My red-haired friend in Seattle emailed me a succinct message before the holidays, the kind that is less than 140 characters and cuts to the core:
“Sorry for bad news before Christmas, but any wisdom for a girl gettin’ a divorce? (wan smile)”
My friend, a mother of two, is a graphic artist and spends her night-owl hours as a fabric artist, creating tactile collages out of textiles and recycled materials.
Not long after her email to me, I was idly thumbing through Instagram messages when a striking image caught my eye. I stopped and studied it. My friend had posted a portrait of herself. It was not a photo or painting, but a collage, showing a wide-eyed woman, blinking back what looked like tears behind an oxygen mask, tubes and all.
As I read the text of the post, I saw it was a work in progress and then I read and re-read some of the pertinent hashtags: #selfportrait, #saveyourself, #airlinesafety, #oxygenmask
In the collage, she had a look in her eyes, one I have known at several junctures of my own journey. An awakening. Gasping for air, desperate for oxygen but wide awake.
I thought of Robyn Davidson, a woman in the 1970s, who trekked 1,700 miles across the Australian outback alone except for four camels and her dog. In her book, Tracks, she said: “I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump…”
As frightening as it is, sometimes the only thing that can reset the course, or right the ship, is to toss in a lighted stick of dynamite or deliberately plunge into the drowning pools below. You jump, you dive, not sure if you will submerge or drown or touch bottom and surface, but surface you finally do, though never the same as you were before.
“We gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… We must do the thing which we think we cannot do,” Eleanor Roosevelt advised some 80 years ago.
It’s a gift disguised as a tragedy, a drumming that awakens our souls out of ourselves. These so-called gifts are unwanted, unasked for wake-up calls, giving us a chance to regroup and, with the tincture of time, take stock and find new meaning and purpose.
It’s odd how we can be flying along at cruising elevation, seemingly happy and content, when all of a sudden we lose altitude, go into a tailspin and crash. The glass shatters, the metal twists into tangled tinsel and the fabric of what we thought was our life scatters into a million pieces, completely unrecognizable. Yet it’s from that moment, when we start the difficult task of piecing it all together, that we begin to create a beautiful collage, a mosaic from the fragments and scraps of what at first seems like utter destruction and chaos.
Woven within those recycled fabrics, threads and bits of metal, there’s a message, a take-away if we can only read it.
As I zoomed in, I saw more details in my friend’s artwork. I could see the arms of an octopus reaching across her forehead and looping like a snake into the ends of her hair. What woman can’t identify with the tentacles of life? We lose ourselves. We forget to breathe. We gasp for air as we run circles around ourselves and others, endlessly looping as the tentacles become a noose around our neck and we pass out with exhaustion.
Yet we know, as we’ve been warned by flight attendants a thousand times before, “If we lose altitude and the oxygen masks drop, you must first secure the oxygen mask over your own nose and mouth, then tend to your children and your loved ones.”
The funny thing is, my ginger-haired friend, like all of us, had her own answers. She didn’t need any wisdom from me. She was already weaving together the scattered pieces, morphing the debris of a relationship into a beautiful tapestry with a clear message: #saveyourself #oxygenmask.