Thoughts: Icons and Strange Light

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Last Friday, the woman I love and I took an artist’s date and went to Clinton, Mass to visit the Russian Icon Museum. It is a place we have been before, but there is something about these hand-painted panels (typically painted on wood panels) that have always sung to me.

I actually have a Russian Icon in my house, and the discovery that both the woman I love and I have an affinity for icons was one of our first connecting points.

It’s an odd little museum. Outside it is a small industrial building, the sort of thing you see in New England towns. Perhaps a small factory or warehouse from the turn of the century (1900’s, not 2,000’s). Inside it is remarkably modern and airy, with lighting that changes color every few minutes, from reddish to blue-ish to greenish to purplish and back.

Personally, I find the ever-changing light colors a distraction. The lighting changes the way the rooms, and more importantly, the icons appear. Being someone who likes to study, not just look at, paintings that touch me, the shift in color makes it hard for me to fully see the artwork. I am constantly trying to see past the hues of the lights to the colors of the paintings.

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There is likely a reason for the colors. Perhaps the colors of the light replicate colors from the stained glass windows of churches where these icons may have hung, and the lights are designed to let us see the paintings in context.

At times I found myself looking closely at this icon or that icon. At other times, I stood back and looked at them, noting how they changed as the light changed.

It is, after all, all about the light.

Most artists will tell you that. So will most photographers. Light changes how we see everything. And the light changes throughout the day, taking any landscape or vignette and always, subtly shifting how it’s seen, how it’s experienced, how we end up feeling.

I am a strong believer (and brain science is starting to catch up and verify this common belief.) that how we choose to see things in our life, the light, and color we choose to paint the events in our lives, change how our live actually are, just as light on a landscape changes how we see the landscape itself. The same section of farms and mountains can be alternately washed out, harsh, warm, inviting, hopeful – all according to the light.

Which is right? Which is true? The dark? The hopeful? All of them? Yeah, you can get all philosophic on this one – generations of philosophers have filled stacks of books wrestling that puppy down, or at least trying to.

I downloaded some of the pictures I took at the museum this morning. Each icon was bleached with the color of the moment. I spent some time in software trying to bring the image to the way I believed they would look in uncolored light, trying to wrestle them down to how I saw them. That’s what you see in the top image of an early 1700’s icon.

And we do the same with our words and thoughts in real life. We choose the colors of the life we live. We choose what light to see things in. It’s not that there are not things in our life that suck and things in our life that make us rejoice, but even at the extremes, we have a choice of the crayons we use, the light we apply, and in the end, how we see things.

I’ve wrestled with that at times. Bouts of depression paint a pall on how I see things. Some days the depression light is a faint one, easy to “photoshop” out with positive thoughts and actions. At times, it’s a black fog, with everything seeming negative and ugly. On those days, it takes more work.

I’ll do the work, just as I did the work on the top picture. I want to choose how I see things, I don’t want an artificial pall, or the rest of the world, or you or anyone else to choose how I see. I did that too long.

Photoshop is easy. Carving away the artificial light we all carry around with us is hard. But it’s worth it. I like the way I choose to see, even it takes some work.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

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Poem: Manna, Diners and the Nick of Time

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Manna, Diners and the Nick of Time

Joplin on the stereo.
Coffee to the side.
At the counter, they talk of fish and childhoods.
The tables are empty.

Blues guitars fill the air
and you are tempted to sway,
eyes closed,
to lose yourself in the music,

It is hard this morning.
Hard to start. Hard to breathe and hard
to begin.  Darkness, like sludge,
fills your lungs and fills your mind

and you are nearly overwhelmed.
Even the music is your enemy,
penetrating too deep, too loud. a threat
to swallow you and beat you into the ground.

But you are old and tough.
A veteran of the dark wars.
Too dumb to surrender, too wrapped up in the battle
you begin to write, each work

another bar in the prison that will,
for a day at least,
keep the demons at bay, captured
by careful punctuation and word magic,

A thing stronger than you,
white magic, rarely beautiful, peculiarly powerful,
you weave them even when you do not feel them,
you grow stronger, less from effort than allowing,

of bearing your breast to the demons and God alike
and trusting God’s breath to come faster
and stronger, and always, only,
in the nick of time.

About this poem. 

Manna, for those of you who are not Christian, or are long lapsed, is the bread-like substance that God gave the Jews each day after they had left their slavery in Egypt. They could not save it, for it would rot. They had to trust that each day he would give them just enough. And he did.

That is the way I have led my life the past decade or so. Dark days or bright days, even when I am not feeling it days, I have to trust that I will get enough inspiration (literally “God’s breath”) to get through.

And when I am not feeling it? I do it anyway.

It’s amazing how that works. In the doing it anyway, in the trusting that by doing and living and creating, good happens. Energy comes. Depression is pushed back. Joy sneaks in. And from the little death of each morning, life creeps in. Always in the nick of time.

Rarely before.

Tom

PS – The picture has nothing to do with Manna or diners, but it reminded me of what my day feels like when I wake up each morning. Dark. Regimented. Lacking life. But if I put away how it looks and feels in the morning, also full of potential.  The picture was taken near my home in West Pawlet, Vermont.

Poem: Morning Snow

 

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Morning Snow

Early in the morning, you wake.
You walk outside,
clamber up the quarry,
survey the valley
that place you have come from.

There is snow on the moss,
on the slate,
a light feathering, no more,
and the clouds around you are dark.

You stare at the snow, unsure
whether it is melting, or
a harbinger of a storm yet unseen.

About this poem.

Often, when you fight depression, you wake in what most people would call a funk, and you have no idea if it will lift like fog or fall like a heavy winter snow. Most of the time, which way it ends up is up to me. Thus my early morning battle cry each day as I get out of bed: “It’s showtime!”

Outside there are several inches of fresh snow. But the picture was taken at Cape Cod in March.

Poem: The Mystic Print Shop.

Mystic Print Shop

The Mystic Print Shop

The bins are full of
letters of lead.

There is a message in there.
if only I could find it.
If only it would stop changing.

About this poem

A mood thing. Intensely personal.

On the other hand, the picture really is of the Mystic Seaport Print Shop, making the poem wonderfully surfacy at the same time. (There I go making up words again.)

Tom

 

Thoughts: Honoring the Wounded

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The painting above is called Fractured. It’s by a local artist named Lynn Cummings.

I took the picture a few years ago and I keep it where I can find it and look at it often. Because if ever a painting captured my feelings when I am fighting depression, this is it. The flashes of color are the good things that leak into life. The browns and darks are the disease, working hard to stifle the best of me.  I like painting because, despite the preponderance of the dark monotones, for me, it’s the violets and yellows that I am drawn to, the reminders that those things are always there.

Last night, on the phone to someone dear to me, I was asked “so, I have been reading your blog. The depression is still there?”

Well, yeah.

Depression, I have learned, is misunderstood, or even not understood at all by most people.  Ever since I began writing of my own battles, people have been thanking me for telling their story, of reminding them that they are not alone.

Because that is one of the elements of it. The shame of it. A shame that comes from not understanding. My ex-wife was fond of telling my kids that my depression made me weak. My father, who had, I believe, a lifetime of depression, felt it was shameful, a weakness and that was part (only part) of why he drank so badly.

In a way, of course, it is a weakness. It’s a disease. A chronic disease. You can treat it. You can manage it. But it rarely goes away. You just learn to push it back. Or you succumb. Some people have bad cases. It cripples them. I spent a year or two in that place. It’s dark. Black. Horrifying. Consuming.

Others of us, most of us in fact, have medium to mild cases. You don’t even see the disease. We function fine. We plow through each day. We do our work. We laugh. We love. We do good stuff. We create. We raise kids, cut our lawns and help our neighbors. We’re invisible (at least until some loudmouth like me pipes up.)

But it’s not easy. Even those of us with medium to mild cases are fighting a battle the rest of the world does not have to fight. We have to consciously battle lies our minds tell us about our value, our ability, our worthiness as people. We have to fight to get up and get going in the morning. We have to smile when we don’t feel like it. Function when what we want to do is crawl into a bed and hide from the world. We have to fight the stigma and shame that people put on us for our depression. We feel the bad stuff more and the good stuff less than most people. Stuff that is simple for others is hard for us.

But we do it. We live lives that, unless you know us well, are perfectly normal. It’s just a battle to live those lives. We take medication to help, but all that medication does is lighten the load we carry. (unless we are doped to the gills, in which case we don’t function well at all.).

The rest of it is on us. If we are smart, or if we have the courage, we get psychological help and that lets us develop ways to battle our own minds so that we can live relatively normal lives. Invisible lives. It’s work. And no one sees it.

I’ve said it before. People who fight their depression to live normal lives are not weak. They are the strongest people I know. They are courageous, fighting a battle for normalcy that they will never win, a day by day battle where they know there is no rest, only now, only this moment of victory. They cannot let their guard down. Not for a day. Not for an hour, or this thing will swallow us, push us back. We are always subject to having it take us down.

And on top of that, we have to fight the stigma. The people who think we can just snap out of it. That we are just having a case of the blues. That we are weak.

Sorry boys, we carry weight that blissfully, you don’t have to carry.  I am not proud of my disease, but I’d damn proud of my battle, of each day I push through it and laugh and love and am, to most people, invisible. Put me down all you like. Put down those other people who fight the same fight. I know the truth. We are soldiers in civies. Your putdowns and insults are part of the battle, and honestly, they are the least part.

Depression has made me more compassionate. I have learned more about emotional trauma and disease than I ever thought I needed to know. I have become far better at listening to people’s stories. I have come to see how many of us are walking wounded. Anxiety. Abuse. Life

Anxiety. Abuse. Life trauma. Each of them literally leaves wounds on the brain, and the people battling them are my soldiers in arms. They fight their own wounded minds day in and day out, and for the most part, they do it. They function. They build lives. They do good work. It’s hard. They don’t do it easily. They have moments when it overwhelms them, but then they get up and start again.

I have never fought in a war. And I am glad of it. But I have listened to many soldiers talk about their time in battle.

In battle, there is no shame in being wounded. When one soldier is wounded, others gather around them, extract them, protect them. After the battle, they honor them.

Imagine that, honoring the wounded.

How did we miss that in regular life? How did we turn from honoring and helping and protecting those who battle on to stigmatizing them? To mocking them? To shaming them?  I simply don’t have the answers, but I find it sad.

In my favorite diner this morning, I had a conversation with an elderly couple. The husband fights depression. The woman fights anxiety. They have been married 50 years. They have three kids who they raised and who are doing well in life. He had a long career as a chemist. She’s a freelance writer and has done that for 40 years. They were delightful, wounds and all.

Don’t tell me they’re weak. They are crazy strong. They have fought the battle all their lives and made a good life for themselves and others. And they still fight it. Every day. If we were in a bar instead of a breakfast diner, I would have bought a round of drinks in their name. They made me smile. Such a loving couple, wounds and all.

So here’s to the walking wounded. The world may put you down and push you aside, but not me. Not today. I honor your strength. I honor your courage. I honor the battles fought and the battles to come. You are my heros.

Every day.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

Poem: No Cure for Autumn

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No Cure for Autumn

There is no cure for autumn.
No pretending the colors are anything but death,
temporary perhaps, but death none the less.
No pretending that Indian Summer
is anything but a reprieve
before the landscape is stripped
raw as winter.

There is no cure for autumn.
A fickle season, unpredictable
day to day, morning to night,
a new season every hour, a tease,
a torture, a gleeful child
with a knife.

There is no cure for autumn.
It comes. Year after year,
Slightly changed each season,
predictable as nightfall,
stealthy and silent, a slow, beautiful death.
And you are left to chronicle the colors,
to frame the season as a thing of beauty
anticipated
as you wait again for the spring.

About this poem

Across from my house, in the quarry, the leaves have already begun to change.

Depression is a chronic disease. You don’t cure it. You manage it. You fight it, but like the seasons, it comes. It goes. We are left to find the beauty in the season, or become a casualty.

It’s not romantic. It’s work.

From those two things, this poem.

Tom

Poem: Stagecraft

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Stagecraft

Back stage the lights are dim.
The theater is quiet, just you and the shadows
and the echoes of tragedy,
no costumes or backdrops.
No crowd,

just remembrances of performances past
and the gritty truth behind it all,
that you are neither king nor pauper,
neither baffoon or wise old priest.

There are no roles to play here.
You are exposed for what you are,
a stage prop, useful to further the story,
but lacking in life until the night comes
and the lights return.

About this poem. 

Mornings are sometimes hard. A black veil of depression colors my brightly lit room. And when it does, I shout to myself “It’s Showtime!” and pop out of bed.

Silly as it seems, it helps.

Tom