We don’t talk about grief – we’re in the habit of sidelining mental health.
We live in a country where more or less everyone is a product – or byproduct – of war, trauma and loss. Yet when faced with grief, or when someone we love and care for is faced with it, we try our best to be there, be supportive, be aware and considerate, we try our best to deal with it, however we know how to.
The Kübler-Ross model states 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. There’s also the 7 stages of grief, to which “shock”, “guilt” and “reconstruction” are added.
No matter how many stages, what’s common among people is that there are no fixed rules for grief. Like all things human, it’s a process. One stage precedes the other, some stages repeat again and again till a certain thought or feeling is processed properly and healed.
The key is healing.
And healing is in the process, however it happens and no matter how long it takes.
In this illustrated timeline, I wanted to show my process.
I scribble notes here and there. I write down sentences that would be the beginning of something, but end up being captions for photos on Instagram, at best.
But I haven’t been writing for a long, long time.
This isn’t to say that’s going to change drastically – at least for now. But I’m going to try.
When I was 16, I bought a journal and decided to write a page each day; and I did. I cannot say that it was all good. Years later, most of the pages got tossed away and sent to recycling. But I do have a lot of those pages in storage. When I read them again years ago during one spring cleaning, I was surprised by a lot of things – how I told a story, how vague and obnoxious I must have sounded, how I expressed myself, and how I sure should have kept writing and improved on it.
Nowadays, I realise, the reason I am not writing is because I am telling my stories and expressing my thoughts and ideas through images and visuals; I am a graphic designer.
I try using different tools to do that. I haven’t always planned for it, but when a moment feels right, I try to capture it. Then I try to make something out of it.
A lot of times I have ditched ideas right in the middle of a process, and thus I have too many unfinished projects on my laptop/bedroom/studio.
After finishing classes for the year, I decided to take the summer off, sort of like a sabbatical, only for a shorter period.
See, for the past 3 years, I have taken summers off to travel or just chill in the country. This summer, though I’ll be going on vacation for 2 weeks soon, I will be sticking around in the city and trying to get my juices squeezing into tangible work.
So here goes.
This is a video I shot from an airplane window on my way from Kerala this past April back to Beirut. I’m always fascinated on airplanes, even though I’ve been traveling quite a bit. I’m always thinking about the human potential, about how we’re defying rules of physics and human limitations, to travel, and expand, and excel, and reach beyond personal capabilities to reach a global and large-scale human potential. We’ve pushed our own boundaries to cross lands and oceans and rivers and mountains to reach faraway lands and humans, to meet and greet different versions of us and see eye-to-eye the what-ifs of other human conditions.
It’s usually quiet after take-off. The seatbelt sign is still on, so everyone is tucked in their places, with their books or magazines, their tablets or smartphones, distracted, oblivious and perfectly quiet for a moment of contemplation.
I always wonder where these people are headed. Who’s meeting them there? What are their plans? What will they be having for breakfast? With whom? Are they happy? Are they going away or going home? What is home? What is home to me?
What if this thing crashes right now? What if it happens when I’m asleep? And I do sleep through most of my flights; it is something I am happy I learnt to do. To be completely honest, I fall asleep before the security demonstration before take off and wake up right after, and then for food.
But anyway. The odds of dying in a plane crash apparently is one in every 1.2 million flights, and event then, 95.7% of passengers survive. It is more common – 1 in 5000 – for people to die in car crashes, so in my mind, I am always saying something like “not today” and doze off.
I’ve always wondered how far people dive into their minds and wander with their thoughts and imagination. Do these ideas cross their minds in moments of solitude? Do they think about life as much as they think about death? Do they see the light in all the different sides of life? Do they see the light as much as the dark in the different corners of their minds? Do they feel their own lightness in context of the world at large?
I’ve also always wondered, in countless moments of solitude, if those corners of my mind would ever speak back and say hello.
How do you measure progress? How do you define what’s moving and at what pace, and how do you define whether it’s really moving or it’s only in your head?
Two weeks into this medical madness, I could trace out the shape of my nose in the mirror with my damaged eye. That was progress – for me anyway.
A month later, I could apply eyeliner without smudging my eyes completely and without having a nervous breakdown over fear of being blind forever. That was another level of progress to celebrate.
The short story is I have toxoplasmosis that has infected the behind of my retina, rendering me partially blind in my right eye.
The long story is that because of the aggressive medication I’ve been prescribed, my body is basically falling apart and reacting severely to the chemicals. I have my good days – when I take the 15+ pills on time, with food, sans-stress, well-conditioned in my environment. However, this month happens to be an interesting challenge on its own, while I prepare for a work-travel project and coincidently happen to be moving to a new apartment.
I cannot complain too much though. My eye is healing and my vision is returning in small fractions each day. My body is still reacting to the meds, but also adapting to the vigorous and demanding routine each day. That’s progress.
My new bedroom has a new coat of grey and a new table built and installed. I have mugs and plates in the kitchen cabinets, I have running water and electricity for my coffee machine. I have a rocking chair on my balcony, where I indulge in coffee-and -cigarette breaks every hour to the most serene landscapes in the south of the country.
This morning, I could look out my window, stare at the clouds and trace their shapes with my infected eye, without being bothered by the light or getting a migraine, as has been the habit for the past month now. That’s progress.
Working has been the biggest challenge so far. Being a designer and actively working in the creative/visual field, the past month has been a drag. My work pace has become slower and my frustration levels higher. Yoga has been helpful, as always, and I’ve got back to the habit of being a frequent practitioner. That there is progress as well.
Being partially blind has definitely changed my perspective – literally. Sometimes our health is our biggest reminder of life – and how we choose to live it – in these sobering moments.
I’m giving it a month, he said over lunch. A month till I’m settled into the routine and responsibilities of this new job. I’ll be settled again by then, have more time for myself and hopefully less and less on my mind. After a month, I’d like…
He paused. I reckon time paused as well. I know it did, because we stared at each other for a few of those seconds that extend beyond their capacity and defy the laws of physics.
I want to start going to the gym again – take care of myself again. Maybe start cooking too.
Of course, he wanted to go to the gym again. Maybe, after all, the purpose of this lunch was really just catching up and eating kale salad over small talk.
Months later, he would do the same.
This time, we’d be lying naked on the couch, after an interrupted session of “couch-surfing” – we’ll get to that interruption later.
He inhaled, then paused. Then murmured a song.
I was too exhausted to ask, but I looked up questioning – but he got up instead and went to the fridge and came back with one of those weird looking gym drinks.
After a long silence and a couple of cigarettes, he casually said, it’s not just me, it’s you as well. You come and go; you can’t stay either.
I smiled and sat up and asked him for some water. I was used to moving freely around his house and this was the first time I ask him for anything, so he questioned it.
I like watching you from behind.
I did. This man looked handsome from all sides and angles, and I also wanted to avoid the subject. That was a first as well.
We were done for the day. And the week. And the months to come afterwards.
With whatever energy I had left in my body I used to dress myself up and for a farewell kiss.
It was always like that between him and I.
Where did you go, he asked.
The trouble with getting older, with me at least, is this: I’ve grown softer over the years. Tougher in my work, wiser with my dealings with people, but when it comes to the matters of the heart, old friends and lovers in particular, I’ve become soft and fragile, and very openly so.
So I smile. But my tears weigh on my eyelids suddenly.
I’ve always been here, I manage to say.
It wasn’t like you’d walk out of bed and out the house in the middle of the night; you just left.
I told you I’m leaving, I say, following the car that passes in the distance with my gaze.
You put me in the spot there again, he says confidently. You know I can’t deal with that.
I told you I’m leaving, I whisper this time.
Look, I say after a long stare. Look, You like working long hours, you like your space, you like to be on your own. So do I.
You’re settled into your yet new job, I continue, your dad’s election campaign is over – congratulations, by the way – your friends got married finally, you went away for holidays. Whatever. Life is sequencing into one significant event after the next. It is what it is. Bottom line is, you’re constantly on the move, and so am I. And the sad reality is we’re too damn selfish, too damn arrogant to stop for a minute and ask, or to stay, or to love.
I’ve been in and out of love with you so many times that it’s ridiculous to stand here and talk about this.
You’re a fucking sadist, a goddamn narcissist and I have no idea why I’ve ever given you a second thought. I’ve poured the contents of this tiny heart in front of you so many times because somehow I’ve managed to reserve a spot for you in there.
Right next to satan himself, I say smiling now. It’s about time you fucking move out of there.
150 Natals (150 Christmases) is a series of wall pieces presented by Subodh Kerkar at the Museum of Goa. The narrative is that there’s an abandoned house that was repainted every Christmas throughout the different generations of the same family for 150 years. When the house was discovered, the paint on the walls was peeling off, holding different textures and colour layers around the house. These were then cut into pieces, mounted on wood and displayed at the museum.
Such an amazing gift!
*Planets never collide – at least they shouldn’t.
We are masses of solids, liquids, gases and an intricate set of carbon atoms, simply, hanging in space and orbiting in our own galactic systems.
We’ve come too close on too many occasions – call it gravitational pull, call it rebellion, call it love. We’ve made our way in each other’s orbits, revolved around each other, waltzed around open galaxies, then watched the stars and moons go into gravitational frenzy while we sat at your porch as spectators of the miracle of life.
Then we’ve pushed each other into our separate orbits again and settled back in ours. Call it polarities, call it disengagement, call it cowardice – balance needs to be restored.
Let’s write down our terms and conditions, a set of rules to live and not to live by, because ultimately, what do we live for and what do we die for? A long time ago we made a pact, to not let the world come between us. That day, we decided that by some coincidence, or magic, or turn of bad luck, the earth and universes were formed in a balanced set of cause and effect, and under harsh and unexpected circumstances, life and love were somehow made possible, and we as human beings came to experience and celebrate both. Through this arranged randomness, I got to sit across you at a table and you got to say hello. Hello in a thousand different ways, and after a thousand different circumstances, hello again.
This is a list I finally decided to write down about the things I’ve learned and figured out while traveling on my own, for the most part.
Throughout the years, I’ve started losing the habit of writing, and the less I write things down, the more and more I forget. These I’d like to remember.
Alone is an excuse meant to scare people from going out in the world. When travelling, you’re never really alone. There’s the fellow “alone” traveller, your roommates at the hostel, the old lady at the grocery store, the guy at the library, the tourists at the museum, the dog on the street, the coconut guy at the corner, the cashier at the deli… Believe it or not, the world is full of beautiful “alone” people, and we really need to say “hello” more often. Once in a while, we’ll be greeted with scorn or a shrug, but a lot of times, we’ll end up meeting the best people in the world.
Alone is a state of mind. Traveling alone will teach you that the best company is your own. You’ll learn to be your best friend, because, guess what, you’re all you have out there. Traveling alone gives you the opportunity to sit with yourself without the outer distractions and have that honest one-on-one conversation with yourself regarding who you are and what you’re doing with your time. I always say this: we are who we are; people don’t change. We only become more of who we are. Traveling is a good refresher.
Having said that, home is where you are. Not the home you share with the family, not the home you share with your partner/cat/roommates, not the walls, ceiling, doors and windows around you. Home is the set of flesh and bones holding your soul into a complete human being.
Traveling solo keeps you in charge of your health. You’ll indulge in local delicacies and street food, but you’ll also remember to keep hydrated, fibered and boosted with the required amount of carbs/proteins/sugars.
Travel redefines our friendships and relationships. Whether we want to or not, whether we’ve given it a thought or not, and even when you want to travel alone, we’re bound to bring people with you on your trips. They might be in your scrapbook or journal you carry with you, your ex’s t-shirt you for-some-reason still like to sleep in, or in those phone/skype/app conversations. I personally try to avoid bringing people with me, but my heart has grown softer over the years and travels, and it grows fonder of people the further I am from them.
Having said that, letting go of people becomes slightly easier, simply because the people who didn’t make it that far with you, you won’t find necessary going back to. A lot of times we befriend people because of convenience of time and distance. At the risk of sounding like a complete asshole here, I dare say that people come with expiration dates – we learn from each other, serve a purpose in each other’s lives and then we’re off on our ways in different directions. Not all relationships are made to last forever, and not all relationships end in disastrous goodbyes, tears and screams. Some simply end with a “see you soon” that never happens again.
Mental health. I have to write a few lines on that here. Travel has definitely calmed down my demons and made my raging fires less and less destructive. I’ve dumped some of my baggage in lakes, rivers, oceans and valleys along the way, and closed some doors and windows on things I now know are simply part of my life, my learning process and ultimately what makes me me. I still get panic attacks every once in a while, but I also do hold my breath then push myself further, but more importantly, the term “I got this. I’ll be ok” has a real meaning now.
Privilege can go either way. Really.
You’ll spend a lot of time on your own. A lot. Then you’ll spend a lot of nights on your own. If you’re into hook-ups and one night stands, you’ll probably be able to avoid that for a few nights, but chances are you’ll get some time on your own. That’s the best time to consider your love affairs and what exactly you want out of a relationship. In one random encounter, someone said that the ideal reason to get married is for the emotional security. Nothing else, he said. After a while now, that is starting to ring true. Sure, we want to grow and keep growing as individuals in a relationship, but it’s the emotional security that keeps us in one.
What you seek in life will come and find you – when it’s time, when it’s ready, when you’re ready. Be patient. Be prepared for growth, but most importantly, when opportunity comes knocking, don’t you dare not take it.
There’s something about travel that awakens and deepens your sense of conscious living, but also your collective consciousness with the people and environment around you, and also the planet in general. Each country has a unique landscape and set of norms and traditions that makes you realise through our differences, we’re joined at core by our desires and fears, our joys and aspirations, what makes us human.
Sustainability. I need to say something about that as well. Travel makes you realise the impact a single person can have on the environment. Maybe we realise this in a greener city, or in a much more polluted one. Maybe we see it in a city with better infrastructure, or maybe in one where there’s no public transportation at all. Maybe in a city where you can refill your bottle by tap water, or one where you have to consume a lot of plastic bottles. I’ve learned to travel light, buy less and less on the road, eat local, avoid unnecessary packaging, do without a local SIM card and buy second-hand then donate back locally.
Plans change. If travel has taught me anything about life, it is that plans are fluid, mobile, ever-changing, constantly evolving. And if you hold on to them too tightly, they’d even throw in a bit of mockery for thinking they’d carry through. We do change and evolve with our plans too. You set out to do one thing, but life happens, and you end up doing something completely different, sometimes much better.
Sometimes the big things are the small things and the small things are the big things. Too many things! To put it differently, travel shifts our priorities, our aspirations and our intentions. When we look at things from afar, as an outsider, say while complaining about a delayed flight, then watching a family of six miss theirs back home, it kind of shifts perspectives, makes you realise your privileges, sometimes even luck. Like the bread and conversation you share with a wash-away star on the airplane, or a walk through a refugee park, or a late-night chat with a hostel roommate who followed his heart then lost his way back home. Travel gives us perspective, but also awakens us to what’s already there.
Life happens. Constantly. It breaks your heart, takes away your joys at times and challenges everything you thought you knew. Life happens. Over and over again. At least where I come from, catastrophe happens in an instant as well. Happy takes on a different meaning. Thank yous resonate from deeper within. And finally, after meeting people from all walks of life, I’ve learnt, then found this lesson in my encounters on the road, to always choose life.