A friend recently emailed me about feeling like she is pulled between two different directions for life work and graduate school. It reminded me of my own experiences during my 20’s, and I feel like this is something many people must go through, so I want to devote a post to how I came to decide between my art and my writing.
I grew up writing poetry and drawing, because my mother used to write poetry and she did a lot of sketching, toll painting, and craft projects that made me really inspired to do my own things with pencils, paint, and pens. I loved English and Art throughout High School, so when I went to college, I double majored in both English, with a writing focus, and Studio Art, with a painting focus. The first job I got after college was painting a mural of a sunset and a Robert Frost quote. After that, I painted a handful of murals in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, North India, Kenya, and Key West. I also taught mural painting to primary school children in Dun Chaoin, Ireland (which was even more fun than painting murals). You can see these murals on my author website HERE. I am most proud of my experiences teaching mural painting in Ireland and of the Key West mural, but during all of these projects, I was always writing poetry, memoir, or fiction on the side.
I was doing a lot of smaller paintings while living on the west coast of Ireland from 2005 until the end of 2006. It was during this time that I wrote the first draft of my memoir of Animal Care in South India and the life of my dear friend Ann, who I lost to colon cancer in 2005. I’ll always love that magic that happens when I sit in front of a wall or a canvas and just paint. Or the magic of travel photography, which I also dabbled in, but I never developed my ability to edit my photos after taking them. I just loved taking great travel pictures, which made me more of a snapshot photographer than a real photographer.
Anyway—it was through the writing of my memoir of stray dogs, and through the poetry I was perpetually writing about my romantic relationships and my relationship to the world, that I came to realize something important:
I might LOVE painting and photography, but I also LOVE writing.
So how do I choose which to devote my life to 100%, knowing that the “runner up” would probably only get 30% of my attention henceforth?
I decided on the writing because I read my words and I looked at my pictures, and I saw that I was a much better writer than I was an artist/photographer. I also needed to write far more often than I needed to paint or take pictures of things. And that’s what prompted me to apply to Goddard College for my MFA in Creative Writing, instead of going to art or photography school.
So what I’m offering to you with this post, if you are thus “undecided”, or “balancing between” two passions, or three passions) — do the following:
1. Seriously critique your work thus far in those fields. Answer this question honestly—which thing do I do better?
2. Think about your NEEDS. Ask yourself—which thing do I need to do more often? Which thing can I live without, and which can’t I live without?
Don’t think about money, or which would be easier to devote your life to, because we aren’t here to sit back and take it easy. We’re here to follow our passions and go on adventures—right?
I was 35 weeks pregnant when I flew from Rhode Island to New Mexico in order to attend the AROHO Women’s Writing Retreat back in 2011. Many people were concerned about me flying alone to spend a week at the high elevation of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, when I was so close to giving birth. I also wouldn’t have a reliable cell phone signal there, and the nearest hospital or birth center was hours away. I listened to my body and I took that risk because sometimes, we are faced with risks that we absolutely need to take, and it’s a personal, private choice that no one else can make for us.
I needed the opportunity of that retreat for my writing, and I needed it as one last trip before my entire life was about to change with the birth of my first child.
The retreat was amazing. I made contacts with other writers and with a wonderful literary agent who has given me a lot of guidance with various writing projects throughout the past two years.
I gave a presentation, called a “Mind Stretch”, while at the retreat. A lot of people enjoyed it, so I am happy to post it here (because I am currently still in the process of my latest YA novel, and I’ve got to get back to it):
I’d first like to begin by saying that most Deaf people who also speak American Sign Language and are part of the Deaf community, which has its own culture revolving around the sign language of its members, do not view deafness as a disability at all. The reason for this is that deafness is not something that limits any of us physically until we encounter a hearing person trying to speak to us. We can all do everything that a hearing person can do and everything we need to survive. In a sense, deafness is like perpetually living in a foreign country where most of the people around you do not speak your language.
I also believe that deafness becomes a disability when a deaf person chooses to be in an environment where they are surrounded by hearing people conversing and expecting them to be part of a conversation. In this instance, deafness is literally a disability because the deaf person cannot follow a conversation. I don’t think it’s possible for a deaf person in these circumstances to ever feel equal to the people around him or her.
In the deaf artist, Susan Dupor’s, painting, Family Dog, she is in the position of a dog under a coffee table while the rest of the hearing people in the room have blurry faces to signify that they are speaking things she cannot understand. Her deafness makes her feel lower than everyone else, like a pet dog that sits on the floor with their tongue hanging out. I’ve often felt this way in groups of hearing people, and I know this is a component to my lifelong attachment to animals and dogs especially. This feeling drove Susan Dupor to paint the scene exactly as she has felt it happen to her, and for me, this feeling has prompted me to fly to India and help stray dogs and to train my own dog as a Hearing dog and companion. I literally do not feel complete without my dog or any dog by my side, and it’s because of how marginalized I’ve felt growing up and going deaf while everyone just kept talking.
As a side note: I wanted to bring my Hearing dog on this trip, but my current disability of being pregnant has basically made me decide to make this trip on my own and have as little as possible to worry about. Although my dog helps me to feel more comfortable and equal in groups of hearing people, he is still like a child in many ways because I haven’t yet been able to train him to feed himself or take himself for a walk or carry my bags for me. So, it was easier to leave him home.
The painter, Frida Khalo’s, disabilities greatly influenced her self-portraits. One example is her painting the Broken Column:
Carole Maso, in her cross-genre work Beauty is Convulsive, The Passion of Frida Khalo, explains:
“Three concerns impelled her to make art,
she told a critic in 1944:
her vivid memory of her own blood flowing during her childhood accident,
her thoughts about birth, death, and the conducting threads of life,
and the desire to be a mother.”
Frida was never able to be a mother and suffered through three abortions before she stopped trying.
Anne Finger, in her short story Helen and Frida, imagines a meeting between Helen Keller and Frida:
“So now the two female icons of disability have met: Helen, who is nothing but, who swells to fill up the category, sweet Helen with her drooping dresses covering drooping bosom, who is Blind and Deaf, her vocation; and Frida, who lifts her skirt to reveal the gaping, cunt-like wound on her leg, who rips her body open to reveal her back, a broken column, her back corset with its white canvas straps framing her beautiful breasts, her body stuck with nails: but she can’t be Disabled, she’s Sexual.”
I think what Finger means here about Frida being “Sexual” not “Disabled” is how Frida has painted her perfect breasts despite all the nails sticking into her skin. She is emulating her sexuality, and was known for her many affairs with both men and women. I find myself wondering if Frida is actually hiding behind her sexuality and using that as well as her art as a means to escape the feeling of being disabled.
In a poem by Kenny Fries, Excavation, he is focusing on the scars that mark his disability, but he is also digging deeper, trying to figure out who he was before such scars were made. His poem reads:
“Tonight, when I take off my shoes:
three toes on each twisted foot.
I touch the rough skin. The holes
where the pins were. The scars.
If I touch them long enough will I find
those who never touched me? Or those
who did? Freak, midget, three-toed
bastard. Words I’ve always heard.
Disabled, crippled, deformed. Words
I was given. But tonight I go back
farther, want more, tear deeper into
my skin. Peeling it back I reveal
the bones at birth I wasn’t given—
the place where no one speaks a word.”
We are left with the questions:
Where do we end and our disabilities begin?
Is it even possible to separate ourselves from our disabilities?
I’d like to call up the concept of disability as something that everyone faces at one point or another in their lives. We all can’t physically do something we want to do at some point, whether it is due to pregnancy or a broken leg or arthritis or old age. I’d like to present disability as something people should be more accepting of rather than marginalizing because of the fact that disability is part of being human.
We live in a society that does help each other and has moved away from Darwinism in the sense that, in the animal world, a disabled animal is a target, it’s something that will die much faster than any other animal in its herd or its pack, and no one will help it. Everyone is focused on their own survival and a disabled creature is a liability to the whole pack if they all try and help it. With humans, we have created a different sort of society here where disabled people often live as long as other people. We do help each other. But I think its hard for us to do this, somewhere inside we are all still animals, and disability is often a social stigmata because its something no one wants to face or experiences for themselves.
Chistopher John Heuer has written a poem called Visible Scars, which details his desire for deafness to be as well-known and as the persecution of black people. Deaf people are just as marginalized as other minorities of America and in other countries, but we look just like everyone else and our language is silent. In many ways, the discrimination against us happens privately, but it’s understandable that Heuer wishes it were more public. I’ll read and sign his poem:
“In my dream the old black woman
said My but ain’t you an uppity nigger
for a white boy,
and threw a copy of the Americans with
Disabilities Act at my chest.
She said What whip were you ever under?
What land did you ever lose?
Then she showed me her back, tugging down
the heavy brown sweater that protected
her oppression. Her scars were black
in the way that skin visibly shudders
when ripped open, black in the way
that melanin reasserts itself in fury.
I reached for my ears but could not pull them off.
I felt in my ears but nothing was there.
I wished for scars like hers.
I wished to stand up and scream Look!
Look, look, look!
I wanted proof to show her, I wanted
centuries of songs to the Lord, I wished
for a hearing overseer
with a whip, I wished for rows of deaf men
in the cotton fields, signing in the sun.
I wished for the hearing man you could see,
so that I could point and shout
Look, look, look!
She said Don’t bring your anger here to me,
white boy, and pointed at the door.
I left the interview with a deaf man’s guilt,
Because I had no proof.”
Disability, for me, can often be frustrating to deal with (especially in groups of hearing people who are not trying to slow down their conversations, or who are trying to over compromise and slow things down so much that I can feel myself holding everyone back)…but if I was not gradually going deaf, I don’t believe my imagination would be as powerful and my writing wouldn’t be the same either.
I’ve learned to use my deafness as a way to reach out to people through both writing and art, as many other deaf and otherwise disabled artists have also done. I think its something everyone can use, regardless of how obviously disabled they are. Think of disabling emotions like fear, anxiety, paranoia, pain, depression…these are disabilities that begin in the mind or the heart but they can easily extend to our bodies… most people have these feelings at one point or another and as writers – we need to be able to tap into these universal human emotions in order to make our characters accessible. So in a sense, I feel that disability is the key to making a character we are writing about more human. It’s about making sure there is conflict in a story or a poem – because without some sort of tension, your reader isn’t going to be interested or feel connected to it. Disability becomes not just how we connect but WHY we connect.
It’s only when you consider a person or character’s disabilities – the things they can’t do – that you are able to figure out what things they are able to do best and what might be the gift or lesson you can learn from their disabilities. Humans often find the strongest communities through the things that they struggle with – like deafness or blindness or depression, or addictions or writing – they come together in support and compassion for each other and are able to help each other really figure out what they can do and where their strengths are.
I’d like you all to consider your characters and fellow humans this way as you write and live. See someone’s disability – but also look past it to find their talents as well, and connect their strengths and weaknesses with your own. We aren’t whole without this balance of disability and ability.
John Lee Clark is a deaf/blind writer and he illustrates the beautiful community that Deafness, other disabilities, and writing, CAN PROVIDE if we are able to reach out and connect with other people. I’d like to read and sign this poem of his to you in closing:
I miss all of the long goodbyes
of my parent’s guests
taking their leave by not leaving
when it was time to go. Someone would sign
Better go home we but hours would pass
around our round table—
the bowls of our hands offering
confession after confession
assuring us that we are we—
before anyone stands up.
Then others, sighing, will stand up
slowly and slowly walk
through our house, pausing
where the walls offer stories,
reasons to stay longer
and touch more things with our hands.
I remember how long,
how wonderfully they stood
unwilling to open the front door,
signing away with warm faces
and hugging goodbye again
before going gently into the night.
My family would huddle to watch
their cars’ headlights roll away
but pause to flash in the Deaf way,
waving goodbye to our house.
How we children dashed inside
to light switches for our house
to wave back goodbye,
light to light bright in the night!
Now that I am grown
and have my own family, do come
for a visit but do not leave
when it is time to go. Sign, do sign
Better go home we and our hands
will make time go suddenly slow.”
DISCLAIMER: The following post is a reaction from reading countless Facebook posts and Media online. I didn’t actually get the chance to have signed or spoken dialogue with people, or to hear any radio shows etc, that would allow me to phrase my words in a more compassionate manner. One of my best friends has also reminded me that being deaf does cause my access to information to be slightly different than the average person.
I haven’t changed my opinions below exactly, but I would say them differently in hindsight (wouldn’t we all?). I’d like to just say that I felt the way that I did because of my own personal fears and in reaction to posts from people who are filled with anger and desire to kill after such an event. I had real fears that the Boston Marathon bombing could potentially start a war if people didn’t keep their heads on straight.
So, I’d like to preface my post with this, instead of deleting it, because I do feel that if you are able to read my words with compassion of your own, that you might see the point I’m trying to make is that we as humans should love each other, not bomb each other, and all bombings are tragic—but each one is also an important time for people to come together and help one another. I have been really touched by some of the ways that local people are taking that kind of action, and my heart goes out to everyone involved.
I feel the need to admit here that the bombing at the Boston Marathon did not surprise me and it didn’t fill me with sadness. I don’t know if it is because I realize there are countless bombs going off, every week, around the world, and to fill myself with sadness every time it happens would certainly make for a depressing life. Or maybe it is because I’ve seen real poverty in various cities of India and Kenya, from dying dogs to humans suffering from leprosy on the roadsides. I don’t actually feel desensitized as much as I feel like I understand our society.
Humans are so intense at times that we confuse ourselves with the outpouring of our rambling thoughts and emotions. We fear death, we fear each other, we fear ourselves. I think fear is the culprit here more than anything else. If we don’t help each other when we are able to, it’s usually because we are afraid of something, whether it is catching someone’s disease or opening ourselves to a stranger, or we are just caught up with self-preservation.
Something we are missing when we try so hard to protect ourselves is that we are the same as everyone else – not the same, meaning, we aren’t all unique and beautiful and ugly in our own particular ways – but EQUAL. I see dogs as equal to humans, because I honestly believe that dogs are better humans. Dogs help remind me to cool my own anger when I’ve been hurt; to turn from pain, and instead of lashing back out against someone, my dogs have reminded me to give them love.
Love is just as powerful as a bomb, and once more people realize this, maybe there will be less bombs.
For now, though, I’d like to end this with the post my partner put up on a social networking site (okay, on Facebook…), because what he is saying needs to be thought about and heard beyond “Facebook”, because too many Americans are feeling such outrage, anger, and pain, but honestly, I am sitting here thinking, “Why NOT America? Why should only places like Iraq, Kenya, India, Thailand, Pakistan, etc, etc, get bombed?”
Here is the post:
“My heart goes out to the victims from all over the world who were affected by the bombing in Boston, USA. I will continue to think of you, Boston, as well as other cities that have suffered none too distant attacks of this nature. Baquba, Iraq. Jurf Al-Sa, Iraq. Bagdad, Iraq. Khalis, Iraq. Mullazai, Pakistan. Madre Muerta, Columbia. Taloqan, Afghanistan. Yathrib, Iraq. Kirkuk, Iraq. Rural locations in India. Rural locations in Afghanistan. Rural locations in Pakistan. Damascus, Syria. Josefina, Philippines. Landi Kotal, Pakistan. Mubi, Nigeria. Hawija, Iraq. Wajir, Kenya. Loti, Pakistan. Mukalla, Yemen. Taloqan, Afghanistan. Dujail, Iraq. Mogadishu, Somalia.Fallujah, Iraq. Garma, Iraq. Sitamarhi, India. Abu Gharaib, Iraq. Madalla, Nigeria. Jos, Nigeria. Gadaka, Nigeria. Damaturu, Nigeria. Tank, Pakistan. Mussayab, Iraq. Parta, India. Sapele, Nigeria. Peshawar, Pakistan. Tambon Al Yer Weng, Thailand. Karachi, Pakistan. Hangu, Pakistan. Tambon Katong, Thailand. Geedam, India. Mosul, Iraq. Ban Klang, Thailand. Rural locations in Somalia. Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Chandanigahapur, Nepal. Orito, Columbia. Salarzai, Pakistan. Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. Raman, Thailand. Ban Ton Phai, Thailand. Essai, Pakistan. Quetta, Pakistan. Dibis, Iraq. Rural locations in Chile. Jamrud, Pakistan. Tathong, Thailand. Khan Bani Saad, Iraq. Landi Kotal, Pakistan. Boya, Pakistan. Buenos Aires, Argentina. Locations in Senegal, Kenya, Russia, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Indonesia, Greece, Italy, West Bank and Gaza Strip, Mexico, Ivory Coast, Germany, Honduras, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Turkey, Portugal, Congo, Mali, Ecuador, Myanmar, Ukraine, Indonesia, Sudan, Kazakhstan… I wish I could add more to the list, but I only have time to review one and a half months of statistics. Let us always keep those hurt by these heinous acts in our thoughts, and learn to love each other just a little more.”
I concur with the above and I share it with you, because I haven’t taken the time to research and I cannot myself name all of those places. But they should be named and lamented along with Boston. Because the world is much bigger than just America.
I’ve recently had my first child and many people seem to think I should stay here in my birth country, but I don’t agree. I don’t plan to stop traveling, or put off traveling, because I want to raise my child knowing places like India and Africa as closely as his birth country. I want him to know other cultures, other languages, and to return to America and share that knowledge.
If we feel like we know each other a bit better, I can only hope that loving each other will be easier, too.
I was sick this morning, so my partner took our son out somewhere. I was planning on curling up on the couch and eating breakfast while drinking coffee out of a mug that I got in South India back in 1999.
The mug was made in Auroville, the International Community where I spent more than a year of my life. I volunteered there, helping stray dogs in the community and within the neighboring villages. The woman I worked with, Ann from New Zealand, was like a mother to me. She taught me how to give homeopathic and other natural medicines to the dogs. We also fed them leftover food from Auroville’s solar kitchen, and I gave the animals love, because Ann was too busy sometimes to do that. She also gave rabies shots and treated distemper and other diseases. I worked with her for months at a time, in 1999, then again in 2001 and 2005.
In 2005, Ann died of colon cancer while I was there in India with her. It was one of the most intense and depressing experiences of my life. The world (and the dogs) lost a beautiful, amazing spirit when it lost her.
I left Auroville (and India) the day after she died, and since then, I’ve only returned to North India. I have journeyed to New Zealand twice since Ann’s death, to spend time with her mother and meet her sisters. I’m so thankful to be able to know them all, and one day, I do hope to publish my story of my time with Ann.
This morning, I knocked over that mug I’ve drank from every morning I’ve spent in America since 1999. I cried and screamed. I shattered a plate, because I needed to break something less important to me. I played out the experience over and over in my head, trying to understand WHY I broke it, WHY it happened, HOW I could glue it back together.
It’s just a mug, right? Sure, it was crafted by an artist’s hands, and it was a beautiful mug, but things break in life. They shatter. And sometimes we need that catharsis to remind us of the things, the often intangible things, that are REALLY important. Like the work I did in India with the dogs, and the love I have for Ann, the love I have for her family. My mug reminded me of that, but the mug wasn’t a dog. It wasn’t Ann.
Sometimes, telling the story of an object we lose can be a way to release that object into space. Let go. We’ve all broken something, haven’t we? If you’d like to comment on this post, I invite you to tell me a story of a broken thing, and what it meant to you (or at least, write the stories of your broken things for yourself, it can be therapeutic, I promise).