Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Life as art: Joan Papert Preiss

Years ago, via one of those serendipitous moments the universe occasionally hands you, I met a woman who influenced the rest of my life. I was sitting in a library in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, reading that month’s issue of Ms. Magazine. A short letter to the Editor caught my eye: You write about child labor as though it is a thing of the past, the writer said, when farm labor currently uses children in the fields. Signed, Joan Papert Preiss, Triangle Friends of the UFW. She must have given her address (this is before things could be looked up on the Internet) because I wrote her and asked if she needed help. “Yes,” she replied, and a few months later I was on a bus to Durham, NC, ready to volunteer in her office, which happened to be in the guest bedroom of her home.

Joan, as I learned at her memorial service last Saturday, almost single-handedly brought farmworker activism (and attention to the plight of farmworkers) to North Carolina. And she did so with a playful, creative style. She became known as the lady with the tiaras, including a Mt. Olive pickle jar headpiece that she wore to picket lines during the Mt. Olive boycott. She made her own boycott lapel pins out of bake-able clay, and painted colorful signs and posters. She also was known for wearing a grape costume that, I think, consisted mostly of purple balloons during the UFW grape boycott.

She spoke fervently and persuasively about farm conditions to gatherings large and small, even though she admitted that she had once dreaded public speaking and still considered herself a shy person. Even in the face of circling policeman, angry store managers and apathetic shoppers, she continued on with an unmitigated enthusiasm. I have never known anyone who so exuded a persistent sense of purpose. After raising three sons, she committed herself to the cause of farmworker rights. But she also found time to cook gourmet meals, keep up an herb garden, hold girlfriend get-togethers, go sailing, host sleepovers and playdates for her grandchildren, volunteer at the local hospital, keep a materials/news file (now archived at Duke Library), and seriously compete at badminton. And she found time to have fun with me when I was working with her. On one of my last days there, before I left to go back to school, we decided spontaneously to have a “milkshake orgy”—and so set about making shots of cranberry milkshakes, followed by pumpkin, peanut butter, etc., in her kitchen. Too full, we went for a walk in Duke Forest, chatting and laughing together.

She offered me a blueprint for an active and happy life. More importantly, she offered a level of acceptance and confidence in my abilities that I’d never experienced before, at least from someone older than me. What a gift knowing someone like that.

I often told her that I should write an article for Ms. about how we’d met, which would segue into an article about her amazing life. Some of what I would have said is in this blog post now.

In another bit of serendipity, a bookend to the first, I was updating my list of cell phone contacts recently and I saw her phone number, realizing I hadn’t heard from her in a long while; the handmade holiday cards had stopped coming a few years ago. With a sense of dread, I googled her name and found her obituary. Without that bit of discovery I would have missed her memorial service and a chance to say good-bye. We sang “Union Maid” and “De Colores” and other songs, were reminded of how much she had meant to so many, and then dispersed out into the hot afternoon.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Stuck somewhere between childhood and "Twilight"

Recently E-girl wanted to cash in her Barnes and Noble gift cards and buy a copy of The Hobbit since none of the local libraries have a copy of it on their shelves. (We'd already listened to it on CD in the car last year, read by the excellent voice actor, Rob Ingles).

BN.com has lots of ways of finding books for recommended ages and reading levels. First she looked at the lists of books recommended for ages 9-12, but found that she/we had either read them already  (the Percy Jackson series, Wonderstruck, A Wrinkle in Time, etc.) or they seemed too easy. So I suggested she plug in her Lexile score, using their Lexile Reading Level Wizard, to see what books match it. The results were not promising: Ethan Frome, Hiroshima, Animal Farm, The Jungle, A Farewell to Arms, To Kill a Mockingbird. All great books but not a good fit for a kid who still likes happy endings. (The Lexile score obviously represents mere vocabulary comprehension rather than level of emotional connection or life experience).

So we looked at books recommended for 12 and up. And here is the depressing part. Once you leave childhood (and Wimpy Kid, The Magic Thief, Percy Jackson, etc.) behind, according to BN.com's helpful recommendations, you're in the land of Pretty Little Liars and Hunger Games and Twilight—a place of malice and implied (or not) sexuality, where the good girl/guy doesn't always win.

My kid, so far, has not been eager to rush into young adulthood. She has resisted any interest in The Hunger Games, despite the urging of several classmates, because she knows she wouldn't enjoy it, at least not yet. But where does that leave her? Winnie the Pooh is a distant country already and even Beverly Cleary is slipping behind her.

Frustrated, she was about to give up the search for another book (and the $25 minimum for free shipping) when she happily discovered that BN.com carries DVDs. So now a copy of The Hobbit and the first season of "I Love Lucy" (which is one of her favorite TV shows) is on its way to our home.

Classic TV can be a refuge, particularly for those destined for unknown, and unfolding, lands. So, too, at least for a time, I think we'll turn back to the classic books of adolescence, written in a less cynical time, where characters didn't shop for expensive brand-name clothes or try to kill each other. Better start looking for my copy of My Side of the Mountain...

Friday, July 6, 2012

The happiness of perpetual creativity

The endomosaic window that Norman created for the SF Masonic Memorial Temple

I saw a great documentary about Emile Norman (whom I'd never heard of before) a couple of weeks ago on PBS. It was inspiring to see him still making art at age 91; his creativity permeated everything he did. The film showed him in the wee hours of the morning happily jigsawing small pieces of wood for sculptures and mosaics in his gorgeous home in Big Sur that he had built with his partner, Brooks Clement.

Norman had a lot of things in his life that could have made him angry—his family rejected his artistry and his homosexuality, and he lived in a time in which he could have been persecuted just for being gay. Yet he found a way to be productive and prosperous, in his own version of paradise.

What I found most inspiring was his joyfulness, the ongoing, obvious pleasure his creativity gave him. As he said in the movie, "I love to experiment, see if this works, that works... It's fun!" Later he added, "I'm here, I have a gift, and it's my duty to use it. I'm so happy when I'm working. The most important thing in my life is when I'm sculpting and doing artwork. That's my reason for being here." And, as he predicted, "If I stop doing work, call 9-1-1 and tell them to come and get me."

There are so few people I know in real life (or who are depicted on TV) who are joyfully creative—except maybe young children. I don't know how we lose that playfulness or where those creative impulses go—shopping and acquiring, worry, doubt? People like Emile Norman help pull us out of the stale, static rooms of our lives.