Making Home

IMG_20150125_190714We went back
to bright city lights and siren calls
bleak rain over stacked chimney pots
where the big clock stands
proudly amidst carved buildings
of yellowed stone
sticky pubs and well-trodden streets,
in which street lamps
cast familiar shadows

We travelled back
to the rhythms of my childhood
of parental love
and my grandmother’s food
the constant beep and boom
of the television and telephone,
sprawling networks of goodwill
chiselling away
pieces of our time

Easy to slip into
the patterns of youth
when self-determination seems
an unachievable fantasy
to be buffeted instead
by the storms of others
and forget to thrust our spear
into the ground
on which we wish to stand

I mourned the distance
before we left,
love scarcely tangible
with an ocean between us
Cables and distorted pixels
a poor comparison to touch
What I would give to always
sit at my grandmother’s feet
and welcome back
the ghosts of the past

Still that home is not mine
My home is the one
we created together
brick by brick
kiss by kiss
the circle of your arms
the meat of your feet on mine
underneath the cotton covers
when we sleep

I dream of the third child
we may have,
if the stars align
I think of the home that will be ours
when we move again
And my heart is sore
for the places we have known
I miss the blood and sweat of the city
the clean mountain air and snowy peaks
though we are still here

That little Vietnamese place
with the benches where we used to eat
and our friend sweated out the spice
Our favourite park with its hills,
small like a jewel,
where we walked with him,
the one we loved
and saw the city skyline
if we squinted

The bridge in Eastern Europe
where we picked up the watercolours
and I kicked off my shoes to walk the cobbles
Or our first home together,
above my father’s workshop,
where we’d hear the call of the men
toiling below and my culture
made me feel a hussy
between the sheets without a ring
though we were bonded by love

I think how funny we are
with our need for a place of our own,
a door to close and lock,
when some have only a cardboard box
in a shanty town and a future
that dissolves through their fingers
And it’s not important, place,
or having four walls
to call ours away from the storm

Except it is.

Until our health goes
or our heart.

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Frozen

Photo by Richard Smith

Photo by Richard Smith

Sadness heaves
inside me,
waves of
rolling sickness

Weight has
found a home
in the midst
of my brow, and
in the corners of
my downturned mouth

Spaces flooded
with blackness
Concrete over
springing joy,
sucking away
momentum

And I am
frozen
in time.

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.

The Forgotten Joys of Longhand Writing

The Penman's Blood by arnoKath

The Penman’s Blood by arnoKath

I have a confession to make. The content of my email inbox, with the exception of pictures of my nephews and the blogs I subscribe to, is uninspiring. My virtual letterbox tends to be filled with bills, receipts and reminders. Emails save time and money, yet still I long for days past. I’d like to cut down on the amount of missives I receive, and replace them with more satisfying ones. I’d choose fewer but longer emails over the perfunctory electronic communication of today in a heartbeat. What a joy it is to pour over rare long emails, the ones filled with delicious titbits of news and sensual descriptions of new experiences, reminiscent of the letters of old. Snail mail is even better. How wonderful to sink into a sofa, tuck your legs up under you and tear open a letter from afar, to see the ink smudges and individual characteristics of the lettering and for time to stop as you ingest the words on the page. I save handwritten letters. To me, they show love and thoughtfulness. Emails, in contrast, are a nuisance, another item on the to do list, an emblem of our throw away society. My finger is already hovering above the delete button before I’ve even finished reading them.

Up until the end of my degree writing longhand came naturally. Yet ten years on my handwriting is an eyesore. When writing greeting cards I have to take great care to ensure my scrawl is legible to others. I seldom sign my own name anymore, and when I do, lack of practice means my signatures bear only a passing resemblance to each other. My fingers have become lazy, as if they have lost the fine motor skills needed to write neatly. Despite the regression in my handwriting, my stationery collection grows by the day. My writing space is filled with beautiful notebooks and pens. A calligraphy set and wax seal kit adorn my desk. I have begun to wonder whether the growing mountain of stationery reveals a subconscious desire to return to old school drafting.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not a technophobe. I spend most of my day a finger’s breadth away from either a laptop or phablet. I wonder though whether it is wise to carelessly toss handwriting skills onto the rubbish pile. With the introduction of tablets into some schools, I don’t want handwriting to be treated like Latin is sometimes (I enjoyed Latin at school and find the grammar of other languages relatively easy because of my basis in it): a relic from the past. Will there ever come a day when it is an advantage on CVs not to boast of typing prowess but to proclaim the beauty of our handwriting? In generations to come will lovers send each other captioned selfies rather than handwritten love letters? Will there come a time when our great-grandchildren will be compelled to resurrect an ancient skill because in a world of power shortages it is no longer viable to have so many gadgets?

We don’t have to propel ourselves into the future to uncover reasons for us to maintain longhand writing skills. Scientists have long since made the link between writing by hand and faster absorption of information. Studies have shown it to combat age-related mental decline. But what are the advantages of longhand for writers? Research has shown that writing by hand taps into the right side of the brain, linked to intuition and creativity. Scribbling on post-it notes, a sketch pad or in a notebook is not linear writing and may be a better fit for the way we think. Craft books often extol the virtues of undertaking monotonous activity such as walking, driving and gardening to aid creativity. When writing Haruki Murakami runs and/or swims each day. It seems that when we are carrying out an activity that does not need much mental thought, ideas can come to us unbidden. Perhaps writing by hand has the same effect.

It’s all trial and error of course. One writer’s process is not going to be your magic formula. Your choice of writing instruments may change dependent on your mood and location, and the needs of your particular project. Writing by hand, even if only for a few hours (oh the ache after exams at school and university), takes its toll. I’ve never minded transcribing handwritten short stories but with writing time at a premium, typing a longer work seems like an unnecessary extra step, although I would imagine that dictation software might help and in any case it would be like taking a leap in the editing process.

It’s folly to assume, as I have done in the past, that writing on a computer is the most efficient way. Take my love of Scrivener, for example. It’s a fantastic organisational tool and satisfies my need for a clean work space. I prefer to start work in a tidy environment: our house, my desk, my laptop have to be well-ordered. Once I’m in the flow of writing, my neuroses about my work environment disappear and I am a happy mess of reference books, tea mugs and notebooks. But I have begun to wonder whether the very advantages of typing a first draft are in fact disadvantages for me. I tend to edit as I write, which means that my first draft is often quite close to my final draft. This means that story progress is slow, which in turn feeds my doubt. Often, my most productive days have been on holiday, when the glare of the sun on my laptop screen make it impossible to write and I am forced to turn to pen and paper.

Then there’s the pursuit of clarity of thought and precision of expression. Writing by hand forces us to slow down and consider our words carefully. We come to the point more quickly. For a wordy writer, this can only be a good thing. My ego sometimes swells as my fingers fly across the keyboard, only for me to realise moments later why the delete button is my friend. When we write by hand, we make an investment, we cut back on elaboration for its own sake. And there’s nothing like sitting on a park bench in your lunch break with a notebook on your lap, as you let the world fade into the background and disappear into your story world. With computers, even in distraction free mode, there are days when the insistent blink of the cursor, the buzz of electronics, the knowledge of the messages waiting in my inbox and the churn of social media are difficult to ignore. It’s on those days that it might be an idea to just pick up a sheaf of paper and a pencil. Writing is a solitary activity, and walking away from the computer is to abandon the notion we are constantly available to everyone.

Finally, selfishly, as a reader and someone who is honing her craft, I would love for authors to continue working partly by hand, and for those materials to be available in centuries to come, like J.K. Rowling’s plotting spreadsheet for Harry Potter and the manuscripts for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. How charming and inspiring it is to see the scribbled notes and revisions of authors. Those notes are neither like a sanitised computer manuscript nor the printed texts. They are proof that writing is, first and foremost, a labour of love.

Protecting our Space as Writers

It’s happened time and again over the years, others intruding on my boundaries. It happens repeatedly, determinedly, in a steady drip-drip that eventually causes me to let down my defences. A slow, stealthy creeping into my personal space, a disruption of carefully planned routines. It is the neighbour who comes by for a friendly cuppa too often, a box of Jaffa Cakes in tow. It is my mum or gran, making an over-abundance of steaming, hot curry, bringing us a portion and gently wrapping those threads of family life even tighter around me. It is the friend who asks haltingly, if I can possibly make time for her. It is the kindly man from the mosque or the distant uncle who says, you are missed, where have you been? Leave me be, I think, nothing is for free.  My ungratefulness seeps out of every pore, like a putrid gas, waiting to poison us all.

But oh, my stories, they yearn to get out, and they require solitude.  Solitude.  How I love that word.  My stories, you see, long not to be rushed and crave the time to simply be, to blossom into a wondrous narrative or wilt on their own terms.  And this life of mine, with its great swarms of loving people just waiting on the sidelines to be entertained, supported and loved in return, isn’t accommodating of this writing dream.

‘Are you coming tomorrow?’

‘No, I can’t.  I’m writing.’

‘You should really try and come.’

‘I have a project I’m working on and I’d really like to finish’.

‘How about you just pop in for an hour or so?’

The fault is also mine, of course.  Why am I unable to articulate my needs so that they are acknowledged? When I manage to create some space, how do I end up back at square one with a diary full of commitments I would rather not have, feeling loved but suffocated?  Perhaps it is my failing that friends and family can’t accept a ‘no’ graciously. Should I be clearer or more forceful? Can I enforce my boundaries without causing hurt to those I love? Can I love them selfishly on my terms or will my part-time love be ridiculed, like a half-baked meringue that refuses to live up to its promise?

Maybe this writer dream is too implausible for my family and friends to buy into.  Who makes money with writing nowadays (money being the only measure of success, of course)… and why would I flitter away my time without the certainty of a return on my investment?  Or perhaps they think I am not the writer type.  Maybe I need to shout my dream from the rooftops with Bollywood backing dancers behind me for them to take me seriously.  Or should I aspire to be more writerly, say, hang out at chic writer parties or in coffee-shops, or try to look more like a brooding, angst-filled loner? Do I need wilder hair or to be more emotional?

stick figureNow that would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?  So this here, is my battle-cry.  RRRRROAAAARRRRRRR!! And this stick figure here, with the door closed, is the new me. I won’t feel guilty about it.  I will let you in when I can, but sometimes I won’t be able to because I don’t want to risk losing the magic in this wonderful scene I am writing.  Please don’t take it personally.  I love you very much, I really do, but this part of me has to be private.  It needs time to breathe.  My writing is a priority, you see, and no, it isn’t a hobby.  It’s much more than that.  I might tell you about how it feels one day.  I will support you to achieve your dreams in any way I can, so please, if you love me, just take a little step back and respect what it takes to achieve mine.

‘I don’t think people should have boundaries put on them, by themselves or society or another gender, because it’s our birthright to experience life in whatever way we feel best suits us.’ Hilary Swank

‘Once you label me you negate me.’ Soren Kierkegaard

The Danger of Pleasing Others

Do you ever feel that your life is not your own? Sometimes life throws a curve ball, which disrupts our plans and we have no choice but to deal with the fallout.  However, just as outside forces can limit our freedom, our own attitudes and behaviours can keep us imprisoned.  There is one trait that I recognise time and again in those around me: the desire to please others.  It sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it?  A good characteristic, even.  One that you would like to have in your friend, child, spouse or parent? Think again.

Compromising yourself

Making other people happy is admirable, but if you extend your generosity repeatedly to all and sundry, you risk burn out and compromising your own dreams.  By always agreeing to meet the demands of others, you risk becoming a shadow of yourself, a vessel for their projected desires.  Ultimately, your health is at risk, your uniqueness is diluted and with it your potential.

A female, Indian perspective

BarrenLooking at this through the prism of my own experience, as a woman of Indian origin, I am aware of the differing cultural expectations for men and women.  Even within our small Indian diaspora, we are subject to unspoken expectations and behaviours learned during childhood centring around honour and duty, which continue to be held up as virtues.  It is more acceptable for Indian men to display self-serving behaviour than Indian women. It is almost impossible for some Indian women I know to exercise freedom of choice without guilt. Strip away the people pleasing and little else remains but frustration and emptiness.  But what should that matter?  Duty. Responsibility. Good girl. Respect for others can be taken to the extreme and it should not mean disrespecting yourself.

Teaching our children to please others

Like in many other cultures, the Indian ideal of motherhood is based on sacrifice and servitude. Daughters in particular emulate this mode of being.  It seems to me, however, that in teaching our children to follow this example, to be obedient and please others, we are actually doing them a disservice.  It is important to teach them the difference between right and wrong.  All too often, however, we teach children not to question the established status quo and to do as they are told.  We school them to suppress their own desires, ultimately leading to less fulfilled people.

People pleasing as a writer

I like to be liked.  One of my hardest lessons as a writer, one which I am still learning, is being able to say no.  We have two young children, who are wonderful, and while it is sometimes hard work, we really enjoy our young family.  There are other relationships too, which are very important to me.  But I have learnt that we cannot be everywhere or do everything we are expected to do.  Time is too scarce and the little time I do have to write is precious.  In this way, people pleasing as a writer is impossible.  Sometimes, you have to shut the door and it has to stay shut.

Then there is the other writer problem. Readers, particularly those known to us, seek to make connections between our written work and our lives.  That novel, that short story, that poem, cannot possibly be a work of fiction… What material have we used from the real world? What topics have we addressed that should have been off-limits? As a writer, we cannot hope to please all our readers and it is even less likely we will please our immediate circle. While writers should make every effort to deal with their subject matter sensitively, they must tell the truth and examine human nature fearlessly, without being shackled by concern for the reactions of those closest to them, lest a far inferior work ensues.                                                                                                                                     

Putting your happiness first

So, why do some people find it difficult to assert themselves?  It may be because they worry about how they are viewed or fear being disliked.  Perhaps they are frightened of disappointing others or being alone. But always saying yes to your friends, family and colleagues isn’t the surest way to form lasting, mutually satisfying relationships. The more you commit yourself, the more you risk being taken for granted and the more pressure you will feel to maintain expectations.

If you struggle to set the boundaries needed for your own personal growth and happiness:

  • Set priorities.  Decide who exists within your inner circle and be firmer with everyone outside of this.
  • Practice being more comfortable with being disliked.  You cannot please everyone all the time.
  • Experiment with asserting your authority.
  • Realise that saying no to unreasonable demands of you is the first step towards greater success and happiness.
  • Choose to be with people who are supportive of you.

‘Women often have a great need to portray themselves as sympathetic and pleasing, but we’re also dark people with dark thoughts.’ Zadie Smith 

‘The art of pleasing is the art of deception.’ Luc de Clapiers 

This blog post also featured in the September 2013 First Friday Link Party for Writers on Carol Tice’s website Making A Living Writing

The Ability to be Alone

daisyThis week, I got the chance to be in a quiet room by myself to focus on my writing.  Our son is eight months old, and the urge to write has been getting stronger now that he is sleeping better and I have more energy.  Some friends and I decided that each week two mums will look after three babies, giving the third mum the chance to have some time to herself. The thought of a few hours protected writing time is blissful but it turns out that making the most of it is harder than I thought.

The hamster wheel of everyday life

There I was with a few hours of writing time in front of me for the first time in months and I was unable to de-clutter my mind.  If you are anything like me, the moments of quiet in your life are few and far between.  The waking hours at our house are filled with playdates, chatter, song, giggles and whining.  If the kids are asleep, I am tempted to nap too or I switch on the radio and use the time to catch up on chores, touch base with friends or family or slump on the sofa with a book or my laptop.  I feel the constant pull of twitter, facebook and online news.  Do you, like me, reach for your mobile phone as soon as you wake and throughout the day to check messages?  Even my parents, who until a few years ago owned old Nokias, are now hooked on their smartphones and ipads.  It’s an addiction.  Life today is a whirr of constant interaction; it has become all-consuming.

Finding ways to centre yourself

Okay, this sounds a bit new age but I think we are losing the ability to clear the decks of everyday concerns and just be.  We fill every waking moment with gadgets and noise and somewhere in the midst of all the chaos we have begun to lose ourselves.  Or at least, I have.  Spending time with family and friends is one way of regaining our equilibrium.  Writing and listening to music centre me.  But it is equally important to spend some of our waking time tuning into our thoughts without any distractions.   The problem with sharing yourself with the world the whole time is that we are always in a state of giving or receiving.  We risk losing ourselves somewhere along the way.

The confidence to be happy in solitude

It takes courage to say no to family and friends.  It takes strength to resist the pull of media.  I have even begun to feel anxious when I am out of the loop.  Is this mode of always being busy – of which we are often so proud – fool’s gold?  Too much interaction is as much of a chain as too little.  Maybe we subject our minds to constant chatter because we are afraid of what thoughts will form when we are alone.  Are those who are able to sit in quiet repose the ones who really own their true selves?

Stilling your mind

You might say that you have no time to practice stillness.  I’m going to take it step by step.  Next time I shower, I’m not going to plan out what I have to do next.  Instead, I’m going to take five minutes to clear my head of everything that is going on around me.  Next time I go for a walk, I am going to leave my phone at home.  I’m not sure how successful I’ll be but every now and then, I might even try and get through my daily commute without a book or my ipod.

Wherever we are, time alone has the power to restore us.  I wonder how much stronger I would feel if I could do this regularly.  I wonder how much more clarity of thought I would have as a writer if I was more adept at clearing my mind of the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  If you had more time for yourself, would you have a keener sense of who you are, what makes you happy and how you need to get there?

Finding the balance

There is no doubt, my family and friends bring me joy and ground me; books, radio, television, smart phones and the internet enrich my life.  The sense of belonging that goes with being part of a community is an empowering feeling.  We feel loved and protected; it is good for both the ego and our sense of security; we grow.  But the truth and self-contemplation that emerge from periods of being completely alone are equally important.  Finding the balance that works for you between these two states is important for us all.

For writers in particular, to create something relevant and original, we need to be a part of the world but also be able to retreat to the periphery.  I will be practising the art of sitting in a room and being comfortable by myself there.  Will you?

‘We need society, and we need solitude also, as we need summer and winter, day and night, exercise and rest.’ Philip Gilbert Hamerton 

‘Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your won presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.’ Alice Koller 

This blog post is also featured in the June 2013 First Friday Link Party for Writers on Carol Tice’s website Making A Living Writing