Monday, December 8, 2008

A Visit With the Artist

I opened my art supply cabinet this evening just to smell inside.  The heady scent of paints and glues and pastels and solvents and rubber rollers and metal tools and... so many wondrous playthings... lifted me momentarily away.  They say scent is the strongest memory trigger, the first frontier of romantic connection, the bond between mother and child.  For me, breathing my art supplies had not been my intention. I had just wanted to visit them. But as I shut the doors and walked away I realized I had really wanted to inhale them, be carried away by them, so that their magic could linger with me as I ease out of my long day of job hunting.

We are traveling to Mass MoCA this week-end to see LAVA ( perform there - and I have asked for time to visit the galleries.  There is a Sol Lewitt retrospective. He was a big influence in the 70's when I attended the Hartford Art School and did my share of conceptual, minimalist art.  A couple of my pieces could stand up pretty well next to his, I think.  Viewing the website for the show I casually observed what I have always told my kids - you can't be a great (or famous) artist without being prolific.  Artists need to create a body of work - a dialogue with society, or with themselves at the very least - that takes them through an evolution of style, theory, or intention.  I want to be prolific! I have so much to do - so many paintings to paint - but, being a single mother of six, my little spurts of art have barely been able to squeeze in... between doctor visits and crock pot suppers and loads of laundry. 

I want to create wonderful large paintings, the subject of which I have not yet seen anywhere and I still feel the world is calling for it from me.  But this is the stuff of leisurely hours... evenings and week-ends that are not chock full of obligations and giddy or tearful teenagers, car repairs, financial aid applications... People who want to "have it all" are always so disappointed at some point. I have never tried to have it all. I knew that my children were my best creation, biggest achievement, greatest reward.  I'm not sorry.

But I feel the seasons changing. My baby turned 18 recently, and a new job may take me away physically.  They can all get around without my taxi service. They can all boil an egg or spread their own peanut butter. They can all use a phone if they need me.  Will they resent me so very much if I am not right here waiting to catch them when a romance fails or they catch the flu?  Will I mind not being that steady, ever present, ever constant compass for them... or can we all accept a modified version of reliability?  I am wishing for this.

So maybe soon, maybe very soon, I'll get a new job, wake up very early on a Saturday morning, and re-visit the art supply cabinet.  I'll open it slowly as I breathe deeply in, and exhale my longing. I'll let my eyes caress the contents on every shelf, then gently remove some yellow ochre, dark umber, and cadmium red... and make myself a warm swirl of rebirth as an artist.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Perspective on Hardships

My furnace is broken and I am struggling with the manufacturer over a replacement, since it was just installed in 2006.  The house is cool, not freezing today because it's not terribly freezing outside. I'm very lucky. A down comforter and a hot cup of tea and I'm fine.  

Any kind of "suffering" always makes me think of those for whom suffering is a daily event, not an exception.  I struggle with the cliché of being the guilt-ridden middle class do-gooder who really is only trying to appease her guilt, not really caring about others. I do not feel that the cliché is true of me, but I wonder what others would think. I believe I care. I believe that the charities I give to every month - whether I'm employed or unemployed - are organizations that make a difference.  Would it do more good to quit my job and go where I could be of actual, physical assistance?  Or does the money I earn, and therefore contribute, do more good?  I have many mixed feelings about helping the poor.  I know I want to do more than I do, but have no idea where the line is drawn that says helping my own children is more important than helping strangers.  You're probably beginning to see the cliché at work here.

I read the testimony of a young woman from Darfur on the International Rescue Committee website. She was staying in a refugee camp and related the story of how she got there.  She was pregnant when her village was raided.  She fled to avoid being raped or murdered or both - other women reported being raped repeatedly - over 20 times - in that horror that continues there, as far as I know.  When this particular woman was in the middle of her journey she went into labor.  She was alone on a road to a refugee camp and had to stop to give birth to her child. It was pouring rain, she said.  That was what made such a strong impression. She gave birth in the pouring rain.  Her words were few but powerful. "I had no plastic," she said, "I had no plastic."  A sheet of plastic to keep the rain off of her while she delivered her own baby was all she pleaded for. But she gave birth in the rain, and survived, and her baby survived.

I cried and cried when I read this story on the IRC website.  I've given birth. I know what that is. My sister across the world did it under unthinkable circumstances.   I love her. I want to tell her I am so amazed by her, but what a selfish wish. I am not worthy to even speak about what she's suffered.

As my house is cold and I am pondering these things I must find myself considering the other side of the coin - the money side of the suffering coin.  Those who follow greed without conscience, feeling that anything they can get away with is their right to take.  It reminds me of a kid in Paterson who told me that if you pass a car that is not locked and don't open the door and see what's there to take, you are a fool. An unlocked car is an invitation, doesn't everyone know that?  Whatever you find is yours. Period.  It's easy to judge these kids and criticize their values.  But what of an investment banker who figures out how to play with the S&P ratings and literally print his own money?  He figured it out, and no one blew the whistle, so it's fair game. He'd be a fool not to get every penny he could out of his scheme, right?  The thug in Paterson and the thug on Wall Street are cut from the same cloth, motivation-wise. Both are out for whatever they can get away with.  The difference is that the thug on Wall Street hurts hundreds of families, robs hundreds of people of thousands of dollars - and I'm being very conservative here.  Which one should we really be condemning here?  Society most likely rewards the "shrewd" investment banker with the big house and the pretty wife.  Do those of us appalled by these attitudes picket and rant about greed overrunning our society? Or do we live with the fact that society is full of folks with no personal integrity and accept their crimes against us as the cost of parking in Paterson or the cost of taking out a mortgage that's too good to be true?

Those without a conscience need to be policed and controlled - whether they pick pockets or take bribes or play with stock ratings. It's too late to hope they'll learn a lesson or straighten up or grow a conscience. The horse is out of the barn. The water's under the bridge. The damage is done.  I just hope that the rest of us can figure out how to get on with our lives, find jobs if we've lost them, find housing if we've been evicted, and begin to build on a new set of values.

I think we're going to have a revolution.  I hope we rebel against consumerism, stop believing the myth that we have to get more, get bigger, get better, to perceive ourselves as succeeding in life.  I told my daughter today that true success is happiness and the ability to save a little. Not buying Coach bags, or living like a millionaire.  Live within your means - whatever that is - and you're as rich as anyone could ever hope to be.  Save a little for a rainy day. Borrow only for essential expenses. Get your furniture used until you can afford to get it with cash. The Salvation Army Store, garage sales, and Craig's List all have great stuff that anyone could use.  Leave the fancy stuff on payment plans for those too shallow to know what's really important.

I'll conclude my long meandering path through guilt and reflection with one of my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quotes:  "I have never envied a person who led an easy life.  I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well."  My life has had many difficult moments. None as difficult as the young women of Darfur.  I'm going to go to bed now, snuggle into my down comforter, wear my wool hat and my socks, maybe even a sweater, and sleep comfortably... more comfortably than many will tonight around the world.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Election Day Reflections

Just a year ago I never could have believed that Tuesday's election would be possible. But as I listened to speech after speech on YouTube, and learned just how brilliant, fair minded, and universally appealing President Obama was, I grew in hope. Then when I volunteered (see the photo at our favorite house with my new friend Brenda), and saw the enthusiasm of every Obama supporter in Allentown, PA, I really started to believe. Sure there were the doubters, those that yielded to the fears hurled at them by the RNC phone calls... but they were not as convinced that he was evil as his supporters were convinced that he needed to be elected. And I hope that the conversations we had with those undecided voters had an impact.

Monday night I baked Obama cookies in preparation for our celebration...

Obama (Chocolate Chip Oatmeal) Cookies -

Cream together:
2 sticks of unsalted butter
1 c of packed brown sugar (brown sugar only, baby, yeah!)
1 tsp. of vanilla
1/2 tsp. of salt
2 eggs
Mix separately:
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup white flour
3 cups rolled oats
Stir butter mixture into oats mixture and mix well.
Fold in:
1 bag semi-sweet chocolate chips.
Pat down Tablespoons of cookie dough onto a cookie sheet
Bake at 375 for 10-15 minutes until slightly (and beautifully) browned.
Cool slightly on cookie sheet (on cooling rack) before attempting to remove.

When I woke up on Tuesday morning I texted everyone: "Happy Obama Day!!!" and proceeded to celebrate the entire day - walking with Marisa and two of her friends, who wore my Obama buttons (and asked if they could keep them : ) to the polls, and then on to Quick Check so that we could parade around the town showing our Obama pride. My town probably went McCain.

Then Tuesday evening I went with Wayne to dinner at the apartment of friends in Manhattan, cookies in hand. We brought the hostess a bouquet of orange tulips, symbolizing revolution, and concluded a day of celebration with an evening of heightened excitement and a little screaming and crying. We heard screams of joy coming from apartment windows all along Hudson Street. It was so much better than New Year's Eve or a Superbowl or a World Series. It was genuine, deeply felt, overwhelming pride in our country's ability to do what it needed to do at this moment in our history.

I have seen with my own 51-year-old eyes how far African Americans have come in our country. I've witnessed everything from subtle oppression to blatant job discrimination to economic alienation and outright disgraceful hate crimes - I've been an outspoken observer for all of my life. Today I know these wounds are not healed across our land - but they are healing. Today I know that Americans can use their intelligence to overcome their fears. Today I realize that when we appeal to the best in all of us, we can gather millions to a truly righteous (not self-righteous) cause. I said in a blog post a week ago, as I expressed my unwavering optimism, "I'm proud of us." I say it so much more emphatically today.

As a footnote, however, I must add that I am so sad to see the bans on gay marriage in three states. We cannot legislate to remove personal differences. In my opinion alcohol is more evil than marijuana, yet I would not ban either. I would improve our education system so that young people without parental grounding can gain self-esteem from other role models and don't feel disenfranchised or disconnected from a sound, guiding compass. Throwing kids in jail for possessing weed does not improve our society in any way, much less help them to change their habits.

Likewise, far more harm is done to women, and lasting psychological harm to children, in bad heterosexual marriages than could ever be done in a loving same-sex marriage. I don't believe it harms children at all to be raised by loving parents of the same gender. It does not "make them" gay. This has never been the case. Those fears are unfounded.

By saying that banning the right to have loving, positive gay marriage is "pro-family," while denying the childcare, the education, and the basic right to health care (calling them "socialist") that all children need - furthering the breakdown of "traditional" families across America through the overwhelming burdens of these basic needs - the religious right, in my opinion, is exposing itself as fundamentally hypocritical at best, and destroying the very fabric of our American dream at worst.

Anyone who feels that they know what is best for everyone else needs a humbling wake up call. I once thought all of these things. I once thought that I knew what was best for everyone - that my zealous religious views were superior to others'. Then I was forced to take a good long look at myself in the mirror. What I saw was fundamental hypocrisy. I saw that my motivation was not love for others, but love for myself. That being right meant more to me than understanding them. That my brownie points were more important to me than the everyday struggles of my fellow humans. At the end of the day... I didn't care about people, not really. I only cared about what was "right."

I clearly see now that people who don't understand the differences in others write all of these little rules, restraints, and limitations on harmless behavior so that they can feel safe. Laws are meant to protect us from harm, not protect us from differences among us. When love is your motivation you see clearly what is good for others; and what is good for all of us is love. Love heals, it does not divide us. Stop. Think. And let love motivate your actions.

President Obama had to appeal to conservatives as well as liberals to be elected. Many republicans voted for him. Many of the religious right that are disillusioned by Bush and the war or the economy voted for him. The fact that those bans won as he won the presidency shows that many voted for both him and the ban. I am glad he won. I am proud that he won. But we have much work to do to raise awareness for the rights of individuals to choose their own path in life, and the obligation of government to ensure fair treatment for all - individuals of every race, creed, and orientation.

Every human lucky enough to have someone to stroke their brow when they're sick, to hold their hand when they're afraid, to have a shoulder to weep on when they lose a loved one... the very sweetness that every human longs and strives for in their life... should be hailed as a fortunate soul, and should feel the support of a society that understands the value of these treasures, and encourages the commitment that secures them in their loving bonds.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

An Election Manifesto

I ask you to close your ears, for a moment, to the din of bickering, name calling, and finger pointing going on around this election and look at one simple aspect. That aspect is race.

Race is probably the single largest issue in this election, but people don't talk openly about their secret doubts and fears. They say they're undecided because they don't know how to explain their inner conflict. After the second debate, the T.V. channel I was watching took comments from around the country. I heard people say things like, "I am voting for John McCain because he's a war hero. I know I can trust him." Among the many comments, no one brought up race. And they never would.

But standing in a hospital room in New Jersey, where 99% of the patients are African Americans, my son's surgeon said he told his colleagues at the hospital, African-American doctors and surgeons, that he was voting for Obama. He related telling the doctors, "If they elect a black man like you, they might even elect a Jew like me some day!" and he said they all laughed and thought that was a good thought. Then the surgeon winked at us, as if we already got the joke, and said, "I'm not putting Aunt Jemima in the White House!" and laughed.

How many intelligent, logical folks in our country are like this surgeon? A man who works side-by-side with African-American doctors, cares for his patients that live in that city - and yet can with complete lack of any apology dismiss a brilliant politician who has won the Democratic nomination and the endorsements of countless political, entertainment, intellectual, and world leaders, as "Aunt Jemima."

Today, in our very own U.S., 1.5 million out of 10.4 million African-American men, are in prison. That's 14.4%--more than one in eight. They make up about 75% of our prison population. An additional 3.5 million are currently, or have been previously, on probation or parole. Due to current and past incarceration they are the most socially disenfranchised group of Americans in our country today.*

Racial bias manifests itself as a deep, sometimes unacknowledged, fear. It is a symptom of ignorance. We fear what we don't know or understand. Fear triggers strong defensive actions. We want to protect ourselves, our families. We shrink back from contact, or any opportunity to break through that barrier. It is deeply ingrained and difficult to dislodge. Even with logic. Even with personal experience to the contrary.

I am voting for Barack Obama. Not because he is an African-American man. But because he is a brilliant, articulate, honest, thoughtful, responsible African-American man. Yes, I added that because it is part of who he is. He has seen the eyes of racial hatred looking back at him without cause. In that situation he has chosen to have self-discipline and self-control in the face of blatant injustice, qualities that few white men are required to develop just to keep their jobs. It has tempered his spirit and graced him with the ability to forgive and move on. He is not vindictive or spiteful. His character and integrity are evident in his history. He worked with the poor, he worked for justice and fairness in communities in Chicago where no one else cared. That's the kind of man I want leading our country.

I am voting for Barack Obama because I believe he is the better man for the job. I admire his even temper, his political choices, his sense of fairness. The change he wants to bring is the change I can't wait to see for the future that my children will grow up in.  

But another reason has to do with my understanding of the role race plays in our nation, even today, where frightened separatists still deny equal treatment to those who are different from them.  Thousands across our nation will be crying out against every African American, if they vote against Obama simply because he is African American. I can't help but think of the gift our votes can be in a moment like this. When do you have an opportunity to make such a clear, meaningful stand for what you believe, if not when you vote? 

So, for every black man in prison and every black man on parole, who has no role model, who has no mentor, who has no idea where he belongs in this society that denies him everything from a good education, to basic respect, to a decent job--for each of them, and for all of their children--even more than for mine--I vote for Barack Obama. 
Let freedom ring.

*Prison information from: Why Are So Many Black Men in Prison? A Comprehensive Account of How and Why the Prison Industry Has Become a Predatory Entity in the Lives of African-American Men by Demico Boothe

Saturday, March 1, 2008

On The A Train, Act 2

On the not-so-full A train I was lucky enough to sit kitty corner across from a tall, thin, silver haired woman who reminded me of my father's mother who died in her sleep with a smile on her face in 1990 in her late 70's. Like my grandmother, my train neighbor's wrinkles created the paths of kind expressions, laughter, and a little sarcasm... Though I'm sure, like my grandmother, she had the ability to be angry, demand her just desserts, and fight for her rights.
My gentle neighbor wore a beautiful, softly worn but elegant winter scarf. The textures in the weave whispered quality and someone probably paid a pretty penny for it, but the way she wore it, tossed carelessly around her neck like any cheap scarf, made her look like a model in an expensive magazine. Her jacket was likewise the sort that she may have had for twenty years, but in it's day it cost a bunch and has served her well with its pedigree of endurance and eternal stylishness. I did not envy her fine wardrobe, down to her simple but elegant snow boots, I only admired every bit of it.
I did not want to be her, though a middle-aged woman like myself might be tempted to imagine an equally elegantly clad self in a couple of decades. Instead, I wanted to know her. I stared deeply into her thoughtful eyes as she examined her work - for she spent the entire trip madly editing, or correcting, print-outs of some kind. Perhaps it was her writing, but somehow I imagined they were the work of her students. Her expression was keenly focused on the work, no distractions from stops that came and went, doors that slid opened and closed with dings and shuffling and strollers and other winter coats and scarves and boots of lesser quality coming and going all around her. I sat, from stop to stop, greedily staring at her--knowing she would never notice me. I imagined her fine, thin hands that poised elegantly holding each page before she slid it to the back of the pile, touching my own hand. Caressing my hair. I hope her grandchildren appreciate her. I'm certain they do.
Absorbed in her papers, she missed her stop. Little did I know that I was enjoying stolen moments of observation as I floated on my daydream of being part of this woman's world. When she stood suddenly, sliding her papers into her bag, she looked right at me.
"I missed my stop!" she exclaimed, putting herself together... jacket buttoned, bag on shoulder, pen in purse. I gave her a sympathetic smile, but inside I was happy to hear her velvet, husky voice - soft and low - just as I had imagined it.
I am not a stalker. I would never follow her, seek to know more than was my right a a perfect stranger. But my secret pleasure at observing her is odd, I know. I don't mind if you think that. It's just the way I am. People are amazing. I love them. I value them. And when someone strikes me as particularly interesting or wonderful, I enjoy capturing that... just like this.

Friday, January 11, 2008

On the A Train, Act 1

On a not-so-full A Train one sits on benches across from other riders. I also enjoy the sardine ride - you get more intimate than you ever could intend to - hearing the music in their ear buds, whiffs of cologne, deodorant, coffee breath, and touching, totally unintentionally sometimes, their soft coat or smooth leather satchel. But the vacuous A Train is even more intimate.

I observe, shamelessly, a young man about the age of my youngest son, riding with three girls to or from some evening event. I see his body language and hear the tone in his voice and I think to myself, if only his mother could witness this. He was cocky, yet sweet and endearing. Just modest enough to allow for good humor and mild embarassment at their mocking and teasing, but confident and bold in bursts of rebuttle. He was trying things on. Trying on the attitudes that one might think should be expected - but not committing to them. Is he a show off? Is he a joker? Is he a puppy dog? Is he a poet? He played it so cool. At moments just an eyebrow let you know. Then, as his silly bursts were moderated with self-control, you saw that he was instinctively monitoring their responses moment by moment, giving them everything they asked for. He generously entertained, carefully managed the three, taking it all in.

As the girls joked and teased, like one organism of delightful self-promotion, they took turns jumping out of their seats with emphasis, or pulling on his scarf, or whispering in one-anothers' ear. Because I also have a daughter like this they were just as much fun to watch, as they rode high on this moment of his attention. They were far more conscious of their own actions than of his. He could do no wrong. No screenwriter could have better scripted, nor director directed, the scene that played for me in vivid 19-year-old technicolor.

As I enjoyed the show I constantly thought of his mother. Not theirs - for they were who they are fully, and their mothers enjoy it every day. But I would bet his mother has never seen this prescient testing of his man-wings, this bright boy glowing with growing-up him, and all that he is trying to discover in that metamorphosis. She probably sees the sullen shrugs and gets the half grinning grunts every mother of a teenaged boy gets - I just hope she knows, as I know, that all of this orchestra of social brilliance is in there. In his awareness of the situation I see a poet. I am celebrating him for her, in case she hasn't seen him yet.