Friday, November 20, 2015

The Roundness of Things - Part 2

continued from The Roundness of Things - Part 1

I used to read my blog posts to my mother. Now I seem to write them about her.  I think of this as the year of the parents; a time where I process who they were and their role in shaping who I am.  The year is certainly dominated by their absence, and in that absence they are still very present.

I previously wrote about the discovery of my late mother's folder titled Notes on Books Read.  This is a slice of one band of time, from the late 90s to the early 2000s.  I've attempted to organize them by topics.  A bit of curating is required as I can't include them all.

One quote that I especially liked came from Wally Lamb's book -I Know This Much is True. Among the things he knows to be true is "that the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things." Now that works well with the metaphor of apples I hope to use in my "wisdom" painting for the lab.

My mother's notes addressed the themes she struggled with in her life. I can hear her voice in them offering counsel. She was often fearful of the world, learned to face it and taught her children to do likewise. When I ran across her certificate from a long ago swimming class she took when I was a child, I couldn't bring myself to pitch it. I knew it represented her facing her fears and how important that was to her.

From Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones she addresses living with fear. I got so frightened sometimes: she admitted. "I know. Fear is only fear though and somehow you live without it. "No," he corrected her. "You live with it."

And you face those fears...From the poet Lucile Clifton "Any dog will keep chasing you if he knows you are afraid. The only remedy is to turn around and face the dog."

And from the anthology What We Know So Far: Wisdom Among Women by Beth Benatovich she quotes a further step in understanding the other side of fear (
from Forged in Fire by Ai Ja Lee). "To be scared is normal, to be not scared is stupid. But fear makes you lose the moment. If we go with the fear, instead of against it, crossing that line into action we find an exhilarating new world."
She comes back to Wally Lamb who says "But what are our stories if not mirrors we hold up to our fears."
You live with fear, you face it and you move through it into action and to exhilaration. Ultimately your fears become stories, echoes that you share with others, a wisdom offering.

My mother was not a traditionally religious person, but she was certainly a spiritual and intellectually curious person. She used the study of religion to gain insights. I was surprised at how many Jewish sources were reflected in her notes, sources that I've only recently encountered through the lab, but apparently she discovered them long ago.

From the Pirkei Avot - Ethics of the Fathers she notes a sense of responsibility in life.  "You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it." (Avon 2:21)

Her excerpts indicate an orientation towards action and speaking up when necessary, but acting with thought.

From the Talmud she notes: Silence easily becomes acquiescence.

"What is more important asks the Talmud? What is essential? Thought or action? Study comes first, because study incites action."

And a belief that we need to live in this world, indeed to make it shine.

From the eloquent Abraham Joshua Heschel she includes this "The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject, but to surpass civilization."

And back to novels, but with a similar concept, from The Source by James Michener. "Life isn’t meant to be easy. It’s meant to be life. And no religion defends so tenaciously the ordinary dignity of living. Judaism stressed neither an after-life or after punishment, nor heaven. What was worthy and good was here, on this day in Zefat. We seek God so earnestly, Elias reflected, not to find him, but to discover ourselves."

Knowing her own propensity to worry she records - "God doesn’t need to punish us. He just grants us a long enough life to punish ourselves." (The Poisonwood Bible- Barbara Kingsolver)

Given that we are in this world, how do we choose to live our life?

"We endure what we have to in order to make the beautiful design of our lives. The world is a mirror. You reflect good into it and it reflects good back at you.The mind is a powerful tool. It can create your destiny for good or for evil, so we might as well train it to help us, not harm us."   (Forged in Fire- Ai Ja Lee)

She adds Robert Frost's offering.  "The only way out is through"

And in the same vein, "Just remember that life is made up of changes.  We can't run away from it." (The Language of Threads by Gail Tsukiyama)  

"A brave man bows to circumstances as grass does before the wind "- (Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones)

Are you sensing a theme here?  

She liked Lamb's words about connection to the past, both our personal past and the past that preceded us. She used to reflect on her connections to the past, wondering whether her practice of recording excerpts from books was hereditary as her father used to do that as well.

"It is all connected. Life is not a series of isolated ponds and puddles. Life is this river. It flows from the past to the present on its way to the future. ... Only in the most literal sense are we born on the day we leave our mother’s womb. In the larger sense we are born of the past, connected to its fluidity, but genetically and experientially."

And lest we forget that we are not the center of the universe...
"First came simple things. Spending my last waking moments each night considering what I’d done that day and why; breathing a thank-you to God every morning for the new day; reminding myself constantly and often to little avail, that I was not the center of the universe. And I tried, though this was most difficult, to listen to what my soul had to say." -(Turbulent Souls; A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family - Stephen J. Dubner)


"Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you are good, bad things can still happen. And if you are bad, you can still be lucky." (The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver)


My mother was born a teacher and eventually became one. When I read this quote from Evensong by Gail Godwin, I knew her reference was her experience teaching, a vocation that was a calling for her.

"Something’s your vocation if it keeps making more of you."

My mother thought about wisdom and sought it from many voices.

"Only by the fusion of science and the humanities can we hope to reach the wisdom appropriate to our day and generation.. The ultimate end of education is knowledge embedded in wisdom." (Rabi: Scientist and Citizen by John Rigden)

And as we near the end of life...

Eli Wiesel - "In short, I try not to die before I die."

"There was a timelessness here, a sense that death was no more than a progression of life."  (Lake News by Barrbara Delinksy)

"Dazed, Ben sought some view of death that made leaving the world endurable. No matter how often he’d turned it over, no matter the years he’d passed with it, there was still no answer to the final riddle, or an answer lay beyond his reach. Always his search had led him nowhere, and the next day he was one day older, with no greater wisdom as a shield against death, no revelation to pit against its strength. And this was how a person aged. Suffering in astonishment the progress of the days." (East of the Mountains-David Guterson)

In her notes I found Psalm 90 on the fragility and temporal nature of life which ends with this quote: "So teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom".  

My mother clearly succeeded in that.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Roundness of Things - Part 1

Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers,  Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…(Talmud - Avot 4:1)

My mother was always the wisest person I knew. She was a searcher with a curiosity about the world, open to wisdom from many quarters. A teacher by predisposition and later by training, she carried her wisdom in a kind and gentle heart. She passed away this summer and I felt the world shift. As I went through my parents' old home with that thankless task of disposing of belongings, I realized I was looking for something, something of the essence of my mother. I found that something in a file titled Notes on Books Read. 

In it she had excerpts from books on a wide range of subjects; science, finance, the Talmud and of course novels. She knew wisdom came from multiple disciplines and her curiosity took her into many of them. If something spoke to her she wrote it down and her excerpts related to finding meaning in life, facing fears and making good use of our time in this world. We had often talked about books and as I perused this file I felt as if I was having one more of our many conversations. 

I participate in the Jewish Artists' Lab whose topic this year is conveniently that of wisdom or more precisely Echoes: Voices of Wisdom. (I write a separate blog for this group which focuses on our discussions) This topic seemed especially apt as I leafed through the file. We do an exhibition after a year of studying our theme so I usually spend months contemplating and discarding ideas on our topic. Now I wondered how I could make use of the contents of this file artistically. How does one paint wisdom? I needed a metaphor on which to build.

My answer came when I contemplated a phrase I once coined to express my personal philosophy. "Take your piece of the world and make it shine" - making a difference where you are in the lives you touch. I shared this with my mother and it resonated with her; she quickly adopted it as her mantra. I suppose it spoke to me because I spent so much of my life observing her live it. She posted it over her desk, taking ownership of it. I now carry that statement in her handwriting in my wallet. It is indeed an echo amplified. From me to her and back again with deeper meaning.

When I thought of something shining, I thought of an apple. What better symbol for a teacher? Perhaps her face should be vaguely reflected in its polished image. An echo of sorts. I began to research the symbolism of apples. Do they tie to wisdom? What about that apple from the tree of knowledge that Eve bit into? Interestingly when I went to the original passage I found the observation that the tree was desired to make one wise. The apple tree is used as a metaphor for the maturation process, growing into readiness, an appropriate aspect of wisdom.

Words must of necessity also be incorporated into this artwork, words selected from her folder of readings. I've been asked what she read and thought I'd share some of her excerpts within this blog, especially some that I hope to include in this yet to be defined creation.  This is how paintings begin, with fragments of ideas that if successful, knit together into a broader concept.

To allow me to do justice to it, I will share the words in my next entry. What better way to evoke my mother than through the words she selected as having personal meaning to her and in turn to me. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Greetings From Beyond

Today is my birthday and the first one in my lifetime with no parent left to offer birthday greetings. I have a painting in my memory series which suddenly seems very relevant. It is a portrait of my parents called Greetings from Beyond. I wrote of the story some years ago, but never shared the artwork. To recap...

Four years ago my husband and I went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday. When we returned, my phone was blinking. A message. I played it back and there were my parents singing "Happy Birthday" to me. My mom led and my father's gruff voice picked up the melody. "Ba da bom bom" my dad added at the end. Then silence. "What should I do now?" my mom asks. My dad replies, "Hang it up". It still makes me chuckle when I hear that, such a typical exchange.

Both of my parents had lost memory. My dad had been losing memory for years, my mother's memory loss was just becoming apparent. For years my mother helped my dad, together since they were 16 and 17, she had always been the keeper of their memories.

Then my mother's memory began to deteriorate too.
I was amazed that they were able to call me and sing. That seemed like a complex task beyond their abilities. My mother had stopped making long distance calls. My father bought phone cards with lengthy codes to input. The whole process intimidated my mother even when her memory was intact. Now it presented an insurmountable obstacle. My father would never have remembered a birthday without my mother's prompting. Together they were able to accomplish something that they could not individually.

Exactly three months later my father passed away. The message was preserved by my phone answering system and I saved it on my computer. When my next birthday rolled around, I started the day with that bittersweet recording. The following year I was at my mother's on my birthday. We were going to Israel, a trip she had always wanted to do. Anxious to begin our trip, I woke up at 5am, I heard my mother awake as well. I went into her bedroom. "Are you up?" I asked quietly. Together we perched on the side of her bed. I reminded her that it was my birthday. "Oh, Happy Birthday!" she offered enthusiastically. She no longer remembered birthdays.

I played the recording of her and my father singing together. Enough time had passed that it was now more sweet than bitter. "I play this each birthday" I said. "It's my birthday ritual. Someday when I'm your age, I'll be listening to you and dad singing Happy Birthday to me."

It dawned on me then that it was a milestone birthday for me, one of those decade markers that reminds one of aging. I turned to the mirror and took a picture of us in her bedroom, a "reflective" moment my husband termed it. I wanted to capture the full surroundings, cluttered bedroom and all. It was one of those strange moments where I was in the moment, but also looking at it from a distant point. I was thinking of myself at my mother's age looking back at my relative youth from a far more distant age, much like I view pictures of me in my thirties now.

She passed away this year and on this birthday I once again played the recording four years after I first received it, both parents now gone, but singing to me once again.

When I decided to paint this I thought of the components, my parents, the old wall phone they had when I was growing up and a curved row of birthday cakes denoting birthdays through time. Always with my parents raising their voices in song. Candles cast the glow of memory. Flickering them into the present, my birthday present.