Death is an uneasy truth. To taste in yourself or in another’s eyes. It is one absolute truth, but it wears a thousand faces. Including my own. To see it is to know we are mortal. All of us. Some people never acknowledge it. Me? I’m a designer with death hands. I have crow’s feet laughter lines. Gray hairs creeping in. On my best days I think it makes me stronger. On my worst days I wish I’d picked an easier path or bargained with time better. Yet I know of no magic to turn back the clock of my own life. Eventually death waits for me and everyone I know. And I’ve never dealt with death well.
That is what makes my first collaboration so interesting. This week I want to talk about local documentary artist Heather Lewis, who some of you may know from her beautiful exhibit currently at Cary Arts Center entitled Catching Ourselves, which is a collaboration with artists Megan Bostic and Dawn Surratt, who are great.
Heather is a documentary photographer local to North Carolina (https://www.heatherleighlewis.com/). While many people, myself included, flinch and shy away from the pain of grief, Heather is the type of person to turn a camera lens on herself and capture it. Her black-and-white photography is especially striking because of her honesty. Three years ago her fiance died suddenly of a heart attack at age 30, leaving her to pick up the pieces. This was the spark for an incredible body of work she is just now releasing.
There is a morbid beauty in dying things. I can not imagine how brave it was of her to peel back the wounds of her soul and share them. I’m so glad Heather found the courage as I think we all benefit from her heroism. You can listen to our podcast here; in it, we talk about growing up in North Carolina and how the state has a sleepy, painful quality. Sometimes in the midst of the rich neighborhoods are 1970s trailer parks left over from hippie days, slowly sinking into the ground, or quiet towns with faded paint and no stop lights. We used to be called the Rip Van Winkle State. In some ways parts of it feel like they still sleep…melting slowly into death a little each day. My favorite thing she said was that “our living space reflects who we are as people,” and grief often manifests itself around us in a physical manner that a documentary photographer can turn their lens on.
In other ways, we exist finding light in the dark moments. My favorite photo of her I took during our time was this one of her wearing the black sequin hero mask, pulled from her face and hanging at her neck. She is looking up hopefully at the light, like someone shadowed in darkness is coming out into the light and feeling the sliver of hope again.
I look forward to seeing what story she decides to tell next with her camera. Such raw honesty is rare.
Which brings me to my half of the puzzle, as I promised myself in journeying to new lands with friends, I would stop to examine my own life in a quest to grow as a better person. One of the things that honestly stuck out at me was how badly I deal with loss. I have come as close as possible to death without walking across….weeks and months of broken ribs and fluid-filled lungs where each breath felt like breathing broken glass.. A random bad wreck on the way home from work a few years ago left me with 20 broken bones that eventually healed, mostly, into a persistent slight limp. I still have nightmares of the fear of drowning in my own blood. I deal with loss badly. I have watched a man in a third-world hospital gasp his last, begging me for help as he overdosed from poor care given to him by doctors for alcohol withdrawal. I worked in the US textile war machine designing weapons of death. In a sick parallel poetry, some days I made body armor to protect our troops and some days I cut mortar launcher slings to shoot down our enemies. Two hands, both constantly dealing life and death. It was one of only jobs I ever quit without notice because I can’t stand to have any more blood on my hands. And yet talk about it? Nope. And there have been more personal brushes with death. I have watched loved ones died while holding their hand. I have buried pets. Screwed up relationships. I am fundamentally in every sense of the word human.
And yet, if asked about any of it, I also fundamentally lack the courage most days to talk about the things I grieve over because loss hurts the heart and it seems too raw to find words. To admit, nothing one does in the present can change or alter the loss suffered in the past. Yet logic aside, those loses hurt the heart and it is ok to feel that along with the joy of living. Words are a halting scramble of twisting through a maze, a maze I don’t have the map or the key for. Admitting it helps us heal. Today, I decided to try a little. May you find healing too.
In the customer service side of the apparel trade, we are taught only to tell happy stories. And yet it’s a fundamental truth that life isn’t always happy. Elon Musk once said that being successful in life means also eating the losses of failure, and it’s not fun. But we don’t talk about the hurt of doing so because it’s not particularly fun to be wrong or lose people and things we care about. We can joke about our failures, crow about our successes, or work hard, but the feeling of loss, of grief…it’s something that doesn’t always have room in our vocabulary. Our heart needs it, though, to process the pain. To be able to feel other things later. And for that, Heather gave good advice:instead of looking for the positive “right” answer, start documenting, and in the work the answers will come. There is future joy on the other side of the loss of the moment you can’t yet imagine.
It was honestly one of the most positive things I’ve heard for dealing with pain and loss. There is no perfect answer to pain, but to be present and document its scope helps by admitting it’s there. It allows the body to work through a truth: that it hurts that we are mortal. So let me ask you today: What hard things are you grieving silently over in your life right now? What losses have you never talked about? Even if you can’t talk about it, have you thought about picking up a pen and journaling your pain like C.S. Lewis? Maybe a camera? A paintbrush? A needle and thread? To be human is to experience loss. That’s ok. We all grieve. And it’s ok to respect ourselves enough to feel the pain of life.
Next Week: We’re talking the Vagina Monologues with up and coming actress, Amani McKenzie.