Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Crafting through Chemo: Becoming Shokunin

Thanks to the ironic timing of my diagnosis, I now have the chance to experience the coming together of can’t-sir and crafting through three of the major Western holidays. 
I was diagnosed mid-October, right before my favorite holiday, Halloween. My initial diagnosis, tests, biopsies and surgeries had me in a state of shock, for sure. Plus, I was about as worn down physically as I’d ever been in my life, just from the life I’d been living which had led me to this moment and physical condition. I had about zero energy for decorating or crafting for All Hallow’s Eve, even though I love it so much. Having just had a sentinel node biopsy surgery, I also had no strength in my arm to use a knife to create a jack o’lantern -- and I always carve a jack, to keep the ghouls away.
So, I went online to Martha, and printed out these mustache templates
Mustachioed Jacks.
I made these little mustachioed jacks, and added a little top hat for one. A little glue stick, and voila! I also got some Martha spider window clings and a gel skeleton cling at Michael’s, and changed the front light bulb to orange. Deco complete! Funny and cute for the handful of adults and kids who actually saw my door, and it totally made me feel like we were in the spirit despite all that was going on. 
Best of all, the mustachioed jacks carried us through Thanksgiving, since they also looked somewhat pilgrim-like, or Movember-like, depending on your perspective. Either way, it was important to me to carry on a little festiveness as I went into additional rounds of tests and biopsies, and my first chemo treatment. After all, chemo is usually spelled s-u-c-k-y, and I was really just hoping for the best.
Now, Christmas is approaching. Note: I am not a mad Christmas crafter. Each year, time gets away from me, and I can do only a few small things. I especially like to make paper crafts --as you can tell -- gift tags and holiday cards, and I usually do at least one gnome-related project or something else cute for around the house and to give away to friends and family. Some years I go crazy and bake or make soaps or bath stuffs, but, I knew this wasn’t going to be that kind of year. I started making a few simple gift cards and some paper gnomes, but I got sidelined with medical appointments and chemo recovery. Then I came back to it, and my energy just wasn’t there anymore. 
My paper gnome, 1 of 2 from a 6-pc kit
I had downloaded a copy of these advent calendar numbers from d.Sharp, but in the midst of everything, my desk was now completely covered in piles of bills and mail and the crafts were left lurking underneath!
I decided to just go for it anyways. I rationalized that I was having an "up" day, and time is precious. I cleared a little space and started doing a few paper cuts. I immediately realized, "WOAH, chemo-induced neuropathy is real, and it's here!" My normal level of sensation was far decreased. It validated a fleeting sensation I had thought I’d experienced the day before while cooking dinner, and made it even more real, because my life as an artist means that I'm constantly working with paper, paint, and all kinds of textures. These things are keys to how I understand the world.
The impact of chemo on my ability to think was also front and center for me. I’d been noticing a few small changes, like having trouble calling up the right word for things, or feeling generally slower. But trying to craft, it was as if I literally could not think. And if I tried to multi-task, it was as if my brain froze up. I was suddenly sitting at my cluttered desk, staring, but nothing was happening at all. 
I realized that to accomplish this project, I’d need to apply a new skill: Precision. 
I had just watched the movie, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and it suddenly swam into my consciousness and Jiro became my iconic reference point. Not only is this movie total sushi-porn for all of us currently unable to eat it (dear God, my kingdom for a California Roll!), but it also teaches of the concept of shokunin
“The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning.  The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people.  This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.” – Tasio Odate
One of 24 completed advent envelopes.
Now, I am absolutely no shokunin. My work has never been about precision. I do have a social consciousness, but my writing, my art, my very act of thinking has always been about sparking ideas, encouraging spontaneity, and creating beautiful messes. Not so much about discipline, me. All that, clearly, is about to change.
I began making, piece by piece, each section of the advent calendar. Thinking way too hard about how each would need to come together. Carefully cutting and trimming and attaching adhesives and tying tiny threads with hands that could feel only a fraction of what they could just a couple weeks ago. Sticking and assembling the pieces in numerical order, stacking and re-stacking like Rainman, so that I would remember exactly where I was in the project, so that each piece would get properly completed. 
When it came time to do my layout, I had to call my husband in from fixing motorcycles in the garage. I couldn’t do the math to figure out how many to lay across, up and down, to make an even, aesthetically pleasing calendar with the paper backing I had available. I listened carefully to his thoughts. I explained and re-explained what I wanted. He patiently explained and re-explained his thoughts. Then I waited until he left so I could write down what he told me in a precise script that didn’t even look like my own. It said, “4 rows of 3”, but to me, it was the most complex instruction ever. 
One of three panels completed.
In the end, I built an advent calendar, and to me, who went through the process of the build, it is a work of art that could rival the Cistine Chapel. 
It took far more effort than anything I've every made in my life. But what I learned through all this was: I am capable of precision, and I am capable of completing the seemingly impossible. I had to think harder than I’ve thought about much more complex tasks in the past. In fact, just trimming a piece of red super tape was akin to the level of thinking I was just a couple months ago applying daily on detailed strategies at work! 
I had to move my fingers and hands precisely, with deep concentration and focus, just to get the work done without injuring myself or ruining the piece and having to start again. I had to take breaks. A lot of breaks, to drink cranberry juice and stretch my hands and walk around and go pee way too many times. And, I had to work at my new pace, accept it, and gradually, learn to appreciate and even enjoy it. It took me 4 days to do what normally would have been a project of at most a few hours. F-O-U-R days. Sometimes, that’s what can’t-sir looks like. And, that’s okay. In fact, it’s really good. 
Done! And hanging on the wall.
Because I have spent the whole of my life easily rushing around, multi-tasking, working on every single thing all at the same time. Now, I have been forced to slow down, and in this, given a chance to experience what it is to be required to go slow, both physically and mentally. As frustrating as it can be, it also gives me a new appreciation for every single second, every motion, every gesture, every skill, every nerve. I realize now how complex our bodies, minds and spirits are. How powerful each of our cells is. How important it is that everything be firing and wiring optimally, and, how possible it still is to thrive, even when they are not.
Crafting through chemo is just one way I’m learning to navigate the new landscape of my life. 
What are some techniques and tools you use to navigate your journey?

No comments:

Post a Comment