Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Like Alice Down the Rabbit Hole . . .

Or How a Day Can Go From Bad to Worse.

The phone rang at 12:15 PM. I picked it up immediately looking first at the caller ID number, not recognizing it right off the bat but assuming this was the call for which I had been anxiously waiting. Dr. K, my oncologist who was away from his office for several weeks and I had a “phone appointment” at 12:20 PM and I thought, hopefully, he might actually be calling a bit early as we had a lot to talk about.

It was not. It was Filiberto, our gardener, who wanted to talk about the next day’s work in our garden. I cut the call short, not wanting to depend on call waiting to let me know Dr. K was on the line.

From that point on, the day and I simply fell apart.

When Dr. K hadn’t called by 2 PM I called his office and after several tries to speak to a person, not just leave a message through the voice mail maze, I heard he was running 1½ hours late because of emergencies. If I had gone into his office and checked in, I would have no doubt been told he was running late, encouraged to go have a bite to eat, come back and check in later. But a phone appointment running late? Well, too bad. Didn’t the person who scheduled the appointment tell me this could happen?

No, but it didn’t matter if they had. Dr. K was unavailable until who knew when and I, waiting for news I pretty much knew wouldn’t be good, finally let go of all I had been holding in, all my fears, my frustrations, my anger at this latest diagnosis and had my first huge melt down. I fell sobbing into the arms of my dear husband who had been waiting with me to speak to the doctor. After helping me gain a bit of composure, he encouraged me to go to the gym and "work it out", which I did and it helped - a little.

When I went through my first bout of breast cancer, the only time I remember crying was before I had even been diagnosed. Three months after we were married over twenty years ago, I felt a lump in my right breast. When the surgeon who examined me said the word “biopsy”, tears began to flow, even though he said he was so sure it was “90% nothing to worry about”.

This being the third time I’ve gone through a diagnosis of cancer, I now believe the worst part is always in the very beginning, when nothing is certain except the fact that somewhere in your body, cells are growing haywire. When there is still no prognosis, no treatment plan, no idea what comes next, these are the most anxiety-ridden, the toughest days of all.

Which is why, when no phone call was forthcoming from Dr. K with this very information which I hoped would somehow put me at ease, help me get on track to fight this “indolent” disease, I fell apart.

Unfortunately, this time with this disease, which I can now refer to with its specific name, small lymphocytic lymphoma or as it is more well known - SLL, I will not have the benefit of any of these things, no prognosis, no treatment plan, no idea what will come next.

I learned this from Dr. K who finally called at 7 PM apologizing for the bureaucratic snafu. Apparently, since he didn’t schedule the appointment himself, which is how it is supposed to be done, he didn’t know about it until he heard I had left messages. But better than the 10 minute phone appointment I would have had with him in the middle of the day, he spent almost an hour on the phone with us, giving us all the information he could, that from the last CT scans, there are no enlarged nodes in my chest area (good news), but that this is a “systemic disease which cannot be cured” (not so good news). There is no treatment necessary until I have symptoms, i.e. night sweats, fevers, anemia, fatigue. How will I know when these symptoms are bad enough to require treatment? He had no real answer for that.

J├╝rgen asked all of the scientific questions about monoclonal antibodies and such. I took notes on this. Mine are: CD 5, CD 20, CD 23, BCL 2 - all positive (not good) but CD 3 and CD 10 are negative (good). He asked about a specific test which would more accurately tell if I have the gene which portends an early demise from this disease or not. Dr. K knew about this but I don’t think it is done routinely at Kaiser. And anyway, do I really want to know this in advance? Know that I might have only 5 years left as opposed to say 15? Not something I can decide easily or in a hurry. I’ll get back to you on that one.

So nothing from the phone call gave me anything with which I might forge ahead on a path to recovery, a plan of action, what to do while waiting for the tell-tale symptoms. All that I’m left with is this floating anxiety. And the knowledge that at any moment I just might have another melt down.

So where is that Cheshire cat with his magnificent grin when I need him?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Life Goes On in the Studio . . .

Or Doing the Work is the Best Medicine.

The platters are coming along. I spent a good three hours in the studio on Wednesday after going to the gym. I finished a prototype platter, the one done as an example for Tina so she can choose the glaze she’d like and if she likes the idea of inlaid porcelain slip or not. It’s now drying slowly before being bisque fired.

Leather hard platter with porcelain slip added.

Leather hard platter with porcelain slip inlay.

While I was working on adding the porcelain slip to the carved portion of the prototype platter, I had a visit from Judith who is doing an article for the first OSC (Oakland Symphony Chorus, of which I am a member since 2006) newsletter, SING! “SINGer Spotlight” is, to quote Judith, “a piece highlighting interesting chorus members, and we thought you would be an appropriate starter for this column.” Really? Me? I have a few intimate friends from way back who might describe me as “interesting” but chorus members? OK, so they must be going alphabetically starting with the sopranos. Well, no, Judith assured me otherwise, although they are starting with the sopranos. Anyway, she came armed with a camera and, hopefully, managed to get a decent photo for the column.

Leather hard platter with porcelain slip inlay on both sides finished.

I finished one of my pinched vessels now ready for bisque firing and decided, with the help from my studio friend, Tyrell, that I was also finished with the larger one. 

Leather hard pinch vessel with wax resist, carved pattern.

Other side of leather hard pinched vessel with carved pattern.

Sometimes you just have to see your work through someone else’s eyes to make these “it’s done” decisions.

Front side of large pinched vessel ready to dry.

Back side of large pinched vessel ready to dry.

And then a piece sitting on the shelf above my drying shelves caught my eye. I’d almost forgotten I had done this porcelain piece with desert blue glaze, which I glazed and fired recently.  It pleases me from every angle. More of these will come, no doubt.

Porcelain pinched vessel with desert blue glaze, carved, torn, coiled.

Another view of porcelain pinched vessel w/desert blue glaze.

Another view of porcelain pinched vessel, carved, torn, coiled.

Close up of carved, torn coiled porcelain pinched vessel.

One more view of porcelain pinched vessel.

All in all, it was a good day in the studio. If laughter is the best medicine, then my studio has got to be the funniest joke ever. 

Things You Hope To Never Hear From Your Health Care Providers . . .

Or If You Can't Say Anything Nice . . .

In the past two months I’ve had my share of appointments with doctors, physical therapists and radiology technicians and all I can say is somewhere along the way medical and training schools have definitely dropped the ball when it comes to what we used to call “bedside manners.”

Here are just a few examples of what, in my humble opinion, definitely could have been left unsaid.

When my physical therapist was studying films of my lower back and asking me about my symptoms and type of pain I was experiencing he said, “Well, considering what you’ve told me about your pain and how it is affecting your daily life and what I see here as the state of your back, you are doing extraordinarily well. I have other patients in wheelchairs with this type of lumbar situation.”

Like I needed to hear this.

Then there was my regular doctor who called me in the evening (you know it’s going to be something you don’t want to hear when they call you later than normal office hours, but anyway . . .) to tell me that the MRI she ordered for my lower back pain showed severe arthritis, nothing we weren’t expecting. But then she said, “It also showed you have some enlarged lymph nodes and so I’m ordering a CT scan to get a better look.”

OK, that wasn’t so alarming, but THEN she said, “Now you should know that I wouldn’t order this unless I thought it was absolutely necessary because CT scans emit a lot of radiation.”

Did I need to know the amount of radiation given off by a CT scan was higher than most radiological tests so there could be something else to worry about?  No. Or the inference that SHE was obviously worried about the enlarged lymph nodes or she wouldn’t be ordering the test?  No, again.

Sigh . . . and believe me, she’s always been the best when it comes to knowing what to say and what not to say. Hers was a mild gaffe comparatively speaking.

Much worse was the ENT (ear nose and throat) surgeon who called me in the early morning (before I was even out of bed so again, I was sure it was something I didn’t want to hear) with results from my lymph node biopsy. He wasn’t the doctor who did the actual surgery (he was out of town) so I guess I should give him a bit of a pass because he really didn’t know my case. But even so, do I really want to pick up the phone and have a doctor start out by saying, “I’m sorry but I have some really bad news”? And in the next breath say, “Are you sitting down?”  Luckily for me I was still in bed at the time, but CRAP! Is that what you want to hear at 8 in the morning, before you’ve even had coffee?

I don’t think so.

And lastly, there was the very chatty radiology technician who was administering the CT scan I had last Friday. Lots of banter back and forth while she got me up on the gurney before sending me through the radiation-zapping machine, and injecting me with an iodine infusion for one last picture. Then she made this conversational faux pas. As I was collecting myself thinking well, at least that’s over, and after she told me I should drink plenty of water to flush the iodine solution out of my overworked kidneys, she said cheerfully, “Well, we’ll be seeing a lot more of you here.”


“Oh yes,” she continued, “You’ll be getting these scans pretty regularly. Oh and drinking all those yummy banana smoothies.” She was referring to the barium liquid they have you drink when they do CT scans of your stomach, intestines and bowels, which gave me a great case of diarrhea the last time I drank it. I was homebound for the rest of the day and evening.

When I balked at the thought of going through this on a regular basis and questioned why, she said, “You have lymphoma, yes? Well, CT scans are really the only way they can follow the progress of the disease.”

Well, didn’t that make my day? Just what I needed to know. The only thing that kept me from fuming about that for the next couple of hours was the horrendous traffic on the way home from the medical facility. Mental road rage took over.

My dear mom used to say this but in a much more genteel way. Here's my version: If you can’t say anything nice, why not keep your bleeping mouth shut?

Friday, November 12, 2010

As Rosanna Rosanna Danna used to say . . .

It's Always Something.

You go in to get an MRI for pain in your lower back, worrying it’s something more serious than arthritis – another disc problem, a fractured vertebrae - and you find out there’s something else, something possibly even more serious than you ever imagined.

“Enlarged lymph nodes in the retroperitoneal area.” That’s what my doctor told me over the phone last night. I shouldn’t worry that this has anything to do with my previous stage one breast cancer. But I need a CT scan, a scan, which in her words “carries a significant amount of radiation.”

My doctor, Dr. S., is very conservative. She hesitates to order tests unless she is absolutely sure they are necessary. I’ve had this lower back pain for almost two years. With my original complaint she smiled and told me this is a product of aging, recommended I take ibuprofen when necessary and sent me to a physical therapist.

Then the disc in the upper thoracic neck area ruptured and I spent a couple of months on morphine and medical marijuana, masking any pain in my lower back as a bonus. Now I am blessedly free of pain from the ruptured disc, and off all the heavy-duty medications. But right on cue, the lower back pain has returned.

At my yearly check up a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned I still have significant lower back pain so my doctor scheduled an MRI to see what’s going on. The result came back – severe arthritis. This wasn’t news as the x-ray I had last year picked that up.

But then, the shocker: Enlarged lymph nodes in the retroperitoneal area. I go in for the CT scan this Sunday.

Rosanna was never more right.

I wrote this over two months ago,  I was thinking about posting it and then just became overwhelmed by what was happening to me or rather by the medical conveyer belt onto which I found myself inextricably thrown.

In the past two months there have been visits to Dr. K., the oncologist, extensive blood work, a lymph node biopsy and in between, blessedly, a trip to Europe, which had been planned for over a year to visit friends and family celebrating my brother-in-law’s 60th birthday.  For those two weeks I was able to move fear out of my mind and focus on the moments of beauty in Vienna, the joyful reconnections in Berlin and in the back of my mind, hold onto the hope that these large lymph nodes were just remnants of a past infection from my days living in Africa.

Or . . .? 

But hopes and wishes rarely make correct diagnoses. This week I learned I have small lymphocytic leukemia and/or chronic lymphocytic lymphoma. The gist is I have lymphoma, cancer of the lymph system. That’s the bad news.

The good news is the pathologist used the word “indolent” – lazy, in no big hurry to do away with me just yet. And for now the only real symptoms I’m experiencing are being unusually tired (who my age isn’t?) and a whole new surge of what I’m calling ‘hot flashes’ – which may or may not be attributed to the node business. But I am, after all, years beyond those hormonal flashes, which we ladies of a certain age all endured to one degree or another. Whatever is causing them, they’re back.

Today I go in for my second CT scan, which will be used to stage my particular cancer. In December, Dr. K. will do a bone marrow biopsy to finish the staging.

In the meantime, I am working on platters in the studio.

Getting the wedged clay ready to roll into slabs.

Slab put on my makeshift 'mold'.

Platter with coiled handles drying into leather hard.

This is, after all, supposed to be about my life as an artist, not just my life as a patient.

But then, life has a way of drifting out of the lane just when you're sure you're driving straight ahead. No matter how firm a grip I thought I had on the steering wheel, this journey has just taken an unexpected turn.

And so the blog morphs into “my life as an artist who is, a once again, a cancer patient.”

Never more true, Rosanna. It's always something.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It's the Little Things That Count . . .

But Sometimes Big Things Make the Difference.

I’ve been looking for little things to hang my ‘I’m getting better’ hat on these days and have found several.


The first came a few weeks ago as I was finishing my daily toilette – always with a spritz from my favorite perfume, Amarige by Givenchy.  It only takes not being able to use one of your hands to make you realize how much you normally use that hand on a daily basis. Being left handed, I was so thankful that my ruptured disc affected my right hand, thinking, quite foolishly, that it would be less debilitating when the right arm went numb and the right hand went weak. The first time I tried to press down on the perfume bottle’s atomizer, I was shocked that I couldn’t do it pressing with my right index finger. OK, so not a big thing, right. I mean, my left hand could take over that task easily.

But there were so many things I couldn’t seem to do using my right hand. Buttoning pants. Unclipping the dog’s collar while holding the leash with the left. Reaching for and lifting out the large granola jar from the right-sided cupboard. Even opening the passenger side door handle sometimes proved impossible. And forget trying to clip fingernails on my left hand! My grip was gone.

Still not useable with my right hand.

So every day since I’ve been off the meds and have felt no appreciable pain in my neck or back, I’ve tried the atomizer test. This would be the test to tell me if the nerve damage was temporary or permanent. The first time it worked I was so surprised I actually missed my wrist – not really paying attention to where I was aiming. But then the next day it was back to futility. All my trying to push down with the right index finger was for naught. My physical therapist said this was normal, sort of like trying to get your car engine started after it’s been sitting around for weeks. It takes several starts to get the spark activating the neurons in the nerve, which is still healing. 

Today, I can report that while I still don’t have the strength to clip my nails easily, my index finger is working brilliantly and daily in the push-down-the-atomizer test. It’s amazing to me such little things can bring so much satisfaction.

It also doesn’t hurt to have friends and family mention how good I look or sound now that I’m completely off all the drugs. (And I thank god for those good drugs, which apparently kept me totally unaware that I was looking and sounding that bad!) Just another little sign that life is getting back to normal.

But there are bigger signs such as taking back routines I had to forego because I couldn’t move without pain, like cooking, shopping, tending the garden, taking the dog on his daily walk or visit to the dog park. Can I admit it was sweet to hear folks at the dog park say they actually wondered where I’d been all this time?  They saw Obie with my husband but still missed seeing ME. We’re a strange but fiercely connected group of people who congregate with our pooches at the park. We notice when someone is missing. Still, I was truly flattered to be missed.

Obie at the Alameda dog park - on alert.

And then, of course, there are the bigger issues I must face besides how to apply perfume when dealing with nerve damage. As I wrote earlier, my biggest fear was that I would never manage to get back into the studio to do the work.

I am happy to say as of yesterday, I have been in the studio, not daily but at least twice a week for a couple of hours at a time. I finished glazing the three vessels I started before the cervical rupture on May 5. Scarlett’s piece is part of this group. They will all be fired this week. But more importantly, I have another commission, one that has me very excited and looking forward to starting immediately. My friend Tina came for a studio visit a couple of weeks ago and has commissioned me to create a series of serving platters for her. We discussed clay body, glazes, size and shape and possible surface decorations. I plan to do a small prototype first to give us both an idea of what might work, what not and what she will choose for her specific platters. Who knows, this might be a whole new direction for me. I’ve already had another friend mention she, too, might like a platter!

So, platters it is.

It seems like such a small thing, but when I stand back and look at how far I’ve come since May, it’s huge.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ruminating Over Lost Time . . .

Or How I Came to Realize We’re All Born With an Expiration Date.

In the past two months I have only been to my studio to pay the rent and to water my ficus, which I have to say is looking extremely happy since I repotted it a while back. I am so looking forward to reclaiming this space as a working studio and not the glorified, extraordinarily expensive storage unit it became on May 5.

It’s been over two months since I woke up with a pain so excruciating I could barely get down the stairs, into the car and driven to the nearest ER. It took almost a week to get the proper diagnosis of a ruptured disc in the T1-T2 area of my neck (the ER doctor suggested I must be at the beginning of an onset of shingles and sent me home with a three page write up on the subject and a prescription for a strong anti viral medication). And then it took another few weeks to get the right pain medications to keep me, for the most part, 24 hours pain free.

At the time my doctor told me it might take 4-6 weeks to recuperate on my own, I couldn’t take it in. I was in the midst of finishing up a commission piece. I had the possibility of starting another. We had a wedding to go to in Chicago end of June. Flights and hotel reservations had been made. It was only the beginning of May. Surely I would be fine by June.

But after my first trip to the Spine Clinic where I saw the pictures of my completely herniated disc pushing the normally rounded nerve root to a flat line, there was the specter of surgery hanging over me. It seemed this might be the only way I could keep from having a permanent disability - the rupture causing my arm to go numb to the wrist and my right hand to lose quite a bit of strength. But after seeing two different surgeons who both suggested I let time do the healing, I began a self-imposed shut down of my life as I had been living it, all the while not knowing if time and inertia would really do the trick.

Physically, doing nothing was easy since by mid May I was so doped up on morphine, medical marijuana (that’s another whole story) and sleep medications, the days went foggily by. It was my mental impatience which made it difficult to accept the "doing nothing" as nothing more than a waste of time. 

All around me, however, others were "doing" for me. My very kind and thoughtful friends arrived to deliver delicious dinners, drive me to and from, and bring me flowers, DVDs, books on tape, even a box of new drawing pencils and gum erasers in case I got the urge. Visitors came by and I held court in our light-filled sitting room, me supine on the sofa with feet propped up slightly, eyes probably glazed over and they, sitting opposite, being all up beat and encouraging. At the time, I couldn’t keep a thought in my head and I could barely keep a conversation going. Looking back, I see all I really had the energy to do was to heal.

Now it’s mid July. I am totally off the morphine and mj and working my way off the sleep meds. I am pain free with only the occasional shoulder ache (which is how this whole episode started, me thinking I had just pulled a muscle). There is no residual numbness in my arm but I still have weakness in my hand. My physical therapist says this will be the last thing to recover. Regrettably, we missed the wedding in Chicago, but have been invited to join friends in Lake Tahoe this weekend.

I have to remind myself I've come a long way from the days not too long ago when if I manage to get 5 phone calls done in a day I was “doing fine”. Yesterday, I drove myself to my first voice lesson in months (where I found out not only can your muscles atrophy from disuse but so can your vocal chords!); paid a visit to my studio to deliver my sketching paraphernalia, water the ficus and have a nice chat with my building mate, Tyrell; and then  took the dog to the dog park.  I was completely spent by the end of the day but hey, I managed to do it!

I so look forward to getting back into the rhythm of my former life. And I especially look forward to reconnecting with my creative self, and reclaiming the "overpriced storage unit" as my working studio.

Who knows, maybe the next series I start will be touched with a new perspective?  No matter where my creativity takes me, it has become abundantly clear that unfortunately, at a certain age, our body parts simply start to wear out.

So in the end, sad to say, we are all merely fragile vessels with a finite shelf life.

Too bad the expiration date isn’t stamped where we can see it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Viewing Life Through My Mind's Eye . . .

Or Maybe I Just Need to See An Ophthalmologist?

First - (and I must say I'm quite proud to admit):  I just had a look at my 'To Do List' for today - 7 items to do, 6 items done!  Granted 5 of the 7 were phone calls to be made. But, hey, just last week, one phone call would have knocked me out for hours. I'm doing much better today.

Second sign that I am healing: My arm which was numb to the wrist is no longer numb! Yes, that means the herniated disc is receding and allowing the nerve to bounce back. The bad news is I still have weakness in the grip of my right hand. That's OK. I don't have the energy to hold on to anything heavier than a newspaper anyway, and luckily I'm left-handed, so not a huge problem right now.

Third and the most important reason to believe I'm headed in the right direction:  Slowly I've started cutting back on the morphine and finding (so far) I am still pain free and not suffering from withdrawal symptoms just yet. You can't know how happy I am about this. I am getting back to being my old self.  Well, not totally, but today I drove down to Trader Joe's, did a little shopping (being very careful to buy only what I could easily carry), drove home and actually made dinner (with my husband's help). OK, I did have a one and a half hour nap between the shopping and the dinner making but still, this is progress. 

Meanwhile, I saw my physical therapist, Wayne last week and he showed me how to make my very own cervical traction contraption so I can spend time being in traction twice daily. This supposedly will help relieve the pressure of the herniated disc on my impinged nerve. Before Wayne gave me the printed instructions on how to construct this very simple device, he handed me a paper to sign saying I wouldn't kill myself by knowingly misusing it (implying suicide by towel and rope) or unknowingly (implying I might overdose on my pain meds, put my head face down on the towel and thus accidentally asphyxiate myself which apparently has happened before). So far, I'm happy to tell you I haven't been tempted either way.

Otherwise not much else to report. When I take the time to reflect on my life as it was BHD (before herniated disc) and try to imagine how it might be after I'm "healed", I realize this is another one of those 'aha moments' - one similar to the one I had soon after my mastectomy/reconstruction over eight years ago. Then someone asked me if I was looking forward to getting my life back to normal.  My first thought was my life will never be 'normal' again. But then upon further reflection, I realized the real truth of the matter, that this was my 'new normal'. That my body would never be the same as it was before all the surgeries nor would I. From that moment on, I realized the life I was living was my 'new normal'. 

So here's how it begins this time in my mind's eye:  I work my way off the pain medications, hoping to be pain free but always aware of the fact that at anytime, the pain can and probably will return to throw me off balance. Hoping beyond hope to once again be my 'normal' self in the studio, I see myself effortlessly wedging clay into conical shapes. I take one and slap onto the center of the wheel. With wet hands and a water-filled sponge held lightly in the right, I bend over and with my elbows pressed down onto my thighs for stability, I put all the weight of my upper body into my arms and hands which are cupped around the clay as the wheel turns at top speed.  Very soon, I pressure this lump of clay into the beginnings of one of my lovingly crafted vessels. 

Or perhaps, being more realistic, I may have to find a way to accept that this may never be part of my new normal.  I may have to accept the fact that my mind's eye can't even begin to see what a picture of new normal might look like.

Hey, do you think 3D glasses would help?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Maybe I'm Just Too Old to Surf . . .

                 Or What Can You Give Me For A Bad Case of Impatience?

It’s a few days after East Bay Open Studios and I’m still ruminating about my fate this year as opposed to last.  Last year at this time, I was riding on top of a creative high after setting up a thoroughly successful Open Studio.  Sales of my clay and collage work, commissions with deposits for new clay pieces and a very sizable deposit for what I thought would be a challenging but ultimately satisfying 2 dimensional triptych all gave me good reason to feel enthused and encouraged for months to come.  Little did I imagine that this 2009 creative wave would come crashing down onto a desolate shore beginning in 2010 when the large triptych commission fell through just at the point of having the preliminary sketch approved (see post: You Win Some and You Lose Some. . . )

It took a while to pick myself up, dry myself off, and get back to work. I caught a glimpse of a new wave rolling in when a second generous commission request came from my dear friend Scarlett. Could I create a clay vessel for her friend, Kate, who was just beginning the difficult journey of surviving and living beyond breast cancer? And could I do it in the black Cassius Basaltic clay? Absolutely! I decided to do several pieces at the same time and let Scarlett choose the one which ultimately spoke to her.  The largest of the four was the one I really thought would be IT but it didn’t make past the drying process. Stress cracks and cracks from uneven drying were its deathblow. It may have been the result of my being too impatient to get it finished. Also, on further inspection, I really didn’t like its overall shape. It felt less than elegant, too ‘clunky’ at the foot.

Here are the three that made the cut before the bisque fire:


And the one Scarlett chose:

I was just about to have them bisqued and begin working on more pieces in this vein, when I was struck down with this %$@#$@#! herniated disc in my lower neck.  As of May 7th, doctors’ orders are to cease and desist working in the studio until further notice.  They think it may be the repetitive way I hold and turn my head while working, which has worn down the disc. So here I am, in the middle of 2010 with no wave in sight. I am, thankfully, pain free but it’s the meds, which bring my relief.

Unfortunately, nothing relieves me from the feeling that time is rushing by leaving me behind waiting impatiently for the next creative wave. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Taking It Easy Isn't So Easy . . .

Or So I'm Finding Out, The Hard Way . . .

For those of you who check in now and then to see what I've been up to, this probably comes as a "well, it's about time" moment. For those of you who are new to the blog, welcome. I invite you to peruse previous posts and the slideshows to the right where you can read more about my process and see the work in progress. 

Meanwhile, here I am, finally. I didn't even realize it's been two whole months since I last posted. The first month I was actually working on a new series of pieces in Cassius Basaltic black clay. There's no excuse for my not keeping you in the loop since I was taking pictures of the progress and the finished pieces. I had every intention of posting them. Looking back I can find no real excuse to not writing in April except at the time making the work was apparently more important to me than writing about making the work.

In any event, April came and went. I woke up on the third of May in such excruciating pain, I could barely walk down the stairs in the house to get into the car and be driven to the hospital's emergency room. I won't bore you with the details of that visit nor of the next couple of weeks when my ailment was totally misdiagnosed. Just to let you know, now I am down for the count with a herniated disc in the upper thoracic area of my spine. I'm taking a lot of drugs to keep the pain at bay while I wait to heal or have surgery, which ever comes first. Better living through chemistry is my current mantra.

Bottom line is I've been told not to spend too much time sitting in front of the computer, along with a warning not to even THINK about working in my studio because of the delicate nature of the injury to the nerve which affects my right arm and hand (thank god I'm left-handed). When and if I get the chance, I will try to post pictures of the last pieces which are waiting to be bisque fired. Maybe I'll post some of my thoughts and episodic ramblings of the past few weeks just so you know how it's been. 

So don't give up on me. Keep checking in. But please, don't ask me to take it easy. When that's all you can really do, believe me, it really isn't.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Change is Never Easy . . .

Or How Working in Black Clay is Putting on the Pounds.

In my studio, it’s never easy to change from working in one medium to another.  When working in 2D collage and mixed media, I have my table set up with a large piece of heavy-duty plastic placed over the stretched canvas top and underneath white butcher paper. The plastic keeps me from cutting into the canvas when using my Xacto knife. All of that is removed down to the permanently stretched canvas which is used when I work in clay. But this is the set up only when I’m working in lighter colored clays – stoneware and porcelain. 

What takes more time is when I’m working exclusively with Cassius Basaltic, the “black” clay – it’s actually chocolate brown. It necessitates my stretching another piece of heavy canvas on top of the first and then a piece of light cotton canvas material on top of that since this clay will stain anything that it gets on.

And it does get on everything that isn’t protected in some way or another.

I was introduced to this particular clay years ago. I’ve always loved the look of black pottery and used to do raku firings to get that result. I even had my own raku kiln made to my specs by the inmates at Deuel Vocational Institution, Tracy, California, where I was an artist-in-residence for years. Teaching ceramics classes there, every couple of months on a Saturday, I would drive up to the exercise yard at the prison in my big yellow Dodge station wagon packed with the raku kiln, the propane gas tank fitted with the appropriate hose and burner, several large metal tongs and assorted tools, all of which were thoroughly inspected going in and coming out. It was a day long event for my ‘guys’ who would work with me through their lunch into the late afternoon, until they had to get back to their cells for ‘count.’ They made some incredible pieces and they, too, fell in love with not just the process, but also the beautiful surfaces it can produce.

With all that going for it, raku can be very time consuming and is more of a collective process than an individual endeavor. I needed another person to help lift my kiln off and put it back on the stacked clay pieces for the fire.  Then, even more folks were needed to pull the red-hot pieces off the shelves and place into combustible material quickly to force a reduction burn and smoke, which makes the bare, unglazed clay go black.

After I left the job at DVI, I rarely if ever did a raku firing with my own equipment. Luckily, I found this Cassius Basaltic clay, which matures into a black ceramic surface. Granted, it doesn’t have the subtlety of raku but it does satisfy my lust for the deep black I once created with fire and smoke.

But there is a bit of a problem. Working with Cassius Basaltic clay really IS like working in chocolate - the smooth consistency; the way it gets on everything that isn't protected; the way it coats my hands when I've finished a throwing session.

No wonder I'm eating more chocolate than usual.  This change in the studio, the move to working in  black clay may mean another change is inevitable. I may now have to reorganize my closet - find those larger size jeans and put the smaller ones towards the back.

Thinking about this is just making me hungry. Excuse me. I'm going to get a piece of chocolate brittle.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Life Speaks to Me in Signs . . .

And When It Does, I Listen.

As I said before, I am not new to being open to 'signs' when they show themselves - sometimes just when I need them and often when I least expect them. The next were a bit of both.

The second sign came to me the day after my return from Harbin in the form of a request. My friend and vocal instructor Scarlett asked me if I might create a special clay piece for her dear friend who is going through heavy chemo as well as a double mastectomy/reconstruction in the next few months. And would I include my own writings, which describe these pieces as ‘my life as a vessel’ – torn, carved, altered and delicately balanced?

I had been itching to get back into clay, wondering what direction I might take after finishing the 2D Dora and Anna commission. Just thinking about working on this theme again stirred my creative juices and of course, I agreed to do it without a second thought.

The third was an email I received yesterday from a dear friend whose daughter-in-law has just been diagnosed with breast cancer and who, according to my friend, would like to talk with me about my experiences, as she will be having a mastectomy/reconstruction in June. Of course I’m always available to share my experiences with any woman who has become a member of this sisterhood none of us ever wanted to join.

The final sign came again through an email from Joe, our friend and collector of my art over the years and who recently purchased one of the 2D series “Protector/Betrayer” which I created during my first bout with BC. He now owns the piece titled: “The Myth of the Cure.” (see August 2009 post - "My Life As A Vessel) And he wrote, “I wanted to tell you that after several months now it has been a source of inspiration living with your work of art. I love it.”

These signs have raised an internal mirror, which I can no longer ignore. I can see more clearly now who I am to myself and to those around me. I am the 64 year-old woman who lost her breast, and is no longer afraid to bare her body to the world. I am the creative person who has taken that loss and used it as her muse. I am the artist who takes her scarred soul and damaged body and with them, makes objects of beauty to be seen and admired and sometimes even loved.

Seeing this reflected in the internal mirror helps me accept a little more easily the deepening wrinkles and sagging skin, which is so obviously present in the external one. Not that I like it, but, hey, as I always say to my friends Nancy and Ricki when we go out every year to celebrate our birthdays together and I insist on taking pictures, “we’re never going to look as young as we do today.”

Do I take these birthday pictures as a sign?  Only when I can remember where I put them.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Time For Baring One's Soul . . .

and Other Body Parts.

I wrote this days ago and have been pondering ever since if this is the sort of thing I should post. It made me question what the purpose is of my blog. Originally, I thought it would be my answer to having a static artist's website. It seemed a perfect way to combine my artwork, and my creative process with my love of writing.

But now I wonder if this isn’t just another way for me to journal about life’s experiences and how they affect me as an artist. Should I hold back when something seems too personal? As a good friend of mine recently told me when I posed the question to her, “what is art if not the baring of one's soul? In my opinion, nothing is too personal when it comes to our art.”

So it comes to this then: Am I truly ready to shed my clothes and go running naked into cyberspace – scars, warts and all?

I guess I am.

February 21, 2010 -

Is there something about birthdays, which, as we get older, opens our eyes to seeing ourselves if not anew then at least in a different light? I’m not necessarily talking about taking a good look in the mirror although, that can also be a rude awakening. But every year, it seems to be a time to look inward, to have a little peek at who we think we are, to ourselves, to those around us. Have we lived up to our own expectations? Have we buried feelings, which are now so deeply covered we can hardly remember what we felt and why? Often, this looking comes not from some internal need to know, but from outside happenstances.

Which is what just happened to me.

I believe in signs. There have been many in my life - some, which I recognized at the time and some which, only after time, were obvious to me. This past week has been fraught with so many signs – some subtle, some hit-me-over-the-head obvious – that I had to stop and really take a moment to reflect.

The first appeared at Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing-optional retreat we visited this past week. It was the first time in eight years we were at Harbin, a place we often frequented before my body was changed so radically by scars and a new breast with its reconstructed but colorless nipple. It was eight years ago this week when I underwent that body/life changing mastectomy/reconstruction. Our last visit to Harbin eight years ago was a time of saying goodbye to the body I had grown up with and grown into – of reveling in it, still visually whole with merely a couple of almost invisible scars from biopsies and a laparoscopic gall bladder surgery.

At that time, I wasn’t sure I would ever feel comfortable baring my body so openly again. We took pictures. I have no idea where they are.

But there I was last Tuesday afternoon, unwrapping the towel, which kept me covered from the communal dressing room to the warm pool, and slipping into the exquisitely soothing waters, looking around, hoping to find at least a woman my age, if not someone with a scar or two. But no, mostly there were only older men, younger men and the beautiful bodies of younger women.

I was the only crone present. But a bit more embarrassing to me was the fact that no one, not one person had a scar anywhere on his or her body. There were lots of tattoos in interesting places, but no scars.

It wasn’t a big deal, really. OK, so maybe I felt a little uncomfortable, but I was there, wasn’t I? I didn’t hesitate to go into the water. I dressed and undressed in the communal dressing room. I had taken that leap of baring my body to strangers after all these years and so I gave myself big pats on the back for even showing up.

That evening in the Harbin dining room (where clothing is required – the old ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service’ signs clearly posted) I noticed a few older women, none of whom I had seen in the waters. My hope was that the next day I would.

And I did. As before, I slipped into the warm pool, after depositing my towel and my flip-flops at the top of the stairs. I perched myself just to the right of the stairs where I could actually sit on a ledge and out of the corner of my eye, watch the folks coming and going. Even in clothed situations, I’m an inveterate people watcher.

There were several grey haired women in the pool that morning. We gave each other the knowing nod and smile – this being a ‘quiet meditation pool’ – no conversations allowed. And I wasn’t surprised at all when a tall, lovely looking young woman eased her beautiful body with her perfectly perky boobies down the stairs into the water followed by an even taller broad shouldered young man, her obvious companion. They made their way to the far wall of the pool and like many other couples, noodled a little (overt sexual intimacies are strictly verboten in the pools) whispering and cooing quietly. There were others who joined us over the next while and soon with the sun warming the air and the temperate water relaxing me into a less anxious state of mind than the day before, I started to feel much more at ease.

It wasn’t until I glanced casually to the top of the stairs that I saw the sign.  There, with toes facing my black flip-flops, (which I was sure I took off toe end pointing the opposite way) was a prosthetic leg standing alone, without a body attached. I couldn’t believe it. Someone, like me, was in the water missing a body part. Who could it be? Of course I couldn’t tell since all I could see were people’s heads and sometimes shoulders and occasionally, frontal parts if they decided to float face up. But even before I saw who it was, (it was, in fact, that young Adonis with his beautiful woman) it hit me that each of us in the pool at that moment was missing a part, had a loss, if not physical, then certainly psychological, emotional. I was sure there wasn’t one person soaking in those waters who was completely whole.

When this finally sank in, I couldn’t contain myself and began to cry softly for my own loss. The grief I had never allowed myself to feel for eight years came gurgling out of me as I sat in the warm waters of Harbin, under a clear blue February sky.

We left the next day after enjoying another long soak. The young man with the prosthetic leg wasn’t there. I had only seen him that one time and then he was gone. But someone somewhere wanted me to know this fundamental truth, which was presented so literally for me to see – every one of us, one way or another, is missing a part. No one is truly whole.

I left Harbin feeling lighter than when I arrived, as if this had been a healing – a psychic laying on of hands or of the waters, if you will. I think we’ll be going back again, before another eight years go by.

Of course, there were more signs to come.  As I'll be writing in the next post.