Stilll Working, After All These Years

In the beginning, I learned to call it ‘helping.’ Helping wasn’t a burden, a demand, or an imposition. Helping was something people did naturally, and helping around the house was a way for children to participate more fully in the life of the family.

Eventually, I discovered that trailing behind my mother with a dust cloth or venturing into the yard to carry bundles of sticks for my father garnered smiles of approval. I enjoyed approval, so I looked for other opportunities to seek it out: cutting flowers to make the house pretty, or picking up my toys. I collected windfall apples in a bucket; pulled low-hanging cherries from trees; set the table and dried the silverware; folded the wash cloths; put newspapers in their box. 

Eventually, I began watering flowers for next-door neighbors when they traveled out of town. It required a heavy bucket and multiple trips, but I never thought of it as a chore. It was fun: particularly since I was allowed to go by myself, on my tricycle, carrying my new responsibility with pride.

Over time, I learned another word for helping: ‘work.’ People worked on cars, and worked around the house. Painting was work: so was putting screens on windows, or vegetable canning.

Slowly, I began to understand the complexity of work, and to differentiate among its varieties: homework and handwork, busywork and piecework. I learned to associate work with money, and occasional unhappiness. I discovered there were days when Daddy didn’t want to go to work, and people who worried over lack of work.

Still, working and helping remained so intertwined that the phrase “Daddy’s gone to work” seemed wonderful to me. Even adults chatting across fences or on the porches of our neighborhood could offer no higher praise than to say of someone, “That one’s a workin’ fool”.

Workin’ fools aren’t so abundant these days. New forces are abroad in the land: forces happy to sunder work from pleasure and minimize its importance, reducing it to the sort of burden only a fool would endure — particularly when government checks are increasingly available.

Our increasing ambivalence toward — or reluctance to engage in — work has reminded me in past months of a 2012 Smithsonian traveling exhibit, sponsored by its Museum on Main Street and titled The Way We Worked.

The title itself —The Way We Worked — could suggest that our working days are over: that work itself has become a curiosity or a museum piece, something to be noted and then forgotten as easily as the fifty-foot-long chunk of Route 66 languishing in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In fact, the exhibit was strongly historical in nature, and far from dismissive.

“The Way We Worked,” adapted from an original exhibition developed by the National Archives, explores how work became such a central element in American culture by tracing the many changes that affected the work force and work environments over the past 150 years. The exhibition draws from the Archives’ rich collections to tell this compelling story.

Equally interesting were concurrent exhibits created by ‘partner sites’ — small towns selected to join with the Smithsonian in exploring the rich diversity of work. Free to develop their individual programs as they saw fit, some chose retrospectives, or emphasized particular industries. But in Kansas, one town chose to focus on the present.

The Way We Worked in Blue Rapids, a photographic exhibit sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council in partnership with the Museum on Main Street,  opened February 2, 2013, at the Blue Rapids Museum.

The exhibit featured eighty large-format photographs taken by Blue Rapids photographer Tom Parker, along with a running slideshow of more than 400 additional photos he captured during 2012. Describing the scope of the project, Parker said:
Over the past year I photographed the men, women and children of our town performing the diverse tasks that are at their core the building blocks of rural America. While other [exhibit] sites focused on their particular histories — mining, agriculture, black populations — ours was a photographic record of how we worked in Blue Rapids during 2012. We called it a snapshot of a single year, and thought of it in terms of historical record.
It was more time-consuming than I’d envisioned, and much more rewarding. Along the way I spent hundreds of hours with farmers, ranchers, convenience store workers, clerks, grocers, city workers, lifeguards, contractors, shopkeepers, retailers, postal employees, medical professionals, welders, musicians, explosives experts, county fair workers, and volunteers – even a cat and a dog.
I was there for funerals and the baptism of twins. I was allowed unrestricted access into the working lives of my friends, my neighbors, and complete strangers. Everywhere I went my camera went.

When Tom first told me about the unfolding project, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that was part of the fun. As the months passed and images of life in Blue Rapids began to pile up, it was impossible not to be amazed by how little some things had changed.

Occasionally, the sweetest of memories were evoked. Lunch with Daddy at his work place seems to be as special now as it was sixty years ago.

Photographs shared along the way always were interesting, and often compelling. Of equal interest were Tom’s musings over his project. Recording the frustrations, joys, technical challenges, and sheer exhaustion that attend any large, on-going process, Tom clearly understood that blank canvas, empty pages, or vacant walls present significant challenges to those charged with filling them.

Triggering [my] edginess is an immersion into the classic images of early American labor with a hefty dollop of worldwide street photography thrown in for good measure.
After delving into Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” Lewis Hine’s works on child labor, Margaret Bourke-White’s collections on industrial design and factory workers, Dorothea Lange on the Dust Bowl years… I’ve reconsidered and reworked many of my initial compositions in an attempt to mimic some of their distinctive styles.
It’s an imposing and indeed impossible task, one almost guaranteed to assure defeat. When I discussed this with National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, he shook his head and said, “Can’t be done. Were those pictures iconic when they were taken or are they iconic because of what they represent to us now?”
Sartore offered several bits of advice, one of the best being “Go big or go home.” But the most incisive, and the one I’m printing out to paste on my monitor, aligned the project’s direction in the truest, most linear fashion. “Every picture,” he said, “must advance the story.”

The process of advancing the story was as slow as it was detailed. There was a lot of waiting, and a lot of work:

I was tired all the time. In the past month sleep was as elusive as coherence, or the ability to piece together words into a cohesive whole: similar to writer’s block, but much more debilitating.
When people asked when I was going to write another column, I’d say, “When I can think straight.” But thinking straight seemed to be exclusively the domain of The Way We Worked project, and little else. It filled my days and troubled my dreams. It propelled me from the warm confines of my flannel sheets, often at 2 a.m. And in December, the month of its finale, it allowed for very little else.

As he snapped the project’s final photo at 11:59 p.m on New Year’s Eve, in a local bar, there still was work to be done before his deadline was met. Still, no one imagined it wouldn’t be done. Through the whole of 2012, Tom Parker had proven himself a working fool: capturing 40,000 images, considering and culling, rejecting and retrieving. He went big and didn’t go home, all in order to keep advancing the story.

Today, Tom still is at work: capturing and processing photographs from the world in which he lives. “It seems there’s no end to it,” he says. Then, he grins, and adds, “But isn’t that just the point?”

For my parents and grandparents, for the neighbors who surrounded me, and for all the workers who filled my young world, that certainly seemed to be the point. While doing their best to eliminate drudgery from their lives, they seemed intuitively to understand the truth of Freud’s famous statement that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”

They understood that, even as age, illness, or infirmity eventually would change the nature of their work, work itself should go on: advancing a multitude of meaningful personal and communal stories.

Comments always are welcome.

Watching a Christmas Star

Daystar
Like so many others, I sought out the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in last night’s evening twilight. Less than a degree apart, their shining presence brought to mind a favorite experience from childhood, retold here for a new Christmas season.

Perhaps she noticed my absence. Perhaps she only felt a draft from the partly-opened door and rose to investigate. In either case, drawn onto the porch that cold Christmas night, my grandmother discovered a quilt-wrapped, shivering, and entirely unhappy litle girl huddled on her front steps.

“Good heavens,” she said.”What’s wrong? What are you doing out here?” Surprised by her question, I confessed the truth. “I don’t want to go home.” “Of course you don’t,” she said, lowering herself to sit next to me on the step. “It was a nice Christmas. Did you have fun? Did you like your presents?” Unwilling to meet her gaze, I murmured the complaint voiced by generations of children: “I wish it wasn’t over.”

A front porch in winter is no place for conversation, but my grandmother seemed lost in thought, and reluctant to move. Finally, she said, “But it isn’t over. Not yet. Let’s go in the house and have some cookies.” As she led me through the sea of relatives that had flooded the front room, someone — an aunt or uncle, or perhaps a parent — asked, “What’s going on?” “We’re going to the kitchen,” she said, and that ended the questions. Everyone knew better than to interfere with Grandma when she seemed bent on a mission.

While she brought cookies from the pantry, I filled my glass with milk. We settled in at the table,  and I waited to see which direction the conversation would take. “Did you watch for Santa last night?” she asked. I had. “Did you see him?” I hadn’t, of course, but the heap of presents in the living room provided all the proof I needed to know that he’d stopped by.

“What if I told you there was something to watch for tonight?” I stopped in mid-dunk, milk dripping from the bottom of my cookie. “What?” Busy with her own cookie, Grandma said, “Miss Luksetich says that if you watch in the east every night at midnight until the Feast of The Three Kings, you might see the Star of Bethlehem.”

I’d never known my grandmother to lie, and Christine Luksetich was one of her best friends. It was worth pondering. “Really?” I said. Wisely enough, Grandma sounded a few cautionary notes. “You have to look right at midnight, and not a minute before or after. It could be cloudy, or you could fall asleep. But if you keep looking, you might see it. It’s there.”

Entranced, no longer reluctant to leave Christmas Day behind, I headed to the living room and began picking up my gifts: more than eager to return home, scurry off to my east-facing bedroom, and begin scanning the skies.

I didn’t see the Star of Bethlehem that year. I didn’t see it the next year, for that matter, or the year after that. Given my grandmother’s fondness for Swedish folk tales and her friend Christine’s Croatian heritage, it occurred to me that their reappearing Star of Bethlehem might be a legend akin to tales of animals talking on Christmas Eve, or oxen kneeling in their stalls.

Still, I watched: scrutinizing the skies each year to see if something might appear. And then, it did. One night there were only the usual faint twinkles in the eastern sky above our cherry trees. The next, a brilliant star shone there: pulsating, glimmering — so bright it seemed to light the snow-covered countryside. For as long as I could stay awake, it never moved. The next night, it was gone.

With the deep, pure certainty of childhood, I knew that I’d seen the Star of Bethlehem. I told no one — neither friends, nor parents, nor even my own grandmother — although no one could have convinced me that I didn’t see it. Still, I was reluctant to be ridiculed, or tempted into an argument.

Over time, the memory faded, and my habit of looking eroded. Most years found me otherwise occupied in the days after Christmas — traveling, or visiting, or cleaning up kitchens — and if I remembered at all, I gave the skies no more than a cursory glance.

But one year in Kansas, halfway between Monument Rocks and the Cimarron Grasslands, I stopped to admire some cottonwoods. A brilliant star, created by sunlight shining through leaves, erased the decades. Remembering my vision of the Star of Bethlehem so many years earlier, I thought:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Star follows us, just as surely as the Wise Men followed the Star?

This year, it was the same sun but a different tree which brought that childhood experience to mind, along with the fanciful, centuries-old legend of kneeling oxen and talking animals.

‘Fanciful,’ of course, is our polite way of describing events we imagine to be impossible. Unwilling to appear naive, stupid, or silly, few adults admit to clinging to such legends. Still, barns continue to beckon on Christmas eve, and hills laid bare beneath winter skies shimmer still, awaiting Bethlehem’s star, and those with eyes to see.

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold,
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh, the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
                             “Christmas Poem” ~ Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome.
To read Thomas Hardy’s poem about the legend of the kneeling oxen, please click here.

Life, Imitating Art

The Red Bench, Rockport City Cemetery

Gary Myers, an artist whose work I admire and whose blog I’ve followed for years, lives north of Elmira, New York in the memorably-named town of Horseheads. His paintings have hung in an assortment of galleries, including the West End in Corning, New York; the Kada in Erie, Pennsylvania; and the The Haen in Asheville, North Carolina.

A new solo exhibition of his work, opening June 7, will be his twentieth at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia. The title Gary chose for the show, Red Tree: New Growth, neatly acknowledges both past interests and emerging directions in his art.

As he’s moved from one theme to another throughout the years, I’ve found his rich, mola-like landscapes and his unique portrayal of the archaeological foundationsof our lives particularly appealing. Still, his iconic Red Tree — together with red-roofed houses, red chairs, and red boats — continue to serve as his most immediately recognizable and evocative symbols.

Mantra ~ G.C. Myers

Reflecting on a painting destined for the June opening in Alexandria, an homage to the Red Tree titled Mantra, Gary linked it to the broader theme of the exhibition:

Over the past twenty years of these shows, the work has always changed in small increments: changes in colors and tones, changes in strokes and textures, additions and subtractions in elements and forms.
Slight differences mean that each repetition is new, and has its own meaning. Each is its own moment, with its own place on the grid of time and space.

Still, art occasionally escapes that grid, as I learned on my recent visit to the Rockport City Cemetery. Wandering among the gravestones, reading their inscriptions and admiring the wildflowers that surrounded them, I hardly expected to find a bright red wicker bench settled in among the bluebonnets and coreopsis. And yet, there it was — seemingly unattached to a particular grave site, but compelling as any monument. Even as I laughed, I couldn’t help thinking: If this Red Bench were a painting, it would have to be one of Gary’s.

Years of exposure to his use of various shades of red made it impossible not to see the bench as a delightful, if unexpected, extension of his artistic vision. It was as though an unseen hand had picked up a brush and added a dash of vibrant color to the landscape: not precisely imitating art, perhaps, but evoking the work of a favorite artist with considerable brio.

Of course, if color alone were at issue, the spicy jatrophas blooming throughout the cemetery might have outdone the Red Bench in terms of visual impact.

Spicy Jatropha, or Peregrina (Jatropha integerrima)

But the bench’s functional similarity to the multitude of Red Chairs in Gary’s paintings evoked memories of other chairs, other cemeteries, and other times: memories as bright and vivid as the Red Chairs themselves.

Prior to his 2012 exhibition at Erie’s Kada Gallery, Gary invited his blog readers to submit titles for a still-unnamed painting destined for the show. Each suggestion would be listed on the back of the painting, becoming a part of its history; the winning title would be featured at the show and earn a prize for its creator.

Shedding Daylight ~ G.C. Myers

After sending off my own entry, I thought no more about it until, to my astonishment, Gary selected my suggestion — Shedding Daylight — as the title for his painting.

I’d come to the title through a chain of circumstances that included a visit to another favorite resting spot: League City’s Fairview Cemetery. Small but filled with historical interest, the first burial there was a nine-year-old girl named Charlotte Natho, who died of diphtheria following the Great Storm of 1900.

Wandering the cemetery late one afternoon, I discovered a sturdy tree with a  less than sturdy chair propped up against it. The chair wasn’t as stable as the concrete benches scattered around the cemetery, and it didn’t come close to having the panache of Rockport’s Red Bench, but it intrigued me. Had it been a favorite of someone buried nearby? Was it meant to allow family members to take their ease while they chatted with the dearly-departed? Or was it simply a gracious reminder of simpler days, when the invitation to ‘set a spell’ rarely was refused?

Whatever the chair’s purpose, it reminded me of a decades-earlier conversation with my mother during our visit to a midwestern cemetery. Reminiscing among the gravestones of long-time friends, she said, “Dylan Thomas was wrong.” I’d been only half listening. “What?” “That poem he wrote. The one they made you memorize in school. The one about being mad about dying. He was wrong about that.”

The poem in question was Thomas’s famous villanelle,Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” A beautiful example of the poetic form, and certainly his best-known work, it begins:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Intent on memorizing the words, I learned little of Thomas, his father, or the struggles and frustrations which influenced the poem’s development. Still young and hardly able to conceive the sort of losses that time inevitably brings, I only remember being on the side of the poet. If old age were to bring the loss of the world and its delicious possibilities, rage seemed a perfectly reasonable response.

As I matured, my understanding of life’s seasons changed. However wondrous spring’s delicate beauty, no matter how verdant and rich the bounty of summer, even winter’s exquisite bleakness revealed unexpected treasure. Through days of slowly encroaching darkness and nights of gentle loss, when every bare-branched, autumn tree stood as a memento mori, I found it extraordinary that nature herself refused to rage against the thin and dying light.

In her latter years, my mother became as fragile as those autumn leaves. Her translucent hands trembled as though stirred by some mysterious breeze, and her once-vibrant color began to fade as her connection to the world grew thin.

Tired after seasons of growth, spent from a lifetime of production, ready at last for rest and release, she often would laze in the fading afternoon light, peaceful as a silent wood. “What are you doing?” I’d ask. “Waiting,” she said. “Come here and sit for a while.” Older, able to understand her meaning at last, I sat.

Looking back now at the Red Bench, vibrant and shining among the wildflowers; remembering the rickety and cobwebbed Fairview chair, empty beneath its tree; thinking once more of the Red Chair I named hanging in a gallery or home, I remember as well that simple chair where my own mother sat, gazing toward the horizon.

However well or poorly spent her life, she felt no need for rage as the end approached, no compulsion to “rave and burn at close of day”. Her way of leave-taking, quiet as a falling leaf and gentle as the day’s last light, required nothing more than a chair — red, or otherwise — and companionship.

Recently, realizing I hadn’t seen the Red Chair in the paintings destined for the upcoming Principle show, I asked Gary about it. He said he’d originally intended a hiatus for that group of works, but reconsidered, deciding to include one of his own favorite Red Chair paintings in the show as a nod to its importance in his oeuvre.

When I saw the painting and learned its title, I couldn’t help being amused. Whatever the virtues of Rockport’s Red Bench, this pair could prompt some interesting speculation. Its title? Familial Bond.

Familial Bond ~ G.C. Myers

 

Comments always are welcome. You can follow Gary at his blog, Redtree Times.

Auntie T and Anti-T ~ Part I

Julia Child and friends

The familiar voice — an absurd, bird-like trill of enthusiasm — pulled me toward the living room. Irrationally hoping that the doyenne of dough had raised herself from the dead to once again begin unraveling the mysteries of pâte feuilletée or asperges au naturel, I found instead the trailer for Julie and Julia, the charming, if slightly overdone true tale of Julie Powell, a dissatisfied office worker who determined to prepare every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking within the space of a year.

Watching the clip, I wasn’t inspired to go searching for my pastry cloth, but I did remember how closely Julia Child resembled my beloved Aunt T. My father’s younger sister, she seemed both exotic and mysterious. In the course of her occasional visits, she dropped advice, humor, and an alternative view of the universe into my life like so many bouquets garnis: nudging me to look beyond the bland certainties of a 1950’s childhood. Continue reading

This Reaching is Alive Yet

“July Fourth 1934” ~ J.C. Leyendecker

While it’s possible my mother saw J.C. Leyendecker’s cover illustration for the July 7, 1934 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, it’s certain that she celebrated that July 4th with her own mother.

It would have been one of the last celebrations they shared. In November of that year, my grandmother died: leaving my sixteen-year-old mother to care for three sisters, cope with the vicissitudes of life during the Great Depression, and bear what she perceived to be the shame of poverty.

She rarely talked about those years unless questioned. When I asked if she remembered anything from that last July 4th with her mother, she laughed and said, “I know there would have been watermelon!” Continue reading