Friday, December 28, 2018

Aug 1, 2017 by Noah Renee Shaw (A Poem)

Breakable like a piece of glass,
Don't drop - I'll shatter,
Don't even look harshly,
Or I may break,
When did this happen,
I who stood so tall,
Me against the world,
Now wanting to crawl in a hole,
My gumption is gone,
My strength wavering,
Is my desire in a lost and found,
Help me find me before I disappear for good.

Biography: Noah Renee is 29 years old and will be 30 on January 21. Noah Renee has been battling mental illness since her last year in college at the age of 22. She’s diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder Bipolar type, PTSD, and anxiety disorder. She lives with her dad and twin brother.

She can be contacted at noah89shaw89[at]hotmail[dot]com.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Go Figure: A Meditation on Illness and Understanding by Dov Zeller

Latin figurare "to form, shape.”

The inscrutable shape of a story unfolds here.

Not a story, a catalogue of thoughts. A scrolling form.

The beautiful chaos of musings. Another misshapen day.

What will I do with these flocks? Seconds that make up minutes—sunlight glinting on their wings, where comes together so many feathery hours.

Hours like a pod of whales that swims in formation (fully aware that the toxic waters won’t hold them much longer). And what do they do? Do they nod a little goodbye to the world? Sink to the sand below and be done with it? No!

They love and mourn. Swim in community and flex their muscles. Fly up into the air and make art. They are activists, and they play, because they know these hours are all we have.

(Hours that make up days.)

Do days cut a poor figure? Are they to be held and trusted, or let go? Followed quietly? Flushed with everything else into the oceans of time that so long ago held and worried and groomed us until we walked or crawled or shimmied out, sunbathing on the banks.

I don’t know. I’m figuring (it figures)… I’m figuring something… I’m figuring (nothing) out.

All days have shape. Just different. Differently-shaped days. My days won’t fit. They won’t rest on the kitchen table or sit idly on the palm of my hand. The briefcase can’t close over them. Like water they spill over and through and soon, there comes another.

And there you have it, a week. Seven days, an odd, prime number. In a month there are four of them, and usually a few extra days thrown in for good measure. Like a pinch of salt. The flour left on the cutting board after the dough is rolled. (There is (dis)order in (dis)order.)

As for me? A bit crumpled lying here in my bed. The sheets in a tangle. Someone somewhere will say, “He cuts a poor figure.” Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out. We always do. (Time and I until time goes on without me.)

I’ve heard some say “I don’t have a musical bone in my body.” Others that they don’t “have a head for figures.”

But the truth is, music is simply part of the landscape. Within and without. Birds sing almost everywhere. Crickets salt the night. Wolves go on and howl. Fish swim and dart in great symphonies, bless their shoals. The sun rises and sets, the moon in its cyclical shadow. Tides go in and out. Our hearts beat at a rhythm and our blood hums along and so there is at least one music to be escaped at great peril. (Use the musical sign for rest.)

As for figures, those of us who see a line, a circle, one or two disconnected strokes, begin to find a body forming there. Our brains are trained to connect. To see faces—the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast. An electrical socket, two eyes and a nose (or is it a mouth?)

Pareidolia is the word for people who see faces to excess in inanimate matter. But it’s all a matter of degree. To see identifying characteristics everywhere. To form a face, a body, a story.

We nearly all have a head for figures to a point.

And then there are connections that go beyond the immediate. Yesterday x talked of a friend. “They’re brilliant,” x said. “They read a lot and watch a lot of films and make adventurous connections.”

(Adventurous connections!)

(When we seek connections that haven’t been made for us, that we haven’t been made for, then perhaps we are hang-gliding for understanding. Spelunking for truth.)

Some people are imprisoned by false connections, marinate in them until all they can do is force dots and lines together from two different universes to insist on a truth that isn’t there.

I am trying to have compassion. Trying to understand. The universe is bigger than a bread box, and yet, someone somewhere might hold a whole universe in their hand.

Definition. Figure. The “visible and tangible form of anything.”

Etymologically, the word comes from the formation of numbers. Lines building themselves into symbols. From there the word goes more broadly figurative. And then, more literally figurative? Lines forming a self. A body. (Here the line between literal and figurative begins to swerve.)

Realistic figures. Abstract figures. Classical figures. Figures in shadows. Figures in light. Hidden figures. (Is there space for realism when all is processed through the work of memory? Perhaps we live largely in fable, in rigorous dreams.)

To create a figure, you may first need a line. (I’m casting it. Hold on. I’ll reel you in. But what if the line is dotted?)

So often I’ve heard reverence declared for an artist’s curved or voluptuous, continuous or disconnected lines. When I try to form a line, it staggers, drunken, across the page. It jitters and shivers and refuses to listen to the idea that brought me to it.

I look at abstract art and even when I admire the lines, I don’t know how to speak of them.

“Which paintings have sharp lines, and which are soft, smooth or rough? Do the lines in the composition draw your eye to a specific part of the painting? Do some lines contribute to the feeling of action or stillness in the painting? Does […] always use the same style of linework, or does [their] style vary?” (“Five Ways to Think About A Line” click here to read.)

I look at my abstract life, and wonder, where is the specificity here? Where are the days? They’re all a mash. Vegetables boiled until the flavor’s gone out and you don’t even need a mill to turn them to soup.

And yet the next one comes folded and new. Fresh as cut grass. Sharp as a wound. Vivid and full of wonders because we live on a great marble that spins around a moving ball of fire. Interminable explosions freckle the sky as far as the eye can see. How can I not feel awe?

(When theories of light were young, philosophers thought the eyes reached out to grab at light, rather than being open and sensitive to the light that travels toward us.)

I’m so sensitive to light, I lie in the dark for most of my waking hours. I’m light averse, but most stars are far enough away that they don’t hurt. I’ve hurt people I love and all I can do is try to accept, to acknowledge, try to let go and do better as new days travel toward me.

Sometimes the past feels as far away as the unheated light of distant cosmic objects. Other days, time feels so airless, each day of my life a transparency set atop the next until light can’t get through and everything is inscrutable, but the pain of the past is as young as it ever was.

Still, I am trying to figure out what it means to be a figure in bed. A still life while still living. Not portraiture. Neither captured on canvas like fruit or a vase of flowers. No “Starry Night” (Van Gogh) or (Soutine) “Landscape in Ceret” (still lifes in motion). Just lying here unable to feel the constant motion, the Earth barrels along at nearly twenty miles per second and I sit here in the dark (what kind of figure am I?) listening to the rain.
Biography:  Before getting full-blown CFS/ME, Dov Zeller struggled to sit still and often read while walking (in between swimming, biking, and yoga). Now he is an intrepid recliner. Though sick with a devastating chronic illness, he is determined to appreciate the ecosystems he comes into contact with. As it turns out, even a small world is full of endless complexity. He enjoys reading, writing, visiting with friends, listening to audiobooks and classical guitar, and observing birds who drop by the window feeder. Zeller lives in Western Massachusetts, where he moved in order to complete an MFA in fiction at UMass Amherst. He has also lived in San Francisco and Oakland, California, and Brooklyn, NY, and he grew up in eastern Pennsylvania. He has two novels coming out this year.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Ezekiel Saw the Wheel by Rosemary Woodel

Ezekiel saw that wheel
Way up in the middle of the air
Ezekiel saw that wheel whirling
Way up in the middle of the air
Now the little wheel runs by faith
And the big wheel runs by the grace of God
And a wheel in a wheel whirling
Way up in the middle of the air
-Woody Guthrie

I’d been having trouble with visual acuity recently.  More trouble, is the truth of it.  It isn’t carelessness that causes me to take photographs that aren’t sharp.  “Tack sharp” as my photography teacher says.

July 19 and August 2 I saw Dr. I., the retinal ophthalmologist.  Normally I see him every three months.  I’d gone back again so soon because I had a new symptom I wanted him to check.   
I’d been in the hospital in late July for three days with a hemiplegic migraine.  Slightly before then and after, I noticed a wheel whirling in the middle of my field of vision in the left eye.   It was like a wheel spinning while the car is jacked up in the garage — it revolves but goes nowhere. 

 Dr. I. looked at his fancy photographs of the back of my eye and saw no change compared to previous photographs.  He therefore thought the wheel was the aura of an atypical migraine.  Not being a doctor, I didn’t disagree except in my head, because it was unlike any aura I’d ever had.  
 My migraine auras are active — bright and flashy and careening all over the dance floor of both eyes.  This shiny rotating disc was only in my left eye and remained straight in my field of vision.   As a photographer, it bothered me greatly that I couldn’t take a picture of it.

Meantime, my vision overall was causing problems in taking and processing sharp photographs.   (I was already used to not reading the printed page well.)  On August 20 Dr. D., my regular eye doctor, said both corneas were engaged in map-dot-fingerprint dystrophy.  It took me two weeks to memorize that.  Wrinkled corneas meant that seeing things in focus would be a challenge.  He said that down the road “they” could scrape them or iron them or somehow smooth them out but there was a long recovery time.  Meantime, I should put drops in my eye every hour.

But back to Ezekiel’s wheel.  Maybe I was better able to describe what I was seeing to Dr. D. than I had with the retinal guy because Dr. D. thought it was not an atypical migraine and suggested I see Dr. I. again, which I did in short order.  

For the first time since February 2017, my wet macular degeneration was active again.  This showed up in fancy photographs of my retina, not from my complaints about Ezekiel’s wheel.  
“So,” said Dr. I., “Your shiny wheel was a warning of things to come because this bleeding area was definitely not there earlier in the month.  It’s good Dr. D. urged you to return here.”  And so I had an injection in my eye.

Now the little wheel runs by faith
And the big wheel runs by the grace of God
And a wheel in a wheel whirling
Way up in the middle of the air

Soon after the injection, I saw black floaters that look like many flies in the dining room.  Wait, one of those four is a fly!  Now they’ve turned into crows.  I miss the little wheel, but all these creatures are entertaining.  

I will be changing the subject matter of what I photograph.  If I can no longer do macro photos of flowers, I can experiment with other subject matter.  A few days ago I took photos of shadows of sculptures at the UGA Museum of Art.  If they are a bit blurry, it doesn’t seem to matter so much.

Having had significant losses in my life, I make it a practice to encourage a Plan B.  Or a Dream B.  If I can’t do what I am accustomed to doing with my eyes and brain, what can I do with whatever still works?  A friend says this approach — resilience — is one of my strengths.  Oddly, I’ve noticed my photography is becoming more artistic as I experiment.  That is a very good thing.
Biography:  Rosemary Woodel is a photographer with diminishing vision and a writer with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  At age 77, she is still adjusting to life in what she hopes are creative ways.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Viewing Frida Kahlo by Emily Rapp Black

CW:  Miscarriage

London (2018)

They come out in droves to see her in London: school groups in their crisp uniforms, sharing bags of sweet and salty snacks and looking bored; sunburned German tourists, one wearing a plastic mask of Donald Trump’s face; a woman in a black burka and black sneakers hurrying toward the museum steps. I’m nervous going in, although I know what to expect: Frida’s legs and casts; the corsets that held up the bones of her back; some of her best and most photographed articles of clothing that make up her quintessential “look.”

The Victoria and Albert Museum is in South Kensington, an area of London where apartments cost in the millions of pounds, and the white buildings are so spotless in the late September sunshine that I’m reminded of the white buildings in Mojacar, Spain, where my friend Emily and I strolled around on a hot summer day six years before when my son Ronan was still alive, my daughter Charlie was not yet born, and I hadn’t yet met my husband Kent. My friend spent the entire day talking me out of a manic state, my first and only (and I hope the last). Later, after hours of walking, we smoked cigarettes and drank white wine on the beach while she rubbed aloe on my sunburned back and I cried. I loop my arm with hers now.

“I had no idea Frida was so popular,” I say, and I’m legitimately surprised. “I’ll bet half of these people didn’t know she was an amputee.”

“You’ve dressed like her,” Em says. It’s warm in the first exhibit hall, and we jostle against the other onlookers, all trying to get close to each photograph or painting or fragment of a framed, handwritten letter for a few long seconds.

Indeed, I have deliberately dressed like Frida, or perhaps in homage to her. It would be ridiculous for an American woman to wear a Tehuana dress, but I have disguised myself in my way, one of several forms of controlled presentation: a denim vintage dress (always vintage, the fabric holding someone else’s story that will never be known to me) with a ruffle on the bottom hem and a nipped waist; tights; mid-calf 80s dead stock white go-go boots; gold jewelry draped and layered around the neck and across the chest, understated elsewhere; dark lipstick; a single braid.

“This is my confident get-up,” I respond.

“It’s working,” she says, and smiles. My mother, 75, and my daughter, four, walk ahead of us, my mom trying to shush Charlie as she cries loudly, “I want to sit down. This is so boring. I don’t like this room.” My mom picks her up and begins strolling around with her, whispering in her ear. She giggles. I wonder what my Mom is saying to her.

The rooms are heaving with people, and Emily and I quickly separate. I’m starting to feel hot and awkward, as I often do in art museums, when the pace of viewing is so slow and people are thinking so hard it’s as if they create their own kind of heat. It’s a miracle that more people don’t faint. Walking slowly is the hardest kind of movement for me, and without the momentum of follow through that happens at a quicker clip, I limp noticeably, which makes me feel unmoored from my body. And that makes me nervous. I notice people’s stares; people are staring. I feel their eyes on me as I limp, then on the photographs of Frida. A hushed concentration hangs in the room - a palpable sense of people looking at things to try and understand them, or memorize them, or take them in.

I’m feeling impatient to see the legs and the corsets and the boots. That’s more my genre. I move into the second hall, but it’s so packed that I’m forced over to the left side, where I stumble into the man in front of me, who catches me as we exchange awkward apologies. When he steps away to reveal a photograph of Frida I’ve never seen, I feel like someone has power punched me in the chest. I literally think of the heavy bag I used to have in the back room of my house in New Mexico, and all the hours I spent beating the shit out of it. I feel like the bag.

I look around for Em - I don't want to stand alone in front of this photograph on the edge of tears – but I don’t see her. Charlie is sitting on the lap of one of the guards while my embarrassed mother tries to pry my jet-lagged, stubborn little girl from his arms. “I'm resting,” Charlie announces, but finally relents and sits next to him on the floor. “I’m just Charlie,” she tells the guard, who is smiling, and my mom, giving up, sits down next to her on the floor. She gives me a little wave.

She’s in traction, I mouth to my mother, but she can’t lip read that far away.

What? I see her whisper back, her eyebrows raised.

“Traction,” I say loudly, and a few people turn to look at me. My mom shrugs and shakes her head, clearly still confused.

Indeed, Frida is in traction in the photo, which is taken from the side, so you can see that her head is suspended in air, held up and back by the pulley system behind her, the canvas taut against her forehead. Her amputated leg is raised up in a white cast and her hair is long and dark and flowing over the white cotton hospital gown. First, I am flooded with the memory of how it feels to be held like that, in suspense, literally, and how painful and awkward it is. The ache in the neck muscles. The blood from the amputated leg rushing down, that feeling that someone is trying to push knowledge into your head through the bone of your forehead with the bone of their hand. How slowly sweat moves through canvas burlap.

Frida is painting. There’s a sketchpad in her lap, and a brush in her hand. This is what makes me want to weep. She makes as pain unmakes her. And she has just lost her leg. I am overcome with compassion for her – not pity – and also compassion for myself, which is hard to come by. To my right, encased in glass, are the corsets that propped up the bones in her back after the accident, and for the rest of her life. My own early casts and back braces were made of the same rough cotton material that stained easily and that looked like something you’d buy at the rope and saddle store.  Frida’s amputation was in 1953; mine was in 1978.  I don’t remember the braces in the Casa Azul; I don't remember the straps hanging from their shells were the same straps I remember pissing on, tying on, shitting on, washing in the sink with bleach, carefully scrubbing out the coins of blood from my period.

I hear a conversation behind me:

It’s so sad, so tragic. 

Isn’t it just terrible, the pain she was in?  

Oh, these awful…devices. But it inspired her to paint. 

Yes, it made her an artist. All the pain.


I limp away, desperate to yell at these two middle-aged women who are having a lovely afternoon at the special exhibit at the V&A. I don’t. But they’re wrong.

Critics and fans, and just the average person who knows Frida from a tote bag or a refrigerator magnet, has inherited this narrative that pain was her muse. It’s what inspired her to paint, this narrative preaches, whether it was the wreckage of her love affair with Diego, or her chronic and constant pain, or losing part of a leg. Art has been codified as her ‘therapy.’” It’s so ridiculous I want to cry or scream, something. Instead, I keep walking.

Going half-made in Spain was not about being visited by a muse; it was a visitation by madness. Screaming out the window of a farmhouse, afraid to kill random bugs on the windowsill as the spirit of my dying boy might be trapped inside. Pretending to be Kafka, then pretending to be his lover, then pretending to sleep, then wanting to be dead. Wandering along dusty streets, my uneven footsteps lit by the bright moon breaking through, every so often, of the muted haze of a late summer Spanish sky.

Other art historians have broken Frida’s paintings into categories of those representing real pain and imagined pain. There is no way to calculate what represents more pain: the red leg with its winged painted foot in the glass, or Frida’s neck suspended in air. Which of her 30 medical procedures was the most difficult? Which of her four failed pregnancies hit her the hardest? Yes, she painted in bed. Create or die. That’s very different from “being inspired.”

Oh, those critics who make the architectural column of her spine a phallic symbol, who imagine the “penetrating thrust” of the pole through her pelvis and she must never have enjoyed sex. The pole got there first and she was ruined, crippled goods. They haven’t seen her legs, her winged feet, her corset decorated and shining. This wasn’t the art of inspired sentiment. It is the art of survival. But only if you see it that way. Otherwise, it all devolves into the typical narrative: the brave, pathetic woman who never had children, whose body was crippled, whose life was ruined.

Some critics and art historians have accused Frida of paying too much attention to her illnesses; some have debated the veracity of her pain, as if they were the architects of the scale. She was accused of allowing her illnesses to displace her maternal drive, and it was a fault, not a triumph, that she gave herself over to the masculine ambition of being a painter.

A diseased woman is a suspicious woman. A grieving mother is a suspicious mother unless she is a virgin and consecrated into the realm of religions impossibility.  It’s as if the idea – and especially the image – of a disabled woman in the world floats. It is there; no, it’s there; and there, or maybe there.

Another wall of portraits I hadn’t seen before: Frida naked from the waist up. Three black and white stills of her gazing at the camera while holding alternatively a mirror, a brush, an adornment for her hair. Her breasts are small and spherical and soft-looking. Her shoulders look sculpted and strong below the angle of her jawline. Wow, I hear someone say behind me, so close to me it’s as if they’re whispering in my ear. She’s actually beautiful. I never thought of her as beautiful. His wife pulls him along and the same pair of ladies stands next to me again. Such a pity she never had children. They would have been beautiful. And now I let tears blur my vision until people move past me and I hear Charlie saying, “Mommy! I’m so bored and I want to eat a cookie at the coffee store.” I pick her up and give her tired face a kiss. Behind us, encased in glass, the corset Frida cut a round hole inside as a way to show her miscarriages, to wear the losses against her, with her, around her, just as any mother would do.

Biography:  Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir; The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the PEN USA Award; Sanctuary, forthcoming from Random House in 2020; and Cartography for Cripples, forthcoming from the New York Review of Books in 2020. A former Fulbright scholar, Guggenheim Fellow, and James Michener Fellow in fiction and poetry at UT-Austin, she is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Writers Award; the Winter Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center; the Wachtmeister Award in Nonfiction; and fellowships at Yaddo, Jentel, and Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain. Her work has appeared in Vogue; O, the Oprah Magazine; Redbook; the Sun; The New York Times; The Boston Globe; The Los Angeles Times, and in many other publications and anthologies, including The Best Creative Nonfiction. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at UC-Riverside, where she also teaches in the School of Medicine. She lives with her family in Southern California, and she and her husband, writer and editor Kent Black, own and operate a book editing and manuscript consulting business. Visit her at and