Winter Art

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Winter Art

Some time in the stealth of the night
or maybe it was just after dusk or before the light of dawn,
something moved across the depth of the new-fallen snow.

Art appeared on the white canvas,
patterns of prints—wild and free–
swirls, curves, circles intertwined,
some intent unknown to man.

While I slept, artistry was created.
When I woke, surprise and wonder,
the artist unknown,
the art nevertheless a winter miracle.

© Barbara Flass 2014

Photo credit: Richard Dorrell [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Keeping Dreams Alive

Maybe it’s just coincidence, but I woke up this morning, the morning of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, thinking about dreams.  There is a difference between making life plans and dreams, especially in one’s later years.  My father taught me about both.

 My father was a high school dropout with an extraordinary talent for art.  His abilities were a strange mixture.  He was a carpenter, a gardener, a violinist, and a painter.  He built my childhood home almost entirely by himself, room by room over time.  He had a flair for growing vegetables and flowers.  He and my mother played the violin together while my sister and I played a duet on the piano.  His job was at a stone crushing plant, very difficult, cold, and exhausting work that caused him excruciating back pain, but his dream was to be an artist.

 While I was still quite young, he signed up with the Famous Artists School, taking the correspondence course and working his way through the lessons.  His talent grew.  I remember how he set up his easel in an unfinished room in the house that later became his bedroom and set to work sketching on paper, then on canvas, and then using oil paints to create landscapes.  Covered bridges appeared, snowy scenes with farmhouses, brooks flowing softly in winter, water wheels and buildings, summer scenes in Vermont, ocean scenes in Cape Cod.  Eventually, he participated in art shows, listening carefully to comments from people he hoped would buy his art.  He didn’t sell many paintings, but he never quit.

 When he moved into the farmhouse where his great-grandparents once lived, he remodeled the kitchen, created a large vegetable garden, and painted a mural on the dining room wall.  He set an example for me, teaching me to have a life plan but keep my dream.  As a child, I wrote my stories in my room while he painted in his.  He knew I wanted to teach, but writing was my love.  “Do both,” he said.  “You need to make money, and writing will not be enough.”  He was certainly right there.  Even though I have written since I was first able to hold a pen (and before that I made up stories to tell my sister at night), I never made much money at writing.  I have written two books and countless poems.  Teaching enabled me to have an income, but writing enabled me to pursue a dream.

Everyone should have a dream.  Even though the obstacles might be great, as in my father’s case, one should never give up on them.  I have long periods of drought, where I simply cannot write.  Maybe it’s that grief gets in the way.  Maybe it’s the fatigue or daily pain that sends me away from the computer or causes me to put down my pen and notebook.  But I know if I hang in there, like my dad did, I will come back to it.  I have to.  Hopefully, my dream will take me into my later years until I reach a point where I may not be able to write at all.  Until then, I will wake up early in the morning, like this morning, and begin to write even if no one ever reads my words.  My father’s love of painting was not diminished by his lack of sales.  I will treasure always my father’s lesson to me–keep your dreams alive.

Carolers on Horseback

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Many moments bring on sadness at Christmas time, but carolers on horseback should not be one of them.  Saturday morning twelve or more horses decorated in their Christmas finery—Christmas hats over their ears, garlands wrapped around their reins, ribbons braided into their tails—lined up in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the nursing home.  Behind the windows twenty or more of the residents sat in their wheelchairs to watch and listen.  Some wore Santa hats, some held on to rings of jingle bells, and some just held in their hands songbooks they couldn’t read or understand.  My mother was one of them.  She sat locked into her angry delusions, quiet and unmoving.  One resident cried softly.  Another slept in her chair the entire time.  Others stared out at the horses.  A few sang along with the singer outside the windows who was accompanied by the pianist inside.

The event was the same as the previous year except for more horses participating and the freezing  eight degree weather.  But it was not the same for my mother or for me.  The carols made me cry. The array of wheelchairs made me sad as I imagined the kinds of lives once lived by their occupants.  My loving, generous mother who baked cookies and breads for Christmas, who knitted and crocheted blankets for the needy, who laughed and played the organ, and shopped with me for gifts, was gone, replaced by someone I don’t really know any more, someone capable of unspeakably hurtful accusations that cut to the center of my heart and remain there for days.

As I get older, I find myself reminiscing often about the Christmases of my past—both my childhood and young adulthood when my daughters were small and magic existed.  Gifts were simple, often handmade.  There was cocoa and cookies and carols.  The family gathered at my grandparents’ house where we sat in the living room in a circle and laughed at our crazy gifts.  One year my sister crocheted Rudolph noses for all of us.  We put them on and wore them through gift giving and the light supper of sandwiches and salads my grandmother made.  Another year my sister crocheted Santa hats and wrote funny nicknames on them with glitter glue.  We all wore them, my grandfather dancing around the room while we all laughed.  My grandparents are gone.  My father is gone.  My sister is gone.  The noses and hats are tucked in between tissue paper in a box of ornaments I can’t bear to look at.

This Christmas for the first time in over forty years, my husband and I will be alone on Christmas Eve and Christmas day.  We will go to church Christmas Eve and visit my mother.  On Christmas Day we will take her some gifts and then go out to dinner without her.  I’m not feeling sorry for myself because I know how lucky I really am to have her and my daughters and granddaughters.  So many people have lost loved ones this past year.  There has been so much tragedy and violence that it is more essential than ever to find joy in some way during the holidays.  Otherwise, grief would win out over happiness.

My youngest daughter was sad recently, remembering those Christmases when we were all together doing crazy things.  Her task now is to create her own joyous times with her children so they have those same happy memories.  I was lucky to have her, her husband, and my granddaughters with me on Thanksgiving.  My oldest daughter, now living in Arizona, will visit this coming weekend, but she too will be spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone.  Still, I put up the tree and decorated it.  I am baking cookies and Christmas breads using my mother’s recipes.  And I will find a way to feel some sense of peace this year.

During those quiet, dark moments in the night when sleep refuses to come, I try to replace that image of the carolers on horseback singing to nursing home residents with dementia, my mother among them, with those Christmas Eves in my grandparents’ living room when my sister handed out the Rudolph noses or the Santa hats and we laughed together, and Christmas was still magical for both the young and the old.

November Leaves

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A movement seen out of the corner of my eye
through the window that overlooks the back woods–
a deer perhaps, or a bird in flight,
then more and more motion–
leaves in their mesmerizing dance toward the earth,
borne on the wind,
leaving their security,
their normalness before the brilliance,
now a glide up in the breeze, then down,
a graceful fall toward a soft landing
into the midst of others gone before,
they now the final ones, like life itself.

The ballet continues as I finally move away
and into my frenzied day,
leaving behind November leaves still dancing in the wind,
the dance now an imprinted image
that will soon become more than a memory,
evolving into words and meaning,
until a poem is born.

Barbara Flass
©2013

Image © | Dreamstime.com

A Poem Is Born

A Poem Is Born

 It begins with an image, however fleeting.  Maybe it’s the way the sunrise paints the surface of the lake.  Maybe it’s a ladybug making its slow trek across a twig or the crawl of a turtle crossing a busy highway.  Maybe it’s the formation of birds creating a cloud pattern across the blueness of the sky.  Maybe it’s the way a leaf blows in the breeze in its journey toward the earth.  Whatever the image, it imprints itself on the brain and waits, the process much like human birth.

Later, maybe only minutes or hours or even perhaps days, words begin to form.  Clusters of thought expand the image into lines of poetry, and then into expression of feeling, and finally comes meaning, for without meaning, there is no poem.

I was a college student before I knew any of this.  It was my study of Romantic poetry that revolutionized everything I thought I knew about poetry.  Keats enabled me to see how feeling and meaning can be inspired by a Grecian urn.  Wordsworth created for me that “host of golden daffodils” and I felt his joy and depth of emotion.  Shelley’s “To a Skylark” taught me that a poem is much more than its subject.  I experienced Byron’s melancholy communion with nature, and I connected to his poems in ways I still remember.

I read a lot of modern poetry, but I live with the poems of the past.  Some of today’s poetry with its obscure thoughts and disjointed phrases confuses me.  Do I really want to be confused when I read a poem?  Some poems seem so personal and bewildering, I wonder how anyone could be affected by them.  I want to leave a poem a different person.  Isn’t that the way it should be?

So for me it always starts with the image that has to go through stages–conception, development and creativity, and finally birth.  It’s sometimes a very slow process, but it can only come to life through emotion and finally meaning.  It takes quiet contemplation, not so easy in today’s frantic world, but when there is peace, poetry is born.

Retailers, please don’t take away my holiday spirit!

Recently a news story predicted that in a few years, Thanksgiving would be nothing more than a shopping day.  It may not even take a few years.

When I was young, Thanksgiving dinner was special.  I was lucky to live near my grandparents on both sides, along with aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews.  My mother was a great cook, and my memories of holidays are strong and resilient.  What memories will my generation be able to create for our children and grandchildren?  What about my grandchildren’s children some day?

I refuse to shop on Thanksgiving Day or Black Friday.  I care more about my family than saving money.  I like to save money.  I know I will be able to buy Christmas presents at a reasonable price because sales that start now will continue until Christmas Day and even after.   I remember shopping on the day after Christmas for wrapping paper, tags, ribbon and cards, but I didn’t neglect my family to do that.   (Most likely, I dragged them unwillingly along with me!)

I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year.  I’m not a very good cook.  I wish I had inherited my mother’s skill.  I wish my mother could come to my house, help with the cooking, and sit down at the table with all of us.  I wish I could eat her apple and pumpkin pies.  I’ll try to make her apple pie using her recipe, but she will be sitting in the nursing home eating turkey dinner and apple pie without her family around her.  Even though I plan to go and sit with her while she has dinner, it makes me sad to remember how things used to be.  I want to create those memories for my own family, but everyone is so far away.  I’m so lucky to have my youngest daughter and her family with us this year and her in-laws, but Christmas this year will be spent without our children and grandchildren.

I had to change my regular radio station this morning because they have started their Christmas music early.  It’s all Christmas music from now until Christmas.  By the time Christmas comes, I know I will hate all Christmas music, so I changed the station until after the holidays.  I can’t find Thanksgiving decorations or plates or napkins now.  Soon I won’t be able to find Christmas decorations when I want them because everyone is buying them now.  I have a friend who finished her Christmas shopping a week ago, and she wants to meet me for breakfast or lunch to exchange gifts.  I’m sure she has no idea that I will not be shopping for her until a few weeks before Christmas.

I suspect retailers know that some shoppers are disgruntled.  They also know most Americans just can’t resist a bargain and buy into the hype about buying right now or everything will be gone.  I want Thanksgiving and Christmas to be like my childhood ones.  I want family gatherings.  I want homemade cookies.  I want handmade gifts like my parents used to make for me and my children. I want to back up to when times were tough but special and meaningful.  I don’t want a houseful of flat-screen TVs and electronics.  I want homemade fudge, punch and cookies, Christmas lights, and the serenity of church on Christmas Eve.  I want simplicity and my family close by.  What I don’t want is Christmas carols in mid-November and stores trying to make Americans shift their focus from family to shopping.  It makes me sad to realize that I just might be in a minority and that on Thanksgiving Day while my family is enjoying being together, stores will push us to leave the table to buy things we don’t really need.

 

What if Thanksgiving makes me grumpy?

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 I know there is much to be thankful for.  We are constantly urged to focus on giving thanks this month (in spite of the stores filled all too early with Christmas decorations and sparkly trees).  But after a few months of mixed blessings, how does a normally negative, depressed person find joy in November?

 Autumn was beautiful this year, as always, with some warm temperatures adding to it all.  Cloud formations against muted blues, brilliant orange and yellow leaves cascading to the ground, sun glinting off the colors—what’s not to be grateful for?

 Well, in spite of it all, negativity can creep its little feet into the joy.

 In September we had to put my beloved Aussie to sleep.  Autumn walks in the park crunching on leaves, checking out the waterfall and the creek with Murphy by my side ended with unbearable grief.  October should be a good month for me, especially this year, my tenth as a breast cancer survivor.  At the five year mark, my family bought me a laptop.  Five years was a milestone for me, but so elusive for my sister.  On October 30 ten years ago, I had my surgery.  On October 31, I came home to spend Halloween with both my daughters, a rare event since they are never together anymore for various reasons.  This year we had only a few trick-or-treaters, leaving us with bags of our favorite candy.  Okay, there is something to be grateful for, to say nothing of a ten-year survival of breast cancer.  I didn’t do any charitable walks this year like I usually do.  October brought other issues for me.  My quiet appreciation for surviving ten years was overshadowed by an attack of shingles, bringing a new meaning to my understanding of pain.   I know.  There is a preventive shot for that.  I planned to get it at my yearly exam.  Oops, too late!

 There have been times in the past when I was asked to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10.  How silly was I not to know what a 10 really is!  I do now.  Weeks of excruciating pain, rash, itch, blisters on my right arm and total loss of feeling in my right hand made me aware of what real pain is.  Unfortunately, four doctors missed the diagnosis, even though I was sure it was shingles.  When my doctor finally acknowledged it, it was a little late for the anti-viral to really work.  So I may be left with months or more of arm pain and hand numbness.

 So now I really do feel a little ungrateful about life.   I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year.  I will have my youngest daughter and her husband and my two granddaughters here from Los Angeles, along with my daughter’s in-laws and possibly my niece and her family.  My oldest daughter will be alone in Phoenix, working that day.  I will spend part of the day with my mother in the nursing home, a mother coping with increasing problems with dementia and delusions.  I am thankful I still have her, but her quality of life is diminishing every week.

 So now November is here with its chill and occasional flurries and an early onslaught of holiday stress.  I am sometimes annoyed by the chirpiness of happy people.  I never know if they are real or not.  Are they just pretending to be happy?  What is the point of that?  Do they make those little trees out of branches for the dining room table on Thanksgiving?  Do they cut out little construction paper leaves for everyone to write down what they are thankful for and then do they attach them to the tree so while eating turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes everyone can look up now and then and feel so grateful for it all?

 I could be one of those, I guess.  I could make that tree and those leaves and revel in gratitude because I do know somewhere deep in my heart I have a lot to be grateful for.  But whiner and complainer that I am, I am annoyed by the arm pain and the inability to use a pair of scissors to continue to make my cards for cancer patients.  I am left-handed, but wouldn’t you know, when you are little and learning to do things, teachers think you can use scissors like a right-handed person.  It wasn’t until I became an adult that I discovered there are actually left-handed scissors!  I could have learned to use them when I was a child and I could now be cutting paper and shapes for my cards.

 There are some perks to my numb hand.  My husband does a little more for me.  A little.  I worry that I won’t be able to create that mythical Thanksgiving meal where the food tastes good and the gravy isn’t lumpy and the cranberry sauce doesn’t jiggle on the plate and the pumpkin pie isn’t too brown or too runny.  In some other world, my Thanksgiving could be great if someone other than a true pessimist and grump wasn’t in charge of it.

 As I look out my window this morning, the sun is shining on the golden leaves of the tree across the street, and leaves are gracefully fluttering to the ground.  My sister will not be here with me this Thanksgiving, as she has not been for the last eight years.  She would be loving the colorful trees, happy to experience another Thanksgiving, able to overlook anything burned or curdled or tasteless, and just love being with family.  Okay, I say to myself.  Stop the wallowing in pity.  Hug your grandchildren. Enjoy the smells filling the house.  Embrace the chaos.  And even though my ten-year-survival date passed everyone else by, reach into my heart and be grateful for life, even if there is pain, even if there is loneliness, even if there is fatigue and stress and anxiety over the coming holidays, and take a moment to let all the good stuff in because there will always be good stuff and it will always be stronger than anything negative in life.

Image by Philip Martin