Spinning Chaos Into Art

I began writing my first full-length book in the early days of 2011, not knowing how I would tell the story I’d been asked to tell or even what the details of the whole story were. I just knew I needed to explore the pieces that a relatively new friend had shared with me and dig in, seeking more. In that choice to pursue those fragments of Lucy’s story that had caught my interest, I’d begun listening to a part of me that I had managed to silence for many years. But I hadn’t begun to understand where that process would take me.

Purveyors of Light and Shadow: Two Artists Search for Meaning is due out in early 2022, eleven years after I agreed to write it. When I began, I had no idea that my own struggle to find my creative voice and the consequences of that struggle would feature in the narrative at all, let alone play the role in the story that they have. I knew only that I wanted the book to be a testament to me finally locating that voice, listening to it, and giving it space.

I’d been asked to tell the story of a painter who had managed to build and live an artist’s life and had survived some very dark episodes, both before and after she had actively set out on a creative path. As I saw it, the act of telling that story would initiate the opening of my own life to the art I was being called to pursue. It was no accident that I was attracted to the idea of someone in her mid-forties abandoning a long-established career to become a painter. Her resilience and her ability to recover from successive traumas fascinated me. I was over 50 and considered myself established enough to say I was in the middle of my teaching career. Feeling increasingly unsettled on the path I’d chosen, too afraid of those feelings to acknowledge or listen to my own callings and questions, I recognized her courage. I wanted to understand it. I wanted to embrace it.

Those elements of her story initially captured my imagination and would eventually light my way forward through my own devastating health crisis, making it possible for me to find the strength—and respond to the necessity—to change directions. During the year in which I struggled to recover from a vocal injury that left me unable to speak, I had no way of anticipating the transformation that was coming. I didn’t even know if I’d ever regain my voice, let alone teach again. The fact that Lucy and I both understood when we began this project that telling her story could help others find their art helped me sustain myself through the monumental leap of faith that was necessary for me to begin that process. So that’s where I started, and astonishingly, more than a decade later, this is where I ended up.

In the passage that follows, I find myself struggling, pushed by the persistence of my illness and Lucy’s coaxing toward an emerging awareness. Those forces notwithstanding, I no idea just how lost I was.

Chapter 10: Silence

April 2011

My conversations with Lucy had so far allowed me to imagine something different, but that vision didn’t include a feasible way of getting there. Will and I agreed on a tentative plan: over the spring and summer I would actively work in time for writing, if only in small amounts, and make it a priority to limit or curtail administrative and teaching work for as much of the summer as I possibly could. By September we hoped to have gained a slightly better financial footing, which would allow me to take steps to leave my job. Until then, all my energy would go to finding that elusive balance Lucy and I had talked about and learning how to maintain it, despite the steady build of demands from my students and dean. I had no hope of continuing like this unless I changed my relationship with those demands. I was beginning to understand that if I didn’t succeed, something much more drastic would have to happen.

I had our project to think about and a growing impatience to escape and immerse myself in it. The more I struggled with my voice, the more I felt the pull of the work that really mattered to me, the idea that I might be able to clear a path to get there. This inspiration might have felt like empowerment—Lucy called it that—but the struggle to teach, advise, and participate in two simultaneous search committees, among myriad other duties and projects—all without a voice—quickly became anything but empowering. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so overwhelmed by the baldly obvious, I’d have seen more clearly the irony in these strange circumstances, the bearing out of this moment of transition from one sense of voice to another.

In my nightly messages to Lucy, I wrote of the fear of losing that inspiration in the meantime, but the promises she made served as a framework in which to believe, as if believing that the creative fire wouldn’t die served as my singular means of survival. I was in a transitional time, she said. I wasn’t alone, she assured. It would be a process of discovery in which we would sustain each other. I had to let old patterns die. Though I softened to it somewhat, I never quite embraced Lucy’s belief in a benevolent Universe providing me with encouragement, if only I could recognize the signs. At the same time, I knew there was an important message in her observations about the agonizing process I was going through:

“…it goes against our survival instincts to let a part of ourselves die. We’re built to fight that. So, sometimes the very acts we need to take to grow, change, and become our higher selves go against our innate natures. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to do what you’re doing.”

I admired her tenacity, her ability to get herself through the scariest uncertainties and find her way to an artful life, so I positioned myself, at least, to believe and to try to hold that idea—supported by some grand invisible advocate or not—in a safe place. Lucy knew what her resources were and seemed to understand them. Might I be ready, finally, to learn how to gauge and nurture my own?

As I continued to languish, I felt part of myself yielding to a deep imperative that I could name but not yet act upon, while other parts stubbornly held to the familiar path, the world to which I’d given so much of myself already. I knew this compromise had cost me the ability to speak and to swallow without effort and pain. I fought the chokehold of anxiety and depression, despite the early signs of spring. Red willow shoots rising through a late spring snow, the birth of a second granddaughter, and a new job for Will stirred some hope, but my deteriorating strength and relentless pain held out, even through a brief round of prednisone. I needed help, a competent specialist of some kind. While I set about searching, Lucy shifted to a tone of concern, gently but unambiguously pressing me to consider the possibility that I might not be able to continue teaching. I might need to make my peace with having no other option.

I took a day off to make the three-hour journey to New York City to see an acupuncturist whom I’d never met before, a friend of a friend, an unlikely expert in treating vocal injuries. Though his practice was closed to new patients, he agreed to see me as a favor to the worried friend who connected us.

In early April the City was already in mid-riot of the daffodils and tulips that hadn’t yet made their splash in New England, where so far only a few of the boldest buds graced the most sheltered and sunny spots. Located within the radius of high commotion around the U.N. building, the office was surprisingly tranquil inside. Thick, darkly painted walls and the sound of water streaming toward some welcoming ocean shut out the din as if it had never existed in the first place.

Our session began with Dr. Ronah examining my pulses.

“You’re grieving,” he said. Not the first words I expected to hear. “Your core has died.”

He explained that the adrenals and kidneys, which are the source of the body’s energy in traditional Chinese medicine, were so depleted that they had become essentially nonexistent. My Qi had gone completely cold.

“There’s no life inside,” he said. “Your light is out.”

Dr. Ronah went on to say that in this state my body couldn’t heal. It couldn’t even process nutrients, and if I were to have surgery on my vocal cords, which he thought would likely be recommended, the results would be disastrous. Given my condition, he said, vocal cord surgery, which is very often successful, would be doomed to fail, and I would probably lose my ability to speak permanently.

He recommended intensive Chinese herbal therapy for three months, focusing on my immune system and trying to get my strength back with regular acupuncture treatments to revitalize my core. This required a commitment to making the three-hour trip each way every week for four weeks. Then we would reassess and make a longer-term plan. He also insisted upon complete rest for a minimum of three months. I wasn’t even sure what “complete rest” looked like. And there was one problem: the end of the semester was still four weeks away.

Having endured so many tubes and painful probes forced down my throat over the preceding weeks, the needles Dr. Ronah put into my distressed neck and throat muscles, delicate as they were, didn’t seem intolerable, even with slightly uncomfortable electro-stim pulsing away. When he turned the lights off and prepared to leave me there with the needles in place, he instructed me to visualize a warm golden light shining on my throat.

The man to whom I suddenly felt connected in an unearthly way half side-stepped, half backed out. Light from the hallway slivered and vanished into the dusk of the room as the door closed. Once I was alone in the dark, the only image that came to mind was the photo of Hector that Lucy had sent a couple of days before. The dog was sitting on the floor of her studio bathed in the early morning sun that made his white coat glow gold and orange pink. He wore that familiar squinty expression of fondness. In that moment, the smiling Spirit Dog reflected the golden sun’s light—and maybe, through him, some of its healing—back on me. I envisioned sharing that light with him. Intense flashbacks from my childhood passed through my consciousness in what I can only describe as a dying moment, in which I finally understood that my inner light, my core, was gone. I lay there on the table, barely more than a body, but enough of me was still alive enough to cry from a deep dark center and understand what that moment meant.

Reluctantly, I would come to understand that I’d have to find a deeper level of trust, learn to embrace silence as a living, breathing thing. I’d have to examine its dimensions and potential, become intimate with its character, and perhaps, then, neutralize its claim on my courage. If I could just find a comfortable space alongside it, I might have a better vantage point from which to view my own potential, release myself from the unforgiving voices in my head. That constant stream of anxiety about how Will and I would survive without my income. I’d have to turn someone else’s words into agency, stop talking about it and let go of the idea that my survival depended on that built-in sense of purpose that came with the job I’d spent twenty-five years mastering. I’d have to stop wondering whether or not I had it in me to stop questioning my capacity to make art that could speak for me or validate my choices. Art that could be bold in ways I hadn’t yet learned how to be, art through which I could conjure a voice I hadn’t heard before. The only way was to leap across a galaxy of uncertainties, find some vestige of trust, and strive with whatever I had left to make meaning out of so many grand contradictions, real or imagined failures, persistent regrets.

I wanted to believe that somewhere in the process of giving life and breath to Lucy’s story, I’d find those other parts of myself I’d lost, dismissed, or never known I had. I was slowly and against my own dark doubts coming to see that like light refracting through a prism, the colors and energy I’d bring to her story originated somewhere, in some other form, in the primacy of my own lived life.

Was it a hallucination or a faint, unsteady patch of light emanating from somewhere within? Real or not, that light I imagined carried the potential to illuminate questions about the part my unlived life might play in this process. I hoped it would help me uncover the answers as I set out to understand the choices and compromises Lucy had made and how she’d managed to reconcile with them.

Excerpted from Purveyors of Light and Shadow: Two Artists Search for Meaning

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