Painting The Dead


Thinking about the above photograph of Frida Kahlo taken by Gisèle Freund. Frida is in the process of painting a portrait of her dead father. By the time she created the painting, her father had been dead a decade. He died in 1941. She did the painting in 1951. A decade. Around the same amount of time my own father has been dead. 

I see my dead father in every other dead father.  

It feels like a very tender act to paint a portrait of a dead loved one. It feels loving. It feels sacred. To paint a face and a body that no longer exist. To substitute painted hair for real hair, painted skin for real skin. An exchange. You can’t have the flesh, so you settle for the paint. 

Think of how she painted every strand of his hair, every blemish on his face. Think of how she reconstructed him as a way to say that she loved him. Painting as an act of exhumation. Of course, she had photos of him, but a painting is something very different from a photograph. It involves a certain level of labor and imagination. This is not just her father as he was but as she knew him and remembered him. By painting him, she could be with him again, be close to him, to his likeness, to the version of him that she created in paint.

I often envy visual artists. They can paint a portrait, give us a tangible representation of a person, and we can see it and know that it’s real. The writer must do something else. The writer must express the intangible, the unseen, the inner world, the textures of a person. They raise the dead in very different ways and through very different means.

I can’t paint my father’s hair or skin. I can’t re-create his face on a canvas. I can’t even look at photos of him. I know he lived, but I don’t know how he isn’t alive anymore. How can that be? I wonder all the time. How is he gone? How can it be possible? How can it be true?

Silence and Speechlessness

I rarely update this blog anymore because I’ve reached a state of speechlessness. There are no words for the devastation, no language for the grief. Words are not enough. Words are limited, all art is limited when trying to represent certain kinds of pain and trauma.

Silence is my language for now. It says this cannot be said, this cannot be communicated, this lives in a place beyond any means of expression.

Eleven Years

Yesterday was the 11th anniversary of my father’s death.

I laid in bed, holding a locket that contained his picture and listening to Tori Amos’s “From the Choirgirl Hotel,” an album that deals heavily with the grief and darkness that Amos experienced after a miscarriage.

In “Spark,” Amos sings:

she’s convinced she could hold back a glacier
but she couldn’t keep Baby alive
doubting if there’s a woman in there somewhere

All these years have passed and yet no time has passed. Time no longer registers in my body.

I’m always surviving, not survived. It’s never set or final. I’m never done with survival, it’s never in the past tense. It’s always something I have to do right now and the next moment and the next.

Take your life and all you love and try to imagine it disappearing. Take away the person who loved you and that you loved. Keep taking it all away. What are you? What is left? Take away more people, take away your home, take away your health, add poverty and depression and anxiety. Then, maybe you can imagine what the past decade has been like for me. Loss after loss after loss.

Feel everything you love vanish and then tell me that time heals it. Tell me it gets easier. I will answer that time only brings more pain, that the loss accumulates, that your body starts to break down, that my writing is the record of a mind and body battered and pushed past its limits.

Doubting if there’s a woman in there somewhere

I know that so much of me is gone, that the part that survives is the part that you are reading, that writing has always been and always will be the way that I stay alive. It can’t be anything else.

I’m not sure who I am or what woman remains. I think of myself always as that sixteen-year-old girl at her father’s funeral, watching her life disintegrate, feeling herself shattered. I’m not sure who this woman is who writes these words. I’m not sure I know her all that well or even like or want to be her and yet I am her and she’s all I have, along with these words.

I said to myself today Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. The last decade of suffering cannot have been for nothing. At least you can make words that can help someone else, that can voice this deep, intolerable aching. 

I guess that’s all I can do. Keep writing. Keep creating even though I am destroyed.

The Quietness of Grief










Screenshots from The Dream and the Silence (Jaime Rosales, 2012)

I think I like the quiet films about grief because they are the most honest. Grief is so quiet, it’s a kind of silence, punctuated by the occasional outburst. You feel a scream inside, but you’re never permitted to release it. For so long, I’ve just wanted to scream.



Pretending


















Screenshots from Solitary Fragments (Jaime Rosales, 2007)

When you lose someone and you try to pretend it didn’t happen. When three becomes two, when the whole is broken apart, and you try to convince yourself for as long as you can that you aren’t shattered, you aren’t destroyed.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like to imagine that you are just away for a little while, that you will return one day, and we’ll be together again. Could I ever fall for the lie? But what if the lie keeps me alive? I wish my brain would believe it.

Underwater

I’ve been thinking about Jean Vigo’s underwater scenes in Taris and L’atalante. Of all the scenes in his films, I come back to those. I think it’s because water itself holds such meaning in my life.

For Vigo, water seems to function in various ways. It’s a site where the body can be free, liberated, and sensual. Think of swimmer Jean Taris, barely clothed, playing underwater, bubbles streaming from his mouth, a gorgeous smile on his face.





In L’atalante, water represents a connection to the beloved. The new groom jumps into the water because he was told that if you open your eyes underwater, you can see the one you love. His wife has run away. He wants to see her again. So he goes underwater to reconnect with her. The water creates access, a portal to the one who is lost, a way of reaching her.  






There’s a ghostliness about these scenes even though the actors in them were alive. The way water reduces bodies to light and shadow and the ethereal.

When I was a kid, I loved swimming. It was the only time I was truly free, my body no longer weighed down. I could do flips and handstands and laps. I could sink to the bottom and hold my breath as long as possible. I could float on top and feel the sun on my skin. It was a magical place–just as it is in Vigo’s films. A place of possibilities, a place of dreams.

I’ve never swam in the ocean. I rarely even got to swim as a child. Because it was a rare experience, I think I cherished it all the more. There was a local public pool that I sometimes went to. A family friend worked at a hotel and we got to use the pool occasionally during the summer. I’d always take goggles so that I could go to the bottom of the pool and then look up and see the sunlight streaming through the surface. I felt suspended in time, fossilized in beauty. The sunlight would make these tessellations on the bottom of the pool. I was mesmerized. I didn’t want to leave the water ever. I hated having to return to the real world. I always wished I had a camera to capture what I saw, what that watery world looked like.

After my father died, the only reprieve I felt from the grief was when I got to swim in the pool at a local hotel. My mom and I scrounged some money from somewhere and went for a few days. I don’t think we told anyone. There was no one to tell. We were alone, abandoned by everyone. We were mad with grief, broken apart. We still are. But I still remember swimming in that pool, floating on top of the water, my arms and legs stretched out. I felt released, reborn. The grief was still there, it’s always there, it’s still there even now, eleven years later, but the water held me and soothed me and gave me a few days of peace. I know I’m not writing it properly. I know you can’t feel what it was like to be inside my body underneath the water, just like you can’t feel the grief that throbbed in my veins and that lives inside me still.

I’m drawn to water and to the lives lost to it. Woolf with the rocks in her pockets in the River Ouse, forcing herself to drown when she could swim, forcing herself into death. Ophelia with her flowers and her soaked skirts, babbling about her dead father, maybe searching for a way to get back to him. Water as life force, water as death force.

And I remember my father in the water, a picture of him on a float, basking in the summer sunshine, so alive and so real. Pictures of me and him at pools or lakes, now only together in photos, forever separated.

I wish I could open my eyes underwater and see him again. I wish he was there, emerging from the depths, surfacing back into life, back into my arms.

Scenes of Grief: Testament of Youth (2014)
















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Fragments

People are only what we remember of them. A sediment deposit of memory, an accumulation of scenes, flashes of light.


This lostness is so much a part of me. I never have it together. I never know what to do or what I'm doing.


Looking at the stars, I wonder what my life is compared to those lights in the sky. I wonder if I could be a light for someone else.


How do we make it from one moment to the next? I feel the miracle of each day.


After loss, you must be creative. You must create a hybrid life that integrates the living and the dead.


I don't want to be a body. I want to be a cloud or a river. I want to be beauty.


The pain didn't make me strong. It made me sensitive, reclusive, afraid, heartbroken. It took from me. It gave nothing. What I have is what I found in the ruins of myself.


I'm broken. Look at me.


When I write, the physical melds to the abstract and a world is born from this pain.


I have a recurring nightmare of a plane crashing into my home. I can see the plane coming. I know I am going to die. I can't describe the visceral fear that permeates my body. I try to forget these nightmares, but I worry that they live on in my mind.


Below the wound is the blood.


Writing is a fever.


I can't express myself. Since he died, I can't express anything because I can't write the catastrophe of it.


I read Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star, about a poor girl who can't cope with life. She has that not-thereness of Barbara Loden's Wanda. Of course, I understand it all.


My life ended at 16. Let the magnitude of it sink in. The descent started early. I ache to be carefree, or to just be free.


What did he want for me? When he held me for the first time, what where his dreams for me? I'm not living what he hoped I'd live. I can't be that. I can't be anything other than what I am.


Only the moon sees me.


My dreams keep me alive, but they also burden me. I'm burdened by the lives I'm not living, by all the possible versions of myself I could have become.


History happens and you realize you are helpless and you are a coward.


Knowing life ends and yet believing that it will never end, that it can't possibly end.


I take pictures of everything. I want to keep moments. I want to preserve something. Having lost so much, I want to stop losing, but I know that's impossible.


Most people bury trauma and don't feel it until years later. I haven't buried the pain of his death. If anything, I write about it too much, but it's always on my mind. His absence is constant.


These terrible moments of foreknowledge, of knowing that life always ends in death. There is no escape. At these moments, I feel like a prisoner.


You have now, and one day there will be no more nows, no more of anything.


The President's supporters love everything that he is doing. He never lied about his intentions. It only reinforces the fact that they voted  for him precisely because of his hateful beliefs. Their satisfaction in seeing immigrants and Muslims targeted is a clear indication of their own bigotry and hatred against anyone who is different from them. If they didn't agree with the hate--if, as the pundits claim, it was supposedly all about jobs and the economy--then where is the outcry over the Muslim ban? There is no outcry because they agree with it. They love all of him. They love the worst parts of him. There is no chance of changing their minds. The facts don't matter. Nothing matters to them except themselves.


His supporters cheer while the rest of us walk around dazed and in disbelief, We are an angry, violent, destructive, selfish nation. We are afraid. We are vicious.


But much of what's happening was happening before. Obama deported more immigrants than Bush and tore apart many families in the process. 30 million people had no health insurance and still don't. Drones were dropped that killed innocent civilians in other countries. Millions lost their homes after the 2008 recession while the rich got richer. Wages are so low that many struggle to make ends meet. Yes, this is an emergency, but the poor and victimized have been living in an emergency that has been rendered invisible for decades.


Often, I get caught in the could have been.


At times, I abstract his death in order to survive. But, at other times, I remember how he was once here. Those are the times I can't bear to be alive.


Get me out of this world.


I want to be heard, but I fear speaking.


You think the past was safer, but you have to remember that this world has never been safe or just.


The immensity of all the loss is stunning. I lived it and yet I cannot comprehend it.


All those things I wanted to be--I will not become them. My dreams will not come to pass. But I'll keep writing.


I don't even know what I want anymore. Nothing really seems possible for me.


By every measurement, I am a failure. All I can do is endure.


I would like to be inviolable. I'd like for nothing to affect me. But would I be me?


The extreme right has unprecedented power and influence at this time. We are being governed by a hateful, paranoid, ill-informed minority. Do I say "minority" because of fact or to soothe myself into thinking that there are more of us than of them? What if, in fact, there are more of them than of us? How else did we get here?


My life has become a vigil for him. Or maybe I'm a guard, standing watch over our past.


No part of me is untouched by his death.


I miss being in the places where he once existed--our house, the library, the park. It was painful to be in those places, too. You can miss what causes pain. After loss, almost everything is distilled into an aching pain. You know the source but lack a remedy.

The Last Thing on Earth to Die

I have a hand soap that I use in my bathroom. It's a store brand, a generic hand soap. The scent is honey and milk. I use it even when I don't need to wash my hands. When I use it, I raise my wet, lathered hands to my nose and breathe in the fragrance. I sink back into the past. This particular generic soap has the scent of my childhood summers spent at my grandparents' lake house in North Carolina. I don't know what chemicals in the soap recreate that time and place for me. In her memoir Motherland, Fern Schumer Chapman writes that "Smells, I think, may be the last thing on earth to die." It's true. The smell of those summers of my childhood will not die. They are resurrected in a plastic bottle of hand soap.

When I smell the soap, I see my father swimming in the lake. I see him showing me how to do handstands in the water. I see him at the arcade, winning my mom a stuffed animal. I see my mom's face when we surprise her with the stuffed animal. I see us eating ice cream cones from the local Diary Queen. I see the bookshelves in the lake house. I see the books, mainly romance novels and mysteries that my grandmother read. I see a copy of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the one with the iconic cover of the girl in a red dress with a white, winged hat. I see the rocking chairs on the screened-in porch. I see the little television that was in my room; it had an antenna but could barely get a signal and only showed things in black and white. I smell the eggs and sausage that my grandma used to cook for breakfast. I feel my body in the water. I feel my feet in the sand. I hear kids laughing and playing. I'm young again. My father is alive, my grandmother is alive, and my uncle is alive. My family is whole. I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm okay. I don't know anything about death or loss or suffering. I'm just a little girl in the 1990's who has her whole life ahead of her. I'm happy. I don't know that this is the happiest I will ever be. I have no idea what is coming.

I raise my soapy hands to my nose and then I rinse them off and dry them on a towel and I return to my life as it is now. I remember and then I have to let go. I have to live this life, not that one, even though all I want is that one, even though I will always want that one and will always ache to have that one again. I will never stop aching.

Grief and Empathy

Often, I get down about the experiences I've had in my life. Losing my father when I was only 16 was such a traumatic and cataclysmic event and it caused me great suffering. It plunged my mother and I into poverty. It exacerbated my anxiety and depression. It robbed me of my youth, my innocence, and my sense of safety. It shattered me in every possible way and, even ten years later, I continue to struggle with the consequences and the fall-out of his death--what it cost me physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially.

At the same time, his death made me who I am. It has shaped me in visible and unseen ways. It cracked my life apart and I had to build another life from what I could salvage. It shattered me but it also sensitized me. It stole from me but it also gave me compassion for the pain of other people. It forever changed me and I can never be who I was before.

When you lose someone, you finally understand that everything is perishable. You are forced to confront the ephemeral nature of life. You are awakened to the fragility of existence. Loss was truly an awakening for me. I realized immediately that his death connected me to every other human being on this planet because we will all lose who and what we love.

You cannot understand the stakes of loving someone until you understand that you can lose them. In the knowledge of their mortality, you find out how deep your love truly is. It's terrifying to love someone when you know that they can vanish at any moment, that a day could come when they are no longer here with you. But as frightening as it is, it's also a reminder to love audaciously, to love unconditionally, to love as much as you can while you can.

Grief can bring empathy. I've written so much about grief over the years. I advocate allowing people to feel grief. I want us to see the potential of grief, to realize that it causes us pain and discomfort, but it also generates empathy and sensitivity. Grief shows us the value of human life because, in our grief, we must confront the fact that human life comes to an end, that it is precious and temporary. When we lose someone, we can allow grief to make us aware that the people around us have also experienced loss and we should be kinder to them, we should try to be compassionate because we don't know what someone is feeling or going through.

After I lost my father, I could never again watch the news the same way as I had before. When I heard about a woman losing her child in a house fire, a family losing a loved one in a tornado, a refugee dying as she crossed the Mediterranean sea--these stories inspired empathy and compassion in me. I knew that the lives of the dead were mourned, that someone missed them, that they mattered to someone else, and I hurt for those who had lost their loved ones. My experience with grief made me more empathetic, it made me care more deeply about the suffering of other human beings.

In this time, when we have a President that is actively discriminating against Muslims, immigrants, and refugees, we need to stand up and affirm the value of people whose lives are being denigrated and deemed unworthy of our compassion. The people who support the President's violent bigotry do so out of intolerance and hatred, they do so because they lack empathy, they do not see Muslims and immigrants and refugees as human, for if they did then they could not treat them in such an inhumane way.

As more executive orders are signed, we will see the lives of the marginalized--the poor, women, LGBTQ people, people of color, the disabled--further dehumanized and devalued. We must stand up for every group that is targeted by the hateful and violent forces now unleashed and emboldened in our country. We must see ourselves in them. We must understand that to be neutral in these times is to be complicit. In doing nothing, you automatically align yourself with those who are actively perpetrating harm. You should resist in whatever way is right for you--protesting in the streets, calling your members of Congress, educating people, blogging, anything at all that shows your commitment to justice, equality, and human dignity.

It's true that I have suffering greatly in my life. But it is also true that the suffering gave me my humanity and my empathy, it gave me my moral compass. What we are witnessing in the President and his supporters is a failure of empathy. There have been many articles written and pleas made for us to "understand" and "have compassion" for his supporters, but empathy goes both ways. Do they have empathy for the families torn apart by the Muslim travel ban, for the people deported and detained, for the millions of people who are now the target of discrimination? I suspect they do not or they could not advocate a political ideology that demonizes anyone who doesn't look or worship like they do. They lack empathy, unable to see past their own lives and how what the present administration is doing might benefit them in the short term but endangers millions of others in the long term and corrodes our democracy. What an impoverished way to live, to never have curiosity about other people's lives, to never care about the suffering in other parts of the world, suffering that is often caused by the United States government. What a narrow, ugly, empty way to live.

Losing my father almost killed me. I will always live with the pain and the wound of it, and I will never fully recover. But I chose to let that suffering deepen and expand my humanity. I let it make me more sensitive to the pain of other people. His death changed the way I saw my life and the lives of others. His death showed me that I must live in a way that honors human life and affirms the value of everyone. I refuse to tolerate a society that justifies hatred, violence, racism, and bigotry. I will continue to resist in whatever way I can. I encourage you to do the same.