Hard Lessons

To paraphrase a Bruce Springsteen song, life has been giving me some hard lessons lately, about pain, loss, disability and hope. Years of chronic pain, my mother's death, my hearing impairment and other serious medical problems have sorely tested me. When I finally found a doctor who took my pain seriously, he asked me why I had checked "suicidal thoughts" on my new patient questionnaire. I told him, "I have 30 years ahead of me if I live as long as my mother did. I refuse to live in pain for another 30 years."

In all that I've learned and written since then, the most surprising discovery has been my ability to remain optimistic about my life and my future. If you hear despair, anger, frustration and fear in what I post here, please don't turn away. All is not dark, and eventually a glimmer of hope will light the path ahead.

Friday, February 22, 2013


For much of my life, my raison d’être (reason for being) has been to make beautiful things. As an adolescent I wasn’t very clear on how I would do that. I thought I might write and illustrate children’s books, but that didn’t align very well with my secret suspicion that if I ever had children of my own, I would abuse them in some way. I thought that abuse might run in the family, and I wasn’t far off the mark, except that I believed abuse was a genetic inheritance rather than a behavioral one.  

Within a few weeks of graduating from college with a degree in art (and minors in English and French), I had married my college sweetheart. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Becoming a career woman or living indefinitely as a single woman was still quite a novel idea in 1975, Betty Friedan’s well-publicized contributions to the American feminist revolution notwithstanding. Although I had loftily sworn that I would never work retail, I found myself plying the marts of trade (as Mom put it) as a sales associate in a discount department store while my new husband went to graduate school.

So I was making money (a hot $1.80 per hour), but nothing of beauty. Oh, as a young wife I tried (within my limited means) to make our home beautiful while moving from apartment to apartment and finally to our own house. I made pretty Christmas ornaments and greeting cards, crewelwork pillows and curtains and clothes, but nothing that deserved (or so I thought) to be called a thing of beauty. I managed to advance my own career (at that point having nothing to do with the making beautiful things) and eventually found myself traveling the world as I designed and developed consumer products ranging from plush toys to accent furniture. Some of those products could be called beautiful, but they were a compromise between my artistic vision and my employers’ and clients’ needs for salability and profit. So, never a Thing of Beauty. And after all, I didn’t starve in a cold, drafty garret when making those things. I earned quite a lot of money doing it, which alone could be considered a beauty disqualification. 
It wasn’t until I was 56 years old and had published a novel (entitled No Ransom, and almost a beautiful thing) that I turned my gaze (no longer starry-eyed) back to the making of beautiful things. I suddenly found myself inspired by so many artistic ideas that there wasn’t enough time in the day to turn all of those ideas into Things of Beauty. I made collages and jewelry and loved doing it. I earned no money off that stuff, which almost made up for nearly 30 years of overeating (never mind starving in a garret). It was exhilarating. I was finally living my dream! 
And then what happened? 
As my elderly mother was sucked down the brain drain of Alzheimer’s disease and eventually died, chronic pain happened. Physical pain like nothing I’d experienced before, day and night, whether I stood, sat, or laid my hurting body down. Pain that nothing improved, not OTC painkillers or NSAIDs or physical therapy or exercise or massage or acupuncture…And it was not a beautiful thing. It was a harsh, ugly thing that made me cry. I cried in my car, in my chiropractor’s office, in my bed, in the shower, you name it. And I cried even more as I encountered one disbelieving medical professional after another. Smart people who said incredibly stupid and insensitive things like, “What do you expect for a woman your age?” 
Today, at age 59-1/2, I’m still making beautiful things, but at this point in my life, I’d have to say that the true Thing of Beauty is my own body (and remember, it’s Body by God, not Body by Jake) when it’s not in pain. I don’t get many of those moments, perhaps no more than I deserve, but I treasure them, each and every one.

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