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That’s not his name but that’s what he represents. This is one of my littlest cousins, Aiden. His favorite color is red … or at least it used to be. He wrote me a letter (with some loving assistance) asking me about my favorite color. I wrote him back and told him orange … or at least it used to be. When I watch, read and listen to the news, because I have to do that, it can be quite dispiriting to think about the future. But then I can think of this little person with his hands clasped, ready to take on the world. With loving assistance …

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Yesterday I sat by the pond in Copley Square. It was just late enough and just chilly enough that few other people sat by the water that day. The light was low and golden. It bounced off the water to beautiful effect. Leaves drifted by in different colors and when they circled the concrete stretch they’d catch the light and glow.

Fallen leaves in swirling waters. I’ve photographed those a lot but that day I did not have my camera. Just food. I was kind of glad because then I could just eat and behold the beauty without trying to “capture” it on the screen. No camera also gave me freedom to look around me and so I noticed the woman across the pond, on the sidewalk side, next to Boylston Street.

She gazed in my direction but I do not think she saw me because she was quite focused on cleaning herself. She was deliberate and calm. You would have thought she stood in her own home staring into a mirror. First brushing her teeth and then flossing. A wet brush through her dark brown hair. Then a wash cloth to her face and other exposed bits of flesh. Just a quick wipe here and there. Like I said, it was cold that day. She did not fully take off her coat or the many layers beneath. All of the items she had pulled from a plastic ziploc bag which she tossed in the trash after cleaning herself. Then, after collecting several large trash bags, with great dignity she walked away.

Then my gaze fell upon the man who sat not too far from me.  He was well-dressed. I imagined he was taking a respite from his workspace in one of the neighboring office buildings. I yearned to borrow his thick wool blazer as the wind created eddies in the pond. In his hand was a notebook. On occasion he would pull from his knapsack a pouch full of fancy pencils. I recognized them from one of my favorite stationery stores. The pencils were all sharpened and the page of his book was blank. He would take out pencils and then put them back and I wondered what vision he was hoping to realize on the page. In between reaching for the pencils he would reach into his pocket. At first I thought maybe for an eraser but instead he pulled out a little bottle and downed it in one sip. He didn’t toss it on the ground like I’ve seen some of the guys on the benches do. No, he simply gently placed it back in his pocket and reached for a pencil again.

By the time I finished my lunch the man had emptied several small bottles, and as I rose I could see the large brown bag tucked next to the brown leather of his shoes.  Something to take home I guess. His head remained low the entire time. Only his hands moving really except for the quick tossing back of his head.

As I walked away, still, there was nothing on his page.

 

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This morning I received several different examples in my inbox that referenced the use of creativity.  First I received a Daily Reflection courtesy of Alive Now Magazine, a publication in which I’ve had photos appear.  Today’s reflection was “Imagine you are giving a party inviting the poor, crippled, lame, and blind in today’s world. How would you need to engage your creativity to offer them your hospitality?”  You can read the full reflection here. It was strange to see this reflection about using creativity to offer up hospitality, and then to read this NYTimes article and some other articles highlighting how people are engaging their creativity to devise new strategies for relocating the homeless, and not always in positive ways.

A Rodin Sculpture at Boston MFA

A Rodin Sculpture at Boston MFA

The articles made me mad but the reflection brought to mind my mother.  One holiday season she invited to dinner a mentally challenged neighbor.  He had no family coming to visit that year and we had plenty of food.  But, you see, my mom was a very private person.  For others, and maybe even this same man, in the past she had always made up a plate and sent my father or brothers down the street to knock on doors and share some food.  I do not know why she invited this man to our house this time.  I think she was creative in her approach so that she could do this “good deed” and maintain some sense of privacy that was important to her.

Gerber at the Kitchen Table

Gerber at the Kitchen Table

The man was invited to sit in what the family considered “Pop’s chair” in the living room.  My mom served him the first plate, and my dad served him his refills.  After eating, the man watched TV and even took a nap.  My younger brother and I were small enough to ask out loud, and too loud, “When is he leaving?”  She shushed us but I could tell my mom felt the same way.  After he did leave, my mom swore she’d never do such a thing again.  She never did the exact same thing again (that I can remember) but she did do other things of a similar nature — good deeds that sometimes exceeded her comfort zone. Deeds done creatively.

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The following images are of rocks and shells and bits of colored glass found on different New England beaches this summer.  I photographed them yesterday after placing them in a bowl I had rediscovered, a beautiful dark clay vessel lined with ridges.  Eventually I filled the bowl with water.  I snapped photos throughout the day whenever whimsy struck.  Near dusk I decided I should empty the bowl before mosquitoes began to breed.  Just as I drained the last drop, the bowl cracked in my hands.  An unseen flaw had been exacerbated by the weight of water.  In an instant, I was reminded of the beauty found in fragile things.

Today, as I worked with the images, admiring the visual expression of soft colors and hard edges and glimpses of the bowl now gone, I was reminded of a series of conversations I’ve been having with people about empathy and compassion (and their lack) in a world that can appear so beautiful and yet so broken at the same time.   I was also reminded of how much I miss the wisdom of my elders as I live through these times.  They may be gone but I do have their stories … though goshdarnit, some of the stories make me ponder even more about the ways of this fragile world.

My father once told me a story of walking to work.  It was southern Virginia in the 1950’s.  He and my mother were newlywed and I think they had one child.  He couldn’t yet afford a car.  As he walked from home to the Public Works Department, he passed a yellow school bus.  The bus was stopped at a red light.  He smiled up at the young children.  The children spat down at him.  He was black and they were white.

My mother’s sister Thelma happily left the south for New York during that great migration in this country.  Though she had no car and did not drive, she could walk wherever she wanted.  One day she walked through Central Park.  She saw this beautiful redheaded woman with smooth milk-white skin.  “She looked like a movie star,” Aunt Thelma recalled.  At the woman’s side was a young boy.  As their paths crossed, eye contact was made and Aunt Thelma prepared herself to exchange a greeting.  Instead the woman tapped her son.  “Then she pointed at me,” Aunt Thelma said.  “She pointed at me and said You see, my dear, that’s a nigger.”  Many decades later, Aunt Thelma looked at me and said with a gentle chuckle, “That’s why to this day I have a hard time watching movies with redheads.”

My mother told me stories.  My brothers, both my elder ones and my younger one, have told me stories.  I have my own growing collection of stories of not being seen as an individual or of being discounted and even despised because of the color of my skin.  I read newspaper accounts of children around the world, who from my perspective look alike, who are trying to kill each other because of deeds that took place long before they were “a gleam in their mothers’ eyes,” who hate in large part because of what is shared by surrounding adults.

As I remember my parents and other elders who led challenging lives in this country, I wonder how is it that they did not plant seeds of hate in the hearts of their children?  How did they choose and succeed I hope in teaching us to lend a hand to help the fallen and not first assess if that person was white, red, black, green or purple or carried a certain bible or had a certain sized bank account?  Perhaps I oversimplify …

My younger brother still lives in Virginia with his family.  He recently called while on his way home from work.  We usually joke and laugh about silly things.  But this time he was more somber.  Finally, he said, “You know, I have a hard time watching television anymore.  Those ads by all the candidates of every party and their followers.  You know how much money some people are putting into these ads just to make me hate somebody?  Don’t they realize how that money could help so many homeless people and others dying on the streets?”

Don’t tell my brother I said this but he reminds me of the bowl that held the stones in these pictures.  To be able to ask such questions suggests to me that a person is not closed off … that there is a beautiful fissure in one’s heart, mind, soul … that helps one remain open to the life experiences of others.  Anyway, the summer is not quite done.  More rocks and shells I may collect.  A new bowl I may find.  Then we’ll see what words and images emerge.  Be well!

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Recently, on a warm day in the city of Boston, I raced through one of its many squares toward my favorite hot dog vendor.  I’d already spent most of my half-hour break running errands and knew that I was going to be late returning to work, but darnit, I needed to eat and wanted a good hot dog.  As I made my way through the square, an elderly man stepped into my path.  He said, “Can you spare a quarter?”  I gazed into his watery blue eyes and said, “No, but would you like a hot dog?”  I don’t know why I said what I said that day, and he certainly wasn’t expecting me to say what I said.  He frowned and blinked a few times and then said, “You don’t have a quarter?”  I didn’t quite put my hands on my hips in exasperation, but I did raise an eyebrow as I repeated, “Do you want a hot dog?”  He shrugged.  “Okay.”

He walked with me to the hot dog vendor.  We stood in line together, a small brown woman and a tall older white man.  He told me about his son who was going to give him money later in the week.  He asked me questions about myself  including where I went to school.  I gave him mostly vague responses, not wanting to share too much, but I did admit that I’d studied history at one phase.  He nodded, and then said with great pride, “At university I studied philosophy.”  He then proceeded to tell me about Kierkegaard.

As we moved to the front of the line, the hot dog vendor said, “Hey, dear.  Your usual?”  I nodded and then added, “And this gentleman has an order too.”  The man cleared his throat and then ordered a small dog.   “What about a drink?” I asked.   Like a child, he thought a moment and then said, “Oh, yes.” He looked over the line of drinks displayed on the cart and picked an orange soda.  The hot dog vendor kept looking at me, a quizzical expression on his face.  I just smiled.  The vendor shrugged and began to fill our orders.

“Where do you work?” the man asked as we waited.  I paused, and said, “Many places, but part-time in that church over there.  That’s where I’m coming from today.”  He nodded, his face taking on a sage expression.  “G.K. Chesterston,” he said.  “He wrote a book called Orthodoxy.”  I took my hot dog from the vendor.  “I’ll check it out,” I said and then walked away.

Though I have been in the square many times since, I have yet to see this man again.  Other people, men and women, come up to me and ask for money.  I say no.  I have not been compelled to offer up anymore hot dogs.  Perhaps that moment will come again.  Meanwhile, each week, there is a gentleman I see in a wheelchair with his sign and his cup.  I do not give him money either, but I do smile and nod in greeting as I walk by.  He smiles and nods back, and that seems to be enough.

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