Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Preserving Their Words

When I do genealogy research, I am interested in both the public and private story. To capture both, I begin with oral history and a newspaper search. Often my newspaper search reveals only the basic framework of a life. I’ve learned that to search for a woman, I need to search under her husband’s name as her given name was by no means a given. If I’m lucky, I may find a marriage announcement or an obituary. On occasion I have found more dramatic stories, bootlegging, prison sentences, love triangles. When I encounter dramatic stories, I often imagine the underlying story behind the public report. 


It is through oral histories that you can capture the private story that I can only conjecture. When I suggest oral history, I am often met by the protestation that there is no one left to interview. I suggest talking to cousins as other people may have gathered those stories through conversation. And I always add, look for letters.

A story in my family is that my grandmother was shot when leaving the Ukraine. Many people left illegally as the papers to cross the border were expensive and difficult to obtain. She was believed to have traveled with her younger brother and his wife. Ultimately she ended up in a hospital in France and indeed left Europe from a French port. The brother and his wife arrived in America one week later.


Years later I took my own advice and tracked down that brother’s granddaughter. She had been close with her grandmother and heard her stories. I had first encountered her brother who ironically was a history professor. He studied royalty, but sent me on to his sister as the one who knew the family history. My newly discovered second-cousin added another thread to the story. They had to swim a river to get out. I imagined bullets flying as they swam. How she got to France is a mystery but she did indeed immigrate from France and according to my mother's report had an indentation on her arm that might have been a bullet wound.

How did I even know this story? My grandfather told me. Well not me directly. He wrote a few pages of his life history and gave it to my mother. Many years later she gave it to me, the third link in the chain. This history is what got me started in genealogy as I tried to document the story he related. It is from this history that I learned the story of my grandmother’s immigration beginning with her brother’s story.

 My grandfather writes of how her brother was a revolutionary and “someone informed on him and he was caught and later pulled through the streets of the town by a very strong cord and used as an example to the people of what would happen to them if they became also revolutionaries. His parents felt that it would be better for him to go to the United States where he would stay out of trouble.  So, he got married and he, his wife and my wife came to the United States of America.  While crossing the border they were shot at. My wife was taken to a hospital in France, where she remained for quite a while.”  High drama indeed!

My grandfather was also a letter writer and my mother moved away from New York when she married, thus the recipient of letters. Even more importantly, she kept them and ultimately shared them with me. When I began to search for my grandparents’ immigration manifests, my efforts were in vain, nothing emerged. One day I was sharing this frustration with my mother when she recalled that my grandfather had changed his name and that she had a letter that reported that. She sent me the letter where he writes it was too hard to spell so he selected a new name for this reinvention of his life. That letter led me back in time to his immigration manifest.

Donate the Knowledge 2007 S.Weinberg

My grandfather wrote another letter that didn’t deal with his history but gave me a flavor for what he valued. My mother had returned to college as an adult and graduated with honors as a teacher. In his letter to her on this occasion, he wrote a phrase that echoed for me.  “It is good to donate the knowledge to somebody else.” My grandfather closed his letter with another telling phrase. “I’m glad you could be your boss.”  A tailor in the NY garment industry, he never felt that he had that control of his life. It was one of the most important things he could wish for his daughter.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021



Burly Tree 2021 S. Weinberg 30" x 30"

I have come to love the process of unfolding. That is a big statement from someone who likes to know where she’s going complete with an estimated time of arrival. I didn’t get to this place easily, but I am beginning to trust that the process will work if I let it. Now that doesn’t mean I get to sit back and watch it unfold. There is some work involved on my part, but I have found that if I do the work and trust the process, I am likely to arrive at an interesting destination, usually one that I lacked the imagination to foresee. It is a lesson embedded in any creative pursuit and quite different from my corporate career where I drove to conclusions. It still feels rather magical to me when it works. It is that sense of magic that intrigues me and I often retrace my steps to figure out how the magic happens. It isn't difficult to trace my journey. I need only read past blogs, but I thought I'd save you the trouble and summarize here.

Broken Bits of Beauty 2021 S. Weinberg

I’ve written this year about my work within the Artist’s Lab exploring Brokenness and Wholeness. The lab discussions give me a starting point, but I don’t leave it at that. When I have no idea where to begin, I just begin with something that relates. In this case I began by constructing a rather whimsical collection of broken bits and then painting them. I had no idea where that would take me, but it served as a meditation of sorts on the theme. 

As I was walking a lot more during Covid, I found myself much more tuned into the natural world around me. When I looked at my photos on my phone they were an amusingly odd mix of nature through the seasons, selfies with my newly silver hair and photos of my toes on the bathroom scale as I studied the pattern of weight loss from all those walks.  It occurs to me that all of these subjects are about process and my documentation of it. As the latter two subjects didn’t seem to lend themselves to artwork, I turned to my nature photos for inspiration.

The Survivor 2021 S. Weinberg 30" x 30"

My part of the work in this process is to operate on multiple channels. I read about related topics, I observed brokenness within our politics, I absorbed what others said about it through poetry and I painted my visual observations. One of my visual observations from my walks was a tree laden with burls, covered with round orbs, layered closely together. It reminded me of a strong man flexing his muscles as they bulged out on all sides. I began to read about burls only to learn that they resulted from brokenness of a sort. Infection or injury creates them and they are from the tissue of buds that don’t fully unfurl. I began to paint the burly tree and named it The Survivor. It looked so ungainly and yet it grew despite its disfigurement.

Inside the Burl 2021 S. Weinberg

Then I looked at an image of what burls look like inside the tree. They reminded me of a maze as they circled and spiraled, hitting dead ends and finding new starts. And of course I painted them. As I painted, it felt much like a meditation. A few weeks later I took a writing class  where the author who taught it had us create a form that looked much like a burl, beginning with a spiral formed of adjacent circles. It was a meditation to get us ready to write and it felt very familiar.

It occurred to me that in last year's Artist Lab I had also painted a tree, nicknamed Methuselah. This 4700 year old tree is one of the oldest trees in the world. I called the painting Tree-time, based on the meaning of dendrochronology which is the science by which we determine the age of a tree and the climate that has surrounded it over time. In that case I was looking at it as a messenger of our climate trends and the warming that we see today. After I painted the tree, I wanted to capture what lay inside that was so critical to the story. To that end, I put the tree rings behind the image.  It occurred to me that I seem to have this inside-outside theme going. For another lab I had done a triptych called Stepping Inside the Chrysalis which opened up to what is inside a chrysalis as a caterpillar undergoes its transformation. In both of these cases, nature offered an apt metaphor to what I was trying to say. 

At this point I had painted the burly tree and I had painted the burls inside of the tree in two separate paintings. As I thought of my prior inside out work, I decided to combine the two and started a fourth painting to do just that as I work those metaphoric possibilities. A burl presents a model of what many of us experience as we have false starts, dead ends, challenges and successes often in a very unpredictable order. In fact, it is all part of the process of life. Brokenness and wholeness are not discrete or static states. Rather they are a connected and winding path, a cycle that perhaps affords us greater awareness of its cyclical nature as we weather its troughs and appreciate those moments when we sense the wind at our back, finding a point of momentary balance.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Simply Unfinished


Inside a Burl - Susan Weinberg 2021
Process has always fascinated me. How do we get from here to there? And how does our understanding of process allow us to move forward? To replicate a successful experience? Or to get unstuck and start again when things don't work? 

In painting, much of the process occurs long before brush meets canvas. That is especially true of work within the Artists’ Lab where we use Jewish text to identify concepts related to a specific topic. This year the topic is from Brokenness to Wholeness.  

As we explore texts I try to organize learnings in my mind by forming them into statements. We carry our brokenness with us. When Moses came down the mountain with the commandments, he encountered the Israelites worshiping the golden calf and in anger threw the tablets to the ground, breaking them. The rabbis considered where those broken shards were housed, concluding they accompanied the intact replacement in the ark. This is indeed an exercise in metaphor. We carry our brokenness with us and it is the companion to wholeness.


The next lab session was during Hanukkah and we explored the lesser-known story behind that holiday. After the battle by the Maccabees, who fought for the right to practice their religion, they came to the temple which had been sacked, defiled. They began to set it right. They used their own efforts to clean, purify and rededicate it. Hanukkah in fact means rededication.  We had that discussion in December and upon my re-reading it a month later, I had a much more visceral sense of what it meant. I had watched the impeachment hearings and the videos of the mob attacking the congressional building, I had a new understanding for what sacking and defilement meant, for the emotions that accompanied it. When Congress resumed later that evening to finish the certification, it was an act of rededication. It is with our own agency that we set things right, decide to move forward into wholeness.


The most recent discussion was about related words and their meanings in both Hebrew and English. This came at a time when we have a deep appreciation for how words matter, how they can incite or conversely calm, console and unite. After the lab session, I met with my two granddaughters on these themes. They too are participants in this year’s lab topic, partnering with me in discussion and creative work for the lab exhibition. While the lab introduces me to text, I also explore more broadly. I had been awed by Amanda Gorman’s poem and her presentation of it at the inauguration and realized that it addressed the concept of brokenness and wholeness, a perfect vehicle for a discussion about words.  I began with an exercise where I colored each word of brokenness in her poem grey, each word of wholeness green. For example, Amanda asks, “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”


After I did that exercise through the rest of her poem, I looked at the words that remained in-between. They were words that spoke to the passage from one state to another. I colored that sea of words blue. I thought back to a discussion in the lab about how there are really three parts, brokenness, wholeness and that liminal passage in between. 

Within her poem, Amanda offers us an important line about process: We've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken but simply unfinished.”  Brokenness need not be a static state, it is a point in time and a point in time speaks to a hope for the future. I gratefully added Amanda’s line to my learnings.

There are many examples of brokenness surrounding us, far fewer of wholeness. But some have managed to reflect both. As I watched the impeachment trial, I was moved by the manner that Congressman Jamie Raskin channeled the emotion surrounding the recent loss of his son into meaning and purpose. His emotion gave his presentation power and authenticity. 

While I am mulling these ideas over, I am also painting. It is a left brain, right brain endeavor. Sometimes I find it helpful to take an image and explore it in a small painting. Each effort is a stepping-stone to a deeper understanding. What I’ve been working on recently is a piece called Inside the Burl. I painted it over a painting that never really worked, a new beginning. In the prior blog, I included an image of the inside of a burl, an image of many paths, some of which dead-ended and had to begin anew. I learned that a burl begins out of a bud unfurled, a potential not fully explored. 

The meaning of the word burl is derived from a knot. When we run into a knot we are stopped and need to redirect, our path is disrupted. The image itself reminded me of a labyrinth which of course led to me to look up the term. A labyrinth is an ancient symbol related to (drumroll!!) wholeness. It combines circles and spirals into a meandering, but purposeful path. It is often used as a meditation tool and my painting did indeed feel like a meditation, requiring a level of mindfulness that doesn’t come to me naturally.

But a labyrinth has a single continuous path that leads to the center. It is related, but distinct, from a maze which has dead ends, those obstacles you must maneuver around. Perhaps a burl is more truly a maze. That took me back to the question I've written of previously that Bruce Feiler posed in his book Life is in the Transitions.  What shape is your life? My life is a burl, probably most of ours are. There is potential unexplored, those paths not taken or partially explored until they fail to unfurl. There are disruptions that force us to find a new path and to redirect. The end point is not pre-ordained and there is most certainly not one path. We carry all of our experiences within us and we need not consider ourselves irrevocably broken, but simply unfinished.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

A Thing of Beauty

The Survivor  2021   30"x30"         Susan Weinberg

As I wrote in my prior blog, the theme this year for the Artists' Lab is from Brokenness to Wholeness. That idea is running in the background of my brain at a low hum and it often pops up when I least expect it. 

I took a bit of a hiatus from painting during my retreat over the past year and am now trying to get back into it. I find the best way to do that is, well, to do it. I start by painting something, anything. Often I paint over it because it doesn't work, but I find painting takes on a life of its own once I start and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised by the results. While I delight in pleasing outcomes, the point is just to find a rhythm that I can maintain, trusting that it will eventually lead me somewhere interesting.

In the past, much of my painting was figurative, but I've diverged a bit from that by paintings the things that I notice on our walks. I've never thought of myself as a nature painter but on some level it is still perhaps figurative, just not people. I've become quite enamored with trees since our last lab topic on the environment and have been drawn to those that are marred in some way, a bit battle scarred. There is one on our route which has many bulbous, swirly growths on it.  It looks as if it had fallen on hard times, but survived wearing its scars with pride. I wasn't sure why it grew that way and if there was a name for these growths. 

Much to my surprise, I learned that they are called burls and its limbs were indeed burly. Now I knew of burls in finished wood, but it never really occurred to me to consider where they came from.  Burls are a wart-like deformed growth. They can be caused by a stress, injury or infection. The cells divide and grow in excess and often unevenly, not unlike cancer cells. In this case t
hey don't necessarily affect the life of the tree, it just keeps growing.

The inside of a burl

I often look to the derivation of words for ideas and when I looked up burl, I learned that it originally meant a knot in cloth or thread and comes from burra which means wool. In this case it is a knot in wood. A knot is like a period, an end point. It requires a new beginning to move forward. If you look at what a burl looks like in wood you can see that the grain of the wood is twisted, it has a story, most definitely not a linear one, at least not in the sense of direct lines. Its original path is distorted, disrupted and rerouted, but it turns into a thing of unexpected beauty. It is not unlike a clam shell that produces a pearl from a stress. In this case the stress within the tree creates a burl. Burls  are considered very desirable in furniture or wooden items both for their beauty, but also their strength. The wood is stronger, less likely to separate, because of the many interwoven strands.

So what does this have to do with brokenness? In the lab we considered the fact that our brokenness and wholeness are interrelated. We all carry some brokenness within us, and I would posit that it is often the part of us that is the most interesting. It represents a journey, a history that is part of who we are and who we have become. The path is not always a straight one, it twists and turns as we find our way, and ultimately that can turn into a thing of beauty. Perhaps it is also that very journey that gives us strength to face the uncertainty of the future, trusting that we will find our way.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Breaking Through

Broken Bits of Beauty 2020  Susan Weinberg

I’ve been thinking a lot about brokenness lately. This has been a challenging time for many, broken politics, broken health, broken habits. From brokenness to wholeness also happens to be the topic for the Jewish Artists’ Lab in which I have participated for the past eight years.  The lab meets throughout the year around a specific topic and uses Jewish text as a jumping off point to explore it. We explore midrash, an investigative approach to text, exploring the white space, what artists call the negative space. It is what isn’t said, but perhaps inferred by what is. We create artwork out of this process for an exhibition at year-end, a visual midrash, a creative investigation of sorts. 

While the topic is, well, topical, I still have to find my way inside it. This year we have a different approach. In addition to the lab discussions, we also are working with one or in my case, two, young people to take what we learn and explore the topic together. I have two very creative granddaughters, age 15 and 16, and I’ve enlisted them in this effort.


I always try to find a hook, something unusual, a different perspective that makes it interesting. And I’m not there yet. Not even close. It is very much a process of looking at a topic from different angles, often despairing at times when I don’t know quite where I’m going. I’ve learned that it is all part of the process. In order to create something new, we can’t already know where we’re going.  It is that unformed void, described before that ultimate creation, the world, that we reenact each time we start something new and unknown. I am someone who likes to know where I’m going, so I’ve had to learn to work in this space of not knowing, trusting that I’ll figure it out. 


As I contemplated brokenness, I found myself creating a still life in my kitchen. Some broken brown eggshells, a brown leaf fallen from its perch on high and a head of garlic without its cloves nestled in a broken shell, all remnants of their former selves. Every time I see it, I think about this theme. I’ve even tried my hand at painting it as part of my personal meditation. It seemed appropriate to paint it on a small canvas which had an accidental tear.

I also do research, often in the form of reading and in that process I stumbled across a book by an author I have drawn on before, Bruce Feiler. In one of his prior books, he wrote about how young people who know their family story are often more resilient as they approach life, they have a framework for understanding upheavals as part of the broader cycle. Turns out, story continues to play an important role for those of us who are older. His book, Life is in the Transitions explores how people move from what he terms “disruptions” and “life quakes” (a pile up of disruptions) to a new place of wholeness. He chose the word disruptions as it felt less negative, less final, than broken. He had already begun to rewrite the story.


We all have a story that we tell ourselves about ourselves. Disruptions threaten that story and in doing so throw us off balance. We are constantly reconstructing our story and reframing it in response to disruptive life events. He also argues that the linear model of life in stages is no longer relevant to today and when we expect life to follow that model we set ourselves up. Life is much more erratic, seemingly chaotic at times. If our life doesn’t follow that linear model we often assume it is broken when in fact we may be using the wrong yardstick.

Feiler went out and interviewed 225 people about their lives, the challenges they faced, whether they entered upheaval voluntarily or involuntarily, and how they dug themselves out. He asked them questions about emotions they struggled with, how they structured their time, the role of ritual, what habits they shed, what new ones they created. 

Crossing the Dalet 2018- Susan Weinberg
I was especially taken with the question, what shape is your life? I had in fact painted that when the lab theme was Crossing the Threshold. I entered it with a question mark formed of broken egg shells, trailing brokenness like a wedding veil. I imagined it as a bit of a Rube Goldberg contraption, random and unpredictable, filled with doors at all angles. Sometimes I go around or under them rather than through. Sometimes I rode them like waves as the current took me in unexpected paths. I abandoned the linear model long ago and as I get older, the linear model is not one that seems particularly inviting nor does it represent my life’s experience. Life has gotten more interesting and I have changed my path significantly at a time when the model would call for winding down.

What I especially found interesting was when he likened one’s life to a story. Stories require conflict, something unforeseen. A breach in what is expected sets the story in motion and story is where we find the resolution.  He introduces the wonderful idea of what Italians call the lupus in fabula, the wolf in the fairy tale. It is the wolf who represents that fearful thing that upends our world.  


So, what are his takeaways? Even if we are pushed into this disruption kicking and screaming it is our choice to convert it into renewal. We need to accept where we are and choose to move forward. We must first acknowledge our emotions. We often make use of ritual or turn towards creativity in this process of change. Marking the endings and the new beginnings is part of acknowledging this movement to a new place. Along the way, we must give up old mind-sets and we begin to try new things. Ultimately we unveil our new self and reshape our story, a story that reflects the resiliency of our experience, our struggle and emergence into this new self.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Thwack . . .Thud: Welcome to 2021

Thwack. . .thud. Thwack . . .thud. So began our 2021 as the neighbor teens welcomed the new year by whacking away on the hockey rink that graces the property line next to our own. The light from the rink trained on our home, lit our windows brightly casting odd shadows within. By 1:00 am our neighborly tolerance had reached its end and my husband went out to our deck to alert them to the fact that they shared their universe with others.

If we learned anything in 2020 it was this. We are not self-contained. Our actions affect our neighbors, our community and the very earth we live on. Despite an oft-held ideology of individualism, we are a community whether we like it or not and we bear a responsibility to that community.  It underlies the impact we have on our environment, an awareness that others may have different experiences than our own, the many ways racism is embedded in our society, and how we affect the health and well-being of each other. 


It was a year that affected each of us differently. Among many of my friends, the challenges were being unable to see their grandchildren except over Zoom. New rituals developed to substitute, with grandparents reading to grandchildren online. The common theme for those who became new grandparents was to quarantine until they could hold the newborn. Many of my friends had spouses who had underlying conditions that posed particular risk. That meant a very clear awareness of their role in keeping their spouse safe. For us the challenge was my stepdaughter’s family moving across the country. How do you say goodbye in a pandemic?  And what about those holiday traditions that are no longer local, at a time when our movement is restricted?


Even as we adopted restrictions in our face-to-face interactions, I realized that we were sheltered from the problems that faced many in our larger community. At this stage in our life we don’t have concerns about medical insurance or finances, but many face challenges in paying rent or buying food. I found myself thinking back to a time when I didn’t have a financial cushion to protect me. What would I have done then? My financial cushion would have been help from my parents who were then at the stage I am now.  That is where our family history can shelter us or leave us open to the elements. Those in our society who don’t have those structures of support have faced the most severe challenges, some for the first time.


It was also a time of political upheaval. We were consumed with the political news, scared to look away lest the world meet destruction while our gaze was averted. I cheered on the protesters from my perch at home, aware that in other times we would have joined them. I felt sidelined. The week before the election my stomach was in knots. The fate of our democracy hung in the balance and I genuinely feared for it. Even now, especially now, I am appalled and disgusted by the irresponsible, self-serving or simply delusional behavior of many in our country. While heartened by those who have spoken up, I worry about the damage that has been done.


It was a time when creativity should have flourished, but I found it hard to write or paint. I need to find a place of calm from which to do that and there was no calm in 2020. I am slowly working my way back to a place of creativity.

There have been good things that arose in this chaos. I have a newfound appreciation of history and became a fan of Heather Cox Richardson’s reviews of politics and history. I read widely on related topics trying to understand the disturbing threats that have emerged in our society. I reconnected with new friends and old across the country and around the world through technology. How I defined community grew. I had been inching towards a greater sense of global community, genealogy and the arts have always been global in scope. Now the pandemic accelerated it. We all shared this difficult time.


Many offerings in the arts and other disciplines went on-line and my access to information grew globally also. I presented talks to wider audiences and had to remember to put the time zone on notices for our once local genealogy group.

I have always tended towards a fully packed schedule and used to savor the rare day with openings, what I think of as runways of time. Now I have many of them and like having blocks of time to read, work on projects or workout. I have new routines that support better health because of that newly discovered time. I still have many outward contacts with book club, genealogy, arts and nonprofit involvements moving to Zoom and I’ve taken to doing coffee chats with friends via Zoom as well. While there is a personal flavor to meeting a friend over lunch, this will suffice for now. Each week I talk with a 96-year-old friend by phone as I record her story for her family. It is our weekly touchpoint and an opportunity for me to appreciate the full arc of a life. We talk about how we will be able to meet again in person someday soon. 


While I will be grateful to have this time come to a close,  I note the learnings I will carry forward:

There is an opportunity cost to a packed schedule. 

Distance can collapse and connections grow virtually.

My community is global.

And we all contribute our small piece. 

Whether protesting, political work, dollars or our voice, we do what we are able with faith that it will join with others and ever so slowly make a difference.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Fiction That Wowed-2020

In my prior blog, I took a look at my five favorite nonfiction books that I read in 2020. I measure nonfiction and fiction by slightly different yardsticks. While I want both to engage me in story, for non-fiction I measure its worth by whether
I learned something I didn’t know or a new way of looking at the world.

Fiction needs to engage me in story, but rather than validating or explaining an outer world, it often gives me insight into an inner world. It may open me up to someone else’s experience and perhaps allow me to recognize something that echoes in my experience as well. 


The Flight Portfolio (2019) by Julie Orringer drew my attention because I had read her earlier book The Invisible Bridge which was a past wow. The Flight Portfolio is both history and fiction, so it straddles the fence between fiction and non-fiction. It is based on the story of Varian Fry who undertook an effort to save many of the great artists and writers in Europe from the Nazis during WWII. It raises many questions, not least among them is how we value an individual human life. 
The core story is based on history and I found myself googling many of the people who played a part in this important historical chapter to learn more about them. 
There is also another significant plot which was in part imagined with a few invented characters. It explored the experience of being gay and closeted during the 1940s. I realized I knew very little about this experience and came away with a new appreciation for the complexities of the gay experience historically. While the folding together of these two stories results in complexity, it reflects the reality of our lives. We bring many experiences together to shape our impact on the larger world. Orringer reveals the layers beneath the public story.

Hamnet (2020) by Maggie O’Farrell is a beautiful book in both words and story. By judicious use of both, it becomes something more, an elegy on grief. Based on the outline of Shakespeare’s life, its focus is on his wife and the death of his son at age eleven. O’Farrell studies the white space around the few details that we know and enlarges the story, adding elements that support the rich emotional content of these events. The language is lush and evocative, achingly beautiful and often poetic. If it were just that, it would be enough, but it builds to an ending that releases that emotional energy in yet an additional level of artistry. 


Afterlife (2020) by Julia Alvarez is aptly named. It follows the life of Antonia after the death of her husband. The afterlife is both Antonia’s and that of Sam, her late husband, as she channels who he was in relationship to her. It explores the nature of a relationship where we each assume roles in relationship to those of our partner. Sam was the good cop leading with the charitable gesture, leaving her the part of the vigilant one, the bad cop, assuring that they weren’t taken. It was a role she resented a bit. “Why not two good cops, “ he had once proposed. 

Now alone, she is painfully aware of the actions Sam would take when she finds herself in a situation that requires extending herself to help a young immigrant woman. She feels for her familiar boundaries even as she considers how Sam would respond, trying his behaviors on as her way of honoring who he was. Part of her resists this unfamiliar way of being. Everything is now thrown into question without that counterbalance of Sam, as she begins to redefine who she is in this new moment.  There are wonderful insights in this book and Antonio invites us into her musings. In her moments of gratitude for a person Sam brought into her life, she muses “is there an expiration date on the tendrils of a gratitude after the mother root has expired?" In addition to Sam there was another story thread that resonated with me, the relationship with her sisters and the memory they preserve collectively of their late mother, yet another afterlife. 

I had enjoyed Homegoing by Yai Gyasi so picked up her newest book, Transcendent Kingdom (2020). This is a very different book, equally strong, but framed quite differently. While Homegoing is an expansive story following the story of two sisters through eight generations, this book tells its story in a much more limited space, one person as she makes sense of a family tragedy. Gyasi draws from her own life in at least the broad outline of being a Ghanian immigrant growing up in Alabama. In this story her main character, Gifty, is born in Alabama to a family from Ghana. The death of a beloved brother to opioids sends ripples through her family. She becomes a scientist and pursues the study of addiction, seeking to understand it and perhaps offer something back having been unable to save her brother. In addition to the core theme of addiction, it is also a reflection on science, religion and the immigrant experience. 

What is one to make of a book titled Monogomy? Monogomy (2020) by Sue Miller is the story of a relationship and the many satellite relationships that it creates as two people build a life together. The protagonist, Annie, would attribute that broad rich life  surrounded by friendships to her husband Graham, a larger than life personality who loves and relies on Annie to make it all possible. We are introduced to each of them in turn as they recount the story of their meeting and their life together. It is an exploration of a relationship and how two people fit their lives together while preserving who they are. It is what it appears to be, a happy marriage, and yet, upon Graham's death Annie discovers something which causes her to question what she had. How well do we ever know our partner and what does it all mean when they fall short? How do grief and anger co-exist?  While a very different book than Afterlife, it could as easily been titled the same as Annie comes to grips with life after Graham.