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Standing Up From Sitting Shiva

October 20, 2018


It is not easy excusing indulgence.

The death of my sibling has forced me to indulge my perspective with expression.

The art here combines words and images found 4o minutes alone in silence standing on feet of collective rejection, trying to understand what I was seeing.

In the end I was seeing the 60 year old damage of cruelty – and the gift of its absence. So in this last year of WASP shiva I have written and talked and thought of the fruits of that cruelty. For most of us cruelties are pretty petty – selfish acts, denigrating name calling, simple prejudices.

But real, hard, cruelty is seldom seen, and it wrecks the young. I can say this because  I have seen it. I saw it in that 40 minutes alone in Peekskill New York.

Devotion is at its most intense and vulnerable in the young. Perhaps because I was washed in the same cruelties of my sibling I am left destroyed by the beauty of the youngest among us. Inordinately so. Their full reactions to every happy and threatening stimulus is guileless and is simply about the fragility of the love they fully embody. But most of those in these cruelties were not victims so much as participants, and my family is not tragic. We were never beaten, starved, poorly clothed, even uncomfortable, it was MidCentury Suburbia for God’s sake, Private School. Dry Cleaned Clothing. Shined Shoes, Veal Cutlets.

In all the visible ways we, all of us, were living the American Dream after the nightmare of World War 2, But in the last 60 years the outcomes of that time have revealed the damage of those who created us.

In fact my sibling had the luxury of controlling her life to the point of suicide. That final measure of a life built upon hard breaks of killed careers, marriages, devotions, gender and Faith. Each was done with a finality and purpose. My being in a place unseen by anyone but my sibling for 16 years was a daunting reveal of survival via control and exclusion.

Addressing death will do that.

The act of sitting shiva is not easy for we Puritans, A Sabbath might make sense if I deserved it, but I know, somehow, that I do not. So I think taking time to process death, first of those I love and then my own yet to be, is self indulgence until it becomes unavoidable.

The results came home to reveal themselves a year ago. My sibling executed her last act of final complete control. My life, and the lives of every family member in my youth was shaped by cruelty. The snap of denigration, dismissal, judgment was swift, complete and irredeemable. My sister left. My brother retreated to a life he controlled. I, the youngest, watched and shut up. A little like now, until now.

I had to admit today that I excuse the common cruelties of self-indulgent prescription, dismissal, condemnation, judgement. Not pious sanctimony, but because in my tender youth I saw real, intended, repeated cruelty. What I see now is simple acting out, not the dismantling of belief in the potential of love being a part of our lives. My parents could not see what they were doing.

They were not alone.

In the mid century, millions of men who were broken by the most hideous realities of violence and murderous hate survived to seek solace without diagnosis. For them, there was no antiseptic, only the bandaid of control. My parents, deeply damaged by circumstances beyond their control  found a place they thought would end their pain.

The suburbs were a sanitarium for the damaged in Mid Century. Endless smoking was a distraction. Every night drinking till fully drunk was a daily retreat to intoxicated rationalization. They were “right”, after all: They survived. We, their creations and dependents, had no other voices other than theirs.

Those who were not smoking or drinking were in their care. Those infants and innocents looked to their parents for love beyond sustenance. They expected protection, assumed nurture, hoped for love amid all the confusion of parents’ lives made before their existence.

In the death of the damaged, it is clear to me that cruelty wrecks the young. In having our own children I realize that the absence of cruelty feeds the best in us. So whether it is justification by judgment or acceptance by love, in death the fruits of giving or cruelty are harvested.

That is why some sit shiva. That embrace of understanding is hard for me to accept. So I act. I write, I make things, events, images. Like this. We all consume the essence of the lives that have been harvested. But those who hold the hearts of the young in their hands do not have many options beyond love and acceptance towards the innocents, or innocence is ended by their cruelties.

When the damaged create the undamaged it is easy to inveigh the next wave of cruelty upon the fragile. It does not take much to wreck the innocent for life. Children only have love in them until a new reality inevitably enters in. That earliest of times is life at its most tender, and complexity beyond love is unavoidable. Love can be crushed instantly and forever by the terrible realities of each of us.

Here in this capture of a moment I see what was left for my sister to control, completely distinct from the cruelty of her youth, but caused by it, and I wince.

But it is self-indulgent to write this. To make the art seen here shares imponderable assumptions rendered as truth, but it what I have been left to do. I installed this wee event with my son. We love each other without qualification, created in the absence of any cruelties.

That break is what love is.

I call it God because I know, have always known, that the cruelties of broken lives were not part of the Grace I was given. I have never asked for it, but it was there. I cannot control much, but I can make things because I have been given everything.

A year of WASP shiva has given me that simple reality.

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