Walls, I have painted. All you have to do is cut in the edges with a small, angled brush, then dip the roller into the paint pan, AND bend and stretch until you ache, until you’ve transformed all that tasteful beigeness into blasts of tangerine, honeydew, daffodil. But painting pictures? Talent, I suspect, may be required. Ah, there’s the rub. Still, we’re sheltering now inside these orange, green, yellow walls and my daughters sent me paints and why shouldn’t I paint pictures? The sourdough starter didn’t start and it’s too hot to pull weeds and I finished my novel about a woman composer with – surprise – a brain tumor, and I suppose I should be organizing closets and lining those sticky cupboards with fresh contact paper and vacuuming the margins of the carpets. But I don’t want to. And besides, who knows if anyone will ever come visit again and a friend once told me that I should stop “should-ing” myself. And I should.
So I wipe down the Amazon box, wash my hands for twenty seconds, and then unpack the paints my daughters sent me. Eighteen hard little pools of color. I fondle the brushes – so many different sizes! I cover the kitchen table with the L.A. Times – preparing, always, for the worst. A pretty young woman on YouTube says to tape my paper to a “painting board.” A what? I eye the wooden pizza peel that failed me so miserably with that pizza dough made from the aforementioned unstartable sourdough starter. Perfect. Next, jelly jars for water. Check. Spray bottle. Tape. Check, and check. A palette for mixing the paints? I sink for a moment, but am nothing if not resourceful, and then I dig beneath our water bottles and find those plastic take-out cartons—the ones too cute to toss but that you’ll never re-use for food because of those (maybe) BPAs. Mixing palate. Check. Yeah, baby. It’s go time.
The big brush feels friendly enough. YouTube says to use a “#10” but there are no numbers on these brushes so I am on my own. We are blissfully awash with green, I see. Moss, and olive. Forest. Lime. I rehydrate them with eyedropper water dipped from an old Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum bottle. I watch as the greens swim to life. Only two shades of yellow? That is disappointing, but it gets worse. One of them is that dirty harvest gold from the ’70s. I charge forth nonetheless, select the more determinedly sunny yellow and then check out the orange. Again, two choices: Passion or popsicle. When asked about my favorite color, I often say blue for its calmness, and class. But in truth I can’t live without orange. I crave its buoyant, garish purity, its 180-degree veer from the subtle. I plunge my fat brush in the deep, brimming jar. I bring it up gasping and dripping and ready. I make waves of sky washes and lavender spears. My blazing sunsets refuse to be tethered to earth.
I love the way the colors run together, bleed, and swirl. Oops, swirled into mud, but not to worry. I rip off another page. It is really so simple. This time, the colors bloom into shapes – some nearly recognizable. My heart expands, as does my repertoire. Shoots of larkspur, swelling suns. Snaking rivers flowing (always) top left to bottom right. (I think Mrs. Hughes from first grade taught us that.) Verdant landscapes peaked with purple hillocks, bright dots of poppies, feathered stems. And vines. I am very good at vines. Long and entangled, coupled, caressing.
I drew lots of vines with the brain tumor too. When my thoughts got too tangled, my words too blown out, my daughter suggested I sit and draw circles. Circles. The miracle of circles. Beginning and ending, contained and complete. Not like the unchecked sprawl of breast cancer, roaming into lungs, in liver, brain. In time, my careful circles morphed into infinity signs—around and around and over and under and moving in barely perceptible slips into vines, into borders, into, sometimes, relief.
The steroids might have been worse than the tumor. I’d forgotten about that. The steroids, and the anti-seizure meds. That whole brain tumor time. Wait. I forgot about the brain tumor? That is either a very healthy response, or it very much is not. Either way, it’s coming back to me now. The way my words trotted away from my meanings. First the small words: This. My. Now. Then the nouns: Chair, Chicago. Toasters. Verbs became actions – the flat of my palm pushing down on the air as my brain dashed away to find that word for hot bread. The articles fled then, pronouns, prepositions. Adjectives, adverbs, long gone. Syntax stood thoughts on their heads. And then logic cantered off as well, left me stranded in the middle of a room grasping at nothing and wondering where oh where has object-permanence gone?
I remember one evening, post radiosurgery, alone in our living room, trying to quiet the screams in my skull by flipping through channels. All bullshit and sap-fests, rom-coms and Marvels, and everyone talking and talking and why did they keep talking? And then Marie Kondo promised neatness and order. Halloo, Marie! What have you got for me? A pink dress, crisply ironed, her face ironed too, and cheerful – too cheerful – as she entreated some poor woman to pile one memory on top of another, another, and drop them all in a box to be carted away. Stop smiling, I said, my ‘roid-rage imploding. You’re making that woman throw out her whole life! Then the f-bombs flew out at the set, along with the remote in my hand and someone was shrieking and beating on the kitchen counter and stop it won’t stop it won’t stop – the cancer, again, always reappearing, one organ, another; stop smiling, Marie.
Draw circles, my daughter said. And she handed me markers and so I drew circles. And circles. And circles. Gradually, I circled in on the words, on the treatments, the thoughts and the feelings, until one day the letters stopped jumping, the letters lay down in the words, in poems, in emails, and writing, I’m writing! And then the colors disappeared.
And now, fifteen months later, in this Covid-paused world, all the colors return. I paint myself back to that dark tumor time. Only now I can move all the colors around. Dilute them, and layer. As long as I dry the base coat sufficiently says YouTube’s Mural Joe, I can layer on colors, block anything out. I can, for instance, layer Covid over cancer. And even better, given enough time, enough color, I can layer new life over that.
Mural Joe shows me how to shadow and contour and highlight. He shows me some tricks of perspective. You have to trick the eye to see what is not there. And not see, quite, what still might be.
Metastases are like watercolors – they infuse the very fibers of the paper, impossible to remove. But I’m not using watercolors. This paint is called gouache. I dip my brush back into hope.
Gouache rhymes with squash, if you are interested. I find I’m always interested in what rhymes with what. Breast and caressed. Cancer and dancer. Healing and kneeling. Gouache is a water-activated medium that, unlike watercolor, can be painted over, light to dark, yes, but also dark to light. I think that’s important.
I’ve got a good eye for perspective, turns out. I’ll paint over you, Cancer. Paint over you, Covid. I’ll paint flowers and tree bark and hovering birds – until a splash of tea, a spritz of water, a flying Covid droplet from an unmasked face, reactivates the paints and makes them something else again.
What can we do but start again? Layer a new reality over the old. Light to dark. Dark to light. Circles become infinity signs. Beginning and ending, contained and complete. Reuse and recycle. Around and around and over and under and slipping, imperceptibly, into vines, into borders, into, sometimes, relief. And if it doesn’t work, then rip off a new page and begin again. Add more colors. More shadows. More highlights. It’s all about perspective.