An Epiphany About Clothes

Once in the early 90’s in India I was very ill with mercury poisoning. A reckless dentist had assured me no dental dam was needed as, with a hot drill, he removed eleven amalgam fillings (I could feel the little shards of metal in my mouth) over a space of six weeks, and installed composites instead. I chose to believe his reassurances. (He is dead now – I wonder why?) As the weeks went on and I kept going to get more fillings out – for I had not yet deciphered what was causing my growing malaise – my teeth felt transparent and my bones ached; nerve pains traversed my body. I weakened by the day.

For three weeks of this time I was leading, with dear Nisarg by my side, a fantastic training in esoteric arts buoyant with costumes, set changes, live music, body painting, dance. It’s a miracle I could complete it. (At an evening session in a hastily-but-efficiently-constructed faux graveyard – I had wonderful assistants – festooned with mosquito-netting cobwebs I, the group leader, hid out in plain sight as a hanged man, with a noose round my neck and wearing boxer shorts showing my eyeliner-pencil-hairy legs. A huge blue styrofoam tongue protruded from my mouth and saliva dripped from it, an unexpected exigency. But the role felt right just then.) I was also at the time deep into the study of colorpuncture, a brilliant German-invented method of addressing dis-ease through the application of colored lights on acupuncture points. Kirlian photos are used to diagnose, and mine showed that I had almost vanished – on the shiny paper I had scarce a fingertip or a toe left to call my own. By this time I had realized what had happened. There was no medicine but time, though color could help in the flushing; but now I was too feeble to apply it to myself. The minute the group was over I went to bed where I lay too weak to lift my little finger off the sheet.

But my boyfriend wanted to take me to Goa on his motorbike, and I thought a change of scene might help. I managed somehow to get off the bed, pack a few things, and ride to Goa with him, two days spent bent forward clutching his middle while herpes twinges racked my lower half. Every pothole in those rough roads crashed through my skinny form like ruin.

In Goa we stayed in a well-run hostel with an actual garden, in our own little bungalow by the sea. I had a healing crisis right away, a vomiting bout that left me even more drained but feeling just a little less achey and awful. My boyfriend, who wanted a cheery companion, complained that I was no fun.

One evening we went to the Taj Hotel down at the end of Candolim Beach and had expensive fresh lime sodas whilst lying back in deck chairs watching the sunset. My boyfriend was restless and kept getting up to go out to the edge of the terrace to look at the sea. I lay very quiet. I just didn’t have energy…. What I felt was like death: a cessation. A nothing. But it was not a vibrant nothing, like Zen – it was a sucked-out, noplace, heavy, dull, brutal sort of nothing with no joy in it anywhere. I’d imagined death would be an alive thing – that you’d feel love, bliss, a sinking that was vivid and real. This felt like the opposite. Here was no possibility, no beauty, no grace. It was just lack, and greyness, and impossibility. I did not recognize myself, I was nearly gone, and nothing beautiful was there in my place. I was no longer, it seemed, a fit conduit for the flow of nature.

That was when I knew something very important: my love of clothes, of frippery, of decoration – my love of cloth and color and dressing-up – my over-love, my excess, my usual heavy suitcases, sixteen pairs of shoes lugged on any journey – is a symptom of one thing: life. It is energy that makes art, including the art of self-decoration. It is life that loves life, and without energy nothing is alive. And I knew that judging myself for this passion was a pity and a waste of time. In fact I envied myself the health that had let me tie ornaments in my branches like I was a festival tree.

Epilogue: Months later, much recovered, I went to France and lived and worked there in a freezing apartment with no furniture but two mattresses: one for me and one to do chakra readings and colorpuncture on. My brown hair was straight in the cold and it fell out of my scalp at a rapid rate, I kept finding long, long strands everywhere, on the floor, in the cruelly cold shower, in my bed – way more hair than a person ought to lose. But I did not worry, it felt right somehow, and only later I understood this was the mercury’s aftereffects. And after that I began to notice a great improvement in my allergies and my stamina – my poor body was so glad to be finished with its load of poison, I felt better than I had since I was a child. My hair came back just fine. The composite fillings were too deep though and roots died and root canals ensued – but that’s another story. At least I was alive enough to enjoy wearing something modest and drapey and colorful to the next dentist, a good guy I still visit when I can.