Coping with the Tide of Life

Photo by Richard Smith

Photo by Richard Smith

Today I feel lost and broken and sad. I’m sitting in the conservatory of the house we rent in Geneva. The doors are open and a light breeze is playing with the hem of my dress. The sky is a blue blanket dotted with wisps of cotton. I want to fly into it and disappear. I’d prefer dark clouds and cleansing rains. Black kites soar above me, casting shadows on our lawn, noisy and ominous as they search for prey. Just ahead, past the swing set, stands a tall lavender bush surrounded by splashes of colourful tulips. The beauty does not lift my mood. All I am conscious of is uncertainty and my own inadequacies.

I’m not sure what brought me to this place. A sense of having lost an anchor, perhaps. A mixed bag of niggling worries. Worrying, according to Buddhism, is a useless emotion, a waste of energy. Usually, I can identify the reason for feeling low. I find a solution or apply a plaster: a hug, tea and biscuits, sleep, write lists to keep from feeling overwhelmed, listen to music, dance in the kitchen with the kids. All of these usually help. But emotions are complex and cannot always be controlled, soothed or even recognised. Sometimes, they are just a murky mist of shapeless ghosts. A fog that eventually lifts.

I am grateful for the silent expression of writing, the soothing rhythm of my fingers as they move over the keyboard, that I don’t have to articulate my thoughts out loud. There is magic in surrendering to a blank page, of savouring the words which appear, a reflection of self. There is wisdom that comes with not rushing to analyse, of not having a conversation partner trying to fix you. Because sometimes a black tide of sadness comes in, and we have neither to make sense of it nor ignore it. What helps is just to be with it, to accept that the sadness will recede and we will find our footing again.

As a child, I was honest about my feelings, clear when I didn’t agree, unwilling to be artful. My parents sent me to a small primary school with a home away from home philosophy. They felt I wore my heart on my sleeve and needed to be protected. As an adult, I understand that there is both strength and fragility in baring ourselves to the world. Life is messy. It is nothing like the polished images we present of ourselves on social media. It twists and turns, and that is part of its beauty, the bright dawn against the night sky.

All we can do is cope in our own way, ask for help when we need it, do the work, make progress inch by inch, and remember what we are grateful for.

My 2014 Blogging Year in Review

Photo by Chris Chabot

Photo by Chris Chabot

It’s 18 months since I first started blogging. I started this blog as an antidote to a fiction-hating friend. I was unable to convince him of the merits of fiction, and a few weeks later I wrote my first words here. It was my penance for being such a weak defender of something that has been a crutch for me my whole life. It was my homage to words, both fictional and non-fictional, which help me understand the world.

Then something strange happened. This blog began to grow, and slowly, it was not about my friend, it was about me claiming some space for my thoughts, sharing my work and meeting wonderful writers, poets and artists, many of whom have become friends. So for that, Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, Friday Phrases, Monday Blogs and Flash Friday, I thank you.

WordPress sent me a report yesterday of my blog activity this past year. One day I would love to go to Australia. When the kids are a bit older the 24 hour flight will be a breeze: a reading/movie marathon. WordPress tells me that the concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. Apparently this blog was viewed about 9,900 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about four sold-out performances for that many people to see it. That is huge, even if half of those viewings were me and my mum!

The busiest day of the 2014 for this blog was May 5 with 793 views, the day my article ‘The Forgotten Joys of Longhand Writing’ was Freshly Pressed. On average though, I tend to get about 20 views a day and that increases marginally if I post more than once a week. The next most read pieces were my short story ‘The Voyeur’ (which I have now taken down as it seems Akash isn’t finished with me yet and his story has begun to grow into a novel), ‘In Praise of Slowness’, ‘Fear of Change and The Promise of New Beginnings’ and ‘What I Wish I’d Known at the Start of my Writing Journey.’

The WordPress stats report tells me that my top referring sites this year were Freshly Pressed, Twitter, Facebook, Make A Living Writing (where I did a guest post a while back) and the WordPress Reader. So no surprises there. What did surprise me was that readers came from 124 countries. The US was the frontrunner, with the UK and India not far behind. I’m a Londoner of Indian heritage living in Geneva, so that was pretty cool. I currently have just under 1000 blog followers. Jo Blaikie, Graham Milne, Amira K. Makansi and Sarrah J. Woods were my top commenters. Thank you all. If you haven’t checked out their blogs yet, then make a note. You’re in for a treat.

As for me, my favourite posts this year were ‘Losing and Finding Stories’, ‘Loving You’ and ‘The Pact’. ‘Losing and Finding Stories’ was written on a day that the poignancy of life seemed to stare me in the face. Everywhere I looked there were stories that were sad, and beautiful and funny and it struck me that there can never be enough writers. Now that is not something you hear everyday. ‘Loving You’ was a first for me. I don’t often share poetry. It is a form I am not confident about. It takes a particular type of writer to distil the essence of a thought into a line of poetry and the poems I write are usually confined to the pages of my journal. Writers such as B.G. Bowers, Jane Lightbourne, Rachel Thompson, Rachael Charmley and the #FridayPhrases community approach poetry with such ease and skill that they have made me more willing to give it a go. ‘The Pact’ was a project that was unplanned, an idea that bloomed overnight and showed me how generous writers are with their time, how clever, courageous and funny even within strict word and time limits.

The best and the hardest part of blogging is the moment of indecision just before I press publish. I wonder if I’ll come across an idiot, if readers will be irritated and bored, or if my words will resonate. Sometimes silence greets the posts but then later, a friend will mention a line I wrote. That’s a gift. Committing to this blog makes me grow. I’ve also had moments of real synchronicity and peace this year, when I have found clarity and hardly noticed my fingers moving over the keyboard and for that I am grateful.

Next year, I hope to diversify the blog. I’d like to incorporate more of my own photos, post more poems and short excerpts alongside the articles, maybe experiment with audio and video files. This will remain my canvas to empty my thoughts onto. Sometimes I’ll bring yearning, at other times it’ll be questions, fear, love or anger. At the end of 2014, I know that whichever piece of me I bring here, I’m safe. Thank you for that.

Happy New Year my loves.

Loving You

Photo by Blentley

Photo by Blentley

My love for you is burned
onto the pages of my journal
It pools in the grooves
where my pen has pressed
The past in a capsule

Let me savour the man I knew –
the one hidden by cares
I’ll hold the memory of us
on my tongue
and let it mellow there

In unguarded moments
we buoy
Interlaced fingers,
lingering kisses I want
to keep in a glass jar

By night our feet are magnets
Lumps of flesh melting together
Warmth that spirals up
to where my heart is
And yours

I mourn for the day
we will be separated
by a force greater than me
I will rip the cries
from where they are buried

And try to follow you

Dear Santa: the Best Kind of Present

Christmas is over five weeks away and I just bought myself a present. I grew up in the UK and my Indian parents would bring a plastic Christmas tree down from the loft. It was small. Fast forward thirty-three years and I am married to a German. Christmas is celebrated on 24 December with a real tree that is chosen for its magnitude and I spend a significant amount of time during the festive period on my hands and knees sweeping up an avalanche of pine needles.

Over the years as our family has grown, choosing gifts has become stressful. Despite the best intentions not to go overboard, our desire to please each other inevitably results in a mountain of gifts that are ripped open and quickly forgotten. The kids are beside themselves with glee, and torn pieces of wrapping paper fall from the sky like snow as we lose track of who gave what to whom. It is happy and exasperating mayhem.

I think long and hard about what gifts to buy. Kids love the same en vogue toys which make their mothers groan. Do you play to the likes of family (“no, I am not buying you a box of cigarettes, granddad”) or go the education route (“how about this book on Imran Khan, dad?”), or try and force some much needed relaxation on them (“we couldn’t possibly take the time out for that spa day, Nillu”)? What’s wrong with another perfume or scarf for mum, or a pair of socks or aftershave for dad, you might ask?

Photo by Kevin Dooley

Photo by Kevin Dooley

But what if there are some significant misfires in your present history? Like the time I was given a clothing item I turned upside down and inside out, none the wiser to what it was, before dissolving into fits of giggles in front of the mortified present giver. And when my mum visited recently and brought us some toothpaste and a box of tampons. Make of that what you will!

It’s the thought that counts. We are lucky enough to be in a position that all of our needs are fulfilled. The rising wave of seasonal materialism can leave a bitter taste in the mouth especially when the world feels bleak. There’s nothing to say we need to give presents, or that we shouldn’t give them to others instead.

Except we all want to feel loved and it is a joy to open a thoughtfully chosen present wrapped up in glistening red, green and gold on Christmas morning. So what if we disregard the surprise factor and ask for what we want? I’m not very good at accepting gifts or compliments, for that matter. When I am asked what I would like to receive, all sound thoughts evacuate my mind and I am left with a very guilt-ridden “oh, but you don’t need to buy me anything”.

Still, let’s face it, there is enough potential for clashes during the festive season – over what kind of gravy to make and whether Brussels sprouts are a must-have or a smelly no-no – to be coy about what we would like. If pressed, my wish list would read:

  • A new set of pans because frankly the ones I still have from university are embarrassing
  • Some free time for a lie in and then a whole day of writing
  • A massage not restricted to one hour (who doesn’t feel disappointed when the time is up?)
  • A bath without my two year old coming in and shouting “boobies!” at the top of his voice
  • A weekend at a yoga retreat to see if the enlightened me I think may be lurking inside is really there
  • A glass of wine that is invisible to my stricter-than-me Muslim parents for when the conversation gets really boring

My favourite presents tend to be the ones I buy myself. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s a very happy mix of self-love and control-freak. The present I just ordered for myself is this planner, which is a hybrid of journal, calendar and goal setter. I am very excited (although I will break down and cry if the second edition has the typos which reviewers said were in the first edition).

What makes seasonal festivals special – Eid, Christmas, Diwali, Thanksgiving, you name it – is feeling loved, connected and grateful for what we have. Presents have somehow become central to our experience of Christmas, but my favourite parts of it are: the quiet moment when everyone is round the table and too busy eating to speak, carols being sung unexpectedly in the street, and the lights. The lights are awesome. As for presents, here is my letter to Santa.

Dear Santa,

please bring me a present which is cheap and useful but shows me you know who I am.

Love,

Nillu

Over to you. What is in your letter to Santa? What are the best gifts you have received and have given?

A Smoking Gun and a Plea not to Jump to Conclusions

It’s a horrible habit, isn’t it? Waking up and before you’ve even stretched to reach for your phone on the nightstand. I do it daily, scanning the news headlines and social media before my eyes have even focussed. It’s the sort of action which removes you from your physical environment and throws you into the external world. There you think you’re a participant, but more often than not, you’re a bystander, a spectator, a voyeur with cotton-mouth.

The kids and I went to a friend’s house for a Halloween party today. There were fancy dress witches and wizards, crocodiles and pirates. It was Geneva at its best, an eclectic mix of cultures celebrating a tradition that none of really grew up with. The woman whose house we visited is Muslim, a lawyer, who like me married outside the faith. Her children eat chicken sausage rolls and go to Qu’ran lessons. It reminded me that religion at its best does not have to be at odds with modernity. Instead, it is an enabler, a source of comfort and enlightenment that provides a framework for lives in which we still retain choice.

I sent the kids for a nap once we got home and crept into bed myself. When we woke I reached for my phone and it was then I realised the world had turned on its axis again: there had been a shooting in the Canadian parliament. The breaking news came to me via The Guardian, but I soon turned to live coverage from @josh_wingrove, a Globe journalist in the midst of the action, as he reported his experience tweet by tweet. There’s something macabre about our appetite for immediate on site coverage of trauma and atrocities. It seems less about empathy and accountability than to do with a morbid enjoyment of the unfolding events which reinforce our own fears.

Solutions. The overwhelming majority of global citizens abhor the crimes we see playing out on the international stage. Why are we unable, as a collective body, to block out the evil? Am I the only one who dreams of a flash of white and for poverty and hunger, war and disease to be felled? Childish fantasies. We may never truly know if evil exists in the womb, pushed out into the world in a gurgling baby cooed over by its parents. In his excellent essay entitled ‘A Devil on Both Shoulders’, @jabe842 says ‘it would be nice to think that Evil was that anthropomorphised little demon on your shoulder, an impulse that could be swept away like dust on your jacket, but as we know it’s not that simple’. More likely evil is born of desperation, a sense of injustice, trauma and manipulation. What worries me is that we have begun, once again, to label the other as evil.

Have we come to a point in history, where for the first time a religion is being used as a cover for baser instincts? Do killers now become Islamist converts as a fast track to murder, not because of their beliefs but more because it has become a club for the disillusioned, for those who can’t find the joy and hope to quell the darkness inside them? As a Muslim woman, I have to ask myself, what is it about our religion that gives shelter to dangerous misfits and tyrants, and that allows the weak to be manipulated?

After I read the news I stood in our kitchen in Geneva, a political centre that somehow seems untouched by world events, and I wondered why it was that Canada was attacked. It’s a country that, after all, isn’t as gung-ho as some of its international counterparts and doesn’t seem to be an obvious choice for terrorists. Much like Switzerland (though I was surprised to find here that our house has a nuclear bunker and that Switzerland is said to be the only country in the world with the capacity to shelter almost all of its population in the event of a nuclear attack) it is seen by many to be impartial. That is, until it recently joined the coalition against the Islamic State. Was this an arbitrary act then (unlikely, given the target was a war memorial and parliament), a lone gunman fuelled by some unknown slight, or was it a more organised attack, one that has its roots in religious fundamentalism? Even for a Muslim, or perhaps more so for a Muslim, it’s hard not to jump to that conclusion after September 11th.

It’s too early to draw conclusions about whether this was a terrorist act. Perhaps it was a coincidence that the driver in the hit and run accident, which killed one soldier in Canada and injured another just before the heightened terror alert, was a convert to Islam. The intelligence services noted extra chatter online that contributed to the raised terror alert. But as I stood in my kitchen questioning why Ottawa was a target, I wondered whether the attack was fuelled by the opening of the Toronto-based Ismaili centre and Aga Khan Museum, a project that cost millions and seeks to provide a deeper understanding of Islam, a symbol that there is good in this religion, that good people are Muslims.

More than anything, what works in favour of madmen is fear. They don’t want to foster understanding of Islam. Fear turns us against each other. It ostracises. It helps fuel their rage. Are we arming terrorists with our fear? After all, you can have the biggest army and the best weapons in the world, but can you wage a successful war against a hate-based, fear-fuelled ideology? I emailed a friend with my theory. Were the Islamists punishing Canada, not only for joining the coalition against IS but for supporting moderates, for allowing the Toronto centre on their soil? A few sentences, the word ‘terrorist’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘be careful’. I pressed send and wondered whether those words, taken together in an internet message, were ones that could land me on a CIA watch list.

I am a writer. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a Londoner, and an Indian, and a European. I am a Muslim married to an atheist. I accept the layers which have built me. I do not want to assimilate to the point where my heritage disappears and all that is left is my skin colour to show a distant past. I may no longer hang prayer beads in my car but I will not leave behind elements of myself in this new world order. I will not allow fear to consume me, though it inevitably leaves its mark. I am proud of my culture and my religion. My watery curries reflect a lack of skill, not a lack of interest. I feel guilt that my children do not speak the mother tongue of their grandparents and that they are removed from the organised religion and supportive community I benefitted from as a child, because these are good things. There is goodness in their father’s German atheist background and in my Indian Muslim one.

For now, we won’t jump to conclusions about the impact of my half-baked prayers or whether this was indeed an Islamist attack. Let’s just watch and wait and be ready to recognise where evil exists and where it doesn’t, and where the lines blur.

Why I Write

I’m it! Thank you Graham Milne for asking me to take part in the ‘Why I Write’ blog hop and for providing a balm for me on what had been a tough day with your honeyed words.

For those of you new to Graham’s writing, check him out on Twitter, at his blog or Huff Post. Sometimes in the blogging world, you find posts that don’t really touch the sides. Not so here. Graham’s posts tend to be long form. They are thoughtful, honest and he’s not afraid to address topical issues. He’s a feminist in the vein of the UN #heforshe campaign, and one of the original group of people who made me feel welcome on Twitter.

I’m it then. Did you play tag when you were younger, or stuck in the mud, kiss chase, cat and mouse, all those variations on chasing games that were so exhilarating as a child? I usually laughed as I ran, my lips pulled wide apart by the wind and my mirth, my bottom tucked in awkwardly lest someone be near enough to tag me. There’s not much that brings that sense of abandonment. Being tickled as a child, perhaps. Or being thrown up in the air by your dad, the strands of your hair lingering in the sky as you make your decent into his embrace. Or riding a rollercoaster and laughing despite the pain and fear.

Life grounds us. The longer our feet stay on the earth, the more roots come twisting out of it to bind us. Responsibility beckons with each passing day of our childhood. We become distanced from simple pleasures, like the crunch of an apple, the feel of springy grass between our toes or the fizz of a lolly on our lips. Writing reconnects me. It allows me to forget the bills, the illness and yes, the wars, and cocoons me in a world where anything is possible. Is that what writers are? Anarchists, egotists, foolish God impersonators?

Let’s stick with the it analogy. I’m trying to remember when I decided that physical exercise wasn’t for me. It was in my pre-teen years, I think, when I felt clumsy and ungainly. Now, I look at athletes and dancers, honed gym bunnies and yogis with a sense of awe, not so much for their physique but for the strength, radiance and litheness their bodies retain.

Power. We all seek it in different ways, don’t we? Over our bodies, in the workplace, the petty wars at the water cooler or with our neighbours, the respect and submission we seek in our relationships, the beliefs we impose on others, the money we seek to fill our wallets with, the bombs we rain down on foreign soil. Me, I seek it with the pen. With a pen in hand or my fingers flying over the keyboard I feel like The Bride in Kill Bill: poised, vulnerable, uncompromising, in charge of my destiny. That’s why I write.

Spoken words I sometimes find tiring; written words are for me a source of energy and understanding. I can take the time to weave intricate sentences or get the nuance just right without worrying that it is already someone else’s turn to speak or that I have bored my listener. I can examine a thought carefully, tangibly, without it slipping through the fog of my brain like a wandering child at a funfair.

I write because in this world of constant change and fleeting lives, it comforts me to leave a record of my thoughts. The physical act of writing, the tap of the keyboard, the soreness of my fingers after a long day’s work, the crease of the page and the glare of the screen that blurs my vision are satisfying. They mean I have done an honest day’s work. Fiction may be a lie, but writing is truth. It helps to write in a world that often feels destructive. It helps to create, imagine and make sense of the confusing. It’s a tool for self-insight and healing. It’s the closest I’ve come to magic.

There you have it. That’s why I write. I’ve seen lots of fantastic posts for this blog hop. If you’re still nursing your cuppa take a look at Joanne Blaikie’s, Mark T. Conard’s and Siofra Alexander’s responses. For now, I’d like to invite B.G. Bowers and Natasha Ahmed to tell us why they write. B.G. Bowers has just completed the first draft of her novel and is a blogger and poet. I was blown away by this recent piece of hers. Natasha is a blogger and novelist. Her novella Butterfly Season is on my to read list. Read about the origins of it here. Blog hops and awards can be time-consuming as Paula Reed Nancarrow discussed in her excellent post this week, so ladies don’t feel pressured to pick up the baton if you can’t manage it. Look forward to your next words whatever form they take.

Violence and Complicity

It is a joy to lose myself in fiction most days and sometimes it is a relief. Today, it just felt like frivolity. A blanket of darkness has settled on the world stage. It feels as if social structures are crumbling around us, yet still we carry on with our daily lives as if in a bubble.  In the West, by accident of our birth, we are privileged and safe, for the moment. We are faceless armies of men and women who tumble out of bed in the morning, put on the uniforms of our employers, earn a living and care for our families. But others aren’t so lucky.

I have been alternately avoiding and immersing myself in the news lately. As I grow older, the inclination to hide from the headlines increases. With the amount of media we are exposed to daily, you’d have to be living in a vacuum to have missed how fraught with danger the world is right now. It is easier than ever to obtain accounts of conflicts from around the world. All it takes is a click. But shocking headlines no longer have the power to move us. We have become desensitised to the vast number of deaths. We are so fatigued by the endless reports of death on our flickering screens that our empathy has been castrated.

We project our own truths but armour ourselves against perspectives that are not our own. We have become bellowing isolationists. Tragedy has become part of our global consciousness. We accept it, welcome it even. It serves to reinforce our sense of what is right and what is wrong. Reports from across the globe bring momentary despair. Then we shake off our leaden thoughts and try to forget that somewhere the blood of men, women and children not unlike us is seeping into the earth. There are exceptions. Twitter and Facebook are awash with calls for action in conflict zones and solidarity with the victims, but how effective is this armchair activism and can we find ways to translate it into concrete outcomes?

I have begun to feel complicit in the shady morality that allows acts of violence that we are currently witnessing to continue. Tell me, is it anything more than a happy coincidence that we are born into conflict free zones? What right do we have to tranquility while shells rain down on the people of Gaza? How can we sit by while political strife escalates to such a degree that hundreds of thousands of Syrians are displaced from their homes? In what world do people kill or maim in the name of religion or force others to submit to their faith? Surely history has taught us that we have a responsibility to intervene when minorities are being systematically persecuted? How can it be acceptable today for one country to annex part of another?

In truth, even in established democracies, we are only ever a few short steps away from civil unrest. Take the London riots of 2011, for example, after the death of Mark Duggan, or the events in Ferguson, Missouri. In what kind of civilised society is an unarmed man shot dead when he is in a defensive position? We may convince ourselves that these troubles are not on our doorstep, but we are not immune to conflict.

I’ve been very aware, for example, that anti-Muslim sentiment is gaining ground in the West. I am a Shia Ismaili Muslim. Since September 11th, on the rare occasions I’ve discussed my religion I’ve felt the need to explain how liberal and progressive we are. I don’t wear a headscarf (as if that should matter) and was free to decide who I married, you know. In actual fact, I’m proud of my religion. I’m especially proud of the development work Ismaili organisations such as AKF and AKDN do. But the term Muslim has become synonymous with inequality, zealot and terrorist. 2001 was the last time I hung prayer beads from the rearview mirror in my car. Over a decade later, in which the 2005 London bombings occurred, Lee Rigby was killed (2013) and violent Islamist factions have been increasingly active, I find I am still unable to state my religion in unfamiliar company without caveats.

Only now it seems that apologies and explanations are expected of Muslims in general, that is, from the peace-loving kind. Haven’t you heard? If it is indeed a peaceful religion as we claim, liberal Muslims shouldn’t be hiding in the shadows. We should be denouncing the actions of jihadists. What you forget is that the West is my home too, and I have 100 per cent more in common with you then I have with Islamist extremists. I am not the other. Religion is only part of my identity. Yes, I stand with you against the violent actions committed in the name of Islam, but you are mistaken if you think I hold any sway with the perpetrators. You see, I am more hated by him than you. I suffer with you. I bear the shame for his deeds although he twists my religion to serve his purpose and to manipulate his followers.

Complex historical and sociopolitical factors created the environment for the global conflicts we see at play today. Difference continues to drive a wedge between communities in even the most sophisticated societies. The world pulses with fear and greed, yet surely all most of us want is to be loved, to be safe from harm, to have food in our bellies and the chance for our families to flourish. Who needs complexity when it can be that simple? There is enough disease, poverty and environmental disasters for us to tackle without us fighting each other.

I wonder how much our collective consciousness could achieve if we acted as one, if we checked our egos and power play at the door and tried to rediscover our humanity. No one has the right to take another’s life. There is no absolute power. We are all answerable for our actions and that includes members of the establishment who make the wrong call. And it certainly includes the madmen in our midsts.

Hello New Life

It’s been almost two weeks since the children and I arrived in Geneva. J had been living with a tiny amount of rented furniture in what was to become our new family home. It felt odd at the time he said, imagining what the house would feel and sound like when it was filled with our things and the sound of the children. It turns out that family life is quite noisy, especially if you happen to buy a second-hand washing machine which sounds like it is taking off during the spin cycle. I digress.

The truth is, I’m not sure Geneva will ever feel like home, or at least, not soon. I miss the old walls of our Edwardian semi in London. I miss our family and friends. We met our new Swiss neighbours last week. They were perfectly wonderful, and invited us into their garden for a glass of wine. They had seen a succession of rental cars that J had been using and had wondered if the house was being used as a CIA safe house. They were relieved to meet us. They told us about the different nationalities of people who live in the neighbourhood and that almost everyone has cats. The cats have territory wars and almost all of them wear little bells around their necks to help the birds escape. There are lots of birds it seems, especially singing outside our bedroom window first thing in the morning. In an irritable half-awake state I considered doing something drastic but think I may opt for ear buds instead.

We let the cats out today. They were free to come and go as they pleased at home, but needed time to get used to their new environment here. We didn’t want to risk them making for South London. Our female cat was cautious when we opened the doors. Her brother, a voracious hunter, quickly got over himself and set off, and now they’ll be British moggies mixing with the ginger toms and Birmans I’ve seen wandering around. It’s like our own situation in a microcosm. I wonder how aware they will be of the change in their surroundings. They will have realised the change in domestic setting, of course, but will they instinctively know that we are far from home?

The soil was rich when I was digging in the garden yesterday. The sun is strong and the air is crystalline, free of London’s smog. Just beyond our house we can see Lake Geneva. Everywhere you go, the Alps and the Jura can be seen. The views are breathtaking, so all-encompassing that after a while I imagine you don’t even perceive them anymore. To appreciate the magnificent, don’t we need the mundane in contrast? The vistas, certainly where we live, twenty minutes from the centre of Geneva, are unfettered by high-rises. As a result it seems there is a huge expanse of sky above us, with candy-floss clouds hanging low, ready to be plucked and consumed.

There is no aggrieved eye contact or menacing body language between drivers here. Congestion seems to be rare and therefore London’s on road aggression has been bested by a calm, measured pace. I can almost hear the Swiss drivers whistling an eerily jolly tune as they wait patiently at junctions. Come 6pm and Sundays, with the exception of late night shopping on Thursdays, retailers are shut. It is then that I miss cities that never sleep. Sundays are strictly family/no work days here. I’ve been told a woman was admonished by the police for ironing on her balcony on a Sunday.

It seems as if our courtship with Geneva will be a slow one, and perhaps that’s no bad thing. I was beginning to wane in London. Cities demand ceaseless energy from us, to power themselves, reminiscent of the heaving metropolis in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film. They are wondrous in the opportunities they present but they are also relentless beasts. I’m tired of wrestling the beast for now. Instead, I’ll embrace this slower pace and allow my mind time to clear. It’s in the quiet moments that stories take hold and refuse to let go. For a moment, I’d forgotten how to be quiet.

Farewell London: A New Story Awaits

The clock has just struck noon and I can hear the spin cycle of the washing machine downstairs. Its rhythm and the summer heat are lulling me into a state of relaxation. It’s humid here in my parents’ living room. Their house pulses with heat even when the radiators are off: a blessing in winter, stifling in the summer months. I’ve not blogged for a few weeks as the whirlwind of moving preparations has taken hold. The logistical arrangements of car selling, renting the house, closing down utilities, packing and goodbyes reached a peak a week ago when the movers came in. It seemed to me that they were like anteaters: sucking up the remnants of our London lives with supreme efficiency.

Since then I’ve been with the children at my parents’ house. J is in Geneva already. We’ll be leaving for the airport in an hour. The cats, whose baskets have been liberally sprayed with pheromones recommended by the vet, will be travelling with us in the flight cabin. I feel like a cross between superwoman, a sad clown and the mad hatter: capable, emotional and increasingly unpredictable. It’s a relief to return to the blank page at long last, to draw calm from it. Already it feels that the strain is pouring from my fingers onto the page as I type. The blank page: a mirror, a sea of acceptance, a promise of renewal.

Tiredness is heightening my emotions at the moment. Geneva is just over an hour’s flight from our family and friends in the UK and we have no doubts about choosing this move. It will be a wonderful adventure for our family while the children are young. Still, however open we are to it, change is unsettling. It stretches us uncomfortably. Depending on the nature of the change, we are forced to adjust to new patterns, support networks, cultures and expectations. Was there ever an easy goodbye?

London will always be my home. I miss its vibrancy, architecture and spirit already. This city feels determined and resilient. It is both alien and a friend. I can walk the streets and disappear into its melting pot of cultures. The grey skies and murky river are home. The chimney stacks of the skylines near our house are as familiar to me as the lines on my palm. My story is etched in corners of this city, in its parks and art galleries, its restaurants and theatres, in the homes of our family and friends.

I will always return to you gladly, London, but for now, farewell. There is a new story waiting to be written in Geneva.

Divinity and Self-Expression

When I was pregnant with my daughter a little over four years ago, I remember my mum bringing up religion with my husband, who is an atheist. ‘The moment you see the baby born, you’ll hear hallelujahs, I’m sure of it,’ she said, only half teasing. ‘You can’t witness something so magical without believing in God.’ After Hana was born, mum brought it up again. ‘So, do you feel any differently about religion now?’ she asked. ‘Errr, it was really special, of course, but no, not really!’ he said.

Which religion (or not) we grow up believing in is more often than not a matter of coincidence: my husband grew up in East Germany under communism where there was no room for religion. I am Muslim, but neither my brother nor I go to the mosque as often as my parents would like. There is no pressure to attend from them, although I know it would mean a lot to them if we were to show more interest. Growing up, I found their über-involvement in the community a little difficult to deal with and craved freedom to act away from it. I much prefer religion to be a personal form of expression than a communal one, but that’s just an individual choice.

I guess many Muslims would say that the way I practice my faith is lackadaisical. From time to time, I remember loved ones we have lost and I say prayers for them. I pray more since having the children as a way to say thank you for the joy they bring us and because I feel it protects them and keeps them safe. I recognise that for me as for most people, faith is not based on logic but reflects my upbringing instead. If I dissect my behaviour, I must admit that I act selfishly because although I believe in God, practicing my faith is tied to what’s in it for me.

I have begun to wonder though if there is a purer form of divinity open to everyone, one that does not discriminate between believers and non-believers. The sort that makes you catch your breath when you see the sun glinting on the ocean or when you feel a real connection with another person that serves to remind you just how special this world is. And there are the whisperings. I can’t be the only one that feels them. The tiny flashes of knowledge that pass through your mind when you are otherwise occupied, telling you to write that story, spend more time with that person, do that course of study, jack in that job, because something better awaits if only you open yourself to it and apply yourself.

If you dare to blink, these thoughts disappear as quickly as they appear, and  you are left with a remnant of brilliance that has escaped, leaving you to continue your usual trajectory. You can call these moments intuition, the whisperings of muses or even divine wisdom. Whichever camp you fall into, it seems to me that we should be listening out for those internal voices and giving them the credence they deserve. Too much of the way we live our lives today is about keeping up with the Joneses, of making sure we haven’t missed the latest trend to rock Twitter. We are buffeted this way and that, and in keeping ourselves so exhaustingly busy, we miss the signs that really count.

I’d like to make a tentative stand for keeping our eyes and ears peeled for the doors the universe opens for us, for the quiet hum of our muses and for the truthful voices we silence in ourselves. You see, there is something divine about the potential we all have. There is something holy about being true to ourselves. It is far too easy to ignore our talents and conform to the standard social templates around us. There is a time for logic and there is a time for reckless abandonment to our dreams, and who knows, maybe your dreams aren’t as crazy as you thought. Maybe, just maybe, they are exactly who you are supposed to be.

‘Every man is a divinity in disguise, a god playing the fool.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson

What I See Project: What I See When I Look in the Mirror

This post was written for the What I See Project, which is asking women globally what they see when they look in the mirror.  It’d be interesting to hear male answers to the question too, but for now it’s women only.  You can find out more about the project and contribute your own video blog by going to http://www.whatiseeproject.com.  

mermaid

I see a body which is imperfect, but which tells a story: honest eyes and English teeth; my great-grandmother’s prominent nose; fingers that could have been a piano player’s – but aren’t; breasts that have nursed my children; knees that show I prefer sitting on the floor to the sofa; age starting to wreak havoc.

I see a hoarder of books, a greedy consumer of news, a woman who is socially engaged but tired of the lies and compromises of politics, who is warm, honest and generous, but exacting in her standards of herself and others, and capable of darkness.

I see a mother who tends her children lovingly and mourns every bittersweet passing moment, but whose dreams are waiting on the sidelines. A writer who waited too long to take her craft seriously, held back by fear and doubt. A woman who has moderate success and wants more, but is not always prepared to make life sacrifices.

I see the imprint of my loved ones past and present, a woman who wants to be many things, and just one. I see dishonesty cloaked in honesty, someone who is lost sometimes, but trusts and dares, who is unable to look at her reflection in all its truth, but who one day may be able to.

I see someone who is blessed to have been born into this family, with these opportunities.  Basking in this love.

For My Daughter

Tonight Hana, I am lying here in bed at a childishly early hour writing directly to you because I can find no other way to process what happened.  Soothing words are little comfort, television is hollow and sleep is not possible, although I have tried.  As ever, the solution is to write, to pour all these feelings down onto the page in the hope that it will help.

We were having an idyllic afternoon out in London after a rushed start to the day.  The rain had held off and there was a glimmer of sunshine.  Daddy stayed at home with the baby so I could concentrate on you.  I didn’t have a nappy bag with me for the first time in months.  You had your scooter and were carefree and giggling as you rode along, your little legs working hard as they pushed off the earth, the wind blowing your hair in your face.  You loved the train ride into the city.  You were excited to see a road and some cars out of the window.  I smiled wryly at your sense of wonderment at something so common.

We were meeting family and decided to have lunch in the cafe at the Southbank Centre.  You proudly picked what you wanted to eat yourself, delighted by the child-sized cheese sandwich, grapes and sugar-packed drink you found.  We sat to eat, the five of us.  You insisted on sitting on a brightly coloured chair, not a boring natural wood one.  I turned to look at a picture on my cousin’s phone and suddenly became aware of your hands flapping.  Delicately.  Like a butterfly.  I looked up to your face and realised you were choking, and that your colour had changed slightly.  You, always a careful, dainty eater – you never needed bibs as a baby whereas your brother often needs a bath after meals – had this time, for an unfathomable reason, decided not to chew this grape, which turned out to be the perfect shape and size to become lodged in your windpipe.

I, we – this is where my recall is blurry – tipped you forward and began striking your back, hard.  The seconds slowed as we continued pounding and still you were struggling for breath.  One of our party was a doctor but she too was unsuccessful at helping you clear your airway.  We were all standing by now and I was calling out, repeatedly, ‘someone, help me please!’ and ‘can anyone do the Heimlich?’ So many people all around, and yet in that moment, I felt alone.  As if it were you and me, and I was failing you.  There were calls from my cousins of ‘someone call an ambulance’ and it seemed all were looking, but everyone was helpless.  An older woman approached, a Spanish nurse I later found out, and she pressed your stomach.  You vomited and I watched, my face crumpled, to see if you were ok, but still that ordinary green grape stuck fast.  We continued with the futile back slapping and I thought I had lost you. I saw myself walking home without you, broken, destined to always be broken because of the loss of you.  And then, miraculously, it worked.  The grape made its way up again into the world and you were no longer in danger.  You were safe.  And I was a wreak.

Let me tell you why.  I love you more than myself.  I would give up anything so that you could be safe and well and happy. You have been in our lives for four short years and you have made your mark so deeply on me that I will never be the same again.  You fill my life with bright colours, mischief and sweetness and in those few minutes that I thought you might not live, my heart filled with unbearable pain.  I will always feel like this about you, however old you are or however cross you make me, because I am your mum and my love for you is all-consuming and unconditional.

I will say my prayers more religiously now, in the hope that they can form a shield around you to protect you from wilful harm and accidents alike. And I will try not to let this episode colour my behaviour towards you. I will try to purge it from my mind and to curb my desire to keep you closer than ever and to be over-protective.  But one day, when you are older, perhaps you will read this and understand why my heart broke when you were four years old and we were standing outside London Wonderground and you said to me, ‘you thought I was going to go away forever, didn’t you?  But I didn’t.’

Introducing My Superheroes. Who are Yours?

Taking on a challenge

A few weeks ago I went on a course called ‘We All Need Words’ at The School of Life in London.  It was my first day away from the kids since our son was born and I was both excited and anxious.  It was great to have the chance to do something purely for me, but after months of the baby being an extension of myself, I wasn’t sure how I would cope without him.  I needn’t have worried.

The course took place in a basement in Camden, which was kitted out with ornate wallpaper, velvety carpet and über-cool furniture.  We spent the day discussing how to write more effectively, trying our hand at mostly short pieces including dating adverts and dictionary entries, and sharing our work.  It was fun, surreal and out of my comfort zone.  I’d highly recommend it.  [http://www.weallneedwords.com]

Embracing writing exercises

One of my favourite exercises was crafting superhero stanzas.  Our course instructors, the brilliant, down-to-earth word-smiths Molly and Rob, invited us to write a few sentences about someone we know, give them a superhero name and zoom in on one of their strengths or weaknesses.  These may not be the typical qualities you would associate with a superhero – we’re not talking about flying, invisibility or weather-control here – but that is what makes this exercise so interesting; there is something unique and powerful to be uncovered in everyone you meet.

silhouetteMy superheroes

Inspired by Molly and Rob, I have decided to introduce you to some of the key people in my life, by way of a superhero stanza each.  For each one, I’ve isolated a trait I admire, but have also hinted at their vulnerabilities.  Do you recognise any of these characters in your own life?

 

  • Mistress Grafter – She works from dawn to dusk in the service of others, her loved ones barely registering her efforts while strangers are touched beyond belief.  Her body ages but her soul sings.  And the phone keeps ringing.
  • Calm Waters – He is a towering example of moral courage yet he has no religion.  He thinks clearly about his desired goal and moves towards it silently, with infinite patience.  Victory is almost certain, yet he keeps his emotions in check, restraint crackling in his fingertips. His strength, shimmering just beneath the surface, is not obvious and they do not see him coming.  Until it’s too late.
  • Mister Magnanimous – He is gives of himself gladly.  His affection knows no bounds and he is the first to reach into his pocket in times of need.  They flock to him, drawn by his charisma and warmth, circling him so he is in the very centre of it all, where he likes to be.  But his expectations of himself are equal to his expectations of others, and his disappointments weigh heavily, threatening to destroy it all.
  • Sweet Candy She fills the world with her light and they drink it from her greedily, with grasping hands that leave marks upon her soft skin.  One touch from her and sadness is banished.  Desperate for her gifts, they trample over each other to reach her, but the light remains hers, and hers alone.  Only the glimpse of a pink tutu in the corner of your eye suggests she was ever there.
  • The Protector – He guides her with gentleness, tending to her needs with a love that is selfless and pure.   You can almost touch the bond between them with your fingertips.  It fizzes and crackles and will last beyond their physical lives.  Father extraordinaire, who has taught his daughter to reach for her dreams and built a safety net under her with his own body.  And yet, the wounds left by his own father are still there, stinging, raw, on the underside of his skin, hidden from view.
  • Mistress Inkwell – She sends her missives into the world, hundreds at a time, hand-written in square print in a language all of her own.  She sweats over these patchworks of text, bleeds over them, squeezing out her joy onto the page until there is nothing left in her.  The brightly coloured envelopes arrive at their destination where they languish on the doormat, waiting, forever waiting for their readers.
  • Spaceman – He puts himself first, his self-respect propelling him through the gates of opportunity.  He has arrived at his destination already and has set his sights on the moon.  He will reach it quickly, without a spaceship, armed with stellar determination and textbook intelligence, his wings powered by the prayers of others.

So, those are some of my superheroes.  Who are yours?

‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald 

‘Though nature be ever so generous, yet can she not make a hero alone. Fortune must contribute her part too.’  Francois de La Rochefoucauld