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Goodbye chromophobia, welcome courage

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 3/11/21

Many would agree that discussing maladies and afflictions isn’t a favored topic of conversation. But get above the age of sixty-five and it is often the first one out of the gate. Younger than …

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Goodbye chromophobia, welcome courage


Many would agree that discussing maladies and afflictions isn’t a favored topic of conversation. But get above the age of sixty-five and it is often the first one out of the gate. Younger than that, and we’re still sharing notes on raising children or the latest woes at work. If you’re lucky to have retired early enough, travelogues might start replacing the dramas of family life. Or perhaps you’ve found joy and contentment with sweet little moments spent with the grandkids. But it seems, as the years march on, nothing can compete with the in-depth coverage of our aches and pains. It’s human nature to seek company when the road is rough and illness is often the most important thing happening. Nonetheless, there are times I harken back to some phone chats with my cousin, a semi-retired parish priest, who once implored, “Let’s skip the organ recital.” At first, I was confused but once I got it, I could only chuckle and then willingly go along with his request. He obviously needed to talk about fun stuff.
Friends’ reports of sore wrists, twisted ankles, or routine medical exams that unexpectedly turned into scary trips to specialists only seem to be increasing. I suppose it comes with the territory. So far, I’ve been pretty lucky. But I must confess , I’m knocking on wood, knowing full well that it could be my turn next.
There is one affliction, however, that I am ready to disclose. You may not be able to empathize with my suffering but it is real, and when it pops up, it creates significant distress! I live with a condition labeled “chromophobia”, from the Greek word “chromo” meaning color. I never knew there was such a thing until recently. And, I’m not sure I have a case that meets the formal diagnostic criteria (if there are any) but I do know I’ve got something, and it really bugs me.
I first noticed the problem during the summer before ninth grade. I’d been attending a Catholic elementary school but would soon be transferring to a public high school. As summer waned, I realized that this school year, I’d no longer have the security of my school uniform — a navy blue jumper with matching knee-highs and saddle shoes. Oh, and white blouses, of course. Some girls wore frills or lace but I never went for that. “Plain and simple” was my style, probably because frills were harder to iron.
In ninth grade, I was thrust, pretty much unprepared, into a competitive fashion milieu. My classmates were really into looking good! At first I panicked. How would I ever fit in? I had no experience choosing trendy outfits. And matching colors? Definitely not my forte. Prior to that September, I couldn’t have cared less. But now my inexperience and ineptitude showed.
The next big challenge would be art class. I hadn’t experienced anything even close since Kindergarten. Coloring books were the nearest exercise in creativity and they had lines. My crayon box had eight familiar choices. But soon I’d be forced to buck up.
The teacher, Miss Salzburg, was a tall, imposing figure at the front of the classroom. She’d present the lesson, introduce the project, and then set us free to create while she sat perched on her desk, legs crossed in her shockingly short skirt, just waiting for us to ask for help. I remember vividly the first time I mustered my courage to approach her with my assignment. It was a cardboard placemat upon which I’d glued leaves cut from scraps of leather in varied shades of autumn. The phrase, “Fall has Fell” kind of dribbled across the top in a style intended to mimic falling leaves. One look and Salzburg went berserk! In her booming voice, she called everyone’s attention to the front of the room and chastised me for using poor grammar and much more stupidity! What I had thought was kind of clever went over like a lead balloon. If her legs hadn’t been blocking the way, I would have crawled under her desk. I was so embarrassed I thought I would faint.
I had a couple more mandatory art classes before being allowed to graduate but after that encounter, there was no more excitement or joy. I never had any expectations for developing my creativity. Mostly, I was terrified to show anyone anything I’d made. The verdict had been delivered. I would never be an “artist”. So I decided I’d stick to writing. The nuns had been devoted teachers of grammar. And, having cut my teeth on The Lives of the Saints, I knew that Catholics could weave a good story. I also knew I could write poems. I’d been doing it a lot since receiving accolades in second grade from Sr. Joseph Rita for the short rhyme I wrote asking God to keep my daddy safe in heaven until I could get there. She was so pleased that she mailed it to my mom with a star on top and a note to “keep encouraging me.” (I still have that note and the poem written with a young girl’s diligent hand.) Writing became my only creative outlet and still is. But wait. There was one exceptional experience, an embroidered sampler I stitched during the summer of my senior year while glued to late night TV. I’d fallen in love with Dick Cavett. I’m telling you all this only because it provides a backdrop for what’s going on in my world today.
This January, I was feeling restless. One afternoon I rummaged through the closet, seeking something to stimulate my imagination. I came upon a tote filled with embroidery floss buried among a few boxes of partially completed and abandoned craft projects. As fate would have it, there neatly folded amidst the discards, was an unspoiled linen dishtowel calling out for my creative impulse.
It wasn’t long before I needed a color plan. There my tribulations began. I was suddenly reliving every failed painting class; the scene in the quilt shop that sent me flying to the car in tears, totally overwhelmed by the simple task of choosing some fabric; recalling every situation in which color choices triggered these proverbial meltdowns. The effects of my condition still surround me. If you were to look in my closet, you’d see my wardrobe consisting of brown, olive drab, black and dark blue. My home decor? No Feng Shui for me. Over the years, I’ve made attempts to break through this innate avoidance of all things bright and beautiful, but my efforts have left me frustrated and demoralized, resigned to living in a creative straight-jacket.
This January’s lock-down would push me into trying once again. I began to embroider with the usual excitement but within a week I could feel myself faltering until I froze with insecurity. I knew I needed help. I called an artistically gifted friend.
She listened like a trained therapist, asking all the right questions. Then came her assessment. “Kathy, all you need is some inspiration! Go to the internet.” “But,” I murmured, “I don’t know where to look.” Undeterred by my shocking ignorance, she patiently instructed, “Google!”, and rattled off several sites to explore. Instagram, Pinterest, and then a site called Domestika that offered classes. There it was. “The Theory of Color for Embroiderers: A course for beginners.” I couldn’t resist. Within seconds I dove right in… clicking, clicking, clicking — Enroll, then PayPal, and finally, Start the Class. Just like that an instructor appeared, seated in her colorful studio surrounded by supplies. I was registered and raring to go! She began speaking in Spanish. Up popped fast-moving English subtitles. “Wow!” I thought, “A chance to brush up on my Spanish!” mothballed since leaving Tucson forty-some years ago. And if the muse was on my side, an opportunity to increase my understanding or better yet, banish my phobia altogether!
I’ve now progressed to Unit Three with twelve to go. Sometimes, I must prod myself to sit down and rediscover the joy of a full two hours “in the zone.” I have resumed my stitching project, French knot by tiny French knot. I have no idea where it will lead me, or if I’ll actually finish it, but I’m worrying about that less and less.
More important is that I’m beginning to understand that, to be an artist you must be strong of heart, willing to risk the expression of your unique imagination. Brave enough to trust your intuition. “Letting go and feeling the flow” that can feel like inching across a freshly encrusted caldera, uncertain of your footing and what might happen should you break the fragile surface. Experiments can fall short of expectations, leaving an artist feeling vulnerable. Forging on requires enormous courage and fortitude. I have yet to discover if I’m up to the challenge. I can only imagine being that brave. Nothing less than lion-hearted, free to be myself! I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but I must tell you, I’ve made my color wheel. Now it’s time to give it a spin.