Paying A Visit to Emily Dickinson

The HomesteadOn my recent visit to Amherst, MA, I visited Emily Dickinson’s house as well as the house of her brother and his wife. I learned that the Dickinson homes certainly have a unique charm. Although on the same property, and belonging to the same family, The Homestead and The Evergreens have a different beauty that I was excited to see.

The Homestead – the childhood home of Emily Dickinson and the place she lived until she died in 1886. It’s thought by some that she was a recluse, only writing depressing poems. (And there was a time when I thought the same, but she wrote on a variety of different topics and was interested in life.) After visiting her home and learning more about her, I believe she was happy with her life, spending it with the people she cared about most while doing what she loved. (Although, she never published a single poem during her lifetime.)

The house she lived in was simple – canary yellow with dark green shutters. There was aBirdbath in the Garden small flower garden on the side of the house with a birdbath. A few times I watched as a robin flew to the rim of the bath and drank the water before flying away. Also, further down from the house there was a larger garden which also contained flowers, among various vegetables. (Along with a rather friendly cat whose name seemed to be Oscar Wilde.)

While walking through the house I saw various rooms including the library, a large room off from the foyer and Emily’s room. It didn’t really hit me until I was standing in Emily’s room – the profound thought that this is where she not only lived, but wrote all those poems so many years ago. Her small desk with a lamp and a chair faced the window and I wondered if she wrote long into the night or whenever inspiration struck.

As any artist’s house that is turned into a museum, things were pristine and most of the furniture was authentic. Maybe it’s my active imagination, or maybe something else, but I could imagine the people who once lived in the house walking up and down the stair, through the halls, sitting and talking, entertaining. It really was like stepping into the past. But there’s a difference between stepping back in time and feeling as though time itself has stopped.

The Evergreens IIThe Evergreens – the home of Emily’s brother and his wife, a wedding present built by his father across the way from The Homestead. Structurally, this house is very different from the one Emily lived in, but what I found more breathtaking was what was on the inside.

As soon as I stepped into the dimly lit foyer, I could smell the houses age. (Some may call it a musty sent, but it wasn’t musty, it was age and history that floated through the air.) It was written in the family will that the house was to remained untouched. So everything was still in the same place. Every single piece of furniture, down to the rugs and wood floors, were authentic.

The wallpaper in the halls was peeling, the paint was chipping, there were small holes and cracks in the ceiling and long cracks that ran the length of the wall. Some of the rugs were torn after a lifetime of foot-traffic and the wood floors worn in places after years of people walking on them. Even the fireplaces appeared to have ash still in them. (Although, I could’ve imagined this.) Either way, this house felt like the family left long ago, leaving all their belongings, and was waiting for them to return.

That was the beauty of this house. In no way am I calling it unkept or ugly. All of these things add to its character. It shows this house had a life and I could imagine it in its glory days as Emily’s brother and wife entertained or simply took care of their family. I could feel it’s history pouring from the walls and thought of the stories they could tell, if only they could speak.

Both these houses had their own charm and their own personality. I loved them equally, but for different reasons. In The Homestead it was walking the same halls as Emily Dickinson once did (to name one) and in The Evergreens it was the pure authenticity of the house and the history that was ingrained into every floorboard (to name one). In the end, I’m glad I was able to explore these gorgeous houses and that they could be preserved not only for today, but also for future generations.

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A Visit to Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole's HouseVisiting historical places feels like stepping back in time. You might need to use your imagination to see the artist working or the writer writing, but often times the place you’re visiting has a personality all its own.

Recently, I visited Thomas Cole’s house. Thomas Cole was an artist, best known for his paintings, and credited with the founding of the Hudson River School. His paintings transform the landscape and captivates anyone who looks at them (at least in my opinion).

The house is simple – pale yellow with dark green shutters and an elevated porch. It used to sit on a large plot of land, orchards, but now there’s a road that goes through it and a Mountain Viewfew houses on the other side. In no way does this take away from the gorgeous view when standing on the porch. Beyond the bit of present-day construction lays the woods with its tall trees and mountains that appear to touch the sky. It’s a view that I believe must me seen to fully appreciate its beauty.

Of all the rooms in the house, I think the studio was my favorite. It’s one thing to step into the foyer of an old house, to see the different rooms, to imagine the use of each room and admire the authenticity of it all, but it’s another things entirely to enter a room that still feels as if it’s being used.

His studio is separate from the house, part of an old barn. Upon entering there’s a smell that matches that of an old barn, mixed with paint and age. Two easels site in the middle A Painter's Toolsof the room, one with a canvas balanced on it, the other empty and waiting for art to be created. A long desk is pushed against the wall and holds books, papers and some small paints. A separate, smaller desk, is positioned between the two easels where bottles of pigment (which would be transformed into his paints) sat. It was as if Thomas Cole had walked out of his studio and everything was left waiting for his return.

It’s possible the old studio sparked my imagination as the room still seemed to be alive. It felt special. And maybe that’s why these historical places feel like stepping back in time – each one is special in it’s own way.

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Pictorial History

Photographs of old buildings that were once busy factories, populated schools, adored homes and so much more hang on the wall. These buildings now sit abandoned, left to decay and be taken over by nature. Some of them are partially collapsed while others have been demolished since the photos were taken and now there’s nothing left but an empty lot or the looks of what used to be the foundation.

These are the Hudson Valley Ruins, a photography exhibit currently on display at the New York State Museum. (And I do recommend going to see this instillation.)

The photos are beautiful. From an artistic standpoint I loved the use of lighting, attention to detail, the textures and angles at which the pictures were taken. They capture the essence of the buildings – still beautiful with it’s boarded up doors, partially collapsed walls, broken windows, torn wallpaper, peeling paint and overall abandonment.

Each photo leads to a sense of wonder and, possibly, nostalgia. As I stood in the museum looking at these photos I found myself envisioning what they looked like in their prime – busy, bustling schools and factories, lavish homes.

Historically the photos capture a place that once was a prominent and important piece of the past. These buildings once produced goods, educated children and housed families among other things. Some of the buildings were repurposed before being abandoned while others were forgotten long ago.

I think that’s the sad thing about these places. While still beautiful in their own way, they’ve been forgotten and left to the forces of nature to destroy what once was grand. A lack of care has turned these buildings into so-called “eye sores.” I don’t believe they’re ugly sights to be seen. Instead, I think they’re interesting pieces of history. They’re meant to be preserved as best as possible so we can learn from them.

Any photograph, if we look closely enough, can be a learning tool. Every picture tells a story. They depict specifics about a person – their clothing, their personality, their inner being. Pictures capture a lifestyle. Photographs freeze the horror and/or the beauty of a moment. They’re a window to the past and hope for the future.

It’s said, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Maybe the saying is a bit cliched, but I believe there’s truth in those words. We can learn a lot from a photograph, if we’re willing to listen, look carefully with our eyes.

A Thought-Provoking History

Think of all the things you love – your family, your friends, your house, your country.

Now imagine you had to leave it all behind. Everything. Imagine it was a matter of life or death – and your life is precious. So you leave everything, take only what’s needed. Or maybe you’re only a child and your parents send you away to a place they believe to be safe. Either way you lose your home, your possessions, and your country. You’re separated from your family and spend half your time wondering if they’re still alive while the other half is spent trying to survive.

Recently I read Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys. It takes place during WWII. Thousands and thousands of people are making the long trek toward the port in the hopes of being cleared and placed on a ship that would take them to safety. The ship focused on in this book was the Wilhelm Gustloff, a large ship carrying about 10,000 people and destined for an ill fate. The events, as well as the ship, were real, but I hesitate to say much more since I highly suggest you read this book.

We can learn from history, even if it’s in the form of historical fiction. To think that these events actually took place and to think of what these characters went through is almost chilling. The characters themselves may not have been real, but they were based off real people. I can’t imagine leaving my home, fleeing my country and being separated from my family. I can’t imagine living in fear every day and constantly being on the run. Although, if your life is on the line, it’s really the only choice.

This is a time in history that has always fascinated me. I’ve never really been able to wrap my head around all the brutality. I’ve never been able to understand how humans could be so cruel to each other. But the one thing that’s always struck me in history, as well as in this book, is that somehow there is still a beauty and a lot of times that beauty is transformed into hope.

When I read things like this it makes me think that I have no right to complain about anything in my life. I still have my family and friends. I’m not being forced to leave my county. When winter comes I won’t risk freezing to death. I don’t have to fear for my life because of who I am or because of my ethnicity.

Again, I highly suggest this books goes on your reading list. It’s eye-opening and thought-provoking in many way. Not only that, but it’s simply a good read.

A Moment in History

A few days ago two friends and I took a little road trip to The Clark, an art museum in Williamstown, MA.

Road trip aside (which are always fun), I love art museums. I enjoy taking my time walking around to the different pieces of art. I like standing in front of each painting, reading the little card next to it and studying the brush strokes as much as the painting itself.

On display were works by artists I already loved, such as Monet and Renoir. There were paintings by those I had never heard of and those who seemed vaguely familiar. And there were those I found and fell in love with, such as Inness and Homer.

So what was it about theses artists that captured my attention?

Claude Monet, a French artist, is said to be a founder of Impressionist painting. Simply put, I have always found his work beautiful. When looking at one his paintings, I almost believe I could step right into it and become part of the image.

Pierrie-Auguste Renoir was a French painter who is said to have been the leading artist in the Impressionist style. Since I first saw Dance at Bougival a number of years ago (probably when I was in high school), I have loved his work. For me, seeing it in person was both a treat and an experience. The people in his paintings seem very much alive and ready to step off the canvas. There were a number of times when I thought how much emotion was expressed in their eyes and I found myself lost in them. Even his non-portrait paintings have a distinct beauty.

George Inness, American landscape painter, was influenced by those at the Hudson River school, the Barbizon school and the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg. The spiritualism of this theology can be vividly seen in Inness’ work as it matured. The lighting and realism of his work was gorgeous, at least in my opinion. I found myself able to stare at one his paintings for a very long time, feeling as if I could walk right into it.

Winslow Homer was a 19th century American landscape painter best known for his marine subjects. His work is absolutely beautiful and my love of the ocean made me immediately fall in love with these paintings.

While I was looking at these paintings, both by the artists mentioned here and the others I didn’t note, I was struck with a rather interesting thought. At one point in history the artist set up an easel and placed a canvas on it. He gathered up some paint and brushes and set to work on making what he saw with his own eyes come to life on the white canvas. These paintings capture a moment in time, people, a culture, a society. And long after the artist is gone, long after I am gone, these works of art will still exist for people to marvel.

Our Decisions Shape Our Destinies

Recently, I finished reading Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. In a previous post (The Things We Take For Granted) I discussed another one of her novels, Between Shades of Gray, and as in that post I’m not going to talk the plot in detail. After all, I don’t want to spoil anything for those who may want to read either of these books. (And I do highly recommend them).

Out of the Easy.

The Big Easy.

The first line of the book is, “My mother’s a prostitute.” (And that sure does pack and punch.) With Josie as the narrator, this appears to be the way she describes herself, but I can only imagine there’s so much more to her as a person. As the reader, from the very beginning, I could tell Josie was different from her mother and more than a prostitute’s daughter. She didn’t want to be a part of that life. She was smart and wished to continue her education by attending college. An elite college. Josie dreamed of being more she was, more then the life she was born into.

The choices Josie makes throughout the book will shape her future.

The story is set in 1950 Louisiana. New Orleans. Josie lives in what is called the Quarters and it’s not the nicest place, for many reasons. Lucky for her she has a few friends who always have her back.

While I was reading, I had a few recurring thoughts.

First, even though I’m not yet a mother, I kept wondering how Josie’s mother could treat her so horribly. She acted as if she didn’t even want her (and maybe she didn’t). Her mother cared more about money then anything else on earth. She appeared vain and obsessed with looking young and beautiful. This attitude influenced her choices and put her on a path that led to some pretty shady people and events.

But we’re all entitled to our own decisions.

Josie was basically estranged from her mother. She wanted to leave New Orleans and had been saving since she was a child. I didn’t think it was fair that she was a smart girl who always did well in school, but because of her mother’s reputation, Josie was treated like trash.

But life is rarely fair.

Regardless, we can’t let obstacles stand in the way of our dreams.
I think my point is pretty straight forward. (Then again, maybe I’m wrong.) Either way, we are the decision makers in our lives. Everyday we make choices that shape our future, big and small.

Think of the decisions you make on a daily basis. Sometimes it can be as simply as what to wear to work or whether you should have that second cup of tea.

Now think of the major decisions you’ve made in your life. These are the decisions that have helped shape our lives over the course of time.

I know I’ve had to make some major choices in my life and sometimes these can be the hardest.

Everyday we come up against things we have to choose between, whether we realize it or not, and everyday we carve our path further and further and down life’s road.

Josie was born into a life she realized she didn’t want to be a part of. She didn’t want to be her mother. She didn’t want to be a prostitute. Her dreams in life and her ambitions were stronger than her living situation. She wouldn’t settle. Josie was faced with tough choices, but she always sided with the one that fit her morals and propelled her toward her dreams.

Just like Josie, I believe everyone has the opportunity to better themselves.

Isn’t that part of life, to overcome obstacles?

No matter your belief, I think we can all agree that the opportunities are always available. Sometimes they’re right at your fingertips and sometimes you have to fight for them.

Respect Your Elders, They Can Teach You Things

From the time you were a child you probably had your parents and various other people telling you, “Respect your elders.” I’m sure this put a sour look on your face (as it sometimes did mine) because you thought you were being funny, you were only being a kid, but you were really being disrespectful. The fact that your parents (and mine) were attempting to instill the idea of respect is a positive thing. They were trying to make you a better person, raise you right. They were trying to teach you to respect the people around you.

In today’s world, I don’t think the elder population is treated the way they should be, especially by the younger generations. Most of the time they’re brushed off, ignored, left alone. They are thought to be incompetent, a burden and even a drain on society.

This not respecting your elders.

And we’re all headed in the same direction, as far as aging is concerned.

The reality is, these people can teach us things.

Remember all those historical events you learned about in high school; WWI, WWII, The Great Depression, among many others. Have you ever asked anyone who was alive during that time what it was really like to have these things happening around them? Have you even thought to ask? Sure you can learn from a text book, but it can only teach you so much. A text book can’t relay the pain of losing a brother or a son to war. It can’t show you the joy on a child’s face after receiving a new pair of shoes. No, texts books can only show you the facts.

It’s been my experience that a first-hand account is best. Over the years, I’ve found you can learn more from asking then any text book could ever teach you.

I’ve often asked my grandpa to tell me stories about his experiences in WWII. I’ve asked him to tell me stories about his parents and immigration. I’ve asked him to tell me stories about the places he’s been, the things he’s seen and the people he’s met along the way. Sometimes I ask him to just tell me a story, any story.

My grandma’s the same, a vessel full of stories. I’ve asked her tell me what it was really like growing up during The Great Depression, if she remembers FDR’s Fireside Chats coming in over the radio. I’ve asked her to tell me what it was like to have brothers in the war, what they had to say about the combat of certain battles and how it felt when they came home.

I’ve asked my grandparents a number of things over the years. I love history and listening to people’s stories. I’m curious and want to know, to keep growing. I’ve learned things I never would have found in a text book, or even on the internet. Regardless, I believe it’s important to somehow record these stories, even if it’s by memory, because one day all these people will have passed on from this world and their stories will go with them.

My grandparents aren’t the only ones who have taught me a thing or two. I’ve learned from friends, family friends, my grandparent’s friends and the list goes on.

Back in January I wrote about a teacher I had in college who, afterward, became a friend. He was an older man, so most of the people in class wrote him off as just that; old. If only they could’ve seen how much he could’ve taught them. He told me numbers stories of old-time newspapers, of what it was like being an editor, what it was like being a reporter (and some of the things he did to get his stories would never fly in today’s world) and life in general.

It seems to me that the younger generations don’t know how to respect their elders (although, I’m sure some of you do). They’re brushed aside as people wonder, “What do they have to offer?” The truth is, they have so much to offer. They are a window to the past, which is just as important as the present and the future.

My suggestion, or challenge, to you is to show them more respect. Find a grandparent, a family friend, anyone you have a remote acquaintance with and have a conversation. Ask them what it was like growing up, what it was like to experience some of these big events. Simply ask them to tell you a story, any story. I guarantee you’ll put a smile on their face and learn a thing or two in the process.