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Sun on Skin

Over the stairs ascending from our living room to the attic hangs a dark painting of a young woman seated alone, trapped in a geometric matrix of depressive color—trapezoids, rectangles and fans in olives, greys and teal blues, crimson and burnt orange. This is a cast-off painting, done in art school by my dear childhood friend Bunny Harvey, now a world-renowned artist whose work is known for its luminosity. But this throwaway matched my own mood at twenty when I shared Bunny’s Providence, Rhode Island flat with her and her boyfriend. I asked if I could keep the painting and she gave it to me.

​Cast off girlhood painting by Bunny Harvey; snap of painting taken by my friend Lucy Phenix

Forty-seven years later, that painting matched my morning funk—longing to leap out of bed, scramble into my clothes and take to the hills to recharge body and spirit, but stuck here feeling disempowered by two good-for-nothing feet. Most days I’ve jiggled that sour humor and turned it around; only sometimes do I show it to family and friends who tend to comment on my good spirit. Ha! After several weeks, each day wrestling with demons of sourness, I received a visit from the physical therapist who promised to teach me how to get around the house and—a surprise—how to get out. “Easy,” he said. He’d show me how to descend the steep steps of our Victorian house, bumping down from stair to stair on my butt. When we opened the front door, I leaned forward in my chair to see through the bower of green to the street. The physical therapist helped ease me down from the wheelchair to sit on the landing at the top of the stairs. In the autumn air, the delicate hairs along my arms stood on end. Ah, the world. Breathing in, I caught just a hint of salt brine scent from the Bay. A car door slammed down the block. A motor revved up. A pickup truck rattled down the street, headed towards the builders supply store. A man bicycled by with his young son behind, both with A’s caps. Life in our neighborhood. Sitting on the top landing, I peered down the steps dappled with tender purple blossoms from the overhanging Princess Tree. A sudden dizziness. These stairs are really steep. Maybe this isn’t a good idea. What if I slip on the blossoms and tumble down? Urged on by the physical therapist, I leaned the palms of my hands into the floorboards on the landing, and scooting forward, placed my booted feet a few steps below. Charging the muscles in my arms, I lifted my full weight, then lowered my derriere onto the next step. I reached my feet down again, first the stronger (left), then the more injured (right). Then palms pressed to the boards, I lowered myself down one more step.

A breeze riffled through my hair. The heart-shaped leaves of the Princess overhead trembled. From a high branch of the Camphor tree, the raucous cry of a crow. Far down by the Bay, a train whistled. Oh how I love that sound. Almost impossible to believe I am here, enjoying the tremblings and whistles of the world. “Let’s go,” called the physical therapist from the street. Carefully, I lowered myself step-by-step all the way down. Exhausted by the effort, I sat there, quiet, on the pebbly pavement. At the base of the stairs, I reached over to a rangy rose geranium, and ran my fingers through the scruffy leaves. I cupped my perfumed hand over my nose, breathed in the sweetness. A sudden wash of warmth took me by surprise: Berkeley sun anointing my face. Oh my God. When I got upstairs, I remembered the sunrise in Johnny Got His Gun. A passage from this searing antiwar novel by Dalton Trumbo has returned to me many times over the years since I first read it as a naïve fourteen year old. In my study, I found my frayed copy of the book and looked up the passage. A WWI soldier blasted by an artillery shell, is left without limbs or a face. He can’t hear or see, but he can feel. Isolated in his hospital bed, he has a eureka: With his skin he might be able to detect the change of temperature at the moment that the sun rises, and through that, reconnect with life. For days, maybe weeks, he tunes his most tender sensors to subtle change and awaits the transition of cold to heat as the first sunlight meets his skin:

"It felt as if his nerves had jabbed through so near the surface of the skin that there was actual pain sharp and fine and penetrating as they groped to register the change…And then the thing began to happen swiftly and more swiftly…. It seemed to him when it came that it came in a blaze of heat. It felt like his neck was seared burned scorched from the heat of the rising sun…. He had recaptured time…The muscles in his body relaxed. In his mind in his heart in whatever parts of him that were left he was singing singing singing. "It was dawn."

Block print by dear family friend Joanna Despres


In the weeks since, I’ve thought about the exquisite attention Trumbo describes, about my own enlivened noticing as I traveled down the stairs. It’s easy to ignore the nuanced shades and tones of life. I once heard a talk by a Zen teacher who introduced the first Buddhist Precept through Dogen’s teaching: “Life is not killed.” The teacher went on to say, “to give complete attention…that is not to kill and that is what life is.” I haven’t begun to plumb the many permutations. But this teaching has helped hone my commitment. As I get through this hard time now, I remind myself: attend to the subtle shifts—cold/heat, dark/light, sour/sweet.

Japanese print purchased in 1949 in Yokohama by my husband Patrick's mother Kay O'Donnell; now on wall in our bedroom

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