A raw, windy December day.
Just a few weeks ago (and for most of the year)
I could not see my neighbor's yard for the trees.
But today the leaves are gone.
Trunks, branches, and twigs admit
Houses, trash cans, and sky;
Naked maples, nude oaks, bare sycamores.
All doing what they are supposed to do.
So are their one-time leaves, quietly and obediently
Becoming mulch under a blanket of snow.
All doing what they are supposed to do.
Except the beeches--
Copper brown and sunset backlit,
Jitterbugging in the breeze,
They alone make it worth gazing
through my winter window.
Beeches are non-conformists,
Deciduous outlaws, breaking the rules.
For them there is Autumn, but no Fall--until Spring.
If not for them I'd see a view, but not a scene.
They make a scene--
The same way my mother told me
Not to make a scene in public.
Beeches are not in a hurry; expectations can wait.
The wind cries, "Fall, dammit!"
They ignore it,
Bucking the wind, bucking the trend.
It's easy to fall and become mulch.
It's hard to be different.
Being different, beeches make a difference.
Want to make a difference?
Be a beech.
(c) 2017 Larry Pizzi
I'm a huge John Wayne fan. I’ll watch just about any movie more than once in which he stars. Just about any movie, because over the course of his long and fabled career he managed to appear in some stinkers. One painful viewing was more than enough for films like The Conqueror or The Green Berets.
As if the first two hours and 20 minutes of The Green Berets were not bad enough, the final two minute scene--meant to be a tear-jerker--adds insult to injury. With the warm glow of the sun setting over the South China Sea, The Duke must tell a little Vietnamese boy that his American soldier friend has been killed. Cue the tears and the sunset-as-the-end-of-something metaphor.
There is one glaring problem. One cannot see the sunset over the South China Sea from the east coast of Vietnam. Sunrise? Yes. Sunset? Geographically impossible.
A quick glance at my Instagram and Facebook photo galleries shows that I am obviously obsessed with photographing sunrises and sunsets. (Since I've retired, far more sunsets than sunrises.)
Sometimes someone will ask of a particular photograph if it's a sunrise or a sunset. Unless you know where the picture was taken or the time of day, it's impossible to tell the difference between a sunrise and a sunset.
When I photograph one or the other I'm often trying to accomplish the same thing: to evoke an emotion or create a mood. Whether it's a sunrise or sunset rarely matters. Both can be dramatic, beautiful, awe-inspiring, even ominous.
The difference did matter very much to Paul Laurence Dunbar. Born in 1872, the son of former slaves, Dunbar was one of the first African Americans to receive both national and international recognition as a significant writer.
By his mid-twenties, Dunbar knew that he would not live very long. He was in ill-health for the last eight years of his short life. Tuberculosis, pneumonia and alcohol claimed him at age 33. He left behind a collection of novels, stories, essays, and poetry, among them, a poem in which he tells those who love him not to mourn his death. The last stanza of “When All Is Done” sums up his reasons:
When all is done, say not my day is o'er,
And that thro' night I seek a dimmer shore:
Say rather that my morn has just begun,--
I greet the dawn and not a setting sun,
When all is done.
“I greet the dawn and not a setting sun.” With this image, Dunbar tells us that the difference between sunrise and sunset is the difference between life and death, between joy and mourning, between peace and anxiety.
I am often guilty of seeing my days as a progress toward an inevitable sunset. I know, though, that for those of us who hope in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, that life is a pilgrimage toward sunrise. When all is done, we travel toward the dawn and not the setting sun.
This is the story of three crosses.
This Bible illustration by Gustav Doré was my first introduction to the cross of Christ. It appears in a Bible given to my parents by my namesake and his wife for me when I was 10 months old.
My mother once told me that as a toddler and before I could read I would spend hours paging through this Bible, looking for all the pictures and staring at them in silence. I can recall lying on the floor, the Bible in front of me, my chin cradled in my hands. I was tirelessly fascinated by the details of this and the the other Doré illustrations.
To this day I see almost every crucifix and every depiction of the crucifixion through the lens of this old print. I thank God for using a 19th century illustrator, my namesake, my parents, and my imagination as agents of his grace, a grace that burned the message of the cross into my mind and soul before I could even read.
I have only a vague recollection of taking this photo, but as I look at it today, the Scriptures come alive. According to Paul, Christ's death on the cross redeemed not only humankind but also all of creation, "whether those on earth or those in heaven." (Colossians 1:20)
This gave me an entirely new lens through which to see the world around me and inspires many of my photographs.
Finally, this is the cross under which I will some day rest.
Since my son, Timothy, is buried in my plot in a national cemetery, his marker must have my name and rank on it. It was a strange feeling when I first saw this stark reminder of my future, but it is a great comfort for me now. How contrary to the ways if the world, to take comfort in the depiction of an instrument of death. But not contrary at all when I see the way of the cross as the only possible path to the resurrection! A path made possible only by His perfect and infinite love that Timothy now experiences first hand. And when my body is laid under this cross with Tim’s, so will I.
What could be more comforting?
All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.
John Donne, Meditation XVII
On a visit to a retreat house in Shillington, Pennsylvania, I took a walk that led me to a hill overlooking a large cemetery.
On the flank of this cemetery, which I later discovered was originally founded as a cemetery for German immigrants, mostly Lutherans, there is a small Orthodox cemetery containing fewer than 30 graves. And just over the hill, separated by woods littered with No Trespassing signs, are the graves of Roman Catholic nuns from a nearby convent.
I walked among the rows and soon came to a thick, impenetrable boxwood hedge, well-tended and very much a barrier between this cemetery and a smaller but equally well-tended Jewish cemetery.
The boxwood hedge was very old. Older than itself. Thousands of years old. As old as the divisions among people, a division played out thousands of times in thousands of ways, from Cain and Abel to today.
Here, on a Pennsylvania hillside, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish cemeteries reminded me of the ways I plant and nurture hedges in my life.
As I surveyed the rows of stones, I considered the oneness I shared with every single person there. They were, as you and I are now, actors in a play that is at once a comedy, a tragedy, a farce, a drama, and occasionally, a musical.
They laughed, cried, worked, played, cared, loved, and hated, the same as you and I.
Some were poor in spirit. All probably mourned. Some were meek and hungered and thirsted for righteousness. Some were merciful, pure-hearted and peacemakers.
Some were hard-hearted souls, who offered curses rather than blessings. Some sought vanities over right living, and some, even though buried in a churchyard, saw no real need for God.
Some had crippled bodies. Some had crippled minds, souls, or spirits.
Some had many friends; some lived alone, voluntarily or not. Some died in the company of others, and some died alone.
Some were transparent, open to all. Some lie under stones that mark not only a final resting place, but also a secret.
Some of them feared death; others embraced it as the solution to pain or the portal to something better. Some died slowly, some without warning, and a few, no doubt, by their own hand or at the hands of another.
Some were mourned in death by many, some by only a few, and a few by no one but Father McKenzie. There are no stones there bearing the name Eleanor Rigby, but she is there nonetheless.
Each grave represents a paradox: someone who was unique and common at the same time. Just as we all are.
Many barriers we erect in life are useful and necessary. A fence to keep a child from falling into a swimming pool is a good thing. Its purpose is, in the end, an act of love. Some barriers though divide in ways that are not loving. They highlight differences and are motivated by fear and ignorance. I've erected more than my share of the latter.
The sum of goodness in the world is the sum of the goodness of the people buried in this little Pennsylvania village, on both sides of the hedge and woods. The sum of evil as well. And both are the sum of good and evil in my own heart.
When I ponder the cemeteries of Shillington, the boxwood hedges of my fears and prejudices, start to disappear.
(c) 2017 Larry Pizzi
50 years of photographs and 35 years of keeping a commonplace book.