An American Elegy

“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!” — Albus Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Composer Frank Ticheli has said that his hope for “An American Elegy” is that it might serve as “one reminder of how fragile and precious life is and how intimately connected we all are as human beings.” Ticheli was commissioned to write the orchestral piece to remember those who died in the shooting at Columbine High School in April of 1999, and to honor the lives of those who survived.

One of my dearest friends, about whom I’ve written often, heard the music played by her son’s school orchestra and was moved beyond words by the power of it, the poetic strength coupled with such vulnerable emotional resonance. She tucked away the title just like she tucked away other other things that moved and inspired her, quotes from Emerson and St. Augustine among them. After she died from metastatic breast cancer, Ticheli’s piece was played at the beginning of her memorial service, an instruction she had left behind for her family. Whenever I hear the opening bars, the music never fails to take my breath for a moment, in goosebumps and tears, just like it did the first time I heard it at her service. Read More

“A letter is a Joy of Earth” — Emily Dickinson

I’ve always loved letters, saving them like rare currency. When the volumes of them in my basement grew too big after decades of stashing them in boxes, I sifted through and parted with some that no longer had meaning, often written by people I could no longer remember. However, I found that even with these letters, I couldn’t simply throw them away. After all, at one point in my life, they felt important enough to keep. So, I made a bonfire and lay them in the flames one by one.

What remained after my de-cluttering was a collection that was still quite large, but now held only letters from close family and friends whose notes to me through the years serve collectively as an ad hoc archive of my life. Perhaps that’s why I love letters so much: they are a private vehicle for exchanging our most precious stories. Read More

Jules of Nature

“Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”— William Wordsworth

Wisconsin nature photographer J. Marion Brown has been taking pictures since her kids were born, but became passionate about nature photography in the 1990s when she began camping with her family on the wooded property where they ultimately built a home, after years of testing it out first in tents. With her trusty Canon in hand, she has honed the practice of paying attention to a fine art (literally) as she catches glorious moments in nature the rest of us miss. Read More

Love is Up to the Challenge

“Just as people have eyes to see light with and ears to hear sounds with, so they have hearts for the appreciation of time.”— Michael Ende

If you are skittish about the topic of death, then stop reading this post right now. Or better yet, don’t. I used to be one of those people, superstitious that talk of death would draw it nearer somehow. Yet, when one of my closest friends was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it became a topic I could not avoid. And guess what? I found out that talking about death could actually be a very life affirming act.

I’ve been reminded of this irony recently by a friend of a friend of mine, a man I never met but whose forthright manner of living with and ultimately dying from ALS has inspired and touched me since I first heard his story. When my friend Barbara McAfee asked me to create a video of her song about her friend Jamie Showkeir, I had no idea I’d be drawn so completely into his story that I’d feel I knew him personally. Read More

Summer in the Marsh

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on trees, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

What began as an impulse last fall to go into the marsh to photograph the graceful movement of the withering cattails turned into an eight month project that now spans four seasons. I have appreciated the beauty of this marsh for years, but until I started to pay closer attention, I didn’t realize how many of its nuances and changes through the seasons that I had been missing. And I am sure there are countless more I have yet to catch, even now. Read More

Peace in the Storm

“There is peace even in the storm.” — Vincent van Gogh

A summer hailstorm kicked up yesterday afternoon, coming on quickly and with unexpected ferocity. As the hail grew larger, it fell faster, battering everything it touched. I don’t know why, but as I watched the storm, the tragic shootings earlier this month at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston came to mind.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” —Mother Teresa

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Spring Comes Slowly

‘Tis a month before the month of May, and the Spring comes slowly up this way. — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Spring in the marsh is about patience and attention to details. While elsewhere, the crocus, daffodils, tulips, and crabapples are in colorful profusion, spring has a much more austere arrival in the marsh.

Over the last month, I made four treks into the same wetlands I filmed this past fall and winter. I’ve always appreciated the beauty of the marsh, but have never paid as close attention to its chronology of changing seasons until I began this project. Looking for signs of new growth in early April felt like a needle-in-a-haystack search. I was sure that spring would mean the cattails would be bursting forth in green, or at least showing some bare signs of emerging from the ground anew. Silly me. Ironically, I found that this time of year, when everything is blooming outside the wetlands, the marsh cattails and grasses are actually more brittle and decayed than any other season I’ve witnessed yet.

I don’t know why I expected spring to burst forth from the center outwards, but I did. What I saw instead was that new growth seemed to be working its way in to the marsh from the fringes, from the treetops down and from the edges inward. Once again, Mother Nature showed me that what she can conjure up is far better than what I can imagine.

 Veil after veil of thin dusky gauze is lifted, and by degrees the forms and colours of things are restored. ― Oscar Wilde

 

Filmed between April 12th and May 9th of this year in the marsh behind The Marsh health and wellness center in Minnetonka, Minnesota. Musical track, Hire Purchase [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0], written and performed by Irish guitarist, Cian Nugent, was made available through freemusicarchives.com. Sounds of marsh birds recorded by dobroide and nicStage and shared at freesound.org.

Home | A Story of Return 

“We carry each of us an urn of native soil…sweet enough to find the smell of home.” — Malcolm Cowley, “The Urn”

Believe it or not, the song that provides the storyline for this video was inspired by a 1969 Harmony ukulele, my own uke as a kid. I wrote about it in a post three years ago called “Welcome Home, Cowboy Bob.” In some ways, this post should actually be titled “Cowboy Bob: The Sequel,” because like the original story, this one, too, explores the theme of leaving and returning, of what we choose to hold on to and what we choose to leave behind, and how our perception of which should be which can change over time.

Quotes in the video, in order of appearance, by: Malcolm Cowley, Joan Didion, e.e. cummings, Herte Müller

Winter Reprise

“Weather kept them humble.” — Annie Proulx

Last Sunday, we had blue skies and bright sunshine that hinted at spring; by Tuesday, a snowfall. Though it was short-lived, for the better half of the day it appeared as if we’d gone back in time to December. I suppose that never knowing what to expect can make even the mighty feel humble.

This winter, none know this better than the residents of the U.S. East Coast who’ve gotten wave after wave of the kind of snowfall for which we’re better known here in Minnesota, the kind for which you need a yard-stick, not a ruler.

Putting on five layers of warm clothing (I’ve never been known to love the cold), I trekked in to the marsh near my home to catch the snowflakes on video, figuring this might (wishful thinking, perhaps) be their final appearance here for this season.

“…winter, on its knees, observes everything with reverent attention.” ― Anna Akhmatova


CREDITS: Music in the video is “Por Rosa” by Peter Walker, from a live performance in the studio of WFMU, made available in the creative commons through the freemusicarchive. Field recording during closing credits by Peter Caeldries is “January Sleet” shared via freesound.org. Filmed in the marsh behind The Marsh, Minnetonka MN.

Last Leaf on the Tree

On the beauty of unconditional love.

 

Dublin wears its soul on its sleeve. Joy and sorrow are close to the surface, past and present mingled. I have no doubt this is why the city captivates me the way it does.

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In the winter of 1863, my great, great, great, great grandfather, David Mathews, left home to serve in the Civil War. He was 36 years old, not a wealthy man, and regretted having to leave his wife, children, and extended family as he felt his greatest responsibility was providing for them in the lean times the war had brought.

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