Archive for the history Category

Greenwriting on the Skarpa

Posted in Art and Culture, FRIENDS, history, Life and What about It, Literature, Poetry, Poland with tags , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2022 by Louise Steinman

My Afterword to Katy Bentall’s Greenwriting, published by (and available for purchase from) the estimable Bored Wolves Press, Krakow.

drawing by Katy Bentall

It’s dark when we arrive at Katy’s house in the Polish countryside, early fall, 2019.  My friend and I, both road-weary, climb a flight of wooden stairs to retire. My friend installs herself in the bedroom of Katy’s daughter, Magda, now a young doctor in London. I bed down in the room that belongs to Katy’s son, Sammy,  a classics major at the University of Warsaw. Everywhere there are stacks of book, fascinating books. Philosophy. History. Poetry. Books in Polish. Books in English. I want to look at all of them, but I’m so sleepy. Before I crash, I peek into Katy’s room/studio, noting piles of notebooks, vibrant watercolors.  A chorus of frogs serenades me through the open window as I fall asleep.

in the hammock at Katy’s house in Dobre

I met Katy Bentall in Warsaw a few years earlier, through a mutual friend. We bonded over a shared love of drawing, spending afternoons sketching, observing, and talking in cafes, on park benches. In the years following, I continued to find sustenance and inspiration from Katy’s artwork and writing, admiring them from my home in Los Angeles, often via Instagram. Her drawings and watercolors were a portal, for me, into a world so different from my own urban environment, and so fascinating:  the stout mushroom seller forever keeping vigil over precious fungi; the fortune teller, the pear man with his cargo of smoked fruit; the russet-red fox who feasts on fallen plums

Upon waking, light streaming through the windows, I am delighted, ecstatic, when it sinks in that I am actually here. I’m in Dobre, in this airy wooden house nestled into the Skarpa, the upland of the Vistula River, famous for its loess valleys and fields of wheat and hops, apple and pear orchards. From the front porch, there is the thrum of bees, the overwhelming scent of wildflowers, mint. (Later I will meet the neighbor who makes lip-smacking elixirs out of them.)  In the dining room, I recognize the chairs, the bowls, the blue and white checkered tablecloth, the brown teapot from Katy’s drawings. I know as well those beautiful yellow pears on a plate on the table (not available yet, to be made into pear cake, because they are going to be drawn. Please don’t eat the still life!)

This house and little studio hut on its grounds is the “pracownia,” the laboratory, that the visionary Polish art critic and philosopher Mariusz Tchorek built for his British wife, artist Katy Bentall.  Tchorek designed the house in collaboration with the noted Polish architect Rudolf Buchalik and constructed it with the assistance of local builders (son Sammy, then two, carrying two bricks at a time in his little plastic wheel barrow up the hill imitating the builders). Mariusz Tchorek passed away in 2004; his spirit is a benediction in this house, on this land.

Over the years, when their children attended schools in Warsaw, the Tchorek-Bentall family used the house as a summer and holiday retreat. Now, her children grown, Bentall has installed herself in Dobre full-time. It’s where she carries on her experiments in “greenwriting”— the exquisite drawings, paintings, collages, and texts—evidence of her determination to “live lightly” on the land, to bear intimate witness to the community in whose midst she lives.

In the afternoon, we drive the short distance from Dobre to Kazimierz Dolny, the ancient town on the Vistula, which has been, since the early 1900’s, a haven, a summer colony, for Polish artists. Katy’s weekly trips to the outdoor market and the bakery here are source for some of the Balzacian cast of  people, their gestures, their exchanges, that inhabit her drawings. The old woman with the bright blue beret is not in the bakery this afternoon; but there’s the table where she usually sits. Over the months, years, Bentall has observed them carefully, lovingly.

“Where does the impulse to draw something begin?” asks the late writer/artist John Berger. For Katy Bentall, the impulse might arise when she looks out the window and glimpses Basia, the neighbor’s wife, “skinny and strong, she could snap me in half,” ferrying a wheelbarrow full of logs. Basia who comes three times a week, who keeps the boiler going in the cellar. Pivoting from sight to paper and pen, the artist melds observation with imagination.  Fifty years from now, perhaps a hundred, when someone looks at the lively lines of this drawing, they’ll see Basia, skinny and strong and her wheelbarrow— a moment reclaimed from time’s oblivion.

drawings by Katy Bentall

That lag between seeing and drawing, what Bentall terms the “memory glance,”  is why, she explains, “if you look carefully, my drawings usually look All Wrong.” It’s what gives them, in her words, “the weirdness.” That’s what I love about them. Arms too long end in fingers which turn into bundles of sticks. We’re not talking realism; we’re talking penetrating essence.

The pandemic winter of 2020 in Dobre was, Bentall reported,  “so cold it hurt to swallow.”  The artist invites us to take a night walk with her on a snowy eve, painting the scene with words. Feeling safe in the velvety dark—suddenly she’s face to face with a wild boar. She stands frozen in place, waiting for the beast to cross the ridge, then watches in astonishment as seven more boars follow, like “shadowy giant mice scampering over a mountainous iced Christmas cake.” The wonder of this winter vision negates any fear. In the morning, she searches out the boars’ footprints in the snow, marvels at the differences of various creatures’ modes of movement: the hare’s “a high-speed train leaving a whooshing sound in its wake,” to “the little ruffled feet flecks of the partridge as they fluttered by at dawn.”  Exhale.

Later that spring, during the pandemic, Katy wrote me: “All I have felt able to do is allow the garden to be as wild and self-seeding as possible and watch the wildlife thrive! There are plenty of hidden human interventions required but at least I don’t dominate. I suppose this is the point of the drawings—they are meant to not dominate—still art continues to try to dominate—I am struggling with this thought. What matters? Why make art? What does it mean to live lightly? To affirm those around us.”  

drawing by Katy Bentall

How do we affirm those around us when the world is in turmoil, when the world is in pain? The artist plants sunflowers. It’s a gesture that makes perfect sense, and yields one of my favorites of Bentall’s drawings: the figure in red bending under the sunflower’s extravagant gaze, its shower of knowledge, human fusing with the thrust of nature. 

John Berger, himself both artist and writer, chose to live in a remote village (his in the French Alps). Like Katy Bentall, Berger valued the rhythms of rural life, the wisdom of those who worked and lived close to the land, and to animals. When he drew, he wrote:

I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells. I’m aware of a distant, silent company. Almost as distant as the stars. Company nevertheless. Not because we are in the same universe, but because we are involved—each according to his own mode—in a comparable manner of searching. Drawing is a form of probing. The first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things, and to place oneself.”

Greenwriting is a record of Katy Bentall’s searching and probing.  Her drawings are the way she places herself— an artist, a British woman living in a foreign land—in this house, in this village, in this miraculous and troubled world.  

 How these drawings delight me! 

 I trust they will delight you as well.

-Louise Steinman, Los Angeles

Sept 17, 2021

January 6, 2022

Posted in FILM, history, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Literature with tags , , , , , , , on January 6, 2022 by Louise Steinman

from “State Funeral,” Sergei Loznitza , (film release 2021; footage, 1953)

I’m walking the Silverlake staircases, listening to the audio version of Colm Toibin’s marvelous novel, The Magician, about Thomas Mann.   I’m struck to learn how slow Thomas Mann was to understand the dangers posed by the National Socialists in Germany. Mann held such a deep belief in the staying power of German culture, a world of cosmopolitanism, a culture that treasured Wagner and Mahler, Goethe and Rilke. He was convinced those Nazis would “go away.” Even as his eldest son and daughter Klaus and Erica became vocal anti-Nazis, Mann remained unperturbed. After the Nuremberg rally in 1933, his son Golo literally cut out articles from different German papers and laid them out on the dining room table. Look at these, he demanded of his father. “One article says 40,000 attended. Another says 100,000. They will not go away.”

For a break from reading about the rise of the Third Reich, I watched the unsettling and mesmerizing film, “State Funeral” by the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitza (viewable on http://www.mubi.com).  

The film begins: “In the Afternoon of March 5, at 21 hours, 50 minutes, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin died. “ Sergei Loznitza’s assemblage of color and black and white film shot in the Soviet Union in 1953, constitute  “official obsequies” for the death of the mass murderer Stalin, whose body lies in state, in a red-draped coffin surrounded by mounds of lush flowers, “like a Marxist-Leninist Ophelia.” (The Guardian). One doesn’t know how much is real, how much is staged, but the somber sorrowful stupefaction of everyone from schoolchildren to loggers, from Kazakh villagers to Muscovites, is unanimous. (We do not see the zeks in the labor camps however, doff their hats.) Busses halt. Conductors and ticket takers stand with hands on their hearts. Steam engines blast their whistles, factories ring their alarms, soldiers and civilians remove their hats in unison, a portrait of the Great Leader is swung into place via a ginormous crane, like a scene from Fellini.   The film is mesmerizing, hundreds of the best cameramen in the Soviet Union were the camera crew; no expense spared.

There’s a provocative conversation afterwards, between a wildly gesticulating Italian director, Pietro Marcello, and the bemused Loznitza, talking about the import of the work. As I watched the film on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Capitol insurrection, this quote from Loznitza especially struck me:

“The thought I wanted to express in this film is very simple- Stalin is allegorical of all these people, who have a little Stalin in them, who share all these outlooks, and who compose, like little bricks of this whole apparatus of totalitarian human destruction.

Every time I turn to that time in my mind, and see those picture, which magnetise me too… every time I’m struck by that paradox that unfolds before my eyes. Understanding the nightmare, people, just like these mice, follow the piper, the one who plays the pipe to their doom. “

“Understanding the nightmare, people, just like these mice, follow the piper, the one who plays the pipe to their doom. “

Sergei Loznitza, film director

January 6, 2022

The Collaborative Skein: A Conversation

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, history, Literature, Los Angeles, Poetry, Poland, reconciliation, translation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2021 by Louise Steinman

The poet Piotr Florczyk just published a remarkable collections of poems, From the Annals of Krakow, based on testimonies from Jewish survivors from his home town, Krakow, in the Shoah Archive at USC, where he Piotr did a residency. This conversation between the two of us, about Piotr’s book, about the forthcoming Polish edition of  The Crooked Mirror, about memory and history and how we find common ground, was just published in The Los Angeles Review of Books

Kaziemerz Dolny, Jewish headstones.

Welcome the Stranger: An urban installation for social engagement [Lublin, Poland]

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, history, Lublin, Poland, refugee crisis, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2019 by Louise Steinman

It’s been an intense and magical week in Lublin, Poland. A Kabbalistic text appears over the archway of the Brama Grodzka; a flamingo is invited to perch in a storks nest high in a poplar tree; the words of Polish veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq are projected on the walls of the cultural center, reminding us of the hospitality that veterans need after the trauma of war. In the passageway of one the crooked streets of the Old Town, the voice of the local poet Jozef Czechowicz– killed in the German bombardment of September, 1939, fills the air… just near the vinyl record shop where they’re playing Talking Heads and Miles Davis. And at the Old Well in what is now the bus depot– and was once the Jewish quarter of Lublin– a voice sings forth on the hour with the words of asylum seekers, some from Guatemala, some from Eritrea, Iraq. “I don’t even know where this ship is taking me.” “I’m sorry cousin, I could not save you.” These art projects are all part of Open City Festival 2019, curated by Pawel Leszkowicz and Tomasz Kitlinski– dear souls, fiery social activists– who invited me and artist Dorit Cypis to create a piece for the festival they had set on the theme of “Hospitality” one of fourteen artist projects. Thus, “Welcome the Stranger,” an installation for social engagement… with a text inspired by Edmond Jabes that asks, “What is a foreigner?” “What does a foreigner help us understand?” After the installation, Dorit and I have loved /watching people in the busy bus depot– carrying their satchels and suitcases– arriving or leaving for other cities, countries– and the local cabbies– reading the text and listening to the Voice of the Well… which is a witness from the past, the only surviving well of the many that once served the city’s citizens, places where people came together to fill their buckets wth water, wells that were drawn from springs and river under the cities, connecting Lublin to places far away, to other continents… all connected. On opening night, we joined a procession of 200 plus people that began on the steps of Lublin Castle, then proceeded to the bus station and the Old Well, and on into the old city to visit all the art projects and listen to the artists speak about them, a beautiful night with a full moon, a city engaging with art, with history, with questions about hospitality and the lack thereof, in this world we all shar

“This happened centuries ago. This happened yesterday.”

For “Welcome The Stranger: an urban project for civic engagement,” we thank our collaborators– Jimmy Harry (sound score composition); Magdalena Birczynska (vocals); Piotr Florcyzk (translation), Lloyd Hamrol (water station design)– and the wonderful Lublin artists Magda and Ludo Franczyck who added their support plus Ludo’s beautiful performance at the Well; the art historian Joanna Zetar, from Brama Grodzka, who offered a fascinating talk on the history of Lublin’s wells and waterways… and took us to see the mural of Jewish Lublin placed along the small river that runs near the well…another delight of “hidden Lublin,” all that exists below the ground and in memory, kept alive by those indefatigable guardians of memory at Teatr NN… friends Joanna Klass and Wojtek Sasznor; Katy Bentall for sustenance and hospitality in the beautiful village of Dobre, to the staff at Rozdroza Foundation and the great tech team, Marcin and our guy Krzysztof Spoz and our friends and supporters on Gofundme, thank you all thank you all and many more.

Water station designed by Lloyd Hamrol, in front of Lublin Castle

Artist Ludo Franczak giving a talk at the Well, his search for the key to the Well, and playing his recording of the sound of the Well taking a breath, taking our breaths away.

A woman reads the text on the Old Well at the bus depot. [photo: Katy Bentall]

Dorit Cypis in conversation with two Lublin cabdrivers at the Old Well, talking about the text they just around, about “foreignness.”

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Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

Posted in asylum, civil rights, history, Life and What about It, Peace and social justice, refugee crisis, refugees with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2019 by Louise Steinman

merlin_157452141_35556aff-1a2e-4fce-8149-44a0ca5e6ad1-superJumbophoto: Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

July 6, 2019

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home, a long way from home

Sometimes I feel like I’m almost done
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost done
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost done
And a long, long way from home, a long way from home

What does July 4 feel like to a child in a cage in Clint, TX? To a Salvadoran mother wearing an ankle monitoring device afraid of being deported? How can one celebrate the 4th of July in America?  The Statue of Liberty is weeping.  I’m gliding on the elliptical this morning at the Glendale Y, to a podcast of an interview with Tracy K. Smith, our last poet laureate, who took  poems on the road, reading to rural communities in America, testing her theory that poetry can break down the divide between us, a black poet from the east reading poems about the Civil War in South Dakota, at a womens prison in Maine. Why, she wonders, when reading aloud a powerful Joy Harjo poem at the Alaska Veterans and Pioneers home, in Palmer, Alaska, do more of the residents not respond? Ask questions as others have at other community centers, libraries across the country. She hears just a few quiet moans from the audience. Then learns later, that those attendees suffered from Alzheimers and dementia—they hadn’t spoken aloud or moved their bodies in some time. The poems did reach them, deeply, the staff informs her, they could tell.

Interview over, I switch to music, shuffle songs.  And I forget so much of what’s in that library of music, assembled over so many years, music acquired for different ALOUD events at the library.  And out of my earbuds into my soul comes a soaring voice, Marian Anderson, singing the spiritual, “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.”  I’m gliding on the elliptical and weeping, can my body keep moving while weeping? Gliding to a halt.  Unbearable, the weight and suffering in her voice, the images of children in ICE Detention, the truth of their pain brought to the heart through the agency of the human voice, a pain so strong you could feel it on Novocain, and hammered home by this New York Times expose on Clint, TX, shortly after I return home, sit at the kitchen table with my coffee, open the newspaper.  How can one celebrate the 4th of July?  As we learn of this secretive site where children endured outbreaks of scabies, shingles, and chickenpox while being held in cramped cells? Where “the stench of children’s dirty clothing was so strong it spread to the agents’ own clothing—people in town would scrunch their noses when they left work. The children cried constantly.”  Two brothers, both epileptics, separated from their guardian sister, deprived of their medication, desperate to contact their father. Trying to behave “like little adults.”  Young mothers with dried breast milk on their dirty clothes. How does July 4th feel to a child in a cage in Clint, Texas?

July 12th rally, Lights for Liberty rally, Metropolitan Detention Center, 535 Alameda, downtown Los Angeles, 7:00- 9:00 PM.

Marian Anderson sings “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”   listen and weep. listen and get yourself to a demonstration against the depredations and humiliations of ICE inflicted on our fellow human beings. Write your reps! Be outraged!

Time Regained: Reading Józef Czapski in Billings, MT (about Marcel Proust, the Gulag, and reading as salvation)

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, history, Human Rights, Literature, Poland, social justice, translation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2019 by Louise Steinman

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[from THE NOTEBOOKS OF JOZEF CZAPSKI, Polish limited edition]

I WOKE UP around 5:00 a.m., disoriented in an unfamiliar bed. I did not know east from west, up from down, where I’d find a floor to take the weight of my body. The hazy proportions of the room gave no clue; curtains blocked the winter light. In the moment my eyes opened, I lost my connection to those essentials that are, as Proust assures his readers, held fast by our psyches during sleep: “[T]he sequence of the hours, the order of the years, and the worlds.”

 

My disorientation went beyond the geo-gravitational. One era of my life had ended, and the next had not yet begun. If I lived in a traditional society, I’d have been standing on the threshold of the hut listening as a priest beat drums and stirred strong potions, a state the anthropologists call liminality.

Just six weeks before, I’d been fired from my job of 25 years. It was a job I’d loved, that had drawn on my love of literature and my delight at convening people from across Los Angeles to engage with the issues of the day, to ask questions of innovative thinkers, to practice agreeing and disagreeing in a public forum. The events at Central Library, the hearth of the city, were free; homeless patrons sat next to lawyers and teachers and students to listen to Christopher Hitchens talk about religion or Ta-Nehesi Coates discuss reparations. They came to hear local poets read Walt Whitman translated into Farsi and Spanish; to celebrate novelists like Colson Whitehead and his re-imagining of the Underground Railroad, to learn from naturalists like Terry Tempest Williams, primatologists like Frans de Waal. Hundreds of literary luminaries — Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, W. G. Sebald, Margaret Atwood, Adam Zagajewski, Ursula LeGuin — all presented their work on our stage over the years. At our last event, Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter read from her grandfather’s just-published prison letters. One evening, during his sound check, Cornel West pulled me aside to say, “You know, don’t you, that this space is sanctified?” I did.

Now I was untethered from the satisfactions of my job and as well, from the scaffold of responsibilities that had, for so many years, structured the rhythms of my life. I was past the tearful stage, but I was still heart-torn, grieving. Luckily, I had been granted a writing residency that fall at an arts colony on a ranch outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, and Susan — my soul sister-in-art — had been awarded a residency there as well. Perhaps some time away would open a way to re-focus, to pick up the thread of my own writing life.

As a way to jumpstart our adventure, Susan and I schemed a rendezvous, picking a town on the map that neither of us knew at all — Billings, Montana — simply because it had an airport and decent airfares from Los Angeles, for me, and from Portland, Oregon, for Susan.

Susan rented us a car and a two-bedroom Airbnb bungalow in Billings. We planned to cook simple meals together, drink good wine, catch up on stories about our lives, plan collaborative projects, and, at the end of the weekend, drive the 70 miles to the Crow Reservation to spend some daylight hours at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, then travel the final stretch to the Wyoming ranch and our official residency.

At the last moment, life tectonics shifted. A mutual friend — jazz musician David Ornette Cherry — suffered a medical emergency. He couldn’t breathe, barely managed to call 911 from his Portland studio before he suffered a cardiac arrest. David was “gone,” the paramedics said, for four whole minutes, and was now in an induced coma, on a ventilator in a Portland hospital, in the limbo of the ICU, where machines bleated heart rates and IV bags dripped nourishment into human veins, between life and death, this world, that world, with Susan by his bedside. He had no family nearby. He was going to need a lot of support to pull through.

I wholeheartedly supported Susan’s decision to stay behind, to forgo the residency if David didn’t recover soon. I realized as well that it was too last-minute and too costly to redirect my itinerary.

Which is why I woke up alone, in a strange bed in a strange house in Billings, Montana, where I dreaded spending the weekend alone.

MORE. READ ENTIRE PIECE, as published in Los Angeles Review of Books, May 21, 2019

Resister in Sanctuary: We Won’t Go

Posted in FRIENDS, history, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Los Angeles, Peace and social justice, social justice with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2018 by Louise Steinman

Maizlish_Sign

Joe Maizlish at Induction Refusal, 1968 Black and white photograph/L.A. Resistance Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In one glass case, what first draws my eye is a REMEMBER JOE MAIZLISH bumper sticker identical to the one I affixed to the bumper of my dad’s Ford Mustang in 1968. Yes, I do remember Joe Maizlish. Decades ago, I wrote to him in while he was in federal prison, where he served two and a half years of a three- sentence for refusing induction to the draft. Joe, now a psychologist and mediator, in present-day, is my neighbor in Silverlake.

The item, along with posters in fonts of various degrees of psychedelia, is on exhibit at WE WON’T GO: The L.A. Resistance, Vietnam and the Draft (at the Central Library’s Getty Gallery until August 19). Curated by Winter Karen Dellenbach, an L.A. Resister, together with Ani Boyadjian, Research & Special Collections Manager for the Los Angeles Public Library, this inspiring display of civil disobedience was drawn from the Los Angeles Resistance Archives, acquired by the library in 2014. The collection includes letters, posters still and moving images, diaries, mimeographed newsletters, draft cards and other ephemera donated by members of the L.A. Resistance and their supporters. Essentially, this is a chronicle of the non-violent anti-draft activities of the L.A. chapter of the Resistance, a nationwide movement.

I recognize a black and white photo of General Hershey Bar, with his signature plastic B-52’s worn as medals. The real General Hershey, a Nixon advisor, was head of the Selective Service, and General Hershey Bar was a familiar sight at anti-war rallies in the ’60s. “Fixin-to-Die Rag” (Country Joe and the Fish) cues in my head:

Well, come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
Got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
Put down your books and pick up a gun
We’re going to have a whole lot of fun”

MORE on Los Angeles Review of Books

 

July 4th 2017

Posted in civil rights, history, Human Rights, Life and What about It with tags , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by Louise Steinman

Today seems a good date to start a new document, a new journal. A date that is supposed to be patriotic. In which we might feel the weight of our national experiment, now verging towards national calamity. In which we try to keep our chins up and our hearts strong. In which we feel the sickness churning in our stomach as our malevolent buffoon-in-chief insults twists lies trammels all the values we hold dear. As he creates suffering for the vulnerable. As he loosens restrictions on pollution. As he pulls out of the Paris Climate accords. The list is long and growing. Hold back the tears and bring out the magic markers. Make our signs. Make our phone calls. Steel our wills.

A second visit to the Kerry James Marshall show at MOCA, the last weekend before it closes, is a stirring reminder of what an artist can do to deepen our understanding of our country’s tortured race history and as well, its resilience. He does so by including those who have been excluded from the shared narrative, by painting them back into the national story,putting them center-stage into the American storybook, into small towns, into the backyard barbeques in Culver City,CA in the 50’s of my childhood, barbecues in parks to which no African-Americans were invited. To the neat streets-on-a-grid post-war stucco one-story houses in the city where I grew up– where African-American families were not allowed to buy a home, not allowed to live. It was called a covenant. it was silent. And for what was absent– I then had no questions.

The galleries at MOCA are more crowded than I’ve ever seen them. Everyone in this diverse crowd is absorbed in these astonishing paintings. I watch a man pushing his diminutive fine-boned grey-haired mother’s wheelchair through the exhibit. They pause in front of each painting to examine it closely. He is tall; so he kneels down beside her in the chair, pointing out the images– the yellow birds, the couple in the grass. The two of them enter the painting, smiling, occasionally frowning. Taking it in. As does the little girl whose sequined shirt glitters in gold synchrony with the drapes of rope—– a sinister signifier– on a painting of the blue sea. The angel in them middle of the living room adjusts a vase of flowers, bends before a wall-banner of mourning—JFK, RFK, MLK, reminds of the Watts living room of David Ornette Cherry’s aunt Barbara, Ulysses Cherry– who wanted his grandchildren to see all of Los Angeles, to see the Los Angeles beyond Watts. Who’d pile them into the station wagon on Sundays to drive west from Watts to the west, through Culver City, through Beverly Hills. But, David told me, “We always had to be back before sundown.” And why was that? I asked in all innocent ignorance. Because Culver City was a Sundown town, he said. And what, I asked in all innocent ignorance, was a sundown town? A town where African-Americans were not wanted. A town where you’d best leave before sundown. This the unofficial policy until the 1960’s in the town where I grew up. I didn’t know. I am ashamed I didn’t know. Until now.

Ceremony of Forgiveness/ Night before the Electoral College

Posted in history, Human Rights, reconciliation, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2016 by Louise Steinman

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Reeling from the latest barrage of globally catastrophic images—my mind gravitates to that startling and necessary image—beamed to us from Standing Rock.

It is the image of a U.S. veteran named Wesley Clark, Jr kneeling down, with veterans of various American combat units standing behind him—offering his formal apology to Lakota Medicine Man Leonard Crow Dog.

Who ever thought we would see this in our life time?

In his fine L.A.Times front page feature, reporter Sandy Tolan describes the veterans’ forgiveness ceremony: “Clark, organizer of Veterans Stand with Standing Rock, noted that some of the veterans had served in the same military units that had fought during the Indian Wars. He wore the blue jacket and hat of the 19th century 7th Cavalry, evoking the 140 year old memory of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. As it happened, he spoke on Custer’s birthday, Dec 5.

‘We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our president onto your sacred mountain. Then we took still more land, and then we took your children and we tried to eliminate your language.. We didn’t respect you. We polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways.’

He removed his hat, dark blue with a gold braid, and lowered himself to one knee, as did the veterans behind him. ‘We’ve come to say that we are sorry,’ he said, bowing his head. ‘We are at your service, and we beg for your forgiveness.’”

You can’t smell the smoke from the sacred bundle of cedar, sage and sweetgrass while watching this scene on YouTube. But you can intuit the gentle weight of Leonard Crow Dog’s large hand placed on Clark’s head.

Tolan writes, “Someone let out a ululating cry, and fellow Sioux spiritual leaders offered prayers and songs of cleansing and forgiveness. Hardened veterans wept openly…. Then Clark and the other veterans, their faces twisted with emotion, began to embrace their Native American hosts. It was apparent that the former service members received far more in the forgiveness than they gave in supplies and the goodwill they brought with them.”

The veterans’ assembly at Standing Rock is a ‘gesture in the world’ in an age of symbolic gestures. A counter-image to the Morton County sheriffs in riot gear, wielding the infamous water cannons they used against peaceful demonstrators.

In her book, A Human Being Died Last Night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela—the only psychologist on South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission- lays out what an apology must contain in order for its words to “perform.” The one who apologizes must name the deed, acknowledge wrongdoing and recognize the pain of the victims. The apology must be unconditional. She points out how the victims hold a particular power in this dynamic: they can give or deny forgiveness. “They hold the key to what the perpetrator so desires — to rejoin the realm of moral humanity.”

These are veterans brave enough to bend on one knee, willing to ask forgiveness of the Sioux, on behalf of our government, on behalf of all U.S. citizens– for all the ways we have harmed them. Those veterans participated in this Ceremony of Forgiveness to rejoin a human realm from which they felt excluded. They did it for themselves. And they did it for all of us.

………..

I write this on the somber eve before tomorrow’s meeting of the Electoral College. Regardless of the petitions we’ve signed, the phone calls we’ve made, the emails we’ve sent, the outrage about the election that we’ve expressed— we’re not likely to stop the juggernaut. We’ll likely see the outcome we’re dreading come to pass.

In the late 19th century, philosopher William James called for “the moral equivalent of war.” He was asking, “How can we get the United States to have a great moral cause, that can unite us to do marvelous things?” As we gird ourselves for the weeks and months ahead, well need these symbolic gestures to guide us as we embark on our own “moral equivalent to war,” as citizen-activists. It may not be exactly what William James had in mind, but in opposition to the ransacking of democratic values by the Trump administration, oh yes, we will be united.

I’ll keep the images from Standing Rock close at hand, deep in my heart: the soldier bending his knee; the old man placing his hand on the young man’s bowed head, the undeniable presence of a terrible history, the unearthly yet human sound of those joyous ululations.

A Return (Chatham Cemetery, August 2016)

Posted in history, Pacific War, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War, Travel on August 22, 2016 by Louise Steinman

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My friend Beth lives across the street from the rural cemetery in the town of Chatham, in New York’s lush Hudson Valley. On summer visits from bone-dry L.A., it’s a balm to walk between the pair of centuries-old sentinel maples into the cemetery’s vast silent greenspace; to stroll the rows of mossy granite headstones, shaded by ancient hawthorns and oaks.

I calibrate lifespans– the gravestones of women whose lives ended in their twenties in childbirth or flu pandemic. I ponder those who lived across the cusp of centuries and savor the musicality of their names: TenBroek and Van Tassell, DeMoranville. I always visit the graves of the three veterans of the Union Army’s “Colored Infantry,” their names erased by wind and rain on stone. Small headstones mark births and deaths of children who succumbed perhaps to whooping cough, diphtheria—- sending my thoughts veering to front page photos: young children dying now in besieged Aleppo.

Usually when we walk, we’re the only ones there.

A few days ago, we encountered a rare invasion: pick-ups parked along the gravel drive; young men with weed whackers cleaning around graves. What had summoned so many volunteers on a hot afternoon? A friendly matron collecting litter filled us in: a WW2 soldier was soon to return home. She pointed to a grave bedecked with small American flags where the remains of PFC George Traver, a Marine born in Chatham in 1918, will soon be re-interred from a mass grass on Tarawa, a coral atoll in the Pacific. Travers died there in November 1943, along with a thousand other Marines and some 4500 Japanese (most of whom fought to their death rather than surrender)– in one of the most hideous battles of the Pacific War. Exposed to the heat, the bodies decomposed quickly and the Marines buried their dead in one large grave. A Florida-based group called History Flight discovered Traver’s remains along with 35 other fallen Marines in May 2015.New radar penetrating technology revealed the decades-old mass grave on Tarawa, and George’s remains were sent—with those of the other Marines—to an Army facility in Hawaii. They identified him by dental records and the Boy Scout knife in his pocket. He’d written to his mother requesting it, wanting to carry into battle a souvenir from home.

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George Traver will be buried next to his Gold Star mother, Nellie V. Cramer, who received a Western Union telegram on December 23, 1943: “Deeply regret to inform you that your son was killed in action in performance of his duty and in the service of his country.”

Our now-tearful informant added that George’s mother waited thirty-five years for him, “until she couldn’t wait anymore.” For the ceremony coming up on August 29th, she added, there would be “full military honors—a firing squad and all…” I knew she meant a twelve-gun salute.

On our way back, we paused in front of the grave of another younger Chatham veteran, Joseph J, Wright. he was born in 1987, fought in Iraq, came home in 2012 and died two years later, in 2014. By mistake, the metal plaque from the government with his birth/death dates was delivered by FED EX to Beth’s doorstep on Cemetery Road. She searched out the young man’s obit, noting requested donations to the Wounded Warrior Project. The photo attached to this still-shiny headstone shows a handsome young man in uniform, “a beloved husband and father.”

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At dinner that night, we were joined by a mutual friend who grew up in Germany. When we told her about Private Traver’s impending return, and the mother who waited 35 years, she recalled an image from her own childhood right after the war: her young aunt sitting by the radio each night, listening intently to Deutsches Roteskreuz, the German Red Cross broadcast, hope fading that her lost soldier husband had been found somewhere. No matter the war, someone is waiting at home. I learned this when I made the trip to Japan in 1995 to return the flag my own father acquired in combat to the family of Yoshio Shimizu, who was twenty-one when he died. “You brought us back Yoshio,” one cousin told me. “The government just sent sand in a box.”

On today’s early morning walk, I followed the path by the cemetery pond, surprising a great blue heron who took wing towards the cemetery’s new Jewish section. There are only a few graves so far, all recent. On the headstone of Saul Cohen, someone’s “beloved father and grandfather”—his kindred have left copious small stones—as is the custom. The summer sky is blue with voluminous moving clouds. Crows chant sporadically from the high branches of the elms, the dead sleep their sleep and soon—after long delay, and in this long summer of our national discomfort. Private First Class George Traver, a native of this town, will join them.
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