Ghosts in photographs

Mom with Tappey
Mom with Tappey

This photo of my mom from five years ago appeared on my Facebook feed today.

Yesterday I happened to realize that I’m terribly afraid of losing my memory. I hadn’t known it before I wrote it, but it occurs to me: my mother’s cognitive injuries spawned a state of traumatized memory that persists in me.

What did I come in here for?

Where did I put my list?

I’m haunted by echoes of her voice.

I would lose my head if it weren’t attached.

I’m so tired.

She said that one a lot.

As time passed, she spoke less and less. It seemed to take a great deal of effort to summon her faculties for a conversation.

Mom, with curlers
Mom, with curlers

Before, she’d dominate the room. She’d talk and talk—mostly about herself and the things that concerned her, telling the story of her past, her adoption, her hunt for her biological mother. She told that story over and over to people she’d just met. It was her repertoire. She was fey and funny, and she charmed people.

It’s odd to me now that my siblings and I don’t really talk about the things that made our mom herself. We talk a lot (mostly one to another behind closed doors) about how our mom was lost to us at a young age. We talk about growing up (and going away to boarding school) in the aftermath of the loss. Seldom do we recall together the specific ways she was before. I expect the loss overshadows actual memories.

When she went in for the first surgery, I was five years old, so I have only wispy bits of her from the time before.

Stripey pants!
Stripey pants!

By general consensus she was pretty great. Not that she couldn’t also be pretty awful–at times small-minded and straight-up mean. But only if riled. She was dynamic. Vibrant and vivid.

Even after the surgeries she was still some of those things. Drastically changed, yes, but feisty, joking Betsy on occasion still. This is the thing my siblings, who tell me again and again how they knew her before, how I never had the chance (it is a familial refrain), don’t understand—my mom was all those things she’d been before, just in fits and starts.

And in truth those blips petered out as the cognitive damage she’d suffered from multiple brain surgeries compounded with years of medications and made unrecoverable inroads into a once powerful presence. In time the dementia was diagnosed and made concrete. And that began the long process of brushing her away altogether, fading gradually like an old photograph, until she was little more than a ghost of who she’d been.

doubtful knight’s spur

I’ve set myself the project of identifying the plants in the alley– so today we begin with:

Rocket Larkspur

Consolida ambigua
(synonyms: Consolida ajacis; Delphinium ajacis; Delphinium ambiguum)

Family: Ranunculaceae (ra-nun-kew-LAY-see-ee)
Genus: Consolida (kon-SO-lih-duh)
Species: ambigua (am-big-yoo-uh)

Larkspur belongs to the buttercup family - Ranunculaceae.

“Larkspur flowers are almost as complex as the Orchids,” according to the flower expert.

“Larkspurs are distinguished by a backward projecting spur, formed by the upper petal of the flower,” per Wildseed Farms.

Illinois Wildflowers tells us: “It is not surprising that this species is grown in flower gardens, from which it occasionally escapes…The follicles (seed capsules) of Forking Larkspur are glabrous, while the follicles of Rocket Larkspur are pubescent.” [ahem.]                                                                        

And we learn from Chinese Astrology and Precious Flowers that Larkspur’s associated Chinese Horoscope animal is the Sheep (in case you were wondering).

“Larkspur needs butterflies in order to pollinate. The plant is very toxic and can cause death if eaten in large amounts… In ancient China people used Larkspur against snake bites and stings of scorpions.”

Oh, bold Larkspur, to oppose the sting of scorpions! How so a doubtful knight, I have to wonder… For my part I shall admire your indomitability in the face of rocky soil.

for love of a park

Last weekend in honor of Earth Day I captained the cleanup effort out at our sweet little neighborhood park. About ten or so neighbors came out to lend a hand with spreading mulch and planting annuals in bare planters.

A few months ago I started volunteering as park steward, which basically means picking up litter while out on dog walks (there’s ALWAYS litter, more’s the pity!) and also tending to the native species garden that had been growing a little long in the tooth over the past couple of years.

With parents who fill their basement with grow lights and backyard with everything from vegetables to propagated wild irises and a sister who’s a master gardener, I’ve got some green in my blood, though I’m still learning. So with suburbia-bred trepidation, I attended my first local garden club meeting a couple months back and was delighted to find a bunch of unpretentious folks who simply like to grow stuff and share what they know.

I’m more grateful thank I can say for the the new friends who are mentoring and grounding me in a city life I’ve struggled for some time to feel rightly rooted in.

Rainy day seed starts

Today was meant to be bed-building workday out at Global Garden, but, since the weather refused to cooperate, I hung indoors with whistling radiators and got my green on making floral seed starts for alleyway guerilla gardening.

Yesterday I walked down along the L track fenceline and planted three types of morning glory seedlings (blue, blue, pink), shook several jumbo wildflower seed packs over rocky and dubious soil. I’m uncertain as well how the new starts will fare on the back railing– tied down though they be against stray gusts and birdfeet.

The busy visitors, invited by feeders, have been making a meal of my windowbox lettuces and repeatedly turning Signor Oregano on his poor head. He begs that they kindly desist. Grazie mille!

Making arrangements

Chris says I line everything up against the wall like I’m staging an execution.

The other evening he walked through the front door, into the bedroom where I stood changing the duvet cover, and, coat still on, started picking up and moving things around on his dressertop with pronounced deliberation.

“Breathing room!” he hollered dramatically, exhaled with satisfaction, and only then de-jacketed to begin the work of winding down.

— A moment: lest I risk casting my hero here as anal retental villain, I should own upfront that the seemingly innocuous things mentioned so fleetingly in scene above aren’t exactly as innocent as they might appear. They weren’t in fact just sitting on top of the dresser, all, you know, innocent and random.No, they were in fact stating my presence and command in some subtle way. They had indeed been placed. I’d arrayed them for my own inner notion of display, whether consciously or no, in the course of tidying up the house.

To me this snapshot moment illustrates the visual surface tension continually at play within our home and life together: my darling a trained visual artist in several media and I for my part more and more actively embracing self-identification as visual+verbal designer. So we end up tugging back and forth a bit, negotiating the construction of shared space in mostly gentle and small-scale physical ways.

(My honey’s outburst on this day did, of course, as well express natural relief upon homecoming after a long workday, a literal request for what he most needed right then: air and space. The big working world out yonder is a tempestuous and trying arena and civic government most cussedly so. The daily trials wear a body down, torque it by situations of engagement and sortie into shapes all out of alignment. The by-contrast-snowglobe where I currently reside is a topic for another post. Here I’ll restrict myself to the subject of choreographing physical objects in space.)

To be fair, he may have a valid point about my up-against-the-wall organizational bias (ahem, pill bottles). Thought the specific dressertop lockstep that provoked his outburst had more to do with dusting than intentional design–yet this pattern been noted as a tic, so I’m on the lookout for tendency.

Recently I mentioned to an art school-trained designer friend and Etsy shop proprietor my ever-so-slooooowly developing scheme to sell vintage stuff etcetera online. Prompted to assist, she pulled up an array of relevant and tidy product photography by way of example, mentioning in passing the Rule of Thirds. This rang a distant little rusty bell, but it took Wikipedia to clue me in a bit more concretely.

The Rule of Thirds dates from an occasion over two centuries ago when one John Thomas Smith, engraver, outlined it as his own device of ideal proportion while discussing design elements in landscape art:

Two distinct, equal lights, should never appear in the same picture : One should be principal, and the rest sub-ordinate, both in dimension and degree : Unequal parts and gradations lead the attention easily from part to part, while parts of equal appearance hold it awkwardly suspended…Analogous to this “Rule of thirds“, (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general… I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two, a much better and more harmonizing proportion. (1797)

In the original Smith launches into in raptures of fraction and orderly division most likely common to a thinker in the late Enlightenment, though today it reads as somewhat manically fastidious. Consonant, all the same, with a fella staking out ideological turf in naming and defining the rules of art.

I should think myself honored by the opinion of any gentleman on this point; but until I shall be better informed, shall conclude this general proportion of two and one to be the most pictoresque medium in all cases.

Q.E.D., motherfuckers.

For my own part I have, upon reflection a possibly relevant recollection. Back around 1987 (o, the predigital days of the 20th centurie…) I took a black and white photo darkroom class at the local community college while on official leave from “real” school. One day I was immensely gratified to come to class and find the teacher using one of my shots the day’s instructive lesson. He was, as I recall, a middle aged (though probably little older than I am myself now) white guy who favored short sleeved button-down shirts from Sears. His name escapes me now, although the lesson of that day certainly made its mark. He held up before the class a still life I’d arranged of a pyramidal alignment of minor kitchen objects– salt cellar, onion, spoon, bowl– and illustrated for us how the visual structure conspired to move the eye dynamically through space within a two dimensional context. Now that I think back on it, his lesson that day strikes me now as fueled fundamentally by the sort of asymmetrical design aesthetic outlined by Smith in his Rule of Thirds.

The content of my photo class picture probably causes little surprise for anyone with passing acquaintance recent Navelgazer posting.The plain fact is I’ve always made these odd conglomerations of the whatnots, though the activity has ramped up quite a bit of late as it evolves into some more conscious endeavor I’m still struggling to name. Still and always impulse is reflexive, reaching out to arrange things just so. Leaning toward some inner knell of balance that is, for me, markedly intuitive. I’d very much like to say, “Rules schmules, I just fiddle till it feels right”– but this is surely disingenuous. I’ve had schooling up to here, and no doubt my perspective is framed by all manner of foundational and structural beliefs I’m not even fully cognizant of myself. All the same I tend to resent, somewhat, the pretensions of self-proclaimed artistic authorities, naming their Rules and so forth. Though I guess I get the urge to quantify for a critical and rationalistic audience and activity, art, that is at heart mysteriously passionate, unknowable and wild, that creative life force. Rules are just so much logical scaffolding erected to polish windows on the real edifice of the work itself.

Schoolmarm Chic

I have a problem. A thrift problem.

Lately when I play dressup, I’ve caught myself thinking of the style I’m concocting as Gypsy Schoolmarm Chic (swirly typeface in my head).

Liking the whirly wild of the one combined with the sexy stern of the other, I offer it up as a sort of fanfic elaboration of the naughty librarian motif.

Part of the project, frankly, has to do with locating and/or innovating apparel that allows me to dispense altogether with the brassiere (that hateful scratchy mechanism in the tradition of corsets and bound feet). Consequently I gravitate  toward quasi-renaissance accessories in thrift racks which provide, by way of buttons, hooks, ties, and an assortment of latchy catches the strategic cinching and trussing up of collective bits into a shapely yet comfortably wearable form. This granted Madonnaesque tic toward support attire à l’extérieur instigates a slight revision: Exoskeletal Gypsy Schoolmarm Chic— not quite the domain of Steampunk, but retro-dramatic costumery all the same.

Recently I came up short with a raft of self-induced anxiety about this, ahem, fondness for thrifting (which becomes paradoxically frequent in inverse proportion to availability of funds). There I was, all caught up in dramatic and fun! throes of characteristically gothic self-recrimination when of a sudden I was visited by a windfall revelation– or, rationalization, maybe– either way the idea descended with the benificent flutter of virtual rose petals: I could open a resale shop on Etsy.

 Cue chorus of heavenly host. Oh, I know, grand online sales dreams are a dime a dozen. Still, it just might be a workable solution, if not to global belligerence and rampant economic inequality, at least ameliorating a bit the losing equation of household finances. (Theoretical) income could (conceivably) offset expenses ($ if not time). Given how the lowrent resale shops I frequent are so universally void of dressing rooms, this plan as well accounts for the bits that simply don’t fit that I inevitably wind up home with, having raptured over decorative stitching or fabric tooth and thrown my couple bucks down on the secondhand roulette wheel (more soon on affiliated seamstressing badge also currently undertaken).

It further makes me happy that, in allowing some space for (occasionally absurd and undignified) play and exploration, even up against the starchiest of uptight bugaboos like Mr. Worthwhile Use Of One’s Time and Money, I’ve succeeded in pushing past and through simple narcissism (ooh, shudder; tho who’s to say not simply a deeper form of narcissism)– all that dressing up and posing for webcam timer ding (honestly)– push past traditional scruples and modesties, brushing by (clearly) a couple of very widgedy Shoulds, to arrive at a delightful arena for the performance of theatre in the miniature peopled with variable invented personas, each attired expressly to suit her role.

(Quite possibly my imagination runs to the theatrical lately thanks to Julian Fellowes, whose wonderful attention to costumery I’ve been engulfed in lately by way of both video and ebook.)

Floyd thinks I should simply pay more attention to the squeaky hedgehog.

Garland Garland


It’s cold, or maybe just lonely. Distances are shrinking. She strings lights from star to star, pegging down heaven to the immense yawn of prairie. Possibly she imagines a rainbow, somewhere.

Paying it forward

finish what you have promised.

It stares at me from the desk shelf at eye-level, a self-inflicted reminder against malingering lassitude.


Back in the first month of this year, one January 2011, amidst throes of energetic and wafting new year intention, I made a promise on Facebook to send handmade items out to the first some whatever number of people who responded with a like commitment in the comments. A neat creative energizing bump, right? A rev of the collective positive energy engine as it were.

I have, I fear, lagged some in point of actual follow through… but wait! The year has not run out yet, o ye foes and o ye friends– there’s still time to make good.


And so I’ve been doing, packaging up packages of small fulfillment, addressing them to envisioned endearing recipients, readying them for flight into the holiday winds.

Unfortunately, I now face the part of the project that presents the toughest hurdle for me: writing the enclosure notes.

(Weird, right? Remember when we wrote letters all the time? I’d write pages and pages at a sitting– now the prospect of a postcard sets me quaking. Still–)