Friday, September 30, 2016

The Protest Writer

I come from a family that doesn’t suffer in silence.  We write letters. I used to assume that everyone did, but I have come to realize that it is a select few that frustration moves to the written word.  I suppose it makes sense as I come from a family that likes to write and has strong opinions.  Put those two qualities together and you have protest letters. Mind you I don’t generally bother with routine opinion letters to the newspaper,  but inadequate service will spur me to action.

Recently I was at my book club complaining that for the past several months the local paper has delivered my newspaper to my driveway instead of my doorstep.  I made countless phone calls. I then sent several letters protesting deficiencies in both delivery and customer service to the head of the newspaper and the Circulation department before I finally cancelled the newspaper delivery.  My letter offered these words among many.

"It is my preference to receive a paper copy and if you are trying to wean your customers off paper by lousy service, you are succeeding. It would be simpler if you just said so instead of testing my patience.”

As I shared my frustration at book club, I realized that apparently written protests are not the norm.  It is not that I expect action to occur although I am ever hopeful it will.  It is perhaps an optimism that pushes me to action as well as a sense of responsibility.  How can they fix it if I don’t call it to their attention?  At least then I’ve done my part.

My history of protests began early.  My mother kept albums of news articles on everyone in my family.  Surprisingly we all had our share. Our family got a lot of ink.  As I went through the albums I was amused to see that she had clipped out an article from the 1970s when I sought the disciplining of a judge who had commented on a rape victim’s attire as a contributing factor.  I had been outraged and immediately sent a letter to the judicial group, parts of which were quoted in the paper.  My mother apparently considered the content noteworthy enough to clip and file. 

It is not a bad talent to have, although those on the receiving end may think otherwise.  My step-daughter once harnessed this ability when she had shutters designed for her windows that didn’t fit properly.  Initially turned down when she protested, she asked me to write a letter.  I used the company’s own words and promises against them and they readily gave her what she asked when their inconsistency glared at them from print.   It is so satisfying when written words meet with success!

I come by this proclivity naturally.  My father was a protest writer.  When I went through his files after he died, I found many letters he had written protesting failings in products. He was adept at using humor to soften his underlying edge. There was the No No  Feeder which was a bird feeder that my father understood to be shaped so squirrels could not get to the bird food.  His letter termed it the Yes Yes Squirrel Feeder as his acrobatic squirrels were amazingly adept at gaining access.  He developed a lengthy and amusing thread with his correspondent on this topic who advised him it actually meant no wood or plastic.

He had a less humorous and more edgy protest letter to an insurer, a letter on a badly designed garbage bag and when they discontinued one of his Entenmann pastry favorites, he again wrote in protest.  As I went through family records, I retained those that seemed to capture the essence of the person. I found myself saving my father's protest letters. They were so him.

It is often these seemingly minor characteristics that define us, a feistiness and indignation that the world does not behave the way it should and a willingness to throw ourselves into the fray. Perhaps someday someone will save my protests too.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Lighting the Fuse

I recently stepped back through time to a childhood memory as I listened to a talk by Anna Quindlen, one of my favorite authors, speaking in the Pen Pals series. When I was a child I was a passionate reader. I lived in books and was seldom found without one. I had a particular chair in our living room in which I read, my legs over the arm of the chair, engrossed in whatever make-believe world I was conjuring up.  From there I could close out the noise and tumult of my childhood home and step into another world. Anna told a similar story down to the skinny legs thrown over the arm of the chair and her mother nearby cajoling her to go outside and play.  I had a mother like that too, who worried that I wasn't participating in the rites of childhood.  Instead I became a reader, just like my mother who worried so much about me living in books.

Years ago I pressed my mother to write her recollections after a vain attempt to interview her.  One day in the mail I received ten typed pages of what she remembered.  After her memory had fled she ran across this document and thanked me for "forcing" her to record her memories.  A central theme was the library. She fondly remembered Miss Jackson, the librarian at the public library who helped her find books. She wrote of how her sister introduced her to the Canarsie Library and the important role libraries played in her life, how she always had a library card in the seven states in which she lived.  She contemplated how books shaped her sense of right and wrong and her belief that righteousness would prevail.

I have similar memories.  My mother would take us to the library with a box and we would each check out ten books. We carried that box, laden with books, back to the house where my mother would record their titles to assure we could locate them to return the following week. I would read mine and then peruse everyone else's.  

Miss Roecker was my school librarian and a formative figure in my life. She must have recognized a fellow book lover in me and would pull me aside to tell me about books she was sure I would enjoy. One day I arrived at the library with my brother.  I remember they had a reading program where they gave you stickers of underwater creatures for each book that you read. You then pasted them on a page as you sought to fill it up. You had to do a book report to capture those trophies. After my brother gave his book report, Miss Roecker beckoned me over. "Would you like to do a book report?" she asked.  Painfully shy, I looked down, not meeting her eyes, and shook my head.  "Why don't you just tell me about it?" She suggested.  I was in third grade and the book was The Trouble With Jenny's Ear, so memorable that I reread it as an adult with pleasure and later tracked down used copies for my two granddaughters.  I had loved the book and happily shared its story with her.  Afterwards she announced that I had done my first book report and gave me that magical sticker. I was hooked.

Not unlike my mother, I like stories with a theme of redemption, not the religious kind, but more how we right something that is amiss. We are challenged through life by our own limitations or the challenges thrown before us by the universe.  Our universal story is how we meet those challenges, how we right the universe and how we grapple with our own humanity.

As Anna shared her stories of reading in her living room chair and the librarian who saved books for her, I looked around this room filled with readers all lost in reveries thinking of their reading chairs and their childhood librarians.  I realized how universal this experience is for a certain type of child, girls who grow up to be people like me.

Anna talked about how the expression, "I read" in Greek also means "I recognize"  and she spoke of how those librarians recognized us. This was at a time when there were few female role models save teachers, nurses and yes, librarians.  Books are powerful. They are how we learn to understand the world and the people within it. It is not a coincidence that the Nazis burned books and that laws prohibited teaching black slaves to read.  Books can be incendiary and those who recognize and nourish a reader are lighting the fuse of possibility.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Memory Palace

Cicero tells the tale of a poet who was attending a banquet when he is called away to meet with two young men.  After leaving the dining hall, the ceiling collapses killing all those who remained.  The poet was asked to identify who had been in the room.  He is credited with creating a system of mnemonics, a method of remembering, when he identified who was in the banquet hall by mentally placing them in their location at the table.  The term "memory palace" was coined to describe this method of recalling although it is often called the Method of Loci.  It is frequently used in memory competitions where you select a place you know well like a childhood home and mentally place objects in various rooms in unusual relationship to each other.  You then walk through the rooms and gather the objects.  The basic premise of course is that memory and spatial perception are closely linked.

 It occurred to me that my mother's home was a memory palace. I lived there from age 3 to age 17 and continued to return there for much of my life. When my mother was still alive, I began to go through the house and take pictures of the nooks and crannies within the house. I realized that there already were odd juxtapositions. On one shelf I found a figure of the Spanish princess Marguerite who was painted by Velasquez. The figure was next to a ceramic walrus from a trip to Alaska. In front of it was a menorah. All of this was set against a tray from my grandfather's surplus store in New York.

I never got very far pursuing this concept while my mother was alive and it took on a poignancy when she died and we began to dismantle the house. Recently I began to implement my idea. My objective is to create one foot by one foot paintings of different areas of the house and combine them to form a larger painting. The name of course will be the Memory Palace.

The central painting will be one of the chairs she sat on when she composed her collages. A nearby chair has her sweater over it with the framework of the chair showing through. It is a painting of absence and yet presence, as if she has just stepped away for a moment.

Other paintings I have completed include her plates that sat in the windows with the light filtering through them. Some of them now sit in my window and I look at them through her eyes. Trees form a lattice behind them. In her lifetime those trees sprouted buds, leafed out and changed colors as they passed through all the seasons.I think of her at each new season, savoring the changes on her behalf.

On her bookshelf she had a winged figure, arms raised overhead holding a torch. On the base it says 1986-87 Beverly Manor School, Perfect Attendance. My mother taught first grade for just shy of 20 years. One day when I was visiting her she came into the living room in her flannel pajamas holding the statue cupped in her hands. I of course took a picture, her smiling broadly. It represented a period in her life that she loved. Behind it are books on opera, my father's passion, and nature field guides that were my mother's.

The last one I have completed so far is of her spoon collection. When we traveled together she would always get a spoon for each place we visited. Our travels were a very special part of her life and the spoons represented her memories of them.

When you paint a series of paintings you need to have some common element that connects them visually. When I painted a similar series on the former Jewish community of Radom, Poland, I used a limited palette that echoed the tones of a photograph. I wasn't sure what the linkage would be for this series and thought I should start painting and see what emerged. The first two paintings were very airy, the next two much darker with brown tones more dominant. Even in the two that were airy, brown was an accent, either the structure of the trees or the chairs. I am going to keep that idea in mind and try to create a mix that either uses brown as a structural element or a dominant color. I've since painted two with more golden tones that you can see in interaction with the other paintings below.  I now have a grouping of these six paintings hanging together on my studio wall in this very changeable composition.