December 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
Hello! I am called by many names: Abigail, Abbey, Sweet Pea, Butter Bean, Doodlebug, Princess-of-Mine, My Sweet Angel, Little Healer, and it goes on. The latest is Snow Lion. I will tell you more about that name later. My preference is to be called Abbey, thank you, spelled as you see it here.
Okay, so you now know that I am Abbey. You also know the name I prefer to be called by, and even how I like to see it spelled. Yes, I am fussy, but only about certain things: my name, and that all the fur on my body lay in the right direction. Hence, I am clean and beautiful; but please dear reader, do not think me vain or pompous. I am feline. We are, most often, elegant and graceful. That is fact. Moreover, we are not aloof and wholly independent: but opposite. It is reported that one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, said, “Music and cats offer the only escape from the miseries of life.” Winston Churchill adds the reason why in my opinion saying, “A cat is a riddle, inside an enigma, inside a delightful pelt of cuddliness.” Based on my shabby beginnings, I hardly think of myself as superior, or narcissistic.
Mom’s past Journals included brief, meaningful nods to me titled “The Book of Abbey.” I am my human Mom’s cat: her companion and guide as she is mine. We have been together for one year. I wish to share my insights and thoughts about my experiences these past twelve months; especially those of the past few weeks.
A Sad Beginning
In October 2013, I was abandoned on Route 9 W, tossed into a mud puddle near McDonalds, forced to eat greasy scraps of food, and all sorts of unsavory things too foul to mention here. I also had to fight for my life. I was dirty and severely scratched from these fights, mostly with others of my kind. I bear my feline fellows no ill will, for it was about survival. I myself do not like violence. After living with my Mom this past year, I have given great thought to my inherent nature: that of predator. Mom reads about non-violence, reverence of life, compassion and freedom from suffering for all beings and creatures. This is a conundrum for me in so many ways that I … Oh my, I want to tell you more, but Mom would not like this digression, nor my leaping ahead in my narrative. Not … At … All!
Okay, back to the back-story: A woman from a local animal shelter spotted me rummaging through garbage for food, recognizing that while I was not a lofty full-bred, for I am a Basic Model Tabby Cat 101, my demeanor was welcoming, inquisitive, and polite. This kind woman picked me up and I sunk into her arms. She begged the owner of the shelter to take me in. However, they were filled with kittens to adopt for the Holiday Season and had no more room. I was accepted, though, due to my sweet, loving nature. They fed me, cleaned me, and placed me in the front glass room with all the wonderful, cute, cuddly kittens. I feared I would not stand a chance for adoption given I was one year old: those sweet, beguiling balls of fluffy fur were too adorable for anyone to notice me.
December arrived and so did my human Mom-to-Be. She ventured into my shelter the very same day she had put down my soul sister, Lily, whom I never knew when she was alive. I know Lily now, for not only do her ashes remain in our apartment; her gentle spirit graces us too.
When Mom-to-Be walked into the glass room, I was sitting on a shelf, observing the kittens’ antics. At first, she looked at all the irresistible kitties: held, admired, and cooed at them as everyone else did before her. I was not jealous: just resigned. I sat still as a statue, trying for an aura of elegance and wisdom (something cute unworldly kittens don’t possess), when she spotted me and walked over to my shelf, which was level with her shoulders. I couldn’t help myself; I knew I wanted her. There was a blend of sadness and joy in her energy. I gently reached out with one paw and then the other, when she in turn reached for the rest of me and said “Oh my, you sweet child.” That was it. We sat for twenty minutes: Mom holding me to her chest, while I felt her fresh, raw grief through her warm heart. I nuzzled as far into her shoulder as I possibly could; presenting a resounding purr of gratitude that rivaled that of a large lioness. It was done. Someone picked ME, and she took me home.
Life With Mom
Wowee! Mom’s apartment has four good-sized windows with sills to sit, or lay upon. Each overlooks the woods with varying views. I like this one where our family Buddha resides on a table below the window. I sit there a lot if I’m not next to Mom on the windowsill to the right of her desk watching her work. I keep close tabs on her time working on the computer. When I sense she is weary, I pad across the desk to distract her. When she ignores this, I try padding across the keyboard. This usually does it. Well, it always does it. I do get a loud NO, but my strategy works every time: she leaves her desk with me in her arms.
The wild life outside of my windows is amazing, and alas, tantalizing too. I try, I truly do, to contain myself and meditate on the beauty of these beings rather than the consumption of them. This is one of my calmer moments-in-meditation.
Yet, I am not always calm. I am two years old this month and still have a goodly amount of kitten in me! I run away with my Mom’s glasses and hide them. I lie on my back and slide across the floor wiggling my hips. She loves this and I giggle, moving so fast she is unable to take a picture. If she doesn’t pay attention to my eating time, I will nuzzle up to her and then gently bite her ankles. Yikes! How bad am I? I also like to scoot and fly through the apartment, taking death-defying leaps to a chair, then a table, the bookcase, a windowsill or two, the Buddha bench, and then flop into reverie, or … torpor.
Mom’s a photographer, so she often ventures out early morning to do her work. In late November, Mom came back from one of her walks and said, “Abbey, I found a miracle. There was one white flower left in our neighbor’s garden. Look!” And, I did … after she uploaded it to her computer.
This year’s Thanksgiving, our first together, brought a winter wonderland snowstorm. Mom and I were inside all day watching the first large, juicy flakes of the season cover the ground, trees, and limbs. It was snowing such a beautiful snow, all fluff, making the world a magical storybook for that moment-in-time. Mom decided to put up the Christmas tree that day.
When it was all done, the most amazing vision was presented to me: a petite frisson. I sat for hours pawing at ‘colored beings’ just outside the window. No matter how much, or how gently I would pat, pat, pat, they remained still, not reacting to my presence. Nevertheless, it was a delightful exercise in mindfulness.
Okay. Forget the mindfulness. I was, shall we say, a bit slow about those ‘beings.’ It took me one day to realize that the colored beings outside were a reflection of our tree’s lights. However, I had a great time just patting away on the window. I eventually found a favorite resting place under the tree. I like this picture because I’m all blue! I think that’s really cool for a Basic Model Tabby Cat 101.
Months ago, I understood Mom’s rhythm: when she wakes there are things she will do before tending to me. Oh, make no assumptions: I do not go hungry. Mom rises before I care to, so it’s a mere half hour before I’m fed and she settles into reading with her hot mug of Scottish Breakfast tea. She always reads a book having to do with philosophy, religion, or Dickens … Ooh, I must digress and tell you that she read Dickens’s “Christmas Carol” aloud to me. How wonderful, wonderful that truly was … Marley’s ghost, the three Spirits, old Scrooge becoming human and humane … delicious characters with whimsical names, and those delectable Dickensian words. Oh my. What a treat! There are poems too that she reads especially for me; oft times a meaningful Buddhist or Celtic prayer.
One icy, cold morning, following the Thanksgiving snowstorm, darkness prevailed while Mom lit candles and incense. This is part of our morning ritual, and I have to say I love the warm glow, pungent Tibetan scent, and serenity of it all. We began our morning reading when Mom finally sat in her chair by the window, while I positioned myself on the windowsill. (I believe she was thumbing through “Evolution of the Word” by Marcus Borg. This is quite a tome and I am so totally grateful she is not reading it aloud.) In moments, there appeared on the horizon an unmistakable beginning of a mystical sunrise: a convergence of the sun’s first appearance; the pristine white blanketing the forest floor; black tree trunks and limbs with immovable white crystalline snow clinging to the entirety of the landscape. Sitting together watching the sun’s ascent, I experienced a peacefulness and quietude within: as if we were the only two beings in the world to witness this event. I knew in that grace-filled moment how blessed we are to be able to see these wonders of nature. Mom gently massaged my ears throughout.
Do you remember when I was expatiating about the myriad of names I’m called? And, that Snow Lion is one of them? There’s a reason, of course. Mom is reading “The Dalai Lama’s Cat,” by David Michie. Her name is Snow Lion. She too was a rescue in the streets of Delhi. She is a beautiful Himalayan, though slightly crippled in her hind legs. Snow Lions in Tibet are celestial animals, representing unconditional happiness. They are animals of great beauty, vibrancy, and delight.
I believe I am all those things to my Mom, but am thankful she no longer refers to me as her Snow Lion. Celestial? I’m not so certain about that. I am Abbey: Basic Model Tabby Cat 101, providing devotion, companionship, love, and great joy.
I want to share one of my favorite Celtic prayer-poems that Mom reads aloud. I hope that some day I will achieve humility and compassion enough to be a healing light in world:
“Open my senses to Wisdom’s inner promptings
that I may give voice to what I hear in my soul
and be changed for the healing of the world;
that I may listen for truth in every living soul
and be changed for the well-being of the world.”
~A Celtic Psalter, J. Philip Newell
I am content. I’m healthy. The bloody scratches and missing patches of fur when Mom first brought me home me are gone. They’ve been replaced with a plush, silky coat due to Mom’s good diet for me. I play; I laugh; I love. And now, dear readers, I have said enough.
It is time for my nap. Sort of.
Dear snoozing Abbey. It’s your Mom darling. You are my healing light. I give gratitude each day for your presence in my life and the well-being you’ve created for me. Sweet dreams my little Snow Lion (oops).
There are many notable books, including the Dalai Lama’s Cat cited earlier, where animals of all types and species have communicated to us: thoughts, fears, humor, sweet joys, and silent sorrows. There are several though that inspired Abbey and me to write this piece (for she sits on my desk even now up to this final moment), not the least of which was recently written by a dear friend and colleague, Stephen Fajen: The White Lash.
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein
Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
And, though the dogs in this particular book, do not speak per se, there is one, Almondine, whose thoughts are clearly and elegantly expressed: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski.
“Read, read, read. Read everything.” ~ William Faulkner
Wishing all of you a healthy, happy, peace-filled 2015!
October 9, 2014 § 3 Comments
On 3 June 2014, I walked into the conference room of the Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley in Troy to teach a ‘personal photojournalism course’ — written essays with related photographs. The focus: write about how your disability affects your life.
I readied the conference room-cum-classroom for the next six weeks: cameras, notebooks, and pens were set at each seat. The participants — Barbara, Shameka, Robbie, Carolyn, Walter, Kimberly, Denise, and Janet, ranging in age from eighteen to sixty-five, arrived with a variety of disabilities: speech and learning, spina bifida, polio, scoliosis, epilepsy, mild retardation, severe ADD, and muscular dystrophy. Some never held a camera or spent time writing; others did a lot of one or the other.
I thought the process I developed to achieve our goal was easy. I was wrong. It is neither simple, nor painless, to walk into past and present wounds, and then tell the world. An action with potential to re-shape minds and hearts? That is heroic.
For six weeks we talked, took pictures, and wrote themes inching towards the final essay. We laughed and we cried: probably an equal amount of both, though the need for Kleenex tissue boxes increased as the weeks rolled on. I could write a thousand words, and more, about injustice, humiliation, biases, disregard, ignorance, and impoverished awareness concerning consumers with disabilities.
I fell in love with eight people. Normally I would use an adjective and describe them as “exceptional.” I dare not! They would wag their fingers at me, saying, “We are normal: not anything more; certainly not anything less.” Yet, I saw and felt their wounds and witnessed bravery. These are my heroes. I asked them to reach for the stars. And they did.
Robbie, full of desire to free himself from harsh labels,
writes an indictment of the system that creates them.
Denise, ever the activist, speaks
for justice while decrying injustice.
Carolyn, filled with beauty and magnanimity,
writes through constant pain for the love of writing.
Walter, brilliant with a camera, shows us beauty-in-precision
with a touch of whimsy.
Janet, with a wink-and-a-smile,
demonstrates what perseverance accomplishes.
Shameka, stoic yet strong for everyone,
tells us why love is important.
Kimberly exemplifies truth-well-told,
and what ‘walking-the-walk’ means.
Barbara, filled with equanimity and compassion,
writes her story with warmth and humor
peppered with stark realities.
The Mockingbird Quote
Why is it a sin to kill a Mockingbird? In Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, we learn that the Mockingbird lives solely to sing, never harming a crop, flower, or tree. It symbolizes two vital characters, both disabled: Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Each gentle, neither caused harm, both were unfairly and unmercifully discriminated against. Ignorance and resistance to understanding the unfamiliar prevailed.
SEE THROUGH OUR EYES. HEAR OUR HEARTS.
On 21 October 2014, from 5 p.m. – 7 p.m., The Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley will host the Opening Exhibition of the photographs and writings of the participants in this groundbreaking program. Come and meet the artists … and truly see through their eyes and hear their hearts. I guarantee it will be a life-changing experience.
This past July, “independent living” for consumers with disabilities
moved from being a mere program into an “administration.”
THE INDEPENDENT LIVING ADMINISTRATION was
established on 22 July 2014 when President Barack Obama
signed the Workforce Innovation
and Opportunity Act into law.
It is time for me to stop and for you to read Our Stories.
September 20, 2014 § 1 Comment
It is a season of change: crisp, cool mornings; cars covered in dew; evenings demand a light blanket; phantom-like mists wind around forest trees and hover over meadows; the harvest is abundant with apples and pumpkins. These are the signposts: our landscape and mountaintops will soon be draped in blazing color and frosty nights.
Following an early morning ritual of reading (currently it is Dickens’s Pickwick Papers), writing, and consuming a good quantity of freshly brewed Scottish Breakfast tea, I embarked on my daily walk at about seven o’clock. My path took me through the charming, historic streets of the Village of Athens. My plan: complete the last quarter mile at the Riverfront.
Once there, I was stunned. The River, and the River only, was enveloped in a fog so thick it blocked out the sun’s warmth I felt just moments before. I thought I was living in Maine again; or, I had unwillingly been transported into a Stephen King novel to be terrorized by some horrific clown event that could only emerge from King’s mischievous yet fiendish imagination. (I’m a fan of both the man and his writing.)
There was no terror; only fog and the mystery it conjures. Standing there wrapped in mist, I thought of questions I’ve asked myself for months, maybe a year now, common to many of us at one point or another in our lives: who am I; what do I really do and why do I do it; what have I contributed to the world in my seventy-one years; have I made a difference for betterment in some small way?
I’ve been haunted by a passage in Isak Dinesen’s, “Out of Africa:” Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me? An eloquent way of asking: Will I be remembered?
Neither fog, nor River, provided answers; I didn’t expect them to. Questions with no answers are what Age carries in her satchel as she dispenses dichotomies of joys and sorrows; glory and humiliation; wisdom and wandering, lost minds.
This one morning, though, presented a Divine Intervention for me as I studied the breathtaking sight: the struggle between the fog’s determination to shroud the River; the sun’s inevitable supremacy, which would erase the fog.
I love these images. I hope you do too.
I completed my photo shoot and walk. I felt alive. I felt whole. Equanimity was mine; though, for too brief a time. I often abandon that which feeds my soul in the name of busyness, meaningless gossip, superficial activities, and the need to put food on the table. The latter, a reality. The fog eventually evaporated; so did the feeling of serenity.
Impermanence is the Law of the Universe. So be it.
The Book Of Abbey
Abbey is well, thriving, and more accepting of cuddling. She loves a new game I created called belly-blow-kisses. She rolls and wiggles and, dare I say, looks like she’s laughing. This image, though not of her laughing, was taken during an iPhone experiment. I like it. I used the Noir filter. It was fun to do.
More To Come
In a few weeks, I will be writing about a life-changing experience for eight courageous people and me. Look for Mockingbird in the title!
I’ve said enough.
Thank you for your willingness to take this virtual tour with me …
One Morning in the Fog.
July 13, 2014 § 3 Comments
Days of Rain
Rain. Seemingly ceaseless. Our landscape presents a lush, green world of heavily leafed trees and flora with blooming flowers that span, even surpass, the widest spectrum of hues possible on an artist’s palette. Tree limbs, weighted with an extravaganza of viridian growth, bend over our country back roads nearly connecting one side to the other, creating Nature’s cathedral ceilings. The superfluity of birds that reside in the small forest outside my windows, normally blatantly vocal raising their songs in high hosannas, sing soft hymns during this steadfast cleansing of the land.
I love rain. Since my working time is flexible, for the most part, a solid downpour offers me permission to enter into Siddhartha’s time — a time of nameless quality. Days of rain provide an opportunity for me to detach from life’s daily rounds and bring to fruition here what has dwelled in the pages of my hand-written journal and the confines of my camera far too long as well as immerse myself into the number of ‘working books’ I have scattered about.
I just finished an exquisite Dean Koontz novel, Innocence*, that surprised me in its elegant, oft times poetic style, and the sheer poignancy of a story concerning light and dark, the beatified and the cruel, and the sanctity of love. Koontz opens with a quote from Petrarch’s De Remedies: Rarely do great beauty/and great virtue dwell together. Yet, his skillful story telling, well-drawn characters we grow to love while fearing others, his apparent passion for, and articulate use of, words and phrasing, lyrical at times, shows us how beauty and virtue can intertwine.
I am delving in and out of Jung’s Red Book. Jung wrote about a self-experimental period in his life that became known as “confrontation of the unconscious.” This pivotal period began in 1913 and continued through 1930. He wrote about his dreams, fantasies, and techniques to “get to the bottom of [his] inner processes,” later calling this method “active imagination.” Jung first recorded these fantasies and dreams in his Black Books. After some revisions of the texts, and added reflections, he copied them in calligraphic script no less, accompanied by his paintings, into a book entitled Liber Novus bound in red leather, which became known as the The Red Book. Jung wrote of this transcendent period:
The years of which I have spoken to you, when I pursued the inner images, were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this. It began at that time, and the later details hardly matter anymore. My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me. That was the stuff and material for more than only one life. Everything later was merely the outer classification, scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything, was then.
It is hardly coincidence then that in addition to my fascination with Jung’s Red Book, I have added once again to my morning ritual of reading and writing my well-worn copy of Herman Hesse’s, Siddhartha. Hesse and Jung were friends and corresponded over a period of years. (Miguel Serrano, a Chilean diplomat, writer, and poet, wrote a book titled, C.G. Jung and Hermann Hesse, A Record of Two Friendships, which is still available, providing yet another lens through which to see the greatness of these two scholarly, soul-filled men.)
Siddhartha is one of those remarkable books that haunts. We can return to this slim volume again and again with each cycle of our lives, uncovering another layer of insight, another reason to pause and take personal inventory. My connection to it now, perhaps, is not only that I am in my seventh decade of life and these matters of soul and spirit and quality of being become more relevant as there are fewer years ahead than behind, but also, simply, that I live so close to the Hudson River, which I photograph endlessly as my own form of introspection. My time at the river’s edge is a constant reminder that Siddhartha finally found his true inner-peace at his river’s shore:
Above all, he [Siddhartha] learned from it [the River] how to listen, to listen with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinion.
Ah. There it is. Serenity — love in the absolute.
For years when I came to this passage in the book, tears slowly formed rivulets down my face. I so wanted to be in that place ‘with a waiting, open soul’ Siddhartha reached after a lifetime of Saṃsāra: wealth, starvation, pain, loss, gain, pleasure, suffering again, and then — freedom from suffering, living so simply at the river’s edge, ferrying people from one side to the other and listening fully, deeply to them, to the river, to his soul.
Days of Seeing, Hearing, and Being
I often sense the anima of Hesse’s Siddhartha accompany me as I take my early morning journeys to witness the unfolding of flowers and hear birdsong as more than mere background; to see a lone dove on a wire (what a moment!); to observe a white lily pure as pristine snow, knowing instantly I will render it in black and white; to be drawn to ordinary remnants of a collision of fallen flowers still colorful, still with reason for being — my camera; to be captured by a simple flower and its creamy yellow hue, appearing to dissolve like the butter its color echoes; to witness the moods and sounds of my river and watch diamonds fall and dance upon it at just the right moment and in yet another to observe the swaths of the whole landscape — the river, land, and sky; and, finally, to be with me while I sit on my cushion in front of the Buddha that resides on an old weathered bench in my living room, observing the smoke of incense dance its dance in graceful, spiral forms I had not wholly seen before.
The Path Continues
It is unlikely I will ever attain Siddhartha’s serenity. As with most of humanity, I am flawed and subject to my humanness. Therefore, hurt, fear and anger can, and do, come upon me like tsunamis at times. Not as frequently as in the past, but they arrive at my door nonetheless. Yet, my path continues. As Siddhartha’s journey unfolded, he discovered that once one enters onto the path, digression is assured. However, it is inevitable too that we will renew our journey, placing our feet, heart, and souls towards seeking something deep within that we finally recognize as our authentic being.
Though through different disciplines, Jung and Hesse dedicated a substantial amount of their respective life’s work to understanding the sum and substance of the soul; searching to illuminate where and how it manifests in our lives — that nameless, perhaps elusive, quality of being that is serenity; that is absolute love.
Koontz continues this theme in his contemporary exemplum, Innocence, with a poetic, powerful statement from the story’s protagonist, Addison:
But with one exception, all things pass from this world and time erases not just memories but entire civilizations, reducing everyone and every monument to dust. The only thing that survives is love, for it is an energy as enduring as light, which travels outward from its source toward the ever-expanding boundaries of the universe, the very energy of which all things were conceived and with which all things will be sustained in a world beyond this world of time and dust and forgetting.
The Book of Abbey
Abbey and I have lived together for eight months now. We have adjusted to one another’s rhythms and music of our daily lives. She continues to sit on the windowsill next to my desk as I write. She still audaciously walks across my computer and stretches her body full length upon the desk when she needs to be loved up. Though I gently scold her, I have clearly failed to train her in this matter. Therefore, I have no choice but to stop to scratch and pet her and in so doing Abbey provides me with a moment of release from the intensity of my work. She knows me now, but I doubt I will ever fully know her. She amazes me with her petits frissons délicieux de la performance that make me laugh aloud as she recognizes my sheer delight in her very presence.
Thank you again for making time to join me on this particular day. I am continually grateful to those of you who are loyal readers and appreciate my impressionist, painterly images. And, I welcome the many new arrivals from around the world that have subscribed to these Photo-Journals!
*ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: My friend and neighbor, Joe Stefco, publishes special edition books under the moniker, Charnel House. Joe designs each book, from font creation to the selection of handmade paper, to every facet possible involved in the publishing of a book. He has worked with Dean Koontz for decades along with other significant writers. Joe unexpectedly surprised me at lunch one day with a gift of one of his lettered editions of Dean’s novel, Innocence. Today, where books are read electronically on a hard, cold piece of plastic and metal, it is a tangible wonderment to hold a book and to turn each hand-stitched page, knowing it was a labor of love for the hands that touched it. Thank you my dear friend. And, thank you Mr. Koontz for writing a mesmerizing, eloquent, and important allegory about authentic beauty, virtue and love … in a world beyond this world of time and dust and forgetting.
March 1, 2014 § 2 Comments
This is a story about my maternal grandmother. Granny was born poor and died poor, yet had a heart overflowing with love, a spirit that soared higher than the heavens, and a deep, quiet source within from which sprang abundant courage.
Granny was five years old when she traveled across the Atlantic Ocean from Austria to America in 1899. She was not schooled but taught herself to read, write, and speak fluent English. When I was old enough to understand the spoken word, I never detected a hint of an accent though I knew Granny spoke Russian, Polish, and German in addition to her mastery of the English language.
The new images presented throughout this narrative are not of her, or the times and places of events shared. Sadly, these were lost in the innumerable decades of the past. Nevertheless, these winter scenes, recently photographed during our successive snowstorms (taken in the historic Village of Athens, New York where I live), kindled cherished memories of a remarkable woman.
When the snow falls, I remember her the most. Everything smells the same. The scent of snow emanates from crystalline water cradled in the wombs of steel gray clouds, as nature stands poised for the right moment to birth juicy, white flakes. Wood smoke emerges from wood stoves and fireplaces, wafting through the air from known but also unknown places with untold stories. And, as the snow begins its descent it gently burdens the limbs of trees while sketching outlines of ordinary things normally overlooked. The elusive cardinal, like Baryshnikov, flies from limb to limb with ease and grace; grave sites and possibly haunted mausoleums in old cemeteries are christened and warmed in a pure white blanket of snow at the hour when dusk makes its entrance; and when the snow comes to rest on the forest floor, it fashions a serene, ethereal landscape in which it seems no living being has ever inhabited. Yes, this is the time, when the snow falls, I remember her the most.
Cleveland, Ohio circa 1948
Trolley car tracks carved serpentine patterns into the streets of the northeast Cleveland, Ohio neighborhood where my grandmother lived. As I plodded along the snow-covered cobblestone walk to my Granny’s house and stepped on to the wide-planked wooden front porch, I stamped the snow from my boots and slipped them off before entering her living room through the dark oak entrance door inset with an etched oval glass pane. I passed through the mahogany arch into the dining room and walked a long hallway that led to my grandmother’s sanctuary: her kitchen.
There were few things that thrilled me more as a child than the many aromas sent forth from the kitchen where Granny performed the healing of souls through her culinary arts. Sixty-five years later, the mere thought of her homemade Scottish shortbread comprised of those simple but decadent ingredients of creamed butter, sugar, and carefully sifted flour baking in her Franklin wood cook-stove, spark a memory I hold dear: She offers me her large, well-used wooden spoon — the one that stirred so much in so many bowls and belonged to her mother and her mother before her. I lick the last remnants of sweet, grainy dough: the embryonic essence of the shortbread.
Granny was a force of love, offering warmth and light in my life as a child and young woman. She had a salty sense of humor, was whimsical, irreverent, and flirtatious. Ironically though, she was also a devout Roman Catholic and prayed three Rosaries daily. She added a fourth Rosary one fine summer’s day after releasing through her kitchen window a particularly nasty, noisy bird — a gift that Grandpa Joe brought home for her that past Easter. So, not unlike an accordion, she added and subtracted Rosaries to her daily prayer routine. This depended on whether she thought she failed, or succeeded, with the Lord that day, hoping that the Blessed Mother would intercede for her. While her faith sustained her to a point, she was most serene when preparing and serving a meal. Her Austrian, Polish, and Russian heritages created a culinary alchemy for delicacies still not well known to too many people: liver dumplings and soup, which took two days to prepare — and, her unsurpassed perogi.
For the uninitiated, a perogi artfully created is a spiritual experience. Granny’s perogies were perfectly round pouches, three inches in diameter, of carefully rolled dough filled with pure ecstasies for one’s palate. My favorite filling was Farmer’s cheese that she seasoned with salt, pepper, a hint of sugar, thinly chopped onion and a beaten egg to hold the mixture together. She would also fill these round orbs of dough with prunes, or sauerkraut with caraway seed, or a pungent meat mixture.
So, I sat watching this artist at her work as she gathered the many and varied ingredients needed to begin the painting of her particular canvas. The food: flour, spices, sugar, meats, cheese, prunes, potatoes, cabbage, green peppers, onions, eggs, butter, salt and pepper. The tools: a rolling pin, flour sifter, potato masher, meat grinder, one large rimmed glass three inches in diameter, waxed paper, rubber bands, cleaned (and ironed) kitchen towels, mixing bowls — all six of them in graduated sizes but not matching, Granny’s largest black iron cauldron in which to boil water and her large iron skillet, more waxed paper, and … the Wooden Spoon.
The last task to complete before the cooking process was set in motion was the preparation of the large, square white enameled kitchen table. Granny wiped it spotlessly clean. She then removed her thin gold wedding band, and put on a fresh, crisply ironed apron. Finally, she would place the kitchen stool at the table for herself and remove all but one of the six chairs. The concession of the one chair was for me. Granny wanted no encumbrances around the table when she prepared perogi. But, I was her honored guest.
For Granny, the perogi event was a journey. To the five-year-old girl sitting at her table, mesmerized by the unfolding of this grand performance, it was the end result that counted most. Granny stored many of the pierogi in her short, square icebox for eating at our holiday dinner. But, she reserved a few to be consumed immediately and I had my choice. I could simply eat the perfection of her perogi as they emerged from the boiling water in the black wrought iron cauldron, now front and center on the stove, tossed with butter, salt and pepper. Or, she would turn to the large iron skillet into which she slathered even more butter and slowly sautéed the perogi to a light, golden brown. The skillet sizzled and spat when the perogies were placed into it but it soon settled. The result was a transcendent experience. The ingredients of butter, salt, lightly fried dough, and a spicy-yet-sweet cheese and onion filling, were all interdependent: one single ingredient could no longer exist in this exquisite state without the other.
Cleveland, Ohio circa 1956
My grandmother cooked for all occasions: birthdays, graduations, births, communions, confirmations, holidays, colds and flu, and for no reason at all but for the pure pleasure of creating and healing. (The latter being a result of her genuine efforts and not a conscious goal.)
Granny also put on her apron and took to the stove during times of great sorrow, the most vivid of which for me was when her husband, my Grandpa Joe, succumbed to lung cancer resulting from his many years of work in the coal mines of Ohio.
After leaving the sterile smells and bleak atmosphere of the hospital, I knew her thoughts were only of her husband, friend, lover, and nemesis at times, as she walked into her now empty home. Granny had to be thinking that Grandpa Joe would walk through the door at any moment. Freshly brewed coffee as well as his much loved beer with a raw egg floating in it should be at the ready. (Grandpa Joe was a tippler.) As she entered her kitchen, she reached into a small closet for her apron and wrapped it around her plump waist. I stood watching not knowing what to say or do. I too felt the raw sense of loss and emptiness. I saw Granny withdraw a hand-embroidered cotton handkerchief from her dress pocket to wipe the tears that finally surfaced and trickled down her face. She then turned to me following the long silence and said, “I absolutely must make a pot of chicken soup with homemade noodles.” And so she did.
My memories are eternal reminders that the contentment of Granny’s open heart, consisting of simple, elegant acts of love and work, was far more important than any luxury and wealth that she would never know, or desire.
Granny’s riches were in her calloused, square hands, her thick strong arms that could roll dough for great lengths of time without tiring, and her intuitive sense of touch, taste and innate sensitivity to what was good, or not. Creating culinary delights was in joyful service of others and emanated from her authentic spirit. This was her art form as well as her medicine and it could not be captured or repressed. Not even my grandfather’s death could accomplish that. Her unwavering inner spirit, even in the saddest moments, are legacies of great wealth that have sustained me and continue to enrich my life today.
The Book of Abbey
Abbey, introduced in my previous Journal post, has grown to be a constant friend and companion. She is at the entrance door when I arrive home, and greets me upon waking in the morning with a soft purr, offering her plush, silky fur for my hands to gently pet and scratch. She is coquettish in her playfulness and yet a tigress — all seven pounds of feminine feline form. With a reverberating purr, she walks delicately across my computer keyboard when I have been too long at the screen for she seems to know I need a break. I have, thus far, discovered that she does two things really, really well: sleep and meditate with my crystals.Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy. ~Rabbi Abraham Heschel
With the deepest gratitude, I thank you for spending this time with me, sharing my memories of a wonderful grandmother, viewing my latest impressionist painterly images and following the Book of Abbey, which will grow with time.
Blessings and Namasté …
December 26, 2013 § 3 Comments
This is the season-of–seasons for millions of people for there is celebration as well as quietude, if only for moments at a time. It begins after Thanksgiving and continues through the New Year — and beyond for some. It is especially so for Christians, for we celebrate the birth and life of Jesus Christ, eternalizing his radical teachings — a transformational tsunami unlike anything the world has ever known. We can choose to believe, or not. Still, a child was born a little more than two thousand years ago and our world today continues to ponder, debate, and wonder at the impact of His life and teachings.
The season of Advent leading to the Nativity with the anticipation of a New Year hovering near, is significant for me. It is characterized with a deep personal inventory of where I am in my heart, how I am in my soul and spirit — if I have grown to be a better, sincerely authentic human being, and more. It is a challenge that cradles both sweetness and sadness as I continue to walk my path of bends, switchbacks, hills, valleys, as well as flat, smooth terrains.
As we yoke jubilation with introspection and bear witness to yet another year rapidly unfolding to its inevitable close, I offer the following short essays and images ‘wrapped in my heartstrings’ as a tribute to what a wonderful life this is. Please enjoy!
I live two short blocks from the Hudson River and while I’ve taken numerous pictures of this body of water at various times, I thought the following captured three distinguishing moods from the first tree to turn its vivid red gracing her shores, to the serenity of late fall when all begins to sleep while mists envelop the land and rise from her waters, and in an extravagant announcement of winter, her bold ice breaking yet flowing, ever flowing.
Lily, A Cat Well Loved
A stray cat named Lily walked into my life on a warm September day. She was discarded by her owner in our village and, though a house cat for ten years, was left to fend for herself outdoors. She was thin and malnourished. Her fur hung from protruding bones and a frail body. But it was Lily’s eyes that invaded hearts as they hauntingly gazed through to the souls of those who looked upon her. Depending on the light, they changed from emerald green to the color of rare, antique jade.
A neighbor kindly fostered her for a month, keeping her safe and fed. But, Lily still did not gain weight though she was eating heartily. So, she took her to the vet for all the usual tests and Lily passed them all. I then decided to take her as mine for I had fallen ‘in love’ and this act was the beginning of an extraordinary journey — a path I had not walked before.
After our first month together and many visits to the vet to determine why she remained so thin, weighing a mere four pounds, we finally learned she was consumed with cancer. Lily asked me in her own way to let her go. She hid in secret places and no longer held down food or water. She became dangerously dehydrated on one occasion. It was apparent that Lily had finished her work here in this life by being with me, and I would like to believe she was needed elsewhere, spreading her tender mercies of love and devotion. For that is what this wonderful creature was: unconditional love, gentle and sweet, wrapped in a rare, palpable beauty.
She followed the sun as it streamed through my windows, sometimes watching birds, others just sleeping and snoring. Apart from my deep love for her, this was all I could offer: safety, warmth, comfort, and my loving hands as I petted and stroked her tender body.
Two months to the day from when I brought her into my home, Lily had to be put down. When my vet gave her the first tranquilizing injection, my friend and I said prayers and sang a lullaby. With her green eyes still open and her heart still beating against my hand as I held her, we gently closed her eyes. She was out of pain and relaxed. The final injection was just that. Her heartbeat and breathing stopped as she lay in my arms.
I did not see death. I witnessed transition. I kept her body with me for a full twenty-four hours ensconced in sage, lavender, and her favorite green knitted blanket. I felt her spirit surround me along with a calming peace and joy. I wept tears, but briefly, while I anointed her head throughout the day with special oils. I have Lily’s ashes now and will some day spread them in an appropriate place. I believe she will let me know when and where.
When Spirit Stands Still
Minor White, a war photographer of stature, and mentor for many photographers in the first half of the Twentieth Century, once said, “No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer IT has chosen.”
Neither of the following two images was planned, nor could they be. Nature was moving rapidly on both occasions. In one, the sheer audacity of sun and black sky converging for only a moment made it almost impossible to capture. In the other, titled “Sky,” it was the swift movement of flowing clouds and flirtatious light reflecting through them at a speed that felt as if it was less than an instant in time, that encouraged me to title the image “Sky,” rather than tree. Was I in the right place at the right time? Yes — and no. I am often in the right place and time, yet there is no music in the image I capture. When there is music, mystery, or both, which I believe is the case with these two images; I know that Spirit ‘stood still long enough.’ Thank you.
The Book of Abbey
In honor of Lily and the precious, short time in which she enriched and graced my life, I adopted a younger female cat, about one year old, and chose the name Abigail. In the Old Testament, names were not blithely given. They had meaning and relevance. Abigail was the second wife of King David. In Hebrew, her name translated to ‘Father’s Joy.’ And, my Abbey Gail, is all joy.
Abbey too has some physical challenges we are working to resolve. After all, shelter life is not easy even under the best of circumstances. But she is young, strong, bright, playful, sweet, loves a good lap to purr on, and a warm cuddle. Most assuredly too, she eats like a small tiger. So, Abbey occupies yet another room in my heart filled with love, for Lily taught me how much love I have to give and that I must keep on giving it for my heart will merely grow larger, adding on rooms as they are needed. Thank you dear Lily.
And, thank you my adorable Abbey for your delightful, flirtatious, and jaunty ways, which bring surprise, solace, and giggles into my heart as your Book begins here in these pages. These two images present rare moments when Abbey was truly still. In the first, she was clearly mesmerized by a hanging object, my window crystal, and in the other she actually settled down long enough for my camera’s shutter to capture and release!
It IS a wonderful life! Of course I have had my share of change, fears, joys, laughter, love, and loss. I believe though that it is the most difficult of these that offer our greatest lessons. When our hearts crack open with grief, love pours out … even if we are not fully aware of it at the moment. In this outpouring our hearts open to love more, striving to be better in our humanness. Living life is the most precious journey of all and we are free to choose what to do, how to feel, and what right actions to take with the lessons given along our pathways.
A quote from an Unknown Author (Courtesy of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book, Simple Abundance):
If, as Herod, we fill our lives with things, and again with things; if we consider ourselves so important that we must fill every moment of our lives with action, when will we have the time to make the long, slow journey across the desert as did the Magi? Or sit and watch the stars as did the shepherds? Or brood over the coming of the child as did Mary? For each one of us, there is a desert to travel. A star to discover. And, a being within ourselves to bring to life.
And He said, “Peace I leave with you; my own peace I give you.”
I feel the deepest gratitude for each of you who have faithfully read the pages of this online Journal. Your comments have meant so much to me over these past few years. They serve as support and each word is a blessing. May this coming year be a wonderful life for you … never perfect, but always so in its imperfection.
August 17, 2013 § 6 Comments
Perhaps many people consider seventy years of age as “old.” After all, there are seven decades of life lived, Medicare and social security (hopefully), and many more physicians in one’s life than ever before … even if you are reasonably, or extraordinarily, well. Then there is the school of thought that seventy is the new sixty, sixty the new fifty and so forth. While this might be a pacifying concept, I believe it was created to perpetuate our culture’s obsessiveness with youth rather than celebrating the gifts of each season of our lives, especially those of Elderhood.
I begin my seventieth year on Tuesday, August 27. My life is not perfect but it is plentifully blessed. It is graced with a simple abundance. I have no material riches or golden parachutes upon which to financially coast, and nothing of value — as our world defines it. Yet, I feel endowed with wealth given the beauty of nature and life that surround me, the friends, neighbors, and extended family that have come into my life, and the work God has given me to do with the talents that I probably do not use enough. The wonderful Erma Bombeck said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.”
This too is my hope, prayer, and goal.
I seek to live authentically, fully accepting who I am now. Of course, I have a few more aches and pains. I walk at a brisk but thoughtful pace almost every morning, as I can no longer run four miles daily. I am no longer a size-six jean. Instead, I am a tad more full-figured. And importantly, I like how I look and feel for it has softened the harder edges in my face as well as my heart. I am grateful for the creative talents that have been given me together with my search for what I can contribute as a form of ‘personal ministry’ as I move forward into this next stage of my life.
Yes, I said forward. I am not a survivor of seven decades, or retired — I am still on my way!
I have no great wisdom to pass on but merely a few musings that apply to my experience and may also apply to you, or someone you know.
- The joys of my life have nothing to do with age.
- The morning sunrises and evening sunsets always thrill for never are they the same.
- The light, whether sun or clouds, rain or snow, cast upon the landscape for my photographer’s eye to see and, perhaps, capture, always presents a new beginning.
- The arias of birdsong in the mornings are my wake-up call. The insects, like a Philip Glass composition with its repetitive structures, lull me to sleep at night.
- I listen for the sound of snow for it quiets the busyness in my head.
- When a gentle rain falls, there is a Christening of the land that provides a meditation in grace.
- I live more completely in the moments of my hours and days (at least I try). It comes easier now for I am more detached from areas of pain, the loss of love and things, the fear of death.
- Importantly for me, one who lived on an ambitious, aggressive fast track for all of my teen and adult years, I am more available to truly speak with, listen to, and be with friends … even hand-write a note or card instead of e-mail. Just “being” with people, if only in passing, with a focused and respectful awareness of them and what they and their souls have to say has become a daily gift.
- Finally, these seven decades and events of my life have taught me the blessing of humility — a quality frequently misunderstood in our frantically busy and too often violent world.
These past two years have been watershed markings for me personally. My home and studio are no more. I sold every piece of silver, china, crystal, multiple cameras, custom made clothing, accessories, and most of my jewelry as well as gave away many things to churches and other organizations for the needy. I shed every possible extra or unused item in my life, including books and music. I only kept what I knew I would return to for inspiration and solace and the basic tools for my writing and photography.
At the moment of this writing, I sit in a lovely corner of my bedroom, now my official studio, next to a window where I hear an occasional bird in song and the humming of insects. I live in a small, Zen-like apartment with windows that overlook only wooded land and the wildlife that resides there. I take my morning walks through the quaint historic village of Athens, New York and am two short blocks from the mighty Hudson River. I could not ask for more. I have all I need — or want.
I have curated a medley of images from the past fifteen years in which I see truth and hear music. These are my personal criteria for they tell me if an image is worthy. Whether or not you have seen some of these, I sincerely hope you enjoy the retrospective. There is a brief Coda following the images that you may wish to read.
Mary Oliver has long been my muse. And though this image is not her “Red Bird” from her exemplary book, “Red Bird Poems,” I heard her reverence for everything in nature when I came upon my ‘bird on the fence’ along the Hudson River amongst a plethora of flowers one warm, mist-filled summer morning.Red Bird Explains Himself (Excerpted) by Mary Oliver
“…And this was my true task, to be the music of the body. Do you understand? For truly the body needs a song, a spirit, a soul. … And I am both of the earth and I am of the inexplicable beauty of heaven where I fly so easily, so welcome, yes, and this is why I have been sent, to teach this to your heart.”
Please rejoice with me on this milestone birthday and know that we are always beginning, always being reborn along with the whole of Nature and its cycles of seasons.