#SouvenirStorytime 2/28: New York City Love

An ode to the City of Dreams – New York City, USA (Dates unknown / Multiple)

Love, New York – fridge magnet

I cannot remember exactly when I bought this. I have made several visits to this bustling mad city. I’ve never not been taken by it. In fact, the first time I visited at nineteen – I was the wide-eyed girl from India who was excited to see Greenwich Village, home to her fictional idol Mia Thermopolis, and see how it compared against the world that Mia had painted for her in her mind’s eye. I loved the brownstones, the subway, the crowds, the traffic. All of it. I took several hundred pictures of buildings. And fire escapes, which were another made-for-TV concept to me. I loved the energy everyone seemed to have, just like in the movies. What a rush to be part of it. People walked so briskly with purpose. No one seemed to be loitering. So they must all have found purpose, no? I wanted to taste some of that magic NYC juice that gave everyone destinations, and put fire in their feet. I left with the dream to live there someday.

As I got older, and found myself living in the US, I continued to enjoy visiting. But I realised I no longer harboured that dream of living there. It was all a bit too much for me. Too much movement. Where was everyone off to, anyway!? It had dawned on me that purpose doesn’t come from having somewhere to go. And that maybe being lost in a sea of people, still feels like being lost after all. The energy that I had once found infectious and energising, I recognised to be infectious and draining instead. Too much. I didn’t want to lose my wonder though. Never want to lose my wonder. I made peace with loving the city, but from a distance. Enough to want to visit, again and again and again. Finding something new to discover on each visit. And each time, leaving with the feeling of content that this frenzy of a city showed me a little more than she had before. Be it getting across the city for the best, chewiest, densest bagels I’ve ever relished from Absolute Bagels. Or walking across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset, and being surprised by a woman getting her wedding photoshoot in the middle of the bridge, foot-traffic be damned. Or dissolving into Lady M‘s matcha mille-crêpe cakes. Or elbowing through crowds to see the big Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, only to realise the stress of it all allowed little Christmas spirit. Or getting lost and realising I was (finally) walking through Greenwich Village for real, which was serene and very different from the Village in my imagination. Or getting lost in Central Park, and witnessing a large group of people lost in dancing to drums…wondering in awe if I would ever be able to let go and surrender like that (I would, I just couldn’t imagine it yet).

Getting lost in general, I think. Feeling very small in a big, big city. With friends though, with my people – also lost with me. Mmm happy times.

I want to say I bought this little souvenir on one of my last visits, when I knew I would be leaving the US shortly. I didn’t expect to see the brilliance of New York City again. I vaguely remembering buying this from a street artist selling his wares on the walkway of a bridge (which bridge?). It jumped out at me because it sort of took away the seriousness of the city (and reminded me of Seinfeld, for some reason?). On further thought, I realise it captured the nostalgia, the movement and the sentiment that every movie and book and TV series set in New York had silently promised me: that it is the city to find and lose and find again.. love, usually with someone else who is also lost and misunderstood in the same crowd. Movies set in the city, especially in winter (Christmas) are still my absolute feel-good favourites. I re-watch them every December. The rational part of my brain is fully aware that New York City is one of the loneliest, most isolating cities in the world (sidenote: lose yourself in reading Olivia Laing’s ‘The Lonely City’ for a rich picture of this, what a beauty). But, the tiny part of my brain that is an eternal romantic, that chooses to dream fluffy, that wishes to be Mia Thermopolis, loves to hold that feeling of a hot-cocoa-and-snowfall romance in dreamy New York City.

(Hey, so what if reality is grittier than that, this is how I chose the souvenir for me.)


~M. xx

Recap: what is Souvenir Storytime? The magic of creation through words is always deeply nourishing. If new memories cannot be made, I decided to pay homage to all the beautiful places I have already been, by honouring my ~fridge magnet~ collection. Seriously. I had collected several over the years, knowing that they were the ultimate tourist-y kitsch. I have held them close not for their beauty, but for the stories within. With Souvenir Storytime, I am attempting to bring to life the memories held within these ubiquitous magnets – in no particular order. This is not to help people “armchair travel” (a term I’m growing to dislike through this pandemic). It is to re-live small, significant moments from years past. In the process, I hope to help you – dear Reader – recover your own pearls of memories from deep within. The journey will continue, but for now let’s pause and look back on its meandering path, shall we?

#SouvenirStorytime 1/28: The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen

Recap: what is Souvenir Storytime? I am kicking this off in lieu of nourishing time in the mountains up north. (Another lockdown is imminent in Mumbai, so the visit to the mountains will have to wait). The magic of creation through words is always deeply nourishing. If new memories cannot be made, I decided to pay homage to all the beautiful places I have already been, by honouring my ~fridge magnet~ collection. Seriously. I had collected several over the years, knowing that they were the ultimate tourist-y kitsch. I have held them close not for their beauty, but for the stories within. With Souvenir Storytime, I am attempting to bring to life the memories held within these ubiquitous magnets – in no particular order. This is not to help people “armchair travel” (a term I’m growing to dislike through this pandemic). It is to re-live small, significant moments from years past. In the process, I hope to help you – dear Reader – recover your own pearls of memories from deep within. The journey will continue, but for now let’s pause and look back on its meandering path, shall we?

First on the list: The Little Mermaid – Copenhagen, Denmark (December 2017)

Watercolour of the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen mounted on acrylic
Watercolour of the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen

I still remember that cold evening. It was my first winter in Europe, and my first time in Copenhagen. Also my first time experiencing what it means to have the cold “seep into your bones”. My father, who had been in Denmark several times, had often described the cold to me like this – and I always assumed he was exaggerating. It didn’t sound like anything more warm layers couldn’t solve. And yet – when I felt it, I understood right away. I couldn’t keep the chill out of my bones. And yet, such was my resolve to see the famous bronze statue of the Little Mermaid – I was happy to change two buses and walk down the otherwise empty waterside promenade in search of her despite the cold. Pink cheeks, nose leaking and stomach grumbling, I walked down with two reluctant friends in tow (a couple I knew from grad school in America, that I serendipitously bumped into in Copenhagen!). Only to arrive at this small, green-brown statue of a mermaid girl hunched over on a rock. It was….underwhelming?

All three of us stood and looked. Hmm. Was that it? Then again, what did we expect it to be? I thought it would be bigger, my friend’s words echoed our thoughts out loud. I thought it would be….more? But not really, I had seen pictures – I knew exactly what she looked like. In fact, a little replica of her had sat in the showcase of my childhood home for years. My father had brought it over as a souvenir from his first visit. It’s part of why I wanted to see her myself. She was exactly as I imagined. She was nothing more or less, and yet why was I disappointed?

I realised it wasn’t so much disappointment – as it was discomfort. It was a cold and dreary evening, the sky was grey and so was the dark water. She sat there with the waves lapping at her rock glumly, a forlorn expression on her unmoving face. Only the waves, and hopefully visiting seals for company. I had heard she was often vandalised by locals – how sad. To be so exposed to the elements, yet the only closeness she received was in the form of defilement. (Was I giving too much emotion to an object?) The stark setting of the statue and her loneliness made me feel, for just a split second, the miasma of feelings I liked to push away myself. As we walked away, I wondered what the sculptor wanted us to feel when he designed this lost statue.

The next day, I bought this beautiful magnet with a watercolour replica mounted on acrylic from a local artist. (More about her when I share another story on another day.) I thought it would hold this memory in brighter colours than it really had, and I hoped it represented the Little Mermaid on a happier day. To me it is a reminder of little journeys that are worth it for their own sake, even when the destination doesn’t match up to anticipation. This happens to me so often, it makes me shake my head and smile.

When has this shown up for you?

~ M xx

I Dreamt a Little Dream

I did a silly thing. Lived a little fantasy. I’m already feeling my ears go warm as I write about it.

No, don’t worry – it’s not NSFW. (Ha – if only)

Background: I am an independent single woman, I have taken thirty turns around our sun. This year has been all the more challenging being single, but I haven’t yet gone into the throes of “woe is me”. Neither am I keen on sending “haha-but-actually” memes to friends about why all the good men are gone. For that matter, I’m never keen on receiving them either. I like my company. For as long as I’m not in a committed relationship, I will continue to enjoy my own company. I mean, the inside of my head is a mad world in itself – I rarely lack entertainment. I’m also learning to love myself after many years of too much self-hate, and that exercise is best undertaken solo. Yes, I want to be married someday – but I’m not pining for it with urgency. What can I say, I’m just really not. \_O_/

And all the same..last evening, while watching ‘Virgin River’ on Netflix, I found myself fiddling with the only ring I wear – a silver ring with seven small orbs, on my middle finger. And without much thinking, I absent-mindedly slipped it off and onto my ring finger, just to see what it would feel like. And then I realised – some part of my mind was vaguely curious to see what it would feel like if, well, someone “put a ring on it”. I was surprised, and almost embarrassed despite having an audience of ..none. Tonight, again, did the same thing with the same amount of awareness. Realising after the fact that – maybe some part of me was not as comfortable being proudly single and independent?

I felt a tinge of sheepishness – such a childish thing to do. To play “married”. And yet, I flexed my fingers, just to see if a band looked (or felt) out of place on my normally bare ring finger. No, I decided, it did not. I almost felt more mature, more grown up for a second – like the real adult I always suspect I am not. Like I could feel societal approval warming my face already, the phantom applause from my liberal-but-conventional Indian family almost reaching my ears. And then – I had a thought: this looks the hand of a woman who could be a responsible mom. My ears started tingling with embarrassment again, for my silly childish fantasy and how ridiculous it was sounding with every second. I slipped the ring off and back on my middle finger where it belonged, shook my head and with it went that false miniscule increase in maturity, and woman-ness and whatever else. And yet, here I am – writing about this uncomfortable daydream. So it can’t have meant nothing to me.

Like I said – I’m Indian. My very Indian family doesn’t know what to make of a woman who is “thirty and single”. Much less one who calls herself a girl, is quite comfortable having adventures without a mister, and doesn’t seem outwardly perturbed at the lack of one in her life. They see me as approaching the end of my shelf life, as they know it – as my grandma says, even if I don’t look it. Why thank you, Amma. They think I’m painfully obtuse to this fact of nature, and don’t understand why I wouldn’t be panicking already. After all I’m down to my last two eggs. Why should I keep-calm-and-carry-on like I seem to be.

In front of them, I scoff. I play it cool. I’m relaxed, I joke, I tell them: “all in good time”. I believe it too. All in good time. When I’m alone, I believe it. I tell myself – all in good time. I didn’t ask for a schedule conflict with The Great Pandemic of 2020 when I thought I planned The Great Dating Season of 2020 for the same window. If the Universe decided this is not the time, I’m sure it will send wind in my sails (and the right men with it) in good time too.

But sometimes, when I’m alone, and my guard is falling, and my spirits don’t feel as optimistic and full of sunshine – my family’s voices echo in my head. It is more common now that I’m back home, and have weaker defences to their nagging. I also have to reluctantly admit sometimes, the challenges brought by this year would be so much more bearable with the comfort of a man-friend by my side. On vulnerable nights like this, I wonder:

Could they be right? What if I really am edging towards a cliff after which no one will want me? What if I never do find love? What if Ma is right – and I will become so rigid that I could not adjust to another human’s contours and experiences at all? What if I’m destined to spend the rest of my life more independent than I want to be?

Those evenings and nights deepen the fine lines that are starting to show on my forehead. No amount of moringa oil or anti-aging serum seems to wipe them away. I bet a dozen of my greys are basically these thoughts in hair form too.

So for a moment, I guess the little girl in me gave in to that guarded fantasy – of trying on a different life for size. With the slip of a ring. For a few minutes, I let myself be that woman that my family, our society, all the meddling aunties and uncles want me to be. And then with a shake of my head, I’m back to being the girl who bought this ring from a suntanned, kind-smiling Portuguese artisan on the streets of Sintra, and chose to wear it as a reminder of magic the seven orbs hold for her and the Universe. A deep breath and on we go.

~M xx

A Reluctant Admission

I know I said I would write more frequently than once a month. I remember laughing to myself in September at the thought of taking a whole month to post again. After all, I love writing. I would never post-pone doing more of it again.

And yet I did just that, again. I have been having this squirmy feeling in my belly this whole time, this discomfort that rises up into my chest. Because I know I have been putting off doing what I love. And until recently, I felt too much guilt to even look this avoidance in the eye.

I feel like I’ve been standing on a diving board. Looking down at the rippling blue water. Knees bent, all wound up like a coiled spring but not ready to jump. Not ready to jump. Holding that pose. Mind dashing back and forth between intent to act, and the comfort of waiting – because the jump cannot be taken back. It’s the same feeling I had when I was learning to swim at age seven – my swim instructor wanted me to jump into the deep end. And I just couldn’t. It was as if my feet were glued onto the wet edge of the pool. I could not get my feet off. I could not get myself to plop into the murky green pool. Why? Because I couldn’t imagine what that jump would feel like. I could only imagine jumping in and not being able to feel the surety of sturdy ground under my feet, I could imagine flailing and drowning. I couldn’t be sure that I would be able to surface and swim. I could only anticipate that primal fear, and was too scared to lean into the grey area between fear and knowing.

Today, two decades on, I am trying to (over)analyse a similar reluctance to commit to something that I love doing. It’s not obviously terrifying like a deep, opaque swimming pool would be to a child who can barely swim. However, it is terrifying in a deeper, more subtle way: writing has been the dream to me, full of potential, beyond that fear of plunging in. I’ve always told myself, in quiet whispers (lest they be overheard), that I think I can write expressively, engagingly. (Ugh, my ears are warm just from writing that sentence) That thought, rarely tried or tested, has been like a warm blanket to me, comforting me after a long day’s work, after a long season’s work, every time I’ve felt weary of my day job, my nondescript life. There’s been this naïve, hopeful thought – that in an alternate version of life, I could be a writer who can connect to the hearts of people through her words. That I could help another soul feel more seen, less alone on their journey. Not trying, not testing that theory – because what if it isn’t true?

What if I jump in only to prove myself wrong, and lose this mental safety blanket? This secret hope that was a salve when my less-exciting “real life” dealt blunt blows to the spirit? I can’t take the jump back. And I’d potentially be left with a void where this reassuring, blind dream used to be. Reluctantly, shamefully, I admit – I am unwittingly choosing to be comfortable not knowing. < pauses to feel pretty shit >

< takes a deep breath >

On that wet afternoon, aged seven, I didn’t jump. I kept crouching, wound up to jump, feet glued to the edge of the pool..until my instructor shoved me in anyway. I was terrified, but I surfaced. I swam. The salty pool-water mixed with the salty tears on my face, but I swam. And things turned out okay. Except that I was too terrified to go back to that swim class. That was my last swimming lesson for the next five years. It was probably also the beginning of my tendency to stop, to quit, at fear.

The last seven months have been a wonderful, painful, quiet, subtle journey to stop resisting fear and walk towards it. That has been an overarching goal of this time away from Real Life. Every single time I have leaned into the discomfort – be it big or small, visible or invisible – I have come out glad for it. So this time should not be any different. I have been blessed with one life as me, might as well live the most colourful version of it. Even disappointment, helplessness, disillusionment adds brush-strokes of colour – deep and bold – to the canvas of life.

So this time, this girl vouches to jump – even if it takes some time hanging out, all wound up, toes curled, on the edge of a metaphorical diving board. I can’t take this jump back, but I’ll see it through.