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Making the Ketubah

Ten years ago I offered to make a ketubah ( a formal Jewish marriage contract) for friends who were about to be married. I had never made one before, but I knew that for this couple, a ketubah would be the right gift from me. Today I spent some time pondering a question for which no ready answer sprang into view. A few minutes ago I started mindlessly meandering through some uncategorized files and found what I had apparently written as a journal entry shortly after I had finished the ketubah; I hadn't read it again until tonight. It answers my question clearly, though -- spoiler alert -- you won't know what my question was even after having read it. But you will glimpse my joy. Here's what I had written:

She arrives in a long brown triangular box. I know I will have to wait until I have time to consider --- everything --- before I can open the box.

A week goes by. I am aware, every day, that the box is sitting in my studio and that there is something alive in it waiting to be awakened.

Finally, I clear off the dining room table. I have realized during this week that my small studio table, and more, my cluttered studio, would not allow her to breathe, would make her cringe. I open the box, slowly. I find within it a very large roll of soft, thick, almost spongy, white paper. It is tightly rolled, and it’s clear that I will have to weigh it down and let it sit in the humid summer heat of my house until it is flat enough to work on, even to look at.

I'm glad I can't begin painting just yet; I don’t want to touch her skin. I am not ready yet to look at her without fearing that my gaze full of doubt and uncertainty will mar her surface, make her prone to absorb and perhaps even trigger slips of a paint-laden brush. I need to wait.

I bring in five large granite stones from my garden and take out all my white linen napkins and two white linen table cloths. I place the white tissue paper in which she has been wrapped on the table first. She knows its feel and will feel safe, resting on this light, porous sheet. Very carefully, only touching her edges, I unroll her one long embryonic curl by placing the heavy fold on the tablecloth on one edge and inching it forward. She is large, so large and square! Somehow, I had assumed she would be much more modest – much smaller. So large.

I urge her to unroll, covering her inch by inch with the heavy white tablecloth, and don’t see the Hebrew text comprising the legal contract that I know is there. I place the five stones, one at a time, on each corner and then in the middle of the cloth. And now she is all laid out, resting, breathing through her heavy white veil, hidden from view, from air, from light, from the rush and froth in the wake of my life.

Now that she is in my domain, I can begin inviting vision. Just an invitation, just opening the door so that my honored guest will want to approach. Colors begin to appear in my peripheral field. Dark blue.

Every day and every night, I think of her and imagine my way into her chamber. While I work, shop, walk the dog, eat dinner (which I eat outside because I have no other table and the weather is good; I always like to eat outside in summer) I think of her and the colors. I can’t think about shape yet, because I don’t know where the writing is.

I worry and then plan so that the worry will dissipate. I don’t worry about the colors, although I don’t know anything except the dark blue. When I create Energy Portraits on black paper, smudges of inadvertent color can easily be blended or be erased. This is white paper. Everything will show. Will the matte protective spray I use to seal the pastels discolor the paper?

I call the ketubah printer, who printed the words around which I will cast the magic of color and line. He is welcoming and eager to help my part of creating this sacred document be successful. He sends me two small sample sheets of the same paper so I can experiment with pastels, watercolor, and spray. The paper comes and everything seems to work fine.

Then it is the day, after days of humidity that I am sure have relaxed her so that I am sure she will lie quietly without retreating into her curl when I lift her linen covering. I wash my hands. I remove the stones and place them carefully on the chair at the end of the table. I lift the linen slowly, rolling it back. Oh! She has been lying face down all this time. I pick her up by two edges and turn her over. A round mass of Hebrew and English words fills the center of the clear white field, the unblemished, smooth, soft surface. I look at the spaces around the focus of this dream I will clothe in color, wondering where my hand will move to place David’s and Dana’s love around their promise to each other.

I ask David and Dana for a photo, and am directed to their wedding website. I find the perfect photo, print it out, and place it at the top of the ketubah.

Now I worry – and I am not a worrier by nature, so I know this project is different for me as an artist than any other project has been. How will I protect the area where the writing is? I begin to see possibilities for a design that may require color over the existing lettering. What if it’s been hand-lettered? Will the black ink smudge?

I am not sleeping well. One morning I awake at 3AM, a full four and a half hours before I want to be up, and feel wide awake. I get out of bed, go downstairs, and carefully roll the linen back. I know that now it’s time to be able to see the ketubah easily. I cut a wide piece of glassine from the roll I purchased for this project. I remove the linen tablecloth, which I have come to think of as her coverlet, and I fold it slowly and precisely, and put it aside. I place the glassine over her, a sheer gown through which I can see her beautiful bones, those black symbols within the large circle in the middle of the paper. That day I call the ketubah maker again, and he assures me that the lettering has been printed, and is bonded to the paper. This is a big relief, major. I feel constraint spring back and I can not only breathe, but move with confidence into the next phase.

More days go by, and every day I see more and more details filling in the empty, resonant ketubah field in my imagination. An opalescent blessing flows from the top of the page down into the circle of black letters. Yes, definitely dark blue on the left. But what is on the right? I know I cannot just make it up. I have to allow it to enter my vision and find its place in its own time.

This summer is hot and beautiful, with clear days and nights. There is plenty of time after work to enjoy the evening. I look at the early evening sky and yearn towards the west, missing, as I always do, the incandescent sunset. I used to live in a house with west-facing windows on the banks of the Mohawk River, and every night, whether making dinner or eating it, I did so bathed in the rays of the setting sun, entranced by the aqua, gold, and rose hues, the hot pink, the gold-rimmed clouds. I miss the sunset and vow often that the next time I choose a place to live I will look for a view of the setting sun.

One night, I decide to remedy my longing. I put my Yellow Lab, Rosie, in the car and drive to the park at the edge of the Mohawk, a block from my old house. The sky is still bright. We walk and I remember how good it felt to live in that friendly, village-like historic neighborhood. I remember the night I walked with a dear friend and noticed how the park lights washed the old maples’ leaves in amber, and how sweet that walk was. I miss my friend and that time but am, on the whole, so much happier now that if that time were available to trade, I would say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” As Rosie looks for a safe path down to the water, I see in my mind’s eye my previous dogs, Lorenzo, Florrie, Gabriel, and Rashi, on those banks. I see my little boy riding his dirt bike with his pal along the river park path. It is a very rich evening, and the sun begins to set. I sit and I watch the sky. I wonder why I have never done this before. I could do it every night if I wanted.

The sun sets. Ducks, geese and one Great Blue Heron fly across the glowing sky almost colorless in radiant light. Then I see it: faintly gold-rose rays spread from the horizon towards the high vault against a pale aqua field. Minutes pass and the colors vibrate, becoming saturated. Now I am looking at shimmering, alternating bands of rose-gold and aqua. That is what I went to the park to see. That is the right side of the design.

But now I must wait until I have enough time for the hours I will allot to begin the painting, and for those hours themselves. It will have to be a weekend day, but a day when the weather is such that I won’t be itching to be lying on my favorite rocks in the middle of the Hudson River, soaking up the bright sun. At 67 – well, days away from 68 – I know and accept myself. I know what my priorities are and I don’t pretend they are otherwise. I know I still have eight days before the finished, happily complete ketubah must be in South Carolina.

Now the design is complete, including the glow of mystical silver symbols on the deep blue, indistinct but definitely there.

The next day is bright and sunny, and I give in to the pull of the Hudson River in the foothills of the Adirondacks. My drive takes me past an unmarked spring on the side of the road. My father and mother used to stop the car at the spring every time we drove up to my grandmother’s camp throughout every summer until I was 16, when Nana died and they sold the camp. We would get out of the car and cup our hands under the water that ran from the pipe into a tiny pond. The other end of the pipe rested in a larger pond, still small: about three feet round and only six or so inches deep. We would watch the water bubble up through the rough sand at the bottom. It was and still is every time I visit an exotic, comforting door into the numinous. And the water is delicious and free. I usually fill my plastic water jug to drink it through the day as I sit on the rocks in the Hudson, my favorite place in the world. This day I stop at the spring to fill it so that I will have this water, sacred to me, as the medium I will use for the watercolors I’ll apply to the ketubah.

That night I prepare the table: I extend a leaf on the dining room table so I’ll have lots of room for the paper, some towels, the paints, pens, colored pencils, pastels, and a quart jar for the water. I cover the table with a waterproof table pad and the white sheet I use when I create with pastels outside of my studio. I set the audio recorder on the table.

The next afternoon I receive a small package with a return address in Scotland – the Isle of Gigha, to be exact. It has come from Don Dennis, who grows orchids and creates healing flower essences from his estate near Achamore Gardens. More than a year ago, I reviewed his gorgeous, informative book on the orchid essences and in addition to the book and a stunning poster of beautifully photographed orchids, Kristy, his business associate, told me that in thanks, Don wanted to send me my choice of two of the essences. At the time, I started to intuit the qualities of each of the orchids – it seemed like hundreds. Entering the multi-dimensional field of each orchid was intense and exhilarating – and overwhelming. I never finished examining all the orchids and never got back to Kristy with my choice. In late Spring, Kristy wrote to remind me that Don still wanted to send me two essences. I was impressed and grateful, and decided to use an abbreviated system of choosing – something akin to the “eeny meeny mo” approach: no in-depth searching – just a cursory glance at the description of no more than ten essences I find on the website. And now the package is here.

It's raining, perfect for communication. The flow moves through me and I prepare the palette, squeezing out the colors from yellow to blue, plus white. I pour some of the spring water into the jar.

I pick up first one essence at a time and muscle-test and find that my body wants to work with the essence called “Crown of Consciousness.” This is what Don says about it: “A complete experience of the entire crown chakra. THIS IS A BIG ESSENCE. This essence wishes to welcome you home to the Hall of Records, a space within, where you might find the Living Word of God, the Wisdom of Creation. Surrender to the Beyond that is within and without. Patience. Learn adaptability in approaching the Heart of Mystery, the Light of Consciousness, the Shrine of Shrines.”

I put a few drops into the water jar and a few drops under my tongue. I sit at the table, look at the blank paper, and begin.

Three days later, it is finished. It’s my birthday. I sign the painting, wrap it carefully, and ship it in the same sturdy, triangular box in which it came to me.


August 24, 2012

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