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I have health problems. My body’s constant reminders and their affects on my mood made me want to explore this theme in a painting. I chose the buffalo because I was looking for an animal that could represent pain. When I was young, I knew the buffalo had come close to extinction in 1900, and though its numbers slowly rose throughout the rest of the century, it was still a sad, painful tale. There were two buffalo that lived on a ranch outside town where I grew up, and their rarity made it quite exciting to see them. But I always felt dreadfully sorry for them. Seeing them couldn’t help but remind me of the fate of their species, and I associated even the way they look with sorrow.

I placed my buffalo lady on a background somewhat similar to what I remember the Black Hills of South Dakota looking like. I saw it many decades ago, when the spaced trees reminded me of cotton swabs dotting the land. It may be a seriously abstracted version of a memory so old it’s warped, but it captures a feeling of what I remember. I choose a bright blue dress so my buffalo stands out. Literally and figuratively she no longer blends with the land that was once hers—kind of like how my health problems make me feel like my body is no longer mine.

Her dress trim bears the pattern of the QR code, a symbol that vaguely recalls the geometry of Native American configurations, but represents something far removed from nature. I partly attribute my health condition to the grave amount of toxins in our modern world, and the QR code is a technological pictogram that elicits a suggestion of our artificial, manufactured and man-made times, which all contribute to toxicity. I gave her a bouquet of wheat, the crop that replaced the Great Plains that she once dominated. Wheat is also one of the many foods I’ve had to cut out to manage my illness.

While this painting was in progress and after it was finished I didn’t like to explain what it was about. When people would ask I would say, “It’s too complicated,” or, more honestly, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Its subject is hard for me because I don’t want it to be true. Also, there are a lot of things I don’t want to happen when I talk about it. They are:

  1. People will feel sorry for me.
  2. People will think I’m a whiner.
  3. People will give me a long list of cures they are sure will work and then pressure me to take their advice and be mad if I don’t. (This happens often!)
  4. People get awkward and don’t know what to say.
  5. People will think I’m a hypochondriac.
  6. People will think I’m faking it.
  7. People ask a million questions.
  8. People will immediately suggest super invasive drugs, knowing I will barely take an aspirin and am no fan of Western Medicine unless my head is on fire.
  9. I’m already really tired of the subject, so I don’t want to hear it again myself.

All of the above things do happen, so it’s reasonable for me not to shout out my ailments to the world, but I paint and write about them to be real about it. For the curious, I have a hereditary autoimmune disorder that manifests in arthritis, tiredness, and other less prominent but annoying symptoms. For the extra-curious, read number seven from the list above.

It’s no shocker that problems with my physical health have an effect on my mental state. Being tired and in pain for any length of time can be pretty depressing. My mind tends to take on unrealistic notions when I’m weak, such as thoughts that I’ll never feel better again and that I’m missing out on everything. I get frustrated when my plans are thwarted, and I feel sorry for myself. I get jealous of others who are just walking around, la tee da, enjoying their day. I grumble at the complaints of others whose troubles stem from their busy life, while I’m unable to be active at all.

Old thought patterns can add to my gloom. They come from my don’t-be-a-sissy upbringing, which, while helpful in many ways, is very unproductive when I don’t feel well. This is probably where my suspicion that people are going to judge me as a whiner and a faker come from. I have tended, in my lifetime, to push harder, work longer, and squeeze more stuff in than was ever good for my body and mind. To be unfit to do even nominal tasks is a challenging change for me.

This is not to say that I take my condition lying down. I am as proactive, vigilant, ever-open, and disciplined about taking care of my health as I can be. My buffalo lady isn’t standing in a forlorn position. She is in a power pose, holding up the wheat as if to say, “Is this all you got?” Her hands are on her hips, her posture is robust, and her breast is not shriveling or shrinking. Like her, I can have acceptance and be resilient and strong at the same time. I know that I manage my sickness well, and I even have to admit that it has been a phenomenal teacher.

It’s taught me that all the preparedness in the world doesn’t make everything go my way. I’ve learned (this is a big one) not to judge others for how they handle their health issues. I’ve learned that “missing out on things” isn’t as bad as it sounds. I’ve learned a butt-load about alternative and traditional healthcare. Most importantly, I’ve learned to listen very carefully to my body and its needs. There is no way in the world I would have stopped being on-the-go all the time if my body hadn’t told me no.

My buffalo painting helped me be less cagey about my illness, and validated that I do the best I can with it. I still don’t want to run around boring people with it, but I am less inclined to shirk from being (briefly) honest about it. Being sick engenders more compassion for people with any kind of illness. Being real about it with paint and pen brings about more connection with others. By sharing it I am more likely to get helpful ideas, support, empathy, validation, and understanding than if I keep to my default position of “Don’t be a sissy.”