Today is a sacred holiday for millions of people. I was one of those jewish kids who celebrated Christmas but not for the religious significance, it was more about assimilating into American culture for generations before me. Yet, now it has become a sacred day for me too. Not to honor the birth of Christ, but rather to honor a woman who was my creator and therefore the creator of our family. Three years ago today, she took her last breath as a tear seeped from her eye flooding into the river of tears that flow into eternity by a family. Last night, we gathered together on my bed to light a Yahrzeit candle, to remember and to celebrate her spirit. Some of my kids told us about a similar dream where they were hugging and embracing her, could smell and feel her, yet she was not responsive. What did that mean? Do they feel abandoned? I think it is to remind them that even though her presence is not here in a literal sense, that they are her and she is a part of them, therefore always within their embraces. I know that sounds good and makes me feel better. I also know that I wish I felt that was true within myself. I miss that physical presence more than I can put into words. But I also know, that as we gathered on my bed, our connections and collective remembering lit up the room as brightly as the candle that burned.
As I reflect the day after the International Women’s Day, 2017, I am left a little disheartened. Not for the millions of women who marched, who picketed, who claimed their worth by not showing up! I despair over the reality of my own lack of worth. Not in a poor me kind of way. I learned early on that my choice to stay home to raise my children was always conflicted. I received my master’s in fine art, graduating 9 months pregnant. I knew I had to fit my art into my life, and for most of those years I continued to work in my little cocoon. I taught a class or 2 but I had to pay my babysitter more than I was making, which brings me to the conundrum. The value I placed on the work of someone else to stay with my 4 children was actually higher than the value placed on me to spend 2 hours with 10 children in an art class. So I stayed home instead and I built my artist studio in my house and I fit my work into any time I could. And when I still struggle to find that time between doctor appointments, grocery shopping, and helping with homework, I cringe at the thought that so many other women who feel stretched between our work and ourselves, our work and our families, our work and the world who still devalues our worth. I watched in amazement as fellow democrats felt unsure about Hillary, not sure they “liked” her. Is it because she was a woman in power? Are they doing that now to others, like Elizabeth Warren? Was yesterday successful? Did the world notice? I felt emotional yesterday. I noticed every woman around me, who was working in the workplace and at home….holding together, doing it all. I know we have come a long way, even if those around us try to take us back to that time long ago. We will fight, we will speak out, we will prevail.
Committed to blog, committed to share, to spread ideas, to dialogue. But where do the words go and how do we connect the dots? I blog on my website, alone and solitare. Then, I post on Facebook where friends like, share and comment. So the stream of communication flows outward. In the climate of politics today, I am inspired, I am motivated, I am impassioned to scream out, to rise up, to join forces. Artists have a responsibility to speak out against oppression, to cry out against taking away funding for the arts and humanities. So today I move past posting about the process of loss of a mom, even though that mourning still haunts me everyday, to move towards a new mourning...a mourning of a world I thought I knew. Yesterday’s world, people cared for each other, women had earned respect and honor, not stifled and told to sit down. Our bodies mattered, they had marched and choices were left to freedom, supremely passed in past generations. Yet here I march, not alongside those in the past, but today alongside my daughter in fear, in anxiety. We marched to denounce locker room banter that diminishes our bodies, and we marched to find hope and gain control of our spiraling emotions. My work continues to express the necessity of connection of mind of body and of spirit. It retains the power of healing, not just on itself but on the whole. But here, I covered her hands, our hands with the layers of gold, to shield the memories of what was as I detach and let go, I grasp onto what was before we lost.
I haven’t written in this blog in awhile, perhaps I have been blocked by mourning. Loss is not only about getting through the first year, because after time passes the pain and grief remain. Time does not heal, even though it passes. The memories fade, but not the longing. It is an individual action that no one can ease. We are alone in it, even if we are surrounded by those we love. But, that is not necessarily a bad thing. It is not as dismal as it appears. There is something sacred and grounding about digging down deep to feel what that person meant to you. I am no expert. Many people have lost more than I. I look to them for a quiet guidance that will lead me to a greater understanding. How do we move forward with the absence of phone calls, missing birthdays, holidays and the everydayness of life? Is it the knowledge of the the depth of love and relationship, rooted in trust and devotion. I haven’t written because it is impossible to put into words the feelings and truthfully the audience dwindles over time. It is pointless to ruminate on what was, it is in the past….kind of like the politics of the day. The past is gone, the future lies unsure and choppy. Yet, I try to visual the calm waters where I float on my back trusting the waves won’t crash over my head. I have focused so much on mourning in these posts but perhaps it is time to move on from that as well. We shall see where we go together.
I have curated Voices & Visions; Standing on the Bridge Between Health and Disease since 2010. Each exhibit has called for work that expresses how cancer affects our lives. The first 3 exhibits focused on women’s health, with an emphasis on breast and ovarian cancer. Last year, we broadened our call to include all work about cancer as a metaphor for facing mortality and how those struggles help us find meaning. All revealed the power of art on healing. As part of the Voices part of the exhibits, we have asked questions to the community, including artists and non artists, pertaining to how cancer has changed our perspectives on our bodies, our ability to find strength even when vulnerable, ways cancer has shaped us, and how cancer can be a metaphor. The result has been an overwhelming expression of a common theme - that out of darkness comes light. While I await for new entries, I reflect on what question I should ask this year. Inspired by my friend Marlene, who wrote a manifesto read at her memorial service called, “The Fringe Benefits of Cancer”, which she wrote a year earlier after her breast cancer had spread to her brain. In her honor, as well as that of my mom to whom I am dedicating the 2016 exhibit, I would like to ask this question.
In the words of my friend Marlene,
Is there a “fringe benefit” of cancer? If so, feel free to share a positive impact of cancer on your life.
Please feel free to respond on this post, or email me directly to carenhelene.TAC@gmail.com
I am hoping to get as many responses as possible to fill our wall with your voices.
The Role of the Artist
What is the role of the artist but to communicate? We can make work, sitting in a room, a studio, a space where no one sees what you pour your heart into. We can write about our work and we can post it on an internet screen that glosses over the subtle details of texture and depth. We can submit to exhibitions where depending on the vision of a curator we are accepted but more often rejected. But, then we get opportunities for what we aspire to do, when we can share our work. When that occurs, it feels good.
Yesterday I had a studio visit for a prospective show. Yes, I was excited. I cleaned and organized my usually disastrous studio. I hung pieces wherever I could find space and I laid out my heart and soul of the last few years, revealing the piles of series that I hope to one day exhibit. It felt invigorating. It reminded me of my own value, my mission, and it helped to summarize the last 27 years of building up to now, a body of work that I am both proud and insecure. I am both articulate and speechless. I stumble on my own thoughts and words not because I don’t know what to say, but because I try to fit it all in, in that one short visit. I cram the images and explanations to validify all that I am. When I share myself, it feels good.
Later that day, I visited a friend who is a different kind of artist. She designs and sells jewelry. I had to exchange a gift and I uncomfortably entered her space, combing through her merchandise. I picked out some earrings and was about to leave when she asked about my art. I told her about the blog and she responded maybe I could write about her. With that she delved into her story, she described her process with a passion, the primitive and the precious. I hadn’t thought about that as I boxed the shimmering earrings, but as I learned that she didn’t design them but rather bought to complete her vision around other pieces. She excitedly pulled out metal bracelets, paired with delicate fringed ones, and those went with these pieces...she was revealing herself as artist. I wanted to support another artist who was so completely different from me, so I put back the earrings and happily left draped in her designed pieces. I was reflecting the primitive and the precious, inspired by her story. When I can support an artist, it feels good.
It is the connection that I have always strived for as an artist. When we touch someone, it doesn’t matter if it is high art, or sidewalk chalk, if it is academic or commercial. The point is to see the work as a common link to connect us as people, using a common language that doesn’t judge but rather colors with different perspectives and values. It is about giving voice to what is sometimes hard to say, it is about feeling deeply, and expressing freely. It is political in its innate ability to reflect opinions and points of view, always placed in the context of who we are and where we come from. When we connect in that way, it feels good.
So much in life is about holding on and letting go. We hold on to memories, loved ones, hope. We struggle to let go of past hurts, insecurities, and losses. Cancer is one of those things that force us to both hold on and let go all at once. As I work on my art series, Holding On, for the Voices and Visions Exhibition opening this fall, I grasp her hands, I print out our hands, and I transfer those images over and over. I hold on to each image merging them with the materials, like layers of skin, to create a piece that represents the grief of losing a mom, a grandmother, a friend. But after months, I realized that I also needed to express the pain of the letting go. The ying and the yang. I needed to represent the cancer and although there are fewer of them, they hold a lot of power. They are dark and insidious...just like the disease. They lurk in the midst of the beauty of the person, revealing itself through symptoms that even doctors can’t define. They overshadow the life that one wants to live, with lives that are tangled in treatments. Cancer infiltrates our lives. We try over and over to let it go and at times it feels overwhelming and insurmountable, impossible to do. But here is the paradox, that in the midst of grief, there remains some ability that continues to exist that enables you to hold on to hope, to hold onto memories, and to hold on to the feelings of how each touch of our hands gave us the strength to both hold on and let go.
After completing 365 images for the Previving Series, a project that documented my year of enduring life saving surgeries, I stopped to reflect. It took 3 years to represent the year and I was proud of the accomplishment. But what then? What now? The pile sits high, 365 stacked 18 x 24 unstretched canvas sheets, among the other piles of old work, against the wall of my already crowded studio. The proposed installation space is stalled by my own inability to figure out how to find it. I am inundated with emails that state, “Caren, we have seen your work on (specific site) and we invite you to exhibit or submit to this exhibition or art fair.” At first, excited with optimism only to learn to scroll down to see the financial burden if chosen. Today, I received this one,
DEAR FRIEND ARTIST,
WE ARE WAITING FOR YOU THIS BIG EXPOSITION INTERNATIONAL.
Scroll to bottom, open attachment, read...190,00 euro plus shipping and handling. So, you are judged by merit maybe and then you have to pay. Some galleries ask for money upfront, suggesting a corporate sponsorship even to exhibit in Chelsea. It is overwhelming, so I turn around and go back into my studio. Yet, I yearn for the connection, the stimulation, the intellectual discourse and conversation, whether about my own process or the state of the art world in the age of social media. And I tweet, and I post now on facebook, instagram, on my blog. I feel like I am in one of those dreams where I shout out and no one can hear me, (my old issues in therapy by the way). Where is the human contact that attracted me to art in the first place? I sink into my studio where I fill whatever empty spaces I can with feelings and struggles, with life choices and with life experiences, as I connect mind and body through art. I curate a biennial exhibition using cancer as a metaphor for life’s fragility and I submit to shows that interest me. Sometimes, I am accepted. When I an rejected it is hard not to feel the pangs of disappointment. I have been working for 25 years, I try to stay focused, try not to get discouraged, always reaching for a wider audience. Mostly, I continue to communicate through images and words, so that I move someone in a meaningful way. I suppose that is the reason I became an artist in the first place.
To Be Disconnected
How is it we are both connected and disconnected all at once? The awareness of how they interweave has always consumed my work, but now it infiltrates my life as well. Walking in the streets of England feels both familiar and foreign. I cling to the change, escaping into the adventure from the thoughts that have consumed me up until now, hoping they subside just for a brief time. It is a time to focus, not on what was lost, but rather what will become my new normal. I am so used to calling and writing to her each experience, every place I visit. I remembered the letters of my year abroad which became a daily journal, not written on a computer, but by hand, on thin blue tissue air mail paper. I poured out to her the endless stream of words, opening up every inner thought of my year of evolution. Ever since, whether through text or calls, I had an ear of someone who was genuinely interested in every site, every meal, every story. Without her to listen, what holds the memory for me? A disconnected moment, a break in the routine. I know that the space will fill in with someone, with the family that is here, but there a bond between a mother and daughter uniquely merged in connection which is no longer present. I am not a daughter role, no longer the child of a mother. Even as an adult, the loss makes me regress into the child I wish I still was. I continue to hold onto the hands that are both like mine, familiar in look and feel, but without the point of touch, foreign and unrecognizable. I comb through the images from after the stroke, of her hand that was no longer hers, unrecognizable but yet familiar. It had become her mother’s. How did her brain compensate for the loss, knowing the comfort of a mother was what was necessary for her survival. I return home to the empty house, echoing the empty feeling of return, and the silence of calls not made.
I couldn't wait to get home to write about the incredible memorial service for my friend Marlene. We sat in the historic all white church celebrating her life, just exactly as she planned and I wanted to recall each moment. During the service, it felt like everything was getting embedded in my mind and heart, however, as I sat down to write, I froze. I suddenly couldn't remember anything specific. It was like my memory became a blur of emotion and feeling, with only an overall image of the scene without anything tangible. So maybe I needed a day to recover, hoping that perhaps the program would spark a synapsis in my brain, to redraw the event. It started with a neighbor’s acoustic guitar playing, As Tears Go By, no one possibly knowing how much that song made me cry at summer camp so many years ago. But now, there was almost nothing. I was stuck in the sea of sterile white, unable to connect perhaps out of my defenses due to the too muchness of the year. From there came poems and heartfelt eulogies from friends and a reverend who was both clergy and friend, all woven between songs carefully hand picked by Marlene, not “sappy” (her word), but for sure sad. From Trouble Will Soon Be Over, by Sinead O'Conner to Heavenly Day, belted live by a very talented friend I did not know. Still I sat engulfed by the heat, suffocating by the emptiness in my body. Until came the crescendo, what everything was leading up to... Marlene’s manifesto. I couldn’t begin to paraphrase the entire thing, but even the premise was filled with Marlene’s tone, taken from JK Rowlings Harvard commencement speech titled, The Fringe Benefits of Failure. She called hers the Fringe Benefits of Cancer, written at a time when she could not even read. It made us laugh, and it definitely made us cry. The icey cold surroundings of suffering melted into tears, both fulfilling and sad. She spoke of each of us, especially her family, but including those of her many friends she considered family; the merry maids, the Grace girls, and of course her Muppet Wives. She spoke of the advantage of being able to slow down, take her time, and mostly to stop to smell those metaphoric roses. She was allowing herself permission to reflect on her life and she so poetically and deeply gave her family a lifetime of praise and love, enough to sustain even when her absence has settled and time passes. And then when we all were surrounded by her voice, the music played. I don’t know if I ever heard that song before, but the lyrics, Keep Me In Your Heart, by Warren Zevon, was heart wrenchingly beautiful and the tears that had been building with a slow drip rushed out from deep inside. Squeezed between another muppet wife and muppet friend, I was grateful for their hands of comfort and mine went out to them as well. As we began to compose ourselves, the final song...Dance in Graveyard, by Delta Rae. Peter had told us all it was coming, joking that Marlene envisioned everyone standing and dancing. He had said he replied to her, not a chance of that happening in our state. I looked at Amy, Marlene’s best friend from childhood and she swayed to the rhythm. It could have gone both ways, from a subtle sway to an upright frenzy, but we all sat kind of frozen, kind of moving. I think it was an internal dance, one that comes from within. I looked at her kids and her husband and knew that they were drained and content with a day of loss, of love, of closure, and of honor. Finally, as we filled the tent with even more friends and family a drizzle of rain trickled down from what had started as a sunny day. And then, at the very end, I don’t know who heard it but it was a loud rumble, either from thunder or a train. Was it a sign or just a clap to jolt us back to reality...to move us on once again in the wake of cancer.
As my childhood family has dwindled and we grieve during this year of firsts, holiday's seem to elicit even more reflection. We know how fortunate we are to still have parents, especially as grandparents for our own children. Yet the children inside of us cries, tears reminding us of how much is lost. My children have only grandfathers remaining. It is a yo-yo effect, the appreciation for the view as we sat looking out at the lake, all of us together, enjoying a moment of Father's Day with our dad, grandfather, husbands. The water was a greenish blue, like the Caribbean and we were all filled with the beauty of the day. We laughed, joked, told funny stories. However, there was also the sense that we all knew what was lost and missing. A mom who would have been the first to point out the color of the water, a mom who taught us the meaning of forgiveness, a mom who showed us the strength to persevere. She hovered over our thoughts that day and everyday. I don't know why but that night I was sleepless and restless. The craziness of the past year flooded my thoughts. How the hell did we miss this? How did cancer hide so elusively? Why did doctors tell us she would not die of this reoccurrence? That night I somehow felt responsible and craved to move back time. One of her friends who came up to us that day reminded us how lucky we were to have had such a phenomenal and caring mom and grandmother. We knew she was right. I looked at my dad watching us as she spoke and I saw the concern in his eyes. He knows how we feel because he lost an old friend too. All of the past pains of divorce seemed irrelevant and once again we were reminded of how life moves on and forward. Happy father's day to all the the men who can see the depth of what is in their children's eyes, even if it is hard to see. Happy father's day to my husband for understanding, unfortunately too clearly, what it is to loose a mom. Happy father's day to my brother in law who has shown what it means to truly father, even those who did not plan to father. Yes, I was grateful that day too. The string pulled me up once again
With a camera in hand, I was witness to how life moves on and forward. My beautiful niece radiated as she helped all of us see what we need to see. Set on a picturesque Northern Woods lake, we all found joy in their happy place. Life cycles and moves forward because that is the way it works...a new day, the sun shines, and there are new beginnings. There is hope and happiness, even after the storm. I hesitate to write about the elephant in the room, not wanting to dampen one second of the momentum, but it is impossible to ignore the absence of the person who taught us all the meaning of love. But she was there, she was always there, always all around us. She was there in the celebration and all of us carried her smile from within. It is because of her foundation that got us here, watching what can happen on a pontoon boat, in the middle of a remote lake, surrounded by the most incredible light and love. Thank you Drew for sharing the next journey, the next cycle, the new day.
I am beginning to think I am a constant bearer of bad news. This time, this call, this post is once again about the loss of another amazing mom, another beautiful soul, another friend. They call us the muppet wives, a joke we like to tell about how they could do a reality show about us except we would bore our audience to death with our sappy love for each other. Common interests and unusual careers brought us together, but the bond of family was the bonus, the gift. We became a muppet family as we traveled oceans creating new lives for ourselves in foreign places. And we sadly and proudly watched Marlene, not fight cancer as her husband elegantly described, but lived with it for 5 years. She never wallowed or feared but instead showed us the power of just living...everyday. She continued to love her family and friends. She stayed her true self until the end. My last day with her was a gift of a beautiful spring day, where we got to sit holding hands while the Forsythia bushes bursted with golden yellow around us. I was reminded when I asked her to share a picture of her body post mastectomy for a collaboration to use in my Redefining Beauty Project. Marlene didn't just snap an image. She took her time, thoughtfully sending the most extraordinary image of a woman with one breast standing in a warrior stance. I was in awe, hating to cover or alter her work...a statement reflecting so much about her courage. Her husband text me last week that she could only turn her head towards the pieces of art I made. He said, "she seems to only have eyes for your paintings!" I have never felt more proud or successful as an artist. I have never felt the strength of art more profoundly. The love I poured into the work came from deep within my heart with the hopes of building a link between a soul sister friend. I hope the lesson learned reveals the power of art on healing and connecting. I only wish I could tell my friend one more time what she meant to me.
I am 52 years old today, but it is my first birthday without my mom. The regressive feeling that permeated through my veins, missing that first call, that lunch, that love. It is bound to happen in the year of firsts, and I dreaded the day. However, when the sun was shining in the morning, I thought I needed to get out and smell the lilacs, take that walk, meet with my amazing sister for lunch, enjoy life in her honor. As the black clouds rolled in later in the day, I was reminded that with the sun, comes the need for rain, symbolizing the tears I was holding in, holding back. We take for granted the love of a mother, until that day when it is gone. Then, miraculously a group of sister friends appeared and I saw how the warmth comes even during the storm. There will be another cycle. The life force is like that...it is wrapped in confusing and evolving emotions and the gift of family and friends do sustain us. My mom would have wanted me to know that.
As I stood listening to the ancient chants at a memorial park, honoring my friend's father on memorial day, I was taken back by the beauty of the green grass, the blowing wind and the notion of family. This man was the epitome of someone who lived his life with honor. When the rabbi asked to throw out adjectives to describe him, loving, generous, full of life...until one of the grandchildren, a young girl, loudly stated, "integrity". The rabbi turned around abruptly surprised by the advanced vocabulary of the girl and asked her why she said that, maybe unsure if she understood its meaning. She responded, "because he did good things when no one was looking." That reflects a life worth honoring this memorial day.
To say goodbye to the house that symbolized new beginnings and hopefulness. To gather the things that make up a life, to bring them home and surround yourself with what little there is left to remember. We hold on to every morsel, every smell, every picture...knowing how fleeting life is. Lasts are hard, pulling out of the driveway, tears streaming, with thunder looming. The comfort that we found sitting in a closet among your things, looking out your window through your eyes, loving what you loved, that is what we will miss, pulling away.
The bittersweet mother's day, from the absence of my mom to the amazing pride watching my daughter graduate college. I got home to an email from a woman who saw my work at Fortunate Discoveries in Chicago. She loved it and was going to save up to buy it. I meant to offer a half off sale in honor of mother's day but had forgotten so told her I would sell it for half of the list price. She was ecstatic. I have to admit that I was too....I told her I felt like my mom was looking down smiling...she said hers too. We have never met but a part of me lives in her home. It is an eery and wonderful feeling. It is what connects us to each other, to art and to those we love. Thank you Gail!
The first mother's day without my amazing mom and although it is devastating and sad, I can't help but celebrate the beautiful woman she was to all that knew her. Her quirky ways to enjoy her food continue to make us smile. Her "darlings", and her emoji's, her texts that made no sense and her endless energy are the things that we loved the most. Those of us that loved her for who she was, honor her memory by knowing her value...a value beyond money and things, a value determined by love, and a value that sustains us with the truth. My mom gave of herself in a deep and a profound way. We all miss her tremendously, and this mother's day will be a hard one. But my grandma always said, "everyday is mother's day"....we love and miss you everyday, mom.
As mother's day is approaching, the sick feelings of longing creep into my veins. I miss her voice, her calls, her advice, her love. I hold on tightly to my mom's value, as a person, as a wife, as a grandmother. Those of us who passionately loved her, honor her memory with full appreciation for all that she meant to us. A mom and a grandmother and a friend who gave of herself with a depth of concern and caring, who warmly wore her bright and beautiful smile. We miss her everyday, a grief so deep that can only be soothed by remembering her gentle touch.
Ever since graduate school, I have done work about genetics. Our connection to our ancestors, to future generations, seep deep in our veins. They are found in likenesses, the color of our eyes, hair, skin...and they are found in our mutations. I know that my genes carry the BRCA1 mutation and my work reflects life after finding out. Our bloodlines are our footprint, our legacy, and they tell our stories. Finding out mine, allowed me to rewrite my history and preempt future disease. I was both lucky and scared all at once.