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.
Several years ago I was driving home on a Christmas night, traveling along a dark two-lane road in a somewhat rural area that was familiar and fairly close to home. As dusk fell the light dusting of snow around me was tending to violet and the perfectly clear blue sky above me was also shading to violet in the east. As I turned a bend in the road I met with surprise a big bright and creamy full moon that had risen above the uneven line of pine and deciduous trees nearly silhouetted against the sky on the horizon. I smiled at the pure beauty of the scene and as I drove along, the moon seemed to follow me on my left.
I had just driven first my brother back to the nursing home where he was living while recovering from a traumatic brain injury, and then my mother, who was living in personal care in the after effects of lung cancer and congestive heart failure. I had cooked a Christmas dinner at my house, set everything aside to keep warm and gone to pick up each of them. We ate our dinner and I packed a few leftovers for each of them before getting them back in time for dinner medications. Now I was on my way home to pack up the rest of the dinner, wash dishes and clean up my kitchen.
Deep in thought about these two and about my own life since they’d suffered their illnesses, I considered our day then moved to other Christmases, other holidays, other family members, other homes. In my distraction I slowed down with the rises and falls and bends in the road in the growing darkness, but was still aware of that full moon following me out of the corner of my eye.
A small valley opened out on my right, a familiar thing to one who walks the woods and valleys in Western Pennsylvania: a level area filled with young trees, scrub and brambles which had recently enough been the rich bottomland field of a farm, bordered by a narrow stream, and behind that a rather steep tree-covered hill. These small valleys appeared on both sides of the road, and with a little traveling the valley would rise up into a hill that bordered the road, up and down, the road, the landscape, the rhythm was comforting, like rocking slowly in a rocking chair.
But as I passed this little valley I noticed movement. I knew it was probably just a deer as this was the time of day they moved about and that was the perfect area for them to be having an evening meal. Though I hadn’t been facing that direction and didn’t actually see anything directly, the movement hadn’t seemed to be a deer, it had seemed human to me.
That was not a problem, really, the little valley was essentially someone’s back yard and it would not be unusual for them to be walking around there even on Christmas, but something about the figure had also seemed familiar, I had no idea why. Even though I wanted to get back home and clean up my kitchen, I slowed down and pulled to the side of the road. If there’s a possibility, I like to pursue these little ideals that arise, stopping to explore, but I rarely have time to.
I had passed the valley so it was now behind me, but I backed up along the berm of the road to a spot where I could see the valley.
That silent pale yellow moon still shone on my left, risen slightly higher above the horizon than before, shone directly into the little space, lighting the snow cover to a pale silver violet and the tree trunks to varying shades of pale gray against the charcoal-shadowed hill in the background. Everything seemed still, but I detected movement flitting among the trees, thought I saw the glint of moonlight on hair, on an arm, a dress. I opened my car window and shut off my radio and then my car’s engine. If those were people moving down there, they should be crunching in the snow, but I heard no sound in the crisp, clear air.
But I felt such a strong presence. Quietly opening my door and standing up in the bits of snow and gravel at the edge of the grass along the road, I heard only far off sounds, a plane in the sky, a car traveling somewhere, a dog barking. The air was so clear I thought I’d hear sounds from miles away traveling quickly through the cold, windless darkness, leaving little virtual contrails as they moved through the infinity of a cold winter night, but nothing came up from the valley, neither from hooves nor feet.
And if I was reading this and didn’t know the story I’d be yelling, “You idiot! Get back in the car!” No, this isn’t going to turn into a made-for-TV movie—you are safe to read on without fear. I am cautious and always aware, but didn’t feel in any way threatened, in fact I felt safe and welcome.
As I stood there, one hand on my open car door, I thought I recognized one of the figures out of the corner of my eye, and as it is with focusing on subjects in near darkness the figure disappeared when I looked directly at it. But I knew it was my mother, walking quickly and gracefully as she had done when young, laughing soundlessly over her shoulder before disappearing into the darkness. Then I saw one of my aunts, also laughing but in a conversation with someone else, happy for once in her life. And as I stood there I saw other relatives, my brother and sister, aunts and uncles, even ones I’d never known and only seen in photos, just a few seconds each, and all were happy and laughing and moving here and there, the little valley was full of these specters.
Then I realized that each of these were the people I’d been thinking about as I drove along. Had I manifested them? Was I hallucinating? I hadn’t even had a glass of wine yet, waiting until I was back home in my warm kitchen in my stocking feet and wearing an apron, washing my dishes and singing along with the radio.
But here they were in this magical little valley and what had made me slow my car, had drawn me out to experience it was the joy in the scene, they were all enjoying themselves, happy and laughing, something that had not always been so in real life. Here they all were together in this little parallel universe.
No, I had been thinking so deeply about them all, remembering where I had memories or simply imagining those who I’d never met. When I create a scene for artwork or writing I visualize it pretty completely and for a while as the goal of my work it is very real to me. In that manner of visualizing, in that dusky time of day when I feel the veil of reality thin and the closeness of those who aren’t with me along with that magical moon and its light among the trees, my thoughts for those brief seconds became real, and I saw them as I wanted them to be, or perhaps as they really were without the worries and weariness of everyday life, happy to be together.
I have a white cotton napkin with a woven pattern of broken stripes like dotted lines in pink, blue, green, yellow and violet. The colors are faded now and it’s spotted with stains I can’t remove, but each of those stains is a memory as bright and clear as the colors once were of a series of special Christmas dinners.
I didn’t use it as a napkin, instead it lined and covered my little bread basket when I hosted my mother and brother for these dinners. Each of them lived in personal care for very different reasons and quite far apart. I was responsible for the welfare of each of them which included not only critical health matters but also social time. Their lives would never be “normal” again, i.e., the life they had lived before their health crises, but I would do as many things as I could to give them “normal” moments. That focused on holidays, and food.
In April 2000, four months after I’d left my day job to become a self-employed commercial artist working at home, a 2:00 a.m. phone call sent me to the trauma unit where my brother lay unconscious after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a fall. A lifelong alcoholic, often homeless, his options at age 43, if he recovered, were to try to make it on his own, which he’d always failed to do, or to move to a group home. I gave myself a crash course at other options, knowing his behavior would make a group home a total fail for him. I set a path of recovery with the help of many social workers, doctors and therapists.
Moving in with our mother after rehab was a possibility, but as I drove with our mother to visit him twice weekly for several months, I noticed her voice change, her strong personality soften, and intuitively knew something was wrong and that move was not a possibility. I moved my brother from the physical rehabilitation facility to a nursing home 50 miles away from me, the only one that would accept a 43-year-old 6’4” former alcoholic with daily grand mal seizures, though he was ambulatory, talking and taking care of himself. I was grateful for their understanding and generosity.
I started working with my mother’s primary care physician to find the source of her changes. An exam and basic tests found nothing and the doctor quickly grew annoyed at my regular phone calls with what I saw were new developments, she saying my mother was fine. I persisted, the doctor said she’d order some x-rays just to confirm what the blood tests had shown, and there on the chest x-ray was the spot on my mother’s left lung. It was almost too small to biopsy, but that biopsy showed it was small cell carcinoma which needed to be removed as quickly as possible. At age 76, a smoker for 55 years with heart disease and mild emphysema, she was still a good candidate for surgery. We planned her surgery and the tests leading up to it, and because she lived alone, me within a mile, I looked for assistance for her care and let the neighbors know.
Her surgery went well, but her heart disease kicked up a fuss as she recovered, causing blood pressure spikes, seizures and a few days later she suffered a stroke. She was not in a coma, but in a state called vascular dementia, awake but not responding to her surroundings. Doctors can’t predict if or how a person will recover from this because the vascular activity can cause brain damage. As it persisted for weeks with my mother on life support I moved her to a critical care hospital. The length of time and lack of change indicated she would likely not recover at all. Orphan’s Court appointed me her legal guardian and I began to organize her home and papers for the eventual decisions, visiting her daily, usually twice, and bringing my brother from his nursing home to visit weekly.
But about six weeks later during a visit she turned to look right at me and, because the tracheostomy tube prevented her from vocalizing, simply mouthed “coffee”. I laughed! Wow, that was some nap, I guess you would need coffee! Yes, she did recover, and ended up going back home after a few months of rehabilitation. But she was weakened and developed pneumonia or congestive heart failure frequently enough that the following autumn an extended stay in the hospital led to a move to a personal care home, which became permanent.
Just a month prior to that I had moved my brother to an assisted living apartment as he entered a program to give him continued physical, occupational and daily living therapy. Both of them kept me busy with doctor appointments and paperwork and hospital stays, and I was still self-employed with a fairly busy business, but holidays became more important than they had ever been.
I love to cook, and they ate nourishing though institutional meals and wanted home cooking. I made plenty of post-parade meals and cookouts on Memorial Day, Labor Day, Fourth of July as we celebrated our mother’s birthday. The personal care home always invited my brother and me to an Easter meal. But Thanksgiving and Christmas, vegetarian though I am, and though there were only three of us, I made a huge amount of food and desserts. I could barely afford it, and both holidays fell during a very busy time for me as both a commercial artist preparing advertising and campaigns for commercial customers and commissioned paintings and gifts for fine art customers, but I never questioned the time or the money.
The two places were at least 50 miles apart and the journey took quite some time on both highways and back roads. I cooked the dinner at my house and in mid-afternoon set everything aside to keep warm, hopped in my car to pick up my brother first as the farthest distance, and then our mother, closer to my home. I sat my mother down with a tiny glass of wine and set the napkin-draped basket of fresh warm biscuits and the butter dish next to her as she remarked on that year’s table setting. My brother mashed the potatoes, I served their favorite broccoli with cheese sauce. They piled their plates and ate as much as they could hold. We exchanged small practical gifts, I packed leftovers for each, then we got back into the car so they could get back in time for evening medications.
There had been much unhappiness through the years, and no small amount around Christmas itself, but together, we created a tradition for just a few years, made from what we could manage to do within physical, social and medical constraints. My mother and brother are both gone now, but every time I see that napkin I remember the basket of warm biscuits, and my mother pulling one open to spread butter in my warm and bright kitchen as the sun set on Christmas Day.
I submitted this story to the Chicken Soup for the Soul people to be included in an anthology of stories about holiday traditions. The book has not been published yet, but we are permitted to share our stories on our personal blogs. I’ll be sure to note if the story was published.
One night not so long ago a young and slender black cat quickly and silently trotted down the sidewalk of the neighborhood where he lived, a long and graceful shadow against the moonlit snow, disappearing completely into the shadows of shrubs and cars and doorsteps when he needed to stop for respite from the wind.
The night was cold, cold, just plain cold as that straight and icy wind surged down the street like a ghostly wave, straight off the frozen river, enveloping him in a blanket that penetrated his fur as his paws crunched on the snow. Reaching a familiar front door he leapt past it onto a windowsill and eagerly looked inside, to see only darkness. As usual his new person wasn’t home and there was no way for him to get inside to where there was at least warmth, if not also some food, unless the young man had forgotten that again too. He didn’t mind living on mice if he at least had a warm and safe place to sleep for a while each day, but he hadn’t found the young man home at all for days.
He leaped down from the windowsill back to the snowy sidewalk. Out of the cover of the sill the sudden blast of a circling gust of wind at his back lifted his fur and filled between each hair with cold so deep he thought he’d freeze in place. Trotting quickly he reached the end of an alley at the corner of the house and quickly turned into the shadow, breaking into a little canter without the wind buffeting him about, hurrying to reach the steps that led up to the deck on the second floor of the house.
Little lights were twined on the railing all the way up the steps and on the railing around the deck, and even a few around the windows. This cheered him for the occupants who had once lived here had always had these lights—perhaps they were back! The rail around the deck was covered in snow and ice and he had often stepped onto it easily, balancing along it with his tail high in the air to look into other windows and the door, hoping to be noticed by the people who lived there. Yellow light streamed from the windows and he hopped lightly onto the sill of the one that looked into the room where the humans ate but a curtain was drawn across, and though he could see shapes moving behind it and hear voices inside, he could not see anything clearly, and they could not see him at all.
He knew the former occupants were not in there. These humans kept the windows covered and had never answered to his meows though he had announced himself loudly in his high-pitched sing-song greeting. They never seemed to notice him at all.
It wasn’t these people with the little dogs that he wanted anyway. He hoped to catch sight of the large black cat who had lived there and the kind woman who lived with her, the woman who had kept a bowl just for him inside the door in that eating room with the bright yellow light, who would let him in no matter when he appeared at the window, tapping his paws, or stood up and drummed at the door, and would fill that bowl to the brim with tasty crunchies. Both she and the black cat would watch him eat but make no move to tell him to leave, and he would stay for a while after his meal, bathing and giving into his drowsiness in the quiet warmth of the room before awakening, washing his face and asking at the door to leave.
He might have stayed but he knew the room and all the other rooms around it belonged to that black lady cat who watched him quietly with her green eyes, who seemed to understand his hunger and his need for these few moments of companionship, though she made it clear without a word or a move that all this was indeed hers, and the human was hers too. He didn’t mind her rules about how long he could stay or what was hers. That she let him in at all was a great honor and he would never overstep his bounds and risk going without these few brief moments of security.
But she no longer lived in this place at the top of the long steps, nor her person, and the little lights had disappeared long ago. The young man on the first floor to whom the woman had entrusted him just before she disappeared had been fun at first, kind of like one of his unneutered feline buddies, but the guy was home less and less, and sometimes he was home but didn’t answer the meows and tapping at the door and window. And he never had crunchies for the cat, much less food for himself.
In desperation, the young cat left the heights of the deck. After a pause at the end of the dark alley he plunged into the wind booming down the street, squinting his eyes and folding back his ears against his head as he turned toward one more place, the place where he’d lived before he started wandering, wandering because those humans had not let him in but had wanted him to stay outdoors around the house to catch the vermin they attracted with their garbage.
There wasn’t much hope he’d find any warmth or food or pets there, but he had to keep moving or he himself would freeze in this frozen city. The night had been growing quite dark as the moon was covered by clouds moving quickly across the sky, and as he hurried down the sidewalk on slender legs blurred by the motion of his rapid trot on freezing paws he began to hear the click of hard icy pellets hitting the snow and shrubs and houses and cars all around him, and speckling the delicate skin of his ears like little bee stings, and landing on his fur.
The windows of that house were dark anyway, as were most along this street, though many had those little lights outside that were still shining brightly. He had found they were actually a little warm if you got close to them but decided that would not be enough to keep him warm. He ducked under the front porch, shook himself from head to tail then arched his back and fluffed out his fur for extra insulation. Tucking himself into a familiar protected spot he lowered himself to the ground, curling all four paws underneath his belly and wrapping his long tail around himself to seal in the warmth and try to thaw his toes. After a few shuffles so that all his paws and legs were comfortable, he tucked his chin into the fur of his chest, and in the shadows he looked like a slightly misshapen fuzzy black ball with ears.
He had no idea what he would do without food or water, or a warm place to sleep on this frigid night. He was exhausted and unwilling to step out into the now thickly falling snow to look…where? What else was there out there that he could possibly eat? Everything was frozen, even in the garbage cans, which he had tried earlier, before the darkness fell. He closed his eyes, gathered all his warmth together and lightly dozed to give himself a break from the cold and hunger.
He felt a familiar feline presence approaching. He had no idea how much time had passed, looking at how much snow had piled around the covering of the porch. Another larger and older black cat entered underneath and quietly crouched a short distance away. It was his friend, Wiccan, a wise and ageless neutered male who had always been a mentor to all the cats on the street, and especially to the slender and wandering young black cat. His presence itself was a comfort.
After a brief and companionable silence while they both closed their eyes and tucked their chins to sense the emotional space the other was inhabiting, Wiccan turned his face in the other cat’s direction, slightly opening his eyes and blinking a consoling message.
Young Pumpkin, you could come to our house. You cannot come in, but my human would give you food and a box to sleep in. It is better than freezing to death in this deep and frozen night. Because you know you will.
Pumpkin waited a moment before answering, turning his head lightly in the direction of Wiccan.
I would take your kindness and be glad for the food and the box, but I don’t want just food and a box anymore, he said, not opening his eyes. I want a home, enough to be willing to die for it. I am tired of wandering, and if this night is my last then that is how it was meant to be.
He paused, then continued with a sentiment he wasn’t even certain he’d intended to share.
I want to find the ladycat Mlle. Daisy and her human. I know we found them once after they disappeared from the top of the steps inside those windows, you took me there.
He turned and tucked his nose into the fur of his narrow chest, breathing his own warmth back into himself, his energy for the moment spent.
Pumpkin, you know they would have taken you in at any time if you had stayed there.
Pumpkin flicked and swiveled his ears, not lifting his nose from his chest.
I wasn’t ready. I was still responsible to another human, insufficient as they were, and they had not released me to join a new family.
Wiccan knew this was true. He also knew a cat had to make his own move sometimes and break the ties with the life that no longer suited him or was literally killing him, especially if he had found the home that was right for him. Pumpkin was a good, honest and gentle cat, deserving of a home and humans who would respect and return his love and loyalty. It was why Wiccan had once led Pumpkin around the corner to the noisy and dangerous street and to the front door of the limestone building where he’d seen the woman entering and leaving, and Mlle. Daisy in her dignified repose in the bay window, watching the street through narrowed green eyes. But Pumpkin was right, he had not been ready, he was still tied to the family that had taken him in as a kitten, and a loyal cat like Pumpkin did not break his ties easily or without the clarity of a mutual decision.
Wiccan tucked his chin. The stillness under the porch within the ethereal whisper of the swirling and falling snow outside had fashioned a dreamlike, timeless space. He swiveled his ears and searched this night for an answer.
Wiccan knew what it would be before he even found it; the nudge of this vision on his consciousness was the reason he’d left the warmth of his home to come to find Pumpkin before the emaciated young cat really did freeze to death in some spot where he’d taken shelter. Though he was weakening from the months of deprivation, Pumpkin’s will and life force were strong. But Wiccan had seen a frozen Canadian night full of howling wind and falling snow take down many a strong-willed being, feline and otherwise. Wiccan took seriously his responsibility to all the felines on this street, and he knew he needed to help Pumpkin through this transition or he would die.
In this quiet, concentrated space, he followed the vision as it unfolded. He saw the new place, Mlle. Daisy curled in her red brocade bed, where the woman now lived with Mlle. Daisy, and with a man who had visited before they moved from the place at the top of the stairs where Pumpkin had just visited, hoping to find them. Wiccan could see they were inside the windows at the very top of the building, in the back, and each window had a gentle beckoning light like a beacon, a point to focus on to find one’s way. It was so strong and clear he felt Pumpkin could see some of these details along with him, in that way that cats share ideas.
So strong, in fact, that Wiccan suddenly stood up and arched his back and shook himself from head to tail, feeling a certain urgency. He walked over to Pumpkin and gently burrowed his nose in the fur behind Pumpkin’s ear and snuffled, a dominant cat’s gentler indication that he would be followed. Wiccan then turned and walked out from under the porch into the falling snow, leaving fresh tracks in the deepening snow on the sidewalk, knowing the young cat would join him.
Pumpkin got up and without the warming stretch and head shake simply followed Wiccan, following faith in the one being in his world who he knew cared for him, and the little flashes of Wiccan’s visions he’d perceived through the accumulating fog in his being. They faded into the falling snow, buffeted by gusts, two shadows in one path, then disappeared, their pawprints filling with new snow almost as soon as they had passed.
They neared the end of the street but did not turn onto the new street. Instead they crossed to the opposite sidewalk just before the corner and entered the back yard of the house at the end. Suddenly in the lee of the buildings the sudden lack of wind actually made the air seem warmer and all was quiet, the wind and street sounds muffled. They crossed that yard and another in a straight line, ducking under the hedges as they passed from one yard to the next. When they reached the third yard Wiccan turned toward the shadows and headed for the set of steps at the back of the building. It was much as Pumpkin had seen in Wiccan’s thoughts, the long, long steps taking turns and angles on their way up, the snow swirling lazily down as the wind swept it over the building then dropped it to fall gently into the darkness behind. That darkness was broken only by two tiny bright lights toward which they were now headed, Wiccan leading the way through the deepening snow, up and up and up the steps.
Pumpkin followed, unsure what would happen, but feeling a surge of warmth and energy, the inner fog dispelling. When they reached the top he vaguely sensed the scent of the woman and Mlle. Daisy. Wiccan walked directly over to the window on the right, and leaped up onto the windowsill, knocking snow down as he settled himself to look inside.
Leaping up on the sill to face Wiccan, Pumpkin also settled himself onto the snow. They could see inside, and though the light in the window was the only light in this room there were clearly lights on inside the rest of the rooms. Wiccan looked at him and Pumpkin felt Wiccan was waiting for him to do something, though still weak, hungry and cold he could not grasp an idea. When he only sat looking at Wiccan, Wiccan turned and looked inside, raised a paw and tapped on the window.
Suddenly Pumpkin shed the torpor he’d slipped into with cold and hunger and lifted a paw and tapped firmly on the window, as he had at the other place, the tap that had always brought the woman and the dignified black cat. He saw shadows moving inside, and tapped again, then sat up and drummed with both front paws, excited, now understanding why Wiccan had brought him here, not just that the woman and Mlle. Daisy were inside, but that this was the night…
Mlle. Daisy appeared first, the glow of the light reflecting on her eyes and shining warmly on her fur as she entered the darkened room. Then two dark human shapes filled the doorway one after the other and both came to the window. He recognized them both and sat up once again, looking into both of their eyes in turn, drumming his paws on the window, trying not to hope, but hoping all the same.
Together, the two humans reached down and slowly lifted the sash, and warm air flowed out through the opening, carrying with it the familiar scents of Mlle. Daisy and the woman and the man and all their things inside this wonderful warm and quiet space. They continued lifting the window until the sash was nearly at its top, and leaned down to look at both cats sitting on the sill.
“Well, it’s Wiccan and wee Pumpkin,” said the woman’s familiar voice. “Whatever are you doing here, knocking on the window on such a terrible night as this?”
Pumpkin looked at her for a long moment, then turned to look at Wiccan.
What should I do? Should I ask?
Wiccan blinked an answer.
No. They are expecting you. Step inside, and meet your destiny.
Pumpkin stood up and lifted a paw over the drift of snow on the sill, delicately stepping on the wooden sill inside, one front paw and then the other. He was halfway in and halfway out. He turned and looked at Wiccan, then brought both hind paws onto the sill inside. Pumpkin turned to look at Wiccan once more and blinked. Wiccan blinked in return. It was done.
“Well, come in wee Pumpkin,” both humans said encouragingly as Mlle. Daisy circled around behind them, out of reach of the chilling wind and falling snow blowing in the open window.
“Little Pumpkin you are freezing!” the woman said as she picked him up in a warm and loving embrace. For all the times he had visited her he had not encouraged her to pick him up; he was completely unused to it as no one had ever really held him with love and affection. He began to shiver as he shared the warmth of her body, and then to purr deeply, giving in to the love.
“Does Wiccan want to come in as well?” they asked. Wiccan looked at them and blinked, took one more look at Pumpkin cuddling in his human’s arms, turned around and jumped down from the sill, walking across to the steps, already visualizing the fireplace in his own home just a short distance away. Behind him the window closed and the humans disappeared, carrying the young cat with them. Briefly Mlle. Daisy appeared at the window next to the light, met his eyes and blinked once as he turned for a last look, then she too was gone from the window. He made his way carefully down the long flight of steps, his night’s mission complete.
About the story and illustrations
Though dramatized, the basis of this story is true, and it involves cats and people I’ve written about on The Creative Cat. Wee Pumpkin, who really had been adopted to kill mice really did visit Mlle. Daisy and her human where they lived in Kingston, Ontario, tapping and then drumming on the window and door to announce his arrival, and was fed his fill from vintage glass dishes as nice as those from which Mlle. Daisy nibbled her morsels. Though his name was Yogurt, he was often referred to by dairy derivatives of that such as Brie and Cream Cheese, by Giuseppe who was concerned when the young cat would visit the apartment and his love Mlle. Daisy with Giuseppe himself so far away. Now and then Wiccan showed up at the window too. The young man downstairs had offered to care for Pumpkin when the lady and Mlle. Daisy moved around the corner, but really did not follow through.
On Christmas Eve 2012, the woman and man, who had moved to a larger place just around the corner initially to the first floor then to the third floor of the limestone building, did hear tapping on the window at the back of their apartment and found Wiccan and Pumpkin looking in. They opened the window and Pumpkin walked inside, but Wiccan turned and left.
Pumpkin lived with them happily ever after with two more moves to new places, adoring his humans and always respectful of the loving and dignified Mlle. Daisy. He was named Theophile for the artist Theophile Steinlen because the slender and angular Theo looked like one of the angular black cats in Steinlen’s illustrations.
The story stayed with me, and I wanted to celebrate the wonderful rescue and homecoming of a loyal and loving cat on the anniversary of the event, and wrote this story in 2013 with one sketchy illustration, above.
I was so happy for Pumpkin, now Theo, in his rescue from near death on the streets, but I also remember that his experience represents thousands of cats every day in all seasons who are abandoned and living in between, trying to support themselves in a hostile world with no support when they’d really rather live with a human. We can do better by the animals we as humans have domesticated and welcomed into our lives. Learn their signs, and welcome them in. Demand that people care for them and not abandon them.
Sadly, Theo died in his sleep in August 2016. I received a message from his person that he just hadn’t awakened from his nap and all signs pointed to an underlying cardiac issue. Nothing could describe the sadness of the loss of a cat who really was as gentle, compassionate and sensitive as he seemed to be. At least he had a few years of a very comfortable life, completely loved. And he will never be forgotten.
I plan to expand the story to its natural length and include a set of illustrations done as linoleum block prints. I would self-produce and self-publish this book, and sell books and prints for the benefit of rescued cats, both those I rescue personally and other cats through donations to rescues and other individuals. You can help me with this by donating toward it or by supporting me through my Patreon page. See information below.
Help me publish my poetry and anthologize my rescue stories
I’m very excited to have finally recorded this after years of thinking about it. It’s really my beginning plan for recording all my books, and this one I’ll expand to include other stories I haven’t yet written about. But to do that I’ll need to purchase a better microphone and a quieter chair! Between that and printing and the time it takes to create these things, so I’ve set up a Patreon page through which patrons can pledge a certain amount each month to support these projects. You can read about it here or visit my Patreon page.
On a dark, misty, not-quite-raining Sunday afternoon just before Christmas, I walked across an uneven, wet parking lot toward Dollar Tree, my mission: three or four pairs of 2.75 or 3.0 reading glasses that I could leave around the house or carry with me as need be since I was recently finding myself unable to read smaller text. I’d probably also pick up some other one-dollar-doodads that I really didn’t need.
It wasn’t cold, just dreary, especially since we had had a very pretty snow a few days before that had mostly melted leaving piles of dirty ice in parking lots and cinders and salt on the streets and caked on cars.
Ahead of me I saw an older woman emerge from the passenger side of a neat, clean silvery sedan parked near the end of the row and close the door, leaving someone, presumably her husband, behind the steering wheel.
She was slender and slight, dressed in an unwrinkled light blue poplin raincoat belted at the waist and had no hat on her short, mousy-gray permed hair. I thought of her leaving a very plain white Protestant church with a wreath on the front door, her husband in a navy blue suit, holding the passenger door for her as she got into the car; she had asked to stop here on the way home for something. She walked quickly with her head down and did not look up at me as I passed her but only glanced sideways without raising her head or turning in my direction, and said nothing.
I admit my outfits can look interesting at times, with my penchant for making and wearing colorful crocheted berets and hats, sometimes adding a scarf over a sweater or two and usually a long skirt with colorful tights and clogs or boots of some fashion. Some people say it looks cute or “funky”, some people just look, and I know that it often looks like I couldn’t decide what to wear or like I’m packing extra clothes, and while I’ve overhead “bag lady” I still get plenty of compliments. But my outfits are generally a reflection of what’s going on inside my head and heart and this is different every day and rarely monochromatic.
Even though the older woman didn’t look like the typical Dollar Tree patron in that area, in fact, she didn’t look like the typical patron of anything in that shopping center, she certainly looked as if she was heading for the door. Reaching the door ahead of her, I opened it and held it for her to pass through.
She stepped up on the sidewalk and hesitated, looking at the door, then glancing at me, as if she wasn’t sure she trusted the situation, as if I might close the door in her face or hit her with it. I smiled when she looked at me and nodded my head, and that seemed enough to encourage her to trust me as I held the door for her. She nodded at me, not making eye contact, and hurried past me into the store with short, quick, silent steps. I entered behind her and let the door close behind me.
Dollar stores are generally a little chaotic, but before Christmas they reach a peak of excess that is generally overwhelming. The merchandise displayed in no particular order turns into areas of color and texture and blocks much of the light from the ceiling fixtures, the scents of candles, perfumes and spices float in from everywhere, and once you add in the musical cards, conversations and Christmas music piped in from above, even the most focused person can become completely disoriented.
Patrons dressed in winter clothing wander up and down the aisles and among the displays of stuff clutching an armload of t-shirts and window cleaner and kitchen utensils and a box of rotini pasta with startled expressions darting about for anything they might have missed and would regret not purchasing when they got home. Maybe it’s a merchandising tactic by the store, but when everything is $1.00 you don’t need to worry about appealing to customers, and shoppers can afford to lose focus and pick up a few things they hadn’t come in for but might use later so it’s worth a cruise around the store.
I lost track of the older woman as she entered the store and turned right past a display of fake red-and-green-and-glitter poinsettias wrapped in sparkling red and green foil. I remembered where the display of reading glasses was, so I headed straight into the store, past the line at the front to the end of the counter where the spinning racks of reading glasses and sunglasses were displayed.
I don’t know what was playing when I came in, but above the din I heard gentle piano chords begin a melody joined by strings, not at all unusual for a holiday tune but when it led into the first words of “Let There Be Peace on Earth”, the Vince Gill version, I smiled. I knew this song, and I really loved its clear message accompanied with a simple melody. Vince Gill’s version is very straightforward and unadorned, not a big resounding production, and I find that very comforting.
Let there be peace on earth
and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
the peace that was meant to be.
In addition to my interesting clothing I also tend to sing along with anything I know, but it’s often completely unintentional as familiar words and melody flow through my thoughts and I simply begin to hum or sing—not loudly, but people can hear me. Of course, because I knew this song I began to sing along, softly, as I spun the glasses display and tried on one pair after another, purple, silver, flowered, tortoiseshell, looking in the teeny mirror to make sure I wasn’t completely over the top and picking up other packages to see that I could read them.
With God as our father
brothers all are we
let me walk with my brother
in perfect harmony.
I also looked around the store to see how the vision was with the glasses, even though they were meant for reading. A display of greeting cards began on the other side of the glasses display, and I saw an African-American couple who had been pulling out one card after another reading and laughing or discussing. An aisle of figurines of all shapes and colors and subjects opened up beyond the sunglasses display, and there I saw a woman and girl softly speaking Spanish, likely mother and daughter, picking up various figurines and discussing them.
Let peace begin with me,
let this be the moment now.
Now, however, I noticed that the mother and perhaps daughter, too, also seemed to be singing along with the song; their lips moving slightly as they browsed their shelves, and they seemed to be singing in English.
With every step I take
let this be my solemn vow…
I know I was staring at them trying to focus and determine if they really were singing along, and the mother looked up at me with a smile of recognition as her lips and mine moved with the same lyrics. I smiled back; we didn’t know each other, but we certainly had something in common.
…To take each moment
and live each moment
with peace eternally.
We kept singing softly as our glances broke apart, but we kept smiling.
Let there be peace on earth
and let it begin with me.
I turned back to the glasses display, finally on the fourth pair, while the song went into an instrumental section. When the song began again, with the child singing this time, so did I, and so did the African-American couple looking at the cards. I looked at them, they looked at me, we smiled and kept singing softly.
With God as our father
brothers all are we
let me walk with my brother
in perfect harmony.
I was overcome, and as is also typical of me in emotional moments, my eyes brimmed over and tears dropped down my cheeks. I glanced down and pulled a used tissue from my pocket, dabbing at my eyes, but kept singing.
To take each moment
and live each moment
in peace eternally…
Far too emotional to consider browsing the store, I turned to the counter with my glasses to check out. Just then I recognized the older woman’s blue raincoat already in line. I stepped in behind her. She was holding several stuffed toys and humming the last bars of the song.
Let there be peace on earth
and let it begin with me.
That really finished me off. I found another tissue as I began to wonder about this woman who was so uncomfortable in these surroundings.
Because she looked too old to have young children of her own, and she appeared to have the means to buy better toys, I wondered who the stuffed toys were for and why she would go to Dollar Tree to buy them. I imagined a scenario of some single mother she had heard about in church, a neighbor or perhaps an errant daughter with her grandchild; the sermon had nudged her conscience and she was acting as quickly as possible. Perhaps that was the reason for her apparent discomfort, or perhaps she stopped here after church every Sunday but didn’t want anyone to know she was helping someone. I knew my imagination was running away with the facts, but the whole experience had opened a flood of ideas that I could barely follow.
When radio stations pledge to play Christmas music from Thanksgiving to Christmas they really have to lower their standards to keep the selections varied, and while some pop holiday hits have become classics, others are just inane. But then, anything would be inane after that experience. I somewhat like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, but not right then.
The one thing I do know is that there in that discount store, among that mixed group of us—the uncomfortable older woman, the Spanish-speaking mother and daughter, the African-American couple, myself and possibly others—there was peace on earth, at least for those minutes when our hearts met in the simple wish described in the lyrics. And perhaps they each carried it away as a tender memory, just as I did.
EACH DAY THE DARKNESS COMES EARLIER, too early, and we talk about how this early darkness feels unbearable. The daylight is less and less, each day shorter, some very old part of our brain senses imminent danger then by a miracle the light returns and we celebrate. Unlike my other essays this is equally photos and words so that you can see my inspirations.
In these darkening days it’s easy to curse the darkness and miss the delicate beauty only found at this time. I took my walk to Main Street for errands and found a wonderland one heavy, dark, overcast day in a place I had thought so familiar. I called it my “gray day walk” as a shorthand for those moments of exploration when time stood still for me, unexpected on a busy afternoon.
The date of this “gray day walk” was December 15, just one day different from today, and just as gray.
. . . . . . .
I have had far worse days. Overwhelmed by the demands of commercial work as my customers and I prepared for the holidays along with merchandise orders and custom portraits and my own preparations for ending the year and beginning the next as a small business, I left the house at 4:00 p.m. destined for the post office and bank just before they closed.
Though I had walked this half mile route from my home to Main Street for years, I had lately been driving, using the need to save time or the awkwardness of a pile of packages as an excuse for wasting gas and a chance at exercise and fresh air. The day was hardly inspiring—five days prior to the winter solstice the days were frighteningly short, sunset less than an hour away, and in a series of heavy dark days typical of this area in late autumn and early winter, dense pasty clouds hanging low overhead and so dark it had felt like dusk at noon, and now some of the street lights on Main Street were already alight. I nearly always take photos on these walks, and while I laid the strap of my camera bag over my shoulder I was glad that, for once, I would probably not find anything to photograph and take time from my day in conditions like these.
Traffic was heavy so I took my route under the bridge, next to the creek where traffic noises faded and birds sang, a trickling sound as water flowed smoothly past over the rocks in the shallow waterway. And in the dim and fading light a world so familiar at first appeared dark and nearly colorless until my eyes adjusted to the light and found such wonders among the wildflowers along the way, standing upright though dried and every shade of brown and tan and umber I found fantastical birds, abstract sculptures, amazing complex patters among the dried flower heads, exposed and broken seed pods, leaves clinging curled to stems.
I could not stop for the post office and bank both closed at 4:30, so I walked as fast as I could with my camera bag on one shoulder and a large canvas bag of packages on the other so that I could amble back through this wonderland on my way back to my neighborhood. The light was so dim then, as the time approached sunset within minutes, that I had to set the ISO of my camera on 800 to get anything but vague images floating in sepia darkness, even with all my settings to admit as much light as possible.
These plants had sprung up from seeds tossed here on the wind and water, carried by birds and people walking past, sprouted in spring, housed birds and insects in summer, borne their flowers in summer and fall. I had walked among them many times with my camera and sketchpad, I knew where each stood, when they bloomed, their botanical names and history, I looked for them each year and anticipated the best times to compose the images I visualized, but this was a gift in its unfamiliarity.
Now, after several frosts, autumn storms and snow, the weak parts had been stripped away and the strongest parts of them were burnished by adversity and stood dignified in the dimness, with just enough sheen to highlight their most interesting shapes, textures and combined patterns.
The background now, rather than the usual details of other plants and flowers, was darkness, the more perfect to silhouette each delicate construction as if in a gallery featuring the finest art.
Milkweed pods became flocks of fantastical birds, or individual exotic species clinging to stems. Tightly curled dried flowers or clusters of puffy seeds set loose, sere and twisted leaves and flowers of another time. Even the holiday decorations in a shop front, capturing the blue from the late afternoon light with highlights from the store within echoed the shapes and patterns of the natural forms outdoors, as the raindrops that would soon fall.
I arrived home with dirty shoes from walking in mud, and dirty knees from kneeling in wet grass, bits of leaves and stems and seeds flocked with frills to carry them on the wind on my skirt and jacket, in my hair, on my bags, souvenirs of a timeless magic, both in letting go of the time of day, and letting go of time altogether for that period. I only let go and rejoined the day because it was too dark to photograph any longer.
I am grateful to this gift of creative vision that releases me from everyday cares for just a short time, exercises those aesthetic senses and relaxes the overused worry lines, and gives me these wonderful gifts of images to share, just for noticing the inspiration was there.
There is always something new to learn about the things we think we know well. Never forget that when the light seems dim there is much to be seen with the heart, and when adversity has taken away the quick and obvious beauty, the strongest parts remain, dignified in their naked and twisted strength.
I featured this essay as part of my 2017 poetry reading “Walking Around”, inspired by moments like the one I wrote about above. You can read the poetry and essays I included in that poetry reading, and also see galleries of the paintings and photos I included, captured while out “walking around”.