Thursday, October 22, 2009

MOURNING - the art of sadness

William Bouguereau (1825-1905)
Premier Deuil [The First Mourning]
Oil on canvas, 1888
79 7/8 x 99 1/8 inches (203 x 252 cm)
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires

Touch my heart, challenge my mind, know me but don’t get too close…

When people get too close I get nervous…

Ask me and I will answer, need me and I will be there but once I give you my trust, you may never go away.

I have lived through one of the most horrible plagues that ever touched mankind, AIDS…anyone who says this is God’s wrath or that it’s killing all the right people needs to stay FAR away from me.

I have watched as some of the most talented, caring, loving, generous people ever placed on earth withered, lingered and died.

If that’s the God you believe in, a vengeful, Old Testament beast that not only kills but tortures we live in worlds that are very far apart indeed.

You will need to forgive my lack of tact but I am in mourning.

The first person I personally knew to have AIDS died in 1984 the last in 1997 in between I buried more than 25 of my best friends-I was elected because I wasn’t sick, I was able to do what it took to fight red tape, families, prejudice and fear.

In those early days when AIDS was even scarier because no one really knew how it was transmitted ,dinner trays were shoved across hospital floors in the general direction of people who were too weak to feed themselves much less get up and find their food.

Wasting diseases aren’t pretty to watch and they require a lot of help and care to afford the patient dignity and comfort…back then fear overtook any sense of humanity.

I saw just about the entire repertoire that AIDS has to offer from Kaposi’s sarcoma on.

13 years ago a man who was my vocal coach, accompanist and friend died a nasty death as his brain rotted away from some exotic mold, lingering over months, disappearing mentally and physically a little more each day.

Despite his protestations that he would take his own life and never spend a day in a hospital at the end he became a warrior.

All of us have that will to live strong within us and just when we might allow ourselves the luxury of letting go and slipping away we rally and we start to literally fight for our lives.

I didn’t have time back then to mourn-I needed time to do what needed doing for everyone else and in between I had to make my own way and make a living.

In a life that busy and full of things too horrible to comprehend your emotions shut down, there is no time for tears or self pity; we just do what we must do.

I am an advocate of mental health and how the mind and the body work together, if we are sick we go to the doctor if we are mentally ill (and doesn’t that sound ominous? Mentally ill---conjures up all those visions of strait jackets and padded cells) we also go to a professional who can help us get better.

I found I had shut down.

The years between that last death and this year haven’t been easy for me; I have had a series of losses and health issues of my own.

There is truth to the adage that you don’t need to worry about the sick you worry about the caregiver…

I have never been one to allow anyone to worry about me-I’m about “I’m fine!” especially when I’m not.

It all finally caught up with me this year, too many things, too much stress, too many little bits came together and I finally was forced (despite my protestations) not just to slow down but to actually STOP and take care of all that I had ignored for all those years.

There’s a song that says:

“I never knew that men could cry, never knew they felt so deep,
Never knew they shed tears, never knew they had fears…”

I learned this year what it means to cry.

I have never thought much about crying, tears were allowed in my family-we were especially a clan of angry criers---instead of screaming we would cry from frustration---different thing.

I have a great therapist as well as a great doctor.

He gently but firmly led me to see that I had never mourned all those friends who, one by one, had gone off and left me behind, alone and abandoned.

“Sola, perduta, abbandonata…”

Alone, Lost, Abandoned… Manon Lescaut, Puccini…

Did you ever consider that often WE must tell people to die, that it’s OK for them to stop suffering, that we will be OK and they can leave, but they very seldom ask US if they can go?

One of the great frustrations of death is that it is SO final and to whom can you complain about it?

I wasn’t ready, I needed one more day (hour, minute), and did I say all the things I needed to say?

One day not so long ago, seated on a very unattractive but comfy sofa in an office not too far from where I live, I learned what it means to cry-to grieve…to mourn.

Something primal happened where I knew what was going on but it was far beyond me and I can only say that the closest thing I can describe that feeling to was vomiting tears.

That day was a gift…it was the start of my healing.

I hadn’t done anything creative for some time and for me it’s the same as saying I hadn’t taken a breath in all that time.

I have watched as my art has reflected my various moods from dark and somber to lighter and airier, colours have changed, textures have smoothed and my sense of humor is returning.

So, I am in mourning…at last, much delayed but it is the state of things that we need to mourn so we can STOP grieving.

I share this with you because I wonder how often just the act of sharing is healing.

It not only is a balm to the wounds of my soul but perhaps we are meant to share these feelings so others can begin their journey and know they are not alone or abandoned.

I know I am getting better because I was able to write this entire post without shedding a tear-maybe when I reread it to edit it…

Funny anecdote-I love the movie STEEL MAGNOLIAS…guaranteed for a good cry and some good laughs.

I watched it so many times I know the dialog by heart---catharsis---I don’t watch it anymore---don’t need to.

All of this is a part of why ART is so important-don't just look at what you do, look at what it says about you.

ART can be, NO, IS a part of healing, my healing anyway.

We aren't just showing the world our talent we are opening a window on our soul.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Poor Alice...LUCKY ME

Artists Trading Card
Rick St Dennis 2009
edition of 4

It’s absolutely astonishing how many of us live in the happy lands of WHAT IF, IF ONLY and MAYBE SOMEDAY.

Frankly they’re not happy places at all just safe because they are familiar.

I love to teach and I love to learn-I am on an almost constant foray for higher knowledge and it takes huge restraint upon my behalf to NOT teach-not say something when I have a little extra knowledge on a subject that I feel might benefit someone.

ART for example is one of those areas-I can do RAH RAH for you endlessly but what will you gain except a RAH RAH mentality?

On the other hand if I point out to you that while what you have done is fine it could be improved and here’s how…do you even want to hear that?


I know when I have done something good, I know when it’s not so good and I know (on most occasions) when to abandon hope and bin the entire program in favor of a new start.

“Make it work” can often mean stand back and assess what you’re doing and see if you're even in touch with anything valid, don't beat yourself up, just take a breath and start again.

Listen when TIM GUNN says it on Project Runway but also watch his face-I feel he and I could talk on and on about under working and overworking and knowing when to edit.

I have no idea if Tim Gunn has any design ability but like myself he can see the road getting dim for others and help pull them back onto the path and he does it with kindness and stern, loving caring.

The way you learn is to trust and the trust comes from seeing that someone has your best interests in hand and they know what the hell they’re talking about.

I want to go back to teaching again this time concentrating not only on creativity but also on attitude.

So many people are talented and they don’t see it-it’s a pity.

Your level of talent has nothing to do whatsoever with anyone else other than yourself-it’s not a contest and if you must make it a competition do something else or better still compete with yourself.

Don’t berate yourself but give yourself “very good advice” as Alice said as she sat dismal and lost in Wonderland (a nearby neighbor of the land of IF ONLY).

“I give myself very good advice but I very seldom follow it.”

How true is that?

How many of us know exactly what it we need to do, how to do it and even ways to get around some of the less attractive bits required in order TO do it but do we bother with any of this at all?

Not often.

We are busy feathering our not so comfy nests in the land of Maybe Tomorrow, when the time is right, when I feel better…there are so many kingdoms-thank God we have so many queens (and princesses).

Time to not languish in that place of whenever/whatever and move to sunnier climes-don’t you think?

It’s not an easy move; first you must lighten the load and declutter the dusty closet of “I’ll take care of that later”.

That task alone can be daunting and time consuming-I have been on it for over six months now and every time I think the shelves are bare I find some nasty little jiggery bit huddling in a corner which must be dealt with.

My next post will be about that journey.

Damn exhausting is what it is!

One can also become side tracked-an old adage referring to the days when less important trains were placed on sidings (unused tracks) where they moldered for hours or even days until the tracks ahead were clear.

Here is some free advice: There will probably never be a better time than NOW.

Yes there are things you should or might do first but that doesn’t preclude you from doing THIS too.

PRIORITIZE but then don’t procrastinate, later is HERE…when the bloody hell do you think things are going to be so perfect and uncluttered that you will do what you want when you want to your heart’s content?

Come out of there; whatever secret garden, left corner of hell just to the right of I GIVE UP where you have exiled yourself and rejoin the human race---or at least try---make a step.

Make a contract with yourself, make sure you are a good agent in the negotiations and that the rewards are all worth the efforts-now go for it.

I LOVE Alice in Wonderland and I do believe that “We’re all MAD here”.

Mental health aside we (Artists) are as interesting as people get (the rare total dolt aside) so ART because you can, CREATE because you must and get back in touch with passion…not the sweaty, sticky kind (well, then again…) but the “I rise in the morning ready to see what I will make from and during TODAY”.

You will thank me for this post.

I have already thanked myself…I give myself very good advice and I am FINALLY learning to follow it.

Monday, October 5, 2009


I apologize for being behind in my blogging-I have been busy ARTING and that is all consuming…but to rediscover creativity after you have been away from it for awhile is like back sliding into addiction-art is seductive and also a demanding mistress.

I want to talk about an odd thing but one that will be valuable to many who bother to read this blog-hang with me-there is some great info coming especially if you haven’t got an angel for a doctor like I do…

I am incredibly needle phobic…I mean sweaty, fainting, nauseated, scared little boy phobic-or at least I WAS…

Being a conscientious citizen I always made sure I had an HIV test once in awhile when the epidemic started but it took an act of God, a really huge, kind, bear of a male nurse at a little clinic in Silver Lake and lots of VooDoo (not to mention a butterfly) to get that sample.

Nothing is ever an accident and I was led to my wonderful Doctor, Christine Szeto who is responsible for my changed attitude about needles and things medical and lots of other concepts as well.

Dr. Szeto is one of those amazing people in whom God has instilled healing as a gift-when you visit her you come out feeling better and just a little perkier even if you dragged yourself into the office in the first place…I do not exaggerate, all who know her share this opinion---

The gifts from above aside she is a wonderful person, solid in her faith and committed to her profession.

She is also committed to her patients and for that gift there are many of us who can never thank her enough-she has seen me through my first hospital stay, anxiety disorder, Rheumatoid disease and everyday complaints.

I have known her through the birth of her children, the evolution of a bright young girl into a successful mature doctor and when there has been time we have shared our spirituality, our love of music and even the gift of laughter…so much in so many years... patient, doctor, friends.

I met her because I was addicted to prescription drugs…another doctor who had sworn that addiction was not in his vocabulary let me become dependent and then abusive of Xanax and Doctor Szeto detoxed me and helped me move on with my life.

Another thing she did was get me past my fear of needles and if you have a great doctor who will listen they can also help you or someone you know get past the fear as well.


Write it down and carry it with you---being sick and hurting is bad enough-it always annoyed me and scared me that we had to hurt more to get better.

Diagnosis needs needles, flu shots, antibiotics, all of it comes with a shot, a hypo aimed at your sensitive and defenseless self-it’s not fun and not fair.

I had a couple of horrible pediatricians who were guaranteed to meet you at the door with a needle-from those experiences we become phobic adults-I thought a blood test was a stick in the finger-the first time I had to have a vein punctured I was about 12 and it took two doctors and several nurses to hold me down and get the blood---I still wonder today WHY it was so important for those doctors to WIN against a boy…I didn’t have a life threatening disease, they just wanted a blood test to rule out any possibilities.

Back to EMLA-there are two variations and it is now available as a generic-it is a white crème and is a double dose of topical anesthetics-specifically Lidocaine.

I apply it to the area to be stuck and slap a wide bandage over it 2 hours before I see the doctor and I feel NOTHING…not even pressure… when they take my blood.

WHY the use of EMLA is not standard practice is beyond me-there would be many less teary eyed, white faced, dizzy, fainting people in the world with a little EMLA spread around by medical professionals.

I’m not going to discuss the reasons why it has almost been pulled from the market several times and how it can be abused-let’s not put fodder for the naysayers on the internet.

If you have ANYONE who is truly afraid of needles they need to have EMLA and they need a doctor who understands that “It’s NOT just a little stick” for some of us.

I remember Dr. Szeto sitting next to me and holding my hand, calming talking and distracting me in the early days of recovering from the needle phobia, then I had to have “Marjorie” do the blood draws-I trusted her as a nurse and knew she could find the right spot-I went to the hospital with Pneumonia covered with EMLA patches and with a directive on my chart that there were to be no needle sticks without EMLA.

I have become an evangelist, a lobbyist, a fan of EMLA---I don’t ever want to see a child crying or an adult sweaty and scared, feeling embarrassed because they need a blood test and are frightened.

After seeing the doctor today and having my regular blood work I thought WHY don’t I blog on this information and get it out there to help others?

I take Methotrexate for my RA, it can make liver problems so I have to have blood drawn every two or three months-THANK GOD and Dr. Szeto (and whomever is responsible for discovering EMLA) I am able to have the sticks without days of dread and compulsive worry.

EMLA is prescription only and is not cheap-however used correctly one tube should get you through a year-I took Rhemicaid for awhile which is an infusion for RA and EMLA was my buddy through that experience as well.

There are good things in the world that aren’t widely known-there are simple things like taking away the fear and pain surrounding needle sticks that can make a person’s life a little better.

At the end of her life my Mother (who had never had a problem with needles) was just flat out of patience with the painful needle sticks for IVs that had to be started and restarted-she was one huge bruise and besides everything else she felt terrible, enough was enough…I had to play patents advocate and insist that there be no needle sticks without EMLA-so maybe it made the last days of her life a bit better-I hope so.

I wish I had known about it when my friends faced Chemo or the other miseries of Cancer and Aids-other diseases, so many needles over the years that could have been a bit more comfortable or gone unfelt…adding pain to pain just isn’t good medicine, it’s about haste and a disregard for the feelings of people, patients.

“It’s just a little stick.”

NO, it’s not…reverse the situation doctor and you would rather not feel that little stick right? So take the time and Rx the EMLA and get over your exasperation with people who are fearful, genuinely fearful of needles.

I never thought in my life I would be going to a woman doctor.

I always said I can’t explain MEN things to a woman and it’s very hard for a woman to explain a yeast infection to a man-plumbing differences make life experiences and sharing them on any level other than theoretic, IMPOSSIBLE.

I bless the day I asked Christine Szeto to take me on as a patient and I thank the powers that be that she is still there for me, taking care of me and caring for me all these years later.

Her biggest gift to me may be the understanding that doctors are people who we work WITH in the cause of our health and to that end we as patients have the right to make requests and even reasonable demands that we are cared for in a professional and compassionate manner.

I have the tools now to see a specialist and know that my rights include using a product to make my experience more comfortable and less painful or frightening.

I hope this post has empowered you to takethese tools and incorporate them for use by yourself or for a loved one.

One CAVEAT, in an emergency there isn't going to be time for EMLA-but hopefully if there ever is such an emergency the needle phobia will be in a realm where it isn't the all powerful monster that has haunted some of us.

EMLA a simple thing but a powerful one when used correctly.

Dr. Szeto…irreplaceable.