Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Being Visible

Soon after hearing of the plans for the Women's March in Washington DC, I decided that I needed to be there. Me, someone who really doesn't like crowds. When Prince died and people gathered in downtown Minneapolis at First Avenue, I had a brief moment when I forgot I didn't like crowds. "Maybe we should go there," I said to my husband as we watched the throng of people on the news. Then I remembered that he disliked crowds even more than I do.

This time I went and joined the crowd. I went to the Women's March because I felt so deeply that it is important to be visible. I wanted to make my physical presence known, to occupy my space on this earth, to assert I am here.  I voted, I gave money, I even door knocked during the election, but save for door knocking, they are all quiet ways of showing support. And believe me when I say, I must push myself past my internal boundaries every time I door knock or phone in a campaign. There is a part of me that hesitates to intrude.

I have been so filled with disgust over our recent election, an election that was stage managed by the FBI and Russia, that elected by a three million popular vote deficiency, a man who fills me with loathing and supports policies that are antithetical to who I am.  So now I was ready to intrude. Now I needed to show up. I needed to let my body take up space, to exert my physical presence and be counted.

Some have asked what the purpose was of the march. Every person I spoke with felt that the values and the tone of this administration were diametrically opposed to their own.  This is not just a matter of dissatisfaction at "losing" an election, and I use that term loosely given the popular vote. In addition to values, there is a level of disgust at the method of generating support by appealing to the worst instincts of people, denigrating women, Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants. It embarrasses me as an American. I expected better of us. I want an inclusive nation, with policy and tone that is respectful of differences, without rancor. I want integrity and honesty, not lies in service of one man's ego. I marched for that hope and I was surrounded by people who shared that hope. 

Do I really expect it to change anything? I don't know, but I hope so. If the wings of a butterfly can create a tornado, imagine what three million people in 600 cities around the world can create when they are willing to show up, to intrude. Sometimes we have to let things unfold.  I hope it's a first step. I don't yet know what the next step will be, but sometimes you have to take the first step before you know what comes next. Life is incremental. Vision requires movement, one step at a time, we reach a new vantage point and begin to see what can be. This weekend my vantage point was people pressed tightly together as far as the eye could see, all sharing a common vision. It filled me with hope and a sense of possibility.

As I reflect on the past few days, I realize that one of the things which was very different was the level of intimacy with strangers, sometimes quite literally at the march as our usual sense of physical space was breached, but in other ways as well. I am an introvert and usually have my nose in a book on an airplane. This time was different.  On the plane, I talked the entire flight with the woman next to me, substantive talk about values and beliefs, how we struggle in our interactions with those who don't share our values and beliefs. It was not until the very end that we introduced ourselves.

Then I got into the shuttle and talked with the driver. There is a feeling out process. "Why didn't you come for the inauguration?" he asked. "Because I had no desire to see that man inaugurated," I reply. We are off and running, sharing our mutual loathing for "that man."


The seat mate who soon joined me in the shuttle was from Kansas City so we talked a bit about our respective state politics.  Then we shared our stories about health care and the canned responses from our state legislators to our letters. I have a regular 3 AM letter writing ritual when I can't sleep, letters to my conservative state legislator. I had recently gotten a canned letter back for the second time. In my third letter, I wrote,"Stop, do not send me your form letter. I am sending you a thoughtful and reasoned letter and I expect the same in response."  My seat mate shared a remarkably similar story. 

The next morning when I walked the mile to the metro stop, I chatted with a couple I encountered in route, also headed to the march. They had recently moved to DC and this was their first time using the metro. We talked of the various places they had lived, their politics and their desire to be present. The metro was packed with women in pink pussy hats holding signs, standing room only. I realized my phone was fast losing juice and my new friends had a charger they happily shared as we stood clinging to the pole.

On the heels of those experiences, I began the march feeling that this crowd was filled with people like me, people with whom I could have a real conversation on shared beliefs and values. I met up with a friend and my niece, but the crowds and poor Internet connection, caused some challenges in finding them. As I momentarily wondered if we'd meet, I consoled myself with the thought that all of these marchers were potential friends in the making. 

After the march, crowds filled all of the streets, restaurant goers spilled out in front of the restaurants, metro lines wound out around the corner and down the block. I flagged down a taxi and returned to my friend's home deeply engaged in conversation with the Somali cabbie. He was quite convinced that there were more than the half million estimate in DC based on the number of metro rides and lines at the metros. We soon took a deep dive into politics."My friend, let me tell you" was his preface to each comment and I indeed felt like a friend. He told me of how he took a week to go to Minnesota and Ohio to get Somalis engaged in the election. He then returned to DC where he gave people free rides to the polls. I was impressed. His knowledge of politics was deep and he was engaged. He dropped me at my door and I walked gingerly on tired feet.

Now I must say; marching is hard work. It involves a lot of standing for long stretches, tightly surrounded by other people, before you have that glorious release of movement, marching with others, chanting, waving signs and realizing it is not just you who is disgusted and ready to intrude. You've got lots of company. As I write this the morning after, feeling a bit achy in its aftermath, I am very glad to have intruded on the public consciousness and I intend to keep doing so, I suspect in good company.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Blog Anxiety

There is a point early in each year where I invariably experience a crisis of confidence about this blog.  "Have I run out of new things to say?" I wonder.  Every time I write a blog post, I'm never sure where the next one will come from, or even if it will come. Often I experience a bit of blog anxiety. Will it resonate with anyone? If so, then how do I follow it with another that will also? Just as with paintings, not everything is a masterpiece and in the interest of timeliness, blog entries often are not our most polished work. 

I think it is about more than just writing, for writing is merely an expression of our thoughts and experiences. The past eight years of this blog have been fertile, a time of exploration and discovery in my life that in turn has fed this blog. The core of my unease is perhaps less will I have interesting things to write, more will I have interesting things to live? Exploration and discovery presuppose a path that is unknown.  And it is that very unknown, that is the root of unease, that also gives birth to the surprises that delight us with their unexpected nature.

* Photo credit
So let's leave those more existential concerns aside and consider blogging itself. I've been thinking about it recently as a friend announced she was considering starting a blog. I advised her to choose a broad topic and be prepared to expand it over time. Don't hesitate to knock down the walls of your house and add on rooms. Living in one space can get tiresome. Meaningful content is one of the challenges, but even a meaningful topic can begin to feel confining over a long period of time.

In writing classes we are given prompts, ideas that inspire us to write. I've learned that prompts are all around us. Sometimes an event is a prompt or a question that is posed that perhaps stumped me at the time and lingers. This post was started by something as basic as a friend saying she was thinking of starting a blog. If you're someone who ponders ideas, you will find that you can riff off just about anything. When you write a blog, you need to learn to pay attention to those curious thoughts that make you wonder. They usually contain a prompt.

Then there is the commitment to consistently write. The most important thing for any blogger is a love of writing, otherwise it is a lot of work. Well it's a lot of work even if you do love to write, but it's the difference between a labor of love and just plain labor.Writing can be magical. Metaphors appear as if out of air, cicadas and nesting dolls and tectonic plates. "Where did those come from?" I wonder. It is as if the experience of a lifetime is blended together and unexpected elements emerge. It is the magic that enthralls me the most, how ideas and images take shape through the mere act of writing.

There are annoyances as well. For me the most annoying aspect of writing a blog is finding photos and correcting formatting that somehow alters in the cybersphere. I swat at these impatiently, obstacles to metaphors and magic.

This is my ninth year of blogging. I began when I was heading off to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute to spend six weeks in Eastern Europe. I hoped to keep a record of my explorations. I knew nothing about blogging and frankly didn't care if anyone read it, in fact I wasn't sure I wanted them to. My objective was not to embarrass myself. The bar was set pretty low, good writing and proper grammar was all that was required (perhaps not so low after all). I spent time every evening writing and drafted my travel companion into the effort as well. There was no shortage of material given our surroundings. Each evening we explored the events of our day, something I found oddly satisfying.

When I returned from my travels I realized I wasn't quite ready to quit. My writing began to focus on my genealogy research and the artwork that grew out of my explorations. I was still protecting a zone of privacy. I got married upon my return and we headed off to Paris for our honeymoon, but I wrote very little about it. I hadn't yet deemed that in scope.  I was a private person writing publicly and rather shy about it.

Over time I wrote about travels in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, meetings with distant cousins who I tracked down through my research and of course my evolving artwork. My interview project with Jewish elders and the artwork that followed occupied a lot of blog real estate as well as a lot of my energy. For a time I wrote about the Artist Lab until I was invited to write a dedicated blog for it. Now I had two blogs to maintain. Later when I was a long distance caregiver for my mother, I began to veer into the personal, sharing my perspective as her memory faded. 

A funny thing happened. Readers seemed to like the personal, that stuff I'd avoided as private. My artwork began to move into the personal too as I explored memory and with the death of my parents in the past few years, my blog became a place to process who they were as people and who they were to me. My original title Layers of the Onion: A Family History Exploration still seemed oddly appropriate, but I had moved from ancestors to those who raised me. I began to let myself into my blog and gradually found my voice, sharing personal stories that shaped my perspective.

It dawns on me occasionally that I have gone public. Friends read my blog as well as friends of friends and many people I don't know. I am often surprised when people mention it in social gatherings and seem to know a lot about me. I've met new people through my blog so in many ways it has expanded my world. My greatest "ah ha" out of writing this blog is that authenticity is found by sharing who we are. Life gets easier when we do that. People connect and respond to us when we let them see the real person. All that hesitance to let people in, to preserve a zone of privacy, is distancing and I don't need that as much now as I once did. 

It is a risk to let people see who we are, to tell our story. Maybe they won't like what they see, but the benefit of getting older is we care less about that. Part of our journey as people is to find and share our authentic selves, the stories and observations that define us. It is from that effort that we begin to recognize the common threads between us and others. At its best a blog can be a path to our common humanity.

*Photo by Matthew Hull at Morguefile.com

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Balm of Fiction

This year of reading was much lighter on nonfiction than my normal reading. Frankly I got enough of the real world as I followed the political news. I needed some escape from it, something to absorb my energies which were too easily distracted by disturbing news. Much of what I read was based on history, a topic of interest to me. 

In my prior post, I wrote of two authors who I especially enjoyed and of whom I read widely. I also wrote of my reading on art related themes, both fiction and non-fiction. This post explores some of the additional fiction which I highly recommend.  There is no particular order to this list. As I assembled it,  I was surprised to realize that it all fell between 2014-16, so is quite contemporary.

Flight of the Sparrow (2014) by Amy Belding Brown is based on the true story of Mary Rowlandson who was kidnapped by the Indians in the 1600s. In Brown's  fictionalized recounting, Rowlandson learns how to survive among the Indians and finds her ultimate return more challenging than anticipated. She actually had more freedom among the Indians. Indian life is not romanticized with frightening violence exhibited in raids, but the cultural differences are well delineated, many of them represented favorably over Puritan standards. This was not a topic I had previously explored and when I subsequently stumbled across Jiles' books (see prior post) I found myself inadvertently following a theme.

Last Bus to Wisdom (2015) is the last book Ivan Doug published before his death. It is a coming of age story set in the 1950s and somewhat autobiographical.  I have always been a fan of Doig and enjoy his wry humor. It is a defining characteristic of all of his work, but especially so in this book. The young man who is our protagonist gets wiser with each mile. As there will be no more Doig books, I plan to revisit those not yet read.

The Other Side of Life  (2015) by Andy Kutler makes use of a plot devise that lifts the main character out of Pearl Harbor and into the middle of the Civil War, two places I would never choose to be. Having said that, I must also say that I found it fascinating. I especially felt that it captured the reality of the Civil War.

Homegoing (2016) by Yaa Gyasi is written in chapters that represent parallel generations of two sisters who experienced different channels of black experience.  One becomes the "wife" of a white Captain involved with the British slave trade while the other is captured by Fante warriors and sold into slavery. It is an interesting way to reflect this experience although each generational chapter could easily have become a book of its own. An interesting perspective on how blacks also played a role in the slave trade.

A Man Called Ove (2014) by Frederick Bachman is an utterly charming book that captures the kind of man who exhibits emotion through guy stuff: cars, using his hands to make things, helping out in practical ways. Ove lacks an emotional vocabulary, but stumbles into emotion none-the-less. This book finds the goodness buried beneath the trappings of being an inarticulate man. Very heartwarming.

The Atomic Weight of Love (2016) by Elizabeth Church is set in Los Alamos where Meridian, a promising young science student is married to a physics professor who is now working on the atomic bomb. It offers a glimpse of the social community of Los Alamos where well educated wives abandon their career aspirations in the manner of the times, seeking what fulfillment they can find on the margins. We have the opportunity to follow Meridian more closely and observe her inner life.

The Secret Chord (2015) by Geraldine Brooks is the story of King David, the unromanticized version, as told through the eyes of his seer. In this version he is a man of talents, but also hubris, all story drawn from the Bible, but reframed to place us closer to the action. It is an interesting perspective through the eyes of the women who surround him, both wives and daughter. 

The Henna House (2014) by Nomi Eve is the story of Yemenite Jews and the secret language of the art of henna. It explores a love story in hindsight, both of female friendship and romantic love. It is touched by betrayal, by loved ones and also betrayal by history through the Holocaust and expulsion of the Yemenite Jewish community.

Commonwealth (2016) by Ann Patchett explores how a chance encounter both disrupts and reshapes families creating reverberations through subsequent generations. It is about family secrets and story and the ties between family in all its ill-formed misbegotten varieties. 

Miller's Valley (2016) is a novel by Anna Quindlen. I usually prefer essays by Quindlen, but I've watched her skills as a novelist grow and especially liked this novel. It is about a bright young woman freeing herself from a world that isn't designed for the mobility that she ultimately requires. She receives encouragement from her mother who recognizes her potential, and supports her escape from her hometown. Her home is soon to be flooded and the valley reclaimed, submerging secrets in the wake of her escape. The novel is strongest when it is focused on her life in the valley, struggling to maintain its momentum when she departs.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

So Many Books!

In past years I have selected my top ten books from the 60+ that I read in the course of the year. Sometimes it feels like a fool's errand to select ten books.  Forced choices mean that so many good ones end up on the cutting room floor. Plots that are not as fresh in my mind may suffer against those freshly read.  At my first pass through my list, I trimmed it, but was nowhere close to ten. Then I decided that since this is my list, I get to impose the order or disorder as the case may be.

I began to group them by theme and author. When I discover a new author, I often read a selection of their work. I also often have topics that I explore and this year art seems to top the list.  When I tally it up two authors accounted for over 20% of my reading while art topics took in another 10%+.  I think authors are worthy of special acknowledgement when I return to the well for more, so let me introduce you to two authors and the topic that merited my attention.

Connie Willis has been a name on my "to read" book list for some time, but I've long forgotten the source of this recommendation. I vaguely recall mentioning my penchant for time travel books and being told that I must read Connie Willis. As someone immersed in genealogy, I am fascinated by imagining life in earlier times. I am often surprised by how similar people are throughout time even as the world changes around us.  My interest in genealogy has also deepened my interest in history in all its forms, time travel, historical fiction and nonfiction. To say Willis writes about time travel, really doesn't do justice to acknowledging her literary talents which span many genres including mystery with a touch of romance and a dose of wry humor. The first book of hers that drew me in was To Say Nothing of the Dog which takes us back to Victorian England from 2057 to solve a puzzle from the 1940s. It should be read in conjunction with a timeless Victorian novel titled Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome which Willis draws on in her novel.  Now if you accept the premise that you can travel through time you must also accept the rules that accompany it. Nothing from the past can be brought to the future lest it change it, a rule that comes under examination in this book. 

Once captivated by Willis' talents I proceeded to read nine of her books taking me back to the medieval times of the plague in the Doomsday Book, to WWII England, from Dunkirk to the Blitz, in Blackout and All Clear. I was also intrigued by an exploration of near death and post death experiences in Passages. What fascinates me about her writing is her range and her ability to bring it all home at the conclusion in a clever solution that doesn't feel forced or disappointing. It is like watching a master juggler end their act with a flourish. She also does an extraordinary amount of historical research leaving me feeling much smarter than I was at the beginning without even realizing I had been studying.

The other author I discovered was Paulette Jiles. The important thing to recognize about her is that she was a poet before she became a novelist and that is evident in her writing. It is often beautiful, but not in an overpowering way that obscures the story. Her work is often based on history, but fictionalized to the extent that history leaves much unsaid and a writer has gaps to fill. The first book I read of hers was News of the World which follows the post Civil War story of a man who makes his living bringing the news to the towns on his route through Texas. In each city he publicly reads from a variety of papers to the townspeople. In route he is asked to deliver a ten year old girl to her family after her recovery from the Indians who kidnapped her.  A simple premise, but so beautifully told.  

I was taken with the sheer elegance of Jiles' storytelling, so followed this book with The Color of Lightening which has some overlapping characters and provides more of the back story of the theme of Indian life and kidnapping of children who readily adapt to it. I then moved on to Stormy Weather, the story of a mother and her three daughters who carve out a life in Texas during the Depression. I closed with her novel Enemy Women, set during the Civil War and depicting the struggles faced by both sides. Each one of these books was well crafted and beautifully written with well-developed characters who you come to care about.

My art reading accounted for seven books that took me into a deeper understanding of Velasquez, O'Keeffe, Soutine, Rilke, Rodin, Michelangelo, da Vinci, the School of Paris and the Abstract Impressionists.

The Vanishing Velasquez is nonfiction and explores a painting that has disappeared, but was believed to have been a Velasquez. It is as much an exploration of the 19th century bookseller who purchased it and defended its provenance as an exploration of Velasquez himself. Written by art critic Laura Cummings it reads like a novel and a fascinating detective story, exploring the passion that art can summon. I have another book by her on self portraits, A Face to the World, that I am eager to read.

Georgia is a fictionalized story of Georgia O'Keeffe, but appears to be quite an accurate depiction as it draws heavily on her correspondence. It explores her romance with Alfred Stieglitz and her efforts to define herself separately as an artist, distinct from her role as muse. Dawn Tripp does an excellent job of humanizing O'Keeffe and allowing the reader to see the world through her eyes.  

I am always intrigued to learn that lives of well known historical figures overlapped and influenced each other.  Two books explore this theme, one through non-fiction, the other fictionalized, but drawing on historical record. The first is You Must Change Your Life by Rachel Corbett which explores the relationship between Rodin and Rainier Maria Rilke. Rilke was both a friend and one time secretary to Rodin and viewed him as a mentor in how he approached an artistic life. He was also ultimately disillusioned in his hero, perhaps a necessary step as he matured as a poet.  I followed that book with Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey, a book that looks at the competition between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo as they created their works of the Mona Lisa and David respectively during the same window of time.The book gave each of them form and personality and explored the process of creation of these masterworks.  

Other books on my art list included The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos by Dominic Smith,The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro and Shocking Paris by Stanley Meisler.  The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos  is not about an actual artist, but rather a fictionalized story that follows a Dutch painting by a female artist in its journey in modern times. It is a well constructed novel that enters the world in which the painting was created as well as the modern day world of those whose lives it touches. The Muralist also is fictionalized, but placed into the actual world of the Abstract Expressionists. It too moves between past and present and incorporates family lost in the Holocaust, reminding us that events are never far from their historical context.  Shocking Paris is a nonfiction book that explores the artists who made up the School of Paris with a focus on Soutine and the other Jewish artists who emigrated to Paris and formed a significant part of this group. 

Now that leaves over 40 books out of which I will address some of my remaining favorites in a subsequent post.