The silence of ice
hard-smooth glaringly mocking
a manufactured perfection
life, birth, spring
held captive in plain view
under a solid clear glaze
pale world strangely hushed
I tiptoe through
afraid to break the surface with my sound
but a snap, a crack, a drip, another
whispers return to life around me
once broken, the ice cannot hold its captives
dripping, pattering, babbling
life begins again
the stream torrent rushing
beneath the clear, fragile, broken cage of its captor.
My mother died on January 25, 2011, and each year around that date I remember her in a post and share the poem I wrote for her the day she died.
She had been ill for years, and this last time she’d gone to the hospital in congestive heart failure it was clear she would not recover. Kept comfortable by the hospital staff, we waited around her bed for her last breaths.
Later, after clearing out her room at the nursing home, all the necessary phone calls, a visit from a friend and more calls, I had my time alone and was up quite late. As I sat outside in the quiet of the January night watching the snow gently fill the air and fall whispering in a soft blanket on all around me, the poem came to me in nearly one complete piece. So that I would not distract myself from the flowing words in my head I carefully went inside and tiptoed to my desk for a tablet and pen, quietly went back outside to the swing and wrote it down slowly, line for line, all as if I was afraid I’d scare it away, all the beautiful words I’d been thinking, or maybe I’d break it, like a bubble. I changed very little in a rewrite.
I read this poem at her memorial. And I had decided I would go through with my poetry reading scheduled for just two days after my mother died, because it was an opportunity to share her with others and to read the new poem.
I could never encapsulate 86 years of a life into one blog post or one photo or one poem. The photo above is the one we placed in our mother’s casket, her wedding photo from 1946 when she was 21 years old. The little scrap of red in the lower left corner is the red blouse she wore, the one she loved best, and I knew she’d want to be remembered in it; our mother was one who could wear a red chiffon blouse in her casket and be proud.
About My Mother
Regardless of the many outstanding qualities any person may have
we are essentially remembered for only one of them.
In my mother, all would agree
this one would be her remarkable beauty.
All through her life the compliments trailed her
as she carefully maintained “the look”, her look, so glamorous,
from tailored suits to taffeta dresses to palazzo pants,
hair perfectly styled, nails manicured and painted
a collar set just so, cuffs casually turned back,
hair worn long, past the age of 50,
a dark, even tan and shorts into her 80s,
lipstick always perfectly applied,
and even at 84
people marveled on her perfect skin,
dark curly hair,
and big bright smile.
I see that smile
when I see my sister smile,
and I see my mother’s active, athletic bearing
when I look at my brother,
and her gray eyes are mine.
In each of her grandchildren
I see her round face,
graceful hands, pert nose,
proud upright posture
and a million other of her features and habits
and in all of us
her wild curly hair
is part of her legacy to us.
When we look at each other from now on
we will see the part of her she gave to each of us,
this little cluster of people who came from her
and who were her greatest treasure,
and when she looks at us from wherever she is
she will know that
she cannot be forgotten.
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 in places with strange names, 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 Catholic 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 and had no idea why things were as they were.
I remember the word “service”, and how we needed to help each other, no doubt echoing what I was also learning in Catholic school, which was very much about public service and reaching out to people with less than we had and sharing, making sacrifices.
And I remember hearing that we needed to do this in a hurry, 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. And other people didn’t want them to have those rights, either.
Children often feel they are responsible for needs in their environment. 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 to happen, looking for answer just like me.
I decided I would just 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.
She stood beside the bed waiting for the next command, acting out her baker’s apprentice role. Her father sat in the bed, kneading the sheet on his lap into massive quantities of imaginary bread dough to be proofed in a big nonexistent wooden bowl, real sweat rolling down his face. When he indicated it was ready by pulling his hands away and speaking a few unintelligible words of Polish, she lifted the balled up sheet “bread dough” in both hands and took it away, turning to place it on the seat of the reclining chair in the cramped institutional room. He either approved or didn’t see what she’d done, she couldn’t tell, and he barely took a break before he began kneading another sheet into a ball.
She had taken a guess this was what he wanted the first time he’d done this; he was speaking Polish, which she knew in only simple conversational phrases. He waved his hand and in an irritated voice said something that included the word mąka which she knew meant flour. Did he need more flour? Again she took a guess and picked up a bed pillow and carried it over to him, setting it on the bed beside him. He picked it up and poured imaginary flour from it, so she guessed, then put it down and went back to kneading the bed sheet. He wasn’t strong enough to support himself walking, but his muscles were rippling as he vigorously kneaded the sheet.
What was he seeing? She was fairly certain he was not seeing this room with those glassy, feverish eyes. Her father’s eyes were hazel and soft, but these eyes were squinted with effort, then glaring sharp and black with his dilated pupils when he looked at her and gave his order. Probably a medication effect, but who knew? Dementia was a strange thing, the doctors and nurses had said. You never knew what you were going to get, or for how long. It was hard to tell if they were “in there”.
She had had her introduction to this mind play a couple of years ago, the day she had driven him to the hospital, on the last day he’d ever spent in the house she’d grown up in. As her mother sat before her vanity back in the bedroom putting on makeup and brushing her hair, getting ready to leave the house, she had been in the kitchen with her father. This was not at all unusual, but the conversation was. Her father had stopped conversing years ago, speaking one or two words in answer to questions but never sentences, and certainly not initiating talk. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson Syndrome a few years before that day, and the discussion of symptoms and effects had pretty much explained the silent, shuffling, stone-faced father she’d grown up with. Now, with medication for the condition, he talked all the time.
They had a nice, normal exchange, even a laugh or two. Then he walked down the hall to check on her mother and after a short exchange heard him say to her, “That’s a really nice girl out there. Who is she?”
He didn’t know who she was. And in the two years following that day he seemed to be moving steadily backward in his life, discarding memories as he went. She was the youngest child, and he was now back before the time she was born, some time in the late 1950s when her brother was a toddler and her sister in grade school, they had just moved into that house, her mother was still young. Since then her father had forgotten Allen too, and then her sister Ann, though he seemed to hold onto his memory of his wife. Eventually even she slipped away to reappear unexpectedly as he moved through the war years when he’d been a cook and baker in India, the years during the Great Depression when he’d worked in the family bakery, jobbed around as a musician and picked up any odd job he could find.
The bakery had been the family business. His father had brought it in his head from Poland and built a family bakery, not on Main Street, but in a poorer neighborhood where people really needed the bread and would buy from an immigrant. The bakery had done well and her father, first born, had nearly been born in the bakery in the years when his father and mother were just starting out. Then he had worked in the bakery from a young age before and after school.
After the banks had failed in 1929 and so many people were unemployed, hungry and losing their homes, they kept baking bread and just gave it away if people couldn’t pay for it. In 1931, at age 12, her father left sixth grade to make bread and pastries and drive the delivery cart, pulled by a pony that belonged to a neighbor. They lost the bakery in 1936, and her father along with his father and brothers looked for any work they could get until 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made the World War broadcast on the radio, like a serialized daily drama, reality for Americans. The brothers enlisted, all were lucky to make it safely back. The family bakery was never resurrected.
When he had begun this wild bakery activity, giving orders in Polish and sweating real sweat, her sister had been in the room and called her to say she was probably the only one who knew what he was doing, and maybe even knew some Polish.
His family had spoken Polish at home, and though they also spoke English he didn’t speak it regularly until he went to school, and spoke both easily all through his life. But on the rare times he spoke now it was only Polish, his sunken soft hazel eyes wandering in confused silence otherwise. If her guess was correct about him marching steadily back in time he’d be a teenager now, or even younger. She’d tried to pull out a few Polish phrases but he didn’t even respond to that. He just kept kneading sheets and sweating, seeming angry.
Wow, she thought, he really hated baking, he wanted to be a musician, and here he’s stuck baking in his hospital bed…until he dies? She looked at his gnarled hands and veiny arms, thin from wasting with this disease, his back hunched from decades of bending over the bench, those dark, piercing eyes that were not his, and wondered what he did see. It wasn’t this room, it wasn’t her. What part of her father’s childhood was he inhabiting now?
The bakery just below street level was dim and hot with the fire to keep the ovens going, stuffy with the rain. The street was at eye level, the cobbles a glistening bumpy pattern. A waft of cool damp air drifting down the steps to the open door cooled his face momentarily, but the sweat still dripped from his nose and chin, ran down his arms from under his shirt. Maybe the heat and rain would make the bread proof faster and he could get out of this place before dawn and hide somewhere to sleep. They treated him like a servant and barely let him eat. He was supposed to be an apprentice, learning the trade, and he had learned it alright. He seemed to have a talent for it that even he had never known. But this couple had stopped baking since he had started, taking care of the shop and traveling around town to sell even more so he had to work even harder, never giving him credit for the increased quality of their breads and pastries, and or course he was unpaid.
He had been glad to get away from his drunken father who roared and swung a meaty punch toward anyone who came near him. His oldest brother wasn’t scared of their father and would take over the smithy. His other brothers had gone off to be soldiers and had no idea if they’d ever return. His sisters stayed with his mother and each vowed to take her with them when they married. His father had told him to go to the baker, who had no children, that would be his trade. That was it, just leave, walk across town and go to live with strangers. As the youngest son, he knew it was taking a trade elsewhere or being a soldier or sailor, and so he went.
He had been glad at first, until in a year they barely let him out of the bakery, no more fun, no more education, he couldn’t even finish schooling and would be trapped, working in their bakery until they gave it to him or died. He didn’t say much about it, didn’t talk to much of anyone, he just seethed and kept it all inside.
He had heard customers talking about people leaving Poland, leaving all the countries in Europe for a new country, full of other opportunities, sailing for months to get there. He hadn’t had much school, but he had seen maps, checked them when his brothers left for the war, checked them again when people mentioned this “America”. He couldn’t even comprehend the distance, a boat, total strangers, and didn’t even think about speaking a different language.
Yes, the heat and moist air would raise this bread to perfection. Yes, he knew his baking, good enough to have his own bakery, which would never happen here. He finished kneading the bread dough, rolled it into the proofing bowl, pulled together his shoes and his coat and cap, walked out the door and squinted his dark eyes into the drizzly night, and headed west, toward where the English coast was on the map, where a ship would take him to that new land, where he could claim the success and the life that would be his.
This story is mostly true. The father is my father, and I was the apprentice baker in his room in the nursing home. We had that conversation, he did seem to move backward in time over the years, and he did make bread of his bed sheets. And he did have those frightening eyes that, for all my father’s distance through Parkinson Syndrome, I never saw at any other time in his life. I also never forgot him sweating in his very real bakery.
I have been working on researching my family history. Years ago when I began I could not find my father’s father anywhere. I barely knew him because he died when I was quite young, but my fiction writer’s mind was putting this story together even then, thirty years ago. That part of the story is fictional.
I resolved to at least draft the short stories I’ve been carrying around in my head all these years, just to see if they actually work and to get into the habit of writing them. I am slowly working on a few, but this one practically wrote itself in the first draft with two rounds of rewrites. I hope I can keep it up.
Her tears, somehow cold as they emerged, mingled with the melting of snow that relentlessly pelted her face as if to add volume to the fountain that poured forth from her swollen eyes. Her face was numb in the blizzard wind that scoured her bare skin in the frigid night, turning the tears and melted snow to ice on her chapped cheeks, constantly scraped by the glassy crystals that swirled around her head like angry bees before finally embedding their sting into her skin. She visualized her face as the smooth pale marble of a statue of some unknown saint in a church courtyard, an eternally sad and enigmatic expression in her colorless, sightless eyes, the carved lids and cheeks slowly gathering snow yet pocked with tiny droplets of blood where each crystalline snowflake had broken through the stiff skin. It had all become so surreal she played with the idea she was actually dead and hallucinating this walk through the woods as some bizarre after-life travel through a tunnel toward “the light”.
But even though she could barely see through frozen lashes, and the pain of snow crystals forced into her eyes when she tried to open them further, she knew there was no light ahead in this tortuous place, no end of the tunnel of trees rising on either side, their canopy above, the views ahead and behind obscured in the blizzard haze, and her other senses dulled by the persistent hiss and scraping and numbing cold of the storm. It was as if she walked in a bubble of her own suffering, made worse by a few falls into the deepening, drifting snow that chilled her to waves of uncontrollable shivering and obscured her footsteps, and the smooth path of what she dragged behind her. She had thought to follow her path back if she felt in danger at any point, despite any consequences, but as if to mock her the storm had worsened quickly as she traveled, its force not even broken by the dense woods, and closed in around her. Though these woods had often been a refuge, the isolation created by her dulled senses and deepening cold had made it unfamiliar and hostile. Fear began to push aside the veil that blinded her senses as she slowly acknowledged the reality of her situation.
She stopped, caught her breath, tried to still her shivering and looked around, trying to focus on objects, rocks, trees, things that were solid and tangible, trying to find a familiar pattern that might identify where she was in the woods. The wind and snow pressed against her, forced into her eyes and nose and mouth, invasive, almost smothering, even when she turned to face behind her, away from the wind. Is this real? Am I freezing to death? Was her life really in danger? What had she done? None of this was what she’d intended. She knew it would be risky at night in winter to begin with, but she knew these woods, even with paths covered in snow because their shape was easy to find as they wound clearly among the tree trunks, free of brush. Animals also trod the same paths, those familiars with whom she felt a kinship as she walked, alone, for that welcome respite of solitude and silence. She had often wanted to simply stay once she’d entered the woods and shed the cacophony of everyday life, feeling the relief, breathing more easily, smiling, feeling graceful and balanced and in time forgetting her own self, simply feeling a member of this woodland community, even in winter.
But that familiarity was not true knowledge. She only knew what she enjoyed and found familiar, not all that was there, and certainly not the woods in a life-threatening blizzard.
I got myself into this. I knew I didn’t really know the woods. I walk everywhere in all weather, but not in the woods. I should have known I wouldn’t be able to handle the weather and finding my way. Was it really worth it to take a shortcut through the woods because I didn’t want to walk all the way around on the streets, even though I was leaving later than I’d intended? Am I going to die in these woods tonight because I had to get this rocker out of someone’s trash pile and get it home before the storm hit?
This short story was a submission for the Winter 2016 Writer’s Weekly 24-hour Short Story Contest. You sign up ahead of time, and on the day and time the countdown begins, always a Saturday, the page on the WW website that includes the topic goes live and entrants get a link in e-mail. I actually won a sub-award, one of 15 door prizes.
I don’t remember the topic exactly and didn’t copy it down, but I do remember that in it the person was dragging something through the woods at night.
You don’t need to use the exact text or even the scene described, just use it as a starting point. The instructions said they liked surprise endings. With my recent experiences outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures and musings on the tenuous nature of life, I thought I’d share this story this Sunday.
Startled, an unexpected
kitten before him, he
cautiously greets this unknown feline, offers
friendly gestures though it has no
true kitten attributes, no smell or sound. He
doesn’t know, of course, it is
himself he sees, for he
senses himself in a different way, the
horrors he endured before rescue
blurred in the distant darkness of his reflection,
and with trust he has found reaches out to
this hesitant, wide-eyed kitten with kindness
to share the lesson
he has learned.
I wrote this poem in early November 2014 when Basil, then named Smokie, was about six months old and still easily surprised and intimidated by unexpected things, like a kitty he didn’t know, even if the kitty was his own reflection in a mirror. I saw the moment coming and had the chance to photograph this encounter, and I was very moved that instead of acting aggressively, which was not his style, or running away, as would be expected from a kitten who’d suffered some unknown trauma and nearly been euthanized because he totally failed his temperament test, even after fostering, he reached out to the unknown kitten with an act of friendship. Yes, love can change these things, and it saves lives.
Smokie had just discovered a few new places, and one of them was the top of the wardrobe where so many cats have sat to watch the day and nap. It has a great view down the steps and into both upstairs rooms, and right next to the bathroom door a kitty can just look around the door frame to see what’s happening in there. It’s a favorite place, but not all that easy to get to unless a ninja shows you how to stand there, jump up onto the windowsill, carefully turn around and leap straight up onto the top of the wardrobe, where Smokie encountered…himself, or at least, another cat.
He has seen himself in the bathroom mirror, but in this case he was confronted by a whole cat, not just a face that disappeared when he drew back. He can still be easily frightened, and stood kind of frozen for a second or two, then tentatively reached out to tap the unknown kitty’s nose, his first gesture one of friendship, just as it was when Bella came to live here.
He’s gotten used to himself now, and totally owns the top of that wardrobe. It’s been fulfilling to watch him change and grow.
“Aurora Borealis”, a sketch I did for an illustration for a book about two polar bears who…I don’t remember the story line, but I do remember checking my voice mail at home while I was at work that last autumn I was at my day job, and listened to the message from the small press publisher who’d found my art online. He had an idea for a book that incorporated text and art, and he liked the style of my pastels and how I treated animals in my paintings, and he also saw that I was a graphic designer and freelanced as a book designer. He wanted me to illustrate and design the book.
That one call was “it”. I had been freelancing full time nights and weekends as well as carrying a schedule of new paintings and art exhibits monthly and was still working full time, but knew the time was near. I could live on what I made from the book publishers and the other customers I had at the time, one of them a home builder who had me create artist’s renderings of his house plans, then flyers including those. The art sales were gravy. My office was set up, my car was paid off and the only other debt was my mortgage, money in the bank, health insurance and retirement set up. But was I really ready? I only needed one good nudge. That call was it.
In fact, I suddenly felt a little panic. Had I waited too long? Should I be home right now? Was I missing calls? That was why I checked my voice mail during lunch, but without caller ID, how would I know if someone had called and not left a message? I had to be at home!
January 1 is the anniversary of the day I began working at home and it’s very easy to remember what year I’m celebrating because that day was January 1, 2000. I still remember that first day, going to sit at my desk in the room downstairs even though it wasn’t really a work day. I’d been freelancing and working at that desk in that corner for several years already, and looking out the two big windows to watch birds at the feeders and observe the neighborhood, my desk and the windowsills lined with my family of felines, happy I’d be sitting still for a while so they could get in a good bath and nap on me and my papers.
I had done the sketch during the evenings while still working, but photographed it to send a print to the publisher on pretty much my first day working at home, along with photographing some other artwork, and some other photos on that same roll, reference photos that later became award-winning works.
Look somewhat familiar? Yes, it’s the reference photo for the art that’s in the header for my blog The Creative Cat, “Warm Winter Sun”. Only in January does the light stream all the way into the kitchen like that, not even in December is the light that color. And another photo next to that one…
That’s Moses sleeping in about the same spot as Namir in the other photo, but she had been there earlier. The sun is a little higher on the bookshelf. I remember debating between the two and I had intended to paint both, but only painted Namir. All these years later I can’t tell you why, but I do know that one of my goals was to focus on photography generally, photograph my cats more often with my fully manual Pentax K-1000 film camera so I had lots of reference photos, and get around to painting them way sooner than before, like paint them as soon as I got the photos back. And so I did, because instead of waiting a decade as I had with other photos I entered the painting of Namir and won Best Pastel in South Hills Art League’s 2000 Annual Juried Show.
I’ve sold framed prints of the photo of Moses. In 2015 I decided that spring I would paint from the photo and see what 15 years of experience in painting has done to my style. Four years later, well…
Another photo on that roll…
Yes, Cookie really did lie about on her back like this, and I decided to take her photo. The image stayed with me, and a little later that year I suddenly visualized the hand-colored block print, “The Goddess”. I decided making a block print, something I could reproduce but was still an “original”, would be ideal for donating to shelter events and to sell at animals events I attended, and so it was. I didn’t get to do it right away but waited until 2001 when I had the time and the idea for a set including “The Roundest Eyes”.
A change in plans
And also because my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in April 2000 and became my responsibility as he moved through his recovery, and then my mother developed lung cancer and had surgery and barely recovered, both of them incapacitated with multiple medical conditions and in care for the next decade as I was legal guardian for my mother and POA and representative for my brother. We never know what will happen to change our plans, and those two medical emergencies certainly changed the business plan and list of objectives I had spent a decade determining.
But my felines were there for me, unconditionally, at the end of a long day at the computer; below, my desk in summer 2006 featuring Stanley curled next to Sophie, Kelly bathing, Namir and Cookie curled in front of me and Peaches having a good scratch on the file cabinet, six cats….
…or an all night project, or when I came home from a long day at one hospital or another, or a day of doctor appointments.
Over the years my customers and work projects have evolved as has my family of felines, though lying all over my desk never went out of style, even in the wee hours when I was up with a project as in the photo above from 2010 with Peaches on a box, Mimi on the windowsill, Dickie on my desk, Cookie having a good bath on my paperwork, and Giuseppe being vigilant. It really was 3:00 a.m.—there were plenty of times in my mother’s last years that I was off at a hospital unexpectedly for hours to see to her care that I just worked whenever I could, and my cats took it all in stride.
And yes, Stanley and Moses and Cookie and Sophie and Namir and Kelly and Nikka were very glad I just quit going to work one day, and we’ve never looked back. I’m so glad I was home for their last years.
Last autumn, after many repairs, the keyboard shelf on this desk finally broke in a way I can’t repair and I remembered that, including the time I’d spent freelancing in the 1990s, I’d been working in this same corner of the room for 28 years and at this desk for 21, and as much as I love the views out the windows, the convenience to the kitchen and outdoors and all the memories, I was really tired of that spot! About three years ago when my keyboard shelf first fell off my desk, rendering it unusable for me because of where I need to have my keyboard positioned to avoid repetitive motion strain injuries, I temporarily abandoned the desk and set up shop in my studio, and currently split my work between the two places, design as well as art. I resisted a computer in my studio for years because I would repeatedly check my email and other electronic things, but now I’m pleased to have two computers networked and two equally suited workstations.
Most of all I also enjoyed the change in scenery and found the room conducive to writing as well, and began moving more and more of my writing up to my studio. As my work has included more fine art, writing and creating gift items and less commercial graphic design, I’ve been spending more time in the studio and enjoying every minute. For many years it was the “spare kitty room”, holding many memories of sitting in that room and looking out that window while trying to tame or comfort or treat a rescued cat, and may still serve that purpose again if it’s ever necessary, but I think I’ve moved that operation to the bathroom for now. I think my family of felines appreciates the change in scenery too, or they just like to make sure I am properly supervised as you see Jelly Bean, Mewsette, Giuseppe, Sunshine and Cookie on the chair.
Many things have changed in my commercial art life each year for the past four or five, the printers I use, the projects I work on, the amount of design work I have. Things changed in my art life too as I’ve loosened up and feel much more free in my work through the practice of my daily sketches, and I’m looking for more opportunities to market and sell my art and merchandise. I’ve also continued to find more places to publish my articles and stories, so I’m deriving more and more of my income away from graphic design.
When I talk to students about being self-employed I tell them two things I’m sure they don’t listen to: learning to run a business is more important than performing your skill, and expect everything to change on a regular basis.
How many snowfalls have gently covered this ground,
How many summer sunsets flared against the rock of this cliff,
How many feet have trod this sacred spot, human and animal alike,
Stood on this outcropping as I do today
feeling history beneath my feet
in the remains of recent generations
and from the millennia.
The land, carved by the wiles of nature through the past,
stretches out before me, opening
into the hills and valleys of the future
and I wonder,
have all the watchers felt the same exhilaration
at the potential of the unknown
and, so moved, place their beloveds’ remains in this high cliff
so that they could still watch eternity unfold
beneath a comforting blanket of snow?
How many snowfalls have blanketed this site in Carnegie, white flakes silently falling all around and filling the valley seen from this cliff?
Currently, it’s Ross Colonial Cemetery, named so for the Ross family of settlers around the time of the Revolutionary War and it contains graves and headstones that date from that time as well as more recent ones.
But the site has been a lookout for millennia. One can stand on the cliff’s edge and see most of the valley containing Carnegie and the oxbow of Chartiers Creek as it enters and leaves town. My mother told me her brothers and others found Native American artifacts in this area.
Standing there in any weather, I can feel the history beneath my feet, the land unchanged by time, holding the memories of all the watchers, like me, looking off into the distance of the valley and of history.
As the seasons change I look to nature for familiar scenes and welcome details held dear from year to year especially in my garden, my little patch of toil for the years I’ve lived here, beginning in 1990. Even though I’ve worked and planted and composted and created raised beds and paths and the site holds probably all the memories I have from living here from all the time I’ve spent working and thinking there, I still find wonders, mostly in the spring when it all feels new again after a month or two of break, and sometimes intangible wonders as well.
This yearI remembered a series of photos I’d taken in March 2009 which I called at the time “Winter Leftovers”, thinking of the ephemeral beauty of dried plants that seemed lifeless from afar but had so much character and detail when studied up close through the lens of my camera, natural sepia tones, tiny highlights, clouds of soft fluff and tiny spiky flowers, an entire universe in miniature.
The bright spring sun had shone at an angle from a faded blue sky in mid afternoon on a day just around the vernal equinox and I was late in planting for late snows and freezes. I leave the native plants standing in and around the vegetable garden for the residents of my backyard wildlife habitat to eat from, perch on, snuggle into, build tiny homes upon to weather the dark and cold season, but I was thinking of asparagus and potatoes and salad greens and time outdoors with two of my cats who always joined me in the garden, ready to work it all down and get planting.
But I didn’t. As I leaned into my spading fork the angled sun caught a sparkle on a delicate spiderweb smaller than the palm of my hand. I walked over to investigate and found a spider no larger than a grain of sand shriveled in the center. She had died long before but continued to cling there all winter long. Her web held up against any number of storms. Her eggs would have been laid on the stem adjacent to her web, and when they hatched the little spiders could have their first meal of the insects caught in their mother’s last web and use her web as a launching pad to their new life. I found the whole idea so moving, that the children the spider would never know were provided for by what she had done before she died, that on that bright March afternoon I put down the spading fork and picked up my camera and went through my garden looking for other such images. The afternoon was fading and with it the light, so we packed it up for the day and returned the next afternoon just for a session of photography.
All the other native plants had left behind skeletons that told stories as well, the asters and chicory and goldenrod and dock, and the effect of these was haunting, like finding a ghost town or a lost world. I photographed each desolate construction with attention to extreme details to capture the intrinsic, transient beauty of these empty shells, capturing the sepia tones, letting them say their last goodbye before the flush of new growth pushed them out of the way.
What was most surprising to me when I went to review the photos in 2017 was when I looked at the other photos in the folder for that day, and what else I’d done in the morning. I had photos from the 54th floor of an office building in downtown Pittsburgh, quite the different perspective from the afternoon’s warm spring sun and attention to the details of desiccated native plants in my backyard garden. I’d been there for a hearing to contest matters with my mortgage company, Countrywide Mortgage, which had acquired my tiny mortgage in 2005 and had forced me into bankruptcy protection to avoid one of their illegal foreclosures in 2006. Despite the fact they and the company that took over their mortgages, Bank of America, were charged with so much wrongdoing, they still insisted I owed them the legal fees related to my foreclosure and fines on those fees and my attorney and I never did figure out what else was included in the $16,000 they said I owed them. Just the foreclosure and bankruptcy, though I owed no other debts, had hit self-employed me hard and taken time and finances away from growing my business, and keeping house and the idea of paying another $16,000 wasn’t even something I ever fully grasped because I knew I’d never come up with it.
I did, though, just not all at once, and even more than that too. Through the years after that BOA continued working out devious ways to get more money out of me. Because of Countrywide’s illegal foreclosure, for which I received a check for $300 in a class-action lawsuit, BOA was not permitted to threaten me with foreclosure, but they threatened me with everything else they could until I was finally free of them in 2013 by moving to another mortgage company, and the mortgage itself in 2016.
It’s hard to say that a decade of financial struggle where phantom fees and charges were continually and unexpectedly added to my mortgage, and my mortgage payment, was a horrible thing because no one could really see it but me. Despite the financial issues I would not give up my home or my business and I paid everything they asked of me, taking all legal actions I could. Even if I had left this place I still would have owed the mortgage and would have had to settle it and also pay for a place to live, so I decided to stay here and just keep making a mortgage payment and somehow work it out. In the end I was offered a settlement by the new mortgage company that I could afford, and I own this house, though I paid far more than was ever planned.
But the more surprising thing was that, even though that situation lasted for a decade and really just ended the previous year, when I remembered the “winter leftovers” and that afternoon in the garden down to the details and the sun on my back and two cats who are still very dear to me, one who I would lose just a few months after that day, who were out in the garden with me, I didn’t remember anything of the hearing with my mortgage company, nothing of the struggle and hardship and paperwork and court dates that lasted a decade. I must have ridden home on the bus and looked at the perfect sunny day, and once I got home my inner voice, my inner guide, knew I needed healing. Instead of getting right back to work, I’d steal a little time for physical effort and something I loved to do, change my clothes, get my two cats and head outside and enjoy their exploration of the spring garden and work off the morning. I only remembered the poignant beauty of what was left in my garden and the beautiful story it had told me.
Aside from those who have “superior autobiographical memory”, we can’t possibly remember everything that happens in our lives. We do make choices, even if we don’t realize. Bad memories stay with us and letting them go is almost like grieving a loss, a loss of a part of our selves that was betrayed, traumatized, or somehow hurt and must heal. But somehow the beauty and inspiration of that day washed away the bad. I’ll carry that beauty forward, and build on it, and leave the bad behind.
The night’s eternal darkness shifts to a color less black
and time begins again,
cobalt to cerulean spreading across the sky to snuff out the stars
and a glowing edge on the horizon heralds the sun
rising quickly to sparkle on leaves and faces
infusing the dank pre-dawn mist with warm yellow sunbeams
and the world is fully alive again
a miracle equal to life itself.
Since before our existence
consistently every day the sun brings its gift
travels across the sky at the same pace regardless of our issues
bright afternoons of life and work
remembered in the quality of light on that day,
the weather on another,
do you remember that sunny morning, cold and frosty?
no, it was late in the afternoon that happened, during a thunderstorm
the sun now drifting, dropping toward the opposite horizon
its loving light mellowed with the toil of its task
the ancients watch in fear as the aurora of color
heralds the loss of their life-giving god
and soon all is again covered with a nestling blanket
and we may perish if it remains
but even the world, the busy life of this planet
must rest in darkness for part of the day
lest we destroy ourselves with our own productivity,
the sun must disappear
take the burden from its shoulders
loiter just out of sight
until you turn around to see
the change in the shade of black. Rest, another day will come.