Every time I announce I'm back in the studio, and back to a steady work schedule again, a cold wind tears right through my days and scatters all my careful plans....or at least that's what chronic illness feels like: a weather system rattling the windows...threatening to uproot the trees...then blowing over, leaving a hush and clear blue sky till the next storm comes.
Illness, like weather, is elemental. It strips us down to our animal selves: to the physicality of flesh and bone, the primacy of rest and food, and the mystery of healing processes flowing through the blood and psyche. When I'm too low to write, or paint, or even climb the hill to the studio, I take a deep breath and pray: Let me be a good animal today.
And then I bundle up warm, batten down the hatches, and wait for the storm to break.
I've been been repeating this little prayer for so long that I'd forgotten where it first came from: Let me be a good animal today. An American author, an essayist, someone in the SouthWest, but who? It took a bit of diligent searching to find the reference among my books...and here it is, from High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver:
"For each of us -- furred, feathered, or skinned alive -- the whole earth balances on the single precarious point of our own survival. In the best of times, I hold in mind the need to care for things beyond the self: poetry, humanity, grace. In other times, when it seems difficult merely to survive and be happy about it, the condition of my thought tastes as simple as this: let me be a good animal today. I've spent months at a stretch, even years, with that taste in my mouth, and have found that it serves. [...]
"Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, loss of a job or a limb or a loved one, a graduation, bringing a new baby home: it's impossible to think at first how this will all be possible. Eventually, what moves it all forward is the subterranean ebb and flow of being among the living.
"In my own worst seasons I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.
"It's not such a wide gulf to cross, then, from survival to poetry. We hold fast to the old passions of endurance that buckle and creak beneath us, dovetailed, tight as a good wooden boat to carry us onward. And onward full tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driving in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another -- that is surely the basic instinct. Baser even than hate, the thing with teeth, which can be stilled with a tone of voice or stunned by beauty. If the whole world of living has to turn on the single point of remaining alive, that pointed endurance is the poetry of hope. The thing with feathers.
"What a stroke of luck. What a singular brute feat of outrageous fortune: to be born to citizenship in the Animal Kingdom. We love and we lose, go back to the start and do it right over again."
We do indeed.
The beautiful imagery today is by Polish illustrator Joanna Concejo, who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan and now lives in Paris. Her art has been exhibited in galleries across Europe, as well as at the Bologna Children's Book Fair and ILUSTRARTE in Portugal; and her books have been published in France, Italy, Spain, Poland and South Korea. The Lost Soul, a children's book with text by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, was published in an English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones last year.
"Inspiration is not something I seek," she says, "it is more a state of availability in life, an openness to things that happen to me, to the encounters I have, to images, landscapes, to everything I can see, hear, touch....I am often surprised myself by what I do. It is often very unconscious."
To see more of her work, visit the artist's Instagram page, or the Toi Gallery website.
The text above is from High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never (HarperCollins 1995); all rights reserved by the author. The pictures are by Joanna Conjo; all rights reserved by the artist.