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hmmm. hmmm? Observations, actions and connection points through art.


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Hamilton Residency 10: Manifesto.

Lightning: it is wise not to make a target of yourself.

Enlightenment: what you feel as you walk away, unharmed, if you successfully apply this to any dangerous situation.

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My Manifesto, then, as informed by the following list of encounters, ideas and experiences, as far as I can name them in the moment:

J.F. Martel, Guy Laramee, Brian Eno, Kate Raworth, Rebecca Solnit, Greta Thurnburg, Werner Herzog, my Masters study of Community Music, Rutger Bregman, hundreds of conversations and encounters with the valued people in my world, Nora Bateson and warm data, Donna Haraway and ‘making kin’, Carl Jung’s Red Book, Wassail! 2018, my nine portrait collaborators, the Cotton Factory Artist’s residency, Hamilton, Emerald Street, Georgian Bay, the Great Lakes, trust, love, betrayal, trauma, and four decades of good and bad artistic choices

To all artists, in all media and discipline, everywhere:

Do not ever paint, write, act, dance, direct or sing  for money.

Get paid, yes. But the primary objective of your work can not be financial compensation. In fact financial compensation is the least significant objective in making art.

(Read J.F. Martel’s Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice (2015). He’s right.)

Never starve for the sake of your ‘art’. That’s an old trap of an idea, and it never applied to you. Starving’s a waste of your time; figure out how to live and thrive, so you can work. Keep a weather eye on your ego; you need less than you think.

Werner Herzog put it this way:

“If your project has real substance, ultimately the money will follow you like a common cur in the street with its tail between its legs.”

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Do your work out of love and respect for your human self, and all other human & non-human selves who struggle, fail, make wrong choices, and right ones. Paint for the dangerously passive-aggressive narcissist in his fortress of victimhood; for the seventh generation Welsh sheep farmer who calls out Peta on social media for denouncing the use of wool.

Sing for the young girls and boys with multicoloured hair who are entering a life in which their bodies are commodity, where there is no such thing as physical, emotional or psychological safety.

It is all “We”. You are not separate from any of this; it is your job to include, to speak for.

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Artists are the ‘voice’ of a natural ‘We’, which includes all living species.

Write, for the clearcut trees, the hurricanes and the fires, the floods and the traumatic, catastrophic changes in this world. Paint for all refugees, of all species.

Act, compose, direct, for the bully boys and their muzzled wives who get elected so they can take an axe to our carefully crafted, compassionate safety nets. This too, is human, they are also “We.”.

Make art that supports indigenous voices that speak for and to the land – people all over this planet who claim their integrity and walk their talk, through centuries of genocide.  Learn how to be a good ally, on your own steam, without entitlement.

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Go direct. Look beneath the surface of things, then widen your gaze to see the larger context.

Take a straight, objective look at power and its misuse, at how abusive behaviour always always always originates in deep private, personal insecurity, unhealed trauma, fear. Paint the humanness of that. Hold difficult space for change.

Mind your tongue and use your ears – the ones in your soul as well as the ones on your head. Use your anger to find and name the difficult beauty in all that you see. Paint that.

Learn to walk away when nothing more can be done; always forgive as you do this.

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Stand in your truth, then express that truth, through action, through art. Understand that your truth is not a weapon, it’s a shield – for you and for those in your care.

A corollary:  Some people do not have a truth to stand in. Accept this. Forgive their choices, support them as they search. Do not let them borrow your integrity and claim it as their own – that is not a kindness.

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Do all of this, but also: connect, find relevance. Find ways for people to discover themselves in what you do, what you make, how you choose, what you choose. Articulate with clarity why any of it is important. Art is relational, connective: provoke and make space for honest discussion.

A corollary: divisive, abusive work is not art, it is propaganda. Do not indulge in easy smallness, or the exclusion of anyone.

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As Rutger Bregman, Ocasio-Cortez, Greta Thunberg, Rebecca Solnit and a growing ocean of people have realized, the “Us” of this world is endangered.

So. Find what you value, build ways to name and present the difficult beauty that We are.  Do this with love, and with hope, inclusively.

Make your work count.

 


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Hamilton Residency 9: Manifesto 2

Manifesto woman does not know what to do next.

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Baffling. Maddening.

Humbling. Ego-flattening. Intensely educational. I’ve made at least twenty clear plans for these pieces in the past three months of this residency, and the only one that has lasted the duration is Surrender.

I’m thinking this is at the root of what’s happening here.

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The first page after the Table of Contents in J.F. Martel’s Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice (2015) is entitled, “Manifesto”. It reads like a list of  ‘knowings’ that he has captured while circling ‘Art’ through time and his own experience. I recognize his fierce contemplation, his guard-dog reverence for the integrity of great art, his grateful surrender to the unsolvable, radical mystery of it.

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The first two pages of text are provocative, as manifestos are intended to be. He quotes Wilde,

The work of art is apolitical and free of moralism. “The Artist”, Wilde said, “is free to express everything.”
It is precisely the absence of political or moral interest that makes art an agent of liberation wherever it appears.

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I am in a state of surrender again, after another bout of contrivance and manipulation has passed (what Martel calls ‘artifice’). I’ve caught myself again imagining, then planning the end result of each piece so as to define clear, scheduled steps to take me, bathed in glory, to the finish line. Those drawings are always bad, forced, lifeless.

How many times have I erased them now? Doesn’t matter.

When I stop to think and write about it, I can see that it’s odd, the way I increasingly trust this process as the deadline approaches. Artists’ talk for the Hamilton Cotton Factory Residency is now three days from today. Every time I erase and re-draw, the pieces make more sense, the story is clearer. They’re better, so I’ll go with that.

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It is not my will that gives these pieces life. It is me getting my blessed ego and my busy mind the hell out of the way. Yes my hands, my eyes, my cello and my spiralling around and through the studio – read, write, hum, sing, sew, pace, meditate, curl up into a fetal position on the floor – whatever it takes to get lost to myself.

My training, my love of form and colour, media and texture – yes, with these things all in play I am active in my surrender to a larger thing I can’t name or see, like a midwife, listening for signs, ready to act in support.

There is no sense of time, I only know when I’ve got no more good energy to work with. That’s always later than sooner.

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Quebec artist Guy Laramee is tormented by the search for this place of ‘active peace’. His fine fine mind wants to write the treatise, first, to define what it is that he explores, and why. To name its function before it is formed. In his TED talk, Laramee, who for eighteen years has been sculpting exquisite landscapes out of old books, describes his experience of completing two masters degrees at the same time, one in Anthropology and the other in Visual Art. I can see him, bouncing like a ping pong ball between academic rationalities and emotion-based artistic sensibilities.

And yet his experience of making these pieces is like neither.  There is a third state of awareness that encompasses all things, which is where art is formed without artifice.

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Elizabeth Gilbert (famous for her book Eat Pray Love), maintains that this is the opened state where genies can connect the work, through you, to the wilder, more elemental world. This is, as she maintains in her TED talk, the origin of the word genius. We mistakenly apply this state to humans, as though they can access that heightened, elemental state whenever they choose – say, between cooking dinner and taking the kids to school.

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I like what this work teaches me, what Hamilton teaches, in odd and delightful tandem with the forest at my cabin on Georgian Bay.

When I began the residency in December I had an inkling that I would emerge from it transformed, but I could not have imagined how deep and radical the changes would be in me, and the way I understand and do my work. I do know and trust this: in three days time I will share the story, without art-speak and in the space of twenty minutes, to whomever wishes to hear it.

I’ll leave the last word with an excerpt from Martel’s 2015 Manifesto:

Art opposes tyranny by freeing beauty from the clutches of the powers of this world.
True beauty is not pretty. It is a tear in the facade of the everyday, a sudden
revelation of the forces seething beneath the surface of things.

Only the revelation of beauty can save our world.

 


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Hamilton Residency 3

My new middle name is Curiosity.  Like a little kid, mouth open: wow. huh? how come? really? Wow, really. Who?

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Strangely, it feels like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, living my brand new daily life in an arts hub in the old rather broken, semi-forgotten industrial sector of this big city where my Grandmother raised her children. Memory cells light up each night with twenty new names and connections, emails fly out daily from my computer to people I’ve just met, or want to meet. The work on the walls of my studio changes before my eyes as I try things I’ve never tried, make mistakes I’ve never made, sort through which ones to keep and which to release.

There’s a lot of trust in the air.

I’m deeply aware of my solitude, my autonomy, and grateful beyond measure for the opportunity to stretch myself well beyond what has become comfortable. In the sixth day of the first full -time week I’ve lived here, I can feel my thinking, my painting, my writing and my awareness shift as old belief systems dissolve. There are seven weeks left of this residency, and every one of them is glowing with promise.

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From school to studio; books to paint. It’s a complex shift in awareness and perception, I find.  The road from left to right brain is populated with circus performers and street musicians, frequented by students seeking their masters of illusion, lined with bright market tents full of tempting diversionary tactics. You quickly discover that only tourists stop at these, that it’s important to stay mindful and moving forward.

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It has taken a while to sort out who actually lives here, in the space between things predictably linear and things … shaped and sounded differently.  I’m finding that this right brain work is more about releasing what I think I know than applying any learned structure and experience to what I do, since the objective is to change and expand my understanding of what’s possible.

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Often the return to people and conversation is a shock. I’m happy to be reading the reader’s edition of Carl Jung’s Red Book (2009, Shamdasani, Ed.), which is providing some context for the conscious choice to enter transformative space, and be changed by it. A good ‘bridge’ book, as is Once Upon a Time, a short history of Fairy Tale (Warner, 2014), and The Heart of a Peacock, a collection of short pieces by Emily Carr.

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It’s been useful, occasionally, to dip into Art Lessons, Meditations of the Creative Life (2003, Haynes), or a bit of Emerson. Also to shut the whole thing down, go sit in a big chair at the Jackson Square cinema, eat popcorn and watch Aquaman.

Art heals, writes Sean McNiff. I agree, wholeheartedly. Nature heals too.

Now I’m surrounded by human nature, not my beloved lake and forest from last summer, and we humans are complex. Thank you Nora Bateson, for this 8 minute video, which inspires me to make my own, about what art work makes possible.

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In this place of broken sidewalks and boarded up warehouses we grow art, like sprouts push up asphalt. Slowly, bit by bit, but as surely as the sun rises in the east, artists take places like this and clean up old toxic abandoned soil, growing impossible things in impossible places because it is their nature to do so.

It is a reclaiming of health; I’m grateful to be part of the process.

 

 

 


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Listening Blanket.

I find myself looking back through eight years.

This is a lot like my recent experience of standing inside Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirrors.  There is no floor, no boundary, no anchor point, nothing concrete, just a feeling of wonder, rising into awe.

As I scan and assess these eight years passed through the lens of now, it is like that. Everything I had thought to be firmly rooted in permanence is changed. This includes me. It includes how and what I remember.

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Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2009

I think of Stephen Hawking, who died on the same day I visited Kusama’s rooms.  Who spent his life exploring the phenomenon of time, and published a book in 1988 which translated mathematical code for us.  In it he wrote, “You cannot predict the future.”.

He also wrote this: “The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.”. This I have more trouble wrapping my head around.  Perhaps Kusama offers clues in those infinity rooms. Maybe all that I no longer recognize after eight years of life is a form of living proof?

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Also Kusama. (please forgive my finger upper left)

In this house, where I have lived these past four years is a collection of things from two family ‘anchor’ homes which were dismantled and dispersed, in 2013 and 2015.  Also here is one lamp, two plants, books, a piano, a chair and a bed which come from another house I built (with my now-ex husband) from 2006 until 2013.  In the room above me are art supplies and equipment from my factory building studio which I opened in 2009 and closed in 2017 – another home dismantled and dispersed.

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studio, January 2017, with my friend Knuckles the wise polydactyl cat

On the walls here are paintings I’ve made from five solo art shows dating from 1998 through to 2014.  Three of them are directional paintings, West, East and North, that describe summers I spent in a ‘hut’ studio at the farm my parents gifted to my estranged sister and I in 2004 as Tennants-in-common.  After a prolonged and emotional struggle, my sister and I agreed to dissolve the joint arrangement in 2017.  As a result I no longer own any interest in the farm. Some of the trees I planted there are now twenty-five feet tall – they live their own complex story now, and will far outlive our little manouverings.

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The final room of Kusama’s exhibition  – these stickers have been/ are being placed by us, the visitors.  Over time, the physical things in the room appear to lose their form.  Another kind of dismantle/dispersal, where increase in entropy moves in the direction of time.

The paintings on my walls resonate differently than they did when I made them, as I gaze from this place of me, now.  My sense of ownership is radically different than it was when things seemed more concrete, more permanent.

Who was that woman who painted these things, I wonder?  The way I might wonder about a woman reading a book on the subway.

I find this liberating.

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Here’s what Oxford English Dictionary has to say about entropy:

  • Physics 
    A thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system.

    ‘the second law of thermodynamics says that entropy always increases with time’
    count noun ‘the sum of the entropies of all the bodies taking part in the process’

 

  • 2: Lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.

    ‘a marketplace where entropy reigns supreme’

 

  • 3:  (in information theory) a logarithmic measure of the rate of transfer of information in a particular message or language.

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I find I can relate more directly to the original.

Origin

Mid 19th century: from en- ‘inside’ + Greek tropē ‘transformation’.


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internal inquiry into a considered response

There’s no other way to heal, I think.

I’ve read this many times.  It is lodged in my blood now, where it often sings me awake at night, sometimes until dawn.  It is in my belly too, still mostly undigestible.

The difficulty lies in the difference between what my heart reads and what my head understands.  Or maybe that’s where the difficulty lies. I’m not sure yet.

We learn battle-readiness, to defend our tender new-budded truths.  We are misinterpreted; this can break our hearts.  We misconstrue, often to preserve the rightness of blame, the righteousness of feeling hard done by; this will initially comfort and inevitably constrict.  In the end the effect is the same:  diminishment and poverty. 

I can’t name all of the possible alternative choices, but they are known by their effect: gratitude, openness, expansion.  Love.

Oh, the bluster and the poverty of me!  As though what sparks my interest should dominate all else, till there’s no breath left in the room, and the small simple beautiful thoughts creep away to hide their perfect nakedness.  Lest they get burned by the mocking loud, the snorting judgement, the braying, betraying complaining whine.

I don’t regret this bluster- it has been an important tool for survival these many years.  I do amend it now that I’m out of survival mode:  more heed paid to the exquisitely naked, small simple thoughts.  The tiny observances, the two-way conversations held safely in trust.  All the time in the world to listen well, with love.

It is one of those nights – my blood sings me awake at 3am and now dawn sits pregnant in the east.  Sheets and sheets of luxurious rain cool street and soil after weeks of heat too strong for the season.  I am grateful for the known comfort of this natural balance, counterpoint to my tender-sore conundrum. 

What to do?  I ask the morning, as she emerges. 

In response, the rich rain sings of gravity, release, surrender.  

Family. We are family.  I have no good answer to this difficulty, for how can I be who I am not, even if who I am offends so?

So. Let the rain and the tears fall where they may, in gravity, release, and peaceful surrender.  May the good answers come over time like waves on the shore, with no urgency. Small and simple, held safely in trust.


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Research methods

This spring term has been spine-cracking difficult, not just because of the workload but because of what it’s transforming in me – a requirement of fulfilling what has been assigned:  Read the following ten books by next week; comment and engage in discussion online re same; define a research question and complete a lit review by the week after; build two presentations for the same two weeks 1. about narrative research 2. synopsis and discussion of a major thesis paper related to your subject….

…write a final Research Study Paper Proposal (35%) and hand it in by the end of June; change your mind about your own capacities for this work, now; imagine yourself as a much larger and more efficient person, now; sort out your philosophical and methodological tendencies; ask if you have any questions…

I come up for air to tuck into a quick poster design for a show at Leith Church in July. I realize as I make a poster using these photos that in July I get to rehearse, trade stories, laugh and cry with the persons in the photos.  Then we perform together. Who gets this in their life?!?!

poster draft, missing photo credits, and ticket information. Here is the former: Tom Thomson (Canadian 1877 – 1917), Soft Maple in Autumn, 1914. oil on plywood, 25.5 x 17.8 cm Collection of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ontario, gift of Louise (Thomson) Henry, sister of Tom Thomson, 1967, Photo credit: Michelle Wilson. Ann Michaels photo is ©2009 Marzena Pogrozaly; david sereda photo is © John Fearnall @ GoodNoise Photography. Also, you should come to this if you can. It will be more than magical.

I come up for air to meet my incredible lifelong friends at Summit Place retirement lodge where my dad is, and stumble through some challenging but lovely music. Little Fugue, Brandenburg III, Danny Boy.  Dad cries, as he always has when I play for him.  Another resident tells me afterwards that listening to us play blew the dust off his soul.

porcupine teenager, retreating after I asked him firmly to stop eating the plywood at the shore bothy. They kept coming for hours, until I firmly shooed his mama (HUGE) with a few stones, and brought all plywood inside, at 3am.

I come up for air and find myself waking at the shore, staring at an endless infinity of my friend, the Bay, who is so much a part of who I am

I come up for air and find myself playing Sibelius and the Bach Double in the midst of a high school orchestra in Meaford

I come up for air, blink my astonishment at the world, then dive back in to a deeper understanding of how much I don’t know, dive again for pearls of transformation.  Find my gills, drink humility again and again, knowing it is elixir.

 

 


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old becomes new

Cold toes, bruised ribs from this wiry pull-out mattress, the roar and scrape of post-christmas industrial traffic three floors down.  I keep my eyes closed and read last night’s snowfall from the speed of the passing plough: maybe two inches.

A truck beeps itself backwards into the garage, shovels scrape pathways to retail:  Not a snowday then; We are open for business. I’m tired beyond measure from seasonal work, christmas effort, road trips, and navigating the annual ocean of paper, plastic, wrappings, cups and boxes; private aches, public belly laughs, snow bruises, exhilarations and odd behaviors.  I’d much prefer to be waking in my bed at home, where there’s a bath for slow entry into the day, a kitchen to make simple breakfast in.

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Nevertheless, I have deadlines to meet.  In answer to this, the dawn light pours in through eastern windows to spill on the floor: it’s beautiful here. I feel the call of possibility, and the rituals begin – fold up the bed, start the kettle for coffee, pad down the long hallway to fill the water jugs, come back to play with the cats while my coffee brews.

My studio, where I have worked and played for eight years, produced a hundred or more paintings, taught cello and art, designed, wrote blog, essay and books, rehearsed and performed music, read, edited, shared poetry, and built a rich and enduring collaboration with Knuckles the once-feral cat (who I will love ferociously and tenderly all my life long).

It’s late November 2016 and I’ve not yet decided to dismantle and reinstall it in the spare room at home.  It still feels like I’ll be here for a long time yet; content and safe in the art factory.

Everything is white again.

Everything is white again.

This six-windowed room is on the top floor of an old building that once housed a ladies hoisery factory, managed and operated by my maternal great-grandfather, Walter Keebler*. At one point he employed 200 women here – women who previously could only find work as maids or cooks because until then only men worked in factories.  I imagine that when they found themselves working together, they organized, and sorted things that needed sorting. Women tend to do that, given a little empowerment.

My other great-great grandfather was the CEO of Kennedy Foundry which made propellers for most of the merchant marine in the great lakes.  From the roof of the Circle Bar building I can see where the foundry was.

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When I moved in eight years ago I stripped and refinished the floors, filled the plaster holes with durabond, painted the walls, stripped half of the moulding around the windows (why?  sentiment, I think – it’s just cheap pine), and foam-insulated the ceiling cracks. I got my materials and equipment out of limbo and set up – the first time I’d had a working studio in four years – SUCH a relief to have a space for my soul again.  Since then it has always answered my soul’s need for sanctuary, art factory, practise and rehearsal space, writing space and woman’s shelter – all the more rich because of the family connection.  I feel as though I’ve got to know my ancestor Walter Keebler, somehow.  His slow steady, his endurance and care.

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This week I am packing it all up and removing myself from here, because it’s the right thing to do.  The initial decision was made in answer to the interminable delay in settlement from my marriage (which officially ended late summer 2013), but the choice resonated in my bones: yes, it’s time to move on.  Like the lobster whose shell has become too tight, I need to shed this place so I can grow.

As my mind and heart changes through the work of this masters degree, so is my painting shifting.  I still love working large, but I’m in search of more playfulness, new techniques, new experiments, new media – these will start small, because I have less time after music work and school are done.  Moving studio will help that, as well as insuring that I have enough money for gas and groceries.  (an aside – I just heard a statistic that sent me reeling: Video here, worth watching. I’ll paraphrase – the average annual income for professional writers, musicians and painters in Canada is $6,000.  Yep – I made $6,600. last year, working all the time.)

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Still, my heart breaks each time I fill a box and take it to my car, each time Knuckles the cat looks at me so full of trust and love, each time I look at the bare walls and empty windows.

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What a wonderful, rich eight years it’s been.  Thanks, Great-Grandpa, for the Circle Bar.

*Walter was the descendent of german refugees from the 100-years war, granted asylum by Queen Victoria. She in turn sent her 8000 refugees to the colonies, where William Penn, English real estate entrepreneur, philosopher and early Quaker presided over a flock of immigrants.  His great-uncle Frederick fought with the 50th regiment (for Lincoln) in the American Civil War – we are transcribing his letters home as a family project.