Old School

Mom pregnant with me in San Antonio.

Mom pregnant with me in San Antonio.

In the early seventies, my father accepted a post in the Nixon administration to represent the United States as its ambassador to El Salvador, and my siblings and I moved to a new country and a bilingual school. Half the day was in Spanish, the other in English. My father insisted that I would be fluent in Spanish in no time. Instead, I got a crash course in bullying. For reasons probably having to do with American policies in Latin America, my first grade teacher Mrs. Garcia scorned anything, and anyone, “Americano,” and it took adulthood to understand that the daughter of the American ambassador made a convenient target for her rancor.

I was easy prey for a sadistic adult. I wept easily, dressed in buttoned up dresses even on the hottest of days and looked like some sort of quaint Victorian child, the kind that you see as flashbacks in a horror film. I always had a heat rash, thanks to my fair skin, and had a cropped, not particularly flattering pageboy haircut that showcased razor straight white blonde hair. I did not smile much, and it took very little effort to reduce me to tears. When this happened Mrs. Garcia would march around the room and chant: “lloron, lloron, lloron” or crybaby until I dissolved again. One day, unaware that Mrs. Garcia  was eavesdropping, I confided to my only friend (the teacher’s antagonism did not make me magnetic to my peers) that I had snuck a candy into my bed the previous evening and devoured it. She pounced.

“Listen, Nina, if you are a cochon(pig) and eat dulces (sweets) in your bed then you know what happens right?  The roaches come. They will crawl all over you. And they will eat the lobes of your ears and the tip of your nose until you wake up screaming.” Then she pinched my cheek hard to emphasize her point. I scoured my room each night for carnivorous bugs and struggled with nightmares about cockroaches and edible flesh, which utterly bewildered my parents who slept right next door. In the classroom I became mute in hopes that I would disappear from the sight-lines of this impossible woman, but that strategy didn’t work either. I was branded as hopelessly stupido. Naturally I feared she was right about my shortcomings and kept my torment a secret. Instead, I schemed about how to stay home.  

One cardinal rule about living in El Salvador was drilled into us: we were not to drink the tap water. So I gulped faucet water. And I kept getting sick. It didn’t take long for my mother to catch on. I finally had to tell her I hated school but was vague about the truth and mumbled something about struggling with half-day Spanish. Instead of forcing me to attend school, she pulled me out for the remainder of the year, and I stayed by her side. I have no idea how she justified my truancy to the school, but it was the seventies, we were abroad and she was the American ambassador’s wife. We went to the different commitments she kept during the day.  As an ambassador’s wife, she had to attend long ladies’ luncheons, and I would tag along and wander around whatever venue or house we were in. I was rarely bored and often hung out with the resident cook or in the hostess’s garden, drawing with crayons or painting. I was perfectly content to hang out, and neither of us worried that I was missing anything. My mother, on the other hand, would be bored out of her mind.  

Me on a horse in El Salvador.jpg

“Why are these things restricted to conversations about our children or housekeeping?  Everyone is soooo careful, like they are reading from a script,” she would say as we slid into the back seat of our car at the end of each engagement. Or she would quip in Spanish: “Cuantos ninos tienen Senora?”while crossing her eyes. She endured thousands of these affairs over her lifetime, and I well remember her deer in headlights look, flagging the wine tray down to get through them.  I certainly inherited her anxiety in crowds.

I hadn’t a clue how to do any math and was barely literate. My high school aged sister Heather began to express her concerns. She was an academic star and had skipped a grade so was an authority on education.

“Mom, I started reading books at age 3 and Isa is already 7 and can barely read a picture book.”

“Maybe she’s a late bloomer,” my mother would reply. “Not everyone shares your talents.”  That was a common refrain-- Heather’s talents. I, on the other hand, was told I was good with animals, which I already knew at a tender age was a bit of a dodge.

My sister persisted: “ I don’t think Isa can afford to lose a year of school. She has no friends, save the dog and the cook, both of whom are hard of hearing.” All of this was true but our mother still ignored her. So Heather took my education into her own hands and  began to teach me how to read. I remember sitting side by side on the staircase, plucking out words with her and conquering a book about a socially awkward yellow hippo (of course) and I took off from there.

Years later, I was surrounded by by a manic approach to parenthood:  the music classes, mommy and me classes, moms who obsessed over Baby Einstein, or those who were flipping  flashcards with a demonic intensity. I knew it was absurd, but secretly fretted that I was not fierce enough about our daughter’s enrichment. When I asked my mother why she was so cavalier about my education, she laughed. “Thank God this kind of parenting hysteria did not yet exist. Besides, you are my daughter aren’t you?”

Hats run in the family

Hats run in the family

The best part of skipping school was traveling into the campo, or country, with my mother.  We saw a very different culture and its distinct daily rhythms and my mother took up photography to capture some of this color. My mother loved local craft and the sanctuary of churches. I was riveted by the twisted and battered Christs, the serene Virgins and other dramatic displays of devotion. My mother’s sensational looks drew in the village, along with the children, who also never seemed to be in school, and they always trailed us.  There was a prevailing superstitious custom that touching blonde hair brought good luck, but they did not dare reach for my mother and incur the wrath of a bodyguard. Besides, she was too tall. But they certainly patted mine, and I’d try to squirm out of the way, but to no avail. Our plump, sweaty bodyguards were constantly trotting behind us shooing away kids, goats and chickens, along with a bedazzled ancient man or two muttering something like “ay caramba.” We had our own singular entourage. On one of these tours I was mesmerized by a potter who was making a menagerie of animals for a crèche, including the tiniest baby Jesus, which materialized between his thumb and forefinger.  He manually pumped a potter’s wheel cobbled together with odd bits of wire and what looked like an auto part hammered into a smooth and flattened disc. He taught me to push the flat pedal, which rested on a rusted spring-like contraption, and I awkwardly turned the wheel as the village children laughed.  My mother bought the crèche for our family, but it vanished in a move long ago. For years I held onto that unfired tiny baby Jesus until it returned to clay dust. I am grateful that my mother nurtured a very different sort of education—and laid the groundwork for my evolution as an artist. Happy Mother’s Day. And thank you.

The Tyranny of Busyness

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.
— Anne Dillard
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Day in and day out I hear how busy everyone is. It’s our national compulsion -- we pack our schedules to the tipping point and then share JUST how insane our lives are, if we have time to do so. Despite all of our invocations to be present, to be mindful, to pursue self-care, to spark joy, our busyness is as pervasive as fake news and addictive as the devices that broadcast it. A few years ago I watched some poor soul drop into torpor as I explained how busy I was. I was not only boring the poor woman to death, but was also self-important in the process. I am quick to identify self absorption in others and was mortified by my hypocrisy. I knew better.

Decades earlier, I was regaling my sister with my schedule over the phone. I had to simultaneously move my studio and apartment; I was preparing for a group show; I had so so many unshakeable engagements; I had an energy suck of a boyfriend. The list went on. I probably implied that I was BUSIER than she was. She waited for me to finish and said: “Until you have your own children you have all the time in the world.” She had three young children and I got the message, but only understood it when I had my own children and was up all hours of the night with a sick child or whiling away hours playing chutes and ladders, or wondering if it should take an hour to get out the door. I never stopped apologizing to her for my impertinence.

It’s a hard habit to break. There is cultural validation in being busy and we have conflated human significance with the intensity of our calendar schedule. From an evolutionary standpoint busyness is not going to grow our brains, or safeguard our health. A packed schedule is not going to amplify our stardust. My busyness is not going to single-handedly save the planet. Do I really care if I’m regarded as a flaneur just because I’m not showcasing my path?

Social media reinforces all this agitation around doing and being. It is easy for all of us — producer and consumer —to be seduced by the filtered images and the airbrushed personas. And many users are driven to achieve goals just to have a viable post on Instagram — setting up a sinister feedback loop. Like most creatives, I use Instagram as a professional enhancement to showcase my studio, to reinforce that I am a working artist. But I also use it to suggest that I’m an interesting and nuanced person and attach many ancillary identities beyond my professional one simply to broaden my appeal. I tell myself that it is all part of the process of the reveal, but that could be a justification for garden variety narcissism.

Marie Kondo’s success as the good fairy of leaner living is no coincidence — the antidote to this first world problem of clutter is simplification. Material possessions are easier to purge than a to-do list but last month I decided to stop riding shotgun down the avalanche. I turned off my phone or programmed it so only my family can reach me when I’m working. I restored my written calendar and put a book back in my purse.I got up earlier. I eliminated social media apps to tackle my addiction to Instagram. I return emails once a day, not all day. I sliced my device time in half. The to do list remains daunting and the email pile grew —I still have to maintain the quotidian. I did realize how much of this “labor” is of my own manufacture, and of my own choosing, and that I need a much better “net for catching days.”

The Map is Not the Territory

We rely on maps to navigate earthly and celestial terrain, and I feel grounded, in control somehow, when I am pulled into a fabulous map. Oh here I am! There I will go!  And then there are maps for our internal landscapes and methods we call on to steer through spiritual terrain. Mine help preserve sanity and joy—and trek through heartbreak and confusion. But they were falling short of guiding me through my own brand of American angst.

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Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and the birthdays of two out of three of my favorite men fall in its wake. One belongs to our son, Duncan, the other to my late father, Henry. I think of Henry and his footprint in our era of belligerence and deliberate ignorance where men like him are scarce. My son reminds me of him -- 

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I want to inject them with a serum that makes them believe what I now know: that speaking is crucial, that you have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others, that education is not something you passively consume.
— Elizabeth Alexander
                      Two Women in a Mandalay market from an old 1995 sketchbook.

                      Two Women in a Mandalay market from an old 1995 sketchbook.

I joined the movement and hashtagged #metoo on social media but did not share any particulars. I still struggle with my old WASP reflexes -- do not share, do not assume that your story is of any interest to anyone else, and by all means maintain appearances -- whatever that means. But as an artist, I know better and try to override this indoctrination to plunk down my own narrative. I want a very different story for my own daughter and all the young women in my life and decided to link in with the collective for their sake and mine. I was deeply moved by all the testimonials on social media and the courage it took to expose the raw stories, the anger and pain. And I think this movement will have positive consequences for future legislation and make the world a little better for our daughters, even with a sexual predator currently in the Oval Office.

I was seven when an employee of my parents' began touching me, and this inaugurated a long passage of harassment that at times escalated into incidents of assault. Even in the post-Gloria Steinheim era, there was still a prevailing attitude that our vulnerability as women was part of the female inheritance. I heard men, and some women, say dismissive things like: “She is asking for it when she dresses (or drinks) like that.” “She should know better. ”Girls exaggerate the extent of the problem because it serves their vanity.” “Is it really that bad?”  “Shouldn’t you be flattered?” “Boys will be boys.”  When I shared one harrowing incident to a friend who I thought might be sympathetic the reply was: "At least you're not a supermodel, can you imagine the attention they get?" I second guessed myself. Maybe I was the one who was too sensitive or was inflating the problem. It felt indulgent to mention this part of my life, so I shut up and repressed my outrage--and a great deal of the memories.

Age has granted me ease of passage in a man's world, at least physically, but the cascade of #metoo stories jolted me back to a different era, and I have been telling my stunned husband about all the transgressions I thought I'd forgotten. I mourn for all women, for all the energy it takes to maintain vigilance over our own safety, from ignoring catcalls, to the constant requests to smile, to fretting about poorly lit and spooky public spaces, to the steady intrusion from strange or familiar men, to dodging workplace harassment and insinuation, to surviving sexual assault. I think of all the squandered time we expend navigating these climates and of all that noise that distracts us from doing something else, like finding a little peace. 

And I remembered a story of kindness. I lived in New York for many years and always in gay neighborhoods. This was a deliberate choice-- I felt safe, there was a solidarity that I loved, and I preferred a community that was not dead at night. One evening I was headed home around midnight from a concert uptown. I did not take a cab because I was spooked by an aggressive cabbie the previous week.  He kept asking me out on the long ride home and though I bailed out from the ride when I could, I was not keen on being trapped in a car again. So I descended the stairs to the an empty subway platfrom save two pairs of men, each on opposite ends. I centered myself between them and hoped for the best. It was the dead of winter, and I wore a hat, a voluminous scarf, a long overcoat and boots. One pair moved closer and began to comment on my appearance, wondering what I would look like without all my layers. I moved toward the other pair. My aggressors followed. As I grew closer, the other men broke off their own conversation and hustled toward me. I recognized them as men from my neighborhood. Both were strapping, and though I did not know their names, we frequented the same coffee shop and exchanged pleasantries. As they approached, the other men retreated. We boarded the train and they walked me home, even though it wasn’t their stop. When they delivered me safely, they gave me a hug and the name of a car service and waited until they saw the light on in my apartment. Here is a thank you to all the decent men, and there are many, who have kept us out of harm’s way and pushed back with us. I was lucky enough to marry one such man and am  lucky enough to be raising one. 

Postcard from Colombia

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. ”

— Gustave Flaubert

I am currently in Colombia with my family cramming as much in as we possibly can between Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena. Traveling tilts you off axis, which to my mind, is a very good thing. Our family becomes more intimate as we push into close quarters, and reliant on each other for company.

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The Mean

"Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them." -Maria Popova

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Arriving at My Own Door

I do regret the energy I spent trying to prove that I had something to offer. It made me vulnerable to sabotage - either through my own anxiety, or by crazymakers. I didn’t listen nearly enough to instinct...

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Poetry in Motion

The other day I explained to our son why I am such a poetry junkie. I told him a good poem could blanch a bit of darkness or make me feel more connected to this vast network of ours. And that a great line will cast something familiar into a different relief and make me look again. But, most of all, poetry gives me the next clue. "Like in a treasure hunt you mean,” he said. Exactly.

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