The above is page from one of my journals.
Given that current statistics suggest that about 1 in 8 women in the US will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime, I’m betting that you know someone, if not many people, who have faced or are facing this challenge.
While I actually have some fairly complex and conflicting thoughts around the whole idea of breast cancer awareness month, three things have happened this month of October that I wanted to write about.
First I want to celebrate my beautiful friend Margot whom I got to visit with this week. She’s a survivor. And I’m celebrating how vibrant and beautiful and strong she is as she moves forward with her life, even as we talked about what new post-treatment medical decisions she has to make and how one of her friends is facing approaching death. This is what life is about. The nitty-gritty details we have to face, the hands we hold, the love we share.
The second thing that I want to talk about is a book I read and recommend – Hollis Sigler’s Breast Cancer Journal. It’s an older book, published in 1999. Hollis died of the disease in 2001. She was a strong feminist and breast cancer activist but underneath it all she was an artist who explored her journey with cancer through her art. She was also a Chicago-based artist and taught at the college my husband did so I feel a particular connection from that standpoint as well.
The book is a collection of 60 pieces of her art. The first third of the book is the story of not only how she created these works, but also what it took to get them on exhibit. She called her breast cancer journal “To Kiss the Spirits.” And she explained her process was to write in her diary creating a dialogue with herself about the events of her life. And then she would spontaneously draw, without making correction, trying to complete the whole piece in one sitting. She often used words in her works – sometimes inscriptions on the frames, and sometimes on the spacers inside between the art and the frame which made them less accessible as though only hinted at and not quite seen.
The final two-thirds of the book are images of 60 of these pieces of art, one per page. Besides each image is included the words she used on the frame and/or the spacers.
Although at the very beginning of her career she worked in a photo realist style of painting, by the time she was doing these works she was established as a painter in what is often called the faux-naïf style. I find her work very powerful and I highly recommend the book. At the very least I encourage you to google images of her art.
The third thing that I came across this month that I wanted to share on this topic was a bit of writing by Ursula K Le Guin. While it’s not specifically about breast cancer, I think it’s a brilliant expression of what we’re all called to see in each other, and to celebrate, this month and every month.
“My mother died at eighty-three, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories. I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook—I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing — I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm — I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.
That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt’s portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.”
I wish for all of us beauty that is life-deep and that we see that in ourselves and in everyone. Always.