I have been laid up for two weeks after some extensive reconstructive surgery on both sides of my left ankle. It turns out that, in addition to some shit I don’t understand, my jagged ankle bone was trying to cut one of my ligaments in half. My ankle was clearly trying to amputate itself. Ankle suicide. I don’t really blame it. It has to have been kind of rough carrying me around for so many years. I am NOT a light load. Though it has made me wonder what the hell my right ankle has been doing all this time that would create such an imbalance of strength and power. Is my right ankle a slacker? Or has it been the strong one this whole time, carrying most of the weight while my left ankle has slowly tried to kill itself?
This is not my intended topic: what causes one ankle to be mentally ill and the other one strong. Because that’s just weird.
However the subject leads quite naturally into the thing I want to talk about: Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas.
What, you don’t see the connection? Weird. It’s so clear to me. But I guess since you’re not inside my brain (thank God for you) I’m gonna have to explain.
Ever since I was a little girl I have immersed a lot of my time and energy into artistic activities that may not be deemed in any way practical by a lot of people. I know that my parents often raised their eyebrows and thought “Oh lordy, what do we DO with this one?” I think that if I had shown an iota of talent in any of the things I persisted at they would have been more encouraging. Instead they kind of just “rolled with Heather’s current fancy” because I never seemed to settle onto any one thing for very long. There was always something more interesting to me just around the corner to try. And I have gotten worse as an adult, especially with this vast cyber world where you can learn about pretty much anything or be inspired by something with a 20 second search.
It’s kind of like taking a little nibble out of each piece of candy in a big box of chocolates because you don’t want to commit to just one or two because then you will get full too fast and not get to taste the other pieces.
Although that’s a bad example because I would never NOT finish a piece of chocolate. Plus it’s kind of rude if there are other people who also have rights to the box of chocolates. Just sayin.
Anyhoo, when I was a kid I dabbled in pretty much anything that called to me: perfume making, rock polishing; drawing; painting; furniture refinishing (my grandmother’s antique night stand was never the same); macrame; crocheting; singing; sewing; piano; paper mache (maracas with light bulbs where my favorite-dual purpose!); cross stitch; pottery; quilting; bird house making; gardening to name many. I wasn’t really good at any of these things and it never once entered my mind that I wanted to be an artist in my future. I just loved DOING those things.
Yes, it was for sure satisfying when something turned out cool. I remember trying to draw a picture of a lion once. I must have been around 10. I kept showing my mom what I thought was my finished picture and she would say “you can do better”. This happened many times before my mother finally said “Yes! Beautiful!” And I gave it to her. She framed it and put it on a shelf and said it should be a reminder to me of what I could accomplish when I stayed focused and did my best. I found the picture in her stuff when she died and kept it. Not because it was a good picture but because it was a reminder of the joy I felt when I was making it and also the peace I felt handing it over to my mom, an offering of my love.
My children and husband no longer even bat an eye when they find me in the breezeway smashing glass or under a cloud of dust from carving soap stone with a dremel tool or stripping the plastic coating off of copper wire. The copper was for my latest endeavor, this year’s “Make Time for Kids” clock for an auction in April benefiting Casa Partners…
…I love the cause, because this group helps kids during the transition from a tough home situation to foster care. But I also love any excuse to create something that wasn’t there before. She “Goddess of Time” turned out quite gaudy and slightly over the top but pretty enough to get a little cash at the auction (I hope).
On the day I started working on her I emerged after three or four hours of focusing on rocks and glass and copper wire and paint and my daughter took one look at me, smiled big and said “Oh mom! You’re doing art again aren’t you!” I looked at my hands all covered in epoxy and paint and held them up laughing. “How can you tell?” And she said “Your face is lit up.”
While I admit it was a little bit hard to hand her over to be on display and then auctioned off, because she and I had a lot of fun bringing her into the world, I was really quite happy to give her away and move on to the next “thing”. That’s just part of it, see?
So. Back to how my depressed ankle and Tibetan Buddhist Sand Mandala art are connected.
On day three after my surgery bummed-out-ed-ness began to spread over me, a dark gloomy haze. The nerve block they gave me from my knee down had completely worn off and the pain was like nothing I had ever experienced in my life: a vice grip lined with spikes slowly squeezing my ankle. So I turned to the pain pills the doctor prescribed which took away much of the agony but made me groggy and out of focus and weepy because I didn’t even have enough clarity to doodle with colored pens. And I thought “What’s the point ANYWAY? Everything I do is pretty much crap.” Because when I get bummed out it suddenly MATTERS that everything I create is crap. Depression, which thank goodness for me is generally situational and not chronic, is (at least in my mind) the opposite of clarity. It is like looking in the mirror when the glass is fogged up and having the audacity to call yourself ugly.
And so I turned to my iPad and Netflix and the series “House of Cards”, a well written but very dark show about the evil people and politics in the White House (perfect for my mood) and checked out completely on tv, something I rarely do for more than an hour or two let alone the THIRTY NINE HOURS it took to complete the 52 episodes produced thus far. I surrendered and thought dramatically (as is my way) “Let it be done to me: narcotics and television, the beginning of the end of my life as a recluse who dies in her bed, with dirty hair, surrounded by Reese’s peanut butter cup wrappers and soggy half-frozen bags of peas.”
But something happened four days into my binge: I started to feel better. And I am POSITIVE it’s all because of the Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala art that I learned about in the 33rd ‘chapter’ of House of Cards.
In the story, as part of a cultural exchange, Tibetan Buddhist monks were on public display at the White House for thirty days while they created a sand mandala. Here are a couple of links to explain this beautiful healing art in detail:
But in a nutshell, the great leader of the group decides on a design, which is filled with specific healing symbols, the main deity (or god) being in the center. The chosen monks then re-create the drawing from memory and proceed to carefully and slowly fill in the drawing by sending millions of grains of colored sand through these tiny little funnels called chak-purs using vibrations from a small narrow steel rod. All through the process they pray, chant, meditate and sing, asking the deity for blessings and peace and enlightenment for themselves and the world. They are totally focussed on the act of creating for hours upon hours. (I hope they get potty breaks and such.) And when they are finished, the beautiful, detailed creation is consecrated by the leader and then SWOOSH! the beautiful mandala is smeared with a small broom, DESTROYED to symbolize the impermanence of our material life. The sand is then placed into an urn where it is then usually poured into a moving body of water in another ceremony to disperse the purifying power to the world.
I had become deeply involved in watching the process of the creation so when this SWOOSH! happened on the show I sat up from my reclined position on the bed and yelled “Nooooooo!” And then flopped back down and thought “Oh! No wait.” I laid there for quite a long time, thinking about the dark questions I had asked myself earlier in the week and in other dark times in my life “Why bother? What is the point? To what purpose does it serve, especially when all I create is talentless crap?”
But see here’s the thing: we are all creations who are designed to create not criticize the creation. And when we open up our hearts to what calls to to us, be it music, art, stories, poetry, gardening, architecture, cosmetology, bee-keeping (that’s for you Sara), interior design… really I could go on and on because it is so personal, that which calls to our hearts, that which begs us to be a part of its own creation…when we answer, when we become fully absorbed in the process, engaged, meditative, focussed, we become less concerned for ourselves and more connected to our God and His universe. And that act of answering the call becomes the very part of the world that makes it lush and beautiful and interesting and glorious. It is fantastic magic (that’s for you DG-ha!) and we owe it to ourselves and to the world to listen and act, regardless of the final outcome, for though it will indeed all be gone someday, just like the sand mandala, the act of saying YES is what creation really is and this yes is what is eternal.
The day of the sand mandala episode, my family had gone on a day trip to Montana. They returned that evening, gathered around my bed and grinning, bearing gifts: a huge piece of tangled driftwood with a dragon head in it (at least that’s what I saw); 102 railroad spikes (they counted them before me: pieces of gold before the queen); a smooth rock the size of a cantaloupe that had the most spectacular shades of rust and green and grey and blue and they all kept taking turns petting it while I held it like a baby. “We thought maybe you could make something from all this when you feel better.”
As if I could say no!