Episode 1.5: Visioning Old Age

I'm Ariana Katz and this is Kaddish.

Before episode 2 comes out in October, I wanted to share with you the stories of Deidre Scherer. Diedre is a textile artist who creates layered fabric pieces of the faces of the dying and the deceased. Her work is tender, and it is real, and it is so deeply respectful.

It’s a different mode to talk about the work of a visual artist in this medium. This episode should work somehow like a slideshow, so if you’re listening on iTunes, the images should change every so often from the cover photo of the podcast itself. You can also go to kaddishpodcast.com/blog to see the images we're referring to.

[Sewing machine sound]

It was my three daughters I can blame for choosing the fabric and thread medium. I was living in very tight quarters and to work in oils or something that had no gas or fumes or anything that was toxic was not possible, so I chose fabric. Using scissors from my drawing tools, using the machine for also a drawing tool, I developed– I pioneered a figurative approach. I've always been much more figurative. I’m always aware of obstruction, but a figurative narrative element pulls me. Over time, it became very clear that I was attracted to people who had lived and that very life was written into their faces. Both it’s specific and it’s universal. So all of my portraits are based on actual people and they also refer to that stage in life.

I actually was looking for heads to, you know, model for a series on tarot card queens, so I called a local nursing home and I remember being totally afraid that they’re going to hang up on me and think I’m crazy, and instead I got an invitation and they introduced me to people. They often introduced me to people who had incredibly interesting lives and had good recall and there were a lot of people I could converse with as I drew. They were very appreciative. I suddenly realized what– I think someone else, one of the aides, told me that this is a two-way street. What you think you’re getting, you’re also giving, and I appreciated that deeply. And they participated in the drawings and poses, and I became engaged and realized the depiction of elders is often done with humor or with a grotesque hand. There is nothing– they don’t– I kept looking and kept seeing absolute beauty in these faces.

I’ve felt like I never considered myself growing old. I didn’t see myself past 30 when I started this. I'm of the generation that you didn't trust anyone over 30 so to even see yourself as aging, to see yourself living a full life, was off limits. And then we are in an entire culture that puts on the blinders about age and has absolute terror about age and about death so that here isn’t a conversation – nothing normalizes, nothing familiarizes ourselves with it. There’s a huge division between generations, and when I was in grade school quite early, early 50s anyway, we were practicing atomic bomb drills. We were told to get under the desk, duck and cover. Even as a young kid, I understood that that would be absolutely no help. So this was an overwhelming piece of information – that you’re going to die a normal, full-life death. You wouldn't die suddenly in a flash, you weren’t perhaps going to burn into the ground, you were an [unclear – adult?]. Because we got to see Hiroshima filmed, we got to see what was so impossible to even think about, and we put that inside of ourselves and we have trained ourselves so that was the way we would leave: the whole planet would go with us. I think there are different ways that it’s still a message still being given. The present-day generation is getting terrorism and climate, and it’s all very true, but it is overachingly fulfilling itself in a sense, and I'm picturing– I'm depicting the opposite.

This idea could bring so much healing, visioning a life to old age. What it does is say no, long life is possible and it can be beautiful. When I think about why I don’t have an advanced directive yet at 26 and now as someone that talks about them and does it pretty publicly on the internet, I think about how much anxiety it brings me, about thinking about my death and my loved ones having to make a choice for me. And the more I hear people who are face-to-face with death and dying and the dead, the more I think about how a culture that doesn’t give us images of what that might look like in a peaceful way, makes it almost impossible to envision it without anxiety. This concept that because we’re surrounded with images of climate change and destruction and police brutality and hate crime and increasing sickness, we're unable to actually vision a peaceful death, puts all the much more pressure of telling the story of what we would want our dying to be and how to make those dying of others possible.
The series is called “Surrounded by family and friends”. It's one of six that are all life-sized tableaus. It follows another series called “The Last Year”, which I also travelled. And “The Last Year”, I stumbled on – I began working with a woman who was in her last months and I was interested in her. We became friends and over the course of the months I followed her, I drew her and then I would make pieces based on her individual decline, and you know how she’d go back and forth until the day that– the night that she died. This is “The Last Day”, and that was an interesting process because I had not been aware of what I was doing. I was not aware that I was working with that subject matter. I thought I was doing this portrayal of this woman who’s of an age and has an interesting life, and what it caused me to do was go to hospice training. So my work pushed me.

I have used or seen the works used in college settings, where students both in nursing and pre-med and psychiatry and sociology have stood before them or a chosen one and then written an answer to questions. They've investigated their very own feelings of what is death, and inevitably, in retrospect, they always think about what is life. It was after that that I also understood that we die not in a vacuum; we die out of community. 

Over the course of all my conversations with the folks that have appeared on the past month’s episode, the question of a peaceful death was really turned around and inside out. So the death that Deirdre shares with us in her art is a death of old age, but it doesn’t necessarily assume peacefulness. And the death that's discussed in our advanced directives is sort of a best case scenario kind of death, but what I learned from Moe and from Rabbi Amy is that even the best-laid plans doesn’t take away the pain of separation, from this world, from our loved ones, and, according to Megan, from our souls.

And so when thinking about what is a peaceful death, we have to ask what’s a peaceful life? Not tormented by illness or war or displacement or violence, that in fact it’s the very structures that make up our living that impact what our dying will look like.

Thanks so much for listening to this bonus episode of Kaddish with the amazing artist Deirdre Scherer. Let me know if the artwork– if you’re able to watch a slideshow either on iTunes or if you found it on the blog. Deidre would like you to know that she’s looking for a permanent home for her collection that they can continue to be seen and be studied from, so if you have a lead on that you, can go to her website at dscherer.com. We're going to try something new in October. I'll be releasing two half hour episodes on a theme, so maybe a half hour’s worth of death talk is a little easier to consume, so let me know what you think. October will be exploring tahara, the ritual purification of the body before burial. If you are a [unclear] or have ever done a tahara and want to call in about it, you can leave me a voicemail and we'll play you on the show. You can call 240-KAD-DISH. You can also call that voicemail line with any other reflections on the show. I’d really love to hear them.

Make sure to follow us on iTunes and leave a review – that would be so awesome. You can find us on Facebook and on Twitter. You can shoot me an email – ariana@kaddishpodcast.com.


Shout out to Moment Magazine that featured Kaddish on a top 10 listener-requested Jewish podcast so whoever put our name out into there, thanks so much. As always, thank you to the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, to Deidre Scherer for being on the show, to Tiny Victor for the music, Jei-Jei Tan, Chelsea Noriega, Sid Weisman, and the ever-patient Ever Hanna.

I’m Ariana Katz and this is Kaddish. Sometimes your shiva minyan is digital.


Ariana Katz