Artist as Warrior

All good art is political

My instincts this morning told me to get to the exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts before it closed tomorrow. I did. Write-ups in the paper had mentioned powerful images. One person who shared his impressions with me panned the raw explicitness of the art, which included nude public demonstrations. In Chances Are, a novel by Richard Russo that I just finished listening to, the Vietnam War’s impact on young men’s lives is a strong undercurrent.

Call it coincidence or convergence, but I had to see the exhibit, “Artists Respond to the Vietnam War.”

For a fully immersive experience, before entering the gallery I donned a headset so I could listen to a playlist that included “Purple Haze,” “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” “Riders of the Storm,” and other songs written during and inspired by the war. The soundtrack had the added benefit, I discovered, of drowning out the chatter of others so I could concentrate on the art.

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“War Room,” detail, Wally Hedrick (1928-2003)

Of all the garish colors, bold graphics, and gruesome images included in the exhibit, “War Room” moved me the most. It is an actual room that viewers walk into. The walls are layered in black. The space itself isn’t small—maybe 10′ by 10’—but the overwhelming darkness feels  claustrophobic, or, as the artist intended, boxed in, as America  had become in Vietnam.

The first image I thought of was the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., which I saw with my son 20 years ago. Also black on its surface, this artistic work had a quite different, but no less powerful effect on me. The smooth granite wall extended beyond my vision, as if taking in all of history with its list of names that we were drawn to touch, and the other monuments reflected on its face.

In both installations, understatement is still a statement. Or, as Toni Morrison said, “All good art is political.”

In a particularly moving video at the end, several Vietnamese artists were interviewed. They explained how and why they created art in the context of the horrors of war. For some it was a way to preserve a sense of humanity and beauty. Some hung their pictures like clothes on a line to dry, a kind of portable gallery for soldiers to see and be heartened by before going into battle. Mostly these artists portrayed individuals. Almost sketchlike in their simplicity, with a minimal wash to bring dimension and life to the faces, these portraits were a counter narrative to the thousands who died.

I was a mostly oblivious 15-year-old from the suburbs when demonstrations broke out in my home town of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The only recollections I have of that riot, Kent State, and other protests are based on what I saw on TV, just as the war itself was curated for those of us at home.

My age group just missed the draft, so I didn’t know anyone who went to Vietnam or was killed. Somehow, I didn’t see myself as political. But war lives on—in me, in art, in our understanding of what it means to be human. When I recalled the newspaper’s headline this morning—”U.S., Iran, Escalate Threats”—I realized that “War Room” is as relevant today as fifty years ago. War lives on.

I lingered longer than most at the video of the artists being interviewed. They described themselves as warriors, a term I never would have considered for myself. Their weapons were pencils, brushes, paints, paper, camera. Their role was to document war, bear witness to what they saw, portray the truth that is at once painful yet necessary to remember. Art lives on, even if people don’t.

I came home newly inspired to finish the book proposal I’d set aside during the holidays. Or was it more than that? Had the exhibit stirred the political in me, made me a warrior in my own right?

I describe my story as part memoir, part manifesto. Memoir because it’s my experience of loss, grief, and self-discovery. Manifesto because it documents the many, often insidious, ways silence has kept women from fully realized lives.

To write about that and hope the world listens: that’s political.

Christmas A to Z

We already have all that we need

At a recent exhibit at The Museum of Russian Art, I saw a serigraph by American artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) entitled “Alphabet of Creation.” In it he depicts the Hebrew alphabet as stylized, interlinking shapes, stark black on a white background. As a writer, I was intrigued. Words are my tools, and letters the building blocks for how we communicate. We cannot tell or hear a story without them.

IMG_1995Shahn saw beyond the alphabet’s functional purpose. He believed that letters hold a spiritual meaning as well. The alphabet represents nothing less than Creation itself, a way to feel intimately connected to God.

John makes that same connection when he opens his Gospel with “In the beginning was the Word.” God is the source of all creation. We cannot speak without calling forth God’s name. When we tell stories, we often start with “Once upon a time . . .” and use 26 letters in endless combination. This first verse of John uses a mere 13 letters to announce the only story that matters in our lives.

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My Swedish cousin Per sent this today with this message, “I hope you can hear the song from the little boy!”

All year we long for this story of love, and Advent prepares us for its Incarnation. Jesus’s birth marks our own beginning in a fundamental way. Beyond daily injustices, beyond a dying world, beyond our broken hearts and fractured language, a New Creation awaits.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The story of Jesus’ coming is the one Word we desperately need.

 

Wisdom’s Patchwork

The practice we call living

For those of you who read my blog, you know that periodically I go for a stretch without posting. It’s not that there’s nothing to write about. If I’m deep into work on my memoir, I’m less inclined to write here. Lately, life has been pulling me in many directions, and it feels as if there’s almost too much to reflect on. What follows is more patchwork than whole cloth.

The Zen of the Y

This past summer, I trained for my hiking trip to the Canadian Rockies. I went regularly and worked a plan. My goal was to be physically able to hike each day and enjoy it. I didn’t look beyond the trip. But when I returned, I realized I missed going to the Y. Not the getting up and out the door at 5:30 a.m. part, but how I felt during and after a workout. Without realizing it, going to the Y has become a life habit, which for me means moving and staying flexible so as to meet aging on somewhat even terms.

Besides learning about the Bosu, kettlebells, and the TRX, I look forward to seeing the “regulars.” Margaret (we’re Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday gals) gives me her latest movie recommendation and chides me for being lazy if I miss a day or arrive after 6 a.m. Tony, a Monday through Friday guy, cracks jokes as he alternates between machines and weights. Chris seems to live there, and is determined to keep off the 60 pounds he lost a year ago. And if I’m lucky, I see someone from church or the neighborhood.

At the Y we put our earbuds in and do our own thing. There’s no competition, no judgment, mostly encouragement and admiration, along with gentle teasing.

In a recent article on weight lifting that I happened upon: “The perennial wisdom traditions and decades of psychological research point to three basic needs that, when fulfilled, allow people to thrive.” They are autonomy, mastery, and belonging. So I keep going to the Y, where it is all about showing up.

Wisdom Ways

I just finished a four-session class on contemplative prayer offered at Wisdom Ways, a center for spirituality at St. Catherine University. Over the years I’ve dipped in and out of contemplative prayer, knowing just enough to be dangerous (as in falsely believing I “get” it and could do it anytime I want but am a bit busy now so check with me later), but not enough to make it a regular practice, like the Y.

The instructor, a former Episcopal priest, used passages from three Gnostic Gospels,  Philip, Thomas, and Mary Magdalene. Again and again they invited us to participate (practice) in the search for truth, and to do so with the heart. I wasn’t the only one who came each week with an excuse why I didn’t have time to sit quietly for 30 minutes each day.

In Mary Magdalene: “The Son of Humanity already exists within you. Follow him there, for those who seek him there will find him.” In other words, we keep seeking what we already have, something it’s taken me more than 60 years to recognize.

Art for More Than Art’s Sake

As thirsty as I’ve been for physical and spiritual exercise, my mind has been challenged by various art forms. This fall the Pillsbury House Theatre presented “Jimmy and Lorraine: A Musing.” The playbill described it as a meditation on the American political climate of the late 50’s and early 60’s through the lens of two significant artists of the time, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry. Both came to the Civil Rights movement through their art, but ultimately, politics and the black experience informed their writing. Can the two ever be separated?

I’ve discovered Kate Walbert’s novels (A Short History of Women) and short stories (She Was Like That), in which she explores the real lives of contemporary women and the struggles they face around work-life choices, having children, and relationships in painfully honest ways. Her bravery in naming women’s reality and avoiding predetermined narratives inspires me in my own cross-generational look at the women in my family.

A current exhibit of the work of Theaster Gates at the Walker reveals a man of broad artistic abilities who strives not only to reclaim and repurpose found objects that might otherwise be destroyed but also to salvage from history the stories that haven’t been told. (For a recent example, see the movie The Report.)

Two days earlier I heard Esi Edugyan, author of Washington Black, talk about how her own experience shaped the creation of her title character. Questions of displacement, identity, and belonging become more potent when looked at from the perspective of a young black boy who has only understood himself as a slave.

What does it mean to be at odds with the history before you, she asked, a history in which you aren’t represented and didn’t write the laws? “True agency,” Edugyan said, “is as urgent as love—and just as elusive.” Think about that, as I still am.

Frozen river

A Walk

When it warmed up enough this week to venture out for a walk, I headed down to the Mississippi River. I enjoy the view from along the bluff, where recently I’d seen a coyote at dusk. Already the river is frozen, locked down for the season. I’ve been feeling this same inertia, even stuckness as winter sets in.

I stopped and took in the vista, sensing there was something else to see, something I could only see with my heart. Beneath the white sheet of ice a river moved, living water, in perpetual transformation.

 

Ahead, the Unexpected

Finding where peace is possible

My Canadian Rockies trip in August didn’t start out well. For all the training and preparations, I miscalculated how early I needed to be at the airport that Saturday morning. The lines were historically long. The wait for an agent as long as the lines. By the time my travel companion Pat and I reached the kiosk to check our bags, the message on the screen told us we were too late. Checkin for international flights must be done at least an hour before departure. That meant another line, another wait, to rebook on a flight that evening.

Things don’t always go as expected.

By the time we arrived at our hotel in Calgary, it was midnight. The others in our group, from as far away as New Zealand and Boston, had arrived much earlier, met each other, and had dinner with our two guides, who left a note that we were to meet for breakfast at 7 a.m.

When we came down to eat, we looked around, expecting, well, our group to be assembled and holding a sign that welcomed us. Instead, I felt like the newly hatched bird that keeps asking, “Are you my mother?” to anyone who looked like they might be about to spend seven days in the wilderness. Unfortunately, everyone seemed to be dressed for that occasion.

A mother and son finally joined us, then others in our group stopped by. An hour later, we were all in a comfortable van, on our way to Lake Louise campground, our base for the week. The days revolved around the weather, which changed often. After setting up our tents, we drove to a trailhead close by and hiked on a forested path in a light rain up to Sherbrooke Lake. As we admired the turquoise water and the mountains rising all around, our guide said, “On the other side of this mountain is the Continental Divide.”

The Canadian Rockies are vast, covering some 75,000 square miles. Each day our hikes—carefully chosen by our guides—took us to incomparable vistas. We climbed to the Lake Agnes Tea House above Lake Louise. We walked to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, then climbed Parker Ridge to view another glacier tongue of the Columbia Icefield from above.

IMG_1767.jpgSome of us made the steep climb to a secret lake tucked deep in the mountains, stopping along the way to view Takakkaw Falls, the tallest in the Rockies. What else might I see, I wondered, if I stayed longer?

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Our longest hike started at Moraine Lake and took us up switchbacks and through an evergreen and larch forest before we came out to an alpine meadow on our left, scree pitching sharply up on our right. There, before us, was the Valley of the Ten Peaks, each one more than 10,000 feet high. My eyes filled with tears. I stood in awe, hearing only the sound of the wind. It was nothing less than a mountaintop experience. Here was the bare, unfiltered love we spend out whole lives seeking. Here was the God within me who had always been there, the God I could stand before and feel as one. Here was the peace I had come to see was possible.

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These moments change us. They stay with us, become a part of who we are. Life is never the same afterwards. I still feel aftershocks when I recall that place, even choke up when I try to describe my trip to a stranger.

Moments such as this bring me to the tender time, when I mark Chris’s passing nine years ago today. Things don’t always go as expected. A hard lesson for me, who likes order, control, and a plan.

One afternoon we went rafting on the Kicking Horse, a class III-IV river, swollen from recent rains. I’d never rafted before and needed coaxing by the group to overcome my fears. During the orientation, our guide said she would use three simple commands throughout our seven-mile float.

I climbed into the raft. Within a minute we were hurrying downstream. “Hold on!” our guide shouted as the raft pitched forward and a cold spray crashed over me, finding its way under my wetsuit. “Get down!” she hollered over the roar when rapids swirled around us. And between these harrowing moments, between the unexpected and the seemingly impossible, “Paddle!”

From somewhere deep within came a swell of energy and I laughed at the pure joy of living.

When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks—when you hear that unmistakable pounding—when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming—then row, row, for your life toward it (Mary Oliver, West Wind, 46).

I have many wonderful memories from my trip, but these three commands may be all I need. The past nine years I’ve held on, wanting to survive. I’ve ducked some hazards, faced others. And in between, I’ve navigated the river, paddling, paddling, with all my heart toward the unexpected.

 

A Walk Taken

When not having a purpose is the purpose

My father loved to walk. Walking was simple, functional, and the purest form of exercise. He walked in his wingtips to the train station, then across the Chicago loop daily for 37 years. He maintained a healthy weight because of the 3 miles he walked every day.

He would be delighted that his youngest daughter has been logging her own miles this summer in preparation for a hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies. On weekends Father liked nothing more than to take a walk in the woods, at the arboretum—wherever he was surrounded by the natural world.

I will be thinking of him as I scramble across boulders and stand before snow-capped peaks and glacier-fed lakes. He will be my reminder to walk for the pure enjoyment of it. I won’t be tracking number of miles or speed. I certainly won’t be breaking any records. My goal is not to have a goal. I’m eager to see a magnificent part of the world, meet new people, and appreciate being able to have this opportunity.

Walking has recently become the subject of several books that promote the activity as a goal-driven pursuit. Writers, one book documents, are invigorated by walking, which fuels their creativity. Another author argues that walking is a form of protest against our busyness, going so far as to suggest that walking is a way of imagining a more sustainable future.

Norwegian writer Erling Kagge believes that “walking is among the most radical things you can do.” He speaks from experience, having been the first person to cross North and South Poles and climb Mount Everest on foot. For him, walking is a protest against growing the GDP and then resting whenever we aren’t doing so.

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In my own preparations, I admit to wanting to have the right equipment, training a lot, and becoming the consumer I’d rather not be. At least I haven’t joined the “Order of Walkers” just to head out my door.

My great hope is to keep all things political and purposeful out of my week of hiking. I intend to walk every day, period. I will put one foot in front of the other and imagine Father at my side. More than anything, he and I would agree, walking is good for the soul.

The Art of Grieving

If we can’t confront our own pain, we can’t be present for others

Yesterday I spoke with a group of about 30 women and 2 men about how writing has helped me grieve. Then I asked them to think about how they learned about grief.

The stories they shared were heartbreaking. One woman’s first child died at 6 months. When she told her father, he replied, “That’s water over the dam. Just have another one.” Another woman admitted, “I stuffed my pain; I simply couldn’t face it.” A few of us recounted how a grandparent’s suicide was kept a secret for years, as if not talking about the loss would somehow make grief go away. Many shared platitudes they’d heard, like “we shouldn’t be sad because our loved one was in heaven,” that became excuses not to take time to honor the pain of loss.

Most of us admitted that these former models reflect a different, unhelpful attitude about death. Now our generation has been left the hard work of trying to dismantle these lessons in order to arrive at a healthier way of grieving.

When poet Gregory Orr was 12 years old, he went hunting with his father and younger brother. Orr accidentally shot and killed his brother. He became a writer in large part because language gave him a way to grieve. “Words don’t change the disorder,” he said, “but hold the chaos.”

Like Orr, I’ve discovered that when I write about loss, I bring my chaos to words and language meets me with a container to help reorder the chaos. Talking with a grief counselor—or anyone who understands grief as necessary—can serve the same purpose. Those conversations can be the vessel into which we pour the emotions, the tears, whatever we can’t make sense of about our loss.

The loss of a loved one touches us all, so why do we have so few examples from our own lives of healthy grieving? “Death is scary, ” says writer Meghan O’Rourke, “and people don’t know what to say.”

I agree with O’Rourke, but I also think her response is too often used as an excuse, not an opportunity to change how we view death and our response to it. We need to learn a new vocabulary for loss and grief.

Each of us faces loss differently. Any feeling we might have is legitimate, not “abnormal” as we may be inclined to think when the world is moving to 4:4 time and our tempo keeps changing as we stumble through grief. We desperately want to fall into step with everyone else, to prove that we’re coping and will soon be fine. But what about the questions and anguish that haunt us at night? Aren’t they worth our attention?

Death is part of life, and nature is our best teacher. The seasons cycle through birth, growth, and dying year after year. Why, then, is it so hard to grieve?

I think it’s fear that stops us. Fear that if we unlock our heart, our pain and vulnerability, our own mortality, will stare us in the face. Fear that our faith is insufficient for the sorrow we feel. Fear that this natural cycle will stop with us and the end will be THE END.

We avoid grief at our own peril. And that peril is this: if we can’t confront our own pain, we can’t be present for others. We perpetuate the sense of being all alone with grief, instead of recognizing that honestly facing the inevitability of loss in our life connects us as humans.

Writer Gail Caldwell may have made the best case for why we should grieve. Near the end of her memoir Let’s Take the Long Way Home, about losing a dear friend, she writes, “I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.”

Grieving is a holy way to feel the ongoing presence of a loved one who has died. Who doesn’t want that for themselves?

The Sense of an Ending

Writing and life: where nothing is tidy

Growing up, I read a lot of mysteries. I cut my sleuthing teeth on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but eventually moved on to Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Patricia Cornwell, Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Maj Showall and Per Waloo, Ngaio Marsh, and British TV series such as “Inspector Morse,” “Prime Suspect,” “Vera,” “Sherlock,” “Broadchurch,” and “Shetland.” Now when I walk, clean, cook, or garden, I listen to mystery-thrillers.

Mysteries are inherently satisfying. A crime is solved, a criminal apprehended, and order is restored to a family, a village, a country. I liked this tidy resolution that restored my belief in good triumphing over evil.

I was into my twenties before I stopped flipping to the last pages of a mystery I was reading. I couldn’t wait to find out “who done it” and why. Then I would go back and read to the end as I was supposed to, all the while knowing exactly where the story was headed. The element of surprise was gone, but I liked to think that I noticed clues I might have otherwise missed.

Who doesn’t like happy endings?

Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, stars of the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” were my favorite secret agents in the 1960s. Like James Bond, they always resolved some international situation. The book Boys in the Boat tells the story of a group of rowers whose homegrown grit and teamwork lead them to Olympic victory. In Educated, Tara Westover finally escapes a suffocating life. Easter is the happy ending to Lent, when Christians say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

I’ve been working on the ending to my manuscript. For awhile. At times I’ve thought I could just tie all the themes up neatly, cinch the bow on top, and declare, “Done!” But a thought—more a correction to my thinking—keeps surfacing. There is nothing tidy about life. And what is literary nonfiction but a person’s experience artfully told? To be true and real, that experience must include all the messiness and pain that come with life—relationships, parenting, aging, a diagnosis, dreams derailed, and, waiting for all of us, death.

IMG_1198.jpgWhen I shared my struggle in writing my final chapter, a friend suggested I look more closely at the endings of other memoirs I admire. What a good suggestion that was! Revisiting what we think we know nearly always yields something new.

“[W]e never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder creatures . . . the pain is what yields the solution” (Gail Caldwell, Let’s Take the Long Way Home).

“If we are to live ourselves, we must relinquish the dead” (Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking).

“I opened the door to the rest of my life, this new life without a living link to the old world” (Patricia Hampl, The Florist’s Daughter).

With these rich examples steeping in me, I appealed to my writing coach. “I’m spinning my wheels,” I wrote to her, “wondering if what I have to say has value, uncertain as to how to land, questioning my faith, even revisiting the story’s heartbeat. No wonder I’m stuck!” At least I didn’t add, “hoping to run a marathon this weekend without training.”

With her help and my perseverance, I will find the elusive ending. But it will require patience, instinct, the gentle wisdom of others, and trust in the process itself. In the midst of my writing block are loved ones, activities of purpose, a good poem, a good meal, nature—all sources of inspiration and hope.