Walls, Solitudes and Rebirth

Walls, Solitudes and Rebirth

“If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.”

~ Elif Shafak

I had just finished my morning run when my phone rang. Still gasping from exhaustion and dripping sweat on the wooded trail behind my house, I answered without looking at the display. Receiving a call from Jilian two years after I had last seen her came as quite a surprise.

“Good morning, Richard!” Jilian said. “Hope I didn’t interrupt your ritual morning run. I suppose you still follow the same 8 am routine.”

“Just finished it so if you hear me rasping, that’s from having added an extra two kilometers to the run. How are you doing? What a lovely surprise to hear from one of my favourite patients and success stories!”

The first time I saw Jilian was in the emergency room while I was on call. Her sister had called the ambulance after Jilian had collapsed on the bathroom floor experiencing a severe panic attack, debilitating anxiety and uncontrolled sobbing. Her Swiss boyfriend had just broken up with her explaining in his text message that he could no longer maintain their long distance relationship, that the ups of spending blissful moments with her, and the downs of the unavoidable partings depleted him of all energy. Even though she had sensed a change in him after their last meeting, and intuition was telling her their relationship was doomed, the message had still knocked the wind out of her lungs.

I ordered 1 mg of Lorazepam to calm her down and then spent an hour talking to her because it was an unusually quiet night at the ER. I admitted her to the psychiatric ward for further evaluation but discharged her the next day after determining she was at no risk of suicide and didn’t suffer from any mental illness.

When I saw her the following week, she was deeply mortified over her reaction to the news of the break-up. She’d thought she was more emotionally stable and able to deal with life’s vicissitudes with graceful resilience and was disappointed in herself. After all, the world was reeling from an array of tragedies, and what gave her the right to spend taxpayers’ money on a fortuitous hospital stay.

“What can I do for you, Jilian? Are you calling to invite me to another exhibition?” I asked, confident that she had continued to conquer the world with her powerful art.

After the episode in the ER, she came to see me a few more times seeking professional help in trying to make sense not only out of her own life, but also out of more philosophical questions of our purpose behind our individual existence. She was not only a talented painter, but also a girl unusually well read, and what I considered, spiritually evolved.

“Yes,” she responded. “The next exhibition will be in Munich, eight months down the road, and since you are retired, I hope you can insert some travel into your life. It’ll be the time of Oktoberfest, and art and beer mix quite well.” She laughed with effervescent insouciance, and as her psychiatrist who became her friend after I retired, I felt proud not only of how quickly she climbed out of the threatening abyss of depression, but also of what she did with the suffering she experienced due to lost love and dashed hopes.

“Happy to hear you sound so upbeat, Jilian. And regarding Munich, I may be able to come.  Oktoberfest has been on my bucket list for a long time.”

Before the fateful event, Jilian had been an anonymous artist. A gallery had exhibited a few of her paintings, but her depictions of lilacs in full bloom, poppies swaying in the summer breeze, and lavender fields did not attract much attention. They were eye-pleasing in their pretty naiveté, but their effect on the spectators was one of fleeting aesthetic pleasure. The gallery managed to sell two smaller paintings with the ubiquitous floral motif and returned the rest to Jilian.

“That would be so much fun! And good for your soul to have a change of scenery and socialise with some of my bohemian friends in Europe. Who knows, you may meet someone and fall in love. By the way, does my painting still hang in your living room? I’ll always be grateful for your support and trust in me.”

While in therapy with me, Jilian started to paint furiously, processing the anguish and agony of a broken heart through every stroke. She’d become obsessed with life’s dualities, with lovers turning to strangers at the flick of a switch, with soul evolution experienced through the stark contrast between joy and torment, birth and death, ascent to bliss and descent into hell... Her paintings captured these dualities with a force and power that mesmerized the lay spectators, as well as the art critics and connoisseurs. As an art lover, I was the first one to buy a painting depicting a couple in a fiery embrace on one half of the canvas, and the same couple standing with their backs to each other on the other half. The second half was painted in black and white, while the first one was an explosion of vibrant red, orange and purple hues symbolizing the volcanic passion of a new beginning. That painting stopped me dead in my tracks reminding me of my own failed marriage and estrangement from the woman I used to be madly in love with.

After the opening, Jilian’s art became an overnight sensation. Her work was in such high demand that she immersed herself fully producing breathtaking pieces one after another, pieces displaying surprising compositions, unexpected perspectives, and bewitching lighting. Her technique resembled that of the abstract expressionists, and at the same time it contained elements of realism in her portrayal of people. While working to the point of exhaustion, she was still going through the withdrawal from her love addiction. After all, withdrawal from love can be as torturous as that from any other addictive substance.   

“Are you still there?” Jilian’s voice interrupted my reverie.

“Yes, I’ve just come into the house and will put you on speaker. I never had a chance to tell you I went to see your exhibition, ‘Walls and Solitudes’, but you weren’t there. I couldn’t come to the opening but came a couple of weeks later. I felt so proud of you and delighted to see so many had been sold.”

“I’m still trying hard to beat life at its own game by turning pain, anxiety, disappointments and especially self-doubt into art,” she replied.

“And you’ve done an outstanding job with that. You’ve also inspired the patients at the hospital with your talk on how creativity can be used to combat mental illness.”

“I hoped that my story would resonate with others and add another tool to their fight against the abyss of depression.”

“Your last exhibition was a surprise, and I remember standing for a long time in front of two truly captivating pieces. One had a silhouette of a man with a fog-enveloped lighthouse in the background. The title was ‘Wrapped in the Mists of Solitude.’ The other one was of a man and a woman with a wall of ice between them. What inspired that series?”

I sat on the couch in my living room, removed my running shoes and placed my feet on the coffee table. Feeling quite comfortable, I continued talking to Jilian, still not knowing the underlying reason behind her unexpected call.

 “I had an exhibition in Basel, the city where Karl lives, if you recall. I never told him that I’d be in town exhibiting, but I suppose he saw the event advertised on social media, and he showed up. I was profoundly shaken up upon seeing him approach me to congratulate me on the show, but I tried to hide how completely nonplussed I was. Our conversation was strained, and I felt a wall of ice rise between us. He stood before me like a solitary lighthouse with its light dimmed by the stormy night sky of life.  His gaze was pale, vacant, brimming with unhappiness. He told me the reason for that. He had recently gotten divorced. I looked at him, trying to make sense of the confused thoughts racing in my head. Where did the man who once loved me disappear to? Who is this stranger? I felt like I wanted to trail my fingers across his face but couldn’t touch him through this invisible wall. So that encounter inspired my new works. Again, I had dipped my brush into paint and immortalized the love he had killed with one blow.”

“When you saw him, did you feel you had gotten over him completely?

“It’s hard to explain. I felt I’d always love the man he was while he loved me, but I also felt the real man standing before me was barely worth getting to know. He had nothing interesting to say, he exuded no charm or wit, and I had difficulty understanding what it was about him that made me lose my mind.”

“So it seems you had closure.”

“Yes and no. And that‘s why I am calling you. I haven’t dated anyone since my meltdown. I was afraid that without my art I’d get dangerously close to the edge of madness…that’s how hurt and vulnerable I’d felt. But with time, I got better. A promising sign that I was close to being healed was my feelings of attraction for an art critic who came to the gallery quite a few times and who covered my exhibitions in his columns. He appreciates my art, but it’s also become obvious to me that his interest extends also to me as a woman. Anyway, last night, as I was leaving the gallery after delivering another painting, I bumped into him. He came to buy the painting you just mentioned, the one with the wall of ice between a man and a woman. I went back inside with him and we chatted about the symbolism in that painting, and then out of the blue he asked me out. I accepted on impulse, but when I got home, anxiety overwhelmed me. I’m panicking right now and am tempted to call it off, but that is cowardice. That’s why I needed to talk to you.”

“You already have all the answers. You’re an exceptionally intelligent girl and you know you cannot continue hiding behind your art. The wall motif is not a coincidence in your creative output, and it doesn’t only symbolize the alienation between you and Karl. It also symbolizes the wall you’ve built around your own heart. There’s a whole fortification you’ve built, but at the risk of being hurt again, you need to open your heart and let someone else walk into it.”

“But I’m terrified of allowing myself to feel vulnerable and risk being rejected again. I’m scared of being weak and having another nervous breakdown. When I paint, I feel so in control of my life. My brush goes where I intend it to go. Even when it assumes a life of its own, I trust it to paint what needs to be expressed. There are no disappointments or betrayals.”

“To overcome fear you have to plunge into it head first. There‘s no other way. Give that man a chance.”

“I really want to, but now that I agreed to this date, all the pain I had experienced resurfaced. I keep rewinding the film in my head of the agony and ecstasy I experienced with Karl. He had awakened in me a whole volcano of sensuality, love and lust only to drop me like a hot potato. The images of stark dualities have come back to haunt me. Last night I didn’t sleep a wink, replaying the happenings at the beginning and the end of our…of the first and the last day, or rather of the first and the last week of our relationship. I know, but the trauma of losing him hit me again last night like a tidal wave threatening to drown me.”

Her breathing began to sound like hyperventilation and I said, “Calm down, Jilian. Allowing yourself to date again might be the most important step you take. This will be a test of your strength. It will show you how far you’ve come. It’s time to come out of hiding, to shed off the armour and trust the flow of events. If Karl hadn’t come into your life, you may have never matured into a painter of this calibre.

“You are so right. I did build a wall around my own heart, but it seems Andy…this is his name, may have found a chink in my armour. Thank you for listening to me. I do feel better.”

“Please call me tomorrow after your date. I’ll be dying of curiosity.”

I didn’t hear from Jilian for three months and had forgotten about her call. It was a period when loneliness laced with a lack of purpose had seeped into my bones furtively and unnoticeably, until its presence could no longer be ignored. Indulging in hobbies no longer gave me expected satisfaction, and a hole opened up in my soul, clamouring for fulfilment. I became restless and filled with a yearning for something I couldn’t even define. I had just turned seventy and my birthday made me ponder my existence. Thinking that my life was turning into an empty road leading to nothingness made me break out in a cold sweat. Suddenly, I felt so small, insignificant and forgotten by the world.

At that moment, the doorbell rang pulling me out of my self-defeating thoughts. A tall blond boy was standing in the doorway with a bouquet of white roses.

“Mr. Oliver?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

He smiled and handed me the flowers. I took them to the kitchen, unwrapped the cellophane and took out a blue envelope. I thought it might be a delayed birthday gift from my sister, even though that would have been out of her character to send me flowers.

‘Dear Richard, I never had a chance to properly thank you for everything you have done for me, especially for giving me the present of your friendship. I am writing to invite you to the opening of my exhibition called Rebirth. You will find the address and the time on the back of the card. I have a little surprise proposal for you and can’t wait to talk to you. Love. Jilian. P.S. I have two surprises, in fact. And I still hope you also come to the Munich exhibition.J

As soon as I read the card, my spirits lifted and the darkness within dissipated. I had something to look forward to, and the anticipation was as delectable as the glass of port wine I enjoyed every evening.

The gallery was already full of people when I arrived. When I entered, the sight of the paintings caused me to stand before them agape.  The colors screamed joy; there were hearts within hearts, seeds blooming into flowers and springing from a woman’s mouth, with crimson red lips, a naked couple fused in an embrace rising from the frothing sea, clouds raining stars and children catching them in utter mirth. Joy and happiness were everywhere. When I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned, I barely recognizes Jilian. Her hair was now blonde, and she wore a bright red lipstick. Her eyes sparkled and she exuded pure bliss.

“Let me guess. Your date turned into full-blown love,” I said.

Before she could reply, a man approached us, extended his hand and said, “I’m Andy and you must be Richard. Very happy to meet you.”

He put his arm around Jilian’s waist and said, “Has Jilian had a chance to talk to you about our project?”

“No, not yet,” she replied, adding that we should go to the room next door to get away from the din. People were approaching Jilian and congratulating her on the extraordinary work. A reporter asked for an interview, and she took his business card saying she would contact him.

The room she took me to was empty except for two chairs and a couch. She said they needed to furnish it and then told me about her idea. She planned to give painting classes to the people suffering from mental illness in hope that art therapy would help them heal, and she wanted me to work with her.

“So, we would like you to be a part of that important project. You wouldn’t be working alone. A psychologist I recently met also agreed to be part of this effort. She’s around somewhere…let me find her.”

Andy and I chatted while Jilian disappeared. Soon, she returned with a woman in tow. The woman was tall, slim and athletic looking in spite of her mature age. When she extended her hand and clasped mine in a firm grip, her blue eyes sparkled with warmth. I smiled, catching myself blushing. Her name was Anne, she was semi-retired and has been a widow for the last two years. The next two hours sped by with the speed of lightning.

When Jilian said it was time to close the gallery, I couldn’t believe it was already 11 pm. When I arrived home that evening, I felt like a moonstruck teenager filled with great expectations and a slight trepidation of a new and promising segment in my life. Jilian’s rebirth seemed to have rubbed off on me, and I couldn’t wait for the sun to rise. And it rose in all its resplendence.


Jana Begovic

As far back as she can remember, Jana has been fascinated by storytelling. Her love of reading and writing propelled her toward studies of languages and literature resulting in B.A. degrees in English and German Languages and Literature, an M.A. Degree in Literary Criticism, as well as a B.Ed. Degree in English and Dramatic Arts.

Among her publications are an academic article published by Cambridge Scholars, UK, the novel “Poisonous Whispers” published by Roane Publishing, N.Y., poetry, short fiction, articles, art reviews and blog posts featured in literary journals, such as Ariel Chart, Chantwood, the Pangolin Review and Abstract. Currently, she is working on her second novel, finalizing a collection of children's stories and acting as a contributing editor and writer for Ariel Chart and Canada Fashion Magazine.

She lives in Ottawa, Ontario and works for the Government of Canada as an education specialist in the field of military language training.

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