I check under the streetlight whenever I pass the window,
the still night scene like a Hopper painting, tranquil and perfect,
or the set on a stage, ready for the players, the houselights dim.
I anticipate the first action of the play,
and I grow impatient—
the stillness, the leaden sky as the afternoon aged
weighted with promise,
the early darkness,
then suddenly a bit of movement under the arc of the streetlight,
I hold my breath and still myself—was that it?
then a pause, then again, at an angle, a bit of ash gently drifting,
and another, then two at once,
then too many to count, meandering,
all in the same direction,
appear in the streetlight’s cone of illumination, then disappear.
I am transfixed
as the flakes simply continue as if without agenda,
my neighbors’ windows are all covered,
lights and flickering TVs behind curtains and blinds,
I am the only one who has witnessed the beginning.
I paddled the canoe around the bend,
and was faced with the effortless beauty of the panorama,
the trees in all their colors, the sky with changing clouds,
the water moving and reflecting simultaneously,
all perfectly arranged,
I realized that my creations are but raindrops in a puddle,
wisps of cloud that change and dissipate
my solitary accomplishments borne of great effort
would never equal this one solitary scene
or the one I would have seen the day before or the day after
evolved on its own, no one to frame it and display it and promote it
as it quietly exists through the day.
We humans sometimes get to think everything happens because of us
but these trees and grasses and hills arrange themselves
and create great beauty effortlessly
simply in the process of their everyday existence.
So I did a painting that can never match the original
so that I may remember my place.
Sloping hills blaze with autumn color at a rocky, rippled bend in Chartiers Creek, yet on the horizon deep gray-purple clouds hover; although the day was sunny I remember it being distinctly chilly with a sharpness to the breeze, especially on the water in a canoe, and winter is literally on the horizon.
For two reasons the scene was reminiscent and inspiring: first, that I rounded the bend to see this natural splendor in all its detail, brilliant color, fluttering leaves, rippling water, changing clouds, happening all on its own with no help from me or any other human ; and, second, it was an example of that “change of season” with the gray-purple clouds of winter arriving on the horizon, two seasons blending into one another. I needed to share this image, and it was so moving that the inspiration also became a poem, and the title for my third annual poetry reading and art show at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, Change of Season.
And again, no, I couldn’t paint while paddling, and my little digital photos didn’t do the scene justice, yet other than wading down the creek and setting up an easel in the middle of the water, there was no other way of painting this. To take the scene from the tiny digital image to the full-size painting took a good bit of memory and visualization; it’s a good thing I’m very familiar with scenes like this. I don’t often work at this level of detail, especially at this size, but in order to share what I took from this moment, I found myself worker ever deeper into the minutiae of the scene so that others, viewing it, could hear the light lapping of the water, watch the clouds move, feel the warm sun on your back but the chill wind on your face, and the glory of those tree-covered hills.
You really have to get into “the zone”, though, while working at that level on the painting, letting go of your space, yourself, to get back to that moment and all your perceptions from that time. I still go there when I look at the original, which was purchased and made a gift to Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall and hangs in the Reception Hall.
In the mini-ecosystem in the valley along Chartiers Creek, the color show begins a little later and the trees keep their leaves a little longer, perhaps because of the extra humidity along the water through the dry heat of late summer. The diversity of species is generally much greater in both the trees and the understory brush and grasses, which encourages a greater diversity of foliage color and shape. When the show begins, it’s absolutely breathtaking and it gets more stunning every day until a November storm rips the last of the leaves away.
This area of the creek is approximately below Rosslyn Farms, between Carnegie and Crafton. In this area, the creek’s channel was widened and dredged deeper and the banks made more sloping through the Fulton Flood Control Project, allowing all the runoff from upstream communities to flow ever faster down the valley to the Ohio River without overflowing the banks or backing up into Carnegie, as had happened prior to the Project. Also, many of the trees were removed from the banks up to a certain level. Still, even with that modification, the channel remains beautiful and inviting in this lovely and unseen area of Chartiers Creek.
I actually wrote a poem about the scene before I did the painting, so inspiring was that particular moment.
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.
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.
She was calling, calling
reaching from the depths of the body
I no longer recognized
to this world
she no longer recognizes
an imitation of reality
patched together from
leftovers of memories,
pleading for someone to do something,
but the first thing I saw
was the afghan across her bed
one big granny square
row upon row growing larger
each row a different color
brighter and more cheerful
with each row.
She recognizes my voice
but not really who I am
still I can guide her attention
away from her unidentified need
in this unfamiliar world
to where mine had gone
when I saw the afghan
remembering one just like it I’d made
decades before as a young teenager
scraps of yarn from other afghans I’d made
for other family members
each row a different person
a different room in a different house
a different memory
and given to my brother.
And so with leftover scraps of memories
tied to leftover scraps of yarn
I led her back to her home,
the afghans, my brother, the 70s
all of us
a time I knew she held close
until her voice lost the desperate note
and she sat back
talking of the neighborhood
and the new kitchen makeover,
my cat Bootsie and her kittens,
and of people who had died years ago
and, surrounded by these familiar things
in an era where I’ve always felt she was happiest,
I hoped she might spend the afternoon there.
Poem (c) 2010 Bernadette E. Kazmarski
I stopped in at the nursing home to see my mother on a November afternoon in 2010, and, really, the first thing I saw when I looked in her room was the afghan pictured above, and it immediately took me back to an earlier day, a similar afghan…and a younger mother.
She was in her bed calling for someone to do something, I’m not sure what, and it took a while for her to recognize my voice; her macular degeneration had virtually blinded her, just as her dementia had done, taking away the reality we see and feel every day and replacing it with an inferior imitation, patched together from the leftovers of memories. Visiting her at that point, just two months before she died, she was mentally so far away and the confusion really frightened her. I appreciated any tiny kernel that could help to organize her mind, and in this case, mine as well.
I did my best to take her mind from her unidentified need by pointing out the afghan, which she could barely see though I described it. I’d made one much like it years before just as I described, out of scraps of yarn left over from afghans I’d made for sister and aunts and even neighbors, every row a different color, a different person, a different room, a different home, round and round. I gave it to my brother who hadn’t yet received one of my crocheted creations, and through many situations he kept it for years though it had ended up in her house. Pulling together those odds and ends of memory, the yarn, the afghans, the 70s, my brother, all slowly steered her to a different memory, focused on a different time, and I hoped she might spend her afternoon in those memories.
Ironically, that time was a profoundly unhappy time for me, one I’d rather not remember, but perhaps visiting it in this context softened the edge of memory.
My mother died just two days before I had a poetry reading scheduled. The day she died, after taking care of much business, I went late in the night to sit on my porch swing in the dark and watch the snow fall, and wrote a poem for her and decided to go through with my reading in her honor. I wrote this essay a few days after I’d visited her, and felt I still had something to share of the experience and wrote the poem a week or so after the essay. I read this poem as well as the dedication poem at that reading.
If the sunlight illuminates a flower in the woods but no one is around to see it, is it still beautiful?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but if no eye beholds it, is it still beauty?
I photographed this scene for the obliquely backlit combination of bold yellow coneflower and delicate wormwood with all the varied patterns and shades of green in the background, silhouettes, shadows, blurs and bokeh, and titled the photo “Backlit Bouquet”. But the image had more to say.
I walked along the trail as the sun set and could see as it moved that features were randomly highlighted—a cluster of leaves, a flower, the bark on a tree, and in watching the process it almost seemed intentional, as if some force or the sun itself wanted me to notice these things. As each thing was featured it did appear beautiful to me, but the one coneflower in the group that was highlighted gave me a new perspective. I would not have noticed them otherwise, and the one that was highlighted indeed seemed more beautiful than the rest because of the highlight of its graceful fall of petals, bold yellow color and soft rounded center, and all else seemed to be a backdrop to its special prominence.
When I shared the photo I scribbled the first draft of a new poem.
delicate, ephemeral, eternal; had I not chanced by as setting sun journeyed deep into the autumn woods to touch your face you would still have been as beautiful.
I knew it wasn’t quite right. “We’ll see what it develops into some time in the future,” I said then.
A few weeks later the poem was still with me. Once I’d written the rest, I found I just didn’t need those two first lines, they felt heavy and formal, and without them I found I could reorganize the lines of the poem, especially that really long one that I couldn’t split before. I also changed the word “journeyed” to “reached” because it was more of what I’d intended, remembering the sunlight that day as it moved down toward the horizon and reached and touched different spots deep in the woods. Added a comma too, and it became the finished poem above.
When the tiny green grapes began to turn dusky purple and the leaves to gold, I envisioned an image of them in their contrasting and complementary brilliance, sunny, glowing gold and rich purple. Each day I took more and more photos hoping to find that vision.
It was not to be. Grape leaves tend to fall before they turn yellow, and are burnished with brown and gray as well. The sun was not going to wash these leaves and grapes at the right angle for the image I wanted. But in the process I took a lot of photos that I didn’t even notice were truly descriptive of the grapes.
Sometimes I can let go of all my expectations before I begin a creative venture. Perhaps sometimes I need to work my way through my expectations and come out the other end without them.
I don’t have enough sun to grow morning glories in my yard, so I take advantage of others’ lovely pink and purple trumpets. For years I’ve photographed the morning glories that come up from seeds along the wrought iron fence by my neighbor’s white barn garage in the alley near me. Then one year they were not there, and never have been again, and I miss them, but this morning reminds me so much of the year when I spent way too long photographing them. I’m so glad I did.
I have been kind of obsessed with morning glories in alleys lately—they’ve just suddenly sprung up so I’ve shared some of my old favorites, draped over old fences and gates and growing up downspouts, but I’m trying not to spend too much time on them right now when I’m really busy.
I would get more
if there weren’t
They got the better of me one October day a few years ago, and after a GB+ of photos of the lovely purple and pinks by the white barn and a quick scribble of a thought I decided to spend some time on something I visualized while photographing and finishing my walk home. The thought was a very literal one—I should get home, I had things to do before the end of the day and if I hadn’t encountered such exuberant and colorful beauty while walking down the alley I would probably have been home already.
But I wouldn’t have these many photos of morning glories, each of which I’ll use somewhere sometime, even if I only look at them one winter day, and I wouldn’t have that sweet spontaneous, the exercise of my creative intellect from coming upon such beauty that had me let go of what I needed to do, only to come back and do it better than I would have if I had ignored the morning glories and come straight home. Soon the morning glories will be grayish withered memories and I may be too, so it was extra important to capture it.
Please share! And don’t forget to tarry a while by the morning glories.
The clock on my bathroom windowsill
tells whatever time it pleases.
A small, cheap battery-operated alarm clock,
the works inside have begun to let go
and the hands move independently of each other and of time,
skimming around the dial like birds circling in the sky,
flying first in opposite directions
I keep it because it’s mint green
and matches the new color scheme.
I am often late for things
and admit that most of my life
I have not taken time seriously
much to the consternation of those who wait for me.
Some say it’s the artist’s temperament
that I’m “out of touch with reality,”
that I’m “in my own world,”
but the truth is that there is always another creative idea
begging for attention,
and I have to give it its time
because that’s how creativity works.
That idea is not always a new painting
or a lyrical poem,
sometimes it’s the design for a customer’s logo,
or the perfect brochure copy for another’s promotion,
or the solution to why the website won’t work the way I think it should.
Sometimes I need to just be still and let thoughts happen
and leave time behind because the solution to the problem
is more important than the time it takes,
and the bright new bathroom, clean and open,
the window framing treetops and sky
just right for dreaming,
and the mint green clock on the windowsill
that tells whatever time it pleases
suits me just fine.
And while I am often late,
there are also days when I walk into the dark of this bathroom
and look at the deep void of night outside the window,
but the first questioning tweet of a robin rehearsing for the dawn chorus
warms the darkness,
and the light changes to reveal the silhouettes of the trees against the sky, black on black.
I have pursued the latest idea to the ends of my universe without question for the hour,
I contentedly watch the sky change from black to blue,
the birds now singing in earnest,
a gift to my exhausted creative mind, cramped hands and tired eyes.
Younger, I might have watched the entire show,
showered and gone on with my day, but not now.
I’ll nap, wake up later than I should,
and probably be late all day,
but I found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow
and the clock says it’s only 12:37.
The clock itself inspired me to write this. Those hands started to let loose and tell times that didn’t even exist. I’ve always contemplated my lateness, and the things that make me so, and know it’s my determination to explore every idea and write that poem, draft that short story, sketch that sketch, take that photo, think those thoughts. It’s how I make my living, and the customer who might benefit from it is certainly happy I took the time.
I had no explanation for
the exhilaration of color
floating above the street
undulating through the air
until caught on a utility pole
and identified as a bunch of colored balloons
held together with string
continuing to flutter and wave
against a perfect blue sky
that stopped me as I set out
worried and distracted
on a day of errands I’d rather not be running;
my brain perceived only colors
responded with joy to the distraction
as they moved overhead
and I stopped my car in the middle of the street, watching
as they enveloped the top of the pole, their strings tangled
and I pulled over, parked, left my car,
walked around them, watched them move, took many photos
forgot my worry
and as I drove away
was filled with the joy of colored balloons
against an azure sky.
The day was magic.
Later, they were gone without a trace.
This really happened, amid a time of deep worry and sadness for me as I watched my mother’s mental condition deteriorate, knowing she’d soon need skilled care and be lost forever emotionally, then physically.
Though the day was an unusually warm and sunny Saturday in mid-November that felt so normal and even comforting, my errand was to transfer the last of my mother’s money to her bank account so that I could pay her next month’s board in the personal care home. After that her Social Security would not cover the cost. I knew she should be able to stay, regardless, but fighting that battle, after fighting so many other battles for her, seemed daunting. We were waiting for a benefit for her from the VA which would cover the cost but might never come. And that was all moot because her mental and physical conditions were no longer appropriate for that personal care home anyway. She needed skilled nursing, and there was no money to pay for it.
I took off on my errand focused entirely on the problem, trembling a little and almost nauseated with worry, not at all like me but the escalating events, constant doctor visits and tests and medications to remember and recite to yet other doctors and calls from the personal care home to calm my mother down had totally filled my days and my thoughts. Then I saw the balloons.
I really did exactly as I described, let it take me away into my creative self, then got back into my car happy, laughing, trusting that worrying myself sick would not solve the problem and probably only make it worse. I transferred the money, dropped off the check, visited my mother, took her outside into the beautiful day, then spent several hours just driving around to my favorite spots to look at the landscape, to photograph, to paint, to just be, talked to people I met about other topics, spent a tiny amount of money on a salad in the diner and went home relaxed, exhausted and smiling with a couple hundred photos that I have noted in my folder of photos with the date and only the word “Saturday”. Whenever I scroll past it, I remember the day, the sun, the warmth, the resolution, the balloons.
The next two years were indeed a constant struggle for my mother and her care. Letting go of the worry on that day let me walk the rest of that path without the fear and pain and let me focus on the issue, to be present for my mother regardless of other problems, and still run my business, have my life, and move on to resolve.