35/52: Sussex Sunflower Maze


This week’s assigned lyrics: “She blinded with me science.”  (Agricultural science.)

-From Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”


The Sussex Sunflower Maze in Augusta, NJ is a place where Mother Nature surely dazzles with her beauty.


With more than a million sunflowers blooming over 50 acres, it is the largest sunflower maze on the East Coast.W35sunflowers-4-web

The maze opens in August and usually runs through September, its duration weather-dependent. It was pleasantly uncrowded on an early Friday morning, with maybe half a dozen people (all of whom were photographers) roaming its three miles of paths.W35sunflowers-9301web

Liberty Farm, which owns the maze, grows the sunflowers in cooperation with New Jersey Audubon Society’s SAVE (Support Agriculture Viability and the Environment) program.  The program buys the harvested seeds from the farmers and then sells them here in New Jersey for birdseed, thus reducing the state’s reliance on distant farms.


In addition to a lowered carbon footprint, there are other environmental benefits. New Jersey Audubon Society uses the profits from the birdseed sales to provide grassland habitat for wild nesting birds, allowing threatened species to rebound.


The sunflowers also attract lots of bees and other pollinators. Their busy buzzing was the only sound that filled my ears. Later, as families began to arrive, the enthusiastic shrieks of children carried over the stalks.W35sunflowers-4-9314webSince the fields are not irrigated, this year’s crop of sunflowers range from 4 to 6  feet in height, a bit on the shorter side because of the season’s dry spells. Still, the view of the landscape is nothing short of magnificent.


Each year, the maze owners cut a different aerial-view message into the field. The map above shows this year’s message: “Amazing Sussex County.” Ah-mazing.  Get it? Haha


It’s true, though. The Sussex Sunflower Maze inspires awe and appreciation and  happiness.


If you visit, don’t forget your sunglasses (like I did). On a sunny day, the light can be pretty…well…blinding.  Here’s me squinting:


It’s a day trip well worth the drive and admission, which is $10 for adults, $6 for kids (ages 4 to 12), and free for the wee ones under three. Leashed pets are welcome, too.

34/52: I Was Afraid of the Dark (and I Still Am)


This week’s assigned lyrics: “I was afraid of the dark, but now it’s all that I want.

From Maroon 5’s “Daylight”

No, Maroon 5.  No.

This was my second visit to the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital, a state facility that opened in Pennsylvania in 1908 as an institution for the developmentally, intellectually, and physically disabled. It was a place where the “feeble-minded” were to be kept away from society, for as one of Pennhurst’s doctors reported to the State Legislature in 1913: “Every feeble-minded person is a potential criminal.”

Within a few years of its opening, Pennhurst became terribly overcrowded, accepting not only the disabled but also orphans, unwanted children, and criminals.  It was grossly underfunded and understaffed.

There were many well-meaning attendants who just could not handle the patient load, which resulted in widespread neglect. Many residents spent their days overmedicated and in restraints. Many regressed considerably. There were five-year-olds who had never left the confines of their cribs and could not walk.  Urine and feces covered the ward floors.

Some attendants abused their charges.

Punishments were harsh. If a resident continually bit others, his teeth would be removed. If a child misbehaved, he would be downgraded to a lower ward, sharing quarters with the criminally insane.

Patient-on-patient assault occurred frequently.

In 1968, TV reporter Bill Baldini exposed the horrors at Pennhurst in a five-part report entitled “Suffer the Little Children.”   A class action lawsuit was filed in the mid-70s, and finally, in 1987, Pennhurst closed its doors for good.

Now privately owned and accessible only through private tours or its (controversial) Halloween attraction, Pennhurst stands in a state of decay, its disturbing history hanging heavy in the air.

The buildings were abandoned as is, leaving behind furniture, bedding, clothing, resident and personnel files, wall calendars, posters, etc., now in a state of deterioration.

Visitors often leave toys or candies for the ghosts who reportedly still inhabit Pennhurst.
Resident rooms were set up like cubicles, with two to four individuals sharing a common space. Their names remain on the walls.
X-rays and various patient records were found scattered across a desk in one of the rooms on the third floor of Mayflower.
This is one of my favorite rooms in the Mayflower building for its many colorful layers of peeling paint. And OK, I like that it’s well-lit. Even so, there is always an unshakeable feeling of despair.
This old-fashioned wheelchair on the third floor of Mayflower has been photographed often.
Our guide later told us an “aggressive male entity” is known to occupy this third floor bathroom in Mayflower.  Gulp.
“Candyland” in the pitch-black basement of the Devon building used to be an indoor playground for the children. I only ventured down here because I had an escort of three other people, one of whom was carrying a very bright light. :)
Rust, grime, and decay are everywhere, and after awhile, I felt anxious to get back to daylight and fresh air.
View of the Administration building from Mayflower

On this second visit, I forced myself to spend time in some of the areas I avoided the first time, but I still find it an unsettling place to be.  It is heartbreaking to think of the suffering that went on here as a result of society’s abandonment of its most vulnerable members—truly a dark and shameful period in our history.

32/52: This Photograph Makes Me Laugh

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This week’s assigned lyrics: “Look at this photograph. Every time I do, it makes me laugh.”

From Nickelback’s “Photograph”

Leave a Halloween wig lying around and it’s liable to get into the wrong hands, as shown in this old Polaroid, taken sometime in the early 90s. Here we have a man ahead of the times: doing duckface before it became cool.





30/52: Monster



Assigned lyrics:  “I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed, get along with the voices inside of my head.”

From Eminem’s “The Monster” featuring Rihanna

Our munchkin’s off to kindergarten this fall, which may explain why she is so enamored with this new picture book. :)  Can’t wait to share it with my students as a first-day read-aloud.


29/52: For Katie


This week’s lyrics: “They give us those nice, bright colors; they give us the greens of summer.”

From Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome”

This week’s post is in honor of one of my former students who passed on Saturday, July 19 at the age of 19, surrounded by her loving family, after living courageously with brain cancer for the past 18 months.

Though it has been five years since she sat in my 8th grade classroom, I remember vividly how bright and lively she was—like a sunny, summer day. Someone who was kind to all. Liked by all. Beautiful inside and out. I can almost still hear the squee in her voice when she and her friend Anna held up baby Uggs they’d purchased as a gift for an expecting co-worker. Their excitement was contagious, their generosity so touching.

I last saw her on a Friday night in March while supervising a charity basketball tournament at school. She had been there to cheer on her younger brother. She seemed tired, ready to call it a night, but still managed a smile during our short conversation. I am grateful to have seen her one last time.

Rest in peace, dear Katie, and thank you for the light you gave us. It was an honor to know you.