…still life with Frida

Each morning you visit the cupboard to fetch the things you need for physiotherapy. If you’re away from home for more than a day or two you take them with you, but otherwise they stay tucked away, out of sight. Some of them you’d have to explain, some are perfectly normal things that you’d find in anyone’s home. You appreciate the adaptability of everyday objects, how you are surrounded by tools such as cushions, shoes, towels.

In her essay, A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light, Sinéad Gleeson describes visiting the V&A to see a Frida Kahlo exhibition of the paraphernalia of her life. Gleeson is poleaxed by a glass case containing her surgical corsets and plaster casts, what she describes as ‘the objects that both helped and constrained her, […] the source and symbol of her suffering.’

At the age of eighteen Kahlo was in an horrific traffic accident. She described how a ‘handrail pierced me as the sword pierces the bull’, going on to endure multiple surgeries including the amputation of one leg at the knee. While incarcerated in a full body cast she painted its surface, guided by a carefully angled mirror. The majority of her art, until her death at the age of forty-seven, was focused on depicting her damaged body. You read how Gleeson sees the exhibition as a stark reality of Kahlo’s endurance, reminded of her own spica cast worn as a child.

You’ve had only one plaster cast in your life, on your left leg after a car accident. For some reason this memory reminds you of the head brace your sister wore as a teenager to straighten her teeth, a thing of straps and wires that was fastened around her head while she slept. You probably made fun of her at the time, so you try to imagine how it would feel to wear such a thing yourself, and you understand the discomfort, shame and possible pain that your sister experienced.

Now, you bring your own paraphernalia out most days:—
A white styrofoam roller.
A heavy paperback book (Teaching Today, by Geoff Petty, a god amongst your university students).
Several tennis balls.
Lycra cycling shorts.
A t-shirt that covers your shoulders.
A tightly rolled towel secured with elastic bands.
A red Converse trainer with matching red resistance band tied around its middle.

In the past you have also used bags of sand or rice, aqua-blue massage tools, a massage chair, a yoga mat, a hot water bottle. Your bed is also a tool, and a dining chair, a wall, a floor.

You have only recently understood that you are not your body, you have a body.

You are not your mind, you have a mind.

Your body and mind are tools, just as versatile as the objects that surround you, and all these things can create pain or joy, anxiety or freedom. They can help or constrain you.

And you can decide which it is. All you have to do is rest with the truth of yourself, the self that has freedom of thought, that can choose hope or despair, that asks the questions and listens for the answers.

This is a place you revisit each morning, a pause before you begin your day when you feel both gratitude for the tools you’ve been given and willingness to learn more about them.

You know you will never stop learning about this world that is full to the brim with objects, but full too with the intangible, the unmeasurable, the incomprehensible.

Because as Frida Kahlo said, Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?

(Extracts from Constellations, by Sinéad Gleeson.)

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