On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Politics · Uncategorized

The Terrible Thing Has Happened: Three Questions About Creativity in the Time of Trump


The terrible thing has happened.

This is what Roger Langeron, prefect of the Paris police wrote in his journal on the day when city was handed over to the Nazis in June of 1940, part of surrender/compromise by the French government. I copied it into my own journal, both in the original French (l’affreuse chose s’est realisee) and in translation at the Mid-Manhattan Library on November 16th, 2016.

Like the majority of American voters who did not vote for Donald Trump, on that dark afternoon I was reeling from the election of the crudest, coarsest, most unqualified disgrace of a person to the highest office in the land. I was, and remain, deeply terrified of his fascist and authoritarian proclivities.

So, at the library, I was continuing an urgent project I started on the morning after election day: researching life in Paris during the Nazi occupation. I needed to know how to survive an authoritarian regime in a large city with a deep history of creativity borne of the freedoms that dictators abhor. I figured that this project would help me pick up a pointer or two.

World history is replete with authoritarian regimes. So why Paris under Nazi rule?

The Nazis were an easy pick, since they’re the authoritarian regime I’m the most familiar with. I’m from a family of Holocaust survivors and have read a lot about it throughout my life. Like most people of Jewish descent, I’ve thought a lot about what I would do if I was there, if now was then. Of course, in these imaginings, I’ve always cast myself in the role of public enemy number one. I’ve never seriously considered what life was like for everyone who wasn’t in immediate mortal danger.  Since I’m not a Muslim, Mexican, disabled, an illegal immigrant, or, I guess, Meryl Streep, I assume I’m not on the tippy top of the Trump hit list.

Paris was also a natural choice.  As a cosmopolitan city, Paris had many residents that Hitler wasn’t terribly thrilled with — but weren’t marked for immediate murder. Hitler also had a special feeling about Paris — he didn’t want to destroy its character, which he had no problem doing in other cities.  In fact, he wanted to show the world he could “keep Paris Paris.”  I have a feeling Trump nurtures similar sentiments about New York City. Also, I’m particularly interested in how  artists and writers survive in authoritarian regime, as my immediate decisions will be about resistance, creative expression of protest, and economic self-defense. Few cities are as identified with the arts as Paris.

For a few weeks, I wondered whether Paris was the best analogy, because there’s a difference between a foreign occupation and a democratic-ish election by some of your own citizens —  but since we’ve since learned that the Russians were deeply involved in the outcome of the election, and because the French government brokered the occupation of Paris, I now think the fit is quite comfortable.

Anyway, what I’m learning from this study is what I think are the right questions to ask. So in the weeks ahead, as my research progresses, I’ll share these questions and some of my answers. Let’s hope I’ll be able to continue to do so.

Question One: Should Writers and Artists Still Do Their Thing?

The first question I wanted to address in the wake of this catastrophe was whether to keep on creating: writing, making art in any form. Is this the right way to spend time now? Are there better, more practical ways to spend my time?

In easier times, creatives also struggle with this question, which is really one of permission: who am I to write, or make art? Why do I take time away from people and other worthy causes for my art? In good times we excessively worry about causing offense — or, for the particularly dramatic, that we’ll die, just die, because of something we make.

In times of political repression, when you actually could face severe consequences for self-expression, the invented drama becomes more real. But in crisis, the arts become much more obviously important, urgent, moral.  We’re chronicling, we’re bearing witness. Picasso, upon returning to work at his studio in Occupied Paris, said with evident self-admiration:  “It was not a time for creative men [sic] to fail, to shrink, to stop working…there was nothing to do but work seriously and devotedly, struggle for food, see friends quietly and look forward to freedom.”

The very important question, then, isn’t whether you work. Creative people are going to create, drawings were scratched into the walls in Gestapo prison cells. And it’s important that they do so for future generations,

The real question is what you do with your creative output — how, or whether to make it publicly available. And so…

Question Two: Should Writers and Artists Share Political Criticism Publicly?

In most dictatorships, political criticism becomes illegal and dangerous. So, every creative person has to think about her own tolerance for risk.

There’s actual risk — what the law says. There’s practical risk — are there extra-legal consequences for making critical work public, such as financial retribution?  Certainly there’s some sense that this currently exists, as PEOTUS rails against the cast of Hamilton, Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep, Buzz Feed, although it’s unclear what that will actually accomplish.  And then there’s an assessment of future risk, which gets weighed against how much trouble you’re already in for actions you’ve already taken.

When it became apparent on election night that Trump would win, I thought about the “Fuck Trump” stick pins I made in filigree vintage metal during the campaign. I wondered if I could take them off the web and hide that they ever existed. That’s a question of future risk, I’m in no trouble for these right now. I’ve learned that people are now afraid to wear them, so that’s a bit of extra-legal consequence already occurring. The real question here is about the risk I’ll face in the future if the Trump regime cracks down on critical expression.

In this, I’ve become fatalistic. I don’t think I’d easily shed that electronic trail, so, why stop now? In other words, if I’m going to be screwed by this, I am already.

With this is mind, at this moment, I decided to keep making art that directly comments on Trump’s policies and is explicitly opposed to Trump and Trumpism. At about this time, I was asked to participate in Unstitched States, a digital quilt of reactions to the election. For it, I embroidered a vintage handkerchief with the “terrible thing” quote I referenced at the beginning, Donald Trump’s anti-democratic tweets on flag burning, an analogous passage from the Nuremberg Laws, and my own notes from visiting the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (This was my inspiration.)  It’s pictured above.

Questions Three: Should Writers and Artists Continue to Make Non-Political Work Public?

There’s always a demand for art that is non-political. In Nazi Paris, the presses kept printing magazines, newspapers and books, movies were screened, theatrical and dance productions were staged. This required the participation of creative people. Is this unacceptable collaboration? And if so, and if you make your living in the arts, what are you to do?

The writer Jean Guehenno, whose journals became Diary of The Dark Years, 1940-44. Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris, decided not to publish anything during the years of occupation, when all publications were controlled by Nazis. His translator, David Ball, writes this:

“He was one of the few intellectuals in occupied France who sensed that what one writes takes on its full meaning only in the context of a historical situation, and that its meaning depends in part on where it is published, and the conditions of its publications.

For writers to accept Nazi control of their publications is a fundamental choice — not to publish at all is another — and it is far more important than the choice of words in their writings. When Paul Valery, whom Guehanno admired enormously published a new poem in the most important literary review in France, which [was] edited by a fascist, Guehenno writes in his diary “I can’t help being sorry to see him go along with the ploy of our occupiers who want everyone to think everything in France is continuing just as it did before.”


In our current terms, this is the question of “normalization.” (Colloquially, “this is not okay.”)

Personally, I don’t have an answer to this one at this moment — I need more information about what forms of expression become legally restricted, if any, what becomes practically dangerous to publish or make public. But I will say that while I do admire Guehenno’s absolutist answer to this question: “…never, ever play {the} jailers game, never do what he hoped we’d do, appear in print, for example — appear as if we were still living and enjoying ourselves as we used to, in the time when we were free,” I’m not sure that silence is the most effective response.  My initial thought is that should it become difficult to make critical work, it’s possible to subtly communicate criticism in any form of art that could pass under a censor’s nose. (I’m thinking here of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, nominally about the Salem Witch Trials, actually about McCarthyism.) So I suppose the next question is, is it worth the appearance of normalization to communicate a subtle message?

More as I have it.






Alison Wonderland Jewelry · In the Studio · Inspiration · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing

Extremely Beautiful Upcycling – Scraps at the Cooper Hewitt Museum

“Zero waste” is a phrase that improbably makes my heart go pitter-patter. But as soon as I saw that phrase describing the theory behind Scraps, a new exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, I knew I wanted to go and I knew I would get a lot out of it.

The exhibit looks at how three different textile artists make use of what is commonly thrown away in the garment industry. To me, the most inspiring work was that of Christina Kim, of dosa. She saw the intense amount of work that went into making the intricate textiles used in saris, and couldn’t bare to see it go to waste. This image shows how she literally uses every thread.
Scraps at Cooper Hewitt

Gah, I just love it so much!  I don’t know why I’m so attracted to making something precious out of what’s commonly considered garbage, but this has been so ever since I was a kid. Of course I was born in the 1970s, the dawning of the age of recycling. I grew up in a not especially generous household so I always wanted to make things and being able to do so out of something that was free, or nearly so, made sense.

In this phase of my life, my interest in making jewelry began with a trip to Dead Horse Bay. It’s a beach in Brooklyn that is covered in the contents of a landfill in use from the 1920s to the 1940s. The landfill popped its cap and glass and ceramic shards spewed forth. Some people find the place sad, I found it thrilling to my core. On my first visit there two summers ago, I gathered beautiful shards glass and immediately wanted to know how to wear them; I started taking jewelry classes and here we are.

In a real sense, this was the way jewelry got started in the first place — early humans discovering a pretty shell or stone and figuring out how to affix it to the body. I live in the city, so I don’t find so many shells or stones. Instead, my favorite pieces in my personal jewelry wardrobe are the ones I’ve made out of my urban discoveries.  A necklace I made using a piece of a watch band I found in Washington Square Park:

  A cocktail ring I made out of a melted plastic shopping bag:
Please don’t tell anyone my secret: I  just don’t feel terribly compelled by making jewelry out of only materials that are new and pretty.

In addition to discovering beautiful discards, I also really like the detritus I create. (There’s so much.) From working on these knot bracelets last year, I ended up with little snippets of wire that looked to me like commas, which became these punctuation necklaces

I love the idea that the work keeps building on itself, or from itself. Recycling isn’t a chore, then, it’s just something wonderful.

Alison Wonderland Jewelry · On Herself · On Politics

Enter to Win a Free “Voter” Stick Pin That’s Good for Democracy


Fired up about this presidential election? You should really wear one of these pretty little vintage stick pins.  I make them with all sorts of phrases on them, but this week I’m giving away two, that say “Vote” or “Voter.” To enter the giveaway, just go over to Alison Wonderland’s Facebook or Instagram page and follow the easy peasy instructions.

Debate snacks

Politics have been described as sports for nerds. I fully embrace the nerd aspect of that description — my degree is in political science, people. You don’t want to get me started on Plato. And I do treat political events in much the same way other people treat football games. I get together to watch with friends. I make special snacks. I can’t resist showing you our spread at the Vice Presidential debate the other week, which was just the immediate fam.  (Note the cat paw at the top of the photo, my cats are very political.)  And while there is a sports-like aspect to it, let’s not forget that the outcome of the “game” actually amounts to something real. Lives can change. Lives can be improved. Lives can be lost.

When I was in elementary school, I was very inspired by a lesson on Susan B. Anthony, and decided that kids should also have the right to vote. I led a small charge on the school cafeteria, where the voting booths were set up for what I now believe was a school board election. I demanded access to the polling place, and I got sent to the principal’s office.

My 18th birthday very inconveniently occurred less than two weeks after the presidential election of 1992, which meant I missed that election. After which I entered a pious phase and decided to skip all the other local elections, because I didn’t want to pick a political party until I completed my degree and registered for a political party, so as to maintain my objectivity during my studies. This didn’t make a lot of sense, and I was confusing an important principle of journalism with that of citizenship, but hey,  I was 19. I made a lot of bad decisions.After graduating, however, I immediately registered and I simply don’t miss elections. In fact, I get a little misty when I enter a polling place. The franchise is a right and an honor that many people laid down their lives and reputations to secure for us. I am so grateful.

So go vote! Go win yourself one of these pins and by so wearing, encourage other people to vote too.  The fate of our Republic literally is in your hands.

Buy Defiant Sentiments Stick Pin – Vintage Stick Pin – Election 2016


Alison Wonderland Jewelry

On The Problem with Peddling Profanity

The Power of Profanity

A couple of days ago, I discovered that Etsy deactivated all of my Fuck This Shit products — and my Fuck Trump stick pin, because it didn’t meet their community standards. I reviewed their policies and I have to do a few things to get my products back on there — tag them “mature,” remove the curse words from the images — and I’ll get to it eventually.  In the meantime, the full collection is available on my independent website.

I get it, I really do — the whole reason why people want my Pretty Profanities collection is precisely because they’re not trying to be polite. If these words became totally accepted, there’d be no reason to have them on a bracelet, necklace or key chain to begin with. And the reality is that many, many people receive a lot of comfort — even if it’s just a chuckle — from these products.  Please see this week’s Fuck This Shit Award winner, a senior in high school fighting a life-threatening disease, if you doubt this.

However, I do chafe at censoring my images. I sawed out the vowels in the image you see here, and it’s hard for me to understand why that passes muster with community standard when every literate English speaker knows exactly which vowels are missing. Can I buy an I and a U?

It’s also a little challenging to communicate with potential customers given that the social media networks that I rely upon for that also have prudish policies. For example, when I submitted my first Facebook ad last year, it was rejected because “the image used in the ad has profane language. Such ads may offend users and lead to high negative sentiment.” (That was from the Facebook Ad Team.) Pinterest also rejected making my pins “buyable” because the image contained a “prohibited word.” Again, I get it. These are private companies that are perfectly entitled to make the rules to their own parties. But the more that social media becomes “the public square,” the more I wonder whether we need to start instituting some more free speech friendly policies.

By the way: If you know someone who’s going through a serious illness  and want to give them anything from Pretty Profanities collection — or if you are, yourself — first of all, I’m so sorry, and second of all, please use the code FUCKMORTALITY and I’ll include a FREE brass Fuck This Shit key chain with your order, to keep for yourself or to give to a member of the care team.**

Alison Wonderland Jewelry · On Books · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Food & Drink · On Teaching

On Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken — and a Giveaway!

Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken


My friend Monica Bhide’s novel, Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken, launches today. She’s doing a sweet giveaway to celebrate the launch, which includes two bracelets I made specifically to complement this book. Go enter! Then, what you should do is go buy the book and savor it. If you win, you can always give the extra copy to someone else as a gift. (Just think of all the good karma that will create! Although I’m sort of kidding about that, more in a moment.)

Monica is a gorgeous writer, as well as a gorgeous person. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know this, but any of students reading this will: when I teach, I always assign one of her essays. I’ve picked different ones depending on what I’m teaching at the time, but one I always return to is an essay she wrote for Bon Appetit called Save Your Recipes Before It’s Too Late, which manages to be both deeply moving and totally surprising, spanning sixty years of history and the distance between Virginia, India, and the Nazi concentration camp Terezin. If you want to know about structure, character and pacing in a personal essay, this is one to read over and over again.

Okay, back to the idea of karma. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that the conception we have in the west about karma being a kind of a hall monitor in the sky, doling out tit-for-tat isn’t quite right.

To me, karma means that all of our actions and all of our thoughts have consequences, for ourselves and others, and we’re all bouncing off of these consequences, often in unexpected ways. Generally speaking, you do a bunch of good things and it’s more likely that good things will likely bounce off others and back at you.  You do a bunch of a bad shit, and generally speaking, it’s more likely bad shit will come from it. But life isn’t some kind of karma slot machine, okay? We’ve all seen people who do all kinds of good and get crapped on, and people who do all kinds of deep evil, and seem to keep chugging down the road in the Mercedes he should have never bought and doesn’t deserve. The point is, karma is complicated and the idea that we can somehow control it strikes me as both total folly and not at all related to the Buddhist tradition from whence karma came.

Anyway, if you want to read a good novel that talks about karma — and butter chicken —  go check out Monica’s book. I can’t promise you good karma from it, but definitely you won’t be generating anything bad.




On Herself · On Psychology

On Unringing the Bell


Someone I knew quite well during a difficult season of my died this life died last weekend. He was young, and his death was shocking and violent.

We met very soon after I was single, and at a time when I was completely determined not to get involved with anyone who had anything in common with my former husband.

This man seemed exactly that. He was blue collar to ex’s lily white, muscled and handsome, determinedly non-intellectual. in every way he was socio-economically different, not only from the man I’d married at the age of 21, but also from me.

He was very much a creature of routine, who required his ice cream vanilla, his beer, Corona, his bagel plain with plain cream cheese and his pizza from Domino’s. He didn’t know the names of streets in our neighborhood that he didn’t go to, because he didn’t care to.

At the time, friends asked me whether these characteristics were an issue for me, because my friends are smart and they’ve met me, which is to say, familiar with my passion for both a life of the mind, and adventure. But I said the differences weren’t a problem — at first because I didn’t think we were really doing anything serious, and then as it kept going, because I said, look what being in a relationship with someone more “suited” got me.

In fact, I used to say that being with him was like traveling, because although we grew up less than five miles apart, Bronx to Manhattan, and he was six years older than me, our experiences of life were so different that we might as well have been born in different countries. We were forever explaining our worlds to one another.  I learned a lot about standpipes and sprinklers and their proper p.s.i., he learned about studying art — you mean a naked chick just stands in front of the room for everyone to draw? Get the fuck out of here.

And for being as set in his ways as he surely was, he was also willing to try certain new things. For instance, he thought the concept of iced coffee was totally insane, because coffee should be hot, and consumed only in the morning, light and sweet. It was probably a tactical error on my part to have him try Vietnamese Iced Coffee one afternoon. It was too bitter for his palate, he spat it out and declared it nasty, case closed. On the other hand, alcohol should always be cold and so while he would try red wine, he never failed to put an ice cube in it. He’d never had Indian food before we met and he did like that — but I am pretty certain he never ate it outside my presence, ever.

I’m saying these things not because they were the most important; I realize they sound snobbish. But as we’ve now been apart about as long as we were together, these are the details I can still squint at in my memory.

The Art of the Empty Text
The Art of the Empty Text, 2014. Handbound book, paste paper, transfer letters on packing tape.


When you’re trying to get away from something, it helps to know if you’re moving on a flat plane or on a sphere. As it happens, I was on a sphere and in the end, I found myself staring directly at the same issues I’d hoped to avoid by choosing such a different man. Of course, it was an error in logic to decide that my marriage ended because my husband and I were from the same socioeconomic group. Just as it would be to conclude that I ended this relationship because this man and I were not.

In a newspaper story about his death, there is a phrase I’ve read a few times: he could not be saved. The reporter was referring to the paramedics, but it was the conclusion I’d come to about him and us long ago.

I don’t want to get into the details of the way we ended, but suffice it to say that although we remained on cordial terms, I consider the relationship a mistake. His death was a mistake too, although to put them together in a single category is rather absurd.

In very different ways, I’m sorry both happened.

On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Herself

On a Curiosity Delay

Only trouble is interesting*.

Not because humans are macabre ghouls, but because we need to know how to navigate the obstacles that life consistently throws at us. Art of all kinds, but especially literature, helps us to do just that.

In my two decades as a writer, and in my more recent experience creating jewelry, I’ve seen evidence of this over and over again. When I’ve written about my personal challenges, and have felt naked and exposed, I’ve been encouraged by kind feedback from readers about how my dispatches from a particularly shitty road I’ve endured have helped them endure on theirs. And what else could possibly explain the continuing demand for Alison Wonderland Jewelry’s signature “Fuck This Shit” products?

(In fact, the title of this essay, curiosity delay, is a more polite term for rubbernecking that I’ve heard on traffic reports on occasion. There are hard wired reasons why we can’t help but slow down to look at accidents on the highway, one of which is urgent: we need to be able to avoid our own.)

So lately, you may have noticed, I haven’t been publishing that much. I’ve found myself stuck in a kind of writer’s resin created by the truth that only trouble is interesting.

The good news for me as a person is that I have significant joy in my life. It’s been absorbing, and pleasurable, but not much good for the writing. For one thing, I am certain it will yield writing no more interesting or useful than any Facebook status riddled with exclamation marks. No one rubbernecks a vehicle just zipping happily down the highway. Also my partner in this joy is an intensely private person.

The bad news for me as a person is I also have had plenty of trouble. However, the dark side of my life is also one I have not been exploring in my published writing recently.

This is not to say I haven’t been writing — I have, every single day. But I have felt constrained in publishing this writing in a way that I have never felt before.

When I teach, I often share Ernest Hemingway’s advice to “write hard and clear about what hurts,” and have added that it is almost impossible to avoid writing about those things anyway. But for the first time I’ve realized that being constrained in publishing writing in one area of a life can have a deleterious effect on writing on all subjects. (Understand, of course, I’m not speaking here of producing writing on non-personal subjects — that writing is more like journalism, and I’ve been able to still turn that out when required.) But my personal writing, my essays, much of what I share here — that’s been jammed stuck.

Finally  I realized I could get totally meta and write about that trouble, the writer’s resin,  and what led me into it, and how I might find my way out of it. And maybe you’d find that useful, since I know many of my readers are also writers. And so here we are.

I am still not prepared to give a complete field report on My Troubles, but I do want to make a brief explanation now, which will hopefully serve as an apology for the continuing delay, and, to use the technical term, unjam my works.

So here’s what’s been happening.

For the past 21 months, I’ve been the target of a legal bullying campaign by a person that I’ll here call Mr X.  You can read some more of how he lost the dignity of name and title  —  at this point, he neither deserves the possessive “my,” or the word “husband,” even with “ex” attached. In an apparent attempt to score a perfect record of violating every agreement he’s ever made with me, his aim has been to overturn the settlement that ended our marriage — a contract he’s decided simply doesn’t exist.

It is amazing to realize how much of the world runs on mutual consent: that truth exists and is knowable, that laws and contracts and signatures matter. It is sobering to realize how long rich white men can get away with violating these norms — which are after all what keep us from chaos — before they face real consequences. (In roughly the same time period, I have watched the tactics of the Donald Trump campaign unfold, in an almost perfect echo of my private world; the two men could be advising one another.)

Mr X has waged his particular war in several court houses. He’s been losing, badly, having neither facts nor law on his side. And while my victories so far have been gratifying — hearing him described as a “marital scofflaw” by a federal judge was a good moment —  the battle has come with personal, physical and psychological costs.

It is these costs that are the source of the writing which will eventually emerge from this hot mess. And it is precisely these costs I do not want to detail at this moment.

I’d like to be clear that at this point, I’m not waiting for the legal hostilities to cease to emerge from my silence.  Although I’m aware that Mr X hungrily combs my various publications for word on himself,  I don’t believe that writing hard and clear about my experience will hurt me.  I do believe that personal writing on my experience will be helpful to others who are similarly victimized, but who don’t have my resources, which include, among other things, strong family support, undergraduate pre-law studies which render me somewhat more comfortable with legal language, and an ability to do my own research.

But I am still waiting for a certain clarity to emerge from this experience. There’s some information I lack — what he’s actually after in these increasingly futile attacks, for example, when he will tire of fixating on me.

I realize I may never have those answers, so I guess, more accurately I’m waiting for some meaning I can put to the particulars of my experience, some insight that will move it beyond just a mere recounting of what I’ve endured . Until then, on this topic, I will remain in the writer’s resin, on a curiosity delay.


And — I hope — I will soon write of other things.

*Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction, although it applies to many other forms of literature and art.