Monday, September 05, 2011


from The Surgery Diaries

I spent too much money on a short trip to Minnesota this past week. It was the first time I have been away from home any length of time since the surgery. It was partly a test: to see if I was up to traveling, to dealing with changing the ostomy bag when away from home, with lots of physical exertion when on the road, and so forth. I stayed at a best friend's place in Minneapolis, which was a safe place for all this pushing at my limits. I spent one entire day at the Minnesota State Fair, walking and making photos, and taking in the sights and sounds. And a bit of healthy eating; which you can do at the Fair if you pay attention and take your time. I spent another afternoon wandering with friends around the Renaissance Festival outside of the Twin Cities, which was another test of physical prowess. I got home after the long drive, and only then was I really exhausted. So this was a good trip, I enjoyed myself for the most part, I had fun with friends, and I wasn't overly tired. If anything, my energy is returning strongly enough that it's getting harder to tire myself out. And I spent too much money.

But then, it was one of those trips where I knew I would be going to places where I would be tempted to purchase, so I did budget for the spending. And some of that shopping was every-two-years shopping, not on impulse but planned. I needed a new belt for my pants, which I like to get at one particular leather-work vendor at the Ren Fest, for several reasons, mostly because of quality and durability.

I did a little thrift store shopping on the trips up and back, as I knew I would have to stop regularly when driving to give my body a chance to stretch and relax. I haven't driven like this for months, and I knew it would be a good way to unwind. So I stopped at some places I used to frequent, and didn't stop at others.

One of the books I found on one of my stops was The Wild Braid: A poet reflects on a century in the garden, by Stanley Kunitz, with Genine Lentine. This is a poet who has always gardened, who ahs lived a full century and more, who has always written poems in and about the garden, and who I feel has often had wisdom to pass on. Wisdom not only about writing, but about life.

During the preparation and process of this book, which was instigated by Genine Lentine as a series of interviews and excerpts from Kunitz's published and unpublished writings, Kunitz fell mysteriously ill, and as mysteriously recovered. This is what he says about that episode, words which resonate strongly with my own recent experience of surgery and recovery:

The garden instructs us in a principle of life and death and renewal. In its rhythms, it offers the closest analogue to the concept of resurrection that is available to us.

I feel I experienced a kind of resurrection and I'm absolutely grateful for having emerged and yet I have no delusions I've been promised anything but a period of survival, that's all. There is no pledge of survival beyond that.

—Stanley Kunitz

No pledge of survival. I have if anything become even more conscious of my limited time here in this incarnation, of how much I want to get done, of the limited time that is mortality, and that I am aware of my own mortality as never before. No time at all, it feels like some days, to get enough done.

I look for ways to revitalize myself right now. Some have to be new ways, because in some cases the old ways just don't work anymore. I look for a way to come back to life. With the help of some neighbors, I was finally able to thoroughly weed out and mulch the back gardens, where the plants I want there are few at the moment, but very much alive. Earlier in the year, I had thought the morning glories I had planted weren't going to make it; but now, not only have they come back to life, they're exploding with it.

I feel as though I'm a traveler exploring territory that may not be wholly new, but it has reverberations and images that seem to have a collective presence. It's still a feeling, a sensibility that is mysterious in many ways because I don't know exactly where I am at this moment, in terms of the imaginative, the creative process, but I know I am searching for something different from the terrain I was familiar with. And yet, it isn't simply a new landscape. When I finally come to grips with my night visitor, I'll know more clearly what it is I have in mind, which seems to be a new set of images, but connected very much with my whole history.
—Stanley Kunitz

That disorientation, that not-knowing where you are right now. There is a distinct before and after to my life, now. I find myself grieving for the person that I was, who is no more; grieving as well for the parts of my body that were taken away, but also for the vanished sense of integral wholeness. I constantly stumble, fog-brained, around my days and nights not knowing what to think: everything is new, there are no rules, I don't know what's the same and what's changed till I encounter a situation and find out by doing. It's all still very mysterious. Why is recovery so mysterious? I suppose because rebirth is, too, like birth itself.

Certainty is once again dissolved. All the old maps are useless. We seek new terrain to explore.

I've been through this before, in the dark night of the soul, when everything I thought I knew and believed was taken away, leaving a void in me that stayed empty for years. Every time you try to fill that void inside you, it dissolves back into hollowness, because it's a void that can't be filled with belief, only with experience. I've filled that void two or three times since that first voiding, which was the dark night of the senses, the first stage of the dark night. The kenosis of emptying came later, in the desert.

And now I am emptied again. Grieving again. Feeling often lost. As more than one friend has pointed out to me, even at my current diminished capacity I am doing better than most people do at their best. But it's not my own best, and I know it. I can tell I'm functioning well below one hundred percent. I strive in frustration to improve my functioning, and most days cannot. Moments of revelation happen, when suddenly my mind clears, my eyes clear and I see sharper, hear sharper, than I have in a long time. Everything comes into focus. But such moments are not enduring; I am constantly dragged back down the gravity well into rebellious solace.

Everyone seems to think I'm doing very well indeed, but I don't feel that way at all. I still feel very messed up, very uncertain and insecure. I feel sometimes very abandoned, analogous to a person who has been widowed, and is comforted by all her friends for awhile, but all too soon her friends want her to get on with life, stop mourning her loss, and resume. That can make you feel even more alone than you did before, because the support you still need isn't there any more. People think you're fine now, and they can go on. Often enough this isn't really about you. There are two kinds of support, or solace, that people give: the first kind is the support and comfort they give you when you really need it; the second kind is the kind they give themselves, because they're not comfortable with your process. As though grief had a timetable or schedule to be followed.

I find solace for myself in fewer and fewer things. Some days it's hard to find any solace at all. Sometimes you survive purely by distraction and escapism—for once, escapism is not pathological because it's in support of your survival, not an avoidance of engagement with life. I constantly seek new strategies to find and maintain meaning and purpose in my life, which for now remains uncertain and insecure and mysteriously difficult to like. I've heard that some people who go through an near-death experience are troubled by being brought back, they don't want to be here anymore, and sometimes it's just not a very nice place to be. Pain hurts. Some days it takes all my energy to maintain anything remotely near a positive attitude. It can be a real uphill struggle.

Most days, lately, making art does help. Taking a short roadtrip up to Minnesota did help.

But then I had to come home. Right back into the old patterns and enables. Getting pulled right back into the bucket, surrounded by useless black crabs who won't let go. It's depressing just to have to go home when being away is much more life-affirming. It's cabin fever, to be sure, but it's also knowing how easy it is to let discipline and practice slide when lounging about at home. Days you don't feel motivated become an excuse to do nothing. But forward momentum is necessary, if I'm to get anywhere. I need to break out, I need to make this work somehow. Right now, it's not working. I have to find a solution. But all the old maps are useless. I don't know if I have the strength yet to make yet another new map, fill the void one more time. Only time will tell—paradoxically, since time is also the hell we live in, some days.

What's the point? What purpose is there to any of this? I read Stanley Kunitz's book of poems and thoughts and garlands from his garden, and near the end of his book I find this sublime paragraph, and somehow it all seems to make sense, for now, and to give me reason to go on, for now.

When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life.
—Stanley Kunitz

Labels: , , , , , ,


Blogger Elisabeth said...

Kunitz's words are inspirational, Art. I'm glad they offer you greater hope.

It sounds like quite a roller coaster you are on. To me it's funny how people's encouragement and comments that you're doing well can be so discouraging, even as they're intended to affirm you.

I suspect sometimes you simply want people to acknowledge how hard it is.

To me it sounds very hard, the way your body has let you down and even with all the help in the world you must still marshal all the extra energy just to keep going.

I wish you well, Art. And yes, at least you can go on making art.

1:54 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t know about you but I don’t cope well with change. And when something does change, if someone, for example, goes out of my life and is unlikely to reappear or if they do it will only be to visit then it does take me a long time to . . . acclimatise is as good a word as any . . . to the new environment, the modified circumstances I find myself in. You’ve lost a whole chunk of yourself. I’m sure that on one level you’ve not changed – it’s not like you’ve had a lobotomy or anything – but you’re not the man you used to be and that can take some getting used to. You’ve lost something and it’s not been misplaced or moved to the next state and you’ll meet up in a few weeks. The intellectual in you will want to shrug it off – better off without the damn thing – but unfortunately the sensitive soul part of you doesn’t reason that way. What the appropriate time to mourn the loss of one’s intestines? Should you wear a black arm band or would a black cummerbund be more appropriate? And, of course, your friends don’t have a handy etiquette guide to tell them what’s appropriate behaviour under the circumstances. The Scots don’t tend to namby-pamby their kids, “So you’ve lost your leg! You’ve got another one. There are kids in Africa with no legs and do you think they run moaning to their mammies? No, no they do not.” For me the only answer has been to keep busy and not to dwell on things I can’t improve or even affect. And, yes, pain hurts but you’re sensible enough to realise that there are different kinds of pain. Healing frequently hurts more (and for far longer) than any injury. Swallow another couple of paracetamol and get on with it. That’ll dull the pain. The misery? Well, when they invent a pill that cures that you let me know.

5:29 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth said...

I'm with Jim, Art. He puts it so well. You've 'lost a chunk of yourself' and now you must grieve as best you can while getting on with the rest of your life.

5:34 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

E, there is available a Collected Poems of Kunitz, too, which you might find agreeable. I find his poems, especially those of his late life, to be of a tone with his quotes above; they're poems, though, so more artful, but there's overlap. I'm finding this book on age, poetry, death, and gardening to be of particular solace this week.

You're right about the support: Sometimes all I really need is to feel heard, to have them acknowledge that this is a hard process, not an easy one. Thanks for understanding that.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Your comment was almost the first thing I read this morning, and it struck me powerfully, like a poem. You say it very,very well here. This could pretty much stand as it is, as a prose-poem. It's that good.

I do normally cope well with some kinds of change. Change is the natural state of the Tao, after all. But you're right, this is about a chunk of me, a serious chunk of me, and it's a big, very personal change to get used to. All the wailing and gnashing I've been doing lately is about that, whether I do it more artfully, or mire like this, just a blank wail.

Thanks for the brilliant comment.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Danish dog said...

Jim says it well. Healing isn't something the intellect has a hotline to. Trust your feelings. Accept them. Be easy on yourself. Give yourself time.

And you have such lucid reflections. This is an achievement in itself. They can constitute a compass.

I immigrated to Denmark 25 years ago today, and I'm still trying to figure out what the hell happened.

The intellect demands answers, but we don't always need to feed it.


2:39 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Duncan.

It's funny: that's an issue for me right now. Everyone tells me I'm lucid, when I feel brain-fogged. (Like I said.) Everyone tells me I'm doing really well, physically for certain, when overall I don't feel that way. I know this is part of the whole depression, grief, PTSD cycle. It comes and goes, I wish it was predictable, but it's not.

Thanks for the compass comment, though. That's what I'm trying to do: steer by that inner compass. If I get anywhere, it will because of that.

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fight for lucidity would seem to be sufficient to express lucidity.


1:58 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

An interesting point. As though the struggle itself was revealing. I suppose there's merit to that, although some days it's hard to think on the meta- level, it's enough to just get through the day.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Danny Abacahin said...

Hi Art,

Sorry for not having sought your permission to “reblog” an excerpt from Dragoncave. Partly as therapy, I started a Tumblr blog last month. I’m still alive and sane, so perhaps the therapy/distraction is working. :) Today it’s been rainy, dreary again in my corner of the world. So I thought blogging about gardens would bring in some sunshine. Your Sept. 5, 2011 post (“Resurrections”) on Stanley Kunitz and The Wild Braid is one of my Dragoncave favorites. I’ve been quoting you in e-mails to friends — and I’ve quoted you many times to myself — as a way to (as you say) “come back to life.” So thank you for your blog, your poetry, photography, and music. Thank you for your generosity and courage to keep coming back to life and sharing with your readers the sunniest of days and the dreariest of nights. On my blog, I tried not to get sappy like this in acknowledging you ( But I do wish you well. Though I haven’t sent you any comment since August last year, when I thanked you for your post (July 19, 2011) encouraging us to keep making art no matter what, I still visit Dragoncave. And I always hope for more light, warmth, and strength to come your way.

Danny Abacahin

1:31 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Danny, thanks in return. It goes in cycles, it goes in waves.

8:57 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home