Shelves

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I was in my native Sri Lanka a few weeks ago. Across a stretch of humid, languid days at my mother's house in Colombo, I turned my attention to these bookshelves. Much of it well preserved but in disarray since my father's passing over ten years ago.  Now poignantly reflective of the chaos of the time. In one sense, it is a shadow of a much larger library. An entire room that inspired awe across my childhood but splintered upon my grandfather's passing and the subsequent (stereotypical) drama of selling his house. The proverbial and literal dust having settled, these are storied reminders of him and his love of books. 

In another sense, it is a tapestry that is home to three generations. As I took care to empty the shelves and dust each book, I was often arrested by the unexpected treasures they'd yield . Many of the books across these shelves are far older than I am, some close upon a century. Old stamps, penned observations and (now iconic) newspaper cuttings among the unexpected treasures between their pages. Some penned by my grandfather in high school. Upon the shelves are the works of Aristotle, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, Hemingway, numerous biographies, decades of National Geographics and books on Buddhism, to name but a few.
I spent hours cleaning and of course, pouring through their contents before I organised them back on to the shelves. Yet beyond the breadth and age of these books, what struck me was that the library has, by virtue of circumstance, expanded to house the books of three men that barely spoke to each other. My father had a poor relationship with my grandfather (his father-in-law), never feeling approved of, their few interactions were frigid and painful to bear witness to. This was punctuated by physical distance given that he worked overseas. Fortress-like with his emotions, my father and I had a largely transactional relationship, centered on functional pragmatism. My sister would likely attest to this as well. As for me and my grandfather, most of our time together was after my grandmother's passing. Undiagnosed, his ensuring struggle with depression was a gulf beyond my abilities as a young teenager. I was wrapped in my own angst.

Pouring through these books, I was as struck by how much these books revealed about us as it did the conversations we ought to have but never had. My father's cryptic notes on Krishnamurti's philosophical views or outlining the  spectre of neoliberalism with my grandfather (formerly an IMF economist) being but a few of the charged conversations I'd have liked to have had. More importantly, there was so much of our emotional landscapes that romaed across these pages but remained private isles, beyond the realm of cartography. 

Yet somehow, like cool embers after a raging fire, we find a certain peace across these shelves. Even if only through the opaque lens of the living, our interests, our conflicts, our wanderings, and our yearnings settle into comfortable grooves. All preserved by the woman who binds us together, my mother, who loved us all, even when we could afford little of it to ourselves. Here in this house, she wages daily battles against tropical humidity, ravenous insects and the encroaching dust to save these books and an array of paintings, trinkets and furniture. Not out of greed or reluctant obligation, but as part of  fulfilling her part in an elaborate  web of meaning.

Dominance

It would seem that at the heart of the human struggle to evolve is a primal lust for control. The most pervasive being man's relationship with nature. We live in an insidious paradigm that seeks to subjugate and extract the essence of the ecosystems that support our very existence. Confident in our arrogance of no repercussions. The spirit of an aggressor captured in the words of Francis Bacon "For you have to but follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings".

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"Why do you do what you do?"

I find it strange when I am asked why I do what I do. 'why not? 'is my reflex response.'I endeavour to be the person I'd want on my side if I were not as blessed with the context I enjoy today'. I have long found it perplexing how we consider a false dichotomy, a norm. A context in which service to society and contribution is perceived as a sacrifice, an opposing force in the face of fiery individual endeavour.

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These Streets

This evening as I walked along streets I've traced countless times before, a thought took hold. 'How wonderfully fragile and changeable the human mind is'. Years ago, upon these same streets I'd nurse tales of woe and be unkind to myself in the basement of my mind. As those streetlights glared back at me, I was a particle of dust , bereft of hope and significance. Even contribution was an act of existential guilt. All this heavy on my spine as I wearily trudged through the days. Yet through the days, the months and years that were to unfold... Came a new way of being. Seemingly through attrition, the roots of despair came to wither. Exposed by questions. Starved by the ascension of gratitude and choice. No longer frivolous intellectual notions but palpable truths of the day to day realities of living .As the grip of victimhood unraveled, there was space for new things to grow. New colours where there was only black and white. New layers above a greedy undertow. A life richer than binary choices. The capacity to receive love.

What contrast upon the same streets, within the same skin. What capacity we have to shape and shift our perceptions. But is not only human to forget this power we wield? How vigilant and compassionate we must be to ourselves and others as we scale the mountains and swim through the oceans of circumstance.

Of Blank Pages

The blank page before me is a white ocean of melancholy. Do I dare fill its expanse and deprive it of its gleam? For it is a mere mess of words that I have to offer, the scribblings of a pen. As I sit here in this park, starring at this page, a strange automation takes hold. One where one's mind is beset with the relentless emotional spectrum of days gone by.How laughable it must be, at the age of twenty four, reflecting upon life as if it's zenith was an exclamation mark that I never caught sight of. Or perhaps it is the inevitable damnation of the thinker's soul, to examine fruitlessly, the beauty, the pain and the deficiencies of the past. Yet it is in this arrest that I often feel more alive, more so than when called upon by my name in this peaceful but stagnant present.

This bench has known little but quiet accommodation and these blades of grass are green with purpose. The afternoon sun's dreamy glow filters through the canopy as dust dances through its beams. The air is patient with me, keeping me company with its gentle cooling motion.

I am not detached from this beauty, at least not as much as I suppose. Contentment is the colour absent in this palette and I miss it's serenity with each passing moment. In these moments of stillness, when honesty fills every pore...I contemplate the source of these shades of dark that render me so desolate. And it spills before me, in a wave witnessed by no one but this page, no longer blank.

It would be easy to imagine. How my heart could cease to emanate love as it does in my daydreams. For what we call a heart is a mere space in our minds and our minds are volatile. If love is sealed within us, protected from harm, how many cracks does it take? Before it leaks out and that sacred space is parched and replaced with sorrow? I know not...I tremble at the thought of such things. I see my bruises, they are in my eyes as they glisten and my voice as it softens. I can speak of the toll of years and it would mean little to anyone but myself. But life is such, our stories beneath the skin.

I want to love another without refrain, how plain it sounds, but inescapably true. To feel alive as I did long ago...no..more so...but free of my shortsightedness. I feel it bottled inside me, caged in suppression, oh the passion beneath. I smile to myself, a smile of self defeat. How strange it is, how the intensity of your own confined passion can constrict you, to the point of utter desolation. A desire to love another that escapes rational comprehension...with the sole hope of them realising...that this is the pinnacle of life. That come what may...there's a center that holds firm. Yet there is no trace of a recipient, is this caged luminosity so far hidden....clearly so...as I walk alone in wake and sleep.

These afternoons, I hear it clearer, the cries that missed my listening, speaking through the calm. I feel a lightness of being as when the truth is surfaced before your very eyes. The very truth that I have concealed in seek of strength. For to admit to sorrow and loneliness would seem to be a sign of defeat. But if the truth is defeat then I am lost...for I cannot bear this self deceit, this race I run, sullen on the inside. If I were to have my own time, if only. But time is but a mechanical measure and it has no command over my emotions.

These memories may never fade but I long for new ones, a cerulean sky I can touch and remember for an eternity. For a kiss that is immaculate in recollection, free from the reach of regret. For my words to have substance to another upon reading.

I dream...for that is all one can do...I dream of these pages I fill being the light through the catacombs. and the sun through summer. That upon their reading, an understanding so powerful is reached...a deep gaze of recognition would follow. Bound to each other as these beams are to the sun above them. These blank pages will hold me till then, or till my passing.

May I never forget the gracious space you allow for the shades of my soul. I am a host to words - no more, no less....they are my surface and my center.

Desire

There is longing in me, of that there is little doubt. It is the thread that runs through these pages I've filled as I gaze in wonder through moving perspex and a carriage carries me through a network of routine. This pen is the very voice of my existence and this pad, the necessary ears that bear witness to the depths of me. Together we speak beyond the tedium that renders our souls unconscious. Through the barriers of fear and hostility that keep us at a distance from one another. This morning I found myself enveloped in a mist of sorrow, filling my chest with each step to the station. As I sat by the window, I felt its weight crystallize within and speak to me of its presence.

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Grow

It often appears to me that we have a cavernous hunger within our psyche. An insatiable appetite for knowing that rumbles through our blood and bones. An often bittersweet reverence of predictability. One that manifests itself in innocuous practicalities that make contemporary life, many would argue, better! Yet amidst our  intricate maps, our technology, systems and methods ...I am often encumbered by a thought. The thought  that men and women may well forge forward to understand the intricacies of stars and planets, even inhabit them, without having journeyed inward with purpose. Inward into that murky landscape some call the soul. The palette of artists, authors, musicians  and  the timeless pedestal of seers, prophets and philosophers. That map-less terrain upon which no house can ever be built . For its soil is teeming with life that is felt but never seen. A life that cracks through the naive predictability of all the foundations we attempt to lay upon its surface.

Ah...how I have detested these spaces within!   Its taunting  mixtures of fear and memory.  Its unending questions, its grip upon all corners of time; the past, present and future all confused within its unending  universe. The burden of thought with each plunge for answers, like sifting through the Sahara with a spoon!  An endeavor that left my hopes parched, desires unfulfilled and  me, alone in the eviscerating heat of an impossible escape.

Escape...for it was in the chaos of struggle that I was plunged into these depths I now refer to as soil. Yet in truth, it possessed no label, it was a place of suffering in my eyes, an abstraction in the depths of my mind from which I sought refuge. Refuge earned in desperate doses , albeit in brief moments of fantasy, of gratitude and service to others. A surface  smile  and sarcastic charm that veiled the intensity of suffering beneath. For that murky undertow, in all its depravity,  could not be accepted.  It needed to be suppressed,  if at all possible, forgotten, as if it were some torrid imagining. For above it all was where life was worthwhile, even if it were a spectacle tasked with distraction. It was a life one could speak of , one which could be rationalised and planned for.

Alas... if you have attempted this with great earnest, you must  feel the weight of the  air beneath my sigh when I say that it is an exercise in futility. For I walked countless roads, with both feet and mind, only to return to the incessant beat of my core. That pounding within, like Poe's Tell-Tale Heart, unyielding in its seek of my sincere attention. Laughing at my meager armoury, my fondness of distress,  all too aware of my tenderness.

Oh how weary I grew! Spent and ashamedly confused. Believe me... I do not lay claim to any convenient wisdom or badges of courage in saying any of this. For in entering this world, we are bereft of choice and as such, living is an act of courage that we all partake in. If at all, the intensity of weariness rendered me momentarily blind. Blind to pictures painted, roles cast and stories told.  Fatigue tore open a void within which I could eventually summon the strength to see anew.

For in the depths of my weariness, questions simmered in the darkness. Centered on the utility of this murky core I endured visits to. "Surely there must be a purpose to it beyond suffering? These cycles of remembrance, these self deprecating projections ...do they serve any purpose?" This line of thought, in the winding canals of my  day dreams,  were incisive.They  opened me to the possibility of extracting some use from the smoke within. Smoke from fires started long ago. And this is how I came to call my core...my soil. For utility implies the potential of  growth and for any of consequence to grow...there must be fertile soil.

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Could it not be that we are akin to seedlings, tunneling through an ambiguous earth in seek of sustenance? A journey in which our roots persistently swim through the damp earth of our experiences, tasked with the purpose of growth.  Our leaves and branches in a vibrant dance to the songs of the sun, until the moon invites us to dream.  A gorgeous symbiosis. For what is one without the other? Does a tree with shallow roots not risk the felling of its ambitions by the winds of circumstance?  Does a system of roots, so attuned to the underground, not languish and lose heart without the joy of the sun?  Without the sweet longing of its flowers and fruits to be of use to this world?  Oh does this thought  not shake to the foundations our infantile tales of light and dark? Does this not at the very least prompt us to consider how little we value struggle, our supposed demons, our darkness in the depths of our minds. Does it not ask us, in spite (and moreover because) of our fears,  to dig deeper into our beings as opposed to building towers atop false foundations?

Oh brothers and sisters, forgive any pretense contained herein. In this rambling cerebral alchemy. For it is with unending sincerity that  I share the truth of my realizations. I have long seen within, a hideous being, barely fit to persist. A swirl of smokey images that lingered all the more when I sought to escape them. Is it only when I chose to borrow deeper that I could see their fires of origin, the innocence of the starter. When doused with loving temperance, oh the lessons, the fertility contained in the ash!  Oh the relief, the surge of power that flows through your being when these words swim within you....

" From all that has come to pass...how will I to grow?"

The Story of your Life

Are not we not the result of billions of stories flowing through the winds of time, through amniotic memories, through our fragile veins? An intricately woven legacy of humanity that inspires awe, gratitude, fear and cavernous shame in equal measure An epic filled with heroes, villains and spectators...each defined by the storyteller. Yet brothers and sisters in the depths of this continuing epic... is there a story more important than the saga that is your life? For while we inherit a legacy of glories and wounds.... Do you not wield the pen that scripts the tale of your life? Do you not possess that truthful voice that you can employ to narrate your brief existence? And is there not tremendous choice in its telling? Yet what colours do we paint ourselves with... Beyond the primary palette of heroism, villainy and victimhood? Have you considered the significance of your existence in this sprawling epic? If so do you weep upon the perception of being a mere notch in a grandiose tapestry. Or are you grateful to be a part at all... resonating with the responsibility held within that 'notch'. Alas I cannot help but feel that the only telling of my story that is of any consequence... Is the one I write write with my own pen and voice with trembling passion. A story that ends with my breathing and flows to serve that of another as they choose.
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Beacons of the Present

In the depths of the haze I was in, I found solace in the strangest things. I was waiting for the reasons to dawn on me, reasons to persevere, to rejoice in the midst of my despondency. Not the reasons of intellect, those wisps of so called insight have never had the roots to survive within me. I was waiting for reasons that would reverberate through my very being. I was waiting as I would for the train at Central Station every evening ...for a timely means to get me home. And It was here that a peculiar habit started to form...

New Bern Pigeon[1]

 

One day I rose from the catacombs of thought and my eyes chanced upon a group of pigeons roosting on the platform's rafters. Their breathing seemingly vigorous and brimming with vitality. Their movements like uninhibited expressions of every impulse swimming within them. I was captivated by this scene and thereafter, I would habitually scan the rafters and while away the wait. Days turned to weeks and then to months. I'd often feel the borders of a rare smile on my face upon each sighting.

I ask myself what it was that drew me to this seemingly unspectacular scene each day. Perhaps it was a sense of kinship I felt in their seemingly frantic ways, their apparent lack of direction and purpose. Their subservience to impulse. Their existence in the shadows of the lives of others, relegated and labelled rats of the skies , scavenging upon the scraps of those who truly lived.

Or was it very different? Was it that I perceived their manner as being reflective of an intensity of living I sought? A freedom from the shackles of thought. Did they encapsulate a vitality and innocence lost to the largely mechanical, discontent passengers below? Were they smiling at the useless smoke I was mired in? Was I smiling back because some part of me recognised this?

Alas it is the nature of the mind to examine all of this in hindsight. To vilify or to romanticize, to simplify or to add layers to what was. The truth is that it was likely a murky mixture of these reasons that swam in the sea that is my subconscious. What I do know is that the sight of those birds brought me to the present. Freeing me, if but for a series of moments, from the tentacle grip of the past. Immersing me in the vitality of living through the sheer contrast of their impulsive activity against my rare stillness. I am of the firm conviction that this in itself was instrumental in me transcending the smokey rooms that thought created within me... so I would wield my pen again.

As I walked along the platform this morning , I paid thanks to my old friends as they flew on to their daily adventures. For when I was waiting, they were beacons of the present.

The thing about Birthdays...

My birthday has long been host to my swirling introspection. Mostly the morose, cynical variety that attacks ones state of being like the bite of a tsetse fly. For most of my life, a subconscious torrent of thought held sway. A storm that would likely confuse and infuriate others attempting to understand.

What is a birthday but some contrived celebration of my expulsion from the sanctuary of my mother's womb? What choice and part did I play in all of this ...save showing up? Was it not my mother who laboured for hours and likely coped with the anguish of  potentially losing another baby? Should it not be her that should be commemorated?  The need for actual celebration of this event was often a great source of confusion to me as I grew up, particularly when the novelty of themed cakes, balloons and presents wore off. For in my mind, a celebration implied that I was worthy of another year of life. That somehow, I was more than my reductionist portrait of myself at the time - a sniveling, navel gazing youth consuming far more than he contributed. A celebration would mean that I was of value to people, that I mattered. Perish the thought! It felt fraudulent to even conceive of it.  The extent of my privilege was clear to me, having been exposed to poverty in Africa and Asia at a young age.  Yet this existential guilt only fed the struggle. The painting of "Poor Shanil" relied heavily on a palette of low esteem and sarcasm.  Birthdays were often punctuated peeks at this insidious portrait I carried on my back.

I reflect on this now, not with the intent of showcasing my oddities, but rather out of curiosity towards the roots of this old perspective. Fundamentally, I long viewed life as something to be endured. It was an aimless journey of survival through a desert with but the amenities to survive from mirage to mirage. An unmotivated existence that almost begged for a fast ending for I was a pawn bereft of choice.

Alas the tides of experience and moreover, the sheer weariness of this way of being culminated in an altered perspective of life (a subject to which I intend to devote a novel to).  Had I not done this, I feel certain that I would have taken my life. This repainting of the proverbial self-portrait was no sudden development, but rather hinged upon  the gradual discovery of new colours and techniques to paint with. This marked the ascension of the power of choice, a previously impotent word in my rather unconscious vocabulary. The choice of colours, the choice of strokes, the audacity to re-imagine a learned vision of self. Now a pragmatic reality as opposed to a fanciful, conceptual dead-end. The desert has long made way for more fertile backdrops and I have a compass of purpose that serves me well - a deep intention to be of service. An intention birthed in my weariness with my perceived mediocrity. A shift from a resignation to my lack of utility, to actively seeking contribution in all forms.

Today, on my 29th Birthday, I do not sit here with some romanticized notion of life and its meaning. I see it as a finite time-frame for a myriad of opportunities and experiences.  I am alive to how time will see me changing this palette once again...but I shall speak of what I feel to be true in this present moment. I have long grappled with my perceived lack of choice in being born into a life dominated by suffering. I may have even harbored resentment towards my parents for this reason. My journey to date has been one of uncovering the possibility of me defining the meaning of my life ...even if I was bereft of a choice to exist. For is that not the most poignant choice we have? To wield the brush or to be coloured in by circumstance.

Thus far it would seem as if this active path is a rewarding one. I am blessed with relationships and opportunities I could never have conceived of in my younger years.  I could cite the extensive conversion of my guilt to gratitude but I have indulged in much introspection as it is. I see new meaning and purpose to this anniversary of my birth. I sit here so grateful for the struggles I have faced. The mediocrity I have felt in the marrow of my bones and the intensity of suffering that has plagued my heart to the point of collapse. For without them, I'd be unconscious of my beauty and lack vitality, passion and grit. The tools to seize the day!