Putting Out Fires – “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Fire Escapes

Fire Escapes © 2012 Bo Mackison

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.” ~ Confucius

(This post is the eighth in a series of my story, an exploration PTSD, art and healing.)

So the greatest glory is not in never failing; it is in rising again.

This was a hard lesson to learn, when time after time, I made the same mistakes.

A little voice in my head often tempted me:

Oh, go ahead. You’re doing great. You don’t need to watch what you eat – it’s a holiday. Enjoy. You don’t need that tiny pill any more – nah, don’t check with your doc. And just maybe you don’t need to see that therapist any longer. Nah, you’re doing fine.Just fine.”

Now that I’m in a better space, I nix those crazy ideas immediately. Those ideas are the crazy ideas. They send out red alerts for me. Only a few years ago, I’d get caught in the trap again. I’d believe them. I’d eat poorly balanced meals, or stop eating altogether. I wouldn’t listen to my body signals, all those SOS alerts. Eventually I’d crash and then wonder why.

“Every day, think as you wake up today I am fortunate to be alive.
I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.” ~ Dalai Lama

One of the ways I learned to not waste even one precious day is to follow a regimen of extreme self-care.

Taking care of my body, my mind and my spirit is my first priority. Like the attendant who reminds all flight passengers to put their oxygen mask on first, I take care of myself so I am in a position to do my work, create art, help others.

Some days are easier than others, but each day is a gift.

Each morning is an opportunity to watch the sun rise and give thanks for another day.

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This is a re-post the 11-part series I ran in January 2013 on PTSD, art and healing. I believe the story too important to not be retold, in the hope that my experiences will inspire others on their journeys.

A Riot of Art – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Riot Art © 2011 Bo Mackison

Riot of Art © 2011 Bo Mackison

“What art offers is a space — a certain breathing room for the spirit. ~ John Updike

(This post is the seventh in a series of my story, an intimate exploration of art and healing.)

Once I earned off unit privileges, I worked in the art room every day, often twice a day.

The art I created was not beautiful, not appropriate to hang over a living room couch. It was dark, often difficult to create, but always meaningful. My art helped me communicate with the emotions bubbling to the surface so that I did not have to use words to explain  what I did not yet understand.

Working through emotions too raw to verbalize, my art did the speaking – through my paintings, sculpture, and mixed media work.

“Where something becomes extremely difficult and unbearable,
there we also stand already quite near its transformation.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Surprising to me, I was drawn to the woodworking room. It was a small room, once a storage room, and now divided from the open studio area always crowded with other patients and therapists.

There was a center work table, tools hung from pegs and hooks on the wall, and bins of building materials. I had no goal in mind when I began, but I felt driven to create. Linda, in her wisdom, always stayed near while I did the work that needed to be done. She’d perch on a stool in the corner of the room, balancing a pile of paperwork on a lap board. She managed to simultaneously ignore me and still keep watch. She answered questions and found supplies for me, but otherwise she let me create.

Many of the clients chose to work on projects they could give to friends and relatives, diversional projects which certainly fulfilled a need to create. However I was driven to create in a totally different way, letting my spirit speak through my hands.

My first project was a sculpture of many layers; its creation was a turning point in my recovery.

I began with several pieces of wood, a saw and hammer, and a box of nails. With intense determination, I cut the wood into varying lengths. The sawing stage was short-lived. I was anxious to begin using the hammer and nails. Once I began pounding nails into the pieces of wood, the form took on a life of its own.

I made a base, then angled pieces of wood to construct a teepee-shaped form. I hammered hundreds of nails into five or six pieces of wood, pounding some of the nails so hard, only the nail head was visible surrounded by hundreds of hammer-head imprints. Nails protruded from the edges. Nails bent; I pounded them into the wood until no sharp edges were exposed.

Nothing I created felt wrong; it felt right and empowering. There were no rules, except those for safety’s sake.

Never one to follow rules, I understood the sanctity of the safety rules. I wore safety goggles and a canvas apron. I knew that any misuse of tools or equipment would be grounds for not using the workroom. It was good practice for learning how to express emotions safely. I honored the space, the rules, the tools. And myself.

I managed my emotions within a set of boundaries. And I kept creating.

“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror.
Just keep going, no feeling is final.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

After the hammer and nails stage, I moved into the plaster of Paris stage.

The plaster was my sculpting material. I mixed bowls full of the thick, pasty stuff. Then I applied it to my wood structure. Layers and layers of white, amassed in globs and streaks. There was nothing considered in its application – just the urge to hide the wood and the nails under a volcanic-shaped mass of white.

I added small human figures which I fashioned from bits of clay.

I pushed the figures deep into the sculpture. I rolled clay into snakes with open mouths. I pushed them deep into the sculpture. Linda  continued to quietly observe from the sidelines. Occasionally another patient would wander into the woodworking room to use tools for a leather project, but for the most part I worked alone in silence.

The sculpture of wood and nails and plaster became a container for my anger, my pain, my wounded self.

I asked Linda for paint. I wanted “buckets of black and red paint.” She left the room, returned with two large bottles of tempera paints – one primary red, one black.

Using a brush more suitable for house painting, I slashed streaks of red and black over the white. Again, I worked in layers. Paint over paint over paint. I worked quietly, yet in a self-directed, controlled frenzy.

A controlled frenzy? That is what it was. I could not stop. I did not act out in rage or anger or despair, although those emotions were simmering on the surface. But I could not stop creating. I had to make this wood-nail-plaster-clay figure-paint structure.

Once I completed the painting part, I went in the woodworking room and sat with my sculpture.

Studied it. Examined it. Stared at it.

Eventually Linda handed me a notebook and markers – red and black – and asked me if I wanted to write about the experience. Thirty pages later, I stopped.

We are product of our past but we don’t have to be prisoners of it. ~ Rick Warren

“I’d like to destroy it, the whole thing,” I said to Linda.

“And how would you do that?” she asked.

I knew that to destroy my art would require a safety plan. There were limits, there were rules, and there was the safety of Linda, the other patients, and me to consider.

“What if I did it when there aren’t people around? It will be loud, the noise and all. I could put a big piece of plastic on the table so there isn’t a mess. And wear the safety goggles and my apron.” I answered. “I really want to smash it.”

Linda nodded her permission. “How about Saturday afternoon, after we close the room for the weekend?”

And that is what I did.

I spent several hours on a cold January afternoon destroying my sculpture which, to me, symbolized man’s inhumanity towards others.

I hammered it into a pile of plaster dust and mangled wood and bent nails. When I was weary of  hammering, I hung the tool on its hook and smiled. A very small smile. Then I broke down, sobbing hard.

Linda helped me to a chair, lightly put her arm around my shoulder, and sat next to me. We sat for a long time. Finally I stopped crying, found tissues, and wiped at my eyes.

Linda looked out the window. “It’s beginning to snow. If you get your coat, we could walk outside for awhile.”

We walked around the hospital grounds. The new snow covered the piles of gray snow in the parking lot. The air was cold and fresh and very clean. It was good to breath the fresh air.

I learned a life long lesson while working with the sculpture over those several weeks.

Art heals.

Not overnight. Not in a week.

But art, practiced over a lifetime, offers the spirit a path towards healing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This is a re-post the 11-part series I ran in January 2013 on PTSD, art and healing. I believe the story too important to not be retold, in the hope that my experiences will inspire others on their journeys.

Unlock the Art – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Bisbee Arizona

Art Lives © 2012 Bo Mackison

“Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life.” ~ Henry Miller

(This post is the sixth in a series of my story, an intimate exploration of art and healing.)

After I’d stabilized, I no longer needed the quiet and non-stimulation of the Quiet Room.

I was transferred to a hospital room on a locked unit. This specialized unit, designed for protection of the patients, did so with a minimalist approach. Anything deemed dangerous was contraband. A good rule of thumb – if an item might pose a danger to a curious, unsupervised two-year old, it was off-limits on 6-West.

A locked psychiatric unit, especially in a high-rise facility with no outside access, provides a stark existence.

Boredom was rampant. Angry outbursts from patients, or the television set on a high volume, or perhaps angry patients fighting over the television set were standard fare. It was the way of the system.

The locked unit was a transition phase prior to transfer to the treatment unit which offered occupational therapy, art therapy, music therapy, and a variety of classes that helped patients transfer to out-patient programs.

Enter my guardian angel, Linda, an occupational therapist.

She looked beyond my outward appearance, angry and confused, and saw potential. Linda took me under her wing, quickly assessing a way to connect with me.  In my fragile state of anger and despondency, she spoon fed me massive amounts of art and writing activities.

Her creative immersion theory worked.

“Art is not a part of life, it is not an addition to life, it is the essence of those pieces of us that make us fulfilled. That give us hope. That give us dreams…” ~ Hasan Davis

We began with the simplest of media – paper and glue.

Until I earned off-unit privileges, I did projects in the common room. Linda brought me stacks of magazines,  paper, and glue sticks. I began with torn paper collages – an activity that was a great match for my state of mind.

At first, the mere act of tearing the magazine pages into hundreds of strips provided an energy outlet. Gradually I worked to combine pictures and words which provided an outlet for my feelings, my emotions.

Linda gave me a list of requirements that would allow me to accompany her to the off unit therapy room – a room filled with an endless variety of art supplies.

So meaningful was the art I was creating, I was eager to earn privileges to be off unit.

This would prove to be a pivotal experience, one that opened my eyes to the miracle of creating and set me on the road towards healing.

–  based on journal entries, 1990-91

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This is a re-post the 11-part series I first ran in January, 2013 on art and healing. I believe this story is too important to keep buried in my blog. It is my hope that my experiences will inspire others on their journeys.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Rapunzel, Rapunzel © 2012 Bo Mackison

Above all be the heroine in your life, not the victim. ~ Nora Ephron

(This is the fifth post in a series of my story, an intimate exploration of art and healing.)

I was in my mid-thirties, a wife and mother of three children under the age of nine, when I had a spirit breakdown.

Most people including medical professionals diagnosed this as a mental breakdown. But truly, though it was my mind that could no longer carry my burden, I most keenly felt a disconnect from my spirit, from my center, from my being.

For years, I had successfully woven together a life, one that looked similar to the other women in my neighborhood. Married, mother of three, I worked part-time in the physical therapy department at a local nursing home. I led Girl Scout troops, worked in the concession stands at Little league games, organized a co-op playgroup for my two-year old and her friends. I was active in church and school functions.

One day in an early October, I received a jury duty summons in the mail.

Two weeks later, I was in a courtroom, one of thirteen jurors chosen to hear an assault case. The case was a first degree sexual assault case; the victim was a woman my age, married with three children, active in her church and hometown.

The woman testified repeatedly how she was could not recall clear details of her assault, how instead she’d had an out-of-body experience. She said she had floated above her body as two assailants raped her. She had observed the attack in a detached haze. In her dissociative state, she felt no pain, no fear. Even after she returned to her body, after the assailants had run away, she questioned what had truly happened. It was several hours before she went to a hospital and received counseling by a law enforcement/rape crisis team plus the necessary medical examinations.

The testimony about the victim’s dissociation caused a stir amongst the jury members.

Jurors were skeptical. Many of the jury members, especially the men, did not believe her story. They accused her of telling lies to cover her own part in a possible illicit affair. However the women on the jury found her testimony very believable. One woman juror, a recently retired nurse, stated dissociation was a well documented medical phenomenon.

I took part in the jury deliberations, but as I listened, I felt an overwhelming sense of deep unease – a perceived threat from unidentified fear, unexplainable.

After several days of deliberations, the jury found the men guilty. I left the courtroom shaken.

Only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth, and that is not speaking it. ~ Naomi Wolf

During the next six weeks I replayed the woman’s story repeatedly in my head.

Visions of her rape and the testimony about her dissociative experience haunted me. I began to feel less connected to my life. Time became distorted. I struggled to keep up with my typical activities and my children’s schedules. I also began having flashbacks and nightmares.

I wanted to run away, escape. I felt unworthy to be a part of my family.

I imagined myself in a place where no one would know me or have any expectations of me. I imagined hiding in a tall tower, alone with my shame. I wished for a life like the fairy tale character, Rapunzel, alone in her tower – with no contact with people until I could get a grip on my out of control emotions. Then I could be rescued and my life would return to normal.

I desperately wanted to hide in a fairy tale, one with a champion and a happily ever after ending.

During this time, I had glimpses of my truths, yet denial was strong. I wanted to return to the life I knew, yet I had a vague understanding I would never be the woman I’d been only a few months before.

Unsure and frightened, I lived in limbo.

– compiled from journal entries and letters, 1990-91

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I am re-posting an 11-part series I first ran in January, 2013 on PTSD, art and healing.  It is my hope that my journey will also inspire others.

Four Walls and a Bright Light – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Bathed in Bright Lights

Bright Lights © 2012 Bo Mackison

Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth. ~ Pema Chödrön

(This is the fourth in the series of my journey, an intimate exploration of art and healing.)

I spent several months in the hospital.

After my initial admission, my condition worsened from extremely ill to critical, and doctors transferred me to the equivalent of the critical care unit of a medical unit. But unlike a medical ICU with its high-tech equipment and constant activity, a person who needs a psychiatric ICU requires a different sort of healing space. She needs as little stimulus as possible. It is a time to quiet a system gone haywire from too much input.

By law, a patient must be placed in the least restrictive environment to treat their symptoms – I signed an admission form with a list of my rights – but my condition required drastic measures.

The “Quiet Room” was my world for several weeks.

This room was an 8 x 8 foot cell-like space. The walls were padded, the floor was indestructible rubber tile, and the window was completely curtained in black, then covered with steel mesh and an over-sized piece of plexiglass.

There was a mattress on the floor, a single sheet, a plastic-encased pillow. And a closed circuit camera high on the wall monitored my actions at all times by a nurse in the nursing station.

There was a door, but no door knob. Staff came in to deliver my meals, monitor my meds, and help me with basic needs. Otherwise, I was left alone — to rest. I craved someone to talk with me, console me, soothe my terrors, even simply to sit in the silent room with me, but rules required the nursing staff to monitor me by watching a television monitor, not to interact with me.

Most disturbing to me was the inset light in the small room’s ceiling.

It was an obvious necessity. I understand that now — twenty-five years later. If I had been in a darkened room, there could be no surveillance on camera, and that was necessary for my care. The caregivers would not be able to see me pacing. Or crying. Or rocking myself, trying to calm myself, comfort myself. Or worse. But I hated the constant light. Bright, with a yellow cast, I felt as if the fiery light was burrowing through my eyes into my brain.

I worked to record my dreams  in my journal, though my wandering scribbles were barely legible, my htought processes distorted. I’d pleaded for paper and pen, so instinctive the need to work through my experiences with words, and an occupational therapist supervised my safe use of writing materials. My nightmares were constant chase scenes in unfamiliar rooms, up and down stairwells, through basements and attics, jumps from roof tops which ended in me running through traffic up, six lanes zigzagging towards me. Attacks. Violence. I never identified who was chasing me. The dreams were on repeat, and so I lived them and re-lived them.

I couldn’t tell night from day. I didn’t understand what had happened to me, why I was here, nor how long I would need such extreme care. I was angry, and disoriented, and terrified. I had flashbacks and existed in a state of panic much of the time.

I describe this time in my life because this was me hitting the bottom.

I could no longer function in the state I was in. I couldn’t go back to the life I’d enjoyed only a few weeks earlier. My only choice was to acknowledge my fears, just as Pema Chödrön recommended in the earlier quotation, and move closer to my truths.

– based on journal entries, 1990-91

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I am re-posting an 11-part series I first ran in January, 2013 on art and healing. Although this is a difficult subject to write about and explore, the message is too important to keep hidden deep within my blog. It is my hope that my journey will also inspire others.

No Escape – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Barrio Brewery

No Escape © 2012 Bo Mackison

We can spend our whole lives escaping from the monsters of our minds. ~ Pema Chödrön

It has come – time when I need a safer environment.
I need protection from myself.
High away – no escape, no contact.
High away.
Plexiglass windows and wire screening,
protecting those of us on the inside from ourselves.

Administrators make attempts to brighten the environment -
primary colored lounge furniture,
paintings on the walls.

But nothing offers protection from the hurried words,
the rigidity and restrictions,
the mind-numbing drugs,
the incessant blare of competing televisions and radios.

Or the voices that only I hear.

~ based on journal entries, 1990

————

The photographs that make up the Barrier Series are a set of photos that symbolically follow the story of my breakdown and healing process. The photos are not related to any specific places where I had treatment. The series metaphorically corresponds to the phases I moved through during recovery, first focusing on staying safe; second on regaining basic functioning, and then the most difficult, regaining my wholeness.

This photograph represents a difficult time in that process. Unrelated events led to an awakening, necessary but brutally painful, which led me to assess the reality of my past. I was devastated and suicidal; I required in-patient psychiatric care. And although it was a difficult time for me, it was excruciatingly painful for my family, including my husband and small children.

The place I stayed is a place no one would want to remain for any length of time. And yet I was fortunate to be in a hospital that provided me with the greatest likelihood for my survival. At the time, I was not appreciative of the efforts and time my caregivers expended on my behalf. But as I look back on those years, decades later, I am overcome with deep gratitude for these people. They worked with dedication to keep me safe until I was ready to take that responsibility myself.

It wasn’t an easy job for any of us.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Over the next two weeks, I am re-posting an 11-part series I first ran in January, 2013 on art and healing. Feeling somewhat vulnerable doing this once again, but this message is too important to keep buried in my blog. It is my hope that my journey will also inspire others. We are all on a journey of one kind or another. We are all pilgrims following our path.

Boarded Window – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Warehouse in Winter

Boarded Window © 2011 Bo Mackison

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. ~ Viktor E Frankl, in Man’s Search for Himself

Cold.

Winter.

This barrier, solid.
No light, no sunshine, no blue skies,
nothing natural except the brittle vines.

Impenetrable barrier.
Frozen exterior, my world.
The bushes are skeletal in their winter bareness.

Dead vines cling to the bricks,
hang from the window’s edge,
collect in piles on the ledge.

The decorative bricks offer some respite,
though the window is boarded. Invisibility.

And yet, it’s been patched neatly, blue paint.
Sealed from view but with care,
What inside is worth protection?

And the vines?
Dead and withered, but the hidden roots,
alive, are under the snowy depths,
warm enough in the earth.
Roots which will sprout tenderly alive green shoots
in the spring.

This phase, the deep winter of my spirit-break -
a period of dormancy.

Winter’s wait for the thaw, for the return of spring.

– based on journal entries, 1990

 

The second photograph in the barrier series correlates to the time when I became unable to keep up with life’s day-to-day expectations and demands. I constructed a barrier, much like this, deep in my psyche, to provide myself with space and time, waiting for the passage of winter.

It was a time of silent waiting.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Over the next two weeks, I’m re-posting an 11-part series I first ran in January, 2013 on art and healing. Feeling vulnerable doing this once again, but this message is too important to keep buried in the bowels of my blog. It is my hope that my journey will also inspire others. We are all on a journey of one kind or another. We are all pilgrims following our path.

Barbed Wire – from “The Barrier Series” on Art and Healing

Barbed Wire © 2012 Bo Mackison

Barbed Wire Barrier © 2012 Bo Mackison

“Your life with its immensity and fear . . . is alternately stone in you and star.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, from the poem Evening

Before there was a beginning, before the crisis and a diagnosis, there was a dream.

I see the world. It is there. When I reach up, I reach into the cool air. When I look up, I see a bright blue, cloud scattered skies. Yet the world is beyond my reach. In this dream I have repeatedly, I’m trapped in a tiny enclosure, an enclosure tall on four sides, but open to the sky. I struggle to unlock the gate. When I try to move forward, I’m blocked by a cold steel fence and chain-link wire. Barbed wire adds an extra degree of isolation.

Barbed wire – a common fence, a stereo-typical barrier.

And then I am no longer dreaming. I am living my life in slow-motion, denying there is a problem.

I know I am in a separate place. I cannot reach out to my family and friends, I cannot communicate with them. They are on the other side of the barrier, and even if I managed a whisper, no one can hear me.

I am cast in fear, held down by a weighted stone. My only relief is a connection, however slight, to the natural world. When I look out the window, it is snowy and cold, but I do look up at the sky. I can always see the sky.

The human spirit focuses on that which is in the beyond.

– based on journal entries, October 1990.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Over the next weeks, I’ll be re-posting an 11-part series I first ran in January, 2013 on art and healing. Feeling somewhat vulnerable doing this once again, but this message is too important to keep buried in the bowels of my blog. It is my hope that my journey will also inspire others. We are all on a journey of one kind or another. We are all pilgrims following our path.

The Story of My Healing Journey and The Restorative Power of Art – “The Barrier Series”

healing-journey

Threatened © 2011 Bo Mackison

“Let go of the need for perfection, perfection bought at a high cost. Embrace imperfection, acknowledge mistakes, claim the lessons they provide. Embrace change.” ~ Bo Mackison

I’ve had an on and off affair with the label “mental illness” — a label that defined me for many years.

I hated it; I needed it. I pushed it away; I pulled it close.

That label deprived me of the basic experiences of choosing life and living it fully; it also allowed me to abdicate taking responsibility for my life and the choices I made.

Behaviors, lived over years, became habits. They settled deep within me:

  • as a child when I developed highly creative but pathological strategies for body, mind, and soul survival
  • as an adult while I was in the throes of deep depressions and slow recoveries
  • while I was fighting demons from my childhood, searching musty rooms in my mind with a dimly flickering match light

Defenses and behaviors I erected as walls of protection were no longer functional, viable, needed, wanted. Yet, it was what I understood.

I’ve had to let go so I could grab onto a better way. Caught in the pause between the two trapeze bars, I was dangling in a mighty discomfiting place.

It took many years for me to understand that letting go of behaviors that mark even a functioning mental illness would grace me with the freedom I yearned for, but hadn’t fully experienced:

  • not as a child in a puzzling environment
  • not as an adolescent who carried demons in her hand luggage wherever she wandered
  • not as an adult trying to function in the challenging world of careers and marriage-with-children, while burying the past and eventually losing the ability to even acknowledge it
  • not as a woman in the prime-time of life who suddenly crashed head-long into reality and suffered through a crushing breakdown

I worked for years to repair my body and mind; I worked even harder to repair my spirit.

Living under the shadow of the statement “I had a mental breakdown” provided a certain cover. Even after the initial stages, after in-depth therapy spanning two decades, and after reclaiming a life of wholeness, doubt lingers and unwelcome questions pop up.

There is the voice harbored deep in my subconscious that occasionally breaks through. It questions my actions, my motives, my plans, my challenges, my courage, my decisions, my art, my life. It questions my EVERYTHING.

Then, once again, I must re-affirm my strength, stand firm, and repeat:

  • I am responsible for my thoughts, my words, my actions.
  • There is no one else to blame for my failures, short-comings, errors in judgement.
  • I take full ownership of my mistakes and claim them, but I also claim the lessons learned.
  • This is no excuse living.

It was hard, excruciatingly so at times. It was necessary. It was the only way. And it remains so.

Because as long as I blame the past for mistakes I make in the present, as long as I don’t acknowledge mistakes and accept them as the learning experiences they are, I do not learn the lessons. I have an excuse to push away change and healing.

power-of-art

Art Heals! © 2013 Bo Mackison

Why am I writing about this?

Because while I created photographs for public presentations, photographs for art shows and festivals, photographs for art centers and museum shows, I also created photography, did art as a healing practice, and spent much time reconnecting with the natural world. This continues as my daily practice.

Creative activities are healing.

I believe nature offers opportunities for connection, the arts offer opportunities for self-expression, and life offers continued opportunities for growth and self-discovery.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Over the next weeks, I’ll be re-posting an 11-part series I first ran in January, 2013 on art and healing. Feeling somewhat vulnerable doing this once again, but this message is too important to keep buried in the bowels of my blog. It is my hope that my journey will also inspire others. We are all on a journey of one kind or another. We are all pilgrims following our path.

Transitions – Saying Good Bye and Thank You

Desert Labyrinth

Labyrinth Connection © 2013 Bo Mackison

“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”
from an Irish headstone” ~ Richard Puz

Today my dear cousin and friend died unexpectedly.

Karen was the girl cousin closest to my age and we were fast friends from the time we were young children.

She loved her solitude in a way few people truly understand, and yet she was one of the most generous and kind people I have known.

Although she worked in a bank in the days of the first computers — computers that were so delicate they required special air controlled rooms, often were “down” for unknown reasons, and did surprisingly little compared to the smart phone we now routinely accept as a part of our lives — and she worked with computers when employed, she never herself owned a computer.

She didn’t have a Facebook account, she didn’t write emails, she didn’t have internet accounts. Her phone was just advanced enough to transmit photographs and send text, but she only did so on special occasions.

More typically she wrote letters, talked to her friends and family on the telephone, did her business with paper and pencil, checks and the post office.

My first vivid memory of her is not exactly a flattering memory for me, but I remember it in color and detail. And so I will share it.

I was nine years old; she was nearly twelve. Her family lived on the other side of the Mississippi River, thirty or so miles away from town, and so family visits were special, all day affairs. I was an only child, and so when I knew Karen was coming to town I would plan a day of activities, the kind of play that required two kids, not one. Often we would play our way through a pile of board games.

One October day, Karen and her family came for a visit. I had the pile of games ready. On the top of the pile was a less than classic game involving a cartoon character called Huckleberry Hound. I had the table set with the game board, in excited anticipation. But Karen didn’t want to play with me that day. All she wanted to do was hold my newborn sister. Oh, the pangs of jealousy flared their green eyes that day!

The novelty of a newborn didn’t last long, however, and we were soon the best of pals again.

Transition - A Desert Wisdom Card

Transitions © 2014 Bo Mackison

There are simply too many memories to recount, but they are preciously held in my memory. If I were to describe her, I would use words such as kind, generous, and always grateful for the little things in her life.

If I sent her a card with one of my photographs, she would send me a thank you note for the card. We exchanged letters, especially when she knew I was in Arizona and on my own.

When my grand-daughter was born, Karen shared in the excitement, and joyfully noted every sent photograph, not with a simple word of thanks, but a paragraph comparing father and daughter, a noted dimple, a funny expression.She would tell me how the photograph brightened a rather ordinary day.

This past week she was admitted to the hospital for tests. Nothing serious, she said. She asked for new photographs so she could show the nurses in the hospital a baby she’d never met, but nonetheless loved.

I sent new photos on Friday and we messaged back and forth.

This morning the call came. Karen’s heart had stopped and she could not be resuscitated.

This afternoon I walked a nearby labyrinth and said my goodbyes to Karen. The labyrinth was…a thin experience? I talked to Karen, not really talking to her, but I did say my goodbyes to her, shed more than a few tears. As I walked away, I felt a calming and a peace I have not felt for many a week.

Good bye, dear Karen. I miss you already. And thank you.