Bright spot

Short story:

It snowed Thursday, and its been icy cold since then, but I was determined to get a few photos of snow despite the drab gray day and being a wimp who detests the cold. I drove over to Mystic on River Road. I parked, planning to jump out, get a photo, and scoot back into my toasty car. As I took the photo of the Mystic River with the red chairs (above), a woman walked by all bundled up.

“You must be an artist,” she said, with a heavy German accent. “Anyone who sees beauty here today must be an artist.”

“This is my favorite place to walk, and I take photos all the time,” said, “I’m not an artist, but I do see beauty here.”

She smiled. “Then, yes, you are an artist.”

She introduced herself, and then said that she and her husband lived down the road and around the corner. As she continued on her way, she invited me to stop by for tea the next time I walked. And that was it. Just a few words, but she had turned a dreary day into a bright spot to be remembered.

Next thing I knew, I was locking up the car and heading down the road to Main Street, where I stopped in for a coffee and a few decadent macaroons at Sift, and then took photos while strolling up and down the street as I munched on a peanut-butter-and-jelly macaroon under my mask. The streets twinkled with holiday lights.

As I sit here, back in my warm condo, my legs are still chilly from the long walk, but her kind words glow. Thank you, Rita.

Clearing my head

On a warm day in December, the grandkids can play outside. They know how close they can get now.

I haven’t written much of anything in months. I’ve tried, but the attempts are half-hearted, unfocused, lost in COVID brain fog. This effort already feels doomed.

But it seems that I should document something about this historic year. At least we can see a light ahead now. In fact, the first COVID vaccines were administered in the U.S. this week, and some day down the road I will line up for one too. Of course, even this scientific achievement is either seen as a miracle or a mandate by the citizens of this great big pot of boiling water.

Every state, every person has handled this global pandemic differently. Some people are still traveling without a care in the world. Others haven’t seen members of their own families since the initial shutdown in March. I suppose if we were all in this together, it would feel a little differently. But we aren’t, and so our experiences with this historic pandemic are not universal. In some parts of the country, you are ridiculed for wearing a mask. In others, you can be fined for not wearing one. What happened to these united states, this one nation, our “grand” experiment in democracy? Even trying to answer that question becomes contentious.

And yet, life goes on. We all keep muddling through as best we can. Yes, the rules have changed since the early days—we’ve learned so much about this virus. And yes, the state quarantine regulations don’t always make sense—there’s still so much to learn about this virus. Some businesses are thriving, while others slide into the abyss. Wall Street is humming right along, while the newly unemployed, through no fault of their own, stand in long food lines for the first time in their lives. And through it all, our politicians seem even more out of step with reality as they blindly fight to hold on to power and control at all cost.

No doubt, we are forever changed by this year. We have seen evil. And we have seen hope. We have felt division. And we have felt hope. We have held loss, more than 300,000-plus deaths. And we have held on to hope.

As a grandmother of four grandchildren, I don’t know what the future will look like, but I want to believe it will be an inclusive-diverse-kind-supportive-thoughtful-respectful-resourceful-global-green-challenging-safe-accepting-educated-exciting-exploratory-competitive-talented-innovative-optimistic-creative-bighearted-heartbreaking-healthy place for everyone’s grandchildren.

Until recently, I thought most people desired a future like this. I now realize many don’t. Today, I saw a photo of a man who was identified as a member of a far-right hate group. Four years ago, I had little experience with these groups. They lurked in the shadows. But today, they are acknowledged, even mainstream. He was standing on a street in our nation’s capital in broad daylight, proudly wearing a t-shirt with the saying, “6MWE.” I didn’t know what it meant, so I googled it. It means “6 million wasn’t enough.” It refers to the Jewish men, women, and children murdered by Hitler’s Nazis in the 1930s. And the shirts were sold on Amazon until the site was recently taken down.

Horrifying.

So, here we are in 2020, living next door to people with these values; people who see a future, a present, much different from mine. And you may say, it’s always been that way. However, in the past, that man wore a white hood in the middle of the night with groups of like-minded, small-minded people. Today, they walk streets with shirts that flaunt and glorify their hate for others. This, as the last of the WWII veterans who liberated those death camps are now in their 90s. I can’t imagine explaining a t-shirt like that to a young Jewish child—to my grandchild—to anyone’s child.

I can’t imagine.

I can’t.

On Hawk Mountain

for the Eagle girls

On this chipped turquoise October morning

we picked our way over a track of stones and boulders

to the North Lookout, a craggy outcropping

along the Kittatinny Ridge, a short hike to the Appalachian Trail.

Once settled onto our three solid perches,

we scan the wide valley with binoculars and cameras

and listen as counters shout out the names of specks

wheeling above us on their migratory highway.

As our eyes and hopes adjust to long stretches of emptiness,

it is time for the mountain to tell its story,

of how hunters once lined these flinty trails on fall days

to lay waste to birds of prey who ingested their flocks.

I am the novice among these birders who landed here.

As one points to a sharp-shinned hawk coming over ridge four

and another sights an American kestrel near the south slope,

it is enough simply to be here high above solid ground.

For we have come to this sanctuary from three different states,

eager to connect after empty months that tied us to earth.

As you leaf through your family’s much-used birding books,

I know your mother is here, calling out a golden eagle as we all look up.

Adding color to our lives

I love taking photos in and around the small towns on the southeastern coast of Connecticut. Each one has its own unique character. Despite its carefully documented historic past, Stonington , CT, likes color. I’m always surprised by a new splash of bright paint across its quaint Main Street storefronts and architecturally interesting homes with placards noting the names of owners back to the 1700s. But seeing is believing, so here are some great examples from my last visit on a sunny Saturday in late September.

Poem with a long title

I should be writing during these long, empty days, right? Plenty of time to think, reflect, write. But I’ve done so little. I find it hard to concentrate. No, that’s an excuse, because I can still get sucked into editing online for hours. Maybe that is more rote, not as demanding.

Anyway, to help me focus, I recently joined a writing group, the Ocean State Poets, and our first assignment was to write an ekphrastic poem, which is simply a poem that focuses on a piece of art. Our first piece was in response to The Goldfinch, a painting by Carel Fabritius from 1654, which I would have no connection to at all, except that it was the title and the center of Donna Tartt’s opus, The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer Prize several years ago (a book I tried to finish at least three times and finally sent it off to the local senior center). I know many of you will tell me you loved it; I was more than halfway through and just couldn’t devote any more of my time to it. I know. You loved it.

Anyway again, as I wrote the response to the painting, it took on its own shape. For instance, I never write poems that rhyme, and this one did. I usually fret and twiddle with words and shape and stanzas, and this one stepped on to the page and plunked itself down where it wanted. I shared it with the talented poets in my group, who pointed out some clinkers and typos. Thursday, I dusted it off and emailed it to an online poetry site that takes poems related to current events. They posted it today. It was nice to get such a quick response since it usually takes months to hear from literary journals.

And with that too-long introduction, the link to the site, New Verse News, which focuses on work related to current events, is below. The poem lives on the site and their Facebook page. I’ve also included the painting and the poem below if you don’t want to use the link.

To all the chained songbirds out there — keep singing!

poem:https://newversenews.blogspot.com/2020/04/ode-to-chained-songbird-in-time-of.html

800px-Fabritius-vink

Ode to a Chained Songbird in the Time of Coronavirus
                               In response to The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius, 1654

 We, too, sing behind locked doors, sweet bird.
Bound by restraints of fear, desire, the absurd.
We listen to operas, Broadway musicals, country western, jazz,
our deafening heartbeats, razzamatazz.
We open wide our patio doors to blast our fancy stereos,
to strum our guitars, to serenade our masked heroes.
We ask Alexa to drown out our loneliness, our unrest,
our entitled nonessentialness.

Tethered bird, we are appeased by sweet useless notes
that spin off to full pink moons and aligned planets.
Simple refrains of all for one – lean on me, come together,
rise up, sweet Caroline. Alleluia.
But it is the specters on empty streets and poisoned ships
we fear as much as touching our face, our lips.
It is a choked scream echoing across a backyard fence,
why we soap our hands and rinse.

Oh, feathered thing, keep vigil on your solitary throne,
feed us the seeds of a hopeful tune we can call our own.
For we are stumbling blindly into a craven new world,
with no elixir, no redeemer, no magic sword.
Give us this day, this week, this greening season of hush.
Show us how to bless it all without human touch.
For we are chastened by all we thought we knew,
by all we’ve lost, by all we cannot do.

 

Our new normal

collage

I don’t know what to say, but I know I should say something.

I should record this. This post-virus world. Coronavirus. COVID-19. Today marks the fifth day I have hunkered down in my condo, but it marks the first day I have not walked out the door.

Now, let’s be honest. I have lived by myself for over three years, so much of this isn’t new. But this is the first time in my life that I have been required by the state to stay at least six feet from another human being.

This is our new normal.

Last week, I stayed at Mallory’s house for three days and shared dinners and walks and laughs and “projects” with grandchildren, my daughters and my sons-in-law. Despite invitations to stay longer, I knew I needed to return to my condo as the state began to clamp down (two weeks? four weeks? eight weeks? who knew?). If Connecticut were to shut down completely, I would need to pack up my life to move to one of my daughter’s homes. I wasn’t ready to do that.

I pray I don’t regret this decision.

So here I am. My part-time job at the art museum was put on pause when the museum closed two weekends ago. My online editing job has slowed down to the drip, drip, drip of assignments as colleges and businesses around the world shift from dorms and offices to sofas and dinner tables. What’s interesting is that I have edited a few more creative assignments: children’s books, poems, science fiction manuscripts. I guess people are sitting around working on all those ideas they never had time for — yes, everyone’s a writer.

I have finished reading one library book that doesn’t have to be returned until the library opens again. And I’ve started another for book club, which won’t be meeting in April. I’ve worked on some collage projects (the photo above). Started an embroidery project. Signed up for a Coursera class on philosophy (if only I could stay awake!). Bought material for a sundress for Eloise. Picked out my seeds for the community garden plot. Spent waaaaaaayyyyy too much time on social media sites and been waaaaaaayyyyyy too annoying with posts.

I know how to keep myself busy.

To explain, Connecticut is tucked around and beneath two states that are starting to spike with confirmed cases of COVID-19: New York and Massachusetts. Most people I know are really trying to follow the state’s call to stay home. The parking lots at state parks were reportedly full this past weekend, but the walkers and runners were spaced out. Tonight, all businesses except those considered essential shut their doors at 8 p.m. I’ve walked to the Stop & Shop, Walmart, and the local liquor store in the past few days for exercise. I haven’t bought take-out from any of the local restaurants that are trying to stay open and keep their staff on the payroll. I will probably give some a try this coming week.

Mallory, Seth, and Nate have all been working from home, but Emily’s company is still considered essential, so she goes to work three days a week, and works from home two days a week. Her company, like many in Connecticut, makes products used by the military, so that is considered essential. Last week there were fears that an employee had the virus, but that turned out to be false. So, she continues to drive back and forth, trying to be careful, changing out of work clothes as soon as she gets home. I wish she could be safe at home. Always.

“Flattening the curve” is the new buzzword as families shelter in place, Wall Street keeps freaking out, Congress still thinks this is all a game, and the leader of the free world is more worried about his ratings and his minions’ opinions than how families are going to survive this. He had finally admitted this was not a hoax, but now it is the “Chinese” virus, which has encouraged a growing backlash against Asian-Americans. And because of his unwillingness to prepare for the spread of the virus early on, the U.S. has done a pitiful job of testing. Even today, as the virus nears peak levels in some states, most people still cannot get tested unless they are already exhibiting several virus symptoms. And I know some people think he’s doing a “perfect” job, but I also know some people still think this is all fake news, so we all exist within the realities we create.

And so it goes.

I haven’t written any new poems in months. I hope to again. But my mind simply jumps around too much now. I wake up in the middle of the night to read or listen to a podcast. I fall asleep to ocean sounds from Alexa. I know there are so many things I cannot control in the next weeks and months. I have to believe that we will find our way through this, because we always have, because we must go on no matter what.

They say this is the week that we’ll start seeing huge jumps in the cases. That’s because they’re taking more tests. We can finally confirm the actual numbers. But there still aren’t enough tests. I just hope that curve flattens, that all of this upheaval makes a difference, that my family and friends stay safe. I’m not so worried about anything else.

I’ve started over before.  I can do it again.

 

 

 

 

Little miracles

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It was mid-morning about a week before Christmas, and I had a pile of Christmas cards to mail. A few cars dotted in the post office parking lot, and all I wanted to do was quickly unload the cards into the curbside mailbox.

Howver, the mailbox sat on the curb in front of a handicapped parking space. I looked around the lot again. One person had pulled into the second row and was getting out of his car. No one else was around and at least three other handicapped spots were available. I pulled up onto the slashes of yellow paint, planning to scoot up to the mailbox, drop the cards in, and be out of the spot in under a minute.

“Hey!” the man called out.

I looked back and saw him heading toward my car — using a cane. I quickly backed up and parked halfway across the lot. I didn’t want to get in trouble at Christmas for taking a handicapped parking spot. And I sure didn’t want to have that conversation with someone using a cane.

I waited in the car until he walked inside and then got out of the car and walked to the mailbox. As I finished stuffing the box with cards, he walked out the door.

“I was just going to say that I could take your mail in for you,” he said.

“Oh — that’s OK, I needed the exercise anyway.”

We both laughed and got in our cars.

I sat there a minute, shaking my head. I thought he was going to give me a hard time. Instead, he simply wanted to lend a helping hand.

The lesson:  When I allow assumptions to limit my world, I miss out on a whole lot of quirky little miracles.

Also, never park in handicapped parking spaces.

Even if the parking lot is empty.

 

Busy-ness

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First, let me say that I was supposed to post this before Thanksgiving. But life got too … um … busy. So, back to the blog post about, yes, busy-ness.

The hours slip away like little boys racing around the corner of the house in a game of tag. I’m always reaching out to snag these hours around the holidays. Rushing here and there to finish to-do lists, buy ingredients for a special recipe, get another bottle of wine. I love Thanksgiving, but I’m not sure if I love the busy-ness of it all.

Am I simply filling hours with unneeded tasks? Do the things I do make a difference? What will I remember about these days?

In early November, I drove almost to the end of the Jersey Turnpike, to visit with former coworkers at The Gloucester County Times — most of whom I had not seen in some 35 years. Facebook has kept us connected and curious about each other’s present lives, and one member, the infamous Tom Wilk, took on the task of inviting us all to return to Woodbury,  a town across the river from Philadelphia where we’d spent a good portion of our days and nights together in a smoke-hazed newsroom. Most of us had been right out of college, lucky enough to land a real job in the field we’d actually studied — journalism.

Here was the court reporter,  the city reporters, the consumer reporter, the entertainment editor, the news desk and even the staff’s administrative assistant, who’d worked at the newspaper longer than any of us. Some had gone on to work at other newspapers that had quietly folded or been sucked up by corporate publications. Some had turned to other types of writing jobs, and some were retired. The GloCo Times had combined with another newspaper and moved out of Woodbury to new digs farther south. It also had a new name — the South Jersey Times. It was nice to know it still existed — damn! — the building was even newer and nicer! Our old newspaper building near the mostly defunct downtown now houses a coffee company, which seemed oddly appropriate, after surviving decades of bad coffee and powdered creamer.  

We met for lunch at one of the few restaurants we used to go to that was still open in the city, and we returned to our cars as the sun was setting. We talked about the people who shaped our careers, the parties in the parking lot, the Friday lunch “meetings” of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Journalists (SPCJ), the league volleyball and baseball teams, the guys in the backshop that cut and pasted the stories and headlines into place, and the advertising team that dressed better than we did. We laughed about the crazy hours, the low pay, 35-hour work weeks (ha!), the attempt to unionize, and the stories we never forgot. We shared old photos and company newsletters and toasted the people who had died too soon. Later, I stayed overnight at a Holiday Inn off the Pike near Swedesboro — 35 years ago, the hotel parking lot would have been a tomato field.

The next day I drove around the county, where I’d lived from 1979 to 1985, just six years. I parked my SUV near a little house in South Harrison Township, with a peach orchard next door, that had once been mine.  But the orchard was gone, and the house was being resided. I didn’t recognize it at first — the long stretch of windows on the front porch and sun room had been covered over with gray siding. Rusty disemboweled cars were strewn in back, and I felt embarrassed that the little house had come to this. I apologized aloud to no one.

I didn’t stay long. Soon, I was back on the Turnpike, headed north to the George Washington Bridge and I-95, where I was shocked to see panhandlers standing between the whizzing lanes of traffic after the toll booths. I was used to seeing them with their signs on the islands between coming and going traffic on major roads in Connecticut. But these men were stumbling amid the cars that had just paid their $15 to cross a bridge. How would or could anyone stop to drop some dollar bills into their hands? I felt like I had seen a new level of desperation.

Why am I telling you this?

I guess because it was a weekend that wasn’t about busy-ness. It was wonderful to spend a few hours with people from my past. It was even more enjoyable to know they wanted to share those hours together — traveling from Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and all over New Jersey, or even a few blocks down the street.

When I look back at who I was then, I realize how much I was shaped by that place and those people. In so many ways I was blessed because they were kind and funny and smart. Fresh out of college, newly married and almost 1500 miles from the world I knew, I floundered almost every day in the beginning. Too shy, too anxious and too uncertain — about everything. Starting as an education and food (really?!) editor on the features desk, I was supposed to write a feature story and edit local news shorts to fill the Sunday education page, and then write a feature food story and edit recipes to fill the Wednesday food section. I’d done lots of writing and worked on the news desk on the daily college newspaper, but I’d never done layout, except in class. However, I learned quickly by watching Susan “Sooz” Caulfield, who was the features editor and Sunday layout editor for the paper. I had no choice.

And then I came in early to work on the news desk a few mornings a week, where the the masochistic (and misogynistic) news editor ranted and chain-smoked cigarettes on deadline. I was supposed the grab the sheets with headline formats, write them — 6-48-1, 1-24-3, 3-36-2 — as quickly as possible and send them back to him to check. I rarely got more than a “humph!” from him as he churned out the pages and ran out to check them being built by the backshop. My saving grace were people like Fred Petri, the editorial page editor, who worked deadline with me. He was calm and kind — and he probably completed twice as many headlines as I did in those early days. And he never complained. Ever.

Little did I know I would take over the job of news editor just a few short years later. My life became a world of daily, hourly deadlines, and I even got to say, “Stop the presses,” early one Sunday morning  in 1983 when we had to change the Sunday’s front page story to include the news of a massive terrorist attack in Lebanon that killed 241 American service members (yes, I had to google that). Again, Fred worked the desk with me along with Tom Wilk — two of the calmest people I have ever met. In. My. Life. And by that time, I knew the guys in the backshop as well as the news team — having spent many a late Saturday night marking up Sunday pages with them. However, coming from the features side, I still felt uncomfortable making decisions about hard news. But again, I was helped by city editors like Bob Bradley and Jimmy Davis, who had years of experience writing and editing news stories.

Enough. Probably more than enough.  I’ve rarely thought about those days — such a different life.

After six years in New Jersey, we moved to Rhode Island, where I was a stringer for the Pawtucket Evening Times for about six months. But it was a union newspaper, and I couldn’t write my stories on newsroom computers; instead, I wrote them at home at night (where a baby slept) on a 20-year-old electric typewriter and dropped the stories off at the front desk. I finally gave it up when I wasn’t even allowed to enter the newsroom. Ugh! I also interviewed for a news editor job for a small newspaper in Massachusetts — and I was offered the job. But that world no longer fit into mine. With a husband who traveled for work and a one-year-old daughter, I could no longer spend hours in a newsroom and come home at 3 a.m. Instead, I found another writing job with regular hours and began taking classes at night to be a teacher, shaping a new life that would work for me and my family. 

As the present year winds down, I’ve looked back and remembered who I was, so long ago. Sentimental? Maybe. But that’s OK. It tasted good, like a big bowl of buttered popcorn and a brand-new Netflix series to binge-watch.

Thank you, GloCo Times alumni. Thank you for caring about facts and news and ethics and getting it right, and, yes, for being young and dumb enough to work so hard for so little. But, most of all, thanks for the laughter.

That’s what has always saved me.

And always will.

100 years and counting

 

 

I was lucky enough to meet Al Albrektson almost 10 years ago. The Rhode Island artist has painted several watercolors selected as images for Amica Insurance’s annual Thanksgiving card over the years; the most recent was selected in 2016. He turned 100 in September, and I — along with an art gallery packed with admirers — celebrated his life and work in October at the Providence Art Club. Founded in 1880, it is the third oldest art club in the U.S., and just 39 years older than Al!

Here’s a link to the article:

https://www.providencejournal.com/entertainmentlife/20191023/100-year-old-watercolorist-al-albrektson-honored-by-retrospective-exhibit-at-providence-art-club

And here’s a video about Al that our video team created in 2016: