Back Hoe Disconnect

I drive a lot more than used to.  I have three part-time jobs in various locations around Milwaukee, so I sometimes spend more than an hour a day in my car.

It is easy to get impatient especially with people who insist on running red lights (well, they SAW the yellow so that means they should go through the light even if it turns red before they get to the intersection, right?).  Sigh.  I also see too many people still talking on their phones (Please, people — hands free is at least a LITTLE safer than holding that blasted phone to your ear while you turn left in front of me crossing multiple lanes of traffic).  Don’t get me started on all the people one can see clearly TEXTING while driving!  Please all of you agree on the roads you want to use and the rest of us will stay off those roads. Seriously.

I grew up in a small town.  I used to describe it as 699 people and one stoplight (which was quite accurate at the time, I might add).  Now I drive past way more than 699 folks and several stoplights before I even get to the interstate!

Somedays traffic is flowing well, and the other drivers seem reasonably rational and semi-intelligent. As I cruise by all those cars, people, houses, businesses, companies — I sometimes feel disconnected and isolated.  I’m in my own little world inside my vehicle and everyone else on the busy highway is in theirs, too.

Angel of Grief imagy by Michael Schaffner via Flickr CC
Angel of Grief imagy by Michael Schaffner via Flickr CC

As I was driving one day recently through the city — I pondered the number of very large cemeteries that I pass going from one of my jobs to another.  I catch glimpses of intricately sculpted stones — angels, obelisks, crosses.  Row upon row upon row.  There is even a quite large pyramid in one of the graveyards I pass.  If I go a certain way, the interstate cuts through a military cemetery. There are rows and rows of solemn white crosses on gently flowing hills on both sides of of the highway.  At sunset the light is beautiful against the stones.
image by Just Add Light via Flickr CC

My most common thought about these cemeteries is that I wish I had time (or tell myself I should MAKE time) to go walk around in them on a nice day so I could look more closely at the interesting monuments and possibly take photos of them.

One day last week, I was driving along beside one of these huge graveyards and I caught sight of a cluster of cars and a back hoe out of the corner of my eye.  My heart lurched.  I felt sorrow for those people gathered there on the cold grey winter day to honor and mourn their loved one.  I wondered if the person was young or old, if the death was from illness or some tragedy, and even what kind of life they had led..  The back hoe was not very far away from the clump of cars and people.  It sat with the bucket facing the grave as if it was anxious to dig in immediately after the last prayer was uttered.

I felt like I was intruding on the privacy of the deceased and of the mourners.  What a very personal moment to be unintentionally sharing with all the people who happen to be driving by the cemetery at that exact moment. But I felt oddly connected to their sorrow.  I had sudden flashes of the many cold, grey funerals I have attended — too many.  I mulled those memories over as I drove on, away from the sad tableau.

public domain image:  "JCB 3CX Backhoe loader" by S. Lampkin, U.S. Air Force -
public domain image: “JCB 3CX Backhoe loader” by S. Lampkin, U.S. Air Force –

As several days passed, I wondered why this image (of the backhoe and the gravesite and the mourners) was sticking with me.  Why is it still there in my mind?  What am I supposed to make of this?

Obviously, we are mortal beings.  We live, we die.  It’s the circle of life (cue the musical production number).

hah!  Sorry.  I just saw Lion King (Broadway touring company) and it is still fresh in my music memory.

It doesn’t matter how big or fancy the tombstone might be — we all end up the same way.  Dust to dust.

Image by Lynn Friedman via Flickr CC license
Image by Lynn Friedman via Flickr CC license

But instead of feeling nihilistic about that fact, I feel a reverence for the fragility of our lives.  I want to be remembered for the good things I said and did, not for the way I let small irritations (or big ones) get to me.  I want to be kind and loving.  I want to be salt and light to the world. I want to spend more time with my family and friends and make more time for the things I enjoy doing, whether by myself or with others.  I want to keep my word, do my best at my work, and waste less time in general (FACEBOOK can be a time-wasting vortex).

The back hoe might be revving its engine, but I’m not going to keep looking at it or listen for the sound of its motor.
I’m going to keep looking for the beauty in each person, each minute, each day — and keep looking for that beauty in myself, and in the world around me, too.


Central Park Blooms

image by Jill, The Tromp Queen, Creative Commons 4.0 license (attribution, share-alike, non-commercial)
image by Jill, The Tromp Queen, Creative Commons 4.0 license (attribution, share-alike, non-commercial)

I got the opportunity to travel to New York City last weekend with my daughter’s high school orchestra.  They played a concert at Carnegie Hall, and played wonderfully (says this proud Mom!)

We had a a few hours of free time each day, and I was thrilled to find myself walking on a path in Central Park near the reservoir and Met Museum of Art among blooming magnolias, forsythia and daffodils.

After this particularly harsh and exceptionally lengthy winter, the flowers and colors were literally a sight for sore eyes.


Seeing Beauty in Unlikely Places

The Greatest Secrets are Always Hidden in Unlikely Places

In the book poemcrazy the author describes how she learned to be wary of sharing her observations about beauty.

image by ViaMoi via Flickr CC

“When I was ten or eleven I caught some snowflakes on my mitten. (—) I’d never looked closely at a real snowflake before — a powdery, intricate pinwheel poised like a minicathedral near my thumb.

I called Bonnie and Loie over to see the amazing snowflake on my mitten. Bonnie began to mimic me in a high voice, “Look at the pretty little snowflake!”

I learned that day that there didn’t seem to be a place for a person describing a snowflake on a mitten. After that I was quiet about what I saw so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself. I learned to be quiet about beauty.

Often we keep secret because we’re not only embarrassed to be who we are in front of other people, we feel genuinely embarrassed by who we are.
Oh, Susan, you’ve gone too far. You’re exposed out there on your squirrely limb, out of bounds. You oddball of oddballs.

In poems we can flourish out there on our limbs. It’s one of the mysteries of poetry for me. The language and form of a poem creates a blue bubble I can float into the world as if my secrets are in an impenetrable container with boundaries, yet see-through like a bottle.

I feel safe because poems take me to a place out of normal time and thought, dipping me below the surface to where we all meet. And there, as if we’re in silent collusion, it’s safe to say whatever we want. Writing poems, we’re tapping the part of our consciousness that knows we’re safe.
I’ve seen secret after secret spill out in people’s poems, and I’ve spilled secret after secret about myself. The poem speaks in confidence. The reader feels included, honored, and keeps the secret.”

—- from poemcrazy by Susan G. Wooldridge, Chapter 20 “snowflakes and secrets” p. 74-75.

As I read this short chapter in poemcrazy, I immediately identified with the feeling of being hesitant to share my love of beauty. Only recently have I been brave enough to try to put feelings and images into words and share poetry with others here in the blogosphere.

Oh yes, I’ve been teased for noticing beauty — more than once. I look at light and shadow, texture and color, design and detail. I am constantly amazed by rocks, trees, leaves, clouds, scenic views and all manner of natural objects. Sometimes it just comes out of my mouth at odd times and people kind of roll their eyes at me. Whatever. I’ve learned to deal with that reaction mostly by ignoring it or rushing to explain exactly what it is I find so beautiful about whatever I commented on.

Way back in junior high school days, I was teased because of my strangely huge and somewhat odd vocabulary. I didn’t think I used exceptional words at all! I loved reading then, and I still do. I actively look for interesting new words and tend to look up definitions for any words that mystify me.

In high school, I was fortunate to have excellent English teachers (Mr. Fawley, Mr. Iden and others) who instilled in me a love for words, symbolism and verbal imagery. I fell instantly in love with Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and through all the years since that love has deepened and widened and matured.

Another source for my love of poetry and of words in general appeared several years ago when I discovered Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. At the time, I was in the car each day when this feature was broadcast on NPR. Keillor reads a poem at the beginning of each segment and then goes on to describe literary connections to this day in history (author birthdays, historic first editions, and so forth). You can read a sample here which features the poem “Practicing” by Linda Pastan. You can follow Writer’s Almanac on Facebook, twitter, podcast and via email. I highly recommend it.

So how does all this rambling come together? I started out thinking this would be about finding beauty in unlikely places. It still is.

Renee's Salon of Beauty -- Flickr CC image by S Jones
Renee’s Salon of Beauty —
Flickr CC image by S Jones

My point is that we shouldn’t shy away from the beauty in ourselves. It is not always easy to embrace what is good, beautiful and unique in ourselves. If I am a “beauty canary” (or if you are) then so be it! See it and celebrate it. Share it. Even better — write a poem about it and share it here.

Maybe the reason some of us are tuned to notice beauty is to point it out to those who don’t notice it.

Speaking of beauty in odd places, there are a couple of Facebook pages I enjoy and would like to recommend to anyone who has not yet discovered them:

Humans of New York — A photographer snaps street photographs of random people in NYC and has a short conversation as well. Amazing stuff happens.

Complete Strangers Pose as Family — Odd, but quite beautiful. Which means, of course, that I love it! (as I described in on my Fb wall recently).

Quilting on 9/11/01

English: Overview of New York after the north ...

I wrote this on September 11, 2011.  This is all still very clear in my mind, so I am sharing it with you in memory and in honor of all those who died that day (and in the weeks, months and years afterward).

Quilting on 9/11/01

The morning of September 11, 2001 I stopped by my friend’s house to pick her up for a day of quilting in Dubuque. Our quilt guild was having a work day that day to make quilts for one of our community service projects.

She opened her door and as I looked in at her TV I could see a huge plume of smoke coming from one of the WTC towers.  I asked her what on earth had happened, and she told me a plane had just hit one of the towers.  Not much else was known.  We didn’t know if it was an accident or what it might be yet.

We got it in the car and drove, listening to the radio on the way. The second tower was hit and then we knew.  This was no accident.

We arrived, got our equipment set up, and the workday began. People discussed the news and their fears as we sewed, cut, pressed and trimmed.  The older ladies remembered their thoughts and fears on the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing. One quilter was supposed to have flown to see her daughter that afternoon, but the flight was cancelled.

It became clear that this was a concerted attack as the news of the other tragedies at the Pentagon and of Flight 93 in PA came. We listened to the radio some, but not all the time.  We sewed. We talked.  Some were very upset and scared while others were quiet and shocked.  Someone asked if we should all go home.

Another older lady stood up and said — though I’m summarizing here I remember it very clearly — “I don’t want to be home alone and afraid.  If this is the beginning of another US involvement in a war as Pearl Harbor was, then I want to be HERE quilting and doing something good to help others.  I’d rather be here with all of you than face this alone at home.” There was a murmur of agreement.

The cutting, pressing, sewing, talking continued.

We worked and most of us stayed until mid-afternoon.

Benjamin was in kindergarten that fall and Sarah was at the Children’s Center that day.  I picked them both up and tried to continue with our normal evening — dinner, playing, etc.  I was anxious and desperately wanted to turn on the news but since they were so small (not quite 3 and barely 5) I did not want them to see and hear the horrible things that had happened that day.  At some point that day I took a picture of Sarah smiling and looking cute in her Dorothy costume, which she wore most days at that time.  That photo says 9/11/01 in the corner and is part of my memories of that day.

I waited until the children were in bed and finally got to turn on the TV news.  By that time of day most channels were not giving details of what had happened that morning; they assumed everyone had been watching all day.  It took a while before I could piece together the sequence of all that had happened in my mind.  I did not see the video of the plane hitting or of the towers falling until later that evening.  It was horrific.  Worse than I imagined.

I remember hoping that Bush was a better man
than I thought he was.
I remember thinking the whole world had
just changed in a single day.
I remember thinking my children were going to grow up in a world where this event would shape the future.
I remember thinking of all those people who had died
so suddenly, so tragically, so bravely.
I remember the silence of the swarms of people as they trudged across the bridges
out of New York
with the smoke and haze surrounding them.
I remember the looks on their faces.
I remember those fragments of the towers
standing in the rubble.
I remember wanting to hug my family and keep them safe, somehow, no matter what.
I remember being worried about the future.
I prayed for understanding, for peace,
for strength, for courage — and I still do.

I haven’t watched many of the programs that have rehashed the events of that day.

My heart still aches to think of all those families and children and parents and friends who lost loved ones that day.

Last spring, I had the opportunity to visit the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.  Here are some photos I took that day:

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