Anxiety, My New Friend

I went to a class called Taming Anxiety to deal with the residual feelings of being threatened, anxious, withdrawn. Fear still resonates at a very high frequency in my body. I am filled with debilitating self-judgments. I am searching for community. I have come to listen to my body and my emotions. I have come to follow my breath.

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Goddess Morrigan by Luna A. Hosepians

Some years ago, ordinary nervousness grew into full-blown anxiety attacks: increased heart rate, tense muscles, cold sweat, nausea and the urge to scream gripped me every morning. My body provided clear reasons and visible signs, the type that even the doctor could not dismiss. I no longer wanted to leave the house.

“May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.”~The Four Divine Abodes

Sometimes people interpret symptoms of anxiety as a heart attack. I perceived it as insanity. I could not trust my body to stay dry after getting dressed. My perspiration was activated with proximity to school and the classroom. Where once my formerly steel resolve and confidence were paramount, encountering the violence of colleagues unnerved me completely. I was not only falling apart, I was imploding, feasting on my own nervous system. There was no peace to be found in or around me.

I would rather define self as the interiorization of community. And if you make that little move, then you’re going to feel very different about things. If the self were defined as the interiorization of community, then the boundaries between me and another would be much less sure.

~James Hillman

Through a Buddhist lens, the loss of balance has overwhelmed me. Using this frame, there is a connection between the mind, experiences and society. In this context, heart and mind are the same.

“May I be filled with loving kindness.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes

My falling apart was not gradual but exponential. Trembling became customary. For a time, I could not drive. My eyes averted from those of passersby. My hair thinned as I looked in the mirror. My beautiful complexion lost its shine, morphing into a waxy and irritated skin. I attempted to hide so that no one would see me dissolving. Isolation was the only safe place. The violence of my professional life eroded my joy.

The more recent manifestation of my anxiety is milder, habitual, unfounded.

Rev. Keiryu Liên Shutt gives us a Koan, a question repeated verbatim to a respondent, who answers each time. Rev. Liên insists that we ask it again and again. The Koan works. It leads me back to myself, to the limitations I have imposed on myself by following my thoughts out of the present moment. The Koan challenges the beliefs that I’ve held for some time, that I am responsible for my expulsion from the academy. I have constructed a narrative that serves to form my diseased state, and results in a burden I  carry, alone, in silence.

I think we are indebted to history—and not just familial history, but cultural history, political history and economic history—for our understanding of ourselves.

~Gary Greenberg

How does my anxiety limit my happiness?

While I perform zazen, concentrating on my breath, I feel myself moving around inside my skin like a small animal in a burrow. Once in a while I will sniff the air at the opening to see if I am safe.

“May I accept myself just as I am.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes

After a time, the Koan makes me laugh. It is as funny as the absurd games I play on myself. It becomes clear to me: Anxiety has pushed me out from the unsafe world into a space I have cultivated with compassion and care. This new place is good for me though I am slow to adapt. The tools I need for my serenity are provided by my anxiety, a sounding board in my body, leading me to a world where I can breathe without hyperventilating,  without erupting in stress-inducing illnesses.

“May I be peaceful and at ease.” ~The Four Divine Abodes

I only have to learn the signs and see the pattern to understand the hot burning is not healthy. My anxiety has liberated me from the bondage of suffering, given me the courage to confront my reality. I would never have willingly walked away from my livelihood. I was too fearful to face the consequences without a strong push.

The tools offered by psychiatry are intended to attack the symptoms of emotional suffering, not to promote emotional flourishing. Other emotions do not destroy equilibrium or the sense of well-being as soon as they arise, but in fact enhance it—so they would be called constructive.

~Daniel Goleman

How is my anxiety valuable to me?

It’s so easy to internalize dysfunction, to own and embody a condition that reduces our sense of self to ourselves and within our communities; it limits our ability to navigate in the world. We are less comfortable with looking at the external forces that play a role in our well-being or lack of it.

“May I have inner and outer safety.” ~The Four Divine Abodes

The myth of happiness is woven into the American consciousness. This ideal has not been designed for women and people of color, yet we allow the myth to enter our framework of self-identity and suffer for the shortcomings of that comparison. Until we learn to see ourselves as products of an oppressive society, individuals, who are ill equipped to bear the weight of these burdens, we must carry the imbalances that arise from the pervasive oppression under which we toil.

“May I hold my pain with mercy.” ~The Four Divine Abodes

There is a demand, an artificial one, that insists that we show up in society at 100% at all times. The sense that we cannot fluctuate from that norm is pervasive. With my students, a deep sense of failure was often articulated over an inability to master a technique that is only being tried for the first time. My answer was always that Doing one’s best on any given day is not the same as being perfect, operating at one hundred percent every day of our lives. That impossible goal is overdue for demystification. Aiming at that kind of perfection is not only impossible, it is also detrimental to our health and the health of our communities. It’s a myth that insists we show up as something other than our real selves. It is a myth that perpetuates anxiety, guilt and shame over our true selves rather than fostering a foundation of compassion wherein we can strive and grow into our evolving selves. It is a myth that breeds fear and isolation, components of anxiety.

“May I be undisturbed by the coming and goings of situations.”~ The Four Divine Abodes

The anxiety I feel is useful as a warning system, reminding me to stay in community—to seek it out if necessary. My anxiety pushes me to get help and to find the courage to move beyond the limits of my emotions and to examine the root causes of my dis-ease.

At the height of its grip on me, my anxiety was activated by the unhealthy racial climate at work, which was established over many years, designed to alienate me, and anyone who looks like me, consistently and strategically in overt and covert ways. The absence of friendliness and kindness took their toll on me. After ten years of absorbing toxicity from those in power, my body and my mind worked together to awaken me from my torpor. I could not ignore my anxiety if I meant to survive.

“May I hold my joys and sorrows with equanimity.” ~ The Four Divine Abodes

Ten years is long time to not belong. I had to get over the shame of not succeeding in an environment that never wanted me. Next, I named the climate that actively dehumanized me and treated me as inferior, made me feel out of place in the academy. I abandoned my systematic willingness to enter the war zone, crossing boundaries littered with landmines, peopled with hostile agents, looking for my happiness. I relearned compassion for myself and my oppressors.

“May your happiness increase and never leave you.” ~The Four Divine Abodes

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Goddess Blodeuwedd by Luna A. Hosepians

I can see that during the entire episode, my anxiety guided me toward safety. My anxiety acted as a warning system, alerting me to the changes needed to ensure my well-being and happiness. I may not have caused my anxiety, but I am responsible for the state of my life. With this awareness, I’ve set new intentions to listen to my emotions with a heartmind toward Justice, Peace and Healing, and to foster the conditions under which I thrive. I don’t want to dwell in negative emotions, but I do need to investigate them and use them as catalysts to avoid self-harm, because I am fully aware that I am worthy of love and compassion. Three and half years ago, when I had my first anxiety attack, I never imagined I’d be on friendly terms with this emotion. Now I see anxiety as my friend and teacher.

Watchful Patience

The messages of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela remain relevant even in a world where ideological confrontations and invasive totalitarianism have been overcome. They are messages of hope, of faith in a society’s ability to overcome conflict through mutual understanding and watchful patience. To achieve this, we must rely on our belief in human rights, the violation of which—whoever the perpetrators may be—must provoke our indignation. We must never surrender these rights. ~Stéphane Hessel

 

I wonder whether it is enough for me to do my work, to write my story, to create my art. I can no longer take liberty for granted, if ever I had. I have the urgency to stay awake, and yet, I also feel a tremendous responsibility to foster peace in the world, in my heart, in my home. The more I am afraid of the future, the more I cling to my sense of purpose, the calling in my life and to caring for myself, and others, with compassion, serenity and love.

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Elliott C. Nathan

It is easier to deal with the external manifestations of racism and sexism than it is to deal with the results of those distortions internalized within our consciousness of ourselves and one another.*

We must not permit our backs to be pressed against a wall, dogs to run us down like fugitives, or bars to close in around our hearts. If we are free, then no one can take that. And, we must believe that we are free—we have to know it. We have to own our freedom and live accordingly.

I say, keep your peace. Make room for your joy. Make sure that when the storm passes, your house is standing.

I believe I do not have to burn things to be part of a revolution —though I honor and recognize that those who must burn structures, effigies and ideals are necessary to the cycle of change.

I am writing about an anger so huge and implacable so corrosive, it must destroy what it most needs for its own solution, dissolution, resolution.*

I tend my garden, write like a mad woman, connect with my people, cry into my pillow, sculpt my ancestors, sand the teak table that has stood out in the blessed rain all this long winter. I do these things, and I watch, as Hessel prescribes, with a patience that is steeped in long-suffering and the alertness of a new season.

In our struggle for justice, peace and equity, we owe it to ourselves to nurture love, self-care and harmony. These are critical responsibilities for liberation workers.

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Elliott C. Nathan

We get to thrive. We get to love. We get to live.

 

*Audre Lorde

“This Land Is Our Land”

We all have a part to play in how our world operates. The interconnectivity of our lives can no longer be ignored. Beloved, justice-loving President John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Now, more than ever, this question is pertinent in its application to service in this country, and also to the required work in our cities, families and extended communities. Perhaps we need to expand the definition of poison, broaden the scope to encompass of how actions that intend to harm one group inevitably undermines all of us, since we share the same ecosystems.

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Cristiana Briscese

When Regan took office, he implemented all manner of racists policies as a backlash to the reforms of the 1970s—the product of much bloodshed and activism during the mass Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s—he wanted a return to the past, to once again disenfranchise black Americans, who were at last prospering with gainful employment, access to the ballot and a legislated end to centuries of legal discrimination. So the 80s became the decade for undoing the gains of previous decade, by first closing the factories that employed thousands of workers all over the country, but especially in the motor cities of the mid-west, where many blacks had migrated the century before. Other manufacturers shuttered plants as well, lining their pockets and resting their large heads on soft pillows in the great old US of A, while keeping their portly purses well out of reach of Uncle Sam. Combined that with the simultaneous economically devastating white flight from urban cities and the strategic divestment in the remaining communities, and America’s working class was dealt a mortal deathblow.

Just as many whites as blacks lost jobs to the factory closings. The lose of tax revenue from those who left the cities, dwindled, and then, those who could, packed their bags and left. But it seems that now the desolation of a targeted group of people has inexplicably, at long last, trickled down to the rural areas of Virginia and runs amok in the woods of Pennsylvania, where the toxic stream meanders through the land and fords the vast wildernesses where once stood the fabled factory of the well-paying job for the undereducated. And just like that, it becomes woefully apparent, that though poison will at first killed the intended undesirable fish in the immediate vicinity, it will, before long, also kill the frogs in distant ponds as it runs it course.

Take the clever example offered in the movie There will be Blood when oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, takes his straw and says to his nemesis, “I drink your milk,” he clarifies that the oil beneath the ground does not honor property boundaries; the milk, of course, is a metaphor for the oil in the earth, the same collective resource of all those who inhabit the land, sustenance that may as well be any resource from housing, to jobs, to healthy food, to lead-free water.

Your consent is unnecessary.

Similarly ironic, when decades of fracking leads to earthquakes in places like Oklahoma that had never before been susceptible to the shifting of tectonic plates, it give pause—to some. Or, when oil pipelines that have long mapped over Native lands like arteries outside an ailing body leak oil into formerly pristine waterways, we see that it’s only a matter of time before what we have done unto others gets done to us:

Pillage the forests; get land erosion and warmer climes.

Spray pesticides, and kill all the bees.

Undermine the livelihood of black American, and sow widespread unemployment.

We are all connected.

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by Cristiana Briscese

No one can escape the poison once it seeps into the land, the water and the air. We have to clean it all up, or we all perish. We don’t get to choose who lives or who dies. We must be the stewards of the land, and not solely the environmental aspects of our shared geographies, but of the people, especially, and the plants and animals that are sustained or destroyed by our daily choices, and our insatiable hungers. We must invest in each other, with our hearts, and be willing to extend that love to our brothers and sisters—no matter what skin tone, regardless of papers, beliefs, notwithstanding.

It is our responsibility to seek these reconciliations—each one of us. When we have done these things, all will be well.

The Uses of Visual Images as Envisioned by Douglass: The Necessity of Art (Part VII)

 

Art is a visionary’s tool (among others). For a long time artists have used the medium of photography to foretell, criticize and reimagine the way we see, what we see, but also why we see. Take the great reformer, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who in moving from images of Black poverty and nakedness to dignified and well-dressed statesman, understood and recognized that art could liberate Black men and women in the consciousness of the viewer. Douglass embraced photography in the form of Daguerreotype and used his own image to bombard the social media of the era. What had easily become a keepsake token of affluence, the portrait became a force for transforming consciousness in the hands of a powerful Black American, who used it to define himself and a people. With his actions as a writer and a subject of the gaze, Douglass used art to change America.

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Today selfies are a widespread phenomenon misused by young people all over the world. The intoxicating image of the self has us giddy with self-absorption (you can even by a stick for this). For his part, Frederick Douglass employed the power of the portrait that few of us seem to value or recognize today because of the proliferation of cameras. Yesteryear, however, Frederick Douglass, the original selfie King, sat for numerous portraits as an act of liberation, intending to shatter static notions of Black identity using his own changing image. Given that he did so well before the advent of cell-phone cameras, the selfie king had to make deliberate efforts to make his image available to a 19th-century populace, many of whom eroticized the African body as a side-show attraction, or relegated them to an exotic sub-human status unworthy of the lens. It was under these circumstances that Douglass envisioned a narrative that could only be told through the camera’s eye—a story he would repeat dozens of times to become the most photographed figure of his epoch.

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Pillar in Print

For Douglass, art in the early manifestation of the selfie, the portrait, was a vehicle used to normalize Blackness. By sitting for portraits wherever he went, Douglass realized that the image of a free Black American would provoke the viewer to consider his personhood and, thereby, challenge the perceptions of White Americans that he used to gain a kind of social currency, an invented algorithm inserted into the mainstream dialogue. Douglass did so in the struggle to abolish slavery; Douglass knew art had power, whether by creating it, starring on the canvas or generating a frequency of sound; art’s power was undeniable.

Frederick Douglass was able to harness the power of art and use it to reframe an entire narrative about Black identity. Later artists of the Harlem of Renaissance—writer, painters, poets, dancers and sculptors—would continue his legacy, crafting a movement of empowered self-expression that would begin to heal a people from a history as a formerly enslaved people. Art and change are not separate. One births the other and the other fathers the revolution—more on that later.

 

Innovation Engine and the Permanent Witness: The Necessity of Art (Part VI)

 

Did art start with illuminated manuscripts or Goya’s political satire? Was it in the eyes, as the ancient Sumerians perceived? The eyes lead us to the soul, the immortal part of identity. It must have started in the Garden, all that seeing. Then, of course, someone wanted to make it better or easier, more authentic, transparent or enduring. Another held up her hand to the world and said, “Leave me to my room.” In all this, necessity, the great mother of Art, gives birth again and again, each time prescribing the same ritual of painful elation, the same bloody mess. And, we make more. We see more. We see too much.

 

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In the same way that print and digital images in media are normal for us, in fact these images are especially expected by the modern viewer, the early experimenters of photography laid the foundation for an entire way of seeing and viewing.

During the mid 19th century, on the eve of that revolution, the nascent form of realism and idealism took form in paper photography. Charles Nègre and Henri Le Secq ran the streets of Paris taking pictures of the poor and desolate. Needing expediency and portability of the imagery they wanted to show the world, Nègre and Le Secq moved from Daguerreotyping to printing, for the first time, on paper, using salt. Such ingenuity could only be the product of constraints and demands: a new need for immediacy.

Today we cannot live without our cameras and devices to document our dinner salads and cats. Some of us are looking beyond our plates and pets to the timeless measures of humanity. It’s a cycle. Culture invents itself through our own narcissism and gets inverted the moment the container is too small for the masses. Without the Grand Narratives, exclusion is forbidden. We wish to see ourselves again and again, and preferably, forever. Don’t laugh! It’s in our nature.

Inner Outsider: The Necessity of Art (Part V)

 

But what of imagination? When the completion of a thing, a work, a compulsion burned out in form from within into the world, made manifest for the world to see, a spell descends.

 

It is said that humans are the inventors of the animal world—the king of kings. Crows and ravens make objects of beauty, juxtaposing our discard with stolen and indigenous artifacts. It’s as if there is not enough art in nature for these black birds. We, no less than the crow, must also continue to integrate, overcome and pacify our environment. We do it with art. That is why we object to broken windows, discarded people—anything that reminds us that we are not in charge. Disorder corrupts the notion of control. We like our boxes neat. The first thing that is denied the poor is art, cut out like a vital organ, and grafted into the institutions of the affluent.

 

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Bouguereau: A Girl Defending Herself against Eros (The Getty)

But give us a song, a poem, a wall or a canvas, and in that opening we will pour our souls, in blood or colors, out as if we could pay our fare in creation. The great artists of our time and before have known this. They have not kowtowed to the influence of means, driven by the force within, the powerful Beast that must be silenced if the earth will continue to spin on her great axis. This can be said of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Michael Jackson, Vincent van Gogh, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sohei Nishino, Frida Kahlo, Marguerite Duras, Leo Tolstoy, Ai Weiwei, YSL, Nina Simone, Ingrid Bergman, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Misty Copeland, Alvin Ailey, …truly, there is no room in this essay to name them all. When we awaken to this reality, it is easy to see that art drives civilization forward. It is the fuel and the engine; the fire and the wood.

 

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Of course, I may be wrong.

Enlightened Objects: The Necessity of Art (Part IV)

 

Lavish or sumptuous, grotesque or fearsome, our creations exist side by side with all else.

Art defies norms and invents them. Art sculpts us into de-centered objects—eyes that register; bodies that undo. In our hands, art is the uncontrollable daemon, willing us to bend and succumb to the subconscious. There is Si Lewen attempting to remove his own hand or Vincent van Gogh dismembering himself because he cannot rendezvous with his siren, Art herself.

Art is in our blood. Denied, Art demands blood.

 

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Jeff Kunkel’s paintbrush tin

 

We could argue that when the first caveman dipped his palm into crushed flowers and marked the cave wall, his inner Beast must have stood back to take in the scene, momentarily pacified by simplicity of the act. Saying nothing, yet standing with total attention, the Beast within glanced repeatedly at the marks dancing in the light of the fire, and later, the sunrise, observing the flickering of light on the print, playing in the oblique luminescence. The primal Beast took note, also, that now that the mark was a daily presence, a thing of contemplation, an object of nuance in its unchanging state, they should come to be friends. Thus, the first art lay siege to a soul, conquering the interior Beast and the imagination in one stroke—all with a lone handprint on the wall.

 

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Fragments

 

 

Staying Alive: The Necessity of Art (Part III)

 

Art is often viewed in commercial societies (those engaged in gathering, hoarding and consuming resources) such as ours as superfluous, an indulgence of the affluent, a whim of the bored. This I strongly disavow. Art is more for the poor masses, we mere proletariat, than for any wealthy individual—a collector, say. We are the products of millennia of seeing and creating. In our hands imitation is a form of life. We long to leave our marks on the planet, even as we see only the tiniest remnants and fragments of former civilizations and our own productivity over-saturates the Internet with more than we can manage, blinding us to ourselves.

 

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The Seer

We have become anonymous in our own quest for immortality if only because we are now one of billions where once there were few in number to be counted. Still, art drives us. We bathe ourselves in whatever beauty we can find, curating our lives from the replication of someone else’s vision, conveniently mounting it all on the walls of our gallery homes. And still, art is a friend, reminding us of the past.

From her special place, the red eyes of Hundertwasser’s “Blind Venus Inside Babel” look at me whenever I work. I wonder what the artist meant by those eyes and her flowing skirts full of worlds, peopled with spirits and planets so vast that the ruffles of it extend beyond the edge of the canvas. It’s as if she is the mother of the world and the brightest light originates in her navel, above which the Black Woman, confident of her place in the universe, looks out across the expanse of our world, forever. The red orbs of her eyes, mirrors to the sanguine nature of man, empty and invite, over and over. Around her neck hangs a crest, an ornament, which given the history intimated in her skirt, is unnecessary, and yet, she is regal in her simplicity, swaying on the page to the music of time, oblivious to her immortality. She is here to stay, this Black Woman, watching over me.

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Hundertwasser’s 1975 “Blind Venus Inside Babel”

Historical Repetitions (and Other Forms of Seeing for Consideration): a

 

I refuse to live in fear. I’m told about the many frightening things ahead for us because of Trump’s status as president elect. A woman stopped me on the street to give me a stack of her fliers about the new face of fascism. (Until recently the same fliers had Obama’s face on them.) Everywhere I hear alarming news—increased suicides, hate crimes, bigotry. To all of these worries and stresses I say, “I refuse to live in fear.” Elections, public and free, are not worth dying for.

Unfortunately, bigotry has been a very common circumstance throughout my life and professional career. The bigots emboldened to come out of the closet were never invisible to me. And, the problems we face are bigger than openly racist leaders—for many people that has been the reality all along.

Perhaps it makes us uncomfortable to imagine hope packaged in the incendiary language with which Trump ran his campaign. Perhaps it makes us angry to be ruled by people with less education, less polish and less manners than ourselves. On the surface, this seems to be true. We want to ask ourselves how much could we have in common with rural Virginians and Appalachian Whites whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy and have never yet ceased to fly the losing flag. Upon a closer more careful examination, we see the same conditions exist for them today as they did nearly 200 years ago when they lost the Civil War in part because they were starving then too. I often wonder whether their ancestors, many of whom did not hold a single bonded man, woman or child, ate any better than their predecessors do today. Given the evidence that African Americans, who ate poorly, died young and served as free labor in the South embodied the wealth of their slavers, it’s clear that jobs for poor, White Americans have always been scarce.

Nothing has changed.

(Solutions forthcoming.)

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As Seen on TV

Internal Medicine: The Necessity of Art (Part II)

 

Art in her many forms are necessary for the human spirit to prevail. The transcendence of survival, fear and necessity, even when all are depicted, is the very act of overcoming the hopelessness of mortality, humanity’s primal fear.

 

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Details “Jerusalem” by Sohei Nishino: Exhibition at SFMOMA

 

Of the many medicines of this world, art heals. The embrace of art can purge toxins from the body and psyche, lifting off the weight of darkness, the heaviness of loss and the anxiety of despair. It gives us space in the world, whether self-defined, or etched into the mind’s eye through the gaze.

 

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Detail of “Traumanauts” carting of the dead: OMCA’s Black Panthers’ Exhibit

 

Just as witnessing pain and violence leave marks that we dutifully label trauma, art illuminates the surface and reveals the interior in unique ways that are impossible to measure, yet fully possesses unmistakable corrective powers.

 

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“Not Guilty” the post-verdict reunion: Abraham Solomon, 1859: The Getty