Starting Over

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


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Five things I learnt from NaBloPoMo

memo-383982_640I don’t read posts that have a title like this one. A list of things to do, a finite number, usually less than ten, of lessons learnt, practical tips and guiding principles. Life is too complicated and extremely subjective to be condensed neatly into a “one list fits all”. Most of the time, one list doesn’t even fit one life. I have made and torn up several lists in my lifetime. Revisions to previous lists have been incremental at times and subsequent lists have held radically different if not totally opposite views.

Given this background, I have decided to take the plunge and summarize my experience from this month of intense blogging. I begin with the disclaimer that the views expressed below are my own and are true as of this writing. I reserve the right to change my mind in the following days, months and years, including any subsequent attempts at daily blogging marathons. It is entirely possible that I may learn different lessons the next time I attempt something like this and highly likely that these lessons will be promptly forgotten.

So here goes:

  1. Quantity and quality are not inversely related: Writing everyday didn’t mean I wrote badly, considering the amount of writing involved. Since I did write everyday, the improved efficiency should have but didn’t greatly improve the quality either.
  2. Look more find more: Waiting for inspiration – I didn’t have the luxury for that. So I lowered the bar and found out quite surprisingly that inspiration is easily found. All I need to do is look.
  3. Discipline and forgiveness: Are essential. The discipline to write everyday required effort. But the willingness to forgive myself required greater effort. I knew I had to write. I wanted to write brilliantly. I had to pick one.
  4. Response and responsibility: Getting a response from readers was great. Getting caught up in stats was not. I loved receiving comments and counting new followers. But my primary responsibility was to write. Sometimes I forgot.
  5. Write or do something worth writing about: I think some famous person said this. I agree. But so much of what I do does not provide fodder for writing. How do I change that? I still don’t have an answer.

Hemingway said – There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

And that is the truth.

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What a writer needs

textures-mixed-inks-flowing-water-abstract-free-stock-photoIn a compilation of thoughts by writers on the topic of “Why we write” Walter Mosley said the reason writers write is for “ the mysterious heart – Readers no longer need novelists to tell us what its like to cross the world on a ship or fight a war. In the twenty-first century, we get that information in other ways. The thing that’s still a mystery to us is the human heart. What we want is to understand people, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.”

But writing has few moments that seem like rewards and many more that cause anxiety if not heartbreak. On days like these, I choose to dwell on Elizabeth Gilbert’s words that “The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness.”

In a spirit of self-forgiveness, here are my thoughts for today

“What a writer needs”

A present for context and a past for perspective

A family for support and for material

Books to read and something to write on

Time to think and space to create

Friends to encourage and critics to challenge

An interesting life and an enquiring mind

An ear for stories and a strong voice

A love for language and a reason to write


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Wish I had written that

I came across Phyllis Theroux’s memoir The Journal Keeper earlier this year.

Her words about her mother and her new life as a divorced mom of three children gave me inspiration and a desire to put down my thoughts in a time of personal transition.

Here I would like to share some of the gems and a video link to the interview with the author.

About mothers/mothering

When I think about why people have children, I realize how little it should have to do with the future. If, before any children were conceived, we knew that our reward for raising them would be perhaps several phone calls a month, a very occasional visit, and the sense of having once been important in their lives, we might not do it. But if we realize that the rewards are given during the raising, we will calculate the cost differently. My children have taught me more than I have taught them, given me more joy than I have given them, and their not being present or even much aware of me now does not alter this.

About love

One of the strongest illusions in life is that another person’s love will liberate us. The illusion is hard to let go of, even when one lover after another has disappeared, because while they are present they do set us temporarily “free”. We do feel as if we are more talented and lovable and then they turn away and stop loving us, and we realize how much our balloon depended upon their hot air.


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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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Wish I had written that

Pico Iyer is a journalist, novelist and travel writer. His writing particularly resonates with immigrants. While his unique multi-cultural upbringing forms the lens for his writing, I have appreciated his honest reflections on “home” in today’s globalized world.

A few sentences from “The Global Soul – jet lag, shopping malls and the search for home.”

The country where people look like me is the one where I can’t speak the language, the country where people sound like me is a place where I look highly alien, and the country where people live like me is the most foreign space of all.

I’ve grown up, too, with a keen sense of the blessings of being unaffiliated; it has meant that almost everywhere is new and strange to me and nearly everywhere allows me to keep alive a sense of wonder and detachment.

I exult in the fact that I can see everywhere with a flexible eye; the very notion of home is foreign to me, as the state of foreignness is the closest thing I know to home.

The link to the TED talk:
Where is home? – Pico Iyer


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I know what is wrong with me

snailFor the past few weeks I have been lethargic, sleeping more than usual, reluctant to start anything new. No matter how hard I tried, I could not bring myself to call friends or go for a haircut. I had no inclination to setup meetings with prospective clients or launch a major project. Even getting myself excited about watching a movie seemed too great a chore. Was I coming down with something? A low grade infection or the beginning of a cold? It had been a while since my last medical checkup. Were my hormones running amok? What was wrong with me?

Perhaps it was time to schedule an appointment with the doctor. As I dragged my feet to the phone, it struck me that October had been a tough month. Important festivals had marked the beginning and end of the 31 days. Add to it birthday parties, Diwali gatherings and miscellaneous dinner invitations. No wonder I was lethargic, listless, and too lazy to take up any activity beyond the bare minimum required to function. A room full of people had surrounded me most of the days. I was either recovering from one party, getting ready to attend one or hosting another. My exhaustion stemmed from all the mandatory socializing that typically marks the festival season.

I am not a party person. I wouldn’t call myself a loner. I prefer to use the term “happy in my own company”. On a daily basis I definitely prefer to have more time to myself than in the company of people. Being around lots of people for a long duration of time drains my energy. Some think I am shy but I have no problem addressing large audiences at conferences. Some may think I am a snob because I seldom stop to network after I am done speaking at the podium. I have been called “intense” by people who like me and “boring” by those who don’t. Others consider me a social misfit for my inability to find idle chit-chat stimulating.

My favorite time of the day is when I sit with my cup of hot tea and a book. The tea may get cold while I finish reading the book. My idea of a perfect day is to spend “alone-time” with someone I love; just us, one on one. Whether we take a walk on the beach, visit a café, stroll through an art gallery or simply spend a day indoors with few distractions. A day like this goes a long way in rejuvenating the flagging spirit that is desperately trying to reassert itself in the raging cacophony of a hundred voices and bodies, loud music and noise.

“I burn more calories in my brain” is something I have always claimed and I believe it. I like being quiet in my shell. I prefer to chose when I go out, with whom and how often. I prefer hosting an intimate dinner for a few people to throwing a loud party. I am not averse to meeting people but I find constant conversation annoying. Like a phone battery, I need to periodically recharge my spirit from my inner reservoir. Sometimes, all I want to do is hibernate, like a bear. Store my energy, revive my spirit, and stew in silence. Meditate.

With silence comes insight. Once I create space between the jumbled thoughts that run like scrambled signals on a crowded frequency. I know what is wrong with me. Nothing.

I am an introvert. Being introverted is a temperament, not a disorder. And like many introverts who prefer solitary pursuits, I am happiest when I am doing what I love, write in solitude.

“Loneliness is poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.” – May Sarton.


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About books

prophetI left behind my book collection when I moved to Singapore last year. I owned half a dozen bookshelves of various sizes, a tall one from Ikea with glass doors, another that could be folded into a plank, twin small ones that aged at different rates. The one in DQ’s room used to have Enid Blyton schoolgirl books, the Nancy Drew series, Gerald Durrell and such which later made room for Percy Jackson and Hunger Games boxed sets. I gave away the books that DQ had outgrown and the ones that I did not plan to read again. Most of my books lie in boxes, stored in a dark corner of my apartment in India that is now home to another family.
In this series, I would like to share my thoughts on some of the books that I own, books I revisit for their wisdom or simply for the pleasure of reading those beautiful passages again. When I pick up the book, I am transported back to the day I read it for the first time. When I read it, I am amazed at what the same words mean to me today. The book is as important as the story behind it.

The Prophet

by

Kahlil Gibran

Gibran’s masterpiece, first published over 90 years ago, continues to breathe wisdom into my life. Its beauty lies in its brevity. The insights that Gibran offers through the words of the prophet into everyday life situations are ageless.

The Prophet was a going away gift from Alan, a colleague, when I left the USA to return to India. Alan had been brought up in Trinidad and was an indophile. I brought him Indian food, he introduced me to books by Naipual. On the first page of the slim hardcover book in his neat handwriting, he wished me well on my new journey and said he had every confidence that “it will all unfold as it should.”

Neither of us could foresee the tremendous changes that lay ahead of me in my home country but the words of The Prophet have always reassured me, whether it was work or marriage, love or children on my mind. It has been my teacher who is always within reach.

On teaching

No man can reveal to you aught

but that which already lies half asleep

in the dawning of your knowledge.

 

The teacher who walks

in the shadow of the temple,

among his followers,

gives not of his wisdom

but rather of his faith

and his lovingness.

 

If he is indeed wisediyas 1

he does not bid you

enter the house of his wisdom,

but rather leads you

to the threshold of your mind.

Like a wise teacher, The Prophet helps me find the strength I need, within me.

Thank you Alan. I will continue to light a diya for you each year at Diwali.