I have outlived my mother. Our February birthdays were two days apart. She died twenty minutes before another year would have begun. Every February, as our birthdays – along with her deathday – approached, my anxiety intensified. My fear was even greater last year. Nearing the age she was when everything stopped, I felt mortality creeping up on me. While its footsteps have receded, now I am well and truly an old woman. And I am trying to figure out what that means, how being an elder can be restorative as well as a reminder that my earthly time is shorter than ever.


My mother’s name was Florence. Calling her only ‘my mother’ is to reduce her to the status of existing only in relation to me. In truth, I still view her that way, longing for our mother-daughter bond to have been happier than it was. Florence was not nurturing. Her way of dealing with the inquisitive, intense child who was her eldest of two (me) was to shut me down. ‘Don’t ask me that.’ ‘Do you want to be like your father and visit the mental hospital?’ ‘Why aren’t you doing your homework more quickly?’ etc. She had neither the temperament nor the opportunity to be maternal. Her energies went to more basic things like making sure her earnings as a bookkeeper were enough to augment my father’s miserly labourer’s wages. I still see the paper on which she kept small business accounts, little checked spaces where additions and subtractions were toted up.


In my mind’s eye, until relatively recently, my mother and our small house was ever present. It was a touchstone, the person and place against which I measured what I was doing and how I was living my life. Particularly my emotional life. I longed to be different from Florence, to be a loving person with an even-tempered, calm manner. I vowed never to yell, never to let my anxiety push me into raising my voice. I strove to be pretty, to be more physically attractive than Florence allowed herself to be. I traveled forth to see the world, making certain I did not inhabit a place so small as the house I grew up in on 160th Terrace. It was a house which Florence never left.

Needless to say, I’ve failed as much as I’ve succeeded. I look at my face in the mirror and see Florence’s outlines. I hear her tones when I’m upset with my partner and screaming in frustration. I retrace the trappings of our south Florida lower middle class house, remembering the time I cut myself on the jalousie window, and bled until Mrs. Bolt, our Hungarian neighbour, put sulfur powder in the wound. I recall the humid days when I had to water the grass, the Reader's Digest Book of the Month selections on the shelf, the frazzled meals of frozen peas and overcooked meat, my sister and I chastised when we made fun of the victuals. Most of all, I recall my mother’s weary anger as she tried to keep things from going under.

After two generations, all of us are forgotten. This truth torments me, one of those realities that cannot be transformed into a softer promise. I wonder who will remember me. And I recognize that when I am dead, Florence will be truly gone from this earth. I ask myself how I can honour her memory, a memory I don’t really cherish. I only fear that if I erase her, so will I vanish. I was not a loving daughter, and I did not ease my mother’s way. I longed only to get away – from her, from the unhappy house, from my impaired father. And get away I did. My life is rich. I have made of myself a worldly, educated, involved person. I have made a difference in the lives of a number of people. Though I have no biological children, I have mothered and I have sistered. I have a kind, loving, tolerant partner and share the joy of grandparenting his daughter’s children. And still, the shadow of my life as a daughter haunts me. So it is, so it must be. I live with the curse and the blessing of a mind full of memories.


Mother I never knew you...




Forgive me, my mother, for not being able to love you. As I must forgive you for being unable to soothe my childhood fears. After the death of my father, your husband, you had nine fulfilling years as a teacher’s assistant. This photo is you being honoured at the primary school two days before you died. I was there, though I did not recognize the woman being lauded and loved. Who was this person for whom many felt such fondness? Ah, it was Florence, not just my mother but a person all her own. Thank you – Florence, mother, individual – for giving me a shot at life.


 






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Updated: Feb 9

Finsbury Park in North London had a difficult 2021, as did much of the world. As the pandemic continued, the park struggled with government cuts. The impact of a reduced team of rangers was immense. Crime and damage in the park increased. Climate change is manifesting as diseases in trees, flooding in low levels, intense rain swamping the football pitches in Autumn and late Summer. In contrast, Spring and early Summer brought long hot spells, drying out fields and turning sparse grass yellow in the cracked, dusty earth. On the positive side, Weeds and Seeds, the Drumming School and Edible Gardens continued to grow, making things thrive in these miraculous places situated at either end of the park.


Amongst all the park activity, I spent the year preparing for the appearance of the Future Machine. I got to know the committed head ranger, Ricard Zanoli, and built a collaboration with local artist Esi Eshun. I also further developed my alliance with musicians Alexandre Yemaoua Dayo and Dave Kemp, who created the sounds of the Future Machine.




Future Machine is a mysterious artwork that travels across England to the same five different places as the seasons change every year. The plan is to make this same journey every year for 30 years (until 2050). Future Machine appears in each place as a witness to changes that will be visible ‘when the future comes’. The Machine collects and plays back messages to be heard in years to come. It also captures present-day weather, using live weather sensors attached to the back of the artwork. Future Machine sings the sounds of the weather and prints out an invitation to think about the future.


In 2021, Future Machine started its first journey across England. Appearing in Christ Church Gardens in Nottingham, when the trees blossomed, to the River Leven in Cumbria when a small group met up the river as Summer turned to Autumn,

and in Finsbury Park in November as the autumn leaves fell. This journey will be expanded in 2022 to include appearances in Cannington, Somerset and Rotherfield Peppard, Oxfordshire.




Over the course of these journeys, Future Machine has evolved. It’s changed physically as parts of it were rebuilt, improved and refined. But its character and presence have also grown. Future Machine is becoming a being of its own, beyond an artwork. People project their ideas onto it. Myths develop about what it is, where it has come from, and where it’s going. Its presence encourages and embodies people's visions, concerns and dreams of the future. Future Machine’s sounds have also evolved. They’ve become more complex, layered in ways that are different each time. The sounds respond to live data reflecting weather and place, making these elements even more present. Future Machine is creating experiences as it goes. Each appearance, in each place, informs the next.


The human artist/musicians – Rachel Jacobs, Esi Eshun, Alexandre Yemaoua Dayo and Dave Kemp – planned the route through Finsbury Park. Esi devised a route linking seven trees – a willow tree by the lake, a row of silver birches, a eucalyptus tree, an elder tree, a great hornbeam and a mulberry tree. The procession ended where it began, at the London plane tree next to Furtherfield Gallery. Future Machine led the procession, pulled by its companion Rachel Jacobs and others who helped navigate difficult terrain. The seven trees reference the story of the seven sisters star cluster and the seven sisters for whom the road along the park is named – seven elm trees planted in a circle around a walnut tree.


As the procession stopped at each tree, Esi talked about the tree and its history, adding her own reflections. Jo Roach, local poet and founder of Finsbury Park's Pedal Power, a cycling club for people with learning disabilities, read some of her tree-related poems. Ricard, head ranger, spoke of his work in the park. Future Machine also called at Weeds and Seeds to meet May DeGrace, who presented the gardening and drumming projects in her corner of the park.





Many people joined the procession, some coming and going throughout the day, others following all day, some joining in to help push the machine uphill. We stopped along the way for children and adults to turn the handle powering the machine, everyone invited to speak to the future by talking into the small copper trumpet on the side. As Future Machine led the procession, it sang the songs of the weather, changing throughout the day reflecting dry, windy and mild to cold.



The parade ended with a gathering around the London plane tree for a live performance with musicians Alexandre Yemaoua Dayo, David Kemp, Miles NCube, and Terese, along with Rachel and Future Machine. Parakeets sang, their voices echoing from the canopy of the plane tree as they joined the chorus.


 



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Updated: Oct 29, 2021

by Rose Levinson



Photo by Julia Yee




From William Carlos Williams

Tract

“I will teach you my townspeople
How to perform a funeral.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
From us, we who have nothing to lose? "


Grieving is a lifelong process. The early death of my first husband, half a lifetime ago, is always with me. Steve’s loss is a quiet absence, one I come upon as to an old friend. Although in truth, sometimes it’s the events surrounding his illness and death I remember, rather than the person. Steve died at thirty and I was twenty-nine. I don’t have enough memories stored. But I do the best I can to keep him alive.


On the other hand, it was a surprise to find myself mourning my father. This parent has been a continuous absence, starting when I was young. His serious depression carried him far away. I’m not certain what led to writing about him on my visit to Ireland’s Inis Mor. Perhaps it’s sadness about how the world feels right now. I return to that original sorrow, the early loss of my male parent.


Here are two reflections on my own grieving. And because I was mourning my father, this issue of Emerging Voices is late. I needed time to go further inward.



 




ON RITUAL



Are we ready, we dwellers on this suffering planet, to mourn what we’ve lost? Can we prepare for deaths to come, acknowledge deaths we’ve caused? Shall we begin a search for rituals to honor the world we’ve desecrated?


I ask these questions on a remote Irish island, Inis Mor. Odd that the urbanite I am should find myself in such a place, soothing in its calm and empty space. This morning, I walked beside the Atlantic, that sea which flung millions to the far corners of the earth. I embraced a sacred Celtic standing stone and tied a ribbon of desire to a hawthorn tree. I stood beside a well where countless islanders have placed stones of longing. I added my pebbles to theirs, watched them sink into the water. I asked our guide to bless me, and was comforted by his Celtic bestowal.


This time of year is auspicious for me personally and for my ethnic group. I’m a Jew, one moved by the rituals developed by my tribe over centuries. The Celts were in Ireland from around 500 BCE. Historically, the Hebrew year count starts in 3761 BCE. This is 5782 in the Hebrew calendar. Both communal identities predate the Christian era. Celtic rituals are alive in a place like Inis Mor. They speak in this place and beyond. They spoke to me. Embracing the stone, tying the ribbon, placing my pebbles, I murmured Hebrew words, I recited ancient Jewish prayers, I fused my intimate rituals with those of an unknown culture, enmeshed and comforted by both of them.


The power of ritual to shape experience, to order and contain it, is profound. Over the centuries, we humans have devised countless ways of marking our short journey from birth to death. Ritual is the heart of all religious practices. Of the twelve prevailing world religions, the Abrahamic trio of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are prominent, along with Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. Alongside these, Baha’i, Confucianism, Jainism, Shinto, Taoism and Zoroastrianism add their unique responses to human finitude, along with nativist religions. All have devised actions, objects, calendars, movements, music to ritualize what is called belief.


As important are the uncountable rituals we individual humans make up, uttering our own unique pleas in the middle of innumerable troubled nights. Rituals help us express mourning. Without lamentation, there is no consolation. Ritual can make grief manageable.


On September 8, more than half a lifetime ago, my first husband died. The date is seared into my being. I’m remembering Steve now, and the final time I saw him, in his hospital bed in Dayton, Ohio. He was comfortable when last I was with him. And then, at around 6 a.m., I got the call that he was dead. They didn’t allow me to spend time with his uninhabited body, hustling me out of the room where he lay. I regret this, still sorry I didn’t challenge the medical staff who rushed me away. They did not permit me to sit with Steve and take in the awesome fact he was dead. They did not grant me time to invoke a ritual, to say the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.


The absence of sitting in mourning has marked me forever, an opportunity lost. Buried sorrow sometimes comes to me in the form of unbearable anxiety. I didn’t know enough then about the need for ritual, the need to enact a way to face that which is ultimately triumphant: death. I know now there are ways we can grieve, both individually and communally. We must find them or we must create them. It’s what we humans can do in the face of an overwhelmingly confused world and the ongoing loss around us.


For those who lost loved ones to Covid, unable to be present at their dying time, the anguish is magnified. The loss of intimacy and parting ritual is another devastation of this plague. A daughter, Maria, who lost her mother to the virus, sobbed as she described lighting two candles every night, saying her mother’s name in front of the small flames. ‘It brings me some relief, even though I know it’s just candles in my living room.’


Which brings me to the overall theme of this Emerging Voices: Lamentations, cries of anguish for that which is lost and will never be again. Lamentation is a cry of anguish, savage in its purity. Grief inhabits a space of purity unmoored from constraints of reason or restraint. To lament is to let the profundities of loss penetrate the soul. Ritual is often the surest anchor to re-bind us to life.





For My Father


Max. Often called Mac. My father and the parent of my sister. Husband to my mother, Florence. Son of my Polish grandfather, Sam, a mean old man. He’d broken his back when a building block fell on him. Sam walked with a stick, but that didn’t stop him being overbearing and dismissive. When I visited him, at my Aunt Ro’s house where he lived, he’d be at a card table, playing pinochle with a bunch of men and sipping schav, a sorrel leaf and sour cream soup. When his grandchildren walked in, a nod, in his shrunken Polish Jewish world, was a huge greeting. My grandfather did not go in for nurturing. And he was hard on my father, who was not the kind of son someone like him should have had.


Max was the middle child. His sister Edith was the eldest, and Rose, called Ro, the youngest. Both of these women were stronger than my father. Edith was generous, loud, mother of four from three different fathers. First born Harry’s father was unknown, Edith not having bothered with a convention like marriage when she had him at nineteen. Her husband was Uncle Mel, who paid the bills by filing civil suits whenever the occasion arose and slipping on people’s front porches so he could sue for damages. Of their four children, Bea was the only girl. She and I became friends when she lived in Los Angeles, and I was a comforter as she lay dying. Having married two African-American men, and fathered a child with one of them, Bea had been excised from the family. It always surprised me that Edith, who was open in so many ways, should prove to be poisoned when it came to race.


Aunt Ro and Uncle Harvey were the glamorous couple. I remember them leaving their house to go to dances sponsored by the American Legion. Ro’s clothing and make-up made her look like the movie stars I saw in the glossy magazines she bought, her perfume trailing behind as she walked to the door. Uncle Harvey’s suit and tie were stylish, his hair slicked back and shiny with pomade. But Uncle Harvey was a gambler. He ended up driving a taxi, losing his house and wife, hanging out with shady characters in downtown Miami, and dying in a seedy hotel. Aunt Ro remarried, having a good life and ending up, as did so many northeastern Jews, living under the palms of Los Angeles.


And then there was their brother, my father, Max, the male child. He was unassuming, gentle, barely articulate. He was not masculine, if masculinity is defined as strong and decisive and able to cope with the world. Max never finished high school, his formal schooling ending at the end of year eight. When I was in my thirties, I learned he’d been married once before. So far as I’m aware, I was the first child born to him, but who knows.


Max was working as a waiter in the Poconos in upstate New York. In the nineteen forties, this was the resort of choice for Jews from New York and surrounding areas. The Poconos was where the working class went to eat lox and cream cheese, drink coffee and munch on rugalah, play bad tennis and lie around in the sun. A photo of my father shows a nice looking man, short but attractive, with a sweet small mustache. On his arm was a folded towel, the kind you use to clean a table.


In the Poconos, on vacation, my father’s parents met my mother’s parents. My father was twenty-four and my mother twenty-eight. Time for marriage. In Max’s case, a second one, in Florence’s case, a first. It was an arranged marriage of sorts, the parents pushing these two weak-willed people into a liaison. Their wedding picture is full of hope; later pictures show two people whose union did not bring happiness. Whatever joy there might have been was snuffed out by inadequate money, an overbearing mother-in-law living in the back of the house, a subservient daughter--my mother--who took out her rage at my father and her daughters through a continual stream of churlishness. And there was my father’s mental illness.


Looking at my mother now that I have lived beyond the age at which she died, I feel mainly understanding and sorrow. She must have felt trapped with two daughters to rear, a husband who earned little to no money, a mother who never let her feel adequate. Her parents lived with us until they died, and my grandmother ruled the house with constant instructions about how things were to be done. She sat sometimes on the front porch with our neighbour from across the street, Mrs. Bolt. I overheard her speaking contemptuously of my father, of how he wasn’t a good provider. It broke my heart, and I covered my ears to block out her invective.


Max worked as a labourer. Sometimes he was behind the deli counter at the supermarket, chopping cabbage to make coleslaw. Other times he unloaded goods for the Seven-Eleven grocery chain. Occasionally, he helped out when a caterer was preparing a meal. He worked silently, he spoke little, he suffered much.


At intervals, my father was put into the psychiatric ward of the nearby state hospital. The hospital was not a snake pit. It was a pleasant enough environment. When I visited my father, his white coated attendant was kind, and I often saw my dad outside in the exercise area. He was incarcerated to deal with depression, overwhelming seizures of sorrow which set him weeping and pacing. He was never violent or abusive, nor could he say what tormented him. The treatment of choice was electric shock therapy, administered to bring him out of whatever depths he was inhabiting. As my father was inarticulate, the ECT only increased his inability to put into words what was going on. Returning from a hospital session, he went back to whatever menial work was to be had. My mother, herself working as a bookkeeper, had some relief for a time, but the cycle repeated.


My father died at sixty-two. He was in the hospital at the time of his death, in restraints. It’s an image I can hardly bear to recall, his ending so constricted and so subdued. It wasn’t suicide, but surely he had decided deep inside it was all too much and time to go.


My father occupies a blank space in my interior self. I seldom think of him, and when I do, it’s with anxiety along with sadness. When I feel overwhelmed and sad, I worry I’ll go under as did he, unable to cope and crushed by the genes he passed on. I hardly know this man, though I lived with him until I went off to university at nineteen. When I was with him, he said little to me. I think having a daughter, let alone two, was too much for him. Not interfering with our lives was all he could manage. At least, he never abused us, and he worked hard at low level jobs to keep us fed and clothed. After his death, meeting with his psychiatrist and begging him to explain what was wrong with my late father, all he could say was, ‘We were never sure. But working was very important to him.’ Desperate to understand, this was all I was given.


It’s difficult to honor my father, to wish for any of his qualities. His truncated development made him almost non-human. When I try to figure out why he was so malformed, I can only guess it’s partly biological and possibly the result of a father who no doubt made him feel not only inadequate but totally defective as a man. But that’s my need to make sense of it, to have a coherent story. No doubt there are other contributing factors hidden away in his troubled journey.



Though I have no biological children (doing my mothering in a different way), my one sibling has two children. Throughout their youth, she worried they would show signs of mental instability. Widowed young, I missed the motherhood window. It is, thankfully, something for which I have no regrets. I would not have done well, continually on guard for signs of my father’s damaged self.


These few words are the closest I’ve come to focusing intently on my dad, on Max Levine, trying to honor the human who brought me into the world and enabled me to get to this time, to this place. He had a short, unhappy life. I wish it had been otherwise, both for him and therefore, for me. As we Jews say to honour our dead: may his memory be for a blessing.



 


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