Owning and knowing Urdu

Apropos of nothing except the article I was reading, as I waited for the bus to take me home from work, I thought: One day, Urdu will be a medium of my poetry.

I was taken aback by the intensity of that thought. I’ve written a lot about my relationship with Urdu, but most of my writing has a distinct note of pining to it. This thought, sudden as it was, had a determination to it that I rarely feel in matters of Urdu. That thought knew Urdu, felt an ownership over Urdu that I have been too hesitant to feel. Even now, as I write this on my phone, my اردو کیبورڈ inserts Urdu straight into my stream of consciousness (as well as my writing). At a time in my life when انگلش has been my primary medium (nearly six years, now, living away from my family), اردو pulls itself from my tongue without clearing it with my brain first. In my moments of frustration, prayer, alarm, or deepest love, Urdu takes the place of English. When I find myself in a largely Urdu/Hindi-speaking environment, my English is punctuated with Urdu, my Urdu with English. When I realize this, I feel both embarrassment and satisfaction. Embarrassment because I wonder if I made a mistake, if my diction seemed off, if my lisp is apparent. Satisfaction because distance still hasn’t removed the ease with which I can slip back into my mother tongue.

I am content with that arrangement. I have reconciled myself with the fact that I am not great at Urdu, in the same way that some native English-speakers aren’t great at English. It’s a technical thing. No reason to take it personally.

But then: One day, Urdu will be a medium of my poetry.

Way to shake the status quo. It’s always been a pipe dream, of course. Who doesn’t want to write poetry in Urdu (that has been exposed to how beautiful Urdu poetry is, anyway)? No need to lose sleep over it.

So why do I get the feeling I’ll be losing sleep over this thought tonight?

Pursuant to good news I have previously referenced, I am now in the genuinely exciting position of planning for graduate school. As much as I enjoy my job, I miss the discipline that school brings with it. I’ve been trying to pick up languages, but it’s hard to hold yourself accountable when there aren’t quizzes or deadlines. So more than likely, I will want to take or audit a language class while I’m in grad school. This is where the question comes in: which one?

This has been the subject of recent discussion between my best friend and I. There is, of course, the option of going back to French. At my best, I could have been a somewhat interesting conversationalist in French. I’ve since gotten rusty, but I have a solid enough foundation. It makes sense to pick French up again.

Well, says best friend, by the same token, you could feasibly pick up French at any point in your life. And besides, says best friend pointedly, how relevant is French really in international relations today?

I felt myself bristle on behalf of my Martiniquaise French professor. I can hear her tut and mutter, “Tarzan…” disparagingly (poor Tarzan was her synonym for, essentially, barbarianism. She used the term in reference to Québécois French quite a bit).

But I am not Mme. Miles, and so I should not take it personally. Thus, I was able to admit that, yes, English could do the same general task as French did, 50 years ago, in today’s international relations landscape.

Also, continues best friend, wouldn’t it be a better idea to take a language closer to your region of interest?

Well, I considered Arabic, I respond. I also would love to take Farsi.

Best friend considers this and approves. Farsi would be better than Arabic, says he. Closer to your region, and genuinely interesting to you.

Yeah, I feel like it would help me understand Urdu poetry better.

Or, says best friend, what about Bengali? I don’t suppose you have any interest in that?

I can see the inevitability we are both circling. It’s not really that I wanted to avoid discussing the inevitability. It’s just that I wanted to talk through all other options first.

I mean, I start, I could audit an Urdu class.

Best friend is satisfied. And why shouldn’t he be? He’s the one who’s been interested in learning Urdu himself. But beyond that, he knows my relationship with Urdu.

Here’s the thing (and now I’m breaking out of this strange back-and-forth I’ve cobbled together): any language class I take will be audited. Essentially, that means I can participate – or not – to whatever extent I want. I could participate fully in the class, or I could only sit in and not do any of the actual legwork involved in learning a language. There are many reasons this format makes sense for an Urdu/Hindi class – for my specific case, anyway.

First of all, note the forward-slash: Urdu and Hindi. I could learn to read and write Hindi. That would be hugely helpful for any primary sources I end up using in future scholarship! Second, I could feasibly test into an intermediate level class and check in and out depending on what is most relevant to me. An Urdu lesson that comes easily to me? Skip the quiz. More complex vocabulary and/or actually learning the difference between ت and ٹ? I’m all-in.

Third, and most importantly, it would give me the chance to actually work with a teacher whom I won’t feel judged by. My biggest fear, even as a child, was that I would be judged by my peers and by others. To be in an environment where I would actually have the edge in an Urdu class would do wonders for my confidence – a confidence I have sorely needed.

I can’t do the work I want to do in good faith if I don’t put in the work to really, really get good at Urdu – and why pick up Devanagari script while I’m at it? Grad school will give me a chance to do that.

But that’s the road to getting good. Is it hubris that’s making me suddenly want to get great?

Quick sojourn back to Mme. Miles. After my first semester of French, I asked her what I could do to improve my French writing. I was doing fine for my level of French, but I wanted to be better than that. I told her – with an optimism and arrogance that makes me wince slightly now – that I wanted to be as good a writer in French as I am in English. In fairness, I didn’t mean it arrogantly. I just wanted my French to be on par with my English. I wanted to be great at French.

I thought back to that moment after my present revelation. At 18, I had shown a determination to be great in a language even before I had become great at my own. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I can’t help but feel the sadness of being content, comfortable in not just one, but two languages before my own.

I’ve come a long way, in all respects. I can honestly say that. And getting into an amazing grad program has only reinforced my desire to continue to work on myself. Last year, I read a poem (out loud, to people) featuring a whole stanza in Urdu. That I wrote. Mine! You couldn’t have told 18-year-old Neiha that. I would have cried and thought you were making fun of me. Even as I wrote that poem, I sent my Urdu stanza to my mother and asked her to read it, and tell me honestly if it made sense. I asked her not to make fun of me. I still feel like asking people not to make fun of me when I speak to them in Urdu. But at the same time, I chastise myself: you don’t need to ask permission or ask for allowances when you speak your own language. Speak it. Whatever comes out of your mouth will still be your own language.

Poetry is taking liberties with language while paying homage to it. I know English well enough to take liberties with it; I don’t need to learn to pay homage to a language I speak 65% of the time. But with Urdu, I feel that all I ever do is take liberties with it. What I lack – according to this misgiving – is the knowledge to accurately pay homage to it.

If that truly is the case, and the rational part of me is not convinced that it is, then auditing an Urdu/Hindi class gives me the perfect excuse to receive the “knowledge” I need.

But the truth is, I have always paid homage to Urdu. It’s in the way I set Urdu up on a pedestal; how I pray in Urdu; how afraid I am of embarrassing myself, not in front of others, necessarily, but in front of Urdu.

To own Urdu enough to think – honest as a gust of wind – one day, Urdu will be a medium of my poetry is jarring, but inspiring. I can feel the determination settle inside me, thick and true as the hesitation and satisfaction with which it now cohabits. Urdu is a nurturer, a coaxer of thought and expression. To pay homage to it would be to nurture and coax this new-found determination out from its current co-occupancy with hesitation and satisfaction, into a home of its own. I am writing this determination, this mission into existence.

One day, Urdu will be a medium of my poetry.

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Against Contrivance

Foreword

About once a month, a group I really adore called Subcontinental Drift Boston puts on an open mic. Last (October? September?) year, I started making a regular appearance, reading my poetry at their open mics. It’s become, above all, a way to engage with the South Asian community in the Greater Boston Area. Every meet feels like a little homecoming. Somewhat less importantly, it’s become a great exercise in writing poetry to a bit of a schedule. I’m self-learning discipline as regards writing poetry, but I’m also unlearning a lot of my own behaviors around obligation and the commodification of artistic spaces and artistic output.

This essay is the result of realizing that discipline is an active endeavor. Discipline is not muscle memory. I made the mistake of thinking it could become muscle memory. I wrote this essay the night before I was due to perform at the open mic. I planned on reading this in lieu of a poem. Then the Christchurch mosque attack happened. I found myself processing my desperate sadness through a poem I wrote the same day I was slated to perform. This essay was not relevant anymore; but I wanted to publish it here as a reminder to myself that contrivance is the downfall of art.

**

March 14, 2019

I’ve been taking liberties with my own fonts of inspiration. Usually, when I haven’t written a poem in a while, I feel the loss of it in my body like hunger. I find myself looking around at the world aimlessly, hollow-eyed, a child who hasn’t fully grasped the meaning of Ramadan.

I think I’m misrepresenting that loss; the loss isn’t hunger, it’s just forgetting you’re fasting. In going without, you understand what it means to have. When I do finally come upon a poem, it’s like sinking my teeth into a date. In my house, we break our fasts with dates smothered in freshly whipped heavy cream. The first taste is that of coolness. The second taste is that of the date, but it’s the coolness that always stays with me, the way I feel it first in the back of my eyes, spreading out to my stomach, soothing the heat I didn’t know I had there.

I have not been so graceful in my asceticism lately. On the contrary, I’ve flaunted my hunger, my loss. I’ve worn it like a badge of honor, lifting up my shirt to showcase the hollows of my ribs, like a monk on a soapbox. Cocky enough to mix metaphors – cocky enough to call irony into my life.

It’s not nazar. As much as I like invoking nazar for every minor inconvenience, I know when the universe is just trying to knock me down a peg. “Look at me, look at my misfortune, look at this hunger – I will pull a poem out of this hunger, a miracle out of the dark, a bunny out of a hat. I am without now, but I know there is inspiration beneath the surface.” Enter: irony.

Still, I’m sure infuriatingly to anyone watching, I have always been able to pull off writing a poem in the nick of time. I have rarely had a reason to believe otherwise. I always find poems, lurking around corners. It’s just a matter of finding the right time to initiate the hunt.

At some point last week, though, I realized I was in trouble. I realized I was in trouble two days ago, when I started reading Ursula K. LeGuin. Something she wrote stirred the hunger in me, and I put the words to paper. After a stanza, I was stumped. I reread what I wrote: there was no rhythm, no instinctive meter, no reason to keep writing.

“That’s okay,” I thought. “I’ve had a lot of duds before,” I thought. “Maybe this one wasn’t meant to be,” I thought.

A couple of weeks before that, I had had another idea. I put it to paper. I have forgotten about it since, and it has been relegated to my Google Drive folder as “Untitled, February 28, 2019.”

I’ve collected two more “Untitleds,” since then. “Untitled, March 13, 2019,” was the one I wrote after Ursula K. LeGuin. The third Untitled, “Untitled, March 14, 2019,” seemed promising. But, while I was trying on glasses at Warby Parker, I got the sinking feeling that I was in trouble once again. I had been nursing an emotional breakdown over an album I’d been relistening to. I was convinced: if not Ursula, this album would do justice to my monkhood. I would write in a fury. I was near tears – what’s the point of crying over a song if you’re not going to write a GD poem after it?

Friends, I’m here to tell you today: there has been no GD poem after any song. I had relegated myself to thinking, “Well, if not a poem-poem, maybe a prose-poem?” After all, where is there more freedom than in unstructure?

Apparently at a Warby Parker, because between writing that paragraph and putting money down on a pair of cherry blossom Madeleines (medium-framed), I had completely lost any interest in “Untitled March 14, 2019.” When I tried to read that poem again, I was taken aback by my own hubris. I couldn’t recognize the voice in the spaces between that poem as my own. The contrivance seemed even more vivid in unstructure, and trust me, I have no pretensions about my own pretensions when it comes to my poetry. Again: what’s the point of feeling a song so deeply that you cry every time you listen to it if it’s not going to inspire you to write a GD poem after it?

I felt betrayed. I’ve come to realize that I made up the loss I felt – I’m not hungry, so much as a little peckish. I want a snack. Munchies. I don’t need the food, I just want it. And therein lies the arrogance, the mistake: when I write a poem, it’s out of a need. There’s a twisting in my stomach so ferociously painful that if I don’t write down the meter in my head, I will carry that pain for the rest of my life.

Here, there’s no such primal desire. Here, there is no hunger. There is only an assumption of deserving: I need to write a poem so I can read it at Subdrift. That’s why there was so much contrivance in every poem I tried to write. There was no authenticity or engagement – just expectation.

The danger of a stage, a platform, is that you lose yourself to that platform. I parsed away a part of myself to the Subdrift stage every time I read a poem there. The feeling is electric. Every time I’ve come off that stage, I’ve felt freshly exorcised. I find myself going to the adjoining kitchen to shake in silence. Each poem is a possession; a commitment, an oath made in blood, and the stage comes to collect. I love that feeling more than I can say, and perhaps more than is responsible. I love expectation; I rise to it. But I cannot write poetry to Pavlov. There is nothing in writing poetry that needs to be conditioned, just nurtured when the opportunity offers itself. The hunger comes and goes as it pleases. My job is to wait; feel the twisting; breathe in the possession; and, as quickly as it comes upon me, release it. Beyond that, I have no control over the matter. It’s time to stop pretending that I do.

On being mentored

Sometime in my last semester of college, I found myself crying on my therapist’s couch.

Okay, this is vague – I spent a lot of my last semester of college crying on my therapist’s couch. In retrospect, I was genuinely in the throes of an existential crisis, but a major perk of being incredibly high-functioning is that I’m able to compartmentalize my anxiety away to do what needs to be done. As a result, when I wasn’t spending whole cursing out my capstone, I seemed as put-together as anyone on the cusp of graduating could be expected to, uh, be. But make no mistake: every single therapy session I had that semester, I spent crying into my therapist’s succulent that I was cradling to myself.

During one such succulent-cradling occasion, I cried to my therapist about how, despite the fact that I felt like I was a mentor to so many people, I didn’t have a mentor myself. How at that moment, with the dizzying array of possibilities ahead of me, the one thing I wanted above all else was a mentor. I felt petulant. Had I not been lucky enough with the support of my peers and professors? Why did I need a dedicated mentor?

I still don’t know why it hit me so hard then. My guess is I was self-flagellating at all the things I hadn’t done during my five years at Northeastern. Like so many students, I was terrified of going to office hours. I didn’t want to bother professors. I felt like all I would do was make a fool of myself. It was enough to be a presence in class and know that, at least, the professor knew my name (maybe) – but to go out of my way to bother them? I didn’t want to hoist myself as a burden onto anyone.

But since my third year, whenever I was at a panel or in a position of advising undergrads, I always said (and still say) that the one thing you should do as soon as you come across a professor you’re interested in is to go and see them. I was exposing myself in saying that. I was extolling the virtues of having a mentor and revealing the secret to finding a mentor after years of having missed out on the same experience myself. The best pieces of advice I give all come from my own mistakes and misfortunes. But when I’m not advising people, those mistakes and misfortunes sit deep in my belly like a rot. In therapy, the rot translates to crying into a succulent while running my fingers over its fleshy leaves.

(Have I painted a vivid enough picture of my lowest moments for you yet? Should I mention the amount of used tissues scattered at my feet? I’m baring my soul to deliver this quality content!)

What I was really getting at was that I didn’t know how to reconcile the mistakes I had made in college with my then-uncertainty. There was so much I could have done: I could have offered to do research for faculty, I could have tried to get things published in earnest, I could have joined more clubs, I could have spearheaded more initiatives, I could have made a better show of things during my co-ops. I could have, and – by my logic – all of these mistakes could have been rectified had I just had a mentor to guide me. It would have been that simple.

It wouldn’t have been that simple, but I needed to think in black-and-white at the time. As always, it was about accountability: by blaming myself, by pinpointing a singular cause for my condition, the uncertainty became slightly more surmountable.

Now that I’m sufficiently divorced from that situation, I can say, with relish, that I was being dumb and reductionist. (ASIDE – that’s one of my favorite words: reductionist. What a good word. And what a great insult, even at one’s own expense, both academically and in real life). Of course it’s nice having a dedicated mentor, but in doggedly pining after a mentor, I had my shutters closed against what I’m so immensely privileged to have: a whole constellation of support, comprised of friends, family, and professors.

It’s been a year since, and I’ve recently come into some good news. A large, decidedly South Asian part of me always wants to hold good news close to my chest. I’ve been burnt by nazar before, and there are just certain things I don’t want to ruin for myself by casting the news far and wide. I’m not ready to share that news on this platform just yet (soon, hopefully!), but as soon as I got this particular piece of news, I set about telling the people closest to me. My family, of course, my dearest friends – but beyond that, I realized, I had professors whom I desperately wanted to tell about this news. Right after firing off an email to a fifth professor, I realized – full of warmth, and – that I had been doing my betters a disservice. I’m not going to pull up the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of mentor (though, uh, here) but I had talked myself into such a specific definition of mentorship, that I had forgotten just how many people have been in my corner since I first got to Northeastern in 2013.

If I’m being honest, I don’t even know what my definition of mentorship entailed. All I knew was that I didn’t have one of those. On the contrary, I have several mentors, many of whom probably had no inkling I looked up to and wanted to emulate them, among both professors and peers. It’s natural for us, as humans, to feel like we are alone in our moments of pathos. The existential crisis is not a particularly social experience. Tunnel vision does not afford the opportunity to glance around and see the many others who are trudging along beside you, and, more importantly, those that are cheering you on from the other side of the tunnel. But joy is exultation, and in exulting, we open ourselves up to a shared experience. In the course of my exultation, I allowed myself to follow my intuition, and I realized I already had people in my heart to whom I wanted to parse some of my joy for the sheer reason that they helped me get to my joy.

If there is a definition of a mentor more appropriate than simply “someone who guides you towards finding joy; someone with whom you can mutually exult,” then I don’t want to know it.

Revisiting rejections

Many, many years ago, when I was far more active on this blog than I am today, I used to write music reviews, book reviews, day-to-day updates, anything that I wanted to just get down and out there. A part of me misses the lack of self-consciousness with which I treated my own writing. The other part of me knows that at least the stuff I put out has a some sort of quality control restraining it, so it’s not worth belaboring the point.

That said, I find myself in a moment where I can’t help but think about a fairly common type of blog-post I used to put out: the college acceptance tracker. I applied to undergraduate programs twice. The first time, during Year 12, when I was only 16 and rearing to go out into the world. I was confident that I was ready, but even with the rejections I received, I was convinced against going to college on the grounds that I had a lot more to show for myself than my 16 years would allow me to. Begrudgingly, through tears, I agreed to see out the entirety of my A Levels. It was the best decision I had ever made up until that point in my life. It’s amazing what an extra year can do for you – and how much more fun college is when you’re actually 18 at the time of starting.

But I digress. Back then, while waiting to hear back from colleges, I would put out blog-posts reporting whether I had been accepted or rejected. I would describe how I felt about the application decision. I tend to be embarrassed about nigh-on everything I did when I was a teenager, but I look back at those memories with some fondness. I was so excited for the next big chapter of my life that I was desperate to share my journey with everyone, even if no-one read my updates.

This isn’t to say I’m going to start doing that with my grad school applications. I played out the cuteness of that experience back when I was a teenager. It isn’t quite as endearing when you’re a 24-year-old adult woman with a job and loans. But I can’t help but note some of the parallels. Whether consciously or not, I ended up applying to 9 programs. And whether I’d like to admit it aloud or not, there are certain schools I’m applying to out of a sense of obligation, not necessarily because I see a future there. Even though I submitted all my applications a few weeks ago, I can’t help but regret some of the choices I made. At the very least, this time I’m not investing my whole self in one school, but even having a “top choice” is terrifying to me. I’m ready to have my heart broken, if only to realize the best place for me is somewhere else – but I’m not ready to have my heart broken several different ways, only to realize that there is no best place for me right now.

I’m not the ideal candidate on paper. My GRE quantitative score leaves about 25 points to be desired. I don’t have a masters degree already. But there is so much I want to do, and only so many years to do those things in.

In 2005, the Kashmir Earthquake hit some parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir and India. I was in my home in Lahore, lounging on the couch and watching cartoons when the couch began to shuffle forwards. The french windows of our TV room rattled, and I immediately knew: zalzala. I rallied my mother (I feel like I’ve always played the role of the rallier in my family), who bade me go outside. I stood in our porch nervously, watching my grandfather’s jeep sway as the quake continued.

Reports of the destruction, lives lost, witness testimonials equating the earthquake to endtimes poured in. Lahore was spared the worst of it, but there was devastation in northern Pakistan. I was nervous all day. I once fled to the garden, wearing only a bath robe, because I felt an aftershock. I was only 10, and this was my first true brush with a natural disaster. My uncle and aunt, who were visiting when the earthquake happened, pulled me aside. They had understood the crux of my fear: I was confronting mortality. For better or for worse – and now that I’m 24, I have to say, maybe they were a bit premature on this – they explained to me that death comes to all of us. Some people sooner, some people later. The best thing to do is embrace mortality and hope we are ready for our death when it comes, however it comes.

As a good little Muslim girl, I tried to take that lesson to heart. I succeeded. Since then, I have been cavalier about death – at least, my own death. I harbored fantasies of being killed for my political stances. My lot in life was to live spectacularly and die spectacularly. In retrospect, I’m shocked at how well I took to that. It’s only now that I’m an adult that I realize the dangers of living that way, and the problem with learning that lesson so early in your life.

Here’s the biggest problem with that: I still feel the need to live faster, succeed harder, work longer, plan farther. Life isn’t long enough, so the sooner I live spectacularly, the better; that when death, comes I’m ready for it.

Didn’t expect this to be about dying, did you? Neither did I.

So now when I see the first two decisions regarding my PhD applications turn out to be rejections, I am confronted with the fleeting nature of my life. Even though I know that a year can be as long or short as you make it, even though there’s a chance my generation will be the longest-lived generation thus far. But there’s far too many people for whom that will not be the case, who will die young or unduly because of messes I’m still not ready to fix, or in a position to help avoid.

It’s never been about my dying – it’s been about others’ deaths or ill-living folk while I am still trying to get somewhere. I feel gripped by an urgency of purpose that I didn’t feel as intensely when I was 16 or 17. I’m trying to remember that the road to success is paved with rejection, and also that success is so entirely relative that I shouldn’t measure myself by constructed metrics. I’m also trying to remember that haste is a great way to corrupt oneself. And, sometimes, when I’m being thoughtful, I try to remember what my boss once told me: you can believe you were put on earth to serve, as long as you also remember that you were put on earth to eat pizza and hang out with your friends.

But every rejection makes me feel like I’m not actually ready. And that means I need more time to get ready. If climate change does come for my throat before I am ready, what will I have to show for it?

This is all a dramatic response to 2/9 rejections thus far, but I’ll let the quality control falter momentarily. If there is a lesson or moral here, and I always try to find one, I guess it’s this:

Maybe don’t turn a natural disaster into a moment to condition a 10-year old into accepting mortality?

Reclaiming “Auntie”

You must be thinking, my God, two posts on Waxes Poetic in the same month! What a treat! What a Christmas miracle! Or, if you know me really well and/or have followed this blog for a long time, you may more accurately be thinking, two posts in the same month? Neiha must be in the middle of some existential crisis, huh? To which I say, that was really uncalled for; I don’t appreciate having my soul peered into so deeply, and could you back off a little?

Regardless of what you must have been thinking, and my own slightly wounded response notwithstanding, yes, it is true, I am in the middle of a gentle existential crisis. I am two applications away from being done with applying to grad school (maybe). 2018 is nearly ending, and boy howdy am I excited for that, but it’s also making me reflect. “Reflection,” as we know, is a mass ritual all bloggers like to undertake when a Gregorian year comes to an end. And I am no exception. What may set me apart from other bloggers engaging in this “Reflection” (aside from 1. not having a monetized blog; 2. not really having blogged very much at all; and, 3. I don’t think I actually am a blogger, now that I think about it) is that 2018 was a year of culmination for me. I graduated college, and for five years, my whole life was college. When I reflect on 2018, it’s hard for me to stop my reflection at January 1 2018. I find myself going farther and farther back, and while I don’t think I have a concrete start-date, May 2013 seems like a reasonable bookend to pair with December 31 2018.

I don’t want to summarize the past 5 and a half years, by any means. I’m more interested in looking at the ways I’ve grown and how I’ve responded to unfamiliar terrain – and how my responses to unfamiliar terrains have developed. But even that is an intense endeavor, and I don’t want to harp on the same talking points that I have discussed in some way, shape, or form on this very blog. So, instead, I want to measure my response to a terrain that started off being familiar only at a distance but has very much become a part of me.

This is a terrain I have been actively avoiding most of my life. This is a terrain that, when I see other people on it, I speed away from as fast as humanly possible. This is a terrain that I have long considered toxic, detrimental on a structural level, and have been actively attacked by in my own life. This terrain is that of the Auntie.

[a lightning effect flashes across the screen. the camera cuts to a doorway, but all you see are two heavily mehendi’d, ornately chappal’d and anklet’d feet stepping towards you. in the distance, you hear a baby cry. the camera cuts to a number of faces, each more horrified than the last. you see me, inexplicably wearing a maatha-pati, heavy kajal, my grandmother’s sari from the old country, and a full beat – even though I’m actually writing this blog post with wet hair, in ripped jeans, and my most comfortable sweater – almost in tears. for some reason, the editor of this scene decided to engorge the frame and then squish it back down. interesting editorial decision, but okay. then, finally, the camera cuts back to the two feet, slowly panning up, and up, and up, until you finally see the face of the exact person you picture when you think of the word “Auntie”.]

[the camera pans back quickly to me. yeah, I know, you weren’t expecting that, were you? neiha lasharie back in form, in her melodramatic element? yeah, it feels good.]

When I was younger, the word “Auntie” didn’t carry as much power or fear as it does for me now. It used to just mean any older woman – my familiarity with said woman was irrelevant. “Uncle” and “Auntie” used to be apolitical terms. Now that I’m older and wiser, I do have a mental picture of an Uncle, but it seems to be the Auntie who wields actual, chaotic neutral power. The internet has revitalized the Auntie with an additional, memetic urgency; the Auntie is no longer a private entity, but a publicly acknowledged and discussed one. The Auntie has become the subject of numerous articles, satirical or otherwise. She has shed her abstraction in favor of shared meaning. The Auntie is a common experience, within and without diaspora, bridging divides, bridging even cultures – us South Asians have realized that some approximation of the Auntie is ubiquitous across many Global South cultures, down to the term Auntie itself! This demystification of the Auntie is important. Identifying her power, her evils, her hold on our society is the first step towards disempowering her.

But who is the Auntie? For people who might not be familiar with the concept, an Auntie is any woman – blood relation or not – who seems to think your life is her personal soap opera. She is a tea-drinking, biscuit-munching, diet-contemplating, occasionally Star Plus-drama-espousing, real-life drama-stirring, wet-kissing, cheek-pinching, body-shaming, back-stabbing, gossip-mongering, aggressive match-making, maybe even match-fixing entity, with a claim to every grapevine on God’s green earth. Just thinking about and writing down her many self-imposed duties is exhausting, but actually interacting with her is the kind of life-sucking experience I would not wish on anyone. An Auntie could be your mother, your grandmother, your cousin, your younger sister, your actual aunt – it could be you, unmarried as you are. And this isn’t to say all aunties are like that – of course not! There are plenty of wonderful lower-case-A aunties who truly want the best for you. And maybe even a handful of upper-case-A Aunties who truly want the best for you. But what sets Aunties apart from aunties is that Aunties feel they have a personal stake in your life – and only imposing themselves into said life – again, your life – can assure their own happiness.

Here’s where the Neiha part of this comes in: I have met my fair share of Aunties, and I revile them all, but more recently I have been called an Auntie by my peers. That’s right. Your girl, at the ripe old age of 23, seems to be rapidly ascending to Auntie status. I am a tea-drinking, biscuit-munching, wet-kissing, match-making, match-fixing- okay, maybe not match-fixing, but Auntie nonetheless! And here’s the thing: I’m not upset about it!

In my heart of hearts, I have always been maternal. I am really rather traditionally feminine, in addition to being myself an outspoken feminist. This makes me an obvious contender for the title of mom-friend, a title I have proudly held for years, but Auntie was a title I never thought I would grow to inherit. I thought I was too progressive, too careful to ever become an Auntie. But here I am, and I have a bone to pick.

When I was listing off the criteria that qualified me as an Auntie, I conspicuously left off some of the most damning qualities traditionally possessed by an Auntie. You might be thinking, but aren’t those the qualities most often associated with being an Auntie? Wouldn’t the absence of those qualities disqualify you from Auntiedom?

No. And here’s my radical thesis: we need to reclaim and liberate the Auntie.

Hear me out.

I am tired of hating on Aunties. More broadly speaking, I am tired of pinning the blame for the worst parts of a culture onto women, who already have an extremely difficult time of it in our culture. A culture that, it needs to be mentioned, is the result of deeply-rooted patriarchal practices complicated by – and in many cases, reinforced by – colonization. In the same way that saying all teenage girls are catty and mean is sexist, isn’t the very idea of an Auntie also kind of terrible? Isn’t our hatred for Auntie culture a kind of internalized misogyny? Why do capital-U-Uncles escape this vitriol? The Auntie is so involved as to be reviled, but capital-U-Uncles are so distant as to be negligent! And then when they do get involved, they do it with the same entitlement of the Auntie – it was just lying dormant within them! Behind many unhappy Aunties is an emotionally withholding Uncle – why don’t we discuss the toxicity of that?

Aunties – like so many traditionally maternal roles in society – are easy targets. Progressives and conservatives alike can find common ground in what they hate about Aunties. And when your common ground hinges on hate, well, that’s probably not a very good thing, especially in a culture and society as divided and divisive as South Asian culture(s) and societ(ies).

I’m exhausted. I want to see past memetic reduction and into the conditions that create Aunties to begin with. But if the antidote to despair is action, then dammit, I’m acting.

These past five years I have been growing into my own in so many ways, and one of the ways I have grown is into being an Auntie, and I am willing to embrace that. I won’t excuse the actions of the Aunties before me, who have hurt me just as they have hurt so many. Instead, I will be the Auntie I wish to see in the world: tea-drinking, biscuit-munching, book-reading, advice-giving, consensual match-making, straight-shooting, always-loving, bear-hugging, forward-thinking, gaali-galoching Auntie. And I will look at the Aunties I have encountered holistically, kindly, patiently. I will look inward into the misogyny I have grown accustomed to and dismantle it.

In 2019, I vow to hold Uncles accountable for once in their lives, and do in my part in ushering in a new generation of Aunties. I hope you’ll join me.

I’m still here

I can explain my absence pretty well, though I can’t necessarily excuse it. For the past half-year, I have been busy either studying for the GRE or working on applications for PhD programs in political science. When not doing either of those, I work full-time as a research assistant. When not doing any of those three, I have been making time to read and write poetry.

I am incredibly, unbelievably happy. I absolutely love my job. For the first time, I feel like I have a genuine shot at a poetry side-hustle. I have an idea of what I want to do in the near-future, and that is deeply reassuring. And, since I am the way I am (i.e. incapable of taking any good news in good faith), all of this means I am filled with abject terror at the prospect of losing this happiness and, specifically, of failing. And right now, the biggest possible/plausible failure for me is a failure to get into a doctoral program in political science.

At this point, I should apologize. Not having written anything that isn’t a poem or for research purposes in months means I’ve lost my ability to write in a way that’s charming, relatable, or funny. And maybe I shouldn’t reduce this to charm, commiseration, or funniness.

I’ve talked about imposter syndrome a lot in the past. The concept isn’t new to anyone anymore, and that’s good! The more accessible this idea becomes, the easier it will be to talk about imposter syndrome and its effects on people. My specific imposter syndrome makes me feel like the best con-artist in the world; that I’ve duped everyone into thinking I’m intelligent and capable, when really I’m a slacker, a procrastinator, a plagiarist, a regurgitator. But I’ve done that concept to death, and I think what’s worse than the imposter syndrome is the opposite: if I’m not an imposter, if I truly am successful, if I truly am worthwhile, then the fall will be even worse. At least if I fail as an imposter, I’m getting what I deserve. That’s justice. That’s accountability. I can self-flagellate and feel a grim satisfaction. But if I fail as Neiha Lasharie, then what happens?

My therapist and I had a breakthrough recently. She was listening to my usual self-deprecating diatribes (“I’m a horrible person masquerading as someone with good intentions,” etc) and then, after intently scribbling something in her notes, said, “You’re gaslighting yourself.”

I felt like an old-timey bank robber, suddenly thrown into sharp relief by a helicopter spotlight. “Oh. I am.”

My therapist went on to say that it was obvious that I had picked up the language of gaslighting from people throughout my life, that it wasn’t something inherently in me, but a learned behavior. And if it was learned, then that meant it could be unlearned. I felt both guilt and relief. Guilt at the fact that I had been doing unto myself what I swore I would never let anyone else do to me, and relief at knowing. I’ve seen a change in myself over the past few weeks since that breakthrough, but it has opened up another avenue of fear. I’m assuming that my imposter syndrome – and maybe that of other people – is related to the self-gaslighting behavior that I’ve learnt. But I’ve become so used to my imposter syndrome as truth that I don’t know what is on the other side of overcoming this obstacle.

I love taking responsibility for things that aren’t my fault, and the gaslighting is absolutely the reason for that. But if I am able to suppress this urge to gaslight and be honest with myself and give praise where it’s due, then I will also have to face myself and be honest about my shortcomings, in a way that’s realistic and healthy. I will have to face my failures as a matter of fact, rather than something that can be grandiosely ascribed to a personal defect. I’ve grown comfortable in my self-perception of being a con artist. I’m comfortable being the villain in my story. I don’t know how to see myself as a nuanced person. It’s easier for me to think my boss hates me because of a mistake I made than to accept that my boss could move on with her life and expects me to move on with mine after said mistake was corrected.

I keep going back to the same question: is this a form of narcissism?

My therapist told me to write a positive poem about myself, and it took nearly a month for me to get something down. It became my favorite poem I’ve ever written, but getting into the headspace where such a poem was possible was a month-long endeavor. I felt uncomfortable praising myself, as if allowing myself to admit to any goodness in me would immediately make me fulfill my destiny as a narcissist. And narcissism, in my logic, is how you become a monster. And monsters are the reason I’m even trying to get a doctorate in political science to begin with.

Maybe that’s not it. Maybe the reason I’m reckoning with this “what’s on the other side of self-loathing” problem is that I still don’t trust myself to be responsible for being a source of good in the world. I want this doctorate because it is a way to assure my responsibility. I cannot be of service if I haven’t learnt all I can – for me, for myself, a PhD is the minimum qualification for being worthy of service, for being a truly Good Person. I’m forcing myself to jump through ever-higher hoops because I want to see if I’ll fail. I’m trying to reject my null-hypothesis:

H0 – Neiha Lasharie is an inherently bad/unintelligent/narcissistic person and therefore shouldn’t be trusted with a doctorate in political science.

It turns out, as far as I’m concerned, my testing isn’t complete yet.



What I’ve learnt from being forced to talk to people on the phone

To preface: I used to absolutely hate talking to people on the phone. I would avoid it as much as possible, to the point where even talking to my own family on the phone felt like an insurmountable ordeal in my life. I know I’m not alone in this, and that heartens me. In a few short years, I will be able to successfully sidestep the phone and conduct all my dailies without having to talk to anyone at all. As it is, I could probably live a talk-on-the-phone-free lifestyle but I do not have the luxury of that. Mostly because I will be working for people that still expect me to pick up the phone and talk to a person.

Now, before you start shaking your cane/mortgage/NOKIA 3310 at me, I will have you know I am not an antisocial person. I am just an anxious person. Like every other millennial. Also, none of us actually likes being anxious, we just have to develop coping mechanisms and cross-stitch reminders that we can do the dang thing, you All-Lives-Matter-touting ding-dong.

And so, let me launch into what I’ve learnt from being forced to call people on the phone – something I’m actually capable of doing now!

  1. Let’s start with the basic essentials: always leave your name and a number/email you can be reached at! I cannot stress this enough, and will be calling back (this was an accidental pun and I am thrilled) to this point later.
  2. When you do leave your name and number, make sure you spell your name out as painstakingly as possible. This is my usual spiel: “My name is Neiha Lasharie; that’s N- N for Nancy-E-I-H-A, Lasharie, L-A-S-H-A-R-I-E, Neiha Lasharie.” Why N for Nancy? Because I’m tired of being called Meiha and I live in constant fear of the day I have an international flight ticket with the wrong spelling of my Pakistani passport-holding name.
    1. Subpoint: memorize some approximation of the NATO phonetic alphabet. That way, you don’t have to scramble to find the stupidest word possible that happens to start with the letter in question, or end up in a situation where you forget that Phoenix does not, actually, start with F, or decide that “hallelujah” is the word you’re going for instead of, I don’t know, hotel (I have done this).
  3. Almost always, the person answering the phone will tell you their name right at the beginning. If they don’t tell you their name – or you forgot/were too busy panicking to register it, it’s nice to ask their name again right before you get off the phone. Write it down somewhere, it’ll come in handy later down this list. If nothing else, the person on the phone appreciates it, and it will make this mutual ordeal seem a bit more palatable and human. Look at you go!
  4. (Increasingly) no one actually likes talking on the phone. The person you are calling wants to get off the phone as quickly as you do. You don’t have to exchange pleasantries; in fact, the more streamlined you can make your phone call experience, the better it is for them to! Stick to the bare minimum; if they have questions, they’ll ask you. However…
  5. …you just put down the phone and realized that you forgot to give the person you were talking to a key bit of information! Dang it! “That’s too bad I guess, oh well, I could always-” don’t you do it, 19-year-old Neiha, don’t you throw the person on the phone under the bus for something you should be responsible for! You call that person back! You call them back as soon as possible so they still remember you and you don’t inconvenience literally everyone around you except yourself! Anxious child!
    1. This is where having left your name and number really helps, along with any correspondence number/order number/reference number if applicable.
    2. Additionally, if this a customer service type situation or there’s more than one person likely to pick up the phone, having the name of the person you talked to previously handy will make a big difference! Either they can run a note to the other person, or just hand the phone over if possible.
  6. If this is a work-related thing, or you have to ask a detailed question to someone, it’s good to write a script. But like, physically write it out if possible. You will 100% remember individual points way better if you lose the script because you wrote it down by hand. Scripts are also extremely handy if the call goes to voicemail and you panic – because as much as talking to another person is rough, talking into the void is way worse.
    1. Depending on the type of person you are, you can either write out the entire script word for word, or bullet point it. I personally prefer bullet pointing it.
  7. Speaking of voicemail: when you leave one, it’s helpful to speak as slowly and clearly as possible. No one actually knows how voicemails work, especially in an office setting. Speak slowly, carefully, and repeat things. Say your name in the beginning, and repeat your name at the end. Say your phone number twice. It’s also helpful to give the time and date you made this voicemail, and if it’s something where a follow-up will be needed, give the person you’re trying to reach the courtesy of telling them you’re about to hound them. But in a nice way.
  8. The build-up will always make it worse. Counting down the minutes to a phone call is hell. Usually, it’s not even worth it; the call goes to voicemail, and you’re left kinda underwhelmed. Just go for it. I know that’s not always possible for a lot of people, but for me, I sound and feel way more natural if I just pick up the phone and call someone instead of when I’m hyping myself up for it.
  9. During my first co-op, whenever I had to make a phone call, I would always isolate myself and find the most remote location possible. I didn’t want anyone to witness my embarrassment. But – and this is a good life lesson in general – no one cares if you stumble over your words. People stutter and stumble all the time. Now, I actually prefer calling people when I have someone around. It emboldens me.
  10. Always have something to write notes on. Make sure the thing you have to write notes on isn’t your phone. You WILL miss something in the transition from ear to speaker. This is crucial if you’re asking for contact information. Always have them spell out the name. Always confirm the number/email you’re been given. Basically, treat that situation with the same care you wish a Starbucks barista took when scrawling your name onto a grande iced latte.
  11. PACING HELPS SO MUCH. YOU WILL FEEL BETTER. But also don’t slip. I’ve definitely slipped during a phone interview.
    1. ALSO SCRIBBLING. This is something I picked up from my mom. Just doodling on a note card or newspaper or whatever it is you have nearby helps you focus.
  12. If you’re talking to someone important on the phone, don’t panic. It’s a totally different atmosphere than when you’re meeting with someone in real life. You don’t have to worry about what you’re wearing, or your body language – as long as you treat them with courtesy and respect their time, you should be good. But also, chances are, you’re talking to their secretary or assistant; be nice to them too. Actually, be especially nice to them – they have total control over whether or not you’ll get to talk to their boss.
    1. Some of the best interviewing advice I’ve ever been given has been from my father. This is very useful for an in-person interview but also applies to a phone call. Make yourself feel physically bigger; take a deep breath, square your shoulders, hold your feet shoulder’s width apart, just make yourself feel powerful. You’re feel more confident for it.
    2. The other best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is from a friend who didn’t even really mean it as advice; pretend you’re someone you really admire. Don’t, like, steal their identity. Just put yourself in their shoes, and you’ll find yourself adopting their perceived confidence too! This is the one piece of advice behind my public speaking success.
  13. Finally, it doesn’t matter who you’re calling, be as courteous to them as you would if you were talking to them in person. If someone is explaining something to you, make sure they know you’re actually listening. Ask questions. Be patient if you need to repeat yourself. Feel free to make fun of the situation, if you mess up! Don’t immediately hang up because you called yourself Zach and your name is definitely not Zach. It’s okay to ask someone to hold because you need a second to take a deep breath and dive back into it.

Okay, wow, this is way more advice than I was expecting to give. Feel free to ask me any questions! I’m happy to answer as best as I can! Now back to trying to get a hold of literal ambassadors!

Forgiveness, can you imagine?

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-04 at 2.18.54 PM
There aren’t too many pictures of me from graduation, but I think this one – overwhelmed, holding way too many things, but so happy – is a pretty good summary of both graduation and my college life in general.

As of May 4th, 2018, I am the proud owner of a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Affairs. If you’ve been following this blog since its very inception in 2010, then this might be tripping you up as much as it tripped me up. I still have vivid memories of giving college acceptance updates when this blog was still Neiha Thinks This. To be done, to have crossed out the erstwhile biggest item in the To-Do List of my life seems bizarre.

Of course, in the process, comparatively smaller items on my micro to-do list fell by the wayside (including my plans to put up a blog post every month), but it’s hard to give myself too much of a hard time about it when I am in possession of the most expensive piece of paper I will ever hold. It wouldn’t be very poetic to let my graduation month pass without a blog post reflecting, properly, on at least some facet of the past five years. (NOTE: It is now June 3rd. I let May slip by without finishing this blog. Ha ha.)

I’ve been afraid of my last semester of college since I first stepped foot in Northeastern’s campus and realized I was home. Which is weird – being afraid of a milestone seems absurd. I couldn’t wait for my high school graduation so that I could be done with that chapter of my life but at the same time, those two milestones aren’t even worth comparing. My high school experience was not great. I had friends, many of whom I’m still close to, and saw some successes but I was always held back either by teachers who called me “too passionate” or resource crunches. I could never pursue knowledge to the extent that I wanted to, short of fighting my way into taking an independent study A  Level. My interests were belittled. And when I tried to leave high school behind in favor of greener pastures, I had my character, intelligence, and values attacked by the one teacher I was still in contact with and looked up to. I have no qualms about discussing this now: that messed me up. After working through this with my therapist, it has been concluded that most of my impostor syndrome and self-flagellation can be attributed to That One Teacher. Which is upsetting, because said teacher is why this blog exists in the first place.

I guess that’s a good transition into what aspect of my college life I want to reflect on this time: forgiveness. Specifically, learning how to forgive myself. While at therapy the other day, talking about some or the other requisite self-image issues I still have, we hit upon a bit of a revelation. I still hold on to the naive belief that, at 23, I shouldn’t have body image issues anymore. It was a hope that persisted throughout my teenage years. With age, all of this would go away. And of course it doesn’t. In my particular case, we noted that a lot of my issues that have roots in childhood often get triggered by specific events. None of my issues are ever in isolation, and if they flare up, it’s because something else has flared up concurrently that exacerbates the former. And then the revelation: I immediately realized that these issues aren’t just disparate, they’re parts – “tendrils” is how I described them – of the same large behemoth: how I see myself in relation to where I want to be. Each tendril is situational, variables that act up and inform the central question: am I on my way to becoming the person I want to be? It seems silly, but after months and months of working through each tendril in isolation, having a larger framework to work against was a pretty major breakthrough.

And, of course, it all goes back to ambition. Sometimes I think mine has gone stale or has paled in comparison to the people around me. That’s not the case; my ambition is stronger than it’s ever been. The two biggest driving forces behind my ambition have always been service and spite. The former is decidedly more noble than the latter and will always be more important – nothing I do matters if it doesn’t help in some capacity. The latter grew in size and force over the years, reaching its peak in college, but it has always been there. It’s always played a bit of a tempering role to the complacent, afraid side of me. My successes in high school despite the odds? Spite: if I can’t succeed despite the odds, what’s the point? Fighting my way back from a D in economics? Spite: “he looked at me like I was stupid, I’m not stupid.” Deciding, once and for all, that I will get a PhD? Spite: no one ever gets to call me a pseudointellectual again. And I don’t get to believe it.

And here’s the thing, a lot of my spite is intrinsic too. I live to spite myself because at the end of the day, I’m my worst enemy for these things. I treat myself like absolute trash. I’m the one that allows myself to listen to people who want to put me down because in my heart, I believe that part of service is taking all criticism on face value and becoming “better” for it. The roots of that are in the one trait I fear most in myself, arrogance. A “trait” that came out of insecure teenage bravado – forgivable! And yet, unforgiven. If arrogance is self-assurance without limits, then I would strive to be the opposite of that.

I think spite is a necessary driving force. For me, it forces me to take what I judge as a failing on my part and reevaluate it. It forces me to for once in my life give myself a break, because I can actually do the things I am told I can’t do. I spite myself so as to learn to forgive myself. Arrogance is bad, yes, but I’ve never actually been arrogant, I was just called that by someone at the age of 13 and it stung enough to stick for ten whole years.

I have so much I still haven’t forgiven myself for, from the banal to the serious. The last five years I’ve been at college are pockmarked by those moments. I think back on them and my immediate urge is to rip my own skin off. To blame yourself so much that your instinct is violence towards yourself? The cruelty of it all.

I want more than anything to be of use. I don’t need to be lauded, I don’t need to be appreciated, I just want to help and create and cultivate and study. Any moment where I have been less than those things is paramount to failure in my book. And yet, I graduated and I graduated pretty dang well. I have made life-long friends, I have been a mentor, I have learned so much, and I have even been able to help in that process. More than any other time in my life, I did the best I could and now that it’s over, I’m so proud of myself.

I think that might make it easier for me to forgive myself one day.


On a lighter-ish note, what comes next after the above detailed milestone, you say? Waiting for the US government to get back to me about whether or not I can stay in this country for the next year! Finding a full-time job! I have a part-time gig as a research assistant which I am so excited for and which will help tide me over until I can get a full-time job with benefits. I’m also ~paranoid~ so I don’t want to give more details on that until I get said government approval.

Over the next year, I will be studying for and taking the GRE and applying to graduate programs in political science/international affairs with a focus on ethnic conflict and global governance…and I think most of them will be PhD programs. I’m about 80% sure on that. That’s the most sure I’ve been about anything with the letters P, H, and D in it! I will also be fine-tuning my research article on sex trafficking in the EU and hopefully getting it in front of a panel of academics to get feedback. I’ll try my best to add updates here but they might go to LinkedIn first.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while now, thank you for sticking with me despite my unreliable upload schedule. It means a lot to me!

An overdue reflection

Increasingly, I find myself missing the Netherlands.

If you talked to me at any point over the last year, you would have heard some variation of the following: “I don’t really like traveling or going out of my comfort zone but…” and I know the part about not liking travel sounds weird but give this blog post a read and you’ll figure out why soon enough. Or hell, if you’ve been following this blog since before I came to college, you’ll know why. One of the central questions of my formative years was how long I’d have to wait until I truly felt at home somewhere. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make Lahore home again, and my trip back after five years of separation during the summer of 2016 proved me right (I made my peace with that pretty much instantly!). But in the interim, I had actively pinpointed Boston as home, and wasn’t disappointed. Boston will always be home.

And so, when I moved to the Netherlands, I was excited but I also went in with the mindset of impermanence. This was a temporary stopover so even if I ended up being extremely homesick or straight-up unhappy, there was an end-date I could rely on. And certainly, my last month in the Netherlands was one where I couldn’t wait for the end-date. Why not? I would see my family again, my brother was going to get married, I would soon be preparing for my last semester of college – there was so much to look forward to that I couldn’t help but be antsy.

But God, was it bittersweet. I didn’t expect the Netherlands to be so welcoming. Rather, I didn’t expect my heart – with its specific idea of “home” – to be so open to leaving a piece of itself with the Netherlands. Six months was not a long time, and I know there is so much I didn’t get to experience about the Netherlands; but I had my routine, and I had cultivated my comforts, my pet peeves, so fully. Every now and then, I’ll be hit with such a dense pang of longing for aspects of those six months. But it doesn’t make me sad or miserable with my current situation. I couldn’t be happier being in Boston (though my current workload could definitely stand to chill out for a hot second). The nostalgia doesn’t hurt, it just reminds me of the fullness of my time in yet another country I say I’ve lived and loved. What’s strange about my time there, though, is the privacy of it. I mentioned in a previous blog post from when I was in the Netherlands that the isolation I felt was really bizarre. Not too long after that, I realized it was because there weren’t many people with whom I was actively, physically sharing that moment in time-space with. For once, this experience was mine and mine along. But the consequence of that is now that I’m back to a familiar old lifestyle, I feel like my experiences in the Netherlands are private and secret. It’s a world only know, that only have experienced in its fullness. I had a few friends visit at a couple of points in those six months, but none of them really know of my time in the Netherlands in the way I did and do. My friends there are mine. My workplace there was mine. My time there was mine. My grocery trips there were mine. My meal-prep were mine. The cafe I used to go to to research was mine.

In fact, I hadn’t realized how much of my normal life wasn’t mine. That’s not a bad thing at all. It speaks to another kind of fullness, the fullness of companionship that I am so lucky to have. More than anything else though the Netherlands taught me that I can be happy experiencing something on my own. I don’t really want to go out of my way to emulate the experience again, so you definitely won’t be getting a travel blog out of me any time soon (or ever), but I feel so much more confident in and with myself. I got to travel to Berlin on my own – without access to internet or cellular communication beyond public WiFi – and it was a really good experience. I can succeed on my own!

I can’t explain how badly I needed to know that.

The Netherlands – especially the Hague and Rotterdam – will always hold a wonderful place in my heart. It also feels good knowing that if my career goes the way I hope it does and I end up back in the Netherlands, I’ll be back to a beloved familiar. So, yes, I’ve been missing the Netherlands a lot: the chocolate, the straightforward people, my co-workers and friends that I got to know, my Sundays dedicated almost entirely to hours of meal-prep, visits to the grocery store, CHEAP PRODUCE, Albert Heijn and pepernoten, the view from the beach clubs at Scheveningen, getting lost in Rotterdam, the way the Hague glories as it is bathed in sun, punctual public transportation, the fries… but at the end of the day, I don’t miss the Netherlands as if it’s something gone missing. I revel in having tried something new and falling in love in the process.

But I’ll be damned if you see me post a picture of the Hague on Instagram with the caption Take me back!

Poetrygrams, privacy and setbacks

I hate calling myself a poet, in the way I always struggled with calling myself an artist (I still don’t like calling myself an artist). To be a “poet” or an “artist” means you have received a degree of instruction, or self-taught prowess, of a calibre that it can be disseminated. I don’t think I have that distinction at all. I can barely call myself a writer. It’s easier to create some space between myself and the act: I write poetry, I make art, both are more palatable in that they aren’t claims, they aren’t identities, but they are easily identifyable actions.

At some point, I had forgone this cautionary practice and – kind of arrogantly – started calling myself a poet. For what reason? I got a handful of likes on some poetry I threw onto my Instagram feed, and it fed my ego. I wrote more stuff, and threw it on my Insta feed, and got more affirmation. Don’t get me wrong – I cared about the poetry I wrote, and I took care in the writing process. I sat on poems until I was happy with them, for weeks and months at times. But at the back of my mind, I knew the medium I was writing for. I had a formula – no more lines than can fit the length of my phone, linebreaks so that there were no run-on sentences past the width of my phone, and squat enough that the poem could be easily squared and put up on Instagram. I was immediately limited to short bursts of prettily strung together sentences that, sure enough, were poems but by no means the best poems I could write. At some point, I had accrued enough poems that I could dedicate a separate poetrygram to my work, and I did. I felt wonderful about that – maybe I could find a poetry community for myself on Instagram. I could cultivate followers, get feedback, learn from the feedback. It would be a form of workshopping that I didn’t have access to.

A few months passed. Feeling somewhat dissatisfied still, after a few months of playing around with the poetrygram, I created a poetry WordPress blog. I felt wonderful about that again, but in a slightly wiser way. That was my first inkling of understanding. Once I started writing poetry specifically for the WordPress blog, I found that I became more experimental. I started playing with formats and styles, wrote longer poems, I created room for myself to expand into. All the little lessons I had stored away in the back of my mind in my miserliness after years of reading diverse poetry finally had a space to come out in. I was Silas Marner, and this endless space for growth and writing was my Eppie. I was a surprised at how different my poetry had become, within days – I wasn’t writing for a specific medium anymore, and, honestly, I wasn’t writing for the easy validation either. I hate admitting that the influx of likes made me feel better, more talented, but it did. But I never got the poetry community, the access to the world that I wanted.

But the WordPress blog brought to light a whole other issue. With the advent of the WordPress blog, I found the courage to submit poetry to various publications and reviews, and – well – I was knocked back onto my butt with an important realization: the poetry world rewards privacy. That is to say, you can’t publish stuff that has appeared online before in any form.

I reeled. I should have known this. Somehow, I thought a blog – an Instagram feed – I thought they didn’t really count as having appeared online before. What a weird combination of arrogance and self-deprecation. In the process of years of writing dozens and dozens of poems and subsequently uploading all of them to Instagram and WordPress, I had completely nullified 80% of the opportunities available to me; I had stunted my own ability to access a poetry community. (I say 80% here because there are definitely publications out there that take work that has previously appeared online.) All this in pursuit of the instant affirmation I got from one-click uploads and Instagram-savvy/SEO-friendly (hash)tagging. All because of my inability to appreciate poetry as a private pursuit.

I felt like crap. But it was a moment of much needed clarity. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for being humbled like that. The poetry I’ve written to this point matters to me. I parsed away little pieces of myself in everything I’ve written thus far, and I’m grateful that people got to see what they did – but I need to start from scratch now. I need to keep my work close to my chest, learn to actively workshop, learn to actually utilize the lessons I take away from the poets and poetry I read, to not cater to easy validation anymore. More generally, I need to care for my privacy. I’ve received a few harsh lessons in the part regarding privacy, and I don’t seem to have learnt anything. If not for my own safety, I should at least learn from the blow my ego – my ambition – has been dealt because of my own lack of diligance and easy susceptibility to memetically engineered cultures of art.

I’ve already taken down my poetry blog. I won’t be taking down my poetrygram. I think it’s important to face the physical manifestation of my arrogance head-on and learn from it. Removing the poems I’ve written so far from the face of the internet won’t help me much anyway. It’s also way too easy to pretend I never made a mistake. But, so help me God, I won’t be putting more content on there that hasn’t already been published elsewhere. I’m also going to stop making excuses and actually go to poetry workshops from now on.

I feel wonderful.


PS: I have…more feelings about Instapoetry than I’ve let myself disclose/discuss in this blogpost. There is a whole discussion about accessibility and democratizing poetry that I haven’t really touched on. This is not a commentary on making poetry accessible, just my experience with Instapoetry culture and the adverse impact it had on me as someone trying to be better at poetry.