Friday, November 20, 2015

The Roundness of Things - Part 2

continued from The Roundness of Things - Part 1

I used to read my blog posts to my mother. Now I seem to write them about her.  I think of this as the year of the parents; a time where I process who they were and their role in shaping who I am.  The year is certainly dominated by their absence, and in that absence they are still very present.

I previously wrote about the discovery of my late mother's folder titled Notes on Books Read.  This is a slice of one band of time, from the late 90s to the early 2000s.  I've attempted to organize them by topics.  A bit of curating is required as I can't include them all.

One quote that I especially liked came from Wally Lamb's book -I Know This Much is True. Among the things he knows to be true is "that the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things." Now that works well with the metaphor of apples I hope to use in my "wisdom" painting for the lab.

My mother's notes addressed the themes she struggled with in her life. I can hear her voice in them offering counsel. She was often fearful of the world, learned to face it and taught her children to do likewise. When I ran across her certificate from a long ago swimming class she took when I was a child, I couldn't bring myself to pitch it. I knew it represented her facing her fears and how important that was to her.

From Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones she addresses living with fear. I got so frightened sometimes: she admitted. "I know. Fear is only fear though and somehow you live without it. "No," he corrected her. "You live with it."

And you face those fears...From the poet Lucile Clifton "Any dog will keep chasing you if he knows you are afraid. The only remedy is to turn around and face the dog."

And from the anthology What We Know So Far: Wisdom Among Women by Beth Benatovich she quotes a further step in understanding the other side of fear (
from Forged in Fire by Ai Ja Lee). "To be scared is normal, to be not scared is stupid. But fear makes you lose the moment. If we go with the fear, instead of against it, crossing that line into action we find an exhilarating new world."
She comes back to Wally Lamb who says "But what are our stories if not mirrors we hold up to our fears."
You live with fear, you face it and you move through it into action and to exhilaration. Ultimately your fears become stories, echoes that you share with others, a wisdom offering.

My mother was not a traditionally religious person, but she was certainly a spiritual and intellectually curious person. She used the study of religion to gain insights. I was surprised at how many Jewish sources were reflected in her notes, sources that I've only recently encountered through the lab, but apparently she discovered them long ago.

From the Pirkei Avot - Ethics of the Fathers she notes a sense of responsibility in life.  "You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it." (Avon 2:21)

Her excerpts indicate an orientation towards action and speaking up when necessary, but acting with thought.

From the Talmud she notes: Silence easily becomes acquiescence.

"What is more important asks the Talmud? What is essential? Thought or action? Study comes first, because study incites action."

And a belief that we need to live in this world, indeed to make it shine.

From the eloquent Abraham Joshua Heschel she includes this "The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject, but to surpass civilization."

And back to novels, but with a similar concept, from The Source by James Michener. "Life isn’t meant to be easy. It’s meant to be life. And no religion defends so tenaciously the ordinary dignity of living. Judaism stressed neither an after-life or after punishment, nor heaven. What was worthy and good was here, on this day in Zefat. We seek God so earnestly, Elias reflected, not to find him, but to discover ourselves."

Knowing her own propensity to worry she records - "God doesn’t need to punish us. He just grants us a long enough life to punish ourselves." (The Poisonwood Bible- Barbara Kingsolver)

Given that we are in this world, how do we choose to live our life?

"We endure what we have to in order to make the beautiful design of our lives. The world is a mirror. You reflect good into it and it reflects good back at you.The mind is a powerful tool. It can create your destiny for good or for evil, so we might as well train it to help us, not harm us."   (Forged in Fire- Ai Ja Lee)

She adds Robert Frost's offering.  "The only way out is through"

And in the same vein, "Just remember that life is made up of changes.  We can't run away from it." (The Language of Threads by Gail Tsukiyama)  

"A brave man bows to circumstances as grass does before the wind "- (Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones)

Are you sensing a theme here?  

She liked Lamb's words about connection to the past, both our personal past and the past that preceded us. She used to reflect on her connections to the past, wondering whether her practice of recording excerpts from books was hereditary as her father used to do that as well.

"It is all connected. Life is not a series of isolated ponds and puddles. Life is this river. It flows from the past to the present on its way to the future. ... Only in the most literal sense are we born on the day we leave our mother’s womb. In the larger sense we are born of the past, connected to its fluidity, but genetically and experientially."

And lest we forget that we are not the center of the universe...
"First came simple things. Spending my last waking moments each night considering what I’d done that day and why; breathing a thank-you to God every morning for the new day; reminding myself constantly and often to little avail, that I was not the center of the universe. And I tried, though this was most difficult, to listen to what my soul had to say." -(Turbulent Souls; A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family - Stephen J. Dubner)


"Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you are good, bad things can still happen. And if you are bad, you can still be lucky." (The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver)


My mother was born a teacher and eventually became one. When I read this quote from Evensong by Gail Godwin, I knew her reference was her experience teaching, a vocation that was a calling for her.

"Something’s your vocation if it keeps making more of you."

My mother thought about wisdom and sought it from many voices.

"Only by the fusion of science and the humanities can we hope to reach the wisdom appropriate to our day and generation.. The ultimate end of education is knowledge embedded in wisdom." (Rabi: Scientist and Citizen by John Rigden)

And as we near the end of life...

Eli Wiesel - "In short, I try not to die before I die."

"There was a timelessness here, a sense that death was no more than a progression of life."  (Lake News by Barrbara Delinksy)

"Dazed, Ben sought some view of death that made leaving the world endurable. No matter how often he’d turned it over, no matter the years he’d passed with it, there was still no answer to the final riddle, or an answer lay beyond his reach. Always his search had led him nowhere, and the next day he was one day older, with no greater wisdom as a shield against death, no revelation to pit against its strength. And this was how a person aged. Suffering in astonishment the progress of the days." (East of the Mountains-David Guterson)

In her notes I found Psalm 90 on the fragility and temporal nature of life which ends with this quote: "So teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom".  

My mother clearly succeeded in that.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Roundness of Things - Part 1

Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers,  Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…(Talmud - Avot 4:1)

My mother was always the wisest person I knew. She was a searcher with a curiosity about the world, open to wisdom from many quarters. A teacher by predisposition and later by training, she carried her wisdom in a kind and gentle heart. She passed away this summer and I felt the world shift. As I went through my parents' old home with that thankless task of disposing of belongings, I realized I was looking for something, something of the essence of my mother. I found that something in a file titled Notes on Books Read. 

In it she had excerpts from books on a wide range of subjects; science, finance, the Talmud and of course novels. She knew wisdom came from multiple disciplines and her curiosity took her into many of them. If something spoke to her she wrote it down and her excerpts related to finding meaning in life, facing fears and making good use of our time in this world. We had often talked about books and as I perused this file I felt as if I was having one more of our many conversations. 

I participate in the Jewish Artists' Lab whose topic this year is conveniently that of wisdom or more precisely Echoes: Voices of Wisdom. (I write a separate blog for this group which focuses on our discussions) This topic seemed especially apt as I leafed through the file. We do an exhibition after a year of studying our theme so I usually spend months contemplating and discarding ideas on our topic. Now I wondered how I could make use of the contents of this file artistically. How does one paint wisdom? I needed a metaphor on which to build.

My answer came when I contemplated a phrase I once coined to express my personal philosophy. "Take your piece of the world and make it shine" - making a difference where you are in the lives you touch. I shared this with my mother and it resonated with her; she quickly adopted it as her mantra. I suppose it spoke to me because I spent so much of my life observing her live it. She posted it over her desk, taking ownership of it. I now carry that statement in her handwriting in my wallet. It is indeed an echo amplified. From me to her and back again with deeper meaning.

When I thought of something shining, I thought of an apple. What better symbol for a teacher? Perhaps her face should be vaguely reflected in its polished image. An echo of sorts. I began to research the symbolism of apples. Do they tie to wisdom? What about that apple from the tree of knowledge that Eve bit into? Interestingly when I went to the original passage I found the observation that the tree was desired to make one wise. The apple tree is used as a metaphor for the maturation process, growing into readiness, an appropriate aspect of wisdom.

Words must of necessity also be incorporated into this artwork, words selected from her folder of readings. I've been asked what she read and thought I'd share some of her excerpts within this blog, especially some that I hope to include in this yet to be defined creation.  This is how paintings begin, with fragments of ideas that if successful, knit together into a broader concept.

To allow me to do justice to it, I will share the words in my next entry. What better way to evoke my mother than through the words she selected as having personal meaning to her and in turn to me. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Greetings From Beyond

Today is my birthday and the first one in my lifetime with no parent left to offer birthday greetings. I have a painting in my memory series which suddenly seems very relevant. It is a portrait of my parents called Greetings from Beyond. I wrote of the story some years ago, but never shared the artwork. To recap...

Four years ago my husband and I went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday. When we returned, my phone was blinking. A message. I played it back and there were my parents singing "Happy Birthday" to me. My mom led and my father's gruff voice picked up the melody. "Ba da bom bom" my dad added at the end. Then silence. "What should I do now?" my mom asks. My dad replies, "Hang it up". It still makes me chuckle when I hear that, such a typical exchange.

Both of my parents had lost memory. My dad had been losing memory for years, my mother's memory loss was just becoming apparent. For years my mother helped my dad, together since they were 16 and 17, she had always been the keeper of their memories.

Then my mother's memory began to deteriorate too.
I was amazed that they were able to call me and sing. That seemed like a complex task beyond their abilities. My mother had stopped making long distance calls. My father bought phone cards with lengthy codes to input. The whole process intimidated my mother even when her memory was intact. Now it presented an insurmountable obstacle. My father would never have remembered a birthday without my mother's prompting. Together they were able to accomplish something that they could not individually.

Exactly three months later my father passed away. The message was preserved by my phone answering system and I saved it on my computer. When my next birthday rolled around, I started the day with that bittersweet recording. The following year I was at my mother's on my birthday. We were going to Israel, a trip she had always wanted to do. Anxious to begin our trip, I woke up at 5am, I heard my mother awake as well. I went into her bedroom. "Are you up?" I asked quietly. Together we perched on the side of her bed. I reminded her that it was my birthday. "Oh, Happy Birthday!" she offered enthusiastically. She no longer remembered birthdays.

I played the recording of her and my father singing together. Enough time had passed that it was now more sweet than bitter. "I play this each birthday" I said. "It's my birthday ritual. Someday when I'm your age, I'll be listening to you and dad singing Happy Birthday to me."

It dawned on me then that it was a milestone birthday for me, one of those decade markers that reminds one of aging. I turned to the mirror and took a picture of us in her bedroom, a "reflective" moment my husband termed it. I wanted to capture the full surroundings, cluttered bedroom and all. It was one of those strange moments where I was in the moment, but also looking at it from a distant point. I was thinking of myself at my mother's age looking back at my relative youth from a far more distant age, much like I view pictures of me in my thirties now.

She passed away this year and on this birthday I once again played the recording four years after I first received it, both parents now gone, but singing to me once again.

When I decided to paint this I thought of the components, my parents, the old wall phone they had when I was growing up and a curved row of birthday cakes denoting birthdays through time. Always with my parents raising their voices in song. Candles cast the glow of memory. Flickering them into the present, my birthday present.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Parents' Lives Flash Before My Eyes

You know the way they say your life flashes before your eyes when faced with threat?  Well I don't know about that, but it certainly flashes before your children's eyes after you pass on and they tackle the traces left behind.  And it presents itself in 3-D, not merely from the perspective of your child, but through the eyes of all who touched your life and wrote of it.  I am our family's historian and as such am perhaps best focused on the task of going through files.

I just returned from a week disposing of my parents' belongings. Now this is not a simple undertaking and as I live some distance away my visits are marathons compressed between two all day drives totaling 1000 miles. My parents kept things and lived in the same home for almost 60 years. In addition my father liked copying things; if one was good, two was better and he often failed to stop at two. And copying extended beyond paper to videotapes numbering into several thousand. (Many thanks to my sister who has taken on the task of their disposal!)

It is intense decision making - keep, pitch, shred, scan. And a constant need to keep moving, not allowing myself to get  bogged down in either uncertainty or memory. There is also a physical and emotional component. When I go there I first spend a day driving alone. Then I sleep in my childhood bed in a home where I can still visualize my late mother in all her familiar "haunts". My sister comes in for one day of my stay, but for most of the week I am isolated with my parents' belongings, communing with their presence through objects and text.

I am finding there is a secret society of those who have been charged with such tasks, the woman at the Social Security office, the woman at the bank all offer their sympathies having been entrusted with similar responsibilities for their parents. And it is indeed a matter of being entrusted. I feel a responsibility to honor my parents' history, to keep what was of value to them and to preserve family history for my nieces. But in the middle of that I also need to dispose of things and not fall prey to the same malady of gathering an excess of things myself. 

There is a psychology to what fills our homes. My family shares a desire to hold onto information. Books were precious objects in my home with an almost talismanic quality, representing a well educated and informed person. I remind myself that much of my reading is now electronic and try to restrict myself to keeping only art and reference books from my parents' collection.

On my last trip I disposed of clothes. Trip after trip to Goodwill. Then with my sister's help we moved on to technology. When I counted pieces kept and recycled, they numbered over 100 and we are still finding things we missed. And then there are the files that gradually filled my father's study, closets and basement. So far I've hauled away 330 pounds of shredding and countless bags of recycling. That means I went through all of it, an exercise in contemplating two lives.

These are some of the things I've observed:

My parents were once young! Yes, I found love letters when they were still teenagers. Sweet and silly and slightly embarrassing for their adult children. My very well spoken father seemed to like the word "swell" when he was 18 in the 1940s.  As in "we had a 'swell' time.

My father embraced the Internet. As a gregarious person who loved information, it fed many of his needs. He reconnected with people from all phases of his life. As a product of a generation accustomed to paper, he printed them out so I could now read his cyber conversations. He also printed out every email I ever sent them, my own personal record.

My mother kept the roster of every class she taught, every name lovingly preserved. I couldn't bring myself to throw it out, leaving that task for my sister.

My father was a paternalistic guy, offering support and guidance to friends and family. He assisted many with financial management and not only did I have years and years of his records to shred, but also those of relatives and friends.

My parents read widely and kept articles on things that also interested me. My father had articles on personal finance, estate planning and history, especially Jewish history. My mother focused on the arts, health and family history. I fought the urge to read their clippings and notes lest I not complete the overwhelming task before me. 

My mother went to college as an adult and while she ultimately taught grade school, she had many courses in history and literature. She loved school and loved learning. She even attended a mini medical school program and had the degrees and certificates carefully filed away.

I was most struck by how hard my parents worked at maintaining relationships, offering support to family and friends and writing long letters and emails. They wrote to cousins of their generation and mine, to old friends and then the children of friends. And they kept the obituaries of long-time friends in a file, a place of memory that I struggled to discard. They represented memories they held close, just as they cherished the friendships.

The writing I was most tickled by in my father's files was when he wrote to companies to express his dissatisfaction with a product. He certainly expressed his pique, but always with a bit of humor. If they in turn responded with humor he was delighted. His personality clearly came through in these missives.

My mother wrote notes on books she read and kept a file on excerpts that spoke to her, offering wisdom to live by. I felt as if I was having a conversation with her when I read through her file titled Notes on Books Read. Our conversations often focused on books and philosophies of living. Throughout her files I often found a phrase I had once coined and shared with her. She quickly claimed it and made her own. "Take a Piece of the World and Make It Shine". In fact I just gave it words, but the philosophy was the one I witnessed in her daily. I carry a piece of paper in my wallet that once hung over her desk. On it are those words recorded in her hand.

I was fortunate to be with my mother in the end. It was hard, but important and gave me a fuller perspective on death. As onerous as this task of disposition is, it too is also an opportunity to fully process all that my parents were. To see them fully and honor them in all their many dimensions.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Fun-Task Procrastinator

People don’t think of me as a procrastinator.   I’m one of those people who derives pleasure from being constantly busy.  I keep a list of to dos and when they are completed I move them from the top to the bottom of the list.   Done!  And just as I wipe my hands of the task another one quickly takes its place.  By the end of the year I have a list of everything that I did.  I group them by topic areas and  I know exactly where all my time went.  This year talks and following up on my mother’s estate seem to be capturing the bulk of my time.

My friends see this continual activity and can’t imagine that I procrastinate, I’m always so productive. And yet there are some things that remain on the top of that list while other things get added and completed.  I recently read an article by Dan Levitin for the LA Times that added a dimension to what I’ve read on procrastination.  There my name was in neon.  Apparently I’m a procrastinator  of a different variety - a fun-task procrastinator.  .  We experience a jolt of dopamine when we complete a task. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that is released that relates to reward and motivation.  It is a feel good chemical.

So here is what Levitin wrote that resonated:

"We tend to put off those things for which we will not get an immediate reward: projects with a long event horizon such as those undertaken by academics, engineers, writers, housing contractors and artists. The output of their work can take weeks, or months or sometimes years to complete. And then, after completion, there can be a very long period before they receive any praise or gratification. And so there is a very strong pull from the brain's reward center to engage in something — anything — else that will deliver a more immediate sense of satisfaction.”

Now one person’s fun task is another person’s challenge.  Today my fun tasks include such things as building websites or writing a blog.  Not that they aren’t at times onerous, but by and large I know how to do them and once done I have a sense of satisfaction.  It is the things I have no idea how to do that loom and I remind myself that today's fun tasks once resided on that list.   So what remains challenging?  Well on my list I have writing a book and completing a series of paintings on a new topic that requires me to work with a new community to exhibit them.  These are exactly the multi-stage projects Levitin references that have no immediate reward.  When I did the Jewish Identity and Legacy project of interviews, video-editing and artwork, it certainly fit that profile as well.  There was one different variable that spurred me onward - I received two grants to do the interviews.  Now I had the reward, I just had to do the work to earn it.  That is the value of grants, they sustain us through that daunting learning process.

Writing a blog gives me a quick hit of dopamine, writing a book with no certainty as to publication does not.  It also requires a different quality of time.  Similarly thinking about a series of artwork can be overwhelming, especially when I hope to change my approach or market.

His suggestion to move past these impasses is to break them into bite size chunks and feel the satisfaction of each piece.  And so I am trying to think in terms of chapters and paintings rather than books and exhibitions. This week I began a painting in my memory series, moving the image from my head to the canvas.  One step at a time in my search for a dopamine jolt.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Where It Leads

Retirement!  That is the topic of conversation that typically comes up with my still-employed friends.  That in turn segues into what they imagine they'll do when they reach that stage.  Most have no idea.  They often turn to me and say they wish they were creative like me as if that would quickly solve the dilemma.

I've been at this now for nine years, the same length as my longest salaried position. While pleased with the path I've pursued, I have no more certainty as to what comes next than I did when I embarked upon this journey. I do have tasks that occupy my time... two blogs, six websites, speaking gigs, exhibitions and of course the artwork and writing that fuels those activities. Throw in my reading goals and my workout schedule and I sometimes contemplate taking a sabbatical from my "retirement".

Oddly enough this question of what to do in retirement is not too different from the question our grandson faces on what to pursue in college. This year my husband and I have taken him on several college visits. There is so much pressure on college-age kids to map out their career path right from the beginning. I found myself telling him that you aim in a general direction of interest and fine-tune it along the way. Kind of like a recipe, a little bit more of this, a little bit less of that and maybe some of this for flavoring. That is how most of us find our career and we often change it along the way. Sometimes it's a job we might never have imagined because we didn't know it existed or we had to create it.

I don't think my post-retirement process has been much different than it was when I was 17 and trying to find my way. When I left my career, I aimed in a general direction of things that interested me, artwork and family history. I had discoveries along the way about what the ingredients needed to be, storytelling, public speaking, writing. And just as I returned to school at 28 for a masters in a totally different discipline, I reserve the right to change directions at any time.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to solve the dilemma, to fix the direction. In reality the point is to embrace the dilemma. Work and play, whether pre or post retirement, are about finding our way in a continual exploration of life. And if you choose a creative direction you are really choosing uncertainty, that's the point of creativity. You get to create whatever it will be. And that means at some point even you don't know what it will be. 

And yes, sometimes it feels burdensome, not knowing what form it will take and if you'll ultimately be successful in whatever way you define success. And sometimes you get stuck and then you have to get unstuck.  I've been at that point for awhile. I want to start a new series of artwork that I develop in a different way and I am working on a book, a new and foreign area for me. As I'm faced with things I really don't know how to do, it occurs to me that it is best to do it when I have nothing to lose. There are two points in our life where we have little to lose, when we're starting out and when we've left the workforce. Those are the points we can be at our most creative.  It is no accident that what I am doing now often reminds me of my first job. Both were filled with a sense of feeling my way, taking on new things I had never encountered and the excitement and joy that comes with discovery.

So to those starting out in college or early in their career or those leaving their salaried work life, my suggestion is chill. Feel your way. Don't worry about an endpoint, we ultimately all have the same one. Let your life evolve around the things that intrigue you, the things you're curious about. Then follow your curiosity where it leads.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Always a Novice

I’ve written of the memory jar, filled with memories, that I gave my mother years ago.  It was a ceramic jar with the title "Memories" inscribed on its side. Among the keepsakes that I got from my parents' home after their passing were the gifts I had given them over the years.  Fortunately I gave them things that I rather liked.  Now they are imbued with the essence of my parents.

One of the things I came back with was another ceramic jar, a gift I had given my father.  It is titled "Brilliant Ideas".  My father was rather known for brilliant ideas so it seemed an appropriate and complementary gift.  I now eye it thinking about what brilliant ideas I will fill it with.

Years ago in my first job I used to keep an idea file.  At the time I was starting a nonprofit that was a new concept.  It actually became a model program because novice that I was, I didn’t know my own limitations yet.  There is something rather freeing about not knowing what you can’t do.   In those days when I had an idea I would write it down.  Then I would write what resources I needed to make it happen and the people I needed to engage.  When I had fleshed it out as best I could, I put it in the file.  I seldom opened the file and when I did I was always amazed at how I had forgotten about the ideas I had dropped within it.  Many of them I had implemented.  There was something rather magical about thinking it though and filing it away that somehow translated into action.

I think perhaps I should use the jar much like I used that early file, to give ideas life.  I have found that I am good at coming up with ideas and reasonably good at implementing them, yet I still hit impasses that I founder upon. They are not for lack of ideas. I have no shortage of those.   Rather they occur because I now know my limitations and need to learn how to move past them.  Usually they are a lack of knowledge about a new pursuit or uncertainty about how to begin in a new direction.  Sometimes they require me to reach beyond myself, to connect with new people and propose my idea to them.  I need to be persuasive about something that exists only as an idea.  To be persuasive we need to believe in our idea enough to be convincing that not only is it a good idea, but we can execute it successfully.  The more successes I have, the better I get at that, but there is always that novice within me who hesitantly drags her feet like a recalcitrant child.  She whines about her uncertainty and secretly wishes someone would take her by the hand and show her how to do it.  I suspect I’m not alone in that. Most of us keep that novice pretty well hidden leaving others to think that they are alone in their feelings of ineptitude.

I gave a talk this week about the Identity and Legacy Project, a rather involved interview and art creation project that I embarked on despite my inner novice.  I convinced sponsors, got grants, did interviews, learned video editing - all sorts of new endeavors of which I knew little.  When I spoke about it I shared my sense of being overwhelmed and intimidated as I took them through my process. I realized it took a certain confidence to share that.  Of course by now I had figured out a path through those uncertainties.  I let my novice speak and found that people responded with interest because we all can identify with those feelings.  So often we talk of our successes, but seldom the struggles.  Often those struggles are within ourselves as we embark on a new path without the expertise we imagine it requires, expertise that we assume others possess along with that poise and confidence we so envy.

If we live our lives with curiosity we are novices over and over again, always learning new things. It is only people who do the same old, same old that don’t experience both the fear and adrenaline rush that comes from facing something new. And if we succeed we are left with a deep sense of accomplishment and mastery.