Age is a work of art

“Youth is a gift of nature, but age is a work of art” – Stanislaw Jerzy Lee

On my recent trip to India, I was blessed to meet and reconnect with the man who taught me all that I know about art. My art “Master”, as I always referred to him, taught me art for roughly 13 years and I met him this July after nearly 25 years.

When I was a child, my mother tried to push me into Carnatic music or Bharatanatyam like most other children in my community. She is big on everyone having a hobby/art that would relax them and give them pleasure. Her own was sewing. When I showed no interest in sewing, music, or dance she gave up in disgust… or so I thought. But when I was nine years old, she saw me drawing and wondered if maybe she had just been pushing the wrong type of art on me. In those days, it was hard to find someone who taught art outside of school.  Nowadays, art classes are very common in Chennai. Back then, the standard practice was to send children to vocal music lessons or to learn to play an instrument or some kind of traditional dance. But my mother was always ahead of her times and soon embarked on a mission to find me a private art teacher. She contacted a second cousin of hers who dabbled in Thanjavur paintings and sought her help. This cousin recommended my Master, who was then a first-year student at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Madras.

I remember feeling very excited when my mother announced that a drawing master was coming that evening to give me art lessons. What I remember most about that day is scrambling around to change out of my school uniform and into my best outfit before he arrived. His arrival was somewhat anti-climatic for me. He was a really young man, only 9 years older than me. On the first day, we worked on a pencil drawing of a bowl of fruit (still life). He taught me to look for the light source, notice the shadows, and shade accordingly.

After some months/years(?), my excitement waned into a rebellious disinterest. I was a teenager with a litany of petty complaints about the class. The lessons were too long I said, and they are always scheduled on Sunday mornings and make me miss my favorite tv shows. I complained that I couldn’t have a single weekend to myself. It didn’t help that some of my relatives constantly compared my achievements in art to my cousins’ steady progress in playing the violin. I was also irritated that my master always picked watercolors when we painted. I kept wanting to try other media but it felt like he was always postponing that. I cannot remember if I whined about these complaints to him, but I did rant to my mother.  What I disliked most was my mother making me fall at his feet and seek his blessings every once in a while on special occasions. My mother assured me that this worship of the Guru (teacher) was standard practice in the Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam circles. In my mind, it just didn’t equate. He was so young, I was his first student and teaching didn’t come naturally to him. He was an awkward teacher and I was an immature teenager. We would argue like we were equals about everything from art to religion. I found it hard to elevate him to that pedestal.The frequency of lessons slowly decreased as I finished school and college. The last time I saw Master was before I went to Australia for graduate studies.

When I was in high school, everyone knew that I was an artist. Many admired and encouraged my art. But when I went to college I never shared my art with anyone.  I doubt that any of my college mates even know that I can draw and paint with some prowess. During my 20s, I hated every piece of art that I produced. I was my severest critic. I was convinced that I had no talent and I stopped drawing and painting.  I had several arguments with my mother about her “forcing” art on me. I told her that I had no real talent and that she only found my art attractive because she was my mother. When she chided me for not cherishing my teacher, I responded saying that teachers should not be blindly worshipped; they needed to earn that kind of respect. The same relatives that compared my art skills to others’ music skills told me that I had wasted my parent’s money and I was wasting a talent that was divinely bestowed upon me. Eventually, my mother stopped talking to me about my art. I think she felt that she had failed in her goal of training me in some kind of hobby that would give me pleasure.

However, a few years later, I noticed that I doodled and sketched whenever I was stressed. I then realized that my mother had succeeded in her goal after all. Those cousins of mine who used to play the violin and the veena had moved on and didn’t even own those instruments anymore. But, I was still drawing. Pencil drawing is my first love and it’s something I do to relax. As I started drawing again, I started remembering the things that my master had taught me so many years ago. I heard his instructions in my mind. “Where is the light coming from? Where will the shadows be?”.It took me several more years to venture into painting. But when I did, I worked with acrylics and avoided watercolors like the plague. However, I was intrigued every time I read or heard that watercolor is a harder technique to master than other media. In my mind, it was always this boring thing that I had done so many times. As I wondered about why Master made me do watercolors all the time, I began to revisit my memories of those art lessons. For the first time, I was viewing them through the eyes of an adult. I realized that the emotional baggage that I carried about art was something that I had created myself. Neither my master nor my mother was responsible for it. I understood that my behavior during those times was so silly and childish and I was ashamed of it. I berated myself for the things I had done and said, especially to my mother. Earlier this year I searched for my master on Facebook. I wanted to know where he was and what he was doing. I wanted to “look” at him also through my adult eyes. I found out that he was now a Professor at the College of Fine Arts in Kumbakonam.

Every time I visit India, I go on a pilgrimage to the Oppiliappan temple in Kumbakonam. When I purchased my train tickets for the trip this July, I laughingly told my mother that Master lived in Kumbakonam and wouldn’t it be weird to run into him after all these years? She said that we could go and meet him if I wanted. I thought about it and dismissed it. We arrived in Kumbakonam and set out with a list of temples we wanted to visit. On our way to the last temple for the day, we passed the College of Fine Arts.  By the time we went to the temple and started back, I had made up my mind. I wanted to meet him. I felt that meeting him again would finally help put all my feelings at rest, especially the shame that I felt. We pulled into the college and I walked up to the watchman and enquired if he was there. The man nodded and directed me upstairs. I walked up the stairs very nervously and looked into each classroom as I passed. Finally, we arrived at the department of painting. I walked into a classroom with a transparent cubicle at the back that served as an office. Master was sitting at the desk talking to someone. He looked exactly the same, except his jet black hair was snow white now.

I knocked and walked in and said “Master…”. Recognizing me instantly, his face lit up with a smile and he stood up to welcome us all in.  I watched in fascination as he talked to my mother and enquired after my father and brother. Then he turned to me and said, “You know the weirdest thing. I was just thinking about you this morning and I haven’t thought about you in years! I wondered what you were doing. All I know was that you went to Australia for your post-graduate studies.” He then called his daughter into the office and introduced her to us. She is now a final year student at the college. He told us that he also has a son who lives elsewhere. When he noticed my daughter he grinned and said that even if he hadn’t recognized me he would have realized who I was after she saw her, because she looks exactly like me when he first came to teach me. Over the next hour, he took us on a tour of the college and proudly introduced me to everyone as his first student. My daughter was thrilled to look at all the student’s paintings and I was surprised that there wasn’t a single watercolor in sight. It was a surreal experience meeting his current students. I saw him interact with them and realized he also had matured… as a teacher. I could sense that his students not only respected him deeply but loved him as well.

He insisted on us visiting his home which was a stone’s throw away. We went to his house and met his warm and wonderful wife. As we sipped the tea, he asked what I had been up to and about my husband. Then he said, he was going to make a piece of art as a gift for my husband. He took some plain and heavy cardstock and began etching my daughter’s profile on it. As he worked we talked about my art. He remembered some of the pieces we did and mentioned one as his favorite. For the life of me, I could not recall that painting. He said it was a watercolor. I thought “of course it was” and I asked him if he changed his specialty from watercolor to different media. He looked at me in confusion and said no; he teaches all types of painting.

“Oh, I thought you loved watercolor because you always wanted to work with it.” He said. “Ah. That was only because watercolor is a fast medium. Our classes were only a couple of hours every week and I wanted you to have a complete painting done in that time. I wanted to make sure that you had a sense of satisfaction and not get bored. If we had worked with oil paints we would have waited for each layer to dry and that would take weeks. I realized what a simple and logical explanation it was and marveled that the prejudice in my mind had prevented me from realizing that.

He did an etch of both my children, my mother, and me using his nail on the cardstock. It was awesome to see him work. He asked me how often I drew or painted these days. I told him quite frequently especially when I am stressed. He smiled and said “I am so happy to hear that you stuck with it. You were really good you know. Especially considering how young you were then.” I realized that those were the words I had been waiting for to believe in myself and my art. I have no memory of him saying something like that to me before.

As we readied to leave, I requested that he stand so that I may fall at his feet and seek his blessings. This time my mother was not prompting me. I did it with all my heart. In my mind, I sought not only his blessings but also his forgiveness for my disrespect all those years ago. He presented me with a saree and extracted a promise to visit him for a meal when I was in Kumbakonam again. He mentioned for the hundredth time that he was so happy to see me after all these years. I went back to Chennai the next day and painted my first watercolor in decades. I could hear him in my mind again as I mixed the colors and shook off the excess water before painting.

My only regret now is that I still can’t remember which painting was his favorite.

“To be old and wise, one first has to be young and stupid” – Anon

-AB

 

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Morning Pages

Yesterday, I came across this habit called writing “morning pages.” It is something I have been doing for a while, but I didn’t know that it had a name to it. Morning pages is the habit of writing at least three pages every morning. There are some rules attached to it. Firstly, the writing must be done by putting pen to paper- none of this digital stuff. Secondly, the writing must be just stream-of-consciousness. This means, no careful planning, no wilful narrating, and of course, no editing. It is just the act of penning down whatever it is that is currently going through your mind. Thirdly, it has to be honest. No self-editing for political correctness and such. The purpose is to just transfer one’s thoughts into paper in an effort to clear the clutter in your mind. It is also recommended that this activity be done in the morning. It is supposed to help one be more creative during the day, when done in the morning. Lastly, the pages must be kept private, that is, they are not meant to be read at all… by anybody. That includes you the writer! If you do want to read what you wrote, it is recommended that you wait a long time before you do so. The logic behind this rule is that you don’t want the junk back in your head. You are writing to get rid of it.

I started doing just this about a month ago. One morning, I woke up at 4 AM and could not go back to sleep. I gave up trying to fall asleep after an hour and decided to just get up and do something else. I had all these thoughts running around in my head and it felt chaotic. So I grabbed a notebook and wrote it all down, as and when it came to me. I found that it really helped clear my head. Since then, I have done this a couple more times and yesterday I found that there is name for it. (Just like I found out that my system of rapid logging lists in a notebook also has a name for it – a bullet journal and the doodling artwork that I have done since I was a kid is a “zentangle”. I guess I am just not enterprising enough to market my ideas!)

So yesterday, I decided to try and make this a regular habit. I woke up today and wrote four pages. I am amazed at how much it helped clear my head. Then again, it makes sense. I have always found writing to calm me down in some way. But, so far I have only used it to write publically in a blog or a facebook post or something. The drawback of that is that I sometimes go through a phase when I am depressed or disturbed and I don’t feel like divulging my thoughts to anyone. I feel vulnerable and I want to withdraw from the world. This then leads to long absences from writing (such as in this blog for nearly seven months or so), while I wait to come out of the funk. I think I now found a way to circumvent that with this morning pages ritual.

Initially, I wondered if writing the morning pages meant that I would run out of things to say and won’t be able to keep this blog going. Instead, it inspired me to write this. I wonder why it took me so long to figure this out. I kept a personal diary for about ten years from the age of 10-20. One day, I dug into my old diaries and read some of it. It all felt to inane and stupid that I just completely gave up on keeping a diary. Then, I started an “open diary” online. It was initially great but as annonymity gave way to a social network of sorts, I stopped writing in that. (Also the site closed up, I think). Now I realize that I have always had a real need to put down my private thoughts somewhere. Its not that my private thoughts are so horrible, its just that I am inherently a very private person.

Later, I got into the habit of keeping a journal each year. I do that even now, but I only write down appointments, reminders, or something important that happened. Now I have finally found a solution with the morning pages. I love the act of actually putting pen to paper. I always have. It makes me think better. I was always the student who made copious notes. The only drawback with morning pages is keeping it secret from nosy relatives (read nosy kids). I think the solution lies in periodically destroying the pages. It will take some practice for me to figure out how often that can be done.

So, to all my writer friends out there, have a go at morning pages. It might help you like it helped me.

-AB

P.S. What is the difference between a diary and a journal? I can’t seem to find a satisfactory answer for that.

My deepest sorrow

I am writing this blog post as part of the Chennai Bloggers Club’s March contest titled “I suffered but overcame”.

As a middle-aged person, I had my pick of struggles from my life to choose for this post. Financial crisis, health problems, relationship problems, career stumbles, educational challenges, emotional struggles, crisis of faith – I could probably come up with a post on each of these topics. I took some time to think about what I wanted to pick to write about for this. Almost immediately something stood out. The one experience that went deeper than rock bottom. As soon as it came to my mind, I dismissed it. It was too personal and after my last post, I was not ready to make myself feel vulnerable on social media just yet. Besides, how could I reduce that experience to just a post for a contest? But the thought wouldn’t leave my mind and as I thought more about it, I came up with some convincing reasons to write about it. Firstly, the spirit of this contest: Its not about winning a contest, it is about getting to know one another in our bloggers club, to appreciate each person’s struggles, and hopefully write something that might inspire or as in my case- heal. Secondly, I process my emotions by writing and I know writing this will be incredibly cathartic. Finally, I considered the cost vs benefits of writing it and decided that if it brought comfort to even one single person out there it was worth it. So, here I go.

I have heard that little girls dream about the day they get married and plan it down to the last detail. I never did that. But I always dreamed about the day I would be a mother. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to have three children. So, April 22, 2004 was one of the happiest days of my life. I found out that I was pregnant for the first time. I had taken three pregnancy tests (all positive) while I impatiently waited for the doctor’s office to confirm the news. I wanted to call India and tell my parents that they were going to be grandparents before they went to bed. The doctor called me on at lunch and I left my sandwich uneaten (and my dog stole it off the table) as I called my mother with much excitement. Some weeks later, on June 18, 2004, my husband and I went to our second prenatal appointment. I was down with a horrible cold and almost cancelled the appointment. At the appointment, the doctor used a Doppler device to listen to the heartbeat of the baby. But there was no heartbeat. Shortly afterwards, an ultrasound confirmed our worst fear. My new baby had passed away in-utero. I’ felt absolutely helpless. I wanted to scream at the doctor to do something, to somehow save my baby. But, nothing could be done. My husband and I exited the clinic in shock. I called and cancelled the lunch that I was supposed to have with my adviser and lab-mates to celebrate my upcoming Master’s graduation and went home. Do you know that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in a miscarriage? I was 9 weeks pregnant when I miscarried.

Once home, I sat on the stairs and called my parents. When I heard my father’s voice, I broke down and told him the news. To this day, my father won’t answer a phone call from me if he can help it because of that call. He always hopes and waits for someone else to answer it. The following week was a blur. On June 25th, 2004, I underwent a D&C surgery to remove my baby because my uterus was showing no signs of letting it go. Over the next three months, I struggled through every day. Everyone knows that the worst thing in anyone’s life is losing a child. But the worst thing about miscarriage is that no one ever acknowledges this loss – simply because the baby wasn’t born. My baby wasn’t even a fetus (a zygote is considered to be a fetus only after the gestational age of 10 weeks). It didn’t matter that in the few weeks that I knew of my baby’s existence, I had dreamed a whole life for her. It didn’t matter that I had felt the changes my body was going through to prepare for her. It didn’t matter that I had seen her heart beat on the ultrasound at my first prenatal appointment. I had no child to hold or cremate/bury and so no one could understand that my grief was a real thing.

Here are a list of things that you should NEVER say to someone who has lost a child in-utero (even if some of the things may be true):

  1. It’s all God’s plan.
  2. It is probably for the better, there was something obviously wrong with the baby and you were spared later suffering.
  3. It would have been worse if you had been further along in your pregnancy, at least it was first-trimester loss.
  4. You can have other children.
  5. You shouldn’t have announced your pregnancy so soon.
  6. It’s not really like losing a child.
  7. It is so common, it’s happened to so many people I know. They are all fine and you will be too.
  8. Once you have an other child, you will forget all about this.
  9. Time will heal.
  10. Practically everyone has experienced it; 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

Yes, people actually told me all the things on this list! When I went back to my OB-GYN for a post-D&C check up, I asked her why this happened and what can be done to prevent this in the future. She replied, “if this happens a few more times, we will worry about it”. Needless to say, I never went back to her.

What you can say instead:

  1. I can’t imagine what you are going through.
  2. I am here for you.
  3. If you need to talk, I will just listen.
  4. If you need to cry, I will just hold you.
  5. I am so sorry this happened to you.
  6. If you have personally experienced this loss, share your story without talking about how time will heal it all.

For it is true; unless you have experienced it, you cannot imagine what it feels like. This also goes for the pain people feel when they experience infertility or stillbirth or have a child who is sick or has special needs or have lost a child – no matter at what age. The pain felt in all these situations are all deep and different. It is simply wrong to compare one to an another and try to rank them in order of magnitude. Parents simply do not expect to outlive their children; that is not natural and no one is prepared for it.

Over the next few months, there were endless nights when I sneaked into another room at night so that my sobs would not wake my husband. So many nights I just clutched a pillow tight to somehow fill the emptiness in my heart and body. Like many women in this situation, I wondered if I had caused it somehow – had I done something wrong? or not done something right? was I too active? had I not eaten right? The hardest thing for me was to try and visualize this child. I needed to do that but I couldn’t. My husband is Caucasian with straight brown hair and green eyes and I am Asian Indian with brown skin, dark curly hair and dark eyes. I wondered how this child would have looked. I remember cutting out a picture of a mixed-race child (with curly hair like mine) from a magazine and putting it next to the one ultrasound picture that we had of the baby. Some weeks after my D&C the lab called to tell me that they had confirmed the “products of conception” (meaning my baby). They told me that my child was a girl and had a chromosomal disorder that was a fairly common but random occurrence. It gave me some closure; we were able to give her a name.

My fragile mind struggled with my faith in God. I was so angry at God. I could not figure out what I had done to deserve this. Then I remembered that several years ago, I had helped my Chinese roommate by accompanying her to have an abortion because she wasn’t comfortable in English and wanted someone to act as a translator. I was convinced that my participation in that event was why this had happened to me. My views changed from pro-choice to pro-life.  During this time, my sister-in-law gave birth to a beautiful girl. Jealousy knifed my heart. It took everything for me not to break down when I met the baby. But all in all, I was blessed. I conceived again in three months. I always wonder what would have happened to my sanity if I had not. Maybe God really does not give us things that we cannot handle. I could not have made it through that time without the support I had from my husband, my in-laws, and my parents.

My new pregnancy did not wipe everything away. Instead, the innocent excitement that I had felt with my first pregnancy was all gone. I was filled with terror; every prenatal appointment was a huge emotional trial. I could barely look at my husband’s face when we went in for the Doppler appointment. He was just as traumatized as me. I lived that pregnancy one day at a time. It was considered a high-risk pregnancy due to my earlier miscarriage and my insulin-resistance. I faithfully checked my blood sugar 9 times every day. I ate every 2 hours making sure to consume at least 1 egg or 2 egg-whites a day (even though I hate eggs). I could not understand women who complained about not being able to drink/smoke/eat what they want during their pregnancy. I envied those women who were blissfully and happily pregnant, because I could never relax. I could never take it for granted. After 33 weeks, I counted my child’s movement twice a day and in my 36th week I called the doctor in panic when she hadn’t moved 20 times in an hour. He had me admitted right away and after 19 hours of labor, I gave birth to my daughter (my second daughter) three weeks before her due date . She was only 4 lbs 10 oz – that’s less than 2 kgs! She had to pass a car seat test before we could take her home. She developed jaundice on the day of my discharge and the doctors suggested that I leave her in the hospital to be cared for while I was discharged (because my insurance will not pay to extend my stay). I refused; I told them I am not leaving a hospital again without my baby. We would pay what it cost for home care. When we put her in the car seat and drove home, she slept so soundly that I was afraid that she wasn’t breathing. Only when she was about 3 months old, I started relaxing and that was when the healing finally began.

I was a lot more relaxed for my third pregnancy. Today my daughter is ten and my son is seven. They both know about their elder sister who died in my womb. We talk about her often and they ask lots of questions about her. Time fills the void, but the scars remain. Since this experience I end every day with prayer; prayer for a safe pregnancy for anyone that I know is pregnant, prayer for success for anyone who is trying to get pregnant, and prayer for strength for anyone who has an ill child.

A few years ago, I was working as a public relations manager at a firm. Over the course of my time there, some HR duties were added to my job description. I was asked to talk to and discipline a young woman whose performance had fallen. I was surprised when I had a look at her file, which showed her as a hard worker whose work had deteriorated suddenly. I asked her to a private meeting and went with my instincts. I asked her if something was going on in her life that was affecting her work. I told her to think of me as a friend and talk to me. After much hesitation, she confided that she had just suffered her second miscarriage. That was all it took to bring it all back. I let her cry and told her that I understood and narrated my story. I advised her to take time out for herself and to ignore the pressure from her family. I told her that I will pray for her and made her promise me that she would let me know when she finally gave birth. I haven’t heard good news from her yet, and I haven’t stopped praying for her either.

So, this is the tale of my deepest sorrow. I struggled and I don’t know if I overcame, but I did survive. I allow myself to think of my first daughter on April 22nd, June 18th and December 31st (her due date) of each year. I hope this post brings comfort to those who have had a similar experience, sensitivity and understanding to those who haven’t, and hope to those who (unfortunately) might experience it in the future. I ended up having three children like I wanted; two of them live with me in this life. They share the space in my heart where the other one lives forever.

-AB