FOUR DAYS LEFT (part 2)
This past Sunday was a beautiful day. I woke up thinking, ”This is the last Sunday I will ever have with these breasts.” My dear friend and mentor, Judy Chaves, who I was fortunate to work for in my twenties for eight years, was coming over to do a charcoal drawing of me half nude. I decided to make the day kind of a ritual experience. There is something very introspective and honoring about rituals. There is a beautiful Jewish ritual I am not super knowledgeable about but know enough to give a brief description of for the purpose of this writing. It is called a Mikveh. (here are two articles on Mikveh if you want to learn more)
The mikveh is a place women go to (men go to, but I don’t know much about their reasons) for a type of ritualized purification. It is a sacred place of water allowing for a ritual before or after life changing events such as weddings, menstruation, or a conversion to Judaism. Part of the definition on the site I referenced is “A mikveh is a ritual that signifies a change of status… from spiritually unready to ready.” I also saw a further definition that added to this in the second article I referenced above on Chabad.org “An elevation of status, its unparalleled function lies in its power of transformation, its ability to effect metamorphosis.”
A woman goes to a Mikveh and consciously cleans herself removing literal and figurative impurities. Under the nails, in those crevices we rush through in our day to day showers, our ears, scalp, cracks and orifices that may at times get overlooked in our busy lives. Once this is complete and the cleaning is approved of, the woman goes into the Mikveh for a ceremonial bath. Hebrew blessings are said that connect you to holiness and deep spiritual awareness. It is a stripping of outside layers, to get you to your core, to bring you to your knees.
I have only been in a Mikveh once and I don’t remember it.
Oddly it was with my mother.
When my parents eloped at 20 in 1964 and sent their very surprised parents a telegram to let them know, it was big news. Even bigger news for the Jewish side of my family as the small Jewish community of Fall River, Mass was a tight knit one and everyone knew everyone and socialized with each other. My father had recently (aka deliberately) been booted from The University of Vermont and my very annoyed grandfather got him a job at Filenes in Boston which is where he met my mother. My father was a rebel as previously mentioned in EIGHT DAYS LEFT. But when he was a young man, he was also constantly trying to give my grandparents the proverbial finger in the way he led his life. Eloping in 1964 and not being in college was likely a direct flight to Vietnam, and though he never said this, it was probably part of his thought process in running off with an Irish/Scottish/German Catholic girl from Newton, Mass. As luck would have it, Ann (my mother for those who have not read LETTER TO ANN, BOX OF WINE OR CLARITY ON ANN) was also trying to stick it to her mother, my grandmother, who Ann despised for an unknown reason from the time she came out of my grandmother’s womb. Their marriage was the perfect storm and in their partying likely sex filled connection, off they ran to New Hampshire where the legal marrying age was well under 21.
Needless to say, my father’s marriage to a non- Jew often referred to as a “Shiksa,” (cringe here) a disparaging Yiddish slang word used by most elder Jewish grandparents especially the ones who fought their way out of the Russian Pogroms like my great grandparents of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to find religious and cultural freedom in the US., was not embraced with the joy that marriages usually bring to a family.
My mother, though for some reason, maybe to fit in, maybe to make my Jewish grandparents happy, maybe to stick the finger at her parents, even though my father had become the anti Jew, (you know the proverbial finger thing) decided she would convert after I was born and diligently immersed herself in a Jewish conversion class in Brookline, Mass. This conversion class is not an easy one, besides learning all things Jewish, religious, cultural, traditional, you also had to learn Hebrew and the prayers in Hebrew too. Of course I can’t ask Ann because, well, we all know by now why.
By the time she finished I was two years old and Orthodox Jewish law is that the child is born with what the mother is (reason: because we always know who the mother is, feels bizarre writing that one from my feminist fingers) so because my mother needed to convert to be considered Jewish, I did too. The Mikveh was the final step in the conversion so we went on a mother daughter trip to the Mikveh in Brookline and voila, Alayne Kathryn Horowitz (maiden name) really meant Horowitz. I give Ann a lot of credit for this. I am sure it was not easy to do this, remember she was about twenty-four by this time, so young. She had a two year old and a rebel husband who had no interest in the religion he was born into. My mother took her Judaism seriously and besides my Jewish grandparents and their parents, I would say that she was the most positive influence in my Jewish identity. This influence in turn made it really important to raise my son Jewish too and I am so grateful for this part of my world.
So this is how I ended up in a Mikveh. Don’t you feel a little smarter now?
So on Sunday before Judy came over, I took my own version of a Mikveh shower because I don’t have a bathtub (yet). I washed and cleaned and scrubbed and honored my body. I breathed. I took my time. I was fully and ‘holy’ present. I said kind things to myself. I made peace with my body, my breasts. I ‘showered’ myself with gratitude and humility acknowledging my fears, my strengths, my despair, and my blessed surroundings both outside and inside. Then I got out, dried myself off, and put on a shirt with no bra (because seriously I will no longer be needing those contraptions with my new rack, may as well get used to the freedom) and waited for Judy. Judy arrived and I took off my shirt. She sketched me. We cried. We laughed. We were two women who’s lives have intertwined since I was 23. She was the boss who took me to my first expressive arts class with Susan Fox and Barbara Ganim before all of these manufactured contrived coloring books for adults came on to the scene (because God forbid corporate should think we can come up with our own fucking coloring books and our own creativity). She was the boss who insisted we go to Kripalu in Lenox for a rest and renewal retreat. She was the boss who gave me my entrepreneurial wings in my twenties and trusted me with way outside of the box thinking about her own business. She was the boss who taught me to shake things up, to move stuff around, to be a bull in a china closet, to make changes often. When she retired, she took up art with a vengeance and she is a supreme artist now though she wouldn’t allow that tag because despite her immense personal power and her influence over countless women on Aquidneck Island who have opened up their own businesses after working for Judy, she like so many women refuse to admit and accept her own strengths.
The fact that cancer reconnected us is undefineable (why is spell check telling me this isn’t a word, fuck spell check, I’m making it a word) As she drew me, I think the experience became just as much for her as her intention was for me. Drawing a dear friend half naked a week before she is going to have her breasts removed is an unintended ritual. It literally bares your soul and brings you to your knees as what you see as an artist is also a reflection of what you see in you.
We didn’t finish the piece, Judy is coming back here on ONE DAY LEFT, but I am guessing that this piece will never be finished. If it turns out as an excuse to spend another afternoon with a woman who was like a mother to me, I actually hope we never finish it.
This is the first piece Judy did for me of a tree I love on Farewell St. in Newport, RI. She gave it to me as a baby shower gift in 1995. Full Circle.