Saturday, November 26, 2016

Birthday Greetings

Early this month I had a birthday.  When I opened my eyes and remembered what day it was, I reached for my iPad.  I've had a birthday ritual in recent years.  Five years ago my parents had called my answering machine and sang Happy Birthday to me.  Every birthday since, I have played the recording of their birthday greeting. 

Three months after that call my father died. Three and a half years later my mother joined him, saying "bye-bye" as she whimsically put it. Now I had only their voices from which to conjure their presence. Last birthday it still felt a little raw only four months after my mother's death. This year it felt right as I played their recording. They were sending me greetings from afar. I listened to their voices and was transported back in time. At the end my mother sang Da da, Da da and my father joined in with a chorus.

I had done a painting of it , a realistic one of them by our old phone, the one I used to speak on in high school, talking each night with my best friend. I used to sit on the hallway floor as I twisted the cord between my fingers talking about how we would live our lives someday. What would we do? Would we have kids? Questions that lent themselves to long conversations. After about an hour my father would yell, "Get off the phone!" concluding our conversation. When I picture my parents calling me it is always on our old dial phone, long gone, but deep in my wiring.

Sometimes a realistic painting has to come first. I need to paint it out of me before I can play.  Perhaps I also had to wait a bit to let go of their corporeal form, but I took another run at it in a looser form, taking the key elements that stayed with me. My mother's birthday cake made an appearance, well actually several as it rotated through the years. Every year she did the same one, laden with airy chocolate frosting. We usually had it at Thanksgiving as my sister was a November baby also so we invariably shared the cake. My niece, who took over responsibility for Thanksgiving from my mom, continues that ritual, the annual birthday cake from my mother's recipe.

Now as I played with imagery, I pictured flames atop candles flickering, glowing like sparks, shooting through time and space with a suggestion of my parents in a chasm, another dimension, mouths open in song. And there was that phone cord twisting through time connecting them with me like an umbilical cord. 

There is a coda to this.  I was down in Illinois a day after my birthday to close on the sale of my mother's home.  As this was likely to be my last visit for the foreseeable future, I did a stop by the cemetery where my parents now reside.  I put a stone on their grave and told my mom about the new owners of the house, the parents of her neighbors. It is a solution we feel sure she would have blessed as they are new immigrants to this country just as her parents once were.  I was feeling a bit foolish speaking to the air and a tombstone, not quite sure how to have this conversation in this way, before a marker of their presence.  Then I had an idea.  Out came the iPad and their birthday song filled the air.   I wasn't sure if I was being irreverent in this act, but my family often erred on the side of irreverence, and in some strange way it felt like the most reverent thing I could have done.  I closed my eyes and felt their presence surround me, molecules of air vibrating with their energy once again.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Commitment of Values

I have not previously written about politics in this blog. I have, however, written about values and it occurs to me that politics are values. My values are an important part of who I am and what I hope to express in my life, my artwork and my words.   

Under normal circumstances I accept that politics may argue for different approaches to create a better world. I may disagree with those approaches, but they are legitimate topics to debate in the public arena.

This election feels different. It is an election built on sexism, racism, xenophobia and the fundamental breakdown of social norms of respect and kindness.  If you doubt that, you need only look at the actions of people post-election as bigotry emerges.  I am angry and I am disgusted and beneath that lies a deep layer of sadness. I had thought I lived in a world with people who shared those social norms and values.

When the world turns upside down, I try to reestablish order, to make sense of it. That starts with asking myself what I can do to make it better. I think of my mother's mantra of "take your piece of the world and make it shine".  But I am just one person. How can I make a difference?

I have to believe in the butterfly effect, that small actions can make big changes even if I never see them. I've accepted that belief in my artwork. I believe the stories I tell with my art are powerful and touch people and may create an action in their life that I will never know.  On that blind belief I continue to create.  It is also on blind belief that I carry forward in this fractured time.

My process begins by thinking about my values. What do I believe in? What is threatened or will be threatened? What can I support? What can I shore up in a time of threat?

What we believe in is influenced by our experiences in this world and mine may differ from yours. I am a woman who values her autonomy, I am a Jew who lost family in the Holocaust and I am the grandchild of immigrants. I was raised by a father who valued acting on one's beliefs and speaking up for what is right, by a mother who expressed kindness and compassion in her daily life.

As a woman who seeks to have some measure of control of her life, I support women and our right to self-determination. That means control of our bodies which is fundamental to control of our lives. It means feeling physically safe in this world, not subject to threat. It means being able to use my talents to compete on a level playing field without being denigrated. I was appalled at the vicious denigration directed at our female candidate.  Disgusted beyond words that this was allowed to exist and flourish and disturbed by what it revealed about how outspoken women are truly viewed.

I oppose discrimination in any form.  As a Jew I am quite aware that discrimination against anyone is but one step away from anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism was already evident in this campaign. I am committed to safeguarding the rights of gays and minorities with a sharp awareness of that slippery slope. We are all connected and what affects them affects me.  The KKK that supported our President-elect views us all through the same lens.

I believe that immigrants can enrich our nation. My grandparents were immigrants. One grandfather was a tailor, the other ran a surplus store.  One of my grandmothers never spoke English although she understood it. Like many immigrants, her children navigated the world on her behalf.   It is because my grandparents gained entrance to the US that it in turn benefited from my mother who was a beloved teacher, my father who was a highly respected college professor who started a public TV station.  Suffice it to say that education matters to me as does the critical thinking which should grow out of education. In one of my volunteer roles I make loans through a development corporation, providing financing to minorities and immigrants to start and run businesses. On more than one occasion it has caused me to think of my own family's journey.

I don't have the sense of immunity that many Americans carry. I believe it is my heritage as a Jew that causes me to feel a certain underlying sense of threat. I do not blithely believe America is safe from demagogy and discrimination.  That was the beginning of the events that led to the extermination of my grandfather's family in Eastern Europe.  I don't know where it leads here, but I know it is nowhere good. I am on guard when I see the wall of respect breached, even more so when much of our country signs on, joining with white nationalists to vote in a candidate who exhibits demagogy and disrespect.  So yes, I am deeply disturbed by the values that are the hallmark of our President-elect and I believe we all should be.  His election does not make it OK, only more frightening.

So what do I do?  I have been identifying organizations and causes that support my values and will be making contributions of both money and time. I already work with many organizations and causes that support my values but will plan to step it up.

I will join protests that align with my views and make my presence known. I will not be silent in words or action.

I am wearing a safety pin, a symbol that I will step up to support anyone who is harassed.  I will be a safe place for others. I think of this symbol relative to the star of David which my grandfather's family was once forced to wear so they could be identified, isolated and ultimately murdered. Instead of creating a boundary and a separation, this symbol removes boundaries. It signals that I'm with those who are the target of discrimination or harassment, that I will act with them and in their behalf. It is a reminder to me of this commitment.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Goodbye Home

We pulled up at the title company to close on my mother's home. In the vehicle parked next to us were the neighbors along with their parents who were buying the home. It was a moment which held a mixture of feelings. I was about to let go of my childhood home and with that a tie to my past and yet there was also relief to let go of our responsibility for this emotion-laden property. Sadness, relief and also happiness. It felt right to be selling the home in this way.

The last time I had seen the neighbors was when my sister and I stopped by the house after my mother's death. The neighbor had seen her leave her home for the last time in an ambulance. She told me that my mother didn't look like she wanted to go. Was she afraid she'd never come back even then? Later, when she was doing rehab for a stroke, my mother told me that she didn't think she was going to get out of there, a prescient observation I wasn't then ready to acknowledge. Now we told them of her death and they gathered round us offering exclamations of distress at this news, murmuring words of comfort over the woman they called Lola Rose*.

We began to tackle the home, emptying it of a lifetime of belongings. My sister made many trips, the only one of my siblings still in Illinois. On one of those trips she chatted once again with the neighbors and learned of their interest in the home. The neighbors are Filipino, the parents fairly new immigrants. Family is important in their culture and parents often live with children.  It was clear from their response to my mother that elders were respected and valued. My sister and I agreed that we wanted to make this happen, but would need to step up if we were to do that.

Now we were at the final stage. The neighbor with whom I communicated told me her parents were so excited they couldn't sleep. Neither could I. It is those transition points that are difficult, even good transitions, fraught with the awareness of change as we cross a boundary.  My house, not my house. 

We sat across from them at the table as we signed document after document. I congratulated them on their new home when we finished. Their happiness was palpable. "Thank you for trusting us,"the mother said. "We will take good care of the house".

"This is right," I thought. The kind of right with the universe feeling I get when actions align with what is supposed to be. 

We met up once again at the DMV where I transferred the title of my mother's old car to them. They got new plates and then thoughtfully asked me if I wanted the old ones. Little did they know that those plates were significant. My father taught at a university and there he started the public radio and public television station. For years his plates read BU 4747 after both the university and the TV channel. "Yes," I replied and I told them the story of how he was in line for plates at the DMV  when he heard the sequence of numbers they were offering and traded places to get 4747.

We had gone to the house the evening before when we arrived in town, but this felt very different. It was no longer my home. I waited for them to open the door to their new home.  We walked downstairs to the garage.  The day before when I had come downstairs with my husband he suddenly said, "There's a critter."  It had stopped me cold as I thought in despair that we would have to hire a service to catch it before we could sell the home.  As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw it was a paper-mâché sculpture of a kangaroo,  no doubt one of my mother's creations from her teaching days hidden deep in darkness.

Now we went and stood outside the garage and waited while they took off the old plates and put on the new ones. A clear demarcation. Out with the old, in with the new.  I stood outside, not wanting to intrude on their space until they invited me to go back through the house on my way out.

"Goodbye basement" I said aloud to that space that once housed a cluttered tangle of bikes and work bench and garden tools.  "Good bye kitchen," I said as I looked at this familiar kitchen, home of countless birthday cakes, Thanksgivings and treasured chats with my mother. Goodbye house, goodbye tree. Goodbye, goodbye. Be well. Be happy.

*Lola means grandmother in Filipino

Friday, November 4, 2016

Right Things-Right Reasons

I've always had a bit of a mantra. Do the right things for the right reasons. It has been my experience that when I do that, I am rewarded in ways I cannot predict and mysteries unfold. Yes, I realize that sounds a little out there, but it has happened often enough that I have come to trust in it. And whether you believe that or not, shouldn't we be doing the right things for the right reasons anyway? Often it requires an expenditure of time and effort, a giving of self. It is not always easy. 

At no time have I been more aware of this than in my shared time with my mother in her final years. As her memory began to fail, I stepped up and came to visit more frequently and for more extended time. One of the right reasons for this was
 to cherish the time I had with my mother, suddenly painfully aware that it was limited and would end. The other right reason was to relieve my sister who lived near her and took on more of the burden. I didn't want my sister to feel overwhelmed and abandoned as she assumed responsibility. And I wanted her to know that I appreciated what she did. 

When my mother took a turn for the worse, I knew the right thing was to be there for her. To be present. We held her hand to the end, surrounding her with love. It was both hard and profound and I am incredibly grateful that I had that opportunity to be there for her. Later my sister and I tackled the house. I went through my parents' papers, experiencing them through their thoughts and the eyes of correspondents. My understanding of them deepened and as onerous as that process was, I was grateful for the understanding I gained.

Since my mother passed away, I have been experiencing her in a different way, creating artwork and writing about her. I finally was able to give what I was doing a name when I read about the artist Tobi Kahn. When his mother died, he, an observant Jew, said the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. But he also said it in a different way. He decided that during his year as a mourner he would create works of art that related to his mother's life. When he described it as saying Kaddish visually, I understood exactly what he meant. This also was my way of saying 
Kaddish for my mother, integrating both her absence, but also her continued presence into my life.

We are at the close of a chapter, but I still feel like mysteries are unfolding. My sister and I have both been doing the right things for the right reasons. We are honoring our parents in many ways as we let them go. We have created a force field, out of which good things come.

I was speaking to my sister recently when I said, "Have I told you lately how grateful I am that I have a sister?" One of the good things that came out of this was a deepened relationship with my sister. While we are only three years apart in age we often lived in different worlds. I was away at college while she navigated high school. She was raising a family when I was single. At crisis points we pulled together, but for much of our adult lives we were a tangential presence in each other's life. 

Now with complementary, but different skills, and with a deep love for our mother, we stepped up together to support her and to deal with all those end of life challenges. Holding up my end of things was the right thing to do. Really getting to know and appreciate my sister on a whole other level was one of the gift that I received for that effort. And then there are the mysteries...

My sister and my niece were at the house for the final time. My niece was going through an old purse of my mother's and was convinced there was something in it. She felt around in the lining and extricated a star of David necklace that my mother had gotten in Israel. I remembered how my mother had focused in on that necklace in the shop. I had suggested she might want to look at others, but she was insistent that that was the one she wanted. Soon after we returned she lost it. I had thought of it often, wondering if it would reappear. I hated the idea of losing it. It seemed somehow fitting that it was resurrected at the 11th hour by my niece, a legacy passed on to my mother's granddaughter with a sense of discovery surrounding it, almost as if my mother had handed it to her.

The other good thing that has arisen is that a neighbor has bought the house. I'm in town one last time for the closing. The young neighbor couple and their child have the wife's parents living with them. The parents, who are new to this country, were interested in purchasing the house. That somehow felt so right to both my sister and me. "Mom would love the idea" we said to each other. We still seem to have a pretty direct channel to her. She would have liked the idea of family members supporting each other.  Her parents were immigrants too and she looked after her mother who lived with us when we were young.  I think she would have identified with the neighbors. Actually she would have liked for us to have lived next door to her.

There is a huge tree in the front yard that grew from a twig. The neighbor's mother said that she loves to watch it as it goes through the seasons and has named it Orlando, echoing the name of the street although I keep thinking of the Shakespearean character. My mother loved her house and I think would be very pleased with a new owner who names and cherishes the tree that graces the yard.