Ars Poetica

Nishta J. Mehra

During my most formative years, my family took a lot of road trips. Not being born in America, my immigrant parents felt this was the perfect way to see the land and to experience their adopted country: by driving across as much of it as possible. They’d begun this tradition before I was born—barely making it through the Death Valley heat in their old, AC-less Volkswagen—and they had what seemed to my spoiled, first-generation self like over-romanticized notions about the charm of roadside diners and quaint little town squares. I did not quite see the appeal of having to schlep everywhere in a car, envious of the white girls I went to school with whose old-money families flew to Europe for spring break and only took driving trips to spend long weekends at their family’s lake house.

Like so many things about my childhood, these road trips ultimately turned out to be deeply meaningful to me; they are experiences I see through a very different set of eyes as an adult. Did my parents ever think twice about driving our decidedly Brown family through Mississippi and rural Louisiana to get to New Orleans? Or across middle Tennessee to get to the Smoky Mountains? When I look back, I remember noticing that we were the only non-white people in restaurants or hotel buffet lines, but never feeling especially uncomfortable or unsafe. Perhaps our class privilege provided the necessary protection, coupled with the buffer of our skin color, which was decidedly not white but definitely not Black, either. No one named white supremacy for me as a child, but they didn’t have to. Being born and raised in Memphis meant that racism was the water I swam in since birth, and a large part of what was so formative about these trips was the way I learned to pay attention to subtleties, to notice how the feeling in the room shifted when my family walked in, and the way this shift differed depending on whether we drove north, or east, or west, or (further) south. The car gave me plenty of time to reflect; I’ve never been able to read in a moving vehicle without becoming incredibly car sick, and being an only child meant I did a lot of gazing out windows, listening to my parents’ music, and falling asleep in the backseat. My parents never tried to entertain me, nor did I expect them to. Was I born with the capacity for a rich inner life or did I develop one? Hard to say. I was given the “Miss Love of Learning” award at the end of first grade, and my parents seemed to take that moniker to heart, toting me to every museum, ranger station, and cultural center they could find. No surprise, then, that I became a journal-keeping kid who knew early on that she wanted to be a writer someday. 

Spending so much of my time in the company of adults meant that I cultivated a kind of separateness, the sort of preternatural maturity that made other grownups refer to me as an “old soul.” I grew accustomed to hearing myself described as “sensitive”; I cried easily, and in scenarios that didn’t make sense to other people. (I famously refused to complete a kindergarten assignment that included selecting a favorite color because “I didn’t want to hurt the other colors’ feelings.”) For the longest time, I had no idea that other people did not feel all of the same feelings that I felt. 

The page was my refuge. Words poured out of me unbidden, and, for a long time, I shared them with no one. Writing felt spiritual to me, not simply something I did but more like who I was, way down deep on the inside. Certain people in my life seemed to intuit this about me: teachers, mentors for whom my gratitude knows no bounds. Still, I did not know quite how to think about my writing. I have a very clear memory of being eleven or twelve and kneeling on the yellow linoleum of the kitchen floor, begging the God of my understanding to speak through me, to allow me to be a vehicle, vehemently promising to answer a call I could distinctly hear. 

Though my Hindu upbringing and Episcopal schooling provided fertile context for my experience, I was afraid to share about this moment aloud. Would speaking about what had happened shrink the feeling, take away its magic? Talking to God was not exactly fashionable in middle school, even less so in high school, referenced only as something that people did in the past, or that crazy people claimed to do now. As far as I could see, there was no overlapping space where I could be taken seriously as a smart girl—something I was quite invested in at the time, especially as a student of color in a majority white environment—while also being freely permitted to speak about my encounters with what I would now term the ineffable. And so, for a long time, I kept that second category private. 

Grief brought the realms closer, their noses touching for a time. In 2006, I lost my father very suddenly and unexpectedly, just a few weeks after having traveled with my parents to India for the first time since I was a baby. Though we didn’t drive there, our three weeks together proved to be the ultimate road trip of sorts, my parents and I crammed in close quarters for days on end, occupying liminal space and exploring territory at once familiar and disarming. India was their homeland, of course, but by then both of them had lived in the United States longer. I was born in America but felt constellated points of longing for and connection to Indian culture, language, food, music, and religion. That trip, in which we traveled to many cities, including my father’s hometown, was filled with a sweet ache: quasi strangers in a strange land. I was twenty-three, traveling with my parents for the first time as a nascent adult . We laughed a lot and I found myself remembering how much I liked them, how much I liked being their kid, realizing how lucky that made me.  

Within a month of our return from India, I watched my father die in a hospital room in my hometown, curled along one side of his body, my mom along the other, our family unit, un-done.  Death is steeped in mystery, a life event inside of which many of us turn to our cultural rituals and traditions for comfort; I was no exception. Hinduism teaches that one life is but a cycle amongst cycles, time a mess of circles and not a line. Rounds and loops felt right to me as I grieved, my father seeming both here & gone simultaneously, contradiction my new norm. The self I was before he died was both meeting and creating the self I would be once I could no longer interact with his body on the physical plane. Grief offered me the chance to live cracked open for a time. Less politeness, fewer filters—my performative barriers and worries over what others would think had been significantly lowered—one of my best friends called the new version of me “Nishta Unleashed.” When you’re “the girl whose father died,” there’s an inevitable air of precious tragedy that people like to project on you, despite your best attempts to get them not to, so you figure you have less to lose and more to gain in speaking about what really matters. 

Invariably, though, even this sense of earth-shaking existential crisis can be overtaken by the concerns of mundane societal expectations. Adult me eventually became disloyal to that wild-eyed baby prophetess who pledged herself to the divine so many years ago. I wound up thirty-something, failing to honor the promise I had made to myself, but this fact was so lost on me that my body had to let me know via the one mechanism I couldn’t ignore: by causing me physical pain, and lots of it. 

Which is how I found myself, just before the start of our global pandemic, reporting the experience of acute, persistent migraine headaches to my then-primary-care doctor. I have a high pain tolerance, like many women (ask nurses, they know who is really tough), but the fact that my brain, which had for so long been my refuge, had become a place from which I sought escape, was unbearable. I could no longer muster the required energy to turn to the page. I barely survived my days at work, navigating home life in a daze. Existence became a tangle of neurologist appointments, injections, pills, treatments, supplements, sick days, phone calls, exhausted collapses into the bed, and canceled plans.

Pain is uninteresting to everyone except the person who experiences it, and even then, the appeal wears off. I became bored by my own pain, afraid that I was becoming irrelevant, ceasing to exist. Who was I if I could not teach, could not parent, could not write? Pain makes a very poor companion, and rather enjoys maximizing presence so that no one and nothing else can occupy your time. I worried about Stockholm Syndrome: was I making nice with my pain or simply getting used to him? There was a vivid cartoon image of a tiny man practicing the drums inside my head at all hours, sleeping on a shabby couch, squirting Cheez Whiz directly into his mouth in lieu of actual meals and playing hacky-sack with his bros. His name, I decided, was Trevor.

I resented the freeloading. I wanted to evict Trevor from my brain, kick him out, tell him what a jerk he was, how badly he needed a shower and a haircut, and also how hurtful it was that boys like him had never seemed to be attracted to girls like me. Of course, resisting Trevor only made me more exhausted. In a desperate attempt at conciliation, I asked if I could call him “Trev” and wondered if he had any messages to share. He did, he said, but he wasn’t sure if I was ready to hear them just yet. He did consent to laying off of the drum practice at least, which granted me some time and space to read the work of other writers grappling with pain, both past and present. As with other life experiences (coming out, becoming an adoptive parent, confronting my own internalized racism), I quickly realized there was a whole world and well of wisdom which I had never given a second thought. My experience was not at all unique. 

Cristina Rivera Garza asks: “If pain occurs beyond language…then what does it silence?” Language had long been my go-to, the written word my default place for making meaning and creating understanding; now I was being pushed to try a new medium, to exist inside of a different plane and occupy myself there as well. As my resistance to Trevor waned, a curious phenomenon emerged; I began to notice that my waves of pain often contained crests of profound writing thoughts, ideas weaving themselves together almost without effort, as if my personality, my ego, were altogether absent. All of this was taking place inside the quantum sandwich of pandemic time, a global surreality both backgrounding and offering valuable perspective for my personal saga. I was not dying: not immediately, anyway. My MRI had turned up nothing worth noting (both a relief and, somehow, a disappointment.) Inside this stew, I found it increasingly difficult to decipher - when was I allowed to surrender to the pain and when was I supposed to push through it? Was the pain a message? Were the headaches the muse? Were my pain and my creativity somehow connected? And, if so, what on earth was I supposed to do with that

For as long as I could remember, I had written to understand myself and the world around me, to make sense of things, to figure out what I thought. But my new squishy brain and trippy experience of time made that notion seem suddenly laughable, the universe being so insanely, well, infinite and shit. I found (and still find) it so deeply humbling, how pain could be cracking me open so completely. Pain, that most ordinary of human experiences, not so much a fog, or even a haze, more like a waving in the air, as if off of the pavement when the air gets too hot in the summertime. One afternoon, before passing out in the bed, I managed to scrawl in my journal during a particularly rough episode: Maybe what’s trying to break out of your brain isn’t Athena, but actually you.


Today my mother and I performed puja for Navratri, actually the second Navratri of quarantine; I couldn’t have guessed that. I remember when we marked the first set of Hindu holidays right at Covid’s start and my daughter asked why we were still doing puja even though everything was crazy and upside down. I replied that it was in the most disruptive times that we needed ritual the most; I felt the truth of that today, singing the Sanskrit hymns I know by heart from childhood, gratitude swelling in me at the sound of my voice joining with my mother’s. This sensation grooved into my brain, a deep comfort, linking me to dozens of other instances when we stood just like this, together, singing. Times when my dad was alive and stood with us.

If time loops back and in on itself, that sure would explain how grief works. Losing my dad over and over, missing him while also experiencing his nearness; I swear I could hear him cursing at Trump in Punjabi tonight, and it felt good to still have access to him so readily. The fear of him fading, of losing him over time - I feel it releasing. Perhaps some of what has felt like spiritual growth these past months has, in fact, been an unraveling of my conception of time. And also of self. Because if those two things don’t work the way I think they do, suffering doesn’t either.

I’m beginning to believe the convergence of contradiction is at the core of everything. If light is a wave and a particle, then fuck it, we must also be walking paradoxes, subject to our own quantum dilemmas and unbelievable yet observable phenomena. You know that everything can change but what you forget is how different that change can look, depending. There was the dramatic rupture of your father’s death, the way it sawed your life into two like a cheesy casino magician, but this change is more subtle, much harder to discern from the outside.

The ground of being in grief is fertile but also terrifying; that sense of feeling like you don’t know anything for certain, that’s how being a person feels right now, on a large scale. Not knowing how to prepare. Not knowing what will make any of it feel better, or if there is a “better.” It seems we need a whole new language, and of course we do; when we resist the singular pronoun “they,” our objection is never about grammar. That’s just pretense.

Perhaps the reason prophecy and pain are linked is that pain renders you unable to maintain a filter and you wind up saying what no one else will.  Surely access to prophecy is not predicated on something predestined, but rather a willingness to walk through if the door opens for you, the way I asked for it to all those years ago. Best to remain humble, or to redefine humility—my my, there is so much to learn. 

These thoughts can only dribble out, find crags & cracks between the pounding, but perhaps I wouldn’t even know what to do if this pain suddenly disappeared. Trevor lives here now, at least part time, and trusts me enough to tell me things. He is determined, as I am, that I will not lose myself again. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of these cranial earthquakes, but they sure do a fine job of forcing me to remember: flashes of geographic memory, pulling into the driveway of my childhood home, parking lot of the bank where my mother would take me along to retrieve the good jewelry from a safety deposit box, the railroad ties that served as a boundary for my kindergarten playground. The less outside noise, the more memory bubbles up. I don’t believe that pain has a meaning and I sure as hell don’t think it’s redemptive, but I am starting to believe it might be a portal. 

Trevor has taught me that everything is something—whether to be discovered, discarded, or deciphered. Nothing I’ve collected since those early road trip days is a waste: I gather the miscellany of my youth to me like a magpie with a nest full of shiny treasures. My father’s abiding love of a warm biscuit, which I inherited; the lyrics to every 70s rock song, courtesy my mom. Their shared love of discovery, that willingness to get in the car and go, to see what can be found or experienced. Comfort with silence. Bias for a Southern accent. Politeness as a value. Curiosity. The ability to nap anywhere. A commitment to tipping generously. 

My childhood shaped me to observe and pain pushed me to remember. I write to gather myself back to myself to answer the true call, to walk in my dharma, to witness, to sing, to enact this self and touch my parents across space-time. Much as I might prefer to live inside another, the voice inside has convinced me that I was built for this timeline, always meant to land and learn inside this quantum sandwich.