This morning my brother-in-law send me a link to his friend Julia's blog. She's a photographer and writer. Recently, another friend, an artist named Coco, asked Julia to photograph her nude right before she was to have a mastectomy. This woman Coco had had breast cancer several years ago, and was about to reenter Cancerland a second time. I looked at a black-and-white portrait of this stranger, hard into her eyes. What was it I saw there? Bravery? Fear? Will? Defiance? The expression of cleaved stone? Joan of Arc? Truth? Beauty? Myself? Other? Of course all of these and more, coming back to the truth of a rocky headland pounded by waves, a taiga forest shaped by fire: this is life. Endurance in the face of the unrelenting, like wind, like spring, like winter, like weather, like erosion, like birthdays, like water.
Last night at a friend's 60th birthday party an acquaintance walked up to me and asked what I thought of our friend Mavis' latest art endeavor. Mavis is a fiber artist who makes impermanent art, who weaves baskets and myths and burns them with community as witness (see my blog posts about her burning baskets in Homer last fall), who believes in transience the way some believe in eternal life. Into the burning basket last September I Joan-of-Arced my beautiful body cast, the one my friend Deer helped me make right before my mastectomy. (How I hate to say it and claim it, my mastectomy, just as I try not to say "my cancer," how I hate the medical term, the mass, the ect, the omy, the word actually turning ownership over to surgeons, to breastcancerland, not to me. I didn't wield the knife, so their mastectomy helped to save my life, and I don't mean to sound bitter or ungrateful or even disrespectful. I'm grateful, and I was impossibly relieved when I woke up from anesthesia and knew the tumor was gone. I cried and cried.
What was mine was loss. In the weeks before I lost my breast, my friend Deer helped me make a body cast. She's the one who plastered the cloth strips to my naked chest. I stood there in front of her with my eyes closed. Later, I decorated the cast in Deer's basement. Looking at Coco's photograph, at her self-portraits painted during her previous treatment, I remembered the numb-drowned-sleepwalker weeks waiting for surgery, when were it not for my list (schedule bone scan, schedule CAT-scan, call healers, schedule MUGA scan, ask Deer about body cast, buy kale, schedule MRI) and my sister, I would have maybe wandered into the piney, sandy woods, forgetting my name and my way back out, stumbling my way to the ocean, and keeping on going. So I look back on it now almost as if Deer led me by the hand to her basement studio, put both hands on either side of my head and directed my gaze down to the piles of tissue on the table, the pot of mod podge, the paint brushes, as if she closed my fingers around the paint brush. Said now begin. The pure white bandaged cast of my torso lying in front of me like some weird resurrection, the shape already a shadow's after-image, incipient memory, past body, ex-self.
The power of art to heal, writes photographer Julia about Coco's work. Last night at the party, as I started to say before, an acquaintance came up to me and asked, "How do you like Mavis's new work?" She meant Mavis's "casket baskets," woven grave cradles of spruce and birch and grass. And at first I wondered, I admit, why she was asking me. Why me? Did she think I should be shopping for a grave cradle? The question loaded with my own freight. Still too many "how are you doing, are you well now, wow, you look great" loaded questions and comments at a party like that, but at the same time, because of that freight, conversations about coffins, death, burial, and another woman who told me about her sister who'd undergone breast cancer treatment years ago, and was okay, but the friend who wasn't, and her anger years later at her friend's death at 32. And in the background, music, and people wandering around holding cups of beer wearing hippie/hottie/homesteader costumes (lots of knee-high boots) and raucous laughing and lights and fishnets and beads and wigs and death.
And then, a collective of tall-booted, fishnet-stockinged 50-somethings in corsets and short skirts and wigs serenaded the birthday boy before diving with him into a fake cake. And then our 50-something skinny friend Conrad in tight leather pants and a lavender muscle-tee dove in after and legs thrashed and there was screaming. There were a lot of dead people in that party-room too flitting or lurking, who were spoken of, and on the drive home Craig and I talked about some of them, the 32 year-old who died of breast cancer, and the mother of one of my students who died of some out-of-nowhere rare cancer, and the young mother environmentalist who died of ovarian cancer and it just seemed incredibly wrong in spite of that fact that so much cancer to so many incredibly wrong people must actually not be wrong but even weirdly normal, right? And the sense that sometimes life seems like one big performance art spectacle in which you're a brave, daring actor naked on a tiny wooden stage.
And yet when it happens to you, that wrong thing, that cancer, that bottom dropping out of it all, there's that look on your face. Even if it's never photographed, there's that look on your face and on the inside, that look on your soul, maybe, of stone, water, sand, glacial till, birch bark, and pure white plaster, the look of endurance and enduring and no and wrong and why and bring it on and fuck this shit too. And I dare you to look into my eyes. And look at what they are taking away, what I am losing. And when you see that look on another's face, a stranger's face, or in a painting, it says no matter what happens, that bedrock is in you. That bedrock is you. Riven and rivered amen.
Thank you Julia, thank you Coco.