Friday, April 16, 2021


How to start. That's always an issue in art, except when you are in the ZONE. This talk will be how I first found myself DEEPLY in the ART ZONE during the summer of 2002 when I was in very intensive chemo for Hodgkin's disease, a curable form of lymphoma. And how ever since then, each and every day, I try to stay SERENELY in the ZONE. Through meditation, chanting and prayer, I have learned over the past two decades how to keep delving into the ZONE, letting go of my "rational" mind, trusting my intuition and giving into my desire to throw paint onto canvas letting it go anywhere it wants to go. 

FIRST OF ALL, though, here is a photo of where I'm sitting in my studio/study/sewing/creativity room: I have two desks, one sewing machine and table, one long work table, a printer, a bookcase, an easel, a file cabinet, a teal blue wooden chest (my dad made), plants and of course my laptop where I write poetry and fiction and lots of blogposts:

And here is the start of a list of principles that have come to me as I have been preparing for this talk.

NUMBER ONE: Art, like life, is God-given. Before you start doing art, it's important to say A PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING, just like the Native Americans do. Say Thank You to the ultimate CREATOR. Keep mindful of the great gift that is creativity. 

Back in 2002, I learned to heal my body and soul with art, and today I continue to find health and happiness by buttering canvases in thick swaths of acrylic paint. With the Divine in the driver's seat, painting, poetry, fiction, photography, sewing, making pies, all of these have become for me a continuous outpouring of energy.

NUMBER TWO: Stay mindful of breathing. Every single breath is a gift. It's so easy to forget.

In Hebrew, the word to tell is "Hagid," which is why on Passover we talk about using the Haggadah to tell the key story of our heritage, that is, the EXODUS, how the enslaved Jews gained liberation from Egypt and found themselves in the Promised land. 

Art has landed me in the Promised Land over and over and over again.

Like all good stories, this one could begin in many places, but I'll start with my first novel, Dreaming Maples, which I published in April of 2002, two months before the dreadful cancer was diagnosed. The cover of this book features a beautiful painting by my very dear and generous cousin Pat Rotondo, who surprised me with the painting while we were in the Clark Art Institute on 9/11 twenty years ago. Unlike me, Pat actually went to art school in NYC -- she's an incredible painter, jewelry maker and now, a furniture designer and builder too. 

Dreaming Maples, the first of my three novels, is the story of four generations of women artists. The women live in Vermont in a sugarbush and they actually try to make a living selling maple syrup. The matriarch, Audrey X, is a sculptor; one of her first sculptures is outdoors, the huge marble bust of a little girl -- the baby Audrey lost. She discovered art as she suffered the bottomless grief of losing a child. Audrey's granddaughter and a central character is Candace, who is passionate about her painting. The climactic scene of the novel takes place at the Clark in Williamstown beneath Renoir's Blonde Bather, a spitting image of Candace.

The way I used to write fiction, I would "SEE" every scene before I wrote it. Readers claim that when they read my books they feel as though they are watching movies. So as I wrote Dreaming Maples, I kept seeing and seeing. I saw a lot of paintings. My journals from that period are filled with drawings and small paintings.

I started a small publishing company, Star Root Press, to put out my book in April 2002. All was well and awfully exciting until disaster hit the night before my son's Bar Mitzvah in early June. It's a long difficult story but suffice to say our family doctor diagnosed me with Hodgkin's disease (the good kind of lymphoma, the one that's usually curable!). On July 16th, I started making weekly trips to NYC (courtesy of my chauffeur husband Richard Kirsch) to get chemo at Sloan Kettering. It was an experimental treatment: I had five chemicals a week for 13 weeks straight. Over the summer, I wrote a whole manuscript of poetry called -- "RIDING MY KITE THROUGH LIGHTNING-- to get through the rare torture that is chemo. 

Soon enough, I was wasted. Besides writing the daily poems and sending them out to a slew of supportive family and friends, I started wandering around the house and for some reason it gave me great comfort to cut up pieces of colored paper and stick them onto other pieces of colored paper. I started gluing the odd assortment of papers together. Sometimes I would add little artifacts, like leaves and broken earrings, and here, below a syringe. The poem accompanying this image is called "ONE TWO ONE TWO," and it describes how I felt like I was a soldier marching through treatment. We'll take a closer look at the art i did in 2002 in a few minutes.)

On August 27th, I stopped by my painter friend Leslie Gabosh's art store, The Handcrafters in Chatham New York, and she handed me a fistful of colored pencils. She pulled up a black-eyed Susan from outside the store and she told me to draw. And so, while I was waiting for the dreadful five chemicals that day, I drew in my small journal. And out came this flower:

And that drawing, thank you Leslie Gabosh so so much, brought me a full step closer to painting. And healing.

One day in early September (my chemo was due to be completed October 1st) the difficult doctor I had at Sloan found that I was anemic. This miserable man announced: "Get ready to have a blood transfusion next week because you're gonna need one." I put my mind to avoiding the transfusion and curing my anemia. My friend Connie Caldes, a shamanic healer, came to my house with a giant frame drum one afternoon -- it is four feet in diameter. She drummed me as I sat cross legged on a table. Then I ate a big hamburger for dinner. Lo and behold I didn't need the transfusion. That Tuesday, the doctor stormed into the waiting room. I was eating a banana. He demanded to know "what did you do?" that you don't need the transfusion. I kind of smiled and said, "Well, I had a hamburger and my friend drummed me." And of course I did ANEMIA ART! in my journal!

NUMBER THREE: Art can be endlessly PLAYFUL, if you just give into it.

My routine during those long long weeks of chemo was to have treatment in New York City on Tuesday and then the rest of the days of the week, I drifted gently around the farmhouse and the pond outside my house in a chemo-induced fog, I played with my colored paper, assembling them into some wonderful and some weird collages. And then one day I bought a canvas and a few tubes of oil paint at Leslie's store and I stood outside and painted the lush green hillside outside my Austerlitz farmhouse. 

NUMBER FOUR: Art is like life: it is a moment by moment unfolding! The important thing is to stay connected to the present moment. Stay in your BREATH AND YOUR HEART and art will follow.  Let your heart be an ANTENNA for the Universe, and your paint an accessory!

NUMBER FIVE: Art is everywhere if you just let yourself see it. Slow way WAY down. Breathe. Listen. Let it life/art/love, let BEING arise and flow.

NUMBER SIX:  Everyone is an artist. This comes directly from my Beit Midrash creativity class, a lively group which meets on Shabbat mornings. Last week writer Jadwiga Brown said this: "If you live life to the fullest in each moment, AND YOU NOTICE THE BEAUTY OF EACH MOMENT THEN YOU ARE AN ARTIST, you are being creative. Making your bed, you pull the sheet a certain way and the sunlight falls right there. Or hugging a child." Or arranging flowers, or making pies, or furniture. In other  you are honoring the Infinitely perfect art that is the Universe.

NUMBER SEVEN: As Denise D, a very important healer in my life has said over and over again, do not multi-task. GIVE YOURSELF OVER TO WHATEVER YOU ARE DOING IN THE MOMENT, PAY FULL ATTENTION TO THE BEING and work hard to get rid of your ego.


A few days ago as I was preparing for this talk, I dug into a huge box of old journals. It amazed me to see that I have been drawing and "painting" in my journals for many many years. The journal I kept when I was writing the concluding chapter of Dreaming Maples is proof.


Fast forward one year later. July 2003. I was healed. My hair had grown back into a long head of bouncy curls. I had more energy than a racehorse. At my routine checkup at Sloan, however, one tiny spot of cancer was detected on the film. The miserable doctor treating me had not even biopsied it before he insisted that I had to have a stem cell transplant, a last-ditch life-endangering procedure that scours out your immune system. I refused. I said, "you haven't biopsied me." He said, "we will find the cancer I'm sure."

I demanded a second opinion. He said I didn't need one. He said he was the best in his field. The thing about stem cell is that it can kill you even as it's supposed to cure you.  And since I was feeling perfectly healthy, and had been for months, I was damned if I was going to submit without a fight.

Segway to the blue tree. Like all my art, it involves faith.  And the belief in the power each of us has to heal ourselves.  If you’ve read anything about the so-called placebo effect, you will know what I’m talking about.  If you are told that you are taking a very potent medicine, one that will cure you, then darn it, oftentimes it works, even if that medicine is just a sugar pill. 


The mind is a very powerful thing when it comes to controlling the body.


OK.  So the tree in question was a giant old maple that used to tower over the front yard of our lovely farmhouse. Anyone who knows me and my first book knows that I have a deep affinity for maple trees.  The key maple tree in that book is one I referred to as the Mother Maple, because it was a pivotally-important tree for Candace and Audrey. So I had what you might call a very close relationship to this tree that was in my yard.

OK, so it's this next part that’s a little hard to explain. On a warm night in July of 2003, I had to leave my home to drive to Sloan Kettering for a biopsy the next morning. My husband and I drove off under a perfectly clear blue sky that evening in July.  I don’t remember if I was crying or not as I left, but I know I had terrific heartache.  It was easily one of the scariest nights of my entire life.  My three teenaged children stayed behind.  My children are the ones who reported the weird episode with the maple in the front yard. Within minutes of our departure, the kids reported that the blue sky disappeared and in its place, a vicious lightning storm whipped up out of absolutely nowhere. 


“Mom,” my daughter Jocelyn (who today is an extraordinary nurse practitioner leading the COVID vaccination effort in Boston) told me the next day, “It was the strangest thing we ever saw.  You left, and everything was absolutely fine one minute and then the next thing we knew, lightning and thunder came crashing down, and then, all of a sudden the tree just collapsed.”

Just as fast as the storm hit, it vanished.  The maple, a tree that had seen a century of storms, was split in two, the top half fallen across the yard. When I got back home the next day, there were giant green boughs lying like mammoth arms across the lawn.  I started to cry.  I saw that giant motherly tree that I loved so much and She was reaching her motherly arms out to comfort and protect me.  She had seen me the night before get into the car and drive away, to do one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do in my entire life.  It was almost as though she was calling out to me, throwing her biggest boughs  half way across the yard.  She had laid herself, her life, right down there for me in the front yard. 


To honor that sacrifice, I decided to paint the remaining portion of the tree blue.  I went to Home Depot to buy a gallon of sky blue paint.  I asked the salesman behind the counter what kind of paint I should buy for “outdoor use.”


“Well, so, ma’am, what are you painting?” he asked me.


I scrunched up my face. “I am...painting...a tree,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t laugh.

He smiled.  He sold me the right paint, and a long handle for my roller.  Over the next few days, I painted.  Once I’d climbed as high as I dared on the stepladder, I phoned a young man in town and he donned a leather harness and hoisted himself up 30 feet and swung there, right above the main road, and he painted the very top of the tree blue. The neatest thing about the blue color of the tree is that it was exactly the same color as the sky, so that if you looked up, the top of the broken tree seemed to disappear into the ethos.


Painting that tree helped me face the trauma I had to deal with that summer.  It reinforced my faith in all kinds of ways.  It helped me find the courage to stand up to the miserable doctor at Sloan and say, “Look, I don’t care if you think I need a stem cell transplant, I disagree, and I want to get a second opinion.” 


Painting that tree gave me the strength to go to Dana Farber in Boston to see a second oncologist. The night before I went to Boston, I held a healing ceremony beneath the blue tree.  I invited my closest friends and told them to bring drums and shakers.  We sat in a circle as the sun went down.  We lit candles.  We sang.  We banged on drums.  We asked for healing.  We offered up ears of corn.  We read Native American poetry.  We prayed for health, for me and for all others in need.  We even had a woman there – a professional photographer— who insisted on capturing the event in pictures.


NUMBER NINE: ACCEPTANCE. WHAT GOT ME THROUGH CANCER WAS IN PART DEEP ACCEPTANCE. Every morning in meditation, I would yield up my will to the Divine. I would accept in advance whatever it was that was supposed to happen to me that day.


The next day, a miracle happened. Witnessing it with me was daughter Jocelyn, my husband and my dear sister Karen, a nurse and public health researcher. When we finally got into the examining room, the doctor at Dana Farber, Dr. George Canellos (an older man considered the Father of Hodgkin's treatment) told us that he was pretty sure that the doctors at Sloan -- who had given me an experimental treatment called the Stanford Five -- had missed a spot of cancer. "I told him that if you're using the Stanford Five, you've got to radiate the edges (of the tumor) properly." Dr. Canellos said that he suspected that the radiation that I had endured in 2002 hadn't done the trick.


I didn't think I was hearing correctly. I couldn't process the information.


But yes, Dr. Canellos was saying what I thought he was saying.  As my family and I sat there in total shock and amazement, he said that he would need to review my CT scans, etc., but that in his opinion, he was pretty sure that I would not need the stem cell transplant after all.

Suddenly the heavens opened and they were filled with Rockets and Blue Lights!


                              (This from the Clark: JW Turner's "Rockets and Blue Lights!")

If you have ever faced a life-threatening illness, or know a loved one who has, then you might have some idea of how enormous was our joy. I sobbed and so did my husband and my sister and my daughter too. And I know even though there is no proof that the blue tree helped, in my mind, it gave me the faith and courage that I needed to make it through.


Well, so, it turned out George Canellos at Dana Farber, was indeed right.  I did not need the stem cell transplant.  I needed a bit more treatment but it did nothing to interfere with my good health.

How grateful I am to this day April 16, 2021, to that doctor, long since retired.  I also can't say how grateful I am that I have enjoyed enormously good health since 2003.


In 2015, we sold the old farmhouse, and by that point, most of the blue paint had worn away.

But I still drive by the tree from time to time and I breathe in and I say  "thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, for what you did for me."


1 comment:

Sanchez Thompson said...

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