Sit down, draw, repeat.
On the day of my 29th birthday, I looked in the mirror and drew a self-portrait. It was done with ball-pen on brown paper, in the unflattering, fluorescent light of my boyfriend’s apartment. The next day, I did another one on a serviette while sipping coffee at my local café. After 3 weeks worth of self-portraits, I realised that I had started something and had to see it through to completion. I decided to make one self-portrait everyday for a year.
It’s been a year since I scraped past the finish line, signing my name on my 365th portrait. A few months later, they went on show for my first solo exhibition, “Without Memory, Without Desire" at Gaffa Gallery in Sydney.
And now, with all of that wrapped up and left behind, I can finally look back and think about what it all meant to me.
Most people took my self-portraits literally, assuming that each one was a representation of my daily inner emotions. The truth is, I chose myself as subject matter for the simple reason that I was the only person who could be counted on to be present to pose for a painting every day.
Was I drawing myself? Most of the time, no. I was just drawing a model, which happened to be me. There is a difference.
There is a very small handful from amongst the set of 365 that were borne out of inner expression, but those don’t necessarily resemble ne.
So what was I really doing drawing myself every day for 365 days? I was sharpening my technique. I was keeping my instrument polished and in shape. I was doing mechanical repetition.
This is not art. This is training. This is craftsmanship. This is not something unknowable and mysterious, and it is not “talent”. It can be learned.
I am a firm believer that there is no great mystique behind drawing, or painting. Some may start off more naturally inclined towards it, but it can be learned if you want to learn it.
But there is a magical line I would eventually cross when technique became art; when after hours or days of repetition, life would express itself through my instrument. My mind, my eyes, and my hands would become a medium for life to show itself. This happens when life chooses it to be so, in its own time, in its own way. It is dumb luck. But the more often you create the conditions for dumb luck, the luckier you get. These conditions can be created through repetition.
Most frustrated artists are those who want to express life but lack the technique to do justice to their inspiration. Discouraged, they sum themselves up as “not talented enough” and pack away their pencils and paper.
On the flipside, there are those with little technical skill, but have no problems expressing life. Children are a good example of this. Children create purely on impulse, solely for the joy of expressing themselves.
But here is what happens when you try to improve technique: all of those beautiful, pure impulses will disappear. As you learn, you will produce technically better work, but probably not very interesting or exciting.
Most people will give up at this stage, because it is no longer “fun”. Or they will simply feel that something is missing from their work, that it does not soar to the same heights as their original inspiration, and will chalk it all down to being an incompetent artist.
But this stage is important and necessary, and you must go through a phase of producing mediocre work before life can flow through it.
But, here is some good news: when you commit to technical repetition, when it becomes second nature to you, eventually that pure impulse, that spark of light, will return. And when it does, it will be able to express itself more fully, more vividly, through a polished, well-tuned instrument.
And finally, here is something all artists have to accept: You will NEVER be able to translate your inspiration exactly, and you should be thankful for that. Life is an organic thing, ever changing, ever morphing, and so should your work. You must learn to dance with the impulse. The impulse always leads, and your job is to follow.
You will never be able to capture life accurately but you can come pretty close. Being a professional means being in shape all the time, so much so that even when on the days when your work is “bad”, it’s still pretty good.
So sit down, draw, repeat, and be ready when life comes a’ knocking.
a beautiful beginner’s mind
One of my art students was a basketball coach who had never done any serious drawing in her life. She enrolled in my class because she wanted to invest in a completely new experience to mark her 40th birthday.
Being completely free of self-expectations, she was the quickest to learn. She was like a blank page, easy to imprint on.
Being a beginner and therefore unaware of her own limitations, her drawings had a fearlessness to them, a confidence that was grounded in being completely in the present.
She made the most progress amongst all my pupils, and went further than the ones who had prior drawing experience.
Her final drawing almost moved me to tears. There was such an honesty to it, such a rawness and purity of expression. There was a rhythm and flow in the line-work that seemed like it might have been an artistic choice, although she claimed she was just drawing what she “felt was right”.
I love teaching people to draw because it makes me remember what it’s like to be naive, inspired, and unaware of what’s right and wrong, good and bad.
I had a teacher once tell me that no matter how professional I get, I must always take time out every now and then to remember what it’s like to be an amateur; to have the beautiful mind of a beginner.
the ultimate truth
Someone once said that comedy is tragedy plus time.
Tears and laughter are indeed such intertwined emotions that when you feel one, you can very easily cross over into the other. We cry when laugh too hard, we take a moment to smile when we weep.
Time can transform many sorrows of the past into glistening, bitter-sweet stories; no longer overwhelming but small enough to encase in a glass bubble where we can hold it, look at it, and feel only the harmless imprints of past emotions.
Not so much pain, but the memory of pain. And something else has come to replace it, and sometimes it feels like forgiveness.
Past heartbreaks, and disappointments, past betrayals and other crimes dealt against me, those were committed by people who were no more enlightened than I was.
Hateful words that once cut into me, knives dipped in poison, have grown dull and blunt. I can no longer remember exact words that were spoken, but only a semblance of how they made me feel. An emotion I can almost touch if I dared dig deep enough. But why wake the dead who rest?
To leave behind regrets, to place them in a sack of stones and let them sink into the sea.
To allow your enemies to stop tormenting you, to face the phantoms and say, “thank you, you may go now”.
And to say, “I forgive you”, over, and over again until the words take root and grow in power.
And to laugh sweetly out loud when finally we realise the ultimate truth: we are free, we have always been.
A farewell letter to 2013
There are some things I have to discuss with you before we shake hands and part ways forever.
I’m watching you on playback in my head, the Reality TV show of my life in 2013. I say Reality TV because this year began with me getting a good dose of reality.
This was the year I turned 30, and while some say that turning 30 is just another rotation of the earth around the sun, well, it wasn’t. Turning 30 does two things to you: 1) You start questioning some of the big things, and 2) you become absolutely, fearlessly certain of other things.
Let’s start at the beginning.
January 2013 kicked off with me battling the same depression that I had had since the latter half of 2012. At its darkest, I felt almost unable to get out of bed in the morning. Fear, doubt, anxiety, and hopelessness were my constant companions.
The thought of facing what would be another difficult day, another slow, heavy slog through a dark, hazy swamp, made me want to stay in bed with the curtains drawn. Trying to hold a thought was like trying to see the bottom of a stagnant and murky pool. At work, I could barely concentrate, and even the most minor setback put me on the verge of an emotional breakdown.
The first half of 2013 is no more than a dark blur in my mind, hundreds of identical, tired days slogging past.
No, 2013, we didn’t really start off on good terms, did we? Every single regret I had ever kept began to rise from the murky depths and float to the surface, and early on in the year, I was faced with a lot of questioning. I questioned whether I was really living the life I wanted or simply settling for the one I had. I questioned my friendships, I questioned my relationships with my family members, my job, and the very framework of how I measured my own self-worth.
And I was afraid: afraid that I had somehow failed in life, that I was growing older and running out of time, and that despite friends and family, I was ineffably alone.
Call it Saturn Return, an existential crisis, or a Dark Night of the Soul. All I know is that it was tough, but I kept walking through my swamp until the waters began to run clearer, and I found the strength and courage to start a dialogue with regret.
These peace talks with the past have been going on on all year. It was hard to come to an agreement at first but I think we’re coming closer to a win-win situation. So far, I’ve found that the best tactics are patience, compassion, forgiveness, and a gentle but uncompromising honesty.
I mentioned that as doubtful as I was about some things, I became absolutely certain about other things.
For instance, I stopped waiting for the day when I’d be “ready” as an artist, and just be ready. I bit the bullet and had my first solo painting exhibition, and boy did that feel good. Real good. And now that I’ve done it, I can’t even remember why I was so afraid to do it.
I decided I was tired of concealing my true abilities. I finally know what I do best, and feel confident about putting my talents to good use.
I stopped giving a damn about how the way I look measures up to others. I’m not playing that game. It’s not because I’m letting myself go. If I can’t be happy with myself now, when will I ever be? I am beautiful the way I am. I wish my younger self knew that.
I began to embrace not just the good, shiny bits of me that I present to the public, but also all those imperfect bits that I always struggled to hide.
I began to know, with certainty, what is of utmost importance to me in a love commitment with another person. I like to believe that I attracted a partner who does not bullshit me because I finally learned to stop bullshitting myself.
And I began to know who my true friends were.
Dear 2013, I declare you over, and I declare you completed. All that came to pass did so at the right time and season for it. I cannot say that I am ending the year on a note of contentment. All I know is that I am ready for change. I am waiting. Come at me, 2014.
I am a manananggal. I can easily bifurcate, live in two places at once. I have wings to fly, all around the world.
But always, my feet are planted where I left them. And every now and then, my winged half must re-connect with the half that stays immoveable, or I will wither and die.
The Deaf Poet
Yesterday, the International Deaf Convention was on at the Harbour and I wondered whether there were any prominent Auslan poets. Also, if a great Auslan poem were to be translated into spoken English, would people read it and say “Oh, the Auslan version is much better”?
I found an Auslan poet named Walter Kadiki sharing a couple of his pieces. Watching him, I think it’s fascinating that an Auslan poem is essentially always a performance aside from being a “text”. There is no “text”, so to speak, but a series of movements to convey meaning. Therefore, if one is to access the poem in it’s original, true form language, the only way to do so is to watch someone perform it.
Watch Walter Kadiki perform two poems in Auslan here!
At age 30, I think about mortality a lot. I hear you laugh and scoff. True, I’m not old, or ill, and I may even have 60 years left if I’m lucky. But when it comes to the prospect of dying a natural death, I’m definitely not at the very end of the queue anymore.
We regard the young outliving the old as the natural progression of things, the ideal pattern. Death is more acceptable that way. A son buries his father, never the way around.
Thus, natural death starts from the top of the family tree. Your grandparents occupy the top tier, the canopy; and when they’re gone, the generation after them ascends and takes their place.
I lost the last of my grandparents almost 10 years ago, and even before that, a handful of nephews and nieces arrived on the scene. But I wasn’t really face with the glaring truth that I was no longer new growth until I lost an uncle, not more than a month ago.
When I was younger, I didn’t really think of my aunts and uncles as old. They were like me, but bigger, and cooler, who wore grown-up clothes and did grown-up things. My grandparents, however, were always old to me. They were old even when I was young, at the very bottom of the family tree.
But when all the little nieces and nephews started being born, I had to evacuate that lowest tier and promote myself to auntie. You can guess then what my uncles and aunts got promoted to, even if a lot of them are still in denial and have taught the newest members of the family to address them still as tita and tito. Can’t blame them. At their age, they are all still vibrant, young-hearted, and they all look pretty good.
I’m an auntie, my 20s are over, and the very first leaf from the top tier of the family tree has fallen. Time is passing. While I I still have a good ten years before menopause, there is no denying that finding white hairs on my head is no longer uncommon. I am neither invincible or immortal, and I can’t put off the big questions forever.
With my uncle’s recent passing, I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage… and death, even though I am neither married nor dying. Death, after all, is always given a special mention at weddings.
"Till death do us part"… when young lovers utter those words in matrimony, does it ever really, really occur to them at all that one day, one will have to bury the other? It’s easy not to think about it by simply turning your focus on to other things. There are babies to come, and anniversaries, and the prospect of growing old happily and gracefully together.
But that does nothing to erase the spectre of death that hovers on some far-off horizon. If you are in a life-long committment, at your core you know that the day will come when one of you will outlive the other. Life is a story, one where only the ending is known.
As I kept up to date on the news of my uncle’s failing health, I watched as my auntie spent the the last year of his life by his bedside tending to him as he grew weaker and more helpless, witnessing go through the humiliating ordeal of dying. As I’ve learned through experience, the most difficult thing about watching someone die of illness is seeing them humiliated as their ego is shattered into fragments, as they have their smallest ambitions crushed, and as they lose the very last shreds of their dignity.
When I was a child, I used to love going through a collection of family photo albums, one of which documented said auntie’s wedding day. As a young bride, in flower and full of hope, did she ever believe that the time would really come wherein she would have to help him die? And if it came to her in premonition, would she have gone on with the marriage?
It seems easy to swear your life to someone… but to swear your death to someone seems so much more colossal. Think about it. Are you in love with someone? Are you in love with someone? Would you let that person watch you die? Pretension disappears when your body starts failing you. The personality you present to the world, the facade you have worked hard to construct and maintain your entire life will fall.
And what about the administrative side of death? Can you be held accountable for ensuring that when the time comes, the deceased body of your loved one is properly laid out, dressed, honoured by those who knew him, blessed, and laid into the ground, all before taking on the arduous task of dealing with his assets and estate?
I could certainly do all that for family members, but to imagine doing it for someone who is, essentially, a stranger who entered randomly into my life through a game of chance… it all just seems so larger than life. I find it so unfathomable, it’s like trying to draw a picture of the entire sky.
And yet, through the eons, strangers have willingly sworn to bind their lives together as one, all the way till the grisly End.
Why would two people agree to sail a ship straight into a savage storm? To love. To live. To be transformed. To encounter something higher. To transcend whatever it is we are. For fleeting moments of the eternal. To know beauty. How is love then not an act of faith?
Love stories all differ, but for all of them, there is only one ending. But here and now, while love exists, hold on like the end will never come.
These are the final 24 hours of the decade that has been my twenties. Though I should be in bed, it’s lovelier to sit in the silence and savour the beauty and uniqueness of this perfectly ordinary moment.
It’s been tears, and laughter. It’s been heartbreak after heartbreak as life shattered my countless illusions. It’s been about questions that have no answer, questions that must instead be lived.
The last year of my 20s was all about purification. It was a reclamation.
In my 30s, I hope to learn to love and be loved more, and take important risks.
Thank you, past. Hello, future.
Word images collected from today
- The dog is a glowing red rocket as he races through the park under the last rays of sun set.
- An endless, blue sky, full of possibilities.
- To the South, a plane in ascent, nose up; as if showing the toy plane, which traces lackadaisical loops above the trees in the park, who’s boss.
- To the North, the city burns like embers, treasures too far away to touch. Glass and metal buildings form a row of jagged, gold-capped teeth.
- Down from the hill, a remote-controlled toy car stirs up golden clouds of dust as it cleverly escapes six excited dogs.
The day I moved into this bedroom in this share-house, I climbed the 4 flights of stairs, counting the steps as I went. They numbered twenty-nine, twenty-nine ascending steps leading to a sunlit attic that boasted three skylights.
This was powerfully symbolic to me from the start. First of all, I was in my 29th year in life, and had taken to contemplating the meaning of the decade that was about to end. I was at the beginning of a period of intense self-evaluation, and was unknowingly kicking off a very introspective phase of my 20s.
To me, the twenty-nine steps represented twenty-nine meditations or prayers, like beads of a rosary, leading up to a higher consciousness represented by an attic that opened up to the big, blue sky.
The stairway was a spinal column, and I lived inside the cranium to which it led. The interior of this cranial space that was my bedroom boasted of four full-length mirrors, four surfaces with which to examine my reflection, as if I wasn’t already in a self-contemplative mood. And within those protective walls, I was the active mind that was free to dream and ponder.
When I see the first light streaming through my skylights every morning, I feel that the house is more than just a shell made of stone but a spiritual entity. My skylights are the crown chakra, the portal through which life energy flows, and through which we are connected to divine, spiritual awakening.
I have never felt so connected to a physical space. Temples are just piles of brick and stone, but those who come to worship imbue it with sanctity. The same goes for my attic room of cement, plasterboard, and glass.
I like this room because it is not connected to my girlhood. Every object was chosen to be here. There is no sentimental debris from the childhood years I have bid farewell to. There is no heaviness from emotions who have overstayed their welcome. It a place where I am safely allowed to be me, as I am, in the now, as I struggle to climb my twenty-nine steps.
And the now is all I have, for bedrooms in share-houses are not permanent. Leases expire. Landlords come to take back what rightfully belongs to them. This space is merely on loan to me, and some day I will have to leave it.
Still, I am grateful for a symbolic space where I can do a bit of thinking, and a bit of dreaming while I stand on my 29th step of life.
Sometime late last year, an old friend dropped by unexpectedly. He came in through the backdoor, unannounced, much like his last visit. I didn’t even know he was in my house, and when I became aware of his presence, I prepared myself up for what I thought would be a short visit. But before I knew it, he had unpacked his suitcase, and moved into my bedroom with me, even sharing my bed.
His name is Depression.
We go way back, Depression and I. He has been my occasional room mate for varying lengths of time. The first time, he stayed for what was probably a good couple of years. His first entry into my life was debilitating. Who was this stranger? When did he start living with me, sharing my most intimate spaces? He was so big, I couldn’t breath when he was in the same room with me. He took up all the space in bed. I couldn’t sleep a wink.
He insisted on being carried around wherever I went. Going to school was exhausting. Even getting up to go to the kitchen for a drink of water was exhausting.
Depression has a large appetite. He stole mine away. I could’t eat.
And worst, he never leaves you alone. Every morning, he awakens before you do. You wake up to him sitting on your chest, a large black creature, staring you in the face with eyes that never blink.
That was the first time he came, more than 10 years ago, and he stayed for a long time. He didn’t just pack up his bags and leave one day. First he would disappear for a day at a time, then for longer and longer. Then one day, he just didn’t come back, though he left a few of his things behind to remember him by.
I’ve had other similar house guests of course, Melancholia, Angst, and Sadness. They visit quite regularly, but I do not fear them. They are harmless strays who drop by for temporary shelter. They don’t take up too up room, and they never stay.
But Depression and I go way back. We are old friends, even if we have only met once. I know him intimately, even if we haven’t spoken in years. I know him more intimately than happiness, because Happiness doesn’t cling to you the way Depression does.
Now he’s come to visit a second time, though I did not recognize him right away. He looks an awful lot like Angst or Melancholia in the beginning, until he takes off his hat and coat, and you realize he’s not just staying for the afternoon.
But because I had met him before, I knew what to do. I got up every morning, even though I wanted to stay in bed all day and cry, even though the mere thought of pouring myself a bowl of cereal in the kitchen filled me with an inexplicable anxiety.
I went to work even though the thought of going made it hard to breathe, even though it felt like a prison sentence.
I went to bed at night even though I would wake up in the morning feeling like I hardly slept, entertaining so many thoughts and dreams, like so many screaming infants in a nursery who all need rocking, and feeding, and changing.
I went on with existence, even though it felt like it wasn’t moving forward, like I was a hamster on his wheel, running for dear life and getting absolutely nowhere.
I felt stuck, no, imprisoned in a pattern, and even though I knew in a rational way that things are always changing, I just couldn’t believe it for myself. I was walking through a black mist. I could not see a thing, I could not imagine a future that was different from my current situation. All I could see was the doom of endless repetition.
I went about my daily life, doing all the usual things, except I had an invisible, two-hundred pound creature strapped to my chest everywhere I went; a creature whose eyes bore deep into my soul, pointing out every flaw I had, and every mistake and failure I had ever committed, and stirring up every doubt I had ever had about myself, my personal relationships, and my life. Depression holds up a mirror that reflects only the ugliest things about yourself.
It’s no wonder that the dam would burst sometimes, and I would find myself locked in the bathroom at work yet again, sobbing my eyes out over something trivial that, to me, felt like a life failure.
And all of this I kept to myself, because depression is such a silly, indulgent thing, and you shouldn’t burden your loved ones with such talk. It’s not anybody’s problem, it’s mine. In keeping things to myself, I effectively cut myself off from the people who probably cared about me, and probably would have wanted to help me.
In fact, I spent much of my alone time weeping. Any meditative activity, or indeed any activity that required stillness, and silence, and being alone with myself, made the thoughts in my head be so riled up, that I would work myself in a bitter, angry, depressive state. I am an artist, and my artistic practice slowly fell apart. I could not enjoy painting. It seemed like a punishment.
Depression is like having your mind under siege. It is being assaulted, invaded, by inside forces. To defend yourself against it is really a battle against yourself. My depression is made of me.
But depression is an old friend. Why do I not consider him to be my enemy, you ask. Because I am not one to judge whether what life sends my way is good or bad. Life simply is. There are enemies that look like friends, and friends that look like enemies.
My first encounter with depression deepened me in a way that no joy ever has. Depression commands you to be completely honest with yourself. It makes you face your fears. It can also awaken you to forgiveness, self-acceptance, compassion, and hope.
I fully understand that there are more extreme levels of depression, and that for some individuals, it is not something that passes through. It is an illness they will have to battle for life. I also understand that there are levels of darkness and despair that I have never even come close to touching. I am fortunate and healthy that not once in my life have I ever contemplated things like voluntary death.
I would never encourage anyone to cultivate depression. But at least once in your life, and for whatever reason, it may come and demand to be addressed. If you do not part on good terms, you can be sure that the visit won’t be his last.
Depression is made of me, but I am not my depression. My mind may be working against me, but I am not my mind. My mind can be changed. Everything changes. That I can be sure of.
Talking about it helps. Reaching out to my trusted friends helps. Getting help helps. It makes it seem not so big and scary.
One day, not too long ago, I woke up and felt that the giant block of ice I had been trapped in had finally thawed enough to crack on the inside. It was a subtle, quiet change that only I could ever notice. But to me, it was the first sign of hope that the worst is over, and that I will be okay. Everything is going to be okay.
Baby steps may be baby steps, but at least I’m walking forward.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
~ Rumi ~