Category: Art

Stuck Again

When we last left our intrepid spiritual traveler, her altars had just reassembled themselves. Since then, I’ve just been letting them occupy their space and sink their energy tendrils into the house. I’ve also continued to work on my spiritual scrapbook like a madwoman. I don’t know what it is about that particular project that I find so appealing, but I really like it. My first scrapbook is over 75% full already: about 60 pages. I have another designated exclusively for a set of Buddhist and Hindu greeting cards I bought at Half Price Books a few years ago but have never used. I’ve sliced them in half for easy gluing and saved the backs for their descriptions.

There’s still a table full of altar-y stuff in the yoga room. It’s everything that hasn’t yet found a home elsewhere in the house. I’m leaving it there so my husband can pick through it and find things for his own altar space. I also wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it all. I can identify a few things that I don’t want any more, but most of it I like and want to keep. Most of it will go into a big plastic bin except for a few things that just really want to be out.

As usual, I’ve gotten stuck on another bit of the Spiritual Nomad instructions. Since the first week, I’m supposed to have been doing breathing exercises/meditations for a few minutes each day in front of my altar spaces, whether empty or full. I haven’t done any yet. I think it’s because the word “meditation” or the phrase “breathing exercise” instills anxiety in me as I remember past attempts to do these things and how frustrating it was. I’m bipolar. It’s a daily effort to keep the inner dialogue quiet enough so that I can function in the rest of my life. Sitting down to do nothing but listen to my breath is akin to putting a megaphone from that dialogue’s mouth to the rest of my mind: it’s deafening.

So I’m trying to abandon the whole “listen to my breath” thing since that clearly doesn’t work for me. I’m going for a quiet conversation, instead, since shutting everyone up isn’t really an option. Not for now, anyway (I can see how it could be possible after a very long time of increasingly quiet mental conversations, though). Seeing the exercise in that way lessens the meditative anxiety, but not completely. There’s still that whole sitting still thing. I’m currently a bit of a large girl: sitting still for a long time isn’t very comfortable for me. I guess I could always sit in a chair instead of on the floor, or arrange myself differently on the floor. Laying down is always nice.

These are all excuses flung up by some even farther corner of my mind that really does NOT want me to do anything even remotely resembling meditation. It gets really angry when I try to come up with ways to get around these excuses, essentially poisoning my meditation practice with a lot of inwardly directed hostility. After a few sessions of that, I give up. Seriously, who the fuck wants to sit down with themselves and end up feeling like they’ve just had a horrible fight with someone? Which in essence, you did?

Little wonder, then, that I don’t think too highly of meditation. Monkey mind, my ass. More like an 800-pound gorilla running amok in my head. Plus my authority-driven mind is yammering at me that I’ve ruined the whole thing by skipping parts or doing them out of order. “You idiot, you’ve reassembled the altars before meditating in front of them for exactly seven days while standing on one foot and bleeding out a chicken! You’ve got the mixture all WRONG! The fabric of life itself is torn asunder!”

*sighs at self*

If I get nothing else out of Spiritual Nomad, it’s to lighten the fuck up and be more accepting of my particular bizarre flavor of Otherness Acknowledgement, which doesn’t like words and in general regards them to be flimsy human constructs that always fall short of truly describing their subject, as though they were mere shadows projected upon a wall, a la Plato. Which is an odd perspective to have as a writer. As such, it is the rare mantra that doesn’t feel completely forced (Sheila Chandra‘s “Om Namaha Shiva” is just such a mantra) and it’s difficult for me to come up with words to go along with a spiritual activity that don’t sound completely silly to me.

I know I’m just trying too hard. All of the non-verbal exercises have been extraordinarily helpful: I should give the others more of a chance instead of subverting them before I even try. All I have to do is sit down and light a candle and some incense, for heaven’s sake. Those are things I *like* doing! I should stop trying to ruin them with a lot of overanalysis. Then maybe it wouldn’t make part of me so angry to try to meditate or pray.

Fear, Doubt, Letting Go

I’ve been keeping to myself lately, from a virtual blogging aspect anyway.  Almost a month ago, I became gripped by a deep doubt about almost everything.  In particular, my writings here as well as my semi-private journal.  It was akin to suddenly feeling like the Emperor in his new clothes, as though I had been engaged in a massive and very public overshare.

I only barely managed to keep myself from outright deleting a number of posts, thanks to the urging of friends.  I still made several of them private, though.  I still can’t say exactly why, though I imagine it’s the same mindset that grips anyone who creates as a major part of their life.  Like a painter who suddenly decides something looks terrible and paints over the canvas.

I’m willing to bet it’s related to my still-faltering self-confidence and self-esteem, both of which took a major nose dive around the same time I decided that everything I had written for the last two months was utter and complete crap. When combined with the sense of nakedness and subsequent embarrassment at my self-perceived overshare, it’s unsurprising that I was so suddenly taken with the desire to virtually set my writing on fire.

However, the horses, as they say, have long ago left the barn.  While I shouldn’t really care what other people think of me in the first place, I should be comforted rather than fearful of the fact that, with a single exception, not a single person has removed themselves from my life nor have they said anything disparaging about my writing.  In fact, I’ve gotten a lot of very positive feedback and encouragement.  If a massive display of TMI was really something I had to worry about, I would have learned of it weeks ago.

Still, the feeling hasn’t gone away yet.  I wish I knew how to dispel these notions, because they’re keeping me from completing other major projects that have the potential to lift me out of the overall sense of uselessness I feel about my life.  Which is yet another attitude that should be filed under “patently absurd”, but I’ve yet to figure out how to truly convince myself of more positive things.

Part of the problem is having bipolar illness.  I’m still cycling, in the vernacular, and often whatever mental gains I make when I’m feeling up are completely undone while I’m feeling down, which is unfortunately the greater percentage of the two.  At least when I’m up, the most annoying things I have to deal with are insomnia and a greater than normal enthusiasm.  I’ll spare you the list of things I deal with when I’m down.

I’m trying hard to be patient, though I often feel that I’m failing at it.  It can take months or more than a year for someone to truly stabilize and achieve some sense of emotional equilibrium, and sometimes I just don’t feel that I’m up to the task.  At nearly 40 years of age, I feel a bit like Bilbo at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring: “….thin, like butter scraped over too much toast.”  A great part of me is like, “Really? *sigh* After everything else, do I really have to deal with this too?”

A great part of me is also very angry about the “everything else”, and it’s entitled.  Regrettably, there’s no one left to be angry at, and so in a very real sense I’m suffering the ill effects of a Buddhist parable – being angry at someone is like holding a hot coal with the intention of hurting them: you’re the one who gets burned.  Along with being patient, I’m also trying to cultivate “letting go”, even though it isn’t fair and I still bristle at some of the injustices in my life, mostly because I was never really given an opportunity to have my feelings be known.

I’ve never been someone who prayed, mostly because I didn’t feel I had anything to pray to, but that’s changing as I get a bit older.  Even if my prayers aren’t TO anyone or anything in particular, that doesn’t mean that sending out that energy and thought out into the Universe doesn’t do some good, even if it’s only inside me.  So my prayers of late have been that I might be better at letting go, better at acknowledging the good things that others see in me, and better at forgiveness.  I also pray for inner peace and an accepting, quiet mind.  Please, just a mind that will STFU every now and then.

the things that we’re concealing
will never let us grow
time will do its healing
you’ve got to let it go

Rush – Open Secrets on “Hold Your Fire”

Rites of Passage

Damn it’s a cold day in Central Texas today.  We have a saying around here: if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.  Two nights ago, it was 39F.  Last night it was 51F.  Tonight it will be 24F: right now it’s 39F at 1:30pm while yesterday it was in the 60s.  Yay Texas!  O_o  As I sat here in shorts, a t-shirt, fingerless gloves, socks, and a scarf (later I’ll add sandals to complete the true Austin look) bemoaning my house’s lack of decent insulation (houses here are built to shed heat, not hold onto it), for some unfathomable reason my long-standing desire for a tattoo came to mind.

I think it’s very important for people to mark the important events of their lives, whether they were positive or negative.  Those events are the kinks that make us into multi-faceted personalities.  Otherwise we’d be straight, boring lines of people who never did anything interesting.  Some people mark those events with yet another event, like a party or a really fancy evening out on the town.  Some people buy something special for themselves, as a reward or possibly a salve (who hasn’t gone shopping to alleviate some sort of personal distress?).  Others decide to mark their physical bodies in the form of tattoos, piercings, branding, or other forms of body modification.  I live in a city extremely accepting of the latter form of passage marking, so I see a lot of body modification.  Some of it really extreme (The Enigma lives here, or someone who looks a lot like him: I’ve shopped at the grocery store next to him and seen him in the park with his dogs, he’s a pretty nice guy).

My own parents had tattoos.  I remember going to the tattoo studio with my mom and stepdad when she got one of the two butterflies she had on each of her hips.  The artist gave me my own “tattoo” by putting a stencil on me.  My biological father also had a tattoo: he was a Marine and proudly displayed his forearm tattoo.  Then I got older and most of my friends had tattoos, including my husband.  Some of them were incredibly astonishing pieces of artwork and I admired them greatly.  I’ve wanted to get one of my own for some time but an early experience with nose piercing made me puncture shy.  I realize a nose piercing isn’t quite the same as a tattoo, but the psychological damage was done (damn thing never healed: I gave up after almost a year).

Not only that, I could never come up with a design that I really liked and felt like I would want on my body, forever.  Being a mehndi artist was helpful in this endeavour because it showed me that oftentimes, even if I absolutely adored a design I had done, I was sick of it after two or three weeks.  To be fair, mehndi is not tattooing.  A piece of mehndi art will look very different after a couple of weeks than it does after a couple of days, usually being much less attractive.  Nevertheless, I took that as a warning signal about my own potential fickleness regarding body art.  I relented somewhat when I did develop a few pieces of art that I found myself repeatedly applying, or redrawing to keep fresh.  I couldn’t help but notice that they were all bits of spiritual imagery: a yin-yang, an OM, and images of the Buddha or other deities.

One day I was recalling an old design I had kicked around of something phoenix-like.  I’m quite enamored with the imagery of the phoenix, a mythical bird that dies and then rises again from its own ashes.  I really couldn’t think of a more appropriate image to go with the course of my life, which has tried to kill me more than once, if not physically, then certainly emotionally.  Each time, albeit slowly sometimes, I would come back, usually stronger (Nietszche was right about that anyway!).  I was suddenly struck Muse-like by the image of what I wanted.

Wings.  Big ones.  Big, flaming phoenix wings with green, blue, and purple metallic scaly highlights.  A pile of ash beneath them, still glowing with fire.  I can visualize my own back in just the way I want it all to look.

Fantasies aside, that’s a shitload of ink to load into the skin and would probably take many, many hours (not to mention dollars) to fulfill.  Pieces like that are done in several sessions. While I will have my wings someday, I would like to have something to mark my growth over the last year or so a little sooner.  I still want a phoenix though.  Something like one of the following:

Just, smaller so it will fit on an arm or a leg.  I think it’s a remarkable accomplishment that I have made it to the age of not-quite-40 and bear very little resemblance to the highly disturbed people I had to grow up around.  My only major addiction was cigarettes (emphasis on the *was*), I still have all of my own teeth and of those have very few cavities, I have an amazing circle of friends without which I would surely have shuffled myself off the coil long ago, I have a husband who adores me and without whom I would have suffered a fate similar to having no friends, I have a daughter who tells me just about every day how awesome I am and how much she loves me, I have a home that I have been in for over twelve years (astonishing after moving an average of once for every year of my life until the age of 27), I have a small herd of cats that I have nurtured into old age and who provide me with a lot of joy and company, and I seem to have the ability to examine myself closely in the proverbial mirror and not only identify my flaws, but actually work on them.  I have a well-functioning bullshit meter, I know when someone’s trying to screw me over, I know where my boundaries are and aren’t afraid to point them out when others fail to notice (as politely as possible), and I am in general so different from my parents that I feel I give myself short shrift by not appropriately acknowledging those things.  By all psychological and hereditary indicators I should be a complete basketcase, and I’m not.  I really feel I ought to mark that.  I deserve that ackowledgement.

So that’s one of my goals this year.  To give myself an indelible reminder of how far I have come and how truly remarkable it is that I’m not dead, crazy, or suffering an extremely dysfunctional life of some form.

Now, my Texan fingers are cold.  I bid you adieu for the day.

The Death of a Passion

I’ve been going through a lot of changes this year, many of which I’m quite sure I’m not even aware of yet and won’t be until I can look back on 2010 with some context and perspective.  Astrologically speaking, this was the end of my Pluto Square, which is one of the top three major life-changing transits that people go through in their lives and correlates to what we refer to as the Midlife Crisis (TM).  I’ve spent a great deal of time for the last two years feeling like I have utterly wasted the first thirty-odd years of my life, mostly because where I am now has absolutely NOT met the expectations that I and others set up for me when I was growing up.  Looking back I realize I was shoehorned into the unenviable position of being that first family member who’s supposed to go to college and make something of themselves and redeem the rest of the family.

*great guffaws of laughter ensue*

Firstly, that’s a cruel thing to do to your children.  Secondly, given the people I grew up around, there’s no way I would ever do anything to make them look better than they were, either purposefully or unconsciously.  So I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to extricate myself from those expectations, and believe me, it was the self-imposed ones that gave me the most trouble.  They had their hooks in good.

During that process, I went through a lot of ruminating about what it is that makes me happy, what it is that I feel is supposed to make me happy, the difference between the two, and how to go about setting my path up properly so that I actually AM happy.  Or at the very least, content.  I often wonder if true happiness isn’t a pipe dream and that the most any of us can hope for is contentment.  But that’s another post.

Oddly, I wound up ditching one of the things that had made me extremely happy for several years: mehndi, the art of applying henna paste to the skin in decorative patterns.  I learned how to do mehndi back in 2000 when a friend of mine had a workshop in which she prepared a massive bowl of henna and then gave everyone little plastic cups, paintbrushes, and toothpicks to draw on themselves with.  I sat down with my cup and my brush and drew a spiral on my left palm.  I carefully left the paste to dry for a few hours, then flaked it off and stared with utter wonder at the entrancing orange stain the green mud had left upon my hand.  That was only the beginning.

Through the magic of chemistry, the dye molecule in henna, lawsone, oxidizes with the air, slowly turning darker and changing color from orange to red to brown over the next 48-72 hours.  Indeed, a mehndi pattern is a living piece of art, for it is different from day to day, sometimes hour to hour.  I spent those two to three days utterly entranced by my hand.  I would find myself just staring at it, marveling at the color and the small details of the palm of my hand that I had heretofore never seen.  Mehndi drew my attention to details of my own body and as such was extremely grounding.  Something I have always needed.

The next Monday after the campout we were all attending, I went to an Indian grocery store as soon as it was open and bought my first box of henna.  Reshma brand, $1.99 for an 8 oz. box.  Possibly some of the crappiest henna available, though I didn’t know it yet.  I also went to BookPeople, Austin’s finest bookstore, to look for books.  I found a copy of Loretta Roome’s “Mehndi”, which to this day is one of the most beautiful books about henna ever published, and is regrettably now out of print.  With that box of powder and that book, a passionate obsession was born.  I spent the next two years deeply engaged in exploring this strange form of body art that almost no one in the West understood beyond knowing that Madonna had some on her hands in her “Frozen” video.

I took a break from mehndi when I got pregnant with my daughter.  The last piece I did before she was born was in honor of her impending arrival.

Obviously since my hands were constantly busy for the next two to three years after Zoe was born, there was zero opportunity to do mehndi.  I doubt I would have wanted to even if I had the time, for I was utterly exhausted and depressed for those first years.  As she got older, though, I slowly had the opportunity to rekindle my art.

In 2006, I found an online community of mehndi artists at The Henna Page, a website run by a woman who probably knows more about henna and mehndi than any other living soul on the planet.  In fact, she has a PhD in henna and its history, which extends back for many thousands of years and predates virtually any other form of body adornment.  Through that community I was exposed to more patterns and techniques, not to mention finally having a group of people with whom I could talk about my art.

The following year, I had the opportunity to attend the Sin City Henna Conference in Las Vegas, which will remain a singularly beautiful week in my memory for as long as I live.  For the first time, I got to watch other people do mehndi.  Up to that point, it had just been me for the previous seven years.  I had been learning and practicing in a vacuum, the bell jar to which was lifted and thrown away when I went to Vegas.  I did very little art that week, but I watched, and it sunk in.  I returned home to find that my abilities as an artist had easily tripled.

I finally felt worthy to do what my friends had been encouraging me to do since I had started seven years before: start a business.

Enter Laksmi Skin Art, later to be Bodhi Body Art.  Laksmi is the Hindu goddess of prosperity, fertility, and abundance.  She is said to live within the designs themselves, which is why Hindu brides and grooms are always decorated with mehndi, so that the blessings of Laksmi will be bestowed upon the newly married couple.  The tradition of wedding mehndi is deep and rich.  Some traditions call for the husband’s name to be hidden in the bride’s designs for him to find on their first night together: he can do nothing more with her until he finds his name (that sounds so fun! and can you get more romantic?).  Mehndi had always been a meditative practice for me as well as an artistic one.  I felt it would be rude to attempt to turn something so sacred into a business without properly honoring Laksmi.

Regrettably, my business never did very well.  I live in a city where mehndi is fairly accepted and there were already several well-entrenched artists here with whom I had to compete.  I also soon discovered that competition is fierce and unfriendly, with a couple of exceptions.  I suffered through being outright ignored by other artists as well as having my art stolen from my website by yet another, who didn’t seem to understand that just because she found it on Google image search didn’t mean it was free for her to take.

Not to mention that I was increasingly battling the growing trend of “black henna”, which isn’t henna at all: it’s concentrated black hair dye (paraphenyldiethylamine, PPD) made into a paste and drawn on the skin in the same sorts of patterns.  It stains almost instantly, lasts for weeks, and happens to be a potent toxin that renders many people highly allergic to just about anything made of certain kinds of plastic.  It also leaves scars in the shape of the original design.  And the unknowing public LOVES it, because it’s fast, easy, cheap, and long-lasting.  Reactions to it happen sometimes weeks after the initial application, and may also happen after using it for a long time without incident.

I also had another mark against me: I’m not Indian.  Now, before someone gets all upset and accuses me of being racist, please understand that’s not where I’m coming from.  The tradition of mehndi as associated with weddings is deeply entrenched in family as well as religion, and I cannot say that if I were an Indian that I would not also want another Indian, preferably a family member, to do mine or my daughter’s wedding mehndi.  That is their sacred tradition, and I am not disparaging that.  I was simply not what that demographic in my city wanted, and the other areas of business were fairly monopolized by the other artists.

Nevertheless, it was a contributor in a whole melange of factors that eventually led to my abandoning my business this year.  The sacred thread that I tried to keep within it was constantly violated by the general selfishness of American capitalism.  People didn’t care one whit about the energy and time that I had put into my art, nor that it was something sacred to me.  They wanted their art done, they wanted it done their way, and they wanted it done cheaply and quickly.  After being repeatedly disrespected, not to mention stolen from on more than one occasion (who steals a Buddha? talk about bad karma!), I abandoned my venture.  The passion had been sucked right out of my art.  I simply did not care about it anymore.  It was too difficult to compete for business, which was increasingly scarce due to the tanking economy, and too difficult to maintain the positivity necessary to keep my chin up.  I was also sick of doing business alongside and competing with the “black henna” artists along with hacks who had no business putting art on people and charging money for it in the first place.

I was glad not to have to worry about the business things anymore.  It was a serious pain in the ass, and I was getting so little return in exchange for what I was putting into it.  Regrettably, I should have killed my business much sooner, because it killed my passion for my art.  And I miss it.  I miss the exciting pull of a bag of freshly made henna cones, just waiting to freshly stain skin with something beautiful.  Part of the problem was (is) that I completely lost perspective of my own art.  Everyone around me oohed and aahed over my designs, positively gushing over how beautiful they were, but I couldn’t see it anymore.  Everything I did looked like ass to my eyes, no matter how much people praised it.  And perhaps most importantly for that reason, I stopped doing mehndi this year.  I was no longer compelled to sit for hours as I once had, just lost in the trancelike mindset I would achieve bent over a hand or a foot.

Ironically, getting really fucking good at my art is part of what changed that dynamic.  When I wasn’t very good, I had to spend hours doing it, and because I wasn’t living up to anyone’s expectations except my own, I was able to enjoy the discipline for what it was without judging the outcome.  By telling myself that I needed to be better and faster in order to run a business, I took that away from myself, and if I had realized at the time that’s what I was doing, I never would have started a business.

I haven’t done any mehndi on myself in months.  The last time I did, I was utterly UNcaptivated by my own skin as I had been in the past.  The process of applying the mehndi did not fill me with peace as it once had.  Rather than lovingly caring for the designs as they slowly faded from my skin, I found myself wishing they would hurry up and fade so I wouldn’t have to look at them anymore.

I still wish I knew precisely what happened, and whether or not the passion for my art will ever return.  I do miss it, though I think I miss the state of mind more than anything else.  I didn’t just lose a passion, I lost something sacred.  And I am still looking for it.

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