The collective noun for a group of goldfish is a troubling. My father once shared the story of the time that I, as a child, blundered open the lid on his tank and dumped an entire canister of flakes inside. They were hungry, I reasoned, there’s no way that’s enough. The goldfish, unable to control themselves, overate until they died. Sometimes I still think about those poor freshwater sacrifices that still swim between the folds of my memory. I think about the wilted troubling, except this time I am in my mid-20s, and I am the one in the tank. The fish food, most irresistible, is my insatiable need for success.
I took a veritable plunge into the world of working full-time as an artist about a year ago. Letting go of the riverbank that was a sandy, if only marginally more secure job as a political advisor, I packed up nearly 28 months of back-to-back internships. Switching to skinny jeans and earbuds, I started working on my manuscript. As a performance poet, I also became obsessed with performing as often as I could, often working myself to complete exhaustion.
I remember depositing cheques, writing invoices, living between gigs out of my car that quickly became a travelling closet and a kitchen table. I made single-evening friends who shook my hand. I craved stage lights, thinking that even a faceless audience was better than no audience, without realizing that it was I who was becoming obscured and warped, like the bed of a shallow pond as it longs for even the distortion of sunshine. On a bus ride from Regina to Saskatoon between tour stops, my eyes started to blur hot and wet.
I do not know if goldfish can cry, but I knew that I was tired. My business degree told me that I had achieved a positive return on investment for the year — a successful start-up, by any means. But what it did not tell me was that I had cut myself off from living outside the fish tank that was my pursuit of art. So I started doing what a troubling of goldfish has, after thousands of years, never learned how to do: Slowly practice how to say “no.” I recommend other poets for gigs, set out on new timelines for projects with reasonable windows for doubt and failure, and spend one Saturday a month in the confines of my bedroom watching anime.
These days my father has two fish tanks, one carved into the wall of our foyer, the other in the basement, and none of them contain goldfish. They are filled with a single unruly betta, delicate angelfish, yellow cichlids, and the undeniably resilient suckerfish. When he goes on vacation, it is my job to feed them. Sometimes, I meet with friends at places that are not underground music venues or warehouse garage shows. I spend money on things other than medication or stage makeup. I take an Uber home from All Happy at 3 a.m.. When I get inside, I press my face against the glass of the tank: Have you eaten today? Was it enough?
Nisha Patel is an award-winning Indo-Canadian poet and artist, and the Festival Producer of the Edmonton Poetry Festival. She is a recipient of the 2018 Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund, and is a graduate of the University of Alberta School of Business. Nisha works to further her goal building a stronger artistic community. You can find out more about her at nishapatel.ca.