On love: For the odd couples and the free spirits and the ones who never thought they’d make it

lucy love

My husband and I celebrate our first wedding anniversary this month, after some four and a half years, and one child, together. To the average person, this isn’t a big deal. To a commitment-phobe like me, it’s a lifetime—and it’s also a milestone I never thought we’d reach.

I don’t write about us very often, partly because I think it’s tempting fate—I’ve seen too many couples express their undying love on social media only to break up a short while later—and partly because I still remember what it was like to be single and lonely, (which wasn’t all my singledom, but a good chunk of it), and how smug PDAs can seem when you’re in that place. But the fact we’ve survived for as long as we have—and grown closer together rather than apart—amazes me as much as it must amaze those around us.

The truth is this: My husband, though a wonderful, kind and very attractive human being, is probably the last person in the world I expected to celebrate this milestone with. We are, in every sense of the word, an odd couple. There is a considerable age difference to begin with—he is significantly younger (I won’t say how much, but it’s in the double digits). We come from different cultures—I am British Indian and he is Egyptian. We are different religions—I am a lapsed Catholic—he is Muslim. His first language is Arabic; mine is English.

And we are also vastly different human beings. He is a personal trainer (which is actually how we met, but that’s another story), a generally upbeat man-of-the-body who can’t stay still for long, who loves his action movies, a man of few words in social settings, who likes silly comedies and sweet cartoons, rarely reads a book, loves house music, will eat pretty much anything, and can’t handle what he would call ‘depressing’—and I would label ‘thought-provoking’—movies. (We once watched a relatively anodyne Hollywood flick at home, which ended on a bit of a downer; he had to go to his favourite club immediately after to dance, just to get it out of his system).

I, in stark contrast, am a coffee-drinking, wine-loving writer and editor, a former journalist and smoker (he has never enjoyed either wine, caffeine or nicotine), who has always loved reading and poetry and film of all kinds (I studied film and literature at university). I love a diverse selection of music (but not house), follow current affairs keenly, relish history and deep conversations with friends, would secretly consider myself a bit of a foodie, and am probably happiest, at this point in my life, curled up on the couch with a good book, or watching a film I love—in essence, being still. I also have a penchant for melancholy and a tendency to cry at sad stories and films.

These differences have been the source of much agony and soul-searching over the years—predominantly on my part, since I have a tendency to over-think everything—as well as long searching conversations with close friends. At particularly troubled times, when I’ve convinced myself that two such different people couldn’t possibly have a future together, I‘ve also done what every other angst-ridden person in love probably does these days and consulted Google: Can relationships with younger men from profoundly opposing backgrounds, and with almost comically varied tastes, actually work?

The answer has nearly always been a big fat resounding ‘no.’

But I’m here now to tell you otherwise. I’ve learnt a lot about love over the last few years. One of the things I’ve learnt, for example, is that what you long for on paper may not actually be right for you. When we met, I’d reached a point in my life where I was happy to be single. If you’d asked me what I was looking for in a possible partner, I was fairly sure I knew. It would have been an older man, smart and funny, perhaps an intellectual, not necessarily conventionally attractive but someone well travelled with plenty of life experience, who was also fairly settled in life in terms of his career and life choices, as I am.

For the longest time after my husband and I got together—after he’d wooed me, incidentally, in the sweetest, gentlest way—I still held on to that ideal. I looked with envy at other couples that seemed on paper to be perfectly matched, who talked of coup de foudres and undying love and the certainty of a lifetime together. They had joint friends and joint bank accounts and joint interests, so the practicalities of making a life together seemed simple. Choosing a film to watch on the couch together of an evening, for example, didn’t result in tense negotiations or stand-offs, and an inevitable compromise–usually by me, since I do actually like action movies, while my husband simply couldn’t stomach the latest depressing French art house flick.

(On the plus side, I have a whole new appreciation for The Fast and the Furious movies, Vin Diesel, and the Rock : )

We, on the other hand, had few things that held us together. I couldn’t share a favourite poem with him, or my more maudlin music, or a great cup of coffee, or my political musings, or my peculiarly British sense of irony—though I did it anyway. I didn’t always feel connected, or like he was my soul mate, or my other half, or all the other things you’re supposed to feel. What I did find, however, was that he made me laugh—a lot. He was remarkably easy to live with. We communicated about the things that bothered us. He came home every evening with the biggest smile on his face. And he gave me the best and sweetest cuddles.

I told myself—and him—one thing: I would stay in the relationship for as long as it made me happy, since I’d fought too hard to give up my freedom for anything less. And from the very beginning, he did make me happy—in ways I didn’t expect and that slowly melted my cynical, lovelorn heart. When I fell asleep on the couch, exhausted, he’d pick me up and carry me gently to bed. When I had a pancake evening for friends, he spent most of the evening in the kitchen making the pancakes. When my freezer was iced up, he spent most of another evening diligently de-icing it. When we had a squabble, I came home to find a fruit salad in my fridge topped with yogurt and a heart shaped out of nuts. At other times, he’d say nothing but just lie next to me and squeeze me extra hard, as if he’d never let me go.

My husband didn’t over promise and under deliver. The biggest advantage of dating a non-verbal man, I discovered, is that it isn’t about what he says, but about what he does. We didn’t spend hours—much time at all, in fact—either dissecting our relationship or discussing our future. We just went with the flow. It helped too that my closest friends and family loved him straight away—and they loved him for me especially. They saw past our differences to the essence of our relationship—that we were good for each other, and that his solidity and kindness would temper me and curb my existential malaise.

What I’ve learnt now is that you can overcome any number of practical differences if you have the basics sorted. If you still like and fancy each other, after all the time you’ve spent together. If you can make each other laugh—which comes in handy when you’re wiping up your child’s explosive poops in the wee hours of the morning. If you respect each other and don’t try to change, diminish or possess the other. If, and this is especially important, you can fight fair. If you’re kind and respectful with each other’s friends and family. If he holds you when you’re sad and gives you one of his extra-special tight hugs when he senses you need it. If he can cope with you at your worst. And if the two of you make time for each other, so you continue to grow together, rather than apart.

Those are the things that count, not your income levels or ages or interests, or even that you speak the same language.

We are not a perfect couple but I’ve learnt that perfection—especially in relationships—doesn’t exist. Your feelings will ebb and flow, and that’s ok. You will never see eye to eye on everything. You will drive each other crazy at times. You will wonder what the hell you’re doing with each other at others. Longstanding issues will continue to rear their ugly head. Unexpected life events—like an unplanned pregnancy, for example—will test you to your core, and force you to redefine and renegotiate the parameters of your relationship and your future together. There will be tears and arguments and petty quarrels.

But you will also discover that love isn’t in the flowers and the poetry and the love songs and sweet nothings you whisper late at night. Love is in the cracks and the corners, in the places where the light doesn’t reach, in the things that aren’t said, the tiny gestures, the banality and mess of daily life, the pull of forces beyond your control that keep you together, despite the voices that tell you ‘this cannot work’ – ‘give up.’ It’s when you wake up one day and realise that you can’t imagine your life without the person lying next to you, and that this crazy, coincidental relationship—where both of you were just going with the flow—has suddenly become more serious and stronger than you ever imagined.

This is our love story, and I am grateful for it. Happy anniversary, my love.

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, why 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?