Making Me Understand: 3D, stop motion, stillness and contemplation

(Making Me Understand is an occasional blog feature where I analyze, in brief or at length, what a particular work of art or an artist means to me right now. This edition is a roundup of a number of sources.)

More than a few things have happened since I last posted. First things first: For those who rely on my blog for scan results, my latest results are in. Nothing is amiss. All is well.

The ugly standoff between my insurer and the medical behemoth that employs my many specialists has ended (and the fact that I learned about it because the Washington Post reporter who interviewed me for a story about the dispute emailed me to tell me about it was quite heartwarming).

But there’s something else, too. After a long, long period of trying to find full-time employment, I have. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll be connecting my life here with my professional life, but I suppose the very curious can always Google and find me here. I’m in the honeymoon period at the moment, still waiting for HR to produce a start date. But it’s exciting knowing that I will finally have a chance to return to librarianship, a profession I had really started to miss (however, I’ll be engaging with it in an entirely new way), and contribute to the bottom line at home far more than my occasional freelance work has made possible. Which is pretty important, now that Young J, a high school junior, looks towards college!

The last time I returned to full-time employment was in February 2015. I had a good two and a half months in that job before nine metastatic tumors suddenly appeared in my brain and I quit the job because I didn’t yet know what the outcome of my treatment would be. Seven years later, I think I know what the outcome is — I’ve survived without active disease longer than a lot of other people in my same situation, for no particular reason that has yet been identified. But the concept of returning to work is bound up with what happened the last time I tried it. Mild PTSD rears its head. (Maybe it isn’t so mild?) I’ve been looking for ways to remain calm in spite of this new development. To disconnect myself from the thought that past events will certainly repeat themselves (even though that’s what seems to keep happening in the world at large).

I received two picture books in the mail recently that I’d been very much looking forward to, because the authors are friends I made long ago and far away, at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Nothing Special, by Desiree Cooper and illustrated by Bec Sloane, is situated in Coastal Virginia and is the tale of a grandson coming from the North to visit his grandparents and discovering a magical world of everyday pleasures. Mama’s Days, by Andi Diehn and illustrated by Ángeles Ruiz, tells a tale of maternal mental health from the perspective of a child.

That these books come from two friends whose writing I have admired for a long time fills me with pride. The fact that they deal with topics at the forefront of my mind makes me even prouder. Desiree’s book brings us to a place where Black people are safe and enveloped in love and living their best lives. A place where racism, anxiety, menace, even commerce, hold no sway. We don’t get to see this world nearly enough in general, and certainly not in children’s books. Andi’s book (which it seems I received a bit early, as the pub date is December 1) puts us in the magical world created by a mother and child, in which a story involving dragons and castles ebbs and flows like the moods of the mother. The child is young enough not to truly understand what is afflicting her mother, but is wise enough to use storytelling as a tool to help navigate emotional turbulence.

What do these books have in common? The wonderful way they evoke, create, or restore a sense of emotional stillness and calm (calm it just so happens I was in great need of this week, when the report on my brain MRI from yesterday took much, much longer than usual to be posted on the portal — for administrative reasons, rather than any health concern). When I received Desiree’s book, I started digging through my influences to find other things that provide similar sensations. One possible visual analog came to mind: 3D illustrations (which were my immediate reaction to the cloth illustrations Bec Sloane created for Des’s book). My earliest favorite books included photographed 3D scenes — a peek at the copyright page of one book credits “Rose Art Studios” with the illustrations for this edition of Goldilocks that I loved so much as a toddler (and other books I have long lost track of):

My fascination with these still scenes, constructed and photographed as though they were actually being lived in, continued through school, where I chose to make dioramas as often as I could for book reports. Part of me has never gotten past this point of fascination.

But stop motion animation has also long fascinated me, and I was delighted when my kids were younger and wanted to watch LEGO stop motion videos again and again on YouTube. In the right hands, the very toys the kids manipulated on the living room rug could come alive, tell stories, and make us laugh. During early COVID days, we tried our hands at making our own stop motion films. (My own entry in the genre is simultaneously pretentious and silly, but I think also has some heart.)

The other day I awoke to fog:

The stillness felt sacred. It also felt like a frame from an old movie from Russia, called Hedgehog in the Fog:

The fog makes everything mysterious. The hedgehog’s quest is minuscule in scale but the fog turns it into a heroic quest. The lack of CGI action sequences so common in today’s films makes the mood contemplative and soothing. Something made by human hands feels different. It makes us want to linger longer.

Another stop motion film I’ve thought about since seeing it this summer is Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Marcel began as a character in YouTube short films that were produced a dozen years ago by a creative duo who has since split, but reunited to make a feature film with the same character. From the moment I met Marcel, he found his way into my heart. There’s something about his cracking voice (courtesy of Jenny Slate, voice actor extraordinaire) and his way of expressing himself. He reveals his fragility, humor, and the great effort it takes for him to be in the world. This helps him transcend mere twee-ness — in my estimation, anyway. (“Guess what I use as a pen?” he asks the cameraman. “A pen, but it takes the whole family.”) In the feature that was released this year, we learn that Marcel has lost a lot of his family members, and the film mockuments his quest to reunite with them.

One night this week, I found myself tuning in to a film I hadn’t watched in a long time: Ruby in Paradise, directed by Victor Nuñez. Ashley Judd’s Ruby escapes a troubled life in Tennessee after the death of her mother, and winds up in a Gulf Coast town in Florida, where she begins a new life.

Ashley Judd as Ruby

I first saw this movie when I had moved out on my own — not escaping, in my case, but aspiring. I took my first professional job in a Midwestern college town I’d hardly known anything about before moving there. My job was great, but the reality of living in a college town when I wasn’t in college soon set in. It was next to impossible to meet people and make friends, let alone date anyone. If you weren’t in class with students, they didn’t have much to do with you. So I spent a lot of time on my own, and my rent included cable TV, a luxury I’d never had before in my life. I must have caught this movie on the Sundance Channel. Although my life circumstances and Ruby’s barely intersected, I loved seeing another young woman navigate building a life for herself, a life far different from mine but no less deeply felt. Ruby sits at her kitchen table writing in a journal to sort things out. I also filled many journal pages in those years (but I refer to my journals from that period dismissively as my “angst logs”). As I get older and more encumbered with demands on my time and my mind, I find I miss the stillness of those days. (Also: To think that I thought I had actual troubles! I just want to laugh now at what I thought troubles were.) Looking back at Ruby this week was a way to look back at myself, and to inhabit the film’s stillness once again.

Here I still am, seven years removed from my last cancer crisis. My survival curve continues to defy many odds. I continue to minimize the way I suffered my cancer: only two nonconsecutive overnight hospital stays! Barely visible scars! No cognitive impairment from the gamma rays! But things changed for me. I slowed down. I got a bit sadder, but not clinically sad. The figurative weight has become actual weight. My eyes have borne the brunt of the side effects of the medications I can no longer take to keep me safe from another cancer onslaught. It’s possible I’m actually cured, but no one in a position to do so has ever offered me that word. So it’s business as usual, one foot in front of the other, my life lease renewed in six month increments. The path is muddy and overgrown. But when I am still, when I stop to look around? It can be beautiful.

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