Our Tabernacle of Pain


:>>FRIDA<<:  And to think I used to revile her paintings when I was young!  It’s true, Frida Kahlo’s graphic portrayal of the anatomy of pain used to cause me to look away in shock. Yet last night, when Sandy Salzillo presented “The Body as Crucible for Creative Genius” — and lovingly wove Frida’s artwork within the context of pain that defined her life — I found myself weeping with appreciation for the honest beauty of her work, and felt an overwhelming respect for Frida’s courage and determination to document and transform her horrific experiences through art.

In speaking of Frida’s injuries, braces and body casts, Sandy offered the analogy of becoming an anchorite within the confines of our own body when we are disabled.  And I concur. In the sense that an anchorite’s walled-in existence is conducive to deep reflection and wakeful dreaming, I also believe becoming homebound or bedridden can offer a similar threshold to access the creative unconscious. Sandy also posed this question, “Can creative work, born in illness, serve as a tabernacle for housing profound moments of transformation?” Yes again, in my experience, I believe it can…

Several years ago I experienced medical challenges that left me incapacitated for a relatively long period of time (though not as severe or long-lasting as Frida’s ordeal). And during those months when I could manage little else, I instinctively took a deep dive into my unconscious, and typed over 300 pages of reflections and visualizations.  But I thought very little of my words, and filed them away as meaningless ramblings — until last year, when I began my re-education of feminine oppression, and started to develop a Jungian approach to creativity through the courses and faculty of Seeing Red.

Now I’m beginning to appreciate the deep value of my then-housebound musings. I had a first glimpse of understanding during our Voice No Longer Silent course. But it wasn’t until last summer when my health challenge returned, that I took the opportunity to revisit my writings. And not surprisingly, I could then recognize some of my thoughts as seedlings for more ambitious creative work. In fact I’ve discovered great value in one particular memory, and have used it as the inspiration and premise for writing my first-ever dramatic play. Within the confines of my pain, I’ve found freedom to prioritize time for creative visualization and expression, without guilt. Permission to indulge, so to speak. So perhaps, as Sandy proposed, pain is indeed a catalyst for the creative process.

But it takes more than physical discomfort to access the creative energy of illness. It takes, as Sandy suggested, a willingness to surrender to the individual embodiment of our pain. We need to connect with it intimately. Dare I say we need to learn how to love it?

I’ve read that psychological breakthroughs can trigger a toxic reaction in the body. We need to purge the harm that’s been stored on a cellular level because our body reacts to physical and emotional trauma as much as our mind does. For me the process of making peace with pain is still unfolding, and I’m coming to accept that most of my discomforts are actually gifts — signaling healing and release. I’m making a conscious effort to give them space, allowing them to run their course within me.  And yes, as Sandy postulated, this is a conscious act of surrender. Although I anticipate the full return of my energy and physical strength, there’s actually a part of me that’s sad about that prospect. Part of me is already mourning the loss of my physical discomforts! For they quiet me, extending permission to turn inward, toward that glorious state of physical creative surrender. On the days when I feel great, my creativity actually seems less accessible. What a conundrum!

Admittedly, I lack an unwavering faith in this process. Like many women, I don’t yet have the ego strength to see myself through on my own. I need inspiration. And that’s why one particular self-portrait by Frida Kahlo has taken up residence in my soul. It’s the image of Frida with cropped hair, dressed in a man’s suit. The hand-written text above her portrait is meaningful to me too. “Mira que si te quise, fue’ por el pelo. Ahora que estas pelona, ya no te quiero” — which translates as — “Look, if I loved you, it was by the hair. Now that you're bald, I do not love you anymore.” I choose to believe this was not her opinion of herself, but an expression of her fear of — and anger at — how Diego and the world may have come to see her, and misinterpreted (and stopped loving) the deeper power in her stripped-down self.

I see Self Portrait With Cropped Hair as an expression of Frida’s enduring strength. While her gender fluidity is appealing, it’s the strong ego-confidence of her gaze that captures me. I wish to experience the same ego-strength conveyed in her enticing androgyny. She’s clearly got the yin and yang, the anima and animus of her own personal history living together in unity. And I would like to hear the melody that she has transcribed there too. How would she have sung it? What emotion would she choose to envelop her song?

Thank you for this unveiling, Sandy. May we all feel wholeness someday.