Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Power of Quotes and Happy Mothers' Day


  “ Like your body your mind also gets tired, so refresh it by wise sayings”…Hazrat Ali

“I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognized wiser than oneself.”…Marlene Dietrich

                                            QUOTES AND MOM

Regular readers of these missives know that I frequently use a quote or quotes to introduce them. Often these are quotes that I found on the web recently, searched for, or stumbled across. More frequently, though, the quotes I use are words that have been familiar to me and used by me over a long period of time. I love quotes. They can succinctly capture an important idea in a few words that would be easy to remember. If they are easy to remember, you can use the ideas easily in your life. I also love them because you can sound relatively wise by using them (smile) But I am thinking about quotes today because thinking of them reminds me of the person who both initiated my love of quotes and provided me with some of the most important ones in my life-my mom, Ruth Edna Davis.

 Now all moms have quotes that nearly all of them say. I am sure there is somewhere a great, “Moms’ Quote Book’ that all moms have to sign out before they are allowed to become a mom.  In it are all the common quotes we remember from childhood. “Stop that look, or your face will permanently freeze like that!” “Clean your plate: there are people starving in China.”  “One day you’ll be a parent and then you will know!”   My mom read from that book like most moms do, and she used it well. But Ruth also had a lot of her own quotes, and it was from those I eventually realized I had learned some valuable life-long lessons. Mom’s quotes became templates form much of my life.
  When I would complain about having to learn something, “boring and unmercenary” for school, mom would often say, “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”  If I was being questioned about something I had done, and I shouted out, “He started it!” Mom would reply, “I didn’t ask what HE did:I asked what YOU did.” I was a mischievous kid, and I also had a great vocabulary; I could talk! But when I would go into a long explanation of why I had done something I shouldn’t have done, she would let me go on until I had finished. Then she would look me in the eye and quietly say, “It took you longer than two sentences to answer me; if it takes you longer than two sentences, you’re either lying or you’re hiding something!” WHEW! Busted! And speaking of lies, mom would sometimes say, “You know, a lie is the weakest thing there is. It can’t stand by itself-it always needs at least one other lie to support it.” What wisdom there was in those words.

  If you are an ex-student of mine, you probably recognize those quotes. For when I had gotten older I could reflect    back, realize the wisdom of some of the things my mother had been trying to teach me, and see  the infinite wisdom there was in some of those simply said sayings. So when a  student would ask me why we had to know about some long dead person or culture, I would often say, “I don’t know     why you need to know or learn this; I don’t. But it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it” And when a student would go into a long, complex multi-   paragraph explanation of why he or she was doing                something they shouldn’t be doing, I would say, “It took    you longer than two sentences to answer me. If it takes    longer than two sentences then, you are either lying or you are hiding something.” These and many other quotes from mom were a staple of my teaching, and I freely gave her   credit for them. Even today when I run into an ex-student he or she is liable to say, “As Ruth Edna Davis said, …” and then quote my mom to me. It is one of the ways her           memory and legacy live on.                                              

  I do hope that as we celebrate this Mothers’ Day you have some fond memories of your mother and things she did and/or said that positively influenced you. If by some chance you don’t, I do hope you have someone who filed that role for you.  I think we all need a little “ Mother Love “from wherever we can get it. It seems a necessary ingredient in life.  Happy Mother’s Day.   

Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Beauty and Surprise of April Lingers On Into May

  My last two newsletters focused on the magic of April and the wonders of the sky, and last month certainly lived up to the promises of those writings. The sky played its part, featuring a gloriously bright full moon on April 19th and 20th, and the Lyrid meteor showers from the 22nd until the 25th. The Lyrids are not as well-known as the Perseids, but they happen every April and are probably the oldest documented meteor showers. Ancient Chinese writings from some 2000 years ago mention them. Various planets were clearly visible on cloud free nights last month as well: Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus were visible for most of the month. We also had some interesting rains, including two in which it rained on one side of the street and not the other. Looking up in April proved wonderful, indeed.
   Interesting things were also taking place down here on lawns, alongside streets, and in the yards of the city and the burbs. Weeping and ornamental cherries bloomed mid-month as did saucer and lily magnolias. Their bright pink and white colors dramatically announced “spring,” as did the many tulips, crocuses, daffodils, and azaleas that all seemed to “pop” at once. And as the month went on, many of them started shedding their petals and leaves, creating glorious pink and white paths for us to walk upon. Citizens used to strew flower petals in the paths of returning war heroes and leaders in the days of the Roman Empire. Now we don’t need royalty or a war to have this happen; it was just nature doing its thing and providing us with beauty, wonder and comfort. It was amazing to see and to share that sense of wonder those petals brought forth as we traveled.
   Now we are into May and the joy of the sky and the quiet miracles of nature continue. I made a bunch of sugar water nectar, washed off the hummingbird feeders, and hung them outside; May 1st is the traditional time to set out feeders to attract hummingbirds. The Colgan-Davis household has been doing that for some 25 years, and we have always had sets of these wondrous tiny beauties flitting and zooming about in our backyard garden. My wife also planted shrubs and plants to attract a variety of birds and butterflies to the garden, and they have paid off handsomely. From mid-May on we would sit in the garden and eat dinner, and, as Penny often said, “Wait for the show to begin.” The plants, shrubs and bird feeders are still there, and I am again waiting for the show to begin. Joe Pye Weed, laurels, milkweed,  roses, hydrangeas and more are all waiting to fully develop, and I will enjoy them and the various birds and butterflies they attract over the course of mid-spring and into summer. The sense of growth and rebirth hinted at in March and confirmed in April will be full-blown then, and I will be extremely grateful yet again.
The sky in May will its wonders as well. Saturn and Jupiter will be visible the whole month, Virgo and the Centaur will be among the most visible and identifiable constellations, and there will be a full moon on May 18th. Looking up will continue to bring joy and wonder, especially in the early morning, and I look forward to being out and among these goings-ons. It is a free gift for the senses.
 The transitions and splendors of what nature presents us with continue to fascinate and amaze me. We have a chance to be reborn as we witness the continuing cycle of life taking place around us and take the opportunity to marvel and glory in what is before, around and above us. It is indeed very good to be merely human in the midst of all of this. What gifts; what gifts.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

April Magic

    This is an ode to April, an unapologetic, unabashed, and unreserved hymn to this special month. April is one of my favorite months, and I delight in watching it unfold.  The wonderful ongoing changes in the landscape and the weather resonate with just about everyone, bringing people out of their houses, onto the streets, and into their gardens. Walking around Mt Airy these days finds lawns filled with yellow and white dandelions, crocuses and tulips of different colors, daffodils and more. The smell of mulch is in the air as spring gardeners are pruning, cutting, and planting on lawns, in window boxes and in backyards. The cherry trees, lily and saucer magnolias, and peach trees are fully out now, and looking down just about any street in the Northwest gives us stunning views of bright leaves, shrubs, and bushes that suddenly popped into being just a few weeks ago. It is lighter for longer now, and we are getting steadily warmer days. Days that start in the 30’s or low 40’s at 6 AM move into the 40’s and 50’s by midday. These bright days infect everyone with smiles and laughter. Spring is fully here, and the rebirth of the earth is well underway. It is a joyous time.

 Throughout most of human history and for most cultures, spring was the logical and natural start of the “new year.’ The idea of starting over was clearly present in the landscape, the ways of animals, the growth of foliage and crops, and the length of the day. As we all know humans often look to what the earth is doing as a guide for symbolic and/or religious observances and rituals. So April has special observances that symbolically speak to the reality of a new beginning. Passover and Easter are close together this year, and both of these are rituals of rebirth and new starts. The ideas of resurrection and of a new nation bursting into being are in-line with the season-a new “way of being” arising out of and standing as a victory over death. It is fitting that both of these holy days are very key ones for their respective religions; this is where they are born. April is also host to Earth Day, a day dedicated to caring for and restoring the earth and attempting to save it from human destruction it. As the earth and its natural inhabitants are doing what they do and symbolically reflecting the rebirth of the planet, many humans are now dedicating themselves to actually restoring, respecting and caring for it. And with the effects of pollution, outsized energy consumption, climate change and more being felt all around us, we clearly need to do much, much more to restore and rescue our planet in more than merely symbolic ways. And quickly.

 April is also host to several other observances that are personally very important to me and that also convey elements of change and growth. One of these is National Library Month, which in my own life has definitely been linked to personal growth and renewal. As readers of these missives know, I passionately love and support libraries. When I was a kid it was libraries that fed my curiosity and provided me with information, direction, and a sense of personal power, and without that presence and availability of free public libraries and school libraries, who knows where I would be. My family was not well off, but I could go to the listening room at the main library at 19th and the Parkway and discover and listen to the music that I loved. And I could discover new artists. It was in the reference section of libraries where I found out about Black cowboys, African art, world history and more. It was in the library where I discovered and explored modern American an experimental poetry. April is, in fact, National Jazz Month and National Poetry Month, and I dived into  both of these things freely and endlessly in libraries. Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Kenneth Patchen, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison: I first encountered these musicians and writers who have been life-long influences of mine at the library. Libraries have always been part and parcel of what has taken me from what I know into new places and new ideas, and they still do. I encourage people to use and to financially support them. As historian Barbara Tuchman said, “Nothing sickens me more than the closed door of a library.” It is up to us to help those doors remain open.

   April, then is a big and important month for me. It announces change and restoration, rebirth and continued growth, and possibilities in many exciting ways, both real and symbolic. It is like a trumpet, announcing a grand beginning or entrance. As I wrote in 2017, each year we have the opportunity to“…consciously join this annual celebration of rebirth. Slow down; get out of the car. Walk; look up from the screens that seem to dominate so much of life these days and see what is going on around us. Unplug and listen closely. There is a lot of life going on all around us, and it is wonderful to acknowledge it.” April is calling, and we only have to answer.

Thursday, March 28, 2019


Highway of Combes le ville-Giovanni Boldinni


‘The sky is the daily bread of the eyes.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I've never seen a moon in the sky that, if it didn't take my breath away, at least misplaced it for a moment”. Colin Farrell 


   I love this painting. I LOVE this painting. It is perhaps the most important painting I have ever seen in my life. I first saw it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art when I was in junior high school, and a few of us one afternoon, for some unremembered reason, decided to go the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I came upon the Boldini in the first floor gallery of European Art on a wall on the left of the gallery, and it literally stopped me. I was caught and amazed. I looked at it, moving closer to take in the all the beautifully crafted colors, the subtly changing shades of green and brown marking the highway, the scale of the carriage and the people, and the placement of the trees along the road. Then I noticed the sky in this painting-the varying shades of blue that seem to infuse the scene with magic, the way the background sky seemed to just arise and appear to slowly dominate the scene, and the marvelous clouds that seem to be quietly, majestically,  and steadily in motion. The scene felt alive; real, and I was hooked. Every time after that whenever I went to the museum I had to see that painting. In my high school years, in my early 20’s- for some fifteen or so years I visited this painting as often as I could. It changed location during those fifteen years, but I had to see It and I tracked it down. When they took it off view for some 15 years I was saddened. And when I saw it back on view in the 1990’s I was astonished and joyous and-I literally burst out crying when I first saw it again. This is probably the single most important painting I have seen in my life. For this is the painting that has made me forever look up and marvel at the sky.

   I was an urban kid and did not have too much experience being outside the city. Some summers we stayed for a while with relatives in Coatesville when I was a kid, but I really didn’t notice the sky then. I liked the trails we walked, the dirt roads, and the sounds of the freight train going to and from Lukens Steel. But I paid little attention to the sky. But in my high school years I had more outside experiences, and they happened after I had seen that painting. So I was much more aware of the sun, the clouds, the moon and the wondrousness of sky. I went to the Folk Festival and to Be-Ins and was listening to music outside in the day and in the night. I started going camping and birdwatching and could look at the sky away from city lights. Looking up became of vital importance to me. Fortunately, when I married Penny, she was a camper and birder as well. In fact we had a tent-camping honeymoon in Maine and Nova Scotia. And through our 40 year-long relationship we had so many incredible experiences with the wonders of the sky: seeing several eclipses over a lake at Montezuma State Park in upstate New York, watching full moons in West Virginia, Canada and upstate Pennsylvania; seeing dozens of meteor showers away from city lights and marveling at the sheer number of stars and meteors; waking with the sun numerous mornings in our campsites and watching many magical and colorful sunrises. And I will never forget the experience we had one night at one of her cousins’ house in Arizona: laying on sleeping bags for a couple of hours outside on the deck, watching a moose walk by the house, and looking up into the clear night sky at the Perseid meteor shower as a wolf howled. Watching the sky has become an important part of how I take In the world, and it brings me pleasure and joy.

   I am thinking of that now because I am again doing more walking and specifically more early morning walking. If I leave the house around 5:30-6:00 AM I am catching the last of the nights’ darkness and watching the day coming into being simultaneously. If I look south and east, I often see the orangish, yellowish, reddish streaks that are beautifully announcing the day. And if I look to the north and the west I can still see the moon sitting shyly above the roofs. It is just hovering there, watching over us for just a little longer. No matter the mood I am in upon awakening, seeing day and night simultaneously improves it, if only for a while. It is quiet amazement that I can tap into as I start my day. It is glorious.

    I owe all of that to Boldini and that magical highway in France. Encountering his work was the start of a lifetime of my “skyjoy.”  The way experiencing his marvelous work of art has influenced me still astounds me, and I am so grateful. I think I will visit the Art Museum again in the next week and spend some more time in Gallery 155. I have to say, “Thanks” to a painting.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Spring Prep in Nature and in Life


‘Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men”
                           Chinese proverb
“Springtime is the land awakening. The March winds are its morning yawn.”    
                              Lewis Grizzard
  Walking in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill these last two weeks has been very interesting and invigorating. There has been an air of expectancy along Germantown Ave. as more and more people have been out and about. The weather has been a big part of it, of course. We have had days in the 60’s and 70’s that brought everyone out of their homes and onto the streets. And we have also had day like today which have started near freezing but by mid-day are in the 40’s and 50’s. Despite the occasional days of temperatures in the 30’s for an entire day, we are in the midst of seasonal change now, and for most of us that is a most wonderful thing. Even though we have not had the miseries of winter to the extent that many places along the East Coast have had this year, we still had winter. And for many of us the official calendrical end of that season is a cause for rejoicing.
    The calendar says that spring arrives on Wednesday, March 20th at approximately 4:58 PM. That is true; this is the astrologic and calendar time when the vernal equinox happens. The sun shines directly on the equator, the length of day and night are about equal, and what we call “spring” is officially here. But there is also another time for spring, and we have been in the midst of it for a little while. We have had clear hints of spring well before the equinox; that is what stoked our expectancy a few weeks ago. On many of the lawns in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill daffodils and snowdrops have been pushing up their shoots and quietly making their appearances for at least the last two weeks. Purple, white and yellow crocuses have been adding color to fronts of houses and backyards. Little red buds have been visible on the many cherry trees in the city. Robins, mourning doves, house wrens, and chickadees are back at the feeders and in the trees. The cardinals, who have been around all winter, are now pairing up and singing their songs more loudly and boldly in the early morning. We look up and there are more and more hours of sunlight, and the average temperature for the week has been above freezing. This has been going on in the Northern Hemisphere for several weeks now, and it is what is called, “meteorological” spring. And it always arrives before the calendarial spring.
    Weatherpeople and climatologists check temperature averages and climatic conditions and use those as a guide to when a season begins and ends. When a level of consistency in these conditions arrives, we have, according to them, started a new season.  To them it has been spring for a few weeks now. For them the climatic reality in our Northern Hemisphere has already started that time of rebirth and renewal-the time when the earth says, “Lets go through this again.” Our landscapes and surroundings have already started being born again. We have been waiting for the calendar to catch up.
   For most of human history this time has been the start of the new year. Spring is when the earth seems to come back to life and everything around us is being reborn and/or remerging. The whole universe seems to 'start over” with animals emerging from hibernation, moving into different locations for a while, and mating. It’s a time when flowers, plants, and potential crops reappear, and the ground seems aching to be fertilized. It is a time for rebirth on a massive scale, and it is inevitable and unavoidable. We as humans are a part of that universe, so we also say, “Let's start again; let’s begin anew.” It is a time when “possibility” lives again; we can even imagine doing it a little bit better this time. In culture after culture all around the world we humans embrace this time in the age-old way we acknowledge anything that is important to us; we do it symbolically. We participate in many religious observances and rituals which focus on stories of rebirth and renewal at this time, whether it is Christianity’s Easter, Judaism’s Passover, the Persian house cleaning and fire jumping ritual of Noruz, or the Chinese dancing in lion masks to scare away bad spirits that may have moved into the house in winter. We do it culturally as well. We literally “clean house,” often redecorating, getting the garden ready, and sweeping out the old and letting in the new. We change our wardrobes, buying new clothes and wearing fabrics that have a lighter color scheme. We paint the house, plant gardens, and more. Humans have to acknowledge the changes in the universe, and we have to do things to show that we acknowledge them. And just as it is in nature, this buildup to the main event is as important as the main event itself.
   Nature is in part, a process or series of processes. It is not as if on March 19th nothing is happening and then suddenly, “BANG” spring is here. Spring is the result of dozens of steps-smaller occurrences and changes that lead to or result in the big event. The meteorological spring can be looked at as Nature’s way of “prep’– of the universe building up to and taking steps towards the big event.  That crocus on the lawn, the loudly singing cardinals, the budding cherry trees; these can be looked at as Nature’s prepping for the big event and giving us a hint of what is to come. They are nature’s “Trailers” or “Coming Attractions” Likewise, the rituals we humans do to celebrate spring are generally not single day or single event affairs. They are a series of steps and events leading up to the major event.  Easter and Passover, for example, have steps and actions that precede the actual event, and they happen over a period of time. Like Nature we move toward our main events. Most of them are simultaneously results of what has gone before as well as indicators of what is to come.
   So spring is here now. We can savor and enjoy the increased hours of sunlight, the gradually increasing temperatures, and the re-coming to life of lawns, gardens, woods and more. The cycle is continuing, and we humans work to find our place within it. I hope that for all of us it is a celebration of life and of looking toward a more hopeful future. For me, that is one of the promises of each spring and each of the rituals connected to it. We can endeavor to make some changes, learn some new things, find some improvements, and maybe even do better this time around. To me that is a huge part of what is about: hope, becoming, and possibility. Enjoy the season.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

UPDATE: Black History Month and Children's Books

Black History and the New World of Children’s Books
DUKES FANS “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” Dr. Mae Jemison, first African-American female astronaut
"We should emphasize not Negro History but the Negro in history. What we need is not histories of selected people or nations but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice." Historian Carter G. Woodson, 1926, father of Negro History Week,now Black History Month "Books Saved My Life" Saying on T-Shirt sold at Uncle Bobbie's coffeeshop in Germantown
One of the things that I have been doing since I retired from teaching is serving as a volunteer librarian at a local public elementary school. Penny, my late wife, established the program at this school in 2015 when we both retired, and it involves some 18 or so retired teachers and educators who spend 4 mornings a week reading books to students, helping them choose and take books out for their own pleasure, helping them with research projects, and more. There are many reasons I love doing this, but one of the biggest is that I get to discover, read, and share with the kids books that I could not have imagined existing when I was their age-or even older. The world of children's books is undergoing a major change, and the volunteering puts me in touch with that. When I was in elementary school in the 1950's there were no reading books that featured people who were remotely familiar to me or who lived in neighborhoods such as mine. There were lily-white Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot, and houses with picket fences around them. During history time we rarely mentioned people who looked like me except in discussions of slavery in the South, George Washington Carver and the peanut, Langston Hughes' poetry, and one or two other Negroes, as we were then called. Now I was not ignorant about or unaware of the accomplishments of blacks in the US; my family subscribed to the Philadelphia Tribune newspaper as well as Jet and Ebony magazines, and we frequently discussed issues of civil rights, as the Movement was growing through the 50's and 60's, both in strength and news coverage. Public schools at that time, though, did not pay much attention to dark skinned people except in some limited and/or stereotyped ways. While we were not totally invisible, we were in no way fully "there." Fortunately, there were public libraries and I loved to haunt their stacks. Those places had books about a wide variety of topics, people and issues that appealed to me. It was at the library that I first found out about Black cowboys and later started wearing cowboy hats as a tribute to them. It was there I discovered writers such as Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, Ishmael Reed, and many more. It was there in the late 1960's and 70's that I could encounter the work of the burgeoning "Black Arts Movement" and expand my ways of thinking. Libraries were a place where I could go beyond what I knew to encounter and embrace new ideas, new people and new thoughts. To me, libraries are essential parts of a civilization, and school libraries are important ways to introduce young people to reading, questioning and learning. So helping to keep a public school library open in a city that does not have enough funding to fully staff its schools is, to me, a vital thing to do.
But the thing I love most about volunteering has been discovering how radically changed the world of children's books has become. There are now an amazing number of books featuring characters who look like me, stories about people who look like me, and biographies and history books about people who look like me. Yes, I know these changes have been happening for some time now, but were I not volunteering in the library I would probably be unaware of the extent and reach of these changes. There are loads of stories now where African-American characters feature prominently and they and their lives are the main point of the story. And they live in a variety of times, places and situations, just as we do in the real world. There are also a lot of biographies for children now, not only about famous African-Americans, but also of folks very few people know about. One of the things I love doing for my read-aloud sessions with the kids during Black History Month is to read biographies about these lesser known people, many of whom even I did not know about until discovering them in a children's book. Many of these new biographies are also picture books, so I get to introduce young students to African-Americans such as Kansas potato magnate Junius Groves, New York City's Molly Williams, the first female firefighter in the United States, Texas cowboy and wild horse trainer Bob Lemmons, Maryland's astronomer, almanac-writer, and surveyor Benjamin Banneker, and many, many more. The kids I read to may be unaware of how momentous the existence of books such as these really is, but the importance of this is not lost on me. This has been a quiet but stunning revolution, and its effects will be long lasting and far ranging.
So I invite you to become a kid again for a little while and read some children's literature that can take you to some new places in the world and in your mind and give you some new information, new thoughts and new realizations. Go to your local public library and explore. Re-discover how much fun reading and learning can be just for its own sake. Enjoy the pictures, the stories and welcoming some new people into your life. It will be a wonderful and thrilling experience. (some of my favorite books the library has introduced me to; No Small Potatoes: Junius Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas Tonya Bolden; illustrated by Don Tate Molly, by Golly: The Legend of Molly Williams, America's First Female Firefighter Dianne Ochiltree; illustrated by Kathleen Kemly Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story Julius Lester; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney Dear, Benjamin Banneker Andrea Pinkney illustrated by Brian Pinkney (and a good website for searching out African-American children's books: )

An Arc of Promise: The Artwork of Jerry Pinkney

 “When you look at my art, you can see my attempt at fulfilling and instilling that promise of light over dark…Each piece of art that I complete strengthens my connection to black history…to see its shape and form in my imagination, to move forward towards a promise fulfilled.”    Jerry Pinkney
  A few weeks ago I wrote about my volunteer work at the Kelly Public Elementary School in Philadelphia and how one of the joys of that has been discovering how many books there now are that feature people that look a lot like I look-books whose existence I could scarcely have imagined when I was an elementary school student. There are biographies, story books, slice of life books and more that feature and highlight peoples of color in all sorts of ways. Last weekend I was fortunate to see an amazing and powerful exhibit about someone at the forefront of this development, renowned illustrator and visual storyteller Jerry Pinkney. Born and raised in Germantown, Mr. Pinkney is one of the world’s most prolific and honored illustrators in the world whose work appears in dozens of books, magazines and even on the walls of several National Monuments. This exhibit is both a tribute to his outstanding work, and an explanation/demonstration of how he works. It is both fascinating and moving.
     The exhibit is at Chestnut Hill’s Woodmere Art Museum, a museum dedicated to the history of art and artists in the Philadelphia region. When they do a special exhibition centered on one artist the museum always presents a deep and multi-faceted look at both the art and the artist. So in this wonderfully arranged presentation we get a full picture of Jerry Pinkney, seeing many of his most memorable illustrations and gaining insight into how he thinks about, researches and prepares for a given assignment. We get a sense of the ideas and inspiration behind an illustration and of the work that goes into it. We see just how and what makes Jerry Pinkney so much more than just an illustrator.
  Jerry is, of course, a very talented illustrator. His brush strokes, use of color, sense of scale, and attention to detail make his work stand out and draw the viewer into each illustration. But there is much more than that to a Jerry Pinkney illustration. Some 100 examples of his work are in the exhibit, and for most of them he has notes explaining why he drew a certain thing a certain way. Why the 5 year old girl carrying a load of firewood in an illustration from the Museum of the African Burial Ground, for example, is as thin as she is and why she seems to be looking a little off to the side. Why in another illustration of a group of runaway slaves crossing a river, one person’s eyes are wide open and looking ahead even as most of the other escapees are looking back toward from where they have come. The facial and body expressions of people in his work convey and express great feeling; we come to look at the people in his work as real people with real lives, real feelings and real effects from what is described in the narrative of the particular book he is illustrating. The way he draws eyes, hands, and mouths, for example, say a lot about what is going on in the book and gives an insight into the characters. So, too, with the way he poses bodies and pays attention to backgrounds. A hawk, or a mountain or a cloud is not just “there in a Jerry Pinkney illustration; they say and represent important things about the narrative. For these reasons I think of Jerry Pinkney not just as an extremely talented illustrator, but as a visual storyteller as well.
  Myth and fable are important parts of Jerry’s interest, so the exhibit features drawings he did for books about the Biblical prophet, Elijah, Lakota Native American tales about the eagle, and Black folk hero John Henry. In these books there is a sense of magic to the illustrations; scenes seem to shimmer and the brightness or darkness in each illustration seems almost like special effects in a film. His use of light and shadow is amplified in these books, almost as if the books are taking place both in this world and another world simultaneously. And his subtle attention to background make each illustration feel complete and part of a much larger reality.
  I urge you all to make it to the Woodmere and experience the beauty and power of Jerry Pinkney’s art. Note also that there are a number of special events connected this special exhibition that are taking place at the museum as well.
Here are links to all that is happening.
Woodmere Museum
9201 Germantown Ave
Philadelphia, PA19118
For me this exhibit was remarkable. I will attend it again as well as get to some of the special events connected to this exhibit. It is a great tribute to an amazing artist, and it is a clear example of the power of art to move, to teach and to inspire.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019



STARK: adjective, stark·er, stark·est.sheer, utter, downright, or complete:stark madness.

harsh, grim, or desolate, as a view, place, etc:a stark landscape.
extremely simple or severe:a stark interior.; bluntly or sternly plain; not softened or glamorized:the stark reality of the schedule's deadline

   I love the word, “stark.” I love words that mean what they sound like, and stark is such a word. Simple. Direct. Clear. As much as I like it, though, I do not use it very often. It is too “real” a word to be too lightly used. It is not a casual word that you can use anytime or anywhere; it will never fit as many situations and be as commonly used as, say, “nice” or “fine." It calls for a more solid and definite use. It seems to exist only for certain situations or realities that call it into being. Winter is the time of the year to use this wonderful word. This season is the reason the word exists. For so much of winter is gloriously “stark.”
    We can notice that easiest in looking up at the winter night sky. With tree leaves gone and fewer hours of daylight around, we can look up and really notice the stars and the moon. They both seem more present and real in wintertime; more “there.” The blue of the night is intense, severe and plain: stark. The stars seem somehow closer-almost as if we can reach up and touch them. We see them in a new way and with a new clarity. The numerous constellations are in much clearer view, and the stars seem pinned to the sky in a way that makes them seem larger and brighter. Definite. The moon is naked and complete and clear and severe: it is stark. There is no question of where it is or what phase it is in. All is clear. And with the supermoon being visible tonight we can see that stark does not necessarily mean, “ugly” or “non-compelling.” It can, in fact be the complete opposite; “starkness” can be very compelling and very attractive. It can be, in fact, quite beautiful and dramatic.
   We can also notice the beauty of winter starkness in the landscape. The ground in the garden is bare and brown for the most part. There are few plants or flowers to distract us, so if we look-really look-we can see the subtle variety of browns in the ground and see how “brown” is not just one color. We can also note the different greys of the rocks, and the jaggedness and barrenness of the bushes. If we stop and look closely at the tree stems and tree trunks we can see the beautifully colored bark on so many of the trees. That bark is out there and visible now, stark in its proud nakedness and glowing when the sunlight hits it at just the right angle. Winter is when we most clearly see this, notice it and appreciate it. Winter is when we allow ourselves to drink it in. And with the snowy landscape that February so often brings, we can hear the complete and simple softness and quiet of a world covered in freshly fallen snow. It is exquisite.
    “Stark” has its own beauty, its own gloriousness and its own power. I will go out waking soon and pay attention to  many of the trees in this neighborhood and their glorious trunks. I will look at the supermoon tonight and marvel. It will be cold yes, and a storm is in the forecast. But until I have to deal with the reality of digging out and using snow salt, I get a chance to take in the starkness and enjoy it. I hope you can too.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Happy SJP Week

Happy SJP Week
 “Why does February feel like one big Tuesday?”
        Tony Stocker
  “February-the month of love??!! No wonder-it’s the shortest month of the year!”
            Dinesh Kumar Biren
 February is not one of the most beloved months in our culture. For many folks it seems unnecessary; it is too short, and the only reason it seems to exist is to delay the coming of Spring. For those of us in the mid-Atlantic region it has also been seen as the mean jokester of winter-yes, the sun is visible sooner and the morning is arriving progressively earlier. That seems good. But it is also often a month with bitter cold, great and howling winds, and snow and ice storms. It almost seems as if we now have the gift of more light, but only to better see and bear witness to our misery and suffering. It seems like a cruel and ironic joke. As as Tuesday for some folks only exists to lengthen the time it takes to get to the middle of the week, February only exists to lengthen the time is takes for us to get to spring. For many of us that is unforgiveable.
    The Romans, from whom we get much of our calendar, did not seem to like or understand February much either. It’s becoming a month is attributed to the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, who supposedly added January and February to the calendar around 710 B.C.E. Supposedly he wanted to more accurately reflect the time it took for the earth to travel around the sun, and adding those two months made the calendar more accurately reflect a solar year. But it took some time for February to find a comfortable home within the Roman calendar. Over the decades it moved from the last month of the calendar to the second month, and it took a number of calendar revisions before its length was finally established at three consecutive years of 28 days with a fourth year of 29 days. But by the time our current Gregorian calendar was adopted, February had its place firmly established as month #2. And so it remains.
  Despite their seeming uncertainty about the month, the Romans saw February as a month of important ritual occurrences. There were at least 7 regularly observed private and public Roman rituals during this month, and many had to do with family and fertility. Februa, for which the month is named, was a time for ritual purification and cleansing. It was probably pre-Roman, but it was so important to Romans that it was subsumed into the Roman festival of the Lupercalia that honored the founding of the city and strove to rid it of evil spirits and bad thoughts prior to the spring plantings. It was believed that this cleansing was necessary to allow good health to enter the city and for a return of the fertility so necessary for planting. February also featured a new moon, and that seemed to be a celestial confirmation of the need for ritual cleansing.
  I am not a lover of February-I am one of those who has tired of winter by mid-February and wants spring to return. But this second full week of February has always meant a lot to me since I was a little kid. For it features the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (the 12th) and Frederick Douglass (the 14th, which is why historian Carter G. Woodson established that week as Negro History Week. As a kid that was a time when my church, black newspapers and magazines as well as radio stations had features on aspects of Black history. I was always finding out something new and exciting, and this fed my curiosity and ultimately helped lead me to becoming a history teacher. I looked forward to this week with excitement. We now have Black History Month, but this second week still remains important to me. For not only does it feature Lincoln and Douglass’ birthday; it also features February 11, the day long imprisoned South African activist and later South African President Nelson Mandela was released from prison. That is definitely another reason for joy and celebration for me and another reason for loving this week.
  Mandela is one of my all-time heroes and inspirations. The way he never gave up his political ideas and positions but did not get carried away by hate and anger still inspire me. I came to think of him as South Africa’s Martin Lither King- hate the system but not the people in it. And he tried to govern the country  that way as well in setting up the Truth and Reconciliation process. So February 11, 1990 became a very important day for me. Like the signing of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, it presented me with something wonderful in the real world that I could barely have imagined happening. It seemed impossible-like a miracle or a dream come true. And every year that date fills me with joy. No, it does not make me like February any more, not by a long shot. I am still impatient for this month to end and for spring to finally get here. But I now think of this second week of February as, “Social Justice Possibility Week”- a time to focus on the possibilities of change after years of struggle and hope. Maybe, in some strange way, this is one of our modern world’s form of cleansing and purification- a regular reminder that change is possible with action and struggle, and that those actions and struggles on behalf of change can lead to something better. So as I bundle up and dress in my 4 layers, I am lifted up by this week. I am reminded that February can be a time of wonder and possibility, even as I await the arrival of the next season.  Happy Social Justice Possibility Week. May we all live in and see the possibility of change.