About two weeks ago I woke up without the use my right hand. I could lift my arm and move it around; I could also move my fingers and thumbs – but there was no strength in my grip at all. I was simultaneously mystified and terrified as I went through the checklist: Heart attack/ Stroke/Bell’s Palsy/Demonic infestation… but eventually the list narrowed down to yet another arthritic flare.
I don’t know if it is the correct term – “arthritic flare’– but from time to time I get sessions of extreme pain in joint that is accompanied by inflammation and the formation of a knot on the joint/surrounding bone. The inflammation and pain eventually ease off but the knot stays and the efficiency of the afflicted joint is permanently reduced to varying degrees.
In this case the flare was at the saddle-joint of my right thumb and true to form the inflammation has gone away and the pain has settled down to the normal level of “ouch” that exists in my life but I suspect that my thumb – and consequently my hand – has been permanently weakened.
…which means that the signs of my worst artist’s nightmare have finally arrived. I have been able to tolerate loss of overall mobility, flexibility and strength because I could still make things. It hasn’t been easy as of late as all of my fingers show various stages of affliction – the oddest being the index and middle fingers of my left hand which now angle about 15 degrees to the right at the third knuckle (closest to the tip). With finger-trouble like that I can keep working as long as I am careful to spell myself but problems with my right thumb could end up as the death sentence for my creative career. So much of what I do requires fairly strong gripping or pressing with that thumb and if this sort of thing happens again…
I wouldn’t be the first artist to struggle with arthritis. Renoir had terrible arthritis in his hands in the latter part of his life but ever the optimist he strapped brushes to his forearms and kept on painting. As my work involves a wider range than just working with brushes my situation is a bit different …but in any event I will try to solve this problem by” thinking like water”.
Springtime in Alaska takes a much different form than it does in the Lower 48. True, we had a period of blooming flowers and increasing greenery but that occurs during a relatively short span of time at the end of the season. I used to joke that I would flip the “green switch” on my birthday (May 15th). Most of what everyone else would call spring we call “break-up”, when the ice and snow melts off faster than the frozen ground below thaws. Our property and the dirt road running in front of it would sprout countless small shallow ponds that would eventually disappear as the days got warmer, but would offer plenty of entertainment to grade-school age civil engineers in the mean-time.
I spent hours creating canals and dams, ostensibly to help drain the driveway and front yards but mostly because it was just fun to do. I use the term “engineer” but there are times when the elaborate patterns I would make with the canals, dams was something more along the lines of minimalist earthworks sculptures like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake . However, the biggest reason I played with the water was that I liked “the way the water thought”. No matter what you did, the water would always seek out the lowest level/easiest access to the next puddle.
That’s what I have to do now. I am going to eventually lose effective use of my hands but like water I have to think the problem through and take corrective measures – and when I come to a roadblock I have to focus on getting around the problem rather than lamenting that the roadblock is there. Some solutions are already in the working; my brother-in-arms John Taylor gave me a copy of the voice recognition software Dragon that will allow me to continue to write. For visual art it might be time for me to start riding with that tribe of abstract art ideas that has been circling my representational art wagon train for the last couple of decades.
Maybe I’ll strap brushes to my arms…but it won’t happen until a tsunami of thought has been expended.