Throughout April there was a nagging, guilty, prodding awareness that I had no postings here. Today, with May tiptoeing in on rays of chilled sunshine, the lines from T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland kept running through my head:
I. THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Then I realized that this April marked year three anniversary of “The Deaths” and so I am officially letting myself off the hook. April did have a bit of a bite to her, and I only have images to offer here, not many words. And in anticipation of the warmer spring and summer to come: Images: 1. hibernation mandala in gouache and colored pencil on panel, 2. photo of Mom at 17, 3. chalk pastel meditation on unlined index card in anticipation of summer.
On this icy, foggy, frozen in day, I put my energies into Dad’s old moniker: Keep the clean and everything else will fall into place. I’m suspecting that this is a remnant of the Chinese Kitchen God, translated through the heart and hands of my engineer father who always had a word of wisdom, albeight practical and earthbound. Have you ever found that the best ideas come to you when your hands are in hot soapy water? My thoughts turned to a current graduate school project: my cultural self portrait.
The creative problem given was to fashion an aesthetically cohesive self portrait using your choice of media that reflects your cultural identity, values and experience. For those familiar with the multicultural counseling acronym: ADDRESSING, you will know that the following elements are considered:
A for Age and generational influences
D for Developmental and acquired
R for Religion
E for Ethnicity
S for Socioeconomic status
S for Sexual orientation
I for Indigenous heritage
N for National origin
G for Gender (1996, Hays)
Just reading through this acronym, for me, opens up perspectives of the various facets making up the unique identity and experience of any one individual.
For my own portrait, I found that I see myself as heavily impacted by the religious and ethical values of my parents. Mom’s Catholic upbringing resulted in my lifelong education within the Catholic school system with teaching nuns figuring strongly in my learning and academic experiences. Dad’s Confucious based system of ethics was infused in so much of our homelife, this was a silent education communicated through decisions, actions and interactions of daily life. Living in a biracial household with one immigrant parent and one parent living with mental illness was isolating. It is no wonder that my support came from these value based and more or less spiritual elements. To communciate this more directly, and to accentuate the dark figure from the dark background, I surrounded her in phrases that reminded me of my parents, and places with strong personality where my parents lived or where I lived that contributed to my cultural identity.
One thing that did startle me was the appearance of a skull as my artistic process emerged, and in particular its central placement as the face of the figure. Even though I am a person who thinks about death often, one who has experienced loss, and am currently working in a hospice program learning about art therapy with bereaved children and adolescents, I was STILL surprised to see this grinning skull appear. It rather gave me the creeps, the chills and the full on heebie jeebies. This is supposed to be a “Self Portrait” emphasis on self, note the skull face. CREEPY.
But after reflecting and reading up on the archetype of death as transformation, I suddenly felt surprisingly good, warm, even affectionate towards my little skull faced figure. When I view death or ending as creating the space for beginning, as part of a circular cycle of life that happens rather frequently as we grow, explore, learn and change, I feel empowered rather than devastated, interested rather than in despair, hopeful and energized
What would your cultural self portrait look like? Which archetype are you feeling resonance with these days?
Image: by me, rendered in chalk pastel on black drawing paper. words included as follows: Keep the kitchen clean, Joi de vivre, Be kind, Be kind to others, Love you lots, Eat the bitter in bitterness and become man above men. Thank you, world. Places included: Shanghai, Topeka, NYC, Riverside Drive, Chicago, The French Concession, San Francisco, Soo Chow, (and how funny I did not include NJ where I have lived so many years – I must be in denial, ha ha )
Information on the ADDRESSING Acronym : Hays, P.A. (1996) Addressing the complexities of culture and gender in counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74, 332-338.
If she hadn’t died of metastasized lung cancer, my sister, Deborah, would have been 59 years old today. In November, on the one year anniversary of her death, I tricked myself that I had reached a completion in a cycle of mourning for her, and met that day with a sense of breathless relief, as if crossing a finish line after the last leg of a long race, ready for the ice water and heading to the showers. I felt that I was putting something behind me.
Ha ha ha!
This spring I am interning at the Mental Health Association of Essex County. One of my key assignments is to co facilitate a sibling support group for individuals with a brother or sister who is living with mental illness. My tribe. Just like me. My role in the group is not about me, and yet, thanks to my sister, I am steeped in the experience of the group from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. Working in the group, and approaching her birthday, I slowly caught myself going a bit numb. Averting my eyes from the obvious herd of white elephants entering the chambers of my heart, the memories of Deborah and her craziness, the ways she hurt me, the ways she hurt herself and, despite it all, how much I miss her. The missing began long before she died, when she first became ill. All that much more, then, do I miss her, truly.
So this weekend, I found myself paying a shiva call to the family of a beautiful young woman, whose vivacious and generous life seemed to end midstream, too soon, unfinished. The whole way there, I cried for my sister. In awe, in gratitude, I cried. This is what I have missed, I realized, the open grief. The loss of the one, resonated with the loss of the other, like the vibration of a bell, ringing out in concert, in sympathetic response. This is life. This is community. We share in the fullness, we stand together in the loss and in the next breath the rebuilding begins, quietly, subtly, relentlessly, as it should be. But you need to cry, you need to take those gulping sobs of oxygen in and let that river of tears flow out, to keep the cycle going.
The process of grief is what it is. It patiently waits for you to catch up, to surrender, so that you can keep going forward to what comes next.
Happy Birthday, Deborah. I’m still pretty pissed for the havoc you caused. But I’ll get over it. I love you lots. You beautiful, wild thing.
As a footnote: I recently became aware of the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. Since I truly believe that the more we can share about our experiences and insights, trials, tribulations and triumphs in the struggle with mental illness, I am excited to participate in this project. Read more about it here, decrease stigma, encourage wellness, and share your experiences too.
“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”
Today I needed to send some sorrowful feelings up to the sky in the form of smoke. I brought back a sage and lavender smudge from the Taos Pueblo in January and today was the day. One year plus one day after my sister died. So I took it to the niche garden where Mom, Dad and Debbie’s urns are housed and lit that sucker.
I wasn’t fully prepared at how robustly it began to smoke and so I propped it into the center of some evergreen branches I had placed above their niches. The milky white billows were significant and satisfying. The entire hand wrapped smudge stick took about one hour to be consumed, and I was glad for the necessary pause demanded from my day to see the process through to completion. Soft delicate ash like phantom sprays of the sage fell to rest upon the stones I had placed beneath the vase.
Several times, just as the smoke seemed to quiet, the embers within the stick would glow red hot, emitting flickers of flame for brief moments. Yes, I thought, that is how grief is – you think it’s died down, that you are done, but suddenly the emotions return with a violence that stuns. Maybe I discovered some smudge medicine today, because it definitely spoke to me. The ins and outs of the embers, flames and smoke seemed to dance with me for that hour in the chilly, clear air of the afternoon. It felt good.
Today would have been Dad’s 93rd birthday so I thought it fitting to post something in honor of that. I haven’t yet allowed myself to finish reading his journal, but today I found passages he wrote during the time when Mom had a serious relapse and was hospitalized or in a transitional home for more than 50 days. (He kept count in his diary of the days they were apart.) She had come home for a visit and he had put on a music show featuring songs they loved during the fifties and sixties. As he tried unsuccessfully to get her to smile, he wrote, they began singing, Chances Are…, Stranger in Paradise, Smoke gets in Your Eyes, and Just Remember You Belong to Me…
Dad wrote: ” Being from an oriental upbringing, I didn’t even know how to wear a “silly smile” but miraculously the singer was serenading for me at last.”
I don’t know. How did he endure it? Those years when mom was not well, when the illness took over and she felt nothing but mistrust and suspicion of him? How did he keep his heart so continuously faithful and even hopeful? One passage in his journal describes a moment of reprieve when Mom embraced him and said the words: ” I trust you.”
“The nightmare is over!” He wrote in relief. Only to have the next entry begin with the words, “Alas – not so fast…” when she relapsed back into her paranoia. But he stayed the course for sixty years and seemed to adore her to the last day. I write these things because I think we all want to believe in lasting love and fidelity. I know I do. I write this because I don’t want to forget that I witnessed it live.
Maybe this journal entry is part of his secret to being able to love all those years:
My daughter reminded me that this weekend is marks Day of the Dead celebrations in various cultures and so we will be paying a visit to the cemetery today. I thought I would share some photos of sentimental jewelry I have collected over time that hold symbolic meaning rooted in the tradition of Victorian mourning jewelry. I would refer you to the Art of Mourning as a wonderful online resource and study of specific pieces and trends in this genre. My knowledge is very basic and the pieces I have collected are very personal and came to me based on emotional response to their visual and tactile aesthetic and to the way they spark my imagination. In particular, I have a thing for snakes:This little darling is an Edwardian piece, early 1900’s and I’ve taken him on as a kind of mascot. What I love about him is the detailed scaling on the back of his head, and the treatment of his smile , not pictured here, gives him an endearing grin. Queen Victoria’s famous engagement ring was a snake ring, symbolizing immortal love and you can find lovely examples of double snake rings with their tails entwined about one another in a sensuous embrace as a metaphor for eternal lovers. This fellow has a cabochon sapphire embedded atop his head that reminds me of the New Mexican sky and so gives me a fragment of piece when I look at it.
Partnered above is an example of a Victorian buckle ring fashioned in Chester, England during the 1890’s. Here it is the delicacy of the floral engraving that touched me, the ring, though wide, has a fragility about it, even as it represents the bonds of heart between loved ones. Buckle rings have been worn as marriage rings as well as memorial rings, again symbolic of relationships that transcend the physical plane. Here is a side view of a Victorian mourning ring, also made in Chester, England, of the same era as the buckle ring above. The dainty rose cut diamond in the center is embraced by seed pearls representing the tears of the bereaved. You will often see black materials such as enamel, jet or onyx adorning mourning jewels. Pearls, diamonds and garnets were also popular stones for remembrance. As individuals came out of their period of deep mourning, colors such as amethyst might be added, with black elements being used more minimally. Another fascinating element found in mourning rings typical to this period was the inclusion of an interior locket so that the hair of the departed loved one could be placed within as a memento.
Finally, below is a photo of two of my favorite vintage finds, ones that I find very soothing to wear: a belcher set moonstone band and a mid-century moss agate from London. What I love about these stones is their unpretentious, gentle luminosity. They have nothing to do with mourning, but beauty feeds the soul. Do you have vintage or sentimental pieces of jewelry that are dear to you? Like me, do you enjoy wearing items that have a past? To me, each one has a story, known or unknown to me, and that is half the enjoyment.
Wishing you a meaningful Day of the Dead, and may the memories of your loved ones bring you peace.