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Brain Smog

by K. Shah


I lost my voice for a few weeks recently. Because of smog. From wildfires.

But this essay is not about that type of smog or fire. 

This essay is actually partially old essays of mine, and it’s more about when I lost my voice, and verve and way, for much longer and starting a long time back. 

The air still hasn’t fully cleared but here we are.


Contemporary Hindu-American funerary cremations, as I’ve attended, include:

  • viewing the body 

  • prayers and rituals per the family’s piety 

  • a solemn walking of the coffin to the (safe, enclosed) pyre 

  • fire, ashes 

  • crying 

Don’t fact-check; pardon, I’m an atheist and also sure I’ve blurred together the 5 < x < 10

Indian funerals I’ve been to in thirty years. 

I can picture most of the above from my first cremation attendance, witnessed at six years old as I was running and giggling between front row cousins. 

Poor decorum but forgivable. 

Still, surprising behavior from a painfully shy girl. 

But it makes sense that the quiet began after then. Ash dashed over my founding beliefs and there lingered a dusty, choking smog. 

I see it now

Heavy existential truths I was too young to process shushed me and I didn’t mention that death, or the life before, to anyone for years.

English class 

How do I relay it better than when I did first, few times and far in between since, to my 6th grade English teacher, Ms. Terri Lee. Ms. Lee! 

Ms. Lee was caring and warm and encouraging and recognized I needed glasses. She was safe. I wrote authentically for the first time and then every time in her class. 

[Writing is always a voice, as I am just recently rediscovering.] 

It came up via a book report on Bridge to Terabithia, a 1977 award-winning story we read that year ft. a traumatizing childhood death. 

What was your reaction to Leslie’s death? How can you connect with the characters in this story?

It's sad to have to die so young when you've hardly even started your life. 

I can connect Leslie's young death to my life because when I was five years old, I got a little brother. Then, one day when he was a little more than one year old, we had to take him to the hospital. 

See, my mom usually woke my brother up at around 5:30 to give him some milk, but when she woke up to do that one day, she found him not breathing. My mom woke me and told me to brush and get ready very quickly. I was only about six years old, so I didn't really know what was going on, but I did what my mom told me to do. 

That was sometime in the month of April. My brother stayed in the hospital for almost three months, then died June seventeenth. The doctors never did find out the cause for his death. 

I can still remember the funeral. Everyone was crying except for me. Just like Jess, I too was thinking to myself, “Hey! Look at me! I’m not crying.” I still remember a coffin being lowered into a hole. 

For a long time after that, I used to think that the whole death – even having a brother – was a dream, since I was very young when all of this occurred. But now I know that it is true and I accept it. 

Death is a horrible thing but after a while you get over it and move on with your life.

I haven’t worked out many more facts; do they really matter? 

I did share baby’s name with Ms. Lee. Thank your Ms. Lee’s.

Baby’s life and death were never brought up with family (because how could my grieving parents possibly, back then … my god.) and why would you whisper about this at a sleepover? Ms. Lee wrote back “I am so truly sorry about your brother’s death” and it was all I needed to validate what had happened in my mind. 

But the smog: Of course family members die(d). Of course siblings die(d). Of course babies die(d). 

My notions of existence seeped into the wide-ruled loose leaf sheets and are a bit horrifying to read now in an adult’s voice. 

Reiterated elsewhere in the report: “It’s scary thinking of dying at such a young age because you’ve hardly even started your life when it ends.” 

Is that not how most adolescents think? 

I see it now

I was scared numb. Death had normalized as an ever-present ominous threat when I was six, and so had the idea that chance could render you pointless and forgotten.


Ms. Lee uncapped my spirit and for the rest of middle and high school I used creative writing assignments to battle my existential fears. 

Angsty angsty, morbid morbid. 

Another reading? This one from my jaded teen years- skim for the “twist” and the sensory details. 

GEPA Writing - Speculative 

Period 2 

Like blood being pulled into the sky, the deep crimson fire rises. Its flames work their way through the apartment building, room by room, leaving nothing but ashes. 

I'm the little girl in the middle of the crowd. You know, the one holding the cute puppy. No one has suspected anything yet... I laugh. They'll never figure it out. 

One by one, the smoke detectors in my building had gone off. The maintenance crew made everyone evacuate their apartments. I was the first one outside. Of course, that's because I knew what was happening. The fire department had called the Pacific Gas Company, thinking that the fire had started because of a gas leak. 

Scatter some clothes along the hallways (it’s too early for anyone to notice), ‘spill' some kerosene and gasoline on top, and then light a couple of matches. The flames burst up; it’s almost like art. 

You can't see the fire now, since it’s on the other side of the building, but you know it’s there because the flames are jumping towards the sky (that's how big it is... I’m so proud) and the clouds are turning smokey gray, 

Memories, possessions, even some people are being. burnt to a crisp. Nothing left but black dust. People outside crying, sobbing over their losses, this “horrible tragedy.” It’s wonderful. I have to withhold a smile. 

Burn, baby, burn… arson is such a pretty word. I gaze over to the building down the street. This will be fun… 

This was the prompt:

Did I understand the assignment? 

I think I thought setting the fire meant I could escape getting burned. Or that I could maintain immunity and indifference to the consequences? 

I didn’t need to be that worried, yet (still?), but life felt so … flammable.

> What was the fire I was running from if it wasn’t one I set? 

Obvious now

My writing was onto something, slashy and stabby for a while until I outgrew the violence.

Still & silent death was far more compelling than chaotic gore. 

In my 20s, OCD gave me control (spoiler alert: no it did not) that writing no longer could after the school prompts stopped.

Also spoiler alert: friend of the smog, the OCD had probably been emanating from that untended brush fire for a long time, too. 

I swear I’m good at seeing patterns in other people. 

But if I could just 





problems solved. Life could have a point before imminent death and meaninglessness swallowed me whole. 

Periods of high-functioning anxiety and high-functioning depression and low-functioning depression cycled through when ruminating didn’t bring me meaning, unlocked, with a tidy bow. 

And at intervals, death swooped down on others I loved and their fires eventually sputtered and the embers cooled and the ashes lay still as life continued on. Point proven that getting burned was inevitable. 

So then why even bother at all? 

> Smog compounds. 

The rub is, if you don’t know you’re breathing smog, you don’t know there’s clearer air. And if you don’t know that there’s a tiny fire still burning somewhere, you have some bigger problems.

It seems maybe I shouldn’t have been thirty-six when I realized a baby sibling’s passing affected my life view. But I’m trying not to deal in should’s. 

When I recently lost my literal voice, I was sick and stressed so I organized stuff, as one does, to self-soothe. 

I looked through a lot of things. 

Many past writings, which I’ve reread over the years but never really read. They worked their way into therapy because that’s what therapy is for and I realized I was SAD so formatively existentially perpetually sad. And confused. 

What else but an early death could have entrenched such a fear of life? 

That young older sister had been grieving. And certainly could not see the point to an uncertain world. 

What a lonely reckoning. 

I see it. 

And how now to undo decades of death’s looming presence in my mind and a losing quest to discover-meaning-before-it’s-too-late? How does one stop inhaling odorless fumes? 

When I was decluttering, sorting, storing, labeling, etc., I noted a bag of all-white outfits.

Doesn’t everyone have go-to Hindu cremation attire? 

I learned early on but never took the time to consider: the white dress code symbolizes respect, rebirth, peace, and purity. 

I could use those things. Because I suppose it’s not that a fire won’t start again. It’s that air (life?) can cleanse itself in between. 

Ash dispels.

Smog clears. 

You can breathe easy, sometimes at least.

I see it. I said it. 

Did it work yet?


Part-time introvert and full-time cynic, K. Shah spends a great deal of her time sparring with her stream of consciousness. She had "scribbling suit" tattooed on her arm about a decade ago and is finally bringing her inner Jo March to life. K. Shah lives in the Northeast with her husband and two cats.


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