This was my “Best Nine” on Instagram for 2020. While these images never represent my favorite photos, this selection of “most liked” photos certainly represents our unexpected year…
What started out as an intention in 2019—to post a daily photo to Instagram—developed into somewhat of a habit in 2020. A “Writer’s Photography” I called it. In 2019, my daily photo posts were meant to refocus my thoughts and perhaps to find a moment of peace in a world that felt exceedingly chaotic. I wondered, back in the relatively naïve year of 2019, had we “reached the bottom” yet? And of course, I am writing this from the perspective of late-January 2021, and the easy answer is no. We haven’t. There’s still more growing to do.
In 2020, my photo posts were sometimes accompanied by a paragraph or two. Perhaps serious. Or silly. Sometimes just a pithy title, in the hopes of evoking a laugh or a mere distraction from doom scrolling.
Sometimes I wonder if posting photos to social media is a good thing. Or is it a bad thing? Am I sharing too much? Is it silly? Does anybody care? Do I care if no one else cares? Looking back on this hellish year, I am glad my “writer’s photography” has become a habit. In a year where the days and weeks blurred together into something outside of time, there were many world-changing events. I don’t want to forget any of it. For me, the balance in life has come from accepting the reality of what is. The good and the bad. Even if that reality is something we never imagined. Because in the end, life isn’t what we expect it to be, it’s what we allow it to be. And I see now it was okay to find the joyful moments. It was essential.
Metaphorical Thinking… heading to a funeral mass and thinking about impending war, politicians cheering the death of a man “responsible for hundreds of deaths” while they continuously fight to remove access to affordable healthcare to millions, the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade, mass animal extinction and hellish fires… as Johnny Cash sings a cover of “I Won’t Back Down”
This post references the American drone strike that killed the Iranian military leader, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the ongoing fires in Australia, and the continued shenanigans on Capitol Hill. That felt heavy enough. Could we even imagine the devastation ahead? Nothing like starting of the year with a funeral to ponder life. Yet still I wonder what I was thinking when I posted on the sixth of January.
No doubt. Our “fates” are plenty. I don’t know what the Woolf quote was from the previous day, but this was Carl Jung. And I think this pretty much sums up America circa 2020. And in exactly one year’s time… our lack of imagination (and all the stuff we thought we had kept buried as a Nation) would erupt on Capitol Hill in 2021.
While the New Year in Philadelphia generally starts with a drunken party on Broad Street, it was also a place for serious peaceful protesting throughout the year. Many of us were convinced our president was intent on “wagging the dog” by starting a war.
2020 was full of turning points. Before. And after. Before my mom died. Before Covid-19. Before lockdown. Before our dog died. Before the death of George Floyd. Before the viral video of his death. Before the outrage of too many murdered black men (and women) boiled over onto our streets. Before the politicization of mask wearing. Before the 300,000 Covid-19 deaths (as of December 2020). Before. Before. Before. When I looked back on my daily posts, I wondered how I could break down these turning points. Does it matter?
Before my mother died and before Covid… walks around my city were my salvation.
During this time period I was doing a lot of walking…and processing. On the above posted photo I wrote:
“I wanted to lie down and take a nap. Alas, I did not.”
Truthfully, I was exhausted. During all that walking I was talking to the Universe. Spirit guides. Ancestors. Dead relatives. Basically anyone I thought might want to provide guidance. My mom’s health was failing. She was in denial. She lived with my husband and me. I watched helplessly as she struggled. She went back into the hospital. The third time in 12 months. I sat looking out the window of my mother’s hospital room…
Feb 13: When you ask the Universe for clarity and you basically get this…
“I apologize for the pseudo-vague-booking… but what if I told you the Coronavirus pandemic wasn’t the worst part of my day?“
So yeah, February and March were as shitty as it gets. Long story short, we weren’t allowed back into the rehab facility after that day. My mom died, unexpectedly, two days later. I am purposely not going into details here. But if you are interested, I wrote an essay about this time period. It will be published in May 2021 by New Door Books in an anthology entitled Slow Going.
My mom was gone and suddenly we were locked down. I was nominally in mourning. I mean, how do you mourn when the rest of your family is across the country and you can’t be together? And you find yourself in the middle of a pandemic? Lockdown was actually a gift. I didn’t have to “do” anything. I didn’t have to see anyone. I didn’t need to make excuses. I could just be.
Staying inside and away from crowds is basically how I lived through my leukemia journey. I watched the world from my bedroom window for years. Trust me, YOU can do it. For those who are able, take advantage of your privilege and don’t complain.”
Of course, in times like this, you take comfort in your family. My family consists of my husband and our furry soulmates.
Miss Josephine is always a favorite target of my camera. And during the start of 2020, it was no different. I knew quarantine meant increased cat photos… and I literally posted #sorrynotsorry
Feb 22: On #nationalpetday I posted this:
“Say the magic word… today we celebrate 10 years of Josie and 12 years of Rufus (last week)”
Of course I anthropomorphize my cat. Watching her move through our home, she often illustrates my own moods.
“Josephine has always been good with Social Distancing…she loves watching me through the kitchen window”
“Josie has found a new favorite chair of late… between our family loss and this quarantine, the household balances are shifting. What subtle changes are occurring in your household?”
“… the grief that comes to us is proportionate to the love and is inescapable.” –V.S. Naipaul
“Today we said goodbye yet again… this time to our beloved good boy Rufus. He was one of the most soulful beings I have had the honor to spend time with. He had friends all over, all of whom I know will miss his presence around the ‘hood. He had a good long dog life. And loved nothing better than going on adventures with his favorite person (Chip). Thank you all for the good wishes these past few days…I told Rufus everyday how much he was loved.”
April 10: Universal Grief
“It’s difficult to grieve in a time of grief. I tell myself, take your time. Everyone has something to grieve at present. Loss of a loved one, security, a job, freedom, routine, hope, faith. Everyone is struggling. I watch our cat Josephine mourn the loss of our dog Rufus. I now remember she had spent everyday of the last decade with this other furry soul. Her entire life. Of course she’s not okay. She has found a new sound to share her grief. A deep guttural mewling that has appeared from some deep newly discovered place within her being. She sits at the front door and next to the dog’s bed. Waiting. Watching. Wailing. She pulls the hair out of her back. (A nervous habit she occasionally suffers from.) She bats around a discarded tennis ball, hoping her friend will come steal it from her clutches like he always did. The difficult part of grief is not being able to make it okay for the ones you love.”
From “the Before times” … when I dreamed of escaping winter and going on vacation…
Who would have imagined that this would be the one and only “date” I’d have with my husband? It was our anniversary. We couldn’t really “go” anywhere, so we just drove to the town where we were married. Doylestown. This photo might be my favorite of the entire year. Not everyone gets the joke. My husband is a good sport.
And quickly, we were in the “after times”… In the middle of grief. And more grief. And Covid-adjustments… I kept posting what I saw. Sometimes what I felt. A few brief walks. Whatever was sitting on my countertops. Whatever I saw out my windows. We started hanging out on our roof. And my tiny little city garden started to bloom.
My insomnia actually paid off. I entered this photo into an online photography contest held by the Fairmount Waterworks. It was a first-place winner and I received a $100 Amazon gift card. Who says the early bird gets the worm?
We thought it was all going to be temporary. We’d soon be back to normal. We didn’t realize some things would never be the same. Zoom. Remote Learning. Work from Home. Technology was essential. But what I noticed first was the absolute quiet. It was eerie.
“Palumbo Rec Center is normal buzzing with countless kids and baseball & basketball games on a warm Spring day such as this. Walked thru the Italian Market… lots of pretty produce. Brought home a lb. each of grapes, mushrooms, and radishes for $4.50 total.”
“When your genealogy class takes a bathroom break… who else is finding it fascinating to see what the inside of people’s homes look like? Does the “background” match what you imagined?”
“Observations on a 70° Friday Afternoon… it seems like every Philadelphian became a runner overnight, dogs don’t understand why they are no longer allowed to sniff & greet each other, Philadelphians are having happy hour withdrawal… some are walking with cocktails in hand whole others are having stoop cocktails, and some people still don’t understand what 6 feet looks like.”
“Back in February, when my only “crazy” was a mama in the hospital, insomnia-induced scrolling led me to a big sale from my favorite shoe company. I treated myself. Since their arrival weeks ago, these shoes sat in their box. Untouched. Until today.”
Apr 7: One Last Gift
“I have been waiting. And watching. Knowing this day would arrive. It’s been so quiet around our household and I haven’t really felt my mom hovering since her earthly departure. But somehow in her infinite wisdom, she took time last Fall–between hospital stays–to order tulip bulbs. When they arrived, she told Chip in which pots to plant them. She wouldn’t tell me the color. It will be a surprise she said. Today I learned the answer. I have been craving flowers and color in our little backyard… today I am enjoying these beautiful pink tulips.”
Spring was blooming. I was noticing the smallest of changes. And I was becoming less comfortable out on the streets, and much more comfortable just hanging out in my garden space. The contrasts are striking. Sun and rain. Inside and outside. Light and dark. Beauty and chaos (?)
“Yesterday my tree was full of fat blossoms buzzing with countless bees. This morning the tree seemed full of fairy lights as the sun glistened off the raindrops clinging onto all the new leaves.”
“Neighbor cat William has been stopping by our fence for frequent visits… he hits up both Chip and me for treats, but only once a day from each. He’s quite polite. Josephine still doesn’t mind sharing. I think she enjoys the visits too.”
“Took a quick garden break looking to refocus away from the overwhelmingness of it all. Why do some days feel so incredibly heavy? Whatever lies ahead… we cannot know. But in the meantime, I await the arrival of the lilies. They didn’t bloom last year. I cannot even remember their color.”
Apr 23: The Yellow One
“I have been watching these tulips out my kitchen window for almost three weeks now. As they weathered the storms, swaying in the winds and pounding rains. Arched gracefully towards the South. Towards the warming sun. As they closed up in the evenings and revealed themselves anew each day. It was the tulip ballet. Before they bloomed I anticipated their color, as my mom had held it secret from the time the bulbs were planted last Fall. We were convinced, my sister, my husband, and I, that my mom–who called this patio space HER “office” that she had chosen yellow… as a joke, because I always begged her not to plant yellow flowers. And when they bloomed in an array of my favorite pinks and oranges, I was pleasantly surprised. As I originally posted, it was one last gift from my mom. And suddenly, two days ago, what popped up, weeks after all the others? One singular yellow tulip. As the others are nearing their last days… this one yellow tulip has newly emerged and appears to be claiming the spot of “last one standing.” Yup. My mom got the last word.”
Was true boredom starting to prevail? Or was I accessing a previously unavailable creative space? The Met Museum started a viral photo trend showing people dressing up and recreating works of art. That’s when I had an epiphany.
“My broken orchid branch has been acting quite dramatic… I kept envisioning it dancing like Martha Graham, but thanks to the @metmuseum I now know it’s been channeling Harriet Whitney Frishmuth’s The Vine.”
During May we dreamed of tall ships and far ports… but settled for gin & tonics. We took walks close to home and I stayed focused on my garden. Extra focused. My photo of Josephine on Day 70 of Quarantine is a great illustration of the brain fog in which many of us found ourselves.
By by the end of the month everything was about to change. My “faerie lights” post seems like wishful thinking. An unanswered prayer. Everything that had been buried was about to explode. Literally and figuratively. A nation on lockdown became aware of the brutal murder of George Floyd through a viral video. Can anyone forget this man calling out to his mother? Can anyone forget watching while another man used his knee to keep George Floyd pinned to the ground?
It wasn’t an immediate reaction. It was sort of a slow burn. On Friday night we took a walk around the neighborhood. I can’t remember if there were yet rumors of protests or riots. But the energy was fraught. At least for me, but it was more about the party atmosphere in the middle of a pandemic.
“Headed down South Street, naively assuming it would be a ghost street. Lorenzo’s and Ishkabibble’s had takeout lines… by far the longest line though was Fat Tuesdays dispensing “cocktails-to-go”… which really meant take your cocktail and drink it with your buddies on the corner. You can also stand on the corner eating ice cream. I saw one single bike cop cruise quickly down the street. There is no effort at social distancing anywhere and perhaps 30% mask use at best. I mostly walked in the street, dodging cars, to avoid the groups.”
From our roof overlooking Center City, the atmosphere morphed from celebration, to a moment of relative calm, to outright chaos.
Once again, Josephine had it right. She took to a produce box while looking up at the chaos playing out on the nightly news. And the streets around us where suddenly a ghost town with their storefronts boarded up. We’d become accustomed to an occasional ambulance siren and increased traffic onto Jefferson Hospital’s helipad. But now the sound of sirens and helicopters overhead was unrelenting.
“Short walk around the ‘hood. All major drug stores & retailers are boarded up. Sirens still popping up, headed in all directions. An unabated drone of helicopters. Old City closed down with rumors of bombs targeting the National Monuments, unrelated to the current peaceful protests at City Hall.”
Everyday life continued. Our Covid-adjusted reality was now accompanied by a quite visible social justice plea. I think of that saying about the Universe providing you “a whisper” which grows louder the longer you ignore it, like a leak in your roof… drip, drip, drip, and then suddenly your entire ceiling caves in. Who are the people who say “Oh, I had no idea there was a problem?!” Those same people who said “stop making football political” as they denigrated the men who were peacefully kneeling in protest. A whisper.
One of the most amazing transformations came about on Ninth Street, in the middle of the Italian Market. After the much contested statue of Philadelphia’s former Mayor Rizzo was removed from it’s location at the Municipal Services Building, a sudden groundswell emerged to remove his image from the mural on Ninth Street. It had been tried before. After years of battles, sudden it was gone. Poof.
“A non-local visitor couldn’t understand how profound this change is… what’s here and what’s no longer here.”
By the Fall, the newly named Piazza Di Bruno’s, was a popular destination for responsible (i.e. socially distant) cocktail hour. I don’t think anyone was imagining this outcome. And it seems likely to be a permanent change.
My neighborhood is full of black history. Some of it celebrated. Much of it buried. I can see one of William Still’s Underground Railroad locations hidden in plain site from my front door. On one of my walks, I felt the need to reconnect to some of the history I knew was memorialized. And remember how problematic it was for the enslaved at the President’s House to even be memorialized. I was happy to also come across a new mural.
“Does everyone remember how difficult it was for our city’s black community to have their voices heard during the building of the new Liberty Bell pavilion? This memorial was dedicated just 10 years ago. Did we learn anything?”
“A new addition to our neighborhood- Crystal Bird Fauset (1893-1965)- A civil rights activist, social worker, race relations specialist, and the first female African American state legislator elected in the United States, based in Philadelphia”
I actually discovered that before the time of the 1918 Pandemic, my house was home to black families who came north in the Great Migration, as well as to Italian immigrants. Sometimes at the same time. It felt important to me to write about my experience living in this particular neighborhood during this pandemic. On Love, Loss, and City Life During Covid-19 was published by Hidden City on November 2, 2020.
My city felt SO weird. Somewhere between resiliency and those who wanted to pretend like everything was fine. Calm seemed to have returned.
Gates are closed. Boarded up windows. Empty streets. Except for the homeless. And 13th street overflowing with outdoor diners and drinkers. So many weird juxtapositions.
1. Dark & Stormies on the roof
2. Pandemic hair
3. Wow… some fancy-ass roof decks are popping up in our neighborhood (there’s a pool! On the roof!)
4. And oh yeah… a military parade overhead
Lockdown: A pigeon. Takes up space on the roofline. Often. Fat. Common. Bored with my presence. It takes flight as I watch. Freedom. I am envious.
One of the gifts of this year has been a renewed sense of community. Especially when it comes to spending money. It’s “put your money where your mouth is” time. We did our best to support the efforts of our friends, our local favorites and businesses owned by BIPOC. I bought masks from my friend Joe who started a Chain of Kindness. I didn’t pay him, but instead donated to the Monkey and Elephant Café. My friend Jennifer gifted me a certificate from one of her favorite restaurants. My husband’s t-shirt collection grew as we supported several fundraisers. All of our treats…pies, chocolate , booze, beer are locally produced.
The crazier the world felt, the happier I was to stay inside and focus on my tiny little magical garden:
There’s a spot in my garden that delivers two distinct views. I can look right towards the pots of flowers, or focus upward at the open sky. One day felt hopeful. One day felt impossible. It was a minute to minute thing some days.
May 29: “Holding space and sending love to those who need it most. Imagining the world I want to see around me. Imaging a place where beauty blooms everywhere.”
May 30: “One fluffy little cloud for a heavy f**king day”
I felt silly posting flowers when the world was on fire, but several friends reached out to encourage me to continue. One said it was her salvation. Okay then…
“For Judith who asked for a wee bit of salvation: A storm-battered gerbera for cheer, rosemary for healing, thyme for protection, mint for wisdom, lavender for serenity”
And then this happened… meet Hazelnut. She came home to us on the 25th of June. Yup! #pandemickitten
Miss Josephine wasn’t quite sure what to think (she still isn’t)… but she’s had to get used to sharing “her” spaces with this new little being. Hazelnut just wants to be wherever Josie is.
So, yeah… my posts just sort of alternated between kitten/cat and flowers. Safe and sound at home.
Of course we got to the not unexpected kitten/cat/garden crossover stage…
But mostly I was obsessed with our new kitten. And her paws. Her paws are ridiculous.
The most important question we had:
“On International Cat Day we ponder lofty questions… such as how long will it take this one to grow into her paws and ears?”
I continued to document cute moments and her obsession with the cat. And that one little paw she could never keep to herself.
And suddenly… it seemed she had grown into her ears (almost!) It breaks my heart a bit.
A bit of a more balanced repertoire started to appear as Fall approached… walks/roof/cats… I continued trying to avoid unmasked runners. I would stay in “lockdown” because we’d all be free again soon…right? September always represents change for me. I was ready for change.
Tensions were building…and in October we had one thing on our minds…
1600 Block of Iseminger Street
Maria Moller created VOTE in collaboration with graphic designer Luci Morreale. This street level exhibition transforms protest photos taken in Philadelphia in 2017 and 2018 into 15 get-out-the-vote posters for the 2020 Presidential Election.
In October we celebrate “Be Nice to Black Cats” month, but given the prevailing anxiety over the state of our nation, Miss Josephine would like to express some thoughts to help us all make it through the coming days:
1. It’s easy to be misunderstood. Through time, black cats have been blamed for bad luck and being the tool of witchcraft thanks to their association with crafty educated women. Just because someone taught you to believe something, doesn’t make it true. Think for yourself.
2. Maintain your boundaries. It keeps you healthy. People will try to fill the space you hold for yourself, but YOU can control who you associate with. This is especially true on Social Media. Be thoughtful about who you allow in. Hissing can be helpful. Claws may be necessary.
3. October is one of the best months of the year. It often brings us the most beautiful weather and there’s all those gorgeous Fall flowers. Take time to enjoy it.
4. When life feels overwhelming, find a safe spot to tune out and take a nap. Catnaps make everything better. Sunny spots are highly encouraged.
6. Tell your favorite black cat how much you love and appreciate them. (And don’t forget the extra treats.)
“I was trying to decide what the look on Jen’s face conveyed… I was compelled to capture the moment.
Our socially distant lunch date conversation included the ephemeral nature of legacy, the scarcity of empathy, and the tricky balance between acknowledging the chaos of our current circumstances with the desire to live your best day.
Seconds after I took this photo, a large squirrel came flying through the air (down from the high branches above), missing my head by an inch and landing on my toes. He scrambled away and left us in hysterics.
There must be a German word for this moment I said… somewhere between absurdität, entschlossenheit, and weltschmerz. What’s the word?”
Pandemic “getaway” AKA Quarantine Quickie in a Quintessential New England Town (Portsmouth, NH)…
I felt guilty for taking a “vacation”… but it was more “jumping in the car” to accompany my husband on a business trip. We packed a cooler of food with cheese and hardboiled eggs. We stayed in a hotel for two nights. There was no “maid service” just lots of “Lysol” stickers indicating what had been cleaned. We basically just walked around town because mostly everything was closed except for the retail stores and a few restaurants. We had a great seafood lunch outside, socially distant, overlooking the water. Portsmouth is a beautiful town full of all the things we love. The townspeople were quite accommodating and fully-masked. Only a couple of rude tourists broke the pandemic protocols… middle-aged men who couldn’t be bothered to put their masks over their noses…and a stupid, loud lady who wore a “defund the media” t-shirt.
Back at HOME! I heard live music on the streets of my neighborhood. Oh how I miss live music. Outdoor cocktail gardens are a thing Philly has embraced big time. Philly is a place good things happen. Bad ASS things happen here. And when the votes were being counted… we danced in the streets.
Nov 4: (the day after the election…)
“Boarded up. Open for outdoor dining. Empty storefronts. New construction. Worries of riots. Kids playing in the park. Protest. Counter-protest. Oh my city, you are full of contrasts today.”
The Saturday after the election… when they finally called it for Biden…I was home alone. I needed to get out of the house…
Nov 11: Love Over Fear
“Is it just me or does it feel like the light has changed? I took a solo meditative walk around my ‘hood this afternoon. There is much jubilation… from corners, to balconies, to small alleyways, there are folks celebrating. Spontaneous cheers and honking. It’s difficult not to high-five or hug every person you pass.”
The Presidential Election was over… we all attempted to take a deep breath. How many days until the Presidential inauguration? I tried to refocus my nagging anxiety toward the leaves outside my windows… and created some bad poetry. No matter. It made me feel better.
Just before the November rain
I harvested the last
Nothing lasts forever
Yet this sweet bouquet was
A lovely last hurrah
November’s Refrain #2:
When will the leaf drop?
The leaves rattle
The wind whips
Clouds crowd the sky
From the bedroom floor
Imagining the moment
When the next leaf
Yet still they hold
Nov 26: Thanksgiving Day
“Perfect weather. Sunny. Mid-60s. Slow ambling. Ginkgo season. Thanksgiving day. Hanging out with my person. My person thinks cooking a full-course turkey dinner is fun. I made the table look pretty.”
Winter approaches… already back in hibernation mode. Post-holiday Covid spikes will be here soon. I am not playing. It’s December. In a very weird year. We’ve decided not to decorate the house. I hang a wreath on the front door. That feels like a lot of effort. We decide not to exchange presents. I send my sister a box of goodness from DiBruno’s. We make our neighbors homemade “holidaze” horseradish. We make gingerbread cookies. I never decorate them. No requirements for the holidays feels like relief.
“Nothing says Christmas more than a bouncy castle and a giant Olaf on your roof.
Note: I WANT a giant Olaf on MY roof.”
“It never ceases to amaze me just how much Philly folks enjoy outdoor brunching & drinking. Even in 30° weather. It’s not even sunny. I think this is now a permanent thing.”
And the Sun Sets on Christmas Day
And finally we come to the end of our annus horribilis. A year full of the mundane and the monumental. Nothing happened. Everything happened. I am grateful to have captured so much. Especially the meaningful changes. And to remember the souls who are no longer here with us. They deserve to be honored. And we deserve to discover joy in the small moments.
“So my husband wouldn’t allow me to come to dinner in pajamas… I actually put on mascara for this dinner. (It’s the least I could do.)
It was definitely worth the effort. First course was Manhattans & Oysters. Second was a mushroom & leek tart. Awaiting the third course of scallops, fingerling potatoes and greens.
Also, why would you wait for midnight to drink champagne?
We are taking reservations for post-vaccine Sunday dinners. Let me know your preferences and availabilities! XO”
P.S. See that little pipsqueak pictured above? Yeah. That happened too. If you follow me on Instagram you’ve already met him. Otherwise, stay tuned for the 2021 photo review!