“I collect evidence of man’s inhumanity against God. The pain we cause him. We have poisoned his atmosphere. We have slaughtered his creatures of the wild, polluted his rivers. We have even taken God’s noblest creation, man, and brainwashed him into becoming our product, packed, stalked and canned.” — The Night of the Iguana, screenplay by Anthony Veiller and John Huston, based on the play by Tennessee Williams
I confess: I love my laptop. I bought my first MacBook in college in 1993. Except for a vile few years when my then husband persuaded me to get a PC, I’ve been on MacBooks ever since.
My last one stopped working just as we went into lockdown, and I was able to purchase a new one last month. Each generation of MacBook Airs, I must say, gets not just prettier – this one is rose gold – but also smarter.
I switched to using only its native apps – Pages, Numbers, Notes – instead of Word, Excel or Evernote. The interface is cleaner and more consistent, they load quickly and they don’t crash.
I recently wanted to give an external hard drive away. Simply deleting the files doesn’t actually clear them, and all the advice I found online were for PCs, which required buying additional software to properly do the task. Then I looked under disk utility on my Mac, and there it was – a security option to erase the data seven times, a process that meets the standards of the US Department of Defense. Seriously, it’s so clever.
I call my laptop Lady, and speak to it the way I do to the cats in my building (that is, with unqualified adoration). I called my old laptop Lady too. That’s because the soul of that one was reincarnated into this one when it died and this one was born. Yes, I anthropomorphise my machine. Even though of course I know it’s not human.
And I know that I am definitely not a machine. Even though I have often operated as if I were an all-singing, all-dancing seven-pass DOD-approving wonder. My god for so long has been productivity – a task–driven, goal-oriented, time-blocking robotic kind of productivity. So much so, my epitaph may well proclaim: here lies Nupu, she was efficient. (Good tactic, that – to contemplate your own epitaph; here lies Don, he played video games?)
When the lockdown got extended where I am to the end of July, I felt despair. I had already had many dark, dark days. I had given myself a pass – I didn’t have to do yoga, learn a language, bake bread or triumph in any way. But I also did everything to avoid focusing on the fact that I’m isolated on my own inside a concrete flat having a very intense experience.
I decided July was going to be different. I would not walk away from myself, but I would turn inwards. I would not ignore what I’m feeling but sit with it.
I lay down some parameters. I would pick up my phone once in the morning, once at lunchtime and then from early evening onwards. I would scroll the news headlines once a day in the evening. I cancelled the last straggles of social media I was on, Pinterest and LinkedIn. I removed most podcast feeds. I cancelled my Netflix subscription (I know!).
I decided that whatever I did, I would do just that one thing at a time. If I listened to music, I would just sit and listen to music. If I cooked lunch, I would just cook lunch. And when the monsoons began in earnest, I stopped everything else to really observe the torrential rain, the dark skies and the lashing wind outside my window.
And I sat with the discomfort of where I am. Not just in this current moment, but in my life.
A friend said to me that so often life is never bad enough to force a change but never good enough to be truly satisfying.
And that’s exactly what I was distracting myself from – confronting the low-level hum that was growing louder: this is no longer the life I want.
I thought my role in my work (and therefore my life) was to be the one who Gets Things Done. Who motivates and leads. Who puts together vastly intricate plans and executes them with precision. The one who shoulders the responsibility of being the adult in the room as other people get to play and be lost.
At the start of this year, I began to vent to close friends about how I wanted to move away from the film industry. Some months later I read the excellent memoir, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb in which she writes about how she started out working as a development executive in Hollywood. Her life and work was all she had ever dreamed of. Yet she kept thinking: I. Just. Don’t. Care. People in her orbit would talk about their industry as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world, and all she’d think was: I. Just. Don’t. Care.
These months of being alone and especially these weeks of actually facing myself have allowed me to say out loud what I’d only been whispering (okay, whining) about earlier.
I started working in films 25 years ago. I have done other work in between my mostly freelance life, but by and large, film has shaped my days – and my identity. But now? I. Just. Don’t. Care.
The final, most tenacious element was my ego. I had invested a lot of time, effort and money on some projects, and I wanted desperately to be associated with them, hoping their prestige would somehow validate me.
But these projects were vehicles for other people’s stories. And what I really, really want is to tell my own.
As the producer, I had to be the one who kept people in check. Now I want to be the one who gets to play. To have the chance to get lost and find my own way out.
And while I’m at it:
I also know I’d like to be in a relationship (it took a lot for me to admit this out loud).
I want to live closer to my family (we’ll see how the US elections go in November, then I’ll take a call about moving closer to my sister).
I want my work to be location-independent; just me and Lady, as it were.
I want to work more with my hands. In my dream life, I’ll spend a year on three-month projects learning different crafts in different countries and see where that leads me.
I know I want to live in nature. (I totally get that I’m romanticising what this could be in reality, but for now, starved of fresh air and green pastures, I’m craving it like water in the desert.)
Because I’m a floating, unmoored entity, I have to set boundaries for fear of the Eternal Drift. So I’m packing up my life and going to stay with my mother until more borders open up and then I’ll see. I’ll be ruthlessly efficient with my packing, I know, but for the rest of it, I just want to be my most human self.
Because ultimately, here’s the difference: a machine is programmed to do the same thing again and again. That’s how it knows to function, to do what it’s been designed to do.
Humans – at least, this human – are more mercurial. My heart expands at the thought of adventure. My soul soars when I have a tough, interesting challenge that stretches me. My mind thrills with all that is possible.
When machines fail, they’re broken. When humans fail, it means we’re the opposite of broken. It means we’re intensely alive. Fear is what keeps us in stasis. Failure means we dared to grow.
If there’s a message for me in these dark, difficult days it is that I have to change direction. Even if I don’t know which way exactly to head yet. Going towards the unknown is always scary. But that’s what makes this the most human of decisions.
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” — Joseph Campbell
Photographer Sam Haskins once told this joke: A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said, “I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.” He said nothing until dinner was finished, then: “That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific stove.”
A woman who called herself Peace Pilgrim walked 25,000 miles to spread the message of peace from 1953 to 1981. There’s a website dedicated to her work and words, which are shared freely. I absolutely loved the booklet Steps Towards Inner Peace, which can be downloaded as a free PDF here in various languages.
I am buoyed by stories of how some people just take longer than others to create their life’s work. In this exceptional episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell tells us the long evolution of the song Hallelujah. Every time I hear Jeff Buckley‘s version – from the sigh at the start to the last chord – it moves me to tears.
Join the journey!