July 20, 2015
It is a wedding like none other. The bride changes into a white tee shirt and white sweat pants. She wears no veil, her hair has barely grown back after chemo. Yet she is the healthy one. The groom is helped into a clean hospital gown for the ceremony, then his bed is wheeled into the Quite Room down the hall of the Palliative Care Unit. He is mere days away from his death. The hospital Chaplain begins by reminding everyone gathered that this is not a legal wedding, only a spiritual union. When the Chaplain recites the vows she carefully omits any reference to “Till death do us part”.
Only a month prior I had attended the wedding of my beloved niece, hers was a wedding built upon hope and potentiality. Both of them are young, healthy, and destined to produce beautiful children. Her guests gifted them items which anticipated the future they will pursue together: china sets, furnishings, small appliances. Their vows spoke of leaving behind one kind of life in exchange for beginning anew. Now here I am weeks later crammed into a small room with Mary and John, a few hospital staff and scant family members.
Mary, a woman in her mid-forties, is stage three cancer, on a break from her treatment. She tells me it was John who had nursed her through the worst of it, while he was dealing with his own. As the bride clutches her bouquet with one hand, she weeps uncontrollably when she takes the grooms’ right hand with her own. It feels to me as though this is more a funeral than a wedding.
Then the hospital’s Music Therapist sings and plays on the keyboard the couple’s theme song, Love Me Tender made famous by Elvis Presley. As she sings the plaintive lyrics, Love me long, Never let me go, I wonder why the bride is committing herself to widowhood. Since this is not a legal marriage, she will not benefit financially. There will be no children, no memories forged together, no growing old with each other. Perhaps this wedding is a celebration of a shared past for this middle-aged couple?
But what was that shared past built upon? They met in the waiting room of their oncologist’s office a few years ago. They bonded over shared grief, they shared the same anxiety for an uncertain future. There could not have been much physical passion in the relationship as both were undergoing debilitating treatments. Neither could have afforded vacations together, as cancer robs people of both time and finances. Was it their mutual dependence that they were celebrating in marriage? Was it about gratitude? While traditional marriage contracts end till death do us part, perhaps they have fanciful notions of being united after death in some spiritual paradise?
If so, is love eternal, something that outlives the human body? It made me reflect on the very nature of this most abstract of human emotions. It seems to me that undiluted love is never deliberate. The unlikeliest of people love each other for no apparent reason. But isn’t this type of love without a gain the purest form of love? When I think of the people in my life that I love I cannot give you a reason why I love them, I just do. Sure, I can list a dozen things about them I admire and appreciate, but then I can also list a dozen things about them I wish they could/would change. Pure love is selfless, it neither demands a profit in the future, nor does it borrow from a shared past. Perhaps love in its purest form lives intensely in the present, the here and now.
Far from that being a romantic notion, I think it is entirely rational. There is a reality to the here and now that the past and the future do not enjoy. The past lives entirely in my memory and is subject to revision and forgetting. The future lives in my imagination and it too is variable, swayed by either hope or fear. But the fleeting present has a stability, a centre around which all change happens. Where is that centre located? Is it not within me? Don’t I declutter the present by gravitating to the things I love and I push away the things I don’t. Even in my imaginary future I fear the the things I do not love and I plot to be with all that I do love. Similarly, my strongest memories are of all that I have loved and I try hard to forget the things that brought me pain. Love is the centre around which my past, present and future revolves.
So perhaps John and Mary discovered this fact because of their circumstance. When everything in their lives was stripped away by the cancer, they were left with nothing but the essence: the love at the very core of presence. Perhaps they discovered that eternity is not about everlasting time, rather it is the core around which the past, present and future revolve. This core that lends reality and stability to each fleeting present moment.
September 2, 2014
I had befriended Carlos when he first arrived at the hospital with his leukemia diagnosis, back in January. He was a spirited man, full of stamina and a relentless determination to fight his prognosis. Over the months I have listened to him as he grappled with each step of his body’s slow and painful decline. There have been days when he was filled with hope, and days when despair overwhelmed him. My role as Volunteer at the hospital has meant that I was limited in my help to listening to him, which turned out to be exactly what he needed. His wife could only cope with her impending widowhood through denial: she refused to believe the doctors, she refused to entertain the possibility that he might die, and even now when it is imminent, she will not allow anyone to speak of it in her presence.
There is a clearly defined pathway towards death among those lucky enough to die in controlled environments, over a defined period of time. The senses pack up one after another: taste is the first to leave, then smell. Patients lose appetite weeks before they stop eating entirely. Next, sight packs up, the eyes lose details, they only see shapes. Touch is among to last to leave, so hand-holding is particularly a comfort to them. Speech becomes more slurred as the lungs fill with fluids and loved ones, unable to understand the dying, sometimes stop speaking to them because they assume the patient cannot hear either. In fact, the last to leave is sound, compounding to the patient’s frustration. Most maddeningly, the mind speeds up as though it is picking up the slack for the other faltering senses. Often patients become so restless that they are unable to sleep. As the final end nears, it is as though the mind is rattling at the cage of the body, demanding to be released. It reminds me of wild birds when they are first caged. Or perhaps more aptly, of wild men when they are first jailed, pounding their fists on the metal doors, screaming to be let out.
We forget how trapped our minds and our desires are within the confines of our torsos and limbs. As long as we have the ability to walk to the shopping mall, to drive to the restaurant or the night club, we delude ourselves that we are free to chase our desires. “Free at last,” chanted the Civil Rights champions of the American ’60s, against the shackles of “For Whites Only” restrictions imposed upon their mobility. Oppressed peoples around the world are keenly aware of the limitations placed upon their desires. They imagine that if the laws are somehow changed, that national boundaries rearranged, then they would be free. But is that really so?
Aren’t our desires stifled by our very bodies? Not even Bill Gates, not even Mr. Putin is able to satisfy all of his visions. Even the young and the healthy are unable to soar as high as their imaginations. We kid ourselves that someday, when we have enough money, when we have enough time and fewer obligations, we will be able to accomplish all that we have dreamed. But when the body becomes immobile, when we are left staring at a hospital ceiling, that quiet panic inside grows louder and louder. We can no longer deny that our body is this heavy iron manacle we have been lugging around all of our lives. Then the mind yearns to be released from its fetter.
Death is seldom the way it is in the movies: think of the annoyingly virtuous Miss Melanie in Gone With the Wind, softly whispering her final goodbyes. And yet those violin-scored deaths of Hollywood are not entirely fiction. Some thirty years ago I witnessed my own mother’s passing. In her last moments she displayed such other-worldly grace that it permanently shattered the atheism of my youth. My mother, like Miss Melanie, belonged to those generations of women who valued the needs of others before their own. In doing so they figured out tricks for managing their own desires, a concept that sounds alien to contemporary ears. We have lost the skills to be aware of our desires, we no longer have the tools with which to question, to deconstruct, and to dismantle our desires. We are helpless to resist consumerism and only know to indulge our wants.
As I said my goodbye and stood up to leave, Carlos grabbed my hand and pleaded with those bulging, black eyes of his to give him some kind of peace. What could I say or do? How could I tell him it was much too late? There is no quick fix, no magic mantra, no holy oil. That the work should have been done when he was fit and coherent, that real spiritual calm takes years of dedicated self examination?
Rest in Peace, my friend, rest in peace.
May 26, 2014
Shivakumar’s hospitable food arrives cellophane wrapped, the main dish of boiled cauliflower and some kind of brown meat patty is obviously microwaved because it cools quickly and the fibers have that lacerated quality to them. I am embarrassed to serve this food to my elderly Sri Lankan patient. He is accustomed to his wife’s delicately spiced cooking. I have no doubt that were she still alive she would bring him lovingly-prepared tupperware containers of curried prawns and string hopper noodles. I also have no doubt that as a consequence, his recovery would be so much swifter.
One can hardly blame the hospitals for their low-cost approach to feeding patients. They survive on ever-shrinking budgets. Patients’ needs and tastes are so diverse that it would require the skills of a master chef to keep each patient content for his entire length of stay. Although all meals are vetted by a trained nutritionist, I can’t help but wonder: does food nourish more than body?
Of course, any master chef will tell you that food which is presented aesthetically, with the right color combinations, fresh green garnish, on beautifully crafted ceramics will taste better to the recipient than if the same meal were slopped together on a styrofoam container. They say we taste with our eyes as well as our tongues. Isn’t that because a thoughtfully presented meal signals to the mind that care and attention has been lavished on this meal? Isn’t it this tenderness that tastes so delicious?
Recently I was treated by my sister to a week of meals I had not tasted since my childhood. As we reminisced about our mutual upbringing, I was unaware that she was making notes of the flavors and tastes that I was sub-consciously missing. She continually surprised me by making for me obscure dishes I had forgotten I loved. Nothing elaborate, street foods, perhaps even peasant comfort foods one might say. Yet nothing ever tasted quiet so good to me (and I have dined at some of the best restaurants). Was it the care she put into the meals? The love and attention? Yes, plus one other vital ingredient.
A few years back I eagerly accompanied my friend to a newly-opened restaurant in our neighborhood. We had observed the extensive renovation done to the building and had high hopes for the food. Being vegetarian I am accustomed to having limited choices in menus. The sole vegetarian dish listed was a pasta dish which I verified was carcass-free with my waiter before I ordered it. As soon as I bit into the meal I was assaulted by the crunch and fetid taste of a dead chicken. I summoned the waiter and sent back the meal. He took the plate to the kitchen but returned apologetically, explaining that the chef thought that there was so little meat in that dish he didn’t expect that I should mind it. I was appalled by the blatant disrespect this chef had for me and my choices. To this day I hesitate to dine in that place.
It occurred to me then that we invest too much trust in the persons cooking our meals. It is a well-known food industry trick that should a guest act belligerent, rude or snooty, the cooks and the servers have ways of getting even. Having once worked in the food industry I have personally witnessed cooks spitting into the food, waiters pissing in the soup, then watching as the clueless guests devoured their just desserts. And yet we continue to trust the people working behind those steel doors of restaurant kitchens?
Materialists would argue that food is only about the nutrition in the thing eaten. Five-star gourmet meals comes out the same mess in the toilet bowl as the machine-made TV dinners. Spiritualist say that beyond the aesthetics, food is a reflection of the person who cooks it. They say the moods and emotions of the cook are transferred and digested through the meal. Eat the food cooked by an angry or depressed person and you ingest his hate. Likewise, eat the food of one who is cheerful and loving and that meal will nourish you emotionally as well as physically. I think one reason your mother’s food is always the best is because it is psychologically linked to your first meals from her bosom. It is no small coincidence that the most influential chefs of today have a joyous sensuality about them: Jamie Oliver, Padma Lakshmi, Nigella Lawson.
In Toronto there is a restaurant called O Noir, which serves food in complete darkness. As soon as you enter there is only pitch black, a blind waiter guides you to your table. When the food arrives you can’t see what it looks like. You don’t know if it is exactly as you ordered. You don’t know who served it and who cooked it. You taste it based on, well, blind faith.
May 20, 2014
Geraldine is a chatterbox with a mind far quicker than her eighty-eight-year body. As I sit listening to her I discover I hardly need to nod or interject the obligatory ‘yes’. After she is done telling her rich life story, she throws me a curveball. “When I fell sick and they brought me to the hospital’s emergency, honestly, I just didn’t care what was to happen next.” She kept her gaze steady before her, not bothering to see if I was startled her frank remark. “It’s not that I wanted to die, but truthfully, I have lead such a full life that I didn’t care if it was time for me to go.” Had she bothered to look at my expression, she would not have seen even a hint of surprise. I hear such sentiments from the elderly on a routine basis.
Yet a few months back one ninety-year-old man ignited a debate in Toronto by electing to choose the time and manner of his own exit from the world. John Allan Lee was an intelligent and self-aware man. He was a professor at a prestigious university and the author of several non-fiction books. He chose to leave the world now, before infirmity and dementia had set in. He did not want the indignity of waiting for death in an institution: having strangers change his diaper, being told when to eat and when to sleep. A practicing Buddhist, he knew that his awareness would not diminish, it would witness the agonizingly slow decimation of both his mind and his body.
His methodically planned suicide caused many of us to think very deeply about what choices we might make when our time comes. There was a time in my life when my immediate response would have been to dismiss any such notion as unethical. I used to believe strongly that if a person takes his own life he is then doomed to return in his next life to the same set of circumstances and/or difficulties that compelled him to end his own life. I am no longer that dogmatic.
As I listened to John Allan Lee tell the world of his reasoning, I was nearly convinced that his decision was a wise and reasonable one. Then he said, “”I’m finished. I don’t have a bucket list. I don’t have an unfinished agenda.” Since he was no longer able to physically pursue the activities that had once brought him joy, he saw no purpose in lingering.
It seemed to me there was a huge flaw in that logic. Speaking as someone who has undergone a transformative physical journey because of my own terminal illness, I too once felt as Mr. Lee did. That life was over, it had been swell and what is the point of taking my pills and keeping alive. But that physical journey was also accompanied by a psychically transformative journey. I was no longer useful to society doing what I used to do, but I still had much to contribute. I discovered new joys, new strengths, new skills I had never imagined.
Co-incidentally that same week a young father expressed to me more or less the same sentiments as Mr. Lee. This younger man was left physically debilitated by cancer and his desperation was obviously from emptiness, and not from fullness. “I won’t be able to do things I used to,” he complained. “I won’t be able to help my sons in the way a father is supposed to.”
“But what about helping them with a calm, reassuring presence?” I asked.
I am fortunate enough to have a large and loving family network. Recently I spent a week with my two-year-old grand-nephew who brought me such joy by his presence and his being. He taught me that I could share in his natural joy without having to do anything in particular. I had simply to be there with him. He does not have full language yet, but he sure understands the link between love and attention.
It reminded greatly of my own toddler years when there were many such loving adults who visited our home. I still remember them with fondness, though I cannot recall their faces or what they said or what they played with me. I simply recall the security and love of their presence.
Isn’t that plenty?
Ultimately I think the right to die is a personal choice but I do have concerns that sometimes people do not consider the serendipitous happiness that might lay before them. I have concerns that people underestimate the contributions they make to the lives of others without any conscious effort. I question whether the Right to Die is really the same as Dying With Dignity?
March 3, 2014
Another Valentine’s, another rejection. Sometimes I think the only reason this secular holiday is popular is that everyone has been rejected spectacularly at some time.
My shift at the cancer hospital happened to fall on Valentine’s Day this year. My partner and I were tasked with delivering personalized love notes, along with a heart-shaped candy, to each of the three-hundred or so patients. Even the severely sick were visibly moved by this small gesture from the volunteers. Each managed to put aside his considerable agony to beam a smile. And then there was Yvonne.
She was seated on a chair, fully clothed and so well groomed that an innocent might have mistaken her for a visitor, not a patient. She saw the candy and card in my hands and even before I could speak, she curtly said, “No. Thank you.” She was the only patient in the entire hospital to have rejected a token of affection made by people who sought nothing in return.
Was it against her religion? Was she simply unkind? I could not figure it out. The more I struggled to understand, the clearer it became to me that I was asking the wrong questions. Why did her simple rejection bother me so? What was this need in me that compelled me to devote all this effort, all this time in unravelling the reasons for her rejection?
The very same week I had a phone call from my niece who is in the midst of a job search. Being a fresh graduate she is inexperienced, and is getting rather dejected from her avalanche of rejections. Being the old coot that I now am, I indulged her in a trip down nostalgia lane because, you know, everything in the old day was so much tougher. We didn’t have internet back in those days, I said. We looked for work by literally pounding the pavement, handing over hundreds of resumes to disinterested receptionists.
At times the receptions would give a sneering perusal then place them in tray, no doubt to be emptied into the trash. This is not the same as critique, which allows for negotiation. A person can learn, can improve from criticism, whereas rejection has a finality about it. Perhaps that is why it feels like a mini-death. As the rejections mounted, I recall it took more and more willpower to rise up each morning and start the job search anew. Being young I had so few tools with which to deconstruct the rejections. It was very easy for others to tell me to not take them personally. But on that typed CV was a summary of all my achievements, all my worth, all that I believed was best about me. Of course the rejections were personal.
Little had I realized then that these rejections were only the appetizers for adulthood. There would be rejections in love. Rejections from friends. Rejections from publishers, banks, the tax office. Rejections based summarily upon race, age, gender, sexuality. It seems to me life is choked full of rejections, both big and small, and each rejection scars our being like an indelible tattoo, with more accumulating over time. The most striking aspect about my work with homeless men was how burdened by rejection these men were. Rejected too often by others, in time they displayed a kind of self-rejection. It showed in how the men carried themselves, the way they sat and the way they looked at me.
Of course rejection is unavoidable, it is woven into the very fabric of existence. Without rejection, evolutionary natural selection would not be possible ( you and I would still be amebae). Without rejection we would retain the toxins from the food we eat. The freedom of choice we so value would be impossible. In fact, without rejection the world might be a bland, mediocre place, thoroughly devoid of accomplishment or excellence. And wouldn’t acceptance lose its jumping-for-joy sweetness? In fact, I realized, Yvonne’s solo rejection of my Valentine had highlighted for me that every other patient had deeply appreciated the same gesture. Then I thought about her cancer, which by definition is unchecked cell growth. In other words, when the body fails to reject new growth, it is fatal for the organism.
I think sometimes rejections feel personal because we forget that everyone is rejected at some time. Harry Potter was reject by twenty seven publishers;The Dallas Buyers Club was rejected by movie studios eighty-seven times across twenty years, and Van Gogh only ever sold three paintings in his lifetimes (bought by his brother out of pity). Even though none of us can avoid being rejected, I do think we have the power to stop the rejections from shaping us. All too often we have a habit of shrugging off rejections as though they don’t matter, but if we ignore them they stick around permanently. I prefer to neither accept nor avoid rejections but to look at them, to question them, to find their context. In my experience by doing that the rejections disappear from our posture, from the furrows on our faces and the creases of our clothes.
January 27, 2014
While the rest of us were tucking into our Christmas feast, Barbara was beginning her fast. No, she is no vain fashionista, simply a woman in hospital with a severe stomach issue. Whenever she swallows there is intolerable pain from her gastric region and so the doctors have denied her food and water till it clears. Four weeks later she is still not allowed food or water. Barbara shuts the door of her room when the hospital’s lunch trays arrive for neighboring patients because even a whiff of the food drives her insane with jealousy. It may be rehydrated mashed potatoes and microwaved fish but when you are deprived of food for as many days as she has, it still smells like the best gourmet ever.
She grabs several cooking magazines from my trolley and says mischievously, “Food porn.” She dreams about food and she says whenever she closes her eyes the only images in her mind’s eye are, well,… you know.
I saw Barbara again this week. “Still not eating?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “but I don’t think about it anymore. It is her experience, as well as mine, that after a length of time without food, you cease to get hungry. It is as though the stomach has given up and put away all its usual tricks to get you to eat. I wonder, is hunger just another kind of addiction?
It seems to follow the same pattern as any other addiction. There is a dependency. You get cranky and irritable when deprived. Denied too long, you experience withdrawal symptoms. But persist and you reach a state of freedom. You no longer crave, you no longer feel the urge to kill to get your fix.
The idea is not new. Religions have been promoting fasting as good for the soul for centuries. We used to hear myths about yogis who lived for decades without food and water. They survived purely on the energy derived from the Cosmos (much in the same way as fashion models survive without eating purely on the energy derived from attention). Perhaps fasting’s value lies in demonstrating that we don’t need to eat as regularly as we believe?
Mahatma Gandhi famously survived twenty-eight days without food. During the 1981 Hunger Strikes by Irish prisoners (also against the British) ten of the protesters survived without eating for between forty-six and seventy-three days. And then there’s me, getting cranky if I happen to miss a meal.
I am one of those people who has no store of body fat. Denied a meal, my blood sugars dip to a point where a migraine is imminent. I notice that when I do not eat, the stress response kicks in almost immediately. I am unable to concentrate, on edge with elevated adrenalin and neurotoxins floating within my body. So I never fast for recreation, though for medical treatments I have had to endure both short and long periods of fasting.
What is interesting about fasting is how we crave certain foods more than others. The hidden desires entangled within biological hunger reveal themselves. We see that our hunger has morphed from a simple survival mechanism to this monstrous hydra-like creature with multitude tentacles of needs and wants. The marketing industry has exploited these needs throughly in getting people addicted to salty and fatty foods. There is a reason fresh fruits and vegetables are always located near the entrance of the supermarket. Once a shopper has satisfied his need to buy nourishing foods, he is much more inclined to indulge his addictions for ice cream pies and deep-fried pizza.
Then there is this whole cultural preference around food. When I was at an ashram in India, there was a boy from Mexico studying with me. During his first week I caught him in the cafeteria rolling the Indian rotis into burritos around the curried vegetables. I had to laugh. Burritos are what his mother taught him to recognize as food, not this strange Indian meal. I personally love International cuisines, but as a vegetarian whenever I travel I am as suspicious of local cuisines as any befuddled tourist.
Few things are as unique about a person as his specific taste in food: the type of spicing he prefers, the vegetables he prefers, the obsession for meats (either indulging or abstaining). Psychologically also, some eat for comfort, some eat as a social activity, others find it impossible to eat without reading or watching the TV at the same time.
Eat we must but I believe the benefit of fasting lies in its ability to free us from insistence upon specific foods as well as specific conditions. It can make us more adaptable, more flexible to changing situations around us. It can help us to grab control over our meanest emotions.
And oh yes, it can help us empathize with people such as Barbara.
January 20, 2014
Tom is a life-long smoker and has no intentions of quitting just because he has emphemsyma. He has never exercised in his life, loves his fried foods and lots of it. The more we chat the less respectful he is about my self-care lifestyle. “What, you are trying to live forever?”
No, I say, but before I can finish my sentence he is in the midst of a violent coughing fit and I have to fetch his nurse. In a way he answered his own question, though I doubt if he will understand that. I do not expect to live forever. I do not even expect a normal lifespan given my condition. What I would like though would be to go gracefully and without too much fuss. To that end I take great care of my nutrition, I exercise, I try to sleep well and I meditate. I do everything within my power to ensure quality of death.
Yes, I said quality of death. We are in such denial over death that we prefer to use the term quality of life instead of what we really mean. After all, isn’t quality of life what Tom has been pursuing all his life? He has done precisely whatever made him happy, damn the consequences. “Divine decadence,” as Sally Bowles famously called it. In that iconic song of hers, Life is a cabaret, she speaks of her friend Elsie who lived fast and died young but was the happiest corpse she had ever seen.
All fine and dandy in fiction but statistical research says otherwise. People with a history of alcohol abuse, drug usage, obesity not only die sooner but worse, they have a prolonged and agonized descent into death. Then I meet Angela. As I troll the cancer wards, I see that life is never as simple as that.
Although she is one-third of Tom’s age, Angela is also undergoing the same excruciating regime of chemo as him. Her skin is a yellow-green, her bald head is wrapped in a scarf. She asks, “Why me?” It is oh so tempting to dismiss Angela as suffering from an overdose of self-pity. After all, isn’t the unspoken half of why me?: “Why not someone else?” But not so fast. Angela is a self-confessed health-nut, a semi-vegetarian, a dance teacher and so she exercises for a living, a non-smoker, a social drinker and has never used even so much as an Asprin, never mind street drugs. When Angela asks, “Why me?”, I truly have no answer.
Perhaps it is bad genes. Perhaps Angela is plain unlucky, whatever that means. I even had one young woman say to me that she believed her cancer and imminent death were the result of a curse put upon her by someone who hated her. All I can do is shrug my shoulders. Much of death, as well of life, is random, mysterious, follows no logic or reason. Oh, yes, we can weave whatever narrative we feel comfortable with but there are always far too many exceptions to ever explain away everything.
As I walk home I question why is it exactly that I do all the many things I do for my long-term good when realistically, my long-term is not going to be that long? Is it because it makes me feel pious and somehow better than others? Am I as selfish as the people who never move past “Why me?” Perhaps. I also know that my self-care increases my stamina and pain tolerance. People who practice self-care are better able to withstand extreme trauma such as bone marrow transplants or severe heart attacks.
I think at every step of life we have to make a choice: pleasure now or avoid pain later. It is rarely a clear-cut choice and often I make the wrong one, but overall I opt for the greater good because that is my nature. There is no right or wrong in that. I am no better or worse than Sally Bowles or Tom or Angela. I don’t discount there are statistical probabilities for sickness and death, but ultimately both are random. So instead of asking, Why me?, I prefer to ask, Why not me?
January 14, 2014
My ten-year-old grand-nephew was gifted a sketchpad and pencils. He was so perplexed about what to do with them that I sat him down and gave him a few pointers on the fundamentals of drawing. Is art even still taught in schools? Perhaps to his generation it is about as useful as penmanship or the art of letter-writing. Doesn’t every kid have a cellphone with which to snap pictures of anything remotely interesting (thereafter to be Instagramed). So why should they bother mastering the skill of drawing or painting?
In my day (yes, I know I sound like an old fogey) we learned to draw before we could write. It taught us to hold the pencil correctly, to discovers shapes and curves, all of which I think made reading and writing that much easier. As soon as that first pencil was placed in my hand I fell in love with drawing. It was a way of making sense of the chaos of colors and shapes in a world which was still new to me. It is a hobby I have since cherished throughout my lifetime and as I matured, it has gifted to me new skills at each step of the way.
In my youth I sat through many life drawing classes, and yes, we drew nude models. “Is it very sexy to draw someone naked?” was a question I used to get asked repeatedly. “No,” I’d say. “We are taught to see shapes, textures, tones. We don’t have time to think of sex.” People rarely believed me. But it is true. Life drawing is training ourselves to deconstruct what we see. It is a skill that stays with you outside the life drawing workshop. Sexy magazine covers and advertising cease to hold sway in our minds. We learned not just to see, but to observe critically.
Whenever I travel I like to spend time in art museums. I am always amused by the young who do not know the art of observation. In Paris there is the Musee de l’ Orangerie which houses wall panels painted by Claude Monet of his garden at Givenry. The panels are curved such that if you sit in the correct spot you are as though transported into the garden itself. As I was sitting, a young tourist walked into the room with that typically bored stance of a put-upon teenager. Camera in hand, she snapped about a dozen images in the thirty seconds between her entrance and exit from the room. She had not been taught to put herself in the skin of the artist who painted the Les Nympheas. She did not have the faculty to experience, she could not share his feelings and his moods as he was composing this masterpiece. She is not alone in this; the camera serves to prevent tourists from observing or experiencing the very places and people they have come to see.
I am tempted to remind tourists that people literally died to preserve these art treasures. During the Second World War, one of many atrocities the Germans committed was the plunder of European art. During the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, or St Petersburg as it is now known, the German army surrounded the city for nearly three years and yet the residents put up a noble fight. They were cut off from all food supplies and electricity, yet they were determined the Germans should not get their hands on the art housed at the Hermitage Museum. The curators removed the canvases from their frames and hid the art in between walls in local homes or buried them in farmers’ fields. The curators hoped that when the city did inevitably fall, these works might be spared. They survived doing this work inside the museum by eating the glue that had held the canvases to their frames. The same happened in Paris. The French too risked their lives to save their treasures because to them it was much more than beautiful pictures they were saving, it was the very soul of Europe.
Of course the billions of digital images we now take so frivolously are destined for that invisible delete bin in cyberspace. We may have a laugh taking a selfie on the cellphone, but the masters delved deep into themselves to retrieve the images they painted. Learning to draw and paint teaches you the path to the unconscious mind. Drawing and painting requires the simultaneous consideration of so many skills (dexterity, tonal understanding, color, perspective, mood and atmosphere) that waking consciousness is not enough. It can only give attention to one thing at a time. However, the sub-conscious is where the fruits of practice and habit reside. The sub-conscious can juggle many things if the conscious has given attention to them in the past. The more you practice art, the better you understand the sub-conscious. So if anyone wants to seriously change her habits, the good and the ugly, she must work at them in the sub-conscious level. (No, Virginia, New Year’s resolutions do not work).
Of course no spiritual introspection is ever possible without understanding these deeper levels. That may be why all religions use art so freely.
I find myself now rediscovering my love for painting. This time round I am not so much concerned with the technique, but art as language. The unconscious mind speaks to itself in images, as anyone who has given attention to dreams can attest. I still love words but I also recognize that words are specific to a time and place, whereas art is universal. Art speaks the language of the collective sub-conscious, the underlying unity of all humanity.
I was very pleased to hear that my grand-nephew has now began drawing lessons after school. He asked his father (my nephew) if he could swap hockey practice for art in the New Year. If I played any small part in that then that is my gift to him.
December 23, 2013
The dinner table looked fabulous. The centerpiece was formal yet festive. The cutlery sparkled and its layout would have made the butler on Downtown Abbey proud. Each dish served tasted exactly as it was supposed to and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine. Then one of the guests returned from the bathroom and requested a toilet plunger. Never a good thing! Amidst all this sophistication, despite the attention to perfection, the drains chose to back up grease and gunk.
At first it felt like a slap in the face. But the more I thought about it the more grateful I was for this toilet disaster. That night, before I retreated to bed, I sat for a few minutes to empty my mind of the day’s events. This has been my routine for many years and I find it helps me to sleep well. Except on occasions when the day goes all too perfectly. Days when there is an abundance of joy, it is very difficult to turn my back on the day and retreat into the rest of sleep. The mind wants to relive the day. Despite a tired body’s demands, the mind recalls again and again each and every perfect moment.
On this night, even though the evening was a great success otherwise, I was able to shut it out from my mind because of this one mishap. So might there have been a technique for getting a good night’s sleep thrown up the drain along with the debris? Perhaps the secret to unwinding, the trick to falling into effortless sleep might be to find the small failures in the greater successes, the little sadness contained in that triumphant news. Oh I don’t mean one should cultivate an unhealthy pessimism, merely that whenever we desire to unburden the mind, we can use this little trick to stop it from ruminating uncontrollably.
I can’t count how many young cancer patients I have encountered who are fearful of death precisely because they grieve the loss of all the happiness they have previously enjoyed. Not a one of them regrets leaving behind financial worries or the physical misery of old age. It is the love of their families they mourn to leave. It is the absence from their daughter’s graduation, the non-attendance at the son’s wedding that brings emotional pain. Misery is something we forget naturally because our pride forbids us from revisiting old failures. Yet we indulge in what I will call crudely (but aptly) mental masturbation upon the happy successes in our life. Unable to let go of the happy and the beautiful, we then complain: meditation is so, so difficult.
The other day I wished a patient at the hospital a Merry Christmas simply out of polite habit. He glared back at me with a frown and then said, “Everyone is pressuring everyone else to have a perfect Christmas.” He then collapsed exhausted into his bed. I understood his frustration. Christmas, more than any other holiday, is supposed to be greeting card perfect: a light dusting of snow, a warm fire, a cheerful array of gifts under the tree and of course, congenial family sharing quality time together. No wonder Christmas has the highest suicide rate of the year. Many have no one in their lives. Some are too sick or too poor. And those of us who will attempt a Disney celebration will encounter clogged drains and other disasters.
Anyone who has experienced the perfect stillness of the mind will attest that that itself is paradise.