Paint by numbers

Self-portrait, childhood c.1988 by Sarah Badr (c)

“We are the only species that creates gratuitous forms.”
Man Ray

Little engine

I’m not exactly sure how old I was when I made this picture, but I distinctly remember struggling to write my j’s right-way-forwards as I traced over letters in a manuscript book that was far less compelling than the classroom window. It’s a funny thing when you look back and see yourself as you saw yourself when you were young: oddly-shaped, multicoloured, mismatched — all the things you later spend your teenage years loathing lest you be made fun of at school. It really amazes me what bits of paper, scissors and glue can create when you’re still so innocent and imaginative, oblivious to there being such a thing called art, its methods and its madness, and the rule(r)s with which we mete out art’s crème de la crème. Instead, the child’s art has a beauty so effortless and genuine, nurtured by a genuine lack of awareness to the fact that there is an entire world looking back at her just as keenly as she looks out at the world.

Sadly, that world is evermore discerning, judgemental and critical of how she appears, where she seems to be, who she knows and what is attributed to her name. It is most unfortunate thus that this pressure increasingly comes to light as one grows older, and it becomes a determining factor that steers us all in various directions that we probably wouldn’t ordinarily go otherwise. But of course to veer away from what’s expected from us is usually made so painful through pointless protocol that many of us choose to stay safe by way of ‘the right path’. And we continue trying to convince ourselves that there is such a thing as ‘the right path’, only to find ourselves dwelling doubtfully whilst lying in bed at 3am on a sleepless Sunday, again, knowing very well that dwelling gets us nowhere fast.

Tesco says sixteen

A few of my birthday presents arrived unexpectedly early this year, and one of them contained the perhaps very apt self-portrait you see above. Encased in good old Egyptian sandwich-bag plastic, I found it just as it was the last time I saw it slightly less than four years ago: trimmed and taped to one of the introductory pages of my 221-page-long IB Visual Arts sketchbook. This is the very same sketchbook that I spent the week before submission haphazardly putting together in my attempt to somehow emulate two years’ worth of gradual, incremental work when really I spent two years in and out of school due to illness and did nothing aside from create pieces sporadically and very much without the planning that would necessitate a drawing-board of any sort. Leafing through this ancient marvel now, it makes me feel so far away from myself. Or let me rephrase: it makes who I was back then seem so far away from who I am now in a manner similar to being entirely separate, and yet I cannot shake the innate urge to reconcile the two by tracing back the similarities in character, appearance and lifestyle because we are still one and the same person.

Surprisingly along with that comes a very deep-seated adolescent fear of regression I’d long forgotten, silly notions like ‘what if I remember and lose all the things I have so painstakingly worked towards over the past four years?’ Pathetic, I know, especially considering that (a) memory is just as harmful as sticking bubblegum in your hair (unpleasant yet impermanent), and (b) painstakingly worked towards…? Life simply happens (if you let it), and naturally enough the greatest growth incurred always seems to be derived from the unplanned and wholly unexpected: the shocking and completely out of the ordinary that can’t be gained from standardized testing or toiling over due diligence.

Treasure island

Around the time of this past New Year, I drew out a map. It had long been a mental map developing and evolving, something I referred to time and time again when an occurence necessitated such reference, and a recent event had called for getting it down on scrap paper once and for all in rough scribble and shoddy blue ink. It is an historical, social-network map of sorts, with a twisted chronology and annotations which probably only I can understand if I manage to make out the hasty scribble myself. It essentially illustrates certain key individuals of my recent (and some distant) past, and how each and every one of them is connected to one another in oft bizarre and very unlikely ways (though it all seems to make so much sense in retrospect). Extrapolated from these connections are other blips and bubbles of abstractness: traits gained and hopes changed in tangent, personal growth in its rawest form, sometimes diluted with splotches of disillusionment balanced out with rare sparks of idealistic foresight.

In doing this, my goal was the following: I wanted to see the pattern rather than continue to just feel it, all the while wanting to find if there was even any pattern to begin with. More than anything, I wanted to learn about how one thing so magnificently leads to another — in sum, understand a little bit more about the random/not-so-random dichotomy of life’s events whilst maybe catching a glimpse into another window of that ever-elusive thing we call the human soul. And my striving to do so had nothing to do with some sort of desire for psychic revelation or the unlocking of some cosmic holy grail through which I would be able to sit back, relax and let my future reveal itself to me via PowerPoint. Quite the contrary: I wanted to further appreciate the beauty of life’s events and human connections, because that is precisely what makes every day worth living.

Sketchbook detail overlay I

Memorial Day I

My gratitude for each and every day, each and every person, each and every thing is beyond any words I can attempt to profess in any manner on this square of white sitting before me on-screen. Too warm and fuzzy and kitsch and unlike me…I know, I know. But whether it be in prospective thought or retrospect, in painful or heart-engulfing bliss, or even the deafeningly silent idle one experiences during those moments when personal direction is so uncertain that being blind-folded in the dark seems illuminating, I am extremely thankful. I feel as though I am approaching Thanksgiving for the third time in the span of six months as I am thankful for those who I love, cherish and appreciate so dearly. I am thankful to those who I can rely on and who I trust enough to let rely on me. I am thankful for those who are in my day-to-day, smiling or frowning, who exist in their own right, living their own lives, following their own individual, unique paths. Oddly though equally so, I am also thankful for those who have betrayed me as well as those who have endured me. I am extremely thankful to those who were not as they appeared inititially but then subsequently (perhaps inevitably) revealed themselves to me inadvertantly. I am thankful for those who have kindly accepted my help when they needed it, and for those who helped me and insisted on supporting me during difficult times when I was not readily accepting and willing. I am thankful for those who have themselves endured, climbed mountains and moved on, continuing to live through the difficult and the straightforward — those who inspire me on a daily basis to become a better person and to hold on to something because there is something out there worth continuing to hold on to. I am thankful for those who let me hold their hand. I am thankful to those who want to hold mine. And I am thankful for the letters and e-mails, the photographs and paintings, the songs and the moving images capturing those little fragments of what it means to be human, because such expression should never go without gratitude…

Memorial Day II

Most importantly, I am thankful to You. I am thankful to those who once saw/now see me for who I really am. They do so without rash assumption or blind, pride-ridden, self-involved judgement. These individuals constantly impress upon me the fact that those who do waste time assuming and judging (however benign or unintentional) only succeed in dialogue with inanimate objects and not much else. I am thankful for the people with kind words, and the people with deceitful ones, and all those who endeavour to manipulate others with words in false attempts to appease their interlocuters’ minds. I am thankful for those who have accepted me for being as I am, and loved me even more so for being. And I thank them for demanding absolutely nothing in return, just as much as I thank those few who so admirably tried to gain my trust in the face of my not-so-admirable lack of ability to trust. Furthermore, I am thankful to those who lied to me and thought I trusted them, and though I feigned suspension of disbelief in order to ‘believe along’ with them, I remain thankful because you constantly remind me of the faces we all have that show in the darkness when we think no one else is looking but the entire world is looking because we are not so different from one another after all.

And to all the aforementioned dynamic, beautiful, compassionate, true individuals: you deserve the world, and you deserve the world to be a better place so that you can continue to reap the benefits of harmonious lives that continuously give to you as much as you have so selflessly given to me and others who have had the pleasure of having you in their lives at any given point in time. Realistically, the list of individuals who are automatically referred to in the few lines above is of course absolutely endless and these paragraphs are certainly not exhaustive. To you who continually inspire through your sheer existence — however momentary or minor in context our crossing of paths may have been — I am forever indebted. Thankful for the the Divine-driven distances, thankful for the Providence-pushed proximity… Any more than this and I shall run out of both the space and the words…

Sketchbook detail overlay II

Twenty-three years on

It is much a bizarre thing that my birthday this year should land on the day that it has, at the end of the month that I’ve had following the several months had in a year upon which I am not yet quite sure how to elaborate in any other way except only to say what I have said above and hold the rest in very clear conscience. I am greatly perplexed as I sit here and recall almost exactly a year ago to the proximity of minutes precisely where I was sitting, what I was writing and what was going through my mind. Initially I was going to title this piece ‘Twenty-three years on’ to follow suit with the one prior, as the echoes of posting here whilst doing that sitting, writing and thinking on the eve of my last birthday remain so audibly fresh. I clearly remember the weather (rain) and the company later on that day (beloved company, you know who you are) and what transpired as the events unfolded themselves, and I was (and still am) truly thankful. It marked the beginning of an extremely fleeting summer during which an important chapter began, further catalyzing the process that has ultimately led me to this very point in time — a point at which I am finally no longer in denial as regards direction, desire or destiny.

I am at the brink of the opening of a chapter in which I can safely surrender to the arrival of my unexpected early presents for 2008 (that self-portrait above being one to note on so many levels), in a way that perhaps seems far too poetic for quoting Ani this time around as it would probably appear a bit too indulgent. As I look towards the year up ahead in full knowledge that in these several verbose and ornate paragraphs, I have managed to maintain being predictably vague as my prose took shape, I am well-aware that I am as afraid as I am content vis-à-vis the things to come, so many of which are unknown, whatever they may be. It is a fear about which I hope the ripe (old?) age of 23 will teach me a bit more — more acclimatization in the ruthless weather of adulthood that takes hold as the years go by, if you will. And on this journey so far, I’ve found that one of the many keys made to collect on the livsnyckel chain is knowing that the process of growing older tends to falsely mislead you to believe that you are actually wiser, richer/more enriched, better off, more attractive, well-connected, better composed and more deserving of respect than you were a few years/decades/past-lives ago. But in fact you are not, and that smugness is just part of life’s beautiful humour setting you up for the next punch line.

Much like the wind

Possibly the most popular catch-all phrase of 2007 (and perhaps every year in living memory) for me and anyone who was living and breathing in the city of London this past year was that ‘time is flying so fast/where the hell is time going/there just isn’t enough time’. So many ‘have to seize this opportunity/it’s make or break/now’s the time to do it/only young for so long’s could be heard/read across tables, sidewalks, columns, browsers and wall-to-walls. Of course this sentiment is not at all strictly exclusive to London: my trans-Atlantic and trans-Continental conversations have all seemed to have adopted the same exact exasperated tone of frantic buzzing this past year: Time? Sorrynotmuchleftifatallany. The reason I choose to mention this now (though this entire piece does seem a bit patchy and now borders on the preachy…Dear Reader, my sincerest apologies) is that it’s all just a bit silly. Silly in the way that headless chickens look when they’re running around, and ironically enough (thank you Life and Humour), the anarchic barn-animal imagery only becomes truly apparent when you trip off of the treadmill and search yourself thoroughly to find out what it is exactly that has changed since retiring/graduation/losing your virginity/childhood (no specific order) and has caused this revving up on soul-crushing, mind-numbing, motivation-dulling speed…

But let’s cut to the point: Once you have knocked down the framework that propels that astounding rate made so unmanageable by the increasingly daunting list of tasks you ‘need’ to do in the accompanying rapidly diminishing/equally unforgiving time-frame allocated to you by your superior (most often and sadistically enough, yourself), you will find much freedom. With that type of freedom comes the species of happiness that needs neither warrant nor excuse. It is that because-there-needs-be-no-reason-to-be-happy happiness that is the most priceless and abundant. Every year to me is a testament to this fact after having regularly gone along the twists and turns that have submerged me in polar-opposite environments in terms of scheduling, socializing, tastes and needs, and the autonomy of time, mind and self. The formula roughly follows the structure of equating self-government of time rooted in flexible scheduling and ultimately freedom to a life derived from self-control, resilience, general well-being, and the lack of unreasonable wants and expectations.

That very same freedom is just as priceless whilst looking back at a picture of yourself pasted together years ago in pink and blue and green, surrounded by lower-case m birds flying against an orange backdrop and not a single wristwatch in sight. And though you may not remember exactly how old you were when you made it, I can guarantee that you will recall that you were not thinking about how it looked or what it meant, but rather you were immersed in the enjoyment of so freely cutting out those green buttons; immersed in that rectangular hat cut with clumsy safety scissors incapable of mustering ninety-degree angles; immersed in the feat of its completion and in all its banana-smile glory just simply because. And it is that same banana-smile I now come to smile nearly two decades later because I know that not much about me has changed aside from the number of candles, my phone number and my post-code. And those numbers are at exactly the level of triviality we find in the daily changes and conflicts we encounter and yet fail to disregard as we lose our sense of self and perspective and time. That is, of course, until the next chance we come face to face with that piece that reminds us of who we really are… It is precisely this instantaneous time-travelling journey of realization that art is really all about.

P.S. Had I chosen to let Ani’s words speak for me this year, they would invariably have been to the tune of ‘Lag Time(Knuckle Down, 2005). Click here to listen on Windows Media Player.

– Sarah Badr الى امي و ابي و نور

© 2008. S.H.Badr, All Rights Reserved.

See also: Twenty-two years on (pieces at random)


3 thoughts on “Paint by numbers

    1. Although I guess we shluod be thankful for many things every day, I think the idea of ‘Thankgiving Day’ is a good one. We don’t celebrate it down here in Australia but your post gave me a chance to reflect on the many good things in my life that I sometimes take for granted.

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