On the challenges of keeping an open heart

When I was much younger, I read an interview with Debra Winger – an actress I adored growing up – talking about a meeting she’d once had with Kathleen Turner, another strong, sensual 1980s heroine who’s sadly fallen off the radar today.

I can’t remember the specifics but Winger said she’d met Turner briefly at a party – or perhaps on a film set – and the latter had been friendly enough, but a little aloof. To paraphrase Winger, she said she got the impression that Turner had made all the friends she wanted in life and wasn’t interested in acquiring any more.

I must have been in my late teens or early twenties at this point and I remember thinking: Why would anyone do that?  There was something very disconcerting about it to me – this idea that you could suddenly reach a point where you’d made all the friends you needed in life and you weren’t interested in reaching out anymore, in meeting new people, in being challenged. It seemed to me to be the ultimate sign of a closed heart.  And a closed heart was exactly what I wanted to avoid.

As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve had two major, but very contradictory, realisations.  The first was a sudden and profound understanding of exactly what E.M. Forster – a writer I read a lot of in my youth – meant when he said ‘Only connect’ – an achingly simple phrase that was only very loosely penetrable to me in my teen years. (That connecting with your fellow human beings, whether by seeking out ‘kindred spirits,’ or by having a brief but uplifting exchange, was actually the very essence of life.) Living as I do here in Cairo, far away from family and friends, those words have often echoed in my head. People can make you miserable, no doubt, but they can also make you blissfully happy.

But running alongside that realization was the slow dawning that age and experience, and perhaps also my life as an expat, had terribly coloured my view of my fellow humans. I realized that I was no longer as willing as I once had been to give everyone a chance. No longer did I repeat to myself fervently that everyone had good and bad points; nor was I willing to be as open as I’d been before. I had better instincts now and I was more willing and able to follow those instincts. To put it another way, as I told friends, I had become smarter, and thus fussier, about who I spent my time with.

Perhaps that, in itself, is no bad thing – it seems to make sense that you should surround yourself with good people, as hundreds of positivity books will tell you.  There is the undeniable fact also that we understand ourselves better as we get older and become more comfortable with who we are, which then influences the choices we make. And yet, it still seems to me a fundamental fallacy, somehow – this idea that age and wisdom make you more discerning about people and your circle will narrow but strengthen as a result.

I think the truth is more prosaic – life and age can harden your heart, and sometimes you never even realize that it’s happening.  An accumulation of hurts, big and small, a multitude of let-downs – as is bound to happen in life – a cacophony of so-called ‘a-ha’ moments (I was an idiot to trust that person/ I was wrong about this one/ this person is going to let me down) and a few rejections move you further and further away from the open-hearted generous soul you once were, or may have aspired to be.

Once upon a time, I chose to trust and to accept that a bruised heart and ego might be an acceptable consequence of that choice, the price I would pay for having an open heart. Somewhere along the line though, I’ve lost that ability, to the extent that my life has now become littered with people who haven’t quite ‘made the grade,’ while the number of people who do make the cut become smaller and smaller.

At the end, it is always a choice. Living like this means a life lived from fear – a fear of rejection and hurt – a life lived from our lower rather than higher selves.  Better, I think, to force open our hearts once again, to live with courage and conviction and love, to remain open to life and to new people and all the challenges they may bring. If the heart is a muscle, as they say, only practice and exposure will strengthen it.

Overprotect it and it will wither away and slowly die.

The End of the Affair




I had my first cigarette at the age of 15. I’m not quite sure how I got my hands on one – perhaps a guest had inadvertently left a pack in our house. I lit it, tried to breathe in, coughed and promptly put it out. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience.

Later, in my first year at university in England, I tried again. This was more than 20 years ago, when smoking, and smokers, was still relatively cool. You could smoke in the majority of public places: on the top deck of buses, on certain carriages in trains, on station platforms, in smoking rooms in offices, in restaurants and bars, of course, and even – which shocks me now – in a cinema. (I still remember puffing away in the gloom of Coventry Odeon though the films I watched escape me).

For a good part of that year, I wasn’t properly smoking. I hadn’t learnt yet how to inhale a cigarette and suck the smoke into your lungs and slowly exhale, without turning red and collapsing into a coughing fit.  Nobody really teaches you how to have your first cigarette – probably because it’s too embarrassing to admit that it is your first cigarette. The fact that I had valiantly – and foolishly – decided to start my smoking life on Marlboro Reds, the crack cocaine of the cigarette world (as it seemed to me then), made my attempts even more painful.

There were many different types of smoker, I discovered. There were the social smokers, perhaps the least loved category – the bisexuals of the smoking world.  Their desire to smoke in the company of others, usually with a drink, would probably have been slightly less irritating if they’d remembered to buy their own cigarettes first.  There were the occasional smokers, who smoked casually and randomly – not dissimilar to the habitual smokers, who smoked because they were used to it and because they could. In Egypt, where I live now, there are many who fall into this category.

And then there were the hardcore smokers, who smoked as if their lives depended on it. Full of nervous energy, twitchy if too much time passed before their next one, sated by the act in the same way that a drug addict calms as he takes his first hit. I see these people now when I return to London, huddled outside bars and restaurants and offices come rain or snow, puffing away like it’s their last cigarette on earth, and it always reminds me of how much the world has changed since I started.

I smoked for many different reasons. I smoked to indulge the angst-ridden teen in me, who’d already decided on a vaguely self-destructive life involving plenty of cigarettes and alcohol, like all the best artists I knew (I was never hardcore enough to go down the drug route). Like many women, I also did it to keep the calories at bay. Instead of having a piece of chocolate, I would have… a cigarette. When my mother lectured me on the dangers of smoking and how I’d lose all my teeth before I was 50 (something that my dentist incidentally also confirmed to me not so long ago), I’d wail, “But would you rather I was fat?”  (This often worked on my mother, who fears fat even more than she fears a dead, toothless daughter.)

And I smoked to quell the restlessness in me, the desire for things I didn’t have and didn’t yet know I wanted, the moments when my romantic soul almost imploded with longing. I smoked when I was angry. I smoked when I was sad – all my relationship break-ups can be characterized by days of sitting under a cloud of smoke, listening to the most mournful music I could find. I smoked when I was happy and out drinking and dancing. I smoked after eating and I smoked after making love.  And I smoked when I was moved by a particular intensity in a song or movie or book – as if somehow the act of smoking, of retreating into myself, would amplify the emotion of that moment. Somehow it always did.

The truth, I discovered, is that you’re never alone with a cigarette in hand.  There is something inherently defensive in the act of smoking, a way of keeping the world at bay, especially when you’re on your own. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve strolled into a bar or cafe around the world on my own and settled down with a glass of wine – or a cup of coffee – and a cigarette, sending out (smoke) signals that I was perfectly comfortable in my own company.

Now – in the West at least – smoking is no longer cool. I grew up on the cusp of that mini-revolution, when images of louche Hollywood stars and legends of cool like Charlie Parker and James Dean, wielding cigarettes the way Clint Eastwood handled his guns, were still just visible on the horizon. I knew that era had died when I went to San Francisco’s fabled House of Blues some years ago and had to pop out every time I wanted a cigarette. The blues without a cigarette is like Egypt without the Pyramids. Christmas pudding without cream. Burton without Taylor. Basically, inconceivable.  And yet, somehow, it happened.

I write all this because I have now joined that mini-revolution – I am no longer a smoker. This – the longest relationship of my life – an act that seemed to define me for years – died two months ago, not with a bang but with a whimper. I’m not entirely sure why – perhaps it was a combination of my dentist’s increasingly dire warnings and an exercise week I participated in, where I realized that my – already horribly limited – ability to run was being crippled by my habit. So it may well have been for the most boring reason of all (for this wannabe rebel anyway): health.

For a while after that marathon exercise week, I continued to reach for a cigarette during my old trigger moments – when I was having a cup of coffee, or my favourite song came on the radio, or when I was particularly stressed by something. But I was doing a Clinton – I’d come full circle and could no longer inhale. And without inhaling, a cigarette is not a particularly pleasant experience.

But this is the thing: I don’t miss it at all. Honest. There isn’t a single day that I’ve woken up craving a cigarette (and I’m a little ashamed to say I often started my day with one). I’ve passed all the tests with flying colours: parties, drinking with friends, a particularly intense movie/music/work/love moment, etc, etc. The relationship had clearly run its course. I am officially no longer a smoker.

And yet. The door is open. There is a pack of my cigarettes on my bookcase should I ever change my mind. I have no hard feelings – my habit now is like an ex I remember fondly, there through all the highs and lows of my life,  always non-judgmental, reliable, dependable – despite a world that increasingly fought to keep us apart. I hope I never turn into one of those ex-smokers who become more self-righteous and sanctimonious than the most earnest of non-smokers.

For many years, I was part of the fraternity, and I don’t regret a single day of it.