Photographer and University of Kentucky Educator James R Southard was sent on assignment to circle the Great Lakes and document artists of the region, their lives, work habits, social networking and their environment. Lake Erie was the final destination on James’ itinerary. Click on each lake name to view images from prior stops along the way: Michigan ~Superior ~Huron ~Ontario. _________________________________________________________ LAKE ERIE
When I was leaving Lake Ontario for Erie, I was eager to come to the final and most familiar leg of my journey. Though I had never been to Cleveland, Toledo or Detroit, I felt there would be some strong connection from my time living in a similar rust belt city, Pittsburgh. People had always spoken about the strong connections through industrial history and economic circumstances among these communities so I was expecting to show up and feel as if I already recognized the streets and people. With this preconception, I tried to set up meetings and interviews with artists who collaborate with a community. Those who work to create work that directly reflects what is going on in the rust belt. I also was curious to see if living and working in such an environment created an artist lifestyle I was familiar with from my years in Pittsburgh.
Cleveland – Kelley O’Brien met up with me on the grounds of one of John D. Rockefeller’s mansions, which is now Forest Hill Park. A place she likes to walk rather often to think about her work and the history of the city she works in, this park carries a lot of history of power and gender issues that date back to Rockefeller’s time. Kelley pointed out that, long ago, women were only allowed to leave the home if going to the park, so for her she looks back to the history of strong women challenging male societies one step at a time.
Cleveland – There is something I miss about the rust belt. It has a more practical, whatever it takes, kind of attitude.
Cleveland – Elizabeth Emery bought a house and turned the first floor into a gallery space. The second floor is her studio. It was a reminder of when work and exhibition space wasn’t too hard to come by. She loves the community that has grown up around these kinds of project spaces, though confused why the gap between east and west Cleveland isn’t smaller.
Cleveland – One of Elizabeth Emery’s storage spaces.
Detroit – In the middle of the night, I stopped by the Guardian Building to check out the Art Deco Tile, Limestone and Terra Cotta brickwork designed by Wirt C. Rowland back in the 1920s.
Detroit – While touring around Detroit, I kept hearing about the alternative art spaces. A few people have turned their plots of land in the city into outdoor art works. I stopped into one, Hamtramck Disneyland, and was impressed to find an artist group that organized after the artist Dmytro Szylak’s death, who have been working to protect and repair his work.
Bloomfield Hills, MI – Elizabeth Dizik gave me a tour of Cranbrook’s gorgeous campus and I was reminded of the art school tours I took when I visited long ago. It very much reminded me of a Hogwarts for art nerds.
Detroit – I visited Jon Brumit in Detroit while he was helping a colleague update their house so they could start hosting public art events. It seems this is rather common as there are many artists utilizing recently unused residential spaces for art events. I walked away from an interesting conversation with Jon feeling that the artists in Detroit are much more civically and economically minded than I expected.
Detroit – Jon Brumit encouraged me to go to his home studio to see his work space as well as meet his family.
Detroit – Sarah Wagner welcomed me to her and Jon’s home with pie. Most satisfying introduction of the trip.
Detroit – Sarah Wagner showed me their vast living/work space, including multiple warehouses with an onsite garden to feed the family. I didn’t expect to find such a large compound, and I kept forgetting I was in the middle of the city and not out in the country.
Toledo – My last stop was to visit Deborah Orloff at the University of Toledo, where she was working hard in the photo department while classes were out. The perks of teaching include year around access to the facilities. I had no clue the photo department was right next to the Toledo Museum of Art. It makes for a beautiful workspace. The students have quite the darkrooms and shooting studios so I was wondering why enrollment wasn’t higher. I know my own university’s dark room photography classes had smaller enrollment than our digital courses, but I felt the beautiful set up at UT would be encouragement enough.
_________________________________________________________ While leaving Lake Erie, I did feel that I was leaving a place I knew well. Not that I got to know these communities in detail, after such a short visit, but it was the familial traits that I found in Pittsburgh years before. The strong presence of community project art spaces as well as art groups. That and the abundance of corner bars and diners. Hell, even the old union halls struck a few memories from my time up north. The one aspect of the area I had totally forgotten about was the activist aspect of many of the artists working and living in the area. Rarely did I find an artist who didn’t embed himself or herself in a low income or abandoned community without addressing the local concerns, people and politics through their artwork, curation or through public events. It is hard to judge how much these artists and activists actually helped their surrounding community, but I was struck by the strong amount of civic awareness I found in each meetup and it made me miss the rust belt. It made me eager to get back to Kentucky and take a closer look at my own studio practice and my own academic institution, to see how it has helped as well as detracted from my local community. _________________________________________________________ Kelley O’Brian – cargocollective.com/KelleyOBrien Elizabeth Emery – elizabethemery.com/home.html Hamtramck Disneyland – hatchart.org/hamtramck-disneyland Elizabeth Dizik – cranbrookart.edu/alumn/elizabeth-boyd-dizik/ Jon Brumit – kresgeartsindetroit.org/portfolio-posts/jon-brumit Sarah Wagner – sarahwagner.net/ Deborah Orloff – deborahorloff.com/
Journey Summation For years, I have been interested in learning how artists are living and working all around the country. From big metropolises to small rural communities, I have been eager to find out what my fate could have been if I pulled up stakes and transplanted myself there. I went up to the Great Lakes only knowing Chicago and Toronto from a few short visits in my youth; the rest of the tour, I was going in blind. I had never been to northern Ontario and knew little about the blue collar Canada. The only Canadians I had ever met were at art residencies. I knew nothing about the average Canadian.
I am blown away with the diversity of the region. You have two of the continent’s largest cities full of contemporary art and people from all over the world in Chicago and Toronto. Truly international cities, while also some having of the most unknown and ignored communities in North America. In each place, I was surprised by the hospitality of each person as well as everyone’s eagerness to aid in my journey. I kept finding myself finishing an interview, answering questions about my next stop, followed by a dozen texts, emails and phone calls made by the artists connecting me with the next town or city. For every interview that fell through, five connections were made in the 11th hour, thanks to networking and recommendations that were above and beyond what I had expected. I left the Lakes feeling that I’d be welcome back for a visit with open arms. And if an artist ever wished to work up in that region, you’d find a community lacking in suspicions of outsiders along with an eagerness to draw attention to not only their own work and issues, but the concerns and successes of their own community. I wouldn’t use the word “pride” in the, “rah-rah, my home rocks” manner. I saw it more as a civic pride in a spirit of “what can I do to best represent or help my town’s issues?” It was endearing, especially when discovering that each community had similar concerns. Whether the issue was affordable studio rent prices, cost of living or even regional environmental issues, these artists were as vocal as any other citizens about the quality of life in their own towns.
Above all, I left with an understanding that it wasn’t just one region, but many. The Lakes are one single water that links a variety of communities together. This consortium is populated by upstate New York craftsmen, Chicago contemporary performers as well as native Ojibwe metal artists in Thunder Bay and Mathematicians building logarithmic spiral instruments. Each lake is fed by a variety of different lakes and rivers from all over the northern US and Southern Canada, yet each lake also has its own unique history, weather patterns and mix of ethnicities and nationalities. All of this wondrous variety, yet I found that all artistic voices repeated similar themes on land, history and above all, the people.
Photographer and University of Kentucky Educator James R Southard was sent on assignment to circle the Great Lakes and document artists, their lives, work habits, social networking and their environment. ________________________________________________________ LAKE ONTARIO
I knew that Lake Ontario includes the most populated region of Canada, so I felt that I’d be spending much of my time with contemporary artists and in fine art museums. To me, Toronto has always been the art capital of Canada as I had met so many artists working there over the years. Also, after a few weeks of being on the road for the most rural stretches of my trip I was eager to be in a metropolitan area and to catch up with the Canadian contemporary art scene. On the U.S. side of the lake, I was making a point to stop in a small town known for its historic role in the War of 1812 and not known for modern art. I was aiming to have a well-rounded tour of the Lake Ontario region. This was going to be my last chance to visit a small American town before I would stop at the larger Rust Belt cities on Lake Erie.
Toronto – Eric Kostiuk Williams is a Canadian illustrator whose work has been hitting the pages of Now Magazine, Dazed and Confused and the Believer. His comics exhibit his response to the gay community’s concerns in Toronto and his career is just taking off. I spoke in length with him about the Canadian comic world and how tight-knit it is, though all the successful comic artists still need that day job. Apparently being a well-read and distributed artist in the comic world still doesn’t pay enough to live and work in Toronto.
Toronto – Eric Kostiuk Williams’ subject matter and the plot locations in his work are real places he often goes to in Toronto. I was eager to see some of these important locals to his work, so he showed me. The Beaver is one of the bars you often find in his work and it now has a mural he just recently finished.
Rochester, NY- The studio visit with David Lane started with the amazing smell of leather. He has a great setup where he works on fine leathers for accessories such as watch bands and wallets among other items. During the day he’s an art teacher at the local public school but when he is not in the classroom he is a world-class leather worker. You can find some of his work in Esquire as well as in high-end watch publications. I was wondering why he still taught if sales were good, but he is always worried about his client base drying up and leaving such a reliable supportive job like education. Believe it or not, the artisanal leather world is rather competitive.
Rochester, NY – As you’d imagine, a leather worker also has an interest in other traditional products such as pipe tobacco, bourbon and scotch. We ended up spending a good deal of my interview discussing liquor infusions. We spoke the same language.
Toronto – I made a visit to the Tiff Bell Lightbox Film Reference Library. There I spoke to the Senior Manager of the Film Reference Library, Michelle Lovegrove Thomson, about their archive which is full of film, slides, media and assorted historical promotional materials. All of which is open to the public. She said mostly academics utilize the records for their research and I was wondering why more video artists and filmmakers didn’t spend more time with this amazing archive.
Toronto – I was hearing more and more in Toronto on how difficult for artists it is to find studio space in a rapidly developing city. I met with Erin Candela who works for Akin Collective. They work hard to find unused commercial spaces in the city that are in limbo which could be used as art studios. They have hundreds of spaces throughout the city. We had a long discussion that seemed so familiar to other cities. Local governments loves to tout how they want to support the local arts and allow “creatives” to stay in their city, though they take away funding for programs that would do exactly that and would encourage new construction in the only places that artists can afford. I think it’s pretty safe to say that artists don’t believe in any of the lip service they hear from their politicians.
Sackets Harbor, NY – Frank Shattuck is a tailor. And I mean classic bench tailor who trained under southern Italian masters. His suits and hunting jackets are legendary and he now has his workshop up in Sackets Harbor. Want a suit? Get in line. He has clients from all over the world.
Sackets Harbor, NY – Frank Shattuck moved up to the small town of Sackets Harbor awhile back for a girl and decided to stay after the break up. He loves it up there and enjoys the authenticity of the surrounding community. People love to work around here, he told me.
Sackets Harbor, NY – While he maybe a master tailor, Frank Shattuck is also a boxer and sometimes actor. I found that he likes to fill his days with a variety of tasks. The man isn’t idle too often.
Sackets Harbor, NY – With the heavy rains from spring and summer, the water levels are very high. This heavily affects the local businesses, as most of the towns that surround the Great Lakes rely on tourism and aquatic related activities.
Sackets Harbor, NY – My last night on Lake Ontario was a dark and brooding one.
I hadn’t been to Toronto since the late nineties and I totally missed how big and international Toronto has become. After visiting museums, galleries and stopping into gallery openings, I learned it is a rather competitive city to be an artist in. After speaking with a few curators and artists, I also learned that this would be one of the most expensive cities on my trip to be an artist. Studio space is a big subject of concern all over the city. When crossing over to the U.S. side of Lake Ontario, studio spaces are no longer of serious concern. In fact, much of northern New York reminded me of central Kentucky. Lots of talented craftsman working in small communities in oversized workshops who happily moved there from larger metropolises. It was a point of pride for many of the people I’d meet. When many of the folks in Sackets Harbor heard I was there for this project, I was immediately pulled into a dozen or so conversations and introductions to other locals of interest. The civic pride I kept finding was endearing.
Photographer and University of Kentucky Educator James R Southard was sent on assignment to circle the Great Lakes and document artists, their lives, work habits, social networking and their environments.
To me, Lake Huron was the most mysterious of them all. It is one of the least populated areas, as a map shows only undeveloped shoreline and small towns dotting the coast. It also has a long history of rough weather and shipwrecks, so I came to Lake Huron feeling it would be the most haunted as well. Being it has so few cities surrounding it, I was expecting to find few artists and more vacationers. Still, I arrived to the lake looking for craftsmen and preservationists working on historic sites and boating in a variety of ways.
Thessalon – I drove out to the small town of Thessalon, to visit Miranda Bouchard, Acting Artistic Director of Thinking Rock Community Arts. They are working with the North Shore communities to build collaborative projects that respond to local issues. They also provide training and consulting services to the community. I kept finding people that moved up from southern Ontario to live and work in the hopes of being more connected to the region.
Big Basswood Lake – I was planning on swimming in each great lake, but due to the temperature and algae blooms, that opportunity never happened. It wasn’t until I reached Basswood Lake on the north side of Lake Huron, that I found got the opportunity. The lake was spring fed, so I could see straight to the bottom no matter how deep it got.
Big Basswood Lake – While interviewing the Sault Ste Marie Artist, Andrea Pinheiro, she asked about my accommodations in the city. Her response, “Nonsense, you are coming up to Basswood Lake and staying in a cabin.” The generosity of northern Ontario folk is staggering. Not once did they ask for money from me for the housing and meal. Great cabin, lake, meal and conversations that went late into the evening.
Manitoulin Island – It was a gray chilly day when I took a long ferry ride from Manitoulin Island to the Bruce Peninsula. I was sad to be leaving Northern Ontario.
Southampton – The Chantry Island Marine Heritage Society took me out to their lighthouse, which they’ve been working on for years. Without government funding they’ve done the labor and craftsmanship required to repair this lighthouse themselves. All the volunteers are retired citizens of Southampton. Rob Campbell, in the photograph, is a retired dentist.
Southampton – While touring Chantry Island I met a local historian, Mike Sterling. This retired award-winning mathematician has been coming out to the island to help fix up the cottage and lighthouse for years.
Chantry Island –The island is a migratory bird sanctuary. The local heritage society has been visiting for years, restoring it to its original state. The work features traditional carpentry.
Chantry Island – The island has been getting smaller as the lake’s water levels reach record highs. Many of the marinas and infrastructure surrounding the Great Lakes are out of commission with the waters as high as they are. This is greatly affecting summer tourism, which most of the small communities surrounding the lakes rely upon.
Southampton – While on the tour of Chantry Island I hooked up with the local historian, Mike Sterling. After retiring, he started building instruments that rely on geometry and mathematics at the core of their design. Mike built this Bernoulli Involute years ago and has created his own type of script music to accompany the instrument.
Southampton – Since retiring, Mike Sterling has been working in his studio above his family.
My last evening on Lake Huron was spent wandering the streets where I came across the war memorial. A cross fashioned from metallic oil on canvas, the memorial faces the waterfront and the US. It inspired thoughts about the shared history and sacrifices of America and Canada.
Lake Huron was where I got to see both northern and southern Ontario. People around the lake were just as friendly as Lake Superior and were just as interested in my project. I also kept finding people who moved up there from the more populated southern Ontario. The slower pace of the towns reminded me very much of home. You didn’t need more than one job to make ends meet in many of these small towns; one job pays the bills. While on Lake Huron, I also had the chance to get out on the water and visit a few islands. The water was just as choppy as I imagined, though the locals seemed quite comfortable in the waves. For the first time, a camera was turned on me while I was in Southampton. A local newspaper shadowed me for one of my photo shoots with the heritage society. I didn’t realize my project would draw this much interest from anyone outside of my crew of fellow photographers. The project started to feel more meaningful. Not only is this project a collection of images I photographed from my interactions with creatives in these communities, but I was bringing their story to a broader audience back home. To many people I was speaking with, this became important.
Photographer and University of Kentucky Educator James R Southard was sent on assignment to circle the Great Lakes – Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario – and document artists, their lives, work habits, social networking and physical environments. This begins a series of five installments, one for each lake.
I came to Lake Michigan with only a vague understanding of the area. I had heard that Chicago was a college city that emptied out during the summer and I knew little to nothing about Milwaukee. Being that Chicago was the largest city of this trip, I felt I’d spend much of my time in art studios and museums combing over artwork I had studied in art school while spending my evenings at restaurants I had read about in foodie publications. Its reputation of being the Second City, I imagined that artists were being priced out all over the city which would make the art community more spread out and reduce the amount of evening art programming. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Chicago – First night of my trip, I stopped into Chicago Cultural Center to see a new commissioned performance by national and international artists that were to reference the Goat Island Performance Archive. Apparently, the center is constantly running programing, even in the summer. Happy to hear that Chicago wasn’t simply a college town where it got quiet in the summer. I knew this was a great start to this trip. Steve Scott-Bottoms and Aram Atamian
Chicago – I met up with Joseph Ravens (director of DFBRL8R) after a performance at the Chicago Cultural Center. Little did I know I’d be spending much of my evenings in Chicago with their performance festival, Bubbly Creek Performance Art Assembly. Angeliki Chaido Tsoli, Diana Soria and Joseph Ravens
Chicago – Giulia Mattera’s piece at the Bubbly Creek Performance Assembly. She laid in the tub of cold water for hours only accompanied by her pet salamander. Soon after she started, people began to approach to hold her hand and comfort her.
Chicago – Ieke Trinks’ performance for the festival where she swept trash down the sidewalk from the Halsted Metro stop all the way to 35th street. It took her the entire evening and I had the constant urge to pick up trash ahead of her to throw in the trash bins.
Chicago – Santina Amato’s bread dough performance at festival was a reference to the connections between the fermentation of bread rising and the fertilization when the sperm meets an embryo. The smell of the rising dough reminded me so much of my teenage years working at a pizzeria. The final result was so.. organic and bodily looking.
Chicago – Diana Guerrero-Maciá brought me into her amazing home and studio space. She and her husband carved out a great home and work space for both of them. I asked her how many artists in Chicago can afford home studios and she suggested it was more common than you’d think. With studios getting more expensive and available spaces being further and further from the city center, it was just easier to build under their feet.
Chicago – Joe Adamik has built out a work space for him to record his music and to continue his involvement in the Chicago music scene. After his years in the band, Califone, he started playing with bands like Iron and Wine. He schooled me on how musicians get by in Chicago either from small paid gigs and or with other jobs to subsidize their music careers.
Chicago – I visited Paul Catanese in his spacious studio while he was working hard to finish up his opera. His work comes in a variety of forms, performance, sound, sculpture and so on. I would think this would make it harder for him to find a community in Chicago, though it seems this was a very good place for artists working in this fashion.
Chicago – Tanya Gills’ studio practice requires a strong link to India via hand made materials and the unique housing construction she witnessed while on Fulbright in New Delhi. She still continues this long relationship with the textile workers in India’s caste system. She told me that if she didn’t have her studio supported by the Hyde Park Art Center, it would be difficult to find an affordable space in the city.
Chicago – I visited Laura Wetter in her studio in northern Chicago above a beautiful historic church. Aside from her studio practice, she’s a social worker and is extremely engaged with local politics. I hadn’t met someone so knowledgeable about the goings on in the city and it made me eager to attend more city council meetings when I got back home.
Chicago – I read about Calumet Fisheries and was eager to visit this rare spot. This on site smoke house has been here since the 1920s where they still use Oak to smoke all kinds of fish. I stopped by and spoke with Ray Campos about their smokehouse and how rare it was to find people keeping this tradition alive. I have to say, the shrimp were enough to make me want to quit my job and build my own smokehouse for seafood in Kentucky.
Milwaukee is rather passionate about their lake. When reaching out to the local artists, a few told me to meet them at an international commission on the status of the Great Lakes. It was rather inspiring to see the good attendance and how many people were willing to volunteer to make the lakes and waterways clean for drinking, recreation, and for aquatic life.
Milwaukee – Joseph P Mougel showed me his unique photo practice, where he was exposing Ambrotypes to Google Maps via iPads. Interesting way to play with both digital and analog imaging. I must bring up that he showed up and hosted me, even though his baby was just born the day before. He still had the hospital wristband on, so I felt honored that he gave me his time and was eager to help me in my journey.
Milwaukee – I had heard about Nathaniel E. Stern from my colleagues who, like him, taught interactive art. Nathaniel has found a way for the university and state institutions to support up to four studio assistants. The man has a squad of students working directly with him on his projects and learning professional practices in the process. This has made his studio much more productive. I took a good deal of notes on of how he manages his teaching load, family life and studio practice with this available pool of willing assistants and how I could utilize such a workforce back at my own university. I dub him, Dr. Grantwriter. Nathaniel Stern/ Mary Widener, Sammy Yahiaoui, Josh Passon, Samantha Tan.
When leaving Lake Michigan, I realized how little I knew and how wrong my preconceptions were about the area. Chicago wasn’t emptied out for summer break at all. There wasn’t a single night I was there where there wasn’t a reception or performance scheduled and I had my days booked from dawn to dusk with artists who hadn’t left the city. I also found that getting around the city was much easier than I expected. If one doesn’t need to go downtown, you could easily drive around the city with your materials to your studio. I did find rents going up in areas near the subway lines. Instead of spending the majority of my time in northern Chicago near the blue line, I was in the south end which I felt was much more lively with art events. I was a little surprised to find no artists living solely off their studio practice. In a city such as Chicago, even the most successful artists needed a job to support their studio practice in a city with rising real estate prices. Meanwhile in Milwaukee, I found the city green and alive. Being a smaller city, I expected even more of the population to be gone for summer break though everyone was in their studio or engaged at civic events. When not meeting with people, I spread out into the city to see what the city was like to eat, drink and live. I found a good number of very welcoming people eager to bring an outsider into the fold and exhibit the blindly fast-paced dice game they play at seemingly every bar.
Photographer and University of Kentucky educator, James R. Southard, was sent on assignment to circle the Great Lakes and document artists, their lives, work habits, social networking and their physical environments. _______________________________________________________
I came to Lake Superior knowing so little. I had never been near the region and I knew it was the farthest north of all the lakes. The only thing I knew was CBC radio reports that spoke about the high crime rate in Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie. On top of that I read about the conflicts between police and the First Nation population of the region. I couldn’t imagine it could be any worse than many of the U.S. cities I’ve lived in. Not to neglect the social issues of the region, but I was thinking about how this could affect the arts community. More affordable living makes living and finding art space easier. And a strong civic community that responds to these issues makes for an interesting and more engaged creative community. Still, it was a mystery and I rolled to the lake with a great deal of excitement.
Grand Marais, MN – My last stop before leaving the U.S. for awhile was the North House Folk School, in Grand Marais, MN. I got a tip in Duluth to visit this amazing little art school where they teach over 350 workshops a year like pottery, smithing, baking wooden boat carpentry and more. I have always had an interest in the regional pastime of making wooden boats and when I saw these scattered throughout the property, I had to stop and investigate.
Grand Marais, MN – While in Grand Marais, I stopped into the North House Folk School to catch Trond Oalann (Norway) teaching a workshop on traditional Skjelter Store construction. Everyone was in a rush to complete the construction of this store before the evening’s festivities, the Wooden Boat Show & Summer Solstice Festival. After investigating the school, I was invited to stay and join the pizza baking party around the wood fired pizza oven. This hospitality would continue throughout the rest of my trip around the lakes.
Thunder Bay – I arrived in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in time for Andrea Pinheiro’s exhibition and lecture at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. I knew of her work and was eager to see her speak about her clay and video installation that plays with the history of nuclear testing and the forgotten fallout landscapes around Canada and the US. She is actually a Sault Ste. Marie artist who came to Thunder Bay to exhibit her work. She showed me around and we spoke about how Northern Ontario is a wide spread arts community. Artists need to travel great distances to exhibit and network. Public financial support of the arts up in Ontario has also become much more sparse with the latest premier cutting funding for the arts. Though Andrea has gallery representation, teaching is still the best way to support your studio practice.
Thunder Bay – I had attended many powwows while in Montana and Wyoming though I had never witnessed such a communal event as I had in Thunder Bay during the Canadian National Indigenous Peoples Day Festivities. There, not only did invited first nation members lead the dancing, but the public, both white and Ojibwe, were welcome to dance and celebrate. It was rather endearing and gave an air of communal welcome to the powwow. I love these traditional events that gather different performers together.
Thunder Bay – Cree Stevens is an Anishinabekwe (Ojibwe) and Cree First Nation artist who also has European heritage. Living in Thunder Bay, she has been working with painting, sculpture and metal. I spent a morning talking to her about her work history as well as the increasing problems with racism and the employment of First Nation people who are migrating to the city. With the rise of right wing politics and rhetoric in Ontario there has been a rejuvenating breath in the progressive movement and to address and achieve progress on some of these issues.
Thunder Bay – I was thinking back to what I was hearing from First Nation artists and even on the national radio I was hearing about police investigations of native people’s abuse. I remembered back to the National Indigenous Peoples Day celebration and a guy I shot a portrait of.
Sault Ste. Marie – I visited Noni Boyle’s studio in an old hanger down at the waterfront where she is surrounded by the materials that inspire her paintings. Rustic hulks of barges surrounded her along with boat motors and machinery. She lives in a world of rust and it bleeds into her work. Apparently finding alternative work spaces in Sault Ste. Marie is common in that post-industrial steel city.
Sault Ste. Marie – Noni proudly took me to the studio of a recent alumnus, Isabelle Michaud, who showed me work where she’d been collaborating with her autistic son. It was fun to watch Noni slip back into critique mode with one of her students. I’m guilty of the same thing all the time when I run into my own alumni. Always want to keep helping long after graduation. It was then that I noticed the city was rather tight knit and most of the artists knew each other from the few openings and the school.
Sault Ste. Marie – I stopped into Dyer Fire to meet Allan Bjornaa, one-half of the collaborative team that run a space of the same name. We spoke over a cup of coffee about the small arts community that can be rather quiet at times. So he and his partner started up Dyer Fire which is a gallery space, music venue, vintage and record shop. They found that creating a multipurpose space opened them up to a wider variety of events and now find they are running events multiple times a week with good turnouts. It seems a gallery space alone doesn’t draw out the locals. For the time being.
Sault Ste. Marie – Nicole Dyble is the second half of Dryer Fire and after a spell of good crowds showing up to their shows, they are considering expanding their business to include an affordable diner. They are seeking to build a community that would support creatives one space at a time.
One of the first things that I noticed about the Lake Superior region was its raw and rugged landscape. It is still rather forested and the lake is not as developed as I thought it would be. It felt like it was a few towns scattered throughout a national preserve. Also, I was surprised to find that most of the people who lived and worked up in Northern Ontario felt a little neglected by the rest of Canada. It had the same feeling of being a rust belt, blue collar American state although they have the big difference of having a First Nation community which makes it a rather diverse community. The artwork reflects this in the region, as I found so much contemporary native art and art history in the galleries and museums. That said, I could tell that artists were eager to see their art funding and community expand. Sault Ste. Marie’s industry has slowed over the years and much of the town has emptied out. There’s a good opportunity for art institutions to expand into these spaces, though you still need to battle developers who would rather sell the property to commercial buyers. Most Americans can understand this story, though as a Southerner I appreciated and was incredibly impressed with the hospitality of the people in the region. Every artist, business owner and stranger was eager to help and this was something I also ran into on Lake Huron. Something special about those Northern Ontarians.
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Growing up, my family always celebrated Mardi Gras.We actually always celebrated every holiday: Epiphany, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s, back when they were separately noted, cherry pies and log cabin cakes.St. Patrick’s Day too, but Mardi Gras was a crowning occasion in the year long fetes. My dad would go all out decorating the house in home-grown Carnival style.Crepe paper and balsa wood construction would be suspended from the ceiling, streamers and noisemakers, tambourines and maracas would be distributed throughout the house and raucous costumes would be designed.Many of our celebrations were just for the family, but Mardi Gras was an invited guest soiree, costumes expected.
Why am I going on about Mardi Gras as we approach Easter?Because of the colors.We would suspend a large flag decorated in the purple, yellow and green of the holiday in our hallway to greet the guests as they arrived.And I watch each spring as nature unfurls banners in the same colors to greet me on my walks.Yellow forsythias or daffodils, yellow-rumped warblers and jonquils.The greenest green of a Kentucky spring morning dotted with purple violets and the magenta of redbuds. The trees, so long stripped to their winter vestments, austere and stark, grow shaggy with bud, then seemingly overnight become misted with the pale greens of newborn leaves.
The smells too, fragrant after the long chill of winter.The warming air is redolent with the aroma of damp earth and the faint perfume of the flowering trees.After a rain, worms litter the sidewalks like pine needles.Robins hop and sing, trilling their pleasure at the abundance of good living that is present.It is a time when coats are unbuttoned, then abandoned.Thoughts turn to yard work, then picnics.It is a time for putting the remains of last year away in compost piles and preparing our space, ourselves for the new growth.
So too it is with baking.Our focus becomes a lightness befitting the season.Some of the substantial loaves of winter give way to the airier breads of spring.Reserved and sensible yields to fun and flippant.Fruit tarts which seem cold and out of place in our winter’s showcase now glow with the vibrancy of spring.The warm morning sun streaming in the windows illuminate the danish, making them sparkle like God’s breakfast.And one of my favorite breads of the year emerges from the recipe cupboard where seasonal products are stored: hot cross buns.
These light, airy jewels of a bread are a wonderful blend of spice and sweet.The are “hot” because of the spices in them. We use cloves and nutmeg, spices usually reserved for pies, and the resulting aromatic flavor surprises and delights the palate.They can be decorated on the top with a cross cut in them, with a cross of short crust pastry dough laid on top at baking time or with a cross of icing applied after they cool.I prefer the last as it adds just the right amount of sweet.
As bakers, we are given the gift of embellishing the seasons, adding to the moments that brighten our lives. Whether it be a daily morning slice of crackly crunchy toast, a cookie for a snack, a pie for Thanksgiving or the ultimate, the cake to be sliced at the joyous joining of two lives onto one path, ours is a profession which gets to share in the delights of living.And products like hot cross buns are once yearly exclamation points.
Hot Cross Buns
This is a soft dough, easily mixed by hand or by stand mixer.The final dough will be soft, supple and a bit tacky.When rolling the dough into the bun shape, be stingy with the flour; you want it to stick a bit to the table.
All Purpose Flour 4 cups
Salt 1 tsp.
Instant Dry Yeast 1 packet (2 tsp.)
Ground Nutmeg ½ tsp.
Ground Cloves ¾ tsp.
Unsalted Butter, Melted 1 stick (4 oz.)
Milk, Warmed 1 cup
Eggs, Large 2
Dried Fruits 1 ½ cups (some combination of raisins, chopped apricots, dried cherries, dates, dried pineapple…)
Add all dry ingredients in mixing bowl, either hand bowl or mixer.
Add all liquids and begin mixing, either with a wooden spoon or with the hook attachment of the mixer.
Mix until it is a cohesive, somewhat sticky dough, about 10 minutes. If you are mixing by hand, you will want to turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it is smooth and supple.
Add the dried fruit and mix just to combine.
Put into greased, covered bowl and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.
Turn out onto lightly floured surface and cut into 18-20 pieces.
Round into tight balls.Place on baking tray and cover, let rise till doubled, about one hour.
Place into preheated 350 degree oven and bake 16-18 minutes, until golden brown and firm.
While they are cooling, make the icing:
Two cups powdered sugar
¼ cup milk
Mix until the consistency of firm honey.If it is too wet, add more powdered sugar, too dry, more milk.
With a pastry bag or spoon, draw a cross on top of each of the cooled buns.Let the icing set then enjoy!
A surprisingly effective snow fell the other day, wrapping the yellow buds of daffodils and honeysuckle in cotton.After the tantalizing warmth of the week prior, this cold was not welcomed, though it was beautiful.We eagerly anticipate the gentle air of spring, full of scent and promise, ready to be done with the chill of winter, but nature seems nonplussed, regardless of conditions.In winter, when all nature seems tucked up and waiting, a magical growth is occurring.
If we can pull our faces from out of the burrow of our scarves, we will see the greens ofmoss and lichens are every bit as lush as the verdant carpet of spring, maybe more so for the paucity of other color.This is the time they grow, capturing more territory, reveling in just the right clime for their blossoming.The stone walls and tree trunks seem to glow with a rich spectrum of green, from soft yellow lime to the deep dark of a pine forest.
In spring, the growth is explosive, almost visible.The lichens’ growth is sedate, slow, befitting the harsher clime.It is a more somber environment.I have a mantra which, when I am in my right mind, I live by: If you want extraordinary experiences, you need to put yourself in extraordinary circumstances.I have a habit of bundling up in inclement weather and stepping out to see what I have not before.This day, the lichens seemed to glow even more electric green,a luxuriant counter to the flowing white mist that fell.The mockingbird that had been announcing the arrival of spring in joyous notes in the morning gloaming sang just as jubilant after the snow, just not as frequently, seeming to need to gather his will between songs.The air in the neighborhood was thick and muted during the snowfall, like walking into a cathedral.
This is a truculent time, fluctuating between periods of glorious, buttery warmth and gusty, stinging cold.The festivities of the season also reflect this.The opulent revelries of Mardi Gras are followed by the austerities of Lent, the emotional swings as dramatic as the weather.Like the fabled groundhog predicting winter’s fate, Mardi Gras seems to be a moment of exuberance in anticipation of the joys of spring.But tempered by the cold realities of the slowness of the seasons, the preparation of land and soul for the coming rebirth is measured and slow.The playful excess of a King’s Cake is succeeded by Lenten sparsity.Though, to our pleasure, this is somewhat mitigated by a fine and simple bread with the attitude of a pastry.
A tender blending of flour and butter, leavened with soda and buttermilk, with raisins as a kicker, Irish Soda Bread seems the perfect bread for this time of life.Heavy enough to be substantial, crumbly as a newly furrowed field, it serves equally well as breakfast or dinner fare. And like all simple baked goods, technique is where the magic lies.
As anyone who has taken on pie dough or biscuits knows, a light touch makes the difference.The butter is cut into the flour, brief mixing leaving pea-sized pieces of butter mottled through the dough.These jewels of flavor melt down in the oven, creating a honeycombed structure that crumbles deliciously in the mouth.Whether sliced to accompany a rich Irish stew or cut into wedges to enjoy, scone-like, in the morning, this bread proves the maxim that simple pleasures are the best.
One of the joys of a cold winter’s walk is the return home.As I arrived at my door, I brushed the boutonniere of snow festooning my lapel and stepped into the house.I was greeted by a murmuring fire, the purr of my coffee pot and the delicious pleasure of some sweet cream butter melting slowly on a wedge of soda bread.Like the gradual warming of the world outside, the heat of my house at last penetrated, allowing me to unbundle and relax, preparing me for whatever lay in store.
Irish Soda Bread
All Purpose Flour 4 cups
Baking Soda1 ½ tsp.
Salt 1 tsp.
Granulated Sugar 3 Tbls.
Unsalted Butter 1 ½ sticks (6 oz.)
Raisins 2 cups
Buttermilk 1 ½ cups
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.This recipe comes together qickly.
Measure all dry ingredients into large mixing bowl.
Cut chilled butter into ½ inch cubes.
“Massage” the butter into the dry ingredients until it resembles a collection of small peas.
Stir in the raisins.
Make a well in the bowl and add the buttermilk all at once.Stir until it just comes together.It will resemble a shaggy mass.
Place onto lightly floured surface and pat into one large or two smaller discs about an inch thick.
Transfer to cookie sheet.If you have two sheets, double pan the bread to keep the bottom from over browning
Cut a cross into the top of the loaf (loaves) and place into oven.One loaf bake for 32 minutes, 2 loaves bake them for 25 minutes.
Remove from oven when golden brown and somewhat firm.Cool slightly then eat copiously!
I watched a White-Throated Sparrow follow his cohorts into a bush this morning.He flitted in fast, grabbed a branch with too much speed.He couldn’t stick the landing and so launched himself off to the next bush without hesitation.It was an innocuous event, something that happens without comment all the time.In fact, had it occurred otherwise I would have been surprised.Birds routinely launch themselves from this branch to that wire, land or don’t, stay or don’t, with apparent disregard for any consequence.And this cavalier attitude they have regarding gravity I find intriguing. I have long wondered about the mindset of birds, what it must be like to have no fear of falling.
As a young man, I had the good fortune to work at a self-empowerment program which had an outdoor ropes course element to it.One of my duties there was to work at the rappel site, sending people of all ages over an 80 foot cliff.Many of these people had never done anything like this before; some were terrified of heights.Yet all had taken this program as a way of conquering their fears.And the rappel was just the exercise to help them with that.
Everything about rappelling challenges core beliefs.I would take 50 year old people, out of shape and out of their elements, gear them up in harness and rope, then walk them to the edge of the world.Frequently we would creep the last few feet together, arm clutched hard to arm.I would them tell them to turn, put their back to the cliff, their feet on the edge, and lean back.There is something so fundamentally wrong with that that the mind can’t help but rebel.It goes against everything your momma ever told you to do.To properly rappel, you basically walk backwards down the cliff, your back parallel with the ground far below.The rope keeps you from falling and the interplay between rope, feet and rock keep you from face planting, but only if you lean back nearly horizontal.
All your upbringing and instincts scream that this is the wrong thing to do, that you should hug the rope and nestle up to the rock face.I’m sure there is even some biological imperative shouting from deep within your DNA that stepping backwards off a cliff is a very bad way to further the species.Yet over the cliff they went, young and old, scared and bold, to safely arrive, jubilant and accomplished, at the bottom 80 feet away.
I had the cherished job of talking them through the technique, through their fears, allowing them to discover a greater sense of capability and freedom.Initially what was present was fear.As I worked with them, slowly my voice would penetrate and what would occur was listening followed by trust followed by relationship finishing with love.There is something embedded in the act of surrendering to another that opens us up.Its no surprise that we talk about falling in love.It is scary.To trust another with your vulnerable heart is like leaning backwards over a cliff.What comes from that is a release, a joy, a feeling of floating, making you want to bounce down the cliff, gamboling like a mountain goat.
We celebrate this with our traditions on St. Valentine’s Day.Bright and shiny, heart shaped and poetic, we express ourselves with candy and flowers.There is a sweetness to it, rich and enrobing.True love, like good chocolate, melts in your mouth.
This flourless chocolate cake, whose name means Black Beast in French, is sinfully rich, tasting like chocolate butter.It is baked in a water bath ensuring its creaminess.Simply assembled, it will score you big points with the love of your life!
!/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
12 oz. dark, semisweet chocolate
8 oz. unsalted butter
3 Tbls sugar
In a saucepan, bring water and sugar to a boil. Reduce heat.
Add chocolate and butter and gently warm to melt.
In a bowl, whisk eggs and remaining sugar to combine.
Stir into chocolate/butter mixture.
Pour into greased 8 inch cake pan.
Place onto a baking sheet pan and put into preheated 350 degree oven.
Pour water onto sheet pan to come halfway up the cake pan.
Bake for about 40-45 minutes, until cake is firmly set and a paring knife inserted comes out clean.
Remove from heat. Take off pan of water, being extremely careful not to burn yourself.
Let cool 30-60 minutes, until just room temperature.
Run a knife around the edge, invert a dish over the pan, flip it upside down and gently tap to release.
Wrap with plastic and chill. May be done a day ahead.In fact, it works better.
This cake is super rich.Serve stingy slices floating on raspberry sauce or serve with whipped cream and fresh raspberries.
Winter in Kentucky is slowly becoming my favorite season. Like most people, I find the cold intrusive, the bulky clothes annoying and the gruff transitions from inside to outside and back again disruptive, but once I commit myself to being out in nature, a walk in a park or even around the neighborhood, I find the starkness revealing.
One of my objections to this land is one of its strongest traits: an almost strangling fecundity. The woods in the summer are so verdant and lush, seeing the forest for the leaves becomes difficult. But in the fall, and especially the winter, the trees reveal their stately countenance. The naked profile of a leafless tree against a snowy backdrop reveals the character of the tree, the story of the tree. In the gaudy greenery of their springtime finery, the trees glow with youthful frippery. But come winter, when the over mantles are cast off, we are left to wonder at the limbs, the heart, the bones.
In the neighborhood next to mine live some trees that are literally hundreds of years old. The architect who purchased the land and first started building houses in the area in the mid-30’s designed the road to wind past the towering Chinquapin Oaks that had settled in that spot long before the coming of us. And they dominate the land even today. Gnarled, broken, they stand in grand testament to perseverance and flexibility. Around them are their newer neighbors: Pin oaks and Sycamores and Tulip Poplars, all stripped to the bone of leaf and flower, all revealing their skeletal structure. I used to feel the trees looked sad, vulnerable in their winter sparsity, but now I see the bold strength, the history, the tenacity of their quest for light, for moisture, for growth. From a distance, the trunk and branch look like the vein pattern of an individual leaf. Up close, the vast strength and solidity of the years is revealed.
So too with the creeks. The record volume of water that has fallen this past year has highlighted their presence, the channels forming on the floor of my leaky basement standing in sodden testament to this. More and more I see how this land is intimately shaped by water. The little and big creeks stitch together the landscape like veins on a leaf, like branches on a winter’s tree. And through the sparse foliage of winter, I am discovering the hidden convolutions of the waterways of the Bluegrass.
On one of the many fine, beautiful country roads which wrap around Lexington, there is a bridge I like to stop at, the intersection of land and water, man and nature being gently revealed. As I step from my car to briefly revel in the gentle glory, I am struck by how accessible the peace of nature is to us here. Today as I walked up to the bridge, at the convergence of two creeks merging to form the Elkhorn, the sun seeped through the clouds and the insistent current seemed to pull the wan sunlight downstream with it. Glassine pillows of water flowed over submerged rocks to fall in a jumble at the bottom of the slope. Heretofore hidden feeder creeks emerged, the gauzy shroud of summer shrubbery dropped to reveal the moist gullies beneath. As I stood there, letting sound and air wash over me, I felt sedation, a slowing of space.
There is a pulling back, a pulling in that comes with winter. The trees stand resolute, their strong, intimate branches revealed in their grand, naked gavotte with gravity. Squirrels shroud themselves in the shawls of their tails. Birds puff up like dandelions, maximizing the insulation of their elegantly efficient feathers. Even our cat is around more, enjoying the warm bath of air from the heater more than his solitude. It is a slower, more languid time; it is a good time for baking bread.
Baking bread at home is one of the most basic and sensuous of pleasures. The smell of the flour and yeast, the sticky texture of the initial mass giving way to the smooth firm ball of properly kneaded dough, the warmth of the oven, the perfume of the baking loaf, all transform a cold winter’s day into a celebration of hearth and home. It is a personal activity which gives richly to all lucky enough to be in the space. And it is easy; with care and patience the alchemical transformation from base ingredients into culinary gold is always achievable, though sometimes with better results than others. And the results keep giving.
The usual recipe for bread gives two to three loaves, allowing for inhalation of the first warm, redolent loaf and the slower consumption of the next over the following days. Like any activity, more practice leads to better results. And in this time of pulling in and nesting, exercising and resolving, it is one which will lead to a greater sense of peace and fulfillment.
Jim’s Recipe for Winter Wheat Bread:
3 cups Whole Wheat Flour
3 cups White Bread Flour
1 packet Instant Yeast
1 tablespoon Salt
2 tablespoons Sorghum or Molasses or Honey
Generous 2 cups room temperature Water.
Combine all dry ingredients into a mixing bowl.
Add sweetener, then water.
Stir with wooden spoon until a shaggy mass is formed.
Turn out onto counter or bread board and knead about 5 minutes, until a smooth, taut ball is formed.
Place ball in oiled mixing bowl, cover loosely with towel and let rise until doubled, about an hour.
Punch down and divide into 2 pieces.
Form into balls and place on cornmeal covered sheet pan, or place into greased bread pans.
Cover loosely with towel and let rise until doubled, 45-60 minutes. (Preheat oven to 375)
Place into oven and bake 30-35 minutes. When done, the bottom will ring like a drum when thumped.
Remove from oven. Let cool as long as you can. Eat with your favorite soup or spread.
When fully cool, wrap other loaf, if you still have it, and store for later use.
I started baking in college, first in a food co-op, then in my off-campus house.Living with 5 other college-aged kids meant we ate a lot, giving me ample opportunity to experiment; it was common practice to polish off a standard batch of two to three loaves in a couple of days.My first baking book was The Garden Way Bread Book, though it lives in my memory by its subtitle: A Baker’s Almanac.I was intrigued by its promise of a yearly guide to the glories of baking.In it were the recipes which were to be the crucible for the concoction that would become my life: being a baker.
There is a flow to the year, one to which all beings adhere, bakers notwithstanding.The new year starts with the pop of a champagne cork but quickly settles into a more austere mindset, one which favors hearty, healthy breads.After a brief fling with chocolate in February, we trundle on, anticipating the lightness of being which is spring, the abundance of delectable fresh produce which is summer, the robust foods of autumn and the arrival of the sumptuous holidays.All to be rounded by that pop once again which is both start and death knell.
In a very unsystematic way,I will be writing a monthly bit of lore and insight I’ve gained over 38 years of baking.I have seen the smooth transition from hippie-inspired home baking to rock star restaurants touting stunning pastries and desserts to once again a return to what I like to think of as local materials, honestly expressed.With history and the seasons as my guide, I hope to entertain, inform and inspire, and each essay will conclude with a user friendly recipe.
What follows is the first installment.I hope you enjoy!
I have long been a fan of fairy tales, simple fables with simple messages, peopled with colorful characters.These stories entertain and enlighten and I have embraced their gentle teachings since a boy.One of my favorites is the Elves and the Shoemaker.This is a tale of simple goodness: a poor shoemaker, unable to produce goods of sufficient quantity or quality to pay for his living, is assisted by a pair of elves.Unobserved, these mischievously helpful beings produce shoes for him overnight, shoes of surpassing quality which are left to be discovered when he awakens.There is a gentle goodness, a selflessness, a giving that I find reaffirming.It is no surprise I run a bakery.
A folklore-ish element suffuses all the goings on of a bakery.The work of late nights produces wondrous comestibles to be discovered upon awakening.Watching people come in and grab some something with which to brighten their day is the intangible payment for the long night’s work.Never is that more clear than during the holidays.Thanksgiving, with it’s pies and rolls, lays a warm autumnal blanket down upon which Christmas gaudily settles.Bright, shining, colorful treats of stunning breadth emerge.The goodies seem to embody the essence of elven work.
I dusted off my copy of The Italian Baker, one of my earliest and favorite baking books.Filled with lore and culture and regional recipes, I enjoy going to that well again and again, especially when an Italian specialty is called for.And now it’s Christmas time.The time above all times when baking is called for, expected, trundled out and anticipated.Cultures and peoples all over the world pull out their best, to wow and celebrate family and friends.Long before the coming of Christianity, the end of December had been celebrated.The Solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs then.I suspect if I was going to have a party in the middle of the dark and cold, I’d pick the longest night of the year, figuring we could break into the larder and ransack treasured bits of the bounty of summer, for it would be all about the return of spring from then on.Fruitcake, jam cake, pies, and preserved meats, all come out to mark the end of the dark and the coming of the light.
And what better way to celebrate than with warm, rich, succulent baked goods?The English have their Christmas pudding, the southern U.S., their jam cake, the German their stollen (more completely known as Christstollen, the lumpy shape and blanket of powdered sugar said to represent the baby Jesus in swaddling), the French their buche de Noel, the Italian panettone, hence the book I had been holding earlier.Studded with fruit and spice, it, like its brethren from around the world represent the best in celebration.
Christstollen being assembled: butter, loaf, marzipan, folding and then the final product, covered with powdered sugar.
I view most of these items from the perspective of the professional baker, someone who’s business depends on Jesus Christ, Patron Saint of 4th Quarter Profits.But the realm of the home baker holds strong through December as well.I maintain there is hardly a person around who doesn’t remember holiday baking in Granny’s kitchen, even if they never did, so strong is the sentiment surrounding this time.My mom made cookies and candy.Wedding cookies, cherry chews (nee cherry winks, dubbed cherry coconut bars), chocolate almond caramel crunch, and butter cookies (see recipe, below.)
Christmas butter cookies
Light, rich, redolent with butter and melt-in-your-mouth tender, these little nothings of pleasure were always my favorite.The line between perfect and also-ran was fine, the anticipation and reverence while baking, angel food cake like.When they were made, lightly mixed, squeezed out in just the right shape from some Buck Rogers cookie press, baked to golden tenderness and allowed to cool for only the briefest of time, the experience of that cookie dissolving in your mouth was sublime.The only time we had these was at Christmas, the rarity increasing the value.I know we were not alone in this.There seems to be an endless stream of family favorites and grandma’s specialties.And for this I give thanks.
Cora Anna Banta Betts’s Butter Cookie Recipe
As presented to my mother, Jackie Betts, her first wedded Christmas.
1 cup (8 ounces) softened unsalted butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 cups All purpose Flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy.
Sift together the flour and salt, add to butter/sugar mixture.
Stir in vanilla.
Push through cookie press onto a baking sheet, sprinkle colored sugar on top if desired.
Place in preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes, until golden brown on bottom, pale white on top.
Let cool, but barely.
Makes about 50 small cookies.
The key to this recipe is a light touch.Don’t overmix the flour with the butter.Don’t over bake the cookie.Gentle the whole way and they will be light and crumbly.A pleasure in your mouth.
I took a roadtrip down to Levi Jackson State Park on Saturday. No real agenda, no clear picture of where I was going to spend the night, what I was going to see, where I was going to go. As I left Lexington, I had a sense of urgency, of needing to get there, heedless of not knowing where “there” was. That continued until I got to Marksbury Farm Market just outside Lancaster on 27. I stopped in for a sandwich and a chat and as I sat outside eating, I could feel the rush slip away. I was a tourist. I could stay there till dark, turn around and head home. Or I could head on down to Levi Jackson pronto. Or I could meander at a sedate pace, letting the beauty and charm of the land permeate. The words to a Bob Seger song kept popping into my head: “I could go left or I could go right; it was all up to me to decide.” I chose the latter and rolled on through the day.
I am not being completely truthful when I say I had no real agenda. I was going down to see the mill stone museum located at Levi Jackson. A hundred or so millstones from old Kentucky mills line the walk leading to an old mill. What I didn’t realize was my original agenda was about to be subsumed by the conversation I was going to have with Bob House, docent and ranger of the rebuilt, fully operational mill located in the park. I got there around 10. He had just opened up the cabin and I eagerly pressed him for a tour. The cabin and much of the furnishings had been built in 1805. It was moved and rebuilt in it’s current location in the 1930’s, as part of the WPA. And it had been operating there since.
Photo by author
The joys of simple technology! When Bob opened the water gate (My favorite bumpersticker from the Nixon era: “Behind every water gate is a mill house.” Get it?!), the creek was allowed to flow over the turbine (not a side mounted wheel, but a “true turbine,” according to Bob) and the foot-diameter axle began slowly to turn. Attached to that axle is a wheel, some 4 feet around, and wrapping that is a 10-inch wide belt of leather which goes to the front of the cabin, looping around a much smaller circumferenced wheel and back. The smaller wheel is attached to two giant stone discs, very heavy (“I don’t know how heavy they are, I ain’t never weighed them. But I know that 4 grown men can’t pick them up. We have people come in at night to steal them. They can stand them up and roll them to the parking lot, but they can’t lift them into their truck.”). Let’s say 1000 pounds. The belt which takes it’s languid time circling the big wheel fairly flies around the smaller one, causing the upper most stone to turn at an impressive speed. Grain, in this case corn, is loaded into the hopper mounted over the mill stone casing (a circular wooden box which keeps the grain from flying out as it is ground by the stones) and is shaken into the opening as needed. The grain is pulverized into flour and slides down a wooden chute into a wooden trough, where Bob packs it into cloth bags containing two pounds of fresh milled cornmeal.
Photo by author
The entire machine is made (with extraordinary few exceptions) of wood, stone, hide. It is incredibly efficient and works in a wondrously harmonious relationship with its surroundings. Bob said that even the small dam needed for the operation of the mill helps balance the ecosystem. The backed-up creek environment, favored by birds, turtles, fish used to be supplied by industrious beavers. But we hunted most of them, so the mill is doing their work. The sound of the mill while it is in operation is practical, soothing, organic. A hum of the earth, of tree and rock and water moving in harmony. It probably took 10 minutes for the mill to grind the two pounds of flour, but it could do that all day and night, with very little supervision, forever. Efficient, serene, perfect technology. I left there with the same feeling I get walking through the woods. Of being at peace and feeling at one with the world. The technology didn’t separate man from nature, it bound the two more tightly.
I rode home with my two pounds of fresh milled, unbolted corn meal. I had asked many questions and been given a vast array of knowledge: ecology, economics, machine design, politics… I had gone to look at mill stones and had come away with milling.
The mantra “I Am A Tourist Here” is one I have been trying on for a few months. When traveling, I give myself permission to ask ridiculous questions from complete strangers and am usually intrigued and stunned by what I learn, safe in may guise as a tourist. However, when I’m home I operate as if I should know, as if I shouldn’t be a tourist. As if I shouldn’t take that untried road, or stop at that new place, or be inquisitive and naive as I am when I am touristing. Just by reciting the mantra, the fardel of society slips from my shoulder and I am given permission to look at my familiar terrain with fresh eyes, an act which almost always yields delightful insight.
As a young man, I had the good fortune and insight to spend a great deal of time outdoors hiking and backpacking.I traveled to Alaska and, on one memorable night, sat on a cliffside on Kodiak Island, watching a literal midnight sun disappear beneath the horizon, bathing sea, air, land in a glowing wash.This was followed, a twilit dusky hour later, by an equally glorious sunrise, the sun that far north traveling not in an arc but in a barely truncated circle about the sky.
I hiked the Olympic National Rain Forest for a sodden sublime week, sitting on a valley rim, alone in the vastness save for a deer, licking the sweat from my rain jacket I had hung to dry on a branch.I watched in wonder as a white stag, whose forebears had been imported from Sherwood Forest, emerged from the fog of a Point Reyes morning, him being more interested in lording over the herd of females and fawns who materialized, with a shuffle, out of the whiteness.
I sang to the glories of the grandeur unfolding as I hiked up the switchbacked cliff face of Yosemite Valley, each turn bringing me higher and deeper into the vast beauty of that hallowed land.
I guided a raft of friends down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River through the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho.We started in a tributary barely wide and deep enough to permit our craft, finishing, after many nights and rapids, in a wide, flat, slow flowing river which could accommodate a cruise liner.The world was grand and big and I wanted to see it, to taste it, to bite off huge dramatic chunks.
I am not now that young man.A friend’s t-shirt loudly proclaims my current state: “The older I get, the better I was.”My hikes are now a morning walk, my vistas the downtown buildings I spy from my perch atop the coach’s tower in my neighborhood park.Guiding rivers is now staring in wonder at the intricacies of the creek that flows through the next door neighborhood.And yet, when I stop long enough to see, the grandeur which inhabits these spaces reveals itself.
I watched in amazement as the remains of a spring rain flowed down the creek, simultaneously carving a channel and creating a delta, as the carrying capacity of the swift water diminished with slowing flow.In a fractal view of the world, I was watching the Mississippi River flow past New Orleans.
On a neighborhood walk, I spied in astonishment a Cooper’s Hawk diving treacherously at a chipmunk, narrowly missing.Or equally amazing, a Red Tailed Hawk lumbering skyward, hauling with him a squirrel who must have equaled the bird’s own weight, forced onto a tree limb perch by my insistent approach.With the additions of a video crew and David Attenborough’s narration, this was life writ large, worthy of National Geographic.
The other evening I went for a walk, to be greeted by a Rothko sunset: a flat, snow-leadened wall of cloud sat heavy on the sun, squashing an orange smear onto the horizon.
Another night, I watched as clouds like a sheet of dryer lint dragged in front of a gibbous moon, fat and white, fixed and solid like a peg in the heavens.That celestial display no less grand than the gauzy curtains of Northern Lights I was entranced by in New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail.
I watched a Bradford Pear tree, whose flowers bested 3 snowfalls and a hard frost to sweetly declare this spring’s imminence, at last give way to the greening of the branch.The fortitude of our trees to persevere in the face of Spring’s grudging warming is as grand as the Redwoods’ or Joshua Trees’.Caterpillars of snow crawling on the delicate limbs of Eastern White Pines, crashing down in a secondary snowfall as the sun-warmed branches released their burdens, are as wondrous as the calving of icebergs, the process being the same.
I feel deeply, especially in spring, the glories of the world around. The volunteer Pin Oak in my backyard, 20 years ago a twig, now is rivaling the size of the 100-year-old Burr Oak of my neighbor’s.The flocks of warblers travel like gaily colored acrobats on their way north, stopping to pick bug and bud from trees seemingly timed for their arrival.
My legs are hampered by age and responsibility, my hunger for adventure diminished with time, but the wonders of the world surround us even in our backyards if we have eyes to see, an open spirit and the willingness to “waste” time on the slow and the minute.
On the heels of the highly successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch Vehicle carrying a payload into space of a cherry red Tesla Sportster with a dummy driver, the White House today announced a series of upcoming launches by Elon Musk’s company. The program of launches, dubbed “You’re Out of This World!!”, will include the now-iconic cherry red Tesla Sportster with live humans in the drivers’ seats.
At a press briefing today, White House Press Secretary, Sara Huckabee Sanders identified Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, as the initial human payload. Huckabee Sanders explained that the ability of the SpaceX to accomplish quick turnarounds of launch vehicles made the company a desirable partner in this initiative, approved “at the highest level of government.” She anticipates that the Mueller launch might be “in a matter of weeks, if not days.”
In response to being pressed by Jim Acosta of CNN about the intent of the program, Huckabee Sanders vehemently denied that the program is intended to impede Special Counsel Mueller’s ongoing investigation into possible collusion between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russia. While admitting, in response to a follow-up question by Katy Tur of NBC News, that, “It is not anticipated that any of the human payloads will return to Earth,” she protested the news media’s propensity to frame administration initiatives in a highly negative manner. “I can’t believe that anyone would see the selection of these human payloads as anything but the highest honor that can be given to an American in this or any world,” Huckabee Sanders stated.
During the briefing, the list of subsequent payloads was distributed. Due up next for launch after Robert Mueller is Deputy Attorney General, Rob Rosenstein. That launch will be followed by one with U.S. Representative and ranking minority member on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, as the payload. Pornstar Stormy Daniels will be launched next because “We wanted someone from the world of entertainment.” In a somewhat surprising development, Devin Nunes, Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was listed provisionally as a launch candidate. Huckabee Sanders stated that his possible inclusion on the payload list is pending “how everything turns out.”
Huckabee Sanders also announced that the individuals launched into space would be honored during the military parade later this year, currently being planned at the highest level of the Pentagon. She stated that bringing up the rear of the parade will be a formation of cherry red driverless Tesla Sportsters, honoring “these brave Americans.” Others under consideration for future honors include Hillary Clinton and James Comey.
Doctors at the George Washington University Medical Center are reporting that the Body Politic has been admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit after arriving in the medical center’s emergency room in a near-comatose state. In a news briefing at the hospital, Dr. Herschel McLachlan, Medical Chief of Staff, reported that the Body Politic arrived last evening at the hospital’s emergency room in “extreme distress” with “significant, and life threatening systems failures” and “a near total collapse of vital functions”.
Attending emergency room physician, Dr. Sarah Rouseminheir, acknowledged the serious nature of the patient’s condition. Dr. Rouseminheir noted that it was apparent that the Body Politic appeared to be overwhelmed and incapable of responding effectively to the range and multiplicity of pressing issues such as climate change, Korea, economic displacement by automation, healthcare, and political chaos.
As soon as the Body Politic arrived emergency interventions to stabilize its condition were attempted, primarily through intravenous transfusions of multiple units of truth. While at first the treatment appeared to stabilize the patient, Dr. McLachlan reported that in short order violent seizures and rejection of the intravenous truth fluids ensued followed by repeated and uncontrollable attempts by the Body Politic to turn on the television in the emergency room to watch The Bachelorette. The patient was then transferred to the ICU for further diagnosis and treatment.
Attending ICU physician, Dr. Sean Aboujou, indicated that it is anticipated that the treatment of the Body Politic is just beginning but that there will no doubt need to be a course of long-term rehabilitation after the acute care phase. A number of significant specific conditions have been identified. The Body Politic has been diagnosed with Corpus Interruptus, a condition wherein the corpus callosum of the patient appears to be blocked, thus preventing the right and left sides of the Body Politic’s brain from effectively communicating.
Scaramuccimania, a condition named after its discoverer and rarely seen until recently, and characterized by repeated frenetic attempts to perform anatomically impossible acts on oneself, has also been diagnosed. During Dr. Aboujou’s presentation about Scaramuccimania, one physician in the press room was overheard saying, “Looks like the Body Politic has really f___ked itself over, so I don’t know about anatomically impossible”.
The treatment team is also looking into alternative treatments for the Body Politic’s well-known conditions of Empiricalaphobia and Ignorance Profundus.
Political leaders responded quickly to the news of the Body Politic’s hospital admission. Vice President Pence led a congressional delegation in a prayer circle at the hospital. Senator Bernie Sanders issued a statement, “My prayers are with the Body Politic. That is if I believed in prayer. This news brings more urgency to the need for a single brain system”.
The White House issued a brief statement:
“It’s a big problem, the Body Politic. They don’t have it in Russia. Just saying”.
That particular week in 2016 had started off brilliantly. I was in San Francisco for a work conference, and it was October, which might be the most beautiful time to be in San Francisco.
A friend had traveled with me, so while I conferenced, she explored. On that particular day, I sat among thousands of others inside a giant convention center as Melinda Gates and Robin Roberts discussed leadership and women’s empowerment and chasing our dreams.
Then I decided to look at my phone. Waiting there was a text from one of my best friends: Her melanoma was back. It had been seven years. The word metastasized was there among all the other words.
The sounds around me – the motivating stories, the applause, the laughter from the audience – it all faded to a dull roar and it felt as if no one was in the auditorium but me and that text. The tears wouldn’t stop; I was never more thankful for the darkness. Questions, I had nothing but questions for her. What did the doctor say exactly? Are you alone right now? Should I catch a flight home? Have you been feeling sick and not telling anyone?
Is this it?
In sickness and in health isn’t reserved only for the betrothed. If we’re lucky in life, along the way we connect with other souls whose friendships grow to mean so much to us that even a legal ceremony – the highest form of commitment – could barely scrape the surface of defining the bond. That’s what I have with this woman. She’s beyond sister status. For the past 16 years, since we were freshmen in college, she’s been part of my soul.
This couldn’t be it.
Later that day, in between conference sessions, I paced up and down the city streets, listening to her tell me everything she knew about her situation. She had woken up that day thinking her biggest dilemma was where to have lunch after her doctor’s appointment. Now she was trying to decide what hospital in which city she should trust with her life.
Standing on the corner of Post and Kearny streets, I offered to marry her so she could use my health insurance. She laughed, and so did I, but we both knew.
The next evening, after a rough night’s sleep and a day full of conference sessions, I was headed to yet another dinner and drinks with colleagues, the idea of which sounded just awful. Then the friend I had traveled to San Francisco with called and said she was at the ocean. And that it sure was nice out there.
The sidewalk was filled with rush-hour traffic. I made my way over to the side and stood still. For the first time in my life, I asked myself: If this was your last night on Earth, how would you spend it?
In five minutes, I was sitting on the Geary Street bus headed west. It smelled of sweat and cologne and I was smashed up against the window next to someone talking loudly on their phone.
My heart soared.
A half hour later the bus was nearly empty as we reached the last stop on the route, 48th and Point Lobos avenues.
The smell of the ocean hit my face as I stepped off the bus, and I started to run down the sidewalk. Toward the Pacific, toward the incredible setting sun. Toward where my sweet friend would choose to be if she had that choice.
It would be selfish of me to say that the terrible thing that happened to my friend happened to me. But it did change me. And I haven’t asked myself, “If this was your last night on Earth, how would you spend it?” It comes naturally now. When I stand up for myself, when I say “no,” when I don’t give in to my fear, and when I say “yes.” Hell yes.
My sweet friend, by the way, is okay. Turns out, this isn’t it.
The photos I took that evening still make me cry. And I can still feel that moment when my heart and mind shifted and hear the sounds of the city that were all around me.
But I never told her about any of this. Maybe I’ll take her to San Francisco and just show her.
Abby lives in Lexington with her boyfriend Eric and their poodle Mikey. When she isn’t busy being digital marketing manager at KET, she loves travel, writing, coffee, the ocean, fishing, and biking around Lexington. There is more where this came from. Check out Abby’s blog.
During the recent state visit of Chinese President Xi Jingping, President Trump entertained his state visitor at the fabled, elegant, and romantic Mar-a-Lago Country Club, as described in a State Department travel brochure. During dinner, as the two men were eating dessert, President Trump informed President Xi that he had ordered a cruise missle attack on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s forces against unarmed civilians in a rebel-held town.
In an interview with a giggly Fox Business anchor, Maria Bartiromo, Trump recounted the incident, emphasizing the role that “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake” played in this extremely high-level statecraft. Below is the link to that interview excerpt.
UnderMain has obtained exclusive interview rights with Chocolate Cake, and recently sat down for a conversation with the now-famous delectable.
UM: Thanks for agreeing to talk with us, Chocolate Cake.
CC: No problem. This is a yuuge deal for me, maybe the biggest ever for a piece of food.
UM: How did you get involved with the Trump administration?
CC: I’ve known Donny, I mean the president, for a long time. Me and him go way back. When he bought Mar-a-Lago, he told the chef at that time, and we’ve been through many chefs since then. Some of the best, greatest chefs in the world in the years that President Trump has owned the place. And all the chefs wanna be there, they’re all fighting to get into that kitchen. Because they all wanna cook in a classy place, and now for the president. You can’t believe it. That’s why people will pay anything to get into that club.
UM: You started to say how you and the president go way back.
CC: That’s right. When he bought the club he told the chef then, and right from the start the chefs have been the best in the world. He told the chef that he wanted the greatest desserts on the menu, especially a big, moist, elegant chocolate cake that everyone would say is the best piece of chocolate cake they have ever had. They tried lots of recipes and picked me, as I knew they would, because I am so far above all those other cakes it’s not even funny. People eat me and say, “Stop, you’re too delicious. I can’t stand it!”.
UM: Okay, so how did you get involved in our diplomatic efforts?
CC: Well, when the president got into office, one of the first things they did, and who could believe that a chocolate cake would be such an important piece of the whole picture? They got rid of a lot of people at the State Department. I mean, there’s hardly anybody there. Tillerson is hardly there, and when he is he’s talking to his buddies in Russia. Anyway, they started an Edibles Division and gave us a whole floor.
UM: A whole floor of the State Department?
CC: Yeah, don’t sound so suprised! So I have an office, a beautiful office. Has a view of the Lincoln Monument. Meatloaf is next to me. Fried Chicken, Well-Done Steak, Ketchup. We all have offices. And they did a lot of research, some of the biggest researchers on food in the country, to see what the average diet is for a ten-year-old boy. And it lines up perfectly with what President Trump likes. I hear Hamburger’s coming, and Pizza Without The Crust, Diet Soda. We might end up being the biggest division there. And you know, when the president is dining with people he always tells them what to eat, so we gotta be really big.
UM: He orders for them?
CC: Yeah, and of course he even won’t let Christie order a piece of me.
UM: So did he order you for President Xi of China?
CC: Absolutely! Now I have to tell you that Xi is a very serious man. I mean he’s the president of China. I don’t know if you know this but China has the most people in the world. Amazing! So President Trump insists that President Xi have a piece of Chocolate Cake.
UM: So what happened then (giggling)?
CC: They bring pieces of me out of the kitchen to serve to both presidents. And I get this look from President Trump like if I don’t come through he’ll say, “You’re fired!”. Even though I know the guy never fires anybody. Couldn’t even fire Flynn. Anyway I knew it was my big moment, like I said, maybe the biggest moment ever for a piece of food. And I always remember what my grandfather, Chocolate Torte, told me about being served to important people. “Ya gotta grab ’em by the taste buds. And then they’ll let you do anything to them.” Very important lesson when I was just a chocolate muffin.
UM: How did this play out with President Xi?
CC: Well, the FAKE NEWS of course hardly covered this. Because they don’t know what’s really going on. But when Xi tore, and I mean really tore into me, he couldn’t stop eating. It was the greatest thing. Because as he was doing that, Trump tells him about the missles into Iraq…
CC: Yeah, Syria. And it all went down smooth as a baby’s tush. And we closed the deal. Not a peep from Xi. He just kept eating. I think it’ll go down as the greatest deal ever closed over dessert. And then it was done. Sayonara, Xi.
UM: That’s Japanese.
CC: Whatever, its all the same.
UM: How did the evening end for you?
CC: So’s after its all over President Trump comes back to the kitchen and tells me I did real good. And he says he’s gonna get me on the Food Channel and he guarantees that I’ll get the highest ratings ever for a show on that channel. Says I’m now bigger than Bobby Flay.
UM: Well, Chocolate Cake, that’s all we have time for.
CC: Really? I was going to tell you about a deal I worked with Trump and some mob guys over dinner at his Jersey club.
UM: Guess we’ll have stuff to talk about the next time. Thanks again.
CC: You treated me real nice, so I’ll be glad to help you out.
I personally prefer intentional change—change that occurs because you know what needs to be different, and you seek it.You want it, and you make a place for that change in your life. One might give up an unhealthy habit, leave a job that is no longer appropriate, or find one’s voice and seek positive change out in the world. That kind of change is ideal, and it brings growth and empowerment and opens new doorways.
Then there’s the other kind of change. The kind that happens suddenly and you have to adapt quickly and go with it. It can bring about growth, too.
About six years ago in the wee morning hours of a Saturday, I awoke to a waterfall in our bedroom. It was a torrential storm, and water was cascading over the sliding glass doors next to our bed. I woke my husband, and we immediately ran to get buckets, mops, towels—whatever we could get our hands on to staunch the flow of water quickly covering the floor of our house.
The same thing was happening in the den—a waterfall over our sliding glass doors. Our kitchen was flooded, too. As we frantically worked to do what we could with the water covering the wood floors, I remember saying aloud, “Okay, Universe, we need help to make something good out of this.”
As the storm moved on to soak others elsewhere, the waterfalls cascading into our home soon trickled to a stop. I called a water remediation company, and they arrived without delay that Saturday morning to set up huge fans to begin the drying process.Later that day we met with a renewal contractor about what was going to have to be done.
The deluge in our home was caused by another contractor who was beginning the framing of a sunroom on the back of our house–cutting out the roof eaves and soffits and leaving Friday night without putting tarping on the roof. All the water flowing down our roof from the heavy storm that night poured right into our house.
We lived in a hotel for over three months while the walls, subfloors and wood floors, trim and cabinets were all replaced, and everything repainted. Our home offices were in the house, and, luckily, they were untouched by the flood. We drove to our home every day to work in our offices while the contractors did awesome work.
Shortly after the flood and the move to a hotel for the duration of the renewal of our home, my beloved father, who lived in the Louisville area, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
My focus became my father most of the time, and I traveled to see him often. We had quality time—time that I will always treasure. I was amazed by my ability to accept what I could not control and embrace “it is what it is,” but still remain hopeful (resisting whatI could not change would have been somuch harder). I put one foot in front of the other and just took things step by step. I let go of what I could not control and worries over what would come tomorrow. Being focused in the moment was what made me able to keep moving and doing what I needed to do through it all—seeing my father, working with the insurance company and contractor and doing work. I was fully present in those times with my dad and experienced them as very precious.
The Universe made good on my request. The insurance company was very caring and compassionate and got checks to us right away. We stayed in a nice hotel where we didn’t have to worry about our room being cleaned or even preparing meals if I needed to travel to see Dad. The insurance company paid for almost everything.
While my father experienced discomfort with the chemo process, he didn’t experience pain, and that was such a gift to him and to all of us who loved him.
I look back on that time with an awareness of strength that I otherwise would not have known that I had. I also learned the power of now, of being in the present moment—not in the past or worried about the future—but NOW. That is where the power and the love is.
Things that happen in the blink of an eye and leave you all the wiser. Have one of those in your life? Nothing like putting it all down on “paper.” Click here for details on the latest UnderMain Essay Challenge.
In a ceremony in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, Nevi’im, The Hebrew Testament Prophets Society, honored Jeb Bush as the Hebrew Calendar Year 5776 Prophet of the Year. Making the presentation on behalf of Nevi’im, the Prophets Samuel, Jeremiah, and Micah acknowledged the single moment of prophetic brilliance of Bush’s losing campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Samuel noted that Bush turned out to be “a loser, not an anointed one”, but that he appeared to be visited by heavenly hosts when he exclaimed during a primary debate about eventual winner, Donald Trump “…But he’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.” Micah chimed in that Bush’s dismal campaign certainly was in keeping with the prophet’s admonition to “walk humbly”. “Maybe too much humble walking!”, exclaimed Micah with a wink to the gathered mighty multitudes.
Jeremiah added that it is still not clear whether Bush’s prophecy will make him eligible for major or minor prophet status. An Assembly of the Angels of the Lord gathers every thousand years to determine the final placement of honorees in the pantheon of prophets.
At the ceremony, The Golden Calf Award for False Prophet of the Year was presented to David Plouffe, architect of Barack Obama’s election victories, who in June of 2016 made this prophecy in a widely-read tweet: “The race is not close. And it won’t be on November 8th. 350+ electoral votes for Clinton.”
In presenting the award, the Prophet Samuel, assisted by Satan’s Minions, said that the award was extraordinarily competitive this past year with so many deserving nominees, but that Plouffe’s prophecy stood out for its certainty and utter and complete error. Ordinarily the winner of The Golden Calf award is smitten by the hand of Samuel at the awards ceremony, but this year mercy was dispensed to Plouffe because “…even the Angels of the Lord bet wrong on this one”.
Plouffe, bound in chains, dressed in a sackcloth, and smeared with ashes, looked visibly relieved as he was led off the platform.
Nominations are open for the year 5777 awards. One nomination has been received to date for a dual award for the Prophet of the Year and the False Prophet of the Year, an unheard of celestial event. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have been nominated for the prophecy, “And the winner is…La La Land!”.
The awards ceremony ended with the sacrifice on the National Mall of two bulls, a sheep, and a goat.
It was a simple text message from a friend who knew I had joined the Women’s March in downtown Lexington on Saturday, January 21. It caught me in the midst of a moment.
“So beautiful,” my response started. “So many interesting (because they were interested) and diverse people. The small minority of people that were there because they were angry gave way to the overwhelming majority of people that were hopeful and excited about the future.”
The signs were clever, I noted. “It was inspirational to see so many people empowered and free.Every conversation I had was around the beauty of the experience, not the anger that was a small part of its impetus.”
After some reflection, I realized that my words to a friend are true. They are truer than any words I could have purposely thought of. True in a way that only stream-of-consciousness can be. What at first was the effusion of an average, mid-thirties, white girl in Lexington proved to be the unadulterated language of the heart.
I’ve been concerned about our world for some time now.From what I gather, most of us have been. There’s so much anger being spewed, so much hate cultivated and recycled and 24-hour cycled.The fear in our culture has reached a boiling point and many of us don’t know what to do with it except to channel it into hate and anger.
I am guilty of it.
Here’s an example:
A friend of mine recently attended a sporting event with some children.Her recounting of the event agitated me and I vomited hateful and nasty commentary. She told the story of angry men, screaming at their crying children and likened the event to what she imagined a dogfight to be.
I can’t remember my words exactly, but they went something like this: “this whole country is fu*!ed. Those idiots are just guaranteeing that their children turn out to be as backwards as they are.In an effort to teach their children to be men, they’re scaring the human being out of them and turning them into monsters instead.”
I don’t have children, but if I did, I’d hope they never hear the words, “shut up and stop being a sissy.” I truly hope that I wouldn’t tell a young man to stop acting like a girl in a way, though not directly expressed, directly expresses that girls are less than him, weaker than him and somehow innately inferior.
The January 21st march, juxtaposed with the account of what happened at that children’s sporting event, mere days apart from each other, paints one picture of the different attitudes we are cultivating in our homes and in our community.
My favorite snapshot from the event is of a little girl in a Wonder Woman outfit.
It was most certainly not a costume as it was selected with intention and perfectly appropriate for the occasion. Evey Jarvis’ mother allowed me to photograph her. As she was spinning around and waving her hands, it occurred to me that Wonder Girls turn into Wonder Women and that today, in 2017, that is exactly what she has the opportunity to become.
The march was a show of solidarity by women and men.I heard it referred to not as a march for women’s rights but a march for human rights, led by women. Led by moms and supported by dads.Led by daughters and cheered on by brothers.Led by Wonder Women and encouraged by Super Men.I marched with people I love, many of them strangers, some of them pro-life, some of them pro-choice, all of them pro-love. Every single one of them, a Super Hero.
Although it is often easier to react rather than to respond, to seek to be understood rather than to understand, to sew hate rather than sew love, we need to start thinking about our actions. Now, more than ever, it is important that we remember to put on our Wonder Woman cuffs and our Super Man capes and be brave.Now, more than ever, we need to lift one another up and stop putting people down.To fix this situation, we have got to start listening to each other and stop treating people, other humans, like they don’t matter.
This is a call to action.
This is a time for courage.
We all have it.Every single one of us is brave.We accomplish tremendous feats every day. When we are heartbroken and go to work anyway, when we are tortured by loss and suffering and manage to get through another waking hour, when we do the right thing even if it’s hard, when we listen to someone that annoys us, when we smile at a stranger, when we choose adventure over monotony, when we endeavor to make our monotony an adventure, when we create, when we dare, when we love … God … loving is so brave, when we put others first, when we follow our hearts, when we try … trying is brave, when we recognize another’s effort, when we open our eyes and see each other as equals, when we say ‘I’m sorry,’ when we accept an apology, when we utter an honest ‘no,’ when we heed an authentic ‘yes,’ when we dance, when we sing, when we laugh and when we cry.
Maybe the last remaining indisputable fact in our world is this: we are all human. We are infinite spirits housed in finite flesh and bones. Despite our different experiences, no experience is more bonding than that of our common human one.
To be human is to be brave.
That little girl twirling in her Super Woman outfit has all the courage she needs and it can be nourished by experiences like what we saw in Lexington and around the world on the 21st of January.Her community coming together to stand against hate has all the vital ingredients needed for a spirit to flourish.
Here is the challenge: let us not allow events like this to come and go.Let us not forget what we felt and what we saw.Let us take this opportunity to effect change.This event deserves our attention and our time.Patience is brave.Let us honor what happened on that Saturday by continuing to stand up for each other.Let’s stand up for everyone, together. Let us go forward and listen to one another. Really listen, ever mindful that if the words we are hearing with our ears scare us and seduce our anger we can listen with our hearts instead. From that tiny, quiet place, we can hand each other a cape and save the world.
Officials at the Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy’s research facility outside of Chicago, announced today a breakthrough in storage technology which will enable the utilization of surplus supplies of individual and mass outrage. The technology was developed in a secret accelerated research and development program over the past year subsequent to the release of a Surgeon General’s report, States of Exhaustion: Outrage Depletion Syndrome (ODS), A Public Health Crisis. The report documented the increasingly widespread occurrence of ODS, especially in the Northeast and West Coast and other isolated population pockets. The spreading syndrome has escalated to epidemic proportions over the past several months, making the research efforts urgent in nature.
Outrage Depletion Syndrome has been found to be most frequently characterized by a prodromal phase lasting weeks to months during which individuals experience massive, serial episodes of outrage, with some reporting as many as ten to twelve episodes a day. The depletion stage of the syndrome which follows is characterized by glassy-eyed apathy, defeatism, over-dependence on sarcasm and rationalization, and heavy use of Jimmy Fallon. Individuals with ODS are at increased risk for substance abuse and Multiple Feline Acquisition Disorder.
Describing the breakthrough, Dr. Bernice Foliedeux, Director of Argonne, reported that special remote sensing technology enables the kinetic energy from an individual’s volatile outrage surges, captured by bracelets, watches, and bite guards the individual wears or uses, to be transferred to newly developed battery storage cells, the Affective Battery Array. The wearable devices then allow the user to access surplus stored outrage when the devices measure the inception of the depletion stage of ODS. In this way the user has access to outrage on a more consistent and usable basis.
Argonne is working with its commercialization partners, Apple and Fitbit, to produce and market the wearable devices, and Tesla will produce the Affective Battery Arrays. The entire system will be branded ODiouS Synergistics. Initially the battery arrays will be produced for individual users, but it is anticipated that mass storage banks will be developed in the near future to aggregate the outrage of millions of individuals in different locations across the country, allowing much wider access to large inventories of stored outrage. Dr. Foliedeux predicted that while use of the new technology might be geographically limited at the initial sales stage, she is confident that within a year it will have established a strong market presence throughout the country.
The Argonne researchers revealed that the outrage storage project is the first step in a much larger alternative energy program, The National Emotional Energy Storage Initiative. Dr. Foliedeux announced that the next target affect state will be dumbfounded. Concluding her remarks, Foliedeux admitted that, “Outrage is easy. It’s much harder to capture the energy in dumbfounded”.
Cara Blake Coppola’s contribution to our essay challenge is about a life-altering turning point of great significance.Her essay is excerpted from her blog email@example.com.She recalls the day when she learned that her daughter had special needs.The story unfolds in Lexington.
There is a poem/story that I have become familiar with since meeting Willow Eve. It is called “Holland” or something like that, and it compares the reality of raising a child with special needs to a misguided vacation that, though promising Venice or some such exotic locale, instead delivered the vacationers to Holland. “Oops,” the story goes. “Instead of gondolas and wine and pasta, you get windmills, and tulips. Maybe some wooden shoes as souvenirs.” Not quite the relaxing, stimulating vacation you thought you were going to get, but hey, you’re still on vacation, right?
I’m certain that when I first read that story, probably in those fog-filled days of Early Intervention and sleep-deprived delirium, it brought me comfort, and more than a few tears. After fifteen years, however, I find the metaphor lacking. Because, really, who goes on vacation for fifteen years? And does that mean I’m supposed to assume that I was on vacation in Venice for three and a half years before I had Willow, when Sierra was the only human being I was responsible for? If so, I think I need a refund, because I don’t remember gondolas, or wine, or any kind of vacating in any way. I remember being tired, and laughing hysterically, and lots of pee, poop, and vomit. Somehow I think the Venetian Tourist board would be amiss at this comparison, though I’m sure some college students have had Venetian vacation stories such as this.
Willow was a sweet, tiny little baby girl, so loved by her big sister and the dog Maggie, who licked her cheek and wagged her tail in delighted greeting when Willow was brought home from the hospital. We adjusted accordingly, and got back to living our simple life.
By the time spring burst into the Kentucky countryside, our small bohemian apartment was bursting with color and toys, and spoke of a happy family. That, however, was the calm before what would become our personal storm, the blissful ignorance we allowed to envelope us before the evidence started piling up.
Soon, too soon, we would be forced to accept the reality that Willow was not developing as she should, that her frequent crying was indicating more than just colic. Taking place over a few weeks, totaling one very long month during her fifth month of life, we would return from the hospital once again with Willow, though this time it was very, very different.
There was a day, in Willow’s fifth month, when everything started coming together, like sand shifting its way down a funnel, and that is where our story really begins…
“Now boarding for Holland, please buckle up. It’s gonna be a damn bumpy ride.” Taking off…
It will be a challenge to me to keep this narrative at a decent length, but this particular day was the exact day it all began. There were hints, or foreshadowing if you will, yet our immersion into the special needs world was primarily condensed into one day on the monthly calendar. Intense does not begin to describe it. The difference between Venice and Holland is not sufficient; maybe the difference between living on Frontier America and suddenly being transported to the bar where Han Solo shoots first is a closer comparison.
It got to the point where, by the end of our weeks’ vacation at the beach that fifth month of her life, Willow would only nurse at night, when she was too exhausted to fight anymore. But then she would nurse and fill up and sleep well, and she wasn’t losing weight, so we just kept trying to eliminate the variables.
Driving home was a headache and ibuprofen rich endeavor, and we returned home to our little apartment exhausted and tanned, but not really feeling relaxed from our “vacation”.
Upon our return, time seemed to speed up and get really scary. I went to visit a good friend, my midwife and doula who had been there when Willow was born. She took the baby and immediately lifted her up and down, as if weighing her. “Is she losing weight?” she asked suggestively, waking a growling dragon of stress and anxiety in the pit of my soul. “Is she?” I asked, tears immediately coming to my eyes.
Soon after, I couldn’t get Willow to nurse at all, so we got some soy formula. At that point, it was an early spring morning in Kentucky, characteristically cold and dreary. I tried and tried to give Willow the bottle that I hoped would fix everything, but she refused to take it. She just screamed weakly, and I cried.
Quickly, we headed downstairs to visit our neighbor, another midwife who owned a glucometer. She tested Willow’s blood sugar. I will never forget the look on her face as she read the screen. “Cara, her blood sugar won’t even register, I think you need to take her to the ER.”
What followed was a day that was so surreal and frightening, I seem to remember it in foggy patches, like a dream that you can’t shake for hours after you wake up.
We went to our local hospital where Willow had been born. They asked many questions and made many, many false assumptions. It is a cruel trick of the human mind that we can see things in hindsight so much more clearly than we do at the present. At that point in her exhaustion and hunger, Willow’s eyes were shifting erratically back and forth. “Does she always do this?” one doctor asked, pointing to her shifting eyes. “Um, I don’t know. She’s really tired I think. She won’t eat…” I kept saying. They asked me if she was blind. Blind?? No, I was sure that she had focused on my eyes while nursing, that she had paid attention to the rainbow paper chains that decorated our living room. In hindsight, however, that damned gift that comes too little, too late, I realized that she never did stop shifting her eyes. That goofy, googly eyed-ness that Sierra had had when she was born (when I got scared and made Dad rush her to the nurse, because clearly she was broken) was a phase that Sierra had quickly outgrown. There was one cute cross-eyed picture of her at Mother’s Day, and that was the last of it. She was only a month old then. How could I have forgotten that? How did I not know Willow’s eyes weren’t behaving normally?
The next assumption was seizures. Perhaps her shifting eyes indicated seizures? They asked me. All I knew of seizures at the time was an image of someone shaking violently, drooling and passing out. No, Willow had definitely never done any of those things. She just wasn’t thriving anymore, she wasn’t growing anymore, and she cried…all the time.
Brain damage, they reported before Willow was even out of the CAT-scan. Retardation. Epilepsy. Possible blindness. The only conclusion of which they were certain, though it didn’t stop them from making guesses that shook me to my core, was that Willow’s case was out of their expertise. It was time to take a ride up to the big city and see what those doctors might know.
I knew the situation was worse than I might have imagined when they led us to an ambulance, shut the door behind Willow and I, and turned the sirens on full blast. Dear God, I remember thinking. Never in my life had I been in an ambulance with the sirens on. Not with my father’s almost heart attack, not with my mother’s anxiety attack she thought was a stroke. But here, my tiny, frail baby was strapped to an adult sized gurney, wrapping her weak little hand around my finger, as the sirens bellowed our entire journey towards Lexington.
It was in that ambulance that I met my first angel. I’m a Catholic by upbringing, Christian by nature, but claim no denomination. I’m not a terribly religious person; to me it is more of a culture than a spirituality, like my Italian grandmother’s routines of putting rosaries on the bushes outside to ask God for good weather, or putting some of the Christmas hay from the Church’s manger in your wallet for prosperity, and the ornate saint doll that sat on every matriarch’s mantle, robed in velvet and silk and lace. But I do remember many myths of God or Angel’s posing as some wayward person, a humble beggar or blind man. These archetypes sometimes pass knowledge, and sometimes propose a challenge for generosity. Those who pass the challenge are enlightened and praised; those who fail are doomed to suffer their ill choices.
The angel I met that day was one who passed knowledge, and I wish to this day that I remembered his name. He was one of the EMT’s that travelled in the ambulance with us that day. He sat in the back with Willow and I as his partner drove, and quickly noting the look of absolute desperation and fear that I’m certain I had plastered all over my face, talked with me calmly the entire grueling ride. Unlike everyone else we had met at the hospital, who seemed to feel free to hypothesize away about any myriad of ailments that might be afflicting our daughter, this man kept his opinions to himself. What he did, though, is tell me his story. He was a father. His wife had birthed triplets two years ago, and their premature children had met with many struggles along the way. Maybe it was twins. I honestly don’t remember, except that it was a multiple birth. He didn’t tell me what all the challenges were that they were meeting. He didn’t mention a single medical ailment, or any tests or needles or tubes that may have been involved in their challenges. What I do remember him talking about was strength; the strength of his wife, who he clearly adored, for carrying those children as long as she could to keep them strong, and the strength of his children, for overcoming any limitations life, or anyone else, may have imposed on them.
I don’t know, maybe he had been there the whole time in the ER and heard all these diagnoses and terms flying around and saw my instinctual urge surface, the one that tells you to run and hide somewhere dark and close; anywhere far, far away from there. Maybe he went through the same experiences with his babies. But he told me exactly what I needed to hear right then, and for that I am so, so very grateful. To this day, after meeting several more angels along the way, and even more thoughtless, over-diagnosing individuals, I remember him. Not his name, dammit, but I do remember him. I still hope someday he will remember me and reintroduce himself, but he was a very cool guy who gave me a bit of comfort on what, at that point, was the worst day of my life.
Willow and I were led from the Ambulance to the ER swiftly and put into a curtained enclosure. Quickly feeling like an exhibit in a circus, people started coming by. They would stand, and stare. Doctor after doctor would look at Willow, touch her without asking permission. They drilled me with questions, often not waiting for me to finish talking before they began the next question. This is a phenomenon that I have come to deal with in the medical and special needs world, where experts talk as fast as they think, and social norms of not interrupting are thrown out the window; at the time, however, I was completely floored. Sierra had been so healthy, not one round of antibiotics her entire three years, and I had no experience with such highly educated specialists. Their brains are machines of information, something I have come to deeply admire over the years, but the awkwardness of enduring many “conversations” like this soon sapped all my energy.
They asked questions about everything: the pregnancy, my diet, my habits, the birth, nursing, hell, they practically examined me as well. They touched and prodded Willow all over, turning her head back and forth, shining bright lights in her eyes, tickling her feet. Willow fussed and cried through the entire procedure, her eyes shifting all over without recognition.
I don’t know how much time passed that way, I truly remember very little about the UK ER that day. It was clear that we had to be admitted, that any number of tests had to be run, and we were soon wheeled down many shifting hallways until we emerged into the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital.
The old Children’s Hospital at UK is a bright and imaginative place, and I immediately enjoyed being in that building. They have since opened an entirely new Children’s Hospital. In the old hospital, which we were visiting for the first time that day, the elevator opened to a lobby where an artist had installed a truly remarkable perpetual motion machine. It was mesmerizing; a continuation of belts, gears, levers, and engines that moved a dozen or so balls around and about a labyrinth of activities. The balls went upstairs and down wooden blocks painted like fish, where each block made a different note as the balls cascaded downward. At one point a ball was dropped and bounced off a platform, only to land perfectly into a basket several feet up, where it continued on its course around the machine. What an amazing thing to create in a place where magic and whimsy were unlikely to be found.
As we proceeded into the hospital, following the nurses who spoke kindly to us both, we rolled past the corners where sculpted trees rose up to a ceiling enchanted with twinkling lights that at night were turned on to make a starry sky. Rooms in each hallway were filled with books, toys and wagons for play, and a toy cart was wheeled by volunteers from room to room, handing out free toys that had been donated by thoughtful people. As far as hospitals go, this place was almost as fun as a Children’s Museum.
At some point after we were installed into our own private room, Dad showed up loaded down with clothes, sleeping bags and food. Willow was put into a medical crib and hooked up to an IV for fluids. The nurses soon delivered a bottle with soy formula, and I gratefully began to feed Willow her first real bottle. This was a bittersweet moment for me. My main thought was to be thrilled as she hungrily swallowed three small bottles in a row and burped happily to be full.
But in honesty, I felt like a complete failure. I was a proud breastfeeding mother. Sierra had thrived beyond measure on the milk I produced for her, and never needed any kind of supplement. Willow had reacted so strongly against my milk, in hindsight since the beginning of her life, and I felt like I had bombed the most basic of maternal requirements, but Willow had made up her mind. Bottles were easier and the formula within contained no threat of allergies. She had made peace with her decision, but it would be years before I finished grieving for our aborted nursing relationship.
As soon as we were officially admitted to the hospital, the doctor visits began. We were swiftly introduced to a continuously shifting parade of people in white coats, scrubs and dress clothes. One person would breeze in with a plastic tote filled with vials to draw so much of Willow’s precious blood into the plastic tubes with different colored stoppers. An IV was hooked up to her tiny little arm, and her elbow had to be splinted so she didn’t pull it out. Soon her clothes were changed into the yellow and blue ones with koalas that the hospital provided. She wouldn’t wear her own clothes again for a week. Her small feet were poked repeatedly for blood samples. We rolled blankets and put them around the edges of the cold, metal bars of the hospital crib, and soon a kind face wheeled by with toys and books to help break up the monotony of white on white. On that day, Willow was given a fuzzy, soft flower that tied to the edge of the crib. A bee hung down; when pulled, the bee slowly made its’ way back to the flower, playing a sweet little tune in its journey. Willow still has this flower.
This was the very first day of our journey together into the world of being Medically Fragile and having Special Needs.A long tale, that day continues in my memory to be stretched in length way beyond twenty-four hours. It is the first chapter in a story that is almost sixteen years long, and filled with many more hospital visits, doctor visits, therapy, Special Education meetings, Shriner’s, wheelchairs and more.
We rolled through that door and into that world on this very first day.
Things happen. Things that are out of our control, barging into our lives totally out of the blue. And sometimes, these events are unforgettable. But over time, the details do become hazy, even forgotten.
As Gabriel García Márquez put it in reflecting on his own story, “life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”
“The best of our stories,” notes Brainpickings editor Maria Popova, “are those that transform and redeem us, ones that both ground us in ourselves by reminding us what it means to be human and elevate us by furnishing an instrument of self-transcendence.”
UM invites you to write it up for posterity. Describe some unanticipated, powerful event and, importantly, what you learned as a result of the experience. Send it to us for consideration. We’ll work with you.
To tell your story: write it up, attach it as a Word doc along with any related images (not required) and email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. If images are too large to email, DropBox them to same email address.
One moment, your life is trundling along under its own momentum. In the next millisecond, so much has changed, including your perspective on that big portion of life containing all of the things you take for granted.
It was the mid-afternoon of a warm September Wednesday at the Northside Lexington coffee shop Broomwagon. My UnderMain partner Art Shechet and I had just wrapped up a conversation with Danny Meyer and Sean Anderson about an interesting video essay they have in mind.
Everybody had that “next thing” to get to on their schedule. We all rose from the shop’s community table and said our goodbyes as I headed for the corner door leading to the sidewalk at the intersection of North Limestone and Loudon.
The thing is, there’s a step down, inside the shop, before you reach that door. And for some reason, I didn’t see it.
In the next instant I was transformed from busy, ever-on-the-go and reasonably healthy to immobilized, in excruciating pain and only just beginning to comprehend the extensive disruption brought on by what happened.
I would soon learn that in that blink of a moment, the quadricep tendon in my right leg had snapped. Ruptured. Within a half-hour I was ever-so-gently lifted by a team of Fayette County first responders to a gurney and took my first ambulance ride as a patient.
Let me just say right here that it could’ve been worse. So much worse. This essay is not an appeal for sympathy – many others have been far more grievously injured in spur-of-the-moment events. This is about that instant when so much changed.
I am writing this ten days after that ride. Ten days of discovery. About myself. About my wife Sheila, who shows exceptional skill in providing the most tender and thoughtful care. About the zillion little tasks we do day in and day out that suddenly have become impossible or, at the very least, a significant challenge. About the wreckage that now is my planned schedule for weeks to come. About cabin fever and being an outdoors type who is suddenly and indefinitely confined indoors on what had to be one of the most beautiful weeks of the year. And about the interrupted routine of a cat named Millie who normally has the run of the house weekdays, but now that one of her humans is on hand and under foot, her feline sense of order is wrecked and confused, so she vacillates between studied aloofness and pouncing affection.
Back to early evening of that fateful Wednesday and gingerly shuffling on crutches out of the UK Medical Center emergency room, leg fully braced straight, a throbbing obstacle to the simple act of sliding into the front passenger seat of Sheila’s car.
Once home I managed to scoot on my butt up three flights of stairs to reach the familiar comfort of my own bed. I then bumped my way down those stairs in the same way in the pre-dawn of the following Friday morning to return with Sheila at my side and behind the wheel to the Medical Center for my first-ever surgery under general anesthesia.
The hospital experience is its own story – mostly positive – and I’ll get around to sharing it some day. But this is about the sudden arrival in life of instant, unanticipated, extensive change. Will I fully recover? How long will that take? How does this impact my work? What becomes of those hobbies or passions, like music, that keep me “sane” that are now suddenly and discouragingly difficult or out of reach?
I’m not yet sure of the long term implications of this injury, but I do know that I will eventually recover. So I do not pretend to fully appreciate the routine daily challenges of the permanently disabled. But, because of that Wednesday afternoon moment, my perspective was changed.
While I’ve always respected the intent of the Americans for Disabilities Act, the legislation never meant more on a personal level than now.
I certainly don’t recommend injury as a way to more fully appreciate what it means to move about in this world somehow permanently physically compromised. But I do hope I can encourage you to take just a moment to think about the turns your life would take were something like this to happen to you or a loved one in your care. And how would you manage it?
One more thing: my friends have been great. Calls. Cards in the mail. Visits, some bearing lunch. All a reminder of how much genuine thoughtfulness really does matter in a time like this.
Above all, if you have your health, make the absolute most of it. Things can and do change remarkably in the blink of an eye.
We moved to the Gardenside area of Lexington when I was ten, just before starting fifth grade. Before my mom found the house on Maywick Drive we’d moved pretty much every summer to a slightly bigger house in a slightly better neighborhood with a slightly better school for my sister and me.
We lived on a large corner lot that was barren of trees, although the neighborhood wasn’t new and there were plenty of large old trees in other yards. Mom and Dad love landscaping, and they made our yard into a beautiful garden, complete with koi ponds, butterfly gardens, bird feeders, squirrel feeders, bat houses, and small paths through the landscaping with hidden benches and hammocks where I would sit for hours and read novels while avoiding my homework. They created a beautiful oasis and we all loved spending time in that yard.
The tree in question did not, however, live in our yard. The elderly couple across the street also had a yard that was devoid of the large old trees that populate the rest of the neighborhood. Their backyard contained a single tree, small in comparison to others on the street, but to me this was the most amazing and magical tree I had ever encountered.
As the summer began to wind down and we went back to school, the tree began to bear fruit. I looked forward to the days that I would arrive home from school and on the kitchen counter would be my gift from the neighbors – a bounty of pawpaws.
From my first taste of the pawpaw I was in love. I loved the irregularity of their shape and the flaws and bruises on the green skin. I loved the sweet scent of the soft orange fruit that couldn’t be contained by the bad tasting and undeniably ugly outer layer. I loved cutting one open while standing at the counter, spooning the creamy flesh into my mouth, and spitting the large seeds at my sister, who didn’t share my appreciation of the pawpaw.
That pawpaw tree experienced a lot in the 14 years my family lived in the house across the street. It weathered storms and droughts, and even survived the near miss of my mother’s car sliding out of gear and rolling down the driveway, across the street and through the yard, only to be finally stopped from running into the next house by a very sturdy chain link fence. (As an aside, there’s not much funnier than looking out the kitchen window and saying, “Hey, Mom? Isn’t that your car over there in the neighbor’s yard?” and watching her run. Fast.)
I moved out on my own after graduating from Transylvania University, and when only a year or two later my parents moved from Gardenside to Bell Court, I lost my pawpaw connection. Sometimes I find them at a farmer’s market, but I’ve had few pawpaws in the close to 20 years that have passed since my parents moved away from the tree. Sometimes in the fall I dream about pawpaws and am excited that the pawpaw now gets attention from foodies and craft brewers and ice cream makers alike.
Before long, I hope that the pawpaw can again be a regular part of my autumn experience. In the meantime I keep searching, so if anyone out there has a pawpaw tree with a surplus I’m more than happy to take some off your hands.
On a white white sand dune atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean in
Pacific Grove, California, my family enjoyed a tree that literally ran
the length of the dune from one end of our redwood cabin, up the dune,
ending past the end of the cabin.
This tree was truly windswept, with only a few feet between the tree trunk and the sand.
We could climb it, sit on it like a horse, even do a yoga pose as I did to mark my 50th and 60th birthdays.
Every family who visited or rented our cabin has family photos sitting on this tree.
Alas, nature took it’s course and it died.
Then human nature took it’s course and through a family feud, the cabin was sold, bringing to a close ourfamily’s near 100 year legacy as its occupants.
Yet the photos of that graceful windswept pine live on in many albums and memories.
I began this essay jotting down a few “favorite tree” thoughts, and soon came to realize how so many different trees have touched and shaped my life and memories. So, unfortunately for this essay, but fortunately for me personally, I don’t have “one favorite tree” – I have so many!
I am grateful to my mother for passing on an appreciation for trees – to warm, cool, comfort, and beautify the body and soul. Thank you, Mother, for insisting on saving every tree possible!
After reading Tom Martin’s UnderMain essay project, I briefly considered what tree in my past was a particular favorite, and my thoughts focused on more recent favorite tree memories connected to my sons’ adventures in them – Empty Nest Mother memories, I guess. However, in addition to some favorites of theirs, I realized my entire life has been enhanced by these wonders of nature – so, a shout-out of gratitude to my Creator, first off!
I guess if I had to pick just one, I would pick “my” lemon tree that lived for 37 years after I planted grocery store lemon seeds as a five-year-old in my Mother’s front porch flower pot.
It was transplanted in larger and larger pots, to a final garbage can (not the most lightweight planter option), traveled across two states and to five or six homes and/or apartments, and bore fruit twice. It was a real “pain” to move and transplant, due to the very large thorns and the weight of it as it grew; my father, and then my husband were troopers for lugging it indoors and out, and from home to home, season after season! It lived a long, full, fragrant life in a climate zone not conducive to citrus trees – thus the reason it was a houseplant much of the year.
An early favorite tree was a beautiful Knoxville, Tennessee mimosa, in a spacious yard with a wonderful house full of family love and memories.
The house was situated beside a cemetery and across the railroad tracks; my brother and I grew up safely playing in the yard unafraid of either – although, they may have led to my lifelong love of the Dark Shadows television show, Stephen King books, and scary movies!
At my grandparent’s farm in Carlisle, KY, was a large shade tree that I spent many summer afternoons under, reading a great book in a lawn chair, after helping with the chores.
OK, I mostly just watched and/or rode the tractor as my hard-working grandparents grew three gardens, and raised tobacco, farm animals, and livestock. We also attended the Saltwell Methodist Church, with its beautiful stained glass windows, and I spent time with my grandmother at the ASCS (Agricultural Stabilization & Conservation Service) office in town, where she worked – she let me file papers and work the “adding machine”.
After a move to Morehead, KY in 1969 as a new 5th grader, the K-12 University Breckinridge School (“Breck”) tree out front, with a circular wooden bench, was a favorite for all students; especially for the girls when we reached high school age and sat under while watching the college guys walk or drive by – one of the many perks of attending a small-town university-owned “training” school on a college campus!
At my Morehead home on North Tolliver Road, near the MSU football stadium, we had a lovely weeping Chinese elm, under which I also read and enjoyed alone time, during my preteen and teen years.
With love and marriage, came the many special trees my husband, Richard and I have planted in our 30 years together; to give us warmth, cooling, comfort and beauty – a Mother’s advice is often so wise. Planting a tree together, and watching it grow, is highly recommended – it’sa lot like parenting – you have to take care of it early on, then it will reward you for the rest of your life!
And, finally, with the parenthood of boys, came so many “favorite” climbing tree memories and laughter! Our sons, now grown, gave us full hearts – and some intense moments – of joyful memories from climbing trees at home; in Ashland Park, the Henry Clay estate; at Lake Cumberland, including building a treehouse with Dad, climbing a rope tied around a tree trunk to get to a nearby waterfall where they jumped off, and a tree rope that allowed them to swing over the water and fall in; and climbing tall trees at Meemaw & Poppy’s house.
Those “favorite” trees often held John and Daniel safe and gave them years of testing their limits; but also taught them tough life lessons, by letting them fall, and even allowing a swarm of bees give Daniel a particularly “not so favorite tree” life-long memory!
Thank you, UnderMain, for giving me a chance to slow down long enough to realize what a tree really means to me, and the many family and friends I have enjoyed favorite trees with for 50-plus years.
The first conversation I ever had with my neighbor was about trees. Two specific trees, in fact – giant American Sycamore trees in my front yard, one on each side of the walk leading up to the front door.
I had just bought the house, compounding the mistake of an increasingly disastrous marriage with a mortgage and an address in a city I had no desire to live in.
“They’re dying, you know,” he told me. “Probably already dead. You should just have them removed.”
It was mid-March, and they were still weeks and maybe even a couple months away from regaining their canopy, so it was hard to tell if what he reported was true.
“Besides,” he said, “they’re trash trees. All they do is drop these gigantic leaves all over the place in the fall, and these weird little brushy things in the spring, and then it’s just branches all over the place the rest of the time. They get in everyone’s yards and this place is a complete mess.”
Being polite and trying to gain neighborly friends, I didn’t point out that he was arguing in the alternative – if they were dead, then the leaves and such shouldn’t be a problem, right? Besides, what I don’t think I told him that day was that the trees were the one thing I truly enjoyed about the house. I was ready to settle into my strange marriage in a strange town, but at least I had these two big, beautiful trees in the front yard.
Sometimes I sent myself a mental postcard to be reminded of the platonic ideal of the life I had hoped to form, and the front of that postcard was a charming little house with two big, shady trees in the front yard.
At least, they looked big and shady in the pictures on the realtor’s website.
When summer came around, however, something was off. Neither tree grew a particularly full canopy, and the tree closest to my neighbor looked ghastly, like some sort of skeletal hand reaching toward the sky with occasional patches of green flesh hanging off it, the tips of the fingers spindly, gray and bare. I pondered this tree a lot from the front window of my bedroom, which at the time was officially known as “the guest room.” That was what we called it in front of my parents and other company, but it had been my room since moving in.
Over time, it became clear that things were not as they should be. Both trees took on a patchy look year after year, and both were in the obvious throes of some unknown struggle.
My neighbor did his best to work on me about the trees, but in my stubborn defensiveness, I insisted that they were probably just having issues and could get better at any moment. The fallacy of this was apparent to everyone who cast an eye on my front yard, but I couldn’t yet admit that my perfect picture of two strong, shady, established trees in my front yard was already likely beyond hope. Other growing problems demanded my attention anyway, and so I feigned optimism.
My neighbor was right about one thing, though – these trees shed more leaves, bark, brushy things and branches than any other trees in all of Creation.
Even my parents started dropping less-than-subtle hints, as I relayed to them my neighbor’s latest attempts at inveighing against my hardline stance on the trees.
“Hey, I agree with him,” came the response from my dad. “They just drop crap all over the place. These things are the messiest trees I’ve ever seen, but they aren’t even getting all their leaves in. You’re fighting a losing battle.”
I expected my mom to be more sympathetic, but maybe she had spent too much time cleaning up after messes I had made. A messy, dying tree wasn’t worth it.
In the year leading up to my divorce, the sicker of the two trees and the one closest to my neighbor finally relented, failing even to produce the one branch with four leaves it had the year prior. It stayed there in the yard like a decaying corpse, dropping brittle branches with even the slightest whiff of a breeze. Concerned for what would happen to the integrity of my roof if larger branches started breaking off, I realized that it was time to acknowledge the reality I had been pretending against.
Soon after I filed for divorce, I hired a local tree company to remove the dead sycamore. My parents lent me money for both operations, sweetly stifling any knowing smiles or other signs that my professions to pay them the money back had little, if any, merit. At the time, I was already working a night job of pizza delivery to keep my household alive, so the addition of child support on top of an unreasonable subprime mortgage on an underwater house was enough to nearly break me financially. I came home on the appointed day and in the three minutes between arriving from my day job and throwing on my pizza delivery uniform for my night job, I marveled at the vast empty space where the tree had been and what a difference it had made in the appearance of the yard.
Even with the tree gone, a battle still lay ahead in the ensuing years. The dead tree was gone and the stump was ground down, but the resulting mulch left a scar on the front yard that made it nearly impossible to keep grass growing. I tried seed the first year. I alternated to sod the next. The third year, I used a shovel to slice off a good area around where the tree had been, scraped the area clean and then put down a solid layer of topsoil before planting more sod. Grass at least finally got a foothold there, and even though it still isn’t completely covered yet, that massive scar has gotten a bit smaller every year.
The oddest part, however, is what has taken place on the other side of the main walk.
The other sycamore did recover, gaining strength and a full canopy as the other tree slowly withered and died. My neighbor continued with his attempts to convince me it was still susceptible to disease and would likely die out again and I should just go ahead and remove it and maybe he’d be willing to pay for it and to let him know and maybe there were other trees in my yard that – hint, hint – should be removed and that maple probably won’t survive much longer after it broke in half and it’s a shame about that peach tree but all it ever did was drop leaves and attract squirrels anyway, etc.
Those talks got a little more scarce over time, and I think he finally wrote me off as a lost cause. The final word I gave him was that the next owner of the house would be free to do whatever she or he wished, but as long as I was there, so too would be all of my trees.
Recently, as my family worked in the yard with me to get the house ready for sale, the subject of the remaining platanus occidentalis came up in relation to the amount of leaves being removed from all areas of the yard.
“This is ridiculous,” my mom groaned, hauling another wheelbarrow-full of dead leaves back to the compost heap behind my shed. “These leaves are EVERYWHERE. I’ll tell you what – I’ll never forgive you if you have another house with trees like these.”
Watching her there with my fiancée, raking leaves out of the front beds into piles and complaining about my tree, maybe I got little defensive. After all, I felt I was the one person who still loved that remaining American sycamore, a native tree so susceptible to disease that landscapers now use a heartier cousin instead, and it was my job to make others love it, too.
Later, having to haul a solid ten more wheelbarrows of those leaves myself, I got a better understanding of the continuing consequences on my loving and helpful family of the mess of the tree I insisted upon keeping, and I had to grudgingly admit that maybe I owed them a little more gratitude and a little less stubborn insistence that what I want at any given moment is the right thing.
Still, I love that tree. In the eleven years since we met, we’ve both grown a bit thicker around the trunk, and we’ve both managed to hang on to our canopy. My mental postcard of happiness matches the image with one big sycamore in the front of the house, and I give it the occasional pat of appreciation, although I’ve stopped short of giving it a full-on hug.
In recent years, there’s grown a tall and beautiful volunteer spruce in its shade, and I’ve also added a dogwood, a flowering cherry and assorted other volunteer stragglers to my yard to the point that in ten years there won’t be patch that isn’t shaded. I won’t still be in the house to appreciate it then – I’ll have this house on the market any day now, and I’m looking forward to where my life is headed with it behind me.
I’ll miss that sycamore tremendously, however. We’ve been through a lot together, but we’re both still here. We made it.
I became acquainted with the old bur oak tree near downtown Lexington not as a child, but as a very young adult. It was something of a Lexington landmark and I think it deserves a story. Its own place in history. No doubt, according to the tree specialists, it had at least a couple of centuries of stories to tell since Lexington was settled in June of 1775 and this ancient tree was at least that old.
The bur oak was located right off Lafayette Parkway leading up to Lafayette High School. Barely out of our teens, my husband and I were hunting for our first house and our realtor showed us a rather decrepit small home with this magnificent tree in the backyard. I don’t know if we bought the house because of the house or because of the tree. It was astonishing. Spreading my arms as wide as I could, I still could not embrace its diameter.
I don’t know how tall it was but it was too tall for tree specialists to even contemplate taking it down back in the 1970s. Bur oaks often grow 200-300 feet tall. It was many feet in circumference. It shaded our entire home in the summer with its big, brawny limbs. In the fall, it produced the most interesting acorns and gallons of them. These trees produce the largest acorns of any oak tree and they often were the preferred food for bears, harkening back to another time in the history of the place where Lexington began.
Besides enjoying the fact that this special tree was in our newly-acquired back yard, it provided a conversation starting point with our neighbors on the aptly-named Lone Oak Street. Our neighbors were a couple old enough to be our grandparents and well-known Lexington residents, Fred and Lois Flege. We bonded over that tree. They took to us and we to them and they became like our family.
We lived on that street and under that tree, with the Flege’s as our neighbors for many years. The tree developed dead limbs that we had to prune but we could bear to do no more than that. It was an important touchstone for us and for the Flege’s.
Shortly after we sold our house, the new owner took down the big tree. It had become dangerous. That tree will forever be a part of our memories of our early life in Lexington with our beloved neighbors, the Flege’s.
Years later, we moved back to Morehead and one day, we found a bur oak acorn in our front yard. There are no bur oak trees that we know of in this part of the Daniel Boone National Forest. We planted it. Maybe someday, long after we are gone, there will be another majestic bur oak tree in what used to be our yard.
One of our best memories will always be the big bur oak tree standing in the middle of Lexington.
My tree story is not about one tree but a whole grove of walnut trees that were at Morehead Camp.
These trees provided shade and many bushels of black walnuts. The walnut hulls were a mess to remove and the shells hard to crack, but nothing was better than the nuts for adding to fudge. They were also great in Waldorf salad and anything else calling for nuts.
My father used to white wash the bottoms of those trees, as was the custom.
Two trees in particular that were special were the two outside the kitchen window. They provided shade for our sand box and support for a swing and hammock.
When I was little my mother put my playpen under them for a nap and I took baths in a tub in the shade.
I remember Herbie Hogan cleaning his fish in the shade of those trees.
After Morehead Camp was sold the Williams children wanted something made of that walnut wood. The folks at the lumber yard got as much usable wood as they could, bypassing the bullets that were lodged in the trees as a result of target practice. We had special boxes made of the wood for ourselves and our children, and I had a couple of small tables built with an insert of marble salvaged from Fountain Square in Cincinnati.
I would never have dreamed that thinking of trees would have evoked so many memories!
It was a crooked tree with one large limb that bent almost to the ground. It grew alongside the property near my girlhood home in Kentucky in a new subdivision that my mother named ‘Twelve Trees’. The tree stood strong for its age on a bit of yet undeveloped land – unaware of the role it would adopt as my parents laid plans to live out their dream.
The lowest limb on this tree gathered great character as my six siblings and I got older and more daring. It held many adolescent bodies all at once; it took on feathers, scales and fur; it grew the body parts of dragon and panther depending; it grunted and growled and sighed and soared as the first to arrive declared what large creature it would be for the day.
Laughing, joking, and making up rules to welcome newcomers to the neighborhood, we shoved each other off the limb and pulled one another back on again.
For many years, we won and we lost all sorts of imaginary battles and the tree played along: resting when we left, but – I frequently thought to myself – always longing for our return the next day.
On days when we could not visit the tree, it was still visible from the bay window over our newly varnished hardwood deck. Through the years, the tree grew ears as the varnish on the deck faded. It crouched and leaned in to hear my elder siblings sitting on splintered benches searching for ways to win at a different game, a game my parents seemed to be losing, a game I no longer wanted to play. I know this, because together, the tree and I heard them.
The tree was different when I visited it alone; I was unable to make it move under my tall, thin frame. It did not have a head or a tail. Its bark was just bark. Settling in the crux between trunk and limb, I could only rest on the back of all those daydreams, usually with a journal in hand.
Not even on angry days would the tree pretend to have scales or breathe fire. Even when I held onto the trunk, pushing and shoving on the limb, the tree would still not buck or run or fight back.
One day, I was so determined and jumped so hard and long that I slipped and my bare, upper leg got caught between the trunk and limb of the tree. I knew then how strong we had made that tree: neither part would budge so that I could free my leg. I was not hurt, but I was stuck and alone until my older sister and brother returned from school.
When they did, they helped me push the limb down far enough that I could climb out of that predicament. They laughed. I cried. Through my tears, the tree then did the oddest thing: As they let go of the limb so that it could bounce back up, it bent further downward instead, like a creature taking a knee to lower its back for a rider to mount.
I felt my sister’s hand and then my brother push me up onto the limb. They climbed on too and between them I grabbed tightly onto what felt like thick fur growing under my hands. We stayed for a long time that day and I don’t remember much else, but I do recall the ground moving beneath us, wind on the thin skin of my closed eyelids, and the feeling that this tree knew far more than me.
Like many Kentuckians, my friend Glenn is vey generous.He gave me a car.His silver Chevy Cavalier belonged to me every time I came to town.The same was true for other visitors but for the two weeks I was in Lexington every year, it was all mine.
How to repay such generosity?I thought hard.
Sidenote:Where I live, such acts of kindness must be reciprocated.It’s actually a law: one must not offer nor receive a gift or gesture without repayment in kind within a certain time to be determined by the giver.Should that time be exceeded, the recipient will be advised by The Silent Treatment.
Using my best “I-pretend-to-be-from-Kentucky-even-though-I’m-not” thinking, I came up with the perfect thing – I would repair the trunk!
Lately, as you were driving along, the latch had taken to randomly releasing the rear hood causing it to catapult forward and threaten to smash the rear window. In my case, I was often so startled I would slam on the brake causing the trunk lid to stop bolt upright completely obscuring the rear view. Alternately, it would latch so securely that the only way to retrieve one’s belongings was to crawl thru a tiny rear seat opening into a pitch black trunk with a flashlight and screwdriver to search out the offending clasp. Being in the latter position in dressy clothes more than once, I decided that fixing the trunk would be perfect repayment.
Discovering the culprit to be a plastic mechanism that had dislodged from the trunk hood, I headed where anyone living in Versailles would: to Terry’s 5 & 10 cent store. I was pretty sure I’d find plastic cement, or “see ment” as its sometimes called, among the penny candy, 1950’s housewares and way in the back, my personal favorite, live fish and turtles. The promise of being greeted by the aroma of roasting cashews alongside the 25 cent mechanical horse with a Western saddle had me on my way.
From Terry’s Facebook page
Now if you have ever been to Terry’s in Versailles, you know it’s a shopping experience like no other, particularly if Terry is in the house. Wandering the aisles can be like hypnotically clicking link after link of Facebook pages where u find things you were unprepared to come upon.Over the years, I had stumbled upon everything from a music box that plays My Old Kentucky Home topped with a model of Ashland to every kind of party and Christmas decoration to pink flamingos, ruffled lace by the yard and something resembling saran wrap that was labeled “Adult rain bonnet with visor.”Young family members were delighted with purchases I could not resist such as the Volcano Making Kit, ant farm, bow and arrow, pirate patch, chattering teeth and a “96 Shot” package for cowboy guns.Honestly, you can get lost in the place.
From Terry’s Facebook page
But Terry’s is unique in one very important way: the people who work there KNOW WHERE ALL THE STUFF IS! I was led directly to the shelf of adhesives where I began reading labels. After the 4th one I was completely confused until I heard a voice close to my ear say ” What’re you lookin’ to fix?” And from that point on, Terry was in charge.
I explained about the trunk. He said “Well let’s see what we’re talking about” and the next thing I know, We’re outside with the rear hood open directly into 90 degree sunshine and Terry is climbing INSIDE the trunk so he can “get a better look”. Once in there, he sat facing the rear, flashlight in hand. As he began to lower the lid from inside to get that better look, I had a panicky image of it closing all the way leaving his lower legs dangling outside like those Halloween body-in-the-trunk gags. Luckily that was avoided by the arrival of another smaller man who climbed in next to Terry and turned out to be his son-in-law.
Between the two of them, they figured out that super glue offered the fastest fix but agreed it probably wouldn’t last.I followed Terry back inside where he encouraged me to take a 3 tube package that was better AND cheaper than the one I had picked up.“If I was you,” he said, “I’d head over to the auto parts store for a new latch.Then you can return this glue.Good luck and you have yourself a nice day now.”
From Terry’s Facebook page
As he walked away, I wasn’t sure what amazed me more: Terry’s willingness to diagnose and repair my car problem himself or his desire to do so with the least possible cost to me. He all but GAVE me the glue.
And by the way, it did the trick.
I never had to go anywhere else.
Now that’s service.
Editor’s note: On a recent Friday, this sign appeared in Terry’s door. Word is, it won’t be coming down. We wish the best to this good man and his family.
As with most people who have access to Netflix, I fell in love with the series Orange is the New Black. My dedication to watching the show began with the typical interest in the novelty of prisons, institutions that take people away from society, making them disappear.
The series is about a rich white girl who has to leave her comfortable life and do time in prison for a past offense. As I continued watching, I fell in love with the stories of each individual character. I became so interested in seeing just how they got to where they were in life. By the third episode, however, I became very sad, not only for the fictional characters in Orange but for women in prison in real life – for those real women in my life.
My experience with visiting women’s prisons began when I was seven. My cousin was arrested and convicted as an accomplice to the murder of two people, one of whom was a child. At the time my cousin was young, the age I am now (20), and in a tumultuous marriage. Needless to say, drugs were involved. She was driving the car the day her husband shot and killed a man and his child in their home.
I can remember feeling scared for her as we drove her mother to the scene of the crime. I remember the court trials and going to visit my cousin in prison.
I remember talking to her, sitting right in front of her but having to use a phone to talk to her. I thought of how lonely it must be to have a glass wall between you and everyone you have ever known, to never have privacy and never to be able to go out in public.
The prison seemed like the inside of a metal lunchbox to me. It was crowded with visitors who were loud. I remember not being able to hear my cousin because the phone had a bad connection. Her mother would always cry whenever we visited her but I was always confused. I didn’t understand what was going on or why she had to be behind a glass wall. I didn’t understand why I had to walk through metal detectors before I was even ten years old. I also didn’t understand how my cousin could behave as though this place was normal. I never understood how she got used to it.
Our entire town saw her as different from other people. She was put away, “disappeared.” She was the subject of gossip for a few months, and then she was forgotten. Everyone felt “safe” and they moved on to something new.
My next experience with women’s correctional facilities involved my older sister. The first incident happened within a few months of our mother’s death of pancreatic cancer. I was fifteen and my sister was thirty-eight. I had known that my sister had been on drugs for years by that point, but the death of our mother caused such emotional trauma that her drug problem became much worse. She was arrested one night for driving under the influence and for having Meth under the passenger’s seat in her car. Later that year she was arrested again for making and selling it.
I still have all the letters from my sister and my cousin. Little crochet key chains and Precious Moments coloring book pages from my cousin…confessions and apologies from my sister.
I would always receive the letters, with their names and ID numbers on them and become excited. It was like a pen pal, almost. At the beginning of their sentences, I became very excited to get their letters. They would ask me about soccer games, guitar practice and school. They never had much to say about their lives though, except for apologizing about their pasts and telling me about things that they missed. I couldn’t quite understand how they missed certain things. They missed biscuits and sitting on the front porch stringing beans with the family. My cousin even wrote me once explaining how badly she missed showers. As I got older, the letters between us became less frequent. I let myself get caught up with the outside world and forgot about the comfort those letters gave them. When the letters became fewer and fewer they were able to find comfort in other outlets.
I knew about the letters, but what I did not know about was their personal writings.
The women in prisons have to experience personal writings and expression and art in a different way from those of us who are on “the outside.” Women have been oppressed for generations and limited in their ability to be in the public sphere as easily as men due to society’s judgment of women in writing. But women inmates have an even more difficult time with having their voices heard.
Women inmates have a more difficult time having their voices heard because of the negative stigma of being inmates; they are not only separate from the public sphere physically, but ideologically through the stereotypes and opinions of them. They have important things to say, but it is difficult for their words to get to us on the outside. The separation and stigma prevent women inmates from experiencing the therapeutic experience of being heard.
Just as women in general had been silenced simply as a consequence of their gender, the women in prisons are silenced for that and their inmate status.
Distinguishing between “good vs bad” enhances the negative stigma against the women in prison. Women have been marginalized just for being women and thus cut out of the public sphere, but female inmates have to carry the labels of both “woman” and “criminal.”
The only access prisoners really have to “the outside” are through letters between themselves and family members, friends and penpals. While the rest of us can call in to news talk shows and chime in with our opinions, write letters to editors and blog about everything that angers us, those incarcerated do not have these options.
In our society, prison is a way of removing from the public eye, those who have committed crimes. They do not Facebook. They cannot have cell phones. They are limited in the amount of time they can use the prison phones and the phone calls they get and their in-person visits are timed and restricted to people on a pre-determined list.
It is easy to think, “Oh well, they are prisoners, they deserve it.” However, they are humans and separating them from society and limiting their resources only creates a cycle of low socioeconomic status and continuation of crime. It is hard to “come back up” when you are being kept down by your past mistakes.
The punishment that society imposes on inmates has the possibility of keeping them down for the rest of their lives, essentially extending their sentences even when they are eventually returned to “the outside.”
When I did a Google search on what people think about women in prison I found all of these terms: Untrustworthy; Trash; Bad; Poor; Unskilled. It is hard to carry all of these stereotypes with you – it can even make you start believing these things about yourself.
These labels lead to people deciding to not listen to what women in prison have to say. The thought of interacting with a prisoner makes people afraid and squeamish, so instead of being open to the idea of listening to an inmate, society pretends they are not there.
Who listens to the women locked in cages? Who listens to the women who are separate from their families, their friends and their jobs? Who listens to the women who are considered “violent” and “angry”?
Inmates have often been perceived as brutal, which is a false perception. In her poem, “Ready to Go”, inmate Tammica L. Summers, incarcerated at Broward Correctional Institution in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, compares the bars of prison to the bars of the zoo:
Summers was a college graduate who has been writing short stories and poems since grade school. However, she is not being recited at poetry clubs and appearing at poetry slams because she is incarcerated.
The legitimacy of the expressive writings of female inmates is no less than those lucky enough to receive an education in creative writing. Due to their status as an “inmate,” though, they lose all rhetorical credit and are easily disregarded.
There are many important reasons as to why we should open our eyes and ears and listen to the words of female inmates. They are humans and have the right to be heard. They are human just like all of us, which means we are just as likely to make the same mistakes they made that ended up with their incarceration.
Their words can encourage us to accept one another; to comfort one another; to listen to one another before it is too late; and to think about our actions before we do them. We are all capable of making mistakes and not every criminal is from a “rough background.”
It is easy to think that we are not capable of going to jail, that we are “good people”.
Every “good” person makes mistakes. Every person makes mistakes. We need to listen to female inmates and hear their stories and their pain. If we are unable to learn from them, then we are even more susceptible to incarceration ourselves. It is possible for any of us to also be in situations where we are one day silenced, as we as a society have silenced so many. It is even more possible that we will one day be cast away from society, just as we have cast so many away.
There are more than 200,000 women behind bars. Those are 200,000 voices that could teach us so much..
Maya Angelou, in her famous poem, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings writes,
*Read this book by the talented Lexington writer Bianca Spriggs.
Bridgett Howard is in her third year at Transylvania University as a Writing, Rhetoric and Communications major and Studio Art minor. A native of Whitesburg, KY., Bridgett will graduate in May, 2015. She is UnderMain’s first intern.