Week 49. Death

The day after 9-11 I sat in a philosophy class, existentialism. I liked the way bracelets slid up and down the teacher’s wrists as he raised and lowered his hands. They clinked against each other, tiny bell sounds above the sleeves of a conventional suit. “Fanaticism is the need to know and have all the answers.” The men on the planes could not stand the uncertainty of life.

Death to me meant nothing until Byrd was born, with his six pound body came the terrible slamming against a wall that leaves you crumpled and spent. I had never had anything to lose before. I had never considered my life, never taken charge. Before motherhood, I couldn’t even tell my own parents things that bothered me, could not say no.

Three weeks after Byrd was born my Grandma died. It was all logistics of covering my head, my elbows, my ankles, breastfeeding in the car at the cemetery. She was orthodox jewish, had taught me how to keep kosher with three sets of dishes and silverware. She used the ocean as a Mikva to clean things, running a brand new grill into the waves fully dressed. I had asked her about death a few years before.

When you die you are gone. – GM

What about your soul?- EA

What soul? – GM

What about god? – EA

There is no god in Judaism. – GM

The philosophy professor with bracelets gave us a choice – to have everything safe and determined or to allow for discovery and freedom. The tidy world would offer guarantees, but would have no art. Art comes from uncertainty. The song that never ends is 25 words on repeat.

Without an ending there is no plot.

This summer, I made huge paintings of the St. Louis River and chopped them up, so now you can only see the river in pieces. I painted my ribcage containing a gilded gold and carmine heart, cells in the human mucosa, bits of lost language, all part of the river, all chopped.

The St. Louis River is brown and foamy because dissolved organic carbon from decomposing plant life and all the death that’s sheltered by a body of water decay and form oily surfactants that churn and bubble and root-beer-float away. The river is home and death and culture and long vowels shaped by the decomp-drought in fall and the thrust of the dam in spring.

Sometimes a seiche from the great lake will push the river into itself for miles, add new rot, in payback for the river’s brown line of dirty entry in Superior’s blue perfection. See, tourists, that’s my papermill, matchmill, casket-upholstery-manufacturing-mill home.

In the lamina propria—the layer of mucosa beneath the epithelium—macrophages, mast cells, B- and T-cells, collagen, afferent and efferent nerve endings, and starfish fibroblasts come together in a dance of death, life, salvation, annihilation, and risk. You never know, and you can’t control it. All you can do is accept their dance as part of home and listen to how they shape your language.

Materials: gouache

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