My friend, Melody, and I have made a project for ourselves. This is the third time we’ve tinkered with this idea, and this is the first time we’ve both drifted away from our usual medium for this project. The guidelines for this work are simply put - work on the thing every day for a full moon cycle. It so happens that the moon we are working with is called the Worm Moon.
Melody volunteers at a garden, caring for the worms who compost. They eat discarded food and recycle it with their bodies, transforming it into nourishment from which new life may burst. Serendipitously, my Worm work so happens to chew on death.
For me, this opportunity to collaborate and create comes right when it is most needed - it has been a long winter. My Grandmother, Phyllis Christiansen, transitioned from this plane to another at 5:30am on February 11, 2018. Her daughter, Paula, and her son, Eric, were resting in the room when she departed.
To me, Phyllis is Nana. Up to her death, Nana was perhaps the most steadfast and responsible adult caretaker present in my life. During the first years of my life, both of my parents struggled with mental illness, grief, their shared frustration with the art world and an extremely limited household income. Nana anchored us. Nana financed my elementary school tuition, traveled with me, and fed me dinner every Sunday night from the week I started college to the week I graduated. She took me seriously. She shared and inordinate amount of her time and mental space with me (and with everyone else in our family). She came to my dance performances, read my poetry, and met my friends. Most magical of Nana’s gifts, to me, was her unyielding capacity to change her mind, to reconsider (to transform).
In 2016 I took a step back from my family and ceased all communication from my mother for about six months. I remember getting a call from Nana that summer, imploring me to reconsider the boundaries I had struggled for a life's-worth amount of time to concretize. “Your mother is in pain.” She listened while I explained that, in order for my relationship with my mother to have any sustaining and truly loving substance, one where I am not in constant pain, I demand space to heal. She came to me with her opinion and in that same conversation she let go. Oddly enough, that conversation moved me to reach out to my mother some weeks after, which ultimately led to our return to family therapy. Nana had never expressed much of an emotional vocabulary to anyone, except for maybe Paula. Hearing Nana express this kind of empathy for my mother shook my heart a little looser.
I remember opening up my birthday gift from her that same year - Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen.” I was floored - I had finished reading that very book just weeks before this present arrived. At the time, Nana was in her mid-eighties. She remained open to genre-bending, radical art and politics, she took care of us all, she saw me.
In what follows are letters to Nana. Some are also addressed to Gail, my father's mother. Gail is present in my life only through my father’s memory and kindness. I met her only a few times before she passed and I barely remember those interactions. I believe she held space for my father’s softness and creativity to bloom and without her presence in his life, I fear he would have been lost to his anger. To my dad, Nana is also mother.
To me, it would would be incomplete to isolate my thoughts of death from my feelings around mother. Perhaps this is because of my cosmic fascia, my Scorpio moon. The moon, according to my astrologist-friend, Sarah, governs both my relationship with my body and with my mother. In the Tarot system the death card of the major arcana is associated with Scorpio - the astrological sign with the the most potent capacity for transformation - death being the ultimate. It so happens that my own mother’s sun sign is Scorpio. To me, both of these pieces, death and mother, have been at the root of my greatest personal obstacles as well as my most profound sources of healing.
These letters are dedicated to humankind’s capacity to grieve and then adapt. I am rethinking my apathy towards community-building in the wake of Nana’s passing, now that I feel the absence of an embodied, silent warrior who spread her arms and conjured the community that I come from.
There is fury in my trapezius, little red dots rise to the surface there as my shrugging shoulders hold the flesh down. I cried out for you last night, alone in my home.
I finished the movie and with the lights on. I escaped the ending credits music, abruptly, the silence from the closed out window just hung there. Yellow walls.
I agree with you, that it would be far more comforting to have friends read to me at my deathbed than to have the anguish of a lover whom I may or may not resent just hanging there. I agree with you, that it would be a relief to not worry about the wellbeing of another as the knuckle joints of death’s broad palms massage my spine and legs.
I sat up eventually and grabbed the manila envelope with Vanessa’s handwriting on it from my bedside table – it is where I keep correspondence that is difficult to throw away. I need a cedar box, I think. You surely kept a precious vessel for your letters, your prolific note-taking, your annotated photographs.
I found a few holiday cards, the immaculate handwriting sloping across the page at forty five degrees.
I am attending to detail in this state. You used an alarming number of exclamation marks though I know you found Christmas burdensome and altogether the tone departs from your candor. We are similar in the way we lie. You also often wrote I love you.
I call out to the yellow walls that I love you, so. The yellow walls hold the roof in place over my head.
An hour before sunset
I saw your son today. He wore tawny, rough pants and a heart blown open, all the way to my office. We walked to wear the crust of the lake meets the harbor in Uptown. The round, black contours of two dozen geese became clearer the fog from a half mile out the longer we stared, like embers hissing silently through white fabric. The frigid lake musk is so pale in February it is barely there, but still obscuring, as the floor of an ice rink, as the blue in your beloved’s eye.
He told me the story with melting snow pooling in his socks. He arrived with my mother to the foot of your bed to discuss the prospect of ordering a new mattress: firm or soft?
You did what you have almost done, though with more transparency: it must be harder to lie without language at your disposal. Did you know how this would go every step of the way? You let them give their pitch and the moment they were done, as if to silence the riff raff of even the slightest possibility of one more moment of another person caring for you, you took his hand and shook it with the tidal pressure of the blood pooling in your brain.
I know what you said - Joanne. And what was she like, your sister? Perhaps she recognized this as the moment to return your care - I doubt you planned for that.
It comforts me and I hope to find you in a similar place to where she sat, with your barrette resting perpendicular to the geometric flow of your bob at the foot of my bed one warm night some years from now.
Good morning Phyllis.
There was a lunar eclipse in Aquarius last night, it collided with Losar this morning, the Tibetan new year which I know nothing about, but I have read that there is a sense of emptying out at play.
I woke up bleeding my way into the birth of the lunar cycle.
I remember learning my Sophomore year of college that the mother egg contains a cell for each of her unborn children (who may forever remain so) to broaden while she is in her mothers womb. And so each of our first homes is in the moon belly of the maternal grandmother.
Early evening, snowfall
Could you internally parce the difference between bouts of solitude and loneliness, enough to assure yourself, when you needed to?
My friends have moved away and I have very little interest in meeting new people. You had a handful of great friends, my mother tells me. Though I also know that some in your circle irritated you to no end - how true any of this is I can’t really discern because I never met any of them except for one. She came knocking on your door daily, delivering peaches and beaded jewelry. Ken adored her.
What about the phone, did you reach out by calling? Late at night, from the den, the prairie moon witnessing you from between the wooden blinds, a red cushion on your lap, tinkering with the idea of telling?
Did you love anyone before your Ken? Or after? At the same time?
I can picture Grandpa leaning into the tilted leaf directly across from you though not looking at you. He spoke to an audience of spirit all around us, cousins looking at their iphones, you leaning back with your left leg crossed over your lap, waiting to pass the green beans. He swayed with a chalice of watered down red wine to reiterate his worship of the beloved.
Did you ever rise to your ballmounts and call out praises to a love?
My partner bought me raspberry leaf tea and sent me an article about emotional labor after I asked them to consider therapy - I don’t know if I have ever felt more listened to.
I’m sure you’re worried about how many lovers I have taken (I’m not not worried). At the same time I feel increasingly sexless, stepping back from my body I see a cosmic truth: I am conscious here for reasons I cannot ever understand, I am left, then, with time on my hands to become ever more a sensate.
For someone who gave so much birth I feel like these asexual parts of myself are kindred in you. I have not perceived you to move from pleasure and I fear that you did not know how, or that you did not let yourself learn how, as I fear for myself.
You would be repulsed and embarrassed to see my infected tattoo, a second one, the second February in a row. I am sorry.
I have been thinking a lot about my breasts. They are too soft and they interrupt my comfort as I look down at my toes. A lover at my nipple makes my stomach turn. I don’t think they are your breasts, I think they came from Gail. To be clear, I don’t blame you or Gail, and I am not eager to consider letting them go quite yet. For now I just notice that I teeter towards nausea when they are at the center of another’s attention. I should include Gail in these letters, I welcome her input.
My mother says that in that last moment of lucidity you crawled out of bed and through broken murmurs you made your demand clear: to pee in the toilet.
Eric says you gestured with your hands, delicately manipulating the contours of invisible glasses, steaming them with your exhales. He ran from the hospital to your home and back to bring them for you.
And then the unthinkable happened - you bore it all to both of them. Whether they were there to you behind your half closed eyes, greying by the hour and coated in a slick film, or if to you the moment was liberating solitude at long last - they saw you, your fingers unsnapping the shoulder of the gown and down it went. One eased on the tunnel of your ribs, one seam of a scar where both of them had nourished themselves stared at my mother in the eyes for the first time in nearly sixty years.
She said you must have thought Eric was Ken. Eric said that you had the most lovely feet right to the very end.
Dear Phyllis and Gail,
I saw a woman my mothers age picking up wet, discarded clothing from a sewer grate with a pointy stick on my way to work this morning. She discarded them into a large black trash can on wheels and looked at me in the eyes.
Also on my way to work, I ran into a lovely acquaintance named Rachel. She asked me how I was doing and, to my horror, I immediately began to open up about your recent transition. It fell out of me like the thwap of a wet tea bag falling from a cup into the basin of a metal sink. She cupped my words and let the wetness fall through her soft fingers.
The rain was tropical this afternoon - water droplets spiraled and tumbled dizzy against the glass windows.
Marcelyn, my yoga teacher, came up to me at the beginning of class last night and asked if she could hug me. I saw your mom’s post on Instagram - she was referring to you. The space between her shoulders where I rested my head for just a moment was a cool bath of spring rain. There is much to learned from the way others pause to make care for me.
Both of you held so much in the space between your shoulders, I wish I could unburden that space like taking books of a shelf - just to step back and watch your lungs dome with breath.
Gail, I have your locket. Nana, I have your vase. Please come visit me, I want to know more about the things you held.
Dear Phyllis and Gail,
I am in love, I think. It is difficult.
I have picked out the names for my future cats - Minerva (Professor McGonagall), Giles (warlock, watcher, and librarian) and lil ruby (Justin’s idea). What was it like to have children? Did you have to? How did you know your body would hold out? Or did you not. Did you measure the girth of your pelvis? Or keep track of your tissue’s capacity to heal and fight infection? My femurs are passively internally rotated. I can’t imagine my pelvic bowl has space for a pair of shoulders, I am shaped like a V and I feel I would tear in half.
I think of each of you holding my mom and dad, respectively, I think of them with soft skulls and eyes sealed with uterine goop and I soften. I thank you both for your tenacity - both of my parents learned to admire you once they started healing in their midlife.
Gail, the night before Ken died my dad and I drove back to Chicago from Grinnell in his Subaru. On the road, you came up. He told me things I did not know - that you were a high-level employee for American Airlines, working almost exclusively with men. That you worked extremely hard, for years, and then came home to your babies and a narcissist (who remains a ghost, manifesting only in the purple rings beneath my father's eyes and in the infections in his lungs). He forgives you for wanting to hurt yourself, I have wanted to hurt myself in far less dire situations.
There is a photograph of you, blonde hair sculpted in curls like lonic scrolls of a pillar, on the mantle at your daughters house. I drank a lot of wine that Christmas (to keep up with my holiday-ally, Uncle Babu) and noticed my eyes drifting back to your face at the end of my sentences, after I poured another glass.
I am so curious about your horses. Did they heal you? My only memory of you is conflated with the memory of them. Black eyelashes (the picture of you reclining in a swimsuit, red lips, slender wrists and tiny red shoes), unwanted yet, despite all odds, there, wandering the lawn and sturdy. The slaps of their tails were the only hint of the fury they were entitled to.
Nana, my mom tells me that you told her she was not beautiful at some point when she was my age or younger. I don’t know why you said that but I am certain it came from pain (your mother?). I wonder if you are aware of what that created - I don’t want you to feel guilty. We all do harm, I have been sitting with my own capacity to harm quite a lot this winter. I just wonder if you see. Did you decide to have children because you knew your sister would die? Was she your first child?
I keep stumbling across the phrase “the earth is abundant.” In the book I am reading, in a page of my slingshot planner, in political slogans and movement work. There is a perpetual more beyond what is right in front of us. Nature has taught me that if humans don’t figure out what revolution really means, nature will make the revolution despite us. I have been drinking pomegranate juice and healing my scabs. I am tired, I miss you. I will look for you in the dandelion greens exploding through the intersection in 45 degree weather.