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.

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