A Celebration of the Earth

A Celebration of the Earth

A few years ago I answered the questions on a “What’s Your Footprint?” test on a website that gave points or demerits in accordance with how choices you made in your lifestyle affected the earth and I ended up with a negative footprint. How is that? Is it mounded up instead of impressed into the soil as footprints tend to be? No, it just meant I was below the minimum level of points for their scale. And it would have been even lower if they had listened to me about the scoring for use of a dishwasher*.

Well, big whoop for me—it’s not by any intentional virtue, though I have always tried to learn more and be careful about how much energy I used in daily activities. It began as a combination of selfishness and economic necessity, choosing what I could afford to buy and do and not wanting to simply fall in step with what I thought was a lot of wasted time and money. I was intrigued by how people managed in the days before modern conveniences and actually wanted to drop off the grid for a while to learn to live without these things, really, like, off in the woods somewhere, but not forever or even for very long, then pick and choose the ones I wanted and stay with them.

I never went all the way to the end with that, always living in a pretty conventional space but I really did examine all the things in my life and discarded what was not right for me and embraced what was. By coincidence I chose to do things that were also earthy-friendly.

I’ve gardened for 25 years, all but my first year by organic standards, and for many of those years as a vegetarian raised nearly all the food I ate, preserving what was extra for non-gardening months. I saved seeds, started my own plants from those seeds, composted everything compostable from my household including my waste paper from desk and studio and even my dryer lint.

That’s a lot of work, not composting dryer lint but gardening that intensively, and it’s not for everyone but those who love it and actively choose to do it. I really don’t know how the human race advanced when until this century people had to work so hard just to grow enough food to stay alive, and if they didn’t manage to do so they would simply die. Those are pretty high stakes, and I can see why, when modern chemicals promised and delivered growing crops with less work and less risk of loss, everyone jumped on it.

But we often don’t learn the risks of things until we’ve been actively involved in them for some time, like the effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on soil and air and water and human health. When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring we had already been involved in use of agricultural chemicals at an increasing level for nearly two decades if we count testing and use during WWII. Rachel Carson, among others, could see the risks developing even at that early date, but others still saw rampant hunger in this country and around the world that these “modern” growing methods could alleviate, while, of course, others saw lots of money; in short, a lot of interests were at stake, and still are.

Many of the issues that determine how the earth is used and left for others are this big, involving most of the planet, like drilling for oil, clearing rain forests, implementing alternative energy resources, and seem way too big for individuals to have any impact if they either try to influence one way or the other, or simply go their own way and make other choices.

But everyday choices do make a huge difference, and simply because some issues are really too big for us as individuals to have much impact today, we don’t often realize that even a small act can much later have a bigger impact than expected, and can make change in ways we never intended. This weekend a friend hosted a “Rainbarrel Workshop” wherein people can learn not only how to make a rainbarrel but why they would want to go to the trouble. I gave him the materials I had researched and written and illustrated into an informational package the year after our community suffered a devastating flash flood, a flood that may have been mitigated though not eliminated if stormwater had been better managed.

What can a rainbarrel do?

  • One inch of rain over one square foot of roof yields about 0.62 gallons of water, though the average roof send only about 80% of the water that falls on it into the downspouts, the rest splashing off or even evaporating.
  • Multiplying by 0.8, one square foot of roof for a one inch rain gives 0.5 gallons.
  • One hundred square feet of roof (10’ x 10’) yields 50 gallons of water in a one inch rain.
  • One thousand square feet of roof (20’ x 50’) yields 500 gallons of water in a one inch rain.

So if you have one or more rainbarrels that catch your rainwater and keep it out of local streams and waterways, you are saving that many gallons of rainwater from overburdening your local system during high water events. If your neighbors also have rainbarrels your neighborhood is potentially saving thousands of gallons of stormwater.

Plus, you can use those gallons of water to wash your car or water your garden, saving on your utilities.

And when we host rainbarrel workshops usually about two dozen people attend, learn all these facts and spread them on, plus they met other like-minded people they otherwise wouldn’t have, and a community is formed.

Yes, maintaining a rain barrel, being careful about what you use on your lawn, turning off the water while you brush your teeth, combining trips in the car or sharing rides and myriad other choices you make do cause change, in you and in your environment.

And considering what I write about most frequently—stop littering! With kittens! And puppies and bunnies and any other animal that is already overpopulated in shelters. The resources taken to round up, house, attempt rehoming and, sadly, kill up to 4 million pets each year takes an enormous emotional, social, financial and environmental toll on us and the earth, not to mention it destroys living beings. Responsibility in this preserve the resources needed to care for all animals, from everyday feeding and health care to medical and social studies of animal health and the importance of animals in our lives.

But no one person can do it all. I drove a 35 mile round trip to work for ten years, all by myself on the highway instead of carpooling or trying to find public transportation or moving closer to where I worked while I was living off my little back yard. And I hate to think of what I’ve done to the earth in terms of cat litter over the years I’ve been rescuing cats and living with about nine at once for most of that time.

So do you choose to drive a distance to purchase organic produce or do you save the fossil fuels and visit a local grocery where produce might be grown with various amounts of chemicals? Do you choose to use wind-powered energy when you’re reading that thousands of migrating birds and bats are killed by wind turbines, or maybe they’re not? And information keeps changing?

In the end, it’s more about being aware and making choices than it is about following rules. Make an informed choice, and do what you can. We all leave a footprint of some sort, but we can wisely choose where we step and how heavily we walk.

~~~

I’m happy to pass along the things I’ve researched and learned over the years in my features on The Creative Cat in Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat and Living Green With Pets. In my “other life” outside of writing about and painting and photographing and doting on my cats, I am a Master Gardener and it’s been my pleasure to work with a number of environmental organizations for years in writing and illustrating newsletters, brochures, websites, advertisements and other professional communications.

*About that dishwasher: the test claimed that the most modern dishwashers were more efficient than filling a sink with water to wash and rinse your dishes so the energy and water used by the dishwasher and the residue left by the soap you used left a smaller footprint than washing in the sink. I commented that I’ve seen people use more water to rinse their dishes before they even went in the dishwasher than I used to wash and rinse, but they didn’t go for that. I didn’t get any extra points for looking out the window and singing to myself while I washed by hand instead of watching TV or engaging in some other activity that might use utilities generated by fossil fuels and creating pollution either. Darn.


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Essay: The Cats in My Garden

Daffodils
Daffodils
Daffodils

The re-emergence of life in my garden this spring is tinged with sadness as I picture two of my best friends, in spirit, wandering among the green and daffodils and last year’s leaves.

I have a whole household of cats and I never permit them outside to roam, although I take them outside with me while I work in the yard, retrieving them when they wander. Many years of finding and rescuing cats and kittens who have been abused, abandoned or injured makes me keep them inside except for these brief forays, but one of the things I love most about cats is just watching them be cats.

Last autumn, I lost two of them to cancer. The first was the love of my life, Kublai, a handsome, social and affectionate black cat who I met and fell in love with while was in college. More intelligent and sensitive than many people I know, he had enough love to give away and filled a void in my life while big-brothering every stray kitten and adult cat I had since brought into the house. The other was a big, quiet and gentle orange and white cat named Allegro who loved people and whose life was made complete by the presence and guidance of Kublai and me.

Kublai, tough as nails, held out against his cancer for a year with every treatment and remedy I could find for him. One of the best treatments was a trip into the yard more than once each day in my hope that the life in the garden and flower beds would help support him, but as my garden flourished I watched him decline. At the end of September, Allegro was diagnosed with a quick-moving internal cancer, Kublai died two days later, and Allegro followed him two weeks after that.

Now every spot in the yard has a memory of each of them. I have reinstated the bird bath top on the ground that Kublai used to drink out of every day right after I cleaned and filled it, and in the new columbine foliage I can almost see him lying in the shade under the trees. The new green garlic fronds remind me that I only had four more days with him and only suspicions of Allegro’s illness when I planted them. All the bulbs are up and ready in the little garden outside my dining room window that I arranged with Allegro, suddenly frail, at my side in the warm autumn sunshine just the day before he died. And as I rake up the leftover dry leaves I remember Allegro, just before I noticed any symptoms, chasing and trying to catch the first ones as they fell.

I cleaned up last year’s garden through a blur of tears and neglected many of the things I usually do and forgot things I had done, and I am almost surprised that anything is growing this year. After they died I had them cremated and sprinkled their ashes on the spots they loved best. I think it’s an expression that their love still exists that the iris, like Kublai nearly black with mahogany highlights, sprouted early and is thriving, and the carefree field poppy which is very orange, like Allegro, has already begun to spread and no doubt will bloom freely.

And in time I will forget the illnesses and in my garden I will picture Kublai lurking between the cornstalks and Allegro catching leaves with careless abandon.

I first published this essay on my cat-centric website The Creative Cat in 2013, though it was written for publication in 1988. Some of the references might be more clear in that context, but the sentiment is probably clear even without that knowledge. I included more photos of the subjects in the post on The Creative Cat if you want to see what everything looked like.

Years ago, while I was still working in my day job, I also did a fair amount of freelancing in design, art and writing. One place I’d had a few short pieces published was Organic Gardening Magazine in the late 80s and early 90s, mostly concerning gardening but also an essay. While sorting through old files I found this essay I’d written and submitted along with another they’d agreed to publish. It seemed as if the magazine’s readers and staff were all animal lovers and even gardening stories were full of cats and dogs and rabbits and chickens who were pets, and I’d read a few essays about the losses of pets as well. Though they accepted it this was not published; commentaries such as this were usually held to be used whenever there was a space for them. Magazine staff and format changed soon after this.

But it surprised me to find this story of my household from 1996 and my thoughts in March of 1997 which I’d forgotten I’d written; behind all the correspondence about an article that had been published I saw the title, “The Cats in My Garden”, and it all came back to me. Now, as I review photos from previous years and see all those of Cookie out there with me, and Cookie and Namir in my garden and how grand those years were, and how Kelly enjoyed her visits to the yard in her last few months, I think how my household has changed through the years. Now, beginning another gardening year, I read about another spring emerging after losing two of my cats, and I watch the daffodils, crocuses and squills I planted in 1996 under Allegro’s supervision sprouting and blooming now. Kublai and Allegro were my first two losses of the cats I adopted as an adult.

There have been so many since these two, and yet the flowers we planted and the yard we loved continue to flourish, and just as the flowers inspire me to photograph and paint each spring revisiting how I’d represented them in the past and still finding something new about them, so Kublai and Allegro and all the others continue to still inspire me to create with their image, and still finding things to learn about them.

The photo of Kublai and me, below, was taken by a friend who visited at my request and photographed him and me together using my camera. I wished I’d done it sooner considering his condition, but I’m glad I have the photos now, no matter how he looks. He didn’t actually have cancer unless it had been inflammatory bowel disease that might have turned cancerous, but this simplified it for the article; we never really did determine what caused him to waste away as he did, and I’m not sure even now we would be able to determine it. Allegro had lymphoma, and his loss was very sudden.

The columbine leaves and birdbath top mentioned in the story are in the background of this photo; this was also a favorite haunt of Cookie through the years. Kublai had both front legs shaved for IVs from various treatments, and was down to about six pounds from 12. I just love how he’s looking at me. He was my rock, and he knew it.

And just as an aside, you may be familiar with my curly red hair which is colored with henna. This photo shows my natural color, which is not terribly different.

Kublai and me in August 1996.
Kublai and me in August 1996.

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The Time Is Always Right to Do What is Right, and the Fierce Urgency of Now

That's me on the left.
That's me on the left.
That’s me on the left.

When I was seven years old, my sister entered me in a beauty contest for first graders. That’s me on the left in one of the few photos I have of me from my childhood, dressed kind of like I do today, flowered dress and tights, hair cut with bangs and curly wavy long in back; some things never change. I did not win, and I don’t know who did. I guess it wasn’t important enough to remember.

I do remember that 1968, the year I went from first to second grade, was a very frightening year, and I remember the things that happened that year as I moved out into the world; I can picture me at that time, and remember. Two very public and very respected people were killed in public places. People cried in public. Riots happened and we saw cities burning like something from a scary movie, except it was real life, and people were hurt and killed, real people, like people I knew, and they lost everything they owned.

We heard about the Viet Nam war on every radio news cast and saw it every night on TV. Those people were being shot at, and shooting at others, but it was difficult to determine who was who, and what was right and what was wrong, and the news didn’t really make that clear. A plane was hijacked to Cuba, people taken hostage, big words for a first-grader but I knew what they meant, and I knew it meant those people hadn’t done anything wrong, yet they were taken to a place they were frightened of and could be killed.

And black people, like the few I knew at my school, were also fighting, and being killed, like the people who had lost their homes in the riots. My black friends seemed safe, but from what some people were saying around me I really wasn’t sure.

It seemed like people were being killed everywhere, and that this country, and the world, were not a safe place to be as I emerged from my suburban neighborhood and went to Catholic School. My world was small. I thought these things happened in downtown Pittsburgh, six miles away, and in the tree-covered hills around us in Western Pennsylvania.

We called him Martin Luther King then, no Reverend, no Doctor, no Junior, and I realize now, not allowing him the respect he deserved. But when he was shot and killed, and time stopped as adults held their breath wondering what would happen, I remember hearing about the dream, and freedom and wondered why some people couldn’t have it like I did, in my simplistic first-grader reasoning I thought they should live like me. I remember the word “service”, and how we needed to help each other, no doubt echoing what I was also learning in Catholic school.

And I remember hearing that we needed to do this now, we could not wait because…people were suffering, and they were dying, because they did not have the same rights as others, as I did.

I wanted to do something, but had no idea what I could do, or when, or how. I looked to adults for answers, but they all seemed to be waiting for something. I just tried to be nice to everyone.

A decade later, after witnessing the strife and changes from 1968 to 1978, I read Letter From a Birmingham Jail, which speaks much of time, and there it was, …”the time is always ripe to do right.” That concept of not waiting for the right moment, the “fierce urgency of now” would appear in many of what I read of Dr. King’s writings. And it answered the question I’d had a decade before.

The time is always right to do what is right.

Yet for many people conditions have not changed from what they were in 1968. The time is now.

http://www.thekingcenter.org/news/2013-04-king-center-marks-50th-anniversary-mlk-s-letter-birmingham-jail

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/letter-from-birmingham-jail/552461/

http://www2.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/BlackHistoryMonth/MLK/MLKmainpage.html

http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/christianityfortherestofus/2011/01/martin-luther-king-jr-fierce-urgency-of-now.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_in_the_United_States


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On Planting Peas

Peas

It is early March and I am planting peas. The wan spring sun is finding its heat and lays like a warm hand upon my back as I work. Signs of approaching spring fill my senses in the mild air on my skin, the scent of damp soil and the shrieks of children as they run in frenzied circles of freedom, much like the birds swooping and circling above whistling their mix of songs.

We have passed the first intoxicating days of air that does not bite, endless sun warm enough to melt the last snowfall into a composition of dripping and trickling, soften the soil and make one’s blood run with the abandon of a stream overflowing with spring thaw. The dawns have come noticeably earlier and the muted indigo dusks have lost the sharp quickness of winter and softened to a moist lingering evening.

Perhaps it is the phase of the sun or the moon, the proximity to the vernal equinox or some eternal voice that speaks to those who will listen about the time and season of things, or my own impatience to join in with the cycle that has been going on without me for a few months. Whether it is any of these reasons or all of them or none of them, I awaken one day in March every year with the knowledge that this is the day to plant the peas. It is as clear a yearly anniversary for me as any holiday, and can never be planned.

This particular morning, awakening with this revelation, I reviewed the process of planting and imagined once again the garden I had been planning since the previous autumn, fed my cats and stepped out onto the deck with one or another of them and my coffee in hand as the sun lifted above the horizon. I listened to what the birds said in their morning song, closed my eyes and caught the scent of a chill early spring morning to find its opinion, and felt the warm sun wash assurance over my face and thereby determined that, yes, for whatever reasons, this day was right for both me and the peas.

I sorted the packets of peas out of the basket of seed packets, found the jars reserved for this purpose and filled them with warm water, opened the packets and counted the peas into the jars, taping their names around the jars to keep them sorted. The peas would soak for a few hours, welcomed into this world with a gentle bath, softening their outer layers and awakening the seedling within.

Seedlings are growing under lights in my basement, but at this stage they could be houseplants for all that they represent food. Planting the peas is the real thing. Putting seeds in the ground is an act of faith and trust that both you and nature will do your parts, that neither will you plant your peas under the wrong conditions and expect them to survive nor will nature scramble the seasons and instead of turning toward summer, turn back toward winter and eliminate the growing season. It is a promise to honor the needs of the seeds you sow, and so be rewarded with their provender.

Going about my daily business of checking the e-mail and the fax and making and returning a few phone calls, I was really only biding my time until the sun warmed the area of the garden where the peas would be planted. In early afternoon I dropped everything else and changed my clothes, preparing to break my own dormancy, clear the debris and decay of inactivity and begin to set my own seeds for another year of activity.

I had fondly reviewed each step of the process of planting peas while I completed the other necessary responsibilities of the day, and the outline of my task for the day was clear, but it was also leading me to visions of the garden to come and my excitement was building. Dressed in a flannel shirt over a t-shirt, jeans and rubber gardening clogs, I opened the basement door and burst outside, the first of many days I would do so. I chose my tools and moved everything to the long, narrow planting bed along the fence. This bed gets full sun nearly all day and has the best drainage for spring planting, and as they grow, the peas can twine their tendrils through the fence wire, giving the plants themselves the maximum amount of sunlight on their leaves and making the mature peas much easier to find at harvest time.

A slight breeze rustled dry leaves stuffed into corners of the garden and caused bare branches to click and rattle together. The earth’s crust looked dull gray-brown and callused with winter debris and clumps of frostbitten soil heaved up as the soil froze and thawed through the cold, but as I cleared away and turned under a winter’s worth of last year’s remains from its surface the moist soil beneath looked as rich as chocolate cake. As I applied my spading fork, gently pressing, lifting and turning forks full of soil to loosen it for roots to sprout and stretch an early robin followed close behind me. She ignored my polite question about her health and comment on the weather, intent instead on being the first to grab the fresh treats upturned by my work.

While the robin, joined by others, continued diving at creeping soil dwellers startled by their abrupt turn of soil, I rolled the wheelbarrow to the compost bin. I lifted the layer of tangled plants and autumn leaves to expose the fine humus beneath, last year’s garden trimmings and kitchen vegetable scraps recycled by nature to fertilize this year’s harvest. The robins hardly noticed my approach as I wheeled the barrow back to the bed and only moved a few feet up or down the bed as I began dropping forks full of compost over the soil and turned it under in another pass with the spading fork.

The steady work warmed me, rinsing the winter’s cold and stiffness from my muscles and bones, and already I felt stronger, more balanced, with more purpose to life than when I had awakened that morning. Even though little puffs of cold air still rose from shadows, working under the warming sun I found I could stand for the first time in a t-shirt, letting light breezes brush my arms, imagining what, in just a few months, would feel like unbearable heat, and this barren landscape of a backyard garden would be a humming, buzzing, lush tangle of growing things.

My cats divide their time among prowling the yard, inspecting in every corner and under every shrub for messages from other animal visitors to their yard, helpfully supervising my work, watching with narrowed eyes, then walking down along the furrow to check its precision, and napping for the first time in the warm spring sun on a bed of dry leaves. Cookie, Namir, Stanley, Sophie, Moses, Allegro, Kublai, all my garden companions through the years join me for this annual event as I watch the ones who approach me for pets, and fondly remember the antics and habits of those who are here in spirit.

Then it was time to draw the furrow, one long, straight row all the way down this narrow bed. As the furrow grew I remembered pea plantings from previous years, envisioning little sprouts in the soil, dainty white blossoms all over robust vines, delicate tendrils reaching out and upward, fluttering leaves creating a complicated pattern in shades of green with sunshine and shadow. As the last act of preparation, I got three thick, short twigs and, visually dividing the bed into four parts, one for each variety of pea, I placed a twig as a divider.

In the kitchen, I put the jars of soaking peas into a little basket then took them down to the garden while trying to decide in which order I should plant them. I plan my garden pretty thoroughly, but always allow for some last-minute decisions. I could stand there all afternoon debating with myself the best order for planting the four different varieties while grackles and blue jays kept a running commentary on my activity and everything else around, their squeaks and whistles and pops thrown from one to another from tree to tree and sometimes joining together just to make noise like a crowd of boisterous people. I know there is no need for change in what I had planned. Everything was ready, and it only remained to actually put the pea seeds in the furrow.

My fingers slightly apart over the top of the first jar, I held the jar close to the soil and walked along the bed in the first section, pouring the peas’ soaking water into the furrow, then filled the palm of my hand with some actual pea seeds. The peas, softened, warm, nearly hummed with life as I pushed them around in my palm. Carefully balancing my handful of pea seeds I dropped to one knee at the end of the bed. Taking one pea seed and then another in two fingers of one hand from the palm of the other I placed them one after another an unmeasured inch apart as if offering a gift. Creeping along on one knee in a seemingly ancient ritual of supplication, I continued down the bed, planting each of the four varieties in the same way, suppressing the surges of my inherent impatience borne of a life adapted to automation, with the orderly, sustained labor itself, letting the job take the time it needed to take, enjoying the activity, enjoying the travel without concentrating on the destination.

Now the pea seeds stretch like a strand of irregular freshwater pearls, pale green in their rich brown velvet bed of nurturing humus, plump from their soaking, fully awakened and ready, as I was this morning, to rejoin the cycle that has been turning while we have been dormant. Each one contains the ability to sprout, sink roots down into the soil and push cotyledons up through it, grow leaf after leaf, branching, reaching and climbing, its intent to give life to potentially hundreds of progeny. These peas have so many odds against them in the immense challenge of bringing new life into the world and the responsibility of carrying on their species, and yet their only defense is to stand there and take whatever is spent on them and do their best to fulfill their biological obligation. Surely after so many generations of being tossed into the soil and left on their own they have learned some organic equivalent of fear, yet they show no concern at their position but seem excited, eager to get on with the process.

I know it will snow again this season, the soil will freeze again, clutching around each tender seed, the rains may fall too much or too little, the heat may rise to an unusual summer’s pitch earlier than is expected, all of these things and more have happened in other springs; the conditions for life are never perfect. And suddenly, as every year, I feel a rush of protective love for these brave little peas, and that bond between a grower and the growing thing is formed, and I know, and the peas know, and everything else I will plant and nurture in this little space I call my own, that I will keep my part of the bargain and protect and support them in any way I can, and they will do their best with what is given them, and in the end they will gladly give and I will enjoy whatever gifts they have to offer, be it nourishment or visual delight or practical necessity.

Birds flying overhead cast moving shadows across the warm dark earth as I work, their paths crisscrossing as if to bless my activity as I move back along the row with my hoe, gently piling loose soil over the peas, surrounding them with all the nourishment I can give them, and then again as I return with the watering can, soaking the bed from end to end in my final act of planting before I leave these peas on their own.

A haze of high, thin clouds has formed on the southwest horizon, dulling the sunlight with a gossamer veil. I can once again feel the chill of winter and put my flannel shirt on over my t-shirt, gather my tools together and begin putting things away. Still at its lower winter angle, the sun will soon fall behind the tips of bare trees, then behind rooftops, then behind the silhouette of the edge of the earth, bathing this newly-turned bed full of pea seeds in the soft lavender of an early evening in late winter to be followed by the encouraging glow of a waxing moon.

Later, when the lavender twilight has deepened to an indigo dusk, the moonlight faded behind clouds then dissolved into a cold blue-black night velvet with moisture, I will hear the first few raindrops tap against the roof and windows, weighted with sustenance gathered from the earth in this thaw. As the drops are joined by more and yet more until there are no more individual drops, I will imagine each drop washing the soil down around each pea, pressing it ever so gently into the hand of its mother, who will cradle it, giving it the divine spark of its new life.

And I have once again passed this anniversary and rejoined the cycle.

NOTE: In the scene in the first paragraph you will find the inspiration for the poem I posted yesterday, “Flocks of Children”.

~~~

In 2003, a group of us had founded a community development organization among business owners in town to help build up foot traffic and interest in Carnegie. I handled arts issues, and later flower planting, but for those first two years I really wanted to pull together all the creative efforts around town, three galleries, historical society, various artists, church choirs, and writers hidden among it all.

While planning quarterly gallery walks and encouraging businesses to stay open for the guests who would visit, I also decided to found a writers’ group to meet at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall.  We met once a month on Saturday morning. I had no experience in this but decided we needed one, and if I couldn’t guide it perhaps I’d attract someone who had more experience and could take it over.

At the end of 2003 I suggested we have a reading, each of us reading one or two pieces to whoever showed up to hear us. Then, after finding small books like this in bags of free books I suggested we all contribute one or two pieces of the writing we’d shared and I’d design and have a little folio book printed. We could sell them to help raise funds to pay for the printing and keep our group going.

And so we did. We had about eight people participate, and about a dozen gathered at a gallery to hear us in January 2004. I wrote this piece for that event and included it in the first edition of our book.

We continued meeting through 2004 until the catastrophic flood from Hurricane Ivan in September. We only missed one meeting and had another reading and another folio book in January 2005. At that point I felt I had to hand the organization over to someone else for new challenges with family member health and helping to clean up after the flood. The group kind of drifted, then quit meeting, but I am still thrilled for the two good years we had, and all the amazing stories and writing we shared.


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I Don’t Want to Be Colorblind

january20-2014-1000px-2

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.


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A “Work” Anniversary

"Aurora Borealis", pastel, 18" x 12", 2000 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski
"Aurora Borealis", pastel, 18" x 12", 2000 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski
A Work Anniversary

“Aurora Borealis”, a sketch I did for an illustration for a book about two polar bears who…I don’t remember the story line, but I do remember checking my voice mail at home while I was at work that last autumn I was at my day job, and listened to the message from the small press publisher who’d found my art online. He had an idea for a book that incorporated text and art, and he liked the style of my pastels and how I treated animals in my paintings, and he also saw that I was a graphic designer and freelanced as a book designer. He wanted me to illustrate and design the book.

That one call was “it”. I had been freelancing full time nights and weekends as well as carrying a schedule of new paintings and art exhibits monthly and was still working full time, but knew the time was near. I could live on what I made from the book publishers and the other customers I had at the time, one of them a home builder who had me create artist’s renderings of his house plans and flyers from that. The art sales were gravy. My office was set up, my car was paid off and the only other debt was my mortgage, money in the bank, health insurance and retirement set up. But was I really ready? I only needed one good nudge. That call was it.

In fact, I suddenly felt a little panic. Had I waited too long? Should I be home right now? Was I missing calls? That was why I checked my voice mail during lunch, but without caller ID, how would I know if someone had called and not left a message? I had to be at home!

January 1 is the anniversary of the day I began working at home and it’s very easy to remember what year I’m celebrating because that day was January 1, 2000. I still remember that first day, going to sit at my desk in the room downstairs even though it wasn’t really a work day. I’d been freelancing and working at that desk in the corner for a few years already, and looking out the two big windows to watch birds at the feeders and observe the neighborhood, my desk and the windowsills lined with my family of felines, happy I’d be sitting still for a while so they could get in a good bath and nap on me and my papers.

I had done the sketch during the evenings while still working, but photographed it to send a print to the publisher on pretty much my first day working at home, along with photographing some other artwork, and some other photos on that same roll, reference photos that later became award-winning works.

Reference photo for "Warm Winter Sun".
Reference photo for “Warm Winter Sun”.

Look somewhat familiar? Yes, it’s the reference photo for the art that’s in the header for The Creative Cat, “Warm Winter Sun”. Only in January does the light stream all the way into the kitchen like that, not even in December is the light that color. And another photo next to that one…

Contentment
Contentment

That’s Moses sleeping in about the same spot as Namir in the other photo, but she had been there earlier. The sun is a little higher on the bookshelf. I remember debating between the two and I had intended to paint both, but only painted Namir. Fifteen years later, I can’t tell you why, but I do know that one of my goals was to focus on photography generally, photograph my cats more often so I had lots of reference photos, and get around to painting them way sooner than before, like paint them as soon as I got the photos back. And so I did, because instead of waiting a decade as I had with other photos I entered the painting of Namir and won Best Pastel in South Hills Art League’s 2000 Annual Juried Show. I’ve sold framed prints of the photo of Moses, but I think this spring I’ll paint the one this photo and we’ll see what 15 years of experience in painting has done to my style.

Another photo on that roll…

tortie cat on back
Reference image for “The Goddess” linoleum block print.

Yes, Cookie really did lie about on her back like this, and I decided to take her photo. The image stayed with me, and a little later that year I suddenly visualized the hand-colored block print you’ll see by clicking on this link. I decided making a block print, something I could reproduce but was still an “original”, would be ideal for donating to shelter events and to sell at animals events I attended, and so it was. I didn’t get to do it right away but waited until 2001 when I had the time and the idea for a set including “The Roundest Eyes”.

And also because my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in April 2000 and became my responsibility as he moved through his recovery, and then my mother developed lung cancer and had surgery and barely recovered, both of them incapacitated with multiple medical conditions and in care for the next decade as I was legal guardian for my mother and POA and representative for my brother. We never know what will happen to change our plans, and those two medical emergencies certainly changed the business plan and list of objectives I had spent a decade determining.

But my felines were there for me, unconditionally, at the end of a long day at the computer; below, my desk in summer 2006 featuring Stanley curled next to Sophie, Kelly bathing, Namir and Cookie curled in front of me and Peaches having a good scratch on the file cabinet, six cats….

 Desk with six cats, taken in 2006, but typical of my desk at any given time.
Desk with six cats, taken in 2006, but typical of my desk at any given time.

…or an all night project, or when I came home from a long day at one hospital or another, or a day of doctor appointments.

 It's 3:00 a.m., do you know where your human is?
It’s 3:00 a.m., do you know where your human is?
It’s 3:00 a.m., do you know where your human is?

Over the years my customers and work projects have evolved as has my family of felines, though lying all over my desk never went out of style, even in the wee hours when I was up with a project as in the photo above from 2010 with Peaches on a box, Mimi on the windowsill, Dickie on my desk, Cookie having a good bath on my paperwork, and Giuseppe being vigilant. It really was 3:00 a.m.—there were plenty of times in my mother’s last years that I was off at a hospital unexpectedly for hours to see to her care that I just worked whenever I could, and my cats took it all in stride.

And yes, Stanley and Moses and Cookie and Sophie and Namir and Kelly and Nikka were very glad I just quit going to work one day, and we’ve never looked back. I’m so glad I was home for their last years.

Last autumn I once again repaired the keyboard shelf on this desk and I remembered that, including the time I’d spent freelancing in the 1990s, I’d been working in this same corner of the room for 25 years and at this desk for 20, and as much as I love the views out the windows, the convenience to the kitchen and outdoors and all the memories, I was really tired of that spot! About three years ago when my keyboard shelf first fell off my desk, rendering it unusable for me because of where I need to have my keyboard positioned to avoid repetitive motion strain injuries, I temporarily abandoned the desk and set up shop in my studio, and currently split my work between the two places, design as well as art. I resisted a computer in my studio for years because I would repeatedly check my email and other electronic things, but now I’m pleased to have two computers networked and two equally suited workstations.

Most of all I also enjoyed the change in scenery and found the room conducive to writing as well, and began moving more and more of my writing up to my studio. As my work has included more fine art, writing and creating gift items and less commercial graphic design, I’ve been spending more time in the studio and enjoying every minute. For many years it was the “spare kitty room”, holding many memories of sitting in that room and looking out that window while trying to tame or comfort or treat a rescued cat, and may still serve that purpose again if it’s ever necessary, but I think I’ve moved that operation to the bathroom for now. I think my family of felines appreciates the change in scenery too, or they just like to make sure I am properly supervised as you see Jelly Bean, Mewsette, Giuseppe, Sunshine and Cookie on the chair.

five cats in studio
The Curious Quartet joins Cookie in getting ready for a day of work.

Many things have changed in my commercial art life each year for the past four or five, the printers I use, the projects I work on, the amount of design work I have. Things changed in my art life too as I’ve loosened up and feel much more free in my work through the practice of my daily sketches, and I’m looking for more opportunities to market and sell my art and merchandise. I’ve also continued to find more places to publish my articles and stories, so I’m deriving more and more of my income away from graphic design.

When I talk to students about being self-employed I tell them two things I’m sure they don’t listen to: learning to run a business is more important than performing your skill, and expect everything to change on a regular basis.

You can read more about my background in my 13-year anniversary post from a previous year and about my education in my ten-year anniversary post and on my About page. Also visit my blog What’s New in Bernadette’s Studio? to see current commercial projects and visit my main website in Graphic Design and Illustration to see projects by product and by customer.


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The Light in the Darkness

Oh
Oh
Oh

FOR THIS LAST SUNDAY before the end of the year I thought I’d share some observations brought to mind by the darkness of the season, the solstice when the sun is less and less, each day shorter, some very old part of our brain senses imminent danger then by a miracle the light returns and we celebrate. Unlike my other essays this is equally photos and words so that you can see my inspirations.

In these darkening days it’s easy to curse the darkness and miss the delicate beauty only found at this time. 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.

. . . . . . .

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.

Winter Lilies
Winter Lilies

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.

Exotic
Exotic

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.

Frozen Flowers
Frozen Flowers

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.

Portrait
Portrait

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.

Grass
Grass

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.

Soft Pattern
Soft Pattern

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.

The Empire Shriveled
The Empire Shriveled

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.

Warm and Cool
Warm and Cool

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.

Patterns and Transparencies
Patterns and Transparencies

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.

Armor
Armor

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Poem and Essay: Corsages in a Book / The History We Will Never Know

Corsage-2-1000px

I have a book that remained in my mother’s house
after I moved her to the personal care home,
The Pennsylvania Almanac 1945,
in which were nestled
three corsages pressed flat,
spaced among the thousand pages
of information about the administration of Pennsylvania,
maps and lists and departments,
information anyone would need to know
to get things done in Pennsylvania.
But there was no information about the corsages,
the small wrist corsage with the shell-pink ribbon and small pink roses,
or the white rose with blue ribbons to be pinned on a dress,
or the creamy white bridal bouquet, two roses, ivory satin ribbon
chenille holder and ivory lace.

When were the dances, the night out, the wedding?
Do I see these in the dim black and white images
of my mother with her first husband,
right after the war,
before they married?
Is this the small bouquet she holds in one of her wedding photos,
to match perfectly the ivory wedding suit she wears?

Or are they from an even earlier time,
the love all through high school
who came back from the war and loved and left her.
You preserve a corsage because
you want to preserve the memory;
you carefully arrange the materials so they preserve the original
and the book pages pull the moisture from the flowers,
but these were dropped in a book that would never be opened again,
and the pages slapped shut,
no arranging of ribbons and lace, the flowers pressed into each other,
the whole thing nearly unrecognizable,
I know about pressing corsages;
these were left behind, ignored, but I know they were not forgotten.
Somewhere in all the stories
I will find the stories of the corsages.

poem copyright 2009 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

The History We Will Never Know

A wide, heavy volume always occupied a space in the bookshelf near where my mother sat in the living room, along with her crossword puzzle reference books and world almanacs, dictionary and thesaurus and other reference books, near the book club novels that were still her favorites. But she regularly used those reference books and we read the novels. The big volume never seemed to move, just sat heavily and dull green, its title, The Pennsylvania Almanac 1945, embossed in increasingly faded gold on its wide spine.

I never questioned the presence of this book, never wondered why someone would want an almanac of the state’s political system and elected officials from 1945 when it was 1975, for instance, or why there was no almanac for other years. As a young reader and into my teens, looking for something to read when I’d run out of things, I’d opened the book more than once and tried make it interesting enough to follow along. Each time I carefully flipped past the corsages because the book’s pages opened to them, and even looking at the edges of the book it was clear something fairly thick was stuffed in there, a bit of ribbon seeping out.

I didn’t question the corsages then, either. Finding corsages pressed into a large book, which would flatten it and pull the moisture out of the flowers and greenery fast enough to keep it from turning brown and crumbling and thereby preserve it, was still in common practice then and dictionaries and encyclopedias were often pressed into service for this.

But when I cleared out my mother’s house as I prepared it for sale, alone there in the quiet little ranch I’d grown up in while she was in personal care, clearing off shelves, packing papers from the desk in boxes, I paid closer attention to things than before, even in the recent years she’d lived there, and found questions, but few answers.

I opened that big, ugly volume once again, carefully looked at each of the corsages, looked at where they were placed to see if the pages were a clue. The book had not been hers originally, had someone else’s name penciled onto the flyleaf so it may have been used, or it may have  been given to her, or possibly that person himself was the reason it was kept; an affair she never mentioned? Why 1945? Were the corsages from 1945? Had there been other volumes but only this one kept because it contained the corsages, and perhaps a volume of memories as well?

1945 was also the year her high school sweetheart had come home from the war but told her he could not stay with her because of his experience overseas. Had she worn one to welcome him home? Had they gone out to a dance or event? Would that have made her unceremoniously toss the corsages into this big ugly book, but carry the book around for the rest of her life, through two marriages? She certainly carried his memory actively through that time.

That was before her 1946 wedding to her first husband, my sister’s father, who they’d lost in a car accident in 1952, though they may have been dating that year. He ultimately worked for the state and possibly that had come up in conversation. Had she found this book as a reference for working with the state, and then forever associated it with him?

I also noticed the faded embossed gold, the broken binding, torn at the edges of the spine, top and sides. Any book that had sat on a shelf, rarely moved, for 60 years, would not have tattered covers. Someone besides me had opened that book frequently enough. My mother stayed up late every night of my childhood, often until dawn, after my baker father had gone to work in the day’s early hours. Had she pulled this book from the shelf then, opened the pages, touched the corsages, held those memories?

I don’t think I will ever know where they were from. But I realized on that day in 2003 when I took a good look at the book and the state of the corsages that they represented one more hurt in her long and rather sad life, one more hurt she could not let go of.

I carefully placed the book into a bag to take home, its pages literally and metaphorically carrying information I would carefully keep to discern. I asked my mother about the volume and the corsages later, but never truly received an answer. Sometimes deflection was her subterfuge for things she didn’t want to discuss, sometimes she was experiencing mild dementia. I did not press her at that time, and the work of selling the house and bringing much of what I wanted to either sell or keep came to my house so that the book was placed on one of my own shelves, then lost behind boxes of things as paperwork mounted.

The time of running my business, managing her care and my brother’s care were top of mind but in rearranging things in 2009 I found the book again, but by that time my mother was so deep into dementia she might as well accuse me of letting the turkey burn in the over as tell me once again she wasn’t sure what book I meant and change the subject. I tried, and failed, wrote a poem to hold my thoughts and let it go until later, when I had more time to consider.

The high school sweetheart left her at the end of 1945, as near as I can tell. My mother and her first husband were married in December 1946. The car accident that took his life, and nearly hers too, was at the end of November 1952. My parents married at the end of October 1955. I think of her in relation to those marriages and losses at this time of the year, especially in the dark and cold of November, when suddenly the days are short and spirits seem to moan in the first cold howling winter winds.


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September 11, and September 12, 2001

September 12, 2001
September 12, 2001
September 12, 2001

September 11

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 early morning work in my garden and yard when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Thinking it was an unfortunate accident I continued listening to the radio for details and shortly thereafter 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. The previous year my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident. I was integral to their recoveries and care, and my carefully-planned self-employment was unraveling.

When I heard the news just before 9:00 a.m. that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, 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. 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 was that it was likely an accident, planes had hit buildings in the past. Then the second plane hit the other tower, and even though we had no proof it seems we all knew it was intentional. Everyone in the area was looking at the towers at that point and saw the direction, the turn, the increase in speed prior to hitting the tower, and suddenly a perfect morning had turned unreal.

After the plane hit the Pentagon, I put Moses, my garden cat, inside the basement, much to her consternation, as if she needed to be protected from what might be happening, and 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.

Jets fly overhead all the time. I have lived in the flight path for Pittsburgh International Airport all my life and close enough 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.

Then in the growing quiet, 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, just back from several months in various hospitals after lung cancer surgery that unexpectedly nearly killed her. She was still weak and needed 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 was in a 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.

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. I live very near Pittsburgh International Airport and 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 but became unnerving as the hours of daylight passed and we had no more of our questions answered, nor know 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.

September 12

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.

poem September 12 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski


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My Own Labor History

090417-IsalyApron-letter-1000px

First published in 2013

When I was a senior in high school I began my first full-time job as a cook at a local deli, Isaly’s in Pittsburgh. Working part-time nights and weekends until graduation I trained in the day cook’s position of opening the kitchen at 6:00 am to cook the lunch entrée and heat up the soups, open the doors of the shop at 7:00 am for the first customers wanting coffee and a pastry or a brown bag lunch to go, serve meals and beverages and offer counter help at all the stations as needed, plan the weekly lunch specials and soups and order accordingly, also using leftovers, with as little waste as possible, keeping the kitchen and walk-in freezer clean, and deep frying 50 pounds of fish every Friday for a community that still observed this particular weekly fasting menu. Whew!

For this I was paid my full-time wage of $3.50 per hour for all the hours I worked and was an apprentice member of the Hotel, Motel, Bar and Club Workers’ Union, a subsidiary of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, which ensured that my employer gave me what he’d promised—a reasonable schedule for a high school student, maintaining the hours and wages agreed upon, full training for the job I would undertake, and the ability to question or file complaint if anything didn’t meet the standards we’d discussed when I was hired. In addition, the union as well as the shop oversaw my performance, that I learned what I needed to and worked as expected. I guess I did because when I graduated in June the day cook could finally retire as I undertook her 40 hours of weekly duties and also became a full union member, and received full health and life insurance benefits, guaranteed raises and vacation, pension, plus all other union benefits of assistance with further training in my field and the ability to file grievance if I felt one was necessary, and my employer could also appeal to the union if they felt my performance wasn’t adequate.

Now that’s job security.

It was 1979, minimum wage in Pennsylvania was $2.90 per hour. Using the US government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics calculator for wages and inflation, my full-time wages of $3.50 per hour today translate to $11.26 per hour. My 1979 annual salary of $7,280.00 translates today to $23,423.95. Out of my wages I paid $20.00 monthly union dues, but all the rest after taxes was mine, and with that amount of income I could have moved out of my parents’ house into my own place and started my life as an adult, purchased my own clothes, food and necessities, bought a car and other commodities, and even managed to save a portion of it for retirement, a house, vacation, or even investment. In other words, I could live independently on the salary from a fairly unskilled job with training right out of high school. There were other, better jobs as well that required more effort and paid better, I had my choice. In my little spot in the world, nearly everyone was a union member, and a choice such as this had begun many a life-long career that raised many families, bought many houses, paid for millions of college educations and built the strongest economy in the world.

My choice

What I decided to do with that money was invest in my college education. At the same time that I’d applied for the job at Isaly’s I’d also applied, very late, to a state college, urged on by my high school guidance counselor, and been accepted; I’m not sure, but I think I took my SATs when I applied and got my results just in time. While there were, and still are, a dozen viable colleges and universities in Pittsburgh as well as dozens more trade schools and even other union apprenticeships where I could have attended while living at home, my guidance counselor gently pointed me to Edinboro State College, close enough to be easy to get to and full of students from Pittsburgh but far enough that I would have to live there, because they had a good art program and I could also have the option of a teaching degree with their long history as one of the state’s oldest teachers’ colleges. I didn’t have terribly good grades or SAT scores and no distinguishing activities at all aside from the fact I’d always been praised by teachers for my art and writing, but the school wanted students, and also had the lowest tuition of all the colleges in the Pennsylvania state college system at the time. It was perfect for me, beginner that I was.

My parents wavered between ignoring the idea and disdain at the idea I wanted to go to college. My father, we learned a few years later, had Parkinson’s disease, never said much and reactions were barely detectable, but my mother laughed and said I could try this but I’d probably come right back home; I was a minor so they signed my application at least. I don’t remember the reaction when I received my acceptance letter, probably because I’d rather not remember, but my mother was further angered when, while I’d dutifully signed over all other income from part-time jobs and even grass-cutting from the age of 14, I went to one of the banks on Main Street in Carnegie and opened a bank account, depositing my paychecks and learning from the teller how to manage the register and write checks. I actually didn’t think about the impact on my mother, it just made sense.

I paid my fees to the college, bought myself a set of luggage, some clothes, a winter coat and boots for life in what I heard was the “snow belt”, and a backpack, which seemed to be de rigueur for all college students and kept all the rest of the money in the bank. My parents filled out my financial aid forms, though after my first semester I declared myself independent of them and completed them myself. My boyfriend drove me up for Initiation Day just before he left for Air Force boot camp, and I told my employer about my change of plans.

Through the rest of the summer I worked and trained my replacement. On the day I left for college my mother stayed in bed while I piled all my stuff into the back seat of my father’s olive-green Impala and he drove me up, dropped me off, gave me the only hug I remember in all my life, and went back home. After attending four years, including summers, working five or six part-time jobs on and off campus the entire time, taking the bus home only for occasional holidays, making a fair number of misguided mistakes as well as good decisions, I graduated with 178 credits out of a necessary 120 to graduate, only $700 in student loan debt and a BA in English, but I learned much more than grammar and a love of Shakespeare.

Coming back

The world had changed dramatically during those four years as the steel industry and most of the economy in Pittsburgh had totally collapsed. Within years jobs like the one I’d had at Isaly’s no longer existed, and unskilled beginning jobs were non-union, often taken up by unemployed adults, and wages stagnated. For nearly a decade all jobs were uncertain, layoffs were common—I was laid off four times in my first three years out of college—and population dropped as people left for jobs elsewhere until Pittsburgh found its feet again, in education, health care, and hi-tech development and manufacturing.

I didn’t have the chance to go on with the education I’d planned, to teach English and comparative arts at the college level and become an artist and writer in my own right; soon after I’d graduated my father injured himself at his lifetime occupation as a baker in small family bakeries, was diagnosed with lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease and both parents needed assistance of all sorts. I worked any job I could find and began freelancing even then, and by the time my parents’ situation had stabilized with my father in a nursing home and my mother settled in the house but with a car and a drivers’ license, I had some debt to remove and, after a lot of deliberation, decided not to return to school but to try to make a career out of what I could do already. After many twists and turns both in and out of my field, I ended up being a typesetter for nearly 20 years as well as installing ceiling fans for cash and decorating malls and painting signs and all else I could make out of what I’d learned in college and afterward, here I am, self-employed as an artist and writer, and now and then I get to teach something.

My personal labor history

As a young person I was able to begin the course of my adult life by choosing between a skilled job at a living wage or a college education and what that could bring me later. The minimum wage (or even the 1979 server wage of $1.81 per hour plus tips) and slightly higher wage for skilled labor were each living wages and I could either start my career right then or work my way through college because my wages could sustain those choices.

I won’t bemoan the opportunities that are no longer available. The world changes as time passes, and hopefully the changes bring not only different but better opportunities, the things to which we are accustomed are replaced with things that make our lives better and easier, education matches the needs of society and its work force. But the days of working your way through college with a bunch of part-time jobs, or being able to live independently right out of high school, are so far out of reach it must seem to most people that there really are no choices, and no place to go. I was glad for the choice of an unskilled career job that enabled me to learn true independence, save money, and help me set sail, and I’m also glad for the college degree I could afford and without which I would have ended up living in my parents’ basement for the following decades. Today, I would not have the choices I had 34 years ago, and would certainly not have had the courage to make the decision I did to go to a four-year college and see what happened. How can you look forward to your life when your future seems out of reach and unaffordable? What do determined dreamers like me do? I’m not sure, but we need to find a place in the labors of our society for everyone.


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