It is natural, I tell myself, to not feel particularly happy about the turn of the year. Why must I muster the enthusiasm of ten years ago, the festive evenings of foggy Lahore, the midnight trip to Data Sahib's shrine, the donation of a haleem deg to the street-dwelling citizens who counted on the generosity and ardent prayers of their middle-class counterparts for a free meal; or the celebratory visits to street vendors in the underbelly of the city, slithering with activity at all hours, food, chai, other vices; or the solemn prayer I offered every year specifically on the night that traversed two years -- make me good, make me how You want me to be, make it a good year, how You see it best. Why must I treat this as though it is any different from any other day of the year? It's not as if there is anything to celebrate or commemorate, really. 2014 was, after all, a taxing year for the world.
My heart finds comfort from the world at home. I find myself impulsively reorganizing cabinets, cleaning out the kitchen, finding expired boxes of cereal and smelly mason jars of sunflower seeds at the back of the pantry shelves and throwing them away. A new beginning of sorts. Clean shelves, a do-over for the pantry and refrigerator, and perhaps one for me at home in the kitchen. I find a salve for my restive spirit in making large meals, inviting friends and their kids for holiday lunches, taking out the nice china and then methodically washing and drying it by hand. As I write this, there is chicken curry bubbling on the stove, sautéed mushrooms ready on the side, a salad chopped and prepared. It's only us tonight and a friend we haven't seen in a while. We will gather around the table, talk about jobs and houses, about things that have nothing to do with having embarked on a new year -- the real things, the good things, the things that matter rather than the transient headiness one is prone to feeling at this time of the nascent year, the resolutions shiny and full of possibilities, that unmistakable sense of being at the verge of something significant -- an improvement, a second chance, a remedy for every mistake we have yet to commit.
And so, weary from the joy that surrounds me and without begrudging anyone their celebration, I find solace in simple things -- back to basics -- in cooking: smelling the freshly grated garlic roasting in the frying pan, watching the butter sizzle as it slides between the walls of the pan, the thickly sliced portabella whistling out a sigh as I press down with my spatula, the vegetables crisp under my practiced knife, such pleasure in the smells and sounds of a home-cooked meal; in poetry: in the books and magazines that have been piling up steadily over the last few months, collections and anthologies, books on writing, honing the craft, practicing it, owning it, and some delightful fiction, too; in writing: here; in thinking: everywhere.
Perhaps that reads too much like a list of resolutions, but to me, it is an act of reaffirmation. Life is too short -- if there's one thing we have learned from 2014, it is that this cliche is unfortunately true. Staying true to yourself, to the things that delight you, make you you, give you lasting joy, is what you should be striving for. For me, it is coming back to the basics, to ordinary comforts, to little matters that matter.
Happy new year!
I started working full-time when my daughter was 3 months old. I would cry during the commute each way, cursing the traffic, thinking desperately that those precious minutes could have been spent with my baby. The baby in question is 3 years old now. I am still a full-time working mother while also serving as the Associate Editor of a literary publication. I do not cry in traffic now, but I still curse. Loudly. Unabashedly. It's good for the soul. And the moment after a curse word rebounds from the car's interior and disappears into the air is so....well, zen.
When I see the little human I brought into this world, that unruly hair, the ubiquitous smile, those shining almond eyes, I feel love, sure, supposedly the purest form of it as all mothers will readily tell you, but more than that, I feel pride. I feel proud of my little human. We have come a long way, you and me, I tell her. You were a tiny thing, and now look at you. You are assertive. You are strong. You are beautiful. You know what you want and how to get it. You have such a strong belief in yourself. Such spirit. Such will. I hope it never diminishes. When I drop her off at school, she gives me a kiss and says, "Bye, Mummy," so eager to start the day with her friends and teachers, where Mummy just doesn't fit. And then, when I pick her up, she comes running to me, saying, "Mummy! Mummy! Mummy!" My well-adjusted little human. A lot of tears were shed while we got here. A lot of doubts were aired. And even today, on those rare days when we encounter tummy troubles, or a sore throat, or a waxing fever, I put everything else aside. My sole focus becomes this little wonderful person who needs no one else in the world except her Mummy. It's hard to even sign on to email on such days, to answer a simple question about a work issue. Work becomes a burden. Why am I doing this? What is the point? I should only be with my little human, this sweet girl with her curls and cuddles. And then, she gets up and goes to the kitchen. She reaches for her play-doh basket and begins to play, or goes to her drums and starts making some music.
It's tough to be a working mom. Yet I do it day after day. We wake up, we start our day together, experience rewards and setbacks during the day, and we meet again in the evening, coming together, sharing, loving, a full circle so to speak. It would be wrong for me to say that in this wholesome picture, nothing is lost. There is always an opportunity cost. Something is lost when something is gained. In this case, my daughter and I end up spending 6 meaningful hours together during the day -- hours in which we are soaking up each other's presence, playing, reading, cuddling, talking -- not counting bedtime and sleep hours. 6 hours each weekday. But they are really good hours. Happy. Rewarding. Rejuvenating.
Choosing to work is a very important decision for me. I consciously make the choice to go to work every day. It is not something that happened to me. It is something I chose to do because having a career is absolutely necessary, not only for my sanity and well-being, but also to set an example for my girl. I get positive reinforcement for my decision every day by witnessing how well-adjusted she is, and I get it from the past, too. I think of my mother who has worked long hours for most of her adult life and is still gainfully employed, and yet she always managed to remain her daughters' best friend. And I think of how I left home at 18 and made my own life, a career, another home. I would want my daughter to make her own life too, find love and independence and success on her own terms. And she undoubtedly will one day. If this time of mine, these key years of youth and energy and vitality are invested solely in the very noble and very rewarding service of my daughter and I do not craft a place for myself out there in the world in the process, not hone my skills in the workplace, not discover my true potential as an individual, as a contributor to my industry, not make an impact in the field of clinical research, which I am passionate about, where does that leave me? This is a very personal fear and will probably not resonate at all with many women who have extremely fulfilling lives without being in the workforce.
I love my daughter, but I love my career, too. And I think I would be an unhappy mother and an unhappy person if I wait for her to be off and discover love and life until I can do both of those things myself. For me, motherhood and my career do not just work in parallel, they define each other. I am very good at my job because I want to be a present, attentive, and loving mother in my hours away from the office. I am a good mother because I have a rewarding professional life. This is exactly what I would wish for my daughter with one tiny amendment -- a longer maternity leave.
Photos by Rebecca McCue
When I was a teenager, I was convinced that I knew everything. I had no uncertainties. I was invincible. I knew what was right and what was wrong and what was right for me. I knew wholly what I wanted and how I was going to get it. When I was a teenager, I knew everything about myself and about the world. I was practically an adult.
I am 3 months away from turning 30. The big three-oh. The life-changing event. The age that used to sound "so old" all those years ago. The age that has a whole episode of Friends devoted to it with Rachel Green lamenting her "plan" and being very poor company for her friends. The birthday that, more often than not, invokes sadness and fear. The age that brands you: "There you have it. You are an adult now whether you like it or not." I don't feel any of those things right now. Instead, I look at my teenage self and shake my head at her, "Foolish girl." The truth is, I am on the verge of turning 30 and I am still clueless. There is so much growing up to do yet.
It is disconcerting to realize that all of the most important decisions of my life, with the exception of choosing to have a child, were made while I was a teenager -- heady, opinionated, filled to the point of bursting with this sense of being true, being right, that damned righteousness that still trickles out of my mouth in unguarded moments. Surprisingly, those decisions have been fruitful, but that is likely just dumb luck rather than a testament to my foresight or wisdom. Exactly 2.5 weeks ago, I started a new job. After 6 years, I left Stanford and took a management position with a start-up. It was time to move on, and I love my new job -- this is called growing up. Earlier this year, I took on a bigger role at Papercuts. I transitioned to the role of Associate Editor from Poetry Editor -- an experience that has been challenging and enlightening -- so this is how much work and planning and work and planning and work and planning it takes to bring out a magazine -- this is also called growing up. I am in the midst of concluding a 10-week poetry course I was co-teaching for Desi Writers' Lounge. During the last few weeks, I had the privilege of witnessing the course participants stretch their wings, take chances, push themselves to produce impressive poems. I learned as I taught -- this is also called growing up. My girl is beginning to talk to me. In the morning, I wake her up, and she says, "Lie down, please! Sleepy time, please!" A scene reminiscent of my own childhood. I get ready for work and she says, "Pretty!" She wants to change several outfits a day because her clothes are "wet" or "yucky" or something else. My daughter is turning into a real person -- this is also called growing up. Today, I joined a gym -- dare I say it -- this is also, in fact, called growing up.
And all this is just the beginning. I feel I am at the cusp of something far greater than I realize. I am not fully able to absorb or observe this, but it is a truth I am beginning to live by: Life is so fluid. Learning is on a spectrum that is infinite. How does one ever satiate one's appetite for learning? How does one ever reach the point of satisfaction where one finally feels grown up, accomplished, done? With all the uncertainties I am thriving under, at least I know the answer to this one question is never. The recipe for a fulfilled life is in continuing to find delight in small developments, in observing and experiencing personal growth constantly.
So, I look back at my insolent fifteen-year-old self who believes she knows everything and say just to push her buttons, "I'll ask you again 15 years!"
Photos by Rebecca McCue
I come to you again after all poetry has dried up. I come to you empty-handed like I often appear on the prayer mat, pleading for something,I want desperately, wanting, wanting. I come to you because memory is crippled now, drowned out by the present and the vices that afflict me -- caffeine, Splenda. I have not seen you these many years and so much of life has filled these furlongs of time.
I come to you because I don't really want to come to you anymore, and that is a mourning in and of itself. I come to you because you still hold so much of me. Somewhere in the past, your streets still feel my tread. I am walking alongside my father. We are buying street food, seekh kebab and cucumber salad, mint chutney and watered down yogurt from a vendor in Lakshmi Chowk. Now he's perched me on the bonnet of the car. Such pleasure it gives me to say "bonnet of the car." No one would understand it here, but you do. Now he tells me about his childhood, about honesty and struggle and passion and creativity. He tells me I am a brave girl. He tells me I can be anything or anyone when I grow up. He tells me I am already smarter than him. Such a rueful smile. Such truth in his eyes.
Somewhere on your streets, my uncle walks late at night, the sky lit up with a shock of stars. His signature black boots make clickity clack noises. He enters the house I lived in. I hear his shoes, I see his face. He calls out to me. "Let's eat! I've brought you garam garam chargha!" (hot chicken roast) I prance off my bed. We take out plates and napkins but no silverware. We eat with our hands. He talks about his plans, his future uncertain but possibility knocking at his doorstep. Back then, we thought we could each be anything or anyone we wanted to be.
Somewhere on your streets, three girls sit in the backseat of a lurid blue van. Backstreet Boys screech on the cassette player. They sit side by side engrossed in their own thoughts. They break the silence for an observation and then fall again into the comfort of their quiet companionship. At this moment, their thoughts are enough, but the sisters don't know that truly, each of them is quite enough to sustain the others. They will not know this for a long time and not until they have learned the meaning of distances.
Dear Lahore, you hold so much of those days I am beginning to lose, the moments that didn't seem to matter, but actually were the ones that mattered most, the time capsules that held the essence of happiness without drama or action. Life happened outside of these moments, but resided inside the simplicities of such times. This time, this happiness, that girl, she lives on inside these glimpses of a different world, she exists on your street corners, and in the kitchen of an old house, and in the back of a van that was sold many years ago.
I suppose I do not know what I am really afraid of -- finding her there when I return, or never finding her again.
“How awful it was, thought Tessa, remembering Fats the toddler, the way
tiny ghosts of your living children haunted your heart; they could never
know, and would hate it if they did, how their growing was a constant
The Casual Vacancy
A few weeks ago, my mother called me to say that she had found 6 photo albums of my toddler years in my father's closet. They were cleaning out the clothes and shoes, packing them up, because a big move is imminent. They found the albums tucked away on a shelf and spent hours poring over the pictures. "In those pictures, you look exactly like Jahan looks now," said my mother wistfully. I welled up at this thought -- that once, long ago, my parents must have showered the same attention on me that I now devote to Jahan. I imagined Jahan growing up and moving away from me. I imagined telling her this over the phone -- I saw your photos again, baby girl, you were such a cute toddler -- and felt a visceral ache. How hard had it been really for my parents to let me go, to say goodbye so I could pave my own path toward self-actualization and self-discovery? What is the extent of my parents' grief, really?
|Vintage Noor circa 1987|
Children are ubiquitously such selfish creatures, even after they become parents themselves. I have never paused before this particular instance to think how much my parents probably miss me -- and not so much me, but that little girl in the photos with those chubby cheeks and thick curls. They probably feel as though no time has passed and their girl has grown and taken flight. Do they find it to be an unfair decision? What does my mother think and does not say to me when I receive her frustrated chat on WhatsApp, "Really, Noorulain, what is happening? You never call." And what must she feel when I respond, "Sorry, Mom. Been really busy. Call you tomorrow. Kisses." "OK," she writes back. Then she sends me 3 pink hearts, and a bald smiley face blowing me a kiss. She is a funny lady. I love her dearly, and yet I haven't called her -- does she wonder if I have forgotten her or deprioritized her? Because how can I explain this -- Mom, life got in the way, I am a working mother, you know, and there's the time difference to contend with, you are 12 hours ahead after all, we don't live in the same day of the week half of the time, when the sun turns up outside my window, it's already dipped out of your sight, the skies above us are so different, you are so far away from me, I miss you, I love you, I think of you, I just haven't had the time to call...
It's hard to think about these things. It's heartbreaking to realize with absolute certainty that one day, I will look back and wonder where my sweet girl went and why my grown daughter doesn't call me back. I have never appreciated this constant bereavement my parents must experience. It's a sweet kind of mourning, though, isn't it? Hopefully, they think they have raised strong, independent, responsible women -- who have all three left the nest now, made their own abodes with twigs and moss and the values their parents taught them.
And yet, I cannot shake this burden off my shoulders. I look back at Jahan's photos -- a few days old, swaddled in a blanket; a few months old wearing a white woolen dress, a red headband, a ready smile, her chubby cheeks rosy; her tiny teeth, her short hair, her inquisitive look at 12 months, 18 months, 2 years... How time flies, and how strange nature is. Parents are blind observers to their child's growth, each phase so different from the last, the present always solidifying in our memory and the past fluid and free, sometimes flowing into the river of consciousness, making a tiny ripple, and then merging with our current reality, fading away. This parting is such sweet sorrow.
I miss my mother now (as I always do). Must sign off to call her.
These days I find myself wishing to be the woman who writes this blog, not just when I sit in front of my computer but all the time. Her life is pretty good. She is a poet and a clinical researcher. She has an adorable toddler. She has a lovely house on a hill and the ability to watch sunrise caressing the winding trails and roads sprawled below her. She has the luxury to write about things lost and forgotten from a safe distance. There are a few people who like what she writes. Every day, she is able to get at least two uninterrupted hours of listening to audiobooks. She is poised to do bigger and better things. She is so positive in her writing. She talks about seizing the day and bottling up happiness and loving her naughty toddler. She talks about cooking and loving. Her life is pretty good from this vantage point. Pretty damn good. And I want to have her life all the time rather than during the single hour it takes me to write and proofread a blog post.
Yesterday, in a small group of smart and sensitive women that constitute the Desi Writers' Lounge Bay Area Readers' Club, we talked about The Goldfinch. I insisted that several characters in the book probably had personality disorders. Sahar Ghazi, an extremely perceptive member of the group and a dear friend, challenged me on this notion. "Why do you think they have personality disorders," Sahar asked. "We are learning about them only through the main character's perspective. Maybe they are completely normal and going through life on a pretense. Maybe they are not opening up their true selves in front of him. People live their life pretending sometimes," I am paraphrasing, but that is the general arc of Sahar's view. I think I presented a different and opposing argument, something feeble and completely petulant like, "But I don't pretend. And who pretends? How can they do that?" Puerile - to say the least.
The fact is, everyone pretends to some degree. Yes, this is the space where I come to be honest with myself, call myself on things that I did wrong, and talk about how wronged I have felt in the past due to other people's insensitivity. But honesty has degrees, too. It has layers and components. Often people reveal part of a fact and it is up to the reader to brush off the sand occluding their vision from this partial truth, and like an archeologist, try to determine what the whole story is. Think about it. We do it all the time. The missing pieces are sometimes inherently present in what is revealed - the tone of voice, the choice of words, the tangent of the neck, the slope of shoulders, the audible sighs, the wistful eyes. The bright smile that is plastered on one's face as a confirmation of happiness has nothing on all these other overbearing signs, and some poor folks are just completely transparent - I am beginning to think I may be one of them.
I guess what I am trying to get at in a very roundabout way is that we often think our best self is our happiest self. That is not necessarily true. I am a poet - my writing is dependent upon being miserable. The poems I write when I am happy do not resonate with me and probably not with my readers. I need superficial tragedies, arguments, disagreements, hurt feelings, a sense of being wronged in order to create work that has even a whisper of being placed at a lit mag. And though most of the time I bring my cheerful positive self to this blog (and I will not be surprised if you all stand up and say, "But Noor, you are a morose writer and you don't bring your cheerful self to this blog"), that is not my "normal" self. When I write in this space, I emulate the woman I want to be - the one who stands in her balcony every morning watching the sun bleed into the sky, the one who feels a sense of utter and profound contentment, the one who writes about life's little matters because, after all, those are the matters that matter. I wouldn't say that it is an entirely inaccurate depiction of myself, but it is certainly an extension of my character.
You'll forgive me, of course, for this pretense, won't you? I am a poet who likes to experiment with identity and belonging. This is a natural result of that, you see. In any case, I wrote very honestly just now, and so I must extend my hand towards you in salutation. Hi! Good to meet you today!
Photos by Rebecca McCue
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
Something happened before I reached Mrs. Khan's 7C class on the "senior side" of the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore, with classrooms situated on the third floor of the school overlooking the front facing hallways and parking areas, one set of doors opening into the vast porticos and verandas. All I remember is that by the time I reached Mrs. Khan's class, I had mastered a dichotomous personality. In school, I was shy - some may have gone to the extent of calling me diffident. At home, I was a boisterous older sister - belligerent even.
I missed the first day of seventh grade. When I arrived on the second day, a dark Fall morning of 1995 with ominous gray clouds completely hiding the sun and dense droplets of rain battering my small umbrella, the classroom was swathed in sepia, a combination of the white overhead lights, the pale yellow walls, the polished wooden desks and the dusky sky outside. I took a seat quietly towards the front of the room. I was one of the shortest girls in the class, and by the time I reached seventh grade, I knew how seating charts worked at the Convent, how line formations were arranged during morning assembly and after lunch break, how we were supposed to file out of and into the classroom - shortest girl in the front, tallest in the back. I was usually in the first or second row.
On this day, I was anxious. There were some new faces in the class. Some of my closest friends had been shuffled to a different section. My thoughts had a singular focus: How strict was this new teacher going to be? I remember giving myself a pep talk, "Just raise your hand. Answer questions. Speak up." Over the last two years, as I had become progressively quiet in classes to the point of being laconic, I had also noticed a change in how I was perceived. The widespread impression used to be that if a student didn't participate in class, she was not studious or intelligent. This opinion flowed freely among teachers and distilled down to students. There was no place for introspection at the Convent in those years. Cliques formed based on popularity. Little girls were ruthless in the playground and in school activities. Comparison and competition were handy tools in every parent's conversational toolkit.
Sitting among my classmates in those few minutes before meeting my new teacher, I thought about the project I worked on in the previous school year. The class was divided into 6 groups. Each student group leader was supposed to select five or six members from the class. I was among the last few to be selected. With each leader calling out a name and the girl bounding happily towards her group, I felt anxiety and humiliation rising inside me. "Just because I am quiet," I scolded myself. "They don't want me in their group because they think I am stupid." What other reason could there be? If they had seen my report cards, they would have known how good my marks were. Finally, mercifully, one of the group leaders called my name. She looked at me doubtfully, one perfect eyebrow arched, her smooth forehead furrowed in a frown. After the selection was over, three girls from my group cornered me and said, "We have chosen you, but you better work hard."
Rain continued to splatter all over the concrete hallways outside Mrs. Khan's classroom as I waited for her to arrive and pleaded with myself to come out of my cocoon. Mrs. Khan walked in the door, smoothing her curly shoulder length hair behind her ears, wearing maroon lipstick, belting out a cheerful "Good morning," in her soothing contralto voice. We shot up from our seats and sang out "Good morning, Miss." She proceeded to call out the names of her students to record attendance. When she got to my name, I said in my shy school voice, "Present, Miss." "There you are," she said looking at me and smiling. "You're finally here. Noor-ul-Ain Noor," she read from her register (that's how I spelled my name back then). "Noor-ul-Ain Noor," she repeated. "N, A, N. NAN! You're NAN! I love naan!" From that day forward, to Mrs. Khan, I was NAN, and to me, she was the woman who changed the way I saw myself and made me realize that I should probably care less about how others perceived me. This doesn't mean that I didn't continue to encounter negative experiences that most schoolgirls do, but I knew how to recover from the really bad ones. You just keep moving on, because you know that there are people like Mrs. Khan who believe in you.
It was a remarkable school year for me. Mrs. Khan taught us English language and literature. I poured myself into the texts we were studying. I read Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess in the first two weeks of school. I raised my hand whenever Mrs. Khan asked a question in class. Most weekends, I accompanied my family to our farmhouse. I remember lounging in a makeshift hammock under an ancient banyan tree, and working on an assignment for Mrs. Khan. It was to summarize a few chapters of A Little Princess. When I got my notebook back, I opened it to find compliments from her in the margins, "Excellent! Good! What an improvement!" I worked harder than ever before, and under her praise and guidance, I blossomed.
In the middle of the school year, Mrs. Khan announced an English language test. The test would include an essay and some grammar exercises. By this time, I had received plenty of praise for my writing from Mrs. Khan. She had given me meaningful comments on the work I had submitted. She had noticed my sentence structure, my story-telling. She had told me it was "very good." For the first time, I began to feel that what I had to say was important, what I had to say may resonate with someone. This was not like other subjects. This was not like an A in Biology, for which I had studied for hours and memorized the process of photosynthesis just as it was written in the textbook. This was something I was creating. I was putting myself into those essays, formulating a voice, an opinion, a style - and it was being read and appreciated.
That year, Mrs. Khan was single-handedly responsible for altering my perception of myself. I was still quiet in my classes, but I was learning to hold my pen confidently and tell a story with it. When I started working on the English language test, I was a different person - I was the character in the story I was writing. The topic was "A Fire." Those days, we were hearing about violence in Karachi, just as we hear about it now. Fires breaking out, bombs in marketplaces, scores dead in sectarian violence, or in poorly contained battles between warring political parties. In my story, I was not NAN. I was a girl in Karachi who went shopping before Eid festivities with her cousin and best friend, Saliha. In the marketplace, there was a blast followed by a fire, and Saliha perished in the flames. The conclusion of the story portrayed the grief of this child, the scorched clothes that would never be worn on Eid day, broken bangles littering the street - rather morbid for an 11-year-old to write, but it was the reality I saw every day in the news.
When Mrs. Khan passed the test papers back to us, I saw something that heartened me. "28/30 EXCELLENT!" She told us how well we had all done in the test, and followed this with an account of the story that had touched her deeply, made her cry. It was the best submission in the class, written by NAN. By me. I was best in class. I felt rather than saw curious and shocked faces of my classmates staring at me. I remember not knowing what to do with my own face. Should I smile? Should I remain serious? I settled for looking right at my teacher, the teacher who had inspired me to actually write that story to begin with. She beamed at me. "Well done!" Immediately, girls started asking me to pass my story to them so they could read it. I obliged - stunned, humbled, excited, happy, but most of all, grateful to this miracle of a woman, who probably never knew what a monumental positive force she had been in my life during that year.
Today, 18 years later, I still have that essay in my book of memories. Next to it I have a certificate recognizing my excellence in English Literature awarded to me by Mrs. Khan. These items have traveled with me from Lahore all the way to California. I have looked at them before every major academic event in my life. In my senior year of college, after pulling an all-nighter to study for the upcoming final of Eukaryotic Genetics, I opened up my book of memories and found that the story, written in fountain pen, had washed away, but Mrs. Khan's writing in red ball-point ink was still present. I breathed in looking at the essay, remembering that difficult time, the girl I was. I can take this final, no problem, I thought. Back then, my scornful classmates used to roll their eyes and warn me that I "better work hard." Now, my college friends playfully called me "the bitch who kills the curve with a 100% every time." I had come a long way from that lonely place, but my journey had begun with Mrs. Khan, with her kindness and her warmth, her compassionate eyes, her wide easy grin, her perfectly clipped nails, her fingers poised over notebooks with a red pen, and her comments on my work that elevated me in my own eyes.
Mrs. Khan passed away suddenly a few hours ago. I found out through the Facebook page for the Association of Ex Convent Students. From the shock and sorrow expressed by many young women on Facebook, I can tell that I was just one girl, one insignificant link in Mrs. Khan's epic story. There are hundreds of girls like me. There are more of us who don't fit inside a traditional mold than ones that do. We carry within us a plethora of stories. We may be shy or introverted. We may have witnessed our parents worrying about money. We may be the way we are because of other, more serious or sinister reasons. Abuse. Low self-esteem. Learning disabilities. Broken families. Mrs. Khan was among those rare educators who implicitly and readily recognize that there is diversity among their students. One size does not fit all. She knew it, and it came naturally to her. She listened to what her girls were saying to her. I could see it in the way she cocked her head to one side upon hearing a question, in the way she smoothed her hand over her hair, tucked a stray lock behind her ear, and said in that deep honey-dipped voice, "Now...", carefully weighing each word, looking right at the small face with the small voice, letting her know that her question was important, valuable, meaningful. Mrs. Khan will live on in the countless lives she touched and changed for the better.
My last meeting with Mrs. Khan was in August 2000, on the day I received my O-level result, which was absolutely average. My studying habits had lapsed considerably in my last year of school, and that was reflected in my meager 3 As. I don't know what came over me, but I went straight from school to Mrs. Khan's house and turned up unannounced at her doorstep. She opened the door and looked at me with concern in her eyes. "I have it," I said. "I have the result. It's not good. Only 3 As." She paused and took this in. "An A in English?" she asked me. "Yes," I said incredulously like she had insulted me. "Yes, of course I have an A in English." Her face broke into a grin. "Come here, NAN!" And she wrapped me into her arms.
Mrs. Khan's photograph copied from the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore blog.
Photos of the school campus copied from the CJM ACES Facebook Group.
A few months ago, I packed up two boxes of books that were gathering dust on my shelves. I made a smaller box of some paperbacks and brought them to a makeshift library in one of the hallways of the building that houses my office. I set them on the shelves of this small bookcase and forgot about them.
Last week, I was heading out from work to get a pedicure and didn't have a book to read, so I grabbed one of my old paperbacks from the makeshift library. Once I was seated comfortably on the massage chair at my neighborhood nail studio, my feet soaking in the comforting warm bath, I leaned back and reached for the book in my bag. When I opened it, a card fell into my lap. It was dated April 2006, written just over 8 years ago - the last time I had seen my sisters. It was a farewell note they had written for me and left in my bedroom while I was in my classes, having chickened out of taking them to the airport because I knew I would cry. In the upper left corner of the card was a giant scrawl made by my then
8-year-old brother, whom I have had the good fortune to meet twice in
the last eight years. That sweet little boy became a young man while I
wasn't looking, and apparently, based on reports from my sisters, his
penmanship really hasn't improved at all. My siblings and mother had just spent 9 months with me and were going home when that card was written. At the time, my sisters and I didn't know that we would not see each other again for 8 years (and counting), that we would miss each other's weddings, birthdays, graduations, that the absence of one stamp on a green passport, dependent so heavily on the diluted and withdrawn perception of the immigration official behind bullet-proof glass windows at the American Embassy in Pakistan, would have the power to keep us apart so long - without any other tangible reason.
How was this a coincidence? On roughly the eighth anniversary of our goodbye, the farewell card my sisters had written had found its way back to me. I am trying to describe what it was like to find this card, hold it in my hands, know that when it was penned and left to me, we were still just girls, barely able to understand the nuances of separation and the dynamics of staying connected distantly. We couldn't have imagined that we would not be present at each other's weddings. I would have laughed if a fortune-teller had told me that I would have a daughter who would not be held by her aunts for at least the first 3 years of her life. We didn't know this back then - when my sisters poured their love into a piece of card-stock, and I found comfort in it on lonely evenings while I read a book and used it as a bookmark. We didn't know that after that April, our lives and the map of our family would change. We didn't know that we would all unravel on our own because of nasty surprises, disappointments, and betrayals just a month after that card was written. We didn't know that our mother would be diagnosed with breast cancer that summer, and words like "mastectomy," "lymph nodes," "chemotherapy," and "bone scan" would quietly creep into our conversations. How could we have known any of this, the oldest of us being only 21 and the youngest barely 18? We were...just girls, three sisters who loved to get their nails done together every two weeks - how fitting, then, for me to find this exquisite reminder of that carefree time while I was getting a pedicure.
I miss my sisters. I don't feel it most of the time. I have my life, they have theirs - we try to make time for each other, we share our triumphs and losses, we share silly stories, we show each other our new purchases on Whatsapp or FaceTime, but I miss them. I want to be able to take certain things for granted again - like the three of us being able to sit in bed and watch Friends reruns all night, or making sauteed mushrooms and knowing that my sisters will enjoy them and not look at me like I have lost my mind for eating fungi (that's what my husband calls mushrooms), or talking about Prisoner of Azkaban and the Time-Turner for hours because something doesn't make sense to the middle sister (it's always the middle sister), or just dropping everything we're doing and going to get our nails done, picking out colors for each other, sitting side by side, talking about what to do for dinner, or whose birthday is coming up, or the new books we want to read - you know, the simple, seemingly inconsequential things, the details of daily life, completely ordinary, but so wholesome.
This card with their words that found its way back to me, is a memory of just such a time that came to a close in April 2006. What would we have done differently if we had known our separation would be so long and monumental? Would I have gathered the courage to take them to the airport, to hug them more, to apologize for being the short-tempered big sister all the time? Would I have written them a note like this, too, a time capsule to find them by surprise one pleasant afternoon? There is no way to know, but I am so grateful to the universe for bringing those happy memories of my sisters back to me in the shape of this card.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people
wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
I drive the same way home every day. When I emerge from a bend on the freeway, circling on I-280 South past Page Mill, I see a breathtaking view ahead of me. On my left there are the domes of three hills, lush with small blades of grass today, a forlorn deeper green tomorrow, turning brown and patchy another day. On my right there is a towering house hidden behind trees. On an afternoon that blooms as an afterthought to rain, clear and clean, tufts of cottony clouds seem to be hovering above this house. On stormy days, the trees are swaying in front of the topmost tower's topmost windows. In winter, thickets of fog seem to leech on to the ocher exterior of the house and the naked tree limbs. In summer, the house looks bright, the trees full and fat, the sky glitters in the background. It's the same road, the same house, the same age-old trees, but they look different every day. As I merge on to the freeway, I wonder how the house past the bend in the road will look like and how it will make me feel, because it does evoke something different in me every time I see it. These feelings are colored by the successes and set-backs of the day, tinged by the bitterness of failure sometimes, flavored by the aftertaste of disappointment. Sometimes, I am able to find absolute beauty when I look at this house in the heart of the hills, because I bring my happiness with me. It may look like it is crumbling in a winter storm and I may still find it to be a metaphor for resilience, because despite the stony rain and the whipping winds, it stands like it always has, sand-colored with red trimmings around the window glass, peeking through the shivering trees. I find a new story during my drive home this way, and the image of the house makes me bookmark them.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
There are so many stories I haven't told. Messy stories. Stories of fear and heartbreak and failure and disillusionment and strength and grit and joy. I don't even know where to begin to tell them. It's odd that I feel so full of these stories, but at the same time, I am so distant from writing one down on paper. To talk about just one, I want to shape a poem around an afternoon during my childhood that taught me a hard and menacing lesson about this world. I want to transport myself to that nine-year-old's body with the two pigtails and the new frock, the hammering heart, the small feet running past the iron gates, into the heart of the house, the trembling hands not knowing what to hold on to, the trimmed fingernails finding a sagging wax candle on a pillar near the stairs, scratching it, clawing at it, breaking it down. The mother looking at that nine-year-old girl curiously, pausing on her way downstairs, "What's wrong?" "Nothing," a croak from the child's parched throat, and all the while her soft nails cracking while shredding the candle to pieces.
How much does a writer choose not to tell in her story? How much should she tell? Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, suggests telling everything, but she also doesn't pretend that it is easy to do so. I can see how telling some stories that I have chosen not to share yet will be therapeutic, but I am afraid of the walls that I will run into over and over. I have built concrete mazes around these stories over the course of many years. How do I start breaking them down, how do I start peeling away the paint that is supposed to hide the ugliness of truth? How do I make myself remember...
Every day, when I come upon that house on the freeway, it makes its way into my story for that day. I package it into memory and put it away. I imagine different people living in it, caring for it, I embellish it in my mind, and sometimes I deface it. Today, having decided to write about the house and about the fear of sharing the other more sinister stories, I kept my eye trained on the hills, but I couldn't find it. One bend after another I searched the landscape, but I could not locate that house or the mounds across from it. I must have simply missed it as I was trying to merge with the oncoming traffic. However, this meant that I had to reach into the recesses of my memory and dig out the images I had filed away, unconsciously, for many days. I closed my eyes and I saw that house again when I began to write this post. I saw it as I had seen it on those wintry days, on rainy evenings, during high summer. I saw it and I wrote about it from memory. I must reach back to that nine-year-old girl. I must touch her bleeding fingers. I must hold her and tell her, It's alright. I can't make her say to her bemused mother, "I am so scared," but I can convince her to breathe, to close her eyes, to remember. I can look into her terrified face and say, Let me tell our story, and then somehow muster the courage to live up to this promise.
Photos by Rebecca McCue