When I started graduate school in New York City, my very first assignment was to write an essay so that the school could assess my writing skills. I was considered a foreign student, even though my entire formal education had been in English, and I had spent three years working for an American company in India.

The topic for the essay was to discuss the ethics of administering the smallpox vaccine. I spent an entire day thinking about what to write and came up with nothing. My challenge in writing this essay was that I couldn’t relate to the problem. Honestly, it had never occurred to me that there could be ethical considerations in vaccinating against a highly contagious and deadly viral disease like smallpox. I was vaccinated for smallpox as a child and I have a smallpox vaccine scar on my right arm. Most days I don’t even know it exists. It’s a small souvenir of a time I don’t remember. A time when smallpox was endemic across continents, and greatly feared as there was no cure or treatment, and the mortality rate was reported to be as high as 30 percent. If the infection didn’t kill you, it left you disfigured, blind and sterile. India launched a country-wide vaccination programme in 1962, which was later revised in 1972 in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO). It wasn’t until 1977 that smallpox was eradicated from India. Smallpox was a global health crisis that required a global response, and it remains the only human disease to be eradicated globally.

I somehow managed to write a short essay based on my shamefully limited knowledge of the history of smallpox eradication. I still remember the feeling of being confused and unable to comprehend why it wouldn’t be advisable to vaccinate if it was the one thing proven to protect you from a disease with terrible outcomes.

I’m feeling the same inability to understand the refusal to wear masks as a way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Since June 2, 2020, wearing a mask when outside the home is compulsory in Singapore. Non-compliance results in a fine of S$300 (~USD215) for first time offenders, and higher fines or prosecution for repeat offenders.

Even before COVID-19 made the mask a necessary accessory, people with symptoms of a respiratory illness would wear a surgical mask when using public transport, in classrooms, and in offices. I always thought it was a thoughtful gesture. When my friend came to visit my newborn daughter, she wore an N-95 mask because she had a bad cough. We also regularly use masks when the haze descends on our island city and air pollution reaches unhealthy levels. I’ve maintained a small stock of N95 masks since the Southeast Asian haze of 2013. Wearing a mask is not a political act, it is an act of protecting yourself and others around you, especially the elderly and immuocompromised.

I don’t like to wear a mask. It is uncomfortable, and I haven’t found one that fits me well. I find it difficult to breathe when I’m walking briskly, and sometimes it fogs up my glasses. It is inconvenient because I can’t use my smartphone’s facial recognition technology when I’m wearing a mask. It muffles sound and hinders conversation.

However, the simple mask is one of the few tools we have to protect against the spread of a disease we are still studying and uncovering. Until we have a more complete understanding of the disease, I’m going to wear my mask and keep breathing. Hopefully, the mask on my face, like the smallpox vaccine scar on my arm, will soon become a small souvenir of a time gone by. But this time, I will remember.

And it’s done. Or is it just starting? 

I have finished the 12-week Artist’s Way program. I’m slowly sinking into the most delicious feeling of accomplishment. Over the last several years, I started more than my share of programs, challenges, courses, routines, everything from the spiritual to the mundane. And each time I gave after a few days or weeks. But I stayed with the Artist’s Way, and though I took my time to get through weeks 8-12, I finished the program. 

I set out on this journey, not knowing the end outcome but I knew the journey was necessary. I worked hard, dug deep, and stayed honest. I faced the monster under my bed. The journey has been so rewarding – I found MYSELF!

Thinking about change and nurturing myself were the key actions for Week 11. I reflected on all the ways I’ve changed since Week 1 and also made some commitment towards how I will continue to change. Reclaiming myself as a person, independent of the roles I play, has been the single biggest change I’ve made. Making time and space for myself, and teaching my family members to respect my time and space has been another major change. My daughter is welcome to use my desk, but she needs to clean up if she makes a mess. If Mom is doing her yoga class or writing morning pages, anything that is not a medical or fire emergency has to wait. Seems so simple, right? But we have been in a lockdown for three months which means we have been in each other’s presence constantly. Even now, my daughter is sitting next to me creating a game on a coding app. She is also very unhappy with my music choice pointedly asked if I could play something other than the rock music I’ve been playing all morning. My time, my music. 

This week I had to plan one loving action every day. I bought an art print from Libby Chambers Art because I love her use of colour, and her painting of magnolias makes me happy. There was much baking this week, of course. There was some yoga, some meditation. Lots of music courtesy Spotify and the Lincoln Centre Youtube channel.  I went for a walk in my neighbourhood and took the time to observe and photograph flowers that I’ve always ignored.  

The best thing I did for myself this week was sign up for two online experiences with Airbnb. One was a vegetarian Balinese cooking class in Denapsar, Bali, and the other was a piano meditation in Paris.  Honestly, I didn’t want the week to end! I have learnt that nurturing myself is possible; it doesn’t require a huge time commitment and it doesn’t have to be expensive. 

It is amazing what technology has made possible. I have toured museums, gardens and cities, watched music performances, browsed Art Basel, learnt to cook new recipes, chanted and meditated, and learnt dance without leaving my home. I’m extremely grateful to the Internet Gods for a strong, reliable network connection throughout this very strange year. 

In the last three weeks, I fell into the Virtue Trap (i.e. deprioritized myself), got scared of my own ambitions as laid out in the Goal Search during week 8, and almost made a creative U-turn. 

I spent the major part of a week planning and preparing for my mother’s online birthday party. Being new to hosting Zoom meetings with more than 5 participants, I needed to educate myself about the meeting features and practice hosting a few times. I wrote a script, picked music, invited close family members and friends to say a few words for Mom. There were also 10,000 questions from uncles and aunties who were excited about an online party but nervous about using Zoom. Plus, my co-hosts, my sisters, had an additional 10,000 questions and concerns and doubts. It took a lot of time and energy but it was totally worth it. More than 75 people showed up for the Zoom party, and Mom is still reading and responding to all the posts on her Kudoboard. The adrenaline from the party kept me up till 3am. The next day, I went into a state of lethargy.

Kudoboard, Zoom Screenshot, Draft Script Page 1

It took me 4 days, 3 baking projects, one furious game of badminton, and takeout from my favorite middle eastern-inspired restaurant to shake off the lethargy and get back to work. 

And it seems that simple task of sitting down at my desk, opening my book and picking up a pen, sent some sort of signal because I received exactly the help and guidance I needed to continue. The Artist’s Way seems enchanted sometimes because it gives me the words I most need to read and understand at that very moment. The exercises are exactly what I need to achieve the next breakthrough. So now I’m energized. I have a set of goals to orient me, and a set of actions to keep me moving towards the goal. 

My immediate goal for the next two weeks is to build consistency in my practice. The last few weeks have been a patchwork of sluggish unproductive days and scintillating days of work, exploration, and discovery.

Confronting fears is always uncomfortable and I think I’m in for a significant period of discomfort as I continue this journey. But is there really another option?

I took two weeks to get through week 8, and I’m glad I gave myself extra time for the week 8’s tasks. I felt overwhelmed thinking about goals and setting a 5-year horizon with actions for each year. It felt like I was about to make a major commitment. I was afraid to put my deepest wishes down on paper, because then they would be plans not wishes, and I would be accountable for them. I wrote a few things down and then found myself stalling. So I took a break. 

I kept up with the morning pages, affirmations and artist dates. I took care of my plants, and Pandoughra (my fledgling sourdough starter). I cleaned my work space and added to my wall décor. I used Canva to create an invite for my mom’s online birthday party and used Kudoboard to design an online group card. I baked brownies using Katherine Hepburn’s recipe. But the most serendipitous of all, I started reading Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic

I bought this book when it was first published in 2015. For 5 years it sat on my book shelf. I remember reading a few pages of the first chapter and then putting the book down never to pick it up again, until week 8. At the beginning of the lockdown (March 22, to be precise) I went around the house collecting books I had bought but never read. Big Magic was in that stack. I started reading two other books in that stack but not Big Magic. Until last week. Reading Big Magic during week 8 made a huge difference to my goal-setting approach and how I think about my creativity. Instead of feeling stuck and apprehensive about planning my creative future, I started feeling light and joyful. I didn’t plan to read Big Magic during this week or anytime soon, it just happened. Once again, I’m grateful for the gentle hand nudging me forward. 

I got back to the tasks on May 19, and by the afternoon of May 20 I was done. Last evening, I celebrated the completion of week 8 with homemade pizza and Chianti. Week 9, here I come!

I’ve spent my entire adult life thinking of myself as a plant terminator. I have killed off more house plants than I can bear to think of. Even plants that are impossible to kill have withered and wasted away under my care.

I absolutely love plants, and adore the trend of having lots of indoor plants of different shapes and sizes. The last time I bought indoor plants, they started dying quite rapidly but got revived as soon as I moved them outdoors. For a time, I gave up on the idea of indoor plants. Just before the lockdown I decided to give it another try and bought four indoor plants. A visit to grocery store resulted in three pots of herbs. A neighbor dropped off a pot of holy basil. Suddenly I had eight plant beings in my care. And I was determined that they would survive.

I dug out my grandfather’s book on Indoor Plants, found a website dedicated to growing plants in the tropics, read about good watering practices, and watched videos on repotting. I ordered potting soil, compost soil, and new pots. Once a challenge is accepted, then its all hands on, full steam ahead. I even added “Water and tend to plants” to the habit tracker app I’ve been using lately.

My plants are doing great. They haven’t died. In fact they are sprouting leaves and shoots. And I’m beyond thrilled. Today I repotted my herbs as they had outgrown the original little pots. I felt trepidation; did I put enough soil, what do I do about roots, will my plant survive this? So far the mint and the basil are alive and looking fantastic.

Attention is expensive. It takes time, effort, and emotional energy. It is a risk. My plants might still fail. Isn’t this true of most things in life? Our health, career, relationships, finances all need careful tending. How often have I just let things go? Let them wither and waste away because I had “too many things on my plate”, “too many balls in the air”, “too many pots on the stove”, you pick the phrase. I guess careful, habitual attention is possible when you have simplified your life to include only what truly matters to you. And that is the gift of this interminable lockdown.

Visual Arts and Practice were the two key themes this week. I painted, made a collage, watched MOMA’s Virtual Views on photography and the art of Yayoi Kusama, took photographs of things in my house, and viewed dozens of Van Gogh-inspired art projects on Instagram. I bought three small potted herbs two weeks ago and I’ve meticulously watered them, sheltered them from the storms, sent them positive loving vibes, and watched them closely for any sign of imminent death. I have been practicing yoga every day this week thanks to free online session by my yoga studio. And I started a sourdough starter!

Pandoughra – My Sourdough Starter

All these things require daily attention, action, and intention.  I didn’t realise it until this evening that I have somehow managed to start three more practices in addition to writing. Yeah, this week has been busy. I am enjoying the heady rush of having every moment filled but I also realise that I need to create some quiet to introspect and to continue the work on my primary focus – building my writing practice. 

“Treating myself like a precious object will make me strong.” When did I stop cherishing myself and why? This was such a clever exercise, because while I designed and painted the sign, I kept repeating the sentence like a mantra, like something I need to absorb into my very core. I refuse to be treated poorly, especially by me.

This week I felt the need for some goal setting. What comes after week 12? What are my next steps? What goal do I want to achieve in the short term and the long term? Guess what we are doing in Week 8? Yep, “Goal Search”. It’s a fairly elaborate exercise and I can’t wait to get started.

In Week 4 of the Artist’s Way program, we were supposed to write an Artist’s Prayer which I thought would be really difficult because it felt like writing poetry and I haven’t overcome my hesitation to write poems. I love reading them, always have. Writing them is another matter. Anyway, here I was on the last day of Week 4 with the last task on my list. I took a deep breath, thought of my God and started writing. I don’t know how or from where the words flowed and the prayer took shape. I’m so proud of my prayer – it captures everything I feel and believe, it empowers me every time I read it, and simply makes me so proud that I was able to write THAT. 

Week 6 is in the bag! This week I learnt to accept freebies – a pineapple from my neighbor, four online lessons from my yoga studio, a class making Salzburger Nockerl with a lovely woman in Salzburg, Austria, and a class learning about Roman winemaking and spicing up red and white wine with a real Roman. Oh Universe, I am ready and willing to accept your abundance!

Being in a lockdown situation, meant I had to get creative with the postcards. I decided to use Canva to design the card and send it electronically to 3 friends and 2 aunts with whom I haven’t spoken in a few months. It was a rewarding exercise – I felt joy from having created something beautiful, and the responses I received tell me the cards were much appreciated. Most of us exclusively use WhatsApp for communication, I think a little more old-fashioned communication can be good for everyone. 

Some of the tasks this week were easy – like throwing out ratty pieces of clothing or clearing my home environment or baking. Some needed creative solutions like the postcards. And some have been nearly impossible – like collecting five pretty or interesting rocks. I was supposed to track of where I spent my money. That is was really easy since it was all spent on groceries! I’ve decided to give myself grace and complete some tasks at a later date but spend some time thinking about why I was supposed to do the task in the first place.

I must admit, I felt like I was losing steam a bit at the beginning of the week. Today is a public holiday, I’ve been sitting in my private, sacred work space, reading and writing for hours while my husband takes care of the kids. It has been rejuvenating. I guess some quiet time to read the Artist’s Way, do my tasks, and write the morning pages without interruptions was essential to get myself going again. 

Results of the class on Roman wine making. L to R: Mulsum, Granum Paradisi, Ippocrasso, Elixir of Youth, Sangria (made with the leftover red wine)
L to R: Mulsum, Granum Paradisi, Ippocrasso, Elixir of Youth
Leftover Salzburger Nockerl.
(Was too busy sampling and didn’t take a picture of the finished product.)

March 20, 2020 was a good day. It was a Friday and the beginning of spring break. Three people whom I have known practically my whole life celebrated their birthdays on that day. If not for COVID-19, we would be a on a plane to Hokkaido, Japan for some skiing. It was a normal Friday like any other. March 20, 2020 is also the day I felt a gentle nudge and I decided to embark on the Artist’s Way program.

I bought Artist’s Way, 25th Anniversary Edition in July 2019, on the recommendation of a friend. I started in earnest, and after a week, life took over and the book was forgotten. Until March 20, 2020. I’m grateful for that gentle nudge.

While I was working on a task during week 4, it occurred to me that I needed to make a new Vision Board. Guess what I spent a lot of time doing during Week 5? Creating what Julia Cameron calls an Image File! I cut out pictures from whatever magazines I had on hand, and then spent a few hours searching for pictures of adventures I’d like to experience, pleasures I had been denying myself, items I’m like to own, lives I would like to lead, and hidden desires. Oh, what a joy it was to dream again!

While the Image File exercise brought some much-appreciated fun to the week, reading about the Virtue Trap was like getting a bucket of cold water thrown in my face. It will take some time to change self-destructive behaviours, but I’m thankful for the awareness and the path that is laid out before me. So, while my family plays it’s 2,589th game of Monopoly this month and my daughter sends me cute emojis asking me to join her, I’ve been enjoying some quiet time in my private space, doing what I love.

Writing this post at my desk

%d bloggers like this: