A walk in the woods

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The largest Redwood to fall in the park. Click to see the labels on the rings

The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.

-John Steinbeck (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

That’s how I felt as a friend and I walked on the trail at a state park we drove up to. It was a moment of peace with the cool air of the forest, air so fresh you can smell it, and a silence as comforting as a fuzzy blanket. Despite the mountain lion warnings, when you’re surrounded by 1,500 year old trees, you feel safe. Just as the city seems to magnify most problems, a walk with nature seems to shrink things into perspective.

The trees have seen it all. Seen us all. All of us human beings – tiny, impetuous, presumptuous, self-aggrandizing, afraid, lonely, and cynical. Surrounded by trees that are centuries old you finally whisper aloud some thoughts that you have been carrying around in your head long enough to be a burden. These thoughts have been festering, multiplying, feeding on each other. It’s ok, the trees will say. You are not the first to have these thoughts nor will you be the last. You are just another random point of chaos in a world that you have no control over. Do as we do, the trees say. Set down roots and fight your battles alone.

But suppose, just suppose, you are not alone. Just suppose you walk down the same path not in companionable silence but in conversation. Suppose you forget for a moment everything in the past that’s made you cynical and closed and you say say out loud what you’ve been carrying around in your head. Suppose, surrounded by the trees that have witnessed countless friendships over their millennia of existence you feel reassured?

We are not trees (or ents). Our lives are short and moments of happiness are shorter still. We sensitive folks who live in our heads tend to forget that. Each of us at some point has been so deeply hurt that we chose to cut ourselves off from reality and live in our own cocoon instead. It’s perfectly understandable*.

For most of my life I’ve been told that my sensitivity is a my weakness and that is partially the truth. Look how I’m hurt even when no hurt was intended! See how I sense what you want to say before you say it! Behold how I detect the minutest ripples in The Force! My sensitivity can even detect gravitational waves**! Sometimes it’s nice to meet a fellow gravitational wave detector***. We all just need to hang out with our own kind sometimes, don’t we?

It can be quite a party when two sensitive introverts spend a day together. We open our conversation with a discussion of Trump’s racism versus the popular media narrative of caste in India. He explains how self-driving cars are proven to be impossible. We talk about the carefully constructed class profiles in Business Schools. When we walk on the trail we look up at the redwoods and discuss the rainfall patterns in temperate and tropical forests and how it influences the size of the tree canopy. He talks about forest fires and the cycles of nature. I talk about Krishnamacharya’s school of yoga. This is our idea of small talk.

As we reach an incline, I am compelled to point out that he walks like a giant. I need to take three steps for every two he takes just to keep up. I make him stop and measure. Of course we measure. We are nothing if not precise. We have a brief discussion comparing his stride with The Hero’s. The Hero is taller than the friend. How am I able to keep up with The Hero but not with the friend? We conclude it’s because he’s never adjusted his stride for anyone else. This leads us deeper into the woods – both literally and metaphorically. Why is he still single? Why is he working insane hours? More importantly, is he happy?

It is left as an exercise to the reader to imagine the conversation that follows. I cannot give out any details without compromising on the privacy of a person who spoofs his IP address to keep Google from tracking him. There are brief moments of lightness – a girl on the trail compliments him on the sound his shoes make, he chases after the model steam train (his giant stride coming handy) to take pictures of it for Chotu. But for most part the tone has shifted.

We’re in borderline therapy territory now. Each of us playing Devil’s Advocate, therapist, sympathetic confidant, and rational analyst for the other. We can observe at the patterns in our own lives, talk about the people closest to us, reveal our darkest moments and yet be so detached and clinical. In the company of someone so similar, I will not shed the tears that come so easily otherwise (I might have cried watching Zootopia on my flight). They’re not needed because we are so methodical, so brutal, so thorough, and so analytical. Dissecting emotions is the only way we know of to deal with things that overwhelm us.

Then suddenly, we have enough. Dig deep enough anywhere, he says, and you will find water. I agree. We are both masters of the art of knowing just how far to dig and how deep to probe. We’ve learned well in our twenties. There’s an unspoken agreement then to veer back into the “real” world.

We leave the cafe where we have spent half an hour eating eating and three hours talking. On the way back to his car I stop to look at some shoes on sale. Dr Giant Steps takes a while to notice I’m not keeping up. He looks back in disapproval. “Those shoes are $15, they’re not even worth stopping to look at”, he says. I jog behind him and meekly agree.

We ease back into light banter, or our version of it anyway. I figure he’s had enough of me. I’m an introvert, I know we both need some down time to recharge. But a true gentleman, he sees things through to their logical conclusion. He takes me on the promised drive around Silicon Valley (something we planned to do when he picked me up in the morning). I expect him to take me back after we’ve seen the highlights but he takes me shopping for food. He remembers my complaint about how hard it is to find good food without a car. We first go to an Indian store and then, sensing my reluctance to eat Indian food here, he drives me to his favorite bakery where he selects some very nice things for me to take back. He’s still not done. As he drops be back off at my hotel. he offers to take me out to dinner any time I need to go out.

That defines the way sensitives approach a human connection. We see everything through to the very end. Down to the last shred of energy we have to give – even to someone we don’t really need to. Dr Giant Steps is actually The Hero’s friend but I couldn’t help but get involved in his problems and he in mine (albeit his being more serious and mine mostly revolving around boredom and food). Given he’s so much more introverted than I am, he’s probably exceeded his weekly or even monthly quota  for socializing. But he’s still willing to take me out to dinner if I need it. Why? No real reason except that’s who he is.

If I did not have a similar temperament, I would not know that he needs his week of peace and solitude to recharge. An extrovert would feel sorry for the workaholic who lives all alone and ask him out to dinner every night. “My treat!”, the extrovert would exclaim. An extrovert would feel sorry for me, all alone in my hotel room, and try to keep me occupied every single evening. It just wouldn’t occur to either him or me to refuse. We wouldn’t want to do it, but we would go anyway. At least I would. The extroverts mean well, they don’t intend to hurt us but we get hurt anyway.

This is the reason sensitive people try to stay guarded with their emotions. We don’t know how to do things half way emotionally. We’re either all in or all out. You give us a little, we give you back a hundred times more. We see someone who needs help, we go all in. We’re the kind of people who obsess over other people’s problems. We are, in short, perfect suckers. We attract people who love to take advantage of us. As a result, we can either be detached, cold, and cynical and go against every instinct we possess. Or we can learn to deal with the constant heartache that comes with being a sensitive. Either a redwood or a banyan. With all the sensitive people I’ve encountered in my life, there’s rarely been an in-between.

As Dr GIant Steps perfectly puts it – you live by the sword, you die by the sword. Your biggest strength is also your greatest weakness.


* Let me throw in some numbers for perspective. Introverts account for about 30% of the population although estimates range between 16-50% with the Myers Briggs scale evenly dividing people into E’s and I’s. The population of sensitives (Highly Sensitive Persons or High Reactives) is estimated to be about 20%. About 70% of all sensitives are introverts but that still makes highly sensitive introverts quite a minority in the overall population. This is one of the reasons sensitivity, as I prefer it reactivity, is not well understood.

** That is a lie.

*** He cannot detect gravitational waves either

Leaning in – Travel

A great opportunity has come up for me at work. It involves kick-starting a new project, expanding the scope of an engagement and working with a new group of stakeholders, and huge learning on the data analytics side. The assignment is with a marquee client and I cleared four rounds of interviews with them. Yesterday they said they want me on board. Everyone is pleased to hear the news. But I don’t feel a sense of achievement. Instead, I feel terribly guilty for being good at my job because it means I need to travel onsite for a couple of months. I have to leave my family (read son) behind.

In the larger scheme of things, I think it’s ok. The Hero will not be traveling when I’m gone. Even if he is, it will only be for day trips. Chotu will be with his dad and his grandparents who will be staying with us while I’m gone. The other set of grandparents will be visiting frequently. I’m sure the first couple of weeks will be hard but knowing Chotu’s temperament, he will settle in quite quickly. I will probably miss him more than he misses me. This is the rational side of me speaking. This is The Goddess who’s confidently reassuring nosy concerned colleagues and friends that Chotu will be fine in my absence.  The other side of me wants to sob into her pillow.

Now let’s take a moment to think. The knee-jerk reaction to the situation would be to say, “Would a man refuse an assignment that involves travel? Neither should you.” However, is this the right question to be asking? I don’t think so. The question implies that daddy won’t be missed as much as mommy if he travels or that men’s families just have deal with the inconvenience of travel. The question also implies that I need to “think like a man” in order to be successful in my career. Well, both those assumptions are wrong. I’ll tell you why.

Firstly, there’s been a gradual shift in attitudes. One of my male colleagues, for instance, would prefer not to travel because, I quote, “I would miss my boy too much.” The Hero isn’t particularly fond of travel either. Thankfully, his job involves very brief travel rarely extending beyond a week or two. I’ve observed other men who have taken a similar stance.

Secondly, if women end up approaching work/life balance the way men traditionally have, men would have to step up and become homemakers to provide the stability women traditionally have. Or, you’d have to outsource childcare completely to a third party. There’s no way around it. Two people cannot manage between them two careers on high gear and parenting. It’s just too much work.

If we choose not to outsource childcare beyond a point (a very personal choice) and we both want fulfilling careers, there’s only one alternative. We need to take turns to scale back on the career front and take up more responsibility on the home front.

Over the last (close to) four years The Hero and I have worked our butts off to build a family where both careers are equally important and all of our relationships are equally important – Chotu and mom, Chotu and Dad, The Hero’s and my marriage. We’ve worked hard to build a world where both mom and dad have to work and both of our jobs are equally important. We’ve done our best to structure our days such that one of us is spending time hands on with Chotu when he’s not in school.

Sure we’ll grow slower than we would have otherwise. The Hero might publish fewer papers or file fewer patents. I will not land a fast track a promotion. But he will publish. I will eventually get promoted. And we will do good work meanwhile. More importantly, all of us will have our needs met.

Of course it’s going to be rough on all three of us if I travel. We’ll all miss each other and it will be much harder for the boys than me when I’m away. But still, we have to try. We’ve laid the groundwork for it. Now we just have to see how it goes.

 

I finally have time to breathe

We’re finally settled into our new house and while the community is filling up rather slowly, we have next door neighbours who are in our age group and have two kids. We’ve hit the jackpot! 🙂

For approximately six months now the “new house” has sucked up every spare moment and every weekend. We were chasing the builder, the interiors contractor, banks, etc etc. I can’t remember a weekend with nothing to do. We’re still not there yet, but I can see the end. It involves a fabulous dinner party. It was stressful but well worth the effort.

 

We finally have what we desperately needed – more space. As nostalgic as I felt leaving our old flat behind, I also breathe easier now. I don’t have to take client calls from the kitchen anymore – or ask The Hero to turn off the TV and the noisy fan in the living room. Two people can shower at the same time without water pressure going down. No more plug points that might short out. No more horrible open shelves in the kitchen causing all storage containers to be coated with grime. Space for a microwave. Space for an oven so that I can bake. Space for book shelves so I can read paper books again. In short, we have space for spreading out.

We also finally have a bit of time. Now that we don’t have to choose laminate, tiles and electrical fixtures, we can actually watch TV or spend some time as a family. I can read, I can blog, I can practice yoga or music. Or even just (gasp!) do nothing.

So many things have happened in the last six months. I was down with dengue in November but luckily it was followed by our house warming ceremony. In December there were floods. In January I joined full-time at my current job, February and March were sucked up by a horrible, horrible project at work. In April and May we were visiting the site every couple of days – getting work done and moving. In June Chotu started big-boy school, it’s been exhausting. I’ve also been falling sick fairly frequently – understandable but still hard.

I’m now looking forward to the rest of the year where we’ll hopefully spend some time just relaxing and settling into our new home. I don’t want to hibernate and cut myself off from the whole world as I usually do when I’m drained. Actually, thanks to spending most weekends on errands/site work lately, I’m desparate for human interaction.I want to blog, I’d like to go out and visit friends, meet people, go out by myself or with my own friends, and just have a social life.

A boring routine, complete lack of excitement and a bit of monotony would also be nice. I could also do with a complete lack of activity, free time, and sleep.

Here’s to the future – specifically to August.

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