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.

(public domain)

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

 

 

Bird Brains

A few years ago, our friend Pat gave us a funky little birdhouse resembling a camera.

We never expected anyone to occupy it, but to our delight, recently a pair of Bewick’s Wrens took up residence.

They built a nest, and a week ago, the eggs hatched. Now, when a parent approaches to feed the nestlings, they all peep, “Me, me, me!”

Both parents share childcare, feeding the babies…

…and changing diapers too. The nestlings poop into mucus bags resembling pea-sized white balloons, nature’s zip-locs, which contain the mess until their parents remove it. Eco-friendly disposable diapers!

 

Day after day, from sunrise until sunset, rain or shine, the ‘wrents’ forage for insects for their young. Every five minutes or so, they bring food and remove the fecal sack on the way out, keeping the nest clean. They’re averaging over 300 deliveries per day!

How can such fragile creatures, weighing no more than 3 or 4 ounces, sustain such a grueling pace?  Not once, but twice each season, Bewick’s Wrens produce a brood.

Once common back east, they’ve all but disappeared east of the Mississippi. Pesticides took their toll, and loss of habitat. Conditions changed, other populations moved in. House Wrens expanded their territory into that of the Bewick’s Wren, and aggressively destroyed the eggs and nests of Bewick’s Wrens.

Illustration of Bewick’s Wren by J. G. Keulemans, 1881.

A subspecies, Guadalupe Bewick’s Wren, native to Guadalupe Island, Mexico, went extinct in the 1890s, due to habitat destruction.  The San Clemente Bewick’s Wren died out in the 1940’s, due to habitat destruction by feral goats, and cats.  In California, development of canyons has caused a sharp decline in the Bewick’s Wren population.

When I saw omnivorous crows and Stellar’s Jays swoop in, I moved my office to the dining room table, where I could keep watch and shoo them away.  So much can happen, and so quickly. Babies can fall from the nest. A brood can fall prey to a cat, a snake, an invasion of wasps.  A parent can be snatched by a Cooper’s Hawk.

Last week, one of my own little Bewick’s Wrens was caught by my neighbor’s cat, who took it home via the cat door.  My neighbor saved and released the wren before it was harmed. I was relieved that it returned to its nest. If birds feel threatened by lurking predators, including humans, they sometimes abandon the nest, leaving the babies to starve.  It seems harsh, but instinct drives them to protect themselves, so they might live to breed again, and perpetuate the species.

The balance between survival and destruction is precarious.  Driven by their survival instinct, they make tough choices, and work themselves half to death to ensure the survival of the species, if not their brood.  Ironically, we call them birdbrains, and claim to be the intelligent ones.

We’ve overpopulated this planet, yet instead of conserving our resources, we’re tearing through them like there’s no tomorrow.  Instead of protecting the future of our young, we tilt at windmills; but some countries are embracing them.  Iceland gets 100% of its energy from renewable resources.  99% of Costa Rica’s, and 98% of Norway’s energy is clean and renewable. Those socially responsible governments have taken the lead, right across the high ground, and shown the whole world that it can be done.

While humanity teeters on the brink of self-destruction, and other governments take action, in the United States, our corrupt leaders ignore grave warnings of virtually every climate scientist in the world.  This administration behaves like common looters, greedily stuffing their own pockets, while the building they were hired to protect burns all around them.

In a BBC interview, scientific genius, the late Stephen Hawking, said that pollution, coupled with greed and stupidity, was the biggest threat to the human race, and that climate change would be humanity’s extinction event. “With the development of militarized technology and weapons of mass destruction…the best chance for the survival of the human race might be independent colonies in space.”

But what if, instead, we could be tireless caregivers, make those tough choices, those sacrifices, and be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the survival of the species–all of them?  What if we could think like a bird that gets spit out by a cat and flies straight back to defend its nest?  Unlike birds, people can’t just pick up and go make a new nest; we have only this one small planet to call home.  Unlike people, even birds know better than to foul their own nest.

 

All words and images ©2019 Naomi Baltuck

 

Telling Tales Under the Rainbow

“When Bat came to the animals’ party, Zebra said, ‘You’re not an animal. You have wings. Go to the birds’ party!’  Bat went, but there it was the same. Eagle told Bat, ‘You’re not a bird. You’ve got fur and ears and teeth.’  Bat slunk away.  Perched on a branch, as he cried, he lost the strength to hold himself upright.  He flipped over to hang upside down, his tears dripping down to the ground.”

When the story was over, everyone in the circle applauded Allison.

“It’s sad,” said the first listener. “If it were a kid’s book, the bats would get together and have their own party. But Bat doesn’t get a happy ending.”

“That’s reality. He didn’t choose to be this way and he’s rejected for it anyway.”

“For me, this question of categorizing Bat is really important. It reminds me of going to the bathroom and choosing ‘Men’ or ‘Women.'”

“Or being bi and having everyone want to label you as either gay or straight.”

So begin our meetings at Under the Rainbow

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As the parent of gay children, Naomi Baltuck knew that few programs or public gathering places existed for LGBTQ in Edmonds, just north of Seattle.  In a climate of increasing intolerance, she wanted to use storytelling to heal, inspire, and strengthen the community.  But that connection had to be built on trust, and that trust had to be earned.

Under the auspices of the Edmonds Neighborhood Action Coalition, she partnered with a local queer-friendly game pub to launch a monthly Family Gayme Time, which drew a good crowd. Once that was established, she asked the Edmonds Library to host a monthly storytelling series called Under the Rainbow, for LGBTQ and Allies. When they agreed, she contacted the high school’s Rainbow Warrior advisor, and the Edmonds Diversity Commission.

Allison Cox, social worker and author/editor of The Healing Heart books on storytelling for healthy families and communities, lent her expertise. We needed it. Under the Rainbow was built from scratch. Should there be rules? Age limits? Time limits? Language restrictions? Could we find LGBTQ storytellers willing to work gratis, since we had no budget? We put the word out, and along came Chris Spengler, a storyteller known for her humorous and uplifting personal tales. Chris jumped on board, and we had our team.

Our vision wasn’t of polished performances, but to create a place for LGBTQ and Allies to share their own stories, to support each other and be supported. Rules proved unnecessary in a place where everyone is respected. Age limits too; we’ve had babies, elderly, and everything in between; everyone’s welcome. Our team comes prepared to tell, to get things started. Most of our lives aren’t centered around being a lesbian or bisexual or a supporter of those who are, so we also tell stories dealing with sexism or rejection for not fitting family expectations or having to suddenly pick up and start your life over…the human condition.

The first Under the Rainbow drew only four, we three storytellers and a straight friend. We reminded ourselves that storytelling can be healing, but to a person who has been disowned for coming out, it’s emotionally risky. Eventually Gayme Timers made the leap from playtime to storytime. We got school referrals, utilized social media, and the Seattle Storytellers Guild championed the program, lending non-profit status for grant-writing.

We meet at the library every Second Monday, 6:30-7:30PM. Refreshments are always served, because exchanges over cupcakes can be as momentous as those happening within the Story Circle. After each tale, participants are invited to share their reactions. Listeners opened up gradually. The first time someone volunteered to tell a personal story, we were hopeful. The next month, when a young person prepared a story ahead of time, we were elated. Now nearly everyone shares. The gay son of a Mormon bishop, a straight elderly woman who dated a gay man in Lebanon fifty years ago. We heard about being gay in Mongolia. Being homeless. At last month’s meeting, one coming out story led to another and another.

Tackety Boots (The Healing Heart ~ Families, edited by Allison Cox and David Albert) is a traditional Scottish tale about Sandy, who is kicked out of a party for having no story to tell, then takes an unexpected canoe trip across the river, changing gender in the process. He lives as a woman with another man and they have a child. Sandy finds the canoe one day and is shocked when it carries him back across the river and he becomes male again. Distraught, he bursts into the party and wins a bag of gold for telling the best story of the night. But Sandy could only whisper sadly, “Oh my child! Oh my man!”

Allison even told the children’s classic, “Going on a Bear Hunt,” by Michael Rosen, an acknowledgement of all the times in life you “can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it…got to go through it!” Everyone clapped in time, grinning like a kid.  Naomi chose Tatterhood, the Norwegian story of a girl born different. No matter how hard the queen tries to mold her into a princess, she defies taming and remains true to herself, but saves the day in her own way.  While traditional stories evoke conversation, Chris’s personal stories turn listeners into tellers.

The success of this program can’t be measured in numbers, but by the impact it makes on people’s lives. Even more good things lie ahead. We’ve just received a grant from the Pride Foundation to bring in more LGBTQ storytellers for concerts. Writing Rainbow is a natural offshoot of Under the Rainbow. We meet monthly at a queer-friendly Edmonds café to write, brainstorm, and meet other LGBTQ+A writers.  A Gayme Time spinoff is LGBTQ+A Dungeons and Dragons, where gaymers roleplay a crew of gay pirates, creating their own continuing adventure story.

Here, under the rainbow, we celebrate who we are. It looks like the bats are having a party of their own after all!



Naomi Baltuck, Chris Spengler and Allison Cox are storytellers living on the shores of beautiful Puget Sound, and they invite you to come listen and share a tale at Under the Rainbow.

©2018 Naomi Baltuck, Chris Spengler, and Allison Cox

A Match Made in Hell

 

Are you familiar with The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson?  It’s a tragic tale about a child trapped in a world of poverty and abuse, hunger and homelessness…

On New Year’s Eve, someone steals her ill-fitting shoes, so the little girl wanders barefoot through the snow, trying to sell matches to uncaring people hurrying home to warm houses and holiday feasts.  No one has a farthing or even a second glance for the unfortunate waif.  If she goes home having sold no matches, her father will beat her.  To keep the cold at bay, she huddles against a wall and strikes her matches, one at a time. In each tiny flame she sees visions: a warm stove, an elegant feast, a Christmas tree lit by candles…  

Then her dead grandmother, the only person who ever treated her with kindness, appears to the shivering child, and carries her soul off to Heaven. The next morning, the strangers who walked past her the night before discover the little match girl’s icy corpse, clutching the burnt-out matches in her frozen fingers.  Too late they feel a twinge of pity.  The end.

As a child, I hated that story.  I was appalled that grownups could look away from a child’s suffering, without lifting a finger to help.  Why would anyone invent such a depressing story, and who would want to hear it?

As an adult, I still hate that story, and even more now, because I realize that when Anderson wrote The Little Match Girl in 1845, except for the bit about the grandmother, he was fictionalizing a deplorable reality he himself was witnessing. He wrote during the Industrial Revolution, when the poor were miserable and overcrowded.  Pollution from the unregulated burning of coal poisoned the air, and factories were dumping metals, chemicals, raw sewage, and other toxins into the lakes and rivers that people depended upon for drinking water.

Wages were so low that the working class toiled 12 to 16 hours a day, yet still couldn’t earn a living wage.  On the brink of starvation, they sent their children to work in factories and mines.  Many were separated from their families, left to the ‘mercy’ of strangers, working ungodly hours for only a place to sleep and the food they ate.

In 1832 it was reported, “…workers are abandoned from the moment an accident occurs; their wages are stopped, no medical attendance is provided, and whatever the extent of the injury, no compensation is afforded.”  

The wealthy were given free reign to exploit the poor. When the Industrial Revolution sparked disputes over inhumane working conditions, the government introduced measures to prevent labor from organizing. The rich got richer, the poor remained poor, and children, who were forced to work all day or starve, couldn’t get an education to help them rise from poverty.

In the USA, industrialization occurred mostly in the North, with an influx of immigrants serving as factory fodder to keep up with attrition and demand. The South had its own foul history of systemic oppression, with its agrarian economy dependent upon human slavery.

Over time, Americans have fought and died for the cause of social justice.  They organized labor unions, which brought an end to child labor, shortened the work week, and ushered in workman’s compensation for on-the-job-injuries. They are still trying to negotiate a living wage.  Public education, Social Security, Medicare, Affordable Healthcare have all helped to even the playing field and a provide a social safety net.  Civil rights, women’s suffrage, Affirmative Action, environmental protection have, too.

We still had a long way to go to overcome class, gender, religious, and racial discrimination, such as the legacy of Jim Crow that still exists.  Yet we saw the middle class grow, the standard of living rise, and each generation doing better than the preceding one, until the 1970s.  What in Hell happened?  Ronald Reagan, and his trickle down economics, for starters.  It has been a downhill slide since then, snowballing since the Trump administration took power.

Today there is a little match girl on every street corner.  Our democratic republic has degenerated into an oligarchy, bought and run by big business, with puppet strings being yanked all the way from Russia.  International treaties have been broken, environmental protections scrapped to increase company profit, families torn apart by inhumane ICE policies, cruelly punishing the innocent children of undocumented immigrants. Affordable Healthcare, Social Security and Medicare are in the administration’s crosshairs.  The three richest men in America own more than half of this country’s wealth.  Our society has regressed two hundred years to become a near perfect match for the one that inspired Hans Christian Anderson to write The Little Match Girl.  A match made in Hell.

I will always hate that story.  But we need to keep telling it, until we can pound out a new ending.  We need to keep telling it, until we never need to tell it again.

©2018 Naomi Baltuck

Press Play

Last month I took a road trip with my kids Elijah and Beatrice, my sister Constance and her daughter Jane.

All roads lead to Grand Teton National Park, or they ought to.

We’d heard that Teton Pass might be closed due to wintry weather, and that temperatures were dropping below zero at night.  We decided to try and squeak in a quick visit before winter arrived, and were so glad we did.

The National Parks are among this country’s greatest treasures, but Grand Teton is the jewel in the crown.

It teems with history…

…and more history.

Wildlife…

…and more wildlife.

And beauty.

So much beauty.

Like my four sisters before me, I studied geology in Jackson Hole at the University of Michigan’s Rocky Mountain Field Station. I became a dedicated pedestrian, and spent a season hiking the trails in the park while waiting on tables in Colter Bay.  For more than fifty years it has been a place of pilgrimage for our celebrations and family reunions, as it has surely been for others.

Some things never change.

The town of Jackson has mushroomed, with strip malls and box stores everywhere.  Its old-fashioned drug store soda fountain has been turned into an overpriced rug store.  But Grand Teton National Park is as pristine as ever.

Every day, as we drove to a new trailhead, we popped a CD into the player and sang along, practicing our yodeling with Roy Rogers, Bill Staines, and Ranger Doug.  Every night after dinner, out came a bottle of wine and the musical instruments, usually in that order.  Back in the Saddle, Don’t Fence Me In, and My Sweet Wyoming Home were at the top of our playlist.  When we sang about a home where the buffalo roam…

…and the deer and the antelope play…

…we were really feeling it.

It had been years since the cousins had met up.  They were a little shy at first, but there’s nothing like making music to break the ice.

Music, for many of us, has come to mean the pre-recorded tracks on CD, iTunes, or the radio.  We experienced the joy of playing music, however imperfect, and being part of a creative endeavor larger than just ourselves.  It helped us tune into the soundscape all around us, ever changing and shifting…

…yet timeless.

©2017NaomiBaltuck

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

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Eclipsed

Nearly a year ago, when we first learned of the solar eclipse, most motels in the Northwest Totality Zone were either booked, or charging up to $750 for a room.  So we reserved a B&B in the Eastern Oregon town of Moro, a forty minute drive to Totality. As the day approached, epic traffic jams of eclipse chasers were reported.  We left a day earlier than we’d planned, taking two days to travel 270 miles, with emergency gear: food, water, sleeping bags, gas can, read-aloud book and our Kingston Trio CDs.

Traffic on I-5 was heavy, but we traveled east over the Cascades, cruising the speed limit, and sighting only the occasional RV heading to the Totality Zone from Yakima.

All the guests at our B&B were eclipse chasers.  There were two couples, first-time viewers up from California, and a German couple, first-time visitors to the US, who had crossed an ocean and a continent for a ninety second peek at a natural phenomenon they’d seen many times before.  I took that as a good sign.

Moro’s population is 316.  Its only cafe had gone belly up, and the tiny market closes early on Sundays, but the local history museum was open.  We picnicked and were playing board games in our room when Thom discovered on Facebook that college friends were also staying in Moro at the only other accommodation in town, just a five minute walk away. Lona and Scott were as enthusiastic about the eclipse as you’d expect a science teacher and a librarian to be, and they had spent the last two days scouting out the best view spots. They invited us over, pulled out their maps and notes, and suggested a viewing place just south of Shaniko, for its off-road parking and territorial views.

Taking no chances, we allowed four hours to travel the 38 miles into the Totality Zone. Rising at 5AM, we learned that the other guests were long gone. But the roads were clear and we were halfway there before the sun rose.  At least sixty people were camped at our viewpoint, with more arriving all the time. The buzz of excitement filled the air, though the eclipse was still two hours away.  One youngster kept a faithful watch, but I dozed, catching snatches of conversation between friendly strangers.

Finally the moon’s shadow began to pass over the face of the sun. Through protective glasses it looked like a sky cookie, with a bite taken out of it.

There was a drop in temperature and a subtle change of light.  We couldn’t tell over the noise of the crowd whether the birds stopped singing, but the people-watching was superb compensation.  For an hour, the moonshadow inched across the sun, its effect hardly noticeable, except through protective glasses. Without them, even with just a sliver of the sun peeking out from behind the moon, its light was blinding.

All at once, darkness eclipsed the world.  It was as if a one-eyed sleeping giant had suddenly awakened, and the sky was staring back at us.

The crowd erupted into wild cheers, and Thom and I shared their exhilaration.

I’d seen it depicted on canvas, demonstrated in planetariums and National Geographic specials. But seeing a total solar eclipse with my own eyes was like hearing ‘Ode to Joy” sung by a heavenly choir after seeing only the musical notation on paper.

(Ivan Generalić: Solar Eclipse, 1961, CMNA )

Our dear Sol had pulled off his glasses and shirt to reveal his Superman costume. Ninety seconds later–it felt like the blink of an eye–the sun emerged from the shadow.

We took a deep breath, hugged each other, and hit the road, hoping to beat the crush of outbound traffic. We were elated as we drove north, verbally processing the experience. We both questioned whether we’d used our few precious seconds wisely. Ironically, Thom regretted not taking a single photo, while I wondered if I’d made a mistake by placing a lens between myself and an awesome once-in-a-lifetime-celestial event.  Thom knew just what to say.  “Argentina in 2019.”  Yes, please!

A friend asked, half joking, if the eclipse had changed my life. Maybe. Especially if we go chasing the next one, which will appear in the Argentine sky in 2019.  Meanwhile, there is a whole lot of Awesomeness right here on the mother planet.

I read that awe is the emotion created by an extraordinary encounter that drastically affects one’s assumptions of the world.  Experiencing this emotion can make us feel small, yet connected to something larger outside of ourselves, especially when the experience is shared by others. This was borne out in Shaniko, where traffic bottlenecked at the crossroads with the only stop sign in town. Traffic on the big road had the right of way. I feared we’d be at a standstill for hours waiting for an opening.

Then some generous soul hit the brakes and gave cuts to a person who was stuck at the stop sign, before continuing on.  The next person with the right of way also stopped to allow a car through.  They were still graciously taking turns when we reached the intersection, and were also waved on.  There was a mile of backup, but not a single horn honked, no one hollered, everyone was patient and polite, and we all moved forward together.  It was an awesome display of human nature.



There are other kinds of Awesome that sneak up on you.

These days we live under a dark shadow that has eclipsed our country, and the planet too.  Instead of chasing shadows, it feels like we’re trapped in the dark, fumbling for the light switch. I found the light when I accompanied family and friends to the Women’s March in Seattle last January.

I was awestruck.

 And I was not alone.

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The solar eclipse did not move me to tears.  But at the sight of 135,000 people speaking up for equality and compassion, and speaking out against oppression, bigotry and hatred, I couldn’t hold back tears of relief.

Tears flowed again.

And again.

And again.

If it’s a solar eclipse that fills you with awe and purpose, you need only wait a year or two, and somewhere on this planet there will be a next time, another chance.  But in the United States, if you’re looking for an extraordinary encounter, or want to feel a part of something larger than yourself, if you want to be more than an observer, you’d better start now.  Because in a year or two, who knows what will be left to save.

We can’t sit on our hands hoping no one will get sick, or disenfranchised, arrested, abused, deported, or thrown into a concentration camp for no good reason. Our national parks, our environmental protections, our healthcare and social safety nets are being systematically carved up and sold to the highest bidder. Our politicians and our elections seem to be for sale as well. Our civil rights, our human rights, our right to protest in our own defense–these too are endangered by the deranged sociopath in the White House. We can only hope he won’t get into a pissing match with another tyrant and launch us into nuclear war.

We have no protective glasses for this unnatural phenomenon, but we can’t afford to look away.  It’s time to invoke our inner superheroes.  Our superpowers will be to speak for those who have no voice. To protect those who cannot protect themselves.  To organize, educate, donate, speak out, rally and march.

Again.

And again.

And again.

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And again.

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And again.

And again.

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And again!

This isn’t a solar eclipse; there are no do-overs.  I’m keeping the glasses, because I want to be prepared for the next big event.  2019 will be here before we know it.

And so will 2020.  

All images and text ©2017NaomiBaltuck.

Come From Away

Every day seems to bring news of another mass shooting or terrorist attack, close to home or across the sea.  And you can be sure there is more violence happening throughout the world that goes unreported.

Colleges, theaters, shopping malls, clinics, schools, temples, mosques, and churches have been targeted by Christian Fundamentalists, White Supremicists, the mentally ill, and Islamic radicals. Even the 1999 New Year’s festivities at the Space Needle were in the crosshairs, but the would-be bomber was apprehended on the Canadian border with a carload of explosives.

 

It was in 2015, just after the attack in Paris.  The French flag was flying throughout Seattle in solidarity with our grieving friends across the sea, when I first saw “Come From Away,” a musical based on a true story that happened immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center.  

“September 11, 2001 was an ordinary day in Gander, Newfoundland—until it wasn’t.  Thirty-eight planes were diverted to its doorstep on that fateful day, making this small town host to an international community. The camaraderie that followed reminds us all of the power that comes from opening up your heart and your home.”   

In one day the population of Gander, Newfoundland nearly doubled when 7,000 stranded travelers showed up on their airstrip on September 11th, and were invited in to be fed and housed by the residents of Gander.

With the chain of horrific events set in motion in America on 9/11, you might think what happened in a tiny Canadian town wouldn’t matter.  But it did, and it still does.  It’s a reminder that for every senseless act of violence, there are people of all races, religions, and nationalities poised to rush in to give comfort and aid to anyone and everyone who needs it.

In “Come From Away,” you will find laughter and tears, racial prejudice, relationships broken and others forged in the wake of this disaster, and music to pull together all these story threads.

It is the superpower of authors, playwrights, storytellers and screenwriters to create elemental stories that shed light upon the ills and inequities of our society–prejudice, poverty, oppression, and corruption.  Some of them find their way to the stage and screen, and from there, directly into the human heart.  They’ve changed the world, or at least our way of looking at it.  They allow us to walk in another person’s shoes, see through their eyes, and put a human face on the ills of the world.

West Side Story,  Showboat, Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific, The King and I, Hairspray, The Book of Mormon, The Crucible, Allegiance, Angels in America, To Kill a Mockingbird, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, to name only a few.  Groundbreaking, courageous, and timeless.

It is a miracle–no, a blessing–that we can come from away, and after two acts and an intermission, go home with the realization that we are not alone in the world, and maybe even go home with the will to change it.

And that is our superpower.

All words and images c2017 Naomi Baltuck

Click for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Elemental.

That Was Then. This Is Now.

When traveling in Italy, we took the kids to the Florence Museum of Science, now the Museo Galileo.  It housed a collection of early scientific instruments, old maps, and, of course, the history of Galileo Galilei.

Galileo was the genius who invented, among other things, the forerunner of the thermometer and an improved military compass.  He discovered The Galilean Moons of Jupiter.  His theory, known as The Galilean Invariance, provided a jumping off point for two other scientific geniuses, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, to form their revolutionary theories regarding motion and relativity.  Galileo is regarded as the father of observational astronomy, the father of modern physics, the father of the scientific method, and he even made it onto the list of the top ten people in history who changed the world.  But he’s probably best known for proving the Copernican theory of heliocentricity, which states that the Earth revolves around the Sun, rather than the other way around.

And that was his inconvenient truth.

The highlight of the Museo Galileo–at least for our kids–was the mummified finger of Galileo, resting in a fancy glass jar like a holy relic.  I suppose it’s appropriate for the revered patron saint of science.  Galileo was a pious Catholic and a martyr.  Ironically, it was the Church that made a martyr of him for Science.

In 1633, Galileo was summoned to Rome and brought to trial by the Roman Inquisition on the charge of heresy.  His crime was contradicting the Bible, which states that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

When the Inquisition threatened to extract a confession through torture, Galileo recanted, was found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment.  His sentence was commuted, and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. He continued to write, although the Church slapped a gag order on him, banned his books and censored his writings for another 200 years, when even the Pope could no longer hold back the tide of scientific advancement.  When Galileo died in 1642, they weren’t even going to allow him a burial in consecrated ground.  It was thirty years before they inscribed his name on his burial place.  But in 1737, ninety-five years after his death, they brought his body out of the bad boy crypt and reburied him in a fancy marble tomb in St. Croce in Florence, across from Michelangelo’s tomb, because it was believed that Michelangelo’s spirit leapt into Galileo’s body between the former’s death and the latter’s birth.  Then, in 1992, Pope John Paul II did sort of apologize for wrongfully persecuting Galileo.

The wealthy have always had a place at the table, between religion and science, as patrons, enthusiasts, or opponents, but now Big Business sits at its head.  Big Business has bought and paid for a president that doesn’t believe in anything but the Almighty Dollar.  The Republicans sold their souls to secure their power, dropping any pretense of morality or family values, and they bought their majority by pandering to the far right, that thirty percent of America that interprets the bible as literally they might an instruction manual to the dashboard of a new car.  Science has suffered for it on both counts.

Texas is producing textbooks that not only disclaim evolution and pitch Creationism as its own brand of science, but it has cut out any reference to Climate Change.  Even the conservative Fordham Institute calls it a “politicized distortion of history.”  Texas is spoon-feeding its children claims that Moses was a Founding Father of America.  There’s a lot of money to be made in the textbook business, and the privatization of schools, not to mention the prisons.  If politics and religion, power and money are twisted into a huge tangled knot, Big Business still knows which strings to pull to get what it wants.

Civil Rights, equality, justice, education, and immigration are hot topics, but Climate Change is the new subject of denial by the Powers That Be.  A few years ago I’d have said the advancement of earth science was moving at a glacial pace, but that’s not so apt an analogy any more, because glaciers are melting at an alarming rate.  98 percent of the global scientific community now recognize climate change as real and caused by human activity, but the Republican party is in complete denial.  They stick their fingers in their ears and sing loudly to avoid hearing what they know is true.  Again, it’s all about money.  Environmental protection means restrictions, restrictions mean less profit for Big Business, and Big business gives politicians huge payoffs to deny Climate Change.  This has been an ongoing struggle for more than fifty years. The damage might already be irreversible.  A rapidly warming Arctic could loose a methane climate bomb resulting in widespread extinction in as little as nine years.

 You may be sure that history will judge them, just as it has judged the perpetrators of the Galileo affair.

But there is one huge difference in this particular power struggle.  It took 200 years for the popular tide to become too strong to resist, at which time the Church bowed to reality and accepted Galileo’s proof of a heliocentric Earth.  But in the case of Climate Change, we don’t have 200 years.  We don’t have ten years.  We can’t wait for the next Newton or Einstein to show up, and we don’t need them to.  Our climate scientists have already done the math, and it might already be too late.

And that is our inconvenient truth.

Copyright 2016 Naomi Baltuck. Photos of Galileo courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

 

The ‘H’ Word


Many years ago my daughter came home from kindergarten and told me, “Michelle said a bad word at school today.”

“Which one?” I asked.

“The ‘S’ word.”

“Ohhhh.”  Subject matter we don’t want our kids learning in school.  “Do you know what it means?” I asked.

My five year old flashed me an I-wasn’t-born-yesterday look, and said, “It means stupid.”

I heaved a mental sigh of relief, and exercised my Superpower Poker Face to keep from laughing.  “Do the kids say any other bad words?”

My daughter solemnly nodded.  “The ‘H’ word,” she said.

“Help me remember what that stands for.”

“Hate,” she told me.

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I was a storyteller long before I had kids, and I understood the power of words. That didn’t prevent me from indulging in colorful language, mostly offstage. But after my children were born, just as I saw the world anew through my children’s wondering eyes, I listened through their innocent ears.  I saw how words loaded with negativity seep into the consciousness like toxins into groundwater.

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I determined to turn all my verbal toads and snakes into rubies and pearls.  At our house, everyone was encouraged to speak their minds, using language constructively, not to hurt or humiliate.

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When my little innocents first toyed with the word ‘hate,’ I explained that some words aren’t naughty but are powerful, and must be saved for emergencies or they lose their power.  Just like with TV violence or antibiotics, excessive use results in an unhealthy immunity.  Hate was a word rarely heard in our house.  But since the election, that and many other ‘H’ words have come into common usage all over America.

H is for Harassment.

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H is for Homophobic.

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H is for Hitler, for Holocaust, for He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, that Haughty Hot-Tempered Hypocrite who is Hijacking our Homeland to Hell in a Hand-basket.

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A great man once said that a house divided cannot stand.  Inciting fear and hatred is the traditional means of dividing a people and strengthening a power base.  Every day the Republicans implement new policies legalizing the persecution and diminishing the rights of people based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and socio-economic status.

H is also for heartsick, which is how the majority of US citizens feels as American ideals and constitutional rights are trampled and tossed aside.  So last January 21st, here in Seattle, in solidarity with people throughout America, and on every continent–even Antarctica–we donned our pussy hats and marched.

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It buoys the spirits to walk shoulder to shoulder with 135,000 like-hearted people…

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…in a crowd stretching farther than the eye can see.

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People protested against the Republican threat to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and equal justice for all.

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Even those who had never been politically active took to the streets.

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These were people who weren’t afraid to speak up and speak out.

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People who cared about the greater good.

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People for whom the ‘H’ word is Hope.

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Harmony.

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Healing.

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H is also for hero…

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…and heroine.

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H is for happening, for hookup, for hive and home and herd.

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 For heart.

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For helping hands.

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H is for holdfast.

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H is also for humanity and high ground.  And that’s why and where we’ll take our stand.


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All words and images copyright 2017 Naomi Baltuck