When I am at pain, I seek beautiful things.
Maybe this is my neurodivergence, but I think everyone does it to some extent.
When I feel bad, I look for something beautiful to concentrate on.
When I am in pain in the hospital or at the doctor’s office, I dissociate by looking at a flower in the wallpaper border or the privacy curtain if there is one, or a tree in the generic art they sometimes have on the wall. When I start to panic in church, I find a patch of light filtering through the stained glass and meditate on the rich color. When I used to take the bus and started to have anxiey at the bus stop, I would focus on puffy clouds overhead.
Lately I’ve been overwhelmed with a certain kind of pain, and the name of that pain is grief.
I was disabled, not the kind of disabled where you collect a disability check but the kind that merely ruins your life, with a chronic illness that was misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, from my mid twenties until I was thirty-six. At thirty-six I got my PCOS diagnosis and a treatment plan that put the unbearable fatigue into remission, but by then it was too late to have the life I wanted. When I was thirty-seven and thirty-eight, I found out that the sect of the Catholic Church I was raised in was nothing but a cult, and went through a painful religious deconstruction that’s still ongoing. I’ve been having severe panic attacks almost every time I walk into a church. This year my stalker of seven years died, my only daughter went to middle school, I was betrayed in a horrific way by someone I’d tried to help. I’m turning thirty-nine on October Eleventh. It’s too late to start over with all the information I have now. My brain is responding to all of this by drowning me in grief.
Last week I couldn’t stand it.
My grief was at a boiling point.
I wanted to do several very rash things, all of which I would live to regret. I chose the least rash one: I took good money I should have used to thrift a new coat, and I spent it on a trip to the museum.
You recall we had an annual Carnegie Museum membership last year. It expired in spring when I was trapped without my car. We couldn’t afford to renew it for the longest time. We haven’t been able to afford anything. Last month I was sure we were going to lose everything. Last week we finally had a tiny bit of money, and instead of being practical with it, I paid for the first thirty days of a month-to-month subscription membership to the four Carnegie museums.
That was how I ended up in Pittsburgh for the first time since December, late last week after I dropped Adrienne off at school.
I gulped coffee so I’d actually leave town instead of going home for a nap and a cry. I remembered the drive by heart. I didn’t have to use the GPS once. I pulled into the museum lot and forked over ten more dollars I desperately needed for practical things, for my parking space. And suddenly I was in a world of beautiful things.
I started to admire the dinosaur skeletons, but I didn’t stay there long. It reminded me too much of the Lost Girl’s children, and the baby I never met. I felt the grief. I fled.
I started to look at the taxidermy animal dioramas, but that reminded me of when Adrienne was called Rosie and homeschooled with me. I didn’t want to think of that either.
I went through the hall of minerals and jewels. I admired the opals, my birthstone, and pretended I was a queen or a famous actress taking an inventory of my jewelry. I pretended another famous actor came up behind me and surprising me with that pearl necklace from the display, putting it around my neck for a birthday gift. I imagined what it would be like to be beautiful, glamorous, popular, loved. I have always wanted to be loved.
I wandered into the hall of architecture, with the life-sized plaster cast of a cathedral facade taking up one wall, imagining I was a reveler at the Festival of Fools in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I sat on a bench near a cast of a Renaissance nobleman’s tomb, and pretended to be a conniving lady from the House of Medici in a great big puffy dress. I stood before the cast of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and pretended to be Athena the grey-eyed goddess. And then I remembered how much Adrienne liked our homeschooling unit study on Greek mythology, and the grief welled up again.
I went upstairs to see the art galleries, walking backwards through time, starting with contemporary art and ending up in the impressionists. I have always loved the impressionists. I like to stand far away from the paintings and see a landscape, then walk closer until the landscape dissolves into brushstrokes and streaks of color, then back up until I see the landscape again, and imagine that I am standing there. I like to wonder at how many different glorious colors the impressionists used to create the illusion of black or white.
And there was my favorite painting in the whole collection, Van Gogh’s Wheat Fields After the Rain. I leaned close until it turned into a galaxy of green lines, then leaned out until it turned into a wheat field again. I imagined the feeling of wet grass tickling my feet. I imagined being happy again.
I went out of the museum for awhile after that. I went to the library next door, browsing the stacks, trying to remember what it was like to be an avid reader before the trauma made it so hard. I went into the Cathedral of Learning and stood in the middle of the atrium, looking up at the vaulted ceiling to make myself dizzy. I walked around the Oakland district, admiring the architecture, people watching.
Last of all, I visited Saint Paul’s cathedral.
Saint Paul’s isn’t ugly like the churches in Steubenville. Most of the Catholic parishes in Steubenville are blocky modern buildings, except for the great big Baroque church downtown which is a garish ornate “traditional” building with a weird painting of John Paul the Second over the altar. Saint Paul’s Cathedral is just beautiful. It’s a Gothic church like the ones I always wanted to visit in Europe. It reminds me of the Cathedral I was baptized in, in Columbus.
And there was that grief again, thinking about the Catholic Church, and Columbus.
I tiptoed in anyway, waiting for the panic attack to start, but it didn’t.
I sat in the shrine to Saint Joan of Arc. She is one of the only saints I talk to anymore. She knows what it’s like to be destroyed by the Catholic Church.
I told her everything I was feeling.
Later, I slid into the pews by the great big gold tabernacle, avoiding eye contact with that icon to Our Lady of Guadalupe in case she didn’t approve of someone like me talking to her Son.
“How could you?” I asked Him, in case He was really there.
And then, after a pause, I added, “be good to me.”
And finally, in case He didn’t get the point, “Not in a Catholic way. I mean, not in the way I’m afraid of. Not the way I was abused. Not suffering and trauma and bad luck that I can offer up for the souls in purgatory. Actually be good to me.”
Maybe He heard me.
The grief is still heavy, but it doesn’t hurt as much.
Maybe there’s a way through.
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