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.

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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.”

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.

On breaking up and a bar named Freedom

horreya stella_fotor

 

It is a sign of growing up, I think, that when my relationship came to its predictable – but still quietly devastating – end last week, I didn’t turn to a vodka (or three) to wash away my broken-heart blues. Nor did I call on the army of hardy friends who used to commiserate with me in these things (partly because I now live in Cairo and said friends, such as I still have them, are inaccessible for reasons of sheer distance). Nor did I sit for hours in a slightly darkened room, chain-smoking cigarettes and listening to maudlin love songs (David Gray, anyone?) in some tragic parody of a lovesick teenager.

No. This time I chose to Keep Myself Busy in a bid for Germanic efficiency, rather than the Gallic grand gestures I used to favour. My logic is this: all the energy, time and mind-and-heart space I invested in the great love must be transferred elsewhere if I am to survive this. I’m not sure the logic-over-love scenario is one that works for everyone, but it’s applicable in my case, partly because our end – sad as it was – was always out there on the horizon, like those storm clouds that linger on a beautiful day. And as with all good dramas, we’d had several dress rehearsals along the way.

So I called every good friend I had and set up dates and activities that would keep me occupied for at least the next several days. I went shopping in City Stars with one and spent a glorious afternoon lunching and shopping (why does trying on a new pair of shoes seem to reach the parts of a female soul that other things can’t?). And I called another good friend for a more cultural evening Downtown – somewhere I rarely venture to these days from my cosy Zamalek bubble.

Thus it was that we spent a suitably intellectual – and very funny – evening catching up on life over mezze in one of Cairo’s oldest restaurants, venturing to the Townhouse Gallery afterwards for a spot of Culture, and finishing up in Horreya, or “Freedom” in Arabic – a Downtown institution and rare alcohol-serving ahwa that is the haunt of wannabe intellectuals, trendy expats and a surprising number of gay men – both foreign and, dare I say it, Egyptian.

It had become almost a rite-of-passage for me – this trip to Horreya – seeing as I’d lived in Cairo for more than a year and hadn’t yet ventured there. With dreams of domestic bliss and babies disintegrating faster than a cheap Downtown dress, and sad singledom furiously beckoning, a trip there seemed more important than ever. In other words, swapping faux Zamalek glamour for hard-core Downtown grunge – two harassed-looking waiters, grim fluorescent lighting that did nothing to hide the grimy ceilings and floors, ominously cracked mirrors, and a menu that seemed to consist entirely of Stellas – made infinite sense to me at this particular point in my life.

So we ventured in and found a table and had a Stella each and I tried surreptitiously to people-watch through the broken mirror opposite me. In places like this, obvious people-watching is not cool – a bit like getting your camera out at an exclusive dinner party. I was struck by the hideously bright lighting first, and then the men intently playing backgammon in a corner (in the non-alcoholic section, this being Egypt after all), and then the huge crowded table behind us, packed with people so disparate it was impossible not to wonder what could possibly have brought them all together.

It turned out that it was a very sociable gay Yemeni who was responsible for this. Determined to spread the party mood around, he insisted we be given a plate of food from his table. As he told us when he ambled across, he was celebrating, of all things, the acquisition of a British passport, which he’d gained by marrying an older Englishman three years ago.

I was surprised, given the Daily Mail-inspired Cretan maze of British immigration law, but happy for him. “Do you love him?” I asked, after he had told us for the third time about the three homes his husband had bought for him and the different countries he could now live in (with England being very low down on the list). His careful pause before the “yes” suggested that love – on his part, at least – may not have been the main motivation for this particular union.

Did Horreya live up to its hype? In many ways: yes. Would we have been invited into the celebrations of a gay Yemeni and his entourage in the generic coffee chains that I frequent in Zamalek? Never.

Here in the heart of downtown Cairo, all the contradictions of daily Egyptian life came together in one glorious tumble – like a washing machine in full spin. A gay man could celebrate his marriage and the fruits of it in a society where homosexuality does not exist, in a café that looked like a traditional Egyptian ahwa but served alcohol, and in a space where different nationalities and classes and age groups blended together happily, in a kind of Boho Benetton ad. But it is the curse of our post-modern age that I could never quite forget that I was in Horreya. A dive by any other name is surely still a dive.

And, no matter how much I may want to deny it, age catches up with you in the end. We stayed for a couple of hours or so, nursing our individual beers, enjoying our conversation and the food we had unexpectedly been given. I happened to catch sight of the time at around 10.30pm and asked whether my friend wanted to stay. Neither of us, it turned out, wanted another beer, and she was also in need of a toilet break. The toilets here are terrible, she said, so it might be easier to go home. I agreed, willingly. Our night had been eventful, funny and suitably satisfying and it led me on this occasion happily to my bed.

Once I was incapable of leaving a party early in case I missed a piece of the action. Is it wisdom or cynicism now that assures me there will always be a party going on somewhere and I will, in fact, miss very little I haven’t experienced already? It seems to me that, with age, a bite of the apple is now often as satisfactory – if not more so – than a whole one.

That’s got to be a good thing, somewhere down the line.

(Full disclosure – I wrote this piece around six years ago now, when my last relationship was coming to an end and as I was approaching my 40th birthday, but never got around to publishing it. I have not been back to Horreya since. )   

15 things I learnt from Facebook

 

facebook

 

As an expat and freelance editor and writer working mainly from home, battling procrastination on a daily basis, I’m on Facebook a lot. It’s the virtual equivalent of people watching in a favourite café – with the added benefit that you actually know the people and can interact with their lives. Which can be both a good and a bad thing, depending on my mood – and has also made me especially aware of the things I like and dislike about it. At the risk of sounding like someone who mostly inhabits a sad virtual world instead of the real one, these are some of the things I’ve learnt from Facebook:

 

1.If citizen journalism is taking over the world, citizen PR, which Facebook pioneered, comes a close second. It’s the perfect opportunity to present your best self to the world – edited highlights only.

2. Which should come with a disclaimer: it can be bad for your health. I can’t count the number of times I’ve depressed myself looking at the perfect, activity-filled lives of my friends – until I realize they’re probably thinking the same of my life.

3. You can never have too many ‘likes.’ A post without likes is rather like seeing someone standing all alone at a party. Liking someone else’s post is also a wonderfully simple way to show you care.

4. The number of friends you have means nothing. I have more than 700. Despite that, I can go a day or two without speaking to a real person. It’s like cable TV – you can have 500 channels and there’s still nothing you feel like watching.

5. There’s a virtual voyeur in all of us. It’s incredible how easy it is to find yourself perusing some random person’s profile in a ‘brief’ break from the job at hand.

6. It’s possible to learn stuff. Good stuff. Interesting/quirky/funny posts that I’d never have come across otherwise (unless I was on Twitter, in which case I’d be completely overwhelmed and vow never to venture online again).

7. It’s also possible to deepen your relationships. Some of my favourite Facebook friends are people I’ve met briefly but really got to appreciate online, when I discovered we shared similar values/senses of humour/political beliefs.

8. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true.

9. Pithy, inspirational quotes are over-rated. I appreciate the sentiment – I’m a sucker for a good Rumi quote myself – but the best ones have done the rounds too often.

10. Humour is definitely subjective.

11. People like good news. And they like to ‘like’ good news. I’ve come to the conclusion that affirming someone else’s good fortune makes us all feel like better human beings. Which also reaffirms my faith in human nature.

12. I get a buzz every time I see the red number – because I have no idea who’s trying to contact me or has just done or said something relevant, and it’s happening in real time. The potential for pleasant (and unpleasant) surprises is infinite.

13. The majority of people want to be nice. I’ve bared my soul on more than a few occasions and I’ve been genuinely touched by the responses I’ve received.

14. It’s addictive –  partly because it taps into our baser instincts:  the need for control, instant gratification, gossip. But it also satisfies a deeper human urge – the need to connect, to find commonality, to share.

15. There’s no such a thing as a typical Facebook user. My friends comprise all ages, nationalities, political beliefs, sexualities, religions and taste levels, which makes my newsfeed a pretty interesting place.

 

There’s an argument you hear a lot these days that the Internet has increased the quantity, but reduced the quality, of our communications with each other. I’m not sure I buy into that – I think it’s entirely possible to have both, and to deepen your relationships in simple and surprising ways.

Because the older I get, the more I realise how important it is to connect and stay connected to people, and Facebook’s helped me do that in a way that was impossible just five years ago. For that, I’m grateful.

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.

You get the love life you deserve…

  …is a quote I heard in a movie once (a pretty awful rom com in every other way so I won’t mention it) and it struck a chord.  The full quote went something like this: Every woman gets the love life she deserves.

Now I think it applies as well to men as it does to women so I generally forget the woman part. But I mentioned it, as I am wont to do, to a few friends (mainly female) and what surprised me was how much resistance it garnered.  “That’s a bit harsh,” said one, which seemed to sum up the general feeling.

But why?  It applies equally, it seems to me, if you’re blessed with a truly wonderful love life or a crap one. The point is that, in some way, it’s the love life you’ve set out to create for yourself.  If you’re with a man (or woman) who treats you well and attends to your needs, it’s partly because you think you deserve it. You may have been born with that attitude or you’ve gained it after years of kissing frogs and having your heart trampled on.

If you’re with a man, on the other hand, who doesn’t give you the respect or attention you crave, and you’re putting up with it, it’s partly because you don’t think you can do any better. You’ve convinced yourself that you love him, warts and all, and that, in some way, you’re responsible for his behaviour. And in many ways you are, though not in the way you may think.

This isn’t about holding out for Mr Right or refusing to settle for anything but the best – I’m not sure I subscribe to either one of those philosophies. It’s about taking responsibility for your relationships and realizing the part we all play in creating them. When you know who you are and what you want, you send out clear messages that anything else is unacceptable.  That’s got to be a pretty good place to start.