The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

I picked up Alka Joshi’s novel at our Little Free Library down the street.  Two pages in I was lost in the protagonist’s world of post-Independence India.

Seventeen-year-old Lakshmi escapes from an abusive marriage, traveling solo to Jaipur of the 1950’s. Drawing on her mother-in-law’s lessons in plant medicine and henna art, Lakshmi becomes a much-in-demand henna artist, confidante to her wealthy clients and Jaipur’s (anonymous) version of Margaret Sanger. 

What stays with me are the novel’s utterly satisfying personal transformations: Lakshmi’s own as well as those of her former husband and her younger sister, a sister whom she never knew existed and whose appearance threatens her carefully constructed professional and personal life. Reading The Henna Artist during the pre-midterm election hooplah, shifted Lakshmi’s expertise with plant medicine from the world of fiction to the realities of women’s lives since, well, since forever.

I promised to keep this short so that’s about it except to say, look into Joshi’s The Henna Artist . Turns out it’s the first in a three-novel series. Happy reading!

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Line by Line

Many of you know how dearly I’ve wanted to learn how to draw and explore creating visual art. This March will make 9 years since I began making good on a pledge to myself. I would chase away the ghosts, silence the inner voices saying I had no business picking up a paintbrush or a drawing pencil.

The Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center has become the place for fulfilling that pledge. I’ve taken classes there on and off for years: pottery classes (wheel and handbuilding); a pleasant watercolor workshop; a disastrous drawing class that was way over my head; two fabulous out-of-the-box mixed-media classes.  About three years ago I fell into a rhythm and began learning from a marvelous palette of teachers. They have guided me with patience, compassion and a drop or three of firmness until finally, I am beginning to see with an artist’s eye.

For the past week, I have kept this page on my desk. It was our final assignment in Drawing 2.       I struggled mightily, redrawing lines, erasing, repositioning shadows. Our teacher offered a steady stream of encouragement and precise suggestions for improving our work. I measured and remeasured, asked my eyes again and again, What are you actually seeing?

Bit by bit, the woman in the photo became real. She has dimension. She expresses a mood. I still can’t totally believe that I actually drew this. But      I did. Of course there are improvements to be made, refinements to be learned. I’ll get there. I’m keeping her on my desk a while longer. The ghosts have been silenced. Instead, I look at her and hear her invite me to pick up my pencil again and again and once again.

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Prophetic Witness — Rebecca Parker

Our times ask us to exercise our capacity for prophetic witness. By prophetic witness I mean our capacity to see what is happening, to say what is happening and to act in accordance with what we know. Prophetic witness is the ability to name those places where we resist knowing what needs to be known.     Rebecca Parker, b. 1953


source: First Light Meditation

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I thank Chazzan Steve Klaper, one of the founders of Song and Spirit, for the wonderful commentary below. His inspiration drew upon the last verses in Deuteronomy (Dvarim in Hebrew) that were read in synagogue over Simchat Torah a week or so ago. It speaks to me deeply. Especially the next to the last paragraph. What kernel stays with you?

In Ha’azinu Moses prepares to take leave of this world. He wants his final words never to be forgotten, so he sings them…The theme of Moses’ libretto is essentially, Don’t blame God when things go wrong.God is not there to serve us. We are here to serve God. God is not there to relieve us of responsibility. God calls us to responsibility.

This whole drama began with the Adam and Eve legend in the Garden of Eden. They sinned, the man blamed the woman, the woman blamed the serpent, the serpent blamed God for making him a serpent. The great cry of human history is, “it’s not our fault — we’re the victims.” It wasn’t us. It’s the politicians. Or the media. Or the corporations. Or our genes. Or our parents. Or the system. Even the Nazis were convinced it wasn’t them. They were “only obeying orders.” And when all else fails, blame God. And if you don’t believe in God, blame the people who do. We forever seek to escape from responsibility.

Moses is saying, When things go wrong, don’t blame God. The final commandment might as well be: thou shalt not see thyself as a victim. We have power, we have agency, we’re the one life form on this planet capable of shaping its own destiny, in the image of the Divine, free, creative, and therefore responsible. The Greeks had it wrong; we’re not playthings of the gods; our fate is not already sealed before we’re born. The view of modern science, which often insists that we’re merely a collection of chemicals driven by electrical impulses in the brain, is likewise wrong. Our consciousness, our personality, our chi, our life force energy — these are all far larger than what’s in our skulls.

It is not what God does for us that transforms us; it is what we do for God. If you’re not sold on the idea of God the Creator, think of it this way: We are not defined by what happens to us but rather by how we respond to what happens to us. If we change the way we think, then we change the way we feel and the way we act. We become masters of our actions, instead of prisoners of our reactions.

This doesn’t just happen. Yes, it takes work, sometimes years of work. But, as we reach the end of Torah, we’re reminded that fate is never final. There is always hope. 

photo courtesy of Debra Darvick


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