Friday, December 29, 2017

Political Affective Disorder: Reading in a Divisive World

As sunshine peeked through the window, our yoga instructor began to talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I mouthed, “Political Affective Disorder” to my husband on the adjoining mat. He raised an answering eyebrow.  The symptoms are similar: anxiety, lack of focus, feeling disheartened and deflated. It is something we’ve both experienced this year.

As we near the end of the year, I begin my annual taking stock and realize that this has not been a normal year.  I am a goal setter; books read, blogs written, museums visited. You name it, I count it. This year I’ve given myself permission to lighten up.  My five books a month fell to four.  My blog frequency dropped.  The gap of course has been filled with monitoring our political space, fearful that I might miss something that threatens life as we know it. This has taken a toll on my book reading and altered its nature.  

Now normally almost half of my reading is non-fiction. That requires a level of attention and focus that I just didn’t have this year. Not only was I reading more fiction, but it had to immediately grip me. I was too easily distracted.  More books lie abandoned for a failure to immediately engage. It is probably not their fault, more likely my diminished attention span. On the plus side, the books that survived my engagement test have often been extraordinary.  I’ve long since abandoned reporting on a list of favorite books confined to a designated number, instead I will tell you over several posts, some of the standouts that share common themes or approaches. The ones in this post all seemed to serve some purpose for me in either finding calm or understanding the world around me.

Quiet Books With Depth

I began the year by discovering the author Amor Towles, author of A Gentleman in Moscow.  Trying to describe this book often fails to capture its extraordinary nature. A man is confined by house arrest to a hotel for the duration of his life. What dramatic possibilities does that permit? Well at least two and those prove to be rich and promising. We explore his character as he deals with these restrictions while attempting to have purpose and meaning in his constricted life. The fact that he is a witty and thoughtful character enriches this dimension. And remember he is housed in a hotel, and not just any hotel, the famed Metropol, with its regular cast as well as a constantly changing one. The world comes to him. A third dimension is added through the time period and location, beginning in Russia in 1922, it spans a period of thirty years. Having loved this book, I quickly sought others by this author and discovered Rules of Civility, a novel set in New York City in 1938. This rich novel explores the movement of a young woman into high society, despite more humble roots. Both novels present witty and well-developed characters, but of the two I must confess a preference for A Gentleman in Moscow with its more restricted circumstances, allowing a deeper dive into one character with less distraction. For me there was also significance in considering how we find meaning in life even when it has aspects at which we chaff.

I then moved on to a NY based novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney.  This too is a book that doesn’t lend itself to a quick snapshot. It begins with an 85-year-old woman who is on her way to a party, working her way through New York City on foot.  It is another character study into a strong character with wit. Turns out Lillian Boxfish is based on the real-life character of Margaret Fishback, one of the highest paid female copywriters of the 1930s and known for her witty poetry and ad copy. The city of New York is also a central character viewed through a time dimension spanning from the 1920s to 1985. Just as A Gentleman in Moscow, much of it takes place in the head of the central character, a quieter kind of novel offering calm in a time of chaos.

The Immigrant Experience
Many of the books I read offered an education in the immigrant experience, often the limited choices that undocumented immigrants face and what that may mean for their American-born children. Two books in particular explored this theme: The Leavers by Lisa Ko and Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran. The Leavers is told through two voices, the mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, and her son, abandoned at age eleven without word upon his mother's deportation. He is adopted by well-meaning affluent parents, but remembers his former life and community, uncertain of his place within the world and his personal identity. Always lurking is the question of what happened to his mother, a mystery he ultimately solves. 

Lucky Boy deals with the story of an undocumented Mexican immigrant who becomes pregnant on her way to America. She raises her child in his first year or two, a devoted mother, until she too is sent to a deportation center. Her child is given to foster parents, an Indian couple who loves him deeply, sympathetic people on both sides of this equation. Unable to claim her son, his mother is faced with a system which would readily remove her child if she doesn’t step outside of the rules.  This was a side of immigration that was new to me and very disturbing. While told through fiction, it was true to the actual experience. There is a disconnect between federal immigration and the state child welfare system, with the latter often treating the child as if s/he has been abandoned when the parent is seized by ICE and housed at a deportation center. Often that is due to a lack of communication between the two systems.

A non-fiction essay, Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valerie Luisella also offered a perspective on immigration with which I was unfamiliar, a glimpse into the experience of children immigrating from South America.  The author volunteers as an interpreter for undocumented children who often flee alone to the United States.  Safety from gangs is often an impetus, an issue in which the United States bears some complicity as the gangs arose in Los Angeles in response to Mexican gangs. Deportation of the gang members just served to spread the poison to a country which lacked the resources to hold them in check. The book is more about questions than answers. The children are asked to complete a questionnaire for information that is used by attorneys to explore avenues to keep them in the US. Luisella uses this questionnaire as the vehicle to tell the stories of the children. 

Scapegoating the "Other"

Much of my reading seems to have focused on trying to make sense of our world, so divided between us and them.  To this end, I found a work by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to be especially meaningful. In his book Not in God’s Name, Sacks focuses on the human tendency to turn on those we perceive as "other."  He attributes it to our search for identity and for those who we identify as our tribe. Inclusiveness and exclusion go hand in hand. If we have identity, "us", we also see its inverse, "them". When our world fractures, we fall into dualism. Dualism is when we attribute evil to an outside force, simplifying the world into good and bad, us and them. Scapegoats are targeted and we tighten our group bonds by attacking the "other.” Sacks examines this concept through the lens of sibling rivalry as addressed in the Bible. Moving from Cain and Abel to Jacob and Esau to Joseph and his brothers, Sacks shows the evolution by example of how we are to resolve these differences. Ultimately, he finds the answer in role reversal, stepping into the “other’s” shoes. You can read a more extensive review I have written here.

Until beginning this post, I must confess that I hadn't realized the role that reading has played for me in making sense of this disturbing time. It has in fact served to deepen my understanding and helped me to find a place of calm from which to face this very uncertain world.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Search for Facts

Creating artwork often provides me with a lens on the world, something I am always trying to make sense of. I want to understand it on a factual level and ultimately, I want facts and my emotional response to line up in a congruent whole, like a row of cherries clicking into place on a slot machine. In today’s world, I need to spend a lot of time vetting my facts, considering the source, their politics and how independent their judgment truly is. Both the need to vet, and the difficulty in doing so, has become very evident to me with a current project.
I am participating in a collaboration with Israeli artists to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Israel. The focus is on Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. There is a cross-cultural element baked in as our experience in our respective countries may offer differing perspectives. Already in my discussions with my Israeli partner, we have explored how the military service requirement in Israel serves a unifying purpose that we lack here in the United States where military experience touches a small segment. I have also been struck by how many of the Israelis came from somewhere else. Many of them have chosen Israel as their home rather than being there through an accident of birth. Aliya we call it, going up, as if to the very mountain where it began for Moses and the Jewish people.
As part of this project we discuss a variety of texts; biblical, poetry, music and historic documents. I read them looking for the words that cause me to pause, to pay attention, words that stir questions. Unlike some of my fellow artists who have spent much time in Israel, I am relatively new to first-hand experience with only two visits, both in recent years. When my Israeli counterpart and I spoke of early impressions, I remembered contributing to the planting of trees in Israel as a child. As a teen, I remember reading Exodus by Leon Uris. For a teenage girl, this was pretty heady stuff. I was ready to go join a kibbutz.  The six-day war fell during my teenage years and was a source of pride for Jews everywhere. We knew we were well represented on the Nobel prize list (22.5% in case you were wondering), but fighting back, and winning, was something new. 
Every Jew grew up with the history of the Holocaust lurking as a reminder. In my family, we had one survivor who came to the United States after the war. When I was a child, he would pick me up at the airport when I went down to visit my grandmother in Miami. I stayed with her in her little apartment on Collins Avenue, walking in excruciatingly tiny steps, slowed to match hers, as we visited the fish market on her round of errands. The eyes of huge fish glared back at me, surrounded by the rapid-fire cadence of Yiddish as old women jostled to the counter to make their purchases. I would carry my grandmother's chair to the beach, where she would meet her deeply-tanned geriatric boyfriend. My entry into that somewhat mysterious world was framed by the bigger mystery of this cousin with his weighty story. I would look for the tattooed number on his arm, curious, but too intimidated by that somber history to intrude with questions. Years later as an adult, I interviewed him about his memories. Later still, I became aware of the shadow behind that solitary cousin, the fifty members of our family who did not survive, who were murdered.

It is out of these experiences that I find my emotional response to Israel predicated on these facts; If you are a Jew, the world can turn on you. Even the US, turned its back on Jews during WWII, sending refugees back to their death, rejecting legislation to take in 20,000 Jewish children. As I learn about our immigration history, I am often shocked at my own country. It seems unfathomable to question one’s safety in the United States, and yet, history gives me pause.

With Israel, I always have a place of safety. At the end of the day it boils down to this: a well-founded distrust of my safety at the hands of others in this world, contrasted with a place which would always open its arms to me. If you are Jewish this awareness resides within you on a visceral level. It attunes you to threats in the environment and sensitizes you to others under threat. That sense of vulnerability shapes your politics and your sense of responsibility to others. It is a part of Jewish identity and a part of the relationship that many Jews have with Israel.
The world was happy to embrace Israel when it was the underdog who made the desert bloom. Today, it is a more complicated story. Another underdog vies for attention, another set of claims, information skewed in the cause of partisan views. My search for simple facts is frustrating. I look at college campuses and the BDS movement as I remember the simple and often uninformed lens through which I once saw the world as a young college student. The world was much more black and white and righteous indignation was often the predominant response. I wanted the world to make sense then too and hadn’t yet learned to accommodate the grays. The simple world of planting trees and teenage fantasies has become much more complicated.  
Antisemitism is never far from the discourse of those who object to Israel’s existence. It is a slippery devil, mutating to invade this new host, an ugly virus that always seems to find a home. I am deeply disturbed by this nascent antisemitism that has begun to enter college campuses and politics, finding homes in countries I once thought of as reasonably enlightened.
And still, I am a Jew. It is part of my heritage and my responsibility to value truth and honesty and self-reflection, to question if we have met the standards we would choose to live by. How have we done at creating a society that is congruent with those values? That is the question I come back to as I begin this exploration. There are practical realities that must be balanced, security in a world where others would seek our destruction. How does one maintain an open society in the face of danger?  Israel is a complex society with many divisions even among Jews. The Haredim in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox, are worlds away from my secular brand of Judaism and yet they have excessive influence within Israel on many issues. I remind myself that there are sharp divisions in American society as well. We aspire to an ideal, but seldom live in one. And so, I begin.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Have Some Chutzpah

My mother was always my best cheerleader. From that early,”Look Ma, no hands,”  to the ups and downs of life, my mother was always the first call. To have someone believe in our capabilities even as they understand our inner struggles is a tremendous gift, one that if we are lucky we often receive from our mother. When I realized that she would not always be around, I considered the fact that I would need to learn to rely on my own inner voice.  

I have realized since her death that her voice resides within me. It has taken up residence with my inner choir with its odd assortment of singers, each with their own melody. My mother loved my writing as only a mother can.  I used to read my blogs to her and later the book I was working on before her death. I wrote in this blog about a video recording I rediscovered this year of us reviewing memories we had shared. In the middle of it she says, “Oh Susan, you’ll write a book. You’ll write lots of books.”   Those words of affirmation were quite welcome at that time as I was midway through the process of publishing my book. 

Then there was my father who upon hearing of an early career upset came out with the memorable line, “it was about time you landed on your ass, you were getting entirely too smug.” Yes, this is what we considered encouragement in my family and because I am a product of that family, I recognized it for what it was. Failures happen, we land on our ass. Then we figure out what we need to learn from it and move forward. That line has reverberated many times throughout my life.

One of the most useful messages in my head actually came from my ex-husband, an engineer. Whenever something would stump me, he used to say, “Study it.” I have often echoed that reminder to myself.  

I’ve been thinking of inner voices because I realized recently that I have no lack of inner dialogue and it often offers excellent advice. Recently I received an announcement of a talk by an author from Lithuania. The topic was one I knew well. She wrote of the rewriting of Holocaust history by Lithuania, a country that had been often complicit with the Nazis in the murder of their Jewish population during WWII. Today they rewrite that history to a more palatable version.  In 2009 I had spent a month in Lithuania studying Yiddish and observed the incongruities in how the Holocaust was addressed. When I returned home I began to paint my observations in a series called The Silence Speaks Loudly. The author was addressing essentially the same topic so I immediately resolved to attend. I looked at the sponsors, many local Jewish organizations, one which I knew well and which had co-sponsored one of my shows. The talk was at the Museum of Russian Art.

I pulled up their website and read about the director. Hmm, I wonder...That inner voice chimed in with a nudge,  “Susan, have some chutzpah!”  Before I could retreat, I quickly typed an email to the museum director mentioning the shows I had of this work both locally and in London and the organizations that had supported it. “ I know you plan far ahead and may not have additional room to exhibit work, but I’d like to explore the possibility.” As I debated hitting send, that voice sensed my hesitation and reminded me, “You have to ask for what you want. What’s the worst that could happen?” I hit send. I quickly received a reply from the director and later met with him and his program person to pitch my idea. It was a go.

I have been creating and showing work for many years now and my confidence has grown with each success,  still my days of being “entirely too smug” ended in my twenties. I have learned a few things since my smug twenties. Much of what we want is within reach if we ask. And if we ask and don’t get, big deal! What have we lost? A bit of pride? Part of life is about playing the odds. Some of what we ask for will come through and it will lay the groundwork for that next serendipitous moment. 

My other pursuits often offer me reference points. In my financial career, I would have considered it from a venture capital perspective, many investments will fail in exchange for a few wins. Failure is built into the equation. 

And another learning. . .When I do genealogy research, I find that the most direct and obvious path often surprises me by leading to resolution. Part of me feels it shouldn’t be that easy. In fact, sometimes life is easy. What we want is easily within our grasp if we aren’t afraid of what many view as  failure and instead view it as playing the odds.  The hard part is getting past our fear of not getting what we want, that seemingly fearsome hologram guarding the gate. We need only step through it to get to the other side.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Magically Aligned

It has been a year since we sold our childhood home. “Our mother’s house” is how we refer to it, even though she shared it with my father for 56 years. She was the one who was left in the end, so it became her house and remains so in description even after death. Occasionally I talk with my sister about going back to our hometown to visit. There really isn’t a practical reason anymore. The house is sold, the unveiling past, but I have friends there. People from my early years in college, or as I began my career, who I reconnected with on my regular visits to my mother. The last time I was there was for the closing on the house, when we sold it to the neighbor’s parents. The neighbors are from the Philippines and their immigrant parents lived with them. Now they have a family compound, two houses side by side on the block. As the children of immigrants, my parents would have appreciated the symmetry.

My parents set up two scholarship funds at the university where my father taught. I contribute each year on their birthdays. One of the things I’ve inherited is the reporting. Every so often I get a report on the funds and every year I get an invitation to the scholarship lunch. My parents used to love that lunch. They would go each year and meet the recipients, tickled that they could help someone attend college, once a dream so distant from their world. My father made it to college on the GI bill and my mother attended as an adult. The university was central to their lives. I’ve been considering driving to downstate Illinois, with a stop to pick up my sister, attending the scholarship lunch in honor of my parents. It is a commitment, an eight hour drive to a place with the echo of home, but none of the trappings, no mother, no home.

Many years back we went on a bit of a pre-commemorative tour with my father. A portrait of him had just been painted for the university. We stopped at the home of the artist to see the finished product, having my father pose behind his dignified image in that silly hat he wore with ear flaps. We evaluated the polish of that public image against the real person we grew up with. Later with my mother along, my parents took us to see the gravesite they had just purchased. It is in the Jewish section of the cemetery and familiar names populate the graveyard.  That tour was a precursor of what was to come. At my dad’s funeral we took a family picture around that portrait as it stood in for my father. Now, we visit them in the graveyard they introduced us to that day, both names now carved in stone.

We no longer have a childhood home as our destination. Now we are visitors. I can vividly picture our childhood room with my father’s clutter gradually filling it after we departed for college. In recent years when I visited I nested among clutter and memories, now only memories remain. I remember my mother on my last visit in the home, peeking in to reassure herself that I was there. "I thought I remembered that you were visiting," she said happily, unsure about trusting her shaky memory. 

“I wonder what they changed about the house?” I said to my sister in one of our lengthy calls. It occurred to us that we could pull it up on Google and view the exterior. I typed in the address and there was the house, largely hidden behind the enormous tree that they had grown from a twig, planted when I was a child.  A squirrel mid-run was immortalized in the driveway. My mother’s old car was parked down the hill. We tried to discern when the picture was taken. "It still has the old sidewalk," my sister noted. "And the bush at the end of the walk," I added. It's an old picture we agreed, one that predated her death and would not reveal changes. 

In that moment, it occurred to me that my mother was still alive at that time, behind the front door with its sign written in her hand - "Rose and Roo welcome you." Roo was her loaner cat and beloved companion. The door stood behind the enormous tree and inside was my mother, maybe Roo sat in his favorite spot looking out. "Mom, come out," I called, half-facetiously, but just for a moment wondering if I could stop the laws of time. "Mom!" I called plaintively, as if she might respond. In that moment, I almost believed she could, our two slices of time magically aligned. She perhaps feeling a twinge, looking around for her child, shaking her head with a rueful smile at her imagination playing tricks.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Venturing into the Unknown

Are you a risk-taker?  If so, have you always been or did you grow into it?  I was talking recently with my stepdaughter who remarked that she sees me as a risk-taker. Now if I am a risk-taker, I am definitely of the calculated risk variety, the one that assesses the best and worst-case scenario and decides if she could live with the downside in exchange for the upside. Then I hold my breath and jump. It does not come naturally to me, which means it brings its share of agonizing along with it. I’m curious if natural risk-takers go through a different process before they jump in. Or perhaps for them it is not even a jump.

My stepdaughter has a 12-year-old daughter who we watch with some awe and a little bit of envy. She has always been comfortable with risk. She’s a performer and she has great confidence in her abilities, even when they are still developing. Neither of us are built that way and view it as a leg up on life to be like that. I certainly wasted a lot of time being fearful of unknowns. On the flip-side, I’m pretty good at assessing risk, parsing the danger from the possibilities.   

There are two times in our life which are especially good for taking risk; when we are young and have little to lose and lots of time to recover, and when we are older and have left our career, once again with little to lose.  The latter is the stage that I am in currently so let’s take a closer look at it. I’ve proven myself to be a competent and capable person in a few arenas so I no longer need to prove myself. That’s not to say I don’t want to test my mettle in a new arena, just that it is optional. The pressure has lifted. I’ve done all the responsible adult things that allow me a certain degree of freedom now. Time to recover is really no longer as relevant, but using my time in a meaningful way is of great importance.

So how does one go from a fear of the world to tackling it and venturing into uncharted territory? I once had someone tell me that he thought I used fear as an engine of sorts to propel me forward.  I think there is some truth to that. I am most afraid of becoming a person whose world is conscribed by fear. That is what drives me forward. I picture a slingshot as I throw myself against that taut band of nerves within me that then shoots me forward into the unknown.  I learned to deal with fear from my mother who had a lot of fears, but the determination not to let them paralyze her. I am sure I was not an easy child for her as she saw herself in me, all the challenges that she struggled with and didn’t want me to echo.  She taught me not to give in to fear, but to step into it, slowly working my way through it.  Over time I learned to plunge forward until I could no longer easily return to safety. I was fortunate to have a mother who understood my inner workings. My father had no fear and would not have known what to make of mine. As I got better at wading through fear, I became more like my father, more ready to tackle the unknown, a risk-taker, but a very rational one, not one of those high on dopamine risk-takers in search of an adrenaline rush.

by Eve Liddell -
We all are forced to take risks in our life. Some do it willingly and seemingly easily. Others are thrust into it kicking and screaming. And there are those of us who learn to accept it as a necessary part of life and possibly a doorway to new opportunities. We assess and we agonize and then we take the plunge.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Finding our Arc

I recently did an interview with a publication where I was asked the question of how I moved from artwork to writing, something the interviewer viewed as two distinct areas.  I laughed and said, “Let me make it even more confusing, I came out of a career in finance and was in social work before that.”  

Artwork to writing seemed like one of the smaller steps I've made in my lifetime. They are two different art forms for telling stories and that is what I do.  Now I realize that words and images are supposed to draw on opposite sides of our brain and often represent two different types of people. I’m convinced I hopscotch back and forth across my brain with some regularity. An integrated brain often seems to go with being left-handed so perhaps being a lefty in a right-handed world is a factor. I proceeded to share with him my theory that everything I’ve been drawn to has revolved around solving puzzles and telling stories.

His question made me realize that we meet people at one point in time along their personal story arc. We may know two data points about them that we focus upon and that becomes the context in which we view them while in fact the context is much broader.  I find that happens often now that I am meeting people after their career has concluded and their kids are grown. I forget that they had a life before that moment. I suppose that is the function of interviewers, to broaden the context. We also are our own editors.  I could have decided to stay within the context he knew and not painted the broader picture, excising that incongruent part of my history. 

We each have a story arc, one we ourselves are not yet aware of in its totality. Had you spoken to me at an earlier point in my life, I would not have been able to tell you what my latest iteration would have looked like. It has certainly not been linear, although I would argue that there is an internal logic. I’ve often thought of my life like a book, one I wanted to peek ahead in, a bad habit of mine.  In my younger days, I used to go to a psychic who gave me glimpses into my possibilities. It was my version of peeking ahead. “Tell me it will all be OK," I was really asking.  Then I decided to just live my life and see where it took me and where I took it.  It is a bit of a collaboration between us and the universe. We can drive it to some extent, but opportunities and challenges present themselves to which we have to respond. How we respond can take us in very different directions.

Over time we develop an approach to life events. When I was in college I used to debate with my roommate which one of us was the luckiest person.  We each believed that good things came to us and that we had some ability to influence those things. I’m not sure where that belief came from at that early age.  To some extent it is magical thinking, but it also means that when you expect good things, you typically get them and it becomes a reinforcing philosophy.  When I reconnected with my old roommate several decades later we found that we were both living engaged and interesting lives. I suspect the optimism we shared had a lot to do with the outcome. Have you ever noticed how two people can have similar experiences and interpret them in totally different ways? Half-full or half-empty?  I think those of us who see the glass as half-full are looking at a broader story arc. 

 I’ve often described myself as a short-run pessimist and a long-run optimist.  In the short-run anything can go wrong, but in the long-run it all sorts out. I’m willing to acknowledge that there are times that life can be pretty miserable, but over time I believe it arcs to self-awareness and gratitude for what we are given.  We begin to find the pattern of our life, to see the logic underlying how we live and to appreciate the many gifts that we receive along the way.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Collector

I am a collector. Doesn't that sound more elegant than a pack rat, connoting white gloves rather than beady eyes? I collect information, especially markers of my history, preserving the traces of where I have been, to fortify myself for the future. I know people who keep very little, curating their lives to only the precious items they deem worthy.  I envy them their lack of clutter, the clarity with which they go through life unbound by their past. Perhaps they are more prescient than I am and know what will matter to them in the future, or perhaps it just doesn't matter to them.  I will never be one of them. 

I come by this collecting trait naturally.  If there is a gene for it, I got it from my father. When I look at my growing piles of papers, I have visions of my father’s study. There I sorted 
through piles of paper after his death, unable to move beyond his rocker, where I nested, in a room filled with books and music and history, layered with unopened mail he could no longer manage and New York Times clippings that he clung to. My mother urged him to get rid of the clippings, stacked in piles reaching upward.   “I need them to help me remember,”  he snapped. I was struck by his response.  I understood his desire to capture what spoke to him, an accumulation of readings that captured his window on the world and documented his essence.  It is not too unlike my old books still populating my shelves. They remind me of the path I took to becoming me.

My father papered his existence, a box of his history, carefully organized, awaited me amidst the chaos. He tried in vain to make order out of chaos with inventories of records and videotapes, a carryover from his days of collecting stamps, meticulously recording them in his tiny script. He cherished his history, where he came from on his path to becoming who he was.

I am made of the same cloth, a historian in my soul.  I  read his 
New York Times clippings looking for a way into his being, now non-being, in a silent conversation post-death.  I looked at these manifestations of what he was drawn to, trying to find the person I never really knew. There is something about history that fascinates me, the residue of a person’s life, like a trail of breadcrumbs into their being.  It is an effort to make sense of the world, to find an understanding and mastery of it, to understand another being and perhaps even oneself.

It occurs to me that this tendency perhaps explains my email box.  It has an embarrassing number of emails. Every so often I decide to tackle it and delete large swaths of emails, but it is so out of control that it makes only the slightest dent. Instead it functions as a storage dump, a filing cabinet through which I search as necessary.  Recently I had a brainstorm.  I would go back to 2010 and work forward, Then I should be able to quickly delete virtually everything as it would all be out of date. Instead, I discovered a treasure trove of history.

Turns out 2010 was an important year in my life.  There I found an email that reported on the interview project which led to the book I will publish this month. I wrote the email on the day I first voiced the idea of interviewing elders and even proposed the idea of a book linking artwork and story.  Seven and a half years later, I have done everything I envisioned so long ago.

In 2010, I met my friend Dora, a Holocaust survivor from my ancestral town. In another email, I wrote of my first five-hour visit with her, saying I thought that we would be great friends. Now in her nineties, she has become a pivotal person in my life.

The year 2010 laid the groundwork for two international shows also well documented in emails. Upon my return the prior year from Lithuania, I had done a series of artwork on how Lithuania dealt with the Holocaust. I had been invited to show the work in London. And in 2010 I was invited to show my work in Poland where I collaborated with my new friend Dora, showing her photographs with my paintings, traveling through time, a hole in time, as I named the series on the Jewish community of my ancestral town.

I realized that I was looking at the early part of a seven-year span, the beginning of many of the efforts that unfolded within that period. Seven years is a period that is often viewed as significant in religion and in spirituality.  I began to read about seven-year cycles, suddenly realizing that I am now at the beginning of a new one. Some posit that we live our life in such cycles, each with its distinct characteristics, reflective of our personal growth and the demands of each period of our life. If that is the case, 2009 began such a cycle and by 2010 a great deal had begun to happen.  It is a cycle described as a turning point guided by intuition and a desire to apply one's talents to something beyond one's personal self-interest, a greater sense of purpose. The psychiatrist Carl Jung viewed it through the lens of individuation,  a time when we realize that who we are grows out of the collective experience of our family and culture.   We begin to explore these questions freeing us to redefine ourselves and create something new.  That was eerily accurate, my book explores the collective experience of the Jewish community as I explored how I fit within it.   

As I leave that stage, the future is about harvesting, teaching and sharing the results of those efforts.  Now that is something to which I look forward.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Throwing Out Rules

My stepdaughter is studying to be a midwife, something I find quite interesting as it gives us a birds-eye view into the profession. Every so often she sends us a draft of a paper to review, so we get to learn along with her. Recently she sent a paper that presented an adult learning model. While the focus was on making a treatment plan meaningful to an adult patient, I found myself thinking about how I am a different kind of student as an adult than I was earlier in my life. Oddly enough, in my last blog post before I received her paper, I had written this:

I know that my learning style is experiential and crosses boundaries. It is an exploration fueled by curiosity and it requires me to keep a certain fearlessness alive; to not let myself be bound by rules that strangle creativity and to trust that I can figure out what I don't know.

Now it has taken me a lifetime to figure that out. I started my work life in an environment that allowed for that learning style and didn't realize how unusual that was. Much of my subsequent work life was in fields that were quite rule-bound, often of necessity because they were dealing with a regulatory environment. The rule-follower in me does just fine in those settings, but if you asked me where I was most creative, it was in that early open-ended environment that didn't hand me a rule book. I found it exhilarating and discovered I was pretty good at finding my way. Ironically I seldom left a job without leaving guidance for my successor. It wasn't that I was opposed to rules, they just had to make sense, which meant I had to write them.

I grew up with a father who believed that rules were there to be broken. He had a successful career doing just that. At the same time he expected us to be good students, after all, he was a college professor, my mother a teacher. I was to learn that rule breaking and being a good student exist in an uneasy tension with each other. Perhaps you need to learn the rules before you break them, yet somehow not stifle your own judgment and creativity along the way. In that early period of my life it was easier to be a good student than to break rules. As much as my father might have argued for breaking rules, he didn't mean his rules and as he liked to remind us, "When you live in my house, you live by my rules." I liked learning and was good at it, so being a good student wasn't a difficult path for me when I was young.

So what changed? I've learned many new things as an adult, many of them since I left my career and could resume my self-directed learning approach where I do best. I've learned how to do solo art shows, give speeches and teach classes, market, design websites, write blogs and books, publish a book, do genealogy consulting, build partnerships, create and manage projects of my own choosing and tell stories.

Sometimes I do pursue a more traditional learning model, particularly when I study languages. and I do selectively take art and writing classes, but mostly I learn by observing others or interviewing others who have pursued a path in which I have interest. Sometimes I consciously take a class for one purpose so I can carry it over to another. To learn to do websites, I took an on-line class through Jewishgen to develop the skills to build websites on ancestral towns. After building two of them, I applied that knowledge to building my own art website and have used it many times since for other projects, expanding my knowledge each time mostly by experimenting and doing a lot of Google searches when I'm stuck. In the age of the Internet we can learn a lot with a Google search.

So what is unique about an adult learner? The Knowles model, the one my stepdaughter introduced us to, proposes six aspects loosely paraphrased as 1) we move from dependence to self-direction. No longer in my father's house, I could create my own rules. 2) we acquire a data bank of experiences that we draw on and reference as we learn. Those experiences might support a new learning or perhaps contradict it. We test what we learn against our reality. 3) our readiness to learn is related to the tasks that we assume in our daily life, another way of saying it has to be relevant to us. 4) we focus on applying what we learn now, rather than building some future body of knowledge for a career 5) we are internally motivated, rather than externally and 6) we want to know why we need to learn something. In short, we want to know why we should care and how it is applicable to us. The corollary is we have no desire to waste our time or be bored along the way.

I think I would add a seventh item to the list that has to do with rules. While I wouldn't eliminate them totally, I would require a clear logic to be provided to justify their need, otherwise they just serve to constrain us from following a self-directed path.

There is a part of me, and perhaps all of us, that believes there is a right way to do things and everybody else seems to know it except me. That's why people go to school and get credentials. I think women are much more prone to that belief system, perhaps because we aren't taken seriously unless we have the credentials. It is constraining, and often makes us timid and silences our voice. Much of life is about figuring it out as you go along.

Ah, but the adult learner, especially those women of a certain age, have begun to figure this out. I have watched many women in their post-work life thrive with this self-directed model, finding their voice as they explore new directions quite different than those at which they once made their living.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Finding Fearlessness

Last evening, we were invited to a Shabbat dinner. It was the kind of Shabbat dinner that is properly done; a warm, inviting home, a gathering of interesting people, and an inventive meal for which one waits for each course with anticipation. And, of course, there were the blessings and songs that make it a Shabbat dinner.

I am always amazed when people know all the Hebrew words to prayers and songs. Raised as a Reform Jew, I only learned the critical lines.  When they come to them, I join in with gusto, grateful for that fragment of recognition. My husband, who isn't Jewish, knows even less than I do, but borrows a yarmulke and participates in the lively conversation.

We began the meal by going around and each of us speaking of something good that happened in our life that week. Normally my mind goes blank when faced with such a question. "What did I do this week?" I ponder, as I mentally retrace my calendar.  This week was easy. "I sent my book off to the printer," I proudly announced. I've moved from pre-publication worries to post-publication worries. I had spent a sleepless night the prior evening considering a last-minute change that I wasn't sure I could still do, only to quickly resolve it the next morning. Problems loom so much larger at 3AM.

I mentioned the name of the book, We Spoke Jewish, as I was seated at a table where its topic would be of interest. As I looked around the table, I realized that I have become part of a Jewish community.  As with most of my pursuits, I come at it through an unexpected channel. I am an artist, a writer, and an oral historian, but I didn't come out of art school, a writing program or a history background. I identify as Jewish, but don't belong to a traditional synagogue or temple and for many years did not participate in the Jewish community. In fact, the only pursuit for which I had proper credentials was my finance career. So here I am writing and painting about the stories of the Jewish community and frequently presenting to Jewish groups. What's up with that?

For years I have taken art classes and more recently, writing classes, but never for credit. I'm too much of a good student at my core and I knew I needed to be careful not to focus on satisfying a teacher. I had to keep my focus on satisfying myself. I'd take what was of value to me and leave the rest. I knew that the more rules I absorbed, the more fearful I would become of transgressing them. I function best when I wing it a bit, absorbing what I need, but not letting it tie me into knots that begin to diminish my creativity. It is my way of countering that good student rule-following part of my nature. Instead I wanted to dive into new directions with a fearlessness that I needed to find within myself. "What do you have to lose?" I have often asked myself. "What is the worst thing that could happen?" Then I plunge forward into a thicket of challenges that could seem daunting in mass, but tackled one by one they gradually fall away.

Now there are a few challenges to this approach. There are sometimes holes in my knowledge, just like those Hebrew songs and prayers where I only know the critical line. Sometimes I just follow the melody until I hit something familiar. Someone who studies a discipline, in well, a more disciplined manner, might know more of the words. They would have less need to learn things the hard way as I often do. I know that my learning style is experiential and crosses boundaries. It is an exploration fueled by curiosity and it requires me to keep a certain fearlessness alive; to not let myself be bound by rules that strangle creativity and to trust that I can figure out what I don't know.

Sometimes my number-counting-self ticks off what I've done in the past on my book project to gird myself for the challenge of future tasks: 20 speeches, 17 oral histories, 17 paintings, 7 exhibitions, 3 grants, 2 organizational partners, 1 book . . .and a partridge in a pear tree. Oops, wrong list. But you get the idea. It sounds daunting in total, but when it unfolds step by step, it doesn't seem nearly as overwhelming.

I’ve got lots of talks and marketing ahead and many things that feel difficult, but one by one, I’ll approach them, perhaps not always fearlessly, but with courage and enthusiasm, confident that I have a powerful story to share.

Shabbos candles in our previous home via photopin (license)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Surprise Packages
I had a friend in college who was Turkish and she introduced me to a Turkish puzzle box. It was an object with a secret, possessing hidden layers. The box surprised and delighted me, springing open only when I moved the right piece, revealing a hidden compartment. Puzzles have always drawn me, especially those that carry hidden meanings, inviting discovery. 

As much as I love deciphering meaning, I find I also like sowing it, and have had an opportunity to do so in the book I am publishing, creating layers of meaning like little surprise packages. I do that often in my paintings, hiding a deeper story in image. When I share the story, it often pulls people in, a shared secret that deepens the meaning.

So let me share a few layers of meaning from within the book. 

The name of the book is We Spoke Jewish: A Legacy in Stories. It explores the stories and experiences of those who grew up in early Jewish communities, survivors who came to the US in the 1940s and 1950s, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came in the 1970s-1990s. So what does that title mean? One of the people I interviewed spoke of speaking Jewish, meaning Yiddish. "There was no such thing as not speaking Jewish," she said as she described the early Jewish community of the North Side. I was used to the term Yiddish to represent the language, but many of those I interviewed used the words Jewish and Yiddish interchangeably. And it wasn't just for language, but also identity. You could be Yiddish and speak Jewish. The phrasing surprised me, inverted from what I expected.

But not everyone spoke Jewish in the sense of Yiddish. Certainly survivors I interviewed from Germany did not.  Some of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union had vague memories of a grandparent speaking Yiddish. Was there perhaps another meaning for "speaking Jewish?" Could I expand it metaphorically?

When I thought of survivors of the Holocaust, it occurred to me that they had a unique role in the larger community, that of memory. They carried deep within them the memory of lost family and of a lost world, a world in which many of us had ancestral roots. A close friend of mine who is a survivor often speaks of her ten cousins who did not survive. Her commitment to sharing her memory is in part on their behalf. Each of the survivors spoke the Jewish of memory.

The immigrants from the former Soviet Union spoke a different kind of Jewish, the Jewish of culture. Unable to practice their religion, they shared their heritage through culture. They sang songs they had learned as children, spoke of recipes passed down by their mothers and told stories of the holidays once celebrated. 

These three groups spoke the Jewish of language, memory and culture, all ways that identity is formed, expressed and passed on.  The title began to carry a certain resonance, initially an inversion of Yiddish and Jewish that startled me, and a new and broader meaning ascribed to the term to encompass all of those whom I interviewed.

More layers of meaning are hidden in elements of the design. The designer wanted a form to repeat in each section. The original form that she selected was composed of curved shapes, but not with any specific meaning. I decided I wanted something that would hold meaning in its folds, but what? I began by exploring the meaning behind different Hebrew letters and settled on the aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I remembered something I had learned in the Jewish Artists' Lab, of how Rabbi Naftali Horowitz looked to the letter aleph which represents the name of God and noted that it echoes the form of our face. If we disassemble it we see two yuds and a vav, two eyes and a nose, figuratively holding God before us in our own face and perhaps in that of another person.

I believe it is through story that we form powerful connections with each other. When we truly look at another person, when we hear their story, we see ourselves and perhaps a little piece of that which connects each of us. To really see another person and to listen deeply to their story is what this book is about. It is also an exploration of identity. As I interviewed each person, I found elements of myself and of our shared humanity. What could possibly capture that better than an aleph? 

The stories themselves also offer surprises, little bits of knowledge that deepened my awareness in unanticipated ways.  Within the paintings are still more layers of meaning, often the result of some free association as I considered the stories of my interviewees and how to share them. Free association, metaphors told with both word and image, hidden elements that inform and surprise, layered meaning -- all are elements that enrich storytelling and form important aspects of my book.

Read more about the book at