There Is No Map for Grief: On the Work of Art

July 8, 2015 | 5 10 min read

hand water

Trauma brought me to the page, it is that simple.

When my daughter died in the belly world of me, I became a writer — so that all the words that cannot name grief, all the words threatening to erupt from my belly and uterus did not explode up and through my skull and face and shatter the very world and sky.

Oceans of other people’s compassions have washed over me, but those of us who have lost children, we are a living dead tribe. We smile and nod and thank people for their concerns and efforts. The labor of our lives is actually quite simple: stay alive. So that others might go on.

Wounds make artists. I wrote a book from the body of my dead girl.

There is no map for grief, but there are bridges to others.

When I was 30 and finishing a dissertation on war and narrative, a box arrived via UPS to the door of my home. The sender was my aunt — my father’s sister — a woman I had become estranged from over the years for her ill treatment and unkind words toward me, my sister, and my mother. The box was about the size of a small television. I removed the brown paper and tape carefully…then wondered why I had been careful? The cardboard box under the brown paper had a red lid. I wondered why. When I opened the red lid a hundred photos and yellowed papers and documents spread before me like hands. Nothing from my aunt — there was no explanation for what was inside the box.

Deep mistrust spread through me even as I put my hand down into the photos and pieces of paper. Something…a tiny electrical charge…moved up the crouch of my fingers and up my forearms and into my biceps and shoulders. I tilted my head to the side.

Then I took the photos out one at a time and looked at them.

I had never been to Lithuania, the land of my paternal lineage. But I am the only one on either side of my parents’ families who has blonde hair. I have the square jaw and small blue eyes of a Baltic woman. I know because I looked at the photos, and they looked back. Myself. I saw selves who looked like me for the first time in my life. Even their bodies were of the shape and tune of mine — broad-shouldered and small-waisted, muscled arms and long necks and spines and Slavic noses.

I felt…secretly amongst people, when all my life I’d felt isolated.

But the photos were not alone.

Also inside the box were cut-out articles and Xeroxed copies of a story repeated over and over again.

The stories were about a photographer in Lithuania during the Russian occupation. This photographer managed to document a secret massacre at a hospital in a small rural town in Lithuania. With his small black box and second sight he had captured Russian soldiers shooting doctors point blank, the doctors’ and nurses’ dingy white scrubs speckled and blooming with blood caught in frames. Patients — some already on operating tables or in beds — shot in the heads and hearts, their mouths forever opened into “O” or “Why.” Horrific imagery of mindless slaughter. Men. Women. Children. The uniforms and rifles of soldiers.

The photographer was my great uncle, I learned later.

He was then sent to a Siberian gulag for 18 years for taking the photos. But the Russian soldiers only found one camera, one roll; he’d secreted away the first camera and its secrets under a floorboard of the hospital, knowing his art was a death’s head held carefully between his hands. From what I’m told, this is what “saved” his life. Otherwise he’d have been shot on site.

My great aunt hid the photos away behind the wall boards in her home in Lithuania at the head of her bed, in the long wait for her husband and his beautiful hands to return to her.

My grandmother hid the photos in her attic in Cleveland, Ohio, even as there were no more reasons to hide them I suppose…

My aunt found them when my grandmother died, and sent them, I found out later, because she knew I had an interest in — that my studies in graduate work were in — “war and art.”

After receiving the photos I made a ritual. Every night I would walk to a writing shed to the side of our house. I would light a wood stove and bury my torso in a blanket waiting for the room to heat up. I would watch spiders that had spun new worlds in the corners or across the windows overnight. Occasionally I’d see a mouse going outside or coming in. I’d hear crickets and frogs and a creek’s water making lines next to me. My husband and son safe and well in the house, the amber internal light of home making them glow from afar, the black and blue light of external night light taking me away from wife and mother and toward the body where I make art.

Every night I followed this pattern. This corporeal pull. A novel was coming from my body in images and rhythms I hadn’t known were even alive in me — or perhaps they were coming from the dead histories living in us all. A novel that came from the box of photos.

For seven years.

I know a woman named Menas who is a painter in Lithuania. Though she travels to Vilnius monthly for food, to perhaps see an old friend, or for supplies, she lives in a rural area with very few people, a great many trees and streams, and regular visits from animals and the elements.

When I say Menas is a painter, you may wonder where she “shows” her work. What gallery. Have you seen her paintings? Is she on the Internet? Can we “friend” her on Facebook? But these are not the right questions.

When I ask Menas about painting, she laughs and says, “Painting is the labor of dream.” There is nothing wrong with her English.

Menas lives alone on a falling-apart farm. In the past the farm was a Soviet Russia work farm. In the present the farm simply houses her as both she and the buildings do what women’s bodies do…move away from children and family and scripted desires as the aches and pains and changes in bending and blood and bone toughen and wrinkle flesh, and hair — like wood — grays and weathers and thins.

Her paintings live in a barn that was used in the past for horses and cows and chickens and goats and machinery. They rest stacked against one another in great monuments to her dream labor, but haphazardly — nothing like an American painter’s studio — more like history gone from the order of power to the chaos of ordinary wildflowers and moths and rodents. The paintings smell like hay and dirt and wood more than turpentine and linseed and oil pigments. Sometimes the dirt and refuse and perhaps even rodent or insect shit and probably even a spider or two gets into the paint before the canvas dries, and so her work wears an extra texture of…place. History.

The content of her work is difficult to describe. The colors, composition and imagery are abstract rather than representational, but that seems idiotic to say. I have now known her for 20 years, and so to speak to you in Art in America terms not only seems foolish, it seems worse. Like a terrible lie. Or injustice. To speak to you of her paintings I have to talk about bodies.

The body of her work is not an “oeuvre.” It is not the end product or output of her artistic production.

Her body of work — her labor — is corporeal.

When I stand in front of one of her larger works, say, one that is 6′ by 10′, I feel “inside” a river, the river rocks rumbling under the soles of my feet, the ice of the water traveling up the bones in my shins to my ribs and shoulders and skull. Or I feel “moved” by wind in leaves, my body raising its hair and flesh toward the sky, and before I know it, I see that I’ve extended both of my arms out to the side of my body and closed my eyes and rocked my head back, as if to say, yes. Or I feel “turned” by the colors of fall leaves and that moment before the deep hues of gold and red and brown and purple decreate into winter’s dead detritus. In these paintings I feel the land not “out there,” but in my body.

There are other paintings. Larger than life and a little intimidating. It’s hard to step up close to them, and yet it is impossible to stay away. I always end up touching them or leaning into them. Which one cannot do in any gallery that I know of. But in a barn, you can put your body against a painting. In the painting I am speaking of now I feel…like there is an inside-out. I feel a corporeal reversal. Like blood and flesh and the heart’s beating and corpuscular surge have broken through the membrane we hold so dear called skin. The reds are more than red. The whites and blue whites and greys are nothing else but bone-colored — and they are cracked where they should be bold and hold. There are indications of vertebrae but they shatter the line of a spine. The blues are raging, bright lines that reach maplike and course and spread almost violently. Sometimes a more-black-than-black rage scratches from near the center and scrapes toward the viewer — looking almost as if it is trying to become a word, language.

There are no faces or bodies — and yet I feel more embodied than seems humanly possible when I am with these paintings.

When I ask her about the deep internal quality of these paintings, Menas laughs, and says, “It is not in words. It is body. Why words?” There is nothing wrong with her English.

When people ask me about Menas, I say I know a woman artist in Lithuania who fed her children on dirt and roots and potatoes and weeds and the milk from a cow and rain water for years.

Still they grew.

I say she loved her husband so much she carved his name on her own belly with a knife, and with the pulp and juice of wild raspberries, dyed it skin-true.

She had no money in the past. At different times she was owned as a laborer by the state. Her hands have touched many kinds of work. She has next to no money in the present, though she survives through excellent barter systems and trade with people who are still alive over time and history.

There is no story of this woman, of what happened to her, of how she came to be a painter, an artist.

There is no “news” that carries her name like a sensationalized trial on TV.

I can’t point to something that will show you how important the work of her art is.

Is a painter a painter if no gallery or critic writes her name, carries her? Is a painter a painter if no one will ever know how art came alive in her hands, how painting day after day is a labor no one owns but her? Why should anyone care how grief birthed her art?

What is the work of art? Do we toil differently, me with my domestic and capitalistic trials and tribulations, and Menas with her chickens laying eggs, or the ones that try to lay eggs but hatch deformed things, the residual effects of Chernobyl something you can hold in the palm of your hand, her farm gone to seed, her family like a supernova flash that is an unrepresentable image?

We trade across time and lives.

Menas trades me paintings for stories.

She tells me in a letter, “Many thanks for your stories! They keep me! I am alive of them…” There is nothing wrong with her English.

Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians were primarily a rural people for centuries, their largest cities inhabited by other ethnic groups. The lyrics of their folksongs ring and rise with forests, mushrooms, animals and azure-shimmering lakes.

Most Americans don’t know how to picture the city dwellers in Vilnius — stuffed as they are with their big-boned and thick-muscled bodies in concrete apartment blocks as the heat turns their apartments into ovens in the summer and cold cells in the winter. We only know Vilnius from war stories and poets.

Most Americans can’t see in their mind’s eye the way the land pulls away from cities and urban dwelling and stretches out and away as if it could escape. Perhaps they realize the Baltic Sea licks the shores of the country, but isn’t it freezing and inhospitable? Isn’t Lithuania without mountains? Wasn’t it dotted by Soviet farms and laborers? Most Americans have no idea what the new freedoms are for people who have been owned and traded and made into state property.

Menas tells me about saunas. A Lithuanian sauna is a mixture of Russian traditions and a kind of Finnish comfort. The bathhouses are usually two-story wooden houses with a sauna cabin on the first floor, rooms on the second, and a pond to jump in right after the sweat. Winter. Spring. Fall. Summer.

Menas tells me how to fill a day with fishing in lakes so cold and blue you can see the underworld of waterlife. How to ride horses across land knuckled with rounded hills and through birch and pine forests. How to spend long afternoons filling baskets with mushrooms or berries.

And in evenings, over email or in letters — the only letters I receive any more since in America no one pains themselves to commit to the old labor of letter writing — Menas tells me over and over again how her entire family was blown to bits — husband, son, daughter, in front of her eyes — while she held a basket of kindling for the fire, her hair blowing back away from her face and the skin around her eyes and mouth pinching with heat.

Each time she tells it, it is as if it is the first time. Each time (with a glass of pear wine or brandy at the end of a day, I know, because she has shared the smallness of the ritual, I can see the tiny glass going to her lips), when night falls and I am in the writing shed next to my beautiful family, my beautiful home, my appliances and computers and bills and cars and shoes and food and wine and cutlery that is “worth” more than her entire farm, she tells it to me.

There are plain ways to say it. When the Soviet Union fell, her rage and despair and grief took shelter in a falling-apart farmhouse. Alone in the labor of a life.

Menas says, “I become painter, to live.”

But I think maybe it is simpler, her becoming. I think it is a choice to face not staying alive, with expression and labor and body. She is out there. Making new corporeal forms. With or without any of us.

Years ago, when Menas learned that my daughter died in the belly of me, she said, “Then you are down at bottom of water now. But see? You can walk the deep. That is why you here. Can you see me?”

Possibly the most perfect sentences anyone anywhere has ever said to me.

She is beautiful and terrible all at once.

I’m looking at a photo of one of her paintings right now. It is black and blue and as big as the wall of a house. Maybe it’s the bottom of the water. Maybe Menas’s lost family is there, floating or walking the depths, and maybe too my beautiful dead daughter. The image is arresting.

I must remember from her to push on the sentences until they break open and reveal all our otherness. I must remember to be a body that generates new ways of seeing and saying — the labor, the work of art.

A woman’s body, without apology.

This language, held by the white of the page.

My daughter’s name was Lily.

Image Credit: Lidia Yuknavitch/


  1. ” But see? You can walk the deep. That is why you here. Can you see me?”
    Speechless and sad. So moving, thank you, thank you.

  2. Your writing brought me to tears. My mother was from Norway. I can relate to all that was said. Yes she is a painter, and of course her work has value! Art comes out of us whether we like it or not. I write, and photograph because I love it. I will never sell my art, because that’s not the point, for me. Hooray for female artists wherever they may be!

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