“Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy, where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky, but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”

— Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

I’m having work done on my house, and a patina of drywall dust coats everything. There are holes in my ceiling where overhead fans once were. After a run of hot, humid days, mold has appeared on my carpet. The lawn needs mowing again.

I tip my head back and squint at the screen as I write, trying to bring words into focus (I’m waiting for new glasses; I hope they help). I use only the two middle fingers of my right hand to type, saving my arthritic pinkie and index finger from the pain. As I sit, I notice numbness lingering in my upper left thigh from an injury.

As challenges, I know my aging body and work-in-progress home are small—I see that when I lift my head and look around.

A friend texted me last night. “Peter I’m settled in. I’m so exhausted.” Tossed out of another apartment with all she owns in two duffle bags, she’d made it to a Motel 6. On Monday, she’s due to check-in to rehab—again.

The biopsy came back positive and now someone I love has a follow-up appointment in two weeks. It’s too soon to know what comes next.

Another person I care about, Shabana Basij-Rasikh, founder of the first and only all-girls boarding school in Afghanistan, was trapped with her students in Kabul as the Taliban took over. Though they made it safely out of the country, their future is uncertain.

Today is September 11. I don’t personally know anyone who perished twenty years ago, but I am close to people who do. For them, this day is heavy—it always is.

The world is full of setbacks and decline, waste and loss.

And yet we persist.

At the end of Young Men and Fire, Maclean writes of his wife’s “brave and lonely way to death.” Unbeknownst to the reader, it’s the death haunting the entire book, a death he needs to make sense of.

In the book, Maclean imagines the last living moments of the young men of the title—firejumpers facing the deadly Mann Gulch fire in Montana. Like a forensic investigator, he considers how their bodies fell, where they were on the mountainside, their distance from the crest as they vainly ran from advancing flames.

He marvels: they never had a chance, and they never gave up. To their very last breath, they never gave up.

Like his wife. Like my friends above. Like me. Like all of us.

We never give up, because that is what life requires of us. We persist to live—persistence is living.

And that makes it beautiful.


Nora Howell

This month’s Cameo features At the End of My Rope by Nora Howell, a fiber and performance-based artist and program director at Jubilee Arts in Baltimore.  

It came to her in a flash.

“Usually my ideas are vague, but not this one: tie knots and unravel them and tie them again. I just thought, ‘Let’s do it!’”

The result—At the End of My Rope—perfectly embodies her (and many of our) grim psychological journeys through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Working at a community art center and with young children at home, Nora had already experienced a year of hard choices and challenging pandemic days. Then came the vaccine, and for a while, everything seemed better.

Until it no longer did.

With the rise of the Delta variant, Nora’s sense of optimism from early summer faded.

“The need for vaccinated people to wear masks indoors again felt so heavy,” says Nora. “I didn’t want to feel that weight again—I had let go of so much of that weight over the summer, and now it was back.”

Making At the End of My Rope was a way for Nora to reckon with her distress at the virus’ persistence.

“I needed to do something about my anxiety—to take it out of my body.”

So she converted it into a rope full of knots.

Her 11-minute time-lapse video begins simply enough: Nora’s hands outstretched on a table, fingers nervously tapping once or twice, then one of her hands reaching out for a strand of rope. She begins tying knots. The knotting continues, the tangled rope lump in front of her growing. She carries on, pausing occasionally for more finger tapping. As she progresses, the braided rope becomes increasingly thick, the act of knotting more demanding. She rests. She hesitates. She’s exhausted, the tangled bundle on the table getting larger and larger—a metaphor of growing Covid-19 angst over months and months.

More brief pausing (as if summoning the energy to continue), then more knotting.

And so it continues until she has made 428 knots with the ever-thickening rope strands, each knot symbolizing one of 428 days between Baltimore City’s initial lockdown and the artist becoming fully vaccinated this past spring.

Pause. On the table, a snarled hulk of rope, like a massive tumor of dread.

Then, she begins unraveling the knots—86 of them, like one long exhale, each untying emblematic of a day between Nora’s vaccinated status and Baltimore City reinstituting the mask mandate. The collection of knots shrink, along with our anxiety.

Until it no longer does.

Nora pauses, then resumes her knot-making. Before the video ends, she makes 18 new ones—the number of days between the city reintroducing the mask mandate and Nora creating her video.

Deceptively simple, At the End of My Rope is a tale of unfolding existential dread—her own and ours.

Making the piece proved therapeutic.

“You can’t control if you get anxious, but you can control what you do with it,” she says. “Knotting is a physical way of naming my anxiety—naming it changes where it sits in my brain.”

“And knotting is so repetitive,” she adds. “It’s meditative—even soothing. It’s like a fidget tool: it helps me calm down.”

Active on social media, Nora began sharing about the piece.

“With this piece—sharing my own anxiety—people could recognize their own. They knew they were not the only ones on this rollercoaster ride of feelings. I did the piece for personal reasons, but I’ve had feedback from people that’s so meaningful. It’s helped me connect with people, which is what I’m really interested in.”

Connect with people—and help them (and herself) through confounding days.

Moving On

I realized recently my work has become more joyous; how very different from not so long ago.

Making art can work like journaling for me—a way to express my moods, feelings, and convictions: I draw and paint (and write) how I feel.

And so with this drawing made not quite five years ago: blues, greens, and blacks draped in bended form (a stand in for myself), “I wear my melancholy like a shirt” written in the lower right-hand corner. Like an old diary entry or photo album page, it transports me back to another time.

I look at it and think: “How far I have travelled.”

I have changed. I change.

Reflecting on my art helps me see that—what I notice, what I feel more or less affinity to or distance from. My art allows me to see myself better. To perceive not the world changing, but myself.

To know (really know) how (with persistence) I move from melancholy to joy.


September 2021

Speaking of Grace II on 9/26

The second of two online events in conjunction with the exhibition GraceSpeaking of Grace II takes place Sunday, September 26, 7pm ET. Register here for this free event featuring Peter in conversation with artists Hermine Ford and circe dunnell and playwright Alonzo LaMont.

This Can Be Yours

With each newsletter, we are now offering a work of art by Peter. This 8.5″x11″ drawing from Beyond Beautiful: 1,000 Love Letters, ordinarily priced at $100, can be yours for just $15 if you are the first to email Peter to claim it (see a large version of the drawing here). If you want to see more art for sale, visit the sales gallery at the Bruun Studios website.