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Zelda Leah Gatuskin

Copyright 2018 Zelda Leah Gatuskin

published by



ISBN: 978-0-938513-62-9

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cover art by Zelda Leah Gatuskin

It is not necessary that we believe in each other's beliefs,

so long as we believe in each other. --zlg

Previous publication credits

The Introduction, "Art and Religion and Science and Reason," was originally presented as a lecture for the American Humanist Association in 2010. The essay "Bill Baird, My Hero and My Friend" was published under the title "Bill Baird: Wounded Warrior Battles On" in the Winter 2012 issue of Free Mind, a publication of the American Humanist Association. The essays in Parts 1 and 3 were originally published in the Humanist Society of New Mexico Newsletter. The essays in Parts 2 and 4 were originally published on Zelda Gatuskin’s blog, "The Tree." Essays have been edited for inclusion in this collection.


My sincere thanks to Luke Moy for his invaluable assistance in preparing the "Art and Religion and Science and Reason" lecture for publication, and for his astute editorial review overall.


About This Collection

Introduction: Art and Religion and Science and Reason

Part 1. Our Best Selves

New Year's Resolution

Just Say "Yes"

Am Honored to Inscribe

Dogs and Cats

Virtue and Honor

Believe It or Not

It's Time to Get Serious About the UDHR

Can't We Just Evolve Already?

Nature Is Inescapable


Save Us from the Soul-Savers

Changing Cottonwood Against Cloudless Sky

Part 2. Let's Talk About Shoulders

Repeat After Me: ERA

Let's Talk About Shoulders

Why "War on Women" Is a Misnomer

Lrch Frwrd

Mirror Mirror

We're All Babies Now

Breaking Down by Degrees, Holiday Mood Swings, & the Zombie Shopper Apocalypse

Gun Sex

Women Must Take the Lead in Ending Gun Violence

Bill Baird, My Hero and My Friend

Where Are the Voices for the ERA?

Wake Up to Your Media Landscape

Still Stewing About "Makers"

If I Could Convince You of Only One Thing, It Would Be This: Value Yourself

Part 3. A Kind of Hope

Let's Keep Going

Drawin' for Darwin

Reality Check

The Circle Way

Conflict of Interest

The Compassion Gap

A Kind of Hope

Come as You Are

Metaphors Work for Me

Renaissance 2.1

The Songs of Unseen Birds

Go Out and Be Awesome


Prophets vs. Profits

Part 4. We All Deserve Better

I Wouldn't Want to Be a Guy

Oh, *Now* We're Worried About the Fourth Amendment

Born to Worry

On Women's Equality Day, Let's Recommit to Passing the ERA

"Pro-Life" Porn Show Comes to Albuquerque

Breaking Wind

Men Also Deserve Better

I'm Sorry I Feel this Way: A Few Thoughts for the Days of Atonement

Most Cynical Ad Campaigns of 2015

If You Kill the Dog, I'm Closing the Book

Taking Another Look at Daniel Deronda

Women of America, This Is What Those Good Ol' Boys Think of Us

Conclusion: A Philosophy for Everyone

Appendix: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Books by Zelda Leah Gatuskin

About This Collection

As an introduction to myself and the short and medium-length essays contained in the four parts of this collection, I have included a rather lengthy text. It is adapted from a talk I delivered to the Humanist Society of New Mexico in 2009, and then in expanded form at the 2010 National Conference of the American Humanist Association. (HSNM is a chapter of the AHA.) It marks the inception of all of the writing that follows; as well, it was a significant factor in my being recruited to leadership roles with both groups.

"Art and Religion and Science and Reason" begins with some background about my Jewish upbringing, my life as a creative artist, how I became a publisher, and my serendipitous path to humanism, the Humanist Society of New Mexico and the American Humanist Association. My central thesis is that the Fine Arts have been neglected in contemporary humanist thought and activism in favor of the Sciences. Probing for the cause of this Science-Art imbalance while I prepared my case, I hit a nerve that has yet to be quieted -- the realization that the chauvinism of Science over Art is of a piece with the overall, all-pervasive, chauvinism that marks Western society. With that clarifying idea, my feminist zeal was reawakened. Fortunately, the AHA's Feminist Caucus (now called the Feminist Humanist Alliance) was there to receive me.

Not long after that 2010 conference and my discovery of the AHA's feminist adjunct, I was nominated for president of the Humanist Society of New Mexico. Since that tends not to be a contested position, I was duly elected to a two-year term; then my other arm was twisted, and I was elected to a second term. One of my reasons for deciding to accept, twice, such a demanding task was this: In order to improve the status of women, we need more women in more leadership positions. That means that when an opportunity comes around for a woman to lead, she ought to accept. So, I practiced what I preached, and the experience gave me the courage to keep on preaching.

The essays of Parts 1 through 4 are chronological within each section, and the parts themselves are roughly sequential or overlapping. The writing spans the period from January 2011 to mid-September 2016.

During the four years of my HSNM presidency, I wrote a column every month for our Newsletter. Parts 1 and 3 contain a selection of those essays. They were written to inform and motivate our members, and to engage newcomers with a practical, positive example or explanation of humanist philosophy.

At this same time, I was also increasing my involvement with the AHA, leading to my stepping in to fill a Feminist Caucus co-chair position from mid-2012 through mid-2014. This resulted in my creating a blog titled "The Tree" for my feminist-humanist essays and related media analysis. I have gathered the most significant of these into Parts 2 and 4 of this collection.

I continued the blog series into 2016; but as the U.S. presidential election neared, I found myself unwilling to contribute more words to the avalanche of opinion and analysis coming from every quarter. I had repeatedly offered strong critiques of our popular culture, media and politics. On the subject of women's rights, I felt there was nothing more to say-- Except, maybe, "I told you so," and no one wants to hear that.

Now, with the passage of time, I find that the writing is still relevant. The issues are certainly still close to my heart. In combining selections from my newsletter pieces with the blog posts, I notice that they are all spin-offs, one way or another, from my "Art and Religion and Science and Reason" presentation. In lending my voice to the feminist-humanist movement, I have continued to draw from my studies in visual art and media literacy to expose the underlying themes, motives and methods of our ubiquitous mass culture. My approach to the essays, as with the talk, has been that of an artist; my goal, to demonstrate how the Arts allow us to explore our complex and conflicted human nature -- and the necessity of doing so.

The new essay in this collection serves as my Conclusion. Whereas the title essay is an appeal for personal empowerment ("If I Could Convince You of Only One Thing, It Would Be This: Value Yourself"), the concluding essay, "A Philosophy for Everyone," offers a practical, positive approach to getting along better as a society.

Finally, I have included as an Appendix the complete text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was a topic of one of my early humanist essays.

All of the opinions expressed in this book are my own and not offered on behalf of either the Humanist Society of New Mexico or the American Humanist Association. I am deeply grateful to both groups for valuing my voice and entrusting me with responsibilities that required me to be more organized in my thinking and direct in my communications. I was honored to work among many caring, accomplished and influential people, from bona-fide celebrities, to community movers and shakers, to an array of dedicated volunteers quietly contributing their skills and energy to bettering our world. I am deeply appreciative of everyone who encouraged, challenged, educated and inspired me along the way. I hope this collection will inspire in turn.

* * *


A presentation to the National Conference of the American Humanist Association

June 5, 2010, San Jose, California

Art and Religion and Science and Reason

I am dedicating my lecture today to Harry Willson. Harry was my friend and mentor for twenty years. In 1989 he agreed to publish my first novel, The Time Dancer, and from that time forward I was effectively apprenticed to Harry. He taught me everything I know about publishing and much of what I know about writing. In 2006 we converted Amador Publishers, the press which Harry and his wife Adela Amador founded, into an LLC and I became co-owner and managing editor. The object was for me to effect a peaceful takeover of the company in order to keep our titles in print, provide an outlet for Harry's literary works, and let Harry and Adela retire.

Even before we came up with this plan, Harry had designated me as his literary executor. I remember the discussion well. "I'm adding a codicil to my will," Harry told me, "so that you will take charge of all my unpublished manuscripts." To which I replied, "You can will me anything you want. But no dying!" We had many good laughs about that over the years, especially while we were working on his book Myth and Mortality, and right up to the week before he died of cancer in March of this year.

Harry had been giving me little pushes toward the humanist community for a number of years. He'd ask me to come along to meetings with him when he spoke to our local Humanist Society, the Friendly Philosophers and other groups. I'd take care of selling books and get to meet his gang, which comprised many local activists, teachers and philosophers. When we reorganized the company, Harry convinced me that Amador Publishers should officially declare itself a humanist press. It fit with the mission Harry and Adela had stated from the beginning: "dedicated to peace, equality, respect for all cultures and preservation of the biosphere." There was no question that the local humanist community was our audience, consistently supporting Amador Publishers over the years and welcoming Harry's thoughtful and challenging writings.

The funny thing was that although I felt in agreement with the philosophy Harry and his friends espoused, I had never fully subscribed to the mantle of humanism. Now I was going to run a humanist press. How was I going to pull that off?

Our local Humanist Society president got wind of our plans and suggested I personally join the AHA and HSNM, now that I was going to be at the helm of Amador. I sent in my dues and began receiving lots of literature about humanism. I started attending our monthly lecture meetings regularly, not just when Harry spoke. I was impressed by the presentations from our local activists and philosophers, and I was touched by the kindness and caring of these people, who took me into their fold and bolstered me during a time of sadness and upheaval. So, all of you of the humanist community are part of the gift that Harry willed me, and I'm deeply grateful and committed to carrying on our work.

My first task has been to articulate for myself what makes me a humanist, and how to frame that in the context of running a humanist press. It has not been so easy, and I have often felt contrary along the way. All those years that I tagged along with Harry to the HSNM meetings, why did I not join? I agreed with much of what I heard, was heartened by the depth and intelligence of the discussion, and enjoyed being in the company of other freethinkers. So I needed to figure out what was off-putting to me, and if I might have something constructive to offer to correct that, versus just staying away.

This talk is the result of that inquiry. It starts with Saturday mornings, which is when our chapter meetings are held -- because my first task was to take care of the knee-jerk stuff. Specifically, I have this ingrained resistance to popping out of bed on Saturday morning to attend "meetings" of any kind, and I bet some of you can guess why.


In childhood, Saturday mornings meant going to shul -- synagogue. Up until the age of nine, that entailed a rather long car ride to get to the more orthodox temple -- a perplexing proposition given that driving at all on the Sabbath was forbidden, like a variety of other things, some of which we did and some of which we didn't.

Like it or not, on Saturday mornings my sisters and I were roused from bed and put into uncomfortable clothes, and made to look nice and behave nicely and mingle with other kids like us, Jewish kids. Then we did it all again on Sunday morning for classes and activities which were not held on the Sabbath because of the proscription against writing or "creating" of any sort.

On Sundays, Hebrew lessons and religious instruction were followed by choral rehearsal and Israeli folk dancing. There was a chorus and a dance group for each of several age brackets -- grade and middle schoolers, teens and adults. In addition, the numerous Jewish holidays and festivals we observed created opportunities for a variety of arts and crafts projects, theater skits and pageantry. This was my early experience with the arts.

Looking back on it, I did have fun and find fellowship at shul and -- especially with regard to the folk dancing -- I was introduced to activities which to this day provide some of my greatest pleasures. The problem was that even the creative outlets were offered within narrow parameters. Subject matter was always along cultural or religious lines: We only did Israeli dances. When we had arts and crafts, we made Seder plates and Hanukah menorahs. We sang Hebrew songs, acted out the Purim play, and put on cabarets to raise money for Israel. But on the Sabbath, the day of itchy dresses, after a long week of coloring within the lines at public school, God commanded that I shouldn't be allowed to create at all!

I didn't think of myself as much of a threat to God's creative powers. I sort of thought that God, being such a good creator, and having created me with the peculiar collection of traits I possessed, might actually approve of me making use of them. Besides, we were allowed to read and think on the Sabbath, to nap and dream. Even as a child, I understood that although activities of the hands could be curtailed, the ultimate creative process could go on, might even be unstoppable. My mind had a mind of its own.

Remembering my early years, certain events stand out as having accelerated my growing self-awareness and awareness of the world. My aunt came to live with us following an illness. The stylish, self-sufficient operator for Western Union, with the gracious southern drawl -- a model of the liberated woman of her times -- had become a reclusive shadow of her former self. It was not a good situation, and the grown-ups worked it out so that she moved to her own apartment. Strangely, it was not her moving in that rocked my world, it was her moving out. The room that my aunt had vacated became mine. For the first time in my life I was not sharing with an older or younger sister. Privacy. A place to think my own thoughts.

"Zelda, you come down here right now!"

But just because I got to be alone sometimes didn't mean I would be left alone. There was still school, Hebrew school two afternoons a week, shul on Saturdays, Sunday school, family activities. It was downright oppressive. I was rejecting religion as the basis for actions and self-definition, and I was rejecting the secular gods at the same time. I noted that my father got up before dawn, shaved, dressed in a suit and tie and rode off to work, not to be seen again until late afternoon. Sometimes he worked in the evenings at a card table with his charts and slide-rule. Mom wanted her girls to be educated and have careers. I was supposed to want to be something. In order to make a living.


"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

This question plagued me. To get everyone off my back, I declared that I would be an artist. A poet, a painter -- the medium was beside the point. Now, if the question was about earning a living, that was an entirely different matter. I would be an artist because I was an artist -- I felt I could be nothing else. When the time came to work, then I would find a job. That wouldn't be a problem, because artists can do many things.

That was it. That was my plan at age nine.

As I described, my introduction to the arts began in the context of Jewish culture. Fortunately there were good arts programs in the public schools I attended, and I was able to pursue visual art, music and theater in a secular setting as well. Further, my father's mother was an artist and craftswoman, and she mentored me from an early age. And finally, I benefited from proximity to the Arden community of north Delaware. Being welcomed into this diverse secular, artistic community was empowering and liberating. It was not a repudiation of the Jewish community and their activities. It felt like a natural progression -- to start within nurturing cultural confines, and "grow up" socially and artistically into a widening and more diverse circle.

Arden was founded in 1900 by sculptor Frank Stephens and architect Will Price. Based on the economic philosophy of Henry George, Arden was organized as a single-tax, arts and crafts, garden-city, in which the land is held in common. Originally known as a summer home for artists, musicians and theater people, Arden continues to offer arts activities all year long at the Guild Hall, there on the village green.

Through the Arden Folk Guild, my sisters and I added international folk dancing to our Israeli dance. And I participated in the Arden Theater Guild.

My plan, such as it was, carried me through high school, where I took every arts class I could, and gave up on math and science as soon as they would let me.


I went up to Emerson College in Boston as a dramatic arts major, then switched over to visual arts. I stopped out a year to take studio classes at art schools in the area. But something was lacking in all of this theory and practice of art: the science.

I needed to know why. Why do we see what we see the way we see it? How do I know that what I see is what you see? How much control do I really have over what you see? Where do the principles of visual design come from? Without knowing why, art would be just another set of rules to take on faith.

I returned to Emerson to pursue an interdisciplinary course of study between the Fine Arts and Education departments, and received one of the first degrees given there in Visual Communications. My fine arts courses were primarily in art history and the new visual literacy curriculum. My education classes dealt mainly with cognitive development and perception -- work that has evolved into the field of cognitive science. This was what I had been seeking -- the objective basis for the fundamentals of design that have been repeatedly expressed throughout human history right up to today. Our creative output may have become digital, disembodied, but our aesthetics are still rooted in physics and physiology.

While in Boston, I met Frank -- now my husband -- then a student at the Boston Conservatory. Frank had experienced a similar progression from sacred to secular in his life as a musician, starting with church choir, of course. Then his dad took him to the barbershoppers group. Adolescence brought folk music, rock n roll, and all the popular styles Frank chose to sample at his own discretion.

But when Frank and I ended up at our respective colleges in serious pursuit of our art forms, what do you know? We found ourselves thrown back to that old time religion, the primary context in which the art of past times had been created, or at least preserved.


From the earliest jot on a cave wall to the soaring spires of Gothic cathedrals, art is associated with the spiritual needs of the human psyche. Whether an expression of awe, an attempt at direct communication with the divine, or a depiction of a significant insight or observation, Art, by definition, stands apart from the mundane tasks of physical survival. As civilizations advanced and humans became more prolific with their symbol making, we find writing and images of an obviously functional nature: accounts, biographies, laws and directives. But to us, today, it still looks like art. For these artifacts reveal sophisticated aesthetic tastes and skilled methods of production: form and function.

The craftsmen and innovators of past centuries did their work in the context of sacred art because they were supported by church commissions. These are the works we study in art history. The Jews do not have a long tradition of representational art, since the making of idols is forbidden. And any art they did create, as with the art of other minorities and women, has been subsumed by the dominant Christian culture of its day, and by the mainly Christian arbiters of culture who until recently took charge of documenting and critiquing such things. Therefore, like every student of Western art, I am steeped in the iconography of the church. Jesus, Mary and the Apostles are my old college buddies.

In art and music history class, we study the arts on their march forward to the present. We see the sacred element fall away and secular interests and aesthetics begin to predominate. There will always be religious art, but high art outgrew the old contexts.

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