Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Being Smart: A True Story

I am working on a post that isn’t quite ready, so in the meantime, I am going to tell you story. 

It is a true story.

*   *   *

Once, a lady decided to go back to college and finish her undergraduate degree. It was not enough for her to go to a regular college, so she got into Harvard.

She was surprised.

Before that, she had attended a small Community College. When she graduated with her Associate of Arts Degree and a 4.0 GPA, someone remarked that it couldn’t have been very difficult as it was just Community College. Even though many, many other people said nice things and assured her that she was bright and intelligent, she always wondered.  

Now, she thought, it is not just Community College. It is Harvard. I will find out if I am smart or not.

It was a long journey to Harvard, and she had to fly into the worst airport in the world, Logan in Boston. Then she had to take a taxi to Harvard and find her dorm, get an ID, and figure out many things. She had to eat cafeteria food.

On her very first day on her way to her very first class, she was overwhelmed by the Harvard-ness of it all. The trees, the buildings, the harried-looking students! The Harvard Lampoon building!  Harvard Yard! The statue of that guy in a chair! The dining hall that makes Hogwarts look like an underfunded public school!


It was exciting, but she worried that she wasn’t smart enough.

On the very first day in her very first class, her (Linguistics) professor casually mentioned an ongoing debate (regarding Linguistics) that he had with his colleague Noam Chomsky, who taught over at MIT. Holy crap! The lady nearly swallowed her tongue. Not only was she being taught (and graded) by someone who KNEW Noam Chomsky, she being taught (and graded) by someone who DISAGREED WITH HIM TO HIS FACE. Noam Chomsky, the Father of modern Linguistics. It’s like having a disagreement about science with your buddy Einstein. TO HIS FACE. 

Her Harvard-high plummeted when it became clear, on the very first day in her very first class, that the professors were very intimidating and the work was extremely challenging. She was even more concerned that she wasn’t smart enough, but she was determined to try and find out.

As she left the building after class, a flyer caught her eye. Salman Rushdie (one of her heroes) was giving a lecture over at MIT later that week. As she stood there, gazing at the colorful array of flyers and notices, she found herself thinking…huh. Salman Rushdie, over at MIT. Noam Chomsky, over at MIT. Oh my God. All the cool people are over at MIT! What am I doing at this cut-rate, second-class school? If I was really smart, I would be at MIT.

She felt terrible. This whole place was clearly a sham: no wonder they let her in; she wasn’t smart at all. But maybe, just maybe, if she could get into MIT…perhaps for Grad School…

As she trudged back to the dorm, she suddenly realized how silly she was being. It took a few blocks.

So it was, that on her very first day after her very first class, the lady admitted that she really wasn’t very smart…just not in the way she originally suspected.

*   *   *

Yes, of course that’s me.

I tell the story now and laugh at myself, but it’s an uneasy laugh…because even though I recognize the foolishness and danger of that kind of thinking, sometimes I can’t help myself from doing it.

I’m always a little suspicious that I’m not doing enough. Or that I’m not quite smart enough, or whatever. It seems that the minute I accomplish something, I conclude it was not worth much, and immediately start seeking the next hurdle…hoping that once I achieve that, I will feel I have achieved something. It never works; there’s this thing about trying to find happiness on the outside rather than within bla bla bla you know how it goes.  

The good news is: I do learn. The inner critic is quieter. I try to appreciate my accomplishments-- even bask in them a little. I am getting smarter about the things that matter.

But ok, ok, I’ll admit it, although after sharing that personal fable and tidy moral lesson, it is a bit embarrassing: my GPA at Harvard is 4.0.

I mean, it’s a good school and all, but there’s only so much it can teach me. I’m still struggling with the really hard lessons.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


(You can also read a more coherent and informative explanation of Shivarathri by my friend and colleague Anju.)


It’s Shivarathri—the Hindu festival of Shiva, Lord of the Himalaya, bringer of change, definer of contradictions: he is both detached ascetic and passionate sensualist, a flesh-and-blood man and a nebulous idea. He has a thousand and one names, and no name at all. He walks amid ancient civilizations on the banks of the Ganges and runs fierce in uncharted wilderness. He is the Lord of Animals and keeper of human hearts.  He is death and healing. Shiva dances amid flames, his long hair whipping around him, his drum a blur of savage sound, yet he sits eternally silent in stillness. He is an arrogant warrior that howls with a demon horde and a gentle sage who speaks quiet wisdom in heaven. He is the space between moments.

Live cobras are his adornments but he sits upon the striped skin of a dead tiger. He is arcane and recognized, shadowed and bright. Notorious and respected, perfect and flawed. Imbued with light and too dazzling to look at, he is only revealed in darkness.

He is celibacy and fertility: an impulsive, temperamental lover and a faithful, patient husband, a nomad and householder. The Goddess pines for him, her love unrequited; he throws himself at her feet. His love for her almost destroyed him, the Destroyer. Beholden to none but answerable to all, beyond existence but rooted in the soil of our world. He is the remote sweep of the Himalaya and the lush immediacy of the jungle. He is a bastard and a saint, brutality and compassion. Lord of the dark night, a crescent moon rests above his brow. Shiva is reveler and revealer, unraveler. My life-long patron.

I am named for the moon. Saumya: as gentle and serene as the moon. If you know me, you’re laughing.

The Deodar (Himalayan Cedar), is sacred to Shiva. They are second only to Redwoods in height. This is a rare “Trishul” Deodar, which represents Shiva’s trident.

Shiva moves me and stills the world. I am always sleepless around Shivarathri. Some degree of insomnia is my natural state (there’s a reason my blog is called nsomniasaum!) but in this month when the snow is heavy on the ground and the moon is waning away to nothing, sleep seems to abandon me completely. I feel called to wander, to dwell, to think late and deep. While my work is a natural extension of my spiritual principles, right now I feel the call of the primal. I lose interest in my responsibilities; it’s a struggle to stay hitched to reality. Last year I had the sense to take a vacation around Shivarathri: the jungle in South America was the perfect complement to my urges and mood. This year I am faced with an overflowing inbox, numerous half-completed tasks and a growing, growling restlessness. Rather than follow my instincts, I have stubbornly (and half-assedly) been bumbling around and trying to get stuff done. I did just take about a month off of work to have and recover from surgery, so there are pressing worldly matters to attend to.

But slowly, surely…my motivated, practical and driven nature is subsumed by the mystic in me.  I want to withdraw, to walk forest paths and follow my thoughts, to hear the wind and the wildness. I feel myself simultaneous rising beyond and sinking into myself. There is no stopping it.


The paths to my forest may be snowed in, but I don’t need my body to wander. My thoughts are sometimes wildfire, other times as quiet as the sky. Again and again, an ancient chant tolls in my mind:

Om Namah Shivaiya: Praise to Lord Shiva. I am the namesake of the moon in your hair: the crescent, cupping darkness. We are the same.

This is my current truth: I am the object of my own longing. Everything I reach for is contained within me. I am responsibility and chaos, fetters and freedom, spirit and flesh. Ever changing and never changing. Shiva and Saumya. The river full at my feet, an empty moon above. Darkness lights my way.