Sunday, July 8, 2018

Lilac and Loss: The Rewards of Illusive Beauty

You may have noticed that I haven't been posting much lately. My health has been terrible. A year after the battle with my insurance company began, it rages on and on. That's bad enough. 

But I was also just diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, or, as it's now more accurately called, Central Sensitivity Syndrome. I'm struggling to understand what CSS is, let alone what it means for my future. The fact that CSS/Fibro is very often caused by physical trauma yet again ties my physical suffering to the child abuse that forever shaped my life. I am, yet again, filled with a chaos of negative emotions: rage, despair, fear, grief. 

The grief is huge. I've lost so much. The loss began the moment I was born into a home that would never give me what I needed to thrive, and subjected me to so much sexual violence, I lost my physical health too. Who and what would I have been if everything had been different? It's a painful question, but one I can't help but ask myself on occasion.

At the same time, I'm not sure where this blog is going. Is it a style blog or a heavy issues blog? Should I write for myself or for my readers? 

I started Sublime Mercies as a light distraction from my physical pain and the PTSD symptoms so badly aggravated by that pain. I just wanted to write about style, and all the pretty things - the sublime mercies - that helped me cope with my new life as a disabled person. In other words, it was my therapy.

Amazingly, people liked Sublime Mercies, and read it a lot. It became just the distraction I needed to keep me going. But, then, when I learned that my disability was caused by the child abuse, I was filled with a grief and rage so huge, I could no longer remain silent about my history as a child sex trafficking survivor. So I started to write about that too, and other "heavy" topics that were on my mind. And I also kept writing about style and style history, because I love it. 

More and more peopled started reading Sublime Mercies for my "heavy" posts. They wrote to me, thanked me, and, in time, became a wonderful, online community of mutual support. I love that. It's become a new kind of therapy.

But, now, when I write "just style" posts, they're not read as much as my "heavy" posts. But I need distraction. So. So, whence from here? I don't know.

So I'm in a kind of flux. As usual, I take refuge in beauty. This time, it's a dress with a kind of ethereal glow that tugs at my memory of places and times past, and questions about what might have been, and what will be.

Dress: Hell Bunny; Shoes: Cobb Hill; Canes: Fashionable Canes; Pinky ring: heirloom; Sunglasses, earrings, and bangle: vintage
The diagnosis of CSS/Fibro certainly does make sense. Despite my best efforts, my health has been getting worse and worse, especially since my relapse last summer. This is a photo of me going down my own back stairs for the first time in... a year? I'm not even sure, but it's been a very long time. It was hard!

It's not just back pain though. I have migraines. I have endometriosis. Even my skin is overly sensitive. The scars on my vagina keep tearing and bleeding, despite the special creams I use to help. My guts are a mess. I am very often dehydrated and even maybe malnourished because of my Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I have to take pills to quell my diarrhoea, pills to reduce my stomach acids, pills to suppress my period, pills to reduce my back pain, and pills to help with my PTSD symptoms, which are themselves a cluster of problems that plague me day and night. (And, yes, I also employ a myriad of non-medicinal methods to help with my health too: therapy, physiotherapy, exercises, heating pads, ice, rest, incense, writing, hot baths, special pillows, re-hydration drinks, a healthy diet, etc., etc., etc.)

I had sort-of understood this already, but what I really understand properly with this new diagnosis of CSS/Fibro, is that all these physical maladies have one cause, CSS/Fibro, which, itself, effectively has one cause: child abuse.

As near as I can understand it, CSS/Fibro is basically the body on high alert all the time. My pain receptors are, in a way, broken, sending me constant danger signals when the danger itself is long past. Basically, my body has been stuck in a fight or flight, trauma response - for my entire life.

If that's not PTSD of the body, I don't know what is.

When the doctor at the pain clinic explained all this to me, and pressed various trigger points on my body, all of which hurt like hell, I burst into tears in her office and said, "Remind me again how this isn't all my fault." I also needed her to reassure me over and over again that she wasn't telling me that my pain is "all in my head," merely a psychosomatic manifestation of my PTSD.

Why? If you have invisible, chronic pain, you probably already know: People - including doctors - don't believe us. If we're women, they believe us even less. And, if we're women with a sexual trauma history, their disbelief is palpable. 

Where the general public is concerned, this disbelief is still common. It's getting a bit better with doctors. But I'm old enough to remember when it was worse.

The 90s were awful for sexual abuse survivors, and to be honest, I'm still scarred by that experience. The worse a woman's trauma history, the less likely she was to be believed. In fact, the severity of the abuse was taken as proof that it wasn't real; it was considered just too horrible or bizarre to be true. If the abuse was so severe that she'd had to suppress memories of it to survive, then, when she recovered those memories, the world believed that she had "False Memory Syndrome," and that she had not been abused at all.

So, if she presented with myriad, physical health problems as well, this was seen as another sign that she was crazy, imagining it and the abuse. Even if doctors did believe that she'd been abused, they saw that abuse as proof that there was nothing wrong with her physically. Instead, she was just "troubled" and "imagining it." It was "all in her head." 

This is an absolutely bizarre approach to medicine. If a patient came to a doctor with chronic pain problems and said, "I've been in several car accidents in my life," the doctor would rightly think that the car accidents might well have caused the chronic pain. But, even today sometimes, if a patient comes to a doctor with chronic pain problems and says, "I was often the victim of extreme violence, including sexual violence," instead of exploring whether or not any of that violence caused injuries and permanent health problems, the doctor tells the patient that she just needs therapy!

Eventually, I internalized these messages and came to believe that my health problems were all psychosomatic. I seldom sought medical help for my health problems, and virtually never asked for help with my PTSD. I was ashamed. I thought that, if I were just a better person, I wouldn't have PTSD and therefore also wouldn't have pain. 

I shut up about the abuse entirely, telling virtually no-one, and trying to function as if it had never happened. My shame kept me silent, but so too did the fact that I didn't want to deal with the disbelief and/or stigma I'd receive if I spoke out. 

When I first started writing about the abuse in this blog, I was shocked that people believed me! To have doctors not only believe me, but diagnose me and tell me it's not my fault? It barely computes. The shame still reigns.

Yet I can take some pride, here and there, like when I finally walked down my own stairs again. Every now and then I take pride in the fact that I've made it through hell and, in many ways, am still toughing it out in another kind of hell: pain, PTSD, and discrimination

But it also breaks my heart that simply being able to enjoy my own backyard is a huge milestone. 

It's not right. It's not fair.

Beau planted this bush for me when we first moved in. It was a tiny, scrubby, little shrub then. Just look at how it's grown! We had big plans for this garden. We thought some day we might be able to buy our home so the efforts seemed worth it. But then our landlord flat out told us he plans to tear it down to make way for some huge, overpriced, hideous, multi-family dwelling. My insurance company cut off my entire income, making it impossible to get a mortgage even if, on paper, I have a good income. And my health continued to decline, making it necessary for Beau to do more and more of the daily chores around the house.

We had to let the garden go. I hate that. Our house was built in 1949 by the man who would move into it with his wife. It's still evident that she loved her garden. Remnants still remain, like this old rose... tree. I can only call it a tree now. You can't even buy roses like this anymore, but not only is this one thriving even though it's in desperate need of loving care, but I see clippings from it thriving up and down my block.

Broken down, depleted, poorly treated, but still alive, and still beautiful: like me? So I love this rose tree, even as it breaks my heart, maybe even because it breaks my heart. Its beauty is a comfort, in its broken down way. That helps.

Nothing cures. Many things help.

Like this neighbourhood cat who always comes when people call. Indeed, he waits in the alley for friendly neighbours to come by and call him. Every day, after school, he waits for the elementary students to pet him on their walk home. 


There is still joy. There is still beauty.

But I do have to look pretty hard for it sometimes. 

It's not easy. Often, it's not just a mental and emotional struggle to find it. It's a physical struggle as well. I'm so crippled!

That's why my beautiful outfits are so important to me. If I'm wearing beauty, it's right there. No need to search for it.

So let's talk about it, shall we? I just love this dress. It's a Hell Bunny, natch, but it's a departure from a lot of their more flamboyant, rockabilly style dresses. It's subtle, lavender, white, and grey, and simple, day-dress style have a modesty about them that I love.

I love the way it falls and the way it blows in the wind. It's so feminine ...

... like Liesl's dress in The Sound of Music.

It's a tad large, but, since I keep gaining weight with disability, I guess it's good to have some growing room. Plus, its blousiness makes it so I don't really have to give much thought to which bra I wear with it. I'm growing increasingly intolerant of the uncomfortable bras made for chesty ladies like myself.

But let's talk about my makeup. I know: I almost never discuss my makeup because I often go entirely without, I never wear much, and I don't know much about it. But I like this effect so let's give it a shot.

First of all, I'm wearing a light cover-up on my reddish areas: Kevin Aucoin's Dewdrop Powder in DW03. I like the way it smooths out my complexion. I'm also wearing a highlighter on my cheeks and brows: Vichy's non-coloured, Pure Light Face Roll-On. I've only just started using that and I must admit that I like how it brightens my face up.

My eyes shadow is ancient, a little, Almay collection in various purples and lavenders, to match my dress.

I know we're not supposed to wear makeup to match our clothes but... whatever!

Naomi Campbell
I went with a decidedly 1990s application of my eye shadow. I'm terrible at describing what I've done with my makeup so let's just say I did a toned down version of this, but in lilac and lavender.

I first got the idea when watching an old episode of Diagnoses Murder (yes, with Dick Van Dyke) in which Amanda Bentley, and every other woman, wore variations on this 90s look.

Once I'd noticed it on Diagnoses Murder, I realized that this was the look favoured by Rachel Green for the first several years of Friends too. (For some fairly inscrutable reason - cultural masochism? - Beau and I recently watched the entire series, in order.)

I combined lipsticks again here, with a light application of a dark, matte, metallic, berry shade - Maybelline's Copper Rose - under a quick brush of pale pink, shimmery, Burt's Bees balm in Guava.

My overall palette - dress, jewelry, and makeup - reminded me of palettes favoured in the the early 1940s. (Apparently, with my colouring, I should have picked different shades, but I respectfully disagree.)

I only recently paid close attention to this beautifully muted palette, upon a rewatch of Cover Girl, from 1944. I fell in love with it ...

... and recognized it all over again in Moon Over Miami, from 1941.

Remember, this was wartime, world war time. I wonder if an overuse of bright, "gay," primary colours was seen to be in poor taste in a time of so much uncertainty, anxiety, and death.

It might take a little more work to recognize, but sometimes understated beauty is better than flashier, more obvious iterations of beauty.

Like these shoes: Don't you like the subtlety of the metallic shimmer here? Wouldn't it be less appealing were it more obvious? I actually would have preferred something of a lighter and even more subtle shade with this outfit, but nothing was quite right. 

Even so, I'm crazy about these shoes by Cobb Hill. They have a series of shoes that heavily influenced by styles from the 1920s to the 1940s - and they don't hurt my back! That's pretty much a dream come true for me. I have four pair so far.

Now that we're talking about my accessories (are shoes accessories?), let's notice my canes. I hate using them but, if I must, I will do my best to make them match my outfits. That's harder now that I have to use two canes instead of one. After all, I only own about ten canes, and I can't always make them coordinate, especially since they also have to match in design or they'll cause me more pain. I think I did a relatively good job with these two. 

If you're a cane user, you'll want to know that the minimally heavier, Lucite one on the left is far sturdier and gives me far more support than the hollow, foldable, aluminium one on the right. 

The Chocolate Kiddies Chorus Girls, 1925
Plus it looks cool. It always makes me want to strut around in a top hat and tap shoes, singing Puttin' on the Ritz on Broadway in the 1920s.

But back to my accessories. I know this bracelet is probably both kitsch and tacky, but I love it. 

I love its shimmery luminescence and the amazing 3D effect of its reverse carved roses. 

Keeping with the theme of subtle shimmer, and with the cool, silvery look of my dress, I went with silver jewelry tones instead of my usual gold. 

Because I always wanted my wedding rings to match whatever other jewelry I wear, I wound both white and yellow gold vines into them. I think they look well with my grandmother's, 1936, platinum engagement ring. Obviously, it's one of my most precious possessions. 

This "brooch" is actually an earring. The cool, moonlit forest scene ...

... was a perfect match for the similarly cool, moonlit, marsh scene on my dress. 

Both images remind me of Thy Friend, Obadiah, one of the Quaker children's books I read as a child. The moon I remember on its cover is actually its Caldecott Medal sticker!

But I think I can be forgiven for that muddled memory of the book, given that this scene is in it too. Can't you just picture a blurry, silvery moon peeping through the clouds here?

by Ogata Gekko
It's obvious that the moon scene depicted on my dress is strongly influenced by Japanese art such as this piece, by Ogato Gekko.

Here's an odd fact: When I was a little girl, about five years old, everyone told me that they could see a man's face in the moon. But that's not what I saw.

I saw Peter Rabbit being tucked up in bed and given awful medicine. I saw him as being in terrible trouble and great danger. 

After all, he had only barely escaped a gruesome death beneath the sharp, metal tines of Farmer McGregor's rake. Farmer McGregor looked a lot like my stepfather, who was even more violent with farm animals. He'd once shot a husky puppy in front of me and then, shotgun slung over his shoulder, told me I was next. I was so afraid, I was sick that day, just like Peter Rabbit.

by the late Tom Eneas, whose work I hope someday to be able to afford
I wasn't afraid of the moon, but nor did I draw any comfort from it, until a few years later, when I was living in British Columbia. One night, the bad guys took me into the mountain forest and did unspeakable things to me.

I'm very private about the spiritual experience I had that night, so all I will say now is that it was Indigenous, it was a great gift, it has never left me, and I've seen the moon differently ever since.

There is a luminosity of spirit even in darkness. We just need to know how to look for it.

by Melissa Groo. 
The way the mystery out-glows the danger of a rare Spirit Bear in The Great Bear Rain Forest ...

... the ephemeral, shifting colours in a white opal ...

... the luminosity of diamonds in the dark, finding whatever light they can and casting it back to us, brighter than the light itself ... These are the kinds of beauties one learns to find in suffering. These are the things that keep us alive.

Of course, I wish I hadn't had to learn that skill. I prefer diamonds in bright sunlight. That's easy beauty, the kind we can all see.

But even in bright light, the illusive can still exist. Sometimes, I feel like I'm so white in the sun, I look like a ghost.

Why do we always depict ghosts as if they're lit from within? Why do they always seem to carry about them the light of the moon?

And why, when they communicate with mortals, do they always seem to do so in impossibly cryptic ways? Sometimes I feel like that's what I must be: a ghost trying to communicate a message that's hard to understand.

Ghosts know things others don't. They're hard to see, hard to hear, hard to comprehend as they bring us their warnings, their grief, their information. I feel like that sometimes, bringing messages from the other side of human experience, the side in the darkness, the cruelty, the depravity, the revulsion ...

... and the beauty too, the more subtle beauty, the illusive beauty, for which we must work. Great literature, great art, great beauty, great wisdom: it does sometimes take more work to comprehend. But isn't it worth it? 

The Presence in the Midst, depicting traditional, historical Quakers in Meeting for Worship. Note the simple clothing and the lack of ornamentation in the Meeting House (church).
I was raised Quaker, and I do think this helped me develop these skills. No preacher stands in a pulpit telling you what to feel and think. No-one tells you what G-d's message is for you. No-one defines the experience of G-d and spirit for you. You have to find it for yourself, in silent, contemplative prayer, similar to what people today call meditation.

Another scene from Thy Friend, Obadiah
And, traditionally, Quakers are not supposed to be ostentatious. They could only live and dress simply, in Quaker greys. Perhaps these traditions helped me to see subtle, illusive beauty better than some can.

My suffering helped me learn this too because my suffering taught me how to dissociate. I didn't just see the intricate beauty of tree bark. I crawled right into it, walked amongst its canyons and rough valleys. 

These strange beauties became like friends to me, friends in my struggle to stay alive, sane, spirit unbroken. 

I found it too in the macro, the mountains that towered over my suffocating small town life in rural, redneck British Columbia. The trees were sparse, many even stunted by pollution from pulp and mining. The river was toxic with the bilge dumped into it by the mills; the rocks beside it held no life, just a beige scum that dried into a flaky, foul smelling crust. 

West Coast mountains, 1975. I'm the little one on the right.
I longed to return to the more lush life, the higher mountains, and the urban freedom of the west coast. I'd already met the west coast, lived beneath them, fallen in love with them, and, two years later, after much violence and strife in my home - been torn away from them.

But none of this completely killed the beauty of the interior for me. The mountains of B.C.'s interior were my friends too, silently witnessing and keeping me company in my torment, teaching me about endurance and longevity.

I feel like this illusive beauty in stillness and moonlight is kind of what Japanese artists were trying to portray in some of their iconic nature scenes.

Such paintings are ubiquitous in Japanese culture. I'm not surprised that they so often depict cranes.

by Carola Bartz
They are one of the first beautiful things I remember about B.C.'s coast. Okay, not cranes, but Blue Herons, whose colouring blends perfectly with fog, dark water, and low light. They blend not with garish brightness, but with subtle beauty.

Their stillness and patience when fishing is extraordinary. They will stand perfectly still on one leg for what seems like hours, watching the water for slight movement and perfect timing.

And when they do rise and fly, their wingspan is awe-inspiring. 

I first saw them down by the Fraser River, where I first lived when I immigrated to Canada.

At first sight, this territory bore some similarity to the beaches of Cape Cod where I spent a summer or two when I still lived in Massachusetts. 

But this new land was very exotic to me. The smells, the quality of the air, the industry: It was all different. I was particularly taken with the lonely, little tugboats, pushing, nudging, and tugging loads much larger than themselves: log booms, ships. These loads seemed far too large for them to manage, but they did it.

I guess that reminds me of myself a bit, you know?

Musqueam territory on the Fraser River
The opulent greens, fed by the fog and rain of the West Coast, were different too. I soon grew to love them ...

... but, as with every immigrant, I had lost so much that I loved. This little house behind me reminds me a lot ...

... of old Cape Cod cottages ...

... probably like Obadiah's in Nantucket, Massachusetts ...

... and like Massachusetts farmhouses. I even lived in one - for a year. My smother moved around a lot, and, obviously, I moved with her. I never had a home, not really.

The closest I came to a home was my grandparents' summer place in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. It was a geographical constant for me, and a place of love and safety. The green house on the left reminds me ...

... of Adirondack houses and boathouses, and I am filled with a sense of loss and grief. When I cut off contact with smother, I lost all my family, all my connections back east. 

I miss my grandmother's silver hair. I miss the silver birch trees ...

... like the silver of my dress. 

I miss the bright colours of a New England fall. Even more, I miss the way Massachusetts smells in the fall. It took me decades to get over that.

But I am home now. This palette has become my palette and I could never feel the peaceful stillness of home anywhere else.

by David Brian Paley
In all honesty, I think these mountains are most beautiful in the winter. I love the greys, the deep, almost black, greens and blues. Yes, it takes some work to find the beauty of this palette, but, for me, once I had done that work, there was no turning back. Besides, there is nothing subtle about the beauty of the mountains themselves. They are spectacular!

I love my chosen homeland, but there is some melancholy, some sense of loss.

I do ask myself: Who would I be if everything had been different? What if we'd stayed back east, with all its museums, presses, and universities? What could I have achieved?

What if I'd never been abused? What if I weren't disabled? What if?

But the biggest question for me these days is, "Who will I be now?" Who will I be with this reality and these formidable challenges? How can I use the skills and knowledge I gained from my reality? Where do I go from here? 

I really don't know.

(I'm sharing this with Lizzie in Lace, Threads For Thomas, Not Dead Yet, Not Dressed as Lamb, Tina's Pink Friday, Fashion Should Be FunHonest Mum, Jeans and a TeacupStyle ElixerElegantly Dressed and Stylish, and Style Nudge.)