Sunday, August 30, 2015

Always an Artist

I recently spent a week beginning the disposition of the belongings of my late parents. It is an odd project to dispose of a lifetime of things, things that conjure the two people who were central figures in my world for much of my life. What to discard, what to keep? One thing I don't plan to discard is my mother's creative work.

I've written of my mother's collaging, or as that former first grade teacher termed it, "cutting and pasting". She began this activity in the fall of 2013 and concluded it a few weeks before her death in 2015. With roughly one a month she left 20 albums, a "legacy" she termed it. She began this project when Alzheimers robbed her of the ability to pursue her favorite activity of reading. Each morning she eagerly awaited her newspaper so she could begin to cut it up and paste it in her notebook. At the time we were just glad she had found something that seemed to engage her, but as I carefully perused her albums I was struck by how her style evolved. I could see her mind working and felt her presence surround me.

Carefully I went through each one, page by page. I put them in date order so I could better see their evolution and took photos of those that struck me the most. My plan is to frame some of them and perhaps show them along with my painting of her cutting and pasting. They clearly underscore the fact that creativity can be sustained, perhaps even enhanced, as memory fades. With this perusal, I found myself analyzing her composition, her juxtapositions and repetition of forms. Often I felt as if she was perched on my shoulder, especially as I read her little notes jotted amidst her collages.

I was touched and intrigued and thought I'd share some of her efforts with you.

Her albums began in October 2013 with a few pages recapping her life, her children, her teaching career, my father and how long she had lived in her home. Then she began with her first effort. Her early work was very simple, she took images that appealed to her and pasted them on a page with white space surrounding them. You can tell from the content that it was fall and she was already beginning to paste leaves in as well (1).

Soon that morphed into a more overlapping style and this is where I began to notice some interesting things. She clearly had a fascination for faces and repetition of forms. Notice the upside down burger mimicking the pumpkin face (2) ? You can see how she was using grapes to create a sense of flow in the image, drawing your eye along with it. Now her work was beginning to overlap creating a denser image.

At the end of that first book was a note that she had sung Happy Birthday to my sister and my sister told her that it made her day. I felt a surge of satisfaction. I talked to my mother each morning and my sister spoke to her in the evening. She was no longer able to remember birthdays, but I had reminded her of my sister's birthday. She had said, "But I don't have anything for her!" I had suggested she sing to my sister and the suggestion had stayed with her all day, a long time in Alzheimer time.

She often included newspaper articles, sometimes about sports; she was an avid basketball fan. She told me she included anything she saw about Obama who she firmly supported. A newspaper article might find itself enhanced by visuals, often with repetition of form, notice the hands of the M&M guy and the basketball players (3).

Mom was drawn to images of families and it appears that she had a fondness for William and Kate. Here they are adorned with a gingerbread house and Tinkerbell, filling out their world with sweetness (4).

While she had begun to overlap images, she hadn't firmly shifted from individual images yet. She was often conscious of the relationship between opposing pages and might divide images to get some repetition (5). She often used her pages as a notebook, noting important things like her breakfast or the fact that her paper hadn't come yet. This was the high point of her day and if it hadn't arrived by our morning phone call, I immediately called the paper to urge them onward.

Her work often had a bit of whimsy in how she separated images. Notice the child reaching for a tidbit just out of reach (6).


About six months into this activity she began to overlap imagery in earnest and make use of full page spreads (7, 8).

Now she was hitting her stride turning out imagery which merged black and white and color (9) and using swatches of color like mosaics (10).
I've been teaching classes in family history collage and on one visit I brought in printouts of family pictures and decorative papers. She did a collage while I was there, but then I left her with a bunch of family images out of which she did my favorite creations - the crowns of strawberries for her mother and my sister. It made me regret leaving images of me out of the batch I provided her.
She continued her work for another ten months and while not everything worked, the ones that did made me take a second look. She always had an artist's eye and I admire not only her sense of purpose, but the creations that came out of it. Here is a sampling from the remaining months of some of my favorites.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Fun and Games

We just took our grandson on a college visit. Campuses always remind me of all the interesting directions we can go with our lives. And that doesn't stop in our teens and twenties, not even in our sixties. If I were to embark on a new career, I think I'd explore the study of game theory. I love games that present a puzzle and especially those that make use of words. But it is not just the challenge of games that intrigues me, it is the lessons that live within them. They reveal our fundamental nature and offer us clues on how we can begin to improve on it. They also give us insight into other people and how we interact with them.

My husband and I got to know each other over a Scrabble game. I noted several important things about him. He had a good vocabulary and was strategic and competitive. Anything less and there would not have been a second date. Those were fundamental requirements. 

Over time I began to observe a difference in our styles. I knew all the two letter words and could wedge them into tight spots. I played a game that hugged the board. He on the other hand loved the grand gesture, laying out a seven letter word with a flourish. For a while we stayed in our separate spheres, tight spots versus expansive gestures. One day it dawned on me that the best way to beat him was to master his game while retaining my own. I began to look at words differently, identifying beginnings and endings and building on them. Most importantly I began with the premise that a seven letter word could be hiding in those letters. I stopped treating it like a lucky rarity and assumed it was there. Suddenly I began to spot them. I decided that I could be someone who put down seven letter words much as I decided at age 30 that I could be someone who traveled. Part of altering our life is embedded in that decision about who we will be and how we perceive our possibilities and limitations.

There are a few lessons here...

1) Allow for the possibilities in the world and in your own capacity to grasp them. You won't find them if you assume they don't exist and especially if you don't believe in your own ability to find them.

2) Look for components and how they connect. Even in the grand gesture, you can build in segments. I've always described myself as an incrementalist, one who builds things step by step.  There are moments when an entire word or idea or even a painting bursts forth fully formed, but more often we need to assemble the pieces in a gradual process.

3) Learn an unfamiliar approach to expand on your existing approach.

I've moved on from Scrabble to Words With Friends and Word Streak and along the way gathered a few more lessons. One rather jarring one is...

4) There is always someone better than me. Or you.

I've written of that time I had a career upset and my father said, "it was about time you landed on your ass, you were getting entirely too smug." Games keep me humble and there are times that is a good thing. Ask those who know me. I win a lot of games, but just when I start feeling rather smug, someone creams me.

Now at first I lick my wounds and then I realize there is an opportunity to learn, just as I did from my husband. So lesson # 5, the corollary to #4 is that you can always get better. One of the best ways?

5) Learn from your opponent.

I start analyzing their game. What words do they get that I don't? How do they maximize endings? Do they win on speed or vocabulary or both? How strategically do they make use of bonus points? I figure out what they are doing successfully and then try my hand at it. I believe they call that "beating them at their own game".  

The strategy you use against one person may not be the strategy for the next.  Each of us is different and acknowledging the differences allows you to study that person rather than simply projecting from yourself.  Seeing clearly without getting in your own way, is an important part of engaging with another person.  And what are games, but an engagement with another person.

Games reveal a lot about us and our opponent, but they also show us how to take on the world in a different way and embrace its possibilities as our own.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Well-Fitting Suit

It has been slightly over a month since my mom passed away and it doesn't feel as if she's gone. I've written about the concept of "ambiguous loss", first introduced by Dr Pauline Boss. It is that kind of loss one experiences when someone is gone, but not gone or conversely here, but not here. An example of the former might include someone who disappears on a plane over the ocean, the latter could be someone with Alzheimer's. It is a loss unaccompanied by societal support of grieving. 

So now I'm on the other side of this equation, unambiguous loss. I was with my mother as she took her last breath. I spoke about her at the funeral and have been the recipient of others' support. I must confess that it still feels quite ambiguous. Death is such an inconceivable concept to wrap our brains around, perhaps it just won't seem real until time has passed. I may need to go through a Thanksgiving without Mom at the table for reality to set in or perhaps that week that looms on my calendar, scheduled for disposing of my parents' belongings, the detritus of long lives. In the middle lives their negative space, the outline of their presence like the chalk figure at a crime scene. I've written of my mother's daily collaging, her cutting and pasting. It sits on her kitchen table undisturbed, cut out images waiting to be secured to the page in an unfinished collage. Neither my sister nor I can yet bring ourselves to dispose of it lest we lose the fragile sense of her presence that lives in that space. 

With both parents gone, I've been thinking a lot about parent-child relationships, what we know of each other, or think we do. When my father passed, I was struck by how little I knew the man that the outside world knew. I wished I had known him in that way. I was also suddenly aware of our similarities. Much of my understanding came from the paper trail that he left. His meticulous nature, echoed my own or rather I suppose mine echoed his. There were many flashes of recognition. I was also struck by his understanding of me. I was surprised to see that he had named me as his executor when I was in my 20s, newly out of college with a social work degree. I had always assumed it was based on my later career in finance. He knew his children and their potential better than I realized.

It was different with my mother. We always understood each other. There was a similarity in our wiring when I was a child. An introspective nature, a love of books, a curiosity that was fed by a love of learning. We also shared a certain unease with the world, a shyness that friends now often fail to see in me. My mother saw it and recognized it as her own. She worked hard to not let it imprison me and to do that she had to work to not let her own nature imprison her. I was a child who was hard for her to raise because she had to try so hard to give me the courage she struggled with herself. Oddly my ace in the hole was my father's nature. He just plowed ahead and did what he wanted to do. I grew up witnessing that foreign quality and over time began to own it in myself. I am a mix of them both and that is a good thing. They tempered each other and now they temper me. I don't need to look far to see my parents. I wear them like a well-fitting suit.

There are differences as well. Some qualities I would do well to emulate. My mother was a much kinder person than I will ever be. I have my moments, but for her it was a fundamental part of her gentle nature. In yoga when we set an intention, I used to send her love and energy. Now I decide I will try to honor her with kindness. To find those opportunities in everyday life to reach out to another.

My parents live on in the temporary space of things, in the temporary space of me. It is what I do with their presence that matters now.