5 Years & Counting

It hasn’t been a great week. It’s been almost atrocious, actually.

Typically, all of December is like that. This year, it was different, it had been going well.  The first two weeks of the month, I didn’t think too much about the 18th. I didn’t think about what it would signify.

I didn’t think about how it’s been five years. Five. A number after which I can’t quantify my brother’s death in a way that’s acceptable to me in my head. What’s acceptable? Being able to talk about the time that has passed since then, in words, rather than in numbers.  I was okay with saying ‘oh it happened a couple of years ago’, or that it’s been just ‘a few years’. Five worked too, I’ve been able to say it’s been a ‘handful of years’. But what now? Now that the 6th year has started, how do I quantify that in mere words? I can’t, anymore. There is no phrase of words in existence to quantify 6 years, or 7 years, or 8, or 9. The next acceptable phrase hits comes after 10, when it will have been ‘a decade’. So what do I do for the next 4 years?

It’s become bigger than me, something I don’t think I can make peace with. I’ve read about grief hitting in waves, blinding and overpowering at first, manageable and visible later. These aren’t waves, though. It’s like driving without breaks – you can manage long distances well, because there’s nothing to stop for.  But there are speed bumps every now and then, and though they’re quick, they’re still brutal, because there’s nothing you can do to lessen the impact. It leaves you shaken all over, and your stomach lurches up to your throat for a moment, and then just as suddenly as it happened, it’s over. You’re back to cruising on the road, one elbow resting against the open window.  You ease into it all again, focus on the song on the radio, the comfortable speed, and you forget the bump ever existed. Until it comes back.

It’s a ruinous process, one I’ve plundered through on my own. Sure, the loss of my brother impacted the whole family, but the grieving hasn’t been a collaborative effort. We’ve all stumbled our way through these past five years on our own, warily glancing at each other to ensure we’re at least all at the same pace, and no one has fallen.  It’s been dark, it’s been lonely, and I wonder if that will change, if I can let that change. It’s almost been a sordid badge of honour in a way. ‘Look what I can get through alone.’  Just because I have, doesn’t mean that I still need to. I’m not brave, just withered.

That’s the beauty of seeing death so close – it teaches you things you could have never known any other way.  It takes you into a deep, dark tunnel where you’re never quite sure if the ground will give away, or if you’re about to chance upon some treasure. You keep going, anyway, and you decipher clues from writings on the wall, uncovering one life lesson after another. It’s not reconciliation, but it is comforting.

Death informs life. My brother’s death has taught me a whole lot about mine. Even though I have no way of eloquently quantifying the 6th year of his death, here’s hoping it’ll teach me more than what I’ve understood in the last 5.

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The Man in the Bookstore

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You hear about it sometimes.  You see it in movies, read about it in works of fiction.

You never thought it would happen to you.

You never imagined you would walk into a bookstore, browse languorously in the poetry section and end up having an hour long conversation with a total stranger about the kind of words you both love.  You didn’t think instances like this existed outside of anecdotes.  But they do, and now you have one to share too.

You can now tell people how, while holding on to a Lorrie Moore novel you’ve been meaning to read, you were tapped on the shoulder gently and told, ‘You’re going to love that book. It’s one of my favourites.’  You can reminisce on how you responded with surprised but suppressed glee and told this man that Moore is one of your favourite writers, one that has greatly influenced your own writing style.  You can recount how you both then stood in the poetry aisle in companionable silence, which was soon broken by him picking out a slim anthology from the racks and asking you if you’ve ever read anything like it.

You can narrate then how responded in the negative but launched into a tirade about the kind of poetry you do enjoy, about how Zbigniew Herbert gives you goosebumps and Jack Gilbert makes you want to sit on a bench under a tree and weep.  You can tell people about the stories this man told you, about the poetry festival he organises and the many great writers and poets he’s interacted with.  You can smilingly share with them what you shared with him, that words will always be your first love, no matter where you go or what you do; that even though your career path has nothing to do with stanzas and plots, it’s what you think about and indulge in on your daily commute across the Charles and the small hazy window of time right before you fall asleep every night.

You can elaborate on the characters he told you about, the Moroccan store-owner who speaks a new language every time they meet or the owner of a Central Square tavern who happily displays this man’s artwork, the artwork you were amazed to hear about because of its sheer simplicity of it being a collection of pieces made up of broken and discarded bits of picture frames.  You can tell people of how stunned you were to hear about this, and how it only added to the beauty of the strange but welcome encounter.  If you are interrupted, you can veer the conversation back with another quiet but simple story he shared with you about one of his favourite poets, who writes about a refugee who, at displacement, took his house door off its hinges to take it with himself to wherever he was going next.  You can go into detail the way this man did about how this refugee, if he ever returns, will reattach the withered door to his old home to solidify his return; or will place this old door to wherever he settles next and will build his new home around it, to remember the foundation of where he came from.

You can muse on how this stunning story touched you because you could relate, because you have been displaced your whole life and have no doors to carry, only the idea of something that could feel like home but has yet to be discovered.  You can tell people how you asked this man more about this poet he loves, and in return, told him about a poet you love, a poet whose writing is so frenzied and manic you feel like you’re helplessly dancing along to a rhythm so remarkably fast your feet ache to catch up.

You could go on. But you won’t. You don’t need to tell anyone you bought all the books he pointed to, including one by the poet he loves.  You don’t need to tell them how you walked into this bookstore because your soul was down and the only thing that could revive it was some old-fashioned make-believe. You experienced something sacred today, something that added a bounce back into your step, something that made you grateful for who you are and where you are, something that reminded you that there is still magic in the world, even if it is just in a bookstore around the corner.

 

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‘Do Tell’ by Richard Hoffman

 

 

3 Years: Choosing Happiness

Around this time last year, I’d made a silent resolution.  I had decided that I was going to be happy.  I had made up my mind that I would, as often as I could and for as long as it was possible, choose happiness.

My brother’s life may have been brief but it was never dull.  I don’t think he was ever conscious of it, but everything in his life, every event, incident or occasion, was amplified.  Perhaps it was just his flair for drama that contributed to this, but his emotions ranged in the extreme.  When he was happy, he would be overjoyed.  When he was angry, his wrath would evoke dread.  Whatever mood he’d be in, it was always exaggerated, always infectious to the point where the whole house would be subdued if he ever was. Maybe, without knowing, he was compensating for all the emotions he wouldn’t be able to feel after death; maybe, in living large, he was making up for the short span of his actual physical presence.

He was nowhere near perfect, but one thing he always got right was happiness.  My brother was not the type of man to lull around days on end in a haze of depression or melancholy.  Certainly, he felt despair and anguish but he didn’t cozy up to those sentiments and hold on to them for long the way so many of us, including myself, tend to do.  A free spirit like him, he always turned to his music.  It was through composing, singing, playing the guitar and performing that my brother found the true way back to happiness, every time.  His music was not just his passion or his hobby, it was his north star.

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Last year, I had resolved to follow my north star, wherever it may lead me to.  For a while after my brother died, I clung on to one, simple dictum: life is short.  He died at 30 because his heart suddenly decided to stop beating and that’s all I could think of: that maybe I only have till 30 as well.  I used it as an excuse for many of my actions, and as a basis for decisions both made and avoided.  I’ve refined that approach a bit this past year.  Life is short, certainly, but it must have some meaning. Quality > Quantity.  For me, meaning derives from experience, and I wanted my life to overflow with some top-quality euphoria-inducing instances.

The past 12 months have been full of surprises, mostly good.  In my pursuit of happiness, I have been to more concerts this past year than I have in the 22 years preceding it, I have traveled to brand new places all alone and fallen in love with new cities that feel like home, I have taken risks and forged connections with new names while erasing some old ones from my memory book, I have rediscovered an old hometown and reconnected with faces I hadn’t seen in a decade, I have changed the course of my professional life and plunged head-first into avenues I had never imagined I would ever be interested in.  Through it all, I have had this one constant thought at the back of my mind: just be happy.

It doesn’t take much, I realised.  It can be found sitting on the front steps of a purple house with a perfectly gooey cookie in one hand and a book in another, or in that breathless red-faced moment when you’ve finally beaten your own personal best time in a workout after weeks of training.  It’s when you manage to, after constant scheduling and rescheduling, get around to Skyping with your long-distance best friend and end up talking 2 hours longer than you’d planned.  Sometimes, it’s even when a client ends a long, frustrating thread of slightly passive aggressive emails with a simple ‘thank you :)’.  It happens when you’re lying on the grass in a way you haven’t since you were 6 and all you can see is sunlight speckled with cloud fluff and leaves and you’re bewitched by the simplicity of the scene.  It’s when you’re walking along a sunny street and are suddenly overcome by the impulsive need to hold the hand of the person walking next to you and you give in.  It’s when you realise there is no rush to finish the novel that you’ve been working on and writing under pressure just makes for crappy prose and you can take a short detour into verse and indulge your love for poetry for a while. It happens when you finally get to dance at a live concert to the song you’re used to simply hearing on your headphones and tapping your fingers along to.  It’s that glorious moment when you bite into the softest, flakiest pain au chocolat you’ve ever had and are glad you waited 35 minutes in line to order.  It’s when you see your baby nieces holding hands and calling out to you to come play with them.  It’s in that moment where you’re driving down a highway and waiting for the next song to play but there are too many commercials so you switch stations and Angels by The XX comes on and you grin like a sociopath and roll down all your car windows and pretend you’re driving a convertible because that’s how great it feels then.  It’s when you finally figure out that those beautiful droopy yellow flowers you saw in California actually have a real name and are called Angel’s Trumpets.  It happens when someone who hasn’t seen you in many years looks aghast and exclaims loudly about how much weight you’ve lost and you’re tempted to bust out a few moves to ‘I’m sexy and I know it’ but instead just nod and smile sagely instead.  It happens after you’ve written a few lines of verse and you re-read in amazement that the words turned out just how you wanted in only one go.  It’s when you receive an out-of-the-blue call/text/email/whatsapp/bbm/tweet/inbox message of concern from one of the many people who know and care about you.

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My north star, I have realised, lies in forming connections. I find happiness in shared history, common ground, similar likes and dislikes and the ability to discover something about myself I had no idea existed simply by virtue of seeing myself through another individual’s perspective.  These lead to great stories and, as anyone who knows even the bare minimum about me, I am a sucker for a good story. My happiness experiment has given me some grief this past year, it hasn’t led to permanent contentment, and it was an important part of the process for me to realise that it doesn’t have to.

Going all the way, going after what makes me happy, striving for things that bring a smile to my face – it’s this leap that matters, and I would take it again in a heartbeat.  Because, sometimes, that’s what stops. The heart.  Bhai’s did, and someday mine will too, and when that happens, I don’t want people talking about what I owned or achieved.  I want to be known for the unlikely connections I was able to form, the surprising friendships I pursued and the unexpected yet fantastic stories that emerged out of them.

It’s not easy.  Nothing real is ever easy.  Just writing this post is taking Herculean effort because what I’m typing out is how I think on most days but its conflicting with what I’m thinking RIGHT NOW. Right this second, I realise it’s the 18th of December and I’m suppressing flashbacks of seeing my brother’s body and remembering the touch of his cold fingertips.  At this moment, I’m trying to not recall the weeks and weeks of sleepless nights that ensued that first year and I am now wondering how I can ever get married without having him around to sing at my mehndi or walk me down the aisle.

Happiness is really hard work.  It still requires making tough decisions to eliminate factors in your life that limit your joy, and then communicating and implementing what you have as just airy-fairy ideas into actuality.  Happiness is a process.  It’s taken me 3 years and a dead brother to realise that, and I am nowhere near done.  But I’m trying.

The answer must be in the attempt.

You’re Leaving on a Jet Plane

My best friend is moving half a world away today.  This is for her.

***

An ocean, some islands, a few dozen countries.

An alternate timezone; a 3 am yawn here, a 6 pm shrug there.

Unfamiliar accents and fur-coated walks on oddly-named streets

from a shared edifice to a new campus.  Buildings of

scholarship and domesticity, of new habits and faces.

These are the measurements of distance,

of the differences in circumstances that occur

when one soul diverges from another.

***

But these poor numbers will have no impact.

We will scoff at them, and laugh at them, and devise

a system that is truly our own.

Constant connectivity of pictures and of words,

of “:)” and “:P” to describe the pictures without words.

The yen to hear a familiar giggle, satiated by sporadic

phone calls that alleviate the urge, but only just.

Loathed virtual sessions and blurry pixels, we will have to bear

because the alternative, of nothingness, is unbearable.

***

Fierce typing on keyboards that tire of our tirades

of life, love, loss and laughter.

Anecdotes of mornings spent on swings, see-sawing

through hazy nights spent dancing, fumbling,

looking for ways both down stairs and up.

Stairs and hallways licked with sweat and tears,

remnants of shared journeys through tunnels of ecstasy.

Morning rituals of tea but never enough milk,

always out of sugar, and varied recollections of what

had transpired before dawn.

***

These measures will be of our own making,

not of distance but its antonym,

of togetherness that is not hindered by time or space,

of comfort that needs no introduction,

of familiarity that need not be labeled,

and a shared history that cannot be over writ.

Till we meet again, my soul.

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Math + Me = ??

Math and I share a complicated relationship.  One defined by non-existence.

It’s a common complaint by many: i just don’t get numbers, I can’t do math.

But it’s more than just a complaint for me, it’s a legit fact, as factual as those horrendous equations I never understood the point of.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure math is great.  There are many people i know who excel at it and think it’s the bee’s knees.  I look at these people, these Russel-Crowe-A-Beautiful-Mind types, with awe and respect.  They can decipher numbers and functions and matrices and all that jazz. Good for them. Kudos to them. Let’s give em all a big cookie.

It’s the complete opposite for me.  I was 6 when we moved to Canada, went into grade 2 and, for a while there, I was the “smart kid.”  Okay, I’ll stop being modest, I was pretty smart at school, but I think it had a lot to do with the fact that the intensity of what was taught at school in Canada was nowhere near the stuff I had been learning before.  It’s pretty ironic; in Grade 2, I remember being grouped with a couple other kids (brown, obvs) and given stuff like long division to do because what the rest of the class was doing was just not challenging enough.  Things continued in this vein for a while, another 5 years till grade 8 and  then BOOM! We moved to Dubai and I was stupid again.

Amen, sister

Amen, sister

 

Geometry, algebra, multiple choice quizzes and tests every week! The dramatic shift in what I was learning and how I had to learn it was unsettling.  Gone was the emphasis on personal development and creative growth through fun projects, and in was adopting a new way of memorising as much information as possible. It took ages for me to catch up with what everyone else was doing.  The school I went to, there was no such thing as a stupid person, academically.  While there was no encouragement to develop your personality or figure out where your strengths lay, there was plenty of pressure to outdo yourself and those around you in every quiz.  I remember distinctly liking science at school in Canada (experiments ftw!); fast forward a couple of years in Dubai and I’d developed a deep abhorrence for anything formulaic.  At college, I cried great big tears of misery after the calculus midterm.  Needless to say, I did not do too well on that course. I wonder now if my mental block towards Math & Science (yes, to me they form one big, evil union together) was merely a result of the change in learning environment.

Perhaps, it’s not an inherent quality lacking in me that prevents me from grasping such concepts now as well as I used to.  Had I maybe stayed in Canada and continued school there, I wouldn’t tear up now at the sight of numbers.  There is the obvious flip side to this argument as well: loads of kids who went to the same school I did flourished at all things math-y and science-y, including others like me who’s moved to Dubai from Canada.  Whatever the reason may be, the fact remains: I’m no good at that stuff. Furthermore, I have no particular interest in trying to be. I have my words.

I’d often wonder aloud in class when I’d ever need to use the Pythagoras Theorem later on in life.  Five years out of high school, my thoughts remain as they were. Numbers and formulas are great at helping you figure out how something works, but words can elucidate why.  So, to conclude with a fancy justification of my weakness, my strength lies not in thinking of the “how” of life, but rather the “why”.

See? He thinks about the 'why' too.

See? He thinks about the ‘why’ too.

The Story of Silences

There is a sound to every kind of silence. This is the story of you learning how to appreciate each one.

When you were younger, silence could be daunting.  It was uncomfortable and uneasy, like a dress that doesn’t sit quite right on the shoulders.  You would want to fill it with gibberish, with talk of the abominable wind chill factor or how choosing ‘C’ as the default option on a multiple-choice test was the way to go.  To get away from silence, you re-played the same Avril Lavigne album until the lyrics were embedded in your mental synapses.  You also figured out how to study aloud.  Even if the only voice you heard was your own, it was still a lot better than no voice at all. You would not even attempt to let silence drop by, let alone linger, because you had not yet grasped the fact that silence could be beautiful.  Back then, you would do all you could to make sure it did not turn up unannounced.  Silence was the visitor you boarded up your doors against.

As you grew older, silence began making cameo appearances.  It took you by surprise, the same way Brad Pitt showed up in that one episode of Friends.  In conversations, silence would creep up and you wouldn’t even realize it because you’d be too busy thinking hard about what to say next.  You began to learn about virtual silences too, the one where you’re chatting on MSN and waiting for the other person to respond and wondering what is taking so long because you can ‘see’ them typing.  It showed up in many a rendezvous as well, perching next to you as your mind frantically wondered, ‘Lean in? Lean back? Quick, do something!’  You soon realized you could use silence to your advantage, practicing it in the car as you looked outside at the city you were about to leave, making the person in the driver’s seat painstakingly wonder what they had done wrong to be deprived of your voice.  Silence even showed up at school, sitting next to your friends on the steps, making its presence known as the five of you daydreamed about the exciting adventures college would bring.  It would linger then, and you began to let it.

Silence took a bit of a backseat when you went to college.  Everything was new, shiny and loud.  Freedom was noisy and you savoured the clamour.  There was a constant buzz the first year, sounds of meeting a new best friend and sharing love’s woes over cold coffee on a sticky table, sounds of new words that you’d only ever heard of but were at last learning about: “Orientalism”, “hegemony”, “post-modernism”, “Foucault”.  You were overwhelmed but exhilarated, and you collected each sound eagerly, using it as fodder for stories you would tell your family on visits back home.  Secretly, you began to crave silence.  There were moments when you knew the sounds but still didn’t understand them, and you would sit on your bed as your roommate slept and you would try to decipher all the new ways you were being taught how to use sin, cos and tan.  The sounds let you down and you failed a couple of courses that year.  You realized then that silence was sometimes necessary.

Life happened with a death and this is when you wholeheartedly embraced silence.  You learnt of new silences: the one that comes with the absence of a familiar voice, the one devoid of thudding footsteps up the stairs, the one that no longer called out “Basmah! Can you please make me some chai?” or “Come listen to my new song!”  You began to seek out silences, blocking out the voices that tut-tutted and solemnly whispered “so young, so tragic.”  You fought against it for a while, the silence of no longer having an older brother, and questioned it endlessly, replacing it with the anguished mental chant of ‘why, why, why’.  This silence did not answer back, and you learned to fill it with distractions.  You went horse-riding at 6 am and took up Zumba.  You developed a love-hate relationship with silence, you both clung to it, and flung it afar.  Sometimes, it was your middle-of-the-night walking companion, and at other times, you would dull your senses enough to not feel it next to you.  You grew accustomed to the silence of waking up out of a nightmare, of struggling to fight away the demons that keep taking you to the same dark place in the past where he is still alive and your joie de vivre is untainted. You learned then that even if someone you love leaves, the void of silence they left would always stay.

A new year brought with it some significant nuances.  You were a senior at college now, a 20-something on the cusp of adulthood.  It was the end of your bildungsroman, and this stunned you into a whole new kind of silence.  You sat with your friends, on rickety chairs in open fields with playful shadows, in a cult-like circle on pavements flecked with twilight, at a communal brunch table laden with not-quite-cooked pasta and pancakes, wedged in a cramped bus on a trip to the mountains, and finally decked in robes and hats on seats specified by majors.  Each time brought with it a bittersweet silence, one in which you would glance at the person on your right and then on your left and pray fervently to a God you didn’t always get along with for remembrance.  There were reassuring silences too, accompanied by embraces so fierce, they left bruises you hoped would not fade.  Hands clasped together in the dark, in cave-like window sills you would later wish you could retreat to.  There was the silence that came with a series of lasts: last walk across campus, last late summer Lahore rain, last trip to Liberty, last night philosophizing at the bleachers, last dawn spent dancing in an unfamiliar living room.  Silence became omnipresent, and on the plane flying out from your home of 4 years to another you would be forced to rediscover, you realized what kind it was.  It was the silence of goodbye.

You are a working professional now, with a full-time job, a bank account and a vague understanding of what ‘savings’ really mean.  These accessories of adulthood come with their own variations of silences; they make you debate the ‘what ifs’ of decisions you have not yet made, they induce guilt trips when you let the on-goings of your daily life reduce the significance of the big picture you have painted for yourself in your mind, they comfort you when the realities of responsibilities overwhelm and cause hair fall.  The silences are a solace now, and you realize there will always be a new one you have yet to learn about.  Right now, for example, you’re figuring out the silence of allowing new people to intersect the trajectory of your life.  You are experiencing the companionable silence that comes in midst of a conversation, as you look away from a screen to trace the patterns on your rug and watch the black thread merge into the grey, and away from the red.  It’s a silence that revolves around dreams of sun-drenched villas on coastal lands that are oceans away from where you are and you both like and dislike the barriers.  It’s a silence that comes with a certain uncertainty, a knowing that even if you may not be where you want to be in a few years, you know that at least you will not be where you were.  Even though this silence is more unsettling than soothing, you are learning to live with it.  It is the silence of moving on.

There are more silences left to explore, of life, loss, and love.  You are now eager and somewhat equipped to experience each one.