A Case for Nothing

Life is ruthless. I don’t mean in the way it can be trying and challenging. I mean, in the way the hardnesses compound and causes suffering. And in those ruthless moments often, the best thing to do is nothing at all.

We are all accustomed to always doing something about our situations. We are applauded for our ability to take action in the face of hardship. When a friend calls with troubles, we listen and offer solutions. When we have issues with our family, we seek understanding, process and resolution. I am like this, and this is why I know I am drawn to mediation and conflict resolution.

I read somewhere once, that we suffer and suffer, until we just can’t suffer anymore. And then, our suffering ends.

Maybe it is the way the word ‘suffer’ repeats itself, and in that repetition reflects my experience of suffering – ongoing and endless. Maybe it is the relief I felt at what sounded like a call to refrain from mental and emotional acrobatics that we are trained to think are critical to achieving an optimal state of balance. Happiness and peace are goals in life. Or, maybe it is the practicality and simplicity of the statement. Whatever it is, the idea resonated. Deeply.

Eager to make use of yet another piece of wisdom that could aid in my life-long search for solutions, I began to apply this new learning to the conflicts in my life.

During fights with my partner, I told myself that if I just have to keep pushing through – communicate, express, be open and keep on talking, that our challenges would unravel. In the struggle to be supportive to my sister – while she continued to make choices unacceptable to me, I told myself to keep being there, keep showing up, keep talking, keep trying to establish connection and conversation.

I expressed, listened, explained, reached out and nothing was working. At times, misunderstandings layered atop past hurts. At times tones were misconstrued in text message fights. At times there was sheer exhaustion! Continuing began to feel like a further call to battle, rather than an end to suffering.

Then I stopped; the talking, the reaching, and the trying. Not because this was the prescription, but because there was nothing left to do. I had no more tools in my pocket. There were no more actions to be taken.

And sometimes, that’s how it is, isn’t it? You walk along, look up and see that the slow moving clouds have collected above you, and the very next moment – downpour! This eternal falling, from the vastness of all the sky. Each moment a more certain reminder of only one thing – that there are some things you have absolutely no control over. You seek cover, and there may not be any. You run, but you still get soaked – beyond capacity – drenched.

And those are the moments we stop, resisting, trying, doing. We accept because we have to. That it is raining right now. That it rains. And maybe, it will stop raining.

However that moment manifests for each of us, what follows acceptance is a quiet, a stillness. Not the kind we are used to seeking, but the kind that we cannot help but find.

- sethu

Previously published on Planning Change.

a beautiful stretch of time

 

in the house above the garage, tucked far in from the street,

there was a small space full of fortunes to be found

behind the one door in the house I, could lock

a place to spew out sobs that had to be held in my chest all day

and one from which to gulp great breaths of the clear and quiet night air

a place to sit, or stand or lie down, jump up or down

and company, and space and light

what tickled me most was the simultaneity of (a)symmetry

in the jagged, overlapping teeth that leaned against each other like stalks of some green in a field

the once tiny triangular hole, in the middle of my two front teeth

that quietly widened each passing year

the eyes evenly spaced and so evidently one smaller than the other

the ‘very present nose’, that had me searching the library for photos of Indira Gandhi,

to see what similarity someone saw.

at that time, it was a fun habit to never wipe tears

finally, when I had the chance, I’d run in, lock the door, and stand in front of the mirror

and just allow them

the time they needed to find their way across my face,

new crooked paths paved each time, some merging with others,

some making it all the way to my chin

slowing then, pausing, collecting, shining

in the protracted light that reflected from the bulb to my eyes to the mirror,

translucent little sacs lingering, until I always and just in time

rescued, from the preying pulls of gravity

on some nights a book, a snuck sheet, some charcoal and paper,

to settle comfortably in the beautiful stretch of time a night can be.

 

 

 

Both. A noose, and a rope to throw down and climb out.

Writing a piece on 'what god means to me', is like trying to find an answer I don't have, and don't even feel like I need to find. 

Here is an incomplete attempt.

Occasionally, on Sundays I accompany my signo* to the Redeemer Presbyterian church on the Upper East Side to listen to Tim Keller talk about faith, Jesus and God, and watch the audience move along with him. 

Last time I went, I heard a story about Jesus getting frustrated and being terse with a man who had come hoping to secure a miracle to save his dying son. That was the first time I ever heard of Jesus getting upset. That interested and relaxed me, so I listened more.

Jesus said to the man- Your child will be saved, have faith and go. The man stayed, pleading to Jesus to come along and ensure the miracle. After repeated attempts to put the man at ease and assuring him to trust and go home to be with his son, the man refused to leave, and stayed there pleading. Feeling annoyed, Jesus became terse with the man, and told him to go. Feeling dejected, the man finally turned away. He had decided to leave, and to trust as that was all he had left. He had tried every other way to save his son.

Of course as these stories go, the man’s son was saved, and the family became believers.

I could hear in Keller’s telling of this story that I was not being asked to believe in miracles or the great power of Jesus Christ. He was saying there is no miracle without faith, and that was Jesus’ frustration with this man was that he expected amazing things to happen, without ever believing that it was possible. 

That resonated. As it reflected my current evolving relationship with my signo.

After years of ups and downs, my signo and I began to shift into a relationship with less dissonance and struggle, and more empathy and compassion. Arriving to this however was quite a challenge. Through a lot of trial and error, we realized that in order to relate to each other better, we had to shift the ways we related to ourselves, others and the world itself. We started working together to cultivate faith in our togetherness.  For that what we first had to accept our own deepest insecurities, mightiest fears, and trust that this other person we chose would be there, in comfort, support, love. Just like that. Just trust.

What does all that have to do with god? I’m not sure I know how to say it any differently.

I call myself a Hindu, because it was my primary and the most consistent platform through which I lived, engaged in and understood my life. It is a reflection of who my parents are, where they come from. 

It breathed of the summer evenings in Kerala when I accompanied my sisters to the temple for the ‘Deeparadhana’ the evening pooja. It was standing inside the walls of the temple, and looking up to see the evening sky. It is the smell of sandalwood paste and incense, the light of the oil lamps in the dark of the inner sanctum, the temple bell, sitting on the floor listening to “keertanams” (songs), my grandmother sang in the dark of the daily power cut.

After coming to the America, being Hindu is what framed a large part of my immigrant experience. Like any other immigrant group, my Malayali Hindu community tried to replicate ‘back home’ in New York. This took the form of putting on India clothes and driving all the way to the Flushing temple where we could all meet as a group, sitting on the floor singing keertanams, ringing the temple bell, eating food together in the temple basement, taking turns hosting the reading of the Ramayana at each other’s homes, showing up in prayer and support for important life events like graduation, engagement, birthdays, sickness, death. 

Being Hindu has also been very difficult for me. As a person who was manipulated for years and then sexually abused by a prominent member of the same community that nurtured me, I grew up feeling deeply conflicted, isolated and scared. As children who are sexually abused usually do, I kept my secret. I felt it was what I needed to do to preserve my family’s place in this network that held and supported us. The rare moments when I felt that I could and should speak up, I had visions of destruction. I was afraid to destroy everything good about my family and my community. More than anything, I was afraid that I would lose the smells, the gatherings, the friends, the singing, the light, the bells, everything, I so treasured. 

I don’t know anything about god, so I try to understand what it is that at once captivates some people and causes an almost allergic reaction in others. At times, the term ‘god’ feels like the term ‘science’, deeply revealing and at once limited in its ability to shine light on some of our most profound questions, reflecting only so much of who we are and what all this means. How can god/religion/faith be so politically hijacked and at once, radically free? At once a noose and a rope; to throw down the window and climb out.

What does all this say about what god means to me? I don’t know exactly, and I can’t say it any differently.

During difficult times in my childhood, I spent hours sitting in front of our radio playing classical Malayalam songs, transcribing the words as I heard them, aligning them with what I knew of the language, listening, writing down, singing along, pressing rewind, stop, play, stop, rewind until I felt it, knew its magic.

As an adult now, I call it resonance. In the cadence, of the singer’s voice, and the other instruments that played, in the way the words layered meaning and sound, in all that was resonance.

Similarly, I discovered patterns in the ways people spoke to each other, the presence-inducing energy of dance, the great aliveness of trees, and the profound solace to be found in the light and quiet of the moon. 

Everyday, I light a lamp in my room and stand with my palms joined taking deep breaths, and centering my body and mind before I head off for the day. That feels really good.

What does all this have to do with god? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I want to explain any differently.

*signo is a gender-neutral term I created to reference “significant other”, romantic partner, spouse etc.