Sunday, March 18, 2018


   Mike is an old friend of mine who can be very wise, and one of my favorite sayings of his is, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him you have plans.”  Last weekend for me was a perfect example of that saying- on steroids. The plan for last weekend was simple-really simple. We had finally secured tickets to the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture for Friday, March 2, and we were also registered to be part of a winter bird walk Saturday. March 3 at Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge outside of Chestertown, MD one of our favorite towns which also has two of our favorite restaurants. It would all combine into a wonderful weekend out of Philly and away from regular life. We would start Thursday in Baltimore, so we would not have a Friday with a long drive down to DC, hours spent in the museum, and then having to drive another hour and a half to Chestertown. Great plan, well thought out, solid. Routes had been mapped out by Google Maps, and we knew what time we would leave to get the weekend started. Thursday morning came, and we were ready to go.

  We spent Thursday at a hotel at BWI Airport and ate at Olive Grove, one of our favorite restaurants in the Linthicum, MD area. Our wonderful weekend away was off to a great start and we were psyched. But the truth of Mike’s saying started making itself felt subtly and shortly after we awoke. The first indication that things were not going to be as we had planned came when the rain, wind and snowstorm that hit last Friday caused all of the Smithsonian museums-indeed all of DC- to shut down that morning.  DC was pretty much locked down, and we had to re-think our Friday. No problem; Baltimore is home to the Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History in Maryland, a great museum that I have loved for years. It is just off Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and its main permanent exhibit uses photos, charts, excerpts from diaries, maps, models, and artifacts to show how people of African descent have been involved in every aspect of life in Maryland, from interactions with Native Americans in the 1500’s up to the current day. I always find something new in that exhibit, and it is always worth seeing again. The museum also had two wonderful changing exhibits: Reflections: An Intimate Portrait of Iconic African Americans, and Freedom: Emancipation Quilted and Stitched. Reflections is a photo exhibit by photographer Terrance Reese who wanted to get to know his subjects by photographing them in the rooms in their dwellings that mean and say a lot about them. The focus is at first on the rooms-each subject’s portraits are hidden in a reflected image in a mirror in the room. But in looking closely at the rooms, the search to find the reflected images takes on on journeys into and around the details of people’s bedrooms, studies, workspaces, kitchens, living rooms, and parlors and provides great insight into how these people lived and saw themselves. The 1500 word captions Reese composed also gave you a sense of who these people were and what they did. Some of them, such as Gordon Parks and activist Daisy Bates, were quite familiar to me. Others, though, such as activists Esther and James Jackson and journalist Marvel Cooke, were new people to me. But as I looked at the photos all of them came alive in a new way to me, and I learned a lot about each of them. It was both a powerful exhibit and a unique way of looking at people. And we had not planned on seeing it.

  Freedom: Emancipation Quilted and Stitched is a series of story quilts done by Joan Gathier, a gifted quilter who sees the form as a way of telling important stories, both personal and beyond, and also as a way of drawing people together to make powerful statements.  From her personal reflections of life in the decades from the 19340’s to the 1990’s, to her examination of how people in and around Baltimore reacted to and took part in Barack Obama’s campaign, her work just sang. Gaither used established traditional quilting stiches, forms  and shapes combined with original design approaches to produce works of  stunning complexity, beauty, and power. My wife, who is a quilter, was awestruck, as was I. I studied each quilt for a while, and it was a joyous, moving and exciting exhibition.

  So we had made changes in our plans, and happily so. The visit to the Lewis was wonderful and inspiring, and I was sort of glad for the switch in plans. Then it was time to leave Baltimore and drive south towards Chestertown. And that is where Mike’s words really hit home. It is normally a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Baltimore to Chestertown. Four hours later we were stuck in a line of very slowly moving traffic on route 50 and listening to the news that the Bay Bridge, the link across the Chesapeake Bay toward Chestertown, was closed- again. For the third time. We were surrounded by the snow, wind and rainstorm and had only driven some 50 miles. We decided to try to re-trace our route, go north around the Bay, and get to Chestertown that way. But the lines of traffic heading north were as long if not longer as the ones we left on route 50. It was clear that was not going to work. After another hour and half, we decided to turn around and head back to Philly.

   We thought having Google Maps on our phone would be a big help to us-it updates routes regularly and suggests better, faster routes. But almost everyone now has Google Maps on their phones; what was at 6PM the fastest route somewhere quickly became the most crowded one by 6:15PM. And we were again in another miles-long jam. We stopped at a gas station, filled up and got a snack, and that was good because the storm continued unabated and we were in a number of never-ending jams for hours. The Philly area may have been spanked by that storm, but Eastern Maryland got absolutely, royally smacked. Over a quarter of a million people lost power in the Baltimore area alone. Hundreds of power lines and trees were knocked down, damaging houses and vehicles and blocking roads. Winds of 60-70 miles an hour battered homes, tearing off roofs and shingles. Every bridge in the eastern portion of the state was closed at some point on Friday afternoon and evening as tractor trailers crossing bridges were blown onto their sides. I-95 was closed three different times. We may have had plans and even had technology with us. But the sheer power and force of nature ruled the day. Fortunately, my wife and I travel very well together, even during hard times, and we managed to support and comfort each other without losing our tempers. And some 11 hours after we first left Baltimore for the wonderful Chestertown, MD we limped into our driveway in Mt. Airy, exhausted, hungry and very, very grateful.

  I gave Mike a call on Sunday and shared our little adventure with him. He laughed and told us how his place in Abington had a tree down in the yard, some minor roof damage, and had lost power for a few hours. We spoke of our gratitude that it was not any worse for either of us and thought about people who lost homes and more and still had no power. And we thought about those who were homeless during all of this and had little or no shelter. And we once again realized that for all of our human smarts and intelligence and technical knowledge, we are but small players on a much bigger and much broader stage. And that broader stage will do whatever it is going to do, humans be damned. Yes, we affect nature in many ways; we may be making serious changes to it. But in the end, on the broader stage, we are almost irrelevant. We can make changes in nature only in small ways Nature will be here long after we a species are gone. In the final run, we are not really in control. And nature finds its ways to remind us of that.  Hopefully we can listen and respond. For as another friend of mine, Kevin, once said, “With nature, the game is never over. It is always the bottom of the ninth, and nature always has the last at bat.” I hope the storm did not cause you too much difficulty.

   (Reginald Lewis Museum
    Dr. Joan Gathier
    Project Home )