No art lasts forever, but some art is much more transient than the rest.
A good friend of mine posted a link on my Facebook page tonight that shows photographs of a Van Gogh painting reproduced large on the landscape via vegetation planted on a 1.2-acre plot. The artist is Stan Herd, who specializes in “land art” designed to be seen from the air. Most of his pieces are eventually plowed under or grown over.
The same transience characterizes the work of the well-known artist Andy Goldsworthy, who works primarily with sticks and stones, leaves, ice, and other materials found in nature. Most of his works are not destined for long life either. They melt, get blown away, wither, or are destroyed by water. Even more transient than Goldsworthy’s or Herd’s works are patterns made by artists on sandy beaches or snowy slopes, some of which last only a few minutes before seawater washes them away or the sun melts their borders.
Some conceptual artists play on the notion of transience by doing conventional work but deliberately planning its destruction. And the very nature of performance art is transience. Only the photographs and videos documenting these various types of art have any longevity, although they too will die some day.
It’s supremely ironic that my friend happened to post this particular link this evening that led me to muse about the transience of art—because this evening, after years of uncertainty, I had finally brought myself to put some art into the recycling bin.
When my husband died, in May 2008, he left behind three big acid-free boxes stacked full with 200 to 300 abstract paintings and other artworks interleaved with acid-free sheets. Most of these works were done with undiluted watercolors on paper. Some were done with ink; some were done via photocopier. Many of the paintings are flaking; some are wrinkled. Some are quite good; many are not, partly because Steve never discarded any of his efforts and partly because his mother and I have skimmed off the cream of the crop. They epitomized Steve as much as anything did. They were the best things he ever produced. To whatever extent anyone has a legacy, they were his legacy. And even though we were divorced a few months before he died, they became unofficially mine upon his death.
At least, I took them. A friend helped me clear out the house that Steve and I once shared, which I’d deeded over to him in the divorce. But neither of us could pry open the high cupboards in the sunroom that I thought contained the boxes of paintings. In a near panic, I dragged in a neighbor who worked and worked and finally got the doors open. I wept in relief. Although I didn’t know what I would do with the paintings, they were the most alive thing left of Steve and they had to be saved.
But where does art go when it has no future?
I framed a couple of the paintings for my house. But Steve and I had no children. He had no siblings. His father died less than five months after he did. In short, after I took the boxes to his mother and let her choose what she wanted, I was at a loss to know what to do with the paintings down the line. Like my own photographs, which will be thrown out or deleted by someone unknown to me after I die, his art has no prospective home.
I’ve kept the boxes for seven years. It seemed unthinkable to get rid of any of the paintings. But I recently told Steve’s mother I would bring them to her, along with the quilts she made us, to ensure that they would still be “in the family” if I died. A smart woman, she hit upon the idea of taking some of the paintings to next year’s family reunion in case any of Steve’s cousins want some of them. She couldn’t take 300 of them, however, and most people don’t much care for abstract paintings. The reality is that most or all of those paintings will be thrown out by someone after my ex-mother-in-law dies.
As I was going through the paintings one last time, choosing a few more that I hate to part with, I found myself putting aside some that I knew would never find a home among Steve’s cousins. Then I began putting aside more that I knew wouldn’t find a home. And finally I assumed the role of Steve’s curator, deciding which paintings were best and which should be sacrificed to make things more manageable for his mother.
Who was I to judge that? But it seemed best for me to do it—a favor, a burden, a debt, an obligation. At one point I just sat down and cried, because it seemed I was discarding his soul, a concept I don’t even believe in. I’m not sure which I was mourning more, the art or the artist. In some dimension, they are one and the same.
I Watched You Without Blinking
In the twilight of your sinking
I grew calloused to your grief.
I thought I loved you less and less.
I watched you without blinking.
From the lies about your drinking
I conceived the need to leave.
Words were weapons in my telling. Still,
I watched you without blinking.
Once, you lay in bed unthinking,
Slack. You floated toward death’s port.
But the doctors turned the tide back as
I watched you without blinking.
In the aftermath of stinking
Guilt, my shame came to the fore.
I’d cut the line, so fine, between us.
I had watched you without blinking.
When I strove for our relinking,
You were carapaced with hate.
My hands, outstretched, stayed empty, for
I’d watched you without blinking.
My heart curled gray and shrinking
As your world grew small and strait.
You chose the path toward Not to be.
I watched you without blinking.
You handed off your grief to me.
I cannot keep from blinking.
Now I fight to shed the darkness
Of the twilight of your sinking.
This poem is for and about Steve, my second husband. The third stanza, which may be too inscrutable, refers to his failed suicide attempt. By the time he died he was my ex-husband, but for many reasons I felt much more like a widow than a divorcée. My sense is that this may be the last time I write about him. If you’re fairly new to this blog and are interested, see Into the Confessional and Steve.
The title of this poem comes from a 2004 painting by Ikenaga Yasunari called “I Watch You Without Blinking.” As soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to write something using the same title. I was thinking of a short story. Instead, I set out to write a villanelle, but it morphed into the quatrain form above while still using a repeating-line motif. The first and last lines of each stanza rhyme, and the last line of each stanza is the same (with small variations), until the final stanza. The last line of the poem repeats the first line. Every two stanzas have second lines that rhyme, though usually with a slant rhyme.
On a sad and foolish day in mid-May during which I got emotionally needy and expressed myself histrionically to a sometime-reader of this blog, he accused me of being unwilling to “take a single step” to help myself with my depression and social isolation. This criticism infuriated me not least because it was grossly untrue.
Nonetheless, his assertion got me to thinking about the whole question of self-help, and I found myself still thinking about it several weeks later. I realized I was beginning to forget some of the things I’ve done in the past eight years, since I left my husband and found my own life spiraling out of control after he died. As a way to preserve this piece of my self-history for myself and for any future counselors I have—and, I hope, to help others—I decided to list and discuss the things I’ve tried to reduce my guilt and grief over my ex-husband’s death and to alleviate the severe depression and social isolation that resulted. What helped? What didn’t? What did I not try, and why didn’t I try those things? Why did I abandon some of the things I tried?
This is an extremely long post, something of a primer on depression, isolation, and loneliness, and it’s not intended for casual readers. Rather, it’s meant in part to give some perspective and advice to fellow sufferers and those who love them. Therefore it comes with the standard disclaimers: I’m not a doctor or therapist; these are strictly my own impressions based on my own experiences; consult a professional if you suffer from depression; get help if you’re feeling suicidal. Okay? Please act in your own best interest. Variability also comes into play. Tolstoy wrote “[E]very unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Every depressed person, I think, is depressed in her own way. The fact that my depression has been inextricably bound up with guilt, grief, and loneliness does not mean that your depression is as well. Consequently, what this post has to say will not be of use to everyone (and maybe to no one).
I’m not taking into account here the year and a half I hung onto my job after my ex-husband’s death, or the many ways I tried to help him before he died. I’ve written about that elsewhere in this blog (“Into the Confessional“). Nor am I taking into account the endless repairs I had to coordinate for the house I bought for myself and my disabled sister, or the many ways I’ve helped her, or the work involved in selling that house after she bought her own, or my own house search and second move, or the fact that I supported an on-again/off-again boyfriend in 2014, the fourth and final year of a turbulent relationship. All those things fall under the headings of work and trauma. What I want to do here is recall the things I did to try to keep my head above water. Although most of them didn’t help me, I believe each of them could be valuable for others.
That leads me to another caveat: My depression was severe enough to keep me mostly in bed for several years, which means I have little stamina or strength. That in turn made it harder for me to help myself. This probably is not a typical situation for most people. In addition, I found out about a year ago that I have severe anemia, which is contributing to my exhaustion. It’s possible I’ve been anemic for years; there’s no way of knowing. For two or three years before I left my husband—we’re talking at least 10 years ago now—I experienced increasing trouble getting going in the morning. I’d also begun having occasional days—most often Saturdays, at the end of the work week—when I was so tired I stayed in bed all day. I attributed this development to overexercise and the (very slow) approach of menopause. It may in fact have been due to iron deficiency. My fatigue was exacerbated by depression. Without the disabling fatigue, I might have been able to keep my job, or to find fulfilling volunteer work, or to more easily take steps to counter the deconditioning I experienced from being in bed.
Anyway, let’s start with the standard therapeutic stuff.
These therapy-based efforts didn’t pay off for me, but they can help others and they’re all worth considering. What helped me more were other things I tried.
One of the reasons severe depression is so pernicious is that it renders a person so helpless. It’s tremendously hard even to get out of bed. Simply taking a shower can be a major achievement. Getting your groceries and pushing through the aisles of a Wal-Mart Supercenter are arduous exercises. If you live alone, you must be your own caregiver. People who haven’t experienced severe depression will be impatient with you and may, despite their good intentions, say hurtful things. You will probably lose friends; most people with severe depression do.
Given these realities, I feel pretty good about the number of things I tried, even though my results were lousy and I think I should have done better. But readers may find that things which didn’t work for me will work for them. So much depends on circumstances. For example, I suspect there’s a great variation in the effectiveness of grief support groups. For what it’s worth, I believe the best things are getting out of the house whenever you can make yourself do it, getting back to nature (I took frequent drives to a nearby wildlife refuge, and still do), engaging in creative activities, working part-time or volunteering if you’re able, and getting the hell out of town whenever you can—with a companion, if you can.
As for me, right now I’m undergoing iron infusions that I hope will give me enough energy to start an exercise program. If I can regain some stamina, more opportunities will open up for me to take some of my own advice.