all have unique paths but they are far more similar than they seem at a glance. If we’re willing to open up for even a moment we might just find what we’re searching for.

Appalachian Trail Tennessee

On another note, nothing is more magical than dancing in a field of a thousand fairies at midnight.

OK so maybe they were lightning bugs but they felt like fairies. We had woken up in the middle of the night and when I stepped outside my hammock I was absolutely astounded. The forest was moving and it has never felt more alive than it did in that moment. If you turned on your headlamp for a second they all went away and it just looked like regular trees and bushes. As soon as you turned out the light, they all lit up and came to life - a thousand tiny eyes watching and being present with you; there was no other response than to dance along with them.

Our new friend Claude the baby bear also surprised us by wandering into camp the next morning just to say hello. His little nose was covered in pollen and we simply talked to him as we quickly packed up camp. We found two of his other larger friends as we hiked as well. Watching a giant bear charge through the forest at full speed is an incredibly sobering experience. Everything shakes. The trees, the ground, even the air. That’s the moment you realize you’d never be able to outrun them if the charge was in your direction instead. All you can do is thank the bear for letting you pass by, for giving you another day to adventure on. Gratitude fills the air and you somehow feel more alive. When you take a moment to step out of the routine, the world has a way of opening up a box of magic you never knew existed. As Mother Teresa says, “If only we have eyes to see.”

May we all open our eyes to the wonders and people around us.

Paleo Powered Backpacking

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A person does not simply exist but always decides what their existence will be, what they will become in the next moment.
— Viktor E. Frankl
Paleo Oatmeal for Backpacking

After my first Appalachian Trail adventure with a couple friends I fell in love with backpacking. I love meeting other travelers and hearing their stories. I love pushing my body to its limits just to see where the breaking points are. I love the challenge of figuring out just how little you can survive on so that you can cut weight and space in your pack.

I’m not exactly an ultralight hiker switching out my knife with a razor blade wrapped in tape, for example, but I get by with as little as I can manage. After my first two sections with my friends in North Carolina and Tennessee I learned what types of foods they, and most, backpackers carry: Dehydrated dinners, oatmeal, granola bars and trail mix. This was great and worked well for those two trips as well as my solo hike through Georgia. But I wanted to find some other options that fit my normal eating routines off trail, namely Paleo, for the next section I’ll be starting in 2 weeks.

The first switch was the dehydrated dinners. I met a couple guys on my solo hike who had found paleo dehydrated dinners and I knew I wanted to locate them for my next trip. There are a few different options out there but the cleanest seem to be Wild Zora. I won’t be trying them until I get on the trail in 2 weeks so you’ll have to wait for my final assessment. Other dehydrated meals like Mountain House are fine, but many of them are sickly sweet to me and I feel like I can taste all the preservatives.

Paleo backpacking Food

I was already using Paleoethics’ Recovery Matrix as my twice daily tea option. It’s loaded with amino acids, zinc and magnesium to help your body recover and sleep well, and it happens to be chai flavored so I love it. I’ll definitely use it again (although I’ll remove it from it’s pouch and put in a smaller, more flexible baggie).

I’ve recently discovered Paradigm protein powder and love it for my daily work out recovery. It’s as clean as it gets. While protein bars are tasty, they’re heavy and usually full of sugar. On a day-to-day basis I typically intake about 100 grams of protein so this will be vital to maintain that on the trail.

Karen’s Naturals have been a staple car snack for me for months now. It’s just dehydrated veggies and you eat them like you would popcorn or potato chips. Delicious. They’re also good to add to any other dehydrated meals to get a few extra veggies in. Similarly, dried seaweed is a delicious salty snack. I’ll remove it from it’s package as well though.

Tuna is a great source of fresh-ish protein on the trail, the little packs are essential though, as cans are heavy and you have to carry out all your trash. Bee pollen is good to add to tea or dehydrated meals to tame the allergies a bit being surrounded by blooming trees 24/7.

Paleo Appalachian Trail Foods

Next I wanted a more intentional oatmeal. There are a few pre-packaged dehydrated options out there, but I figured I could make it myself. Buckwheat is a naturally gluten free hot cereal and you can add any number of delicious and supportive ingredients. It’s not exactly “instant” in the way oatmeal can be ready in about 60 seconds, but it’s pretty close, about 8 minutes.

Homemade Paleo Instant Oatmeal for Backpacking

I made this at home first and also tried it out in my jet boil on the deck this morning to make sure it worked. At first I included coconut flour, but found it made it too thick and have since removed it.

For this Paleo “Instant Oatmeal” Recipe I used:

1/4 cup Buckwheat

2 TB Chia Seeds

1 TB shredded Coconut

1 TB Walnuts

1 TB Dehydrated Bananas

1 TB Dehydrated Blueberries

1 TB Brown Sugar

1 tsp Cinnamon

All mixed in a baggie at home and added to 1.5-2 cups of boiling water on the trail depending on your texture preference. Note, when not on the trail this is easily 2 servings. But on the trail I’ll force myself to eat it all before I take off in the mornings. It is an excellent source of carbs, protein, healthy fats, omega-3s, fiber and other vitamins.

You can easily add a number of other ingredients if you have preferences: different nuts, different fruits, powdered peanut butter, more or less sugar or stevia, these are just what I had on hand. I have just ordered some cricket powder to try as a healthy, sustainable, protein and B-12 source as well. TBD if it impacts the taste.

Backpacking on Appalachian Trail

When all is said and done, there is no “right” way to backpack. No perfect food arrangement. No correct gear. It’s just what works for you. If you’ve never backpacked before, I suggest a 3 day, 2 night outing to figure out if it’s something you enjoy and your body and mind can handle. You’ll figure out pretty quick if you’ve carried too much and you’ll find ways to minimize the next time. You’ll also figure out what foods make you feel good and which ones, while tasty, weigh you down or make you feel lethargic. I will always be a proponent of whole and sustainable food sources, but I’ll also always have M&Ms in my trail mix. Balance.

Good luck on your next adventure and feel free to ask any questions. I’m no expert but I’m happy to help in anyway I can.

3 Steps to a More Adventurous Lifestyle

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And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later
— Randy Komisar
Hang Gliding Photographer

I use this quote often, and if I’m honest, I don’t know anything about the author, but it resonates so fiercely I continue to do so.

It wouldn’t surprise anyone if I said I’m not cut out for the 9-5 lifestyle. Even when I’ve had other “regular” jobs they were never 9-5. Waiting tables and bartending often consisted of different shifts every week, with those changing 2-3 times mid week as others called out and I filled in. Working with teens more often than not involved late night phone calls (this was before texting was really a thing…I know, I’m aging), Friday night football games, Saturday shopping trips, week long camps and weekend retreats. Anything involving the church world was far more than Sunday mornings. It was taking a bag of groceries to families mid week when their food stamps ran out. It was late night texts talking people off the figurative ledge. It was frantic last minute schedule changes right before going on stage, a million emails, evening meetings and morning groups.

Somewhere in the midst of it all I picked up photography and just fit it in where I could. As the story goes, one day I realized the thing I loved most shouldn’t be the thing I push to the back of the calendar wherever it fits, but should actually dictate my calendar. Full time photographer and entrepreneur has been quite the dream job. I make my own schedule, travel extensively, meet tons of new people and live wherever I want.

Swimming with a Dolphin

Despite this perfect dream job, however, for a while there I was allowing the day-to-day of keeping up with the business side as well as family and house and garden and dog to overwhelm my deepest passion. And honestly, at the time I didn’t even realize it, I was so busy just doing stuff and keeping a full calendar that I didn’t give myself time to pause and reflect on what I wanted most. And what did I want most? As it turns out, adventure.

There is certainly no need for everyone out there wanting more adventure to leave their jobs, their families, their city or their dogs, and my decision to do so didn’t even involve adventure…I realized afterward that adventure was a driver. But here are a few little things EVERYONE can do to insure a little more excitement and exploration enter your calendar.

One: Decide

Take an uninterrupted hour or so to sit and decide if you even WANT more adventure in your life. Adventure has become such a buzz word lately, I’m finding that when people tell me they want more of it and I ask them what adventure would look like for them, they not only start off with the reasons why they could never do “something like that”, but they can’t even tell me what that “something” would even BE. So… WHAT DO YOU WANT? Do you even know? I have personally loved swimming with dolphins, hiking the Appalachian Trail and Hang Gliding the most. But with each of those, I DECIDED I wanted them first. If adventure is just this vague concept of something exciting, you’ll never do it.

Two: Plan

Figure out what said adventure INVOLVES. Do you have to travel? How far? How much does it cost? Do you have to take off work? Can you find a coupon? Do you know someone who might could hook you up with a friend’s discount or a place to stay while you travel to said location? If the cost seems insurmountable, what can you sell? Can you cut back on Starbucks and/or alcohol for 2 months to come up with an extra couple hundred? Is this something you do solo or does a friend join you? Maybe the whole family? Figure out what it involves and make a plan. Swimming with dolphins, for example, takes about 1 hour, costs about $250 with the photography package and a Florida resident discount, and, of course, requires that I be in Florida (or other similar beachy location). I found a time when I’d be in Florida anyway, found some friends I could stay with for one night, set aside the hour, saved the money and voila. Life long bucket list item: check.

Three: Do

Follow through. Once you’ve figured out the details, make a plan, tell the world (or a close friend) you’re going to do it for accountability. THEN. DO. IT. What began the catalyst of my adventures was a New Year’s Resolution to have 12 new adventures in 2018. That meant I had to make a list of about 20 potential indoor and outdoor things I might like to do, and then once/month figure out how to make one of them happen. Then, rain or shine, with friends or solo, I just did it. And I haven’t looked back since.

Appalachian Trail Section Hiking

Fulfilling your wildest dreams doesn’t have to be so hard. With a little planning and a resolve to make it happen you can have hundreds of little adventures across your lifetime. There is no reason AT ALL to wait until you’re retired and frankly too old to physically accomplish what you want. We’re not even guaranteed tomorrow. What if you wait to have fun until you’re 65 and you don’t make it to 66? All those years working to finally live… for what?

My life has left me uniquely unfit for constraint
— Jamie Lannister (I'm a tad excited for Game of Thrones to come back)

A Lifetime of Adventures

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“Someday” is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you
— Tim Ferriss
Cross Country Road Trip


17 photoshoots

14 friends’ couches, air mattresses and guest bedrooms

9 weeks on the road

8000 miles 

7million squashed windshield bugs 

6 Airbnb homes 

5 new experiences

3 windshield cracks 

2 mentoring sessions

1 epic adventure 

Roughly $350

Big Bear Mountain

When telling people about my cross country trip this week I’ve noticed myself and others calling it the “adventure of a lifetime.” And while that is certainly true of my life up to this point, there is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do a similar trip in a couple years. I don’t want to limit myself by thinking that my encounter with the dolphins will be the only one I experience in a lifetime. I hope to have many opportunities to have epic road trips, camp in the desert, snowboard in the rockies over and over again, and to someday again call Los Angeles one of my homes.

Big Bear Ski Resort

I don’t know where I’ll be living next year, I barely know what the next two months hold other than weddings and my plan to jump back on the Appalachian Trail. I do know I want to walk forward with hands out and palms up ready to catch whatever joy or pain may come my way and I want to live a lifetime of adventure.

Joshua Tree
Swimming with Dolphins in Key West

For those interested in what a trip like this COST, I’ve broken it down my expenses below. (I did not factor into this expenses like monthly bills, savings etc, as I would have spent those regardless.)

  • Total of Gas/parking/tolls/food/housing and extra adventures like Big Bear, The Grand Canyon, Sedona, Joshua Tree, Mardi Gras & Dolphins: $4,515

  • Minus the amount I always budget for Gas, food and adventures for two months and would have spent anyway: -$1500

  • Minus the income I made BECAUSE of shoots on the trip: -$2,675

  • =$340

It’s easy to think that epic adventures like this are impossible, but really we’re only limited by our imagination. And seriously, this trip could have been done for a fraction of that cost. I spared no expenses on food or the adventures I wanted to take. I could have been much more frugal, experienced fewer side adventures and/or prepared more meals in advance, but I wanted to experience the local flavors of each city, and I knew I’d make up the difference in shoots or dog walking.

I realize not everyone can make $2500 on the road as a photographer…but you likely have other skills you can utilize BEFORE the trip to save up that money in advance. Selling stuff on Craigslist, seriously how many shoes or hats does one person need? Extra side hustle jobs like dog walking, Uber driving, babysitting (I walked for Rover while in LA and will continue in NC) or other freelance work, and networking with friends and family (and don’t forget extended friends of friends) for free places to stay while you travel. (My best tool for this was Facebook. In the search bar type “my friends who live in (insert city or sate).” There might only be one and there might be twelve, it’s worth checking, and it’s always a great excuse to catch up with old friends. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Nine times out of ten people are MORE than happy to help you, they just don’t know how to unless you ask.

If there’s one book I could recommend to help someone take a risk and plan an adventure, it would be 4 Hour Work Week from Tim Ferriss. I listened to it twice while driving. I was already doing basically everything he talks about, but he puts it to words in a way that helps people who have traditional 9-5 jobs figure out a way to live their dreams and not give up their income.

Anyway if you need help brainstorming, don’t hesitate to ask!

If you want to read more about the trip itself you can check out either this post about the various landscapes I encountered or this one about life on the road.

If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves
— Thomas Edison

When Men and Mountains Meet

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Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
— Mary Oliver

It is decidedly sad that Mary Oliver passed this last week, but the event did present the inclination for many of her followers and those who had never heard her words before to dive into them. Her intentionality with seeing the world and life around her as well as her acceptance of death have inspired many to do the same. I have found myself returning to her words many times on this cross country excursion. And, as I’ve paid attention, and been quite astonished, it is now my duty to tell about it.

I truly cannot get over the variety of mountains I have come across these past few weeks. Beginning of course in my hometown, with the low rolling and misty blues of the Blue Ridge on the east coast. I have photographed them often, but usually only to adjust my lighting before asking a couple or family to step in front of the lens and allow me to capture the mountains merely as a nice backdrop. When they are allowed to be front and center, the varying shades and subtle shifts of light become far more evident.

Blue Ridge Mountains, Boone NC

Next the arid, multi-colored deserts of Arizona, surrounded by cylindrical spires that look built rather than evolved. I, of course, expected to see and experience the Grand Canyon, and it was, just as magical as everyone says. Vast as far, and farther, than the eye can see, and with edges that make you wish you were a bird so you could simply run and leap off the side!

The Grand Canyon

Perhaps the unexpected nature of stumbling across Sedona on several friends’ suggestions, I think, made it a bit more magical to me, however. The spontaneous schedule shift, extra driving to an unknown location and last second scheduled sunrise yoga session on the side of a cliff is simply something I won’t soon forget. I chose to hike alone first, early in the morning in order to get to the top of the mountain before the sunrise to capture a few shots and simply sit with the cacti as the light slowly and determinedly crept across the hills altering slightly everything it kissed. When I met up with the others for the yoga session, it was only 35 degrees as the wind whipped up the face of the cliff but the air was so crisp and the light so empowering you felt the temperature more as a welcomed tingling in your bones rather than something to shy away from.

Sedona Sunrise Yoga Session

Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains I’m quite accustomed to the deep deciduous and ever-greens of winter, summer and spring followed by the outrageously vibrant oranges, reds and yellows of the fall. Something I’ve never experienced in nature before this trip, however, are the lush blue pastels painting Sierra Nevada alongside these lonely, dry, salty pink hills. An unexpected shift in the weather sent me driving north through the desert before crossing the rockies into San Francisco, and I could not be more grateful for the extended reroute. I spent hours just sitting and staring at these colors. There was something so tranquil about the undisturbed quiet reflection of the mountains. I wanted to stay all day but the pending snow storm was going to trap me if I didn’t move on.

Nevada Mountains

So move I did. By the time I got to the top of the mountain in Lake Tahoe, it was snowing and my little car was starting to give me questioning looks every time I stopped to capture a photo. The Rockies were not unlike the Blue Ridge in the color and selection of trees, they were simply immense. Snowcapped evergreens blanketed the mountains in every direction making me excited to come back in a few short weeks to snowboard at Big Bear.

Rocky Mountains

The cliffs of Big Sur surrounded by its icy turquoise surf was certainly the most unique bunch of mountains I came across. A place I’ve been dreaming about seeing for years, I was a little worried when signs mentioned several closed sections (due to landslides from the storm I’d avoided a couple days prior), but I was able to see everything I’d hoped to and more. The vineyard valleys that followed provided a startling spring green compared to the rest of the trip, but only emphasized the vast beauty across the country.

Big Sur California and Monterey California

Next, the fire scorched trails through Malibu, bursting not with pain, but new life from the ashes. A first glance at such scarring almost makes you want to look away, but further inspection shows the beauty breaking through because of the pain. Most forests do better after a fire, so while it’s hard to look at (and certainly not ideal for areas near homes and businesses), it’s all a part of a healthy process of growth.

Malibu Forest Fires

Finally as I flew into Seattle I was honored with the chance to see a blanketed Mount Rainier both from above and below the mist. It’s extraordinary to experience life from multiple perspectives. From above she looks alone and lonely, from below, however, you see the multitude of trees and the city to keep her company.

Each set of mountains has had it’s own beauty and it’s own story. This world is ever changing and brimming with diversity, much like us. May we be brave enough to keep it that way, both in the forests and our cities.

Mount Rainier

If you’d like to see the entirety of the images from the trip, feel free to leave a comment here or shoot me an email. ( I’ll be selling digital downloads and prints if you are so inclined. Thank you for supporting this grand adventure.

Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable
— Mary Oliver

Life on the Road

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We swallowed the chaos because we knew we didn’t want to be ordinary
— Robert M. Drake
Cynthia Viola Cross Country Trip

I’ve had a lot of people tell me lately they are living vicariously through me, or that I am their spirit animal, or that I am living my best life, or that I have it made. Which, of course I love. I love to be in an inspirational role, and I do, in fact, love my life as well. It sometimes makes me sad though, because it’s usually said with a tinge of jealousy or regret of an unlived life.

I think so often, it’s easy to look at another’s lifestyle (or social media presence) and think they have it all, and wonder why our own life isn’t all that we thought it would be. (Looking at you Jasmine, Michael and Sasha!)

But if it’s my life you think you want, you can certainly make choices to follow in the same footsteps. Yes, even if you have kids, even if you have a full time job, even if you’re in school, even if you’re married. You’re never as stuck as you perceive yourself to be. We make decisions every single day that bring us one step closer or further away from the place we want to be.

Unless you’re imprisoned, in a coma, caught in trafficking, paralyzed, or a child, you can typically make your own choices. Do so.

I just wanted to share a few of the struggles for those considering a similar path to mine. While I love this life and wouldn’t choose anything different, it definitely comes with it’s own set of struggles that are not for the faint of heart.

Packing for two months at a time

I am a very light packer. If I think I can get by with one pair of shoes or one dress, I will. I will do anything it takes to not have to check baggage at the airport and I usually have my camera AND laptop with me. This means stuffing clothes and shoes in all the spare pockets of my equipment bags and/or wrapping my camera in clothes so I can put it in my duffle. That said, when I know I won’t be going back to my parents house (where most of my stuff is currently stored) for TWO months, I can’t pack quite so light. It takes a LOT of planning and preparation. And then there’s the challenge of the seasons changing while you’re gone; this requires yet another bag of warmer clothes to add in as needed. My little car only holds so much, and the trunk is already packed with all my light stands and other camera equipment. Then when you get where you’re going and realize you forgot an important piece; you have to decide if you’re going to drive the extra 6 hours out of the way to go back to get it, find a way to borrow, go without, or buy new.

Having gear in multiple locations

I have two cameras with all the trimmings, an iMac, a Macbook, a photo printer, a paper printer, light stands, external hard drives, and backup gear which at any different time might all be on me, or might be scattered in multiple locations. This was never more of a problem than when I dropped my external hard drive in LA, lost all the data, and only had the back ups back in Charlotte. All because I forgot to press start on the online back up on the Charlotte computer before I left. I simply had to tell my clients they would have to wait an extra four days to receive their images, but when my workflow usually has weddings delivered in seven days, four is a big deal.

Not having a “home”

I’m quite comfortable in my own skin, and as such, usually feel “at home” wherever my feet are planted, but there is definitely something to be said for having all your things in one location that you can return to in order to refresh, repack, organize your thoughts and feel safe. For me, that is currently spread across 4 cities. So while I feel partially at home in each of those locations, I’m never completely at ease. I am definitely looking forward to having something more structured when I return from my travels in the Spring.


While I constantly surround myself with different clients and friends and family, there’s something about this lifestyle that feels very lonely. It's probably related to not having a home to return to, but big empty beds and tents, never ending roads and trails can be quite lonely. Especially for an extrovert. The path of least resistance does not interest me, however. Comfort can easily lead to complacency and that is not something I strive for. Each location grows me in a different way, and each moment spent alone in my head offers new insight. Figuring out who you are and what you want out of life, what you’re good at and what moves you to compassion, is the best thing you can do for yourself and others. If that requires a few lonely moments, I’ll take it without complaint.


If you’re a routine person, this is not the life for you. In most things I love the chaos of an ever-changing environment. However, when it comes to my diet and my workouts, I do best with a routine. I’m at my best with 5-6 days a week in a Crossfit box and 6 protein packed smaller meals per day. This is rarely possible. Crossfit works on a class basis and my schedule often doesn’t aline with their options. Not to mention that it is meant to be paid for on a monthly or yearly basis, keeping the cost down. When you have to pay a $20-25 drop in fee PER class, it becomes simply too much. I’ve worked deals with 4 boxes in the 4 cities I’m primarily in, but it’s still more expensive than a long term rate.

And meals are another challenge entirely. At each place I stay, I’m not sure how much access I’m going to have to a stove or refrigerator and my diet is almost entirely raw foods. (not to mention the super generous hosts who love to cook for me and offer snacks that just don’t align with my lifestyle). This however, leads me to my first of many blessings.

The Good Stuff

One of my greatest strengths has always been adaptability, but it has never been stronger than it is now. Whether I’m sleeping on the floor, sharing space with kiddos or multiple animals, whether or not I have access to a microwave, shower, washer and dryer, or whether I have to drive an hour or more between my host and my photo shoots, I can handle just about anything that presents itself.

I have been given 12 different keys to peoples’ homes to keep. I don’t anticipate needing to show up unexpectedly to anyone’s home (and definitely don’t remember whose is whose honestly), but the gesture is so kind. The idea that I’m always welcome, even if they’re not home gives me such a sense of love and adoration for the entire human race.

Speaking of the human race, no matter how much the news or movies try to scare us into thinking all people are naturally bent toward selfishness and evil, I simply cannot believe it. Every single day I witness people opening doors for each other, letting others go first in line, giving up preferred seats on planes so families can sit together, buying coffee for the person in line behind them, picking up trash on the sidewalk that’s not their own, and offering their home to someone they barely know. All without regard to color, gender, religion or age. If you choose to look at the world through a lens of hate, you will see hate everywhere you look. But if you choose to look at the world with love, well, that’s exactly what you’ll find. I’ll make that choice every time. Some will say that is naive, but I believe the alternative is a life of anxiety. I’d rather walk boldly in love, knowing I might get hurt, than cower under the weight of ignorance and fear, never truly seeing all the world has to offer.

The world is good my friends. People are good. So very good.

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
— Roald Dahl

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my thoughts on living in NC, or life on the Appalachian Trail.

A Grand Year of Adventure

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Authenticity is more than speaking; Authenticity is also about doing. Every decision we make says something about who we are
— Simon Sinek

I decided at the beginning of 2018 I wanted to try to experience 12 new things. They didn’t need to be specific to any genre or meet any quotas for cost or time, they just had to be new to me. I wrote HERE about my midway point and I figured now would be a good time to follow up with the grand finale.

If you’re curious what, specifically I tried:

Indoor Rock Climbing

A Wedding Expo (I know, I know, it was actually very far out of my comfort zone: Sales)

Zip-lining over an Alligator Farm

Riding a dirt bike

Organized a Styled Wedding Shoot with a lot of other Vendors

Bought my dream car

Running 2 Spartan Races

A Midnight Bioluminescent Kayak Tour (With a bonus surprise: Meeting a Manatee!)

Hiking my first 2 sections of the Appalachian Trail totaling 170 miles, 100 of them solo.

An Aerial Cirque du Vol Class

Changed the Battery in a Car

Rode a scooter through downtown Raleigh

Began target practice with my new pistol, (previously only shotguns and arrows)

Posed for an artist

Took a class on Indian Weddings

Shared some life experiences with teens at Asheville Alternative High School

All in addition to regular intervals of my favorite adventures like a new tattoos, concerts, camping, paddle boarding, cycling, go karts, new foods and traveling.

Cynthia Viola Adventures

All this started when I really owned my personality type (ENFP) and what it means for me. The “driver of my car” so-to-speak is exploration, and my co-pilot is authenticity. I am happiest when I’m on an adventure and when I’m making choices that feel good and true to who I am. Apparently, when following this plan, this is when an ENFP is best able to inspire others, which in turn, makes me feel good and true to who I am which makes me want to go on more adventures. It’s a beautiful circle.

I feel immensely grateful for the never ending supply of new things to try. Adventures and exploration are definitely not for everyone. In fact, to get psychology technical on you, Extraverted Intuition (Exploration) isn’t even IN the cognitive stack of half the population. And only a quarter of people would have it as their driver or co-pilot. So I get it, a lot of people think I’m crazy or reckless or childish or unable to commit to anything, but for those of us who lead with this function and have ever had it stifled by school or family or religion or circumstance or inadvertent choice, you know that it’s the only thing that will ever make you feel alive. So to YOU I would recommend whole heartedly to set your own adventure goal this year and don’t settle for anything less. Life is too short to be stuck living someone else’s dream.

Cynthia Viola Adventures

What’s up for next year? I’ll be kicking the year off by driving across the country capturing memories for families across the way, hiking and camping in the Grand Canyon, experiencing Vegas and Mardi Gras and then who knows?!? I’d love to meet an elephant or dolphin; my all time bucket list item is the Aurora Borealis, I’d like to parasail or scuba dive. I’ll definitely hit the A.T. again but the sky is the limit! I’ll stick with #12newadventures because it’ll always be new and never boring.

The world’s a roller coaster and I am not strapped in.
Maybe I should hold with care, but my hands are busy in the air
— Incubus

Becoming Brave on the Appalachian Trail

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Father, Can a man change his stars?
Yes William. If he believes enough, a man can do anything!
— A Knight's Tale
Female Appalachian Trail Solo Hiker

Changing My Stars

Where to begin?

I do my best to live my life without expectations.

I try to enter new relationships with an open mind, ready to learn anything a person might teach me. I try to take on new creative endeavors without thinking about the failures of the past; and I try to embark on new adventures with palms up, hands stretched out, ready to receive anything the universe might give me. That said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect to dive deep into my psyche to pull out all the junk and clean house while off on my 100 mile Appalachian Trail adventure.

Instead, I found myself thinking… left foot, right foot, don’t trip, easy with the knees, watch that spider web, what’s that sound, just 2 more miles, don’t forget to hydrate.

Every time I consciously thought, “Alright focus. Time to deal with stuff.” I simply came up empty. All I could figure was that I just have no regrets. Period. Could I have made some better financial, business, lifestyle or relationships choices in the past? Sure. We all could. But I couldn’t think of anything I absolutely regretted or wanted to change about the path I’d chosen. And while unexpected, I guess that’s ok too. Not everyone has to have a mental or emotional breakdown in order gain a better understanding of the world.

Sunrise on Tennessee Appalachian Trail

From then on I tried to focus instead on what and who was in front of me. I allowed myself to take in the crazy stories of the incredible hikers surrounding me. Allowed myself to learn from their mistakes as they spoke of their pasts and really listen to what they each might teach me. Two lady day-hikers on Mount Blood shared of their regrets in waiting so long to really get out in nature (they were in their 50s). How they’d allowed family life bury them in responsibility and forgotten to take care of themselves. Another long-section-hiker shared that he’d gone too long without being in nature and planned to make time once/month to just be out in the elements. 9-5 desk jobs have a way of creating this frequent dilemma. He told me to make sure once every mile or so to make sure I look up, look left and look right just to take it all in. It’s far too easy to do the safe thing of staring at your feet and your footing the entire trail and miss the beauty around you. A perfect life lesson I think. A cancer survivor, proudly displaying her lost hair shared that she finally had to go against her doctor’s orders because she knew within herself that the best medicine to detox from the chemo was not more bed rest inside the hospital, but fresh air from the mountains. She hiked all the way to the top of Rocky Mountain to simply breathe the air. We sat for a long time just enjoying the silence and scenery together.

Instead of plowing down the trail as I had been doing (twice the speed and distance I had set out to do), I lingered longer on mountain tops, made myself get up in the middle of the night, exhausted, simply to marvel at the universe of stars. I took time to notice the hard work spiders put into their webs and tried to duck under them rather than sweep them away with my hand. I didn’t run off the family of chipmunks living the shelter but enjoyed watching them scurry about. I sat down in the middle of the trail to tell a turtle a secret and I simply stood in awe that I was blessed to share the trail for a moment with a momma bear, until she scampered off through the wildflowers.

Georgia Appalachian Trail Wildflowers

Life and people have so much to teach us if we’ll take the time to stop and listen. I know my career is unique in it’s ability to give me as much time as I had to really be on the trail. But everyone can take a day or an hour, turn off the noise, find a setting different than the norm and just be.

One hour alone with the stars was the only inspiration I needed to push on when I was started to feel physically worn down. It was a reminder that we CAN change our stars if we only have the heart and will-power to do so. If you look around your life and don’t see what you want, do something about it; I promise no one else is going to do it for you. That might be as simple as a consistent yoga practice and it might mean the scary step of leaving the secure 9-5 for the lower-paid but far more fulfilling dream job. If you hate 8-10 hours of your day every single day, you are simply torturing yourself with a slow and painful death. How is that any way to live? And sometimes, it’s not the job or the relationships or the location that need to change, but our attitude toward them. Allowing yourself some time on the trail (or in the gym, or on the lake, or with that old friend or driving to that place) does wonders to make you appreciate the good already in your life.

I haven’t looked at the stars in pitch-black night in years and I haven’t been able to see the “lines” that connect the stars maybe ever. But that night, with nothing standing in my way, no light, no moon, no distractions, only the quiet breeze and my destiny, I knew that the way I looked at my stars had changed and I was ready for this new life of constant change and adventure on every corner. When your daydreams mingle with your night dreams, the possibilities are simply endless.

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars and change the world
— Harriet Tubman
Neel's Gap on Appalachian Trail

My Trail Name

If you’re unfamiliar, hikers get trail names while they’re hiking. These are usually due to a personality trait, or maybe where someone is from, the gear they carry or something they talk about a lot. My friend Corey is “Ridge Runner” because he was spotted literally running with his pack across the ridge to get down to the shelter before dark. My new friend Bill became “Inspector Gadget” this week as he had every possible toy you could imagine…he even brought his own hiker-friendly coffee pour-over set up. And I… I became “Brave Heart.”

I loved it right away, of course, but also didn’t feel worthy. I hadn’t wrestled a mountain lion or thrown myself on a rattlesnake to save someone else, I simply chose to hike a trail for a few days by myself. The more people I met however, the more people used words like “courageous” and “bold,” “fearless” and “full of grit.” It certainly sounds nice, but I’m still not sure I’m worthy. For me it was more about mind over matter. You can’t let yourself get worked up over every snapping twig and you have to understand resolutely that when it gets really tough, and your feet are about to fall off and your knees collapse and all you want to do is quit, you are the only one around to push yourself forward. If you can do that in the woods, you can do it in the “real world.” 

I also discovered quite a bit about peoples’ views of other people through this. So many people had endless questions about what I would do about bears, and what if someone attacked me, and what if I got sick, and what if someone attacked me, and what if I ran out of food, and what if someone attacked me… A lot of people were worried about the hurricane, but most were worried about other people. Then there were also the friends and strangers who cheered me on and wished me luck and told me to go for it and have fun and come back with stories….

In this, I noticed two trends. In the first example I found that many people who haven’t traveled extensively or who get their information about the world through the news tend to view the world and “those people” as a threat. Everyone has the capacity for evil and everyone will hurt you if given the right opportunity, (such as a girl alone in the woods). If however, like the second example, they’ve met enough real live people in their lifetime through their own travels and adventures, they’ve found quite the opposite to be true. That sure, there are a few bad eggs out there, but they will be found whether you’re on the trail or in the middle of the city or safe at home in your bed. The majority of people though, are good. Like really good. If you’ve been blessed with the opportunity to meet new people from different places around with world, with different views and different backgrounds, of different ages and races, you’ve likely found that most people are very kind and willing to help in anyway possible. I believe that to live in fear of others is to prevent yourself a life of joy through learning and a life of depth and wonder at the beauty of the human race.

Georgia Appalachian Trail Overlook Blood Mountain

Enter Britney. The true heroine of my story. I spent countless hours on the trail and the most epic story to come out of it is when I finally actually arrived at my car. It was, in fact, dead. Like dead dead. Couldn’t even get the key to unlock it dead. Britney, a shuttler from Hike Hitchin’ rescued me over and over and over again. Not only tried to jump me (which didn’t work, because dead batteries don’t jump) but drove me into town 45 minutes away THREE times to buy a new battery and together we figured out how to install it in the car. (Not to mention her endless patience when we’d gotten almost back to the car before I realized I’d left the key ON THE COUNTER at the parts store). She is a saint. She asked for nothing in return, was just happy to help a stranded hiker.

I now have a new friend for life because I put myself in a situation where I had to rely on the kindness of a stranger. I also gained a wealth of knowledge as she told me stories of her grandfather, dreams she and her girlfriend have for the future and current challenges she was overcoming literally that day. This. This is what life is all about. If that makes me brave, then so be it.

I can’t think of a better way to have ended this trip. And endings are so important. No matter what you’re doing in life, whether having a conversation, going on a trip, or simply doing your job, if you can find a way to end well, anything that didn’t go so great in the middle will usually be forgotten. All the trudging through the rain and mice chewing through my backpack eating my food, poison oak and bruised knees…forgotten, all because of the kindness of a stranger. I drove away with a huge smile on my face, a feeling of triumph in my heart and of course had to pull over immediately because no less than the perfect rainbow graced me with its beauty.

I’m grateful for a life filled with stories of people from all different backgrounds, and grateful for a future that will only bring more. May we all take a moment every day to see past bad moods, and poor decisions to see the good inside the person standing in front of us. Happy Trails.

Rainbow on the Appalachian Trail
Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage
— Anais Nin

Five Lessons from Florida

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For what it’s worth, it’s never too late to be who you want to be. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you find the strength to start over.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald
Florida Marshes

It’s about time for an update on all things Florida and what the next few months are going to look like for me. I’ve loved every minute down here in the glorious sunshine but sometimes life and business just have other plans. Yep, I'm moving back to North Carolina. But I'll get to that part in just a second.

It doesn't take long to glean a wealth of knowledge from a place if you enter it with your eyes, heart and hands wide open, ready to receive whatever may fall into your lap. Florida has been no different. It took no time at all to make friends and begin learning new rhythms and new ways of doing life. In case you missed it, you can also check out my Life Lessons from NC if you're so inclined. 

Florida Lesson #1: Stay Cool

I'm not talking about the air conditioning. Florida people have the chillest vibe of anyone out there, and that crosses all generations. Retirees on sail boats, teens with long boards and surfer hair, neighbors who meander into your yard while you're working just to say hello - no shirt, no shoes, no problem. Seriously though, life moves a little slower down here, people aren't nearly as focused on arriving to a meeting on time as they are arriving with a smile on their face. I wasn't sure what to expect when we moved down here, but this was certainly a pleasant surprise. I feel like I fit right in instantly and am quite sad to say good bye so soon.

#2: Tervis Cups and Yeti Coolers are Legit. 

When I lived in NC I'd receive these weird plastic cups with weird shirt-like patches inside them for Christmas and birthdays and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why someone would think I'd want that. Dude. They're sooooo handy on the beach. Just swallow your pride and get yourself one. 

#3: Water Doesn't Have to be Scary

Apparently I'm no longer afraid of water. Well, that's not true. I'm definitely less afraid though. I'd only had a half dozen experiences with the ocean from birth to 30 and three of those ended in me being rescued by a lifeguard because the undertow seriously has it in for me. I may be strong, but I'm not a great swimmer. I never did learn how to put my head under water without holding my nose. But clear water springs, bioluminescent plankton, 75 degree weather in February, pool floaties and friendly manatee opened me up to a world I never knew existed. I'm not 100% sure where I'll be living next, but I'm thinking water will need to be close by. 

#4: Don't apologize for being who you are

I feel like I keep coming back to this lesson over and over because I'm such a people pleaser. It's so easy to fall into the trap of making everyone else comfortable with your decisions. (Hiding tattoos in front of grandparents, drinking certain beverages around some friends and other beverages around others, changing language in front of parents, listening to certain music while alone and other music around people, agreeing with one friend politically in one conversation only to agree with the opposite point with the next friend...yes I've been guilty of all these things through the years) Why do we do this? It is a never ending battle that will never be won. If one decision could please every single person on the entire planet, yet leave you feeling empty or fake, it would not be worth it. Knowing yourself is half the battle, but once you do, own it. Be you, no one else can. 

#5: Plans Will Fall Through

And that's ok. My thriving photography business had a hard time catching on in the Florida market and I keep finding myself spending more and more time traveling back up to the Carolinas in order to pay the bills. I’ll still be traveling back and forth but I’ll primarily stay in NC at least through this wedding season. As always, you can find my schedule and whereabouts pinned to the top of my Facebook Business page and I frequently post them to Instagram as well. Travel for all my current (and new!) NC clients is no longer an issue and I’m looking forward to seeing all my favorite NC peeps again!

Also!! Bonus Lesson, I've found that I'm never more in my element than when I'm off on a new adventure. For an ENFP, the driver of my car is Exploration and Florida has some incredible opportunities to explore new and exciting things and the more I do, the more I want to. Next weekend I'll be taking up the Appalachian Trail again for about 15 days. I'll tell you all about it then, but I am so excited to challenge myself in a new way. Conquering a mountain is one thing, conquering yourself alone in the wilderness is quite another. I never want to be too comfortable for too long, growth requires change and challenge and I've never been more ready. 

A person does not simply exist but always decides what their existence will be, what they will become in the next moment.
— Viktor E. Frankl
Colorado Mountains

Choose Your Life

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An ENFP is: Body of a woman, soul of a child, mind of the free and heart of the wild
— Ashley Lemaine

I don't know about you, but while I like myself as I am, I definitely don't want to stay the same forever. I thought I liked myself at 16, but looking at that arrogant know-it-all, I have to roll my eyes. She thought the world revolved around her and could not be told any differently. I thought I liked myself at 22, but looking at what a naive child I became, I cringe. She took everything given to her without question, without pause. She nearly lost herself entirely in an effort to please others. A worthy goal, perhaps, but not worth the cost.

My thirties have been full of adventure, exactly as I hope the rest of my life to be, but also a bit reckless at times, so at Thirty Four years young I want to see if I can become the best version of myself to date. I want to keep the confidence of my youth, without being callous. I want the childlike joy of my 20s without losing my intelligence. I never want to give up adventure, but also don't want to achieve it at the risk of losing people I love. There must be balance to everything.

I decided to experience twelve new things at the beginning of this year and I don't intend to stop there, for changing horizons somehow have a way of changing us.


I'm not sure at my half way point I've yet discovered any grand mystery of the universe, but I feel at peace with my life choices and grateful to be afforded the opportunity TO choose them. I am grateful that I've never lost a love of learning, and grateful the world is so big and grand and full of opportunity to always experience new things. 

For example, did you know that you can drink spring water right out of the ground without filtering it on the Appalachian Trail? (Not after it's flowed for a few feet, but as it's coming, unpolluted, out of the ground) Or if you use a long straw to blow on your campfire, instead of just your mouth, the concentrated air will help the flames really burst to life. Also, hang gliding is a much more relaxing and serene form of air adventure; I was surprised to find I liked it better than skydiving, which was actually a bit painful. Diving chest deep into water that's below freezing will force your body into defense mode to warm your core. (teeth chattering, shivering etc) It will also sacrifice your extremities for the sake of your core. This makes normal functions like climbing a rope or picking up an object infinitely more difficult. 

I wouldn't say any if these individual adventures have changed the course of my life, but I would say that choosing to have them regularly will indeed continue to change me forever. And that's all I ask out of life: adventure, growth and change. 

If you find yourself stuck in a rut, go do something new. Try some escargot or take a boxing class or volunteer at a refugee organization to meet people you could never possibly share the same story with and LEARN. You never know who you're going to meet or what you're going to gain, but the chances of meeting someone new or experiencing something new while stuck in the same routine day in and day out are slim. The people we have yet to meet are the ones who bring us new opportunities, and the things we've yet to do are the things that teach us something we don't know about ourselves. It's always worth the risk. 

And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later
— Randy Komisar

Five Lessons from North Carolina

PersonalCynthia Viola8 Comments
Nobody who ever accomplished anything big or new or worth raising a celebratory fist in the air did it from their comfort zone. They risked ridicule and failure and sometimes even death.
— Jen Sincero
Blue Ridge Mountains

Wow. It would seem that today is my last official day in this great state. It has been quite the journey. Raised in Boone, College in Banner Elk, and the past 10 years living and learning in Raleigh with a great deal of impressionable time spent in Charlotte. 

Childhood planted in me deep roots of loving people well and working hard while my time in Raleigh and Charlotte made me more knowledgeable, aware, free and untamable. I'm grateful for the powerhouse women, men and transgendered folks who have helped form my perception of the world, and grateful for the series of mistakes, triumphs, blunders and outright failures that shaped my grit, persistence and courage. 

1: In the words of the Genie from Aladdin, "Just beeeee yourself"

I would have to say my greatest life lesson in these 33 years has been first: to be myself and NEVER apologize for being such. We are all unique individuals who often start off with big dreams and huge hearts ready to take on the world and give everything we are to her. Though, somehow it's easy to lose track of that in the busyness and people-pleasing and we can lose our way. I lost and found myself multiple times over the years between college, marriage, art, forgiveness and discovering my other family as an adult. I'm sure I will continue to do so in the years to come as A.J. and I  learn to love our new St. Augustine home and family. 

Learning to fully embrace my inner ENFP and all of the beauty and complications that come with it has made a huge difference.  Apparently freedom is the most important thing in the world to me. I don’t like being confined by stereotypes or holidays or gender roles or even one job. I usually rail against anything I am "supposed to" or "expected to" do, but when you know who you are, then you know who you don't have to be. 

An ENFP is: the body of a woman, soul of a child, mind of the free and heart of the wild
— Ashley Lemaine

2: Kindness wins every time

To this day I still get notes and comments from people that I knew only once or for a season in high school who say that my kindness helped them through a tough time. In most cases I don't even remember what they're talking about. This has to come from my father. Always a servant, never asking for anything, always going above and beyond to make sure people are taken care of. He provided the best possible example.

There's no need to get heated at someone who cuts you off in traffic, it'll only ruin your day, not theirs. Allowing someone to go first in the grocery line will only hold you back by 1-2 minutes but it will drastically improve the rest of their day. Holding open doors, putting karts back in the parking lot, picking up trash that isn't yours, and just offering a smile to a stranger are all acts that have a ripple effect. Occasionally people at A.J.'s coffee bar would pre-purchase coffee for the next person, and it never ended there; five to ten customers later people would still be buying for the next person. Kindness always ripples, use it well and often. 

3: Adaptability is the best stress-relief

I have never met a group of people more chaotic than my new Charlotte family. There is literally no point whatsoever in having a plan for your day if it involves them, because it will absolutely change at least 17 times, and always at the last second. I've always been naturally adaptable (that's the P in ENFP), but never so much as I am now. They have taught me that as long as we are together and no one is getting hurt, the other details are irrelevant. Stressing out over a change in dinner plans will only ruin your night, it's much easier to just go with it and enjoy the ride. 

4: Love every single person you meet

This began with growing up an only child, alone and lonely, desperate for friends or neighbors or even adults to keep me company. In school I was always drawn to outcasts, and in the years I directed and organized community service projects for a church, I met an endless supply of folks who were without a home, refugees unable to speak english, children who couldn't read, mothers who didn't know what to do with unwanted children, convicted pedophiles who couldn't get a job, and my best friend: a man wrongly convicted of a crime (I believe due to his sexual orientation) with an unspeakable life sentence. 

The stories of heartbreak and love, failure and triumph, racism and violence followed by heart change and forgiveness have opened me up to an understanding that we are all the same. We are all messy and beautiful. All capable of inconceivable hate AND fierce love simultaneously. At different times we all make mistakes, say things we regret, take the easy way out, look the other way and judge someone based on their appearance. Just because we're not doing those things right now, doesn't mean that we haven't before or won't tomorrow and it definitely doesn't mean we have a right to judge someone else's story. 

5: The LGBTQ community has become my greatest passion and ally.

I must apologize here first. For over 20 years I allowed the village of well intended teachers, family, books, friends, co-workers and preachers to form my beliefs completely about this community without question. I've always been one to easily believe anything I hear until an opposing viewpoint is introduced. I didn't hear an opposing viewpoint about this beautiful community from someone I respect until a few years into Raleigh. This is quite possibly the greatest community of individuals I have ever known. Brave, kind, patient, forgiving, resilient...everything I want to be and more.

I am humiliated when I look back at the feelings I had toward this community early on, the things I would say "on God's behalf" regarding their eternity. To go through life without questioning anything you are taught is a very dangerous road, and it's a mistake I don't intend to make again. With grace and patience they have loved me anyway and I couldn't be more grateful for my own heart change.  

It is in honor of all these beautiful human beings, especially Christopher, who have reshaped me in the past few years that I am happy to announce, I will be giving away one free couple or family session to the LGBTQ community every month in 2018. This can also include $500 off of any wedding package. I know $6,000 is not much in the grand scheme of things, but I want the world to begin seeing this community for who they really are: fiercely loving, loyal, generous and compassionate. You can find the details and technicalities of the giveaways at the bottom of the post. 

Raleigh, North Carolina

I have written and rewritten this blog wondering who I am going to offend and how it’s going to affect different relationships... then I realized that goes against lesson number one: just be yourself and don’t apologize. Thank you North Carolina friends and family for shaping me into who I am today. Thank you for enduring my growing pains and for loving me as I am. You will be my home forever. 

“Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
— Ernest Hemingway

Giveaway Details:

One free couple or family session per month in 2018 for the LGBTQia+ Community. This can include $500 off of a wedding. 

To enter, tag your partner on this blog or on my original Facebook/Instagram/Twitter Post. (not a shared version, because I might not see it) 

I will draw the first 3 couples/families Jan 1st, and again quarterly throughout the year.

You will need to be able to come to St. Augustine, FL or Raleigh, NC at the same time I am.

Good luck!

We're Moving to St. Augustine, FLORIDA!

PersonalCynthia Viola8 Comments
Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing
— Helen Keller
Cynthia and A.J. Viola

If you've been hanging around us recently or following our stories on Instagram or Facebook, you might have noticed we've been a little cryptic about some big adventures and life changes in the not-too-distant future. I'm not sure how exactly to say this, but, we're moving! To Florida! 

Woah. I know. So many questions.

Why Florida?

If you followed our family through the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, you know that he dealt a devastating blow to the family restaurant, Viola's Pasta and Seafood in St. Augustine. In the months that followed the whole family and surrounding community came together to get her back on her feet, but that plus the 20 years of general restauranting took it's toll on A.J.'s parents. The restaurant is their baby and they're not ready to give it up, but they need to take a step back, and A.J. volunteered to help them run Viola's to make sure the family business stays afloat and his parents can get the rest they deserve after years of building. 

What does that mean for BREW Coffee Bar?

You probably already know that A.J. co-owns BREW with Mike. They built it from scratch 3 years ago and have seen it become a thriving space in our community. A.J. will be leaving BREW, Mike and his wife Cindy will take it over entirely and they will run BREW with the help of its capable and awesome managers and employees. We're super sad to let it go, but don't see how A.J. can continue to run it while in Florida. It's been a grand adventure, but we both thrive in newness and change so we're glad to leave her in good hands and excited for the next new thing. 

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.
— Joseph Campbell
NC Wedding Photography

What does this mean for Art and Photography?

Well, lots of things! Because my entire family is in North Carolina, I will be flying back to NC once every six weeks to visit.

It means the schedule will be a little crazy and I'll have to keep my clients informed anytime I plan to be here, but I thrive in chaos and honestly don't think it'll be that much different from how often I travel now. If you'd like to keep up with when I'll be in the area, you can follow me on Instagram and/or Facebook and turn on your notifications. 

If you'd like an email or text notification as well, let me know and I'll add you to a list. When I fly in, it will be to Charlotte and from there I will either drive to Raleigh, Boone or Lumberton as needed to visit and accept photo shoots. 

Just like it works now, if you're able to book me while I'm already here, there will be no travel fee. If you need me to travel on a specific date when I'm not already planning to be here, I'm more than willing, the travel will just now include a plane ticket (or two, if it's a wedding).

What about already booked portrait sessions and weddings?

I will honor every session already booked for the rest of the year by staying in Raleigh through December. There are just too many already on the schedule for it to make sense for me to move before then. A.J. will move at the end of July but he will fly back for the weddings he is already booked to shoot with me. We will both also fly back for the weddings we already have scheduled for 2018. 

What about your paintings?

I will be trying to sell all of my current paintings before I leave. They will be half price as I'd like to not have to transport them. If you're interested just let me know and you can come see what's available.  And as always you can get prints of any of the pieces and some photography at Society 6. 

How long will we be in Florida?

That is yet to be determined. Life is ever changing and we're willing to go where the winds blow us. It may be five or twenty, either way we'll keep you updated along the way.

I suppose this will begin the next chapter of the Book. Can't wait to see what the next page's story has to say! 

Cynthia and A.J. Viola
To dare - is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare - is to lose oneself
— Soren Kierkegaard

Commitment & Responsibility

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Surrendering is the free-falling backwards into the unknown and trusting that the universe will catch you.
— Jen Sincero

Over the past few weeks I've made some posts more on the personal side. Sharing a bit of mine and A.J.'s infertility story as well as a portion of the book I'm writing about my childhood and meeting my brothers for the first time as an adult. (Caroline also - persevered through her story in this space).

I expected people to respond with surprise and encouragement; what I didn't expect was the outpouring of words like bravery and courage. 

I'm sure a bit of it extends from being an ENFP personality type, but sharing any and every part of my story has always been an essential part of who I am. You'd be hard pressed to know me for more than an hour before hearing some snippet about my brothers. A.J. used to tease that I play poker with my cards faced outward and several friends insist that I'm approximately 100% of the time too trusting and a bit naive when I meet new people. I know they're just concerned I'm going to get hurt one day, and I'm sure I will...I have. 

From my point of view though, sharing our story is what helps us connect with other human beings. I don't do well when I keep information and secrets bottled up inside. They feel like a poison. Sharing them dilutes their power over me and opens others up to be healed from their own story. When we find commonality in our stories, we no longer have to feel alone. 

Cynthia Viola Photographer

Personally, my biggest fears stem from 2 little words: responsibility and commitment. If you can attach the word adventure to it; I'm fearless. (Bring on the parachutes, wet suits, open road and backpacks!!) If people are involved; I'm ecstatic. (Give me quiet one-on-one conversations, a stage to perform spoken word to an arena full of strangers or a brand new family I never knew existed!!) But responsibility and commitment? Makes my stomach flip over on top of itself. 

I was scared of getting married when I first met A.J. He actually broke up with me for a month when we first started dating because I wasn't ready for a "committed relationship." He wasn't interested in the dating game and I wasn't interested in marriage at 19 years old.

I'm scared of big purchases like a home. (What if we need a new roof or HVAC, what if a tree falls through it, what if the market collapses, what if we go bankrupt??)  

I was not excited about owning a dog. (Who's going to walk it, who's going to feed it, what if it gets loose, how will we travel, what if it doesn't get along well with others, how will we host guests, what if guests are allergic??)

Mention the word baby and I start to hyperventilate.

We all have stories that have led us to our current fears and insecurities, we also have stories that lead us to our greatest joys. I don't know what it is that makes you feel weak, insecure, shameful or unworthy, but I guarantee you there is another human being in the world who has experienced nearly the exact same trauma. That should not diminish your trauma but help you find commonality with another soul and find strength to move forward.

I always want to offer a space, both physically and online to share stories and do life together. If you need help just getting some thoughts out of your head, I'm always willing to be a listening ear. I love people and find so much joy and strength in their stories. Don't hesitate to call, write or drop in. Love you guys. 


Photo Session Fears

Family Portraits, PersonalCynthia ViolaComment
When the future is too terrifying to contemplate and the past two painful to remember learn to pay attention to right now
— Julia Cameron
Raleigh Portrait Photograhy

When thinking about a photo session, what is your biggest fear? 

I often have people say, "I'd love to update our family portraits but... 

Our smiles always seem fake...

I never know how to pose, my hands always fall weird or my shirt bulges and I look huge...

I'm afraid my kids will be crazy and we won't get any good photos making it a waste of money...

I don't want my spouse/kids to have a bad time and hate me for it...

What are we supposed to wear...

Is is really worth the cost? We take iPhone photos all the time..."

Believe me when I say I hear you. 

I'm more than a little ashamed to admit we haven't had a photo session that we didn't shoot ourselves (or with the help from a friend using our camera) since our WEDDING. That's ELEVEN YEARS without professional portraits! And I call myself a photographer. *rolls eyes*

I'm not sure what it is for me. Control maybe? I want to be able to control the outcome. I feel like my smile is weird due to a jaw surgery years ago and it makes me embarrassed to really be myself in front of the camera.

Raleigh Family Photography

I've got smiles for daaaaaays when I'm just living life and finding joy in all the moments...but if I see another camera in the room, I freeze. I become uber aware of how I'm standing, I can't take my eyes off the one with the camera, I'm constantly fidgeting trying to make sure all hairs are in place and I can't enjoy myself until I know they're done. What the heck? 

Given my profession, my fear seems totally irrational. How can I ask others to be themselves in front of my camera if I'm unwilling to do the same in front of someone else's? 

So, that's where I'm at. What about you? I'd love to help you overcome your fears and I promise I'll face my own as well. I'm hoping this year even?? A.J. and I have made it a goal to do just that. Now who to choose?? We know SOOO many great photographers! Wish me luck and feel free to send suggestions!

Let me know what holds you back and we'll see if I can help. 

Trusty Tripod. (I know the neighbors must think we're crazy)

Trusty Tripod. (I know the neighbors must think we're crazy)

An Excerpt from the Book.

PersonalCynthia Viola20 Comments
Embrace the detours
— Kevin Charboneau

This post will be a bit more on the personal end. I've mentioned in a few previous posts that I've written a book about my journey thus far, particularly the part about discovering and meeting my brothers for the first time. Several friends have asked if I'm going to publish it or if they can read it, and I don't exactly know the answer.

If it were only my story I would have published it three years ago. I literally started and finished the whole thing about a month after meeting them and have just tweaked a few updates in the time since. Fortunately and unfortunately this story is not just my own and there are some less than pleasant pieces that involve other people's choices and I need them to be ready to share it with the world first. So that's where I'm at with that. 

That said, I thought it might be fun to put a few excerpts from it in this space. 

A Continental Shift: The Adventure of Writing a New Story

By: Cynthia Viola

An Excerpt from Chapter One

I grew up the beloved only child of Lynn and Larry Jackson in the small, mountain town of Boone, North Carolina. We moved around a lot, but my fondest memories come from the home I first knew. Complete with three 250 pound hogs, acres and acres of forests to draw out the adventurer, a swing made out of an old Jeep seat that would send me fifty feet in the air and a giant waterfall that never failed to produce the best salamanders.

Boone is growing now due to the popularity of Appalachian State University, but at the time, it was the quintessential small mountain town. Boone was like that little town you’d see on a postcard bought in a gas station of a picturesque little village covered in snow with happy people waving happily to their neighbor as they shovel snow and make gingerbread houses.  

It’s a town where people don’t necessarily know each other’s names...but they always offer a welcoming smile as if they do. Where people actually let you go first in the grocery line because you have fewer items than they do, where hospitality in any home is expected...not in a forced way, but as a simple fact of life, and where families set deep roots, rarely ever moving away.

I didn’t really notice it then, but I was primarily raised by my father.

My mom worked nights and weekends, so she was asleep when I woke up and went to school, and she was gone when my dad brought me home and put me to bed. She was also gone when my dad would wake me up at 2:30am to go “run the wrecker” for some poor soul who’d sent their car over one of the mountain edges. I didn’t notice it was late or that dad was tirelessly working two jobs to make ends meet. I just knew that it was a blast getting to ride in the Jeep in the middle of the night and watch all the bright lights as he pulled them out of the ditch.

Perhaps because I was an only child raised by a father who did the best he could, perhaps because some inner gene or strand of DNA gave me a rebellious scrappyness, but I was always a tomboy, and often alone. My weekends usually consisted of mountain bikes, four wheelers, salamanders and adventures. ...

When I was nine my mom gave birth to the most beloved baby brother anyone ever set eyes on. I finally had someone to play with. A boy who would understand that when you attach a parachute laden G.I. Joe to the ceiling fan and rocket launch him across the room at the highest speed the fan would send him, glorious things happen. A boy who would understand that only a tree house in the tallest tree in the forest would adequately satisfy our desire for adventure and bit of danger.

Apparently in that year certain pesticides were used on the Christmas tree farms that surrounded our little town. They also blanketed the acres of land surrounding our tiny single wide trailer on the side of the mountain. It was not uncommon for those pesticides to seep into the groundwater and into wells. As you can imagine, this is not a drink that is suggested for developing babies.

Cody was born with a hole in his heart the size of a golf ball. After much debate about the possibility of a baboon’s heart and years of complications, my parents finally decided to take him off life support. As the family passed him around the room in his final moments, it fell to me to be holding him as he breathed his last. I’m told that should have affected me more than it did at the time, but I think I was aware that it was best for his elder sister to take on that responsibility, my parents didn’t need the extra weight on them.

Dad was strong...he knew he needed to be for me. But then, that’s how he always was: strong for me. Strong when he swept hundreds of yellow jackets off of me and our dog, Sheba with his bare hands after we stepped on a hidden hive. Strong when he carried me in one arm and eight bags of groceries in the other up the side of our mountain in two feet of snow when our car got stuck at the bottom. Strong when Cody died. Strong when he discovered it wasn’t his DNA that produced the greatest joy of his life, this daddy’s girl, his ‘Bumble Bee,’ as he would affectionately call me later in life when I got too busy to spend time with him. He’s the strongest man I’ve ever known. 

10 Things You Might Not Know About Me

PersonalCynthia Viola2 Comments
Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted.
One moment.
Would you capture it or just let it slip?
— Eminem
Cynthia Viola Swimming with Dolphins

I will be the first to admit that one of the best ways to describe myself is just a hot mess. I definitely do not have it all together but I give each day my best effort. Here are a few details that make me who I am.

I am an open book. Seriously, ask me anything. My ex-husband used to say I hold my poker cards facing out. There is not a topic under the sun or a hardship I've faced that I'm unwilling to talk about especially if I think it will help someone else brave through their own story.

Speaking of story, I'm a sucker for them. I love grand tales of epic proportion where the hero faces a dragon on the outside and demons within. I also love it when those same epic battles are realized in the lives of regular people, and we are drawn closer as the human race because of them. 

My favorite personal story is how I discovered I had 3 baby brothers and met them just a couple years ago. Being an only child for 29 years teaches you how to take care of yourself, how to be alone, how to have a conversation with adults, that you don't need anyone else, that it's you against the world... Being an eldest of 4 teaches you how to let go of yourself and anything you've ever wanted if it will help them in even the smallest way. It brings out a visceral need that cannot even be described, but being close to them is the only thing that satiates it. I *might* have even written a book about the experience. It'll be a while before the world's ready for it though :)

Cynthia Viola's Brothers

I'll try anything once. I love mountain biking, ultimate frisbee, paddle boarding, new roller coasters, and open mic poetry nights. On any given day you might see me kayaking or shooting hoops with some neighborhood kids, baking cookies or painting. I want to do it all. 

My favorite food group is chocolate, but I'm otherwise quite healthy. (think Paleo) I'm also partial to bourbon and the occasional cigar. Calisthenics are my preferred workout style (muscle ups, I'm coming for ya!) but I've found great community and unique challenges in Crossfit and am committing to their routines for this season. 

My favorite movie is District 9 due to the fact that it wrecked me. (I was working with refugee families at my first viewing and the parallel blew me away). For fun, I also love anything by Baz Luhrmann for his artistic style and Quinten Tarantino  for his sheer audacity. Music is usually dependent on my mood but you'll find Incubus,  Eminem or Shawn Mendes in nearly every playlist. Though I'm recently digging The Avett Brothers and Meghan Trainor as well.

Letty girl is my baby with my ex-husband, and sadly due to my extensive traveling she must stay with him but that doesn’t mean I love her any less. She goes zero to 100 in about three seconds when she gets excited (kinda like her momma) but is the BIGGEST snuggle bug the rest of the time. She was a rescue from the pound and is a Blue Pit in case you were wondering. :)

Cynthia Viola's Pitt Bull

I frequently have to remind myself to be a business professional. To get the work done first and play later. I do not love fancy clothes, struggle with details and technicalities, loathe to my very core the idea of being put in a figurative box, and want nothing more than to have my only concern be loving people well - to be amazed by the incredible stories others have to share. This probably has something to do with being an ENFP and Enneagram 7.

In high school I was a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol. I passed my tests quickly, and became an officer taking me to Leadership Training School and eventually I became the Cadet Squadron Commander. I loved it so much. I loved drill and PT, I loved the aerospace education, I soaked in everything my mentors gave me. I was accepted to the Air Force Academy and started logging hours to get my pilot's license. Alas, the journey from that path to the one I eventually found myself on was a long one that requires way more than a paragraph in a blog post, so I'll save it for when we have coffee. :)

Through it all I've learned to walk through life with my eyes wide open and hands held out - ready to catch whatever may fall out of the sky. Sometimes I end up catching bad things, but the vast amount of good that finds it way to me will forever surpass the bad. I'm extremely optimistic and can usually see the good in situations and in people. My littlest brother thinks I epitomize the character Joy in Inside Out and well, I think that's just perfect. :) I may be a little naive and some would say too trusting but I believe people hold this amazing ability to be extraordinary - to go above and beyond - to shine like a star - if only someone will believe in them and give them permission to do so. I will gladly be that person every time.



PersonalCynthia Viola6 Comments
If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.
— Yogi Berra

My detox tea told me this morning that I am "unlimited."

My first thought was "psssht."

Rolling at max capacity for the past few weeks and traveling every other weekend has taken it's toll. I'm sitting here recovering from a cold right now actually; my body having begged me to stop for days. 

However, as the tea steeped and I stopped long enough to smell the dandelion root, I read the phrase again, "You are unlimited." 

Certainly my body is limited by how much it can lift, but with hard work I can become stronger. The mind only knows so much, but with study can know more. A skill, in say photography is only as great as the amount of time put in behind the lens, more hours equal greater skill. 

Time then is the greatest limiting factor.

A.J.'s beloved 93 year old grandmother passed this weekend leaving behind a huge family overflowing with love for her and each other. The love was so palpable you could argue it was quite unlimited. Aunts doing dishes and offering hugs as needed, uncles washing cars and running errands, funeral clothes being lended for out of town cousins, and food prepared by family friends. Christmas lights were hung, memories were shared, tears shed and love expanded and filled every broken heart. 

Unlimited love spanning across a very limited expanse of time.

It's heartbreaking that it often takes death to remind us to live fully, but may we not wait for the next loved one to pass before we begin living into the unlimited love available to us.

Let's strive for that in this next season of chaos and travel. Let's try to find at the end of our days, like Meema, that we've left a wake of unlimited love in the lives of everyone we touched. Whether that time be 93 years or 33. 


PersonalCynthia Viola2 Comments
We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses
— Abraham Lincoln

In this hectic photography season I must admit a few things:

My yoga practice has become like a 24/7 chair pose...except it's not the muscle building kind. I can literally feel every muscle in my body getting tighter and tighter the longer I sit in front of this computer screen. 

Meal prep is non-existent. I've had to succumb to store bought granola, guacamole, protein bars, pre-sliced veggies, pre-cooked chicken...the list goes on. And let's not talk about the fact that the dust levels in the house are equivalent to a home abandoned for 17 years. 

I've had so much chocolate I actually have acne again lol. And my 5-6 days per week work out schedule has dropped to 1. Maybe. 

Because A.J. is also hustling hard right now, date nights seem to revolve around when we both happen to be passing through the kitchen at the same time and sleeping. Do date night dreams count? 

The few hours I do manage to find myself with my family I'm either scheduling them around other photo sessions or thinking about the sessions I need to edit as soon as I can get my hands on my laptop. I'm not exactly present. 

Poor Letty Girl keeps putting her head in my lap wanting some attention and all I can offer is an occasional hand mindlessly waving around in her general direction while my face is still glued to the screen. 

While a little overwhelmed, I am still grateful. 

For the physical ability TO work and for a skill in the arts that actually pays the bills so I can do it full time. I am thankful for my clients/families/couples who have believed in me through the years while I found my way. For my husband, full of grace for late nights and an equivocal work effort. For my family who understands that the 12 weeks between September 15 and December 15 are basically wife/daughter/sister-less so that I CAN be present the other 40ish weeks of the year. 

I am thankful that with each new couple or family I spend time with I hear new stories and gain new friendships. I feel like the more people we allow into our lives the more complicated it gets. But it's so worth it.

 It has been a whirlwind of busy but I am grateful to be alive and actually pursuing a dream with the full support of my husband and family; looking forward to what this next year holds. 



10 Reasons Why a Second Shooter is Priceless

Personal, Wedding PhotographyCynthia ViolaComment
I’m so happy I could bounce!
— Tigger

You guys! A.J. is going to start shooting weddings with me again!! 

It's been a long journey figuring out what each of us want to do with our lives, our careers, and our hobbies. Our marriage began down a very different path...think large churches, rambunctious youth groups, tag team preaching and seminary. 

When photography first began as a fun hobby for us, we did it together. It didn't even occur to us to do it any other way, as we had always done every job up to that point together. As the path pulled A.J. toward the coffee world though, it pulled me deeper into art and photography. Helping each other was not feasible at the time because it was spreading us both too thin and hurting our marriage so we made the tough call that for the first time in 13 years we'd have different careers. That. That was difficult. Transitioning from seeing your love 24 hours a day to only a few exhausted hours in the evening took it's toll. 

Fortunately it was only for a season. I am happy to announce that all 2017 weddings will also include A.J.! *happy dance* (If any currently booked couples want to add him to their package just shoot me a message) :)

Let's use a few examples from Laura and Danny's Angus Barn Wedding a couple years ago to illustrate 10 reasons why a second shooter is priceless: 

1. While I am capable of capturing the vast majority of the people and details at a wedding when I shoot solo; things are missed. I always work my butt off and capture as much as humanly possible, but I am only one person and can only be in one room at a time capturing one angle at a time. 

2. When you choose to have a second shooter it allows them to capture the close up while I get the wide shot, or vice versa. 

3. With three locations to shoot, I didn't have to worry about what Danny was doing half way across the city, AJ took care of the guys while I took care of the ladies. 

4. A second shooter is able to get the expression on the groom's face while I capture the bride tearing up on her father's arm. 

5. When I'm directing the bridal party into their next pose he's able to notice that the bride's veil has gotten caught in her hair and can help her adjust it.

6. He gets the natural light while I get the silhouette or vice versa.

7. He can get the cute flower girl tickling the groom while I'm focused on the bride and her girls. Or the party from the inside while I'm outside.

 8. If one of the off camera flash batteries dies during the first dance, he can change them while I continue shooting and precious moments are not missed.

9. One of us can get the coming and other other going of the sparkler run! Since you can't easily repeat this moment, it's especially helpful to have two angles. 

10. Also...have you met this guy?? He is a total crack up. While I'm joyful and fun, if I try to crack a joke, the bridal party usually just looks confused. AJ can simply open his mouth and these witty and hilarious things just come out without ANY effort! I mean he can get the groomsmen rolling faster than the alcohol. That is priceless if you ask me. 

Finally, it's just better for my sanity. While I thrive under pressure making me perfect for weddings, it's just nice to know that your love has got your back. That after 13 years together I can give him a certain look and he knows that I mean to look over his left shoulder and grab the cute ring bearer trying to catch a frog. I think you'll agree...we make a good team. :)

How to care for your People before the Wedding

Wedding Photography, PersonalCynthia ViolaComment
No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted
— Aesop

Entering into the busiest season of your life can be daunting.

It seems like all my wedding couples right now are not only planning their wedding, but they're working full time jobs, they've just started graduate school, they're caring for their small children, they've just moved into a new home, or they're serving in the military all on top of figuring out what this whole new marriage dynamic is going to look like when it comes to bills and having a puppy and in-laws and responsibilities. 

It can really be so much. I've been there as a bride, I've been there as a bridesmaid, as a sister, as a best friend, as a pre-marital counselor and a photographer. I have seen over and over how much the stress can build up for months and explode at the worst possible moment on the big day.

Fortunately most couples also have a team of people who stand beside them to help carry the weight. Parents and college roommates and siblings and coworkers who work long hours in the weeks leading up helping you address invites, finish DIY projects, tell you how fabulous you look in every dress your try on, throw you epic bachelor parties, trudge through the mud to keep your dress clean, pray fervently for your marriage and bring you orange juice and cough medicine when you find yourself sick in the midst of it all.

This post is to remind you to care for them in return. It's easy to get overwhelmed and take out your frustrations on the people you know will forgive you, but don't take the easy road. Take the extra 10 seconds to breathe deeply before you say a harsh word and don't let yourself have regrets for taking advantage of the people you care for most. At the end of the day no one will remember if all the chair bows were tied perfectly, they'll remember how you treated them when you were stressed. So take some time today to write them a note or give them a hug. They'll love you forever. 

Boone North Carolina Wedding
The Oaks at Salem Wedding