Alive in the Moment

It was only last summer, but it seems a lifetime ago that we visited Iceland…

 

…a country very different from ours, but one of stark beauty.

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A land of fire…

(Photo from Eldheimer Museum, Westman Islands.)

 

…and ice.

 

History…

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Culture…

 

…and wit.

My mom used to say, “You can find something in common with everyone you meet, even if it’s only that your feet hurt.”  A global pandemic should qualify.

At the Adalstraeti Museum, we saw old photographs of the inhabitants of Reykjavik.

An interpretive sign read, “Women in traditional costumes, boys from the Reykjavik Football Club…a professor in a coat with an opulent fur collar, several generations of a family, parents with their firstborn, Little Miss Reykjavik, a girl with a lamb, a boy in a sailor suit. It’s tempting to speculate on where they might have gone after the photographs were taken. Home to Lindargarta, or for a coffee at Hotel Island? Down to the shore to watch the lumpfish catch being landed? Or back to work after returning borrowed clothes?

All the portraits in this exhibition were taken in the first nine months of 1918…Some of the people we see in these pictures may well have perished in the epidemic: all will have lost friends or relatives. The only thing we can know for sure about these past inhabitants of Reykjavik is that in the instant the shutter opened, they were there—facing the camera—alive in the moment.”

On October 19, 1918, the Spanish flu hit Iceland like a tsunami when three infected ships made port in Reykjavik.  The first death followed twelve days later.  Ten thousand people, two thirds of Iceland’s capital city, fell ill.  The hospitals were overwhelmed.  A field hospital was set up to accommodate the overflow, and a center was created to care for children orphaned by the pandemic.  Shops closed, newspapers went dark, and when telephone operators took ill, Iceland lost contact with the outside world.

While the West and South of Iceland suffered, guards were posted to prevent travel from infected areas. They contained the spread, sparing the North and the East of the island. After a month, the infection peaked, and the dead were buried in mass graves.

The exhibit commemorated the centennial of the 1918 pandemic and celebrated the Icelanders’ laudable response. Many donated funds to feed the sick. Others brought meals to friends and strangers.  Everyone in Reykjavik was assigned an official to check on them and procure help, if needed.

We were there in the summer of 2019, never suspecting that the exhibit foreshadowed the novel coronavirus that would strike the following winter, and rapidly intensify into a global pandemic. We still languish in the first wave of CoVid-19, recalling with apprehension that the Spanish flu came in four waves, infected 500 million people, and left 50 million dead.

An older story harkens back to The Black Death, that raged across Asia and Europe in the 14th century, spread by sailors and rats along trade routes.  Within five years, it too had killed 50 million people.

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At that time, an Icelandic merchant ship was preparing to sail homeward from Bergen, Norway, hoping to outrun the plague.  But before they could weigh anchor, several crew members developed symptoms.  All their instincts must have cried out for home…

 

…but the crew elected to remain in Bergen, knowing they would never see their home or loved ones again.

 

Thanks to their sacrifice in 1347, Iceland was spared the ravages of that deadly plague.

 

As the Adalstraeti Museum stated, the only thing we can know for certain about these people from the past is that they were there, alive in the moment. But it’s tempting to speculate.  Had you been on that ship, with buboes swelling in your groin, would you have resigned yourself to death in a foreign land to spare your countrymen a similar fate?  What if you were one of the crew with, as yet, no symptoms?  Would you still remain in Norway, surrendering any slim hope of survival, in order to contain the infection for the greater good?

(public domain)

I met my sister’s friend Rachel, a retired nurse, and her husband while visiting in Alaska. I was surprised last spring, when she left Juneau to fly to New York, which was suffering 600 deaths daily, as hospitals were slammed by CoVid-19 patients.  Rachel joined thousands of healthcare volunteers working 12 and 16 hour shifts, collapsing into bed each night, and waking to start all over again.

A friend of mine volunteers at a shelter for homeless youth. Why risk it? I speculate that in each youth she sees a person plagued by fears and sorrows, yet clinging to hopes and dreams.  Like the girl with the lamb, these kids are alive in the moment, but their world was rife with hardship, danger, and isolation even before the pandemic struck. A pandemic shines a harsh light on society’s economic and racial disparities, and those kids are a tiny fraction of the people who’ve slipped through holes in our social safety net.

We don’t know what the next five years, or even five months will bring, but it will get worse before it gets better. Like the people of Reykjavik, we must care for each other. Some people are in no position to donate funds or volunteer outside of their place of shelter. But almost everyone can wash their hands and wear a mask when going out, if not to protect themselves, then to protect the vulnerable among us. Like those who were here–facing the camera–very much alive in the moment…

 

Everyone is someone’s child, parent, sibling or grandparent.

 

 Many have underlying conditions or circumstances you know nothing about.

 

Wearing a mask is inconvenient, but well worth it, if it can save even one life.

If you can’t do this one small thing for friends, family, neighbors, and community, it’s tempting to speculate…what kind of person are you?

Except where noted, ©2020 Naomi Baltuck

 

 

The Palace of Bird Beaks

The Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon, bearing opulent gifts, and hoping to see if he was as wise as the stories claimed.

“What can I offer in return?” asked Solomon. “Only ask, and it shall be yours.”

The queen had also heard that Solomon spoke the language of the birds, but didn’t believe it. Here was her chance to kill two birds with one stone.  “Build me a palace made entirely of bird beaks,” she said, “if you can.”

“Oh, I can, ” boasted Solomon.  “You shall have it.”

To her amazement, Solomon summoned the birds, from every corner of the earth.

 

They heeded his call…

 

….from the tiniest hummingbird…

 

…to the majestic eagle.

 

“We’re going to make our nation the envy of the world,” he told his gathered flock, to the cheering of the birds.

 “But I need your beaks to build a palace.”  And the birds bowed their heads and wept.

 

“Stop fussing,” said the king.  “Everyone dies sooner or later.  Believe me, I know more about that than anyone else in the world.”   The king scanned his gathered flock as they waited to die.  “Where is the hoopoe bird?  Why isn’t she here?  How dare she defy me?”

 

Breathlessly, the hoopoe swooped in to land at his feet. “Forgive my late arrival, Sire. I’ve come from the ends of the earth, and I’ve seen so much along the way. I’ve even learned three things you don’t know.”

(photo in public domain)

 

“Really?”  King Solomon frowned.  “A lot of people say I’m the smartest king that ever lived.  I know more than anyone, about pretty much everything in the world.  What could you possibly know that I don’t?  Tell me quickly, before I take your beak.”

The other birds trembled, fearful that Hoopoe would upset the king, for they knew that he didn’t like his genius questioned.

 

“Sire,” asked Hoopoe, “do you know who it is that was never born, nor will never die?”

“Of course, I do!  The Lord of the Universe…

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…the Creator, who made the sky above us…

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…the earth we stand on…

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…every blade of grass…

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…every creature that walks…

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…or swims…

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…or crawls.

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King Solomon hesitated.   “Or flies.

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Solomon looked at the birds…

 

…each one magnificent…

 

…each in its own way…

 

…..each one created by the Lord of the Universe…

…who had also made Solomon, and blessed him with wealth, power, and responsibility.

“What’s the second thing?” asked Solomon irritably.

“Sire, do you know what kind of water rises not from the earth nor falls from the sky?”

“Of course, I do!  It’s a tear that falls from the eye, born of sorrow.”

Solomon looked at the birds, their heads bowed, tears flowing, as they waited for him to chop off their beaks.  Might he have acted rashly in agreeing to build a palace of bird beaks?  But the Queen of Sheba, the whole world was watching, and he thought, “A promise is a promise.”

“One last question, Sire,” said the hoopoe.  “Do you know what is so delicate that it can put food into the mouth of a baby, yet is strong enough to bore holes into the hardest wood?”

“Of course, I do.  It’s a bird beak,” said the king.

(Photo by Amanda Lightfoot)

 

“Yes,” he repeated, “a bird beak.  Of course.”

 

The great gathering of birds stretched out before him, their lives and children as precious to them as his own were to him…

 

In his arrogance, he’d promised to build a useless palace to fulfill a selfish whim, and to make his own subjects pay for it, without considering the cost in blood and tears.  And he knew what he must do.

 

“Hoopoe, you’ve demonstrated courage for daring to resist this injustice.  You have shown wisdom in helping me understand that my true power is in resisting my own cruel impulses.  I shall not demonstrate my power by destroying the defenseless.”

King Solomon turned to the Queen of Sheba.  “A wise and worthy leader must never be so proud that he can’t admit his mistakes, or do what he must to right a wrong.  There will be no palace of bird beaks, now or ever.”

The queen smiled and nodded.  “I came here to take the measure of a man, and I believe I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.”

 

Except where noted, all words and images ©2020 Naomi Baltuck

 

 

Boots on the Ground

Last month concerned citizens rallied in Olympia in solidarity with protestors in fifty state capitals.  We had hoped to convince electors to vote their conscience. In light of all that has passed since then, it seems naïve to have hoped they might step out of the party line.

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Those who lived through the rise of Hitler see history repeating itself. As a student of history, I looked back even further. When Trump bragged, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” I thought of the Latin phrase, agere et pati, ‘to act and to endure,’ a perfect description of medieval society.

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Bodiam Castle, East Sussex.

There’s a striking parallel between our current social order and that of the Middle Ages, in which the wealthy ruling class acted and peasants endured. Peasants made up ninety percent of the population. Lords squeezed serfs for taxes plus three days of unpaid work per week. The church exacted two more unpaid workdays, and a compulsory tithe, 10% of their income, forcing peasants to live hand to mouth. Nobility had the power of life and death over them, while the church tortured and executed dissenters.  Protest was not an option.

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Traitors Gate, Tower of London. They go in, but they don’t come out.

Like Trump and the GOP, the nobility and the church had their snits, but mostly they scratched each other’s back. Nobles gave financial support to the church, and the church justified the social order by declaring it God’s will that nobles should possess all the wealth and power, and God’s will that peasants and serfs should live to serve them.

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To cement the pact, the church placed highborn second sons into powerful positions in its own hierarchy. This artful deal resulted in feudal nobility with an iron grip on peasants, and peasants who were taught from birth to endure their sorry lot and wait obediently for their reward in Heaven. Nothing changed for centuries.

Burying plague victims.

It took the Black Death to upset the fruit basket. The plague hit Europe in 1347, killing half the population over the next five years.  With the workforce so reduced, nobles hadn’t the manpower to till their fields or chase down runaway serfs. Surviving peasants finally had some choice about whom to work for, and could demand decent wages or leave, maybe even to learn a trade in the city. At last upward mobility was possible, and the middle class got a toehold in society.

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Thirty-five years later, in 1381, to pay for its pricey Hundred Years War with France, the English government imposed its fourth Poll (per head) Tax in four years. It was a regressive tax, hardest on peasants, who shouldered as much of the Poll Tax burden as the wealthiest landowners.  Just when the peasants thought it couldn’t get worse…

King Richard II

…King Richard II issued The Statute of Laborers, capping wages and forcing workers to accept the same miserable conditions they had labored under before the plague struck. The new law threatened severe punishment to serfs and peasants who dared seek better conditions or higher wages.  It also forbad merchants and tradesmen to charge the market price for goods and services, and ordered a return to pre-plague prices. King Richard even tried to cut the only social security the poor had by forbidding beggars to beg.  In other words, he wanted to make England great again.

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In an unprecedented protest, 60,000 peasants marched to London to demand an audience with the king. 2000 protestors died in the ensuing violence, and others did too, including the archbishop, the king’s treasurer, and a number of tax collectors. The peasants dispersed after the king made promises, which he broke, and granted pardons for the rebels, which he revoked. Rebels were hunted down and executed.

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Richard II meets with rebels by Jean Froissant.

After the dust settled, it might’ve seemed like nothing had changed, but historian Michael Postan says the revolt made history, “as a landmark in social development and a typical instance of working-class revolt against oppression.” If only for fear of another uprising, peasants were treated with more respect, the hated Poll Tax was never again raised, and it marked the end of feudalism. Most importantly, peasants set their sights on astonishing new, if distant goals; freedom, equality, and democracy.

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We face difficult days ahead. Our hard won democracy has deteriorated into an oligarchy—a nation ruled by a small elite group of the obscenely wealthy. Any power or constitutional rights we lose to Trump and the Republicans will be difficult to recover. In D.C., the House, the Senate, and the White House are controlled by Republicans. Trump hasn’t assumed office yet and they’re already ripping apart social and political safeguards, unbalancing our delicate system of checks and balances.

We can’t afford to surrender to despair or even resignation. We must resist. Since the Peasants’ Revolt, we’ve had shining examples of nonviolent civil disobedience from heroines and heroes like Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez, Lech Walesa, and the Standing Rock Lakota. Nonviolent movements like the Underground Railroad, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, United Farm Workers, and the Dakota Access Pipeline Resistance have brought change that makes a difference in all our lives. Not without sacrifice, but with hope, courage, and determination.

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Harriet Tubman, civil rights activist, abolitionist, humanitarian.

Solidarity in Communist Poland began with strikes to demand a free trade union, and resulted in freedom and democracy for the Polish people. There was the Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia. The Singing Revolution in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania began with people gathering to sing national songs forbidden by the Communists. Four years later they were independent nations, free of Soviet rule.

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Every protest matters. It’s an act of faith, almost a prayer. Not the kind in which you petition for a miracle or  just a quick win.  The kind that lends you strength to endure however long it takes, but also transforms you from silent sufferer to person of action. You’ll be there for those who have no voice, or who need help finding their own voice. You’ll be there to inform the public and to lift each other up, to remind yourself that you are not alone.

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Each act of resistance repays a debt to those who fought and sacrificed on a battlefield, in a courtroom, or on a picket line to make our lives better. And each act of resistance is a gift to our children and grandchildren.  One day this will all be history. When people look back, and they always do, I hope to be remembered for fighting for what’s right. It’s time to call out the lies, write our congress, gather those signatures, and save our nation from a shameful demise.  It’s time to put our boots on the ground.

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Copyright 2017 Naomi Baltuck

A Guid Crack

I’ve been out in the world again, this time with my friends Meg and Shirley, at the Scottish International Storytelling festival.

It happens each October in the ancient and storied city of Edinburgh.

The Storytelling Center is in a house built in 1490, the last residence of Protestant reformer John Knox.

The festival opened with Scottish stories, although this year’s focus was on South and Central America.

Two doors down from the center was our flat, with a splendid view.

What a treat to arrive at the height of the autumn color!

Every day we filled up our story banks. In Scotland a guid crack is lively conversation, the sharing of gossip, news, stories. Over lunch, Meg’s brother Jim told ghost stories, personal stories, and history fun facts.  The storytelling gene clearly runs strong in their family.

We picked up stories and histories from the castles, and a few from Holyrood Palace…

…where Mary, Queen of Scots, once lived (in the older wing).

We visited The National Portrait Gallery, The Edinburgh Museum, The Museum of Childhood, and the photography exhibit in the Parliament Building.  The People’s Story was a museum highlighting the changing conditions and the continuing pursuit of social justice for the people of Edinburgh, including women and the LGBTQ community.

I was intrigued by a painting hanging on the wall of The National Gallery.  It depicted the very room it was displayed in as it had appeared when painted over a century before.  Not much had changed.

We popped into Jenner’s, an elegant department store built in 1895, where they weren’t allowed to remodel, because it was a ‘listed’ historic building.  Meg grew up in a nearby village and would ride the train to town with her mother to shop, but they went to the C&A down the street. Meg remembers window shopping at Jenner’s as a college student.

Mostly we just did window shopping.

But you know…

…in Edinburgh even window shopping is quite special.

I’d heard of haggis as a delicacy unique to Scotland, but nobody ever said anything about macaroni pie.

I loved the Tartans.

And there’s nothing like a kilt to make a man look his best.

But even in Scotland accessories can make–or break–the outfit.

Everywhere we went, we were just steps away from natural beauty.

There were ancient churches and cathedrals around every corner.

Steep narrow passages called ‘closes’ spread like ribs from the spine formed by The Royal Mile.

Edinburgh looked like a city on tiptoe…

 

…with so many layers of mystery and history just waiting to be discovered.

Meg had to translate the words on this sign for me.  It says, “Long may your chimney smoke,” but it means, “May you always have fuel for your fire,” which is a cozy way of wishing someone a long and healthy life.

I never did discover the answer to the vital question most visitors wonder about when they come to Scotland, but are too polite to ask.  

Which is probably all for the best.

All words and images ©2016 Naomi Baltuck.

Click to visit Meg’s blog, Story Twigs the Imagination, and her post about our trip.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Transmogrify.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Hills.

Jiggity Jog

The summer days flew by in a blur.

One of our family’s favorite ways to connect is to share a travel adventure.

We stopped over in England to raise a glass with Cousin Nancy at The Eagle and Child, a favorite hangout of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Then on to Romania

…Hungary…

…and Slovakia.

It was like stepping back in time.

In some places horse-drawn carts and hay wagons were almost as common as automobiles.

Travelers shared the road, no matter what their mode of conveyance.

During haying time in Romania…

…everyone seemed to be out working in the fields with their wooden rakes and hayforks.

Grandma and Grandpa too. 

While shepherds watched over their sheep, as they have done since time out of mind.

We visited beautiful villages…

…and cities.

We saw the ancient painted churches of Bucovina, designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

We tried some new things…

…met some new friends…

…and made memories which we shall enjoy for the rest of our lives.

It’s thrilling to go out into the world, but just as wonderful to come home again.

We found a treasure or two on our travels, but the best souvenirs…

…are always the new friendships, insights, and perspectives we carry home with us.

All words and images c2015 Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Connected.

Virgins No More

In 1493 Christopher Columbus visited the chain of islands that he named after St. Ursula and the 11, 000 virgins.

My sister Lee, my friend Kathy, and I were all Virgin Island virgins, having never before set foot upon them.

Until last week.

We flew into St Thomas and took the car ferry over to the island of St. John.

St. John is a US territory, with nearly two thirds of its land set aside as a National Park and wildlife sanctuary.  It was a short drive from our hotel on Cruz Bay…

…to the pristine beaches of the U.S. National Park.

Big blue land crabs made their homes in the muddy floors of the mangrove swamps…

…while tiny red crabs in the tens of thousands sounded like rain on the forest floor when they skittered into hiding.

Pelicans could be seen fishing on every beach.

Iguanas frequented both beaches…

…and grassy areas.

And so many birds!  Dark hummingbirds, yellow songbirds, cranes, egrets, and many others.

Everywhere we saw ruins of a troubled past, where slaves once worked the sugar plantations dotting the island.

Who sat on the tiled veranda of this mansion sipping coffee and enjoying the ocean breeze within sight of the mill, where slaves were forced to stir boiling kettles of sugar syrup in unbearable heat?

At the Annaberg Planation, this windmill processed sugar cane.

It is a relic of a cruel past.

By 1733 slaves outnumbered Europeans 5 to 1.  Harsh laws condoning torture, amputation, and murder were enacted to keep slaves under control, but instead prompted a bloody rebellion.  Slaves rose up and held the island for six months before the French Militia helped the Danes crush the revolt.  Rather than return to slavery, hundreds threw themselves off rugged cliffs into the sea below.

In 1848, when again faced with uprisings, the governor of St. John declared an end to slavery on St. John.

This statue of a slave, sugar cane knife in hand, blowing a conch shell to sound the call to freedom, celebrates hard-won liberty.

Today 78 percent of the population is descended from African slaves.

The Virgin Islands are brimming with color, whether it be in nature’s sphere…

…or made so by human hand.

 It is a place filled with joyful music…

…and lively spirits.

They know how to live down there.

They work hard.

And play hard.

 And take nothing for granted.

All words and images 2014 Naomi Baltuck, unless otherwise stated.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Minimalist.

Tiny Miracles

I have been out in the world again.  All the stories I’ve seen and heard and lived have been patiently but eagerly contained, just waiting to be told.

 

In Poland and Lithuania, where we were traveling, World War II still casts a long shadow over the land.  That is a long, hard, sad story.


But little stories are everywhere, and more often than not, you will find stories within stories.  In fact, they will find you.

In Vilnius, even the walls contained stories.  We started to notice things, like faded Hebrew lettering on an old wall…

…Or a Star of David scratched in stone seventy years ago.

We learned that our apartment was in the Vilnius Ghetto, where more than 42,000 Vilnius Jews were imprisoned before they were murdered.

Near our place was a statue in memory of Dr. Tsemakh Shabad, a Jewish doctor in Vilnius.  A lovely young Lithuanian named Yrita gave us the inside story.

 The good doctor was loved by all, especially the children, and not only because he believed most childhood illnesses could be cured with a warm glass of milk and a bit of chocolate.

When a mother brought her little girl to him, that was what he prescribed.  They had no money for chocolate, so for a week he had the little girl come by every morning to take her medicine– a glass of warm milk and some chocolate.  Sure enough, she soon felt better.

When the little girl’s kitten fell ill, she knew just what to do.

She took her kitten to the doctor and asked him to cure it.

The doctor told her that in this case, they would forego the chocolate, and stick with the warm milk.  I’m glad to tell you the kitten recovered as well.

Though Dr. Shabad died in 1935, the children of Vilnius still visit him.  When they do, they rub the kitten’s nose and make a wish, certain it will come true.

 

 Yrita told us that for little wishes, you rub the kitten’s nose.  For very big wishes, you might need to rub the doctor’s nose.

 Sometimes wishes don’t come true, not even the little ones, and not all stories have a happy ending.

Sometimes the best we can do is to search for a little light in the darkness.  Sometimes you will find it in the most unexpected places.

Tiny miracles can be found everywhere– even in a bit of chocolate, especially when served with a cup of kindness.

All words and images c2014 Naomi Baltuck.

A Drive-By Shooting in Detroit

 

I was born in The Motor City.   I graduated from U of M, and headed West to seek my fortune. I’ve lived in Seattle for over thirty years.  It was love at first sight, it’s the home of my heart, and where my children were born…

 

 

…but I still feel unexpected tugs on my Midwestern roots.

Detroit is where my parents and grandparents are buried.

In French ‘Detroit’ means ‘channel or strait connecting two bodies of water.’  That would be the Detroit River that connects Lake Erie and Lake Huron.

That would also be my Aunt Loena, who connects me to my mother–through memories, blood ties, and love.  Last spring I returned to the river that spawned me.

My Aunt Loena and sister Lee are still in Michigan, and are always ready for a visit.

We did a drive-by shooting of the old neighborhood…with a camera.  We took shots of the little house I grew up in.

Many other houses were already pretty well shot.

Across from Newton School, a woman kept cranky geese in her yard, but the geese were long gone, and so was the house.


My high school was for sale.  It was named for Thomas M. Cooley ( 1824-1898), a local boy done good.  He started out with a small law business and ended up on the Michigan Supreme Court.  In The Cooley Doctrine, he wrote “local government is a matter of absolute right; and the state cannot…take it away.”  Cooley must be spinning in his grave since Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder gave himself the power to take over cities, remove locally elected officials, install puppet governments, and destroy labor unions.  Not in Russia.  Not in North Korea.  This is happening in the United States of America.

Yes, there are financial woes, and the economy and tax base of the area were dependent upon the auto industry.  Highland Park, a town engulfed by Detroit, managed to stay independent despite efforts to incorporate it.  Ford closed its Highland Park factory in the 1950s and Chrysler pulled out in 1993.  The population, once over 45, 000, has decreased to 11,000.  Now it’s ‘The Detroit of Detroit’, so poor Detroit doesn’t even want it anymore. My grandparents’ Highland Park house was gone.  So was the school across the street.


If not for this sign, I wouldn’t have known Highland Park still existed.

But there must be better ways than total dictatorship to save the city.  We went to Belle Isle, an island park in the Detroit River, halfway between Canada and the United States.  It became a city park in 1904, and in 2014 it became a state park to avoid operation costs to the city.

 There used to be an elephant house, a bandstand, and a boathouse.  I learned to canoe in its waterways.

Honey Buckets are probably cheaper to maintain than the elegant brick restrooms…

…a compromise so the park might be used and enjoyed.

There was still beauty.

And history.

The Belle Isle Aquarium was built in 1904.  As kids we watched the electric eel touch an underwater wire in its tank to light up electric light bulbs.  It was the longest continually operating aquarium until 2005 when, after 101 years, it closed its doors due to lack of funding.

But in 2012 the aquarium was reopened–Saturdays only–and is run completely by volunteers from the Belle Isle Conservancy.  Admission free.

 

Next door is the Whitcomb Conservatory.

My folks used to turn seven kids loose in there; we played Tarzan, and our Johnny Weissmuller jungle calls bounced off that glass ceiling.

At the Detroit Institute of Art we found culture, art, and history.

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As kids we loved the shiny suits of armor in the great hall.

As adults, we admired the Diego Rivera mural, a powerful statement about Detroit Industries.  In 1932 it was scandalous that workers with black, white, and brown skin were depicted working side by side.  But Edsel Ford, who paid the bill, said he thought Rivera captured the Spirit of Detroit.

“Watson and the Shark,” my favorite painting from childhood visits to the museum, told a true story.  Copley portrayed a multiracial crew rescuing their shipmate from a shark.  Painted in 1777, a time of revolution against tyranny, artists began to depict common people as heroes. At least in Michigan, where the sharks are still circling, it is still a relevant message.

 

I was saddened to read so many hateful bigoted comments when researching this sculpture honoring Detroit boxer Joe Lewis.

In Detroit there was and is despair and poverty, racism and anger.

But I also saw positive action, innovative ideas for bringing life and art back into the city.  Are you a writer?  Want a free house?   Check out Write-a-House.  This organization buys abandoned houses, renovates them, and gives them to artists willing to come live in them, practice their art, enrich their community.  There are pea patches growing where, on my last visit, I saw burned out houses.

L-O-O-K.

The Spirit of Detroit is still strong.

I saw soul.

And hope.

 

Sweetness.

Pride.

I saw the future in a city park, where kids were playing.

 At the conservatory I saw cactus blooming in the desert, a public park taken over by volunteers who made it available to the public.

I saw open hearts.

In the most unexpected places.

 Detroit still has plenty of room to grow, room for hope.

Please watch this two minute video for another look at Detroit. 

 All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Unexpected.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Room.

To See a World…

 

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower…”

       –William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

 

…or in one click of a camera.

One picture is worth a thousand words.  Some pictures lay out the facts, like a road map.

But others have all the elements of a great novel, crammed into one quick snap.

Danger…

Mystery…

Character…

 Adventure…

Desperation…

Romance…

Greater purpose…

For me, the best stories raise questions as well as give answers.

 

They present universal dilemmas, and show us how people learn to cope with trauma or loss.

A disaster becomes a compelling tragedy, although the victims lived two thousand years ago, if we can relate to their suffering.  And who can’t?

We like to tie up our stories in neatly arranged ribbons and give them happy endings.  Who doesn’t love a happy ending?

But that’s not always possible.  Perhaps the best stories–and photographs–just remind us of what it is to be human.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Theme: Split-Second Story.

Still

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.  And so do we.  It was over a hundred degrees, and the sun blazed down from a cloudless sky.   The plaza was nearly deserted as we approached Batalha Monastery, and I was wilting.  Still, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we couldn’t miss it.

Batalha Monastery, the ‘Monastery of Battle’, was begun by King Joao I to commemorate his victory of the Portuguese over the Castilians in the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385.

I was glad I came.

In the cloisters, time stands still.  The view hadn’t changed in six centuries.

Inside the church the stained glass softened the harsh sunlight.

A dramatic tomb for King Joao and Queen Phillipa of Lancaster depicted the royal couple with joined hands, symbolizing the alliance between Portugal and England.  Surrounding bays contained the tombs of their four younger sons.  I’d already seen so many tombs that week, and couldn’t muster the energy to snap a shot, although I was moved to photograph the stillness of the Royal Cloister.

I found the symmetry soothing.

And then I stepped into The Unfinished Chapel, where rests the tomb of their eldest son, King Duarte and his wife, Leonor of Aragon. Their final resting place was less monumental, and still uncompleted, without even a roof.  Their chapel too was designed to house the tombs of their descendants, but that hadn’t happened either.  Duarte and Leonor were its sole occupants.

Duarte’s story was also less remarkable than his dad’s.  His reign was short, troubled, and plagued by poor choices.  He preferred writing to war, and was likely better at it.  He began The Art of Riding on Every Saddle“…in accordance with the saying that writing books is an endless task, which I do for my own relaxation and entertainment…I am going to write…with the objective of improving the riding skills of those who decide to read my writings in good will…”

That book, like his chapel, was also unfinished.  Duarte died young, swept away by the plague, leaving his wife to mourn.  From that day on, she signed her name “the sad queen.”  She lived only a few more years, her short regency also plagued with conflict.  Sadly, she died in exile.  But she rests beside her husband.

Their tomb, their accomplishments, and their lives might have been less glorious than those of their victorious parents.  But their unfinished tomb is open to the sun and the breeze, the infinite sky.  The sad queen and her husband, in gentle and loving repose, seem less a statement of diplomatic alliance than a forever snapshot of a loving couple, still tenderly holding hands after all these years.

I think I’d rather be remembered for my pen than my sword, and would rather be successful in love than in war, or even in my writing.

Still, plague notwithstanding, I’m going to finish my damn book.

All words and images copyright 2013 Naomi Baltuck
Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Stillness.