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The incense burns itself into the sinuses and forms a memory of her passing and these funerary rituals, so that for at least a few days, the smoky smell is a remembrance of a being who is no longer with us. The fading smell is the inevitable process of honoring a person we eventually can’t remember often enough. Indeed, memory is one way to ease the constant anxiety we future-oriented, unsatiated beings live with. We just can’t hold on.

So instead another image wants to write itself here in the space opened up by writing, by memory.


(Painting, “Dove One,” by Jay DeFeo, in the SFMOMA retrospective)

In an orange jumpsuit, he sits across from me in a dingy jail interview cell. He is young, tall, strong, and mentally quite unstable. So in my callow role as his caseworker I make sure to stay arms length from the emergency call button, and closest to the door. It doesn’t help that his movements are abrupt, his voice loud, and he can only speak of fighting others, sometimes even aliens. Ju-Jitsu moves, karate techniques, kicking and punching and more threats of violence. Not towards me, though. He just wants me to hear him, I begin to understand, but attempts towards conversation provide only bizarre digressions that stubbornly return to more Ju-Jitsu talk.

It’s our third such meeting, and I bring my colleague, for safety, yes, but also because I want a witness to his instability and any insight as to why I was making no real progress with him. This time, I decide to just listen, leave my intentions and fears with my colleague sitting in quiet interest next to me.

As usual, he begins his intense litany of karate stories, of people he once punched and kicked. But suddenly, in a moment I’ve only since experienced as artistic inspiration, in a moment of self-forgetting, I have joined him. His language appears to me as a simple story-telling code. And just as I am about to weep at his stories of years in foster care and institutions, at his outpouring of traumatic recall, my colleague breaks her silence to remind him that violence is not ok. It is then I realize I had slipped into his world without her and she does not understand the code. Her words transport me back to where he is that man so strange, intimidating and inaccessible to me. To everyone.

Like the moment I stopped planting seeds in the shelter garden because a Korean resident wants to show me using gestures how she and her family had crouched under tents on their farmland in the rain, when they lost their home to war. And how our gardening together healed something, I will never know.

And how it is that a vast canvas holding 1500 pounds of gobs of oil paint and the aura of 8 years of creative toil, can also yet contain in a breath-turn the most fragile, most unearthly of passages. The same fragility that recalls the image of a woman finding refuge from military invasion inside a temple. She is mortally injured, parts of her body are missing, and it is there she nurses her baby.

In my mind she will stay there like the sentinel that is Jay DeFeo’s Rose standing guard over us. Because if you have followed me this far, you also understand she must, no matter how painful it is.

In the metaphor of gift-giving, there exists no stronger, no more difficult example.

Fortunately, there are easier exchanges, like the smiles of my friends, my fellow colleagues, as we chant together in the incense cloud hovering over Tu-Minh’s mother’s funeral. These are the same faces that appear to me in memories of my own family funerals. That some people are so indelibly present, heart-burstingly present, in the reel turning out life events.

Such is the mark of women drawn to a certain kind of work, how to describe it, I’m not sure. Yes here I’ve made some words for it, but they don’t hold, like the leaves of paper money falling behind our funeral procession into the winter wind.

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses —
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.
— Anna Akhmatova