Slouching Towards Bethlehem

I made scores of nativity scenes like these between 1993 and 1998. During this period I participated in several craft shows, not the usual kind that you used to see that were all dried-flowers-and-Amish-bonnet shit.

People would say, what kind of art do you do? Or what medium do you work in? You can hardly blame them, it's a polite way to respond to the provocation "I'm an artist." I'd say, "Um, er, I don't really have a medium... I do sort of postmodern crafts. It's not like the craft stuff you're used to. You'd probably like the stuff I make but you might not consider it art, which is fine with me. Instead of making one object for $1000 I do like 40 for $25. And my subject matters is usually religious or political stuff, often I make things that are funny or erotic. Yeah, not really fine art either."

I always mingled sacred with profane. Yes, it's a sardine can. And the matchbook has a Christmas tree on the other side. Undigging, moving, this is the first time I've had to photograph them, and these are leftovers, not my best samples. I'm also responsible for the Virgin of Guacamole and the Socks of Turin.

I gave up on any hope of making stuff for a living probably around the same time the real postmodern craft movement, the Crafty Bastards and Subversive Cross-stitchers, the stuffed tampon and artisanal teddy bear makers, was brewing. As breadwinner I needed to make real money.

So it was, maybe, a coulda, woulda, shoulda.

All my art was consumer-oriented (like the above) and a great deal of it had a sacred sort of theme, even though it was often sacrilegious. So I decided to go to business school. I could, at the least, design products to be made in India and China.

Did I mention coulda, woulda, shoulda?

It is peculiar subject matter for me, with my (lack of) religious background. I really wanted a child. Gavin and I struggled through infertility for nearly eight years. Maybe making dozens of little babies in straw, obsessing over sequined stars and miraculous conceptions while blasting the Roches "We Three Kings" in my garret was my way to cope with that emptiness. Planning to conceive governed all the decisions I made in my 30s, the big ones.

I finished b-school, got pregnant at last, delivered my daughter, and received my husband's terminal diagnosis in less than two years. At 39, I was a widow using my degree to keep my remaining tiny family out of financial catastrophe.

You can see in the artwork that I'm into the "reveal," the surprise, holding out. Peeling back the sky. I try to tell my stories this way, too.

"BASTA!," I cry, an Italian grandmother over a hot pot of caldo verde, underway for Christmas dinner. "ENOUGH!"

I think I've connected the dots, some of which only started to show as I got involved in my Unitarian Universalist church after Gavin's death. After I listened.

I think I'm meant to be a UU minister. I had a "call" last May and have been pondering it, trying not to write about it till I'm sure, thinking, dreaming. I'm considering divinity school nearby, which would allow me to keep writing part-time.

It's really weird to (1) have a direction, (2) find something like this that fits an agnostic New York punk rocker, (3) think about myself as a spiritual person and someone capable of caring for a community. It's strange to me to think of some of my "skills" as just that, when I've spent so much energy in my life trying to change. This choice wouldn't be possible, either, if I hadn't transformed myself a bit.

It had to happen this way, slowly, with detours. In some ways ministry doesn't fit at all, in other ways, it's perfect harmony that was waiting for me to find it.

I'm not sure. I'm never sure.

But sometimes great things grow from unexpected seeds. (Insert a better metaphor here.) (PLEASE.)

Merry Christmas.

* I know, it's Portuguese soup. So sue me. I've seen too many Fellini movies. My vegetarian mother is here and I don't feel like cooking, this is something that can stay on all day while I hide in the bedroom.

* * * Comments * * *


The Afterlife: What I Believe

Actually I lied. I did not let my late husband rest in peace, permitting his beliefs to continue untouched. At least when it came to answering our daughter’s questions.

I am a great salesperson if I believe in the product, but I couldn’t believe in Gavin’s stark vision of what happens to us after death: “time’s up, lights out.” And God forbid I let an innocent in my charge come away thinking I believe in a feathery afterlife. (I’ll tolerate it like Santa: if she picks it up, fine, but I’m not going to sell it). O heaven: You are a provocateur.

So when she asked, “Where is Daddy now?” -- when “he’s in our hearts and we can remember him, he’s in photographs and we can talk about him, he left his artwork for the whole world to enjoy” was no longer enough, as the idea of permanence grew for her -- I told her what I believe.

I’d like to tell you I’m a good Buddhist or perhaps that I believe we all are reincarnated as animals, that we fulfill our karma and work continually to complete our missions on earth in another flesh. I love it when other people believe these colorful, justice-promoting stories. They’re getting closer, but those beliefs are just not mine, not now.

After Gavin died, I finally read His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, a trilogy touted in the New Yorker as an alternative to Harry Potter, a tale of a heroic tween girl, a fantasy that bears a compelling contemporary sort-of-theology.

And it was wonderful for me. Over thousands of pages I was transported, these alternative realities planted the seeds for my starting to date, fomented breakthroughs in all kinds of fantasies. Best of all, the heroine, Lyra, frees the dead, who’ve been trapped by a false religion/science in a limbo land, ugliness and nagging without rest, a gray soup of souls hopeless of connection or change.

I can’t quote because I gave the books to The First at our only Christmas two years ago, but here’s what I recall:

At liberation, the dead from all eras are at last allowed to tell their stories, and they are led up into a world (one populated with wonderful wheeled elephant-like creatures, but no matter, could be any world) where they dissolve into atoms and merge with the environment: sky, trees, plants, creatures, rocks, water. I cried when I read it, happy to find a beautiful solution that suits me.

This vision is no heaven, but a chance to exist, unrecognized, knowing you’re not quite alone, maybe making silent inhuman difference or maybe just observing with the barest dot of consciousness. Or maybe completely dissipated and melded five minutes later. Only slightly less bleak, maybe, but enough for me.

That’s what I’d like to think, which is another way of saying, it is what I believe.

* * * Comments * * *


The Afterlife: What my Dead Husband Believed

I’ve been asked recently whether I believe in heaven. Gavin didn’t, and since it was his death, I felt that his beliefs should be those that governed.

I know, it doesn’t make sense; I can imagine him wherever I want to. But somehow it doesn’t seem fair to insist his soul do what I ask when he isn’t even on this plane anymore. Isn’t compromise at the heart of all marriages? Even the ones that are no longer active?

Gavin was raised Catholic and he thought they were great stories, but he never had any expectation that there was truth there. He studied science and Buddhism but the afterlife was not among his primary theological concerns. He told me clearly, once during his last four days of life (when he was in inpatient Hospice), that death was a nothing: whatever the process is, the finale is that your body dies and the lights are just shut off.

In all things, it’s what you do when you’re alive that matters, the legacy you leave, the love you make. That he took very seriously. Whether his artwork, reputation, or relationships continued to send good vibes after he was gone, he was sure wouldn’t matter to him.

So I have to believe, if I follow my wifely logic, that right now he’s nowhere. Just gone.

It’s not a great movie, but Mr. Magorium’s Magic Emporium has this quote about the end, which I felt expressed Gavin’s vision very well:

Mr. Magorium: When King Lear dies in Act Five do you know what William Shakespeare has written? He’s written, “He dies.” That's all, nothing more. No fanfare, no metaphor, no brilliant final words. The culmination of the most influential work of the dramatic literature is, “He dies.” It takes Shakespeare’s genius to come up with, “He dies.”

And yet every time I read those two words I find myself overwhelmed with dysphoria. And I know it’s only natural to be sad, not because of the words, “He dies,” but because of the life we saw prior to the words.

I’ve lived all five of my acts ... and I am not asking you to be happy that I must go. I’m only asking that you turn the page. Continue reading. And let the next story begin.

And if anyone ever asks what became of me, you relay my life in all its wonder, and end it with a simple, and modest, “He died.”

* * * Comments * * *


Musical Monday: Dancing Barefoot by Patti Smith

It had to be this song. Gavin found in Patti a muse, gazed daily at the postcard of her on his desk, a NYC Rimbaud, a true artist, a puzzle his own age. And Patti was mine, too, legend said she was at the root of the punk rock I loved even if she was a damn poet and easy to mock, Gilda Radner singing “Gimme Mick,” as she pulled out a hairbrush to work on her armpits.

Parody aside, we both could have been her. Beautiful, sexually ambiguous, her own woman.

Dancing Barefoot is a love song that’s not afraid of death. At its climax she reads:

the plot of our life sweats in the dark like a face
the mystery of childbirth, of childhood itself
grave visitations
what is it that calls to us?
why must we pray screaming?
why must not death be redefined?
we shut our eyes we stretch out our arms
and whirl on a pane of glass
an afixiation a fix on anything the line of life the limb of a tree
the hands of he and the promise that she is blessed among women.

It just had to be this song: perfect. A eulogist, the best man at our wedding, and his wife suggested it to me when I was coming up blank.
We played it as the recessional at Gavin’s memorial service, a hot day 3 weeks after his death.
First the minister strode up the aisle, then me, nearly running, as the service thank God was finally over.
(I know. The service was actually short. We cut off the testimonials. But I really wanted to get out of there.)
Crying just outside the sanctuary, a hug from one of my oldest friends, and my wonderful minister’s warm arms and iridescent green robes.

For months after Gavin’s death I played Dancing Barefoot over and over again, part of a “weepers” playlist, as the start of my structured nap/alone time, when I could get it.

This celebration of life, cry of passion, meditation on big stuff will always be part of my mourning.

Thank you, Patti. You'd become part of him and his art, he loved you, and you helped me sing him out.

* * * Comments * * *


I Dumped My Job

I’ve been busy working for money.

Not like all those Mommy bloggers who are really just justifying that they don’t work outside the home. So anxious to dispel your ideas and reassure themselves because they don’t really “own” their perfectly fine decisions. (Mr. Fresh’s very prejudicial take, not mine. Not really.)

Sometimes I wonder if I ever “own” anything about myself. There’s a thread, smooth with years of friction, pulling through my mind constantly to catch a “good excuse.” That maybe wants to fail people. That wants my potential to always still be true, to be outstanding, so that I never have to cash the check of my spectacular gifts.

Never to get to the bank and find out they’re tin, or fake, maybe not even good fakes.

It was fun to say: sort of glamorous. And a good excuse: "I wish I could help you with that, but I am overwhelmed with paying work." Sometimes I wonder if, as post-70s-feminists, we've become romantics about work.

They called me a talented child, but no one knew what to do with me. I was head and shoulders above the other kids. Schoolwork was easy and occasionally, rarely, fun, but a good way to please people. I learned not to study, not to work, not to try. I could do things with one hand tied behind my back.

Dispelling the panic of my last few months at a (very) liberal (very) arts(y) college, I spieled, “I just have to figure out how to get paid for sitting around nursing a beer and talking about ideas. You know, a cafĂ© intellectual. Anyone have any alumni contacts in that field?”

(Mommy blogging might be a pretty good fit, actually.)

The real world, when I finally entered it, was interested in neither head, nor shoulders, nor folks in half-upper-bondage. They didn't want to buy great ideas OR rent out people who were smarter than everyone else. Can you imagine?! I worked at “other things.” [Insert stories about “coping,” “money,” the beauty of compromising by living in the real world.]

Early this year I started “not working” for the first time since age 14. Then this freelance job showed up. In some ways, it was an ideal gig, work from home, flexible hours, using my talents, in a field I have a sense of mission toward. And in the past few weeks, as the work heated up, as they fell in love with me, and as I started to accept that I might have a job as a creative, someone with room for eccentricity and Oh God the hair, I was having fun. Some fun. I enjoyed being productive. Dressing up before breakfast.

I even tried to tame the mane, at a further disadvantage because many products are still in boxes somewhere.

I loved the idea of having “clients.” Doesn’t that sound romantic? At least, if you don’t perform Brazilian waxing? (Why do they call it that? It sounds more like “waning” than “waxing” to me).

But it was the worst possible timing. Mr. Fresh’s new job means he has no flex to cover for me on weekdays and is trashed on weekends. We moved. Shortie started kindergarten. The firm started to want me at lots of meetings. The client, who has rather sharp teeth (but who I like enormously), needs a lot of handholding. I was too busy, not fun busy, and losing sleep and still with the persistent cough.

Mr. Fresh and I did the math and figured out that, after travel and band aids, as a household we might clear $6/hour. I can be a fucking artist for that. Instead of kissing butt and driving all over the state with no road signs for the client whose address is listed wrong on their own web site.

This morning, when I quit, I felt like an enabler dumping an alcoholic. Maybe that’s a good sign… that I’ve broken a tie, recognized something that’s not right for me now, and stuck to my guns.

Maybe it’s the first step in housewifely entropy.
Maybe there are about a hundred other ways to make money and improve the world waiting on my “desk” (dining room table and a bunch of boxes) right now.
Maybe life is meant to be easy, and work a playground for my talents.
Maybe the client will develop some boundaries and call me back.
Maybe I’m playing games and just won a hand.

I thought I might want to pull a late-stage, last-ditch widow card: "I'm sorry, while I watched my husband die, I swore I'd never do anything un-fun again."

But that wasn't it. The romance is gone. There's no intrinsic value in work and no shame in being a stay-at-home Mom. Sorry, Mom, I'm over it. At least for now.

* * * Comments * * *


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...