A MIND IN FULL REVOLT.
This is a post from half a decade ago, in another life. And in revisiting some of the old writing for 40Revs, I’m going back to the place where I started to break away and re-examine my assumptions. This was a Revolution, in the second meaning of the word; an actual revolt was occurring within me.
There were many reasons I arrived on these four affirmations or realizations. But that is almost immaterial now. What is true is that these ideas carried me through the dark places over and over again. And I hope those who are facing such darkness or living through it, might find something that clicks for them, that clears some of the roiling confusion, that feels like a universal or timeless truth to provide light where they sorely need it.
The original post only had the four points, but over the years I’ve expanded upon the ideas contained within and will try to add some dimension to each.
The world, the places, the people in it, the media, the songs, your friends, family and even your pet will feed you lies, at some point, almost every day. It is up to you whether you choose to believe those lies or not.
I have a love of putting ideas in weird frames, it helps me to examine them more thoroughly. The way this sentence evolved is evidence of that. This idea sank into my consciousness when I lived in Kansas City. The realization that we have a say in how we choose to represent our selves, in who we choose to be, in how we choose to live, was a newer one for me. And maybe it was a realization I could only make in the middle of America.
Self-determination is a concept alien to a mind that has been steeped in fate, destiny, and the concept of the pre-ordained “what is written” acceptance of circumstance. And here I was, starting out in my medical practice, surrounded by a most pragmatic landscape and people. On the flat plains of Kansas, it was easy enough to believe that between the vast sky above and the prairie below, there was the silhouette of a Native American warrior against the horizon, alone and singular, encountering the universe without intermediation from apostles or churches. No holy book can encompass what the impossibly tall midwestern sky has to say at dusk, when it stretches back into the past even as it pushes you into the future.
And new realities like dominoes lined up against the old, Bangladesh, Sharjah, Karachi, New York, and now Kansas City, the echoes of the previous trying to influence the next, was I a Bangladeshi, was I an Emarati? I certainly wasn’t Pakistani except my Urdu was really really good, and I had recently steeped myself in 6 years of living there, surely there was a piece of me that was Pakistani? Much to the chagrin of my new very Bengali in-laws.
My facility with English confused people, when I explained that I had lived in the US for less than five years, I realized from the perplexed looks that I was expected to carry some form of accent. I adapt too quickly, my auditory cortex has dealt with British English, Indian English, the various Indian dialects and regions, arabic, persian, filipino, lebanese, sri lankan, I can go on, from a very early age and is nimble. This is also the reason I am easily felled by Jamaican and Australia accented voices, I think. But it is also why my original Indian English only comes out when talking with friends with the same, why the British clipping inserts itself when I’m mad, and why I have no discernable giveaway as to being a foreigner. Except that is for my face. And skin.
Oh don’t get me started on skin. My parents are from Bangladesh and my mother is unusually fair skinned for the region, while my father’s skin is an ebony found commonly in North Africa. Our Lebanese friends, ever the cosmopolitan Francophiles, referred to my sister and I as Cafe au Lait. I got a little less creamer than my sister, and oh the silliness that ensued. Bengali social events are not complete without Aunties commenting upon your complexion, tut-tutting over your suitability for ….something, you’re really not sure what at the time… some going as far as to say, well, at least she’s smart. And even when you do sweep the “O” Levels with nearly as many “A”s as you have digits on both hands, the logical fallacy is again reinforced. She’s not pretty so she’s very studious. Your cousins back home in Bangladesh when you go back for summer break are shocked to find out you have a personality, they’ve heard about your gargoyle-like intensity at studying and have been brow-beaten to hold your achievements as some sort of example to follow. Your late teens are a purgatory of many shades for such reasons.
So here I was being told by my culture, my family, the world really, that because of where I came from, what I had done, where I had lived and who my ancestors were, that I was given a few set categories that I could belong to and never was that more stringent a demand than in the United States. For if I was brown I was either an immigrant with little understanding of American culture or born and acculturated here. I of course was neither. I had idolized the Fonz on grainy Channel 33 from Saudi Arabia, loved the Muppets and Tom and Jerry cartoons were stored in the part of my pre-frontal cortex labeled “Nutritious Junk”.
I had to tell myself then that I had to resist all these ideas as if they were lies I was being told. These ideas were snake oil, a product I didn’t need and didn’t want, but was being pushed into buying. So it got to where I even got suspicious of cats. Which, really, wasn’t that far off the truth was it? A cat will eat you out of thousands of dollars of gourmet cat food one year and then turn around and daintily walk over to the neighbor’s trash can, having forgotten it all; the about face so abrupt as to make you doubt your own sanity.
I decided slowly that I couldn’t really blame the cat, after all, the cat was merely doing it’s Cat Thing. I could however, learn not to fall for, or better yet, recognize the feline Jedi mind trick, and retain my sanity. And so that’s what I did.
2. Courage is an every day miracle.
I think this can be attributed to the experiences of being a doctor. And not just any doctor, but a pediatrician, and a hospitalist.
I got to see families and patients in the most stressed experiences of their lives. A Children’s Hospital is really a concentrating mechanism for the tragic and the heroic elements of the human experience, coming together and demanding their pound of fortitude.
Courage. I saw it every day, and it was sometimes the only thing I had to bring to the occasion as well, my own courage in play when facing a situation that made me want to run screaming from the room.
Courage was the elderly retired couple who adopted a toddler, beautiful older black gentleman and his wife, who spent their nights in uncomfortable chairs, until the morning the child woke up. My toddler was around the same age, and all I felt was tired, spent, exhausted; a soul-depleted tiredness that was about to get a crash course in courage. And I still remember their beatific smiles when this little boy woke up and recognized them and they proceeded to tell me about all the wonderful active toddlerish, read: whirling dervish, things they were hoping to get him back to doing.
And a crack appeared in my tiredness, my shame was mixed with awe, and seeped out of my heart. I was ashamed of doing the zombie walk when all I had to do was to allow the beauty and joy, that already existed in my home and slumbered while I worked, access to reach in and grab my paralyzing fear like a Tonka truck and smash it to pieces.
The connection between the sublime and the mundane became clearer to me. Courage wasn’t going to be found on a mountaintop somewhere. It was going to manifest itself only through diligent application, a slowly accrued lacquering rather than an ice pick at the summit. And this courage would be found in smaller pieces throughout the day, the week, the years and decades.
3. Imagination is everything. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it.
This was also the time I reached out to understand what this writing bug was about. I had abandoned it during residency, having convinced myself that my narrative had no place, or was too common place. It was always one or the other, with no concept of how those two things contradicted each other. And where at first I’d believed that writing was about the words, about being good with them, about language and technical skill, talent and inspiration, I was beginning to notice that imagination, the capacity to conjure up new possibilities was actually the major roadblock. I wrote a piece for a writing workshop that was deemed ‘like Jhumpa Lahiri’ and I was mortified, even as I felt vindicated that I wasn’t a total fraud. I didn’t want to write like anyone else, I wanted to write like me. I had written like me my entire life. I had written in my mind’s eye on long car rides through the cold desert nights, my reflection blending with the dunes and starlight. Entire sentences, thoughts, fragments, neologisms, thought acrobatics, my brain was loud and spilled over into the backs of Arabic textbooks, doodles and odes and dialogue competing with the more serious studying. I knew how to disappear into a book, entire summers had been felled by Victor Hugo and Tolstoy, and the stories had formed a skin over the long stretches of reality in the deserted kingdom. I had answered the phone in character a few times, and felt the disorientation of having to resume speaking in my own voice. I had scaled mountains and run corporations, fallen in love and had my heart broken, risen from the ashes to exact vengeance and died a few ignoble and many noble deaths.
But what I was afraid of most, was to declare myself a writer. First there was the lack of formal training, then there was the years spent studying medicine. It became the incomprehensible wall I needed to scale with a distinct lack of permit or map.
This was when being in the US, walking into bookstores with endless shelves, cathedral like spaces of hushed reverence and knowledge, entirely missing from my childhood and young adulthood, saved me. I found Zadie Smith, Stephen King, Michaels Ondaatje and Chabon and countless others, who wrote about their own journeys into this place, and demystified it for me. I realized when reading King’s On Writing, that I didn’t need to wait for permission. I remember the exact moment I looked up from that sentence and realized how stupid it had been to think I did. Stephen King, for that I am grateful. Ondaatje answered my questions of how to write from a place of displacement with a nonchalant, almost dismissive but kind, you write from where you stand, where you stand is the place, smashing years of angst over whether I was an Indian writer in English, or whether I was an American writer of Indian origin. Inconveniently, I was neither. And Zadie, my soul sister, broke down the narrative walls and wrote new stories that had never been told before.
All of them demonstrated that there was no map. Or rather, if you were serious, you made the map up as you went along. Taking care to draw grand caricatures of the mysterious monsters that inhabited the depths between the worlds of your own creation. Imagination really was everything. And I would have to imagine my way out of this place of self-conscious examination, and imagine my way into the places I wanted to visit. As my son plays Minecraft on his iPad next to me in bed on a Sunday morning, the irony of this realization is deafening.
4. You are always, always going to outstrip your own expectations.
Lastly, I think this is testament to my experience of looking back and realizing that I invariably have set the bar too low for myself every time. My own expectations for myself have been short-term, paltry, never able to imagine that I would actually achieve the things I set out to do. It was a little mind game I realized. I would set the achievement of said goals into the nebulous future, and the urgency would be lost. And so I’d never move any closer or I’d get bored, convinced I was not up to the challenge. It took me a while to realize that there was a level of self-sabotage at play here. And for many psychological reasons we do this, mainly because we are afraid to become these other people.
Our rates of growth right now are so rapid, that yes, I am a different person today than I was 10 year ago. It is partially the rate at which the technology we use rewires our brains and perceptions, even as it pushes our capabilities to grow exponentially.
Did I, back in 1998, not even 20 years ago, when I was accessing a rudimentary internet in a small closet in a dusty little prefab structure on a college campus in Karachi, the pinging of the modem deafening me even now, imagine myself right here, doing what I am doing right now, my words traveling effortlessly through the air and onto a screen?
Of course not. And I think that is the modern paradox of being alive in 2015, that our expectations, our own conceptual frameworks, our very ability to see into the future, is significantly broken. And it’s broken because we are in the midst of building something far bigger than we can conceive of right now. Again, no map and no permission. And so expectations no longer carry the heft of markers in the road, solid and heavy. They are ephemeral notions that will morph and change, rent and manifest, shape-shift rapidly in the air. They will become clouds and we, cloud readers.
These are the thoughts that propel me forward-leaning into the future. For there lies hope and change. The only reason we can audaciously propose to hope, is that there is always a tomorrow. Even if this building falls down around my ears today, there will be a tomorrow where I pick up and move forward. Even as today seems to burn and anger rages through the world, tomorrow is a chance to cool off and reconsider.
Even as the earth gets ready to eject us wholesale as a species off her crust, an infestation she is tired of, she will still be here tomorrow, even if we aren’t.
Life always goes on.