Pivotal Points

Dressed in my blue patent leather pumps with kitten heels and blue coat with its swingy hem and oversized buttons, I had boarded the LIRR at the Farmingdale station. Now the train was rocketing into the East River tunnel to its destination in New York City.

I dug in my purse to check the ticket and letter. Did I have the right day? Did I have the right ticket? Did I have the subway token? I reread the letter (for the third time that day) addressed to me on stationery from Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

We are pleased to inform you that you are one of just 1,000 high school seniors from 537 schools in the New York Metro area to be awarded the 1967 “Lincoln Center Student Award” in recognition of academic excellence, qualities of leadership, and interest in the arts.

I am grateful to those teachers who took the time to nominate me for the award. I would attend free one ballet, one opera, one drama, and two concerts at Lincoln Center.

Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness.

 —David Brooks

At the concert hall, the opulent, multi-tiered chandeliers dazzled me. The plush red carpet hushed the lively conversation into caressing whispers. The fragrance of corsages, patrons’ perfume, and floral displays transported me to exotic lands. As I stood in the aisle, transfixed, the other audience members jostled me as they eagerly sought their seats.

This award was transformative, a pivotal point, one of several experienced in my teens and early twenties. They were signposts that directed the way to opportunity, hinted at new ways of being, revealed hidden talents, and breathed life into my plans and dreams.

Often, change starts as an act of kindness in the midst of adversity.

Grace was one of my “change agents.” She and her husband, long-time neighbors of my aunt and uncle, were a childless couple about 10 to 15 years older than my parents. Grace always had a big smile for me and frequently would invite me into her comfortable home for a sweet treat. She encouraged me to talk about my teenage concerns and interests. I thought that she, like many adults, was just being polite. I was wrong–she was genuinely listening and caring.

One year, when I despaired over the dismal state of my parents’ marriage, Grace wrote me a long, encouraging letter. She penned the words my heart needed to hear, “You have every reason to have hope despite the chaotic state of your family.” I am grateful for her willingness to speak a simple truth and help me see that I could aspire to have a fulfilling life beyond the family drama.

Another pivotal point happened at a Laundromat.

When you’re 21, working minimum wage jobs, renting a room with kitchen privileges in someone’s house, and struggling to pay for college one course a semester, thoughts of getting ahead are an exercise in frustration. I watched my high school friends move on to good jobs and careers, even marriage, and felt powerless to make a better life for myself…until I met Cathy. At least that’s what I call her now, because I can’t remember her name. Shame on me, because she was one of the most influential people in my life. She was an admissions officer at Hofstra University.

As we separated our “darks and lights” and chatted, Cathy heard my longing for a better future and took action. Later, at our appointments in her office, she helped me to complete financial aid forms. With her guidance, I received a full scholarship enabling me to complete my undergraduate degree and make the most of my potential. For that, I am most grateful.

 That best portion of a man’s life, his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.  

William Wordsworth

Have you been the recipient of an unexpected act of kindness? If so, how pivotal was it in your life?

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Pay Attention

Documentary photographer Arthur Leipzig died Friday, December 5. His provocative black and white photos of New Yorkers are celebrated in museum collections and books. Today, another street photographer, Brandon Stanton, is making his mark online in his blog “Humans of New York” with his vivid images of Big Apple denizens.

Both photographers know how to pay attention–to capture the standout moment, the singular person. These artists elevate the ordinary into a narrative, a commentary of their respective times.

That’s not what I do when I have a camera in my hand.

I struggle.

Photographing people on the streets is intimidating business. They’re walking, moving, busy. I’m fumbling with settings and dials, missing those Leipzig moments. I’m much too shy to approach, stop, and shoot them, like Stanton.

But I try.

2014 was a productive year of shooting for me on the streets of New York. Here are some of my attempts to include people in my photographs.


“Artist at 5 Pointz”

  “The camera is an instrument that teaches people 

how to see without a camera.”    

Dorothea Lange

Reflecting Pool with Mesh Overlay

“A Quiet Place” at Museum of Modern Art

“There is one thing the photograph must contain, 

the humanity of the moment”     

Robert Frank

C22-lorettas-a1-Heart to Heart Talk

“Heart to Heart Talk” at Lincoln Center

“In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. 

The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.” 

Henri Cartier-Bresson


“Honeymooners” at Times Square

“As we step into the holiday season, here’s a reminder to

pay attention to the people, places and things that

bring us to a place of joy and inner strength.

To not give up on creating beauty.

To watch out with the eyes of our hearts in our everyday lives.” 

–Sofi, The Art of Aging

  My goal for 2015 is to hone my skill–and confidence–to continue to capture the people who capture my attention. 

 What’s your creative goal for 2015?



(Sources for quotations: brainyquote.com.)

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Engaged in the Details

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”    — Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

Patterns, particularly those in nature, have always drawn my eye. 

More than a decade ago, my Kodak projector trays were filled with slides featuring repetitive man-made and natural designs: rope hooks from the Chesapeake Maritime Museum in St. Michael’s, Maryland; massive tree roots at Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Arizona; and waves of flowers at one of my favorite sanctuaries, the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.

Today, the PC’s memory is being maxed out with jpg and RAW files–many, photographs of patterns. The purchase of a dedicated macro lens (Canon 100mm f2.8) significantly enhanced my ability to capture the subtleties and drama of details–although shooting patterns need not be limited to closeup photography. Your wide-angle and telephoto lenses can isolate patterns effectively, too.

Banana Leaf 2

TIP: Identify the pattern you want to capture. Then, select a contrasting or differentiating element (a different color or a line) to break that pattern.

For inspiration, I scour books, blogs, websites, and Facebook.  Among the dusty library shelves of oversized books, I discovered the work of Eliot Porter. I admire his work not only for his grand, celebrated landscapes, but also for his views of nature’s complexities.

“When I gave up medicine for photography,” wrote Porter, “I first photographed only landscapes… Gradually I moved away from the preoccupation with views and become more and more engaged in the details.”

Read Nature’s Chaos which features Eliot Porter’s images.  Among the classic photos in that book, you’ll see “Wave-worn Rock” taken by Porter in 1972 in Iceland. Pebbles of all sizes are jammed into the folds of a massive rock faceted into wave-like patterns. It’s a study of pattern, texture, and tone–a tactile feast.

C22-lorettas-c1-Abstract Hearts

TIP: Select a pattern with strong color or line elements, as I’ve done here in “Abstract Hearts.”

Porter’s “Asters and Dead Beach, Colorado 1957” is my favorite image in that book. Delicate pink asters peek through the stark bone-white branches of a dead tree against a brilliant green background. Stunning! Porter explains, “Withering follows blooming, death follows growth, decay follows death, and life follows decay in a wonderful, complicated, endless web…”

This is why I enjoy macro photography so much:  It lets me see the amazing details in nature’s work, the minute patterns in tight quarters, the intricate landscapes within nature’s grand design.

C22-lorettas-a1-Fern Study

TIP: Line (in this case, curved lines), color, and repetitive elements are evident in my “Fern Study.”

To awaken your muse, check out By Nature’s Design by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty to view William Neill’s photographs of spirals, ripples, spheres, branching, and other patterns. (For more than 30 years, William Neill has produced stunning landscape images. In 1995, the Sierra Club awarded him the “Ansel Adams Award” for conservation photography.) 

Online, read Mike Moats’ “Tiny Landscapes” blog for practical advice to start or perfect your macro photography. And the WordPress blog, PAMphotography, offers several posts about the subject, including “Seeing Lines and Curves” and “Photographing Patterns in Nature.”

C22-lorettas-a1-Bark Abstract

TIP: In the absence of strong line or a differentiating element, select a pattern that highlights texture like my abstract “Bark Study.”

Bottom line, shoot what you love, whatever that subject may be…but try keeping “an eye out” for patterns. 


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The Importance of Cloud Factories

No one would mistake a suburban backyard 26 miles from midtown Manhattan as wilderness. My husband, the family gardener, has created a sanctuary for us from a profusion of so-colorful-they-hurt-the-eyes annuals and perennials. The modest fenced property is our quiet escape from the relentless Long Island traffic and crowds. But it is not soul-satisfying wilderness.

Pictures shared by a Facebook photographer friend Desi were a stark reminder just how far removed from wilderness I am. She steps out of her door in Oklahoma, walks down the road, and enters a lush landscape of forested hills and the proverbial shaded glens teaming with wildlife and wildflowers. Seeing her images, my hearts aches for what it’s missing, what I, too, have experienced firsthand in the wilderness.



My initial encounter with wilderness was in Badlands National Park, 224,00 acres of rugged beauty in South Dakota about 75 miles east of Rapid City. For a metro area New Yorker, that translates to, “in the middle of nowhere.”

At dusk, my fellow traveler and I stopped at the crest of a rise. We waited for sunset, looking out at miles of a summer-brown moonscape, a roadless vista of buttes, pinnacles, spires, and prairie. Antelope (or was it elk?) crossed our view along the horizon, looking like a line of ants. We heard no sound. The sun set. The stars took center stage. No manmade lights were visible to compete with the twinkling star show. The line between earth and the heavens blurred.

My drug-free, alcohol-free mind began to float from my body. I drifted above and away from my physical being. I was infused with a calming sense of freedom, of letting go, of wholeness. Then, my consciousness kicked in, I got scared as hell, and my soul and body slammed back together, shaken by the extraordinary sensations.

My friend and I weren’t on a vision quest. We weren’t looking for vortexes. We were just tourists, stopping to see the sunset in a wild place. And I was given a gift—because I’ve come to see that singular transcendent experience, however short, as a gift. The powerful feeling still resonates with me today. I can call upon it when I need to find calm, safety, reassurance, peace.

I am reminded, too, of that gift each time I venture into wilderness, for example, when:

  • (cliché alert) viewing the Grand Canyon for the first time
  • questioning “What is that moaning noise?” on the Mount Lemon Trail in the Coronado National Forest, only to realize it is the sound of wind sweeping up the mountain
  • marveling at the sight of the enormous bulk of Mount Rainier’s summit winking through the clouds at me as I walk the wildflower meadows above Paradise

    Mount Rainier

    Mount Rainier 1989

  • photographing the ever-moving line of skittish shore birds as they race along the pristine beach of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia

    Bay Bay National Wildlife Refuge

    Bay Bay National Wildlife Refuge

  • sharing a mutual “what’s that?” stare-down with a red fox on the Arizona Trail.

Being in wilderness grounds me in a fundamental way. As John Updike wrote in his introduction to Walden by Henry David Thoreau:

“We need the tonic of wildness…We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features…We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

Sadly, my wilderness wandering days are coming to an end, due to the hobbling pain of spinal stenosis. My spirit, too, suffers at the hand of this degenerative condition. Although I’ve moved on to other satisfying activities, I do not get a wilderness “fix.”

Witnessing nature’s glory from a car seat or from the manicured level path around a lodge, while nice, just isn’t the same as being in wilderness. I still yearn to be near the “cloud factories,”* to recharge the natural resources of my spirit, to be open to the gifts I still might receive in the wilderness.

Has being in wilderness affected your spirit, physical being, or outlook? Do you suffer from a chronic condition that prevents you from doing what you enjoy? How do you compensate for that loss/change?

*Henry David Thoreau referred to Mount Katahdin in Maine in, what is now, the more than 200,000-acre Baxter State Park as a “cloud factory.”

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Debt of Gratitude

Retirement is a treasure hunt. I was eager to start this journey of exploration, but I didn’t anticipate that the first stage would be so difficult, namely, leaving colleagues behind.

After 32-plus years of working in the marketing and corporate communications field, I found stepping over the threshold into retirement to be a trying, even sad, experience.   

That sadness, however, has given way to a deep sense of gratitude for all those who blessed my working years with their personal and professional gifts.

I now have the luxury of time to assess the impact my colleagues have had on my career. I truly appreciate their support, camaraderie, and the lessons they taught me.

Take, for example, Leila. She taught me that having a good reputation is a valuable business asset.

Laura and Judy were adept at nurturing connections and a network, a practice that paid dividends.

Robin’s actions pointed me in the right direction–be yourself, keep a sense of humor, and deliver an excellent product every time.

Linda M.’s example was straightforward–creativity and business sense are an unbeatable competitive advantage.

Camille made it plain:  There’s no substitute for good writing.

Joe taught me that integrity, coupled with a keen intelligence, leads to a long, productive career. 

Claire helped me understand how true this was:  No matter how unreasonable the deadline or how complex the assignment, we’ll get it done and get it done right because we’re professionals.

Linda B.’s message became apparent to me over time: Writing is craft and art.

Bob took me under his wing and, in doing so, modeled how a business relationship can work well.

Tina demonstrated that fierce loyalty and generous service to community are the cornerstones for decades of success.

Myron coached me to watch the bottom line and get the most for my money.

Candace showed me why women should be unapologetically assertive in business.

Their lessons resonate with me, even as I journey on without the pleasure of their company.

After I publish this post, I’m sure I’ll think of other colleagues to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.  

Whether you’re retired or still working, to whom do you owe a debt of gratitude and why?




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Blueberry Hill

The Louis Armstrong House and Museum is a place I’d been curious about for some time, but I didn’t expect the visit to be the poignant experience it turned out to be.

My husband Andy and I were joined by a friend, Maddy, to venture into Corona, Queens, New York, within walking distance of Flushing Meadow Park, not far from CitiField where the New York Mets play. It’s a surprise that such a world-famous musician lived on 107th Street, an unassuming, tree-lined street. Homes on the narrow, crowded street have bars on the windows. Some of the row and free standing houses on the block are well kept; others, ill kempt. A mixed bag—so characteristic of Queens.

The unisphere at Flushing Meadow Corona Park, a former world's fair site.

The unisphere at Flushing Meadow Corona Park, a former world’s fair site, within easy walking distance of the Louise Armstrong House.

The Armstrong compound occupies two house lots—one is an oasis of a garden with a cool retreat under a canopy of trees. Benches line the grassy area, and a picnic table stands on a patio near a small pond. Concerts are held in the garden each summer. The museum was in, what once was, the home’s garage and basement, but across the street two more lots are being cleared to build a dedicated museum.

Armstrong had amassed a voluminous estate of music and documents which is now archived at Queens College, but which will be moved to the new museum when completed. The memorabilia on display was modest in quantity, but fascinating: instruments, letters, photos, mementoes from all stages of his career.

On the guided house tour, we were accompanied by two young tourists from China and a New York-based musician/music teacher. Seeing the house was a step back to the 50s and 60s. The décor was well preserved. The living room had wonderful items commemorating the Armstrong’s global travels. The gold-plated furnishings in the bathroom were some of the few luxury items that you’d expect to find in a celebrity’s home; otherwise, the appointments and details were modest by today’s upscale standards.

Mom and Dad at beach 1948

Mom and Dad on the beach at Atlantic City on their honeymoon.

Armstrong’s office contained many show business references. In that intimate room, the docent played an original recording of “Blueberry Hill,” one of Armstrong’s hits. I got quite choked up hearing the song that my parents played so much when it was popular. The music transported me back to my Flushing girlhood home, ironically not far from Corona. I heard my father whistling the distinctive tune. I heard him singing the chorus, mimicking Armstrong’s voice. It was a rush of unexpected feelings—very pleasant ones, and I let them wash over me, remembering my father as a young, handsome, happy man enjoying his music.

The visit was a poignant few hours of nostalgia. How evocative music can be!

How has music unexpectedly had an impact on you?

Thanks for reading about my experience. How has music unexpectedly had an impact on you? Regards, Lettie

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