Monday, March 9, 2009

Tears and Spirographs

From Amy Tan's 'The Joy Luck Club' -

"An-Mei," she whispered, "have you seen the little turtle that lives in the pond?" I nodded. This was a pond in our courtyard and I often poled a stick in the still water to make the turtle swim out from underneath the rocks.

"I also knew that turtle when I was a small child," said my mother. "I used to sit by the pond and watch him swimming to the surface, biting the air with his little beak. He is a very old turtle."

I could see that turtle in my mind and I knew my mother was seeing the same one.

"This turtle feeds on our thoughts," said my mother. "I learned this one day, when I was your age, and Popo said I could no longer be a child. She said I could not shout, or sun, or sit on the ground to catch crickets. I could not cry if I was disappointed. I had to be silent and listen to my elders. And if I did not do this, Popo said she would cut off my hair and send me to a place where Buddhist nuns lived.

That night, after Popo told me this, I sat by the pond, looking into the water. And because I was weak, I began to cry. Then I saw this turtle swimming to the top and his beak was eating my tears as soon as they touched the water. He ate them quickly, five, six, seven tears, then climbed out of the pond, crawled onto a smooth rock and began to speak.

"The turtle said, 'I have eaten your tears, and this is why I know your misery. But I must warn you. If you cry, your life will always be sad.'

"Then the turtle opened his beak and out poured five, six, seven pearly eggs. The eggs broke open and from them emerged seven birds, who immediately began to chatter and sing. I knew from their snow-white bellies and pretty voices that they were magpies, birds of joy. These birds bent their beaks to the pond and began to drink greedily. And when I reached out my hand to capture one, they all rose up, beat their black wings in my face, and flew up into the air, laughing.

"Now you see,' said the turtle, drifting back into the pond, 'why it is useless to cry. Your tears do not wash away your sorrows. They feed someone else's joy. And that is why you must learn to swallow your own tears.' "

Is that true? Is it true that tears don't wash away our sorrows? What of the days you are so tired, your body speaks in the language of tears without enough reason? And when you have put everything you have in the making of a relationship or a pudding, which still goes sour? Those tears of frustration, and anger, don't they help bring healing? And I remember those grieving tears, for death, for the loss and acceptance of that void. Tears which don't ever fill that empty space but allow you to move on.

But there are tears of hopelessness as well, of impotence in the face of life's vicissitudes, or failure and dejection, of humiliation and rejection. And pain. Pain of third degree burns, of broken bones, of compressed nerves, of cramps which don't stop. Pain of the burnt heart, of broken spirit, of soul squeezed too tight into little jails. What of these? Who do you share these with? And when you do, who amongst the handful of names you have clutched so tightly in your fist will not be a magpie, feasting, feeding, gorging?

But enough of this. Move on now to Spirographs (is that patented, do you know?), those little wheels with holes within wheel with big hole. In the days of yore, when my childhood was long past, but I still roamed free this earth, unencumbered by thoughts of impending extinction akin to the Ankylosauraus, I used to see these with roadside vendors and be tempted to buy them. It seemed like a chidish thing to do, twiddling with colours and circles, so I didn't. Now I think I should have; at least I should like to play again, just fiddle with shapes and colours and the possibilities, and who know what might result? And so, one day, I googled for online spirographs, and here are a few that I saved for you to play too -

Lynn's spirograph is an applet which will allow you to 'use multiple pens and colors at once. If you stop the drawing you can restart it with or without clearing it. You can change the pen colors or select a new disk when the drawing is stopped. Note that when you change disks or click the one (in the disk selection pane) that was being used in the drawing, it will rotate to match the one in the drawing.' Simple and fun, most like what we have seen as children.

The spirograph at has more controls, viz the radii of the two circles and their offset, a complete colour choice, light or dark background, whether a continuous line or not, and what is called revolutions, meaning I suppose the number of revolutions because the line gets thicker when I choose 500... And oh, I almost forgot to tell you that the drawings are more or less instanteous, so the fun is in choosing the numbers :)

David Little's spirograph was the one most liked at our place. It pops out in a new square window, looking more like a game I suppose. But more fun was the finding of new shapes by positioning the smaller circle outside the bigger one. In addition to the control over circle radii and offset, there is also the speed and resolution of rendition, which makes it easy to show the exact path being taken. The page has basic math explanation behind the game, so it is a must read for parents who want to at least know what their kids know...

And over at AFLAX, the java library for Adobe Flash platform, I found this cute little one, attributed to Jim Bumgardner -

The size of the inner disc and its pen hole position is all that you can change, and the thickness of the pen. It keeps moving by itself in rainbow colours, its tail end fading while the leading point moves on...

And finally, there is this spirograph by numbers, which only provides an image after you punch in the required numbers; must for budding mathematicians, but kind of wasted on the young 'uns, and their rushed parents :)

Here are the urls -

Lynn's applet -

Spiro online -

David Little (maths deptt. Penn State Univ.) -

AFLAX library -

Spirograph by numbers -

Edit 16th June 2009 - just found another of these flash toys at Chew on glass ( The example below has three wheels, but if you need use only two for the classic spirograph pics. Even if the maths is a bit different, which, being totally sleepy right now, am not even going to figure out :)

Note : Unlike other games, I have not, this time, looked into the backgrounds of each page, so if you wish you may explore further, or not :)

P.S. This post has been nearly a week in the making. For the first few days, unfortunately I alone shall have to take the blame, but for these last three - I am happy to announce a guilty albeit totally unconscious partner: Vivianne Schwarz, author, illustrator and maker of sock monkeys, whose blog has kept me occupied whenever I have had a few moments to spare... Here is a gem I am copying from her 22nd November 2008 post. In entirety. I rather think it may become a chorus line over here, at my blog, where apparently I am doing time lapse bloggography (another little gem I have picked from elsewhere, but more on that some other time. Thanks Pete! And a thousand apologies for calling you Mike earlier.)

La de da doo dum dee da da da... da deee... dum da dooo... da da... don't bother holding the line, try calling back next week... doo doo...
And oh, did I mention we made a sock monkey yesterday?


Nino's Mum said...

and perhaps because I am neither a turtle not a magpie, I hold your seemingly scattered tear pearls close, so that when you're healed and look back at these days and marvel at the pain that moved you so much, you can see them glistening, precious, and hope that they remain rare.

Swati said...

I thank you dear oyster, but not in words because there are none to convey what one glance can.

Viviane Schwarz said...

Oh hello there! :)
I want to see the sock monkey!

Swati said...

Hello! Great to have you here. We'll have the sock monkey up shortly since you so desire :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Swati! I've mislaid a month or so somewhere with illness and injury but am 'blogulatory' for the moment. :)
That's an interesting bit of cultural difference there, the notion that crying feeds someone else' joy. I can't decide if that is a nod to the Yin and Yang view of the universe, where the energy put into misery must be balanced somewhere by energy put into joy for balance, or some misguided Macho thing, where reaction to sorrow or pain is to be ridiculed and held contemptible. Either way, I rather prefer Spider Robinson's (a speculative fiction author) take on pain; something to the effect that pain shared is lessened while joy shared is increased exponentially. Very thoughtful post. Makes me also wonder whether there was any note of the more Indian religio-philosophical tenet that a level of attachment to anything in life that strong, of which tears shed would seem to be a symptom, is a block to the path of improving one's spiritual nature. I'm probably over-reaching there, though.

Cool Spirographs, gonna have to try a couple of them, thanks for putting them up with notes! According to Wikipedia, the name Spirograph is a registered trademark of Hasbro Toys. Spirographs are a great learning tool for budding artists, mathematicians and engineers alike. And Fun! My sister and I used to mess about with them. When we were in high school, we learned about pendulum harmonigraphs and built a simple one with a sheet of plywood suspended on cables from the garage ceiling. Apparently there are now a couple of applets for that as well, which I'll have to go look at. I looked up a flickr image for you to see how harmonigrams differ from spirograms. Check this link, if you've an interest:
And with that I must go eat. Great combined post, thanks for the information to go explore!
p.s. looking forward to the sock monkey :)

Swati said...

I am sorry to know of your illness. Sending you lots of 'blest' wishes for good health!

I do not know if this notion is truly an integral part of Chinese culture or not, or whether, even if it was valued at one time, it is still a respected tenet. But, isn't the concept of hiding your emotions from public gaze universal? I am thinking of the proverbial British stiff upper lip, and of diktats like 'the true lady never reveals her emotions'. Only the very young in any case have the ability, and the license, to share their feelings without restriction.

But I digress. I agree with you about the therapeutic effect of sharing pain, but there are, usually, very few you can share it with. Cry, and you cry alone after all. In the story, this little girl was hostage to a situation she could not change, and this conversation between her and her mother is in that context. Looking back, I wonder if I needed to question it at all, simply because it is so contextual? But that is true of all our observations in life, is it not? Each of life's little lessons is true, but only for that kind of situation. Change the parameters a little, and a new set of rules come into play, a new strategy is needed. And the one who has seen more shades of pain, felt more nuances of joy, will have an advantage here. Half my life is over and I am only now recognizing what my parents called 'experience', which I dismissed with all the arrogance of a teenager as rubbish!

I don't think the author was thinking of Maya and spiritual advancement - but then, who am I to say! I can only assure you that I wasn't really thinking much beyond how in certain situations in life, pain can not or should not be shared. :)

Thanks a ton for the info about harmonigraphs. I am following that link now. I am impressed by your actually making the thing yourself!

The sock monkey is to follow in the next post :)