“Social Distancing,” by Stanley Siegel, was named runner up of the Columbia Journal‘s Special Issue on Loneliness.
Nearly a year ago, during my daily sitting meditation, an image appeared to me, one of many that pass through my mind like fleeting clouds. It was a signature formed in red neon that read Rapha, a name I had not heard of before. I felt struck by the beauty of how the letters looked side-by-side and the sound of the word as I mouthed it,
For days after, the image clung to me as I repeated its breathy sound out loud like a mantra. My research led me to a psalm in the old testament, a citation in ancient Aramaic that translated to mean, “Be still and listen to the voice of God.” It was a powerful prescription that had great meaning at that moment in my life. I had been slowly retiring my role as a psychotherapist and writer after 45 years of practice, five books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. I felt that I had exhausted using words as a means of expressing myself and was at a loss for what I would do next.
During the period of stillness that followed, I adopted the name Rapha, its letters wrapping around me like a child’s blanket. When a friend introduced me as Rapha to an Israeli acquaintance of his, she smiled and whispered “healer,” the word’s meaning in Hebrew.
Something else began to emerge from the stillness. As a child, when other boys were making friends on the ball field, I filled my time with the solitary endeavor of drawing and painting. Later, in college, I pursued dual majors in Psychology and Art. After I graduated in 1968, I shared a large studio with other young aspiring artists in Little Italy, a thriving artist community in New York City. Art had not yet become commerce. There was no vision then of making the huge sums of money that are possible today now that art is traded like a commodity on the stock market.
After two years of creating work, I had neither stamina nor what I assumed was the talent that allowed me to envision a future as an artist. As a means of survival, I put down my paintbrushes and returned to graduate school to study psychotherapy.
At 72, the message that emerged from “being still ” came through Rapha’s voice. It led me to pick up a paintbrush for the first time in 52 years. For several months I studied with a gifted teacher until, like most of us, I was forced into self-quarantine by the deadly COVID virus.
In the past, I might have written about my experience in quarantine. But words are too small to express the depth and magnitude of my feelings. Instead, I am painting my way through the pandemic as a way to make sense of it in much the same way that I used it to make sense of my childhood.