Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Discomfort of Something New

Recently I told my mother the litany of activities I had this week. Among them was a writing class at the Loft, our local writing center. "What do you need that for?" she asked, "you already write well". Clearly she spoke as a mother.

The class I am taking is on essays and fulfills a promise I made to myself earlier this year to deepen my skills. Years ago I took a writing class and was much too intimidated to read anything I wrote aloud. After five years of blog posts, almost 300 essays, I am hoping I'll be a bit braver.

Now I decided to take a class in essays because that seems to be the format that best fits me; observational, thoughtful in nature and based in reality. I figured I better go with my strengths. Years ago an old boyfriend who was partial to women who were flirty and light said to me that while not flirty and light I was "intelligent and thoughtful". It seemed a bit like a consolation prize at the time. I was never going to be this frothy confection he sought. The boyfriend became history years ago and I have since learned to appreciate who I am.

In the first class the teacher gave us an exercise that reminded me of this exchange. To introduce ourselves we were to say what we were not. We each presented a paragraph or list of traits identifying what we were not. So my version, slightly reworked into a more playful form, goes something like this...

Not Me

I am not passive, wishy-washy,
Nor frothy, flirty, light.
Not lacking in opinions
Nor the words to give them flight.
I'm not a slow reactor,
Not slow to act, to move, to speak
Not murky, unclear, hazy.
Nothing is oblique.
Most certainly I'm not lazy.
Not good at kicking back,
I'm not of one-dimension
That's definitely a fact,
I'm not unfocused, nor blasé,
Bored with life I'll never be,
Those are just a few things
That certainly are not me

It actually is an interesting exercise in defining oneself. In a sense it uses negative space just as one does with artwork, identifying what one isn't to identify what one is.

The class has an intriguing approach. It uses an article by Timothy Bascom that examines six story arcs for essays. Each week we examine a different arc through both reading and then writing an essay that uses that structure. The reading that exemplifies the first style was published in the New Yorker, The Fourth State of Matter by Jo Anne Beard.

Unlike a blog which I try to keep under 1000 words, an essay can be quite a bit longer. That greater length allows an opportunity to interweave different threads. My first attempt of 4000 words allowed me to experiment with a more complex approach.

I'm both slightly intimidated and intrigued by where this class will take me. The others in the class seem much more adept at producing clever responses at a moment's notice whereas I need the time to marinate in thought, letting things bubble up in their own time. And so I shall marinate, not trying to be something I'm not, yet pushing myself beyond comfort. It occurs to me that when we take on new things we need to be in a state of readiness, to feel that growth is possible, but it is the actual discomfort of something new that pushes us forward.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Deepening Understanding

After dumping a bucket of water on my head for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, I was glad to see social media move on to a project that was more in my sphere. Recently I was tagged in the exercise to list the ten books that most influenced me. I soon discovered that this was a difficult task and I had to set some ground rules. After reading a book I have a tendency to file it under liked or disliked and then promptly forget its content. I decided that for something to influence me, I had to retain its thread. That eliminated much of my early reading. I also found myself listing books I had read recently and decided I was unduly influenced by very recent reading and began to evaluate those books through a more critical lens. Sometimes a book has to survive some passage of time to really test its influence.

I could have gone further back to my childhood and added The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, and of course Exodus and Pride and Prejudice. Those latter two were romantic stuff to a teenager. There was a time I wanted to join a kibbutz and of course I identified with Elizabeth Bennett and the tension of her developing romance with Mr Darcy. What bookish teenage girl didn't? But while those books influenced the youthful me, I focused on those that surprised the me of today. 

For the past seven years I have recorded the books that I've read. I write a sentence about each book to jog my memory and rate it. I also categorize it as fiction or non-fiction and sometimes by topic. While 40% of my reading is nonfiction, 60% of my list of ten were non-fiction and even those that are fiction are based on historical events. Some of my reading parallels my explorations in artwork and my interview project of elders within the Jewish community. So here's my list:

A Hole in the Heart of the World:Being Jewish in Eastern Europe -Jonathan Kaufman
The Greater Journey- David McCullough
Ester and Ruzya: How my Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace- Masha Gessen
The Great Escape-Kati Marton
The Invisible Bridge-Julie Oringer
Half of a Yellow Sun- Chimamanda Adichie
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher-Timothy Egan
The Warmth of Other Suns-Isabel Wilkerson
Night in Shanghai -Nicole Mones
Time and Again-Jack Finney

The books that found their way to this list often left me somewhat chagrined, wondering how I could have gotten to this stage of my life and not been fully informed about history and political events that surrounded me. While well informed about the Holocaust, I began to realize that I knew little about the experience of Jews who remained in Eastern Europe after WWII. My education on this deepened with my interviews of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but two books expanded on what I was learning. A Hole in the Heart of the World and Ester and Ruzya began to fill in the gaps in my knowledge and echoed and validated the stories I heard.

When I travel I try to read topical books. Our 2010 trip to Budapest caused me to discover Kati Marton, born in Hungary to journalist parents who survived the Holocaust, were imprisoned in Budapest after the war and finally were able to bring their family to the US. While one of her books addresses their story, it was her book The Great Escape that affected me most deeply. In it she follows the story of nine Hungarian Jews who fled fascism and anti-semitism to find renown in their fields and create a significant impact on the world. I was struck by the creativity that was fed by the engine of being "the other,” a theme that speaks to me on many levels and recurs in many of the books I've selected.

The Invisible Bridge is set in both Budapest and Paris and spans the pre-war to post-war period and the events of the Holocaust. While fiction, it brings the reader into the experiences it explores and into the psyche of its characters, allowing for a deeper understanding of war-time events because you care deeply about the characters. It explores both the pre and post war period to better allow you to appreciate the lives that were disrupted and often destroyed by that middle chapter that often becomes the sole focus.

When I read The Warmth of Other Suns, I again realized I had an embarrassing hole in my knowledge. I knew little about the Great Migration of American blacks. I found I had some reference points and considered the book as a story of immigration for that was largely an implicit theme even if the immigrant never crossed a national boundary. The Jim Crow laws reminded me of the laws the Nazis put in place for Jews.

Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones addressed an aspect of Shanghai and the black experience with which I wasn't familiar. Of course I knew about the Jews who escaped to Shanghai during WWII, but I didn't know of black jazz musicians who found a temporary haven from prejudice there, with the exception of the American concession. I was naively shocked to read that America carried race laws to Shanghai, unable to recognize our own bigotry even as we later fought an enemy who created an ideology built on bigotry.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a fictionalized look at the Nigerian-Biafra war. I remember photos of starving Biafran children but had no understanding of the story behind them. I was a teenager at the time and skimmed the surface of this conflict. This book took me deeply into it through strongly developed characters.

The Greater Journey looks at the many American artists and other important figures who lived in Paris in the 1800s. I am always fascinated by the role place can play in cultural ferment by bringing people in contact with each other. Understanding interconnections and influences allows for a greater understanding of the world.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher looks at Edward Curtis and his role as both photographer and ethnographer of Indian tribes at a time when their culture was being quite intentionally destroyed. There were several aspects of the book that informed and influenced me, 1) the intentional destruction of Indian culture by the US government, 2) the interrelationships between key figures- who knew that Edward Curtis and Teddy Roosevelt became good friends after Curtis photographed Roosevelt's family?, and 3) the amazing reach of someone with a passion and commitment that supersedes credentialization. Curtis developed an expertise because of his passion and drive, not because of formal education. The world became his classroom and his knowledge of Indian tribes far surpassed that of many of those educated at fine universities.

Lastly I had to include Time and Again, one of the best time travel novels there is. I am fascinated by such subjects because of my interest in history and genealogy. I love thinking about what once existed in a particular location as well as mentally stepping into photographs of long-gone people. This book invited me into New York City at a time long past and collapsed the barriers created by time and perception. We so often think of people from another time as very different from ourselves when in fact I suspect they are far more similar than we expect.

Perhaps that is the take-away of many of these books that remove the false boundaries we erect between ourselves and others. Our boundaries may be that of time, race, religion or geography. Good books collapse those boundaries and let us into another person's experience. Many of these books explore the experience of an outsider whether it be an American in Paris, a person stepping back in time, a Jew in Eastern Europe, a black jazz musician in Shanghai or a black American who immigrates from South to North. Through outsider eyes they offer a fresh perspective, allowing us to view the familiar through an unfamiliar lens.