Depending upon the kindness of strangers

kindness 2

Noah and I made it to Cairo from London safely last night.

I travelled the world by myself some years ago. I went whitewater rafting down the Zambezi below Victoria Falls – with a lifejacket since I couldn’t swim. We also bush safaried on the Zambezi with lions and crocs and hippos around us and I was ok. I abseiled on some insane boot camp in Scotland a few years later, crying all the way – note to self, death-defying stunts rarely change your life or suddenly imbue you with the courage to fulfill your dreams – and I made it through somehow.

But travelling alone with an infant for the first time is, without doubt, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. The sheer logistics of it – packing for a five-month old, negotiating Heathrow’s complex liquids rules (how much milk?), going through security with your baby in a new stroller you’ve only just got the hang of while juggling his overstuffed changing bag and (stupidly) a carry-on case, all while trying to make it to your gate on time (parents travelling solo get no kind driver to whizz them there – I asked) is enough to drive the most measured of us to insanity.

Granted, I made several rookie mistakes (do travel light and make sure you understand how your stroller works beforehand) but I made it through, mainly – as Blanche Dubois says in Streetcar – because of the kindness of strangers. I’ve said this before but I’ve never felt more vulnerable than when I was pregnant and than I do now, as a still-new mother. Whether it’s a hormonal shift or the weight of caring for a precious little life or the endless daily challenges of new motherhood, I am raw and open and exposed like never before.

So, while thankfully my child was a trooper, I was a nervous wreck – if I could have taken a moment to sob quietly in the toilets, I would have. Crowded places like airports can be terrifying if you’re vulnerable for any reason. But for every person who rushed past us, there were others who stopped to help, and this is an ode to all those lovely people whose little acts of kindness made our lives easier yesterday.

To the wonderful woman in security in Heathrow Terminal 2 who held Noah for me and talked to him as I tried to close his stroller, and the woman on the other side who put all my things together as I tried to put him back in, thank you. To the man in Boots who let this harried mum buy his milk without making her delve for her boarding pass (‘because parents have enough to deal with”), thank you. These are not places where I expected kindness and your actions moved me to tears.

To the woman also travelling with her child on the same flight – but not encumbered by bags like me – who offered to go ahead and tell them I’d be late – and then helped me put his stroller away at the gate, thank you. To the lovely family I sat next to on board who gave me lots of tips and held Noah for me when we disembarked so I could gather our things, thank you. To the man on the other side who joked with Noah, the couple behind me who got my bag down from the overhead bin and carried it out, and then the Egypt Air steward who wheeled it to immigration for me, thank you, thank you, thank you.

I have struggled with vulnerability and asking for help my whole life but I now rarely have a choice, so these little acts of kindness mean more than you will ever know. Sometimes we hold back from offering help because we’re shy or embarrassed or don’t want to intrude (as a Brit, I get that). But kindness, in whatever form – whether it’s an encouraging smile or holding the door open for someone or letting them go ahead in a queue or helping a struggling mum find her feet – is one of the few things in life that costs nothing but can be absolutely transformative.

As the saying goes: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

On love, tolerance and truth in our brave new world

These are difficult times for some of us. Our divisions seem more intractable than ever and a certain level of hatred seems to have been unleashed on both sides of the Atlantic, following the tumultuous events of last year. I find myself as frustrated with the dogmatic left as I am with the resurgent right – all while wondering what kind of world I have brought my son into and what the future holds.

I came across this the other day from the great British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, which I thought was astonishingly prescient and never more timely. Not just because of his belief in love and tolerance, but because of his call for intellectual rigour and a truth based on fact, no matter how unpalatable it may be. In this dystopian new world of post-truth and fake news, I see so many, from all sides of the political spectrum, falling for easy dichotomies and false platitudes. I think a little rigour would go a very long way.

In 1959, Russell, who was 87, was asked this question: “What would you think it’s worth telling future generations about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it?

This was his reply:

“I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

The moral thing I should wish to say… I should say: love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

In the spirit of Russell, I’m trying to keep an open mind, to seek the truth rather than easy moral certainties, and to practice tolerance and kindness, more than ever. May love and kindness prevail.

2016: A year of political and personal upheavals

new-beginnings

That 2016 was a terrible year has become something of a litany now. There was the relentless roll call of celebrity deaths – from Bowie and Prince, to Rickman and Wogan, Cohen, Ali, Wilder, Harper Lee, and, more recently, Fisher, Michael and Reynolds – all era-defining, often self-deprecating, wildly charismatic artists, whose songs, films, books and TV shows punctuated our lives, and whose deaths – nearly always too early – seemed also to close the door on a different, and somehow better, world.

Then, of course, there were the political maelstroms of Brexit and Trump, the resurgence of strongman leaders like Modi and Duterte, the raging conflict in Syria, continued IS atrocities, shocking assassinations, terrible plane crashes – news that always verged on hyperbole, if not outright catastrophe, the sense that the world, as we knew it, was teetering on its axis. I thought 2011, when I was producing news videos, with its literal and numerous political tsunamis, was a singularly dramatic year, but it had nothing on this one.

In the midst of all of this, I discovered, on International Women’s Day, no less, that I was pregnant – as luck would have it, just when I had embraced the likelihood that I would most likely spend my life child free. Neither something I had planned for nor expected, I spent much of the year grappling with the enormity of this fact – when I allowed myself to believe it was happening at all. You hear a lot about postnatal depression but there is also, I discovered, something called prenatal depression – a dreadful malaise fuelled by rioting hormones, all-pervasive nausea, and an absolute terror of what the new future holds.

As it happened, I was incredibly fortunate. I had a supportive partner (now husband), family and boss, wonderful friends and colleagues, and a complication-free pregnancy – something of a miracle, given my age – which resulted in the birth of my son, Noah, in October. Both pregnancy and motherhood are, unsurprisingly, emotional rollercoasters and I will write more about them later. Suffice to say that I have neither cried nor laughed more than I have in the past eleven months, while my friendships and relationships have nearly all deepened. Most of all, perhaps, I have been forced to come to terms with my vulnerability, after years of touting my strength and independence. Becoming a parent opens your heart in a way that nothing prepares you for.

So while 2016 was a difficult year for me in many ways, it was also an extraordinary one. I learned many things last year – that you should avoid complacency at all costs, since life has a way of coming and biting you in the butt when you least expect it – both personally and politically. I learned, more than ever, to take things one day at a time and to trust my instincts, and I learned that we are stronger than we think – both physically and emotionally. I learned too that the human spirit is extraordinarily resilient – the only reason, perhaps, that we have survived for as long as we have.

For all of these reasons and more, I stay open to the belief that the good in us outweighs the bad, that life is cyclical – as history teaches us – and that this bleak landscape will eventually give way to something better. In the meantime, I wish you all a joyful and positive 2017. May it lack some of the more unwelcome drama of last year but still be sufficiently challenging – in a nice way – and filled with enough good and wondrous things to keep you happy, healthy and fulfilled. And in the words of Neil Gaiman:

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”

On burkinis, bans, and freedom of choice

France’s burkini ban intersects at the junction of many complex issues – East vs West, religion vs secularism, feminism vs patriarchy, the right to freedom of speech and expression vs a perceived need for greater state control. These are the things I know:

  • The images of gun-toting French cops looming over a lone burkini-clad woman on a beach in France are disturbing, to say the least. This is a knee-jerk reaction to a complex issue – forcing religion, and in particular, Muslim women underground, on spurious security grounds, plays right into the hands of IS and other extremist groups who want to sow discord and chaos. It also goes against fundamental Western values, which can be summarized, ironically, in France’s famous call of Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite. In short, it’s an own goal for the French in their fight against IS.
  • And yet, the burkini itself – as with all other items that promote female modesty, from an orthodox Jewish headscarf to the hijab, and in particular, the niqab – is something I find hard to get behind. For every woman that chooses to wear it, many others are forced – either overtly by the State, as in Saudi and Iran, or by cultural and societal pressures, as is the case here in Egypt. Those pressures are particularly relevant in Egypt for poorer women – money has nearly always bought a certain level of immunity. Until all women are genuinely given true autonomy over their bodies and their choice of clothing and not forced into archaic notions of modesty with dubious etymology, I find it hard to celebrate the burkini as an item of freedom, as its inventor has declared.
  • Having said that, I’m also an advocate of personal choice and the freedom to live your life in the way you choose–with the obvious caveat that this doesn’t impinge on others. I have many friends who have chosen the hijab, in the face of mounting hysteria and thuggery in the West and regular casual discrimination here, and I respect their choice. It would be wrong to assume that prejudice against the veil or burkini is a Western phenomenon alone – veiled women in Egypt are routinely turned away from certain bars and restaurants and no doubt from certain jobs, while burkinis are frowned at in a number of high-class establishments here. I don’t condone targeting individual women or sanctioning discrimination anywhere for what is a systemic issue – in the same way that I don’t advocate taking out frustrations with the patriarchy on individual men.

In the end, as Arundhati Roy says, coercing a woman out of a burkini is as bad as coercing her into one, though the reasoning for both is very different. But as the world seemingly becomes a more and more terrifying place, it becomes too easy to abandon nuance and cling to moral dichotomies and absolutes, which I see on my newsfeed every day. Few issues, unfortunately, are that simple anymore.

On Blogging and Bloggers – Breaking the Fourth Wall

 

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I don’t consider myself an expert blogger. I don’t have 10 handy tips to drive traffic to your blog, or make you better read. I didn’t start my blog either to make money or become famous, though I’m not averse to the possibility of either. I did it mainly to hold myself accountable – to push myself to write more, to find my ‘voice,’ and to become more disciplined as a writer. I also did it to connect, which is probably why all of us really use social media.

So I didn’t follow any of the blogging ‘rules’ – like focusing my blog on a particular theme, for example. As a fiercely independent soul with a wide range of interests and an abiding fear of commitment, I wanted to write about anything that took my fancy. I’ve also, I’m ashamed to say, failed to strike up many significant relationships within the blogging community. I’ve generally spent very little time in the blogosphere, if I’m honest, because the online world can be overwhelming enough as is and I’m trying to use any free time I have to write. (I also subscribe to Groucho Marx’s old adage that I’d rather not be a member of any club that would have me.)

But somehow, after a newfound determination to write more frequently last year – and a little help from the nice folk at WordPress – I’ve picked up an increasing number of readers, which has been lovely and very touching and also rather overwhelming. From all corners of the world and spanning all ages, lifestyles, political persuasions, etc. If you are one of them, thank you – I’m very touched.

With this modest success, I’ve discovered, comes certain responsibilities. I am increasingly asked to check out other people’s blogs, to follow them if possible, and to comment on their work – by new bloggers, especially. With that in mind – and the caveat that I still consider myself a novice – I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned on my journey, just in case it can help you in any way.

 

1. I’ve visited – and been visited by – an incredible range of blogs – from poetry to politics, sport, sex, food and fashion, and then some. You name it and there’s probably a blog for it. On the plus side, it means there’s room for everyone, which is what continues to make the blogosphere such an interesting, vibrant place. On the downside, it’s probably getting harder than ever to get your voice heard – to achieve ‘cut through,’ as the marketeers would call it.

 

2. People blog for a variety of reasons but I’d hazard a guess the majority of us want to be read – whether you’re anonymously chronicling your sexploits or diligently photographing your recipes – and probably beyond your friends and family and immediate circle. If that’s the case, I think there should be one primary goal: Quality over quantity, by which I mean striving for original and well-written content, rather than putting anything and everything out there. This may mean that you post less frequently than you set out to, but in the long run, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

This is very much a personal opinion and it also depends on why you’re blogging in the first place – if you’re doing it for catharsis or because it makes you happy, then post as much or as little as you like. Otherwise, I think it helps if posting is a judgment call. Not everything you write needs to be published.

 

3. As I’ve said already, I don’t believe your blog has to focus on one topic – though I may be the exception that proves the rule. Do write about the stuff that interests you and that you’re passionate about, which always helps. Unless you’re writing for yourself primarily though, it’s worth remembering that the majority of people aren’t going to be interested in the minutiae of your daily life – unless you have a talent for expressing it particularly well. Again, this all comes back to your reasons for blogging in the first place – if it makes you happy to share, do it.

 

4. A few writing tips mostly culled from my journalism and editing background that may help – do with these what you will.

  • Most journalists will tell you that your first two paragraphs are the most important, since they’re responsible for drawing your readers in – or not, as the case may be.
  • Pay attention to your headline – it doesn’t have to be one of those annoying clickbait ones but a catchy headline definitely helps.
  • Use spell check or get a friend to read over your work if you’re worried about the grammar/content (I always run everything past my sister or good friends first).
  • Use paragraphs! In today’s fast moving world, nothing is a greater turn-off than huge chunks of text without proper paragraphs or spacing. I’m not a fan of the overly simplistic blogging style of using a paragraph for every sentence, mind you – just advocating for a happy medium. Try and intersperse long sentences and short ones for maximum effect too.
  • Edit. There’s nearly always stuff that can be taken out to make your prose tighter and sharper – this is where a second opinion from someone you trust can help.

 

5. While good content is vital, do make sure your blog is easy to read and navigate too – which means the font isn’t too fussy or too small (spare a thought for us older readers) or on a dark background, which can make it difficult to read, and that different sections are clear and accessible. There’s a fine line between expressing your personal style – and blogs are definitely great for that – and putting off your potential readership with an overly fussy or incomprehensible design.

I think Medium showcases writing especially well, for example – all that clear white space is a writer’s dream. And don’t be afraid to change up the theme every now and then, which is easier than ever before with WordPress, I reckon – if I can do it, anyone can. My blog’s gone through several incarnations before this one – and may well change again sometime soon.

 

6. A personal bugbear – if there’s an About section, please do add a line about yourself and/or your concept for the blog, or get rid of it altogether. This may be just me but I always visit the About section of any blog I go to because I want to find out something about the person I’m visiting and their vision for their blog, which often helps me understand it better.

It’s a bit like going to a party and looking out for the host – I’m in your space and I want to stop by to say hello. An incomplete About section always looks a little careless to me. It doesn’t have to be an essay or particularly witty or erudite, and it can still be anonymous if you’d prefer that, but it helps if there’s something.

 

7. On blogging etiquette: Please don’t ask me to follow you or get offended if I don’t or don’t thank you for a follow. I tend, in life, to operate by the same principles I apply for myself and I don’t actively solicit followers, which feels a bit too much like political campaigning to me.

I’m also sorry to say I follow very few blogs now for the reasons I outlined earlier – my email folder is overflowing on the best of days, as is my daily reading list. I do try and visit every blog that visits me, however, and like and comment on posts I particularly enjoy. In the future, if I ever get organised enough, I’d like very much to highlight the blogs that stand out to me to draw wider attention to them if I can.

 

The last and most important point is that all rules are made to be broken – including these – and thankfully the blogosphere’s big enough and bad enough to accommodate all of us. What works for me may not – and probably will not – work for you, since I’m most likely blogging for different reasons, and I can be a nitpicking perfectionist, and different things make me happy.

To read a wonderfully warm, honest and different perspective from someone I consider a proper blogger, read this by the Holistic Wayfarer, who I think sums up the joys and pitfalls of blogging beautifully. Of everything she says, this point rings especially true for me:

Remember how small you are – in blogging and life.
There’s always someone with more readers, someone faster, smarter, more talented and savvy. You’re not all that. Neither am I. That’s why I try to keep it real. For all the rewriting I do here, I don’t want to end up editing my image when you’re coming to me with a certain level of trust in my honesty.

 

All best and happy blogging to you all.

Still

Your body is yours now – your skin stretches
comfortably around its heights and its
depths, its hills and crevices, the scars of
old, the sights, the colours, the smells, all
that you have absorbed in your life –
the joy and the pain.
Your soul nestles within – it even
purrs at times.
You breathe.
 

But still,
there are moments.
When darkness beckons and your soul
trembles; when you feel jagged and hollow, like
a bottomless void, a continent with howling
winds and dark storms, sheer cliffs and
parched deserts, wild animals that
roam hungry, icy crevasses where
no light can reach.
 

Perhaps this is how it was at
the beginning, when you lay
shrouded in darkness, and raged
against the dying light, the
confined space, the relentless thump
of your mother’s heartbeat, an
echo of things to come.
 

There are moments.
 

I am sorry, you say, yet again.
I am sorry for my darkness and the sharp
jagged edges that claw sometimes and
draw blood. I am sorry I
hurt you again.
I try to smooth them daily, buff
them, polish them to smooth
oblivion, but sometimes
it doesn’t work.
 

I hate hurting you, I say –
I hate feeling
like this.
 

Talk to yourself as you would to
someone you love, you
heard someone say.
 

But what if this is how you speak
to the ones you love? You
hurt them the most.
 

What chance do you have
then?

 

The Art of Wabi-Sabi (or Things You Will Learn Later in your Life)

wabi sabi small_Fotor

You are 37 when you first fall in love – properly, passionately, the way you dreamed of when you scribbled furiously in your teenage notebooks and that has eluded you until precisely this moment in a dusty Cairo hotel. It is not love at first sight and there is no Hollywood meet-cute, but there is a touching of souls, as Joni Mitchell once sang, that reverberates long after you meet him.

Months later, you leave everything you know and traverse continents to go back to him and a new life in the city he has bequeathed you. Over the next three years, you learn that Great Loves can be irrational and painful, full of terrible highs and soaring lows, that passion is overrated, and it is never good, as someone once told you, to love another person more than you love yourself. One day, you wake up and realise that love is not enough.

Love, in fact, is never enough.

 

You are 28 when you experience death – sudden, tragic, wrenching – for the first time. On a bright summer’s day in your office in London, you get a call from a policeman who tells you that your oldest sister, who has been missing for months, has been found dead in a car park overlooking the Cornish coast. You drop everything and run out for shelter in a Soho doorway, watching the world continue to turn as yours changes forever.

Late that night, you make the five-hour drive down to a Cornish hospital with your mother and sister to identify her, in the tiny chapel where they have laid out her body, and receive a crash course in pain, the finality of death, and the meaning of loss. You discover what it’s like to grieve under a terrible litany of shoulda/woulda/couldas and what ifs that spin endlessly into a vortex and threaten to suck you into the darkness.

For a long time after, you dream that she is with you – at a gathering or a party or at home. She gets up to go, as she always does, and you urge her to stay – over and over again. She never listens.

 

(You are 14 the first time a boy calls you beautiful. Late one summer night, by the swings in Oakmere Park, where you have gone with a friend for a walk. He whispers into your ear urgently and you smile in a way that suggests you’re used to such things. Inside you know that tomorrow you will put on your ugly school uniform and go back to normal life.)

 

You are 5 years and six months old when your parents take you and your sisters from your home in England and deposit you in a Catholic boarding school in a South Indian hill station – once the summer retreat of the colonial English. You do not realise it then but you will be ensconced there for the next seven years, only flying back home to England for the winter and summer holidays.

Twice a year for the next seven years, you will dread the long tunnel at the entrance to Heathrow airport, which you will always associate with your mother’s sobs as she tries to say goodbye. When you get to the school in the Indian hill station, you will cry into your pillow quietly for three nights as great waves of homesickness and guilt and regret consume you, until one morning you wake up and the strange boarding school has become your home again.

You will also cry each time you leave the school to go home for the holidays.

 

You are 33 – the age your sister was when she died (and Jesus) – an age you secretly thought you would never reach because you thought you had been cursed to die too, like the heroine of some morbid fairytale. You have spent the last five years caring less and less about your life, drinking too much, partying more recklessly, haunting crowded bars and clubs, indulging in careless flings and desperate love affairs, going through the motions in a career you hate more and more.

On your 33rd birthday, you leave the job, end the last relationship, and clear out your cupboards. At some point during this year, you will embark on a new career as a journalist, which you will embrace like it is your calling. For the first time in your life, you are proud of what you do.

 

You are 12 when your mother takes you out of your boarding school and puts you in a school near your home in England. You don’t know it then but she has begged the headmaster to let you in, even though he knows nothing about you – a strange Indian child in his very English school. He puts you in the bottom class of your year, with kids who already know they’re destined for hours of woodworking lessons and dreary home ec classes.

You realise for the first time that you look different from your classmates, who also seem strange to you in their overwhelming whiteness and brash confidence and determination to break the rules. Being around boys for the first time makes you self-conscious. You get called a Paki on your way home by two awkward boys from the other school in the neighbourhood, on the other side of town. You don’t know who’s more embarrassed. The next term, you’re moved up to the top set and a different world.

 

You are 39, four months from your 40th birthday, when you watch your father take his last racking breath in a quiet hospice bed in a North London suburb. He has been diagnosed with a brain tumour almost exactly two months earlier. You fly back home to England from Cairo when your sister tells you this, steeling yourself for your entry into the darkness once more.

Unlike your sister’s passing, however, your father’s death offers a chance at redemption. Your relationship with him has long been strained but you visit him twice a day, feed him, sit with him and try somehow to transmit all the love you can muster when you hold his hand. He cannot speak but his eyes follow you around the room as you move and you hope that, somewhere inside, he recognises that he is not alone.

After he dies, you feel an overwhelming urge to have a child – a primal call, you think, to complete the circle of life. It doesn’t happen.

 

You are 42 and in a committed relationship for the first time in your life. You, who have always fled commitment and run headlong into the arms of men incapable of giving it to you, are bowled over now by the sweetness of love and how it doesn’t have to hurt or feel like you’re jumping into the darkness without a safety net and how you can love from a place of strength without losing parts of yourself, rather than going into battle and coming out with the scars.

You learn what it’s like to love and be loved unconditionally, when you’re PMS’ing and grouchy, on your fat days and bad hair days, and the days when you’re tired and vulnerable and don’t want to get out of bed. You understand for the first time what it is to seek shelter in another’s arms, and that it is possible to trust, that what feels like the end often isn’t, and that everything is possible if you take a leap of faith.

 

You are 45 when you start writing again, properly. By now, you have given up much in your life – sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, careless love affairs with careless men. You try to eat well, exercise regularly, dabble in meditation and yoga to calm the restless soul. Sometimes you miss the old you, the sense of freedom, the open roads, the unpredictability and terrible glamour of a life less lived.

But by and large you think – and hope – this:

Slowly, very slowly, you are coming home.