Written by Lorraine Wilson, Davis Phinney Foundation Ambassador
I developed a great deal more interest in the human brain once I learned that mine was not operating on all cylinders (my words, not the doc’s). As the neurologist began drawing the different parts of the brain during my first visit, I thought, “If only this were an art class instead of a very personal science lesson.” He drew the two-part substantia nigra in a small section of the mid-brain while explaining its role in producing dopamine. I noticed it looked like a darkened scythe-shaped streak, and he seemed to read my mind when he said that the substantia nigra got its name from the Latin “black substance.” Surely, I thought, discussing color was a sign that we would start talking about art. No. The doctor’s closing remarks were about the death of dopamine neurons, which had most likely begun years before my appointment that day to discuss my problems with tremor, gait, balance, and rigidity.
Such was my introduction to Parkinson’s. At the time of diagnosis, I was three to five years from retirement. We had plans! We would shed the stress of work. We would travel. Life would be less complicated. I especially looked forward to spending time on the unfinished creative projects that I had stuffed in various closets because I just didn’t have time or energy to finish them while I was working.
What was the nature of my work? I had enjoyed decades of teaching classes about physical fitness and recreational activities. In one of these classes, “Lifetime Wellness,” I always emphasized what I called the “fab four”: physical, spiritual, social, and emotional wellness. I led students through fitness assessments, exercise planning, diet analysis, and incorporated art into our weekly stress management sessions. The “live well” goal was for students to exit the course with improved knowledge of how to eat well, exercise, and manage stress.
When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I found myself facing unexpected territory and wondered how I was supposed to live well. I focused on the bright side: Parkinson’s opened the door for me to retire early and spend more time with family and friends. And, once retired, I created a roadmap for this Parkinson’s territory, and now I start each morning at what I call the “crossroads of health and art.”
On the health road, I am very aware of time. I take my Parkinson’s meds and pay attention to the time between each dose and my next meal. I endeavor to eat well and spend just the right amount of time doing a variety of exercises. I balance doctor’s appointments and support group meetings, volunteer work, and church.
But on the art road, I enter a non-time zone – I forget about Parkinson’s for a while. If I’m in a funk, my mood improves while I draw a Zentangle. If I have only 15 minutes, I reach for a coloring page and pencils. I write a six-word story or Haiku when I feel the need to create a word picture. I have always loved photography, so I purposefully build photo walks into my schedule. I can get lost for hours in a creative storm when I paint rocks, collage, or work in a sketch journal. I paint fabric tote bags, make personalized greeting cards using photos or sketches, and make pens using our lathe. My newest craft is mono printing using a gel plate – such fun!
On the art road, an inspiration is what comes first. A photo. A word or phrase. An everyday object that I feel inspired to draw. Then, along the way, I am constantly surprised as the art piece unfolds. Sometimes the product is expected; sometimes it is more than I could have hoped.
Art making is a gift I give myself. I don’t know if it is the Parkinson’s or the medications that ignite my creative joy, or just the fact that I take time to indulge in creative wellness. I may never know exactly, but I have this to say: don’t get stuck at the fork in the road where art and health intersect, thinking you must choose only one road. Adventuring down both roads leads to living well in the best possible way.