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I Believe in Looking for Life

New York Times article by Emily Listfield

Fourteen years ago, my husband vanished. A talented sculptor whose work was in major collections, he had been in a downward spiral for over a year, unable to finish a single piece of work, tumbling into alcoholism, paralyzed by depression.

After 10 years of marriage, he moved into his studio in Lower Manhattan while I stayed in our nearby apartment with our 5-year-old daughter, Sasha. We spoke every day, often more honestly than we had in years, about the drinking that was destroying our marriage, the demons he had faced and triumphed over in the past and why he couldn’t fight them now.

Most of all, we spoke of Sasha. He adored her and, despite everything, remained a doting father. I hoped the separation would make him face what he was in danger of losing — his family, the ability to create art — and get the help he needed.

Instead, he went to Florida to stay with a woman he had dated in college and fell further into an alcohol-soaked haze, filled with self-blame, unreachable. At midnight on an August night, a few days before he was to return home, he apparently swam into the ocean as far as he could go and didn’t come back.

“Apparently” is the word that came to define his death, and my life, for years to come. My husband’s body was never found. The woman he was staying with waited four days to call the police. When they arrived, they found his ID, credit cards, unused airline ticket to New York and two drawings. One said: “Drowned.” The other: “Lonely Head, Dead.”

For the first few days, I told Sasha nothing. I clung to the hope that my husband would be found in a hospital, would magically appear at the airport for his return flight or, worst-case scenario, that his body would be discovered in some weedy cove.

None came to pass. And I discovered there is something worse: absence without answers. Finally, I had no choice but to tell Sasha her father had disappeared and we didn’t know what had happened. Each night she asked if there was news, her legs twirling in agitation, the horror of losing a much-loved parent exacerbated by the quicksand of uncertainty.

If the world could swallow up one parent without a trace, what protection is there? Six weeks later, as I began to accept that we might never have answers, I lied and told Sasha the police knew for sure her father had died. We held a memorial service and Sasha began to heal.

Questions naturally arose. When she was 8, Sasha turned to me out of the blue and said, “Mom, the police don’t really know for sure what happened, do they?”

The story she was so ready to believe at 6 was proving leaky. She began to make up better endings. In school, she wrote tales of a man who ventured into the ocean at night only to discover he had forgotten how to swim.

Always, in her stories, he was rescued by mermaids or suddenly reclaimed his aquatic ability. (And upon his return to shore, his wife was furiously yelling, “What were you thinking?”)

I held firm in my conviction that her father had died that night. I wanted most to spare Sasha the realization that there would always be a black hole in the center of our lives.

For the inevitable question, “Where is your father?” I gave her a pat answer: “Just say he drowned. You don’t need to explain more than that.”

I had found in my own life, particularly as I started dating again, that the surreal and open-ended nature of what had happened was as disturbing to listeners as to me. Nevertheless, Sasha instead replied, “I have no father.” On school forms, she wrote “none” rather than “deceased.”

The few times she tried to explain the situation in more detail, she was bombarded with questions she could not answer. Still, I found it unsettling that she was erasing a father who despite his struggles had loved her deeply.

Eventually, I published a novel based on the story, and while the act of shaping the narrative helped me to move on, I was worried how Sasha, then 14 and an inveterate reader, might react. I prepared a speech to give her with the book, stressing that I would be happy to answer any questions about her father’s death, and I waited.

But the novel languished on her bedside table for three years before she opened it. She claimed to be too busy. She kept pictures of her father in her room, but she never again inquired about the details of his disappearance. My version was her version, my life story hers.

Until now. Sasha, 20 years old and a junior in college, received an assignment to write a life story only she could tell. “I want to write about Dad,” she texted me.

At first, she intended to make it an impressionistic essay about how his death had shaped her, but her professor had another idea. She suggested Sasha approach it as an investigative piece.

My first response was outrage. How could this woman have any idea of what she was asking? I had long tried to shield my daughter from the vortex of uncertainty; the last thing I wanted was for her to start poking around, reaching out to people from years ago who may harbor conflicting theories. (One lone police detective still insisted my husband must be alive somewhere, and it had taken me seven years to get a death certificate.)

“My professor said you might be a bit hesitant or protective,” Sasha said. “It’s my life, too, and I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while.”

We tell our children the stories of our lives to shape our shared history, to give them identity and meaning, and sometimes to protect them. At some point, though, they will yank the story from our hands and make it theirs.

I agreed to help Sasha. Nevertheless, my inclination was to try to control the flow of information. I called my husband’s best friend from Florida and his brothers, alerting them to Sasha’s coming inquiries. I asked them to keep the door closed on any questions they may have about his death, though they assured me they had none.

A few days later, Sasha emailed to say she had decided to turn the assignment into a multimedia project. She asked for photos of the police reports, the Coast Guard charts of the tides the night her father died, the private investigator records. On a wintry afternoon, I opened a box that had been shut for years and began snapping pictures with my iPhone: the official documents, the unused airline ticket for his trip back to New York, the address book the police found that still had the hearts he had drawn around my name when we first started dating.

For all of my fears, though, it was not her father’s death that ended up interesting Sasha. She accepted it as fact: sad, bizarre, haunting, incontrovertible. It was his life that she wanted to learn about.

His single-minded determination awed her.

“Did you know that Daddy lived in an abandoned building when he was in college and ate canned soup so he could put all his money into his art?” she asked me.

It was that burning ambition, that will to create, that I first fell in love with, I told her, realizing now how little I had spoken of it.

“Do you have any idea what made him so committed to sculpture?” she asked.

I remembered a photograph of him at 7 with his mother, a dressmaker in Germany, standing at the table while she cut patterns, eerily similar to his later work. I hadn’t looked at it in a decade, but I sent it to Sasha along with photos from his shows, a list of his collectors, reviews of his work before the bottom fell out, stories I willfully had forgotten in the effort to forge a new life.

Sasha was hungry for detail, and I did my best, digging up shards of a past that felt at once distant and immediate. But the sadness that descended on me did not spill over to her. She was too busy filling in pieces and stitching them together.

It is a particularly American story, I told her, of a boy who came to this country at 8 not speaking a word of English; a teenager who left a difficult home and put himself through college and graduate school; an artist who succeeded magnificently and failed miserably, felled by his own addiction.

In the end, the story she wrote was about a man who redefined himself through art, a man of overwhelming talent and fatal flaws. I had spent 14 years trying to protect my daughter from her father’s death, and she gave me back his life.

"You must find the place inside yourself where nothing is impossible."

- Deepak Chopra (via lazyyogi)

"

I discovered that what’s really important for a creator isn’t what we vaguely define as inspiration or even what it is we want to say, recall, regret, or rebel against. No, what’s important is the way we say it. Art is all about craftsmanship. Others can interpret craftsmanship as style if they wish. Style is what unites memory or recollection, ideology, sentiment, nostalgia, presentiment, to the way we express all that. It’s not what we say but how we say it that matters.


Three more days to contribute to my Kickstarter to compile stories of #identity, #truth, #purpose, and #faith in Budapest: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/146166975/documenting-jewish-resilience-to-anti-semitism-in

"

- Federico Fellini (via purplebuddhaproject)

In Search of Home

I Believe in Resilience

Our generation of #Millennials are searchers. We yearn to find meaning and purpose in all that we experience and pursue.

How might this yearning change if our external cultures and identities are threatened?

I am intrigued by the intimate experience of being given a deeper understanding of identity and then being threatened to have it taken away. I wonder about the personal, societal, and intercultural implications. I find myself brainstorming what I can do to help.

Hungary was one of the countries in Europe hit hardest by the Holocaust. Today, the Jobbik party, representing a third of government, was elected on a majorly anti-Semitic platform. Budapest, Hungary is a city that simultaneously collects some of the most spiritually connected Jews in the world, and some of the most anti-Semitic cults in the world.

Young Millennial Jews in Budapest are stripped of their spiritual identities until adulthood due to their parents’ fear of political ostracism and discrimination. As young adults, they experiment with how much of a role their faith plays in their lives, and how they will choose to either embrace or abandon that faith. Amazingly, many of these young adults strongly embrace their faith, and are inspiring others worldwide to do the same.

Learn more and read their personal stories, receive personalized letters from these individuals, or receive photos or email updates by contributing to the Kickstarter project to make this book a reality:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/146166975/documenting-jewish-resilience-to-anti-semitism-in

"If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough."

Shout out to Simon Goldberg who inspires my newsfeed.

I Believe in Love Letters to Cities

Embedded in these simple, moving stories is MacNaughton’s tender reminder that there is no greater gift we can give each other than the gift of understanding, of looking and really seeing, of peering beyond the persona and into the person with an awareness that however different our struggles and circumstances may be, we are inextricably bonded by the great human longing to be truly seen for who we are.

I Believe in Love.

Thank you for stopping by.

I Believe in Humanizing Stories


Through this moving Opinion piece, Walter Dean Myers asks, “Where are the people of color in children’s books?” As he reflects on his personal journey toward self-discovery, he ponders how he and others can help youth to relate to the stories they read and how to combat racism in our society.

He concludes by saying, “There is work to be done.” I couldn’t agree more.

I Believe in Depth and Human Potential


Interesting Op Ed in the New York Times by David Brooks. “Our origins are natural; our depths are man-made — engraved by thought and action.”