It is strange the way smells can trigger memories…

It is strange the way smells can trigger memories.
I try to paint the smell of bread.
That smell of grass fires that lingers in the air for days after the flames are gone.

And it reminds me of those vermillion sunsets that come in fire season.
I watch the color spread over the white gesso and run down the canvas.
I listen to a song and I am lost in it. And I try to paint what I hear.

And the intensity of the color in coming from the tubes reminds me of why I paint.
I can’t handle it. I am at my end, and I have nowhere else to go.

Not today. Today is where grief is. It can feel so empty.

I think about a tear rolling down my cheek… and how it feels and what it looks like. What path it takes. How it catches the light.
It isn’t about running away. It is about finding something.
Maybe it is about finding God. And I look. I seek.
Maybe it is about feeling like I used to feel.
I can’t go back to those memories. It hurts. But the smell can bring me back.
those smells, make it impossible not to go back.
And tomorrow? I can’t think of that future. That big empty future…

They say that smells trigger memories because the olfactory bulb, which runs from the nose to the base of the brain, is right next to the amygdala and hippocampus which is where memories are encoded and where emotions get their spark.
It is a deep part of the brain… in a very old neighborhood.
And emotions and memory… they are a part of me.
So I take out a fresh canvas and I paint.
I paint because I hurt inside. And this helps.
I paint to find the goodness of God.
Painting takes concentration… and when I paint, I don’t hurt. At least for a moment.
And I can think about yesterday
And the smell of rain
And not be sad.
And I can look at the brush strokes and the color
And focus on getting the feel of fur just right
And trying to make those eyes come alive.
I talk to God. And I fill a container of water.
When I paint, it isn’t about grief
It isn’t even about the koi on the canvas… or the multi-colored rocks
It isn’t about light and shadow
Or creating depth and dimension..
It is about creating an emotional spark…
But I do think about those things. About making it work
Color, composition, tone, texture, shape
Creating some sort of order
Maybe some kind of image in a world I want to visit
And I know it smells like mountain air in the morning
And I can hear the crow calling
And that sound of wind rolling through the pines.
It’s quiet, but not silent… and I feel okay.
And I listen for God. And He is quiet, but not silent.
But maybe, you got to smell for God.
Maybe he is closer to the amygdala and hippocampus, the two areas implicated in emotion and memory… near the olfactory lobe.
And I paint.
I mix paint and spread it with a small round brush.
I make a wash and dull those bright colors
And then add back in the darkest shadows
And I choose the spots where the whitest whites will be…
Only this one place… the whiskers and the light in the eyes…
And the thinnest of lines around the eyes.
I can remember the day Ethan was born.
I remember the point where the delivery began to go wrong
And his heart rate dropped
And the floor was slick with blood
And I almost fell down. And I couldn’t really panic, because Marquita needed to hold my hand and push one more time… and hold so hard my thumb dislocated.
And there was this tiny baby boy. That gasped. That cried. That made it.
And on the window sill now is a vase with my father’s ashes blown into the glass
And a glass duck. And three glass frogs.
And a perfect vase that is holding Ethan’s ashes.
I watch the color spread.
I can smell old smoke from a cold fire.
I listen for God.
And he is quiet, but not silent.

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Hard things in life…

Much of what I do is purposeful. Writing this blog. Sleeping. Eating. Exercising. Painting. Avoiding this. Doing that. Giving myself this message. Repeating these words. Listening to this song. It is hard for me to write this… talking about the things that keep me alive. Deep in that is faith… my faith and the act of praying,

So sometime after the initial pain and shock of my son’s death came the realization that I still had to live. I still had to go to work every day. I still had to bathe and brush my teeth, and sleep and eat and exercise. I still had to drive. I still had to interact with people… and all of this needed to be normal and usual. And that never has been easy for me.

My son had taken his own life. And this self inflicted end had been a product, I believe of his incredible mind… caught in a downward spiral of self doubt and eventually self loathing… of depression, and isolation, and declining social interactions, and of insomnia and of rapid, out of control thoughts. It became for him, an unbearable dissonance that he needed to end… to resolve.

And the reason I believe this is because at times in my life, I have seen the beginnings of this same spiral. And maybe I’m projecting my own fragilities on him, but I think in many ways he was his father’s son and that we were cut from the same cloth.

If I would live, I would have to deal with those issues of mind… with periodic insomnia. With racing thoughts. With depression. If I am to live, I can’t let that spiral of self doubt and self loathing turn to self destruction. And much of my life would have to be lived with intention. Keep busy. Take care of the machine- exercise, eat right, sleep. Stay positive.

I always had trouble sleeping. I always had racing thoughts. Restlessness and unease… dissonance- that I thought was due to the chaos in my house. When I was young I used to want to run away. I thought that would somehow fix things… to escape… to keep moving. I also used to talk constantly… this nearly endless flow of words spilling from my mouth. I used to fidget. And I tried to keep busy… sketching or doodling. Reading. Band or swimming or classes… anything so that I wasn’t sitting alone in my thoughts. And every change in my life had me change those patterns… the social interactions, the schedules and activities.

As the youngest of seven siblings… those patterns changed constantly. And every time one of us moved out, I had to adjust. And growing up in a poor neighborhood meant that friends were always moving away and I had to adjust to that. Everything was hard and dissonant… and in high school, I found a faith that helped. I read my bible. I prayed. I found my way to church and into the fellowship of believers… and it did largely seem to fix things.

And then came college… where there were long stretches of time that I was left alone with my thoughts… with no one really to talk to or work it out. And where the old activities no longer worked. I remember walking for hours at night… trying to get tired enough to sleep and then going through the next day, having not slept at all. I was never still. I worked several jobs, maintained a full class load, volunteered at a youth group, kept active in church, and played in a rock band.

Before I even finished college, I got married. Upon graduation, I started teaching. And for the first couple of decades, I took on odd jobs, second jobs. I played music, stayed active in church and we started a family. Patterns changed. I kept busy. I kept moving.

I learned to sleep. I learned to keep from talking too much. I learned to fidget less. And my life with family, and job, and church seemed to work okay. Until Ethan died…

Life fell apart and in putting it back together, there was this intention to make it healthy… to keep away from the edge of that spiral… to be busy, and sleep well and control that endless inner conversation- steer it to the positive. This blog is part of that. Painting is part of that. Going to work. Exercise. Eating right. Praying. Choosing to live a real and rich life.

And that is it. That is where I am at. There isn’t some great conclusion to this… no wrap up that gives a cool message. No resolve. It is ongoing. Adjusting.

Four years into grieving. Random thoughts.

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Today, I am excited that I have my artist reception at the gallery. I want it to go well. I want people to see what I painted and to tell me about it. I want to get better. I want to sell stuff so I can keep painting. I want affirmation. And I want it to be fun. A bit of joy…

I’m thinking about Hannah and David. I’m thinking about 38 other people. I’m thinking about what food to bring and if I should set it up outside. I don’t know what to wear. And cold white wine? I don’t know anything about wine. Ice? Do we need ice?

But I wouldn’t even be painting if it weren’t for grief. Painting is my way of coping. It’s grieving. It’s healing. It’s the white light and the blue butterflies in the painting. God is there. Hidden. But there. Ethan died. I picked up a brush. I started with a portrait of him… and now I’m doing tiny paintings of birds and bubbles.

You see, I was happy once. I had the imperfect life that I wanted. I didn’t even know it at the time. I was just living it. And that was suddenly torn away. And as Buffy the Vampire Slayer once said, “I was warm. And I was loved … I was torn out of there … Everything here is hard and bright and violent. This is Hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that. Knowing what I’ve lost.” Painting gets me through the next moment… and in that way, it is awesome.

And see that? Up here in the corner… see the colors? That isn’t just blue. It’s healing and it is a different form of happiness.

I got an abatement notice from the county. Clean up the mess outside. Yeah, yeah… I was going to do that anyway. Now I just have an added incentive.

The other thing is how unfair it is to the surviving son… when you lose one, the other gets dumped on. Justin is stuck with me. A sappier, quieter version of myself. And I want to help. I’d stick my hand in fire for him and if there was something I could tell him to make him believe in himself the way I believe in him. Whatever it takes… whatever he needs, I’m there. I could take him aside and tell him that I love him. I could just spoil him or indulge him or whatever. I don’t know. I do know that this isn’t fair… life… and that he got a bit of a raw deal.

I know what I lost. It wasn’t just my son… but more. It was that whole life… that whole bit of happiness that he was a part of. Even the memories are filtered through a new lens. And finding a new life in this… it isn’t easy, but it certainly isn’t Hell anymore. It is moment by moment, making a choice to be purposeful in finding good. It is softening the painting with butterflies and choosing a blue that makes sense of the way I feel.

That painting made a woman in my critique group cry. She was trying to say something about it… and lost it. I guess that was the point of painting it… to communicate an emotion. She got it.

I am looking forward to tonight. Today is going to go well. I guess that’s good.

Handprints.

A few years ago, I spent a week of study at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. There, on display in a glass box on Mulberry row, where the slave quarters were, is a chunk of clay chinking with a clearly visible handprint. A chunk of clay that once filled a gap between logs in a slave cabin on the plantation of the writer of the Declaration of Independence. It is an impression left by an enslaved person. And such marks are all over the South… hidden, yet visible. Reminders of the lifetimes of unpaid labor… of the abuse, inhumanity, and exploitation and reminders of that person’s humanity.

“All men are created equal…” Jefferson wrote. It is part of our creed as Americans. And John Hemmings was an enslaved master cabinet maker, joiner, and carpenter… who while Jefferson was away, interpreted Jefferson’s drawing, corresponded with Jefferson and supervised white and enslaved crews as they enlarged and renovated Monticello. The writing table and bookshelves, the joinery in the house… all were the work of John Hemmings. That chinking sits right outside a reconstruction of the Hemming’s cabin… Where John’s mother Elizabeth likely lived and died. Jefferson owned 70 members of that family… including at least four that fathered by him.

The traditional paternalistic view is that Jefferson built Monticello. But like John Hemmings, the bulk of labor was done by enslaved men, women and children. The lumber was cut and milled by slaves. The bricks were shaped and fired by slaves. Even the nails were made on site by enslaved children… boys as young as six, whose labor at this young age would be judged by the master and determine if they would have a short brutal life, toiling in the fields on the quarter farms, or a slightly longer, less harsh life working skilled jobs up on Mulberry row or perhaps even working in the main house. Jefferson built Monticello. But someone else swung the hammers and set the bricks. Someone else made the nails. Someone long forgotten dug the holes and mixed the mortar and filed and planed and grinded and morticed and sanded and set and sanded and plastered and roofed and painted.

When I walked Charlottesville or explored the University of Virginia, I would look for those square headed nails, I would look at the bricks… for those finger marks fired into them. In every building and even the cobble stone streets that pre dated the civil war I would look for the signs left by the forgotten people whose labor put them there, erecting the buildings, cutting the wood, clearing the land, laying the clay pipes that still drain those streets…

We live in a world built over the work of slaves, even here in California, or sometimes on land stolen from someone. And behind our modern world, there were girls that toiled in mills and boys that crawled through mines. And there were millions who died forgotten after years of swinging hammers, or pulling loads, or driving mules or working the land with hand hard and cracked. Someone forged the iron and bent the steel and manned the presses and machined the nuts and bolts and that holds it all together. And so today, I hear the talk of “job creators…” of the great men who built this or that in language that ignores the actual people who do the work… those who labor in the heat of the day and in the rain for countless hours over a lifetime… whose handprints are on the bricks and in the chinking… whose blood and sweat are in those nails driven long ago or in the steel and faded paint rolling down the road from some now abandoned factory.

Names lost to history. Labor ignored by language. Marks left largely unnoticed.

They surround us.

Alone with the cats and the TV blaring

I’m sitting here waiting for paint to dry… it is the biggest piece I have painted.
I tell myself that I am not depressed… that I am not really all that sad.
I tell myself that the darkest days, the hardest days are behind me.
And I realize that sometimes I spend time worrying about depression.
That I have anxiety about anxiety.
That I am often more worried about slipping into that darkness
Worried about being alone
Worried about not having that rigid and busy schedule for work
Worried about not having people around
Worried about me… and my thoughts and my head
Worried about what I tell myself …inside
And then the reality is that
There is a yard full of ivy in LA that needs to be pulled.
I have no money.
There is a bathroom here and a fence around my yard that need lots and lots of work.
There is lots of work
An art show
At least three books to read

And I tell myself that I have no fucking time to be depressed.
It’s too hot anyway.

I don’t think that I will ever get over…

I don’t think that I will get over the death of my son.
I don’t think I will ever get over that feeling that I have to be here for Ethan.
I don’t think that I will ever get over that feeling that somehow, in some way that I wasn’t… that I missed something.
And I know that I will always be one phone call from knowing a very different present… one in which Ethan is alive and I have a much different set of problems to deal with.
I don’t think I will get beyond that fear of losing someone else close to me…
And I don’t think I will ever stop wondering if my life is somehow supposed to be very very different.
And I will always wonder what his life is like in this other reality. Where Ethan is alive and graduating college and living the whole rest of his life… and I get to watch.
So Fathers Day is upon me again.
Fathers day…

That silent beating…

There were times when he was young that I would stand at the door of his room and listen to both my boys sleep.
And there were times when I held him high…
And when I held him close
And put my head against his small chest to hear the beats of that tiny heart.
And to know now that that sound is missing from this earth
That the world is absent that solid rhythm
Is much more than any father should bear
And yet I bear that silence.
There are times now when I stand at the door of an empty room
And I listen to the silence
And times when I hold my empty arms high
And hold my head against the empty sky
And listen for the sound.