Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.

The free spirit.

GCB-sailor edited

This hip chick is my mother.
The photo was taken around the time she began her career as a stay-at-home mom.

After giving my father credit for his hidden artistic talents (and at the risk of turning this forum into Joe’s nostalgia corner), I wanted to take a look at a different creative type.  If my father was a left-brain analytical, my mother personified the right-brain free spirit.

My mother had artistic ambitions. She was good with sketches, and I think I remember her working with pastels. But she was raising a family and it was hard to stick with it.

She was also a musician. She played the clarinet in the high school band (or faked it, as she would say, a skill I managed to master when I was in the band), and she was an excellent piano player. But she was raising a family and it was hard to stick with it.

She loved to write and was a master of the funny story. She wanted to be the next Erma Bombeck (a popular humorist of her day) and probably had the skills to pull it off. But she was raising a family and it was hard to stick with it.

Did I mention poetry? No, not the soul-searching free verse that is popular today, but poems that actually rhymed. And again, many were humorous. But she was raising a family it was hard to stick with it.

She also sewed and made clothes for the family. I consider sewing an art form, but for my mother, it was a necessary skill, one that she was able to stick with, because she was raising a family.

Like most right-brain thinkers, my mother had dreams of making it big, but they never panned out. Even so, at every stage of her life she was able to find contentment in the work that she did. Yes, she found happiness in her art, her music, her writing, her poetry. But she knew what was really important. It wasn’t a sacrifice for her to let her dreams take a back seat, it was her act of love for her family. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Times have changed. With more options available, many mothers are able to work outside the home, fulfill their obligations as a mother, and still find time to pursue other interests. Roles are changing, too. Stay-at-home dads are much more common and give women even more choices.

But my mother’s world was different. Still, one truth remains.

Our time is short and our work is ephemeral.

Know what really matters and make the most of it.

Sing to me a truth.

Someone once told me that he had broken up with his girlfriend and he was having a hard time getting over it. Except he said it like this:

Most of the time
I’m clear focused all around
Most of the time
I can keep both feet on the ground
I can follow the path
I can read the sign
Stay right with it when the road unwinds
I can handle whatever
I stumble upon
I don’t even notice she’s gone
Most of the time.

That’s from Bob Dylan.  His song, Most of the Time.

Larry Ellis had this to say about poets:

“A poet is a maker.  A poet is someone who attempts to convey meaning and emotion through the creative use of language.  A poet employs metaphor to spark the imagination and meter and rhyme to trigger the memory.  Would we have understood – would we have “gotten” – the meaning of the Vietnam war – as the songwriters wanted us to get it – without the music and rhythm and rhyme of, for example Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”

It’s part of an essay that he wrote making the case that the prophets of old interpreted and proclaimed the meaning of events, and did so in a poetic language that would drive home their message (or God’s message) and be remembered.  You can read the entire piece here.

Such a poet doesn’t look to the clouds to find inspiration in the ether.  The poet has something to say and is deliberate in the choosing and placement of words.

The poet says, much like Bob Dylan or John Fogerty or Jeremiah:

“Listen.  I have something you need to hear.”


Do your thing.

Eugene Bird at work

This young man is my father.
The photo was taken in the early days of his career as an electrical engineer.

In many ways, he is the stereotypical engineer.  He’s analytical.  He’s a logical problem solver.  He pays attention to detail.  He would be considered a left-brain thinker.  Creative types – your artists, musicians, actors, dancers – are generally considered right-brian thinkers.  If you think with the left side of your brain, you’d make a good engineer.  If you think with the right side, you might be a good writer.  And for much of what I remember about my father, this would seem to hold true.

When I was growing up, I don’t remember him doing anything very creative.  He was very much an engineer, and was a great (if sometimes intimidating) teacher of math and science to me and my sisters.

Most of his career he worked for Union Carbide and when they began to build new production facilities in Texas, he was transferred to Houston.  My family moved to Texas twice, and when he was sent to Houston for a third time, he opted to go it alone and not put the family through another move. So what does an engineer living by himself do in his spare time?

Golf?  Maybe jigsaw puzzles?  No.  He took up painting.  When he returned home we were astounded by what he had done. Among other things, he painted this scene of the old Morgan homestead near Winfield (WV), across from what is now the John Amos power plant.

eugene painting for web

As far as I know, he had never painted anything before.  There were other paintings, including a very lifelike portrait of Pittsburgh Steeler great, Mean Joe Green.

But when he came back home, he was done with painting.

In the 4o-some years since, he’s completed home improvement projects and done some woodworking, but not much that would label him as a creative type.

Then last year, my sister suggested to our then 86-year-old father that he should do pencil sketches of his great-grandchildren. He agreed.  Here’s one of the twins, Bear.

bear for web

For most of his life, my father has played the role of engineer.  He is still very practical and analytical, and his fondness for logic would make Mr. Spock proud. And then he’ll surprise us with those sparks of creativity that seem to come forth every forty years or so.

Lessons in all of this?

Don’t sell yourself short. You may not even realize the potential within.  Do your thing.

Too old? Nope. That just doesn’t cut it. Do your thing.

It will make your life better.





The Green Box

green box for web

I guess I was around fifteen. Maybe eighth grade. Back then that meant that I attended St. Albans Junior High, the old high school of my mother and father. Some of their teachers still taught there. Like Mr. Jordan, a science teacher, I think. Gordon T. Jordon, to be precise. In my mother’s time, they called him Gordon Tordon Jordon.

The old school is now a warehouse for old commercial kitchen equipment. Broken windows everywhere. Who knows what living inside. And a few ghosts from the past. Not literal ghosts, just haunting memories.

Like the first time I danced in front of people. Before I learned not to care what people thought. Bad memory.

Eating popcorn while watching a basketball game up on the mezzanine of the gym. Good memory.

Dodge ball. Crab ball. Climbing ropes. Does anybody really have a good memory of gym class?

We had a really good auditorium for its time. Like an old theater. Lots of good productions and student talent shows. Jack Lyons singing Mr. Bojangles. Good memory.

Almost getting beat up after school for mouthing off to an upper classman and being saved at the last minute by a teacher who saw the guy pull his fist back and yelled out the window just in time.

And then there was Shop Class. I was not a shop class kind of guy. In fact, I was still trying to figure out what kind of guy I was. I was dabbling in music, but was never really very good. Likewise with sports. Not super smart. Not super cool. Pretty much just another extra on the great movie set of life.

But Shop Class was required, so I spent a semester learning how to not cut off my fingers with a power saw, lessons I value to this day. Mr. Bass, one of the school’s coaches, also taught Shop Class. Scary guy. Big. Stern. Never smiled.

Steve Bailey was in my class. His family lived high on the hill in St. Albans. He was somewhat of a free spirit, but cut from a different cloth. His hair was long, all the way to his shoulders, which was not that unusual for the time, but he wore shirts with French cuffs and cuff links.  Nobody did that. So there he is in Shop Class with his fancy shirts. But he could be intimidating. Nobody made fun.

At the end of the semester, we had to put all of our newly learned skills to the test and actually make something. Anything. Other guys were making cool stuff. Maybe a gun rack. Or a table. I made a box. Roughly 12” x 12” with a lid. Painted green. A plain green box. Even at the time, I was embarrassed by my lack of creativity.

That was, what, 45 years ago? The box is still in my garage.

Today, I’m in the middle of a remodeling project in the basement. Over the years, the occasional water infiltration had caused mold to grow at the bottom of a built-in bookcase and the wood paneling behind it.  So I took out the bookcase. The rest of the paneling was still good and I didn’t want to rip out everything so I decided to cut off the bottom and rebuild with a new wainscot.

I drew a line on the paneling and five minutes later, the offending moldy panels were gone. A nice, clean cut.

It was satisfying. Even though it was really demolition, it felt creative. Like I was doing something positive. Something that few people would ever see. But it felt good.

I think that’s how it is with anything creative that we do. Whether anyone else appreciates it doesn’t really matter. We were born with that creative urge.

For some people, it’s masterpieces of woodworking or pottery or fantastic art or life-changing music or stories that take us to another world.

For some people, it’s children and families and making those around them feel loved and welcome.

For some people, it’s leading others to find greater truths.

And for some of us, it’s building a green box and cutting out the mold.

Simple creativity.

Not for the rewards. Not for the riches. Not for the accolades.

Just because we can.

A young woman dances.


A young woman dances.
She sees her future
and the possibilities
seem limitless.
Her joy is exuberant
and must be expressed.
So she dances.

A young woman dances.
I becomes we,
dreams are shared
and the path is changed.
Her joy is deep
and must be expressed.
So she dances.

A young woman dances.
Her life is not
as she thought
and there are limits.
Her joy is mature
and must be expressed.
So she dances.

A young woman dances.
She creates art
with pigments and
fabric and clay.
Her joy is in beauty
and must be expressed.
So she dances.

A young woman dances.
She is carefree and
moves with rhythm
and vitality.
Her joy is alive
and must be expressed.
So she dances.

A young woman dances.
The years have passed
but hope lies ahead
for all that is
good and pure.
Her joy is her faith
and must be expressed.
And so she dances.

copyright 2017, joseph e bird

A young woman lies on the cobblestone.

A young woman
lies on the cobblestone.
Her body is twisted.
She is bleeding.
She has left us.

A young woman
is supposed to live.
And laugh.
And love.
No, not this.

Such a young woman.
Such a young woman.

Others have gone too soon.
A cousin.
A brother.
A son.
A mother.

A young woman
lies on the cobblestone.
Yesterday I saw her.
Today she is here.
She has left us.

copyright 2017, joseph e bird

A word of explanation.  The other day, I was listening to Dvorak’s Requiem while I was working at the office.  I was listening via YouTube, and whoever posted the video used the painting of the late nineteenth century German painter, Jakub Schikaneder as the sole image in the video.  It inspired this fourth poem in my Young Woman series.  The painting is called Murder in the House.  Yes, it’s disturbing.  Life is fragile.

A young woman stands in line.

A young woman
stands in line.
She is tired.
Tired from the kids.
Tired from work.
Tired from walking.

A young woman
stands in line.
Her hair is pulled back.
Her t-shirt is
stained from breakfast,
or last night’s dinner.

A young woman
stands in line.
She glances at the
beautiful people
on the magazine covers,
their lives a dream.

A young woman
stands in line.
Her young boy
tugs on her pant leg.
He holds a piece of candy.
No honey, put it back.

A young woman
stands in line.
Her buggy is full
of dollar store bargains,
and a cake mix
for dessert.

A young woman
stands in line.
At her side
a stroller cradles
her sleeping daughter.
The boy smiles.

A young woman
stands in line.
She will likely never
own a business
or empower other women
or be held in high esteem.

A young woman
Stands in line.
She is tired,
But her love
is patient and kind
and endures all things.

A young woman
stands in line.
She is a mother.
Nothing else matters
And her children
will call her blessed.

copyright 2017, joseph e bird

A young woman sits at a table.

A young woman
sits at a table.
She is not alone.

A young man
sits at a table.
He is not alone.

He glances her way.
Again and again.
She notices.

She smiles.
He smiles.
There it is.

Her friends don’t see.
His friends don’t see.
But they see.

Do I know you?
Have I seen you?
Maybe running?

She learns his name.
He learns hers.
And that is all.

A young woman runs
along the river.
She is alone.

A young man runs
along the river.
He is alone.

He sees her.
His pace is quicker.
His strides are longer.

He is almost beside her.
He’s not sure.
He glances her way.

She hears his steps.
She doesn’t see.
But somehow she knows.

She answers the question
which he never spoke.
Yes, it’s me.

A young man runs.
A young woman runs.
They are not alone.

copyright 2017, joseph e bird

A Young Woman

A young woman

works at a fast food joint.
One of the old brands,
struggling to stay relevant.
It’s not hip.
It’s not cool.

A woman who looks like
she could be her grandmother,
who looks like a grandmother
wearing an unflattering fast-food uniform,
is her manager.

The young woman
wears a similar uniform,
but she is different.
She is blessed with features
that could grace a magazine cover.
A smile that is perfect,
and eyes that match.

She is friendly.
As if she knows me.
But she doesn’t know me.
Not at all.
you can’t have a soft drink,
she teases.

If I weren’t old and wise,
I would think she flirts.
But she doesn’t.
It’s just her way.

I won’t charge you
for the drink, she says.
I’m confused.
Is she teasing?
Charge me, I say.
She laughs.
She says,
I owe you a penny,
as she hands me my change.

If I weren’t old and wise,
I would think she flirts.
But she doesn’t.
It’s just her way.

A child approaches.
The young woman smiles
her priceless smile.
Would you like to work here?
she asks the child.
You could make lots of money,
she says.
The child says, yes,
I think I would.
The child is smiling.
We could hold you by
your feet and you
could clean all of the
tiny spaces.
The child thinks.
Maybe not,
she says.
They both laugh.

The child and her grandfather leave.
They wave.
See you next time,
the young woman says.

She brings my food.
Again she smiles.
Have a good day.

I’m old and wise.
She doesn’t flirt.
It’s just her way.

copyright 2016, joseph e bird

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