Visible marks of survival


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Category: Profiles Date: 15 Dec 02


Last week I wrote:

Ten, maybe 12 years ago, before the babies and the business and her grown-up engagement with the serious business of life, she was flinging her red hair about in the sunshine going “raga raga raga raga raga raga raga raga raaaga” a bottle of Carib in hand. Her face was a sheen that could never be replicated by cosmetics, water, alcohol, rain splashed, mingled with sweat. She was herself.


The red-haired girl wrote back:

I just want you to know my spirit is still raging and alive. I will admit my spirit may seem to have been stifled over the last few years and that is only due to the helplessness I felt as a free, healthy and strong woman when faced with the trials of the life I chose. I am glad for the life I chose because it has fed my spirit.


My spirit is now fired with a strength of life and soul, that I frighten myself sometimes. I am a fighter for a good life, a simple life and I want to share this with as many as I can.


There was you, I wrote last week, before the underbelly of life revealed itself with its horrors and challenges.


This week, I am compelled by the trajectory of this reader’s words past our purer younger selves to our adult fight for “a good life, a simple life” to move along from the nostalgia of your younger selves to who you are now.


Another reader asked: “What do we do when we actually stop looking forward to things, when its easier to stay home and not make an effort, when the expectation of the heart is put out left sopping, gray and smoky?


What do we do when the crackling wires of exuberance that light up instantly in our youth are disconnected, deadened one by one by life’s disappointments? What do we do when we don’t want to get out of bed to face the day?


Each of us has a story, a heroic tale of horror, and yes, grace, the co-incidences that felt like miracles, the knock on the door when you felt the most alone, that phone call that saved you from disaster, that something from within that allowed you to endure unimaginable pain, be it your anaesthetised child in the hospital, a sick parent, infidelity, a death (after all, what the major calamities in all our lives if not illness — the inevitable atrophy of all our bodies). We’ve all awoken with a sense of dread sometime or the other and wanted to crawl back into bed.


What do we do? We can allow people who are extraordinary, not because they are demi-Gods but because they are only too human, to reflect and magnify our own courage.


Freda Kahlo, that Mexican painter who flared like an unstoppable meteor, conquered it all: illness, pain, the perpetual presence of her own death, her anguish at remaining childless, infidelity from the man she adored, to become an icon for the Mexican people and for art lovers worldwide.


Kahlos’ biographer writes of her: “In talking to those who knew her, one is continuously struck by the love people felt for Freda. They acknowledge that she was caustic, yes, and impulsive. But tears often form in their eyes while they recall her.


On September 17, 1925, when she was eighteen the bus that took her home from school was rammed by a streetcar in Mexico City. She was literally impaled on a metal bar in the wreckage; her spine was fractured, her pelvis crushed, and one foot broke. From that day until her death, 29 years later, she lived with pain and the constant threat of illness.


“I hold the record for operations,” she said.


She lived as well with a yearning for a child she could never have — her smashed pelvis led only to miscarriages and at least three therapeutic abortions — and with the anguish of being often deceived and occasionally abandoned by the man she loved.


Freda flaunted her alegria the way a peacock spreads its tail, but it camouflaged a deep sadness and inwardness, even self-obsession.


“I paint my own reality,” she said.

What passed through Freda Kahlo’s head and into her art was some of the most original and dramatic imagery of the 20th century.

“Painting herself bleeding, weeping, cracked open, she transmuted her pain into art…”

Out of the cracked and the bleeding Freda became immortal and sensational art. What came to the red-haired girl in her years as an adult was a spirit “with strength of life and soul” of frightening power.

Both mirror us all.


Now we’ve moved beyond to “there was you” to the pulchritude of extra rolls of flesh, your stoicism in the face of unfulfilled dreams, the receding hairlines, the furrowed brow.


We are moved by them because they are visible marks of survival, allow us to say “here I am” marvelling we’ve come this far.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur