Yves Klein - Monochrome bleu sans titre (IKB 175), 1957

I'm thinking about Yves Klein and the purity of the blue he created. I watched the BBC documentary A History of Art in Three Colors: Blue and the host, Dr. James Fox, talked about how Yves grew up in Nice, France and loved the sea and the sky, loved the blue above and below. I think about his obsession with blue and think about my own obsession with grief. Could art exist without obsession? You have to be willing to come back to something over and over, to plumb it, to drown in it. Yves painted other monochromes besides blue. He did pink and red. He did the fire paintings. But blue is what made him famous and it's the most poetic of all his works. Blue as the color of infinity, the void.

I've always loved blue. I'm not obsessed with it by any means, but it's intertwined with my dreaming self. I've always loved looking at the sky. I've always loved water even though I've only been to the beach once. I feel I've lost so much of myself in the past decade. I'm not the dreamy girl anymore. I'm not that girl with her whole life spread out in front of her. I am profoundly broken and scared and paralyzed by my fears and anxiety. I guess I still dream. I don't know. I dream, knowing that none of it can happen. I don't know how to fit into this world and it's not getting easier, only worse. I don't feel alive. I'm pulled along and dragged under by the tide of life. The only thing that saves me is art. I stare at Klein's canvases and lose myself in their blue oblivion.

Scenes of Grief: Little White Lies (2010)

Scenes of Grief: A Film Project

Scenes of Grief is a film project that focuses on scenes in which a person is told of their loved one’s death. This project comes out of my own experience of losing my father when I was sixteen years old. I am haunted by the moment when I was informed of his death. I am haunted by how frightening and obliterating it was. I am haunted by my physical reaction, how I felt both inside and outside of my body. In that moment, I touched something unspeakable and unnameable. I touched the ineffability of death, the void, the abyss.  I still struggle to put that moment into words.  It was a moment of rupture that divided my life between “before” and “after.” Over time, I have become obsessed with how this moment is represented in cinema and how this representation impacts viewers. This project will consist of taking screenshots of scenes from movies that confront this moment of grief. I present these images as a way to examine how cinema depicts the trauma of loss. What are these scenes communicating? Why are they communicating it? How are we impacted by them? These are just a few questions to consider, but every viewer creates their own meaning for these scenes. What’s important is that we look at them and think about them.

This project has an accompanying tumblr blog, which you can follow here.

The Dream of Connection

In the biopic, Berthe Morisot, there's an important moment between Morisot and her mother. Morisot's sister, Edma, has just become engaged, and Morisot is distraught about it. Both women are in their late twenties, and, in the 19th century, this was a time when most women were expected to marry and start a family. Morisot only wants to paint, but she lives in a place and a time when her creative mind is stifled. Morisot's mother has always encouraged her to paint and even allowed her daughters to study under Corot. So she's progressive, but she still expects Morisot to settle into a conventional life.

When you're young--usually in your teens--your dreams seem possible, inevitable. Before you stretch years and time. It's not until later that you start to realize that maybe your dreams are not possible and time is passing very quickly. I started feeling like this in my mid-twenties. I'm now 27, and the feeling is accelerating. Maybe it comes from losing a parent so early--when I was 16--but I feel like there's no time, like I'm in conflict with time, like, in the words of Morisot's mother, time is "no longer [my] ally." Of course, Morisot realized her dreams and became a celebrated painter, but that's not how it works out for all of us.

After my father died, I gave up dreaming. I think my dreams died on that day. Ever since, I've been surviving, getting through each day and trying to make it to tomorrow. But I do stubbornly hold on to one dream: to write a book. This book must be about my father's death. I believe this book is inside me, but I don't know how to write it yet.  

Recently, I read an excerpt from the documentary A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde on BOMB Magazine's website. Lorde knew what it meant to write for her life, to write against death, to write against the clock. In the documentary, she says "I started writing because I had a need inside of me to create something that was not there." She also states that "Don’t wait for inspiration. Remember. Do not wait for inspiration. You don’t need to be inspired, to write a poem. You need to reach down and touch the thing that’s boiling inside of you and make it somehow useful." 

I keep reading those words and finding strength in them and leaning on them and they remind me that I have something inside me that matters and deserves to be heard. Recently, I was thinking about how maybe my writing can save someone, make someone feel less alone. Maybe someone can read my words on this blog and feel a connection or feel inspired to write what is inside them. I sometimes feel we are too caught up in labels. Words are words, whether you read them in a book or on a blog or spray-painted on a wall. Maybe I won't write a book. Maybe this blog is my book.  I'm okay with that. At least I'm reaching people, and that's all I've ever wanted. To make contact, to be heard, to be known. Maybe that's what I dream of most: The dream of connection. 

Chronicle of a Summer

There's a scene in Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch's classic 1961 documentary Chronicle of a Summer in which their assistant, the writer Marceline Loridan-Ivens, stops people on the street and asks them: Are you happy? It's a simple question that elicits a range of responses, from annoyance to candor. At one point, Marceline asks a man if he is happy and he replies that his sister just died and he's grief-stricken.

Are you happy? It seems like such a simple question but, like most things in life, it's complex and conditional. We use the word "happiness" often and aspire to a state in which we are happy, but grief has changed my relationship with happiness. 

Today was my birthday. I should have been happy. But, ever since my father died, time and age and birthdays mean something completely different to me. His death made me aware of my mortality. As I get older, I only think of all the time that's lost, how I'm creeping closer to death, how each year takes away more than it gives back, how I'm not living as I want, how I'm running out of time.

If Marceline confronted me on the street with her question, I'd say no, I'm not happy. I haven't been happy since he died, not fully, not completely, not for a sustained period of time. I've known moments, but not an extended happiness. I wouldn't dream of ever feeling it again, for he was my happiness, my everything.

Later, Marceline wanders the Place de la Concorde alone, talking to herself and conjuring her own dead. During World War II, she was deported to a concentration camp and so was her father. He died in Auschwitz, and he haunts her.  

Just this year, in 2016, Marceline wrote a book about her father. It's called But You Did Not Come Back, echoing her words in the documentary. All these decades later and she remains in dialog with her father, attempting to come to terms with the traumatic loss she experienced. For some of us, grief really is forever, it's for a lifetime, it never abates. After such trauma, how can she be happy again? What does happiness mean within the context of grief and mourning? A person who was always there no longer is. We try to go on. We try to keep feeling and surviving, but I understand what Marceline means when she says "My heart was a stone." Something hardens, calcifies. You try to stay tender, but the pain changes you.

I'm reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night and I read this stunning passage:
One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual. There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still. The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye. We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.
I've always resisted the narrative of healing, the metaphor of open wounds that can be closed. The reality is so much messier and it's less comforting and less poetic. I made a pact to myself at some point to write the festering, to write the wound, to write the blood, to write the cutting open, to write the sorrow, to write the darkness, to write and write and write until people said shut up, until people said why can't she just move on and stop talking about her dead father, until everyone was sick of hearing me and reading me but at least I would know I said the truth. And this is the truth. The hurt is the truth. The blood is the truth. The grief is the truth. The man in the street grieving his sister is the truth. Marceline talking to herself and her dead father is the truth.

Are you happy? I'm surviving. Are you happy? I'm alive. Are you happy? Maybe, sometimes, once in a while, at moments when I forget that this man I loved stopped breathing and disappeared forever. Are you happy? I'm crawling. Are you happy? I'm waiting for the pain to stop but it won't stop. Are you happy? I'm weeping. Are you happy? I'm alone. Are you happy? I laugh until my laughs become sobs. Are you happy? I remember and I want to curl up inside my dreams and leave this world behind. Are you happy? I am loved. Are you happy? He is dead and I'm alive and I don't know how to be okay. Are you happy? I'm writing. Are you happy? I've yet to write everything that is inside me and I fear I never will. Are you happy? I had a father once, and I'm dying from grief. Are you happy? Are you happy? Are you happy?

Grief Will Tear Us Apart: On In Jouw Naam

In Jouw Naam (In Your Name) is a quietly devastating Dutch drama about a young couple struggling to cope with the death of their infant daughter.

When Els (Lotte Verbeek) becomes pregnant, she and her husband Ton (Barry Atsma) are overjoyed. Ton plants a tree for their new daughter. Their life is complete now that they have a child. However, only a few months after the little girl is born, she dies. The film represents this transition from life to death in one of the most heartbreaking ways I’ve ever witnessed: The sound of a lullaby gives way to the screech of an ambulance siren. Els and Ton’s perfect life shatters in an instant. At the hospital, they are told that their daughter died due to a congenital defect of some kind. The remainder of the film explores how Els and Ton navigate grief in drastically different ways.

In Jouw Naam centralizes the silence and loneliness of grief. Rarely do Els and Ton grieve together. Instead, they mourn separately, reminding us that, often, grief happens inside our heads, when we are alone with ourselves and must face the immense emptiness left by the death of a loved one. The isolation of grief is captured in scenes of shock and rupture. One day, Ton is outside when he hears children playing nearby. He is so overcome by pain that he steps inside his shed to escape the sounds. At the funeral, Ton leaves the attending guests and stands in the rain, his head leaning back to stare at the sky, a pose of despair and exhaustion.

Els stays at home while Ton works. One morning, after Ton leaves, she summons the courage to enter the nursery again. She opens the dresser drawer and gently touches the baby clothes, her tears falling like rain on the garments. She throws them into a black trash bag and puts them in the garbage can outside. She even watches as the workers load the bags into the garbage truck. The rapidity with which Els discards their daughter’s belongings infuriates Ton. He says that she is moving too fast, but she doesn’t seem to hear him.

This is the point at which Els and Ton begin to split apart. Their conflicting approaches to grief ensure that they cannot support one another; they can only follow their own divergent paths, wandering farther and farther away from each other as they attempt to process their pain and find a way forward. Recently, I watched the documentary Becoming Mike Nichols. In it, Nichols says that “a movie is a metaphor,” it’s not life but “is something about life.”  It makes me think about how Els and Ton are a metaphor for grief. They are the embodiment of how we confront loss in very different and individual ways.

Els focuses on going forward. She convinces Ton that they should move out of their apartment where they lived with their daughter during her short life and move to a new housing development. He relents. As Els and Ton socialize with a young couple in their new neighborhood, the couple asks them if they are thinking of having children. Ton starts to say something, most likely he wants to mention that they did have a child at one time, but Els cuts him off and says that they are interested in having children. Ton is surprised when Els quickly becomes pregnant again. He has barely absorbed the loss of their daughter and now another child is on the way. At the first meeting with her new doctor, Els lies and says it is her first child. Ton confronts her about why she wants to deny what happened.

If Els is in denial or moving too quickly, Ton is the complete opposite. He feels tremendous grief that overwhelms him and he is in a relationship where he cannot acknowledge that grief. It’s true that Els asks him if he wants to talk to a therapist, and this could certainly have been beneficial for Ton, but it seems that what Ton really longs for is to share his loss with his wife. His pride and the pressure placed on men to be strong and not show emotion could also explain why he does not seek out counseling. Instead, he suppresses his feelings until they explode, as they do at the end of the film, in a moment of shocking violence. Ton is so mired in grief that, when he visits his elderly father, who suffers from dementia, he pretends as though his daughter is still alive and tells stories about her. He finds the urn that holds the ashes of the child and eats them, almost as a way to make a connection with her again, to absorb her into his body and his being.

I characterized In Jouw Naam as a “quietly devastating” film because it’s filled with silence. It depends almost entirely on the performance of the actors to convey the interior psychology of the characters. Grief is turned into a series of gestures, mannerisms, and physical expressions: Els touching the baby clothes, Ton standing in the rain, Els and Ton sitting on a bench at the hospital, the water of a Dutch canal streaming by in the background, Ton trying to rip up the tree he planted for their daughter, Els furiously cleaning the apartment as a way to release her anger, Els catching Ton in the nursery section of a furniture store. Quiet moments that communicate the magnitude of grief, that hint at what cannot be spoken or comprehended. The death of a child often fractures married couples; they rarely recover from the loss, they rarely stay together. Els and Ton show why that is. They show how two people can love each other and still not understand each other. They show how grief fundamentally alters some people to the point where they can never be who they were again, they cannot connect to those they once loved. 

If the film shows us anything, though, it is that we need to expand our social ideas of how people cope with loss. Some, like Els, can move on immediately and be resilient. Others, like Ton, grapple and struggle and don’t know how to live in the wake of such devastation. We can accept both reactions and all the reactions that fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. We can be more compassionate, more sympathetic, more open to diverse ways of dealing with death. It’s sad that, when we lose a loved one, we often lose so much more than just that one person. We lose our dreams, our identity, our family, our friends because they don’t know how to talk to us or what to even say. In Jouw Naam is a raw, honest depiction of how grief manifests in myriad forms and how we are missing something if we can’t find a way to integrate those forms into our understanding of what it means to be human and to confront loss.

For  limited time, you can watch In Jouw Naam for free at Festival Scope.

Ghosts and Silence in Il sud è niente

Last night, I watched the 2013 film Il sud è niente (South is Nothing), and I’m still thinking about it. It’s an Italian film directed by Fabio Mollo. It centers around a 17-year-old girl named Grazia who goes swimming one day and sees her dead brother, Pietro, materialize in the water. His ghost haunts the film. Today, I was thinking about how grief grows in the place where presence ceases, how death means that we lose presence and gain absence and, with this absence, comes a grave and vociferous silence. Grazia’s father refuses to speak about Pietro, and Grazia suffers as a result. Her father will not open up to her about their shared loss and she feels lost, adrift, drowning in grief. When Grazia mentions this silence to her grandmother, the woman responds “If you don’t talk about things, they can’t hurt you” but, of course, this isn’t true. Grazia is hurting because of Pietro’s death and because of the silence that reigns in her family about the loss.

I loved the character of Grazia. She’s multi-dimensional and so full of life, like the entire film. She's tough, talks back, expresses her fury. At the same time, she's profoundly fragile and wounded. She’s tortured by grief, but finds moments of reprieve, like when she rides her moped with abandon on the streets of Italy, dances with Carmelo--a boy she meets at a carnival--and, later, makes love with him for the first time. She’s searching for answers, unraveling the mystery of her brother’s death until she pulls the final thread and the truth comes crashing in and the silence is finally broken between Grazia and her father. Pietro’s ghost acts as a catalyst that forces the characters to interrogate the state of their lives and to decide if they can bear the conditions under which they live. The ghost is like a physical manifestation of the thing they have repressed, avoided, chosen to not talk about but that they cannot escape.

Pietro is dead. He is gone, but, like a woman who is in love with Grazia’s father says to him, the living are still alive. How do we live with our ghosts? How do we make space for the dead in our lives? How do we keep living in the wake of unspeakable loss? One step is to speak and keep speaking and open ourselves up to other people and to the experiences of life, both painful and beautiful. I think that’s what Grazia discovers. For so long, she kept people away, at a distance, afraid they would hurt her and, of course, they do, but they also give her love and tenderness and support when she's able to make a connection. Pietro is gone, but instead of only feeling his absence, she can finally feel the presence of the other people in her life.

For a limited time, you can stream Il sud è niente for free at Festival Scope.

On Seeing Other Women Lose Their Fathers

Recently, a girl that I went to college with, but didn’t know personally, posted a status on her Facebook page. It said that her father had just died. Tears came to my eyes. I left a comment about how sorry I was. I shared that I’d lost my father ten years ago. I said she has the right to grieve. I said she is free to message me anytime if she needs someone to talk to who has been through a similar experience. My words felt inadequate, and they were.

Since her first post about her father’s death, the girl has posted other updates. It’s heartbreaking because I feel as though I am re-living my father’s death through her. When I hear of other women who have lost fathers, I hurt for them. I cry for them. I can’t stop myself from thinking of my own father. I want to take these women in my arms and hold them as I was never held. I want to tell them all the things that I was never told. Above all, I want to bring back our fathers.

The death of my father was such a shattering experience that, a decade later, I’m still reeling from it. I hope these women can survive better than I have. I truly wish that for them. I wish that I could tell these women that it gets better, that time heals, that everything happens for a reason but I can’t speak words that I do not believe. Instead, I say that each loss is personal and individual. I assure them that their feelings are valid and encourage them to grieve. I say nothing about religion because I’m an atheist. I don’t make predictions about the future because I know that nothing is promised and life is unbearable at times. I don’t believe in healing. I think it’s a concept, an abstraction, that has no relation to our lived reality in which things are much messier and more complicated. I believe in moments of peace, but I also know that life can drag you into the deepest, darkest holes that you try to claw your way out of and yet never escape.

When my father died, I didn’t have friends and family who rushed to support and care for me. I had my mother and we held on to each other as the people we once believed loved us chose to abandon, disparage, and personally attack us. Loss can bring out the worst in people, and I’ve seen it firsthand for myself. No one asked how I was. No one offered kind words. No one came to our aid. We were on our own and we still are. I stopped trusting people. I became bitter and angry. These ten years have not been kind to me. They have included the death of other people I cared about, poverty, debilitating depression and anxiety, lack of access to health care, the loss of my home, physical and mental pain, and the list goes on. No, I cannot tell anyone that things get better and that time heals. If anything, it has been the opposite for me. Things get harder as the years pass, and you struggle to make sense of your shattered life. Nothing heals a wound so big and deep that you are lost inside of it.

I am no model of success. I am not an inspirational story, nor should I have to be. I am no example to live by. So, to be honest, I don’t know what to say to women who have lost their fathers. What could I possibly say to comfort them when I cannot comfort or save myself? I have no wisdom to impart. I have no advice to proffer. I have no solace to provide. In the end, we each navigate loss the best we can. Some of us are fortunate to have a support system while some of us are not. Some of us have access to resources and some of us are denied access. There is no one way to grieve, no right way to handle the death of a loved one. There is what others can bear and what you can bear. There is no point in comparing the two or in imposing our ideas of normalcy on to other people or considering our experience universal.

I suppose all we can do as those who witness someone going through loss is to listen, to not judge, to not offer unhelpful clichés, to genuinely try to offer support. For those suffering a loss, reach out if you can and, from one fatherless daughter to another, I say:  I’m sorry your father is dead, I’m sorry you are suffering, I’m sorry for what you have lost. Remember him, talk about him, grieve for as long as you need, feel what you feel and never be ashamed of crying or laughing or struggling or thriving. Know that you are not alone. I am here, my words are here, and they are all that I can give to you. My one hope is that they lessen some of your isolation.