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In a Glass Garden

By Elizabeth Whitney

Bio

Elizabeth Whitney is an Associate Professor at the City University of New York. Her work is published in Text and Performance Quarterly, and Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies.

Find her on Substack at FarmerBill and Instagram @Cornmeal Grit. www.elizabethjwhitney.com

            I was in a generic mall in suburban New Jersey when Bill first called me with the news that his liver was failing. I remember exactly where I was standing, by the faux gourmet hamburger and wine bar. Of course, he didn’t put it quite that succinctly when he told me what was happening. Instead, he let small bits and pieces of information out like a barely loosened, squeaky balloon, and I understood vaguely that he’d had some blood work done and things were not looking good.

            “I have to stop drinking,” he said, “or at least really cut back. Or maybe just take a long break, so my liver can heal.”

            I didn’t know much about alcohol use disorder at that time. Bill was in his early forties and it seemed impossible for a person that young to experience liver failure, but then again, I was incredibly naïve. Even though the information was right in front of me, it would still be many years before I dared to say it out loud. It’s an impossible thing to name someone else’s addiction, and when they won’t name it, you are left floundering in a nebulous space of confusion and gaslighting.

            He stopped drinking on his own. He refused to go to rehab or accept any kind of help. Instead, he made a chart to meter his alcohol intake, and reduced his drinks each day so that he wouldn’t suffer from withdrawal. His resolve was impressive.

            Just like I remember where I was standing in that mall in New Jersey when he told me his liver was failing, I remember where we were sitting when he told me he was going to start drinking, again. Facing each other on the weathered lawn chairs by the pool in Florida, he casually mentioned picking up a bottle of red later that day at the store. It was a sunny, September day, which is somehow always the kind of beautiful day where you get the worst news.

            “Just a glass of wine,” he assured me, “I just want to be able to enjoy a glass of wine with everyone at dinner.”

  “What about your liver?” I asked, incredulously, my mouth hanging open.

            “My liver values are normal again,” he said, and looked at me like I had asked him if he was planning to take a rocket to the moon tomorrow. “Don’t make a big deal out of it, meow” he shook his head while using our childhood nickname, “I don’t need everyone judging me.”


           That was one of his tag lines, that we were judging him. It was part of the gaslighting, and his way of avoiding accountability. I knew that, and I also knew that I would have gone along with anything to keep my brother.

            “I’m not judging you,” I tried to assure him, “it’s just that you are doing so well, and I love having you present.”

            “And I love being present,” he tried to assure me, back, “Don’t worry, all will be well.”

 

 

            Bill was a beautiful, complicated, witchy spirit. He loved cats, gardening, and social justice, and he was an immensely talented glass artist.

            There is a thriving community of artists who work with glass in the Pacific Northwest, and some might argue that Portland is the epicenter, which is why he chose to apprentice here. The community includes everything from massive studios with ovens that take four days to heat, to independent artisans like Bill.

            His shop is in his garage, heated only by a wood stove. He has a small but high-quality lamp torch, and an oven that he built himself. I write this description in the present tense because it’s all still there. The oxygen and propane tanks, the torch, the safety goggles, the long, slender pieces of glass in every imaginable color—they’re all there, waiting for his hands to pick them up, to heat them, and shape them into something new and beautiful.

            He tried out various artisanal trades. He learned metal work with gold and silver jewelry and made drums from animal hides. Bill always had a gift for working with his hands. As children we took pottery classes at a local community center, and while I struggled to keep the lump of clay balanced on the wheel, his pots resembled actual pots.

            It made sense that he would settle into glasswork. It allowed him the total focus and individual work space that he needed to thrive. Though my parents often wished he would find a “real” job, he managed to create a successful business with his glasswork, and it paid the monthly basics of life. I could never imagine Bill going to work in any sort of 9 to 5 way. He was at his best when he could set his own schedule, and he was such a passionate and talented maker of so many things that he needed the freedom to work at an artist’s pace.

            He started out making cups and glasses. As I write this, I’m looking up at a window shelf lined with a series of small goblets in blues and golds. His repertoire expanded to include adult toys. For many years his business, Molten Sand Productions, was sustained solely by bespoke adult toys. He also made smoking paraphernalia, which was contracted to various distributors. He had a head for business, and before alcohol took over his life he was a thriving entrepreneur and a strong negotiator.


           I remember the first time I noticed his hands shaking, because it was while I watched him blow glass. We were both wearing safety goggles in his shop, seated on the tall stools that reached the height of his workbench. As he held the piece he was working on, I could see a slight trembling in his hands.


           “You okay, meow?” I asked, tentatively, “It looks like your hands are shaking a little bit.”

  “Yeah,” he responded, evasively, “I think I just had too much coffee on an empty stomach.”

            That’s the thing about gaslighting. You begin to doubt your own eyes, as I did every time I watched Bill’s hands shake more and more with even the slightest tasks.

            I don’t remember exactly when he quit working in his shop. It happened gradually, much like the way that addiction creeps in. One visit I just realized he wasn’t working anymore. We went into the shop to hang out and listen to music, but the work bench was quiet.

            But the glass is still out there in the shop, in its raw forms. And it’s in here, too, in its new forms. This whole house is a museum full of his artistry, and when I feel sad I walk around and pick up various pieces of beauty and hold them for a while.

 

 

            My favorite glass pieces Bill made were glass pendants, or pendulums. These he mostly gave as gifts to family and friends. My mother and I wear ours around our necks. Mine, with a swirling rainbow inside, is on a silver chain, and hers, a blue heart, is on a velvet string.

            The pendulums are meant to be multi-purpose. They are beautiful ornaments, and they are also divining tools. If you let the pendulum hang  just a few inches above your open palm, or above an object, it will at first be still. But, after a few seconds, there is a natural rotational force that begins to move it in a circle. This is a positive, or affirmative energy. When the pendulum shirts directions and swings in a line back and forth, this is a negative energy, or a counter indicator.

            I have used my pendulums as a meditative tool for decades. When I have a big decision to make, or a question about something, I sit with my pendulum and see whether it swings in a circle or a line.  The idea is that the pendulum picks up on a combination of my energy, and whatever guiding energy is around me. The way to attract positive guiding energy is to treat it like a meditation. Ultimately, the pendulum allows you to connect with your own intuition.

            Now, I use my pendulum to talk to Bill. Sometimes I don’t even talk, I just let it swing in a wide circle and I connect with his energy.

 

            Bill lived in his house in Portland for twenty years. One of his nicknames was Farmer Bill. He loved cultivating plants and had extensive knowledge about herbs. His entire yard was dedicated to green space. One of the wonders of Portland’s climate is how many things can grow here. There are two large fig trees in Bill’s yard. Someone tried to climb one to pick the figs and part of the trunk split, so we used supports to hold it together in hopes that it will heal and grow back. This tree, and this yard, are my touchstones for healing, and repairing the fractures in my life caused by his death.

            Despite the injury to the trunk, the fig trees in the yard bear plenty of fruit in the summer and even now in fall there are still figs left. The first time I had fresh figs was here at Bill’s house, and now I go in the mornings and pick figs for breakfast.

            Every time I visited, Bill and I wandered around the yard together and he showed me the new things he was growing. There were a variety of types of mint, including the standard mint, lemon mint, and even chocolate mint. Sage grows easily here, and we made tea from the leaves. I love the fresh, earthy, and musty smell of crushed sage leaves between my hands. Across the front of the yard, bordering the sidewalk was a row of raspberry bushes. It’s common to find berry bushes growing wild all over the city, and Bill had a sign in English and Spanish welcoming people from the neighborhood to pick blackberries from his community garden.

            Bill grew papalo, a piquant Mexican herb that is a sister plant to cilantro. His cherry tomatillos–also known as ground cherries or pineapple tomatillos sprouted in various garden beds, and we would wrap one in a papalo leaf and eat it in one bite. The contrasting flavors of fresh greens with the tart explosion of the tomatillo would be an excellent addition to any vegan sushi menu.

            In the backyard, Bill grew pole beans. There was a hammock on the porch, just next to the beans, where I liked to relax, look up at the sky, listen to the wind, and eat beans right from the vines. When it became legal to grow your own cannabis he began cultivating two strains, Frank’s Gift and Charlotte’s Web. He bought a machine that allowed him to synthesize the harvested buds and oil, and he made balms, tinctures, and chapsticks that he gave away as gifts. He also made tinctures from herbs in the yard and in the wild, and would often go on foraging trips to the forest with friends to pick yarrow. The tinctures were presented to me in small, blue, glass bottles labeled by year. A few drops in warm water were soothing for any stomach ache or just a hard day.

             As Bill’s alcohol use increased, the garden suffered. The cannabis plants began to dominate everything. The pole beans wilted, the raspberry bushes died, and even the fig trees seemed to mourn the loss of companionship from biodiversity around them. My brother Ed, who has been coming to the house to take care of things and also loves gardening, has begun the process of restoring this special place. This morning, I walked to the backyard to appreciate the garden beds he is rejuvenating, and as the Pacific Northwest wind whipped around me, I noticed new green sprouts everywhere.

            When we scattered Bill’s ashes in the backyard at his memorial last fall, we played a song that he loved, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.” I feel Bill’s presence everywhere in this garden. I am not religious in any traditional sense, but I do believe in science, and I know that organic matter never dies, it only takes new forms.

  As Bill would say, Blessed Be, and all will be well.

 

 

 

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glints on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning's hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry;

I am not there. I did not die.

 

–Mary Elizabeth Frye

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