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. 



Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Non-Fiction Books That Wowed -2020

Each year I write a blog that addresses books that felt significant to me. It’s an interesting process deciding what goes on the list and ultimately an emotional decision. There are some books I’ve read that win lots of awards, but don’t make it to my list. I may have enjoyed them or felt they had an interesting concept, but when I put them down I didn’t say “Wow.” So, what draws a wow? Well, I know it when I see it and then I figure out the why. 

This year 50% of the books that made it to my list were nonfiction. Half are authors who I had read previously. With one exception they all were published this year.  They covered a wide variety of topics but all were ones that addressed an interest of mine or to my surprise became an interest after I finished the book. The common theme is often history and they expanded my knowledge and understanding. Some of these books bore a clear relationship to today’s events.


Past Informs Present

 

A book that falls within this category is The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History published in 2005 by John Barry about the 1918 flu epidemic. I read it soon after our pandemic began and was struck by some of the lessons that we failed to learn. One of the big spreaders of the 1918 flu was the movement of soldiers and the downplaying by the government of its seriousness in order to not adversely affect the war effort. Over 100 years later our government also was playing down the impact lest it adversely affect the economy. In 1918, science was in a much earlier stage and they lacked many of the tools we have today. Even given the progress since, we too lacked the tools to respond immediately to today’s virus. We were forced to rely on many of the same mechanisms as they did in 1918, quarantining and masks. The book looks at the pandemic through many lens, exploring the science, the efforts to understand and prevent the spread of this illness, the response of the government, the public and the scientists who led the exploration. Realizing we have been here before and how little we learned was sobering but gave me a framework by which to evaluate the response of our government.


Isabel Wilkersona favorite author of mine for her prior  book Warmth of Other Suns, made my list with her newest book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020). In this book she frames racism through the lens of caste, then broadens the lens beyond America to include examples from Nazi Germany and India to show its reach beyond race. In looking at our personal responsibility, she uses the metaphor of an old house which we have inherited with its uneven floors and leaky roof. As owners we take responsibility for rectifying those flaws, just as we must do for the structure of caste. A caste system determines who benefits at the expense of others lower in the structure. It freezes a structure in place and limits movement within it. “Like a cast on a broken arm, like a cast of a play, a caste system holds everyone in a fixed place.” Much of the uproar we have observed through this election is due to beneficiaries of that caste system feeling their perch slipping away. Wilkerson has a gift for metaphor and story that makes her concepts accessible and her text engaging. During the same period of time, I was reading the book America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States by Erika Lee which traces the history of immigration in the United States and the inherent xenophobia that frequently reared its head. It echoed and complemented many of the themes addressed by Wilkerson.


 

One of my genealogy clients introduced me to The Last Kings of Shanghai (2020) by Jonathan Kaufman. I had read his prior book A Hole in the Heart of the World and been wowed. Now I was wowed once again. I especially like the work of journalists as they seem particularly adept at telling a story.  Two Jewish families from Baghdad, the Sassoons and the Kadooris created business dynasties in early China, surviving the Japanese occupation, building relationships with Chiang Kai Shek and losing much of their property when Mao came to power. They succeeded by creating relationships with the Chinese, taking advantage of advances in communications and transportation and focusing on education and training for their workers. 


I was familiar with stories of Jews coming to Shanghai as refugees escaping the Nazis. Often there was a mention of the Sassoons and Kandooris who eased their way, feeding, housing, training and employing them. I had known of their generosity, but I knew nothing of the history of these families and how they came to wield such an outsized influence. 


Of particular interest was the impact their efforts had on modern-day China. While the Sassoons lost much of their fortune in Shanghai when Mao came to power, the Kandooris retreated to Hong Kong. They would later renew political ties when Deng Xiaoping rose to power. In Hong Kong  they built the light and power company, providing electricity to China as well, and played a significant role in turning Hong Kong into a cosmopolitan city.



Presenting a Bigger Picture

 

I recently read Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (2020), which explored the role Winston Churchill played during the war. Churchill is one character, the war and its story yet another. Then Larson adds the British people and their interrelationship with both Churchill and the war. The story lies in the juxtaposition of these three elements. I realized that I had known pieces of the story, but never had knit it together into a comprehensive whole. I had seeds of that story from disparate sources, a visit to the Imperial War Museum in London, the historical fiction of Connie Willis during the Blitz, the play Breaking the Code on cracking the German code. All of these captured elements, aspects, each stories within themselves, but it was only after this book that I came away with a fuller sense of the broader story. It captured the experience of those who lived in Britain whose lives were upended and sometimes ended, the challenges of warfare and the creative ways in which they fought back against new technological developments, and the relationship with the US in supporting the British war effort. Churchill oversaw and drove these efforts. Most importantly, he rallied the support of the nation in a war which threatened every person where they lived.


An Unexpected Find

 

My last non-fiction book Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl (2020) by Jonathan Slaght is a bit of an outlier. I was led there through the artwork of one of my fellow artists in the Jewish Artists Lab. She had created artwork around the environmental challenges for the survival of the Blakistons’ owl. I had never been aware of the fish owl and suddenly there was a one-two punch designed by the universe to draw my attention to this topic. A book had just come out on the owl and The Museum of Russian Art was hosting a talk by the author. I was charmed both by the owl itself which is a rather whimsical-looking creature and the author who had such a passion for this creature and its survival. His story encompasses the story of the owl and its historic habitat, his efforts to learn the key elements that support its existence, the crew of rather colorful Russians with whom he builds relationships to pursue this exploration and the challenges and beauty of the region itself. This seemingly niche book has deservedly attracted a broad range of literary recognition.

 

Stay tuned for my future blog on the fiction that engaged me in 2020.

 

 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Delight and Surprise


I've written little this year, not for lack of thought, but perhaps because there are so many threads that I've been thinking about. I wade through the tangle of ideas and realize that perhaps the most predominant is that this is a year of unexpected reinvention, some seemingly frivolous, but also significant ways. 


Suddenly we were largely confined to our homes and neighborhoods. My car feels unfamiliar when I get behind the wheel because most of my journeys are on foot. My auto pilot reactions still operate, but my trust in them has dwindled. I have often circled back to my house after departing to make sure I closed the garage door only to find that I have.  It is no longer a familiar ritual.


My initial challenges were figuring out how to get groceries delivered and what to do for an exercise routine with the gym closed.  There have been some byproducts of those challenges. We are eating meals at home with rare takeout on special occasions. That gives me greater control of my diet. No lunches out with friends, more planning about what I purchase.

 

Similarly, my workout routine has changed, but also gotten more consistent. When I roll out of bed and into my yoga pants, it is easier to think about a workout, whether it is a walk, an online class or my recumbent bike on those cold winter days. My husband got me an Apple watch and I find I like the routine that it encourages. I have nicknamed it “the little f***er” because it annoyingly tells me to stand up every hour. I dutifully jump up and do three laps around our kitchen and living room to earn my stand. As someone who can sit at my computer for hours at a time, engrossed in a genealogy project, I find that it actually helps my back to listen to this creature on my wrist.


Now, I am not an exercise junkie. Unlike my husband, I don’t bike the 34 mile roundtrip journey to our studio. I work out because I realize it affects my quality of life and I do a moderate amount each day. Much to my surprise the modifications to how I eat, consistent exercise  and the little f***er’s exhortations have resulted in a steady weight loss. I found myself pulling clothes out of my pile for Goodwill realizing that their fit had miraculously improved. Now many people have indicated the opposite result of the pandemic as they began to bake and do a bit of stress eating. For me, it has been a delightful side benefit.


Perhaps the greatest change has been the decision to let my hair go grey, well actually silver. Now I don’t know if this is a permanent decision or a pandemic based temporary exploration of identity. Every so often I used to ask Jeffrey, my hair stylist of 30+ years, if it would make me look older. “Yes,” he solemnly replied and that was the end of the conversation. Sometimes he would comment that he thought I might have a cool white streak in front like Susan Sontag as he noted the silver hiding beneath. I was curious about my hidden cool streak, but wasn't quite sure how to expose it. I was due for a visit to Jeffrey when the salons closed down.  By the time they re-opened, I was intrigued by the person who was emerging beneath the color. She looked kind of interesting and I wondered who this new person would be. I decided to let it grow through those awkward stages. Where did I have to go anyway?


Susan Weinberg-blogger

When I looked at a picture I had submitted months ago for an on-line conference presentation, it no longer looked like me. I took my first picture of me with silver grey hair and re-submitted it. Then I changed my Zoom picture. I was slowly stepping into this new identity. This new me. 


Billie Eilish

Oddly enough it didn’t make me feel older. Quite the opposite. I felt like a fifteen-year-old playing with her hair. I pulled out the pretty hair clips and hair ties that I used when my hair was long. I put it up on my head, pulled portions of it back and tried it with different earrings. I flashed back on times when that felt familiar, a time of playing with identity, deciding who I would be. Apparently I'm still deciding.

 

Just as the weather turned, my husband and I went out to a nearby sculpture garden to meet some friends from out of town. With wide paths it offered an easy way to gather in relative safety. I had used a clip to put my hair up with strands escaping around my face in my two- toned hairstyle. We sat spread out around a table at an outdoor cafĂ© when a woman approached and said, “I have to tell you I’ve been admiring your hair. I just love it. You're really rocking that  Billie Eilish look (an 18-year old singer-songwriter). “

 

I laughed in amusement at my new-found hipness, as I welcomed this new me with both delight and surprise.

 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Absence and Presence: A New Appreciation

In these times of COVID, my husband and I have carved out a two-mile walk through nearby streets that has become part of our routine as we avoid the gym. It has become a well-worn path and over time I have identified landmarks that I check off mentally as we pass. I carry my phone and take pictures of our sightings of the albino squirrel and the reflections of golden leaves on water that conjure images of Klimt paintings. My favorite images warrant many photos, capturing them in a different light or a new angle. I have a new appreciation of Monet's studies of haystacks as the light changes.

With our spate of warm weather, I’ve been walking that route frequently, a chance to savor the sun’s warmth before we descend into winter. One of my favorite landmarks has been two trees juxtaposed that I named the sentinels. 

One was half dead with a hollow where once branches emerged. It wore a necklace of growths, perhaps fungal, but had an odd beauty in its irregularity that had first attracted my attention. I first discovered it in the spring and rediscovered it many times as the light and the seasonal changes drew my attention again and again. I have almost 20 images of it on my camera roll. Along the way I attempted a painting of it.

This week I set out on my route and suddenly stopped short when I approached the sentinels, those stalwart trees that stood guard. Did I have the right spot? Something was not right. Then it hit me like a gut punch. Where my necklaced tree had once stood in dialogue with its companion, there now was a stump. I was surprised to realize that what I was feeling was grief. Something was not right with the world, my world.

 It occurs to me that absence and presence is a theme that keeps knocking on my door. I first began to paint it when my mother passed away. Each morning she would create collages at the kitchen table. After her death I took a photo of her chair with its well-worn cushions and her sweater hanging over a neighboring chair as if she were going to return shortly. And I painted it. This time the idea of absence and presence had begun to enter my awareness as I realized how present she felt in her absence.

Every ten years the Minneapolis Institute of Art does the Foot in the Door show where artists are invited to enter an artwork with dimensions of one foot by one foot. Ten years ago, I waited in a long line streaming out the door during the winter to submit my entry.  I remember finally gaining entrance and slowly winding my way up the stairs. This year it was much simpler as a virtual show. The piece I entered was yet another one on absence and presence. It was part of an environmental series on the many ways our environment is changing. Remember when you used to capture fireflies in a jar as a child? They’d come out at night and the sky would be filled with them. This piece was dedicated to those fireflies that I now seldom see. Also, in the image is an elm tree that we had to take down this year because of Dutch Elm disease. I had seldom noticed it until it received its death sentence. My appreciation grew as I realized how it held our yard in an embrace, curving around the outskirts, defining its contours, once again in dialogue with its companions. It now feels quite barren in its absence.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about absence and presence this week as our 46th president was selected. For much of my life I’ve taken democracy for granted. I failed to appreciate how it held our lives in its embrace, defining the contours of a world which we assumed was the norm, until it wasn’t. The past four years I have learned a lot about that democracy I never much noticed until it eroded. I think we all have.  Absence and presence. It relates to many things, people, insects, trees, even democracy. We take many things for granted, only deeply appreciating them in their absence. Sometimes we don’t get a second chance. Often we miss something in dialogue with something else. I always thought of my sentinel in conversation with its neighboring tree. When I saw the neighboring tree without its companion, that was the moment it struck me that something was missing. We too exist in conversation with each other. We are not isolated beings. We are all sentinels of our democracy, partnered with each other. This week I have felt particularly emotional because it is the beginning of a national conversation. I am not the only one who took democracy for granted and I am not the only one who reached out to grab onto it and hold on tight.