Following my husband’s death eight years ago, I was bereft over the loss of my soul mate. After 25 years of trying with David to be authentic as Jews and artists, I found that religion no longer came close to comforting, sustaining, or even interesting me. I was, it seemed in recovery from Orthodoxy.
Now I know that surviving obliterative grief means bearing chaotic anxiety until you somehow decide to keep on living. I cannot, in these few paragraphs, accurately represent the complexity of reconstructing a viable life. But I can describe how a work of art guided me spiritually and visually through the landscape of traumatic loss.
I began this particular drawing while I was an artist-in-residence at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica in 2008, 2½ years after David died. I call it “Difficulty Praying.”
It started as a spare white surface with images arranged sequentially. I had no idea what it was about.
At home, I hung the drawing in my bedroom. Night after night, I woke to it in the dark. Wherever I took up residence as an artist — Los Angeles, New York, Berkeley, or Seattle — I brought the drawing with me. In the sphere of personal reckoning, I continued to look at it, saw what it needed, and added to it.
I also stopped going to shul. I never wanted to say Kaddish. But soon after the funeral, I began sewing, entirely by hand, a kriah quilt. As in the ritual of kriah, when a mourner rends his or her garment, in seizures of fury I tore apart David’s shirts and pieced together the scraps. Though I stopped keeping Shabbat, I never worked on the quilt on the Sabbath.
I maintained other rituals. At Tu B’Shevat I planted a tree in the drawing. It started out as a woman whose arms became leafy branches. She didn’t need a face. I hid chametz and searched for it alone — a ritual that David and I had done together. I made a four-day seder with friends out in the desert. It wasn’t actually on Pesach and we broke Shabbat to prepare food and light fires. But it was one of the most meaningful seders I had ever experienced.
The drawing progressed. I set two fighting figures within a cube — Jacob wrestling with an angel, I thought, or maybe he’s wrestling with himself. The cube refers to a place in the upper heavens, described in the Zohar, where light and energy converge from six directions. Where and when they meet affects what happens here on earth, as the saying goes, “as above, so below.”
Eventually, I realized that all the figures in this drawing are me — the tree and the hands and the sparring couple and the bird bones. Even the androgynous person calling out “AHHHH….” She/he came to me in a nightmare more than 40 years ago; I used the figure in a lithograph and then forgot it. I found it while finally sorting through things in David’s office. I put it in the drawing, tangling letters among the roots, like unintelligible prayers.
The section “YES NO GOODBYE” stands in for “life, YES” and “how anything can happen, NO,” and “then we die, GOODBYE.” In between, we decide whether to adhere to belief and observance or not.
I live by different rules now. I may not be Orthodox, or light candles, or finish cooking Shabbat dinner before sunset, but the drawing isn’t finished yet, either. It has been, in its way, a witness to my struggle with faith. And my truth is offered up to the listening heavens on the hand-written scrap, collaged onto the drawing: the musical notes of “Ani Ma-amin” — “I Believe.”