Scar Story: The Gate
They told me to stay away because the building was condemned, but I continued to snoop around the abandoned home. The place was run down and dank from rain. Despite the danger, I went in. The building looked to be from the turn of the twentieth century so I figured there were antiques to be found inside, an opportunity I cannot resist. I meandered to an upstairs bedroom where my attention turned to an object on top of a dresser. As though on display, just for me, there sat a rectangular container with curved corners. It was voluptuous with no hard edges, the form reminiscent of a dismembered torso. The box was a luminous deep cobalt blue and appeared to be made of enamel or possibly a translucent bakelite. Engraved on the lid was an ornate calligraphic letter from the early styles I had seen in ancient illuminated manuscripts. Although dusty and worn, glints of bright blue shimmered through the etched serifs and flourishes. I opened the box gently with two hands. The inside was like an instrument case, with a velvet lining faded and frayed around the rims of several indentations. These were customized to fit the contours of an ink bottle, ink well, and pen nibs. All of these implements were missing, however. I closed the lid and left the box behind to depart before the building could collapse around me. I spirited away, feeling lucky - feeling chosen to have found this special item amid the decay.
Thus reads the transcription of a dream I recorded in late 2000. I had been recording my dreams since my teens. The excavation of decrepit buildings and the discovery of hidden jewels were and continue to be recurring themes. But the appearance of ink wells and dispensers, pen nibs and typewriters, was a new phenomenon I wanted to explore. This dream in particular sparked the use of calligraphic images in a series of paintings I called The Dream Sequence, made between the years 2000 and 2002. A little research taught me that the letter form I saw was similar to a European script from the mid-sixteenth century, skillfully elaborated to show design prowess. Statements and sentences opened with capital letters so ornate they are barely legible and meet the eye as pure extravagance. Looking through the historical records, I felt the pleasure and arrogance with which the scribe flaunted the beveled nib of his plume. I decided to incorporate these enigmatic forms into paintings as a way to depict my experience with the practice of yoga and meditation. At exhibition talks, I provided interpretations of the art as windows into the cultivation of the 'silent witness' I was demurely growing inside of me. From the yogic point of view, it was easy to defend the revelatory light-in-the-darkness feature each painting contained.
In my innocence then I didn't know that these elaborate inkblots were also anatomical portraits of unspoken scars incised in far corners of my body and mind.
The ink paintings in The Dream Sequence were also created in the context of infertility treatment. When I make this link today, one particular piece in the series comes to the foreground. It is called The Gate. If my memory serves me correctly, it was probably painted after the first of three miscarriages and certainly three-plus years before the birth of my daughter. The Gate is an abstracted composition dominated by a capital 'W', illustrated in a style derived from the old font that made a cameo in the dream. The W is distorted into a fish-eye sphere and is liberated from its two-dimensional plane with shading that makes the bands of the font appear like intertwining ribbons. The flourishes and off-shoots of the letter are green, calling to mind the climbing curlicues of snap peas. Edges blackened in vignette emphasize a central illumination emanating from beyond the interwoven design to give the scene a two-fold effect. You can imagine the nourishing view of daybreak from the dark dawn of a murky landscape or the view through a hidden anatomical camera that exposes the lurking flagella deep within a body. Either way, it's as if you have emerged from an obscure tunnel overgrown with thicket and have reached the light nearing the end only to be thwarted by a barrier. The gate is ornate and seductive, but impenetrable nonetheless. Just visible at the base of the decorative orb is a shadow cast in Prussian blue and black. Such shadow work is a visual device used to make art in all kinds of media more tangible to the observer. To hint at contrast, gravity, and other laws of nature, the artist intends to make an artwork convincing, even reliable. This may be a conscious or unconscious attempt by the artist to evoke an alliance with the viewer.
There is another kind of shadow work that involves the grueling interior work necessary for the full maturation of an individual. Shadow work, in spiritual and mental health terms, is a highly personalized process of recognizing, contemplating, learning from, and then releasing pain from the past. While I have long engaged in active shadow work like journaling, meditation, and a wide range of therapies, my process as a visual artist has been one of the most revealing and often more nuanced methods. This is particularly true when I study my creations retrospectively. The truest revelations do not tend to arise while engrossed in a project or even shortly after, despite my oft manic enthusiasm at the moment, convinced I've figured it all out. It has been with time and reflection that my artwork tells my stories back to me and reveals a prescience at the time of its conception.
I have to look back to gain foresight and as a reminder that my intuition, in collusion with my subconscious, is way ahead of my cognitive preparedness for processing life circumstances.
This week I began listening to Elizabeth Lesser's Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Story Tellers, the Human Story Changes. The book is earnest, dense, and eye-opening. Elaborating on the importance and difficulty of shadow work, in a chapter called Scars, Lesser relates an experience with V, the feminist activist and author of The Vagina Monologues (formerly known as Eve Ensler). V was a speaker at a 'Women and Power' workshop at Omega Institute, the renowned conference center which Lesser co-founded in New York State. Ensler invited the participants to make physical contact with a scar on their body, to elicit a story from it, and to consider the lessons that emerged from how the mark came to be there. I paused the audiobook and I ran a quick inventory of the scars on my body. I let my mind travel with a few of them to briefly confirm that each scar indeed had a story sewn in. Then, a phrase arose: What if the womb was a wound? My breath caught and a familiar contraction tightened my sternum. This response was my body telling me the rhetorical question was significant, but where did it come from? What if the womb was a wound? Guilt for having the thought appeared swiftly, but I held it kindly at bay, because this wasn't a thought, per se, it was a voice - a background voice. Was this the voice of a lesson? That night, unable to sleep in the toasted summer air and infused with the internal fires of menopause as well, I placed my palm on my lower abdomen to come close to the site of my most significant scar tissue.
Of course, I thought, here lies the true story of The Gate.
Just a day or so before listening to my old scar, I had celebrated my daughter's seventeenth birthday. Her birth story is usually present in my memory this week each year. She knows the rough outline of the course of events: the twenty-four hours required for her arrival, her grandmother and her father camping out in the delivery room with me, the candles, the letters we wrote her in anticipation, the howling-wolf back pain, and the forty-odd minutes of stitching I had to wait through until I could hold her at my breast for the first time. Now and then we raise our fists in solidarity with each other, referring to the ultrasound which captured her with her clenched right hand raised, a position she maintained until she was finally out of the gate. A powerful woman from day one, we agree, and I ensure her the stitches were no bother. That's not entirely true, to this day the patch-up job to my birth canal causes discomfort, but there is another scar I tend to skip over in recanting her birth story.
With a Bachelor's degree in Fine Art in hand, I left New York City in 1992 to return to Massachusetts to hibernate at my parents' house while I figured out my next steps. I wasn't home a month when I got the call back from the gynecologist after a routine pap smear. The test revealed Mild Dysplasia, abnormal and possibly precancerous cells found on my cervix. First, they conducted a colposcopy to confirm the surface area of the tissue and take a biopsy. The device used was like a mini telescope that peered into my womb. Next, I would have to go in for a day procedure called cryosurgery to remove the suspicious cells. This is when compressed nitrogen gas gets blasted in through a metal tube which freezes and destroys the rogue cells on contact. The practitioner explained the procedure and the likely causes. She inquired about my sexual activity in the last year and jotted down 'multiple partners'. I read promiscuity. It singes me now to recall how easily I assumed this shameful verdict on my recent sexual behavior. I don't remember if I was diagnosed with HPV (human papillomavirus) or was merely told the cause of the diseased cells was most likely through sexual transmission. I have read that there remain 'uncharacterized' causes of cervical cell abnormalities as well. The scarlet letter on my cervix haunted me, but not for having had some casual sex, finally, during my last year in New York City.
What haunted me was the real motive for my stacking on of a few lovers in quick succession. It was not casual at all. It was calculated, even if unconsciously so. That way, it would be harder to know who to blame for leaving me scarred.
In the first few days post-cryosurgery, as I lie around waiting for my cervix to defrost, I felt only guilt. Guilty for costing my parents five hundred dollars, and guilty for my cover-up being revealed. Nine months before I was raped by a stranger and covered it up. I decided this was the uncharacterized cause of my sickly cervix. I should say causes because it was both the act of rape and the cover-up that has unfailingly characterized my internalized trauma over the event. I covered it up by blaming the anger over a break-up and a fight with my brother that lead me to douse myself in straight vodka that night. I covered it up by disintegrating in an invisible implosion of spirit as I watched this foreigner, another camp counselor, board a bus to the airport where he would return to Europe to celebrate his conquest and possibly rape again. I covered it up by not reporting it. I covered it up by not journaling about it. I went so far in my cover-up as to write a postcard to my best friend that mentioned the 'one-night-stand' I had with an Irish guy ten years my senior. I went so far as to swiftly acquire new and overlapping lovers to show how carefree I was about sex. While there was some gratification in the pursuit of what I called 'flings' at the time, I felt little carnal pleasure. Meanwhile, the well of potential in the center of me began to grow hollow and thick with the overgrowth of avoidance.
The Gate was painted about ten years after the cryosurgery and after numerous visits to gynecologists, midwives, and fertility specialists. No one saw the scars. The day before my daughter's birth, my water had broken so I wasn't to have my carefully planned dreamy water-birth but was in the hospital. This was a good stroke because, after more than twenty-two hours of labor, when the flummoxed midwives declared that I was still fully effaced but not at all dilated, the obstetrician was summoned. He showed up with a veritable knitting needle, size XXL. I overheard him say from his side of the speculum that my cervix was scarred shut. Then, swish-swash and, like a hot-cross bun, the gate was opened and my daughter was free to begin the next stage of her journey. I was thankful and didn't feel the pain of the incision but I do recall the look of horror on my mother's face and my husband's hand over his mouth. A few days later, at home and resting after the arduous birth, I began to feel angry. How is it that no one saw the scars? I visualized my cervix like a raw nutmeg seed, enshrined in a sinewy membrane of mace. How could they not see this beforehand, not explain it to me? This scarring, called cervical stenosis, is the bottom bullet point, the most uncommon on the list of possible complications of cryosurgery. How could I be so unlucky to be such a rare case?
My daughter's birth story was dramatic enough and I didn't want her to know that it was traumatic too. I didn't want her to know that my womb felt like a wound. I didn't want her to feel unwelcome or trapped in my story.
My sketchbook from around the year 2000 includes notes on my thinking process while planning the Dream Sequence paintings. There is a reference to the HSG test (hysterosalpingography) used as part of fertility treatment in which a tiny tube is passed through the vagina and cervix to inject a contrast fluid. This ink allows them to revise the condition of the fallopian tubes. In addition to revealing any blockages in these handlebar pathways, the process also displays the internal contours of the uterus. I guess no one spotted my scarring then, or maybe they just didn't let me in on it. Perhaps the scar tissue was both tough and delicate like lace, with openings just big enough to allow this tube to be threaded through and into the clearing where my daughter would eventually grow. Perhaps the scar tissue was both tough and delicate like the climbing tendrils of snap peas, with openings large enough to let the taint seep out into the light of day, but not large enough for my baby girl to push through, even with her fist raised in persistence.
The painting of The Gate predates her birth but, in retrospect, the composition seems to infer an identification of the self with the womb. The central calligraphic letter used in the painting is a W. What does the W stand for? When I was engulfed in making those paintings, I chose the letterforms for their similarity to the letter on the outside of the writing case in the dream. I had thought the choice of the letters themselves was arbitrary.
Now I read the stained monogram differently:
W is for Woman. W is for Womb. W is for Wound.
W is for Who, What, Where, When, and Why, the inquisition process I undertake to understand this wound.
My notes also show that, at least back in 2000, I only wanted to point to the light in my paintings, to push the shadows out to the edges. I placed myself and the viewer just before the bars of the gate, to stand too close for comfort and look out into welcoming light yet remain mired in the dark place. In shadow work of recent years, I have turned around and walked back into the darkness to sit there for a spell, take a closer look, and listen for the lesson. The calligraphy forms borrowed from the dream, the use of ink, and the illumination analogy of enlightenment are all perfectly good subject matter for paintings. I am not casting out my previous intentions or efforts here. It is just that those somewhat literal renderings of the context were only partly true. There was so much I wasn't prepared to feel or share at the time, like how gutted I felt about not being able to conceive, and then not being able to maintain a pregnancy for a time. I was much further away from being able to link the sexual violence I had suffered as a young woman to either experience or the broader experience of artist or aspiring mother. Today I picture the precious blue case from the dream as my body. I always had the container. I saw the latent sparkle in the monogram etched on its surface, but the tools were missing. I simply did not yet have the implements with which to write this story.