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.

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