Discover more from so many shrimp
An art project I've been working on
Inspired by the texture of the time
My mom passed away suddenly from cancer last year. It was completely unexpected. She walked for miles every day, ate healthily, and was very conscientious of what she ate, what dangers she was exposed to. She wanted us to use our laptops on a pillow, not directly on our laps; she was worried about the dangers of cell phones. She never owned a microwave. (She was, I’m sure, more right than wrong about how bad all those things are.) The doctors believe her pancreatic cancer had environmental causes, though she had none of the risk factors. The first few months after her passing it felt as if someone had cleaved half of my brain away. Then it never recovered.
On her walks she would pick up sea glass she found along the beach on Lake Michigan. She collected it in vases and glass jars. When she passed away, my brother and sister—I had to return to work—emptied the glass back into Lake Michigan. We kept some of it. Her neighbor in the building, who our mom had enthusiastically encouraged to cultivate creative hobbies, made us each a necklace with a piece of the seaglass.
Our dad is an artist. Growing up, he painted things. We did not have a lot of money. He was concerned about the way in which artists in Vermont, where we lived for a few years after I was born in Chicago, were expected to paint cows to make a living. People traveling to Vermont want to buy paintings of cows.
My parents divorced when I was 4 or 5, and my brother and sister were 2 or 3. My dad, who went to art school, worked in restaurants to make a living. My mom, who attended grad school for English, edited textbooks. Over the last year, my siblings and I have talked a lot, though, about how she was, as much as my dad, the artist in our family. One of the things artists do is cultivate and collect—things that may seem as if they have little value to others, or perhaps none at all, but have a great deal of value to the artist. This is why people act as if artists are delusional, can be exploited, paid in passion rather than dollars, etc. Until the art has proven economic value, it appears to many people as pointless as collecting valueless sea glass, a resource common enough that it could be found on daily morning walks along Lake Michigan.
When my mom passed, I spent a lot of time looking for tools to even begin to process the overwhelming experience of losing the most important person in my life. My mom herself had, in her hospital bed, suggested a book on grieving that my aunt had sent her when my parents divorced. This suggestion helped put to the side ‘how to grieve’ to a later date, so that I could be present. When she was gone, I found that the book was not precisely what I needed. Her memory of how it had helped her was specific to a time, place, and experience, and its truth for her rang for me as … a truth for her.
My recollection of books about grief—I perused several last summer, but recall few specifics—is that they are literal, practical, banking on science or psychology, existing in a tone of permission—allow yourself, permit yourself—the same tone as advertisements urging me to ‘treat myself’ to a product. The authority a book on grief attempted to channel lacked persuasive power for me. And the prose—so formal. In reading it, I found myself reflecting on whether behaviors, attitudes, etc. were “healthy.” This started to feel insufficient for the task at hand.
I found what I was looking for on the recommendation of NTS Radio’s Literary Friction. I want to say John Berger’s The Red Tenda of Bologna was comforting, and in a big-picture sense it was, but comfort was not its purpose, exactly. It is an elegiac piece of writing about mourning his uncle, and about the city of Bologna, and about the martyrs of fascism. It was published 10 years before Berger himself passed away, and likely saw his own mortality on the horizon. Like most art it’s about many things, seemingly unrelated yet which cohere elegantly, as if organically. When you try to pin it down, like a butterfly under glass, it evades your need for that straightforward reassurance.
What I did find reassuring in the book was what I find true of art in general; the distillation of something complex through poetics, a sensuous arrangement of familiar resonances in an unfamiliar pattern, remind me that difference is another form of connection, to the world and to others. He tied together politics, history, creativity, and travel, to the experience of mourning, loss, meaning. Because the loss connects to every part of your life, all these disparate strands suddenly feel interconnected, and in tying together disparate strands, he created a work which embodied, for me, the staggering task of connecting together the creative life to the political one, to the personal, emotional, and mystical. Here was someone who’d been where I just was.
In the book there is a one-paragraph page, a single star in Berger’s constellation:
Even at that early age I sensed this was something more than a childish game. He had learnt how persistently many people need to look away from, to neutralize, what surrounds them. And one of the frequent devices they use to achieve this is to insist that everything is bound to be ordinary. The advantage of the untold is that it cannot be dismissed as ordinary. God is the unsaid, he murmured to me one evening in St Malo, drinking, before bed, a glass of Benedictine.
Before my mom became sick, I had become personally invested—obsessed, one might say—in an “an art project I’ve been working on.” It’s taken the concrete form of a CD, a DJ mix (you can get it here, until I run out), but it’s an ongoing project, one I’m feeling through as it goes, until it comes to a natural end. Sometimes its main articulation is “DJing in my bedroom for an audience of myself.” It’s a curatorial experiment. Maybe its a history of music, a piece of journalism, and criticism; its in the form of a creative map, an asterism to a constellation, culled from the byproducts of my own curiosity, social world, experiences and whims. It’s gotten me back into ink drawing, purely for the tactile enjoyment I get from it. It also inspired me to write for the public again.
Popular music, unlike many other forms of art, is highly democratized. Relatedly, I find ‘taste’ has always been a more exciting and compelling and useful angle for experiencing, collecting, discussing, sharing art than more “objective” / historical modes. For one thing, the function of music in the world is never static—songs, styles, strategies of distribution come in and out of fashion, ebb and flow like waves on a beach. It’s not that expertise isn’t essential—the “lost” or “forgotten,” or simply de-emphasized stories which reappear, often powered by expertise, feed into the curatorial impulse, and the best curators are curious, dependent on social context, social reality, for their vision to have any meaning at all.
Yet taste is such an elemental part of our engagement with the world, a unconscious attraction-repulsion linked with unknowable networks of pre-conscious or subconscious associations, the building blocks of creative work. It’s also an engine of passion for what you do, and that includes those who would cultivate an aura of the objective and historical, minimizing the personal—they are curating constantly, as shaped by the inchoate desires and revulsions as the rest of us. The historian and critic keep us from the myopia of narcissism, but they are as dependent on their own curatorial eye as anyone else, watching what washes up on the beach with great interest and rearranging it in ways to catch the eye of others.
We lived in Vermont for several years when I was a kid. A major byproduct of the Vermont economy is the production of maple syrup. In elementary school, we would take field trips to see how the trees are tapped for sap, and how it’s transformed into different grades of maple syrup. The syrup would come in big metal tins. My family would send tins of syrup as gifts across the country around the holidays. My sister found a bag full of empty metal syrup tins my mom had been saving in the storage unit at her apartment. She had a plan to do something with them—we don’t know what.
People would tell me, in an effort to reassure me, that I know my mom so well that I knew what she’d say in a given situation, or faced with a difficult problem, and could be comforted by that fact. I found that the truth of loss is that this is exactly wrong; the things I knew about her I’ll know forever; but she existed in what I don’t know, in the ways she can no longer share, the truths which will no longer surprise me. This is what’s lost when you lose someone—the uncertainty. Like the seaglass, we got rid of the syrup cans.