thoughts on ‘following’ people

i’ve been thinking about how fundamentally strange social media is, in how it presents other people for us. it’s given me the push to delete instagram, at least for a while.

it used to be, for the whole of human existence, that to find out what was going on with in someone else’s life, that you had to get in touch with them and ask. whether that was meeting them at their house, bumping into them on the street and starting up a conversation, or the slightly more technical methods of sending them a letter or giving them a call. Even email and text, still involved contacting them.
And the other method was gossip – talking about them with a mutual acquaintance.
in both situations, the choice was there. to ask or not to ask. and how often to do so.

now things are different. we get delivered everything to a device that basically acts as a mutant body part, constantly in our hands or our pocket. we get dings and buzzes and awful little red dots that draw us in ceaselessly. and so now, the element of choice is gone. we open the app, we are delivered everything that everyone we follow has published.

i was trying to figure out why i find following people so wearying. i’ve noticed that in the case of a blogger, i’ll consume everything they publish on a daily basis for 6 months and then all of a sudden i can’t take any more of it – my inner reaction is annoyance and irritation. why is this? how does it compare to consuming an artist’s songs or a writer’s books? I think it’s because with those, there is still the fact that when you pick that book up, you are choosing to read it. it’s not just being put in front of your eyeballs.

i concluded that we’re not actually meant to know all of this stuff about other people’s lives, particularly the airbrushed yet nonchalant type that social media essentially boils down to. if we care about someone, we will be in one on one contact with them, where they may or may not tell us about that quirky day trip they did last week. and guess what? that day trip and the knowledge or lack of about it, has absolutely no bearing on our lives! it’s not a loss to not know. it’s perfectly normal and rational not to know.

i likely sound like i’m convincing myself of a very mundane fact, like that grass is green and sugar is sweet. but it’s sort of revolutionary, for someone who bought into the social media thing so avidly, for 6 years. i do love people. i like knowing things about them. it’s why i got so much enjoyment out of the exercise. but i’m beginning to see that it masquerades as “keeping in touch” with people, when really all that’s happening is people telling me things in a sort of self conscious way. and i don’t get to tell them things back exactly, not directly. it’s a conversation in which both participants are wearing earmuffs. the humanity is taken out of it.

i’m sure there will be times when i check it. but i’m enjoying the freedom of not judging. not critiquing. only doing so with the things that really deserve it – books that have had rounds of professional edits and songs that have been perfected by their performer and producers. movies with a staff of hundreds. not someone’s quickly typed musings on something they did in their free time. there is no need to judge that. no one gains from me having a critical response, certainly not myself. and just maybe, by giving myself the room to miss people, i’ll reach out to them for real. only this time we’ll actually be choosing to hear from each other, and the earmuffs will be off.

books for the quarter life crisis

as is abundantly obvious from the tone of my last post, i’ve been experiencing doubts and uncertainty lately. and as luck or grace would have it, i’ve also been reading some great books about women coming of age and dealing with the vicissitudes of life. they have been compelling and comforting to read, making the dreaded subway commute often the most transcendent, spiritual time of the day, taking me out of myself in the most reassuring way possible. what these stories tell me is: it’s okay. it’s all okay.
here is the list.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
– “I think I only appear smart by staying quiet as often as possible.”
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
– “It would in retrospect appear to be a stop on a narrative path that was inevitable, but this is only because most events, most paths, feel inevitable in retrospect.”
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
– “Everything about my life looked pretty well messed up compared with how adulthood had always been advertised to me.”
Will You Won’t You Want Me? by Nora Zelevansky
– “This is the view from a lookout; not a peak. This is the smell of trees and wind; this is a guy, with flaws, but maybe the right guy, standing beside me. This is my life: my nose cold, a blister on my heel, nerves about my new job and what’s to come. This is awake. This is now.”
Chemistry by Weike Wang
– “I am certain that he will get the job. His career path is very straight, like that of an arrow to its target. If I were to draw my path out, it would look like a gas particle flying around in space.”
That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam
– “But maybe it’s good, to remember that, that happily ever after is for television shows. Real romance, real marriage—life has so many little disappointments, all these paths you never thought you’d take.”

20 august

it’s a relief to be back in balance with my feelings. worrying about the future, i’ve been swinging between anxious and numb, terrified and detached. it’s so hard to know what to give weight to, whether doubts are important warnings or just that, doubts. i think my overthinking stems from a subconscious belief that i can calculate and analyse myself out of things going wrong. that i can pinpoint it far enough down the track so I can pull the ejection cord before it hurts too much. i’m green, ridiculously so, and so i go out looking for answers in my favourite medium, the written word. yet i don’t realise that advice columns and literature and blog posts, their purpose isn’t to provide premonitions. it is to help people, when faced with a problem, to work things out in the most graceful, appropriate way they can. i can’t read them for red flags, for a checklist i can apply to my own life. the only thing i should be taking from them is the importance of self respect, honesty and kindness. and not to conflate the latter with the former.
there is certainty in the academic year that i will doubtless never experience again in my life. i lived 18 years of it. term time, holidays, each assessment and exam lined up in my diary. a checklist of topics to revise, sources to research. the clarity of studying is something that never registered at the time. it is only now that i realise how rarly such a clearly plotted course presents itself, the ability to lock down months and years. knowing exactly what you’ll be doing in a year’s time, and the year after that. i understand that we can’t live our whole lives like this. but i can’t help feeling like graduating is an adjustment, a far greater one that common wisdom would suggest. the structures of our worlds are blowing up around us, toppling to the ground, and we are being tasked with rebuilding them out of a far more fragile, piecemeal substance. for the first time we have freedom to build as we like, but we must also apply and network and essentially persuade someone to give us what we were never wanting for before, a place to go during the day and work to produce something of value. it’s exciting but also strange and uncertain. and the doubt is present inside our skulls, prodding and whispering “what if nobody chooses you, what if all your striving was for nothing”.
failure is a part of life. we all know it, or pretend to. but there’s a difference between being aware of that fact, recognising the order of those words strung together, and really accepting it. i suspect that any one of us would rather like to be the one in a million (or rather 8 billion) who it simply doesn’t happen to, who glides through life like a swan on a glossy pond (putting aside the fact of paddling under the water, for this particular metaphor). it feels good to have things go well, to receive praise. there’s a reason ‘gold star’ exists outside the preschool lexicon. none of us really receive gold stars after primary school, but the shining satisfaction of being congratulated and affirmed is easily summed up by the tacky golden plastic. wishing for failure is foreign to me, as it is to everyone. i want things to go my way, because i think i’ll be happier for it. and if not happier (since we know that god works in mysterious ways, surprising things can be for the best) then at least more certain. more able to point to my calendar and say this is how it will be. i am sure of it. i guarantee. even though every morning brings a day whose happenings none of us can be sure of. no matter how full the diary is with appointments and events.
certainty is a slippery beast. the tighter one holds, the more likely it is to slip away, through one’s locked knuckles, leaving us clutching air. the lighter, more gently one handles it, the less room there is for unpleasant thuds to earth and moments of reckoning. essentially, what i want is for someone to tell me that everything is going to be okay…and then list out the twenty year, 100 bullet point plan that shows exactly how it is all going to be okay. ironically, my belief in a kind god and universe do very little in calming my tangled nerves, because what good is okay if i don’t know it’s going to be okay?
my immaturity and amount of growing up I have to do is obvious, even to me. my petulance in the face of a vast and incomprehensible universe is laughable. but growing up demands more than just ageing, continuing to survive over weeks and months and years. it demands self reflection, feeling the twinge or ache and pressing it to find out why. why does this hurt, how do i deal with it, what can it teach me. my god, what can it teach me. because if i can’t be sure of the future, then at least i can get comfortable with the body and mind of mine, and figure out how to sway with the shaky ground, let the motion swish my skirt, and ride it the best and bravest I can. it won’t be a sure thing, but my future that we’ve established is going to be okay? it can also be enough.

taking stock, nyc edition

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Learning: about the convoluted workings of the UN
Cooking: easy summery meals for one
Drinking: flat whites I make myself with my workplace’s espresso machine
Reading: books set in New York, like Gemma Burgess’s Brooklyn Girls series
Wanting: to settle in to my new city, to embrace being here as much as I can
Enjoying: the sights of New York, the feeling of being on the set of a movie
Wondering: what my future holds
Listening: to chatty, friendly podcasts
Loving: him, wishing we were in the same place
Hoping: to be filled with grace and patience, which i have been lacking lately
Eating: peach ice blocks, yum!
Smelling: the ‘fragrant’ smells of new york city
Wearing: blazers and dresses and heeled sandals
Watching: the bachelorette, the bold type and younger, all the happy female shows please
Noticing: all of the interesting people around me in new york
Knowing: that my experience is entirely up to me and my outlook
Thinking: that I have to be patient with myself and my situation
Laughing: at the kiwi banter at work
Feeling: such highs and lows, a confused mix of emotions, joy and pain and love and longing all swirled around inside me

things I want to tell you

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whether you’re my mum, my siblings or my friend far away.
i have devised strategies for injecting joy into my day, in order to survive this not very sane way of living:
  1. i walk down the street and look with minute detail at the blades of grass, the texture of the brick. the blossoms still hanging on, the shape of the clouds in the sky, and for that 3 minutes or so, i am refreshed anew
  2. whenever i have the good fortune to be alone in the lift, i blast a jazzy song in my headphones and dance exuberantly (keeping a close eye for the doors opening!)
  3. i smile warmly and speak kindly to everyone i come across (which sometimes requires a bit of effort), and invariably they respond in kind
  4. i send little emails to my professors when i come across an article pertinent to their teaching, or if i really appreciated something in their lecture
  5. i give myself time off when i feel i really need it, accepting that energy ebbs and flows, and that things will inevitably get done in the end
  6. i read books unrelated to class and they remind me that i am not, and in fact am never, alone
  7. i make silly comments to myself and others and embrace humour wherever I find it, even in lame professor jokes (honestly, especially in lame professor jokes)
  8. i bask in the satisfaction of every assignment completed, and congratulate myself for it even as i start prepping for the next one
other things:
– it’s 25 days until I am free
– 27 days until I see my mum
– 34 days until I graduate
– 35 days until I move to New York
— all coming around fast!
one final thing – i may not be like, feeling easy breezy with all this work and pressure, and yet I am still thriving.
I am in a state where I am really accepting myself and my qualities for who I am. I’m not going to go along with anything that isn’t right. i’m full of warmth and love and support for everyone around me. and I’m achieving these moments of culmination that take my breath away and bring tears to my eyes. I’m doing it, I really am.

reminders to myself

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ah yes, it’s that time again. when we get into the business end of the semester.
every time, i’m irked by the limitations of time, that my readings start falling by the wayside, that i can’t devote quite enough time to that paper or presentation, that some interesting talks and activities are no longer an option, because i need that time for more pressing things.
i am smart, and i can critique, and I have knowledge, and I can write with clarity and coherence, and yet – grad school is still very, very hard. trying to meet every expectation perfectly is like jumping on a trampoline and trying to burst up through the atmosphere to orbit around earth – not possible.
I feel like i’m trying to strike this deft balance where i’m getting through 70% of each class rather than 100 in one and 40 in another – yet nothing is ever quite that straightforward.
I remind myself:
  1. of all the alums you talked to, who are impossibly bright and dedicated and driven (more so than you!), they all told you how difficult and overwhelming it was
  2. grad school is supposed to be stretching and challenging. it’s part of why you wanted to do it
  3. in the future, you’re not going to look back on any medium grades and be devastated. as long as you don’t fail anything, it’s not going to matter later on
  4. you have two months of this whole thing left (as in, ever). it’s going to fly
  5. it’s good you are ready to leave. if you didn’t want to leave school, that probably means you should be doing a PhD, which is not at all in the current plan. so basically, you can be pleased you’re on the right track
  6. the fact that you doubt and question yourself means that you are human, and thoughtful, and trying your best to do the right thing in all areas of your life. you want to do the right thing as a daughter, and a sister, and a friend, and a girlfriend, and a student, and an employee. you have integrity and a sense of doing right by others, and doing right by yourself.
  7. you have never set yourself the goal of doing anything truly extraordinary. you aim to set no world records, get on no rich lists or power lists. you want to shine as yourself and be true to your nature: nothing more, nothing less.
  8. sometimes you wonder to yourself what you could achieve were you truly pushed to your limits, because you fear that you coast and don’t push hard enough in assessments and activities and networks. and yet, sweet girl, you have accomplished a lot, and your resume alone is pretty cool. don’t try to persuade yourself out of the joy of an ordinary, balanced life.
  9. you are you. you are always going to be you, you’re not going to get transformed into anything else. everything in your future is going to demand the same things of you: your bravery, your hard work, your grace, your light and open heart. every day you do this, you are practising for the rest of your life

october 31

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As a graduate student, over the past year or so, I have started to hold opinions on china, east asia, government policies and economic strategies.
But I do so lightly, gently. I chose, no, rather felt on an intuitive level, that any opinion or view could be refuted by opposing information. I don’t know if I have ever been a person with truly strong, stubborn views (certainly not compared to some people I know), but I think the combination of understanding economics (taught by professors who though subscribing to free market views, freely admitted their shortcomings and limitations), speaking three languages, experiencing living in different countries and interacting with different people, something inside of me protests against a truly dogmatic or one sided view of the world. I inhabit the grey, keenly aware of the shifting factors and effects that cannot be summed up with a pithy headline. once reached, my opinions still come with a silent “and yet” addendum.
i continue to feel this way in DC. something inside me rebels against too neat, too tidy an argument (though I certainly can appreciate an elegant concept or through line). writing off a country, a ruler, even a policy as wholly bad is not for me – i always try to pry out the sometimes minute seed of good that an otherwise useless or awful thing has caused, and the reverse for something good.
the world is too complex for our brains. it troubles me when we forget that, when we think a tidy narrative of racism, populism, ideology, religion or cynicism explains it all. just existing in this world and trying to understand it is a true act of cognitive dissonance that we have to bravely embrace, and not resort to low tactics. we have to be willing to say this is confusing and unexplainable and I will go on doing my best anyway. I will continue to give things the benefit of the doubt, to stay open, to hold room for the unimaginable. To admit you don’t have the answers and live the questions all the same.
So, I will go on with my innumerable readings, my talks and my conversations, holding the information in my brain, trying to make sense of it all, even as I know I cannot. Just trying is the aim, as it invariably has been, is and will be, in every fragment of my life.