Monthly Archives: April 2020

Alexandria Living Magazine – “I Just Might Keep That”

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have another essay appearing in the current issue of Alexandria Living magazine!

It’s always a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine and as an Alexandria, Virginia resident it is especially fun to contribute.

Below is the link to my piece in the online version of Alexandria Living. If you like, please comment on the magazine website in the space they provide just below the essay.

We would love to hear your feedback!

https://alexandrialivingmagazine.com/lifestyle/i-just-might-keep-that-stuart-perkins-red-marble/

Thanks again to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be great fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to opportunities like this. Exciting!

Stuart M. Perkins

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Cartagena Paws – A Dog’s Hope

Colombia is an incredible country, geographically remarkable with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Not to mention the impressive Andes which extend through a number of South American countries, Colombia being one of them.

As a tourist I’ve visited Bogota, the capital, located in a valley in the Andes, Pereira in the Coffee Region, and Cartagena on the Caribbean Coast. So much history and culture in every city, but Cartagena always calls me back.

On initial trips to Cartagena I stayed and played within the inner walled section of the city, the wall being tangible evidence of past Spanish colonization. El Centro is beautiful. Plazas, hidden patios, and ornate balconies hanging over the streets. All of the elements you expect in a place known for colonial architecture. So much to see in that fascinating old area. The more I visited, the more I noticed.

Including quite a few stray dogs.

On my last visit I ventured out a bit and stayed in a beachfront condo in the Bocagrande area of Cartagena, just minutes from El Centro. Here, instead of old colonial styles and fortress walls you see high-rises, hotel chains, and malls. Fun to pretend I was a local, simply crossing the street for groceries at a neighborhood market. Nearby shops offered hair cutting, dry cleaning, and other routine needs. Each time I took a walk I noticed something new.

Including even more stray dogs.

By the second morning of this particular visit I began to comprehend the magnitude of the stray dog issue. What spurred that realization may have been the dirty white dog sniffing around the steps of the condo, the three hound mixes running together across the street, or possibly the black dog sitting by a dumpster casually licking two whining puppies. Seven strays seen in just the time it took to walk across the street for coffee creamer. It got to me.

I began to obsess. In spite of their numbers (those seven were the tip of the iceberg) I rarely heard barking, fighting, and definitely no playing. Dogs roamed across sidewalks, rooted through trash bins, and sought bits of shade during the heat of the day. They were silent ghosts in the streets, almost zombie-like as they moved through the neighborhood doing – well, whatever it is that homeless dogs do.

Besides the occasional cab driver braking to allow one to cross the road, I saw little acknowledgment of their existence. People went about daily routines without much regard for the four-legged objects they hurried past. Instead of pestering and begging for food, hungry dogs stood and watched as sandwiches or snacks were eaten, checking for scraps only after the person moved on. Theirs seemed to be detached dismal lives of rejection.

On the last morning there I walked again to the market across the street. Outside, a young girl ate breakfast while a small brown dog stood motionless behind her. As she turned to toss her trash in the bin she noticed the dog. She said something sweetly in a baby voice, leaned down, and patted the dog’s head. The girl turned to leave and missed seeing the dog feebly wag its tail. Just once. Heartbreaking that from my perspective it appeared to have taken a minute for the dog to recognize the girl’s gesture as an expression of kindness.

But how kind was it, I wondered? That incident reminded me of a story I read as a child. I can’t recall the title or author, but it involved a puppy lost on the street. As the frightened little dog searched for home it was yelled at, kicked, and mistreated in various ways by several people. But as the story goes, the cruelest person of all was the one who actually stopped, patted its head and spoke kind words, yet still turned and walked away.

Loss of hope is a terrible thing. The invisible dogs of Cartagena have precious little from the start.

In spite of this sad reality, I once again left Cartagena with a great appreciation and love for the history, culture, and cuisine of this amazing city. But I also left with a somber curiosity about the plight of the strays. When I got home I began to search for answers.

The problem is not unique to Cartagena nor to Colombia as a whole. Stray dogs can be anywhere and everywhere, but they are apparently more of an issue in many Latin American countries where policies on animal welfare, if they exist at all, are often at various stages of development. As I searched specifically for steps being taken in Cartagena, I wasn’t encouraged. There are few substantial policies or programs and I found nothing that instilled much hope.

Until, that is, I clicked a link to the website for “Cartagena Paws”.

This organization, founded by Maureen Cattieu, was launched in 2015. She and her team work to carry out a mission promoting the adoption and fostering of animals and a capture/release program which spays or neuters. Also, perhaps most significant in terms of a lasting solution, they run an educational program that aims to change the mindset of how unwanted animals are viewed. The hope is that once more informed, people will then go out and become “active agents for change” in their own communities. Admirable objectives!

Curious to know even more, I emailed Cartagena Paws directly and quickly received a response from Maureen herself. She was happy to speak with me, answer questions, and tell the organization’s story. I learned that in addition to all they are working on right now, fundraising is currently underway for the purchase of land in Cartagena where they hope to build an educational-based rescue center.

Finally, I felt a bit hopeful about the plight of Cartagena’s street dogs. I wish Maureen and Cartagena Paws good luck and every success. I plan to help all that I can.

And of course I can’t wait to return to Cartagena, an amazing place on so many levels. Once again I’ll enjoy all that the spectacular city has to offer. And next time, when I see a stray dog standing alone in the street, I’ll know help is coming. Cartagena Paws might stop and pat them on the head, but they will never walk away.

Stuart M. Perkins

In case you’d like to read more about Cartagena Paws and the good work they do, and plan to do, below is the link to their website.

https://www.cartagenapaws.com/

 

 

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Hand on the Plow

I watched the morning news but turned away when feelings of hopelessness washed over me as they reported infection rates and death tolls. Isolation is helping end this nightmare, they say, but for any one individual it can sometimes seem an exercise in futility. When a reporter stressed the importance of continuing our social distancing practices, an old memory crossed my mind:

“No.” Ms. Wade shook her head. “Here’s what you’re going to do.” She put her arm around my shoulder. “Keep your hand on the plow and hold on.”

I knew what she meant.

Having grown up around farming and plows I understood the metaphor, but until then I’d never heard anyone describe so succinctly a situation pertaining to myself. Don’t dismay, was her message. Simply continue doing what I’d been doing.

It was early 1980s and I was a twenty-year-old kid working a part-time retail job. Ms. Wade was an older African-American woman who had done that same job full-time for decades. She trained me, showed me around, and only a couple weeks into the job had become my mentor and good friend.

New in the position, one day I rang up something incorrectly. Technology not being then what it is now, that was easy to do. My inadvertent mistake, realized later, cost the store less than twenty dollars but that was serious stuff for them – and I assumed it would be for me. I waited to be fired.

For an entire week I came to work expecting the worst and it was a tense few days. During that time Ms. Wade listened to my worries but encouraged me to keep my chin up and just keep doing what I was doing. I didn’t feel like it. I thought maybe I should quit.

“You can’t quit when things seem worthless. That’s exactly when you don’t quit.” Ms. Wade looked at me and put her hand on her hip. “Just hold on, I told you. Keep your hand on the plow and hold on.”

I whined to her again anyway, so bothered by the thought of being fired and having to explain the embarrassment to everyone as well as find another job. For me that situation seemed pretty gloomy, and I told her so.

Ms. Wade patiently encouraged me to keep going, even through moments of confusion and fear. It was ok if I didn’t know the outcome. The point was to push on, doing all I could do, taking it day by day.

“This is a mustard seed moment, honey.” Ms. Wade said as nonchalantly as if she were telling me the time of day. I was getting the impression she’d kept her hand on the plow many times in life.

A few days later I was informed, unceremoniously, that personnel had discussed my mistake and chalked it up to inexperience and a learning curve. Because I’d continued working and demonstrated my determination, they decided to let it all go. Wow. Just as Ms. Wade said, the best thing to do was carry on, regardless of apprehension.

Yes, what a memory of the valuable lesson that good woman taught me.

I turned back to the television. More reports of infections and deaths. So much uncertainty. When will this end? How much can any of us really do? I’m not the only person experiencing moments of confusion and worry, those feelings are swallowing the entire world as we wait for a resolution.

For now, our responsibilities are to be careful, follow advice, and keep at it even during moments of doubt. Especially during moments of doubt. A solution will eventually come. In the meantime, I can’t offer an answer to this mess, but I can offer one bit of advice.

Just hold on. Keep your hand on the plow and hold on.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A New Leaf

While working in the flower garden out back yesterday, I noticed a few “weeds” in full bloom. I was reminded of this little piece I wrote not long ago about those very plants:

A New Leaf

My bed felt too good to leave that early summer morning years ago. I yawned, fluffed my pillow a little, and rolled over. The house seemed quiet. Hopefully no one was around to tell me to get up.

“Get up!” my sister yelled from the hallway.

“For what?” I yelled back in a tone indicating I had no intention of leaving the bed.

“We told Nannie we’d pull weeds.” My sister loomed over my bed, hand on her hip.

My grandmother’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Richmond was surrounded by huge curved flowerbeds, with several more dotting the ample yard. In addition to tending to the yearly cycles that played out in her massive vegetable garden, there were also routine chores in her yard that required a good deal of work. One tedious task was pulling the first flush of summer weeds from her rose bed. The entire bed was periodically smothered in wild violets and other low-growing things we had to pull, which we at home simply referred to disgustedly as “chickweed.”

My sister and I pulled for hours. Starting at one end of the long bed, by the handfuls we ripped out wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow load until we had nearly reached the opposite end. Tired of persistent gnats and wiping gritty sweat from my face, I could think only of getting on my bicycle to meet friends down at Falling Creek for some cool relief. Just one more hefty patch of chickweed and we would be finished.

As I stood to stretch, I noticed a thick stand of violets under a nearby crepe myrtle. In years past we had never been able to get rid of that particular bunch of violets, try as we might, and we knew we would be back at it again this year.

“We’ll pull those violets when we finish this,” I said with resignation, pointing to the chickweed at my feet.

“You can leave the violets be.” Nannie responded as she walked towards them. She tossed a small handful of fertilizer into the center of the mass from the bucket she carried.

“Did you just fertilize those weeds?” I asked, puzzled. She had always wished the violets gone.

“It’s only a weed if you don’t want it.” Nannie said, tossing a second small handful of fertilizer.

Still puzzled, we agreed to leave the violets alone. Stretching again, I sat on the ground to rest and noticed several strands of chickweed lodged in my shoelaces. I plucked out one stem and absent-mindedly studied the small piece of nuisance.

Although I had pulled up pounds of that plant over the years I had never bothered to look at it closely. “Hey!” I yelled to Nannie. “The stems on these things are square, not round! And look! The flowers are like tiny orchids!” In my mind, I had discovered something remarkable.

What I had “discovered,” I learned years later, was that this was not chickweed. It was actually purple dead-nettle, a non-native intrusive plant with purplish-green leaves and tiny purple flowers. The plant is found, well, all over the place. That was unknown to me at the time.

“Can we keep these?” I asked excitedly, pointing to the last bit we had yet to pull from the rose bed. I was certain I was preserving something special. “These might be the last of their kind!”

“Yeah, except for those.” my sister said sarcastically, pointing towards the barn where at least two acres of pasture appeared dusty purple in the sun from the masses of dead-nettle growing there.

Nannie stared down at the remaining patch of green in her rose bed. “You want to leave these weeds?” she asked.

“But it’s only a weed if you don’t want it,” I grinned. The very same weedy problem I had cursed every year was suddenly something unique and worthwhile to me.

Nannie smiled and said nothing. She walked back to the crepe myrtle where she tossed another small handful of fertilizer onto the violets growing beneath.

Nannie had shifted her view of those violets. Practiced at picking her battles rather than fighting them, she embraced them and by doing so turned a headache into a showpiece. It was all about perspective. Satisfaction can come by a simple change in attitude. Nannie learned that lesson long ago. And now she taught it with the help of a few insignificant weeds.

I quickly understood Nannie’s change of heart regarding the violets, and I marveled at how smoothly she turned a problem into a bonus. But I wasn’t sure she agreed when I applied that notion to the scraggly green weedy blob remaining in her rose bed. Nannie walked towards the house, passing my sister and me still sitting on the ground.

She was just a few steps past us when she stopped, turned around, grinned and tossed a small handful of fertilizer onto my chickweed.

Stuart M. Perkins

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