Editor’s Introduction
by Ben Weakley | February 29th, 2024

It is with great joy that I introduce Art Saves Lives, an essay series by Community Building Art Works. In this series, we offer you the words of people who spend their lives and talents bearing witness, going within to find silent truths, and sculpting human dignity from word and image. It is our hope that we can give readers an authentic look at the many roles that creation plays in the lives of those whose work it is to create, and by extension, the role that art plays in making all our lives more livable, more human.

I am delighted to give you our first essay in the Art Saves Lives series, by a brilliant human I am lucky to call my dear friend, Seema Reza.

How Not To Be Afraid

by Seema Reza

“I have learned through art to accept the gifts of my subconscious, to heed the tug of the wisdom inside of me.”

As a child I craved ritual—I wanted smoke and chant and garlands, sprinkled rosewater, tangible blessing: fruits on a plate, color smudged between brows, forehead tipped to the ground. I longed to eat the wafer and drink the wine. To rub elbows with the sacred.

I wanted to float a candle on the water, I wanted to light a lantern and send it into the sky. I walked in circles with a stick of incense, discerning meaning from the curling smoke. I yearned to strike my sense of reality with a stone, see the spark, and believe it.

I did not want to learn to read Arabic with the moldy maulvi who came, beard dyed orange, and sat at our dining table in the house in New Delhi. I did not want to memorize the 99 names of Allah, though I loved the holy feeling of moving beneath a dupatta draped over my head and shoulders while I kneeled and stood shoulder to shoulder with the women beside me, whispering verses.

Later I learned the ritual of the cigarette, the glowing disk of fire climbing toward my fingers, the smell in my hair. Standing apart from the party with one or two people, fires burning between our knuckles, exchanging small truths. I learned to move, move, move on the dance floor, in yoga until the darkness lifted me and I was less afraid of stillness. I abided in rituals of my own invention. When I learned to let my shadow wake me and pull me to the page, I felt the overlap between myself and everything else. When my grief grew too large for words, I dipped a brush into thick paint and asked the canvas to show me. Sometimes I asked the canvas to help me forget.

I have learned through art to accept the gifts of my subconscious, to heed the tug of the wisdom inside of me. To coax it to speak louder and louder. To listen until I lose control of both sides of the conversation and hear things that surprise me, until some other self tells me what questions to ask, until I know how not to be afraid. Or at least how to keep fear from stopping me.

And in that quiet, I hear a call: something is not right.

Beneath the skin of my neck, an artery has gone silent. No more, it says to my brain, no more. The ultrasound shows it, the MRI confirms it, the CT scan nods in agreement, the contrast insists: not even a trickle. New rituals are called for: a parade of tablets before bed, the monitoring of salt and stress, the cuff on my bicep squeezing, my pillows propped just so. I step back from email, from the expectation of an audience, of a reply. If the time is even shorter than I assumed, there is no return.

I rent a studio and furnish it with wobbly things: a narrow desk, a chair, stool, and tripod easel with feet that slide, the biggest canvases my car can hold.

Will it seem like aluminum presented as silver to say: on the nights the ache limits me, my dreams are more vivid? That I am living these days in technicolor? The sacred is present with me, thrumming. I turn up the volume and listen for instructions from my off-beat heart. If my time is limited (of course it is, it always was), if I might not grow old (there never was a guarantee): What must I make that only I can make?

Seema Reza is a poet and essayist and the author of two books. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in writing and community building from Goddard College. In 2010 Seema began working with service members, veterans, and their families at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and has since developed a unique multi-hospital and community arts program that encourages the use of the arts as a tool for narration, self-care and socialization. In 2015, the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore awarded Seema the Col John Gioia Patriot Award for her work with service members. In 2019, Reza was selected as a George W. Bush Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Scholar. Reza’s writing has been published in McSweeney’s, The Washington Post, The LA Review, The Feminist Wire, The Offing, and Entropy among others. Case studies from her work with military populations have appeared in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Related Diseases in Combat Veterans.