In Judaism we read the Torah from cover to cover each year. The entrire set of scrolls is divided in a a number of segments, then every Jew and every synagogue studies that piece of the Torah at that time each year. The cycle begins right after the High Holidays when we go back to Genesis 1, and read of the Creation all over again. This being the third week of the year, all Jews read the portion called Lech Lecha.
In this parsha God tells Abraham., “Come with me to a place where I will show you……” Abraham travels then to this land, as told, where he encounters a drought, and must work to make this land, which shown to him by God, his own. This story, at this time in my life, resonates.
I was living in the Washington DC area. My health was terrible. I was taking 15 different prescription medications. My chronic absences meant I could not continue to teach as I had been for the past 40 years. My sons lived there. I had to tell them good bye .
I read this portion, and it took on new meaning for me. There is a place for me, a place where I can thrive, where I can throw off the many medications, the constant doctor appointments, and find a new life. And it worked. Here I am nine years later, living a totally new life, happy and fulfilled.
For the first six months I lived here I spoke to nobody, I sat in my house with my unhappy dog and watched quiz shows. But I found a way out of that, discovered first life-long learning classes, then ceramics. My lech lecha story! How I came to the Verde Valley and found my own continuing journey. And I wonder, how many people living here have their ownm lech lecha story>
But, going back to Abraham. His story, goes back to the time when he and his family lived in Ur as sellers of stone idols. They were monotheists, and in grave danger. I came across this story, and asked myself, “What could motivate this family to move to a place thousands of miles away to escape?” I met Amitlaai, Abraham’s mother, and then wrote down her story This is it:
Amatlai: Mother to Abraham,
I was born in Ur, a hub of government and trade in ancient Chaldea. By the time I was twelve I questioned our religion. How could multiple gods dwell in stone idols and within the natural forces these statues embodied? Struck by the single unity of mountains, rivers, skies, I came to a belief in monotheism. This complicated my life as wife to one of King Nimrod’s top aids . The fact my husband, Terach, worked an as idol seller, added to my difficulties.
I’d raised our two older sons with few problems. Late in life I became pregnant with Abram. I knew this son was special, even before his birth. His movements within my womb seemed to have purpose to them. Soon after he was born, unbeknownst to us, Nimrod’s stargazers discerned Avram to be a future enemy of the king’s idolatry. Nimrod heard this and ordered us to bring our infant son to him. I sensed something to be amiss. Terach grabbed a slave’s son to present as we dashed to our meeting with the king. We stood, horrified, as King Nimrod killed the infant slave with his own hands.
As Abram grew I shared secrets of the universe I’d come to understand. With weak eyes I could barely see the sun rise , but felt its warmth. I did not see the glitter of the stars, but heard the twitter of crickets sparkling in the night’s coolness. I observed how everything in this world fit together so carefully. I knew, without a doubt, this could not have been done by a multitude of stone gods. Only a single deity could take disparate beauties, the songs of birds, the seeming wrath of winds and the coolness of a deep pool of water, combine these, and throw in the soft souls of people and the sharp shards of stone. If only Nimrod and his soothsayers could understand this! As I let the sun’s rays soak into my skin each morning, I heard a still inner voice affirm, “Yes Amatlai , I am the One God.”
At the start of each day I took Avram outside to share this special time. I felt him absorb my thoughts and words .. I heard his toddler feet patter as he ran from stone to flower, enjoying the feeling of early morning’s sun on his skin. His first word was 'One'.
As an adult living in a center of idol worshippers, I knew enough to keep silent about my beliefs. As Avram grew, I understood God, in control, would protect Avram. Since I shared I his wonder and excitement, I couldn’t stifle it. He explored his surroundings and talked of his beliefs. “One, One, Holy One,” he chortled.
Too soon, word of young Avram’s enthusiastic monotheism reached King Nimrod. Terach and our son were once again summoned to court. I knew Nimrod to be as capricious as the wind, and I held my breath. He rebuked my husband, for bringing him the wrong baby at Avram’s birth. Attempting to disguise our deceit, Terach blamed this mix-up on a servant who gave him the wrong baby. “I was concerned about our appearance in your court and I did not even stop to check the baby.” Fortunately, the king was momentarily appeased with this explanation.
I took this reprieve as a serious warning to hide Avram. We found a nearby cave, where we lived for the next ten years. It was Avram who best understood that shadows within my limited vision could be ditches in his. I tripped over these shadows and Avram led me in a new direction.
Haran, my oldest son, 32 years older than Avram, often came to take his brother on walks, accompanied by his own son, Lot. Knowing Haran to be indiscreet, I held my breath during these outings. Would he be able to quiet Abram’s affirmations? One fateful day my family strolled along the banks of the Euphrates River, deep in conversation. “There is one God, an unseen spirit,” Avram asserted, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically. “The spirit of our one God is greater and more powerful than King Nimrod, or any of his court.”
One of Nimrod’s counselors heard this blasphemous talk, an anathema to his idol-worshipping ears .. He dragged the three of them to King Nimrod. “Take them to the brick ovens, incinerate these blasphemers!” he charged.
Lot, sobbing, later filled me in on what happened. He said the interrogation began with Nimrod’s question: “Do you believe there is a being greater than I?”
“Oh there is no being greater than you,” young Avram responded.
“Is there anything greater than I?”
“Oh yes, King Nimrod. There is the one God over all beings, over the stars, the moon and even the sun,”
“Would this god rescue you from that great fire?”
According to Lot, his father Haran answered, “I hope so.”
“But you do not know for sure?” responded Nimrod.
“I have that faith,” piped up Avram.
Lot described how Nimrod’s aides shoved my young son into the oven. After a few minutes the aides recovered his body. All gasped in amazement. Not even a red spot on could be found on Avram’s body.
Lot said the aides turned to his father: “And you, Haran? Would your god do that for you as well?”
“I hope so,” Haran replied a second time
Lot watched as his father dove into the oven before anyone could push him and was burned up instantly.
“I don’t think my father had enough faith,” Lot realized aloud, trying to hold back his tears.
After this, Nimrod understood Avram was invulnerable and left him alone.
Terach expected Avram to apprentice in his idol shop. At first Avram tried to keep his beliefs in check, not wanting to bring any more hardship on our family. He neatly arranged the idols each morning and watched with disgust as townspeople came in to worship some idols and buy others.
One morning while I was sweeping the front stoop, I heard Avram speak as he dusted these stone idols. He rubbed his cloth over their smooth surface. I heard him speak aloud, “These idols, said to be filled with holy spirits all feel cold to me. The One’s Creation can feel warm like a beam of sun or as cold as a stream of water in winter.”
Suddenly, Avram smashed all the idols together. I heard the racket and ran into the showroom. I asked Avram was going on. Terach stood behind me.
“These idols started a fight and I tried to stop them.”
Terah replied, “But that’s crazy, Avram. You know these idols can’t move, can’t speak!”
And Terach was struck by his own words. He fell back into my arms.
“Your god, Amatlai , your god doesn’t stay within an inanimate object. Your god is everywhere!”
Forty years ago my then-husband and I planned a marathon Scandinavian summer tour. I was four months pregnant. By the following summer our opportunity to travel along the Norwegian fjords would be replaced by diapers and grandmothers in California who would demand bonding-time with this soon-to-be-here infant.
Itinerary planned, we made an appointment with the travel agent to sign for the tour. Then Dan got a phone call. Would he consider spending the summer in Washington DC as an aide to the President Carter’s science advisor. The deal was sweetened by a lunch in the White House Mess.
Then, he asked what it would take to convince me to spend the summer, pregnant, in DC. Hot, humid DC. No fjords in my future. We bargained, and I ended up with a six-week half-day sculpture class at the Corcoran Gallery. The as-yet unknown additional perks included a transit strike, allowing me to walk up and down Wisconsin Avenue into Georgetown in the stifling heat, with the gas fumes from the bus-less streets only DC could offer in July. And, just down the block was the Hirschhorn with its fabulous 20th century art collection.
I loved the sculpture class, but my lasting memory of that summer was my daily visit to the Hirschhorn, a contemplation of the abstract Picassos, the Louise Nevelson boxes, the spaghetti-stranded Giacometti’s. I stood in front of these works daily, tracing, in my mind, their curves, their lines. They became dear friends.
Eventually we moved full-time to DC. For the next 18 years I periodically paid a call on these old friends. Sometimes one was missing, a “cousin” standing in for the young ballerina by Degas or Dali’s melting clock. But they were always there waiting for me.
Then in 2010 I moved to Arizona. I paid a final visit to my friends, storing their lines and shapes in my memory. I thought of them frequently, mentally tracing, their shapes. A year ago I began doing my abstract sculptures. I noted how my fingers seemed to know how to move through the clay, where to pull, and when to pinch. It was like they had held the memories of these sculptures within their muscles.
I planned a trip to visit my grandsons in Columbia, Maryland. A friend and I planned a two-day extension to my trip. I would go back to visit with my Hirschhorn friends. The weather was gray. More rain expected within a day or two. I pushed through the circular doors, rushed in. “No need to see the paintings in the inside galleries. I have come for the sculptures,” I announced to Marge. We approached the first room. Something was wrong. There were no sculptures displayed. Around the entire circumference of the space was a collage of stripes. As we progressed around the room, the stripes grew figurative, gradually. This was Picketts charge?
Maybe a few of my friends survived on the second floor? Next to the staircase sat the disgustingly fat man piece I had never related to. But the inside gallery was almost empty. A few beams of light crossed the interior space. None of the fabulous collection Mr. Hirschhorn amassed was on display.
We went out to the sculpture garden. Every piece out there was wrapped tightly for the impending rain. Gardeners were trimming back tree limbs, and the entire space was cordoned off. No reunion this trip!
We went back inside to get further details. This show has been hanging for six months, and would hang for another year. I was livid, and expressed this to the staff. I knew there was nothing they could do!
We salvaged the day by walking a few blocks over to the African American National Museum. Normally opened to only ticket holders, and jam-packed, this week the museum was open to all. Crowds had stayed away because of the constant rain. We bought lunch in the cafeteria—crispy fried chicken, shrimp and grits, collard greens. All tasty. Then we immersed ourselves in African American history for the next three hours. A well-spent afternoon, not the one I had been wishing for.
I saw my 34-year-old son that evening. I started to describe my experience. “Oh Mom! I love the Hirschhorn because they are so avant-garde, so willing to challenge what one normally expects in an art gallery!”
“But celebrate nothingness?”
“Absolutely! And besides, you got to see the African American museum. Know how many people are still waiting to see it, two years after it opened?”
“Yeah. I hear tickets for it are going for two years from now,”
On my next visit I think I will focus on the National Gallery and East Wing. Those exhibits do not change. The National Gallery’s collection will never be co-opted for a celebration of empty space! And as I lament the absence of my “friends”, I wonder. Am I an Old Fogey?
I had just turned two. My older brother, Paul, was scheduled for out patient surgery on his eyes-fifteen minutes, maybe. Then he would start kindergarten. We brought a little kitten into the waiting room, and we took our seats. All four of us, my Mommy, my Daddy, and my baby brother. I held the kitten. Whenever my thumb got close to my mouth, my father cuffed me. “Too dirty,” he growled. Time passed. fifteen minutes, twenty, an hour, two. Nobody came out. Finally the nurse who was my mother’s friend peered in, she had been crying. “He died,” she sobbed. My parents both cried. I had never seen Daddy cry. They said nothing to me. I was good. I followed them out of the hospital. We left the kitten on the chair. They dropped me at a stranger’s house where I stayed for several weeks while they adjusted to the loss of my older brother.
I have never, in some ways, moved beyond this earliest memory, my abandonment. Seventy years later the headlines scream about our government tearing children from their parents. Some of these children are two, too. I feel their earliest memory.
These headlines, this summer have forced me to revisit this trauma. Nightmares have returned.
This has been a long, hot and difficult summer. After a minor traffic incident, in which no car was damaged, no citation issued, I was diagnosed by a young doctor in town with epilepsy. I took three different anti-seizure medications at, what this fledgling practitioner deemed, “baby doses.” The side effects brought on depression, limited ability to interact with others, and an affect so dead I avoided most social interactions
Writing, under the influence of the “baby doses” of the medications I was prescribed, felt doomed. I could not form sentences which flowed into coherent paragraphs. For the first time in my life, I felt I could not put words onto a page.
I went for a second opinion yesterday. The more matured physician to whom I was referred took ten minutes to read my chart. He singled out and read aloud comments from a previous neurologist who examined me. These said, “There is no reason to expect this patient to ever experience seizures in the future.” Yet this was the test with which the newly anointed specialist proved his diagnosis. Such arrogance! When I complained of feeling anxious and being unable to carry out my life in my usual manner, this doctor assured me, “As long as you are not suicidal, nor homicidal, that is fine.”
And why even endure the draconian measures dictated by this know-it-all egotist? The punishments he spelled out, if I were to suffer another epileptic fit, which he assured me was highly likely, would destroy me. I can be scared into obedience.
“And the quality of my life?” I queried? My tormentor shrugged.
I had set goals for this summer: A blog a week, a marketing plan to sell so many pieces for Christmas, an increased presence on the web. Now I attend organizational meetings for holiday shows. My body of work does not seem sale-able. No Christmas ornaments sit within my inventory. Maybe this is not the year to become an entrepreneur. I will settle for simply being an artist and a writer. Ann, the writer, is back. She welcomes the promised cooler temperatures for an Arizona fall, looks forward to upcoming visits with her sons, and, with some effort, realizes the words swimming in her head can still find their way onto the computer screen.
I awaken from a nightmare. Thank God for second opinions! (And for thesaurus.com)
Maybe it is because we are in the midst of an extended drought. We never had a winter this year. Our last significant rainfall came at the end of the monsoons last September. But this year we seem to be more on edge, more expectant than other years for the impending moisture.
Arizona, and many parts of the Southwest experience summer storms. Clouds gather during the day. Horizons darken. Humidity builds. Later in the afternoon rumbles of thunder can be heard. They edge closer, grow in volume. Soon a lightning bolt crosses the sky. People gasp as they watch the arcs of electricity. Rain begins to fall, first light and in patches eventually; with the “good” monsoons” the rain pours down. Puddles become rivulets which race across the parking lots. Eventually the rain moves on. Rainbows, particularly as the sun begins to sink, appear.
Like everything, however wonderful, Arizona monsoons do have their dark side. Intense monsoons bring on flash floods. Our roads are crossed by dry creek beds. Most of the time, these are merely annoying dips in the road. There are warning signs in front of them, “Do Not Cross in High Water.”
Flash floods can be deadly. Several years ago there were several groups of tourists were washed through slot canyons near Page. Last year, on my July 15 birthday, a family reunion in a swimming hole near Payson, 60 miles from here, turned tragic when nine family members were washed away, and drowned. The irony then was the weather in Payson was sunny. The storm which caused the flash flood occurred miles away. There was almost nothing to warn the family of impending disaster. Several times tourists have drowned in slot canyons in Page, near the Utah border in monsoon-related flash floods.
But right now, as temperatures climb well past 105, and our near-zero humidity hits double digits, we are all speculating on the onset of the monsoons. The temperature drop of sometimes almost 30 degrees, the welcome moisture, the fresh winds, we love these. We will gaze in wonder at the myriad of rainbows that pop up. we will breathe in clear, dust-free air once again. Our thirsty wildlife, bees, birds, beetles and javelina, will be able to find renewed sources of drinking water. The seemingly unbearable Arizona heat will feel more bearable.
Just wait. In a week or two Facebook will bloom with gorgeous rainbows, breathtaking sunsets. We will share our monsoon experiences with all of you, not lucky enough to see it firsthand.
And next year, around the Fourth of July, we will again be waiting for the monsoons!
"With all the beauty surrounding me here above the Verde Valley, how could I not create more beauty?"