Wordshop: Write from the Heart

(c) 1998 Patricia Obletz

Writing about my experiences gave me the gifts of self-knowledge and self-respect. Until I lost my mind, the artist in me found expression through painting with oils on canvas, cardboard and boards. The turmoil, be it sad or joyous, would boil within me until I'd fear I would explode. This is when I would turn to my paint box and release the emotions threatening to burst.

Heartbreak extinguished my talent for painting in 1978 and every canvas I painted was lifeless. But in 1981, in the midst of psychosis, I fell in love with words. This love sustained me through all but the worst of times. As I struggled for balance, I wrote about my experiences with madness, chapters building on each other as the years added up and took their toll and offered the solace of stringing words together to create a scene, a mood, an experience, to control fear and rein in anxiety.

In 1982, I began to write a book about my experience with mania and depression. What follows is the Forward to this book:

from Love and Madness

I was late for my own birth. Due by Thanksgiving, I joined the world the seventh night of 1943, fifteen months after my sister, four years ahead of my brother.

Maggie, Michael and I grew up with our parents next door to Buffalo, New York. In baby pictures my siblings were indistinguishable, unless they were in the tub or playing in the pulsing spray of a sprinkler. We all had varying degrees of curl in our hair, but their dark eyes and hair and the round shape of their faces contrasted with my light brown hair and angular appearance. I needed glasses and braces, Maggie needed only braces and Michael didn't need either corrective measure.

When I was five, we moved to an old, comfortable white stucco house in a suburb known for its excellent school system. Maggie chose the spacious corner bedroom facing our quiet back street. I was tempted by the built-in bookcases in the other free large room in the front, but I was drawn to the cozy corner room snugged under the eaves in the back overlooking our sweeping shaded lawn. One hundred and five trees. I counted them. On a wooden board I discovered in the toolshed, I painted a scene of our home in its summer seas of green. I lettered the name "TreeHaven" across the bottom. My father attached it to one of the stone-slab gateposts at the foot of the circular drive.

What was magical about our house was the attic with its cedar scents and musty books and trunks belonging to previous owners, and my view of the flagstone terrace, formal flower beds and the sunken garden hidden by a cloak of green leaves and bark. Nestled in the far left corner was a waterfall set into a seven-foot rise of rocks at the head of the goldfish pool. In the winter, moles ate the fish, bones and all. After a few years, we stopped replacing the goldfish. I missed their glow more orange than gold, streaks of lightening under water. They'd brought the sun into the shadows. The moles didn't ruin my pleasure in sitting on top of "Rocky Mountain." Deep inside nature, not a sign of civilization in sight, I passed into profound peace and poetry.

Not until I left the harbor of my youth did I begin to understand our luck. Maggie, Michael and I grew up with positive, open minds and generous dispositions, visual and performing artists, and financial security. What I'd also taken as a matter of course was the unconditional love of our parents.

Our father came home for dinner whether or not he had to work later. We were the best part of his day, our father would say, producing games and gadgets at the table, like the soldier-statue only he could make stand. What fun we had when he at last revealed the secret sand that flowed to the soldier's feet or head.

We spent holidays and most Sundays with our father's family, and our crotchety spinster-with-a-cane, great-Aunt Pauline, representing our mother's family. Our mother, my Mither, my Mith, told us to be nice to great-Aunt Pauline, she had multiple sclerosis. Mith rarely talked about her childhood, except to say she'd loved to draw and paint, and she was glad I shared this love. Every year she'd light a candle for her beloved Aunt Marie, who'd raised her from age three. Her two older brothers went to other relatives in other states after their mother died and their father disappeared into a TB sanitarium.

Sometimes our mother said having us was the most wonderful part of her life. She had always wanted children, she'd say; she was unhappy when she didn't have us right away, she'd confide. Mith was twenty-one when she married. Our father was thirty-one. She was beautiful and passionate, the girl from South Carolina who'd come to Buffalo to find work as a lab technician and marry. To our father's crowd of doctors, lawyers, bankers and musicians, Mith added painters, poets, authors and actors.

Sometimes my sister, brother and I drove our mother to tears. Sometimes she'd collapse in laughter, the three of us piling on and around her. Once in a great while, overcome by the heat of our rivalry, Mith would say she wasn't sure having children was worth it. When she said that she went limp, even her mouth and beautiful eyes. She said that a few days before we were to cross the country in the car. Our father would meet us a few times along the way and in August, he'd fly to California and drive back with us. A few days before our departure, Maggie and I exploded at each other. Mith packed our trunks that night and the next day she sent us to summer camp in Maine. I was eleven. Maggie and Michael seemed to love what I loathed about camp: structured days and nights and team competitions with songfests and sports. All I wanted to do was read late into the night, sleep late into the morning and ride horses over fences till I dropped. I realized how much I'd dreaded the trip out west when I found myself glad to go to camp.

That summer was better than fiction. The new riding instructor was a retired calvary colonel. The colonel's posture had no bend, nor did his khaki uniform wrinkle. His eyes blazed with energy in his tan dark face and his speech was spare, precise and commanding. The colonel chose a handful of campers to ride the horses to and from the stables. His eyes danced with light when he mapped the route we'd take. The colonel led us through the woods, charging over back fields over "fallen" logs and other "natural" obstacles he'd helped build. The camp wasn't insured for jumping instruction. Those first-light runs over fences made bearable the weeks of Color War, when the camp divided into blue, green, red and yellow teams competing for some prize. The horse show was great, but it ended too quickly and I was forced on the diamond for softball, the stage for skits, the track, three-legged races and more of the same.

But I was a breakfast rider. I loved the raw hour of our rising in the darkness between the moon and the sun. I kept my T-shirt, jeans and jacket under my cot with a flashlight to light the way to the kitchen for eggs and waffles before taking the station wagon to the barn. Chains jingled and hooves stomped and breathy snorts mingled with the pungent sweet freshness of hay and horses. Excitement escalated when the whisperings of combs and brushes stopped, followed by the echoing slap of leather on flesh as we saddled up. Bright anticipation filled the air as we followed the colonel out of the yard, bonded by joy, challenge and secrecy. Our breath mingled with the cold mist of dawn that muffled the ring of horseshoes on pavement, the pounding of our flights through dew-soaked fields and quiet woods. At the end of the day, we rode back to the stables, lingering in the warmth of the lowering sun and the clarity of its light. The sharp, clear strike of horseshoes on pavement filled my ears like a hundred bells rung one after the other. That summer the unexpected proved glorious.

The next summer, I was twelve and my dearest wish came true. Gay Knight became our own heavyset gelding and carried my sister and me about in his obstinate way. The Saddle and Bridle Club claimed me in a way it never had before, with part of me now in a box stall in the "private" stable wing off the indoor tanbark arena. When I'd started riding at six, down one side of the long oval ring at the trot lasted forever, all that up-down, up-down, inhale, exhale. I wanted to rise in the stirrups, lean over the horse's neck and let him run. Through the years I got my wish and the seemingly endless tanbark became the perfect size. Once we got Gay Knight, the ring felt like home. My sister and I took turns straddling the Knight's dapple gray back, riding him in horse shows, collecting friends, a few ribbons and a lot of experience.

Cranky old Mr. Butterfield was a fixture in a captain's chair in the club's lounge. He'd face the glass partition and watch the horses and riders work in the unheated ring. He was usually in place seven days a week. In the winter Mr. Butterfield sat back from the glass, planting his chair by the logs flaming in the fireplace. He'd shake his cane at us horse-mad kids and tell us to stop making noise, and for goodness sake, STOP running and jumping indoors! When I was fourteen, Mr. Butterfield bought Liberty and asked me to teach the lovely black filly to carry a rider, on the flat and eventually over fences. He said he chose me for this miraculous task because I didn't weigh much and because I had good hands. I was awed by the opportunity and grateful. I was acutely aware of this responsibility, and of Liberty's delicate innocence and maiden mouth. Under Mr. Butterfield's tutelage, the filly and I started in preschool and learned together. Mr. Butterfield's patience surprised me. Even when things didn't go right, usually he was calm and encouraging. He'd stand in the center of the ring, tall, craggy, white-haired. He'd jut his chin and point his cane at where we should stop and start. I loved learning with Liberty. She awoke in me a tenderness I hadn't known before. I wanted to protect her. Liberty was eager and trusting. She bucked from exuberance, not malice or stubbornness.

Mr. Abrams came to the international shows at the club with a string of handsome, rawboned hunters. I was beside myself with joy when he asked me to pilot one of his winners. The General, Mr. Abrams' big chestnut, knew more than I did about what we were to do. I'd memorize the course and guide The General from first to last jumps, a passenger in his magnificent power. I'd be intoxicated for days at a time after riding him. The jumps we took went up to four-foot nine, bigger than any I'd faced before.

The rough-hewn Gay Knight was neither talented nor reliable, but he was a good teacher. Shelagh was an Irish thoroughbred, fine-boned and deep chested. She was honest and as beautiful as she was fleet, her heart as big as her jump. She'd jump anything. Our trainer, Sloan, said so. "Aim her true and give her her head -- that's the key to her," Sloan said. That spirit was also the key to me, which was to prove troublesome.

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