You know how people are always asking, have you read any good books lately? I’m happy to say, yes I have...Read More
Like a squirrel storing up food for winter, I’ve been preparing too. In the last month, fearful of the upcoming, sometimes brutal, New York winter, I’ve been hoarding experiences; attending cultural institutions and events maximizing consumption for when reserves are low or, more precisely, for when I’m hibernating and can’t motivate myself to leave the house.
So while, for me, cold weather is certainly not the best part of New York City, the city's range of cultural offerings is a gift.
In the last month, I’ve been to a number of readings and heard authors discuss their new books.
Mary Karr- The Art of Memoir
Nicole Dweck- The Debt of Tamar
Elizabeth Gilbert- Big Magic
And I’ve been to museums.
At the New York Botanical Garden I saw the Frida Kahlo exhibit.
In an attempt to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit, I went to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden because I didn't know the New York Botanical Garden was a different place. I learned that day that there is a botanical garden in the Bronx, and also that even though I was in the wrong place, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden is beautiful.
Next door, I visited the The Brooklyn Museum and saw the Faile exhibit, which was exciting and inspirational. The below made me want to run home and paint.
These painted pinball machines brought me back to my childhood and I couldn't wait to play in this dizzying yet electrifying atmosphere.
That same day, at the Brooklyn Museum, I stumbled on The Rise of Sneaker Culture. It was a fabulous bonus. Seeing a pair of white and green striped Adidas sneakers from when I was young and the Michael Jordon's my kids wore made me sentimental, but also reflective as I realized the inspiration behind the designer, all-black ones I happened to be wearing that day.
The new Whitney Museum which opened in the meatpacking district is gorgeous and when standing outside, on a terrace, you can see all at once: the Statue of Liberty, the Hudson River, the Freedom Tower and the Empire State Building.
Picasso sculptures are still on display at the MOMA. The exhibit runs until February 7, 2016. I am a huge Picasso fan and recommend you visit the museum before it's too late.
The fun continued at the Society of Illustrators in an exhibition titled: Batman: Black and White.
I visited all these places, and more, in a fervor, trying to soak it all in before it was too late, before the cold set in, or before my sometimes winter blues got the best of me. I did this instinctively, a form of survival.
(I'm saving television series for the middle of winter, stocked up, how women for generations before me preserved peaches.)
Ironically, I’m as confused as the bears and the squirrels must be because it’s November 8 and 65 degrees outside. I don’t know about them but I couldn’t be happier!
An additional note: The Faile exhibit at The Brooklyn Museum was supported by Allouche Gallery, which is scheduled to open in a new location, 86 Gansevort Street in New York City in early 2016. You can expect to see work by Faile, Dustin Yellin, Swoon and Keith Haring. I will be venturing out to visit, despite the cold, because it's going to be worth it!
My mother in law is well balanced. She has a chip on both shoulders.
Is there a family relationship more burdened?
Tempting fate, I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) with my daughter-in-law, Margo, last week. We went to hear Elizabeth Gilbert speak about her new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.
Margo is pragmatic. She is a nurse and scientifically minded. On our way to BAM, Margo rattled off a list of over 32 things she’d done that day, including errands in Brooklyn and New Jersey, tending to her children, helping with homework, meeting with a painter and just before leaving her house, giving an injection to a pregnant friend.
I, on the other hand, tinkered with a story idea for most of the day.
And to tell you the truth, I was feeling a bit down about that. It is hard to stay home, facing an empty screen and have what appears to be nothing accomplished at the end of the day. Of course, I know this is not really true but Elizabeth Gilbert’s message couldn’t have come at a better time. She assured the creative souls in her audience that we were doing exactly what we were supposed to be doing and she encouraged us to keep at it.
She talked about fairy dust and inspiration but she also talked about hard work and perseverance.
She talked about the voices in her head, how they take up space and how she lets them come alive: The Doubter, The Critic, Fear—and while that process didn’t sound so crazy to me, Margo diagnosed her with multiple personality disorder.
You’re probably wondering why my not necessarily artsy daughter-in-law wanted to hear Elizabeth Gilbert talk about creativity, especially considering she is one of the few people in the world who didn't even read Eat Pray Love. Or see the movie.
This is how it happened.
I was supposed to be going to the BAM with my husband but he forgot and bought tickets to the Giants game.
I invited my daughter but she opted out.
My son, Margo’s husband, was going to the football game with his dad and Margo didn't want to stay home. I promised her a drink after the reading and let’s just say it didn’t take a lot of arm-twisting.
My oldest daughter kept smirking, doubting the whole prospect.
But she was wrong; because while Margo and I are not exactly alike (I drink vodka, she drinks tequila) we both loved the event, and the hole-in-the-wall bar we found afterwards with live music. Granted, it was a bit awkward when two men started talking to us but we left soon after and found a great restaurant. I know I’m in the right place when there are vegan options on the menu.
It’s not always easy for us to find time to get together much less share intimacies. But that night, we learned new things about each other.
A mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law: loving each other, respecting each other, caring about each other.
Now that’s art.
That’s Big Magic.
My cell phone was dead so I left it charging in my bedroom. I sat outside on the front steps waiting for my grandson to get off his camp bus. Normally, that time would’ve passed uneventfully as I caught up reading emails or scrolled through instagram and facebook. But sitting there, alone, no phone in hand had me fidgety and bored.
When my kids were small, I waited for the camp bus every day and I didn’t have a cell phone.
I guess it was during that downtime that I used to think, which I absolutely have no time for now. Now, instead of coming up with my own thoughts, I read other people’s ideas and “like” them.
Through social media, I am reminded...
It’s never too late.
I am enough.
Miracles happen when you believe.
There are countless recipes I must try and a plethora of clothes I must buy.
There is no time anymore to sit still and just “Be.”
As a young mother, I didn’t have all those social media distractions and I am grateful for that.
For years, I fought against technology and cell phone use. I left my phone off in my purse and wouldn’t talk on it in public places.
But I do now. And it’s hard to know what’s lost.
That day, waiting for the bus, alone and undistracted, I had a writing idea, one I might not have had if I were “liking” someone else’s new facebook picture or copying and pasting a memorable quote.
Now, I check my phone countless times a day. I think it’s the intermittent reinforcement. You never know when that great email is coming. Just this week I received a second invitation to submit one of my posts to the North American Review for their blog. You can find that post here.
Just as I am thankful I had children before cell phones were as indispensable as fingers, I’m glad I began writing before I had a cell phone too.
Presently, I start my day reading emails and checking out what’s posted on instagram but a decade ago, I did Morning Pages, which are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, says “The pages may not seem spiritual or even meditative—but they are a valid form of meditation that gives us insight and helps us effect change in our lives.”
Over many years, I filled stacks of black and white composition notebooks. My children knew that writing time was sacred and my daughter, at two, would say to her siblings, “Shhh, Mommy’s doing her Morning Pages now.”
It was a daily practice, a ritual.
It was a time to be still and reflect.
It was a time to plan and discover.
I loved the feel of my hand moving across the page (no you can’t do Morning Pages on a computer).
It’s also important to know you can’t do Morning Pages wrong. And there are so many ways that journal writing can go right.
Sometimes I figured out a way to deal with a family matter, uncovered a dream I didn't even know I had or developed a writing idea.
Sometimes, I simply jotted down what I needed to do that day.
The point is that it encouraged mindfulness, focusing my attention on the emotions and thoughts happening in that present moment.
It was my time to
"It’s better to pray as a group,” my nephew said. He is twenty-two, newly married, and he studies in a kolel (an institute for full-time advanced study of the Talmud). Everyday, that’s what he does. No job, he just studies. So you’d think he might know. But when someone says something so definitively about something as personal as prayer, I take the other side.
“You do realize,” I say, “that’s not a fact. We don’t really know.”
There is dead silence.
Let me set the stage. It is the first night of Rosh Hashanah. We’re at my husband’s sister’s house. My sister-in-law is gregarious and kooky. She is an artist. But mostly she is big-hearted and open-minded, which is why it’s not unthinkable that her daughters wear wigs and skirts to their knees, and her sons wear black suits and yarmulkes.
The table is set for twenty. The roses are the color of the apples and the pomegranate seeds, which adorn the table in monochromatic fashion. Tonight the dining room table is her canvas.
To illustrate the contrast, I will tell you that one of my daughters showed up to the holiday dinner wearing pants (as opposed to a skirt) and my other daughter realized upon arrival that her shirt was more see-thru than she’d known. My son looked like he was headed for band practice.
My husband’s family has gone in different directions. Some wear black hats and won’t make a move without consulting a rabbi, while others wear electric blue sports jackets (with matching socks) and won’t make a move without consulting Vail snow conditions.
“Uh-oh,” my niece whispers to my daughter in regards to my comment, “she forgot where she was for a minute.” She imagines my comment won’t go over well in this setting.
But here’s the thing: it goes over fine. I mean, there was that awkward moment; but there were no hard feelings. In fact, there was even some laughter. “Why don’t you just ask if there’s a God, Mom?”
I didn’t say anything but I wondered when it became taboo to contemplate existential questions like: Is there a God or what happens to us when we die?
Literature shows me the world through other people’s eyes providing perspective beyond what I personally know or believe. This family dinner does the same.
Charles Baxter, an American author, questions his own beliefs in his essay, What Happens in Hell, published in The Best American Essays 2013.
Asking questions is at the heart of literature, every essay, poem and work of fiction. It is at the heart of every painting. It is at the heart of Judaism.
“You’re so honest.”
And, as if I didn’t understand this the first time, I get, “No, but you’re really honest. ”
I interpret this as a warning. And after ten posts, I’m feeling it. Shut down. Censored. And I’m having trouble writing.
I go back. I reread. I don’t know what everyone is talking about. Don’t we all fight with our spouses? Don’t we all have medical concerns? Don’t we all go to the bathroom?
Okay, I’m sorry to bring that up again but I’m fighting against censorship here. I had 3 posts lined up for last Tuesday and according to my friends I couldn’t post any of them.
As I developed the piece, Desire and Marriage: A Parodox, my friend said I could not post anything that had the words stool softener in it. “No guy will ever look at you again!”
When I repeated this to a different friend, also married for over two decades, she said: “No pun intended but who gives a shit.”
Later when I told my husband I was worried about revealing too much, he thought about it and said, “It could come back to bite you in the ass.”
The jokes were endless. Even punctuating with a colon got a laugh.
Then, there was this other piece. I’d written it with passion, okay, I admit it, I was a bit irate but I didn’t think it showed. Just to be safe, I checked with a friend and after reading it, she said, “I agree with you one-hundred percent but you can’t post that. You don’t want to be known as The Angry Blogger.”
All of this to say, I got stuck.
I called Alison #2. I named her Alison #2 because she is the Alison who is teaching me about social media. She is the Alison who is a writer and has her own blog, Very Curious Mind. I named her Alison #2 so as not to confuse my friends who know of the original Alison, Alison #1, the writer and author of The Adults who worked with me for years on my novel. Both Alisons are smart and brazen. Both Alisons have been vital to me: part teacher, part muse, part therapist. They’ve helped me fight through my fear. Alison #2 reminds me that writing what others won’t say is part of what artists do.
And I don’t get it really. What’s the problem? I go back again. I reread. I look at other people’s blogs, and see how bloggers sometimes disclose how much they’d pay for a haircut or purse, there are pictures of their children, the insides of their newly renovated apartment, their perfectly organized closet.
Now, those things seem private. Those are things I wouldn’t share.
So here’s what I’ve come up with. I’m comfortable (mostly) revealing my feelings, sharing my thoughts, but my spending habits and a photo of my headboard are off limits.
Maybe it’s just that I’m willing to look less than perfect. It’s what makes us human. I’m not ashamed to say I fight with my husband, I mess up with my kids, I forget to call my parents. And while all of that is true what is also true is that I would do anything in the world for them.
“I believe we don’t chose our stories. Our stories chose us. And if we don’t tell them, then we are somehow diminished.” (Honor Moore quoted in Dani Shapiro’s book Still Writing.)
I am reminded that I need to work hard to ward off my inner (and outer) censors.
My father says that as a kid, I always had to get the last word. Maybe that’s why I write.
Maybe that’s a flaw I shouldn’t reveal.
And maybe it simply doesn’t matter.
If you google most popular TED Talks the first one listed is Ken Robinson’s: How Schools Kill Creativity (2006).
I was fortunate enough to go to Isadore Newman School in New Orleans, where creativity was valued. In fourth grade, I had the opportunity to sit on a carpet with my classmates and sing Langston Hughes poetry while our teacher played the guitar; and in fifth grade, my homework was to bake homemade bread when our class studied the Pioneers.
Newman recognized something in me; and so while my friends in other classes memorized multiplication facts, I designed the classroom bulletin board. At the time this method of teaching was quite progressive. It was before Howard Gardner wrote, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983.) In his book, Gardner proposes that intelligence should not be measured by a single ability but should be differentiated into specific, primarily sensory, modalities: musical, visual, verbal, logical, bodily, interpersonal, intrapersonal.
My experiences at Newman affected me greatly and as a fourth and fifth grade teacher, I wanted to educate in a similar way, a way I believed was essential. At NYU and then at Bank Street College, where I received my graduate degree, I learned about educating the whole child; providing meaningful experiences, and a variety of materials, in order to create an environment in which children could learn to their full potential.
But at school in New Orleans, I didn’t understand why I got to skip math in order to practice my balance beam routine. I thought I was getting away with something, beating the system. The staff at Newman understood that in order to educate me, and others like me, it would require something more than sitting in a chair for eight hours straight, staring at the blackboard. I would need to dance, draw, sing.
In sixth grade, however, in science, I received the first and only "D" I ever got on my report card. My parents went ballistic, and grounded me. Wanting to leave my room, I promised to work hard and pull up my grade.
One day, my science teacher lectured about clouds: cumulus, stratus, cirrus, nimbus. I sat in the front row and doodled. My teacher was generally a nice man, and probably a proponent of progressive education, but given my report card grade, the squiggly drawings on my notebook aggravated him; and he ordered me to put the sketches away. It was one thing to value the arts in a classroom but doodling?
I was humiliated in front of my class, not only because he’d scolded me; but because I really had been listening, and hated that he thought I hadn’t been. I wanted to show him that he was wrong, that I could doodle and pay attention, in fact maybe even better attention than if I hadn’t been doodling. And I did. I showed him. I got a 92 on the next science test. But it wasn’t until last week, almost 40 years after the day I doodled in class, that I found scientific research to back me up.
After I watched Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, How Schools Kill Creativity, I wanted to tell others to watch it. (The TED tagline is Ideas Worth Spreading.) In trying to summarize the content of the video, I could barely retrieve a single detail other than what the title inferred, and this upset me. Why was my retention so poor?
Inadvertently, a few days later, I stumbled on Sunni Brown’s video on Doodling. Doodlers, Unite! Brown says that studies show sketching and doodling improve comprehension and creativity. Further browsing led me to a site on graphic note taking, which is basically another name for doodling.
I know I need to write things down, see them, in order to remember them. I’m not an auditory person: in one ear, out the other, as the saying goes. But once I take pen in hand, and can see the words or pictures on a page, the images are etched in my mind, the details stored. But I'd forgotten, or at least minimized, how essential this was to me as a learner.
So, I listened to How Schools Kill Creativity again; but this time, I doodled as I listened and graphic note taking, it turns out, is a great tool. The difference in my comprehension was incredible. I had no problem recounting how Ken Robinson is a creativity expert who is challenging the way we educate our children, reminding us that schools need to nurture, rather than undermine, creativity, and to acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.
I joke now that I could recite these talks, verbatim.
The power in doodling is just one of many ideas worth spreading.