Category Archives: Photo Challenges

WordPress’s weekly photo challenge, aka postaweek.

Weekly Photo Challenge: An Unusual POV

Looking across Chrissy Field toward the Golden Gate Bridge

Looking across Chrissy Field toward the Golden Gate Bridge

When my daughter was 3-1/2, we went down to the beach at Chrissy Field to help pick up trash. She collected a red fishing bobber, a piece of blue dental floss, miscellaneous styrofoam, and some drinking straws. We were heading back to the visitor center when I saw a strange white rock half-buried in the sand.

One side of it was chalky white, polished smooth to the touch. Faint veins of gray ran through the white. The other face was where it had broken off of a larger rock. Tiny facets shimmered. The gray shot through the stone was more pronounced on this side, almost graphite in color.

As I turned the rock over in my hand, I wondered how many other visitors to the National Park would recognize what they were seeing. This was marble, found in the Sierra Mountains, far from the bay — and in graveyards throughout the Bay Area. Even completely out of context, it’s one of the most familiar kinds of stone.

Up until the 1940s, San Francisco had four enormous public graveyards. Decades of political wrangling finally succeeded in having the bodies exhumed and the cemeteries demolished. Families who could afford it had their ancestors’ monuments moved elsewhere. All of the others were smashed to ruin.

Some of the flat marble tablet stones were used to pave the rain gutters in Buena Vista Park. Large pieces of mausoleums were hauled out to Ocean Beach to shore up the coastline. Every so often, the year’s lowest tide reveals monuments, still legible after all these years.

The Wave Organ

The Wave Organ

Yet more memorial stonework was thrown in the bay to form the Marina Green breakwater. Some of the nicer pieces were arranged by an artist working in conjunction with the Exploratorium to create the Wave Organ.

This little piece or marble I found at Chrissy Field — between the Marina breakwater and the Golden Gate Bridge — is without a doubt a piece of history arrested on its way washing out to sea. It breaks my heart to think of what’s been lost, what was willfully erased.

I hope the men responsible for destroying San Francisco’s graveyards lie fully cognizant beneath eternally vandalized monuments.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Sea

View of Keawala’i Churchyard

View of Keawala’i Churchyard

The sky wasn’t blue the day I visited Keawala’i Churchyard, but that was okay.  My mom was recovering from surgery that removed melanoma from her upper arm, leaving her with a hole the size of a bar of soap.  They’d gotten all the cancer and it wouldn’t spread, but we didn’t know that yet.  We were being very careful to stay out of the sun as much as we could.

We’d spent our trip to Hawaii rushing around.  Mom liked to take tours, so we’d taken a bus around Oahu and visited the Iolani Palace.  On Maui, we’d been to a former sugar plantation, the whaling museum, and on a whale watch.  Now that our trip was winding down, I’d finally talked Mom into sitting on the beach.  We were on our way to Makena’s Big Beach when we found the little cemetery.

Mom knows how I am.  She got me started visiting cemeteries.  Now she visits them in my name when she’s traveling and takes pictures for me.  That day on Maui, she was content to let me wander from gravestone to gravestone, photographing everything that caught my eye.

I found a section that held only tiny plaques.  At first I thought they were remembrances of people whose ashes had been scattered in the ocean.  Then I realized they commemorated people who had been lost at sea.

I stood just inside the rough lava rock wall and looked out at the water.  I tried to envision the globe, with Hawaii as a series of specks in the large blue ocean.  Until that moment, I’d avoided thinking how fragile life is.

I turned and looked immediately for my mom.  The darkness had come so close to taking her from me, but I wasn’t ready to let her go yet.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Focus

View of Drummond Hill Cemetery, Niagara Falls

View of Drummond Hill Cemetery, Niagara Falls

I’ve already written about Drummond Hill Cemetery, but the photo challenge for the week is Focus, so I knew the sort of photo I wanted to post.

I visited Drummond Hill late in a busy day.  We’d gotten up early to explore the tunnels behind Niagara Falls, then took a ride on the Maid of the Mist below the falls, then walked along the rapids farther out along the river.  My parents planned to take my daughter back to the hotel to swim in the pool, but as we passed the cemetery on our way, my dad wheeled down a side street and dropped me off at the back gate.

Mourner leaning on a funeral urn

Mourner leaning on a funeral urn

I had the graveyard mostly to myself.  I admired the Victorian stones, many of which have been laid flat in the grass.  The iconography spanned from weeping willows and mourners at the graveside to Jane Eliza’s sarcophagus (above).  The stones hadn’t fared well in the damp, cold Canadian winters, but the man who’d labored over them had been an artist.  I wondered if anyone now knows who he was.

It was tricky to photograph the cemetery with the late afternoon sunlight behind the headstones.  I took several photos that I think of as “views,” pulling back from individual stones to see the graveyard as context, as scenery. The photo at the top was taken in the shadow of the old tree that may predate the pioneer graves beneath it.

I like that photo because it shows the range of stones in the graveyard, from the red granite column on the extreme left side through the bright white marble to the weathered gray granite with the bolster on top.  I like the sense of the age of the cemetery, with its ranks and ranks of monuments.  I even like the mist that fills the air and reminds me that the falls are not really very far away.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Carefree

The grave of Ricky Dunn in Colon, Michigan. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

Earlier this month, I and a friend went off on a writing retreat for a weekend.  It was glorious.  We stayed in a “hermitage” in the woods, facing a meadow full of butterflies.  I got an immense amount of work done and she got inspired on some projects she’d put aside.  Both of us felt recharged.

Martha and I have been friends for a long time.  In high school, we wrote a novel together — and somehow our friendship survived the process.  We’ve published each other’s work over the years.  We’ve collaborated on short stories.  She’s my first reader.  I adore her imagination and am awe of the way she captures characters.

One of the best things about our friendship is that she lets me drag her off on my cemetery excursions.  Reasonably near our retreat was the Lakeside Cemetery of Colon, Michigan.  Deep in the heart of Michigan’s Amish country, Colon is “the world capital of magical illusion,” according to Weird Michigan: Your Travel Guide to Michigan’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets.

The cemetery has a collection of stage magicians buried in it.  The best known are the Blackstones (senior, junior, and the third), but I liked the grave of Ricki Dunn, whose epitaph proclaims, “Ricki Dunn was a thief.”

I haven’t found any video of him performing yet, but here’s a slideshow of photos of him:

He wrote the book on pickpocketing: The Professional Stage Pickpocket.

Here’s one of his tricks, performed by one of his friends:

I’ll write more about the cemetery tomorrow, but I can’t wait to investigate the other characters buried there.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Masterpiece

Death and the Sculptor

Death and the Sculptor by Daniel Chester French

The thing that drew me first to cemeteries was the artwork.  From the six-foot-tall limestone tree trunk in the graveyard near my parents’ house to the angels in Highgate Cemetery, I loved to see the sculpture best of all.  It draws me out in all weather from drizzling rain to humid summer sun, in the icy January breezes and in the high desert glare.  I’m well-known in my household for begging to see “just one more” sculpture.

I’ve seen some amazing things in my travels:

Angel of Grief001The original Angel of Grief by William Wetmore Story (in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery) is small, compared to the copy at Stanford University, but it may be even more lovely for being human-sized.  The “Angel of Grief Weeping over the Altar of Life,” Story’s last work, was made to mark the grave of his wife Emelyn in 1895.  Before Story’s sculpture, angels were always joyful emissaries, secure in the knowledge of Heaven to come for their charges.  A grieving angel, overcome by loss, struck a chord that echoes in cemeteries across the world.

Detail of Crack the Whip

Detail of Crack the Whip

Then again, Italian cemeteries are full of one-of-a-kind artwork.  It’s rarer to see in Midwestern cemeteries, but one of the most striking sculptures I’ve ever seen is in Sunset Hills Cemetery in Flint, Michigan. “Crack the Whip” is a collection of eight interconnected children running in a semi-circle. Sculpted by J. Seward Johnson, “Crack the Whip” is comprised of an Asian girl, two African American kids, a Native American, and four white kids, each distinct and individual. They are dressed in cleats and baseball shorts, a headband and a basketball jersey, a pinafore. The Asian girl has lost her Birkenstock sandal, which lies in the grass nearby.

The piece that blows everything else away for me is Forest Hills Cemetery‘s “Death and the Sculptor” by Daniel Chester French, the image that opened this post. Death is a stern-faced matron dressed in Grecian robes and a large-cowled cloak. She has wings, but doesn’t carry a scythe or hourglass. She merely reaches her shapely arm out to touch the sculptor’s chisel.

More than any other artwork I’ve seen, this one speaks directly to me.  I’ve always had a personal sense of how limited my time here is, how much work I have to do before I die.  Even though I am surrounded by a friendly community of other writers, I know I am the only person who can tell the stories I’ve felt called to tell.  I dread to be stopped in the middle of my masterpiece, as French’s sculptor was.

Father Time at Cypress Lawn

Father Time at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma

The clock is ticking, as Father Time reminds us. Time flies and no one knows the day or the hour.

Time to get busy.