Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blood Warhols

More Warhol-style collages made in Photoshop, from photos made during my most recent blood transfusion.

Blood Warhol 1

Blood Warhol 2

Blood Warhol 3

The blood is the life.

Hands into hearts filled with blood.

Three collages made in Photoshop from photos taken during my most recent blood transfusion, in the hospital outpatient ward, a needle in the back of my hand, not always pleasant, sometimes painful, but worth remembering.

When you sit down to make art out of your life experience, sometimes it's worth it to make art you don't like to look at. I get a lot of flak for making this kind of art, and even more flak for writing poetry about it. (Particularly from poets, when those poems challenge them in ways they don't like to be challenged, formally, or in terms of content, or with ways of writing poems alien to their own. Poets, probably because they're so insecure in the market-driven world, are often very intolerant of difference. Gays and lesbians, too, can be intolerant of difference, and sometimes for the same reason: we can be very uncertain of our place in the world.)

But that is the essence of Tantric practice: facing directly those things you don't like to look at, whether they are fears, toxic patterns, death, life, love, sex, hate, or other sometimes corrosive emotions and situations. It's a list of things we'd all rather avoid, most of us, and the list is as long as your personal list of phobias and neuroses. At the root of most or all of these lies fear.

The point is to embrace those things you'd rather flee from, use that power they generate in you when you face them, and redirect it towards your own greatest good. Betterment. Enlightenment. Whatever you want to call it.

Most people run from their fears. The Tantric practice is to run towards them.

In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, a monk was sometimes sent to practice graveyard meditation, which is the practice of going to the burial yards, and meditating all night long while sitting on a fresh corpse. If that doesn't push your buttons, bring out every feeling of fear and revulsion you've ever felt, then you're not human. It's supposed to push your buttons. That's the point: When your buttons are pushed, then you're engaged with your whole being with the moment.

And that's only one short step away from what enlightenment really is, which is not what most people think it is. It's not nirvana, it's not some magical blissful cessation of all upset, chaos, or drama. It's not the end of strife. What it is, is living in the present moment, without emotional or mental baggage, with a sense of being one with everything, and being able to sense the connections. The Lakota say "All My Relations" at the end of their prayers, invoking and connecting to all of Creation. The Navajo finish many sacred songs with the phrase "It is finished in beauty," which is one translation of the word "hozho," which means "balance" and "peace" as well. See the pattern yet? At the culmination of the corpse meditation, after you have contemplated your own death and the ephemeral and groundless nature of your own emotions, there arrives a peacefulness and tranquility and detachment wherein you realize what matters in life and what doesn't, what's worth paying attention to, and what's not worth getting upset about. Which is most things. Most personal dramas get put into perspective when you're meditating all night while sitting on a corpse.

Which is why I keep coming back to the photos I have taken of my own medical procedures, of the blood transfusions in particular. Remembering what the needle feels like in the back of your hand while looking at the photo: that is a Tantric practice. It's like meditating while sitting on your own corpse, on the temporary nature of your own incarnation, on the limitations and short duration of their lives.

The Universe will go on a very long time after we're all dead. That puts your drama into perspective.

I might not survive another day, another week, another year. The medical treatments I still have to undergo, not the least of them a life-changing surgery, could be the death of me. Each blood transfusion could kill me as well as save me: it is always a risk. Even if a small risk, because the medical technicians are really good at what they do, it's still a risk.

I've never thought of myself as particularly brave or heroic or as anything special, and I've always run towards the fears instead of away from them. I learned very early in life that that's what you have to do. I've never felt there was a choice, even when I didn't really want to do it. There are just some things you have to do, and you can't avoid doing them.

I learned that by growing up a gay boy in a hostile culture: we all learn to navigate dangerous waters very early, we learn to be observers of life and people, almost the same way an anthropologist in the field observes the people in the culture she is studying, we learn to hold back our personal truths from public scrutiny, and public discourse. We learn early that we have to cope with doing things we'd rather not do. I learned a lot of life-lessons from being bullied for many years in school. One of them was to always turn towards the lion's roar, rather than to try to run away from it. If you try to run away, you get eaten.

I don't want to get eaten. I'm the spiritual predator, the Black Dragon, not the sheep, the spiritual prey. I'm the Warrior who can be killed but never defeated. And I'm the Vampire, the dark archetype that even at the last fights to his utmost to survive. I'm in love with the world, and with life, and I'm not ready to let go of it. Not yet. I won't be here forever, so every moment is all the more precious. The preciousness of life is in direct proportion to our awareness of its short, ephemeral nature. This, too, you learn from sitting on the corpse all night: That what cannot less is therefore all the more rich.

So I run towards the fears. Nothing in life terrifies me more, right now, then the surgery and recovery and life-changing things about to happen to me. The outcome may very well be a real improvement to my life. But I'm not there yet. Today, that hasn't happened yet, and there's no guarantees. There is no "reward" for good behavior, for doing everything right, for thinking the right thoughts, for following good advice, for right livelihood. You cannot think your way out of these problems. Sometimes you can only endure.

If I must face this fear, I will. It doesn't seem like there's a choice. Avoidance and denial are not valid choices. Running away only postpones the inevitable. My aunt who avoided and denied illness and death her entire life was not in the end able to avoid either, and her last illness killed her. Nobody here gets out alive. When you fight back against the bullies, they stop. Well, first they escalate, but once they figure out you're not easy prey anymore, they go in search of easier prey than you—that's because bullies are fundamentally lazy, stupid, and ignorant: they are ruled by their own fears, and they always run away from the corpse. Facing up to it is the last thing they want to do. So when you run towards your fears, the bullies scatter. Another thing I learned early in life.

So I make art, and poems, out of this illness, out of these fears. And the fears scatter. At least for awhile. For tonight is good enough. And if you don't want to stare at this corpse, don't: no one is forcing you to look. You can make your own choices, and they don't have to be mine.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

In general I’m not a fearful person. I’ve had a phobia all my life which I’ve faced. I wouldn’t say I’ve been “cured” but it’s no longer something I have to worry about. Being phobic bothered me because I was fully aware that I was being irrational. Of course not all fear is irrational and there are times when the right thing is to run for the hills. I was once chased by a mob and I can assure you that I was afraid and my fear gave me wings. I’m not afraid of death. I’m not even afraid of dying as long as it’s not painful, not that I’m afraid of pain but I still reckon it’s something to be avoided if one has any say in the matter. If you weren’t feeling nervous about your impending surgery you wouldn’t be normal – no one likes the unknown – but the fact is you’ll be out for the count and if you die you’ll be the last one to know about it.

Carrie’s had two major operations since she’s been here – both to treat cancer, two different kinds – and she copes by finding out absolutely everything about what’s going to happen to her, even watching videos of operations. I’ve had two minor surgeries in that time and I wanted to know nothing beforehand and she was under strict instructions to tell me nothing afterwards as long as everything went by the numbers. Ignorance is bliss. We all cope in our own ways.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I'm like Carrie, I want to know as much as I can. Being a very visual person, I like seeing the medical images, which keep my vivid imagination from spinning off into worst case fantasies. I find it keeps me centered, to know as much as I can.

We do indeed all cope in our own ways.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

I am dazzled by your first psychedelic Warhol.

I've never run toward my fears. At best I've taken slow and careful steps toward them until seemingly suddenly they are receding behind me.

2:41 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That works, Glenn. Maybe the speed at which we face our fears doesn't matter as much as that we DO, and that they end up receding in the rear-view mirror.

For me, it's mostly a matter of facing them when they confront me, not putting it off, dealing with the stove when it's still hot, as it were. I find that does accelerate the rate of it. Not waiting till later, in other words, but facing them in the moment they arrive. I stumble for words a little, here. All I'm really trying to get at is that one of the things I've been learning to do is to deal with whatever is of the moment, in the moment.

8:50 AM  

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