The Understander seeks to process grief by inspecting a Luzon Bleeding-heart:

On the advantages of being the walking wounded.

The Luzon Bleeding-heart is a species of dove native to the Philippines that has a unique bright red crop of chest feathers which creates the illusion of an open wound in it's breast.

The Bleeding-heart is a ground bird, only flying to reach their nests in low bushes. There are 3 sub-species, one of which humans have only seen once, in 1976. The most prevalent species is still classified as Near Threatened on the conservation scale, due to deforestation and the rising trend of capturing bleeding hearts to keep as a pet.

The mark is present in both males and females, and males puff their chest to expand and inflate their wounds during courtship.

I saw some of these birds while walking through a zoo exhibit. A small group of them, moving along the ground under the wide deep green leaves, each of their chests bloody. The zoo must get tired of all the people who come out in a rush to tell them that they have wounded birds inside. These birds have been with me ever since. I wonder if that level of nature understands wounds or injuries the way we do. I'm not even sure I know how to process that idea.

And I guess they've stuck with me because I can only think of two ways in which these birds came to be. Either evolution supported the growth of this mark of theirs, because being wounded is actually an advantage.

Or God allowed something so tragic and beautiful to grow into being, for us to be reminded of something.

My friend Karen Yee passed away on October 15th.

Karen was an extremely gifted painter who had been fighting cancer for 13 years. We first got to know each other because I have the honor of saying that many years ago she took one of our classes, even though she was well beyond any help I could offer. And during my time as the president of the El Segundo Art Association, she was an incredibly supportive and helpful presence. She did the toughest work- inputing each person's information in order to print labels and make ribbons. And she was there at every show, with a new painting to blow people away.

Karen was the kind of good that makes the typical hobbyists in an art association pretty jealous.

Everything she did won something, regardless of the judge. And sometimes the most petty people would groan when she showed up with a painting because she always went home with a ribbon.

But I think she took people's envy in stride. She was incredibly humble. I don't think she needed the ribbons or the approval of the judge or the participants. She never struck me as the kind of person who saw things in terms of professional or amateur. She was involved because she wanted to show her work- to participate- and she wasn't in the business of hiding who she was, not for anybody.

And I admired that attitude as much as I admired her skill.

I think everyone knows the so-called stages of grief. But I wonder is the stages are different at all when grieving for someone that you knew well, but not as well as you would have liked. In a way you grieve for the loss of a life, but also selfishly, for the loss of a potential in your own life. And I think you get inordinately hung up in what you didn't do.

And (at least in me) it causes guilt. Guilt for not doing more and also a little deeper, guilt for feeling bad as you do, as if you don't have the right because frankly you were too busy to check in with them the day before. Or the month before. Or a year ago. I hate this feeling and it's perplexing. Missing someone is hard enough. But the fact is, I hadn't talked to Karen in a year or so. I lost touch amidst my own life struggles, and I'm ashamed of that. Like so many people that knew her I would love to see her again, to hear her gentle voice talking about craft and process, or about her last few paintings.

I admire these later paintings by Karen for so many reasons, but especially I feel there's something darkly witty in them. Maybe a world-weary wryness instead. Thematically they almost feel cartoonish, in the assembly of objects in them, and the narrative of each piece. And all of that is belied by the incredibly deft hand she has and the ultimate subject. It creates a kind of motion or conflict in them that is so engaging. And a lot like life.

In the last month or so, I've been trying to get back into a rhythm of sketching. Thanks to a trip to the Guillermo Del Toro show at LACMA, I've been trying to sketch regularly again, and thinking about darker things.

I used to pull from these themes a lot more, and I'm not sure why I stopped, I moved more towards a rounder sort of surrealism and representation and stepping back. I lightened up some, or evened out. I guess I thought of all that dark symbology as teenage stuff. But seeing so many incredible artists at LACMA, working with skulls and monsters and gothic fantasy- unabashedly digging in and picking apart our fears- was inspiring.

So, I've spent some time thinking about what is really frightening. I think obviously the simplest answer is death. But how death presents itself- the face it wears, and how we accept inevitability. To me the scariest thing is when it lurches out of a shadow at 60 miles an hour on a rainy street, when you have plans. You're moving along a known trajectory one second, and the next you're shoved sideways, glass flying by and metal, moving. Or your shoulder hitting the wet asphalt and the crack, and all you can do is finally accept that control is an illusion, and lay your head down to wait until you stop sliding.

But, in our modern isolated world of comfort, maybe it's the diagnosis. And what you do with the news.

What does that look like?

I've had this sketch out for a couple weeks, not really knowing what it was about, but trying to get at those Luzon Bleeding-hearts. Thinking they had some kind of answer to these questions.

And then I heard about Karen. And, while feeling wretched for not talking to her more, I spent time with her work. This article about her from last February says a great deal about some of her paintings and her struggle, and how she approached her life with what she called the Sword of Damocles above her head. It's tough to read in the wake of her passing, but some of the things she said helped me a great deal:

“I understand... A lot of people don’t like to talk about it. I know from this support group I was in there were a lot of women who said they never told their co-workers. They didn’t want anyone to know. I’m much more of an open book. To me, it’s almost like a secret is a burden. It helps me just to talk to people about it, to let people know what’s going on with me.” She laughs. “I don’t know if I’m burdening people with my troubles, but…”

"You know, when you have cancer it’s like getting a death sentence. But people live for years on Death Row, so you learn to live with it, kind of. You have this thing hanging over your head, but what’re you going to do? You’ve got to keep on living, right? You got to keep going."

And looking at the sketch again, I understand that he is that part of me that has to puzzle things out. That part of me that makes diagrams to explain creativity, that part that is never quiet, that never takes a break. The one who has to spend 2 hours collecting every song that has the words Joan of Arc in it. The person that collects and categorizes. That will always dive to the bottom. That puts on headphones even when he's alone, the one that compulsively looks at the world as separate. 

I guess I'd call him The Understander, because that's what he does, seeks to understand, by processing information and drawing connections. And he's that part of me that feels so wretched that I didn't do more or a friend.

And he's puzzling out how to grieve, by inspecting a bleeding heart. By unraveling and assimilating the properties of that rare little species that lives it's whole life walking, when it was born with wings.

That proudly carries a wound which never heals in it's breast.

And that uses that wound to attract a mate, to make life. To make sense of life. 

And another layer I'm getting while writing this: He isn't just inspecting the bird, he's displaying it. Like a child holds up a chain of paper dolls, he's putting on display what he is learning.

Just like Karen has done with her work, and her life, and inside of our all-too-brief friendship. And while I'm puzzling out how to grieve, I'm also feeling deeply grateful for the lesson.


That's it and thanks for reading. I hope you are all well.

This is for Jenny, who is every bit as inspiring as Karen. I see the love and devotion that she inspires and I will continue to heap on my own, as much as she'll allow.

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