City of Girls

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My first encounter with Liz Gilbert left me unimpressed. I remember hearing all the buzz around this new movie called ‘Eat Pray Love’ a couple of years ago. Apparently it was based on some bestselling book by a lady who rediscovers herself. How unoriginal I thought. I was of course, in my teen years at the time. Still quite some way from any discovery, let alone any re-discovery. At a time in my life where everything felt achievable and the lives of most people older than me felt like stale bread, full of mistakes I was never going to make (you can laugh) and completely unglamorous, the idea of reading a book about a middle aged something who takes a trip just to, what…find herself again? Ew.

Skip to a couple of years later, I finally saw the movie in my twenties. By this time my worldview had become slightly more balanced, and I was also going through one of the first (though certainly not the last) heartbreaks in my life. And so naturally, I didn’t want to surround myself with people who were having a better time then I was. I wanted to unite with my fellow failures. This is how my second meeting with Liz was on better footing. She had one failed marriage behind her and I was newly jaded. She wanted to get back out into the world and eat to her heart’s content, and I had newfound appetite for donuts. Specifically, eaten in my bed. She was feeling spiritual, and I was…ok well, I was lighting incense sticks in my room to battle the donut smell. That counts for something. She wanted to find new love. I was completely uninterested for myself, but curious to see how it turned out for others before I even thought of venturing out again. I can tell you, I really enjoyed the movie. I think I even cried in it. I never managed to read the book though.

Skip to now. I received two of her books as a birthday gift form a favorite cousin. City of Girls and Big Magic. I won’t talk about Big Magic here, because it deserves a post of its own. But I will take some time to talk about City of Girls. I have to say, my appreciation for Liz has only gone up. Much like ‘Eat Pray Love’, I feel like City of Girls found me at the right time. As things often do. On the cover of the book sit says this is a book about celebrating female friendships. But it is a lot more than that too.

Honestly, it didn’t even feel like I was reading a book. The tone of the book is so conversational, you almost feel like you are being narrated the story by a close friend of yours. A friend, who, though you like very much, you cannot get behind every single decision of hers. And this is often the truth. Things are so much more fun when they aren’t clear cut. Because which one of us doesn’t have a friend we simply cannot support in all areas of their lives? We like them, yes, but we like them enough to admit they can be a pit of a pain sometimes. And would we live our lives like they live theirs? Absolutely not.

It also talks about friendships that you have to let go of. Some because you grew apart and some because you messed up. Both are equally hard to accept as I am finding out. Let me tell you about a friend of mine. Back in the day (not too far back though, I am not as old as I pretend to be sometimes) I was friends with a girl who was dating a man I could not stand. And I wasn’t overreacting or being imposing. None of my other girlfriends could stand him either. He had that quality about him, as some people do. But in all my youthful arrogance I thought I naturally had a say in the matter (a mistake I have since repeated many, many times). So, I went up to my friend and told her she should break up with the man. Simple as that. I won’t keep you in suspense as to what happened next. She didn’t break up with him. Not only that, she broke up with me! The audacity. She was kind enough to do it gradually though. To an outsider, it would almost look like we naturally grew apart. But I knew what the reason for this newfound distance was and I wasn’t happy about it. I absolutely refused to see how I could have been, maybe, wrong in this situation. And so, for many years after that, I could not get over this. How could someone I was so close to choose not to keep the friendship alive? With me?! But after a while it stopped being a why question. It stopped being an anything question, it just was. And the book put into words something I have felt for a long time now. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, it just gives you some perspective. Am I still hurt over that friend? Probably. But I also get it now. Some things you just cannot control.

Another thing I loved about the book was when the protagonist talks about all the fun she has as a youngster about town. I love how unapologetic she is about it. I think that for a lot of us, especially women, fun is treated as a finite quantity. In some cultures, certainly in mine, it is also treated as something that will inevitably have bad consequences. I don’t know how to put it into words. But there is this idea that was drilled into us from a young age where I’m from, “don’t have too much fun, you’ll regret it later on.” Or, “if you laugh now, you’ll cry later”. Or, “don’t look so happy, someone might jinx it.” And to that I say, um, why not? Sure, you need to understand that there are consequences to everything you do. If you drink too much, you will have a hangover. If you drink too much over a long period of time, you might run the risk of becoming an alcoholic. But surely not all fun needs to be so severely monitored and quantified? What about harmless gossiping with friends over coffee, or laughing at stupid things, or taking spontaneous trips, or healthy flirting? I like how Liz talks about all the fun her protagonist has. There is a part in the book, where our heroine talks about how she and her friends would head out every night to look for trouble, and hit the city “full throttle”. I loved it. You have all your life to be serious, but only right now to have fun. So, for those of you who are looking to spend a couple of days in the company of friends who know how to have fun unabashedly, I highly recommend the City of Girls.

Happy Birthday to me

I celebrated my birthday this last week. And as I completed another year around the sun, I tried to reflect on the year gone by. What had I done this last year that I was most proud of? That I was most grateful for? The idea came from something I had been reading up on sometime before. Keeping a gratitude journal. So, this is a thing a lot of people do nowadays (or at least, they make YouTube videos talking about how they do it). The idea is to get a little more niche with your journaling. Instead of writing down whatever you want in your journal; you keep a separate diary only to record things you are grateful for. You are not allowed to recount the details of your mundane existence in these hallowed pages, or worse, crib about it. Absolutely not. If, and when, something makes you feel happy to be alive you write it down. The hope, one can only presume, is to look back at the things you have written about, and realize that life is, after everything is said and done, beautiful.

Now, I am a big fan of journaling. It lets me talk without disturbing anyone else. It lets me analyze all my thoughts (especially the meanest ones) in an imagined setting full of understanding friends (my other thoughts). I don’t have to rush through conversations, and I get to decide what is important. Most importantly, I can talk about the things that are bothering me for as long as I want, and go into as many morbid details as take my fancy, without having to feel like I am being a burden to those around me. And through it all – through 4 years of extensive journal keeping – I have started untangling my thoughts a little, and just generally slowing down whenever I want to. However, as you can tell, my journaling is more the record-the-details-of-your-life-and-crib-about-it variety. Very few entries record happy events or happy times in my life. Because when that is going on, I usually don’t find either the time or the inclination to write in my diary.

But back to what I was saying. On this day, in an attempt to fight off the birthday blues, I gave some serious thought to the things I am grateful for. Although there are quite a few (and I feel very lucky to be able to say that) here are a few of my favorite things:

A large family

I mean large when I say large. I have relatives and more relatives and cousins and more cousins. But some of these I am close to. I have in the last year, especially enjoyed the company of a few of my closest sisters and aunts. Relatives are usually a prickly topic, and no one likes them in large doses. But I do. I love spending time with my family even when I hate them. There is so much comfort in having spent years, and possibly my least glamorous years, around these people. A sense of peace that comes from the fact that these people are blood and have seen me grow up. I say blood yes, but I also want to include a few really close friends in this list, those who have transcended the boundaries marked by blood. Even when I have fought with these people, judged them, been judged by them in turn, or straight up ignored them for their offenses against me (both real and imagined) I have remained very grateful for their existence in my life.

Good Food (and coffee)

The last year (and the year before that for that matter) has been spent in my house, not stepping out of it, for the most part. I cribbed a lot initially about the loss of my youth (yeah cringe, but true) but then I started appreciating some things. The thing I appreciated the most was all the good home-cooked food I got. I even developed a bit of a mini-chef attitude. I can’t in all honesty say I have become any sort of expert, but I did have the time to try out some fun things. Like making pasta from scratch. Do you know how much effort it takes to make pasta from scratch? I believe, I truly do, that if I had kept it up, I wouldn’t need to have a separate work-out regime (that I never follow anyway). It was blood, sweat and tears (just sweat, I’m being dramatic) but it came out so well! I also discovered how much harder it is to come up with a fun vegetarian dish. If you’re a meat-eater like me, then most meals are fairly standard. The vegetarians (like my younger sister) have it much harder. In my quest to make dishes all of us to enjoy, I discovered what a wide selection of vegetarian dishes some cuisines have. Like the Israeli cuisine. Seriously, if you’re a vegetarian you should definitely check it out. And then of course, there is coffee. Where would we be without coffee. I read somewhere (probably one of those unreliable pages on Instagram) that in the olden times, Turkish women were allowed to divorce their husbands if they couldn’t give them the amount of coffee they required. Seems reasonable to me.

Books, books and more books

Starting a physical library was one of the nicest things I did in the last year for sure. Hands down. No question. I have always been a reader, but seeing my shelves get full of books also satisfied my aesthetic sensibilities. I’ve already spoken about this a ton of times, so I won’t repeat it here, but you already know how I feel. I can however, talk about the books I liked best from the ones I read last year. If I had to pick my top three they would be Before the Coffee gets Cold, Anxious People and At the Existentialist Café.

The last thing I am grateful for is that I could, at times at least, get out of my head and do some of the things I have wanted to do for so long. Like start this blog. I didn’t think it would go anywhere when I started it, and I still don’t think it is going places, but it has helped me in imperceptible ways.

Drinking habits

Sometime in the beginning of this year I thought, perhaps for the first time, that I maybe had an issue with alcohol. That I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had originally enjoyed it. And then I wrote about how I had decided to quit it. I was quite good at that, or at least I thought I was. I stuck to not drinking alcohol at all for a couple of months. I even attended a few parties and resisted the temptation to join in on all the fun. Then, for some reason, I convinced myself that I could let it go whenever I wanted to, and so I really did not have anything else to prove to myself. I had done what I needed to do to show myself I was in control and I could maybe go back to doing the things I ‘enjoyed’. Ever since I have gotten back to drinking I have been thinking about a relationship with alcohol and how it has changed over the years.

Why did I start to drink? You know I honestly don’t know. It wasn’t peer pressure that got me started onto it. I was just one of those kids and I had it set in my mind that I was going to start drinking as soon as I could. That it would add something that had hitherto been missing from my life. I had my first night of drinking when I was sixteen. I was eighteen when I first blacked out. For many years after that, I thought this was normal. I thought it was okay to blackout and that if you didn’t, you weren’t really enjoying yourself as much as you’re supposed to. That the night could have been a lot ‘better’. I subscribed to ridiculous ideas of how I don’t drink to have fun, I would instead drink to get drunk. Like it is some serious milestone I need to achieve every time I pick a glass up. And if you ask me today why that was the case, what was achieved through all this, I really would not have an answer for you. That is just the way I thought. For me, there was no other way I was going to be involved with alcohol. I had to, absolutely had to, be one of those kids that got into it quickly and went in deep. And so I did.

Why did I keep up with it? This I do have a bit more clarity on. A couple of years into drinking – and I mean drinking almost every weekend – I realized blackouts were not the norm. That there were people out there who enjoyed alcohol without forgetting huge chunks of the previous night. At first, I scoffed at these people. Who were they? Why were they so boring? Did they not know that you’re young only once, and you can do all of this responsible drinking once you enter the middle ages? I was arrogant in all the wrong ways. But the thing is, as much as I maintained this on the outside, there was a growing disconnect between drinking and enjoyment in my life. I didn’t recognize it at the time. Every night of blacking out was followed up by an anxiety riddled morning. I experienced all the emotional symptoms of a hangover without any of the physical ones. I had intense self-loathing. I wanted to ask people what happened the night before, but at the same time, I didn’t want them to tell me something that would make me dislike myself. So, I never asked. I figured that as long as no one came up to me and complained about my behavior it must have been okay, and as long as I had no idea what I had done the night before, I could in some way distance myself from it. Which was, as you can guess, absolutely not the case. I still felt like crap every single time I went out drinking. And yet, I would pick it up again whenever I went out.

Was there a turning point? Absolutely. I just didn’t recognize it for what it was at the time. I think it happened around 7 years into my drinking. I started getting raging hangovers. No one really talks about how suddenly your body ages. You’re fine till one night of drinking (as fine as you can be), and then the next time you go out drinking, you’re hit by a sixteen-wheeler of a headache, nausea, cramps, body aches and shivering out of nowhere. I honestly didn’t even realize what was happening to me the first time I got a hangover. I thought I was genuinely sick. I panicked and told my flat mate at the time about it, who informed me that I was being silly, and it was just a hangover. Just a hangover? Is this what it felt like then? Wow. I was shocked, and also perversely impressed with myself. I had finally crossed over into the mythical land of adulthood (at least in this one aspect) and I could now claim camaraderie with all who were constantly (yet ever so stylishly) complaining of hangovers (think: movie characters). That lasted for about a minute, before I started loathing my hangovers. I had been turning away from drinking (at least the idea of it) for some time now, and having hangovers just gave me that additional push I needed. And so, I thought I’ll give it up. How card could it be.

And in the end, how hard was it? I haven’t managed to give it up yet. But I did leave it for a couple of months this year. The hardest part about trying to give up alcohol – this is only if you’re like me and drink with friends and not alone, because luckily that was a habit I never picked up – was realizing what a big part of your personality alcohol becomes. I have friends I started disliking spending time with because it seemed to me that the only thing we had connecting us was alcohol. I stopped wanting to go to parties or hanging out with even close friends, because for some reason people don’t take you seriously when you try and tell them you’re trying to quit drinking. They all seem to take it as a personal attack for some reason. As though their fun will become any less legitimate if you’re not as drunk as them. And even when they (finally!) leave you alone, everyone seems to view you suspiciously, as though one is simply not supposed to enjoy oneself sober after a certain age.

How did I get back to this place? I quit cold turkey for a couple of months because of a particularly nasty blackout and hangover. I felt uneasy just thinking about drinking in large settings after that night. But after a couple of months of sobriety I had the chance to re-explore my relationship with alcohol. I went out drinking with an old set of family friends and for the first time in forever, I drank in moderation and thoroughly enjoyed my night out. The entire vibe of the evening and everyone present at the gathering was so….immaculate. No one was trying to get you to drink more than you wanted (or needed) to. Here was a set of people who weren’t using alcohol to overcome some form self-perceived defect in their social skills. Nope. They were entirely comfortable in their respective skins, and around the people they had chosen to get drunk with. The circle was, for lack of a better phrase, airtight. After getting drunk with this set, I thought maybe it was possible to become a better drinker (I don’t know if this is the right phrase). For the first time since I had started drinking, I felt like I didn’t have to drink for the benefit of other peoples’ entertainment, or to show people I could still pull impossible feats of alcohol absorption like I did in my younger years.

I have since tried it out a couple of other times. And I found that I could, when I wanted to, drink in a way that let me enjoy the night and wake up the next day feeling quite alright. All I needed was a bit of control and a re-assessment of my drinking circle.

The bigger question

I can’t make up my mind on a lot of things, but the thing that sits at the top of my mind right now is marriage.

There is this idea that certain things need to happen to you, in your life, by a certain time in your life. You should finish school by the time you’re 18. You should finish college by the time you’re 25. You should be married by the time you’re 28.

For almost everything else in my life, I have stuck to the timeline. I am not 28 yet, so I might achieve the marriage timeline too. But somehow I doubt it. I have analysis paralysis for almost everything in life, and marriage seems like the biggest decision of all.

There are times when I think I might as well settle down with the first available option. At least then I shall have a friend for life. Someone who is legally obligated to spend time with me. As bleak as that sounds, it has a certain comforting tone to it. Wouldn’t that be nice? To stop looking. To stop having to go on half-assed dates with men I am not interested in the first place where all we do is talk about inane things. What is your favorite color? What do you do for fun? What is one thing you have ticked off your bucket list? What exactly is your job description? Do you enjoy the job you do? What are you looking for in life? Or worse, we make inane connections. Oh hey, I have a cousin who works at your company. I love dogs too. My job pays well, but I too, am trying to move into something a little more impactful. Oh, the dread of it all. The list goes on.

On the other hand, sometimes I find the idea of marriage suffocating. To be legally bound to one man; forced to build a life together, actually taking into consideration his opinions on things like furniture arrangement? No thanks. Sounds horrible. I can’t imagine watching a show someone else wants to watch. Or ordering food that is mutually desirable. I didn’t work this hard to become independent only to have to take someone else’s choices into consideration too.

On a more serious note, I can see the arguments made on either side of the debate. To settle down seems as fun as never settling down does to me. And that is my problem. I somehow always find myself standing in front of Sylvia Plath’s fig tree. Indecision galore, because in this moment, I could go for everything. So why spoil life by going for anything?

This is just what I think though. There are a lot of other players in my life, as much as I don’t like to admit it. My parents for one. They really do want to see me “settling down”. Because I come from India, a part of the world where arranged marriages are still very much a thing, the task of marrying is not an individual task. The entire family, sometimes the whole community, gets involved. So, once in a while, my parents will bring this up.

Why don’t you let us look for a boy?

If you have someone in your life, we would be happy to meet him.

If you don’t, let us at least start looking at some families. If we start now, we might find a boy in a couple of years.

After all, the process is long. We have to check if the family is suitable first, then check if the boy is someone you like, then see how all of us get along, and a hundred other things.

You don’t have to get married right away silly! You can have a long engagement. Really get to know each other before you decide to tie the knot.

I am skeptical. There are a lot of loopholes here. How do you get to know someone? What happens to the long engagement after you have gotten to know someone and decide you don’t really like that someone? What do you mean by a ‘suitable boy’?

But these are questions for a later date. First, I have to decide if I am ready to start the process at all. I have given it some thought already to be honest. I don’t have an issue with my parents (or even extended family) looking for a boy. No worries. In fact, the more the merrier. To me, it seems no different from a friend setting you up with someone they know and like. To be clear, I am extremely lucky to have been born to parents who are significantly more chilled out than a lot of other Indian parents when it comes to marriages. For me, letting my parents try and ‘arrange’ my marriage is a choice, and not a compulsion as it is for many others. Maybe someday I will write about the absolute horror stories I see around me on a daily basis, but not today. So, for me, it appears the marriage will be more ‘facilitated’ than ‘arranged’. Besides, I really don’t have the time or the energy to go out and look for someone myself (at least, right now). So, why not?

Losing friends

I am sure everyone has this, but there are a lot of times in my life, when I think I am the only one making any effort in my friendships. I seem to be the only one constantly reaching out, asking to meet up, or asking the other person how their day has been. While this description feels tilted in my favour (and rightly so, since I am very unlikely to cast myself as the villain in my own story), I do acknowledge that it might sometimes also be the other way round. Maybe there are people in my life – friends – who feel like I’m the unresponsive one. Like I am the one who never wants to reply to texts on time or to hang out with them. While I certainly know the first instance to be true, I am self-aware enough to admit that the second one might not be so far from reality either.

So why have I been losing friends? Why does anyone lose friends?

Apparently, there is an age beyond which most of us will start to lose friends. That age is 25. Quite accurate I think – since I’m 26 right now. Till you’re about a quarter of a century old, you have the energy and the willingness to keep expanding your circle and to cultivate whatever circle you have. But more often than not, once that mark has been reached, your enthusiasm starts to wane. You inevitably start letting go of people. And that isn’t a bad thing. You start to let go of people because you are (usually) no longer looking for transient or frivolous connections. Now is the time to build a life you want, and people who do not contribute to that in a significant way will inevitably be left behind. That is just the way it is.

And I’m not talking about emotionally draining or toxic friendships. Those you should let go of regardless of the stage you are at in life. I am talking about good, decent friendships that one may have enjoyed at some point in their life. I am talking about really good school friends or college friends.

Another reason a lot of people have been writing about nowadays is the pandemic. Because the pandemic clarified a lot of our priorities, naturally, the only people we spoke to during this time were either people we deeply cared about (thereby removing an entire layer of superficial friendships) or people that we found convenient to talk to (thereby removing some long distance friendships too). The pandemic led to the formation of something called ‘pandemic pods‘ in terms of relationships. It reduced the number and kind of people we had historically interacted with to either people who were very important to us or people who were following the same standards of care and hygiene as us.

But as guilty as I feel for not reaching out to people more often, or as mad as I am about people who don’t bother to reach out to me, there is nothing unnatural about losing friendships as we grow older (and hopefully wiser). It could be for a number of reasons. Reasons I have mentioned above, or even some of those toxic reasons I have deliberately left out (don’t we all just have a couple of friends or people we know that are such an emotional drain on us?). Instead I really like to think of it in terms of this new concept I learnt – something called “friendscapes“.

As you can probably tell by the name, it means cultivating landscapes of different kinds of friendships and acquaintances that serve different purposes in our lives. Put simply, “your friendscape can change during certain, specific situations during life – going away to university or a summer camp, or being in a certain job – and you often begin curating new friends to fit that current life situation. Not everyone can fit into your current friendscape.” I like this idea a lot because this is exactly how I feel about a lot of people that have either come into or gone out of my life. There are friends I have lost touch with because I became busier than them, and friends I have gained instead because we work the same kind of hectic jobs; friends I have lost touch with because they are in long-term committed relationships, and others I have gained instead because we are a bunch of singles looking to do fun group based activities around town.

So, yeah, while it is tempting to think of lost friendships in terms of blame and bitterness, I think it is a lot more helpful to just think of these lost connections as a fact of life and move on. Makes for a more peaceful existence. And I’m nothing if not obsessed with that.