I have always been hyper-aware of my ambition, to the point that I am constantly appraising myself vis a vis others’ accomplishments. I wish I could say with confidence that it is benign appreciation, and a desire to better myself. I’ve recently started accepting it for what COULD be: envy, a truly exhausting emotion to boot. What worries me now is not knowing whether my ambition comes from a place of sincerity or whether it is spurred purely by envy, a desire to be better-than-x. I am perfectly willing to admit that this could be me jumping to conclusions and selling myself short, but trying to be mindful of how I react to others’ success is a good practice regardless.
That is just the backdrop for what I really want to talk about: isolation. My ambition, whatever it may stem from, has led me to try to pursue original research during my intern ship in the Netherlands. I knew going in that I was overextending myself, but I was ready and willing to put in the work. But putting in the work requires sacrifice, and it’s one thing to overextend yourself in a familiar setting, with familiar comforts, but in a new country? I feel like I’m coming undone. I’ve been here almost two months – wild! – and I’m worried that I’m losing the nascent relationships I had established with people I have met thus far. I have to apologize for my absence at social events. I have to renege on promises I’ve made because a deadline is coming up and there is more work to be done than I expected. I can’t make plans even weeks in advance because – given the nature of my research – I don’t even know if I’ll be in the country then. I don’t fault the people around me for making plans without me. I totally get it. But the feeling of isolation it spurs has me asking whether my plans and ambitions are worth it.
That might be an overreaction; of course it’s worth it, conducting original research is a personal goal I’ve wanted to accomplish since I started college, and my research is on a topic I think is immensely important, that I care about deeply. I have somehow acquired funding for it, so it’s not even a question of if anymore. I literally have to see it through. But the prospect of staring down three more months like this, filled with half-commitments and apologies, is daunting nonetheless. I hope I can strike a balance between abating this isolation and still getting my work done. If not, I hope I have the emotional fortitude to be able to weather it.
I was not excited for this Eid. For all that I was grateful to have relatives nearby in the Netherlands, I really felt the absence of all that was familiar to me. My first Eid in Boston had its bitterness undercut with new friends, an Islamic community to go to the Masjid with, and options of Eid-specific Shalwar Kameez I’d hauled across multiple seas with me. That evening, I dragged some friends to my soon-to-be-minted favorite Pakistani restaurant, and felt the emergence of a new tradition. I didn’t have the time to be homesick, because I had found another home. And that restaurant had found a new loyal patron, not that it stopped Uncle-jii from giving me crap for making him drive all the way from Brighton to Mission Hill on a delivery run…
This year, I felt my mood sour as Eid drew closer and closer. Weight restrictions necessitated leaving my heavy Pakistani clothes at home; not even my favorite kurta could make the cut. And as shallow as it sounds, Eid without clothes rings hollow when you’re already facing Eid without family, friends, food, familiarity.
This morning, after half-heartedly putting on some makeup (yes – half-heartedly putting on make up, me, half-hearted, makeup! Me! Makeup!) and getting on the train to go to work, I resolved to get some treats for my office. Without a lamb (RIP) at hand, I had to figure out some gesture of generosity…so, chocolate and buttery biscuits it was. I said Eid Mubarak to the hijabi cashier and then uncomfortably realized there was nothing in my attire to suggest that saying it back to me was warranted. I trudged off, feeling the Eid spirit slip off me like the dupatta I didn’t have.
At work, I announced that there were chocolates and biscuits to avail. Letting the swarm descend in my wake, I went to my desk and drank my requisite two-shots-of-espresso-black-as-my-sins coffee. The perk was needed. I suddenly recoiled with disgust at my behavior. Sick of feeling sorry for myself, I drew up a list of reasons to be grateful, viz.:
1. You worked your butt off and persisted through a quagmire of bullshit to get to where you are. Yes, you’re away from your family/friends but it’s for a very good reason.
2) On your 3rd try, also after working your butt off, you got an impossible research grant. So now you have to do your over-ambitious original research. Scary? Yep. But that’s huge and you should be proud of yourself.
3) Albeit with some pitfalls, you’re dealing with your anxiety really well. You’re learning how to care for yourself without a therapist. Good job!
4) [redacted; you didn’t think I would share all of my reasons for gratitude, did you?]
5) *points to parents* You’re going to feel guilty about this for the rest of your life but look how MUCH they love you that you are here.
6) *POINTS AGGRESSIVELY TO THE PEACE PALACE* YOU COULD GO THERE EVERY DAY IF YOU WANTED TO AND EAT ITALIAN ICE CREAM.
7) You actually have family nearby. You could have been so much more lonely. Count your blessings.
8) The McElroys exist and so does Carly Rae Jepsen.
9) [also redacted]
10) Pakistani/new clothes aren’t the be all, end all of Eid. Steel yourself: you can always celebrate another way.
11) [which I added later] You can do proper push-ups now. Upper-body strength is just around the corner!
Point number 10 gave me pause. I could always celebrate another way. If clothes were a staple of Eid in the past, what else was? Even in Dubai, cut away from the majority of our family, we found a way to celebrate; how did we do it?
It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that the common denominator throughout my life had been music. Surely it couldn’t be as easy as all that. But it was: whether it was the infamous Lasharie family concerts that every evening would give way to, or music in the background while we waited for guests to arrive (even if the artist in question was Sting, the Patron Saint of my father), or me carefully singing around my eyeliner or over whatever food I was making for my friends that day, music was the ultimate staple of Eid. It couldn’t be that easy…
…but it was. I found a random playlist on Patari and I felt my heart immediately swell. And look, I know nostalgia for the past is usually extremely contrived and only serves to create a false impression of something that only barely was, but music is practically a family heirloom. Even my non-virtuoso self has been known to hold a tune. I could extol the virtues of Pakistani music ad infinitum, but it was what I needed, and that’s that. For all that I’ve been binge-listening to Carly Rae Jepsen lately, I needed the familiarity of a musical tradition I grew up on, that comforts me when I’m miserable, that reminds me of family in a way that not even food can.
Tomorrow, I’ll get to spend the day with my uncle and aunt in Utrecht. I’ll have little cousins to talk to and play with and whom I will promise that one day maybe they’ll get Eid money out of me. They’ll probably be in traditional clothes. I’ll probably be in jeans. But at least my makeup won’t be as half-hearted; I still have to catch up on this season of Coke Studio Pakistan, after all.
UPDATE: A few weeks after this post, I did, in fact, get ten inches shorn off my hair and donated to a good cause. I cried a significant amount of tears and went through a brief, frantic existential crisis, but it’s been a few months and my hair is steadily growing back.
One of my earliest memories is spurred by a sense of disdain towards my own hair. In kindergarten, I experienced my first crush on another person. To my clumsy sensibilities, he was perfect. I’m not sure what goes on in the head of a four-year old vis a vis attraction, and I definitely don’t want to go that far back down memory lane, but I still remember his name, and I remember being wracked with equal parts guilt and thrill when, in response to what was likely an innocuous comment, he said that my hair was stupid.
I was doomed from that moment on.
I have always had a lot of hair. My parents used to joke – or maybe it wasn’t a joke – that any wretched fly within a certain radius would be snapped up and trapped in my tight curls. As far as I’ve been small, my hair has been large. For many people, my hair was who I was.
So, of course, when my young beloved told me that my hair was dumb, I set out to destroy it. I’ll spare you the gory details, but after my poor mother woke up from her nap to see a bin full of perfect ringlets, she cried for a really, really long time. Apparently, my uncle, laughing as his wife tried to salvage my hair, said I looked like Ava Gardner. My mother cried harder.
I started drawing not long after that incident. Despite the fact that my burning love for a fellow kindergartener dwindled without ceremony, I retained my hair-anxiety. In every picture I drew of myelf, I made my hair straight. And that’s not to say that my hair was defined by rakish lines consistent with poor motor functions – it was a conscious effort to make my hair “silky-straight” like so many of the other girls around me. I began seeing my curls as a masculine feature. Pretty girls had straight hair. Any compliments I ever received were condescending in nature; pretty girls never got condescended. (As you can tell, I hadn’t quite had my intersectional feminist awakening yet.)
As funny as this seems in retrospect, it was also the beginning of a long, difficult battle with self-loathing. The longer I observed my hair, the more I began to notice my face, my blemishes, my thick eyebrows that were not yet en vogue, the slightly crooked bridge of my nose, the baby fat that seemed so much worse than everyone around me – another point of condescending adoration. I started listening to the sound of my own voice and I hated what I heard. But through it all, I begrudged my hair the most. I didn’t necessarily hate it; I could make pigtails that looked, more or less, like Bubbles’ from the Powerpuff Girls, how could you hate that? But it annoyed me because it was silly, it was cute. It was never pretty. I was never pretty.
I grew older. After chopping all my hair off, my curls never grew back quite the same way. The corkscrew ringlets were gone. Now, as if to rub it in, my hair grew in coarse, thick, twisted coils that – and I can’t stress this enough – grew up and out. While, internally, it was pretty empowering to realize my hair was akin to a mythical she-beast that was able to turn men into stone, outwardly, that was a pretty embarrassing image to convey. So, I did my best to turn that embarassment into a thick skin. I cultivated a self-deprecating sense of humor that I convinced myself was sincere until it actually became so. (Occasionally, that sense of humor has backfired on me in the form of some pretty heinous, one-sided relationships, but for the most part, I’ve learnt to own it.)
Things were worse when my family moved to Dubai. It was a different landscape, and more diversity meant more ways you could be pretty: I wasn’t pretty any of those ways. As a kid going through puberty, I got two things: my period and breasts. Like, larger breasts than a girl my height should have had. What I didn’t get was a more graceful face, or an opportunity to shed some of the baby fat. So I was pudgy. And, as someone would eventually put it, I had “gigantic jugs” at 13. My hair was still massive. The side-fringe trend swept my high school, and deciding that this could be a fix for my hair woes, I decided to steal my mother’s flat iron and began straightening just one, thick lock of my hair. It flopped disappointingly down the side of my face, but I was proud of it (I had no right to be).
At some point in high school, I decided that the solution to all my hair problems was to chop it off. So, I had my shoulder-length hair shorn up to my chin, and was pleased with the stylish bob I was given (I had no right to be). Unfortunately, the blow-dry wore off, and my hair blossomed into a majestic mushroom cloud that, you guessed it, went upwards. Luckily, the one solid my hair has always done me is that it grows extremely quickly – which means body hair is a misery – and when my hair got a bit longer-
Well, I’m not sure what happened here. Maybe God took pity on me and decided that I could use some help. Maybe it was the estrogen in my birth control pills*. But I turned 16, and the hallowed period of my life that I have christened Second Puberty took place.
Slowly, but steadily, the baby fat finally started dropping. My body suddenly evened out and while I became increasingly more top-heavy than my frame could necessarily handle, I was an actual shape. As problematic as that body-shaming mentality is, I stopped hating myself as much. I thought I was actually kind of pretty. And, most importantly, the sheer weight of my hair started weighing it down. It grew outwards, still, but not upwards.
I felt a renaissance dawning.
Suddenly, I could talk to pretty people and feel like I was holding my own. I patted my hair to make sure it was still in place. I would adorn my hair with barettes, hats (so many freaking hats), even fascinators. All I was missing was a dress just below the knees and an ascot, and I could have been off to the races!
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. I still spent an unfortunate amount of nights wracked with horror at my face. The shape of my body lent itself to an anxiety of its own, one that culminated in me flinging clothes across the fitting moon at Forever 21 or whatever unfortunate store I shopped at. Few clothes could accommodate petite with a side of curvy. I felt, still, despite the renaissance, not as pretty as the status quo. But at least my hair was the least of my problems.
Weirdly enough, that was the best thing that could have happened to me. My ambivalence towards my hair was an opportunity to let it do what it wanted to do. My hair grew longer with each passing year, and the only real dramatic change it went through was two instances of pink ombre – a childhood and, well, adulthood wish that I wanted to fulfill, and I loved it so much that I did it a second time. The only real difference in my routine was that I started caring for my hair a little more. No heat, no dying after that second time, and occasionally, a bit of argan oil. My hair appreciated this, evidently.
Here’s the thing. At some point, I realized how long my hair had gotten, and I freaked out a little. I let my hair grow out since that misguided bob, but I always just assumed my hair was short no matter what length it had gotten to. Eventually after the first couple of nights that I spent accidentally pulling my hair so hard while asleep that I woke up, I had to contend with this new reality: my hair was actually, truly, fashionably long.
And it was curly. It was curlier, truly curlier, than it had been since I lopped off my ringlets in the name of love. I was awed by this new power – power? – that I held upon my head. I could braid it, I could put it up, I could even leave it down and it wouldn’t go everywhere! And if it did, well, apparently that’s stylish! People started asking to play with my hair – not with a fever-pitch, as if frenzied by the thought of taming the beast with a flat-iron and some mousse, but because they wanted to admire it. Like an art installation, it held people in its thrall, and not even in a literal sense like with those poor flies when I was a baby! It was, and still is, an awesome feeling.
So, of course, being the superstitious South Asian that I am, I grew afraid of my hair.
If there’s one thing I’m never going to deny about my heritage, it’s that the fear of the evil eye is a valid one. Too much praise, especially masking envy, is a huge no-no. Say Mashallah, I often think at people, locking my jaw and straining to project fear-of-God unto my unassuming companion. I try to humble myself every time I have too much of a good hair day. Okay, but you forgot to go to the gym, and you said you were going to, so really, what gives you the right? One well-placed, strategic barb later, and I feel safe from the evil eye.
Anytime my hair sheds, and it sheds quite a lot, a fleeting panic makes its way through my bones. The beginning of female pattern baldness! Or hell, male-pattern baldness, what does it matter! I have to be careful about how I bind my hair at night or I’ll wake up from the sharp pain and shame of having had my hair try to commit seppuku under my elbow. At this point, I’m a little afraid that I’ll wake up with my braid coiled tight around my neck, like a particularly fuzzy, tresEMME-scented boa constrictor.
If Second Puberty was a renaissance, this is, like, baroque. Extravagant, filled with religious paranoia, and distinctly impractical. But damn it if baroque isn’t my second favorite period of art. For all that I’m afraid of it and guard it kind of jealously against the ill-wishes of the ill-intentioned, and against my own pride, I love my hair because it’s an indication of how far I’ve come . I’ve come from having cut my hair at the behest of my first love to proudly, and then apologetically, whipping it against the faces of people I love.
A huge part of me wants to donate my hair before I move to the Netherlands for my last co-op. It feels right, to pay forward the lessons I have learnt and amassed in each lock of my hair. Besides, I’m kind of curious to see how my head feels 10-inches lighter.
And, well, if my hair starts growing up and out again, I can wrangle it into place with hair smoothies and argan oil. Plus, that’s 10 fewer inches to be paranoid about. It’s a win-win.
*don’t even start with me, I needed to stop missing school because my periods were that bad
The thing about bombings and terrorist attacks is that, after a little while, it’s too easy to divorce an atrocity from the monotony of the day. The horror sits heavy on your skin like a too-thick cocoa-butter moisturizer, and it’s hard to let it sink in. But, with enough time and distraction, you get used to the weight.
That happened to me just this past weekend at the International Model NATO Conference where I was representing my university. After an overnight, nine-hour train ride from Boston to DC, I found myself sleepless and exhausted in a hotel room. I heard the news right as I lay down to take a power nap.
The power nap was my first mistake. I’ve never taken a good, worthwhile power nap in my life and certainly, this one was doomed the second I decided to scroll down my Twitter timeline. I follow a lot of Pakistani political and social commentators, and what was marked about that day was the despondency and profound sadness and exhaustion writ bare in those 140 or however many characters.
I’m not unused to being able to interpret that language. It usually means something Bad happened.
Heart-pounding, I went to Dawn, and sure enough, a massive explosion had torn through the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine. The number of lives taken and the name of the shrine took a second to hit me.
O lal meri pat rakhio bhala Jhulelalan
Sakhi Shahbaz Qalandar
Here’s the thing about Pakistanis. You can tack any Muslim label on us that you want but in our hearts, our absolute heart of hearts, we are all undeniably Sufis. We tear up listening to qawwaliyaan, we have a ferocious love for our musicians and artists, we revere poetry and dance and love itself. No matter what front the Fundos try to show you, their hearts will melt like everyone else’s over Sabri and Abida Parveen and Nusrat and Rahat.
This was a betrayal of the deepest kind. This was a betrayal of our culture, our history, our loves and lives throughout centuries of existence; more than that, it was a betrayal of 75 lives, men-women-children, who came to revel in our culture, our histories, our loves and lives throughout centuries of existence. It’s the kind of betrayal that can’t be forgiven.
We’ve all grown up listening to Dama Dam Mast Qalandar. Before I even knew all the lyrics I had an emotional connection to the qawwali. There was a visceral joy in its singing, the clapping that came along it, the family concerts that would surround the words, the often-subsequent marriage that it was contextualized in. It was important and it was necessary.
Pakistanis are used to being betrayed. Sometimes by our government, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes by the world. Music is almost a coping mechanism to that end. In troubled times, our music and art industries blossom angrily. Defiant international literary festivals, antagonistic and triumphant rock bands, scathing indie, the fusion genre that has become part and parcel of what it means to be a musician in early 21st Century South Asia, performing arts festivals – but you take that away from us and you get the wrath of a country that is simmering with rage and years’ worth of inconsolable sadness.
Our wrath is in coming back to the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine the very next day and ringing the morning bells. It’s in devotees arriving proudly to carry out their prayers. It’s in the dhamaals that continued despite the bombing. Daesh in Khorasan would not have this cultural victory over us.
Despite this tumult of emotion, I went about my day. Embassy visits, opening ceremonies, falling asleep on my own feet, I went about my day. A friend asked me if I was okay. A single friend. But that’s neither here nor there.
Eventually, thoughts of the massacre were shipped off to the backburner of my mind, unaddressed and unprocessed. A weekend followed where I pretended to be an official from a country that did not belong to me; a conference where the organizers take gleeful joy in faking crises that are often as absurd as they are horrendous; a conference where I spent more time thinking about fake dead people than I did about my very real, very dead fellow countrymen.
I trucked on. I did my best. I pushed away the creeping horror and self-awareness because I was there as part of a team. Eventually, once the bulk of my responsibility was carried out with skill and maybe some degree of reckless bravado, I found myself sitting on the floor of our hotel bathroom, crying. My roommates eventually found me and I said what I didn’t have it in me to say before: “75 people died in my country, 13 in my hometown, and I’m here, pretending I don’t give a shit about that.”
As terrible as it sounds, I needed the breakdown. I couldn’t process my grief without it. The day-to-day compartmentalization catches up to you at some point and I’m honestly lucky it happened sooner rather than later. Grief, bottled up, is more destructive than any display of anger. I was able to process the pain without too much collateral (see also: yelling at people who may or may not have deserved it) and I’m glad for that. Of course I was – I am – still sad, but I’m sad in the way that is tucked in your heart along with all the warmth and love you hold for your people. It’s the sadness that has lived like a constant ode to Pakistan from the day I realized I was one of 180 million people and a then-some diaspora. It’s the sadness that is inherent in our national anthem. It’s what makes me Pakistani for more than just my overseas citizen ID and passport.
I’ve been afraid of waking up lately, for fear of news that will hurt me. It’s the curse of living in Trump’s America as a non-resident alien (the fear of being put on a travel ban, namely) as well as the general sense of malaise I’ve had since this awful year began.
Evidently, I woke up this morning. I should have put it off.
I’m never prepared to see Lahore in the news. I was even less prepared to see Defence in the news, the neighborhood I was raised in. My family and I moved to Lahore when I was about two-years-old, and my earliest memories are of my beautiful house, my mamma’s marigolds, and the jaamun tree I was too afraid and bookish to climb. The bombing happened in the popular commercial area I had basically all my birthdays in and around. Not a week went by where we didn’t go shopping there, whether for groceries, or clothes, or pirated CDs. All my eid money was spent in those bookstores and toy-shops. My brother is in Lahore right now and the area is one of his haunts – I haven’t felt that sense of panicked “where-is-he-where-was-he” in years. The rush of nostalgia felt like bile in my throat.
And look – it’s 10:30am. I’ve been awake, in bed, trying to process for the past hour. I have an exam I’ve given up caring about in another hour, and a class after that. Invariably, I will forget about Lahore – about Y-block and Defence – and wonder why I’m so sad. Invariably, it will hit me when I least expect it and I’ll probably end up crying on someone’s couch or in a bathroom somewhere. Invariably, it will happen again.
This isn’t my first rodeo. But somewhere in the stubborn dancing, showing up to class despite my better judgment, and even in my forgetful laughter, there is resistance.
I started bullet journaling over winter break. It has been one of the better decisions I have made in the past few years, and I’ve seen the direct results of embarking on this organizational journey in my day-to-day life. I’m less anxious, more organized, I remember both short-term and long-term goals; the act of putting together my bullet journal spreads is something that soothes me immensely. I use my bullet journal to track my habits (badly), my spending (mostly retroactively), the books I read (which is awesome!), my research ideas (also incredibly useful) and to chart my goals for the coming year and how far I’ve gotten in attaining them. Part and parcel of this was deciding what I wanted the defining theme of this year to be – not a resolution (I would most definitely break that out of sheer defiance) but a broad theme under which I would operate myself.
I chose discipline and creation. Creation because that has always been a part of who I am, and discipline because I need it in order to keep at my creations. I was proud of this. I felt like “discipline” would capitalize on the momentum I had garnered the semester before – my long-awaited 4.0 semester where everything would finally fall into place and where I wouldn’t let set-backs hurt my grades. Neiha today is a far-cry from the girl who loudly proclaimed in high school that grades aren’t more important than extra-curricular activities and what you do (or the girl who wanted to be pregnant and married by the time she got to grad school, which now makes me feel crippling terror but that’s neither here nor there).
…I mean, I still believe that. I just don’t really have the luxury of functioning under that one-sided dichotomy.
I have always tried to be a good daughter. I never gave my parents any trouble, I never fought them on things, I accepted the curfews and the modi operandi of the Lasharie household knowing that once I went to college, I would need to nurture my responsibility. And I did. I stayed out late, but I always got home safe or made sure I had a couch to sleep on somewhere I was comfortable. I traveled, knowing I was responsible for my own well-being and itineraries. My parents were always okay with this, with only the occasional “Be safe!”
I did my laundry, I minimized eating out, I budgeted my spending, I filed my taxes, I looked into my credit, I applied for loans when I had to, looked at scholarships without much of a result, funded my own therapy, applied for jobs – both co-op and part-time – just so that the end result was that I could be less of a burden on my parents.
The unopened monthly billing statements are why.
My parents have told me they don’t care about my grades. They want me to be successful and happy in my ambition. But my grades are a way to prove something – “Look! Your investment is paying off!”
It wasn’t that my 4.0 was why my parents were so proud of me this past semester. It was because that 4.0 included an A in math, a subject I’ve struggled with so much that it became a family joke. We measure my success by looking at the things I struggle with and seeing to what extent I can overcome them.
I, on the other hand, being the loathsome and self-minimizing person that I am, measure my failure by looking at everything I have wanted to do but haven’t done. I have so many personal projects that I want to do, ideas I have conceived, research I want to undertake, plans I want to execute – but there’s always, always something stopping that. And yes, I know that rationally, I can’t do everything I want. And that rationally, not a big deal. I just need to discipline myself and then I can assess the extent to which all my projects can come into fruition.
But it feels like everything I want to do is being done better, faster, by other people; my peers at that. Or it feels like I’m not qualified to do the things I want to, and pretending otherwise is irresponsible. This blog is an example of the former. I’ve had this WordPress since – god, tenth grade? It’s been 7 years or so, and I still don’t have a format set up; I don’t have a reliable uploading schedule, and I don’t really have a theme apart from occasionally off-loading my opinions or existential crises. Hell, I’ve been playing with the idea of buying the domain name since Freshman year of college and I haven’t gotten around to doing that.
As ever, my conclusion is that I’m too hard on myself. But for every excuse, no matter how reasonable and justified, I have to wonder – will there ever be a perfect time where I can give justice to all my projects?
So I guess here’s a second conclusion: there is a time for everything. It will suck, and I will most definitely get bogged down by my own deficiencies, but if my goals right now are to a) give my parents a return on their investment, b) be financially independent, c) keep my mental state from fraying (again) and keep my PTSD at bay (yikes); and d) pave a way to an actionable future, then I guess I need to give this current zeitgeist of my life its due.
I’m always bitching about how it is part of the postmodern condition to reflect back on all of humanity and wonder why we don’t have a defining array of characteristics for our time, but isn’t that exactly what I’m doing? I’m experiencing the postmodern condition in the microcosm of my own life.
That’s dumb. Instead, well, I guess I’m going to try and celebrate what I am able to do by doing it to the best of my ability. Here’s to another 4.0 semester, good mental health, financial stability, and continued poems and research endeavors. The Speakeasy Symposium, personal branding and such will have to wait until I’m ready. And that’s okay.
There are days – more realistically, nights – where I’m so overcome by my own sudden, built-up anger that I don’t know what to do with myself. It’ll come entirely out of left-field, usually while I’m working, maybe triggered by a lyric in a song or something I read. Right now I’m reading about the Security Council’s action after the Syrian Civil War began and how its major weapon – language, in the form of resolutions – began to encompass addressing radicalization as a global concern. This coincided nicely with a closer listening of Everything Everything’s 2015 album Get to Heaven and this song in particular.
The entire album is a “love” letter to the general alienation the postmodern world perpetuates, especially with an eye to British politics (note that this album dropped before Brexit was a thing; very prescient), radicalization and the rise of ISIS, and just general daily disenfranchisement juxtaposed with the notion of being humans that have inexplicably set their own trajectory for a perverse evolution.
I found out one of my oldest and most loved friends has cancer. The last time I found out a friend had cancer was two weeks after she died.
I’m trying hard to get a co-op in the Hague with a bureau that works with human trafficking and sexual violence against children. It feels fitting recompense for all the bullshit I’ve had to stomach and read about over my life. Besides, it’s the Hague and it has to do with international law and global governance. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted.
My friend starts chemo the same day I have my second and final interview with the above bureau.
I have been trying to work through a lot of the anger I’ve felt especially as a byproduct of learning too much and not being able to do enough. Writing poetry helps. Working on research for my Speakeasy Symposium helps. Actually studying and being organized helps.
But somewhere in the cockles of my otherwise warm heart is a too-hot coal that suddenly cracks violently. And when that coal cracks, I become cognizant that there is an angry, angry Pakistani that aches to rail against the system and scream her discontent. And I’m relatively privileged and lucky, so what does that say about the rest of my 180 million-odd compatriots? What does that say about the millions of Americans living under the thumb of an institution that hates them? What does that say about people being, on the one hand, constantly bombarded, and on the other, constantly instrumentalized by the same people bombarding them for liberal humanitarian points?
And where does that put my good-will and desire to be a diplomat/arbitrator if I’m still pretending that I’m not always really fucking angry (sorry mamma and dadda)?
When I was studying sociology in high school I didn’t understand postmodernists all that much. All that talk of meta-narratives while painting their own meta-narrative seemed absolutely absurd to me, and I really enjoyed taking that “redundancy” down in my essays. But now? Actually living the postmodern? I think I get it.
Humanity has a long and storied and sometimes really shitty history. We have been through a lot to get to the point we’re at right now. But here’s what’s different about then and now:
We can actually look back at a good chunk of our past. We have painstakingly categorized and subcategorized the movements, zeitgeists, music, politics, craftsmanship, technology, literature, art of our past and after we got to the modern, we were stumped.
What does knowing what’s come before make us now? What does it mean when we have access to more information than we have ever had access to in the history of mankind?
It means a great deal of disillusionment. It means a lot of arguments about whether or not we have any freewill. It means a lot of nights being crippled by how much the world is. We have applied so much theory to our past that we start seeing ourselves within a framework and the effect is terrifying. We cope by meme-ification. By taking the mundane and making it absurd, we give something a universal yet temporary meaning; we make it our momentary zeitgeist, but what happens when your zeitgeist are fickle and somewhat superficial?
What happens when your zeitgeist is situated in the theatre of the absurd and someone else’s is steeped in tragedy and exploitation?
I don’t have an answer for this. All these questions aside, we’re still flawed and humans and in a hundred years they’ll have a category for us too. That’s comforting. We still make beautiful art and music and literature. We still have fascinating and infuriating politics. We still fight wars and make love, sometimes with the same hand. But to contemplate us is to stoke the anger.
Is this an anger that characterizes our time? Is this the anger of someone from a country that has Seen Some Shit?
Whose anger do I nurse in my breast, and why does she erupt when I am at my most desperate and helpless?
I will be the first to admit that I read fiction far more than I read non-fiction*. In her fairly successful attempt to make sure her children turned out to be fluent in English, my mother filled every bookshelf I ever had with books either bought firsthand, secondhand, or passed down from her own childhood. After a while, I took excursions away from my own bookshelves to secretly raid hers during afternoon naps or days she ended up staying at her school late.
I’m sure if she knew the kinds of books I was sneakily reading at the time, she would have made sure I stuck to my British schoolgirl books. Alas, for better or for worse, I got to read about Alexander the Great’s various and plentiful and certainly embellished indiscretions. And Cleopatra’s. And various other historical figures whose lives were probably not quite as exciting and scandalous as Valerio Massimo Manfredi would have you think.
One of the genres I found myself gravitating to were fantasy novels. I’ve mentioned before of my great, undying love for Tamora Pierce and how her heroines taught me to be independent and strong, but beyond just that it was the candid exploration of socio-political issues set against the backdrop of a world not quite but similar enough to my own. I was forced to put aside my own reality and consider the author’s presented universe, and to put my prejudices aside meant questioning my predispositions. No matter how young my thought process, it was a necessary experiment. As I revisited the same books over the years (or, hell, sometimes in the same year) the knowledge I’d acquired in the meantime found more nuance in the books, in the characters, picked out subplots that I hadn’t even seen before. I was able to then see the similarities between my world and that of the protagonist’s. Fantasy became a little less fantastic and a little more allegorical. Even the highest of fantasies (and, it must be said, probably the highest of authors) forced me to confront political truths in my own life. I might even go as far as to say that fantasy and fiction helped influence my politics.
As absurd as that sounds, why wouldn’t that be the case? We become so invested in fiction that the experiences of the characters we read about elicit visceral reactions from us: hatred, love, empathy, sadness, grief, thoughtfulness, sometimes even horror and a sense of overwhelmedness that requires us to physically remove ourselves from the experience.
Two words to this point: Red. Wedding. If you thought the show was bad…
Another thought to the same point. A Song of Ice and Fire/A Game of Thrones: Whether you watch the tv show, read the books, or both, we all know by the now the profound cultural impact George R. R. Martin has had on us. The New Yorker publishes think pieces about the series. We debate redemption arcs, commiserate over usually gory deaths, confront the stark reality that justice is not always served and the world doesn’t owe even the most honorable people anything and what even is honor? Moreover, the universe forces you to politick in your own mind in an attempt to keep up with the characters and mechanisms presented to you. People hypothesize, argue, posit theories in a way that political scientists should be awed and probably a little annoyed by. In fact, people have managed to apply this universe’s politicking to that of the real world. This isn’t just limited to the US, although that is the example that comes most readily to mind. I’ve seen Pakistanis identify major political actors in our own realm as Cerseis and Margaerys. As mundane and even vapid as it may seem, that is a disservice to humanity. We have seen and manifested reflections of our politics in various art forms for as long as we have had said art forms. If mass deliberation by virtue of social media is somehow less meritous (is this a word? It should be), then I’m happy to be vapid.
I watched 12 Angry Men with my parents earlier this evening. Originally, I had intended to only passively watch while tending to my farm in Stardew Valley, but somewhere between catching my largest eel yet and realizing how little hay I had to feed my chickens through the winter I realized this movie deserved my full attention. I was rapt, as were my parents, and it stood to make an emotive audience of us. We gasped, laughed incredulously, and when the movie ended we just sat in amazement. It didn’t matter that the movie was almost 60 years old, the black and white seemed a trivial thing to note; we had suspended our own notion of reality in favor of the one presented to us, and by the time we snapped back to our living room chasing the tail end of 2016 we had absorbed and harmonized the truths in 12 Angry Men with our own truths.
Or, as the case may be, our reasonable doubts.
After the movie I went and did some cursory research. As it turns out, it was the movie that influenced US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer’s decision to study law. Good call.
The beauty of being human is that we can find inspiration, motivation, drive, hope, outrage in so much. Fantasy for me, though, became a means of productive dissociation before I even knew what that meant. It forced me to confront difficult questions while maintaining the comfort of distance. When it did become a little too much for me, I could put down the book and mull everything over until I was ready to plunge myself back into the problems of my foster universe. And for a Pakistani kid – for a deeply traumatized 20-something year old college student – that kind of control is a savior.
And then when I’m ready, I can save entire worlds again.
*this does not make me better than anyone
At some point I’ll make a list of my favorite/most influential fantasy/fiction series 🙂 Currently reading the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson.