Drawing the goddess
Feeling sorry for yourself is easy when your feet and fingers are numb; it seems like the only feeling you have left.
Peripheral neuropathy took over my life. I was supposed to be writing a book, which had funding and a deadline. With only a phantom sense of touch, my fingers would trip and stumble over the keyboard like a posse of drunks, while my fingertips and toes fizzled like ice sparklers, filling the room, filling my consciousness, filling my life with an overbearing awareness of the invisible demons eating away my precious nerves, and oh-woe-is-me.
Hell with it. My mind was no more on the book than my fingers were.
I had to get out of the house.
I had to take my mind off my condition and off my project.
And, by the way, I had to keep my promise to draw and paint.
I would paint a goddess.
Tin Hau (天后)
Also known as Mazu (媽祖), she was a real woman, daughter of a fisherman, who was credited with saving her father and his crew from drowning during a typhoon simply by using prayer. After she died at age 27 the local fishermen built shrines in her honor. Tin Hau’s legend spread up and down the coast, until she was elevated to a goddess, the undisputed protector of all who ply the seas. Even today every Chinese boat has a Tin Hau shrine, and every Chinese fishing port has numerous Tin Hau temples.
That’s where I headed that day, to a 400-year-old Tin Hau temple in Tai O, a fishing village at the opposite end of the island where I live.
The temple is special to me. Remember that book I was supposed to be writing? It includes real life pirates from a few hundred years ago. They would have been regular visitors to this little temple in Tai O’s main square.
There’s a second, more personal reason. Whenever I step through the doorway, I feel as though I’ve passed an invisible boundary. The air squeezes me. My throat tightens. I tingle all over like I’ve been dipped in ice cold water. My skull rings like the lingering toll of a bell, as though a woman—unquestionably a woman—is speaking to me in an indecipherable high-pitched lament, a voice I can’t hear, yet which deadens all other sounds. What else could it be but an encounter with a spirit? Tin Hau or a lady pirate, I can’t tell. Sometimes she frightens me. I am not making this up. It happens every time.
I urgently needed that spiritual presence to scare off whatever was blocking my nerves and my soul.
I took the day off, packed my art supplies, and rode the bus to Tai O. I would paint the temple’s exterior, then go inside and sketch Tin Hau and her retinue of deities. I weaved between shoppers and tourists, past stalls selling salted fish, dried fish bladders, shrimp paste, and almond cookies. I emerged from the main lane into the square.
The temple was closed for renovation.
I sneaked in anyway, until a couple of women shooed me out, but not before I discovered Tin Hau was covered by a tarpaulin. Even the adjacent Tin Hau temple was closed. I was warned off by a man on a scaffold who was retouching the outside mural.
Today wasn’t going well. I needed to calm down.
I sat on the rickety veranda of a tea house overlooking the main canal and ordered a pot of jasmine. Tai O’s stilt houses are an obvious subject for photographers and artists. I’d come all the way here, may as well give it a try.
But I had no feeling for this building, and it shows in my lifeless sketch. Its quirky architecture didn’t speak to me, not like my goddess. I felt like tossing my sketch book into the canal, to dissolve in the fetid water.
Hell with it, again. If I couldn’t draw Tin Hau, I could draw the outside of the temple. If it came out like crap, it wouldn’t make me feel any worse than I did at that moment.
Drawing the temple
I marched back to the square, stood under the blazing sun, and pulled out a pencil.
I’d barely finished outlining the basic shapes, when a couple of mainland Chinese women tourists mimed that they wanted to watch. When I responded in Mandarin, they plied me with questions while I continued to draw. This was just what I needed. While my hand drew, my ears listened, and my mouth spoke, my brain was too engaged to pay attention to the numbness. Plus, having an audience made it impossible to give up. I paused so they could pose for pictures with me, then we said goodbye.
The same happened with a group of Hong Kong people, who were so delighted to hear me reply in Cantonese that they called their friends over. Typical Hong Kong: always in a group. All the while I kept drawing.
Then an Argentinian guy gave me a lot of thumbs-up. Too bad I don’t speak Spanish.
This was fun.
When it came time to add color I had to sit down. The day was burning hot, and I had no idea how to balance a sketch book and paint tray, especially when I couldn’t feel them all that well, and my numb feet were beginning to throb.
I found a dusty bench in a sliver of shade. This was my first-ever attempt to paint a building, so it was with much trepidation that I ended my new paintbrush’s virginity with a swish of water and a dab of yellow.
More passersby stopped to look. Parents ordered their children to take eyes off their phones and see what the artist was doing. A teenage design student sat beside me to ask about my brushwork style. How could I tell her I had no style? I made up some nonsense about experimenting with new tools.
Then a stocky man walked straight toward me while lighting a cigarette. I recognized him as the painter who was retouching the other temple’s mural.
Please don’t sit beside me! I’m too ashamed to let you see.
He sat beside me.
I froze with humiliation while he scanned my work. Paint was slabbed on too heavy, like a kindergartner would; I was too literal in my colors; there was no sense of balance to my palette, no rhyme or reason to my strokes. But to slink away would have been received as an insult. I covered my embarrassment by explaining that I was a cartoonist, this was my first try with watercolors, that I was indeed ashamed to let my mess be seen by a master such as himself. He nodded along with my self-criticism session, denying none of it. Or maybe he didn’t understand my badly-pronounced Cantonese. Instead he asked about my cartooning experience. I did my best to explain, and his eyes kindled with a glow of respect. We exchanged name cards, he finished his break and returned to work.
While the paint dried and I packed my brushes, I realized that I’d forgotten all about my numbness since those first two girls approached me. I left Tai O with a completed painting, having had fun interacting with people while I’d done it, and had formed a new bond with a master painter. I hadn’t felt such a lightness of being since…well, since the neuropathy struck me.
Maybe the goddess’s spirit had rescued me from drowning after all.