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.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Breaking Through

Broken Bits of Beauty 2020  Susan Weinberg

I’ve been thinking a lot about brokenness lately. This has been a challenging time for many, broken politics, broken health, broken habits. From brokenness to wholeness also happens to be the topic for the Jewish Artists’ Lab in which I have participated for the past eight years.  The lab meets throughout the year around a specific topic and uses Jewish text as a jumping off point to explore it. We explore midrash, an investigative approach to text, exploring the white space, what artists call the negative space. It is what isn’t said, but perhaps inferred by what is. We create artwork out of this process for an exhibition at year-end, a visual midrash, a creative investigation of sorts. 

While the topic is, well, topical, I still have to find my way inside it. This year we have a different approach. In addition to the lab discussions, we also are working with one or in my case, two, young people to take what we learn and explore the topic together. I have two very creative granddaughters, age 15 and 16, and I’ve enlisted them in this effort.


I always try to find a hook, something unusual, a different perspective that makes it interesting. And I’m not there yet. Not even close. It is very much a process of looking at a topic from different angles, often despairing at times when I don’t know quite where I’m going. I’ve learned that it is all part of the process. In order to create something new, we can’t already know where we’re going.  It is that unformed void, described before that ultimate creation, the world, that we reenact each time we start something new and unknown. I am someone who likes to know where I’m going, so I’ve had to learn to work in this space of not knowing, trusting that I’ll figure it out. 


As I contemplated brokenness, I found myself creating a still life in my kitchen. Some broken brown eggshells, a brown leaf fallen from its perch on high and a head of garlic without its cloves nestled in a broken shell, all remnants of their former selves. Every time I see it, I think about this theme. I’ve even tried my hand at painting it as part of my personal meditation. It seemed appropriate to paint it on a small canvas which had an accidental tear.

I also do research, often in the form of reading and in that process I stumbled across a book by an author I have drawn on before, Bruce Feiler. In one of his prior books, he wrote about how young people who know their family story are often more resilient as they approach life, they have a framework for understanding upheavals as part of the broader cycle. Turns out, story continues to play an important role for those of us who are older. His book, Life is in the Transitions explores how people move from what he terms “disruptions” and “life quakes” (a pile up of disruptions) to a new place of wholeness. He chose the word disruptions as it felt less negative, less final, than broken. He had already begun to rewrite the story.


We all have a story that we tell ourselves about ourselves. Disruptions threaten that story and in doing so throw us off balance. We are constantly reconstructing our story and reframing it in response to disruptive life events. He also argues that the linear model of life in stages is no longer relevant to today and when we expect life to follow that model we set ourselves up. Life is much more erratic, seemingly chaotic at times. If our life doesn’t follow that linear model we often assume it is broken when in fact we may be using the wrong yardstick.

Feiler went out and interviewed 225 people about their lives, the challenges they faced, whether they entered upheaval voluntarily or involuntarily, and how they dug themselves out. He asked them questions about emotions they struggled with, how they structured their time, the role of ritual, what habits they shed, what new ones they created. 

Crossing the Dalet 2018- Susan Weinberg
I was especially taken with the question, what shape is your life? I had in fact painted that when the lab theme was Crossing the Threshold. I entered it with a question mark formed of broken egg shells, trailing brokenness like a wedding veil. I imagined it as a bit of a Rube Goldberg contraption, random and unpredictable, filled with doors at all angles. Sometimes I go around or under them rather than through. Sometimes I rode them like waves as the current took me in unexpected paths. I abandoned the linear model long ago and as I get older, the linear model is not one that seems particularly inviting nor does it represent my life’s experience. Life has gotten more interesting and I have changed my path significantly at a time when the model would call for winding down.

What I especially found interesting was when he likened one’s life to a story. Stories require conflict, something unforeseen. A breach in what is expected sets the story in motion and story is where we find the resolution.  He introduces the wonderful idea of what Italians call the lupus in fabula, the wolf in the fairy tale. It is the wolf who represents that fearful thing that upends our world.  


So, what are his takeaways? Even if we are pushed into this disruption kicking and screaming it is our choice to convert it into renewal. We need to accept where we are and choose to move forward. We must first acknowledge our emotions. We often make use of ritual or turn towards creativity in this process of change. Marking the endings and the new beginnings is part of acknowledging this movement to a new place. Along the way, we must give up old mind-sets and we begin to try new things. Ultimately we unveil our new self and reshape our story, a story that reflects the resiliency of our experience, our struggle and emergence into this new self.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Thwack . . .Thud: Welcome to 2021

Thwack. . .thud. Thwack . . .thud. So began our 2021 as the neighbor teens welcomed the new year by whacking away on the hockey rink that graces the property line next to our own. The light from the rink trained on our home, lit our windows brightly casting odd shadows within. By 1:00 am our neighborly tolerance had reached its end and my husband went out to our deck to alert them to the fact that they shared their universe with others.

If we learned anything in 2020 it was this. We are not self-contained. Our actions affect our neighbors, our community and the very earth we live on. Despite an oft-held ideology of individualism, we are a community whether we like it or not and we bear a responsibility to that community.  It underlies the impact we have on our environment, an awareness that others may have different experiences than our own, the many ways racism is embedded in our society, and how we affect the health and well-being of each other. 


It was a year that affected each of us differently. Among many of my friends, the challenges were being unable to see their grandchildren except over Zoom. New rituals developed to substitute, with grandparents reading to grandchildren online. The common theme for those who became new grandparents was to quarantine until they could hold the newborn. Many of my friends had spouses who had underlying conditions that posed particular risk. That meant a very clear awareness of their role in keeping their spouse safe. For us the challenge was my stepdaughter’s family moving across the country. How do you say goodbye in a pandemic?  And what about those holiday traditions that are no longer local, at a time when our movement is restricted?


Even as we adopted restrictions in our face-to-face interactions, I realized that we were sheltered from the problems that faced many in our larger community. At this stage in our life we don’t have concerns about medical insurance or finances, but many face challenges in paying rent or buying food. I found myself thinking back to a time when I didn’t have a financial cushion to protect me. What would I have done then? My financial cushion would have been help from my parents who were then at the stage I am now.  That is where our family history can shelter us or leave us open to the elements. Those in our society who don’t have those structures of support have faced the most severe challenges, some for the first time.


It was also a time of political upheaval. We were consumed with the political news, scared to look away lest the world meet destruction while our gaze was averted. I cheered on the protesters from my perch at home, aware that in other times we would have joined them. I felt sidelined. The week before the election my stomach was in knots. The fate of our democracy hung in the balance and I genuinely feared for it. Even now, especially now, I am appalled and disgusted by the irresponsible, self-serving or simply delusional behavior of many in our country. While heartened by those who have spoken up, I worry about the damage that has been done.


It was a time when creativity should have flourished, but I found it hard to write or paint. I need to find a place of calm from which to do that and there was no calm in 2020. I am slowly working my way back to a place of creativity.

There have been good things that arose in this chaos. I have a newfound appreciation of history and became a fan of Heather Cox Richardson’s reviews of politics and history. I read widely on related topics trying to understand the disturbing threats that have emerged in our society. I reconnected with new friends and old across the country and around the world through technology. How I defined community grew. I had been inching towards a greater sense of global community, genealogy and the arts have always been global in scope. Now the pandemic accelerated it. We all shared this difficult time.


Many offerings in the arts and other disciplines went on-line and my access to information grew globally also. I presented talks to wider audiences and had to remember to put the time zone on notices for our once local genealogy group.

I have always tended towards a fully packed schedule and used to savor the rare day with openings, what I think of as runways of time. Now I have many of them and like having blocks of time to read, work on projects or workout. I have new routines that support better health because of that newly discovered time. I still have many outward contacts with book club, genealogy, arts and nonprofit involvements moving to Zoom and I’ve taken to doing coffee chats with friends via Zoom as well. While there is a personal flavor to meeting a friend over lunch, this will suffice for now. Each week I talk with a 96-year-old friend by phone as I record her story for her family. It is our weekly touchpoint and an opportunity for me to appreciate the full arc of a life. We talk about how we will be able to meet again in person someday soon. 


While I will be grateful to have this time come to a close,  I note the learnings I will carry forward:

There is an opportunity cost to a packed schedule. 

Distance can collapse and connections grow virtually.

My community is global.

And we all contribute our small piece. 

Whether protesting, political work, dollars or our voice, we do what we are able with faith that it will join with others and ever so slowly make a difference.