“What do you see?”

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The white-haired woman had propped her camera and telephoto lens up against her mailbox and was snapping photos in the direction of the Mystic River. As I got closer, I wondered what had grabbed her attention. On this solid blue summer morning, the river was quiet: no kayaks or crew teams or fishing boats rippling the water. I spoke a little louder.

“What do you see?”

“Oh! It’s my osprey, in the pine tree. He’s got a fish in his mouth,” she said, as she squinted through the lens. I looked in the direction it was pointed and saw the osprey perched atop a scrubby pine.

“I’ll miss him. Any day now, he’ll be heading south,” she said. “Each spring it’s the same. I wonder which one of us will be here next year. So far, so good.”

We laugh, and I wish her well.

I continue walking down the road that passes by wooden fences of old Mystic homes and the remains of summer gardens, underneath an interstate highway overpass, a saltwater estuary, the road to a peace garden, and a meticulous cemetery.

But now I am looking harder, longer.

I see the sunlight break into a thousand stars among the reeds at the water’s edge. I listen to the tractor trailers on the overpass overhead, tires changing their tune as they meet the bridge. I brush my hands over weeds and give them names – Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod and beach plums. I turn into the cemetery and sounds feel muffled. Shadows flicker off the stones as a breeze stirs the oak leaves high overhead. They hang on the longest in the fall, but soon they, too, will let go.

“What do you see?”

The question lingers. I could have passed by the old woman without saying a word, just as I have done hundreds, thousands of times on other paths and sidewalks and roads.

I think of all I’ve missed.

Of all I haven’t seen.

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In the park

I love to find beautiful little spots that surprise me. This evening I walked through Wilcox Park in Westerly, where an outdoor play with four nuns was going on, people were setting up a stage for a concert tomorrow, someone was playing the guitar on a park bench, a young couple was fishing their toddler out of a fountain, and families were sprinkled around on blankets. It was filled with flowers, fountains, stately trees, and it was the sprawling backyard of a lovely old library — another surprise.

The library was a busy place on a Thursday evening in the summer — people played chess, a man read in a window seat, and the meeting rooms were busy. It even had a little coffee house, which is open during the day. It felt like a well-loved place. I will be back.

Westerly sits on the southeasternmost edge of  Rhode Island, a place I never visited when I actually lived in the state. But it is a sweet gem that has reinvented its downtown with little shops and cute restaurants — and it is celebrating its 350th birthday this year.  Here are a few more favorite photos from tonight’s visit.

 

Anniversaries

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Two grandsons race each other across the backyard,

across this longest day of the summer,

which looks as worn out as the boys’ parents.

My daughter shouts a warning of poison ivy

as these pre-schoolers stumble and roll into weeds,

and I find myself fretting about deer ticks again.

One grandbaby cuddles in his mother’s lap

while another coos and kicks in a screened play yard.

All they need do is smile, and I am theirs.

 

Then, from another yard in the distance,

I hear my mother’s voice yell “Go!”

And she is sitting on the front porch of the farmhouse again,

as four of her eight children

race barefoot to tag the pine tree near the road

and back again, trying to miss thistle patches.

My grandsons now pretend to be monsters.

 

When the mosquitoes take over,

my daughters’ husbands pick up plates

of half-eaten hot dogs and empty beer cans

as my children get their children ready for bed.

And I am reading Charlotte’s Web in a  twin bed,

choking back tears over Charlotte and Wilbur

and my own fears and my own loss as two little girls

half-listen as their mother pretends to be a spider.

 

But it is Sunday night and these young parents

have to pack for work trips and study for online courses

and make lunches and double-check daycare schedules.

I remember how much I too dreaded Sunday nights,

how I dawdled over grading papers, making lesson plans,

or ironing a pile of button-downs and pressing pants.

 

Tonight, all I have ahead of me is the drive back home,

and I open the moon roof and turn up the music.

I have lived almost half my life on four wheels,

from gravel roads to interstates to suburban streets,

and now I watch the stars circle above me

on a Connecticut highway that leads

to a quiet condo, my choices, and maybe a Netflix movie.

 

Forty years ago today, I put on a white gown,

pearl earrings, ballet slippers, and a picture hat.

I slipped baby’s breath behind one ear

and walked down a church aisle to say, “I do.”

And I did for a long time. But I don’t anymore.

 

And so, by the time I get home,

this longest day will have blown out its candle,

and a soft breeze will lift my bedroom curtain.

I may hear a foghorn on Long Island Sound,

or the whistle of an Amtrak train stopping in New London.

Yes, a soft breeze will lift my bedroom curtain,

just as it did in a farmhouse surrounded by Iowa cornfields,

and an apartment off I-95 where tractor-trailers roared,

and a bungalow in New Jersey next door to a peach orchard,

and a suburban cookie-cutter house in Rhode Island,

and one big room over a deli on Benefit Street,

and a second-floor condo in the trees off busy Rte. 2.

 

Tonight, on this unmarked anniversary,

I celebrate all this day has offered,

for the memories that sifted up from long ago,

for daughters who are mothers,

and a mother who gave us all she had and never asked for anything,

for those I couldn’t make happy,

and those I did.

 

And I celebrate the girl in the white gown

who walked down a church aisle forty years ago

and that one single sprig of baby’s breath

tucked

behind her ear.

Two months

 

Days pass so quickly. One week. A month. Two months without coming back here to write.

And now tomorrow is June 1.

Days march silently away when you don’t hold on to them with photos and words. I’ve been busy. A cruise to Cuba–I need to capture that too. A visit to Iowa to see family and friends–always needed. A new part-time job in visitor services at–yes!–Lyman Allyn Art Museum, where I spent many a winter day.

But these endless raw spring days (spring?) always do a number on me. They can feel monotonous. Like check boxes.

And then finally. Finally!

Summer kicks in. I could not let this day pass unforgotten or checked off.

Today, I was back on my bike on a new path that winds along near Long Island Sound. I still miss the familiar beaches and bike paths of Rhode Island. But I’m here now. And Connecticut’s state beaches are free and just a few exits away.

Today was a glorious day. A day that kicked clouds across the sky. A day when you could smell the flowering beach plums and honeysuckle and seaspray.

Today was a surprising day. The paths at Hammonassett State Park kept curving around the sea, past a salt marsh, past steps to a lookout with a bench, past a man painting on a ledge, past storm-tossed boulders and sun-bleached tree trunks.

Today was a day that reminded me of my goal a year ago–to explore, to keep trying new things, to grow, to learn, to reach out, to breathe, to leap.

To keep writing.

I’m back.

 

And just like that

 

 

My part-time job at the Lyman Alllyn Art Museum is almost over.

I have enjoyed it immensely, even on the quiet days. Even when I sat in the gallery by myself for hours. Even when the galleries were filled all day long on free Saturdays. Even when a few visitors popped their head into the gallery, looked around, and didn’t explore more.

But I am ready for spring, my garden and sunshine.

Everyone who worked at Lyman Allyn was kind and talented and proud of the work they do.

I now realize that people of all ages still come to art museums and linger longer than I ever thought. I realize artists are like poets, playing with images, always thinking about technique and skill, leading with their heart.

I learned how to take a close look at art. How to look long and hard.

I have learned and been changed.

What more can anyone ask?

 

“Overwhelmed”

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That’s what the woman said when I ask her if she enjoyed her visit to the art museum.

Her steel-gray hair was pulled back in a bun, and I would have overlooked her, except for the fact that she had been squeaking back and forth in her sneakers between the galleries on the second floor that I tend for most of the afternoon.

Actually, she whispered the words, and then choked on the final syllable.

“I.  Am.  Overwhelmed.”

I wanted to hug her.

Because when she said the words, I realized that’s exactly how I’d been feeling all day.

And my throat closed up too.

It was the first Saturday of the month, which meant admission to the Lyman Allyn Art Museum where I work part-time was free, and dozens of people had been swarming through the galleries all day. The videos in the Tiffany exhibit had not stopped playing. The three galleries in the John F. Kennedy exhibit were filled with visitors who slowly meandered from photos of JFK as a child to the final photo of Jackie as a widow. And then there were the tranquil sea-blue galleries that paid their respect to Emil Carlsen, an unsung 19th-century master who taught young artists how to paint light in the quiet woods of Connecticut.

That’s not all the woman said. She told me that she had been here on a quiet weekday afternoon, but her daughter had called and asked her to pick up her granddaughter from school. So, she left before she could visit the second-floor galleries. That is why she had returned today.

As I watched this whispering hubbub that surrounded me, I, too, realized I had been feeling overwhelmed today.

Overwhelmed that so many chose to spend their precious Saturday afternoons here.

Overwhelmed that they lingered and read and looked and looked again.

Overwhelmed by their wonder, their gasps, their desire, by their sincere need to learn and understand and know.

Overwhelmed by how art finds its own community across generations.

Overwhelmed by all that I didn’t know. And all that I knew by heart.

Overwhelmed by all I had gained in these galleries.

Overwhelmed by my renewed love for art.

Overwhelmed by makers of art.

Overwhelmed by lovers of art.

Overwhelmed by our immense need for art in today’s world.

And thankful. Thankful, that today I simply asked a woman if she enjoyed her visit to the art museum.

And she said,

“I.  Am.  Overwhelmed.”

 

 

 

 

 

Where artists played

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At the Florence Griswold Art Museum, Old Lyme, CT

And here they disembarked from the train
to make art.
Here, they were welcomed.
Here, they painted on dark doors and wall panels.
Here, even a few women artists were allowed.
Here, they painted cows and sheep.
Far from city streets.

In the late afternoon, the winter sun fills these rooms
with light,
searching for the painters who once sang its praises,
who grabbed their paint boxes and canvases
and ran down country lanes to favorite spots,
who shaped their hopes and shadows
with pigments instead of laws.

And now they are mostly forgotten
in the hues of time.
But here, their stories settle in the brushstrokes,
in the well-worn porch boards,
in the path to the river,
in the cracks of light.

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A night to ruminate

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It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m doing what writers do on this last night of the year (besides drinking) — I’m ruminating. I’ve been reading old journals to pare them down and remember dates. To look for seeds that were planted. To understand how I came to be where I am now.

I thought I’d collect a couple journal entries here that describe experiences that shaped me. I don’t know if this will interest anyone but me, but maybe you have spent the night doing the same thing.

Here is the first:

May 17, 2001

I am here at Breadloaf — heaven for writers. A place I’ve longed to be. I am writing at Johnson’s Swimming Pond. It’s not much more than a stopped-up river, mud flats, lots of gnats. But I’m sure many other writers have written in this same spot, have found inspiration.

I drove to this rustic spot near Middlebury College in Vermont for the New England Young Writers Conference with two of my students — Samantha G. and Cathy G. I have no idea what is going to happen, but it looks like a great itinerary. Everything starts happening in about an hour. I am a chaperone for about ten girls out of some 200 students from across the region. 

It is so beautiful here. The trees are newly green — just coming out now. The tulips are out. The trees are flowering. But there’s still snow on the mountains. Crickets are chirping. I am all alone right now. Not sure how to explain how important that is to someone who doesn’t feel the need to be alone to keep it all together. 

I’ve had some great experiences this year — the Nantucket Boston Writing Project weekend, Martha’s Vineyard Writers trip, The Dodge Poetry Festival, and now this. I have been to several poetry readings — Ferlinghetti, Kinnell, Kunitz, Clifton, Lux, Collins and Kumin. I can’t believe all the opportunities I’ve had. Some would never understand how wonderful this was for me. 

I hope I will be back to visit in years to come. Hi to me in the future. What is life like for you 20 years from now? It went by quickly, didn’t it? Well, it’s time to see what this weekend has in store. These gnats are starting to bug me.

Breadloaf, Vermont, 5.17.2001

Sad to think most of those poets have passed on, but that last mention about me in the future is what grabbed my interest. It’s not quite 20 years in the future, but pretty darn close. And it’s not surprising that a mid-life mom, wife and full-time high school teacher was so thankful for time to herself back then. I could have told her she’d have plenty of time to herself in the years ahead.

And so it goes.

In 1997 I wrote a 12-week journal following the assignments for The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. One of the assignments was to write a letter to your present-day self from your 8-year-old self. Here is the letter I wrote:

Dear 40-year-old Julie,

Remember me? I’m the little girl who pretended all the time. I loved to read and draw. I thought you were going to be an artist. Everyone was always giving you colors and markers and drawing books. I was designing and sewing Barbie doll clothes when I was just 8. 

And I had complicated stories going on in my head all the time. But that is where they remained. I was too shy and quiet to let anyone know about this world living inside my head. I could look at a picture in a book and create a whole story around one picture. At 8, the world of books also was opening up for me. I was reading all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books in third grade — even the big, fat ones. I ate up books every day. I couldn’t get enough.

I guess I just want you to remember me and how much I loved creating — everything and anything. So don’t be scared — you can do it, you can do anything. Don’t worry about what anybody says about you. Get out and enjoy the sun. Have fun. Laugh loud and long. Be silly. Don’t forget me!

Love,
8-year-old Julie

Maybe it’s time to do The Artist’s Way course again!

2018 was an amazing year. Lots of changes. Lots of adventures. Lots of ups and downs. Lots of firsts — and maybe lasts (we’ll have to see).

2019 promises to be just as interesting. Or at least I’m determined to make it so.

No doubt, there’s no one to doubt me or judge me or stop me, but me.

 

Thank you

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(This is the longer version of this year’s Christmas letter.)

Peace to you all!

Last year at this time, I was just a few days away from my last day of full-time employment. I had worked 40-plus hours a week, except for one or two short breaks, since 1979, when I was hired as a reporter at the Gloucester County Times in Woodbury, New Jersey. Since then I’ve also worked as a high school English teacher and a writer/editor/manager in corporate communications.

I didn’t plan to retire completely, but it was time to shape a different life. And so, it has been a year of transitions, with a move from Rhode Island, where I’d lived since 1985, to a condo in Groton, Connecticut, which is nearer to my daughters and their families – and three, soon to be four, grandchildren. (Thrilled!)

One month after leaving work, I took a huge leap and traveled to Thailand and Cambodia on my own, where I joined an international group that mixed tourism and volunteerism. We lived with a Thai family, worked with elephants, helped build a school in Cambodia and toured some beautiful temples and markets, including the incredible Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia.

Then it was back to the Connecticut deep-freeze, where I explored the local roads and relied  on my GPS to get me back home. I took care of Charlie and Clark when they were too sick to go to daycare, signed up for online writing classes, became a regular at the local library, attended photography workshops and joined the art museum, where I took art classes. (More time for the things I enjoy.)

When spring finally decided to show up, I was lucky enough to get my own 10’ x 10’ garden plot in the community garden. I was actually surprised when those bare plots grew into little humid mazes of vines. I had luck with green beans, cucumbers, yellow squash, cherry tomatoes and zinnias (which attracted tons of butterflies and honey bees). Broccoli and Brussel sprouts – not so much. I enjoyed digging in the dirt and learning from the other gardeners – even though someone plucked my prize yellow tomato!

Summer was here and gone before I knew it. Lots of tourists in this area, which is close to Mystic Seaport, the RI and CT beaches, and the ferries that take you to Block Island and Long Island. Lots of little inlets and places to walk – I’ll explore even more next summer.

I also took a record number of trips back home this year – first in late May for Mitchell Meylor’s graduation in Sioux Falls; second in August for the Marcus Fair and Iowa State Fair, a girls’ trip to a friend’s home in Nebraska, and an introduction to my great-nephew, Theodore Karney, in Des Moines; and the third in early November when I finally had the opportunity to hear my niece Kaitlyn Meylor sing in her high school musical as Maria in The Sound of Music. Madalyn was also a nun in the musical and had a solo, and Matthew painted the backdrops. Talented trio of seniors – so I’ll be headed out for their graduation in May 2019 (which will be here before you know it)!

As I write this, I’ve just started a part-time temporary job at an art gallery, where I simply walk around and make sure no one’s destroying the paintings. But the best part of the job is the stories people spontaneously share. One of the exhibits is a beautiful display of Tiffany windows, lamps, vases, etc. (The Tiffany family has ties to the New London area.) Several people have told me about the Tiffany windows in their hometown churches. I hope to hear more stories, which will get me through another frigid winter.

I am very grateful for this year of so many firsts and changes. I am grateful to my daughters and their husbands who kindly include me in so many moments of their lives. Oh, yes, and for doubling the number of my grandchildren. (I’m sure that won’t happen again.)

I’m grateful to my sisters and brothers and their families. I hope we all continue to gather for celebrations in years to come. Looking forward to my first-ever cruise with family in 2019! I am grateful for cousins and relatives I don’t see often, but still am glad to stay connected.

I’m grateful to long-time friends from all corners of my life who still keep in touch. I had a chance to see many special friends this year, and hope for more surprises and spontaneous get-togethers in the years to come. Who’s next? If you’re ever out this way, please let me know. I have an extra bed/bath and a pullout sofa (that I’ve never used yet). Guests are always welcome.

I also want to send my love to those who experienced great losses in their family this past year. So many, and it is never easy, especially at this time of year. My prayers are with you.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading. This is a lot longer than I expected – I guess I’m getting my 50-cent stamp’s worth.

The kids on my card this year are my grandsons, from left, Clark Breitmaier (who is impatiently waiting for his little sister to arrive on December 27), and big brother Charlie and one-day-old Henry Piazza. Clark and Charlie are good buddies, and I can’t wait to see how Henry and little Eloise will add to the mayhem.

Blessings for the new year,

Julia