self-sketches in words, paint and ink over four years

Sketch yourself in Words, March 2011

Last week I made the first self-portrait I have made since chemo #2 in 2007: A linocut reduction print series from which I will hope to get a few prints framed as a group in one frame. This several pieces making up one self-portrait image, this media of cutting up the linoleum block to find each layer of the image, and this experimentation with a whole new process all reflect the current state of me.

My mind is coming back. Possibly, this has something to do with my recent shift to painting with my left hand (because of the neuropathy). Painting left-handed does not feel awkward to me—just the opposite: It feels like coming home. I feel more like myself , more in-sync with myself, than I ever did in my whole life working right handed.
This has been a powerful discovery, and one I have yet to fully process or understand.

Almost every day over the past three months I become aware of something I am doing better in terms of my mind. I can subtract again. I can use the calculator, knowing what is the significance of the numbers in front of me. I can hold the thread of a novel. I can hold a process. The Grand Canyon sized gap between my thoughts and my verbal expression seems to have shrunk to the size of a highway when I’m stressed, and to a sidewalk when I feel tranquil.

But none of this improvement seems to enable me to get the Green Mountain Express bus scheduled on Friday for Monday, no matter how many post-its are strategically placed around the house or how many people remind me. My walking days seem to be over—pavement and cement equal pain since severe osteoarthritis took control of my knee related mobility. I am waiting for braces so I can be on my feet for periods of time. I do not know if this is somehow related to chemotherapy, but it is something that has happened in this last year, along with three serious bouts of pneumonia in my lungs and a number of asthma attacks at night. These things seemed to stall and even rescind the physical improvement I was making after chemotherapy and radiation, and after stopping Tamoxifen. I don’t know why they happened, but they caused in me a depression that was the worst of my life so far. Limited mobility, fragility, chronic lack of energy, inability to breathe comfortably and “not feeling well” resulted in even more weight gain, causing even more sense of being demolished by causing even more sense of being demolished by an unseen force….by something over which I had no control…by something which could not even hear my voice. Eventually, even I couldn’t hear myself crying anymore. I only knew I didn’t want to go out and see anyone. I felt I was a failure at the simplest things in life: walking, traveling, being with a friend. Pain at night eroded my sense of capacity during the day. I felt afraid to do things. I felt that no one could understand what was happening to me because I didn’t understand what was happening to me. People I loved—and whom I know loved me—would say that I should ask for help, that I should “take it easy”. But at the same time, they wanted me to travel and be like I used to be. They wanted answers as to why I wasn’t doing better. They wanted to know why my doctors didn’t fix me. They wanted to know why I was gaining so much weight, and why I “just wasn’t myself”. I wanted to know these things, too. And I felt apologetic, even ashamed that I didn’t have the answers or the solutions. My doctors seemed confused, but not very concerned. My immediate family seemed worn out. My extended family and friends seemed like strangers to me. Increasingly I felt more and more separated from myself again, first from the fog that continued in my brain, and second by the surprising and unpredictable limitations in my body.

Just before my mind came back, my girls came home unexpectedly–first, Phoebe and then Anna. Seeing them move freely and wanting to keep up with them, wanting to do the things I once did, I began to go to yoga class. I bought a recumbent exercise bike. I started to move again. At first I couldn’t even hold up my own body weight. I couldn’t get up and down off the floor without great effort. It’s still hard for me. But the yoga and the bike help. And when I’m all alone I try to dance: I experiment with dancing while sitting, dancing without my knees, dancing with my face and arms and upper body and with my mind. It is still hard to breath a lot. It is hard to do a lot of the positions in yoga and to make it through the class. It is hard to ask for rides and to accept the things I cannot do. But I do everything I can—it’s hard, but I do it. And I’m improving.

After my girls returned and after my mind came home, I saw something else for the first time clearly and it broke my heart: I saw how the effects of cancer and mobility on me had deeply affected my husband and my daughters. This was the worst thing of all. But because I had my mind again, it was also—unlike my knees and my lungs and my breasts and cells—something I could change. I began to actively work on making sure they understood that I knew how hard it was for THEM. I started to curb my own complaints about not being able to do things and bump up the volume on my appreciation of what is working. Mostly I make it clear that I am the one who will figure out my own problems and if I need help I will ask for it. I also made it clear that my problems are not an acceptable reason/excuse for them to not live their own lives fully and completely. I know that my situation will leave a lasting impact, but I hope it is ultimately a memory of being real in the face of reality, and one of how much I love and appreciate them. I try to give my husband back some of the support and compassion he gave me when I was changing into something he no longer recognized. When I smile at them, I try to smile not only from inside me now, but also from that 20-something lovely woman they knew as his young wife, and as their mother when they were little girls…because she’s still in here, too.

What is working? I can still thread a needle: My eyesight seems better than ever. I’m 52 and I don’t wear any type of glasses. I am a full-time working artist. Though I don’t make any money, I do make art that is increasingly effective and substantial….honest and real…Art that lives. I love deeply and I am loved. I keep a reasonably good house and an outstanding home. I cook well again—and it’s been months since I set my last fire. I pay bills and work out the budget and plan ahead. I particularly plan my trips up and down the stairs. Most nights I can sleep.

I still haven’t figured out travel, and haven’t been home to Denver more than briefly in three years. I still haven’t figured out how to get the GME on Mondays. I don’t know when my hands will work and when they won’t. I don’t know when I’ll be too tired. I find it hard to plan ahead, and when I do, I cancel a lot.. I feel vulnerable.

In two weeks I will go for my four-year mammogram. Though I no longer take antidepressants or anxiety meds —for almost exactly one year now—I will take a lorazepam for that appointment. One doctor checks my blood, one checks my lungs, one my breasts and another my bones. My therapist looks out for my psychological status. I am less sure how to measure all those things, and I think it’s possible they may be less sure as well during this time compared to the time of clear emergency.

I continue to do this assignment, this sketching of myself in words that started in 2007, because it is the only time I feel I am looking at me altogether.

Sketch yourself in words, #2 30 March 2009

Liminality. Transition. Standing in the doorway. Re-Entry. New Normal? Re-plenish? Re-work, replace, reframe, redo—–but there really is no “re” –there is only doing something for the first time.

I find myself at a loss as to how to sketch myself in words. Two years ago I could do it easily even under the effects of chemotherapy and radical changes in my life. It’s as if the doorway is easier to stand in than to move through. Maybe that’s why we go there during hurricanes or tornadoes or other natural disasters. It’s re-enforced (why not just enforced?) So I make lists: the “whine” list, the gratitude list, the “wish list” , the to-do list, the question and confusion list. I make diagrams which attempt to elucidate the state of the body-nation at this time, but only serve to boggle the already unsteady mind.

Pain. Pain is the word that comes up the most in the New Normal diagram. This makes no sense to me. Everything hurts everywhere. Things are buzzing and numbing and just plain hurting. Even breathing too much hurts. Maybe that’s why it’s started to stop at night sometimes. I’ll get a machine for that, but what about a machine for my heart and my joints and my head—will those be next?

Desire—-desire and it’s fulfillment are familiar memories to me. I still have the desire, but somehow not the energy—how is this possible? What is happening? Wanting has been my magnetic north for so long, it tells me what to do with myself, but lately when I follow her I find I can’t keep up. I give up. I fall. I break something. I just get tired. I feel so heavy that my bones cry out underneath my flesh—they beg for relief from this unusual strain and weight….What”s going on? The bones and the pelvis and the neck and the hands and the knees and hips and the lungs and heart and even the blood and brain are all shouting at the same time and I can barely distinguish their cries anymore. I don’t know where to put my attention and then I can’t remember anyway.

Sketch Yourself in Words, 2007

My name is Viola Rose Moriarty. It’s not the name I was born with—except the Viola part, that’s my grandmother’s name that died long before I came into this world. The rest of my name I chose myself after a brief, failed young marriage in college. I didn’t want my husband’s name, but I had no name to go back to since my father had been absent from my life since I was six years old and my mother had remarried with a new name. I didn’t know who to be so I chose my favorite literary character, Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road. And in a small Denver courtroom, for the reasonable price of thirty-two dollars I started to become the person I am now.
I am bilingual, an artist, a retired educator, a parent, a lover, a friend, a palm reader, a lifelong learner and a wife. I have loved my adult life, seizing the majority of days with pure abandon, humor, moxie and chutzpah.
When I was diagnosed with cancer I began to work it into the mix: the surgeries, the appointments, the emotions—all with help from my therapist, family, friends and most of all, from my husband.
People usually see the upbeat and adventurous and creative side of me. It’s only Jon who knows the skid marks and scars underneath, the billion ways I’m afraid. That I’m an enigma.
So, I did pretty well through the first wave of cancer, drafting my comic book The Adventures of My Left Breast and making paper dolls with new hospital gown designs. I took photos of everything and I saw myself doing pretty well in those pictures.
Then I went to chemotherapy. First day: Treatment okay. I sketched through it. Second day: Jittery but okay. Days three, four and five I have descended into a staticky evil fog filled hell that I can never adequately describe. Like trying to pay attention through a vibrational band of intense, angry static. Everything hurts. Reading and listening are so hard—so, so hard. I’ve never felt anything like this and I don’t feel strong enough to cope with it. It’s day six now and I’m a little better, but still unable to go to drawing tonight. I’m still unable to focus enough to get my art supplies set up and begin a painting.
I’ve got to grab onto something that will break through here—a different way to work these days. Come on, help me out Max Ernst, David Park, Alice Neel, Mr. Rauchenburg—–anybody? I pray to the dead and to the live painters to help me….help me work.
I have raised my girls and they are spectacular—they’ll be home to help me with my haircutting soon. I want them to see me able to do this; I want to be a good role model. I want them to see me work when working feels impossible.
I don’t want my daughters to ever suspect the terror of being separated from one’s own self.
I don’t want my husband to see me defeated in this way, bumbling about like a babosa instead of the sexy, arrogant, often insane woman he loves (and slightly fears).
But this is where cancer—no, not cancer, but the treatment of cancer—-has me by the breasts and by the balls, so to speak. It’s taken over the airways and it’s screaming at fever pitch. Static and black chaos are filling the room around me, slurping into and over the rims of my eyeballs and nose and around my fingernails.
There’s no escape……and I have never, ever learned how to surrender.

Viola Moriarty, April 2007, After Chemo #1,
(From an assignment in the Moving through Breast Cancer class with Anastasia Nute)

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viola moriarty

(American, b. 1958)
Modern Expressionist Painter
2012-13 Recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant

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