I found a little notebook, one of many artifacts unearthed in our move from house to apartment a year ago. Thinking I could pass the time reading old notes and ciphers, I took it to the care center where my husband spent his last days. But instead of odd notes, pressed flowers, and random descriptions, I found blank pages waiting for me.
It is one of the thousand small notebooks made to commemorate Torn Notebook, by Claes Oldenburg and Cossje van Bruggen, modeled on the notebooks Oldenburg filled with ideas for his projects. The sculpture, at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, is a gigantic school notebook, unspiraling its pages as it tumbles across the border between campus and city, from one phase of life into another.
I wrote my first entry: This sculpture seems a perfect metaphor for Roger, who is a big, thick notebook written with abbreviations, non sequiturs, misspellings, and names askew. The pages of his story are being released and they fly out in wide directions. Someone will find a whole sheet and remember a day spent at some challenging exhibition. Someone else will be struck by a word or phrase falling out of the blue…
I close the notebook as a mental picture takes shape—it’s Roger, napping on the sofa. A tiny baby girl, a granddaughter, lies along the curve of his stomach, “the mountain” as he called it. Both are softly purring and moving in the same rhythm. The mountain is his belly, but it’s also himself. He is strong, solid. He has been a mountain in my life. And despite all the close calls, the preparation, and the sure knowledge that this approaching death, met on his terms, is a good thing, in spite of all that, I can’t imagine my landscape without its mountain.
The end surprises us with its haste. A quiet afternoon writing in a notebook, another day, visitors, a terrible night, a few moments of peace. The last page flutters away.
I’ve always believed that art provides a window to the world, a way to understand other cultures and times. I’ve learned that art can be a vehicle of expression for both the artist and the viewer, and that this can, at times, be transformational. And now I know that just the spirit of art can be powerful enough to bridge the distance between desolate grief and terra firma, from the miasmal regions of death to the world we live in, beautiful and whole in its complexity.
On September ninth, I delivered the eulogy for my husband’s memorial service. His death had come just one week earlier, a death anticipated, and for him, a release. What was unanticipated, after years of illness, was the intensity of my grief. Standing at the simple podium I looked out at a church filled to overflowing with faces, most known and loved, some new, but all aching with our shared loss. If this service acknowledged and mourned Roger’s death, the following reception celebrated his life. That’s a term that’s become almost trite, but in this case it was absolutely true.
Several days earlier, I’d received an e-mail from Tim Barry, manager of Omaha’s Hot Shops Art Center, inviting me to have the reception there. Do you mean it? I responded. Absolutely! Roger was a potter, collector, and supporter of art. He believed in art. When Barry made his proposal I was caught off guard by his inventiveness and generosity, but in my heart I heard a click—“perfect.”
The day was graced with warm sunshine. Hundreds had attended the service and now flowed into the red brick former factory that had brought new life to a derelict neighborhood. Music played, a potluck buffet filled tables, people told Roger stories at an open mic, and others pinned notes onto pink ribbon lines. An unfired pot made by Barry was gradually covered with signatures of family and friends. Colleagues from work shared tables and conversation with artists and our neighbors. These were occasionally interrupted by an excited child who’d just shaped his first pot from cool wet clay.
The Hot Shops artists, especially Barry, potter Dan Toberer, and glass artist Ed Fennell, moved in and out, both hosts and participants in the wonderful oxygenation/celebration. Feeling the warmth of their welcome, the open embrace of their affection, I felt my grief cross that deep river onto new ground, a place where Roger lived in spirit, unfettered by pain, and I could find joy and solace, find my way in a world where there are no maps or guarantees, but plenty of artists who know the way of moving ahead, step by step, who know the necessity of challenge and courage, artists who’ll keep your spark going until you can do it yourself.
Barry once described the Hot Shops as a place of “what ifs,” a place of open-ended possibility. Since that Sunday, I know it to be a place where creativity, the spirit of life, is forged from ideas and emotions, transformed by fire, tools, and hands into a work of art expressive of its time and place, articulating its unique impetus, transforming raw materials into an ongoing celebration of life.
By Suzanne Arney