This is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of Shaping Destiny. I truly hope we do everything we can to ensure that we retain control of our bodies.
Rage consumed me like a virus. A sneeze – at first, hardly noticeable – got bigger and more intense until it became a cough deep in my chest that tore at my lungs, spewed bile into my mouth, and interfered with my sleep at night. Like at my father’s grave – and with the cigarettes I smoked incessantly – I had believed that smoke was essence and ashes were waste and I was the catalyst through which the metamorphosis of cigarette to smoke and ashes could occur. I wanted to breathe unimpeded, without the smoke or the ashes, but I did not know where to find my essence without them.
My children and I lived in a home that was old, broken down and far too big for us. The roof had been leaking for years and parts of the floor had dry rot. The water came through old, iron pipes and smelled of sulfur. There were three enormous fireplaces. The kids could stand in them and for the first time there was no question about how Santa Claus would fit through the chimney. The ceilings were ornate and the moldings were hand-carved. The heater didn’t work and the children, wrapped in blankets, huddled close to the fire and got ashes on their toes. We danced to the music of Janice Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and Counting Crows. In the evenings after dinner, my sleepy children leaned softly against each other on the couch, listening in silence as I read to them. And each evening, they tried to stay awake so the story would go on and they would not have to crawl into cold beds where mice droppings often fell through the latillo ceilings above them.
I was pregnant. At first, I thought it was the stomach flu and ignored it, hoping it would go away. It did not. Geoff, the man I was dating, had never experienced the possibility of fatherhood. He was jubilant. He thought I would keep the baby and we would live together, raising his child and making art like some far-out, early seventies song. He was wrong. I would not have another child. I could barely support the children I already had. I would have to work all the time or not work at all. I would be condemned to living with mice and dripping ceilings for too long. I would not have another child and be bound by circumstance to a man for whom I had no love.
For the first time in many years, I was free to make my own decisions. I had ideas and possibilities for a different kind of life. I was going to live without conflict. I was not going to straddle myself between art and family anymore. Instead, I would live according to the dictates of my dreams. I could not be pregnant again with someone else’s desire for me to be only what he needed.
When I worked at the foundry, a piece came in that we nicknamed THE CREEPING JESUS. It was made by an amateur sculptor who wanted to preserve it for posterity but didn’t want to spend the money on either bronze or a rubber mold. He insisted that a plaster cast be made from a waste-mold. Rick told him he would lose detail in the work. The mold maker explained that hydra-cal, the casting plaster, was not easy to rework. The man did not care. He knew what he wanted. So the waste-mold was made, as was the plaster cast, and the man came into the foundry to view his work.
His sculpture had become hard, white and unforgiving. There were air bubbles, parting line marks, and garish flaws in the anatomy. The piece the man had held in his heart was gone. The sculpture was no longer malleable, no longer the color of the earth, and no longer the product of his care. The man finally saw that his sculpture was not a complete work. The body was merely a mass – a rough form with scratches for a beard, lumps for hair, and bones that looked like they were made from rubber bands. The hands and feet were more carefully worked. Unfortunately, they had been worked so painstakingly that they had nothing to do with each other or with the sculpture as a whole. The Creeping Jesus was a body shape with hands and feet that looked like they were from four different people attached to it.
The man had lost control of his creation. He saw only what he was willing to see and because of that he was not prepared to deal with the consequences of his actions or the truth they revealed. He was in a moment of catharsis. He had never worked plaster and the casting plaster we used was especially hard to manipulate. He did not have the skills to fix the mistakes he had made. To work the piece in its new form, he would have to acquire new tools, learn a new language, and begin a new process. He did not make that choice. It was easier for him to blame the foundry for destroying his art and it was easier for him to remake the same sculpture in clay.
I was like the artist who created The Creeping Jesus. I wanted the process of becoming to stop. I wanted to know what happened at the end. I wanted a place of rest and not this perpetual struggle. I spent years sculpting the hands and feet of my life because in them I had recognized a small, manageable portion of the thing in which I believed. Marriage and children, as well as teaching and art, were the appendages that created movement and I had worked them feverishly. When my work was cast, however, my lack of attention to the greater whole was blatantly evident and I had neither the language nor the tools to begin a new process with grace. I had always pursued something untouchable, something that shifted and changed, and that I believed was outside of myself. Like smoke and ashes, this thing had an odor and many shapes, but I could not hold it and I could not see it because it was inside me. It was my breath.
So, under a cloud of Valium, green plants and watercolor landscapes, I lay upon a table and let them scrape and suck the child out of me to the rhythm of Dvořák. Geoff sulked, believing he had lost his last chance to be a father. I chastised him for his selfishness and celebrated my power of choice. Maybe I had misunderstood my father’s teaching; maybe the blood between my legs did demonstrate the creative thing I was capable of producing. My responsibility did not necessarily imply acceptance and my fate could be altered, if not determined, by a word. I told Geoff to leave. I changed my pads and took antibiotics. I threw away my only Dvořák tape and moved my work tables out of the cold and into the living room.
At that moment, I realized that this was my life – right now, not tomorrow, and not yesterday. I understood the possibility that the present occurs only when I rise up to meet whatever is coming down…..