GOMEZ SAYS GOODBYE

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.

And it lets the healing begin.

It’s never failed me, this exercise. I wrote about this the first time I did it, with a complicated death that had haunted me for decades.

I did it again last week with my cat Gomez.

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.

And so we 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.

Goodbye sweet boy cat.

AM I A FALCON, A STORM, OR THE GREAT SONG?

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
To love
What death can touch.
To love, to hope, to dream,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
Love,
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,
To love
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:

Circles

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

Am I a falcon, a storm, or the Great Song?

I don’t even know what that means.

And yet I sense it means…everything.

INVISIBLE SUPPORT

HOW MUSEUM DISPLAY REMINDS ME OF HOSPICE

I’m taking an online class on making mounts for museum display through the Northeastern States Conservation Center. A mount is the supporting structure that allows an artifact–a bone, a book, a bonnet, a basket–to be safely displayed in an exhibit. I want to learn more about making such displays, for my new series of artwork.

I’m in way over my head. Almost four weeks in and I’m still three weeks behind. There is so, so much more than I could ever have imagined to the incredible world of mount making. Mounts can be as creative and beautiful as any art form. And like many art forms, the discipline is formidable. So many things to consider: How fragile is the artifact? What do you want the viewer to see? What materials will not interact and damage the artifact? What will protect it from shock–everything from bumps and shakes to vibrations from passing trucks and earthquakes? The reading requirements looks about as manageable as WAR AND PEACE, without all the Russian names.

I’ve been reading an article called MOUNTMAKING by Pam Gaible, then Mount Making Supervisor at the Field Museum of Natural History. Ms. Gaible presented it at the American Association of Museums Convention in 1991.

I was fascinated by this paragraph:

How do you make a mount?
There are lots of factors to be considered when making a mount. A very important one is to have open channels of communication between the developer, mountmaker, conservator, and designer.

First the developer compiles an artifact list. Then the mount shop supervisor, the developer, and the conservator review the artifact list and create a photo book of the artifacts. The book contains a page for each artifact, which shows photo, measurements, material notes, and conservation concerns for mounting of the objects. It also contains a rough sketch of how an object can be mounted and a time estimate for making that mount.

She shows a few pages from such a book. The drawings and illustrations are beautiful. It looks like an artist’s sketchbook.

I once had the honor of viewing Cynthia Toops‘ sketchbook. Cynthia is one of my favorite polymer clay artists. Her work has a narrative feel that resonates with me. Sometimes playful, always thoughtful, charmingly folkloric yet sophisticated. Her sketchbook was as beautiful as her artwork, with tiny, exquisite drawings, details and notes. I am reminded that sometimes our tools and processes, just like museum mounts, support our art. And yet are so very artistic in themselves.

Then I read this paragraph, describing kinds of mounts:

* A typical disappearing mount. A mount that you aren’t aware of
when you view the object.
* A mount that keeps an object from migrating in the case.
* A mount that absorbs shock.
(This shock may be as small as the vibration of air conditioning
equipment or as large as an earthquake) [West Coast Style].
* A mount that helps preserve the existing structure of an object.
* A mount that is semi-permanently attached to the artifact and
functions as a handle and support.

(Rather than handling the object, you handle the mount.)
* A mount that supports an object while at the same time creates
the illusion that the mount is something else.
(Such as a mount that looks like a person, horse or campfire.)

I know this is weird–Lord, I can find synergy in anything these days!! But I thought this sort of sounds like my grief writing workshop.

A disappearing mount….that you aren’t aware of when you view the object. My purpose is to get people writing and talking about their grief. But it has to be subtle, almost invisible. Almost effortless. I do this by keeping the writing tasks short and directed. Even the poetry writing exercises are originally designed to be used with elementary school children.

But simplicity does not mean meaningless. Even the “easy” outlines create powerful results.

* A mount that keeps an object from migrating in the case. We use topics and time limits so that people can’t sink into their grief. Everything is quick, moves along. We take time to share, and cry. But we aren’t left to wander off into our misery.

* A mount that absorbs shock. A person who is grieving has suffered an enormous blow to their system. Everything hurts. Nothing brings relief. In our class, people feel like they can relax. They can cry. They can say what they really feel. Because everyone there knows what it’s really like. As one writer said, “It’s like we’re all on the same lake in a different boat!”

* A mount that helps preserve the existing structure of an object. We are deeply changed by grief. We will never be the same. But we are also still…..us. We remain. We survive. We go on, alone.

* A mount that is semi-permanently attached to the artifact and functions as a handle and support. People don’t stay long in the support groups. They come when they are ready for something more, something to help them move along. They get what they need. They heal. They go back to their lives, a little stronger, a little more resilient. They move on.

A mount that supports an object while at the same time creates the illusion that the mount is something else. I had to think about this for a moment. Then it dawned on me….

People think they come to a support group or a support workshop for help. They think we have the answers, or a process that will help them feel better.

But all we do is provide a safe place for them to talk. To share. To contemplate what this loss means to them. They do the hard work, the heavy lifting. They look at the things they’re afraid to say, or think, because that might mean they’re “not a good person”. (Almost all deaths are complicated, and some are more complicated than others.)

They dig deep into themselves, and let the light in.

They share with others who are in the same place. They sympathize. They offer comfort, courage, support. Wisdom. Understanding.

They do this for themselves, and for each other. We, the facilitators, sit and look on in astonishment.

Ah, yes, museum display and hospice/bereavement services. Who knew how much they have in common?!

HOW TO VISIT A SOMEONE WHO’S IN A NURSING HOME Part 1

Recently I accompanied my mom to visit two of her good friends in a nursing home, one of whom I wrote about yesterday.

I could tell Mom felt a little awkward. One woman was napping in her chair. “Don’t wake her!” mom exclaimed. (Okay, whispered. Exclaiming would have awakened her fried.) She wanted to leave immediately. Unfortunately, Robin sat on her bed and set off an alarm. Erna awakened, and fortunately, was happy to see us.

At first, with both there was a lot of cheerful chatter. Mostly the old stories told and retold. When the stories ran out, Mom wanted to leave.

I have vivid memories of my dad doing the same, years and years ago. There was an older woman, who grew up in Scotland, who worked for my dad in our family restaurant. She retired; soon after, she was confined to a wheelchair and eventually moved into a nursing home. She had no family here in the U.S. except for her son, who rarely visited her. I remember “making the rounds” every Sunday after church–out to the nursing home in the country to visit Bessie, back to town to visit my grandparents, and then maybe back to the “store” for an ice cream cone.

Bessie adored my father, and was always happy to see us. Dad would chat about ordinary things–the restaurant, our doings and comings and goings. I remember him bringing her flowers from our garden.

But sometimes, especially near the end of our visit, she would cry and beg Dad to get her out of there. As time went on, and she became more frail, this happened more and more, until every parting drew tears.

I remember standing there, embarrassed, wordless, having no idea what to do. I would look at my Dad. What would he do? How would he handle this?

Well, my dad would get embarrassed, too. He would weakly try to reassure her that everything was alright, and we’d all make a fast dash for the door.

In my later years, I pretty much kept up the family tradition. I felt awkward visiting folks in such places, even hospitals. I would agonize over what to bring. Flowers? Candy? Can they have candy?? A book? Maybe they’ve already read it…. I would fill the room with cheerful chatting, clumsily reassure them when things go tearful, and beat a hasty retreat.

I’m still not the soul of compassion, but I try to do better now. Because I know better.

The old rules of how to behave are gone. The circumstances have changed, and so must our patterns.

I try to see what is needed, and what is wanted. I listen. I observe. I touch.

People who have been in such places a long time have different needs. No, I take that back–they have the same needs. But we have to fill them differently.

STOP

Relax and be present.

It’s okay to be with them as they sleep. Sleep is important, yes. Especially near the end of life, deep work takes place during sleep. And it’s still rude to awaken someone suddenly, especially with shaking and loud voices. But perhaps you can sit quietly by them, gently taking their hand. Many times they will sense your presence, and awaken gently. If not, be assured they still sense you on some deep level. Even 20 minutes simply sitting quietly, and holding their hand, can be deeply reassuring.

However, don’t stare at them. Waking up to someone watching you sleep can be icky. Sometimes I just take those moments to think, or daydream. But it’s okay to bring a book if it’s hard to sit quietly.

TOUCH

Taking their hand can seem awkward and forward. When have we ever held hands with our friends, or our family, after we’re five? But people need the touch of human hands, now more than ever. It may be years since someone has hugged them, or stroked their hair, or simply held their hand.

No need to envelop them in a bear hug! I start by nonchalantly taking up their hand and cupping it gently. If someone does not want to be touched, then they will withdraw their hand. But if they welcome it, they will not. They may even clasp your hand tighter.

My friend Bonnie Blandford taught me the “hospice hug“. Instead of our quick little social hugs, it’s simply a longer hug where you let the other person choose when to stop. In fact, if they pull back after a few seconds out of habit, try holding gently for another few seconds. You’ll be surprised how many people will relax and hang on for dear life. I did this with a friend recently who had suffered a dreadful loss. When she realized she could have a long hug, she melted into my arms, and began to sob. Yep, some guys in the group got nervous, and began to make jokes about lesbians. I ignored them all. My friend had lost a new grandchild. She needed a deep hug.

LISTEN

Sometimes people want to be entertained with light chatter and news of the outside world. But sometimes they are scared, or anxious, or lonely. They yearn for richer connection. If they are scared, don’t pooh-pooh their fears. What are they afraid of? What’s making them anxious? You don’t need to fix their problems. But we all appreciate someone who listens to them!

By the way, Erna had trouble speaking and forming words. My mom assumed she was “out of it.” By sitting closer and listening carefully, it became obvious that Erna was actually quite aware and responding appropriately to everything we said. She just needed more time to respond.

STAY

I’m not so nervous about people crying now. I just keep the Kleenix coming until they’re done.

OBSERVE

As they talk with you, listen deeply. Watch “the light”. Note where they are making light of something that actually pains them. Observe the topics that make them light up with joy. For one of Mom’s friends, it was a passing comment about our dogs. She asked, “What kind of dog?” We told her. I asked her if she’d ever had a dog. Her face lit up. “Oh, yes!” She told us several stories, and then got to the one that was painful–the family dog hit by a car, and how terrible it was. The pain, the suffering, the family’s anguish. All these years later, and it was still hard. On impulse, I told her a quick version of the delightful movie, Dean Spanley*. A dog who is killed suddenly, describes it as something he didn’t understand. His former master asks if he suffered. No…no…. There was no pain. It was time to go home. How did he get there? He simply turned towards home, and went there. When asked how he knew where home was, he said, “One just knows. So you turn that way, and go there.” Erna smiled sweetly and sighed.

BE A WITNESS

Tell them about the gifts they’ve given you–the gift of their friendship, their kindnesses, their thoughtfulness. If they were feisty friends, tell them how much you admire their courage to be themselves. Though I didn’t know either woman, I knew my mother treasured their friendships, and said so. To Frannie, who changed her dress on her daughter’s wedding day, I said, “That was such a gift you gave your daughter!”

Ask questions, especially if you don’t know them well. Don’t interrogate–it’s not a fact-finding mission. Just show interest in what they have to say, how they lived their lives, what gives them joy. When they tell you hard things, say, “That must have been hard” and let them tell you more. When they tell you beautiful things, ask them what their favorite part was. Let them tell their stories.

READ

When I do hospice visits, I take books. I take one for me to read to myself and one to read aloud–a book of poetry, or short stories, or novels where individual chapters can stand alone. If the person is religious or spiritual, I’ll bring a book of prayers or blessings. I’ve found that we never lose the desire to be read to, provided the person is up for it. It’s a way to take a break from conversation, a way for them to simply listen, even a way to ease them into sleep. My daughter loves the scene in the movie WIT, where the main character (who is dying) accepts her old teacher’s offer to read to her. John Donne gets voted down, but it turns out the children’s book The Runaway Bunny is beautifully appropriate.

FORGIVE YOURSELF

It’s okay to be thankful it’s not you lying there in the nursing home. They know you feel that way. And it’s okay. You’re not a bad person. Just human. And they know that, too.

There’s more, but I forgot.

This is just quick overview of how to make such visits easier, deeper and fun. I would LOVE to hear your suggestions, too.

How did I get so smart? Listening to my daughter speak of her experiences working in such institutions–nursing homes, assisted living units, rehab wards. And my hospice training, which was rich with insights and practical advice.

*Dean Spanley is my new favorite movie. It starts slow and quiet, fueled by odd and cantankerous British humor, with the most incredibly beautiful and poignant ending. WATCH IT TO THE END!! I fell asleep halfway through the first time I watched it. Fortunately, I made myself watch it again. STAY AWAKE, or watch it twice, and I think you’ll find yourself deeply touched by its message. If you love dogs, you’ll find it triply delightful. But you don’t have to be an animal lover to appreciate its message.

WHEN BEING A SAINT IS JUST TOO DAMN HARD

I just got back from a quick trip back to my hometown in Gladwin, Michigan. There were difficult family matters to discuss. It was one of those big ol’ hard discussions no one wants to have, but it went well and there is peace in my heart.

While I was there, I visited one of my mother’s oldest friends in a rehabilitation unit at our local hospital. (“Rehab” means she might be able to return home after her stay.)

It was our first meeting. Mom and Franny (not her real name) became friends when Mom started teaching middle school, after I’d already left home for college, over forty years ago. I’ve heard many wonderful stories about her over the years, and was delighted to finally see her in person.

Many, many interesting things happened during this little get-together, all of them great subjects for elder care and hospice articles.

But today I’m going to write about why being a saint is just too damn hard. And why we should…okay, could…just aim just a little lower. (Me trying not to tell you what to do.)

My mom’s favorite story about Franny involves Franny’s divorce after thirty years of marriage, her husband remarrying a younger woman, and her daughter’s wedding soon after.

Franny bought two new dresses for the wedding: A mother-of-the-bride dress for the wedding and another for the reception. She wore the first dress, and then switched to the second for the reception.

But when she got to the reception, New Wife No. 2 was wearing the same dress.

Franny went back to the dressing room and switched back to her other dress.

Mom has told this story many times, and she retold it several times while we visited Franny. Every telling ends the same way: “I tell her, “Franny, you are too good to be on this earth. You’re a saint! When you die, you’re going straight up to heaven!” (Always accompanied by a sweep of her arm and a dramatic point toward the sky.

But Franny didn’t nod her head or respond in any way. She’s obviously heard this from Mom many times, too.

I was sitting by her side, holding her hand. I said, gently, “You sound like a woman who picks her battles.” She nodded, but didn’t say anything. So that wasn’t all it was.

I said, “You chose to let your daughter have her perfect day on her wedding.”

And Franny brightened and nodded, and smiled.

I don’t know how to describe this lightening of the spirit. But when we speak, or hear, our truth, there is a subtle transformation that is beautiful. And this was Franny’s truth. Not the saintliness. Not the logical.

It’s about a tiny choice made with love.

Franny is not comfortable with being called a saint. She is not a wealthy person–a second dress for the wedding was not a small expense for her. It must have been so hard to be at her daughter’s wedding, watching her say vows that Franny and her own husband had taken so many years before. After a (supposedly) good marriage of thirty years, her husband chose to say those vows with another woman, who was sharing this important day with her. And she had to stand alone.

Of course she was angry! And indignant, confused. Of course she felt sadness, and regret, and who knows what else.

But she had the power of her choice.

She could choose to create a scene. She could choose to make a statement by not changing. After all, Franny was the mother of the bride. No one would blame her if she stuck to her guns and wore that dress with her head held high.

But she knew if she did, it would be her daughter who would suffer the most.

And she chose to change her dress. She made a choice, a tiny choice, a choice bathed in love.

When we call people ‘saints’, we think we’re talking about people who don’t feel those bad emotions. They are just naturally good. It’s easy for them. It’s so very very hard for us. Practically impossible, in fact, for us to rise above our human nature, our lizard brain. We just can’t be saints.

And so we let other people be saints. Because it’s just too hard, and we know we would fail.

What Franny did was different.

She thought it all through.

Her daughter’s happiness was in her hands for one short moment.

She could choose: Whose need would she serve?

And then she made a tiny, gracious choice.

We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be good. We don’t have to even try to be a saint.

We can simply try to make a tiny, gracious choice, with love.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
© Mary Oliver

You can hear Mary Oliver reading this, and two other poems here If you’re short of time, start at 1:05. But if you have a few moments, “Tom Dance’s Gift of a White Bark Pinecone” is pretty wonderful, too.

WHAT WILL SURVIVE OF US IS LOVE…

I wrote this post for the Fine Art Views marketing blog. Check out their beautiful website hosting services and other artist resources here.

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber and art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”

I used to think there was something wrong with me, for all the thinking I do about death. Now I’m learning this is actually common. No, not even common—it’s part of the human condition.

In fact, one professor of psychiatry posits that fear and anxiety about death are at the foundation of ALL our fears and anxieties. What we know and experience intellectually is very different than what we know emotionally. As we say in hospice, “Everyone knows they’re going to die. But nobody wants to die today.”

I’ve been reading STARING AT THE SUN: Overcoming the Terror of Death by Irvin D. Yalom. A reviewer says, “…Once we confront our own mortality, Dr. Yalom writes, we are inspired to rearrange our priorities, communicate more deeply with those we love, appreciate more keenly the beauty of life, and increase our willingness to take the risks necessary for personal fulfillment.”

These aspects speak directly to being an artist in today’s modern world.

We’ve rearranged our priorities. We strive to communicate, deeply. We appreciate the beauty of the world around us, and inside us. We are willing to take the risks necessary to be the artist we dream of, and to get our work out into the world.

I’ve talked before about creating a legacy. I believe this drives all our actions to create our work, exhibit it, market it, and perhaps even sell it. If you have a FASO website, then you are already committed to finding an audience and a market for your work.

I once mistakenly stated that Emily Dickinson never published any of her poetry, and therefore she didn’t care, and kept writing anyway. “Oh, she cared desperately,” a more learned acquaintance corrected me. “She wasn’t published, but she really, really wanted to be!”

So in an age where someone halfway around the world can see, and like, and even buy your work…

In an age where someone halfway around the world can see, like and even copy your work…

In an age where, no matter how many artists there are, there is no one who works exactly like you…

In an age where you are one artist among tens, hundreds, thousands of thousands of other creative types with a website…

In an age where Bieber fever reigns (he started on Youtube) and videos of silly cat tricks garner a million views…

In an age where the most popular television shows cater to the dreams of people who want to be stars, and said people enter contests to achieve their goals…

What does it mean to create a body of work? What does it mean to be successful? What does it mean to “make it big”? What does it mean to create a legacy?

Sorry, no answers today! Just some questions to get you thinking about what these goals would mean to you.

What will survive of us? The only way we know anything about the people who lived in the dawn of prehistory is through the art they left behind.

But if you study archeology, you know that garbage is just as revealing. (Most archeology finds are found in ‘midden heaps’, which is a nice way of saying ‘trash pit’. The ancient Mayans had to move their entire cities when too much garbage made life in the area unsustainable.) Will future civilizations (or aliens) learn about us through our artwork? And will they judge us by the work of Thomas Kincade? Or perhaps from the plastic clamshell packaging that everything we buy is packaged in?

And whose work will survive? Whose art will define our times? One of my favorite stories from the art history textbook Janson’s History of Art told of a mediocre Victorian painter who was the most popular painter of his day. But the artists whose work now defines the age? Monet. Renoir. Cezanne. Even one who died in relative obscurity (then)—Vincent Van Gogh.

So how do we proceed? How should we live our lives? How do we approach our art? How do we shape our legacy?

I believe there’s no way to anticipate what we will leave behind. There’s certainly very little we can do to control what that will be, for more than a few decades, anyway.

All we can do is let ourselves be guided by the strongest intuition we have:

What is it you love?

Do you love to paint landscapes? Still lifes? Clowns? Paint them!

Do you love to sell your work? Sell with all your heart.

Do you love to see your name in print? Submit your work to every publication/exhibition/website you can.

Do you love to teach? Teach!

Do you love to write about art? Write!

Do you love to support yourself with your art? Be the professional you want to be, learn the skills you need, and sit in the driver’s seat of your art automobile.

Do you resent trying to make your art a business? Do the work you love to earn a living, and focus on keeping your art making open-ended and fun.

Trying to set a balance between all this? Set the balance that’s right for you.

What matters, in the end, is the kind of life you strive to lead. The ripple effect of your actions in the world—the kindnesses, love, energy, opportunities you were given, and in turn gave to others, create wavelets that move far past our own seeing. We have to simply trust they carry our best intentions, wherever they go.

What comes after us…
Whatever is made of our efforts when we are gone,
Whatever it will mean to those others who remain, what they will understand,
There is only one thing we know for sure….

It will be what serves their need, not ours.

I love the last stanza in Philip Larkin’s haunting poem, An Arundel Tomb. As he looks upon the figures carved in stone, he realizes that, whether those who lie there meant to be remembered this way or not, this is, truly, how we will remember them:

“…Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin

Their story may not be our story.

STARING AT THE SUN: Thoughts on What Makes a Rich Life

I made these earrings (one of two sets) when I grew past fearing what anyone would say about them, and they are my favorite ones to wear! (A professional classical violinist bought the other pair.)

I’ve been doing a little digging on death lately.

Maybe I should backtrack and explain.

I always thought I was the only person obsessed with death and dying. I think about it all the time. Partly because I’ve had a few brushes with it, partly because I’m anxious in general.

I worry about what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. Whether I’ll achieve any of my goals or not. Whether I should just be happy with the goals and blessings I already have. Whether anything of me will last (beyond the world’s largest and most interesting garage sale). Whether I’ve done right by my kids, my family, my husband, my art, my writing.

Becoming a hospice volunteer was part of my exploration about death. I’ve learned so much, grown in so many ways. Still learning. Still growing, with every single client.

Many people think people who do hospice work are “better”, or “braver” or “more noble” than your average person-on-the-street, that we have a better, more evolved understanding of death. We’re not, and we don’t. When our own loved ones are in danger, or dying, we are just as much at sea as everyone else.

We’ve simply learned a little bit more about being as opposed to doing, or even worse, fixing. (Though, as my incredibly grounded volunteer supervisor Lorraine would say, “Hospice is full of recovering fixers…!”)

I’ve been reading an odd book called STARING AT THE SUN by Irvin Yalom, a therapist who deals with death anxiety. Working on the assumption that our fear of death is at the heart of most of our anxieties, he works to assure us that understanding this can lead to a richer LIFE. He talks often about the basic needs we humans have, and how even the best therapy–a sharing of healthier ideas–is enormously improved when the therapist deeply connects with his patient. Because ideas-plus-connection is an incredibly power force for healing and reconciliation.

Connection. Such a simple word, and one whose strength we can easily overlook.

But everything we do, everything we yearn for, is to garner for ourselves love, and meaningful connection.

When I’m fighting with my husband, what I am pushing down deep inside me is how much I yearn for his good opinion, for his love and respect. When he accidentally breaks the connection between us with a clumsy comment or a snitty response, I am devastated. But I cover up for that devastation with anger.

Vice versa, too.

Why am I yammering on about death, and connection?

Because this is why I make my art. And this is where the power of my images, the power of my story, the power of the cave that inspires me, comes into play.

I try to shine a little light on the wonderful, and frightening, and sad, and awful things that make us human. I try to figure out what holds us all together, while still allowing each of us to dance to our own unique music.

I’m reading another book about prehistoric art called THE CREATIVE ICE AGE BRAIN: Cave Art in the Light of Neuroscience Written by an art historian who is also an artist, it celebrates the unique nature of this human thing called art. The things Ms. Alperts says about ancient art could be said about almost any art being made today: It is unique to the maker as it simultaneously reflects the culture the maker lives in.

I’ve always felt that these artists of the distant past had something to say, something so powerful it reaches across eons of time to touch us today. Creating “…echoes in our modern hearts”, it is something that has lasted far, far beyond the original intentions of its makers. It is the ultimate connection that arcs across 30,000 years, perhaps more.

Don’t we all wish we could leave such a legacy?

At the same time, the message (not being written to us) will forever remain lost, an enigma.

And someday, the knowledge of these paintings, this works of art, these carvings, and our study of them, will be lost forever, too. Because nothing lasts forever.

Such is the mystery of life. Such is the mystery of death.

Oddly, the most moving comment I read in Dr. Yalom’s book was the idea that “ceasing to be” in death is remarkably like “not being yet” before we are born. In both spaces, we will have no consciousness, no sense of being. Why is one frightening, but not the other? Because now we know what we’re missing! (A little death humor here….)

I don’t have a great wrap-up for you today, or even a great thought. It’s just what I’ve been thinking about the last few days, as I stumble my way through this amazing, challenging, beautiful, sad, tragic, happy, confusing, astonishing life.

I’m also starting to de-clutter my studio. That always makes me think of death, too. (See the remark about the world’s biggest garage sale above.) I promise you a lighter piece tomorrow!