“A woman I knew just drowned herself; the well was deep and muddy.” Joni Mitchell
I recently came to understand and accept that I had yet more work to do. By work I mean emotional clearing, to which I am certainly no stranger and about which I am never delighted. Likewise, I’m never surprised when it comes to call. As I have been paddling, then dwelling in, the deep waters of Unknowing for several months now, and longing for something other than books, music, crosswords, and naps to fill my time (be careful what you wish for), two or three weeks ago a thought suddenly flew into my mind:
“Well, maybe I should just paint.”
My undergrad degree is in Studio Arts from Meredith College, class of 1974, the class that ushered in on the then Baptist campus the era of feminism and equal rights for women. I digress, as usual, but I may as well continue. Our class was, I believe, the most liberal and radical the college had seen to that point (and believe me, it ain’t that way now, even though it’s no longer Baptist). The 1974 Student Government Association, of which I was a member, even brought in Sidney Abbot, a famous lesbian-feminist author, to lecture, though it nearly took an act of the Board of Trustees to permit her to come. (“Dirty lesbians,” I can just hear them saying behind their closed doors.) A potential revolt was averted when the administration eventually agreed to allow her to be there, though the SGA would not be allowed to publicize the lecture beyond the campus. Neither would Ms. Abbott be permitted to speak at one of the required-attendance Monday morning convocation services, which we’d asked for. Oh, no, she’d have to speak at night so that all those students and faculty/staff who didn’t want to hear her would not have to be there.
Sidney Abbot did come to Meredith. There were few, if any, empty seats that evening in Jones Auditorium.
I put away brushes and oils after graduation until 1994, the year I quit my 14-year job in the art and framing industry (quit so as not to give my employer the satisfaction of firing me for not telling him where I went on Thursday after work – to therapy in Chapel Hill). For the first six months after leaving the frame shop I sat around the house with imaginary buckets under each hand to catch fourteen years-worth of toxicity absorbed from the increasingly emotionally unhealthy environment I’d worked in for so long. I was very tired and fragile. The chronic illness I still live with had begun some years earlier from the physical work I was doing there. I had also been treated very cruelly at the end.
Eventually, though, after all the rest and detoxing I became very bored for the first time in my life. One Spring day that year, exactly twenty years after I’d last held a brush (having opted for music as my avocation over painting, even before graduation), I had a thought:
“I wonder if I can still paint?”
I went to the big city for oils and canvases and came home to unearth the six foot easel from the shed to find that, yes, I could still paint. I produced some ten or eleven pieces, which I still enjoy. Later that year, my six year-old nephew saw them and asked, “Amy Lou, don’t you paint anything but food?”
After I’d finished the last “food” painting, I’d put all the accoutrement in storage and went back to writing music, eventually recording at home The Opening of Hand, a retrospective album of my first twenty years of songwriting.
I was surprised when, in the here and now of nineteen years later, no longer playing guitar or writing music, the thought of painting had come to me again. I was even more surprised a week later when a friend and I were talking on the phone and she said, “I’m hearing that you should paint or draw. There’s some emotional releasing you need to do. The painting isn’t about the picture, so don’t try to make it pretty. It’s for releasing stuff you’ve buried from the past that’s still impacting you. It [the releasing] probably won’t be pretty, and you’ll need to do it more than once, but it’s important.”
Thanks a lot! (Ugh)
It took a week and a half to get around to doing anything about it. I finally set aside the time. But what to do? I spent half the day wondering and wandering around the house with the phones turned off, mad and worried. With no longer any sketchpads lying around, and only journals and computer paper on hand, I finally remembered my Commonplace books from 1973-74 with their thick white paper, so went to a bookcase to get them. When I opened the first one I was hit by the tornado of its contents, transported like Dorothy out of my comfort zone and into my senior year in college, the time of the most significant love relationship of my life, one of many before and after that have left me heartbroken. I know I’m mixing books and movies here, but I went straight down the rabbit hole of despair. After reading and reading, I finally began marking up a couple of empty pages with anger, hard and and fast strikes, painstrokes of heartbreak at not being chosen, all the while crying and wailing through the long discharge session. I kept going with it till my head started to hurt, then I simply got up from the chair, washed my face, ate and drank something, then moved to the kitchen, where I’d placed a tabletop easel and my heavy toolbox full of oil paints and drawing inks and tools.
In my 1994 experiment I set up still life subject matter, the infamous “food” (fruits and vegies), thus had something in front of me to work with. Last week, though, I knew that I wanted to do a sort of land/sea-scape, so did what I never have done – painted with nothing in front of me but an empty canvas. As I judge it now, I’d say that the bottom area represents the water and its fear, the middle portion the dry, endless desert, and the upper region the living green and blue that is so life-giving. I knew the work didn’t need to be – nor could it be – terribly realistic, as I needed to abandon myself to it as much as I could, the way I’d done earlier with the Commonplace book.
No longer familiar with how to work paint and which brushes to use, abandonment was, shall I say, a relative thing, and painting was a totally different experience from the previous few intense hours, and just as profitable. Additionally, in contrast this work I found to be enjoyable. It was still work, though, as I had to continually make efforts to get out of the left side of my brain.
I stepped away from the canvas when Ginger came into the kitchen wanting to be fed. When I eventually turned back to the easel I was surprised by immediately seeing things that I’d not known were there (ain’t that just like life?): a man’s face in the bottom third and an orb in the upper third. The face, containing so much pain, especially drew me in. Sunken eyes and cheekbones, part of a mustache . . . He was impossible not to see once I knew his image was there. I didn’t start painting again, knowing that I didn’t want to do anything to the canvas that could mess up the unexpected image. But I didn’t know yet that the painting was finished. Nor did I know what I would come to know about the image.
How fragile we are.
How strong we are.
On Thursday of this week I learned of a friend’s suicide. As could be imagined, this has been very difficult for all of those close to “C”. I was numb for two days, but then that blessed band-aid was wrenched off to be followed by one restless and nearly sleepless night and a difficult morning to follow. As another friend told me, in the case of suicide everyone close to the person thinks it was their fault, but it wasn’t. I’ve come now to my own settled place without regrets or self doubt. It is a place of simple gratitude for the privilege of having been a healing presence in my friend’s life. C was a healer, too, one who deeply struggled all her life with intense anxiety and depression. She also dealt with the pain of social phobia and a resulting inability to make binding relationships and connections, something for which she deeply longed. I would venture to say that in her last few months the anxiety that had ramped up significantly after an attempted attack on her at work became tortuous. C took a leave of absence to avail herself of a multi-dimensional healing approach at a well-established treatment center, hoping to come back home more peaceful. This was not to be the case. An unsuccessful attempt on her life late this summer was followed by the one in late August that allowed her Spirit to leave her body. Before making these attempts C was able to come to a place of love for her mother and to feel her mother’s love coming back to her. She also made gains in appreciating and caring for her stepfather.
Her mother told me that C gave both of them a peace they had not known when she left for them two beautiful letters, letters that illustrated her true shift in understanding and affection. I know the letters reflect the truth because she’d told me about her heart opening to them when we met following her return from the treatment center, the last time I saw her.
My friend’s lifelong emotional fragility – and she’d become increasingly more fragile in recent months – was accompanied by a strength that no human can imagine if they’ve not had to endure relentless emotional pain. One might make the argument that she was out of her mind, thus it took no strength to buy a gun and pull the trigger. I would strongly disagree, for the decision to end the unfathomable suffering she knew far too long and far too intimately required both strength of will and mind. My friend wanted to live, but she wanted to live wholly, which she simply could not find a way to do. But oh, how she tried! I think the strength it took to heal the relationship with her parents is the same strength it took to take her life.
In my senior year in college I came to know what it’s like to stand with enough pills in my hand to leave my body. That was not to be my journey, though, something for which I’ve always been grateful. I made a decision that night to stay and see how it was all going to turn out, hoping that it would be alright in the end, if not before. We all have a certain amount of suffering to bear. I’ve never regretted the decision to remain here, though I’ve certainly wished many times that I could dial back the intensity of what that has been mine to live with. When C’s mother told me last week that she hears her daughter telling her every day that she’s at peace now, and that she wants them to be at peace, too, I believe it. And that gives me peace.
I know that after death there is a place between earth and heaven, a beautiful place that one of my friends has both seen in a dream and was told of in a Divine Visitation. She calls it Grace Land, and it’s the place where we are lovingly, compassionately, beautifully tended to if our death has been sudden, or violent, or dramatic. Perhaps it exists for other sorts of less dramatic deaths as well. That C is there, I have no doubt. That she is glad, happy, and relieved to be there, I know is true. In his song, Graceland, Paul Simon wrote, “I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.”
The watery bottom section of my recent painting shows the image of a man in the deeps, a man in the throes of human death, a man so long tortured that all his body fluids are gone. He is left with sunken eyes and cheeks, his life all but over. Above and to the left of his head are some spiky brush strokes. Two friends have seen the painting; both have said the image looks like that of Jesus during The Passion. Another has told me that she sees angel wings (so do I).
I will say that on the other side of my yet-continuing emotional clearing work, work that I believe represents the death of what has lurked long in the deeps and that is no longer life-giving to me, lies the fulfillment of my promise to stay here and see how it would all turn out.
Though staying here obviously was not C’s promise, she clearly remained as long as she could, and then, when she’d stood it as long as possible, she removed herself from the thorny side of the Veil. I know that all of Heaven is saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
In case you’re wondering, I’ve been putting off the next round of clearing. I’d thought I’d be doing it today, but the weather is just too beautiful for delving so deep on purpose, so I’m writing instead while relishing the wind’s caresses as they flow through my office windows. I’ll soon get back to the work, though, I promise.
“I have reason to believe we both will be received in Graceland.”
© Amy Pierce and In Spiritual Wonder, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Amy Pierce and In Spiritual Wonder with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.