I was inspired by the following story (many versions feature coffee, but I drink tea!) to create an original t-shirt design through the fundraising site Booster. Shirts are $15 and all profits ($5 per shirt) go directly to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Order by December 28th: https://www.booster.com/be-the-tea.
A young woman is struggling through a difficult time in her life, and she seeks her mother’s advice. The mother leads her daughter to the kitchen, where she has placed three pots on the stove. After each has simmered a while, the mother asks her daughter to lift the lid of each of the pots, and tell her what she sees.
The daughter lifts each lid, one at a time, and then replies, “I see eggs, carrots, and a bag of tea leaves. Each is boiling in hot water.”
The mother nods, and asks her to look more closely. “What happens to an egg in boiling water?”
“It was fragile, but then it becomes hard,” the daughter replies.
“And what happens to carrots?” asks the mother.
“They begin hard, but in the water, they become soft and lose color,” replies the daughter.
“And what about the tea leaves?” asks the mother.
“The tea leaves turn the boiling water into tea,” replies the daughter.
“Yes,” says the mother. “Remember that. When in boiling water, the egg grows hard, and the carrots grow soft. But the tea? The tea changes the water it is in. When you find yourself in hot water, when you face challenges and adversity, strive to be the tea.”
As I face surgery at the beginning of next week, I have needed to remind myself of this tale, and its lesson, again and again: instead of letting difficult circumstances harden what is fragile, or weaken what is strong, use them to transform not only yourself but the world around you for the better.
Healing from cancer is a long and arduous journey. I hope you will consider supporting breast cancer research efforts by purchasing a “Be the Tea” t-shirt designed by yours truly between now and December 28th: https://www.booster.com/be-the-tea.
It’s taken me a while to get to this project, which I’m calling my Joy Journal. The idea was inspired by an article, “Crafting Memory Cards,” in the July/August 2016 issue of Cloth-Paper-Scissors. Written by Susie Henderson, the article describes a set of “altered cards” she made to “curate [her] collection of losses.” Henderson used a set of playing cards that she altered with paint, fabric, charms, and other items to commemorate those she grieves. She then made a pocket journal to hold the cards.
I decided to adapt Henderson’s project in a different direction. Though I am certainly facing my fair share of losses (and may at some point decide to commemorate those as well), I feel like it’s easy right now to get lost in the losses, and that it might be helpful to me to remind myself, instead, of all the things that bring me joy. I’ve been slow starting on this project, but I was spurred on to make progress this past week by a combination of events: my disappointment in the election, scheduling a definitive surgery date, and a consultation with my reconstructive surgeon, which just made the whole mastectomy thing that much more real. I needed a little joy.
I’d already decided to use an altered book as my container, since I had the perfect one practically volunteer for the job. Back in the summer I’d ordered physician Gavin Francis’s Adventures in Human Being, subtitled “A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum.” Francis weaves science, philosophy, and literature with stories from his own experiences with patients to create a kind of “cartography” of the human body. The first copy sent to me was missing pages 19-52. I was sent an intact replacement copy, so I had the extra, incomplete book just sitting around. The title called out to be tweaked and re-purposed.
I looked up a couple YouTube tutorials on prepping a book for alteration, removed pages as directed to make space for adding my own journaling, and it was ready whenever I was. I gathered up paint, glue, washi tape, playing cards, and various other materials to see where they led me.
It will not surprise anyone who knows or follows me that the first entry in my Joy Journal is The Beach.
Since I used an altered book as the container, my approach is a little different than Henderson’s. I focused as much on the book pages themselves as on the altered card.
I enjoyed letting the entry emerge organically and metamorphose over the course of a few days. I don’t claim to be a professional artist, but I think the entry captures much of what I love about the sea: sun and shells, blue waves and happy memories. I included photos from a couple of my beach trips, along with shells, an origami sun, and some of my favorite beach elements and colors. In case you can’t tell, that’s supposed to be a ghost crab in the lower right corner of the card! I love watching them skitter down the beach, and Steve and I once spent a lovely afternoon sitting in our beach chairs on Ocracoke Island, feeding the ghost crabs around us bits of pears and cheese. I have also known them to enjoy barbecue potato chips.
I worked a bit on the title page of the journal, too, as well as altering the book spine to reflect the new journal title. I still have some blank “front matter” pages to create, but I wanted to focus on getting my Beach entry done first. I’ll return to those elements later.
This project did bring me a smile. Wishing you a little extra joy this week, too!
Carilion Clinic, through which I am receiving my medical care, partnered this year with the National Arts Program to sponsor a Patient Art Show, an initiative of the Dr. Robert L.A. Keeley Healing Arts Program. Any patient receiving care through a Carilion provider was eligible to submit art work, which is currently on display in the lobby of Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, through December 15th. All the works are available for viewing in a photo gallery on Facebook, where you can vote for the People’s Choice Award (shameless plug: if you’d like to vote for my piece, click here.)
I submitted a mixed media triptych collage (acrylic on canvas, seashells, vellum, pen and ink) entitled “beauty in the broken.” I described my inspiration for this piece in a brief artist’s statement:
Shortly after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2016, my husband and I visited Folly Beach. An avid sheller, I have long been drawn to the whorls of the moon snail, a shell made a symbol of women’s need for creative space by writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh. To keep the numbers of shells I brought home in check over the years, I usually collected only whole specimens. On this beach trip, facing chemotherapy and a bilateral mastectomy, suddenly the moon snail fragments reminded me of the curves and arcs of breasts. Even in their brokenness, especially in their variety, each was still beautiful. This mixed media collage attempts to honor the beauty in the broken.
I rather like the company the piece is keeping at the exhibit: a cheerful beach and a calming river.
There is a narrative incorporated into the collage itself. It cannot–intentionally–be read in its entirely on the artwork, reflecting the idea of fragmentation and imperfection. The narrative was excerpted and adapted from an essay I had written last year about collecting seashells:
When I first started shelling, I would often pick up blemished shells, the conch with a hole in the back, the slipper shell with a chipped, jagged edge. Sometimes the brilliant coloring or the graceful whorl exposed in a fractured shell looked too beautiful, even in its brokenness, to leave behind. Turned just the right way, the shell’s flaws were all but invisible. When I grew tired of the fragments, after a while, I vowed to collect only perfect specimens: bright color, shiny finish, completely whole with no marks or any blemishes. I quickly discovered the problem of the perfect: such shells were elusive. There were few such specimens to find.
A shell is a vestige of a living being. It is product of and home to a life; it has tumbled in the surf, cracked against other shells, been baked by a hot sun on some days, warmed by gentle rays on others. The flawless are found only in shell shops, polished and perfected, sometimes even under glass, the evidence of their complex lives buffed out and shellacked over. The imperfect shell, whole but marked by the world it has engaged and survived, is the real find. Maybe you can only see the real find after you understand what it is you’re truly looking for. Maybe the beauty in the broken only emerges once we recognize that same beauty in ourselves.
Two quotations wrap the edges of the two small blue panels. The first, from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s essay on the moon snail, reads “Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others.” The second is from E. M. Forster: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” I’ve found both of those ideas fundamental to healing and happiness.
Creating this piece was very meaningful to me. And while the timing of this post is purely coincidental, I know that many people are struggling this week with the sense that much in our world is broken, fragmented, divided. May we find our way to recognizing and owning our flaws, valuing our differences, and treating one another with respect.
One more shameless plug: if you’d like to vote for my piece for the People’s Choice Award, please “Like” it in the Patient Show Art Gallery: beauty in the broken. Please do visit the gallery, and feel free to share the link—there are many beautiful works in the exhibit, and many are available for purchase. Part of the proceeds benefit the Keeley Healing Arts Program. Thank you!