It is the horror of all horrors in the life of an Oxford student, as I confront on the Monday of Week 6, a laptop screen that reveals a blank Word document. The cursor waits impatiently, for thoughts, for words, for a desperate launch into something.
Everything in the cubicle of my room seems to be throwing itself into this wait, almost conspiring. The table, my emails, the wispy nests of hair on my floor, small notes and to-do lists on the softboard, the slowly-browning apples from two weeks ago, the esoteric academic volumes for the un-started essay(s), the new boxes of tea, the bare utilitarian walls—all seem to be surrounding my workspace, closing in on me, asking me when I’ll begin with the writing, and with the immaculate organisation and unflinching discipline that I’ve always dreamt of for my life. But I’ve overdosed on thoughts, and it’s difficult to, as we always say, ‘go on’. I’m reminded of a Samuel Beckett quote: “you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on”.
All of a sudden, I get up from the chair, struck by impulse. I quickly fan away the inert cloud of thoughts shrouding me, and throw on the new puffer jacket from college and my trusted beanie—my chief allies against the howling wind outside. I’m down again, in my college lawns, and there is a squirrel poised on the bark of the nearest tree, its furry back to me and a bushy semi-circular tail hoisted upwards. A sprightly squirrel, so removed and securely distant from the essay, the books, the lists and deadlines. Around the deep umber of the wood grow the spring crocuses whose tips glow in the sunlight, who bob their heads sometimes in the wind, giving calm reassurances that winter shall not overstay its welcome. My mind is filled with a familiar trill: you must take a picture! This must be on Instagram!
With squirrels, one has to be quick, armed with a phone or keeping vigil with a camera – ready with the intention to take a picture, lest, with the slightest movement on your part, they run up to the ease and safety of leaves and branches. Numerous times have I tried to capture squirrels on my phone but in vain. But now, there is complete silence, as the otherwise-restless being meditates upon something obscure to me from my vantage, but of deep value to its beady rodent eyes in the intricate folds of tree-bark. The moment is rare and perfect. Yet, I let this opportunity pass. I stand there and look; imbibe the image of the squirrel, the soft lilac of the crocuses, the boughs of the tree, and then, the soothing green expanses of the college lawns. The eyes must be satiated first; Instagram can wait.
The squirrel flinches and scurries up, snapping my seamless gaze and pulling me back to reality. I walk on, oblivious to whether I’m “keeping off the grass”. The four-o’-clockness of the day has gone, and the Sun is sleepily winding down, softening the sky into a cool indigo suffused with intermittent pinks. The image of my room and the long-deferred heaps of secondary material for the essay fades away in the pale languor of the settling evening, as time—panting, clock-bound, supposedly quantifiable, time—stops, and I stop with it, to linger and meander in the college lawns. I walk on.
I take a turn towards the other side of the college, a wee chunk of its immense, sprawling 14 acres. Sometimes with short steps, sometimes with confident strides, I’m not merely walking in the college grounds; I’m dripping in the micro-awareness of sensations. I’m aware that I am breathing fresh air, walking past the vibrant visuals of a ground carpeted with petals, and feeling gusts of wind against my cold fingers and masked cheeks. I may be unmindful of time, but I’m no longer regretting it. These moments of heightened awareness, of the fullness of life in and around me, in all the intricate and obscure details of the everyday, is mindfulness. I need it, for I’ve come to acknowledge that thoughts and readings and plans should not be the only things filling one’s mind. The mind needs images too—cool natural stimuli, like balmy rain filling the crevices of dry earth.
I walk on. The other side of the college is delightfully alive with colour. Sunny yellow winter aconites scattered across the lawn like a million kernels of golden corn; baby snowdrop bulbs with their pristine whites shyly facing the green ground; leafless trees with glazy barks the rich colour of red wine, and then, a tree with pink-red cherry blossoms scantly populating the tree, hence all the more beautiful in their rareness. The evening gets quieter, as the wind’s howling drops to a diminuendo of breezy whispers, and only bird sounds fill the air. An odd thing to happen, but from some hitherto inaccessible recess of the brain, I feel the gentle kick of an idea for my essay. How ironic, the power of quietude filling you with vigour. The Sun sets for good, and the sky is the deepest blue.
I’m back to my room. I splash my face with cold water, and heat the kettle for tea. My laptop has been sleeping; I open it awake. My fingers are spontaneous and autonomous, and start typing, while hot mists of ginger-lemon tea occasionally wet the laptop screen gently on its sides. Thoughts get distilled into words with surprising ease and they write themselves with little intervention from my inner critic. I write, write and write. I must go on. I can’t go on. But I’ll go on.
Cover photo taken by Amrita Shenoy