I’ve been going through a lot of changes this year, many of which I’m quite sure I’m not even aware of yet and won’t be until I can look back on 2010 with some context and perspective. Astrologically speaking, this was the end of my Pluto Square, which is one of the top three major life-changing transits that people go through in their lives and correlates to what we refer to as the Midlife Crisis (TM). I’ve spent a great deal of time for the last two years feeling like I have utterly wasted the first thirty-odd years of my life, mostly because where I am now has absolutely NOT met the expectations that I and others set up for me when I was growing up. Looking back I realize I was shoehorned into the unenviable position of being that first family member who’s supposed to go to college and make something of themselves and redeem the rest of the family.
*great guffaws of laughter ensue*
Firstly, that’s a cruel thing to do to your children. Secondly, given the people I grew up around, there’s no way I would ever do anything to make them look better than they were, either purposefully or unconsciously. So I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to extricate myself from those expectations, and believe me, it was the self-imposed ones that gave me the most trouble. They had their hooks in good.
During that process, I went through a lot of ruminating about what it is that makes me happy, what it is that I feel is supposed to make me happy, the difference between the two, and how to go about setting my path up properly so that I actually AM happy. Or at the very least, content. I often wonder if true happiness isn’t a pipe dream and that the most any of us can hope for is contentment. But that’s another post.
Oddly, I wound up ditching one of the things that had made me extremely happy for several years: mehndi, the art of applying henna paste to the skin in decorative patterns. I learned how to do mehndi back in 2000 when a friend of mine had a workshop in which she prepared a massive bowl of henna and then gave everyone little plastic cups, paintbrushes, and toothpicks to draw on themselves with. I sat down with my cup and my brush and drew a spiral on my left palm. I carefully left the paste to dry for a few hours, then flaked it off and stared with utter wonder at the entrancing orange stain the green mud had left upon my hand. That was only the beginning.
Through the magic of chemistry, the dye molecule in henna, lawsone, oxidizes with the air, slowly turning darker and changing color from orange to red to brown over the next 48-72 hours. Indeed, a mehndi pattern is a living piece of art, for it is different from day to day, sometimes hour to hour. I spent those two to three days utterly entranced by my hand. I would find myself just staring at it, marveling at the color and the small details of the palm of my hand that I had heretofore never seen. Mehndi drew my attention to details of my own body and as such was extremely grounding. Something I have always needed.
The next Monday after the campout we were all attending, I went to an Indian grocery store as soon as it was open and bought my first box of henna. Reshma brand, $1.99 for an 8 oz. box. Possibly some of the crappiest henna available, though I didn’t know it yet. I also went to BookPeople, Austin’s finest bookstore, to look for books. I found a copy of Loretta Roome’s “Mehndi”, which to this day is one of the most beautiful books about henna ever published, and is regrettably now out of print. With that box of powder and that book, a passionate obsession was born. I spent the next two years deeply engaged in exploring this strange form of body art that almost no one in the West understood beyond knowing that Madonna had some on her hands in her “Frozen” video.
I took a break from mehndi when I got pregnant with my daughter. The last piece I did before she was born was in honor of her impending arrival.
Obviously since my hands were constantly busy for the next two to three years after Zoe was born, there was zero opportunity to do mehndi. I doubt I would have wanted to even if I had the time, for I was utterly exhausted and depressed for those first years. As she got older, though, I slowly had the opportunity to rekindle my art.
In 2006, I found an online community of mehndi artists at The Henna Page, a website run by a woman who probably knows more about henna and mehndi than any other living soul on the planet. In fact, she has a PhD in henna and its history, which extends back for many thousands of years and predates virtually any other form of body adornment. Through that community I was exposed to more patterns and techniques, not to mention finally having a group of people with whom I could talk about my art.
The following year, I had the opportunity to attend the Sin City Henna Conference in Las Vegas, which will remain a singularly beautiful week in my memory for as long as I live. For the first time, I got to watch other people do mehndi. Up to that point, it had just been me for the previous seven years. I had been learning and practicing in a vacuum, the bell jar to which was lifted and thrown away when I went to Vegas. I did very little art that week, but I watched, and it sunk in. I returned home to find that my abilities as an artist had easily tripled.
I finally felt worthy to do what my friends had been encouraging me to do since I had started seven years before: start a business.
Enter Laksmi Skin Art, later to be Bodhi Body Art. Laksmi is the Hindu goddess of prosperity, fertility, and abundance. She is said to live within the designs themselves, which is why Hindu brides and grooms are always decorated with mehndi, so that the blessings of Laksmi will be bestowed upon the newly married couple. The tradition of wedding mehndi is deep and rich. Some traditions call for the husband’s name to be hidden in the bride’s designs for him to find on their first night together: he can do nothing more with her until he finds his name (that sounds so fun! and can you get more romantic?). Mehndi had always been a meditative practice for me as well as an artistic one. I felt it would be rude to attempt to turn something so sacred into a business without properly honoring Laksmi.
Regrettably, my business never did very well. I live in a city where mehndi is fairly accepted and there were already several well-entrenched artists here with whom I had to compete. I also soon discovered that competition is fierce and unfriendly, with a couple of exceptions. I suffered through being outright ignored by other artists as well as having my art stolen from my website by yet another, who didn’t seem to understand that just because she found it on Google image search didn’t mean it was free for her to take.
Not to mention that I was increasingly battling the growing trend of “black henna”, which isn’t henna at all: it’s concentrated black hair dye (paraphenyldiethylamine, PPD) made into a paste and drawn on the skin in the same sorts of patterns. It stains almost instantly, lasts for weeks, and happens to be a potent toxin that renders many people highly allergic to just about anything made of certain kinds of plastic. It also leaves scars in the shape of the original design. And the unknowing public LOVES it, because it’s fast, easy, cheap, and long-lasting. Reactions to it happen sometimes weeks after the initial application, and may also happen after using it for a long time without incident.
I also had another mark against me: I’m not Indian. Now, before someone gets all upset and accuses me of being racist, please understand that’s not where I’m coming from. The tradition of mehndi as associated with weddings is deeply entrenched in family as well as religion, and I cannot say that if I were an Indian that I would not also want another Indian, preferably a family member, to do mine or my daughter’s wedding mehndi. That is their sacred tradition, and I am not disparaging that. I was simply not what that demographic in my city wanted, and the other areas of business were fairly monopolized by the other artists.
Nevertheless, it was a contributor in a whole melange of factors that eventually led to my abandoning my business this year. The sacred thread that I tried to keep within it was constantly violated by the general selfishness of American capitalism. People didn’t care one whit about the energy and time that I had put into my art, nor that it was something sacred to me. They wanted their art done, they wanted it done their way, and they wanted it done cheaply and quickly. After being repeatedly disrespected, not to mention stolen from on more than one occasion (who steals a Buddha? talk about bad karma!), I abandoned my venture. The passion had been sucked right out of my art. I simply did not care about it anymore. It was too difficult to compete for business, which was increasingly scarce due to the tanking economy, and too difficult to maintain the positivity necessary to keep my chin up. I was also sick of doing business alongside and competing with the “black henna” artists along with hacks who had no business putting art on people and charging money for it in the first place.
I was glad not to have to worry about the business things anymore. It was a serious pain in the ass, and I was getting so little return in exchange for what I was putting into it. Regrettably, I should have killed my business much sooner, because it killed my passion for my art. And I miss it. I miss the exciting pull of a bag of freshly made henna cones, just waiting to freshly stain skin with something beautiful. Part of the problem was (is) that I completely lost perspective of my own art. Everyone around me oohed and aahed over my designs, positively gushing over how beautiful they were, but I couldn’t see it anymore. Everything I did looked like ass to my eyes, no matter how much people praised it. And perhaps most importantly for that reason, I stopped doing mehndi this year. I was no longer compelled to sit for hours as I once had, just lost in the trancelike mindset I would achieve bent over a hand or a foot.
Ironically, getting really fucking good at my art is part of what changed that dynamic. When I wasn’t very good, I had to spend hours doing it, and because I wasn’t living up to anyone’s expectations except my own, I was able to enjoy the discipline for what it was without judging the outcome. By telling myself that I needed to be better and faster in order to run a business, I took that away from myself, and if I had realized at the time that’s what I was doing, I never would have started a business.
I haven’t done any mehndi on myself in months. The last time I did, I was utterly UNcaptivated by my own skin as I had been in the past. The process of applying the mehndi did not fill me with peace as it once had. Rather than lovingly caring for the designs as they slowly faded from my skin, I found myself wishing they would hurry up and fade so I wouldn’t have to look at them anymore.
I still wish I knew precisely what happened, and whether or not the passion for my art will ever return. I do miss it, though I think I miss the state of mind more than anything else. I didn’t just lose a passion, I lost something sacred. And I am still looking for it.