Wednesday, September 27, 2017


Cosmic Swirl by Barb Black
for Black Ink Pad Designs

My Dear Fellow Humans,

I need to tell you some things. No, that’s not right. I need you to hear some things. Please.

You’ve been distressing me lately. I realize that some of that is on me and my proclivity to take the weight of everybody’s anger and outrage as something I can change, something I should be responsible for even though I can’t and I’m not. The truth is, nobody can make you feel anything. You feel what you feel and you are in charge of your reactions to what you feel. Regardless, as I’ve watched the world crumble all over again in the past few days, I feel hurt -- not by any arrows that might have been aimed at me, but by the overall vitriol being flung about. So, I need for you to set it all aside for just a minute and listen. Listen without having, “but…” or, “actually…”, or “well, in my opinion…” waiting on your tongue. Just listen.

Imagine we’re all at a party. I’ll host; welcome to my living room. Kick off your shoes, pour yourself a beverage, and help yourself to snacks. We don’t stand on pretense here -- make yourselves at home. We’ll cover some lightweight stuff for a bit -- the nice change the Fall air makes, how fast kids are growing up, a great restaurant we discovered. Pretty soon though, someone will bring up a topic that will spark some heat. At least one of you will disagree. Someone will say, “Now, wait a minute.” Or maybe, “That’s not how I see it.” There might be some fairly hearty debate. At no time do people begin calling each other names or making disparaging remarks about them based on race, religion, gender or political affiliation. Why? Because we’re all there together and we can see each other’s eyes and hear each other’s voices and understand the intentions behind what’s being said. We recognize each other as fellow humans, and in so doing, realize that we’re all going to have different ideals and levels of comfort and sensibilities. (Hey, it’s my party. Let me have this fantasy.)

At first we might think that Ted over there is a total asshole, until someone whispers, “I’ve never seen him like this. But, he just buried his mother last week, so I know he’s pretty on edge.” Suddenly we have sympathy for Asshole Ted. We probably even go up to him and say, “I heard about your Mom. I’m so sorry.” We see Ted soften, we see the heartbreak in his eyes. We understand that he’s barely hanging by a thread and maybe anger is the only emotion he can handle right now.

See Jane, sitting there next to Suit Guy? I know, she looks like a stuck up fashion plate. But, did you know? She had a double mastectomy two years ago. All that makeup and fashion and accessorizing is her way of saying she’s still here, still feminine. We almost lost her, so even if she laughs a little too loudly, it’s way better than not having her laughter here at all. And now we get that Jane is only trying to be part of the human race again after nearly being removed from it. We go over and tell her, “Hey, it’s nice to meet you. You have a great laugh.” Suit guy says, “Right? I’ve never met anyone so down to earth.”

There’s Bob, who bleeds red, white & blue, talking to Nina, who just became a citizen last year. She’s explaining the horror she lived through in her birth country and how her family sacrificed so she could move here and have a better life. She’s in tears as she tells him what it means to her to live here and to have the opportunities she now has. She tells him that she sends half her paycheck home every month to help her family. Bob clears his throat (because of allergies, no doubt) and asks if he can get her another drink. He’s proud that he lives in a country that others look to as a beacon of hope and of haven. He still thinks something should be done about illegal immigrants, because that’s what Bob believes. His belief doesn’t mean that he hates every foreigner; he’s just scared and he hasn’t had the chance to see what’s on the other side of his fear.

The Jew is telling the Catholic about the time he went to Rome over the holidays and how he ended up going to midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. The Catholic laughs and asks why he would do that. “I love the mystery that seems to surround a mass, and the music was particularly lovely. It really was an astounding experience.” The atheist standing near them chimes in, “I know what you mean! I love all that old architecture, and there’s something about Christmas music that always stirs me, even if I can’t get behind the belief system.” The Catholic stands there, mouth agape, but believing more firmly than ever that God is in everything and everyone. He doesn’t even realize that he just agreed with every Buddhist on the planet.

On the sofa sit a Baby Boomer, a Generation-Xer, and a Millennial. They’re talking about how much things have changed in 60 years. The Millennial wonders why we don’t just “get it” and let people be who they need to be. The Baby Boomer explains that today is very different from her growing up years, but her generation has done a lot of changing and growing, and they are trying. The Gen-Xer says, “For real! My Dad once said that gays deserved AIDS. Two years later I came out to him and he completely changed his tune.” The Millennial understands that they weren’t left a world in ruins, but a world on the cusp of real change and possibility.

There are thousands of conversations we need to have, but we need to acknowledge that a conversation is a two-way avenue. If you begin a conversation (and you often do so by stating an opinion), then be prepared to listen. Remember when we were young? “But Mom, why do I have to go to bed now?” “Because I said so, and that’s that.” End of conversation -- nothing answered or resolved. It wasn’t a conversation at all, but an edict. Remember how cheated we felt at not getting a reasonable explanation? And at not having our side of it heard? If only once Mom had said, “Tell me why you want to stay up. Why is it so important to you?” More often than not, my answer would have been, “Because I’m afraid I’ll miss out.”

At the heart of anger is fear. Usually that fear comes from the thought that whatever is happening, being done, being said, will somehow personally hurt or affect us. If we understood how rarely and how very little someone else’s views actually do that, we’d stop being so angry. Nobody can change us unless we allow them to.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with anger. As an emotion, it gets a bad rap. It’s actually a fairly useful emotion. It galvanizes us, true enough, but it’s also one of the bigger proofs of our weaknesses and strengths. If you only use your anger to shout at people and belittle those whose opinions and lives differ from yours, then you’re going about it all wrong. If you use your anger to take action, make phone calls, start a fundraiser, or even walk off into the woods until you can organize your thoughts, then you’re doing it right.

But, before we do anything, we need to listen. We need to listen and not simply dismiss. We need to understand the part we are playing in the conversation - are we truly making it a conversation, or are we nailing an edict to the wall? We need to listen and not simply throw answers back. We need to listen, and if we don’t understand, we need to say we don’t understand. Please explain how this hurts you. Please explain why this is so important to you. Please tell me what you’re doing to change it. Please tell me how we can work together to make this better.

I’m so glad you came to my party. It was nice to have you here. We should talk more often, and listen even more. Really. Please. I’m listening. Are you?

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Moment

Did I think about it? Of course I did. Unless one lives under a rock and/or is brain dead, it's impossible not to. Since neither of those scenarios apply to me, yes, it was on my mind. Like millions of others, I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when it happened. I can do that with all of the more defining moments in my life.

Those kinds of memories don't have the grainy, aged film look that many other memorable moments do. They are high definition and they are larger than life. They are so big and so well defined that not only can I see the peach fuzz on a face, but each individual hair that makes up the peach fuzz.

I know each line on the back of my father's massive hands as the tremors of end stage lung cancer shook them. Shook them so much that he couldn't unzip and re-zip his pants when he had to use the bathroom. So he asked me, his then teenage daughter to help. I did so willingly, but with a tremendous, painful lump in my throat. I understood all at once what it must have taken for him to ask for my help. No man should ever have to ask his daughter for help zipping his pants. In the few short seconds it took me to help him, his hands trembled at his sides. And I remember every line on the back of his hands.

I remember the way the sunlight hit the dust on the monitor the day I clicked open an email from a friend only to read that a beloved mutual friend of ours had died very suddenly. Six words stole the air from the room, "I'm afraid our girl is gone." As the world spun away, the dust and the sunlight and the monitor remained, and only those three things. Jesse was gone, dust, sunlight, monitor, Jesse gone, sunlight, dust, monitor, how can that be, monitor, dust, sunlight. I watched as the first chuff of a sob broke free from me and made the dust dance in the sunlight.

I can see the reflection of my office building in his black truck. The building number above the door is backwards. I approach the driver side window with a smile. He's early. I'm happy to see him. Then I see his face, the streaks of gray in his mustache, the way his lower jaw is working - he always did that when something troubled him deeply. I stop short at the look on his face. "What." I say it not as a question but more as a definition of some great heavy beast standing between us. His look is one of mixed shame, fear, and almost anger. He knows he's going to break something in me as he answers with one word, "Cancer." I sigh, and then I can move forward to grasp his shoulder. "Oh, my love." It's all I can say. It's enough. I look down and notice that the backwards number is wavering. I don't want him to see my tears. Not yet. He has enough to deal with.

September 11, 2001. I was finishing an early morning workout on one of the treadmills in the small gym that was part of the apartment complex where my late mate and I lived. There was a woman on the other treadmill. I think she had blond hair. We had TV turned on to the news chatter of local weather, traffic, blahblahblah... "We interrupt your regular broadcast... breaking news..." We both watched as the first plane hit the tower. "Oh, my god..." the woman next to me said softly. "That didn't look accidental," was my response. I finished up and went home to shower and get ready for work. I walked in the door and told John to turn on the news. "A plane just ran into one of the World Trade Center towers," I said. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee. I heard the tell-tale click of the TV as John pushed the on button of the remote. The image of the tower, smoldering in the middle, filled the screen. "Holy shit!" he exclaimed. "I don't think it was an accident," I repeated. I couldn't shake the heavy feeling in my chest. I was taking a sip of coffee when the second plane hit. I quickly set down the cup and propped myself on the edge of the sofa. I remember thinking, "Smoke and ashes... oh the people... smokeandashesohthepeople..." as if I was about to write a poem. There was nothing poetic about it.

Yes. I thought about it this morning, the same way I often think about those clear, hard-edged moments of my life. The moments that show me how easy it is to feel wounded and how tough I can be despite that. I thought about it and proceeded with my day in the only way I know how give credence to those unthinkable times and to honor those people who have suffered agony that I can't completely understand - the people I've loved and the people I'll never know who have been taken in death.

I thought about it. I thought about it and then and set about living deliberately. Bringing honor isn't so much in a totem or a memorial or a moment of silence. Honor is in living anyway. Honor is in living well and fully.

Saturday, September 2, 2017


What the Night
by Barb Black

It’s not often that I feel completely overwhelmed. I feel things deeply and forcefully, but it rarely leaves me at a loss for words, at least not for long. Even so, this is where I find myself now, and as I’ve learned, writing it out helps. In my life, writing is where the hidden words come to light.

Unless you’ve been unconscious this past week, you know that Texas got the shit beat out of it in a fight with a guy named Harvey. Yeah, that’s my glib way of saying those guys got walloped by a hurricane - huge loss of property and property damage, lost lives, lost jobs, lost pets. But you already know all that.

I barely watch the news. I can’t take it on an ordinary day, and when tragedy strikes, I find it even more difficult to endure. When tragedy strikes, I also pare my social media glances to a minimum. I become so emotionally pained and weary when people are hurting that I just don't need to see constant reminders. Most of the time I feel that way because I’m a helper; I like to help people feel better. If I can't do that, it has a profound effect on my general outlook.

So, there I was last Wednesday, checking out the weather forecast for my area on The Weather Channel on TV. Naturally, as my forecast scrolled across the bottom of the screen (more stupid sun and hot weather in store for the NW), the anchors were covering the devastation Harvey continued to wreak in Houston and surrounding areas. I felt the energy drain right out of me despite the 83 or so cups of coffee I’d had. How could I go about my day when so many were hurting? I had no “extra” money to give and I’m not physically able to do much of anything, and yet I ached to do… something.

So, I did nothing. I moped, which means I watched episodes of something and had snacks and traded banter with Facebook friends. I finally went upstairs to my studio. I marveled again at how nice it looks since I gutted it and rearranged and organized things last month. I looked at the group of paintings I had leaning against a wall, half wondering if they’d ever find a loving home, half wondering why I was keeping them at all.

It hit me. “You silly woman. You have a tremendous resource - quite literally at your fingertips. Why don’t you sell these things and give that money to help with Harvey relief?” My other voice, the voice of my petulant, unsure 14-year-old self spoke up, “Pffft… who’d want that stuff? You think an awful lot of yourself. And how would you market it? Bigwigs are donating huge sums of money, and it’s not like you’d make much and….” That was when I duct taped her mouth shut. Sometimes that chick needs to shut the hell up.

I thought about it. I wrestled with ideas, even as I slept and dreamed that night. And then, during my 47th cup of coffee Thursday morning, the Aha! burst into view. I’d auction it off online with a simple Facebook album post and a "have at it". I floated the idea by my Facebook tribe and it was met with good reception. So, I went right to work, set up the album of artwork, complete with instructions and minimum prices and such.

You know what? I built it and they came! Within seconds of posting it, people were bidding. Honestly, I sat here in tears watching the notifications come in. So much generosity. So much love. The bidding ended at noon today, and I’m beyond thrilled to tell you that my humble little art auction raised $1000 that will go toward helping folks in Texas.

(*Cue Ron Popeil voice*) But wait! That’s not all. It didn’t just raise $1000. Here’s what else it did. Least of all, but so needed, it validated what I do. As an artist, that validation is gold. We sit and pour our hearts out into whatever we do, and when someone comes along and says, “I’ll buy that.” Well, we just about can’t handle it. (I say “we”, but it might only be me - I don’t think so, though.) It also made my heart swell to see how generous my friends were with their donations and their encouragement and their good-natured banter as they “fought” over pieces. I feel proud of my fellow humans (as a collective) for the first time in a long time. It has also sparked my creative energy to jump back into the pretty colors and make things magically appear. Finally, the overall action of it has had me grinning non-stop - I was doing something and they were doing something. Together, we were doing something! Action always defeats despair. Always. Always.

So, yes. I am overwhelmed. Once again, I have found beauty that is anchored in something horrible. I’ve come to learn that it’s where true beauty lives. It’s how Life balances her little ballerina toes on the head of a pin. “Look at me! Precarious and scary, but so pretty!”

I won’t hesitate to do this again. Art counts for something and as artists, we must stand and be counted. For now, my heart is full. I thank all of you who participated, whether all you could do was lend encouragement, whether you won your bids or not, you made it better. You changed my life… and I never even saw that coming.