Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Passing of Time


As winter approaches, I begin to retreat from the world into my own private hibernation. Summer and fall saw me gathering with vaccinated friends outdoor for walks or coffee. With the new Covid variant and colder weather, I’m back in retreat mode. We had a brief reprieve and nervously committed to our Thanksgiving visit in Illinois which we had skipped in the prior year. In past years we had turned it into a mini-vacation, stopping at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Art Institute in Chicago. Smaller and less crowded museums were satisfying substitutes.

Now back at home, much of my actual as well as emotional time is occupied with a possible move. It is intimidating and challenging, both to settle on a choice that satisfies both of us and the task of thinning unnecessary belongings in advance of a move. I imagine there is a break-even point where I will have disposed of enough to be able to fully imagine a move and it will become easier to pull the trigger if the right opportunity presents itself. My husband and I agreed that the first place we saw was really the best, but we were too new to this search to realize it at the time. It is of course long gone and had its shortcomings as well. I watch each of our possibilities slowly disappear into the hands of those more ready to commit. There are trade-offs with each choice and we are reluctant to accept them. We consider that this is likely our last move and that brings an added pressure to find the perfect choice. I frequently remind myself that there is no perfect in people, homes or jobs and I need to live in the world of the possible. Nice words, but hard to internalize.


Meanwhile, I look around at what we have gathered over the years and can’t imagine how to do the serious downsizing of belongings that is required. I tackle a little bit each day and can barely see the difference. This week I found a box of floppy disks in my closet and my husband found a place that would recycle them. Ah, but first, I wanted to see if there were any treasures on them. I had a portable disk reader rescued from my late father’s technology detritus that I could use to access them, but soon realized I would have to go through some machinations to make them readable. It is a strange thought that personal computers were still quite new at the time and the high density disks held 1.44MB.  I look at my current files for a reference point and realize that could be one photograph.  


Many were easily disposed of, but one had the enticing title of “letters.” To my surprise, I found it contained four years of letters to the long-distance beau who had preceded my husband. That made them about 30 years old, not to mention me about 30 years younger! It was a surprising time capsule into my life at that time. I was fascinated by who I had been as I felt quite distinct from that past version of me. I cheered her on as she stated clearly what she needed and empathized with the hard hitting letters she had second thoughts about that were titled “not sent.” Former self really had clarity about her life! She also could be a bit emotionally exhausting. 

It wasn’t just the past me I was contemplating. It is staggering to think about that early world of computers when email was still quite new and most of my letters still went by mail. It was the last letter-writing relationship of my life, a form of communication that exposes so much of oneself. Even stranger was that the early letters were in a different format so at first I could only access the ones at the end when things were quietly crumbling and I was firing the occasional warning shot over the bow. Only later did I figure out how to open the earlier letters of those days of early infatuation and discovery. It was like reading a novel cleverly laid out in reverse. A shattered relationship reassembling itself into hopes long past. I found myself thinking that it would be an interesting format for a book although I would guess someone has done that already. 


Even stranger was when I read my horoscope, something I have not done for many years. Whatever possessed me to do that? I had with some apprehension, read several of the early letters that day and it felt significant to meet my past self. Was the universe trying to tell me something?  Perhaps so. Here’s what the horoscope said:


Old pictures, past social media posts and historic texts will be part of the texture of this day. Some artifacts make you smile. As for the cringeworthy ones, let them represent how far you’ve come. Celebrate growth.


As I reflect on the passing of time and the changes that occur within both us and our surroundings, I prepare to welcome a new and hopeful year. Perhaps one where I can gather once again with friends and stroll through crowded museums, a post-Covid time.  I may even look back on this time fondly as I move into the future and celebrate the growth to which it has given birth.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

An Unexpected Bridge

I’ve gotten my booster in anticipation of an upcoming flight to Reno. It will be the first time I’ve been on a plane in two years and not for something I had ever envisioned, a memorial service for my brother who passed away last month. Needless to say the loss of a sibling is not something I ever wrapped my brain around in any serious way, figuring there was much time before I would have to cross that bridge.

I was sandwiched in the middle between a younger sister and older brother, only a year and a half younger than my brother. As a child, I had a rather competitive nature and was quite frustrated  that I could never catch-up to my brother in age. Just when I arrived he moved forward another year. It became our joke when I would call him to wish him a happy birthday. 

"You still haven’t caught up," he teased. 

“That’s OK,”I assured him.  “It’s not a good thing if I do.” 

I reflect now on the fact that unless similarly ill-fated, I will catch up.  It is a wake up call to my own mortality. I wasn’t ready for the suddenness of death after a short illness, nor in quite this familial proximity.

My siblings spread out in different geographic and life directions. We found different paths through life, different careers and family configurations. Our parents remained at the core as we each checked in frequently and they had strong relationships with each of us tailored to who we were.

When they passed away, I reflected on how that might change my sibling relationships. We no longer had the core that joined us. Would we just spin into our separate orbits? My sister and I had strengthened our bond as we supported our parents in their later years. While very different, we share many values and worked well together as a team. That had deepened our respect for each other’s talents and our trust in each other.

My brother and I were not close which in some ways makes a loss more challenging. We had many divides and politics was a significant one in recent years. He worked in radio, conservative talk radio. When we spoke we inevitably veered into our very divergent political views. There was little room for common ground and we often tripped over that proverbial, dare I say, elephant, in the middle of the room. “La,la,la,la, I’m not having this conversation,” I would sing out, fingers in my ears, when we’d stray into that danger zone. In one of my last emails to him, I told him that we could talk about family, pets and the weather, but not politics. A string of emails on his dog followed. 

As I went through old picture albums, pulling photos from our childhood, I found many of us together as children and I began to recall our shared history, often just flashes in memory. I remembered when as a toddler I struck out on my own in search of the milkweed pods that so fascinated me. Just when it was beginning to dawn on me that I didn't know quite where they were, my brother pedaled up to me on his tricycle to announce with an impressive air of authority, "You're lost!"

Fred the magician

At childhood birthday parties he performed as a magician to the rapt attention of little girls in party dresses. Later I would sneak into his room to figure out how the tricks worked. Mirrors! 

Susan and Fred

When our grandmother lived with us for several years he gave up his room and had a rollaway bed in the bedroom that I shared with my sister. At night we would play cards with a flashlight under the covers. 

And when he commandeered our bathroom as a darkroom for his photography, I remember feeling somewhat envious of this passion that possessed him even as I banged on the door demanding access. Some time after that our lives diverged along with our beliefs about the world. The common ground slipped from beneath our feet.

So now I go to the memorial to acknowledge the reality, to hear his “tribe” share stories which he would certainly have enjoyed, to be there for his family and to join with my sister. And no doubt I will still argue politics with him in my head wherever he resides.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Outsider Eyes

I was never much of a small talker. That means I flounder a bit when I'm in a big group of people and I have to schmooze. It's not my natural habitat. I can strike up a conversation with one person or a few and get to know them quite well, but my degree of chattiness is in inverse proportion to the number of people in the room. It is the legacy of a shy person. 

I walk with a group of friends each week and recently I commented that I was shy. They turned and  looked at me in amazement, familiar with the gregarious small group me. Some had seen me in my public mode, in front of a room talking on a subject that I knew well. That’s a different me too and it often fools people.  I’m always slightly amazed myself. Even as a shy person, I have opinions and I have found that tends to draw me into the center of things.


I was reminded of the inner me as my 50th high school reunion approached and I dithered over whether to attend. Would I revert to that shy person once again? Would I walk into the room and want to flee? With an eight hour drive to get there, accompanied by my husband, it wasn’t a small commitment. I remember going to a party as a newly single person and having that flight reaction. I gave myself permission to leave, but only after I talked to three new people. By then I was comfortable. I had learned how to work my way into a room, past my discomfort. But that approach works best solo. Being a couple can too often become a social crutch, no matter how welcome that crutch may be in the moment.


I reached out to some high school friends on Facebook to see if any of them were going. We were all curious about our classmates, but as covid flared up again we all had hesitation as well as conflicted feelings. High school was not our happy place. As I talked with different friends in my life today about it, some replied, “Oh you have to go!" Others confided that they had never gone to one and have no intention of ever going. I am much closer to those in the latter variety.

I think those who were on the outside in high school, and didn’t fit within the rosy picture of high school nostalgia, often carry those outsider eyes into their adult life. That is not a bad thing. It certainly fosters compassion and empathy for others and it often plays out in different career paths. Those outsiders become the artists, the writers, the educators – the people who often serve as change makers and interpreters. It takes being outside of things sometimes to see it clearly, perhaps because we aren't invested in the existing hierarchy. That is the first step to creating change. It also allows us to reach out to people in different spheres as we are not fully  identified with just one. Now that is not to say that those who did have the stereotypic high school experience may not come to similar places later in life. Life isn’t high school and over time we may all share experiences that cause us to view our world through a new lens. Still, us outsiders have a leg up on that. We were eager to enter the world and leave high school behind. That openness to new experiences often led each of us to new opportunities that shaped our life.

Those planning the reunion had a survey that asked what were we most proud of in the course of those intervening years. I thought of the many things I have accomplished in my life. It makes for a nice résumé, but those are not the things I take pride in. In the bigger picture, I’ve learned how to navigate the world. To respond with resilience, to reinvent myself as necessary, taking on new challenges in a wide range of fields. And I’ve continued to learn and grow and have had a rewarding life as a result. See, not exactly the answer of a small talker. It is a bit like when someone asks how you are and you proceed to tell them way more than they bargained for when "fine" would have sufficed.

There was a question about something we liked in high school and I considered my first response which was “leaving,” but concluded that sounded a little too “Bah humbug” for the occasion. I dug deeper to my memories of art class which introduced me to a path I have sustained throughout my life, and one which years later led me to meet my husband in a life drawing group.

So what did I decide after all this contemplation? No road trip for now. Perhaps a Zoom call with a small group of high school friends will suffice. Were it not for covid, the scales might have tipped the other way. And perhaps they still will. Sounds like they are postponing until next year so more to come.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Solving for X

The summer before I entered high school, I picked up an algebra book from our overflowing bookshelves in my childhood home, always a wonderful place to forage for something of interest. With its red, faded and worn cover, it must have been one of my father’s old textbooks. In the back of the book were the answers to the equations it posed. My curiosity piqued, I spent the summer working my way through that book of puzzles, much the way other people might do crossword puzzles. I was thoroughly absorbed with my ability to successfully solve for x. Geometry never thrilled me the way algebra did. I loved the clarity it offered and the way it aligned with the way my brain worked. I realize in hindsight that was the beginning of my fascination with puzzles.

Do you have a theme that defines your life? Perhaps a cluster of themes that interrelate? I think we all have them and as we get older we can begin to recognize the patterns that recur. My themes often revolve around solving puzzles and telling stories. A friend once pointed out that in some instances those two things were linked in a sequence. In genealogy for example, first I often had to solve a puzzle to be able to tell the story. My artwork which focuses on a larger story often shares that quality. We all have a need to find meaning in our world, the function of story, and making sense of our world is a way to feel a sense of control, even if largely illusionary in nature. When the pieces fit tightly together, I feel a satisfying sense of mastery over my small piece of the universe.

These days, artwork and genealogy are my primary vehicles to explore those central themes of puzzles and story and have forced me to learn some new skills. I am learning how to live in a space of not knowing, a creative space where first we must allow for many possibilities and feel our way, often with moments of uncertainty, all part of a creative process where we start with the unknown and solve for x in its many guises. When not immersed in artwork or genealogy, you will likely find me playing word games, yet another permutation on puzzles that offers a microcosm of life lessons. Now I’ve written of this topic before in Fun and Games, suggesting some of the lessons that I’ve learned from games. Lately I’ve been recognizing within those games, the need for a skill that I am still working on, the ability to quickly respond to change when things go awry, to regroup and redirect. No “deer in the headlights” moment permitted. Instead we need to swiftly look for the opportunity created by that disruption.

Have you ever had a fabulous word and a spot for it worth many points? Horrified, you watch as your opponent takes that space. What do you do? In a timed game, you need to quickly find an alternative and not bemoan the one that no longer exists. One of the things that I do immediately after identifying that perfect location is to look for a second choice so I can move quickly in the moment if necessary, that moment when I would otherwise be frozen in dismay. Now, I may never need my second choice because I get that perfect spot, or more often because the word that my opponent puts down in my spot frequently opens up a more desirable opportunity than my plan B. If I can shift gears quickly, I can take advantage of it.

We can become so attached to that one outcome, that we are unable to quickly abandon it and shift course.  And we miss other opportunities because we have forfeited our agility in accepting change. In my banking days we called it a sunk cost. It's done, can't be undone and is irrelevant to what happens next.  When we focus on what is lost, we miss what is in front of us. It's a concept that is not just monetary in nature. When my mother began to lose memory, part of me wanted to mourn the person she had been. In that moment it was irrelevant. She was who she was in that moment and I needed to be in that moment as well. 

I often find similar blind spots in genealogy, when I make assumptions that close doors prematurely or in artwork when I decide where I’m going and force a direction rather than letting it evolve. Those actions come from an anxiety to find closure and certainty. I am still learning to hold that door open a little longer, to fumble a bit in the dark along my journey and to embrace what lies ahead.Those themes of puzzles and story have expressed themselves in the paths I chose in the world. In turn they become the vehicle by which I learn some very necessary lessons.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Fluidity of Names

I love solving puzzles. I often have a “spidey sense” about the answer before I have the logical reasons to lend it credence, although in this case I sense what is right rather than what is amiss. There is something operating beneath the surface that I can’t fully explain, but I study my path to try to grasp its secrets.

I am drawn to genealogy in much the same way that I am drawn to reading. It is a way to imagine the lives of other people in other times, plus it has that added benefit of allowing me to solve puzzles. There is an impatient part of me that wants to rush the process, but I have learned it cannot be rushed or pre-judged. I need to remain open to possibilities as they unfold. 


Recently, I was hired to find what I could for a client who knew very little of one side of his family. He started as do many of my clients, with the names of his grandparents, Harry Hoffman and Esther Ackerman. They were from Romania – Bucharest he thought. He wasn’t aware of any family beyond his grandfather who came over and when I went to the records on JewishGen from Romania nothing came up in that region. I could feel those butterflies that always begin a search. What if I come up empty-handed? I can only work with what is there and sometimes it just isn’t there. As I couldn’t draw on overseas records, I focused my search on the US which can often shed some light on their ancestral town. 


I started to circle the problem, pacing mentally, looking for threads to tug on. I started by building a base of public information, searching both mainstream press and the local Jewish press, I combed city directories and located census records, beginning to build an address list, tracing them as they moved to different locations. I found the people who shared their names and time period but were not them.  I needed to be careful not to confuse their records. I located death records, finding the names of Esther’s parents within them.

Having exhausted my options, I went back to my original notes, looking for a clue. My client recalled a visit to his family from a woman named Bess Propper from New York, perhaps she was related in some way. When I shifted to New York, the ground began to shift as well, yielding its secrets. I found Bess and discovered  that her maiden name was Ackerman, like Esther’s. Then I traced her father Harry and found his naturalization paper under the name Henry, tied to the names of his wife and children as listed in the census.  It revealed his ancestral town was Galatz, originally in Moldova, now in Romania. 


I often find success searching via stevemorse.org, a better front-end search engine.  I went to the section on deaths and marriages where there are multiple ways to search for this information in NY. I chose Family Search because they often have parents’ names. In this case I found the parents of Harry Ackerman. They matched those on Esther’s death record. Siblings! 


This is the first delicate thread of fact on which I begin to build and I soon weave a tight connection between a series of facts. I do a search in the NY marriage records for the two grandparents’ surnames and find one such record in 1903, the year of marriage indicated in the census. It is between a Harry Hoffman and an Ernestine Ackerman. Harry gives his father's name as Morris, which just happens to be my client's middle name, reflective of Jewish naming patterns. Could Esther have gone by Ernestine? Using that name, I search the immigration records and find her coming in from Galatz, Romania in 1903 which  ties to the year given in her census records. She is going to “her brother, H Ackerman.” Ernestine and Esther are indeed the same person. 


I still have to connect NY to Minnesota where Harry and Esther end up. I go online to the Ackman and Ziff Family Genealogy Institute at the Center for Jewish History. They hold  the index for the Industrial Removal Office, a program in the early part of the 1900s that assisted Jews in leaving NY for the interior of the US. There I input Hoffman and clicked on the Industrial Removal Office, then searched for records from Minnesota. There it was, H. Hoffman and his wife Esther going to St. Paul. I took the index information from this site and went to Ancestry.com where I searched the card catalog for the Industrial Removal Office records. Yes, the index and the documents are in two different locations. You just need to marry them up. Now I line up the dates and realize that in the space of one month, Ernestine arrives, marries and is on a train with her new husband to Minnesota. 


I then turned my attention to Harry. Perhaps there is a name variance for him as well. I review my notes and find that he is listed as Herman in several census and directory records. When I searched on Herman Hoffman, I discovered an immigration manifest for Oct 1899 coming from Galatz, the same town as his brother-in-law Harry Ackerman and his fiancé Ernestine. I then searched for census records and found Herman Hoffman living with his sister’s family a few months later in the 1900 census, a family member of whom we knew nothing. His sister's marriage record also gives her father as Morris, corresponding to that of her brother.The year of arrival in the census corresponds to the immigration manifest so I am fairly sure the Herman in the manifest and the census are the same person, but how do I confirm that this is also the Harry in Minnesota?  A few more records allow me to prove it out. In the NY naturalization records, I find a declaration from April 17, 1900. This was before naturalization records gave us much information, but in concert with other records it told me what I needed. The address given matched to that given in the 1900 census record. Then I found the next step in the naturalization process, the petition which was filed in Minnesota. I know it is the same Herman as it references his prior filing in New York by the corresponding date and court.

So here’s our story:


Herman arrives in NY Oct 1899

In 1900 he is living with his sister in NY at the address he notes in his first naturalization filing.

The father’s name for both Herman and his sister is the same in their marriage records

Similarly Esther and Harry Ackerman also share the same parents in their records.

Ernestine arrives 6/10/1903 and goes to her brother in NY

Harry and Ernestine marry 6/21/1903

They arrive in Minnesota 7/8/1903

Herman finishes his naturalization process in 1906


One final puzzle still stood. The transcription of the marriage record gave the father of Ernestine as Jak. According to her death record, it should be Isak. Not a big difference is there? I ordered a copy of the original marriage record to see for myself. The writing is hard to read, but it could certainly be read as Icek. And an interesting detail. The witnesses were H. Ackerman, the brother of Esther/Ernestine. And representing Harry was someone with the married surname of his sister. Each had their nearest relatives present.


So, what did I find as I study my path? Names are fluid. They tried them on and discarded them. Harry Ackerman also went by Henry, Harry Hoffman  by Herman and Esther by Ernestine(a). Harry seemed to use Herman for more official documents, but not always. Esther came over as Ernestine, later shedding it for Esther. Herman and Ernestine are common names in the Romanian records. Had I insisted they had to be Harry and Esther, I would never have found the records. 

Ages also were quite fluid. In this case the age range between Harry and Esther fluctuates from 8 years at marriage, 10 years on their immigration manifest, an average of 13 years across 5 census years and 16 years at death. The takeaway– if other elements match, don't be overly concerned about ages. They were of far less importance to them than they are to us.

Similarly, people aren’t static. They came into St. Paul via train but lived in Minneapolis. It isn’t that hard to cross the river. And a record by itself may not tell you much, but when you marry it up to related records, you begin to weave them together into a timeline which reveals a piece of the story. It is often by tilting the lens ever so slightly that we begin to solve the puzzle.

Monday, May 31, 2021


After over a year in physical isolation, I am beginning to emerge. It is a strange transition, I am never quite sure when to wear my mask. As foreign as it still feels, I am reluctant to let it go too quickly. Different rules apply in different places. I went to meet several members of a board I’m involved with in a new location. On the door it gave clear directions, cutting through the confusion.  Vaccinated people do not need to wear masks. We happily took ours off and it was the first time in over a year that I saw their faces unmasked without a screen between us. Momentarily, I felt rather daring, then it quickly felt normal.

I've begun to meet weekly in person with a close friend as I record her story. It is quite a compelling one. She is a survivor of the Holocaust, 97 years old. We met each week by phone during Covid and I typed as she recounted. Pre-Covid, we used to go out to lunch each week, but now I pick up lunch and we meet at her home to work on our project.

Memorial Day weekend we met up with my brother-in-law to visit the graves of family members. While one other vaccinated person felt safe to be with unmasked, when we entered a restaurant, I felt flummoxed by masking etiquette. We wore our masks while we got our food, took them off to eat and then what? Do you put it back on when you finish eating?


I’ve ventured into grocery stores, still masked, first for a few items, then for a big shopping trip. Over the past year we’ve had groceries delivered and I keep getting messages from Target that my cart misses me, as if I am so starved for connection that I am anthropomorphizing my grocery cart. I’m still shopping for two week stretches out of habit and I have a new appreciation for those delivery people who sustained us over the past year. I celebrated my new-found freedom by getting my favorite foods at Trader Joes (which doesn't deliver) and noticed the slight weight gain that followed. There was a discipline around planning meals that I need to manage to maintain. The same goes for a daily workout. I anticipate schedules getting busier away from home when it becomes harder to fit that workout in. 

It is a reawakening and as I worked with the theme of brokenness and wholeness in the Artists' Lab, I found the echo of my experience in my artwork. As the ice of winter was thawing, my husband and I encountered an area where the ice had cracked and water flowed beneath it. It too felt as if it was reawakening. I had taken a picture of the ice fragments when my husband suggested I film it to capture the movement. I ended up combining a photo, a video and the painting above titled Reawakening, into a short piece that you will find at the bottom of this post.


I feel as if I needed this break and yes, I realize a pandemic is a bit of overkill quite literally to make that happen. Let me assure you, it would not be my chosen method of epiphany. But I know that I am a person who likes to be in the middle of things and unless the world stops along with me, I keep going, like a hungry person at an all you can eat buffet.


Now the world didn’t really stop. It just allowed me to structure my time from home. I attended writing workshops and a three week course on the Holocaust, lectures on art from London and book talks from as far away as Poland. I presented at conferences and gave genealogy talks on-line. Virtually, I was able to gather descendants from one of my ancestral towns from around the world. I consulted with genealogy clients locally as well as nationally and internationally. I met a new friend who had moved here, introduced through an old friend, and set up regular on-line visits and I connected with old friends who live elsewhere now that Zoom seemed to make reconnecting so much easier. My artists’ lab continued to meet on-line and actually allowed for more engagement with breakout rooms enabling more small group discussions. Nonprofit meetings continued on-line and I managed presentations of my genealogy group to both a local and national audience. In some ways my life got busier and broader in scope, while my physical sphere shrank. 


So which world do I prefer? I’m not sure. I think I’ve forgotten what it feels like to spend physical time with friends without the careful precautions the pandemic has required. Sometimes it just seems easier to Zoom. I can picture myself sharing a meal or a walk with friends, but I don’t think all of the nonprofit meetings have to be in person. I am hoping they conclude the same.


Now I realize this has been a harder time for my extroverted friends. They have a much more fundamental need for that physical connection. It has also been harder on friends who live alone. Still, living with someone isn’t always such a panacea. As much as I describe myself as an introvert, I live with someone who is even more so. We both got much more in touch with our need for space, even while valuing our connection. We realized that my prior busy schedule had given us both some breathing room. Now we needed to learn to co-exist in the same shared space, often by carving out our own physical turf. Fortunately we also have a studio that provided some additional room.  Our proximity leant itself to working out together at home or walking and our mutual fascination with the politics of our times led to a constant stream of CNN in our home.


So I don’t know what the ideal world would look like, but I hope to emerge thoughtfully and incorporate what I’ve learned through this pause. I will be maintaining some of the discipline that I drew on for diet and exercise while allowing friendships and outings to gradually re-enter my world. And I’ll be holding onto the expansion of my world that technology afforded while preserving windows of unscheduled time for the many interests that feed my soul.

Or click on Pulsation of Life to see it full screen

Sunday, May 9, 2021

My Many Mothers

 My mom has been gone for six years now and Mother's Day now seems like a holiday with no significance to me anymore. I have a folder with all of the Mother’s Day cards I gave my mom over the years that she saved and I retrieved after her death. She especially liked the ones that spoke to the genuine friendship between us. I would have chosen my mother as my mother if I had a choice. Who knows, perhaps in some universe I did. I hadn’t planned to write anything, but then I read Heather Cox Richardson’s column on the many mothers we have in a lifetime and began to reflect on some of mine. 

I have often considered what I learned from my mother’s example. One of the most important take-aways was evident. From our own relationship, I learned how to have rich cross-generational friendships with women. That is something that she and I did amazingly well. When I was in my 30s I began to take her on trips to Europe and our relationship matured into a friendship that lost some of the hierarchy imposed by a parent-child relationship. We became two people who enjoyed each other’s company and shared many interests. I began to have some understanding of her life and who she was.

As I get older, I often wonder about how she viewed aging. I would love to be able to have that conversation with her. I know she was happy with her life through all its stages, but I now have an appreciation of how hard-won some of that happiness can be. She made choices along the way to create her path and I am certain it was not always clear sailing. She had a visceral understanding of my wiring because she shared much of it, but the one thing she never understood was my certainty that raising children was not for me. Despite that, she was able to see me not as a clone of her needs and desires, but as someone unique, but also connected. She was able to give me room to be me, the best gift a parent can give a child. And she cheered me on as I confronted both challenges that we shared, and ones unique to me, as I carved out a life of my own making.


Because I chose not to have children, I had the luxury of control over my life and my time. I don’t take that for granted. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I began to understand something about the bond that is created by giving to another person, something most mothers realize much earlier even as they bemoan the loss of control over their life and time. I also learned that with the act of empathy and that very commitment of our precious time, we in turn create a rich connection.

When I met my current husband, his mother was in her mid-80s. She lived to 95 and we developed a special relationship in those intervening years. She was an intelligent woman, a reader and a lover of words. I am convinced much of what I appreciate in my husband came from her. She also had a difficult life without much control over her choices. We began to go over each week and do her grocery shopping, laundry and perhaps most importantly, bring things of interest into her life. I thought of our visits as an opportunity to make our time together meaningful and something to look forward to. 

Kitchen Competition 2002 by Susan Weinberg
We began to play Scrabble on each visit and I realized that she loved words more than strategy. If she read a word that would work well in Scrabble, she hung onto it until the next game. One day she put down a seven letter word and got scads of points. I commemorated it with a painting of us together, my first self-portrait and a portrait of us engaged in something we both loved. I hung it on the wall in my home when she came over for her birthday celebration and waited for her to recognize it. 

When I got into genealogy, I gathered information on those long-gone people who had once been significant in her world. She was intrigued with the trail of documents that captured her as a young girl. I interviewed her as my husband painted her.

I had a rather unique role. My husband was expected to show up. I did by choice and that made it a special commitment that she understood as coming not from expectation, but because I genuinely enjoyed her. Out of that giving grew a mutual love and appreciation of each other that felt familiar to me. I had learned it from my mother.

Another mother who has touched my life is my friend Dora. I met Dora in 2010 when she was in her late 80s. I was doing the website for the ancestral town in Poland that my grandfather had come from. Dora had grown up there and was fifteen years old when the Nazis invaded in 1939.  I began to ask her about the town and her story. I also began to forge an unexpected connection, both recognizing some of myself in her and finding a deep admiration for how she navigated her world. 


She is a very accomplished woman in life and intellect. After she survived the Holocaust she carved out a life in the United States, becoming fluent in yet one more language. She got a graduate degree in economics, became an accountant and a Holocaust educator. What I found most admirable was how she adapted to challenges within her life. When her vision deteriorated she shifted to books on tape listening to the Economist each week and studying the Talmud by telephone. 


Three months after I met her we began to plan a trip to Poland where I was invited to show my artwork. She joined me and shared photos from before the war and during the time of the ghetto. We did several shows in our own community pairing these materials. Over the past ten years we have gotten together most every week. I take her out to lunch and we go to events or work on projects. I’ve interviewed her and created artwork on her stories. Sometimes I assist her with talks to classes and we’ve used the artwork in some of them as a jumping off point for her experiences. During quarantine, we changed our get togethers to several hours on the phone each week recording her personal story. We celebrated her 97th birthday on Zoom and now we’ve begun to get together again in person. We talk about books and life, politics and religion. It has become a friendship with a long history and a model for me in how to face life’s challenges while staying actively engaged in the world and living a life of purpose.


When you live well into your 90s, many of your friends are no longer around. Dora has mastered the art of establishing long-standing friendships with younger people. Someday if I am fortunate, I will be on the other side of that equation. So on this Mother’s Day, I am grateful for my mother who modeled that special friendship and all the mothers who have followed in my life.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Preserving Their Words

When I do genealogy research, I am interested in both the public and private story. To capture both, I begin with oral history and a newspaper search. Often my newspaper search reveals only the basic framework of a life. I’ve learned that to search for a woman, I need to search under her husband’s name as her given name was by no means a given. If I’m lucky, I may find a marriage announcement or an obituary. On occasion I have found more dramatic stories, bootlegging, prison sentences, love triangles. When I encounter dramatic stories, I often imagine the underlying story behind the public report. 


It is through oral histories that you can capture the private story that I can only conjecture. When I suggest oral history, I am often met by the protestation that there is no one left to interview. I suggest talking to cousins as other people may have gathered those stories through conversation. And I always add, look for letters.

A story in my family is that my grandmother was shot when leaving the Ukraine. Many people left illegally as the papers to cross the border were expensive and difficult to obtain. She was believed to have traveled with her younger brother and his wife. Ultimately she ended up in a hospital in France and indeed left Europe from a French port. The brother and his wife arrived in America one week later.


Years later I took my own advice and tracked down that brother’s granddaughter. She had been close with her grandmother and heard her stories. I had first encountered her brother who ironically was a history professor. He studied royalty, but sent me on to his sister as the one who knew the family history. My newly discovered second-cousin added another thread to the story. They had to swim a river to get out. I imagined bullets flying as they swam. How she got to France is a mystery but she did indeed immigrate from France and according to my mother's report had an indentation on her arm that might have been a bullet wound.

How did I even know this story? My grandfather told me. Well not me directly. He wrote a few pages of his life history and gave it to my mother. Many years later she gave it to me, the third link in the chain. This history is what got me started in genealogy as I tried to document the story he related. It is from this history that I learned the story of my grandmother’s immigration beginning with her brother’s story.

 My grandfather writes of how her brother was a revolutionary and “someone informed on him and he was caught and later pulled through the streets of the town by a very strong cord and used as an example to the people of what would happen to them if they became also revolutionaries. His parents felt that it would be better for him to go to the United States where he would stay out of trouble.  So, he got married and he, his wife and my wife came to the United States of America.  While crossing the border they were shot at. My wife was taken to a hospital in France, where she remained for quite a while.”  High drama indeed!

My grandfather was also a letter writer and my mother moved away from New York when she married, thus the recipient of letters. Even more importantly, she kept them and ultimately shared them with me. When I began to search for my grandparents’ immigration manifests, my efforts were in vain, nothing emerged. One day I was sharing this frustration with my mother when she recalled that my grandfather had changed his name and that she had a letter that reported that. She sent me the letter where he writes it was too hard to spell so he selected a new name for this reinvention of his life. That letter led me back in time to his immigration manifest.

Donate the Knowledge 2007 S.Weinberg

My grandfather wrote another letter that didn’t deal with his history but gave me a flavor for what he valued. My mother had returned to college as an adult and graduated with honors as a teacher. In his letter to her on this occasion, he wrote a phrase that echoed for me.  “It is good to donate the knowledge to somebody else.” My grandfather closed his letter with another telling phrase. “I’m glad you could be your boss.”  A tailor in the NY garment industry, he never felt that he had that control of his life. It was one of the most important things he could wish for his daughter.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021



Burly Tree 2021 S. Weinberg 30" x 30"

I have come to love the process of unfolding. That is a big statement from someone who likes to know where she’s going complete with an estimated time of arrival. I didn’t get to this place easily, but I am beginning to trust that the process will work if I let it. Now that doesn’t mean I get to sit back and watch it unfold. There is some work involved on my part, but I have found that if I do the work and trust the process, I am likely to arrive at an interesting destination, usually one that I lacked the imagination to foresee. It is a lesson embedded in any creative pursuit and quite different from my corporate career where I drove to conclusions. It still feels rather magical to me when it works. It is that sense of magic that intrigues me and I often retrace my steps to figure out how the magic happens. It isn't difficult to trace my journey. I need only read past blogs, but I thought I'd save you the trouble and summarize here.

Broken Bits of Beauty 2021 S. Weinberg

I’ve written this year about my work within the Artist’s Lab exploring Brokenness and Wholeness. The lab discussions give me a starting point, but I don’t leave it at that. When I have no idea where to begin, I just begin with something that relates. In this case I began by constructing a rather whimsical collection of broken bits and then painting them. I had no idea where that would take me, but it served as a meditation of sorts on the theme. 

As I was walking a lot more during Covid, I found myself much more tuned into the natural world around me. When I looked at my photos on my phone they were an amusingly odd mix of nature through the seasons, selfies with my newly silver hair and photos of my toes on the bathroom scale as I studied the pattern of weight loss from all those walks.  It occurs to me that all of these subjects are about process and my documentation of it. As the latter two subjects didn’t seem to lend themselves to artwork, I turned to my nature photos for inspiration.

The Survivor 2021 S. Weinberg 30" x 30"

My part of the work in this process is to operate on multiple channels. I read about related topics, I observed brokenness within our politics, I absorbed what others said about it through poetry and I painted my visual observations. One of my visual observations from my walks was a tree laden with burls, covered with round orbs, layered closely together. It reminded me of a strong man flexing his muscles as they bulged out on all sides. I began to read about burls only to learn that they resulted from brokenness of a sort. Infection or injury creates them and they are from the tissue of buds that don’t fully unfurl. I began to paint the burly tree and named it The Survivor. It looked so ungainly and yet it grew despite its disfigurement.

Inside the Burl 2021 S. Weinberg

Then I looked at an image of what burls look like inside the tree. They reminded me of a maze as they circled and spiraled, hitting dead ends and finding new starts. And of course I painted them. As I painted, it felt much like a meditation. A few weeks later I took a writing class  where the author who taught it had us create a form that looked much like a burl, beginning with a spiral formed of adjacent circles. It was a meditation to get us ready to write and it felt very familiar.

It occurred to me that in last year's Artist Lab I had also painted a tree, nicknamed Methuselah. This 4700 year old tree is one of the oldest trees in the world. I called the painting Tree-time, based on the meaning of dendrochronology which is the science by which we determine the age of a tree and the climate that has surrounded it over time. In that case I was looking at it as a messenger of our climate trends and the warming that we see today. After I painted the tree, I wanted to capture what lay inside that was so critical to the story. To that end, I put the tree rings behind the image.  It occurred to me that I seem to have this inside-outside theme going. For another lab I had done a triptych called Stepping Inside the Chrysalis which opened up to what is inside a chrysalis as a caterpillar undergoes its transformation. In both of these cases, nature offered an apt metaphor to what I was trying to say. 

At this point I had painted the burly tree and I had painted the burls inside of the tree in two separate paintings. As I thought of my prior inside out work, I decided to combine the two and started a fourth painting to do just that as I work those metaphoric possibilities. A burl presents a model of what many of us experience as we have false starts, dead ends, challenges and successes often in a very unpredictable order. In fact, it is all part of the process of life. Brokenness and wholeness are not discrete or static states. Rather they are a connected and winding path, a cycle that perhaps affords us greater awareness of its cyclical nature as we weather its troughs and appreciate those moments when we sense the wind at our back, finding a point of momentary balance.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Simply Unfinished


Inside a Burl - Susan Weinberg 2021
Process has always fascinated me. How do we get from here to there? And how does our understanding of process allow us to move forward? To replicate a successful experience? Or to get unstuck and start again when things don't work? 

In painting, much of the process occurs long before brush meets canvas. That is especially true of work within the Artists’ Lab where we use Jewish text to identify concepts related to a specific topic. This year the topic is from Brokenness to Wholeness.  

As we explore texts I try to organize learnings in my mind by forming them into statements. We carry our brokenness with us. When Moses came down the mountain with the commandments, he encountered the Israelites worshiping the golden calf and in anger threw the tablets to the ground, breaking them. The rabbis considered where those broken shards were housed, concluding they accompanied the intact replacement in the ark. This is indeed an exercise in metaphor. We carry our brokenness with us and it is the companion to wholeness.


The next lab session was during Hanukkah and we explored the lesser-known story behind that holiday. After the battle by the Maccabees, who fought for the right to practice their religion, they came to the temple which had been sacked, defiled. They began to set it right. They used their own efforts to clean, purify and rededicate it. Hanukkah in fact means rededication.  We had that discussion in December and upon my re-reading it a month later, I had a much more visceral sense of what it meant. I had watched the impeachment hearings and the videos of the mob attacking the congressional building, I had a new understanding for what sacking and defilement meant, for the emotions that accompanied it. When Congress resumed later that evening to finish the certification, it was an act of rededication. It is with our own agency that we set things right, decide to move forward into wholeness.


The most recent discussion was about related words and their meanings in both Hebrew and English. This came at a time when we have a deep appreciation for how words matter, how they can incite or conversely calm, console and unite. After the lab session, I met with my two granddaughters on these themes. They too are participants in this year’s lab topic, partnering with me in discussion and creative work for the lab exhibition. While the lab introduces me to text, I also explore more broadly. I had been awed by Amanda Gorman’s poem and her presentation of it at the inauguration and realized that it addressed the concept of brokenness and wholeness, a perfect vehicle for a discussion about words.  I began with an exercise where I colored each word of brokenness in her poem grey, each word of wholeness green. For example, Amanda asks, “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”


After I did that exercise through the rest of her poem, I looked at the words that remained in-between. They were words that spoke to the passage from one state to another. I colored that sea of words blue. I thought back to a discussion in the lab about how there are really three parts, brokenness, wholeness and that liminal passage in between. 

Within her poem, Amanda offers us an important line about process: We've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken but simply unfinished.”  Brokenness need not be a static state, it is a point in time and a point in time speaks to a hope for the future. I gratefully added Amanda’s line to my learnings.

There are many examples of brokenness surrounding us, far fewer of wholeness. But some have managed to reflect both. As I watched the impeachment trial, I was moved by the manner that Congressman Jamie Raskin channeled the emotion surrounding the recent loss of his son into meaning and purpose. His emotion gave his presentation power and authenticity. 

While I am mulling these ideas over, I am also painting. It is a left brain, right brain endeavor. Sometimes I find it helpful to take an image and explore it in a small painting. Each effort is a stepping-stone to a deeper understanding. What I’ve been working on recently is a piece called Inside the Burl. I painted it over a painting that never really worked, a new beginning. In the prior blog, I included an image of the inside of a burl, an image of many paths, some of which dead-ended and had to begin anew. I learned that a burl begins out of a bud unfurled, a potential not fully explored. 

The meaning of the word burl is derived from a knot. When we run into a knot we are stopped and need to redirect, our path is disrupted. The image itself reminded me of a labyrinth which of course led to me to look up the term. A labyrinth is an ancient symbol related to (drumroll!!) wholeness. It combines circles and spirals into a meandering, but purposeful path. It is often used as a meditation tool and my painting did indeed feel like a meditation, requiring a level of mindfulness that doesn’t come to me naturally.

But a labyrinth has a single continuous path that leads to the center. It is related, but distinct, from a maze which has dead ends, those obstacles you must maneuver around. Perhaps a burl is more truly a maze. That took me back to the question I've written of previously that Bruce Feiler posed in his book Life is in the Transitions.  What shape is your life? My life is a burl, probably most of ours are. There is potential unexplored, those paths not taken or partially explored until they fail to unfurl. There are disruptions that force us to find a new path and to redirect. The end point is not pre-ordained and there is most certainly not one path. We carry all of our experiences within us and we need not consider ourselves irrevocably broken, but simply unfinished.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

A Thing of Beauty

The Survivor  2021   30"x30"         Susan Weinberg

As I wrote in my prior blog, the theme this year for the Artists' Lab is from Brokenness to Wholeness. That idea is running in the background of my brain at a low hum and it often pops up when I least expect it. 

I took a bit of a hiatus from painting during my retreat over the past year and am now trying to get back into it. I find the best way to do that is, well, to do it. I start by painting something, anything. Often I paint over it because it doesn't work, but I find painting takes on a life of its own once I start and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised by the results. While I delight in pleasing outcomes, the point is just to find a rhythm that I can maintain, trusting that it will eventually lead me somewhere interesting.

In the past, much of my painting was figurative, but I've diverged a bit from that by paintings the things that I notice on our walks. I've never thought of myself as a nature painter but on some level it is still perhaps figurative, just not people. I've become quite enamored with trees since our last lab topic on the environment and have been drawn to those that are marred in some way, a bit battle scarred. There is one on our route which has many bulbous, swirly growths on it.  It looks as if it had fallen on hard times, but survived wearing its scars with pride. I wasn't sure why it grew that way and if there was a name for these growths. 

Much to my surprise, I learned that they are called burls and its limbs were indeed burly. Now I knew of burls in finished wood, but it never really occurred to me to consider where they came from.  Burls are a wart-like deformed growth. They can be caused by a stress, injury or infection. The cells divide and grow in excess and often unevenly, not unlike cancer cells. In this case t
hey don't necessarily affect the life of the tree, it just keeps growing.

The inside of a burl

I often look to the derivation of words for ideas and when I looked up burl, I learned that it originally meant a knot in cloth or thread and comes from burra which means wool. In this case it is a knot in wood. A knot is like a period, an end point. It requires a new beginning to move forward. If you look at what a burl looks like in wood you can see that the grain of the wood is twisted, it has a story, most definitely not a linear one, at least not in the sense of direct lines. Its original path is distorted, disrupted and rerouted, but it turns into a thing of unexpected beauty. It is not unlike a clam shell that produces a pearl from a stress. In this case the stress within the tree creates a burl. Burls  are considered very desirable in furniture or wooden items both for their beauty, but also their strength. The wood is stronger, less likely to separate, because of the many interwoven strands.

So what does this have to do with brokenness? In the lab we considered the fact that our brokenness and wholeness are interrelated. We all carry some brokenness within us, and I would posit that it is often the part of us that is the most interesting. It represents a journey, a history that is part of who we are and who we have become. The path is not always a straight one, it twists and turns as we find our way, and ultimately that can turn into a thing of beauty. Perhaps it is also that very journey that gives us strength to face the uncertainty of the future, trusting that we will find our way.