Visual Art as a Tool for Healing (Going Public)

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been living with a chronic illness for 25 years. Stress and complications with bronchitis caused a flare-up in early October. I spent about a week in hospital, and have been convalescing since then — I plan to return to work on a reduced schedule in the next week or so.

Writing has always been a major tool for me in making sense of (and peace with) these episodes. This past year though, in the depth of the illness I’ve found myself relying on right-brain visual self-expression. Words just haven’t seemed sufficient. Entering a pre-verbal space seems to get to the roots of my troubles in a deeper way and to allow healing to happen at a more fundamental level.

My family was highly creative, however we had an unspoken territorial agreement about who practiced what kind of art form. My father and mother were musicians, my brother was the visual artist, and I was the writer. While I had some early training in the visual arts, I chose to focus on writing partly out of respect for my brother’s “domain” and partly because writing was something that came very naturally to me. Visual art has continued to play a part in my life, though. I’ve kept this work private for the most part. But I think it’s time to send some of it out into the world.

I’ll be posting some of the images and artwork I’ve been creating since early October. Some readers may be more interested in the written word — and the name of the site certainly implies that that’s my primary focus. I like to think of creativity as being all of a piece, though.

Cranky List / Gratitude List

Things that make me cranky:

  • waking up feeling worse than when I went to bed
  • trading one set of medication side effects for another
  • feeling my body getting heavier and older
  • expecting to be able to exercise the way I used to when I was 25 and at the peak of training
  • days when the only thing I seem fit to do is putter around the house and take in a matinee
  • Boston’s schizophrenic spring weather
  • focusing on my own needs and the ways they’re not being met
  • getting away from support systems that help me feel connected
  • pollyanna-ish spiritual literature that tells me to just focus on the positive! and everything will be fine!
  • focusing on the things that make me cranky, especially when they’re things I can’t control

Things that make me happy:

  • posting cranky status updates on Facebook (and the one or two people who say they can identify)
  • comparing the treatments available today to what people used to endure 50-60 years ago
  • considering advances in genetic research that may make it easier for doctors to pinpoint which kinds of medication will be most effective for individuals with my illness
  • friends and mentors who can say the sorts of things that snap me out of negative thinking and help me focus on what will work
  • reconnecting with support systems that remind me I am part of beloved community
  • focusing on how I can be of service instead of on what I can get — or what I think I SHOULD be getting
  • remembering that work is a wonderful opportunity to be of service
  • making moderate progress while conserving energy — sometimes this is better than exhausting myself by FIXING ALL THE THINGS
  • identifying small, achievable tasks toward a larger goal — and checking them off a task list
  • putting stickers next to completed items on my task lists
  • remembering that all things pass — even the line in the Post Office on a Saturday afternoon
  • moderate exercise
  • intense exercise (in moderation)
  • dancing at weddings
  • professional massages
  • hot tubs and steam rooms
  • inexpensive (and free) self-care, like a spa day at home
  • vanilla-scented bubble bath
  • taking myself on an artist date
  • reading 101 artist date ideas
  • the unwinding feeling that comes with relaxation — in all kinds of ways, expected and unexpected. Sometimes in meditation, sometimes when I’m laying in a big bed all by myself, sometimes when I’m in a field of grass in warm weather, sometimes when I’m sitting with a cup of tea and looking at the trees as the sky fades from blue to darker blue.
  • the first time in 2014 that I smell rain on unfrozen soil

Sappho’s Gymnasium, Okelle’s Home Office

Walked toward the garden
I had work to show it
then I understood the garden was destroying it
and that I should rest and not water the
shoots but wait until dark to
uncover them

— from Sappho’s Gymnasium (p. 96), poems by Olga Broumas & T Begley. Copper Canyon Press. Port Townsend, Washington. 1994.

The enemy of the writer is not the editor’s rejection letter or the snooty review, nor even the inner critic. The enemy of the writer is the unwashed dishes, the piles of objects waiting to be placed into some kind of other, the unbalanced checkbook, the mismatched socks.

I made a list and checked off most of the things on it. Wrote my morning pages, but the last thing on the list (revise one poem) remains undone. My sacrum is tight and my body aches for action, any sort of action.

I’m writing this post out of desperation and also mulishness. I may not write anything great today — I may not write anything at all, except that I already have.

M and I spoke this weekend and this morning about the narrative that plays in my head over and over again. It goes a little something like this: I have not succeeded as a writer because of thing X, thing Y, thing Z, over which I have no control. I have not succeeded as a writer because I am not worthy. But all these hacks are getting published and winning prizes and selling books and why aren’t I? Because society. Because sexism. Because it’s raining.

The hardest thing in the world is just to sit down and write sometimes. To do the thing one wants to do when so many other much less risky things are clamoring for attention.

The roots don’t need to be watered. They need to be uncovered in darkness. One must learn how to trick the mind into thinking one is stealing time away from something else. Because that is often when the best writing comes.

Tomorrow I go back to work after a week of staycation and a weekend at a wedding in Western Mass. I’m sure this has nothing to do with why I feel this horrid urgency, this sense of being a sham, this sense of failure.

One is also not likely to succeed when one keeps making success a moving target.

Yin Work (From Treehouse Chronicles)

“If someone climbs quietly up to the treehouse and peeks at me through the window while I’m working, they may think I’m merely taking a nap. This is a part of the work of solitude, part of being with me. Thinking, considering, observing, pondering–these are the tools of my trade and occasionally they have to be wielded lying down with my cap pulled over my eyes.”
— Peter Lewis, Treehouse Chronicles: One Man’s Dream of a Life Aloft. See the treehouse

The Work, the Meaningful Work

I haven’t been writing as much poetry. In January, I had a flood of it. And then, gone.

The work, the meaningful work. When I am not writing, I worry. It feels as though a part of me is missing. I know that the idea of the muse–well, it’s true. The muse is there. Especially with poetry. With other kinds of writing, other kinds of writing, you can force yourself, you can sit yourself down in small increments, sweat it out, give yourself small rewards for small steps forward.

But poetry isn’t like that for me. It comes or it doesn’t.

There is more, of course, to the meaningful work than simply the generative act. There is the revision. The compilation. The submission. Hah. Submission is not something I am good at. But it must be done. Dancing Girl Press is taking submissions through the summer. I should submit. To some women in Chicago whom I’ve never met, but whose work I admire.

I am afraid of being told no, of course.

I’d rather wallow in my fantasies of the perfect collection of my work than do the real work, the meaningful work, of tightening it, revising it.

Writing is hard work. And not rewarded as lavishly as some other kinds of work.

But you don’t write for the rewards. Or, rather, I can’t. I write because there is a thing inside of me that needs to get free. I write because the gift goes sour if I don’t pass it on.