Friday, January 19, 2018

Walking on Eggshells

 I had written earlier of an arts and study partnership through which I work with an Israeli artist to commemorate Israel’s seventieth birthday. Our assignment was to agree on a text and each develop an individual artwork on that theme, perhaps sharing other elements if we chose.

Our first task was to successfully connect by video chat which took some doing. My partner soon knew me better than I intended when she heard my frustrated expletive when the communication didn’t appear to be working. Oops, apparently it was, so much for first impressions. We’ve had a number of chats since and gotten to know a bit about each other. We then began to tackle our second task, agreeing on a common theme.

As part of our study we read and discussed several texts, among them the Declaration of the State of Israel which is largely a vision statement. It paints the hopes and dreams of what Israel could be. It speaks of how the Holocaust further demonstrated the need for the State of Israel. Despite outlining the vision, the Declaration is grounded in reality. In the body of the statement it talks of “loving peace, but knowing how to defend. “ It recognized this would not be an easy road and acknowledges that while our eyes must be on peace, they must not neglect defense. This is not surprising given that Israel was built on the bones of the Holocaust.  For Israel to offer a place of refuge to Jews around the world, it must first be able to offer a place of relative safety. We agreed that this would be our common text to explore.

As I read the vision statement, I found myself wondering how we had done at achieving that ambitious vision that promised a nation "based on freedom, justice and peace . . . equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex . . . freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture . . .safeguard [of[ the Holy Places of all religions." It went on to offer to its Arab inhabitants "full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”

Arab Israelis make up 21% of the population, 1.6 million.  Arabs who live in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were offered Israeli citizenship, but refused and are considered permanent residents.  They are entitled to become citizens and they receive municipal services and have voting rights in the municipality. 

So what are the facts? Freedom of religion is afforded to all religions. Israeli Arabs have political rights with a consistent history of serving in the Knesset.  Every state-run company is required to have at least one Arab Israeli on its board. Holy places are safeguarded. The one exception for Arabs is an exemption from compulsory military service. A major bone of contention is the Jewish nature of the state and the right of return afforded all Jews, the very core principles that underlie the state. This is a right which feels personally important when I look at the fact that throughout history the Jews had nowhere to flee when their lives were at stake. 

So vision vs reality? It seems to me that the divide is largely created by the need for security. The fact is that Israel has not been able to deliver on the vision of peace as it is not a one-sided choice. The clause on defense in the Declaration speaks to this reality.  So how to represent these concepts?

We find vision in several Biblical texts. In Numbers 13:23,  Moses sends out the scouts to bring back the fruit of the land.  They bring back grapes on a pole born between two men.  In the sky of the painting you will see faint grape-like clusters in the clouds.  In Deuteronomy 30:19  God calls upon us to "choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”  Choosing life is closely allied to loving peace. This is not a culture or belief system that breeds suicide bombers, looking to a reward in the afterlife. To capture the idea of the continuity of life, I took the form of DNA and wove it through the sky. Within it is the quote from Isaiah 2:4 "Lo yi-sa goi, el goi che-rev" which in its entirety means "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. They shall study war no more.” Also in the sky is the form of a bird, actually a flying scroll, an image of an archeological find that can be found on the first stamp with the name of Israel in 1948.  Below the sky is the image of church, synagogue and mosque all co-existing.

All of these passages speak to choosing life and peace, not war, and yet the importance of knowing how to defend is also recognized in the Declaration.   I decided to use a checkpoint as a symbol of security as a line awaits passage. Some checkpoints are wooden guard posts, others are turrets and I opted for the latter. The figures are suggested, not distinct, with the exception of the three by the tower. The checkpoint sits atop a rocky promontory constructed of crushed egg shells as we are frequently walking on eggshells, trying to balance competing objectives. The State of Israel, while a long-time dream, came to fruition out of the Holocaust. Life was shattered, much of our people destroyed and a new life was created in Israel. Many countries turned their backs on the Jews during the war, including the United States. They did not offer a place of refuge in an uncertain world. This is an important role that Israel plays. It will always be a refuge to Jews around the world.  It will always be a place that understands the importance of being able to defend. Eggs of course represent life, but in this case, crushed, they represent the destruction of life. In rebuilding upon the shards of that destruction, we are all too aware of the importance of security.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Readings: Dislocations of Culture and Gender

As I survey the list of my favorite readings in the prior year, I note that there are quite a few set in Asia, not an unusual topic in my reading. I grew up reading books by Pearl S. Buck and have often wondered at my affinity for Asian-related literature. Perhaps our early reading leaves its fingerprints. My last post discussed books that explored the experiences of immigrants to the United States. Both of the following books touch on dislocation in a different way, through the intersection between different Asian cultures, particularly when one enters the other’s culture. 

This year I went back to an author who I have written about in the past, Tan Twan Eng.  A few years I read his book The Gift of Rain and was awed by the sheer beauty of his writing. Eng writes of Malaysia where he grew up, and what little I know of Malaysian history came from his prior book. I find that reading historical fiction often fills in the gaps in my knowledge of history. In The Garden of Evening Mists (2012), Eng introduces the reader to the many layers that make up Malaysian history; British rule, Japanese occupation and Communist insurgents. He explores the relationship between a Japanese garden designer and a female judge of Chinese descent who was held captive during the war. As the story unfolds, so does the wartime experience, raising more questions than it answers. There is a puzzle at the heart of this, but it is not a story where all the loose ends are wrapped up. The reader is left to draw their own conclusions. Along the way we are also introduced to Japanese garden design and the tattoo art of horimono.

Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee is an epic novel that traces four generations of a Korean family over a span of eighty years. Beginning in 1910 when Japan ruled Korea, it follows the family as they move to Japan.  In Japan, Koreans are considered outsiders and their choices are often limited. Even if born in Japan, they are required to register as an alien every three years.  As they are closed out of many occupations, pachinko parlors become one of the paths to employment. This is a book composed of many individual stories set within this broader history and the constraints placed upon ethnic Koreans.

There is another theme that recurs in my reading, that is the presence of women in unexpected capacities. Women are often in the role of “the other” even within their own culture. We need not go to another country to experience a sense of dislocation.

We returned from a trip to Yellowstone and Glacier this year and I was especially struck by the beauty and unusual visual sites of Yellowstone. I was a receptive reader when I stumbled across the book Letters from Yellowstone (2000) by Diane Smith. This book is set in 1898 and is the story of a young woman who joins a field study in Yellowstone. The study leader assumes she is a man and goes through a bit of an adjustment when he learns that his expectations are incorrect. I found it fascinating to step back to an earlier time in Yellowstone, especially because fresh from our visit I could picture many of the places they described. The story is told solely through the letters of the team to colleagues and family. I was a bit skeptical about that approach initially, but felt that ultimately it worked well, especially in expressing the voice of Miss Bartram as she carefully weaves herself into the team and proves her value.

In The Weight of Ink (2017) by Rachel Kadish, another young woman pursues an unexpected path when she relocates to London from Amsterdam to serve as a scribe to a blind rabbi. This gives her the opportunity to study and develop her intellectual gifts while she navigates a world that would easily squelch those abilities. This story is told in two periods, the London of the 1660s and the early twenty-first century.  It involves the discovery of a cache of documents from the earlier period that led the present-day historians on a search for the story of the scribe.  While the search of the scholars was necessary to create what proves to be a fascinating exploration, I was most intrigued with the early story.  The author does wrap up the loose ends in a way that is both clever and believable.

There are a few other books that I especially enjoyed noted below:

Hero of the Empire by Candace Millard 2016- an excellent story of Churchill's formative years during the Boer War, reads like a novel.

We are Called to Rise by Laura McBride 2014 – four stories come together in one event, and yes there is an immigration story within this as well.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger 2013- based in 1960s Minnesota with the hindsight of forty years, a coming of age story with life-altering events.

Stolen Beauty by Laura Lico Albanese 2017 – the story of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of Klimt’s well-known portrait and her niece Maria Altmann, who successfully reclaims her painting from the Austrian government.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Political Affective Disorder: Reading in a Divisive World

As sunshine peeked through the window, our yoga instructor began to talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I mouthed, “Political Affective Disorder” to my husband on the adjoining mat. He raised an answering eyebrow.  The symptoms are similar: anxiety, lack of focus, feeling disheartened and deflated. It is something we’ve both experienced this year.

As we near the end of the year, I begin my annual taking stock and realize that this has not been a normal year.  I am a goal setter; books read, blogs written, museums visited. You name it, I count it. This year I’ve given myself permission to lighten up.  My five books a month fell to four.  My blog frequency dropped.  The gap of course has been filled with monitoring our political space, fearful that I might miss something that threatens life as we know it. This has taken a toll on my book reading and altered its nature.  

Now normally almost half of my reading is non-fiction. That requires a level of attention and focus that I just didn’t have this year. Not only was I reading more fiction, but it had to immediately grip me. I was too easily distracted.  More books lie abandoned for a failure to immediately engage. It is probably not their fault, more likely my diminished attention span. On the plus side, the books that survived my engagement test have often been extraordinary.  I’ve long since abandoned reporting on a list of favorite books confined to a designated number, instead I will tell you over several posts, some of the standouts that share common themes or approaches. The ones in this post all seemed to serve some purpose for me in either finding calm or understanding the world around me.

Quiet Books With Depth

I began the year by discovering the author Amor Towles, author of A Gentleman in Moscow.  Trying to describe this book often fails to capture its extraordinary nature. A man is confined by house arrest to a hotel for the duration of his life. What dramatic possibilities does that permit? Well at least two and those prove to be rich and promising. We explore his character as he deals with these restrictions while attempting to have purpose and meaning in his constricted life. The fact that he is a witty and thoughtful character enriches this dimension. And remember he is housed in a hotel, and not just any hotel, the famed Metropol, with its regular cast as well as a constantly changing one. The world comes to him. A third dimension is added through the time period and location, beginning in Russia in 1922, it spans a period of thirty years. Having loved this book, I quickly sought others by this author and discovered Rules of Civility, a novel set in New York City in 1938. This rich novel explores the movement of a young woman into high society, despite more humble roots. Both novels present witty and well-developed characters, but of the two I must confess a preference for A Gentleman in Moscow with its more restricted circumstances, allowing a deeper dive into one character with less distraction. For me there was also significance in considering how we find meaning in life even when it has aspects at which we chaff.

I then moved on to a NY based novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney.  This too is a book that doesn’t lend itself to a quick snapshot. It begins with an 85-year-old woman who is on her way to a party, working her way through New York City on foot.  It is another character study into a strong character with wit. Turns out Lillian Boxfish is based on the real-life character of Margaret Fishback, one of the highest paid female copywriters of the 1930s and known for her witty poetry and ad copy. The city of New York is also a central character viewed through a time dimension spanning from the 1920s to 1985. Just as A Gentleman in Moscow, much of it takes place in the head of the central character, a quieter kind of novel offering calm in a time of chaos.

The Immigrant Experience
Many of the books I read offered an education in the immigrant experience, often the limited choices that undocumented immigrants face and what that may mean for their American-born children. Two books in particular explored this theme: The Leavers by Lisa Ko and Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran. The Leavers is told through two voices, the mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, and her son, abandoned at age eleven without word upon his mother's deportation. He is adopted by well-meaning affluent parents, but remembers his former life and community, uncertain of his place within the world and his personal identity. Always lurking is the question of what happened to his mother, a mystery he ultimately solves. 

Lucky Boy deals with the story of an undocumented Mexican immigrant who becomes pregnant on her way to America. She raises her child in his first year or two, a devoted mother, until she too is sent to a deportation center. Her child is given to foster parents, an Indian couple who loves him deeply, sympathetic people on both sides of this equation. Unable to claim her son, his mother is faced with a system which would readily remove her child if she doesn’t step outside of the rules.  This was a side of immigration that was new to me and very disturbing. While told through fiction, it was true to the actual experience. There is a disconnect between federal immigration and the state child welfare system, with the latter often treating the child as if s/he has been abandoned when the parent is seized by ICE and housed at a deportation center. Often that is due to a lack of communication between the two systems.

A non-fiction essay, Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valerie Luisella also offered a perspective on immigration with which I was unfamiliar, a glimpse into the experience of children immigrating from South America.  The author volunteers as an interpreter for undocumented children who often flee alone to the United States.  Safety from gangs is often an impetus, an issue in which the United States bears some complicity as the gangs arose in Los Angeles in response to Mexican gangs. Deportation of the gang members just served to spread the poison to a country which lacked the resources to hold them in check. The book is more about questions than answers. The children are asked to complete a questionnaire for information that is used by attorneys to explore avenues to keep them in the US. Luisella uses this questionnaire as the vehicle to tell the stories of the children. 

Scapegoating the "Other"

Much of my reading seems to have focused on trying to make sense of our world, so divided between us and them.  To this end, I found a work by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to be especially meaningful. In his book Not in God’s Name, Sacks focuses on the human tendency to turn on those we perceive as "other."  He attributes it to our search for identity and for those who we identify as our tribe. Inclusiveness and exclusion go hand in hand. If we have identity, "us", we also see its inverse, "them". When our world fractures, we fall into dualism. Dualism is when we attribute evil to an outside force, simplifying the world into good and bad, us and them. Scapegoats are targeted and we tighten our group bonds by attacking the "other.” Sacks examines this concept through the lens of sibling rivalry as addressed in the Bible. Moving from Cain and Abel to Jacob and Esau to Joseph and his brothers, Sacks shows the evolution by example of how we are to resolve these differences. Ultimately, he finds the answer in role reversal, stepping into the “other’s” shoes. You can read a more extensive review I have written here.

Until beginning this post, I must confess that I hadn't realized the role that reading has played for me in making sense of this disturbing time. It has in fact served to deepen my understanding and helped me to find a place of calm from which to face this very uncertain world.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Search for Facts

Creating artwork often provides me with a lens on the world, something I am always trying to make sense of. I want to understand it on a factual level and ultimately, I want facts and my emotional response to line up in a congruent whole, like a row of cherries clicking into place on a slot machine. In today’s world, I need to spend a lot of time vetting my facts, considering the source, their politics and how independent their judgment truly is. Both the need to vet, and the difficulty in doing so, has become very evident to me with a current project.
I am participating in a collaboration with Israeli artists to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Israel. The focus is on Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. There is a cross-cultural element baked in as our experience in our respective countries may offer differing perspectives. Already in my discussions with my Israeli partner, we have explored how the military service requirement in Israel serves a unifying purpose that we lack here in the United States where military experience touches a small segment. I have also been struck by how many of the Israelis came from somewhere else. Many of them have chosen Israel as their home rather than being there through an accident of birth. Aliya we call it, going up, as if to the very mountain where it began for Moses and the Jewish people.
As part of this project we discuss a variety of texts; biblical, poetry, music and historic documents. I read them looking for the words that cause me to pause, to pay attention, words that stir questions. Unlike some of my fellow artists who have spent much time in Israel, I am relatively new to first-hand experience with only two visits, both in recent years. When my Israeli counterpart and I spoke of early impressions, I remembered contributing to the planting of trees in Israel as a child. As a teen, I remember reading Exodus by Leon Uris. For a teenage girl, this was pretty heady stuff. I was ready to go join a kibbutz.  The six-day war fell during my teenage years and was a source of pride for Jews everywhere. We knew we were well represented on the Nobel prize list (22.5% in case you were wondering), but fighting back, and winning, was something new. 
Every Jew grew up with the history of the Holocaust lurking as a reminder. In my family, we had one survivor who came to the United States after the war. When I was a child, he would pick me up at the airport when I went down to visit my grandmother in Miami. I stayed with her in her little apartment on Collins Avenue, walking in excruciatingly tiny steps, slowed to match hers, as we visited the fish market on her round of errands. The eyes of huge fish glared back at me, surrounded by the rapid-fire cadence of Yiddish as old women jostled to the counter to make their purchases. I would carry my grandmother's chair to the beach, where she would meet her deeply-tanned geriatric boyfriend. My entry into that somewhat mysterious world was framed by the bigger mystery of this cousin with his weighty story. I would look for the tattooed number on his arm, curious, but too intimidated by that somber history to intrude with questions. Years later as an adult, I interviewed him about his memories. Later still, I became aware of the shadow behind that solitary cousin, the fifty members of our family who did not survive, who were murdered.

It is out of these experiences that I find my emotional response to Israel predicated on these facts; If you are a Jew, the world can turn on you. Even the US, turned its back on Jews during WWII, sending refugees back to their death, rejecting legislation to take in 20,000 Jewish children. As I learn about our immigration history, I am often shocked at my own country. It seems unfathomable to question one’s safety in the United States, and yet, history gives me pause.

With Israel, I always have a place of safety. At the end of the day it boils down to this: a well-founded distrust of my safety at the hands of others in this world, contrasted with a place which would always open its arms to me. If you are Jewish this awareness resides within you on a visceral level. It attunes you to threats in the environment and sensitizes you to others under threat. That sense of vulnerability shapes your politics and your sense of responsibility to others. It is a part of Jewish identity and a part of the relationship that many Jews have with Israel.
The world was happy to embrace Israel when it was the underdog who made the desert bloom. Today, it is a more complicated story. Another underdog vies for attention, another set of claims, information skewed in the cause of partisan views. My search for simple facts is frustrating. I look at college campuses and the BDS movement as I remember the simple and often uninformed lens through which I once saw the world as a young college student. The world was much more black and white and righteous indignation was often the predominant response. I wanted the world to make sense then too and hadn’t yet learned to accommodate the grays. The simple world of planting trees and teenage fantasies has become much more complicated.  
Antisemitism is never far from the discourse of those who object to Israel’s existence. It is a slippery devil, mutating to invade this new host, an ugly virus that always seems to find a home. I am deeply disturbed by this nascent antisemitism that has begun to enter college campuses and politics, finding homes in countries I once thought of as reasonably enlightened.
And still, I am a Jew. It is part of my heritage and my responsibility to value truth and honesty and self-reflection, to question if we have met the standards we would choose to live by. How have we done at creating a society that is congruent with those values? That is the question I come back to as I begin this exploration. There are practical realities that must be balanced, security in a world where others would seek our destruction. How does one maintain an open society in the face of danger?  Israel is a complex society with many divisions even among Jews. The Haredim in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox, are worlds away from my secular brand of Judaism and yet they have excessive influence within Israel on many issues. I remind myself that there are sharp divisions in American society as well. We aspire to an ideal, but seldom live in one. And so, I begin.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Have Some Chutzpah

My mother was always my best cheerleader. From that early,”Look Ma, no hands,”  to the ups and downs of life, my mother was always the first call. To have someone believe in our capabilities even as they understand our inner struggles is a tremendous gift, one that if we are lucky we often receive from our mother. When I realized that she would not always be around, I considered the fact that I would need to learn to rely on my own inner voice.  

I have realized since her death that her voice resides within me. It has taken up residence with my inner choir with its odd assortment of singers, each with their own melody. My mother loved my writing as only a mother can.  I used to read my blogs to her and later the book I was working on before her death. I wrote in this blog about a video recording I rediscovered this year of us reviewing memories we had shared. In the middle of it she says, “Oh Susan, you’ll write a book. You’ll write lots of books.”   Those words of affirmation were quite welcome at that time as I was midway through the process of publishing my book. 

Then there was my father who upon hearing of an early career upset came out with the memorable line, “it was about time you landed on your ass, you were getting entirely too smug.” Yes, this is what we considered encouragement in my family and because I am a product of that family, I recognized it for what it was. Failures happen, we land on our ass. Then we figure out what we need to learn from it and move forward. That line has reverberated many times throughout my life.

One of the most useful messages in my head actually came from my ex-husband, an engineer. Whenever something would stump me, he used to say, “Study it.” I have often echoed that reminder to myself.  

I’ve been thinking of inner voices because I realized recently that I have no lack of inner dialogue and it often offers excellent advice. Recently I received an announcement of a talk by an author from Lithuania. The topic was one I knew well. She wrote of the rewriting of Holocaust history by Lithuania, a country that had been often complicit with the Nazis in the murder of their Jewish population during WWII. Today they rewrite that history to a more palatable version.  In 2009 I had spent a month in Lithuania studying Yiddish and observed the incongruities in how the Holocaust was addressed. When I returned home I began to paint my observations in a series called The Silence Speaks Loudly. The author was addressing essentially the same topic so I immediately resolved to attend. I looked at the sponsors, many local Jewish organizations, one which I knew well and which had co-sponsored one of my shows. The talk was at the Museum of Russian Art.

I pulled up their website and read about the director. Hmm, I wonder...That inner voice chimed in with a nudge,  “Susan, have some chutzpah!”  Before I could retreat, I quickly typed an email to the museum director mentioning the shows I had of this work both locally and in London and the organizations that had supported it. “ I know you plan far ahead and may not have additional room to exhibit work, but I’d like to explore the possibility.” As I debated hitting send, that voice sensed my hesitation and reminded me, “You have to ask for what you want. What’s the worst that could happen?” I hit send. I quickly received a reply from the director and later met with him and his program person to pitch my idea. It was a go.

I have been creating and showing work for many years now and my confidence has grown with each success,  still my days of being “entirely too smug” ended in my twenties. I have learned a few things since my smug twenties. Much of what we want is within reach if we ask. And if we ask and don’t get, big deal! What have we lost? A bit of pride? Part of life is about playing the odds. Some of what we ask for will come through and it will lay the groundwork for that next serendipitous moment. 

My other pursuits often offer me reference points. In my financial career, I would have considered it from a venture capital perspective, many investments will fail in exchange for a few wins. Failure is built into the equation. 

And another learning. . .When I do genealogy research, I find that the most direct and obvious path often surprises me by leading to resolution. Part of me feels it shouldn’t be that easy. In fact, sometimes life is easy. What we want is easily within our grasp if we aren’t afraid of what many view as  failure and instead view it as playing the odds.  The hard part is getting past our fear of not getting what we want, that seemingly fearsome hologram guarding the gate. We need only step through it to get to the other side.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Magically Aligned

It has been a year since we sold our childhood home. “Our mother’s house” is how we refer to it, even though she shared it with my father for 56 years. She was the one who was left in the end, so it became her house and remains so in description even after death. Occasionally I talk with my sister about going back to our hometown to visit. There really isn’t a practical reason anymore. The house is sold, the unveiling past, but I have friends there. People from my early years in college, or as I began my career, who I reconnected with on my regular visits to my mother. The last time I was there was for the closing on the house, when we sold it to the neighbor’s parents. The neighbors are from the Philippines and their immigrant parents lived with them. Now they have a family compound, two houses side by side on the block. As the children of immigrants, my parents would have appreciated the symmetry.

My parents set up two scholarship funds at the university where my father taught. I contribute each year on their birthdays. One of the things I’ve inherited is the reporting. Every so often I get a report on the funds and every year I get an invitation to the scholarship lunch. My parents used to love that lunch. They would go each year and meet the recipients, tickled that they could help someone attend college, once a dream so distant from their world. My father made it to college on the GI bill and my mother attended as an adult. The university was central to their lives. I’ve been considering driving to downstate Illinois, with a stop to pick up my sister, attending the scholarship lunch in honor of my parents. It is a commitment, an eight hour drive to a place with the echo of home, but none of the trappings, no mother, no home.

Many years back we went on a bit of a pre-commemorative tour with my father. A portrait of him had just been painted for the university. We stopped at the home of the artist to see the finished product, having my father pose behind his dignified image in that silly hat he wore with ear flaps. We evaluated the polish of that public image against the real person we grew up with. Later with my mother along, my parents took us to see the gravesite they had just purchased. It is in the Jewish section of the cemetery and familiar names populate the graveyard.  That tour was a precursor of what was to come. At my dad’s funeral we took a family picture around that portrait as it stood in for my father. Now, we visit them in the graveyard they introduced us to that day, both names now carved in stone.

We no longer have a childhood home as our destination. Now we are visitors. I can vividly picture our childhood room with my father’s clutter gradually filling it after we departed for college. In recent years when I visited I nested among clutter and memories, now only memories remain. I remember my mother on my last visit in the home, peeking in to reassure herself that I was there. "I thought I remembered that you were visiting," she said happily, unsure about trusting her shaky memory. 

“I wonder what they changed about the house?” I said to my sister in one of our lengthy calls. It occurred to us that we could pull it up on Google and view the exterior. I typed in the address and there was the house, largely hidden behind the enormous tree that they had grown from a twig, planted when I was a child.  A squirrel mid-run was immortalized in the driveway. My mother’s old car was parked down the hill. We tried to discern when the picture was taken. "It still has the old sidewalk," my sister noted. "And the bush at the end of the walk," I added. It's an old picture we agreed, one that predated her death and would not reveal changes. 

In that moment, it occurred to me that my mother was still alive at that time, behind the front door with its sign written in her hand - "Rose and Roo welcome you." Roo was her loaner cat and beloved companion. The door stood behind the enormous tree and inside was my mother, maybe Roo sat in his favorite spot looking out. "Mom, come out," I called, half-facetiously, but just for a moment wondering if I could stop the laws of time. "Mom!" I called plaintively, as if she might respond. In that moment, I almost believed she could, our two slices of time magically aligned. She perhaps feeling a twinge, looking around for her child, shaking her head with a rueful smile at her imagination playing tricks.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Venturing into the Unknown

Are you a risk-taker?  If so, have you always been or did you grow into it?  I was talking recently with my stepdaughter who remarked that she sees me as a risk-taker. Now if I am a risk-taker, I am definitely of the calculated risk variety, the one that assesses the best and worst-case scenario and decides if she could live with the downside in exchange for the upside. Then I hold my breath and jump. It does not come naturally to me, which means it brings its share of agonizing along with it. I’m curious if natural risk-takers go through a different process before they jump in. Or perhaps for them it is not even a jump.

My stepdaughter has a 12-year-old daughter who we watch with some awe and a little bit of envy. She has always been comfortable with risk. She’s a performer and she has great confidence in her abilities, even when they are still developing. Neither of us are built that way and view it as a leg up on life to be like that. I certainly wasted a lot of time being fearful of unknowns. On the flip-side, I’m pretty good at assessing risk, parsing the danger from the possibilities.   

There are two times in our life which are especially good for taking risk; when we are young and have little to lose and lots of time to recover, and when we are older and have left our career, once again with little to lose.  The latter is the stage that I am in currently so let’s take a closer look at it. I’ve proven myself to be a competent and capable person in a few arenas so I no longer need to prove myself. That’s not to say I don’t want to test my mettle in a new arena, just that it is optional. The pressure has lifted. I’ve done all the responsible adult things that allow me a certain degree of freedom now. Time to recover is really no longer as relevant, but using my time in a meaningful way is of great importance.

So how does one go from a fear of the world to tackling it and venturing into uncharted territory? I once had someone tell me that he thought I used fear as an engine of sorts to propel me forward.  I think there is some truth to that. I am most afraid of becoming a person whose world is conscribed by fear. That is what drives me forward. I picture a slingshot as I throw myself against that taut band of nerves within me that then shoots me forward into the unknown.  I learned to deal with fear from my mother who had a lot of fears, but the determination not to let them paralyze her. I am sure I was not an easy child for her as she saw herself in me, all the challenges that she struggled with and didn’t want me to echo.  She taught me not to give in to fear, but to step into it, slowly working my way through it.  Over time I learned to plunge forward until I could no longer easily return to safety. I was fortunate to have a mother who understood my inner workings. My father had no fear and would not have known what to make of mine. As I got better at wading through fear, I became more like my father, more ready to tackle the unknown, a risk-taker, but a very rational one, not one of those high on dopamine risk-takers in search of an adrenaline rush.

by Eve Liddell -
We all are forced to take risks in our life. Some do it willingly and seemingly easily. Others are thrust into it kicking and screaming. And there are those of us who learn to accept it as a necessary part of life and possibly a doorway to new opportunities. We assess and we agonize and then we take the plunge.