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?

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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

 

 

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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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.

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.

All Things Are Connected

The chief of a certain village had many advisors.

If there was something he wanted done, he would order it done, and it would be done. “Is it a good thing?” the chief would ask. Whether it was a wise decision or no, his counselors always agreed.  Those who did not were beaten.  There was one counselor who never said ‘yes’ and never said ‘no.’  This counselor would consider the matter and reply, “All things are connected.”


The village was located at the edge of the marsh.  At night when the chief couldn’t sleep, he became aware of the noisy croaking of the frogs.  Once it came to his attention, he found himself listening for it each night.  The sound annoyed him so much he ordered all the frogs killed.


“Do you agree with my plan?” he asked.  His counselors all agreed, except for the one, who warned, “All things are connected.”  “Pah!” said the chief, and that night he sent his people to the marshes to kill frogs.

They killed frogs and they killed frogs until there were no frogs left to kill.

“Ah,” said the chief. “Now I shall be able to sleep.”
That night he slept very well, and for many nights thereafter.

But one night he heard another annoying sound.  “Zzzzzz…Zzzzz…Zzzzzzzzzzzz…”

He summoned his counselors.  “The mosquitoes are worse than the frogs!  Why didn’t you tell me they would rise in swarms and eat us alive without the frogs to eat them? Tonight I will send my people to kill all the mosquitoes!” So they killed mosquitoes and they killed mosquitoes. But as many they killed, there were many more left. The mosquitoes made life so miserable that everyone left their fields and homes to start new lives far away, until the village was deserted, except for the chief and his family.


All day long the chief sat alone in his hut, swatting mosquitoes and muttering, “All things are connected.” But it was too late for the frogs. Too late for the village. Too late for the chief. Finally he too moved away.

The wise understand that all things are connected…

By the ground we walk on…

By the air we breathe…

By the the water we drink…

By the rhythm of the heart.

All things are connected…

…and hang by a delicate thread.

We too are living on the edge, and must find the balance between give and take.

Can we learn the difference between just enough…

…and too much?

All…

…things…

…are…

…connected.

What kind of world do we want to leave our children?

The answer is in our hands.

All words and images copyright 2016 Naomi Baltuck

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

 

The Fish Whisperer

The weather report predicted rain the whole time. We had only five days.  Last-minute tickets were double the price.

But we love Alaska

…we love my sister Constance…

…and we love to fish.

On his last trip Eli couldn’t drop a line without pulling out a fish.  After catching a thirty pound King, he was hooked.

 

Using frequent flyer miles and companion fares, we caught the tail end of the salmon season.

You can pack a lot into five days, especially in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

We set out each day by the crack of noon.

Wildlife was abundant, whether feathered…

 

 

…or finned.

And then there was the two-footed kind.

Con’s friend Barbara is famous for her gin and tonics, and now her recently remodeled garage is a neighborhood attraction that everyone calls the Garage Mahal.

At the Alaska State Museum my artist sister’s painting, belonging to its permanent collection, was on display.  She’d just had a show of paintings created during a residency in a historic lighthouse keeper’s house on an island off the rugged coast of Norway.

 

We were inspired to make art of our own.  At her studio Eli and Constance painted…

…and I sketched Thom, although I couldn’t get him to look up from his book.

The line at the art house cinema was tolerable.

Small town headlines were refreshing.

And the fish were biting!

 

Some for grilling…

…and some for smoking.

 

The Fish Whisperer…

 

…strikes again!

 

We’ll be back. 

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of the Weekly Photo Challenge: Fun.

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

The Icing on the Cake

A visit from a friend…

A ride on the ferry…

A road trip across the Olympic Peninsula…

…to Olympic National Park.

Wildflowers…

…and more wildflowers.

Wildlife…

…and more wildlife.

To top off these incredible views…

…we experienced a spot of weather, with thunder clouds rolling in.

In a matter of moments…

…we had a completely different view.

Just as dramatic.

Just as beautiful.

And just a little bit dangerous.

It was the icing on the cake.

All images and words copyright Naomi Baltuck

The Weekly Travel Theme: Weather.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Cherry on Top.

You Just Never Know

Once upon a time, there was a swamp that was home to many creatures, including…

… frogs. 

Two frogs decided to see the world.  They went hop-hop, hop-hop, hop-hop down the road in search of adventure.

They came to a big farm, and croaked out a cheery greeting to the dairy cows.

Then they went inside the big barn to explore.

There were so many new and exciting things to see in there!

But as they jumped about, they accidentally landed in a big pitcher of cream.

They tried to climb out, but the sides were too steep and slippery, and they slid back into the cream. Even frogs don’t like to die: they tried everything they could think of to escape.  When that didn’t work, they tried everything they couldn’t think of.

“It’s no use!” said the first frog. “We’re doomed!” And he sank down into the cream and disappeared.

But that second little frog…she kept swimming about with all her tiny frog might, just to keep from drowning.  The cream began to block her eyes and nose. Just when she thought she couldn’t swim another stroke, she felt something strange beneath her feet.  She was standing on a big lump…of butter!  With the brave paddling of her own tiny frog legs, she had churned that cream into butter. She leapt out of the bowl and went hop-hop, hop-hop, hop-hop down the road, in search of another adventure.

All words and images Copyright Naomi Baltuck

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

Happiness Runs…

She’s baaaaack!  My Scottish-born friend Meg Philp

…who lives Down Under

…made a quick trip Up Over last week.

After presenting at a conference and performing in Victoria, Meg came to Seattle for a quick visit.  She’s always up for anything.  Meg has a storytelling blog, and was glad to see what she could learn during a photo walk in the Edmonds Marsh, with Diana Scheel of Cat in the Moon Photography.

At the waterfront we posed for a group portrait.

Diana left to collect first prize in a photo contest in Shoreline (Yay, Diana!) while Meg and I snapped shots…

…near…

…and far.

 

On previous trips, we’d been proper tourists.  This time we enjoyed simple pleasures near home.

We picked ripe raspberries for breakfast each morning, and the occasional blueberry.

We went out to play with our friends….

…and had a picnic of fish ‘n’ chips while watching the sunset from Brackett’s Landing.

We walked around Green Lake…

…where we saw flora…

…fauna…

…and some big water toys.

We hosted an evening of storytelling, with a potluck and a “crack,” as Meg says–good talk and fun between friends.

Meg treated us to a set of stories that had us all laughing and left us wanting more.

Good thing there was an open mic. Patty Zeitlin kicked off with the story of The Watts Towers in LA, and the song she wrote about it, Castle in My City.  I felt honored that she chose to celebrate her 80th birthday with us that night!

My brother Lewis had the audience in stitches with “The Twilight Phone.” Lenore Jackson told a funny and touching personal story, drawing a parallel between her Texas childhood and Sleeping Beauty’s briar patch.  When I told my story of childhood in Detroit, a guest recognized the street names and we discovered that she’d lived only blocks away.  She and I attended the same elementary school on the other side of the country!   What are the chances?

Meg and I also taught each other some new songs: it’s what we do.

We sang a camp song based on a Donovan song, a lovely round that goes like this:

Happiness runs in a circular motion…

Life is like a little boat upon the sea…

Everyone is a part of everything anyway…

You can be a part if you let yourself be.

We had a five day run of happiness, and before we knew it, it was time for Meg to pack for the trip home.

We had a parting glass…

 

…and went to the train station.

Instead of a caboose, the last car of the train was a locomotive, identical to the one in front that pulled the train forward, except that this one faced backwards, which makes return trips much easier.  I took it as a good sign.

Safe travels, Meg!

All words and images ©2016 Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of the Weekly Travel Theme: Harmony.

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

A Perfect World

Four years ago my daughter Bea and I flew down to California to scout out Stanford. Last week the whole family flew in for her graduation.

She showed us the hotspots around town.

For sentimental reasons we brunched at an Anatolian restaurant. My Turkish ravioli with garlic yogurt sauce was a hit.

 

Amidst the chaos we found a shady spot for a game of Pandemic.

And saved the World.

We dined with the parents of Bea’s friend, Ben Bravo, who was gifted with the perfect name for a superhero or the hero of a romance novel!  After four years of hearing such good things about them, it was great to meet all the Bravos.

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Then we partook of a time-honored graduation ritual…in which the graduate’s family arrives with empty suitcases and packs up her stuff while she flits in and out, saying hello to her friends’ visiting parents, and farewell to her friends.

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Saturday morning was the Baccalaureate.

We heard a Buddhist Singing Bowl, a prayer of the Ojibway Nation, a reflection by Bea’s friend Zainub, Taiko drumming, and other benedictions, a celebration of spiritual diversity and mutual respect.

Bea graduated with honors, with distinction, and awards, including The Amy Levy and a Fulbright.  She had her village. Bea was…blessed is the only word that will do…to have been mentored by such remarkable professors as Dr. Gabriella Safran…

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…and Dr. Allyson Hobbs, whose hearts are as large as their intellects, and who kindly took my chick under their wing. Their encouragement made all the difference.

Bea and her brother are very close, besties, village peeps.  Eli traveled from Mexico to help her pack up, to celebrate and support her, even though he had to fly out at dawn on Sunday, missing the Commencement.

But Bea’s besties Denise and Marcus remained to cheer her on.

An airplane circling overhead trailed a message. Like many universities, Stanford is accused of sweeping those stories–and victims–under the rug, or throwing them under a bus, especially when the perpetrators are college athletes.

At Stanford commencement opens with a procession known as The Wacky Walk.

As individuals…

…or in groups…

…students parade around the stadium free to express themselves as they choose.

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I liked the funeral procession for the fallen GPA, with a trumpet playing Taps.

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Some protested after a Stanford swimmer was slapped on the wrist for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Had two students not witnessed the crime, intervened, and apprehended him, I doubt there would’ve been any consequences for the rapist. The victim will be traumatized the rest of her life, but the actions of two heroes and the resulting prosecution sends a message to sex offenders. This time the message is “Don’t get caught,” but one day people might grow up learning to “Treat everyone, even women, with respect.”

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Grads welcomed commencement speaker Ken Burns, a legendary filmmaker who has spent his life shedding light on The Civil War, The War, The West, The National Parks and more.

A stark contrast, from Wacky Walk to observing a moment of silence in solidarity with survivors of sexual violence, and victims of the massacre at a gay club in Orlando that morning. I blinked back tears when the audience spontaneously began counting aloud for each victim of that vicious hate crime…47, 48, 49. Pure pride and joy for my child turned to trepidation at sending her out into our broken world.

Ken Burns proved there’s still intelligent life on the planet, and even in America. His speech was wise and courageous. He ventured off the safe path to politics. Referring to the LGBTQ massacre in Orlando,”We must ‘disenthrall ourselves’…from the culture of violence and guns.”

He implored grads to defeat Trump, “…a person who easily lies…who has never demonstrated interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment; who insults veterans, threatens free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants and all Muslims…an infantile, bullying man…willing to discard old and established alliances and treaties…Asking this man to assume the highest office in the land would be like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747…”

A few people booed, but the majority burst into cheers. Ken concluded…  “We must remain committed to the kindness and community that are the hallmarks of civilization…”  Click here and scroll down for Mr. Burn’s excellent closing advice to grads. 

The Class of 2016, at Stanford and throughout the US, has scattered, gone home, to a new job, grad school, even to Mongolia on a Fulbright.

It’s an exciting time, and a little scary as these young adults test their wings and search out their flight path in the Real World.

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Bless them all!  We should have gift-wrapped a bright shiny world and tied it in a bow for them. Instead we’ve left them a mess and must ask them to help us save our precious broken world.  It isn’t a game, neatly laid out on a board, with the rules spelled out, and a clear path to winning clearly stated in the instructions.

Perfection is possible only in a perfect world.  Do you think we could ever commit ourselves to kindness and community, and treat each other and our planet with respect?  Because that would be close enough to perfect for me.

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

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

Except for quotes by Ken Burns, all words and images©2016NaomiBaltuck