I've been feeling better lately, which is hard for me to admit. I've noticed this is true of a lot of people with bipolar disorder: we're afraid we'll jinx the normalcy. Or maybe we're afraid we won't be believed when the bad days strike again. Whatever the reason, I'm scared to say it, but it's true: I feel surprisingly good.
When I'm doing well, I always take advantage of my newfound energy to seek out "a dose of beauty," as my therapist Dr. Geoffry White calls it. It's the best non-prescription medicine I know. And the greatest beauty I can imagine comes from Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch master and my all-time favorite artist. He's a rare jewel: exquisite, many-faceted, and extremely hard to find. I once maxed out my last remaining credit card to travel to a Vermeer exhibit in Washington, D.C., only to be surrounded by legions of other fans so that I could barely see a thing. I left in disgust. You have to be alone with beauty sometimes, so it can work its way inside.
But a few weeks ago I took a quick jaunt to New York, and went on pilgrimage again. I found him: three Vermeers at the Frick Collection, and another four at the Met. At the Frick, I waited until everyone else had cleared the gallery before I allowed myself to look. I stepped up to "An Officer and a Laughing Girl," head bowed as if I were in church. Then slowly, inch by inch, I raised my chin and let the painting in.
Everyone who loves Vermeer remarks, of course, on his use of light: how it falls oh-so-naturally through the ubiquitous window on the left, to flood the scene with warmth. I saw the wondrous light, I sighed in recognition, but this time I also saw something else. For the first time in over thirty years, I saw the shadows.
Now of course they had to be there all along, right? Truly depicted light must cast a shadow, and no one is truer to nature than Vermeer. But why had I never seen them before? And why was I seeing them now?
I thought about it long and hard, all the way back home to L.A. and even after that. The answer finally came to me: I didn't want there to be shadows before – I wanted to believe that there was one place on earth I could go where there was never any gloom. But I think perhaps I'm finally strong enough to accept that life demands a balance: light and dark must co-exist, great pleasure with great pain.
Light and dark.
I know this duality in my bones—I live it because I'm bipolar. Which doesn't mean I like it, or that I haven't railed against it for many years. But I feel a fragile acceptance growing inside me lately, and I don't want to disturb it. I'm not wearing blinders: today I write about my strength; tomorrow depression may come for me, fangs bared and claws unsheathed. I may be incapable of remembering anything then but searing pain. But when I can't believe in anything else, I must believe in art. It's tangible, irrefutable proof that I once saw life through different eyes, that my soul was calm enough and still enough to be touched by beauty.
Shadows have crept into my Vermeers, and to my surprise, I welcome them. I think I'm ready for them now.