Next month will mark an entire year of my journey as an author-entrepreneur. These past few days, I've been gathering ideas and insights in my head for a post on lessons learnt in my first year of this journey. I have a lot to say on that one, and all those will be featured in another post that I hope to post on the anniversary of my author career, so to speak, but the most important lesson of all was something I realised this morning.
KrA and I were out on a late-morning walk, and we came across a middle-aged lady minding four toddlers on their trikes. They were on the sidewalk. Two of the little ones had ridden their trikes further up and the lady yelled at them, "Get back here now!" The two went back to where the lady was minding the other two kids.
At this point, KrA and I were about fifty metres away and we could hear her, and I remarked to KrA, "Look at that woman! She's yelling so loudly and those kids are also obeying her. When we raise our voices, D is quick to call us out on our behaviour."
As we drew closer (we were on the opposite side of the road), we heard her yelling at the two little ones who had returned to get off their trikes and sit in a corner. They did so and promptly burst into tears.
The lady noticed us at this point, and she turned around, kept watching us, flashed us a grin when I met her gaze, and waited until we were a little distance away before continuing to yell at the little ones.
And this time, I was the one to burst into tears.
It was a whole lot of things.
The sound of the little ones crying, that's for certain. And all the memories and guilt it triggered.
The memory of the sound of little D crying when he was of that age and couldn't settle in his daycare.
The sound of my own anxiety ringing in my ears, that little voice constantly telling me that I ought to have done more, I ought to be doing more, that I wasn't doing enough, that I was getting it all wrong, this whole shebang of parenting and writing and living.
The din of all the loud accusations I used to hurl at KrA for not doing more even though he too was stretched to the limit.
All the times I cursed family for the promises they made to help look after our child but failed to keep.
Even as of yesterday, I had thoughts of this nature – wishing I was child-free, wishing I were living alone, wishing I had nothing else to do but write – juxtaposed with thoughts of how much I miss D when he's away at school, how happy I am that KrA gets to work from home and we can go on long walks together, just the two of us, and how long endless hours without interruption do not necessarily translate into high productivity because I am the one interrupting this time by craving for some sort of perfectionism, some sort of control.
But after going through that swirl of thoughts and emotions, I always come back to remembering that KrA and D and writing are the only things that matter in my life, the only things that really make a difference. Not the books yet to be written and published, not the riches yet to be made, not the friendships yet to be cultivated, not the places yet to be visited.
We often mistakenly believe that a good life is a composite of these countless things external to our daily routines. That sudden showering of fame or achievement that makes the grind worth it. That trip to an exotic destination and Instagram-worthy pics that supposedly compensate for the hours spent doing work we don't believe in for people and organisations whose values aren't aligned with ours. That weekend spent with good friends that makes the comparatively monotonous drill of the rest of the week worth it.
And in doing so, we burden these activities with the responsibility of giving us the joy, the validation we so desperately seek. And when they don't, we run out of things and people and places to find our joy in.
I cried all the way back home, wishing there was something I could do to take all this anger and pain in the world and not let it hurt our children so much. More tears came as many more hurts and fears revealed themselves.
D turned five years old this summer, and his need for us has diminished in a very healthy way. He is so secure, content playing by himself, enjoying spending time with us too, sharing with us tidbits from his day at school, the things he liked, the things he didn't.
And just easily as these opportunities to savour his company present themselves, they are also very fragile. A few minutes of distraction, of inattentiveness, and the experience is altered altogether. What could have been effortless and pleasant suddenly becomes burdensome and overwhelming. And the emotional hangover lasts even long after.
I haven't been able to write all week. I had something going on earlier this week that merited attention, but after that was done and dusted, I struggled these past two days to sit and write for more than ten minutes at a stretch. My fingers constantly sought the phone, refreshing the email, checking messages, blog posts, new discussions on writers' groups on FB, logging into D's school portal every half an hour to see if his homeroom teacher has uploaded any new pics, anything that could spare me the trouble of sitting down and writing, which in itself was a task I was determined to execute to spare myself the trouble of sitting down and feeling all that I had been feeling.
I was feeling scattered. All over the place.
My breath has been shallow. Sleep has been elusive. My coffee intake has gone back up to two cups a day.
An article I go back to and read often in times like these is an excerpt from Oliver Burkeman's Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, a book that I read last weekend. The title of the book is an estimate of an average human being's lifetime.
(Please do not be misled by the subtitle. It is not yet another book on time management or productivity hacks; in fact, Burkeman's mission is to get us to rid ourselves of the notion that we can somehow control time or badger our lives into flowing the way we want them to.)
In the excerpt below, he talks about why we so easily give in to the bells and whistles of social media and other distraction instead of doing the work that matters (for e.g., reading books on writing or taking yet another course on writing or planning a schedule to write instead of actually sitting down and writing a book).
Why, exactly, are we rendered so uncomfortable by concentrating on things that matter – the things we thought we wanted to do with our lives – that we’d rather flee into distractions, which, by definition, are what we don’t want to be doing with our lives? So that suddenly, the thing you’d resolved to do feels so staggeringly tedious that you can’t bear to focus on it for one moment more.
The solution to this mystery, dramatic though it might sound, is that whenever we succumb to distraction, we’re attempting to flee a painful encounter with our finitude – with the human predicament of having limited time and, more especially in the case of distraction, limited control over that time. When you try to focus on something you deem important, you’re forced to face your limits, an experience that feels especially uncomfortable precisely because the task at hand is one you value so much.
This is also why boredom can feel so surprisingly, aggressively unpleasant: we tend to think of it as not being interested in whatever it is we’re doing, but, in fact, it’s an intense reaction to the deeply uncomfortable experience of confronting your limited control. Boredom can strike in widely differing contexts: when you’re working on a major project; when you can’t think of anything to do on a Sunday afternoon; when it’s your job to care for a two-year-old for five hours straight. But they all have one characteristic in common: they demand that you face your finitude. You’re obliged to deal with how your experience is unfolding in this moment, to resign yourself to the reality that this is it.
What we think of as distractions aren’t the cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief.
~ Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
When I first read this excerpt, and then the book, it helped me understand why I struggle to write on days my critical voice is constantly whispering in my ears that my work is no good, that it doesn't matter, who do I think I am to be offering these stories, who do I think will be interested in what I have to say.
Today, it also helped me understand and confront my limitations when it comes to looking after D. Watching at the lady on the sidewalk yelling at two toddlers, bearing down on them and reducing them to the point of tears, also helped me see how little control I had, still have and always will have, over the events that unfurl in D's life and shape his worldview. To desire otherwise is foolishness at best, insanity at worst.
This is something I've known logically ever since D was born. In fact, even before he was born, when I was 19 weeks pregnant and diagnosed with a condition that put me on very high risk of premature delivery.
But I hadn't been able to accept it. I was determined to be a peaceful parent. I read many books on it and followed many parenting groups advocating peaceful parenting techniques, which were great and immensely helpful, but the fantasies these filled my head with were a far cry from the difficulty I often faced in sitting down with my child, in the present moment, trying hard to not think of all the work that remained to be done.
I hadn't been able to accept my limitations – both in terms of time and finances – in precisely the same way that I haven't been able to accept that I did the best I could.
To think I could have done better by D these past five years serves no purpose other than self-flagellation. Besides, I'm pretty sure in this current state of despair, I'm painting a bleaker picture than reality was, selectively remembering only the times I lot my temper and completely overlooking the wonderful moments I had with D. And the very fact that D pipes up and calls us out to this day when we are less-than-peaceful is proof that my efforts at peaceful parenting having been stellar indeed.
And in the same breath, I'm also casting judgement on the woman who yelled at two kids without pausing to wonder what her story might have been.
As I walked past, I kept wondering if I ought to go back and confront her, say something. I didn't. And after I came back home, I admonished myself for having been such a coward. I even looked up Google Maps to see if there were any home daycares in the vicinity and scoured their websites for photos, hoping I'd find the villain of this story, and fantasising about leaving a scathing review about her maltreatment of those little children. I didn't find any pics of her.
Now that a few hours have transpired, I am glad I didn't indulge in such self-righteous behaviour. And I also have a possible answer for what I could do the next time I come across something like this. Wouldn't it be a whole lot more open-minded and compassionate of me to walk up to her and ask, "Are you having a hard time looking after all four of them at once? Can I help in any way?"
What's the worst that could happen? The person might give me the finger. And the best that could happen? Maybe a kind remark would help them in more ways than a harsh judgement possibly could.
And that brings me to the question which is the title of this post. Who do you become in your creative pursuit? Do you become an ambitious person who will stop at nothing to turn his/her dreams into reality? What sacrifices are you willing to make? Time with family? Friends? Long-term sustainability for a spectacular rise in the short term?
There are no right answers. We each make the choices based on what matters to us. Actually, we try to make choices based on what we believe matters to us at a given point in time. That may, and will, change over time.
I recently watched Kota Factory on Netflix. One of the Physics coaches the students trust tells them (and I'm paraphrasing here) that the objective of preparing for and appearing for one of the toughest entrance exams in India is not to clear it, but to challenge ourselves to attempt something that is difficult. When we try things that are hard, it expands our capabilities. It broadens our notion of who we are, what we are capable of, and helps us face life and its challenges with more courage than otherwise.
Who do I want to become in my creative pursuit?
Someone who is kind to herself and her child. Someone who is able to accept what life throws her way yet not become embittered by it.
This past year, I had become so result-oriented on the work front that I had completely forgotten the pure joy of writing and of designing covers and of publishing. The adventure of writing the next story and seeing what it turns out to be. The thrill of taking the next step in the business and seeing where it will lead.
I had also forgotten the joy of playing with my child. Time spent playing with D often felt like time that KrA ought to have spent looking after him so I could make more progress on the writing and publishing fronts. Needless to say, this only stoked in me a lot of resentment towards the two people I cherish the most in my life. It's funny because one of the two reasons I chose to go down this route (other than loving writing) was that I wanted to have a flexible schedule that would allow me to spend time with D during his childhood years. Time that I had now come to resent, believing it took me away from the other thing I loved. The irony was undeniable.
It took a lot of unpacking and a few hard-hitting pieces like Burkeman's, quoted above, to realise that what I was really resisting the absolute truth of the utter lack of control we all exert over our lives.
To give you an example of this: D is an early riser, and I decided to wake up even earlier than he does (which is basically sometime in the middle of the night) to get some writing done. On a number of occasions, D woke up earlier than usual, which meant we both ended up downstairs in the living room, playing Lego at witch o'clock. Resisting this, or feeling annoyed about this turn of events never helped. Instead, all that rage would only flow to my head and give me a pounding headache that would keep me away from the laptop for the rest of the day. After days of wishing it were otherwise, when I decided to greet D with arms wide open as he rushed into my room in the morning, the quality of the morning changed entirely. On days when I'd set an intention to engage completely in play with him for those few hours, without worrying about a paucity of writing time, I'd typically end up building a great connection with him and having plenty of time as well as the peace of mind to write later in the day, even if it were fewer words than I'd have desired.
It is such a simple thing. But so difficult to implement. But the truth is, the only one making it difficult is me. By constantly wishing things were other than what they are, I'm also losing all that I have now.
These precious hours, when I can play with little D before he grows too old for Lego and apple-picking and biking with Mumma. The abundance of writing time I do have, whether it is in the form of several hours at a stretch or half-hour blocks of time carved out of different parts of the day.
And this is the kind of person I like being.
The one who is aware.
The one who is present.
The one who can hold herself in grace and kindness.
The one who cries at a display of churlishness towards little children who don't yet know or understand cruelty.
The one who can ask herself if she is OK. The one who can accept herself when she doesn't feel OK, when she is unable to hold everything that life hurls her way.
Remembering this will end too.
And eventually, this life.
It's hard to remember all this when the wave of fear and despair hits. But remembering this is what helps me ride the wave. And keeps me aware that the next wave is already on its way. And now I tell myself I'll be ready for it when it comes, even if it may not feel like that when it does arrive.