I am working on a sculpture about grief, as it relates to the ritual of keriah. My dad and aunt took part in the ritual at their mother’s funeral earlier this year, and they’ve agreed to help me with the piece. This weekend, I made the first mold for the sculpture, of my father’s torso. There’s a lot more to come, but I was excited to share some progress photos.
Video by my mom. Modeling of 80s fashions by my dad.
For six months in 1996, I lived in Strasbourg, France where I frequented a bar called the Georges Sand. It was owned and run by a craggy woman who smoked a pipe and kept a parrot behind the bar. There were perhaps 12 seats in the whole place, and my friends and I would go there to study, drink beer, and to banish with hot chocolate the chill that the cold European winter had forced into our bones.
Chocolat chaud is not like the hot chocolate of my youth, which came out of a machine syrupy sweet and was topped with whipped cream from a spray can. The French version is bitter and, to my tongue, requires extra sugar. At least twice a week for six months, I sat at the bar and ordered a chocolat chaud. And, after it would come, I would ask for extra sugar please, which the surly bar matron, whose approval I desperately sought, gruffly delivered on a separate plate in the form of two individually wrapped rectangles. We went through this charade for months and, every time I ordered chocolat chaud I knew that she knew that I wanted extra sugar, but that she was not going to bring it to me unless I asked for it.
A few days before returning to the States, I put in my last order for chocolate chaud and it arrived on a saucer with two individually wrapped sugars. I remember turning to my friend who was sitting next to me and we looked at each other with eyes wide as if to say Holy shit, this is the moment that we’ve been accepted. I almost changed my plane ticket so that I could stay longer.
* * *
Since my marriage ended ten months ago, there have been many days when I felt like I might disappear. Poof. My sense of self, my confidence, and my understanding of my place in the world have been so diminished that it seemed plausible I could simply evaporate.
During this period, strangely and coincidently (or perhaps not), every time I got into the passenger seat of my parents’ car, the dashboard display has read Passenger Air Bag OFF.
For ten months, the car has not recognized that I exist. We’ve tried (and videotaped) countless experiments where I sit in the car, my dad turns it on, the air bag light goes OFF, I get out of the car, my mother sits in the passenger seat, the air bag light goes ON, we switch seats again, and it’s back to OFF. I’ve tried holding myself above the seat and then crashing down with a thud to get it to register me. I’ve tried holding grocery bags in my lap to add weight. It makes no difference. It’s always OFF. It does not acknowledge me sitting there.
Two weeks ago, something started to shift in me. The weight over my heart began to lift, just enough to take a full breath. The chance of spontaneous evaporation went down to 2%. I felt myself taking up space in the world again, my feet underneath me.
Last weekend I visited my folks. Strangely and coincidently (or perhaps not), when I got in the front seat of their car, this happened:
This is a tweet I wrote during the four-day-long #YesAllWomen movement that began in response to the Elliot Roger shootings. The idea was to share personal stories, experiences, and insights that might bring to light the fundamental problems we have in a society where one in four women are sexually assaulted.
I was profoundly moved by the outpouring, riveted to my computer. Since then, I’ve often wondered if we accomplished anything, if anyone heard us. This morning, I woke to inspiring proof in my inbox that someone did:
New ongoing series. Art as an act of self rescue.
I used to have a personal Facebook page. This was years ago. I had lots of friends, way more than I had in real life. Every day I looked through photos of weddings and vacations and new babies and perfectly plated gourmet meals.
It took me a while to realize that I felt crappy whenever I visited the website. It took me even more time to figure out why. Here is the conclusion I came to: social media acts not as a reflection of our lives but as an advertisement for them: look at how happy we all are all of the time! My real life couldn’t possibly measure up to the glossy versions of everyone else’s that I was seeing.
We have powerful technologies that have the potential to truly connect us but, instead, we hold each other at arms length with the impenetrable veneer of perfection that we slap onto everything. I know someone who was depressed to the point of being suicidal, but if you’d have looked at his Facebook timeline during that period, you would have gotten the impression that he was having the time of his life.
I’m not really interested in perfect. I’m interested in the hills and the valleys, the triumphs and the failures, the fuck ups and the fantasies.
Social media, Facebook especially, is not set up for this. Imagine someone sharing a post or a status update about the fact that they’re having a rough time, struggling emotionally or financially or in whatever way, and then showing your solidarity by “liking” it. I’ve seen people “like” posts about war and murder and famine and suffering and it makes me wish we had another way to communicate with each other.
I’m writing this to ask you to do one thing: post a picture of your kid throwing a tantrum or of a dinner you burned, write a status update about your lousy vacation, leave a comment for someone that shares something about your inner life. Let’s stage a social revolution. Let’s use technology to celebrate how imperfect and human we all are.
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Original submission photo, which some of you may remember:
Introducing, at four days old, the youngest participant in The Mean Something Project. Welcome to the great wide world:
Those who know me well know that I am a sentimentalist. There are only two things in my house that I would risk my life to save from a fire. The first is the baby blanket in which I was brought home from the hospital. It’s slightly worse for wear after almost 38 years, but it’s been with me as long as I’ve been alive and the only other things I can say that about are my parents, and they’re not things, they’re people, Jeez.
My other most precious possession is a box that contains every letter anyone has ever sent to me. I can say, without hyperbole, that if given a choice between receiving a handwritten letter in the mail from someone I love or a Porsche, I would choose the letter.
Unlike an email or a note or a voicemail or a text message or an IM or a DM or a BS or a post it, a letter isn’t something you can dash off. It doesn’t contain emoticons or abbreviations or single numbers standing in 4 entire words. A letter means that someone sat down and thought about you, really thought about you, starting from when they selected the paper or the card and lasting all the way through addressing and stamping the envelope. If there is a purer act of caring, I can’t think of it.
I should be clear: a letter doesn’t always have to be a letter. It can be something else. In the past month at my artist residency, I have received some incredible letters and some equally incredible non-letters. For example, my favorite little boy (and his mom, who is also one of my favorites) sent me homemade shrinky dinks:
My best friend of 32 years sent me a card that was completely blank inside except for this:
which is the number of steps that it took to get from my house to her house when we were little girls living on the same street.
My mother sends me mail about three times a week–letters, books, notes of encouragement–direct line from her heart to mine. In one of the packages was this:
She had stopped into a tile store for fun, just to run her fingers and eyes over all the new designs, and picked one she thought I would like. She sent it to me so that I would have something beautiful to rest my daily cup of tea on.
Perhaps I am a simpler sort than most, but I’m pretty sure I could survive on mail alone.
Dreams Are Not Negotiable
Dreams. Our birthright.
They drive us, move us.
They fire us from the depths of our souls to create
They push you to go further.
And through our dreams, we can even change reality.
But know this my friend. Your dreams will be tested.
For the naysayers, the doubt instillers
and the fear-mongers await you at every corner.
Ready to push you down, to hold you back,
and no sooner as you get back to your feet
they will force you into a corner
silence your voice
and into your ear they will whisper…
“You’re weak. You can’t do it”
So hold your ground.
Don’t demote your dreams to the past tense. Fight!
Fight for what is rightfully yours.
For you are the architect of your future,
and your dreams are the blueprint.
But fight not with bow and arrow, and sword and shield.
Fight the only way you know how,
fight with love.
For there is no power greater
and it is love that makes us who we are.
So should our eyes meet amidst the chaos and confusion…
Allow yourself to shine.
For when I see you smile from beyond the ruins,
you give me permission to believe that I too can dream.
So be my muse and I will be your performer,
Let’s dance across the rubble
Play music in the silence
Create art from beyond the void
And together we will be liberated of our fears.
Your dreams are not to be trifled with.
It is a contract you have signed
and it is not negotiable.
To dream is your birthright.
Live. Love. Dream.
(I believe the author is Adam Zain, but I am having trouble confirming this.)
A new image was just added to The Mean Something Project. I receive photos from all over the world, and each one inspires me. Each one represents a life, a story, a wish. Each one reminds me that we’re all connected by the same universal desire.
I’m so moved by the fact that people have taken this idea and made it their own. When I received the latest photo, it brought me to tears.
For more info about the project or to participate, click here.
My grandfather was an art restorer who, in his dealings with the underbelly of the art world, came to the conclusion that art dealers were crooks because of the way they took advantage of artists. In the thirties, he and a business partner started an art gallery with an eye towards doing things differently. Instead of taking 40 or 50% commission from whatever they sold, they decided on a business model that was popular in Europe at the time, which was much more artist-friendly.
The two of them selected artists whose work they admired and wanted to support. They gave those artists a monthly salary, enough for them to pay their rents, their utilities, to buy art supplies, and to have a life. Whatever the artist produced during that period of time belonged to the gallery. If nothing sold, it was there loss. If everything sold, it was a boon. Either way, the artist knew where his next meal was coming from, he knew that he would be able to survive, he knew that he could continue making art.
As an artist now myself, I see the value in providing a stable and sustained income for artists instead of a grant here and a grant there (don’t get me wrong, grants are wonderful things) with a lot of scrambling in between. Inspired by my grandpa, one of my dreams for a long time has been to establish a foundation that offers selected artists sustained income.
The other day, I was thinking about how fantastic it would be to help artists earn a living wage, and it occurred to me that in the past week I had watched three pirated movies. It also occurred to me that all of the books on my nightstand and all of the CDs downloaded onto my computer were from the library. In all of my altruistic glory, I wasn’t paying a cent to any of my favorite artists whose work fills up and fills out my life.
I know times are tight for many of us. Getting books and music from the library is great; I’m sure I will never stop doing it. But I made myself a promise that when I can afford it, I will buy a book I love from a writer I love and I will buy the book new from an independent book store. Same goes for albums.
We don’t have to have millions of dollars to create foundations to help artists. We don’t even have to have thousands of dollars to buy an artist’s work. What we can do is to try to be patrons of the arts in whatever small ways we can. During months when we can’t afford a sculpture, a ticket to the ballet, or a new hardcover, we can always afford to send an email to an artist whose work we saw online or at a gallery and tell them how much it meant to us. Speaking from experience, sometimes what an artist needs most to sustain herself isn’t money but encouragement. Artists make art to connect with other people, so we can support artists by telling them that their work has connected with us, that it has found a home in our hearts, and made a difference in our lives.
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My computer, like the Wicked Witch of the East, is not just merely dead, it’s really most sincerely dead. It happened four days ago, and let’s just say in involved a Tupperware container with a hole in it, and leave it at that. Aside from the frustration of being at an artist residency without my computer (I am typing this post on a 7-yr-old loaner PC that moves at the speed of dial-up), I was surprised that the strongest response to the death of my Mac was a feeling of loneliness.
Until it expired, I hadn’t realized how much that 13″ white rectangle had kept me company. In the months following my separation from my husband, I had a movie streaming on it almost continuously. In the foreground, in the background, it mattered not. I couldn’t fall asleep without a film or a television show playing on the pillow next to me. It was an unconscious behavior; I was trying to give my brain moments of respite from the grief. But it didn’t work. I couldn’t focus on the stories, I didn’t have the mental faculties to follow plot. Mostly, I laid in bed and let the voices and the laughter and the sadness of other people wash over me, and I found comfort with them in my otherwise empty house.
It’s been seven months now, and I haven’t given up these behaviors, my computer having become a kind of security blanket. I drag it from room to room like Linus, never without it. When it died last week, I was agitated. How would I write? How would I connect to the outside world? How would I fall asleep? Here are the answers to those questions:
1. With a pen and paper (idiot).
2. By walking outside and knocking on the door of the director’s house and having dinner with her. By calling my family. By writing letters to friends.
3. By looking at the books on the bookshelves, which I had ignored for the first two weeks because I had been too busy staring into my computer screen, and reading myself to sleep.
I also went for a walk in the rain, cooked myself a glorious stew, listened to the birds outside my window and watched the sky turn from blue to purple to black. I am growing more comfortable with the silence again, with the absence, which feels more like the plane of possibility than ever before.
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This is Violet. She’s my favorite goat at The Rensing Center. I like everything about her, down to her brown knees that make it look like she just stole third base. She’s tiny for her age because her former owners didn’t feed her well. To compensate, her personality grew to five times the normal size. I was told by her current caretaker, who gives her lots of food and love, that her favorite snack is Animal Crackers. Not a joke. I didn’t have any of those, so I tried something new today. (I also learned that I should hold my camera horizontally when I take a video.)
This afternoon I went down to the waterfall to read a book and talk to a friend back home (dear reader, please do as I say and not as I do: don’t ever bring your cell phone into the woods; it is a most disgusting thing to do.) On my walk back to my cottage, I saw a dun-colored rustling on the ground, which turned out to be a huge moth being attacked by a tiny ant. The moth was dying, it’s wings like wet leaves, but it was trying, unsuccessfully, to fend off the ant with every ounce of pluck it had. It was like watching a wounded lion being taken down by a chihuahua.
I knew the moth was not long for this world, but I wanted him to have some peace in his final moments, so I started shouting at the ant. “Leave him alone! Get off of him! Stop being such an asshole!” The ant did not speak English, so firmer measures were called for. I picked up the moth, hoping the ant, now hanging by its mouth from the moth’s wing, would fall off, but it was not to be. The moth was writhing in what I perceived to be pain, so I picked up a stick and started poking at the ant, now simultaneously engaged in a duel with it and with myself over whether or not it was ethical to kill the ant to protect the dying moth. Mercifully, I was able to separate them without any fatalities.
I put a stiff leaf under the moth to get him off the forest floor and away from pirates, but he wouldn’t stay on it. He was agitated and moving around just, it seemed, for the sake of expressing whatever life was left in him. He kept plummeting to the ground and I kept picking him up, over and over again. I found a piece of bark, the most perfect moth hammock imaginable, thinking he would feel safe enough in its concave hull to rest and let go. But he wasn’t quite ready to surrender. I gave him a gentle talking-to about what might be in his best interest and, eventually, he settled onto the edge of the bark, still and quiet.
I named him Owen so that he would know what it was like to mean something to someone before he died, which he did in the cool peaceful shade of my porch in the glorious Pickens afternoon.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the word artist lately. I’ve always had trouble with it because of all the people it leaves out. Historically, the word has been used to describe visual and performing artists only: painters, sculptors, dancers, actors, filmmakers, people who make things that other people describe by using words like dichotomy and compositional elements. It excludes writers, architects, physicists, philosophers, and the guy I knew in college who wrote mathematical theorems like poetry.
Growing up, I had a mailman named Joe. He drove one of the old postal trucks without doors. Every afternoon, he would pull into our driveway and put our mail in the mailbox and give me a kiss on the cheek. On Halloween, he left candy along with the mail. When I was a senior in high school waiting to hear back from colleges, he once called the house at 7:00am and said, “Hi, dear, I just got to the post office and I wanted to let you know that there’s an envelope from __________ University here. And it’s thick. I didn’t want you to have to go through the whole day without knowing.” When I was off at __________ University, whenever my parents sent me a letter or a care package, there was always a handwritten note from Joe somewhere on the envelope or the box, wishing me well at school, letting me know that I was missed. I am told that on his last day of work before retiring, many years after I had moved away, his route was lined with people holding handmade signs for him.
He used his job as a way to bring meaning and a sense of connection into the lives of others. This is what an artist does.
Being an artist has everything to do with the way you move through the world, the lens through which you see things. If you pay attention to detail, to the connections between seemingly unrelated things, if you care about symbolism, if you search for a way to express meaning and beauty in your life through small or large actions, regardless of whether you do it by painting a still life or writing mathematical proofs or by delivering mail, you are an artist.
Welcome to the club.
I’ve arrived in Pickens, SC for a five-week artist residency at The Rensing Center. My first morning here, I woke to blue skies, 70 degree weather, and birdsong. Since then, lots more where that came from. I’d forgotten what it feels like to have sunlight fall on every part of me.
The center is located on 28 acres in the foothills of The Blue Ridge Mountains. Here’s a little taste of the place:
In the late nineties, just out of college, I worked as a copywriter in NYC. It was a heady time, being at an interactive ad agency during the flush of the dot com era. If you had a degree in advertising and you knew how to use a computer, people threw money at you. It didn’t matter if you were talented, it didn’t even matter if you worked hard. Money came through the cracks in the walls.
Twice during my first few months in New York, the allure of time and place and the hubris of youth overtook me, and I remember walking down the street thinking I was pretty hot shit. Both times, at the exact moment I was thinking to myself how cool I was, I tripped and fell on my face in the middle of the sidewalk.
It only happened twice, because I got the message.
Last autumn, I lost the most important person in my life, and I thought the grief would kill me. For the first three months, I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t eat or take care of myself. Hell, I couldn’t remember what I was doing here. My family and friends circled the wagons. They got me out of bed, took me for walks, cooked meals for me, brought art books over to my house that they knew would inspire me, sent me care packages, let me cry on their shoulders and couches and in their beds while they ran their fingers through my hair.
At around the five month mark, I started to reconnect to the purpose of my life again. I remembered how much I cared about making art and engaging in the world and seeking out beauty and wonder. Enthusiasm returned to me and, slowly, in tiny increments, I began to feel like myself again.
One day a couple weeks ago, which would’ve put me around the six month mark, I looked around and thought, Life is good. I’m fine. I’ve got this whole grief thing handled. The next day, I couldn’t get out of bed. And I couldn’t get out of bed the day after that or the week after that.
That, dear reader, is why you haven’t heard from me in a little while. I tripped and fell on my face again, having gotten too cocky with my circumstances, and since then I’ve been brushing myself off, picking the pebbles out of my ears.
I’d been thinking of grief as something to get to the end of, to finish up, to tackle. I’d been working hard to look it in the eye, and I thought that by doing so I could shorten its duration. But that’s not how it works. Something is lost, and it will always be lost. The only thing to do is to hold on for the ride. I have no idea where it’s going to take me, but I know that it wont be a straight line from here to there and that there’s bound to be some driving in reverse. All I can hope for is some good scenery along the way.
In my younger days, I had a firm rule that I wouldn’t be friends with anyone who didn’t like Paul Simon. To me, it was akin to not liking the ocean or the sky or Nutella. Anyone who didn’t, was suspect. I’ve since loosened the parameters of that rule slightly, but in the deepest part of my heart, I still love diehard Paul Simon fans more than I love other people.
Here, from me to you, one of the simplest and most beautiful love songs ever written:
I hear the drizzle of the rain
Like a memory it falls
Soft and warm continuing
Tapping on my roof and walls.
And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies.
My mind’s distracted and diffused
My thoughts are many miles away
They lie with you when you’re asleep
And kiss you when you start your day.
And as a song I was writing is left undone
I don’t know why I spend my time
Writing songs I can’t believe
With words that tear and strain to rhyme.
And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.
And as I watch the drops of rain
Weave their weary paths and die
I know that I am like the rain
There but for the grace of you go I.
In November, I attended my paternal grandma’s funeral (not the one mentioned in the post below), which was led by an orthodox rabbi. Before the service started, the rabbi assembled close family into the chapel’s anteroom. In Judaism, there are specific customs surrounding death and grieving. Only seven people are considered mourners: the mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, or spouse of the deceased. So, of our entire family, only my father and my aunt, for the sake of ritual, were considered to be in mourning.
The rabbi, holding a small blade, approached my father. He recited a prayer for my father to repeat, and then the rabbi inserted the blade into my father’s jacket below his collarbone, making a small incision. He instructed my father to put his fingers in the opening and to rip it another four inches, until it extended down over his heart. The sound was overwhelming, like someone tearing a burlap sack in half.
This is the ritual of keriah (pronounced Ke-REE-ah), a way to make sacred and to externalize the act of grieving. It is done to show that something has been ripped away from the wearer of the garment, his or her heart broken. Everyone who sees it, knows. The rent garment is worn for the seven-day shiva period, but can be kept on for an entire year until the end of the mourning period. Two months before the funeral, my marriage of ten years ended. I was deep in grief, but there was no law or custom that recognized me as a mourner. The ritual of keriah was one of the most profound things I have ever witnessed, and I longed to bring that kind of meaning to my pain and to have an external sign of it.
For months, I was taken aback whenever a stranger casually asked me, “How ya doin?” Every time it happened, I thought to myself What do you mean how am I doing? Can’t you see the giant hole through my chest? Isn’t it obvious that I am the walking dead, waiting to bleed out from a broken heart?
I thought about ripping one of my jackets, to perform my own personal keriah, but since I live in the secular world, I didn’t think anyone would get it. I imagined people coming up to me, “Excuse me, do you know that your coat has a hole in it?”
Recently, I came across a broken heart wristband from my punker days. I opened it up and pinned it to the sleeve of my jacket, where it will remain for the rest of the year or until I don’t need it anymore.