Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Thoughts on recovery #artheals

 "Sooner or later all the people and the places that we loved are finished, and the only way to keep them safe is art. That's what art's for. It
rescues everything from time."
-Alan Moore Jerusalem


It's a word that can refer to a lot of different things.

Diana doesn't usually sit still for pictures. 

Quiet morning drinking tea with the cats.
 When I found out that I needed to have a hysterectomy, my first question wasn't about the procedure or anything related to myself, it was, "How long will I have to take off of work?"  I guess it says something about my ideas about self-care that I was freaking out more at the prospect of missing six-weeks of work than having one of my internal organs removed.

There was talk of postponing the surgery until summer, but I didn't want to spend my summer, the time of craft shows and family vacation, recovering from surgery.  I pulled out one of my pay stubs to check my sick day balance and I had sixty-seven unused sick days.  In my school system, we are allotted ten sick days per year, one per month of work.  I donated several to a co-worker last year who had a medical emergency and I took six weeks when my daughter was born almost seventeen years ago, but I hardly ever take time off when I'm ill.  When you're a teacher, it's usually easier to just fight whatever you're feeling and drag yourself into work than come up with sub plans.  When you have a sub, you never know what's going to happen.  Frequently, you return to your class being a complete wreck, a messy pile of incomplete work on your desk, and a lost day of instruction. Fortunately, there was a long-term sub available who was certified in History who was able to take over for me.  It's funny, he's one of my former students from the very beginning of my teaching career.  He came to debrief me last evening and told me that it was my class that helped to spark his interest in History...little did I know that one day, he would allow me to take the time I needed to recover free from worry about what was going on in my classes.

Portrait from a few days after I returned home from surgery

My husband was kind enough to set up the light and tripod for me so I could pull myself up and shoot this. I burst a bunch of the blood vessels in my face straining to get up and down be honest, to use the bathroom after surgery.  When they take out one of the organs in your abdomen, your digestive system doesn't take to it too kindly.

When I told my students that I was going to have surgery, one of my kids (I call my students my kids) asked if I could die. I was honest, I told her yes.  I also said that I could die driving home that day or walking across the street.  Surgery is indeed frightening.  You put your life in the hands of other people, that's the ultimate act of trust.  My mom almost died of complications from her hysterectomy when I was a teenager and so, yes, that was in the back of my mind when I went into the hospital.

You lose any sense of modesty you may have in a hospital...I must admit, it was fun discussing my tattoos with my nurses when they were hooking me up to my IV and wiring me up with pads to monitor my heart during the operation.  When my surgeon showed up to perform my operation in a Incredible Hulk tee shirt and a Superman surgical cap, so I knew I was in good hands. The nurse who wheeled me into surgery commented that I had  Yoda tattoo and pointed it out to the surgeon when he came into the operating room.  He commented, "Yeah, it's like I was destined to be her doctor."  And, that's all I remember.  Those tricky anesthesiologists don't give you a head's up when they're giving you the drugs, you just...go out.

By bandage from my pre-op bloodwork, taken about a week before surgery

Of course, I wanted to take photos as much as I could while I was in the hospital, but my camera is heavy.  I bought a used iPhone for my photography class that I teach at JMU, it's not activated and so, I wasn't worried about anything happening to it.  I used it to snap pictures when I could.

To be perfectly honest the worst parts of surgery were as follows:

1. Having to scoot myself from the surgical gurney to my hospital bed after moving up from the recovery room.

2. Getting up and walking the first time.  Standing up was one of the most painful experiences of my life, it sucked.

3. Going to the bathroom for the first time.

4. Feeling your internal organs shifting when you walk as the occupants of your abdomen settle into their

The rest, was really not as bad as anticipated.  Having your body process Carbon Dioxide gas out of the system is pretty horrid, but it only lasts a few days.  It's what ended up being good about this whole process which prompted me to write this blog post.

I have had a pretty difficult time the past few years. Since 2013 it's just seemed to be that when it rains, it pours.

I had a compressed nerve in my arm and had to have surgery
I lost a pet
My father had a quadruple bypass, the day after the blockage was discovered in a stress test
I had a paralyzed vocal chord
I lost another pet
My dear friend Will died, in circumstances that would rival anything written by Aeschylus or Sophocles. 
A former student committed suicide
and My aunt passed away recently, but more on that later. 

I'm sure there's more, but as all of these experiences piled on...I still had to be me.  I had to be a mom, a wife, a teacher and I never took the proper time to allow myself to recover physically or, more importantly, psychologically. As a classroom teacher, I have developed the ability to hear tragic things, push them down, and keep going; to discuss horrific events and not break down and cry.  You have to keep your shit together or chaos ensues.  Sometimes, the kids are great and if you're having a bad day, they understand and can be quiet and calm. But, I teach teenagers, and they haven't always developed those skills and ideas of empathy.  They have their own trauma and stress in their lives that they are trying to overcome. Our student population includes a lot of refugees, students who come from situations much more tragic than anything I have experienced and I always felt petty feeling sorry for myself when they have experienced much worse. I'm the adult, it's my job to be strong for them, to let them be young and impulsive.  Doing that all the time and denying myself the ability to grieve and recover took its toll.  I was really struggling this school year.  I found that I didn't have as much patience as I've had in the past, It was difficult to find the energy and enthusiasm to teach on some days. 

I found out I was having surgery about a month in advance.  I cobbled together my sub plans. Programmed Google Classroom and wrote notes to aid my substitute relating to everything I could think went on for several pages. 

-And then, I was home-alone, the most time I've spent alone in my adult life. Well...the cats are here, but I was in a quiet house, away from human contact and it was strange.

I adore Caitlin Moran

I found this book to be funny (worth laughing, even though it hurt) and insightful.

I spent a lot of time reading, binge watching The Killing (which was great), thinking, and once I felt well enough, making art.  I have a friend, Julie Clay who is an artist and a counselor.  She has a saying, "Art heals."  I never realized how right she was.  I have been working on putting together pieces for an upcoming art show. They come from a photo project from last school year where I took photos each day at school for the course of the entire school year. I called the project 180 Days and it will be a show this coming June at Larkin Arts.  As I dry-mounted 170 5X7 photos onto wood blocks I got to go through the pictures again, remembering the details of their captures.  

And then I started taking new pictures. Photography is one of the ways that I have found to deal with my stress and grief.  One of my favorite activities in the world is to load up my camera bag and go out in search of something to photograph.  I enjoy doing portrait sessions, weddings, and such because I like capturing those moments, but nothing compares to being out alone with your camera in search of the creative spark.  I have  recently come into possession of some darkroom equipment and can develop my own film.  I bought a negative scanner and have been out shooting expired film...and it's been glorious. 

Several years ago Neil Gaiman gave a wonderful speech, "Make Good Art"

I have thought of this speech a lot over the past six weeks.  I've finally had time to process my physical and psychological discomfort.  To be creative, to express myself, and learn to deal with the pain and loss I never gave myself the time to grieve.  Art does indeed heal. 

My first photo project of shooting an antique doll.  I could do this sitting down.

I went out into the county to visit a friend, it was a wonderful morning of photos, tea, and conversation.

I went downtown in Harrisonburg and took a series of long exposures.  

The creative process of rolling my own film and then developing and scanning my own negatives has been very rewarding. I love my digital camera, I've learned so much about exposure and composition shooting on my Sony, but the mystery and discovery of film can't be duplicated.  

Lastly, my Aunt Peggy passed away a few weeks ago.  She was a totally bad-ass chick who I always admired.  She survived being trampled by a bull in here 70s and took hikes for miles.  She succumbed to cancer after she finally retired from farming in her 80s.  When my mom asked her if she had any regrets, she said that her only regret was that she had not retired sooner so she had time to enjoy it. 

So, my friends.  After all of the deaths of family and friends I have faced in the last year of so, I say to you, "Carpe Diem!"

Apply for that art show, or job, or nursing program, or goal because, dammit, no one is going to do it for you.  Grab life by the horns, even if that bull runs you over, because you're never going to know unless you try.


 I took this picture of her chickens when I was working on the pieces for my Augusta show. It reminded me so much of Aunt Peggy and Uncle Irvin, I gave them a copy. I call it, Sentinel.