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 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 childfree. 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 why, perhaps, 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.”

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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.

15 things I learnt from Facebook

 

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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.

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.