Sunday, October 15, 2017

Finding our Arc

I recently did an interview with a publication where I was asked the question of how I moved from artwork to writing, something the interviewer viewed as two distinct areas.  I laughed and said, “Let me make it even more confusing, I came out of a career in finance and was in social work before that.”  

Artwork to writing seemed like one of the smaller steps I've made in my lifetime. They are two different art forms for telling stories and that is what I do.  Now I realize that words and images are supposed to draw on opposite sides of our brain and often represent two different types of people. I’m convinced I hopscotch back and forth across my brain with some regularity. An integrated brain often seems to go with being left-handed so perhaps being a lefty in a right-handed world is a factor. I proceeded to share with him my theory that everything I’ve been drawn to has revolved around solving puzzles and telling stories.

His question made me realize that we meet people at one point in time along their personal story arc. We may know two data points about them that we focus upon and that becomes the context in which we view them while in fact the context is much broader.  I find that happens often now that I am meeting people after their career has concluded and their kids are grown. I forget that they had a life before that moment. I suppose that is the function of interviewers, to broaden the context. We also are our own editors.  I could have decided to stay within the context he knew and not painted the broader picture, excising that incongruent part of my history. 

We each have a story arc, one we ourselves are not yet aware of in its totality. Had you spoken to me at an earlier point in my life, I would not have been able to tell you what my latest iteration would have looked like. It has certainly not been linear, although I would argue that there is an internal logic. I’ve often thought of my life like a book, one I wanted to peek ahead in, a bad habit of mine.  In my younger days, I used to go to a psychic who gave me glimpses into my possibilities. It was my version of peeking ahead. “Tell me it will all be OK," I was really asking.  Then I decided to just live my life and see where it took me and where I took it.  It is a bit of a collaboration between us and the universe. We can drive it to some extent, but opportunities and challenges present themselves to which we have to respond. How we respond can take us in very different directions.

Over time we develop an approach to life events. When I was in college I used to debate with my roommate which one of us was the luckiest person.  We each believed that good things came to us and that we had some ability to influence those things. I’m not sure where that belief came from at that early age.  To some extent it is magical thinking, but it also means that when you expect good things, you typically get them and it becomes a reinforcing philosophy.  When I reconnected with my old roommate several decades later we found that we were both living engaged and interesting lives. I suspect the optimism we shared had a lot to do with the outcome. Have you ever noticed how two people can have similar experiences and interpret them in totally different ways? Half-full or half-empty?  I think those of us who see the glass as half-full are looking at a broader story arc. 

 I’ve often described myself as a short-run pessimist and a long-run optimist.  In the short-run anything can go wrong, but in the long-run it all sorts out. I’m willing to acknowledge that there are times that life can be pretty miserable, but over time I believe it arcs to self-awareness and gratitude for what we are given.  We begin to find the pattern of our life, to see the logic underlying how we live and to appreciate the many gifts that we receive along the way.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Collector


I am a collector. Doesn't that sound more elegant than a pack rat, connoting white gloves rather than beady eyes? I collect information, especially markers of my history, preserving the traces of where I have been, to fortify myself for the future. I know people who keep very little, curating their lives to only the precious items they deem worthy.  I envy them their lack of clutter, the clarity with which they go through life unbound by their past. Perhaps they are more prescient than I am and know what will matter to them in the future, or perhaps it just doesn't matter to them.  I will never be one of them. 

I come by this collecting trait naturally.  If there is a gene for it, I got it from my father. When I look at my growing piles of papers, I have visions of my father’s study. There I sorted 
through piles of paper after his death, unable to move beyond his rocker, where I nested, in a room filled with books and music and history, layered with unopened mail he could no longer manage and New York Times clippings that he clung to. My mother urged him to get rid of the clippings, stacked in piles reaching upward.   “I need them to help me remember,”  he snapped. I was struck by his response.  I understood his desire to capture what spoke to him, an accumulation of readings that captured his window on the world and documented his essence.  It is not too unlike my old books still populating my shelves. They remind me of the path I took to becoming me.


My father papered his existence, a box of his history, carefully organized, awaited me amidst the chaos. He tried in vain to make order out of chaos with inventories of records and videotapes, a carryover from his days of collecting stamps, meticulously recording them in his tiny script. He cherished his history, where he came from on his path to becoming who he was.

I am made of the same cloth, a historian in my soul.  I  read his 
New York Times clippings looking for a way into his being, now non-being, in a silent conversation post-death.  I looked at these manifestations of what he was drawn to, trying to find the person I never really knew. There is something about history that fascinates me, the residue of a person’s life, like a trail of breadcrumbs into their being.  It is an effort to make sense of the world, to find an understanding and mastery of it, to understand another being and perhaps even oneself.

It occurs to me that this tendency perhaps explains my email box.  It has an embarrassing number of emails. Every so often I decide to tackle it and delete large swaths of emails, but it is so out of control that it makes only the slightest dent. Instead it functions as a storage dump, a filing cabinet through which I search as necessary.  Recently I had a brainstorm.  I would go back to 2010 and work forward, Then I should be able to quickly delete virtually everything as it would all be out of date. Instead, I discovered a treasure trove of history.


Turns out 2010 was an important year in my life.  There I found an email that reported on the interview project which led to the book I will publish this month. I wrote the email on the day I first voiced the idea of interviewing elders and even proposed the idea of a book linking artwork and story.  Seven and a half years later, I have done everything I envisioned so long ago.

In 2010, I met my friend Dora, a Holocaust survivor from my ancestral town. In another email, I wrote of my first five-hour visit with her, saying I thought that we would be great friends. Now in her nineties, she has become a pivotal person in my life.

The year 2010 laid the groundwork for two international shows also well documented in emails. Upon my return the prior year from Lithuania, I had done a series of artwork on how Lithuania dealt with the Holocaust. I had been invited to show the work in London. And in 2010 I was invited to show my work in Poland where I collaborated with my new friend Dora, showing her photographs with my paintings, traveling through time, a hole in time, as I named the series on the Jewish community of my ancestral town.


I realized that I was looking at the early part of a seven-year span, the beginning of many of the efforts that unfolded within that period. Seven years is a period that is often viewed as significant in religion and in spirituality.  I began to read about seven-year cycles, suddenly realizing that I am now at the beginning of a new one. Some posit that we live our life in such cycles, each with its distinct characteristics, reflective of our personal growth and the demands of each period of our life. If that is the case, 2009 began such a cycle and by 2010 a great deal had begun to happen.  It is a cycle described as a turning point guided by intuition and a desire to apply one's talents to something beyond one's personal self-interest, a greater sense of purpose. The psychiatrist Carl Jung viewed it through the lens of individuation,  a time when we realize that who we are grows out of the collective experience of our family and culture.   We begin to explore these questions freeing us to redefine ourselves and create something new.  That was eerily accurate, my book explores the collective experience of the Jewish community as I explored how I fit within it.   

As I leave that stage, the future is about harvesting, teaching and sharing the results of those efforts.  Now that is something to which I look forward.




Thursday, September 21, 2017

Throwing Out Rules

My stepdaughter is studying to be a midwife, something I find quite interesting as it gives us a birds-eye view into the profession. Every so often she sends us a draft of a paper to review, so we get to learn along with her. Recently she sent a paper that presented an adult learning model. While the focus was on making a treatment plan meaningful to an adult patient, I found myself thinking about how I am a different kind of student as an adult than I was earlier in my life. Oddly enough, in my last blog post before I received her paper, I had written this:



I know that my learning style is experiential and crosses boundaries. It is an exploration fueled by curiosity and it requires me to keep a certain fearlessness alive; to not let myself be bound by rules that strangle creativity and to trust that I can figure out what I don't know.


Now it has taken me a lifetime to figure that out. I started my work life in an environment that allowed for that learning style and didn't realize how unusual that was. Much of my subsequent work life was in fields that were quite rule-bound, often of necessity because they were dealing with a regulatory environment. The rule-follower in me does just fine in those settings, but if you asked me where I was most creative, it was in that early open-ended environment that didn't hand me a rule book. I found it exhilarating and discovered I was pretty good at finding my way. Ironically I seldom left a job without leaving guidance for my successor. It wasn't that I was opposed to rules, they just had to make sense, which meant I had to write them.


I grew up with a father who believed that rules were there to be broken. He had a successful career doing just that. At the same time he expected us to be good students, after all, he was a college professor, my mother a teacher. I was to learn that rule breaking and being a good student exist in an uneasy tension with each other. Perhaps you need to learn the rules before you break them, yet somehow not stifle your own judgment and creativity along the way. In that early period of my life it was easier to be a good student than to break rules. As much as my father might have argued for breaking rules, he didn't mean his rules and as he liked to remind us, "When you live in my house, you live by my rules." I liked learning and was good at it, so being a good student wasn't a difficult path for me when I was young.



So what changed? I've learned many new things as an adult, many of them since I left my career and could resume my self-directed learning approach where I do best. I've learned how to do solo art shows, give speeches and teach classes, market, design websites, write blogs and books, publish a book, do genealogy consulting, build partnerships, create and manage projects of my own choosing and tell stories.


Sometimes I do pursue a more traditional learning model, particularly when I study languages. and I do selectively take art and writing classes, but mostly I learn by observing others or interviewing others who have pursued a path in which I have interest. Sometimes I consciously take a class for one purpose so I can carry it over to another. To learn to do websites, I took an on-line class through Jewishgen to develop the skills to build websites on ancestral towns. After building two of them, I applied that knowledge to building my own art website and have used it many times since for other projects, expanding my knowledge each time mostly by experimenting and doing a lot of Google searches when I'm stuck. In the age of the Internet we can learn a lot with a Google search.


So what is unique about an adult learner? The Knowles model, the one my stepdaughter introduced us to, proposes six aspects loosely paraphrased as 1) we move from dependence to self-direction. No longer in my father's house, I could create my own rules. 2) we acquire a data bank of experiences that we draw on and reference as we learn. Those experiences might support a new learning or perhaps contradict it. We test what we learn against our reality. 3) our readiness to learn is related to the tasks that we assume in our daily life, another way of saying it has to be relevant to us. 4) we focus on applying what we learn now, rather than building some future body of knowledge for a career 5) we are internally motivated, rather than externally and 6) we want to know why we need to learn something. In short, we want to know why we should care and how it is applicable to us. The corollary is we have no desire to waste our time or be bored along the way.



I think I would add a seventh item to the list that has to do with rules. While I wouldn't eliminate them totally, I would require a clear logic to be provided to justify their need, otherwise they just serve to constrain us from following a self-directed path.



There is a part of me, and perhaps all of us, that believes there is a right way to do things and everybody else seems to know it except me. That's why people go to school and get credentials. I think women are much more prone to that belief system, perhaps because we aren't taken seriously unless we have the credentials. It is constraining, and often makes us timid and silences our voice. Much of life is about figuring it out as you go along.


Ah, but the adult learner, especially those women of a certain age, have begun to figure this out. I have watched many women in their post-work life thrive with this self-directed model, finding their voice as they explore new directions quite different than those at which they once made their living.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Finding Fearlessness


Last evening, we were invited to a Shabbat dinner. It was the kind of Shabbat dinner that is properly done; a warm, inviting home, a gathering of interesting people, and an inventive meal for which one waits for each course with anticipation. And, of course, there were the blessings and songs that make it a Shabbat dinner.

I am always amazed when people know all the Hebrew words to prayers and songs. Raised as a Reform Jew, I only learned the critical lines.  When they come to them, I join in with gusto, grateful for that fragment of recognition. My husband, who isn't Jewish, knows even less than I do, but borrows a yarmulke and participates in the lively conversation.

We began the meal by going around and each of us speaking of something good that happened in our life that week. Normally my mind goes blank when faced with such a question. "What did I do this week?" I ponder, as I mentally retrace my calendar.  This week was easy. "I sent my book off to the printer," I proudly announced. I've moved from pre-publication worries to post-publication worries. I had spent a sleepless night the prior evening considering a last-minute change that I wasn't sure I could still do, only to quickly resolve it the next morning. Problems loom so much larger at 3AM.

I mentioned the name of the book, We Spoke Jewish, as I was seated at a table where its topic would be of interest. As I looked around the table, I realized that I have become part of a Jewish community.  As with most of my pursuits, I come at it through an unexpected channel. I am an artist, a writer, and an oral historian, but I didn't come out of art school, a writing program or a history background. I identify as Jewish, but don't belong to a traditional synagogue or temple and for many years did not participate in the Jewish community. In fact, the only pursuit for which I had proper credentials was my finance career. So here I am writing and painting about the stories of the Jewish community and frequently presenting to Jewish groups. What's up with that?

For years I have taken art classes and more recently, writing classes, but never for credit. I'm too much of a good student at my core and I knew I needed to be careful not to focus on satisfying a teacher. I had to keep my focus on satisfying myself. I'd take what was of value to me and leave the rest. I knew that the more rules I absorbed, the more fearful I would become of transgressing them. I function best when I wing it a bit, absorbing what I need, but not letting it tie me into knots that begin to diminish my creativity. It is my way of countering that good student rule-following part of my nature. Instead I wanted to dive into new directions with a fearlessness that I needed to find within myself. "What do you have to lose?" I have often asked myself. "What is the worst thing that could happen?" Then I plunge forward into a thicket of challenges that could seem daunting in mass, but tackled one by one they gradually fall away.

Now there are a few challenges to this approach. There are sometimes holes in my knowledge, just like those Hebrew songs and prayers where I only know the critical line. Sometimes I just follow the melody until I hit something familiar. Someone who studies a discipline, in well, a more disciplined manner, might know more of the words. They would have less need to learn things the hard way as I often do. I know that my learning style is experiential and crosses boundaries. It is an exploration fueled by curiosity and it requires me to keep a certain fearlessness alive; to not let myself be bound by rules that strangle creativity and to trust that I can figure out what I don't know.

Sometimes my number-counting-self ticks off what I've done in the past on my book project to gird myself for the challenge of future tasks: 20 speeches, 17 oral histories, 17 paintings, 7 exhibitions, 3 grants, 2 organizational partners, 1 book . . .and a partridge in a pear tree. Oops, wrong list. But you get the idea. It sounds daunting in total, but when it unfolds step by step, it doesn't seem nearly as overwhelming.

I’ve got lots of talks and marketing ahead and many things that feel difficult, but one by one, I’ll approach them, perhaps not always fearlessly, but with courage and enthusiasm, confident that I have a powerful story to share.



Shabbos candles in our previous home via photopin (license)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Surprise Packages


wespokejewish.com/
I had a friend in college who was Turkish and she introduced me to a Turkish puzzle box. It was an object with a secret, possessing hidden layers. The box surprised and delighted me, springing open only when I moved the right piece, revealing a hidden compartment. Puzzles have always drawn me, especially those that carry hidden meanings, inviting discovery. 

As much as I love deciphering meaning, I find I also like sowing it, and have had an opportunity to do so in the book I am publishing, creating layers of meaning like little surprise packages. I do that often in my paintings, hiding a deeper story in image. When I share the story, it often pulls people in, a shared secret that deepens the meaning.

So let me share a few layers of meaning from within the book. 

The name of the book is We Spoke Jewish: A Legacy in Stories. It explores the stories and experiences of those who grew up in early Jewish communities, survivors who came to the US in the 1940s and 1950s, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came in the 1970s-1990s. So what does that title mean? One of the people I interviewed spoke of speaking Jewish, meaning Yiddish. "There was no such thing as not speaking Jewish," she said as she described the early Jewish community of the North Side. I was used to the term Yiddish to represent the language, but many of those I interviewed used the words Jewish and Yiddish interchangeably. And it wasn't just for language, but also identity. You could be Yiddish and speak Jewish. The phrasing surprised me, inverted from what I expected.

But not everyone spoke Jewish in the sense of Yiddish. Certainly survivors I interviewed from Germany did not.  Some of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union had vague memories of a grandparent speaking Yiddish. Was there perhaps another meaning for "speaking Jewish?" Could I expand it metaphorically?

When I thought of survivors of the Holocaust, it occurred to me that they had a unique role in the larger community, that of memory. They carried deep within them the memory of lost family and of a lost world, a world in which many of us had ancestral roots. A close friend of mine who is a survivor often speaks of her ten cousins who did not survive. Her commitment to sharing her memory is in part on their behalf. Each of the survivors spoke the Jewish of memory.

The immigrants from the former Soviet Union spoke a different kind of Jewish, the Jewish of culture. Unable to practice their religion, they shared their heritage through culture. They sang songs they had learned as children, spoke of recipes passed down by their mothers and told stories of the holidays once celebrated. 

These three groups spoke the Jewish of language, memory and culture, all ways that identity is formed, expressed and passed on.  The title began to carry a certain resonance, initially an inversion of Yiddish and Jewish that startled me, and a new and broader meaning ascribed to the term to encompass all of those whom I interviewed.

More layers of meaning are hidden in elements of the design. The designer wanted a form to repeat in each section. The original form that she selected was composed of curved shapes, but not with any specific meaning. I decided I wanted something that would hold meaning in its folds, but what? I began by exploring the meaning behind different Hebrew letters and settled on the aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I remembered something I had learned in the Jewish Artists' Lab, of how Rabbi Naftali Horowitz looked to the letter aleph which represents the name of God and noted that it echoes the form of our face. If we disassemble it we see two yuds and a vav, two eyes and a nose, figuratively holding God before us in our own face and perhaps in that of another person.

I believe it is through story that we form powerful connections with each other. When we truly look at another person, when we hear their story, we see ourselves and perhaps a little piece of that which connects each of us. To really see another person and to listen deeply to their story is what this book is about. It is also an exploration of identity. As I interviewed each person, I found elements of myself and of our shared humanity. What could possibly capture that better than an aleph? 

The stories themselves also offer surprises, little bits of knowledge that deepened my awareness in unanticipated ways.  Within the paintings are still more layers of meaning, often the result of some free association as I considered the stories of my interviewees and how to share them. Free association, metaphors told with both word and image, hidden elements that inform and surprise, layered meaning -- all are elements that enrich storytelling and form important aspects of my book.

Read more about the book at wespokejewish.com.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Fragile Nation



I have always taken my country for granted.  My mother, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, had a much more heartfelt response, aware of how different her life would have been had she not been born here.  Her mother as a girl had not been educated. Boys were educated, but not girls. That had always disturbed my mother and she in turn was deeply grateful to be an American, especially because of the education that she had received in the United States.  She had a special fondness for the American flag and the Statue of Liberty, symbols of that opportunity.

As for me, I was an American, but a jaded one. Aware of our less seemly history from our treatment of the Native Americans, to our Jim Crow laws, to the blatant antisemitism of the first half of the 20th century. I brought a certain skepticism to flag waving. I never was a pep rally kind of gal, finding that rah rah approach pretty hollow. And I view nationalism as dangerous, the petri dish out of which bigotry is perpetuated. "I belong, you don't" is its inherent message.

Still, despite my skepticism, I believed that we as a country had made progress and had become a better nation. I believed that our movement in areas of LGBTQ rights suggested the growth of the people of this country. I looked at former President Obama as an indication that we had moved into a new era of greater openness to differences. Our country felt pretty sturdy to me throughout all these changes. Unshakeable I thought.

And then came Charlottesville. I knew there was a dark underbelly, but it remained largely unseen, no longer acceptable in public.  I watched as Trump stirred the pot, inciting racists and anti-Semites, opening the Pandora's box at the fault-line of civil society. With Charlottesville, I saw the unleashing of those demons. 
I suddenly realized that we are still a fairly young experiment in history, a country that is not defined by one heritage, but many, a country that has benefited from its immigrant history even as it has struggled with it. For every step forward, there is a backlash and I think that is especially true right now as minorities become majorities. Hopefully there will in turn be a backlash to Charlottesville as others too look on with horror.

For the first time I see the fragility of this country, as I watch the floodwaters rise, hoping that the bulwarks of courts and our system of checks and balances hold them at bay, hoping that the people of this nation have clarity and purpose about who we aspire to be and in turn demand it from the politicians who serve us. For the first time I feel a tenderness towards the beliefs which underlie this nation, as if it is a delicate seedling that I want to nurture and usher to safety.




Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Nature Museum

We are driving east across Montana on our way to Bismarck, ND. We pass fields with black cows, then expanses dotted with round hay bales.The rolling hills of gold have diminished from the the rugged cliffs of Billings, the layered geological forms of the Badlands, and the vast mountains of Glacier. As the land flattens, the world is sky and clouds. Soon the land will flatten still more. The road spools out before us, drawing us into the changing topography, so different than being delivered abruptly to our destination by plane.  

We are returning from a trip to Yellowstone and Glacier where we met up with family; one daughter's family from California, the other Minnesota, meeting in the middle. It is satisfying to have most everyone reunited, a dozen of us, missing but one. This is not our typical vacation, usually transported by plane to a foreign city and immersed in museums.

In some ways it was not so different from our museum jaunts. I found myself considering color and line as I viewed the thermal springs of Yellowstone. The rich yellows, ochers and blues arrested my eye and the steam rising from the springs enveloped the scene in mystery. Lines were etched into the ground and ghostly white trees emerged from the depths. Yellowstone was rich in the elements that appeal to me as an artist. 

Glacier was immense in scope, but of such magnitude, that I found it difficult to visually frame its grandeur. When we went for a hike through the woods, I found myself focusing on more bite-size elements, the way light fell on trees and their sculptural forms, the mystery created by the interplay of light with shadow, the color of rocks as the water moved above them and the sun sparkling upon the surface of the water. 

I am not a landscape painter, but I found the abstraction of forms captivating. When I go through museums, I always am inspired to paint. The landscape inspired a similar response.



One day we stopped at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, curious what a museum in this part of the world might offer. We were pleasantly surprised. A painted river led the way into the museum which was housed in the old jail and still preserved its facade. There were a number of pieces by significant contemporary artists as well as work by artists who were inspired by the landscape. A juxtaposition of Thomas Moran's watercolors of Yellowstone with an installation by contemporary artist, Rosane Vochan O'Conor, also inspired by Yellowstone, was intriguing. O'Conor explored the imagery of Yellowstone through glass, ceramics and image, using the bacteria that create its rich colors as part of her source material.

As we went through the museum we heard the excited  pitch of children's voices. They soon filed in as their parents waited to collect them. 

We eavesdropped long enough to learn that they had participated in a program combining art and science. It obviously had been a success as they took their parents through the exhibit and excitedly shared what they had learned. We listened in amusement as one little girl enthusiastically explained to her mother the role of the bacteria captured in hanging glass forms. As we departed we followed the painted river to a nearby building called the Visible Vault which allows visitors to observe work on the holdings not currently on display.  We were impressed with the way the museum amplified our experience in the landscape and its successful engagement of children and their families. 

And now we return home, eager for this last leg to conclude. We have bid farewell to our Californians and caravan behind the trailer of our Minnesota family. It is a long drive, the reversal of the topography that unspooled on our drive out adds a certain closure to our experience as it slowly returns to the familiar.