The Only Constant
Candy Wei, 1980-2001
Two years after her death,
at an exhibit of her work held at Wellesley College,
I walk in quiet from piece to piece.
On entering, begin at the explanatory text,
her struggle with schizophrenia
since the first breakdown at age 15, the long months
pulled from school, the relapse
in fall 2000, and, shortly after
her recovery, her suicide.
She left behind drawings, paintings,
wood-block prints, stories, collages,
graphic design, the more recent poetry
of standing among waves
kicking broken shells.
She worked with the compulsive care
of a perfectionist; in even
the slightest erring of stroke
she would begin again with a new canvas.
She was caught between either the limitation
of medication, its blunting of the senses,
or the uncertainty of never knowing
when she would suffer the next breakdown;
white hospital walls between her and all
her yearnings for travel and where
she had been found a sense of home,
like the Sanjusangendo in Kyoto
among the 1001 gold statues of Kannon,
the Buddhist goddess of mercy, the peace
in the slight curve of smile and lowered eyes.
One painting done during her first recovery:
a silent scream, though more
one of shock and confusion, the eyes wide,
the inside of the mouth mere white.
schizo, from the Greek, meaning split.
In a small booklet, one of her last creations,
horizontally-cut pages combine
on one side, images, and on the other, words:
When a rhizome is broken, it returns
to the root and reconnects.
Charcoal sperm, heads black points,
many multiplying, moving
toward the round shadowed egg;
tail-tips hooked like curved leaves
waiting to spread and unfold.
Another piece, a series of collages
on the bardo, the Buddhist limbo
of 49 days after death before rebirth:
in the upper left corner a black and white photo
of a dark forest and in the opposite,
a few light trees, up-side down.
A staircase at the top center leads
down to the middle only to arc
back, trailing off toward the bottom.
Many copies of one figure, back
turned, hand covering face, float.
Another: what at first seems
a design of constricted seed and plant,
but at the bottom – look
closely – toes, ankle, sprouting bulk
of thigh, twisting from the pod, mouth
yearning up and out.
I keep coming back
to one painting to pass a finger along
quick bristled strokes
of circle and curve, egg and sperm,
thinking on the drawings of hers
done in childhood of solid
elephants, bears, horses. So immediate
after the first breakdown her work changed.
At the memorial service
light slants through the window
onto the mantra leaflet at my lap,
as I chant the same chant as all in the room.
On a table, circled by one hundred candles,
an urn with her ashes.
The mind makes of this
your ashes, not you’re ashes, not you are
ash. Splitting it down
to what it is, she is gone,
yet present in the portrait, the gathering
of people, her work hung everything.
May all beings be free from suffering.
May suffering leave the body.
May calamity and misfortune turn to dust.
This is the Great Perfection of Wisdom.
her high school senior quote, The only constant
is change; the email she sent my brother
in her last week, how happy she was, joking
with her boyfriend at dinner; her notes for a class
on Tibetan Buddhism written in her last hours,
A human being is just a process; the curled fetal position
in which her body was found; the 49 days
after her death that her mother spent
performing rituals for her safe passage into a new life,
bringing together her artwork in place of
any note of explanation, trying to understand
her decision, her hope to beginning again
with the clarity of a clear canvas; and when seeing
fully into the world and making
of it something full –
in these moments to believe
that freedom is present,
that the body holds no suffering,
that dust holds no calamity,
is to wish upon her peace
and make of the pieces a whole.
October 26, 2004