Interview with Suzanne Benton
- What is it that we call up when we feel the presence of God? We call upon the presence of God that's within us.
- In the Middle Ages, if you went against the Church you would be excommunicated. People believed that they would then no longer have access to the spirit. Well, we don't feel that way any longer, because we know that there are many ways of exploring the oneness that we're all seeking.
- My Jewish roots have taught me that it is important to question. There's a Jewish joke that says when you have two Jews you have three opinions. Each one holds their own opinion and then there is an opinion that they agree on together.
- Instead of thinking of religion as something that was given by God and meant to be unchangeable, we could try thinking of it as a tree that would die without change. For religion to be alive it has to grow. It has to have new branches, new leaves and new flowers. Then its roots grow stronger as well.
Ann: I've come to interview you today because I want to know how your Jewish roots helped you to become an artist.
Suzanne: That's an interesting question, because as a Jew you're not supposed to make any graven images. The Muslims have the same dictum, so there are no faces in ancient Jewish or Muslim art, although, of course, these rules have always been breached.
My family didn't keep the kosher food laws. Our emphasis was not on the ritual aspects of the religion-I experienced Judaism more as a philosophical religion. I went to an interesting temple, but not until I was ten. Then I went to Sunday school and was confirmed at Central Synagogue-in New York-as a Reform Jew. The rabbi was Jonah B. Wise, the son of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who was the founder of Reform Judaism in America. It was a very special place, and I'm sad to say it had a fire last year. It's a beautiful building on 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue. It looks Romanesque, and it has stained glass windows and an organ. Many people said that it wasn't very Jewish in appearance, but as I was told that God lived there, I felt the presence of God in that temple. It had the atmosphere that you experience in a religious space or even when you go into the woods. After all, what is it that we call up when we feel the presence of God? We call upon the presence of God that's within us.
My father was not religious because, after all, Hitler was murdering all those Jews. Many Jews left Judaism after the Holocaust, because they felt there was no purpose in being tied to a religion that makes you a target. But, after all, all religions are targets; all cultures are subject to becoming targets. I believe that when religion is the target, it's really being used as a political vehicle. In the Middle Ages, if you went against the Church you would be excommunicated. People believed that they would then no longer have access to the spirit. Well, we don't feel that way any longer, because we know that there are many ways of exploring the oneness that we're all seeking.
I'm reading a book on medieval women mystics. Their lives were in many ways so tragic because they were so bound by limiting strictures. Women were being burned at the stake. These women mystics made strides for us anyway. They transcended the limits and were able to express their sense of God and love. There is so much about love, and the joining of love to spirituality, in what they wrote and in what is written about them.
My Jewish roots have taught me that it is important to question. There's a Jewish joke that says when you have two Jews you have three opinions. Each one holds their own opinion and then there is an opinion that they agree on together.
I'm reading another book, The Alphabet and the Goddess, by Leonard Schlain. He postulates that women lost ground with the advent of literacy. Reading and writing are left brain activities, but women were denied access to reading. He also states that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with a written record, everybody was expected to understand it. Men and women were expected to understand the stone tabernacles that represented those great commandments. Literacy was expected, and democracy was implicit. The idea that everyone has a place is something I may have taken from my religion. I bring a deep sense of democratic principle to my work with my masks.
I had a very interesting experience last December, when my Jewish Heritage Secret Future Work was opened, and all the messages were read. The woman rabbi who presided over the event said that Jewish people hold their spirituality very close to the chest and don't wave flags about it. Her comments helped me to understand that I am drawing out that "close to the chest" with the masks, asking people to get close to the chest and reveal that spirituality under the protection of the mask. My artwork is providing, in essence, a protection that will allow the sharing of spirituality. In the Jewish Heritage Secret Future Work, each person reached into their heart to write a message they then put into the sculpture. Their messages reflected what they felt it was important to honor and what they felt it was important to change from their Jewish heritage. It was very moving to hear the messages read aloud by those who attended the ceremony.
Ann: So this was a piece that you created a while ago and it was just opened? How long ago did you create it?
Suzanne: I created this piece in 1994, and it was just opened. I'd made several secret pieces before that, for collectors and in many of the countries I've worked in. They all refer to important issues that related to those people.
When I come home from my travels, I always touch base with my heritage. While I'm not a religious Jew or a traditional Jew, I'm very respectful of Judaism. I've tried to draw out of it aspects that allow me to claim my spirituality as a woman, because basically, Judaism, like most religions, is extremely patriarchal. Being the age that I am, sixty-three, I didn't get bas mitzvahed fifty years ago because that was not an option at that time. It certainly was very important to my mother that my brother be bar mitzvahed; that's how I got to go to Sunday school. We'd gone to a local synagogue, but neither of us liked it. My brother was twelve years old by then, and he had to be bar mitzvahed on his thirteenth birthday. My mother was looking for a temple that would accept him for bar mitzvah. Central Synagogue agreed to accept him if she enrolled me in their Sunday school. I loved it. The stories of the Bible fascinated me. I stayed until I was fifteen and was confirmed. I would have gone longer, but by then I was dating on Saturday nights and couldn't get up in time on Sunday mornings to go into Manhattan from Queens.
Some things that were passed down to me still comfort me. When I was confirmed, I had to memorize the twenty-third Psalm (book in Bible)."…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me…Thou has anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over…etc." It's very touching to me-those early experiences really do count. Yet, basically, I feel one is always a critic of one's own back yard. There is a tremendous amount of conservatism in Judaism, but there is a lot of change going on, and it is obviously a powerful religion. It's lived for five thousand plus years, and that's amazing. It's because it has the capacity to change. I think that most Jews who have made real changes in the world are those who have moved into the secular world. They've brought their Jewish principles to the world. After all, we have Marx, Freud, Einstein, and Betty Friedan. They've each brought tremendous gifts of consciousness and transformation...world transformation.
It's probably because I grew up in the diverse richness of New York City that I don't believe in being just one thing. It's not that Judaism isn't rich and full, it just isn't my one path. Yet in my art, I've worked with the theme of women of the Bible. Sarah and Hagar, from Genesis, was my first mask tale. I first performed it at Lincoln Center. I worked with Judith Hannah Weiss, who was a Sarah Lawrence student at that time. She worked with me as part of her senior thesis. We developed the story together and then performed it at Lincoln Center in conjunction with an exhibit of my masks.
Then Judith went to Mexico, and I was asked to perform it again. From that point on I performed by myself. It was mine, in essence, to continue. I wanted to get to the roots of the oppression of women, and felt the biblical stories just passed it on and on and on. So I decided to explore the stories from a woman's point of view, which certainly had been done, but not in the way we did it in the Women's movement. I felt like a forerunner because I was looking at the canon and distilling the stories of women and entering them. I enter them in a shamanic way. I had theater training when I was young and was impressed with Stanislavski. He taught that if there were an apple presented to you, you were to become that apple. When you could do that, you knew how to act. It was therefore natural for me to consider being Sarah and Hagar.
In Native American tradition, when people are initiated, they receive a totemic animal. As part of their initiation, they have to become that animal. Of course, our consciousness can't entirely fathom that, but I think I understand it to some degree. I took a shamanic workshop with Michael Harner in 1976, just before I went on my year's journey around the world. I knew I would meet shamans and didn't want to be intimidated by them. It was helpful not to be intimidated so they accepted me.
When I decided to do the story of Sarah and Hagar, I didn't begin with Eve, because at that time I was intimidated by the weight of stricture against Eve. I later developed the Lilith story (Adam's first wife, who left the garden rather than be subservient to him). I chose Sarah and Hagar partly because I wanted to portray the dynamics of the two women and a situation in which people betray each other. They betrayed each other out of desperation.
I performed that story as an outlet for my feminist outrage. At that time, nobody referred to the tragedy of Sarah. Her son was to be sacrificed by Abraham. Abraham didn't discuss this with Sarah. He owned her son and had the right to kill him. People said, "Well, that's how it was in those days." I think there is a human essence that declares this a violation under any circumstances. People may accept it, but there are issues of human rights in this story, and our understanding of those issues has evolved. If we are going to continue to honor these stories, we must allow this sort of commentary.
In Judaism there is the tradition of Midrash. The Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is read throughout the year, and there is commentary on every passage in the Torah in relation to life now. So it's not only a question of lessons but also of commentary. Commentary can be open too much innovative interpretation, as in contemporary Midrash. This makes for a very rich dialogue. That's probably why the religion has succeeded. Alicia Ostriker is a wonderful poet and writer whom I've heard speak. She said that instead of thinking of religion as something that was given by God and meant to be unchangeable, we could try thinking of it as a tree that would die without change. For religion to be alive it has to grow. It has to have new branches, new leaves and new flowers. Then its roots grow stronger as well.
It was natural for me to think midrashically; not only about the Bible, but to bring midrashic techniques into my work with the canon and with the cultures of the world I explore through work and travel. I wanted to explore the great epics of India and Greece, for example, not by merely reading them but by going to those countries and getting to know the people and by seeing how these epics continue to affect their lives and also limit them.
My Sarah and Hagar mask story brought me many opportunities. Peggy Billings, then head of the United Methodist Women's Division, mentored me for over a year and helped me organize a year around the world. I was to make masks and perform with them and also to conduct mask and story workshops. This took place from 1976 to 1977, Women's International Year. That proved to be a wonderful umbrella under which to travel, because in those days, women were not expected to be in the public eye in third world countries. It was Women's International Year, and I went around the world discovering and exploring the stories of women. I received wonderful assistance, much attention and a huge amount of inspiration. It was an incredible time.
I went to eleven countries, and I had studios in five of them. I performed Sarah and Hagar and the stories I was developing as I traveled. I went to Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Bali, India, Israel, Greece, Egypt, Nigeria, Italy, Yugoslavia, Denmark and England. I decided to go to Europe towards the end of that year, because I felt it would give some grounding to my eventual return to the States.
I learned a lot. People told me amazing stories. They told me their life stories and stories from the context of their belief systems. Sometimes I worked with groups in workshops, sometimes with theater people. Working with all kinds of people kept me engaged, stimulated and creative. I went back to Yugoslavia and Denmark and England the next year for more performances and workshops. In 1977, the United States Information Service (USIS) sent me to BITEF, the Yugoslavian international theater festival in Belgrade.
In the 1980's I had a studio in Koln, Germany, where I made a series of masks on the Holocaust. It was an exploration of a horrific side of Jewish heritage. I wanted to understand, to come to terms with what was, in essence, unfinished business in my life. My daughter was in college at the time, and I think that when your children leave you reflect back on your childhood.
I grew up in New York City. I was told that we didn't have any relatives in Europe, but now I'm not so sure. In any case, the apartment building my family lived in was filled with Jews who had fled the Holocaust. I grew up seeing these people in the elevator and sensing a depth of sorrow that was incomprehensible to me. My mother used to have me go from apartment to apartment selling tickets for charity. I would get a glimpse of their apartments and the sadness of these people. Some used to visit our apartment. They'd sit around my mother's dining room table and tell their tragic tales. I was always a listener of tales and was fascinated by the stories that unlocked the mysteries of their lives. That's always been of great interest to me.
Ann: Who sponsored your travel?
Suzanne: The United Methodist World and Women's Divisions have sponsored me off and on over the years. The United States Information Service has given me help. They were the cultural arm of the U.S. diplomatic corps. If an artist was coming into a country the USIS could support that person's work. They would book artists and introduce them to interesting people. They could make all kinds of things possible. For example, in Kenya, the USIS introduced me to the Nairobi Theater School, which was actually funded by the French government. I did mask/story workshops with students and then teachers. Their storytelling was incredible. I learned so much about the culture. Masking is such a key. You can learn about a culture's hierarchy, value system, politics, mannerisms, humor and tragedies.
Ann: Talk to me a little about the changes between the 1970's and today, when you've just gotten back from a very big trip.
Suzanne: In 1995 I spent two months in Bangladesh. Then I went back into India and on to Nepal and Pakistan. The USIS had sent me to Bulgaria also, and I was there five days. After going from country to country I've become very quick at eliciting stories and engaging people. I love being in countries where I find people appreciate the soulful nature of my work. They're more open without the material veneer that we have in the States. Here there's much fear of encountering what we're also hungry for.
In the 1970's, people were wide open. Now there's much more control and care. People do a lot of good things now, but it's very different. After all, the 1960's and the 1970's were a free fall in many ways. Such important things happened then. I think we're still absorbing and working with the material that came out at that time. I've seen a lot of really good changes, but of course, the world can be likened to New York City in that it's both wonderful and terrible. Things are being built up all the time, and they are also falling apart all the time. Think about it like a house: You have to take care of a house all the time; what you don't take care of falls away.
Throughout the 1980's I was back in Germany almost every year.
Ann: You were doing work about the Holocaust?
Suzanne: Yes, I did some storytelling for the German people, as well as the English. I've hardly told the Holocaust mask tales in the States because there's no audience. I've added one or two into a performance here and there, but I had created a complete performance of those tales while in Germany. I did perform the entire work once in Connecticut at a gallery where I was exhibiting. The audience was very receptive and it was very touching to me to receive their respectful response. I'd made twenty-seven masks in three months. That was in 1983.
I arrived in Germany on the fiftieth anniversary of Hitler's rise to power. The media had just pledged to do a three-month media blitz on World War II and the Holocaust, and I was going to be there for three months to do a series of masks and tales on the Holocaust. It was always in my face, which was a miracle. Every time I wanted to stop working on the theme because it was so hard, something would come up in the media to re-stimulate me. It was tremendously healing, but also very hard to keep on with it. It was a gift to be able to do it. I learned how important it was to evaluate people individually. In different circumstances, people behave well or badly. So much has to do with circumstances and the situation. That's also when I started making the most beautiful monoprints. It was as if confronting the tragedy of the Holocaust opened me in another way, and out came this new capacity to create more beautiful works of art.
The government has a lot to do with how people behave. You can see that now in India, Algeria and Afghanistan. There are very frightening things happening in these countries and in the former Yugoslavia. We have to find other ways to solve our problems. I believe that other ways will be found as more women come into power. Really, statistically more women, not just a token secretary of state. We have to build new institutions and new patterns. The U.N. helps by providing peacekeeping forces. The very concept of peacekeeping forces is a great progression. I saw that at work in Bosnia
The concept of helping countries restore themselves is a great progression. You have to know the warning signals. We observe warning signals but don't yet have the institutions and methods to enter before tragic things take place. I believe we can learn to understand these patterns; just as we are starting to understand human patterns, we can understand these larger patterns. I'm sure, in time, this will happen. I like to think that the kind of work I do with people is a step in that direction.
Ann: So, women who went through the Women's movement in America can really take something to places where there's the desire for progress, but not yet the forum to make that progress happen?
Suzanne: The idea of progress is there. People have to find their own way to do the hard work, the groundwork in their own country. I believe that what you can do as a stranger is disseminate ideas and appear to be a model. Not necessarily the model, but a model-just to show that other ways are possible. It's possible to have the confidence, the assurance and the strength to explore, to present, and to be able to bring ideas forth. Ideas are very contagious. Role models mean a lot for people.
I went back to Nepal after twenty-plus years. The first time I was there I had met a woman artist who'd actually gotten a masters degree in the States, at Cal Arts. She worked with Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, and then she'd gone back to Nepal, where there was no structure for her. She was teaching in the art school, and it was a very limited situation. She was very depressed, asking me, "How am I ever going to be an artist in this country?"
I said to her, "You will. You're going to do it. You'll find your way. You'll create it yourself. That's how you have to make it."
When I got back there those twenty-odd years later, she remembered me and invited me to her extraordinarily wonderful exhibit. She'd just come back from working on a fellowship in Japan. It was exquisite to see her stone sculpture in a wonderful exhibition setting. There's now a contemporary art world in Nepal, whereas it had been tremendously fledgling before.
Nepal is moving into the modern world in its own way. Some of the ways are good and others aren't. One of the wonderful changes is that I didn't see any dying children on the streets of Katmandu, as I had in 1976. I didn't see them in India either, on my trip in the 1990's. I feel these countries are moving at their own pace, but they're moving. They're making changes. For example, India is producing more women Ph.D.'s than any other country in the world. These women will have an impact!
I'm an optimist, because I maintain a long view. Of course, I worry that political situations can hold people back for so long. How many generations are going to suffer because of what just happened in Kosovo? It continues for generation after generation. Forgiveness is the key. That does not mean condoning, but letting go. I've seen how, in so many countries, when things exploded, it was the old hatreds, resentments and vengefulness that surfaced. It's true, as has been told many times, the revenge is very dangerous and solves nothing.
Ann: But if your whole town has been devastated, and you've been made to leave, and then you come back and it's been destroyed-you can understand the hatred and the fear for yourself and for your children.
Suzanne: When I was in Bosnia in 1996, I came home thinking, "This could happen anywhere," because under the surface, hate can easily be pricked. People are much more divided than we like to believe, even in this country, because there's a lot of isolation. When the Women's movement swelled up, there we were, women in isolated home situations, taking care of our kids by ourselves, without any childcare. When we came together, there was a huge feeling of overcoming! When you think about it, ours was a peaceful revolution. When you think about the black revolution, the Civil Rights movement, yes some people died then; some women died in the Women's movement. Women were killed in the ways women are still killed. But this country can be proud of these basically non-violent revolutions. We women don't feel we've got it all, African Americans don't feel they've got it all, Native Americans don't feel they've got it all. But I am a believer in this process. You have to work very hard at it. You have to care.
Ann: You have to devote your life and not expect success to come quickly or easily. You get the vision and hold it for whatever time you can, and then you hand it on.
Suzanne: Right. What I respect so much about the United Methodist Women is their belief that social action is a part of spirituality. I've just been reading American History is Women's History, and there's a whole chapter on Jewish women's clubs in the 1930's and 1940's. That was a time when you might think nothing was happening, and it seemed that way in the 1950's too. Yet, these women were working for social change. They didn't feel any disaffection (and I think this must be part of my heritage that I absorbed without knowing), they didn't feel that there was a divide between being Jewish and not being Jewish. They worked for social reform and not just for Jewish people. They worked to establish child labor laws, they worked for the unions-remember the Ladies' Garment Workers Union? Those women were among the unionizers. There was a whole movement (and the Henry Street Settlement in New York City was a part of it) to teach English to all immigrants. I'm sure that's how my Grandfather who'd emigrated from Russia learned English in America.
Ann: Through Judaism you were taught to question and then to work toward making changes. When I taught in the prisons I worked primarily with black inmates, and they would ask me what my religion was. I would say Christian, and they would be very surprised. They would say, "We thought you were Jewish." Isn't that interesting? At the time, I didn't understand what it meant, but it was because I was working for social change. And that really awakened me, because I didn't know that part of Judaism.
Suzanne: I think it would be a good thing for social activism to be celebrated more as part of Judaism, because when you go out into the world of social change it is remarkable how many Jews are involved. Proportionally, there aren't that many Jews in the world. Part of Judaism is to do good, to help people. You're supposed to give to charity. That's part of being a mensch, a real person.
Ann: You know, the teaching is the same in Christianity, but I don't think that we're quite as radical.
Suzanne: Jews are radical as individuals. My experience has been that the Protestant denominations can be radical as institutions. Their hierarchy can sometimes be radical. For example, the United Methodists have areas for social change that they fund. Somebody's life can literally be devoted to that kind of ministry. I met a woman whose ministry was the farm workers. That's extraordinary! They've sent me to so many countries. They're helping women in Nepal to become literate, to learn facts-important facts-about AIDS, and how to take care of people suffering from diarrhea that kills. They are teaching people that women are not responsible for the sex of their children. Women in Nepal are abandoned if they have only girls. Being abandoned in that country doesn't mean you go out and work as a secretary. There's nothing there for you, and your family doesn't want you back.
Ann: And then there's the killing of girl children in many countries…
Suzanne: Americans of goodwill are adopting unwanted Indian and Chinese girl babies and loving them. There's no way you can kill them all-like the Jews: millions were killed and cremated (it's against Jewish tradition to cremate), but we keep coming back. So it is with women, we keep coming back.
Ann: What is your vision of possibility?
Suzanne: I had a very stormy childhood. I was an observer, always looking for what people valued. Because I grew up in New York City, I got to see a more expanded world than if I had grown up in a small town. As a young woman, I had a wonderful Sunday school teacher. Unfortunately, I don't remember her name, but she certainly enriched my vision. She was a feminist without saying so at the time. We had a whole section on the wonderful Jewish women who had been active in social change. Emma Lazarus wrote the poem on the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…" She was a Jew. So many of the women who worked for labor unions, prison reform and birth control were Jewish. I felt that even though the biblical stories are all about the guys and not too much about women, Jewish women in actual life were very strong. I identified with those women and I still do.
I had a wonderful teacher in the fourth grade, Miss Kohlman. The school that I went to wasn't finished because of the war. It was overcrowded, and we had double sessions. We were forty kids in a classroom meant to be a study room. We were completing three terms in two because they wanted only June graduations. I was born in January and had started school in the middle of the school year. I think they didn't teach us grammar because we had to do three terms in two. But Miss Kohlman gave us some ideas that were very beautiful to me, and they have always inspired me. She told the class that we didn't only learn in school. When I realized that I could be learning wherever I went-even walking to school-that every day, every minute, I was learning about life, I felt that I'd received a tremendous gift. She opened my eyes to learning.
She also told us that every object; everything in life is unique. Every leaf is unique. Isn't it interesting that capitalism is built on the idea that you produce identical things, but that in nature everything is unique? Of course, if you have a car, you know that your car has it's own peculiarities. Miss Kohlman said that not only is every single thing unique, but by studying any one thing, such as a leaf, or a stone, you could learn a lot about life. I was fascinated by that. I think that became a guiding principle for me, of as much significance as any official religious idea.
Ann: I know that you survived cancer. Did your spiritual life in any way help you through that?
Suzanne: When I got the news, I was very proactive. You never know how you're going to react to these things. First of all, I didn't expect it to be as serious as it was. I couldn't believe it, because I have this notion of having this strong, powerful body. My grandmother died of the same sort of cancer. One of my unforgettable memories from childhood is of being in my grandmother's house and seeing her very upset. An ambulance came and took her away. I went into the bathroom and saw her blood in the toilet. I was left alone. I don't remember where my mother was.
When I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, I felt that I wasn't going to ask people for help. I was going to see who would come forward. I have to tell you though, I did write a friends and allies letter, and I told people that way. Of course, I sent it selectively. I felt that if people were with me in my life, it was important to tell them. Most of my letters are, "Everything is coming along fine. I'm doing this great venture or that." This was different. People then called me and asked what they could do.
My friends took me to radiation every day, and then they'd take me home. We'd take a walk around the block beforehand. We'd go to radiation and then oftentimes out to lunch. By the time we'd come home, I'd be a basket case. I'd get the mail, sit on that bed and play a CD of Tibetan healing chants. I ordered a lot of sacred music during that cancer episode.
It wasn't known for several days after the hysterectomy whether the cancer had spread. They'd done a test while I was operated on, and it took several days before we knew the results. I couldn't eat. I was stoic. I had a lot of pain for a while. Two of my friends spoke to me on the phone, and they gave me visions to concentrate on. It was such a giving-as I said to my daughter Janet, people who have a lot of money usually don't give in that way. I see that in India too. The middle class is guarded, but the poorest of the poor have no pretense. It's in the presence of that humanity that we grow.
Ann: You've definitely felt God or Spirit through community, through friends and family. Have you ever had a sense of God being with you personally, speaking to you or guiding you?
Suzanne: You know, I think in some ways, my trips are a way for me to get very close to the bone, to that place where I feel a connection. I have a lot of things that I also do in Ridgefield, where I live. I have a place where I sometimes walk that I call the enchanted forest. There's a huge ash tree there that I call the Wishing Tree. I feel a connection there. There's another tree that I haven't visited in a long time, I used to ride my bike there and climb it. It's a red maple. As a kid, I was a tomboy, I went to places my mother wouldn't have approved of-like the railroad tracks. They were fascinating and in some way sacred as well.
When I led an art and mythology tour to Greece in 1985, I had a profound experience in Delphi. I went into the woods on the hill to the gymnasium and found this amazing place. I swear it could have been where the Oracle herself sat. It's shaped like a boat with a sitting stone in the middle. The entire shape is like a vulva. I meditated on that stone and had a profound experience.
I've had spiritual connections with friends. In 1972, I went to South America with a friend-to Machu Picchu, to Guatemala and many sacred sites. That trip gave me a lot of spiritual fuel. In the early 1980's, before I went to Germany, I went on a vision quest. Those spiritual journeys energized me for years.
Ann: I've done things like that, and I can still just tap into those experiences.
Suzanne: I had a meditation on the vision quest. I saw a kite with these beautiful colors on the kite string. Those colors later became my printmaking palette. I didn't know that would happen, because I wasn't painting nor doing any two-dimensional work at that time.
I've had many epiphanies. The Women's movement was a spiritual transformation. You had to take all the givens and question them. They didn't hold up. That was tremendously confusing. It took a long time to center again. We had to change the world in order to have a place in it. I think every generation has to do that as part of its own spiritual quest. You have to actively engage in life.
Ann: Do you feel that there is a life after death?
Suzanne: I feel as though I've probably lived many times. I've done several past life regressions, but I'd always felt that, even before the regressions. Part of the fuel for my involvement in the Women's movement was my belief that I was probably a witch, burned at the stake many times, over many lifetimes. When I entered the Women's movement, I was afraid that violence was going to be done to me.
Ann: I was interviewing a Jewish woman who's in her eighties, and she said in Judaism the focus is not on the next life.
Suzanne: That's right, it's on this life. I was five years old when my grandmother died. One of the neighbor women put me on her lap and asked me what I thought. How did I feel? Whatever it was that I said to her, she told me that many people believe in reincarnation, and that if you're very, very good in this life you don't have to be reborn. Well, I had a very difficult childhood, and at that time I did not want to come back.
When I was three, I almost drowned. I was willing to give up; I said to myself, "Oh, what a shame. I'm not going to live." I was giving in to dying, which to this day astonishes me. When I found out I had cancer, I didn't give up. In the course of my life I've decided that life is wonderful. Yet, as a child, I'd decided that I wanted to be so good that I wouldn't have to come back. Somewhere in the back of my head is the idea that, yes, I do want to evolve. I sometimes think of coming back as my daughter's grandchild. When I was a girl and people read my palm, they said I was an old soul. I probably am.