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.
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.
I’ve been organizing my art exhibits on my gallery and merchandise website Portraits of Animals. I’d intended to also include my November 2017 poetry reading “Walking Around” but couldn’t decided exactly where to add it, on that site or this one. I’d also wanted to record myself during the reading so that I could share that too; failing that I wanted to record the poems and essays.
Well, I didn’t get to either one. But for the anniversary of the event I thought I’d at least share the art and words I shared on that night. The theme was the things I found just walking around in my familiar space; inspiration can be found anywhere. Also, so close to Veterans Day and Carnegie having delivered up so many residents to conflicts over the years, part of the theme was dedicated to veterans and where they are found just in everyday life.
Below is the introductory information for the event, and below that is a link to the exhibit Portraits of Animals including all the essays and poetry and galleries of images. Please enjoy reading through it.
Walking Around: Poetry, Photos and Paintings of Carnegie
November 2, 2017, 7:00 p.m.
Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall
Observations and findings from walks around Carnegie, finding insights in everyday things and events, the extraordinary in the ordinary, including a poetry reading and exhibit of photos and paintings.
It’s been a while since I had the chance to have a poetry reading, and I’ve always included my art and photography because all those inspirations come from the same place. The most amazing things and thoughts can be found just walking around in your own back yard, literally or metaphorically. I’m expanding the boundaries beyond Carnegie’s outline to the surrounding communities and areas along Chartiers Creek.
I read a couple of essays and a dozen poems, each one with a narrative about it, in a room where I’d hung art and photographs inspired by those walks. The poems I read were inspired by my neighborhood and neighborhoods around me, events, and details of daily life in a small town, and the thoughts I’m led to from that starting point. The essays and poetry below are followed by galleries of the artwork and photos, below…
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.
Bright yellow sunflowers are for sale in the grocery store.
A tiny woman bent over her cart can’t reach the cheese she wants on a shelf above her head. A middle-aged man in shorts and a tank top holding a loaf of bread veers off his course, easily reaches to get it, drops it in her cart, they smile and he continues on.
The clerk and her customer are trying out each others’ native languages mixed with their own and giggling at the outcome.
A very pregnant woman in a sari tries to lean over her cart to organize her groceries, her thick dark braid bound around with glittering gems; her daughter clutches the wire edge and her liquid brown eyes look up to search her mother’s face.
A young man tells the person behind him in line he’s happy with the toaster, he can afford it and carry it home to his new apartment on his bike.
An older man in shorts and a plaid shirt is assuring another man similarly dressed that if his wife sent him for naan, this was the stuff.
One late summer morning in the grocery store I was surrounded by peace and love, nothing historic, just the everyday interactions among strangers that are so beautiful. The photo of the sunflowers is the very one that I took that morning while standing in line, which inspired me to record it all and write a poem.
I read this at my poetry reading, “Walking Around”, last November. I just realized I never shared the entire reading anywhere, so I’ll hope to do that for the anniversary this year.
In the misty habit of a rainy afternoon
a single, ponderous drop of rainwater hangs tenuously from the curved tip of a leaf
holding within it the world turned upside down
and a moment later falls into eternity.
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.
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.
Aside from being in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, I am nowhere near New York or Washington DC. I am, however, barely an hour away from Shanksville. On the hot sunny morning of September 11, 2001 I was just finishing early morning work in my garden and yard when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Thinking it was an unfortunate accident I continued listening to the radio for details and shortly thereafter heard that a second plane had hit the South Tower and knew instinctively, as I’m sure we all did, that it was no accident.
My radar for tragedy was sensitized; just a few months before my mother had unexpectedly nearly died after lung cancer surgery, held on for six weeks then miraculously awakened from a near-coma one day and gone on to recover, rehabilitate and return home. The previous year my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident. I was integral to their recoveries and care, and my carefully-planned self-employment was unraveling.
When I heard the news just before 9:00 a.m. that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, I was out on my garden patio by the basement door, putting another coat of paint on some vintage wooden chairs I used on my deck before winter would peel the last of it off. I always worked in my garden and did small projects early in the day to make sure they got done before I hit my computer, and to make sure I didn’t hit the computer as soon as I got up and stayed on it all day long. It was a hot, sticky late summer morning, my verdant garden a green jungle, birds twittering everywhere stocking up for migration and winter, and work waiting for me indoors. The first report was that it was likely an accident, planes had hit buildings in the past. Then the second plane hit the other tower, and even though we had no proof it seems we all knew it was intentional. Everyone in the area was looking at the towers at that point and saw the direction, the turn, the increase in speed prior to hitting the tower, and suddenly a perfect morning had turned unreal.
After the plane hit the Pentagon, I put Moses, my garden cat, inside the basement, much to her consternation, as if she needed to be protected from what might be happening, and as the story grew I thought of my mother and brother and if I should get them and put them somewhere just to make sure they were safe too. Everything seemed suddenly slightly askew.
Jets fly overhead all the time. I have lived in the flight path for Pittsburgh International Airport all my life and close enough to an Air Force base and not only do they fly overhead, they circle and slow down and make noise and fly at crazy angles as they come in for a landing. A noisy plane flying low overhead is something I didn’t even notice. But two planes had just hit the two towers of the World Trade Center and a third had hit the Pentagon. I suddenly noticed that the sky was very quiet for that time of the morning.
Then in the growing quiet, in that empty perfect clear blue September sky, a single plane went overhead and my hackles rose, a cold tingle running to my fingers on that warm morning as I watched it seeming to struggle through the sky overhead. Shortly thereafter we heard about the crash in Shanksville and I imagined the comforting familiarity of perfect green rolling hills of my Western Pennsylvania home bathed in morning sun, now wrenched open and strewn with the wreckage of violence.
I hurried inside, no longer feeling safe under that warm blue sky. I thought of my mother in her home about a mile and a half away, just back from several months in various hospitals after lung cancer surgery that unexpectedly nearly killed her. She was still weak and needed daily assistance for most activities, many prescriptions and home oxygen. If all this was suddenly disrupted, what would I do? Should I go to her house now? Should I try to get her to a more secure place, like a hospital?
And my brother was in a nursing home 30 miles north of me, continuing his recovery from a traumatic brain injury the previous year, also requiring a lot of daily care, medications and supervision. Should I try to move him closer? What if I couldn’t get to him?
And my sister a few miles away with her younger daughter and grandchild? And my niece and her three babies, one of them just six days old, a few miles in the other direction? Should we all find a place to go?
Anyone else would have run for the television, but I didn’t have one then, and I don’t have one now, so I never got to see the very first images that showed up on CNN that morning, heard the fear in the newscasters’ voices. I listened to the familiar voices of the local and NPR reporters describing the events on my radio, feeling calmer listening to their words and being able to move around my house than I would have being trapped in front of a television.
Did any of us know what to do in those first hours and days, even those of us so far from the terrible scenes of death and destruction more horrible than we could imagine?
It wasn’t until the gentle, perfect beauty of September 12 that the effects of what had happened became reality. I live very near Pittsburgh International Airport and at the intersection of two interstates right outside of Pittsburgh, and hear the noises of all this traffic every day, especially in the morning. The next day, with travel restricted on land and in the air, was so eerily quiet. The beauty of the warm sun and clear blue sky, the peaceful twitters of birds and hum of bees we could rarely hear with traffic and daily noises, the clear views of the tree-covered hills made the morning seem like paradise at first but became unnerving as the hours of daylight passed and we had no more of our questions answered, nor know the extent of the damage and death as it was still unfolding in all three areas.
Perhaps those perfect September days were given to calm us before we learned how our lives had changed.
Today looks no different from yesterday but forever against the backdrop of a blue September sky we will now remember the loss of our innocence.
September 11 was a blur of images and fears and unknowns, and for me it wasn’t until September 12 dawned and brightened into another seemingly perfect September day, blue sky and all, that what had happened, and the permanent change it brought, really settled in.