An enormous slab of cedar was sitting on the beach where I live. The sand and tide had worn the shape of the wood, revealing an image of a woman with her right arm held high above her head. I brought the cedar home and left it leaning up against my barn, where it stayed for the next year. Over the course of that year I occasionally glanced at the slab, pondering what I might do with it. I finally brought it into my studio after returning from a trip to New York where I had spent a couple of weeks with my younger brother, who was dying of cancer.
Knowing when I left him that we would probably never see each other again, I found myself haunted by images of limitation and death. I had witnessed the shadow of limitation as it moved progressively over his life, burning its bridges as it went, leaving no way back to more of anything.
One day when I was visiting with Jack, and even though he was very weak, with a show of bravado he decided to go outside and help his pleading young son, Jared, get his all-terrain vehicle started. Seconds into the attempt he stopped dead in his tracks, as if he had been hit between the eyes with a 2 x 4, and retreated back to his not-so-easy chair.
During one of my feeble attempts at inspiring conversation, he tried to remain present and awake, only to apologize while dropping off to sleep. Saddest of all was a moment when Joann, my sister-in-law, offered me some potato chips. I took one, ate it, and when offered another said, “ No thanks, I don’t really like unsalted potato chips.” Hearing me, Jack looked wistfully over at the bag of chips and said, “I love potato chips.” Knowing he couldn’t eat, I held back tears…my heart breaking.
Spending those two weeks in close proximity to death, on my return home I saw death everywhere. Yet, contrary to the constant companionship of death, an answer to my prayers arrived miraculously at an unexpected moment. It happened on the phone and it snapped me into a kind of unconditional attention at a moment when my brother needed me the most. The encounter overrode all limitations and flung open the gates to the inevitability of death.
“Relationship exists in the space between us and that space is sacred.” – Martin Buber
Written in the stories and religions of many societies, there are psychopomps: creatures, spirits, angels or deities whose role and responsibility it is to escort and provide safe passage to a newly deceased soul on his or her journey to the afterlife. It is said that bees are psychopomps.
Around the time that Jack died, the glass containing a bees wax candle burning on my altar shattered, blowing out the candle. Startled by the noise and seeing what happened, it came to me that perhaps Jack had died.
The burning image I hold of Jack is of him standing on the front porch of his home in upstate New York waving me off as I drove away, never to see him again.
Moments before, while sitting in the living room with him, Joann, and Jared, who was crashing cars on a video game he was playing on their wide screen TV while Joann commented on his bad “driving,” and knowing I had to leave in a few minutes to catch my flight home, I was tempted to ask if they would turn off the TV so we could have some quiet time together.
After sitting for a few moments, trying to decide what to do, I realized that Jack was dying, everyone was sad, and the TV might just be what everyone needed. Once I had resigned myself to the situation, the TV went off, Jared went outside to play, and Joann got up and went into the kitchen. Miraculously, Jack and I were left alone to say our goodbyes. After a few minutes, sitting quietly together, I turned to Jack and said, “I have to leave soon you know.” We silently looked at each other for a long sad moment — then Jack said, “Will we see each other again?” We both knew in that instant that we wouldn’t, so we just held one another and cried.
Eventually, after our awkward and teary good-byes, I made my way out to the car. I was feeling so very sad, but knew I needed to compose myself for the two-hour drive back down to the city. Sitting quietly in the car for a few emotional moments with my eyes closed, I said a little prayer for Jack. On opening my eyes I was startled to see him standing on the porch looking at me with such love in his eyes. I waved, took a picture, and drove away in a fog of sad/happy/loving feelings for him – thankful for the gift we received in the raw vulnerability of our last moments on earth together.
After returning home I occasionally called Jack and spoke with him for as long as he was able. Aware of his limited energy and sensitive to any sign of fatigue, I tried to keep our conversations real and efficient. During what was to be our very last conversation I sensed he was on an edge, struggling physically, mentally and emotionally. He couldn’t die and he couldn’t go back to life.
Feeling my deep love for him in that instant, I gave myself completely to death itself, letting it take me wherever it needed to go! Shooting from the hip, I said, “Jack, dying is what you are doing now and there is nothing else to do.” With unstoppable determination I spoke passionately about the inherent loneliness of life and how there was no avoiding death for any of us. I told him how brave and uncomplaining he had been throughout his entire illness and how proud I was of him. I told him that he was showing us how it might be done with dignity and grace.
Relieved at having the difficult loneliness of his suffering acknowledged, his response was selfless and emotional. He simply said, “I didn’t want my family to suffer.” We were both overcome with emotion and there was nothing more to say. My older brother, John, who was with him at the time, then took the phone and told me that Jack was crying uncontrollably – so was I.
Having the slab of cedar in my studio and continuing to be haunted by death, I began carving the lower part of what became a woman’s body in skeletal form. Making my way upward, the image transitioned into embodied flesh. Life was growing out of death. To further enhance the theme, I placed the carved figure inside a hollowed out, decaying log and called the piece “Nurse Log.” A nurse log in the wild is a dead tree that has become host to new life. The new life often takes the form of a seedling tree that grows off of its host and feeds on the nutrients released by its natural decay.
Perhaps I was trying to rise up and out of the gravity of my recent experience of the death of my brother. For the most part the image at that stage was hopeful and positive. It was a skeleton becoming flesh and reaching upwards out of death and decay. Her eyes were open and her face was transcendent and bright. But I was struggling with the hopefulness of this piece, never quite feeling that what was being expressed was quite IT.
My wife loved it and saw in the image hope and a new direction for our lives. My friend and benefactor came to see the new art piece and liked it, also seeing a new and hopeful direction. He felt I was expressing a larger collective hopefulness and new beginning.
Unfortunately, even with the generous praise I was receiving, I could not shake the feeling that the piece had not broken through to that place of inspiration. I had nothing against hope, yet there was something that left me feeling flat. At a deeper level, I sensed the Nurse Log did not embrace the deeper mystery and paradox of death and renewal.
Joseph Campbell said (to paraphrase), art that has “an agenda,” even if that agenda is positive, can only be “propaganda.” He went on to say, inspired creation simply leaves one in a state of awe.
Feeling less than awed, I simply sat with the art piece for several days. At one point I placed a hammered, brass platter behind the head of the figure and installed a light, which illuminated the indentations at the edges, giving it the appearance of a halo. This move somehow rang true, enhancing the spiritual quality of the figure I was trying to achieve. Meditating on the image further, I felt it had taken on the look of a Russian icon, and the deeper mystery of the Christian mythos began to stir into the mix.
I then carved a second, iconic face and place it over the first. I cut the mask-like overlay roughly in half and hinged it so it opened at the center to reveal the now hidden inner face. Having done this, I felt the piece had at least begun its approach into deeper paradox.
Happy with the further developments but still not inspired, I did something that felt like an outrageous act of faith. I hammered a 12-inch forged steel nail through the upraised hand and painted blood oozing from the wound. I knew the piece was complete.
Hammering the nail through the hand was a difficult inspiration to act on. I had hesitated for a moment then immediately chose to take action and not to give it any more thought. In retrospect, I believe it was a way for me to jump back into the Now, and in doing so, relinquish all controls and contrived possible outcomes. I was abandoning the idea of “hope,” false or otherwise, and handing life and death back to the gods for them to do with it what they will. It was a way of saying, “Yes — there is life and there is death, and I am here for all of it!”
Posted by Jerry Wennstrom
Photos courtesy of Jerry Wennstrom