Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Santa and the Maccabees

The holidays are over and quiet resumes in our small household. We love the hubbub of family, but it also deepens our appreciation of the quiet we so often take for granted.

The holidays also force a different reflection on my part. As a secular Jew married to a non-Jew I say the blessings over the Chanukah candles even as we debate what to get for Xmas presents for kids and grandkids. We don't have a Christmas tree in our home, but we enjoy the festive atmosphere at my stepdaughter's home and the family gatherings that go with it.

One evening one of my stepdaughters asked me to explain about Chanukah to her daughter. I demurred thinking about all those times I was asked to do that in grade school, the only Jewish kid for many years. I wasn't sure I could do it justice, but I also thought of it as a bit player in the whole scheme of Jewish holidays. What can I say...It's a minor holiday promoted so Jewish kids don't feel left out. I think about the question behind the question. How do you explain to a child that there are many different traditions? And for me, the larger question of how do I explain that being Jewish is an important part of who I am even though it doesn't appear to be.

It is a question that faces every secular Jew. Why does this matter? I didn't always realize it did. My former husband wasn't Jewish and I remember Christmas celebrations with his family. An aunt would always propose midnight mass and I would catch my husband's eye with a look of desperation. "Get me out of this!" it screamed. Celebrations are fine, but hold the religion. Somehow we never went. I wonder if they did when I was no longer on the scene.

In our own home my ex had wanted a Christmas tree. It was a part of his tradition, but made me feel as if I were abandoning what little linkage I had to my heritage. We compromised by hanging an ornament on a spindly palm tree in our home. My ex then did a sumi painting of it on rice paper on the cards we sent out that year. Wishing you a warm holiday season. An artistic homage with a twist.

Then of course there were the gnarlier questions. How would we raise those theoretical children that I wasn't even sure I wanted to have? Why Jewish of course. I couldn't conceive of anything else. My then-husband was puzzled. I didn't seem particularly Jewish. Why did it matter so much? I wasn't quite sure myself except that it would have felt like a betrayal of who I was.

So who exactly was I? So often being Jewish in a Christian culture is defined by otherness. I related a story to my stepdaughter of when I grew up. It was a time when everyone decorated their home at Christmas. Everyone but us. As nighttime approached and the lights came on, our house was the only one that remained dark.

My parents struggled with how to raise their Jewish kids so they didn't feel left out. At Christmas they made a mild concession. They let us hang a stocking. I still remember getting little figures of people in my stocking. Then they began to feel a bit guilty and decided they had to stop this before it got baked into a tradition. This was complicated by the fact that we believed in Santa so it wasn't just a matter of them stopping the gift giving. It had to make sense to us. I would love to have listened in on their conversation as to how to tackle this dilemma. Their solution was to go directly to the man. They called Santa at the North Pole to tell him we were Jewish and that he must have stopped at our house in error. My brother and I were not bothered in the least by these ill-gotten gifts and screamed in the background for them not to tell him.

Chest with Star of David pulls- Sorolla Museo

Much of my experience of being Jewish was being outside looking in. I lived in a Christian culture and with friends I decorated Christmas trees and painted Easter eggs. No confusion there, it was their culture, not mine.

I often think of a drawing I did as a child. The assignment must have been to draw Christmas in a time before cultural sensitivity was expected. I drew a Christmas tree. I stood next to it, but behind me was a dresser. Each drawer had a drawer pull shaped like a Star of David. Some part of me was hidden in that chest. I am amused at the way I covertly asserted my heritage, a hidden Jew of sorts. On a recent trip to Madrid, I was startled to see a chest with Stars of David on each drawer and flashed back to my drawing. I wondered what stories filled these drawers.

Every child reacts differently to being an outsider. Some press their nose against the glass and want in. Others come to embrace their otherness. Otherness can be a gift, allowing one to see the world more clearly, creating a space from which to appraise the world at arms-length. That perspective often serves as a creative engine and it allows one to challenge and question. Now imagine a culture in part defined by otherness, an otherness not always visible. I begin to understand why many of the people I have developed friendships with are Jewish. I am drawn to differences, people with a bit of attitude who question and challenge the norms, creative people. It is a constellation of traits found in otherness.

But Judaism is more than otherness. It is a religion, a culture and a heritage. I grew up in a Reform temple and went through the religious school until I was 16. We had a comparative religion class where we attended different churches and learned about their beliefs. I was fascinated and rather appalled at the idea of dogma. Why would you ever believe something because someone told you to? It was a foreign concept to me for questioning was clearly encouraged in my family. In my confirmation class we debated if God existed and if so in what form. The rabbi led the discussion and it felt like the ultimate in questioning. I think it was then that I decided I could be Jewish.

My relationship to Judaism has ebbed and flowed throughout my life. My exploration of family history drew me closer and my reading about the experience of Jews throughout history formed a self-created curriculum of sorts. For several years I've participated in a Jewish artists' lab which has deepened my understanding and built a community of like-minded creative people. My artwork too has explored the Jewish experience.

Yet as many American Jews, I live in both worlds. My current husband is not Jewish, but our values and beliefs are very similar. He is an artist also and perhaps as such has a touch of the otherness I seek. The fundamental aspect of Judaism that spoke to me at 16 still speaks to me. I need to be free to question, to challenge and to explore. I am grateful to be part of a heritage that gives me the room to do so.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Lives We Touch

Do you have someone who in the course of your life influenced you in some significant way?
I've been thinking about this because of a note I recently received from a former boss, one of those people who believed in me when I was still learning to believe in myself. I went to work for him when I was around 30. He was about the same age as my parents back then, not too far from the age I am now. It of course seemed much older then.

I had left a career running nonprofits, shifted from social work to finance and as a newly minted MBA begun a career as a commercial lender. I had grown up in a time where many my age considered business slightly suspect and now I was entering that world with some trepidation. I remember feeling as if I were masquerading. There I was surrounded by all these conservative bankers in their grey suits. "This is so not me," I thought. I kept my head down, sure I couldn't let them see the real me lest I jeopardize my job.

At the same time I looked around at coworkers who had gone from business school straight into banking and wondered if I had made a career mistake in creating and running nonprofit organizations in my 20s. As much as I had enjoyed the work, perhaps I'd missed valuable time building my business career and would never catch up. The corporate world didn't take the nonprofit world very seriously. Many thought of it as a retirement career with no appreciation of the challenges it presented. By contrast, working for a corporation felt easy to me compared to those years in nonprofits. All those resources at my fingertips and I didn't have to sweat over making payroll, piece of cake. All I had to do was keep my opinions to myself and try to fit in, that was the challenging part.

And then I went to work for Warren. Warren was a conservative banker. Our politics clearly differed. He had spent his career in banking. I could easily have swept him into the stereotypes I carried in my head about this foreign environment...except for the fact that I got to know him. I have always found that men who had daughters and were married to strong women were more supportive of women in the workplace. They had to be. Just as they wanted a life full of opportunity for their daughter, they saw their daughter in the young women who worked for them. Warren had both a talented daughter and a thoughtful, intelligent wife and fully supported the young women who worked for him.

This was a time when a woman working as a banker on a national level usually found herself to be the only woman in the room. I felt conspicuous and different by gender, politics and values. I used to go into the bank's big conference room to present to credit committee, all men of course. I would sit down in a chair facing the committee, all of them lined up on the other side of the table waiting to pounce with the one question I hadn't contemplated. I would sink in wondering if they had cranked my chair lower, feeling a bit like Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann, a little girl in a big chair. Often I contemplated throwing a phone book on the seat first. Having read that it was important to take up physical space, I would spread my papers out on the table.

It was an intimidating place and not an environment that made a young woman feel particularly welcome. Especially one like me.

I was fortunate to land in the oasis run by Warren. He was in the final leg of his career and was in a senior position, but without illusions about further rises up the corporate ladder. I remember one time Warren joined me in the credit committee to speak on behalf of a loan. "I'll stake my career on it," he'd said. "What's left of it," he'd added with a wry chuckle.

He buffered the people who worked for him from corporate politics and created a safe place where I could be myself. He was an authentic person and in being so, he allowed those around him to be also. He came from an earlier time when people worked for one company their entire life. Tall and lean, I picture him packing up at the end of the day, reaching for his hat and briefcase, part of the ensemble of men of his era. No computers sat on desks until some time later and he never crossed over to that world.
He was a bit of a dad to me, accepting and encouraging. He supported me and gave me opportunities to grow, seeing potential in me that I didn't always recognize myself. And he gave me practical advice that later paid off. Max out the 401k contribution, save your money and invest. And most importantly he advised "You have to manage your own career." When I decided it was time to leave before he retired, he coached me on negotiating for my new job.

Several career steps later, I had caught up on that career growth I was so worried about at 30. Now I was managing other people and dispensing my own advice, especially to young women who I cautioned not to sit around waiting to be recognized for their good work. They could find themselves waiting a long time. While I would share their talents with others, they couldn't count on that happening in the broader workplace. They needed to make sure to let others see their accomplishments and talents and to actively seek out opportunities. Basically it was a female perspective on "you have to manage your own career." I too had the special opportunity to recognize and develop talent and to watch it bloom.

When I left my career in finance, I did my first solo art show. This was now almost 15 years after I last worked for Warren. I sent him an invitation and he came to the show with his daughter. Each wrote a lovely note, obviously a family talent. Warren wrote of watching me blossom, of his pride in me for managing my career and being brave enough to venture into new areas filled with unknowns. In fact I soon found that my skills from running nonprofits in my 20s were quite applicable to the project management I now engaged in as an artist. I knew how to figure things out and I was energized by those very unknowns.

So now I've been reinventing my life for eight years and I got an email from the gallery where I had exhibited at my start. Warren was trying to reach me. Now I'm not hard to find on the Internet, but that wasn't part of his world so he tried the personal approach that is so much a part of who he is. His wife had run across some old letters they had kept, among them the note I had written him almost twenty five years ago when I left. Touched he reached out once again. "What did I say? " I thought. Probably much of what I've written here, but from an earlier perspective. There are people who touch your life without even realizing it. And we in turn touch other lives as well, each on both sides of that equation. Looking back from the age Warren once was, I have a different appreciation for the messages and values that he shared. It is not just about managing your career, but shaping your life.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Getting Lost

I recently read of an author new to me, Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She writes of the unknown as our exploration in life and the engine for artists. And as the name of her book implies, she writes of getting lost. The word itself derives from Old Norse and means disbanding armies. We throw away our constraints, our strictures, our discipline of time and destination and let ourselves move into the unknown, perhaps as my mother does each day without choice as her memory flees. Never one to like change, the unknown, she is now thrust into it. My daily phone call is her map of the day.

Ironically it is through this process of losing ourselves and discovering what we don't know that we navigate life. This is particularly relevant to artists.Solnit writes," Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own."

As an artist I am seeking to lose myself and as someone who values control, I often struggle against myself. I think about the relationship between what my mother describes as wilderness, the unknown she navigates daily, and my effort to let go of control and lose myself in an unknown that opens doors for expression. Perhaps the difference is that I can enter and leave at will.

My mother loved the unknown after it had become familiar, still carrying its gloss of newness, but no longer threatening. When we traveled together she used to dread the move from familiar to unknown. "Can't we stay here?" she would plaintively ask as we readied ourselves for a train ride to a new city. Soon the new city would be her favorite as her dread got transferred to the next. I was her touchstone, the constant that allowed her to make these changes that opened up worlds for her. I think of that now as I serve as a new sort of guide.

On a recent visit I took her to an apple orchard. She bought a sunflower, a fall ornament that I affixed over a picture frame. Each time she saw it she exclaimed at how much she liked it. Each time I reminded her of our visit, no longer in her memory. Even as she couldn't remember the facts of our visit she remembered how it made her feel. She tells me that she likes when I come in because we go out and do things together. Once I opened up the world to her. She seems to remember the exhilaration of the unknown that we once experienced together even as new facts are quickly shed. Remembering the feeling is enough.

Solnit draws a distinction between losing things and getting lost.

"Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train.

Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss."

I picture my mother and I on a train. She facing back and me forward, as we share this journey.