Winter Solstice Presentation: The Light in the Darkness

solstice sunset
solstice sunset
The solstice sunset December 21, 2016

I was honored to give a presentation in November about the solstice as part of a program with The Frick Pittsburgh, the organization that manages the Frick family mansion and museum in Pittsburgh. I’ve been waiting for a good opportunity to bring that presentation to you, and the Winter Solstice seemed like a good day to do that.

I have my friend Lisa DiGioia Nutini of Mexico Lindo for suggesting me to the person planning the event. The whole program was to be on three consecutive Thursday evenings in November and December, and each evening had three presenters. When I talked to the planner she mentioned “solstice traditions” so I wasn’t sure if I fit the bill because I don’t really have any traditions, though I have written about the solstice and the seasonal darkness a number of times. But my descriptions and brief snippets along with mention of artwork and photography sounded intriguing to the planner and provided a variety she wanted, not rituals, but recognition and celebration of the event. So I put together a narrative with paintings, photos and an essay you may have read here before.

You can watch the whole Zoom presentation, “Winter Tales”, here. My portion of the presentation begins at 22:10, but the presenters before and after me were very interesting too.

Or you can scroll down and read my presentation below.

Finding the Light in the Darkness

painting of woods in snow
Dusk in the Woods, pastel, 30 x 32, 2006 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

I am a self-employed artist and writer, part of me a commercial artist and professional writer with a regular slate of customers, and the other part a fine artist and creative writer with customers who are anyone with whom I can share my inspirations.

Those inspirations are derived entirely from the world around me. The tagline of my website is, “The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Celebrating the art in everyday life,” be that medium visual or literary, 2D, 3D, poetry or prose, or some combination thereof.

I find winter very inspiring, including the darkness. I hear people all around me dreading the short days and long, dark nights, well before they even arrive, and complaining that it’s all gray and brown. When the longest nights are here, the waiting begins for the days when it’s light again when you leave work, at least.

But I like settling into the early darkness of late autumn; it’s good for concentration and focus, and a respite from my crazy racing around from my garden to my daily work to photographing each wildflower as it blooms and the autumn leaves as they put on their show. I love the wide open windows of summer, but when I close them and put on socks for the first time I feel an innate sense of security that I am safe and warm inside my house, ready for whatever the cold and dark will bring.

Through my art I have found that the darkness really isn’t completely dark, nor are the days without color. Even a tiny amount of light will find its way to highlight details you’d otherwise miss, our neighbors decorate their houses with garlands and lights, and the woods and fields and even our back yards are full of bright red rose hips and burnished copper oak leaves, blue jays and cardinals, and shades of violet and vivid blue in snow shadows. My eye is drawn to contrast and color, and I find a lot of that in winter light.

And so that search for the light in the darkness becomes my annual solstice celebration.

solstice sunset
“Solstice”, pastel, 6 x 6, 2003 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

On a winter afternoon nearly 20 years ago, I was inspired by the early sunset on the winter solstice and ran off to chase it.

The moment when the sun stands still,
as it seemed to at this frigid, snow-covered
winter dusk,
spruces standing dignified sentinel
to the moment
of transition.

This painting is indeed from the Winter Solstice in 2003. As the sun began to set on a zero-degree day with a foot or more of snow the light was so beautiful that I took off in my car with my camera and art supplies. At the top of the hill the gentle pink and coral tones of the sunset melded with the blue of dusk on the field of unbroken snow at the old Christmas tree farm, one of my favorite spots. It was too cold to draw outside since I can’t wear gloves and would soon be dropping my pastels in the snow, so I positioned my car on a convenient side road and sketched this in my front seat. As it does sometimes, the sun seemed to hang in the trees just before it disappeared: solstice, “sun-stand-still”.

It’s just a little thing, 6″ x 6″, one of my favorites, especially now that the place is gone to development. It became the inspiration for an exhibit I hosted in 2004, “Winter White”.

collage of winter paintings
Collage of paintings from Winter White.

I love winter so much, and found I had so much winter artwork already, I decided to do a show featuring the season, with snow and without. From bright blue skies to brilliant fluttering chestnut leaves, shiny red rose hips to olive green moss, brilliant and warm sunlight angling deep indoors, winter is a very colorful time of year. In 2004 I presented “Winter White” 42 small studies, illuminated by the stark light of winter in pastel, watercolor, pencil, and pen and ink from the trails to the backyard to interiors completed en plein air.

And I didn’t stop with that exhibit, either. The painting we began with, “Dusk in the Woods” was a very large painting from a few years later, and while I’ve sold most of what was included in the original “Winter White” exhibit I’ve painted enough since then to have another exhibit with just as many paintings.

I carry my camera with me everywhere to capture those images in all seasons. Sometimes they become paintings, but often the photos tell the story best.

The Light in the Darkness

As the winter solstice nears, bearing with it the shortest day of the year and the longest period of darkness, I find that analogous to my memories of years past when I thought it was the darkness I’d remember, not the light. During the days leading up to the winter solstice when the daylight is less and less, each day shorter, and each day is often overcast and filled with winter storms, some very old part of our brain senses imminent danger. But by a miracle the light returns and we celebrate.

In these darkening days it’s easy to curse the darkness and miss the delicate beauty only found at this time. In 2014 I took my walk to Main Street for errands and found a wonderland one heavy, dark, overcast day in a place I had thought so familiar. I called it my “gray day walk” as a shorthand for those moments of exploration when time stood still for me, unexpected on a busy afternoon.


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.

dry evening primrose pods
Winter Lilies

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.

queen anne's lace flower dried
The Empire Shriveled

Milkweed pods became flocks of fantastical birds, or individual exotic species clinging to stems. Tightly curled dried flowers or clusters of puffy seeds set loose, sere and twisted leaves and flowers of another time. Even the holiday decorations in a shop front, capturing the blue from the late afternoon light with highlights from the store within echoed the shapes and patterns of the natural forms outdoors, as the raindrops that would soon fall.

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.

locust thorns

I hope you enjoyed this presentation, whether you listened or read.

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How Many

abstract pastel sketch
abstract pastel sketch

It wasn’t just the four officers it took to arrest a non-resisting African American man and three of them to lie him down on the concrete and all kneel on him and handcuff him, it wasn’t just the 8 minutes and 46 seconds Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck on the pavement in the heat with crowds around openly taking videos of the scene and pointing out to him that the man needed help and was dying, it wasn’t just that he told other officers who showed concern that this was how Floyd should be handled, it wasn’t just his lack of reaction to Floyd’s audible pleas for help, it was the expression on Chauvin’s face through it all that tells the underlying story.

Chauvin looks relaxed and unafraid of either the man beneath his knee or all the bystanders who are watching and openly videotaping. George Floyd was at that point unable to resist even if he’d wanted to, and Chauvin knew that no matter what happened, even with all those witnesses, he wasn’t going to get into any trouble, and he frankly looks annoyed. In any case, he’s not worried about going home that night and there would be no repercussions against him for what he was doing. That makes it pretty clear that this had happened before and that the system supported the white police officer, and not the African American citizen, based on prior experience.

Don’t forget that expression on Chauvin’s face. As we watch the ensuing protests and even riots following this public murder, remember that’s the expression African Americans have been facing from white people since they were brought here in chains 400 years ago. Centuries of time and a bloody civil war 150 years ago have made no difference. In my life of nearly 60 years, the African Americans of my generation and the generations following have been able to make no progress in living as equal citizens of this country.

Even I see that expression on white faces when I try to point out all the ways African Americans are openly excluded from everyday life in this country whether their heritage derives from emancipated slaves after the Civil War or their ancestors or they themselves emigrated from other countries around the world with predominantly black populations. We’ve never cleaned the contamination of racism from our country, and in fact a population of citizens have worked hard to keep it in place by way of redlining neighborhoods, gerrymandering voting populations and placement of polling places and outlining school districts, and employers who can always find a reason not to hire an African American person. Lately they’ve even been demonstrating publicly for the right to do these things.

That’s what makes the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis more than just his murder, and why riots have broken out all over the country. That’s what shows it’s a symptom of something much bigger, the bump on the skin that connects to the cancer filling the body, the cancer of police killing African American men and otherwise arresting African American citizens in general, at a much higher rate than whites as they are represented in the population, and continued social segregation though that very segregation is illegal. [1] [2] [3]

In February a white man and his son packed their shotguns into their pickup and ran to chase the escaped slave who left his own plantation to go running through white society in Brunswick, GA, and they caught up with him and shot and killed him. That’s just what the death of Ahmaud Arbery sounded like to me from the first I’d heard of it, even before the video, even before I saw the photos of Gregory and Travis McMichael. The incident itself was painful enough to watch, and consider how easy it would be to turn the story against Arbery who couldn’t defend himself, especially hearing the reason for chasing him—he’d been seen going into a house under construction and poking around, and the McMichaels claimed there had been thefts in the neighborhood. Easy as pie, that one, proved correct when the news was released that the Brunswick District Attorney had looked at the case and said there was nothing to see there and no one should be arrested, and even as he recused himself from the case a month later for personal connections he again advised that there should be no arrests. Seventy-four days after Arbery’s death the McMichaels were finally arrested and the case investigation has escalated to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. That was three weeks ago. People are still understandably angry about how it was handled. [4]

In Louisville, KY undercover agents stormed into the apartment of Breonna Taylor because their suspect in a narcotics investigation occasionally received mail at her apartment. Her boyfriend awoke and shot at the strangers who’d broken in, and the officers returned fire with eight bullets into Breonna, killing her. There is back and forth now about whether or not they announced themselves before they broke the door down, but in reality the suspect had already been arrested. [5]

And at least birdwatcher Christian Cooper didn’t die when a white woman called police on him when he asked her to put her dog on a leash, as rules in the section of Central Park, known for birding, require. Amy Cooper (no relation) actually threatened him with the phone call saying she would call the police and tell them an African American man was threatening her life. He videotaped her as she did so. Both were gone by the time police arrived but Christian Cooper’s posting of the video went viral and Amy Cooper was ultimately fired from her job and gave the dog in question back to the rescue. But how often in the past has a woman saying an African American man was acting inappropriately toward her caused his death? [6]

Those examples are just three other cases that made the news in the past three months, ones that are being remembered in demonstrations in those cities, and other cases that actually made the news locally or nationally around the country over the past few years. And just the act of existing while black, with police called by white people who find African Americans suspicious as they do just about any everyday thing, while jokes can always be made, is a constant flow of threats during everyday life.

And unless it’s investigated, the case is forgotten, and the incident, the person killed and their memory are buried together, but not by those left behind who know there was no justice and have little hope there will be in the future. That constant trauma of violent loss and the fear that you could be next would fill anyone with rage and reaction when they see it happen again, and again, and again. The protesters out there have repeatedly said they don’t condone vandalism and destruction, and neither do I, but bearing the pain and trauma of all the deaths, all the injustice, all the restraints society puts on African Americans, why not burn it all down and start over? Why preserve what’s there, metaphorically at least, when in African American neighborhoods—and why are there still African American neighborhoods?—it’s still separate and unequal, and after centuries and lots of hard work by African Americans and white people alike there is no hope that will ever change?

I don’t judge my safety on the race of the person before me. If I saw Ahmaud Arbery running down the street we’d probably nod and smile at each other as we passed. If I saw the McMichaels in their pickup with their guns, I’d get my mace in my hand and look for the nearest safe place to run if I needed to.

And I have a lot of freedom, freedom that we all deserve, because of my race. When I’m out trapping feral cats and poking around in an alley and looking into back yards at night with a flashlight, when the police are called they always accept my explanation that I’m trapping cats, and there are no threats, no arrest just to check on me, no harassment. And when I decide to walk down the middle of a street looking up at the sky to watch the hawk, or walk along the trail through the woods singing at the top of my voice, or act otherwise erratic—or, as they say it when you’re white, eccentric—no one calls the police on me. I have this freedom that everyone should have, to be whoever we are and be given the benefit of the doubt when we explain what we’re doing.

I can’t breathe officer
don’t kill me

they gon’ kill me man

come on man

I cannot breathe

I cannot breathe

they gon’ kill me

they gon kill me

I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe

please sir



please I can’t breathe

George Floyd’s last words transcribed from the video [7]

I’ve tried to look back in history and find the point where it went wrong, to go back there and start again. But there is no point where African Americans ever had equality in this country, no matter what laws had been passed, and no time when death at the hands of authorities wasn’t common. Let’s just try to burn down the social structure that keeps people oppressed, let’s really just incinerate it and toss the ashes out into space so there’s nothing left.

And it’s not enough for each of us to “not be racist” or “not discriminate”. We have to call out those who do, and have a strong argument on hand to prove it. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. frequently mentioned the importance of speaking out for justice, and the injustice of staying silent, and the importance of nonviolence.

The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people.~The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson, 2001, Chapter 18 [8]

I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems.~Sermon: “Where Do We Go From Here?” [9]

I have felt a fundamental change coming for some time, years, months, days. For better or worse, I think it’s here.











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blue-eyed mary
blue-eyed mary
A clearing in the woods filled with blue-eyed mary.

I’ve passed this spot on a back road each spring for years. Looking down into a valley coursed by a winding stream I see what looks like a bluish haze just above the ground among the trees and in an open clearing, on both sides of the stream and reaching up the sides of the little valley, extending at least the length of a football field. I know the haze is a population of wildflowers. Wildflowers always call me to come and meet them, see their little faces and study their leaves, learn about their habits and habitats. No visit is complete without a full course of photos from every angle to document them, and to share the beauty that called me to that place.

blue-eyed mary
Seen from the road.

Even though I take this road intentionally to look at all the things I’ve found interesting and photographed from afar, each year I’ve found a reason not to stop and explore this little valley on foot, to see the details in that blue haze and interpret them to share in my own way.

Usually I’m on my way somewhere else and because I’m always late the reason is a lack of time. This can’t be explored in just a few minutes and a photo or two. This needs a walk down a hill and across a stream, and all around where the flowers grow, even walking partway up the other side of the valley. And once I start, I don’t know when to stop. I can’t be trusted to be aware of time.

One day last year I did have the time and my DSLR camera, but it was just before the diagnosis of my need for a hip replacement and stepping out of my car at the top of that slope I knew there was no way I could walk down without falling, or crawling. Crawling on gravel and bits of coal is not without its nicks and scrapes. I’ve done it. So I looked, and moved on.

blue-eyed mary
What I saw from the road.

This year I took the time. I’d run to the trail as the mist rose on a spring morning just to photograph what was there, and was on my way back home. I intentionally turned up that road taking a different way home than the usual, scanning the little valley for whatever it had to offer. I saw smaller colonies of these flowers, but remembered much more in other areas, then, finally, there it was. And conveniently a place to safely pull over and park on this two-lane back road and a sort of road down and into the area from off-road vehicles. I had no excuse.

blue-eyed mary
Perhaps the fog is still here.

LIttle wildflower-filled valleys like these are like timeless wonderlands. Scrappy slender trees mix with mature trees, fallen trunks tangle with wild grapevines and Virginia creeper vine, and the performance is set for wave after wave of blooming spectacles here and there in its own unique floodplain culture.

blue-eyed mary
Along the stream.

I waded the stream and came to my closeup of the flowers that at first looked like violas, but I identified as blue-eyed mary, four petals, two top in white and two bottom in blue, occasionally violet or deep pink.

blue-eyed mary

The sky was still overcast from the fog, but as I walked along the road and among the flowers, deciding on good vantage points and snapping photos here and there, the sun broke through the clouds and bands of bright and shadow moved over the little valley, illuminating the young leaves.

blue-eyed mary
Like mist among the trees.

But how to capture the full effect of the display? If I had had a bit of a ladder or a rock or stump to stand on I may have been able to capture it better, but the photo at the top captures the extent of it best. And the photo below captures the density.

blue-eyed mary
A field full.


I am grateful for my new hip, remembering last year, considering the prospect of never being able to explore a wildflower field again, and having the time to take this year.

I am grateful for my new old car, without which I hadn’t been able to go anywhere earlier this year.

I am grateful for the equipment to capture this place in a way that I uniquely visualize.

I am grateful that there are such things in this world as this precious little valley and all its beauty.

I am grateful that I can share this, and that others see the beauty in it too.

I am grateful to all those who helped me arrive at this place over the past two years and more.

I have many, many other things to be grateful for, but as I walked my steps around this place, these were my thoughts.

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Healing, Now and For the Future

Periwinkle Party

Today is the six-month anniversary of my hip replacement surgery. I have long been back on my feet, but still working my in-home physical therapy for strengthening and flexibility all over, which is not a bad thing for someone my age and work needs: sitting or standing for hours on end. I am grateful for this surgery. I really didn’t think I’d regain all my personal ability and strength after the surgery, I’ve always been active and flexible, still climbing trees and tying myself into knots to get a good position to photograph one of my cats from an interesting angle. But I have, and it’s like a new life after two years of debility, a great thing to be celebrating here at the beginning of spring.

The world has changed dramatically in these past six months. The day I went into surgery, October 3, 2019, the temperature was 85 degrees and overnight was a record 65 degrees, and I had barely slept for the heat and worrying about the unknowns of my surgery and recovery, and wishing this crazy weather would just stop already. As I recovered ability more quickly than I thought, I looked forward to just about this point in time because, while full healing really takes a year or more, by this point I’d be able to clean up my garden (in the photo) and start planting, ride my bike to the grocery store, clear away the housekeeping mess from two years of inability to move and carry things, even vacuum the floor, pack up my car and go to some of my first vendor events and start replacing my income once again.

I will do many of those things, but I think with where we are today, facing the unknown of what this pandemic will do to the things we’ve always done and the ways we’ve always done them, I have changed my goals from returning to the way things were for me to working with the way things are, and getting ready for the changes to come. I still have sustaining income to replace. I need a car and a furnace, and a long list of things that I need to do to my house, but realistic expectations are what work best in uncertainty. It’s like the state of my garden right now—the structure is there underneath the two-year overgrowth of neglect, and I’ll be able to clear things away and get a garden started again, but I’ll likely never have the mature, productive vegetable haven I had. Instead, I’ll have what I need for today, and next year, which will be different from my beloved garden developed over decades; it will be more of what I need, less of what I want, and in reality that’s what made my older garden so successful.

I know the best way to navigate uncertainty. I got to and through my surgery and recovery with the help of a safety net and many friends generous with time and skills, and I’ve started my economic recovery with the generosity of many others who shared my story and have purchased art and merchandise to help replace income I clearly won’t get without vendor events. I know the power of helping each other, and the best way to get through this time of uncertainty and change is—virtually at the moment—hand in hand, supporting each other in both individual and common needs. We all have needs, and we can all help another with their needs at the same time. We fit together like puzzle pieces, and imagine the complexity of an 8 billion-piece puzzle that is all of us on this blue globe, floating through space.

I’m back on the earth and looking forward to tackling that garden over this coming weekend of beautiful sun and spring weather. I hope you have great plans too!

A Walk in Black and White Film

I loaded a roll of black and white film into my old Pentax K1000 and headed out to walk to the grocery store, bringing back images from around my neighborhood along with my groceries.

Though this is a photo essay I also describe the process and reason for taking my camera on mundane walks to find extraordinary things, including story and poetry ideas. In fact, there will be at least one story out of this walk, and it’s in there among the photos. I can’t wait to see where it starts and where it goes!

One of the reasons for using black and white film is that removing the distraction of color permits other interesting elements to shine and become the story, and using film slows me down, makes me think a little harder about using one more frame on this roll. When I’m out with my digital DSLR I just let go and photograph anything I darned well please, and I need to do that too, let go and just be part of the scene and record it as I feel it.

But sometimes, just as with writing, to get to the core of something, you need to slow down, tighten up and focus, search yourself and funnel down to exactly what it is you want to say. Going “old school” with black and white film in the old (but still beloved) Pentax K1000 is like writing your stuff on a tablet with your favorite writing implement: pencil, ballpoint pen, marker, fountain pen. I love my gel pen on a legal pad, but when a poem comes along any scrap of writable material and any writing implement will do for a draft.

So enjoy the photos and the essay on my photography blog, Today: A Walk in Black and White Film

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I Don’t Want to Be Colorblind

I Don’t Want to Be Colorblind

I Don’t Want To Be Colorblind

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

poem and artwork © 2014 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

The illustration above is a sampler of all the shades of pastel I’ve used while painting portraits and sketches of people of all different “colors”, skin tones and ethnicities. Tell me, who is “black” and who is “white”? And what does “colored” mean?

In truth, we are all “colored”. Each of our faces has the darkest and lightest tones and all those in between, and even some colors we’d be surprised to find in skin tones. I can tell you that all the colors I smudged there have appeared in the highlights and shadows and mid-tones of every face. It largely depends on where you are standing in relation to the light.

Some people have suggested that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of black children and white children going forward hand in hand, the ideal of seeing a person not for the color of their skin but for the content of their character, had the goal of a “colorblind” society. That’s a noble ideal on one hand, where we just don’t notice the color of a person’s skin in any situation and go on from there.

But does that truly bring justice to wrongdoing and change society in a way that makes the injustice people have suffered because of that color unacceptable? To suddenly begin to ignore the color of a person’s skin and jump immediately to integration is to jump right over the injustices done to people because of the color of their skin. It’s also ignoring an essential part of another person, shutting the door on a section of their life, a part that makes them distinctive. King did not use the term “colorblind” in any speech or written document, but his point is described by historians as a more “color aware” society where we recognize our differences, celebrate them and thereby heal through those very differences among ourselves.

When I create a piece of visual artwork I look for what makes the subject inspiring to me, what makes it distinctive, what makes me excited to share it with you. I like contrasts, I find what makes my subject different in its class, what makes it stand out from its surroundings. It’s my joy to find and share “the extraordinary in the ordinary”. If everything I painted looked the same, what need would there be for artwork?

Looking at people has always been like looking at a field of flowers for me—I find it hard to settle on one before I skip to another while I enjoy the visually exciting effect of all those different colors and shapes and heights and structures. Then I can can pause on each one and get to know each in its own unique detail.

When I rode the bus, long before I painted anything let alone a human portrait, I quietly studied all the faces around me for color and shape and texture, eye color, the hair that framed it, accessories and jewelry, and was often started by a stern expression of someone who didn’t understand why I studied them so intently. I was just looking for the things that made them unique and beautiful—not in the classic sense of beauty but in the classical sense, in that beauty is truth, in being true to who we are inside showing that on the outside, like the flower in the field that can’t help but be what it is.

If we are colorblind, we intentionally ignore some of the fundamental differences that make each of us irreplaceable. That denies a basic part of our personal existence and of human existence as a species; it denies a portion of our very identity as an individual.

That takes an awful lot of effort. Why not admit to our differences and get to know each other in full, and find the beauty in each of us. We have always been and will always be different from each other and might as well get used to it.

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


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

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Kublai on the landing, in the sun.
Kublai on the landing, in the sun.

I’m not one to think everything happens for a reason, that things align through time to lead one to an epiphany of some sort, but that we are the ones who choose that alignment in the moment, and a moment later, or a different poem in that book, could lead to an entirely different epiphany.

I moved the furniture around in my bedroom yesterday to better accommodate the overflow from my studio while still giving me space to walk in both rooms. I’ve also realized that, with my guardian tree gone from the front of the house, I no longer want to sleep under the window where I can hear her whisper on summer mornings and watch the stars held in her branches on cold winter nights. This is something I’ve wanted to do for months and can finally accomplish, slowly and carefully, with my hip healing more each day.

A parade of surprised felines joined me in the evening as they awoke from their extra-long afternoon naps on a cold rainy day. As I took a break to let them explore the mess I’d made I picked up a small book that had fallen on the floor behind a bookcase I had moved, The Oxford Book of English Verse. A digest of oft-quoted poetry I’d picked up somewhere and tucked in a random small space wherever it fit and forgot about, I had never actually read through it because I’ve already read just about every poem likely contained in it. I have several dozen small and large books of poetry but can’t seem to pass one up, especially free in the library’s shelf of donated books.

I held it in my right hand and slid my thumbnail between the gold-tinged edges of the pages, letting it fall open to see what arbitrary verse I’d find.

Kubla Khan
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:…

…the poem for which, as a junior in college majoring in English, I’d named Kublai, my first black cat, back in 1981. Not because of his bravery in battle and exploration though this was true of him, but what cat doesn’t look around and decree this space to be a stately pleasure-dome for himself? Of course, the poem lists human pleasures, which bring no real pleasures to cats, so I stopped there.

I looked at the multitude of black cats walking over the tops of piled clothing, exploring cardboard boxes full of picture frames and having a quick bath in cool new spots they’d discovered. Twenty-nine years ago I moved into this house, and Kublai came with me in the weeks before I moved in while I repaired and patched and readied it for me and my household of six felines, my first rescues. October will always remind me of that time, first the bright empty rooms with him as we felt the potential of our own home, then with boxes piled in every room as I’d moved from a rented house twice the size, and that family of felines climbing over and creeping around them, finding cool places to have a quick bath to relieve the stress of the change.

I also remember another October overhaul of this room, in 1997 preparing for Namir and Kelly’s arrival when I’d found several black whiskers in the carpet I pulled up prior to painting the floor. Only Kublai had had black whiskers, and as that family of cats swirled around me as I worked I paused to remember, the grief still fresh just a year past.

Those cats are gone, of course, as are many others come and gone who spent their lives with us in this little house. The memories are bright but the moment is bittersweet because I know that at some later date I will stand somewhere in reflection and all these felines I now watch will be memories in that future moment. I am reminded to be in this moment with them, but not frightened of that future moment:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ‘ere long.

From Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet, speaking to his love the truth that while we see the loss of those we love even as we look into their eyes with love, that very knowledge of loss makes our love even stronger, to realize the love in each moment before it’s gone.

Perhaps I picked up that free book just to find it in this particular moment and have it fall open to that exact poem and remind me of this lineage of memory, little fragments that become a whole, the lives of all these individual cats and their roles in my life, my role in their lives, and that role of mine in life itself, in the world around me. I’m not one to think everything happens for a reason, that things align through time to lead one to an epiphany of some sort, but that we are the ones who choose that alignment in the moment, and a moment later, or a different poem in that book, could lead to an entirely different epiphany.

But beside the loss and potential loss each of those fragments represents, and the associated pain thereof, is a moment of love and beauty, then, now, and tomorrow, that we hold and have shared, forever a part of our spirit. We are made of these fragments.

This essay was first posted on The Creative Cat on October 27, 2019. Visit The Creative Cat for more essays and articles on pet loss.

More intelligent than many people I’ve met, friends of mine will remember Kulai as the cat who opened the refrigerator door, took out a container, opened it, and helped himself to the contents. I finally decided that the best depiction of his personality is of him being silly, rolling around in the sun and making sure I noticed how handsome he was. Read more and order.

portrait of black cat on floor
Are You Looking At Me? pastel, 17″ x 22″, 2005 © B.E. Kazmarski

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September 11, and the Day After

September 12, 2001
September 12, 2001

The mornings this September have had that particular autumnal cool with a little mist and I thought the spell might have been broken. But the morning this September 11 is sunny, blue, and hot, and eerily quiet, so much like that morning 18 years ago.

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 work outdoors in my back 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 20 minutes later heard that a second plane had hit the South Tower and knew instinctively, as I’m sure we all did, that it was no accident.

My radar for tragedy was sensitized; just a few months before my mother had unexpectedly nearly died after lung cancer surgery, held on for six weeks then miraculously awakened from a near-coma one day and gone on to recover, rehabilitate and return home, though weak and fragile. 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 Manhattan 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 just as close to an Air Force base, and not only do they fly overhead, they circle and slow down and make noise and fly at crazy angles as they come in for a landing. A noisy plane flying low overhead is something I didn’t even notice. But two planes had just hit the two towers of the World Trade Center and a third had hit the Pentagon. I suddenly noticed that the sky was very quiet for that time of the morning.

Then in the growing quiet as traffic cleared the roads, in that empty perfect clear blue September sky, a single plane went overhead and my hackles rose, a cold tingle running to my fingers on that warm morning as I watched it seeming to struggle through the sky overhead. Shortly thereafter we heard about the crash in Shanksville and I imagined the comforting familiarity of perfect green rolling hills of my Western Pennsylvania home bathed in morning sun, now wrenched open and strewn with the wreckage of violence.

I hurried inside, no longer feeling safe under that warm blue sky. I thought of my mother in her home about a mile and a half away, 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. I called my mother and later went to her house and watched there.

Did any of us know what to do in those first hours and days, even those of us so far from the terrible scenes of death and destruction more horrible than we could imagine?

It wasn’t until the gentle, perfect beauty of September 12 that the effects of what had happened became reality for me. Not only do I live very near Pittsburgh International Airport, I am also at the intersection of two interstates right outside of Pittsburgh and hear the noises of all this traffic every day, especially in the morning. The next day, with travel restricted on land and in the air, was so eerily quiet. The beauty of the warm sun and clear blue sky, the peaceful twitters of birds and hum of bees we could rarely hear with traffic and daily noises, the clear views of the tree-covered hills made the morning seem like paradise at first, as if everything would be okay after all. But the clear stillness became unnerving as the hours of daylight passed and we had no more of our questions answered, nor knew the extent of the damage and death as it was still unfolding in all three areas.

Perhaps those perfect September days were given to calm us before we learned how our lives had changed.

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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Published Essay and Artwork in “Woods Reader”

The Rope Swing in "Woods Reader" magazine
The Rope Swing in "Woods Reader" magazine
The Rope Swing in “Woods Reader” magazine

Last year I determined I should search paying publishing markets for my essays and poetry which I have, and for the short stories and other fiction I have been writing. This constituted a lot of research into markets and publications, looking for the ones that I fit into.

One of my greatest inspirations is the natural world, whether it’s my back yard  or the woods or an overgrown field, the shapes and textures, color and scents, flora and fauna seen and unseen, the wind and sun, all create an almost overwhelming experience for me. Creating art to capture the moments I treasured was a natural move as a painter and photographer.

Because of that, each painting has a story, and I love to tell it: how the painting came to be, the chance finding of a special place, the perfect moment of a season, the discovery in the milieu of my life. The whole process is a part of my experience in nature, and often the reason I’m there.

I’ve written the story of several of my paintings. As I perused speculative markets for my writing I not only looked for markets but what I had that was unique in those markets. In creative writing about nature, I didn’t see anything like this, yet I thought this audience might best appreciate the story of me out in nature, finding an inspiration, and creating a painting that didn’t just capture the physical moment, but a lot more sensory and emotional details. As I always say, that’s why we have art.

I found or ordered copies of the publications I thought might be most receptive—printed magazines, daily blogs, websites, anthologies—read the content, and if it felt right I sent them a pitch for my idea with sample art and essay. That was the end of last year, 2018.

Then I waited. Some will tell you how soon they’ll respond, some don’t. You never really know if they don’t like it, or they just haven’t gotten it yet, or it got lost in email or fell off someone’s desk. It’s all on faith that someone will see your idea and fall in love with it.

About a month later I thought I was seeing things when I saw an email from the editor of Woods Reader magazine, published in Minnesota. I had been pretty hopeful about that one, and here it was a good guess, the editor loved the idea and wanted to publish what I’d sent.

The sample I’d sent was not “The Rope Swing”, but another painting and essay which they’d planned to publish in the summer issue. About a month after we’d agreed to publish that one the editor sent an email saying she’d rather wait for a winter issue to publish that one, and did I have any summer art? She’d been to my art website and seen “The Rope Swing”, and wondered if that had a story as well.

Yes, it did, all wound up in my annual art exhibit on the Panhandle Trail, and I also had another favorite summer painting, “Running Through the Woods”, becoming reacquainted with my great-niece and great-nephew by taking them for a walk on the trail and in the woods.

In the end the editorial staff chose “The Rope Swing”, and not only do the essay and painting appear on the inside, but the painting is also their cover image for the summer 2019 issue.

It’s the first thing I’ve ever had published “cold”, not through a referral or an organization or any other means than digging through listings and doing research. I am over the moon.  And looking forward to publishing another with Woods Reader. And looking forward to hear from other publishers to whom I’ve sent essays and short stories and poetry.

I have a degree in writing. I love my art and all the other things I do, but I’ve been wanting to get back to that dream of just writing for writing’s sake. I hope I’m on my way.

Because they’ve paid me to publish this essay, I can’t share it here until well after this issue of the magazine has been published. I will tell you that, if you enjoy reading creative writing and essays about the experience of being in the woods, you would love every story, essay, poem and photo that’s published in this quarterly magazine. It’s available on the Woods Reader website for $7.95, and I’ll also have a dozen or more copies here in my shop and at my events for the same price.

And I hope I have another “published” story to tell soon!

Also, if you like the painting “The Rope Swing”, visit to read more about prints and framing.

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The Cabinet, and Superheroes of History

The Cabinet

The wounds of trauma,
the sin of killing,
the witness of unspeakable acts
against the bodies and minds of others
the leaving behind of others held more dear than lovers
another world, all too real,
all came home in the duffel
unpacked into the house
worn like unwanted medals
that could not be removed
but with your hands you made this lasting monument
to prove to yourself you could still build, create, give
to start your new life,
not the one you left behind.

poem copyright 2014 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Several poems I’ve written are about or refer to things that I’d…found in the trash, and the stories they told me, mixed with the experiences of my own life.

Seventy-five years ago today, “D-Day”, one of the bloodiest and most critical days of WWII, 160,000 superheroes changed the course of history. Nineteen years ago more or less today, I saw this cabinet in a trash pile and it began to tell me its story. It was the story of a WWII veteran just returned home with his own memories, mixed with memories of my father and mother whose lives were both forever changed by that war.

Many homes around town had been owned and occupied by only one family from the 1930s or 1940s to today, and contain a lot of things people kept for various reasons, things that tell a story about life in that house, and the eras the house was occupied, typical of Carnegie and towns like it.

The Cabinet is so named for a cabinet I saw one evening out of the corner of my eye as I hurried off through my day. The cabinet looked to be in good shape, the drawers stacked on top, and I’d take it just to look it over, maybe I’d stop later, maybe I could pass on this one, but then I saw the little scalloped and curved decoration at the bottom. It reminded me of things around the house my father had made of wood that had just such decorations: awnings outdoors, cornices above the drapes, room dividers in our little post-war ranch house. My mother had designed the idea, my father had designed the item and made it by hand.

My errand on that evening was my daily visit to my mother in a critical care hospital. She’d had lung cancer surgery two months previous but her hypertension had caused her to unexpectedly slip into a state of dementia from which she was not expected to recover. I visited her twice each day, about mid-day and evening, and I knew I did not need to take on a stray wooden cabinet. Driving through the evening to see her the cabinet had led me to remember those projects the two had created before I was born, that I saw in the house each day when I stopped to pick up the mail and check things over; if her recovery had been as normal, she would have been back in the house, but this strange netherworld of waiting, and the quiet calm of the house with no one in it followed me as well.

So of course I swung past that cabinet on the way home from my visit to my mother, took a closer look and saw that indeed it was a sturdy cabinet, handmade with a birch wood top and red Bakelite handles very common and popular just after WWII, all the drawers were solid, and I crouched down to run my finger along that simple decorative curve, the only decoration at all added to the bottom to span from foot to foot of the cabinet just below the door with the thumb latch that held it closed.

So I struggled to fit it all into my little wagon and drive about a half mile home with the wagon door open, unloaded it and carried it into my basement for inspection. The paint was older, that shade of warm white that older oil-based paint became after years of sitting on the surface. The birch wood top was partially covered with real “linoleum” in a distinctly late-40s pattern, faded, dirty from probably motor oil, and more than half scraped away.

My parents lives had been marked by WWII, and all the indications that this had been made or at least updated at that time were pulling on those stories. My father had served in the Asia-Pacific theater from 1942 to 1945 and come home not knowing he had developed Parkinson Syndrome from a malarial fever that had nearly killed him. My mother had graduated high school in 1942, and all her memories of late high school, her early working career and life as a young adult were bound up in the American homefront experience during the war. I only heard the good stories, but in time I determined there was much sadness and pain underneath the shiny surfaces.

As I walked around the back of the cabinet, a single bare, unpainted panel darkened by age, I saw handwriting at the top. There, in pencil, was written:


And the story began to write itself of the person who’d returned from overseas with all the pain and trauma and trying to get back to “normal” life, creating this cabinet by hand, and letting this simple creative activity help to start the healing.

The story was always intended to be a short story. My mother actually recovered and lived 10 more years though she was ill and needed constant care, and many stories never came to be during that time. I still have the cabinet in my kitchen, see it, touch it, use it every day, and had to share something of it in my own creative efforts, so I wrote the poem for my 2014 poetry reading at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, “In This Valley”, commemorating the 110th anniversary of the merge and founding of the town of Carnegie because my parents were so much of this town, and the town itself, like so many others, was marked by that war. I read it again in my recent reading, “Walking Around”, because this finding and the inspiration for my own creation perfectly illustrate things you find when you carefully observe your surroundings, and how things we need sometimes magically appear when we need them.

I have not matched anyone from our town’s history with those initials—yet, but I hope to find a clue someday. But for the story it told me, lending its own magic to my memories and experiences, this will always be the tale.

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