As a maker of objects, I have navigated the waters of sentiment and studied the point when an object becomes a beloved object. This often involves a transaction: a gift, a purchase, the exchange of wedding vows. It involves time. The years spent wearing (or living with) the piece – getting to know it a little more each day. In the case of a wedding ring, it requires understanding its relationship to your body, the weather, the environment, the work one does, one’s age. The Mexican essayist, poet, and diplomat Octavio Paz, in one of my favorite essays, said, “The handmade object does not charm us simply because of its usefulness. It lives in complicity with our senses, and that is why it is so hard to get rid of – it is like throwing a friend out of the house”. I am humbled that some of the objects I have made live daily with friends and strangers alike. Over the last five years of making jewelry, I’ve returned to this idea of making the quiet things that are worn daily, that are impossible to part with. What would make your list?
A simple life. A series of trails. A coastline. A cedar cabin. Some wooden hooks for clothes. A shelf. A cot with woolen blankets. Windows. The sounds of the sea at night. The hum of lobster boats in the earliest morning hours. A brine that permeates everything, everything wet, threatening to grow moss as thick as what lines the forest floor, if we just give it enough time.
Each morning, I walk on the blue trail over moss cushions and five felled logs – the fourth one rocks a bit, lichen mandalas cover stone slabs. Each morning, I find new colonies of mushrooms – some are glossy red toadstools, one, a two-tiered pecan pie, another, ghostly white trumpets. One is shaped like a donut, another spins a fine yarn of spores, a mushroom erupting with silky threads while last week mushrooms stand there in the shadows. They look charred, as if the wild fire of decomposition has roared through the Maine woods and taken their color and with it their life.
The blue trail hugs the coastline and peeks at boulders and the brightly colored buoys that mark the evenly spaces lobster traps. A granite slide marks the best entrance to the swimming cove and just after high tide is the best time to swim. The cove water is clean and clear of seaweed - warmer later in the day. The moon snails have built their rubbery collars camouflaged in the sand, modernist, ephemeral works.
When the moon rises, it is tinged pink with western smoke. One moon for all of us.
For my 30th birthday, a friend gave me a metal cicada that he had cast in shibuichi, a traditional Japanese alloy of copper and fine silver. It is impressive as a casting – there is only one feed or sprue into the insect’s body – the molten metal had but one path to travel into the body and then out to the delicate wings. The legs of the cicada are folded up awkwardly underneath it– as if it was sitting cross-legged before it was forever frozen in metal.
Lost wax casting, the process that was employed to transform the cicada into metal, involves equal parts precision and magic. It is one of many processes in jewelry that straddles art and industry. Of the metal resources found on earth, some are mined and enter into a great molten pool that bifurcates into hardware, cookware, a Rodin, the ballast of a ship. The metal has no designs on what form it will inhabit for months, years, centuries, millennia before it is scrapped, re-alloyed, re-cast, reimagined. The metal undergoes a physical transformation during the melt and the pour – moving from solid to liquid to solid again. The cast metal a glowing, cherry red that fades as the metal solidifies and cools. The animus stabilizes, the magic settles, the object remains.
Lost wax is a literal description of what happens: a form is modeled in wax or built out of other combustible materials such as the cicada (many materials beyond wax are suitable for combustion – leaves, small twigs, plastics, legos, food items, fabrics). The original material is lost. The metal casting is its first descendant.
Even the most successful casting bears a mark of process – the place where the molten metal has entered the mold. These entry points are often skillfully disguised but each casting will have had a wax sprue wire (or several depending on the complexity of the form) added to the model before it is encased in a mixture of plaster and silica called investment. The liquid investment is poured around the model while it is encased in a steel cylinder. Once the investment has hardened, the entire mold is heated in a kiln. The wax melts, burns up, is lost. The investment cures. And then the mold is ready for molten metal to be fed into the newly voided interior space.
Many things can go wrong along the way. Casting as a process is more akin to baking – it requires scales and math and knowledge of what the investment should look and feel like when mixing, a slow ramping up of heat in the kiln and a dropping back down to the perfect temperature for whatever metal one is using, a knowledge of how the metal should look when molten (like mercury) in the crucible, how it moves (pulls into a ball that follows the heat of the torch) at what point it is boiling and therefore too hot…it’s an overwhelming list of variables to keep track of. Most jewelers outsource their casting to qualified and calibrated casting houses just as most of the public outsources their baguette baking to bakeries with the proper equipment and knowledge.
Because it is a means to reproduce and copy, casting has often been looked down upon as a technique capable of delivering a conceptual punch. In the case of the cicada, the original object, destined to decompose, is sacrificed for a reproduction that will withstand the ravages of time. The sculptor, Rachel Whiteread whose use of casting draws attention to the spaces we inhabit, has said, “The cast of an object traps it in time, eventually displaying two histories – its own past and the past of the object it replicates. The perfect expression of this is the death mask. It captures all the physical accretions of the human face soon after that face has completed its living existence and before rigor mortis accelerates it towards disintegration. It remains in the world to remind us of the dead as both portrait and memorial.”
Cicadas are long heralded for their grotesque beauty. Young cicadas are called nymphs and they wait underground for seventeen long years to emerge. (And, I know you’ll be surprised by this but 2020 is their year). Cicadas are powerful because of their numbers. En masse they become a plague. They reproduce and lay prolific amounts of eggs on trees. Young trees and vines cannot withstand the burdens of these reproductive efforts and succumb.
The sound of cicadas, recently described by a climate scientist as the sound of heat, is one often attributed to their wings but is actually the sound of the male cicada’s abdomen vibrating in an effort to attract a mate. The cicadas are completing a cycle, one of the longest in the insect world, and soon the nymphs will emerge from the eggs and drop into the ground for another seventeen years.
Adornment and power have been bedfellows for a long time. The power of an object to convey meaning, prestige, station, marital status, good fortune is an essential part of the relationship between person and jewel. And so, perhaps an insect totem is in order, a collar of cicadas, the perfect jewel to keep the apocalypse at arm’s length.
Today is the solstice. Our family has spent an entire season in quarantine. Today we begin summer. Are we emerging from the chrysalis or haphazardly poking small holes in our confinement through which some sun and air seep?
On this day, I’m remembering backbends - missing them really - as my body no longer moves easily into rainbow form post mastectomy and radiation therapy - the skin no longer supple, full wheel no longer available. But I can remember how backbends felt in my body - the opening, the aligning, the gathering of energy and strength, the deep breath in, the pause, the exhale out to push up into straight arms, the wide breaths that sustained the pose. And the coming out. Wise teachers remind students to conserve energy - to exit poses with grace, without putting holes in the floor, without coming out of alignment and putting unnecessary stress on the joints. Wise students listen and come out before they fall. Backbends are disorienting and the chest opening that is their nature can be agitating. They light a big fire in the body.
My yoga practice is something that I tend - like my plants, like my sourdough starter, like my children. The word tend is a shortening of the verb attend meaning, “to take care of, to pay attention to”. I pay attention and tend to the fire. In yoga, the breath is both the bellows and the damper. The breath is also the thread that connects each movement and without it, the poses are simply shapes. The breath is the constant and, as any teacher of yoga knows – one must pick up the breath of the class and hold it for thirty, sixty, ninety minutes. I once asked a teacher of mine how she shifted her practice in response to injury or surgery and she said she showed up and breathed, syncing her breath with the other bodies in the room, tending her own fire while joining it to others.
Backbends require opening, of the shoulders, of the quadriceps, of the thoracic spine. My children can drop back into them on a moment’s notice – they are young and flexible and the pose does not need to be built up carefully. For me, a backbend is built by the poses that precede it. The deep arch of the backbend, the peak of the very topography it mimics, must be followed by a long and careful walk downhill through the poses that counter the bend.
These last few months have felt like a long-held backbend. There was no warming up the body and little inkling that one day those with offices and schools would grab their monitors and a packet of worksheets and enter into a seemingly new dimension. The world became smaller. For a time, I felt that I had it, that I was strong enough to sustain the pose. That 2019 - a year of treatment, loss, friendship and milestones, had left me well prepared to dive into the quarantine and find its particular joys: to write, make objects, cook, garden, send letters, deliver food, make phone calls, and keep my business, my children, my marriage, myself, afloat through it all.
But by the symbolic start of summer, over 100,000 would be dead from Coronavirus, millions had lost their jobs and would begin to lose their houses and apartments, some people would wear masks and some wouldn’t and this would have nothing to do with science and everything to do with political affiliation, that pigs would be shot by their farmers because they had grown too fat to be factory processed, that summer would still call people to rivers, beaches and parks and, George Floyd would die with a knee to his neck, that someone would capture it on video and that any shade of grey Americans thought they were occupying on the topic of racism, would be erased with the words, “I can’t breathe”.
Breath. You have it. You are alive. Full stop.
Breath has never felt so much like a privilege. While one has it, breath has many colors and shapes. There are the first screaming breaths of newborns, there is breath that builds energy, there is breath sucked over a curled tongue that cools the body, there is three-dimensional breath that can help postural alignment by filling compressed spaces with air, there is the breath of even inhales and exhales that calms the mind, there is the athletic breath of free divers and sprinters and of childbirth, there is the easy breath of sleeping children, there is the sustaining, artificial breath of ventilators, there is the rattling breath of the dying.
My son took his first breaths on Memorial Day in 2014 six years before George Floyd’s last. He came fast in the grey light of early dawn and, by sunrise, he was with his family. We ate blueberry pancakes. My sisters drove up and met their new nephew. That first night, he screamed in my arms, a ten-pound boy, with red, oxygenating skin and a strawberry splotch above his eye from his trip through my birth canal. I had a son.
That first night (and many others after), I thought, as I did with my daughter six years earlier, “here begins my journey of keeping you alive.” I did not think, “some people will hate you because of the color of your skin.”
Which is to say, my children are white while I am brown. My daughter is browner than her younger brother. I imagine she will be asked, “where are you from” many more times in her life than my son who is a light shade of gold. This will be an effort to assign her a place and a label. James Baldwin said in a 1986 about his decision to leave the United States for France, “Before I left this country, I had been afflicted with so many labels that I had become invisible to myself. I had to go away someplace and get rid of all these labels and find out not what I was but who.”
At the beginning of this writing, I thought I was caught in the deep backbend of quarantine, with shaking arms, not knowing how to emerge from it, not knowing if my arms still remembered how to bend. But really, I am in the preparatory stages, reclined on my back, knees bent, feet planted firmly on the floor.
This is the moment of gathering energy and it requires discomfort. We have to push up into the bend and trust that we will one day emerge. We have to find the breath to sustain us in our discomfort and then widen it as we fight. We can’t return to the work of March with June eyes. We must tear up the calendar altogether. And, while engaged in this dismantling, use our breath to sing a mantra of names.