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.