The Old, The New

The first thing I noticed when I moved into my new home was the foreignness. The unfamiliar floor under my feet, my utter ineptitude in the kitchen because the counters are taller than what I am used to and I don't know my way around the place yet, most remarkably whilst the pressure cooker is whistling away on the stove, and the way my voice echoes across the house. First I thought it was only because the place is bigger, the ceilings higher, but then I noticed the same echo when I cleaned out my old house, a place I had loved for over 5 years. Suddenly, my voice began to bounce back against the walls and magnify. When I went to clean the house out, my daughter who ordinarily never falls asleep in the car, was snoring comfortably in her car seat. I didn't wake her, so while I was able to silently bid farewell to the staircase that welcomed us when I first brought her home from the hospital, she soundly slept much like she had done in those early days. 

Physical places hold a lot of meaning for me. It must have something to do with my vigilant practice of nurturing memories of Lahore. I try so hard to remember not only landmarks, but the feel of the epoxy floor beneath my feet, and the slatted bars in my grandmother's house through which I saw schoolchildren chanting their lessons in the room below, and the cold rush of water erupting from the spigot of the tube-well accompanied by the momentary shortness of breath -- the impact knocking all air out of me, and especially perhaps the unsteadiness of rickety old benches and metal chairs all over the city next to hawkers selling the best street food I have ever tasted.

It has become a challenge now after 12 years of being away to hold on to these sensations, to re-imagine them, to live a few transient moments of the past over and over just to keep them alive. I am not sure anymore if I really remember Lahore, or just some diluted version of Lahore. I also don't feel quite the same pull I used to for the city. When I think about going home now, I make a mental checklist -- surprisingly, it includes mostly dead people -- paying my respects to my grandparents and a cousin who will always be a little boy in my memory even though he passed away in his thirties. The places that still have a hold over my senses are ones I didn't associate very fondly with as a child. The neighborhood of Old Lahore where my father's ancestral home stands with its peeling paint and creaking wooden shutters -- I never liked going there as a child. Our extended family members pulled my cheeks (with affection) and commented on how tall I had grown (lies) and generally were quite loud and overbearing. And now, I feel the pull of the place. The old world charm, the narrow alleys, the scent of roses heavy in the air around the florist's stand, a row of curbside businesses, the paan-walla with betel juice staining his hands, the healer who might put a palm over a patient's abdomen and diagnose him with anything from appendicitis to black magic and have a potion or powder ready to cure the ailment, a makeshift bookshop that stapled and assembled loose papers, manuscripts, or fixed the fragile spines of old books, a cobbler who repaired heels and boots... I am almost certain they are no longer there. Even back then, that old neighborhood felt like a time capsule, a different world. That's what calls me home now. I am compelled to see what's become of the place. Do people still fly kites there and raise white pigeons with indelible pride? If I were to mention this to my parents, they would nod their heads with a look of complete comprehension and understanding on their faces and make a remark like, "It's the weight of family, you see. It's your ancestors calling to you. It's the pull of blood," which is precisely why I don't say anything about what I feel -- I would laugh at their reaction, and they'd refuse to see the humor in our exchange. 

I push myself into the mire of intricate memories, none of them having weight or significance, simply because I am trying to reconstruct a solid picture of what I left behind from this mosaic. I hear from friends, "You have to go back at least once. Can you imagine the writing that will come out of it?" More than anything else however, I am possessed by a sense of foreboding when I imagine the 30-plus-hour trip back, and more than that, the unfamiliarity I will feel once I am there. What if I don't go back at all and continue to write vignettes about the Lahore of my memory, and as my memory becomes unreliable, which it will if it hasn't already, how will the city change for me? Maybe I will imagine a raging Ravi instead of a receding one, or something more outlandish. It might be an interesting experiment. But truth be told, I have started to feel like a fraud. Some readers have mentioned that my work resonates with them because of my strong connection with Lahore -- and here's the thing -- I don't know if that connection is strong anymore. A more accurate description would be that I am extending a spindly thread back in time and tugging at the past constantly, fraying it in the process. With each pull, Lahore goes farther away from me rather than coming closer -- and I don't even regret that anymore. And so, writing over and over about my childhood in that city of love and food and magic feels like a lie, a grand illusion, an escape fantasy. The hold my city used to have on me is slowly (but surely) dissolving away...

Maybe that's because there are so many other memories crowding the snapshots of Lahore now. I try hard to conserve some other feelings too, you see -- the house on the hill in San Jose, the house that was good, and for the most part, happy. The tiny kitchen  with marble floors, a nick in one tile, the cold welcome it provided in the dawn hours as I walked those ten paces over and over with a newborn in the crook of one arm, bleary-eyed, exhausted, sometimes crying. That same kitchen cocooned many a poem as a teabag leaked its contents into a cup of hot water and the city came alive. Already I have trouble moving from room to room -- my senses trap me in that kitchen, which I loved with all my heart, where I learned how to overcome my fear of baking and eventually love it, where I gathered every Thanksgiving with people I love, where I gave some of the best dinner and birthday parties (and I still have the planning spreadsheets to prove it). I am so committed to remembering certain details about that house -- what the winding drive felt like as I came up the hill every day, the way the trees blossomed every spring, the rosemary hedges all around the community -- that something else, the distant past perhaps, must be pushed out, overshadowed.

How can one person remember so much after all? Old memories must make room for new ones, and so Lahore diminishes each year, the Lahore I love, the Lahore of my childhood is slipping away from me, because even if I go back now, I will arrive in a strange city, not the one I have held on to for so long. And as time passes, there will be still more that is lost (and gained). In this new house where my voice still carries and smashes against the walls, and a breeze wafts in from the northeast every evening, I have much to learn. As I memorize the ridges in the hardwood floorboards and start to acquaint myself with the sounds of the housing settling each night, I will forget more details about the past. Perhaps I will not be able to conjure the exact glow of golden light in the school chapel anymore, or the bitterness of cold winter mornings as we stood outside the great hall for morning assembly. Maybe the exact feel of heavy monsoon rain as it hit my palms and splattered on the cement roof will be forgotten, or the cloying scent of ripe mangoes being unwrapped from their newspaper packaging in a wooden crate will be erased. And as I write this, I can't help but wonder if there is so much still left to forget, so much that still might be salvaged. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

The Storyteller's Daughter

Isn't it strange how certain actions or habits start to mean so much to you despite the unlikeliest of origins? For instance, I started to drink coffee back in college because it made me feel grown-up. Gradually, I came to depend on it on the eve of a big test. Now, I am unabashedly addicted. How odd that something so natural to my everyday existence as daily cup(s) of joe originated from a desire to feel older, more mature, experienced. 

I wonder sometimes why I started to write. Do I honestly believe, as my parents insist, that it's in my blood, it's something I inherited? Or do I believe the other reason that I often give to myself and others: I write because it's a defense mechanism. I process everything by writing: hurts, slights, grief, joy, wonder, aches and pains even. But what if the real reason is neither of the two? What if the real reason is hidden so far into the crevasses of memory that there is no way to tell what it is? 

I have a theory. When I was a little girl, my greatest accomplishment as I saw it was being my father's daughter -- it was no accomplishment, I know that now. It was pure chance or pure fate. But that is how I saw it then. I was so infallibly proud to be his child, to be his firstborn, to belong to him that it began to feel like an achievement. I would look at the thick binders of scripts he wrote long-hand and marvel at them. My father writes stories, I would think. What a wonderful thing to be -- a writer -- whose stories will live on and on. When I am grown, these binders will still be here, neatly placed on the mahogany shelves in his study, and I will come in casually carrying a handbag and wearing makeup and breezily pick up a binder, settle in his armchair, and begin to read. And I will find my father and his words on these pages. I will forever find him here. That's what I would think as a child. For some reason, I didn't associate the act of searching with finding him. Why would I be trying to search for him? Why would I be drawn to his work? But such sophistication was beyond me at that time. 

Every year until fourth grade, I won the class prize in "Urdu Reading." Oral recitation prizes were discontinued after fourth grade, or I am sure I would have continued to win. I don't speak from arrogance -- this is the simple truth and it has its roots in my reading habits. Even at that young age, I would creep into our drawing room where my father liked to write in those early days. I would pick up stacks of pages as he finished writing on them and I would read his neat penmanship, tight loops, slanting accents. If I didn't understand a word, I would catalog it to ask my mother later. I never disturbed my father during his fertile spells of writing. It never occurred to me to do so. Even back then, I recognized the act of creating stories on paper as sacred, like a form of worship. I miss those days with the clarity of retrospection -- it is a time capsule -- that man by the window, one leg crossed over the other, a sheaf of papers in front of him, a Uniball pen flying across the page, and that little girl next to him, silent but occupied, hanging on to the rise and fall of his Urdu script. In a moment, he will look up, he will stretch, he will ask, "Do you want to go get barbecue for dinner?" She will leap from the sofa. They will gather the rest of the family and drive off. And soon after, she will grow up, there will be vast distances between them, some surmountable, some not. I want to tap that girl on the shoulder with this new insight of adulthood. I want to beg her to know how special that time really is because of its sheer simplicity. She loves her father. He loves his child. In this instant, there is nothing between them but a few pages of a much longer story. I want to whisper into the man's ear, too, who is much closer to my age now than the little girl's. It won't remain so simple forever, I want to say. Time and people will slip from your grasp, hold on tight for as long as you can. He will shirk me away. He will tell me I am mad. How is it possible, he will say, for his family to scatter. Why, that's insane. Here's his little girl. His smart little girl who will go places, and her Papa will always be with her. 

I digress as usual -- like my father, I am partial to story-telling. Back to my theory. What if I wasn't born with this strong inclination to write? What if this became a defense mechanism out of a strong wish rather than natural aptitude? My theory goes like this: Remember that little girl who would retreat into the drawing room with her father and admire his work? Maybe that girl loved her father so deeply and admired his vocation so strongly that she molded herself to be like him. She told herself, I must be like my father who is the very best father in the world. I look like him, everyone says as much. I may as well be like him. And so one day, she picked up a pen and paper and went to her father and said, Papa, I want to write something. Tell me what I should write. And the man said, my darling girl, you could write anything and you would do it marvelously. But Papa, she said, what should I write? And the man said, my darling girl, your smile is like the sun, write about the sun then. And so the little girl sat next to her father, and started to write in English instead of Urdu:

I am eating a bun
under the sun.
The sun shines brightly 
I can't sit quietly. 
After some hours
the sun is very large. 
The sun is very hot, 
I touch it not. 
-From the archives of Noorulain Noor

And how the man laughed and laughed with joy and pride when the girl read out the poem to him. He ran to his wife with the piece of paper in his hand and read it to her. She looked at her daughter with wide eyes and a huge smile. Frame the poem, the man boomed to his wife. We shall frame it and put it in the drawing room. That same afternoon, the man drove his three girls to a bookstore and bought them as many books as they wanted. He bought a special notebook for his elder daughter. For the writer, he said, as he presented it to her. The poet, his wife corrected him. And that is how she came to be known forever after. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop - Days 6 & 7

I am home now. It's a regular Monday evening. Dinner is on the stove - chicken karahi, Jahan went to Montessori today and I went to work. The Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop is over, and I can't wait to go back. This was a healing sort of trip. Mountains and writing and cuddles with a cute baby at night. The last two days of the workshop were the busiest, which is why I was not able to update the blog while I was there.

On Thursday, I had my workshop with Don Mee Choi, whose book The Morning News is Exciting is what I am currently reading. Her poems are chilling in their matter-of-fact-ness. I wrote a poem called Dissonance for the workshop session that she led. It was a poem I had been struggling to write for a very long time encompassing the Peshawar suicide bombing attacks of 2013, but sending a broader message, a sort of reclamation of my identity, my country, my history, but I was afraid that the message would sound contrived. I was surprised at the feedback I received - heartfelt praise and encouragement. Workshop participants told me that this poem was important, this message was important and timely. Later, Don Mee Choi told me, "Keep writing! I like what you're doing." After the workshop, when I was talking to two new poet friends, I almost started to cry while telling them what this poem, this story meant to me, and I could see that they were genuinely interested and moved.

On Thursday night, Haryette Mullen gave a craft talk circling around her book Urban Tumbleweed - A Tanka Diary. She talked about her process, how she decided to start writing a tanka a day to get into the habit of writing, then decided to see if she could do it for a year, and eventually ended up writing for over a year and condensing to create the book. Later in the evening, the staff poets gave a reading, which was open to the general public. They read from their published and unpublished works. Of note, Matthew Zapruder's work evoked both laughter and reflection. It was a long and rewarding evening, but I still had to get a poem ready for the next day's workshop when I got to the lodge. 

For Friday, my workshop with C.D. Wright, I wrote a poem called Chronology of the Evil Eye, another idea I had been toying with for a while, all the tips and tricks and old wives' tales I grew up with. As usual, I got great feedback from the workshop participants and am ready to work on another draft of  the poem keeping their suggestions in mind. Later on Friday, Bob Hass gave his craft talk, which was based on the questions that poets submitted all week. Wonderful things were said in Bob Hass' signature style, many different tangents were explored, and we came back to the statement he made on the first day, "Out in the world, no one wants you to write poetry. They don't mind if you write poetry, but they don't want you to." This time he didn't have to tell us that the Community of Writers wants us to write poetry - we knew. In the evening, we went to the Hall House - the house of Barbara and Oakley Hall, the ones who started the Squaw Valley Community of Writers 44 years ago. SVCW is now managed by Brett Hall Jones, Mr. and Mrs. Hall's daughter along with her sisters, Tracy Hall and Sands Hall. The house was beautiful, and the view from the deck was spectacular. Curry was served from Mexican ceramic pots that were about 3 feet tall. The house was full of tables covered with cheerful tablecloths and candles. Real, not disposable plates were used. The food was divine! For dessert, cookies were passed around and there was also coffee. Bob made a speech after dinner thanking Barbara Hall and the SVCW staff. Then there was a long session of poetry recitation and singing. Poets recited Yeats and Dickinson and Issa and Plath and Tu Fu from memory. Joni Mitchell graced the occasion in the voice of Sands Hall and others sang along. I had a long conversation with Brett Hall Jones in the company of two fellow poets and learned a lot about the history of SVCW. When it was time to say goodbye, we walked outside and were dazzled by all the stars we could see in the sky. Expletives were uttered by one and all upon seeing the breathtaking night sky. I should have spent more time under the stars...

The next day, our last, workshop was held an hour earlier than usual. It was casual - no copies were passed around and we simply read our poems aloud to the group. I read a translation of my mother's poem, originally written in Urdu, titled Mai Har Soorat Maa Hoon translated very clumsily to Regardless, I am Mother. It was a short session and afterwards, we said our goodbyes.

This was one of the most delightful experiences of my life. The poet in me found sustenance and reassurance. I didn't have to use qualifiers and justifications when I talked with my fellow poets about the importance of poetry, what it means to me, why I write. We could all joke about the difficulty of getting published, our writing process, our tastes in poetry. There is no way for me to describe the satisfaction I felt while I was there. The change was profound and meaningful enough that Usman asked me to sign up for the workshop again and promised to take me back to Squaw Valley soon. Jahan, too, flourished in the mountains. She loved going outside and running around in the Village, she loved playing in the lake. I can't wait to go back, but until then, more poems and more reading. Also, I am changing my "Introduction" to something other than "dried-up poet," because if there is one thing I have learned, it is that a dried-up poet, I am not.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop - Day 3

I am going to let you in on a little secret: I am done with the poem for tomorrow! Yay! I found some quiet time this afternoon while Jahanara reportedly pranced around the village with her father and godmother. The poem is done, and once again, it was not what I was expecting.

This morning during workshop, I read the poem I wrote last night titled Jahanara, Age 2, Squaw Valley, June 2014. The workshop staff poet was Matthew Zapruder, whose style of leading the discussion was awesome. I was so amazed by a comment he made about my poem - I am going to paraphrase now, but he said, "This poet has a great understanding of language." I think my grin has never been wider. A lot of good and helpful things were said and I had the pleasure to hear 12 other poets read their work, including Matthew. An amazing thing happens when so many people are writing and forming a community over an extended period of time - there is inevitably a degree of resonance, for instance, one other poet and I used the word "salve" in our poems today.

In the afternoon, there was a craft talk by C.D. Wright. She took questions at the end and in response to one of them said, "Accessibility is not a high priority in poetry," a statement I have wrestled with all evening.

Tomorrow's poem is titled Cooked Until Golden Brown.

Just want to send off a quick thank you to my tribe - the people who have read my poems and given me input before each workshop - Afia, Sana, Hera, and of course, Rebecca.

I should mention that I have been exceptionally happy here - the kind of happiness that shows on my face when I am having an ordinary conversation with my sister via FaceTime. The kind of happiness that sends me into moments of extreme gratitude and reflection during which I remind myself how lucky I am. I feel full with this happiness. I am in the mountains with my family and in the company of poets. The weather is lovely, nippy at night and sunny during the day. I am here to write a poem every day. Doesn't it sound a little miraculous? This is the kind of happiness that makes me contract inward and pray, offer thanks.

Also, I made daal chawal in our studio tonight. It was yummy. 

I think I will finally get a good night's rest. Until tomorrow.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop - Day 2

This is going to be a short one because today was a very full and very fulfilling day.

Jahan and Rebecca
I had my first workshop with Haryette Mullen in the morning. I read a poem titled A Poem for my Sister on the Eve of her Wedding, which was written just hours before. I got great feedback, met some really awesome poets, and in general had a very rewarding session. Afterwards, we went to the pool, where I lounged around lazily under an umbrella while Rebecca attempted to give Jahan a swimming lesson. Later in the afternoon, I attended a craft talk given by Matthew Zapruder during which he talked about overcoming the blank page. One of the things he said that I was a little surprised by was that poems should have variations in lines. If each line sounds the same, then the poem becomes boring. I am not sure if I have paid attention to this important detail in my poetry before - in fact, I am certain that I haven't. I rely very heavily on evocative imagery and string visual depictions, so often a poem has very similar lines. I have my workshop with him tomorrow, so I am nervous about writing my poem for tonight. How will I change it around? 

After the craft talk, all the poets had dinner on the deck of Olympic House. I had the pleasure of Ms. Mullen's company again and connected with two other workshop participants, as well as with Mr. Zapruder briefly towards the end of the meal. From dinner, I rushed to another dinner - my family had gone to a pizza place and I met them there and was rewarded with lots of kisses and hugs from Jahan.

It's almost 10PM now, and we are all exhausted. I got almost no sleep last night, so tonight's poem is going to be a difficult assignment.

View from the Squaw Valley Village
I thought it was apt to have a moment of reflection towards the end of the day and reaffirm that all the poems written at Squaw will be honoring the memory of Mrs. Khan, my English teacher who is no longer with us - and the world is a darker place without her.

Now, the big question is, what will I write tonight?

Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop - Day 1

My gratitude for being here is repetitive. It reminds me of feverish prayers, the quick telling of beads, the round weighty stones slipping through my fingers as I recited a particular name of Allah as an offering of thanks or as a request to make my wishes come true. Ya Raheemo, The Merciful. Ya Lateefo, The Gentle. Alhumdulillah, thanks and praise be to God, I would say a hundred times, the prayer beads jangling. I would close my eyes and give myself completely to the prayer, to the act of worship. I have been impelled to voice my happiness in a similar way here. I am thankful for being here, I have said and thought so many times.

It's a beautiful place to write. All around us are mountains. I am in the company of people who are here to practice their art. Robert Hass, the director of the program said in his introductory speech today, "We want you to write poetry. Others don't mind that you write poetry, but they don't want you to write poetry. We want you to write poetry." That's heartening. And intimidating. He also said during the same speech, "You are here because someone really loved your work. For every one person that got in, four or five people were turned away." That's a wonderful thing to hear when you are expected to write a poem and read it in front of complete strangers for workshop in a little over twelve hours. 

I find myself thinking over and over that I am grateful for having my daughter and my husband near me. I am grateful for having my best friend with me. I am grateful that friends and family are texting and emailing and getting excited for me. "How is it?" "You'll rock it!" "Just write! You can do it!" I am grateful for the opportunity to walk in the village with my daughter, who ran around excitedly, was an amazing little traveler, and is now humming a song as she dozes off to sleep. I couldn't have come here without them. I couldn't have written a word without them because this is my writing process. This is how I write, finding time around Jahan's requests for attention. 

I am grateful that I will not only generate work here, but also have an audience - that is an important part of the creative process - to get input, to improve, that is the real goal, always. I met some really interesting people today. There is a sense of bonding within this group of sixty odd people - we are all here for the same reason. And it's a good reason. It's a damn good reason. 

And with that, I must go and write a poem - in less than 12 hours, I will be reading it to an audience. I am afraid of that, but it was mollifying to know that others feel the same way. We are all in the same proverbial boat. Fortitude, my friends, I found myself thinking as I was leaving the reception dinner tonight. 

OK, writing time. I will try to update this space as often as possible mainly because this enriching experience should be shared with others. 

Good night!

What I forget, what I remember

Sometimes I am astounded by the depth of time that stretches between now and the morning I boarded a plane from Lahore International Airport. Eleven years. I sound it out to myself. I enjoy the music in the three syllables that make up the number 11. I roll it around in my mind, I roll it off my tongue. I pretend to cup time in my hands, like bringing them together in prayer, in supplication. I bring my palm to my heart - how many times has it beaten since I left home? Home - because there is no other word for it. It is not really home. I have made my home here in California. I have built it painstakingly, carefully, each piece of furniture, each book, each light-bulb represents an intention, a preference. But there is something I left behind, too. Not home - something deeper and intangible, something that can be felt but not heard or seen. What was it that I left behind - people obviously, but something undefinable and unquantifiable, too. I don't know what it is, but it has the power to take me back one day, and it will. 

There is a certain richness in being an immigrant, in having your origins rooted in a place that is geographically distant from you, in the bravery of the decision to pluck yourself from your land and your people and travel in search of knowledge and success, in the cowardice of the decision to not go back unless you have to, in the fear encompassed by the fluidity of belonging or not belonging, in the taxing change dictated by years when you pass through them in a new place, in learning new ways and giving in to the natural transition of accenting your English differently so that you are caught off-guard when you hear yourself saying something in the old way without intending to, suddenly, without a warning - your tongue having a memory of its own, but your voice sounding strange because of this inadvertent regression to the past. Yes, there is metaphorical wealth in the immigrant experience, something that my American daughter born in California will be lacking, who in all likelihood will be raised in the United States exclusively with annual visits to her parents' home country. In some ways, I feel a little sad about that. I will probably never be able to make her understand how magical it was to lounge in a makeshift hammock constructed with long bolts of cotton fabric by my father and erected between two trees on a hot May afternoon, small beads of sweat forming all over my face so that when I licked my lips I tasted salt and earth, while I read A Little Princess and watched the sun go down on the other side of the sugarcane fields at our farmhouse, and then became enchanted by fireflies lighting up the night all around us. The farmhouse came alive in a different way at night. The cicadas started their sonorous hum, a soft breeze began to sway the grasses that tickled our feet, the tube-well was turned off and it groaned until it stopped, a fire lit up in the hearth, someone put an age-blackened wok on it, the smell of caramelized onion and roasted garlic permeated the garden so that our stomachs began to grumble and we stopped noticing how fragrant the jasmines were. That was our perfect vacation. I would never be able to make my daughter understand the simple perfection of such a time because even the farmhouse doesn't exist anymore. It has been replaced by a brick house with a proper kitchen, running water, and wooden four-poster beds with imported mattresses. Or so I've been told. The call of the cicadas is drowned out by the drone of a power generator, and I don't expect one can see fireflies when the house has plenty of artificial light. I don't think I can wrap my memories in shiny paper and tie them with a ribbon. I don't think I can take them to my daughter and say, "This is the past, this is your mother's history. It's important. Keep it safe so it is not forgotten."

All the same, I find myself aching for the past - for the places that don't exist anymore, for people who have aged and changed and in some cases, died. The "back home" I wish to go to sometimes, in moments of extreme awareness, or conversely, those of weakness, is only present in pictures. When I go back to that house in the pictures I keep in a box under my bed, it won't be the home I grew up in. My sisters whose voices and footsteps I can trace on each wall of that house in my imagination will be gone - one to her new home in Tokyo, the other to hers in London. The baby brother I held on to is 6 feet tall now and can lift me up and twirl me in circles just to make me scream, "Put me down right now!" My mother's perfume, still the same one she used to wear years ago, will still linger in some of the rooms of the house. I will walk through them, touching the familiar and unfamiliar things. "When did you get this?" I will hold something and ask her. Her answer will surprise me. "Years ago," she'll probably say. And I will feel betrayed - unrealistically and unfairly. Maybe, my mother will feel betrayed, too, because of my brooding silences, my lack of participation in the routine she is so used to and one that I used to be a part of, and my divided attention among my daughter, in-laws, and the family I left behind. 

The past is the past is the past, I tell myself, but it's a slippery understanding, it escapes my fingers before I can examine it fully and memorize it, its grooves, its character, its lack of pliability. And as I am telling myself this, absorbed in my thoughts, I see someone coming towards me from the corner of my eye. I perceive this person to be someone I love - a family member or friend I have not seen for 11 years, and I experience a lurch in my heartbeat, a moment that has no rational thinking associated with it. I look up and it's a stranger. They smile at me, and I smile back. That could be such-and-such ten years ago, I think to myself. Something about the stranger's gait, or their arm swinging by their side, or their hair waving in the wind, reminds me of another person, a dearer person, changed now. The eleven years have happened to all of us, or more aptly, we have all lived through these last eleven years. The past is the past is the past, I tell myself, and the fickle thing, it slips away.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

A Celebration of the Weather

Perhaps I should wish in writing more often - it has been raining all day. It started as a drizzle in the small hours, I imagine. When I left for work, it was falling at a steady, gentle pace, like one's speed when one is taking a stroll. Coming back from work, it had become more like a brisk walk. Right now, the rain is how I love it most - I just heard the distant rumble of thunder and the vent pipes clanging loudly in the chimney because of the wind. It finally feels like winter now. 

I know a lot of people don't like this weather - it confines you. But that's what I love about it. I have always associated it with happiness. It feels like a celebration. I take it as explicit permission to do my favorite things. Today, I read some poetry, wrote a poem, watched The Lion King and a chick-flick that will remain unnamed, spent a lot of quality (cuddle) time with the baby, and did some cleaning and organizing. I know this spurt of activity was not because of the rain, but I also know that I am happier because of it, which is in fact conducive to productivity - at least for me. 

I probably shouldn't admit this, but just because I am thinking I shouldn't makes me feel like this story is worth telling, so here goes - I also associate rain with romance. I know, I know, Bollywood left a deep hypnotic mark on me when I was a child, all those musicals with women in beautiful sarees dancing in the rain like there's nothing in the world better than that while their brooding beaus stood awkwardly beside them, seemed to my impressionable mind the epitome of romance. But it's more than that. In Pakistan, when the summer monsoons came, my sisters and I would play on the rooftop, get soaked to the bone, and hurry downstairs to be toweled off and admonished by our mother. We often had relatives staying with us and someone would invariably suggest we go to the market to buy samosas. But the roads would be flooded with water reaching up to our knees or even higher. So, we would resort to scavenging ingredients from the pantry and the fridge and somehow manage to make a helping of breaded fries or potato fritters or chana chaat or  even goll gappay. Sometimes, if my father had an outdoor assignment, it would get postponed because of the weather and we would sit together in his room watching movies all day as he wrote, or he would decide to cook something for us and two hours later, the kitchen would be in disarray, spice jars scattered, pots and pans lining the floor, my mother just standing back, enjoying herself, enjoying him at the helm of the stove. How did it not drive her crazy, I wonder. How could she stand him poking around in her kitchen like that? That says something about me, doesn't it - the way I say her kitchen. The rain used to give us an excuse to bond as a family. And I didn't realize this back then. I didn't know that those were some rare opportunities for us to spend quality time together as a family - it happened naturally, organically, much like the rain. We all came together in the kitchen. Or we huddled on sofas and cushions and my father played vintage Bollywood films for us. It was a happy time for us kids, but I think it was romantic in its way for my parents. They each had their own career to worry about, so a surprise break from work and a relaxed day at home must have been such a welcome delight for them. 

Now, here in Northern California, there is no question of playing in the rain. It's February and still the middle of winter. But the rain still has its way of making me happy. There is no water flooding our streets, but I have these old habits that mandate a day at home when the weather takes a surprise turn like today. I sit on my sofa underneath my fleece blanket and hear the raindrops hitting the kitchen window. We chose to stay in tonight and play with the baby. My husband offered to put the baby to sleep so I would have a few moments to myself. When you have had a busy week at work with a particularly irritable disposition, and you've spent a lot of effort masking this sour mood because you would hate to admit that it's because of the lack of rain, and then you're rewarded by not just the first real winter storm of the year, but also your husband offering to take over bedtime, well, that's pretty damn romantic if you ask me.

And perfect segue into....February - yes, it's February, the official month of love and romance. Goll Gappay will once again honor this month with posts about love and loved ones, so stay tuned.

I'm off to admire the rain while it graces my balcony so I can bottle up some inspiration for the proverbial rainy days (although, I have already demonstrated that as far as I am concerned, any kind of stocking up is required for dry weather only). Good night. 

Photo by Rebecca McCue

Cognitive Dissonance

January 1, 2014

Cognitive Dissonance or Nostalgia Revisited or New Year Blues - yes, this is one of those posts, sorry, happy new year, and thanks for reading. 

I welcomed the new year sitting in my home office with the space heater on, huddled inside a shawl and a fleece blanket, mulling with my sister over whether my baby's plush sofa should remain here or go back upstairs to the living room. We decided to keep it downstairs. I want to have a welcoming space here for my daughter to come and play while mummy works. It's a coveted reality - this image I have in my head. It inspires me to work harder and better. The only time she has been here while I worked was a few nights ago when she proceeded to painstakingly take apart a post-it pad and stick post-it notes all along the coffee table edge. 

Photo by Rebecca McCue
I have been a little unnerved by the text messages, phone calls, and Facebook announcements of how people are ringing in the new year. "Good bye, 2013. Helloooo, 2014!" I am unable to muster the same enthusiasm. The thought I have had for most of the day is not that I have been through a great year (which is true), and I must welcome another one with hope and excitement, but this, "Dammit, only 5 more days off before life resumes." This is why when the clock struck midnight on the West Coast, long after the East Coasters had posted photos of fireworks and wine glasses and the-obligatory-kiss-at-the-end-of-the-countdown, the biggest problem in my life was deciding whether a turquoise baby-sized sofa will remain in my office space or not. 

Now, about a quarter of an hour into 2014, I am thinking why I become so defensive about my disinclination to celebrate the milestone of having lived through another year. During my childhood, this used to be one of the most celebrated days of the year. My mother used to love visiting the tombs of saints on new year's eve. Even close to midnight, we used to find traffic on the streets. We used to buy garlands of huge wild roses to hang on the doors of the tomb. My mother would distribute food among the homeless and poor in the area. We would then go to a local ice-cream parlor to share a ginormous sundae (no joke). After coming home, I would sit for hours listing my resolutions for the year, first with a lead pencil on a piece of paper, and then in pen, transcribed neatly on the first page of my brand new journal (probably stolen from my father's stash of diaries - I did that a lot, and got caught constantly). 

I am so different now - surprise, surprise! I prefer to stay in and watch fireworks rippling through the great expanse of black sky over this city. From my vantage point, I am also able to see the lights sprawling all across the city. It is breathtakingly beautiful, but my heart is not in it. To me, this is just like any other day. I am spending a quiet evening in my home with my favorite people. My daughter has thrown a tantrum today, which is out of the ordinary, but it was short and she was back to her smiling self in no time. That was the most notable part of my day. It is just another day, another good day. I have caught myself so many times today from spiraling into a thought maelstrom- why are people celebrating, what is happening, am I missing something, it's just another day, justanotherday, justanotherday...

Photo by Rebecca McCue
Perhaps if I were in that city, you know, the heart of which sells rose garlands on cold December nights, where men cook rice and lentils in large cauldrons so visitors to the tombs of saints can purchase meals for the poor, where steaming sugary chai is sold in chipped ceramic mugs on roadsides laden with fog, where ice-cream shops stay open until 3 in the morning, where a stack of journals old and new is maybe waiting for me still...perhaps I, too, would celebrate, because who cares if it's just another day, right? In Lahore, you celebrate everything, every day - or at least that was the Lahore I grew up in. Is it still the same, I wonder as the sound of fireworks dies away in the distance. The sky above me is dark again. What does it look like in Lahore? Just another day, just another day, justanotherday...

The In-Betweens

I wake up every morning, unnaturally, with the sound of the alarm or the touch of my daughter climbing into the bed next to me, usually not rested and with a feeling of heaviness in my limbs - another day, satisfyingly predictable, but too full, always, always too full like a cloth sack stretched taut across its seams, bulging and swelling in places, oddly angular in others. It is those first few moments in the morning when I am still wrapped in my fleece blanket with one arm circling my daughter that I am filled with penetrating sadness and self-pity. There is no good reason for this. It is the idea of getting out of my bed that fills me with such dread. Those minutes with the world utterly quiet around us, the drone of the heating system starting and halting, the muted light of dawn filtering in patches through the window, all the worries of real life still so far away from my consciousness that they seem non-existent - it is these first few minutes of wakefulness that make me want to cry over the predicament I am in, namely that of being gainfully employed, because this singular fact dictates the interruption of my serenity. I know this must sound a bit ungrateful. I do love my job, but in the haze of broken sleep, I am simply not yet aware of this fact. By the by, however, strength returns to me. I rise. I move sluggishly around the house. Get ready. Get on the road. For an hour on the freeway with a good book playing in the car, I share the loss and elation of each protagonist while day breaks around me and mountains loom on the horizon. That's when I realize this will be another good day. 

I used to measure life in units of months and years. I used to think it was evident in accomplishments and failures, in daunting times, dark days, in celebrations, and milestones. I thought of life in discrete units of time pivoted on one or another focal point - the years before I came to America and the years after; the years before I had Jahan and the years after; the years before someone died and the years after; the years before I got married and the years after; the years of Davis; the years of Stanford; the years of Lahore; the years before my brother was born and the years after. I thought somehow life existed only in these focal points, these events, harbingers of significant change, and it radiated outwards from these nuclei, weakening in strength until its concentric orbit collided with another life event. Hopefully this picture will help in illustrating what I am trying to say.

The years are beginning to feel short now. If you asked me to name one major milestone of 2013, I would probably pause for a long time. A lot happened this year, certainly, but what of real significance? When you reach a certain age, late twenties, early thirties, I think you begin to get somewhat suspicious of significant events. By this time, you've witnessed death - someone close to you has died - grandparents, friends, family members. You begin to turn your ringtone off at night, partly because you want to sleep undisturbed, and partly because if it's bad news, you don't want to hear it. Then, if you don't answer the phone, it didn't happen. When one of my sisters gets the time difference wrong and I see her name blinking on my phone at an odd hour, I immediately ask, "Is everything OK?" By this age, one or both of your parents have probably had a brush with a serious illness. If your parents are living far away from you, the serious illness sounds even more sinister than it would if you could oversee their medical care yourself. You know, for instance, that dengue fever could kill your mother because her blood group is AB negative and the blood bank in Lahore never has it on site. You know that your father has had a TIA and if he doesn't take care of himself, another could follow. You know you mother has battled with cancer and won, and you know that the sneaky bastard could come back and there's nothing you can do about it. You also know that it could be waiting patiently inside you to proliferate at age 47 - when your mother was diagnosed - or sooner. It is at this age then, your third decade or thereabouts, that you start looking at cuts and bruises more carefully. What is this new ache in the small of your back? Was it there last week? Why does your daughter have a bruise on her leg? Did it appear for no reason, or did she take a fall? You observe her in school. She runs too fast and collides with things. You breathe a sigh of relief, but you don't stop worrying. You never stop worrying. Your perfect picture of the definition of life, that it ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, peaks and troughs, is disintegrating. Life could never be so clean, so predictable, so measurable. 

Life is not present in the major events your memory draws you to when you ruminate in quiet moments. Life, instead, is in the in-betweens. It is in the lull. It is in the time that stretches from one nucleus of an event in picture above to another. It is maybe not in the picture I have drawn at all. It is mostly absent from any recollections and stories you are able to create about the way you have lived. It really exists in the moments before the fateful phone call or after it, because inside that particular time capsule, the seconds or minutes or days or weeks it takes for you to fall into and rise out of a tragedy or triumph, there is a sense of time having stopped, and therefore life having stopped. Life exists in the unremarkable observation of exhaustion I make every morning. It is in the curve of my baby's small body as she presses her little head underneath my chin. It is in the long drive to work, the long drive back from work, when I smile upon hearing a good line or gasp at a turn in the plot. It is in the long phone calls with family during which we irritably ask each other, "Aur sunao" ("Tell me something else...") because we've told each other everything, and there is nothing else of note to discuss. Life is in the satisfaction of each other's company, just knowing that we are listening to each other, we are still here, everything is good. It is in all the days, back to back to back, that begin and end the same way. Life is in the sameness rather than the difference of things, and I am living it all the time. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue