Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Seahawks and Broncos are Our Neighbors!

Blue and gold Superbowl XLVIII banners began going up at The Westin on Saturday morning.  Then came concrete and metal barriers, orange and white cones, positioned along the entire length of the hotel's entrance.  Next a police observation tower appeared across the street.
Mysterious, black SUVs, with men inside, sit and watch. Police cars flash their red and blue lights. Officers group at interactions and patrol the perimeter.

Rumors that one of the Super Bowl teams would be staying a half block away from our apartment building in Jersey City, have been circulating for weeks.  But which one?

Sunday morning, as Drew and I threaded our way through the barriers on our weekly trip to Starbucks for coffee and the New York Times, we
learned the (not-so secret) secret.

      The Seahawks!


Our Alaska friends, who claim the Seahawks as their own (or at least the closest NFL team within a couple thousand miles) will be happy to know that the Seattle guys are our next-door neighbors. However, the "other" guys are only a 10-minute walk away!

Drew and I stumbled upon the Broncos' lodging Monday morning as were were exercising. Part of our morning jogging/walking route takes us along the Hudson River past the Hyatt.  As we rounded the corner in front of the hotel, a giant Peyton Manning greeted us, along with five media vans, police tower and similar assortment of security that's guarding their opponents.

(One Wold Trade Center appears in the background, across the Hudson)
Not that we're huge Super Bowl fans, but being surrounded by such a mega event is FUN and fascinating to observe! As I sit on the couch writing this blog, I look out the window and see three security boats slowly cruise the Hudson, back and forth past the Hyatt, two "official-looking" helicopters fly over, and one of those mysterious, black SUVs sits on a street below. Never moves, just sits.

From the same windows last night, we watched the dazzling Macy's fireworks that kicked off Super Bowl week.

Perhaps this week, we'll see a player or two strolling down the sidewalk, although we'd probably only recognize them if they had their jerseys on, or if they were surrounded by police, or trailed by a black SUV.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Following Your Bliss - Gary SchwARTz Style

I keep a journal of favorite quotes. A home for all those scraps of paper on which I've hastily written words I want to remember, snippets from newspapers, underlined sentences in books, poetry, prose, graffiti. The first quote I entered, my most favorite quote of all, is by Joseph Campbell.

Some people know what their bliss is early in life; others don't even know they have a bliss to follow until mid-life or after.  Fitting into the latter category and still finding my way as a writer, I'm inspired by others' stories. How did they follow their bliss?  Did Bliss always stay on the lighted path, where directions were clear and footing solid? Or did It sometimes disappear around a curve, up a mountain, or under a stack of rejection letters?

Last week I attended a one-man show by artist Gary Schwartz.

Gary teaches art in the Upper School at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School, and is a friend. He has invited me to tag along on field trips to the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where my art experience has expanded beyond what I know and like. To be an art student in one of his classes is the only reason I would want to be a teenager again!

Gary has followed his bliss as a painter for many years, often disguised as someone else. In an artist's talk at B&M Fine Art Studios, he shared his story.

Aside from a bank security guard disguise, this painter might have still been recognized under a broad artist's hat. At least his other jobs - graphic designer in advertising ("Mad Men" style, as he puts it), origami teacher at the Greenwich Village Children's Aid Society, information guy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visitors service assistant at the Museum of Modern Art, and art teacher for 20 years - are in the ballpark.

It was in that one job, where Bliss had no desire to hang out in a bank, that Gary said, "I felt dead inside. Things stopped creatively."

Perhaps it takes those moments, those "depths of despair" moments, to put it a tad too dramatically, that we learn where we truly need to be. The questions, of course, are Do we listen? Do we follow?

Gary did. Following the advice of a co-worker at the bank who said, "Be an art teacher," he quit.

As long as Gary has been connected to art, he has continued to learn, to paint, and develop his own style, within a genre - Photorealism.  A style that one of his co-workers at Léman called "a Schwartz," at the gallery's opening of his current collection.


"B&B Carousel"
(on Coney Island where Gary grew up)

"Chestnut Seller of Rome" 
(inspired by a trip to Rome on his 50th birthday)

(on Coney Island)

Admirers of Gary's art, like me, express a common gratitude that he shares his work with us and the world.  Less selfishly, I applaud him for following his own bliss, for himself first, 
his creative self.

Turning the page in my Book of Quotes, I find one by Mary Oliver, whose quotes could fill my entire journal.

"The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time."

The exhibit runs through January 31st. 
For more information about Gary's story and art, please refer to:
The Léman Manhattan Bullhorn article, "Gary Schwartz, Art Teacher, Discusses His Passion Projects"
Gary's website 

Friday, January 17, 2014

First Graders and Dr. King

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s picture was the first thing I saw as I walked into Lenae Madonna's first grade classroom this morning at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School.  One of those "Time for Kids" posters    that teachers get in the mail, ready to smooth out and display.  I knew the 3-day weekend was coming up, but had not truly felt the significance of the holiday since I was a second grade teacher.
When Mrs. Madonna brought out one white egg and one brown egg, I knew what was coming.
I had observed it every time I talked to children about Dr. King.
I settled on the floor among the children, and waited for the magic.

"Do you think that when I crack these open, they will look the same or different inside?" she asked.
Thinking this was leading into a cooking lesson, one boy said, "I know all about eggs. I cook stuff at home."
The tally marks totaled the students' predictions:  nine "same," five "different."
As the yolks poured out of their shells, most of the students - at least those in the voting majority - shouted, "Yay, the same!" Even a few of the hold-outs, who pointed out that one yolk looked "squishier" than the other, admitted that the insides appeared more alike than different.

Mrs. Madonna put the bowl aside and opened a biography of Martin Luther King.
"What do you know about Dr. King that makes him so special for his birthday to be a holiday?" she asked.

"He was a hero. He stopped wars between black people and white people."
"He told black people that they could sit at the front of the bus. The white people didn't like that." (A little confused with Rosa Parks, but I'm sure she wouldn't mind.)
"The blonde people would say to the black people, 'Hey, I'm not going where you're going.' He didn't like that."
"He made a famous speech called I Have a Dream."

As Mrs. Madonna read the story of MLK's childhood, when his white friend's mother refused to let her son play with a black boy, then moved onto segregated water fountains, schools, movie theaters, and restaurants, the children's growing discomfort became evident.
No longer were they sitting criss-cross applesauce, but on their knees,
their voices louder,
their comments direct, insightful. . .

"That makes no sense!"
"Why would they arrest someone just because they sat in the front of a bus?"
"It doesn't matter on the outside. It matters on the inside!"

 Mrs. Madonna picked up the bowl of egg yolks and held them up for the children to see.
"Why do you think I cracked these eggs? " she asked.

For a moment, there was silence, then the dawning of a connection.
"It's so obvious," one boy said, as he hit his forehead with the back of his hand.
Who knows that kind of vocabulary in first grade? I wondered, but apparently his classmates understood as "yeah," and "I get it," echoed around the room.

I use the word magic in this story to describe a force, a powerful force, which has the strength to bring about change. It is this innate ability of children to know when something is fair, just, good and true -- or not. They possess a gift of untainted wisdom, which recognizes injustice and demands that it be righted.

   It is their voices we need at peace tables
on hilltops and in valleys,
their voices forever chanting,
"We have a dream, too."



Thursday, January 9, 2014

Karen Speerstra - A "Labyrinth Friend"

I met Karen Speerstra in June 2012, a serendipitous meeting.  Serendipity, one of my favorite words.  A happenstance, something you don't plan on - always good - that has the power to change your life.

I was looking for a labyrinth, and its creator, to visit in Vermont.  I checked the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator and found one in the right location, built outdoors, with a woman's name as the contact -- Heather Leavitt.  I wrote and asked if I could walk the labyrinth and hear her story about how and why she created it. She replied:

"I would love to have you come visit the labyrinth; however, it is not ready yet for visitors. I would recommend visiting later in the summer or even in the fall. I find it is beautiful in the fall.  
I will forward your email to my friend Karen, who also has an outdoor labyrinth.  She is retired, and would most likely be happy to show/ talk to you. She is an author, and has some interesting books on spirituality."

I received an email from Karen within the day, welcoming me and my friend, Marian, to "come for a chat."  "Park anywhere," she wrote. "Call if you get lost. You wouldn't be the first."

And we did, get lost, that is. Karen guided us, by phone, off the main road, up, around and over until the gravel road led us to an opening - a driveway ahead, an 11-circuit Chartres labyrinth to the left.

As Karen opened her front door, I noticed first her warm smile, then her purple hat, with no hair extending beyond its brim. "Cancer?" I wondered, having seen too many women of similar appearance, but hoped I was mistaken.

Sipping lemonade at an umbrellaed table in the front yard, Karen and son, Joel, shared her labyrinth story.

"I dreamed of having my own labyrinth," she said. "Building it in 2000 for my 60th birthday was such a life-marker for me.  When I walked it for the first time, I kept asking what this decade would bring, what was I 'supposed' to do now that I was retired from the very hectic world of publishing? And the answer was, 'You have plenty of time/thyme.'" (She planted thyme plants in the center of her labyrinth.)

Plenty of time.

Three years later she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Chemotherapy infusions became her companion for the next ten years, until December 2012, when she chose to stop them and enter hospice care at home. Karen died on November 13, 2013.

I am deeply saddened by her death. Although we never talked after my visit, we emailed regularly. Karen was a few steps ahead of me on a path of discovery as a writer, as a woman on a spiritual and personal journey, of which the labyrinth had become a meaningful - if not necessary - presence. She offered encouragement and advice about the book I'm writing to document my 50-state labyrinth journey.  Just a week before she died, she emailed, "I continue to hold your book."

Curiously, a pine cone has come to symbolize my friendship with Karen.

A year after meeting her, I was walking Lisa Kalloch's Middle Earth Labyrinth in Citronelle, Alabama. The large, 11-circuit labyrinth is set among a grove of pine trees, quiet, peaceful. As I walked along the outer ring, Karen's face suddenly came to mind. I stopped, with tears in my eyes, looked down and saw a pine cone lying on the ground in front of me. I picked it up, held it gently in my hand, and knew without hesitation that it needed to be with Karen. I didn't question why. I mailed it to her.

Shortly after, she emailed, "Twylla, your beautiful pine cone arrived on my 73rd birthday.  Joel had just tidied up the labyrinth, so my plan was to walk it later in the afternoon, which I did.  I thought I would carry the pine cone to the center and leave it there and then decided, no.  I want it close to my computer to remind me of your thoughtfulness, your writing project and your great passion for all that is important in this life. So it's here. Thanks! Many blessings."

In her dying, she spoke of my thoughtfulness, my writing, my passion. The gift of a simple pine cone returned blessings to the giver.


In the last year of her life, Karen wrote The Divine Art of Dying, scheduled for July publication.  

Her words and her blessings will continue to speak to me, and to all who read this or another of her books. 

 Much gratitude for your life, Karen, and for that ancient path that brought our lives together.

Most recent publications by Karen Speerstra (others listed on Amazon):


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