Friday, September 14, 2018

Walking Each Other Home

"We sit on the edge of a mystery. We have only down this life; so dying scares us - and we are all dying. But what if dying were perfectly safe? What would it look like if you could approach dying with curiosity and love, in the service of other beings? What if dying were the ultimate spiritual practice?"

So begins the new book by beloved, world-renowned spiritual teacher Ram Dass, and his close friend and fellow teacher Mirabai Bush. This book is the 'follow-up' to Ram's other writings, arguably the most famous of which is his 1971 'Be Here Now', which has become a classic manual for conscious being, and an account of his spiritual journey, consulted and referred to by millions of humans worldwide. I was given the opportunity to illustrate this book at the beginning of this year, and as a long-term yoga practitioner (*cough* as I picture my yoga teacher noting my recent absences!) with a growing, more recent interest in the 'self that can't be shown in Instagram' - the spiritual self, the one that's hardest to recognise, be true to and look after - I grasped this opportunity with both grateful hands.

My yoga teacher had talked of Ram Dass many times and I'd seen his books in her collection, so I knew he was culturally very significant, and much-loved; he's a bewilderingly curious character. Born Richard Alpert, he began life as an academic and clinical psychologist, a colleague of fellow clinical psychologist Timothy Leary at Harvard University, before establishing the Harvard Psilocybin Project with Leary, which is precisely what it sounds like - experimenting with and documenting the beneficial effects of hallucinogenic drugs - and the 'Good Friday Experiment', the first double-blind study of drugs and the mystical experience in 1962 with Walter Pahnke.

Now this already sounds like a fulsome life well lived. But by now, this person was also a published author and on the Board of Directors at Cambridge, Massachusetts, with several foundations to his name (did I say his PhD was on 'achievement anxiety'?) So I'm leaving a lot out of his story, as there's so much to tell - but we can cut to the travels to India, and the study under a spiritual teacher which led him to be the character we know now. For more about Ram's life, read his easy-to-digest life story here.

So. It’s long been said that I get all the ‘difficult’ topics, illustration-wise — constipation, period pain, cancer, erectile dysfunction, IBS, depression, dementia, contraception, Crohn’s — all handled by my pens. This new book is about dying, and how to do prepare for it with grace and I wasn't surprised to receive the commission! It's another potentially difficult subject of course, and an obviously upsetting one, which was partly the point of its creation - we just don't like to think about it. But becoming older and more fragile physically, 86-year-old Ram and his friend Mirabai wanted to explore the journey towards death, grieving and loss, with humour and a lightness of touch, so that we may read it too, and look forwards with our eyes calm and open. After all - it's coming. We just don't know when or how.

I know - it all sounds very idealistic, and rather lofty when you're sitting at work stressing about finishing the next job, how to pay for this and that, worrying about the car repairs and when you'll next get time to watch another Glow/clean the bathroom/send that next promo. But Ram reminds us in the opening pages that 'we have a real deadline'. And that, of course, made me laugh; we do, and I'm a great one for thinking there's always time tomorrow, so reading parts of this book were...maybe a little sobering.

But it's a light read, and it's beautifully written. The illustrations, a mixture of real and digital ink, are sprinkled generously throughout the book from full-page images to tiny spots, and each one was a pleasure to do. I worked both in the studio and in an Edinburgh hotel room where I was based at the time for an on-location job, working on this book in the evenings. All created in shades of blank ink, and eventually turned blue for the pages, the limited palette made for some challenges with regard to contrast and clarity, but I enjoyed having parameters.

The subject matter did not spare the horses either - the request to illustrate a burning ghat had me peering sadly at image after image online, before realising this was simply the kind of visible send-off we're just not used to seeing. For them, it's not only healthy, but desirable and normal. After that, the drawing was easy. Animals and plants play a large part in the book because of Ram's location on the island of Maui, and the wicker coffin was a very meditative thing to create. My favourite illustration in the whole book however is not the busy full-pager of birds and leaves and lettering - much as I loved doing that one - but the simple, lone rock. Who knew that I would like the simplest of drawings the most, used as I am to cramming in detail. In fact, the feedback I kept receiving was to 'give air' to the images. Always keen to give 'value for money', I can lean towards crowding my illustrations, so as I did them, they moved from writhing detail to very minimal. (There are over 40 illustrations in the book, so to see them all, you'll have to buy it!)

Interestingly, within a couple of days of starting the first test image, I was involved in a distressing incident which resulted in a man's arrest and my having to give a statement to the police. The night it occurred I missed my deadline, which then took up all of my focus and worry. With the reassurance of my overseeing agent (thanks MP) and a sympathetic client, the immediate anxiety about the deadline gave way to the gravity of what I'd witnessed, and I was able to put the deadline anxiety aside and settle into some quite time dealing with the incident and the people involved before returning to the job a day later. When I look back at the piece I was working on at the time, I can see the franticness of the work, and the eagerness to compensate the client with what I felt was necessary in the light of the missed deadline - but then I also see, as the pieces progressed over the weeks, a sense of proportion introducing itself; a lightening, a calming, and a more conscious approach, despite a very big list of illustrations. Which is all very, very interesting.

I aim to read the book from start to finish now - a little at a time - and enjoy the placement of the illustrations the designer has chose. You can buy a copy direct from the publisher and most good bookshops. Choose carefully - there are myriad other, more deserving independent book shops that would appreciate your hard-earned money aside from Amazon (and who pay their taxes!)

Thank you to Jennifer from SoundsTrue for the opportunity, to Matt for helping me stay focussed on this lengthy, sprawling job among myriad others, and to Ram and Mirabai for writing the book. I hope did your words justice.

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