A year ago today, on Christmas Eve, I was in the midst of my second right-eye retinal hemorrhage. For decades I have had no sight whatsoever in my left eye, so this new development was pretty scary.
I hadn’t driven my car since the first hemmorhage a month earlier. As a result of the damage incurred by the second hemorrhage, I could no longer see well enough to drive safely, so I was forced to forfeit my car and it seemed, my freedom.
Everything I loved, everything that makes my odd little life worth living, (reading, painting, drawing, and writing) was slipping through my fingers. Secretly and silently I was planning my exit from this world if the sight in my right-eye was to vanish as well. It was the lowest low point of my life thus far, feeling like the cymbal crash of a 45-year-long glaucoma drum roll.
And today? A crooked smile crosses my face. What do you know, I’m still here.
I am not living the life of a Hallmark movie ending, and yet as I sit on the verge of “Old Year’s Week” (Dec 26-31), I pull back from the myopia of daily life and see how far I, and perhaps we, have come.
First off, I have seen the retinal specialist regularly in the year since that second hemmorhage occurred, endured several treatments (pharmaceutical injections directly into my eye, while sitting there wide awake), and further vision loss has been slowed.
In January 2019 I reconnected with the state agency that works with people like me as we adjust to independent living with visual impairment or blindness. I can’t say enough about that organization, rich with wisdom, adaptive equipment, and, above all, heart. They host a monthly peer support group where men and women of all ages and all stages of vision loss get together to check in, shares joys and struggles, and encourage one another. Although, for now, I have more sight than many of the peer members, they welcomed me with open arms, saying, “We have each been where you are now, and it is not easy at any point in this journey.”
Last February I wrote a blog post called, “Why Giving Up Doesn’t Work” and felt a subtle but unmistakable shift in my writing. Now I feel a ‘pull’ rather than a ‘push’, to write a post most weeks. I found there is a convergence of pleasure, humor, and clarity when I am seated at White Mountain Gourmet Coffee each Monday, with my inexpensive tablet computer, Anker keyboard, a simple cup of coffee, and one of their spectacular oatmeal raisin cookies. I expect words to flow rather than feeling I need a plan and a theme. It just happens.
In March I resumed teaching sketchbook art at my local art school, something I was sure had been taken from me because of the retinal problems. Since then I have led a class at least monthly, and although the attendance is low, the quality of the people who show up to learn together has been very satisfying.
With these new delightful companions, I found myself looking at my friends and acquaintances through new eyes. Most relationships are give-and-take, right? I recognized I have friends who tend to be ‘takers’ and I cringed when I realized I too can take on that role if I’m not careful. I decided to turn that inner flinch into a call to action. I asked myself, “Who do I know who only hears from me when I need something?” Then I made a plan to correct that bad habit, one person at a time.
Early Spring: I developed a new friendship with an author, and was privileged to be one of his readers for a soon-to-be-published book. I renewed my passport and booked a flight to London to finally meet in person an online friend who has become a soul sister over the past three years. I also lost a dear friend with whom I had had weekly coffee dates for a couple years, and I utterly fell apart at his funeral. Yet another reminder that none of us have any time to waste. The shift continued to deepen, a stronger and stronger sense of “To Thine Own Self Be True” in every aspect of my life. May 5th -15th was spent in England, my first time there as a guest of a UK citizen rather than as a part of an American tour group. Much slower tempo and a good amount of time on my own as well, walking and going to cafes and sketching everywhere I went. Upon returning home, the adjustment to being back in the States and on my very predictable home turf was a struggle as always, made worse by the inability to grab the car keys and treat my cabin fever restlessness with joyriding.
Mid-year: To put an end to an annoyingly angsty few weeks, I chopped off all my hair. Actually a stylist did it, cutting off way more than I had asked, turning that face in the mirror into someone I barely recognized. It didn’t matter that my friends loved it, I was disarmed and disoriented! Several weeks later though, I realized something as innocuous as a haircut could set me free in unexpected ways. Not having to fret over straggly hair that no longer existed, I wondered what other opportunities I was overlooking. A friend from twenty years ago came to mind one day, and I decided to ‘google’ her, hopefully to reconnect and to apologize for a minor hurt I knew I had inflicted on her many years ago. The first word that came up in the search was ‘Obituary”, and I cringed when I saw she had died in March 2018 of pancreatic cancer. What a powerful reminder: when in doubt, be kind. There may never be time to set things right.
Another book crossed my path last summer, Untethered Soul , right up my spiritual alley. I also saw the movie All Is True in my local theatre– three times. It is about the private life of William Shakespeare, and it moved me deeply. It didn’t matter that many of the details of the story are fictional imaginings. I am drawn to any tale that explores the dichotomy of a person’s inner vs. outer life, because it is so easy to think that what we see on the outside is the truth, possibly the whole truth. I doubt it is ever so.
A shift in painting focus
At the end of June I received in the mail my copy of The Apocalypse Variations by Marc Taro Holmes. This man, who has been an encouraging leader in the Urban Sketching movement of the last decade, has pushed past painting from rigorous on-site observation, to envisioning and painting a world where the glorious landscapes themselves (which he had so skillfully portrayed for years) no longer exist due to climate change. The images in this book are stark and dramatic, as are his words. He offers no simple answers, but rather conveys a very personal sense of despair, loss, and then a small glimmer of hope that there may still be time to stop the insanity surrounding us all.
As much as it may sound like I live in a little pink bubble of creativity, that is not the case, and like all other Americans, I was drawn into our national crisis with the Mueller investigation and the continued illegal and immoral shenanigans of so many of our leaders at the federal level. Having said that, it all still feels so far removed from my daily life of making ends meet, deciding which bus to take to the laundromat, and shopping for my small bit of weekly groceries that I can carry up those two flights of stairs in one trip. I am so grateful that I can actually manage taking care of myself these days without being a burden to others, and then I look around and see that my country is on fire and all I can offer to help put out the flame is a teacup of water. It is not enough to simply not be adding to the problem, I must find a way to be part of the solution as well. But sad to say, other than voting and being a generally decent person, I have yet to find a civic duty niche for myself.
A shift in my own artwork approach
Thanks to a recommendation from a UK friend, I ordered up ten full sheets of 22 x 30 inch Saunders Waterford watercolor paper in July, enough to make forty decent-sized paintings in the style I have admired since I first discovered the teaching of Ron Ranson in the 1980s, This misty, evocative style was front and center in my studies back then, but sadly I abandoned it all when I lost the sight in my left eye, and as a result lost all depth perception. The lovely, controlled hairline details I had become so skilled at painting suddenly become impossible, and I found myself either painting clumsy fat skid marks or missing the paper entirely. (Ironically, Ranson himself was monocular in later life. I would have loved to have had a chance to ask him about his transition to what a friend of mine calls ‘pirate-sightedness’.) I often feel like a beginner these days, but now I see there is a way to cash in on watercolor’s ‘uncontrollability’. That is where the freshness and beauty resides.
Later summer: The dog days of August got into my apartment, and a bit into my soul as well. Although I am not technically bi-polar, I am well aware that I thrive on “gee-golly-ouu-shiny’ new ideas, and I love a tangent far more than a well traveled road. August and September found me doing the drudge work of implementing several brainstorms of early summer, rearranging my furniture so the easel is now right by the north window for one. I also superimposed a Monday-through-Friday routine so I either write or paint five mornings a week, and only run errands and socialize in the afternoon, after the real passions of my life have been fulfilled first. Healthy living in general seems to take more effort, time, and focus than I want to give it, but I have learned the hard way that living ‘from the neck up’ (as I have done my whole life) comes with a high price tag. So in my mid-sixties I am stumbling along learning to take care of my body as well as my mind and spirit. Perhaps on a related note, I have had three fierce head colds this year (including right now), and they leave me with very little energy to do much more than simply rest and keep generally out of trouble.
Finally autumn… I discovered the way to loosen up my artwork was to work bigger in every way. I resurrected my Pike palette from the 1980s, set up my watercolor easel, and am working on quarter Imperial sheets all the time now (11” x 15”) using an interesting brush called a hake (another tool used in the Ron Ranson style.) I am trying to reintroduce some foundational habits into my work by making sure I have good light, an ergonomic work area, and a decent chunk of time to drop into The Zone. Painting with others is also important and in November my niece and I visited with Urban Sketchers Boston on a crisp Sunday afternoon, had a great time, and I hope to make a return visit in the near future, by myself or with friends.
If you have made it to this point reading my Tale of 2019, I applaud your perseverance. The message I want to convey is not so much about the details, as it is about seeing the threads that string one’s life together. I often feel I am adrift when I do not see those threads (oh ye of little faith, yes indeed.) That is why for some time now I have taken an hour or two at the end of each month to look back and take account of my accomplishments, struggles, and insights. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a solo life: after all, who has time to take stock when living in the middle of a family whirlwind? But whirlwinds eventually slow down and stop. What I experienced this year (with losing a bit more eyesight and the freedom of driving) is not that far from the experience of empty-nesters I suspect. Even though you knew it was coming, your whole world has suddenly shifted, and there is a black hole at the center of it all.
What can one do?
Well first, don’t panic. Even when you feel to your very marrow that you are utterly alone, you are mistaken. And if you do panic, that is okay as well, just don’t hurt yourself too badly in the moment.
Then after the panic, the shock, the big harrumph of it all, it is never a bad idea to gently take pen in hand and look back at “the facts, ma’am, just the facts” of recent months or years. Make a list of your accomplishments and your true friends, they are good reminders to have in writing for the down days. You, and I, and everyone else, we are each an essential cog in someone’s evolving life. Your impact matters, even when it feels inconsequential.
Your readership matters too. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for spending some time here this past year, it means a lot to me. As always, feel free to share any of these posts with friends who paint or write or are wannabes. And chat back your own thoughts here as well.
We are all in this soup together.