November 8, 2010 / Art
In 1980 the young artist Jeff Koons presented his first major solo exhibition, a window …
October 25, 2018
The day after my ex-husband and I separated, I came home and saw all the empty spaces where we used to share life—the matching desks now parted, the picture removed from the wall revealing the marks where the nails didn’t find the stud. In that moment, I realized how tangible my divorce would be. I realized that divorce would physically reshape my life. I began to rearrange every last piece of furniture. At one point, I had a living room of only chairs. I began going through the closets, attempting to evict one-by-one the ghosts of our collective life. I pulled down a box of printmaking materials I had not touched since college. I had always intended to return to a creative practice, and for many birthdays my ex-husband gifted me with paper and blocks as encouragement. But it wasn’t until I found this box all these years later that I picked up a carving tool. Retrospect taught me the similarities between my life feeling carved out and the visceral carving of block.
Each block became a new marking of time, a new marking of my acceptance or resistance. As my life was reshaped, I also became the arbiter of each block’s space. The blocks offered me spaces I could fill with my own meaning. I made loose sketches on paper, repeating them even more loosely on the blocks. As I carved, I cared less about perfection than about the satisfaction of the sharp tool meeting the soft linoleum. The tools dulled; they skipped and cut unevenly. I sharpened them and tried again. The mistakes are a part of the process.
My friend, who I once labeled the patron saint to all those divorcing, would remind me that at times you have to move your body, carry it with you, and keep going. You find practices in your life that you can use to create meaning, and you trust that a new life is being built in the midst of the one that is falling apart. Making these prints was my way of trying to live in that tension. I did not labor to create sketch after sketch after sketch to get a carefully crafted image. Each print became an act of living in the present moment, an attempt to continue with rather than in spite of those carved out spaces.
I was lying on the couch in the study, looking at the bookshelves. Books were the last thing we had to go through and separate. I always joked that it would be a special person I would choose to mingle my books with, and here we were trying to figure out whose books were whose. Who has words for these small moments? How does one transform the ours of shared property, bank accounts, and furniture into mine and yours? How does one separate one life while building another?
I know I am supposed to say something about my technique—the carving, the inking, the paper—but I’m not quite sure how to talk about it. It feels like the untangling of an instinct. There are delineated steps—mixing the ink, rolling it out, preparing the paper. In college, I would sit in the studio for hours, laying out large woven sheets of mulberry and cotton, carefully creating images that were indecipherable replicas of one another. And here, I printed this series on the floor of my dining room using hand tools.
I chose a water-based ink because I wanted something easy to clean. I scooped out dark globs with an old putty knife, spreading them out onto a glass surface, scraping and pressing the ink into the glass until it felt buttery and smooth. My anxiety would settle with the initial crackling of my brayer rolling over ink and hearing it soften with each roll. I rolled smooth ink onto the block. I made a grid with painter’s tape on the hard woods to remind me where to place the block, where to place the paper. I pressed the ink into the fiber with a small hand tool called a baren. My hands fumbled as they remembered the steps.
Divorce is a kind of death. I remember taking off my ring, placing it into a box, and burying the box in the bottom of a dresser drawer. That was also the way of my grief.
I grew up in church, and I have a master’s degree about God. I used to study and write about grief and illness, to postulate about what God might think about that. To many a bartender’s surprise, I used to preach and stand in holy spaces offering hope that God sees us in that sadness. Yet I felt unseen by God because I felt unseen by the people who talked about her. It felt as though my presence caused anxiety in the people I used to pray and weep with, as though my relationship status was somehow contagious. Rather than holding my loss with me, they seemed stuck offering resuscitation instructions.
I cannot speak for what my loss meant for my ex-husband, but I lost the life I thought I would have. To make relationships work, we foster future possibilities of the we. We create a we that contains the possibility of a life with kids or careers, a we that makes plans for Christmas or family vacations. Grief, then, is the loss of the life I thought I would have. And in this way, placing my ring in that box in the bottom drawer felt like interring that future life and accepting that I must build something new.
It was April when I felt all the change at once—filing the papers, graduating from grad school, ending one job and starting another, moving to a new home. Transition periods have always been hard for me, and the anxiety of the changes crippled me. As a creature of habit, I burrow into the familiar and feel gratitude for the spaces in my life that are safely my own.
Divorce carved into every last one of my sanctuaries, including faith. But I am learning to hold a kind of faith that rests in my doubt, to confidently state I don’t know. I am making a habit of openness and not knowing. I am learning that the darkness is not without light.
In the middle of deciphering the yours and mine, I found moments where I had to confront the objects that went missing as a permanent absence or something merely misplaced. In the months after our separation, I often pulled open cabinets, only to find that the objects of my pursuit were not there. One morning, while making eggs, I couldn’t find the spatula. It had always been in the middle drawer to the right of the stove, but now, with the eggs sizzling it was nowhere to be found. “Did he take the spatula?” I fumed. “How could I lose the spatula?”
This last print is prophetic and hopeful. It was made with the wish that I would one day feel at home again, that an open window would let in the light. I realize now while writing this paragraph that I have since moved into a house with this very living room, down to the oval rug and the hyacinth on the table. A hyacinth is the plant of forgiveness.
I do not intend to find a silver lining out of one of the most painful experiences in my life. Instead, I offer it as a small plant in the desert, a strange inkling of hope. My grief showed me the ways that I had created space in my life and the ways that I now make space for new life. When I look at these prints, I am struck by how different my life looks now, how time has once again worked its magic and changed me. Grief forced me to make change.
During that year I was a mess, but I was the mess that I needed to be. I could no longer sanitize or repackage my grief into something more palatable. I couldn’t make a joke about it. My type-A facade crumbled, and in the new space that remained, I was able to acknowledge the ending of the shared life we had created. In this way, grief became a gift. Grief let me say, I forgive you and I forgive me. Grief let me say, I am sorry and I love you. Grief let me say, may we go into the world and thrive. Maybe there was a less messy way to get here, but I did not find that path. And for that I forgive myself too.
Kate Roberts lives, works, and walks her dog in Durham, North Carolina. She earned her MDiv from Duke University and her MSW from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Given that she primarily works as a psychotherapist, Roberts regularly engages in a creative practice as a means to come back to herself.