My mother died on January 25, 2011, and each year around that date I remember her in a post and share the poem I wrote for her the day she died.
She had been ill for years, and this last time she’d gone to the hospital in congestive heart failure it was clear she would not recover. Kept comfortable by the hospital staff, we waited around her bed for her last breaths.
Later, after clearing out her room at the nursing home, all the necessary phone calls, a visit from a friend and more calls, I had my time alone and was up quite late. As I sat outside in the quiet of the January night watching the snow gently fill the air and fall whispering in a soft blanket on all around me, the poem came to me in nearly one complete piece. So that I would not distract myself from the flowing words in my head I carefully went inside and tiptoed to my desk for a tablet and pen, quietly went back outside to the swing and wrote it down slowly, line for line, all as if I was afraid I’d scare it away, all the beautiful words I’d been thinking, or maybe I’d break it, like a bubble. I changed very little in a rewrite.
I read this poem at her memorial. And I had decided I would go through with my poetry reading scheduled for just two days after my mother died, because it was an opportunity to share her with others and to read the new poem.
I could never encapsulate 86 years of a life into one blog post or one photo or one poem. The photo above is the one we placed in our mother’s casket, her wedding photo from 1946 when she was 21 years old. The little scrap of red in the lower left corner is the red blouse she wore, the one she loved best, and I knew she’d want to be remembered in it; our mother was one who could wear a red chiffon blouse in her casket and be proud.
About My Mother
Regardless of the many outstanding qualities any person may have
we are essentially remembered for only one of them.
In my mother, all would agree
this one would be her remarkable beauty.
All through her life the compliments trailed her
as she carefully maintained “the look”, her look, so glamorous,
from tailored suits to taffeta dresses to palazzo pants,
hair perfectly styled, nails manicured and painted
a collar set just so, cuffs casually turned back,
hair worn long, past the age of 50,
a dark, even tan and shorts into her 80s,
lipstick always perfectly applied,
and even at 84
people marveled on her perfect skin,
dark curly hair,
and big bright smile.
I see that smile
when I see my sister smile,
and I see my mother’s active, athletic bearing
when I look at my brother,
and her gray eyes are mine.
In each of her grandchildren
I see her round face,
graceful hands, pert nose,
proud upright posture
and a million other of her features and habits
and in all of us
her wild curly hair
is part of her legacy to us.
When we look at each other from now on
we will see the part of her she gave to each of us,
this little cluster of people who came from her
and who were her greatest treasure,
and when she looks at us from wherever she is
she will know that
she cannot be forgotten.
This is what happens when I wake up and the snow is enchanting and I hear that a maternity hospital in Ukraine was bombed by Russia and I have to do something with all of it.
Someday They Will Sing
where have all the flowers gone,
long time passing,
young ones have picked them,
every one of them
gone for soldiers,
returned to graveyards
and graveyards gone to flowers,
long time ago,
and again and again
when will they ever learn,
why did they never learn
(#SlavaUkraini, and for all other people oppressed by war.)
I drafted the poem on the trail on Saturday, what happens when I come face to face with nature on a trail feeling the earth beneath my feet and the sun and breeze filling my head and my thoughts. I have been singing the song since the invasion began and was singing as I walked along, and every so often wrote another line of my thoughts.
The song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was inspired by a traditional song of the Cossacks, Slavic peoples who lived in rural regions of both Ukraine and Russia, though the source of the song is Ukrainian. Pete Seeger adapted some of the lyrics and wrote the first three verses in 1955, Joe Hickerson wrote the rest in 1960.
It once was that men marched off to war while women stayed behind and tended the flowers in the graveyards, but I have heard a few folk singers (can’t remember) who have sung lyrics updated to reflect that young women become soldiers as well as young men, in fact, young people of all sorts become soldiers. With both society’s norms and folkways and beloved folk songs, breaking the mold can be difficult, but I could finally feel an update was natural.
I watch the creative soul of Ukrainians in this fight, so many musicians, artists, poets, writers, playing piano at the borders, making art to describe the conflict and their opposition, making Molotov cocktails instead of beer, a brass band of soldiers standing in fatigues to play the Ukrainian national anthem around the spot where a Russian missile hit, and the least I can do is awaken my own, possibly my inheritance from my Ukrainian ancestors, to reflect my support.
“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” ~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
My mother told the story that, when I was a baby, she just couldn’t get any shoes on my feet. Whether the baby shoes or the knitted booties, I would kick and curl my toes. Eventually she got them on, but as soon as I could, I took them off. I apparently learned this wasn’t a good thing soon enough since I wasn’t arriving barefoot at school or when visiting relatives.
But I clearly remember going out the back door to the yard and taking off my shoes on the porch when I was young enough I had to stay in the back yard. Later, I can picture myself taking off my shoes and stuffing them into my pockets or leaving them somewhere I could retrieve them before heading out on one of my “hikes”, day-long walks I’d take alone, feeling the cool earth and grasses in the abandoned pasture near our house in the morning, steaming pavement under my feet on roads in mid-summer, the cool tickling of the water in our shallow local creek as I walked down the center of the channel, though it was so polluted I’m surprised it didn’t strip off my skin.
I always managed to keep my shoes on at my workplaces, unless I worked late and happened to be the only person there. Around the house, unless it’s cold, and even sometimes then, I am barefoot, or I’ll put on a pair of socks if my bunions start to hurt from the cold. Except for cutting the grass, or if I’m working in a particularly rough area of the yard…barefoot in my own back yard.
When I started walking and biking public trails, I tended to keep my shoes in cooler weather, but even now, when temperate weather arrives, my shoes are once again tucked into pockets or backpack or even my camera bag. I even ride my bike barefoot, except if I’m on a public street.
So it was yesterday, as early as March 5, when the temperature hit 72 degrees locally. I took two hours in the afternoon to walk some of my favorite trails up and down hills along the Panhandle Trail, not far from me. The sun was bright, the trees still bare, the shadows misty and mysterious. Chickadees chick-a-dee-deed among the branches and blue jay screeches echoed up and down the hills, woodpecker hammerings heard like distant construction and I found the litter of wood chips they’d left behind. The leaves that had fallen last autumn were flattened against the earth, but fluttering in little circles just above the packed clay of the trail as breezes whistled down from the sky and around and past me.
The trail had been a railroad line and at some points is very deep in a valley. I walked up and up and up a north-facing hill, then across, then up, then around, following a trail that pulled my feet to it, tracking bright green mossy logs and trickles of water, all the while feeling the soles of my feet press against the earth and bounce back up, feeling the energy seep into my feet and legs, feeling a long week spent in a chair at my computer relax out of my back and shoulders, hips and calves, in a way that walking in shoes can never do.
I feel fully a part of all that is around me, I am not an observer but am as essential to the day as the birds and their songs, the sun and wind, the trickling water, and even the laughter of children, the muted conversations, the barking of dogs on their leashes rising up from the trail far below and drifting through the woods around me. Though I am alone, I am part of of all that is this life, and contribute my part just by existing within it.
Some people, not necessarily scientists, insist there is a positive return for humans to walk barefoot, that it helps your immunity to come in contact with all that’s on the earth, that the earth itself has an energy we absorb that contributes to our general wellness, that walking on the earth makes us literally “grounded”, firm in our selves, our needs, our own truth.
I’m not concerned if there is scientific proof for this one. Apparently it works very well for me, and I’ll continue as long as I can. If you haven’t, give it a try sometime. I understand it can be uncomfortable if you are accustomed to shoes, but in time the joy of feeling the earth beneath your feet is as good as feeling the warm sun on your face in spring.
“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.” ~Thich Nhat Hahn, Teaching Peace
NOTE: at this time of fear and sadness in Ukraine, I will add that I am of Ukrainian heritage, and though I never knew that country, never even knew the grandparents who came from there, I feel that my connection with the earth, my love of nature and animals, and my creative spirit all derive from this heritage. I am so sad to see these people crushed by autocratic terrorism. No one on this Earth deserves to suffer in this way. I am putting my heart and my hope with the strength and independent spirit of the Ukrainian people, as well as the rest of the world, as we pull together to oppose this war, and hopefully, all wars.
Resources to read a little more about walking barefoot:
In 1910 my mother’s mother, Paraskewia Swentkowsky, emigrated to America from what was then called Ukraine. She came from a village near Lviv, in an area that in any given minute in that era between Czarist Russia and WWI could have been ruled by the Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Austrians or Germans.
If not for the courage of that young teenager sent over here for a better life than what that turbulent country in that violent era could offer, I, or some version of me, might be in the midst of a Russian invasion right now. That is, if we had all survived being in the stomping ground in WWI, starved and slaughtered by Stalin before WWII, being stomped on again during WWII, and living imprisoned in the USSR until the early 90s when the country broke up and Ukraine finally became an independent country.
She had lost both parents and as an orphan been moved around from one relative to another on the small plots of land they farmed. As a young teenager someone packed her off to the land of opportunity, alone, to meet up with a few relatives who had already emigrated. I know nothing of her life before she emigrated aside from that legend, and nothing of her journey, except that she had had her long blonde hair shaved off at Ellis Island because of lice, and it grew back in strawberry blonde. That was apparently a more interesting detail to my mother than how a 13-year-old got from New York to Carnegie, PA to join up with distant relatives and start a new life, not speaking English, with no education, and probably very few skills that matched with jobs in this land so very different from the one she’d left.
But she did, and lived as full a life as one could live in America in the aftermath of WWI, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, WWII, and the Happy Days of the 1950s. She died when I was very young so I never got to know her or hear her stories.
But I know that Ukrainians, and Poles, the other side of my family, having lived through generational traumas of wars and famines for centuries, are strong and determined people, and have fought for their independence as individuals and as nation every time the invading force looked away for a moment. As they watched this act of war become a reality, they could have looked at the overwhelming monster coming to stomp on them and either run away or capitulated, but they did not. This act of war will not end well for anyone, but my bet is that the Ukrainians, especially with the support promised by the rest of the world, will have their freedom, and their country, at the end.
This year the message on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is to not celebrate, but activate. Take an activist role in achieving his dream of equality and justice for all, for righting the historic wrongs done to black people as well as the wrongs still done today, and most of all to pass laws to ensure the right to vote.
Equality in opportunity of all sorts and inclusion in society’s processes is still not achieved if we look around us, recognize the portion of the local population that is black or non-white, and see that they are not represented in anywhere near the numbers they should be to truly be included in decision-making anywhere, in government, in business, even in individual workplaces.
One of those areas where black representation is deficient is animal welfare. In leadership positions at shelters and humane organizations of all sizes, the representation, or lack thereof, is embarrassing. Yet about a century ago black people were leaders in the nascent animal welfare world in this country, even as they worked for the welfare of their own people in the era of segregation and Jim Crow, often at risk to their own lives. Coming around to today and studying the history of animal welfare, we don’t see those pioneers. They are barely mentioned, removed from the stories, just as their accomplishments and their selves were removed from the history of societal changes in this country.
This is an excerpt of an essay I published on The Creative Cat in honor of Martin Luther King Day. Please visit The Creative Cat to read the rest of the essay: Living Up to The Dream
The illustration above is a sampler of all the shades of pastel I’ve used while painting portraits and sketches of people of all different “colors”, skin tones and ethnicities. All of them appear in all skin tones. Tell me, who is “black” and who is “white”? And what does “colored” mean?
In truth, we are all “colored”. Each of our faces has the darkest and lightest tones and all those in between, and even some colors we’d be surprised to find in skin tones. I can tell you that all the colors I smudged there have appeared in the highlights and shadows and mid-tones of every face. It largely depends on where you are standing in relation to the light.
Some people have suggested that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of black children and white children going forward hand in hand, the ideal of seeing a person not for the color of their skin but for the content of their character, had the goal of a “colorblind” society. That’s a noble ideal on one hand, where we just don’t notice the color of a person’s skin in any situation and go on from there.
But does that truly bring justice to wrongdoing and change society in a way that makes the injustice people have suffered because of that color unacceptable? To suddenly begin to ignore the color of a person’s skin and jump immediately to integration is to jump right over the injustices done to people because of the color of their skin. It’s also ignoring an essential part of another person, shutting the door on a section of their life, a part that makes them distinctive. King did not use the term “colorblind” in any speech or written document, but his point is described by historians as a more “color aware” society where we recognize our differences, celebrate them and thereby heal through those very differences among ourselves.
When I create a piece of visual artwork I look for what makes the subject inspiring to me, what makes it distinctive, what makes me excited to share it with you. I like contrasts, I find what makes my subject different in its class, what makes it stand out from its surroundings. It’s my joy to find and share “the extraordinary in the ordinary”. If everything I painted looked the same, what need would there be for artwork?
Looking at people has always been like looking at a field of flowers for me—I find it hard to settle on one before I skip to another while I enjoy the visually exciting effect of all those different colors and shapes and heights and structures. Then I can can pause on each one and get to know each in its own unique detail.
When I rode the bus, long before I painted anything let alone a human portrait, I quietly studied all the faces around me for color and shape and texture, eye color, the hair that framed it, accessories and jewelry, and was often started by a stern expression of someone who didn’t understand why I studied them so intently. I was just looking for the things that made them unique and beautiful—not in the classic sense of beauty but in the classical sense, in that beauty is truth, in being true to who we are inside showing that on the outside, like the flower in the field that can’t help but be what it is.
If we are colorblind, we intentionally ignore some of the fundamental differences that make each of us irreplaceable. That denies a basic part of our personal existence and of human existence as a species; it denies a portion of our very identity as an individual.
That takes an awful lot of effort. Why not admit to our differences and get to know each other in full, and find the beauty in each of us. We have always been and will always be different from each other and might as well get used to it.
Growing up in this hilly tree-covered landscape festooned with waterways I loved the land I walked on. That love formed my forever connection with it through my art and photography and just to be, wading the streams, standing in falling snow, walking barefoot on the soil and feeling the strength of the earth through the soles of my feet, growing my vegetables and flowers.
I had no idea that the “Indians” people spoke of when I was little weren’t the western savages they’d been made out to be, but had actually been people who lived where I stand now. In time I found the truth of what happened to them. They had been forcibly removed from the land they had loved for centuries, living in harmony and leaving very little but footprints, and then their culture was removed from them wherever they lived. This had once been a fertile hunting ground, a summer home, or a permanent residence. I lived where others once lived, they were removed so that I could be here. I wondered why no one seemed to know this, and no one seemed to care when I tried to tell them. I wore my long hair in two braids in support and memory of those who had once stood on the hilltop where our ranch houses were built and watched the sun set. It was about as much as a preteen girl could do in those days.
Once I learned the truth, as I explored the farm fields overgrown with grasses and native plants, and wandered the woods still bearing tall sturdy oaks and understory trees with fruits and nuts, and the occasional deer and fox, I thought of other children my age, who loved as much as I did the whispering among the trees just before sunset, feeling the grasses brush against bare legs on a sweet summer morning, following the song of each bird, and the wonder of watching seeds sprout and grow into food that you will eat. I still feel a sadness, even in my joy.
Finally, we are reckoning with what we’ve done, not only to millions of individuals over hundreds of years right up to today, but to entire cultures, and to the land itself. And still, it’s a fight to start setting things right. It’s about time we finally let go of the “discovery” myth and replaced that day with recognizing and celebrating the people who were here first, and loved this place with all their hearts.
About the artwork
Sloping hills blaze with autumn color at a rocky, rippled bend in Chartiers Creek, yet on the horizon deep gray-purple clouds hover; although the day was sunny I remember it being distinctly chilly with a sharpness to the breeze, especially on the water in a canoe, and winter is literally on the horizon.
My painting “Autumn in the Valley” depicts the Catfish Path, as the original inhabitants of this area called it because of its bounding population of catfish. It is the only navigable waterway of all the small tributaries into the Ohio River in this area. It carried local populations up and down the valley, and hunting parties from what is now the state of Ohio into the hills and valleys where I live now, where they would hunt and fish all summer in the primordial woods and streams, then return for the winter.
We call this waterway Chartiers Creek, Pierre Chartiers being a French trader who set up shop along the way and traded with indigenous populations and Europeans. The creek runs right through the town I live in. It’s been settled along, heavily polluted by industries, cleaned up and its course amended to stop the annual flooding that covered the flood plain where most of this town is built.
I have wandered Chartiers Creek all my life, a meandering waterway that runs 52 miles along its full course, 26 miles in the part I know best, the Lower Chartiers. I have watched the waters renew, and populations of catfish and great blue herons and kingfishers return. In some areas where humanity has had very little obvious impact I can always feel the presence of the generations before me who wandered to its banks on a lovely autumn afternoon, or a summer morning, or a winter dusk after a heavy snowfall, or to see the thundering freshet of the spring thaw.
The mornings this September have had that particular autumnal cool with a little mist and I thought the spell might have been broken. But the morning this September 11 is sunny, blue, and warm, and eerily quiet, so much like that morning 20 years ago.
Aside from being in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, I am nowhere near New York or Washington DC. I am, however, barely an hour away from Shanksville. On the hot sunny morning of September 11, 2001, I was just finishing work outdoors in my back yard when I heard on the radio that a plane had the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Thinking it was an unfortunate accident I continued listening to the radio for details and 20 minutes later heard that a second plane had hit the South Tower and knew instinctively, as I’m sure we all did, that it was no accident.
My radar for tragedy was sensitized; just a few months before my mother had unexpectedly nearly died after lung cancer surgery, held on for six weeks then miraculously awakened from a near-coma one day and gone on to recover, rehabilitate and return home, though weak and fragile, needing my constant support. The previous year my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident and at that time lived in a nursing home 30 miles away. I was integral to their recoveries and care and was legal guardian and power of attorney, and my carefully-planned self-employment was unraveling.
When I heard the news, I was out on my garden patio by the basement door, putting another coat of paint on some vintage wooden chairs I used on my deck before winter would peel the last of it off. Garden cat Moses was dozing on the warm bricks, soaking in the sun, the tip of her tail gently tapping the bricks in contentment. I always worked in my garden and did small projects early in the day to make sure they got done before I hit my computer, and to make sure I didn’t hit the computer as soon as I got up and stayed on it all day long. It was a hot, sticky late summer morning, my verdant garden a green jungle, birds twittering everywhere stocking up for migration and winter, and work waiting for me indoors. The first report that it was likely an accident, planes had hit buildings in the past, staved off some worry. Then the second plane hit when everyone in Manhattan was looking at the towers and saw the direction, the turn, the increase in speed prior to hitting the tower, and suddenly a perfect morning had turned unreal.
Jets fly overhead all the time. I have lived in the flight path for Pittsburgh International Airport all my life, and just as close to an Air Force base, and not only do they fly overhead, they circle and slow down and make noise and fly at crazy angles as they come in for a landing. A noisy plane flying low overhead is something I didn’t even notice. But two planes had just hit the two towers of the World Trade Center and a third had hit the Pentagon. I suddenly noticed that the sky was very quiet for that time of the morning.
After the plane hit the Pentagon, I put Moses inside the basement, much to her consternation, as if she needed to be protected from what might be happening, and I suddenly felt exposed under the clarity of that blue sky. As the story grew I thought of my mother and brother and if I should get them and put them somewhere just to make sure they were safe too. Everything seemed suddenly slightly askew.
Then in the increasing quiet as traffic cleared the roads, in that empty perfect clear blue September sky, a single plane went overhead and my hackles rose, a cold tingle running to my fingers on that warm morning as I watched it seeming to struggle through the sky overhead. Shortly thereafter we heard about the crash in Shanksville and I imagined the comforting familiarity of perfect green rolling hills of my Western Pennsylvania home bathed in morning sun, now wrenched open and strewn with the wreckage of violence.
I hurried inside, no longer feeling safe under that warm blue sky. I thought of my mother in her home about a mile and a half away, still weak and needing daily assistance for most activities, many prescriptions and home oxygen. If all this was suddenly disrupted, what would I do? Should I go to her house now? Should I try to get her to a more secure place, like a hospital?
And my brother in the nursing home 30 miles north of me, continuing his recovery from a traumatic brain injury the previous year, also requiring a lot of daily care, medications and supervision. Should I try to move him closer? What if I couldn’t get to him?
And my sister a few miles away with her younger daughter and grandchild? And my niece and her three babies, one of them just six days old, a few miles in the other direction? Should we all find a place to go?
Anyone else would have run for the television, but I didn’t have one then, and I don’t have one now, so I never got to see the very first images that showed up on CNN that morning, heard the fear in the newscasters’ voices. I listened to the familiar voices of the local and NPR reporters describing the events on my radio, feeling calmer listening to their words and being able to move around my house than I would have being trapped in front of a television. I called my mother and later went to her house and watched there.
Did any of us know what to do in those first hours and days, even those of us so far from the terrible scenes of death and destruction more horrible than we could imagine?
It wasn’t until the gentle, perfect beauty of September 12 that the effects of what had happened became reality for me. Not only do I live very near Pittsburgh International Airport, I am also at the intersection of two interstates right outside of Pittsburgh and hear the noises of all this traffic every day, especially in the morning. The next day, with travel restricted on land and in the air, was so eerily quiet. The beauty of the warm sun and clear blue sky, the peaceful twitters of birds and hum of bees we could rarely hear with traffic and daily noises, the clear views of the tree-covered hills made the morning seem like paradise at first, as if everything would be okay after all. But the clear stillness became unnerving as the hours of daylight passed and we had no more of our questions answered, nor knew the extent of the damage and death as it was still unfolding in all three areas.
Perhaps those perfect September days were given to calm us before we learned how our lives had changed.
Today looks no different from yesterday but forever against the backdrop of a blue September sky we will now remember the loss of our innocence.
September 11 was a blur of images and fears and unknowns, and for me it wasn’t until September 12 dawned and brightened into another seemingly perfect September day, blue sky and all, that what had happened, and the permanent change it brought, really settled in.
I was honored to give a presentation in November about the solstice as part of a program with The Frick Pittsburgh, the organization that manages the Frick family mansion and museum in Pittsburgh. I’ve been waiting for a good opportunity to bring that presentation to you, and the Winter Solstice seemed like a good day to do that.
I have my friend Lisa DiGioia Nutini of Mexico Lindo for suggesting me to the person planning the event. The whole program was to be on three consecutive Thursday evenings in November and December, and each evening had three presenters. When I talked to the planner she mentioned “solstice traditions” so I wasn’t sure if I fit the bill because I don’t really have any traditions, though I have written about the solstice and the seasonal darkness a number of times. But my descriptions and brief snippets along with mention of artwork and photography sounded intriguing to the planner and provided a variety she wanted, not rituals, but recognition and celebration of the event. So I put together a narrative with paintings, photos and an essay you may have read here before.
Or you can scroll down and read my presentation below.
Finding the Light in the Darkness
I am a self-employed artist and writer, part of me a commercial artist and professional writer with a regular slate of customers, and the other part a fine artist and creative writer with customers who are anyone with whom I can share my inspirations.
Those inspirations are derived entirely from the world around me. The tagline of my website is, “The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Celebrating the art in everyday life,” be that medium visual or literary, 2D, 3D, poetry or prose, or some combination thereof.
I find winter very inspiring, including the darkness. I hear people all around me dreading the short days and long, dark nights, well before they even arrive, and complaining that it’s all gray and brown. When the longest nights are here, the waiting begins for the days when it’s light again when you leave work, at least.
But I like settling into the early darkness of late autumn; it’s good for concentration and focus, and a respite from my crazy racing around from my garden to my daily work to photographing each wildflower as it blooms and the autumn leaves as they put on their show. I love the wide open windows of summer, but when I close them and put on socks for the first time I feel an innate sense of security that I am safe and warm inside my house, ready for whatever the cold and dark will bring.
Through my art I have found that the darkness really isn’t completely dark, nor are the days without color. Even a tiny amount of light will find its way to highlight details you’d otherwise miss, our neighbors decorate their houses with garlands and lights, and the woods and fields and even our back yards are full of bright red rose hips and burnished copper oak leaves, blue jays and cardinals, and shades of violet and vivid blue in snow shadows. My eye is drawn to contrast and color, and I find a lot of that in winter light.
And so that search for the light in the darkness becomes my annual solstice celebration.
On a winter afternoon nearly 20 years ago, I was inspired by the early sunset on the winter solstice and ran off to chase it.
The moment when the sun stands still,
as it seemed to at this frigid, snow-covered
spruces standing dignified sentinel
to the moment
This painting is indeed from the Winter Solstice in 2003. As the sun began to set on a zero-degree day with a foot or more of snow the light was so beautiful that I took off in my car with my camera and art supplies. At the top of the hill the gentle pink and coral tones of the sunset melded with the blue of dusk on the field of unbroken snow at the old Christmas tree farm, one of my favorite spots. It was too cold to draw outside since I can’t wear gloves and would soon be dropping my pastels in the snow, so I positioned my car on a convenient side road and sketched this in my front seat. As it does sometimes, the sun seemed to hang in the trees just before it disappeared: solstice, “sun-stand-still”.
It’s just a little thing, 6″ x 6″, one of my favorites, especially now that the place is gone to development. It became the inspiration for an exhibit I hosted in 2004, “Winter White”.
I love winter so much, and found I had so much winter artwork already, I decided to do a show featuring the season, with snow and without. From bright blue skies to brilliant fluttering chestnut leaves, shiny red rose hips to olive green moss, brilliant and warm sunlight angling deep indoors, winter is a very colorful time of year. In 2004 I presented “Winter White” 42 small studies, illuminated by the stark light of winter in pastel, watercolor, pencil, and pen and ink from the trails to the backyard to interiors completed en plein air.
And I didn’t stop with that exhibit, either. The painting we began with, “Dusk in the Woods” was a very large painting from a few years later, and while I’ve sold most of what was included in the original “Winter White” exhibit I’ve painted enough since then to have another exhibit with just as many paintings.
I carry my camera with me everywhere to capture those images in all seasons. Sometimes they become paintings, but often the photos tell the story best.
As the winter solstice nears, bearing with it the shortest day of the year and the longest period of darkness, I find that analogous to my memories of years past when I thought it was the darkness I’d remember, not the light. During the days leading up to the winter solstice when the daylight is less and less, each day shorter, and each day is often overcast and filled with winter storms, some very old part of our brain senses imminent danger. But by a miracle the light returns and we celebrate.
In these darkening days it’s easy to curse the darkness and miss the delicate beauty only found at this time. In 2014 I took my walk to Main Street for errands and found a wonderland one heavy, dark, overcast day in a place I had thought so familiar. I called it my “gray day walk” as a shorthand for those moments of exploration when time stood still for me, unexpected on a busy afternoon.
THE LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS
I have had far worse days. Overwhelmed by the demands of commercial work as my customers and I prepared for the holidays along with merchandise orders and custom portraits and my own preparations for ending the year and beginning the next as a small business, I left the house at 4:00 p.m. destined for the post office and bank just before they closed.
Though I had walked this half mile route from my home to Main Street for years, I had lately been driving, using the need to save time or the awkwardness of a pile of packages as an excuse for wasting gas and a chance at exercise and fresh air. The day was hardly inspiring—five days prior to the winter solstice the days were frighteningly short, sunset less than an hour away, and in a series of heavy dark days typical of this area in late autumn and early winter, dense pasty clouds hanging low overhead and so dark it had felt like dusk at noon, and now some of the street lights on Main Street were already alight. I nearly always take photos on these walks, and while I laid the strap of my camera bag over my shoulder I was glad that, for once, I would probably not find anything to photograph and take time from my day in conditions like these.
Traffic was heavy so I took my route under the bridge, next to the creek where traffic noises faded and birds sang, a trickling sound as water flowed smoothly past over the rocks in the shallow waterway. And in the dim and fading light a world so familiar at first appeared dark and nearly colorless until my eyes adjusted to the light and found such wonders among the wildflowers along the way, standing upright though dried and every shade of brown and tan and umber I found fantastical birds, abstract sculptures, amazing complex patters among the dried flower heads, exposed and broken seed pods, leaves clinging curled to stems.
I could not stop for the post office and bank both closed at 4:30, so I walked as fast as I could with my camera bag on one shoulder and a large canvas bag of packages on the other so that I could amble back through this wonderland on my way back to my neighborhood. The light was so dim then, as the time approached sunset within minutes, that I had to set the ISO of my camera on 800 to get anything but vague images floating in sepia darkness, even with all my settings to admit as much light as possible.
These plants had sprung up from seeds tossed here on the wind and water, carried by birds and people walking past, sprouted in spring, housed birds and insects in summer, borne their flowers in summer and fall. I had walked among them many times with my camera and sketchpad, I knew where each stood, when they bloomed, their botanical names and history, I looked for them each year and anticipated the best times to compose the images I visualized, but this was a gift in its unfamiliarity.
Now, after several frosts, autumn storms and snow, the weak parts had been stripped away and the strongest parts of them were burnished by adversity and stood dignified in the dimness, with just enough sheen to highlight their most interesting shapes, textures and combined patterns.
The background now, rather than the usual details of other plants and flowers, was darkness, the more perfect to silhouette each delicate construction as if in a gallery featuring the finest art.
Milkweed pods became flocks of fantastical birds, or individual exotic species clinging to stems. Tightly curled dried flowers or clusters of puffy seeds set loose, sere and twisted leaves and flowers of another time. Even the holiday decorations in a shop front, capturing the blue from the late afternoon light with highlights from the store within echoed the shapes and patterns of the natural forms outdoors, as the raindrops that would soon fall.
I arrived home with dirty shoes from walking in mud, and dirty knees from kneeling in wet grass, bits of leaves and stems and seeds flocked with frills to carry them on the wind on my skirt and jacket, in my hair, on my bags, souvenirs of a timeless magic, both in letting go of the time of day, and letting go of time altogether for that period. I only let go and rejoined the day because it was too dark to photograph any longer.
I am grateful to this gift of creative vision that releases me from everyday cares for just a short time, exercises those aesthetic senses and relaxes the overused worry lines, and gives me these wonderful gifts of images to share, just for noticing the inspiration was there.
There is always something new to learn about the things we think we know well. Never forget that when the light seems dim there is much to be seen with the heart, and when adversity has taken away the quick and obvious beauty, the strongest parts remain, dignified in their naked and twisted strength.
I hope you enjoyed this presentation, whether you listened or read.
It wasn’t just the four officers it took to arrest a non-resisting African American man and three of them to lie him down on the concrete and all kneel on him and handcuff him, it wasn’t just the 8 minutes and 46 seconds Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck on the pavement in the heat with crowds around openly taking videos of the scene and pointing out to him that the man needed help and was dying, it wasn’t just that he told other officers who showed concern that this was how Floyd should be handled, it wasn’t just his lack of reaction to Floyd’s audible pleas for help, it was the expression on Chauvin’s face through it all that tells the underlying story.
Chauvin looks relaxed and unafraid of either the man beneath his knee or all the bystanders who are watching and openly videotaping. George Floyd was at that point unable to resist even if he’d wanted to, and Chauvin knew that no matter what happened, even with all those witnesses, he wasn’t going to get into any trouble, and he frankly looks annoyed. In any case, he’s not worried about going home that night and there would be no repercussions against him for what he was doing. That makes it pretty clear that this had happened before and that the system supported the white police officer, and not the African American citizen, based on prior experience.
Don’t forget that expression on Chauvin’s face. As we watch the ensuing protests and even riots following this public murder, remember that’s the expression African Americans have been facing from white people since they were brought here in chains 400 years ago. Centuries of time and a bloody civil war 150 years ago have made no difference. In my life of nearly 60 years, the African Americans of my generation and the generations following have been able to make no progress in living as equal citizens of this country.
Even I see that expression on white faces when I try to point out all the ways African Americans are openly excluded from everyday life in this country whether their heritage derives from emancipated slaves after the Civil War or their ancestors or they themselves emigrated from other countries around the world with predominantly black populations. We’ve never cleaned the contamination of racism from our country, and in fact a population of citizens have worked hard to keep it in place by way of redlining neighborhoods, gerrymandering voting populations and placement of polling places and outlining school districts, and employers who can always find a reason not to hire an African American person. Lately they’ve even been demonstrating publicly for the right to do these things.
That’s what makes the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis more than just his murder, and why riots have broken out all over the country. That’s what shows it’s a symptom of something much bigger, the bump on the skin that connects to the cancer filling the body, the cancer of police killing African American men and otherwise arresting African American citizens in general, at a much higher rate than whites as they are represented in the population, and continued social segregation though that very segregation is illegal.   
In February a white man and his son packed their shotguns into their pickup and ran to chase the escaped slave who left his own plantation to go running through white society in Brunswick, GA, and they caught up with him and shot and killed him. That’s just what the death of Ahmaud Arbery sounded like to me from the first I’d heard of it, even before the video, even before I saw the photos of Gregory and Travis McMichael. The incident itself was painful enough to watch, and consider how easy it would be to turn the story against Arbery who couldn’t defend himself, especially hearing the reason for chasing him—he’d been seen going into a house under construction and poking around, and the McMichaels claimed there had been thefts in the neighborhood. Easy as pie, that one, proved correct when the news was released that the Brunswick District Attorney had looked at the case and said there was nothing to see there and no one should be arrested, and even as he recused himself from the case a month later for personal connections he again advised that there should be no arrests. Seventy-four days after Arbery’s death the McMichaels were finally arrested and the case investigation has escalated to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. That was three weeks ago. People are still understandably angry about how it was handled. 
In Louisville, KY undercover agents stormed into the apartment of Breonna Taylor because their suspect in a narcotics investigation occasionally received mail at her apartment. Her boyfriend awoke and shot at the strangers who’d broken in, and the officers returned fire with eight bullets into Breonna, killing her. There is back and forth now about whether or not they announced themselves before they broke the door down, but in reality the suspect had already been arrested. 
And at least birdwatcher Christian Cooper didn’t die when a white woman called police on him when he asked her to put her dog on a leash, as rules in the section of Central Park, known for birding, require. Amy Cooper (no relation) actually threatened him with the phone call saying she would call the police and tell them an African American man was threatening her life. He videotaped her as she did so. Both were gone by the time police arrived but Christian Cooper’s posting of the video went viral and Amy Cooper was ultimately fired from her job and gave the dog in question back to the rescue. But how often in the past has a woman saying an African American man was acting inappropriately toward her caused his death? 
Those examples are just three other cases that made the news in the past three months, ones that are being remembered in demonstrations in those cities, and other cases that actually made the news locally or nationally around the country over the past few years. And just the act of existing while black, with police called by white people who find African Americans suspicious as they do just about any everyday thing, while jokes can always be made, is a constant flow of threats during everyday life.
And unless it’s investigated, the case is forgotten, and the incident, the person killed and their memory are buried together, but not by those left behind who know there was no justice and have little hope there will be in the future. That constant trauma of violent loss and the fear that you could be next would fill anyone with rage and reaction when they see it happen again, and again, and again. The protesters out there have repeatedly said they don’t condone vandalism and destruction, and neither do I, but bearing the pain and trauma of all the deaths, all the injustice, all the restraints society puts on African Americans, why not burn it all down and start over? Why preserve what’s there, metaphorically at least, when in African American neighborhoods—and why are there still African American neighborhoods?—it’s still separate and unequal, and after centuries and lots of hard work by African Americans and white people alike there is no hope that will ever change?
I don’t judge my safety on the race of the person before me. If I saw Ahmaud Arbery running down the street we’d probably nod and smile at each other as we passed. If I saw the McMichaels in their pickup with their guns, I’d get my mace in my hand and look for the nearest safe place to run if I needed to.
And I have a lot of freedom, freedom that we all deserve, because of my race. When I’m out trapping feral cats and poking around in an alley and looking into back yards at night with a flashlight, when the police are called they always accept my explanation that I’m trapping cats, and there are no threats, no arrest just to check on me, no harassment. And when I decide to walk down the middle of a street looking up at the sky to watch the hawk, or walk along the trail through the woods singing at the top of my voice, or act otherwise erratic—or, as they say it when you’re white, eccentric—no one calls the police on me. I have this freedom that everyone should have, to be whoever we are and be given the benefit of the doubt when we explain what we’re doing.
I can’t breathe officer
don’t kill me
they gon’ kill me man
come on man
I cannot breathe
I cannot breathe
they gon’ kill me
they gon kill me
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
please I can’t breathe
George Floyd’s last words transcribed from the video 
I’ve tried to look back in history and find the point where it went wrong, to go back there and start again. But there is no point where African Americans ever had equality in this country, no matter what laws had been passed, and no time when death at the hands of authorities wasn’t common. Let’s just try to burn down the social structure that keeps people oppressed, let’s really just incinerate it and toss the ashes out into space so there’s nothing left.
And it’s not enough for each of us to “not be racist” or “not discriminate”. We have to call out those who do, and have a strong argument on hand to prove it. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. frequently mentioned the importance of speaking out for justice, and the injustice of staying silent, and the importance of nonviolence.
The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people.~The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson, 2001, Chapter 18 
I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems.~Sermon: “Where Do We Go From Here?” 
I have felt a fundamental change coming for some time, years, months, days. For better or worse, I think it’s here.