Author Archives: Lydia Kann

The Nomad

“You are a vagabond,” a friend says.
“A ‘nomad’ sounds better,” I reply.

I have been moving from place to place for two years, a contrast to the four or so previous decades when I remained put – in New England, a locale known for its generations of hunkered down, resolute inhabitants.

It isn’t as though I planned an abrupt change of mode, style, way to live a life. A rebellion one might call it, in that particular culture. It just happened.

All fruits arise from flowers, but not all flowers bear fruit. Have the last two years of movement been the precious fruit of my labor the forty years beforehand?

I sit with six friends in the living room of the house in which I spawned and then raised my two children, and we, my friends and I, all of a certain age, old enough to reflect on sown seeds and tilled fields, we speak of, ‘Where to from here?’ We are alluding to the imminence of death but also the period remaining as life.

We are sixty something, seventy something, eighty something year olds, and the question arises from my having challenged someone’s assumption of the predictable.

“I want to make a dinner, when you’re back home, to talk about what you have been doing,” my friend Claudia wrote to me in California a few months earlier. “I am provoked by your going off to Paris for a year and now Los Angeles. It makes me think about intention and whether I should take heed.”

I thought I understood what she meant, although it hadn’t occurred to me that my contemporaries would have their own projections in response to my decision to fly the coop, leave the nest, close down shop. I had retired from my longterm job as psychotherapist, applied to every artist residency I could find, and, as if the Jewish expression, ‘From your lips to God’s ears,’ was in fact the case… Paris accepted me. Six months away, and then another six added on as a bonus later.

It wasn’t easy to manage, I can attest to that — arranging a whole life into neat piles stowed away in the attic and the basement — but I had no regrets. I had been waiting eons for just such a moment, and it had plopped itself smack dab into the center of my life, just like that. Whatever smack dab means…

It was a dramatic juggernaut of a sea change. No more therapist, no more mom, no more New England homeowner. Identities scrapped like so much scree on a hillside, and new ones acquired.

“I am an artist and a writer,” I said to the other residents at my new artist community. Gone the formal calling card of Lydia, Psychotherapist, replaced by a new graphic image of sculptured forests and Lydia, Artist/Writer proudly declared.

I lived small, I lived large — a tiny studio, but in the City of Light. I spoke French badly with the accent of the detested foreigner, but I reclaimed a family history that reminded me this was home.

After years of bearing witness to individual suffering, tissues plentiful, a bottomless pitcher of empathy, I marched out into the French arrondissements, an urban wilderness chronicling eras, epochs of societal accomplishment and also disgrace. I absorbed culture like food after a fast. But I also inhaled tales of war, plaques marking deaths mounted on every second or third edifice, schools acknowledging, on their stone facades, the collaboration of the French in the killing of Jewish children in the War. I bore no responsibility. My family names were listed on the walls of the innocent.

I was sad about the past.
I was happy in the present.

The six women sit on my living room couch and chairs and sip tea. Claudia, the instigator of the get together explains her reaction to my decision to be away, to go toward, to be intentional.

“I live with endless lists of things to do,” she starts. “I cannot finish what I have set out to accomplish in a day, a week, so I do not think I will die. I will just keep crossing things off the list, and it will carry me on and on. Endlessly.” We nod, the others. We understand. “But when Lydia stopped all that and took a year, it gave me pause. Should I too consider a change or at least make certain that I am being conscious?”

I considered. Was that what I had done? Been conscious?

Movement is integral to the fabric of my personal and social story. The Jews, the diaspora, no homeland. Each period a new temporary refuge. The Poles will let us be here for a while. What about Morocco, Spain, the Ottomans, the Romans? Yes, we have been welcomed and then sent away.

And my parents’ ins and outs from Poland to Paris to Spain to the U.S., plus the four cross-country shifts of family domicile that gave birth to my description of self as bicoastal. Does that suggest a vagabond or a nomad, a survivor or an intrepid adventurer? Should I feel pride or shame? And would that in itself be a Jewish question, rather than evidence of a personal anomaly?

“I am happiest in my home,” another friend pipes up. “I can travel to see my kids, my grandkids, but the truth is, I have no desire to make changes in my routine. It works for me.”

I hear and cannot imagine. Where is the curiosity, the sense of adventure, the push to grow? Are we slowing down already? My heart is heavy.

And yet. This friend has had cancer. Her husband had his own malignancy. They know something I can’t even imagine. Plus they contribute significantly to the welfare of the community and volunteer up the wazoo. Why wouldn’t it be enough to do good work and to be settled in a stable home with loved ones at this time of life?

I slow my breathing. Different realities. Different histories. Some of these women may have grown up in situ – one home, one set of parents, one expectation. Create a life and cherish it. Who needs a bucket list when just being alive is the prize?

The group of women disentangles itself into this particular story thread and that. We are not at all the same. One woman has created a new career in the last few years and that feels rejuvenating. Another runs what sounds like an estate with a complicated business of airbnb rentals and writing workshops. She worries about ever feeling free to toss the whole enterprise and leave her longterm clients in the lurch. They adore her property as a sacred place of respite. How can we turn our backs on those who depend on us?

I speak to the group of leaving my forever therapy practice and saying goodbye. The ache of endings. And the subsequent discovery of new facets of my persona. Is a letting go simply an opening to possibility, and, if that is so, why do we all resist so strongly? Attachment vs. opportunity, security vs. adventure, old vs. new.

I do not imagine that my choice suits any other person than me. If others do try it on and reject it, all the better. It means that we all are considering, turning each new idea this way and that. There is no precedent for a whole generation with so many people living into their nineties, some to a hundred or more. There have always been outliers, but now we are privileged or burdened, depending on one’s point of view, with the expectation of long life.

The women in my living room drink their tea and listen to each other. We come to no conclusions. We will follow our various journeys through the years that are left to each of us, wandering the disparate paths that we choose or fall into, and we will simply require of ourselves to be awake. Is this how we want to be living? Are we aware of the breadth of choice? As long as we can consider with eyes open and nod yes, we are doing okay with, in Mary Oliver’s words, the one wild and precious life we are each given.

Old Dog, New Tricks

I’m thinking about the insistence in creative writing on showing vs. telling. A workshop leader mentions that we are all storytellers… it is a natural human style, to tell what happened. She believes however, that scenes transform a tale into a closer experience, more alive. I imagine she is right. What do I know… or better put, I don’t trust that I know much. I tend to write episodically and with fewer ‘scenes’ than one might hope for. While I receive lots of feedback along the lines of, ‘beautifully written,’ I am not convinced that I couldn’t improve my game. Learn some stuff…

A scene: a writing workshop in a classroom at a local college. The participants include twelve, perhaps one or two more, writers of many skill levels. Each Tuesday we enter the large sterile space, drag some chairs, with arms that become little desks, into a semi-circle, and wait for our leader. She is often a few minutes late, not late enough to matter, but a perhaps unintended consequence of her arriving when the rest of the group is already seated is that her entrance results in a noticeably abrupt move from chatty-chatty to attention and silence. She doesn’t demand that, but there is something.

The leader is younger than I, but she is what could be called an old soul. She has wisdom — perhaps derived from her Indian heritage, but I would guess it was more likely a fortuitous genetic destiny already in place as a child. At any rate, the leader, Monona, collects everyone’s four pages of writing, and then selects one writer and has her or him read their pages to the group. We comment, in a predetermined order, and finally Monona expresses her response to the work.

Monona encourages the traditionally popular way of writing… prevalent at this particular juncture in history perhaps in response to the widespread revved up need for stimulation and action and the reluctance to take time with any aspect of modern life. Maybe it is a consequence of the Internet, or living in urban rather than rural communities, or simply the ubiquitous planes, trains, and automobiles, but whatever causes it, we don’t plop ourselves down on a sun porch with a thick book and leisurely inhale the pages including a long preface, introduction, and unimaginably slow beginning.

Start in the middle, the writer is now told… in medias res. Don’t take the time for an introduction to a tale, no one has the patience. Above all, put the reader into a scene, even better, create many. Lots of dialogue. Backstory only if relevant and urgent for the reader to know. Otherwise, chuck it.

Don’t tell us, show us, the writers in the class intone. Help us see the scene, don’t tell us when you can show us. As each writer offers that particular critique of their contemporaries in the group, I listen and wonder. Do I agree with this? It’s obvious from this blog that I naturally enjoy telling, describing, talking around a topic. What will happen if I stray down the modern path of sceneing?

I sit in my little student desk contraption and listen carefully. Mostly I listen to Monona. There is something here for me to learn. “Start the story when the neighbors stop speaking to you. Don’t make us wait. That’s the moment of conflict.”

She’s correct. But then again. I am attached to my old ways, worry that I will sound like everyone else. The MFA approach to writing — I remember an article in Poets and Writers Magazine years ago that described a particular style MFA graduates all seemed to have. And yes, it was similar to what Monona is suggesting.

But when she comments on another writer’s work in the group, I hear that she has something useful to offer. “This is a story about perseverance,” she tells one writer who has written about losing his hearing and then learning there might be a remedy. And I see that she is absolutely right. Seen from this angle, it’s a story with universal application. I too never give up. I can relate to this man’s tale. I wouldn’t have phrased the theme in the way she did, but as soon as she speaks, I realize it’s true.

At my turn, I read my pages, the story of a meandering relationship with a neighbor. And as I speak, I notice the particular places where a scene might replace a description. I envision going home after the workshop and rewriting and trying on a slightly more immediate style. Just to experiment with this piece, and see how it feels. No commitments yet. Simply a perhaps. Why not?

I am an old dog at this point, but I can still see intelligence when I am placed in front of it. I will engage with a new trick, or set of tricks here. It is a gift to open up to new and different, even if I’ve heard this particular instruction a hundred times before and ignored it, imagining that somehow it didn’t apply to me. I put my pen down on my notebook on the little desk, and cock my head to hear more. A little like meditating. Being present for this moment and then the next one. There is always more to discover. Even after so many years of a life.

The Edge of the Sea

I have moved to the edge of the ocean. So close that I could spit on it, as they say. Not really, but close enough that I watch the waves break and can hear the pound of the weight of water. All night I undulate to the to and fro of it all. It permeates my dreams, carving soft rounded edges onto the memories and wishes of my day-to-day life.

I am painting the ocean on my walls. It looks like surges of molten lava or an oil spill. I work to make it wilder and wetter and bolder. It will overflow the edges of the paper onto the wall and carpeted floor of my little apartment and sweep me out the door and onto the sand.

My mom and I were always fanatics of the sea. Hours spent in transit – buses, subways, sometimes rides in the car of a family friend. Hours of anticipation but always coated with the dread of the unavoidable loss. Isn’t that the way of life – waiting, then getting, then losing. The Zen brilliance of it, but also a bitter dose of medicine. All good things must come to a close. When those childhood days of cavorting in the waves drew dark and all the alte cockers started packing up the blankets and beach-bags and umbrellas, I knew my first internal geyser of refusal, a resistance to the nature of the universe. No, I don’t want to go.

But how can I take myself to the furthest rim of the continent during this period when so many are suffering? Okay, it’s true that there is much to worry about these days… personally the ravages of illness and age are lapping at the feet of my contemporaries…it is only a matter of time, we all understand, until the roulette wheel stops at the number that signifies one’s very own moment. And then there is the perpetual forest fire of the political environment in our country. Yes, there were the midterms but even so… what can one find to balance out the stampede toward the fall of Rome? And the physical environment, the mother of all that feeds us… I cannot miss the onslaught of smoke and ash that drifts on the warm air gusts from the arid hills north of me. California is burning. We are all burning. Isn’t this when we each need to stand tall and do something? Yes, I say, of course. It is essential to step up and be counted.

And yet… the sea persists in its drive towards infinity… in and out, as I watch from my window, as I stand in front of the burning ball of a sun descending into the blue horizon line. Another day offered as though a wrapped gift of ruby or emerald, glistening, filling every sense available… the smell, the sound, the visual motion. An invitation to float above, beyond the moment into history. The dinosaurs, it reminds me, they came and went. There is an ending to all things beautiful… a day at the ocean in the waves, a month of warm weather and then it is winter, a life of richness and pain and then it is over. No, I say. I don’t want to go… we want more than Kavanagh on the Supreme Court, more than men carrying assault rifles into country music bars and schools, more than … and the ocean whispers its promise… each day a sunrise, each night a sunset. Tides, hurricanes, piping plovers, dolphins. All this.

Au Revoir – À Bientôt…

I’m sitting on the steps leading down to the city from Sacre Coeur. It’s quintessential Paris and yet not… all those who surround me are foreigners or newcomers – Africans strumming guitars and singing, Scandinavians doing Skype videos, laughing and shouting in tongues, Hispanic men carrying heavy cases of beer combing the crowd for potential clients. The sprawl of architecture glows below, soaking up the last rays of sun this early evening, a couple days before the summer solstice. The Montparnasse and Eiffel Towers poke their noses up like Great Dane snouts sniffing prey, above the uniform shorter, pale, more distinguished traditional edifices. I will miss all, yes, all of this and what it means. It means that I am the luckiest girl in the world. I will never forget.

What do I carry with me from an experience such as this year at the Cité…

Here’s one view from Giverny. Ah, Giverny, not my first time but then again and again.

“On continue par ici?” asks one woman to her partner as they meander through the gardens. “Pourquoi pas?” he responds.

French couples, and yes, also the tourists, stroll along the tiny stream paralleling, not without pleasing deviations, the Nymphéas pond. Moments of spring/summer heaven, now the day before the summer solstice. Hoards, busloads of tourists and then at midday a blissful break. They must all be eating, those French and foreign foodies, no picnics here, but in the Village of Giverny the outdoor patios are sans doute pleins. They love their food and their drinks, the French. Every restaurant and café and bar full at all hours of the day…an early café, then le petit déjeuner, then lunch – la grande bouffe, (the movie of that title a mind-blowing ecstasy of food gorging), and then the mid-afternoon coffee for a pick me up, followed by the apéritif before the dinner hour, and then the dinner, a smaller version perhaps of the lunch, and finally a dessert, perhaps a drink afterwards, and maybe late cocktails with friends. A full day and night of ingesting. Yum. Or not, depending on one’s view of the value of productivity vs. leisure.

I stare hard at the water lilies in bloom at this very moment, provoking an inner grok of Monet coming from breakfast in that joyful dining room and kitchen, carrying his easel and brushes and paints, wandering over to the lily pond. Just here or over there today? The light is filtering to the west, therefore …

Did he foresee this piece of land, this house, this garden inundated with Japanese tourists, screaming children, German fathers attempting the perfect photo? Like Van Gogh when I came across his story in Amsterdam a couple weeks back… did Monet imagine the fame, the appetite, the hunger, the longing for any detail about his life? What did he or Van Gogh eat for breakfast? Did they have lovers? Were their models friends, consorts, prostitutes? But were they, the artists, happy? Van Gogh and that ear suggest perhaps not – those years in the asylum of Saint Remy. Yet Monet, so portly, with his unusual arrangement of sick wife and lusty new love, plus this gorgeous spread, he surely would have had times, hours, days of bliss. I, for one, am in paradise sitting on this bench in his garden listening to the birds chirp. Tweet.

Are artists happier, allowed to indulge in this childlike wonder? Imagination, plus skill, plus time, plus confidence, perseverance, stick-to-itiveness must lead to some sort of ecstatic wellbeing. Or is it the opposite? Individuals filled with angst and sensitivity and foolish optimism banging their heads against the wall, thinking, believing, this is it, my chef d’oeuvre, my best. Surely the world will receive the work with, with, …with what? Excitement, welcome, money, promises, fame, awe?

What are we all thinking? (Not to place myself within the category of Van Gogh and Monet, but still, there is the question…) Nonetheless, I, for one, simply wish for more time to keep working, wherever…Norway, Japan, France, anywhere. Many hours each day to do whatever it is one does with all that hopefulness…start new pieces, fix errors, throw some out, obsess about the others, just to be allowed this gift of moments, the freedom, space for the ideas to come, to marinate… to erupt….to please, to disappoint and then the need to begin again.

Ah ha, we say. I had an idea. Like the children we seem to be – no responsibility to anything beyond ‘the work.’ Would I do better to start that orphanage I imagined ten, fifteen years ago? More impact, for sure. There is no question. Art, writing, are filler perhaps, to stave off the underlying void, the base comprehension of yes, mortality. An avoidance of truth, like ants busily carrying those leaves hither and thither as if industry were an end in itself.

And yet, there is this – this openness, so distant from the preoccupations of business, of computers, of negotiation, of money, and of course, of death. This – Giverny, Monet, Paris, all heaven. For now just this and a goodbye.

Retrieving the Story | Retrouver l’Histoire

Empty Bed, Paris – Acrylic 43″ X 60″


Begging for Permission – Acrylic 43″ X 60″

Here’s an invite to my Open Studio at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris March 22nd, 6-10 PM, Atelier 8227, in the main building, second floor (last studio down the long, often dark, hallway – so push the light button!). Please come if you are in Paris that night!

Retrieving the Story is a series of ‘story paintings’ made in Paris for a graphic novel loosely based on my family history in France before and during War II, and in New York after the War. I am an artist and writer from the U.S. and create sculptural installations using charcoal, paper, and prose. My recent subject matter has been the family history in France and the search for a story that I was never told.

Retrieving the Story is part of a collective open studio by Lauréats des Commissions de la Cité des Arts and l’Institut Français.

S’il vous plaît venez à mon studio ouvert le jeudi 22 mars, 18h-22h, # 8227 dans le bâtiment principal, au deuxième étage (dernier studio dans le long, souvent sombre, couloir – alors appuyez sur le bouton de lumière!). Je ferai partie d’un atelier ouvert collectif des Lauréats des Commissions de la Cité et de l’Institut Français.

Je montrerai des ‘story paintings’ faites à la Cité pour un roman graphique basé sur l’histoire de ma famille en France avant et pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale, et à New York après la guerre. Je suis un artiste et écrivain des États-Unis et crée des installations sculpturales en utilisant du charbon de bois, du papier, et de la prose. Mon sujet récent a été l’histoire de la famille en France et la recherche d’une histoire qu’on ne m’a jamais racontée.

A Sense of Place

Ceija Stojka, The Women of Revensbrück

Ceija Stojka, Deportation in an Extermination Camp

The residency in Paris continues… it also keeps improving, which is hard to imagine, since it has been so gratifying all along. I sit with two artists who are drawing my portrait. One is from Serbia and the other from Iran, and we talk about politics and religion and our beliefs and of course, art. That night I go for dinner with an Iraqi artist and we also talk about our way of seeing the world, religion and art and being women. I go to French class and we talk about how each of us thinks about life and art and culture and meaning, and we are from Finland, and Iceland, and Austria, and Germany, and Egypt and Japan and yes, the U.S.

I do my work – write, paint, but I also live Paris. I take myself to a French film, La Douleur, based on Marguerite Duras’ diaries. I read the book years ago – it’s about the War. A German filmmaker here is making a film about Duras’ husband and has seen La Douleur, and we go out for drinks and yak about it. I am superbly engaged and grateful for this world where every street and many people have something current going on about the past. Oh yes, there are digital art fairs, le monde numérique and the Pompidou and the Palais de Tokyo have moved way past the times I am still living, but I am not alone here.

A few days later I am on a walk in the Marais and par hasard (perhaps my favorite French expression, followed closely by formidable!), I stop by a gallery and am floored by the exhibit. It’s the work of a self-taught Rom, gypsy, artist, Ceija Stojka, and includes many amazingly profound paintings and drawings of her childhood in Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen camps. Some of it is breathtaking and reminds me of Munch and Kollwitz, two artists I revere. Stojka started painting at age 50 or so, and when I watch a film at the exhibit about her experience and life, I see her take gobs of paint into her hands, both hands, and then smear it over the cardboard canvas. The drawings are haunting… ghostlike figures, wisps of cloud, barracks, rifles, whips, but also les tournesols, sunflowers, in a field after the Liberation. Suffering and life beyond. She talks about becoming close to the bodies at Bergen Belsen for warmth and protection… the entrails had been eaten, so all that was left were piles and piles of skeletons and skin. I am riveted, just like when I first saw the amazing paintings of Charlotte Salomon and others who recorded their experience of those years. Knock out. I tell my friends here at the Cité and one knows Stojka’s work and wrote an article about her… Yes.

My connection to my own history is visceral here in Paris. When I discover photos or info in various archives about my family or parents, I experience an unfamiliar sense of belonging. The night after I saw La Douleur, which I found somewhat sentimentalized and too intensely dramatized for my taste, given the subject matter… who had really suffered in that tale? Was it truly the person waiting for news or the person imprisoned at Buchenwald and Dachau? But I digress – after the film I was walking home and noticing the people in the restaurants late at night, lovers at the table by the window, a group laughing at the pizzeria, smokers sitting outside at the sidewalk café under those lamps pumping heat into the frigid air, and suddenly I felt that I was my mother, in her body, walking these same streets before the War. A frisson of otherworldly visitation. And when another day, at the archives in Seine-Saint-Denis, I happened across three tiny ancient photos of my father in the Spanish Civil War, I looked at his face, shaded by a military hat, and saw myself.

I came to France to make art and write, but an unexpected byproduct, an outgrowth of the process perhaps, is that I have unearthed, or maybe the more accurate description would be, I have stumbled upon a lineage, roots, and a permanent sense of place. It is here. I am of here.

November in Paris

The fifth month of my Cité Internationale des Arts residency, a cold, dark rainy day in Paris. The leaves are still hanging on by their stems, as they slowly turn brownish but there’s promise of their clearing out in time to see the Seine and Notre Dame before new growth appears in the spring. The days slip by in a dash of sunlight or clouds, but they are foreshortened by the northern latitude of the city. Gone the 10:30 pm sunset…hello darkness by five. And yet those stalwart Parisians remain sitting in their big coats and thick scarves eating and drinking at outdoor tables on the street… no commentary on the overhead heaters pumping out warmth into the cold night air.

I have been accepted to remain here until the end of June, 2018, and the prospect of all that time in this city of beauty is a dream. Since my arrival I have painted several large paintings for a graphic novel – the first depicts hiding out from the gendarmes and Germans early in 1940 in Paris, and others are scenes of the mother in the novel getting hooked by, then mating with, then losing her lover, in the late 1930s and after. The novel describes the legacy of the War on the next generation. I also plug along on a novel in just text about similar subject matter but fictionalized to the max.

If one wants to write or make visual art about the Second World War in Europe, being in the Marais is an immersion experience. Not only is the Cité next door to the Mémorial de la Shoah, but on almost every street there are plaques listing who lived there and what happened to that person during the War. Each lycée, high school, has a plaque commemorating the children from that school who died ‘simply’ for being Jewish and with the complicity of the Vichy government. It took quite a few years for France to speak to the complicated arrangement here during the War, but these plaques were then created to acknowledge some responsibility for what happened. The War appears integrated into the streets of this arrondissement, but also is evident all around Paris.

Since my last entry I have returned to the city of Pau in the south of France where my mother spent the war. I went back to the archives and to the internment camp of Gurs to expand my knowledge of the confusion in my family about what happened to my mother during the War. I have been investigating the possible relationship between my mom and her employer, who seemed to have saved her from being sent to a camp, it would appear. Was he a Juste, a Righteous, like many French who felt compelled to help the victims of the War, or was he personally involved? Not easy questions to answer, but in my digging both there and in Paris I have managed to discover various details that will eventually add up to a story. In the meantime I came across a document in Paris with photos of my father when he was 23 years old being expelled from France for some activity… research does seem to offer results if one does not get dissuaded by bureaucracy and offices closed for mysterious reasons at unexpected times and many metro rides that result in very little information.

The Venice Biennale was amazing and Fontainebleau, Dordogne, Iceland, Beaune, Normandy, Brittany have all spiced the time in Europe. A visit to the internment camp of Drancy was sobering and offered archival evidence of an uncle’s time in Pithiviers and Beaune la Rolande before deportation. Thanksgiving came and went with a small dinner at a restaurant that caters to American tourists for the holiday, and it’s down to the final month before I take a break in the US for family and supplies. Then back to Paris for the months that build toward daylight again and late night sunset on the Seine.

By the Seine

Just arrived at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris for a six month residency in art and writing. Don’t ask about the seven month preparation effort… First there was making sure that I actually understood the letter written in French that suggested that I had been offered a residency, then spending a couple months trying to communicate to the office in Paris given time zone difference and language challenges and the cultural norms of office hours…I didn’t believe that I had been offered what turned out to be true… six months of uninterrupted time in a studio in the Marais to work on whatever I wanted… actually, I did propose a novel with images about a woman living in France during the Second World War, but propose and make happen are flexible concepts. I have begun such a project but it’s up to the winds of creativity what actually transpires.

Okay, I was talking about preparations… once I digested the reality of the gift from heaven, or the City of Paris, to be more exact, I began the work of closing my psychotherapy practice after thirty-five years of an incredibly meaningful career, renting out the house that I’ve lived in for thirty-seven years and deciding to relinquish it for a year – hey, why not leave things open-ended if possible – and then cleaning it out, emptying every closet and every dresser and cupboard, for the renters. Seven months of prep for six months of bliss…hmmm. But now here I am, and the work of it all seems to slide off like an old coat.

There seem to be hundreds of artists here of all persuasions from every country imaginable… Moldova, South Africa, Australia, Switzerland, Iran, Finland, Lithuania were home to the first folks I met, and it seems there are virtually no US folks, so far. The artists offer open studios regularly and those that perform or make films put on shows several times a week. The studio I was given is at the end of a hallway facing the Seine, and Notre Dame looks like it’s next door. Walking at night I discovered a massive free concert in front of the Hotel de Ville edifice… huge screens magnifying sixties style male rock singers and tens of thousands of young folks screaming against the backdrop of blaring speakers and the lights of the buildings along the Seine. I’ve been given a pass to the museums that surround me and all I have to do is find the time to do everything and be everywhere.

What can I do but dive in? I’ve started working and, once I locate one of the many art supply stores and buy a roll of rag paper, I’ll be on my way. I’m reading Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon written in 2000, and the first page I opened to search for random words to spur my writing featured the BHV department store that happens to be on my corner. I think I’ve found heaven…from Massachusetts to the moon.

What is it about artist residencies? I have been to quite a few and each one is unique and a gift. I suppose that this is meant somehow to compensate for the lack of other support for most artists… we tend to work in solitude without any expected remuneration of any sort. We do it ‘for the love of it.’ The teacher in my French classes at Cité, Bethsabée, is a philosopher and intellectual who speaks eloquently on art, film, fashion, and culture. During my first group lesson, she went on a diatribe about how the concept of ‘gratuit’ was becoming lost as art has become a commodity with trade value. She claimed that the French don’t hold money as a goal and thus they value doing things for the intrinsic meaning. Perhaps that explains the generous gift of this residency – a pure offering of time and respect for creativity in and of itself. Magnifique!

An Excess of All Things

Speechless seemed to be the theme of my last entry… I claimed that I would be speechless if our current President won the election, a completely ludicrous prospect at the time I wrote the blog, and I was speechless after a visit to Poland at being confronted with what I had always known but never physically witnessed – the evidence of the eradication of the population of Polish Jews.

I now think that speechlessness is a weak response to both assaults. I, we, are obligated to have much speech and action in reaction to both the current administration in the US and also the historical and contemporary, and perhaps perpetual outbreaks of Anti-Semitism, let alone all recent attacks on racial and ethnic groups worldwide. Finding a voice in response to Anti-Semitic hate crimes and hate speech is an ongoing passion for me. On the domestic front, it was exhilarating to be present at the very exciting Women’s March in Washington DC in January, although being in downtown DC during the inauguration the day before was clearly more representative of the true divisions in the electorate. Tense and upsetting.

If asked how it’s going these days, I answer, as we all do – (or the all that surround me, those who care deeply about the environment, the arts, the poor, about those from other countries, those of other religions than the Christian majority, those who aren’t heterosexual, plus the many other folks with kindred value systems) – with the appendage tacked onto all pronouncements, that I am doing well except for the current political circus – Quite well, considering the current political disaster, ridiculousness, horror – pick a word and fill it in.

Yet even without such hat tipping, there is, of course, the constant and conclusive reality of death. Its specter haunts the dark corners of our lives, popping out in the form of a jokester or hobgoblin, depending on the day. My friends and family members tell me of their struggles, this one is wrestling with a virulent breast cancer, that one a bypass, and this other one is understandably worried about her son who is going through hard times and is very depressed. It is that kind of time here in my small piece of life. Nothing conclusive to make of it. I just take note. There is an excess of all things not so good but also, to be fair, all things good.

There is the news that I’ll be at a writing and arts residency in Paris for the last half of this year, and while Paris is certainly not at all distant from the eye of the political and even life vs. death storm raging around us all, something about the opportunity to make art for six months seems to create a kind of altered state … I find myself, dare I say unabashedly, anticipating the short term future with terrific relish. No, I have some abash, is it embarrassment… or whatever the word is for the hiding of good tidings from others, the others grappling with their worries and crises… well, you get the picture. Am I crowing about my fabulous, magical good fortune anywhere but here? Only to my closest confidantes.

What does it mean to be happy? The American dream, happiness. What did the shtetl dwellers in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland know of happiness? I want to believe they too had moments even as they each day wrestled with the enormous hardship of their circumstance – maybe sitting in the town square selling a chicken or two, joking with the guy on the left side or the right, chuckling at someone’s story of her mother in law or husband, jumping up to whirl a child around and around. Yes, they would exclaim. Isn’t life grand?

Yes, I want to exclaim, isn’t it grand to be alive at just this exact instant, when my body can still glide from place to place, a foot lifting and then another, no muscle aches or pauses in the reliable thrum of my heart, and airplanes can take off through the clouds, carrying me from here to there. I will not hold still. Not yet. No. Soon someone, some force will notice my pleasure and pluck me right off this planet – two stubby fingers grabbing me by my hair and yanking me right to kingdom come. Hold still, he or she or it will command. Stop kicking and screaming. And then I will join the dirge, keen with sorrow – I do not want to die, I will cry. No, no, no, no. I will accept any reprieve offered. Random shootings – okay. Earthquakes – okay. Flash floods – okay. Parkinson’s – okay. Multiple sclerosis – okay. Breast cancer – okay. Stenosis, okay. Lymphoma, kidney dialysis, congenital heart disease, stents, bypasses, amputation, paralysis…

I don’t want to suffer, say my pals. As long as I’m not in pain, they say, I will go on living. Do they hear what they are saying? How do they get out of bed in the morning? Life is pleasure and pain – those Buddhists got something right. Who offers a life without suffering? Jeez.

I’m not looking for a bargain here, a good deal. I’ve paid some dues and I expect to pay more for this broken down but still limping along thing we call living.

Lately I find myself storing up seconds, minutes, stretching them into noticeable experience. Stop, I say out loud. Stop what you are doing. Be here now, that weary maxim, jumps to attention. There is sunlight creating a rectangle on the orange brown strips of wood that line the floor next to the blue chenille covered couch – a serendipity of complements, color theory consummated and captured like a photo within my view. I see it. I uncross my legs to let the blood course freely down and then back up to the heart. I can hear the heart beat its rhythm, the dependable and magical drum keeping time as I suck in air and then cast it out.

I am so happy, I want to say to my beleaguered fellow travelers. I am here in this perfect moment and the air is filling my lungs and I cannot somehow, will not, perhaps, find any extra room right now for more.

Eve of Election, A trip into History

Gravestone, Kazimierz Dolny, Poland

Gravestone, Kazimierz Dolny, Poland

It’s getting on to that moment we’ve all been waiting for… Hillary’s election, right? There is the annoying surprise of Weiner and Abedin’s nonsense, or his nonsense and her awful position and then all those emails. Jeez. What next? And then the retraction. I cannot wait for an ending to the suspense… but the shock is that there is any suspense. That the man who will remain nameless would garner a fraction of the attention he’s gotten is astounding. I will be speechless if he actually wins the election. Beyond that, I cannot go.

I’ve just returned from a trip to Italy, France, and Poland. Not the usual triumvirate of destinations but a good trio for my particular circumstances… Amalfi for a family vacation with a two year old, France to reunite with cousins, first and once removed, and Poland for a genealogical pursuit. I searched the internet for a good guide and scored one with a PhD in history, with a special interest in genocide of all varieties… couldn’t be better.

Off we went to learn more than I ever wanted to know about the history of Poland and specifically the period between and during the two World Wars. Research is always useful for writing and art, but planting oneself down in the geographic locus of a monumental historical moment that changed the course of millions of lives, not to speak of one’s own itty bitty piece of the action, is an unexpected dose of reality. Yes, there is a difference between hearing stories over decades, and then visualizing in real locale with concrete evidence, or lack of concrete or graves or cemeteries as evidence, the wholesale eradication of millions of human beings.

There were 3.2 million Jews in Poland before the Second World War, and now there may be 10,000. Don’t get me started on recent research describing contemporary anti-Semitism in Poland, but it won’t be a surprise given the current climate in Europe as a whole. It has increased… 90% of young people surveyed in one study had never met a Jew, and were thrilled to have that be the case. Hell, many folks there believe there’s a conspiracy of Jews to run the international banking system and the media, not to mention that Jews killed Christ and drink the blood of Christians in their religious rituals. Okay. Okay. I won’t go on. And on.

The trip ended appropriately at Auschwitz and then a visit to the new Museum of the History of the Polish Jews… along with Schindler’s factory tacked on. To use the word overkill would be tasteless and disrespectful, but I ended up flattened as if steamrolled and then curled up like a rug, and shipped home. It left me speechless… what is there to say that hasn’t already been said? But clearly the timing couldn’t be more apt.