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.
My grandma is 94 years old. She’s in perfect health and sharp as a tack, but every time we get off the phone she says goodbye to me as if we might never speak again. She says, “Oh, honeygirl, just pursue all the things you love and that make you happy. You have such a long and exciting life ahead of you. I wish you so much happiness and good health. I love you so much.”
At first this made me sad, because it reminded me of her mortality, which is hard for me to face because I can’t imgine my life without her. But now I wish that all of my conversations ended this way, with a proclamation of love and well wishes and an acknowledgement of how fleeting this all is.
I have a penchant for doing projects that are out of my comfort zone. If I have an idea that keeps me up at night, I am compelled to bring it to fruition regardless of whether or not I have the skills or the tools to pull it off. I often find myself saying things to friends like, “I’m going to weld a steel sculpture, and I’m not going to let the fact that I’ve never worked with steel or that I don’t know how to weld get in the way.” And, bless their hearts, they never make me feel like I have lost my mind.
Since I rarely know how to accomplish what I’m setting out to do, my projects always involve a lot of research and consulting with people who are experts in the materials/processes that I will be using. Invariably, I find myself on the phone with a timeclock puncher at a materials retailer/distributor/manufacturer who tells me that what I’m trying to do is impossible. And this makes me insane, because there’s a difference between something being difficult and it being impossible. And the difference is scrappiness, creativity, and vision.
So I pick up the phone and call a fellow artist, an out-of-the-box thinker, who understands that everything is impossible until someone figures out a way to do it. (And that someone might as well be one of us.)
I had my studio smock embroidered as a fuck you love note to all the people who have ever told me that something couldn’t be done. DBNI Industries. Difficult But Not Impossible.
These are my boots. I wear them everyday, even to formal events. I own two of the exact same pair in case something happens to one of them. Some folks call them combat boots, which feels right a lot of the time because being an artist is like a war: blood, sweat, rejection, heartbreak, repeat.
When I went to the army surplus store to buy the second pair, I discovered that they are, in fact, made for paratroopers. They’re called Jump Boots. This reminded me of a favorite quote by Ray Bradbury, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”
People don’t realize how much cliff jumping is involved in the creative life, whether you’re a writer, a visual artist, a performing artist, an entrepreneur, or an innovator. We spend many of our waking hours thinking What the hell am I doing? I must be insane. But we hold our breath, close our eyes, and jump off that creative cliff, hoping the wings come before the splat. And they do, they always do. Mine are made out of cardboard, safety orange duct tape, and the love of my friends and family.And it really helps to have the right boots for jumping.
New images for The Mean Something Project have just arrived from Spain, which means it is now on three continents!
My newest sculpture, Born of Failure, will be featured in a group show at Place Gallery in Portland, OR. Here’s the press release and info about the opening:
I led my first bronze pour this weekend, which was an unforgettable experience. I’m the moon man on the left barking orders at everyone, which is the job of the pour captain. (But you can just call me Captain.) On the right is the lovely and obscenely talented artist Crystal Schenk.
Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts, has helped me to understand something I have struggled with my entire life but could never make sense of. I am someone who requires oceans of time alone, who has an inner life that is reliably richer than her outer life, who can go days without talking to anyone, who wants to be invited to the party but doesn’t usually want to go. I bristle, though, whenever anyone suggests the term “introvert” to describe me because I am also known to go around hugging strangers, and I pride myself on being able to have an interesting conversation with virtually anyone. Even if that person is a republican.
Cain explains that introverts are not necessarily shy, remote, socially awkward people. Introversion can refer to the way a person processes stimulus, which is to say that an introvert is someone who works better alone, who thrives in solitude, who craves peace and quiet. Someone like me.
She gives examples of famous introverts like Rosa Parks (above), as well as Gandhi and Lincoln (below), all of whom were able to channel their introversion into a revolution.
Cain’s TED talk:
I have loved cemeteries since I was in college. My freshman year, I stumbled upon a graveyard down a steep wooded path from my dormitory. It had lush rolling hills that went on for days, dotted with graves from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Oh the headstones! Some were lovingly tended, others decayed and crumbling. Some were set demurely into the side of hill, others, like granite obelisks, loomed overhead. There were mausoleums with stained glass windows, statues of animals rearing up on their hind legs in defiance of death, stone monuments larger than some of the apartments I’ve lived in. It was over the top. I would often bring a blanket and a picnic and spend the day studying, always parking myself in front James Brown’s grave. It wasn’t the real James Brown, but I thought it was hilarious. Laying out my blanket, I would say, “Hi, James. It’s nice to see you again,” as if he had been waiting for me between visits. Well, I suppose he had.
After I graduated, I thought of that cemetery often, unable to find another that was as peaceful, as aesthetically and architecturally marvelous, as filled with such unusual tributes, as worthy of a picnic. I pined for that place. I even thought I might want to be buried there.
A few months ago, J told me about a cemetery he’d found on a bike ride one afternoon. He said it was picnic caliber. I told him that that was impossible, that there was no hope, that I’d been ruined for all other graveyards. He took me anyway, assuring me I wouldn’t be disappointed.
And I was not. Please find, above and below, some photos from our visit. Mind you, dear reader, these are just the Bs.
Before I started writing a book, I wrote magazine features and essays, nothing more than 1800 words. Assignments came and went, and when they were gone I never thought of them again.
I recently finished writing a book that was five years in the making. Through the process I discovered what it is to have something that ties everything in life together. I have come to understand what it means to have a deep abiding faith.
It means sitting down in front of your computer, your typewriter, your notepad, every morning and letting go. It means sitting down on days when you are tired and don’t feel like it, days you wish you had decided to write a book about something else. Something easier. It means sitting down to brussel sprouts for the four hundredth time in a row. Some days it means coming up with nothing at all, or coming up with total crap. Or having the most creatively victorious day of your life. But it means sitting down either way. Either way you keep your appointment with yourself, with the writing. You recommit every morning to finding out more about the world, even if it is only the part of the world you can discover while rewriting a single sentence. You discover the pleasure in the simplest things, in how the fate of the universe can hinge on a comma. Slowly you begin to put faith not in yourself, but in the process of writing. You begin to see how the writing is an extension of the force that runs through and around and over everything. You begin to see that writing, like the most important decisions in your life, will come to you if you let it. Mostly, it doesn’t need your help. It needs you to sit down every morning and be a witness. It needs you to understand that the victories and the crap are all part of it, that if you have faith, if you show up everyday, everything you need to know will be revealed to you.
Michelle Williams, the actress for whom I have a boundless admiration, was photographed recently in Portland walking her dog. Something about knowing that she was within the city limits, that we were breathing the same air, gave me an inexplicable thrill.
This is a woman who name-drops poets during press junkets. A woman who often talks about the pieces of literature that helped her prepare for a particular role. A woman who, when asked about her nonexistent romantic life, said, “I’m not lonely, and I think that has a lot to do with what’s on my bedside table rather than what’s in my bed.” A woman who carries clutches made to look like books (Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye and Miller’s The Misfits) on the red carpet. She is a writer’s actor.
J and I went out the evening after the photos were published online, and I kept hoping we would bump into her. Not because I wanted an autograph or a photo, or even to talk to her; I like her too much to accost her in public. I just wanted to slip her a piece of paper with the names of my favorite books on it.
I want her to read the essay “Liv Ullman in Spring” by Andre Dubus, the one I read to J in bed, which caused us both to drip tears onto our pillow. I want her to read The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, the only book I have ever finished and immediately started reading again from the beginning. I want her to read The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski, a book so beautiful it can only be read a few pages at a time, because any more would be too much to bear.
I want her to love the same books I love, to hold them under her sweater in the rain. I want her to idolize the same authors I do, to imagine hosting dinner parties for them at her house, as I imagine doing the same at mine. Somehow, this seems as good as knowing her. Maybe better.
If you type my name into Google and do an image search, you will find something amazing. There is not a single photo of me. But mixed among the pictures of Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Lawrence and Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Garner are pictures of: my hero Mr. Rogers, the typewriters I have in my house, a card I made for my friend while she was going through chemo that says “Sorry about the diarrhea” written in calligraphy, my favorite band of all time, some flowers I picked from my garden, and two sculptures I made.
So, you don’t get to see what I look like, but Google does give you an image search of my soul.
We don’t have a TV at home, so the only chance I have to watch television is when I’m staying in a hotel, as I am now. Technically, though, you can’t call it watching TV, because all I do is flip through the channels in an endless loop, thinking I’ll find something worth stopping for, but never landing on anything.
Mostly, I lay in bed with the remote, feeling sad about the things we are being told to care about, like how important it is to be the first in line to get the new iPhone or to have at least two designer dresses for your wedding day or to have a tan all year round.
I miss the Cleavers and the Cosbys and Misters Wizard and Rogers. I miss living at a time when there was an understanding of the profound influence television had on our culture, that it could be used to make us smarter and more thoughtful. I miss living at a time when cooking shows were about making delicious food and not about making the people who are trying to make the delicious food feel like crap about themselves.
I am not of the mind that we should give viewers what they want, because apparently what viewers want are shows about vapid thoughtless people getting in trouble and screaming at each other, or vapid thoughtless people trying to hide how miserable they are by building 40,000 square foot houses.
I wish more people like Oprah would strike out and create meaningful programming, I wish there were more shows like Glee that took on important social issues. I wish, at the very least, that one of the major networks started showing reruns of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Until then, I say kill your television.