Meditations on Grief, Death and Senseless Acts of Violence

“Yellow crime tape hung on the wild rose . . . Death had left for me its imperishable mark on an ordinary corpse of trees in my front yard. Never again would I look out my kitchen window at that lone cedar on the prow of hickory forests in the same way as I had before. I would never be free of the memory of what happened there. But would a stranger, coming upon it, say a century later somehow sense the sad, lost secret of the place, the sanctity of this death-inflicted soil?” – Sally Mann, Hold Still

It is impossible to watch leaves fall to the ground, crudely or exquisitely, depending on my mood, without remembering my father’s broad tall frame doing the same, beginning to grow back, shrink down into something skeletal at this same time of year thirteen years ago.SubstandardFullSizeRender

Last week, I sat at the bar of a café and tried to finish the last chapter of Hold Still and came upon Sally Mann’s Body Farm photos, carcasses unabashedly decomposing buck naked against the earth. I closed the book abruptly so as not to disturb the patrons beside me at the café, seemingly on vacation, happily sipping their cheery cappuccinos with perfectly foamed leaves and hearts etched into the rich brown brew.

While attending the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics, under the tutelage of Bhanu Kapil, I began studying the body and anatomy as part of a book of poems about the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For research purposes, I went to a public screening of Stan Brakhage’s The Art of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, a film which documents autopsies, to more intimately know the boundaries, textures and depths of the body.

After three days of labor and three hours of trying to push my son out of my body, my midwife asked my husband if he had heard about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. She knew his mother would be traveling from Boston for the birth and just saw the news on the t.v. screen, in the waiting room, while grabbing a cup of coffee. I lay there, on my back, focused, staring ahead as if into a void, as if I didn’t hear what she said, due to my commitment to let go and not engage in worldly matters, while simultaneously wishing silently to myself that a massive attack on human beings wasn’t brought up while trying with every muscle of my body to release a new life, full of flesh and blood and vitality, into the world; wishing I could remain ignorant about the malevolence and wretchedness of human beings, if only for this moment, to feel that I was birthing my son into a world of security and sanctity.

No other poems embody the pain of experiencing mass senseless acts of violence and death, or can be more grief-stricken than Paul Celan’s. He invented an entirely new language to speak of the surreality of genocide, as disjunctive as sudden death, and no one can touch it or recreate it. If we are lucky enough to never experience this sort of mass destruction, and may we all be, we can stand outside the poems and recite them, and step inside them, as if in a museum and just remain in awe of them and feel a shiver of ice down our spines at just the sight and bitter taste of them. Many even look skeletal on the page, but are like spirits speaking from the grave, like little prayers, recollections, from the voices of the dead. “Graze the debased coinage,/ the scale of my temporal bone.”

Place names, these place names will never be the same after a mass shooting – Columbine, New Town, they can never be separated from what happened there, but as Sally Mann asks, “Would a stranger, coming upon it, say a century later . . . sense the sad, lost, secret of the place . . .? New Town – where my aunt and uncle lived and raised their three children. Their house on the market at the time of the shooting. This would be their horrifying last memory, after so many happy years, in a place they called home.

Two years ago my mother-in-law lay in surgery at Bingham and Women‘s hospital, hooked to a machine that kept her breathing, her chest open, heart exposed like Catholicism’s iconography of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, light streaming out it (in my vision), a young meticulous surgeon, Dr. Davidson, weighing over the intricacies of her vital organ, bringing her enlarged heart fresh life, like an alchemist, turning what is silver into gold, performing the miracles of modern science, at once common place, routine, and, yet, extraordinary.

While my husband slept beside her at the hospital, as she recovered, we spoke briefly and intermittently. I asked, “Do you like the doctor . . . How old is he?”

“I really like the doctor,” he said without pause,”He’s young, Jewish, about our age.”

Less than a year after her surgery, there was a shooting at Bingham and Women’s hospital. A nondescript man, without an appointment, went into the waiting room of the Watkins Cardiovascular Clinic and asked repeatedly to speak with Dr. Davidson. When available, the doctor lead him to exam room number fifteen.

As my mother-in-law’s strength, endurance, and vitality only grew, her doctor’s life was taken from him suddenly, violently, unexpectedly and unrepentantly on an ordinary day  -his wife pregnant with their fourth child – an infant whose skin would never feel the warmth of her father’s flesh.

A few weeks ago, I could not get the image of two missing women, blithe lovers by all reports, twenty and twenty-two, out of my mind; their blood stained, bullet riddled car left visible, like an evil monument, partially submerged in the French Broad River, just a quarter mile from my home.

There was an investigation on my street in connection with their disappearance, caution tape strewn across the dead end road, where thick broken car glass, aquablue in the sunlight, was unapologetically strewn.

For many days after their disappearance, torrential rain fell causing the river to rise in a swiftly flowing murky current. I couldn’t bear to be near the river or to walk the path around my neighborhood

One day, while leaving the house at least twenty-vultures flew overhead. Everything seemed marked by an eerie bleakness.

The effect it had on me, I think, was made worse not only by the fact of its proximity to my home, and the utter senselessness of the brutal violence, and that these women resembled so many friends I’ve had over the years, but that for several weeks I had been reflecting deeply on the French Broad River, intimately thinking about its geology and history – the beginnings of a piece about one of the oldest rivers in the world whose vein, near my home, divides the central and west parts of the city.

One night, as I switched off the light to go to sleep, I took a sip of water in the dark. As I reached to set the glass back on the side table, a nightmarish image of their 1980s royal blue VW flashed in my mind, and the glass of water fell and cracked into thousands of shards beside me. I could do nothing but lay beside the ruins until sleep took me.

And while I grieved for these women who I never knew and would never know, as the stories and photos of them in the media started to mesh into the fabric of my internal thoughts, search parties dove into the depths of the French Broad River soon discovering them and pulling their young bodies from the weedy depths.

A week later, my mom called and said, “Something happened in France. Don’t listen to the news,” she warned, knowing I was already rattled.

I immediately texted my friends in Paris, want to make sure you two are safe and sound, thinking of you. As if the Atlantic didn’t separate us, in less than a minute they wrote back that they were safe and that the city was shut down. They were at their hotel suspended, stuck in a moment in history.

Bombs strapped on human bodies in public squares, the ultimate defilement of the sanctity of the body and humanity. A man shot during the November Paris attacks said something like, “When you see the destruction a single bullet does to the human body, it is devastating.” His phrase, a single bullet, struck me as incredibly poignant, during a time that a single bullet is so rarely reported.

Then more reports in the news this week, a mass shooting in San Bernadino, California… every few days another announcement. And another and another.peace 2

At a children’s music celebration the leader sings, “We feel that peace is coming, we feel that peace is coming, we feel that peace is coming for everyone.” I’m struck by the optimism and hope and all the contradictions brought out in the irony of this simple wishful prayer. My son later that afternoon sings it to me while smiling. Is there a more beautiful and impossible sentiment? But I so want this to be true for him, and for all children, not a fairy tale, not something that can never be.

Last night, while driving, my husband informed me that an acquaintance’s twenty-two year old son died a few days ago while kayaking in Ecuador. I felt a pang run through me. I hit my fist to my chest, primitively, and made a quiet guttural sigh.

In temple, later that night, the people in mourning stood for a moment amongst themselves before the rest of the congregation rose in solidarity beside them as the words Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, (Holy, Holy, Holy) slightly echoed into the vast space of the high, wood beamed, ceiling.P1130401




The Art of Seeing a Gallery Curated by No One

“An alchemist puts the phenomena of the world in another context” – Anselm Kiefer in an interview with art critic Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times

Rust Petals

Perhaps the greatest gallery of all is the one in a city’s abandoned spaces, outdoors, left to chance, curated by no one and left to evolve by the hands of strangers and the elements of nature – all rust and chipping away layers – creations where permanence and impermanence entwine nonchalantly – and through the alchemy of these forces something new evolves.

These collaborative art works with egoless, anonymous creators and no monetary value, made by everyone and no one, change subtly over the seasons. Sometimes flowers and plants interject their presence into the compositions, sometimes they appear barren, sometimes spray paint is applied to their acts of rebellion.

Tall Grass Tails Meet Steel

What might be called “graffiti” is painted over, but even that is done unintentionally in a way that resembles or becomes “contemporary art.” The pieces are abstract and complete, whole finished works in themselves, without effort or ambition.

Geometric LayerEach time I walk to the café where I write and pass through this gallery, I see something new as if the art gives my eyes greater acuity. I have to stop and look – I am drawn toward them like a Lepidoptera to light and I want to get that close to see their every layer and contour.

I must look like a peculiar woman as I stare scrupulously at what might appear to someone else as nothing, a woman photographing nothing, but I can’t help myself. In the detritus and rust and brokenness of these pieces, I see something sublime and illuminating that I must frame; compositions worthy of greatness, a place where art, alchemy, the natural landscape, the city’s history, and randomness meet, like a mushroom blooming out a rotting log, a place where the cycle of creation and death reveal there is really no end to anything and that art is everywhere and in every thing.IMG_2194 - Copy

Exquisite Palimpsests

Palimpsest: Something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

“Of course, I can imitate a line, but that is not what I want, and the real line emerges when it wants to.” –The Journals of Jean Cocteau

Exquisite Palimpsest 1

The palimpsests I encounter most, at the moment, are the ones my 21-month-old son and I create together.

His first experience making art begins with lines lightly scrawled from a waxy midnight blue Crayola crayon, a few little squiggles per page. He informs me that they are, “Snakes, snakes.” He often likes to say a word twice and the repetition gives the word an immediacy and urgency that elevates it to a level of vast importance.

On a walk, just the week before his first forays in art-making, we came across a small injured Garter snake in the middle of the path that winds through our neighborhood. For many days, after, he would reflect back on the snake, “Snake ow, Mama.” And I would say, “Yes, the snake had an ow.”

When I write the letters of the alphabet on a page he informs me that the letters C, O and D are clearly, “Moon, Mama.”

He now requests I draw a bus, roughly, ten times a day. On the same page he continues to draw and draw repetitively in thick strokes until the representational image has vanished under something resembling a Jackson Pollock, if Jackson Pollock would have taken to the medium of crayons and magic markers.

Exquisite Palimpsest 2

We take turns sometimes with a single broken blunt scrap of crayon, like old friends sharing a flask of whiskey. He draws for ten seconds, hands the crayon stub to me, I draw for ten seconds, hand the crayon stub back to him. And we go on this way for half an hour on a single artwork. This is our Surrealist experiment, our Exquisite Corpse, our exquisite palimpsest.

Exquisite Palimpsest 5

At nine months old, my son started saying, “This.” It was a way for him to direct me toward what he wanted, but it was also a way for him to ask me the name of a thing. He would point up a painting in our home by Cuban-American artist Humberto Benitez, of a crowd of women and men dancing and drumming, in the spirit of a Diego Rivera, primary colors flashing and say, “This?” and I would say, “Art,” and he would repeat the word, “Art, art,” two times. Soon he would just point up to the painting and say, “Art” and I would say, “Yes! That is art.”

I hope the word art will hold an evolving meaning for him; a word that over time will just continue to absorb complexity, a word and a thing allowed to dance between definitions, dangling in its own balance, in a contented state of flux, but with its roots still intact; a word that will expand to the point in which it will defy definition over the years.

I hope I am able to teach him that art is a sort of ingenious game of the imagination, sometimes playful and invigorating, and that there is a delicious elation that can arrive during the process of its creation.

As a child, my dad would often take us to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He would say, “Mara, look at this painting! The textures and layers!” and so on. The only color on the crusty expanse of canvas: white.

My mind expanded on these family excursions – electricity surged though me – I experienced joy, ecstasy, inspiration – all this at once. I was awake, really seeing and taking it all in because art truly lit up my father. He became a firework beacon of light that could not be contained on these outings, because this was Art, Art I tell you! (with a capital A) and it was brilliant and vital and invaluable and had to be mulled over and examined. These mind-altering masterpieces could not be touched with our hands, but we let our eyes be windows to the soul when we looked at them through eyes that were seeing as if for the first time.

Exquisite Palimpsest 3

My toddler son and I are making our first works of art together in quick succession. We scrawl lines, circles, spirals, As and Os, wheels and eyes and noses, floating faces and body parts, snakes and sand, dots and dashes, the sea and the sky and trees until it all becomes an abstract expanse, like desert sand in a slow but strong moving storm, the new grains cover the old ones, until the ones underneath are barely discernible; until not a square inch of blankness is left or it all become monochromatic -one- one thick expanse of desert with all the geometric shapes and bodies and balls and boxes you could identify underneath barely visible, an almost clean slate of solid color with little flashes of white – an exquisite palimpsest we made together.

Exquisite Palimpsest 5