I loaded a roll of black and white film into my old Pentax K1000 and headed out to walk to the grocery store, bringing back images from around my neighborhood along with my groceries.
Though this is a photo essay I also describe the process and reason for taking my camera on mundane walks to find extraordinary things, including story and poetry ideas. In fact, there will be at least one story out of this walk, and it’s in there among the photos. I can’t wait to see where it starts and where it goes!
One of the reasons for using black and white film is that removing the distraction of color permits other interesting elements to shine and become the story, and using film slows me down, makes me think a little harder about using one more frame on this roll. When I’m out with my digital DSLR I just let go and photograph anything I darned well please, and I need to do that too, let go and just be part of the scene and record it as I feel it.
But sometimes, just as with writing, to get to the core of something, you need to slow down, tighten up and focus, search yourself and funnel down to exactly what it is you want to say. Going “old school” with black and white film in the old (but still beloved) Pentax K1000 is like writing your stuff on a tablet with your favorite writing implement: pencil, ballpoint pen, marker, fountain pen. I love my gel pen on a legal pad, but when a poem comes along any scrap of writable material and any writing implement will do for a draft.
The illustration above is a sampler of all the shades of pastel I’ve used while painting portraits and sketches of people of all different “colors”, skin tones and ethnicities. Tell me, who is “black” and who is “white”? And what does “colored” mean?
In truth, we are all “colored”. Each of our faces has the darkest and lightest tones and all those in between, and even some colors we’d be surprised to find in skin tones. I can tell you that all the colors I smudged there have appeared in the highlights and shadows and mid-tones of every face. It largely depends on where you are standing in relation to the light.
Some people have suggested that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of black children and white children going forward hand in hand, the ideal of seeing a person not for the color of their skin but for the content of their character, had the goal of a “colorblind” society. That’s a noble ideal on one hand, where we just don’t notice the color of a person’s skin in any situation and go on from there.
But does that truly bring justice to wrongdoing and change society in a way that makes the injustice people have suffered because of that color unacceptable? To suddenly begin to ignore the color of a person’s skin and jump immediately to integration is to jump right over the injustices done to people because of the color of their skin. It’s also ignoring an essential part of another person, shutting the door on a section of their life, a part that makes them distinctive. King did not use the term “colorblind” in any speech or written document, but his point is described by historians as a more “color aware” society where we recognize our differences, celebrate them and thereby heal through those very differences among ourselves.
When I create a piece of visual artwork I look for what makes the subject inspiring to me, what makes it distinctive, what makes me excited to share it with you. I like contrasts, I find what makes my subject different in its class, what makes it stand out from its surroundings. It’s my joy to find and share “the extraordinary in the ordinary”. If everything I painted looked the same, what need would there be for artwork?
Looking at people has always been like looking at a field of flowers for me—I find it hard to settle on one before I skip to another while I enjoy the visually exciting effect of all those different colors and shapes and heights and structures. Then I can can pause on each one and get to know each in its own unique detail.
When I rode the bus, long before I painted anything let alone a human portrait, I quietly studied all the faces around me for color and shape and texture, eye color, the hair that framed it, accessories and jewelry, and was often started by a stern expression of someone who didn’t understand why I studied them so intently. I was just looking for the things that made them unique and beautiful—not in the classic sense of beauty but in the classical sense, in that beauty is truth, in being true to who we are inside showing that on the outside, like the flower in the field that can’t help but be what it is.
If we are colorblind, we intentionally ignore some of the fundamental differences that make each of us irreplaceable. That denies a basic part of our personal existence and of human existence as a species; it denies a portion of our very identity as an individual.
That takes an awful lot of effort. Why not admit to our differences and get to know each other in full, and find the beauty in each of us. We have always been and will always be different from each other and might as well get used to it.
The bridal wreath is beginning to bloom around so many of the older houses in town. Bridal wreath is an old-fashioned shrub, blooming briefly from mid-May to Memorial Day in waves of snowy white blossoms, then to return to a nice, quiet dark green bush.
I read this poem initially at my 2009 poetry reading, “Change of Season”, soon after I’d written it. I read it again at “In This Valley”, my poetry reading to celebrate Carnegie’s 120th birthday, since I felt it was one of those poems that had described life in this town for many, both those mentioned in the poem, and especially my memories of the neighborhoods when I was little. Every house had bridal wreath spirea growing in front, and everyone was immensely proud of it when it bloomed. Cuttings and small shrubs for planting were given to young married couples who’d purchased a new house. As I read, I was surprised to see heads nodding in agreement and smiles. It was familiar to us all.
This poem was inspired by an actual home, more on that after the poem. Because the bridal wreath blooms at this time of year and because the life of the bride I mention are deeply touched by wars, I keep this poem for that time between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day.
Blooming in drifts so dense and tall they hide the entire porch
The bridal wreath greets the May bride
Though she first crossed the threshold decades ago when the shrubs were new,
And placed a vase of the blossoms on her first dinner table,
Has since raised her children,
Lost her son in Viet Nam
And her husband to cancer,
Her daughters moved out
And she has held her grandchildren and great-grandchildren
Through it all the bridal wreath unfailingly welcomed her in the morning every May
In the neighborhood lined with large, neat family homes.
Now the paint is peeling,
Drawn window shades hang in tatters
The bride herself is gone,
Her home the only one remaining on this dusty deserted block
Yet the bridal wreath blooms as fervently as ever this May
Below is the actual home that inspired this poem. Nothing special about it except that it is the only family home left in what had been a block of these homes, and it’s fenced off because it was shortly thereafter bulldozed for the CVS that now stands there.
Read more poetry here on Today or visit my poetry page to see more about my poetry and other writing, and to purchase Paths I Have Walked.
Paths I Have Walked, collected poems.
I’m proud to offer a folio of my poetry
Paths I Have Walked: the poetry and art of Bernadette E. Kazmarski
FROM FOUR ANNUAL POETRY READINGS AT ANDREW CARNEGIE FREE LIBRARY & MUSIC HALL IN CARNEGIE, PA
People who attended one or more of my poetry readings encouraged me to publish some of my poetry in a book from the beginning.
Once I completed my 2010 poetry reading, my fourth featuring the final piece of artwork in the “Art of the Watershed” series, I decided it was time to publish something and it should be those four poetry readings.
Poetry books are not best-sellers; it’s difficult to convince a publisher to risk effort on a beginning poet, and while self-publishing is the best option it’s not inexpensive and once you’ve got the book, someone’s got to market it. Plus, I’m a graphic designer and I designed books for years, and I want things my way.
All of this is a recipe for a little bit of trouble, but I decided the book was well worth the effort so I designed the book myself and had a set printed—no ISBN or anything formal, but it’s a start! I’m really excited to offer it.
Books are 4.25″ x 11″, 40 pages of information and poetry, with glossy covers featuring “Dusk in the Woods” and little thumbnails of all four pieces in “Art of the Watershed”.
$8.00 each plus $2.50 shipping (they are oversized for mailing first class).
My biggest inspiration for poetry, prose and artwork is the world right around me, and I enjoy the opportunity to share it from the perspective of one who walks and hikes and bikes and carries a camera, art materials and journal everywhere—even around the house—so the inspirations are fresh.
In December, 2006, two of my poems were chosen to be published on a section of the Prairie Home Companion website entitled “Stories From Home/First Person” for submissions of writing about the place we feel most familiar. I’m a long-time listener to PHC and reader of Garrison Keillor’s books as well as a daily listener to The Writer’s Almanac featuring news about writers and writing and of interest to writers as well as a poem, all compiled and read by Keillor himself. I was astonished to find my poems were among the first chosen from apparently thousands, and so happy to be able to share them with a potential audience of so many similarly inclined writers and readers.
My poetry readings and art exhibits were the vision of Maggie Forbes, executive director of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, after learning of my publishing of those two poems. I owe her many thanks for encouraging me to present this combination of my visual and literary art, a first for me. I love that building, every inch of it, and the opportunity to bring people in to visit is an honor.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,
but if no eye beholds it, is it still beautiful?
Does the heart truly love, if there is no lover to receive it?
Or does it wait to be beheld, holding within its substance
the essence that needs another to be complete?
I’m not one to think everything happens for a reason, that things align through time to lead one to an epiphany of some sort, but that we are the ones who choose that alignment in the moment, and a moment later, or a different poem in that book, could lead to an entirely different epiphany.
I moved the furniture around in my bedroom yesterday to better accommodate the overflow from my studio while still giving me space to walk in both rooms. I’ve also realized that, with my guardian tree gone from the front of the house, I no longer want to sleep under the window where I can hear her whisper on summer mornings and watch the stars held in her branches on cold winter nights. This is something I’ve wanted to do for months and can finally accomplish, slowly and carefully, with my hip healing more each day.
A parade of surprised felines joined me in the evening as they awoke from their extra-long afternoon naps on a cold rainy day. As I took a break to let them explore the mess I’d made I picked up a small book that had fallen on the floor behind a bookcase I had moved, The Oxford Book of English Verse. A digest of oft-quoted poetry I’d picked up somewhere and tucked in a random small space wherever it fit and forgot about, I had never actually read through it because I’ve already read just about every poem likely contained in it. I have several dozen small and large books of poetry but can’t seem to pass one up, especially free in the library’s shelf of donated books.
I held it in my right hand and slid my thumbnail between the gold-tinged edges of the pages, letting it fall open to see what arbitrary verse I’d find.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:…
…the poem for which, as a junior in college majoring in English, I’d named Kublai, my first black cat, back in 1981. Not because of his bravery in battle and exploration though this was true of him, but what cat doesn’t look around and decree this space to be a stately pleasure-dome for himself? Of course, the poem lists human pleasures, which bring no real pleasures to cats, so I stopped there.
I looked at the multitude of black cats walking over the tops of piled clothing, exploring cardboard boxes full of picture frames and having a quick bath in cool new spots they’d discovered. Twenty-nine years ago I moved into this house, and Kublai came with me in the weeks before I moved in while I repaired and patched and readied it for me and my household of six felines, my first rescues. October will always remind me of that time, first the bright empty rooms with him as we felt the potential of our own home, then with boxes piled in every room as I’d moved from a rented house twice the size, and that family of felines climbing over and creeping around them, finding cool places to have a quick bath to relieve the stress of the change.
I also remember another October overhaul of this room, in 1997 preparing for Namir and Kelly’s arrival when I’d found several black whiskers in the carpet I pulled up prior to painting the floor. Only Kublai had had black whiskers, and as that family of cats swirled around me as I worked I paused to remember, the grief still fresh just a year past.
Those cats are gone, of course, as are many others come and gone who spent their lives with us in this little house. The memories are bright but the moment is bittersweet because I know that at some later date I will stand somewhere in reflection and all these felines I now watch will be memories in that future moment. I am reminded to be in this moment with them, but not frightened of that future moment:
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ‘ere long.
From Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet, speaking to his love the truth that while we see the loss of those we love even as we look into their eyes with love, that very knowledge of loss makes our love even stronger, to realize the love in each moment before it’s gone.
Perhaps I picked up that free book just to find it in this particular moment and have it fall open to that exact poem and remind me of this lineage of memory, little fragments that become a whole, the lives of all these individual cats and their roles in my life, my role in their lives, and that role of mine in life itself, in the world around me. I’m not one to think everything happens for a reason, that things align through time to lead one to an epiphany of some sort, but that we are the ones who choose that alignment in the moment, and a moment later, or a different poem in that book, could lead to an entirely different epiphany.
But beside the loss and potential loss each of those fragments represents, and the associated pain thereof, is a moment of love and beauty, then, now, and tomorrow, that we hold and have shared, forever a part of our spirit. We are made of these fragments.
This essay was first posted on The Creative Cat on October 27, 2019. Visit The Creative Cat for more essays and articles on pet loss.
More intelligent than many people I’ve met, friends of mine will remember Kulai as the cat who opened the refrigerator door, took out a container, opened it, and helped himself to the contents. I finally decided that the best depiction of his personality is of him being silly, rolling around in the sun and making sure I noticed how handsome he was. Read more and order.
Colorful beaded necklaces, orange and apple green,
and pearls and plastic flowers,
a linen hankie with soft green lovers-knot lace edging,
a blue and white stripe pillow cover, real pillow-ticking,
a ruffled chair cushion,
what made these things so cherished
that they survived the years intact,
ready to be cherished again
even when similar things, in other hands
were broken, stained, discarded?
Were they curious heirlooms from a dear ancestor,
whose very touch caused an item to be cherished?
A gift from lover to beloved,
kept for the memory of a special night?
A young girl trying her hand at
the lovely things her nurturing grandmother taught her?
Jade beads purchased to match a special dress and kept “for good”,
just a glance at the box recalling a fond memory?
Though we’d like to choose noble symbols for our memories
we mark them with what is at hand, familiar everyday items;
the next generations may shake their heads and wonder
even as they set aside their own vintage memories.
What a variety of color, shape, pattern, object…this still life was totally unplanned and nearly unseen, carefully gathered and placed on a chair in an antique and vintage shop: a Lover’s Knot Lace-edged hankie, colorful beaded necklaces from various eras, a traditional pillow-ticking pillowcase. What preserved these items, I wondered? How do everyday things become beloved?
The mornings this September have had that particular autumnal cool with a little mist and I thought the spell might have been broken. But the morning this September 11 is sunny, blue, and hot, and eerily quiet, so much like that morning 18 years ago.
Aside from being in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, I am nowhere near New York or Washington DC. I am, however, barely an hour away from Shanksville. On the hot sunny morning of September 11, 2001 I was just finishing work outdoors in my back yard when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Thinking it was an unfortunate accident I continued listening to the radio for details and 20 minutes later heard that a second plane had hit the South Tower and knew instinctively, as I’m sure we all did, that it was no accident.
My radar for tragedy was sensitized; just a few months before my mother had unexpectedly nearly died after lung cancer surgery, held on for six weeks then miraculously awakened from a near-coma one day and gone on to recover, rehabilitate and return home, though weak and fragile. The previous year my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident. I was integral to their recoveries and care, and my carefully-planned self-employment was unraveling.
When I heard the news just before 9:00 a.m. that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, I was out on my garden patio by the basement door, putting another coat of paint on some vintage wooden chairs I used on my deck before winter would peel the last of it off. I always worked in my garden and did small projects early in the day to make sure they got done before I hit my computer, and to make sure I didn’t hit the computer as soon as I got up and stayed on it all day long. It was a hot, sticky late summer morning, my verdant garden a green jungle, birds twittering everywhere stocking up for migration and winter, and work waiting for me indoors. The first report was that it was likely an accident, planes had hit buildings in the past. Then the second plane hit the other tower, and even though we had no proof it seems we all knew it was intentional. Everyone in Manhattan was looking at the towers at that point and saw the direction, the turn, the increase in speed prior to hitting the tower, and suddenly a perfect morning had turned unreal.
After the plane hit the Pentagon, I put Moses, my garden cat, inside the basement, much to her consternation, as if she needed to be protected from what might be happening, and as the story grew I thought of my mother and brother and if I should get them and put them somewhere just to make sure they were safe too. Everything seemed suddenly slightly askew.
Jets fly overhead all the time. I have lived in the flight path for Pittsburgh International Airport all my life, and just as close to an Air Force base, and not only do they fly overhead, they circle and slow down and make noise and fly at crazy angles as they come in for a landing. A noisy plane flying low overhead is something I didn’t even notice. But two planes had just hit the two towers of the World Trade Center and a third had hit the Pentagon. I suddenly noticed that the sky was very quiet for that time of the morning.
Then in the growing quiet as traffic cleared the roads, in that empty perfect clear blue September sky, a single plane went overhead and my hackles rose, a cold tingle running to my fingers on that warm morning as I watched it seeming to struggle through the sky overhead. Shortly thereafter we heard about the crash in Shanksville and I imagined the comforting familiarity of perfect green rolling hills of my Western Pennsylvania home bathed in morning sun, now wrenched open and strewn with the wreckage of violence.
I hurried inside, no longer feeling safe under that warm blue sky. I thought of my mother in her home about a mile and a half away, just back from several months in various hospitals after lung cancer surgery that unexpectedly nearly killed her. She was still weak and needed daily assistance for most activities, many prescriptions and home oxygen. If all this was suddenly disrupted, what would I do? Should I go to her house now? Should I try to get her to a more secure place, like a hospital?
And my brother was in a nursing home 30 miles north of me, continuing his recovery from a traumatic brain injury the previous year, also requiring a lot of daily care, medications and supervision. Should I try to move him closer? What if I couldn’t get to him?
And my sister a few miles away with her younger daughter and grandchild? And my niece and her three babies, one of them just six days old, a few miles in the other direction? Should we all find a place to go?
Anyone else would have run for the television, but I didn’t have one then, and I don’t have one now, so I never got to see the very first images that showed up on CNN that morning, heard the fear in the newscasters’ voices. I listened to the familiar voices of the local and NPR reporters describing the events on my radio, feeling calmer listening to their words and being able to move around my house than I would have being trapped in front of a television. I called my mother and later went to her house and watched there.
Did any of us know what to do in those first hours and days, even those of us so far from the terrible scenes of death and destruction more horrible than we could imagine?
It wasn’t until the gentle, perfect beauty of September 12 that the effects of what had happened became reality for me. Not only do I live very near Pittsburgh International Airport, I am also at the intersection of two interstates right outside of Pittsburgh and hear the noises of all this traffic every day, especially in the morning. The next day, with travel restricted on land and in the air, was so eerily quiet. The beauty of the warm sun and clear blue sky, the peaceful twitters of birds and hum of bees we could rarely hear with traffic and daily noises, the clear views of the tree-covered hills made the morning seem like paradise at first, as if everything would be okay after all. But the clear stillness became unnerving as the hours of daylight passed and we had no more of our questions answered, nor knew the extent of the damage and death as it was still unfolding in all three areas.
Perhaps those perfect September days were given to calm us before we learned how our lives had changed.
Today looks no different from yesterday but forever against the backdrop of a blue September sky we will now remember the loss of our innocence.
September 11 was a blur of images and fears and unknowns, and for me it wasn’t until September 12 dawned and brightened into another seemingly perfect September day, blue sky and all, that what had happened, and the permanent change it brought, really settled in.
Last year I determined I should search paying publishing markets for my essays and poetry which I have, and for the short stories and other fiction I have been writing. This constituted a lot of research into markets and publications, looking for the ones that I fit into.
One of my greatest inspirations is the natural world, whether it’s my back yard or the woods or an overgrown field, the shapes and textures, color and scents, flora and fauna seen and unseen, the wind and sun, all create an almost overwhelming experience for me. Creating art to capture the moments I treasured was a natural move as a painter and photographer.
Because of that, each painting has a story, and I love to tell it: how the painting came to be, the chance finding of a special place, the perfect moment of a season, the discovery in the milieu of my life. The whole process is a part of my experience in nature, and often the reason I’m there.
I’ve written the story of several of my paintings. As I perused speculative markets for my writing I not only looked for markets but what I had that was unique in those markets. In creative writing about nature, I didn’t see anything like this, yet I thought this audience might best appreciate the story of me out in nature, finding an inspiration, and creating a painting that didn’t just capture the physical moment, but a lot more sensory and emotional details. As I always say, that’s why we have art.
I found or ordered copies of the publications I thought might be most receptive—printed magazines, daily blogs, websites, anthologies—read the content, and if it felt right I sent them a pitch for my idea with sample art and essay. That was the end of last year, 2018.
Then I waited. Some will tell you how soon they’ll respond, some don’t. You never really know if they don’t like it, or they just haven’t gotten it yet, or it got lost in email or fell off someone’s desk. It’s all on faith that someone will see your idea and fall in love with it.
About a month later I thought I was seeing things when I saw an email from the editor of Woods Reader magazine, published in Minnesota. I had been pretty hopeful about that one, and here it was a good guess, the editor loved the idea and wanted to publish what I’d sent.
The sample I’d sent was not “The Rope Swing”, but another painting and essay which they’d planned to publish in the summer issue. About a month after we’d agreed to publish that one the editor sent an email saying she’d rather wait for a winter issue to publish that one, and did I have any summer art? She’d been to my art website and seen “The Rope Swing”, and wondered if that had a story as well.
Yes, it did, all wound up in my annual art exhibit on the Panhandle Trail, and I also had another favorite summer painting, “Running Through the Woods”, becoming reacquainted with my great-niece and great-nephew by taking them for a walk on the trail and in the woods.
In the end the editorial staff chose “The Rope Swing”, and not only do the essay and painting appear on the inside, but the painting is also their cover image for the summer 2019 issue.
It’s the first thing I’ve ever had published “cold”, not through a referral or an organization or any other means than digging through listings and doing research. I am over the moon. And looking forward to publishing another with Woods Reader. And looking forward to hear from other publishers to whom I’ve sent essays and short stories and poetry.
I have a degree in writing. I love my art and all the other things I do, but I’ve been wanting to get back to that dream of just writing for writing’s sake. I hope I’m on my way.
Because they’ve paid me to publish this essay, I can’t share it here until well after this issue of the magazine has been published. I will tell you that, if you enjoy reading creative writing and essays about the experience of being in the woods, you would love every story, essay, poem and photo that’s published in this quarterly magazine. It’s available on the Woods Reader website for $7.95, and I’ll also have a dozen or more copies here in my shop and at my events for the same price.
And I hope I have another “published” story to tell soon!
The wounds of trauma,
the sin of killing,
the witness of unspeakable acts
against the bodies and minds of others
the leaving behind of others held more dear than lovers
another world, all too real,
all came home in the duffel
unpacked into the house
worn like unwanted medals
that could not be removed
but with your hands you made this lasting monument
to prove to yourself you could still build, create, give
to start your new life,
not the one you left behind.
Several poems I’ve written are about or refer to things that I’d…found in the trash, and the stories they told me, mixed with the experiences of my own life.
Seventy-five years ago today, “D-Day”, one of the bloodiest and most critical days of WWII, 160,000 superheroes changed the course of history. Nineteen years ago more or less today, I saw this cabinet in a trash pile and it began to tell me its story. It was the story of a WWII veteran just returned home with his own memories, mixed with memories of my father and mother whose lives were both forever changed by that war.
Many homes around town had been owned and occupied by only one family from the 1930s or 1940s to today, and contain a lot of things people kept for various reasons, things that tell a story about life in that house, and the eras the house was occupied, typical of Carnegie and towns like it.
The Cabinet is so named for a cabinet I saw one evening out of the corner of my eye as I hurried off through my day. The cabinet looked to be in good shape, the drawers stacked on top, and I’d take it just to look it over, maybe I’d stop later, maybe I could pass on this one, but then I saw the little scalloped and curved decoration at the bottom. It reminded me of things around the house my father had made of wood that had just such decorations: awnings outdoors, cornices above the drapes, room dividers in our little post-war ranch house. My mother had designed the idea, my father had designed the item and made it by hand.
My errand on that evening was my daily visit to my mother in a critical care hospital. She’d had lung cancer surgery two months previous but her hypertension had caused her to unexpectedly slip into a state of dementia from which she was not expected to recover. I visited her twice each day, about mid-day and evening, and I knew I did not need to take on a stray wooden cabinet. Driving through the evening to see her the cabinet had led me to remember those projects the two had created before I was born, that I saw in the house each day when I stopped to pick up the mail and check things over; if her recovery had been as normal, she would have been back in the house, but this strange netherworld of waiting, and the quiet calm of the house with no one in it followed me as well.
So of course I swung past that cabinet on the way home from my visit to my mother, took a closer look and saw that indeed it was a sturdy cabinet, handmade with a birch wood top and red Bakelite handles very common and popular just after WWII, all the drawers were solid, and I crouched down to run my finger along that simple decorative curve, the only decoration at all added to the bottom to span from foot to foot of the cabinet just below the door with the thumb latch that held it closed.
So I struggled to fit it all into my little wagon and drive about a half mile home with the wagon door open, unloaded it and carried it into my basement for inspection. The paint was older, that shade of warm white that older oil-based paint became after years of sitting on the surface. The birch wood top was partially covered with real “linoleum” in a distinctly late-40s pattern, faded, dirty from probably motor oil, and more than half scraped away.
My parents lives had been marked by WWII, and all the indications that this had been made or at least updated at that time were pulling on those stories. My father had served in the Asia-Pacific theater from 1942 to 1945 and come home not knowing he had developed Parkinson Syndrome from a malarial fever that had nearly killed him. My mother had graduated high school in 1942, and all her memories of late high school, her early working career and life as a young adult were bound up in the American homefront experience during the war. I only heard the good stories, but in time I determined there was much sadness and pain underneath the shiny surfaces.
As I walked around the back of the cabinet, a single bare, unpainted panel darkened by age, I saw handwriting at the top. There, in pencil, was written:
MADE BY R.O.M.
And the story began to write itself of the person who’d returned from overseas with all the pain and trauma and trying to get back to “normal” life, creating this cabinet by hand, and letting this simple creative activity help to start the healing.
The story was always intended to be a short story. My mother actually recovered and lived 10 more years though she was ill and needed constant care, and many stories never came to be during that time. I still have the cabinet in my kitchen, see it, touch it, use it every day, and had to share something of it in my own creative efforts, so I wrote the poem for my 2014 poetry reading at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, “In This Valley”, commemorating the 110th anniversary of the merge and founding of the town of Carnegie because my parents were so much of this town, and the town itself, like so many others, was marked by that war. I read it again in my recent reading, “Walking Around”, because this finding and the inspiration for my own creation perfectly illustrate things you find when you carefully observe your surroundings, and how things we need sometimes magically appear when we need them.
I have not matched anyone from our town’s history with those initials—yet, but I hope to find a clue someday. But for the story it told me, lending its own magic to my memories and experiences, this will always be the tale.
To live my life like a tree,
to grow steadily from small beginnings,
fervently when possible, and quietly adapt when necessary,
stand in peace and harmony with my neighbors,
bear my fruit appropriately,
bring shelter and comfort to others indiscriminately,
and when my season is over
graciously give my gift to the earth
for the benefit of myself and all around me,
and without fear
patiently wait for my moment to return
I came home from work one day when I still worked my day job, but was heading for working freelance at home, within the year. On my deck enjoying dinner and feeling expansive in the late summer lushness of my yard I faced my wild black cherry tree, my favorite, big, mature, graceful and beautiful in all seasons. This poem came to me line by line as I scrambled for something to write on and write with. I tweaked a few words, and included it in my very first solo art exhibit in June 2000.
Autumn has arrived as usual, and each day the colors of the season appear in new places. Here in Western Pennsylvania with our miles and miles of tree-covered hills, more brilliant reds and yellows stand among the deep olive green as if someone had stippled a single wide brush stroke here and there on the hillside, just for effect. Because I am compelled to photograph and paint these colors I know that while we see some colors even in September, the leaves don’t begin to turn in earnest, in that big wave of change, until mid-October, yet many hillsides are already halfway there. This year our warm and wet summer is said to produce a spectacular autumn leaf show.
Because I paint Western Pennsylvania, nearly every one of my landscape paintings contains a tree, usually more than one, and often the trees themselves are the subjects. I have gigabytes of photos of trees, just for the trees’ sake, not to mention ones where the trees are the supporting cast. The other day I ran an errand entirely on winding back roads so that I could drive 10 miles per hour and photograph the beauty unfolding at every turn, even if they weren’t particularly good photos; the change had come so quickly that I was completely distracted and it was either that or have someone drive me or I’d wreck my car.
This weekend many leaves have fallen, the light has changed and I see more sky through graceful or gnarled branches.
I think of the trees around me as I think of my friends, those constant presences that are more a part of us than we know. The tree that actually inspired this poem almost 20 years ago has fallen, and I sincerely miss that huge old wild black cherry tree, but she lives on in my memory.