Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, February 20, 2017

You Deserve To Sit On The Sofa

I grew up thinking that life was a zero-sum game. If I got a piece of pie, it meant that there was that much less for everyone else. And that I didn’t deserve to have that piece of pie, because I wasn’t worthy enough. 

This belief was taught so subtly by everyone around me that I didn’t even articulate it till much later in life, till I started to read books and articles about self-esteem and self-worth. Knowing isn’t the same as doing something, and I might be able to rattle off all sorts of information about the subject, I am not sure I have moved much further along the spectrum.

Yesterday I went to someone’s house for a meeting. They had a sofa, some chairs further away, and everyone else was expected to sit on the floor. When I arrived, there was already someone sitting on the sofa. Now when I sit on a sofa, I sit in the corner, kind of trying to squish to the side as much as possible, trying to take as little room as I can. I don’t deserve the pie. But this person was sitting kind of in the middle, taking up a lot of room. But there was space for another person. And I am sure she would have moved a bit if asked. 

I have knee issues, and I try to get a chair or something to sit on for these sorts of meetings, so I crossed over to the back and grabbed a chair. Far away from everyone else. Not that I didn’t want to be closer, I just didn’t think I deserved to sit on the sofa - which would only seat two people. I don’t deserve a slice of pie if everyone else can’t get one. And I kind of seethed, wishing I was on the sofa. By now someone else was sitting there, so I couldn’t change if I wanted to. 

This may sound like a silly little incident, but to me, it was another time I told myself, I don’t need this. I don’t deserve this. If there can be only a few writers who make money from their writing, then I don’t need to be in that list. If only person can get this job, what makes me think I am so special? If only lucky authors get fans and readers and books on bestseller lists, then why should I dare to dream to be among them? 

Not believing I deserve something, not feeling like I should ask for something, or make my wishes known, is a lifelong habit. Recently my mom’s close friend scolded me, saying that I never say what I mean. I was taken aback by her tone, but I know what she means. When asked if I want coffee or a soda, I always say “Whatever”. Meaning whatever is convenient for you. Whatever is spare. Whatever you don’t mind offering me. Again back to my childhood beliefs. I don’t deserve anything special. I don’t deserve the pie. She thought I was being noncommittal. What I was doing was protecting myself. From being rejected. From being told no. No you cannot have more, otherwise there won’t be enough for your cousins. No you cannot have any meat, the adults have to be served first. No you cannot meet your friends, you need to run errands for your grandfather. So I don’t tell people what I really want, because I simply assume that I am asking for too much. That I am not staying in the shadow, making myself small like I should. 

The worst part is that this comes across in my writing. I don’t dare to write the stories I want to. I don’t dare to declare that I need to be alone now because I want to write. I don’t dare to say to the world that I am capable of writing a short story or a play or a novel. I don’t believe that I am worthy, so why take the time to find out that I am not good enough or can’t do it or am a failure. I reject myself, before anyone else can get a chance to reject me. 

But here’s the power of words. You can rewrite your thoughts. You can say enough. I am worthy. I can write what I want. I can dream. I can decide whatever future I want for myself. I can ask for the drink I want. I can sit on the sofa. I deserve the slice of pie

Thursday, February 16, 2017

What Will You Do For Future You?

I read a blog post somewhere, I think it was on Wil Wheaton’s blog, about being kind to future you. Since I read this near the beginning of this year, I decided that it was going to be my sole New Year’s Resolution. Of course it was cleverly concealing the fact that it was multiple resolutions packaged as one. And of course that meant that not all would go according to plan.

So what does being kind to future you mean? Well in the post, if I recall correctly, Wil said that in order to be kind to our future selves, we would need to do things that may not be palatable or high on the priority list right now, but in the future we would be glad we did it. And sure that includes things like saving for retirement. But it doesn’t have to be our future 90-year old selves who will thank us. It could be as simple as not eating that bag of chips now because tomorrow morning you will wish you hadn’t when you’re feeling queasy from all that grease. Or going for a workout that you don’t feel like now, but will give you energy and make you feel good, halfway through the workout. And of course take you one step closer to being healthy or losing weight, again helping your future self. 

While there are countless ways to be nice to future me, the biggest problem I have is remembering to do this, and prioritizing doing stuff for future me, when present me is taking up all my time. In the moment I have obligations and things to do and instagram feeds to catch up on and tv shows that have new seasons. Where is the time to do all this and also do things for some nebulous future self that I can’t imagine or have empathy for? 

I may not be able to clearly visualize my future self or what she will want. But something that is crystal clear to me - my past self. And in the present, quite often actually, I am pretty vocal in telling my past self what I should have done, or should not have done. I shouldn’t have eaten all those bars of chocolate and those boxes of doughnuts. I should have gone for more walks. I wish I had taken the chance and sent those emails to people I wanted to work with. Or written that short story, or those blog posts. The list of things I wish I had done is long, and repetitive. It always revolves around themes - taking better care of my health, writing more and especially the things I am afraid to write, taking chances for my career, learning skills that could be of use to me now. Its not that hard for me to know what I wish my past self had done. And I am like an annoyed big sister, wanting to slap some sense into a bratty, lazy younger girl who just wants to have fun and not worry about the consequences. 

With that line of thinking, its not too hard to know what my future self would hope I do. What she would appreciate. Less TV now, go to bed and workout in the morning. Write the stories even if its scary. Reach out to those people even if they reject me. Put the chocolate away and grab some fruit. Sure its kind of like a constant nag has taken up residence in my head, but I bet I will look back and be glad. 

This reminds me of a scene or rather a song and a scene from the best movie I saw this year, on 2nd January. An Indian film, called Dangal. About a female wrestler, a family of wrestlers actually, and how they got to be among the best in the country. And early on in their training, their father and coach set down some strict rules about how they could behave, what they could do and what they could and couldn’t eat. And the girls, being young, naturally rebelled. And there is a funny song about this in the movie. A little later however, there is a scene. Where the girls are at the wedding of their friend, not much older than them, who berates them for being angry at their father for pushing them, for giving them a goal to look forward to. Which is in stark contrast to her, because she is being married off, at a ridiculously early age. And the girls realize, that instead of complaining about their father, they should thank him. He was doing them a huge favor, by believing in them, by giving them something to aspire to.  

And that’s really what being kind to your future self is about. The hard work in the present is a present to your future self, who will thank you for better health, improved skills, greater opportunities that come at the expense of a few missed tv shows, some unhealthy snacks that you forget the taste of minutes after eating, some discipline and new habits that seem onerous at the moment but will seem like nothing when you look back with pride at what your past self accomplished, the life she created for you. 

So whether you are aspiring to be a world-class athlete, or just want to be better at work, or excel at a side business, or want to lose those last stubborn 15 pounds, decide today to do something that your future self will thank you for. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Positive Gift of Creativity (or a Love Letter to Art)

Last night I was watching the BAFTA awards, which had many funny and interesting and nostalgic moments. But a couple of speeches really stood out for me. 

(Spoiler alert) The first was actress Emma Stone’s speech on receiving her BAFTA for Best Actress (La La Land). She spoke about the positive gift of creativity, and how it can make a difference, especially when times are hard. Many of the other recipients spoke in the same vein. The movie’s producers talked about the same thing - how important it is for people to keep producing art, and to keep giving us experiences on screen that remind us of our shared humanity.

I have been reading this book by psychologist Anders Ericsson - Peak. And among the many things I am learning from this book, was this giant insight (it wasn’t technically in the book, but the pieces fell into place while reading it) - you need to write and keep writing, and with each story, you become a better writer. Now this seems so obvious, until I parse this out a bit more. 

I am working on (or rather am supposed to be working on) revising my first novel to publish it. I am putting it off and not working on it, because I am scared its not very good. Which is quiet likely since its my first novel. And yet, the point of writing it and putting it out there isn’t so that I can put out a great novel. Because that’s not very likely, right off the bat. The point is to become a better writer. I will become better just through the act of writing and finishing. And with each story I write and publish, I will get even better. And one day, maybe not too far away in the future, I will write a story that will remind those who read it of our shared humanity. And make them cry or laugh or both. 

I believe in the power of art. I always have. But at the same time I don’t believe in the power of my art. I don’t think that I can write all that well, and the more scared I am, the less likely I am to do the work, the work that will make me a better writer. 

On one hand, I put Art on a pedestal. Art with a capital A - everything that is beautiful, moving, full of emotion. But in order to be an artist, with a small a, one has to remove some of that power. One has to claim that power for oneself. No one becomes an artist, small or big, successful or otherwise, in one day, with one piece. You have to hone your craft, no matter how much talent you are born with. And being afraid to experiment, being afraid to play, that stops you from developing your craft and honing your talent. 

Although that is easy to say, I have found that it is difficult to do. Fear stops us. Fear gets in our head, telling us that we are stupid to even think of writing a book, painting a portrait, performing a play or whatever. How do we stop that fear? I have read lots of books and tried lots of techniques, but at the heart of it all - love.

I know I know - corny. But on Valentine’s Day, maybe you can indulge me. Remember why you wanted to do it in the first place - write, paint, sing, act. Remember what it feels like to watch a performance, see a painting, read a story that mesmerizes you. And for the love of that feeling, go for it. It is important to love the people in our life and to express that love, but I think it’s just as important to love our art, our creativity. To love the fruits of that creative expression, no matter how rough-hewn and unpolished for the moment. And I believe that for the love affair with your art to count, you have to nurture that love, give it time and patience and loving care, spending every moment you can steal with it. Like Elizabeth Gilbert says, have a love affair with your creativity. And watch it love you back. 

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