No Coincidence – No Story ( Part 1)

A recent This American Life examined the role of ‘coincidence’ in our lives. There are those who see all events in life as just random occurrences. There are those that see connections between disparate events – possibly guided by a ‘Co-incidence Coordinator’- as an indication of the existence of synchronicity.

Julia Cameron, in The Artist Way, writes about ‘Synchronicity and Spirituality:’

Once you accept that it is natural to create, you can begin to accept a second idea: that the Creator will hand you whatever you need for the project. Be alert: there is a second voice, a higher harmonic, adding to and augmenting your inner creative voice. This voice frequently shows itself in synchronicity.

And, there is a Chinese saying: No Coincidence, No Story.

I am a story teller. I tell stories through my art.

The Past is Prologue

I grew up in an area of Portland, Maine known as “The Hill.” Munjoy Hill was a neighborhood of immigrants – Irish, Italian, Eastern European. We were connected by our sense of place, our values, our diversity.

We filled multi-unit housing with our extended families. We could venture out into a neighborhood of grandparents, aunts, uncles who watched over all of us – relative or not. We walked to school together. We shared homework assignments. We shoveled sidewalks and coalesced on corners.

The Eastern Promenade (‘The Prom’) was our backyard: We listened to free concerts at Fort Allen Park, oo’ed and aah’ed at the July 4th Fireworks, sledded at the Monument, and watched the “submarine races” with our dates.

Casco Bay and its ‘calendar’ islands were our constant companions. (It was once thought there were 365 islands hence “calendar islands.” In actuality, they number between 180 and 222.)CascoBayMaps

There was alcoholism, sexual abuse, mental illness, evictions, divorce….but the close knit Hill community provided its own version of a safety net. If you needed an egg, you could borrow one; corner stores let you run a tab until payday; friends with cars drove you to hospitals, grocery stores, appointments. Overwhelmed by life, you went next door for a cup of tea with cream and sugar.

We formed life-long friendships: ones easily renewed even with the passage of time. We worked; we loved; we moved away and joined other neighborhoods.

Looking to belong

I was usually the only Jewish kid in the class. As such, I was frequently called upon to explain Jewish holidays to my Christian classmates. My family struggled financially and spiritually. My parents were unable to provide me with a Jewish education. I sometimes felt like a stranger – an outsider – in my neighborhood as well as in my religious community.

As kids growing up on the Hill, we were more interested in hanging out on the Prom, playing pick up baseball, and finding beach glass. Studying history was an anathema: too many dates and too much war. Until I toured the Portland Observatory a few years ago, I did not know that the street where I grew up (Moody) was named for the man who developed the flag system for incoming ships.

Visit the Portland Observatory" Maine art Project by WPA c. 1937

The Portland Observatory is the only remaining maritime signal station in the United States. Tower operations were paid with annual fees collected from shipping merchants, who purchased the right to have their flags stored in the building and hoisted up its flagstaffs when their ships were sighted.

sanctuary21-1200x383My mother resides in an assisted living facility so we often go on ‘outings.’ The Etz Chaim Synagogue at the bottom of “The Hill” has recently been restored. Changing demographics, changing politics, changing economics led to the shuttering of its doors. It re-opened as an ‘inclusive’ synagogue and the Maine Jewish Museum that features art work by contemporary Jewish artists from Maine.

Around the age of 13, I stopped attending the Orthodox shul. I was tired of sitting in the balcony – detached from the Torah and relegated to a passive role of watching the men and boys participate in the service. A budding feminist before feminism was part of the national zeitgeist, one day, I just stomped out.

The tour starts.

The Guide begins to explain the history of the synagogue. Seeking participation from her audience, she poses a question alluding to the beginnings of Etz Chaim. My mother speaks up to add her 2 cents (actually more like a dollar) and says:

My grandfather  (my great grandfather) started this synagogue.

The Docent continues, expounding on the events that led up to the 1921 opening of Etz Chaim.

As the tour continues, my mother leans towards me and whispers:

There was a big fight. A disagreement between the Rabbi at the Shaarey Tphiloh Synagogue and your great-grandfather. He stormed out with half the congregation and eventually established Etz Chaim.

(I guess stomping-out behavior is part of my genetic make up—It appears that in my family, we vote with our feet…)

Why don’t I know about this?

Forty-five years after I left Maine, I still struggle to resolve my sense of being a stranger in my own community.

Seeking my belongings

I am on the ferry to Peaks Island again. It is time to open up cottages for the season and to take my kayak out of storage.

Following the memorial service for a friend’s young daughter, I went on- line and bought a red 2-cup coffee maker and a red 16.5 foot long sea kayak. The brevity of her life was the impetus to act. (The coffee maker was an impulse buy; I had been thinking about buying a kayak for over a year.) I took kayak lessons while creating the memorial garden and bench for my father.

I go out early in the morning – before the sun heats the air and waves begin to form. I glide easily across the glassy surface of the water. As the air warms, the waves increase. wave

As a friend and I paddle around the tip of House Island, we see the remains of blocks of granite – used in the construction of Fort Scammel. My friend jokingly says something about ‘free’ stone for sculpting. House Island is privately held so we remain on the water.

As we give a wide berth to the osprey nest (too early to see the fledglings she asked me:  “Did you know….House Island was known as the ‘Ellis Island of the North’ – and in 1923, 218 immigrants were detained at the quarantine station on House Island.”

I spent a great deal of my childhood traveling among the islands of Casco Bay and had never heard this story.

Why don’t I know about this?


According to the Maine State Archivist, there is no information about those held at the House Island quarantine station in existence from 1904 – 1937. Neither the Maine Historical Society or the Maine Maritime Museum or the Portland Room of the Public Library or the University of Maine has any resources pertaining to the construction, management or removal of the facility.

Even Captain Hal Cushing (the current House Island owner) has no photographs or documents relative to the history of the quarantine station.

Much of my previous artwork examined family relations, untold secrets, little known histories. I make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. I create artworks that focus on a moment in history that reflects larger issues within a current context.

I make an appointment to meet with the Curator and Director of the Maine Jewish Museum. I tell them I am an artist. I tell them about my great grandfather. I tell them about House Island. I broach the idea of creating a piece for the museum. (When my mom was in high school, she spent summers as an au pair. One of her charges was the Maine Jewish Museum curator: Now, why don’t I know about that?)

I am not sure if the ‘Coincidence Coordinator’ is at work here. But there is a Yiddish word to describe what I am experiencing: Bashert – loosely translated as “meant to be.”

I am a story teller. I tell stories through my art. And I believe there is a story to tell.