On June 8th, 2019, social media opened a door for me. I felt compelled to take it off its hinges. It was an early morning, a month after my high school graduation. My hands went to my phone the second I awoke, ritualistically pushing the paint-chipped “on” button. A direct message greeted me.
Loving the poetry on your website.
Instagram took way too long to put your account into my suggesteds.
This message was delivered from a character I was confident was done with their part on my stage. I knew of this person more than I knew him in person. He lived in a world of student leadership, academic excellence, soft smiles for important authority figures, and a large audience to his competence. I, on the other hand, was a mere member of that audience: the faceless, shapeless mass of perception separated by a wall of trivia. Introverted, studious, and guarded, my everyday life was painted with an eggshell coat of routine. There were those who knew me well, and those who would ask if I was new to the school – for the dozenth time. It was strange in the way a celebrity would stop you for a photo, and it made me question his motives.
The act of introspection is largely attributed to homo sapiens, the “wise” thinking men. Awareness has made us the first species to conquer the planet – and yet the act of untangling it from our judgement is a sacred art. Living with social anxiety as a passive passenger of my vehicle, the practice of self-awareness for me was very similar to the way one becomes acquainted with their facial features – the mirror is limiting in letting you see yourself candidly from all angles, and the features you do have access to are thoroughly burnt into your belief of self. My observation-driven poetry allowed me to believe that I knew everything there was to know about myself, an act, I later learnt, was ultimately futile. The way I learnt this itself was uncharacteristic to my perceived sense of self.
For years I looked down upon social media, Instagram in particular, for turning unremarkable practicalities into pastel, picture-perfect pieces of art like Easter eggs sitting in a recycled twelve-dozen cardboard box. Secretly, I felt inadequate for its norms. I stuck to thinking about my thoughts rather than acting on them . Exploring discussion boards and blogs rather than Snapchat and Facebook, where content could be delivered and consumed indirectly. John Koenig’s online blog the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is famous in the world of etymology for lovingly spinning these universal feelings into ‘tangible’ words for the mind. I admired these words for the comfort they gave me, every visit to the Dictionary feeling like a visit to a secret garden. When I eventually did cave and join the Easter egg world, I did so to be updated on local poetry events around the city. The app, the world, and my experience with it remained unremarkably predictable for some time – before I was reached out to by this acquaintance via direct messaging.
He’d been wishing people the best of luck on their journeys to higher education and noticed I’d joined the platform. Small talk morphed into medium talk the way one slowly turns a house into a home.
I randomly ask people this: if you had to choose between being immortal but bound to Earth, and living a day but getting to see the universe, which would you pick?, I messaged one day.
I would be immortal and bound to Earth. I wish I was the person who chose to see the universe but that’s not me. I’m content with sticking around and learning all that I can, rather than burning up in a blaze of the high of seeing it all.
I hadn’t thought of it that way. Like being a living encyclopedia of experience.
Our questions and answers got more abstract and elaborate, organically creating a passive ‘read-reply’ system where one would send the other a string of answers followed by questions of their own, and the other would reciprocate in their own time.
What kind of disaster have you imagined/hoped for?, he messaged.
Doomsday meteorites have been a slight obsession since I was 12. Large building-sized rocks plummeting from the sky. On a more realistic end, a plane crash or some terminal disease, I messaged back. And you?
Any kind of accident that amputates my left arm or my legs from the knee down.
It was without a doubt strange to be discussing our preferred means of tragedy – perhaps even immature – but it was stranger to have someone to engage in that conversation with at all. Usually we’re aware of our part, our lines in the play, but it was seldom the case that another person would agree with the appeal of wanting to experience chaos as a means of self-actualization. “Lachesism,” the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows calls it, referring to the desire to be struck by life-changing disaster. It was a made-up word, more niche than age-related slang and more unofficial than ever. It was a new experience, getting to touch the museum piece I’d been lingering around for some time. A convenient alternative to getting to know someone over years of awkward hellos and small talk, offering me the chance to look at myself from an objective point of view: what’s kept me from experiencing belonging? Am I a social chameleon? The more I toyed with the piece, the more its weight became familiar in my hands, seeing parts of it I was certain were only home to myself.
The more abstractions we explored, the more I realized that for the first time since my conception, I was able to look someone I’d admired in the eye from the same pedestal I had them placed on. Them willingly unwrapping my shrink-wrapped thoughts was good evidence that those I had intentionally alienated myself from had the same traits I initially judged to be unoriginal and stale. Perhaps, I considered, some people were not as socially, culturally, or intellectually “expensive” as I’d deemed them to be, and I deserved to have them closer to the centre of my concentric circles of relation.
The act of planning ahead and possessing some ability to predict the future is also attributed to homo sapiens. Gifted with such cognitive abilities and a generously long lifespan, we’re doomed to living more than one life with how much change we experience by the decade. The initial two of my four years in high school was akin to the act of attempting to slow dance with a partner determined to show off their tap-dancing skills – on grass. Not only was I impressively never able to see eye-to-eye with my school curriculum famous for its purely academic orientation, but I successfully lost sight of the misty presence of creative potential that was barely within my peripherals in the first place. My poetry was useless to an audience who could not interpret abstract thought, and electron dot structures were useless to me. Perhaps this was why, in those two years, I was able to vividly picture the rest of my life play out like a burning projector film with its decaying edges – Swiss cheese holes and eerie sounds. Belonging to a culture where most wore their academic performances on their sleeves, I was doomed to let my silence speak for itself as I stood with my sleeves pulled to my fingertips. My grades made it clear I was not meant to touch the fields of science. All of my other abilities were tuned out and eventually forgotten about.
How could it be that someone on the precipice of such academic annihilation would be sought out by someone on the fast track? Who’d graduate with a 10.0 GPA and get into one of the best universities in Canada with a scholarship? The answer became simple when I realized there was a lack of an answer: context. Coming from an Indian CBSE education background, the system was such that it was only in the last two years of school that I was able to choose my own subjects, and the simple addition of choice bridged the gap between my abilities and academic success. In those four years, my life could be graphed out like one of those stock images of upward arrow graphs, almost too predictable to be realistic. I was surrounded by people of like-mindedness and found myself moving on from the four walls that sucked in my years of poetry to an actual audience. It was a simple genre change, I realized, and no one was to blame.
Do you have an overarching dream of sorts?, my pen pal asked me one day as we discussed immortality.
I guess so. I’d love to be part of a team that knows itself thoroughly, contributing and engaging with people I know the best and worst of. Just belonging somewhere actually, I replied.
Belonging somewhere. I keep thinking I knew how that felt like “before”. I don’t think I’ve ever felt true belonging. That’s why I seek leadership so quickly into a new school, it feels like a sort of acceptance.
The bits and pieces of what I’d deemed to be inherent competence eventually found themselves making up a larger whole of humanity. The script behind the performance was slowly revealing itself, showing me large scribbles of improvisation that were barely faithful to the idea of a script. My pen pal did not live a “checkmate” life, ticking away with anticipated moves and silent “gotchas.” He learned from his checkmates. The checkmates that lost him friends, gained him new experiences, and treated him as any other player would be treated in front of the checkerboard. The chess game I viewed from afar with envy was his life, and I had no access to all the time spent in front of the checkerboard, pieces rubbed smooth with constant movement.
Humans are the only species with the ability to communicate complex hypothetical ideas in the future tense through their use of language. Years of suffocating in a metaphorical crate led me to believe there was nothing beyond the darkness of my world, and being around the right people allowed me to poke a hole through the wood and make sense of the photo puzzle from the rooftop of communication – and most importantly, where I stood in it. I had found a place to belong, and it was no longer riddled with self-doubt. “Nodus Tollens” is a word in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: a word giving light to the realization that as we page through our story, parts of it don’t add up to what we imagined was on the back cover because there is no such thing. That we as the author get to pick our own genre, our own narrative in this choose-your-own-adventure. And despite such nuanced discrepancies in narratives, we homo sapiens still share enough life to build lasting connections.
I’ve lived a good chunk of my life believing that my role as a person was to absorb and assimilate the bits and pieces I observed from other people’s quirks, tendencies, and life experiences. That I was a result of implicit appropriation and the belief that all of the nuances of my existence could be sourced to some origin. Writing this short memoir proved this stubborn belief wrong, especially as the motivation to write it came not only from the desire for it to be read, but also for the act of recording and materializing the proof that my story was worth being written as its own independent piece.
It was going through John Koenig‘s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a blog containing self-coined neologisms for complex human tendencies, when I became inspired to give my experience a life of its own. I was captured by Koenig’s ability to sculpt feelings, tendencies, and observations into neat little analogies to be sipped with a straw in a fashion most uncomplicated, then pack them into neat little terms. It made me realize: if these experiences were more universal than I believed them to be, then I deserve to allow my stories to resonate, tearing through the invisible clingwrap of complexities that silently divides us as a species.
Carrying out a purely epistolary friendship on Instagram, an image-based social platform also changed by expectations on what media has to offer, I realized that I was the superficial one for believing that only superficial things can be conveyed through image. I realize now that the universally understood rites that come with sharing media means that there may be someone who reads my work and finds themselves understanding themselves better because of how clearly I was able to phrase their internal ‘condition’ or something they believed was doomed to be confined to only their mind. The feeling of being able to relate to and look at something from a bird’s eye view, finally being able to make sense of an enigma that has been living inside of them, is the ultimate goal I aim to achieve.
Ayusha Mahajan is a media exploring storyteller and collector of undiscovered -isms, who finds home in expressing herself through the tips of her fingers.