Making Out: Exhibit: Narrative, Light

Making Out is a series centered on how Jess Burnquist, mother, writer, and teacher is "making out' as she processes adolescent issues amid the glare of parenthood and the shadows of nostalgia.

Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles (Image Source)

Monday evening, I returned home to Arizona after spending two days teaching creative activism curriculum to teachers at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. In a previous post here, I discussed the lifetime of events and work leading to this trip. It did not disappoint. I learned about myself, and had the amazing good fortune to have a wonderful cohort of teachers to present to in my workshop. The material—all of it having to do with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was incredibly illuminated in a museum that does the most stunning job of bringing past and present violations of human rights front and center to its visitors.

If you’ve never been to the museum, one of my favorite things about its design is that when you emerge from the exhibits from any of the floors, I think there were 7, you are thrust into a central walkway that is bathed in light and spirals from the top to bottom, or vice versa. It is a rough ascent to light, too. The exhibits are beautiful, interactive and unfortunately deeply relevant with topics covering regions around the world in political turmoil, hate speech and the Holocaust. To emerge from the burden of truth into a white light is a purposeful contrast. It is at once calming and disconcerting.

On the first day, my workshop participants (teachers from California and elsewhere) and I were able to listen to a Holocaust survivor named Mike (Miki) Popkin speak. I am so glad that one of the workshop participants had tissues. I cried not just from the unfathomable descriptions of separation from his family, but also because of his remarkable buoyancy and spirit. I kept thinking about the malleability of language. How the trauma of his early life was a result of Hitler’s vitriol, and others’ silences. The parallels between today’s so-called refugee crisis and the plight of Jews and others targeted by Hitler, specifically those who were trying to flee their homelands for any destination that might provide their families some safety are breathtaking. An ‘accepted’ or ‘declined’ on a visa or passport still has the power to make or break lives.


I have made a life of language. But haven’t we all in some sense? It is the common denominator that provokes us to act or to turn away. It is remarkable that this most interactive museum also creates room for silence. There is space to consider how silence and neutrality can permit atrocity to happen as well as lives to be spared. I taught my workshop on the Anne Frank exhibit floor on the first day. Had Miep Gies or the other protectors of the Franks, Van Pels and Fritz Pfeffer spoken out, they would have certainly all perished. Had they been found out sooner, pages and pages of astute hope and insight would not have been documented in the most famous of diaries.

What is spoken and unspoken matters.

On the last day I taught in the museum, the final exhibit I saw had to do with family. Billy Crystal discussed his immigrant parents and Carlos Santana discussed his sense of being part of the trajectory of his lineage in television interviews. There were other celebrities who chimed in about the importance of family and ultimately, the theme was how America is a quilt of such varying stories--we all help to form its fabric and, most importantly we are, humanity, woven together.

The final message in this exhibit was the urging to tell your family’s story, and if need be, to discover it. Perhaps we can’t dig as far as 7 generations, such as Santana could. Perhaps our family trees were stunted by political and human atrocity, but we should still strive to collect the narratives, myths, and as Billy Crystal stated, ‘even lies’ that make up our family narrative. What struck me the most was the docent’s question. She asked, “What stories do you want your children to know about you when you are gone? What stories of yours should they carry?”

There are so many studies that address our faulty memories. The human tendency to rewrite our history based on need and power is proven. I was struck by her question because I had to consider not just my personal failures and successes, but also how both fit into the narrative of my family lineage. And, quite honestly, my lineage is a bit murky. I am estranged from my father for reasons having to do with self preservation and also for reasons I can’t understand because I have tried to bridge the distance. I have been more than willing to find a halfway point. The resistance may be imagined, but I often think that I may just be easier for him to forget. My narrative is not the one he imagined for me. Perhaps I am guilty of feeling the same--but for emotional reasons as opposed to professional or life choice disappointments. Regardless, I am confronted with the fact that my opportunities to gather stories from him are dwindling. What is spoken and unspoken matters.

Next week is Passover. The Four Questions will be chanted at our Seder beginning with the phrase, Ma Nishtana (What has changed)... why is this night different than every other night? The story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt will be retold and we will eat the bitter with the sweet. We will sing songs of freedom and invite a stranger to be at home with us reminding us that we have all been strangers in a strange land. My people have survived refugee status as both a faith and a culture repeatedly through history.

Nothing is guaranteed or permanent.

Most importantly, to me, we will honor the fact that as Jews we cannot ignore hunger, homelessness and oppression in the world. We are obligated to tell the stories of injustice and we are charged to work toward their solution. When I consider this responsibility and the many areas in which my attention might be applied, my narrative--the one I will pass on to my children takes on a broader relevance. This is not to suggest that my family dynamics are meaningless.

Rather, if I can weave stories of triumph for the greater good of others next to stories of times of distance from an immediate relative such as my father--somehow this will create a story worth telling.

So I will tell most of myself to my children spiraling the weaker patches of my life amid the greater story which holds us all.

I will say to them, not much has changed so what will you work to improve? What will you say to your children about your time in this world? And silently, I will pray that their stories end in the white light of clarity and realization of life well served, well lived, and well loved.

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