And each pain will someday be a sting of delight
On art that sees you when no human could; on art that holds your hand as you sit in your grief; on art that understands you even when you can't stand yourself
Photo by Monica Figueras
Yesterday was a strange and tumultuous day. I won’t elaborate on the nature of the strangeness and the tumult; other than this: just work related things.
I spent the morning in a period induced rage blackout; the afternoon as a swollen, red-eyed mass of flesh and bones, unable to sleep, unable to stay awake; and the evening as a parched desert, deserted by emotions, undone after a storm.
As the dusk slowly gave way to night, phone on DND, ghosting colleagues and all things work, I came across the following lines from Barbara Ra’s “You Can’t Have It All”:
And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept.
There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother’s,
it will always whisper, you can’t have it all,
but there is this.
And right after that, another poem showed up: “Origin of the Marble Forest” by Gregory Orr—
Childhood dotted with bodies.
Let them go, let them
No, I said,
make them stay, make them stone.
Reading these two, back to back, these lines on childhood and the fast fading past, I could feel the stirrings of life again in my heart.
What was it about them?
From the vantage point of childhood, adulthood feels like a universe of its own; of freedom to do whatever one feels; no one to stop you from running off on the streets; no one to restrict your purchase of chocolates and chips—
Adulthood is that lamp Aladdin rubs; adulthood is that genie that comes out of the lamp; adulthood is Aladdin himself, free to wander and shape his destiny.
But as the years pass, and chafe against you, chipping away at the naivete and ideas of grandeur, adulthood suddenly appears before you in the mirror. Without warning, you are the Adult. All around you see a new generation crib and complain about college, school, assignments, and how wise they feel at 20, while your back aches from the hours spent hunched on the screen, fingers cold and dry, eyes suddenly lined with bags, while you wait, on the bad days for the weekend, or worse, for the first day of a new month, when your bank account chimes with new coin.
When you see a 20 year old talk of adulthood, you roll your eyes, and smirk with disdain, not at them, but at yourself who was once 20 and thought so too. Wisdom is beautiful, but it is the ultimate price of having lived as long as you have.
And as the years drag along, and drag you along, you grasp just how brutal life is. There are no dragons and conquests. There’s just everyday. One day stretching like long shadows followed by another… if you are lucky enough to live that long. Or unfortunate. Depends on your mood for the day.
Unlike in the stories told in childhood, where happiness is a destination, growing up you realise happiness is a state to be found; the flowers breaking out off stony pavements that catch your eye as you rush to catch the daily commute.
With the years, you recognize happiness in that hot cup of tea served to you by a loved one after a drive back home through the evening traffic. That Tuesday morning sitting on the balcony, without the weight of the phone on your palm, feeling the sun, even if it’s just for 10 minutes. That hot bath, that good meal, that vanilla scented candle you light just as you go to bed.
And hence the charm of those poems. As you settle more and more into adulthood, and time takes you further and further away from childhood, and memories slowly become translucent, then forever lost to the psychic void, poems like these wake up the dead/ dying Past.
In my childhood, there were no black swans and ponds in the backyard — I was raised in cities and apartments — nor have I ever eaten rye bread. But what touches are not these details, but the nature of memory itself. How a particular alignment of the skies, and the colors of a sleepy afternoon take me back to my uncle’s home at Bombay. How a particular breeze takes me back to a terrace of a distant friend’s Bangalore. The Past is a river running in tandem with the Present, intersecting sometimes, separating other times, all leading to the ocean that is Time, falling back down as rain.
These memories have no answers. Nor do they hold any. But there’s that comfort which accompanies remembering. Even when life feels like a flaming pile of shit, it wasn’t always the case and won’t always be the case. There were these moments of sweet joy. That Uncle’s home and the humid Bombay afternoons spent in lethargic merriment. That friend’s terrace and the Bangalore cold, the chattering teeth yet warm conversations. Memories that cut through the thickness of the present to remind you that life won’t always stay this way. This present too will become a thing of the past, and years from now when you look back, the bad days will become yet another anecdote to pass around at a party and bring about laughter in their wake.
That’s why I am grateful for adulthood even when it’s hard.
I am grateful because now I understand these poems. I can stand in for the narrator and the subject and the object of such poems, who stand in for me when I am unable to. A few years prior, I would have grasped these poems in parts, seen them as sum of their parts, but not a whole. But as I grow into my whole, where the outlines of my sense of self become sharper and more distinct, art too appears before me as a whole.
Until a few years ago, I would have merely read it, words on a page that make semantic sense. But today, it sees me.
That act of recognition is what bloomed flowers in my storm wrecked soul. Where all of a sudden, the anger dissipated and there was clarity. My world’s no longer a swirling black. It’s now pale blue. At least for now.
Life will continue to throw stones (people do throw rocks at things that shine) but as long as art continues to find me, I’ll be fine; in the coldness of grief’s isolation, art is but a sip of warmth.
A few more poems that appeared when I needed them the most:
“Don’t Hesitate” by Mary Oliver
Read after 2 months .It’s so nice to read yours after a long time