On Life and Finding A Way

Life has a way to meander and lead you to places that you’ve never thought you’d go or imagine going. Life finds a Way, as the saying goes. 

On Viruses and Finding a Way Around

A virus is also a type of life form that finds a way, in my view, but according to medical experts, whether a virus is a life form or not is highly debatable. In truth, nobody really knows if a virus is alive or not. But a virus needs a host to stay alive and to recreate itself. A host is infected with a virus, which lives in the body symbiotically, until such time that the virus takes over its host. I understand all this in layman’s terms only. I am no medical expert nor am I percolating and/or passing on false information. I’m trying to understand how a pneumonia-like virus could be this deadly because as I write this, a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is spreading virulently across the world, with its epicentre in Wuhan, China. I’m trying to make meaning of what I’m reading in the news and as I do this, I also start to think about why it’s important for human beings to understand the inter-relationship between human culture and the structures that cause us to feel, think and act the way we do.

Thinking about viruses and hosts made me wonder too about how stories are passed on. I know that a virus is not like a story and a virulent host is not like a storyteller. The mind meanders, though. My mind is now meandering and taking me places I haven’t imagined going to before; it asks me to probe the meaning and significance of stories as viruses that get passed on orally and textually, and to think of storytellers as hosts, where the story-virus resides. I’m excited as I allow my mind to do its thing, to make meaning through metaphors.

On Characters and Finding a Way Out

All this excitement about viruses and hosts is happening simultaneously as I take part in global writing challenges, writing lesser-told stories of inspirational women, and learning about storytelling through genres like (informational) non-fiction and creative non-fiction, though there’s really nothing to be excited about any sort of viruses as the Wuhan virus meanders its way around the world. But excited I am, not for the virus, of course, but for a little character who’ll be bursting her way into the world any time soon, infecting everyone with her get-go attitude and positive spirit. 

Sahara Khan is my latest invention. As a fiction writer, I get to make up characters and invent stories. I like how fiction churns the imagination; how the mind meanders and wanders. I love imagining what little people in books can do. I love how picture book characters always find a way out. Out of trouble. Out in space. Out of the ordinary. Sahara as you’ll see will find a way out of her own narrative and create a new one, despite being differently abled. How I love that narratives can change and be improved. One’s narrative is never deterministic or static.

On the Whole Book Approach and Finding a Way to Infect Children with the Love of Books

The more I immerse myself in the learning, writing, and teaching of picture book creation, the more I’m enthralled by just how much more than images and text a picture book really is. I’m currently re-reading Megan Dowd Lambert’s enlightening book, Reading Picture Books With Children. Lambert created an inquiry-based model of storytelling, asking children to look at the whole picture book, beginning with its jacket/cover, the illustrations within, and how these images contribute to the story as a whole. It’s meaning-based approach, encouraging children to find and make meaning of everything that forms a picture book — text, visuals, design — looks at picture books holistically. This has brought back memories and my mind meanders to a place where I used to teach literature in schools. The children were older but the whole book approach never strayed far from my teaching methods, even though the students were making meaning from more text-heavy books. These books — middle-grade, young adult, plays and poetry anthologies — had jackets that were filled with images, some with busy jackets, others minimalist, that attracted our attention, brought the stories and poems within to life. How a jacket is designed also tells a story, and my students and I would spend precious time talking about the artwork covering the books they were studying. Fast forward and years later and I would read Jhumpa Lahari’s, The Clothing of Books, a thin and minimalist-designed book of less than 100 pages that explores and asks us to probe the complex relationship between text and images. This is Structuralism at its core. In remembering this, I see that Life finds a way to remind us of the meaning that we look for; the power of attraction, if you will, as my friend and Michelin chef, Matthieu Escoffier, calls it. 

On Dreaming and Making Sense of it All

Sahara dreaming

I love sharing sneak-peeks of the images that fill picture books. Here is this wonderful creature, Sahara, a little girl my mind created, inspired by so many structures and systems that I’ve tried over the years to make meaning of. Dreaming is my favourite thing to do, day-dreaming especially. It’s my dream to write meaningful picture books and to help children answer questions that they’re eager to find out. Of course, in writing my picture books, I’m also busy answering the questions that I have; questions like: Why are female chefs mostly overlooked in the culinary world when cooking is a job placed on the female shoulder in the house-hold kitchen? How do our senses impede or expedite our culinary experiences? How can I, a writer of children’s picture books, encourage young readers to taste what they eat, feel the food that they put into their mouths, and see with their other senses what textures and tastes food produce? Readers, I present Sahara’s Special Senses. Please allow Sahara to show you the answers to these questions.

A is for Alexithymia

Alexithymia

\ā-lĕkhs-ĕ-thī-mē-ŭ\

Alexithymia is a Greek word with two parts: lexis meaning ‘word’ and thumos meaning ‘soul/heart/mind’. Put together, alexithymia is the clinical term used to describe the inability to recognise emotions and their nuances. People diagnosed with alexithymia have a limited understanding of the own self-experience and also that of others.

Emotions are intricate, textured and nuanced. There is a range of emotions which some individuals find difficult to articulate. For example, ‘hunger’, ‘tiredness’, ‘boredom’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘frustration’ may all be understood to look and feel like ‘anger’.

Alexithymia is one of the many presenting symptoms of autism. People suffering from depression also present alexithymia, and so do schizophrenics.

When was alexithymia discovered? 

The term was first mentioned in 1972 as a psychological construct, and was viewed as a deficit in emotional awareness. [Scientific America; 2014] Researchers found that approximately 8% of males and 2% of females have alexithymia which presents itself in “mild, moderate and severe intensities”. [ibid]

Researchers also found that alexithymia has two dimensions: cognitive and affective.

The cognitive dimension (thinking dimension) indicates the difficulty in some individuals in identifying, interpreting and verbalising their feelings. The affective dimension (experiencing dimension), on the other hand, indicates the difficulty in some individuals in expressing, imagining and reacting to either their own or other people’s emotions.

How do we help individuals with alexithymia?

The best way to help such individuals is to love them… patiently. Of course love is the encompassing umbrella to any offers of assistance. But love manifests in different ways as do all emotions: Love can scold, beat, shame and mock. These are the negative manifestations of love and do not help individuals with alexithymia.

Living with alexithymia already compounds the difficulties of daily life for individuals on the spectrum. Consider expanding your emotional vocabulary to help the person with alexithymia. “I’m feeling frustrated because I can’t get the computer to work. What about you?” or “I’m tired, let’s get a takeaway.” Ask “You seem angry. Is something bothering you?” to help the person you love categorise or label how they are feeling. “You look anxious. Is it because of the exams coming up?” will help someone focus on why they feel a certain way at a certain time. Likewise, “You seem happy, was the ice-cream yummy?” is another way to give positive feelings associated with a stimulus a name.

Talking about your own emotions can sometimes help encourage those with alexithymia to express theirs. “Can I tell you how I feel about the situation?” – when framed this way, the speaker is also asking permission to talk about how they feel. Take your cue from the person you’re asking. Don’t forget that autistics are often overwhelmed by their own emotions which they find hard to express. Some individuals on the spectrum may be encouraged to express themselves if you give them the space and time to, others may clam up further. No matter what, be patient – always. 

Treating Alexithymia

Thankfully, alexithymia can be treated. There are many ways to help yourself and those who you love. I’ll just list three.

A good way is to encourage your loved one to keep a journal. When I was in middle school, and often frustrated, and had difficulty in expressing myself beyond always being angry, a teacher taught me how to express my feelings by journaling them. She gave me a thesaurus to help me find other words to ‘anger’ which includes ‘anxious’, ‘frustration’ and ‘fearful. In this way, I increased my range of words to use which helped me in expressing myself better. In another, I learnt to ask myself why I was feeling the way I was; I learnt to navigate my emotions. This led to self-awareness and self-experience.

Another way is to read books. Authors are compelled to find other words to describe emotions and feelings in their novels. Affiliating with a character in a book can often help us deal with our own experiences and emotions. Research has shown that reading can help us better understand ‘Theory of Mind’ [discussion to come in another post], engage in expressive language and develop linguistic skills to describe a story and personal narratives.

Immersing oneself in the expressive arts is another great way to cope with alexithymia. Acting, dancing and music are all different forms of the expressive arts which can help us express ourselves beyond words. Sign up for these courses in your communities. It’s also a great way to meet people.

Remember that emotions are abstract constructs and can be very difficult to describe in their layered nuances and textures. But ‘anger’, ‘happiness’, ‘desperation’, and ‘love’ are all universal emotions that everyone feels.

The Scream by Edward Munch, 1893. Image courtesy of Edward Munch Organisation