Essay: What Stays With Us

Tiny Foxtail

As the seasons change I look to nature for familiar scenes and welcome details held dear from year to year especially in my garden, my little patch of toil for the 26 years I’ve lived here. Even though I’ve worked and planted and composted and  created raised beds and paths and the site holds probably all the memories I have from living here from all the time I’ve spent working and thinking there, I still find wonders, mostly in the spring when it all feels new again after a month or two of break, and sometimes intangible wonders as well.

This year I remembered a series of photos I’d taken in March one year which I called at the time “Winter Leftovers”, thinking of the ephemeral beauty of dried plants that seemed lifeless from afar but had so much character and detail when studied up close through the lens of my camera, natural sepia tones, tiny highlights, clouds of soft fluff and tiny spiky flowers, an entire universe in miniature.

The bright spring sun had shone at an angle from a faded blue sky in mid afternoon on a day just around the vernal equinox and I was late in planting for late snows and freezes. I leave the native plants standing in and around the vegetable garden for the residents of my backyard wildlife habitat to eat from, perch on, snuggle into, build tiny homes upon to weather the dark and cold season, but I was thinking of asparagus and potatoes and salad greens and ready to work it all down and get planting.

But I didn’t. As I leaned into my spading fork the angled sun caught a sparkle on a delicate spiderweb smaller than the palm of my hand. I walked over to investigate and found a spider no larger than a grain of sand shriveled in the center. She had died long before but continued to cling there all winter long. Her web held up against any number of storms. Her eggs would have been laid on the stem adjacent to her web, and when they hatched the little spiders could have their first meal of the insects caught in their mother’s last web and use her web as a launching pad to their new life. I found the whole idea that the children the spider would never know were provided for by what she had done before she died so moving that on that bright March afternoon I put down the spading fork and picked up my camera and went through my garden looking for other such images.

All the other native plants had left behind skeletons that told stories as well, the asters and chicory and goldenrod and dock, and the effect of these was haunting, like finding a ghost town or a lost world. I photographed each desolate construction with attention to extreme details to capture the intrinsic, transient beauty of these empty shells, capturing the sepia tones, letting them say their last goodbye before the flush of new growth pushed them out of the way.

What was most surprising to me when I went to review the photos this year was when I looked at the other photos in the folder for that day, and what else I’d done in the morning. I had photos from the 54th floor of an office building in downtown Pittsburgh, quite the different perspective from the afternoon’s warm spring sun and attention to the details of desiccated native plants in my backyard garden. I’d been there for a hearing to contest matters with my mortgage company, Countrywide Mortgage, which had acquired my tiny mortgage in 2005 and had forced me into bankruptcy protection to avoid one of their illegal foreclosures in 2006. Despite the fact they and the company that took over their mortgages, Bank of America, were charged with so much wrongdoing, they still insisted I owed them the legal fees related to my foreclosure and fines on those fees and my attorney and I never did figure out what else was included in the $16,000 they said I owed them. Just the foreclosure and bankruptcy, though I owed no other debts, had hit self-employed me hard and taken time and finances away from growing my business, and keeping house and the idea of paying another $16,000 wasn’t even something I ever fully grasped because I knew I’d never come up with it.

I did, though, just not all at once, and even more than that too. Through the years after that BOA continued working out devious ways to get more money out of me. Because of Countrywide’s illegal foreclosure, for which I received a check for $300 in a class-action lawsuit, BOA was not permitted to threaten me with foreclosure, but they threatened me with everything else they could until I was finally free of them in 2013 by moving to another mortgage company, and the mortgage itself in 2016.

It’s hard to say that a decade of financial struggle where phantom fees and charges were continually and unexpectedly added to my mortgage and my mortgage payment was a horrible thing because no one could really see it but me. Despite the financial issues I would not give up my home or my business and I paid everything they asked of me. Even if I had left this place I still would have owed the mortgage and would have had to settle it and also pay for a place to live, so I decided to stay here and just keep making a mortgage payment and somehow work it out. In the end I was offered a settlement by the new mortgage company that I could afford, and I own this house, though I paid far more than was ever planned.

But the more surprising thing was that, even though that situation lasted for a decade and really just ended last year, when I remembered the “winter leftovers” and that afternoon in the garden down to the details and the sun on my back and two cats who are still very dear to me, one who I would lose later that year who were out in the garden with me, I didn’t remember anything of the hearing with my mortgage company, nothing of the struggle and hardship and paperwork and hearings that lasted a decade. I must have ridden home on the bus and looked at the perfect sunny day and decided, instead of getting right back to work, I’d steal a little time for physical effort and something I loved to do, change my clothes, get my two cats and head outside and enjoy their exploration of the spring garden and work off the morning. I only remembered the poignant beauty of what was left in my garden and the beautiful story it had told me.

Aside from those who have “superior autobiographical memory”, we can’t possibly remember everything that happens in our lives. We do make choices, even if we don’t realize. Bad memories stay with us and letting them go is almost like grieving a loss, a loss of a part of our selves that was betrayed, traumatized, or somehow hurt and must heal. But somehow the beauty and inspiration of that day washed away the bad. I’ll carry that beauty forward, and build on it, and leave the bad behind.

Here is a link to a slideshow of the photos I took that day: Winter Leftovers.

And here is a poem this day also inspired: To Come Again in Spring.

~~~

All Rights Reserved.   ♦   © Bernadette E. Kazmarski   ♦   PathsIHaveWalked.com

E Pluribus Unum

Raise Your Hand, Raise Your Sign, Raise Your Voice
Raise Your Hand, Raise Your Sign, Raise Your Voice
Raise Your Hand, Raise Your Sign, Raise Your Voice

I joined in the Pittsburgh Women’s Sister March on January 21, 2017.  Though the organizer had said her initial permit was for 400 people and by January 20 only 3,000 had confirmed they were going, the estimate of participation was actually 25,000 people, whole families, of all ages, genders and gender identities, skin colors and concerns. The march was very organized and completely peaceful.

The march was part of the main Women’s March scheduled for that day in Washington D.C. and was initially focused on preserving women’s rights to employment and pay equity, reproduction and personal safety we felt we’d finally achieved. Many people feel threatened by the remarks both current and historical the newly-elected president has made about and to women as well as the acceptance and normalization of those remarks by other citizens in this country, and fear both a backlash and a change in laws regarding protections for women.

And Justice For All
And Justice For All

But no one handed out signs or banners to carry, or gave a specific reason to march. Most of the signs were handmade signaling that most people had found their own reason to join in and shared that reason with their own creation. Issues ranged from Black Lives Matter and civil rights for all minorities and people of color, LGBTQ issues including marriage equality and transgender rights to declare themselves for their own gender identity, a living wage for all workers, immigrant rights and protections, disabled rights, affordable health care and more as well as comments challenging and refuting the president’s own remarks.

You’ve come a long way, baby

In the 1970s Virginia Slims cigarettes were marketed with a clever slogan you could sing: “You’ve come a long way, baby, to get where you got to today.” A commercial illustrated that at one point in history women were not permitted to smoke and were punished for it, but now they had their very own cigarette brand. Not commenting on the clever marketing of cigarettes, smoking wasn’t the only thing women were not legally able to do for most of the time this nation has been a nation. Women were legally unable to vote until 1920, fewer than 100 years ago, so they couldn’t even use the democratic process to assure their own rights. Between the time we were finally legally permitted to vote and the early 70s we did come a long way in education , employment, housing and more, but even to today, pay equity and equal opportunities in employment are still an issue, and the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress in 1972, is still not ratified by all the states and has never become a part of the law of the land.

I was not old enough to be employed in the 1960s, but I remember when employment ads could specify that the job was not available to women, even if women were capable of doing the job. It was also legal when women were hired or fired based on their appearance.

I also remember when Title IX was passed in 1972 stipulating that schools receiving federal funds had to give equal opportunities to female students in academics and sports to give women an equal opportunity to distinguish themselves and qualify for scholarships or better employment opportunities after graduation.

I also remember starting to work as a typesetter in the early 80s and being told that setting type was a man’s job, even though exactly why was never explained to me, though I believe it had something to do with setting “hot type”, or making the metal plates that had traditionally been used in printing. We were computerized by the time I started as a typesetter, but apparently even composition was a man’s job.

When I began freelancing and painting signs a man complained about my $25.00 fee, adding with an ugly leer, “Sometimes you gotta give it away for free, honey.” I never again met with a comment as rude and suggestive as that one, but kept my guard up after that, continuing to freelance from then to today, and actually built my commercial art business based on those beginning freelance experiences.

When I began shopping around for my house in 1989 I specifically looked for a “carpenter’s special” that was inexpensive and that I could repair myself. I was more than competent at this after caring for my parents’ house and several rental places. I was told by more realtors than not that I should wait to buy a house until I was married, and often asked what my husband thought. When confirmed I was single I was told that I should buy a condominium where someone was around to take care of everything because women didn’t know how to do those things. After I found the realtor who looked past all that and found the house I now live in, plenty of hardware and home repair stores told me to send my husband down to pick something up when I walked in with clear and specific questions. Sometimes these comments from realtors and others were made patronizingly and sometimes very rude and insulting, but even though it was easy to prove I understood how to remove and replace a bathroom faucet it often wasn’t accepted. I patronized the hardware store that accepted my questions and always gave me the best products and other information I could use because caring for an elderly house is a learning project.

Those are the “highlights” as it were. By the 90s remarks like those still happened, but were more on more of a personal level than the institutionalized style I’d encountered before that. None of it ever stopped me.

With those instances in my experience and in my lifetime I have always been aware that discrimination against women was still alive and well, tucked into the corners, and still don’t take for granted that I can do what I please as I please to do it. Some communities still have laws regarding a man legally beating his wife, or that women are barred from certain types of employment. But even with laws in place, it’s our social culture that still permits these discriminations. I’m shocked by many of the current comments that people find normal about how women should be treated, and have been treated, to the amusement of others.

Not just women, but anyone who is “different”

Diveristy
Diveristy

And if those little bits of rudeness toward me were irritating, I can’t imagine the systemic and institutionalized discrimination shown toward people with a skin color that didn’t appear to be white, or people who loved someone of the same gender, or people who by no fault of their own couldn’t live normally in this society because of a missing limb, or sense, or a mental or emotional issue that kept them from being part of everyday life, or someone of a religion that is not Christian. In other words, people who did not fit the very narrow definition of “normal”, defined by whoever was in power at the time. If I feel that my rights as a woman, so long established, could be easily swept away, I can’t imagine the rights of those so newly won, in the past eight years.

Most of those in power have been white and men. When it’s taken these many years for women and others to finally feel we have protections that allow us to live as full members of our society, those who made the laws did not include everyone in the laws explicitly or by inference and we feel we need representation that resembles us and in the approximate number that exists in our population. Without it, legally or socially, the progress that has made in accepting all the diversity in this country could simply be lost.

So what were we marching for? To not be forgotten. To hold onto what we have. To be recognized. To not forget disrespectful and discriminatory remarks the new president has made. To join with each other to make something greater than we could do alone. E Pluribus Unum.

Below is a gallery of images from the march. I will caption them someday so they have a little more narrative.

And here is me after the march was over. Thanks to my friend Bonnie for taking my picture! When you’re the photographer, people never get to see you.

Me at the march.
Me at the march.

~~~

All Rights Reserved.   ♦   © Bernadette E. Kazmarski   ♦   PathsIHaveWalked.com

For Martin Luther King Jr. Day: I Don’t Want To Be Colorblind

January 20, 2014
January 20, 2014
January 20, 2014

I Don’t Want To Be Colorblind

I don’t want to be
colorblind,
I want to paint
what I see,
the colors of our faces
like flowers,
not different
but tones of each others’
faces
as we turn toward the light,
we blend so beautifully.

poem and artwork © 2014 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

~~~

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. 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.

This 1996 essay entitled “Misusing MLK Legacy and the Colorblind Theory” explains more about King’s “color awareness”.

~~~

Read more poetry here on Today or visit my poetry page to see more about my poetry and other writing, and to purchase Paths I Have Walked.

~~~

All Rights Reserved.   ♦   © Bernadette E. Kazmarski   ♦   PathsIHaveWalked.com

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