Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Collaborating With Nature

by Susan Weinberg

Enter Exhibit
Our show is up in its virtual form! You can access it here for now. Today we gathered to hear a few more artists share about their work and to explore how to keep this effort alive.

Diane, a self-proclaimed frugalarian, shared her often whimsical poetry (p42) with us on a variety of themes all dealing with waste. They ranged from La Cucaracha to her "time-capsule home" with its stories to tell. She also includes a one day waste footprint where she documents every non-frugal gesture she takes. It made me cringe as I contemplated my own.

Robyn, our fearless leader, has moved into new territory with her collaborative work with nature, using maple copters and the sun to create Awakened by Dragonflies (p10). She shared a compelling story of dragonflies swarming around her home on the very night fires lit the city with the anger of our people.  Did nature sense something was amiss?

While accustomed to incorporating text in her work, this time she used the language of nature captured in the flutter of those dragonfly wings. Using pre-coated fabric she laid maple copters out, moving them periodically in the strong sun to get the sense of layering.  I had just taken a photo of a dragonfly in my garden the day before. When I set it side by side with Robyn's artwork, I could see how well one form of nature echoed another.

Artwork by Robyn Awend
Photo by Susan Weinberg 2020

As our days can feel rather timeless in our current state of retreat to our homes, Meryll Page gave us a framework to consider  how Jewish text looks at time. In the morning prayers there is this line:
 "In Your goodness, day after day You renew Creation."  Each day is a new day, a day of renewal. Similarly the word for month in Hebrew is Chodesh which also means renewal. If there is any constant it is that we create our world anew each day. She reminded us that after each creation, God said that it was good. Creativity in itself is neutral and it is our responsibility to create for good.

Robyn closed our session with a brief, but powerful video, entitled Humility, The Power of the Earth which addresses having humility in order to partner with the earth and with others.

Our lab participants frequently share their reading on relevant topics. Here are a few of their suggestions:

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer -explores how the awakening of ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world.

Our Wild Calling by Richard Louv -redefines the future of human-animal coexistence

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Together We Are The Prayer

by Susan Weinberg

I am always overwhelmed by our final session of the lab where everyone shares their work. Trying to capture it in all its complexity and beauty in no small task. This year felt especially powerful because it is a topic of such grave importance.  Collectively we touched so many different aspects of the environment. There were two passages of Jewish text that so many responded to that I think they bear repeating. 

It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it (Pirkei Avot 2:16)

Beware lest you spoil and destroy my world, for if you will spoil it, there is no one to repair it after you.' (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) 

The first means we each add our pebble to the pile of change until we create an avalanche. It speaks to both individual and ultimately collective action. The second speaks to our responsibility to preserve, to first do no harm.

Each of us felt a responsibility to add our voice to repair, together it formed a chorus, a prayer of sorts. Indeed, it did feel prayerful as each added their voice through image and word. I found myself jotting words that spoke to me individually, but that collectively do in fact form a prayer. Hopefully you will recognize your pebble within it.

Together We Are the Prayer
Artwork by Leah Golberstein
We snowshoe due North in search of snow,
Strong enough to support the weight of polar bears.
We move on shoes of bone, 
Carefully preserved by vegan hands.
Forty years ago, you raised the cry
Returning to those smoky clouds for inspiration.
We look out from behind glass,
Safe in our enclosures
We hold our breath.
Plastic geese and turtles take form,
While gloves for safety 
Endanger our world.
It is a blackened world.
The smoke rises from the towers
With ash of rose.
Methuselah sounds the alarm,
We are but a speck in tree time.
Tree rings tell us of the past
So, we can shape the future.
What we need is a symbiotic way to heal.
Stay still,
Breathe underwater.
Artwork by Gloria Cooper
How do we cure this sick earth?
The next generation will lead the way.
We start small.
A blade of grass.
Grow, grow
The angel whispers,
It’s not too late.
We can recover
Bringing color back into the delicate reefs.
We’ll use walkabout water in a canteen,
Let the milkweed grow to draw the butterflies, 
And wash our jeans but once a year 
Lest fabric fibers find ocean depths. 
We will find the answer just three feet out our door.

Every unique green, 
A new shade of hope.
We will wear our flood pants
And find our reflection in the stream.
Artwork by Liba Zweigbaum-Herman
Together we are the prayer.  
Let us build nesting boxes to save the spirit of the forest,
Let us sound the shofar, 
And teach the youth.
Because, we want to bestow a future.
We must begin.
Let us find refuge in the womb of nature, 
Finding our way back from fright, 
To beauty 
And mystery.

In closing, let me share the words with which Meryll concluded our lab:
Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek  (Be strong, be strong and let us be strengthened)

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Sound Bath

by Susan Weinberg

It has been a time of much stress.The isolation, loss of routine and fears associated with the coronavirus morphed over night into a nation horrified by the death of George Floyd. An entire world erupted in protest.

We are at a point of change as a nation and that amplifies the stress we carry within us. In light of this unique and challenging moment the lab pivoted to an exercise designed to address that stress. Fortunately within our midst we have many talents. Leah Golberstein led us in an exercise called a sound bath.

A sound bath is a meditation that guides us to a deeper meditative state through the use of vibration. You may have seen Tibetan bowls, but these bowls are made of crushed quartz crystal, silica sand.  The use of sound in meditation is based on the fact that everything has a vibration and we respond to the vibrations around us.

Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, an oncologist and author of The Healing Power of Sound notes that:“If we accept that sound is vibration, and we know that vibration touches every part of our physical being, the way we understand sound is heard not only through our ears but through every cell in our bodies. 

For more information you can explore the resource tab at Leah's meditation website.

Now, sit back and relax while you immerse yourself in good vibrations!

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Imagery of the Natural World

by Susan Weinberg

Today’s Artists’ Lab addressed some of the imagery and metaphors that we find within Jewish text. Much of this beautiful language lends itself to using text as a creative engine. We had been asked to think about some passages that inspired us with their natural imagery. Given the wealth of material, many of us offered metaphor-laden passages within the Song of Songs and Psalms. 

Others referenced the Hebrew alphabet, Jewish stories and folklore, the sequence of the creation story and the blessings one says upon seeing natural beauty. The Tree of life was also mentioned by many. In fact trees play a significant role in the Hebrew text and begin this beautiful passage within  Psalm 104 (16:22) 

The trees of the LORD have their fill, the cedars of Lebanon, which He hath planted;
 Wherein the birds make their nests; as for the stork, the fir-trees are her house.

The psalm goes on to address the homes and nocturnal habits of the animals.

The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the conies.
Who appointedst the moon for seasons; the sun knoweth his going down.
Thou makest darkness, and it is night, wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God. The sun ariseth, they slink away, and couch in their dens.

Can’t you just picture those lions slinking away to their dens?

We turned our attention to our handout (Conjuring the Natural World) which presented several passages with powerful imagery. 

Marc Chagall - Deux Pigeons 1925
The Gemara relates a story in which phylacteries are miraculously changed to dove's wings, saving a life. Psalms 68:14 paints a picture of a dove in words: You shall shine as the wings of a dove covered with silver and her pinions with yellow gold. Doves are metaphoric in that the wings of the dove are likened to the congregation of Israel, protected only by mitzvot, just as the wings of the dove serve as its protection.  This passage spurred creativity in Marc Chagall who used this imagery in his painting Deux Pigeons. The imagery of the dove was also used in poetry by Yehuda haLevi with the addition of an important adjective, the wandering dove, an adjective applied both to the Israelites and birds. 

Cosmology offers yet another reference, but first we are encouraged to pay attention. Our contemporary focus on mindfulness echoes a focus found in Judaism. What kinds of people are called dead even when they are alive? Those who see the morning sunlight...those who see the sun set...those who eat and drink, and are not stirred to say a blessing --Tanhuma, Berakhot, 7

 One of the most beautiful passages from the Maariv Aravim gives us the following:

who speaks the evening into being,
skillfully opens the gates,
thoughtfully alters the time and changes the seasons,
and arranges the stars in their heavenly courses according to plan.
You are Creator of day and night,
rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light,
transforming day into night and distinguishing one from the other.

More passages from prayers can be found at The Sefaria Library at sefaria.org. (Note: both this link and the Hebrew Bible can be found to the right of this blog)

What's A Jew To Do?

Our environment is a topic with meaning to many within our group, some who have been deeply immersed in it for some time, others who are using this exploration as a way to deepen their knowledge and understanding. There has been a desire to explore what we can do to further our concerns about the environment so we turned to the topic of taking action (see final page of handout).

We began by visiting the passage where the focus on Tikkun Olam originated.  In the Alenu it speaks of perfecting the earth. This work has gained traction throughout Judaism. 

But it is such an overwhelming task. Where to start? We are cautioned in the Pirkei Avot by Rabbi Tarfon: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.

So our call to action is to begin, much as we begin a painting without knowing where it will take us. It is the one foot in front of the other approach, trusting that we can make a difference even if it is incremental, even if we never see the result directly.

One of the aspects of Judaism that I personally resonate with is that while there is much attention paid to study, we are also called to act. We are not a passive people, we are doers. The Torah talks not only of study, but of good deeds and we are admonished that if we study and do not implement we will ultimately stand trial. Knowledge solely for knowledge's sake is not sufficient. It is the first step towards improving the world.

So how do we do this? We will be doing a virtual show at the end of this year's lab. How can we reach a larger audience and generate dialogue? In many ways the new tools that this pandemic encourages us to use, also enable us to explore in new ways. We are no longer limited geographically and can present to and engage with a much broader audience both visually, but also in dialogue. That also opens the door to more partnerships. We discussed other organizations that might share a common sense of purpose.  As we flesh out possible directions, partnerships may have the ability to give our efforts wings.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Creative Compost

by Susan Weinberg

We gathered for the lab around a familiar face for many of us who are old timers in the Lab. Anat Szendro Sevilla, a facilitator during our early years of the Lab, led our session. This is one of the benefits of Zoom meetings. Since her Minneapolis days, her life has expanded to include three children and a sojourn in Israel. Now she is in New York, with many family demands on her time, but still the energetic and creative soul we so fondly remember. 

Anat spoke of her learnings about Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) which is a psychological approach that analyzes strategies employed by individuals who are considered successful in their field. It examines thoughts, language and behavior patterns used to reach personal goals.

We began to consider these tools by first assessing our own experience. We were asked what type of environment causes our creativity to flourish. For many, nature was a source of creativity as was music. Some needed to approach creativity through intentional thinking time, but for others it had to emerge in the unplanned moments, sneaking up on us when we least expected it. Some noted a time of day such as early morning, and more than one noted a place, in the shower, a museum and even wandering a fabric store.  Many proposed unencumbered time to think with no distractions or pressing deadlines or too tight a schedule. Others found they needed some structure with schedules and deadlines to push them forward. 

Sometimes we wanted “a room of our own” conceived of as mental space, organized space or quiet, intentional, contemplative space in which to work. Our state of mind was also important as we sought a quiet mind, a lack of anxiety. Sometimes we needed permission, often from ourselves, but we also wanting to know that it was OK with loved ones. Dedication to others often seemed to rear its head, creating anxiety and time demands that blocked creativity. And there were qualities that we sought in that space to give us room to create, a sense of purpose, freedom from judgment and a positive attitude, turning the gremlins off, those discouraging voices in our head. Physical activity sometimes shook the creativity loose and the ability to play, like a child. 

In this time of disrupted routines, we were asked to color in a circle with our routine: sleep, creative work, day job, food and leisure, exercise and other. I was stumped. I have no regular routine in this new world. I consider sleep to be work, not easy to come by yet necessary to address the rest of my day adequately. And what exactly is creative work?  If it is only studio time, I’d be outing myself as not creating in a room full of artists. For me work, the non-sleep variety, takes over and continues often until late at night. It is easier to work than to create and the hardest thing falls to the bottom. 

I was somewhat reassured when we reconvened and I learned that others also were schedule-challenged. Creativity was defined broadly and often intermixed with other activities, walking or gardening. Even raising children fell into the creativity bucket. We concluded that even if we are not logging studio hours, nothing that we are experiencing now will be wasted. We are building a compost pile which will offer fertile soil in the future. It was wisely noted that there are different stages of creativity. Before we can create, we need to fill ourselves up, to take things in. It is a circle of creating and replenishment.

We were introduced to a book titled Daily Rituals-How Artists Work by Mason Curry. In this book he looks at how famous artists answer the same questions we just addressed. You can view their time breakdowns here. I was much reassured by the fact that my sleep pattern seems to echo that of Picasso. Now if only the creative pattern did as well!

Anat shared a brief but powerful clip titled Where Did That Come From : Talks About Creativity that was created by six Israeli artists. I was struck by the echoes of my own experience, not in each one, but in many. There are many ways of exploring creativity as we learned from our own group. Some of these artists’ approaches included looking for non-perfection, rather than perfection, something that leaves an impression. Free association, following one thought to the next also played a role and when all else fails just start working. It is a process to get to a place where you let go of control and ignore the commotion around you. They also discussed blocks and talked about how we can fall in love with something that really doesn’t work. William Faulkner gave the advice to writers to  “Kill your darlings.” This artist recommended a less deadly fate, take a shower, get away from it and come back fresh. Another advises that sometimes nothing happens, but it comes eventually and it comes out of the totality of our experience.

Lynda recommended several similar videos at the Louisiana Channel.  

A source of several amazing videos, Anat also shared a clip on How To Be A Genius which busts the myth and mystery of geniuses, and it does it as a pop-up book! In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson it offers this: “In the minds of geniuses we find once more our own neglected thoughts.” The clip proposes that we often disavow our most promising thoughts because of anxiety over not wanting to appear strange. The only difference with those we view as geniuses is that they are more persistent in pursuing those thoughts and less hemmed in by a societal view. 

We closed our session with a brief introduction to the Walt Disney Strategy of what successful people do. Walt had an approach of taking an idea and breaking it into Dreamer, Realistic and Critic, evaluating it from each lens. We proposed a return visit to explore that more in depth.

We were delighted with the thoughtful and entertaining approach that Anat shared with us and I think I speak for all when I say we all needed this session. The current circumstances have been ones that require adaptation to a new way of living, disrupting schedules and life patterns and imposing new demands. For many of us it has been a challenging adaptation even when some aspects seem attractive. We are grateful to be able to continue the lab discussion and the lab community as a source of strength and reflection in these difficult times. *

*For those looking for a different perspective on these circumstances, Lynda recommends an article Why You Should Ignore All That.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Not Even a Mustard Seed

by Susan Weinberg

We moved into our second virtual Artists’ Lab like old pros, now familiar with breakout rooms, chat and muting.  Photos of our group filled the screen as we gathered to discuss Mussar, a movement of virtue-based ethics that guides us in living a meaningful and ethical life. 

Meryll began by noting the convergence of many events which lead to our topic. We are in the period of counting the Omer during the period from Passover to Shavuot. It is bookended by the reading of two megillot, the Song of Songs at Pesach and the Book of Ruth at Shavuot. The Song of Songs has a backdrop of nature while Shavuot is the time when we received the law. On a more secular level, tomorrow is Earth Day. Our topic is timely, our purpose to examine how the law addresses our responsibility to the environment. 

At our last session we took a look at a number of relevant laws. We were told to not only let the land have a sabbath, but to leave grain for those in need. Land law and social welfare were knit together. We were reminded that we didn’t own the land, a belief system quite similar to Native-Americans. 

Center Artwork: Global Waters by Bonnie Heller
Meryll shared a rabbinic commentary that reminds us that "Righteous people do not destroy even a mustard seed in the world and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage they see; and if they are able to do any rescuing, they will save anything from destruction, with all of their power." (Sefer HaChinuch: D’varim 20:19 number 529)

Liba has been a student of Mussar and summarized it by noting that every person has a soul (and sole) curriculum in their life through both home and group practice. That may include patience, humility and gratitude. We are to come to it with openness, curiosity, humor and compassion. 

Meryll gave us a bit of background on Mussar which is a practice of ethical instruction. It began in Spain in the eleventh century and was moved from individual to community practice by Rabbi Israel Salanter in 19th century Lithuania. Meryll drew our attention to our handout which enumerated the middot, the qualities that help us build an ethical life (Mussar and the Environment and see graphic above). She took us through a number of the qualities noted in the handout including equanimity, the ability to rise above events which are inconsequential, to breadth, seeing the big picture. We considered whether there was an order to these qualities as we began with an objective not to get distracted by the inconsequential and ended with encouragement to focus upon the big picture. In between we were encouraged to practice such qualities as patience, order, frugality, humility and calm. 

We then broke into subgroups where we were charged with considering which quality we were personally strongest in and where we could improve. Together we were to consider what two qualities were most relevant to address the environmental crisis. Kris and I shared our choices and I realized that while they were different attributes, they embodied many of the same elements. Kris proposed frugality as an important element, not being wasteful and destructive of the environment. She noted that deforestation which created suburbs on the east coast, also destroyed the opossum population that eats ticks, resulting in an increase in Lyme disease. I spoke on behalf of breadth because our environment is part of a system of moving parts with each influencing each other and in fact well-illustrated by her example. We only begin to see the interactions when we look at the bigger picture. We both concurred that humility was an important element as well. When we regrouped, it appeared that many shared the qualities of frugality, breadth and humility as well as truth and decisiveness to guide us on our path.

(And as a side bar, diligence topped my personal list while patience is quite neglected and lonely at the bottom.) 

We turned our attention to the second text on the handout where God walks Adam through the garden and admonishes him not to spoil it as there will be no one to repair it should he do so. What is the ethical imperative? “You break it, you buy it” was proposed half in jest.  It was suggested that in our absence the likelihood is that nature will regenerate. Look at what is happening as we reduce activity in this time of the coronavirus.

Meryll asked us if the topic of the environment was still relevant in our current circumstances. There was a resounding “yes” voiced by our group. This time period has reminded us not only of our impact on the world, but of the global nature of our interactions and the importance of science. On an individual level it has gotten people outside, deepening our appreciation of nature as we slow down and occupy a smaller space in a deeper fashion. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Land Gets a Sabbath

by Susan Weinberg

Normally our lab meetings begin with hugs and fond hellos. This meeting was one we never could have anticipated when we began this year. In light of COVID-19, we joined with many organizations across our community in venturing into the safety of cyberspace where Meryll Page led us in a discussion of Jewish text and the environment.

We began our discussion with a much-needed reflection on the requirement to stay at home and pause much of our activity. We all are experiencing some disorientation as we reframe our routines and become more self-sufficient in how we perform them. Instead of going to the gym, we walk in our neighborhoods, fashioning exercise out of what we can manage independently. Even meeting basic needs like going to the grocery store becomes potentially treacherous. Our world shrinks and yet intensifies as it is distilled into a smaller space.

It was noted that the very technology that has often separated us the most, is now our life raft. Some commented on the increased efforts to connect with each other in whatever way we can and reflected on the kindness of people to each other. We are all united by crisis.

Yet even though we share the same seas, some of us bob around in rowboats, others in yachts. We noted that many of us who have more privilege, more economic security, can weather these  times with greater ease and use this pause in our life to reflect on our priorities, to savor the time to consider creative efforts and refocus our energies. There are many who face food insecurity, who live on the edge in terms of housing and income, for whom this disruption brings with it, extreme uncertainty.

Those with children at home literally have them at home 24/7 which brings its own unique challenges. Older participants often are separated from children and grandchildren or worry about older parents who need their support.

When we spoke of this pause, I heard echoes. Just as I often search the Hebrew Bible for a key word, I searched past blogs for patterns, looking for pauses and spaces in our discussions. There it was when we spoke of Kaballah and needing to create space to make room for the unknown. We once spoke of the symbol “selah” which means pause and which some believe derives from the root for “to hang” meaning to weigh. This too is a time of weighing as we consider our Interconnectedness to others. And we spoke of liminality, the space in between, the twilight between day and night.

This time does indeed feel weighty, this pause significant. It is a liminal space and we are on a threshold that has the potential to change us and to change our country and our world. What form that will take remains to be seen.

We moved into sketching our response to the term halakha which means legal framework. I thought of the 613 rules that make up halakha, the many restrictions, some of which may no longer seem meaningful to our lives today. I thought of fences and constraints.  Meryll directed our attention to the Source Sheet ( A Jewish Legal Framework for Environmentalism handouts) which outlines many of the mitzvot. We broke into small groups to discuss them and consider how the laws seek to manage humans within the natural environment. There was a lot of focus on trees, especially fruit-bearing ones which we were to preserve even in the midst of war. We were instructed to let the fields rest in the seventh year and to open them to the needy. The land was to have a Sabbath of its own. And we were instructed that land must not be sold forever for we are tenants on the land of God. We are told that we are to provide redemption of the land.
Aimee Orkin's reflections on Sabbath and Sabbatical

We discussed the fact that when we stay in our homes, the land does in fact get a Sabbath. During the China shutdown, smog levels decreased by 25%. It is reported that swans have returned  to Venice which now sports cleaner canals and no boat traffic. Ironically home-bound residents take pictures of them from their windows where they are self-isolating. We are beginning to appreciate the changes that can occur and the interrelationship between our behavior and our environment. We too have a bit of a sabbatical, a break from our past patterns and a time to consider how this pause may change our relationship to our environment and to each other.