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Young Artists

Photo of Jingdi Ma ©copyright 2019 by Robin Weinstein

I met Jingdi Ma at the gym where I work out in New Paltz. She is at the front desk on the weekends working two back-to-back shifts and studying. She may have a book open as she takes hand-written notes in her precise, artistic hand-writing, or she may be using the computer. People come and go, she pays attention when she must, or answers the phone, but she is often studying. Though she is shy and soft-spoken, I've gotten to know her a bit over this past year. Adopted from China at the age of two, she grew up near Walden, NY, and went to public schools. When she arrived at SUNY New Paltz, she did not take anything for granted, least of all her acceptance into a prestigious BFA program.

 

Jingdi is graduating, a daunting prospect for any artist, or any young person these days, and moving to Indiana to join her boyfriend. How will she support herself? Will she be able to continue her studies? These are serious and difficult questions. And though the future is unknown, her determination to remain an artist is not. Here is the artist statement she wrote for the end-of-term BFA candidate show at the Dorsky Museum on the campus that opened this week:

 

"Some people may think you don't *become* an artist, you just *are* an artist. I really do not have a straightforward answer as to why I chose the life of an artist. I am sure part of it had to do with wanting to enjoy my four years of college. Sometimes it is still strange for me to say I am an artist because of the context behind it. I would say I am just taking the time to create. That is what an artist does."

 

I can say with as much conviction as Jingdi, that the same holds true for writers. Writing is what writers do. No matter what.

 

Like the other young artists I met at the gallery opening, Jingdi is formidable and her experimental, striking work is as accomplished as any I've recently seen in high-end galleries in New York. I had expected paint on canvas, but she has moved into video and has even produced a small multi-media book with images and words.

 

And all of this, let us remind ourselves, dear reader, with a federal Pell Grant and other financial aid at a public university. It's a telling reminder of the importance of investing in public, loan-free education.

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Biblical Creatures

 
A sweet mini donkey enjoying fresh hay.
Photo © copyright by Jim Bergman 2019

The donkey has been used as a working animal for at least 5000 years. There are more than 40 million donkeys in the world, mostly in underdeveloped countries, where they are used principally as draught or pack animals. Working donkeys are often associated with those living at or below subsistence levels. Small numbers of donkeys are kept for breeding or as pets in developed countries

 

--source, Wikipedia

 

 

As the world reels, as terrorists perpetrate atrocities on Easter Sunday, a Christian Holy Day, and the regime in Washington continues unabated with an anti-Christ at the helm, and Passover has passed, I wondered what to do to raise our secular spirits and remembered what I'd read a while back in a New York Times article about a "donkey park," in Ulster Park, NY, not far from where we live in New Paltz.


It was cool and cloudy, all the blossoms out after a day of heavy rain. A short ride down a long, quiet highway, the windows wide open, and when we arrived at the enclosure a small crowd of adults and children were standing among the donkeys, donkeys of all sizes, standard and mini. Although people were talking quietly to one another, and a few were brushing the donkeys, the animals made no sound and the air was oddly still, as it is in church, or in a canoe on a calm mountain lake. Sacred animals, tender and gentle animals, protective spirits from the antique world in my writer's imagination, they carry 5,000 years of history in their genes.


The donkeys walked around, they trotted a bit, they kept their noses to the ground eating hay, they seemed to enjoy having the back of their very, very long ears rubbed and their thick winter pelts brushed. "Their bellies are really soft," Carol, one of the volunteers told us. "But if you see them raise their tails, best move aside. They are about to poop," her husband, Larry, said. Carol and Larry live down the road and have been volunteering at the park for three years. They seemed comfortable in the enclosure, and were also eager to talk about two larger equines—a mule and a zonkey. The thought of cross-breeding a zebra with a donkey was a bit chilling, I'm not sure why. The large beast, not friendly exactly, not unfriendly, had stripes at the bottom of his long legs and looked more like a horse than a donkey. Not surprisingly, he was called Stripes. And there was a mule, too, which, by definition is a hybrid of a horse and a donkey, and therefore cannot reproduce, we were told. Perhaps that is for the best, I thought. Again, I'm not sure why. Maybe the deliberate manipulation feels unnatural, unlike the hybridization of plants, which we hardly notice, or the raising of animals for slaughter, which we do notice and question, if we are so inclined.


Stories about donkeys are plentiful in the Bible, in children's books, in mythology and fiction. The donkey can often seem ridiculous and is sometimes treated unkindly by storytellers—Pinocchio, for example. But I don't think of them as ridiculous creatures. When I told my colleague, Deb, at the SUNY Ulster Writing Center about our plans for a Jewish Easter Ecumenical Sunday—if that is not an oxymoron—she told me the story about Mary carrying Baby Jesus into the manger on a donkey. "That's why donkeys have crosses on their backs," she said. And, sure enough, they do. I snapped a picture of a donkey's back and sent it to her via a modern apparatus, the iPhone.


Check out the Donkey Park website: www.donkeypark.org

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This Writer Wears a Hijab

With thanks to my daughter, Chloe, and son-in-law, Ryan, for raising a flock of multi-ethnic chickens. Wishing all my readers peace in this season of universal rebirth. 

 

We may have all come on different ships, but we are in the same boat now.

         

--Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

If I confided to you, dear reader, that when you do not see me or hear me or notice me, in front of the classroom, or on the train, or on the bus, I am wearing a hijab not out of necessity, but out of choice, how would your opinion change about my professional status, for example? Would you ask me if I were documented, or if I was a first or second generation American, or if I prayed, or if I had terrorist inclinations, or if I even belonged here in these United States? Or would you remain silent, silent and admiring, or silent and enraged, or silent and curious, or silent and wary, or silent and frightened? Would you report me to your superiors, have me watched, or try to recruit me to spy on my friends? And in case you are wondering, dear reader, if these scenarios are real, let me assure you they are real, they have happened to me, been reported by me, and I have written about them  over the years in different guises—journalistic voices and fictional disguises. I am Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu and Kurd, Iranian and Iranian-American and Haitian-American and Honduran-American. I am an American. It does not matter where I come from—originally. I am here. This is my country. I am a child of refugees. I am a child of immigrants. Do not tell me this is not my country.

 

These were my troubled and angry thoughts as I woke this morning. And also the word enfiladed, out of a dream, the writer wearing a hijab in solidarity with the non-violent Arab world, which is our world, our extremely endangered world—walking along an enfiladed hallway of ash-filled urns, the remnants of what was once a multi-cultural, multi-faceted open society, a society without borders that still only exists in an internationalist's imagination.

 

Yesterday, this enfiladed hallway was alive with students attending a small community college where I work as a writing tutor for nine hours every week. It is a bit too quiet these days—not enough students take advantage of our services—but when a student enters and sits down, and is courageous enough to ask for help, it is always interesting. I know that the student—white, black, or brown, wearing a hijab or dreads or a pony-tail—is  probably struggling to pay the rent and  pay for school. Perhaps she has no health insurance and her parents are sick and she is looking after them. Perhaps she has been in the military, perhaps she has been in prison, or had a baby too soon, or is the first person in her family to go to college because she dreams of being a paralegal or a social worker or nurse; perhaps she remembers watching her father executed in front of her eyes—in Mexico, or Guatemala, or Sri Lanka during the Civil War, perhaps she was born blind. This is the post-colonial, endangered, gentrifying world, families fleeing from man-made violence and natural disaster, families trying to survive on declining incomes without a safety net or extended family to lend a hand, or government benefits, or unemployment when a factory shuts its doors, or farmland is bought up by conglomerates,or barns sold off to millionares from the city for weekend getaways. This is the neighborhood in which we live. These are the Americans forgotten by our politicians in the last presidential election. We have already learned our lesson: we  must never forget them again.

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