Friday, May 22, 2015

Last week today

With homage to John Oliver’s HBO show, I titled this entry as one that somehow defines what is important in my life these days, so much happening in a short but fulfilling seven day cycle that completed itself late last week.

First off you must know that the book I am trying to write, Nature’s People: The Hog Island story from Mabel Loomis Todd to Audubon, is foremost in my life these days.  I only seem to produce text while in sequester at Lake Cumberland, but much more for the book happens all the time.  That said, be advised that the significant goodness of last week unfolded in the name of Nature’s People.  

The trip to enhance the scope of Nature’s People began with a short drive to Cleveland where we had dinner and a good visit with a couple of Cindy’s cousins and their mother, Aunt Alice.  The next day was punctuated at mid-point with a stop in Olean, New York where we had a short visit over pizza with old friends Jean Fran├žois and Athena.  That night it was Ithaca where we had dinner with another branch of Cindy Lou’s family, Elisa & Leon & their delightful daughters, Louisa & Chiara.  Two lovely dinners over two afternoons amid the energy of a couple of youthful live wires.  Enchanting. 

Ithaca was first book stop on the trip for an interview with Steve Kress in his native habitat at Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology.  Steve’s input is invaluable for the upcoming chapter, ‘The advent of Audubon.’  

Next stop was in Kingston, New York, upstate on the Hudson.  Purpose there was to visit a couple of college students near and dear to us.  Bard College is currently home to niece, Ayla, from New Orleans, while Skidmore College, a bit more than hour away north in Saratoga Springs, serves as education quarters for good buddy, Rula.  Good conversations were had with both girls over meals.  

The apogee of our trip, New Haven, Connecticut, was up next:  Yale University’s Sterling Library which houses the archived papers, photography, and other memorabilia of the family my book is all about.  Target for this visit was to investigate a few hundred envelopes of family photographs in search of images of Hog Island.  We arrived New Haven on Sunday, midday.  

Before we could get to the manuscript library on Monday morning, we had a delightful few hours Sunday afternoon at a cafe in Milford, Connecticut, home to Friend of Hog Island comrade in arms, Colleen.  She and her lovely daughters introduced us to Bananagrams, a game I promptly ordered Sunday evening online at Amazon.  Excited comments about Broadway musicals predominated discussion.   

But Monday and Tuesday at the Sterling were the heart and soul of the trip.  I have so enjoyed putting the Todd family story on Hog Island together.  Being able to look at photos of the island now I might even recognize some characters I wouldn’t have recognized prior.  My hope was to uncover a trove of great old Hog Island photography that nobody on Hog Island these days, as far as I know, was aware of.  

Oh, and two fine days it was.  Lighting in the library sucked pretty badly for photographing photographs.  For some it was the glare I couldn’t avoid from high intensity lighting on old warped photographs.  Others images were too dark or too generic.  

And I have to tell you, I am amazed at the quality of the copy images made by my iPhone 6 under existing lighting (no flash).  Flat out amazing.  A few included here.  

I was pleased with what Cindy Lou and I had found.  Much, I think, is usable for Nature’s People, though copyright issues have not been approached yet.  I was advised to contact a special office at the library when I was ready to get serious about clearing copyright hurdles.  

And then it was a long but nice one-day drive back home from Connecticut with a variety of Sirius/XM stations to entertain us.  When I was driving, it was mostly 60s.  Oh, my.  Such a time.  

I should mention, too, that the morning we set out for Cleveland and the very next morning following our return, I visited a student at Stivers High School whom I mentor.  Christopher is finishing his second year there and is looking forward to some exciting and challenging experiences this summer from a camp at Wright State to working a part-time job someplace.  Oh, and he’s borrowing Cindy’s banjo for the summer, too.  He wants to work on transposing some of his guitar playing skills to banjo.  

Finally, the week rounded out nicely with oldest grandson Alex’s senior recognition ceremony from the Career Technology Center.  He officially graduates from Northmont High School in a week.  Great kid.  Honors.  Black belt.  Wants to work on airplanes.  Sounds like a budding career to me.  

And through all of this, Cindy Lou and I watched the Natural world of May push out leaves and blossoms before our very eyes everywhere we were from Ohio to New York to Connecticut to Pennsylvania.  New York hillsides were stunning with black walnut and redbud still flowering.  Weather was warm, and I had the sense Nature was pushing harder because the conditions were so damned good.  I truly love the spring.  Last week was an amazing one to witness.  

So what ties all of last week together?  Love, I think.  Love for family and love for work.  Love of Nature.  An appreciation of the details that might get overlooked.  

Like the use of the word ‘savory’ by 8 year-old Chiara as she very astutely described how she successfully assembles her bakery creations.  Mom & Dad confirmed they were, indeed, mighty tasty. 

Our seeing so many people that mean much to us.  An aunt in her 90s.  A couple we met at a bed & breakfast at Put-in-Bay twenty years ago that work to make the world a better place every single day.  They are inspiring. 

And then the book.  Love there?  You bet.  At this point I feel like I know Mabel Loomis Todd as an old friend.  I used to think her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, was always chiseled and stoic.  Yet in the pictures at Yale I saw her features soften in views I had not seen before.  

Love.  Everywhere.  And all of this with Cindy Lou right beside me, proud of me and the work I am doing.  

Can a week get a whole lot better than that?  

Today’s elder idea:   To me, the thing that has been the most inspiring in all the years that I was trying to save [Hog] island, was, when I had been turned down innumerable times, and I saw no way, at all, out, I went out into the forest and I heard a great horned owl -- it was a marvelous midsummer night with a full moon and no mosquitoes at all -- I suddenly said to myself, “Why am I trying to save this island?  The island can do far more for us than we could ever think of doing for it.”’

Millicent Todd Bingham
In an address to Hog Island campers
summer 1950

imagestop:  Cindy Lou and Rula at Skidmore.
next:  Yours truly and Cindy Lou at Yale just to prove we were really there. 
next:  Millicent Todd Bingham in the ‘sweet fern’ on Hog Island c. 1920  (age 40) 

bottom:  best find of the trip:  Mabel Loomis Todd in the ‘big house’ on Hog Island.  c. 1925

Monday, May 18, 2015


I just read a story online emanating from Huffington Post regarding television star Leah Remini and her pain involved with leaving the church she had been part of since her time in the cradle, in her case the Church of Scientology.  She relayed that her mother was a follower and advocate of Scientology and her children were raised in the community of those beliefs.  Over time Remini has come to doubt what that church stands for.  Surely an energized debate can be raised over Scientology, but let’s save that one for another day. 

The power of the truth that Remini’s consciousness was honed in so may ways under the influence of a church her parents followed, takes me back to my own roots in Roman Catholicism.  My folks were ardent church goers and participants in all things Immaculate Conception parish for all the years of my youth.  My older yet still-teenage-then sister made parish history by chairing a booth at the summer festival staffed by youth.  Her stuffed animal venue had candy canes made out of carpet tubes fixed to the corners with an amazingly huge stuffed animal raffle instituted to raise even more money.  The kids had something to prove, and did very nicely, I don’t mind saying. 

I used to hang around the school building after hours, sometimes even before and after the year to see if I could help any of the teachers, mostly nuns, with chores.  I washed many a backboard and clapped dozens of erasers chalk free.  Shoot, I even walked some of my teachers ‘home’ across the play ground to the convent where they lived.  And in my own teen years, chaired along with a buddy an upstart Teen Club committee that matched young workers to parishioners needing various tasks completed.  I helped out in the CCD office for a few summers, too, along with another buddy I still call a good friend.  

Back in the day of the Latin mass, I studied prayers well enough to be put on the schedule as an acolyte.  I can’t do the ‘Orate Fratres’ from memory anymore, but I can still sing an Easter response refrain in English I learned in church choir sometime around freshman year.  ‘And very early in the morning, after the Sabbath /  They came to the sepulcher at sunrise / Alleluia.’  Very melodic.  And very grounded to what was learned as essential in life.  

As kids, we knew a handful of pets, lots of sibling rivalry, too many of Mrs. Wise’s cats howling in our bushes at night, seining for soft craws with Dad in the Stillwater river, and then fishing for hours at Englewood lake.  I thought my bicycle was my airborne vehicle to freedom on summer evenings.  I loved baseball but was pathetic at fielding.  Couldn’t hit, either.  I played some CYO football, according to my older brother, just to impress Dad.  I’ve thought about that for years.  Could be.  

But over and above anything we knew about life as kids, first and foremost — even considered before our parents — was Church.  Jesus.  His Father.  The Holy Spirit.  Truly, the three men I admired most.  Everything in life was considered in the aura of the Trinity.  God may have been Love, but she/he demanded accountability for all actions, whether spur-of-the-moment or contemplated.  Jesus may have been my brother, but he surely wasn’t going to put up with any of my shenanigans.  

And, I guess I’d have to say, such an upbringing and subsequent living a life has brought me to a place in consciousness that I am happy to occupy.  But in finding this place in the Universe that I comfortably inhabit, there are things I do and thoughts I accept that wouldn’t have been kosher back in the day.  I could tell you about the darkest, but it still makes me uncomfortable enough that I can only write about it in my journal, surely not a document that the whole world might get a look at.  Some of that stuff gets hidden in my poetry, as well. 

I would have to say I am an eclectic assemblage as various spiritual concepts learned over the course of my sixty-five years.  I think I prize hours sitting on my back porch either in meditation or idea-writing just about the most.  It’s birdsong and a chorus of suburban ambient sounds as my mind roams — or not — in that space.  Sometimes I push thoughts away in mindful meditation.  Other times I bolt for my poetry notebook and let the words form themselves for me and everybody else on the page.  

There are many days I feel I could depart from all churches and become one of the growing number of Americans who don’t consider themselves part of any organized religious organization.  I’ve heard of many others who feel as I do:  One main reason to attend is to be in the regular presence of other people who mean to do well in the world.  I’ve thought about this plenty and conclude that if I didn’t attend church, where would I find those people?  Yes, other organizations do good work as well, but they don’t have that same deeply rooted Home of the Truth sense learned as kids intuiting the search for safety and security.

Last night Cindy Lou and I talked about a member of our church who isn’t around anymore because she perceives our congregation too liberal.  Heaven only knows there are plenty of more conservative groups all over the congregational map.  All I know is, if my downtown church ever goes more conservative, I’m out of there for the opposite reason.  Then maybe Audubon will have to be enough.  

And maybe that’s the point of this writing:  Truth is, I am not settled in my Faith, whatever that is supposed to be.  I always liked the poster down at church that had an image of Jesus saying, ‘I never asked you to leave your brain at the door.’  And because of that, I realize my work trying to figure out the major Truths of living in our Universe is not going to come from one place.  

I am still seining, though now in other waters trying to find the nuggets of importance in whatever time I have left to search.  

Today’s elder idea:   The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. 
John Muir 

image:  I figure 1955 from our mother’s photo collection.  That’s Patty Jo in the Immaculate Conception uniform on the left with grade mate Michael John in the middle.  That’s trouble ready to happen on the right:  Tommy.   :-)