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Hildegard: The First Encounter

  • August 19, 2012

My relationship with Hildegard jump-started due to a colorful postcard of a woman with smoke coming out of her head. I’d stumbled into a funky, now defunct art gallery in the summer of 2008, a few yards from the four-way stop in Pecos, NM that marked the center of town. The blue of her gown caught me first. Offset by sun-hued yellow, a series of letters framed her body. Japanese, Chinese, petroglyph-type symbols enwrapped this dark-skinned beauty so intent on her work. I was taken.

I read the bio on the back of the card. Hildegard Von Bingen: Artist, writer, physician, mystic who came up with her own language. Hildegard seemed the female DaVinci of the 1100s. A switch in my brain flipped. Hildegard should be my muse, my visual mentor as I finished my book.

I bought the postcard. I wanted the artist to make me a poster-sized image of her Hildegard to hang above my desk. The back of the card had a badly smudged name with no website. Taking to the Internet, I began a game of trial and error to find the artist. I’m not usually an artist-stalker, but the quest for Hildegard became a mission. Variations of the smudge clicked out on my keyboard: Tom Trudle, Trydile, no luck. I called the gallery. No answer. On Amazon I found a consolation prize. Who knew Amazon carried the works of 12th century mystics?

Hildegard’s music arrived at the door via the powers of Amazon, along and her book Secrets of God. Her haunting Gregorian-like chants filled the air as the hunt intensified. Finally, I got it. Toni Truesdale, the artist. I sent an email. A few days later I got a response. Turns out Toni lived a short distance from where I was. I explained my quest for a larger image, leaving out the details of my stalk. No sense scaring the woman. No need to mention my need for a muse. My behavior seemed strange to me. What it might seem to a stranger?

"Do you want to see the original?" Toni seemed nonplussed. Perhaps she was used to mystical interventions. She gave me directions to her home.

Dust rose from dirt road as I drove past the broken chain link fence to her house. Two dogs jumped on my legs to greet me, woman-more-fond-of-cats, as I exited my car. They seemed eager to convert me.

Toni’s front porch sloped a bit, painted an intense blue, with colorful spirals of red and yellow. She opened the screen door. Wavy gray hair, white face, originally from Delaware, Toni was a stark contrast from the Native American spirit guide I had conjured in my head. I figured she’d be Native American or of Mexican descent due to her dark-skinned rendition of Hildegard, who was German. I was wrong. Toni was like me, a white woman in love with the woods. A Native American spirit transplanted in skin that betrayed her true colors.

Toni led me through her house, paintings stacked 10 deep on every wall. "In ancient times, women created the altars, the spiritual centers of their homes," Toni flipped through paintings of women in houses; abstract, intense color, beautiful. She pulled out Hildegard. We admired her. I asked Toni if she'd considered selling the painting.

She paused. "I've had this painting for a long time, waiting for the right person." Toni's eyes took in Hildegard. "But I think you are her."

I’m enough like my skeptical Irish Catholic mother to wonder if this were a close-the-deal tactic; street smart enough to suspect I’d been played. I didn’t care. A bigger part of me swooned that a painting had found me, called me and landed me, beyond my control. Love at first sight. A postcard romance turned real.

I bought the painting. I didn't even haggle. Toni taught at the Indian School in Santa Fe, changing lives for the better. She taught them about their bodies, food, and health, lessons Hildegard espoused. This transaction seemed inspired by something deeper than a discount. I wrote the check.

Toni's eyes filled with tears. She told me her daughter was being married in a week. Toni had spent all her money on the plane ticket and didn't have any money for a gift. She'd been praying someone would come and buy a painting. And there I was.

A clearly printed name, a sign at the road or an ad in the newspaper seemed a better marketing tactic to me, but I liked the story of a prayer answered. As I waved good-bye and packed my bags to live in London, I figured my stint with Hildegard was over. Little did I know then that my approach to health echoed this woman I’d never met, who lived almost thousand years before I’d formulated my first thoughts about staying well.

I thought I was done with Hildegard, but apparently Hildegard had other plans.

If you are curious about Toni Truesdale's work, here is her website: Frankly, i think the website is a little dated, she has much better work at her house. If you want to reach her, I'm sure she would set up a showing.



"Hersh's page-turner story is very informative about the state of mind of people experiencing very high suicide risk; to take two examples, perceived burdensomeness and social isolation.  I'm relieved for her and for all of us that she survived.  Struck by Living shows a life beyond suicidality, filled with possibility."

Thomas Joiner
Thomas Joiner, The Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Florida State University, Author of Why People Die by Suicide and Myths About Suicide
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About Struck By Living

In Struck by Living, Julie Hersh picks apart the irony of her life with humor and brutal honesty. Despite a loving husband, healthy children, financial security, Julie attempted suicide three times. With the help of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), Julie broke the deadly course of her disorder. Now well, Julie promotes the importance of mental health with collaborations with other artists and organizations.

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