Neighbors

It starts with a funeral.  Why does it take great tragedy to bring people together, Cathy Higgins wonders as she stands in line with her husband, Jake, waiting to hug Mr. Robertson’s son, Dan.  The line of mourners trails all the way from the casket, around the sanctuary, and out the door of the church.  Cathy pulls at the front of her blouse trying to puff some air into the collar sticking to her neck.  She wishes they could inch a few steps forward into the shade of the roof overhang.

A week ago, Jake asked Cathy if she’d seen Mr. Robertson mowing his yard or pottering around the outbuildings on his property.  She hadn’t, and as luck would have it, when Jake left for work that evening, he saw Dan mowing with his father’s tractor.  He pulled into the driveway, shouted and waved to get Dan’s attention.

“Hey, we haven’t seen your dad around for a couple of weeks, and we’re wondering if he’s okay.”

Dan shook his head; his crooked smile told the story.  Jake called Cathy on his cell as he drove on to work to report back the sad news.  For some reason, Cathy called her family to tell them, not that any of them really knew Mr. Robertson beyond the fact that he was the neighbor.

Air conditioning blasts from the open double doors of the church.  Cathy can feel it now that she and Jake are within range of the building.  They really should shut the doors in between people, she thinks.  It would stay cooler inside and not waste electricity and money.  Her laughter escapes as breath expelled from her nose at the weird thought.  She’s always thinking odd stuff like this; probably the result of growing up and hearing such admonitions regarding the closing of doors when the air is on and refrigerators when they are running.

Jake waves to someone ahead of them in the line.  He taps Cathy on the shoulder and gently takes her by the arm.  She scowls for a moment when she understands they are jumping line to join whomever Jake spied.  It is Fran Mencer whose backyard is perpendicular to the Higgins’s.  Her home faces the side street as does Mr. Robertson’s who lived next door to Jake and Cathy.

“Hi,” Fran says in that long drawn out way that conveys I’m so glad to see you, but I hate that it’s under these circumstances.  The light in her eyes is at odds with the grim smile on her face.

She and Cathy hug, and the line jumping is forgotten.  At least by Cathy who is relieved to run into someone she knows.  She went to school with Dan Robertson, but they traveled in different circles, and neither she nor Jake ever met his sister and brother.  The Higginses don’t even know if there are spouses to be consoled.

“Can you believe this?” Fran says.

“Was he sick?” Cathy asks.  “We hadn’t seen him out in the yard for a couple weeks, so we thought maybe he’d gone on vacation.”

Fran shook her head.

“He’d been in the hospital for a while.  Declined rapidly.  His old heart finally gave out.”

“Oh, boy.  I wish I’d known.”

“I tried to call you a couple of times, but your line was disconnected.”

Cathy’s eyebrows knit for a moment, and then she says, “Oh, we let our landline go several months ago.”

A thought flickers through Cathy’s head:  the yards aren’t so big that one couldn’t walk to a neighbor’s house with important news.  In the next second, her eyes widen and a knife stabs her heart.

“When I lost Buddy this past spring right after Pop passed, I pretty much went to bed for the summer.”

Oh dear Lord…how did we not know that Buddy and Pop died this spring, Cathy thinks.  Her husband and father in the same yearPlay it off or admit we didn’t know?

“Oh, Fran, I’m so sorry,” Cathy says, trying to cover all her bases.

How many times had she meant to walk across the yards and visit Fran?  Tea and a chat was always the invitation.  Cathy cannot discern what Jake is feeling beneath the shock on his face, but her stomach is heavy with the lead of guilt.

After talking with Dan Robertson, reminiscing about his dad, hearing how things are not going well in the absence of a will, and offering final condolences and goodbyes, Jake and Cathy leave hand in hand.  They look at the blacktop sprinkled with curled leaves dried from end-of-summer heat, falling before the autumn frosts have even arrived.  Neither speaks on the short trip home.

They change out of their dress clothes and wander outside to sit in lawn chairs, instinctively looking toward Mr. Robertson’s home.  Funny that we never called him by his first name, Cathy thinks.  Maybe because he was the oldest in our little neighborhood.  She and Jake always thought of themselves, Fran and Buddy, and Mr. Robertson as the neighborhood.

Their neighborhood:  not a sidewalk in sight, no fences between the yards, homes built on old farmland.  Deer still migrate through the yards as they hopscotch from cornfield to cornfield, foxes sneak through on their dainty paws, and hawks wheel in the endless skies above.  Fancy allotments with two and three thousand-square foot homes are popping up peripherally.

The Matulevich family lives across the street from Cathy and Jake.  Not a lot of contact past the occasional friendly wave, but Mr. Matulevich’s brother lives three doors down on the same side as the Higginses, and he is quite friendly.  He used to till the garden for Cathy every summer with his Bobcat until she gave up gardening for watercolor painting.

Across from Mr. Robertson are Clarice and Al Robertson, no relation, in the triplexes lining the side street.  They were there long before the Higginses built, permanent renters, and Cathy usually runs into one or both of them at garage sales every summer.

But so many other families come and go from these homes that Cathy and Jake gave up trying to learn who they were.  Still, unfamiliarity doesn’t prevent waves, smiles, and pulling cars out of snowdrifts when necessary.  That’s just how it is in this part of town that is somewhere between the suburbs and rural living.

img_20161030_173746250_hdrA month or more passes with Jake and Cathy falling back into the routine of work and lawn care for him and tending the house inside and out for her.  Always so much to do and never enough time to do it.  And then Jake comes in the house one day after putting his tractor away for the season.

“Fran is out back push mowing the yard.”

Cathy lays down the laundry she is folding and follows her husband outside.  They walk across the length of their backyard and two-thirds of Fran’s before finally reaching her.  These plots really are quite spacious, Cathy thinks.

“What are you doing?” Jake asks with laughter and gentle reprimand in his voice.

“I know, but I took some pain pills before I started and thought I’d work in patches,” Fran laughs in reply.

Jake offers to cut the yard however many times are needed until the November rains come.  The trio chats a bit; they end up inside Fran’s house with coffee, and they chat some more.

This time, Cathy thinks, we will be good neighbors.

Dream Cooking

Dream CookingThe weather in Northeast Ohio has been bitterly cold lately. We’re paying for the month of December when we ran around in shirtsleeves and windbreakers. Personally, I’d rather spread out the bad weather instead of having it dumped on us all at once.

The cold puts everyone in the mood for soup, stew, or chili. Recently, my husband’s family all met at his parent’s house where everyone enjoyed a delicious ground sirloin and root vegetable stew. I took two loaves of bread which we cut into huge chunks for sopping up broth. The evening was a perfect blend of good food, great conversation, laughter, and reminiscing.

Today I’m making a pot of chili to combat the falling temperatures. Every family has their own recipe, or rather non-recipe, of ingredients combined without measuring until the chili tastes the way it’s supposed to. As I chop the onion and green pepper, press the garlic, I think about my Swedish photographer friend who I met on Twitter.

I came late to social media because it served no purpose in my life. If social media couldn’t allow me to hear my friends’ laughter, dry their tears, feel the warmth of their hugs, share a glass of wine or cup of tea, or lend a shoulder, then it held no value. Why would I even consider it when I’m the person who complained that e-mail doesn’t allow for the tone of voice to come through and it leads to too many misconstrued statements and hurt feelings? I’m still extremely cautious about what I type in posts, e-mails, tweets, etc.

Then one day I had to take the plunge into Facebook, Twitter, and a blog for the sake of my author platform. I’ll cut to the chase and admit that’s it’s proven to be successful and quite fun. Also quite addictive, so remember why you signed up in the first place. Don’t ignore the work, writing in my case.

But the most important part of my social media experience has been the connections I’ve made with people I’ve never met, only seen in the little photos they use as their profile icons, and never heard speak. They’ve become real friends, and it’s them I’m thinking about today as I cook.

I wrote a post about apple pie not too long ago, and the friend I mentioned above commented that it’s a favorite in Sweden as well. She tweeted a picture of her beautiful kitchen, and I instantly fell in love with it. I replied that someday, we would cook together in her kitchen. She agreed…someday.

Ever since that tweeted conversation, I have dreamt about the two of us baking together. We would probably start with apple pie, while laughing and chatting at her kitchen table, hands warming around mugs of tea. We’ll take turns peeking in the oven, mouths watering, as we anticipate the rich dessert.

My imagination doesn’t end there for I’ve made other wonderful friends online. My handsome photographer friend from India breezes in without knocking because all are welcome here. He arrives from whatever exotic location he was photographing. A touch of mystery swirls in on the chill breezes, and we laugh and scold him to shut the door. After much foot stomping to knock snow off his boots, he sits at the table with his own mug of tea. No apple pie yet; it’s cooling on the counter.

Right behind him, my American poet friend knocks politely before poking his head in and calling hello. His online presence is so kind, so thoughtful, that I imagine him as soft spoken, warm, and gentle: a perfect blend of Robert Frost and a favorite uncle. His photography includes familiar pictures from daily life. That, too, is comforting. He joins us at the table, eyeing up the cooling pie.

Three more photographer friends arriving from India, America, and Finland join us as if they lived right around the corner. There’s enough room around the table that’s magically big enough to accommodate all of us. Many hands participate in the preparation of a pot of something savory now simmering on the stove. Fresh bread is baking. The men demand dessert; the ladies smile and say not until after dinner.

Then my writing friends drop in. I’ve invited them to meet the photographers. The first is a lion-hearted writer with a terrific smile. Then my comic-loving writer friend and my successfully self-published writing friend from England join the United Nation of Artists gathered at the table. Just as the table is being set for dinner, my part-scientist/part-writer friends hustles in. He laughs and says the weather is either cold with too much snow to shovel or hot with too much grass in need of cutting.

Chairs are added to the table, writers squeeze in between photographers, dinner is served. Conversation is replaced with murmurs of satisfaction. The stew is delicious. Suddenly, the door bangs open announcing one more writing friend to add to the mix. She apologizes as she wriggles out of her coat, tosses her snow-crusted gloves on the warm stove, brushes her long brown hair over her shoulders, and finds an empty spot at the table meant just for her. The t-shirt she wears catches every eye; it’s printed with the naked torso of a man staring just below the chin and ending just below his navel. Grins of appreciation for the intriguing shirt leave no doubt in which genre she prefers to write.

After dinner, as friends turned family push back from the table claiming they have no more room for another bite, dessert is served. Coffee and tea are refreshed. A pie that normally would have served eight at the most transforms into miraculous bounty. There is enough for everyone to have seconds. It is around midnight, and everyone’s spirits are still high. All heads turn at the sound of the door opening one more time.

The last friend to join our impromptu party has been out walking, planning paintings, sussing life’s situations, and enjoying his retirement. His wandering has brought him home, so to speak. Everyone presses him into a chair, places stew, bread, and pie in front of him, and asks after his wellbeing.

I sit back and listen contentedly as writers, photographers, and painters blend perfectly. Art talk abounds. Mugs of warm beverages have given way to glasses of wine. We’ve already started planning our next meal together.

Slowly, each friend fades from view, disappearing in the steam rising from the pot of chili I am stirring. But I can still sense them with me. I say still even though I haven’t met them yet. Someday. Someday it will all start with an apple pie baked in a beautiful kitchen in Sweden.

~~~~~

Thank you to my wonderful friend, Rosita Larsson, for the picture of her beautiful kitchen which inspired this post.

Seeing Is Believing

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then allow me to share with you what this beholder has been eyeing up lately. My appreciation for art in all its many forms wasn’t developed by education or by listening to the critics but rather by finding what I liked and seeking out more of the same. I’ve applied this to the books I read, the way I write, paintings and photography I view, the music I listen to, and the food I eat. Today, let’s focus on visual art.

Michael Ferguson is an abstract artist whose work I found in my Twitter feed. I must have been following someone who retweeted Michael’s art, because the icon he uses for his profile, his own piece titled Essence, immediately caught my eye.

Through our conversations, I’ve learned that many things besides a paintbrush can be used for applying paint to an artist’s chosen surface. Cereal boxes remain among my favorite tools that Michael has used in his creative process. Like many things in life to which I never limit myself to one favorite, I really couldn’t say which of Michael’s pieces I like best. For the sake of space, I’m going to feature Shapes – World simply because my eye landed on this vibrant, colorful piece first. My initial thought upon seeing it was that it looked like a painted dreamscape.

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Shapes-World by Michael Ferguson

I also met photographer, Robert Nacke, on Twitter. Robert’s work resonates with me because he has a unique ability to capture familiar images and present them in a simple yet elegant way. I’ve seen many of his chosen subjects in my everyday life, but don’t think for one minute that this makes them commonplace.

The plump goose crossing the road or the doe with her spotted fawns are brought closer with a fine eye for detail and elevated to the level of art. You can’t help but feel as if what matters and/or what is special in life are important to Robert, too.

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Traveling Song by Robert Nacke

But my association with artists on Twitter didn’t end there. Photographer Rosita Larsson caught my heart with her picture of bleeding hearts, my favorite childhood flower. When I think of Rosita’s work, warmth and freshness always come to mind. I thought her florals were my favorites until I had the pleasure of viewing her forest scenes, nature abstracts, buildings, and landscapes, and I realized that I loved everything she shoots.

She manages to imbue every picture with such clarity that you want to reach out and touch the scene just to feel the velvety dampness of the petal or the heat radiating from a sundrenched stone wall. Rosita’s art breathes life and lifts your spirits all at once.

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Bleeding Heart Up Close by Rosita Larsson

What I love about the work of photographer Irfan Dar is how he fluctuates between wide open pictures with simple objects just catching your eye to close up pictures of intense focus. Whether it’s crisp detail or softened edges, black and white or color, Irfan’s work always has a touch of the exotic in it.

I sense motion in Irfan’s pictures even if it’s just the mist moving subtly across a dense forest or grains of sand shifting beneath a camel’s feet. His photographs will make you want to travel to the places he has been and see the things he has seen.

Solitary by Irfan Dar

Solitary by Irfan Dar

Ismo Raisanen photographs astound me with the depth of color he captures. It’s as if nature gives the very best show when he’s taking pictures. Even snowy winter scenes are brought to life with a range of shades I wouldn’t usually have associated with the season.

The other quality I like about his pictures is how he uses natural lighting to enhance the colors of the landscapes he photographs. Of course sunny scenes depict light in a most spectacular way, but you won’t be disappointed with his shady scenes that provide a great sensory experience to all who view them.

Midsummer Night's Magic

Midsummer Night’s Magic by Ismo Raisanen

I was first drawn to Derrick Scofield’s photographs when he tweeted the South Fork Trestle in color and black and white. Both pictures were equally beautiful in their own way, almost as if he had taken pictures of two completely different bridges.

Derrick presents a wide range of subject matter for his photographs, and this variety lends even more appeal to his artwork. One might be tempted to think he snapped a series of random shots, but closer inspection will reveal that this is the work of a talented photographer because no one person is that lucky. Each scene appears exactly how it should have been photographed, capturing the moment perfectly, lending an emotional quality to the picture.

South Fork Trestle

South Fork Trestle by Derrick Scofield

South Fork Trestle 2 by Derrick Scofield

South Fork Trestle 2 by Derrick Scofield

I hope you enjoyed this visual tour of some of the finest artists on social media today who I have the pleasure of calling my friends.

Encouragement vs. Insult

I believe one of the cruelest insults a person can level at someone is to refer to that person as an amateur. At one time, we were all new to whatever it was we were pursuing.

Before the advent of social media, where everything a person does is on display from day one, some people had the opportunity to hone their craft to perfection without being in the constant spotlight, thus looking professional and well established when they joined social media. Stop and think for a minute: This is only how it appears.

GiveBack_webWe may never see every person’s humble beginnings, but rest assured every person has one. Instead of resorting to insults, privately distributed constructive criticism is what the situation calls for. If you, the commenter, don’t believe you can do this, simply refrain.

I’m not suggesting we become a world of wimps who shrivel at every negative comment. Just remember to be tactful and professional with your advice. It is possible to build people up even as you’re pointing out what they did wrong.

Share both your positive and negative experiences, offer your resources, give as well as take, and let the new person stand on your shoulders until they are strong enough to stand on their own two feet. It’s amazing how great you’ll feel when you do.

This advice also applies when helping someone who has been at a particular craft for a while and may still need instruction.  Again, encourage them and watch your fellow artist thrive under your beneficial tutelage rather than recoil from your scathing remark.

I offer the example set by James Michael Kahle, master glassblower, as the standard for how one should give back to those who are new to any form of art. Whether it is glassblowing, photography, writing, or painting, Mr. Kahle’s attitude toward approaching art and teaching others is inspiring. In fact, many of the lessons he applies to his art can be applied to life in general.

Some of Mr. Kahle’s views featured in the PBS documentary about his glassblowing, Turning Fire Into Ice, include his commitment to his art, his persistence when accepting challenges, listening to your art versus popular opinion, not dwelling on a setback, and, the most impressive, giving back and/or instructing future generations for free.

The world would be a considerably better place if we all adopted Mr. Kahle’s belief that if you don’t give back then you don’t have the right to take and what would the future be if we don’t give back now?

Description-A Writer’s Friend or Foe?

dearada_typepad_com_dear_ada_images_2008_01_15_experience_261_artFellow author Mark Tilbury tossed out a question that is often on my mind as a reader and writer. In his post, Have Books Lost Something With Their Lack of Description, Mark asks us our opinion on today’s style of writing.

We’ve all encountered the “massive blocks of descriptive prose” to which Mark refers. Sometimes they truly are too long, too irrelevant to the story, too purple, etc., etc. I have skimmed such passages in search of the storyline and/or dialog that would put me back in the story.

However, because we’re all friends and adults here, I’m going to say that I disagree with the notion that description is informative but unnecessary. I hear all the time that the reader shouldn’t be led around by the nose; he/she should be given the opportunity to imagine the story. As an avid reader, I can honestly say that I have never felt this way about descriptive writing. On the contrary, my imagination was enhanced and grew because of the description I read including that written about journeys and the passage of time.

The key is that writers need to learn the perfect balance between too much and enough, the fine line between well-written, well-placed prose versus that which is encumbering, unnecessary. This seems like a daunting task, but I believe it can be achieved by not reducing writing to a formulaic method. In doing so, authors will elevate writing back to the level of artistic recognition it deserves.

85806_Ashford_1_122_526lo_122_526loI have never read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, but I would have to agree that abundant description about a character’s acne would be tedious. If that acne-plagued character traveled by canal boat from Pennsylvania to Ohio, then I would love the benefit of description. I would look forward to a word picture painted by the author that draws me in to the sounds, smells, and sights of the trip. It would be a perfect place to introduce traveling companions, a time for the protagonist to reflect, an opportunity to build the tension that so deliciously moves the story forward.

Even if none of the above-mentioned suggestions occur, as a reader I would still enjoy the mental images of traveling with the character, and I believe an important part of the writing would be lost if these well-written descriptions didn’t occur. As Mark mentioned in his post, they are an art form unto themselves. Like all art, value thereof still resides in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the reader. Well-written description can exist purely for the sake of entertainment.

I have to wonder if writing hasn’t gone the way of food preparation in that we no longer know how to linger over a book in the same way that we forego multiple course meals and choose to patronize fast-food restaurants. I read because I enjoy the slower pace, and while there is a place in my fa9bbdedb5103e7f31a0893eff84ed56reading diet for the occasional literary Big Mac, more often than not, I opt for the balanced meal of description, dialog, prose, and narrative.

Now I don’t want to start a fight with screenwriters because I truly do appreciate their craft. However, using what worked in an action-packed movie and applying it to writing has resulted in fast-paced novels written with the singular hope of being turned into a movie. This has diminished writing for some of us. This influence has led to the removal of poetry and painting (mental images) from writing resulting in flat, hollows stories. Let movies be movies, appreciate them for all that they are; and let books be books, treasures not to be rushed through.

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