Nation of Immigrants: In Which My Grandmother Threatens To Drown Herself

Nation of Immigrants

My paternal grandmother Esther was 13 when she emigrated from the Ukraine. She told her family she would drown herself in the mill pond if she was not sent to the U.S. instead of her sister.
Is this story true? Am I remembering it correctly? Who knows. She went.
She was smuggled across a border checkpoint of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire hidden in a sausage cart. Unkosher meat piled on top of a small Jew.
As far as I can ascertain, she was traveling without any family members, although presumably someone was meeting her.
She got her period on the boat. She thought she was bleeding to death. A kindly mother explained about menstruation. Presumably as a stranger, she did not hit my grandmother across the face. This is the custom among eastern European Jews, as well as some Middle Eastern people. To slap a girl’s face on the occasion of her first menses.
Why? You tell me. Shame? A reprimand? Taboo? No doubt. It isn’t exactly mazal tov, whatever you may say. A woman’s life is full of pain.
America is an upgrade. My mother does not slap my face on the occasion of my menarche, although she feels compelled to remind me—I am not slapping you.
Not getting slapped simply for being a woman. Good.
Why did my grandmother threatted to kill herself? Did she long for freedom? Or was something bad happening to her—a girl child? We’ll never know.
So I am sitting in the Saigon, eating yellow noodles. I’ve seen the owner’s daughter grow from a baby cooing in a back booth to being a middle schooler capable of bussing a table. I’m drinking hot dark tea out of a small white cup that has no handle.

Poem Written As Wind Rises by Judy Katz-Levine

Poem Written As Wind Rises
in memory of Denise Levertov

It could be done. Wind rises
and the broken tree.

Shame rattles in the hands
of those with soulless eyes.

You are walking, the silence
when thinking of another tune.

“I’ll be seeing you” in
night’s black orchid.

Nodding, what is understood,
what is not forgotten.

And by the waters, the roiling
breaks into great gentleness –

the grin of the woman who writes
and writes on night’s infinite parchment.

Judy Katz-Levine

Maternal Mitochondria–what are we reading?

A blog contributor recently asked me to post what our collaborative duo (me and daughter Isabel) are reading. Here goes, in no particular order:

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.–dystopian Future

Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems by Fatema Mernissi–feminist art criticism and memoir

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay–says it all!

Las Madrinas: Life Among My Mothers by Ana Consuelo Matiella–memoir of the border and feminine Mexican archetypes

The Art of the Russian Matryoshk by Rett Ertl and Rick Hibberd–we love nesting dolls and all they imply


Trying To See The Familiar–Camera Lesson with Maternal Mitochondria

Isabel recently gave me a lesson on her camera. We walked around the ranch–I shot these. It’s hard to photograph New Mexico…so familiar, so documented…




These are not edited, as I don’t know how to do that (yet?). I find the editing process obscure–somehow I feel it must be different than writing. Secretly, I hate to edit.





Can you see the familiar freshly? Make art from things you might be so intimate with they are barely observable?

Christo Boycotts Trump

Of course I wanted to see this. Of course I was following the local controversy around the installation. And of course I’ve been thinking about the Park Service…my old heroes, my new heroes. On a personal level, I’m going to support our National Parks with everything I’ve got.
In March, at Hot Springs, AR I’ll be proud to be an official volunteer as writer-in-residence. Who knew that writing about geology, naturalism, society, and architecture was going to be downright…radical…in today’s world. Every single thing I do–even my mild but abiding interest in science seems to have more meaning.
I’ve been on the website looking for more volunteer opportunities. When I was a kid, the Parks were just wondrous acts of preservation and beauty. Turns out, observing anything closely and honestly makes people and institutions able to think for themselves. Thank you, Badlands, Death Valley, et al.

With one dramatic no, a major artist has just escalated the culture world’s war against Donald J. Trump.
For more than 20 years, the artist Christo has worked tirelessly and spent $15 million of his own money to create a vast public artwork in Colorado that would draw thousands of tourists and rival the ambition of “The Gates,” the saffron transformation of Central Park that made him and Jeanne-Claude, his collaborator and wife, two of the most talked-about artists of their generation.
But Christo said this week that he had decided to walk away from the Colorado project — a silvery canopy suspended temporarily over 42 miles of the Arkansas River — because the terrain, federally owned, has a new landlord he refuses to have anything to do with: President Trump.
His decision is by far the most visible — and costly — protest of the new administration from within the art world, whose dependence on ultra-wealthy and sometimes politically conservative collectors has tended to inhibit galleries, museums and artists from the kind of full-throated public disavowal of Mr. Trump expressed by some other segments of the creative world.


Isabel Winson-Sagan Educates Herself To Fight The Power

Essay by Isabel Winson-Sagan

I will admit, I love school. So when Trump was elected as POTUS and I suddenly had a much more vested interest in protecting myself and my community, I started taking classes. So far I’ve done a wonderful self-defense course with IMPACT New Mexico, a non-violent direct action training run by local activists, and coming up I’ll be doing a gun safety lesson as well as a Red Cross CPR/first aid course. I am aware that this sort of thing isn’t for everyone (I mean, who loves school like I do? It’s a sick thing) but this has made me feel marginally better about being a person in our current world. The downside is that feeling like a more powerful agent and learning life skills is not exactly the same thing as activism, and I’m often plagued by wondering what else I should be doing. I’ve donated the max that I can afford to Standing Rock and Planned Parenthood. I’ve been to marches and protests. I will go to more marches and protests. I’m going to town meetings. I’m speaking up on injustice and prejudice whenever I see it, even having already landed myself in special “mediation” meetings with my boss to talk about their policy re: disabled employees. I already volunteer in my community, but I signed up for some extra work- like being a clinic escort for planned parenthood, even though it seems doubtful that my particular town will ever have a need for that.
It definitely does not feel like enough. It may never be enough. But I’m pretty maxed out. Even though I spend a lot of time thinking about how to be better ally, I am in several demographics that need allies themselves. I am not a poc or trans (this may be an oversimplification, but politically it feels accurate). I am a woman. I am emphatically not a Christian. I am queer. I am very disabled (not oh! My back hurts sometimes disabled. I’m not trying to put down that experience, but I am wheelchair disabled. I am last maybe 24 hours without medication disabled. I am it’s a bloody miracle that every day I can get out of bed disabled). There is only so much I can do, so much energy that I have. And deep down, I am tired. Beyond exhausted, really. Will taking these classes really do anything? Is making myself feel better even that interesting of a goal? I understand that self-care is important. I even understand that living your life, living it freely and proudly, can be a kind of political statement. But it doesn’t feel like enough.
I was speaking to a friend of mine on the phone after the election and he said, “Plant a garden. Buy a gun.” While I do not like guns and do not own a gun (I am in fact afraid of guns, hence the gun safety class), I do enjoy this perspective. I interpret it as “Defend your body, and the bodies of those you love. Live outside the systems of power. Live sustainably.” Maybe planting a vegetable garden is one of the most revolutionary things we can do in a time when big business and agri-business run our lives. As someone who basically lives within the health care system, I wouldn’t mind getting out of there too. Perhaps living within sustainable systems is what separates us the most from the grid of industry, the military, and Trump. I am not saying everyone should have these values, or immediately start doing what I’ve been doing. But I am looking for answers.
These classes, useful in the long run or not, have given me some skills on which I can base action. They remind me of who my community is and who I want to be when I grow up. But they can’t be an end in themselves. This is going to be a long fight (it always was a long fight). I’m trying to get ready. 

Beam Walking By Bill Waters

When I was little, I asked my brother what was in the attic. “Nothing,” he said, and added that you had to keep your feet on the beams or you’d fall through the ceiling.
The only beams I knew of were sunbeams, which filtered through the air vents on each side of the house. I wondered how they enabled you to walk without falling through, and I worried about what would happen if the sun went behind a cloud while you were standing on them.
don’t look down!
this high-wire act
called life

Roller Skates and Slow Walking by Katherine Shelton

Roller Skates and Slow Walking

Pulsing through childhood on the flat concrete sidewalks of New Orleans
metal skates clamped onto our shoes
skate keys slung over our backs on red ribbons
we hunched and pumped, swung our arms
pushing through the steamy air to fly along
rasping sound of metal wheels on cement.
We walked tall on stilts, broke bounce records on our squeaky pogo sticks,
Soon we would be as tall as our mothers, as fast as our big brothers
who rode their fat-tire bikes by us in lordly disdain
On our breaks we guzzled Cokes and Delaware Punch
shared bags of potato chips, licking the salt from our fingers
our small gang of hoppers, shrieking into the dusk, cicadas humming,
family dogs chasing us, until the final game of Hide-and-Seek was over.
The southern night fell fast and dark,
we picked up our skates and went home.

Years later when I was learning Vipassana meditation to gain the benefits of calmness and enjoy the present moment in a reflective way I was practicing slow walking. The retreat was a week long, day after day of 45 minutes of sitting meditation and then 45 minutes of walking meditation. I thought the walking would be easy after the sitting. But as soon as I lifted my foot infinitessimally slowly I wanted to bolt. My body buzzed with memories of the childhood games I had played. Skating and jumping and running seemed trapped in my blood. How I had loved that play. How could I possibly slow down this much? Where was the skate key to unwind the speed?
At that first retreat at Lama Foundation, near the old handbuilt hippie dome, under the watchful eyes of the turtle-like teachers I paced back and forth my heart racing and awaiting the moment of release back up to speed at the end of the 45 minute walking meditation. But gradually as I placed my foot and heard the crunch of the pine needles, and their acrid balsam scent filled my head, I felt I could take another step. My thoughts evaporated, I became the lifting, moving, placing. Reward enough in being in this exact moment. There was no other place or time. I was filled with only those sensations.
Still later I was practicing my slow walking in an arroyo near Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe. My body no longer went into twitchy overdrive and I no longer felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. I bowed to the short path of familiar earth, chamisa, red sandstone rocks, the dappled sunlight through juniper and pinyon patterning my path. After a few steps I saw a fuzzy caterpillar beside me and watched it inch along to reach the end of the path before me. I had finally learned slow walking.
I called myself in: home free.