Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Tiger and the Swan

Authors note: I wrote and illustrated this story over 15 years ago. I never really did anything with it except to send it to one publisher and read it to the Quaker Friends Sunday School, and to my elementary students in Washburn, WI.  Some recent events made me decide to share this story.  It was written by my younger self, but I still like the lessons.   Enjoy and share if you want to, print it if you like.  It is a gift to you if it is a story that speaks to you. 

 Every year, in the special place where land and water meet, mother ducks wait patiently on their nests, while the earth springs to life all around.

   One lucky mother duck was the proud parent of three handsome yellow ducklings.  But there was one egg left in her nest that didn’t stir at all.  Mother Ducks are loyal, like mothers should be, so she continued to wait, and wait, and wait, for the big egg that sat perfectly still. 
     One morning, mother duck felt the earth rumbling beneath her.  Up she jumped!  Lo and behold, the big egg was bobbing and twisting and crackling and crumbling.  Out came the most horrendous looking duckling she had ever seen.

   “Looks aren’t everything,” she mumbled as she pushed the big duckling out of the nest and into the farmyard.  Every creature, big and small, two and four legged, feathered and furred, laughed and laughed.
     “Well, you are rather unusual,” she took a critical look at the strange creature that had hatched in her very own nest.  “Could it be that you are not a duckling after all?”  
     A big tear rolled down the duckling’s face.  It didn’t make him look any more attractive.  But if mother duck could have seen his heart breaking, she never would have said such words.  

 Sometimes people, and animals, don’t understand just how much words can hurt.  The words the duckling heard that day caused so much pain inside he ran and ran.  He felt that if he could run fast and far enough he would run away from the pain.  When he was too exhausted to move another inch, he collapsed at the bank of a deep and dark lake.  Too tired to keep his eyes open, he dreamt a strange and beautiful dream of big white birds breaking through the black sky of night.

 That deep dark lake seemed to call to the Ugly Duckling, so he stayed there for days.  And the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months.  All the while he spent his time hiding from wild dogs and raccoons and searching for little bits of food here and there.  When a young bird is all alone in the world, life is a hard thing to hold on to.  Still, something made this brave duckling hold on, even as the days grew shorter and the north wind snuck up behind him.

     It was one of these cold dark afternoons when the duckling saw a flock of big white birds fly overhead.  Their calls pulled at something deep inside of him.  As they flapped their powerful wings, he swam out further and further into the deep dark cold water.  As the birds disappeared over the trees, he noticed he was much further out than he had ever been before.  Paralyzed with fear, he floated in the icy water as it slowly froze around him.  That night he dreamt he was being called away to a warmer place.  He was so tired of fighting to stay alive, so tired of being cold and lonely and hungry. 

   You can imagine the duckling’s surprise when he woke the next morning and was still alive!  Standing over him was the strangest looking creature.  It was bigger than any dog he had ever seen, and its thick coat of fur was covered with flames of orange and yellow.
     “I should run away from this fierce beast,” he whispered, but the warmth from the strange creature melted him right out of the ice, and he was no longer afraid.

 And that was the beginning of a most unexpected friendship.  Who would have ever thought that a tiger and a duckling would enjoy each other’s company?  Perhaps when a duckling does not realize that he’s not a duckling, and a tiger does not realize that she’s not a tiger, perhaps then they don’t know any better than to like each other.  The rest of the winter did not seem cold at all, as they traveled and played together.  Every night they would snuggle together for warmth and dream.  

When it seemed as if spring would never arrive, the warm sun melted the last icicles from the roof tops and crocus bulbs poked their little heads out of the muddy ground.  Duckling and tiger danced and spun and rolled on the soft earth laughing.  The friendship these two shared had caused them to forget the hardships and fears that brought them together.  And, it seems, they had also forgotten what they were running from in the first place. 

  That is why the young girl under the tiger skin felt brave enough to peel away the heavy fur that had covered her all winter.  Duckling gasped as his furry friend slowly transformed into a young lady.  She sat him down, and began to tell the duckling an amazing tale.  

  “One day,” she began, “there was a beautiful woman in a big house with a handsome husband.  She thought her life was perfect, as she filled it with all the things she felt she was missing.  Then one day she discovered she was going to have a baby.  This, she believed, would make her life even better.  One night the woman had a dream.  She dreamt of big red birds, breaking through the black sky of night.  The next day her baby was born.

 “Everything went well for the mother and her child.  She was a very proud mother and she loved to show off her baby to anyone who would look.  Even as her child grew older, she took her into town to make sure everyone could see with their own eyes that she was even more lovely than the day before.  That is, until something very strange happened.  One morning when the mother was helping to dress her child she noticed long red marks on her back.  She could not understand how they got there or even how long they had been there.  She was sure the people would be shocked, so she insisted that her daughter keep her back completely covered at all times.  The young girl soon learned to be ashamed.”

  “Shame kept that girl hidden inside her parents house for days.  And the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months.  She longed for the fresh air and sunlight.  Afraid to be recognized, she covered herself with the biggest heaviest thing she could find, the fur of  the Great Bengal Tiger, that her grandfather had hunted in India.   First she wore the fur out into the yard.  Then she wore it down the street.  When she finally went into town, the people stepped aside exclaiming, “Let the Great Tiger pass.”  She herself began to forget who was underneath the heavy fur.”
    “But your friendship has helped me to remember,” she whispered, as she pulled the fur off of her head and felt the cool breeze soothe her neck.

   Duckling looked at his dear friend without her tiger fur.  All he could recognize of her was the soothing sound of her familiar voice.  She seemed so small and pale, and yet strong and beautiful.
     “You’re no tiger!” his voice came out squeaky and strange.
     “And you’re no duckling.”
     In the warm reflection of his friend’s eyes he saw himself for the first time.  He was a beautiful white swan.  Only in his dreams had he ever imagined a bird so lovely.

  The young swan felt nervous and the young woman rose from the riverbank, leaving her fur at a bundle at her feet.  
     “Where are you going?” he pleaded.
     “I am going home,” she replied.  “And you have somewhere to go too.”  She gestured to the sky, where a flock of swans were returning to the lake.
     “But how will I live without you?” he was beginning to cry. 
     “You will fly through the sky and swim over the water.  With me you would always be stuck on the shore.  I will come back every spring to see how you’ve grown.  Promise you will look for me.”

    The two friends made a promise.  And every year, in the special place where land and water meet, they keep their word. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Abuse and Shame

A cycle of Abuse and Shame - This Election pulled the scab off our wound

When I was very young, maybe 4, maybe 5, I found myself trapped in a dark cloud.  What actually happened is a difficult memory to retrieve, but it has returned to me over the years.  I was in a room with a few adults.  It was after Sunday School, I think.  I heard their words.  About disgust.  About my parents.  About my parents marriage.  You see, it was 1970 and I was a mixed race immigrant child in a mid-sized Wisconsin town, full of people with limited world experience.  And I was surrounded by a dark cloud that I thought might swallow me whole.

I didn’t understand, and I never spoke of it.  I soon forgot the circumstances that shadowed the next four decades of my life.  Circumstances that led to drinking, rebellion, self abuse and ultimately led me to a very damaged and sadistic violent man and two years trapped in an abusive relationship that I didn’t have the courage to escape until I had buried a baby.  The dark cloud did not go away, it has always been there.  That is how the wounded live.  That is how many of us live.  How many people were shamed as a child in this culture of denial and blame?  How many are struggling with their own unnamed demons at night and masking the shame in the daylight?  If we all walked around with our wounds open we would be attacked by the wolves, so we hide them, scabbing them over by day and picking them back open by night.  

Can I say those few words by a couple of ignorant adults are to blame?  It’s not even my intention to point fingers. I don’t even remember their faces.  I think our singular stories become a collection of stories that heal the wound.  There’s a wound on all of us, a shame that goes deeper than the last few elections and further back than our “founding fathers”.  Further back than 1492.  When I look around lately, all I see are open wounds.  Many scabs have been ripped off this week.  What oozes out from the open wounds is the truth - we are not those white male landowners that signed a piece of paper, we are not the heads of state, we are not the British, Europe, China, Africa, or India.  We need to own who we are and take responsibility.  We are the most diverse and complex group of humans from all over the world living on a beautiful vast land that we are destroying every day.  We are a great big self-abusive nation.

The most monumental abuse in this country has been against the very people who inhabited the land before 1492.  It was followed by the unthinkable abuse of the slaves.  There has been abuse of the working class.  There has been abuse of every immigrant group.  These are collective abuse stories that we all have to hear with open ears, no longer suppressing nor editing.  Each of us has the right only to tell our own story.  If we listen we can heal.

My father left his country not long after a bloody rebellion and partition. The end of British rule in India, like every other colonial withdrawal, led to unthinkable bloodshed.  Throughout his life he had nightmares.  He told me his story - sneaking out at night as a child and witnessing the rape and beheading of women from his town.  That was our legacy, another divided country.  My immigrant mixed race family arrived here in the midst of it’s own cultural revolution, the sixties, but my father believed in the American Dream. We became our own island, in many ways, as immigrant families and immigrant groups often do.  Assimilation is a myth, everyone that enters the country changes it as they are changed. It is a slow process.  But the change has frightened many, especially when there is little understanding of the roles we play in this this top heavy class system.   Now I must work for the future, for my Black-Indian-Caucasian-Native American daughter and grandson in the midst of this new division - the collective waking up from the dream.  History repeats itself until we all learn together, and we only learn by listening.  This is the lesson I have to face after breaking through my own dark cloud.

We’re waking up and we’re finding blood all around us.  So many scabs removed.  I believe it is time to keep our eyes and ears open, to refrain from binding the wounds so the comfortable can go back to feeling comfortable. Who really has been all that comfortable?  Being told to pretend everything is ok is a form of neglect.  Being told we should have done better is a form of abuse.  Maybe a calm acceptance in a time of unrest could lead to something that is neither shame nor abuse.  We can be calm and listen to the others and acknowledging that they are the owners of their stories.  If we let it happen, perhaps we can heal.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Visionary Painting

Visionary Painting is a very broad term that many people claim.  In my opinion they are all valid but they are all not the same.
I am not borrowing other's philosophies that speak to me and making illustrative collages with known images in order to communicate my cause.  This is fine, it is a form of communication and it can spread ideas. There's nothing wrong with it, it's just not what I do.
I am not envisioning an ideal world and painting it.  This is a valid process and can stimulate awareness and even change, but... not what I do.
I am not looking at the world outside of me and painting my vision of it, art like this can be very beautiful and stirring, but it's not what I do.

What I do is something different.  I am not the only one, but I think we're not very mass-market popular.  We are not commerce driven because this work isn't pretty and it's a hard sell.  We are not academic because we rely on our intuition and mysterious processes much more than our intellect.   We sometimes don't mirror the accepted academic stance on issues, we sometimes do. Sometimes I have no idea where we fit, but I know it when I see it.  We do our work in private, making sense of the world by listening to the muse of the spirit world giving us messages that are difficult to decipher. We "put them out there" when we deem them ready.  I have had to remind myself over and over again not to comprimise this, even if I never get recognition, attention or money for what I paint.  When I remember that, I am rewarded greatly by the process itself.   

So, why share it at all?  I guess I just get pretty excited about it.  I feel like a consciousness talks to me when I'm painting and I get very enthusiastic about that.   It feels like a wider and more expansive consciousness that I have in other areas of life.  So it's sometimes hard to understand completely, especially when I first hear it.  It's a bit like dreaming while awake.  I want others to look and maybe see it, maybe not.  At this point 90% or more  of you may be dismissing me as delusional, flaky or both.  But I'm ok, I function as well as most.  I am not convinced my thoughts are always clear or realistic, but they are not any more delusional that anyone elses belief systems.  (in my humble opinion)
I actually feel these "conversations" help me function better.  But only when I keep them balanced wth the rest of my existence.

When I was a very young child I dreamt I was on a boat, heading to a big destination with my family.    I think we were moving our residence.  During the trip a psychotic doctor was turning everyone into skeletons.  I hid and was able to escape, but I was terrified.  The rest of my family were skeletons.  I was torn between trying to save them and staying hidden.  I had no idea how to save them.   I didn't want to be a skeleton.  I woke up with the dilemma unresolved, a fearful wakening in the middle of the night.  I will never forget it.  

This symbolism is the subject of this painting and of a solo show I have scheduled for a year from now.  (The show is at UW-Fox Valley in Menasha, WI)  I have decided to name the show "Usha" after my imaginary alter-ego I developed when I learned my Hindi name.  
Usha is a character who resolves issues for me through stories.  They are stories I have never shared publicly, but they mean a great deal to me.  Literary World-wise they are not ready, well-written or completely resolved enough to publish, in my opinion.  But they really help me think...

This particular painting finds water and oil interacting.  The skeleton is from my dream, and my skeleton drips oils from all it's limbs.  I don't yet know where Usha fits into this, but I know she will.  She is coming out of the many layers, like the dresses I make.  She is hiding behind the ancestors, she is flowing in the water.  She wants to save the skeletons but she is afraid.  It just takes time.  For now there is water and it runs through the skeletons mouth, trying to bring it back to life, but it seeps through and waters the wheels of a great and powerful machinery.  The thing is that the water never stops flowing, even after the machines have stopped.

The ancestors keep watch.  They are witnesses to it all, but they cannot be heard by most.  What is it they want to say?  Can we listen?

I believe Usha will appear and she will help me once again understand my role.  It might be in a dream.  It might be a story that comes to me.  It might be the next time I am painting this.  I hope I have the answer soon, because I feel helpless and afraid sometimes, not knowing how to act and not react to the times and events we are all living through. 

I feel that I know more than I knew before I had the vision, but I certainly don't have any answers.  Just feelings, images and more questions.

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