My brother passed away two years ago after a long struggle with chronic illness, in the middle of a pandemic. This circumstance, someone passing under stressful conditions, has become so common in our lives of late, pushing us to appreciate living and what a full life means. Last week, two years after his death, I assisted my brother’s widow and my sister to write a biography about him, to accompany an art show and sale of his remaining sculptures. He was an artist, a creator, a teacher, but also a husband, a dad, a brother, a friend. Like all of us, he played many roles, did many things.
Writing about the whole life of someone I was close to was less onerous than I feared. It became in fact a revelation. It buffered the sadness I feel about the loss of him, and helped me understand him more fully. As we grew up and apart, we lived in separate places and did different things for a living, and had our own challenges to deal with. But on another level we were very close. He encouraged me when I was young to be exactly who I was. He taught me to play baseball and tennis and golf. How to swim, body surf, snorkel, and sail. He built me a 10 speed bicycle when I was a teen from discarded bicycle parts, that worked perfectly. I hung out with him and his friends in New York City when I was a college freshman and he was finishing his degree. He brought his light to my wedding and the birth of our children and I helped him when he got married and had children of his own, re-assured him when he was sick and his first marriage was ending.
We were socially and emotionally interwoven, like threads on a loom, living and interacting over a life course during holidays or on vacations, in times of celebration or challenges, meeting new family members. But then we only get glimpses and snippets of that person, intersecting where we are at the moment, and see what we want to see. As I wrote and read about him this past week and saw his art, I realized while he was alive I was paying attention to him, not his art. I knew him as a person, not as a professional artist. Was that force of habit, unconscious bias, sleight of hand, missing the forest for the trees? I love art. How did I miss his?
Now stepping back, observing his art, as it evolved over his lifetime, and what he said about each piece of sculpture he produced, that his widow assiduously curated, I was totally entranced. Maybe it was the first time I had seen it all together. He was his art and his art was his life. His art reflected his personal life and his personal life impacted his art. When he was well he produced a lot. When he was ill he produced a little. But all his experience and energy and knowing channeled through his art. What he said about each piece was his commentary on his world, his life, his essence. Inseparable. Integrated. Interwoven.
I remember him as a tinkerer. He built things in the basement when he was a teen. He took a radio and put it back together to find out how it worked. He rebuilt a train set and its massive display. He fixed lots of things in our house from the outlets to loose fixtures to the blown down screens. He took his time in college, and after he graduated and served in Vietnam, he came home and went to art school. He began his career with drawings then quickly moved to clay, then cast bronze and steel, and mid- career, moved to assemblage art, creating sculptures made of pieces of junk or discarded household items, rebuilt and reimagined as beautiful works of art. Like that radio. Like the train set. Like that 10-speed bicycle. How did I miss all that?
As I was doing the biography of my brother, I received another request, to write a biography of a colleague who recently passed away. The law of abundance is omnipresent: if we say yes and fulfill one assignment, the universe will send more to do. This time my subject and my relationship to him was very different. He was a brilliant, internationally renowned, academic scholar who had been a mentor and a co-teacher, who wrote books about the empowerment of women and communication for health and development. He had retired and moved away and I had not seen him for many years. I went to his memorial service, and read his obituary and then his bibliography and his later works. I knew he had won photography prizes as he got older. What I didn’t know was his affinity for spiritual thinking. Born and raised in India, now in his later years was translating and publishing the spiritual poetry of the Hindu sages of his birthplace. Reading it was a revelation. Another individual who I knew but never knew completely. Another full life lived. And yes we are all interwoven, in ways we don’t always understand when we encounter each other, that become more clear as we go through this life.
We are born into life naked and small, making our home here on our precious earth. All of us breathe, eat, drink, cry, sleep, dream and soon we are growing, laughing and standing up and talking, which leads to running, jumping, playing challenging games and learning how to live. The connections that we make define who we are. Through our lifespan most of us learn that we are connected to this earth, connected to who we are and who we will become, connected to those around us, connected to each other, connected to something greater than ourselves. Interwoven. But it doesn’t stop there. We continue to learn who we are, what we can do, where we are heading. Our relationships support and foster us. But sometimes we are blinded by a person’s being, their radiance, their inner goodness, their brilliance or their competence. Sometimes we miss things about them which are right in front of us. Because everyone everywhere comprises the complexity that is a person. Seeing the whole not just the parts, the person revealed, relationships expressed, the essence of a person understood, appreciated, linked, interwoven.