If the sunlight illuminates a flower in the woods but no one is around to see it, is it still beautiful?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but if no eye beholds it, is it still beauty?
I photographed this scene for the obliquely backlit combination of bold yellow coneflower and delicate wormwood with all the varied patterns and shades of green in the background, silhouettes, shadows, blurs and bokeh, and titled the photo “Backlit Bouquet”. But the image had more to say.
I walked along the trail as the sun set and could see as it moved that features were randomly highlighted—a cluster of leaves, a flower, the bark on a tree, and in watching the process it almost seemed intentional, as if some force or the sun itself wanted me to notice these things. As each thing was featured it did appear beautiful to me, but the one coneflower in the group that was highlighted gave me a new perspective. I would not have noticed them otherwise, and the one that was highlighted indeed seemed more beautiful than the rest because of the highlight of its graceful fall of petals, bold yellow color and soft rounded center, and all else seemed to be a backdrop to its special prominence.
When I shared the photo I scribbled the first draft of a new poem.
delicate, ephemeral, eternal; had I not chanced by as setting sun journeyed deep into the autumn woods to touch your face you would still have been as beautiful.
I knew it wasn’t quite right. “We’ll see what it develops into some time in the future,” I said then.
A few weeks later the poem was still with me. Once I’d written the rest, I found I just didn’t need those two first lines, they felt heavy and formal, and without them I found I could reorganize the lines of the poem, especially that really long one that I couldn’t split before. I also changed the word “journeyed” to “reached” because it was more of what I’d intended, remembering the sunlight that day as it moved down toward the horizon and reached and touched different spots deep in the woods. Added a comma too, and it became the finished poem above.
When the tiny green grapes began to turn dusky purple and the leaves to gold, I envisioned an image of them in their contrasting and complementary brilliance, sunny, glowing gold and rich purple. Each day I took more and more photos hoping to find that vision.
It was not to be. Grape leaves tend to fall before they turn yellow, and are burnished with brown and gray as well. The sun was not going to wash these leaves and grapes at the right angle for the image I wanted. But in the process I took a lot of photos that I didn’t even notice were truly descriptive of the grapes.
Sometimes I can let go of all my expectations before I begin a creative venture. Perhaps sometimes I need to work my way through my expectations and come out the other end without them.
I don’t have enough sun to grow morning glories in my yard, so I take advantage of others’ lovely pink and purple trumpets. For years I’ve photographed the morning glories that come up from seeds along the wrought iron fence by my neighbor’s white barn garage in the alley near me. Then one year they were not there, and never have been again, and I miss them, but this morning reminds me so much of the year when I spent way too long photographing them. I’m so glad I did.
I have been kind of obsessed with morning glories in alleys lately—they’ve just suddenly sprung up so I’ve shared some of my old favorites, draped over old fences and gates and growing up downspouts, but I’m trying not to spend too much time on them right now when I’m really busy.
I would get more
if there weren’t
They got the better of me one October day a few years ago, and after a GB+ of photos of the lovely purple and pinks by the white barn and a quick scribble of a thought I decided to spend some time on something I visualized while photographing and finishing my walk home. The thought was a very literal one—I should get home, I had things to do before the end of the day and if I hadn’t encountered such exuberant and colorful beauty while walking down the alley I would probably have been home already.
But I wouldn’t have these many photos of morning glories, each of which I’ll use somewhere sometime, even if I only look at them one winter day, and I wouldn’t have that sweet spontaneous, the exercise of my creative intellect from coming upon such beauty that had me let go of what I needed to do, only to come back and do it better than I would have if I had ignored the morning glories and come straight home. Soon the morning glories will be grayish withered memories and I may be too, so it was extra important to capture it.
Please share! And don’t forget to tarry a while by the morning glories.
The clock on my bathroom windowsill
tells whatever time it pleases.
A small, cheap battery-operated alarm clock,
the works inside have begun to let go
and the hands move independently of each other and of time,
skimming around the dial like birds circling in the sky,
flying first in opposite directions
I keep it because it’s mint green
and matches the new color scheme.
I am often late for things
and admit that most of my life
I have not taken time seriously
much to the consternation of those who wait for me.
Some say it’s the artist’s temperament
that I’m “out of touch with reality,”
that I’m “in my own world,”
but the truth is that there is always another creative idea
begging for attention,
and I have to give it its time
because that’s how creativity works.
That idea is not always a new painting
or a lyrical poem,
sometimes it’s the design for a customer’s logo,
or the perfect brochure copy for another’s promotion,
or the solution to why the website won’t work the way I think it should.
Sometimes I need to just be still and let thoughts happen
and leave time behind because the solution to the problem
is more important than the time it takes,
and the bright new bathroom, clean and open,
the window framing treetops and sky
just right for dreaming,
and the mint green clock on the windowsill
that tells whatever time it pleases
suits me just fine.
And while I am often late,
there are also days when I walk into the dark of this bathroom
and look at the deep void of night outside the window,
but the first questioning tweet of a robin rehearsing for the dawn chorus
warms the darkness,
and the light changes to reveal the silhouettes of the trees against the sky, black on black.
I have pursued the latest idea to the ends of my universe without question for the hour,
I contentedly watch the sky change from black to blue,
the birds now singing in earnest,
a gift to my exhausted creative mind, cramped hands and tired eyes.
Younger, I might have watched the entire show,
showered and gone on with my day, but not now.
I’ll nap, wake up later than I should,
and probably be late all day,
but I found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow
and the clock says it’s only 12:37.
The clock itself inspired me to write this. Those hands started to let loose and tell times that didn’t even exist. I’ve always contemplated my lateness, and the things that make me so, and know it’s my determination to explore every idea and write that poem, draft that short story, sketch that sketch, take that photo, think those thoughts. It’s how I make my living, and the customer who might benefit from it is certainly happy I took the time.
I had no explanation for
the exhilaration of color
floating above the street
undulating through the air
until caught on a utility pole
and identified as a bunch of colored balloons
held together with string
continuing to flutter and wave
against a perfect blue sky
that stopped me as I set out
worried and distracted
on a day of errands I’d rather not be running;
my brain perceived only colors
responded with joy to the distraction
as they moved overhead
and I stopped my car in the middle of the street, watching
as they enveloped the top of the pole, their strings tangled
and I pulled over, parked, left my car,
walked around them, watched them move, took many photos
forgot my worry
and as I drove away
was filled with the joy of colored balloons
against an azure sky.
The day was magic.
Later, they were gone without a trace.
This really happened, amid a time of deep worry and sadness for me as I watched my mother’s mental condition deteriorate, knowing she’d soon need skilled care and be lost forever emotionally, then physically.
Though the day was an unusually warm and sunny Saturday in mid-November that felt so normal and even comforting, my errand was to transfer the last of my mother’s money to her bank account so that I could pay her next month’s board in the personal care home. After that her Social Security would not cover the cost. I knew she should be able to stay, regardless, but fighting that battle, after fighting so many other battles for her, seemed daunting. We were waiting for a benefit for her from the VA which would cover the cost but might never come. And that was all moot because her mental and physical conditions were no longer appropriate for that personal care home anyway. She needed skilled nursing, and there was no money to pay for it.
I took off on my errand focused entirely on the problem, trembling a little and almost nauseated with worry, not at all like me but the escalating events, constant doctor visits and tests and medications to remember and recite to yet other doctors and calls from the personal care home to calm my mother down had totally filled my days and my thoughts. Then I saw the balloons.
I really did exactly as I described, let it take me away into my creative self, then got back into my car happy, laughing, trusting that worrying myself sick would not solve the problem and probably only make it worse. I transferred the money, dropped off the check, visited my mother, took her outside into the beautiful day, then spent several hours just driving around to my favorite spots to look at the landscape, to photograph, to paint, to just be, talked to people I met about other topics, spent a tiny amount of money on a salad in the diner and went home relaxed, exhausted and smiling with a couple hundred photos that I have noted in my folder of photos with the date and only the word “Saturday”. Whenever I scroll past it, I remember the day, the sun, the warmth, the resolution, the balloons.
The next two years were indeed a constant struggle for my mother and her care. Letting go of the worry on that day let me walk the rest of that path without the fear and pain and let me focus on the issue, to be present for my mother regardless of other problems, and still run my business, have my life, and move on to resolve.
Whispering together high overhead
against a cloud-riding sky
the gentle patter of leaves in the wind
of a coming storm
is to be remembered as they are
at the height of their fullness
before the blaze of autumn color
marks the beginning of their end.
A weather front often affects the conditions far above the earth. If you listen you can hear the leaves in the treetops whispering of the change to come long before it will affect us, and sometimes I seem to hear actual words, though I know it’s just my human senses forming the sounds into a familiar pattern. But these trees know it’s an autumn storm to come, and soon their green leaves will turn to gold and red and bronze. We are enchanted by autumn colors, but they find their true identity when they are still green and strong.
There is always more to another’s life than we know in our experience of them.
I’ve always loved the language of the sky. I grew up on top of a hill where I could see lots of sky in all directions. Though we lived in a suburban development the open sky was freedom from all the congestion below, and I watched them march overhead, across the valley, in all seasons. Watching the sky was like watching the facial expressions of a deity.
When I had my first solo art exhibit, in addition to the artwork, I worked my writing into the exhibit by pairing images with poems or essays or statements to make little flyers that I could print out on 8.5″ x 11″ paper and mount on the wall. Even though no line in the poem describes the painting, I used the poem Clouds with the purple clouds of an autumn rain looming over the bright trees surrounding a waterway in “Autumn”, part of the four seasons series of paintings.
Dedicated to the people and places of the Chartiers Valley after the flood of September 17, 2004
After a day of rain
the creek has been rising
and by night it thunders down its channel
writhing around its curves like a medieval dragon,
pulling at its banks and anything overhanging,
carrying whatever it can grasp along the way,
and I have seen this creature before
in the creek’s rise and fall,
now tamed by engineering,
filling its channel to the brim, then receding
each spring and summer
and not felt threatened but fascinated
by its power, power not of humans,
power to change absolutely to a form
unrecognizable from its usual character,
yet always returning to the quiet,
sleepy nature which I had explored from childhood.
But I am remembering another night
when the creek refused to stop at its brim
but spilled over and over and over,
thundering down all the hillsides came its sustenance
tributaries filling their valleys as never before,
rushing to join with the writhing creature,
mixing and turning and thrashing and smashing anything in its path
so drunk with its own power
that it forgot all those who loved it,
who lived on its banks and in its valleys,
listened to its soft murmuring voice in the darkness of a summer night,
but even as I pleaded with the creature to stop, it had gone too far,
my friend, my refuge, how could you betray me,
I knew that the creek would not listen,
it was no creature gone on a rampage
it was simply following its nature, and this one time
it defeated our intelligence with its simple power
and all our homes, possessions, lives
were nothing in its path.
The next day the beast no longer raged,
the sun shone and the air was mild,
and the autumn continued like any autumn before,
but we were changed, all of us,
the long journey ahead, longer than we knew
and our place here will never be the same.
On September 17, 2004, Hurricane Ivan stayed a little too long in our valley, dumping torrents of rain on our hillsides, already sodden from the visits of three other hurricane remnants in the month prior.
I’d watched Chartiers Creek flood from the time I was a child, and not only did I go to the Catholic school just blocks from the creek but my father’s family lived in the flood plain and nearly every spring there was water in the basement and in the streets, and we would drive to the bridge over the creek at Carothers Avenue and watch the thundering brown water writhe just below our feet on the walkway of the bridge.
When I was young, I was near enough to a bend in this creek to leave our house on the hill and run down through the old pasture to the valley below, along the road and the railroad tracks and to the creek, walking alongside its rippling path or even in the creek bed in the dryness of midsummer. In the late 70s an engineered solution to control the floods dredged and widened the channel, and for 35 years, there were no floods at all, the pollution in the creek from all the industries along its banks cleared up, and we watched the native flora and fauna return as we canoed the channel. Those ramblings with my friend, the creek, have been the inspiration for much of my creative efforts in landscape painting and photography, my poetry and stories, and became the theme for my series of poetry readings and the title of the very first, as well as the folio of my poetry, Paths I Have Walked.
So this flood was a huge shock. We heard later the flood control plan had protected us up to a “100-year flood”, and many of these had passed with no flooding, but the flood we’d experienced was a “500-year flood”, and indeed in all the memories and records of floods in Carnegie, the water had never been this high, rising in a matter of hours in the afternoon and into the night to fill the first floor of some homes on low ground, and as high as eight feet in some areas of Main Street, wiping out nearly every business along Main Street for up to three months.
The flood changed us all. Many people and businesses took years to recover, and some of them never truly recovered at all. My godparents lived in the family’s fine house that had weathered so many floods but floodwater had never entered the first floor, and at their age they were trapped on the second floor with no power, their portable oxygen running low. Though they were rescued and lived with a daughter for a month while we cleaned up the house for them to move back, it was temporary as they realized the house was difficult for them, and they moved to an apartment a few months later.
Aside from being in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, I am nowhere near New York or Washington DC. I am, however, barely an hour away from Shanksville. On the hot sunny morning of September 11, 2001 I was just finishing early morning work in my garden and yard when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Thinking it was an unfortunate accident I continued listening to the radio for details and shortly thereafter heard that a second plane had hit the South Tower and knew instinctively, as I’m sure we all did, that it was no accident.
My radar for tragedy was sensitized; just a few months before my mother had unexpectedly nearly died after lung cancer surgery, held on for six weeks then miraculously awakened from a near-coma one day and gone on to recover, rehabilitate and return home. The previous year my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident. I was integral to their recoveries and care, and my carefully-planned self-employment was unraveling.
When I heard the news just before 9:00 a.m. that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, I was out on my garden patio by the basement door, putting another coat of paint on some vintage wooden chairs I used on my deck before winter would peel the last of it off. I always worked in my garden and did small projects early in the day to make sure they got done before I hit my computer, and to make sure I didn’t hit the computer as soon as I got up and stayed on it all day long. It was a hot, sticky late summer morning, my verdant garden a green jungle, birds twittering everywhere stocking up for migration and winter, and work waiting for me indoors. The first report was that it was likely an accident, planes had hit buildings in the past. Then the second plane hit the other tower, and even though we had no proof it seems we all knew it was intentional. Everyone in the area was looking at the towers at that point and saw the direction, the turn, the increase in speed prior to hitting the tower, and suddenly a perfect morning had turned unreal.
After the plane hit the Pentagon, I put Moses, my garden cat, inside the basement, much to her consternation, as if she needed to be protected from what might be happening, and as the story grew I thought of my mother and brother and if I should get them and put them somewhere just to make sure they were safe too. Everything seemed suddenly slightly askew.
Jets fly overhead all the time. I have lived in the flight path for Pittsburgh International Airport all my life and close enough to an Air Force base and not only do they fly overhead, they circle and slow down and make noise and fly at crazy angles as they come in for a landing. A noisy plane flying low overhead is something I didn’t even notice. But two planes had just hit the two towers of the World Trade Center and a third had hit the Pentagon. I suddenly noticed that the sky was very quiet for that time of the morning.
Then in the growing quiet, in that empty perfect clear blue September sky, a single plane went overhead and my hackles rose, a cold tingle running to my fingers on that warm morning as I watched it seeming to struggle through the sky overhead. Shortly thereafter we heard about the crash in Shanksville and I imagined the comforting familiarity of perfect green rolling hills of my Western Pennsylvania home bathed in morning sun, now wrenched open and strewn with the wreckage of violence.
I hurried inside, no longer feeling safe under that warm blue sky. I thought of my mother in her home about a mile and a half away, just back from several months in various hospitals after lung cancer surgery that unexpectedly nearly killed her. She was still weak and needed daily assistance for most activities, many prescriptions and home oxygen. If all this was suddenly disrupted, what would I do? Should I go to her house now? Should I try to get her to a more secure place, like a hospital?
And my brother was in a nursing home 30 miles north of me, continuing his recovery from a traumatic brain injury the previous year, also requiring a lot of daily care, medications and supervision. Should I try to move him closer? What if I couldn’t get to him?
And my sister a few miles away with her younger daughter and grandchild? And my niece and her three babies, one of them just six days old, a few miles in the other direction? Should we all find a place to go?
Anyone else would have run for the television, but I didn’t have one then, and I don’t have one now, so I never got to see the very first images that showed up on CNN that morning, heard the fear in the newscasters’ voices. I listened to the familiar voices of the local and NPR reporters describing the events on my radio, feeling calmer listening to their words and being able to move around my house than I would have being trapped in front of a television.
Did any of us know what to do in those first hours and days, even those of us so far from the terrible scenes of death and destruction more horrible than we could imagine?
It wasn’t until the gentle, perfect beauty of September 12 that the effects of what had happened became reality. I live very near Pittsburgh International Airport and at the intersection of two interstates right outside of Pittsburgh, and hear the noises of all this traffic every day, especially in the morning. The next day, with travel restricted on land and in the air, was so eerily quiet. The beauty of the warm sun and clear blue sky, the peaceful twitters of birds and hum of bees we could rarely hear with traffic and daily noises, the clear views of the tree-covered hills made the morning seem like paradise at first but became unnerving as the hours of daylight passed and we had no more of our questions answered, nor know the extent of the damage and death as it was still unfolding in all three areas.
Perhaps those perfect September days were given to calm us before we learned how our lives had changed.
Today looks no different from yesterday but forever against the backdrop of a blue September sky we will now remember the loss of our innocence.
September 11 was a blur of images and fears and unknowns, and for me it wasn’t until September 12 dawned and brightened into another seemingly perfect September day, blue sky and all, that what had happened, and the permanent change it brought, really settled in.
A field of grass,
Never still, never silent,
Responding as one being to wind and weather,
Rippling in breezes, dancing in rain,
Changing each moment in its fervent march
To ripened maturity;
In the spring, new bright green velvet
Undulating in capricious spring breezes,
Laying flat to reveal the shining silk beneath,
And cast with shadows of clouds moving quickly
Over hillside and valley;
In June, tall and deep green
With eager pale seed heads
Standing tall and youthful,
Dancing carelessly in storm winds and evening breezes;
In the amber of late summer
Under the relentless faded August sun,
It stands in simple primitive beauty
At the moment of its ripe maturity,
Whispering in anticipation
Of the end of its journey.
Growing up on the remains of a recent dairy farm I spent quite a bit of time in the steep hillside pasture, barren of cows, grass growing taller than me in some places. The grasses themselves, like water, had a collective presence that I always felt I was walking among.
When I had my first solo art exhibit, in addition to the artwork, I worked my writing into the exhibit by pairing images with poems or essays or statements to make little flyers that I could print out on 8.5″ x 11″ paper and mount on the wall. I used the poem Field of Grass with the ripened late summer field from Settler’s Cabin Park that I’d stood in the middle of the old park road to sketch on a piece of Canson pastel paper, watching the sun and shadow move across, watching the stalks wave together and whisper like a clique of teenagers .