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

The Art of Losing Your Mind

Wednesday is my least favorite day of the week. You have successfully traversed two days of the workweek, but there are still two whole days looming ahead. Like most Wednesdays, today was marked by a normal headache exacerbated by virtue of starting work really early in the morning on poor-quality sleep for the third day in a row. Effectively, I function on half the normal brain power I usually have on this wretched day in the middle of the week. I have demonstrated this spectacularly in the past, like telling a co-worker about her surprise farewell cake in front of the whole lab. Revealing which central character died in a popular show when a co-worker had explicitly told me he had not seen that particular episode - this happened without any provocation, or even the slightest inquisition from said co-worker. I just couldn't contain all my slippery thoughts and they tumbled out in a really careless manner, after which I had to cover my face to hide the embarrassment and horror at what I had done. Other elaborate displays of a case of "Wednesday Mindlessness" include graceless tumbles in the office, talking with a guest in the lab and preternaturally losing my grip on a cup of lukewarm tea, which proceeded to splash all over the carpet in an elaborate display of mud-colored fountains, calling a male coworker (Baggy) by a female coworker's (Gabi) name multiple times in the same meeting, and others...

What unfolded today was worse than my usual Wednesday Mindlessness, however. It was several rungs above (or should I say below, hmm...see I  can't think straight today) my pregnancy brain mishaps, and following that, the mommy brain incidents. Now you might think after you're done with reading this blog post that this wasn't so dramatic. It wasn't even that funny. But you have to understand, in the two moments I am going to relate here, I felt like: 
a. In Moment 1 - like I had been put under the Imperius curse
b. In Moment 2 - like I had used Hermione's time-turner and come face-to-face with myself, and as you know, even the most powerful wizards can lose their mind if they meddle with time. 
(If you don't know what I am talking about, tsk, tsk, I am SO disappointed in you. Please do yourself a favor and start reading Harry Potter RIGHT NOW!)

Moment 1: I have arrived in the office and not immediately gone for my customary cup of coffee. My head feels like it had a forceful impact with something cold and metallic and has been wrapped in an ice-pack. It feels full, heavy, and like something's sloshing in there sickeningly. My nose feels similarly under the weather. This is not a cold - it is a case of allergies. This is a bad day. Around 8 AM, I drag myself to the break room and start brewing my coffee. Rebecca, my best friend (and manager) follows me and starts brewing her tea. A coworker walks in and starts talking to me about a project we are working on. I try to articulate a response, which sounds very clear and straight-forward as I am thinking about it (albeit a bit bumpy due to the choppy tide in my head). I open my mouth and say "Usman." Rebecca snickers. My co-worker looks at me like I have gone crazy. "What?" I have the following realizations in this order: my husband has put me under the Imperius curse; no, he probably hasn't because I wouldn't be cognizant of this if he had; dammit, Harry Potter isn't real; I really meant to say my boss Sean's name; how do I get out of this situation, will it sound weird if I follow-up now with my original train of thought; oh, screw it, I am doing it. This took maybe 5 or 6 seconds, during which time my co-worker was staring at me with a mixture of concern and surprise. Here's how I salvaged the situation: "Excuse me, but I haven't had my first cup of coffee yet and my allergies are killing me, I am really not even present, part of me thinks I am still sleeping." Awkward laughter. "What I meant to say is, Sean asked us to do such and such by such and such date." Whatever. Life goes on. 

Moment 2:  Around 2 PM, my body is once again screaming for caffeine. The 3 cups of coffee all day have not been enough, but my head feels much better because Rebecca gave me an anti-histamine to take in the morning. I walk to my co-worker (who is also an awesome poet) Sara's desk and we chat for 10 minutes about an upcoming talk we have to give to a guest. Ironically, our conversation circles around not being able to recall exactly what we're supposed to tell this guest. Neither of us remembers the details because we didn't write them down, which clearly was a mistake. We try to retrace our steps to the time when the meeting was first set up and draw up a rough plan to tackle the topics we will be covering. Easy breezy - I am so glad I have Sara to do imaginary things with, like retracing my steps to three weeks ago when we first talked about this particular guest's visit. "I really need a cup of coffee now," I say and go to the break room. I brew a cup of Newman's Own and add my usual cream and two packets of fake sugar (I know, it's not even coffee by the time I am done with it), take a huge gulp, and jauntily walk back to my desk to prepare for my next meeting. I walk into the office with my coffee cup and see a full steaming cup of coffee already on my desk. What the what? I stare at the cup in my hand and back at the cup on the desk. What in the world is going on? I taste the cup on the desk. Yep, it's mine. An inch of cream and two packets of fake sugar. I have no memory of making that cup. Fleetingly, I think of time travel in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but am too awake to actually dwell on it. I take both cups to Sara's desk. In a stricken voice, I say to her, "I have to share something with you. I think I am losing my mind." I tell her what I have just done - made two cups of coffee, not having any memory of making the first cup. She bursts out laughing. Correction. She cackles delightfully. It is too funny for her. She says, "Yes, you are really losing your mind, but I can relate to it!" And then follows up with, "Are you getting enough sleep?" As I am lamenting the loss of my senses, I suddenly remember making the first cup. I went to the break room, came back to my office, had a few sips of my coffee, and even told Rebecca about a conversation I had with someone while making coffee. I then went to Sara's desk to talk about the upcoming talk I had on my to-do list. Then, forgetting all about the cup on my desk, I went to the break room again and brewed another cup of coffee, after which I felt for a moment like I had made bad use of Professor McGonagall's time turner, and subsequently like I was headed for a psychotic break. Yes, I don't dramatize and exaggerate a situation at all. 

It is almost 9 PM now and I have recounted this bad case of Wednesday Mindlessness for you so that I can look back to this on future Wednesdays and pacify myself, "See, so what if you fell on your face, or told someone their favorite character in a book will die at the end, you are still having a better day than that accursed Wednesday." But I also find myself wishing that I had been under the Imperius curse, or I had meddled with time using the time turner, because that would mean Hogwarts is real! I really should get some sleep now, not because I am afraid that you will think I am not a serious writer if I have silly wishes of being at Hogwarts, but because of this: If I am wishing to be under the Imperius curse, then I really must be very tired indeed. Good night, folks. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Good Coffee, Good Company, Good Collections

I discovered coffee, real coffee, in college: The rich smell of a hot cup warming my senses in the UC Davis Coffee House as the heat emanating from it rejuvenated my frozen, aching fingers after a solitary walk from my off-campus housing to an early morning class; the thick layer of cream I added to it and two packets of Splenda; such joy in the first sip, such satisfaction, every single time.

I am proudly and unabashedly addicted to coffee. And I take my coffee with cream and Splenda - no black intense business for me, thank you very much. While coffee is a pleasure to be enjoyed in solitude for me, it is also the perfect accent when I have company. It makes bad company tolerable, allows me to slug through the endless conversations that often have a circular nature, refreshes me so I can keep the pointless and inane small talk going, going, going until I can mercifully extricate myself from the situation without being enervated. It enhances pleasant company, too, highlights the easy flow of stimulating conversation, adds to the element of savoring the moment.

I am surprised to realize just now that I have never mentioned my collection of coffee mugs in this space. I started collecting them in college. I suppose the timing coincided perfectly with my morning brimming with the promise of a steaming cup of coffee at the destination. I have about 50 mugs now - not a grand collection by any stretch of the imagination. They are beautiful, each one having its own significance. I remember exactly where I bought each piece. I also have a pristine recollection of who gave me which mug if it happens to be a gift. I would love to display them in large glass cases arranged neatly in rows, the character of each mug visible, the vibrant and muted colors lined side by side. Unfortunately, they are gathering dust in a kitchen cabinet, but I do try to use some of them from time to time.

While I still adore coffee mugs, I am shifting my focus slightly to bone china. I have two fine porcelain sets, which I have loved dearly for the last few years and used with care. I was satisfied with them until recently when my sister introduced me to Royal Albert bone china. I am sure it was polite and casual interest at first on my part, but as I have looked at it more on eBay, and especially after buying a few pieces, it has become a sort of scaled-down obsession, much like the coffee mugs were when I first started collecting them. Each one of the pieces I have bought is beautifully crafted, and I can already tell that if this transitions into a collection, it's going to be a burden on my wallet. This is not a humble coffee mug with a clever message. This is vintage fine china. The Big Leagues.

My love for coffee and coffee mugs is still flourishing. I will always reach for a tall sturdy mug to pour perfectly brewed coffee. But this new interest in vibrant pieces of china manufactured many years ago, this has a different feel to it. It's like grown up love as opposed to young love. While it may not have the same degree of passion, it's sure to have endurance. I am looking forward to being swept away.