Among other things, esteemed correspondent Bonnie blogged back in early May about a dance troupe of which she was a member. Go check it out, especially the pictures. Then meet me back here to discuss.
When I read this, I found I had a lot to say about this. It stirred that big pot of memory fragments ever composting in my head. Of course, it is only due to the miracle of NaBloPoMo and the fact that Gilmore Girls has jumped the shark at least sixteen times in the last half season to the point where I have utterly lost patience with it and no longer care what happens to these characters because they're not even the same characters anymore that I am sitting down to write about this now. And now a lot of other compost has been added in since. So now it's become something more than just an old odor released by a moving stick. I'm not sure what, but I'm going to take it out and look at it, grain by grain.
When I first read this post, I was deeply moved, as an artist, as a dancer (a strictly amateur dancer), and as someone who cares about Bonnie. How great to fall in with people so open and creative and daring! And supportive! And how great to fall in with people who understand that artistic beauty is as much about finding stuff out as it is about presenting a finished whole.
Somebody ran a search through my site right around the same time looking for a definition of "fine art," which was the subject of an essay I used to have posted over at my art site but have taken down temporarily while I decide how I want to represent my art career on the web. Well, if you're still looking, this is part of the answer. So-called "fine" art is ars gratia artis, art for art's sake, art whose sole end is the art and only the art. It's not called "fine" because it's somehow better than other art; it's called that based on the Latin word "finis" which means "end." When you create "fine" art, you are not creating a vehicle for a message for a client. You are not illustrating someone else's desired communication. When you create "fine" art, you are an explorer for the sake of exploration. You are asking questions sometimes on a cellular level, and you never stop no matter where those questions take you. You ask them in your own language, and you tell them and whatever answers you find to others the same way, as you go. That's what was happening in the rehearsal that Bonnie shared with us. It was a little curtain she drew back for a moment on fine art, in the making.
What's interesting and, for me, the most fun thing in the world about art, any kind of art whether fine or commercial, is that you really never know what it's going to do in the heart and mind of its audience. Every person is different; every person sees in his or her own language and catalyzes and metabolizes information and creation in a unique way. One person rarely sees the same thing as someone else. People rarely see the whole thing in one take, and not every person will look twice to see more.
A one-legged dance, where people who actually have two legs are only one-legged because they have bound themselves up that way, can be a powerful metaphor for a lot of things. Me it hit literally, though. In me, three images of a possibility brought back a sharp sliver of my life right before my amputation surgery, and what it was like immediately afterward, and how I learned to be a little afraid before I could be brave again, and how that probably saved me a lot of trouble in the long run.
And that just ladders onto other memories.
Eight thousand years ago, when I was enrolled as a freshman at UCLA, acquaintances of mine taking a sociology class were assigned the classic experiment of one person wearing a blindfold for a week at all times and another person accompanying her to make sure she played honestly, to take notes, and to help out and keep her partner physically safe throughout. Part of this was to raise awareness of the needs of blind people out in the world and how we might meet our civic obligation to the blind with whom we share our cities. The idea was that sociologists would need this kind of firsthand experience to better perform whatever would be their future jobs. Another part of this was simply to give some young people an idea of what it might be like to live with such an impairment.
Eight thousand years ago, I was eighteen years old, not as spoiled as I could have been but more spoiled than was probably good for me, and I thought this exercise was just the grooviest, most thrilling, most heartwarming thing I'd ever heard of. Since that time, I have gone through some things. I've also read a number of disabled writers -- and feminists -- castigating such experiments in all their forms as shallow, sensationalistic and also fairly useless, and I've been thinking about what they say. One of the better explanations of their position that I've heard is in Episode 2 of the Ouch! Podcast from BBC, wherein one of the guests, a blind waiter named Liam O'Carroll who works at the London restaurant Dans le Noir, very clearly explains the difference between eating one meal in novelty pitch blackness and being blind all the time. And the main things people don't really understand when performing these little awareness raising exercises is that (a) in order to survive, most disabled people have become over time far more skilled at being disabled than any ability vacationer ever will be and (b) it really is different when you know you can take the blindfold off, get out of the wheelchair, or just untie your leg.
I'll tell you what else. Falling is different. Falling, for example, on a leg you've tied up is a whole other experience than falling on an amputated stump.
I've made at least three impossible phone calls in my life, all of them ending in me taking impossible actions. You know what I mean. There are things we cannot do but we have to do, so we do them, but we never really know how, what laws of physics and psychology have yielded to allow us to go through with these things. One was when I'd taken an AIDS test and dared to call for the results, only to be told I'd have to come in in person, which I somehow managed to do even though I was so terrified I couldn't feel the pavement while I walked to the clinic and everything looked burnt white. Another of these calls ordered the death of a beloved cat, suffering unbearably in a veterinary hospital in Boston and me with no way to get to her and be with her while she was eased out of the world. I placed a more recent impossible phone call three years ago when I called to set a date for my own amputation.
After I made that call, I decided that it might be a good idea to start practicing doing stuff on one leg. I had a pair of crutches in the basement left over from another surgery. I went around the house on them, up and down stairs even. Since the tumour in my knee was the size of a cantaloupe, I couldn't bend my knee far enough to tie the leg up out of the way as the two-legged members of Bonnie's dance troupe did. Even if I could have surmounted the pain, doing so would have ruptured the tumour all over again, encouraging further metastasis of the cancer. So I just made a conscious effort to keep that foot off the ground as much as possible.
It is not the same. I am here to tell you, it is not the same. You cannot mimic the real experience of this. A leg like mine might only weigh about 12 pounds out of 200, but that's a very strategically placed 12 pounds of ballast. Even folded up out of the way of the ground, you still have that ballast.
The other thing I tried but for which I was unable to fully prepare myself was the loss of the possibility of, for lack of a better expression, fall-back. When I practiced on the stairs with my bad leg off the ground, I always knew that if I lost my balance I could just put that foot down and stabilize myself. If I had folded my leg and tied it up, I would still know that I could stop doing that at any time. Also, falling on a healthy knee or the thigh or buttock linked to a healthy knee, as in the case of a leg tied up, is in no way the same as falling on a stump end. You might hurt your knee. You will probably not open sutures or poke a sawed-off bone through reattached tendons. And you know this, you know it in the very marrow of that as yet unsliced bone. You expect falling to have consequences, but they're not really scary consequences, certainly not the kind of painful that goes with horror and terror, abject terror of further horrifying consequences.
While interviewing him and previewing his rehab facility, I told my physiatrist and a case manager that I'd been practicing. They exchanged a look I couldn't read.
When I was three days out of surgery, off all drugs and all tubes and lines, I could use a walker, bathe, and toilet myself and was ready to get the hell out of the hospital and get home to my cats or start biting people on the leg. The physical therapy team wanted to be sure before I was released that I'd be able to climb and descend stairs without hurting myself. Stairs had to be mounted to enter my house from either the front or back door, and once inside, stairs led to the basement where dwelt our laundry machines. It had snowed the first time that season as I was being wheeled into surgery, and there would be more snow, and it would cover our front steps and congeal into sheet ice.
I boasted that I was a crutch expert. I'd been practicing. I knew all about stairs and they were no problem. The physical therapists wanted to see. One of them also wanted to be in my space while I demonstrated my profound skills, and I was very worried about hurting her. She was tiny, and I didn't know where to put myself with her around. I worried about knocking her down. I even worried a little about falling on her. I really did not understand how very skilled and knowledgeable these folks get before anyone lets them do this kind of thing. So I shooed her away.
"Fine," she said, crossing her arms. "Go on, then."
I was standing on one foot at the top of a long, concrete staircase down inside the hospital. There was no other foot. There was nothing to brace me if I lost my balance. I had a crutch I'd brought with me under each arm, one leg and only one leg, and this staircase to descend.
Piece of cake.
I put my crutches on the first stair down, lifted my one leg, and swung.
I swung like crazy. I swung harder and faster than I'd ever swung practicing in my house with 12 pounds of ballast I could unconsciously adjust to save my balance. I flew out over that cold cement landing like a child on a swingset, landed hard on the top step, and began screaming at the top of my lungs.
It hurt so much. It hurt more than you know unless you yourself have done something this stupid. It didn't just hurt my pride.
Actually, I landed on my capacious posterior, as I always have when falling down stairs or anything else. I have grown very fond of said posterior partly because of its cushioning qualities. I'm also very skilled at falling after years and years of practice, so though I usually am not even conscious of doing it, I almost always position my body mid-fall to land this way.
But this time I had a newly sawn off femur, newly rearranged and anchored muscles, and an approximately ten-inch span of cut flesh sewn tightly together just three days before. I was already functionally wounded before I fell. So when I landed on that plush, well-trained and experienced cushion, it felt like I landed smack on the bottom of my stump and opened up all my stitches. And that's why I was screaming.
The F word got a lot of use over the span of a very short time that day, and I'm surprised they didn't reflexively plug me full of drugs just to shut me up. But a nurse who liked me came running, checked my big-ass surgical wound, and told me I hadn't landed on it and it looked fine. It was an illusion of nerves, just like the intense phantom sensation I would eventually experience as a complication of sciatica.
I was so embarrassed. Hubris and I are old sparring partners, but still, I had been so cocky, so completely sure I knew what to do and even, to some extent, what it would feel like. I had been so wrong. And I had been so lucky.
After that, I rested, and then I humbly asked the PTs to show me another way to do things, which they kindly if sternly did. I was shaky. I have not been cocky around stairs since. But now I really do know how to use them safely, on two legs of course, and on one leg, really on only one leg.
I've fallen a lot since then, just like I fell a lot every year of my life before amputation. Every time I fell while the wound was still healing I landed on my ass, and every time it felt like I'd landed on the end of my stump and opened up all my stitches. Every time. And every time I fall, no matter what else, I always make sure my stump is pointing up, with the end away from whatever surface is coming up fast to greet me.
And this is now both a reflex and an instinct. It's something I know I have to do in the marrow of my sliced femur. And this is something you can't know, can't feel, cannot possibly emulate by tying up a fully functional leg and hopping around a studio. You're just going to have to take my word for it. And any metaphoric one-leggedness you might create in a dance studio will be empty of a sense of potentially cataclysmic loss of control coupled with deep, sucking fear partly of pain but mostly of unnameable other consequences, empty to you and empty to all the people in your audience, except the ones who know what I mean because they've been where I've been and felt it, too, or somewhere similarly scarring I can't imagine. And that's something you can't know, and can't control, but risk blindly when you play with this for art's sake.
And that is not a criticism or a plea to stop. Even in the interest of the finest fine art, though, even in the interest of the most catalytic or cathartic bombs such art might set out in discrete portions of any audience all unbeknownst to the artist, perhaps you will understand how deeply I mean it when I say I would really like it if no one else ever had to find out what I'm talking about here, not exactly. There are other, better paths to knowledge and art, humility and grace.
Or so I hear.