After Bhanu Kapil : “To write the disaster as a mode of revision: detection, containment, recovery, reconstitution. Translation: 4 kinds of grief.”
“Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder.”
— Clarice Lispector, from “The Departure of the Train”
J is in Wyoming and in one of the pictures she posts, the river she wades through is a song of crumbled amber. The sunlight is humble gold and the trees embroidering the path of water are lilting green. There is a dotting of purple flowers in the bushes where the ripples breathe in the land. It is peaceful in a way that Bombay isn’t right now. I want to transport myself to the mountains but for now, I am living through osmosis. I hold myself back from yearning or leaning into any event that possibility makes of our subtle distractions. All of it makes me think of that momentous scene in “The Hours” when Meryl Streep’s character Clarissa Vaughn lay on the bed next to her daughter, recounting the passage of age and time.
“I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then.”
There was/is no beginning of happiness. To exist is to confront and to steal from a well-known poet, ‘shore some ruins’. I am happy when I read that in Swedish exists this word “mångata” — the roadlike reflection of moonlight on water. Whether or when I can be in the presence of mångata is not a matter of great concern anymore. It used to be at one point in time; this obsession with mathematizing emotions and experiences, their occurrence almost always hammered into perceptible equations; this imminent want for gathering quotients, for solving every feeling down to its stripped bones.
Month six or sixteen, we don’t know but the pandemic has somewhat dried out a bouquet of possibilities for some (a lot) of us. For now, at least. Yet, we have found ways to persevere, even flower a little as plants far removed from our native soil. As I bend to snip at the rotting leaves of a succulent in my window, I notice a single, soaking wet crow swaying atop a tree branch that careens into the ledge of our balcony. There is an unpretentious defiance to this bird. It shows clearly when it refuses to war with other crows picking crumbs we lay out. It has hedged its bets in favour of surviving the storm on that precarious treetop even as the sky crackles with afternoon lightning. It is solitary even as other crows huddle in a safe, closed space a few trees away.
A therapy client said that anxiety is when the human brain turns into a demonic, inexhaustible calculator. Or that there are too many browser windows open in your head. It makes me think of Arthur Koestler describing Satan as a “thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic”. In clinical terms, neuroticism is an extrapolation of hyper-logics; walking around with a headful of implosions which seem to have begun as probabilities. Metaphors are both common and random in therapeutic exchanges but this one was particularly ingenious.
I am asked this a lot in sessions — how do I turn this *points to forehead* off?
These days how can you turn anything off? Bombay monsoon thunders like a rehearsed tongue-lashing from an angry parent. I watched an old apartment building in Dadar collapse like someone had taken a wrecking ball to a dollhouse.The outer wall dropped first but you could see the still-intact insides, neatly lined plastic chairs and an old sofa set. Suddenly the floor gave away and all of it tumbled out like the house had nausea. It takes very little time to turn a body into an absence.
In a climate of pogroms and dogmatic violences, the pandemic is not revelatory; it is merely impervious to the falsehoods of previously ‘comforting’ hierarchies. Some of us are not shaken by its aftershocks, we are merely echoed within its hollow. Some of us were always on the precipice of uninhabitable tomorrows. It reminds us of the collective portrait of Dorian Grey we want to hide in our basements —a decomposed sketch of our biases, hatreds, apathies, negligences and inequities. What in this is new to someone like me? My body, my ethnicity, my personhood have so frequently been cast into margins that none of this feels particularly ominous. It just clears the fog off the furthest limits of dehumanization of which we are capable. It works through a deft stigmergy — decentralized coordination between agents as is the case with any viral vector. This pandemic shows us, ironically, how powerful a dispersed yet threaded ‘headlessness’ can be.
It reminds us that we must reconcile with our time here, in this realm. What we do with it, how we squander it and how we are devoured by it. It reminds us that we don’t have enough time to waste on bigoted high-school friends, that wilful fanatics are not awaiting us in ‘the marketplace of ideas’ and that love must watch over justice in our time. Time, unquestioned, is hell. I often bark this at anyone who is willing to listen. Hell is not a location, it is a direction. Do you ever get a feeling that you are moving ahead but aren’t the one who is driving the vehicle carrying you? Hell is impassive time; its indifference; its unflinching forward motion. We have scattered ourselves in several hellish directions on this planet. We must labour towards detecting false equivalences that have mushroomed in both our personal and socio-cultural narratives. The immigrants aren’t here to take your jobs, climate catastrophes can’t be stopped by using disposable straws if we don’t check the indulgences of rampant capitalism, not wearing a mask doesn’t make you brave, attacking someone’s faith is not a reflection of free speech, black and brown bodies asking for dignity do not pose a threat to your freedoms. We have to stop placing acquisition before connection, popularity before empathy, consumption before comprehension. Then, maybe, we can stop trying to reverse time while making shoddy attempts to connect these fickle dots that are our days.
Pirahã (also spelled Pirahá, Pirahán), or Múra-Pirahã, is the indigenous language of the isolated Pirahã people of Amazonas, Brazil. The Pirahá do not have terms to measure linear time: no definitions of “past” & “future”. They have a word for “now” and a word for “some time away from now” which can be both; future and past.
Dr. Viktor Frankl wrote that to suffer unnecessarily is masochistic not heroic.
When I casually reminded a male friend that the term ‘nice’ is derived from the Latin “nescius” which means ignorant, he cried injury. I was demeaning, apparently. It was somewhere in the middle of being completely bored by his declarations of personal ‘niceness’ juxtaposed against his insistence that the policy for period/menstrual leaves was a partisan issue and inherently ‘un-feminist’. I decided the surest way to abandon this discussion was to employ an underhanded compliment. I told him he was truly nice and in that he was truly ignorant.
Social media is like a hyperactive teenager’s sex drive — erupts quickly and in the most indelicate way at the merest hint of provocation. A food delivery company announced annual period leaves for women (AFAB) and that was sufficient fodder to keep the stables chewing the cud non-stop for a few weeks at least. Pockets of twitter love to explode in a kind of self-declared “non-conformism” that is cantankerous at best and venomous at worst. Nothing is more regular than that need to be unique. There were ‘speculations’ about how this move sets the feminist movement back by pegging (lol) women/people who menstruate as physically inferior. Someone screamed bloody Mary about how this might make someone think that periods were, like, a medical condition or something?
I have nothing to contribute to this debate because remember that thing Frankl wrote that I quoted earlier. That.
What I can tell you is that I have a client in therapy who has to be completely horizontal with an icepack on her stomach during some of our sessions because her dysmenorrhea rages through her body pang after pang and there is no treatment that has worked so far. She has 2 kids and a full-time job.
Or I can tell you about one of my friends who was found faint in the work elevator once because her endometriosis literally gut-punched her into unconsciousness.
Or I can tell you how my own auto-immune disorder worsens during my periods to the point where the slightest movement shoots dire voltages through the length of my spine.
Or I can tell you how so many people who menstruate live below the poverty line in this country, don’t have access to reproductive rights and care or sanitary products, work in disorganized sectors where the concept of bathroom breaks is also non-existent.
Or I can cite academic reasearch like this to illuminate what we call co-morbidity— “Sexual abuse that occurs during childhood and again as an adult is strongly associated with pelvic pain complaints.” (Jamieson DJ1, Steege JF. Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of North Carolina, 1997)
Or I can tell you that, as a clinical psychologist, I regularly observe the kind of body dysphoria, depressive cycles, dissociative episodes that menstruation causes across demographics and age-groups.
Or I can tell you that one time I bled through a white skirt at my school and some boys chased me after me all through lunch break calling me horrible names till I seriously contemplated jumping off the terrace.
What I don’t like is this pornography of our collective traumas. The Body is not a Self. The Body exists because of its fallibility, not despite. I don’t like that we have to keep pushing needles into the hotspot of an exposed nerve every time we need the slightest degree of compassionate awareness.
This containment is not a negotiation. It is a boundary. It is not an inviting or an asking. It is a telling; hell, even a declaring.
Recovery & Reconstitution
I have been watching “Liv & Ingmar” (Director: Dhiraj Akolkar) in patches. I don’t want to romanticize the film because the love between them is never without its aches. Quite like ‘A Literate Passion’, early on you get the slightest hint that he (Bergman) is undeserving of her (Ulhmann) just as HVM was of Anaïs Nin. The weaknesses of both these men in their respective love stories is directly linked to their hubris and inculcated masculinity. But that is a route I am too exhausted for at the moment. Right now, it is an ode to the memory of imperfect intimacies. Imperfect, selfish, fussy, pestering love. Tired of theory, I want a love like the rising of cake batter or the glissade of someone’s newly learned Urdu calligraphy. Self-willed delights. The right amount of abandon mixed with curiosity.
In Sufi practice, ‘Yakeen’ or the state of certainty splits three ways —
ilm al-yakeen: the knowledge of certainty
ayn al-yakeen: the eye of certainty
haqq al-yakeen: the reality of certainty
I am trying to ask myself how does one move across these stations without ceasing the journey.
Last night while reading through a text on tarot and the Hermetic Qabbalah, I came across the term “Chesed”; to be cleansed through fire. Fire of heartache, the fire of separation, the fire of learned helplessness, the fire of known failures. The quint-essential ‘firāq-zada” in Urdu. Anxiety on account of separation/absence. To have lived through the dissonances of being thrown out of the nest time and again in order to trust the arc of your flight.
Elsewhere it says the following—
“The word Chesed means mercy, and it is from this sephirah that the Pillar of Mercy derives its name. Chesed can also be termed Love, and its alternate title Gedulah means Majesty. The connotations of this sephirah include forgiveness, generosity, fairness, loving-kindness, benevolence, and clemency.”
On twitter someone asked — what radicalized you?
Answer: My father walking around with my birth certificate on him at all times he had to be in public with me so that he wouldn’t be picked up for being a ‘baby stealing g*psy’ coz he was Romany.
Imagine a love so wide in its wingspan. So steady in the face of surrounding brute force.
“The rufous hummingbird travels five thousand miles from summer home to winter home and back. This hummingbird can fit into the palm of a hand. Its body defies the known physics of energy and flight. It knew its way before all known map-makers.”
— Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return
This year has been showing me what it means to trust the aftermath. To make movements without maps. There are loves now returned to my fold because we have been pushed to relearn what it means to be tender to each other through loss. We have crossed those thresholds where we were mirrors for each other’s most painful reflections. We can now truly know each other, moving beyond the end, unencumbered by our projections and their limitations.
As always, poetry asks the questions that can mend or rift, this time from Finnish poet Risto Ahti —
“To whom, to what could I abandon myself utterly?”
That is worth knowing.
Scherezade Siobhan is an award-winning psychologist, writer, educator and a community catalyst who founded and runs The Talking Compass — a therapeutic space dedicated to providing mental counseling services and decolonizing mental health care. Her work is published or forthocming in Medium, Berfrois, Quint, Vice, HuffPost, Feministing, Jubilat, The London Magazine among others. She is the author of “Bone Tongue” (Thought Catalog Books, 2015), “Father, Husband” (Salopress, 2016) and “The Bluest Kali” ( Lithic Press, 2018). Find her @zaharaesque on twitter. Send her chocolate and puppies — email@example.com. Tweet at her @zaharaesque.