Adjustment of Expectations

How malleable our expectations become in adversity. We may have a secure idea of the future, and it could crumble in an instant by factors that are completely out of our control -- and what happens to our expectations? They plummet, re-calibrate, and find a new baseline.  When we are not in the whorl that untethers us from reality, we can look back and be utterly fascinated by the evolution of our expectations. They start at denial and free-fall to reality, a disorienting journey. I am just coming back to my life from a parallel existence that had me pacing in fluorescent hallways of a hospital. My mother is sick with cancer again. One day she was a happy tourist, the next she was a patient whose lungs were being pushed by more than 2 liters of fluid that had accumulated around them. She has gone home now and is getting the treatment that she needs. She is also in excellent spirits and doctors are hopeful about her recovery, which is why I am here, writing this.

Now, looking back, what strikes me as impossible is not that my mother's body could somehow have hidden and nourished this cancer for many months despite fighting it once before in 2006, but the expectations we all had when our well-constructed reality began to unspool and slip through our fingers. Expectation management in a hospital is not difficult. You are already primed for disaster. It's a controlled environment to the point of seeming surreal -- machines beep, nurses cruise the hallways, their cushioned shoes making dull sounds against the polished linoleum floors, the lights are so bright even the healthy begin to look sallow, a patient three doors down cries out in pain, you have the sense of being privy to the orchestration of some grand secret -- the stark business of life and the fight to live -- over and over and over. Something fundamental changes when you are in this environment for a long time. The hope and optimism of the outside world begin to shed from your skin, ooze out of your pores, fall thickly with each strand of hair that remains on your pillow when you wake up in the morning. The landscape of your expectations becomes fluid and cascades like a waterfall. For us as a family, our expectations were in free-fall pretty much from the moment we arrived at the hospital. I expected to be out of there in two hours, convinced this was an infection that had gone untreated, but I was soon hoping -- even wishing -- for the better, more treatable type of cancer. We went from infection to cancer to metastasis very, very quickly. In the end, we were left a little shell-shocked and in a state of manufactured gratitude (thank god it's breast cancer and not lung cancer).

Strangely, as time passes, I am not haunted by the nightmare of my mother's health condition, but overcome by the kindness that was shown to us from friends and family. I have also identified the errors in my own philosophy of life. I retreat often. I let time expand like a chasm between loved ones and myself. I often consider most relationships dispensable. Folly. And arrogance. And for the last few weeks, I have only wondered over and over how I will ever repay the kindness of everyone around me and marveled at the support structure that exists for us -- not because of me, but in spite of me. I have witnessed humility, grace, and love, the empathy that is inherent in careful attention, the act of giving without expecting anything in return, the purity of intention and action, and I have learned a lesson I hope to remember from this experience -- a simple lesson, something we talk about often and without much thought -- to never take a moment or a person for granted. There have been small miracles (and big ones) for me and my family over the last few weeks, and they were not because of divine intervention, but because of the selflessness of people around me. For this, I may never muster enough gratitude, but I can continue to offer thanks and return the same selfless love and attention as often as I possibly can. 

I will end with a story to illustrate that even if our expectations fall and shatter, they somehow reconstitute. I do not believe in signs or omens, but I can't ignore metaphors. One week into my mother's hospital stay, I couldn't help but be heartbroken to find the mint leaves she had so lovingly planted in our small garden shriveled and dead. I thought of her in her hospital bed, pallid and weak, and the uncertainty of the future brought me to my knees. But a little over a week later, we all came home from the hospital. My mother walked around the house, stepped into the backyard for fresh air. She was feeling stronger, happier. And healthier. We sipped our tea, made plans for her return to Pakistan, and I noticed her staring at the brown, sun-baked bunch of leaves that used to be her mint plant. I wondered if she noticed the metaphor, too -- but before I could say anything, I saw what she was looking at -- not the dead leaves, but a bright green shoot and two tiny leaves rising from the ruin. Like my expectations, the mint thrives in the garden still. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

My best friend is no longer my boss!

Rebecca, my best friend, and the official photographer of this blog was also my boss until today. She has now moved on to an exciting new position in another department, which means she can no longer boss me around. However, I have sneaky feeling that she will continue to try and boss me despite the transition. 

I haven't been here in a while, no little matter compelling me enough to come and write. You could call it a lack of inspiration, but you'd be wrong. It was procrastination, laziness, and the inability to make time for something enjoyable and rewarding when life is too occupied with things that do not possess these qualities. Today, however, I must write and say what I told Rebecca in a card I wrote her. I told her I didn't want to look back at the (almost) 6 years of coaching and guidance that she has given me and talk about how much I will miss sharing an office with her, which allows me to turn around from my desk and ask her any random question about work with the expectation of a readily crafted answer. Instead, I chose to look forward with her towards our mutual success and our friendship which will no doubt continue to thrive. She is after all godmother to my only child. 

This act of choosing to look forward instead of backward has inspired me to look at the past in a new light. Why does nostalgia have to hold an undercurrent of regret and guilt? Why can't memories just be collected as treasures and propel us forward? It seemed like the obvious thing to do today, to tell her that I am not going to dwell on how much I have grown with her mentorship -- she knows it, and so do I. She knows I am grateful. Now, I just have to bring the same positive thinking to the other aspects of my life. 

I imagine it varies from person to person. Some people fill you with a sense of positivity -- others don't. We can't always weed the negativity out of our lives, but we can limit it. Today, on the day when my best friend transitions to having just this singular role in my life (you see, it is all about me), I promise myself to take some important steps towards limiting negativity and focus on all the good things in life. Just as I chose to do today even though I am terribly scared of not having her around anymore. We all need to grow up and grow better. I will try to do so consciously and conscientiously. 

Photo by Rebecca McCue

Lessons My Toddler Teaches Me

Before Jahanara turned two, I decided I was not going to ever roll my eyes at one of her tantrums and say resignedly, "Terrible twos!" Instead, I coined the term "Terrific twos," because it's all about how you see it, right? Wrong! I witnessed a spectacular melt-down today all because I spilled some water on the table and followed this unbelievably clumsy act with more serious crimes, like giving my daughter the wrong bowl and the wrong snack and saying all the wrong things, "No, I will not give you such-and-such until you say 'please'!" What I observed after she had calmed down and was happily singing along one of the songs of The Fresh Beat Band and eating her dinner is that toddlers have immense stores of will-power. If I were still as angry as I was this afternoon during the tantrum, I would have said that toddlers are amazingly stubborn. However, we have reached a mutual truce, I have been given lots of conciliatory kisses and have also been rewarded with finished dinner and dessert, so I am feeling generous. My daughter has great, indefatigable will-power with strong lungs to support her in all her quests allowing her to be heard and understood, loud and clear. She knows what she wants and she knows she wants it NOW! 

Conceivably, I also had bottomless treasure troves of will-power when I was two (and probably for a long time after that when it came to a certain book I wanted, or a midnight meal, et cetera). What happened to all that determination? Why is it that now when I make plans, I am not always able to see them through? Exhaustion is one excuse - I possibly have too much going on and cannot focus all my will-power solely on achieving a particular goal, but if I had half the tenacity that my daughter possesses, I would post here more often, I would walk around the neighborhood every day, I would eat well, sleep well, and generally live well - essentially, I would do everything I claim to want.

Incidentally, I was talking to a writer friend of mine about the importance of having a writing group. It is absolutely essential for me to have people in my life who can hold me accountable to the things I want to do - so clearly, I don't have enough determination to write every day. Often, I wait until Rebecca says in a mock-annoyed voice, "You know, I have been waiting for a blog post" to let myself realize, "Oh, right, it's been how many days since the last post?" Writers certainly need their tribe, people they trust and who are invested in their success to keep them moving forward, plugging away at their stories, their poems. At the same time, we love self-flagellation. We love to count the number of ways in which we fail. Our nerve often wanes before our will-power does, and then the latter, too, fizzles out like an a flame extinguished unceremoniously. This is something toddlers never do. They are tenacious little humans, demanding what they want with all the might in their small bodies - and they use their bodies creatively to display their demands: they shake themselves, thrash on the floor, roll around, hang on to anything - a parent's arm, the refrigerator door - very creative even in the midst of a complete emotional catastrophe. Then, they either get what they want if the parent admits defeat, or they get distracted if the parent has enough energy to tap into sources of diversion (Look, baby! Elmo!), or they tire themselves out and decide to get on with their lives (or, more accurately, they decide to conserve their energy for an admirable battle later in the day so that the parent's nerves are fried to perfection - golden brown and caramelized). In any case, they move on and are perfectly happy to do so. There is no sense of failure. There is most certainly no self-loathing. The outcome of the toddler's willful behavior regardless of whether she achieved her desired results or not is always the same: She moves on.

And so, motherhood teaches me yet another important lesson - to take a page from Jahan's proverbial book. Exercise more will-power. Try to be consumed by a singular focus - writing, for example, or eating healthy meals - and go after it with a kind of possessed madness. And if by chance or by design, I am unsuccessful on a given day, I should simply take a deep breath and move on. Tomorrow is another day after all, a brand new morning for terrific tenaciousness.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Carpe Diem

Why is it that certain memories anchor you to your reality, and there are others that wash away seemingly without reason? I have forgotten people and time periods of my life. My sisters ask me sometimes, "Do you remember Bilal Uncle?" And my first reaction is, "Who?" And gradually they help me piece an image together. A young man, my father's friend. Peacocks in the vast garden of the hotel where they used to meet for afternoon tea, scones for the adults, ice cream for us girls. Is this memory real or invented or salvaged, I wonder. Do I really remember him, or is he like the character of a movie, and my sisters the screenplay writers who have brought him to life? Yet, there are the briefest of moments that have stayed so fresh in my memory that I remember the tiniest details: the single blade of sunlight falling over a sleeping baby's eyes, the rippling of my grandmother's chenille duvet between my fingers, the silhouette of my aunt when I last saw her alive - I was just 5 years old, and she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen - that last time I saw her opening the heavy wooden kitchen door, wearing an orange kurta, her curly hair pinned back at the nape of her neck - just this image of her, and then - my mother's ragged shrieks waking me up from a deep sleep, our drive through wild monsoon rain to Sialkot, people gathered outside my grandparents' home, adults dissolving into screams of shock and grief, and my aunt's sallow face absent of life, the white shroud, the cotton balls tucked into her nostrils, my mother nowhere to be found, my mother, my mother, my mother, the panic, until I saw her collapsing near her dead sister's charpoy... 

Children should not be allowed to witness bereavement.

And why do I speak of memory now, so soon after remembering the darling Mrs. Khan who is with us no more? Many people reached out to me via the blog and Facebook to tell me how much the entry meant to them. They told me it made them remember the magic of Mrs. Khan. Some said it was like I was telling their story. She saw them when no one else did. Some told me that I have a very good memory - to which my immediate response is, "But I don't." And yet, there she stands, a pillar in my memory, strong, hilarious, full of happiness and compassion. You couldn't help but smile in her presence. I have established already that I had my bouts of introspection in school. My mind would wander off in the middle of classes. My closest friends dubbed me "Dreamy Noor," but Mrs. Khan had a way of snapping me out of my best reveries. She commanded attention, often with a joke, but sometimes simply with her presence. What a miraculous woman!

And my memory keeps bringing my beloved teacher back to me now in the wake of her death - in my dreams, in my thoughts, in my midday reveries that no one snaps me out of. From the outpouring of grief, but also that of wonderful, beautiful, happy memories that her students are sharing on the Facebook page in her memory, I can tell that she lives on in our collective memories. Every single student says the same thing - something along the lines of, "She made me who I am." Many insist they were her favorite. Can we even begin to articulate such a person's generosity and kindness who made so many people feel special at the same time? It's maddening if you think about it - I worry with 5 guests in my house that 4 of them will probably go home feeling unappreciated and ignored. Can you imagine making so many young people feel like they matter? Like what they've got to say is important? Making them realize that they can do anything? Be anything? This woman had super powers! She would have liked this compliment - I am smiling right now as I think about how she might have reacted to this.

With all the wonderful memories of Mrs. Khan being shared on social media, there is also this underlying wrinkle of regret getting fractured by the hour, expanding, swelling, "I should have stayed in touch with her." "I should have called her." "I should have given her a hug." I said to a friend that visiting her was on my Lahore Bucket List. I was planning to meet her when I visit my family in Lahore this winter after 12 years of being in California. I see this corollary of celebrating Mrs. Khan's life and her spirit along with harboring so much regret for not telling her what she meant to us (her students) engulfing every grieved heart, and it resonates very strongly with me.

Perhaps we should learn - Mrs. Khan may be teaching us an important lesson, still. Seize the day! I am in California and have been for over a decade, but what kind of excuse is that? I could have tracked down her email address with minimal effort, and I should have. But I never factored either of us dying into the equation of me eventually getting in touch with her. We never factor in death, do we? Tell the people who matter to you that they matter to you. That they matter. Like she told us every single time not in so many words maybe, but by listening, by giving, by laughing, by loving. Go give your teacher a hug. Tell your sister you're sorry, the fight you had really was completely stupid. Mend your differences with your parents. Tell your best friend you're sorry you don't call often, but you love her. Tell your husband, your wife, your child. Tell them because they matter and you never know when you may no longer have the privilege to do so.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Rebecca is coming with me to Lahore IF...

Here are the FACTS: 
  • I have not gone back to Pakistan since I arrived in California on February 1, 2003
  • I am often found writing and whining about Lahore, who I was, identity, belonging, changes, time, et cetera, ad nauseum
  • I am afraid of going back to Lahore - mainly because I will encounter a different city, but also because the people I left behind have changed substantially, as well. So have I. I left when I was 18. I am now 29 and have a 2.5-year-old daughter. When I left, I could have probably described myself in discrete terms. Now I know that reality is much more complicated. How do you define who you are, how do you contain your experience, your view of the world and yourself into categories (a blog post on this will be coming in the near future)
  • My best friend is an awesome photographer
  • Lahore is an amazing canvas for any artist, but holds special treats for those who hold a camera in their hand. Besides, the food is incomparable!
  • I have been convincing Rebecca to come with me to Lahore. She has said no repeatedly because we only hear the absolute worst news in the media
  • Recently, I found this gem and forwarded it to Rebecca. She has agreed to travel to Pakistan with me at some point in the coming months on the condition that the "security situation" in Lahore is under control and the news continues to be good. AND if I write 2 blog posts per week...
What I have to do: 
  • Hope that we only hear good news from Lahore
  • Write 2 blog posts per week 
  • Ask you all for something (see below)
What YOU can do (if you are in Pakistan):
  • PLEASE email Rebecca and me at and tell her all the good reasons for traveling to Lahore, OR leave a comment here! She is an extremely nice person, and it is generally hard for her to say no to things (a quality I often use to my advantage). If enough of you extend a warm welcome, she will simply HAVE to come
If we make it to Lahore, I will post an announcement here, so you can meet (and be photographed by) Rebecca. We'll have a party over some really good goll gappay and chanaa chaat!

A Matter Between Our Hearts

We have a saying in Urdu, "Dil ko dil say raah hoti hai." People say this to each other when coincidentally or serendipitously they do what the other was thinking. Grandmothers say it to their grandchildren on the phone. "I was just cooking your favorite dish and was thinking of you, and you called! Dil ko dil say raah hoti hai." Such a simple, wonderful, poetic thing to say. "There is a road that links our hearts," is the rough translation, the implication being, "Our hearts know each other's desires" or "There is an invisible force that connects my heart's desire to yours."

My mother says this to me if I call her while I am driving to work, a rare occurrence, because I guard my commute hours with a jealous diligence as I listen to my audiobooks. "I was just talking to such-and-such about you, was just saying your name, in fact, when the phone rang. Dil ko dil say raah hoti hai." And I respond with an underwhelming, "Hmm," not convinced that there is an invisible string that links my heart beating in America as the dawn breaks over the sky to my mother's heart in Pakistan as her sky turns gray with the approach of dusk. I don't tell her what I am thinking. Our hearts are separated by the sky, mother. The sun from yours dissolves into liquid rays in the last few breaths of the day and appears just as languidly on mine. When my heart beats on the morning of a Saturday, your heart lived through that moment on your Saturday morning a full twelve hours before me. For twelve out of twenty-four hours, we exist on different days of the week.

Yet, I have an almost supernatural tendency to do things that make my loved ones say this to me. Sometimes I make a family member's favorite meal when they are secretly craving it. I randomly text my sister telling her I love her just when she has had a bad dream and wants consolation. And these things happen to me, too. Someone suddenly calls, or I get an email, and last night when I was about to block my Gmail and social media websites so I could get some work done, my best friend suddenly sent me a message on Google chat. "Hi!" I responded. "I was about to block my Gmail and you sent a message! We have a saying in Urdu that roughly translates to 'there is a road that links our hearts.' Looks like our hearts are connected!" "That's beautiful," she said. "You have to write about that."

And here I am, writing about it, because I can't stop thinking about this beautiful and implausible idea.  

Photo 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

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

Pickled Shrimp and Letting Things Pickle

It is not always easy for me to let things go. In fact, I have often been criticized on my habit of holding on to emotionally charged exchanges, incidents, memories, and outbursts for an unhealthy length of time. It is hard to explain, but I am not dominated by the moments I am not letting go of; they are not holding me captive. I would submit that it is, in fact, the other way around. I am safekeeping them to remind myself not to invest too much again, not to make the same choices that led to emotional meltdowns of the sort I am guarding, and most importantly, not to allow anyone or anything unravel my composure for reasons that really don't warrant such a reaction. 

I find then - in keeping these moments alight in my memory - that at some point or another, I find a lesson or two to savor from them and let the bitterness go. They pickle, so to speak, instead of stewing. It is a different kind of mental energy that goes into this specific effort, you see. When I let certain things stew, there is a conscious fire of resentment burning under that particular cauldron. Unpleasantness is bubbling and brewing and cooking and sputtering. It has, shall we say, rather different consequences that do not always result in amicable discussions. Stewing has its purpose however, and I try to reserve such a reaction for people who really matter to me. I let grievances concerning my loved ones stew so that they can bubble over, we can air our differences, and be done with the whole irksome business and move on. For subtler things, however, such as hurts I encounter without the intention of the one causing it, inadvertent misadventures of the heart let's call them, need a markedly different treatment.

Making Bon Appetit magazine's Pickled Shrimp was a quick and delicious substitute to cooking an elaborate meal, and thinking about the write-up I wanted to accompany this food post with made me think long and hard about 'pickling.' You take something raw, put it in different spices and oils and juices and what-have-you in mason or earthenware jars (or a bowl, like I did), and then you put it in a corner for a predetermined length of time. Lo and behold! When you open the jar, you have perfectly pickled, savory, special-somethings. 

It's kind of like that when I file things away, or if you really want me to tell you the full truth, hold on to them when I should really just forget them and move on. But pickling, like stewing, also has a purpose. I put these disagreeable events in a jar with helpful facts (it was not intentional, they really are good people, everyone makes mistakes, et cetera), and leave them there for a while. Eventually, I find that the event loses its rawness and takes on the flavor of the facts surrounding it. One day, I miraculously find it to be perfectly pickled, a different beast really from what I first imprisoned in the jar. It is easier then for me to move past it in a more savory manner. It is better for everyone involved. 

Try it - it does work, and by the way, the pickled shrimp was delightful.

Photos by Rebecca McCue