THE STRANGE, MISSHAPEN THING surfaces during spring cleaning every year. You know it will this year too. "Why is this thing still here?" someone will ask you exasperatedly. "Throw it away."
"But I don't want to throw it away," you will protest. "Fine. You don't have to look at it. I will hide it under my bed. Happy?"
"But it will simply gather dust and cobwebs," they will say, unable to understand your unreasonable attachment to something so completely useless. "What is it even?"
You wouldn't know what to say. Maybe it was a vase once. Or a pitcher. Who knows. It is ugly. It has corners that lack even the ambition of being rounded. And if it ever had any colour, you couldn't now prove it in a court of law.
You will have to agree – this thing is unworthy of occupying space. And you will realise you have forgotten just why you hoard it.
You secretly watch the potter at work every day. His hands mesmerise you. Can you really create something out of dirt simply by touching it gently, then firmly, gently, then firmly again? They told you in school that the Earth rotates on its axis. But who pushes it? Is it a potter up in the sky, creating something out of dirt simply by touching it gently, then firmly, gently, then firmly again? Your heart aches with longing.
One day, you gather the courage to walk up to him. "Will you make something for me?" you plead. He dismisses you with his glance. "I don't have time, kid. I need to finish making my pots, and then I have to go to the market to tend to my shop."
"Please," you beg, softly. "Please make me something? Anything."
The potter wipes the sweat off his brow and looks at you again. Your eyes tell him that if he doesn't make something for you right now, you will come again the next day, and the day after, and the day after that.
"Fine," he says, walking over to his other spinning wheel, the one he uses to test new designs. He slaps on some clay and begins to manoeuvre it with hurried fingers. You watch wide eyed as a shape begins to emerge. What will it be?
"Come back tomorrow when it's dry," the potter says impatiently. You nod, knowing you won't sleep tonight.
You run back there after school the next day. The potter hands you the thing.
"What is it?" you ask him, amazed. "What have you made for me?"
The potter realises he hasn't thought about it. It's an odd thing that cannot be named. He is a little embarrassed. "Well kid, it can be anything you want it to be," he tells you. "Now go away."
You don't know it yet, but you will battle the world to hold on to the thing. That odd, ugly, useless thing will be unfit to hold flowers or water. But it will be enough to hold the crumpled faith of a child long gone that if you ask nicely, you might just find something that can be anything you want it to be.
A few nights ago, I had a sad feeling. It struck me that we are all walking around with the exquisite pain of being un-understood. That you and I and even your cousin who is always oversharing on Instagram are like so many lost languages that no one will ever know, or sing or write poetry in. Is there a bigger grief in the world?
What if we came with a user manual called How to Understand Me, I wondered. How nice it would be if we had something we could refer people to when they asked, "Why are you like this?"
User Manual for the Self was born out of that fantasy to make lucid whatever we crave the world's understanding for. I describe it as a field guide for living with too much feeling. I think you know what I mean.
I have no idea what my plan is with this new space. For now, I am going to send out an edition of User Manual for the Self once or twice a month, as a complement to the more research- and analysis-driven work I do for the main Sanity newsletter. I hope you will indulge me.
If you like the idea, share it along. And please support my work by choosing one of the options below.