A well-travelled friend of mine told me that, in Thailand, they consider anger to be a childish emotion. When someone does get angry, the response isn’t to defend or get angry back but to feel sorry for the angry person. This same friend was dean a university program that led undergrads around the world, including to Thailand. Inevitably, there would be some low moments and anger would arise among the students in frustration of this or that cultural misunderstanding. He said, the Thai would just smile and feel a little embarrassed for them.
I have been thinking about this a lot in India, where cultural misunderstanding is lurking around every corner. For me, it is nowhere more in evidence than when walking down the street. I am sharing the road with cars, trucks, scooters, auto rickshaws, bicycles, cows, dogs, horse-drawn carts, and who knows what else. Oh, and lots and lots of men. Although I see huge changes in how women move about in public spaces since I was here in 1994, the fact remains that men control the street. Usually in groups. In any event, I often find myself in a kind of automatic protective mode when I walk down the street – ready in an instant to react forcefully…and angrily. At some point I noticed that, as far as I could tell, I was the only person who was getting angry at the rickshaw who sped by too close or the car that beeps loudly just behind me. No one else was scowling at the group of men who are standing there, chatting. Yet, to me, their very presence was an offense, a symbol of the patriarchy and oppression. My disapproval was not only written all over my face but I could feel it throughout my body. Walking down the street has been exhausting!
Here’s the thing. The very presence of those groups of men IS a sign of patriarchy and oppression. Rickshaws that buzz by too close are being reckless. Beeping a car horn loudly just behind someone walking is rude and dangerous. But, is anger the correct response? Who benefits? Who suffers?
There is a sutra in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra that says:
It is loosely translated as, “future suffering is to be avoided.”
This one always makes me laugh a little. Like, duh! But…not so duh. What does that really mean?
I don’t think it means that we must run around avoiding anything and everything that we think might cause us suffering. Or stay home on the couch, for that matter. Even sitting on the couch will cause suffering sooner or later.
I think it means we have to look closely at suffering itself. We must get to know our own version(s) of it, very intimately. Take walking down the street in India. All of those things that I listed above are true – it’s crowded, people misbehave, and the patriarchy is alive and well. Still, I need to walk down the street. Where does my anger come from? The speeding rickshaw? The crowd of men? Or my mind creating a story about the rickshaw and/of the Patriarchy? To know and therefore avoid the causes of my suffering, I have to know my mind, which is a lot harder than shaking my fist at a passing car. A child might shake their fist or stamp their foot. Hmmmm.
Someone at KYM, where I did my yoga therapy internship, said to me that she believed that Indian people had a greater mental capacity than Westerners. It’s quite a statement! I also think it is a fairly common belief held among people here. While I am not sure that such a broad generalization is helpful to anyone, I am beginning to think that perhaps what she meant is that there is a kind of emotional maturity to the value system here that is lacking in the West. When I think about the current state of affairs in the US – the sense of entitlement that is so pervasive and the “snowflake” phenomena on the right and the left – it is hard not to see it as very immature and childish. What is actually valued? Where do we spend our time and money?
To be clear, it isn’t like: India = good, North America = bad. I have seen some pretty horrendous things going down here. But I think it is a good idea to examine what causes us to suffer and notice how different that is from other places in the world. Maybe we can learn something? Examining our suffering also can lead to a better ability to cultivate contentment that is genuine (not a kind of hopeless nihilism or simmering resentment). Being satisfied doesn’t have to mean accepting second best or reluctantly accepting your shitty place in life. Surely this isn’t what being satisfied means!
Future suffering is to be avoided.
Today, I will venture out to a textile museum where they only allow 20 people/day to enter and one must follow a guide, who, I have been told, is a bit…odd. Then I will go to the railway station to collect a refund that I am owed. Landmines of suffering everywhere! I’ll let you know how it goes.
This week begins my second week of residency at TVAK in Ahmedabad. The set-up is pretty basic – I have a room where I sleep and a studio. It seems that there have not been any artists here for a while so getting the studio into shape has taken a few days. Gathering materials has also taken some days and I am still lacking a few things. Ahmedabad is home to one of the largest design colleges in India, so art supplies are readily available. Gujarat is home to some of the most impressive textiles in all of India, so finding fabric and notions has also been fairly simple. And not so simple. It seems like everyone relies on relationship to get what they need. Sure, I can google “fabric stores, Ahmedabad” but I might as well be jumping into a lagoon filled with crocodiles. No, I must go to the certain shop where my host does her fabric shopping. Otherwise, how can I trust? On the other hand, it means that I have to wait for her to assist with the purchase. It’s a toss-up: crocodiles or patience (and maybe a bargain or better quality).
That’s the beauty of travel, isn’t it? Venturing into the unknown and seeing what happens. For me, the bonus of it all is that I get to immediately come back and make artwork about it. Indeed, I am working on two larger projects that come directly out of this travel experience as well as some smaller pieces that are more like side explorations related to the larger works. It is difficult to say much at this point. Things are not quite formed into words (or materials, for that matter). So, I think I would rather focus on an internal dialogue that has played out over and over in the past week.
Essentially, I am here on my own. No one is watching to see if I am putting in X hours/day in the studio. No is checking in, marking my progress or measuring production. In other words, it is really up to me to care because no one else is looking. The work I make can be as large or as small as I make it – that I care to make it. Perhaps that sounds strange to say, considering that I have traveled such a long distance to be here but it is question that I have felt acutely each day. Do I dare to think big? Take risks? Possibly make a big mess? Over and over, I watch myself lean towards playing it safe and I have to push myself to be bigger. Some of the logistics of being here make seemingly simple tasks feel difficult (see above crocodiles) but I see how I allow that to be an excuse to narrow my scope.
What if I go all in?
How can not going all in actually even be a possibility?
Where does this message to be small come from?
And can now be the time to retire it?
For the past two weeks (almost), I have been in India. I am in Chennai for two weeks of a yoga therapy internship and then I will take a massive, 31-hour train ride to Ahmedabad. Once there, I will start a month-long artist residency.
I have only a few more days of my internship and, I must confess, I will not be terribly sad to leave Chennai. It is notoriously hot and humid and I can feel myself fading a bit as a result. I have heard that Ahmedabad is also quite hot but, as they say, it's a dry heat. It is a little disappointing to have something like the weather make such a huge impact on the quality of my time here...but it seems to be so.
Meanwhile here is a photo I took yesterday after the first of the monsoon rains happened around mid-afternoon.
I am sure that I will have lots more to share once I am settled in Ahmedabad. I am really looking forward to making things again. As much as I love yoga and yoga therapy, it is tough to set aside making completely for my studies. My hands are itching to get back to work!
Yesterday I visited an old, best friend - the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I first moved to New York City in 1983, I lived at the YWHA on 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue, just a few blocks from the Museum. I would walk by it and look up the big front steps in awe. I was too scared to actually enter it. Finally, I had to go inside because one of my first year classes at Cooper Union required us to go there. It was overwhelming - but in a good way. I couldn't believe that I missed all those other opportunities to spend time in there but, better late than never, as they say.
One of the privileges of living in New York is that you can pick and choose what to see at the Met; make short visits to see just one thing. Now that I no longer live there, I almost immediately started to feel the urge to spend hours looking at everything. It is, of course, impossible but I am not sure if there is a much better way to spend one's time. The place is a human-made miracle.
And yet. Yesterday, I entered the Museum, made my donation and hustled myself to the far reaches of the American wing to see Sara Berman's closet, an installation/reproduction of Maira Kalman's mother's closet. Her story is fascinating and her closet essentially tells the story without giving away any secrets. She only wore white and her things were always perfectly folded and arranged. There is a bench set right in front of it so I was able to sit and just take it in for a good, long while. There was something so touching, so meaningful about the simplicity and ordinariness of it all. And it felt important to tell this story, not that I really know or understand what, exactly, this story is.
After I spent time there, I wandered over to see an exhibition of drawings in the Lehman Wing, which always seems kind of fun and strange since it is so unlike everywhere else in the Museum. It was a collection of drawings from the European Renaissance to the Impressionists - masterpieces, all. But something in me could barely stand to look at them. Maybe it was Sara Berman's closet that made it impossible to see these drawings and not think about all the women who might have made masterpieces but were not allowed to because they were female. To think of the masterpieces made by people of color that have yet to be recognized as masterpieces because we live in a place and time where the word means, by default, white and male.
These drawings - these gorgeous drawings! - just looked like blood and violence and oppression to me. Especially by the Nineteenth Century, I could barely look at these depictions of female nude bodies. Why are we still glorifying this? is all I could think.
I sat for a long while in the big open space of the Medieval hall and thought about these reactions. I felt some tenderness towards the awe-struck 18 year old who somehow managed to find herself in a relationship with all this art, despite its heavily male perspective. How much of myself did I need to push to the side in order to feel it? Surely the purpose of art is to transcend such things? Still, now that it felt impossible to see this work without the blood stains on it, has it been ruined for me?
Can I appreciate it all - the beauty and the violence that it represents? It's big question for all of us. It is tragic that the majority of the world needs to push aside their own experience in order to relate to this work, which is given so much importance and value. I am glad that I live in a time when that is starting to shift. I can feel the call to make sure that my own voice, however small, is heard. Maybe your's needs to be too?