In Linda Rand’s latest Pandemic Diaries entry “Solace,” she shares insights about these current times, the loss of her father, and the power of art to revive.
It snowed today. I hoped it would help me settle down to focus on art commissions needing to be finished, packages to mail, bills, and regular mom duties. Spring has been flirting with sporadic sunny days, a restlessness has been stirring in my marrow, the tickle of sap rising within me. Words are beginning again after a fallow winter, a desire for stories, connection, and a roving mind imagining adventure … basically, the energy of hope. All of this aswirl with seemingly four new COVID variants from the U.K., South Africa, Brazil, and California. We are advised to double mask and avoid stores again. These new variants seem to be 30 – 70% more contagious and Boris Johnson stated recently that the U.K. variant may be 30% more fatal [Reuters].
Reading the latest on COVID, I actually said, “Fuuuuck,” out loud while texting with a friend, then sent him: “I just read about Denmark’s study of the UK COVID variant…FUCK. More fatal. Up to 50% more contagious. Normal sequestering measures not working. (insertion of blue scaredy corpse face emoji)” This was cushioned between the ethics of pursuing those we desire, and what traits make a person ordinary. I was also teasing him to be an oracle with pronouncements of our love lives for this year. It’s interesting that, regardless of what happens, our humanness wants to normalize things, wants to adapt. We want to traipse along the giddy cornices of romance, swoon from the heights, talk philosophy and human relationships, cross things off our to-do lists, oh, and read about the mutating, worsening pandemic. Many people I know are getting the vaccine, more than I can keep track of. OH and BY THE WAY, WE HAVE A NEW PRESIDENT AND FEMALE POC VICE PRESIDENT TOO! Canines in the White House again. Many Bernie memes.
Heat has been medicine and with the snow today even more necessary. Hot water for tea and to draw a bath, throw in a third of an organic bath bomb I was gifted a few years ago. It was strictly showers before the pandemic, but in these altered times, slow ritual has become life affirming. The water is blue and shimmers over my legs, the steam rises, my toenails peep out of the water, gold glinting off the micah flecks. My mind wanders, thinking of how the virus needs to weave in and around all the layers of mask, and with enough quantity to infect. Out through our mouths, and mostly in through our mouths or nose. The virus can cross the blood brain barrier and hide, causing relapses. The virus survives in us, mutates, and is passed along.
I think of how we tell our stories, passed through our mouths to travel into ears, then out again through the telling, mutated with each person’s interpretation. We can write, lending a seeming permanence to the words, but the mutation would still occur in the reader’s mind, the story finding survival, outliving the teller perhaps. Is it poison or is it medicine or is it medicine from the poison, like the vaccine derived from genetic material, like a story framed in a way to extract meaning, lend illumination? A story to lift curses that are not necessarily ours, given to us through our lineage’s tragedies, our own misunderstandings.
Since the pandemic hit, I’ve struggled with self-worth as do many of my friends in our capitalist culture. We are valued for what we produce, and I had the year 2020 booked with art shows. Most were cancelled. I’m fortunate that a few venues I’d planned with have managed to survive, but that is three out of twelve. Plus, art? I struggled with whether my perspective had any value, when what we need are hospital workers, scientists, and other front-line workers. A friend recently told me his art style “wasn’t cohesive,” so, he “wasn’t as marketable for galleries.” I was reminded of Jenny Odell, a multi-disciplinary artist and professor at Stanford, and her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, saying that it is actually subversive to be “a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system.” I needed to remember this as much as share with him. But then, how do we survive?
I wrap myself in a robe and lay under the covers for a bit, trapping the heat for just a while longer. My bedroom is in flux, with new shelves and a half torn up carpet revealing oak floors underneath. It’s slow going. I have to scrape up a reddish-brown resin, but the wood is in gorgeous condition and I am thankful. In the rearranging of everything, I found my first commissioned painting. I started it when I was 20 right after my father passed away. I ended up keeping the original and giving “my client” (i.e., drug supplier) the print.
It’s interesting that, regardless of what happens, our humanness wants to normalize things, wants to adapt.
When my father was ill and then died, I didn’t tell anyone. It was too painful and so I kept it to myself. I didn’t expect anyone to understand and my life took on a very surreal quality; dancing at clubs with friends, listening to their complaints and feeling like their grievances were simple, petty at times, and how I would trade my pain in an instant. They had no idea and as time passed it seemed I could never tell. It seemed too late, grew in its strangeness and I felt more alienated. One night, a small group of us ended up at the house of a speed dealer.
In So Cal, it was deathrock, but it was basically what we know as goth. The dealer was very tall, very pale, with dyed jet-black hair down to his waist. He wore velvet smoking jackets in various colors like maroon and midnight blue, ascots, leggings, and buckleboots. His wife had to work early so we were quietly socializing in the kitchen. We spoke of Victorian literature and music and he slipped me his number, said I was “sophisticated.” We began spending our days together, smoking cigarettes, huddled in his bathroom because he was paranoid to do lines anywhere but in that tiny room, filled with smoke, the door shut. He would do long rails and I would do one tiny bump and that would be enough, the burn and drip a way to center from the grief. He gave me a way to act out my pain, to quit pretending all was “normal,” to slip out of regular life. I wrote a nice resignation at the hotel I worked at, offered to train people over the next couple of months for them, and left with an effusive letter of recommendation and a fat check filled with a couple of years’ worth of sick pay and vacation days. Bye bye, normal life. In my mind, it was like going into the woods without a compass. I decided to become lost.
Time went by and sometimes I would catch glimpses of his wife, once having eye contact and I silently promised her I would never transgress. I had no idea why she would agree to the lifestyle they had, and he would tell me stories that are not mine to tell and that she probably would not have appreciated. But I started picking up hints and could tell he was starting advances, remarking on my looks, trying to find excuses to touch me. Once I wore a dress not realizing it was sheer in the light. He talked about my underwear, my collar bones, started pushing the topic of breast exams, showing me the illustrated diagrams that instructed one on how to do such a thing. I didn’t like where things were going, didn’t like how smoky and hot boxed that little room was, how increasingly crazed his eyes seemed in close quarters. I was feeling pretty crazed too, no sleep, my eyes huge and all pupil, down to 89 pounds. I couldn’t leave the underworld to return to normalcy. I was haunted by my father’s dead face every time I closed my eyes. I was afraid to sleep. I had to stay a while longer. And so, as payment for everything, because I couldn’t be indebted to him, I offered a portrait.
Like Scheherazade, it bought me time. Every day he looked forward to what part of him I would stare at for hours to render. I measured him to get his proportions perfect. We spent a whole day on one hand. And I felt happy too. I incorporated images of Leda and the Swan because I was immersed in mythology at the time. The work was resurrecting me slowly. He told me about himself and I put it in the painting. I coaxed him out of the bathroom. Just being away from that smoke filled room restored us in some small way. As I recall our behavior, he was probably agoraphobic. He had been using a very long time. But newly emboldened by us hanging out in the living room, I eventually enticed him on a car ride and we went to my house, and he modeled there. I made us coffee. We could almost be mistaken as a functioning couple of people.
It is in the most difficult of times that art can resurrect. We are conduits for art to move through, illuminate from within, transform. Sharing stories was how we extracted medicine from the poison, through modeling he felt seen, then we could create the map from my measurements, the painting was our compass to navigate death and practice soul retrieval. We were exiled to a psychic purgatory and somehow stumbled out into a pale semblance of light. Together, with baby steps, as odd shapes that didn’t fit the machine. I don’t remember how we parted but I suspect it isn’t important.
When he received the print, he hid it just for himself, and I’ve never shown the painting either. But looking at it during this time of doubt has renewed a faith in mystery, and one of purpose too. I’ve kept doing portraits and here is one I love. If you look carefully at the banner, you can read the notes. It’s a complicated piece but if you approach it in little steps it plays beautifully.