“Are you in the military?” she sniped, with a condemning jerk in the direction of the plastic airline pins I’d affixed to my beloved mustard yellow thrift store safari jacket.
“No,” I stammered. “I am an artist. I put these pins on my jacket, at a birthday party last night, for my dear friend....”
I began to say, defending myself, explaining myself... before she turned away, marched out of the auditorium where she had just finished speaking on the evil that she survived as a Jewish victim of the Nazi during the second world war.
The rest of the small audience was gone. They had listened, taking in the toxic tales of hardcore woe and mind boggling cruelty, before hopping back on Highway 405 or Highway 10 and heading... wherever. The dispersed listeners, people from various ethnic groups, none particularly likely to feel any better about her words and content than I did, all took the quick exit prescribed by the speaker’s abrupt departure.
I was speechless, a flood of tears crashed from my eyes onto my face. My eyeballs released my body’s liquid reserves. I wailed. “NO!” I “would not get up.” I was, “Not going to leave.” My mind went into full Rosa Parks mode. I was crushed. Damaged. Empathy: overload. The Second World War, its infamous horror has always set me on edge and destroyed my ability to move on without taking time to process the horror. As a child, a curious pre-teen, I took in many books and diaries, the documentaries, and collected histories... portrayed in library books, videos, etc... I invested myself in reading about the outrages against the Jewish people, whereas I avoided learning about the horrors endured by the kidnapped and sold slaves of West and Central Africa.
Why? Why did I decide to avoid learning about the holocaust suffered by a portion of my ancestors, because I am the product of colonialism. I am as much a part of the historically victimized group as I am of their oppressors. I know my family history and I know I am as black as I am blond and that my physical appearance may not indicate this truth to the uniformed but that it is what it is. I accept it.
Yet, at the Museum of Tolerance, my eyes remained glued to the empty chair where the survivor had sat, talking for an hour about the unspeakable. I was lamed, incapable of getting up and getting on with the business of life, which is my expertise. I’m a person focused on loving LIFE, now; never postponing the pleasure in simple pleasure of being present. Yet, today, I couldn’t just get up and walk away from the horror that the, “nice little Jewish woman,” had laid out for her audience’s anti-lunch.
No! not I!” I cried. My face felt like a rubber mask of Edward Munch’s “The Scream.” I was in bits. My soul was mush under the crushing sole of a survivor’s horrendous story. I would not, could not, move. Feeling drained, abused, and defiant; I was stuck to the folding chair provided, starring at the the vacated, looming, vociferously empty chair. The vacated chair was speaking volumes, in a strange code of objects, energized by symbolic power. I could hear every unspoken word. The chair, a perforated metal object, kept talking to me. Tears tracks and smeared make-up, I was a woman in public distress.
The entire time she was speaking, behind her head the names of activist heroes, glowed, on a luminescent wall: above her head it said, “Martin Luther.”
Anyone that knows even a little about the protestant reformer knows that he was a virulent anti-semite. I believe the wall was referring to “Martin Luther King, Jr.” Yet, the high irony that this Jewish woman was sitting beneath the name of “Martin Luther,” at the Museum of Tolerance, and he was famously intolerant of the Jewish people living among German Christians, the empty chair was now under the name, “Martin Luther.” I stared at the name and thought that the she was to be gone, soon... an old woman, lucid for now, yet slated for the unavoidable death that waits us all. Yet, fortunate that she had narrowly missed death in a gas chamber as a young girl.
“I was a real blond, back then,” she said, still shocked that this fact alone, coupled with her (callously) self-reported high status of her professional parents, among the Star-of-David wearing members of her despised ethnic group, did not immunize her from institutional abuse. She was one of the five, among hundreds, of local Jewish girls chosen to attend high-school in her community. An only child, she had received the lion’s share of her parent’s caring. Summers were spent as summers ought to be spent by pretty teenage girls: swimming and carefree, oblivious to the war, barely noticing the streams of near starving Jews, that came asking for a little food, so they could continue... searching for an escape route, living.
Time stopped. The empty chair was a throbbing void. It screamed of all the people for whom she was speaking that hadn’t been so fortunate.
It was then that I was, suddenly, rescued from my conviction to stay put, to remain planted in one spot until some new thoughts, good ideas sprouted again, and then I might again move with the ease that is my signature. (I guess I was not meant to spend eternity starring at an empty chair, tears inking down my face.) A man, appeared, popping out of near-by conference room, full of ernest well-groomed people. He was well-formed mildly muscular with very smooth skin. He wore a neck tie and a shirt with a comforting blue grid pattern. He was conservatively attired man with long Jesus hair and dark round luminous eyes filled with pity and understanding. He had the professionally honed look of obvious caring. Without pomp, he saved me. He plopped down into the foreboding, mind numbing, cosmically portentous, empty chair the holocaust survivor had abandoned.
Suddenly, I was not alone, again. My friend, a Muse, was witness to my outburst. More than a little surprised by my utter breakdown, the snot flowing from my nose, the crust forming on my tear streaked face, she got up and went to the bathroom, leaving me in the company of the sudden companion, (I’m sure) feeling very surprised that I was hyper sensitive response to this story we have all heard before, surely. “You have read or watched documentaries about this before, No?” She asked me, her voice characteristically gentle, her face slightly distorted by concern.
His thick beard was decorated with a few stripes of gray, reddish brown skin, he looked like kindness personified to me. The mustache came with a little bottle of water, which I later realized was bottled by Nestle, a company that has attempted to privatize ALL the WATER on the planet, and some tissues. Hah! Hah! Hah! The irony!
He said that he “understood,” how I felt. He said, that “it happens, sometimes,” that people can’t just “get up and go,” after one of their speakers has delivered their payload.
It was horrible. The stories she told, most of you have heard stories like hers before and worse stories. Yet she proclaimed herself, “lucky,” to be alive. She had grandchildren, and a great grandchild. She had enjoyed a long marriage with a man she loved. She looked perfectly put together. She was trim and petite. She had intelligent, low-key, tasteful hair, even her bag had a little metal tag/label that said “Relic,” on it. She was perfect. An educated woman, successful, competent, in flat nurse’s shoes. She was lucid speaker, convincing in her telling of a story I can barely write about. She has lived in Los Angeles for decades. She shared these personal facts and more without prompting.
The details of her outfit fascinated me. I took notes. I made a sketch. She wore a dark purple sweater, with a very smooth and clean black top underneath, dark slacks. She spoke about the “shiny boots,” of one famous Nazi doctors at the concentration camp, she spoke about the starvation diet, the constantly burning oven, the crematorium, the gas chambers, the angle of death descending... She spoke about the unspeakable with smooth efficiency. Her speech was well rehearsed. She was a practiced public speaker. She even ended her presentation with a poem on postponing morning, until now, an old woman with time on her hands... She knew that she had me, mouth open, vulnerable, on the hook. She reeled me in and then struck me on the head with the mallet of her personal truth. That she managed this feat, without qualms, and without hesitation is clear to me. She did it all without thinking, an experienced deliverer of deadly blows.
For reasons I do not know, she took an instant dislike to me. It happens, sometimes. Some people find me repulsive, too this or too that... I’m sure this happens, to everyone. It usually doesn’t bother me, because as a matter of policy I only go where I am welcome and made to feel comfortable. I have no desire to be the uninvited guest.
She, I could tell... was not a person capable of any patience for my constantly playful being. She would never understand my point of view, my Caribbean perspective on life, would always be foreign to her. It is likely that she defines herself as NOT, whatever she decided I was. She had zero tolerance for whoever it was she thought I was... a person “in the military.” Hah!
We, humans, traditionally have farmed animals to eat them. (Vegans are exempt. Yet, I’ve noticed a tendency in animal rights activists to forget that many animals, like us, eat meat. There is also a tendency to forget that cows, pigs, and chickens would not exist in the volumes that they do, without farmers. Moreover, eating synthetic meats and industrially processed soy-cheese from a lab cannot be healthy.) In animal farming, families of animals are raised and then separated. Trucks used in transporting them to slaughter.
The trucking and transportation of Jewish people from their villages, to camps located mostly in Poland… this outrage was only one of many insults, the mounting injustice, which equated people with animals, in order to strip them of human value and social value. The gradual erosion of privileges, the subtle and consistent message that the Jewish people were not as human as “pure-blood,” Germans, the “most civilized,” nation in the world. Many felt that the Germans, had a grand plan yet the idea ... the Germans... the world’s biggest consumers of pig products... were actually gassing and cremating millions of humans, as a part of their all-out-war strategy... well, that no one could believe it. It wasn’t until our speaker was in a camp, stripped of her clothes and personal belongings, head shaved, and wearing a number... then she believed it.
Cultivating the so called, “bliss that is ignorance,” I’ve avoided, most of my life, the cold embrace of history’s worst moments. For example, I purposely dance around, so called, “African American History,” because the stories of kidnapping, killings, beatings, whippings, and lynchings make me sick. The fact that countless beings were kidnapped from the African continent and taken like stock animals to serve as unpaid workers in “New World,” plantations is a historical given. Yet, there are few respectful monuments to this truth. The African diaspora isn’t organized around promoting and improving understanding for its contributions and abyssmal exploitation during and after slavery’s institutional sway.
Fortunately, that man, the one with the Jesus hair, came and said a kind few words to me, gave me water (which I did not drink because I am boycotting the Nestle corporation’s water and other cheap products) and reminded me of the Museum’s security might take umbrage with the idea of my remaining fixed in this auditorium chair beyond the Museum’s rigid hours of operation. He warned me. I asked him to sit and allow me to make a sketch of him. I made it clear, that IF, I really decided to stay... well, I wasn’t moving until it happened naturally.
After making a boxy sketch of the patient man, I giggled. The laughter got me up and out of the chair in a blink. I was back on my feet. I refused, however, now that it was time to exit, to go down the ramp... (why do all museums have swirling ramps, at their hearts, these days? Is it architectural homage to The Guggenheim Museum in New York City, or yet another message that we, crowds of humans, are to be easily herded?) I did not want to be like a sheep or pig sliding down the belt to the butcher’s block.
Historically, we have all taken turns being victims and victors, captors and captives. We come from the loins of killers and captains, queens and chambermaids. We all like to think that our suffering as special, unique, “Our People,” more abused or less abusive or more fearsome, than others... Yet, we ALL come from one source and we are all equally capable of cruelty and kindness. The nobility of Europe, have been the target of bloody uprising and public de-capitation, let’s not forget. We can all suffer and relive endless horror as long as we see it fit to take a dip in the fetid pool of communal blame.
Undeniably, there are humans that want to recreate their own feelings of worthlessness in others. They feel fundamentally less-than, thus IF they can reach out and touch you, leaving a stain behind, that stain is their version of immortality. It is their way toward living forever. By creating living records of the destruction, the emotional bruises and physical scars, numbers branded on the flesh of living beings, these people may cause more harm than good, more suffering than celebration. Is it better to forget, leaving behind the past, and investing in the present? Embracing healing and mental health? I don’t know... Yet, I guess, we all have a purpose in this world. I learned a lot, from this woman’s public revelations. I was reminded that social alertness is required. Activism is a must, writing truth, and staying sane, lucid, and vigilant: these are my responsibilities.
In short, we must all take responsibility for our lives and pay attention to the writing on the wall. We must remain alert to injustice and cruelty. We must avoid buying propaganda wholesale and sliding down the many ramps to the abyss. Or risk... brutal awakening.
Today’s plan: meet THE MUSE for lunch. Embrace inspiration.
Process the joy. Follow up on the initial dive into "the ocean of air,” the sea of light which Turrell slices into edible portions of delight, left me full of ideas, ready to digest the delicious experience of the eternal which is always NEW. Stay connected to the joy of discovery in the visual arts by introducing children and others interested to the joys of museum going.
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