Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Being Visible

Soon after hearing of the plans for the Women's March in Washington DC, I decided that I needed to be there. Me, someone who really doesn't like crowds. When Prince died and people gathered in downtown Minneapolis at First Avenue, I had a brief moment when I forgot I didn't like crowds. "Maybe we should go there," I said to my husband as we watched the throng of people on the news. Then I remembered that he disliked crowds even more than I do.

This time I went and joined the crowd. I went to the Women's March because I felt so deeply that it is important to be visible. I wanted to make my physical presence known, to occupy my space on this earth, to assert I am here.  I voted, I gave money, I even door knocked during the election, but save for door knocking, they are all quiet ways of showing support. And believe me when I say, I must push myself past my internal boundaries every time I door knock or phone in a campaign. There is a part of me that hesitates to intrude.

I have been so filled with disgust over our recent election, an election that was stage managed by the FBI and Russia, that elected by a three million popular vote deficiency, a man who fills me with loathing and supports policies that are antithetical to who I am.  So now I was ready to intrude. Now I needed to show up. I needed to let my body take up space, to exert my physical presence and be counted.

Some have asked what the purpose was of the march. Every person I spoke with felt that the values and the tone of this administration were diametrically opposed to their own.  This is not just a matter of dissatisfaction at "losing" an election, and I use that term loosely given the popular vote. In addition to values, there is a level of disgust at the method of generating support by appealing to the worst instincts of people, denigrating women, Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants. It embarrasses me as an American. I expected better of us. I want an inclusive nation, with policy and tone that is respectful of differences, without rancor. I want integrity and honesty, not lies in service of one man's ego. I marched for that hope and I was surrounded by people who shared that hope. 

Do I really expect it to change anything? I don't know, but I hope so. If the wings of a butterfly can create a tornado, what can three million people in 600 cities around the world create when they are willing to show up, to intrude. Sometimes we have to let things unfold.  I hope it's a first step. I don't yet know what the next step will be, but sometimes you have to take the first step before you know what comes next. Life is incremental. Vision requires movement, one step at a time, we reach a new vantage point and begin to see what can be. This weekend my vantage point was people pressed tightly together as far as the eye could see, all sharing a common vision. It filled me with hope and a sense of possibility.

As I reflect on the past few days, I realize that one of the things which was very different was the level of intimacy with strangers, sometimes quite literally at the march as our usual sense of physical space was breached, but in other ways as well. I am an introvert and usually have my nose in a book on an airplane. This time was different.  On the plane, I talked the entire flight with the woman next to me, substantive talk about values and beliefs, how we struggle in our interactions with those who don't share our values and beliefs. It was not until the very end that we introduced ourselves.

Then I got into the shuttle and talked with the driver. There is a feeling out process. "Why didn't you come for the inauguration?" he asked. "Because I had no desire to see that man inaugurated," I reply. We are off and running, sharing our mutual loathing for "that man."


The seat mate who soon joined me in the shuttle was from Kansas City so we talked a bit about our respective state politics.  Then we shared our stories about health care and the canned responses from our state legislators to our letters. I have a regular 3 AM letter writing ritual when I can't sleep, letters to my conservative state legislator. I had recently gotten a canned letter back for the second time. In my third letter, I wrote,"Stop, do not send me your form letter. I am sending you a thoughtful and reasoned letter and I expect the same in response."  My seat mate shared a remarkably similar story. 

The next morning when I walked the mile to the metro stop, I chatted with a couple I encountered in route, also headed to the march. They had recently moved to DC and this was their first time using the metro. We talked of the various places they had lived, their politics and their desire to be present. The metro was packed with women in pink pussy hats holding signs, standing room only. I realized my phone was fast losing juice and my new friends had a charger they happily shared as we stood clinging to the pole.

On the heels of those experiences, I began the march feeling that this crowd was filled with people like me, people with whom I could have a real conversation on shared beliefs and values. I met up with a friend and my niece, but the crowds and poor Internet connection, caused some challenges in finding them. As I momentarily wondered if we'd meet, I consoled myself with the thought that all of these marchers were potential friends in the making. 

After the march, crowds filled all of the streets, restaurant goers spilled out in front of the restaurants, metro lines wound out around the corner and down the block. I flagged down a taxi and returned to my friend's home deeply engaged in conversation with the Somali cabbie. He was quite convinced that there were more than the half million estimate in DC based on the number of metro rides and lines at the metros. We soon took a deep dive into politics."My friend, let me tell you" was his preface to each comment and I indeed felt like a friend. He told me of how he took a week to go to Minnesota and Ohio to get Somalis engaged in the election. He then returned to DC where he gave people free rides to the polls. I was impressed. His knowledge of politics was deep and he was engaged. He dropped me at my door and I walked gingerly on tired feet.

Now I must say; marching is hard work. It involves a lot of standing for long stretches, tightly surrounded by other people, before you have that glorious release of movement, marching with others, chanting, waving signs and realizing it is not just you who is disgusted and ready to intrude. You've got lots of company. As I write this the morning after, feeling a bit achy in its aftermath, I am very glad to have intruded on the public consciousness and I intend to keep doing so, I suspect in good company.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Blog Anxiety

There is a point early in each year where I invariably experience a crisis of confidence about this blog.  "Have I run out of new things to say?" I wonder.  Every time I write a blog post, I'm never sure where the next one will come from, or even if it will come. Often I experience a bit of blog anxiety. Will it resonate with anyone? If so, then how do I follow it with another that will also? Just as with paintings, not everything is a masterpiece and in the interest of timeliness, blog entries often are not our most polished work. 

I think it is about more than just writing, for writing is merely an expression of our thoughts and experiences. The past eight years of this blog have been fertile, a time of exploration and discovery in my life that in turn has fed this blog. The core of my unease is perhaps less will I have interesting things to write, more will I have interesting things to live? Exploration and discovery presuppose a path that is unknown.  And it is that very unknown, that is the root of unease, that also gives birth to the surprises that delight us with their unexpected nature.

* Photo credit
So let's leave those more existential concerns aside and consider blogging itself. I've been thinking about it recently as a friend announced she was considering starting a blog. I advised her to choose a broad topic and be prepared to expand it over time. Don't hesitate to knock down the walls of your house and add on rooms. Living in one space can get tiresome. Meaningful content is one of the challenges, but even a meaningful topic can begin to feel confining over a long period of time.

In writing classes we are given prompts, ideas that inspire us to write. I've learned that prompts are all around us. Sometimes an event is a prompt or a question that is posed that perhaps stumped me at the time and lingers. This post was started by something as basic as a friend saying she was thinking of starting a blog. If you're someone who ponders ideas, you will find that you can riff off just about anything. When you write a blog, you need to learn to pay attention to those curious thoughts that make you wonder. They usually contain a prompt.

Then there is the commitment to consistently write. The most important thing for any blogger is a love of writing, otherwise it is a lot of work. Well it's a lot of work even if you do love to write, but it's the difference between a labor of love and just plain labor.Writing can be magical. Metaphors appear as if out of air, cicadas and nesting dolls and tectonic plates. "Where did those come from?" I wonder. It is as if the experience of a lifetime is blended together and unexpected elements emerge. It is the magic that enthralls me the most, how ideas and images take shape through the mere act of writing.

There are annoyances as well. For me the most annoying aspect of writing a blog is finding photos and correcting formatting that somehow alters in the cybersphere. I swat at these impatiently, obstacles to metaphors and magic.

This is my ninth year of blogging. I began when I was heading off to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute to spend six weeks in Eastern Europe. I hoped to keep a record of my explorations. I knew nothing about blogging and frankly didn't care if anyone read it, in fact I wasn't sure I wanted them to. My objective was not to embarrass myself. The bar was set pretty low, good writing and proper grammar was all that was required (perhaps not so low after all). I spent time every evening writing and drafted my travel companion into the effort as well. There was no shortage of material given our surroundings. Each evening we explored the events of our day, something I found oddly satisfying.

When I returned from my travels I realized I wasn't quite ready to quit. My writing began to focus on my genealogy research and the artwork that grew out of my explorations. I was still protecting a zone of privacy. I got married upon my return and we headed off to Paris for our honeymoon, but I wrote very little about it. I hadn't yet deemed that in scope.  I was a private person writing publicly and rather shy about it.

Over time I wrote about travels in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, meetings with distant cousins who I tracked down through my research and of course my evolving artwork. My interview project with Jewish elders and the artwork that followed occupied a lot of blog real estate as well as a lot of my energy. For a time I wrote about the Artist Lab until I was invited to write a dedicated blog for it. Now I had two blogs to maintain. Later when I was a long distance caregiver for my mother, I began to veer into the personal, sharing my perspective as her memory faded. 

A funny thing happened. Readers seemed to like the personal, that stuff I'd avoided as private. My artwork began to move into the personal too as I explored memory and with the death of my parents in the past few years, my blog became a place to process who they were as people and who they were to me. My original title Layers of the Onion: A Family History Exploration still seemed oddly appropriate, but I had moved from ancestors to those who raised me. I began to let myself into my blog and gradually found my voice, sharing personal stories that shaped my perspective.

It dawns on me occasionally that I have gone public. Friends read my blog as well as friends of friends and many people I don't know. I am often surprised when people mention it in social gatherings and seem to know a lot about me. I've met new people through my blog so in many ways it has expanded my world. My greatest "ah ha" out of writing this blog is that authenticity is found by sharing who we are. Life gets easier when we do that. People connect and respond to us when we let them see the real person. All that hesitance to let people in, to preserve a zone of privacy, is distancing and I don't need that as much now as I once did. 

It is a risk to let people see who we are, to tell our story. Maybe they won't like what they see, but the benefit of getting older is we care less about that. Part of our journey as people is to find and share our authentic selves, the stories and observations that define us. It is from that effort that we begin to recognize the common threads between us and others. At its best a blog can be a path to our common humanity.

*Photo by Matthew Hull at Morguefile.com

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Balm of Fiction

This year of reading was much lighter on nonfiction than my normal reading. Frankly I got enough of the real world as I followed the political news. I needed some escape from it, something to absorb my energies which were too easily distracted by disturbing news. Much of what I read was based on history, a topic of interest to me. 

In my prior post, I wrote of two authors who I especially enjoyed and of whom I read widely. I also wrote of my reading on art related themes, both fiction and non-fiction. This post explores some of the additional fiction which I highly recommend.  There is no particular order to this list. As I assembled it,  I was surprised to realize that it all fell between 2014-16, so is quite contemporary.

Flight of the Sparrow (2014) by Amy Belding Brown is based on the true story of Mary Rowlandson who was kidnapped by the Indians in the 1600s. In Brown's  fictionalized recounting, Rowlandson learns how to survive among the Indians and finds her ultimate return more challenging than anticipated. She actually had more freedom among the Indians. Indian life is not romanticized with frightening violence exhibited in raids, but the cultural differences are well delineated, many of them represented favorably over Puritan standards. This was not a topic I had previously explored and when I subsequently stumbled across Jiles' books (see prior post) I found myself inadvertently following a theme.

Last Bus to Wisdom (2015) is the last book Ivan Doug published before his death. It is a coming of age story set in the 1950s and somewhat autobiographical.  I have always been a fan of Doig and enjoy his wry humor. It is a defining characteristic of all of his work, but especially so in this book. The young man who is our protagonist gets wiser with each mile. As there will be no more Doig books, I plan to revisit those not yet read.

The Other Side of Life  (2015) by Andy Kutler makes use of a plot devise that lifts the main character out of Pearl Harbor and into the middle of the Civil War, two places I would never choose to be. Having said that, I must also say that I found it fascinating. I especially felt that it captured the reality of the Civil War.

Homegoing (2016) by Yaa Gyasi is written in chapters that represent parallel generations of two sisters who experienced different channels of black experience.  One becomes the "wife" of a white Captain involved with the British slave trade while the other is captured by Fante warriors and sold into slavery. It is an interesting way to reflect this experience although each generational chapter could easily have become a book of its own. An interesting perspective on how blacks also played a role in the slave trade.

A Man Called Ove (2014) by Frederick Bachman is an utterly charming book that captures the kind of man who exhibits emotion through guy stuff: cars, using his hands to make things, helping out in practical ways. Ove lacks an emotional vocabulary, but stumbles into emotion none-the-less. This book finds the goodness buried beneath the trappings of being an inarticulate man. Very heartwarming.

The Atomic Weight of Love (2016) by Elizabeth Church is set in Los Alamos where Meridian, a promising young science student is married to a physics professor who is now working on the atomic bomb. It offers a glimpse of the social community of Los Alamos where well educated wives abandon their career aspirations in the manner of the times, seeking what fulfillment they can find on the margins. We have the opportunity to follow Meridian more closely and observe her inner life.

The Secret Chord (2015) by Geraldine Brooks is the story of King David, the unromanticized version, as told through the eyes of his seer. In this version he is a man of talents, but also hubris, all story drawn from the Bible, but reframed to place us closer to the action. It is an interesting perspective through the eyes of the women who surround him, both wives and daughter. 

The Henna House (2014) by Nomi Eve is the story of Yemenite Jews and the secret language of the art of henna. It explores a love story in hindsight, both of female friendship and romantic love. It is touched by betrayal, by loved ones and also betrayal by history through the Holocaust and expulsion of the Yemenite Jewish community.

Commonwealth (2016) by Ann Patchett explores how a chance encounter both disrupts and reshapes families creating reverberations through subsequent generations. It is about family secrets and story and the ties between family in all its ill-formed misbegotten varieties. 

Miller's Valley (2016) is a novel by Anna Quindlen. I usually prefer essays by Quindlen, but I've watched her skills as a novelist grow and especially liked this novel. It is about a bright young woman freeing herself from a world that isn't designed for the mobility that she ultimately requires. She receives encouragement from her mother who recognizes her potential, and supports her escape from her hometown. Her home is soon to be flooded and the valley reclaimed, submerging secrets in the wake of her escape. The novel is strongest when it is focused on her life in the valley, struggling to maintain its momentum when she departs.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

So Many Books!

In past years I have selected my top ten books from the 60+ that I read in the course of the year. Sometimes it feels like a fool's errand to select ten books.  Forced choices mean that so many good ones end up on the cutting room floor. Plots that are not as fresh in my mind may suffer against those freshly read.  At my first pass through my list, I trimmed it, but was nowhere close to ten. Then I decided that since this is my list, I get to impose the order or disorder as the case may be.

I began to group them by theme and author. When I discover a new author, I often read a selection of their work. I also often have topics that I explore and this year art seems to top the list.  When I tally it up two authors accounted for over 20% of my reading while art topics took in another 10%+.  I think authors are worthy of special acknowledgement when I return to the well for more, so let me introduce you to two authors and the topic that merited my attention.

Connie Willis has been a name on my "to read" book list for some time, but I've long forgotten the source of this recommendation. I vaguely recall mentioning my penchant for time travel books and being told that I must read Connie Willis. As someone immersed in genealogy, I am fascinated by imagining life in earlier times. I am often surprised by how similar people are throughout time even as the world changes around us.  My interest in genealogy has also deepened my interest in history in all its forms, time travel, historical fiction and nonfiction. To say Willis writes about time travel, really doesn't do justice to acknowledging her literary talents which span many genres including mystery with a touch of romance and a dose of wry humor. The first book of hers that drew me in was To Say Nothing of the Dog which takes us back to Victorian England from 2057 to solve a puzzle from the 1940s. It should be read in conjunction with a timeless Victorian novel titled Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome which Willis draws on in her novel.  Now if you accept the premise that you can travel through time you must also accept the rules that accompany it. Nothing from the past can be brought to the future lest it change it, a rule that comes under examination in this book. 

Once captivated by Willis' talents I proceeded to read nine of her books taking me back to the medieval times of the plague in the Doomsday Book, to WWII England, from Dunkirk to the Blitz, in Blackout and All Clear. I was also intrigued by an exploration of near death and post death experiences in Passages. What fascinates me about her writing is her range and her ability to bring it all home at the conclusion in a clever solution that doesn't feel forced or disappointing. It is like watching a master juggler end their act with a flourish. She also does an extraordinary amount of historical research leaving me feeling much smarter than I was at the beginning without even realizing I had been studying.

The other author I discovered was Paulette Jiles. The important thing to recognize about her is that she was a poet before she became a novelist and that is evident in her writing. It is often beautiful, but not in an overpowering way that obscures the story. Her work is often based on history, but fictionalized to the extent that history leaves much unsaid and a writer has gaps to fill. The first book I read of hers was News of the World which follows the post Civil War story of a man who makes his living bringing the news to the towns on his route through Texas. In each city he publicly reads from a variety of papers to the townspeople. In route he is asked to deliver a ten year old girl to her family after her recovery from the Indians who kidnapped her.  A simple premise, but so beautifully told.  

I was taken with the sheer elegance of Jiles' storytelling, so followed this book with The Color of Lightening which has some overlapping characters and provides more of the back story of the theme of Indian life and kidnapping of children who readily adapt to it. I then moved on to Stormy Weather, the story of a mother and her three daughters who carve out a life in Texas during the Depression. I closed with her novel Enemy Women, set during the Civil War and depicting the struggles faced by both sides. Each one of these books was well crafted and beautifully written with well-developed characters who you come to care about.

My art reading accounted for seven books that took me into a deeper understanding of Velasquez, O'Keeffe, Soutine, Rilke, Rodin, Michelangelo, da Vinci, the School of Paris and the Abstract Impressionists.

The Vanishing Velasquez is nonfiction and explores a painting that has disappeared, but was believed to have been a Velasquez. It is as much an exploration of the 19th century bookseller who purchased it and defended its provenance as an exploration of Velasquez himself. Written by art critic Laura Cummings it reads like a novel and a fascinating detective story, exploring the passion that art can summon. I have another book by her on self portraits, A Face to the World, that I am eager to read.

Georgia is a fictionalized story of Georgia O'Keeffe, but appears to be quite an accurate depiction as it draws heavily on her correspondence. It explores her romance with Alfred Stieglitz and her efforts to define herself separately as an artist, distinct from her role as muse. Dawn Tripp does an excellent job of humanizing O'Keeffe and allowing the reader to see the world through her eyes.  

I am always intrigued to learn that lives of well known historical figures overlapped and influenced each other.  Two books explore this theme, one through non-fiction, the other fictionalized, but drawing on historical record. The first is You Must Change Your Life by Rachel Corbett which explores the relationship between Rodin and Rainier Maria Rilke. Rilke was both a friend and one time secretary to Rodin and viewed him as a mentor in how he approached an artistic life. He was also ultimately disillusioned in his hero, perhaps a necessary step as he matured as a poet.  I followed that book with Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey, a book that looks at the competition between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo as they created their works of the Mona Lisa and David respectively during the same window of time.The book gave each of them form and personality and explored the process of creation of these masterworks.  

Other books on my art list included The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos by Dominic Smith,The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro and Shocking Paris by Stanley Meisler.  The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos  is not about an actual artist, but rather a fictionalized story that follows a Dutch painting by a female artist in its journey in modern times. It is a well constructed novel that enters the world in which the painting was created as well as the modern day world of those whose lives it touches. The Muralist also is fictionalized, but placed into the actual world of the Abstract Expressionists. It too moves between past and present and incorporates family lost in the Holocaust, reminding us that events are never far from their historical context.  Shocking Paris is a nonfiction book that explores the artists who made up the School of Paris with a focus on Soutine and the other Jewish artists who emigrated to Paris and formed a significant part of this group. 

Now that leaves over 40 books out of which I will address some of my remaining favorites in a subsequent post.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Broader Lens

Do you make New Year's resolutions? I don't do resolutions exactly, but I do set goals. I have this need to live purposefully and I confess to a bit of compulsiveness. I have reading goals and blog goals. I'm a little looser with goals for speeches and artwork, but I review my progress. I want to make sure that there is movement in the right direction, that inactivity hasn't taken root.

I turn a critical eye to my artwork. I've been exhibiting less as I create a coherent body of work with which I am pleased. I remind myself to be patient with the process. Sometimes I need to create something, anything, just to get the wheels turning before the good work will come. Sometimes I need to gestate, waiting for the work to arise in its own time. When to do which often remains a mystery.

Instead of my usual number counting at year-end, this year I thought I would think about the year through a broader lens. What did I learn about myself that surprised me? We start out with so many ideas about who we are and who we aren't. As we get older we have a chance to test those self-imposed boundaries. Sometimes we end up redefining ourselves, like learning as an adult that we actually like vegetables.

I am a believer in the idea that every situation can be mined for knowledge and understanding. That is a little different than the belief that things happen for reasons, more that I can find a logic or a lesson if I look hard enough. I once listed out the guys who had populated my life in my single days. Then I identified what I'd learned from each one. Some had introduced me to travel or art, elements that would become central in my life. Even bit players got me to explore running or cross-country skiing. One had introduced the idea of doing something creative and physical each day, an appealing idea for a goal-driven person like me. For at least one or two, my learning was "Phew... I won't do that again! " You take your lessons where you find them. It is in a similar vein that I consider what this year has taught me about myself.

I've learned that I like to talk, but not necessarily conversationally. I'm actually quite comfortable with living alone in my head much of the time, but I have found I like distilling ideas and sharing them through public speaking. Much to my surprise, I'm good at it. My scope has expanded. For a long time I had standard talks on themes in my artwork or genealogy, but I'm finding I like to create new material on different topics. I'm an idea person, I mull them around crunching on kernels, savoring the flavor of something new. Then I consider how to share it in an accessible way. I've begun to work with new material this year and have taken pleasure in it. I have a new-found appreciation for teachers who do this well and often. It is a lot of work. I have some talks next year that will allow me to find my voice in a fresh way.

Writing this blog helps me consider new ideas long before they turn into talks. It is a good vehicle for mulling, my first step as I consider ideas. Talking comes much later in the process. I don't like to open my mouth until I've fully considered what I want to say. I like things that many would consider tedious, taking a complex process or idea, and trying to distill it so it is understandable. Try writing about a genealogy search without putting people to sleep. Then try talking about it. It can be done, but it takes work, work with intention.

I have learned that time can be my friend as well as my enemy. I've been exploring a book on my interview series, as well as ways to fund it. I've been talking to publishers and other writers and learning as I go. All of this creates delays. There is an impatient part of me that says get this show on the road or bag it. I'm not good at living in the in between. Then I consider what I've learned by not pulling the trigger. It has not been wasted time. I know if I don't do something that is my best effort, it will eat at me. That is a learning I know well. So once again I remind myself to respect the process. Not everything must be done today. Time can be my friend as it allows understanding to deepen and ideas to unfold.

This post would not be complete without a comment on our larger political environment. I've learned that I care more about the future of our country than I would have imagined, as I watch values I cherish come under threat. I am reading the book Hamilton by Chernow. It is about the very thoughtful creation of our country as expressed by Hamilton and others of that time. As I read, I find myself encountering a response that is quite unexpected, sadness, sadness that we risk trampling on so many of the values that underlie this country. As we go into a new year I hope to find ways to support the world that I believe in, to not allow charlatans and those driven by self-aggrandizement and power to sully it. I didn't have to think about this before, now I do.

When to wait, when to move forward, when to practice so I'm ready when the time is right. When to consider my role and responsibility in the larger world. When to find the lesson to carry forward. Much of what we learn is that we need to unlearn. An impatient person must learn to wait. A hesitant person, must step forward. Being a bit of both, I suppose I must learn when to do which. And we all must learn how to make a difference in this world we inhabit.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Creative Legacy

I've written a great deal about my mother over the past several years, especially in this past year as I adjusted to her physical absence from my world.   As she lost memory in the last few years of her life she began to collage.  She used her newspaper for material and pasted it into lined spiral notebooks.  Every day she did this like a job, following her eye to where it took her, creating meaning for her days. Once I interviewed her about her process and she told me that these albums were part of her legacy.  

When she passed away, her collage cutouts filled her kitchen table and her kitchen chairs had albums piled high. I took a photo of her work space before I took her clippings and put them in an envelope. I couldn't quite bring myself to throw out this last vestige of my mother.

 We were delighted that she had found this pursuit, grateful that she had found an engrossing activity.  I had another feeling, pride. So many people dismiss someone as they lose memory, their presence diminished in the eyes of the world. My mom did some beautiful creative work and it reminded me that the same person was still in there. I had admired her in all the different stages of her life and that continued into this final stage, creative and purposeful to the end.


After her death, as we divvied up the accumulation of a lifetime, I took the 21 albums.   Now they occupy a box in my studio and we have considered framing some of her work to exhibit in conjunction with work I am doing on memory.  I also have begun to use them for inspiration as I work on a series called Through Her Eyes.  I am always motivated by the idea of a series with a theme and it occurred to me that I had some great source material.  I'm not sure if it is a series yet as I only have two done, but I have so often felt as if I were seeing the world through her eyes, that I may well continue in this vein.  

 I started by painting what I recalled from her imagery.  She had a definite color palette and often used flowers and fruit, butterflies often made an appearance as well.  You can see some of her work above.  As I used paint instead of collage, it created an image with echoes, but a different feeling.

Another interesting feature in her work was crowns of fruit. I had once brought down printouts of family pictures and on one of my visits we made family history collages together. I left her with the surplus of images and on my next visit found imagery of my sister and my grandmother crowned with fruit (see below).  I was regretting not including pictures of myself after that.

I decided a painting of my mother similarly crowned would also be fitting.  It is an interesting companion to a piece I did on the wisdom of mothers, drawn from the notes on wisdom that she kept on the many books she read. The theme of that was apples as well.

So below are two of the paintings I've been working on using her collages as inspiration. 

You can find more on how my mother's collages developed at Always an Artist. It is an interesting exploration about how creativity remains even when memory flees.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Lies, Lies and Damned Lies

I have been slowly immersing myself in the news now that the election is past. I am driven to stay informed, but have a reaction of physical revulsion to much of what I am witnessing. I can only digest the news in small doses.

For over a year it has been a constant litany of lies that incite bigotry against Mexicans and Muslims.  Now we are post-election and it continues as the CIA reported its findings of the Russians trying to sway the election to Trump. Our truth challenged President-elect retorted that he didn't believe them and they just didn’t want to acknowledge one of the biggest Electoral College wins in history, in reality one of the slimmest. Any hope of lying ending with the election is indeed futile. We've just given him a bigger megaphone and a veneer of credibility. His continual piling of lies on top of lies, stirs a deep unease within me. 

Photo by Dorothea Lange
Now lying has history in the United States, just not so blatantly on things that can be readily disproved, nor at a time when social media enables its rapid dissemination. But lies don't just exist in isolation as a distasteful act, they are a means to an end. They till the soil in preparation for more disturbing actions.

This weekend I went to a talk on the Japanese-American internment during WWII and it reminded me of the damage lies wrought in our country at that time. Sally Sudo spoke of her relocation and imprisonment and that of her family during WWII. Sudo was born in Seattle and spent 3 1/2 years from first grade to third behind barbed wire and under armed guards in watchtowers. What were you doing between age six and nine? I doubt barbed wire and armed guards occupy your memories. Sudo’s first-hand story was a fascinating one and I found myself considering what meaning it carries in today’s world.

Lately there seems to be a convergence of information. When that happens I am inclined to pay attention. Earlier in the week I received an article that presented the photos Dorothea Lange took of the camps, photos that were purposely buried in the National Archives for many years because of the concern that they might present the camps a bit too honestly. Lange had been steered to desired images which she of course ignored, conscious that one can lie in images as well as words.

How did the camps come into being? It is an important question, particularly in light of the discussion of both Mexican immigrants and  the potential threat posed by Muslims that dominated our election.  Could something like that happen again and how exactly did it happen in the first place? I soon learned that there were several themes then, that also seem to be lurking in our current political environment; control by the military under the guise of security concerns and lying about the danger of the “other”.

When Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 it put the military in control of the internment. The man in charge was General DeWitt who is best known for saying, “A Jap’s a Jap, whether he’s an American citizen or not.”  He then went on to tar the Japanese-Americans with sabotage by the fact that there hadn’t been any sabotage. Yes, that’s right.  He claimed that the absence of any provable sabotage just meant they were waiting for the right moment.  

In justifying the detention, DeWitt later claimed that there was offshore signaling to Japanese submarines by Japanese Americans. The FBI and FCC reported this to be false and it was believed that DeWitt was well aware of this as he was advised of such by the FCC. In 1944 government attorneys became aware of this falsehood when defending a court case challenging detention. After some debate, it was ultimately not divulged lest it hurt their case. These “purported facts” were part of the fact base on which the Supreme Court supported the military necessity of the camps.  Their support only gave further credence to this action, feeding into racial bias in the broader population.

When I think of today’s environment, I can’t help but consider Trump’s heavy reliance on generals for his advisers.  It gives me pause when coupled with his proclivity for lying to secure his ends. What exactly is his end? Or that of his cohorts?

So let's look back in our history to General DeWitt’s lies and where they led.   But first let’s take a look at the climate in which they occurred. In the US, Asian immigration began in the 1850s with Chinese immigrants, 10,000 of whom built the railroad. They were considered cheap labor and by 1870 represented 10% of California's population. They were soon viewed as economic competitors to white laborers (sound familiar?) and in 1882 further immigration was shut down by law. As my fellow genealogists know, immigration laws have always been a reflection of our prejudices as a nation.

Japanese immigration began in 1885, first to Hawaii and then to the mainland where they also worked on railroads and frequently as agricultural laborers.  The resistance of labor to Chinese immigrants was quickly transferred to Japanese immigrants. While Japanese immigration was halted in 1908, family members were still permitted and many secured wives as “picture brides”.  In 1924 all further Japanese immigration was forbidden by law.  Asian immigrants could not become naturalized citizens, although their children born in the US were citizens. This meant that when the 110,000 Japanese-Americans who lived on the West Coast were sent to the camps, two-thirds of them were American citizens, the balance largely would have been prohibited from citizenship by law.  The law did not allow them to become naturalized citizens until 1952.

The fact that one was a citizen didn’t exempt them from the camps. Today we have an issue with families potentially being torn apart where a child is a citizen, but the parent may not be, thus citizens are again likely to be affected by any action taken.

Sudo talked about the use of language, another way to lie by euphemism.They were not “evacuated” or “relocated” as if from a natural disaster, they were forcibly removed with no choice in the matter.  Interestingly the actual evacuation order spoke of “all Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien” for it no doubt felt sensitive to state “both citizen and non-citizen”. 

Pay attention to language. Let's not accommodate lying by euphemism.

I realized that I knew much more about the Holocaust than I did the Japanese-American Internment. While these are two distinct events with very different intents, I was struck by how many of the actions in the early stages were similar.  

Before Pearl Harbor we had a registry.  It wasn't focused upon Japanese-Americans specifically.The Alien Registration Act in 1940 resulted in the registration of anyone who was not a naturalized citizen.  This included any first generation Japanese-American who was not allowed to be naturalized by law. 

After Pearl Harbor, the homes of those of Japanese birth were raided. Then their assets were frozen.  They were taken to camps and held without trial. These were often the community leaders so it served the purpose of beginning to break down the community.  The Nazis also focused on community leaders initially with this aim.

With any edict you need to determine who is included.  Who is Japanese-American? Anyone who was 1/16th Japanese fell within this category.  Jews had the Nuremberg laws which had multiple tests to determine what constituted Jewish blood.

Contraband was confiscated and might include cameras, binoculars or family heirlooms such as ceremonial swords.  Dynamite used in farming was considered contraband and resulted in Sudo's uncle being taken in. Her mother under this decree gave away dolls that represented the Imperial court and were used to celebrate Girls’ Day. I found myself thinking of Jews on the other side of the ocean at that time being forced to give up electrical or optical equipment, bicycles, typewriters, records and ultimately radios.  

Japanese-Americans were forced on short notice to abandon homes and businesses, With no more than two weeks notice, and often less, they could bring one suitcase for each person.  Property was often stored for that unknown future. Eighty percent (80%) of stored belongings were “rifled, stolen or sold” in their absence.  Japanese-Americans played an important role in agriculture and 200,000 acres were confiscated or sold under duress to the FSA.  Many of those who sought the removal of Japanese Americans had an underlying objective of economic gain.  Bargain sales presented opportunities for purchasers. (for more info) In the camps the detainees earned $12 to $19 a month, an insufficient amount to pay property taxes on property they had hoped to retain.  I found myself thinking of the forced sales that Jews experienced in the early days of Nazi control, when escape was still an option if one was willing to leave everything behind.

Once in the camps, Japanese-Americans experienced many elements of dehumanization. They were initially housed in former stables. The camps were in barren parts of the country often suffering from extremes in temperature. Crowding was prevalent. Sudo’s family with ten children was allotted two rooms and there was no refrigeration or running water. Communal living resulted in much of their time spent waiting in lines for food. Laundry was done by hand so Sudo’s mother did the laundry for her family of ten children in this manner. Latrines were in the center so they walked to them through rain or snow. And latrines and showers were also communal with no walls dividing them for privacy, similar to what I recalled from my visit to concentration camps in Poland.  

Dehumanization is often a gradual process.  A friend of mine who is a Holocaust survivor, often speaks of how they gradually got used to each progressive step, like a frog in warm water that is slowly brought to a boil. 

There is a common progression that was reflected in both Japanese internment and the treatment of Jews by the Nazis, perhaps common to any effort to isolate a section of the population regardless of the ultimate aim. It is important for us to be attentive to any actions today that reflect any elements of this progression.

-Denigrating a group based on religion or nationality
-Defining the category to be isolated
-Identification via registration
-Removal of community leaders
-Confiscation of “contraband”, particularly that used for communication
-Forced sale or confiscation of property
-Concentration and dehumanization

Ultimately the families were released with a bus ticket and $25 each.  It was not until 1988 that Japanese-Americans received $20,000 and an apology, small compensation for the disruption of lives and the accompanying dehumanization.

We owe a deeper obligation than money and an apology.  We need to take the lessons from that disturbing chapter and apply them to today to assure that we never use bigotry and lies to diminish who we are as a nation.  Now would be a good time to start.

Sally Sudo’s talk was given at Or Emet. Below are some additional sources I found helpful as I considered this topic.

Final Report, Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942  - documents underlying the evacuation 

Good Overview Sources

Densho: A grassroots organization dedicated to preserving, educating, and sharing the story of World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans in order to deepen understandings of American history and inspire action for equity