The Boys of Summers’ Past

Brewmasters sepia 2-1 Last week marked the beginning of summer. At long last the season of heat, humidity and sunny summer fun is finally upon us and there always seems to be so much more to do than time allows.  Summer vacations are filled with all kinds of outdoor activities – swimming, camping, festivals and fairs to name a few.  The list can go on, but it wouldn’t be complete without those traditional ‘boys of summer’. Yes, baseball! It’s been almost 10 years since I moved to one of the greatest baseball cities in the country, and yet in all that time I have only managed to go to one Cardinal’s game. 

There was a time when baseball games were a staple of summer activity. I’m originally from the south side of Chicago and I grew up on White Sox baseball –  old Comiskey Park, cheap bleacher seats, an exploding scoreboard and a disdain for all things north side, especially the Cubs. But even as a St. Louis transplant, with a common rivalry and a team that seems to do a lot of winning, I just haven’t been able to enjoy the game the same way I did in my youth. 

Grinders 1(s)It’s easy to get nostalgic for those old times at the ball park, late summer afternoons spent in the bleachers cheering on the South Side Hit Men, chilly spring mornings enduring the wind off the lake high in the upper deck on opening day.  Sadly, the culmination of it all was announced quite loudly one afternoon. What was once the explosion of fireworks proclaiming another homerun for the Sox, was now an explosion foretelling the destruction of a park that held so many fond memories.  

I suppose that’s progress, out with the old and in with the new. While I attended many games at the ‘new Comiskey’ over the years, it was never really the same.  Nowadays it seems as though the expense for enjoying our national past time is likely to put you back an amount comparable to the national debt. When you add up the cost of tickets, parking, beers, hot dogs and a bucket of popcorn at the ballpark you realize you could have vacationed to a tropical island or fed a village full of starving children for about the same cost.

Brewmasters 6(s).jpgAs with many other aspects of our society, professional sports have become over commercialized and corrupted to the point where the casual observer has been priced right out of the market.  So how is the everyday American supposed to get his fix of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet?  Well, last weekend this fair-weather fan got the rare opportunity to step back into a simpler time before sports were a multibillion dollar mega business. A time when baseball was in its infancy and was played for recreation and exercise.   

Grinders 3(s)Miraculously, the original form of ‘base ball’ as it was played between the days of the Civil War and the turn of the century is still alive and well in fields, parks and green spaces across this great country of ours.  Groups of dedicated Americans don old style uniforms, gather up homemade balls and bats and head out to play the game as it was meant to be played – as a gentlemen’s game.  Respect, sportsmanship and comradery, values that were once the backbone of a great nation, but now seem to be lacking in our everyday interactions with fellow humans.

The rules and regulations have changed quite a bit since its inception.  Originally, it was the pitcher’s job to throw the ball in the most convenient location for the batter, the ball was meant to be hit and fielded.  There were no called balls or strikes, protective equipment like baseball gloves and batting helmets had not come about yet. The ball could be caught on one bounce and the batter still be called out. The lone umpire was the ultimate source of all decisions and held the right to fine players for ‘ungentlemanly’ behavior.  Certainly, as a reenactment this is something that needs to be witnessed and is truly a piece of living history. The players seem to be stepping into alter egos from a bygone era and the crowd can’t help but join in on the fun.

CollageSo how was it that I managed to come across this cultural phenomenon? My son, being very active in his community, wanted to put on a benefit for his local historical society. He wanted to host an event that Brewmasters 22(s)had historical significance but also would be enjoyable for a wide range of patrons. So, he organized a vintage base ball tournament.  He contacted a local team and then pulled together a group of friends and residents to form a new team of their own – the Blue Island Brewmasters.  With uniforms inspired by those seen in an old photograph from the archives of the historical society, the team set out to learn the rules of the game as it was played in 1858 and, of course – practice, practice, practice. 

He located an empty lot along the canal that once housed a gas factory and was now owned by a utilityBrewmasters 7(s).jpg company.  He worked with the city and a local sports field designer to cut the grass, remove overgrown brush and turn this once overlooked space into a regulation base ball diamond worthy of the origins of our national past time.  And so he built it – this old-fashioned field of dreams – but did they come? You bet they did!  They came from near and far, carrying picnic baskets, blankets and folding chairs. Families, friends and local politicians gathered on the freshly mowed grass.  Children played, fans cheered and neighbors shared their latest news as the game unfolded inning by exciting inning. By the end of the day the crowd was caught up in the turn of the century fanfare and mighty Huzzahs! could be heard from both sides. 

 

The game ended with a victory for the rookie Brewmasters.  There was some good-hearted ribbing, team captains gave speeches of thanks and handshakes were shared all around.  The event wound down with a potluck feast on the lawn of the historical society hosted by the home team, complete with homemade dishes and an amazing spread of desserts.  It was the perfect finish to the perfect day and plans were already being made for next years game.

Brewmasters 35(s)As Americans, there’s something about a good ball game that will always tug at our heartstrings. But it’s more than just “the game”, it’s about a day spent enjoying each others company on a sunny summer afternoon, cheering local heroes on to victory. Baseball has been a part of our culture for over 150 years. Yet in the beginning it wasn’t about money, fortune or fame.  It was played for community, fellowship and fun but most of all it was played simply for the love of the game. 

Huzzah!  Gentlemen, Huzzah!

Brewmasters 16(s)1858 base ball

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When Worlds ‘Kaleid’

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Feelings vs. facts.  Originality vs. rationality.  Right vs. left.  There’s a theory that each hemisphere of our brain controls certain aspects of how we think and who we are.  It suggests that each one of us has a more dominant hemisphere.  Right-brainers are generally more creative and artistic, while left-brainers are analytical and logical.  Of course, since the two sides are in such close proximity, there is always the possibility of a little cross over here and there.

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In theory, I tend to be the classic left-brainer. So, when a new call for entries was announced and the theme was “Geometric by Design” I figured I had this one nailed. With degrees in mathematics and a career of writing computer code, plus a creative hobby like photography, I should have no problem with this one.

Yet, amid all the landscapes, portraits, flora and fauna that ‘righty’ spent hours creatively capturing and ‘lefty’ spent even more hours perfecting in Lightroom and Photoshop, nothing seemed to quite qualify as geometric. Were the two hemispheres of my brain incommunicado? On the one hand, I had creative images, on the other I had organized images.  I basically had organized creative images but no creatively organized images. In other words, nothing that satisfied my left brain as being “Geometric by Design”.

Leaves kaleidoscope border 14x14(s)Logically the only solution to this problem was to get righty and lefty to call a truce and collaborate.  I needed something analytical yet artistic; methodically structured yet innovative.   There was going to have to be a meeting of the minds.

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In the wee hours of the morning my brain must be a little more evenly balanced, because I always manage to do my most rational yet inspired thinking around 3 am.  So one night, during a brief episode of insomnia, my mind started to wander. As I lay in the darkness pondering this new dilemma, I began to envision some of my images in a more logical fashion. I saw them rearranged and projected in organized geometric patterns on the blank canvas of the ceiling above me.  It wasn’t long before I realized what my mind’s eye had conjured up for what it truly was, something I hadn’t laid eyes on since I was a child – a kaleidoscope!   Symmetrical reflections of colorful objects.  Immediately left brain became intrigued and right brain was enthusiastic.  One half of my head was busy engineering Photoshop techniques while the other was mentally perusing its library of favorite images in search of likely candidates.

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It’s no surprise that I was up bright and early the next morning. With a common sense of purpose, both left and right hemispheres were now ready to combine forces and create symmetry out of chaos. I sat down at the computer and let them run the show. Right brain offered up her favorite images and watched in amazement as left brain transformed them into geometric wonders.  

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It was an inspiring mental workout, with synapses firing across the gaps. The joint effort equally fulfilling for both sides.  I doubt that the results of this corroboration are any great works of art, but I can say that the enjoyment my entire brain had during the process was worth its weight in gold. Left and right reached across that great mental divide, shook hands, compromised, collaborated and came up with a solution that satisfied them both.  Together they created colorful kaleidoscopic images out of bits of butterflies, bridges, autumn leaves and other random objects.  Soulard Market 2k(s)

It just goes to show, that when opposing camps combine forces and communicate effectively the result can be a wonderfully unique perspective.  Drawing from both our imagination and our intellect, we can take the best that each has to offer and design something that celebrates our own inner diversity. Despite all the personal struggles and conflicts we endure in our lives, it will always take both a left and right wing to fly.

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Photographs & Memories – 2016

 

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Now that 2016 has ended and my first “blog-iversary” is only a couple weeks away I decided to take a look back on all that happened last year. For my year in review I was planning on picking my favorite photograph from each month. As I started browsing through all the photos, I couldn’t believe how many there were. All the incredible adventures we had and the wonderful memories that were created.  While 2016 had its ups and downs, it was great year filled with good times, wonderful friends and a lot of love.  Instead of just picking out my favorite photographs, I picked the ones that also brought back the best memories.  So here they are, my most cherished “photographs and memories” of 2016…

January

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January 17. Audubon Center at Riverlands, West Alton MO

What could be more beautiful and memorable than witnessing the freedom of  wild Trumpeter swans flying across the backdrop of a winter sunset?  This was definitely an amazing day and we stayed until there was no light left to photograph by!

February

 

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February 15.  Eastern Point Lighthouse, Gloucester MA

This was probably the best day I ever spent in Massachusetts.  Relentlessly driving around Gloucester with my good friend Molly Hill, in search of this light house.  Despite dead end roads, private streets and botched GPS directions, we still managed to find it thanks to her great navigational skills!  Thanks Molly, this was such a fun time!

March

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March 26.  Deep River County Park, Hobart IN

A wonderful afternoon spent with my oldest granddaughter Carleigh at Deep River County Park.  We flew a kite, went on a nature hike and met many different little critters, including a worm she named ‘Fluffy’.  The only way to get her to leave without sulking was the promise of ice cream.  That’s what grandparents are for.. 🙂

April

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April 2. Audubon Center at Riverlands, West Alton MO

Another fantastic wildlife adventure at Riverlands, this time witnessing Great Blue Herons going through their mating ritual.  This guy had all the right moves, unfortunately the female he was trying to woo was more interested in catching fish..

May

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May 26. Valley View Glade, Hillsboro MO

I had so much fun this year experimenting with my new macro lens!  I discovered a whole new world and even though it’s a very tiny one, it is filled with so many wonders that I had never took the time to notice before.

June

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June 18.  Blue Island IL

For the last two Father’s days my son Kevin has taken me on photo tours on the south side of Chicago.  Last year it was historic Pullman, this year it was his old home town of Blue Island IL.  He and his family have recently moved back there and are very much involved in the community.  You can see by all his gear that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree..  Very proud of him and looking forward to this year’s excursion!

July

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July 26. Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, Ironton MO

There were many hikes in many state parks this year as I began my mission to collect all the state parks stamps before October 2017.  Taum Sauk Mountain stands out as one of the more picturesque of the parks we’ve visited so far.  It is the highest elevation in the state of Missouri and you can a hike a portion of the Ozark trail as it crosses the mountain and heads to Johnson Shut Ins.  Not the easiest hike we’ve done, but definitely worth the effort.

August

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August 7. Tower Grove Park, St. Louis MO

My how time flies!  This year in October my daughter Angela gave birth to her first child and my first grandson.  While she was still expecting we spent some time together and took maternity pictures. We took trips to the botanical garden, Forest Park and the zoo.  But this afternoon in August was my favorite. We had a fun time walking around Tower Grove Park, enjoying the gardens, taking pictures and eating ice cream cones at the creamery.

September

 

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September  10. Sam A. Baker State Park, Patterson MO

In September we took a weekend trip to Sam A. Baker State Park. We stayed in one of the cabins, hiked the trails, barbecued some steaks and went on a wonderful float trip.  So much different from the float trip we took in June at the Huzzah valley.  The St. Francis River was calm and quiet with not too many other floaters.  A nice relaxing day and a beautiful weekend!

October

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October 10. Mercy Hospital, Creve Coeur MO

Here is a moment I will never forget – the birth of my grandson Keegan.  So amazing to watch another life come into the world.  Truly a miracle and the most adorable baby boy ever!

 

November

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November 6. Lone Elk County Park, St. Louis MO

A very pretty foggy morning on the lake at Lone Elk County park.  It was my friend Kathy’s idea to go there, she had gotten an amazing shot of the elk in the lake the previous morning.  Unfortunately, there were no elk in the lake this morning and Kathy also realized she left the most important element of a photo shoot at home.  She forget her camera!  This left me alone to wander around the lake and shoot some pretty awesome pictures of the sunlight peaking its way through the fog.

December

 

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March 18.  Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis MO

Although this picture was taken in March, it was one of the many photos that got forgotten until December when I started to scramble for pictures to enter into a juried show at Framations Art Gallery in St. Charles.  The show was entitled “Presence” and was an all media exhibit focusing on the human element. In a last minute rush, I started going through recent pictures looking for something to enter.  I came across this one along with a couple others.  I managed to get them edited, ordered, printed and framed in the nick of time.  I’m always thrilled when at least one of my pieces gets juried into a show, but this time I was more than thrilled.  I was absolutely in shock because this photograph took 1st place!  Definitely a night I will never forget!

Thanks for all the memories 2016!  I can hardly wait to see what 2017 will bring!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Isn’t Always Black and White

 

angel-bw-3-1When we strip an image of its color, we leave behind only its most basic elements.  Devoid of color, at the onset we are afraid something essential is missing, that we have removed a vital piece of the puzzle, the piece that made it vibrant and gave it strength. But when we take a step back and study the image in its entirety, the subtle nuances we missed before become obvious as we are compelled to see the reality that had been camouflaged by the myriad of colors.    

shoes-1-3sAs we study further, the absolutes of black and white begin to take precedence. These shades are unwavering – black is black and white is white. We can desire what has been lost in the darkness or search in vain for what lies beyond the light, but they are either absent or unattainable.  We can no more alter something we do not possess than we can create something where nothing exists.

What remains are the subtle nuances and details incorporated within the countless shades of gray.  Within the variations of shadow and light, the influence of the underlying hues remains. These are the elements under our control.  Here is where our power lies; here is where we can begin to shape the overall tone of the message we hope our final image will convey.  We can foster a sense of peace and tranquility or fixate on the underlying drama and turmoil.Collage 1.jpg

Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in all the details, to lose the forest for the trees.   Luckily, we have tools at our disposal. Tools that allow us to experiment and take chances. We can make our initial edits, evaluate and modify accordingly. We can remove the changes that don’t work and keep the ones that do.  Through trial and error, we navigate through the process of working towards our final goal. Sometimes there are surprises along the way. Unexpected results that add their own unique interpretation to the overall image .  Other times, we know exactly what to do and we find the perfect balance without too much trouble. It all depends on what we started with, what we have to work with and where we hope to be at the end.  

Lily 2-2(s).jpgThrough experience and growth, we become more adept at making the transformation. Still there is always the chance that a different and unique situation will arise and we will be forced to disregard everything we know and start the process over again from scratch.  Oftentimes, these are the situations that yield the most profound results. The ones we never saw coming, yet we can be overjoyed, amazed or in absolute awe with the power the outcome possesses.  This is what keeps us going, and keeps us coming back for more. These are the moments that bring meaning to our lives and joy to our hearts.  They mean so much more because the journey was a long, arduous one. SNR 3-1(s).jpg

When at last we achieve our goal, we can sit back, relax, reflect and appreciate the final product. Although, it may seem as if we have been manipulating only shades of gray, we cannot lose sight of the fact that all along we were really influencing the original colors concealed beneath the surface. Every once in a while, if we are lucky and the conditions are just right, the rarest circumstance of all may arise.  One by one, we may be able to carefully allow those colors to slowly make their way back to the surface.

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In Search of Autumn

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September 22 marked the autumnal equinox, the start of my favorite time of year. The time when the days get shorter, the nights get longer and fall officially begins – apple picking, harvest moons, a slight chill in the air – what a great time to be alive!  Time to pull out the sweaters, carve pumpkins and snuggle up to the campfire in the evenings.  It’s a time of transition from the long, fast paced days of summer to the slower, simpler days of winter.  It’s a feast for the eyes, as nature partakes in her most dazzling display of the year.  The lush greens of summer are cast off in brilliant hues of gold, orange and red. Leaving behind the bare bones of winter, the remnants of God’s creation settling in for a long rest beneath a blanket of white, gathering strength for revival in the spring.  It’s the natural order of things, the way things should be.

Deer 3-1(s).jpgSo, as in years past, I eagerly awaited autumn. I spent all of October waiting.  At first I waited quite patiently, then I began to worry. November was approaching and still no fall. It wasn’t long before panic set in and I began searching in vain. I looked in all the usual places I look when something is misplaced – the back of the junk drawer, the top shelf in the hall closet, the bottom of my purse.  But all I found were rolls of scotch tape, a 2012 Cabela’s catalog and my spare car key.  Where the heck was autumn?  What happened to the chilly air, the brilliant hues and the crisp fall apples?  I trudged through my typical fall routine in hopes of finding it somewhere along the way – walks in the woods, apple picking, unpacking my winter wardrobe, a hayride to the pumpkin patch – but it was nowhere to be found.  The woods were still green, the apples were bland, the sweaters were too warm and the pumpkins on my porch had not suffered through a single frost.

NY 4(s).jpgFinally, when November arrived there was no time left, the leaves simply had to come off the trees. And off they came, so quickly that I almost missed it. Sometime in the beginning of November, in the blink of an eye, the leaves changed color, dropped to the ground and that was it – it was over.

 

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snr-5-1sI managed to catch some of it in bits and pieces, here and there.  A brief corridor of gold on a highway in upstate New York.  A hike through our Missouri woods where a few brilliant embers still burned in the red of the Sumac leaves and an occasional white tail deer rooted around in the leaf litter, their coats thickening for the colder months ahead. In a last-ditch effort to seek out the remnants of fleeting fall colors, we took a trip down to southern Missouri and bid adieu to the final shades of autumn that were taking refuge in the Mingo swamp.

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As autumn breathes her last breath of globally warmed air, I’m left feeling a little bewildered and out of sorts.  I feel as if I have been cheated out of one of my most beloved childhood memories.  I’m left pining for the autumns of my youth.  The tastes and smells of Octobers past flood my mind – Taffy apples, pumpkin seeds, bags of Halloween candy, the pungent aroma of fallen leaves trapped and suspended in time on some long-lost breeze that has been stilled by the melancholy within my very soul.  When I close my eyes, I can still imagine myself in my old neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, brightly colored leaves raked into perfect piles, prime for jumping; walking to school under a canopy of yellow and red, crushing the newly fallen leaves under my worn out Keds, my breath fogging up in the frosty morning air while friends intently discuss the most prosperous trick-or-treating route for the coming Halloween.

With a heavy heart, I continue to mourn my lost autumn. As I slowly progress through the five stages of grief, I look out my dining room window to see the final shreds of harvest gold whisked away on the southern breeze.  While I let the healing process begin, I softly recite one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost..

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Nothing Gold Can Stay

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Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

-Robert Frost

    “Stay gold Ponyboy. Stay gold.”

S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders

 

Free to Bee You and Me

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Tapping away at my keyboard without a window in sight, I become oblivious to the passage of the sun across the sky.  The only glimmer of hope lies in the hint of sunlight peeking through the small skylight behind me.  So I wander out into the little hallway constructed of 4-foot-high partitions, peer up through the little porthole and there it is – a beautiful IMG_3954.JPGsunny day in Rochester, NY. I long to stop and stand there, basking in the refracted rays of the sun, soaking up some of that essential vitamin D. But the rational being in me doesn’t want to look like too much of an idiot and thoughts of a bottle of Copper Tone, a Pina Colada and a beach chair are gone just as quickly as they came. Like a dutiful little drone, I shuffle on back to my own desk, suffered to toiling away in this bleak “Dickensian” environment for another 8-10 hours.

As the workday wears on, daydreams become inevitable and my mind begins to drift away to a day last week when once agabutterfly-7sin the weather was beautiful, sunny and warm – the only difference was that this was the weekend and it belonged to me.   I was putzing around in my backyard surrounded by the golden summer sunshine; happily pruning shrubs and pulling weeds in my newly planted butterfly garden.  Of course it didn’t take very long for me to get distracted from this work, too.  In my own defense, it’s hard not to be distracted when dazzling displays of color are flying all around you.  There were actual butterflies in my butterfly garden! I immediately traded in my pruning shears for my macro lens and disappeared into my happy place.

Intently photographing all the little critters that were buzzing and flying around me – big fuzzy bees were bee-2lumbering from flower to flower, their legs coated with yellow pollen, gathering as much as possible to join the other drones stashing it away into the hundreds of little octagonal cubicles that make up their hive.  They were so focused on their work that they barely noticed me fearlessly getting within a couple inches of them.  I hadn’t forgotten about the butterflies; they were just much harder to capture.  Flitting around carelessly from flower to flower, opening and closing their gossamer wings, relishing the nectar without a care in the world.  No hive to return to, no queen to bow down to, no honey to prepare.  Like colorful gypsy caravans, their free-spirits drifting along on the vagabond breeze – the only thing to prepare for is a long winter vacation to a warmer climate.

butterfly-3-1sAs far as the flowers were concerned, the bee and butterfly were accomplishing the same task, bubutterfly-6st their approaches couldn’t be more different. I was struck by the dichotomy of lifestyle in such close proximity.  Does the bee ever get jealous of the butterfly? Does he ever wish he could kick the honey habit, channel his inner snowbird and fly south for the winter? And what about the butterfly? Are there any practically minded, homebody butterflies who wish they could just store up some pollen, get a Netflix subscription and tough out the winter at home on the couch instead of traveling thousands of miles on fragile little wings?

Bee 2(s)Such are the lives of these little creatures – stuck in the one circumstance they are born into.  Each performing a specific role, day in and day out.  The bee is much like the weekday worker in all of us.  Chained to the workaday world and seemingly never ending tasks.  The butterfly is the weekend warrior.  Dashing from one adventure to the next, spontaneously moving about her day with no plans or commitments.  Each one enjoying a simple serendipity; an easy, uncomplicated lifestyle. Innately knowing who they are and what they were born to do.   

As I think about them going about their day, haplessly content in their own fragile little kingdom, I realize that the advantage we possess is the power to choose. It is the gift of free will that makes us capable of guiding our own destiny.  We possess the freedom to be our own unique selves, to be both a butterfly and a bee and whatever else we choose to be. This is the miracle that makes us – us.

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Twilight at Tower Rock

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As if a fun filled day of hiking and picnicking near Cape Girardeau wasn’t enough, we decided we still needed one more adventure. So we took a chance and raced against daylight to try and reach Tower Rock by sunset.  Due to lack of GPS coverage and shoddy cartographical skills, my surefire shortcut turned into a dead end and we were forced to take the road more traveled as we scrambled to beat the onset of nightfall.

Turning off the main highway, racing headlong down gravel roads, daylight waning alongside us, we talked about abandoning the whole idea and just heading for home. But after coming this far, turning back was not an option – it couldn’t be too much farther, could it?  As the sun dipped deeper on the horizon, we were forced to come to grips with the fact that darkness was descending faster than we could cover ground.

As the last of the sunlight leached from the sky, we pulled in alongside the river, finally arriving at Tower Rock. Gazing out at the Mississippi as the night enfolded around us, a beautifully bright moon shone above.  Instead of sunset, I got moon glow.

The most cherished moments in life are often unforeseen, so I grabbed my camera and stepped out into the darkness.

To commemorate my lost sunset, I channeled my inner fourth grader and composed a little Haiku.

 

Reckless toward sunset

August embers burn to ash

Sapphire curtains close

If You Build It, Will They Come?

 

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Our legacy.  Our life’s work.  That one piece of ourselves we leave behind.  An undertaking we are so passionate about we can never put it to rest.  It doesn’t require willpower to motivate us, our visions have a power all their own. An unseen driving force that keeps us awake at night and gnaws at us during the day.  Where does this kind of motivation come from and why do we possess it? It seems that we are on this earth to do more than just merely survive.  We dream. We innovate. We create.  Some of our dreams may seem crazy or farfetched to others, yet to us they are our most cherished possessions and are worth all of the effort we can muster… and then maybe just a little bit more.

Grotto 5.jpgOut here in Missouri – in the foothills of the Ozarks – I came across the remains of the lifework of one man. A man with a lofty dream – a passion that relentlessly consumed him both day and night and led him on a labor of love and a journey of faith that continued throughout his life.

Grotto 33.jpgBrother Bronislaus Luszcz was a Franciscan monk who immigrated to the St. Louis area from Poland in 1927.  In his native country, he grew up watching pilgrims make their way to the Shrine of St. Mary.  These pilgrims would travel hundreds of miles on foot and sleep along the road to pay homage to the Queen of Peace. Brother Bronislaus developed a great devotion for Mary during his formative years, a devotion that never relented.

Grotto 34When Bronislaus came to the United States, he was one of several Brothers who were put to work establishing St. Joseph’s Hill Infirmary – a convalescent home for men, nestled back on a wooded hillside on the outskirts of the towns of Eureka and Pacific Missouri.  It was in this peaceful environment one day in 1937 that Brother Bronislaus embarked on what would be his life’s work – a series of stone grottoes built entirely by hand with nothing more than a sledgehammer and an axe. What remains now is a tribute to his faith and the culmination of over 20 years of backbreaking labor.

The stone for his monuments was locally quarried and dropped off on the site by the dump truck full.  Each grotto is uniquely decorated with trinkets that were donated for such a purpose by faithful followers and fans.  Pieces of old costume jewelry, sea shells, pottery, loose change, broken bottles, small porcelain statues and many other objects were all artistically arranged and set into the stone. The variety of items are amazing and endless.  Nothing went unused.

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At this time, the area was very remote and much of Bronislaus raw materials were limitedSt Francis Grotto.jpg to what was on the monastery grounds, so he became creative with his own unique construction and adornments. He raided the infirmary’s kitchen and confiscated pots and pans.  Cake pans shaped like lambs and rabbits became molds for the concrete animals that sit at the feet of St. Francis.  Jell-O molds, cupcake tins and discarded light fixtures were the basis for the floral decorations that embellish the corners of his tributes to St. Mary and St. Joseph.  Colored glass bottles set into recesses along the walls became makeshift stained glass windows.

grotto collage 2.jpgAnd so he toiled for 22 years. Clearing land, breaking stone, mitigating through trial and errGrotto 15.jpgor, honing his skill. A slave to his own labors, each monument became more elaborate and fantastic than the last. Then one day, just after his 66th birthday, Bronislaus was beginning construction on his newest grotto, in honor of Our Lady of Fatima.  It was a hot day in the summer of 1960 and Bronislaus was recovering from a bout with the flu when he was overcome by the heat.  He managed to make his way across the courtyard to where the statue of St. Mary stood sentinel in the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Grotto.  Collapsing on the stones at her feet in the August afternoon sun, he lay gazing up at the statue of his beloved Madonna. Her outstretched hand reaching to take him back home where he would toil no longer. Later that day, when he did not return to the monastery for evening prayers, the other Brothers came to look for him, a trail of tools led them to his earthly remains. This very spot is now marked with a seashell, to honor his memory in the place of his own creation. His vision was now a reality, his accomplishment and his legacy.

Grotto 21.jpgHowever, the fact still remains that Bronislaus wasn’t finished, his accomplishments were not completed, nor would they ever be no matter how long he lived.  When you look around the rest of the grounds, you will see them dotting the landscape here and there.  Grotto-less statues of Saints awaiting their turn to be humbled by the unique creativity of one man.  In his mind there would never be a last grotto.  As long as he was still alive, the construction would have continued.  You see, once you find your life’s work the only thing that ends it is your death.  No matter what your passion – there will always be another animal to save, another mouth to feed, another picture to paint, another novel to write, another song to sing.  It’s not the completion of the job that is satisfying, it’s the doing.  Grotto 13.jpgWe climb the ladder one rung at a time but never reach the top.  It’s like a magical beanstalk that keeps growing as we climb. The end appears to be within reach, but we can’t quite get there.  No matter how much we do, it’s just not enough. There’s always something bigger, something better around the corner.  A new idea, another adventure and so we surrender ourselves to this work.  We just do it, for no other reason than doing it makes us feel fulfilled.

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So here remains the culmination of the life’s work of one man.  To me this place is an inspiration, it has a rustic beauty, an uncommon charm but also a hint of sadness.  Did Bronislaus expect pilgrims to come from hundreds of miles away to worship at the shrines he created?  Perhaps he did; perhaps they did at one time.  But now these architectural feats of local stone, loose change and random artifacts are falling into disrepair.  There is no funding to pay for their upkeep. The Archdiocese does not give money for repairs.  The only caretakers are the handful of remaining Franciscan Brothers who are still at the monastery just down the road.  The infirmary closed its doors in 2008.  How long before the monastery follows and no-one is left to oversee this hidden gem?

Grotto 32.jpgIn a way it’s quite bittersweet when you think about it, we spend our whole lives working on the things we love – gardens, artwork, music, poetry. Yet for all the joy these things bring us, for most of us when we go…these things will go with us.  They will be lost in time, succumb to the elements and be given back to the earth.  Maybe a few pieces will remain for a while with the people we loved, the lives we’ve touched.

As I stand back at a distance and survey this place on a Sunday morning in late July, I can see the sun rising through the trees just behind the very grotto where Bronislaus breathed his last breath.  I can envision him looking down through the sun’s rays and smiling at the beauty of it all.  The hills, the trees, the grottoes, the country side.  The essence of his soul will always remain in this place.

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In the end, I suppose it’s not really the creations that we leave behind that matters, it’s the inspiration we evoke in others when they come to understand the joy, the hope and the passion that we lived by. So will they come?  They may after all, maybe not in droves, but it only takes one spark to rekindle a long lost flame.

Grotto 27In memory of Brother Bronislaus Luszcz. August 4, 1894 – August 12, 1960.

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Urban Explorations – Soulard on a Saturday

Soulard Market 9(s)Hiking through the woods, observing and photographing all the beautiful flora and fauna is definitely my favorite past time, but sometimes it’s also fun to observe my fellow human creatures in their less than natural urban environment.  Like their woodland counterparts, these creatures must also forage for food and drink. What better place to observe this urban phenomenon than in the historic Soulard neighborhood, merely a hop, skip and jump from downtown St. Louis.

One of the main attractions here is the Soulard Farmer’s Market. Definitely a foraging hot spot, people Soulard Market 8(s).jpghave been buying and selling their goods and wares here for over 200 years. It’s one of the oldest farmer’s markets in the United States, dating back to 1779 when it was an open air market where local farmers gathered to sell their produce. The original building was erected in the 1840’s and was replaced in 1929 with a Renaissance style structure.  While colorful fresh produce abounds here, it’s not the only option. There is so much more to be had in this market – from baked goods to fresh meat, and handmade items like soaps and jewelry – the list goes on and on. 

There’s always something interesting to see. The sights, sounds and smells will keep you intrigued for hours. It’s impossible to leave this place with an empty stomach or an empty shopping bag.

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Brewery 2(s)Next we attempted to enjoy a short hike through the urban landscape, but the heat and humidity of a 90+ degree summer day in St. Louis got the better of us and it wasn’t long before we worked up quite a thirst. Lucky for us, this neighborhood also houses one of the most famous watering holes in the world. Actually, it’s the headwaters of an endless river of amber liquid that serves as the main artery to millions of other watering holes throBrewery 4(s).jpgughout the world.  Founded in 1852 this is the headquarters and original brewery of Anheuser Busch and the famous line of Budweiser beers.  There couldn’t be a more perfect way to beat the heat and conclude this urban adventure than by taking a free tour of the brewery and enjoying a complimentary sample of ice-cold brew.  

After a successful day of foraging in the urban environment, we came home feeling satiated and satisfied.  With all of its exciting sights and sounds, the occasional trip to the city can be a lot of fun. But I must admit, the hustle and bustle of the crowds and all the noisy traffic tends to wear me out, and at the end of the day it just feels so comforting to return to the more familiar flora and fauna of my peaceful little country home.

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Back to Basics vs the Power of Progress

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It seems that nowadays many of us are trying to simplify our lives.  Downsizing, going green, eating organic – in general trying to get back to our roots, live naturally and have less of a negative impact on this beautiful planet we call home.  I applaud all of this awareness and back to nature stuff.  What I don’t get is the irony of how photography seems to have gone in the opposite direction.  With digital cameras and computer programs, the ability to manipulate and alter photos has gone a little crazy.  From landscapes that have an eerie ethereal glow to overly processed images pushed to the point of breakage and beyond, people seem to have gotten a little carried away. Bigger, brighter and bolder obviously must be better. 

With all of this post processing craziness, I started to wonder how my photography stacked up.  Was I out of control as well?  I try my best not to over process my images, but us humans seem to be attracted to bright shiny things.

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This whole thought process brought about an idea for a new project.  I thought it might be fun to get some film and see just how different the results would be when compared to my normal routine of post-processing digital images.  Just how far have I strayed from the basics? So I headed to the upstairs closet to dig out and dust off my old 35mm camera and then to the camera store for batteries and film. 

ha ha tonka 1(s)Once I heard the snap of the shutter and whirl of the film advancing, it brought back so many good memories I couldn’t help but smile to myself. But it also brought back memories of just how limiting it is to shoot with film.  I can store hundreds of images on my SD card, but there are only 24 exposures per roll of film.  We really had to think about what we were shooting back in the day.  Luckily I had my digital camera along for the ride to pick up the slack. 

In the end, I shot two rolls of film at two separate state parks, for a whopping total of 48 shots. After finding out that local drug stores no longer return your negatives, I made my way back to the camera store for development. Here’s the kicker, I paid $12 for 4 rolls of color film, and it cost $18/roll to get prints, negatives and a cd.  Now I feel much more justified having bought a pricey digital camera.  It basically pays for itself since you no longer have the ongoing expense of film and developing.  IMG_3271

After a couple days, I returned to the camera store to pick up my prize.  Mixed emotions ran through my mind as I contemplated the feeling of holding the unknown in my hand, anxious to open up those envelopes of never before seen prints.  The excitement, the apprehension – was it worth all the time, effort and money?  I hurried to the car and began shuffling through the photos.  There they were in all their glory … and really not half bad.  I went home, pulled up my previously edited digital images and compared them to the prints.  I was pleased to see that they were actually pretty similar.  Nothing crazy or weird, no overly sharpened “HDR’ishness” or exceedingly saturated bluer than blue skies.  I believe I can rest assured that I haven’t fallen victim to the curse of the Photoshop generation.  My images still resembled photographs!creek film and digital 1.jpg

 

ha ha tonka 3(s).jpgAs much as there will always be a special place in my heart for the joy of shooting film, I realized I had learned another important lesson. Going back to basics does not always go hand in hand with going green, or saving green for that matter.  Aside from the obvious toll on your wallet, old school photography also involves harsh chemicals and by products that need to be safely disposed of.  Digital photography has none of these adverse side effects.  Now I know I can remain true to my photography roots without poisoning the earth in the process.  Despite all the hi-tech bells and whistles, digital photography and online editing are definitely the greener alternative. 

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In all my attempts to live a more natural and simple life, I have to remind myself from time to time that less is more. Just because I can do something, doesn’t mean I should; the most important part of any endeavor is knowing when it’s time to stop. Even a painter knows when he has added the last brush stroke.  After all, nature is the ultimate artist; she should be celebrated and revered for all her perfect imperfections.

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Note:  All landscape photos were taken with Fuji 400 speed color film and retouching was limited to the adjustments available in a darkroom setting only.