March 9, 2023

Paths of Motion

Thinking about care (from afar) of our Dad who has dementia, and who is slowly fading, brings up past grief for our lost Mom, and it brings up so much fear. A friend suggested to me the other day that, since I was trained from early on to think my way through things and rewarded for the use of my brain in intellectual pursuits, there must have been an accompanying fear about the loss of that ability. A fear we never talked about in my family. 

Then Mom died of a glioblastoma in her brain stem and Dad is losing his grip on his mind as we watch and wait and just try to keep him safe. My sister and I talk about this present moment, where he is now and what time is like for him, and that leads to talk about Mom and what happened to her, how sudden and terrifying and weirdly acute it was. She was the one who taught us to use our brains for self-protection, as the marker of identity, as the management tool for complicated feelings, as the place to shove unwanted or confusing things. These were some of her survival skills. She died at 60 when she was betrayed by her brain. 

Nothing I could do after she died could help me manage the loss and love and grief; I could never think my way through that. And I have, I see now, very poor skills at living with grief. Having a parent with dementia is like grief telling me to get a guest room inside myself ready for a permanent stay, but in order to do so I have to find the space and create the plans and make the walls -- and I have so few tools and such little material to build with, I am bereft.

I look backward (as I am sure all of us dealing with grief do in these moments) and see times when there was loss, when I lost someone, and it can overwhelm. Learning to let it happen means really recognizing how hard a life of loss is. Means seeing how hard parts of my life have been, because I loved people and then they were gone and I did not know how to let that in. I did not understand that I have been brokenhearted. Or that feeling the intensity of loss is real and good and a part of living that is pervasive, common, and expected.

Last week I recalled a childhood friend who died in a boating accident at 15, and I allowed myself to remember that I loved him, that I had met him in second grade and that I had looked forward to being in high school with him, that he made me laugh, that he was wry, that he was sweet. It was hard to fight through the fear of facing that memory. But I am learning that if I can make space for those good memories and those real feelings, and that loss that is so real to me, then it may be possible to build guest rooms inside myself and to make the space for all that love, the space for grief.


March 2, 2023


From what I can recall from childhood, Connecticut summers regularly featured thunderstorms in surround-sound, and the humidity made the season feel like it was always on you, not around you. The summers I spent in Minnesota as a 20-something were the antithesis; you could see the thunderheads building from across the flat, and you could watch the sky turn from blue to green to black, storm directly over you, and then quickly reassemble its calm blue face.

The clouds in Minnesota bundled together at the end of the day and were pulled offstage like a cluster of balloons. The sky in Connecticut was more like the pale-hued wall of a hospital or a school, a wall propped up between you and the Long Island Sound. Some days were grey/blue, some grey, some white. And at night the cloud wall would stretch out to the horizon and settle into a deeper grey. The sky was never fully dark -- too much ground light from the densely packed suburbs, and from Manhattan, 30 miles away -- and never really clear enough to see many stars.
The beach in our town was built on a point jutting out into the Long Island Sound, so that even though the coastline ran along the town's southern edge, you could go to the point and stand on a beach and look east, out to the imagined Atlantic and then Spain and then Mongolia. Or you could stand on another stretch of beach and look southwest and (squinting) see the skyline of lower Manhattan, or you could stand on another small beach and look straight south, across to the mundane mirror shoreline of Long Island. This was the unchanging geography of my childhood. 
The geography of adulthood is still being mapped. The sky in Wyoming on a September night was overflowing with stars, and I felt, looking up, as if I was falling into a pool of crystals -- just as my husband had promised I would. I don't recall the sky from my years in Boston; I spent that time looking down, or sitting in a class, or waiting for the T. And our first summer in northerly Seattle, it seemed as if the sky just moved from blue to deep blue to indigo, though the pines blackened at night.
Then, in Northern California, south of foggy San Francisco, west of the scorching central valley, in a spot between the muggy bay to the east and, to the west, the foothills that hold the seawall back at night. There were so few clouds. I was unaccustomed to the colors there, having grown up in a world that was, in every possible way, a muted palette (the milky purple crocuses coming up by the church on the hill on the Post Road counted as "vibrant" there) and having lived for years in the northwest, where it seemed everything but the sky was some tone of green. 
Even my car looked like a different color there, a funky super-infused purple. And the gardens in my neighborhood were ridiculous with reds. My eyes were newly saturated with the intensity of color and the yellow-white daylight of the here that has always been here (so different than the cool white of Minnesota days) and this made me weep with relief.

World of Wonders

Every human starts out with one cell and we develop, via regulatory processes we are still learning about, into a collection of about 10 trillion cells. To date those 10 trillion cells have been categorized into about 300 types, and we know how to turn one type of cell into another type, and we know that different cells seem to have different preferences about where they like to live and what surfaces they like to grow on. And we know that the proteins within cells cluster together. Just like stars.
Another thing we know now is that "waltzing" pairs of black holes way way way out in space do their dance (follow their pattern of movement) in a way that echoes the movement pattern of electrons in their little tiny orbits around tiny nuclei in tiny atoms. This seems both revelatory and common sensical -- that the movement in atoms, which make up all stuff, echoes the movement of all objects made of stuff. 
But who is the "we" I am referring to here? How many people really have an active engagement in the connections between atomic motion and the motion of invisible, immortal celestial bodies? And of course there is the question of what one does with the knowledge. Does knowing a thing compel one to spread the word? And what does knowing a thing mean, anyway? Facts are mutable, in time, and history is mutable as well. I used to "know" that punk rock would change modern life forever, that architecture was apolitical, that no one could ever be as bad a president as Reagan, and that Einstein wasn't a slut.
I also used to "know" that new endeavors of the mind were always their own reward, that curiosity was always a fuel for happiness, and that travel was always thrilling. But with age comes wisdom, especially about plane travel...and the recognition that it is patterns (of thought, of motion, of experience) rather than new and unique instances that make up most of what is. 
So, if one recognizes a pattern, is one compelled to spread the word? I realize most of my paintings are exactly that. They are expressions about the sudden recognition of a pattern. I know I often feel something like compulsion when I approach the canvas -- not to capture something of myself there, but to capture a moment of recognition before it blinks by.
As if I can see, however briefly, what a vast collection of individual movements (thoughts, memories, reactions, words) looks like as a whole. And as if capturing that perception is worthwhile.

Aphelion is Imminent Too

Can one really understand how fear acts on the motion of belief?
One NASA scientist who is tasked with answering the public's questions about the 2012 Doomsday end-of-the-world hoopla has named this unique fear; he calls it "cosmophobia." Every day he hears from people who are actually fearful that an invisible planet (possibly guided by aliens) is on a collision course with the earth right now. Or that solar storms will cause a polarity shift in the sun and cause an earth-wide electromagentic pulse to wipe out all electronics in about two years. They fear the event, they fear for their lives, and they fear "the government" is covering up the truth. Sure, people claim that they are scared of imminent death, but is that the root cause of the force that is fear? I see people react with fear to passive, non-threatening things all the time -- particularly to "challenging" works of art, and, of course, to abstraction. And anything in the cosmos is also an abstract idea, in the sense that it is out of the realm of our immediate experience. But why does it follow that the response is fear? Is it that all fearful people think communication of any sort is an expression of a belief system, and therefore an inherent challenge?
This morning I encountered a man who challenged me on my "belief" that we are all made up of atoms. "Don't believe it" he said, "you are made of the spirit!" I honestly had no idea what to say. It is tempting to dismiss his challenge as evidence of his ignorance, but if he does not regard himself as ignorant, what point is there in me claiming so? What is more interesting to me it the idea that he is threatened somehow (or his belief system is destabilized somehow) by...atoms. If you want to change motion, you need a force which will act on an object and cause acceleration. But if you want to maintain the status of a belief, is a forcefield of fear required? I wonder about that as the Catholic Church sex-abuse story grows globally, and as the impact of Arizona's new immigration status law plays out here...and as veil-wearing women in Yemen protest in favor of the practice of granting men child brides. The same atom-fearer mentioned above also believes that rape is "not always bad" since it is God's prerogative that sperm is destined for a unique egg, and man must follow God's law without question. 
What is it like to live a life of submission? And if you submit to life within that forcefield of fear which is required to maintain your beliefs about weird art, or African American Presidents, or alien-guided killer planets...can you really ever view yourself as a free human being, as free as any of the rest of us?