By Moushumi Chakrabarty
Arts and crafts heal. here is how two sisters healed themselves and each other using needlework
Many years ago when I was a school student, I was one of those kids who hated the needlework class. The days when I looked at the timetable and saw the pencilled-in word ‘Needlework’ arising out of the neat rows, I dreaded going to school. In needlework class, it seemed like the needle deliberately poked through the fabric into my fingers, or the thread tangled itself on purpose.
All through my early youth, I had thus viewed crafts, especially those that involved stitching, with disdain. My mother loved embroidery and tried to persuade me many times to give it a try. My sister followed in her footsteps but I would never be caught with needle and thread in my hand.
Fast forward to adulthood. Some years ago, my sister, only twenty-seven at the time, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was a huge blow for my family. I had moved to Toronto by then, my parents and sister lived in India. On hearing the news, I could not bear to be so far away. Through the days of chemotherapy, hair loss and nausea, my sister struggled. So did we – in the throes of a special torture of not being able to take away the pain. Physically we could not share her pain, but with every breath we drew, we felt for her.
Somehow the evenings were the hardest to get through. Everywhere people were taking walks, children were playing and calling out to each other. We heard them through the open windows. She lay on the bed most of the time, not tired exactly, but listless, unwilling to talk or laugh. I racked my brains – how could I involve her more, draw her mind away from the disease and its dreadful complications? One epiphanous morning I went to the nearby store and bought two sets of cross stitch cloth, needles and different coloured threads.
Her excitement was contagious as she picked out the designs – one for herself and one for me. We chose the colours for the pictures, threaded the needles and off we went on a grand adventure. She stitched a picture of a hump-backed camel on an undulating desert landscape full of earthy reds and golds. I did one of a bullock-cart, a farmer, a tree with a bird. Every evening we sat together on our parents’ terrace under a beautiful February sky, caught up in creating the wonderful patterns. We laughed and talked together, comparing the designs, arguing over the colours and taking simple pleasure in the rhythmic passing in and out of the needle through the cloth. As our designs filled with rust-brown, green, orange and black, the therapeutic quality of art and craft became apparent to me.
According to the Canadian Art Therapy Association, using art to get through difficult times is not unusual at all. The Association holds that Art Therapy combines the creative process and psychotherapy, facilitating self-exploration and understanding. Using imagery, colour, and shape as part of this creative therapeutic process, thoughts and feelings may be expressed that would otherwise be difficult to articulate.
When I actually started the process of healing for my sister and me, I did not think in these terms, I only instinctively knew that through a creative process, the bleakness would dissipate.
In her ground-breaking book for artists, The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron explained how mystical creativity can be. This does not apply only to artists – it’s as relevant to ordinary people who have day jobs, yet like to think in visuals or words or knitting patterns. Dealing with stress is no fun. In our daily lives, we all have some forms of stress. Neutralising them with art and craft is an ageless survival technique.
Just to break it up a bit, what does this process entail exactly? Through symbols and metaphors, human beings try to make sense of their lives and find meaning. When we are undergoing some deep traumatic experience and find it increasingly tough to battle the demons of depression, plugging in to some form of creativity can lift us out into the sunshine.
Remember, words don’t help all the time. Sometimes images and colours bypass the logic and ‘reality’ of our lives and help us to take a step into a non- verbal and imaginative world. It’s a life- affirming process and has been used by many to feel good about themselves, bolster their self-esteem or release their negativity. Creativity is so linked to spirituality that the two can be considered practically inseparable. I don’t mean that every time you finish knitting a pair of socks, you move a step closer to God. I’m reminding you instead, of the feeling of positivity, excitement, joy in life and living, that you experience. Surely that is an intensely spiritual experience?
While making art in any form, what we are doing is connecting with that part of ourselves that is closest to our soul. It could well be a dish of chicken rigatoni that is your work of art.
Most of us have our ‘real’ lives where we’re spouses, parents, daughters and sons and professionals. We have to plan for a secure financial future, pay our taxes and keep our families safe. In the middle of all this, we are hit at times by unfortunate circumstances and have to get back on track. We can’t afford to, like Ophelia, just lie down and float away. And what better aid to ride those doldrums than art and craft?
I have hung my bullock-cart project in my bedroom. My sister, now well and fit, has done the same. We had stitched our hopes and silences, our fears and sympathies into those pieces of cloth.
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