My Spiritual Cramp

My Spiritual Cramp is both a playful and serious foray into investigating death culture(s). Mainly from the perspective of an artist and amateur cultural anthropologist, I seek to simultaneously embrace and exorcize, except and express death anxiety, grief and loss by means of exploration. This is an inquiry about finding meaning where there is a void and lack-of meaning regarding death and loss within our American culture. I think my point is to work on developing a discourse on death, a realization I have come to borne out of my own lack of understanding, ability to articulate, lack of tools and dissatisfaction with how we as a culture tackle loss, death and grief. I am looking at other and all models to begin, starting with our own and other cultures processions, rites, rituals, art, music and metaphor.

Art and War in Afghanistan

In 2004, my mother died. I love and miss her very much and I mean no disrespect by saying her life was a complicated mess that was put to rest after years of slow, painful suicide. She drank herself to death over the course of many years and I witnessed much suffering and sadness until her liver could take it no more. Drinking was not her only coping mechanism or the only way she harmed herself or solely how she expressed her grief, but it was the most consistent. Why am I exposing myself and writing such personal information in a blog, you may ask?


Bits and pieces of our relationship come back to stab at me, and I have been trying to dodge the attacks but with very little success. Unresolved bits eventually bleed through in to my present day existence. Not only do I battle with unresolved issues concerning my dead mother, but other deceased family members as well. My maternal grandmother practically raised me and our relationship is paramount to whatever psychic successes I may have. We saved each other. But when she died when I was 12, I didn’t go to her funeral. And due to age and circumstance, I never had a chance to properly mourn her passing. I never had a chance to reflect on the importance of our love. And the cycle just continued with each passing loved one. Finally, I am ready to try a different way of processing death, grief and loss. Mainly, by just giving it some much deserved attention. I am noticing that in out modern culture there is a lack of adequate process(es) for mourning. I hope to somehow help others as well, by designing a sort of hybrid art therapy/cultural anthropology/death studies workshop. And that is why I think, write and make art about death and my personal experiences.

Processing Death through Metaphor

I lived in Manhattan on the lower east side in the 1990’s, so when mom died and I went back east for her memorial, I also took a side-trip to the lower east side to visit the old neighborhood and friends. This is when/where I picked up my first Afghani War Rug. It was at the flea market in the parking lot on Avenue A and 10th or 11th St. Hand-knotted by the semi-nomadic people of Afghanistan, they hung heavily from the chain link fence, dozens of predominately and abrashed madder-red bone-white wool war rugs juxtaposing traditional tribal motifs against modern militia imagery. And as I circled the perimeter immediately I felt the pangs of falling deeply in love at first sight with this particular art form. I automatically locked in to the beautiful geometric and naive images of wartime, which did not look particularly sorrowful, but more as both an expression and as a documentation of a cultural histories: a stylized window looking into how the weavers world has evolved since the Soviet invasion of 1979. The Afghani Rug was once young and unadulterated, saturated only with geometric designs reflecting the lives of the makers amongst nature: images of flowers and animals quicky gave way to combat planes and armaments after the war. They were not overwrought, just stark naked honesty in all of its glory. On that day with death and loss so fresh on my mind, what I felt was beyond a prickly, poignant and piqued connection. My receptors were as vulnerable and as open as possible for me to take in and identify with the Afghani War Rug. Seriously, it has taken me 7 years and writing this to realize how and why I related to the war rug so: The Battlefield being an apt metaphor for my experiences with living through and coming out of the ass-end of alcoholism and death, multiple times.

A Situationist critique of myself:

Living in a consumerist society void of proper mourning rituals, perhaps purchasing the rug was an attempted act of mourning itself. Maybe we have been enculturated through advertisements to express feelings through buying symbols that represent our emotions, instead of being the agent of our own will and working through emotions first-person. Say one is feeling imprisoned by one’s home-life or work place. Instead of figuring out how to break free of imprisonment, one may buy a car that represents freedom. The root of the feeling of imprisonment need be acknowledged and addressed, lest the sensation of purchased freedom is false and fleeting. As was the false subconscious feeling of mourning when buying the War Rug. Purchasing the rug and relating to the war imagery was not my own act of mourning, it was the act of buying someone else’s experience of expressing grief. I suppose this leads me to beg the question, “What would have been a proper act of first-person and not-purchased mourning?” Should I weave my own War Rug? Carve my mothers Ghana coffin? Build a Thai spirit house? Plant a garden shrine? Observe the Victorian traditions in mourning dress? Mosaic an African American memory vase? Throw a swallowing plate? Craft hair jewelry? Stitch a memorial quilt? As it stands, the best answer I can come up with is a “yes” to any and all of the above: Design and create one’s own ritual for expressing the death that surrounds one in order to move on. Even writing this is part of a mourning process…

Through being an active participant the visual arts, performing arts, and literary arts we can better understand ourselves, each other and the human experience. One must also understand that cultural standards for defining what constitutes “good” creative work is also false, or at least relative and serves only to reify the upper classes control over the commodification of art. Do not buy into this. Do not doubt that you, too are creative and deserve to participate in the process. But that is another matter for future contemplation… to be continued.

Coincidentally, Philly Friends, check out this exhibit: A selection of the Max Allen Collection of war carpets from the Textile Museum of Canada is currently on show in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Penn Museum Presents Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan

April 30 through July 31, 2011

Link to the museum:

Link to more about this beautiful art which has evolved with time and according to context:

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