We may not always remember our dreams, but they are there, existing in the dark corners of our subconscious.
Dreams can often be a discarding of information but they can also be a processing of information that we don’t have access to in our waking life. They can help us solve problems. They can give us a fuller experience of our time in this life. They can lead us in new directions and make us ask ourselves hard questions.
So how do we interpret our dreams?
Dreams are personal. The symbolism of dreams are specific to you and your life experiences.
While I will be discussing specific symbols in future blogs, this one is a more generalized exploration at how the relationship to symbols will vary.
But first, you need to work to remember your dreams.
First, you work to remember your dreams.
Remembering your dreams is a practice. The more time you spend, the easier it becomes, just like any other practice.
Before going to sleep, create a way to record your dreams that is quick and accessible to you. For some, this is setting a journal next to your bed with a working pen. For others, this may be a recording device that you can talk into. (I used to do this and found dream messages to myself that I had forgotten when I awoke. Sleeping in a bed with a partner can make this awkward, and so I became self-conscious about recording them over time.) What works for me is having my notes app open on my phone near the bed and then typing in what I remember.
Your dreams may still be elusive. Try jotting down a feeling or any details you remember–it could simply be a color or a single image.
Another helpful process is to sit down and write morning pages in a journal. (Morning pages are an aspect of Artist Way by Julia Cameron, but vitally beneficial to anyone wanting to live a deeper experience with regards to their own life.) The process of Morning Pages is to sit and quickly free-write 3 pages of whatever pops in your head. The goal is simply 3 pages, not to plan anything or create anything, not to solve the world’s problems.
This type of writing often feels a bit like dreaming to me; my brain relaxes and thoughts come that I didn’t expect. (For anyone who can’t find words, you can quite literally write, “I don’t know what to write,” over and over again until you have a thought, and then you write that thought down, it could be, “this is dumb” or “I don’t like this.”)
I often find while doing the dump-style of writing, dreams from the night before pop into my memory and I can then write about those images and feelings and experiences, following that path where it chooses to lead me.
Another practice is sketching any images you remember, or using watercolors to remember the colors. Doodling with a pen (try just drawing spirals) can also bring dreams closer to the surface or your memory.
I remember my dreams, now what?
This is where the symbols and experiences become so personal.
You can write your dreams fully, like a story.
You can simply take notes of the things that stood out.
You can list anything important.
You can sketch.
You can talk about the images with someone else.
No matter how you choose to record your dreams, start to look for the symbols that stand out. If you write your dreams fully, you can highlight them and then make a list.
What do those symbols mean to you, and what are your experiences around those symbols?
What do you mean about symbols being personal?
Imagine you dream of a snake, which is actually a common image in dreams. Ask yourself what your experience with snakes has been.
If you have been raised in a Christian community, the snake can be seen as a Biblical temptation. The snake is a form of the devil and through the manipulation of Eve, humanity was punished and removed from the Garden of Eden. The snake in this dream may be one of temptation; something you want to do but feel guilty about or anxious that there would be dire consequences if you were to proceed.
If you have been raised in a Pagan community, the snake can be a symbol of wisdom. As a matter of fact, most ancient cultures considered the snake as a symbol of wisdom or a God. While it is mostly considered a myth now, many have been raised to believe that St. Patrick chasing the snakes from Ireland was a metaphor for him chasing out the Pagans and specifically the Druid elders while bringing Christianity to Ireland. (I’ve included articles below on why this is now considered a myth.)
If you have been raised as a Pagan or in an old religion that reveres the snake, its appearance in your dream could be one of wisdom and honor. There could be a message of learning or something that will lead you in a better direction.
If you’ve been bitten by a snake in real life, dreaming of one may be extremely fearful. There may be something in your life that is bringing you anxiety and you are afraid will hurt you.
If you have raised snakes and consider them your friends, dreaming of them may be about friendship.
Let’s say that you have raised snakes your whole life; you love them and trust them. In your dream, the snake turns and bites you. A dream of this sort may suggest that someone you trust is not as reliable as you expected them to be, and they may be out to hurt you. Perhaps in the same dream, the snake that bit you did so out of protecting itself. In this dream, perhaps it is you that has caused conflict in a friendship and they are now defending themselves.
Just a beginning…
This is just the beginning of talking about dreams. In future weeks I’ll be breaking down my dreams, the dreams of family and friends, and perhaps even your dreams. I want to show the process of dreams and how to explore their meanings on a personal level. I’ll also explore some universal symbols (such as the snake) and how they influence our personal symbols.
Dreaming has always been an important aspect of my life; the images I see often feel like they are leading my direction or cluing me into some subconscious knowledge. Sometimes the images are just a jumble of chaos, processing extraneous information and setting it aside for later. Grasping these messages in waking life can feel like a puzzle.
Over the years, I’ve had many friends and family come to me to talk about dreams and their interpretations. This subject is something I want to dive more deeply into, as I continue to struggle in my own life with nightmares, nocturnal panic attacks, and complex nocturnal hallucinations.
In the next few weeks (months, years), I’ll be exploring a blog on how to interpret your dreams. This has nothing to do with looking up the symbolism on the internet or, as I did growing up, in a series of dream interpretation books. This will involve diving into real dreams, working through interpretation, reviewing books, and working on a personal dream journal.
I would like to invite you, if you have a dream you’d like to discuss, to reach out to me. With your permission, we will break down your dream, find the important symbols, find out how you respond to that symbol, and see if we can make sense of your visions while sharing the fundamental symbols here.
Some dreams are just the dumping of information; identifying which ones have more to tell us is a part of the process. Others give us insight into decisions we need to make and allow us direction. Reoccurring dreams often have important information that we are choosing to ignore or can’t quite find the seed of the message.
Along with individual dream interpretation, I’ll be looking at different symbols that are common in dreams and look at how these symbols have been interpreted over time and through different cultures.
I like to look at dreams as a personal tarot deck, with your own symbols and your own interpretation. Let us work to create your own tarot deck of dreams, your own dream interpretation bible, and find an entryway into each of our subconscious lives.
Calling All Dreamers
Have a dream you’d like to work on that you’re willing to share here? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or through my contact page. I will only be working with one dream a week, although this may expand in the future.
When I was in high school, we were asked to read a biography or autobiography and present that person’s life story as if we were them. Immediately, I wanted to be Vincent van Gogh. His work touched me deeply, and while I knew little about his life other than the notorious ear incident, I felt like my soul knew his. The closest I can come to compare was a modern-day celebrity crush where you are certain if you met in person, you would become fast friends.
I still feel that way.
I chose to read Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh and a deeper love for this man was born. He is not only a visual artist but an artist of words. Every night after painting, he sat down and poured his soul into his letters to his brother.
Reading his words, I felt his overwhelming perceptions of beauty in the world countering his grief and pain. His words somehow reflected my philosophies on nature and humanity.
In 2016, we were able to visit the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. There is a room there filled only with Van Gogh’s paintings. I never wanted to leave. I stood so close that I could see his brush strokes. He had created these textures on canvas. He had stood in front of a blank page and left a small part of his overflowing soul.
I cried in that museum room, surrounded by the work of this artist.
And so when I first heard of the immersive Van Gogh exhibit, I dreamed of one day going. At first, it was only being offered in a warehouse in Paris. I dreamed of hopping on a flight and disappearing for a few hours into the world of Vincent.
It was an unrealistic dream; I knew I wasn’t going to run off to Paris, but it was still a dream.
And then Covid came. The world shut down. There were no flights to Paris, even if it were a reality.
But as the world began to open up, I began to hear whispers of Van Gogh exhibits here in the United States. Perhaps I would not have to fly to Europe. Perhaps I would not have to fly anywhere. Perhaps I would even be able to drive.
Los Angeles – Immersive Van Gogh
When Immersive Van Gogh came to Los Angeles, I knew it was finally a possibility. We found tickets over Christmas 2021 and made a mini vacation of it. I knew, taking my husband and daughter, that they would not have the enthusiasm that I did. I knew they would not want to linger the way I would.
I knew that it would be a balancing act of experiencing everything I could without forcing an unreasonable amount of time on my family.
When the day arrived, we walked down the long dark hallway, quietly through crooked frames is if we were entering his world; which essentially we were. At the end of the hallway was one of his paintings, Starry Night Over the Rhone. His unique way of showing light reflected on the water.
As we left the hallway, we entered a room with a wall of sunflowers and folded letters from Vincent twisted up across the ceiling. A replica of The Night Cafe had been constructed in a small side room. Interactive computers told the story of his life and created a letter from him to you. Music poured through nearby doors, a mix of classical and French, leading you to the immersion of light and sound and color.
As we entered the warehouse, I became a part of Van Gogh’s world. There were circles painted on the ground and we were given cushions to sit on. This was one way of keeping six feet of distance while Covid restrictions were a part of our daily life.
There were a few benches scattered around the room in two warehouse spaces; the same progression of music and images in each with a balcony looking over the larger of the rooms.
For me, I just wanted to sit in one spot without moving; one complete time through the exhibition. I wanted to see the whole story they created. I wished I had a journal or drawing pad to express what I felt. I knew, that if I ever came back, I would want to come alone with unlimited time and something to write with.
My family was patient with me. We watched it through once and then I watched it through a second time, changing perspectives, seeing the way mirrors altered perception, watching from the balcony.
In the elevated space, they had a single wall that showed the whole presentation in its full panoramic perspective without distortion.
Fresno – Beyond van Gogh
When I saw that Beyond Van Gogh was being offered in Fresno, not far from where my sister lives, I decided to go again. While I offered to take my sister and daughter, they understood that I would be taking my journal this time with no timeline. They each declined.
I believed that the Fresno version was going to be a slightly different version than the Los Angeles one; modified to fit the space and perhaps having a slightly different look at Vincent’s life.
What I did not expect is a completely different presentation. I have learned that there are no less than five different companies producing versions of the Van Gogh experience. The Immersive Van Gogh by Massimiliano Siccardi is the version we saw in Los Angeles and is the original French design that began in Paris. The Fresno Beyond Van Gogh is one of several traveling shows that move from city to city.
In Fresno, I first entered a room filled with panels telling the story of Van Gogh’s life; a beautiful introduction to the man and the artist he was. The room was dark and the panels were full of light and color. They led to a transition room, before the warehouse space, that dripped paint and color as well as his portrait, giving a sense of the movement his paintings reflect.
Entering the warehouse space, there were signs telling visitors not to sit on the floor. There were a few benches around pillars, but mostly, people were standing. Because I came towards the final dates of Beyond Van Gogh in the Fresno location, it was fairly empty. My sister, who had gone when the exhibit first opened, said the standing crowds made it difficult to really see the presentation in its entirety.
The ability to sit on the floor in Los Angeles allowed everyone a clear and uninterrupted view.
I found a bench and once again watched the entire presentation through.
While beautiful, this version had a very different feel. In Los Angeles, there was a darkness to Vincent’s story. The music and images reflected his depth of humanity as well as the beauty of his work. The music accompanying the images matched the energy of where he was in his life; whether that was a space of darkness or hope. In Fresno, the images felt more like a retrospective of an artist’s life. The music was classical and light in nature. Fresno also had a greater focus on Van Gogh’s words.
In Los Angeles, I felt like we were exploring his life through time, seeing how his art developed through moments and lifespan. In Fresno, I felt like we were exploring his work through style; the landscapes together, the portraits together, the still lives together.
While both experiences were beautiful and essential in their own right, I appreciated the depth of emotion that Los Angeles gave. Fresno gave me a new appreciation of Vincent’s words and takes me back to his letters to Theo.
From my journal in Fresno
When I see Van Gogh’s work, I am reminded that I am not alone in my sensitivities. When I read his words, I understand that I see the world how he did. I do not think this makes me unique or special in any way. It is that a few in this world see the intensity of dark and light differently.
There was a quote in the first room, where Vincent asked his brother, when they saw each other again, he would like to know what his brother saw. He should like to know if they saw things in the same way. I understand what he means in that: I believe I see the world much as he did, and I often feel alone in that.
I cry when I see his work. the strokes of his paintbrush. I understand the depth of his emotions when looking at his world; the grief that is expressed in color, the pain, and the beauty. His soul cried out in the beauty of it all. The color of a leaf touched him.
He loved deeply but it also caused him such deep turmoil.
I would like to explore flowers and faces the way he has.
Differences from LA–this [Fresno] is much lighter in tone. It is more painterly and classical. The music is uplifting and does less to take us into the depths of his despair. LA took on the darker tones of Van Gogh’s life and allowed some of his grief and pain. The music was often heavier and with more drama. The movement of the art is also different. LA gave us more of his life story by often (but not always) moving in a more linear direction. The art here is more content driven, with locations, styles, portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. LA felt more like a passage of time. Fresno feels like a body of work.
We said goodbye to the Statue of Liberty, boarded the ferry on the south side of the island, and set sail for our next destination; Ellis Island. Ellis Island has always captivated my attention, has always drawn me into the stories of the lives that stepped foot there. This spot of history had become essential if I were ever to go to New York City. Finally, I would see this place that had only been pictures in my head.
None of my own family, that I know of, came through Ellis Island. Much of my family came to the United States in the years before Ellis Island, dating back to some of the earliest settlers. Others, my Russian Molokan family, came at the turn of the century, escaping political prosecution for their religious beliefs through Galveston, Texas.
Our boat docked between two sections of the island. To the north was the Registry Room which is open to the general public. To the south was the quarantine hospital, a building in decay and only open as an additional tour, the fee going to Save Ellis Island, a non-profit created to restore the 29 unused buildings on Ellis Island.
We donned our hardhats and traveled down the long brick hallways, moving from one island to the next. The red brick was stained white; damage from the waterline of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. This slowed and reversed some of the restorative work being done on this part of Ellis Island.
While the hospital on the main island could care for 275 in 1910, contagious diseases often needed to be cared for in specific quarantine hospitals on the mainland. This created a need for a quarantine hospital on Ellis Island itself.
Besides the main island with the registry room and standard hospital, two other islands were created with only a narrow strip of land connecting them. (Today, the two southernmost islands stand as one, the water between them now turned into an empty park using the dirt from the development of the New York Subway system. This area is off-limits to tourists.)
As we walked down the hallways, you could imagine what this space had once been, with doctors and nurses in their uniforms traveling back and forth. The quarantine took children from their families and loved ones from their partners. Children in the quarantine hospital were required to be cared for with money sent from families allowed to go ashore or through help from charity aid societies.
I imagine my grief at being allowed passage after a long journey, escaping some horror in my homeland, only to have my child taken from me because of a suspected illness. My child feeling like she had been abandoned or forgotten in the twisting hallways. I imagine trying to start a new life and make enough money to pay for my child to stay at the hospital until she is better so that she will not be returned to our homeland.
Down the hallway, we come to a large room, the ceiling has fallen from time and weather. There are leaves piled on the floor. We turn to the right and find ourselves in an ancient laundry. The shadows of memories stand in the window, the installation of French artist, JR. These pieces will peak at us through our entire tour, designed to decay with the building.
The electric box stands open on the wall, large switches in the position, their boxes filled with leaves. There is no power currently on this part of the island or none that I can see. Our tour walks in the sunlight which travels through broken windows.
The enormous industrial washing machines and dryers stand open in the middle of the room. The ground is dusty, the paint has peeled and been scraped. I imagine the workers and the constant washing of garments, especially the garments of those with contagious diseases. My mind sees orderlies rushing around, keeping constantly busy.
We step from the laundry, passing what was once the ward for those thought to be mentally unfit. We pass the outdoor recreation pavilion, a narrow covered brick space that would have once sat on the bay. In many illnesses of the time, it was believed that fresh air was one of the best medicines for a patient. This covered pavilion would have allowed patients to sit or lay and look at the water. Fresh air was also used in the hospital, even when snow fell and the wind was ice.
Moving past the outdoor recreation pavilion, we move to the southernmost island. The dormitory buildings here do not line up, they stretch off a central corridor and no doors are ever across from each other.
It was believed at the time that viruses in the air could not turn corners. Therefore, quarantine dormitories could not face other quarantine dormitories. The ceilings did not have sharp corners in these rooms because it was believed that viruses would fill those corners and get stuck there, never moving out through the open windows.
Illnesses of the same type were kept together. Children with measles were kept in a single room with other children with measles. Their windows were kept open, even at the coldest time of year, so that the virus would not be concentrated in the room. It was believed that viruses could not be blown overwater, this is why the island was separated by the bay with only a connecting pathway. Radiators sat against the wall to keep the rooms warm against the chill of the weather.
The art of JR follows us and allows us to see the ghosts of this place as they dream of a new life. They are faded but still present. Beyond the images, you feel the presence of what was once here, the sadness and the hope.
A beautiful, sad, haunting look at the quarantine hospital is seen in a film also created by JR and stars Robert Deniro, called “Ellis”. You can watch it on YouTube here, or I have included the link below. It allows you to understand what it is to walk these halls, to feel the history of the hospital.
In the Tuberculosis ward, patients were not kept together as they were in other spaces. The rooms were not across from each other, but alternating down a hallway. Each patient had their own room with two sinks; the first to wash and the second to spit.
Tuberculosis spit is highly contagious and these sinks had their own plumbing which was flushed to the incinerator. Their windows were not left open the way other rooms were but rather vented in a way that the patient could not escape.
One of the saddest stories was in the room looking out over the Statue of Liberty. While some believed the statue gave them hope for a new life, others saw her standing with her back turned on them. It was a daily reminder that the United States had turned its back on them and their dreams of taking a step in their new land.
The installation in the director’s house at the far end of the island somehow touched me the most. “This Place Matters.”
The place matters, it truly does.
This is the foundation that our country was built upon. Immigrants placed all of their hope, all of their dreams within their chosen country. Many were turned away, families were broken, but more were allowed their new home.
This woman reminds me of my great-grandma when she came from Russia. They have a similar look to them, and the lines on their face tell a similar story.
The hospital was one of the best in the country and one of the best in the world. Patients were treated well as per the standards of the time and within the fight of anti-immigration sentiment and law.
No contagious spread of disease was ever traced back to a patient who left the hospital, and most patients did eventually leave the hospital and start the new life they dreamed of.
The History of Ellis Island
Originally, Ellis island was called Kioshk, or Gull Island, by the Mohican Native American Tribe living along the shore of the Hudson River. The island itself was a small sandbank lined with waterbirds. In the 1630s, a Dutchman named Michael Paauw purchased the island from the native people and renamed it Oyster Island for the shellfish beds surrounding it.
Through the turmoil of history and as the settler’s claim to this land was questioned and fought over, the ownership of the island itself continued to change hands. At one point it was called Gibbet Island in reference to the public execution of pirates hung there. In the 1780s Samuel Ellis came to own the island giving it the name it carries today, using it for recreation. Ellis sold it once again in 1988 for $3,200 to John A. Berry, the last private owner.
In 1808, the United States War Department bought the island for $10,000. There was fear due to rising tensions of the Napoleonic War and so the government purchased the island to become a fort, Fort Gibson, and be used as a line of defense to protect what is now Lower Manhattan. During the War of 1812, the British blocked the harbor but never attacked any of New York’s fortifications. Fort Gibson itself was used to jail prisoners of war.
The War of 1812 did not officially end until February of 1815 and Ellis Island was left deserted. In the 1830s, the island was used for storage of gunpowder and became a munitions dump during the Civil War. Its close proximity to both New York and New Jersey created fear through the possibility of the munitions being attacked or hit by lightning and causing devastation to the communities around it. In 1890, Congress passed legislation to clear the island of munitions and passed a bill for $75,000 to improve the island for purposes of immigration.
In 1847, the Irish Potato Famine sent approximately one million Irishmen to look for new homes. (The famine itself is estimated to have killed another million, the population of Ireland declined by approximately 25%.) Ellis Island was suggested as a place for immigrants to recover from their journey across the Atlantic, but New York decided instead to renovate Castle Clinton on the southern tip of Manhattan.
Immigration, as it seems is always the case, became a conflicting issue for the people of the United States. On one hand, immigrants brought skilled workers, strong bodies, and an economy that could help strengthen the country. On the other hand, some saw immigrants and the hungry poor with contagious diseases that would strain the government through social support.
This became the foundation of immigration; who would be admitted and who would be denied.
In 1882, two laws were passed. The first banned all Chinese and denied citizenship to any Chinese already established in the country. The second law denied entry to “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.”
In 1891, the law banned paupers, prostitutes, polygamists, or any person with a dangerous contagious disease.
In 1885, the Alien Contract Labor Law was passed. This law was meant to protect American workers from companies importing cheaper labor while protecting immigrants from manipulation. The law led to corruption within Castle Garden and embarrassment to the Federal government as stories of abuse were the headlines of the newspapers of the day.
In 1890, the contract with the New York State immigration commissioners was terminated and immigration inspection was given to the federal government. An island was sought in an effort to keep separate anyone needing to be detained.
Governors island was chosen first, but the War Department refused. Chosen next was Bedloe Island where the Statue of Liberty stands. There was an ironic outcry; the public did not want “Europe’s garbage” to be put at Liberty’s feet.
Finally, Ellis Island was selected, despite the fact that the water was too shallow for boats to dock there.
Ellis Island was doubled in size using ship ballast (heavy material placed low in a ship to maintain balance) as landfill; a deep ferry landing was built.
On January 1, 1892, Annie Moore, 15 years old from Ireland, was the first immigrant to enter Ellis Island. The building was designed to process 10,000 immigrants a day.
The depot quickly fell into disrepair and in 1897, a fire burned it to the ground.
In planning for a rebuild, a second island, attached by only a narrow connection, was planned. It would be built from landfill from the new subway system being developed in New York City. The main building was designed to process 500,000 immigrants a year, but immigration had slowed and only approximately 250,000 souls were arriving through New York annually.
The main (and current building) opened on December 17, 1900. In 1901, 389,000 immigrants came through the registration room. In 1907, immigration peaked when over one million came through. Between the 1840s and 1924 (when Congress instituted “ethnic quotas) approximately 34 million immigrants landed in the United States through Ellis Island.
Ships filled with immigrants sailed into the Upper Bay and were boarded around The Narrows. First-class (and sometimes second-class passengers) were inspected. It was generally assumed that if they could afford the ticket, they would not be a burden on society and were considered less likely to be carrying a dangerous and contagious disease.
These passengers did not have to go through Ellis Island immigration but disembarked before the rest of the passengers were taken via ferry to be inspected.
Third-class passengers were called “steerage”. The trip was often crowded and unsanitary in the bowels of the steamships; disease was common. These passengers were moved onto open-air ferries without toilets or medical care. Death by exposure was not uncommon. It is thought that of children arriving with measles, 30% died due to exposure on the ferries.
We like to think of a ferry as a quick trip across the bay, however, the bay was often filled with steamships, with thousands of passengers waiting to disembark. They were often left in steerage for days, waiting for their turn. The ferries then lined up, waiting to disembark at Ellis Island.
When the time came that an immigrant stepped foot on the island, carrying everything they owned, a number was pinned to their clothing identifying their position on the ship manifest. This allowed inspectors to know where they came from and whether they had a “right” to be there.
An average of 2% were denied entry. While that number may seem small, it is 2 of every 100 people, thousands over the course of a month.
The lines stretched from the docks and around the buildings, through baggage rooms, upstairs, and into the 2-story Registry Room. They were met by doctors who looked for any little sign of disability, even before the immigrant knew they were being watched. Children were taken from their mother’s arms and made to walk to be sure that they were able; they were asked their names to be sure that they could hear and speak.
Doctors checked for 60 different symptoms which would point to disease or disability. Two that I had never heard of, which were common at the time, were favus (a fungal infection of the scalp and nails) and trachoma (an eye infection from a strain of Chlamydia, which could lead to blindness and death in people living in the same home.)
Doctors checked every immigrant for trachoma by using a buttonhook or hairpin to flip back the eyelid looking for inflammation of the inner lid. These doctors were called “buttonhook men” and immigrants describe it as the most painful part of their inspection.
Immigrants with signs of illness or disability were marked with chalk on their clothing. They were taken to the Ellis Island main hospital for observation and care. More complicated illnesses were taken to the quartine hospital. When they recovered, they could continue to their legal inspection.
If they were incurable or disabled, they were returned to their country of origin at the expense of the steamship that brought them over. This put the responsibility on the ships to filter out who they brought to New York.
Beyond the chalk mark, people were marked with specific letters for specific conditions. Pregnant women were not allowed to leave Ellis Island until they had given birth; they were marked with Pg. (Over 350 babies were born on Ellis Island and there was some debate if these children were born American citizens.)
If an immigrant was thought to be feeble-minded (and approximately 9 out of every 100 immigrants were pulled out and detained) they were marked with an X and were required to go through further testing. These tests varied and included things like putting together a puzzle or counting. The tests varied as different cultural backgrounds did not work for each test.
After the medical inspection, immigrants wound in lines through the main part of the registry room for legal inspection. It took, on average, 5 hours to pass through the inspection process.
Inspectors stood with translators who worked to figure out that immigrant’s language and dialect. They verified information from the ship manifest, names were recorded with an attempt at spelling it correctly. (However, countries that do not use the Latin lettering system of English took some interpretation. My Russian last name would be translated from the Cyrillic alphabet which is why any spelling of Loscotoff is most likely related to my family in some way; Loscutoff, Loskotoff, Luskatov.) Inspectors asked questions that would identify where they would fit into this new society.
In 1917, immigrants began to be required to pass a literacy test in their own language, with many being required to read the Bible in their own language.
If an immigrant could not prove their right to be here, they were forced to attend a hearing. They were not allowed a lawyer as they were not legally entitled to come to the United States. They were, however, allowed to have friends and family speak on their behalf. Most were approved, those who were not could appeal to Washing DC and could hire a lawyer at this point.
Women and children without guardians were not allowed to leave Ellis Island until a letter or ticket from a relative assured the government that they had a place to go. Single women were not allowed to leave with a man who was unrelated.
Immigration brides were common, with letters and pictures being sent across the sea. Men would crowd barges to meet bride ships, with brides holding up pictures to match to their fiances. Many of these couple married on Ellis Island in order to be allowed to leave. Women unhappy or who felt fooled by their choice were required to stay on the island until they could find a new husband or a woman’s charity came to their aid.
After passing the medical and legal inspection, immigrants moved down from the registry room to the “Stairs of Separation” which led to their new lives; railroad ticket offices, meeting points with waiting families, and ferries to take them off the island.
Due to the increase in laws against immigration, Ellis island came to a rapid decline in the early 1920s. After World War I, embassies around the world were established which took care of immigration paperwork and medical inspections. After 1924, Ellis island was used for war refugees and those having trouble with immigration paperwork. During WWII, it became a detention center and was managed by the United States Coast Guard until 1954.
Unfortunately, all hospital records on the island were destroyed while under the care of the Coast Guard.
We returned to New York City, now imagining what it would be to have sat on a boat in the bay, seeing this new world for the first time and not knowing if you would ever step foot there; not knowing if your family would be torn apart. As we boarded the subway, I imagined all this earth forming the foundation of three small islands in the bay, and how this dirt supported the immigration of America.
As we rode the escalator up from the depths of the 9/11 memorial, the crowds outside had dispersed and the guards were beginning to place the barriers around the fountains. Being such large landmarks, I assumed they were lit and available to anyone walking by all night. I suppose, for the same reasons, they also become targets of grief and damage, and so ropes go up and officers stand guard.
We decided to continue south, first to Trinity Church and the burial place of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton (surrounded by many of the important figures of American history) and then to Battery Park to see the Statue of Liberty.
Trinity Church stands amongst the towering modern city skyscrapers of Wallstreet. The first Trinity Church was built facing the Hudson River in 1698 but was destroyed in the Great New York Fire of 1776. The second Trinity Church was built in the same spot but facing Wall Street and was finished in 1790. Heavy snow showed the church to have structural problems and in 1839 was taken down on the recommendation of the architect, John Upjohn. Upjohn designed the third church in the same location in a Gothic Revival style. It was built between 1839 and 1846.
Trinity Church stood as the tallest building in the United States until 1869 and the tallest in New York until 1890.
Imagine that world; this church stood as a focus amongst the earthly challenges, the roads muddy with important figures walking to service, sitting amongst the pews. It rose up, giving early Americans hope for something greater. Now Wall Street looms and we continue to look up.
You can almost imagine Alexander Hamilton, in his grave, looking up at the monetary system he created.
Those buried in the churchyard here include early U.S. representatives, signers of the Constitution, Revolutionary War generals, senators, inventors, abolitionists, lawyers, as well as Alexander, Eliza, and Phillip Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler, and Hercules Mulligan.
Leaving Trinity Church, we continued walking a few blocks down to Battery Park. Artillery batteries were built here in the late 17th century to protect the settlements that became lower Manhattan.
It is surprising when you walk into these green spaces after being in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world. Dogs play, people read in the grass, and birds drink from drinking fountains.
And there, in the distance, was the Statue of Liberty.
My first reaction was that she was much smaller than I expected her to be. Perhaps it was being surrounded by such tall buildings, but she looked petite and unassuming with monstrous cranes standing taller than she did on the horizon.
The ferries came in and out over the choppy waves and she stood, resolute. We would be taking Statue City Cruises out first thing in the morning to explore her island and then to explore the damaged quarantine hospital at Ellis Island.
From this point at the tip of Manhattan, you can see the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Governors Island, Brooklyn, the Hudson River, Staten Island, Jersey City, and Newark Airport.
We made our way north on the subway to our hotel which stood half a block from Times Square.
Getting off a subway in New York can be disorienting. Without a good sense of cardinal directions, you have to look for street numbers and whether you are on a street or an avenue. It takes trial and error, walking to the next corning and checking each sign.
Our hotel stood next to Times Square and at this time in the evening, it had become full of people jostling their way through crowded sidewalks. The smell of marijuana was often overwhelming as mobile pot trucks were parked along the streets. If you walk a block away from Times Square, the sidewalks sit empty.
We tried to find food beyond the food carts on every corner. Trying to eat without gluten makes it harder for me to eat easily. In our search, we realized our hotel was physically connected to the FOX news studios. You could see the sets and the lights inside.
Another unique aspect of NYC is how unhidden life is. You can watch a show through a window being filmed. Broadway theaters are smaller and more intimate. Actors walk the street to get to their broadway call times before a show.
Living in California, everything is spread out. There is more isolation in our way of living. The movie studios sit behind large gates and huge sets.
Our hotel, the Plaza Riu, stood off Times Square and Broadway. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so high within a hotel, where you can feel the sway when you arrive at your room. It was beautiful and intimidating.
In the morning, I almost forgot what city and country I was in. Our breakfast was provided by the hotel and our view was that of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, built in 1868. You could almost imagine yourself in Europe, although my experience of Europe is less blending of old and new.
We made our way to Battery Park and the Statue City Cruises. We were on one of the first ferries of the day, with tickets to a hard hat tour on Ellis Island at noon. You are first required to move through security, similar to that of airlines with metal detectors and x-ray machines.
We made our way to the top of the ferry and looked out over Upper New York Bay. When the ferry was full, we set off across the water to the Statue of Liberty. The ferry moves to the east side of the small island and docks on the south side. There is also a ferry from New Jersey and they criss-cross paths as they lead to their destination.
Due to Covid, walking into the body of the Statue is still closed, however, you can purchase tickets to the base that she stands on. While certainly she stands tall, seeing people at her feet, you gain a perspective of her size. She is not as large as the image I see in my head.
Behind the Statue of Liberty is a small park and further back on the island is a 26,000-square-foot museum dedicated to her, how she was built, and her relationship with France. When we walk in, there is a movie running in three parts: The Immersive Theater-The Story of an Icon. You walk through a circular theater, stopping and sitting for each part.
Leaving the theater, you enter a replica of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s studio, where he built the Statue of Liberty through forms and models. You get an idea of the work that went into such a large undertaking as well as being able to see the original copper color of the design.
From the museum itself, you look out over the Statue of Liberty as she faced the ships of immigrants on their journey to the United States. It’s hard to imagine the number of ships she saw only a bit more than 100 years ago.
That story is actually much more complex than we are often taught, with views towards immigration at the time very similar to views of immigration now. I’m going to talk more about this next week as we make our way to Ellis Island.
After walking around the island, amazed by the views of New York and New Jersey, exploring the Statue of Liberty Museum, and appreciating Liberty’s story, we indulged in ice cream and boarded the ferry for the short trip to Ellis Island.
The ferry again traveled around the east side of the island, giving us a beautiful view of what many of our immigrant family members saw as they made their way to a new home.
The next stop was, for me, essential to our trip to New York; Ellis Island.
Thank you, dear readers, for sticking with me this long. I’ll be writing about my favorite part of our New York trip this next week. I hope you’ll join me in seeing the hidden parts of Ellis Island.
One last night in New Jersey as the sun set and the moon appeared through a rainbow of clouds. In the morning we were headed to New York City, two days and a single night, and two very important places that I have always felt drawn to visit; the 9/11 Memorial Museum and Ellis Island.
There is an ease to traveling on the East Coast. We left Beach Haven and made our way to the mainland, driving north to Toms River. You can catch a bus into New York City for approximately $25 each way. We headed up the Garden State Parkway, past the Newark Airport, through the deep Holland Tunnel (your ears adjusting to the sudden change in pressure) and suddenly you find yourself surrounded by enormous buildings and no sense of direction.
We were dropped off at Port Authority. Stepping out, I found myself overwhelmed by the immensity of it all. New York feels big, it feels alive and ever-moving. There is a feeling of old and new as skyscrapers stretch tall next to historic cathedrals. There is also a sense of how small we are.
I recently spoke to a friend and she described her first visit to New York City filling her with possibility; everything she could be. This, my first visit to New York City, made me feel lost.
I generally have a wonderful sense of direction; perhaps it is in my connection to the moonrise and the sunset. I know where I stand based on the turning of the earth. In New York, I felt like an ant among these giants with no connection to the earth. The buildings blocked my view of the horizon.
Given time, I imagine I would learn landmarks and discover where I fit on this island, but these days, I felt confused and overwhelmed. So many moments of certainty that I was heading in the right direction, only to discover I was going the wrong way.
We dropped our bags off at our hotel (more on that next week) and Pat, our New Jersey hostess began to show us around. She would be sending us on our way in a few hours, but for the time being, she gave us a grasp on the city.
So many landmarks are pressed together on this small strip of land; Times Square is around the corner from Rockefeller Center which is across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral which is around the corner from the Rockettes and a few streets from Broadway and all of this is down the street from Central Park.
Before this trip, I didn’t understand that it was all so close.
We found our way to St. Andrew’s Cathedral, bordered by 5th and Madison Ave. The cathedral began being built in 1858 and construction stopped during the Civil War, finally being completed in 1879. It is the largest Gothic Revival Catholic Cathedral in North America.
When you see architecture like this amongst the modern buildings, you are reminded of the antiquity of New York’s history. Having had the opportunity to travel through parts of Europe, New York is unique in its blend of old and new, neighbors within history.
Europe has a tendency to keep the old with the old. New York seems to keep a bit of the old and then grow bigger on what no longer serves them.
St. Andrew’s is beautiful with its sculpture and mosaic and stained glass windows. Walking inside, you could imagine that you are no longer within the United States, but rather wandering through a European city. It is a surprise to your senses when you step outside into the shadows of glass and steel.
Pat needed a quick visit to the Apple Store before her own journey to Scotland (which you can read about through her journals here). Never before have I seen such a beautiful Apple Store. Having left the Gothic history of St. Andrew’s, here we enter the modern world of technology today.
You enter through a large glass facade that reflects the buildings around it. You are met by security before spiraling down two stories through a twisting staircase lined with plants and mirrors. The large underground room spreads out, decorated with living trees and open space and a multitude of tables and products and assistants.
It feels futuristic while familiar.
After Apple, we walked across the street with Pat and into Central Park. Central Park deserves more than the tiny bit of time we were able to give it. We boarded a horse-drawn carriage and took a short 20-min ride through the southern tip of the park.
Central Park is lined by the silhouette of the city but allows the world to stretch out, allowing you a moment of grounding. Couples cuddle at the base of trees, children run on the paths, there are bicyclists, and there is music from street performers all as background to the clomping feet of the carriage horse.
We made our way from Central Park and said our goodbyes as Pat headed back to New Jersey and we made our way via New York Subway to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
I remember not understanding the underground in Paris as a high school student on a choir trip. I sat and cried in confusion. Thankfully, New York subways are fairly clear. Technology has made it easier, plugging your destination in through your map, your phone will walk you to the nearest entrance and tell you your approximate wait time. Not only that, your phone will pay the entrance fee. You no longer need to buy tickets unless you prefer the way the paper feels between your fingers.
We exited the Subway and turned to see the enormous fountain memorials dedicated to those lost on 9/11, a memorial to the world that changed on that day.
I think we all remember where we were when the Twin Towers fell. It has been said that 9/11 was our generation’s Pearl Harbor.
I woke up that morning; my alarm was a morning comedy talk show. The first tower had been hit 14 minutes earlier. Coming from sleep, I was trying to understand if this was a story they were telling. I couldn’t make clear sense of what they were doing. And then, 3 minutes after I awoke, the second airplane hit. Suddenly, everything within me sunk.
I had been staying at my parent’s at the time and I ran in to turn on their TV. They could see that something terrible had happened by the look on my face.
We stood, watching the screen, paralyzed, as Flight 77 hit the pentagon.
And then, an hour later, the South Tower fell.
My heart felt like it shattered as I understood all the lives that were lost at that moment. All the families torn apart at that moment. The weight of our world changed in a few short hours on the morning of September 11th.
Three minutes later, Flight 93 crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
How many more planes were in the air? How many more people had to die on this day? How many more families would be ravaged in these moments?
26 minutes later, the North Tower collapsed.
I was a second-grade teacher. Our school district did not shut down. How do you continue to act like this is just another day when you are so overcome with grief for what has just happened? How do you continue to teach when your students are afraid to be away from their parents?
We kept the television off in the classroom, but internally, all I wanted to do was watch and understand and be updated. I wanted to cry and scream and grieve for the people killed on that day.
And so, if we did anything in New York, the 9/11 Memorial was a place I needed to visit.
In the footprints of both buildings are fountains lined with the names of those who died. The water tumbles and sparkles like the lives that were lost. The water comes together and then falls again into a dark shadow that we can’t see.
As you move into the museum, you move down, deeper and deeper, below the heavy fortress of the water memorials. Underneath these huge fountain footprints are the stories of the people who lived and died on 9/11.
Something we often don’t hear about at the site of the World Trade Center is “The Bathtub”. The Bathtub is a 7-story dam that covers 9 blocks and was built down to bedrock to allow the Twin Towers to be built, protecting them from the Hudson River. The earth removed from this space was used to build Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhatten.
When the Twin Towers were hit and then collapsed, there was a chance that these slurry walls would break and flood Lower Manhatten, filling the Path Tunnels which carry trains under the Hudson river between New York and New Jersey. Thousands more would have died.
Engineers and firefighters worked tirelessly, pumping water and securing these walls after the Twin Towers fell and during rescue operations. The original walls stood.
The Survivor’s Staircase was the last visual structure above ground after the Twin Towers fell. It served as an evacuation point for hundreds of evacuees from 5 World Trade Center.
Ladder Company 3 was in the middle of a shift change when the first tower was struck. Both tours of men went together to the North Tower and made their way up, helping as many as possible. They were on the 35th floor when the North Tower Collapsed, leaving Ladder Company 3 with some of the most losses of any New York Fire department. Their firetruck was crushed as the tower fell.
On May 30th, 2002, the last column was removed from the site of the World Trade Centers. It was anchored in bedrock and supported the South Tower’s inner core. It was located near the south tower lobby, where first responders had been last reported. It was physically marked through recovery efforts as a landmark in searching for survivors and became a landmark of loss after the remains of FDNY Squad 41 were found there.
The Twin Towers and the Bathtub were built deep into the bedrock. The museum allows you to see these structures as you make your way into the far corners of the memorial.
Two twisted beams of steel hang in the 9/11 Memorial Museum and they are identified in the photo after the plane hit the North Tower. The destruction becomes tangible when you see and understand the power that can dissolve steel into dust.
Standing to the south of the 9/11 memorial is the One World Trade Center, the main building within the rebuilt complexes around the 9/11 museum. It stands as the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and the seventh tallest building in the world. It stands at 1,776 feet tall, which was deliberate in connecting to when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
What captivated me about the One World Trade Center is how it was created to reflect the sky around it. While ever present in its height, it also disappears into the blue, allowing the clouds to echo on its surface.
I leave you here today, dear readers. Thank you for coming on this journey with me. We stayed in the museum until it closed and then continued our walk south. That will be a story for next week.
Looking out over the bay as the sun sets, a little house on the dock, I could envision the scene from Jaws where Richard Dryfus begins to load his scientific tools onboard a small fishing vessel; the grizzly old captain watches with part intrigue and part mocking humor. The novel Jaws (and subsequent movie) are inspired by this stretch of sand in the Atlantic and a series of attacks that began here in 1916.
On July 1, 1916, in Beach Haven, NJ, Charles Vansant, 28 from Philadelphia, decided to go for a swim. He took his dog down to the shoreline and entered the water. He didn’t go deep. When he began to yell, others thought he was simply calling to his dog. The reality was a shark was biting his legs. He was rescued by a lifeguard and a bystander and carried to his hotel, the Engleside. He bled to death on the hotel manager’s desk.
While this was the only death in Beach Haven, there were 3 more deaths–Charles Bruder (27), Lester Stillwell (11), Stanely Fischer (24)– and one traumatic injury–Joseph Dunn (12) lost his leg–before the shark, an 8.5 foot Great White (now thought to be a misidentified Bull Shark) was caught and killed. The shark’s stomach carried human remains. Its story still strikes fear into beachgoers. ( You can read the whole story here, or below in my links.)
Beach Haven is also home to the New Jersey Maritime Museum which carries the “most extensive collection of maritime history and artifacts in New Jersey” while working to preserve New Jersey’s long maritime history. One display is a tribute honoring the story of these shark attacks.
One of my favorite aspects of the New Jersey Maritime Museum is their collection of portholes. They are displayed throughout the museum, filling every nook and cranny.
There is something poetically beautiful, something magical, about these portholes. Perhaps it is their history, perhaps it is what they represent. These circular pieces of glass, supported by a metal (often brass) frame, intended to keep the sea out and the light in, shattered and broken, having lived parts of their lives at the bottom of the sea.
Each appears as an art piece, honoring a moment of history. Eyes looked out these windows and, at some point, water rushed in.
The portal to my soul is a broken glass, fractured into memories I can’t shake. Flooding in through the beautiful prism torturing me with the looming feelings of my inevitable demise.
Within the New Jersey Maritime Museum is also a room dedicated to the SS Morro Castle. In 1928, the United States Congress passed the Merchant Marine act which provided construction funds to be given to shipping companies, allowing them to replace old ships with new ones.
The New York and Cuba Mail Steam Ship took the opportunity to build twin ships; the SS Morro Castle and the SS Orient. The company had been transporting mail, cargo, and passengers between New York and Cuba since 1841 (also called the Ward Line).
The SS Morro Castle set sail on August 23, 1930, and despite a worsening depression, maintained steady business. Their tickets were affordable, their clientele treated to luxury, and, in a time of prohibition, they were not limited by US alcohol laws.
On September 5, 1934, the SS Morro Castle left Havanna and began its 58-hour journey up the East Coast. Through the afternoon of the 6th and into the 7th, the clouds thickened and the winds began to blow. That evening, the captain, Robert Rennison Willmott, ate in his room and then died of a heart attack. Command passed to Chief Officer William Warms. Overnight, the winds became stronger as the ship continued up the coastline.
At around 2:50 am, the ship was traveling off the coast of Beach Haven, NJ when a fire was discovered in a storage closet of the 1st class writing room. To this day, the start of the fire is unknown–theories of arson and insurance fraud persist. Within 20 minutes, the fire burned through the electrical cables and the ship lost power. Within 30 minutes, the ship was engulfed. A single SOS was sent before the ship lost power.
The fire separated the passengers from the crew, with the passengers moving to the back of the boat and the crew moving to the front. The deck was hot to the touch. The smoke was unbreathable. For many passengers, the decision became to jump or to burn. And so, they jumped.
The waves from the storm were high and unyielding. The water was deathly cold. Those who jumped with life rings were often knocked out as the rings hit their neck or head upon entering the water, causing them to drown or die of a broken neck.
Six lifeboats were launched with a capacity for 408 souls. Only 85 people, mostly crew, were saved via lifeboat. The ocean swells made seeing bodies difficult amongst the waves and rescue near impossible.
The single SOS signal lead to a slow recovery. People lined the New Jersey shoreline and collected bodies, helped with the wounded, and cared for those brought in by rescue boat. 135 out of the 549 on board were killed, as well as an unknown number of castaways (mostly children) escaping violence on the streets of Havana.
The ship was towed and beached on the shore of Asbury Park boardwalk, where the burned-out hull became a tourist attraction. It was later towed to Gravesend Bay and eventually scrapped in Baltimore on March 29, 1935.
More Interesting Maritime Artifacts
While each of these images deserves time and attention, I don’t know all of their stories. These are a few things that really stood out to me at the New Jersey Maritime Museum; old flags to models, art, old fire extinguishers (glass balls filled with repellant), displays, ship funnels, and enormous painted lobster claws.
I hope you enjoy these photos and they allow your imagination to soar.
It was the morning after July 4th and I awoke at 5 am. No need for an alarm clock, I was just determined to see the New Jersey sunrise, and my mind was the only alarm clock I needed.
My mind has a unique inner clock. If I need to be awake at 8, I wake at 7:45. I know this process is in part why I don’t sleep well if I have a morning obligation. It’s like elevator music running in the background; always there. Sometimes I can ignore it and sometimes it rings through my head filling every grey wrinkle.
This wasn’t an obligation, just something I wanted to do before we returned to California–to be one of the first people in the whole United States to watch the sunrise on that day.
I snuck out through our back balcony and down the stairs. I made my way past the few houses separating us from the beach. The sky was dark and cloudy and there was a mild glow in what seemed like the north.
I had believed, up until this point, that the beach lined itself fully north and south.
And then the sky began to turn.
The light was not directly to the east as I had expected, or slightly to the north (the way it is watching the sun rise or set at home California). No, the sky began to turn, in my perspective, it was lighting the sky far to the north of the spit of sand. I began to realize that the island actually moves from NE to SW.
I have chosen the perfect morning.
Some mornings were bright and clear and the sun rose dramatically, appearing past the horizon. Other mornings were dark and rainy, with no sunrise to speak of. This morning had the glory of the clouds and an incoming storm.
Red sky at night, sailor delight. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.
As quickly as the red filled the sky, a sailor’s warning at sea, it dissipated and I could see the sun attempting to peek through. The sky beyond the clouds began to light but the sun was hidden.
I began to walk the beach, the tide far lower than any I had seen thus far. Bits of shell formed a line far from the water.
In the distance, I heard the sound of an engine as what looked like a truck made its way down the sand. The seagulls dived around it, celebrating what the surf rake turned up. I had never seen a surf rake and was intrigued by the smooth road of sand it created.
The beaches of this part of New Jersey are stunning. The sand is heavy and coarse and can be hard to walk through as it sucks at your feet. The water shifts between warm and cold depending on the current. It is a wild coastline beloved and ever-changing.
Following an early morning sunrise, a perfect treat is one of the neatest little restaurants with fresh juice and more acai bowls than you can imagine. Not only do they offer acai, they have 4 other bases you can try; young coconut, pitaya, banana, and strawberry.
If I lived in Beach Haven, this would become a staple. You can tell is a local favorite by the lines extending beyond the doors.
Totally worth the wait.
I spoke in my last blog about how you can walk from one side of the island for sunrise to the other for sunset. It’s a fantastic bit of land with a small community that becomes much larger during the summer. The traffic lights only turn on in late spring and turn off in the fall–the rest of the year they are a perpetual blinking yellow light. Almost everything you need is within these few miles.
Who am I kidding? The hoards of people came in and lined the beaches. The firecrackers popped and zinged. The night before, the air was filled with explosions, and laughter was heard long past 2 am.
The weather was that perfect mix of humid salty air and a cool breeze. Still far too hot for me in the sun, but we took a quick walk to the shore. Cousin Pat likes to say she’s checking that the beach is still there, and after living through Tropical Storm Sandy, she’s only half joking.
The umbrellas were lined up as far as the eye could see, both to the north and to the south.
This island is constantly in a fight with the tides, the sands transform daily. Artificial dunes are maintained to protect the homes on this spit of sand with fines for walking along their edges
Assured that the beach still existed, and not wanting to fight the crowds, we spent a relaxing day at the house, protected by the shade and hearing the crash of the waves in the distance.
As the sun lowered in the sky, we made our way to the west side of the island where the fireworks would reflect over the bay. We found our way early and settled on the wooden benches that overhang the water.
Teens wandered the area in enormous groups, the girls wearing a uniform of cutoff short shorts and midriff mini tops. The boys indulged in their collections of fireworks and groups of people would scream and run as they set them off in the middle of the crowds. Police roam the multitudes, taking alcohol from underage hands and pouring it out, without reprimand or ticket.
We hide somewhere along the edge and secretly I looked for an exit, imagining us leaping into the water should the screams of giddy excitement turn to something more like terror. I hate that that’s where my thoughts live when I am among crowds of people; how to escape with my family if this turns… bad.
Others line wooden benches, eating ice cream and acai bowls. We collectively watch as the sky streaks yellow and then orange and red. We watch the seagulls as they dip and dive over the water, searching for the small fish along the surface.
As the skies darken, we can see along the distant shore, the other side of the bay, the New Jersey mainland. Fireworks begin to shoot up in tiny bursts with every town on the bay’s western side having their own show. At one point, we see six shows happening in the distance.
I imagine our fireworks start much later than theirs because our backdrop is the sunset and theirs is the sunrise. Their view of the east darkens quickly while ours lingers. It is a clear difference of perspectives, one that has continued to linger over me as we sit waiting. I don’t feel particularly like celebrating freedom right now as I see women losing their rights. I don’t feel good about fireworks and pollution when we are facing climate crises around the world. I am aware of my anxiety over who in the crowd might be there to hurt others instead of being there to watch the lights as they explode through the sky.
This is balanced with wanting to experience something new, with spending time with my family. As always, I am a mess of contradictions and my mind fights to overthink everything.
Finally, around 9:40, the first firework is shot from a barge in the bay. The crowds cheer and watch as the colors reflect in the water, creating abstract images in the dark night air.
As the show comes to a close, the teenage boys begin to chant, “USA. USA. USA.” They return to their drinking and their explosions. The crowds begin to clear; families climb on their beach cruisers and gangs of bicyclists find their way home.
It will be another long night as teenagers make their way to the beach to party on the sand, roving around the neighborhoods, avoiding police. The personal fireworks ring through the air.
The cool night air kisses my skin and there are no bugs to speak of. Sitting outside on the porch listening to the waves crash on the sand brings moments of peace amongst the chaos.
On January 1st of this year, my writing partner and I embarked on a journey of 52 weeks, 52 short stories.
The honest reflection on this, here at the halfway mark, is that it has been really hard for me. It has been a battle, a battle between me and my creativity. A battle of creativity.
My mind is a jumble. I am in constant transition of the things I want to create. It’s almost like ADD, but exclusively around creativity.
A few years ago, when I was a member of a local gallery, I would disappear into the creative process, moving into the “zone” where time disappears and everything softens and every bit of art-making calms my nervous system.
The gallery gave me a wall and it was my job to keep that wall filled with my art. In time, however, that requirement became daunting. I was creating art to fill the wall, not because I wanted to create art. I was honored that my art was selling fast enough that I needed to fill those empty spaces, but I was becoming empty.
Julia Cameron in The Artist Way requires artists to commit to the weekly artist date; a way of refilling the creative bucket. It seemed that I was emptying myself faster than I could refill, like a pail with holes down to its base.
One way to keep my creative attention deficit focused was by making new things for the gallery’s gift portion: hand-dyed silk, fairy wands, hand-crafted lavender oil, polymer clay creations, and more. But suddenly, like the art, these became obligations.
Apparently, I do not do well with obligations.
I found myself crying more. I found myself resistant to doing my work days. I found myself not fitting in so well with the other gallery members. I tried to find ways to make it work, but changes in the way the gallery was run pushed me further away. One night, after the gallery Christmas party, I cried hysterically the whole way home; unable to describe how hurt I felt by many of the people there.
And so, just before Covid hit, I left. I said I was leaving because I wanted to write. That was true, but it was also that I had become empty of visual creativity. I was exhausted. I was terribly unhappy, feeling like an odd-shaped puzzle piece sitting in the wrong box.
I took a creative break from art, believing I would take the time to recharge and return to a novel I started years ago. Suddenly we found our world turning in a new direction; Covid. Would they close the schools? Certainly they would only be closed for a few weeks and our kids would be back before the end of the year. I was on the prom committee. We would still have prom, wouldn’t we?
How naive I was.
My husband was deployed, so it was just me and our daughter (plus a dog, cats, and chickens).
Honestly, it was glorious to have no place we had to be (says the overtired introvert.) We watched a lot of RuPaul’s Drag Race, starting with the first season, and gloried in their creativity. In Julia Cameron’s words, I took the role of the shadow artist.
We ate goat cheese and chocolate. I started taking a picture of every sunset. Being quarantined can be glorious in that the sunset is a very reliable friend. Even on foggy days, I knew it was there through the mist.
I took a lot of pictures; of the seasons as they changed, of flowers as they grew, of insects and chickens sitting on my lap. I took pictures of my daughter; at a virtual prom, wearing a wig and colored contacts because there was no one there to judge her, in the fog, dressing up.
I asked friends to join me in the Artist Way online, with me acting as facilitator. I also started an online book club. Both groups were large to start but faded in time.
I faded too.
I began to feel like I wasn’t doing either of them for me, I was only doing it based on the obligation of the commitment I made. As long as there were others fully participating, I would follow through on my commitment.
Finally, there were only three of us left; myself, my writing partner, Bridgette, and Deborah. Deborah is able to stick through every commitment like she has uttered an unbreakable spell. (Bridgette commits to not let me or herself down, Deborah commits as part of the fabric of her soul.)
I don’t know if it’s the obligation that drains on me or how much energy I’m putting out in comparison to my intake. I never got tired of the time with my daughter or RuPaul or the sunsets, but those things all fill my leaky bucket.
My commitment to Artist Way and our book club faded. As people began to come out from quarantine, I could no longer maintain either commitment. I think perhaps functioning in the real world is one of the things that drain me.
This last November, I finally finished a commitment that I could feel proud of; I completed 50,000 words in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I didn’t finish the story I was working on (a rewrite of Wizard of Oz) but I did finish the month-long commitment. Eight months later, and I miss the work I was doing on that story. I also miss the work I did the year before, even though I can’t remember if I completed 50,000 words in 2020.
Artist Way helped grow my relationship with my writing support, Bridgette. She stuck it out with me until I faded away. She stuck with the book club too. The last two years of NaNoWriMo have only been successful because of her support.
We had the opportunity to get together this year, at the end of week 25/ the beginning of week 26. It was so wonderful to see her. I honestly felt sad though, sad that I wasn’t done with my week 25 writing and had to focus on that instead of focusing on her. When I talked to her about “maybe we should take this week off and catch up next week?” She firmly set the boundary that she needed to finish.
Honestly, my commitment to her commitment is what got me past week three and has kept me going since. Not only do I have attention deficit when it comes to my creativity, but I am also avoidant and reluctant and can go for years without finishing a thing if I don’t have external goals.
And so here we are. It is week 27 as I write this (week 28 when I finally post) and I have had the opportunity to come and sit on a porch in the cool humidity just a few houses from the Jersey Shore. I’m working to recharge and fill my ever leaky bucket.
I have stories for the first 25 weeks and I fight to find something to say for the week 26, 27, and 28 prompts. I’m behind on those stories, but am also trying to honor this vacation by letting it be a vacation. Week 25 with Bridgette didn’t feel like the retreat I hoped it would be because there was a story hanging over my head.
Writing these stories have started to make me feel like I did at the gallery; a bit resentful at the words and topics, frustrated at what a slow writer I am, resistant, and a bit empty of ideas. I have learned to push myself. My writing is improving. I’m faster. My skills at editing are getting better.
Through this process, I’ve learned that I really miss making art. Isn’t that the way it goes?
I’m starting to think I don’t just have one creative bucket.
I have many creative buckets.
Right now, my short story creative bucket is pretty drained, but my general writing bucket (about life and travel) is still full. My art buckets are also pretty full, having had a few years to fill and repair–and I have a lot of art buckets.
As I photographed New Jersey earlier this week, I was inspired for a series of abstract oil paintings I want to create when I get home based on sunsets here.
The part I struggle with the most is that I committed to 52 weeks, 52 stories. I made a promise not only to Bridgette but to myself. And so, each week (until week 26), I’ve put that commitment before any other creative process. Because I just barely finish my stories on Saturday, it means I take a rest on Sunday (generally to wash dishes that have also been avoided in the name of writing) and then try to start again the following week.
If I could find a pattern of getting my story completed earlier in the week, perhaps I could find time for my other creative buckets. But I do have a life outside of this, and I want to exist in that life too. It is why I probably won’t commit to NaNoWriMo this year; I’m just too tired.
I really miss the other creative aspects of my life. I’m trying to figure out how to balance this experience while also staying true to my goals. My daughter is graduating from high school at Christmas and possibly going away to college next summer. She is my only child, and I’m grateful I’ve found identity (beyond being her mom) in writing and art because while I will miss her desperately, she’ll know that I have goals I am working towards.
I have to continue my work on the 52 stories, even if I don’t end up with a full 52. (I really like the prompts for weeks 26 and 27) but with less rigidity on a time. I have to let go of my guilt at trying to be ready to publish at the same time as Bridgette and give her the freedom to post when she’s ready, even if I’m not.
I have to figure out how to create my own goals, commit to myself, fill the creative buckets and just acknowledge when one is empty and not judge myself too harshly.
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