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Sometimes a name fits a person and Bella is most definitely a Bella, inside and out. I first met her in the elevator of our building—we live on the same floor—as she was returning from a rendezvous with her Russian women friends in Bennett Park. She said she was feeling bored with these women friends, she liked men, and all the women talked about was their aches and pains and grandchildren. Bella has two sons, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, and she adores them all, but she is also an artist and she likes talking about art and how she makes art. Did I mention she is 91, has had six eye operations, injections in her hip, and so on, the usual old-age complaints. She doesn’t lament, she gets back to work. Four days a week, she has an attendant, and she is fortunate to have the money to hire someone to help her, but it is the three days a week she is on her own—widowed but not bereft—that she feels most happy and free. Why? She is still making art.

“Aren’t we lucky,” she said, when I began to talk about being a writer and writing every day no matter what else is going on in my life. Aren’t we lucky, indeed.

One day, I met Bella in front of the building. It was cold, but she was outside getting some fresh air. She was wearing a knitted Russian hat and sitting on her walker reading a book—a Russian detective mystery. “I usually read literature,” she said in her heavily accented English. “So when are you coming to see my gallery?” she asked.

I hadn’t yet been to her apartment. Now it was time. “Come over after dinner. I eat at 6.”

And so I went.

In her apartment, Bella uses two canes to get around, and she is in pain. But the enthusiasm of showing me her work, her husband’s work, the work of friends—cameos, oils, watercolors—trumped discomfort. Every canvas had a story—about the artist and the subject. And the apartment gallery was immaculate, every inch curated by Bella. But it was her work that was most impressive; she’s a miniaturist. Trained as a costume and fashion designer, she began painting miniatures around 1970 when she was still living in Russia. She sold many; others are in museums. Now she gives them away. And she has fun: a series of opera stars in costume, another of French and British royalty, movie stars, whatever occurs to her. Her collection of brushes is scattered in thick jars all over the apartment and she has two desks where she works with her still smooth-skinned only slightly arthritic hands.
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Pilgrimage; An Exhibition

Most of us are familiar with Annie Leibovitz’s quirky and revealing celebrity photos in Vogue, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. “I couldn’t help but be pulled into other people’s lives,” she has said.

Widowed when her partner Susan Sontag died in 2004, and recovering from financial difficulties, she set out on a pilgrimage across the United States to take pictures of monuments and historical landscapes. But, of course, these images are much more; they are metaphors of loss.

The photographs are gorgeous and haunting. Gorgeous, because Leibovitz has attained a skill level that only comes with experience and self-confidence. Haunting, because there is a strange emptiness in the images. What is missing? What remains? How is this landscape held in our memory? How is our life renewed? What has been left unsaid?

The curator has left us to find our own way into this armature as we walk through the galleries. There are no diverting explanations as we come upon a framed cluster; we have to figure it out for ourselves. Yes, a guide is available, but the text is minimal and not that interesting. Just the facts, no interpretation.

Consider the photograph of Gettysburg, for example, where a Civil War battle raged. It’s stunning, quiet, inflamed with a turning autumn tree, the artist’s inner transformation of grief into art, negative space made palpable as we contemplate the iconic setting.

I have admired Leibovitz’s work for a long time and am pleased she is continuing to explore her medium with gusto and imagination.

The exhibit is on at the New York Historical Society until February 22nd.  Read More 
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Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
-- John Lennon

I talked to my friend Sonya in Paris after the shootings, the lockdown, and the police/military action. She had forced herself to get back onto the metro for a concert just a day after the killings and she was scared, as were all her friends. She was reading the accounts obsessively, watching the live action on TV, and mostly staying indoors. Her local Arab grocery store had been shuttered and feelings of hatred for immigrant guest worker neighbors surfaced too easily. I was shocked. Sonya is not indigène, she is not French; she is German. When she was fifteen she found her grandfather’s SS uniform in the attic of her childhood home. This required explanation which left her unsatisfied and ashamed. At sixteen she left for France where she became a fashion reporter, married and had a son. She is tri-lingual and trans-national, yet in the hours after the attack, she did not recognize herself.

She had known there would be trouble. The French have created high rise ghettos where the young men are restless, angry, uneducated and unemployed. They get into petty crime and worse. In prison they become radicalized, a familiar story. The same has happened in America where 2.1 million black men are in prison, 40% of the prison population, the highest incarceration rate in the world. So we must not be righteous, we must be sad. There are fault lines in our histories-- national, global and geopolitical.

Our conversation went on for two hours. I knew Sonya had to talk and talk and talk. My job was to listen. This was raw footage, unedited and still unformed as a story. But it needed to be processed, it needed to be told. “All sorrow can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them,” wrote Isak Dinesen.

I was reminded of life in New York after the 9/11 attacks. We had all been struck dumb and numb by terrorism, the terrorists’ intent. Pulling ourselves back into life, keeping the story straight, figuring out what is going on without malice or vengeful thoughts, was a challenge. It still is.  Read More 
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Nomads; A Literary/Theatrical Event

Happy New Year, dear reader. I am writing this blog post on Monday, January 5, 2015. Tomorrow it will be colder, it will be snowing—hopefully only lightly. My literary/theatrical event, “Nomads,” is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village. Oh, the sound of that is truly exciting, I have to say.

It is my first collaboration with actors. We even had a rehearsal, a relief from the solitude of preparing a manuscript for publication. And I learned so much. Most importantly: what reads well may not work at all when it is spoken.

I have always wanted to write a play. How hard it is! I took a dramatic writing class at Gotham Writers Workshop a few terms ago and confess that all my efforts failed. Well, it was my first try and I was trying something new. I was a student again and that, in itself, was a pleasure.

I had written a couple of screen treatments with my screenwriter husband, not exactly the same. A treatment is written in the present tense and it is narrative prose; my husband did all the scene visualization. And so I went into the Gotham class as a complete beginner. I was enthusiastic, I was curious, I was daunted.

Oh, how I disappointed myself at first. I had forgotten what I always tell my students about imperfection, struggle, and acceptance of our flawed efforts. I turned to Virginia Woolf’s diaries, always a comfort. “It is bound to be very imperfect. But I think it possible that I have got my statues against the sky,” she wrote in her diary.

Soon after, I relaxed. The teacher was outstanding, the students inspiring, we read plays and discussed them. I came up with five possible scenarios and came away with an even deeper appreciation of dramatic writing.

And, obviously, something stuck. “Nomads” has a theatrical feel; twelve pieces will be “performed.”  Read More 
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