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One day, my 8th grade homeroom teacher peered over my exam paper and said aloud, “Your handwriting looks like hundreds of tiny cockroaches.” Cockroaches? The uninvited guests that reddened the faces of hosts at dinner parties? Cockroaches?  The insects that bear the same level of unwantedness as this obtrusive announcement? I’ve never felt more dirty and ashamed and I hope no one has to experience this, but because I have, I must share this piece of knowledge. Shame comes in levels, and when you pass the threshold, you feel nothing at all.

Aside from the shame that I felt, there was something about  the conviction in her tone—it reminded me of my mothers. According to my mother, everything about me was  beautiful but according to my teacher, the true ugliness of my handwriting could only be encapsulated with a simile. And despite the differences in their intentions,  I couldn’t help but notice the  discrepancy between what I was taught at a young age and what I was told that day. 

I’m not sure if it was partly a matter of building our self-esteem or if it was purely out of love alone, but one thing that my mother engrained in our heads at an extremely young age was the undeniable fact that we were all drop-dead-gorgeous. And although beauty is subjective, my mother’s testament was backed up by science and religion—and when she reminded us daily about our drop-dead gorgeousness, you would think that she was telling us something as obvious as the brightness of the sun.

But then, you gradually grow up and count all the flaws that you can find,  yet despite the mirror’s impressive invective, I could never think that I was ugly. Instead, I could only believe that I would always be inherently beautiful because it was a truth that I completely accepted at a young age. If I gained weight, dressed terribly or broke out in hives, then deep down I would tell myself that I was made as perfect as can be, that these flaws were all complementary things that I wasn’t born with. The excess weight, the, um, questionable clothes,  and the unsought hives were all things that I brought upon myself through an unhealthy diet, poor style choices, and avoidable allergens. 

To get even more particular about where my mother’s daily affirmations led me, I’ll tell you about this one time that I was diagnosed with cerebral nerve palsy. It’s a curable condition that basically paralyzed half of my face. Despite having a half functioning face, I would post daily selfies on social media, displaying my beauty to the world. Not because I was super confident, but because I genuinely believed that – no matter what – I would always be beautiful. Now I kinda cringe when I see those photos but, at the same time, I hear a voice that sounds like a combination of mine and my mother’s that washes over that cringe-y feeling, reminding me that I will eternally be beautiful.

Reminders of this nature are born out of the beliefs that I fully digested at a tender age. Then there are the beliefs I call primal comprehensions: a set of comprehensions that you have about yourself, things that you know instinctively and naturally believe about yourself, things that you’ve never sought validation for or approval from any outer source other than yourself. For some it could be the belief in the strength of their persuasive skills; for others, it could be the ability to temporarily make someone feel like they are the centre of the world; for others, still, it could be in the trust they have in their judgement to not use a measuring spoon when seasoning food. But for me it was always the belief that my hands and handwriting were beautifully unique. There was always something about them that made me proud—I could never pinpoint it, but maybe it was something of an identifier, something that singled me out as unique. Almost naturally, I began thinking of my handwriting as a visual blueprint, like a DNA print of my mind. There it was before me, my writing serving  proof of the existence of my internal world with its direct pathway from a grey space to a white sheet of paper. These hands worked as the bridge between two worlds. 

But when I say beautifully unique, you need to understand that I mean my handwriting is beautiful in its own way. It isn’t pleasing to the eye in the same way that some grandiose handwritings invite feelings of awe. It’s pleasing to me in how no matter the countless years that I’ve consciously forced these hands to create compositions that bear that similar clean look that my neighbours bear, it refuses to conform. Out of everything that I’ve tried to control in my life, my hands never really listened.  I’ve been asserting the wrong function to the wrong organs. Maybe, my hands just wanted me to listen.

To the world, I’ve always had ugly handwriting. Maybe I should stop calling it ugly since I’m supposed to have embraced this flaw. Darn it, there I go again. Let’s start again. My earliest recollection of an incident that called attention to my handwriting was in first grade. My homeroom teacher asked us to write the alphabets in paragraph format. I remember walking up to my teacher, proud to show her my work. She took one look at my work and smiled, then pointed out that my handwriting was tiny. That seemed to be a good thing to her, so I wasn’t ashamed at all, but then she emphasized I had a problem writing in a straight line. My letters drooped down to the succeeding line, kind of like an upside-down bell curve. I remember looking at other examples from my classmates and thinking to myself, why aren’t I as capable as they are? At that age, I associated the concept of capability with my hands. These scrawny double-jointed extensions from my body were not reliable. They seemed to be my Achilles heel, even though they are as capable as any other pair. If I were to summarize what my hands do, or what hands do in general, I’d say they seal the deal. Your hand is kinda like your resume. Think about it. A handshake, a signature, the stroke of a brush. Your hands tell the world so much about you. A little callous and I’m a hard-worker. A little too soft, and I’ve been pampered my whole life. A little inky and I’m a writer.

But I’ve always felt that I couldn’t seal any deal because of the shame I felt. I remember a group project that I worked on in middle school. I was so proud of the material that I gathered and then finally, the last step of the project was to write our findings on the bristol board. That day,  I did something that became a routine. I looked over at my partner and said, “Do you mind writing my section for me? I have ugly handwriting”.  My poor hands, to have another set of hands write my thoughts for me felt like a violation yet, every project I would commit the same offense over and over again. Deep down, I knew that writing your thoughts down with your own hands had to be the most authentic act, and for me, it was an act that I could not partake in because I grew comfortable being part of the audience.

Your handwriting looks like hundreds of tiny cockroaches.

My shame reached an all-time high that day.  And now that I think about it, maybe it was the best thing that happened to me. I knew it couldn’t get worse than that, so I felt compelled to end this futile battle with “perfecting” my writing. I let my hands be.

I found myself getting used to the truth that my handwriting wasn’t for everyone because my hands didn’t work for anyone; they work for me because they write for me. Suddenly, these frail hands appeared more capable. 

 I began recalibrating the firm constructs about my identity, constructs that I assembled with the voluntary help of strangers. I carefully sifted through them in a search of the one-woman projects that made up the bedrock of my being. At one point, I realized that each project was signed in different fonts.

I began painting. Something about the paintings looked like they were stolen. Nothing I could see identified itself as mine. I wanted to see authenticity, I wanted to see these hands. My hands. Instinctively, I reached out for a sharpie and began writing on top of my lifeless painting. For the first time, I signed off on my project—it was only right to call it “Cockroaches on Canvases”. These hands could write, these hands could paint, these hands tempted me to reclaim them again.

Why don’t you display this?

I think that is when I realized I was a frozen coward, unable to fully reclaim what was always mine, unable to come to terms with the truth. Cowardice and conditioning led me to a space where my truth remained quiescent. So I spent years wedged in-between a world in which I primarily knew the truth about my handwriting, and one in which my truth was once drowned out by the voices of others.

The truth was always in the bedrock, it was just layered by heaps of waste.

The truth was that the first time that I wrote, I looked at my handwriting with awe.

The quiescent truth was that despite the heaps of waste,

I’ve always looked at it – the hands that become my hand, writing – with awe,

I’ve just been ashamed to say it out loud.
Once I started listening to these hands, they turned into my hands. My body now rejoices in this long overdue reattachment. Now my hands are art, on canvases, displayed everywhere, cockroaches for everyone to see.

Here’s my hands-painting,

 

 

 

11 comments on “

  1. Stephanie Bell says:

    Teachers don’t realize the power they have to do such damage. Thank you for your vulnerability in this story. Your canvases are gorgeous. Do you have an Etsy shop?

    Like

  2. Blu says:

    Your hand canvases really are a spectacle! I went through so many phases with my own handwriting trying to change it — perfect it maybe. Eventually I started liking the way wrote letters. Sometimes people thought it was strange, but I actually did not care — I thought it looked unique 🤟 Excellent piece!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Asma Hashi says:

    I enjoyed reading this piece so much. I experienced different emotions as I was reading. At first I couldn’t help but laugh, than felt ashamed for laughing. Second, the words that your mother instilled in you as a young child should become the norm. It made me feel warm inside. ahw, that’s so beautiful. But as I continued to ready my face became more and more serious. You touched on the effects that the world has on a young child and what it could result to, especially coming from a teacher. You also reminded me to be careful of my word as I won’t know how it will effect someone especially a child. Your hand writing does not define your beauty, but you Anisa Ali define your beauty. And like your mother said everything about you is beautiful. I really enjoyed reading your piece. And I’m excited to read more of your work. P.s you should sell that painting😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mohamed A says:

    Wow, a beautiful and elegant piece that highlights such emotional and awe inspiring topics in many peoples lives. Reading this piece and reflecting on it had such a strong effect on the way that I viewed certain ideas in our society. This piece came from such a special and personal place in your heart and is something that we are able to discern when reading this piece. I especially loved the way that you grew and learnt from such a valuable lesson and the way that you were able to interpret and modify such a harsh piece of feedback into your own journey. Thank you for sharing such a phenomenal part of your life with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a fascinating and relatable piece! I’ve received a fair share of insults over my ugly handwriting (even from an English TA in first year) because I learned the stroke orders backwards due to being left-handed. However, I ended up turning more and more towards computers and electronics for notes and documents to avoid needing to write by hand. Outside of your artwork, do you find other major ways to stay connected with your handwriting?

    Like

  6. gcrone14 says:

    Anisa,

    I, too, had a journey with my hands. From the youngest age, I got frustrated with elementary school handwriting exercises, frustrated that my writing wasn’t “correct,” wasn’t “proper.” I winced when learning basic writing and I was super tense learning cursive, because my hands couldn’t form the beautiful letters that I saw so many others having, developing, growing. Having hands that are so unique can be very challenging, but do know this: your exploration with your hands, with your art, with your being, is the best gift you could give others.

    My hands, for instance, have vulnerabilities (as for your advice, I won’t say, “flaws”): they’ve callouses, they’re red, and they, too, don’t generate the most “correct” handwriting. But that’s what makes them so special. That’s what makes me proud to write and live and be; to know that our hands are an extension of ourselves, that they write us. They are our genetic marker— our DNA— that makes us so incredibly special.

    Your letters, your art, your piece— they’re all so beautiful. And just always remember that your hands will always be yours: perfect just the way they are.

    I write this with a smile, knowing that you’ve found your hands, and through them your voice and beauty as a writer.

    Stunning work.

    Like

  7. Fardowsa Hirsi says:

    This piece truly resonates with me. As a child I’ve been put down and too ashamed of the way I wrote. Eventually, that lead me to be more self-aware or rather self-cautious about the way my hand writing looked. Too petrified to hand in a simple paper that had the least bit of ink that would remind other or give people the satisfaction to point of my flaws. But later on, I’ve learned that the so-called flaws everyone was so eager to point out are the same flaws that made me who I am today! It’s my beauty, intelligence and overall uniqueness that defines who I am. No words, or comment could ever be the reason to define me. I define who I am, and I have to say I love who I am! Just as you, Anisa Ali are the only person who can define who you are!! Amazing piece, every word written deeply resonates with my past experience and learned a true valuable lesson. So, Thank you for sharing this beautiful yet captivating well written work. Not to mention, the most beautiful canvas my eyes have ever laid upon🥰🥰
    Keep up the excellent work!

    Like

  8. hanniemarg says:

    I liked how you were making the connection between your handwriting as being part of your identity. It made me think that this might be part of the reason why writing by hand feels so personal. The movement of writing out the words makes you feel more connected to them, so I understand why you had anxiety around your handwriting. From your art, I felt as though you had embraced your individuality through your handwriting as something that is totally and uniquely you. And because it is totally and uniquely you, that is why it is beautiful.

    Lastly, I was also someone who was told that they had ugly handwriting, so I completely understand the insecurities that come with that. However, one of my teachers in high school told me that “ugly” handwriting is a sign of genius, and I think that your piece proves that!

    Like

  9. Hey Anisa! I love the anecdotes to your Mother and words she’d say to you growing up. Sorry you had to deal with that ignorant teacher ;/ but I’m glad you were able to appreciate your unique handwriting for what it is and not change the beauty of it to please others!!

    Like

  10. Miske Ahmed says:

    Anisa,

    I love how you took a simple thought and made it into art. Keep on doing you! Can’t wait to see more of your art in the future.

    Like

  11. lorinebw says:

    I love this so much. Your art feels pure and electrifying. Your piece resonated with me and reminded me to embrace parts of myself I believed need to be fixed or perfected.

    Like

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