Note: Some of you will have read this before, at ccesf.org or in mary’zine #54, March 2012. But I shared it in a memoir writing workshop, where it was very well received, and I thought it deserved another look. I wish I could include the painting itself, but it’s buried somewhere in the stacks of paintings in my closet.
I’m in a painting workshop. I’ve been process (intuitive) painting since 1979, and one thing about process is that you’re always a beginner. You don’t decide what to paint, and you don’t try to make a pretty or interesting picture. It’s all about the experience you go through when you’re painting.
Sometimes it seems like I’m doomed to paint the same thing over and over again: me, Death, my immediate family. This time, I’ve started a painting in which Death is holding me above his head while he wades waist deep in the Sea of Disappearance. When I want to paint lots of anonymous bodies floating in the sea, my teacher Barbara asks the simple question: “Do you know any of them?” and I’m like, Nooooo… I am so sick of painting my family!
But I know what I have to do: When creation tells you to jump, you ask “How high?” So I paint Mom, Dad, baby brother (who died), and a cross with the name McKenney on it. Instead of the romantic-sounding Sea of Disappearance, it’s a rather pedestrian version: the Green Bay of Disappearance or the Menominee River of Disappearance—a small cove off the big waters of Death, Upper Michigan division. There’s no escaping the family ties.
It goes well, but when I think I’m done, Barbara persists with her pesky questions. What more could I do? It comes to me that there are strings of matter unraveling from the bodies. I realize I’m willing to paint death as long as the bodies are peacefully mummified and whole, but the thought of their actual disintegration strikes me hard.
Painting the strings streaming out of my father’s body, I get increasingly irritated. At first, I locate the source of irritation outside me. A new painter, an art therapist, is humming. I find that distracting under the best of circumstances, but now the erratic, low hum is stretching my nerves as thin as the strings of matter I’m painting. I finish them and then paint little cuts and splits on the body itself, the beginnings of disintegration from within.
I’m getting more and more agitated. I’m painting next to an open window, and a bee flies in and then can’t find its way back out. It just buzzes and buzzes and beats its little body against the upper part of the window. How stupid is nature sometimes!, I think, as I transfer my irritation to this innocent creature. Can’t you figure it out, go down, go down! The buzzing and the humming together are now like a discordant symphony in my brain as I keep painting the little cuts and fissures in the flesh. I think of the famous story in which a patient of Jung’s is telling him her dream about a scarab (beetle). While she’s telling the dream, an actual scarab taps on the window—thus illustrating (or precipitating?) Jung’s theory of synchronicity. So I try to see that the buzzing bee is my version of the scarab and that it and the humming art therapist are forces of nature teaming up to force the expression of the deep irritation in me that is covering something more meaningful.
I finally go and find a paper cup and a book, with which I capture the bee and throw it out the window. Would that the buzz within me (or the art therapist without me) could be dispatched so easily. Returning to my painting, I realize that I feel physically weak, as if I’m in anaphylactic shock. There’s no physical explanation for this. Plus, the irritation is now more like rage. It’s a debilitating combination.
Finally, I see where all this feeling is coming from. My father had multiple sclerosis, and I had “known” for a long time that the disease made him feel weak and angry and out of control. But I had never put myself in his shoes, never considered what it might feel like—not only the symptoms of the disease, but to be deprived of his physicality, masculine control over the family, ability to earn a living, and freedom to go out drinking for 3 days at a time with an army buddy. I’ve painted my father hundreds of times but had never felt so attuned to him, on a psychocellular level, so to speak.
(I also wonder what might have happened to the family if he hadn’t gotten sick but had continued in his alcoholism: He had already put his fist through a window in the front door when my mother locked him out. But that’s another story.)
So I keep painting. As the body becomes covered with the little cuts and unravelings, I’m startled to see that it isn’t disintegrating, it’s coming alive! The body seems to be jumping off the page. I realize I’m painting (and feeling) the electrical nerve impulses that are another symptom of MS. Richard Pryor, who also had MS, once talked about the humiliation and physical discomfort of having no control over his body; his arm would just shoot up, and there was nothing he could do about it. My father had some control over his arms, but his leg (the one with the shrapnel in it from WWII) would start shaking and jumping until he had to beat it into stillness.
As I start the next painting, I know I have to paint my father big, in “flesh” color—not the black, somewhat abstract form I usually paint. I can’t remember ever feeling so resistant to paint an image. I plod between the paper and the paint table and back again. I paint the big strokes of yellowy-pink doggedly, unenthusiastically. I can only wonder what joys await me further down the line in this painting. Ha! Finally I have this massive, fleshy, almost life-size body in front of me, and I feel like I’ve painted a wall I can’t penetrate.
Barbara helps me see that I have to get inside the body, which is the last place I want to go. I was used to painting all kinds of things on the outside of bodies, but I’d never painted insides. I finally paint big flapping openings in the chest and head, to which I add organs with tubes and veins and unnameable inner workings. I feel so intense painting them! A medical illustrator I’m not, but it feels so good to invent my heart, my brain (I mean, his heart, his brain) as I go. But my upper back hurts with all the tension and intensity, I’m barely breathing. And I wonder where all this is going, how much I’m going to have to feel, how I’m going to get safely back to the shores of stillness and my own separate identity. I feel like I want to beat these feelings back the way my father beat his jumpy leg. That self-hatred, hatred of the body and its betrayals. Fierce ambivalence about the family and its betrayals.
At the end of the workshop, I tell this story in the group, and someone suggests that I’ve been storing these feelings in my body for years. While painting, I was afraid that I was somehow “getting” the feelings from my father, but if so, I “got” them a long time ago. I’ve spent most of my life being afraid that I would get MS too, or that I would become an alcoholic. Anything, I think, not to acknowledge my true legacy from him, an exquisite sensitivity to pain and circumstance.
When I got home that night I was exhausted. I went straight to bed, and when I woke up half an hour later, my whole body was pulsing, even the soles of my feet. I felt like I had rappelled my way down inside a deep cavern, in a journey to the center of my father, myself.
William Henry McKenney