The little day dreamers

bougainvilleaToday, I went for a walk to the beautiful park that I am lucky to have at walking distance. I saw a bunch children’s backpacks under the trees. The kids were there for some sort of nature appreciation project. A few were busy picking pink bougainvillea flowers that lay scattered on the grass, and dried twigs. Many ran around the park, laughing, playing games. A little day dreamer ran into me as I walked on the track, lost in his own world, clutching a twig. Another little one ran around, the branch in his hand held up as a sword, in a dreamworld of his, where maybe he was a knight.

Though it has been a long time since I was a kid, it’s not been so long since I pretended to be one. In my creative writing class last year,  we went through a workshop to help us get in touch with our free, playful, creative natural self before it was chained. One of the students who was also a dad had been tasked with bringing toys. He’d brought along little Hot Wheel cars, some bigger fancier cars, and teddy bears, and dolls.

Pretend you’re in kindergarten and play, Menon sir said. Do what you want. Don’t hold back.

It began soon. “Kids” ran across the room, shouting loudly. In another group, the kids smashed the cars into each other. One broke. A little girl hung on to her stuffed toy and wouldn’t let go, It’s mine! I sat, a little away from the group of mostly boys who were busy orchestrating accidents with the little cars, with my teddy bar in my arms. I held him close for comfort and whispered little secrets into his ear. I walked sometime with him, holding him close, and then went back to my perch, hugging him tightly, glad he was around in all the loudness and excitement of cars crashing into each other that the others seemed to enjoy so much.

Why don’t you play? Do something, Menon sir cajoled. Act like you’re in kindergarten. This is how I was in kindergarten, I told him.

This is how I still am. Easily stimulated by loudness, aggression, crowds. But also dreamy, imaginative, and kind. I had real empathy for myself during that workshop, when I realized how over-stimulated I probably was as a kid, with little control over my environment.

Today, when I saw the little ones who marched to the beat of their own drum,  sensed little kindred spirits.

Enjoyed this post? You might enjoy the wonderful Susan Cain’s treatise on introversion, Quiet.

If you know someone who’d relate, do share this with them. And for more posts on self-awareness and living better, do follow the blog. Thank you!

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Writing and becoming

Yesterday morning was fresh and promising. It had rained earlier, so when I went to the park for my morning walk, the trees were clean from their fresh shower, shining their true colors more clearly: the dark greens looked deeper, the light greens looked cleaner, and the yellows popped, an absolute delight. The people on their morning walks seemed happier; the showers had broken the harsh heat of Delhi summers. I walked and as I did, I felt myself relaxing. Stray thoughts and worries began to leave me, seeping into the wet earth.

There is magic in walking. Being close to nature fills up my creative well with images; the silence is a relief from the constant input from people and my cellphone and yes, even books; the walking motion is rhythmic and comforting. I feel alive, creative, abuzz with ideas, yet relaxed.

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I sit on a bench, the one made of clay and stone, red and white, cool to the touch. I prefer it to the green iron benches; the clay makes me feel one with the earth. I scribble in my little notebook, the one with faux yellow pages and artistic coffee stains, ideas about topics I can write about or sudden insights from thought particles that fuse together as I walk. Sometimes I scribble questions to which I don’t know the answers.

I am lost in my thoughts scribbling in my little notebook on this beautiful morning, and I look up, still half smiling only to catch the eye of an old gentleman, who smiles kindly at me. If you don’t mind, he asks, out of curiosity, what do you write?

He has seen me on other days on this bench with my little notebook and my pencil. I am a writer, I say, and then, because that’s what recovering creatives do, I soften my stance, I write, I say, so just jotting down ideas for my writing. He understands. Nothing like writing in this beautiful park; I used to do that a long time ago.

You are a writer, so start acting like one, is what Jeff Goins says. I have started acting like one. I carry a little notebook for when inspiration strikes, underline passages in books and  copy them down for the future. And yet sometimes, I am scared. “I’m a writer” sounds scary, irreversible, terrifying.

And yet if I look around my bookshelf, I see the signs. If You Want to Write, Wild Minds, The Artists’ Way, What It Is, On Writing Well. Writing calls to me and I have been preparing for many years, reading, absorbing. Whenever my sister and I meet, we have gifts for each other, a blue star studded journal, or a quill pen, or a notebook with silhouettes of women, their loose clothes flying in the breeze. With our gifts, we mean to prod each other, write.

As a little girl, letters and words were a thing of beauty. Letters, their shape, their cursive form, the way they connected, flowing into each other. Each script had its own magic, its own mystery. My father could read Urdu, a language his father wrote in, and though I couldn’t make out what the letters meant, the script was beautiful. It ran delicately from right to left,  breaking the rules, beautifully. Hindi read beautifully too, all the letters hung to a line on top, free below. English, I practiced in my cursive writing book, and the other practice book, more staid and solid. My best friend had given me a single sheet of paper with all the letters in the English alphabet printed out in calligraphy. I practiced drawing the letters at home with a Parker flat-nibbed pen and black ink, writing beautiful quotes on plain paper in calligraphy, and found myself a little bit repaired with every harmonious line that I drew on paper. Today, I type away on the computer instead of drawing with my flat-nibbed pen, but I continue to be repaired, as I was back then, my voice growing stronger, my light glowing brighter, and my feet becoming surer-footed. As I write, I am becoming.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Sensitivity to Sound

The writer’s personality seeps into the words they write. I remember reading somewhere that everything that the writer is, has been, has seen, has felt is contained in the words they write, whether they talk about those feelings or experiences or not. For a reader, it can be a delight to learn something about the writer intuitively. Across time and space, a packet of information passes between the writer and the reader, and they are connected.

I recently had this experience when it dawned on me that Laura Ingalls Wilder was likely extremely sensitive to sounds. As someone sensitive to sounds myself, I see the signs peppered all through the Little House books.

Here’s one from Little House on the Prairie:

Hundreds of meadow larks were rising from the prairie, singing higher and higher in the air. Their songs came down from the great clear sky like a rain of music. And all over the land, where the grasses waved and murmured under the wind, thousands of dickie-birds clung with their tiny claws to the blossoming weeds and sang their thousands of little songs.

Here’s another from Little House in the Big Woods:

Near the pigpen Pa and Uncle Henry built a bonfire, and heated a great kettle of water over it. When the water was boiling they went to kill the hog. Then Laura ran and hid her head on the bed and stopped her ears with her fingers so she could not hear the hog squeal.

“It doesn’t hurt him, Laura,” Pa said. “We do it so quickly.” But she did not want to hear him squeal.

In a minute she took one finger cautiously out of an ear, and listened. The hog had stopped squealing. After that Butchering time was great fun.

Laura hears with the same sensitivity the songs of meadow larks and the squeal of a dying pig. The same sense brings her the most pleasure and the most pain.

As much as screechy, noisy, abrasive sounds bring me down, musical notes fill me up. My sense of sound has in it the ability to uplift and delight me. A little music box I bought from the wonderful Getty Museum on my travels to Los Angeles last year sits on my desk. A picture of the tranquil Water Lilies in the evening adorns it. If I rotate the little handle of the box, I am filled with delight at the beautiful notes of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. If I rotate the handle really fast, it is a joyful season full of dances and spring and happiness. If I rotate it really slow, it is a sorrowful, haunting melody of endings and pain. But no matter what the season, the notes are magical. This little box which holds magic and music is my thing of beauty, a joy forever.music box

Did you enjoy this post? Do share with those of heal and suffer from the sense. And may with someone who loves Little House and Laura!

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“Our Inner Artist is a Child” – A lesson by Julia Cameron

“Our Inner Artist is a Child” — A Lesson by Julia Cameron

I’m reading  the wise Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” a treatise on creativity and creative recovery. A key reason why our inner artist needs nurturing is because it has been wounded, often by people we trust: our parents, teachers, editors, and mentors.

In the passage below, Julia talks about how blanket criticism wounds artists, instead of helping them grow.

I will say again that much true criticism liberates the artist it is aimed at. We are childlike, not childish, Ah-hah! is often the accompanying inner sound when  a well-placed, accurate critical arrow makes it mark. The artist thinks, “Yes! I can see that! That’s right! I can change that!”

The criticism that damages an artist is the criticism–well-intentioned or ill–that contains no saving kernel of truth yet has a certain damning plausibility or an unassailable blanket judgment that cannot be rationally refuted.

Do you remember when someone you trusted wounded your creative confidence?

I remember my sixth grade needlework teacher, Mrs. Jain, inspecting my hand-embroidery on a wrap-around skirt. I was creating a woman in a resplendant, flowing gown with a sunhat. Instead of embroidering the outline of the hat, I had decided to fill it in, like I might have colored the hat with crayons if it was on paper. I’d embroidered rough strokes of two colors, red and green, in a patchwork style, filling the hat. When I thought it up, it had looked different in my mind, but it looked interesting and colorful. Mrs. Jain didn’t agree. She thought it was “ugly.”

Her words stayed with me as I went back to take my seat. In fact, they affected me so deeply, I started the project from scratch, measuring and cutting the cloth for the skirt, sewing it up, stenciling in the beautiful woman, and then embroidering her hat, this time with neat little chain stitches on the outline of the hat with sparkles in the center. Mrs. Jain liked it when she saw my new work. It was pretty. It was safe. I learned that safe was good and that I was probably not that creative anyway.

Yet budding artists need praise and encouragement, Julia says, not blanket judgments or harsh criticism. But, parents, teachers, and mentors can fail to provide this praise and encouragement. Julia recounts how many academics in film schools (where she also taught) seemed more interested in picking apart a student’s work than building it up.

Student work, when scrutinized, was seldom appreciated. Far from it. Whatever its genuine accomplishments, it was viewed solely in terms of its shortfalls. Time and again I saw promising work met with a volley of  should-have-dones, could-have-dones, and might have dones, instead of being worked with as it was.

Luckily, not all teachers are like that. Around this time last year, I was lucky to be in a creative writing class, where my teacher, Ramesh Menon (or “Menon Sir” as we called him, out of respect, and not because we “had” to) encouraged us to write, instead of beating us down. He told us that we needed to live, and experience, and write everyday, if just a little bit. That it would probably take years to learn the craft but that was ok. That we should show up to write anyway, and that our life would be better for it.

Would I be writing today if he had told me I had no originality, my writing was trite, I didn’t have a voice, and couldn’t I write anything original instead of quoting people all the time? Probably not.creative writing

How did you overcome your creative confidence killers?

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Growing Up, Broken: Akhil Sharma’s “Family Life”

This essay contains spoilers. I heard Akhil speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, the source of all quotes attributed to him.

What does it family lifemean to grow up in a home struck by tragedy, the effects of which linger long after the tragedy itself? This is the theme of Akhil Sharma’s “Family Life,” a bleak and poignant fictionalized memoir.

Soon after Ajay’s family (Akhil is fictionalized as Ajay), moves from India to the United States in the 1970s, tragedy strikes when Birju, Ajay’s elder brother, is brain-damaged in a swimming accident. How does the family cope, and not cope, is what this book is about. While his father starts drinking to drown his sorrow, his mother continues to keep the faith that Birju would get better, and looks for God-men and miracle workers to cure her son. In the middle is Ajay, a little boy who’s world is broken, and who’s parents don’t have the emotional wherewithal to parent him.

Akhil spoke about what it was like to write this book at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year. “I shattered my youth against this book,” he said, “I was 30 when I started writing and 42 when I finished. I may not have written it if I knew it would take so long.”

In this decade that Akhil took to write this book, he showed up to write for five hours every day. Whether or not he wrote, he sat at his desk in a little cubby with a computer, a stopwatch, and his thoughts.

In a remarkable feat of empathy, he wrote the book from the perspective of his father, his mother, his elder brother Birju, and himself, as he sought to piece together his shattered childhood. Ultimately, he wrote “Family Life” in his own voice as a young boy growing up.

Some of the most touching parts of the book deal with Ajay’s attempts as a child to make sense of the tragedy, his sense of survivor’s guilt, and his reality of taking up adult responsibilities much before his time.

In a moving passage, Ajay describes how he felt crossing the swimming pool where Birju had hurt himself irreparably:

I wondered what had happened to the pool’s unlucky water after the accident. Had it been drained? Probably it had not. All summer long, people must have swum in the pool and sat on its sides, splashing their feet in the water, and not known that my brother had lain for three minutes on its concrete bottom one August afternoon.

Just a nine or ten-year old, Ajay does not know that this tragedy will influence his life for decades to come. When his parents move Birju back home from the nursing home, Ajay is crushed under the weight of helping his parents take care of Birju, who needs to be bathed, clothed, and fed.

How much of the physical horrors resulting from the accident and its aftermath should he share with the readers was a question Akhil grappled with. He chose to narrate only some of the horrors: readers would not be able to bear the full extent of the blows. He narrates the horrors in such a matter-of-fact way, the reader can choose to speed through; stopping will mean feeling and those feelings are devastating.

In addition to the physical horrors, Ajay and his family also suffer deep emotional wounds. Ajay’s survivor’s guilt is poignantly captured in this passage:

Brother-life,” I said, using a phrase because it was melodramatic and because by saying something melodramatic, I could make myself sound ridiculous, like a child, and so not to be blamed for my good luck of being OK, “my English teacher wanted us to write a paragraph on what we did during the summer. I didn’t have a pencil. What kind of a fool am I?”

As I spoke I had the feeling that I was being watched. I had the sense that some man was looking at me and this man knew I was not very good and yet I had received so much of the family’s luck.

In their codependent household, happiness remains out of reach, and for Ajay, separating from his family, especially from his mother, to find happiness seems like a betrayal.

Not only was I luckier than my brother, but I was also more fortunate than my mother. I wanted to shriek. While a part of me was glad I wasn’t like my brother, no part of me wished to be more fortunate than my mother. To be luckier than her was to be different from her, it was to have a life that would take me away from her. To be luckier than her was to be different from her, it was to be apart from her, it was to have a life that would take me away from her.

When he got into Princeton and thought about starting “his own” life, Akhil did not want to be ok, because he knew his parents wouldn’t be ok. His happiness was inter-twined with his family’s happiness and being happy was always tinged with guilt.

In a poignant scene, Ajay talks about his first girlfriend, and how he just wants to keep talking with her, confiding in her, and unburdening to her. It is painfully clear then that Ajay has not spoken since the accident.

Does this pain, an amalgam of the tragedy, the neglect, the parentification, ever go away? “(If you’ve had) difficulties with family, it doesn’t get over. It goes on and on and on,” says Akhil.

As painful as it was for Akhil to process and write, this book, he says, is a love letter to his family.  It is about piecing together his broken heart, and being able to see the broken hearts of his family. It is about expanding the two-dimensional view of his experience as a child, and seeing it in three dimensions.

As a teenager, Akhil had wondered, how he could write “to earn a good lifestyle” as he pored over the biographies and the works of Hemingway. The interviewer asked him if he had made the money that you wanted, found the happiness he desired. “Money, yes,” Akhil answered ” (Am I) happy, I don’t know. I have a satisfying life, I’m not sure a happy life.”

Having examined the pieces of his shattered childhood, Akhil says “Whatever happened, happened. What do you do today to be happy? How can I be of service to others?”

Writing this book has been his act of service. Akhil helps his readers to embrace their own pain and find comfort in the book. As little Ajay describes his experience reading:

Vanishing into a book, I felt held.

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