22ND DECEMBER 2017
I’ve found myself doing a few alterations lately and it’s given me pause to think about the many implications of that word and the verb from which it derives: to alter. It started a couple of weeks ago with a pair of shoes I bought two years ago; a pair of flats made in Italy of woven leather in a natural tan. They are immensely comfortable, but something about their form made me feel they would be so much better if they were black. Of course, I did the ubiquitous online search for such a pair, but nada. So, for 2 years I’ve “put up” with them during the summer and then because of their tan, have put them away in the winter. Grudgingly so, because I knew that if they were black they would make super house shoes in the winter as well as looking great as outdoor shoes come summer. Then two weeks ago it occurred to me to dye them and after a search for the appropriate leather dye, I went about altering them.
The need to alter something, or someone, implies a level of dissatisfaction with what already exists; be it our looks, a spouse, or where we live, and for many of us this year, the President of The United States. Yet rarely do we alter our ways…perhaps the most important alteration of all.
Last week we returned from 5 days in Berlin where we had celebrated the opening of Joel’s retrospective exhibition at C/O Berlin. A magnificent museum that had once been America House, the exterior remains the same but the interior has been altered beyond recognition. More than a face life, it is a creative vision of space dedicated to photography. I’ve traveled quite extensively in Germany over the last few years and each time I have been amazed by the kindness, generosity and gentleness of nearly everyone I’ve met. I was born at the end of WW2, a war that although ended, impacted the first 5 years of my life, not only by food rationing until I was 4, and the sight of bombed-out homes, but also by overheard conversations between my parents, talk on the street, in shops, and over garden fences. Talk that contained words like: Krauts, Nazi’s, bloody Gerries and, of course, Hitler. And the first 10 years of my life were punctuated by films and documentaries about the war, images from which are so seared into my mind that even now, decades later, I cannot pass wooded areas in Germany without envisioning soldiers fleeing or crouching, rifles and bayonets at the ready.
We often talk about the capacity for individuals to change. Some people believe it is impossible to change one’s essential nature. I personally don’t think it’s so black and white. I believe people can change to varying degrees, for better or worse. And sometimes it is frighteningly easy for us to veer off our own moral core. Sometimes all it takes is one person, a Hitler or a Trump, to talk to our fears and rally us to our vilest nature.
We saw this happen in Germany, almost an entire nation brainwashed into hatred of the “other.” And yet, today, apart from a faction of alt-right, which every country now has, Germany has redeemed itself. And it has done so by having the courage to own its shameful history instead of sweeping it under the rug. It is a mighty example of the possibility and power of redemption: that by owning one’s behavior one can not only come into the light but let go of the shame. I must say, that visiting Germany and experiencing the goodness of its people gives me hope for humanity in general and America in particular.
Still, we must be careful to maintain the separation between hope and idealization. One cannot alter the past, either our own or a nation’s, and while we can hope to alter things for the better we must also accept the eternal nature of imperfection. I altered my shoes for the better, but they ain’t perfect. The weave of the leather made it impossible to evenly apply the dye. But they are beautiful because a little of their past will always be visible.
The dictionary defines ‘to alter’ as follows: “To change in character or composition in a comparatively small but significant way.” And one of the synonyms of ‘to alter’ is: to evolve. Perhaps instead of those damn New Year’s Resolutions we can instead simply commit to evolving in small, significant ways.
My love to you all,
Great Tidings and Joy
And above all, Peace and Love.