This is a post I have literally written a half dozen times over the past two years. It’s never seems to be good enough. I can never seem to fully express what I am feeling. I have finally realized that I just have to let that go…
Two years ago on September 29, 2010, my nephew, Ayrie, pass away unexpectedly at the age of four and a half. You might have read the post I wrote in March 2010, A New Sense of Normal where I shared his story. I cannot even begin to tell you how terrible that day was. And there were so many days, weeks and months that followed it that hurt even more than I ever thought was possible.
I have tried so many times over the past 2 years to write this post. There is something about putting your thoughts into writing that makes it real in a totally different way. When I’ve tried to write this before I’ve always been stuck on describing the days before, of, and after Ayrie’s death – those are important days, important to me, but I don’t know how to talk about them yet. They are too important to start with. But I do want to talk about the years since.
You may or may not know me. This might be the first time that you’re reading my blog. I usually keep things pottery focused, but are things in my personal life that are too intertwined to separate out – they are too much a part of me and a part of my work. I needed to write this for me. I needed to put this into words for Ayrie. No matter how hard or how imperfect it would be. This experience is part of who I am and shapes every aspect of my life. My journey over the past two years has been long and will continue on for the rest of my life. I have never experienced grief like this before. A loss like this is not something that you get over. I don’t want to get over it. That would feel like forgetting. But I have tried to figure out how to get up each day and try to live them in a way that honors the spirit of Ayrie. I thought I would share some of what I have learned through my grieving process.
You will never regret the time that you spend with the people you love. During the darkest moments after Ayrie’s passing, I was able to hold onto the knowledge that I had made Ayrie a priority in my life. I spent so much time with him. Sharing a bowl of cereal in the morning, going out to eat at the “meatball store” (aka Ikea) or sitting together in my studio each of us with our own piece of clay. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just time together. I wish with all of my heart that we had more time together. But I am so grateful that I had as much time with him as I did. And I try to continue to live my life in this manner. Being with the ones that I love.
Grief and joy can coexist. This was a hard one for me. But I knew that it was something that I had to come to terms with quickly. I had to be present and in the moment for my nephew Shiya, Ayrie’s little brother. He needed to both learn how to cope with this loss of his brother – his idol – and also have a childhood that was as carefree and happy as it possibly could be. And I also knew that I was going be having a baby in 6 months – something that is a joyous, emotional rollercoaster anyway, and I had to figure out how to be happy and also be ok with being sad. I found that once I really embraced that grief and joy could coexist, I would find myself sharing a story, in tears… and then end up, by the end, laughing and remembering something silly that Ayrie had done. I had to really give myself permission to let these two seemingly opposite emotions coexist.
Every person grieves in a different way. No one way is better or worse than another. It’s just different and personal. If you don’t embrace this, it can push you apart from the people that you need most. My husband, Ian, and I have a duplex. We live on the upper floor and my sister and her boys lived on the 1st floor. (My sister has since bought the house next door to us.) Ayrie would refer to all of us as his “whole house family.” We all have grieved in our own way. And I think we have all done a really good job at honoring one another’s process of grieving. I have learned through grief counseling (which I’ll talk more about later) that often the conflict that arises within families about their differing ways of dealing with a loss can be what really pushes people apart. But we have consciously tried to respect each other’s journey. My sister has written a lot. She says that it really has flowed out of her, sometimes she just starts to write and release… rarely going back over what she has written because she is writing what she feels compelled to write. I found it harder than ever to write. But she found it easier than ever. I encourage you to read through her posts on her family blog.
You will discover a community of people to support you. But you have to be open to accepting it. This was an unexpected, wonderful thing. In the days after Ayrie passed, moms from Ayrie’s school show up to clean our house and comfort us. For many months, we had meals and groceries provided to us by friends and family. It was hard to function at any level, so it was truly wonderful to have such nourishment show up at our door. Flowers left at on the front steps. And so many cards, notes, texts and phone calls from friends, family and acquaintances and total strangers. I never thought that I would actually make friends during such a hard time.
It’s ok to ask for help. There is a point after a loss where the daily activities have to return to some sort of normal. Bills have to be paid, groceries have to be bought. Work needs to resume. But it was hard to do this. Ian and I started going to grief counseling at the Center for Grief, Loss and Transition. It became really important for me to have a time set aside to focus on Ayrie each week, no matter what. There was a moment where I just felt like I didn’t know what to do. I needed help. For me, it helped to go to counseling, but for others it could be something completely different. It took me quite awhile after I told myself that I needed help to say it out loud and ask for help when I felt like I just didn’t know what to do anymore. We have also gone to a couple of events at the Center. One was about dealing with loss during the holidays. We did a really wonderful activity that we have since shared with family and friends. We decoupaged tissue paper and rice papers onto glass candle holders, vases and votives. Of course I like something that involves making… it’s a really wonderful project because almost anyone can do it regardless of age or artistic ability. During the process of making, memories are shared while a new one is being created. And then at the end, candles can be lit while stories are shared. And then there you have a beautiful candle holder to bring home that will remind you of your loved one.
Reclaim the day for celebration and reflection. For two years now, on the anniversary of Ayrie’s passing, we have traveled to somewhere beautiful and far from home. Last year we traveled to Gold Hill, high up in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado. This year we went to Tucson, Arizona. We all knew that we wanted to be away from home. Away from the distractions, somewhere beautiful where we could give ourselves space to reflect and honor Ayrie. It’s become a really wonderful tradition. We found ourselves actually looking forward to the anniversary of his passing instead of dreading it. There was a point in time, not very long ago, that this was inconceivable. I know that Ayrie would love that we are having adventures and time together as an extended family. This is a tradition that we plan on doing every year.
Ayrie was my buddy in my studio. He spent more time with me in my studio than anyone else. It was really hard to go back in there and work after he died. It was so empty. So lonely. I would go down there and just cry. Ian started going down there and sit with me to help me ease back in. It really helped. When I was finally ready to get my hands in clay again, I decided that I wanted to work on a project with Ayrie. He had just finished up a book of dinosaur drawings with his class and was really into drawing Ankylosaurus. His teachers gave us the book they made. I decided that I wanted to put his drawing on a series of cups. The cups were the first things I threw. But when it came to getting the images on the pots, I didn’t know how to actually do that. Well, I knew of the possible ways to do image transfer, but I didn’t technically know how to do them. So I set out on a mission to figure out the best way to do what I wanted to do, and learn that technique. That is how I started working with laser printed decals. 2 years after I first threw these cups inscribed on the bottom “for Ayrie with love,” I finally finished them. I loved working with his drawings. It felt like we got to spend a little more time together.
I wanted to share with you the artist statement that I wrote about this new body of work I have been making.
Over the past three years, my life has turned upside down. I moved from Chicago, my home for 10 years to Minneapolis. Bought a condemned, abandoned duplex and completely renovated it, inside and out. Married my partner, Ian, after 14 years together. Built a studio in our new home. Switched from soda fired stoneware to cone 10 oxidized porcelain. Then two years ago this month my deepest fear happened. We lost our nephew, Ayrie, at the age of four and a half. A loss that has left me forever heartbroken. At the time I was 3 months pregnant. I had to learn how to navigate through my grief and my joy. In April of 2011, we welcomed our daughter Ada into our world.
For the 10 years before moving to Minneapolis, I honed my skills and aesthetic in soda firing, developing a strong body of work. I felt very comfortable making the pots I was making, yet still felt like I was always pushing myself to the next level. Then suddenly, everything was different. I was faced with pristine studio, a pallet of porcelain and a shiny new kiln. And I didn’t know where to start. So I went back to the beginning. First thing that I did was remove any deadline for my work. I temporarily withdrew from galleries; turned down any orders and turned inward. For many reasons, I cut myself off from the outside world and I started throwing. Strong, simple forms that will stand on their own, no matter what the surface treatment, glaze or firing is. It’s important to me to be true to the material. My soda work was all about the clay, form and firing working together. Doing high fire porcelain I want to be as true to the material as possible. I didn’t want to try to mimic soda firing in an electric kiln. I wanted to take advantage of everything that porcelain has to offer. I started by making a couple hundred tea bowls. I kept away from the influence of “the market” by giving them all away. Slowly, as I’ve gotten to an exciting and comfortable place with my new body of work, I’m creeping back into the world of clay outside of my studio.
The changes in my life have spanned the range from the best things that have happened to me, to the unimaginable. It would have been easy to fall back into the routine of pots that I had been making over the previous decade. It would have been comfortable and comforting. But I’m not the same person that I was three years ago. And if I am being true to myself with my work, the pots can’t be the same. This new body of work reflects where I am in my life now. And it will continue to evolve and change as I do.
Thank you so much for reading. It means a lot to me.