Confession. Sometimes I make stuff based off of things people tell me they really wish they could use. Often this happens during workshops or classes I teach. The above books were born from a common frustration I've heard during my sketching classes. "I love drawing, but I never know what to draw."
It is really easy to let a blank page intimidate you. It is also easy to feel overwhelmed by a big blank sketchbook. This little book is a two for one deal. It only has 20 pages and it only has twenty prompts. You could tuck this away in your backpack on a trip or you could sneak it into your purse and go to a coffee shop. Since it is only 20 pages, it is completely reasonable that you could finish this little book off over a Grande latte or a week at the beach.
The prompts are simple and vague... they are flexible to the different kinds of environments you might be in. They are suitable for any age as well, so you could easily gift one to a drawing enthusiast who would get a kick out of it.
This is a quick and loose kind of book, not a precious book. It is meant to be used as a conduit for your creativity to get you started (or restarted) and onto the next project. It is a means to an end.
I mentioned it during my drawing class today and had quite a few who wanted more details. So here they are! If you want one for yourself, please message me here and I can send you a snapshot of available covers (all the interiors are the same at the moment).
If you find one you like, I accept cash, paypal and EFT (we can figure that out via email) and for the next while, I will even mail it to you for free (Canada only - anywhere else, I can give you the cost in the email, one book is just a standard letter rate so very affordable to ship) Each book of prompts costs $11.00 CDN and is made by me!
If you like the little sketchbook idea, but don't want the prompts, I also carry a variety of blank notebooks (same size, same paper stock, same number of pages) that have one of a kind covers as well. Same free shipping in Canada applies here, these ones are priced at $9.00 each.
You can also find them in person at Bluerock Gallery in Black Diamond!
Have I told you lately how much I love my fabulous gallery, Bluerock? They are the absolute best. Not only do they carry an amazing roster of Alberta artists, the owner and staff are genuinely great people. Over the past few months they have been nothing but encouraging and supportive as I've recovered from surgery. Not only do they care about beauty and art, they care about people. (Thanks, Bluerock!)
Recently, they invited me to come and share some of the things I've been working on with my printing presses! I'm all for having a deadline, so this has been spurring me on for the past little while to get a few projects realized and make some neat new things!
On June 23rd and 24th, I'll be bringing my Kelsey table top platen press, some type and linoleum blocks with me to Black Diamond and setting up in the gallery. I'll be on hand to demonstrate how letterpresses work, answer questions and share more about all the letterpress resources available in the Calgary region. I'll also have all those things I've been working on recently available for sale too!
If you'd like more information, you can find it here.
You can also just show up on June 23rd or 24th! ,It makes an excellent day trip to take in the scenery as well as the beautifully curated Bluerock collection. This is a fabulous gallery - I'd love to see you and talk shop!
110 Centre Ave W
Black Diamond, AB T0L0H0
Those of you who follow my blog know that I am pretty involved at the Leighton Centre, for good reason - they really are an arts organization that is dedicated to supporting local artists and bring in the public to experience all this region has to offer.
Next weekend, I am really excited that I will be participating in their annual Clothesline Festival. Every year, the Leighton Centre holds a spring art extravaganza where they hand pick the artists who are chosen to show and sell their work. I am quite excited to be included again this year, as it is truly one of the best art events in Southern Alberta in the springtime!
My work will be available for purchase and I will be onsite on Saturday demonstrating Plein Air Sketching as well as answering any questions you might have about my upcoming workshops.
Please join me and see what I have been working on recently, lots of fresh work to choose from! Here are some of the paintings I will have up for grabs (I have new linocut prints as well, but I need to upload those pictures still)
Clothesline Festival and Art Sale
Leighton Art Centre, Calgary AB
June 2nd - 3rd
10:00 am - 4:00 pm
Artist Demo on June 2nd 10:00 am - 4;00 pm
Find out more here: www.leightoncentre.org
I'm excited to share this "new" painting with you - although it was completed and delivered last month. I wanted to close my health issue chapter on a positive note. A while ago I applied for and was accepted to be part of a group of artists who were selected to create work to raise money for the Branch Out Neurological Foundation's upcoming fundraiser "Your Brain on Art"
Clearly, having just had brain surgery, this felt like a no brainer (see what I did there?)
We were matched up with a Neuroscientist and advised to contact them about the research project we had selected. I had chosen the research project: Vitamin Niacin on Brain Tumor Growth - Dr. Jeffrey Dunn, University of Calgary (I decided I wanted to fund brain tumour research, even though it wasn't directly related to the type of tumour I had) The idea was to call or email with them to learn more and then create a piece based on the conversation.
Imagine my delight when we figured out a time to meet in person at the actual lab! (I had an appointment with my neurosurgeon on the same campus and it all worked out for a face to face meeting) This became even better when I was told they work at the "Experimental Imaging Lab" in the basement, near the parkade. It doesn't get much better than that!
Once I met up with Jeff, he introduced me to the team and showed me the mouse MRI machine. Having had my fair share of "tube rides" in the past few months, I felt a connection to all the work and research that has to happen for technology like that to be useful in bringing people like me back to health (I also found it it kind of ironic that I blogged about people making better MRI equipment way back in the beginning of my brain tumour saga. Turns out, I got to meet some of those people!
Now, about the painting itself - I will admit, I went off on a different visual style than normal. We started our meeting talking about Greek etymology and somehow that stuck. Here is the write up I submitted:
This piece, Messenger, is a reflection of the dual stories found in the research project Vitamin Niacin on Brain Tumor Growth. The title hints at these two stories: delivery via Macrophage and delivery of information via MRI. The winged sandal represents Hermes, the messenger of the gods. He is known for his swift delivery via his winged sandals. I chose to use green to highlight this as a symbol of this messenger bringing healing, hope and growth. The area surrounding the winged sandal represents normal tissue cells; the area within the foot represents tumour cells. Tiny amounts of image contrast agent are being delivered to the core of a tumour via the macrophage, here shown as blue swatches of colour and orange dots
On a personal note, I haven't been blogging much lately, because I've been all blogged out. We have sunshine and the green is peeking out on my lawn. Health-wise, things are going really, really great. In order to consolidate the past few months and move on mentally, I've made a page with all my meningioma related posts with links in chronological order. If you want to start at the beginning and read my entire Meningioma story, click here.
I had my post surgery follow up yesterday. It went well, my neurosurgeon said I could now be considered a normal person (haha, I'll take that with a grain of salt) and I can resume all my regular activities. One very important thing we did talk about yesterday was weaning off the medication I've been having to take since late December. I am not going to lie, if there has been one really, really difficult part of this journey, its being on this medication, I have had the occasional really dark day and it has only gotten worse the longer I've been taking it. I can only describe those days as "despondent" in nature. Thankfully I was given the green light to try going off these meds - I'm hoping and praying I will remain seizure free.
Now, entering into this whole health saga and blogging about my creative output, I made a decision pretty early on - I would always have some little job to work on or some prep to keep my hands busy even if my head or heart wasn't in it. I've already been dealing with chronic illness (unrelated and very well managed) for over a decade so I know how recovery ebbs and flows. Some days when you feel good, you can make miles of progress. Bad days can sometimes only be measured in inches. However, inches add up. Many bad days can set the stage for what looks like miles of progress on a semi good day. The secret is chipping away at small pieces of the whole.
My Bad Day Project
Anyone who has followed my story will start to see a pattern is emerging. There has to be some sort of good coming out of all this awfulness. Beauty for ashes so to speak. It honestly is the only goal that I have reliably set my eyes on. It has carried me through some really awful moments. Seeing the good in this season has kept me moving forward.
When I met my neurosurgeon, the biggest thing that made me trust her was that she works with kids. Parents have to trust their kids with her during very scary times. I used to work with kids and it is an absolute privilege and pleasure to be trusted with them. The stakes are that much higher when its life or death. I do not envy her job in the sense of the magnitude of having to deal with kids who have brain tumours, brain cancer or brain surgery. Trust me, any of these things are hard enough to deal with as an adult. I get choked up thinking about what that would be like as a child (or the parents of a child).
So, right after I met with her about my surgery, I asked myself if there was anything I could do that might help some kid going through a situation similar to mine? That is when the idea hit to make health card sized documents that could empower them during their journey.
I did not invent the idea of "playing the brain surgery/tumour/cancer card" concept. I'm sure a hundred or more people have made their own variations over the years as well (I actually have never googled it because that doesn't matter) I first heard about the idea of a "cancer card" a few years ago when a dear friend was fighting her own battle. She and her husband referred to this mysterious card in relation to kids missing a deadline at school because it fell on a hospitalization day. Needing an extra dose of understanding when meds caused awful mood swings. Needing Tim Horton's chili because it's the only thing that appealed for breakfast. The Cancer Card - getting one means you are a part of an awful club. There is for sure a Brain Tumour Club and a Brain Surgery Club (and those are different, not all people with tumours get surgery, not all surgery patients have tumours). Wouldn't it be neat to have an actual card one could show? Especially if extra treats are involved.
Now coming up with the idea and then actually thinking through the steps whilst dealing with a brain tumour/brain surgery is REALLY freaking hard. I am not going to lie. That is equivalent to me asking you to design a skyscraper. Where do you even start? Even if you have built a skyscraper, try doing it hopped up on meds and having had someone drill a hole in your head, yeah, now you get it.
So, since January, this became a constant low level item on my to do list. On good days, I'd think about my next step on bad days I'd just do that step. To say that these cards pictured above were made with love is an understatement. They were some of the most difficult and some of my best moments through this journey. The only reason why I made them was to give them away. Hopefully to give someone a bright moment in an otherwise really awful situation. My deadline was my post surgery follow up so I could give them to my neurosurgeon as a gift. A thank you for all the years she spent honing her skill so that my biggest issue from the whole ordeal was dealing with how bad those medications affect me. This was also my way to fight the meds.
Now, I'm not a saint either, I will probably make more of these to sell at some point but those won't have nearly the same amount of my heart poured into them. I do have to make a living somehow, and these are pretty cool. However the batch above is special. I remember how long it took to figure out the exact measurements for wallet sized identification documents. Cutting the paper to size. Sitting in a dark room rounding the corners with a handheld clipper (that was a hard day), wording and rewording in my head. Printing in two rounds so I could do two ink colours. Trying to set type that is upside down and mirror image, trying to get perfect registration. Hard enough to do on a good day, very challenging during recovery.
Anyways, I've given most of the brain related ones away, I made extra of the Cancer Card ones because I have plans for those too. Too many people I love have to deal with that monster. Brain stuff is a little more esoteric I guess. I know they seem simple and to the expert eye, there are imperfections but I can honestly say it was the best I could do on some pretty bad days. Totally worth it too.
To read the whole story of my Meningioma click here.
I have two confessions to make. The first is that there is no secret decoder ring to these latest paintings. I figured I should be upfront about that as I've had a few people inquiring about meaning or looking for greater understanding. This is very appreciated - having people looking closely and seeing details means the world to me. Also, while these paintings are not something that gets "unlocked", they definitely do contain meaning and symbols. Its just a little more complicated than "draw item A, add symbol B, unify with meaningful colour C = painting that says this fixed statement about the world we live in/my life and struggles/current political climate" Now all that being said, I could explain what my current work is about, but I'm sure it would sound like a rambling conversation rather than a succinct mission statement.
When I create work, I start with a kernel of an idea and expand on it. Adding personal symbolism is visual shorthand that keeps me moving toward and thinking through that original idea. I'm usually starting out with something that I am trying to process or figure out for myself. These latest pieces are very much about processing - this affects the outcome significantly during the course of the piece. If you want an equation, it looks more like "draw item A, add symbol B, think about why you put those two things together, ask yourself questions about if it is right to hold the preconceived notions of A and B or A plus B, question if that is too obvious. Bury symbol with meaningful colour C, change mind, bring symbol B back to the surface but change the juxtaposed colour to offer insight as to why my position changed on this issue.... and back and forth until the painting you end with looks to be complete" When I paint, I am pretty much talking to myself the whole time. I'm questioning myself. I'm excited by how serendipitous application of paint looks beautiful and I look at ways to replicate that beauty in other parts of the canvas or how to make that little bit of beauty even more beautiful. It's a process in itself.
The second confession is while this style change has been influenced by my current health situation and I prioritize visual decisions a little differently, my brain tumour did not cause me to paint in this style. This change is very deliberate. After reflecting on some conversations I've had in the past few weeks, I want to be clear that I'm not seeing things funny in my brain or with my eyes. This is not like those 50 paintings Bryan Lewis Saunders did while taking a different drug before doing a self portrait. Truth be had, after going through my situation and really taking a hard long look at mortality, I'm ready to paint what I want to paint. Nothing wrong with earlier work, nothing wrong with representational work. I'm in a place right now where I want to change direction. I guess I'm tired of thinking about what other people will like and trying to paint those things. It's an easy trap for artists to fall into.
One thing that has surprised me since returning to painting and trying this new style is how much planning goes into each piece beforehand. This painting was not "intuitive" or a "just go with the flow" piece at all. I thought it through, made a sketch, thought it through some more, made a new sketch and painted from that. This is very heavily revised and edited for clarity and visual presence. This self portrait is a companion piece to It's All Over But the Shouting (That painting incidentally, is on display at cSpace Calgary for the People's Portrait Prize exhibition - you should check it out! More info can be found here). Not totally decided on my next piece but I'm enjoying the journey so far!
To read the whole story of my Meningioma click here.
I am starting to be ready to wrap up my recovery specific posts from my meningioma surgery. Not that I am 100% recovered, more that each gain comes in smaller and smaller doses. Not so many interesting breakthroughs. Lots of slogging in between each win, Truth be had, I am ready to close this strange chapter in my life because I am tired of talking about it. Yesterday marked 6 weeks post surgery, it feels like it is time.
Today, when I went into the studio I decided to paint something in my pre-seizure style just to ensure that those faculties are in working order. It was a fun exercise this morning and I might continue with these tiny 6" x 6" studies once in a while to keep my eyes sharp. I have pinpointed one area where my brain still goes haywire - colour matching. For some reason, when I try to get the right value mixed up, my brain goes into overdrive. When I painted "It's All Over But the Shouting" it was less noticeable because it wasn't so critical I get the colour correct, so I wasn't doing it as much. Today it did matter and I can feel it now in my fuzzy thinking.
My eyes are still a little different as well. Cannot totally pinpoint what it is, but it seems like trying to LOOK at things after painting a while is too hard for my brain so everything feels a little hazier than it did before I started. Almost like doing the job of focusing and paying attention to detail takes too much work. Still, that is improving each day.
This little painting is of some new to me ceramic orbs that I found at a thrift store. It joins another one that was given to me as a gift. They are sitting out at the moment by my reading chair and I study how the light hits them when I'm taking a break from reading. Every few days I move them around to see what that does to the scenario. This is the life of a woman who doesn't get out much I think. At least I am painting. At last it is warming up.
To read the whole story of my Meningioma click here.
I am very excited about this piece. For some of you, this might look like a total stylistic departure, but I don't see that at all. Something has changed and this image has a very unique story of it's evolution. I painted it a few days ago and since then it's been on my wall so I could dissect it and find out what part of my brain all the little pieces were retrieved from.
Returning to the world of painting was not a scheduled event. Truth be had, I've been avoiding painting with a fierce determination. The idea of getting out my brushes and thinking through steps was so overwhelming. Those feelings were starting to lead me down some dark paths too. The thing I've been struggling a lot with lately is that all my normal outlets have been gone. This brain tumour is only one story of many, because life goes on even when you get laid up with your own crisis. Long story short, I am processing far more than what I mention on my blog. Other people's stories are intertwined with my own.
Normally when I am overwhelmed, I drive somewhere and listen to music. I might sing along or I might pull over and have a good cry. Same goes for running or painting. Common thread - be by myself, listen to music and let stuff out. The past two months have had a growing frustration of never being by myself, not being able to drive and feeling too overwhelmed to paint. When I hit my low point the other day, wallowing in my self pity I had a moment of clarity. I asked myself what my next step was - stay here wallowing or aim to get somewhere else taking small steps in a way that I could manage.
This changed everything. Everything. I was in control of my life again.
So, I decided quite suddenly that it was time to paint. Now, I knew that just deciding to paint something was too much, so I decided to recycle or finish an old painting. You see, I have a basement full of unfinished experiments where I started something and then turned the canvas against the wall and moved on. I know better than to let a perceived failure trip me up for too long. Better to paint and learn what you don't like then not paint. At least you learned something. That was my starting point.
Truth be had, I am not totally sure when this was painted. Looking around at similar sized canvasses and the subject I was pursuing I believe this is probably from around 2008 due to the acid green and the illustrative style, I know for sure it is no later than 2012 because the Aesop's fable theme finally made it into a linocut then. I do remember that when I painted this, I was grappling with some ego swelling praise as well as some flattery and I was struggling for a way to articulate it. However, when I got a little ways into this piece it felt too flat.
The crazy bright background with a self portrait and two key symbols laid out front and centre just felt a bit too obvious. Too limiting. I wasn't sure how to bury the meaning and bring more nuance to the piece, so I dropped it. When I went to the basement a few days ago and spied it, I saw new potential and was quite excited to use that simple image as a jumping point for something far more complex.
An aside, typically I am a fairly representational painter for most of my commercial work. I enjoy the challenges of translating the world around us with a good deal of realism. However, a lot of my still life subject matter is highly codified and personally symbolic. I don't like to give away all my secrets so I put my thoughts and feelings down in paint. I also have a very private, personal style (like the painting above, Procession) that comes up when I am grappling with something big and just want to express pure emotion.
I also have a totally different art style that comes up more often when I'm doodling. That side is full of repeating shapes, spirals, flowers and dot patterns. Below is a set that I worked on in 2014 for an Easter service. That was totally fun and crazy and illuminated with black lights. Yes that is an actual VW bug hauled in from a junk yard.
The thing is, I have always had a hard time marrying those two styles even though I regularly try to unite them. I look at that bird in the early version of "It's All Over But the Shouting" and I can see it appearing in sketchbooks from the early 90's. What goes around, comes around I guess.
I was trained to do self portraits on a semi regular basis because it is good to struggle with depicting yourself. Everyone will know if you are lying. Success comes with telling the truth. As we look at some of my old work, you will notice that there are some key features to my illustrative work and some key features of my representational work and it seems I keep trying to marry the two in my self portrait work. As I look at my most recent, post brain surgery painting I think I have finally had a measure of success.
I am not going to lie, I am very pround of 1996 Michelle for painting the above image - she was only nineteen years old. Crazy. This self portrait came from a photo taken in 1994 in Austria, a very formative time in my life. You can see the illustrative attempts emerging in the top left hand side with those interlocking shapes that are also present in the sketchbook image above that. That little bit of drawing/brushwork goes all the way back to my early childhood. I am actually surprised it didn't make a full appearance in "It's All Over But the Shouting" it evolved a little there into line work not dissimilar to the amazing striped socks I'm sporting in "Prodigal". I've known for a while that my personal symbols evolve in meaning, it seems they are also evolving in appearance now too.
I can remember painting this unfinished piece but I have no idea when. I'm thinking it is late 1990's possibly early 2000's. I'm still doing the light colours, the interlocking shapes and bazillion wash layers. The canvas has staples on the side, not the back. It could be from Halifax times or New Westminster times. Hard to say. Definitely done before the early version of "It's All Over But the Shouting"
Where this derailed was I could tell right away I didn't get my eyes done right. Nose and lips are okay. Face shape is passable. Again, this is just a likeness on a canvas with some illustrated bits and it didn't leave me with a lot of options. There is no core to this painting and I knew it so I stopped rather than trying to retro fit meaning to it after the fact.
This was definitely painted after the early version of "It's All Over But the Shouting", the green is way toned down and representational imagery was higher on the scale for me at this time. This is meant to be a formal self portrait and I even purchased the gladiolas and posed for the source picture. There is a whole lot of subtext going on in this piece. I started it in 2013 and was unhappy with it because it didn't reach into the illustrative/symbolic world as much as I hoped it would. So I revisited it with a Molotow paint marker in 2014 (around the time of the Crazy Love sets - you will see similarities if you look) and put all the line work in. You can see circles (with the same meaning as my plate paintings) emerging on this piece as well. That was a symbolic step that was harder than it looks for me to take.
While I really like this piece, the thing that has kept me from loving it is there is something not quite right with my eyes, they seem a touch too small. I also don't love that the line work is just a screen placed over top of the representational image. They are visually separate. They are working together here, and I think for the framework of this piece it is a successful partnership, but it is not quite a true marriage of the two styles.
So, what exactly happened with "It's All Over But the Shouting" that is different? Long story short, my brain isn't prioritizing things in the same order. I went with what my brain said felt right and it was different than what it would have been a few months ago. This required new strategies and new work arounds and it was very very exciting. So exciting that the day I painted this it was like my head exploded with visual ideas and directions to take and I could barely eat and didn't go to bed until after 2:00 am (which is super late for me) I could barely contain myself trying to sift through the wealth of ideas.
Instead of placing the line work over top, I anticipated it and wove it into the structure of the piece itself. Instead of highlighting the obvious symbols with outlines and bright colours screaming "look at me, I'm a symbol, symbols are super important" I buried them because those symbols are there for me, not for the viewer. If you find them, you can do what you like with them. I am very aware that a painting is a conversation between the artist and the viewer and you will do with them what you will. That will depend on your own history, your cultural context and whatever these things remind you of - this is the wonderful thing about art. When you look at a piece, it is like we are dancing.
I cannot wait to keep painting. I cannot wait for our next dance.
To read the whole story of my Meningioma click here.
I actually had to wait a bit before posting this. Partly because I needed to print the lino block I had carved, partly because I needed to crawl out of the pit I was in for a few days. I just wanted to be left alone to work through the natural feelings that come along with massive life change and I didn't want well wishes and offers to go for coffee to talk out my feelings. This was an inner battle. Feeling more optimistic now and moving forward again.
That being said, I have a back log of posting because in the course of my recovery I feel like this story is best told in chronological order. (of course clicking on that link leads you to most recent meningioma blog post first, so you'll just have to back track if you are new to this situation and want to read more about my crazy world).
The above image is actually meant to illustrate a poem that I wrote, so it came second (which is different for me) My husband asked "why did you write a poem?" to which I helpfully responded "I don't know." then there was an awkward pause. Writing poems is also different for me. I am not one to express emotions and personal stuff using words. Or rather, I should say "I WASN'T one to express emotions and personal stuff using words" because everything is different even though everything looks the same. Things I get to grapple with using previously under utilized parts of my brain.
In the interest of getting this posted, I am just going to transcribe what I wrote with minimal editing. If I wasn't in recovery mode, I would knock this poem around for a while, honing it to where I want it to be and then I would set it in lead type and print an accompanying edition to go with the linocut. Or print them together. This all feels too hard so you get the rough copy. Oh yeah, I didn't write this in my sketchbook. I seem to have lost that somewhere in my house. I've had too many words lately and some are too personal for this blog, so I moved that crazy train over to a standard notebook.
I've asked myself many, many times in the past week "why bother?" I have also seriously thought about just wrapping up this part of my journey and unlinking from the sidebar on my blog and going back to making art. I'm refraining at the moment because I'm not posting poetic ruminations for attention (so if it looks that way, stay with me for a moment) I committed to the experiment of "what happens if you take an artist and then perform brain surgery on them?" and I want to see this through. Even though it looks like a pity party sometimes. Or I write poems.
In some ways this has been difficult to process because my physical recovery on the surface has outpaced my processing of the past few months. However, I am not fully recovered physically and the Pandora's Box of "what the heck is my life now" has only just opened. So I have ugly days occasionally. My husband astutely noticed that when I have a breakthrough day (i.e. carving a lino block for the first time, going running a little at the track etc) I very often am a wreck the next day. Physically, mentally and emotionally. Progress comes at a steep price. Now that I know this, I am being more careful on how much progress I let in at once.
To frame my poem, it came from my visualizing exercises that I've been doing. I kept coming back to a weird visual space that was like a storm on a beach. So I put words to the mental image, then I illustrated it. Please note, I am not a poet nor am I looking for poetic critique. Please also note, this is kind of raw and it makes me uncomfortable with sharing it, but maybe it'll help to understand the process of getting better. I'm okay now and I repeat I'm not looking for a chance to get together and talk about our feelings. We can just text each other dumb memes instead. Like we usually do.
One night a small boat washed ashore
The sky purple and flashing
As I went to investigate
Puzzle over its purpose
I noticed beside it
In the shallow crashing waves
Many of my dreams and those of others
Succumbing to the water
Some had expired a long time ago
Their corpses fetid, bloating
I hadn't noticed them before for some reason
I laid them on the sand, rescued
Others were newly deceased
Some so small and full of potential
Some so large they were difficult to pull
From the sea on my own
On the beach I made a
Morbid procession of these ideas
I noticed some weakly floundering, barely alive
I put them in bucket to save them
Turning back to the lost
I found a box to fit each one, provide shelter
Re-purposed for this funeral
Colourful cardboard betrayal
It didn't do them justice
Just hid the awful reality
So I carefully chose thick cream paper
The colour of brides
I covered each box with stiff paper
Making sharp creases
Hiding the truth, giving it honour
Sealing in the decay
Then carefully as if lifting babies
Deep in slumber
I placed each box, acknowledged
Into the awful, tiny boat
At last I pushed the boat
Into deep water, like a pyre
I let it drift away, to the past
Released into the future.
It has snowed an incredible amount over the past few days. The globs of snow are perched on weighed down branches. It is beautiful and yet so terrible for my sensitive eyes. The other day it was so white and bright I avoided being near windows all day because it just jarred my vision so badly. Brain surgery recovery at it's finest, I guess. In this picture I was trying to capture the snow formations as well as how blue the sky is all jutted up against the white of the snow. I wrote: "It has been snowing so much the past few days. Today I braved the intense light of the snow to run some errands and grab coffee with a friend. So glad that I did. I need a different environment more than I realized. I needed a visit with a friend even more. Good day."
Forcing Myself to Picture Things
Now that I've realized the issue I'm having with visualizing things, I've been trying to picture things in my head on a very small scale. For example, taking a moment and thinking "purple teddy" and seeing if I can bring up the recognizable features of a beloved old stuffed animal of my daughter's. Thankfully, I can kind of do this but it takes far more concentration than it used to take, It is encouraging to think that those systems seem to be intact, they just have a really heavy door with rusty hinges keeping me from getting to that part of my brain right away. I have to push hard at the moment.
Certain things I can visualize with zero efforts, for example spatial things. Picturing where I am and where I want to go, no problem. I can call up my internal GPS system to lead me to my destination. Thinking about where I put the scissors. I can visualize what drawer those live in (of course I have three teenagers so the actual probability that those scissors are in the drawer are next to nil, but I'm used to that, scotch tape is worse) I was really nervous about losing this ability because before my surgery I was having a lot of memory issues. One night, we were looking for something in our basement. I looked at a box I had just put stuff into the day before and COMPLETELY drew a blank on what was in that box. Despite knowing I had filled it less than 24 hours beforehand. Chilling, that is an awful feeling.
Plus, true confession time - I have ALWAYS had issues with recalling faces of people. Unless I am really really close to you, I have a hard time picturing what you look like in my head. I am way more likely to remember your laugh or the way you walk than your face. The flip side of that is that I am very, very keen with recognizing faces once I see them. I'll often remember the oddest and smallest encounters with people and know that I've met someone in a very different context. I'll sometimes remember their name too. Of course I will recognize you when I see you if you know me. If I don't, I'll totally fake it until I figure it out, so for all intents and purposes, I'll TOTALLY remember who you are.
The Garden in My Mind
Words are far more important than I realized. My brain seems to have gone into overdrive with this lately too. It is almost as if removing that tumour has allowed that word processing area become this lush, verdant garden of phrasing and onomatopoeia. This garden, to me, is incredibly new. Words almost have a more physical presence right now than reality itself. Prior to this surgery, I never REALLY understood the deeper pleasure of reading poetry. I would rush through it, looking for the point of whatever was being written. Not really understanding the choice and omission of words was the point. I get it now. I understand. One word I secretly say over and over in my head lately is thrilling - what a great word. It starts at the base of your spine and gives you goose bumps and chills travelling upwards as you say it. Thrilling is fingers strumming a guitar for the first time. I understand now.
The idea that I can describe this as a lush garden allows me to visualize that humid warmth and the smells or dirt. The feeling of leaves brushing up against my face. I can see the greenest of greens. Left to my pre-seizure methods I could just think of a garden, only lightly using words as a bridge. Now it's almost like I need to go into my internal dictionary and select the most exotic words and string them all together to bring an imaginary world to life in my mind's eye. It is endlessly fascinating and interesting to me. These pictures in my head engage all my senses which I don't recall being the case beforehand.
Before my surgery, I had a lot of people comment that they were amazed I was writing these huge blog posts, which when I read them now, I'm surprised they make sense. They were my only lifeline keeping me afloat - the amount of brain space they took up during construction cannot be taken for granted. The only reason why they are coherent was because each word was a brick. A physical object. Something that might need to be filed down or broken up. Something with weight and a place to go while making a building. Thick globs of mortar were only smoothed on when I knew the bricks fit together okay. I moved the bricks around in my head over and over till they fit. It was very much a mental yet physical process. I understand making things in a physical way and I think my brain was at a loss for understanding the situation. My brain was spinning it's tires and it just borrowed some other part of my brain to make sense of what was going on. Plus, there was that huge tumour pressing against the word part of my brain, causing swelling and reading issues.
The Life Giving Power of Facebook Status Updates
When I noticed that things had grown even stranger with words was the day I had surgery. I woke up in recovery, felt pretty good, all things considered. Spent the afternoon with my husband and then he needed to go home to tend the household. Laying in that hospital bed that night, I went secretly on Facebook (partly to see if my husband had posted an update, partly to see if I could read still) and I started to think, "how on earth am I going to post a good status update?" (Seriously, even prior to surgery, status updates in my mind are an art form unto themselves. What is the perfect balance of humour and catching people off guard? I will spend hours hand crafting the right combination of seven words before posting.) That evening, I decided that my first message from "the other side" of surgery needed to be particularly memorable. I wanted to strike the perfect balance of "I am alive", "I have all my faculties", "I'm still pretty darn funny" and "it takes more than brain surgery to slow me down" - after considerable thought, I realized nothing says still functioning like an entertaining haiku.
I laid there for hours thinking about how to acknowledge some pleasure of being alive, albeit in a hospital. I laid there and in an almost tactile way, rolled each word around my mouth. The weight, the texture... almost the flavour. Comparing words for my little haiku was similar to putting a large Jaw Breaker candy in my mouth and experiencing it's presence as my tongue took off layers of colour and texture. I would then take a different word and like a piece of Hubba Bubba let the sugar ooze between my teeth as it conformed to each chewing motion. Compared to putting a stalk of celery into my mouth and the bracing crunch and non-candy like flavour invading my taste buds.
Once I settled on the topic, it was a matter of trying to add and subtract the correct amount of syllables (which is super hard when you are heavily medicated and just had brain surgery, you should try it sometime to appreciate my craftsmanship). I wanted words that "felt" good flowing into each other and I wanted someone to read it and laugh. Then feel relief, knowing I must be okay. Hours went into building this tiny poem. It quite possibly is the greatest thing I have ever written. I certainly put more work into it than most of my high school homework assignments. Okay, ALL of my high school homework assignments.
The Four-Story Mistake
One of my Christmas presents this year was unbelievably spooky in hindsight. When I was a little girl, I tended to read books that were just a little too far out of my age range. My comprehension just slightly less than ideal. This didn't matter. I loved words and was okay with reading words that I didn't totally understand, and I was a voracious reader. Even now, I like big words and I don't always know how to pronounce them because I've only read them. I figure, go big or go home and am okay with sounding kind of stupid the first time I say a word out loud, it's worth it. (On a side note, please never make fun someone who mispronounces a word. I know from experience how vulnerable that makes someone feel. Kindly repeat it back correctly but don't do it like some sort of learned scholar either. It's commendable that they trusted you enough to risk looking dumb.)
Anyways, when I was around 8 years old, I found a book at my school library that absolutely captivated me - it was filled with descriptive words that had depth and meaning (many of them I had never read before). I also couldn't finish it before the due date because it was a little too hard to take it all in. I didn't understand how the Dewey Decimal system worked but I was really good at remembering where I found things, so I returned the book before it was overdue. Then we had a school break. Time passed. When our next library visit came, imagine my horror as I realized that during the break, they had completely reorganized the library.
Where, oh where would I find this book? I'm not sure I ever really paid any attention to the title or author. I can, to this day, recall the cover of the book and the colour of the spine. I searched endlessly for this book, I was gripped by this story in a way that a book had never captured me before. Then it was gone. Not long after that, we moved. I never forgot the book though. A couple of months ago, I remembered a particular aspect of the book and so I googled it to see if I could figure out what it was called. In moments, I learned that it was titled "The Four-Story Mistake" written by Elizabeth Enright.
Now, any of you who know my family will know that I am married to an extraordinarily thoughtful man. He is constantly amazing me with the tiniest details that he plans out in advance. Half of which I don't notice or absorb completely to appreciate them fully. Anyways, my sweet husband sat on the couch a few months ago and made a note when I said "Man! I FINALLY figured out what that book was called! Now I can finally let it go and get on with my life". He then quietly ordered the book and it was under the tree on Christmas morning so that I could finally see how it ended. Unbeknownst to us, two days later I would have a seizure and it would make reading very difficult and yet, words would absolutely consume me.
This little gift is thoughtful on a different level too. During the past few years, a brain tumour was growing that we were unaware of, slowly pressing up on the part of my brain responsible for language stuff. One thing we did know (and this particularly concerned my husband) was that I was reading less and less. First to go was reading fiction for pleasure. Next it was reading fiction graphic novels. Then it was reading non-fiction opinions and ideas, Then it was reading non-fiction manuals. Then magazines and printed materials. All that was left was my iPad in small doses. (Even in that I had a small love affair with words. I play a game called Alphabear where you make words to beat levels. I might possibly have been stuck on a level right before surgery, and I might have made my husband promise that if I died or something went horribly wrong, that he would finish that stupid level for me if I was unable. I beat it a few days after I got home, thankfully. Take THAT, Alphabear!)
His Christmas present to me was almost prophetic in trying to find a way to re-engage me in the world of books that I used to love. Even if it was a kids book. Then everything happened. One of the things in my recovery that we have been really excited about is that it appears that reading printed material is no problem at all (in small doses). So, I have started reading The Four-Story Mistake. I am thankful that eight year old Michelle seems to have had great taste in books. Almost as great as fourteen year old Michelle having excellent taste in life partners, but I digress. This book is crazy and wonderful and wakes up my senses. I can hardly wait to finish it.
To read the whole story of my Meningioma click here.