Dearest Lorenzo,

The etymology of the words ‘Rise’, ‘Over’ and ‘Run’ are interesting, though we must keep in mind that it is only English we are dealing with (for now) and words have different journeys in different languages.

As someone who dreams of someday building furniture and uses metaphors involving chairs and tables often, the word rise has old English origins one of which points to ‘getting up from table’. It is beautiful and one of my favourite etymologies to date. Over is a well-traveled one from old English to old German which points to meanings such as ‘above’, ‘beyond’, ‘across’, and sometimes also as a ‘sense of an ending or conclusion’. With the word run, the notion of ‘flowing’ keeps resurfacing.

I go x, you go y. (Cartesian Plane)

I must confess that this is a strange project. Rise over Run reminds me of my days in high school mathematics and the Cartesian plane and the coordinates on the y-axis and the x-axis and how much fun all that was and how much easier everything is when you are fortunate to have good+kind teachers and guides and are surrounded by people who are curious. In my life, for the most part, I’ve been very wealthy in that regard. I’m also thinking about mountains and valleys. They’re all about rises and runs and if we want to keep climbing fresh mountains then we must keep descending into the valleys. Sometimes it is nice to be at rock bottom because you know it can only get better from there. I’m also thinking about bread making and the importance of air assisting the rising of bread and how we talk about falling in love but not rising in it, which would probably also work just as well.

Rainer M. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet are also close to the top of my mind. Do you know of them? It is one of the most beautiful artifacts I’ve ever come across. Surprisingly it was after an accident that involved a truck, a highway, my bicycle, and a rescue. But I won’t get into that here. But I would remind you of something important. You are a young poet. I hope you feel that way. You are also an old poem. An extension of a longer, more ancient poem.

With this project you’re asking me to write you a letter but with the knowledge that this letter will be shared publicly. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that. It isn’t quite like the Letters of Note or Post Secret or the Strangers Project or _________ but a cousin of those. We’re still in the middle of these things and it isn’t always the best idea to try and shine a light on things that you are in the middle of. When I think of struggles, I’m reminded of cocoons that butterflies and moths emerge from. Attempting to help them out may cause irreparable damage. It is one of the bridges they must cross on their own. And yet.

The word ‘suffer’ in Urdu means journey.

The late Dr. Oliver Sacks, one of my favourites, used to make carbon copies of his letters. I’m tempted to do that with my correspondences because being able to search through the words written by former me is sometimes a relief but usually agony. A friend of mine told me a beautiful story once of their deceased parent leaving behind a box of letters for different chapters of their life. Another of the homevideos one of their parents left behind for similar crossroads in life. Almost as if they knew about the intersections their child would be at in the future. Letters are one of the most intimate forms of expressing yourself. They truly are and I’ve written more letters in the past two years than any other year. So it seems appropriate to be writing one to you now.

Writing this piece has been difficult. More difficult than I could have possibly anticipated when I started. I’ve written, re-written, composed, re-composed, sauteed, minced, cooked, grilled, fried, and baked it over and over again since you first asked me to write it so so so many full moons ago. But it is time now to drop this in the mailbox and move on. To stop resisting that it is done.

Which brings me to one of my struggles, expression. Being precise with my words. Writing is difficult even though I’ve been practicing these muscles all my life, because I think it is easier to compose something impressive rather than something true. It is one of the most difficult things to be honest with your work and in your work because we’re all emotional illiterates. It isn’t something we talk about in our classrooms. But if we can, even momentarily, make someone feel less alone and have them see a bit of themselves in ourselves then, perhaps, we’ve succeeded. I do enjoy believing that everyone we meet is an alternate version of ourselves.

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet one of my favourite writers and give him a big hug. He was giving a talk at this wonderful conference where I’d somehow finagled my way into. One of the slides during his talk was a ‘Poetry Break’ slide. So I’ll take a tiny poetry break here to tell you about one of my favourite poems (by one of my favourite poets, ANIS MOJGANI) which is aptly titled:

Mama: A thing that has difficulty breathing

There is a tiny slip of paper I received as a present one year which is posted on my bedroom wall which says, ‘Just breathe.’ It is important to remember to. There are lots of bodily functions which, thank goodness, are automated. The muscle we call the heart pumping blood with our vessels as one of the most elaborate railway systems delivering oxygen and nutrients, our eyes blinking when they need to, so much so much. But breathing is something I sometimes need to remind myself to keep doing. Particularly on long and difficult days when the shadows seem larger and more menacing. It is mostly my imagination visiting some of the wilder regions. I’ve got it under wraps these days/seasons.

How do I not compare my insides with the outsides of other people? Or the beginning of my path with the middles or ends of other people’s journeys? How do I be an accurate mirror for myself or surround myself with those who can be honest mirrors for me? Will I ever feel like the word grace shall apply to me? How do I feel worthy enough? How do I keep improving? Is this the most important or meaningful project I could be investing my time and attention into? Important and meaningful for who? How do I be open to being better at loving or being loved? How do I make sure that my heroes are not solely from the West? Why don’t I know enough poets, dead or alive?

What we regret most are failures of kindness. I’m reminded of this over and over and over again. In car conversations with old teachers of mine, by my parents, by strangers I meet at bus stops and more and more. How could I have been kinder? To others, of course, but also to myself. I’m better at one of these things and sometimes it comes at a heavy cost.

Slowly, slowly, and this is probably the biggest challenge for me right now is attempting to build a life that reflects my values and satisfies my soul. Am I delusional somedays to be so content with simultaneously having so much and so little? How do I invent my own life’s meaning? Is that allowed? I know I will be happier for having gone through the trouble. But this part right now is more difficult than it appears, trying to live in the moment, setting yourself up for the future, continuing negotiations and relations ongoing with your past selves. Three very different timezones for some of us.

A few years ago, there were a series of unfortunately fortunate incidents, that got me thinking about these things. About researching and asking questions more intentionally. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to begin to design my life in a way that lets me conduct annual research projects on themes like Happiness, Home, and Health. They’re all works-in-progress and part of a ten-year-study. I haven’t arrived at too many answers but it sure has been interesting and the questions are getting better. We’ll see what it all adds up to: hopefully, a good life.

A friend of mine who lost their child to leukaemia wrote to me in a parting email,

“As you notice already life is simultaneously perfect and difficult. Keep your positive way, there is no option.” He also wrote that by the time I encountered any problems, I’d have the training I’d need to deal with it because of the people I’ve already met and the books that I’d read. I don’t think about that often but it has been a lot of people and books in the last long while.

the Ensō

One of the symbols I associate with you Lorenzo, because of the last four letters of your name, and we’ve talked about this before, briefly, is the Ensō. It is a symbol from Zen Buddhism meant to express a moment of enlightenment, a moment of being in the zone, a moment when you can feel the weight is light. I came across it at the only tattoo parlour I’ve ever been to, to photograph someone who had it between their shoulder blades. They were getting a tattoo of birds flying out of an open cage. It was meant to represent the importance of being on solid ground themselves before attempting to help someone else steady themselves. Sometimes you have this brief moment of clarity or truly discover a place or time when you are home or performing at your best and it feels like so much is going for you. Part of the struggle is continuing to operate from that place even when I’m not there. When you get better at being able to operate from that place, I think, the struggle changes to expand this moment into a platform or a trampoline and invite others to (temporarily) join you. Something like that.

How can I be the wind in someone else’s sails, the anchor to someone else, the steady ground when by my own perception, there are so many days when I feel like my feet are on unsteady/sinking land? Which are the values, cultures, traditions that we immigrated with which are worth holding on to, fighting for, and which ones need to be updated or refreshed? What crimes am I complicit in committing by virtue of ignorance or silence? Is there a way to solve a problem or find a solution to one problem without contributing to another problem? Why do some people think that following their dreams is a shortcut to hard work? How do I stop judging others? How do I stop my devolving into a snob? Why does my lower back hurt so much? Are these concerns or struggles making any sense anymore? How do I encapsulate the true essence of a person in a feature-length documentary? How do I help provide context to this piece of land we call home when it turns 150 next year?

There is a beautiful book by the writer Italo Calvino called Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo tells the ageing emperor:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Life is not meant to be easy, it isn’t supposed to be a liberating experience in and of itself, it is meant to be lived. This means a lot of things: figuring out which questions are worth asking, of all the thoughts you are capable of thinking, which ones are worth dedicating your finite amount of time and attention to. There is a lot of character to be found and built in our struggles, by developing callouses, recognizing this inferno, helping those who are combatting it. There are certain sadnesses and struggles which are essential to having lived a full life, most of those are still ahead of me, I feel. A few of them are behind me and I haven’t really written about those here and maybe someday another letter will cover them but not this one, not today.

Yes, we are running and, hopefully, we are rising. But perhaps it would be better to be walking. Most of the times we find ourselves in trouble, at least in my case, is because of moving too quickly. We must try to keep in mind what we are rising towards. Growth for the sake of growth, uninhibited, is characteristic of cancer cells. We hear this rhetoric all the time, the universe is expanding, the economy needs to keep growing. But to what end, dear Lorenzo?

I thought I was going to end with words from one of my (many) heroes, Randell Adjei:

“I am not my struggles. I am not my pain. They’re just roadblocks proving how far I came.”

But instead I’ll end with a few things I don’t struggle with. I do not struggle to be kind, I struggle to be kinder. I don’t struggle with being loved or falling in love, I struggle with maintaining it. I do not struggle with being curious, I struggle with directing it. I do not struggle with the why, I struggle with the how. I don’t struggle with laziness, I struggle with focus. I’m in a very good place to be struggling right now. Meegweetch for the opportunity to mail this to you. Apologies (but also sorry about not being sorry) about the incoherence of this all, it is a tough question you ask because by the time I begin to respond to it, the response has changed.

BIG LOVE (always), 
+Asad Chishti

ps. I refer to a whole host of people, places, poems, potatoes, and pigeons in the writing of this piece. So many that inserting hyperlinks or naming them felt overwhelming for you, dear reader, but I’m fairly easy to get a hold of thru:

Rise Over Run is a visual project — an anthology of stories and experiences about how people overcome their greatest personal struggles.
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