Wednesday, October 31, 2012

...grace and survival

The former wholeness was nothing compared to the incompleteness of the present

n. pl. pentimento
An underlying image in a painting, as an earlier painting, part of a painting, or original draft, that shows through, usually when the top layer of paint has become transparent with age.

Playwright Lillian Hellman titled the second volume of her memoir trilogy, Pentimento. The Library Journal described the work this way: "Pentimento is the title of the second of three volumes of memoirs written after she had dried up as a playwright." [Note to LJ: that's a tad harsh.] "These remembrances have come under fire by many who claim she lifted some of these stories from others, such as the famous 'Julia' chapter upon which the film was based, and completely invented others." [According to the Wiki, "the events depicted in the film conformed to [New York psychiatrist Muriel] Gardiner's memoirs. Hellman and Gardiner shared a attorney who had been privy to Gardiner's memoirs.] The Library Journal concluded, "Whether fact or fiction, begged, borrowed, or stolen, who cares? This book makes for great reading."

n.      palimpsest
1. A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible.
2. An object, place, or area that reflects its history. The Wiki cites a building altered over time that reveals ghosts of early spaces; the winding estuaries of a bayou that speak of an ocean moved southward; ancient ruins that "speak volumes of their former wholeness."

The collage above is a merger of three photographs. Underneath, a picture of the children and me, shattered in the collapse of our home in a storm. You can see shards of glass stuck to the edges of the peeling photo. Layered to the left is a picture of my daughter as she looks today; to the right, my son with his young daughter. Years after the storm, I found a copy of the original picture with my young children. Grateful. But it is the torn one that speaks to me.

We are, after all, pentimento, palimpsest. The past bleeds through the present and infuses us with more than memories. It points us - if we dare look beyond the pain and joy, beyond ourselves - to the great strength, helping hands, loving hearts that brought us this far. To those whose lives were shattered this week by Hurricane Sandy: some are feeding you, sheltering you. I offer hope, hope grounded in stark truth. You will dig through the muck. Find tattered bits. Wash away the mud and one day find that dried bits linger still in the odd corner of a rescued chest. The rubble will be cleared away. New buildings will fill the spaces left by the storm. But the imprint of all that has gone before will remain. The question is this: do you cling to the ghost of old life rudely interrupted or honor an aspect of life that has passed?  In one lies bitterness; in the other, freedom.

I took the picture below last week while visiting Patrick, Leslie and Ciara. This lively three-year-old interrupted a game of dress-up to rest her young, unmarked hand briefly against mine. I looked down at my wrinkled skin and thought of holding my dying grandmother's fragile hand at Emory University Hospital over thirty years ago. I scribbled the words shown here beneath the picture in my journal.

Yesterday would have been my grandmother's 114th birthday. I once had another shabby old taken on her wedding day...damaged first by water that leaked behind the convex glass of the carved oval frame, then destroyed in the storm that ravaged my house. I never knew the solemn, unlined face in that photograph. The visage I loved was wrinkled from laughter, softened by grief, lined by the harsh conditions of life on a south Georgia farm.

In my hand then, hers:
its veil of translucent skin
draped over blue veins
and around knotted fingers
that pressed softly into my flesh,
tap, tap, tapping:
 love you love me

By my hand now, hers:
its silken skin unscarred by time
stretches over plump fingers
that rest for a moment
then fidget and twitch
tap, tap, tapping:
gotta move gotta go

Perhaps we are all a bit like Hellman: a bit begged and borrowed, a bit stolen; part fact, part fiction. Wholeness is not made of brick and mortar, by resolute design. It is a dance - evolving, ephemeral - that takes us beyond the horizon. In the dark hours, the remains of the day haunt us. In the bright sun, the rubble is harsh. But hands reach out. The old ones speak of survival and grace, reveal life coursing below the surface. The young ones are filled with hopes and dreams...and need, a need that calls us to go on when we'd rather not. Grace and survival. They go hand in hand.


GretchenJoanna said...

It's a fascinating collage. That must be your young and radiant face in the middle...
I love the description of wholeness as a dance. It gives new meaning to the admonition, "Keep dancing!"

Celeste Bracewell said...

Time with my granddaughter was pure gift. And my son and I had time to talk in depth. Note: one of my favorite hymns is "Lord of the Dance". Blessings, friend!

Jeannette said...

it isn't all always framed and polished...the it?

Celeste Bracewell said...

No, it isn't...something I appreciate more with the passage of time