Growth and change: Soliciting feedback

Dear readers,

This reads much like an ending. I promise, it is definitely not that. For the first time in a few years, this summer, I well-and-truly get to have a summer. In the fall, I’ll be starting my graduate program, the Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy at The Fletcher School at Tufts University (!!). I’ve been alluding to this news for the past couple of months in my blog posts, but I can now finally confirm it! This is an amazing shift in my life, and as with every shift in my life, I want to keep my blog as a testament to those shifts. This blog went from Neiha Thinks This in high-school – a mishmash of a daily diary/rants about my nascent political opinions/reviews of books and music – to Waxes Poetic in college – its current iteration, filled with introspection and essay-style posts – to…well, I’m not sure.

And that’s where I’d like to solicit some help. While the current iteration of this blog has been fulfilling for me, engagement has not been as much of a factor. In high school, and early on in college, engagement was definitely at its peak. What does that mean? Is that important? I’ll be honest, a widespread reach has never been a goal of mine vis a vis this blog. But I’m content with engagement being a happy accident. And of course I do want to share content that people want to read. But I’d like to stay true to myself and – more importantly – my capacity for maintenance.

So, whether you’ve been reading this blog for years, or just recently hopped on, or this is the first post you’ve read (in which case, read at least a couple of posts in the backlog before you comment!), I’m all-ears:

What have you loved about my blog? What keeps you coming back? What should the future of this blog be? Keep it introspective? Incorporate reviews like the old days? More politics? Chronicle what I learn in my graduate program? More micro-posts?

I’m also considering starting a Tiny Letter to accompany this blog! It would look like a monthly or fortnightly newsletter rounding up what I’ve read (scholarship, news, creative writing/essays/poems) along with micro-updates. Is that something you would be interested in? Or does that belong here?

I’m incredibly excited about my future, Alhamdulillah. I’d like this blog to continue to be a part of it. And I want to shape what that looks like, with your help. Thank you!

-Neiha

Against Contrivance

Foreword

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

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

**

March 14, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short note: fraud

Stuck inside on this snowy, snowy day, I find myself mulling over my future and accepting, unwillingly, what I have been denying for quite a few years:

Knowing what field I want to be in does not, in fact, amount to knowing what I want to do with my life; moreover, knowing I have plenty of options does not amount to knowing what I want to do with my life; and, quite frankly (say it now, say it loudly so you can get this through your head):

Talking about how many things you want to do in your life definitely does not mean you know what you’re doing with your life.

…yikes.

Why do I call myself a fraud? Self-perception. Despite my lifelong issues with, uh, being who I am, the one thing I’ve always been proud of is the fact that I realized very young that I wanted to go into politics of some sort. And then I got complacent. Actually knowing what realm of politics I wanted to go into has changed a lot since I was 12, and even now I find myself two years away from a Bachelor’s Degree, contemplating my graduate career, slowly realizing what it actually means to be an adult, and staring down (at least) two distinct career paths.

Why do I call myself a fraud? I guess because I (think I) come across as someone who is self-assured and assertive. What would it mean to the people for whom I’ve asserted myself as a mentor if they realize I’m not as confident in my future as I seem to be.

Why do I call myself a fraud? Because, likely, the above is me tooting my own horn.

Why do I call myself a fraud? That doesn’t make much sense. Being lost is something everybody goes through. Is it part of a bigger delusion of grandeur that I think I am unique in the “implications” of my own confusion? (Actually, that does make me a bit of a fraud but in a different way.)

Why do I call myself a fraud? One day I’ll tell people (including my family, other Pakistanis) that I want to come back home as a foreign service officer like a good patriot, devastated as I am about the lost potential of a country born of trauma. Some other day I’ll be enamored with critical theory and the macro of international diplomacy and wax poetic (hah) about how beautiful the world is and what my place in it is. Is this a career crisis or a personality crisis? Who knows. Fraud.

…but why do I call myself a fraud if what I want to do with my life is be kind?

Everybody is a little bit of a fraud, but that’s only because we’re all constantly going through changes, internal or external, whether in sparks or cascades. Change is beautiful, change is human, and I suppose so long as your change does not lash out and become ugly and cause you or others pain, what’s wrong with being a fraud?

Why should I have to know what I’m doing with my life when my life is in constant flux and my decisions meld and flow to fit around a shifting framework? What you’re doing with your life doesn’t begin and end with your degree or your career choices, and if there’s anything I’ve learnt from my limited working experience, eight hours of your day are just that: eight hours of your day.

The rest of your life does not play like a gameshow where your decisions are locked in and cannot be changed or impacted by anything else. Certainly, commitment is necessary and important and I have talked extensively about the benefits of routine inthatoneTEDxTalkitrynottoremember, but considering myself a fraud because I am still growing as an individual is unfair.

Being a fraud is not an identifier. Fraudulence is an aspect of human experience fraught with flux. But you are not a fraud.

To write again

There is nothing sadder than the niggling thought that you have a slew of unfinished, barely started drafts.

I take that back – it’s having a slew of unfinished, barely started drafts across multiple platforms. Medium, WordPress, the five million writing applications on my phone, all with a cute little note on the side telling me I have x drafts. Even my journal has unfinished thoughts in it and that’s supposed to be an archive of myself at my most candid.

I have unfinished drafts of my candid thoughts.

I realized that was part of a bigger problem I was having, which was that I didn’t have the focus, the ability to sit down and write something. My friends know me as being restless; I can’t stay indoors for more than a few hours, even if it’s bitingly cold outside. Oh, yeah, and when I’m outside, it’s too cold to actually write anything (because touchscreen gloves are a goddamn lie). You would think the commute to work and then back might be a good time and place to jot down a few thoughts, but that’s because you haven’t experienced the Green Line during rush hour. I’m too busy trying not to get flung across the car on that horrible turn in and out of Boylston.

This is what I think the problem was: my co-op is very writing-intensive. I spend at least seven hours a day at an office full of journalists; I earn my bread by coming up with words for things and putting them in order. In the same way that writing essays every week fills up my writing quota during college, writing up news briefs and transcribing interviews into snappy quotes does the same. And yet, because it’s not academic, because I’m still trying to get my wits about me, because my homework assignments don’t consist of working and reworking short stories, poems, memoirs and plays; I am left dissatisfied with how much I write, with what I write.

A couple of days ago, I was sulking at my friends, talking about how I can’t seem to write anymore if it isn’t for work. The last finished entry in my journal – which I promised myself I would write in daily – was from January 3rd. It was a haiku I wrote with gold eyeliner (Urban Decay 24/7 Liquid Eyeliner in the color ELDORADO for those curious) because I was too lazy to get out of bed and grab an actual pen. My friend mentioned how she used to wake up early in the morning and write three full pages before she went about her day; she doesn’t do that anymore, but the exercise was a good one. I promised myself something similar, a few years ago, but I’m bad at keeping promises I make to myself.

But there’s something about seeking actual advice from people that can drive you in a way nothing else can. I went home, that day, and grabbed my journal. I turned on the fairy lights beside my bed, flopped onto my belly, and started writing. By the time I stopped, I had written eight full pages. I would have written more, if not for the fact that I had work in the morning and it was half past midnight already. I could feel the catharsis in my bones, taste the relief on my tongue.

I slept better than I have in days. Like, writing all that knocked me the fuck out.

The next day – yesterday – at work, I found myself in the black hole of Wikipedia. Great Man Theory -> Übermensch -> Nietzsche -> Knight of Faith. As I sifted through the article on Kierkegaard’s concept of the Knight of Faith, something happened that hasn’t happened in a very long time: I felt a plot bunny. I found myself temporarily obsessed with the idea of being so deeply attuned to the finite and the infinite that you can act independently of the world, of everything temporal and physical, and act out of your faith in God – and then I realized how incredibly dangerous that obsession could be for people who truly wanted to pursue that knighthood; who saw it not as an academic construct, but as a genuine pursuit.

I started writing the story at work. I pieced together a little Evernote document with links to research materials, quotes, a PDF of Fear and Trembling, and I started writing. Remember how I mentioned I never wrote during my commute? Some kindly gentleman saw me furiously typing on my phone, my legs positioned stubbornly so as not to lose my balance, and took to grabbing the back of my hood every time it seemed I was going to be thrown across the car. Again.

Capture

I haven’t been this excited about writing something ambitious since last semester, and while that doesn’t seem like a very long time – and in truth, it isn’t – it’s important. I’m going to stop joking here for a second.

I can’t tell you what the Peshawar Massacre did to me, to all of us. Everyone dealt with it differently, suffered its impact and trauma in a different manner. For an entire month, it crippled my creativity. I was in a fugue state, my concentration destroyed and replaced with constant malaise. I went about my life, I enjoyed my days, I went to parties at night with my friends but my heart was – still is – perpetually sunken. There was a lump in my throat that refused to go away. And to write anything that wasn’t for my country, for that tragedy, felt like a disservice. Maybe this is the first step towards moving on: recognizing that there is only so much I can mourn, and that at some point I have to stop crippling myself and be productive in that most meaningful of ways: I had to allow myself to create again.

The fact that I have written as much as I have in the past couple of days is heartening. It’s the final piece in the puzzle of contentment I have been trying to complete since this year began. For all intents and purposes, January was a wonderful month. I love my co-op, I have amazing friends, I have been taking care of myself, I’ve even been drawing – but now that I can write again?

The jigsaw is a pretty picture.

Short note – growth and wanderlust

Image

 

I always did like that picture. I don’t think I was five yet, and certainly not pleased with the idea of having pictures taken of myself but now, 14-15 years on, I’m glad these pictures exist. That’s me, in all my thick-pig-tailed glory, in front of my old house in Lahore, a house I lived in for almost ten years. I remember living in places before we moved into that house, but nothing felt like home the way that house used to.

Used to. I’ve always had a love affair with Lahore but this blog post isn’t going to be Love Letter to Lahore #53 or whatever number I’m at now. If anything, this is an embarrassed, tail-between-my-legs confession: I’m not the little girl in that picture anymore, continued fabulous fashion sense notwithstanding. That house isn’t home anymore. I’ve grown up and grown out of the house; my bitterness at being taken away from Lahore has been replaced by finding a new home on my own terms (I have always been a fiercely independent, slightly prideful person). The hollowness I used to feel has been so thoroughly filled that Lahore feels like a first love; an old friend, a best friend, a passionate flame that has been put out since. But there is so much of the world to traverse that you cannot cling to what once was, and I’m starting to learn that. I’m making my home elsewhere, finding my life elsewhere, and though I feel ashamed to say it aloud I have to admit…it’s a huge weight off my shoulders.

One day I’ll return to Lahore. That has always been endgame. But until then, the world is large and full of wonder and opportunities and I’ve discovered a thirst in me that cannot be quenched by pining for what once was. As strange and exhilarating as it is, I think I’ve unlocked a wanderlust in myself and I can’t wait to foster and nurture this evolution, in Boston and elsewhere.