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Posts Tagged ‘musings’

This is a ramble with no meaning except I felt a need to put fingers to the keyboard and share an experience from this day.  I’ve been saving watermelon rind trying to decide if I will try to make some watermelon pickles. Now, I have never eaten such a pickle in my life though when I was little I used to admire their beauty in big jars on store counters. As a child I ate plenty of the fruit itself. My oldest brother still reminisces about the big ones with the big black seeds. I think I remember watermelons so big I could sit on them. Those are hard to find. Small, round, seedless (and in my humble opinion oftentimes tasteless) has become the store norm. I’ve lost my taste for watermelon flesh though I’ve been buying watermelon slices of late. Not for me but for a certain person in my life who needs to drink more water but doesn’t and so I simply place saucers of sliced cold watermelon in front of him. Hydration is hydration.

But now I have these rinds … and I’m in a creative place in my life right now … and so I told him I might try my hand at pickles. And when this person heard my intentions, he remembered words from a poem. “Reflections on a gift of watermelon pickles,” he said. We looked it up, a poem by John Tobias.  As I began to read it out loud, Steve, who has a wicked memory for poetry, stopped me to say, “I don’t think I’ve ever actually read the poem. I just know those few words.” And so I finished reading the poem and he was silent and when I looked up I saw that he had been moved to tears.

I think my big brother who is near Steve’s age would cry too. Not so my 12-year old friend. Her response to reflections on a life lived would be quite different than people five decades older. This is a rambling post with no photographs because there is no photograph that can compare to the rich imagery embedded throughout the poem … except maybe one day I’ll come across one of those big ol’ watermelons and split it open and let the sun shine on the pink flesh, black seeds and white rind … and maybe that would be an appropriate pairing of image with the following words. We’ll see …

 

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity

During that summer
When unicorns were still possible;
When the purpose of knees
Was to be skinned;
When shiny horse chestnuts
(Hollowed out
Fitted with straws
Crammed with tobacco
Stolen from butts
In family ashtrays)
Were puffed in green lizard silence
While straddling thick branches
Far above and away
From the softening effects
Of civilization;

During that summer–
Which may never have been at all;
But which has become more real
Than the one that was–
Watermelons ruled.

Thick imperial slices
Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues
Dribbling from chins;
Leaving the best part,
The black bullet seeds,
To be spit out in rapid fire
Against the wall
Against the wind
Against each other;

And when the ammunition was spent,
There was always another bite:
It was a summer of limitless bites,
Of hungers quickly felt
And quickly forgotten
With the next careless gorging.

The bites are fewer now.
Each one is savored lingeringly,
Swallowed reluctantly.

But in a jar put up by Felicity,
The summer which maybe never was
Has been captured and preserved.
And when we unscrew the lid
And slice off a piece
And let it linger on our tongue:
Unicorns become possible again.

by John Tobias

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Not too far from my home there is a man. This is his book on the ground in his part-time residence by the Mystic River. I found the book while hiking and venturing into areas I normally don’t go. But it is winter and there are paths revealed I had not seen before. One of those paths led me to a little camp where lay the odds and ends you’d find in a home. Like books. I’d seen such places before around the region’s urban rivers. Temporary shelters. As winter approaches and the foliage thins the resident moves on from a now too visible place. But with spring’s return and with it the leaves on the trees, and the thick grasses that obscure paths from curious eyes, he resumes residence or someone else will take his place. This man, a bibliophile based on his pile of books, lives near me. Is that person my neighbor? And if I do consider him so, how does that affect how I treat him, how I regard him, what I might do for him even if we were never to exchange words? It is a weird question for a weird and complicated situation but we are living in the weirdest and most complicated of times.

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The concept of neighbors is on my mind because I read a Washington Post Q&A with Jerry Falwell Jr, President of Liberty University, and the son of the televangelist Reverend Jerry Falwell. He’s a major financial backer of Trump and from his pulpit of sorts he espouses conservative right-wing ideology. In the interview, Falwell states, “It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. ”

When I read that comment (and actually the whole interview) to a friend expecting his blood to boil as much as mine, he said quite calmly, “You might ask him who is his neighbor? Is it the people next door to his house? The students who attend his school? Is Trump his neighbor? How about the children at the border? Does he even care who his neighbors are?”

Now people more well-versed than I in theology and biblical text and all that good stuff have commented quite widely on the web about Falwell’s words so I don’t need to go there and I can let my blood pressure drop but the concept of neighbors is sticking with me. How do we get to know people? How do we come to love them? I said love not like. There are plenty of people I love but don’t necessarily like. You see I’m assuming if we love someone we may treat them differently than if we were to hate someone or perhaps even worse yet to “not see” someone because they are a non-entity. They are invisible like the man in the woods.

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My mom comes to mind. She could be very good to her neighbors even the ones she didn’t like, and my mom didn’t like a whole lot of people. She was feisty that way. My dad helped neighbors all the time too but you could see the struggle on my mom’s face. Once she invited the elderly next door neighbor over for a plate of food and the gentleman sat in the living room and sat and sat and sat and … finally my mom left my dad in the room with him and sat on her bed resting her head in her hand. My younger brother and I kept peeking into the living room and finally we said to her, “Ma, when’s he going to leave?!” She shushed us right away. “You two be quiet. You know better than that. Be kind to your neighbors.” And then she sighed and put her head back in her hand. The man eventually left well-sated and with a smile on his face. My brother and I learned that we need to be kind to our neighbors but first we have to see them and recognize them as such. As our neighbors.

Who is your neighbor?

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Over sixteen years ago, I made one of those haphazard, following one’s desires versus common sense, maneuvers. I walked away from the world of full-time employment, full-benefits, great office, etc and wandered with rose-colored glasses into a world of mostly self-employment, cobbling together different gigs, and sometimes having no benefits at all, done so that I could indulge in the world of creativity. I’d grown up in a family of storytellers and for a variety of reasons I reached a point in my life where I wanted to spend time writing. I thought I would write a great fantasy masterpiece but what flowed most naturally were stories of the people around me, and occasionally, stories about myself. This was long before I picked up a camera but I have always been visual and so I wielded the pen like a paintbrush, sketching the world around me. I had no idea what I was doing and so every little bit of encouragement was pivotal in keeping me from giving up. As I began to submit my work, one of the first magazines to accept a short piece was the New York-based magazine African Voices. The editors were so encouraging and so supportive, and as I watched videos on its current GoFundMe page, I hear writers and artists expressing that same sentiment today. As Giving Tuesday approaches, please consider giving to an organization like African Voices. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow morning. As you can see on the GoFundMe page, every little bit helps. And meanwhile … it’s dusty … could use some revision perhaps … but here is a variation of what I wrote so long ago …

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my parents in the 1950s

Wait Until Morning

She sits on the edge of the bed, gazing into a large bureau mirror.  She smokes a Pall Mall or perhaps a Winston Salem.  She’s not sure.  She can’t remember if she pulled the cigarette from her purse or his coat pocket.  She can usually taste the difference but not tonight. In her mind’s eye, she sees her youngest son frowning and wrinkling his nose at the smoke.  She shakes her head at his face, then sighs as the image fades to be replaced by the items on the bureau top.  Pictures mostly and pill bottles and knick knacks from her children.  Most of the pictures and their frames are fuzzy with dust.  She is too tired to clean proper.  Only one picture shines clear in the dim light of the lamp – her  mother.

The woman looks at the picture and then at herself in the mirror.  She glances quickly away – she never liked her face – but the image remains.  Hair gray like her mother’s now, wide-rimmed glasses, skin weathered and dry no matter how much lotion she rubs on.  The bed is also reflected.  She stares at the crisp clean covers.  For the first time in 40 years, only on one side are they folded back.  She squeezes her eyes shut and clutches her stomach.  He is gone.

He bought her the scanner that sits near the bed. Fifteen years ago?  Maybe more. She saw it on “Let’s Make a Deal.”  She wanted one and he bought it for her birthday.  He always did his best to get her what she wanted.  A female police dispatcher’s voice barks from the scanner.  Somewhere downtown a tall black male is being chased by the police.  Her stomach knots and the breath catches in her thin chest.  All her sons are tall black males.  She breaths again as she remembers that her sons are at work or with their girlfriends.

Wind blows and the old house creaks.  A draft kisses her bare ankles.  “A small wood frame house” was how the reporter from the local paper described the house in his article about her daughter, on her way to college, the first one.  Her stomach clenches again at the thought of her daughter so many miles away, unreachable if she gets into trouble.

She sighs and puffs more deeply on the cigarette.  The house creaks again, and she smiles.  A junk heap, yes it was.  Their junk heap for 45 years.  Raised four children in it.  Would’ve been five if times had been better.  Two girls instead of the one.

More creaking.  She thinks of grabbing the iron poker by her chair in the living room.  The poker went with the coal stove they had in the 1950’s.  Back then, it was only used to nudge glowing coals.  Now … the neighborhood’s getting bad.  But, as she always told her children, a person might get in, but he sure wouldn’t leave in the same condition.  Hands clench at that thought, hands that have wrung chicken necks on the farm, picked tobacco, cradled babies and caressed the skin of just one man.

She glances at the phone and then the digital clock on the bureau.  Twelve hours until the hospital allows phone calls.  Then she can hear his voice.  Patient, calming, distracted if the TV is on.  She rises briefly from the bed, unaware of the hollow that she’s worn into the mattress over the years.  She turns down the light to a warm glow and then puts out the cigarette.  Sliding into bed, she draws the covers up to her chin and closes her eyes to wait for morning.

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I don’t think the landlord’s landscaper purposefully planted the cosmos in the frontyard garden so that from the second floor I could stand at the kitchen window and find comfort in their pale purple color and swaying form down below. In the light of an overcast morning they appear pastel-like, soft and dreamy. I sometimes want to ask my landlord, can I please cut them so that I may place them in a vase and sit that vase on a desk just for me to see? But even if he allowed such a thing, those cosmos would no longer sway in the breeze. They would no longer offer sustenance to the creatures that feed upon their pollen. They would no longer be available to view by the landlord and his family who live on the first floor and from whose kitchen window they too can see the garden, though from a different perspective. They would no longer be available to view by the people on the street who pass by, on foot and by car, or who wait at the bus stop which is right there too. They would become a private thing, in decline in still waters, instead of public and vibrantly alive in the soil.

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In the garden there are also sunflowers, some open and dying, and others yet to bloom. Milkweed is tucked here and there attracting (yay!) Monarchs, the first I’ve seen in a long time around here. The leaves of the lilies persist vibrant green though the flowers have long since had their glory in profusion. They line one wall of the garden while the other wall is lined by lavender. It is rectangular this garden. Not big, just big enough.

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When I sit at the kitchen table, as I do now to write this post, I cannot of course see the downstairs garden but I can see my little upstairs indoor garden. And through the window I can see the the branches of the towering oak.  It grows on an adjacent small plot of land, its shade not interfering with the garden at all. I enjoy the dark green of its leaves. I think the acorns have mostly fallen or been eaten by squirrels and blue jays. When winter comes and those leaves are gone, if I am still here in this place, I will be able to plant a whole new indoor garden in the hallway because  light will stream in past the then-bared branches. My microgreen sprouts await, their seed packets tucked in a cool corner, awaiting their chance to thrive before I harvest them to add some spice to some winter soup or such.

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In writing this post, I am procrastinating. Arrayed around me on the table are books and papers and pretty markers and a calendar or two. I have deadlines to meet on several writing projects. That’s a whole different side of my brain than the one I use for photography and design. That work is more free flowing. The writing has to be structured and I struggle to be in a structured place at the moment. I want to sway like the cosmos, go where the wind takes me but … I need to plant my feet (or actually my bottom to this chair) and focus. My writing deliverables are clear and to be honest not that hard to complete. I just need to do it, and stop contemplating about public and private spaces or the tumult that is this present world. And most of all I should not try to track down my crusty watercolors and try to paint purple cosmos and yellow sunflowers. At least not today. Alrighty … back to work. 🙂

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a calm spot before a later storm

It always happens at this particular intersection in Somerville. It’s where I  cross the street to make the final leg of my journey home. It is a one way street with two lanes of traffic, a dedicated bike lane, and a complicated long walk signal. Great for me as a pedestrian. Tough on drivers. I have become used to impatient drivers inching into the crosswalk, hoping they can catch a gap in traffic, so they can make a quick right on red. With an exaggerated sigh, I usually walk behind those cars because at least I know the drivers behind them can see me. Hopefully I can cross the street before the light turns green and everybody hits their gas pedals. A familiar sequence of events. That’s almost what happened yesterday.

There were two cars to the left of me blocking the crosswalk. I stepped behind them. But something was odd. There was a gap in traffic. One of the drivers blocking my path could have taken a right on red. Except she was too busy yelling obscenities at the driver of the car next to her. Now, I’m used to the obscenities flung around by Boston area drivers but this woman’s words were different. They stopped me in the middle of the street.

Time slowed. I scanned the front of the screaming woman’s car. There was no body damage. If the person in the other car had tried to go around her to make a right on red (which happens in that intersection), a simple “F*** you!” would have sufficed, and often does at that intersection. But this woman, a brown woman, chose to shout into the other person’s car, and I’m editing just a bit, “You, wetback, go back to your own country!”

And she kept repeating it, with such vociferous pounding anger that was so out of context to whatever fender bender may have happened, that she had silenced the drivers around her. An unusual feat in Boston. Not a car behind her honked. It was just her voice ringing in the air. I could see the muscles of her jaw as she strained to shout these ugly words at a stranger over and over and over again. That African American was no different than the young white men in Charlottesville carrying the tiki torches. No different. Hate is hate.

Then I became angry.

Sad, too, but mostly angry, and I mean really angry.

I wanted to rush up to that woman and say, “What the hell are you doing? What are you, a black Trump? Do you realize if white supremacist leaders could see you now they’d just sit back with a big smile as you display your stupidity? How dare you give into racism. Don’t you know your own history? Have you no respect for yourself? Why put down another human being that you don’t even know?”

In the end, common sense won out. I remembered that I am not 6’5,” simply 5’3″ and I could tell that the woman was a bit bigger than me. And while I remember just enough of my karate training to probably take her down, to what end? Getting physical would not have ended her ignorance or increased her empathy. Both drivers remained in their cars. No children were in danger that I could see. I had to acknowledge that I was standing in the middle of a street, the light about to turn green, with two cars to the left of me and two cars to the right of me. It would not have deescalated the situation for me to move forward … though clearly my first reaction was not to deescalate anything. The only weapon the woman brandished were words, though she did have that car. She could have backed over me. She was that irrationally enraged.

Time resumed its normal course. The light turned green. The two cars sped off. I finished crossing the street, continued my walk home, my thoughts full of disparagement. Phone calls with family and friends calmed me down. They all brought up “ignorance.” Ignorance is no excuse for such behavior. Just as there is no excuse for racism by anyone toward anyone.

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In elementary school, I learned how to plant flower seeds in a cup, something I do all the time now. I learned a few other things too. When I was maybe four or five years old, maybe six though no older, a girl who I thought was my friend did something not nice to me and so I hit her. She may have hit me first but that didn’t matter, did it? In the principal’s office, the principal looked at me and said, “Cynthia, you knew better.” When I was in middle school, maybe 8th grade (I hope it wasn’t high school), in homeroom there was this girl who was bigger than the rest of us, wealthier than the rest of us, and she bullied people. In fact, she didn’t bully me very much at all in ways that I could notice. But some of my other friends were bullied and bothered by her behavior and one day, because of an accidental arrangement of desks and chairs, they were able to inflict silent revenge by leaving her sitting unto an island by herself. I sat with her for a while, because I didn’t understand what my friends were doing. Why had they gotten up and moved to the other side of the room? I began to understand when they beckoned.  I hesitated but I did join them.  I hope I always remember the sad look on the other girl’s face as she stared at us. It did not feel good to have helped cause someone to look like that. To feel like that.

The homeroom teacher saw what had happened. She made everyone rearrange their chairs and desks to form more of a community, and she pulled me aside at the end of the day to say, “Cynthia, you knew better.” When I look back I know that I had some awfully good teachers and that they reinforced what I was learning at home: how to be a good human being, how to be kind to those around me or at least not treat them with disdain, how if I had nothing nice to say, then say nothing. I learned, and continue to learn to this day, how to hold myself accountable for my actions. Ignorance is no excuse. That is what I thought today as I read about a man in Alabama who disrupted a peaceful protest parroting that idiot who made the “womp, womp” sound. He held up one of those signs that have become too familiar once more in this country. If the article was accurate than the man had spent time as a high school teacher and I could not help but wonder how had this man grown up, how did he live each day, and what had he taught those children in his care.

Did you notice what I did above?

I referred to Corey Lewandowski as an idiot. This, after having mentioned, that I grew up learning that if you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing. But the other thing I’ve learned as an adult, and continue to learn,  is that sometimes you do have to say something. You call the jackass a jackass. But do so with purpose. The unholy brilliance of a Trump and his minions like a Lewandowski, or channels like Fox News and Breitbart, is that they spout complete and utter garbage, manipulating the human psyche with words and altered images, seeding and cultivating fears, and fostering once more a white nationalist agenda (and I say white regardless of how many brown people on occasion are sent out to repeat their vitriol). And they stir up in those who disagree a malignancy as well. I don’t like to curse. I don’t like to think harmful thoughts about other people. It infuriates me that these men and women threaten to make me less than what I am by devolving to their level of speech and action. I hold myself accountable for my actions but who is holding them accountable?

We hold them accountable with our votes and with our pocketbooks. You don’t have to be a billionaire to make a difference with your dollar. Every effort makes a difference, at every level. Involvement is key. Tiring though. But who said democracy was going to be easy?  There is no endpoint to the struggle. The same issues of today I find in newspapers from the late 1880s and early 1900s …labor, immigration, emigration, exclusion, economics, wealth inequality … perturbations in the system causing people to experience fear and to isolate themselves with the greatest benefit to those wealthy enough to live in a bubble anyway. An endless struggle to find the “right” balance.

July 4th is on the horizon. I already see the shenanigans starting, stories about who’s patriotic and who’s not, the flag and what does it mean today, the anthem, bending the knee and so on and so forth. My father and forefathers, once they were no longer slaves, fought for this country in the various wars and the idea of what America stood for and the potential for what it could still achieve. They fought for the idea of democracy and a United States, ever changing, where their children would have the opportunity to become their fullest self. They fought for the idea that others, as brown as them or far whiter than them, would be able to come here and do that as well. I despise this administration but I do not despise this country. I still see the potential. That is what I fight for.

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The statues stand on the shore of the Hudson River, ever-changing, at least for now. They are the effort of one man who has no special goal and who with his silence invites the viewer to read the rocks, as did the author of this guest post who shared these words and images over one hot, tumultuous weekend as the nation’s ears rang with the cries of a child.

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Words and Images by Donna Stenwall

He literally balances one rock on top of another. That is it. It is amazing. Kids come by and knock them down and he keeps building. He’s been at it for 2 years. He thinks he will stop in August. The Parks Department said they wouldn’t be able to adopt it and care for it. Who knows what will happen.

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In this moment, what do I see? The gentleman in the middle reminds me of the potbellied clown tipsy as he holds on to the lamppost. A paint on velvet picture from my youth.

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The proud Victorian woman with her starched bonnet, chest held high, as they made their way from Europe to New York to start a new life.

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The Puritan escaping persecution for her beliefs. Is she waiting for another ship to arrive? Gazing towards the world she left behind to start a new life in a new world. Would she even recognize this country she held with such hope and such promise? I do not.

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