I have been learning to dance since I was 8 and since then I have felt, without words, that I am most fully myself when I dance. As you’ve seen from these pages, I often discover myself through writing, but when I dance, I simply am myself. It’s an indescribably joyous thing.
I’ve performed as a dancer a reasonable amount. To this day, I can tap into a genuine smile within seconds because two decades ago, I needed to learn how to smile through my dance performances and it felt better in this context to practice accessing real happiness than learn how to pretend it. But the vulnerability of a performance only goes as far as I am willing to let it go; it can only go as far as I know my own self.
I’m back in New Delhi, and have been here for much longer than I thought I would be, waiting for my passport to re-emerge from an opaque vortex within the U.S. Embassy. In this time, I’ve been working through some big, old, scary feelings, and now that I’m out on the other side of them, I know myself much better. In this time, I’ve also been finding again the first dance style I learned—bharatanatyam.
I went to a bharatanatyam performance the other day, and was delighted to discover that one of the performers had been trained by the teachers who taught my favourite teacher, and she performed a piece I had seen her teachers (my grand-teachers) perform when I was 16! I took a tiny video recording, just 20 seconds of the minutes-long piece, and have been teaching myself to perform the little excerpt. I love it so much! It’s rhythmically interesting and visually exuberant, so much packed into such little time.
When I first drafted this post, I’d planned to make a little recording of myself performing the piece to share with you. I practiced and practiced, but then suddenly the plan to share it stopped making sense or feeling right. Maybe its precisely because I know myself much better now that to share a dance performance would be to share too much.
If you’ve read this essay, you’ll understand why, growing up, I never let my parents watch me dance. But unbeknownst to me, they watched my very last performance in front of a live audience (the event was streamed, at some ungodly hour in India) and I’m so glad they did. Just some weeks before she died, when we weren’t otherwise talking very much to each other, my mother (a visual artist) and I (someone who draws very rarely) had this exchange:
There’s something to be said for holding our fullest selves close, and there’s something to be said for sharing ourselves. Always, we have a choice.
Altars:the physical reminders of that which we often forget but cannot do without.
Brass statuettes, pebbles, pieces of wood. My mother and her mother worshipped at all manner of altar, and now I do too. I know which rock to reach for, which shell, when I’ve lost touch with some essential thing. A consciousness spread—through me—across all that surrounds, more a lake than a cup of water.
Art, tattoos, certain clothes—all imbued with meaning and yet none more than scaffolding for a soul that’s settling into place.
Candles lit, invocations, invitations to a favourite god to come and rest within, and stay. The word “trappings” makes more sense now.
I think about those people who leave behind the things that matter, confident that the quiet within them will remain regardless. To release their altars as a true test of faith. And I wonder if even they sometimes fall prey to the egoic myth that one must find calm all by oneself, without even the help of an altar. Sometimes it’s foolish to refuse the help we need to remember what’s important and true. At other times, the way forward is to let go.
I am starting to let go of my altars. I do not carry a rock in my pocket every day, as I did six months ago. More often than not, I forget to wear my rings. And in this time, the quiet has only grown. Debris have washed to the shore and, at any moment, can be swept back into the sea; for now, the waves roll clear.
I think often about finding the shape of a project, the form it needs to inhabit.
In academic science, it is possible to avoid searching for the shape of a project altogether. The system hands us an acceptable, legible form—the scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal with a particular subject-matter scope. Of course, predetermined shapes constrain. If we only had bundt tins, we would only make one shape of cake.
These days, most of the ideas that move me are not just wildly cross-disciplinary but are also built from threads of connection between the academic, the personal, and the political. Many luminous writers before me have worked with some of the same ideas as me. Many of them have placed these ideas into the form of scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. I could do the same, but I’ve realized that if I did, I’d largely be replicating their work.
I’d rather work in concert with them—I can see what they wrote, the impact their work had, and then ask myself, “how do I move us further towards our shared goal, from my particular vantage point, at an angle that plays to my strengths, in the direction of the audience that I think I can reach, want to reach, needs reaching?”
Asking myself this question has taken me far from the form of the scientific paper into a land of few, new, and confusing constraints. Exploring this land of possibility has been weird. I’ve learnt that the only way to navigate it, in the absence of a prescribed path, is to tune into the inner voice telling me which ways to go and the outer voices showing me the consequences of choosing those directions. More on listening to these voices another time 🙂
I’ve recently decided that I would like to be someone who has written well about many different things. For better or for worse, the only way to become that person is to write about many different things! So this is a series dedicated to little thoughts on many different things. Knowing me, topics will include nature and science and people and spirituality, but expect to be surprised!
The nuts and bolts: once a week at minimum (because regularity is important) but up to three times a week, 300 words per post at maximum (because brevity is important).
Ethos: in writing about many different things, I’m specifically avoiding the aura of expertise. I’m an expert in maybe one or two things, simply by virtue of having done them a lot. But I want to write about many things! And so I will write not from a position of authority but with the intention of bringing rigorous thought and feeling to a diversity of facets of human experience.
How to follow: Subscribe to my blog by email (look for the box on the right side of this page) and you’ll get an email in your inbox when I post here. You could also follow me devotedly on twitter, where I will link to all these posts, but that sounds like quite a lot more effort. Finally all posts will be under the “Little Thoughts” category, which you can click on when you visit this page.
Thanks as always for your time and attention, your responses are always welcome!