Love Your Library, I Love Mine

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.


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September 11, and 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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Adopting Again After Loss: Why and How We Adopt Again

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.

In 2015 I spoke about animals being healers, and how they can soothe our grief without us even knowing it.

In 2016, 2017 and 2018 I gave the presentation above.

Why do we take animals into our lives? Because we need them, and also because they need us, and we can’t fear to love for fear of loss.

For more on the topic of pets

Visit www.TheCreativeCat.net.


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Essay: Ten Feet High With Jewelweed

Tips of jewelweed
Jewelweed
Jewelweed

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.

A view of the yard in spring.
A view of the yard in spring.

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.

A portion of my garden and yard from 2001.
A portion of my garden and yard from 2005.

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.

Tips of jewelweed
Tips of jewelweed

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.

Not the prettiest, but I have the summer to work on that.
Not the prettiest, but I have the summer to work on that.

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.

Mimi approves too--she's been feeling kind of ungrounded lately as well.
Mimi approves too–she’s been feeling kind of ungrounded lately as well.

Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat. I’ve been sharing it for years on The Creative Cat:

Art Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Photography Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Poetry Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Prose Inspired by My Backyard Wildlife Habitat


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Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks

Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks
Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks
Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks

I was in K-Mart the other day, just a quick run for a fan they had on sale, one item, intentionally going near closing time so I’d be in and out. I walked in the store and stopped to get my bearings, trying to remember the department the fans would be in and the quickest way to get there.

I walked right into the thick of sleeveless summer tops in gingham with white collars, striped tank tops, colorful crinkle cotton capri pants with an elastic waistband in the women’s clothing department right by the front door. Without taking a step toward them I assessed the style, the quality and the size, and my eye wandered over it all, putting outfits together for my mother.

Though she died in 2011, I still catch myself subconsciously shopping for her as I did for most of the decade she lived at home or in personal care after her lung cancer surgery, often too ill or unwilling to go out. I would take her shopping seasonally when she felt well enough, or we would stop at one store or another after a doctor appointment. Most of the time, though I am not a frequent shopper, I would pick up things for her as I saw them in my own shopping trips, like this one to K-Mart, drawn to a rack of clothes tailored a particular way. “Wow,” I still think to myself, “Mom would love that,” even if I walked nowhere near the clothes.

I knew my mother’s taste, very different from my own flowered skirts and bright colors and my inability to wear white or even solid colors for they’d quickly have some art materials or house paint or grass stains. My mother could wear all white without a spot, and preferred pants and more fitted and somewhat tailored clothes, kind of a business casual, sometimes with a bright accent color thrown in for effect. Even with fewer choices while living in personal care, her outfit would be just so, the hem on her capris rolled into a tiny cuff, the white collar on her orange and white gingham top standing up just a bit, and a white cardigan sweater draped just casually her shoulders, arms swinging free.

But when I visited she would not be wearing the outfit I had purchased, often in more than one size in case the first choice didn’t fit. There was always something wrong with the clothes I chose and took to her with such excitement. “Mom, look what I found!” just as I had done all through childhood with rocks and bugs and feathers and flowers and, of course, kittens.

Instead, I returned the things I’d bought, capris, tops, cardigans, socks, underwear, there was always something just not right about them. Or she would accept an item, then later tell me it wasn’t right, after I’d taken off all the tags and written her name inside the collar or waistband so that it would be identified if it ended up in the laundry, and couldn’t be returned. Yet I would often find her in a similar outfit that someone else had kindly purchased for her, one of the care workers who especially liked her.

However it happened, at least she had new clothes, and I would do my best to reimburse the person who’d bought them because often they refused. I had ideas but never figured out why the things I brought just weren’t right, and I don’t think my mother did either, though I think we both knew it didn’t have much to do with the clothes themselves. I tried to give my mother more than clothes, and she didn’t readily accept that either, yet I was the one she had turned to, even when I was a child. Through the years, the only gift I found that suited her was to purchase a flat of flowers and plant them for her for Mother’s Day each year.

Where the clothes were concerned, even though I knew she would likely decide the clothes didn’t suit her, I still bought them, and we would go through the same little drama each time. I simply could not go without making the effort; at the time I whined whenever I got the chance, but now, for the most part, I’ve forgotten the drama and only remember the excitement of finding something I thought she would like.

And here I am today, still putting outfits together for her. Still trying to please my mother? I think it had just become a habit, and somehow, even though she rarely accepted any of these findings from me, I knew underneath her difficult exterior she liked what I’d bought but found things hard to accept. As time went on and her eyesight gave in to macular degeneration and she could not see the stains and wear on her favorite clothes, she still dressed the same, or thought she did. The aides at the places she lived made sure to cajole her to wear something else when they knew we were going out.

My mother’s birthday is July 7, born in 1925. We often celebrated her birthday when we celebrated July 4, with a big cookout on her beloved in-ground gas grill and later watch the fireworks. We lived at the top of a hill and could see not only our own municipal fireworks from the park below but also other displays from many other communities around us. People would often come to our street to watch the fireworks, and cars would stop on the interstate on the other side of the valley to watch the display as well, and each year we would remark on how many cars we could see pulled over onto the berm to watch and how unfair it was as cars with flashing red and blue lights would move in and make them disperse.

On my way home from K-Mart, I drove that stretch of interstate and saw the fireworks display in progress, and I was one of those cars who pulled over. I’m not so interested in fireworks, but they added a grand finale to a day of memories.

My mother would have been 93 today, July 7, and we often celebrated her birthday along with the 4th of July.

. . . . . . . .

I posted on July 4 a photo from my garden of a female Tiger Swallowtail butterfly in her black form. This dark cloaking mimics the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, and predators have adapted to avoid them, so the black form female Tiger Swallowtail keeps herself safe though she is not at all dangerous.

The day was quiet and for some reason full of memories and contemplation as I worked in my garden and yard, and seeing a butterfly, which I’ve always associated with the spirits of loved ones, was not a surprise in those circumstances. Continuing the day to the clothing and the fireworks, I realized the butterfly, at least to me, represented my mother, who wore a cloak of personality to protect herself from perceived dangers, including me. I have my ideas why, but I am glad she is finally where she doesn’t need to protect herself anymore.


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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

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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.


Read more:   Essays   ♦  Short Stories  ♦  Poetry

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

SUPPORT MY WRITING

Visit my PATREON page.

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