On Turning 40

“You’re going to lose everything,” my then-husband said, while we were eating lunch one winter weekend.

I readjusted my roast beef sandwich, the contents of which were about to spill onto my plate, and said: “how about now?”

This was seventeen months before our marriage ended–which I know with precision because I’d recorded it in my daily journal.

It seemed an especially ominous way to refer to errant lunch meat, a moment that signified something, although I didn’t know what. And even now, when hindsight makes his comment seem like a warning, I’m still pretty sure that P. was actually trying to facilitate a more tidy dining experience, and not issuing a forecast of a gathering storm.

I took special note of the exchange then because although he was not at all given to morbid thoughts, I’ve always entertained them with gusto. I dwelled on the broader implication of his observation of my sloppy sandwich, which struck me as entirely correct: I would lose everything eventually, as all mortals will. But since I was then 36, the losses I anticipated seemed decades away.

The losses I did not anticipate followed the next year. Some were permanent: my home; my name; my understanding of the character of the man I’d spent my life with since age 17. The rest of the losses proved temporary, although I had no way of knowing that as they happened. I couldn’t read because I couldn’t concentrate, I didn’t eat much because my stomach was lurching, I lost all faith in the basic order of the universe.

All of this was more or less restored to me in its own time and pace. And I can now say that in the bigger picture, what I’ve gained from the divorce has exceeded what I lost. But if P. had said “you’re going to lose everything,” on the night he walked out– or in the months of chaos that followed– I would not have argued.

Hand Embroidery by Alison Stein

But how about now? Now I’m days away from my 40th birthday, so I’m dwelling on a different addition to my list of lifetime losses: my own dewy youth.

I’m mostly kidding about that — I don’t see aging as a loss, considering the available alternative. But this is arguably the moment where I leave any behind any claim I might have still had on a younger adulthood and enter middle age. It’s a reminder that the pool of potential time I have left in this life – which is of uncertain size anyway – is definitely diminishing.

It’s also obvious that the shape of my life is radically different as I leave my thirties than it was when I entered them. And while I still know that I will lose everything eventually, my understanding of the nature of loss has changed.

I now believe that the central problem of life is not loss per se. The real trouble comes from the process of change that follows a loss, or a gain, or really anything that alters the course of life significantly.

I’m studying metalsmithing now, and have been introduced to a phenomenon called work-hardening. Basically, when you bend or manipulate metal repeatedly it becomes stiff. This is sometimes good – like when you’ve gotten a piece into the shape you desire, and you don’t want it to change anymore. But if you need to continue to shape the object, a work-hardened piece will break if you continue to manipulate it.

Malleability is not infinite.

This is exactly the opposite of how I’d always thought things worked. I imagined that metal would become more pliable as I manipulated it, that basically the molecules would get used to being rearranged, would just give up, go limp and say: bend me, lady, any way you want.

Likewise, I thought that the more change I experienced in my life, and the more loss, the better I’d be able to handle it. I could radically reshape my life, without breaking, or breaking down.

What I’ve learned is that radical reshaping is certainly possible, and survivable –but change never comes easy for humans. Nor does it for inanimate objects.

In a bookbinding class not long ago, my teacher said that a piece of paper, folded into the signature of a book “remembers” its life as an unfolded sheet. To forget its original shape, it has to sit with a heavy weight on it for a period of time. Wire “remembers” its life on a coil, before it becomes a drop earring or a toggle. It often requires hammering, to be educated on its new role in the world. And metal, once its become work-hardened, needs to be put into fire – a process called annealing – which will restore its molecular lattice and allow it to bend once again.

Reshaping doesn’t require painless repetition as much as it requires brute force and time.

This makes intuitive sense when it comes to difficult changes: divorce, death of a loved one, loss of any kind. In fact, those changes are often described as feeling hammered, getting hit with a brick, walking through a fire, taking time to adjust. It’s less obvious that this also applies to positive changes — a new relationship, a new job, a new opportunity. But changes of any character employ the same brutal techniques of life reshaping.

It just takes a lot of energy to change a life, in any direction. It takes time.

When I was in college, my favorite political theory professor wrapped up an otherwise abstract and cerebral conversation by telling me that only two things in life were true: This too shall pass; and there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Time has certainly proven her correct, not that she needed me to say so. But what I didn’t realize when I first heard her say it, over twenty years ago, was that these two principles were intimately related.

Everything changes — and change will inevitably extract its price.

On Jewelry Made from Human Remains

A tiny tooth is embedded in the center of gold ring.

It’s set amid sparkling stones, so it’s not immediately apparent that the cream-colored fragment is, in fact, a child’s tooth. The idea behind this ring is not grotesque, but sentimental –- a semi-precious bit of a little darling.  And the child didn’t bite the ring to set it as the centerpiece, but rather lost it in the normal business of growing up.

These “milk tooth” rings were popular in the Victorian era –in fact, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were all about the combination of dentistry and jewelry. Many of Victoria’s jewels were adorned with the teeth of her children–and of hunted animals.

And while we can have a laugh at the peculiar tastes of wacky monarchs, we all should confess right now that we are hardly unfamiliar with dentine as a decorative element in jewelry.  After all, ivory is animal dentine.

In fact, it’s animal teeth that set the stage for whatever jewelry you now see on an earlobe finger, wrist or neck near you. Jewelry communicates both individuality and belonging. Eighty thousand years ago, or so, a hunter draped himself in boar teeth to show both his own individual courage and hunting prowess, and his affiliation with other hunters. (More: 25,000 Years of Jewelry. ) You say you like classic jewelry design? Then you better like yourself some teeth.

Still, when I saw the milk tooth ring at Doyle & Doyle’s Vault show about sentimental rings,  I did immediately find it rather gross. It reminded me of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia  where I saw a glass jar filled with a peculiar material, golden, ranging from translucent to creamy. At first I thought the stuff rather beautiful —  until I learned that this material was human skin, the results of dermatillomania, an obsessive compulsive disorder in which the afflicted pick off their own skin. (In this instance, the jar was filled with skin flakes collected by a 23-year-old Caucasian woman.)

Gag, right? But why should this be, really? We easily find beauty in the cast-off skins, nails, bones and hair of other creatures, so why is it so difficult to find not just utility, but beauty in human detritus?

[–]

I’ve been interested in jewelry made from human body parts ever since I saw a bracelet which incorporated a hunk of hair, at a museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico a few years back. It was worn by a widow, if I’m remembering correctly, and the hair belonged to her late husband.

Up until then, I’d thought of an objet made from human parts as purely macabre, the territory of Nazis. Leaving aside dermatillomania, I’m sure it’s hard to procure quantities of human skin or bone in a way that doesn’t involve desecration of graves or crimes against humanity. But we living folk do produce a great deal of material that we shed and replace painlessly –- like hair. And so why not upcycle?

I’m not seriously asking this question: I realize that the answer has something to do with our cannibalism taboo. We eat other animals but not humans — generally, we adorn ourselves with the parts of other creatures but not with ourselves. But must jewelry made from human body parts always be a little disgusting?

Lately I’ve been working this question into my conversations – I’m always a delight to have at dinner parties – and my entirely unscientific answer to this question is: for a modern audience, hell yes. Human body parts as jewelry? Yuck.

But it was not ever thus.

For instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has in its holdings a bold necklace, early 19th century, Hawaiian.  At its center is a huge whale tooth, suspended on a thick coil which is made of 1,700 feet of deep brown human hair. It’s worked in tiny braids, and, like the Victorian milk ring, you can’t immediately tell that the fiber originally grew on a human. This necklace was a seriously powerful talisman – “hair was a sacred substance whose presence enhanced the mana [supernatural powers] of the necklace and its noble wearer.”

In other words, this was a statement necklace, not an everyday piece, and it was only to be worn by a chief, not a commoner. So while I don’t think the fashion critics of the time found this necklace gross, per se, it was certainly meant to be intimidating.

Hair necklace

In contrast, the latest exhibit at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is Death Becomes Her,  an exhibit of mourning attire from 1815-1915, which includes mourning jewelry, also known as memorial jewelry. Starting in about the 18th century, it became fashionable to incorporate hair into brooches and bracelets. This was accomplished either through weaving and braiding, or by chopping or macerating the hair and mixing it with a binder to a create a kind of hair paint.

Now, in every other way, this memorial jewelry would be considered understated, perhaps even demure, by the fashion standards of the time. But think about encountering someone wearing these pieces. The sparkle catches your eye, and then you drawn in closer, and spot a tawny braid in the middle of that brooch. Met Museum Mourning Jewelry

Doesn’t it force a sharp breath? Doesn’t it lead to so many questions? Whose hair ? Why is this person wearing it? There’s a story to tell, a question that wants to be asked, an answer that wants to be given.

And this, I think, is the point. Jewelry is always is a symbol of something, but its components are, on their own, neutral. We project the meaning on the metal, the value on the stone. Most of us are accustomed to mentally jogging away from assigning deep meaning to the parts of other animals. But bits and pieces of humans, our remains – these can never be a blank slate on which we can project any meaning we’d like, or take purely on the basis of sartorial value.

So, here’s my contention: jewelry made from human body parts can indeed be beautiful, and maybe, perhaps, not necessarily disgusting. But never neutral, always arresting, and always at least slightly shocking.

On Sensory Pleasures, Writing in the Air and also William Blake

If you see me walking down the street, and you are very observant, you will notice two things: I’m gently frowning (this is something that I will need to work on as I stare down the barrel of my 40th birthday; it’s definitely going to stick that way); and my fingers are subtly moving, as if they are on a keyboard.

This “air typing” is a dead giveaway that I’m composing in my head.  In fact,  I often don’t realize I’ve made the shift from non-specific fretting and planning to something more creative until I notice my hands doing their little keyboard dance.

[N.B. I really want to emphasize the delicacy of this movement. When my fingers are doing this maneuver, my hands are where they naturally fall at my side — not poised  in front of me bunny-like. I really do try to avoid looking like a total maniac when I’m out and about.]

The connection between composing words and moving my hands across a keyboard is now hardwired in my brain, although this wasn’t ever thus.  As mentioned, I’m about to turn 40, and so I’m a member of the last generation who did not start and end every piece of writing by tapping on a computer keyboard.

When I started my writing career waaaaaaaay back in the day when there was  this thing called “paper,” I composed first on a legal pad, with a pen — and then I moved to the computer.  (I did use an actual typewriter in high school for term papers, but that’s because I was a deprived child. Many of my peers did have word processors and computers.)

It took me a few years to get comfortable with composing rough and first drafts on a computer, but that was a long time ago, and now I really can’t do it any other way. I do sometimes still write on paper, but that’s because it forces me to slow down — it takes me at least twice as long to write a sentence with a pen than it does to type it.

And also,  I enjoy the feeling of a writing implement on paper. When I don’t write on paper for a long while, I miss it. There’s something that has always seemed strange to me about the sensory deprivation of contemporary writing — no scent of ink, no sound of an eraser, no feel of the tooth or gloss of the paper,  even after a piece is published.

I’m not saying I would trade those tactile pleasures for the inconveniences of writing in a pre-computer age — I’m really quite  happy that I’ve been able to rearrange the sentence you’re now reading three or 12 times without having to retype the whole thing. But over the past year I’ve become aware that I really do want to feel more of a connection between creativity and an actual, tangible, physical something.

If you think about it, there really isn’t that much of a sensory difference between typing in the air and typing on a keyboard — especially if that keyboard is a piece of glass, as it is on iDevices.

Stein Drypoint Plate

I’ve been studying visual art for the better part of this year. I’ve tried my hand at silverpoint and collage, I’ve painted with acrylic, oil, watercolor and gouache. I’ve made boxes, I’ve made books, I’ve learned to make paper from a t-shirt, I’ve operated a letterpress, and a solder torch.  This is all so different from the work I’ve done in my adult life, which has really been about using a keyboard to arrange pixels around a screen in exchange for money.

I’ve found myself drawn most to art forms that provide the most haptic feedback — etching into a piece of plastic with a scribe for a drypoint, gouging out a woodcut, pulling a threaded needle through fabric. It all just feels so fucking good.

But as I’ve spent more time on the visual arts, I’ve realized that there’s a certain experience that writing provides me, that no other art form has been able to replicate. This is not a sensory experience, per se, but it does produce a certain feeling that does seem almost physical, whether I’m typing on a keyboard, or using a pen or pencil.  When I’ve gripped onto an inchoate idea that I’m trying to render in words that another human will read and understand, I’m mentally pushing against something that feels like an entity. And entity that resists, until it yields.  And when it gives…it feels extra fucking good.

(Dirty minded readers are reminded to lift their minds from the gutter at this time.)

And so after due consideration, I’ve decided that out of all the notable figures in literature and art, it was William Blake who really had it right. Poet and printmaker, writer and visual artist. He wrote:

Till she who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound
In spells of law to one she loathes? and must she drag the chain
Of life in weary lust?

Okay, he wrote that in an entirely different context. And I will agree that I can no longer be fairly said to “burn with youth.”  (Maybe I’m still slightly singed?) But what I’ve decided he’s saying here is this: there’s really no need to choose one good thing, whether it’s the haptics of visual art, or the deep thought of writing. I’m choosing a life where I can have both.

Regarding My Lie About the Three Cats

“Yes, I have a cat,” I said to the gentleman taking me out on a first date.

It was out of my mouth so fast that I heard it when he did — a lie that came out so smoothly, so confidently, that it would have been awkward to immediately amend.

I’m pretty sure that I didn’t bring up the subject of felines, although maybe I did. The truth is that I do have a cat.

And I also have two others.

In fact, in total I have three cats, a reality that only became uncomfortable to me when I became single. Three cats didn’t seem so extreme to me when I was married, and living in a house that could easily accommodate three cats. (Although that is also a bit of an exaggeration, since my marriage played out in apartments more often than in houses…but at the end we were living in a house.) We got our first cat in college, then we got another cat to keep the first one company, and then we had to adopt the sweet cat with the missing leg. I drew the line at three cats.

Catlas

So it was for a number of years, he and me and the cats that numbered three. When they got old and started dying, each loss seemed unbearable, and by then, three cats seemed right to me, it just seemed like regular life. We adopted our way back up to three cats.

Immediately after our separation, there was some talk of my ex taking one of the cats — but I decided against that plan when I learned that he had another woman. You’ve had enough pussy, I declared. (I actually didn’t, but I totally should have!)

Anyway, the reality of being a single woman with three cats is somewhat different than being a married with the same pet complement. It’s not that three cats are so much more daily work for me to handle than one, although there is a bit of that. It’s not even that it would be very hard for me to evacuate the three living creatures in my apartment, plus myself, in the event of an emergency, although it would be. It’s that having three cats and no husband makes me seem a little insane. It makes me seem like a crazy cat lady.

Catlas

Life for me is much like what is described in A Man and His Cat,  a most-emailed essay by Tim Kreider, about a man and his close relationship with his cat. I identified with a lot of it – that my home is never empty, that the interior lives of the cats I share the house with is often interesting, sometimes zany – like why did Henry decide that it would be a good idea to squeeze himself inside the pillow case, along with the pillow, this morning?

But I also thought that it was an essay that would not have been published, had it been written by a woman. There is something especially clichéd pathetic about being a single woman and having a cat, that does not apply to being a single male cat owner. It strikes me as the difference between the two words applied to single men and single women respectively: bachelor and spinster*.

And yes, these are outmoded gender roles. But I’m not sure why, when you hear about a lady and her cat(s) that what leaps to mind is a cat who is prickly and solitary and hard to know, and not a sleek sexy cat costume, not Eartha Kitt? And when there is more than one cat in the mix — or heavens, more than two — why does it speak to some sort of a deep hunger for connection, some kind of a collection of ersatz connections to replace the “real” human kind?

Kreider talks about this in his essay: “I’ve speculated that people have a certain reservoir of affection that they need to express, and in the absence of any more appropriate object — a child or a lover, a parent or a friend — they will lavish that same devotion on a pug or a Manx or a cockatiel, even on something neurologically incapable of reciprocating that emotion, like a monitor lizard or a day trader or an aloe plant.”

My instinct here is to reject this assertion by protesting that I had plenty of connection when these cats were adopted, and don’t really lack for that today. (And as for the question of cats being inappropriate substitutes for the children I’ve not yet summonded forth from my own uterus… I’ll leave that topic for another day.) But then I will say that I have decided that I will not be replacing two of this crew of three whenever they make their final exits, whatever my marital status or living situation. (Okay, maybe I won’t replace one of the three…you really can’t trust my first take on this subject at all.)

Catlas

So back to my first date lie. I nonchalantly corrected it  on the second date, casually worked into the conversation the phase actually I have three cats. And it didn’t make much of a ripple. So could it be that the notion of being a crazy cat lady is…all in my mind? And if so: does that make me even crazier?

*I recently learned that the word “spinster” didn’t always have a negative connotation. A woman who could spin wool was able to support herself and therefore was not forced into marriage by financial exigencies.  If she married it was because she wanted to.

On the Tragedy of Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr.

My guess is that most people who read about the death of race car driver Kevin Ward Jr. in the New York Times  over their breakfast this morning have never been to  Canandaigua Motorsports Park, the upstate New York race track where he died.

The circumstances of Ward’s death were notable because while the track calls itself “The Land of Legends,”  most of the drivers there are not superstars, or even full time racers. But that night, there did happen to be a big whoop racer on the track, NASCAR’s Tony Stewart.  He was “getting back to his roots” on a local track, “known for his hot temper” and so as the night went on there inevitably was a crash, Ward got out of his car to confront Stewart, and it seems that Stewart accidentally ran him over. An investigation is underway

It is tragic. And it also has all the makings of a classic tragedy which is why the national media is all over it. I’m sure a made-for-TV movie is being pitched at this very moment.

As I read about this accident in my apartment in Greenwich Village, I remembered the nights that I spent at Canandaigua. I’m quite sure that most people did not arrive for the races as I did: armed with a container filled with vegetable curry and a copy of Vogue. In what should have been an early sign of incompatibility that would not fully play itself out for another couple of decades, my college boyfriend was in the pits enthusiastically preparing a friend’s race car. I was there being a good girlfriend. After it got too dark to read, I would spend the first of many nights trying to find something of interest in the evening’s proceedings.

This was not a minor passion of this man I’d hitched up with, he thought about racing constantly, watched it obsessively, could think of nothing better to do on a summer Saturday than spend it at the track. I tried to get it, and to be supportive.  I sometimes accomplished this with more or less grace.

Anyway, whether it was Formula One, NASCAR, or the dirt tracks of upstate New York, like Canandaigua, during the hours and hours of my life that I spent at the races, I would fight deep boredom and discomfort. These races stretch on for multiple hours, they are loud – ear plugs are a good idea – and if it’s a dirt track, messy. If you open your mouth to yawn or speak, by the end of the night your teeth will be coated with fine grit.  In the early parts of the night, I could entertain myself by observing the brightly colored paint jobs on the cars, but once they started moving and dissolved into a noisy giant blur I would retreat into my own thoughts, and keep an eye on the lap counter, calculating how much longer it would be until we could go home.

Racing is obviously popular and has many true fans – I’m sure no one in those grandstands was ever as bored as I was. But upon learning of my then-husband’s passion, almost every other person we ever met in an urban context would struggle to understand what he found so fascinating about cars going around in circles on a track. I struggled to explain, but my best answer is this: when I spoke to less sophisticated people about what they enjoyed about auto racing, they’d often acknowledge that what they found most interesting about the sport was the crashes.

I’m not arguing that racing is a snuff sport, but this is why some of the handwringing that goes on post-driver-fatality, as is happening today, strikes me as disingenuous. Crashes are not an anomaly in motorsports, but a part of the plan. Drivers count on a certain number of “cautions” – periods of time post-accident when the racing stops and the cars creep around the track while the debris is cleared – to handle their routine car maintenance during an event.

Any fan that lives a considered life would have to realize that the practical guarantee to witness a crash and its aftermath during a night of racing is part of the reason why they buy a ticket. Driving is the most dangerous activity most of us will ever do in life — and we humans are inveterate rubberneckers, fascinated by what might take us out.

During a race, the crash is classic Aristotelian catharsis, the release of powerful emotions through a build up of pity and fear. Ordinary life is disrupted when the cars collide, often spectacularly, with a car flipping or catching fire or seemingly disintegrating into tiny crumpled pieces of sheet metal. (I learned over the years that the worst the car looks, the better off the driver, since the car absorbed the impact.) The moments after the crash occurs, people in the stands tell each other what happened, while the white clad track officials and safety officials in yellow run towards the afflicted car or cars. The crowd hushes if the ambulance which is always on hand flips on its lights, or cheers if the driver climbs out of the window unscathed and waves at the crowd.

 It’s beyond dispute that the governing organizations of these race series give safety a lot of thought. The drivers wear fireproof underwear, they have various different head and neck restraints and complicated seat belts, to say nothing of the way the cars themselves re designed. But none of this prevents accidents, or fatal ones, and no safety measures really help if you get out of your car and walk on the track, as Ward did on Saturday night in Canandaigua.

But that, too, is part of the ongoing drama, part of the appeal of watching the cars go ‘round in their circles. The rage the drivers feel upon being hit, the way that they fight after – who hasn’t wanted to throw a punch at a person who cuts them off on the highway? Part of the outrage is the risk the accident poses to the driver; part of what’s at stake is life itself. No one who went to Canandaigua last Saturday night hoping to see a kid get killed – in fact, they wanted to watch everyone tempt death, evade it and go home safe. But the chance that it might happen is at least an important part of racing’s appeal. As this Stewart/ Ward drama plays out, that’s important to acknowledge.

Finding Beauty in the July 4th Trash

Independence Day Three times in my life I have moved into apartments that were, to some extent, trashed.

The first apartment that I lived in with my college boyfriend turned out to be the place where all the black flies in the county came to die. It also initially had no running water, and we had to walk to the gas station when we needed facilities.

Years later, I moved back into the apartment I grew up in, after it had been occupied for some years by my mentally ill former stepfather.  {An essay about him is here.} And after my divorce I moved into the apartment that had been my grandparent’s place in Greenwich Village. It had only been neglected for a couple of decades.

Trash can be cleared away; a new life can be fashioned in the wreckage.  I’m pretty good at taking a look around at a crime scene and saying, okay, so what can we do with this?

By the way, that’s also the work of an essayist.  Two quotes I repeat often: “Only trouble is interesting,” wrote Janet Burroway, “Everything is copy,” said Nora Ephron  (“Copy”, in the old hard boiled journalist use of the word, means “written material”.) She also said “I feel bad for the people who don’t at some point understand that there’s something funny in even the worst things that can happen to you.”

Recipe for Writing (and perhaps Life?):

  • Take one (1)  shitty thing that happens to you.
  • Gain distance.
  • Fashion it into something that helps you understand it and helps others too.

Frankly, I’m getting a little tired of rehabilitation projects. But it’s a lesson that life keeps on handing to me, so I guess I better pay attention. The most recent iteration was at Kripalu over Independence Day weekend, where I took a painting and collage workshop with Linda Novick.

On the first day, we worked with oil pastels and water color in a resist technique. You put down a layer of the oil pastels, and then cover it water color, and the pastel repels the water in interesting ways.

I resisted this resist technique. I didn’t like what I did at all; I thought it was stupid and gaudy.  So the next day, when the task was to make a quick and dirty collage on cardboard, I eagerly teared up my pieces of resistance and said: now what can we do with this? And how quickly can I get it over with?

To my surprise, I ended up working on it for a long time and liking what resulted. I  bootleg bound it into this asymmetrical, pageless, wordless book.

Independence Day 2

This is the back:

Independence Day 4

It was only after I finished it that I realized how much the front piece looked like fireworks… and that this piece was really about Independence Day, my second least favorite holiday on the calendar because it has twice been the occasion of big life changes.

So the book is called “Independence Day.” It’s both uneven and unstable — I cut scallops into the bottom of the front cover. It can stand on its own, but only very carefully.

The interior, which you can’t see here, is fairly dark. And then…there’s a more gentle ending with gold and cobalt blue.  Could there actually be a hopeful being alive inside this cynical creature?

Which is the other annoying thing about fashioning something great out of something lousy: you always end up learning something in the process. Often it’s about yourself.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,067 other followers