33 life lessons @ 33

1. You aren’t your work. It’s neat to have your name hitched to a designation, but it’s also important to acknowledge and celebrate your complexity. I call it inconvenient complexity, a bunch of attributes that do absolutely nothing for you at work and could have mildly embarrassing associations. For instance I’ve discovered that I’m a closet grandmother, that I love rustling up expansive, filling breakfasts for my family. The truth is that you are so much more than what fits the little rectangle of your business card or the laminated ID on the secure access lanyard around your neck. It’s important to identify non-work descriptors that capture the you-ness of you so that when your job stops being fulfilling or when strangers at a party go ‘..so what do you do?‘ while you’re unemployed, you’re not tipped into an awkward silence that presages a full blown identity crisis.

2. Risks, even when they lead to failure, especially when they lead to failure, are worth it. Risk- taking is an excellent way to grow. Two inadvertent consequences- you become more open to the world and its possibilities, and you acquire a humility and a healthy sense of self- both excellent springboards for any new goals or ventures you might have in mind.

3. No matter how emotionally tough or battle hardened you are, you will never be prepared for that next heartbreak. Don’t beat yourself up about how it blindsided you. Instead, focus on working through it. On a related note, never let your struggles become your calling card. Self- pity is a powerful seductress and submitting to it is lazy and self- defeating. Work to find out who you are despite your struggles, not who you are because of them.

4. Love is the only way to weather a personal crisis. Even in the worst of times, S and I never dispensed with love- affirming rituals. We traveled to beautiful places even when we were broke, celebrated with elaborate meals even when there wasn’t much to celebrate, never tired of telling each other how much their love meant to us. I am here, and I love you is the only thing you need to hear/ should want to say to your partner when your life’s gone pear- shaped.

Bad lighting, great mood

5. For comfort, seek the familiar. For growth, the unknown. You know how they say they’re mutually exclusive? They’re not- sometimes the best way to grow by leaps is to first hunker down in an old, familiar spot where you’re at your calmest and most confident. That spot is your Bat Cave- a place you introspect in, lick your wounds in, draw strength and solace from, invent and plan world domination in. My Bat Cave is writing, legs jammed into a soft crumpled blue Jaipuri razaai I can dive into for foodcrumbs.

6. It’s okay to turn into your mum, to startle from recognising her in a mood or a gesture or a coping strategy. Panic and self- loathing are natural first responses if you’ve had a less than peachy relationship with her, but work your way through the discomfort and you will arrive at a place of quiet compassion and possibly renewed love and respect for her. I am proud that I am, in many ways, turning into my mother.

7. As you age, you’ll be surprised at how much you begin to rely on things you dismissed as silly or inconsequential before- feelings, intuition, the pricking of your thumbs. Delight in your witchy/ grownup abilities to suss a room out.

8. Adversity will change you and your priorities. Don’t fight this. It’s okay to ditch old ways for new ones- change your language, change how you present to the world, change how you negotiate feelings and relationships. Those that care will keep up. Those that don’t won’t.

9. Hold your friendships close, even when you suspect you’re not being that great of a friend. Ghosting a friend is a terrible idea- trust that your friendship can take a difficult conversation.

10. Pay attention to your mental health. Dismissing something as a mood or a phase or shoving it under the carpet is far easier that coming to terms with an axis-shifting reality. Educate yourself, find resources, and seek help so you won’t implode one day and be left breathless from how little you saw it coming.

11. Pay attention to your physical health. Adopt formerly uncool things like dietary changes and vitamins and hourly hydration with a vengeance. Drag your butt to the treadmill. Find a cheap gym or yoga class you can sustain a relationship with. My own moment of reckoning came with Shilpa Shetty’s excellent yoga video, a great introduction for beginners. Watching her bend and stretch in fire station- red lycra to generic flute-y music against the gorgeous backwaters in Kerala was unexpectedly pleasant.

12. The ancient Romans believed that inebriated and thus potentially adulterous women were the single biggest threat to their patrilineal family trees, and so they made their women kiss every member of her family- formally, on the lips- on returning from a jaunt. It was done to check for signs of drunken revelry, a humiliating ritual never foisted on the men, who drank and womanized freely. You must put an end to this invasion of your personal space, the exhaustion from the constant provocation. It’s important to set boundaries. Setting boundaries, guarding your space, protecting your peace- these don’t make you a stone cold asshole. These make you mindful of your mental health. Those that jeopardise it knowingly have absolutely no place in your life.

13. It’s okay to quit. We make a virtue of doggedness, but it’s important to identify the point when the law of diminishing returns kicks in. If it’s making you unhappy and causing you to become a stranger to yourself, it’s okay to let it go. No matter how cliched or eye-roll inducting or easily dismissed as simplistic, happiness was, is and will always be a legitimate goal to chase.

Early AM park run

14. You’re allowed to flip- flop on issues of personal importance- because while others are free to roll their eyes, it’s you that must live with the outcomes. In 2012, I was ready to be a mum. In 2018, I was convinced it was the worst decision we could’ve taken. You’re also allowed to change positions on other issues- such as your estimation of certain people. It’s unhealthy to persist with an opinion because your ego won’t allow a re-evaluation, or because it’s expected of you socially. If certain friendships are centred on your mutual hatred of a person and you find yourself liking said person, the right and honourable thing to do is to speak up and opt out. If dissing someone you secretly don’t hate is an initiation rite for a relationship/ friendship you care deeply about, you need to ask what that’s doing to you.

15. Forgive yourself for not living up to the parental ambitions you internalised. It’s okay to have not won a literary award or invented anything in your twenties. Come to terms- gently, compassionately- with the constraints you were never taught to acknowledge- the relative privilege of others, your relative poverty, a model of parenting torn between modernity and conservatism. You will realise that there does exist ground before that ‘expiry date to blaming your parents for everything’ (JK Rowling)- and it is ground that neither you nor your parents could’ve done much to change despite everyone’s best intentions.

16. It’s okay to downsize your ambition and shift your goalposts. This doesn’t mean you’re settling for lesser, but that you’re acknowledging that different things motivate you, that you find joy and purpose in things you hadn’t given much thought to before.

17. Read as much as you can. If you grew up relatively poor, as I did, your best bet is self- education. Money spent on building a personal library is never money lost.

18. Invest in yourself. I’ve learned this from the refugee family I married into: no amount of money spent on self- enhancement, on education, on resources that help you learn and grow is enough. Also, get rid of any coyness about money; conversations about spending and saving, no matter how uncomfortable, are important. Evaluate your relationship with money constantly. It’s important to acknowledge when you don’t have enough so you can dispense with expensive habits.

19. Cultivate a rich inner life. Write. Journal. Document via endless streams of selfies. Scribble messy notes in the margins of books. Hoard old magazines and journals so you can pick them apart at your leisure.

New hair, Rome.

20. Calibrate your social media usage. We’re well past the point in history when aimless scrolling could land you in a place of juicy discovery; today it mostly fuels insomnia and existential dread. It also lands you in unsavoury places, like an old colleague’s depressingly wordy, testimonial-fat Linked In. I use mine mostly to network, practice writing, and stay in touch with current political developments.

21. Internet friendships are no less important or real or meaningful than real ones. Reach out to people online you admire. You’ll be surprised at how effortlessly like-minded you can be even when you’ve never met.

22. Never make decisions out of fear. Even as I’ve stayed wide awake at night and wondered how sustainable my unemployed state is, I’ve politely declined some wonderful opportunities to work on a salary. Fear- based decisions never work out in the long term. I can no longer afford fancy dinners, but I’m okay with that trade- off as long as I’m operating from a place of self awareness.

23. Look out for your parents (and if you’re married, your husband’s parents). Terrible things, painful and unforgivable and life-altering things may have happened between you but the fact remains that you owe them forgiveness. This is when there’s a shift in power and responsibility, because they’re coming to terms with their own shitty decisions and their mortality and their friends dying and their lives not quite being what they’d hoped- regular life stuff. This is when you step in- delicately, unobtrusively- to parent them. If not handled carefully, the transition is a painful one. But it is necessary, and it must be done graciously, with all the kindness and forgiveness you can find inside you.

Oh hello, smother.

24. When your heart feels like it’s irreparably broken, trust that it isn’t. It will expand to make room for someone new. Get an animal home and let them fill your life with silliness and love like you’ve never felt before.

Smol joys

25. Don’t let anyone- no matter how close or highly regarded- tell you what to think of yourself.

26. Experiment with your hair. Cut it a lot. One day you’re going to desperately wonder about bangs, but your thinning scalp and faltering courage are going to be the death of that idea.

27. Acknowledge that sometimes you are the asshole. Learn to apologise with readiness and grace. Don’t apologise under pressure. A hollow apology boomerangs on you in the form of pent- up resentment

28. Abandon your defining virtue if it comes to your mental health. I was always the Type A girl/ low emotional-maintenance/ easily grateful. You don’t have to live with these expectations lifelong. I’ve kicked most of my type A tendencies to the kerb, loudly demand acknowledgement for my emotional labour and am now difficult to please- in the healthiest way possible.

29. Don’t take yourself too seriously. No one cares what you do- in a good way. Learn to chuckle at your self- image and stick a pin in your head if it’s swelling a bit.

30. Acknowledge your privilege- relative and absolute. It will help you read the world better, relate to issues more authentically.

31. Fashion-wise, work to find your signature. I’m all about color and especially love a florid pattern tempered with a nice neutral. Print-wise, I like a feral animal against tropical foliage. Or a small watercolour pineapple. Or cactii. I dragged S over miles of cobblestone in Florence so I could grab two cactus- shaped mugs. Sue me. On a serious note, fashion is a relatively harmless- and if you’re into thrifting, inexpensive way to express yourself.

32. Be nice to people. Be generous with compliments. Also, don’t waste niceness on someone who doesn’t have the stomach for it. Nice and Neutral should be the only extremes of your social decency spectrum.

33. Don’t set too much store by plans. They almost always don’t work out. Make room for swerves and about- turns, rests and pit stops. As long as you’re okay with the general direction your life’s taking, you’re in a good place. Don’t sweat the details.

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