EACH DAY THE DARKNESS COMES EARLIER, too early, and we talk about how this early darkness feels unbearable. The daylight 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.
The date of this “gray day walk” was December 15, just one day different from today, and just as gray.
. . . . . . .
I have had far worse days. Overwhelmed by the demands of commercial work as my customers and I prepared for the holidays along with merchandise orders and custom portraits and my own preparations for ending the year and beginning the next as a small business, I left the house at 4:00 p.m. destined for the post office and bank just before they closed.
Though I had walked this half mile route from my home to Main Street for years, I had lately been driving, using the need to save time or the awkwardness of a pile of packages as an excuse for wasting gas and a chance at exercise and fresh air. The day was hardly inspiring—five days prior to the winter solstice the days were frighteningly short, sunset less than an hour away, and in a series of heavy dark days typical of this area in late autumn and early winter, dense pasty clouds hanging low overhead and so dark it had felt like dusk at noon, and now some of the street lights on Main Street were already alight. I nearly always take photos on these walks, and while I laid the strap of my camera bag over my shoulder I was glad that, for once, I would probably not find anything to photograph and take time from my day in conditions like these.
Traffic was heavy so I took my route under the bridge, next to the creek where traffic noises faded and birds sang, a trickling sound as water flowed smoothly past over the rocks in the shallow waterway. And in the dim and fading light a world so familiar at first appeared dark and nearly colorless until my eyes adjusted to the light and found such wonders among the wildflowers along the way, standing upright though dried and every shade of brown and tan and umber I found fantastical birds, abstract sculptures, amazing complex patters among the dried flower heads, exposed and broken seed pods, leaves clinging curled to stems.
I could not stop for the post office and bank both closed at 4:30, so I walked as fast as I could with my camera bag on one shoulder and a large canvas bag of packages on the other so that I could amble back through this wonderland on my way back to my neighborhood. The light was so dim then, as the time approached sunset within minutes, that I had to set the ISO of my camera on 800 to get anything but vague images floating in sepia darkness, even with all my settings to admit as much light as possible.
These plants had sprung up from seeds tossed here on the wind and water, carried by birds and people walking past, sprouted in spring, housed birds and insects in summer, borne their flowers in summer and fall. I had walked among them many times with my camera and sketchpad, I knew where each stood, when they bloomed, their botanical names and history, I looked for them each year and anticipated the best times to compose the images I visualized, but this was a gift in its unfamiliarity.
Now, after several frosts, autumn storms and snow, the weak parts had been stripped away and the strongest parts of them were burnished by adversity and stood dignified in the dimness, with just enough sheen to highlight their most interesting shapes, textures and combined patterns.
The background now, rather than the usual details of other plants and flowers, was darkness, the more perfect to silhouette each delicate construction as if in a gallery featuring the finest art.
Milkweed pods became flocks of fantastical birds, or individual exotic species clinging to stems. Tightly curled dried flowers or clusters of puffy seeds set loose, sere and twisted leaves and flowers of another time. Even the holiday decorations in a shop front, capturing the blue from the late afternoon light with highlights from the store within echoed the shapes and patterns of the natural forms outdoors, as the raindrops that would soon fall.
I arrived home with dirty shoes from walking in mud, and dirty knees from kneeling in wet grass, bits of leaves and stems and seeds flocked with frills to carry them on the wind on my skirt and jacket, in my hair, on my bags, souvenirs of a timeless magic, both in letting go of the time of day, and letting go of time altogether for that period. I only let go and rejoined the day because it was too dark to photograph any longer.
I am grateful to this gift of creative vision that releases me from everyday cares for just a short time, exercises those aesthetic senses and relaxes the overused worry lines, and gives me these wonderful gifts of images to share, just for noticing the inspiration was there.
There is always something new to learn about the things we think we know well. Never forget that when the light seems dim there is much to be seen with the heart, and when adversity has taken away the quick and obvious beauty, the strongest parts remain, dignified in their naked and twisted strength.
I featured this essay as part of my 2017 poetry reading “Walking Around”, inspired by moments like the one I wrote about above. You can read the poetry and essays I included in that poetry reading, and also see galleries of the paintings and photos I included, captured while out “walking around”.
My personal tribute to veterans everywhere, beginning with my father, veteran of WWII.
This is a small portion of the flag I fly on appropriate holidays, and sometimes when I just feel like it. It’s the flag that was presented to my mother at my father’s funeral, he a veteran of the U.S. Army and deserving of the honors at the death of a veteran. He’d been cremated so there was no coffin to drape, no taps or honor guard, just a few of his Army buddies were there but in the end it was the funeral director who handed the folded flag to my mother, not quite protocol, but the recognition was appreciated.
My mother gave the flag to me; she had a nylon flag that had flown over the White House that our congressperson had given her and she found it much easier to raise on the flag pole. I could see why—this flag is about 5′ x 8′ and sewn from heavy cotton bunting, and once when it was caught in a heavy downpour it was so heavy it nearly knocked me down as I pulled it from the pole and tried to pile it in my arms; I don’t think anyone would find it an act of disrespect to have tossed it in the dryer, and it did not shrink one inch.
Extremely well-made, and in the USA no less, the individual strips of fabric that make the stripes are stitched together with flat felled seams that fold in all the edges and stitch two seams across the bulk to ensure strength, and this stitched in the same way to the blue field for the stars. Each star is thickly embroidered onto the blue field, raised above the surface on both sides with the thickness of the threads. The hems, binding and grommets are likewise quality materials and stitching. Of all the other fabric items I handle every day, this flag always feels very different to me as I carefully unfold it and attach it to the special pole I have to ensure it doesn’t touch the ground when hanging. Instead of flapping in the breeze or wind, it waves gracefully as if under its own strength. It has a dignity all its own. I am glad I have this flag and will always take care of it in honor of my father who served in World War II.
Alfons J Kazmarski, Army of the United States Technician Fourth Grade, 115th Quartermaster Bakery Company, Asiatic Pacific Theater, India, enlisted 11 May 1942, discharged 21 Mar 1946.
Like so many others in this huge group of baby boomers, my father served in WWII, and like so many who served returned with untold stories and unhealed wounds; it’s actually presumed that the Parkinson Syndrome that shortened his life took hold of him as he fought the fevers of some tropical illness when serving in India.
But because of his service and my mother’s memories, I always felt like WWII was my war too, for better and for worse. But the war was not done when they came home. It changed their lives, and so it changed ours too. At their return, by their industry, the United States was transformed from an impoverished nation of immigrants to a wealthy and productive nation of members who would all win their place at the table, though for some the struggle continues.
And possibly because of the service of my parents’ generation I am a grateful daughter, and I fly my father’s flag with pride, especially on Veteran’s Day.
I’ve been organizing my art exhibits on my gallery and merchandise website Portraits of Animals. I’d intended to also include my November 2017 poetry reading “Walking Around” but couldn’t decided exactly where to add it, on that site or this one. I’d also wanted to record myself during the reading so that I could share that too; failing that I wanted to record the poems and essays.
Well, I didn’t get to either one. But for the anniversary of the event I thought I’d at least share the art and words I shared on that night. The theme was the things I found just walking around in my familiar space; inspiration can be found anywhere. Also, so close to Veterans Day and Carnegie having delivered up so many residents to conflicts over the years, part of the theme was dedicated to veterans and where they are found just in everyday life.
Below is the introductory information for the event, and below that is a link to the exhibit Portraits of Animals including all the essays and poetry and galleries of images. Please enjoy reading through it.
Walking Around: Poetry, Photos and Paintings of Carnegie
November 2, 2017, 7:00 p.m.
Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall
Observations and findings from walks around Carnegie, finding insights in everyday things and events, the extraordinary in the ordinary, including a poetry reading and exhibit of photos and paintings.
It’s been a while since I had the chance to have a poetry reading, and I’ve always included my art and photography because all those inspirations come from the same place. The most amazing things and thoughts can be found just walking around in your own back yard, literally or metaphorically. I’m expanding the boundaries beyond Carnegie’s outline to the surrounding communities and areas along Chartiers Creek.
I read a couple of essays and a dozen poems, each one with a narrative about it, in a room where I’d hung art and photographs inspired by those walks. The poems I read were inspired by my neighborhood and neighborhoods around me, events, and details of daily life in a small town, and the thoughts I’m led to from that starting point. The essays and poetry below are followed by galleries of the artwork and photos, below…
I always enjoy visiting the printer where this poster is on the wall at the front desk because I love reading each section of this poster as a reminder. It’s business-oriented, about working with customers, but the lesson of listening itself is universal and applies to us all in whatever circumstance we come face to face.
We humans come equipped with this magical ability to take our experiences and turn them into words to share with each other the important things we take away from daily life. Because each of us is unique, we all have different things to say, and of course we will rarely fully agree with one another.
Each of us has something to say which is important to us, and we say it so that others hear and understand how we feel. But if we don’t actually listen to each other, how does anyone know who we are, or what we need? We drive each other farther apart by not actually hearing each other. We just end up yelling at each other, and insulting each others’ ideas. Insults are not derived from listening, and they certainly don’t foster discussion.
We expect others to listen to us, but what if we don’t give the time and attention to what others have to say? You may find what another says false, despicable, even criminal, but it’s their view just as strongly held as yours. If you want to counter another’s view, if you want to try to change their mind, how do you create a convincing reply, start a discussion, find a reasonable middle ground, if you don’t actually listen to the words they use to describe how they feel?
And even still, the best we can chiefly accomplish is a compromise. Getting one’s way, forcing your views on someone, may seem like a win, but it’s a superficial win. But humans also have another remarkable ability: negotiation. Discussing the details with full understanding and finding areas where we can give and receive to find a middle ground is truly the winning position.
I have some strongly-held views and opinions, there are some lines I will not cross, and there are also views and actions which I feel are so wrong they need to be stopped. Finding that middle ground is only achieved by listening.
Twenty-eight years ago today I signed the mortgage on my home and got the keys, came back and stood on the front porch completely surprised it had actually happened.
Single women in their late 20s didn’t buy houses too often in the late 80s, especially not fixer-uppers. I was regularly asked where my husband was, what he thought and why I didn’t wait until I had one. I was also told, literally told, that I didn’t want a “house” because I was a girl and it would be so much easier to buy a condo because then there would be someone around to fix things and take care of the yardwork–I might not know what I was getting into and I should be careful.
I chose this house specifically because it was a fixer-upper, so I could turn it into what I wanted without having to pay for a bunch of things other people thought were improvements, like new wall-to-wall carpet and fresh paint. I never cared for wall-to-wall, and I can apply my own paint, thank you. And I’d been taking care of my parent’s house for years, inside and out, and rented a house for five years where I learned all the ways an old house needs love.
That house was due to be updated by the owners and I had to move out. Rent was so expensive in the late 80s and felt like a waste of money when a mortgage payment was less for more. I also had six rescued cats and wasn’t about to give up any of them for anyone’s lease. In fact, I wasn’t going to have anyone tell me how I was going to live. I’d paid my way through college, always worked full-time plus at least one part-time job, paid off my parents’ mortgage, paid to put my father in a nursing home, bought my mother a car, I didn’t feel I could continue with my master’s and any other degrees so I was at least going to have a house.
I had a savings and was easily approved for an FHA loan for no more than $30,000, and after looking for several months and finding a realtor who actually helped me look for the house I wanted instead of one more expensive because “you’ll be making more in a few years” or “you’ll get married and be able to sell”, I looked at just a few serious, good houses and found this one, and knew this was it. The house was small, but I walked into the back yard with all the trees around and the deck and felt right at home. The seller just didn’t know it yet, and still wanted $39,000.
A few weeks after I’d seen it I drove my mother to see it. As we drove up the street I saw fire trucks and people milling in the street. “I think that’s near the house,” I said. “In fact, it’s at the house!” The owners had moved out nearly a year before and the tile in the basement was picking up so the realtor had advised removing it and painting the floor because it looked bad and wasn’t going to stick anyway. The man attempted lifting up the glue with gasoline, with the hot water tank still lit. He survived with serious burns to his hands, and the house survived too. He quickly agreed to my offer. I spent some time with FHA issues like lead paint and leaks, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. The basement was professionally cleaned and repaired and there was a brand new coat of plain white paint on the walls for the smoke damage.
I spent my first year or so undoing some of his other good ideas, like the gray smoke warped and stained wallboard and amber light fixtures in the bathroom, and the metal casement windows that had been painted and sealed shut with homemade plexiglas storm windows that completely covered the window openings and bolted to the wall. Between that and the unkempt back yard, I knew these people seriously did not want the outdoors to come in. I tossed open all the windows and doors when I’d been working on the FHA compliance and let the air inside.
I have heard by anecdote and small bits of proof that this little place was originally a two-story addition to another house on the corner. My realtor had told me this, a few older neighbors, and a customer service rep a the electric company who had grown up across the fence from this house. He was very young when they built the foundation and took the two-story sunroom off the wood-sided mansard-roofed Victorian on the corner and set this house on it; there is a two-story porch there now that is exactly the size of my house. My house is 15 ft x 22 ft, the joists run the short way as if they had attached to a house, it was clearly two rooms up and down because the walls don’t match upstairs and downstairs, and the pipes go up to the bathroom in a square bump-out in the corner of the kitchen. The roof does not have a soffit and fascia. The back wall sags a bit, and I presume that was the side attached to the house.
It was intended to be a starter home, inexpensive, easy for me to do a few repairs myself to save money, then pay for a few updates then sell it for a larger house where I could stay and run my business and do my artwork. I guessed I’d be here about 10 years. But the stress on my hands from all the fixups I did early on worsened the tendonitis and other damage in my hands from setting type and working on computers, and I decided to turn toward my art career instead.
My mortgage was sold through three corrupt mortgage companies from 2003 to 2009 and it’s been difficult to keep up with their bizarre requirements. I’ve been involved in a class action suit as well as gone to court and had several modifications. Finally in 2014 I was moved to a very nice mortgage company who lowered my payment as soon as possible, then offered me a settlement after reviewing my history with the other companies, and I managed to pay it off two years go.
It’s my little place. It’s a little small for all the things I want to do, but some days the world is too small for all the things I want to do. I’m happy to celebrate. It’s one of my early accomplishments, and it’s an anniversary I always remember, just by enjoying my home. I took a hiatus from improvements when I decided to focus on starting my business, and that was extended by caring for my mother for a decade. Now it’s time to get back to business.
Here’s the first photo I saw, and what my house looked like the year before I bought it. We’ve come a long way.
Thank you, whoever was the person who made the autumn decoration I purchased in the Family Dollar this week. Out of all the piles of things scrambled in displays as I headed for a roll of tape it completely caught my eye through the blinders I usually wear in stores like that, made me stop and focus on this display of little sprays of autumn leaves and ornaments, and I immediately wanted one.
I don’t usually purchase this sort of imported item, made cheaply and sold for next to nothing. I don’t like to support that cycle of enslaving people in foreign countries to fulfill our need to have stuff, not that my lack of purchasing on its own really makes a whole lot of difference, but I don’t want to give any energy to it, and don’t want it in my life, and I want you to have a job that keeps your health and safety in mind and pays you a living wage. I rarely shop in these types of discount stores too because they make this cycle of cheapness and enslavement necessary, and don’t necessarily treat their own employees very well. I do my best to protest this cycle financially, socially and politically. But for just a quick roll of tape on a busy day, one place is about the same as any other.
But perhaps I was meant to be charmed by your skill and talent in this little bit of decoration, as it truly is lovely and well made. I make things myself so I know what goes into them, and most often with these decorative items the workmanship is barely sufficient for the thing to hold together until you get it home, let alone through a season to be kept for future years as used to be a tradition. Now we anticipate that we’ll throw something away and get a new thing the next time we need one, filling up landfills with cheap stuff, and if it doesn’t last the season, well, we didn’t waste more than a dollar and change.
Your skills, though only Impressed me after the little things caught my eye, and of all the stuff I passed walking quickly through the aisles your creation made me stop, look, visualize, and consider making something similar. I picked up each one of the dozen little flower picks and decided, of all things, that I would buy two and add them to the autumn entrance to my home I’d been imagining in place of the ribbon I’d been considering shopping for.
I juggled all 12 for several minutes and chose two with bright autumn yellow and rich harvest orange and carefully paid for them along with my tape and carried them home. I wrapped the wire stems, carefully wrapped in dark green floral tape, around the top rung of the salvaged wooden chairs I decorate for the seasons, adding flowers as they mature or I find them in my favorite greenhouses, but I haven’t done much, sometimes nothing at all, for the past few years. Your ornaments gave me the incentive to follow through with putting my own small mums from cuttings into pots and fluffing up all the plants I keep from year to year, tired now after the summer, and visiting the family-owned businesses to find their own hand-grown bargain chrysanthemums, the ones they’d started from cuttings and fed and watered and trimmed all summer to be perfectly shaped and covered with buds that would bloom over several weeks.
Mostly, though, I was impressed with your talent at composing colors and shapes and textures with this limited choice of inexpensive materials, to make something beautiful. I know it’s unlikely you have the opportunity to use your talent as your career, or even to make other beautiful things when you choose to do so, as I do. I doubt you have the opportunities and choices I do, but I wish you did. I can’t imagine myself in your place, the frustration and unhappiness I would feel. I have given up many things to serve my creative efforts but that is my choice and my life is not deprived; you have had these conveniences and niceties taken away from you, or simply never had them.
So I don’t think my purchase has changed your life, but I hope the energy I send you in truly admiring your work will put some ripples of change into the universe. I think of you each time I look at these little ornaments, and I send love and support your way, that maybe someday you will have the opportunities I have, and your life will be different, and you will be able to fulfill your potential as an artist.
In my life as a commercial artist I’ve worked hard to find customers whose work I support and believe in. One of my happiest finds has been my own public library, Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie PA. This is the one I’ve been going to all my life, and my mother and her generation before me; there are even deeper connections as well. In 2016 the executive director who also became a good friend, Maggie Forbes, asked me to write up the story with a liberal spread of some of the many, many photos I’ve taken of the place for one of the newsletters we put together.
September is “Love Your Library Month”, but any month of the year is a good time to love your library.
Fine artist, poet, photographer, graphic designer and Carnegie resident Bernadette Kazmarski has been the ACFL&MH’s “secret weapon” as her artistry has helped tell and document the Library & Music Hall’s story over the last ten years…though her love affair with the ACFL&MH began much earlier.
Though some of my earliest memories are of bi-weekly visits to the Library with my parents, my relationship with the Library reaches back to before I was born. My mother and her brothers and sister attended Carnegie High School; the connection between the Library & Music Hall and students from the high school at the bottom of the hill was fond and deep. At family gatherings the siblings would exchange stories of stopping at the Library after school to study, and the fear of turning a page too loudly and receiving the stern glare of the librarian. My mother often mentioned how happy she was to sing in the chorus of high school musicals that were performed in the Music Hall, and commencement ceremonies were staged in the Music Hall as well.
But I’ll take a step even farther back. My mother’s parents emigrated here in 1912 as very young teenagers. Both were orphans, and both were illiterate in their native language, Ukrainian, and knew no English. Relatives who were here had already found them work and taught them enough English to get started. My grandmother cleaned houses and my grandfather worked at Union Electric Steel and learned to speak English well enough, though not to read and write. But during the Depression their scholarly daughter, my mother’s older sister, taught them to read in the Reading Room of the Library, using newspapers and books that no one could afford to have at home. Their experience confirmed Andrew Carnegie’s vision of the public library giving the working class opportunity for advancement. My grandfather became a shift manager at Union Electric Steel.
When I graduated from college in 1983 I found an apartment two doors down from the Library, and began visiting all over again after a four-year hiatus. I found books in the collection to refine some fine art and crafting interests that have become part of my professional life.
I also bought my first camera in 1983. One of my first subjects was Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall and views around Carnegie. I was practicing with black and white film and the ACFL&MH’s massive, elegant building surrounded by tall trees was a feast for my eyes. I read every book on photography I could find in the stacks. I also began wandering into as many rooms as I could gain access to, peeking into the darkness of the Music Hall, imagining myself on the stage and remembering my mother’s stories.
As the years passed and I developed as a visual artist, I discovered recorded books, listening to stories as I worked. I also discovered Stage 62’s performances in the Music Hall. What a thrill to have a theater within walking distance of my home!
In 2001, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and was housebound. I remembered her love of reading, now lost to cataracts and macular degeneration, and introduced her to recorded books as well. Later I brought her to the Music Hall to enjoy opera performances in new comfortable seats. She and I remembered the sad days of the ACFL&MH’s decline. When she died in 2011 I asked family and friends to donate to the Library & Music Hall in order to “purchase” one of the new seats in the Music Hall with her name on it.
New leadership arrived at ACFL&MH in 2003. Renovations began and I became as involved as I could be, all the while wishing I could add the Library & Music Hall to my list of clients for my commercial art business as well as all the other things I enjoyed about the place. In 2006 Executive Director Maggie Forbes asked me to design the ACFL&MH newsletter. As events and activities at the place became more frequent I undertook more and more design projects to promote the events and began photographing them on my own as well. These projects give me great satisfaction.
In February 2006 I held an annual solo exhibit featuring wildlife and nature artwork in the Reception Hall (now the Lincoln Gallery). In December, 2006, two of my poems were chosen to be published on a section of the Prairie Home Companion website entitled “Stories From Home/First Person”, submissions about the place we feel most familiar. Maggie invited me to read those poems and others and display my art as well. February 2007 was the first of five annual poetry reading/art exhibits at ACFL&MH.
The Library has always been part of my life, but even today looking at the shelves of books interspersed with the tall Corinthian-topped columns, I can remember feeling very small standing in the quiet of the big room and thinking it was the grandest place that could ever exist.
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.
Today looks no different from yesterday but forever against the backdrop of a blue September sky we will now remember the loss of our innocence.
September 11 was a blur of images and fears and unknowns, and for me it wasn’t until September 12 dawned and brightened into another seemingly perfect September day, blue sky and all, that what had happened, and the permanent change it brought, really settled in.
I spoke on the topic of “Adopting Again After Loss” at the 2018 Pet Memorial Sunday ceremony hosted by Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation. I first presented this talk in 2016, refined it a bit in 2017. This year I decided it’s an appropriate presentation to use from now on. We three speakers found that our presentations had information that overlapped each others’, and that works well. This is the transcript of my presentation.
In the early 90s I painted a portrait of a petite black cat resting on pillows on a wicker chair. Samantha’s owner had rescued and adopted and lived with families of cats all her life, but Samantha was her only cat at that time. After Samantha passed following a long treatment for renal failure, though she volunteered at a shelter and met and considered many cats to adopt, to this day she has never adopted again. She is happy with the memories of all the cats she’s loved, especially Samantha, and still helping cats by volunteering.
Another friend recently lost an elderly member of her dog family, but Trixie’s loss was sudden and unexpected, and painful in a way that’s particular to an unexpected loss. Though seeing any dog reminded her of her loss, she went to the Humane Society the next day and adopted an older dog who had been surrendered because she had a list of old dog issues. Within weeks Belle was in better health and integrated with her canine family. She doesn’t replace Trixie by any means, but rescuing a dog helped ease her grief, and caring for another elderly dog helped ease the suddenness of Trixie’s loss, especially when she responded so well.
Just as grieving a loss is different for each of us, and different for each loss, so is the decision to add another animal to our lives after a loss. The first thing you might say is that you never want to suffer that pain again, and it’s just inconceivable that you’d adopt ever again in your life. Of course, in time, you let go of that fear of pain because with 150 million or more pets in American homes right now it’s clear that we do adopt again.
Whether or not you have other pets in your home, sometimes the pain of grief is so intense the thought of another animal companion is actually upsetting, and yet sometimes the need to fill your arms again and hold an animal close is so strong it’s all you can think about. No decision is right or wrong in itself, and only you and your family know for certain.
Adopting a new animal companion at any time is not a small decision. You’re making a lifetime commitment to love and shelter and care for the new companion, and so you hope your choice whether or not to adopt, and the animal you choose, is the right one, and right for all involved, both human and animal family members.
But when your emotions are in such turmoil, how can you know for sure? One way, even though it may seem even more painful, is to put yourself in the presence of a number of animals in different situations, which not only gives you choices but helps to temper your reactions. And when one of the strongest pieces of advice in managing your grief is to find people who understand your grief at the loss of a beloved pet and stay away from people who don’t, deciding to look for a pet puts you right into a sympathetic audience with other pet lovers, most of whom have no doubt been in the same position as you.
One way you can start is to not even consider adopting, but to help animals in some way, volunteer with a shelter or rescue for pets, or even for wildlife or farmed animals in a sanctuary for instance.
Contact your shelter about walking dogs or playing with cats in their care, because those animals can never get too much attention from people, and generally they are even more adoptable, and adoptions are more successful, the more attention they get.
Offer to foster for a rescue or shelter so you can bring an animal into your home and get to know the animal without the pressure of keeping them forever because the shelter or rescue, and possibly even you, are looking for a home for the animal.
If you want to start looking for a pet, sometimes a shelter is too intense, too many animals and people and public enough it may be intimidating or frightening, so instead you could start on the internet where you can look at pictures all day long on shelter and rescue websites and sites like PetFinder and Pet Harbor, in the privacy of your own home. You can then follow through with meeting one or more of the animals who caught your eye.
You can also look into a local rescue, which is usually smaller and more private and often without a shelter at all but using a series of foster homes for the animals in their care. This way you get to meet animals face to face, but in a more private setting, and may be able to interact more naturally because of it.
Shelters and rescues also have adoption cages and adoption events at local pet stores, and if you’ve been shopping for pet supplies at a particular store, and may be shopping for other pets in your care, you might feel just as comfortable in a place that’s familiar where you may even know the staff. Of course, visiting places that remind you of your pets may be painful as well, so be sure you are ready to face some memories too.
And just as with any other adoption, make sure you ask yourself what you expect from this adoption, and when you find a pet who catches your heart, ask yourself why you want to adopt that animal. Try to look at the long road and picture the future for a moment. Rebound adoptions are like any other rebound relationship, they may be the perfect fit, but just as often they don’t represent a whole relationship and don’t last. Don’t hesitate to stop and ask yourself some realistic questions. You’ll find answers for the moment and for the future.
Sometimes well-meaning friends will address your loss with the offer of a pet who needs a home. We who rescue are always offering pets for adoption because that’s the only way we find homes for them, so it’s a natural and friendly thing for many people. This can be a blessing from a friend who knows you well, or it can be a mistake from someone who doesn’t. Because a friend, or friend of a friend, has approached you it’s more personal and it may be difficult to turn them down if you’re not ready yet, or you really aren’t interested in the pet they are offering you. Don’t ever feel pressured by someone else’s desire for you to have a pet. The decision is always yours.
And there are times when an animal simply shows up in your life, either literally in your back yard or in your life somehow, and there’s an immediate connection. Many of us would swear the pet we’ve lost, knowing what a loving human companion you are and how your heart is searching, has sent us an animal companion to either care for and love while we find a new home for it, or to keep forever. I’ve no doubt this happens and can relate dozens of stories, including my own, but maybe another time.
One thing for certain, even if you had never had a pet before, once you have, there is a pet-shaped space in your heart with room for more. Don’t decide not to adopt because you fear being hurt by loss. Remember that nearly all your time with your pet was the simple happiness that comes with everyday unconditional love, and someday that memory will outshine the memory of the loss.
My sympathies on your loss, and love and light in your journey to healing your grief.
I frequently write about pets and pet loss on my daily blog The Creative Cat, the blog is set up to encourage myself to write more. This presentation was originally published there. Below I refer to a number of other presentations. I’ve been intending to catch up with adding my essays and stories about animals here but never seem to find the time. I reference a number of other presentations below, so I think I’ll start with getting those up here while I’m at it.
Loving Again After Loss
I’m always happy to speak on this topic. It’s focused on why we choose to live with animals, especially after a loss. Deb, the owner of the business, is one of my customers for graphic design and PR as I am one of her customers for cremation when I lose one of my cats. She watched me over a period of years lose a number of cats, then gain a number of cats, then lose again, and decided I would probably have something valuable to say about loving and losing and loving again, and I always draw from my own experiences:
In 2011 I spoke about losing all my senior cats in one year, and then losing Lucy, but that she brought me Mimi and her children.
In 2012 I spoke about losing my two oldest kitties, Cookie and Kelly, in one year and though I’d just lost Kelly a month before I knew it had changed my relationship with cats forever.
In 2013 I spoke about taking in Lakota and Emeraude knowing my relationship with them would be brief, and losing Lakota after six weeks but loving him nonetheless ( I didn’t realize I hadn’t shared this here, but had had it published in Pittsburgh PetConnections in September 2013. I will probably share this article again this coming Sunday as its own feature).
In 2014 I mentioned that our relationship with pets is not all about us, but about both of us, we and our pet and what each of us feels and gives and takes to and from each other, and pointing out that fosters, Emeraude, Kennedy and Basil, then named Smokie, had each been abandoned and even grievously injured by humans, and yet let go of that pain and turned around to love and trust another human who was a complete stranger.
That was my garden last year. In fact, it was most of my back and side yards, the places I’d grown my vegetables from my cold frame to my raspberry bushes, where my native plants had stood and called to the bees and butterflies and hummingbirds and songbirds, all in their season. I’d walked among them as if it was my own private park, and indeed it was, my backyard wildlife habitat, carefully organized over 25 years and giving me both sustenance and inspiration, flattened by my tree in 2016, and grazed to dirt by the white-tailed deer who had never bothered my yard before but suddenly found it a paradise of fresh browsing.
Space for a sustainable garden was imperative in my choice of a home in 1990, and I found this tiny house on a slightly oversized lot. I planted periwinkle and pachysandra in the front yard, made my side yard into a terraced rain garden with stone steps and rocks and hybrid and native plants, and no grass at all. I worked out my 30’ x 50’ vegetable garden with brick paths and raised beds and the rest of the yard in herbs and native plants, blooming and fruit-bearing and berrying shrubs, and a small area for grass managed as a meadow and filled with forget-me-nots and buttercups in spring, tiny recumbent flowering native plants in summer and fall with a fair sprinkling of herbs just for fun. When I told people my yard was a registered backyard wildlife habitat and that I had no grass but for a small patch in the back yard they imagined my home surrounded by weeds and brambles, overgrown and shabby. But my neighbors and visitors were always drawn in by following the stone, brick and wood chip paths among the growing things to see what was here, and often remarked it was so much like a park they wanted to visit it regularly, and some people did.
That vegetable garden produced most of the food I ate for nearly two decades, eating it fresh and processing the rest into soups and sauces and cooked and also as frozen and canned ingredients. I started my own plants and a few years into it purchased heritage seeds and began saving my seeds as well, letting them adapt themselves into the nutrients in my soil and the light and humidity in my little ecosystem. I composted all plant waste along with my paper waste from my studio of natural fiber mat board and drawing paper and anything else appropriate. I quit using a tiller very early on, turning the soil by hand, so easy to do with all the organic matter. And with so many birds and insects all was kept in balance, I never had need for chemicals to kill off an overpopulation of insects or even to frighten off animals who would invade to eat. They didn’t invade, they lived here, and I left violets and plantain to grow along my garden paths so rabbits only nibbled the lettuce, and allowed the groundhogs to eat some bean plants and the raccoons some tomatoes if they would just stop before they had a full feast. There was enough to share for all of us. A wire fence grown over with grapevines and Virginia creeper and layered with brush piles pretty much kept the deer at bay as they nibbled on the leaves of the vines and occasionally found a way inside, simply looking beautiful against the backdrop.
And I started each day out there, in any season, always something to do, getting my exercise and fresh air, and then awakening my creative senses with my camera and sketch pad before getting to work as a commercial artist at my computer and easel. It was the best way to start any day, in the quiet of my habitat, and finding beauty in every little detail so that I could share it in what I created.
Over three years recently everything changed. One of my trees laid down under the weight of snow and ice one winter, flattening a section of fence, a neighbor’s tree fell in a storm the next year onto another section of fence and about 30 feet into the corner of my yard, then in 2016 my own beloved 70-foot wild black cherry tree simply shed all its huge branches one hot, sunny July day, covering all of my garden and back yard to my deck and beyond, and the front yard nearly to the street. The main trunk, still standing in the midst of my and my neighbors’ houses, could not be climbed to cut in sections nor could a lift be brought close and was instead cut so that it would drop at an angle across my back yard, safely avoiding all homes, structures and people. The fall smashed my cold frame, and cleanup took many species of plants with it, dislodged my raised beds in the garden, and left me with a portion of the main trunk across the yard because it was too big to be carried off, cut up or chipped up at the time. After years of praise for how beautiful my yard was I was cited for the mess that was left of what I’d had. I found a friend who could cut up the largest portion of the tree trunk by hand and haul off the seasoning cherry wood for his family’s fireplaces, cleaned up what else I could before winter. How quickly things change.
The tree fall began a series of events that included my brother’s sudden and unexpected death the day after the tree fall, and, immediately following, the final negotiation with a mortgage company that helped mitigate the extortion another mortgage company had perpetrated over a decade, cleaning out my savings, retirement, life insurance and any other assets and extra income I’d had.
So, it was a time to start over again.
The following year, 2017, I was working hard to rebuild those assets, finalize my mother’s and brother’s “estates”, and work on repairs in my home that I couldn’t afford in the decade of the mortgage issue. I had decided to focus on these things to hasten both my finances and the finalizations, and be free to focus on running my business again.
The cherry tree had been massive and shaded the rain garden and portions of my vegetable garden. Now without it plants held in check by the deep shade suddenly sprouted, not my natives but grapevines and bindweed and poison ivy and wild yam creating a tangled mess that seemed to spread each day. I bought vegetable plants and planted a small garden in a space I’d cleared in the back, but the deer ate everything, including some of my geraniums in hanging baskets that I’d been keeping and rejuvenating each spring for more than a decade. My old electric mower rusted off its wheels, and I decided just to let it all go and focus on getting life and finances back together.
I love jewelweed. It’s one of my favorite wildflowers and I’d always photograph it whenever I found it in the woods. Never before that year, considering all the native plants I’d let sprout and grow in the wilder sections of my yard, had I seen a single jewelweed plant, even though I have always had plenty of poison ivy and sap in jewelweed leaves and stem are the natural antidote to poison ivy’s urishiol oil, and, as nature would have it, they often grow together. I would have celebrated its presence because, for some reason, I find it quietly magical and beautiful.
Just a week or two after I’d walked away from my precious habitat the jewelweed was already a foot or two tall, all over the garden and back yard. It usually grows in shaded areas in the woods so once it gets started it doesn’t waste time setting in good roots first but grows up and up to have enough leaves to photosynthesize its nutrition and then begins to bloom.
I was enchanted as it grew, taller than me, and dense. A few other things had grown too, pokeberries and burdock, but they were only ornaments on the edge of things. Even though it meant I would see only the rising forest of jewelweed and nothing else when I looked out my doors and windows on that side, it held its quiet fascination for me in its meditative vertical stems, the efflorescence of yellow flowers, and then the steady hum of many busy bees in the canopy in constant movement pollinating each flower.
In September they began to dry out and fall, crumpling onto each other in waves. At the end of last year that’s where I left things.
Considering the change brought upon me by the events the previous year, over the winter I finally had the chance to think about the previous years and plan the next, and look at what should be a part of my life and what should not.
I desperately missed my garden. Not just the food, but being part of life in that way, a part of my little patch of soil, of exercising myself and my mind without intention, just as part of my daily work. A friend with an alternative wellness practice told me I did not feel grounded, and she was right. I felt as if I was floating through what was happening, not really attached. I wasn’t even sure what foods I liked to eat anymore. That grounding for me had always come from literal contact with the ground, walking around outdoors on the dirt and the grass and the paths I built. It built my immunity both physical and emotional.
I knew I had to keep the deer in check with the fence I’d had, and I had neither the time nor the money for it. When spring came I’d contracted for frequent vendor events and knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything until after they were done since they’d represent a good part of my income in the first half of the year. I watched my yard come back to life in the way I’ve always loved it, but I also saw my front sidewalk covered over with eroded soil and opportunistic thistles, burdock and poison ivy, bindweed growing up my gutters and what was left of my lilac being smothered by wild yam. And the jewelweed was back, beginning its ascent in all places it found suit to sprout. Thinking of the deer and the fence and the mess and the time it would all take, I decided I’d probably pass again this year.
In my sedentary previous year I’d begun to feel some pain in my right hip and leg and as it grew it was diagnosed as sciatica, a condition caused by being sedentary, by sitting or standing in one place without moving. My family has a history of spinal issues and I have a bit of scoliosis; in everything else that had happened I had stopped my daily yoga practice for lack of floor space for a mat, and my old exercise bicycle was binding for some reason and I couldn’t afford to get it fixed. The first step in healing sciatica is to be mobile, work out those muscles and tendons that haven’t been stretched. Even with my vendor events I hadn’t been able to ease the pain of it because a good bit of that was standing in your booth.
I had always spent about an hour a day outside in the yard, nearly every day. I knew this was what had kept things like sciatica at bay, and the gentle walking, bending and carrying movements of gardening had kept me flexible. And a little bit a day had kept the yard a showplace for decades. I knew that my garden and yard were things that needed to be a part of my life, now and probably always. So one June morning, just a few weeks ago, I decided to just start it all up again. Down came the jewelweed, I cleared the native and perennial beds of invasives, dug up the burdock and pokeberries, and planned to get whatever vegetable plants I could find at a local greenhouse, too late to start seeds and better late than never.
In the meantime the jewelweed stems dried in the sun atop the soil, and when I planted I cut rows through them and left them in place as a mulch to protect and nurture my nascent garden of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage and squash, beans and carrots and turnips and beets. I left a few standing at the corner of my garden with the phlox for pollinators. I thank the jewelweed for arriving at my time of need and giving me a place to meditate on these decisions.
In the weeks I’ve been at this I’ve lost weight, gained strength, had pain-free days from sciatica, and am definitely looking forward to fresh foods again. I haven’t seen the deer in a while, nor have I seen signs of them. I think they understand. And I start my days outdoors for just long enough to energize myself and to awaken those creative senses that are essential to my business and my life.
And after this I hope to also have the energy and find the time to write as often as I once did.
Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat. I’ve been sharing it for years on The CreativeCat: