“Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do”
– Cheryl Strayed
I loved making my book ‘Gather’ for the Are You Book Enough community back in November. When I discovered the theme for February was ‘Heal’ I was determined to whittle out time to participate, despite it being an already busy month. Obviously it was going to be about cancer. That was such a strange time for me. Although I was facing the darkest, most frightening and exhausting time I’d ever had, my creativity was bizarrely on fleek. I’ve talked a lot about how I would walk to the river every day, and spend the evenings in bed painting and drawing in little sketchbooks. I learned so much during that time. Looking back, I didn’t realise what a powerful agent of transformation cancer would be. All I knew was I HAD to go through it, with grace and grit.
Anyways. The book. Well I wasn’t exactly short of raw material even if I was short on time. I found looking back over the sketchbooks quite weird, almost like it all happened to someone else, and I was just watching a film or reading a book about it. I think disassociation is quite a common coping mechanism, even 3 years after the experience it still is true at times for me. So in the end I decided to narrow it down, and to simply base my book on one small painting. This was made at the worst time – chemotherapy. My body and spirit were so broken, but somehow I would find the strength several times a week to slowly, gently make my way to the river at the end of the path. As spring warmed up I would undo my shoes and stand in the water, nobbly pebbles underfoot and imagine the water tripping over my ankles washing away disease, toxins, and the parts of me I no longer wished to exist. The river became my sanctuary.
Later from my bed I made drawings in Prussian blue that saw the river as a metaphor for my own body too, the fluids, cells, my lymphatic system.
So the book needed to be like a stretch of blue river. The drawing I took inspiration from was one I made after coming back from a particular chemo session. I had noticed the glass pattern in the hospital foyer, which reminded me of pebbles in the river. It’s funny how our brains are wired. I knew the book needed to be an extended version of that sketch, a simple Prussian blue ribbon of water filled with these white pebble shapes. An accordion shape to keep the river continous, a gradient from dark blue during the darkest time, to a sense of feeling somewhat lighter by the end.
It took a few attempts to get it right, how can painting a blue stripe be such a bloody challenge? Well attempt n°1 became the rough plan for the finished book, and attempt n°2 was recycled as a painting, so no losses.
The text I wrote down from signs as I walked from the hospital main doors, into the lift and down to the basement Oncology department to get my chemo. I also used some of the text on the machines in chemo lounge and the pump that delivered my drugs. “Inspirez, bloquez, expirez”.
The book is covered with a scrap of white bed sheet with blue watercolour stains, from the time I spent painting from my bed.
And finally I embellished with a little bit of gold. I had originally had ideas about incorporating kintsugi but in the end felt I wanted simplicity, not including too many ideas. So just gold endpapers and gold around the whitewater cutouts. The gold had to be there, because you must never give up hope.
You can see a video of the book here