Today is Memorial Day — a holiday initiated in the 1860’s to honor those who died in the Civil War and, since then, honors all soldiers who gave their life in combat. However, over time, this holiday has come to be more about the joys of a three-day weekend, outdoor BBQ’s and summer starting soon. I, myself, had my fill of BBQ yesterday while volunteering at the Muir Beach Volunteer Fire Department annual fundraiser – a great spirited community event and part of what I love about living in a small town.

But today is not about BBQ for me. Today, I will drive to the East Bay to meet with my students at JFK University to watch two documentaries, each about an artist honoring death and change. The first is KayLynn TwoTrees Trail of Hope: The Building of a Ceremonial Earthwork produced by Jean Donohue. It documents the creation of a large spiral carved into the earth in the Ohio River Valley that honors, with ritual and intention, the various people’s of that landscape – those present and those past (including the Native Americans killed in the Trail of Tears).

The second DVD is Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision directed by Freida Lee Mock. The bulk of this film is dedicated to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The first time I saw this film, I was just stunned by how young Maya Lin was – a 21 year old student – when her proposal won the jury’s vote. She had to fight to keep her vision from being distorted by politics. In the end, she created one of the most powerful memorials I have ever experienced. As she describes so eloquently in the film, she designed the memorial as a cut in the earth, so that you walk down into a subterranean space to find the name of the loved one who died – you can reach out and touch that name, trace it with your fingers, feeling the intensity of that loss as a cathartic moment. Then you walk back up into the light, into the world of the living.

In watching both of these DVD’s I was struck by how important it is to create space, both physical and temporal, to confront and honor death and loss. Memorial Day, despite its festive atmosphere in our country, is an opportunity to do just that. Both KayLynn TwoTrees and Maya Lin remind me how art can provide that invitation to deepen by shapeshifting the pain of the past into something that heals and transforms the present and future.