Wednesday, October 31

The Grave Undertaking . . .


The Grave Undertaking of Stiffie's Photography on Halloween

By Jack Riepe, P.I.R. (Paramour in Residence)


Halloween is one of my favorite times of the year. The night air is as crisp as a Macintosh apple, and the wind leaves visible footfalls in the piles of leaves that collect on the sides of the road. It is the end of the harvest and time once again to read Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Watching the Tim Burton film adaptation of the same name (starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci) isn't a bad idea either.


This is the time of year when "La Stiffkins" (Leslie) and I head out in the little car to savor the best the fall has to offer. We look for arts, crafts, history, the unique, the quaint, and sometimes the occult. On this particular occasion, our destination was Rock Creek Cemetery, 86 rolling acres of solace in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C.


Leslie (Stiffie) had signed up for a photo safari, a wandering class dedicated to expanding photographic technique while offering a remarkable choice of subjects. The Rock Creek Cemetery was established in 1719, but transcended the churchyard concept and became a source of expression for the art of grief and personal remembrance in the late 19th century. These houses of the dead say a lot more about who used to live in Washington than the houses of the living say now.


I watched Stiffie (Leslie) shoulder her gear and trudge off with other members of the safari, winding her way among the tombstones. A chill went up my spine as she disappeared among these granite and marble harbingers of the hereafter, and I hoped this was not the seed of a premonition. With three hours to kill, I thought of staging a little safari of my own to the Old Ebbitt Grill. This is the last powerhouse saloon left in the United States, just steps away from the White House. It is the kind of place where red "power ties" are actually nuclear powered, and Republican foreplay (the extended handshake) is liberally offered to lobbyists wearing their ethical hot pants.


I was wearing my uniform, jeans and an old ratty shirt, and concluded I'd stick out at Old Ebbitt 's. My preference is for a Gibson martini at the bar in Union Station anyway. But the thought of parking the car within a stone's throw of Capitol Hill held no appeal on a day like this. Each ray of the afternoon sun picked up another color of fall in the leaves of the trees and I did something that Stiffie refused to let me consider earlier, despite the day's warm temperature.


I put the top down. Then I set out on a cemetery tour of my own.


Leslie and I have this thing for cemetery angels. She likes the art form. I am fascinated by the very idea of winged celestial beings that serve the pleasure of the deity. The first tomb that caught my eye depicted an angel, arms up-stretched in anguish. It was as if a guardian angel was lamenting the loss of its patron. I hope I engender the same feelings in my own guardian angel, though Stiffie thinks this would be highly unlikely. In fact, she suggested that I stay away from the edges of cliffs and subway platforms as the temptation might be too much even for a winged celestial being.


I found four bronze angels shouldering the massive roof of a mausoleum. This seemed unnatural to me. Angels are beings of light and flight. To my way of thinking, it would be enough that an angel escorted me through life. I wouldn't ask it to shelter me in death. I would hope my death would release an angel from the tedious chore of saving me from myself.


Next I paused at a mausoleum built of cut stone, resembling a country church in Britain. It was more than soothing. It was charming. Snug against the elements, it was a perfect eternal resting place, with a finely crafted stained-glass window to subdue the light. Many of these houses of the dead had wonderful stained glass windows in shades of fall colors. Regardless of the hour of daylight, it is always sunrise or sunset inside. Some of these windows were of landscapes, while others were palms or the risen Christ. The message of the resurrected Christ is a strange one for a tomb. It says, "I alone walked from here, while you must wait for the last day."


The general style in 19th and 20th century mausoleums calls for columns or thick stone construction, fronted by impressive doors. I refer to this as the Federalist period of death. It amazes me that after living, people would want their souls entombed in a structure resembling the main Post Office or the Federal Office of National Engraving.


Three mausoleums struck me as very interesting and remarkably different. One was another structure built to the dimensions of a English stone chapel -- but larger than the first I saw. It was big enough for me to live in now. This one had a miniature steeple complete with little gargoyles. The name on the door was "Hibbs." Another was a stone structure that was open in front, but secured by a gate. Inside were two granite sarcophagi side by side... A man and his wife.


I could almost hear him whisper, "Dear, are you there?"


And her reply might be, "Of course. I'm right here my love. Go back to sleep."


The third was a crypt built into a hillside. It was lined with brick, had an iron gate, blocking an arched passage that led down into the hill. I was thinking of climbing over the gate and waiting in there to surprise Stiffie. (There is a reason why she does not ask me to participate in these little adventures.) Then it occurred to that this is the sort of thing that happens in horror movies, and that I could be detained in this little hill for eternity.


One of the more haunting memorials was the statue of a man, wearing a shroud, waving from his grave as if to say, "Remember me. . . . I'm here." And there were headstones from the late 1700's and early 1800's that were swallowed up by the roots of trees. Only the last few inches of the tops of some were still visible. I imagined a person of spirit and strength buried here, lending heart to a towering oak.


Deer move freely within the confines of these 86 acres. They are small and live in the heart of urban sprawl. Two years ago, a deer walked all the way from Rock Creek Park to Georgetown, a distance of several miles without being noticed.


I came across Stiffie, bending light and color to her bidding through a lens. She sensed my presence, like a tiger is aware of wounded cape buffalo in the brush.


"Are you haunting this place," she asked, without looking up from her picture-taking.


"I was cruising for single women," I replied.


"I only have a few minutes to get this right..."


"So I should get lost," I concluded.


"Bingo," she said.


The location, the setting of the sun, and the simultaneous rising of the moon made me think of my own mortality. I envisioned my own headstone, as it might appear among these others. Tucked away among the trees, it would read, "If you can read this, then you are standing on my chest."


Happy Halloween.


Jack Riepe

October 31, 2007

Sunday, October 28

Baby shower . . .

Brief: My daughter-in-law is expecting a son -- Kiran -- the end of January. Today, her sister and the wife of my son's cousin (the pretty lady with the baby below) threw her a great shower.
"A new baby is like the beginning of all things -- wonder, hope, a dream of possibilities." ~Eda J. Le Shan"When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself . . . That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life." ~Stanley KunitzIn case I haven't mentioned this, I can hardly wait for Kiran to get here.

Tuesday, October 23

October moon





I like to think that the moon is there even if I am not looking at it,”
said Albert Einstein. But who could resist looking at this moon!

Today was my mother's 74th birthday.It was my son's third anniversary . . . and I got a present!

It was an early Christmas present from my son whose anniversary was today, but he's like that.Go ahead. Eat your hearts out.

Monday, October 15

Suzi Blu would be so proud . . .

I've been painting my journal pages!And playing with polymer clay. Love Laurie Mika's book Mixed Media Mosaics!This one is a total lift from the sweet and talented Misty Mawn. Did you see her page in the Artfest journal in the November/December issue of Somerset Studio (pg. 58)?I've also been making my tags for Silver Bella.

Monday, October 8

What can be done in three days?

You'd be amazed.I just spent three days experiencing the world the way we'd like it to be. Well, except for the cancer and the porta-potties . . . Everyone encouraged each other; they applauded the appearance of others; they picked them up when they fell; iced and bandaged their sore places; provided music and dancing and food and lots and lots of Gatorade. (As always, you can see more detail by clicking on the photos.)I was fortunate enough to be a member of the crew that supported the 2,300 Philadelphia Breast Cancer 3-Day walkers over their 60-mile journey this past weekend. Being a part of the crew that feeds, hydrates, and cheers on the walkers is hard work that allows for very little sleep, but it is so rewarding. They say, "You never feel like you count so much as when you’re being counted on this much."Yep.I walked the 60-mile event two years ago, and I know how much I appreciated the ever up-beat, sometimes wacky crew who coddled me through my event. It was a wonderfully surreal place in time then, as it was during this past weekend, and it'll take me a few more days to regain my cynicism.Such an interesting bunch of walkers, who came to the event from so many different perspectives: daughters, sisters, husbands, survivors . . . So many touching stories and moving moments.The enthusiasm generated by the 3-Day machine was contagious even to those who just happened across our path. Community support along the route was really impressive.Arriving at Holding and especially the Closing ceremony was such a powerful and emotional experience -- and our crew had the best seats in the crowd!Everyone raised a shoe when the survivors (wearing pink) walked in.Friends and family came from near and far to welcome the walkers back. It was really touching. At least most parts . . .The Philly 3-Day raised 6.5 million dollars for the cause. . .

Tuesday, October 2

Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Art . . . In An Open Car . . . by Jack

The first full weekend of fall presented itself like an executive summary of summer. Temperatures dropped politely, indicating another regime was in place, then climbed a bit so we could get used to the new world order in short sleeves. In the garden, the last of the summer flowers have given up all interest in social affairs, with the exception of several dozen pink roses, who were contrary in the summer heat. The last of the tomatoes are coming off the vines and my salads will be be in mourning until next July.

The garden is in transition now.

Fall flowers are but an RSVP, despite the roses. Still there is color. The butterfly bush is a mad scramble of purplish flowers that little white butterflies find intoxicating today. The last of the monarch butterflies turned up today, except for one that Stiffie (Leslie) found on the mulch. Leslie (Stiffie) and I had our first intimate conversation of the new season in the garden yesterday. With the withering of the summer growth, you can see under the bushes in places, and Stiffie (Leslie) has discovered where I have been tossing my expired cigars.

“Have you been throwing your cigar butts behind those peonies?” she asked.

“Atticus has,” I said, using a well-known orator’s trick for surprise to derail an unpleasant topic.

“Atticus does not smoke maduro’s,” Leslie said.

“Not all of your influence is positive,” I hissed.Atticus is a huge, smart German shepherd, who to prove a point, just got his learner’s permit.

Women find just enough good in me to think that I can be converted into something useful. Stiffie has reached the point where she is beginning to wonder, however. From time to time I have to throw her a curve ball to make her think twice about moving my stuff into the driveway. So every now and again, I suggest something in the way of an “art drive.” This is where we jump in her convertible, and I drive while she looks for scenarios that may lend themselves to artistic evaluation, exploration, or acquisition. Sometimes we find all three. Leslie has developed a fascination for cemetery sculptures -- particularly angels, standing atop crypts or pedestals. We found a nice one in the cemetery adjacent to Huff’s Church, in the village of the same name. She took pictures for a bit and wandered around, while I studied her in the field, always amazed at what she finds amazing.As I said in the beginning, the first full weekend of the fall arrived like an executive summary of the summer, and we put the top down on Stiffie’s car and headed out in search of art. Our first stop was a little cemetery for a church that had a hard time finding members in 1915. Some of the most recent graves were filled the year before I was born. Leslie found a statue of a saint, or a religious individual at least, standing atop the resting place of someone who must have been good, as the face on the statue seemed pleasant, and not disposed to lecturing.She also found a mausoleum with a great stained glass window in it, and copper doors.Yet Stiffie had a definite look of surprise as I headed north again with purpose or a good impersonation thereof, while the sun was definitely headed to the horizon.“Do you have a destination in mind?” she asked. The unspoken half of this question is, “Or do you intend to drive around aimlessly hoping something of interest will spring up that you can take credit for?

As a matter of fact, I did. This is not always the case. There are many times when I could drive for hours just pleased to be out. But this wasn’t one of them. Our road had left the valley and wound up to the shoulder of a ridge that appears to run for miles. Forty minutes of dried corn fields, neat pumpkin stands, and herds of contented cows later, the gravel driveway of the Blue Mountain Summit Bed and Breakfast, Restaurant and Bar crunched under the wheels. This quaint place is located where the Appalachian trail crosses Rt. 309 in Pennsylvania.

Stiffie paused in the parking lot, mesmerized by an apple tree and a crab apple tree that had mingled their branches, so that it appeared to be one tree with two kinds of fruit.“What do you think of that?” she asked.

I had to think about this for a minute. With Leslie, you can never tell if these inquiries mask a trick question or an I.Q. test.

“I think these are the sort of trees that could conceive a murder/suicide pact,” I said. This was the wrong answer, apparently.

The taproom of the Blue Mountain Summit Restaurant, B&B, is dark, cool, and soothing. I do not think it is a coincidence that great bars and timeless cathedrals share a similar atmosphere. Leslie opted to sit outside, which was the right answer.

“Outside” presented us with a garden (also in transition) an outdoor bar, and some 40 people waiting for the band -- Lizard Creek -- to start tuning up. Stiffie brightened perceptibly. Some in the crowd were wearing berets and do-rags. There were a couple of hikers in from the Appalachian trail. There were kids. And most of the guys were in their muscular 30’s or early 40’s, with the aura one finds in the ancestors of pioneers.The band cranked up and played Celtic music designed to warm the heart and light the fuse of the average Finian. I found the music to be lively and uplifting . . . “And much better than most of the bands we heard in Ireland,” said Stiff.

The kitchen did justice to dinner. And it was during the main course that Stiff called my attention to a couple of hikers sitting up close to the band.“Look,” said Stiff. “She’s writing in her journal.” The woman, a wholesome blond, seemed to be writing away at something. A short time later, Stiff said, “Now look... She’s painting a picture in it.” And not long after that, Stiff noted the hiker late was photographing her work.

“Why don’t you mosey over there and introduce yourself to her,” I suggested.

Stiffie was aghast at the idea. “Suppose she doesn’t want to show me her work or talk about it.”

“Then why would she be doing it in front of 40 strangers,” I reasoned. “I’ll go and introduce myself.”

Leslie went back to the car to get her camera. On the way back, she stopped to photograph the apple trees. I sent the waitress down to the hikers with a round of drinks. When Stiff returned, they were sitting at our table.The blonde lady was Rachael Sorenson, a watercolor artist from Minnesota, hiking the trail from Lake Tiorati in Harriman, N.Y. to Port Clinton, Pa., a damn good stretch of a walk. Her hiking name is “Roadster.” Roadster would be completing her 2,174-mile trek of the trail with this stint.The wiry guy was Tim Fullam, a chiropractor from North Carolina. He hiked down from Tuxedo Park, N.Y. Another poke. His hiking moniker is “Tobias.” They were unrelated and had just hit this place at the same time. I introduced Leslie, and explained her hiking name was “Stiffie,” while I was known as the Lindbergh Baby.Rachael wasn’t writing in a diary at all, but painting a picture of the band. Stiff bought it.

It was still daylight when dinner was served. But the shadows crept out from the trees and had connected most of the dots when we said our good-byes. We left as the band wound down and the sparks of a great bonfire shot up. The first full weekend of fall had presented itself like an executive summary of summer . . . A summary that included angels, images of stained glass, trees joined in purpose, hikers, music and artists.There was a time when Stiffie would have looked at me and thought I had planned the whole thing. She knows better now. But I don’t mind being admired as the master of coincidence.

Jack Riepe
West Chester
October 2, 2007