The Weird and the Wonderful – There’s Something You Should Know

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On a spectacularly sunny California afternoon, the love of my life asked me to marry him, and I said yes.

There are certain things girls dream about. We fantasize, subconsciously or not, about the perfect ring, the ideal proposal, the classic dress and of course, the right guy.  I am no exception and while I’ve found the right guy, there is one thing I don’t think I’ll ever stop wishing – that he could’ve met you.

I think you two would have really hit it off. His sense of humour, though jarring for me at first, is so infectious that I now find myself cracking his kind of jokes right back at him.  We laugh more than we actually talk and I think you would’ve just loved that, I mean, you were quite a funny guy yourself when you were around.  If the two of you could be in  the same room, I think we’d all hear you both guffawing miles away.  He likes to horse around and just be silly, and, as grown up and adult as I sometimes consider myself, it’s a relief to just turn that off with him.  It’s a relief to just…be.

That’s not to say he can’t be serious.  In all my life, I haven’t seen anyone as dedicated to their goals as him.  When he makes up his mind to do something, that shit gets DONE.  You’d appreciate that about him, just as I do.  It’s reassuring to know that if I ever need help with anything, he’ll be there.  Even when it’s something he has no idea about, he’ll still do his best.  That perseverance calms me down.  I get worked up so easily about small, nonsensical things, and his steadfastness anchors me. It also makes me feel safe.  It’s a little like how, when I’d tell you I heard something outside, you would take a round of the front and back yards in the middle of the night, cricket bat in hand, ready to strike.  He’s like that, for me, all the time. It’s like having a bodyguard around 24/7, except this one safeguards my soul, too.

One thing you two would truly bond over is music.  His playlist is one you’d easily want for yourself and his love of Coke Studio could rival yours. Granted, you were only around long enough to listen up until Season 2, but the sheer joy and passion with which he enjoys some of the newer tracks often reminds me of you.  There are moments when he’ll be singing aloud at the top of his voice, and then suddenly pause to lament why he doesn’t have a good enough voice to properly carry a tune.  I tend to smile then, because that’s when I imagine the two of you together, listening to this music, with you actually singing it, and him being your happy audience, the way I once was.

You’d like him, you really would. I don’t just say that as a little sister who wants her big brother’s approval on her choice of partner. I say it because if you could see what I do, you’d agree. You’d see that he already makes Ami laugh and smile without even really trying, and instils in Abu a hidden hope of a son’s shoulder to lean on.  You’d see the effort he makes in learning about you, and keeping your memories alive for me, going as far as playing one of your favourite songs for our proposal. You’d see that he wants to move mountains for Ayana and get her every toy under the sun, without ever having met her yet.  You’d see that he worries about the aches and the colds of every member in the family, as if we were his own. You’d see that, in a matter of just mere months, he is family.

I never allowed myself to think too much about who I’d marry or how it would be, because anytime I did, my heart would shatter remembering that you won’t be around for any of it. Now, when I have someone who makes all the cliches about love and life ring true, I think about how it will be and I wish, more than anything, that you were here for all of this. I wish you could see your baby sister next month, getting engaged in front of family and friends to the man she loves. I wish you were around for all the planning, and the gossiping, the freak-outs and the dancing. I helped you make your wedding playlist, and I had always imagined you helping me make mine one day.

I wish you could be a part of this magic, in person. But because you can’t, I will console myself with what I know to be true – that I chose someone my brother would get along with, fantastically well.

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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.

“I love you”

I love you.

You don’t own me, I let you possess me.
You complete me, but you’re also an agent of my annihilation.
You are what affirms me, and also that which denies me.
You are my anchor, my rock, my support, but you are also the edge of the cliff that I am slipping from.
You are the shore that I sail to, but also the iceberg I will inevitably crash against.
You are my greatest joy, but also my impending doom.
Your vision is my lens of the world, and also what distorts it.
You can make me feel like a million bucks one minute, and then a neglected, forgotten rag doll the next.
You are my sanctuary, but also the cave of my horrors.
You are the other half of the yin-yang, and yet you are all grey.
You are my refuge from the madness of this world, but you are also the madness in my world.
You are clear-cut and straightforward, but you are also a labyrinth with no solution.
You will meet me halfway, but you will also leave me stranded.
You are what I know so well, but you are also unfamiliar territory.
You are a crimson flame, but you may fade to blue anytime.
You tend to my wounds, but you also pour salt on them.
You are my dream-catcher, but you are also a living nightmare.
You break down my resistance, but you also help rebuild my walls of defense.
You are not my master, but your command over me is transcendental.
You are what I stop and turn around to look for, and then you keep walking away.
You form lyrics from my words, but your rhythm is out of sync.
You can make me lower the weapons, but you will never surrender.

You are mine, but I am not yours.
You are not me, but I am your mirror.
Your skin is yours. My skin is mine. But you are still under it.

Photo courtesy of: Wajiha Khuwaja

Carpe diem!

You go through life planning it in segments. Say your first word, learn to walk, learn to read and write, go to school, follow it up with university, graduate with good grades, get a stable job, marry someone respectable, die a peaceful death.

Everything is done just so, and the slightest disruption can have a catastrophic effect. You fail a couple of courses and the graduating with good grades part becomes harder, you fall in love when you’re not supposed to and you’re more resistant towards marriage, you stumble and break a leg and you have to learn to walk all over again. It is said way too frequently that life is full of ups and downs. But that’s only if you’re expecting your life to be one straight, monotonic line where even the smallest of things can catapult it in any direction. If, however, your life is already a colossal jumble of highs and lows, then any trouble that comes your way won’t have such an immense affect on it.

That’s how life is meant to be, not a straight line full of ups and downs, but simply ups and downs with little bits of uninterrupted lines in between. You can’t plan something that may or may not happen 10 years later, it would be delusional to do so. Basing decisions on days and weeks of weighing out the pros and cons may be the ‘practical’ thing to do, but where’s the fun in that? Doing that doesn’t mean you’re living, it just means you exist.

Grab a magic-8 ball and whisper your wishes into it, throw away your day-schedule and drive off somewhere far and unexplored, strike up a conversation with a total stranger and tell them your secrets, sing out loud in public instead of just in the shower, wear wacky shoes without worrying about how odd your feet look. Stop thinking and just be.

Love, life and the meaning of it all

So the semester’s almost over and it marks the end of one of the most amazing courses I’ve had the opportunity to take at university so far.  A brilliant 4 months of intense philosophy with one of the most brilliant and maverick professors here, and I feel like nothing I could say would do justice to everything that I’ve learnt thus far.

From Viktor Frankl, al-Ghazali and St Augustine to Descartes, Tolstoy and the daddy of them all, Friedrich Nietzsche, we’ve covered a little fraction of all the big names, just enough to get an idea of how they viewed life and the legacy they left behind for those who choose to adhere to their views. 

Despite their big names and even bigger controversial ideas or reputations, what’s really surprising is that there’s one thing that plagues them all: philosophers always require you to CHOOSE, and make an either/or distinction between 2 opposites.  It begs the question, why must that be the case? Utilitarianism or Kant-ianism, utopia or reality, faith or rationality: its either one or the other, but why?  Why is it that an individual HAS to choose to adopt one specific extreme and not in any way be within the ambit of another?

I suppose it’s also quite relatable to the dischotomous bond shared by science and religion: either you’re a man or reason and science and objectivity or you’re a ‘mullah’, who believes in revelation and all the ‘irrationality’ of the scriptures.  I don’t see how one can’t strike a balance between the two and maintain both positions.  Ibn Khaldun certainly managed to do so, he transformed the realm of historiography, was one of the founders of sociology and a presursor to many of the ideas propounded by Adam Smith, Marx and Durkheim 5 centuries after his death.  Yet, at the same time, he was a religious man, not a fundamentalist as we would call him today, but a man of firm faith who believed in prophetic wisdom and the omniscient power of the Divine. 

The meaning of life is also another subject that’s dominated much of this course.  It seems that the common conclusion between all the thinkers has been this: in order to find a ‘why’ for your existence, you must submit to the something larger than yourself.

Nietzsche talks about this in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ when he describes that the TRUE philosopher is one that trailblazes through the terrain of thoughts, constantly risking himself and upholding a principle that goes beyond just the man; in a sense, this is the ubermensch.   He also relates this to artists who become completely submissive to their creative side, they let themselves flow out in order to create something and do something that surpasses their own selves. Frankl discusses this as well in Man’s Search for Meaning, and that’s something I’ve already discussed before on here in detail.

But there is something that’s actually been bothering me, it has to do with Leo Tolstoy.  He was an artist, in the true sense of the word, because his writing was his art.  He’s written masterpieces, Anna Karenina and War and Peace and absolute tomes brimming with brilliance.  Yet, it wasn’t enough for him, it didn’t quite add meaning to his life the way one would expect.  In Confession, he admits that he did it simply to earn more money, garner more fame, etc. but surely it meant more to him than that?  I find it really difficult to believe that a writer like Tolstoy could not find satisfactory prupose in his writing, and this puzzles me, because if it wasnt enough for Tolstoy, then what chance does someone like me have?

Sure, Tolstoy went through a great conversion, and became a preachy-preachy Orthodox Christian, and much of his writing was affected by his austere religious views, but his words have a point.  If things like art and family are merely distractions that keep you from realising the true reason for your existence, then it’s a pretty miserable state we all live in because for most of us, those 2 things really are what life is all about.

Last but certainly not least: love.  This topic was one that evoked A LOT of giggles in the class, but it’s one that is universal and truly about everyone.  Many of us have Disney-inspired notions of love or we talk about love as if we really know what it’s all about, but in actuality, it’s something that’s completely beyond a layman’s comprehension.

For Frankl, love was the source of salvation; for St Augustine and Tolstoy, there was a difference in worldly love and divine love, with the latter outweighing the former; for Nietzsche, love is something a man could not do justice to, it is only a woman whose love is what love is meant to be. 

We’ve all said ‘I love you’ at some point of our lives, but what we fail to realise is what we really mean is ‘I want to possess you’.  This is not love as love should be. 

‘I allow you to possess me’ is love.  This is the selfless, the brave, the kamikaze, the absolutely absolute form of love that (if you listen to Nietzsche) only a woman can give.  In the absence of such love, there is no submission, no passion of struggle, and certainly no greatness.

Man’s Search for Meaning

I just finished reading a very profound and poignant piece or writing.  It is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

A survivor of the holocaust and a leading psychiatrist in logotheraphy, Frankl writes honestly about his experiences at Auschwitz.  He doesn’t try to sugarcoat his sufferings or even exaggerate them.  They are related in a very matter-of-fact way with lots of pockets of wisdom in between about how to get through a difficult ordeal.  None of us now can imagine how it really was for the victims of the Holocaust, no matter how many times we watch Inglorious Basterds.  Even words on paper make it difficult to truly understand all the horrors of the concentration camps.  Often, its hard to read or watch such works without being a little subjective and without getting emotionally involved.  I found that Frankl’s work not only enlightened me but it did so in a way that I could compreend how he got through it without muttering curses under my breath at Hitler.

He writes beautifully (Frankl, not Hitler).  Here are a few quotes that particularly stuck with me:

“What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment”

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.” ”  (I particularly like this one because it shows how, even in the reary, dangerous atmosphere of a Nazi concentration camp, the pull of love towards a person or a duty is so strong that it can help you get through it and alleviate your troubles even for a little while.)

“The salvation of man is through an in love”  (Once again, the emphasis on love.  He goes on to describe how having imaginary conversations with his wife, of whm he had no information, helped him get through difficult days.  He states that even if he had known then that she was dead, he would have done this anyway, because the mere idea of a loved one, even if they are not alive, is enough to help you survive.)

Its clear that Frankl places love pretty high in the ladder of importance.  He believes that apart from love, work is also important in helping you get through a difficult time.  For example, Frankl mentally worked on his manuscript while suffering through bouts of typhus in the camp.  It gave him a “why” for living.  Lastly, and most surprisingly, Frankl thinks that apart from work and love, SUFFERING itself provides meaning for existence, because it gives us 2 options. One would be to choose our attitude towards that suffering, or spiritual freedom.  For example, you could either choose to give up on life or you could gather your inner convictions and use them to get through it all.  Second would be to make us see suffering as a task we have to get through, which enables us to get through it proudly.  It sounds a bit confusing but when reading Frankl’s work, it makes complete sense.

Overall, Frankl’s work has a deep message, and I think it can be interpreted in many ways depending on the reader as an individual.  I would definitely recommend it to everyone.