The Joy Menu #45: Dialogue

"Much of my childhood was spent interpreting the art on the walls of our home. So to look at it now with him, to ask him what they mean to him, is meaningful, if bittersweet."

Dear Creators,

Let’s talk about what I don’t remember.

I don’t remember ever seeing my father hold a pencil, or draw, or express a hierarchy of activities which held art at the top above all. Not when I was little. Not before I was fifteen.

I don’t remember my father ever telling me that to be an artist, or to make art, was more meaningful than any other life or life path. Not when I was young. Not in fifth grade when I decided that I wanted to be an asthma doctor, a “pulmonary specialist,” and declared as much to parents and class.

I don’t remember any explanations, explicit or otherwise, any modeling, any directives. Not when we all started to play music, when we asked for private lessons (recommended by the teachers at school), when we began to audition for orchestras, and to be driven all over town for clinics and classes and rehearsals. 

It was never said. It was never even suggested.

And yet.

Yet, kids read more than just words. 

Kids understand more than just what’s spoken.

What did I see in how my father looked at art, in how he spoke of it, in how he centered it — despite his non-artistic job, our domesticated life in the suburbs — that led me to create such a hierarchy on my own?

Was it something I understood when, later, I told him I wanted to play guitar, and he agreed — agreed to buy me one and pay for my lessons — only if I studied classical guitar first?

Was it something I understood when we loaded up the car on the weekends to drive to other Southern California towns, towns with art museums, towns with sculpture gardens, that this was how he wanted to spend one of his two days off, not “at the lake,” or watching sports like the other dads, and not on his own, not without us there to see and experience the art alongside him?

Was it something implied in the concerts we attended? The number of times my brother and sister and I were the only kids in an auditorium full of silver-haired audiences? How it was never even suggested that we’d opt out, stay home with a babysitter, or go to a friend’s? The way he assumed, what kid wouldn’t appreciate Bartok, Shostakovich, Handel, Martha Graham, Tito Puente, or Chuck Mangione?

Or was it all in me to begin with, something genetic passed from some forgotten shtetl ancestor, someone who sang while schlepping water, or danced their way from work to shul, or who drew in the margins of their account book, from this person to my grandmother and then to him and then to me — unavoidable and intrinsic, and therefore not needing explicit instruction, just the way we were built?

(Or is that every kid, every person, is born with this in their soul, and I was just given license, given permission, given him?)

As kids, we absorb lessons which no adult intends to teach — as if the air itself, the inflection words carry, the lines on our faces, betray emotions we are unaware of, meaning we think is neutral, perspectives we don’t even know we exude.

The very way we hold ourselves, the way we react, and act, and move; this is also instruction. Add posture to nature and nurture. Add tone. Add voice. 

Or at least, I did.

At the American School In Israel, my father sits among other displaced kids. Only, he’s from South Africa — where even is that — and the other kids are mostly military brats, real Americans, uprooted from schools in Texas or Oklahoma or San Diego, Fort Bragg or Fort Hood or Fort Bliss.

His class is small. Maybe a dozen kids. And the way he tells it, they’re prone to drink beer, to hang out, to slide through the days with disinterest and contempt. 

There are exceptions, kids whose parents have come to work, or to be part of one Zionist experiment or another: a kibbutz, a collective, a building project, a business, or politics, medicine, international aid. His best friend is a French boy named Maurice. His father is a publisher.

But already — maybe setting the course for the rest of his life — my father stands out. 

He’s still figuring out who he is, but he knows — more and more — who he isn’t. And he isn’t this

Then again, he’s no longer exactly what he was either. No more cricket, no more British style desks set in a row. No more townships. No more summers at Muizenberg within the closed circuit of the South African Jewish community. 

Rather, now: there’s war in the rearview mirror, and on the horizon. The military — not the American one — looms, and military service will be his fate unless he decides to leave his family behind. 

Right now: a new language, a new culture, a new people, new expectations, new routines.

Unwilling to do the activities asked of them in class, my father did his own reading, wrote the papers he wanted to write, pushed back when asked to do something which didn’t seem valuable, when what was taught didn’t make sense. (In this way, he was very much already himself). And his English teacher accepted it. Encouraged it. Celebrated it.

Years later, when I have begun to define myself as a writer, when I am struggling to make sense of what it means to pursue such a strange and beguiling fate, he tells me the story of this English teacher at the American School.

“We were close with him,” he says. “I remember him sitting there, surrounded by piles of pages, drafts of novels, manuscripts in various states of completion. He’d write and write and write, but nothing was ever good enough. Nothing was ever finished.

“He told me to read as much as I could. That he’d read for years, read to absorb things — ideas and information, words and phrases and images. That reading is the first stage of writing. That you must read endlessly until one day, you realize you’ve read enough, consumed enough, and now it’s time to let it out. Time to make your own art.”

My father, who is not a writer, and who by that time has not made art in over a decade, explains to me this theory of creative expression in our living room, surrounded by books, surrounded by art — walls covered by both.

“That’s how he felt it worked,” he explained. “There are periods of ingestion, and periods of expression. 

You can’t short-circuit the process. You can’t rush it or cheat. 

You have to let each cycle take its time and serve its purpose. 

Even when it's hard.”

When he’s dying, and we’re talking about Israel, about his years there, his experience as a high school student, and in the military, in military prison, in college, I ask about this teacher.

“Did he ever finished those novels? Did he publish them? Did he figure it out?” I ask.

We look at each other. He shrugs his shoulders.

“You know,” he says. “I just don’t know.”

Before we pack up the house in Irvine, I ask him to give me a tour of all the art we have on the walls. He’s already had his surgery, and sports a gnarly gash on the side of his head, but otherwise he’s doing well — he’s nearly finished radiation; he’s on a break from chemo. He’s spry, forward-looking, grounded in the moments we still have.

I pick up my phone and follow him up the stairs. He’s in his trademark denim button down and thin black undies. I can see the folds on his upper thighs; his legs are still hairy and strong. He’s not wearing anything else — and why would he? I hit record.

“This one I did at Cranbrook,” he says, tapping the glass on a large framed black and grey print signed in his name. “And this one was Chicago, earlier,” he moves to tap the one next to it — a smaller print, with more white then grey, intricate patterns across thinner lines, a black rectangle on one side and a small black triangle across the bottom right corner. 

“And that was one of the guys who taught me etching and litho as well,” he points across the room, to the other wall toward an intricate figurative print. “Michael Miller; he’s still around, still producing. I looked him up recently.” This one always looked like huddling footballers to me, or a rugby scrum, or breaching whales — large bulbous forms coming from the ground or sea.  

Much of my childhood was spent interpreting the art on the walls of our home. So to look at it now with him, to ask him what they mean to him, to ask for the stories which define their creation, their acquisition, the artists behind each piece, feels important, meaningful, if bittersweet.

Through the art, I hope to record the lived feeling of being in house, what it’s been like to live here, for me and for him. This is the only home I’ve lived in, and left, and then lived in again — which I’ve come to think of as maybe the truest definition of home.

This art is part of what it means for this space to be home; as much a backdrop to my childhood as anything else: people, ideas, experiences.

I want to hear him speak about it — it’s history, what it means to him. He rarely interprets art, analyses it, or scores it; a movie is either enjoyable or not, a CD is either worth another listen or not; a concert is well-done or not; an exhibit worth the price of admission or not. 

Where art is concerned, he’s prone to declaration, not deconstruction; reaction, not reasoning; taste, felt experience, not intellection.

And maybe that’s it — maybe that’s the explanation.

To live among art without conception, without reasoning, without reason; just to be with it, to be in it, to be of it.

Maybe that’s the dialogue that raised me. The conversation I’ve continued here.

An expression which is now between me, my father, and the past. 

For now,

Onward toward creative joy,