Womanhood, Creativity & Writing
Two weeks ago when I opened Google, I noticed Google doodle displayed an interesting looking lady with a brush in one hand and two flowers in another, also four paintings behind her. I didn't know who this woman was, but it could be safely deduced from the doodle that she must be a celebrated painter, an artist.
Although her style of painting was not exactly my cup of tea, judging from the paintings behind her, I was still piqued because she was a female, a female artist that was celebrated by Google! I am particularly fascinated by the stories behind female artists, and I will explain why later in this article.
(A word on aesthetic judgment: I feel aesthetic judgments are relative, not absolute and sometimes it can be highly subjective and personal, just like beauty, how we define beauty also has a subjective component - "Beauty is in the eye of beholders". Honestly, I am also not a fan of Picasso's work - just his work not the person. I do admire his daring originality, but I was unmoved when I saw his works in the Picasso Museum in Paris. His works did not touch my heart. I didn't get any aesthetic frisson looking at his paintings and sculptures. I was more fascinated by the stories behind them, not really the doodles. I am, however, a big fan of Van Goh, Dali, Michelangelo, Da Vinci and other great artists.)
I clicked on the Google doodle and Wikipedia told me her name was Paula Modersohn-Becker, a German painter and one of the most important representatives of early expressionism.
Wikipedia further revealed that "Her brief career was cut short when she died from postpartum embolism at the age of 31. She is becoming recognized as the first female painter to paint nude self-portraits. She was an important member of the artistic movement of modernism at the start of the twentieth century."
"Oh My Goddess!" I exclaimed. I became even more intrigued, fascinated. I scrolled down hurriedly and kept on reading --
"The first woman to paint a naked self-portrait didn’t care much for the traditional expectations or institutions that constrained most European women at the turn of the 20th century."
"Paula Modersohn-Becker’s parents wanted her to become a teacher, and told her to abandon her “egotism” in order to carry out her wifely duties; instead, she became one of the era’s most prolific artists, and helped give rise to the modernist movement alongside Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse."
In 1901 Becker married fellow artist Otto Modersohn and became stepmother to Otto's two-year-old daughter, the child from his first marriage. She functioned in that capacity for two years, and left her husband at 30, then relocated to Paris. Her letters from Paris were full of requests for money: 200 marks to pay her rent, 60 francs for models’ fees. Her studio was infested with fleas, there was a heatwave, but she kept working: 80 pictures in one year.
"She and Otto lived mostly apart from that time forward until 1907, when Becker returned to her husband in Worpswede, despite period correspondence that indicated her desire for independence. She wrote in detail about her love for her husband but also of her need to delay motherhood in her pursuit of artistic freedom. She continued to express ambivalence regarding motherhood as she was concerned about her ability to paint while raising a child; her diary entries indicate that she had planned on achieving a painting career by age thirty, then having children."
"Back home, she was happiest in Otto’s absence, when she could live off pears and rice pudding, didn’t have to set the table, could read over her food. She painted pumpkins, cherries, bananas, lemons, the ripe fruit Rilke would later describe in his elegy, “Requiem for a Friend”.
"When her daughter Mathilde Modersohn was born, Becker and Otto were joyous. The joy became tragedy nineteen days later, when Paula suddenly died. She had complained of pain in her legs after the delivery and was advised to remain in bed. When the physician returned later, he advised her to rise. She walked a few steps, then sat down, called for the infant to be placed in her arms, complained of leg pain, and died, uttering only 'What a pity.' She died at the age of 31, having sold three paintings in her lifetime, leaving behind a forest of letters and diaries."
"What a pity indeed!" I cried, as if I was in that room, watching Becker died suddenly, with her newborn baby in her arms, leaving her dreams unfulfilled.
At first, Otto supported his wife’s ambitions, describing her as “certainly the best woman painter in Worpswede”. But soon he was complaining to his diary about her housekeeping and her work, how she was “falling prey to the error of preferring to make everything angular, ugly, bizarre, wooden … mouths like wounds, faces like cretins”. In another entry he wrote crossly: “Women will not easily attain something proper.”
Unfortunately, there is some truth to her husband's statement, as unwilling as I am to admit, he was probably right to point out that "women will not easily attain something proper". Because as a woman, there are many social expectations that a woman ought to fulfill, even in the 21st century, the expectations are still onerous.
For instance, a woman ought to get married (and depending on where you live, if you live in the West, then the norm is more lenient, perhaps in her late twenties, or early thirties, no later than forty. If you are from the East, then late twenties is considered late, in China, you will be labelled as a "leftover woman"), a woman ought to give birth. A woman should be a good wife and a good mother. And if she was married, she ought to cater for the husband's needs, fulfilling wifey duties, household duties. And if she had babies and children, she had to take care of them. And in the end, even if she were to "obtain something proper", she probably would not have enough time and energy left for her artistic pursuit.
In Virginia Woolf's extended essay "A Room of One's Own", Woolf is wise to point out that "a woman must have some money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". Woolf notes that women have been kept from writing because of their relative poverty, and financial freedom will bring women the freedom to write; "In the first place, to have a room of her own... was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble". The title also refers to any author's need for poetic licence and the personal liberty to create art.
The essay examines whether women were capable of producing, and in fact free to produce work of the quality of William Shakespeare, addressing the limitations that past and present women writers face.
In her essay, she invented a fictional character, Judith Shakespeare, "Shakespeare's sister," to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare's gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because of the doors that were closed to women.
Like Woolf, who stayed at home while her brothers went off to school, Judith stays at home while William goes off to school. Judith is trapped in the home: "She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school." Woolf's prose holds all the hopes of Judith Shakespeare against her brother's hopes in the first sentence, then abruptly curtails Judith's chances of fulfilling her promise with "but." While William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending. Judith is betrothed, and when she does not want to marry, she is beaten and then shamed into marriage by her father. While Shakespeare establishes himself, Judith is trapped by the confines of the expectations of women. Judith kills herself, and her genius goes unexpressed, while Shakespeare lives on and establishes his legacy.
Although we are now living in a different time and era, and education has become widely accessible to women, especially women in the West and developing countries in the East. However, the social expectations around women are still burdensome, the expectations of getting married, being a wife, being a mother for any woman is still the norm, and anything against the norm is to be frowned upon by the society.
Elif Shalfak, the award-winning Turkish author, also writes extensively in her memoir "Black Milk" about her overwhelming conflicts with marriage, motherhood and her writing career. In her book, she revealed how after giving birth to her first child, she suffered severely from post-partum depression, plagued by guilt, anxiety and bewilderment about her new maternal role, she looked to the experiences of other prominent female writers such as Sylvia Plath (who committed suicide), Virginia Woolf (who also committed suicide), Simone de Beauvoir, and Alice Walker for help navigating the conflict between motherhood and artistic creation in a patriarchal society.
I have also noticed that some of my favourite female writers and inspiring teachers consciously choose not to have children, such as Elizabeth Gilbert, Anais Nin, and my tantra teacher Monica Nataraj. My tantra teacher Monica Nataraj is really something. I first met her in Turkey and I could not believe she was already 53! She looks as radiant as ever, still looks youthful (most people would think she looks at most 30). Her body, voluptuous, her cheeks, her lips look like rose petals (must be all those years of dancing and tantric work!). She is enchanting, wise, graceful, beautiful, one of the most charming women I have ever met in my life.
She has a loving partner but is neither married nor give birth (a revelation she had at age thirty), and has lived full time on the road as a "nomadic dancing mystic Shakti adventurer of the soul". She has journeyed to over 80 countries and even at the age of 53, she still travels everywhere around the world to teach. She is a pioneer of modern sacred feminine practices and has trained over 250+ women from 42 countries in the tantric arts. I can't wait to study with her in Thailand in April!
I am also acutely aware that motherhood does not necessarily have to contradict artist pursuit, and there are plenty of female artists and writers who are not deterred by motherhood or even inspired by it. JK. Rowling is one notable example, who first conceived the idea of Harry Potter series while on a delayed train from Manchester to London in 1990. The seven-year period that followed saw the death of her mother, birth of her first child, divorce from her first husband and relative poverty until the first novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was published in 1997.
However, J.K. Rowling did have to change her name. Initially, she was using her name before marriage, which was simply Joanne Rowling. The publisher anticipated that the target audience of young boys might not want to read a book written by a woman, so her publishers asked that she use two initials rather than her full name.
There are many female writers who in the history had to conceal their identity in order to ensure their works to be taken seriously, such as George Elliot, who used a male pen name also to escape the stereotype of women's writing being limited to lighthearted romances.
You see, it is indeed not very easy for a woman to "obtain something proper" even in today's society. For a woman to obtain something proper, she may have to conceal her name, she may have to delay motherhood. That is why I am always fascinated by the stories behind female artists and writers. I wanted to know how they 'made it', how they have managed to 'obtained something proper' or failed to obtain in the society.
I know that there are books inside me that want to come out, I heard words and stories talking to me, some works want to be done through me. Also, there are places I want to visit. I want to roam the world freely, without the burden of raising a child.
But don't get me wrong, I am a deep lover of children. I am always drawn by children's aura, their innocent energy, purity and joyful spirit. On many levels, I am still a child myself. I have the curiosity of a child, the adventurous spirit of a child, and would very much like to keep this inner child alive forever.
I want to live a life that is spontaneous, nomadic and with as much freedom as possible. Sometimes when I wake up, I will dance if I feel like dancing, I will sing if I feel like singing. I used to date a man who told me "Isn't it too early to dance in the morning?" then he turned the volume down. An energy mismatch. I left hurriedly. Needless to say, we never saw each other again.
I like to dance whenever I want to. To me, it was never too early or too late to dance, never too early or too late to write, never too early or too late to sing, never too early or too late to do anything I feel like doing in the moment. Another man also used to comment, "you are hard to relate" when he saw me dancing away in the room. Another energy mismatch.
The thing is I don't even need you to relate to me (as long as you don't intrude my freedom), very few actually can relate, as I am a mystic unless you are also a mystic, it will probably be difficult for you to relate or even to understand what I am experiencing. The mystics are the crazy ones, the neurotics, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the world changers and the lovers. To put it bluntly, we are not fond of rules, routines, and have no respect for the status quo.
I can't resist but to quote Anais Nin here -
“I disregard the proportions, the measures, the tempo of the ordinary world. I refuse to live in the ordinary world as ordinary women. To enter ordinary relationships. I want ecstasy. I am a neurotic — in the sense that I live in my world . I will not adjust myself to the world. I am adjusted to myself.”
When I first read it, I couldn't help but dancing and jumping up and down in the air shouting "me too!" , overwhelmed by knowing that I am not the only crazy woman I know.
This is exactly who I am. I will not adjust myself to the world, to other people's expectations, I will only adjust to myself. I want to live life on my own terms, my own ways. I will never compromise to live a full life.
I know I am stubborn like that.
Another thing is that I am not fond of housework. In fact, I am terrible at domestic work. I will only do housework on a whim, and I will only cook when I feel like it (I can be an excellent cook if I want to, if I feel inspiration and creativity compel me to cook in that moment). But housework and cooking cannot be a duty that is forced upon me. If I were forced to do housework, I would feel that I am not living. Also, I have to admit that the way I am who I am is also because the way I was brought up - I had a relatively privileged upbringing and I never had to do any housework in my life, and housework is certainly not my passion.
This is why I will not choose marriage (the only exception would be with a compatible spiritual partner who embraces the same ideology, and we only get married for social convenience and practical matters such as foreign citizenship, tax benefits, etc.), and I may not give birth to children.
You see I believe that everyone is here for a purpose. There are women who are here to be the good wife, to get married, to give birth to children, to raise a family, to set the table, to put on food, to clean the house, to feed the baby, to change the nappy, to be the good wife and the good mother.
There are women who are here to give birth to art, to books, to make changes, to sing, to dance, to roam the world freely, to do whatever she likes, to go whereever she likes without the need to conform, to follow, to compromise.
I believe I am the latter.
I am not trying to belittle motherhood. In fact, I think it's perhaps the greatest thing in the world for a woman if it is truly what the woman's genuine desires. However, if I feel this desire within me to be a mother is not as strong as my desire to travel, to create, to write, then I will not choose it.
Personal concerns set aside, another main reason that I probably would not consider having children is the concern for overpopulation in the world. Human overpopulation is among the most pressing environmental issues, silently aggravating the forces behind global warming, environmental pollution, habitat loss, the sixth mass extinction, intensive farming practices and the consumption of finite natural resources.
Also, if I do so desire children in the future, perhaps I can adopt children instead, without burdening the planet with more children. There are so many children in Asia, in Africa waiting to be adopted. I feel adoption is a wise plan for solving the issue of overpopulation, at the same time fulfilling the desire for families that want to have children, and also to help the world's poor.
I know I am more than fortunate to move to Australia, to escape the extreme confines and expectation of women in China - a woman who is not married at the age of 27 and beyond is labelled as "leftover woman" by the society.
I am also fortunate enough to be raised by a family that is relatively liberal, non-conservative. My parents gave me ample freedom for me to do what I want, to be who I want to be. I am also fortunate enough that I do not have too much concern for money.
Basically I have met all the pre-requisites that Virginia Woolf set out in her book for a woman to be a writer of fiction, and this is exactly what I am going to. I also want to roam the world freely, offering female empowerment workshops and retreats (like my Tantra teacher).
Mariage is not something I fancy and I can quite happily abandon it, I have also negotiated with my mother, who suggested that I did not need to get married (who admitted that her own marriage was a failure), but perhaps just to give birth. To that, I responded bluntly "Don't expect anything from me. If you want a granddaughter, you can go and adopt."
My mother was speechless, but she had learned to accept. She loves me unconditionally and accepts me for who I am despite our vast differences, for that, I am eternally grateful.
I recently saw a quote, "Behind every great woman, there is her mother," and in my case, I cannot agree more. Without my mother's support, I will not be able to have such desirable environment to pursue what I want to pursue.
And hopefully my last words would not be "What a pity" when I die. I hope my last words would be 'Thank God, I lived a full life." and die peacefully.
“I must be a mermaid, Rango.
I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”
― Anaïs Nin