Small wins

I did couple of things last and this month that I would have never considered doing before.  These are small things and perhaps not very significant to anyone else.  But for me doing these opened my eyes to the possibility of change in my physical and emotional life.

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The first was climbing this hill in Edinburgh.  The guidebook said that it would take 20 minutes but it took me over one hour, that too after resting many times.  There were people climbing- some women even wore heels!  For me, getting up Arthur’s seat (250 metres high) was a major challenge.  I was so tired after that that I have taken three weeks to recover. Probably I won’t ever do something like that again but I have done it once. That was so empowering!

The second thing was I cut my own hair. I watched endless videos of hair cutting and steeled myself for how I could end up looking as the result was right there for everyone to see!  I realised I had to have this courage and belief in myself- the same as climbing that hill in Edinburgh.  Both are different things and yet are very similar in their emotion.  Both felt very empowering.  Everyone is different- and for everyone, there are new things to try out.  Now every month, I have decided to do one new thing.

Moving away

Our early and later relationships in life can be shaped by our childhood.  People we are attracted to could be either opposite or similar to our parents or any significant person in our early lives.  It is only when we begin to move away from these ‘types’ and start to look for what makes us happy, then only we find people and things that do.  Marie Kondo, a Japanese organising expert, has started a trend to keep things that only ‘spark joy’ rather than concentrate on throwing things that we don’t like.  It is always better to go to things we love rather than run away from what we don’t like.  When we run away due to fear, we do not notice anything else- even things that might be good for us.  Its like we are running in a dark forest without the ability to pick or choose our paths.  This is a fight or flight reaction. Note that it is a reaction rather than a pro-action.  It is a situation where we are not in control.

But finding that calmness where we can decipher what is good for us or not, can take many years and decades to find.  It is only now, I find that I am much happier and able to find things and people who ‘spark joy’ in me.  It is not that I am not my parent’s child any more but it is more that I refuse to live by the past.  Of course, I wish that this had happened much earlier but then that is life. This is when it was meant to have happened and I am grateful that at least it has happened.  Now days, I am quicker to find joy and move on quickly from people that don’t bring me joy.  And strangely enough, I find that even people who I did not get along with in the past, are people I can now tolerate or even like.  By finding joy within, I am finding joy outside.

Happy and perfect

‘Just do it’ is the phrase used by a well known sports brand but I am using it in a different way.  I am using to mean a determination to be happy- to be just happy.  I was recently watching a programme about advertising and how advertising creates a gap between yourself, the reality and the image presented (the illusion).  We try to buy stuff to try to close this gap.  Often we get ourselves into trouble of various sorts, such as financial difficulties or unhealthy mental states.  In particular women are more prone to compare themselves to others and make themselves unhappy.  So many of the ‘happiness or beauty products’ are aimed at women because it creates a compulsive and everlasting consumer.

I have also been cleaning my house, using the ‘Konmari method‘ which is basically a method of editing your stuff (keeping only stuff that ‘sparks joy’) and keeping them tidily.  Out of my dark cupboards, hidden for years, have come out piles  of self help books, mountains of clothes, cosmetics, and many things I bought for ‘just in case’ occasions. Looking at them and adding up the costs of buying them, not using them and now having to dispose of them in a responsible way, is costing me more time and money.  Why oh why did I buy these things?  Perhaps I could have saved some money to pay off the mortgage, perhaps saved some time looking after myself instead of shopping for that perfect thing that would make me happy?  Perhaps.  Anyway, the feeling was first of disgust at myself and then forgiveness.  Perhaps, it was convoluted path I took to get here and some people don’t get here easily.  So I have decided not to buy anything more unless it really nourishes my life, not to watch any thing that doesn’t inspire me to do good and not to feel bad about the past.  I decided, I am happy as I am- that is it.  No more reading about happiness or perfection- I doing it, I am already happy and perfect as I am.

A hero

I have not been to any David Bowie concert but his music has existed alongside my growth as a person. His talents, not just as a ground breaking musician but as someone who is as a holistic as an artist can be (poet, actor, director, producer, writer, dancer, etc), has been so inspiring. Bowie was a well-read and informed artist who drew upon a wealth of influences such as Tibetan Buddhism, German Expressionism, Mime, Japanese culture, history and Jungian psychology. He has often described himself as a ‘magpie’ and he was able to synthesise diverse ideas and use them in his art. Coming from a poor working class family, it must have taken immense courage to proclaim his ideas and intent. As the philosopher Michael Foley says, ‘Appreciating art is not passive but active, not reverential but familiar, not a worthy act of self improvement but an audacious and cunning ruse. To seek out what stimulates and makes use of it- this is the work of art.’ And Bowie was a master at this and so his entire life became a work of art.

From becoming totally immersed in his various personas- Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, etc- to his campaigning for others- from Tibet to physically disabled children and to his perceptive thoughts on the internet, death, illness, etc. he comes across as a total person. He acknowledged his mistakes without arrogance or defensiveness (watch his interviews on Youtube) and his fears and died a hero. There was no drama about his death unlike his pop personality life. He even made his death into a work of art and then took his bow, humbly and quietly. I never realised how much influence he had on me until last Sunday when it was announced that he had gone. He wasn’t perfect but he was a hero. And most importantly, his life has taught us that we can be heroes too.  Here is a video of him tapping out his song ‘Heroes’ using a bottle cap on his shoe, raising money for physically challenged children at the Bridge School concert, 1996.

We are all Quasimodos

There is a Buddhist story about a simple man called ‘Never disparaging’ who seeks the good in all but people chase him away, throwing rocks and sticks at him.  However, he continues and in the end, becomes the Buddha, an enlightened soul.  In the novel ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ by Victor Hugo is Quasimodo, a deformed ugly man with a heart of gold, who is reviled by all yet comes out as the best of all.  Quasimodo is also a simple soul but his generosity and bravery make him worthy of praise.  Both Never disparaging and Quasimodo are not clever but good.  What they teach us is goodness is better than cleverness.  Also, they are not good looking on the outside but from the inside, they are good.  So they teach us that it is better to be good inside than outside.  Nature makes sure that no one is perfect, even the most beautiful person has some physical defect, one side of our body is slightly different from the other.  Quasimodo’s hunch signifies the baggage we all carry- whether inside or outside.  So we are all Quasimodos in that respect but just like him, we also have that goodness.  To recognise that quality in ourselves and others all the time is the most difficult part.  And that is the struggle of everyday- to be kind, compassionate and good, not matter what.

reaching out

My neighbour accepted a delivery for me when I was out.  When I went to collect it, I was shocked at her appearance- she had lost a lot of weight and looked very gaunt. Not sure of anything, I mumbled thanks and left.  But it bothered me that I hadn’t asked.  She was a bubbly young French lady, with two small children and her appearance and behaviour were totally out of character.

Then a week later, while shopping, I met another neighbour and asked her if she knew anything.  This lady told me that the French lady had cancer which had spread.  It all made sense to me now- why I always saw her mother ferrying the children to school, not her; and her appearance.  I felt deeply ashamed that I hadn’t said anything to her, offered to help even.   But even then, I did not do anything.  But my lack of action kept gnawing at the back of my mind.

Couple of days ago, I put a book for her and one for her children and a card through her letter box.  The book I sent was a book that I read when I was ill with a stroke.  That very evening, I received an email from her-

Thank you very much for your kind words and your prayers, it means a lot to me.

Ella was delighted with the book and I will read the other one with great care.

As you know, when sickness takes over your life, you see it differently and dream of normal things and I can’t wait to put this ordeal behind me. I am so lucky to have a supportive family who take good care of me and the children.

My treatment is going well but I spend most of the time in bed as I go through chimio every 2 weeks for 3 days… 14 done, 9 to go ! My kids keep me strong.

Thank you again for your kindness and I trust all is well.

I was touched that she had taken the time to thank me despite everything- a sign of a great person.  I write this post not to proclaim how great I am but perhaps to say that how stupid I had been.  As my other neighbour said me, ‘You don’t need to know the technicalities of someone’s illness but reaching out is enough- it shows you care.’  Secondly, I learnt that you need to reach out as soon as you can.  Life can go by too soon and you miss opportunities to show kindness and experience it.  You miss chances to be part of the human family.

The Flame of the forest

Flame of the forest

This seems a pretty picture- it is of one of my favourite flowers- Flame of the forest (Butea monosperma)- a medium-sized dry season-deciduous tree, which grows in the tropics.  It is found in a forested part of Delhi, where I grew up and seeing these flowers reminded me of springtime.  In my native West Bengal, the poems and songs of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, likened its bright orange flame-like flower to fire. In Santiniketan, where Tagore lived, this flower has become an indispensable part of the celebration of spring. I used to love these flowers.

However, the same forest became associated with murder in late summer of 1978 when siblings Geeta and Sanjay Chopra were kidnapped and brutally murdered.  On their way to the radio station to present a youth programme, the children were kidnapped for ransom.  On learning their father was a naval officer, both were killed instead and the girl, Geeta, was allegedly raped before being murdered. Both were bright young people- Geeta was a 16 year old second year college student and Sanjay, was 14-year-old school student.

I was very young but I remember the impact of the murders.  Suddenly parents were cautious about where their children were going, suspicious of strangers and our world changed from being happy and carefree to fear and mistrust.  The city which had never experienced such a heinous murder was traumatised and all energy was directed to finding the killers. It was my first loss of childhood innocence- the flowers which I loved, grew in a forest where children had been murdered.  I came to associate these flowers with blood.  Years later as an adult, coming across these flowers accidentally, I wondered if I could change my fear to joy again.  So this was painted.

The ‘bark’ of the trees is made from newspaper cuttings about the murders and the stylised flowers, with their curved and spiky forms, represent my fear.  However by painting this, I have made my fear disappear and understand the sadness from those murders.  It may be because I am older and it may be because exactly 20 years later on the day when the culprits were caught, I had a son, who helped me to see the world in a different way.  So the painting is curiously sad but optimistic by its brightness and exaggeration.  Like these flowers that bloom in the spring and wither away in the heat, whose leaves fall in the winter, leaving a skeletal bareness, our lives are informed by sadness and joy, by gain and loss.  This painting connects me to my childhood and my adulthood and to that of my son.  The sadness of the loss remains but the fear has gone.  Art has become a therapy.

looking cool

Looking cool is often associated with the young and famous.  But yesterday I read a heart warming account from a 59 year old woman, Helen Walmsley-Johnson, who realised that looking cool was about self assurance and confidence.  She says that couple of years ago she was holidaying alone in France and had been given an awkward seating in the middle of the restaurant.  It seemed to present her as a lone woman to all those to came inside.  However, she accepted this and relaxed, reading a book.  Suddenly another English speaking woman came to speak to her, “Excuse me but my daughter thinks that you are really cool and we wondered if you’d like to drink with us?”  These three then spent the rest of the evening, laughing and talking.  When asked why the teenager had thought she was cool, the reply was that it was because ‘although she was on her own, she didn’t look sad or lost, but happy.’

How many times have I thought that looking cool was about dressing in a certain way or having cool things like a cappuccino or an iPhone to hold!  No, it is entirely about self belief, it doesn’t matter what you are wearing or carrying!  In fact, on the catwalk, models learn to walk with self confidence and poise, no matter what ridiculous outfit they are modelling or sometimes are even half naked.  Just imagine if instead of sashaying on to the catwalk, they came out looking embarrassed- no one would buy those clothes.  Self confidence, being happy and creative makes you cool!

Life’s lesson from Picasso

Yesterday I watched a documentary on Picasso. Picasso was womaniser, philanderer and lier. He made the women around him unhappy.  He also used them as muses for his art.  Of the five most prominent women out of the several, who became his wives or lovers, two committed suicide after his death and two died before him. Only one who had the guts to leave him, made him unhappy.  She was a one gutsy lady!

One the other hand, Picasso died what he loved doing- drawings with pencils, aged 91. Especially towards the end of his life, he started painting prolifically as if he knew that his end was near.  During his early days in Paris, Picasso shared a small apartment with Max Jacob. They took turns to sleep- Max slept at night while Picasso slept during the day and worked at night. These were times of severe poverty, cold, and desperation. Much of his work was burned to keep the small room warm.

The ladies seem to have been dependent upon him emotionally while Picasso was always in love with his painting.  In the end, it seems that his love of painting won over the love for womanising. Of course, circumstances for women were very different when Picasso was a around- they were dependents.  But if a lesson could be learnt from this great painter’s life would be that whether one is a man or woman, one must always have a creative goal or passion that is not dependent upon people.  It is this passion that must last until the end of life.  This is the authentic life.

an investigation

DVreeland quote (from a Facebook post by Rose McGowan)

To date, nearly 12,000 people have liked this quote and almost 60,000 people have shared it this Facebook post from Rose McGowan. I found out later that the quote wasn’t from Diana Vreeland.  What led me to investigate was that somehow it didn’t quite ring true for the personality of Diana Vreeland that I had read about. That quote had the twinges of sour grapes.  Diana Vreeland would have been far too intelligent for that.  As a fashion editor, she found something good and attractive in everyone she met. She had the knack of highlighting a quality or physical feature that an art director with less imagination might try to hide (for example, focussing on Barbara Streisand’s nose for a Vogue cover).  That quote made no sense to me at all. I tried to see if it made universal sense ( just try substituting prettiness with ugliness and female with male) and no, it didn’t.  I asked myself, ‘What if a person is born pretty?  Or wants to look good?’ Even animals have an instinct to groom and look better.

Diana Vreeland said in her biopic, ‘The eye has to travel’ that there is only one good life- and that is the life you want and you can only make it yourself. She made the best of what she had and the best out of the people she worked with- models, photographers, art directors etc.  She was a hard taskmaster and sometimes not a pleasant person to work with.  Her own children resented her neglect of them and her husband was off having affairs.  However as far as attractiveness went, she knew the way.  She herself wasn’t born pretty but she made the best of what she had and is remembered for her striking looks and fashion sense.  So I wondered why would have said something like that and investigated it via the ‘Quoteinvestigator’- http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/06/03/prettiness/

The truth is that quote was actually lifted from a 2006 blog post, ‘A Dress A Day’, by Erin McKean, (included within the original context of what Erin wrote it will all makes sense)- “I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T be pretty if you want to. (You don’t owe UN-prettiness to feminism, in other words.) Pretty is pleasant, and fun, and satisfying, and makes people smile, often even at you. But in the hierarchy of importance, pretty stands several rungs down from happy, is way below healthy, and if done as a penance, or an obligation, can be so far away from independent that you may have to squint really hard to see it in the haze.” I agree with Erin McKean.  Prettiness is a subjective quality and should not be an obligation.  Health and happiness are far more important.  A person’s real beauty comes from within.  Diana Vreeland loved life and was extraordinarily curious- that made her beautiful. Why compare yourself with another and judge your looks- follow the example of Diana Vreeland and accept yourself.  Just be happy to be who are- you are not your looks! PS- And always question things you see on Facebook- that way you learn a lot!