Have You Heard of Mrinalini Mukherjee?

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Jamuni (Purple Flower) 2000

I recently had the privilege of attending a large exhibit of the sculptures of this extraordinary woman (1949-2015). Although her work is probably not to everyone’s taste, I believe you can appreciate the imagination, sheer artistry, and dexterity she demonstrated.

I regret that my photos—taken on site and from the book I purchased—do not adequately capture her genius.

In a career spanning 40 years, Mukherjee focused on creating large, elaborate fiber structures and later turned to ceramic and then bronze pieces. I found her fiber works awe-inspiring in their beauty—or deliberate ugliness—and size. 

Mukherjee’s fiber was a type of rope called San or Shani, which she said was “something close to hemp…I don’t know whether it is flax, but it is not jute. Maybe it is something in between.”

She had to stop generating these fiber pieces, according to the exhibit’s program guide, because “working with fiber was physically demanding, the rope Mukherjee used was now being combined with synthetic fibers, and a ban was imposed on the dyeing units needed to achieve her preferred colors.”

Mukherjee was the daughter of artists. She spent her childhood in part in the Himalayan foothills and in West Bengal, India. Those were the areas that nurtured her love of the natural world.

She was encouraged by parents who were drawn to nature; her father developed an ecological philosophy studying at a school founded by Tagore, the poet who has also been called a polymath, or Renaissance man.

After earning a diploma in painting, she studied mural design with one of her father’s former students, who encouraged his own students to explore widely among varying styles of Indian arts and crafts, and to move beyond the traditional materials and approaches. She certainly internalized those messages.

Her signature style was the knotting visible in all the fiber structures, accomplished using not a loom, but “makeshift frames and armatures.”

In the 1970s, she drew from Indian mythology, using Sanskrit titles of divine entities, but applying them to figures that weren’t identifiable as plants or creatures.

The program guide suggests: “These now-biomorphic objects signified states of metamorphosis and transfiguration.”

Unlike most artists, she never made sketches first, and her works since the 1980s rarely hung from a wall; I felt their placement on a floor or hanging from a ceiling, drawing on the available space and light, enhanced their exceptionalism.

 In freeing them from the wall, she said, she wanted to capture

“the feeling of awe [you get] when you went into the small sanctum of a temple and look up to be held by an iconic presence.”

She elaborated:

“My idea of the sacred is not rooted in any specific culture..my work is not…the iconic representation of any particular religious belief, rather it is the metamorphosed expression of varied sensory perceptions.” 

The “anthropomorphic deities,” she stressed,

“have no relationship to gods and goddesses in the traditional iconographic sense, but are parallel invocations in the realm of art.”

When she moved on to ceramics, she was hindered by her inability to access kilns large enough for the work she envisioned, as well as an absence of the glazes she sought.

According to the book Mrinalini Mukherjee, edited by Shanay Jhaveri, she was told at the European Ceramic Work Centre that “You are always extending the material a little bit beyond what it should be. But that’s because you have not been trained, and nobody has taught you a way.”

Undaunted by the criticism, Mukherjee viewed her lack of specific training and her possible overreaching as advantages. 

Jhaveri observed:

“It was through the sheer force of will that Mukherjee, by her own hand and the simple, direct manipulation of a series of materials, managed to invoke ‘awe.’” 

In the early years of this century, she began working with bronze, apparently inspired by her mother’s small bronze figures. She sculpted in the lost-wax process: a mold is made of wax, into which molten metal is poured. The wax model is then melted away.

This technique, once again so different from the fiber she’d been accustomed to, required some adaptation.

One intriguing story is that she finished her cast bronze works using tools she’d obtained from the laboratory of a neighborhood orthodontist.

I can imagine her teacher’s delight if he’d learned how well she adapted his guidance to use unusual methods and approaches.

Her work has been praised for its “bewitching otherness.” Some of it was actually

“nature cast in art…the leaves and stalks she chanced upon and found arresting for their shapes were moulded in wax or plaster.”

I could go on and on about her works, but it seems best at this point to show you a sampling.

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Vanshri (Woman and Tree) 1994
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Vriksh Nata (Arboreal Enactment) 1991-1992
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Rudra (Deity of Terror) 1982
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Woman on Peacock 1991
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Van Raja II (King of the Forest) 1991-1994
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Night Bloom III 1991-2000 Ceramic
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Left to right: Palmscape II, 2013; Mound III, 2009; Palmscape IV, 2013. All in bronze. Image by Ben Davis.

After spending several hours wandering among these highly diverse pieces, I emphatically agreed with the program guide’s conclusion: 

“Mukherjee’s sculptures challenge the imagination to go beyond logic and reason and enter into a world that is teeming and full of potential.”

What are your impressions of Mukherjee’s work?

Annie

UpdateIn response to a query, I came across a terrific review of the exhibit, with additional photos, from The New York Times. For some reason, the article won’t hyperlink, but you can Google “Sculpture, Both Botanical and Bestial, Awe at the Met Breuer, July 11, 2019.” Here’s the reviewer’s conclusion:

“But my immediate question after seeing the Breuer show was simply: when did this artist ever rest? The sheer amount of energy generated by her formal inventiveness, self-developed virtuosity, pre-postmodern thinking, and un-Modern emotion makes for one of the most arresting museum experiences of the season. It is an astonishment.”

Beyond Music to Ritual: The Impact of Four Songs on America’s Psyche

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The Star-Spangled Banner Courtesy of Commons.wikimedia.org

When Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL football quarterback, took a knee (knelt) during The Star-Spangled Banner at the start of the games, he created quite the uproar.

I have written that I felt his using his visibility to call attention to the injustices against African-Americans and other minorities was in the best tradition of nonviolent protest. He paid a heavy price for his actions: though he reached a settlement with the National Football League and is now a free agent, to date no team has been willing to sign him.

Anna Celenza, Professor of Music at Georgetown University, discusses Kaepernick’s protest in her introduction to a One Day University lecture titled: “Four Musical Masterpieces That Changed America.”

I found her talk, which I watched on video, so enlightening that I’d like to provide you with some highlights. I’ve also added a bit of research from other sources.

Celenza first explained that Georgetown, known for politics, social justice, public policy, and law, had designed a major in American Musical Culture to explore “how music functions in culture.”

She also teaches American Studies, so it was natural for her to design and lead a freshman class on “Music and Politics.” To determine which songs to cover, she visited the Library of Congress and found a number of musical pieces that had evoked Congressional debate. The four songs highlighted in this lecture were culled from that syllabus.

 

“The Flag Was Still There”

She began with our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. In defying the customary stance when the song is played—that is, the ritual, an important aspect of music—Kaepernick, she observed, was calling attention to the fact that the song is saying we’re all unified and free.

In essence, he was asking what the ritual means—and how can we make it true? A worthy question, I believe, now being raised in many aspects of American life.

The Star-Spangled Banner, that symbol of American culture, actually got its start as something called a “parody song.” The melody originated previously in a different context: the words to that melody had described “the pleasures of women and wine.”

But writer Francis Scott Key was a more serious type. He first used the words “Star-Spangled” to refer to the American flag in 1805 when he wrote a song for his friend Stephen Decatur, Jr., which described the “olive branch of peace and the laurel wreath of honor.”

What eventually became the national anthem appeared in 1814. The War of 1812 was still raging, and the British had just bombed Washington, DC. They were on their way to Baltimore, where a defeat, many feared, would mean the end of American independence. To prevent the Brits from reaching Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the Americans had sunk ships so that the masts would block access.

Enter Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and sometime poet who had, I read elsewhere, been opposed to the war from the beginning. But now he’d been asked to try to stop the onslaught and negotiate a prisoner exchange.

When he met with the British, they wouldn’t let him leave: he was coerced to stay with them to watch the bombing.

From that vantage point, however, instead of witnessing defeat, he saw “the bombs bursting in air,” and, at the end of the battle, “the flag was still there.” The rest you know, right? He originally titled the song “In Defense of Fort McHenry.”

The song’s ascent to anthem status was a bit circuitous. While it was gaining popularity, some faulted it because it just doesn’t work as a marching song. (Try it; you’ll see.)

My Country ’Tis of Thee” was considered a possible anthem, but ruled out because of its origins: this wasn’t the time for a song based on “God Save the King.” And “America the Beautiful” (O Beautiful for Spacious Skies…) didn’t make the cut because after the first stanza, it actually critiques America for not living up to its ideals. Hmmmm.

The Star-Spangled Banner finally became the National Anthem in 1931—two years after Congress proposed it as a way to bring together opposing factions who were blaming each other for the Great Depression. The feeling was that everyone singing together would be a unifying ritual.

And why the hand over heart? Initially, the song was sung accompanied by a straight-arm salute, ostensibly pointing to the American flag. But with images of Hitler and Mussolini in mind, people said, essentially, “No way!” We should, I think, be grateful for that!

 

Confronting Our National Horror

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Billie Holiday Courtesy of flickr.com

Abel Meeropol was a Jewish schoolteacher-turned-poet and songwriter, and a member of the American Communist Party in the 1930s. As Celenza pointed out, in those days, the Communist Party was not viewed as it was subsequently: its supporters were idealists who were attracted by its emphasis on peace, freedom, progress, and gender and racial equality. (Meeropol subsequently quit.)

Meeropol happened to see a postcard that shocked him to his core: it was a photograph of a lynching, showing two bodies hanging from trees while a group festively gathers below. In 1937, using a pseudonym, he wrote a poem about it called “Strange Fruit,” which was printed in a teachers union publication. He set it to music, and he and his wife would perform it at Communist Party rallies.

But Meeropol wanted more people to hear it. The following year, he connected with a man named Barney Josephson, who had started the first social club whose patrons were racially integrated. The house singer there just happened to be a woman named Billie Holiday. Meeropol told her: “You should sing this.”

She agreed, but only under certain conditions: no drinks were to be served before her performance; the only light in the room would be a spotlight on her; and it had to be the final song of the night. This was not an ego trip: Holiday knew how to elicit the greatest power from a very important song.

The song, and Holiday’s rendition of it, became famous. People said they “witnessed” her singing it because they were so moved. She recorded it, though her usual record label wouldn’t touch it due to its sensitive subject, so she went to a startup label in 1939. And it awakened people’s consciences: they signed petitions to their members of Congress to make lynching a federal crime. Celenza believes it actually marked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

During the McCarthy era, Meeropol was attacked, and Strange Fruit wasn’t sung for a while. Nina Simone brought it back.

In 1999, Time Magazine called it “the song of the century.” It is listed in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

But a law still wasn’t passed, although there were 200 separate attempts to enact such legislation over the decades. In 2005, Senators Mary Landrieu (D) and George Allen (R) apologized for the failure to pass anti-lynching legislation.

Finally, in December, 2018, Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker asked for—and received—unanimous consent of the Senate to pass the bipartisan Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018, which would, at long last, criminalize lynching, attempts to lynch, and conspiracy to lynch.

Booker said at the time that the legislation is intended to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and leave a legacy for future generations that Congress finally did the right thing. Senator Tim Scott was also a sponsor. The bill passed the Senate in February, 2019.

In March, 2019, the Senate bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. As far as I could tell, it’s still there.

I saw Audra McDonald portray Billie Holiday several years ago, and the last song she sang was Strange Fruit. I believe that once you hear it, you never forget it. It was/is emotionally wrenching to imagine such gross inhumanity from seemingly ordinary looking people.

Here is the opening verse:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

If you’d like to hear Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, google Billie Holiday–Strange fruit-HD-YouTube.

 

Paul Simon Defies a Boycott

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Paul Simon, Graceland Courtesy of flickr.com

When South Africa was ruled by apartheid from 1948 to 1993, the US remained neutral. The African National Congress (ANC) supported 1930s communism, and the Soviet Union was a prime supporter of the ANC. With the Cold War in effect, the US would not side with the anti-apartheid group.

Then, in the 1980s, the United Nations forced the issue by passing a resolution that called for a cultural boycott of South Africa. American performers, such as Steve Van Zandt, said they wouldn’t play in South Africa. Van Zandt wrote a protest song, Sun City, which was recorded by Artists United Against Apartheid. (Sun City was a resort where the South African government had forcibly removed black people.)

But Paul Simon disagreed. He’d been given a tape of music by black South Africans, and—ignoring the boycott—he traveled to South Africa to record an album with the musicians who lived there, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the group whose harmonies among tenor, alto, and bass are so distinctive. That album became Graceland, which Rolling Stone has said “remains one of the most beloved albums in pop history.”

In 1987, Simon and his group staged a huge concert in neighboring Zimbabwe featuring the renowned singer Miriam Makeba, who had left South Africa in exile. They sang “Under African Skies.” Says Celenza: “The lyrics tell the story of how a song changes points of view.” And she quotes “the roots of rhythm remain…This is the story of how we begin to remember…”

There was a furor over Simon’s actions, and some still question his judgment—and even his motives. Simon brought all the musicians to the US; to him this issue wasn’t about politics; it was about the music.

The musicians he played with said he opened up opportunities for them that they would never otherwise have had. One year after Graceland, Simon produced Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Shaka Zulu, which received a Grammy Award in 1988 for best folk recording, the first of four Grammys they’ve received.

But Dali Tambo, who founded Artists Against Apartheid, was deeply critical of Simon. “We were fighting for our land, for our identity,” he told a New York Times reporter. “And we saw Paul Simon coming as a threat because it was not sanctioned…by the liberation movement.”

Yet it had such an impact that the US government stopped doing cultural boycotts. Celenza spoke of an Irish Times headline not long ago that asked: “Who wins when artists stage a cultural boycott?” And she gave her answer: “No one. Music brings us together.”

 

And Then There’s Hamilton…

In July, 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda was reading a book he’d bought at an airport bookstore prior to a vacation in Puerto Rico. In Alexander Hamilton, the biography by Ron Chernow, Miranda has said he recognized himself and the ideals of his friends and family.

Miranda gave a surprise early introduction to one of the songs as a work-in-progress to the Obamas at a White House Poetry Jam in 2009. If you haven’t seen the tape of that performance, you can do so here, complete with subtitles beneath the rap words. The play Hamilton: An American Musical premiered in August, 2015.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton Courtesy of Commons.wikimedia.org

Hamilton is, of course, a huge sensation, and the touring companies seem to be everywhere. In a combination of rap, rhythm and blues, show tunes, and other styles, the music sets forth the ideas the founding fathers had that are still important, while also capturing what America looks like now, Celenza observes. (The founding fathers and other historical figures are primarily played by people of color.)

She recalls the evening when Vice President Mike Pence attended a performance. At the curtain call, the actors acknowledged him but, very politely, suggested that they hoped he wasn’t simply entertained–that he’ll remember the ideas and ideals he’d just heard.

What they did with that speech was a break in ritual, Celenza notes, “and people got upset. When you break ritual, it makes people think…about what our ideals are.”

She concluded with the hope that we all try to capture the best ideas we can from musical experiences such as the ones she’d presented.

What do you think?

UPDATE: My virtual friend and fellow blogger Joseph Urban (aka: The Old Liberal) noted in his comment the song that speaks to him personally the most strongly, and he asked me what song was mine. (You can see both our selections in his response below.)  I thought this was a terrific question, and as I always enjoy your stories, I am posing it to you: When you think of songs that have had a lasting impact on you, which one(s) come to mind–and why?

Annie

“I Thought of Her as Leonardo da Vinci’s Descendant”

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I’ve found, on occasion, that some of the most life-affirming experiences I’ve had have occurred at a funeral or memorial service for someone whose life has been well-lived.

I had that honor today (Sunday), attending a memorial for a 92-year-old woman whose friends’ recollections often included the phrase “Renaissance woman.”

The woman being memorialized was not someone I’d known for many years or been extremely close to. I had actually been introduced to her by a mutual friend who knew her much better. But she had such a warm, enveloping nature that I felt our friendship was longer and deeper. That, in itself, is a gift, but this woman’s gifts were bountiful.

Her energy level was one. We belonged to the same gym, and I would see her, when she was well into her 80’s, scrambling up climbing devices and lifting her small frame in successive pull-ups—a strenuous task that requires using one’s full body weight.

One of today’s participants whom I hadn’t expected to see was the terrific personal trainer my husband and I work with once a week. “Pat was one of my clients,” he told me. “She came to me in her 80’s because she wanted to be able to go back to canoeing.”

He’d put her on the treadmill wearing a backpack, and she’d complain, “It’s too light; I need more weight.” He’d add 10 pounds, then 20, then…And before long, she’d returned to her canoeing, even carrying the canoe when necessary.

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“Pat was an adventurer with a particular love of the outdoors, canoeing, and camping,” read her obituary. She traveled widely, and one of her two daughters recalled a canoe trip when she was no longer strong enough to paddle.

With her daughter at the stern, they found themselves heading toward whitewater. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God! I’m going to kill my mother!’” the daughter said. “But she just laughed and laughed, having the best time.”

She was a PhD psychologist who’d had a private practice for many years. Her own life was not easy. There were suggestions of a stormy relationship with a difficult, demanding mother. There was a happy marriage that ended too soon with the death of her spouse, followed by a marriage ending in divorce. There were many health challenges. But still, as one friend, a fellow therapist, said: “She was always a glass half-full person. And she knew when she needed to talk to someone, and she found the best person to talk to.”

When she retired at age 62, she hooked up with Habitat for Humanity, the non-profit organization that builds homes for people in need. This wasn’t her first experience with hammer and nails: she’d been one of the first women to teach shop in a public school in the Bronx, New York. A natural organizer, she brought together fellow Habitat volunteers in her home—a group subsequently called “The GreyHeads.”

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As she told a regional reporter who wrote an article about the group, “My work with Habitat has been the most important experience of my life. I love working with tools and building houses. Every minute is a total joy, and walking through a finished house is the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience.”

A number of the Greyheads spoke about Pat at today’s gathering. It was clear not only that they cherished and respected her, but also that the presence among them of this tough, small, and tenacious woman had profoundly affected their views of women’s roles and capabilities.

And the hands that hammered and sawed also fashioned delicate, beautiful sculptures made of clay, stone, and bronze. Many were nudes—some more sensuous than others. One of the Greyheads said that, raised as a good Catholic boy, when he first saw her sculptures, he headed to confession. “They were better than those magazines,” he said with a big smile.

images-34What else did those incredibly versatile hands do? They played the piano and harpsichord, and the organizer brought together like-minded musicians for Friday evening musicales in her home. She was known to play with passion, and she was especially fond of baroque compositions. “I knew never to call Mom on Friday nights,” her daughter said.

Is it any wonder that one of the speakers said he always thought of her as a descendant of Leonardo da Vinci’s?

She was also deeply concerned about both her community and the larger world. She marched for civil rights, worked to make the playgrounds in New York’s Central Park safer, and sought to obtain an emergency alert system in her home town following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

A few years ago, when it became evident that she could no longer remain in the house and town she loved, she moved to an independent living community near one of her daughters. For a while, she was deeply unhappy, finding little to occupy her time and few like-minded people to talk with.

But in true Pat fashion, that funk didn’t last for long. As one speaker said, when asked what had made her spirits brighten, she responded: “I went to the lumber yard.” Soon she had translated her Habitat for Humanity experience to make Habitats for Wild Birdity: she organized a group to make little birdhouses to hang around her new environs. This action was totally in keeping with yet another aspect of her nature: her love for animals.

When we visited her, her sculptures were in various stages of completion, and she pointed with pleasure at the small garden outside her residence. Before long, we heard about several gentlemen who were vying for her attention. Eventually, her glass seemed more than half-full.

Listening to all the tributes today, I felt as I had when I’d heard her health was failing: regret that I hadn’t had the opportunity to know Pat better and longer. But I felt even more strongly a sense of gratitude that I had been able to spend time with and appreciate this diminutive but huge, indomitable and loving, and truly remarkable woman.

As always, please let me know your thoughts and reactions, and share any stories of your own that this post brings to mind.

Annie

Then, a 20% Chance; Now…

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

   ——–Eleanor Roosevelt

A mini-celebratory brunch is in order: the doctor reported both heart and aorta are sound.

“We’ll take you out,” we say.

“You’ll come here,” she insists. “The best bagels, fresh eggs, delicious fruit, plus quiet and lots of room.”

We relent.

Four years ago, the collapse—after a symphony hall concert.

She attended concerts often—multiple subscriptions, with friends and alone. And the art galleries, the library lectures, the thrice-weekly swims, the scheduled trip to Macchu Picchu…

That evening, she was alone. 

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Ambulance rides to three separate hospitals. Number one: ill-prepared for such an emergency. Number two: heart attack—quick; give her blood thinner. But then the correct diagnosis: a ruptured aorta, meaning the blood thinner was a clearly awful decision. “Won’t operate,” said the head doc. “Too old; too risky.”

But three’s the charm. “Bring her here,” said the vibrant young female surgeon, expert in repairing damaged hearts and valves, at a larger affiliated hospital.

Afternoon next day: We—in-laws and daughters—met with the surgeon, a tall, slender, soft-spoken woman whose brown eyes were at once warm and riveting. She minced no words.

“Without surgery, she will soon die.

“With it, a 50% chance she’ll die during surgery or within the next three days.

“A 30% chance she’ll survive the surgery but then suffer a stroke or other event that would seriously impair her functioning and quality of life.

“There’s a 20% chance she’ll walk out of the hospital and resume her life.”

What would you do?

“What do you think?” we asked the surgeon, who also happened to be kind and empathetic.

“She’s come through all this time, and two moves by ambulance, and her color’s still good,” the surgeon said. “She’s been leading an active life until now—I think it’s worth a try.”

When asked about the prior surgeon’s reluctance to operate, she said: “The patient is 81, with a ruptured aorta—clearly in extremis. It was not surprising he [the surgeon] wanted to head for the hills. But the family members come in and say she swims 3 times a week, is very independent, very functional. That sways away from ‘let the poor old lady go…’”

Shortly after 9 pm, nearly a full day after the collapse, the surgeon came to see us, her lovely face looking tired but illuminated. “It went very well,” she said. “We repaired the aorta, the aortic valve, and the mitral valve.”  The patient, she said, “is a picture: most people after surgery are pale and puffy. She looks like herself.”

Later, she acknowledged: “I had major doubts, but one of the great benefits of a large hospital system like this was that I spoke with my chairman and another specialist in aneurism repair. I said, ‘I know what you’re going to say, but…’ Both felt it was reasonable to operate.”

Three days after surgery, when the patient was speaking and demonstrating an understanding of commands, the surgeon pronounced her, in highly technical terms, “a miracle.”

When we first saw her, she greeted us with a big smile. But when the nurse told her she was about to swab her mouth and make her more comfortable, the former school principal uncharacteristically replied: “Bull s—t!” The surgeon expressed delight: “Profanity and criticizing breakfast are two excellent prognostications,” she said wryly.

“This was a Type A dissection,” she explained to me. “The pipe has burst. You sew in a piece of material, being careful not to leave gaps and not to miss a stitch. It’s like sewing a sleeve into a jacket. It’s not difficult, but you have to be meticulous. If you miss one stitch, you spend a lot of time regretting.”

As the patient prepared to leave for a rehab center at the end of her hospital stay, the surgeon said she expected her to resume her life and live for a number of years more. The surgeon has already been proven right. 

That brings us to today’s brunch, served on china—no paper plates. images-17A nicely arranged platter of cut-up fruit sprinkled with almonds forms an edible centerpiece. After brunch, I have to fight her to let me do the dishes.

She tells us about the concert she’d been to the night before, and the gallery visit the day before that. Her eyes are bright, her face unlined and attractive without a touch of makeup. Her mind totally sharp—despite a stroke some months after her surgery, which minimally damaged her vision in one eye.

She explains—without complaint—that she needs to rest a lot more than she once did. And she’s more concerned about walking about the city in the winter, fearing a fall that might hurt her fragile back (she’s had several fractured vertebrae). “I feel somewhat isolated,” she says.

She can’t keep up with the group of women nearby who meet daily to pursue one cultural event after another. One, in her 90s, lives on the 13th floor of her building, and walks up and down the stairs twice a day in addition to her other activities. I am exhausted just hearing about her.

She talks about my blog, describing the posts she most enjoys. She asks me how I feel about it. “I love it,” I tell her. “It’s so freeing to be able to write about anything I choose, and I enjoy the dialogue with my readers. It’s a source of great satisfaction for me.”

“That’s the way I feel about this,” she says. And she points out her new response to that sense of isolation. Once an art teacher, she has painted and sculpted—both before moving to special ed, then becoming the principal of two schools for autistic children—and since retiring. But those art forms require space and effort expended to clean up. Now, in her 86th year, she has found the ideal medium for her present circumstances: paper collages. 

She points to her “studio”: a corner of her dining area holding scissors, Elmer’s glue, pieces of cardboard and styrofoam for backing.

Suddenly, we see the works, positioned throughout her apartment. Each one is a visual delight—demonstrating a keen esthetic sense and a creative mind channeling itself in a wholly new direction. 

A large one features Eleanor Roosevelt, the Statue of Liberty—its torch the highest point on the collage—and other images and references to that era: Social Security, the UN, the WPA.

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Another—also large—is a replica of her favorite concert hall, pieced together from performance programs and advertisements. One depicting penguins and divers in the ocean is a work in progress. And on and on.

Her sources of inspiration? She combs through discarded magazines and the detritus of junk mail, finding things that strike her just the right way. That sea bird that hovers over one work? “He just caught my eye and spoke to me,” she says.

And so she meticulously pieces together from multiple sources all kinds of stuff, building new and larger stories than the ones she’s extracted—at the same time enlarging her world and, as we look at these works from all angles—ours as well.

I am in awe of this remarkable woman, who spends almost no time complaining and a great deal of time creating. How many of us will move beyond our limitations and find new ways to reach within ourselves for personal satisfaction and growth—regardless of our ages?

As I think about the doctor who refused to operate on her four years ago because she was “too old” and it was “too risky,” I find myself pondering those nearly impossible decisions about how much to do when an older person is “in extremis.” 

A 20% chance didn’t seem like much, but we in the family are forever grateful to the wise surgeon who felt it was worth the risk, guided us accordingly, and then used her brilliant skills to make that decision the best one.

 

As always, I welcome your thoughts, experiences, stories, and in this case, philosophy about how to confront these difficult decisions.

Annie

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