You may remember a post I wrote about my good friend, artist Ty Clark, earlier last year. Well, he’s showing up here again now because I want to share a really great interview with him, in which he discusses his creative process. In this podcast, he also discusses the impact that Vernon’s story had on his artwork that fateful August. It was a a delightful surprise to listen to him tell the story again, to hear it with ears further out from the event than I was before. I admit it brought tears. But despite all that, its a really great listen. Prepare to go a bit deeper with this one. Here’s the podcast link: http://www.makersandmystics.com/makersandmystics/2018/1/11/s3-e7-cosmos-in-the-chaos-with-abstract-artist-ty-nathan-clark
Social Security Administration 12/19/17
I’m writing from a chair in the waiting room of the Social Security offices in Mission Viejo, CA. Its the kind of space that brings laundromats and ferry rides to mind. Wide windows and white walls separate us from the outside world: a parking lot and an efficiently landscaped planter. Except for the visitors who are still standing, we are packed into rows of four seats each, knee to knee—trying not to pay too much attention to each other. But the collective energy of the room makes me think we all have some heightened sense of curiously about why the others are here…as well as what we are about to find out about our own status. The clerks behind the windows are the messengers, the tiding-bearers of the great government oracle. My ticket number is A41.
I remember this feeling in myself, this feeling in the air. This place, and so many like it, are layered in my memories. Like anyone else, I only visit government agencies when there is a identification problem I need to fix. If you are in a government office, you are looking for change or at least an important signature. You are possibly at a stressful crossroads in your life and checking the boxes on official forms feels like life or death mistakes can be made…or perhaps something important has been overlooked till now. Regardless, you’ll soon find out where you stand…and whether there is a deeper paper-trail to journey down.
My mind goes to other waiting rooms in the past and the memories that come with them—the various life-changes we were in the midst of. Sometimes it seems my life is an ever-folding piece of origami paper, it’s shape redefined with every crease, every big event or decision, folded in or away from the last one, never the same animal for long.
The lights on the board at the front of the room now say ticket A36 is up.
There were those days, weeks, months in the past focused on immigration. Did I fill out the right forms, get the timing right? The months of pouring over expat forums, making sure we jumped through the correct hoops. A visit to the USCIS office in Los Angeles that would validate my spousal visa. The stress of the timing when our marriage license didn’t arrive before we moved. Waiting 6 months to work; the waiting that focused on his coming home to me at the end of the day.
Later, there were those entire days planned around the American Embassy in London: my Settlement status, and all the testing that went with that. I learned so much about the history and social makeup of the UK, and then forgot most of the information immediately afterwards. After Justine was born, we took her to the Embassy to register her as a citizen of two countries. But the biggest ordeal was when we decided to move the family to the US. The application process for Green Cards took ten months. Ten months of worrying about paperwork, making London appointments by train and by mail, visiting the embassy, getting shots, shaking in our boots.Though we’d done nothing wrong…there was still a feeling that it would all fall apart due to something we hadn’t done right. The pressure of that time stings my mind now.
They are calling A39.
And then we were back here. This is probably the fifth time I’ve visited this office in the past five years.
From ordering social security cards for the kids to applying for Medi-Care for Vernon. I suppose that’s what I was doing the last time I was here. The memories come like a film in my mind. I sit with the agent and explain our situation, why my foreigner husband should be allowed on to my Social Security in order to get better medical care. At the time, I was focusing on my eligibility as if it was the real reason he was allowed to have it. But the provisions run ahead of me like subtitles on this film:
You may also be eligible for Medicare Part B enrollment before 65 if you have end-stage renal disease or ALS.
Thinking on it now, another reality hits me. Where I pictured myself a sort of hero of the day, the reason he was allowed to tap into my Social Security was only partly because I was his wife. The main reason is this; on paper, he was dying, and through my desperation (or was it hope?) I couldn’t see it. END-STAGE is the loudest word in the statement. A death sentence in a sentence. Of course they give Medi-Care to people with End Stage kidney failure…they need expensive dialysis or an organ transplant in order to live a few extra years, but rest assured, they won’t be on the system for long.
How strange to realize this now. I had no idea when I was last sitting at a cubby-holed desk in this very building that the reason I was able to apply on his behalf would be his actual cause of death. I saw it as a chance for him to get better or at least get better care. But already there have been too many stacking memories to process in one sitting.
The sign is blinking: A40. I re-check that my papers are all in one place. I gather my coat and purse. I’m next.
“He who doesn’t fear death dies only once.” ~Giovanni Falcone
When someone very close to us dies, I imagine its normal to start seeing life through a death-tinged filter. Oh sure, we look for and find joy (hopefully in increasing measure) as we walk through our grief. But we’ve also lost our innocence about the whole thing. Death doesn’t just happen to people on the news or in hushed rumors at the community center or to grandparents in their nineties. It happens to everyone. I happens to the kindhearted and to the evil. It happens to the young ones. It happens to babies. There is nothing you can do to fully protect yourself or your loved ones. You stay in bed to avoid it all…and an earthquake happens. It’s not a very secure, joyful way to live, knowing the sky could fall any moment on the best people in the world.
Or maybe it is security, the knowing and accepting that this is part of the journey. And it does bring a kind of surreal joy…the joy of the moments that we appreciate life most in. Thinking about death comes less frequently than it used to, but I still split the world into two groups of people: those who have experienced this kind of death up close and personal and those who haven’t. Those who have been bereaved and those who haven’t. In our culture, it’s a big camp on either side.
I spoke to Justine about it the other day. She adds her own wisdom to this conversation.
I wanted to end/start the year by posting some cathartic message that I didn’t even know I had in me, something about the great lessons of the year just past and my bright hopes for the future.To be honest, 2017 wore me out. It was a transformative time for our family with many bright spots; we are certainly different beings at the end of it than when we started. I suppose we could say that about the year before and the year before…any of us could, but this one seemed particularly metamorphic.For now, it feels as if I’ve I’ve fallen into a little late-holiday gap between the years, and just am enjoying the now and starting the year as gently as possible.
What I can share right now is the beautiful drawing that Maki made me for Christmas. It’s the most precious of my art collection, definitely.
I also have a favorite out of the Justine collection, lets call it our family Christmas card, a little late.
Happy New Year to everyone from us…and may each of us find ourselves better at the end of it than when we started. And may our lives be filled with music.
(Justine and Maki on their new-to-them piano. Christmas 2017))
We are grateful for it all. Peace to you.
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
― Mother Teresa
I feel the need to record on this blog what a great kid Maki is. A few weeks ago, he told me about a girl he knows at school who had recently lost her mother. We briefly discussed the idea of him reaching out to her because it was unlikely there were other kids she knows that have also lost a parent. I hadn’t thought about it again till yesterday when he told me he’d arranged to meet this friend and another friend for breakfast. He tends not to talk much about other people so he didn’t give me the details of their conversation, but it sounded like she was very ready to talk and she appreciated the space and understanding that Maki and the other friend gave her.
I am so proud of him. These are the moments that the world changes for the better, and to begin seeing that in one’s children is the best thing ever. I remember when we were first in the hospital with Vernon, we didn’t know a thing about hospitals or visiting or any of it. I had never known how important it is to visit your ailing friends in hospitals because I’d never had any yet, not really. And if I had, I didn’t know that it was okay for me to visit them. I just assumed you had to be the family. When my friends showed up every day for those first weeks, some even the very night they heard I was going to the hospital (Sue and Jim Skelly sat in the waiting room the first night I was there…they barely spoke to me except when I was leaving, but they literally held space for us on the other side of the wall) it made such a difference for us. I told myself that in the future, I would always try to visit ailing friends if I could. I knew these visitors were teaching me how to act when someone goes to the hospital in the future. Of course, that’s probably how they learned as well—by being in similar situations themselves. What they learned through difficulty allows them to keep changing the world.
I was thinking of Maki’s friends in the future. I think they will know what to do when they someday hear of a friend who is experiencing extreme loss. Sadly, for all of us, it’s not a matter of it happening, its just a matter of when. They can continue to change the world for someone else’s better, bringing comfort to that friend…but also teaching that person how to behave when they have a friend in the same situation. In this way, I imagine people climbing a mountain path, all holding a rope down to the person coming up behind them. We’re all climbing ahead, but the more experienced adventurers can make sure the beginners get their footing.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.