"Finally, among the drawbacks of illness as matter for literature there is the poverty of the language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache ... let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the inhabitants of Babel did in the beginning) so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out. Probably it will be something laughable."
My dad has an appointment with a neurosurgeon next month, so on the phone tonight we compare back pain. I say, "You mean the-ice-pick-in-the-butt-cheek pain?" He says, "Yes. That's it exactly," and seems relieved to have been handed this description to use for himself, too. We move on to the business of nerve damage, the numbness and the tingling, I say, "It's those three outer toes. I thought I'd treat myself to a pedicure in Mexico, but had to practically peel myself off the ceiling. I bit my cheek to keep from howling." He says, "What about when you're lying in bed and the sheets just barely touch your foot?" Wow. I don't know that one. That's some intense pain, Dad.
30 years ago he and I used to talk about archery: cams, anchor points, quivers, nocks, fletching, sights. When did we lose that language and acquire this new one? When did pain become the conduit for this, our new connection?
And my home is no different. The stack of medical papers for the last 2 years are the record of a broken ankle and subsequent surgeries, a sinus surgery, migraines, vision therapy, physical therapy, chiropractic treatment, and a host of other procedures that are way too personal for sharing and way too boring to hear about. But here's the thing: our language changed. And then our children began to speak it.
And maybe it's because our children, these little spirits, have finally landed within their physical bodies, suddenly aware of ache and pain (and the attention it brings), that prompts the, "My leg! I can't walk!" or "I just really feel sick, I don't know how to describe it, maybe it's in my tummy. Or my head. Or my knee." Or maybe everyone is suddenly incapacitated because I've instituted a Chore Chart, but I keep thinking about the moment of awareness. Was there a moment for the acquisition of this language, or was it formed gradually? Did we model this response for them? And when did we acquire it? When did everything hurt all of a sudden? When did it become just really hard to lean over and pull on my socks in the morning?
It's the artist's role to question and then to respond. Answering the question is not necessarily our job, but when a question is living within, the response reverberates in all we observe.
The forces that shape the world -- gravity, erosion, the smoothing attributed to fluids, the grinding of surface against surface, the stress and then subsequent fracture due to material fatigue -- are all found within the world of the body as well. Compression, blood, bone, ligament, suspension. A friend recently explained, "Once you're aware of this, you'll begin to see the same forms again and again. Everything in nature is shaped by those same forces." On our last trip to Mexico (agonizing pedicure) I tiptoed around on a moonscape of beach, so alien and raw and severe it frightened me. Something here was going to hurt me or my children: pufferfish spines, scorpions, thorns, stinging rays in the shallows. But nothing did. And what seemed like bone and carcass washing up on the beach was often just shell and wood and stone, shaped and molded into forms that were foreign but recognizable at the same time. Forms of the body. Soon enough, I could carry the dehydrated hammerhead shark carcass, flip the sputtering pufferfish back into the shallows and collect and collect and collect along the bleached shoreline. The question living within -- how do we live with pain, how do we talk about it, how has it become our language -- began its churning, meditative response to what the natural world offered here.
If I tell you that you are looking at bone, but I show you shell or rock or wood, how long will it take your brain to know otherwise?
Do you need to touch it? Do you need to look at everything else around it and decide? Or will you just believe me?
If I show you one bone, or two, will you believe that an entire collection is bone? If I show you a quilt, but it is covered in bone, and a litany of words and ideas that no one will discuss -- do you still see a quilt? Quilts are safe, do you still feel safe? Or do you feel flayed, do you feel raw, do you bring your own uncomfortable history to what you see:
Because if you do, then I have done my job as an artist. I have offered a language and a response -- parts of it beautiful and parts of it terrible -- a landscape that shifts and grinds, soft against hard, pain in one hand and a lump of pure sound in the other, but it is the truth of a life nonetheless.
I feel it. I speak it.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.