A couple years ago, as I watched my Mother’s world grow smaller and her ability to navigate even the simplest tasks diminish, I mourned the fact that she was shrinking. As she moved into her 90s, the woman who was once my idol and my strength became less and less able — unable at first to see, to drive, to read, to write, to speak, then to walk, to compute, to communicate, and then ultimately to live on her own. Toward the end, once she was in assisted living but while she was still alert and attentive, she was not even able to control her own basic bodily functions. Multiple strokes had robbed her of herself. Being a witness to that slow but steady loss is an unspeakable sorrow and sadness that I may never get over.
I have days now during the Coronavirus epidemic and my almost total shut-in that I feel my own self shrinking. No, thank God I haven’t had a stroke, but my world is growing smaller and my vision is becoming impaired by the cloudiness of the future. This is not a happy state of mind. While I have been very creative during these last eight months, and actually quite content at home to read and write and sew and cook, I am also increasingly aware of how very isolated I have become, and how even the smallest details in my limited environment have taken on outsized importance.
Nothing escapes my notice these days. Whether it’s a minor toe ache in the middle of the night or a dust bunny in the corner of a room on a sunny afternoon, I must move to immediately address it; a messy drawer or a misplaced piece of paper can derail my attention from other things for hours; a small spot on the carpet that I never saw before can propel me to eradicate stains that weren’t even visible before to shampooing every floor covering in the house for two solid days. This is likely the beginning of OCD.
I know I am not alone. Everyone these days is hypersensitive to every little thing because we are all at home day after day and focused on our immediate surroundings. This is exactly what happens to people as they age: preoccupation with the minuscule increases as the fear of losing control over bigger issues takes hold. Every ache, every pain, every small inconvenience is a cause for concern and alarm, sometimes to the extreme. Every discussion with others becomes a test of wills between the elder who is afraid and the caretakers who always seem to know better. For those of us who are not quite yet elderly, this is not a way to live; this is a recipe for hospice care.
So, while I realize that my current situation due to the pandemic presents something of a “rehearsal” for old age, I also have to guard against letting my own fears push me into “getting old before my time.” How can I continue to engage the larger world when I cannot travel, cannot see my friends who live all over, and cannot experience all the people and places and activities that have come to define both my lifestyle and my life? How can I, who escaped the provincial confines of small-town life early on in favor of a larger venue with a global world view, be content to sit in place while that world grows smaller and smaller before my eyes and I grow smaller within it? Six months into all this, the only thing that isn’t growing smaller is my search for answers to those questions.
Yes, yes, I know — a lot of people these days have bigger, more immediate worries as a consequence of the pandemic (or natural disasters, or civil unrest, or economic uncertainties, or any one of a number of other serious concerns) than my existential angst over how to live my now-rather-limited life. To be sure, I am grateful to be comfortably retired and to able to spend my days at home without the heavy responsibilities of work and school and family to worry about. Nevertheless, the “there but for the grace of god …” platitude can only be quoted so often without dissolving into cliché and losing real meaning. Six months is definitely pushing the use-by date.
So, my current response to impending shrinkage has been to immerse myself more and more into my art, specifically my art quilting and the goal to gain acceptance into a SAQA international competition. (See post “In Residence,” July 10, 2020.) I have now exhibited in three regional exhibitions (submissions limited to residents of certain states or regions in the US), but so far, acceptance into a global exhibition (open to world-wide submissions and exhibits touring countries around the world for a year or two) has eluded me. In the last few weeks, I have begun a project to submit by the end of November. The theme of the exhibit is “light,” and I have what I think is the perfect composition based on a photograph I took some years ago in Tokyo. It’s a complicated project and I am already experiencing some challenges to my skill set, but then I’m all about growth these days.And isn’t that what art is really all about?
I may feel small right now, but I am forcing myself not to think small, to act small; I am forcing myself to ignore the dust bunnies in the corner and the messy drawers in my library and to immerse myself in a creative flow. This is my attempt at a bigger life in a larger venue, a global venue, in restricted circumstances. If I can’t physically travel around the world, then maybe I can reach out to the world through art.
And maybe I can keep Tiny Alice from slipping down the rabbit hole where she was always somehow missing the size she needed to be.