Doing Something Does Something

an overthinker toys with action

Don't just do something, sit there!

This phrase finally dethrones ‘Hey there! I am using WhatsApp’ as my status.

I love quirky flips of language. In contrast to the hustle culture around me, this feels like appealing advice. Without verifying if it suits me, I hold it up as my digital banner.

'Sitting There' has been my privilege and passion for a very long time. I sit for hours. In front of screens, and also without any gadgets in my hand. I close my eyes or prop my face on my palms and sit still. It looks like I am meditating or cogitating, but my mind is buzzing at 12000 RPM. I am overthinking the fuck out of something. Juicing it, grinding it, squeezing out every thought that could arise about a person or a situation. I apply journalistic rigour to my overthinking: what? why? who? when? where? and how? If I have a bright idea, my fearful thoughts kidnap it. I think until I lose sleep and my sense of safety.

Any addictive behaviour seems harmless - until it repeats itself - and weaves a polyester pattern that can strangle a life. How do I move forward with 6 suitcases of thoughts, 2 backpacks of fears, and 1 steel trunk of trauma? Instead of channelizing emotions into projects, I analyze them and paralyze myself. Instead of facing problems head-on, I research them. I make a database of solutions before trying any one of them. My mind is Buzzfeed, full of listicles. Things I have to *nail*, places I *must* visit, friends I would *die* to have - #squadgoals. But lists are not maps, and maps are not shoes, and the costliest shoes do not take the first step by themselves.

One day, I wake up on the anxious side of the bed. I am ridiculously certain it is one of those neverending bad mental health days. In the dull afternoon, I pop a raw mango seed into my dal. I play Barso by Ritviz at tea. I dance a little. My mood shifts without my permission.

I am surprised. It is not therapy or meditation, but small summerly acts that uplift me. It's the first time I believe it: doing something has power. It reminds me of Mark Manson's 'Do Something Principle' that I had stuck on my wall a week back. I walk up to it and scribble in full agreement, 'Doing Something Does Something'. Something is a random word, but it comes to life here. It is a break from my ‘All or Nothing’ mindset.

I grew up around workaholics. Neglected by them as a child, I promised to be different. As a young adult, I watched activists and entrepreneurs worship action. They dismissed the beautiful abstract ideas and emotions that drive poetry and cultural movements. This obsession with action repulsed me.

When I see people run around in a motorized society, I wonder if they ever stop to think. I see teachers teach year after year without reflection. I notice artists who never take sabbaticals to fill their inner well. I hear YouTubers apologize for taking breaks from their posting schedule. Capitalism creates 'the compulsive doer' and then alienates her. Burnout spreads like forest fire.

This makes me averse to the insistence on action. But like everything else, I am yet to personalize it. I want to find my own method of acting. Luckily, bullet journaling chops the huge watermelons of my action into smaller edible pieces. I realize the need for baby steps, as a struggling adult. It is ironic how the educator in me dislikes teaching methods that don't use activities. Then why do I expect myself to learn without action?

A post shared by @raju_tai

As a writer, I have taken so long to conclude that physical labour at the desk is more fruitful than mental maths. I write more when I scribble, freewrite, doodle, mind-map, walk, than when I ‘think’ the piece up in my head.

I notice how the tiniest actions - writing the date on a blank page in Fuschia ink, clearing the fridge, reading out a poem like Amitabh Bachchan - change the course of a day. These actions are not found in books or blogs. I need to discover them. Unpredictable, innovative, small, and seasonal actions become the next best food offering for my life cravings. I need to be present and embodied with intuition to find and complete these acts of will, without any force or rush. I need to ask and not nag myself into action.

I know that starting things is an art. But I never imagine I can start before addressing every single concern or apprehension. I learn from my sister how it is wiser to resolve fears through action and not before it. I learn from my friend Sneha, that I can choose to play with projects, to hide less and seek more, to do more guessing than passing my turn. I can take long shots, be up close with fear, on the field, instead of turning the bench into a throne of resentful inaction.

In anxiety, blood rushes to the hands and legs of the anxious person. Action engages my sore limbs. It promotes my body from ‘Tupperware Container of the Brain’ to ‘Active Collaborator’. Action lifts me like a pulley from the pit of self-pity.

There is this big action that I have been hiding from, for the past year. I could not allow myself to publish this essay without taking my first step towards it. So I did it. And surprise! It felt…good.

I and action have a long way to go. Right now, I treasure the shift from waiting for a jazzy mood to do something, to doing something and arriving at the jazzy mood achanak se!


On Action:

A post shared by @mattsurelee
  1. A tool I’ve used (thrice) for humble beginnings: The Tiny Habits Program

Breaking Up with Your Favourite Subject

when your mind needs more answers

"What's your favourite subject?"

Kids get this question all the time. I wonder why it is rarely posed to adults. I guess it gets replaced by the more practical "What do you do? (so that I can appropriately judge you..)"

Anywho. Let's say you asked me that question. I would announce, "Sociology!". The study of society is my absolute favourite. At least it was, until recently.

It has been 9 years since I completed a B.A. in Sociology. I remember how it swept me off my feet when I was planning to do a polite B.A. in English Literature. I remember how the sunlight fell on my Sociology teacher's beautiful hands. She was describing the layered structure of societies. Within a year of Sociology 101, I could make sense of 18 years of anguish. I could answer questions I had carried for years. I spoke to my friends into the night about how our society is, and how it could be. I felt sure it will teach me more about poetry than what a degree in literature could.

I was in love. I immersed myself in understanding power and patriarchy, capitalism and caste society. Sociology introduced me to my future spaces of work. I used a sociological lens for years after graduation. It aided me in writing my master’s thesis on love and feminism, researching media consumption, working in the education sector.

It was when I started mixing sociology with social media, that things started to change.

First, it was thrilling. I felt electrified to connect with people based on shared opinions about our society. It was like being back in the classroom. Except it was nothing like a classroom. The more I discussed social issues on social media, the more I felt disconnected from myself.

Sociology taught me social justice and empathy. It taught me sociological imagination, the art of putting myself in the shoes of others. I learned and practiced this, never stopping to understand my own roots, to ground myself in my own shoes. It gave me tomes and theories to understand society, but little to make sense of my first social unit, my family. It refused to help me understand my inner world. I could not understand the teeming society of voices in my head. I could not even recognize the way I dominate weaker parts of myself and ostracise them every day.

At some point, my mind and body started hurting, my pain and anxiety reared their ugly heads. But my favourite discipline refused to answer my questions. I had no clue why people could be both kind yet cruel, privileged and yet excluded, rich and yet suffering. What to do with paradoxes...how to attend to that which is not social...which is so personal that it is anti-social...questions of shame and sorrow...questions that need philosophical and poetic answers... - I asked and asked, sociology kept mum.

After studying the outward society, it was time to go inward. I could see the cost of neglecting psychology and biology. I wish I knew the history of the human species. I wondered about the many people in the social sector who could be so abusive behind doors. They could act like messiahs and issue speeches and rants about the ills of society. But they never worked with their own shadows, the sadistic parts of themselves. They routinely hurt others to gain power. I didn't want to be like that, a social crusader who rots inside. It was time to disconnect from my favourite subject.

Since half of the women in our country don’t even have access to Higher Ed, this break-up seemed dramatic and unnecessary. Yet it was sad, like losing a person. I worried I will lose the gifts of sociology. I will probably lose friends who shared this love for social justice.

Desperate, I asked sociology, "Can we still be friends?". For my survival and growth - I asked sociology to scoot a little. I made space on my mental couch. For holistic psychology, for the biology of the mind-body connection, for poetry and philosophy, for home science. I need more than one lens to understand this world, to go outside in and inside out. I need more shelves and sections for my inner library. Maybe you too have had to do this kind of reorganization.

So is that also why they don't ask “What's your favourite subject?” to adults? Because those who have truly grown up will insist on a multidisciplinary way of learning life.


Some Words Wriggling in My Mind:

  1. “Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma in a people looks like culture.” - Resmaa Menakem on On Being

  2. “Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion, it is a state of the mind.” - Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

  3. On the interrogation of your darkness -

  1. Just the headline of this news report: At Agra mental health institute, no one forgets to wear mask — even patients with dementia

  2. In this video, the author of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman talks about the three kinds of focus — self, other and outer — as a new approach to education.

On Loss

Making space for all sizes of grief

Loss is everywhere. People have lost their sense of smell and taste, the healthy fabric of their lungs to the disease. Communities have lost their jobs and businesses. We have lost out on collective experiences of arts and sports. We miss warm hugs from friends and smiles from strangers in the bazaar. These losses might seem trivial, definitely more tolerable but add to the mountain of loss. In 1976, Elizabeth Bishop wrote her famous poem about the art of losing things. She could not have predicted that there will be an era dedicated to it.

I have lost two people during the pandemic. They were not family, but solid characters from my childhood. I lost my neighbour M Uncle last year. He would crack PJs in a Bengali accent and taught me Physics when I was a teenager. For two years before the pandemic, I would bump into him at the gate. 'Ki Re?' he would ask, and I would smile in answer.

Another person I lost was my old neighbour Ru Tai. I have spent about a hundred afternoons with her. She would paint my nails and toes. Then, taking my little chin in her hand, she would apply a little rouge. A little lipstick. On so many Saturdays, she would make cones with old milk packets and fill them up with a thick, green henna paste. She would design Mehendi on my palms, which would quiver until she asked me to keep them still. The next morning, the henna dried up. I would run upstairs, and she would apply black tea and sugar syrup to it - to intensify the colour of the henna. She would be glad to see my palms - an intricate mix of red and beige. To have her fade from the world, like henna, has been tough.

I didn't know the place these people held in my heart until I lost them. Background characters keep the background warm. Their disappearance made holes in the fabric of a fond childhood, the fabric that keeps slipping away anyways.

People have lost far more. They have lost dearer people to the pandemic. The inequality of our losses is painful. I have difficulty imagining the entirety of their situation. I am riddled with the fear of loss, like many.

A black hole tears a star apart, leaving a long string of star material, which then wraps itself around the black hole. Credit: NASA / CXC / M. Weiss via phys.org

What I find peculiar is how loss re-introduces someone back to our minds. I dreamt of M Uncle the week he passed. I keep seeing Ru Tai in my mind's eye, while doing the dishes or while reading an article.

Before the pandemic, I feel the world had not lost its innocence entirely. Even then, death would often introduce me to someone. I had not known Nicanor Parra, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anthony Bourdain before the day they passed. Obituaries are strange places to discover someone amazing for the first time.

What would Emily Dickinson write about, were she alive in 2021, in India? Death is no longer the mysterious hero of poetry. It is someone who is arriving everywhere at all times and claiming people who had many years to live. I used to complain how death is an out of syllabus question. Now I wish it had remained so. Children are having to confront it way too early. Social media feeds are piling with love-filled RIP posts. People are bringing the dead alive through anecdotes and old photographs. They are being beautifully public about their regrets and realisations about the person, and in turn, about themselves.

It is almost as if (and this is both hopeful and cynical) the loss of a person reintroduces us to the gifts they offered to our world.

In huge losses, we gain access to hidden love.

When we cry or sulk after receiving these pieces of bad news, small or big, we are not losers, we are simply grieving a loss. And that is important work.


Two Poems on Loss

Grim→Gory→Grip→Grounding

after hope, before helping

It is a pleasant morning, a muskmelon and homemade chiwda morning. I think of checking the news. I have been away from news for good chunks of time since the past year, and the few times I checked the news, it would fill me with dread. Today is no different. I see the death toll, records being broken, people dying without treatment, sometimes without being tested even. And it's not like the other tragedies - the sexual and domestic violence stop for the pandemic. The casteist professors and the misogynist writers still continue oozing their poison.

Things are grim. And we make them gory for ourselves, by checking one more video, another post, scouting for who is angrier than the rest of us, who is shouting out on our behalf, and what is happening in other countries - who is being cancelled and who is being celebrated. By seeking information that could further paralyse us, through sadness, inadequacy, comparison or fear - by outsourcing our genuine rage to the loud voiced all caps critics, by clicking on red and orange coloured videos that have haunting background scores to news of post election violence - we are ensuring the grim becomes the gory, the darkness gets dirtier and our eyes stop seeing the good things for good, the handful of things worth living for - no these things are not in the news, not on our screens, but they are there in your colony, your backyard, your kitchen and you - you are the good thing in this grim grime of greasy times.

Get a grip, they say. I have never had grip. Never held my cello gripper at the rubber grip, never used the ridges on my toothbrush, the flattened space on my broom, the safe thumb area on my knife. I have never optimised my posture for perfromance, never held my things, my heart included, with much grip. I am just now starting to protect my thumbs from being sliced with onions, holding my pen so that my hand doesn't hurt from venting on paper. I am learning to hone my grip on my mind and body - all at once - by having a grip on their favourite child - the breath. I try to grab my breath when I lose grip over the earth rotating a bit too fast, the numbers of death adding every rotation.

To those of us who are XXS - extra extra sensitive, our nerve endings are at the mercy of a world on fire. When things were alright, people were fairly alive and cancer was the only deadly C word, sensitive people were still doomed to carry the pain on their skin, their senses were triggered by conflicts of all kinds, along with the shrill drilling noise, the smell of dumping yards, the touching on local trains. Now, sensitive people are hurting a lot more. The apathy of the government towards migrants is as painful for them as their own family ka endangered health, not being able to wash all the utensils properly troubles them. Each problem hurts equally. The pain adds up and overwhelms.

But hold on. XXS sensitive people are also XXL people - extra extra loving. Not just loving their people, but extra love for nature, for tea, for soothing touch and pleasant fragrances. For XXS + XXL people, the world can be delightful if their eyes learn to focus. On the Sikhs, the artists, the teachers, the doctors - offering their beautiful humanity to a sick world. On those tiffin providers whose stories get hidden by the algorithms. On friends who check in when they hear your city is especially distressed. On the person in the mirror - who is handling domestic, mental, physical and emotion hygeine all alone, who is practicing a wild love for life, and words, and art - so what if she falls and fails a bit every day.

My heart’s candle, Gabor Maté insists on the need to channelize our sensitivity. Sensitive people, he says, if encouraged, serve a guiding role in our world. Thomas Hübl says it is not sensitivity that is the problem. It is the lack of grounding. I seek grounding. My White House is lovely. It is safe. But it is still an urban space lifted above the ground. Far from the brown and emerald moistness that gives us life. I will have to seek grounding somewhere else. The body? The present moment? The five super active senses? Yes. I will have to ensure good music, fresh food, enlivening smell, sunlight, soft chaadar - even if the world is hurting, and especially because it is hurting.

To use these sweaty palms

to have a grip on the sick world's wrist,

to keep oneself afloat on its tide,

and grounded through its storm,

to be well masked

and yet our tired tender self,

to try hard for vaccination,

harder to keep sane,

and to be only as kind

as humanly possible,

isn't that all we can do?

On Hope

my life jacket for the second wave

One of the most rewarding acts of writing last year was drafting and shipping this letter on corona anxiety to all of you. It gushed out of me in one go. It felt original, and yet borrowed some language from my favourite poets. Despite the distance between our screens, I felt like I could truly reach out to you.

As I write this, the first essay of a new season of Evolving and Enough, the surging second wave of covid is proving to be one strange phenomenon. I put my fingers to the keyboard to reconnect with you, but I don't know where to begin.

Are you okay? Maybe we could start here. Are you okay, and is everyone you love okay?

Just like last time, I was acting and reacting to the news earlier than many. It has been 11 days since I got out of the house. In December, while the pandemic had calmed down, I moved to a big city. I have rented what I call ‘The White House’ as all the walls and doors and curtains here are white. Vanilla white. It is airy and well-lit all day, and I have not missed my neighbourhood walks too much.

It has also been 9 days since I got to know my family is covid positive back home. I cannot see them, and hence I am never sure of what to do with my worrymeter. I am trying my best to keep it down, but it screeches at times.

I have dealt with this fear of losing loved ones many times before the pandemic as well. I would imagine road accidents and great big falls from staircases. I would try to squeeze these images out of my mind by squeezing my eyes shut. But they returned. When I tried to distract myself to save myself from their pain, I felt guilty. Not attending to these images felt like betraying my concern for these people.

What released me out of this misery was acknowledging the layered love I felt for these people, and forgiving my brain for its poor but well-intentioned effort to 'prepare' me for this inevitable reality. What magically reduced the frequency of such fear ridden images was visualising the opposite: my father returning from his work travel, a bit tired but unharmed; my aunt calling me for lunch, still a bit judgy, but alive. These images were as/more possible as the worst ones my brain could imagine.

I tried this kind of a visualisation this week. Post covid, my family will still continue their intense love affair with work. They will run around, stopping only to eat and watch Marathi TV. They will say random things at random times. They will laugh and be silly, especially after dinner, and while eating supari. This counter imagery has been c a l m i n g. The more I imagined them as who they are when they are alive and healthy, the more I heard their voices nudging me to go back to my desk, to continue reading and writing, to not sit down with my worrymeter.

My brain still pops a few questions and scary images now and then. But carefully converting each and every one of my .worry files to .hope files has prevented my system from crashing.

For people who read the news, know a thing or two about the messed up state of the world, people who have a grasp on the ills of our society and the extra hits it is taking with this pandemic and its multiple waves, hope doesn't come easy. Hope has never been easy for the intellectual, analytical, political selves we have cultivated. Cynicism is that bowl of Triple Schezwan Rice that we have forever feasted on, in hostels and at the campus quadrilaterals. Even as adults, we carry it around and distribute it like candy. Cynicism sells with anger and fear and titillation. Hope is too bland. Hope is risky affair. It means you will be a complete loser if things go another way.

In hope, however, my mind found some victory. I am now hopeless about finding ways other than hope. It informs my writing and teaching. Hope has become a way to pray without a god, a tool to practice compassion, a creative act of curating detailed duas for my loved ones and the world. Hope is delicious in its simplicity, and yet a nuanced antidote to fear and hate. I hope that hope is forever my politics, my confidence, my superpower.

Now, I don't know if you are okay and if everyone you love is okay. But with the bottoms of my being - I hope you are. I hope you will be.


Three lovely quotes on hope:

“Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.” - Maria Popova on Brain Pickings via On Being

“Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Jonathan Lear describes as “imaginative excellence.” Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible.” - Junot Diaz in a letter to his niece after the 2016 US elections

“Choosing hopefulness is holding out the possibility of change. It’s living with one foot in the mud and muck of the world as it is, while another foot strides forward toward a world that could be. Hope is never a matter of sitting down and waiting patiently; hope is nourished in action, and it assumes that we are—each and all of us—incomplete as human beings. We have things to do, mountains to climb, problems to solve, injuries to heal. We can choose to see life as infused with the capacity to cherish happiness, to respect evidence and argument and reason, to uphold integrity, and to imagine a world more loving, more peaceful, more joyous, and more just than the one we were given—and we should. Of course we live in dark times, and some of us inhabit even darker places, and, yes, we act mostly in the dark. But we are never freer as teachers and students, citizens, residents, activists and organizers, and artists and thinkers than when we shake ourselves free and refuse to see the situation or the world before us as the absolute end of the matter.” - Bill Ayers in his book Demand the Impossible! - A Radical Manifesto


Speaking of Worrymeters and Anxiety…

My essay on bullet journaling and anxiety appears in the collection ‘Anxiety’, co-authored by Amrita Tripathi and Kamna Chhibber. :)

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