Monday, July 25, 2016

The Cicadas' Song

When my mom used to euphemistically refer to death as saying "bye-bye" someday, my response was always "but not yet". We had a little call and response thing going. I thought of it as a bit of a negotiation, only to learn that I was merely being humored in that conceit. 

I am in the town that I grew up in, perhaps for the last time. There are no more parents to visit save in the graveyard, soon there will be no childhood home. I am here for the unveiling of my mother's tombstone. In the Jewish tradition an unveiling happens approximately one year after a person dies and uses the Jewish calendar to determine when that is. Although my mother died on the Fourth of July, on the Jewish calendar it is actually July 23rd this year. Why so different?

It turns out that the current year on the Jewish calendar is a leap year, the Hebrew term actually means "a pregnant year". Periodically they add 19 days to catch up and assure that holidays fall at the proper season. The year following my mother's death has indeed felt pregnant, laden with meaning, heavy and transformational, as I integrate her physical absence with a new understanding of her emotional presence. I didn't have to think of it when I had her here, occupying space on this earth, yet with her physical absence I am oddly much more aware of her presence. It is a comforting weight I carry within me, the weight of nineteen days, perhaps the weight of a lifetime.

I find that I am not only saying goodby to my mother, but I am saying goodby to the town I grew up in, to friends with whom I renewed friendships, to my childhood home and to a part of my history. In the intervening years since my father died, I have made regular trips to see my mother, reconnecting with the community as I created new memories with my mother. Now I am leaving both of my parents in a cemetery 500 miles away from where I live. They are surrounded by many of the people we knew growing up, a roster of familiar names. The lady who lived down the hill from our home now lies in the ground down the hill from their tombstone. There is an odd symmetry that has been maintained. They are in good company.

We arrived at the cemetery on a blistering hot day. At the back of the cemetery my parents' tombstone was wrapped in a blue tarp. We have a small immediate family, my parents' three children, two grandchildren, two great grandsons. My husband and several friends completed our gathering. Our family is spread around the country, planes and often lengthy drives deposited us at this plot of ground where our parents now reside. The two young children brought a certain leavening to the occasion as the youngest threw himself over the tombstone, almost as if he were climbing into my mother's lap. "She would have liked that," I thought. I remembered her holding him as a newborn at a Thanksgiving just two years earlier. 

My niece spoke movingly of my mother's honesty and kindness, traits that captured her well. She was an authentic person, honest to the core and the embodiment of kindness. The rabbi had us pause in silent prayer as a chorus of cicadas filled the silence with song. My niece helped her young nephews remove the tarp, walking around the tombstone as she tugged the duct tape loose. Meanwhile I stood there in silent prayer, praying that the text and dates would be correct, sighing in relief as the carved stone emerged without error.

We placed small stones upon the tombstone, another Jewish tradition, representing our presence and love. Next to the stones, my niece placed a cicada shell she had found on the tarp. She remembered my mother, a nature lover, finding cicada shells with her and her sister on nature walks. Cicadas live underground as nymphs, often at depths of 8 feet. When they mature they emerge from underground, shedding their intact shell, often leaving it clinging to a tree. Interestingly they are a symbol of immortality. Yet more symmetries. Shell above, shell below, preserved in memory, deeply embedded in each of us.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

From Ironing to Shooting Hoops

"Are you a women's libber?" he asked in a rather challenging tone. I was a young woman in college in the 1970s. This young man, beer in hand, approached me at a party with what was either a new pick up line or a way to screen out troublesome women. "Absolutely" I replied and he soon faded away to look for more receptive prey.

That was the first time I voiced my identification as a feminist. I had a deeply developed sense of fairness, perhaps a middle child trait as us middles have to fight for what is our due. I didn't have a clear plan for my future back then, but marriage and children were not high on my list. While that wasn't the life I imagined, I didn't know exactly what my alternatives were. The truth is that at that time there weren't many well-charted paths for women except the rather stereotypical ones. I grew up with employment ads in the newspaper that had headings that read "Help wanted female" and "Help wanted male" and the female jobs were not very interesting. It wasn't until 1973 that the Supreme Court ruled that illegal, just two years before I finished college.

"Don't iron while the strike is hot". That was the slogan of the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1969, one of the first big demonstrations of the Women’s Liberation movement. It came on the fiftieth anniversary of women getting the vote. I remember it because I was sitting at the kitchen table watching the protest on our little red portable TV as my mother ironed. "Mommmm...don't iron while the strike is hot," I admonished. "Then whose going to do the ironing?" she shot back as she spritzed my father's white shirt with water.
Those memories came back to me recently as I watched my twelve year old granddaughter shoot baskets. She has just begun to lengthen into a legginess that makes her look just right as she crouches and shoots for the basket. "What sports did you play when you were my age?" she asked.

I loved the innocence of her question even as it made me realize what a sea change it represented. "We didn't really have sports for girls back then," I replied, suddenly feeling very ancient. Title IX was not passed until 1972 barring discrimination in federally funded education programs. Girls might be enrolled in dance or acrobatics outside of school, but in high school the options were cheerleading and the pom pom squad. I found my yearbook online and flipped to Athletics. I quickly confirmed that boys' sports included track, football, swimming, basketball, wrestling, tennis, golf and baseball. At the back was a group photo of the Boys Athletic Association with names of participants listed. The last photo was titled Girls Athletic Association and had two anonymous girls playing tennis, apparently an association so poorly organized and limited that they didn't warrant a group shot or names.

When I was in college I worked in a credit bureau in the summer of 1974. It was my first off-campus job and I liked being part of the work world. While there I learned something about women and credit. I remember a couple whose record was in the files, she was a teacher and her husband a student. Their credit was surely based on her income as he had none, yet it was in his name. When they divorced, their credit information was divided and he retained the credit history. I swore that was never going to happen to me. What I didn't realize was that up until that time the deck would have been stacked against me. Later in 1974 the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) changed the way credit-granting decisions were made. 

Prior to the ECOA, credit for a married couple was in the man's name. Women often met with resistance when attempting to establish credit in their own name with unmarried women required to supply a male to cosign for them. The importance of women in making laws such as the ECOA should not be understated. We have Congresswoman Lindy Boggs to thank for adding the provision banning discrimination due to sex or marital status. She added the language and then told the committee "Knowing the members composing this committee as well as I do, I'm sure it was just an oversight that we didn't have 'sex' or 'marital status' included. I've taken care of that, and I trust it meets with the committee's approval."

My mother had returned to college and graduated as a teacher when I began college. She had her own income for the first time since she had provided the support while my father attended college. I recall she and my dad went to the bank to get a car loan so she could drive to her teaching job each day. They did it on my dad's credit. My mother turned to the bank officer and asked if she would have gotten the loan without my dad. Where did that come from? My sweet ironing mother was not a confrontational person. The bank officer hemmed and hawed as my mother's anger built. She felt patronized by both the bank officer and my dad. She was still furious when she told me about it in our weekly phone call, her fury enhanced no doubt by my father teasing in the background. I liked this side of her. My mother was coming out of the shadows and I was cheering her on.

When I was planning to marry in 1975, I was uneasy. I'd observed how married women were subsumed into their husband's identity. I bristled every time a newly married couple turned to face the wedding attendees and were introduced as Mr and Mrs John Doe, the bride losing even the dignity of a first name. "Not me", I swore even as it seemed that I was the only one who was bothered by that indignity. The idea of changing my name made my stomach churn. I advised my then fiancĂ© that I would be keeping my own name.  He wasn't too sure how he felt about it at first. I walked him through the experience most women faced. "Imagine you were referred to as Mr Jane Doe," I said. I give him credit, he understood it immediately and after that became my staunchest defender. 

I printed it on our wedding invitation -"the bride is retaining her maiden name". That raised a few eyebrows. It was one thing to do it, but another to be public about it. While keeping one's name became increasingly common in the 1970s, it then became less so and only now is seeing a resurgence.  As for me, some years later we split up and in time we both remarried. I don't recall it even being a discussion in my current marriage, and as for my former husband, his new wife kept her name also. I took some measure of pride in that. I'd trained him well.

It amazes me to think that when the teenage me sat in the kitchen and watched that 1969 protest, it was only 50 years since women got the vote. Now it is almost fifty years since that protest. Laws passed in the 1970s were important in changing women's lives, my life, making the world conform to the standards of fairness that I perhaps naively expected. By the time I finished college in 1975, the world had slowly begun to change. Young women today would find it ridiculous to have gender segregated want ads, to have credit only available to men or to not have the ability to participate in sports. 

The discrimination today is more subtle, but it is still very present. The expectations of how women "should" behave are certainly reflected in the responses we've witnessed in our political arena when women are considered shrill if they raise their voice. I am dismayed when I hear young women disavow feminism or indicate their belief that we no longer have discrimination or that electing female politicians is irrelevant. I think of that young woman who observed those early injustices and so often swore "not me", whose life was affected for the better by female politicians like Lindy Boggs and I know we are nowhere close to done.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A Holiday Tradition

My family seems to sync with holidays. My brother was born on St Patrick's Day, my sister's birthday often hits Thanksgiving and I claim Halloween and Election Day. When I was a child my mother used to make little witches for my birthday parties with Tootsie Roll heads and a crepe paper skirt under which was hidden a cup with a stash of candy corn. I never really identified with Halloween, but as an adult I often spent my birthday doorknocking for my Presidential candidate. I must admit those holiday associations do make it easier to recall family birthdays.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that my parents, who missed out on that birthday tradition, claimed their holidays in death. My father whose name was Phil chose the holiday of his namesake Punxsutawney Phil, Groundhog's Day, and my mother very appropriately chose the Fourth of July, appropriately because in life she loved flags and her country.

Last July we were doing the death vigil at this time of year. I never fully comprehended that being on one's death bed is more than a turn of phrase. I had come down to Illinois to visit my mother for what turned into an unexpected wait for her demise. It had an air of unreality to it, but as the Fourth of July approached, I knew that would be her departure date.

When I used to go for drives with my mother and we passed American flags waving in the wind, she would point them out in delight. She put flags in her planters, on her wall where she hung the things that spoke to her and of course on my father's grave.

On her wall she also had a photo of the Statue of Liberty and often spoke of how happy she was that she was born in America where she could get an education. Her mother had been born in the Ukraine where she was not educated, something that had always saddened my mother. My mother had loved learning and going back to college as an adult had been a highlight of her life. She associated that gift with being an American. The Fourth of July is a happy holiday to associate with her, a celebration of things she held dear.

I used to think of my mom as being a bit Pollyanna. In addition to loving flags, her country, and education, she lit up around children and frequently summoned us to our kitchen window to see a bird or a sunset. She didn't have a jaded bone in her body. My father called her The Original Innocent, perhaps because she had a purity of spirit, a genuine joy in the world around her that us more jaded souls have a harder time summoning.

I have a picture of her in my mind that is associated not with the flag, but with another Fourth of July tradition, fireworks. I had taken her on a trip to Barcelona. We stayed in a hotel on the Ramblas that overlooked a Miro mosaic, a circle set into the pavement. At night the fire swallowers would come out and position themselves on it, drawing a crowd until we would hear the DA-da DA-da of the police coming to disperse them. Our balcony gave us a front row seat. That evening we had already had our floor show of fire swallowers when we heard a noise and my mother returned to the balcony to see what it was. As she stood there in her nightgown, we realized it was the opening volley of a fireworks show from a nearby street. I picture her in her nighty, her face illuminated with the light from the fireworks and an expression of pure delight.

As I watch fireworks this Fourth of July, I think I will hold that image close, her looking at the world with joy, illuminated in its glow.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Our Imperfect Selves

Father's Day once again. I thought I was done with Father's Day when my Dad passed away four years ago. And yet, here I am with a crate of his papers, sorting through them, scanning them and learning new things about my father that make me regret that I didn't know him more fully. Does anyone ever know a parent fully? As a child I saw but a glimpse, fraught with parental authority and my struggles for independence and approval. I saw the clay feet of the man who walked on water in the eyes of the public. I knew the private person, not the man of accomplishment and eloquence. 

My father was a man of many talents who was often challenged by the everyday frustrations of dealing with children. Fortunately for us and for him, my mother was incredibly gifted with children. I wonder sometimes if he felt a bit like an outsider among us. His world was the world of work where he was esteemed and accomplished. In that world he had an innate understanding of how to assemble teams that stayed together for their entire careers. He could paint a vision and bring others into it by the force of his confidence. But he wasn't just talk, although he did that with eloquence that won my admiration. Where did this man who grew up in poverty, the child of immigrants, learn how to weave words together, bringing people together to create something lasting? He created educational programs, buildings and a public TV station, shaping both ideas and people's lives.

I didn't see that growing up. I was a child in my own world. I remember a child's memories; spinning around in a chair at his office, stomping on the metal flooring down the middle of the old engineering lab as I listened for the echoing sound in response. I remember the smell of his pipe tobacco back when professors smoked pipes. The smell of pipe tobacco still sends me hurtling back through time. 

He was impatient and driven. I imagine those qualities were somewhat tempered in a work world where he was forced to bring others along to accomplish his goals. In the world of family where he was king, we saw those qualities in their more unadulterated form, not always his finest moments. In hindsight I often recognize myself in him. I can imagine those recalcitrant children could be annoying. 

Just as I ask if we ever know a parent fully, I could as easily ask if we ever know a child fully. Did he know me or just the outward manifestations? Was he locked inside a parent's eyes just as I was in a child's? My father was a problem solver and sometimes brought that perspective to his children. That was actually when he was at his best. We taught each other. He once told me that he learned he had to deal with me differently. He couldn't spank me for misbehavior and assume that would resolve it. In fact, I would turn around and do exactly the same thing again to assert that he could not control me. We had warring temperaments, perhaps too much alike. I knew how to fight back, he created me after all. He told me that he had learned he had to reason with me. I silently chuckled. I remember my thought process as a child. "Don't let him think he can control you" I had told myself.

When I went off to college in the 1970s he took me aside and tried his reasoning techniques. He began,"I know you're going to experiment with things in college", his tone calm and rational. "But I would appreciate if you didn't try acid," he continued. "Did my father just say that?" I thought. I was a "good girl" in those days, but a cautious experimenter. He understood my curiosity about the world because he shared it. I was so taken with the respectful tone of his request that I agreed to it and later when the opportunity arose, I thought back to our conversation and took a pass. I must confess to being somewhat relieved that I had promised my father.

So now I go through his career papers to sort out what I will send to the library of the university where he spent his career. I consider what aspects of this man they will be interested in even as I reflect on our college send off conversation recorded only in memory. We are complicated creatures and my father more than most. At best we only get glimpses of each other filtered through one perspective. I am grateful for this chance to see him through other perspectives as well and to acknowledge the sheer complexity of our imperfect selves.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Wisdom of the Mothers

Voices of Wisdom... What does that conjure up for you visually? And what exactly is wisdom? Those were questions that faced me when I began the fourth year of the Jewish Artists' Lab with the theme of wisdom. The lab is a group of about thirty artists who gather twice a month to explore a theme through a Jewish lens. At the end of the year we have an exhibition as well as an opportunity to do a reading or performance piece.

I remember my first year in the lab. In hindsight I entered it with some unease. I looked around at some of the very accomplished artists in our group and wondered where and if I fit within them. And then there was that Jewish part. "Was I Jewish enough?" I wondered. Being Jewish was part of my identity, but more culturally than religiously. I found to my surprise that the group had a wide range of Jewish practice. It has been a welcoming place despite one's personal definition and equally important, an intellectually stimulating place.

I like what I call idea art. Idea art takes a broader concept and uses it to inform the art, to draw the viewer in visually, but also intellectually. There is often a use of metaphor and juxtaposition of ideas. The lab approach grows out of ideas so it often exemplifies this kind of art which has ultimately made it a good fit for me.

So back to that wisdom thing... I began this year's lab just three months after my mother had passed away. She was indisputably a wise woman, compassionate, non-judgmental and intellectually curious. She listened with her heart, understanding human frailty, yet seeing the potential in those she encountered. She was a teacher, but also a learner. When we were asked to define wisdom she was my yardstick, the gold standard.

At the time I was going through her home disposing of belongings, but also looking for traces of my mother, not quite ready to let her go. In my search I stumbled across a file titled Notes on Books Read. In it were excerpts from books that spoke to how we can live a meaningful life, face fears and grow into who we are meant to be. Her wisdom gatherings came from diverse sources and disciplines and held a number of Jewish sources. I've written about their contents in The Roundness of Things Part-1 and Part-2. I knew that she would be represented in my wisdom artwork through the words she had gathered, but had to figure out how to translate this visually. I was an artist in search of a metaphor.

I settled on the apple, that classic gift from a child to their teacher and the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In fact in Genesis it notes that the fruit was desired to make one wise. As I dug further I found rabbinic literature that referenced the time from the Exodus until the giving of the Law as the same time frame for blossoms to mature into fruit. Developing wisdom is a maturation process and I liked this juxtaposition. So now my question was how to express that visually. There are artists who plan ahead, doing sketches, thinking through ideas and then executing their vision. I'm not one of them. I start with a kernel of an idea, dive in and see what comes to me in the process.

So I started painting, apple trees and apples, thinking about the light source, polishing my apples with light and shadow. I had people come through my studio who liked that simple image of the apple tree. "Don't do anything else" they said. I knew I had to ignore that advice. When you paint you can't be afraid to ruin it. It is something we struggle with, when to push it, when to stop. I still had ideas to express so I knew I had to keep going. I wanted to incorporate my mother's words and decided to do that through a book that fans open in the corner. I wrote out her words on thin decorative paper and added pieces that folded creating a three dimensional feeling.
So now what?

I added a few books in a niche of the tree, then named them. One is titled the Pirkei Avot-Ethics of the Fathers, a Jewish text of wisdom which is studied in the period from the Exodus to the giving of the Law (between Passover and Shavuot), another juxtaposition with the apple and our maturation into wisdom. Then I added a book titled Notes on Books Read. In a moment of whimsy I hung a book over a branch with pages spilling out. Those pages curled into a fluid movement, born on a wind upward and out of the image. Smaller open books out of folded paper were added, taking bird-like shapes and adding to the movement. Apples sat on some of those pages, symbols of wisdom carried out into the world on the wings of books.

As we neared the end of the lab, we met with others in our group and discussed our work. I was asked about the as yet unnamed open book hanging over the branch. "What is its name?"

"I don't know." I confessed.

The next day it came to me. It would be the complement to the Pirkei Avot, which is the Ethics of the Fathers. My book would be the Pirkei Imahot - Ethics of the Mothers and contain their wisdom. On its front is written the name in Hebrew with the English on its spine. No such book exists, but it touches our lives through mothers everywhere. For me it represents the wisdom I witnessed daily in my own mother. What wisdom did you get from your mother?

and for those of you in the Twin Cities, stop in to see the show at:

Voices of Wisdom
Tychman Shapiro Gallery
and Shared Walls Exhibition Areas
Sabes JCC

4330 Cedar Lake Road S, Minneapolis
June 16-August 28, 2016
Opening Reception: Thursday, June 16 from 6-8
Art Beat Event: Sunday, August 28 from 5-7

Monday, June 6, 2016

Tendrils of Story

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse (cropped) by Danielle Bora

I read an article in the paper recently that sounded like the outline for a book, one of those composed of separate stories that miraculously converge at the conclusion. The first story would begin with a swim trip for children. Their school bus ride home would end with the yellow school bus perched precariously at the split of a collapsed bridge, hanging half over water. It is 2007 and a bridge has collapsed in Minneapolis during rush hour. The story would focus on a handful of those children on the bus, both during and after, the injuries, the nightmares. Then it would zero in on one family with several children who were aboard that bus.

The second story would be eight or nine years later and explore the rise of ISIS and its impact on the Somali community of the Twin Cities. It would tell the story of young boys suddenly disappearing, reappearing in Syria with the intent to join ISIS, the families left behind puzzled and fearful.

Then back to the bridge, one boy in that family years later, receiving a settlement from the bridge collapse, using it to board a flight that takes him to Turkey, then Syria, funding his friends' journeys as well.

Stories surround us, but we need to pay attention. Reading a lot helps us to recognize the tendrils of story as we walk into them like cobwebs, but it was not until I was writing or painting that I seemed to encounter stories everywhere. It is like a second ghost-like world that always existed, but suddenly becomes visible.

My artwork tells stories and my starting point is to find the story. I began story gathering when I began family history research.  I've learned to step into old photos. To feel the person viscerally. Needless to say I've always loved well-written time travel because in a sense I try to step back in time through imagination. The essence of people is not so different despite our more modern conveniences.

When I went to Lithuania I began to collect stories that in turn became paintings. Some came from books, some I collected from others, some I observed and constructed out of threads. Some were fully formed, but others were poetry and vignettes, gaps left to be filled in by the viewer. I remember one of the old shops in Vilnius with Hebrew lettering on its storefront. In the dust on the window someone had written in Yiddish "You did not die, the nation of Israel lives".  As the viewer I had to identify the juxtaposition of ideas to paint the story.

 I remember the writing on the wall at the Ninth Fort near Kovno, a killing field for the Nazis. On the

I Was Here
wall were carved the names and towns of origin by the Jews held captive on the eve of their execution. It needed something more to complete the story, the sense of the person who carved it into that wall.  I had a painting of a person that I had painted over with just the ghost of the person remaining.  That became the base for the painting I Was Here. 

When I did a series on interviews with elders, I focused on their stories, looking for themes and the personal story arc that informed their life. I wrote poetry to enter their story, to feel it before I could paint it.

And my most recent series on memory loss... This returned me to the personal as I watched my mother go through that most personal of losses. Story was everywhere and told through motifs of memory jars and birthday greetings. I seem to have become more adept at seeing story and perhaps the personal is where it is most easily present. Ultimately story is how we explain and understand the world, how we step into someone's experience and feel it.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Welcoming the Community

We recently concluded Art-a-Whirl, the largest open studio event in the country. During eighteen hours over three days, thousands traipsed through studios in NE Minneapolis. Occasionally I weigh the convenience of a home studio with our space in an artist building, fifteen miles from our home. There are winter days when getting in the car to go there seems daunting. Art-a Whirl then rolls around and reminds me of the value of opening our doors to a slice of community we might otherwise not encounter.

I've always said it is a great way to throw a party without the housecleaning flurry that accompanies guests in one's home. We need only complete enough paintings to cover our walls, frame, hang and label them, print cards for sale, send an invite to 300 people, stock up on wine and food and open our doors. Easy!

Many friends do come through and we love their visits. I fill up my calendar with dinner dates for the following weeks. I am a bit chagrined at how poorly I would sustain my network of friends without periodic open studios. I am also reminded of how diverse my network of friends is, drawn from so many different parts of my life and my history.

Every year I have returning guests, people I don't know, but who remember my work from a prior year and are genuinely excited to encounter it again. "l want you to tell my friend the story you told me last year about this painting." one woman says. My work encompasses both story and artwork, each reinforcing the other. I am pleased when it is memorable. So often I wonder if I am spinning my wheels. I work in solitude so much of the time that the response of others is truly heartening, reminding me why I do what I do.

This year I had more work on memory. It falls in three sections: 1) my mother's experience with memory loss and the creativity that she still was capable of exhibiting 2) the experience through a daughter and caregiver's eyes and 3) memories others shared with a loved one who lost memory. The last category is fed by others' contributions to a memory jar.

At last year's Art-a-Whirl I was moved by the many people who shared their story related to memory loss with me. I decided to try to capture that all too universal experience with a memory jar. I invited others to share a memory they had shared with a loved one who lost memory, one for which they are now the keeper of the memory. It got off to a slow start. Last year I had to cajole entries, explaining the concept over and over. This year I had paintings based on others' stories hanging on the wall. Every time I looked up someone was standing deep in thought by the memory jar, pen in hand. I was touched by the love they expressed, the memories of loved ones they honored. I had people thank me for including that, giving them an opportunity to engage and to honor. I think I'm onto something. Ideas start by reflecting on my own experience, but I am never sure if what speaks to me has a broader reach. Now I feel quite certain that it does.