The other day, I was writing out some exercise instructions for a patient. We had already practiced them together, so all I had to do was describe what we had just done so she could remember them well enough to do them on her own. I’m pretty good at describing things, even exercises, but there are times when a picture is, as they say, worth a thousand words. So, as is the wont of physical therapists everywhere, I resorted to drawing a few stick figures to illustrate what she was supposed to do. I made a joke about my stick-figure art, and my patient responded with a wry remark that I must have gone to RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design) as well as PT school. “I did,” I said back. We smiled at each other. “Really?” she said. “Really. I actually did go to RISD. Although I missed the class in stick figures.” We both laughed, and she said the last thing she expected me to say was that I really had gone to art school. “Was that a requirement for PT?” We both laughed again. “Well, no,” I said, “but it was a requirement for my sanity.”
Sometimes I draw. Sometimes I write stories. Sometimes I sing and even rewrite the lyrics to popular songs. Sometimes I take photos. And sometimes I make short animations. But there is always an outlet for my creativity tucked somewhere in my life. There has to be, or I would go nuts. I’ve always needed creativity. It’s a part of me as much as breathing is. I started drawing with a passion before I could read and write. When I learned how to read and write, I started writing poems. Several years ago, when I finished graduate school for PT and I could finally afford to buy all the art supplies I wanted, I started getting serious about photography. I joined art associations and entered juried art shows. I started to get my work accepted into virtually every juried show I entered. I won art awards. I started a website for some of my art. I got really good at matting and framing and printing my own work. I had a few shows of my own. I got invited to show at galleries and join international art sites. I sold my art. It was all hugely gratifying. I had gone from making art to making Art.
Then came breast cancer. And cancer treatment. And cancer-related fatigue. And treatment-related brain fog. The first six months or so after treatment, I managed to churn out one piece of Art and got it accepted into three juried photography shows. Then I crashed. The fatigue just beat me up mercilessly, and it took me a while to find out what it was and how to deal with it. I had pain every day in my right shoulder and chest, and cording from my elbow to my ribs. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t lift things the way I used to. I had scarring on my right lung and a bad case of asthma. I had to cut way back on my work hours. I had to take drugs to get through a day without falling asleep by noon. When I got home from work, I stumbled into bed. I didn’t have the energy to go out and shoot photos, much less develop and print them, or frame them, or drag them to juried art shows. And I didn’t have the money either. I had to focus on how to crawl from one day to the next and how to pay my bills with less money. It was hell. My house was a wreck, my bank account was meager, but at least I had a job and a roof over my head. And negative mammograms.
I had hopes for post-treatment Year Two, which was last year. One of them was to get back to making Art. I didn’t. I clawed my way back to adding a few more hours at work, but I couldn’t work full-time anymore. I adjusted my budget. I could afford to make art, but not Art. Making art was something I had to do, but making Art was too expensive and took too much energy. I wasn’t happy about that, but I tried to be patient with myself, learn to understand what this whole fatigue thing was all about, take care of myself as best I could, and try to count my blessings. Occasionally, I wondered if I even cared about making Art anymore, or if I had even lost the ability to see that way anymore. Making Art is something that requires me to step outside of myself, entered a kind of altered consciousness, and observe the world in a heightened sort of way. It’s difficult to step outside of yourself when you can’t even step out of your own way. I still went out with my camera, but I wasn’t thinking about Art. I was just trying to enjoy a few moments when I was vertical instead of horizontal.
By the fall, I felt like I was starting to crawl out of the ditch. I ignored Pink Month as much as I could, and instead, spent a lot of time outside enjoying Autumn in New England. I spent some quality time with friends. I did a little day traveling with my camera. And the more I looked through the viewfinder, the more I found my way back to myself, until I could step outside of myself again. And I started taking photos that weren’t just art, but Art. Meanwhile, right after Christmas, my computer died. I had to replace it and reload all my art software and printer drivers. Adobe finally had what they consider a “sale” on an upgrade of my software, so I said, what the heck? I had just refinanced my mortgage and saved some money. So I bought it. I finally found the right adaptor cord to get my art printer to work with my new computer and plugged it in. I printed some big, juicy Art. I got an email from a local art association asking me to participate in an invitational show in June. I took apart a previous framed piece, removed the photo, and put in one of my new photos. I hauled it to a members show at another art association. And it won an award, an Honorable Mention. I just found that out this morning.
Today is the occasion of the largest full moon in twenty years. And tomorrow is the first day of Spring. The cosmos appears to be auspiciously aligned for rebirth. And I think that maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to get my life back.
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