The Feminine Line

"Sisters and Mothers" a poem by Sally Wiener Grotta

I was searching through my files this morning for a some notes from a trip I once took to Sable Island, a tiny spit of land in the North Atlantic. As I shuffled file folders and piles of papers, I found this poem, which I wrote at a time of personal upheaval.

I remember picking up my pen, to try to understand the difficulties I was encountering; writing is how I deal with crises or confusion. And on that day — February 18, 2014 — I found deep within me the voices (and hopefully the strength) of all the women who came before me. They are still there, in my mind and my spirit, in my words and my art, a gift of love and continuity.

The Story of Us

The Many Faces of Me by Sally Wiener Grotta
“The Many Faces of Me” by Sally Wiener Grotta

I tell myself a story every morning and every night, and in the in-between hours. It’s the same story, with variations, so that over the years it has changed, altered by life and by the telling, and – always – by my perspective and my angle of entry into the narrative.

It’s the story of me, who I believe myself to be.

Facts underlie the story, of course. I am a woman, though I have been a girl. And sometimes I fall back to that youthful persona, to a time when I was partially unformed and uncertain, with no lines on my face, no scars on my being.

I am what is called “white” or Caucasian – what strange terms to try to describe a certain beige complexion, an unavoidable acknowledgement of social and political advantage.

I am a Jew. But what that means can vary so widely, to myself and to others, that sometimes I think that the only fact of the matter is that flat statement of my heritage. But other times, I know that my constant questioning, overall optimism, and sense of personal responsibility – as well as my storytelling – stem directly from that heritage.  (If you’re curious, I go further into this in my essay “I am a Jew“.)

Facts soon become quicksilver as I try to separate out the many confusing tendrils within me. What is the story I tell myself of my relationships to others, to the world, to my work, and all the other elements that make up my life and environment? It depends… on memories and fears, influences and reactions, crises and resolutions … all mixed up with what I’ve done and seen, where I’ve been, the shape of my relationships, the impact of current news, the texture of my dreams, and the weight of my perceived successes and failures.

At one moment, I might see myself as an accomplished professional writer and artist, pleased with what I’ve achieved, excited by what I may yet learn to create. The next, I have no doubt that I’m an imposter, and will never be more than a wannabe.

Other times, I’m a friend, lover, sister, aunt, who is loving and loved. But, in dark hours, I know myself to be ultimately alone, unimportant to anyone but myself.

I may see myself as gentle, ferocious, kind, cruel, generous, selfish, intelligent, ignorant, spirited, ineffective, and all other flavors of adjectives.  And so I will spin my story to fit my current perception, and will be channeled by that tale to make the perception real.

The truth is that I am all those things… and more. I’m a jumble of contradictions that build on top of each other, as we all are. Isn’t that what it is to be a human being? And whichever attribute I choose to focus on is what I will be… at least for as long as I continue to tell myself that particular story.

Isn’t it the same with the story of us?

The narrative of us that is currently bandied about – within families, among communities, across the country – is that we are a divided people. Those on the other side of things will never listen, can never understand [fill in the issue of the day].  We tell ourselves that we’ve become too polarized to function, and anyway, our side is the only one that sees things clearly and has a valid case.

As long as we continue to tell and believe that story, can we be anything more than the contentious populace we are now?  What if we started to tell the tale of a people who may argue and disagree, but who recognize that the argument is a path, not the purpose? Isn’t that the essential nature of a democracy?

What’s more, what if we flavor our story of us with a belief in humanity, not in the abstract but in our perceptions of individuals? As we build our narrative, let’s take a page from the best novelists and avoid stereotypes. Instead, let’s flesh out each character with all his or her many dimensions, and even try to hear the story each person tells of ‘me’. Perhaps, then we can move forward together, if not hand-in-hand, at least with hope that there may be something more than anger and rigidity defining who we are.

No, I’m not saying that our social and political problems are merely a question of perspective. The roots run deep. But if we can construct a narrative that includes the struggle to understand, to listen and to find some common ground where we can hash out compromises and create new solutions, isn’t that the beginning of a new story of us? And if we believe in it, isn’t it possible that may help us look toward a future where we just might be able to work together to make it real?

Calling All Dreamers

A new popular theme is emerging in the arts – one of unabashed, unapologetic hope. While partially a reaction to society’s current divisiveness and anger, it also has a lot to do with faith in humankind and our future – and a very large dose of the courage to speak out, to try to lead the way.

The first issue of DreamForge Magazine

Yes, human beings can be cruel, violent and selfish, but we can also be kind, generous and open to learning to be better. What’s more, I believe that the latter tendencies are the stronger, more prevalent. So it is that my own art has long explored the questions we need to keep asking ourselves if we wish to reach toward a wider, richer future.

As John Lennon sang, “You can say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” A case in point is the launch of a new science fiction and fantasy magazine DreamForge, whose motto is “Connecting Dreamers – Past and Present. Imagine. Engage. Inspire.”

What a leap of faith – to start a new magazine in this era of so many publications failing to survive the digital transition. Yet, it’s fitting that Scot Noel (Editor and Publisher) and his wife Jane Noel (Designer) have jumped in, with all their heart and, I’m sure, a large portion of their savings. How else could they, as Scot wrote, “make a noise in favor of hope”?

I have just read the first issue of DreamForge. It’s a beautiful publication, filled with delightful stories. I was so impressed – particularly by Scot Noel’s personal message – that I immediately emailed Scot, and asked for permission to reprint his editorial as the first guest blog on this my new website.

Here it is, an editorial designed to give all of us hope about publishing and about our future as a species.


Which Shall It Be?

by Scot Noel

Scot Noel, Editor & Publisher of DreamForge Magazine

The world has been coming to an end for a long time, for centuries if not for millennia. While the doomsayers wring their hands and point to evidence of moral decay and economic collapse, the reality is – cities grow larger, nations grow richer, and the population of humankind is approaching 7.7 billion people. (It was less than 3 billion at the beginning of the space age in 1957.)

Science, technology, and knowledge itself are advancing so quickly, their growth rate is becoming exponential. Only 476 years ago, Nicholas Copernicus published a blasphemous theory that the earth and planets revolved around the sun. Today, we have charted the shape of the universe itself, and in another 500 years we, as a species, are likely to command godlike powers that any human who has ever lived, including those of us around today, would consider the province of the divine.

Why does it all seem so terrible and doomed to destruction? Are we like Icarus, son of Daedalus, daring to fly too close to the sun?

We are indeed like Icarus and the ancient Greeks, and like our Cro-Magnon ancestors of 35,000 years past: we are human. We are built for an enemy and predator-filled world where spreading bad news and taking violent action were essential to survival. Fierce tribal loyalties and a win-at-all-costs attitude have been our go-to kit since before civilization was conceived.

Times are changing. We are a young species with short memories and a dull sense of what the future really means. A thousand years, ten thousand, a hundred thousand and we will not yet be middle-aged, and by then the stars will be ours. Literally. What will we do with them, I wonder? Before that day arrives, we must mature, and the very forces of our increase will pressure us to do so.

We will grow out of our messy teenage years and clean up our act. We may pollute our planet for centuries to come; we may fight horrendous wars a thousand years from now, but we will also be learning, building, and changing all along the way. We will end suffering, poverty, and sickness at a faster rate than the worst among us can create them. We will heal this world and build new ones. Long before the end, the better angels of our nature shall – as they have been for a thousand years – rise up to overwhelm the destructive impulses of our genesis.

Hope, big dreams, and perseverance will get us there. Hope is not an illusion; it’s simply a perspective backed by engagement with the world, whatever the condition of the world may be. And fiction has its part to play. At DreamForge, we believe words are important; that the stories we tell ourselves affect the present and become the future. It’s been said that the arc by which fiction changes the world is long and subtle, but powerful nonetheless.

One day we will meet new civilizations among the stars but, more importantly, we must learn to respect the aliens among us right now. You know who they are; they’re the people who by circumstance, culture, or choice are different from you.

By our human heritage, we are built to see them as threats, competitors for scarce resources, subversive forces ready to challenge our beliefs and tear apart our communities. In the future, there will be too many different peoples, beliefs, political ideologies, and – eventually – species of human to count. We’re going to have to get over our fears and loathing.

When you find yourself thinking the people on the other side of the ideological divide are too stupid to understand your point, that you can’t empathize with them and their values, that their way of looking at the world is ruining your country, your community, and your life – that’s an ancient evolutionary adaptation the purpose of which is as extinct as the trilobite.

Mere tolerance is unacceptable, extreme diversity inevitable. It’s the only way we can ever begin to embrace the vast gulf between ourselves and the creatures we shall meet among the stars, they who know nothing of the doctrines and dogmas over which we are willing to take life and destroy worlds.

Our only true enemy is entropy, the gradual dissolution of complex systems, the force behind suffering, aging, and decay. Fortunately, life by its very nature fights entropy, and our prowess in understanding and then mastering the intricacies of universal forces appears unbounded.

In a screenplay by H.G. Wells for the Science Fiction Film “Things to Come,” the movie ends with a dramatic monologue that goes in part:

“… And when he (man) has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.  And if we’re no more than animals we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. It is this – or that: all the universe or nothing… Which shall it be?”

Gesundheit! Catching & Spreading the Creativity Bug

 

My most recent newsletter opens up a discussion about how creativity is contagious. It leaps easily from one person to the next, generating a feedback loop, as well as flows over from one area of our lives to another.

Please read the letter, then respond here on this blog or via email, sharing similar experiences that you’ve had. Once creativity is part of a single aspect of your life does it infect everything else, inspiring you to try novel solutions, or to attempt something that you might not have previously considered possible? What circumstance or person has caused you to catch a particularly fervent case of the creativity bug?

Also in this newsletter are links to an essay about how my photography and writing inform each other, a video and other information about my American Hands portrait project, and an invitation to do guest blogs/essays on this website.

What Is It About the Human Hand? (a poem)

The following is a poem I wrote as part of my ongoing American Hands photo project, in which I am creating narrative portraits of folk who are keeping alive the traditional trades that built our country’s diverse culture.


What is it about the human hand?
Four fingers and an opposable thumb
That can grasp and release
Wield and yield.
But any ape can do that.

No, the human hand,
When it stands alone,
Is not uniquely human.
Only in the connection
Of the hand to the heart and mind
Can we transcend beyond our animal selves.

The hand might grasp and wield
But the mind gives it purpose,
Responding to need with invention and ingenuity.
Thought perceives a void and directs the hand
To fashion and make and change what is.
While the heart reaches for beauty and meaning,
Imbuing our creations with the what could be.
 
 

What Photography Has Taught Me About Writing… and Vice Versa

 

 

Behind the Veil by Sally Wiener Grotta
Behind the Veil by Sally Wiener Grotta

 

 

I am often asked what I mean when I say that my photography and writing inform each other. Photography, storytelling, and, yes, life… it’s all about what we see, how we convey it to others and whether we can make it meaningful.

When I look at the world through the lens of my camera, I see so much more. My field of vision might be more limited, but everything becomes more focused, limned with greater clarity of shadows and light. Life resolves into aesthetic patterns and colors, giving definition and meaning, and making the ordinary everyday more noteworthy and memorable.

It’s as though my lens has the magic ability to see through to the essentials of a moment or of a personality, to tell me story that I might have missed if it weren’t for my camera’s eye view.

I often think about my photography when I’m writing… visualizing what I want my readers to see, focusing my words as I would my camera lens. To go even further,Read More

What Drives You to Write Your Stories?

A few months ago, I wrote an essay for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) FWAFicWritblog which was inspired by reading Samuel R. Delaney’s The Atheist in the Attic. 

Novelist as Poet or Philosopher?

Meditation Inspired by Samuel R Delany’s The Atheist in the Attic

I am reading Samuel Delany’s book The Atheist in the Attic very slowly, a few pages every morning, so that I can savor individual gems of ideas through the day, usually latching onto a single concept that resonates for me, makes me think, wonder, question. This morning I’ve been fixating on the above quote, and on various paths of thought where it has lead me.

The Atheist in the Attic is a “fictive reconstruction” of a meeting between the philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Baruch de Spinoza, told from Leibniz’s point of view. Clearly, philosophy is the subject. But as I read the section quoted above, I immediately applied it to writing fiction. In particular, what drives me to write stories and novels.

I write to understand. My characters and plots are formed in a subconscious that churns with confusion or concern about how the world functions (or fails to function). As I write the story my characters tell me, I… (To read the rest of this essay, please go to the SFWA blog.)Read More

Newsletter: Storytelling, Our Humanity Illuminated

 

In my second newsletter, I focus on how our humanity is expressed and supported through storytelling. It includes links to an essay on connecting with strangers through their stories, a video on our Creativity Gene, and a free ebook of my short story The Broken Bottle which was originally published in The North Atlantic Review.

I’d be delighted to have you sign up to receive future newsletters. Of course, I will never share your contact information with anyone, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Far From the Home I Love

 

"Green Fiddler" by Marc Chagall
“Green Fiddler” by Marc Chagall

I’m a Daddy’s girl. I always was; I always will be. That’s not to say that I didn’t love Mom. In fact, I trace my storytelling lineage – perhaps the most integral aspect of who and what I am – through her bloodline, not Dad’s. Still, the bond between Dad and me remains deeply rooted.

Dad and I understood each other with no explanations. Yet our discussions helped us to explore ideas in the quest to better understand each other and the world around us. In the car when he drove me wherever I was going (and later in life when I drove him), on our long walks together, during late night snacks at the kitchen table, in his basement lab where he taught me to help him when he was creating braces for his patients (he was an orthodontist), whenever we were alone, we talked. About books we’d read, or movies we’d seen, or people each of us knew… and about his childhood.

I loved hearing the stories of Dad’s immigrant family.

My grandfather Morris and grandmother Anna were from the village of Cherkas in Kiev – in the area known as “the Pale,” the only region of Russia where Jews were allowed to settle. When Morris received notice of being recruited into the Russian army, his older brother Ike smuggled him out of the country on a train. I wish I knew more about that story. (I ache for the details that I’ve lost from those wondrous childhood storytelling sessions.) All I know is that they ended up in Philadelphia, setting a pin in the map for the rest of the family.

Anna was a teenager when she left Cherkas. One day she came home and told her family she’d had enough; she was leaving. She never disclosed what had happened that day that instigated her decision. Dad was convinced that she had been raped by “Cossacks”, which is what all Russians were called by the family back then. (Throughout her life, whenever she heard the words “Russia” or “Cossack”, Grandma would spit, as though warding off the devil himself.) Anna walked from Cherkas, probably to Hamburg, Germany, where she somehow paid for her passage to America, to Philadelphia. Our family has been walkers ever since. The day she died, she went for a walk, then lay down for a rest and never woke up.

I have to let the storyteller in me fill in the vast gaps in my knowledge about Anna and Morris in the old country, and their young family in Philadelphia. Anyone who could have shared what actually happened is now gone, just as the age in which they lived is merely another story that is sometimes told well, sometimes distorted, often both, as any retelling of history is.

One such story is Fiddler on the Roof.

When I was a very young child, my family enjoyed going to Broadway shows. Back then, producers would release “house seats” for sale to the public just a few minutes before the curtain went up. (House seats are those that are saved until the last minute for VIPs such as important reviewers, backers or celebrities, just in case they show up.) My parents would sometimes send me to the box office just before a show was about to start (while keeping an eye on me from the other side of the lobby). I would stretch up on tippy-toe to look over the ledge at the lady behind the grill, and ask, “Do you have any house seats for sale tonight?” How could the cashier resist? And that’s how I got to see some amazing otherwise sold-out Broadway shows with my family – like the first run of Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel.

I remember the wonder of the show, the beautiful music and delightful dancing, and my Dad loving every minute of it. I also remember the family story that Charlton Heston was sitting a couple of seats behind us. (Heston had played Moses in the movie “The Ten Commandments” about a decade previously.) So that when Tevye was speaking to God on stage, Zero Mostel would occasionally direct his plaintive cries to Heston.

But mostly, I remember my Dad’s comments afterwards about how the story of Fiddler was his parents’ story, our history. I grew up with the family listening to the LP of Fiddler, and I learned every song by heart. They became part and parcel of my understanding of where I came from, who my people were.

Depending on my time of life, different songs became important points of reference for me – including those from Fiddler. For instance, one that resonated in my early adulthood was Far From the Home I Love, a love song from daughter to father, about leaving, moving forward, yet looking back and treasuring what brought her to the point that she could leave, must leave. My love song for my Dad.

Yesterday, I relived all this in the darkened theater of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, watching the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene perform a new version of Fiddler. As a rule, I don’t enjoy revivals. Whether it’s a movie or a play, I feel that revivals are generally rehashes, and attribute their frequency to the industry’s preference for banking on a proven audience pleaser as opposed to taking a risk on a new creative venture. This was not the case with this remarkable production of Fiddler, directed by Joel Grey.

The new script and lyrics are entirely in Yiddish. For audience members like me who don’t speak or understand Yiddish, supertitles in English and Russian were projected on scrims on both sides of the stage. What surprised me was my reaction to a language I never learned. The Germanic guttural sound of it was a subliminal echo of my grandparents’ voices. Individual words flew through my consciousness, and I felt that I almost understood them. Of course, it was only a word here or there – zei gezunt (go in health) or shayna (nice, pretty) or mensch. I was still dependent on the supertitles to follow the show (except during the songs).

But it was more than the language that was changed. The production has a depth of rich, authentic textures. Visually stark, I felt as though I had a dusty, tear-streaked window view into my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ daily lives – of the emotions, connections, needs and dreams that held them in place, and the horrors that threw them out into a new cold world.

From the first strains of the song Tradition, I had tears in my eyes, remembering my Dad, wishing he were there with me. And for the poignant beauty of what is much more than another Broadway revival.  This Fiddler carried me deep into myself, and yet far away to a world that is essential alien to me.

Then, when Hodl (played by Stephanie Lynne Mason) sang Far From the Home I Love to Tevye (Steven Skybell), sobs caught in my throat.

I am not religious, nor was my Dad. I often describe myself as a secular humanist. But I am proud of my Jewish heritage, wrapped up as it is in my love my family, of my relationship with my Dad, of who I am as a person, as a woman, and as an artist. I guess I will strive for the rest of my life to understand what it means when I say, “I am a Jew.” Today, I understand it as an instinctive, emotional and intellectual response to life that I often express in my art and my passions. Yesterday, it was a link to the people who came before me, and to all who have loved, laughed, danced and suffered as Jews have.

As I sat sobbing in that dark theater, I experienced Fiddler on many levels:  as a veteran theater-goer, enjoying the consummate acting, singing and dancing – as an artist appreciative of a brilliantly transformed work of art – as a humanist who doesn’t understand hate or cruelty – as a descendent of Jews of the Pale who were forced to leave their homes and make new lives for themselves – as a woman who has lost the people who defined my home and is now learning to make a new life for myself – and as a daughter who was privileged to love and be loved by a father who was wise enough to understand when it was time for me to go off on my own, far from the home I loved.