Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around


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About books

What-Now-3dI have always been amazed by commencement speeches made by famous people at colleges all across America. Amazed because they are personal and inspirational, but also because they are crafted so well. Many cover similar themes. Most sound unique. The best ones are by writers I admire.

How wonderful to live the life of a writer, utterly convinced from a young age that the purpose of your life is to write. When words arise from a deep sense of commitment to a goal, they have depth and provide insight. Writers use words to give shape to their thoughts and the writing life gives meaning to their words. Words then, are not just what they use to make a living, but make a life.

In “What now” the speech by Ann Patchett at Sarah Lawrence college, there are several themes that resonate with me.

About life:

Just because things hadn’t gone the way I had planned didn’t necessarily mean they had gone wrong.”

About the past and present:

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours–long hallways and unforeseen stairwells–eventually puts you in the place you are now.”

About the future and how we can always dream of doing more, doing better:

“What now is not just a panic-stricken question tossed into a dark unknown. What now can also be our joy. It is a declaration of possibility, of promise, of chance. It acknowledges that our future is open, that we may well do more than anyone expected of us, that at every point in our development we are still striving to grow.”

One statement that Ann has made about writing that reassures me as an amateur writer is

“Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.

Such is the life of a true writer.

http://annpatchett.com

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Who’s counting

coffee cansI exercise regularly but don’t calculate the calories burnt. I walk everyday but do not own a pedometer to tell me exactly how many steps. I monitor my body weight but do not have a weighing scale at home. I look healthy and feel good. I just don’t have the numbers to back it up.

I am not on Facebook. I don’t know if people would care about my trip to Prague or my Prada bag (fictitious examples of course). Their “likes” do not determine my next holiday or shoe purchase.

I do not have hundreds of connections on LinkedIn. It doesn’t affect me professionally because people who are looking for me, find me, even without a LinkedIn invite.

I don’t count as friends people who remember my birthday from social media prompts or database reminders. And I don’t think poorly of those who always seem to get the date wrong, but show up whenever I need their support.

Such was my simple un-quantified life until I started writing this blog.

Now I spend time on my writing but also on checking my stats. I am concerned about the lack of response to some posts and am surprised at the number of likes for another. As a reader, I wonder about hundreds of comments to mediocre posts and worry about the gems I might be missing. I am anxious because I am not using my blog to “build my platform” on social media. I receive advice about leveraging other tools to publicize my presence. My pathetic number of followers and likes can mean only thing – I am a flop.

I feel like Alice in Wonderland. How did I get to be a numbers-obsessed blogger when all I wanted to do was write in a public space? Express myself in a milieu where other writers share their work in a virtual community.

As a scientist, I should love measurement and the unambiguous conclusions that numbers can provide. I do. What I do not appreciate is the quantitative oversimplification of life by using numbers.

Do you see yourself as more popular today because your social media post got more likes? Do you consider yourself more successful the day after your video (or photo or essay) goes viral? Are your thoughts of value only when endorsed by many others? Do you really believe that “if you cannot measure it, it doesn’t exist”? Is your life worthy of living even if it goes unnoticed by the masses?

Life, your life, is not a game of numbers. A longer life is not always a better one. A thicker book holds no more wisdom that a sheet of paper. Better to pen a blog post that marks a personal breakthrough even if it is viewed by only a few than pander to popular demand and feel hollow inside.

When DQ was little, I looked up infant growth charts to track her progress. With each passing month it seemed like her height was stagnant, her weight was dropping and her head circumference was below the minimum number! As per the charts, my child’s growth was sub-optimal. Therefore I reached the logical conclusion that I was a complete failure as a mother. Fortunately, the wise pediatrician first pointed out that the chart was not strictly applicable to a child of Indian origin since the underlying data came from a different racial demographic. More importantly, at each visit, she showed me how DQ was holding up her head, rolling over, responding to verbal cues and doing what she should be doing. In short, DQ was thriving.

I learnt then that my assessment of my child (my product, in some ways) and my responsibility to her (my mothering ability) was a very subjective and extremely personal matter that could not be distilled into simple numbers and plotted on a graph. All the statistics in the world could not describe my joy when DQ took her first step. The day she called me “Mama” didn’t matter to others but made me feel like a million bucks (in the days before a million views).

“What we know matters but who we are matters more.” Brene Brown

Yes, data is useful. It provides information. Not necessarily insight.

The quality of our life is expressed by our feelings, not described numerically. Pursuit of larger numbers and better stats may provide a context for your life but not it’s meaning. That is embedded in one-off moments, which are intensely private, celebrated in intimate settings and valued at an individual level.

A close, loving family; a few concerned friends; some interested readers – I will take these any day over a thousand distant strangers.

But who’s counting?


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About books

last lectureThe story behind one book that sits in my bookshelf is a mystery.

“The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch seemed to mysteriously appear among my books one day. I remember packing up all the books from the home I had rented for five years and unpacking the boxes in my very first apartment. I was thrilled to finally live in a place that legally belonged to me. The book seemed to be a bonus from the universe, a welcome gift for a momentous occasion.

While many have watched the lecture on youtube, I read the book first. I shared the book with DQ when she was fourteen, not sure if it was too morbid or too preachy. She read it like many of my other recommendations. And I know it made an impression on her.

Why do I like the book?

  1. Randy’s gratitude and humility

I won the parent lottery,” he says right at the beginning, grateful for his luck at being born to his parents and their impact on his life.

One particular line that DQ often paraphrases, taking a dig at me, is something Randy’s mother says after he gets his Ph.D., “This is my son. He’s a doctor, but not the kind who helps people.”

  1. Randy’s intense desire to influence his students and his children

When DQ pushes back after I repeat the same instructions or advice ten thousand times, I feel like giving up.

Then I quote from the book –“When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you.”

I want her to know I will not give up on her. Ever.

  1. Randy’s faith in humanity

Some days it seems that everything I do is wrong – nothing seems to bring about the desired result, no one seems to care. At such times, Randy’s words help.

If you wait long enough, people will surprise and impress you. Almost everybody has a good side. Just keep waiting. It will come out.

To me, the book serves as a reminder that I don’t have to wait till the end to figure out the lessons from my life.

By examining my life as it happens and writing it down, I am trying to leave behind a legacy for my children after I am gone. It is my way of doing what Randy emphasized: Kids- more than anything else-need to know their parents love them. Their parents don’t have to be alive for that to happen.


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Appreciating the written word

I haven’t felt like this in a while, the familiar after-effects of bingeing. Sated, like a python that has swallowed a large prey. I sit still, digesting and assimilating the contents. I am reluctant to move, preferring instead to stew in the juices that have spewed forth in response. I breathe deeply, trying to nourish myself on this feast.

I am in the stage that follows a reading binge. I did that a lot when I was a kid. Spent many solitary hours each day to finish a good book. Even today, ideas of others, made incarnate through words, with beautiful language, ignite my metabolism and saturate my thoughts. Many of the books I read attempt to answer existential questions, other kindle more enquiry. I can’t see it, but books stimulate neurons that connect, reflect, radiate and reinforce new ideas. Another level of consciousness is born.

As a child, there were times when I was happier in the company of books than people, not because I didn’t understand people but because I understood the world through books. The world was larger then. Books were the road and the aircraft that whisked me away. No one in my family had left the shores of India. The English language books I read talked about places that I could only imagine, times that belonged to the past, people who had blond hair and blue eyes, wore hats, ate scones, owned slaves. I read comics and classics. Murder mysteries and romance novels. I loved Scarlet O’Hara, Sherlock Holmes, John Galt and the town of Macondo. Sidney Sheldon, Agatha Christie, V.S. Naipaul and Enid Blyton equally enthralled me. My reading binges made the scorching summer holidays bearable. I measured a good school break in terms of number of books I read. Finish one. Start another. A mantra that worked.

Growing up demands sacrifices. Life has a way of sneaking up on you, diverting you with visions of pleasures you could have once you get a job, a promotion, a husband, children, a home theatre, a dream holiday and any number of gadgets. It’s all good stuff but I had traded my uninterrupted reading marathons for a regular grown-up life. Reading affords me a joy like no other. I don’t read in order to be instructed but I have to admit that books have been my deepest influence. Life lessons come from living and books provide those in a compact form, within the pages of a bound volume.

I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Signature of All Things today, all 880 pages of it. A grand novel that moved slowly but kept my interest going. A lot happens, very slowly. Not a racy page-turner but a book that haunts. I feel sluggish. Heavy with the weight of ideas, with the results of the author’s research, the depth of scientific enquiry and insight that is necessary to bring forth such a book. I remember feeling exhausted after I read “Gone with the wind”, confused by Ayn Rand, and impressed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Like a sweetheart from long ago, books can evoke feelings that are hard to define, not entirely unpleasant or complicated, they appeal with a hint of nostalgic charm.

As a reader I admire books and their authors. As a wannabe writer, I feel inadequate. There are days when I feel there is nothing left to write, all the great writers have written before me. On other days, I know I could never say the same things as well as they have. But reading is the prelude to writing. And appreciation must precede attempt. The key is to stop and watch. Watch and admire. Admire and learn. What we appreciate, we tend to imitate. The beauty of creativity is that it is impossible to duplicate the talent that belongs to another. While we may strive to write like an author we admire, our inimitable essence tends to shadow everything we create.

My mother and I attended a music concert many years ago. It was a beautiful rendition of a traditional song. “I wish I could sing like that. I wonder what it will take for me to get there” I said aloud. “The fact that you can appreciate this music is the first step. There are so many who cannot see the beauty in this, and you can. With this first step of appreciation, you can move towards your goal” she replied. I thought about it then. I understand it now.

On the days I am paralyzed by self-doubt, there is one sure way to get moving. I make sure I read. And I ensure I appreciate. Thank you Mom.

A parent is inexcusable who does not personally teach her child to think – Elizabeth Gilbert in “The signature of all things”