Guest Post, Jane Bernstein: The Museum Course

Jane BernsteinFor the students in my museum course, the “collection” period has ended at last. They no longer have to go to farmers’ markets, coffee shops, and church group meetings. They don’t have to pitch the museum to friends or siblings or plaster posters everywhere, like the one I saw on the inside of a bathroom stall, that said, “Have you ever had your heart broken? Do you own an object that won’t let you forget?” They don’t have to venture into distant neighborhoods, far from the university to have breakfast with steelworkers or visit shelters for homeless men and women. The collection period is over! Now the editorial and design teams have to finish putting together the museum book, and the public relations and opening night committees have to turn their attention to the dozens of necessary tasks that must be completed by December 2nd, when the show opens in a large gallery in the Mine Factory, where long ago equipment for mine safety was manufactured.

I am teaching this course because in May 2015, I took a side trip to Zagreb. While making some tentative plans for my two days in the city, I found a description in Lonely Planet for the Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb’s “quirkiest museum.” I’d always liked museums with small, focused collections – cowboy boots, Bonnie and Clyde memorabilia, subways – so on my first morning in the city, I walked from my hotel to Upper Town, found the handsome white building where the museum is housed, and entered this museum, “dedicated to failed relationships.”

Even now that a year and a half has passed, I remember much of what I saw and felt as I walked through the cool white galleries where the stories and objects are exhibited. A child’s pedal car from Prague. Red stilettos from Paris. A blurry black and white photo sent from Bloomington, Indiana, of the Florida lake where the contributor “first saw a penis in the sunshine.” Some of the stories, like that one, were humorous. Others wistful. Or heartbreaking: the flowered house dress worn by a woman in Poland who’d killed herself, the handwritten story from her daughter.

I walked slowly through each space, studied the objects, read the stories. Heartache is not monolithic. We know this as writers. But I was struck by the range of these contributions – in tone, length and style, and in the emotion evoked. When I reached the end, I walked through the rooms a second time. I watched the other visitors – the young couple pressed against each other; the man with his eyes glued to his phone, as if determined not to see what was on display. I listened. Because I was alone, I felt no pressure to leave and could totally immerse myself in this exhibit.

No agenda, no ticking clock, no companion to distract me.

While I was lingering, I began to think: I want to take this home. Bring it to Pittsburgh. Share it with other people. I stopped at the front desk and asked the young woman sitting there if this ever went on tour.

She explained that the museum had partnered with hosts in other cities – at that point there had been 34 shows, in Manila, Cape Town, San Francisco, Taipei, in Kilkenny, Ireland, Saint Louis, Istanbul…

Later, I read press clippings from some of these shows. In each, there was someone who just happened to be passing through Zagreb, wandered into the museum, expecting something quirky and forgettable, and was surprised by the resonance of the show as a whole. Each time someone thought: I want to take this home.

I expected this desire would cool. Isn’t that what usually happens? You have a brilliant idea one night and in the morning, it’s not so great after all. Or it’s still sort of great, but completely unfeasible. I’m a writer; I teach creative writing. How could I “take this show home” when I lacked the experience to know what that entailed?

Six months passed, and I was still determined to somehow make it happen. But it wasn’t until late September that I began to think that maybe I could design a course and have students curate the exhibit. My department head was enthusiastic, and though no other exhibit had been put together by students, the founders of the museum, Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, were open to the idea, and so “The Museum of Broken Relationships” was listed as an English elective for fall 2016, an elective for creative writing students, designed for “students who love stories and have the curiosity and motivation to travel throughout Pittsburgh to find them.”

A month later, I found out that the university’s Entertainment Technology Center had a “location based entertainment” track for Masters students interested in museum installations. This group of six graduate students would design the show.

I always knew that along with collecting stories and objects, I wanted my undergraduates to put together a book that included their essays and journal entries, and all the stories and images they collected, so when the show was over, they would have a record of what they had done and what people donated. I envisioned the essays as the chance for them to reflect on the city they had been exploring, the building where the exhibit would be held, their experience as curators. They were also charged with keeping a daily journal to document in an immediate way the ups and downs of the process, since I knew that otherwise, the emotional terrain of an experience tends to get flattened. Though only some students followed through on the journal, the ones that did left a record of feeling scared, worried they would fail. Awkward. To some, the course felt “chaotic” because there was no recipe for what they needed to do to find stories and objects.

I hadn’t wanted to read their journals, but it became clear if there were no submission deadlines, they wouldn’t write. So I collected their journal entries after each class session, read about their responses to being in specific places, as well as entries about their own lives, full of heartbreak, intrigue, depression, jealousy, the same ingredients in the stories they would collect. But different, each one.

Their journals make it clear that sending mass emails isn’t an effective way to get people to tell stories about their broken relationships. In this period, when they were timid, no donations came in. So they began to go out.

Dani, a dramaturg, was the first. She arranged to talk to a group of ESL students at the library, knowing that newcomers to this country have lives full of fractured relationships. Then Sydney, after an unsuccessful evening, saw a sign for a meeting of people interested in Magic: The Gathering. She took a flight of steps down into a basement area, and made her pitch to a group of six, got the first story, short and unaffected, and the first donation — a geode. After that, the others came in, until by the end of the month, about 90 people contributed.

Only a few will be in the Pittsburgh show, along with objects and stories from the permanent collection in Zagreb, but everyone’s story and object will be part of “Confessions from Pittsburgh,” Pittsburgh’s Museum of Broken Relationships book.

Will the show get a buzz? I hope so, though I can’t really say. I can’t predict if opening night will be a success, or if visitors will keep coming to the show for the month of December. I can’t say how the book will turn out, though my students are talented and hardworking. To most people, the book is what marks this as a creative writing course. But to me, the most meaningful task was the collection period, when these students left campus and went to unfamiliar neighborhoods. They spent time with people they would not have otherwise known. They collected their stories. They learned to listen.

Guest Post, Jane Bernstein: Loving Rachel

Loving Rachel by Jane BernsteinI’m always buoyed and a little surprised when I get an email from a reader. Of course I write to be read, but even so, this proof that someone I’ve never met has read something of mine and taken the time to respond is always a little stunning. So when I saw the email that said, “Loving Rachel” I opened it eagerly.

There was no greeting. Only this: “I just finished reading your book Loving Rachel. I am left with so many questions and I just have to know… Did Rachel grow up to be a beautiful woman leading the life that everyone leads?

Or did Rae-Rae forever stay …”a problem.” I must know the answer. For you see, I also have a Rachel…” The letter went on, every sentence heartbreaking and familiar.

I got up from my computer, boiled water for tea. The question followed me into the kitchen. “Did Rachel grow up to be a beautiful woman leading the life that everyone leads?” How could I respond?

Loving Rachel, the book this woman read, tells the story of my family after my younger daughter was diagnosed with an uncommon disorder called optic nerve hypoplasia. Rachel was six weeks old when my husband and I were told she would be blind. Two weeks would pass before we found out that other “associated disorders” often appeared with ONH. Along with low vision or blindness children also had seizures and “intellectual impairment.”

This was in 1983 when I was married, and had a four-year-old daughter. I was a fiction writer and had no interest or inclination in writing about this difficult period following the diagnosis, when we waited to find out which, if any, of these disorders Rachel might have. I didn’t want to write a book about Rachel, but I wanted badly to find one, to find stories about other families who had a baby with disabilities.

Because this was an era before the internet and before the boom in memoirs, I had only the library in the town where I lived, and the only family stories I found were saccharine, uplifting tales, in which the first tumultuous days after a devastating diagnosis were a blur, and all the parents seemed to wipe their tears and find their baby was a gift from God, brought to earth to teach them the meaning of love. I was distressed by these books, felt trapped between feeling that these compressed, sanitized stories were false, and feeling maybe they were true for everyone else for me.

When my agent first asked if I’d consider writing a nonfiction book about Rachel’s birth and its effect on my family, I said no. The only nonfiction I’d written was dry and academic. I didn’t think I knew how to do it. What changed my mind was this memory of pouring over books in the town library, looking for a story that might help me make sense of my own.

I knew I wanted to describe those first hours after the initial diagnosis, to write about waking the next morning, about trying not cry in front of my four-year old. And I did that. Although Loving Rachel ends when Rachel is three, most of the book is centered on that first trying year.

My editor was at a trade publisher, which released and utterly ignored the book. Somehow, miraculously, readers managed to find it, parents, like the mother who’d just written, like me, who had new babies, and had heard scary diagnoses, and could not in any way imagine what kind of life their lovely babies might have. Over the years, I gave occasional talks and once in a while I got notes from readers, many of whom also wrote, “I also have a Rachel…” But no reader ever asked: “Did Rachel grow up to be a beautiful woman leading the life that everyone leads? Or did Rae-Rae forever stay … “a problem.” No reader ever wrote, “although I love my baby more than anything in the world, I wish she were dead.”

I knew I had to answer. Her letter reminded me how desperate I was after Rachel’s diagnosis. What could I tell her about our life since those early days?

I could sidestep completely and remind her that ONH was the result of an “accident in development,” and not a disorder in which every child had the same disabilities. When Rachel was still an infant, I met a teenager with ONH: she was completely blind, her seizures were poorly controlled, and she was cognitively intact. I came home weeping, not yet knowing that my own daughter would grow up to have usable vision and seizures that would be well-controlled, but would never read, write, or live independently, and that none of these disabilities would be as challenging as the behavior problems that made her life and mine so difficult. Still, it seemed unhelpful to say, “who knows how your daughter will be when she grows up,” when I could feel this stranger’s yearning for answers.

Rachel is thirty years old. When I ask myself the question posed by this young mother, I want to shout, Yes! Her life is really good. It’s just that you can’t imagine it. You really cannot imagine, I want to say.

Every detail necessary to explain how well Rachel is doing would provoke tears. Anything but that! she might think, as I did, shortly after Rachel’s diagnosis, when I thought: blindness, okay, I can work with that, but … mental retardation? I could not yet hear those words (and those were the words then used), could not imagining raising a child with mental retardation.

Did Rachel grow up to be a beautiful woman leading the life that everyone leads? Well, yes, she is a beautiful woman, and everyone’s life is different.

To describe Rachel’s life means I must write about our long quest to get her into a “Community Living Arrangement,” where she now lives with two roommates and 24-hour staff. It means explaining how successful Rachel is at her job, at a worksite (what used to be called a “sheltered workshop,”) where she does packaging and assembly work.

You cannot imagine, I think.

It’s hard to describe, I want to write, (and surely this was true, since trying to say something about Rachel and our years together has taken two books and a dozen essays and I’m still not done.

The years did not pass in a blur. It’s just that there have been too many years for me to say in a sentence or two what it was like, being Rachel’s mother. The wrenching days that follow a diagnosis are just a blip. I cannot tell her this, of course. She will wipe her tears soon enough and accommodate to her baby. Before she knows it, whatever her baby’s abilities and disabilities, she will be busy searching for the best therapies, for preschool, for recreational opportunities, since life for so many children with disabilities is lonely, without access to playmates, appropriate toys, without good play skills. For families with a child with disabilities, dependent care doesn’t fade after a few years, it’s ongoing, decade after decade. There’s hardly time for tears when you have to find “staff,” train them, trust them, lose them when they leave for other jobs or graduate from school, find someone new to train and trust. There’s no time for tears, when those “covered” hours are so precious, so necessary, as they were for me, saved for the most pressing activities and cannot be squandered on hanging out with friends or reading a book.

I could tell her to beware, since services for children with disabilities are fine until the child turns 21, at which point, all entitlements end, and how this is a much more wrenching time of life, harder, more taxing, more frightening, than the soft, poignant, seemingly unbearable grief we feel as young parents.

The years didn’t pass in a blur. They were long and hard, and there were many times when I would count how many years had to pass before Rachel could possibly move, and facing the thousands of days still ahead, I’d think, I’ll be half dead by then!

I didn’t die. Rachel moved in 2005. The year she left, every morning, I would walk the dog and think: I am just walking the dog, amazing by the tranquil morning and the way time stretched out. When Rachel moved, her life blossomed and so did mine.

Maybe I write books because I can’t compress. I can’t bring myself to respond to this email with a truism, to whitewash, to pack all the complexities into one simple sentence. There is no way to explain to this mother that Rachel is a beautiful young woman leading a life that makes sense for her. Rachel’s life, my life — a long time will pass before she understands.