This weekend I found myself in New York selling granola bars at an anti-human trafficking event. Kathy (my wife) found a way to join me, which meant an extended date in the city on a gorgeous afternoon. We visited a good friend in Chinatown, then the Jewish Museum (Fifth and 92nd, free on Saturdays) for a Marc Chagall exhibition: Love, War, Exile.
Which I can’t stop thinking about.
The exhibit records a journey from youthful love and love of life—almost too brilliant and romantic and playful to take seriously—to dark chaos and suffering in the years leading to the holocaust. Seeing this moved me for a number of reasons.
I feel emotions strongly. Sometimes I feel other people’s emotions so strongly that I confuse them with my own. I’ve experienced this tendency as a danger; something that needs to be managed. I don’t know much about Chagall, but his paintings come across as framed emotions. Is a person allowed to be so vulnerable and public? If I tried I’d probably need to adopt a more reclusive lifestyle. But it inspired and encouraged me. The paintings feel like deeply personal gifts.
The transition from joyful exuberance to turmoil seems so appropriate and sane on canvas. I imagine it was the exact opposite internally. There were almost too many paintings showing crowds of fleeing refugees, crying infants in arms, splayed bodies left behind, burning village homes. The paintings brought Syria to mind. The abandoned dead, the most vulnerable corralled into camps. I use the word corral intentionally. People are not animals. Refugee camps that trade individuality, home, culture, identity, vocation for simple survival are dehumanizing. Who are the Chagall’s of Syria, I wonder? I’m sure they are out there. Feeling, whether they want to or not. Then offering those feelings as a frightening gift. It made me wonder who is recording the names of the lost and the dead? If the names of the dead were carved in a stone mountain how big would that mountain need to be?
The sad truth is that we live in a day of ongoing suffering and holocaust. I try not to feel it very strongly. But I get angry that some of our politicians seem so adept at not feeling suffering at all—while playing their silly fiddles. Maybe Chagall’s gift was to feel so others could understand and put aside the silliness.
I realize this is a website that markets granola. We are in business. I need to be positive. One of my fundamental beliefs is that each person is as valuable as another. That’s a positive statement! I’m thankful for the reminder that refugees coming to Providence are no less important than Marc Chagall. Their emotions are no less deep or meaningful even if they lack the skill (or education or vision or money or English language) to communicate them to others. And—the exhibit made this very clear as well—there can be hope amid suffering and renewed joyful life after dark emotions. My hope is that our small non-profit is contributing to renewed joyful life for a few.
One last thought: I know one of our employees was searching for a certain type of calligraphy pen and long sheets of paper. He works 3 jobs, cares for his extended family, and today (it’s a holiday) he’s picking up 40 gallons of oil for us in Boston. Yet his instinct is to make art.