Three Little Birds – Journal Pages

I got some encouragement from friends to post the following pages from my most recent journal.  They sort of map some moods and also different ways of using a journal.

This was done in pencil, which is why it’s a little hard to reproduce.
“Wanted to draw something hard and sensuous to honor those parts of me that have hardened because of grief and loss.  I imagined traveling to a cemetery or city park — but I can’t get around.  No car, limited mobility and many other things to do.  I settled for this white clay swan of Jim’s.  It’s heavy and hard.  The wings are impressed with feather markings and tiny impressions cover the feathered body.  The drawing makes it look grey but it’s white w/an orange beak, black marking and brown glassy eye.  One chip on the wing tip.
Later, Jim, my husband, told me this an icon swan, one he bought for his late wife Kathleen, as a symbol of someone able “to extract pure essence fro the adulterated mixture.”  The swan is pure beauty although it feeds on dubious food.  He got that image from Thomas Merton.  Kathleen, a family mediator in divorce cases, was able to help really dysfunctional families see the essence of families — the kids, the love, the actions that will have effect 50 years from now.  
So I didn’t have to leave home to find what I’d wanted to find in cemetery — a hard graceful image of the beauty of loss.”

If you are subject to depression, you know that those first days after the depression lifts, you  come up with the most fantastic ideas about what you can achieve. I’ve learned to write them down instead of actually pursuing them:

Post Depression Flights of Fancy:
I decided if I ever got pet it should be a big multi-colored parrot.  Then I want to teach it to sing one of my favorite soul songs — maybe ‘It’s Alright’ or ‘Always and Forever.’
    I saw posters for readings and performances at the library and actually started to sign up or start making plans to go them  (but didn’t)
    Also, I figure when I sell my book (as yet unwritten), I’ll buy the house across the street and have a studio there.  Maybe I’ll train the parrot to bark like a guard dog.”

By the time I finished drawing the parrot I figure I could train the parrot to sing my top ten favorite soul songs.  Then I watched the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and decided  I couldn’t cage a parrot — unless it was disabled — hmmm.

This last entry was from a relatively normal day mood wise.  I got the newsletter from the Women’s Caucus for Art and it had a wonderful photograph of an Indian girl in dance regalia, so I pasted in my journal.  Unfortunately, I forgot to write down the name of the photographer, so if anyone out there knows, let me know.  I did a quick painting with ink gouache and watercolor pencils.  I loved the festive color and melancholy expression — and how much she looked like a bird that needs to fly away soon.

Here is my year 2012 in journals:

Eight 9×12″ journals, and 7 portable Moleskines.  I learned a lot about myself, writing and drawing. Did I produce anything of merit?  Only time will tell.  But the time spent on them helped me fly steadily through the year.

Visionary Artist Dan Rhema

I just got word that Dan Rhema is posting his autobiography, When I Was A Ghost, My Journey Back from the Other Side on his website Danrhema.com.  He’s just posted the first chapter and will be post them regularly.  I reviewed his ebook I Close My Eyes to See last October on my ChronicallyInspired blog.  I thought this would be a good time to re-post hereIt’s a gorgeous book filled with color and hope.  Illness can be a devastating life changing event — or it can be a metamorphosis into a new life.  I love how art in its many forms became the saving grace for Rhema and I look forward to reading his bio.

 

 (Told through a unique pairing of Dan’s words with over one hundred pieces of his art, I Close My Eyes To See is the story of Dan’s extraordinary journey from near death to new life.  I Close My Eyes To See is designed for the ipad and color tablet format and is best viewed in the vertical mode. It can be read on NOOKcolor, Nook for ipad, Nook for PC and, on iphones and android phones. It is now available on barnesandnoble.com, amazon.com and will soon be released on the itunes bookstore)

I Close My Eyes to See:  The Dan Rhema Story as told to Kevin Wilson

Dan Rhema contacted me over a month ago to ask if I would review his ebook, I Close My Eyes to See.  Unfortunately I didn’t have time at the moment.  And from first glance, I knew that it would be a very interesting read so I wanted to make sure I could read it on a calm day when I wouldn’t be distracted.  Now that I’ve read – or I should say experienced the whole book — I wish I’d had time sooner.
Dan Rhema is an extraordinary artist and storyteller who suffered a life altering illness and near-death experience.  In 1991, he was living with his wife and 3 daughters in Mexico, directing an international training center.  An epidemic of Dengue fever spread through the town and he contracted 3 different strains of fever, which deteriorated into meningitis and encephalitis.
He says, “I traveled out of my body and began journeying down a long dark tunnel. As I progressed down the tunnel, I remember thinking that I did not want to die without my wife and children being with me. My progress down the tunnel ended and I began the long struggle back to consciousness, one level at a time.”

His illnesses ravaged his memory, which became “like swiss cheese,” with holes and detours.  Things he remembered were out of context and disjointed.  He felt like his head was on fire.  He felt like he was floating and had to grip the headboard of his bed to rest.
Before the fever he was very minimalist in his possessions, afterwards he was compelled to collect objects all the time.  At a family reunion, he discovered he could remember things if he put them in a story.

He began to keep a dream journal.  Although before the fever he never did art work, he began to create assemblages that took on a life of their own.  He began to paint – with his fingers like a child.  These compulsions made him fear he was going crazy, but through them he began to be able to reconnect aspects of his life and mind and soul.
He had created 15 sculptures before Susan found an article on outsider and visionary art and it gave him hope that he wasn’t going insane.

He was re-creating himself.  And this book is a beautiful telling of how he did so.  The text is minimalist and the story unfolds through the art.
This is the first “art” book I’ve read on the computer.  I don’t have a Kindle, or Nook or any kind of eReader.  I read this on my computer with Adobe Reader and the images came through beautifully.

The sculptures are muted and have a floating quality; the paintings are bright and imbued with intense energy.  There is a narrative quality to each, and a mystery.  The art tells the story not so much of survival but of rebirth.  There are deep spiritual overtones.  Dan seems to have a firm foot in this world and that world beyond mortal life.  I know I will read and look at this beautiful book again.  I am especially grateful to have experienced this book as we go rushing into the holiday season and are inundated with mixed messages about rebirth and gift giving.  This book is a real gift, unique and hard-won, that floats between reality and unreality; that celebrates the mystery of the future and the divinity of the present.
And I’m really looking forward to reading his children’s books.
You read more about Dan Rhema at danrhema.com.

Book Review: How to Be Sick

I wrote this in October of 2010.  I still refer to How to Be Sick on a regular basis

Toni Bernhard: “There is sickness here, but I am not sick.”

Life is suffering.  It’s not a punishment, it’s not a consequence, it’s just life.  I was fortunate to read How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Care Givers by Toni Bernhard (Wisdom Publications 2010) at a time when I was having a severe bout of insomnia that led to depression and an inability to coherently review the book or work on my websites.

My insomnia is often exacerbated by pain because of arthritis in my hip, knee and feet.  I have tried to make a place for insomnia and pain in my life and not blame myself for it.  It’s odd how we blame ourselves for the medical conditions – we always think if we had exercised more, eaten better, been a better person then we’d be experiencing great health.  I use these times now to read, look at art books, treat myself to little indulgences.  Still, it’s hard after a few nights not to despair – I know the wired insomnia energy will end with a huge bout of fatigue.

My first night with this book, I read through to Chapter 5: Who Is Sick?  She recalls a story by the Theravadan teacher Kamala Masters about her teacher who was quite old and had to endure an arduous journey with no food or water.  “She asked him if he was all right.  He replied, ‘There is heat here, but I am not hot.  There is hunger here, but I am not hungry.  There is irritation here, but I am not irritated.’”

Bernhard reports, “I recalled Kamala’s story one day as I lay in bed after becoming sick, so I silently said, ‘There is sickness here, but I am not sick.’  The statement made no sense to me.  But, inspired by the story, I persevered, repeating over and over, ‘There is sickness here, but I am not sick…There is sickness here, but I am not sick.” After a few minutes, I realized, ‘Of course! There is sickness in the body, but I am not sick.’  It was a revelation and a source of great comfort.  After a time, however, I decided to investigate more deeply.  When I did, this question arose, ‘Who is this I who isn’t sick?’”

It’s very hard to see yourself beyond what is irritating, hurting or keeping you awake.  Years ago, I heard a scientist on some documentary say, Even when you’re dying a large percentage of your body is still working fine.

I began then to try to get myself to pay attention to the parts that were working well and not give all the attention to the “squeaky wheels” of my body.

How To Be Sick is a guide to help you become familiar with that person who is not a sickness, but an individual capable of a joyful life, even though that life may have turned out vastly different than what you planned.  It’s also a guide for discovering who you are even if you’re perfectly healthy.  Bernhard was a student of Buddhism before she got sick and had already done a lot of work toward the Buddha’s teachings on “no-fixed-self.”

There is a lot fight in her to maintain her sense of self, but she’s let the illness guide her to a fuller interpretation of self, that can include sickness.  She contracted an acute viral infection on what was supposed to be a vacation to Paris in 2001.  She never recovered and is now living a largely house-centered life.  Even sitting up for long periods of time can exhaust her.  She has tried numerous treatments from the medical and alternative health communities but is still sick and may be that way for the rest of her time on Earth.

“For me…reality meant having the symptoms that accompany a severe flu, including the dazed sick feeling and low-grade headache, but without the fever, the sore throat, and the cough.  To imagine it, multiply the extreme fatigue of a flu by an order of magnitude.  Add in a heart pounding with the kind of wired, oppressive fatigue that healthy people associate with severe jet lag, making it hard to concentrate or even watch TV – let alone to nap or even sleep at night.”  She lists all the varying diagnoses she’s had that are variations on the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome “garbage pail” diagnosis.

In 1982 she received a J.D. from the School of Law at the University of California, Davis.  She joined the faculty and served for twenty-two years and also served as Dean of Students for six years.  In 1992, she began to study and practice Buddhism.  She went on yearly retreats to meditation centers and led a meditation group of her own.

This practice allowed her eventually to see herself as no-fixed-self and not some idea of a “sick person.”  She writes: “When you are chronically ill…you have to make some very hard choices.  Ironically, people may think you’re giving up, when in fact you are simply giving in to the reality of your new life.”

She quotes Byron Katie, “You can argue with the way things are.  You’ll lose, but only 100% of the time.”
Instead of continuing to argue with reality, Bernhard  spends that energy sharing what she’s learned from her teachers and her own experience about the whole concept of life and suffering.  She affirms that we can find the joy in the lives we have.  She gleans wisdom not only from Buddhism but from stories she’s found from others on coping with illness and death.  She is supremely grateful to have insurance and a loving family.

Buddhism has taught me much, as have most of the spiritual disciplines I’ve studied.  But I’ve always had a monkey mind (I call it popcorn brain), and even after studying at the Buddhist Naropa Institute in Boulder in 1978, I was never able to successfully meditate in the traditional sense.   For one thing the lotus position hurt me.   I could never empty my mind unless I was reading or writing, and later in life creating art.
So I was thrilled when I read, “My online wanderings revealed that many people, regardless of their religious affiliation, found that starting a meditation practice was the single most helpful treatment they tried.  So, Buddhist or not, many people turn to meditation when they become chronically ill.  This devoted Buddhist, however turned away from it.”  It was just too hard when coping with her symptoms.  She began to focus on the “mindfulness of the present moment.”

I was 2 years into my neurological disability when I went to Naropa, my right leg had already started to weaken and atrophy.  I was on medication for epilepsy and had a lot of headaches.  I had “drop foot,” the right foot always in the down position, and my gangly galumphing walk.  The great thing was there were some wonderful people who could meditate and tell me their stories.  I learned even as my mind swung around from tree to tree.  I was there to study poetry first and Buddhism second.  I always felt I’d missed something valuable by not being able to sit more than a few times through the group meditations.  Later I realized it was the stories that remained with me, the lessons taught, more than the actual method I used to learn and rest my mind.

The stories Bernhard tells, the lessons she gives, the exercises she stresses offer such a soothing balm.  The reading is a meditation in itself.  There is a “Broken Glass” lesson that deeply touched my heart and gave me a profound sense of compassion for myself, others and life in general.

She has been blessed with a very supportive husband and caregiver who also practices Buddhism.  The lessons in How To Be Sick can help alleviate some of the isolation and resentment caregivers feel when a loved one is taken ill.  Life is change – a lot of the suffering of life is our inability to cope with change.  This book offers good coping exercises, even if you’re not Buddhist.

I had hoped that the writing of this book gave Bernhard a sense of well being, and it did, but the actual process of it was arduous and sometimes exacerbated her symptoms.  She wrote about this process in the preface of the book and how she was sometimes unable to work on it for months.

Hard-headed in my belief that art processes heal, I asked her through an email if she felt writing the book actually helped alleviate  symptoms, since that is my experience with pain.  She wrote, “You asked if writing alleviates my symptoms. I wish I could say ‘yes’ but, unfortunately, unless I’m very disciplined and pace myself, it can make them worse (as I write about in the Preface of the book). That said, I find it so satisfying that I’m willing to feel worse sometimes in order to finish working on a piece that’s important to me. So, the act of creating is healing — to my spirit and my mind — but, unfortunately, not to my body!”

Ah yes, the spirit and mind can not necessarily influence the stubborn agenda of the body.  But a creative discipline can make living in the body a deeper, richer experience, no matter the circumstances.