I had a list of things to do, and enough time to do them. And I found a great parking space at each destination.
I made a fruitful sales call today. And a bruised professional relationship is back on track, thanks to a good friend’s intervention.
I bought a fresh turkey for our Thanksgiving dinner. Our oven is on the blink, but a good friend is lending us the use of theirs while they’re away.
I have a workshop to run tonight. It’s going very, very well, and I’m looking forward to what people will come up with.
I didn’t get too annoyed with people at the very crowded grocery store, and I don’t think I did anything too annoying to others. Except, maybe, the woman into whose grocery cart I plopped my turkey, thinking it was my cart. (She laughed, though, so I think I’m good.)
Someone asked me how my family is, and I could truthfully say, “We are all okay!”.
I was just beginning to get annoyed with Jon, but took a break, eating a quick lunch while browsing my email.
We have everything we need to know, right here in our hearts.
More musings on the grief writing workshop I teach at Home Healthcare and Community Services here in Keene, NH….
For each week of the class, there’s a central topic for our journaling or free writing exercise. Some topics allow us to talk about who we were, and where we are now after the death of a loved one. Some encourage us to remember them in a different way. Some acknowledge the difficult nature of our relationship with them. Some “point us toward home, so we can go there…” (A quote from DEAN SPANLEY, a remarkable, gentle and sweetly funny movie about death, grieving, and redemption.)
There’s one particularly powerful exercise we do in the writing workshop. It’s so powerful, I’m afraid I’ll give away the punchline. But it’s also so healing, it would be a sin not to share it with a wider audience….
It’s something I structured, sort of aim the sessions toward, so we get there at just the right time. Last week was the proper time.
I ask everyone to imagine the deceased in a place–it could be heaven, it could be nirvana, it could be in an alternate universe, it could even be in our dreams. It’s a place where they are safe, and loved, and happy. A place where they are fully healed, in mind, body and soul. A place where they are at their highest, most evolved self. A place where no matter what their faults or failings were, no matter how much they’ve already suffered or given, or loved, they are the best person we’ve always dreamed they could be.
“Write a letter,” I say to the class. “From them, to you.”
This always draws a lot of confusion and questions. I usually have to repeat it a few times. There are frowns, and pursed lips, and sighs.
Then the writing begins.
And then come the tears.
I am always astonished, when we finally share what we’ve written. It’s as if people have really stepped outside themselves, and delved into the heart of that person. The things we see, and recognize, and understand and finally accept, are incredible.
It’s a letting go of what could have been. It’s accepting what it was, and is. It allows hope to sprout the tiniest, most delicate green leaves.
It was a funny night to begin with. Three of us selected animals to write about. It felt a little disrespectful at first–People before animals, right? Except we were also accepting that the loss of a beloved pet can be just as rattling, especially since they are often the very thing that soothes us during other, larger losses.
In my case, I always wrote my own letters with the group. I believe we can learn just as much as they do when we join in the assignments. And eventually, I ran out of dead people to write about. (Update: I have plenty more now. Yep, as we get older….) And Gomez’s death still haunted me.
And so the three of us wrote a letter from our pets, to us.
In my opening sentence, I immediately saw how empathic this exercise really is. I wrote, “Dear kind lady….” Because, of course, Gomez would have no idea what my name was. And being a cat, he probably wouldn’t care.
Here’s the small miracle: All three of us did the same. Realized our pets don’t “know” our names. But they know who we are to them. One writer started her letter with “Dear Mom”, because that’s who her dog would think she was.
Here’s my letter from Gomez:
Dear kind lady,
When I saw you at the shelter with your child, I knew I was going home with you. I saw you go to each cage, check out each cat. I saw you trying to connect with each one.
“I want an older cat,” you said to the shelter person. “I want a cat who really really really needs a home.”
But none of those cats would play with you. They knew I was meant for you. They wouldn’t give you the time of day–they knew it was my turn.
Finally, after coming to me 3 times–and every time I tried to tell you, I tried to show you–“Me! I’m the one! It’s me you want!”….
And finally, though you said I was too beautiful, and too young, you said I was the one.
I charmed everyone, didn’t I? Even Chai. Even Tuck. Even Nick.
I brought you mice, and birds, and I slept on your bed. You gave me a good home.
Yes, there was a bad man, and yes, it hurt. It hurt so much.
But that pain is gone. It is no more.
The only pain I feel now is the pain in your heart, the part of you that blames yourself for what happened.
It’s not your fault, kind lady. It’s not your fault. Be at peace.
My time with you was lovely. You cared for me, and loved me, and kept me safe. You gave me a good home.
Someday there will come another cat, a cat that needs a good home. Open your heart again, your kind and loving heart. Give that cat a home, a hearth, a sofa to sleep on, dogs to tease and torment, food to eat and saucy mice to chase.
Don’t grieve for me, kind lady. I don’t regret a thing.
Everything we need to know, is already in our hearts.
All we have to do is be silent. And listen. Truly listen.
For the last few years, I’ve been teaching writings workshop for people who are grieving the death of someone close, at a non-profit hospice agency here in Keene. Using journaling, simple poetry writing exercises and sharing our scribblings, we gently help each other move forward in our grieving process.
These classes are always powerful, small miracles made visible in the world. They’ve been so successful, I’m developing an art collage workshop, too. We had our second class last night, and I’m amazed how quickly the group has come together already.
In all these sessions, I’m always anxious when I walk into the room. I remember calling my supervisor, the wise woman known as Lorraine, my first week in. “These people are in such pain!” I exclaimed. “I’m so afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, or be too flippant, and hurt them more.”
“People are pretty tough,” Lorraine said frankly. “Trust me, you’re not going to break them!”
She was right, of course. I am constantly amazed at how courageous and strong these people are, shattered as they are by grief. They shine brightly. I learn so much from them, much much more than I teach them.
But I still worry at the start of every session, and I’m anxious at every meeting. When we write, first thing, the three words that describe how we’re feeling, mine are almost always, “Anxious, Unprepared, Clumsy.”
Until the miracle happens. The power of writing what is in our hearts, and sharing our pain, is a balm. The magic of hearing the voices throughout the ages who have suffered the same pain, the same unbearable sense of loss, echoing in our modern day hearts, somehow helps the healing process.
And by the end of class, we’ve wept, we’ve hugged, we’ve shared, we’ve remembered, and we’ve laughed. All in one brief hour.
The last few days, I’ve been pulling together more poetry to bring to these sessions. Here’s one I found last week:
FOR THOSE WHO HAVE DIED
ELEH EZKERAH – These We Remember
‘Tis a fearful thing
What death can touch.
To love, to hope, to dream,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
But a holy thing,
To love what death can touch.
For your life has lived in me;
Your laugh once lifted me;
Your word was a gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
A holy thing,
What death can touch.
Judah Halevi or
Emanuel of Rome – 12th Century
I read this to the group. “This was written over a thousand years ago,” I said. “Someone felt this way, and wrote these words to you, people he knew he would never know nor meet. He wrote these words because he knew you would be here, today, and he knew you would need to hear them.”
I also love that people now share their favorite poetry with me. I mentioned that I needed more poems on loss and grieving to some friends. One said, “Oh, you have to read Rilke! He’s good for grieving!” An odd phrase, but I found it to be so true. I found this today:
“Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower”
by Rainer Maria Rilke translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29
And as I wrap up my preparations for the last class in this session, I find this one grabbing at my heart:
I live my life in big circles
that surround all things,
that circle around all that is.
Maybe i will not complete the last circle,
But i will attempt it.
I circle around God
that ancient tower,
and I have been circling
for centuries and millennia,
And i do still not know: am i a falcon,
a storm, or the Great Song.
– Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Br. David Steindl-Rast
(Note: This is a looooong, detailed post, mostly about the process of creating a mount (a display stand) for a small boxed artifact. I wrote this up as part of a class assignment.
There’s a life lesson buried in here–there always is!–but I understand if this is too long for most of you to actually read!)
I’m taking an online museum class through the Northern States Conservation Center. It’s my first online class. It’s been fun, exhilarating, thought-provoking, overwhelming and scary.
I’ve always wanted to work in a museum. I loved any school assignment that required me to build a diorama, a display, a presentation. In my own artwork and display, I pay attention to how my work is laid out, how the presentation looks. When people first said my booth looked like museum displays, I was thrilled.
I’ve wanted to take my work to another level for awhile now. I have vague ideas of what that looks like. But I had to explore what was holding me back. Oh! I don’t have the skills! I don’t know how to make something look like a real museum display!
How would I find out? A few hours on the Internet brought me to this online school. I wish I could take ALL their classes, but then I’d never get any art made….
The class was small, but it seemed like everyone else taking the class already had experience. They all worked in musueums. Many had already made museum mounts, and wanted to IMPROVE their skills, not acquire them from scratch.
But I felt heartened by the fact that three of us were also artists. And the instructor, Tom Bennett of the Alaska Heritage Museum in Anchorage, AK was amiable, experienced, and encouraging. Also funny as all get out.
The supplies list for the class was daunting, too. A MAP gas torch?? Large cutting tools? Power saws??? I decided to get the basics and save the large power tools for another day. And Tom assured me I would not burn down the house with the big scary torch, IF I were careful. And IF I kept a big ol’ pot of water handy. And IF I could scamper fast in case of emergency.
It turns out I had most of the pieces I would need for soldering brass, and cutting plexiglas.
Next was the reading list. Holy Moly! I needed an extra lifetime to get through the required reading. Were we going to be tested on all this at the end?? Panic set in.
Until I finally realized I was taking the class to learn techniques for MY purposes. Not to create actual museum mounts for…well, a museum. I could practice the skills, and ask the right questions about material stability, off-gassing, sealants and surfaces–and put them to work making things I needed to display my work. I read most of the materials, put some away for future reading and reference. I realized just knowing about the variables was a valuable mindset.
You’d think I’d be done kicking and screaming and fussing about the class requirements. Nope. When it came time to create a Plexiglas mount, I dug in once again. No way, I said. I don’t like the look of plexi, I don’t want to use it in my work, and there’s no need for me to learn the skills. Tom cajoled me to just try playing with it.
And here’s what got me to take that next step:
When I looked at the mounts my classmates had made, I knew I could do this.
One fellow made a simple Plexiglas mount to hold a shoe. It was time consuming, he said. But the most important thing he learned was to be patient with the material (Plexiglas). I also noticed his mount looked very much like old plastic display pieces I’d seen in old shoe stores. Oh. So we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel! If something worked in one situation, it could very well work in another, more formal setting.
The same with another classmate’s mount, a sort of 3-pronged brass armature that held a mineral sample. It looked sort of like a giant ring setting, she mused. Aha! It did! She didn’t have to come up with something unique and new. If it’s good enough to hold a diamond in an engagement ring, it’s good enough to hold a piece of fool’s gold.
I decided I would try making a Plexiglas mount. I figured I was standing on the shoulders of giants…!!
I want to make assemblages, using old handmade wood boxes and my artifacts. I decided to make a mount that would hold a backdrop of old fabric–specifically, a fragment of a wool Kilim rug, handwoven in Afghanistan and probably at least 50-100 years old. (I bought the scraps from a guy who used to travel to Afghanistan, in more peaceful times, and bring back rugs to sell to merchants in the Boston area in the 80’s.)
I started with this box, from a set of roughly handmade small “drawers” I acquired a few years ago. I love the weathered, worn wood and the green paint.
I wanted a mount to hold the fabric along the inside back of the box, and fold forward along the inside bottom of the box. (Got that?)
I made casual internal measurements of the box space, starting with the inside height:
And the inside depth. The dotted line is where the bend will be.
Oops! Adjust the lighting….
Next, I grab my Plexiglas cutter, and get my new split-point titanium drill bit ready. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds great, doesn’t it? (Actually, I can guess. But I’d think that ALL drill bits would be split point…?)
I score along the cutting line with the cutter. Then I clamp the Plexi onto a surface with a good sharp/hard edge.
I take a deep breathe, and give it a mighty karate chop. Snap! A perfect break! (Yes, I tried it on a scrap piece first.)
Now for the bend. Tom kept saying, “Keep the torch moving, keep it moving!” Kind of like a floor sander, I thought. Secretly, I wished for a plastic bending strip heater element. But I knew I should start with a torch. Cheaper. And I already had a torch. Also, I’m realizing I use “shopping” for every contingency a way to avoid committing to any specific decision. So enough tool-buying! On with the Plexi bending!
I dug around til I found a smooth metal something I could form a good bend with. I’m remembering one of my classmates saying that the heated and softened Plexi picked up “every wrinkle and seam in the aluminum foil.” I line my tiles with aluminum foil carefully, and place a cookie sheet underneath for another layer of protection. At the last minute, I remember Tom’s advice on keeping water handy. Got it!
After working on a practice piece, I begin to heat the Plexi for a bend. Back and forth, never tarrying long in any one spot… Horrors! Tiny bubbles! In wine, a good thing. In Plexi, not so much. Oh, well, they won’t show. And if I don’t tell Tom….oh, rats.
I quickly move the sheet to the metal frame and bend. I go a little at a time–better not enough, and be able to rework, than too much bend and a melty plastic piece….
I’m actually intrigued by the consistency of the warmed Plexi. And I’m surprised how long it stays workable. As it cools, it gets a little harder to form. It feels…malleable, but in a controllable way. This stuff could be fun! I remember the chat session where everyone talks about making Plexiglass “strings”. Hmmmmm…… Not now, Luann! You’ve only got a couple more hours! Back to work!
I finish the bend, and insert the finished piece into the box. Whoops! It sticks out too far on the bottom. I forgot to allow for how much space the Plexi glass itself takes up inside the box. I have to trim off almost a full inch. I use the same technique–clamping, whacking (with a hammer this time) but it’s not as clean a cut (because the split is so close to the edge.) I sand off as much as I can. I smooth off the burrs and heat-melt the edges a little. I’m too afraid I’ll overdo it and have to start over. So, just enough heat to smooth the edges.
Next, I lay out the places where I’ll drill holes with my 1/16″ split point titanium drill bit. (I just love saying that…)
I worry a lot about splitting, chipping or cracking the form while drilling. So at first I clamp the mount to a piece of wood (for drilling into). But after a few practice drills on my scrap, I realize I don’t have to fuss so much. Maybe because the Plexi is thin, and the drill bit is small. I drill at slightly different speeds. I watch for the “curls” of Plexi to wend their way up the bit (like drilling soft iron, Tom said. Like I occasionally drill soft iron…) I go slowly, so as not to heat up the Plexi, and melt the curls. I try not to push down on the drill, but let the bit do its work. I try to drill straight up and down, but that’s not as easy as I thought. (I can see right through the Plexi and see how angled the holes are. Cool!) Again, it doesn’t really matter if the holes are straight, for my purposes.
No chips. No cracks. No breaking. Only scrub marks where the head of the drill rubbed against the Plexiglas, when I had to drill into the tight bend.
One thing: That drill is heavy! And my arms are way out of shape. I wonder if I could have gotten away with fewer holes….??
This is where I get my brainstorm. I remember that acrylic felt is really safe to use with fabrics. Maybe I’ll line the form with acrylic felt, THEN put the fabric scrap on top of that.
Another brainstorm: I have sticky-back felt! I cut a piece to fit the mount, and apply it carefully and evenly. I got good at this from applying squares of the stuff to the bottom of my steel sculpture bases.
The mount with adhesive-backed felt, ready to sew on the fabric scrap.
My next “big” decision: What kind and color thread to use? If I were making a real museum mount, I might opt for white cotton–no dyes. Also, it will show up better on the back, in case someone down the road wanted to undo my work. But for my artwork, I want black thread, because it won’t show so much. I can completely bury the stitches on the front, so they’ll be invisible.
However, I’m conflicted about using cotton. I know from experience it can rot fairly quickly, over a few decades. Is it really better to use than a polyester?
In the end, I opt for black cotton thread. I make a mental note to do a Google search for archival techniques for fiber.
I’m sewing through the holes and catching just a thread or two of the fabric fragment. Then going back down through the same hole and moving to the next one. As a quilter, I know that many tiny stitches can be stronger than a few big stitches. Hand stitching is gentler than machine stitching. And the all-over stitching will support the entire weight of the fabric over the entire mount surface. Just hanging it from the top of the box would put the entire weight of the fiber fragment on one “row” of the fabric, which isn’t good.
It takes a lot longer to sew than I thought.
And for a bad reason….. I didn’t realize I’d be sewing through the adhesive on the back of the felt! It quickly gums up my needle. I have to stop every two or three stitches/holes to wipe it clean with acetone. I realize, too, if this had been a real ancient fiber fragment, I would have practically “inserted” tiny amounts of adhesive into the fiber itself.
So if I were to do this in a “professional” capacity, I’d skip the adhesive-backed felt, and used plain acrylic felt. On the other hand, the sticky backing allows me to “wrap” the felt around the bottom edge of the Plexi mount. It looks great!
I’m guessing my rug fragment already has a ton of antique camel dung ground into it, so a little sticky stuff won’t compromise its integrity.
Finally, the sewing is done! You can see some of the thread “tails” hanging loose. I decided not to knot the ends, to anchor them in the fabric like I usually do. It wouldn’t be feasible with a real ancient fragment, and it’s not necessary in this application. The sewing offers sufficient stabilizing of the fragment.
Now to see how it fits in the box….
Let’s take a closer look…
Unfortunately, I neglected to select a box that was tall enough inside to feature a horse sculpture on a steel stand. So I improvise with some other “ingredients”…
Necessity is truly the mother of invention. I don’t have any shorter stands, so I simply stack up some tiles to set a small horse sculpture on. Clay tile, and two “sea glass” tiles.
So what did I learn?
I’ve learned that museum mounts are both simpler, and a lot more complicated, than I could ever imagine.
I’ve learned there really are people who spend their days making such mounts. And I could have had an entirely different, happy career, in an alternate universe.
I’ve learned help is often just a phone call/e-mail/text message away.
I’ve learned I can learn from my classmates.
I’ve learned Plexiglas is fun to work with.
I’ve learned that even when I THINK I’ve considered all possible factors, there will always be surprises. most of which will only be overcome with practice, practice, practice. And good humor. And luck!
I’ve learned there are fixed principles (when heating the Plexi with a torch, move the flame even faster to avoid bubbles.)
I’ve learned there are variable principles (small holes, thin Plexi, slow drilling means I don’t have to clamp the plastic down to a wood base.)
I’ve learned that sometimes the obvious shortcut (the sticky-backed felt) is not the best way to go (could contaminate or damage a true “ancient artifact”.)
I’ve learned there are as many ways to approach a mount design as there are people in the room.
I’ve learned that even a simple decision, like what kind/color thread to use, can cause hugely annoying logic loops.
I’cw learned to allow plenty of time to make a mount. Time from start to finish for this “simple” project was almost four hours. I could get faster with practice. But it pays to plan for every contingency.
I’ve learned when I’m unsure or hesitant, I procrastinate by doing excessive research, second-guessing myself, and S*H*O*P*P*I*N*G for every single tool or supply I might possibly need.
I’ve learned I can use quick, modern, simpler methods to display the elements of these assemblages. But it’s good to know the methods that will keep my work safe and undamaged for many years to come.
I’ve learned I should try making Plexiglas “strings” one of these days, because everyone says it’s fun!
I’ve learned you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. I never thought I’d take an online class, especially one with (necessarily) so much hands-on techniques to learn. But it worked! I bent Plexiglas today!! (I am easily amused, I admit it.)