(This essay is my contribution to Sas Pethetick’s International Women’s Day Project, Voices Rising.)
The biggest anxiety attacks happen at 2 AM.
One evening, like many evenings before, I sat at my desk, paralyzed with fear and a nebulous dread, the persistent and dire sense that something is deeply wrong and I don’t know how to fix it. I try a deep breathing technique, letting air fill my lungs all the way down to the diaphragm. I imagine my anxiety like a tight, heavy ball at the pit of my stomach, then I imagine melting it down like a snowball in warm sunlight. I try to notice the periphery of my vision expanding outward and upward, which is supposed to kick my parasympathetic nervous system into gear, triggering a relaxation response.
Nothing. None of my usual tricks worked. In that desperate moment, a faint vision came to me — my memory of standing in Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City, Casa Azul, which is now a museum. It was my first Big Girl trip abroad alone, and I sought out her ghost like a pilgrim. In that light-filled, airy, lushly decorated house, Kahlo had spent countless hours in bed, suffering from one debilitating illness, injury, or heartache after another — filling that time with art.
To counter the suffocation of loneliness and the tyranny of ill health, she traveled to another world in her mind and produced paintings of wild intimacy, imagination, and power. Monkeys, thorns, a bleeding uterus, flowers, a stag pierced with arrows, cactus, Aztec monuments. Unable to escape pain, she married the entirety of her existence. I wanted to be with her.
So, I picked up a pen and started drawing her: “Our Lady of Sublimated Suffering.” It was the first drawing I’d done since high school (and I’m in my thirties).
The next day, I shared my drawing on Facebook and got unexpectedly enthusiastic responses from my friends. The anxiety didn’t go away. I chose another woman to draw. I kept choosing women whose stories I wanted to connect to: St. Teresa of Avila, Eleanor Roosevelt, Angela Davis.
In the moments of contemplating my subject and creating an illustration, I was as far as I could be from any kind of anxiety or self-consciousness. Outlining faces, closely observing the crevices, shadows and gestures of bodies, I was in a state of wordless and sublime intimacy with these luminous women. People asked for prints and I created an Etsy store. My art did end up being sewn onto shirts and dresses. My friends’ daughters were using my drawings to learn about women of courage and consequence.
In all my years of online marketing, this breakaway success was the one thing that had zero commercial aspiration and was totally free of the need for approval. I was leaning into my pain and trying to find my own sublimation, and just like that, people connected deeply with my creations. For once, I wasn’t dogged by the question of, “but is it good enough?”, because that was never the point. This was between me and myself. (Well, to be frank, between me and my anxiety). Anything anyone else got out of it was a cherry on top of a richly frosted and multi-layered cake.
One day in early February, I read President Trump’s speech to celebrate Black History Month. He spent the whole time rambling and talking about himself. He could have — and should have — used the opportunity to tell the stories of Black Americans who helped to make America great. But he didn’t. And, well, if he wasn’t going to, I was.
I would draw one amazing black woman a day for Black History Month, tell her story, and put it all together into a printable coloring book. I would sell them through a fundraising platform to raise money for civil rights and racial justice. Even though I had no platform to speak of, except for a few hundred Facebook friends, my project spread like wildfire.
In 23 days, I raised $4,000 for the ACLU and NAACP. My page was shared nearly 1,000 times, and I got dozens of notes of gratitude and encouragement from women all over the country.
Sure, I get to donate thousands of dollars for the cause of civil liberty, but this had also been a selfish project. I wanted to learn about these women. I wanted to tell their stories of perseverance, leadership, vision and service — to myself. All the unsung heroes of American history: Katherine Johnson, who sent the first American to the moon; Madam C.J. Walker, who was born into slavery and created a philanthropic empire; Julia de Burgos, who shaped the poetic imaginations of generations of Puerto Ricans.
Women who created, led and altered the course of history not because they had all the resources at their fingertips, but because they declared their own worth and dreams over and over and over again — saying, “I exist!!” — to a world that was indifferent at best and actively hostile at worst.
I wanted their spirit woven into the matrix of my soul.
I heard in an interview with Glennon Doyle Melton that the definition of an artist is someone who says, “please don’t erase me.” If you have that same desire not to be erased, you, too, are an artist. You will be officially baptized as one the moment you declare it out loud, as the 28 women I illustrated for Black History Month — and so many more — have.
This ebook contains almost 100 pages of stories, poetry, art and prayers, to inspire you to find, trust in and use your voice.