A STEEP PATH
TO THE LAND OF OXYGEN
"She Walks Away," 2012, acrylic and oil pastel on canvas board, 12" x 16"
My daughter, Petra, is a stunt actor. Her life, perpetually on location, takes her from one part of the world to another, falling from Mongolian racehorses in the eastern Steppes, being tossed from a window in Berlin, or crashing a car on the twisting road where Princess Grace died. Petra is an exceedingly calm person, as I suppose one must be to endure the dangers and rigors of such an occupation. Her calm is such that I always find the sound of her voice reassuring.
Everywhere she travels, Petra, as a diversion, seeks out native folk tales, She has gathered quite a collection. From eastern Europe have come stories involving incredible transmutations of nature in which, for example, a forest of dying pillar trees is inhabited by runaway children who nurture the trees – and themselves -- back to life. A story from Gambia concerns a tribe of trackers who come upon a supposedly extinct species of gazelle and are taught by them to fly. My favorite is the story of a young girl given by her father to a warring king as a peace offering. The girl, unusually resolute for her tender years, insists that, before she will surrender herself to the king, he must have made for her a wedding gown sewn from a thousand spider webs, specifically the Sicarius Hahni, a rare arachnid prized for the delicacy of its silver-salivated weaving and the deadliness of its venom. The king, wholly smitten by the girl’s perfection of beauty and intelligence, agrees.
I asked Petra to recount that story for me during a difficult time several summers ago: I had spent the previous months preparing to die. It wasn’t that I had a terminal illness or doomed prognosis or complete situational collapse. It was simply that I was debilitatingly overwhelmed with a sense of vacancy and purposelessness, and to remain in a living, breathing body seemed much too much hard work. The thought of death was the only thing that provided me any kind of motivation: before dying, I would have to complete a number of professional projects and put the last of my personal effects in order -- the will, the cremation arrangements, the clearing of my remaining debts.
It’s not that that summer had been without joyful events. A homecoming party for a best friend returning after several years in Afghanistan and a celebration for another friend who’d won a widely coveted appointment. I was surrounded by good cheer in lovely settings filled with food and flowers. Yet I moved through the events as I moved through my work – with momentary respites of gladness subsumed by plodding hopelessness and the heaviest of hearts.
This was clinical depression at its most oppressive, and it was hardly the first in my life. In fact, such episodic sickness had been life long. Since childhood I had been awakening each morning into a fog of despair that would require hours to dissipate. As this particular depression progressed, I was eventually unable to get my mind to focus until well into the afternoon. I was without appetite and could not propel myself into motion, let alone exercise, until late in the day, when the heat had abated and I had smoked some weed. At night, taking refuge in the comfort of darkness, I suffered from what I can only describe as phantom limb pain, my imaginary legs heavy with aching weakness. The message from the subconscious was clear. I did not have the necessary strength to move ahead in my life.
I once tried to describe my condition to a close friend who, with the exception of tonsillitis, has never been sick in her life, let alone dreamed of self-annihilation. She rises every day at dawn, plays a few sets of tennis, wolfs down a hearty breakfast, and then goes off with her husband to kayak until dusk. Sometimes there’s an interjection of yoga or biking or snorkeling into the schedule. My lethargy and numbness are incomprehensible to her. “It’s like a drowning person shrouded in a sodden blanket struggling to swim to the surface,” I labored to explain. “Or clawing your way up a steep path to the land of oxygen knowing it’s a Sisyphean task.”
Throughout the summer I often thought about the artist Mark Rothko’s final paintings: monochromes that bled from a suggested geometry into ethereal softness. Once his paintings finally morphed into canvas-filling studies of black, it was only a matter of time until Rothko killed himself. These paintings are so moving and monumental that a chapel was built (in Houston, part of the de Menil collection) to house them. My thoughts were not of Rothko himself, but of the softness of the images. The seduction of the soft blackness seemed almost irresistible. As did the thought of moving into death. For there I would find myself in the joyous company of all my animals and loved one enfolded within the beauty of the sights and fragrances I’d traveled the world to experience.
I consistently struggled to relieve the condition and extricate myself from the encompassing bleakness, seeking the counsel of all those who were part of my spiritual family, consulting a medical doctor( who changed my antidepressant), and a holistic doctor (who gave me sacro-cranial massage, biochemical analyses, and intense pep talks). A metaphysical healer -- and the mother-of- all-earth-mothers -- consoled me with esoteric understandings and treated me for endocrine and other issues. I restudied the Course in Miracles, a profound training that had rescued me from another depression twenty years earlier. Still the weight on my heart, a feeling of abject futility, continued. An unrelenting sense of meaninglessness oppressed me. My soul felt bruised and my body remained impossibly fatigued. I secretly considered that I might have MS.
One day as I was driving toward my house, a flock of egrets flew across the road in a sudden, beautiful white line about half a block ahead of me. The elegance of the formation, slicing the horizon at my eye level, brought abrupt tears to my eyes. I expected that after six or seven of the slender, long-necked birds had flown across the road, this vision would end. But more and more egrets appeared from the periphery -- serene, unhurried, yet purposeful in flight, a white line of fleeting beauty. I stopped the car to watch. A few days after this, I was leaving my house at an unusually early hour when I spotted a fox on my lawn, standing stock still and staring at me. I stared back. The foxes that had once populated my neighborhood have, for years, been unseen. A moment later, another fox appeared beside the first, and then a third. I figured they were pups from the same litter – blue/gray, long, like dachshunds on tall legs, and with bushy tails. Simultaneously, they withdrew their gaze from me and disappeared across the road into my neighbor’s mango orchard. Days after this I noticed a climbing cactus plant, high in the crotch of one of my oaks. In the twenty years I’d lived on this property, I’d never seen this cactus bloom, but there, hanging delicately from the plant on the thinnest of were two vivid yellow chrysanthemum-like blossoms. I reveled in their modest show of glory for the two days before they vanished.
Even as my sickness continued, I took great solace from these miracles of nature. I repeatedly promised my dog Andy that I would not abandon him. I made a ritual of watering the garden in the evening when the javelin cry of a neighbor’s peacocks interrupted the fading light. And I reminded myself about how I needed to complete my personal and professional work. In the meantime I waited… for the depression to lift or the next act of nature to arouse me.
The phone call to Petra was a balm. The sound of her voice and the incantation of the folk tale, known as “The Gown of a Thousand Webs,” immediately brought me comfort:
Faced with his betrothed’s resolution, the king orders his subjects to scour the lands for Sicarius Hahni. Every specimen is to be brought to the palace where gardens for their breeding and thread spinning are to be built. Each morning the royal courtiers creep carefully among the flowers and bushes plucking the dew-sparkling webs woven the night before. The wedding gown will require more than 10,000 strands from the one thousand webs, and their seamless weaving together will cost the eyesight of the kingdom’s master textile artists. The king waits restlessly. He has crusades to attend, fortifications to build, taxes to collect, a kingdom to rule. But, without his queen, his powers are incomplete.
Years go by. The fragility of the webs and the complex protocols necessary to protect the web-gatherers from the spiders’ venom makes the accumulation of the silken strands and the assembling of the gown painstakingly slow. At the completion of each element – a sleeve, a lacing, the draping of the skirt – the progress is shown to the young girl who, by now, has become a young woman. She is precise in her regard of every delicate detail. The king, a connoisseur of perfection, respects her eye, but his tolerance is only precariously sustained. Finally, when it appears the gown is at last nearing completion, he urges his bride-to-be to begin the preparations for their wedding celebration. Instead, she insists on the creation of a veil whose length is to exceed that of the gown itself. She wishes to be shrouded from head to toe in ethereal delicacy before her subjugation to the bloody penetration of her wedding night and the violence of childbirth that will ultimately follow.
Years more pass. The gown, long since completed, hangs in the bridal chamber where mists of rose water are sprayed upon it daily to sustain its supple intricacy. The veil, over which no fewer than 630 skilled embroiderers have labored day and night, is lain across a cushioned frame so that not one strand of the exquisite webs can touch the floor until it is draped from the ringlets that will crown the bride’s head.
Barbarians are approaching the gate. The kingdom’s coffers are depleting. The once-loyal subjects of the once-flourishing kingdom are readying for revolt. Still, the king will take no action until he has his bride.
Recognizing that her opportunity for delay, which is to say her salvation, has reached its limit, the bride-to-be at last relents. The wedding ceremony itself will be private, while the reception is to be a spectacle grand and glorious enough to reassure the citizenry of the king’s wealth and to intimidate his enemies with its allusions to power. Most likely, it will bankrupt the treasury.
The wedding day arrives, and the bride is an apparition of beauty so celestial in her confection of silver-salivated threads that even the king grows breathless beholding her. Beneath the veil she has been meticulously coiffed and powdered; beneath the gown she has been perfumed with scents extracted from flowers as delicate as the gown itself. But on her face is a smile that neither the king nor any of his courtiers can quite discern. It is more an expression of conquest than of joy, of completion than initiation. The king grasps its meaning only upon recognizing that the iridescence at her ear lobes emanates not from the jeweled earrings he has given her as a wedding gift, but from two spiders hanging from her soft, pink skin, their legs pulsing like drumming fingers. The king tears through the veil, and the woman, no longer a girl, no longer young, collapses into the folds of the gown and onto the floor. With her last remaining breaths the sparkling webs dissolve, and the spiders, having woven the final silver-salivated threads, scamper away into the palace walls.”
I don’t know what it is exactly about this story that gives me cheer. Perhaps only a depressive could take heart from such a tale. Yet I comprehend in it several lessons: patience, for one. After all, the king, in all his great foolishness and arrogance, was willing to wait as long as needed to attain his idea of perfection. And the girl/woman understood how to wait, to use delay to save her soul, if not her life.