for the times you are holding onto your last thread

Cultivating Growth

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OPINION | by Renee Clark | October 24, 2021 | Updated October 24, 2021

I almost didn’t post this quote – even though it holds meaning to me. I am conscientious of the culture to silence those who question how society is shaping. Just this week, Margaret Atwood, the author of “Handmaid’s Tale” was labeled an unbecoming acronym after she referenced an article that had been published in the Toronto Star and, along with the article, posed a question to twitterverse. A portion of society has now relegated Margaret Atwood to experience the same judgement as experienced by J. K. Rowling.

6 months and one day before my mother died, I spent a day filming her as she relayed the stories that she remembered from childhood. They were the same stories that we had been told throughout the years. While her short-term memory was failing, her long-term memory remained intact. I knew at some point her long-term memory might begin to fail, so I decided I would create a video that would allow her to be her own memory. I caught her, in her own voice, on (digital) film, once again sharing those stories.

After her death, there was one particular story that I wanted to illustrate and write into a children’s book. At the time, the process of formulating the book concept was keeping me going – literally – keeping me going.

I dealt with an extreme amount of guilt after mom died. She had designated me her medical power of attorney. She trusted me to make the right decisions – to follow her wishes. Over the years we had talked many times about how she wanted me to handle various scenarios. She also took care of herself and had her legal documents in order.

When asked at the hospital, she refused surgery, and her documents were written in such a way that to honor the document would also mean to honor her refusal of surgery. I begged. I cried. I pleaded with her to change her mind. I didn’t know if she truly understood the outcome of not having surgery. I wasn’t successful in convincing her to change her mind.

As her medical power of attorney, I was given the option of not following her wishes as written, so doctors continued to ask me to finalize a decision. After a lot of discussion, I made the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life. Afterward, the doctor, social worker, and the Chaplain, who participated in the discussions, reassured me that I had made the right choice. I had honored my mother’s wishes.

Days after that decision was made, long after it was too late to reverse it, my mom woke up, looked over at me, and asked “When is my surgery?” I was gutted. I blamed myself as she suffered her remaining days.

For six months following her death, my mental health spiraled. Things were complicated by the experience that the entire world was beginning to face. As mom lay sleeping, the pandemic had reached the shores of the United States. Two weeks after mom’s death, the world was a very different place. As I spiraled, I tried to find help – a counselor – someone. I knew I was in deep trouble. I was unable to find the help that I needed.

I joined a grief group that had been established online to help people because, at the time, counselors and support groups were shut down. That group was growing exponentially day by day, but soon it became toxic as people would relay how their loved one died, and then people would comment horrendous messages to them that compounded their grief. Grief became political. And hateful. I had to walk away from the group after a beautiful young lady, who was grieving her parents and multiple siblings, was shredded in the comments. The hatred became too much for me to cope with.

At that point, I turned to utilizing many of the techniques that I wanted to teach with my business (what happened to CREATE Courageously is a story for another day). But I knew I couldn’t be my own teacher in this situation. One artist teacher, who I love and adore, and consider to have been my guide in helping me walk through my own battle with CPTSD and medical trauma, was dealing with a crisis of her own and had gone MIA. So, I reached out and took courses from other artists from around the world, who taught with a similar supportive style. They’re not art therapists. They’re artists who love and care about people.

It was then I found a purpose. I decided I wanted to honor my mother by illustrating one of her stories. Her story is a story of courage and quiet strength.

I knew that children’s books about disability are hard to come by. I wanted to find out why. Those who know me best know that I am the type of person who will research something to the nth degree before leaping.

It didn’t take long to figure out the reason. I spent some time on YouTube and discovered video after video of people calling for the cancellation of this book or that book. Children’s books about disability were being read by “critics” with calls to ban the books. Books were being recommended for cancellation over semantics - semantics that are changing as rapidly as PC culture does. I pulled up lists of children’s books about disability that were already banned or recommended to be banned, and those lists are long.

Some of the bans are understandable, but what angered me the most was that books that were written by people who experience disability were also banned. PC culture has gone so far as to tell disabled people that they can’t even describe their own experience. (I’m waiting for someone call me out because I didn’t use person first language in this last sentence as “disability advocates” either don’t know that many disabled people don’t like to be referred to as a “person with disability,” or they want so badly to tell me, and other disabled people, that we are wrong.)

So there I was. Holding onto a very thin thread. Hoping to bring some good to a broken world, and realizing I didn’t have the emotional capacity to handle thrusting myself headfirst into being the target of PC culture.

Which brings me to Voltaire, and why I questioned posting his quote. If you are still here, thank you.

Voltaire was one of the great philosophers in the 18th century (France) who stood against contradiction that was, and still is, rampant in political and religious circles. He stood for freedom of speech, freedom of religion and separation of church and state. He believed no authority, political or religious, should be immune to reasonable criticism. He also called out abuses of the church.

He often wrote in satire. Or poetry. And he paid a price, time and time again for his literary works.

Voltaire was imprisoned – not once, not twice, but three times. He was first imprisoned for writing political satire that mocked the Duke of Orleans. He was sent to the Bastille where he spent 11 months, thinking, and writing. (I appreciate the irony – let’s lock this man up, to shut him up, and give him plenty of time to do nothing but think and write). A year later he was imprisoned again for writing poetry that questioned French laws. Approximately 10 years after that, he was again sent to the Bastille for arguing with the Chevalier de Rohan, who was a nobleman and aristocrat. Rohan hired thugs to beat Voltaire up and the Rohan family convinced King Louis XV to send him back to the Bastille.

Voltaire challenged the status quo and refused to be silenced. His work remains relevant today (243 years after his death). His quotes remain applicable with modern society.

So why was I tentative about posting this quote? Voltaire’s books used to be on banned book lists in the United States, so I checked to see if there was any inflammatory news surrounding him. And, sure enough, Voltaire was recently attacked by an author, whose rant was included in a prominent and traditionally centrist and accurate publication. Yet, this particular author is partisan in all of her articles. Her rage, and labeling was strong. And, frankly, I didn’t know if I was in a place where I could deal with name-calling or labeling from anyone who happens to see this, who also has an agenda that Voltaire must be struck from history.

Anyhoo… I decided I’m not going to allow an agent of hate generate enough fear within me to silence me. Voltaire had the courage to stand for what he believed. So, if people choose to judge me because I appreciate Voltaire’s work, that’s ok. Have at it.

There are many interpretations by what Voltaire was suggesting with the symbolism of the garden. Some believe it means to stay out of other people’s business. Some believe it means to busy one’s self with work. Some believe it means to distance oneself from the thorns.

For me, it represents how I found my journey back toward health. I backed away from everything. I distanced myself, as evidenced by my disappearance, and near shut-down, of this profile. I shut out the noise, the partisan parrots. Even though I love to garden, I did not garden during the past year-and-a-half, so this quote, in literal terms, is irrelevant. But I did keep busy. I built things. I studied. I developed new skills. I created for others. I spent time doing the work that I needed to do for my own mental health. By cutting out the thorns, I was able to cultivate growth within me. And this action of “cultivating” my own “garden” is what brought me back from the brink.

If you are unfamiliar with Voltaire, this podcast includes an excellent discussion about his work and how it may be applicable today: