In Memoriam

I went to a nun school. And while it definitely contributed to my obsession with toeing all lines, real, imaginary, or merely suggested,  I often feel it contributed little in terms of a classical education. The Sisters, focused on cultivating poverty of spirit and inculcating a desire to serve, had clearly decided to forgo a hard core education. If the meek are to inherit the earth, its best to set children up right from the start. No education, no success. No pride, no fall.

So I spent my childhood blissfully uninformed, gazing vacantly out of the classroom windows onto the huge flame of the forest dominating the school courtyard. Lessons didn’t revolve around content, the teaching seemed merely a well placed diversion between the actual highlights of the class: the greeting ceremonies. You see, every time a teacher entered the room, we all stood up, and intoned ‘Good Morning Ms. *Insert Name Here.*’ And every time the teacher left, we leapt up to our collective feet for a repeat performance, only this time we also expressed our gratitude for the enlightenment received. ‘Good Morning and Thank You Ms. *Whatsername*.’ The whole bow, kneel, greet routine was of such importance, the only time the  principal swept into our class, she came to chastise our motley crew of fifteen year olds for singing it instead of saying it. ‘Crisply!’ she roared, and we roared right back, our ‘Good Morning’s ringing out until we had got it down to under five seconds.

The nun-sicles may have skimped on the information, but they ended up giving us a childhood. I can’t remember ever wanting to skip school; to me it was like home, but with more people to play with. Sure, I spent my life in mortal terror of not finding a partner to stand with in the morning assembly, and often woke up in the middle of the night to polish my shoes, but those are little fears. No matter how little you are yourself, those fears are never big enough to swallow you. You’ll get scolded for dirty shoes, so you learn to polish them the night before. Problem solved. 

I didn’t grow up speaking French, or quoting Chaucer, or knowing where Ukraine is. But I grew up believing every obstacle was surmountable, every problem had a solution, and everything could be fixed. I grew up believing that we all get our just desserts in life. Even as a grown up, when life is anything but reciprocal and fears can swallow you whole, that’s a lesson I can’t forget. That’s one lesson I can’t thank them enough for.

I still wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about everything that went wrong, everything that could still go wrong tomorrow. And, purely by reflex, I reach for the shoe polish. Grown up shoe polish. Which, like grown ups themselves, is more elusive and less reliable than its childhood counterpart. But no matter how unreliable and ineffective it may be, I look for it. I polish my shoes. I try it, because that’s what I was taught. Its also all I can ever do. Try.

Another thing the nuns achieved, this one quite by accident, was to instill an unbearable thirst for knowledge in me. Its like that thing from New Girl, where Nick decides he’s  going to make his children beg for school, so they’ll appreciate it more. I appreciate school. I appreciate information. I appreciate it hard. One of the happiest moments of my life, I kid you not, was when our Physics teacher told us that weight is relative, and what we commonly refer to as weight is actually mass. I believe her exact words were somewhere along the line of, ‘Every time the shopkeeper says the weight is 500g, he’s making a mistake. The mass is 500g.’ This. Blew. My. Mind. My toes curled, my pupils dilated, my hair stood on its end. I had been initiated. I knew something that most people (I’m looking at you, candy shop guy) did not know. The universe, in the guise of my disinterested Physics teacher, had let me in on a secret. I was hooked. 

I haven’t felt like that in a long time. Its not because I know everything now. Its because knowledge went from being doled out like candy when you least expected it, a pleasant surprise on a Thursday afternoon, to a commodity that was grudgingly paid for and viciously fought over. Instead of being slipped into my hand, a well deserved tip from the gods, I was now supposed to fight over it, like a horde of cackling hyenas fight over a bleeding carcass. And fight I do, because I’m hooked. But I don’t enjoy it one bit. The gains, for all the work it takes, are ill gotten in my book. There is no rush anymore.

The closest I get to that rush today is when I pick up an old copy of Byron or Faiz, and read a verse that speaks to me. When I make a visceral connection over time and space with people who shared their wisdom and talent without any prejudice. When I am slipped a note across the centuries, proof that someone, somewhere, felt what I do, and dealt with it in the most magnificent way possible. When I see thirst turned into art, rather than pain.

Oh, and also when I get a free biscuit with my tea. That, is pretty fabulous. 

یہ جو سرگشتہ سے پھرتے ہین کتابوں والے
ان سے مت مل کے انھیں روگ ہین خوابوں والے

Stay away from these lost souls, clutching books to their hearts

They live in a land of dreams. 


Tiger Mothers

The prodigal sister has been having a really tough time at work. Now I find it difficult to take her problems seriously, from where I am standing, surely the biggest problem is finding work. And once that bridge is crossed, any problems you may have are problems you’re being paid to face. Not such a bad deal as problems go. 

My derision might also have a little to do with the fact that she is currently estranged from her parents, has no personal, meaningful relationships other than with people from work, and is blissfully unaware that these are her real problems. So when she was crying about her work, part of me wanted to shrug my shoulders and roll my eyes, while the other part wanted to point out how ironic it was that she was asking her six years younger, unemployed sister for help when she could have asked her fifty something, highly successful mother. Surely age and experience is what you look for in advice givers? Oh, wait…. She hasn’t talked to her mother in a year. And if her mother is dispensable, what value would her advice have?

The only thing that makes me angrier than her blatant disregard of my mother is my mother’s unshakable love for her. Even if she can’t see her daughter rolling her eyes at every phone call, or smirking in derision when she tells her about her day, I am sure she can get the tone. But she just doesn’t seem to get the message. She still calls everyday, she still asks after her everytime, she still prays for her every night. No matter how badly she’s treated, or how much she’s hurting, she still loves my sister as much as she did twenty years ago, when she was too young to bring anything but joy. I don’t know what my mom is made of.

Actually, I do know. She’s made of her experiences. 

A few months ago, on a particularly dismal Thursday, when life was edging from disappointing to pointless, she saved me. As she does on a regular basis. But this time, it wasn’t with a well timed cup of tea, or a particularly extravagant pair of shoes, or a new haircut. I had ventured well past the Happiness through Possessions detour, and was edging dangerously close to the Point of No Return. And that’s where she was waiting, this time with a glimpse into her life to help me rediscover mine. 

You see, her feelings for us are more than the unconditional love of all mothers. If you doubt me, try living with us. We’re so utterly depraved, and rude, and callous. The prodigal daughter for instance, told my mother all of last year she couldn’t visit sooner because she was planning to come on my mother’s birthday for a month. She didn’t. And my mother waited in vain for a phone call, let alone a visit. Its now been a whole year since she’s seen her daughter’s face. As someone who stood over her shoulder as she glanced around the room with barely concealed hope, trying to spot sis hiding in the corner as she cut her birthday cake, I would understand if she stopped loving my sister. Or at least demanded an apology. But not my mom. She just loves her children with all her heart, without expecting even basic human decency in return. 

And would you believe it, there is an explanation for it? I always suspected her overwhelming affection stems from the fact that she was an only child, brought up by a single mother, and wanted desperately to have a family of her own. What I didn’t suspect was that our family was originally bigger than it is now. Apparently there were five little monsters, instead of four, but my older brother didn’t make it. She miscarried five months along, alone with three little children, while my father was away on work. She wasn’t showing, he never knew, and neither did any of the other little ones. It was her silent hope, and her silent loss. Which is why, I suspect, she is handling this situation so well. My sister isn’t the only child she ever lost, and this time, there’s actually hope of getting her back. No matter how unlikely it may seem, no matter how unworthy that child maybe. My mother still peers into dark corners looking for her. 

My mother is an exceptional woman, like most mother’s are. Forged in the fires of adversity, condemned to love children who owe them everything but think nothing of them, who never love them as much, as deeply, as openly. I made a mistake in thinking my mother was made weak by love; she is in fact the strongest and most accomplished person I know. Her love perseveres. Her tragedies are her life lessons. Her sorrow gives her strength. She has known how bad life can get, how unrequited love can be, how final some losses are. And because she has gone to the Point of No Return, fallen down the cliff, and climbed back up, she no longer fears anything. She saved herself, and so she knows how to save us. 

I’m not my mother. Not in the least. I cannot save my sister. But I can try to pass on the lessons my mother taught me. She might listen. And luckily for me, even if she won’t listen to anything I say, she will, as we all tend to, trust the wisdom of strangers. So I have lent her my copy of The Joy Luck Club, a tale of extraordinary mothers who are mistaken for ordinary creatures by their own daughters. And maybe in those pages, she will hear my mother’s voice. And find her own.

“So this is what I will do. I will gather together my past and look. I will see a thing that has already happened. The pain that cut my spirit loose. I will hold that pain in my hand until it becomes hard and shiny, more clear. And then my fierceness can come back, my golden side, my black side. I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter’s tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter.” 


Lesson learnt.

I lost my happy today.

Its probably just that time of year. May ushers in with it all my demons, who hold a month long fiesta in my head. And that’s the only fiesta that a holdin’ near me, even though its my birthday on the 21st. Which is probably why I hate May. May taught me 10 years ago, and reminds me every year since, that no one cares enough to celebrate my existence.

That may sound a tad dramatic, but stick with me here. My tragedies are terribly important to me.

I’m the designated party planner in my house: I bake the cakes, I buy the balloons, I suggest and organize the presents, I shepherd the family together, I make someone’s special day special. Celebrations are really important, particularly the one’s that have nothing to do with an achievement. I mean, if you only got people singing for you when you got a job, or a promotion, or a husband, there would have been no music in my house for the last 5 years. But birthdays…… Congratulations, you survived! Here’s a cake and a customized song! In a world where we’re mostly just marching along with blinders on, birthdays are a great way of grabbing a little joy along the road, an excuse to look around and smell the flowers.

Flowers are very important to me. As are balloons. And I have made that blatantly obvious over the years. Yet, there are no flowers on my bedside table on the 21st, no balloons decking the halls, no cake on the table. My mother tends to slip me a present or two, but apparently my existence isn’t enough of a cause for joy to merit a family gathering. I’m sure a lot of people are loved as little as I am, but I cannot believe those people love like I do. I love, and love, and love, and I do not hear the echo. I don’t want expensive presents, or a full on party. Just flowers, and balloons, and thoughtful tokens of appreciation. A volume of poetry, a funny newspaper clipping, a card so personal it could only have been for me. It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy. Which is why it hurts so much that no one can even make that much of an effort.

I had an interview today, the only light on my darkening horizon. I was supposed to study for it, but my sister was having a really tough day yesterday. She drove over, plonked down on my bed, and late into the night I comforted her and listened to her and to my father as he woke up all his friends to help his little girl. I couldn’t study, I couldn’t sleep, and naturally I couldn’t ace the interview. So today, I was having a really tough day. She could not make it over, she sent me a text saying it was okay, I would be fine. A text. I realize she was not having the best day, that coming over to sit with me would be inconvenient, but it wasn’t convenient for me to leave work the day before either. When someone is a priority for you, you don’t care about minor inconveniences. I am clearly not a priority. But she is my priority, and that’s the worst part of it.

Luckily, I won’t have to deal with my misplaced priorities on the 21st. Remember how I have no job, and was on the verge of clinical depression for the last four months? Well, my father decided to make lemonade out of the lemon life had handed him in my guise, and bought me a ticket to go see my sister. She’s estranged from my parents, and they want her desperately to make contact. So they’re sending me, the daughter who puts everyone else first, a sister whisperer if you will, to make her realize how much they love and miss her. Of course, the fact that its the toughest time of the year for me, that I am a nervous wreck myself, and it just might not be in my best interests to advocate parental love when the said father has not even deigned to drive me ten minutes to the gym in the last 6 months has not occurred to him.

I’m going. Ofcourse I am. I love her. I love him. I need them to be happy. It just so happens that my mother and I are the only people in the universe who care as far as my happiness is concerned. That sucks for me, but lets face it, its not such a tremendous problem. Oscar Wilde, the man I know was meant for me but sent in the wrong century, said that the secret of life is to enjoy the pleasure of being terribly, terribly deceived. So I will try and remember that these non-reciprocal relationships in my life, all the unrequited love, sets me up beautifully for my martyr complex! And maybe one day, I will manage to inspire love in someone, who will be there for me on weekdays. Till then, on my birthday, I will take a train to London, and watch the Woman in Black alone. I’m rather looking forward to being scared, it’s been a while since I have been anything other than sad or resigned. As for now, here’s one last wallow in my pool of self pity

i am a beggar always
who begs in your mind

(slightly smiling, patient, unspeaking
with a sign on his
BLIND) yes i

am this person of whom somehow
you are never wholly rid (and who

does not ask for more than
just enough dreams to
live on)
after all, kid

you might as well
toss him a few thoughts

a little love preferably,
anything which you can’t
pass off on other people: for
instance a
plugged promise-

the he will maybe (hearing something
fall into his hat)go wandering
after it with fingers;till having

what was thrown away
taptaptaps out of your brain, hopes, life
to(carefully turning a
corner)never bother you any more