Wednesday, June 10, 2020

On Sumner Avenue

On one side of Sumner Avenue we held signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” “End Racism Now,” and one with the carefully written names of victims of racial violence.

As the Carillon tolled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds we, a group of about 60 mostly white people wearing our masks, stood or kneeled as four lanes of busy traffic rushed by, many honking or raising fists in support.

All the while I stood there, I was watching a family across the street. This young black family was sitting on their front steps. There was a mother, a father, a baby, a young boy maybe 4, and an older boy about 11.

I wondered about theses people—these neighbors I had never met. I wondered if they felt protected by the police, or threatened by them. I wondered about the older boy in the red shirt resting on his yellow bicycle. Will he be able to live out his dreams? Can he ride his bicycle freely through the streets of the city as I had done when I was his age in this same city?

The street where we stood, Sumner Avenue, was named for Charles Sumner, a senator from Massachusetts during the Civil War. Wikipedia describes him as a leader in the abolitionist cause, “A radical Republican.” At one point in his career after an impassioned speech against slavery. he was attacked viciously, nearly fatally by another senator on the floor of the Senate

Over 150 years later he is remembered here by this street and the school on it. Yet the racism at the heart of slavery that he fought against, and nearly died fighting, is still here.

So there I was in my white skin silently protesting this evil of racism across from a black family I did not know, realizing all too clearly that there is more than 4 lanes of traffic that separates us.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Memorial Day 2020

I never knew my maternal grandfather, William John Gilpin, Jr. as he died before I was born, yet I’ve been thinking a lot about him this weekend. There was the annual Memorial Day visit to his grave at Quabbin Park Cemetery in Ware, but even before that, I had found his 1936 federal income tax form in a box of family photos and documents in the basement.

IRS Form 1040 A records that he made an income of $1,886.49 as a machinist at National Equipment Company, of which he paid $28.38 in taxes. Though small, it is important to remember that not only was this 84 years ago, but it was also the middle of the Great Depression, so having a job and any income was a plus, and he had held several different jobs in his lifetime, including selling insurance for Metropolitan Life when the job required him to go house to house picking up payments during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. Fortunately, he never got sick.

It was indeed fortunate because my grandmother, May Reid Gilpin, had died very suddenly the year before. She had been ill when he left for work in the morning, and when he came home for lunch, she was dead. That story demands more time than I have here, but suffice it to say that the events of that day changed the family forever.

My grandfather was left the sole parent for my mother, Vera, age five, and my aunt, Gertrude, age nine. Taking care of and supporting them became the focus of his life. This sometimes meant the girls had to stay with family while he was away working.

By 1936, the date of the tax return, he was living in his sister Alice Moffatt’s home on Revere Street in Springfield. There he shared a room with my mother (age 24). (By that time my aunt was married and living in Vermont).  Aunt Alice’s four adult children also lived there. Elmer worked at the US Armory, while Sally, Emma, and Harriet worked at the two big department stores downtown.

I know there were conflicts with that many adults living in one house, and my grandfather could have chosen to move, but his priority, as always, was his daughters. Aunt Alice was his older sister and took a sort of parental attitude toward him, and as the mother of four girls, she felt she knew what was best for them. Education was wasted on girls, she insisted.  After all, her girls didn’t need an education to sell handkerchiefs at Forbes and Wallace or women’s dresses at Steiger’s.

But my grandfather ignored her advice and sent both my mother and my aunt to Bay Path which prepared them to become a secretary and a teacher, respectively. He knew all too well that life can change in a minute and that you need to be prepared to take care of yourself.

I wish I had met my grandfather, but I suspect many of the qualities he had were reflected in his daughters. They were both dedicated to their families and raised children to be responsible and independent.

Maybe if I get serious about cleaning the basement, I’ll discover more treasures, maybe find out more about the names on the cemetery stones.

Sunday, May 17, 2020


"My Front Yard, Summer, 1941" by Georgia O'Keeffe
This is Cerro Pedernal, a part of the Jemez Mountains in Northern New Mexico. Its image keeps reappearing in the paintings of  Georgia O’Keeffe.  She said, “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” After she died, her ashes were scattered there, as she had requested.  
"Ladder to the Moon, 1958"

Her statement seems almost laughable—that God would give it to her, as something to own, but the more I think about it, maybe it’s not so strange. It certainly was hers when she was alive. All she had to do was look up from her studio at Ghost Ranch, and there it was. She preserved it in painting after painting. It appears even in those paintings whose subject was not the mesa.

And perhaps she is not alone in receiving such gifts. What of this earth is given to us—not as a possession, not as a piece of property with a deed—but as a gift to be cared for?

This morning I heard part of an interview with Dave Pollard, author of the blog “How to Save the World.” He described the Earth as being in Hospice—no longer capable of being healed, only cared for as it comes to its end. Cheery news to start the day!

I cannot accept this, so I look out every day on my “Pedernal”—the aging hydrangea that is sprouting green flames of leaves, the row of leafy hostas along the back fence, the tulip tree that I planted as a sapling that now towers above the maple, and, of course, the birds—the usual visitors the sparrows, finches, and starlings, and the new visitors—the orioles and the catbirds. 

This is what has been given to me—the tiny bit of the planet for which I am responsible: to appreciate, take care of, and understand its connection to everything else--from the maple across the back fence to the rainforests of South America to  the mountains in New Mexico.

"Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. 
We all breathe the same air. 
We all cherish our children's future. 
And we are all mortal."
John F. Kennedy

Friday, March 27, 2020


Several years ago when I was part of a mission trip to the tiny village of Las Mercedes in Nicaragua, we would gather at night on the field, reflect upon the day, and just stare at the millions of stars. The stars, of course, were no different from those shining over our homes back in Massachusetts, but we could see them here in all their splendor because after the great star disappeared, there was no artificial light to distract. Because of the absence of the light we were used to, we could clearly see the beauty that had been there all along.

We are living in a time of absence now—absence of human contact, absence of familiar schedules, and, for many, absence of hope. It is not hard to sink into the darkness, to focus on what we are missing, not knowing when things will go “back to normal.”

But into this darkness have come some bright spots—some stars, if you will. You may have heard of the Italians coming together in a Balcony Flash Mob. Others have collaborated on virtual balconies. There was “Love, Sweet Love” sung by the students of Berklee College of Music, “Me and the Sky” by cast members and fans of Come From Away, and my favorite: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” by members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

None of this music was new. All the performers had played or sung before. What was new was the sharing across boundaries of time and space and the desire to make the world brighter in a dark time. May you find the stars in your darkness today.

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.” Og Mandino

Friday, January 3, 2020


“Allow distractions, don't shoo them away. 
They may be knocking on the door of your poem.” 
Billy Collins

Once when I told a person who studied astrology that I was a Gemini, his response was, “Oh, spaghetti brain.” I laughed because it is so true. My mind can find tangents within tangents within tangents, sometimes ending up finding no answers, but a lot of interesting ideas to pursue later. The Internet has only made my particular pasta more intertwined.

My latest wander began on New Year’s Day when I read Barbara Crooker’s poem “The New Year” on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. I really liked the contradictory nature of this poem that begins with the proverbial door shutting, but the window, instead of opening, slams on your fingers. It concludes on a more positive note, “In spite of everything, you sit at your desk and begin.”

I was not familiar with Crooker and saw that the poem came from her collection Some Glad Morning. That immediately started Albert E. Brumley’s hymn “I’ll Fly Away” playing in my mind, and also reminded me of one of my favorite television programs, also titled “I’ll Fly Away” starring Sam Waterston, long before Law and Order or Grace and Frankie. (You may have noticed there are already three links in this story so you can get distracted too if you choose to).

Much as I love Sam Waterston, I was, at that moment, more interested in the poem, so I went on Amazon to find out more about Crooker and the book. I discovered two things. One, she has been widely published (Why was I just discovering her?) and two, she wrote about some of the same things I did, i.e. faith, peonies, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O’Keeffe. I immediately clicked “Buy now with one click,” (Who invented this irresistible temptation?) and true to Amazon’s promise, it arrived the next day.

So this morning I am still sitting here, long after the oatmeal is finished and Kat has returned to warm my lap, just reading these poems that touch me in familiar and new places. “Black and Purple Petunias” delves into Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1924 painting, one I had not written about in my O’Keeffe collection, Climbing to the Moon. Crooker, like O’Keeffe, sees deep inside the flowers, “They will not let the darkness eat them.” “Peaches in August” delights in these fruits as “the only true light” in a darkening world. I too had written about peach moments.

With each poem I am feeling more and more of a connection with this poet. I go back on the Internet where I find her homepage. I look under Events to see if there is anything close by, and there I see that she’s doing a workshop of ekphrastic poetry at Poetry by the Sea in Madison, CT, in May. Perfect! Poetry, art, the ocean, and meeting my new favorite poet! Sign me up.

So, Billy, I didn’t get a poem from my journey, but a blog post. And I think I’ll go back to “I’ll Fly Away” and write something, It’s still playing in my mind.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Feeding and Being Fed

The truth is I didn’t want to go that Wednesday. It was dark and cold, and I really just wanted to stay home, have bowl of soup, and take a nap. Then I thought about the people who were already lined up on this wintry day just waiting for us volunteers to distribute the food brought with the Mobile Food Bank.

Sponsored by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the Mobile Food Bank comes to Trinity United Methodist Church on the first and third Wednesdays of every month. The truck arrives about 1:15 full of food that has been donated from local farms, stores, and the government. The driver unloads pallets of potatoes, onions, squash, or whatever the fare is for the day. We volunteers take up a station in front of one of the pallets and proceed to pass out the food to the people in the line.

On our busiest days there can be more than 300 people representing a virtual United Nations including Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Greece, and Russia. There is no charge for the food, and the people who come are only asked the number and ages of the people in their household.  They come on the hottest days of the summer and the coldest days of the winter. And they wait patiently--very patiently.

On that Wednesday I was handing out beets—4 large beets per person. Quite a few turned them down, but several smiled brightly when I suggested they could make borscht. Once I began dropping the beets in their bags—some flimsy plastic, others more sturdy from Big Y, and some backpacks on wheels—I remembered why I like doing this, even when the weather is not pleasant. Everyone is so grateful. One after one, they smile, say thank you, God bless you, and, in return, I cannot help but smile back.

There are some regulars I recognize like Max who is Russian. I discovered awhile back that he is an amazing pianist. I smiled and asked if he was doing well, “Not good,” he said, “excellent!” Ann usually comes with her youngest child and always greets me with a hug. I am fed by these people who come here for food.

It was a slow day. Maybe people were still dealing with the aftermath of the recent storm. It gave us a little more time to talk to the people coming through the line. When an older man in a gray flannel shirt held out his bag for me to drop the beets in, I could see that he’d been crying. I asked what was wrong, and he just kept repeating, “I’ve lost everything.”

What does one say to that? The words I uttered—I’m sorry—felt insufficient. He told me then that his wife had died of cancer. Then he repeated, “I’ve lost everything.” He moved on to Kathy who was passing out carrots, and I could see that she was tearing up. I gave him a hug before he left. What else could I offer?

I hope we see him again, but I may never find out his whole story. There are so many stories behind all these faces. Most of these people would be labeled poor. To stand in line for hours to receive several pieces of food would seem to support that.But  there is a richness to be had in hearing people’s stories, in touching another human, in sharing smiles on a cold day. 

I was glad I went. I went home feeling much richer.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The October Holiday - a month late

"Dignity" Chamberlain, SD
"There was much discussion last month about what has traditionally been called Columbus Day. Many places have started celebrating Indigenous People's Day instead. As with much these days, it's become a binary choice, one or the other. Instead. I would like to propose we celebrate both.

The more we learn of Columbus, the more we see the cruelty and violence that he brought with him--the enslavement, raping, and pillaging. All true and reprehensible to us 500 years later.
"Christopher Columbus" Providence, RI

The native people had been living on the lands we call America for centuries when this band of Europeans and those who followed them (or preceded--consider Leif Erikson) came with a belief that it was their God-given right to conquer and take what they found.

Today we are quick to label and condemn those years ago who did not live up to our current moral principles. I sometimes wish I could jump into a time machine just to see what behaviors we accept  today as normal, even honorable, that would be condemned by future societies. What if, for example, it were discovered that our great feat of landing a man on the moon had somehow disturbed the cosmos in ways we cannot imagine today? Wouldn't the people of the future be quick to castigate us?

Columbus, like all humans, was complicated. He was motivated by ego and greed, and his actions towards the natives were inexcusable to us. But he was also brave and determined, and led the way for a greater and greater understanding of the planet we share.

Ironically we are also only beginning to discover lessons the indigenous understood--the importance of sharing the earth and protecting it for future generations. These lessons are 
critical to our very survival.

Maybe we should rename the October holiday Discovery Day in which we celebrate what we continue to learn about the Earth and all its people.