Update: Five Things

Small figure walking in a desolate landscape
  • My father-in-law is dying of cancer. He is dying at home with round-the-clock care, surrounded by his extended family. My father died in a public men’s room of an overdose. The contrast in details is pretty stark, but the feelings are much the same. And in the end, they’ll both pass through that gateway alone. Grief doesn’t live in a line, but a labyrinth. I’m surprised every time I turn a corner to find it there.
  • I have a pile of review copies in my office. Interviews with a couple of poets are in process, but none are ready for publication yet.
  • I’ve completed applications to three low-residency MFA programs. Yes, Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen didn’t need MFAs to become successful writers. But I’m not living in the 19th century. Who knows what will happen during or after my course of study? It still seems important to try.
  • I’ve spent three days out of the past two weeks in bed. Having an “invisible” chronic illness is especially frustrating at times like these. Yes, it’s exacerbated by stress, but it’s not exactly like I can keep my life from being stressful. And it’s true that certain preventative measures can keep the symptoms down, but it’s not very helpful to beat myself up about not taking them (or being able to take them) after the fact.
  • We have a brief respite from February’s slings and arrows. I’m going to take advantage of it right now and go for a walk before the winter weather returns with a vengeance.

Photo courtesy of Akif Mert via Flickr, CC2.0

Garden of Images – The Back Courtyard

Beautiful things can happen when you give yourself permission to let them. But usually it involves digging through a few layers of distraction. It took two pages of maundering before I settled down to make this drawing. Just before I did, I wrote “Never let someone take away your own agency as an artist. You don’t have to give that up — ever.”

 

Scan of an illustrated May 2014 journal entry - page 3. Detailed drawing of the back courtyard, the view from the kitchen table. by Frances Donovan

Frances Donovan

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.

Gratitude List

  1. Fuzzy wool socks for cold feet at night
  2. A 3:1 household ratio of blankets to humans
  3. Cooler weather means the memory foam in our bed doesn’t give me night sweats anymore
  4. We finally paid off the bed
  5. A doctor who reminds me that the symptoms of my illness are not moral failings, that I don’t have to suffer through them in order to be a productive member of society
  6. A job that allows me to work from home AND provides me with office space (now with new, improved window cube!)
  7. Listening to Sharon Salzberg’s audiobook Lovingkindness while taking baths
  8. A partner who loves and accepts me in spite of my flaws
  9. A community of friends who love, accept, and support me in spite of my flaws
  10. It’s finally frickin’ Friday
  11. Getting two more hours of sleep last night after a solid week of insomnia.

 

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

Tiny Update, March Edition (In Thirteen Easy Steps)

  1. The first session of writing group wrapped up successfully back in December. Folks were excited about starting again in late February.
  2. My health took a turn for the worse just before Christmas. As a result, the writing group will not reconvene until this summer at the earliest.
  3. My 40th birthday turned out quite differently than I planned it.
  4. That may have been for the best.
  5. I started writing a post all about living with a chronic illness back in February but put it away until I could complete it without crying.
  6. Two months is the longest I’ve ever been out of work on medical disability.
  7. While self-employed I spent many moons desperately ill, but without the luxury of disability insurance.
  8. I returned to work the day before Valentine’s Day — in a snow storm.
  9. Ben Gibbard was right. The gift of memory’s an awful curse. In my case, because I remember being younger, stronger, faster, better. Oh wait, now I’m quoting Daft Punk.
  10. The only way out is through.
  11. In addition to the indignities and frustrations of diminished capacity, I find myself in serious financial straits as a result of prolonged illness and the reduced income it brings.
  12. In spite of all these difficulties, I continue to have flashes of gratitude and humble acceptance.
  13. I look forward to being able to stride across a hillside without danger of slipping on the ice. Some day, the snow will melt. Until then, I have a sturdy walking stick and snow shoes.

Friday Five Plus Three (Gratitude Edition)

Gratitude doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes it’s a discipline, a practice. Sometimes I go through the motions without feeling inspired about it. But I do the motions anyway. Today’s gratitude list:

  1. daily reprieve from a chronic and deadly disease
  2. access to health care providers who assist when the other chronic and deadly disease rears its ugly head –I mean symptoms
  3. sunshine — albeit October sunshine, harsh and in short supply, still sunshine
  4. more clothes than I know what to do with
  5. fuzzy kitties who love me whether I go out or stay in
  6. a job that trusts me to do the right thing without breathing over my shoulder
  7. friends and family who call, text, and email
  8. a man who puts the kettle on for me every morning

Father's Day

My father’s legacy: chronic illness, sorrow, trauma, SSDI survivor’s benefits that helped pay for college, nonconformist leanings, love for the music of the 60s and 70s, pretty good rhythm for a white girl, and a deep and abiding understanding of the importance of creative expression.

I can’t say I’m always grateful, but I am aware of the way he shaped me — intentionally or not. Wherever you are now Dad, I hope you’ve found the peace and happiness that so eluded you in life.

Tiny Gratitudes

  • Sunflowers painted on the ceiling of an ultrasound exam room
  • Getting to an appointment 10 minutes early so I can sit in the car and stop rushing
  • Living in a place where the trees are taller than the buildings
  • Mentholated cough drops: bits of eucalyptus trees born thousands of miles away, soothing my throat and my lungs
  • A tiny white pill that keeps me from breaking into tears every 15 minutes
  • Miracle cures that ease cold symptoms, even if they do need to be taken again and again again
  • The rain washing down the windshield of the car, softening edges and smearing lights
  • The Fort Point Post Office, open 24/7/365, even at 7pm on the Sunday before Christmas
  • Working in an industry where skills matter as much as connections