“Create”

“Create before you consume.” It’s a line from a fictional guru – a gently satirized instafamous narcissist dealing with unresolved trauma coated in turmeric lattes and crystalline water. I’ve been reading a bit more fiction recently and it really blurs the boundaries of creation and consumption. As a reader, you sometimes end up doing half the work in making the story come together. That’s my favourite – the freedom to let your experiences, concerns, subconscious thoughts intertwine with another’s and give a story multiple dimensions. I like reading reviews after I’ve read a book just to see all the different interpretations one text can take in the hands of its readers.

That said, this level of “creation” (and I know it’s a stretch to call it that) seems to be all I can muster these days. At least my creation and consumption rates are balanced – I’m not consuming much of anything besides fiction and sweet potatoes either.

I don’t know why. I have time. I should have mental energy. I guess I just don’t see the point?

It’s always the same refrain in my head,

“why write if it’s all been said.”
“why paint when so many people do it better anyway.”
“why play the piano when you’re not naturally talented.”

The same general pattern of thinking plagues my ability to think of satisfying work options.

I know it lacks some fairly fundamental logic. I mean, why breathe if 7 billion others are doing it too. But I’ve been like this since I was little.

Even writing this seems stupid. I’m only doing it because I have an awkward amount of time between having finished my book and needing to go pick up my mom.

And that time just ran out.

Frumpy frog in water

frog.jpeg(I wish I could write about world events, or history, or science…but recently all I can muster is more angsty musing on myself. You’ve been warned.)

Before I moved to London, I read Marie Kondo’s book on organisation and minimalism, and I’m ashamed to say…I used her powers for evil. Instead of curating a small universe of carefully selected and cared-for items, I curated a collection of lovely things…and then never replaced anything as they inevitably wore out. There are lots of excuses for this: stress, loneliness, hatred of shopping in London, the financially-devastating-but-ultimately-life-making decision to take a gruelling, low-paying academic job to be closer to my person, etc.

Over time, everything got duller, thinner, more worn down…and I carried on. Three of your 10 shirts became too dilapidated to wear in public? No problem! You have seven shirts left: one for each day of the week! Ran out of make-up? No problem, just wear less and stop looking in mirrors. No hair dryer? Just used your partner’s 10-year old mini travel hairdryer. Don’t like your hair? Just throw it in a bun always and pretend its not happening.

In parallel to this, I started travelling frequently (the kind where you only ever have time to remove clothes from the suitcase, clean them, put them back, and go). Full days on airplanes, exercise foresaken, love of making veggie-ful dinners after work stamped down….

For a while all of this is fine. Until one day, 18 months after I’d Marie Kondo’d the shit out of my life, I realised that I hate the way I look and feel. It may sound ridiculous, but I owe all of my thanks for snapping me out of this slump to Queer Eye.

What I thought would be a fun show about makeovers was actually about personal transformation, and about the connection between physical self-care to mental self-care. Now, I no doubt am touched with depression…can’t manage to follow through on most things, good feelings are muted and bad feelings are on full-volume, and my motivation to take care of my body/appearance is pretty much gone. I can’t deal with all of this at once, but what I can do is take physical self-care seriously as an intermediate step.

I’ve started exercising. I’ve started eating a healthy breakfast, and making smaller and veggie-ful dinners. (I’ve lost 6 pounds in a few weeks without too much work, and my pants fit again…) I’m forcing myself to buy one item of clothing every other week (socks and underwear don’t count). So far, I’ve purchased two shirts (albiet the same shirt in two colors…) I am taking care of my skin with a proper cleansing and moisturising routine. I just bought make up.

I am taking baby steps out of the near-boiling pot of water, and probably unsurprisingly, each day I am feeling a bit more positive.

 

Professional Pride

Happy Nowruz! March 20th marked the beginning of Spring and rang in the Persian new year. During Nowruz, family and friends gather around a spread laid out with 7 items that start with the letter “seen” (س) and represent things like life, vitality, reflection, health, abundance and so on.

I did it wrong. No family. No spread.

Instead my brain was cycling through its usual panic about what consistently feels like the wrong career track – and the sacrifices made to be on that “wrong” career track (see above – no family, no spread). I’m honestly not sure any other career track would’ve made a difference in my revulsion towards my professional identity. I feel that I would’ve found some way to be a contrarian regardless. Still, when my brain is doing this marathon, I can’t help but wonder,
“what if?”

What if I had become an engineer or a doctor. You know, a real profession. One that is easily recognizable as being important and contributing to society. One that has a sense of community and belonging associated to it. (I know, I know. It’s not that black and white. But I barely control this thought process once it gets going).

My favorite human was recently inducted into a real profession. My little sister is all grown up and calling herself an engineer – iron ring and all. Canadian-trained engineers all get presented with an iron ring in “The Ritual of Calling of an Engineer.” The ring is small, rough-edged and worn on the pinky of the dominant hand to symbolize “the pride which engineers have in their profession, while simultaneously reminding them of their humility.” Wikipedia has more on this. The ring ceremony involves an existing engineer presenting the ring to a newly-minted one. My sister’s ceremony was on Sunday. She’d been excited about it for months and I wanted to know how the ceremony had helped set her up for transitioning from “student” to a member of a professional body. The following exchange ensued:

Me: Do you think the ceremony makes a difference in how engineers see their careers? do you think that it makes you feel more a part of a profession, more supported, part of a community? Did it trigger pride?

Sis: Yes to the community, cause the whole purpose of the ceremony is to “unite” the engineers and promise to contribute to society while supporting each other (literally by all holding a connected chain and taking an oath)
I wouldn’t say the ceremony necessarily triggered pride cause it’s so old and hasn’t been changed that things are very “christian male oriented”
but the ring itself yes, cause obviously it’s recognized by society as a symbol of hard work?

Me: What elements are “christian male oriented”?

Sis: umm they read a couple poems that are supposed to be the basis of what an engineer is but there’s a ton of christian references (that I wouldn’t be able to tell you cause I was tuning in and out for exactly that reason cause it was of no interest to me) and one of the main poems they kept referring to is called “sons of Martha” and they kept saying an engineer is a son of Martha

Me: hahah Who’s Martha… I’m getting Atwood flashbacks.

Sis: before one of the poems though the master of ceremonies literally apologized that it was about to become very christian. That was amusing.

Me: Do you feel like there’s space to change that?

Sis: umm not sure about changing it, cause it’s something that’s been around for like 100 years

Me: Do you think the ceremony is a good thing to have overall? vs not having it?

Sis: yea I think so because the main part of the ceremony is the actual giving of the ring by an engineer that has promised to support you and like, introduce you to the “values” of being an engineer
does that make sense?
like it’s better than just picking up an iron ring

Me: the sense of continuity within the field?

Sis: Yea

Me: So, are you proud of yourself? (I’ve been showing your iron ring photos to anyone with eyes so … we know where I stand)

Sis: =D =D =D of course! And something else I’m proud of – they said the ring is rough around the edges to represent how an engineer is rough around the edges/intricacies of their brain and society appreciates/needs that.

Me: Hey, I’ve been calling you rough around the edges for yeeears! ❤

My ulterior motive with this exchange was to have written proof to come back to later should she tumbles down the same career malcontent rabbit hole I seem to love so much. A receipt to show her that she started out her career with pride and a sense of professional integrity. And there will always be a way to tap back into that. In her case, she just has to glance down at her right pinky.

Cross-posted from femails.org

What sex, cocaine & chocolate have in common with me.

Scientifically, we’re all assholes. And not just because so much of our output is crap. Neuroscience and behavioural science studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) found that when talking about ourselves, on average, we experience “increased neural activity in areas of the brain associated with motivation and reward.” Yes, when we talk about ourselves, the same part of the brain is firing as when we’re triggered by stimuli like sex, cocaine, chocolate. The best part? In these studies, it didn’t even matter if there was another conversant present. So it’s not even the “disclosure” piece of the equation that we get off on. It’s simply the personality masturbation. It’s unsurprising then that demonstrative mindfulness has become so trendy. Sure, there are a lot of other reasons – like constant notifications, high speed everything and the cornucopia of ways we can judge and be judged. But mindfulness practice, as currently advertised, is becoming a parody of itself. There’s a fine line between being in tune with your desires, concerns, patterns of thought, and being entirely self-indulgent. And honestly, I think we’re teetering on the edge.

It just seems so silly. We’re arbitrarily dumped into these body vessels, randomly assigned geographically-bound quality-of-life status, and left to develop into these self-obsessed, insecure, frantic little messes, desperately seeking continuous quality improvement (and willing to pay the price be it through self-help books, mindfulness apps, retreats, gurus, therapists, gym memberships, shaman, and so on). And all the while, we’re on the lookout for another little mess with the expectation that he/she should develop the same obsession, forgetting that he/she is likely already self-obsessed too – little room for two obsessions in one ego. No wonder there’s an increasing trend of people being more likely to get a dog than to get married.

I’m going to experiment with actively talking less about myself and my experiences this week and see if I actually notice how often I do it and whether it changes the quality of conversations.

Disclaimer: This post was inspired by wildly self-indulgent conversations (including a Tinder date) overheard at Starbucks, so there’s some bias at play. I still love the self-obsessed, insecure, frantic little messes. We’re adorable.

Overnight

11:45 pm.

On a night in late November, I arrive home dead tired. It was a long evening in the lab, staring at a 27-inch screen until my brain turned to mush. I drop my bag to the floor. Brush my teeth. Change my clothes. And fall into bed – to no avail. I turn on my bedside lamp, read a little.

Finally, it’s time for sleep. It needs to be or I’ll hate myself in the morning. I turn out the light.

12:45 am.

I’d mistakenly thought that that Moroccan Mint tea would be fine. My mind is wired though, flitting between the problems in my code, the fires I’ll have to put out in class tomorrow, and all that needs to be done by Friday, the day after. I try to quiet my mind. I listen. My apartment is asleep, but there are still noises in the night. Cracks outside. Like gunshots, I think. I put it down to whatever trauma I still carry from Baltimore and my obsession with true crime.

1:00 am.

The alarm starts. I lay in bed listening for a few seconds, initially unsure. They must have replaced the fire alarms while I’d been gone over the summer. I’ve never heard these before. I open my door to the dark hall, staring at what must be the alarm in confusion. It could only be that.

It doesn’t stop. Footsteps start upstairs. My roommate steps out from her room, the same expression of confusion mixed with questioning alarm. The footsteps become increasingly frantic. Smells of burnt toast. Perhaps that all it is. We don’t say anything as we go together to open the front door, which opens to the entrance of the complex. It’s unsettling to say the least.

A few seconds of waiting and listening and people are running down the stairs.

“Get out! The whole building is burning!”

I look back down our hallway. It stretches the length of the building. An unmistakable orange glow is now dancing across the white of the refrigerator, the pots and pans gleaming. The air now reflects light, increasingly paled by smoke.

My third roommate finally pokes his head from his room. Despite his dazed look, I think he gets the point. The fourth has yet to emerge from his room. As the kitchen grows brighter and brighter, I yell down the hall as I get myself together. He finally emerges.

In these seconds, you don’t think, you simply do. I grab my bag, shoes, coat, phone.

1:03 am.

With these things overflowing from my hands, I stumble out the door. I pull my boots on in the carpeted foyer. Getting out to the sidewalk, I pull my coat on. It’s still a cozy 34°F outside. The last few people flow from of the building. Some are already in tears. I realize that I’m shaking uncontrollably. Thoughts of what to do now are only faintly beginning to filter in. Sirens.

1:05 am.

Policemen are on top of us, yelling, pushing us to get off the block, anywhere, just away from here. Sledge hammers are already pounding away at the electronically locked glass doors to the foyer. Only just installed last week.

They’re already in our unit. We can hear the shouting, making sure everyone is out. We slowly heed their words, backing away slowly, but not sure where to go.

We can’t help but watch. We can see the flames rise above the building. You can’t help but think that everything is lost. All that wood.

I take a minute to feel the air. It’s dry, but there’s only a little wind. Thank goodness, I think to myself. The four of us continue walking to nowhere in particular. I concentrate on stopping the shaking.

1:15 am.

We find a late night café and sit. We sit in silence. Some minutes pass. Logic begins to come back to us. During these moments, your mind inevitably files through all that you have in there, now presumably in flames. Yes, there are childhood mementos, my passport, the products of some hard work. You realize what you truly value for those few moments, and it’s little. More sirens.

The logic comes flooding back. Priority #1: a place to stay for the night.

7 am.

It’s Thursday. I respond to text messages, explaining 2 am phone calls. I check my email. I find presentable clothing. I go to my meetings. I go to class. Carry on as usual. There’s not much else to be done. I carry on as usual.

Sure, I’m sure that I do.

People.

A not insignificant part of my time is spent avoiding people. Avoiding people in conversation, I mean. It’s active avoidance. I’m sure the rift in language at the moment only encourages this tendency of mine. For some people, the offhand remark, few words, or even enough words for a full conversation comes flowing without thought for making the words themselves. For others, it’s another extreme. It’s safe to say that I’m on the latter end of the spectrum. The far end. It’s been a lifetime endeavor to minimize its impact, which is mostly detrimental from where I’m sitting.

I actively avoid engaging with people.

Waiting at the Apple Store, sitting at those large tables with nothing to do but wait because they’ve taken your phone / laptop / whatever electronic device you have otherwise semi-attached to your person, it seems natural to exchange a few words with the person sitting not ten centimeters from you. But no. I will kindly respond to your leading question and then kindly ignore you in a sufficiently frustrating way as to make it truly an awkward effort to continue speaking.

Walking out from the metro, you hold the door from afar, waiting politely. I see your craving for words. I slow my pace. I allow the man formerly behind me to be subject to it. As I see the conversation continue to the ground above, I breathe a sigh of relief. A narrow escape.

My days continue. Was I born this way? I suppose so.

As a child, I would rehearse the words over and over in my head before they came out, whether to order something at a restaurant or ask for the restrooms. It couldn’t be the wrong thing – grammatically or socially. It couldn’t make you or me uncomfortable. It couldn’t reveal any of myself, but perhaps none of you either. And so my boxed life could continue, wildly uninteresting, peppered only by the stories that I built within it.

When you listen more than you speak, it’s easier to learn things. You realize that people like talking about themselves. A lot. You learn from this. You feed it. You also learn what degree of yourself you’re required to share to meet people, actually make friends. Meeting people, after all, is one of the things that makes life interesting. People do amazing and frightening things. At least, some do. But talking to people is how you learn about them. Not simply what they say, but how they exist. Some of time’s most influential ideas have come from people talking to each other. Not to mention, it fights some part of our mortality. Don’t you want some part of that?

In recent years, I thought I’d conquered a lot of these people-avoidance anxieties. They seem to have returned with a vengeance. A new language. Before, I was young enough to have excuses. Now, it’s a weird paralysis. I continue practicing over and over in my head so much that I annoy and tire myself. It still doesn’t really ever come out the right way. I can’t plan for everything. People are still unpredictable. But the best way to learn a new language is – surprise – to talk to people. Any person. It seems impossible.

It has me a bit nervous now. They say that by about my age, as women, our personalities and habits become more set and stable. (That’s why it’s best to marry after this age, so I’ve heard. Though debated.) Whichever is true, am I to suffer this crippling anxiety forever? Forever?? Likely.

Still, I like to think that I manage to float comfortably atop the well of self-pity. If the last 27 years is any evidence, I’m perfectly capable of overcoming it, in this language or the next.

Grace under pressure

I’ve never felt entitled to the notion of being “under pressure.”

A surgeon in the ER. Pressure. A mother with triplets. Pressure. David Bowie… I’m here all week gentlepeople.

I, however, no pressure. I don’t hold a particularly stressful job nor have I had life throw me any crazy curveballs. I have a fortress family, spoils of friends, great (ex)boyfriends, and a mostly non-traumatic childhood. There’s no objective form of pressure as far as a prairie dog can see.

Well. Except for one pesky little thing – a phantom threat imposed by the misinterpreted knowledge that my existence has to make up for all the very real pressures my parents underwent to afford me the right to glide through life like a white man. (Say that three times fast).

First generation immigrants know this threat well. Sometimes it’s explicit – the label of your naturalized citizenship thrown at you like a dirty towel of murky privilege and soiled tradition.

“Ugh, you’re so Canadian, so ungrateful.”

My mother has a colourful tongue and takes creative liberties with vulgarities, yet the dirtiest thing I’ve seen fall from her lips is that word, “Canadian.”

Other times it’s more implicit – an understanding that you have to be “more than.”

More than you would have been otherwise.

For me, this wasn’t necessarily cultivated by my parents. The seed was sown by an immigration officer in a Syrian embassy as he floundered through the depths of would-be immigrants’ motivations, taking the scenic route through my mother’s as she pointed at her two daughters and reiterated their gender.

Women. Poor things.

There were other motivations of course, but “for-my-daughters-to-have-better-opportunities” is what made it impossible for me to ever accept “less than.”

Enter 2017. This year has managed to make me feel so very “less than.”

I tried. I failed. I tried again. I failed differently. I stopped trying. I felt like a failure for not trying. I tried to try. That failed. I’m tired.

And I’m grateful. As cheesy as that is. It’s been a strange year for so many reasons (the world going up in flames included), but I was simultaneously humbled and reinforced.

I lost my temper but found my voice. I broke down but practiced how to build people up. I cut ties but mended old wounds. I forgot my place but remembered my home.