February 23, 2013 § 3 Comments
This is a story of forgiveness and love. It is a true narrative and one I have been reluctant to tell.
But a good friend recently said, “It is important as a writer that you not only share the beauty and serenity of your life, but also the grit.”
So, here is a story about my mother and me.
My Mother Helene
My mother killed herself on St. Valentine’s Day, 1973. She swallowed a fifth of cheap scotch with a bottle of tranquilizers. She was fifty-three years old and died alone in the upper West Side apartment in New York City that we had once shared during my performing arts career.
She was exotically beautiful: tall and slender with a smooth satin olive complexion that deepened to rich sienna by simply sitting in the summer shade. Her eyes were large, dark brown and seductive, especially when she laughed and tossed her auburn hair, which cascaded in waves to her shoulders. My father said he married her for her laugh. It was deep and sexy, but only when she wanted it to be. This is the only remaining photograph I have of her and my father took it when they were in love. She was twenty-three and pregnant with my twin sister and me.
When my mother was nineteen years old, she acquired a one-ounce bottle of Shalimar perfume. How or under what circumstances I do not know. What I do know is that she was in no financial position to buy a one-ounce bottle of perfume. Certainly not Shalimar. She married her first husband at sixteen, divorced at nineteen and in those years gave birth to a son who, when I was born, became my half-brother.
During my childhood she recounted many times the story of that favorite bottle of perfume, perhaps because she treasured it so and what happened to it destroyed forever an aspiration and deep longing within her. It seems that my brother at four years of age, walked to her bedroom vanity, reached for the Shalimar, unplugged the stopper, and poured the sweet smelling essence over the rug, bed, and curtains. Clearly this was not a malicious act on my brother’s part, but merely the result of a curious, Puckish four-year old. However, she truly never forgave him.
One of my most vivid memories of my mother was when she turned her back on me after a kindergarten play because I misspoke one of my lines. It was 1948, and we were in the middle of a heavy December snowstorm, the kind that slammed northeast Ohio with great regularity. Our house was within walking distance of the school and even though it snowed and I wore a leg brace on my left leg for the polio I contracted earlier that year, I still walked, or rather limped, to school. I was always slightly behind my schoolmates, of course, but I hobbled to-and-fro nevertheless.
After our kindergarten performance was over, I looked into the audience for a wave or some acknowledgement from my mother. She simply glared at me, turned on her heel and left me there. Not a word or gesture. Nothing. With a child’s wonderment, confusion and a growing awareness that I must have done something very wrong, I followed her but couldn’t maintain her pace as she resolutely continued her indignant march towards home.
My trek following her through the unremitting, battering storm seemed to last forever. I only saw her rigid back and hunched shoulders wrapped in a blood red woolen coat. Her head, covered and tied at her chin with the hood of the coat, was held down slightly and to the left to avoid the heavy pelting of the snow. She never turned to look for me. Her only comment when I finally reached our house and took my seat at the kitchen table was that I was never, ever to humiliate her again by making a mistake, especially in public. And, so began my performing arts career. There were many events for twenty odd years with my mother like the kindergarten play, but that particular memory still stands out the most for it was hotly branded into my heart.
The Bad and the Beautiful
My mother hated the world and I will never know why. She beat my brother regularly, threw him down the basement steps and banged his head repeatedly against the kitchen wall. She tried to abort me but only succeeded in aborting my twin sister. She did not love her family. She hated her father and she hated my father. She belittled her mother unmercifully.
These events remain mystery for there is no one left in my world that can shed light on her darkness. My father, now gone, and my brother, still living, locked their memories concerning my mother in fortresses deep within themselves. My father was unable to bear a reopening of his wounds and my dear brother to this day cannot claim our mother as his own.
Yet, through her depressions and rages she was capable of much creativity. I watched her create beauty in her home, develop her own innate sense of style in clothes, and surround herself with exquisite use of color and form. She was bold in her imagination and intellectual curiosity. But her talents were feared, ignored, and laughed at, by my father, her parents, and everyone else who knew her except for one person: me.
I understand today her madness as well as her grace but to do so I had to reach deep into shadowy folds of my memories. The fabric and texture of my existence were, for the most part, created through my polio and my mother’s willingness to embrace her little girl’s idea. Even then, I was a contrarian and resisted the accepted form of physical therapy for polio and, instead, decided to study dance. I sensed that I needed to heal myself through my own movement and not that of a physical therapist doing it for me, no matter how skilled. With my unwavering insistence and my mother’s faith in my adamancy for this atypical form of therapy, I restored the muscles in my left arm and leg and my polio not only healed within two years but also changed the path of my life. I became a performing artist at a very young age, which continued for twenty plus years followed by an immersion into the visual arts as a photographer, painter, and, now, writer. My creativity would have languished without my mother’s desire and inspiration to help me actualize it and my mother would not have continued to exist without my creativity. They were entwined and interdependent — two energies flowing from one to the other.
I endured my mother’s ranting and raging against life, against the world, because my intuition, even as a young child, told me that her creative energy would become mine. And it did. I learned to accept her relentless criticism of me because there was always an important insight that inspired me as well whether it was about my performance, my choice of clothes and costumes, how and what I said and, of course, how I behaved. She clung to my creativity as if it was a lifeboat. I existed to serve her needs. But strangely enough, she served mine too.
My mother’s anguish and rage prevailed for the twenty-eight years I knew her before she killed herself. For years after her suicide, I thought often about my sad, beautiful mother with her dark bedroom eyes, sensual laugh and an anger that tore souls apart. What I discovered though, traveling into that particular abyss, eventually changed the size of my heart.
Twelve years after her death, I encountered her again. In meditation after yoga practice, I saw a perfectly shaped pulsating pink heart rimmed with an indigo blue light. Tiny drops of blood fell from the center of the heart with each beat. I felt it was my mother’s heart. I sensed her presence along with a faint scent of Shalimar. In one moment, almost suspended in time, I felt her deep and seemingly endless anguish too. I absorbed her pain and sadness not only from those years I knew her as her daughter but all the preceding years of her life. We walked arm in arm strolling under an azure sky into a field of tall, emerald green grass. The slender grasses swayed with a soft, warm breeze as she stood there with tears in her eyes and asked if I was all right. I replied, “Yes, mom, I am truly fine and my life is good.” I told her how much I missed her, that I did not blame her for what she did, and that I longed to have just one more conversation, a conversation in which we could crystallize the joys and absolve the sorrows of our life together. She said she had to go and then touched my hand and walked further into the tall grasses until I could no longer see her or sense her presence. I emerged from the meditation with a strong conviction that my mother had visited me.
Was this imagination or a true mystical experience? I don’t believe proving it, or not, is important. Whatever the occurrence, it was the catalyst for my releasing the past and opening my heart to understanding, compassion, forgiveness.
Again, Into the Abyss
A few years ago I was bound to a wheel chair due to a broken right ankle. I was, for the most part, immobile once again. I, who still moved like a dancer and filled my active days with cameras, tripod, lenses or easel, paintbrushes and oils to bring a canvas to life, was unable to do any of these things.
When the accident first occurred I unraveled emotionally and spiritually. I cried and raged at myself, at the world, at God most of all. The long since forgotten polio, its encumbrances, physical pain and entrapment of my body, rolled over me like a tsunami. The black hole of my mother’s madness asserted itself. My art studio stood fallow. I no longer smelled the oil paint while standing lovingly at the slop sink carefully cleaning my brushes after a long, productive painting session. I could not spontaneously grab my tripod and camera to capture an image that I knew would not pass my way again. All was lost. Forever. This was my mother’s darkness: her Shalimar, her absolute loss of spirit.
I was in this depressive state for two days. I watched and listened to the persistent rain and then felt a slight stirring within. The darkness slowly lifted as I began to see that God’s rain was a christening of the land as well as a cleansing of my spirit. I realized I was capable of releasing my anger and emotional pain. Sitting for hours in the wheel chair really seeing, truly hearing the steadfast rain, my artist’s eye eventually returned. Though I could not record through a photograph or painting what I saw, I could express the ‘innocent speech of rain’ in words:Burdened by soft, steady rain Viridian leaves hang low on long limbs. Some moisture clings — leaves glisten silver; Some moisture falls — a rain sonata. A lone bird (unknown) sings her Aria. In one ordinary moment, All flow to some changed place, Become some new thing Again.
The rain finally passed and in its stead flirtatious streaks of sunshine broke through light and dark clouds illuminating my wheel-chair-view of the world with a pair of white butterflies that never quite left one another in their pas de deux from flower to bush to tree limb. I thought of the elegant one-ounce Baccarat crystal bottle of Shalimar perfume sitting on my bathroom vanity. A bottle always resides with me now and every so often I dab the sweet essence behind my ears and on my wrists — a modest gesture as a tender bow of tribute to my mother’s life.
I am gently touched by my mother’s madness. Only today there are spiritual paths and therapies that enabled me to walk into the wounds of the past and emerge with gratitude for all that has happened in my life. I have a strong belief that the events of our lives create a tapestry of teachings, learning, and insights. And, if we are willing we can enter the darkest cave within ourselves and discover the illumination of our being.
I understand my mother’s teaching for teaching it was. I learned from her pain how to minimize mine. I learned from her anger how to channel mine. I learned from her hatred how to love. And, I learned from her repressed creativity how to nurture my own and allow it to fully bloom even though, from time-to-time, I lose my Shalimar, my footing. Unlike my mother though, I know that my spirit within is larger than a whole lifetime can hold and it will rekindle for the light is always there — whether a warm glowing ember or ablaze with the essence of creation and loving forgiveness.
For many years now on St. Valentine’s Day, I purchase a dozen roses to honor my mother’s life. I know no one else remembers her, or cares to, so my action is a ritual of love and honor. Here is one of the roses from this past Valentine’s Day.
September 23, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Most people would say that Witten Pond belongs to its owner. I believe he would say that he is merely the caretaker. I would go a few steps further though and say that Witten Pond is a place where God most assuredly resides, providing those who witness its purity and grace with an enhanced view of life. I felt God’s presence the first time I set foot upon Witten Pond land and have had many talks with Him over the years. I had these informal chats while I walked, photographed, or simply basked in the calm and peace that permeate the world of Witten Pond. Every leaf and blade of grass, the sound of the rushing stream, the haven that wild life seeks, the slowing of each moment into sheer perfection, the presence of tranquility in both the wild and tamed landscape — all of these can only exist in God’s time.
It is now almost thirty years since I first saw Witten Pond. Surrounded by state forest preserve, it is a secluded fifteen-acre property ensconced in the Hudson Valley Region of New York state. I lived there for a while and visited many times over these three decades to do my photographic work. In fact, Witten Pond has provided me with a rich cache of subjects that evolved with the years. I created a self-imposed retreat many times in what is now the guesthouse, Lily of the Valley, experiencing some of the greatest joys of my life given the inspirational energy that abounds on this land.
My most recent visit was in early spring of this year. The gardens were not yet in full bloom. However, the spring-fed Pond’s rippling reflections shone through its sparkling waters with such clarity that much of what I photographed were images reminiscent of impressionist paintings.
The oldest structure on the property is the guesthouse, now replete with heating and plumbing — though thirty years ago, those conveniences were iffy at best. The fishing and hunting lodge-cum-renovated guesthouse was built in the early 1900s of chestnut, prior to the blight, and is of post and beam construction. It stands high on a hill with stonewalls banking steps of indigenous bluestone that lead to a charming, rustic porch. The porch, of course, overlooks the Pond as well as the high Catskill Mountain peaks, and there are secret gardens in almost every direction. For now, those gardens will remain hidden, but I captured the Lily of the Valley house as it stands so nobly on the hill.
Inside the guesthouse, I came upon a small, hand-carved Buddha on the dining room table. Though it was largely cloaked in shadows, the simplicity of the setting silhouetted against the light-filled French doors leading to yet another secret garden, intrigued me so that I released my camera’s shutter to hear God say yes, let us dine with the Buddha!
Leaving the house to walk to the other side of the Pond, I turned to evaluate the perspective. There is a giant, outrageously red maple tree that resides on the front lawn of the guesthouse and it was ablaze with its new color. Again, the Pond rippled and danced with light as the red maple punctuated the scene.
An old Zen bench sits at the Pond’s edge and appears to almost rest in the water. It is a place of meditation and prayer, sequestered by aged trees with round, thick trunks and a backdrop of lush, green foliage. Though the Pond is stocked with enormous trout that the owner only catches and releases, when I photographed the Zen bench through the water’s reflection, it was alone … steady and timeless.
Across the Pond from the guesthouse, is the owner’s barn residence, which, in part, serves as an art gallery. My inaugural photography exhibit was held at this gallery many years ago. The owner collects art and wine, but I was interested in the treasure trove of sculpture inside the barn’s gallery.
We know little about this Buddha except that she is from Thailand. It is the largest wood-carved icon I have seen since it is all head and stands at eight or nine feet and is about four feet wide — an imposing work with a majestic energy.
At last though, I sought out a much smaller wooden sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi by Italian sculptor, Alfeo Faggi. I have longed to photograph this piece, but something always went wrong. I believe that it was God’s time that day in early spring and He was at my side. I had never before seen this inanimate St. Francis look so vivified with love, caring and compassion. Weeks later, when I reviewed my finished images, I was awestruck. One could almost say that these images were of Christ wearing His crown of thorns. Or, when Faggi sculpted this sensitive, tender statue, that his hands were guided to reveal the merciful countenance of Christ.
In the process of writing this journal, I recalled an image I took many years ago with black and white film. It was during a full moon whose rays flooded the landscape and illuminated an extravaganza of light and shadows. That night, the moon’s stunning blue-green hue spilled onto an old garden bench that resides under dogwood trees overlooking Witten Pond. It remains there to this day.
I love Witten Pond for it is a sacred place. I feel a shift within when I walk the pathways of the land and sit at the Pond’s edge. Once more, my visit to the Pond yielded its grace and wonderment for me to photograph. And once again I was reborn and I was blessed.
I will begin work on Witten Pond Part II, either when the green leaves turn to sienna, gold, and red, or when the snow gently falls, sketching a true wonderland. It will be in God’s time though, not mine, for I have learned to wait.
Blessings and Namasté
July 20, 2012 § 2 Comments
Much of our country is experiencing drought conditions. Those of us in upstate New York began seeing the portentous signs these past two weeks: green grass slowly turning straw-colored in patches, and flowers, though not yet withered, looking thirsty. Some of us with wells talked about water conservation, which meant vegetable and flower gardens were not getting their needed quota of moisture. And for some with shallow wells, short showers became the norm.
Just two days ago, on a hot, sun-drenched day, feeling more like desert than mountains as if an infrared camera filter had been cast over our landscape, I spotted a Mother Doe and her fairly new born fawns on my lawn. I actually saw them about a week ago when their legs still wobbled and Mother Doe was cleaning these new beings of her birth. Alas, I was on my morning walk sans my camera and miffed at myself for leaving it behind. Mother Doe visited my front lawn frequently since the birth of her twins, and I made no time to grab my camera and take pictures. However, she took time the other day to stand and stare at me as if to say are you not going to take advantage of taking this image? Again, my camera was buried in my bag and while I ran for it, I really did not think she would still be there. But she was! Standing just a few feet from her and her babes, I took the picture. She was proud, and though I have never heard of a doe giving birth to twins, I have seen this wondrous thing. And, I do believe she knew it was special and wanted to have someone record it for her.
My own critters, Ella and Simon, approached this momentous event very differently. Ella took her position half way up the staircase so she could clearly observe Mother Doe and the twin fawns, while Simon simply slept through it all nestled between the window sill and an old Czechoslovakian oak bench. His favorite post.
Today, I woke to sprinkles of rain, then an intermittent drizzle, and finally a steady soft soaking rain. This was a Christening of the land and I was lulled into contentment with the ‘innocent speech of rain.” Rather than take a picture through the wet screen and spattered glass window, I decided to write a poem.
the innocent speech of rain
by lee anne morgan
Burdened by soft steady rain,
viridian leaves hang low on long limbs.
Some moisture clings — leaves glisten silver;
some moisture falls — a rain sonata.
A lone bird (unknown) sings her aria.
In one ordinary moment,
all flow to some changed place,
become some new thing
I know I have said this before, as have others, but it is okay for me to say it again. The small events of our days are more often than not gently touched with Grace, even miracles.
May 27, 2012 § 2 Comments
Look and See
This morning, at waterside, a sparrow flew
to a water rock and landed, by error, on the back
of an eider duck; lightly it fluttered off amused.
The duck, too, was not provoked, but, you might say, was laughing.
This afternoon a gull sailing over
our house was casually scratching
its stomach of white feathers with one pink foot as it flew.
Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us.
If we only look, and see.
I drove to Provincetown through steady, pouring rain and spent my first day ensconced in a heavy, wet fog. I departed a week later, again, in both a drenching rain as well as a thick, rolling fog that, in fact, followed me to my home in Catskill, New York. However, the days in-between the needed rain were spent in munificent sunshine with daytime temperatures reaching just seventy degrees and nights cool enough to warrant a little heat upon waking in the morning.
Since the fog apparently had a firm resolve to remain for my first full day, I used this time to settle into my studio, buy food and other sundry supplies, and, finally, to simply breathe and listen. I was on the second floor of a sweet hideaway, which had everything I needed — all neatly packaged into 350 square feet. Windows were on all four walls of my room and I had a deck that looked out upon the owner’s gardens as well as the many trees in which sweet songbirds serenaded me every morning beginning around five o’clock. This was not a problem though, for I wake early.
On my second day a butterscotch sun rose, beaming warmth and illuminating things I knew (yet really didn’t know) were waiting for me to discover. I would be out walking very soon. First though, my morning ritual: I brewed a pot of Assam tea and sat on the deck in the cool morning air with my steaming hot mug of brew (always with milk), watching the sun kiss the water, then the roofs of houses and, finally, the treetops. I made notes in my handwritten journal, and struggled with a poem to the point of agitation. This frustration signaled that it was time for my first walk in Provincetown.
While my studio was hidden high in the tree tops, I was only five minutes walking distance from the shore and town. And, a portion of that small jaunt was through a storybook garden inspired by Monet’s gardens at Giverny. I smelled the sweet scent of wisteria before I entered “Suzanne’s Garden.” It was named after Suzanne Sinaiko, the mother of my temporary landlord. He donated the garden to Provincetown and I was blessed to walk through it many times during my stay. Of course, this time being mid-May, not everything was in bloom. Those flowers that were in radiant splendor, ranged from voluptuous wisteria vines, hanging like gushing waterfalls from the gazebo, to the morning-fresh faces of red poppies — a red that only poppies own, and large, imposing irises, presenting themselves in colors both bold and soft that would defy an artist’s palette. (Well, except for Monet’s.)
I began this Journal entry with a poem from Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer winner for her work. She has lived in Provincetown for many years and most of her poetry, weaving in and around Provincetown, provides keen observation, rapture, awe, and humility in the natural world of what most may see as ordinary, or do not see at all. Unknowingly, she has been my muse for several years now and her poetry has profoundly affected the way I see though the lens of my camera. She says, “Poetry is prayer.” I agree.
For me, the act of photographing is about ‘seeking the soul’ of the subject and not about a precise rendering of a place, person, or any thing — animate or inanimate. I bring an interpretation to my images in order to illuminate the quality of soul-spirit I see, and this often takes me down some interesting pathways.
My walks on the beach while in Provincetown provided a meaningful opportunity for me to look through my lens with eyes, and mind, wide open to what ever would be presented. I was on the bay side of the Cape so there were no dramatic waves crashing to the shore, or the sheer theater of Maine’s craggy rocks — just an unpretentious and fairly calm tide rolling in and out. Yet, there were treasures that were clearly there to be discovered if only by my camera and me.
A small duck stepped from the shore into the water for its morning swim just as I passed. A weathered blue-gray fence framed with rough sea grasses shooting out of white sand, appeared Zen-like in its austerity. Two classic old dinghies — one, half buried in sand on the shore, and the other lingering and turning on the water like a ballerina going through her daily workout making certain each movement was close to perfection. Then, to come upon an old retaining wall with wood pilings and iron hinges holding everything together, telling me stories of inclement weather that challenged the sturdiness of this aged structure, people of all types, sizes, and shapes who walked past it not recognizing it had stories to tell, and dogs that barked and played in the sand, chasing the water that lapped the shore so close to it … ah, it was all there in the wall. Even its colors hinted of mystery and happenings about which none of us will ever know.
On The Streets
On another day’s journey, I left the beach to stroll up Commercial Street to return to my studio. This is the street that is a residence for galleries, a variety of stores, restaurants, coffee houses, old homes, bakeries, inns, a museum, and more. I found my way to this now famous Street from the beach using a narrow, sandy pathway that, for me, epitomized the once quaint Provincetown that both lured and inspired artists, writers, and some of the foremost thinkers of the day in the early decades of the 20th century. There are other paths between the shore and Commercial Street from the top to the bottom of this one-way thoroughfare. However, none was as pristine and reminiscent of another time as this one — an era when Eugene O’Neill, Jack Reed, Louise Byrant, and other talents gathered to shape new ideas in art and thought and in so doing, disrupt the mundane.
As I walked closer to my temporary home, I noted this stately inn (no sign outside though) that cried out to be photographed saying, Am I not stately in my architecture? Have I not aged well? Do you realize that my back yard overlooks the water and I see the sun rise, experiencing every day the parade of life on the beach? I am so fortunate, yes? Yes.
I crossed over to a lesser-known street, Bradford, which runs parallel to Commercial. It is not heavily traversed by tourists, but those who live here year-round use it for conducting the business of every day life. However, on a backstreet off Bradford, there is a gate that belongs to a an old house in disrepair. I must state here that I do believe the house appeared to be haunted. The gate, clearly neglected and weathered with age (except for the mystery of the two pots holding freshly planted pansies), offered to my eyes a wizened beauty and spirit that stirred me within, taking me to other places and different lifetimes. And, it is this small, insignificant discovery that is the wonderment and joy of my work.
Finally, The Dunes
I waited all week before I visited The Dunes. I had walked about 35 miles at this point in my stay and I have to confess that I was not up to “walking” The Dunes. Neither was I prepared for what I encountered. It was mid-day with a hot, blinding sun that baked the sand, which ranged in color from the whitest of snow to unbleached linen. I wore sandals but should have had the sense to wear hiking boots. I had no idea how steep these magnificent mounds were. Since I was alone, I became keenly aware how easily one could lose their way on this desert-of-hills. I never walked to the ocean side, but perhaps next time … only with a walking companion though to help me mark the way.
Yet, I soldiered on and climbed a couple of these massive dunes. I do believe it was a worthwhile effort. The vast, undulating sandy landscape, punctuated by brittle brush as far as the eye can see, brings one to a true state of humility. I was but a mere speck among these majestic wonders.
Many miles were walked and 600 photographs taken. Fourteen survived my self-editing process. I loved the welcoming people, their willingness to talk and share on a deeper level other than social superficialities, and their pride about their historical town. I was enamored with all the dogs I met that abound in Provincetown, for their presence is fully embraced by everyone. I received the privilege to pet Fenway, an Old English Bulldog puppy of twelve weeks who gives as good as he gets, a Shi-Tzu named Curly, a Golden Lab, named Lana, a black Standard Poodle named Spike of all things, who ate entire ice cream cones in one sticky, drippy gulp, and a variety of other dogs whose names now reside in the deep folds of my memory.
Thank you Provincetown for your graciousness. And, thank you Mary Oliver for reminding me of the ‘gift’ we receive when we truly ‘look, and see.’
I hope you, the reader, enjoyed this walk with me on this particular journey, seeing through my eyes.
April 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
It is a cool, rainy, and windy Sunday this particular April 22. Much needed rain was announced by a series of lightening and thunder storms late last night. Before I began writing this Journal, I lit what I believe to be one of the last wood fires of the season and took a few moments to contemplate with the candles and crystals that are as much a part of my inner world as the creation of these words and my art.
As I gaze out of my studio window, I see that all the trees are now leafed out. Yet, I remember an uncommonly warm day in mid-March when the sun blazed through bare tree limbs, illuminating a raw, stark landscape, while creating dazzling reflections in our Catskill mountain streams. In this rare combination of extreme warmth, sans the ‘new green’ of spring, and the uncompromising glare of the sun, everyday places and things one might not see were in bold relief.
When Paul McCartney wrote the first line, the long and winding road, of his ballad, it is said that he was thinking of a road that led to the peace and calm of his farm in Scotland. There is a long, winding road not far from my home called Cauterskill Road. The road twists and turns, revealing vast farmlands, old iron bridges, ancient outcroppings in thick woodland, cultivated horse farms, and our ever-flowing Catskill Mountain streams.
I left my desk that mid-March day in a fit of irritability over something I no longer remember. I drove to Cauterskill Road feeling I belonged to it and it was mine — for a short while. I meandered for a bit before I crossed one of the first old iron bridges that the road hosts. I pulled off to the shoulder and took in the bright rays of sun and warmth as peace finally settled my restless spirit. I looked at the bridge I had just crossed, one I had seen countless times before. However, given my vantage point, it appeared as something grand leading to a dark, mysterious void.
I walked to the center of the bridge and found a reflection in the clear, pristine water, presenting an image I have taken for granted because I have seen it countless times. However, on this day, there was another aspect to photographing something I thought was ‘typical’: how fortunate we are to live in this place where waters are still pure and trout can play hide and seek among the smooth as well as craggy rocks.
I got into my car and drove on around a sharp curve and found what I believe to be one of the signatures of Americana: the Red Barn.
I reached an open expanse of farmland and a perfect split rail fence that seemed to go on and on. I could have been in the Old West …
I was thinking that I had the best job in the world: being a witness to whatever presents itself in the moment and then sharing the moments, the experiences with others. When I finally passed the split rail fence, I found myself confounded by a tree that appeared to be in a dance frenzy! If there had been leaves and swaying branches I could have grasped this apparition better. But this was merely a bare tree on the road side. Does she not have form, grace, and a hint of abandonment in her dance? Oh my, I was enthralled photographing her as if I was doing a fashion shoot with a super model.
Wending my way home, I stopped to take this image because I had seen it earlier but rejected the concept. Haven’t we all seen this classic scene in our Catskill Mountains? But, the prospect of the image haunted me and I was grateful that the light tuned out to be just perfect.
This was my drive along my long and winding road, which brought me to my door. Waiting for me were my beloved Simon and Ella. Whatever it was that caused my annoyance and bad mood hours before, was no longer retained even in the deep recesses of my mind. I walked in the door and used my camera two more times.
Thank you for joining me on my long and winding road journey on a warm, sunny mid-March afternoon.
And now I am back to April 22nd, having completed this journal entry and will next be writing to you from Provincetown in mid-May! Be well with many blessings coming your way …
March 5, 2012 § 6 Comments
The old Shaker tune, “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free, ’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,” has been ruminating in my mind for some time now. At times I sing it aloud, at others I hum, but most of the time it is in my head. The tune nudges me to look deeper within, to observe more closely, to listen willingly, and remain receptive to truth. These words and phrases have accompanied a nuanced shift within me. This last little while has been a contemplative time and I have come to a place of ‘right-sizing,’ i.e., to come down where we ought to be.
I am a true solitary. I love people, places, and things, but I cherish my time alone. Those who know me well enough, accept that it is unlikely I will show up at events, parties, and huge gatherings of any kind … most of the time. I have had this penchant for solitude most of my life. I have finally come to accept that I truly enjoy being alone, and that I am not wrong for preferring it for myself. Oh, I am far from reclusive for I have good friends whom I visit, a business life and an artistic calling that requires more than ample human contact on a daily basis. No, my solitude is not about hiding from the world, but it is about what I cherish: huge amounts of time alone … and why.
My day begins at 5:30 a.m. with ordinary, simple acts. I feed my two recently adopted cats, Simon and Ella. And, though our winter has been kind this year, it is still winter after all, so I tend to the wood stove and build a fire. After a brief pause to light a candle and incense as an offering of gratitude for the day, I make a hot mug of freshly brewed loose tea. It is an Assam tea from India, and I cannot imagine a morning without this elegant brew. I relish each step in the process of making the tea, even up to the final moment when I pour the milk into the steaming hot mug. It is usually about 6:30 a.m. when I walk, tea mug in-hand, to my writing table and begin my work for this Chronicle and other musings. I still use a fountain pen dipped in ink, for it keeps me grounded. The sound of the pen’s scratch on the paper is a meditation. It also slows my hand and my thinking to a humanized pace. Yes, I eventually take those notes and ideas to the computer, but I begin at the writing table, with the paper journal, a fountain pen, and a hot mug of Assam tea. Each item is a simple thing, but together they converge into a joyful act of writing and creating.
My companion cats, Simon and Ella, were each about one year old when I adopted them last fall. They are moving works of art. When I write, they play, nestle in my lap, or at my feet, and then take up their favorite positions. Simon’s is at the window and Ella’s is on the soft sofa cushion.
Colette, the French writer, once said, “There are no ordinary cats!” She was right. Simon is huge and dramatic as well as a clown. Ella is small, sleek and elf-like with silken fur and likes to snuggle. Simon, more acrobatic, and all male, presents himself when he wants pets and scratches. They sit on each side of me purring soft sonatas. These are simple acts on their part. Ordinary too. But there is an ephemeral grace to these moments that I hold dear.
I do venture into the world, and on this particularly warm January day, I was presented with what I believe to be visual perfection. I am an avid lover of trees, bare limbs, twigs … anything that in its simplicity expresses perfection. A tree at the end of a hay field amidst a fog about to lift is rather ordinary. This one though was speaking loudly saying, “Look at me! I am so strong, so vital, that you can see me through the fog! I am perfection in this Universe!”
On another occasion, I stopped at a French bistro in Hudson, NY to have a special breakfast, for their crepes are superb and the coffee rich. I was the only one there, and after sitting for a short while taking in the environment, my camera settled on two images. The first: just two chairs, a sign, and mirror.
Ah, but the second image took me back to a story I wrote about my mother and me traveling in Georgia in the late 1950s, a grand old black man with gnarled hands, and a red Coca-Cola ice chest.
Recently, I swung into Columbia County to visit Olana, the home of Frederic Church. The grounds represent Church’s largest canvas in my opinion and what a grand achievement it is! But, rather than taking pictures of the vast landscape and stunning Hudson River views, I chose this small twig bench, tucked away in a wooded area.
These days consisted of ordinary, simple acts and things. I think I was able to see them because for the past few months I created a quiet space within. I no longer attempt to add twenty hours to my day either. My work, both my art and business, are important to me and they do demand much from me at times, each in their own way. However, I remain a solitary, seeking my own truths, trying to keep it simple.
It finally snowed just a few days ago. I was passing from my studio into the dining room, when I saw Ella and Simon at the front window. They held this pose, I would like to think, just for me. I walked softly to grab my camera and when I returned, they were still in rapt attention observing a squirrel scurrying about the tree just outside the window.
Simple acts. Simple things. How perfect.
A SPECIAL THANK YOU TO:
Art Murphy, a wonderful photographer, who inspired me to work with a small Canon PowerShot point and shoot. Thank you Art! It was a blast.
August 20, 2011 § 2 Comments
The Year 2000
Henry came to me in a dream last night. He first appeared stretching his sinuous, strong body. Then he walked towards me with his long, graceful stride, offering his head and ears for a scratch and a soft feather stroke of my hand. He purred loudly the whole time. I thought it amazing Henry followed me to Maine from our mountaintop home in upstate New York. I couldn’t fathom how he did this. Then, I awoke. It was three o’clock in the morning. Though only a dream, I sensed Henry had come to tell me something. I held Charlie, my sweet-faced little dog, close to my chest as if protecting him. There was a prescient, bitter-sweet quality to the dream. It was disturbing. So, I held on to Charlie until I fell back to sleep.
Henry was one of three outdoor cats I adopted four years earlier for my horse barn. They were feral kittens, born somewhere in the heavily wooded lands of the Catskill State Park. Their mother died while weaning them. A woman discovered them on a trail hike, took them home, and nursed them into life and health until they were four months old. However, she already had many cats and was eager to find another home for the three orphans. Since I needed good hunters for my horse barn and house, it was a perfect match of timing and circumstance.
The threesome comprised two sisters, Thelma a calico and Louise a tabby, and their brother Henry, an orange, brown-and-white tiger stripe. At four months of age, Henry was tall, already strapping, and elegantly handsome. Of the three, Henry’s nature was the sweetest and gentlest. And his eyes, even at this early age, reflected an ancient wisdom — a quiet knowing and acceptance. I watched him hunt and observed his muscular frame develop into something akin to a world-class athlete. As he matured his wisdom deepened, and I believed he knew more, cared more, and was finely tuned to the wildness and mystery of his natural world, as well as to us mere humans.
All three cats were well mannered even though they knew no other existence than the outdoors and all that nature offered, good and bad. Henry was often found sleeping in the sun behind the juniper bushes at the backside of my log cabin. While his sisters played most of the day, he would sleep peacefully yet ever alert. The subtlest change in his environment would disrupt his snooze and cause him to immediately focus his senses so that he could discern whether a sound, rustle of a leaf, or flutter of some thing required his full attention. I took only two photos of Henry alone. In one, he was stretched out like a Sphinx observing his world as he took shelter from a hot summer sun under an old pine bench, the resting-place for our family Buddha.
When I moved to Deer Isle off the coast of Maine, I had to leave my cats behind. My friend, Sharon, was kind enough to adopt them. It took a week to convince my brood to go into the kennel so they could be transported to their new home. My strategy was carefully designed around feeding them inside the kennel every day for seven days, each day pushing their food bowl further back into the confines of the kennel. The goal was to ease them into the enclosure until they were relaxed with the idea of being confined. Each day I stayed near the kennel while they ate so they would get used to my presence, something they were unaccustomed to at their mealtime. And in the end, on the seventh day, they walked calmly into the kennel for their food. And I, with a weeping heart, softly closed its latch. They did not stir, or look around, but continued to eat. When they finished their meal, they sat nestled together and looked at me. They made no sounds and showed no signs of fear. Sharon was generously ‘on call’ the whole week, waiting each evening for me to telephone and say, “It is done.” The cats showed amazing equanimity as they waited, enclosed for the first time in their lives, while Sharon drove from Woodstock to retrieve them.
That was the last time I saw Thelma, Louise, and Henry. I particularly remember Henry looking at me from inside the kennel while he snuggled with his sisters as if to say I don’t know what’s happening but I’ll take care of the girls and I trust you. It’s okay.
Sharon called me just a few days ago to say that Henry had disappeared for more than a week. A cat had been killed on a road nearby her home. She was filled with fear and guilt. To soothe her anguish, I told her not to worry and that he was most likely on a long adventure. However, because of her revelatory news, and my prophetic dream, I came to fully accept that Henry was dead. As I began to absorb this sorrowful reality, my most vivid and haunting memory of Henry released itself from a tangle of emotions, like the unraveling of a tapestry woven from time. It was an early period in our history together. Henry was only six months old when he engaged in an experience, or perhaps ‘drama’ is more appropriate, that will remain etched in my mind forever.
The Year 1997 — The Capture and Kill
It was an uncommonly warm, sixty-degree February day — the day of Henry’s memorable hunt. Snow still prevailed though at the top of the mountain where my cabin stood. An indigo blue sky reigned over the land, showcasing the pristine snow with a bright, almost blinding sun, shining through leafless branches of tall oaks and wide hemlocks. This was a premature taste of spring and the ease of walking around outdoors without layers of clothing … jacket, sweater, scarf, gloves, and a wool hat … was unadulterated freedom. A thick wool shirt was enough.
The cats and Charlie were happily investigating, running, and sunning themselves. I took Charlie for a walk in the afternoon. When we returned, it was time to feed the cats. Thelma and Louise were there, on the doormat, waiting for their food. However, they were clearly distracted as they kept looking down towards the barn. Henry was not to be seen. I put the food out anyway, fairly certain he would eventually show up.
And he did. Henry, with great steadfastness climbed the steep, long stone steps to the front porch holding something large in his mouth. Within moments, I realized it was The Owl. Our Owl-in-Residence! The Owl that made its home on our mountain and accompanied me on trail walks, flying slightly ahead of me, only to land on a favorite tree limb to wait until I caught up with him.
But, this catch of Henry’s was against the laws of nature and too impossible even for Henry to accomplish. How could he possibly catch an owl? I had never heard of a cat catching an owl — in fact, quite the opposite. But, no, it was The Owl that he dragged unto the snow-covered grass as he played with its limp body. Then he left it and joined his sisters for their supper on the porch. Soon after their canned meal was finished, I saw them in the snow, dancing their cat ballet over the prey. Surely their dance was ancient in its roots and a form of sacred celebration. They clawed, rolled, played and studied The Owl. They would stop for a while, clean themselves, and then resume their ritual dance. Henry joined me on the porch during one of his breaks and looked at me with such pride. We sat together, never too close, for Henry insisted that a respectful distance be maintained. With my light petting behind his ears, and the symphonic purr of Henry’s response, I said goodnight to him and went inside. I turned off the porch lights and wrestled with the mixed feelings I had regarding this killing.
Henry did what is his nature to do. Nevertheless, an owl, a ‘creatura’ associated with myth and magic. A ‘being’ that, believed by some, offers guidance, even wisdom, if we are open to seeing and hearing. Henry killed this Being. I was not angry with Henry, but I was shaken at the sight of him dancing his dance in preparation of what I believed would be the final mutilation of The Owl. It was sobering.
I tried to read before I went to sleep, but failed. My mind was terribly active with thoughts, stuff, things — nothing and everything. I was concerned about the bloody remains of The Owl and whether Charlie would find it in the morning. Surely he would, for nothing went unnoticed by him and I didn’t want him in that mess. I knew the cats would leave something of this killing, as they almost always did, and their catch was usually left half-eaten. So, I resolved to have my friend Ralph, who was coming the following day for barn repairs, remove whatever was left of The Owl. Until then, I would walk Charlie on lead. With a plan in place, I finally fell asleep.
It rained all night, a heavy, pounding rain, so my sleep was fitful. I finally succumbed to waking up and entered my day. It was 5 a.m. Apart from the persistent, hard rain, this was usually a quiet, still time. But this particular morning was neither quiet, nor still. I heard loud vocalizations from the cats — a rhythmic, chanting sound. As I approached the front door, I had renewed thoughts of Henry’s killing on my mind, which conjured visions of Henry, Thelma, and Louise covered with The Owl’s innards as pieces of flesh hung from their fur, half dried and half still moist. The Owl would be spread open in some ghoulish way, no longer identifiable as it was reduced to something raw and hideous. Its once-greatness would be totally demeaned and lost forever. I switched on the porch lights with some hesitancy, and looked through the beveled oval glass window of my cabin’s large, oak entrance door. Though I had heard the cats, they were not to be seen. In their stead, on the doormat, an offering was left for me: the remains of Henry’s hunt from the previous day. It was not the whole killing half-eaten, but something much more — something emanating from sorcery itself. It was not anything I imagined.
I knew that when cats caught feathered prey, they would pluck their killing first of its feathers and that those feathers would be, or could be, in a rather abstract, frenzied circle. What was presented looked deliberate and eerie. Selected feathers were aligned in a perfect circle. There was a precision to the way the feathers were placed: the large wing feathers formed the inner ring; smaller feathers comprised the second ring and, finally, the soft, fuzzy tail feathers created an ephemeral, delicate outer ring. All of these feathered circles were in perfect order and each feather in its dedicated place of the pattern. At the core of the circle were the intestines of The Owl and a broken part of its beak. To the left and just outside of the circled pattern was one talon. The presentation of the offering looked like a kaleidoscope design without movement, as it remained so very still. Even so, I sensed a living presence, or spirit, remained as I looked more closely at the moist, glistening intestines. I was frozen at the theatre of the sight. Did the cats do this? Was it only Henry? Was there another, perhaps mystical, explanation for the perfection of the design? Was it The Owl’s last statement of wisdom and, if so, what was its message? It was a phenomenon not meant for rationalization.
Today — Farewell
I will never understand how Henry managed this capture and killing. Yet, I will always remember him courageously dragging his magnificent prize up the stone steps for his sisters and me to see. I can still recall the feel of his soft fur as I scratched his ears and head and the look in his amber eyes when he sat with me that evening. His gaze was steady and contemplative, and I could almost hear him say, “I did it. I really did it. I am brave, am I not?” Yes, Henry, you were brave.
It is years later now since Henry was killed. However, he is a part of my heart and lives on deep within the folds of my memory. No matter where Henry had been or how challenging the hunt, when he returned home he greeted his sisters first, then Charlie if he was outside, and finally he would walk up to the doormat, or window ledge, and let me know he was home. His sweetness and gentleness as we sat together on the porch during soft summer rains was a rich experience filled with God’s grace. His indomitable presence and constancy helped form our bond. His noble spirit and gentlemanly ways deepened it. And, the essence of our bond endured enough for Henry to come to me in a dream — one night, eleven years ago — to bid his personal and final farewell.
Today as I write this story, I can still see him running the five hundred feet of dirt road from the horse barn to my cabin. With a feline stride that was long and deliberate, extending further his lean, muscular body, Henry held his head high as his spirit soared with the anticipation of the hunt.
My dear Henry, I grieve for you still, but I also celebrate your life and the touch of grace your presence created in mine. May your dreams be sweet and your noble spirit fly on God’s breath. And may you always, always run wild and free.
Walk tall as the trees; live strong as the mountains; be gentle as the spring winds;
keep the warmth of summer in your heart, and the Great Spirit will always be with you.
~ Old Native American Chant
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. COPYRIGHT 2011