There is an incredibly talented artist that I love, and who loves me. I am proud to call Jar my friend. They post their work on Instagram here: @artbyjar. In every flash special they post, there’s always at least one piece that catches my eye, but never anything that has spoken to me. Until now. So this little beauty comes up on my screen and I zero in on the whale. Whale! A humpback whale! needneedneed send the DM get your spot. DONE. I look up from my text to see directly above the whale is a bee. a bumble bee. ughneedNEED. Here’s why:
Songs of the Humpback Whale, on vinyl released in 1970, was the first record I was given as a child, I was maybe six or seven. It opened like a double album, had a book inside that talked about the people who recorded it (Roger Payne, after research by Frank Watlington in 1966) and highlighted the problems with the whaling industry. There was a graphic photo of a dockside with the aftermath of a slaughtered whale. There were also five pieces of the most incredible abstract music I had ever heard in my (admittedly short) life. I have since listened to that album countless times, no bullshit new age music muddling the perfect pitch of whalesong, no dumb “inspirational” assholes spewing useless tripe. Pure, mournful, insistent. Funny, at times. Comforting. Reliable.
Over the years, I replaced the album with a CD, then digital download. I still have the album, probably warped from the heat in the attic but still.
1988. I was working at Waldenbooks in the Galleria. We sold movies on VHS and played them on continuous loop on the two overhead monitors above the cash wrap to entice customers. My friend Stef and I had the movies memorized and would run lines along with the videos. National Lampoon’s European Vacation. Dirty Dancing. And Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Featuring the whalesong discovered in 1967 and recorded by, you got it, Roger Payne.
(somewhere between 2007 and 2014) One day after Gary and I had been at couples’ therapy with a woefully underskilled and underwhelming therapist named Gil, we sat in the car, I’m imagining warming up the interior. I’d just gotten the aforementioned CD in the mail, and wanted to share it. I explained why it was so important to me; Gary, impatient, gestured “all right, already.” I hit play.
I closed my eyes, feeling the familiar cries wash over me, smiling as they filled the cabin. Shortly, I heard an intake of breath, and opened them. Gary was wide-eyed, tears spilling down his cheeks. “Stop it. Please. Make it stop.” his voice breaking. I stopped it immediately, grasping his hands, terrified. “Tell me,” I pleaded. “What’s going on?”
He took time to catch his breath, dry his tears, drink some water. Took another breath, let it out. “It’s absolutely excruciatingly obvious that these are incredibly intelligent creatures, communicating with each other. It is abundantly clear that we have no way of communicating with them. We can’t understand them; they can’t understand us.” The enormity of the parallel intelligence of these beings with no Rosetta Stone was too much to bear for him, that the only thing possible was to appreciate the song for what it was: abstract expression. As we would discover, that was something possibly impossible for him to do.
I never again played that album where he could hear it. I’ve played it a lot in the past twenty-two months. Mojo goes on high alert. I wonder how whalesong translates to him.
Bumble Bee. My nickname for Gary, one of. The Bumbliest Bee. The Mister. Mr. Grumblebee. I was glitterbug to him, his Glitter Girl. He used to mimic John Belushi in the Blue Brothers “King Bee” bit. He could be soft, and fuzzy, and sociable, and helpful, and he also had a very painful sting. It made perfect sense that the only medicine that helped for his allergies was honey, lots of local honey. He was my Bumble Bee for years. Forever.
So I see this juxtaposition, and I dive in. Book the appointment. Right around the 22-month mark. I woke this morning of the appointment after not managing my expectations the night before and am still feeling the sadness of it, even though I know what happened and why. Knowing how to not have that particular scenario play out again, while not scolding myself for allowing it to happen in the first place. The weight of summer is upon me in full: soggy, homicidal, blanketing, dysphoria and depression cycling out of control. My good friend John reached out, early this morning, asking how I was. I was honest. “I can’t get out of bed. I don’t want to.” He was gentle with me, as he always is, asking if I was off work today, what I had planned (not if I had plans. Important distinction), being empathetic as I wound through feeling frozen, not wanting to leave. Listing all the things I still haven’t done. John asked, “Do you feel like leaving means he’s really gone”, to which I replied, “I know he’s really gone. Yes. I won’t be able to look around and see him here, hear his voice here.”
Unprompted, he budgeted my time for me. Told me what to do; gave me guidance. I explained the meaning behind the whale and bee. That I need the physical pain that will come with this new tattoo, this catharsis. Even as I dawdled, started the shower and returned to my bed, John pressed, gently nudging me to get ready. That yes, you need this. I showered, dressed, drove. Started listening to The Ethical Slut on my way. Liking it a lot.
The pain is sharp, and necessary. For the first time ever it doesn’t take my breath away; no, it rides alongside the pain inside, keeping it company, letting it dissolve. Allowing it to be free, to let go. As we talk, as she works, as we work on ideas we’ve shared, plans for a future in which strong women help each other grow. In which good men are welcomed and embraced. This future that I am embracing whole-body, whole mind, whole heart.
I get to Jar’s, walking a few blocks in the 90° heat. It feels like a steam room, the entire Bronx is one big sauna. We can’t even embrace for a hello it’s so hot. Upstairs, their AC on full, greeting friends, settling in, discussing the artwork. Telling them the story I just told you. Feeling the weight and weightlessness at once, knowing that this is perfect. We settle in to our positions, discussing the next piece, and the next. They begin.
I take a few pictures of my new ink, send them to friends of all flavors. Obviously I do this for validation (miss me with your armchair therapist observational diagnosis of codependence, savvy?) and not because I want to share my happiness. OBVS.🙄🙄
I’ve been obsessed with this piece, as I see it as one piece, not two. Whale + Bee, that’s how I have it in my calendar. I’m running through names, permutations for a website, something easy, something memorable. It isn’t gelling. The Whale and The Bee. Nope. Nuh-uh. And then, a question from someone I’ve been spending time with recently. He asks, “Is that like a blessing: Be Well (bee + whale)?”
I didn’t think about the visual pun. That never happens. I don’t know how that happened. I relayed that to him. Then I said, “The whale and the bee are much more personal images with very specific meaning. Be well. It’s fucking brilliant.” The more I sit with this revelation, the happier I become. I promise everyone who asks for context (because I’m not the type to get inked for no reason) that I’m writing a blog post about the meaning. TL:dr “Be well.” It’s something I say to people instead of the ubiquitous “take care” (ugh), or “be good” (vom). Be well.
Be well. I keep saying it. Be well. It hits me again; my current favorite ceramic glaze (well, the past three years, my entire high-fire career anyhow) is a beautifully imperfect thing, a Bruce Dehnert recipe called BwhaleD. Be well.
Here ends the first part of this tale.
Stay tuned. And be well.
Whales Weep Not!
They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.D. H. Lawrence
All the whales in the wider deeps, hot are they, as they urge
on and on, and dive beneath the icebergs.
The right whales, the sperm-whales, the hammer-heads, the killers
there they blow, there they blow, hot wild white breath out of the sea!
And they rock, and they rock, through the sensual ageless ages
on the depths of the seven seas,
and through the salt they reel with drunk delight
and in the tropics tremble they with love
and roll with massive, strong desire, like gods.
Then the great bull lies up against his bride
in the blue deep of the sea
as mountain pressing on mountain, in the zest of life:
and out of the inward roaring of the inner red ocean of whale blood
the long tip reaches strong, intense, like the maelstrom-tip, and comes to rest
in the clasp and the soft, wild clutch of a she-whale’s fathomless body.
And over the bridge of the whale’s strong phallus, linking the wonder of whales
the burning archangels under the sea keep passing, back and forth,
keep passing archangels of bliss
from him to her, from her to him, great Cherubim
that wait on whales in mid-ocean, suspended in the waves of the sea
great heaven of whales in the waters, old hierarchies.
And enormous mother whales lie dreaming suckling their whale-tender young
and dreaming with strange whale eyes wide open in the waters of the beginning and the end.
And bull-whales gather their women and whale-calves in a ring
when danger threatens, on the surface of the ceaseless flood
and range themselves like great fierce Seraphim facing the threat
encircling their huddled monsters of love.
and all this happiness in the sea, in the salt
where God is also love, but without words:
and Aphrodite is the wife of whales
most happy, happy she!
and Venus among the fishes skips and is a she-dolphin
she is the gay, delighted porpoise sporting with love and the sea
she is the female tunny-fish, round and happy among the males
and dense with happy blood, dark rainbow bliss in the sea.