All original images and text are copyright 2008-2018 Liz Sweibel

Monday, May 29, 2017

No Words.

I write from Kyoto to report that this personal revolution will not be blogged; I told some people it might be.  Words are my currency from August to May.

My first impression upon deplaning in Tokyo was utter silence.  Yes, in the airport.  After the cacophony of JFK, it was glorious.  So while I walked down the JFK ramp weeping because I was afraid to leave (in a plane) and didn't feel well, I walked up the Haneda ramp teary from the silence.  It is such a relief to be free of the work of understanding other people and the need to make myself understood verbally.  I don't have to listen to anything, really; Japanese is like music.

This is a research expedition to reestablish my work's primacy.

This trip is about my eyes and their spotting-of-moments that are peculiarly mine.  I'm documenting most, and posting some to FB and Instagram.  It is beyond exciting.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


Leaving the plane in Tokyo, utter silence.  Occasional whispered instructions to watch my step on the moving sidewalks.  Signage in English as well, thank the stars.  A quiet wait for luggage, a prompt shuttle to my immaculate hotel, a tiny perfect room.

The flight:  Long.  Really long.  Fidgety.  Anxious.  However: two snacks and three meals, silverware (and chopsticks), complimentary drinks, and ongoing offerings:  an attendant walking backward holding a pot of coffee and a tray with cups for passengers to see.  A shift in power, a courtesy.  American noise must make the Japanese reel (invisibly and silently).  Dad flew back and forth during the Golden Age of flying: took hours longer, a risk of whiplash or worse from turbulence.

Saturday, May 20, 2017


I'm leaving for Japan in less than a week, and badly badly want the adventure to be a whole-body-and-mind-and-soul reset.  Something has to give.  I need the culture jolt to yank me out of the fog of world affairs and US politics I have been in for months.  I'm self-medicating with news, anxious, and relieved when some excitement pokes through the haze.

This place called "Japan" played a role in my family life when I was five or six or so, and is one basis for this trip.  In the early 1960s, Dad was doing business in Tokyo and traveling there with some regularity: enough for my mother to put her foot down eventually, given that I was the oldest of four by age six.  Her hands were more than full, and Dad would be away for two or three weeks at a time (as my five-year-old self remembers it).  (My nonstop flight to Japan is 14 hours; in the early 1960s those hours only got you to Paris or so.)

So a mound of bandanas, First Aid items, hiking clothes, and spare glasses is growing on my dresser: real evidence of a surreal moment.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Scale Shifts.

The Internet has opened life in countless ways, while closing it off in others and virtually ruining it with the 2016 election and all the meanness, selfishness, and ignorance made public during and since.  I have moments of wishing it had never opened.  I also see it - this blog and my Web site especially - as the site of the memoir I am unlikely otherwise to write.  It is a horrific time in the world, and I want to mark my tiny place in it in words and pictures.

We (humans) are at risk, and whatever good this country has been aiming for is being callously eclipsed or sabotaged by the cruel dysfunction of politicians and corporate overlords.  Famine, oppression, chemical weapons, terrorism ... The fear-fueled decisions - and some outright insanity - of the power-grabbers are hurtling the country and world to vicious, unimaginable (to me) new lows.  I was born in 1957.  The relative security I have assumed as normal is infinitely more fragile and ill-gotten than my younger self conceived, and now that self - my self - is stupidly astounded and ashamed at my unseen privilege.  I have learned much about Otherness in Facebook conversations.

From May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude, starting with a quote from Robert Coles (in a 1970 New Yorker article):  "'Not everyone can or will ... give his specific fears and desires a chance to be of universal significance.' To do this takes a curious combination of humility, excruciating honesty, and (there's the rub) a sense of destiny or of identity.  One must believe that private dilemmas are, if deeply examined, universal, and so, if expressed, have a human value beyond the private, and one must also believe in the vehicle for expressing them."

I wrote the post below almost a week ago, and this scale shift helps validate the attempt at introspection:

On Thursday evening I hurt someone I love; I was insensitive with my words.  I learned this when I got home, and felt my insides go liquid.  I don't recall my exact words; I was oblivious to their potential to insult.

I arrived at the gathering tired and still slightly irritated from the teaching week (and semester, and year), and was anxious to appear in better spirits than I felt.  It doesn't work very well; the anxiety is more of an obstacle - a danger, even - than a low mood.  Out of it comes my uneasiest behavior: spews of words.

My apology - sent that night - was accepted early the next morning, and my chest and shoulder muscles exhaled. Still I slept all day into the night, except for one errand and PBS from seven to nine.  My physical energy was consumed by the emotion, and the lethargy added worry that the emotion would lodge itself.  Today feels much better, and I hope I learned something.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Anticipatory Grief.

Leading up to Big Emotional Events, I'm full-on anxious and a tad obsessive; on FB, I described myself as "howling" in the days leading up to my sixtieth birthday.  I also knew that I would be back to (ab)normal on the actual date and thereafter, and I was and am. There is a history to this.

In 1975 my father had a massive heart attack; he was forty-six; I was a sophomore at the University of Florida.  We had gone to Crescent Beach for the day, my first college beach trip.  The phone was ringing when we got back to the dorm, and my mother told me to come home.  I don't know how I traveled from Gainesville to Miami Beach the next day; I do remember the evening before, sitting at friends' apartment, paralyzed and still and silent.

I also remember seeing Dad at Mt. Sinai the next day.  This bull of a man - the only reason he survived, I'm convinced - was tied to a thousand ICU machines but conscious.  We could only stay a minute.

Dad managed to stay alive for five years, slowly returning to a four-day workweek at his factory, Martin Wire Company.  My brother was diagnosed with dyslexia during this time, and the family was in enough upper-middle-class Jewish distress that we were referred to a psychiatrist, Warren Schlanger.  The therapy was prompted to support my brother, but he didn't engage; the rest of us clamored for airtime and eventually began some one-on-one relationships with the doctor, me included.

My mother was so touched to see Dr. Schlanger's name in the guest book at my father's memorial in 1980.  And she must have seen the doctor after the death, because she later told me that his perception was that my family began grieving Dad at the first heart attack.  Anticipatory grief.

This week I realized that my mental picture of Dr. Schlanger has merged with that of a psychiatrist I saw in the late 80s in Cambridge, Mass., Robert Okin, who I largely credit with saving my life by taking it (me) apart.

At 7.48 am today, I did a google search for Dr. Schlanger and he is eighty-two and in Palm Beach.  I need to think about that.

Thursday, March 30, 2017


I am sixty years old today.  It's 8.20 am as I begin writing - something I have been longing to do for awhile but unwilling to take the time for from something else, whether the priority of my studio, the obligations of my day job (endless grading and prepping), or my own tendency to slip in front of my own way and stop me.  Already today, I have wept for my parents, neither of whom lived to sixty, and lit two yahrzeit candles that now burn on one of my mother's beautiful plates that I usually save for asparagus.  I have read an essay by my dear friend Anne Pierson Wiese (published in the New England Review!) and - of course - her words spoke to me, to today, to my parents and history and love of objects.  I feel Anne's writing inhabiting this writing, and both are so lush with memory that it took a few seconds for me to realize that the birthday candles on my google home page are for me.

When I clicked, I was reminded that I share a birthday with Eric Clapton and gained a new connection:  it is Spiritual Baptist/Shouter Liberation Day.  I don't know what that is, but have decided not to find out so I can keep my amusement to myself.  I may have to shout at some point before midnight.

I have also attended to the mundane, like wrestling with Rosie and a baby wipe to clean her rear end.  She's very round and needs help.  I'm usually left bleeding, and today is no exception.

I planned to see the Whitney Biennial and visit select Chelsea galleries today, things I routinely miss.  But I changed my mind, opting to stay closer to myself in my sunny Brooklyn home, where I can allow this writing to be important enough, work in my studio, and read exactly what I want before celebrating with family.  (And grade the last three student outlines, also closer to myself than the Biennial.)

Aging is extraordinary. My thinking and feeling have slipped in ways I don't appreciate.  It's harder to allocate time, knowing my life is more than half done.  It has crystallized how hard I had to work to grow myself up in my 20s and 30s and even 40s - because of their deaths and the nature of their lives and gene pool - and that that effort eclipsed other kinds of growth.  Today, at sixty, my life is where I would have wished it at forty or forty-five.  But then I was married, graduating college (again), living in the white suburbs of Boston.  Somehow, I left at forty-six and rebuilt in NYC, where I started.

I live two blocks from an apartment my father lived in in the late 1930s and short distances from other Brooklyn homes my parents occupied as children and newlyweds.  I didn't know any of this until after I bought my apartment in 2008; my parents died before my questions arose.  As the keeper of the "family boxes" for my brothers and me, I found my mother's high school yearbook shortly after moving in.  Reading "Bedford Avenue" on the cover, I was stunned that my running route goes by James Madison High.  My father went to Erasmus (which I knew), and I live between the two.  This bird-like migration is a comfort; having been drawn home gives sense and meaning to a life that is both very rich and still in search-mode.

Turning sixty has occupied me for weeks now, and I didn't realize until this morning's tears and candle-lighting that I have left my parents behind, again.