Life is fraught with all sorts of real dangers, and I face them all every day. But I also suffer from acrophobia, the fear of heights. And I can tell you for a fact that it is not a real thing. It is a mental disorder that makes it difficult to get up on a ladder and paint the house. It makes it difficult to walk next to the railing in any balcony. And yet, I have proof that is a phony fear, a goofy fear, an all-in-your-head sort of thing. Not only do I face it and overcome it (I have been able to paint the house), but I love the window seat when riding in an airplane. Looking out the window after take-off is an adventure better than any video game. I love to fly. That irrational fear is a different irrational fear.
And yet, acrophobia paralyzed me once in a panic attack. We were visiting Arches National Park in Utah. My wife thinks it’s rather funny to watch me cringe when she can walk up to the edge of a cliff and look over. She wanted to take a picture of the Princess when our daughter was only five, and she had her backed up near the edge to take the picture with a big deep hole behind her. I strenuously objected, and would’ve gone out and grabbed her, but I was paralyzed with fear, and I realized I might very well pitch us both over the edge. In spite of my objections, the picture was taken. The Princess even jumped up and down a couple of times before she left the edge. I was curled up in the passenger seat of the van after that with my hands over my eyes and shaking like someone was electrocuting me. The wife got a good laugh at my expense, and my suffering was entirely too real, though no one else in the car believed it. (Yes, that certainly made it better, didn’t it?)
But life is like that. In so many ways we live our lives on the very edge of the metaphorical cliff. I have six incurable diseases and I am a cancer survivor. But I am not taking my four medicines any more because of the cost and what health insurance refuses to pay. I can’t even afford the copay at the doctor’s office as often as I really ought to be going. Climate talks in Paris are trying to solve the global warming crisis, but scientists report things like the methane gasses from the melting permafrost, and we realize it may already be too late. The world may become a boiling ball of heat and acid rain like the planet Venus because so many corporations for so many years put profit margins above environmental protections. We may succeed in snuffing out life on earth, so I am seriously not alone being on the brink of a plummet into the permanent darkness of non-existence. But what can you really do? Do you stop living? Do you curl up in a fetal ball and quake with fear?
I choose to dance. I have proven time and time again that I can overcome that irrational fear. It does not have to rob me of joy and make me suffer. It is all a matter of the choices we make. I do my best to recycle and plant growing things that make oxygen out of carbon dioxide. I do my best not to get sick. I choose to do what I believe is the wisest thing to do in the face of the deep dark precipice. I choose to dance.
I would like to say going in that there are good reasons why young people can become obsessed with death and suffering and the color black and the dance towards the grave. I danced that jig too when I was younger. At age 22 my experience with sexual assault came back to me in dreams. I thought they were only dream images, but as I continued to think about it and be tormented by it, I began to clearly recall the terrible things he did to me that I had been repressing for twelve years. And I deal with traumatic experience with art for some crazy reason. I took a week in 1981 to get all the horrid feelings out on paper.
You will notice the tombstone lists the date of death as being before my eleventh birthday in 1967. That is when it happened. It was not actually a sexual experience… it was torture. He took my pants off and did things to my private parts to cause me intense pain. And he even said to me that it was my own fault, that somehow I had told him that I wanted this horrible thing to happen. For several years after I intentionally used the furnace in my home to make burn scars on my lower back and the back of my legs. I believe now that I was hurting myself in order to extinguish sexual thoughts and feelings. The worst thing he did to me was make me feel guilty about what happened.
When you go back to the art of the middle ages, the paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Hans Holbein the Younger, and other European artists both young and old, you see artists grappling with mortality, the fact that all people, including me, will die. At times it can seem to the immature mind that death is the only possible escape from suffering. This artwork comes from a time when I was contemplating exactly that.
If you are looking at this closely, you will see that I signed my name to it backwards. I signed my art as Leah Cim Reyeb, or simply Leah Cim. I put these four panels into my big black portfolio and never showed them to anybody until after my abuser passed away from a heart attack. I don’t believe in Hell and I don’t believe in ghosts, so now, I finally feel safe about sharing this artwork with others. The terrible secret is a secret no longer. He can no longer reach out and hurt me any further.
I apologize for not being funny… even remotely funny… in this post. Funny is probably not the appropriate thing for this post. You may be wondering why I even bother to post it. Isn’t this a private matter, best kept to myself? You tell me. This is a terrible thing that happened to me. I am now honest about it in a way I could never be before. I can explain it without worrying about any retribution by or against him. I can finally forgive him. I can overcome what happened and be the stronger for it. And if you have read this far without being so revolted by it that you stopped reading and stopped following my blog, maybe you need to do the dance with me. Is there something you need to overcome? It can be overcome. So dance with me… and rejoice.
Every good writer writes about love… Well, not love exactly… Love. Every theme, every idea, every character basically boils down to that one very human emotion. You know that every religion says that God is Love… at least they say the good God is. But love has many facets, and leads to many other essential ideas. Life and Death, Sex and Birth, Love and Hate… all are part of the great dance… Camille Saint-Saens called it the Danse Macabre, the Dance of Death, and wrote about it in symphonic music. I reached a time in my youth where I had to confront the fact that people live and people die and I was no exception.
I have never believed in Hell. The God I know does not punish His creations with eternal torment… especially for reasons like having the wrong religion or making the wrong choices. I have to admit that once I rejected the notion of eternal punishments, I also began to doubt eternal rewards. Looking forward to a time after life is just as foolish and just as much a waste of time as fearing it. We do have to look carefully into the darkness, however, because in the unknown are concealed many traps and terrors. Fear is a real thing, and it does an important job warning us and making us prepare for the worst.
We always seem to associate innocence with goodness and purity. But as important as grappling with the idea of our own death is, is grappling with the loss of our own innocence. There comes a moment that we are confronted with the awful truth. It came for me when I was ten and was sexually abused by a neighbor. Feelings of guilt and humiliation were not totally new to me, but they dropped on me then like a landslide of granite and lava. That which is child-like and trusting is replaced distrust, fear, and loathing.
Where do we find the answer? Where do we find release from suffering and pain? Where do we find peace of mind? Religion can fuel love and forgiveness. It does it well. But it also fuels guilt and self-loathing. Unfortunately it does that well too. Psychiatry is an inexact science and needs a lot of further research. So what is the conclusion to this philosophical quest? What is the answer? What are the last steps of the Dance? I tried to sum it up the best that I could in the final panel of my cartoon Danse Macabre.