The Aftermath - Part 3

It feels odd to discover at this age and this stage in my life what it is like to share the ordinary details of my domestic life with my father. There was never a need to do this when my mother was alive. We had a WhatsApp group, “Noor Ladies Only,” that documented the everyday travails of three young women navigating their lives and kitchens in different parts of the world, peppered by their beautiful mother’s selfies. When I look back through that group chat, I feel very strongly that it is a powerful time capsule, capable of taking me back to her, the Urdu script of her messages showing her hope, her resolve to fight the disease that was slowly colonizing her body, her devotion to her family. The group is silent now. We are trying to fill the silence with noise in “Noor Siblings Only,” “Noor Sisters Only,” and “The Noors – Papa & Kids.” It’s the last group that surprises me most often because of the obvious need for its existence and the fact that this need was felt most acutely only after my mother’s death.

It never occurred to us to have a space just with our father when our mother was with us. When Mama was alive, we had a whole-family WhatsApp group, too, but no one ever used it. Once a year, someone would send a message for Eid, and then we would all forget about it. Strangely, sometimes I feel that in dying, our mother propelled us towards our father. Perhaps the force of love she always held tight to her chest was set free upon her children, and we, drowning in our despair came up for air and held on to our father. Our father, in his particular way, allowed himself to be pulled by the current while holding our heads above water. He, being the father that he is, saved his children from drowning without making a sound.

I don’t know what we gave back to him – perhaps something that should have been his for years already. An openness. An acceptance. A love that does not have qualifiers, complaints, or expectations – the kind of love my mother gave to him (and us). It is strange to love my father so fiercely again at 32, like the way I used to love him at 12 – with a single-minded devotion, with unquestioning respect, with a grateful sense of pride for all he had achieved in his life, with admiration for his life-long struggle to rise above his circumstances, to give his family a secure future, to fight fate, to pour himself into his art. How fascinating this man is – I realize – something my mother always said, but I never saw. “I find him admirable,” she would say. “He fascinates me. There isn’t a man I have met in my life who is quite like him.” I shrugged off her comments. Sometimes I rolled my eyes at her. “You’re hopeless, Mama."

But I see it now – it descends upon me like an epiphany, the meaning of my mother’s words. He inspires fascination and admiration in me, too. I see why I am the way I am – hungry for more, for lofty goals, for new avenues to prove myself, to make a difference and a positive impact. I have always been his daughter, but now I see how alike we really are. It took me a long time to purposefully forget this fact, and its resurfaced knowledge crashes upon me with a blunt indifferent pain. Who is my father and why was my mother so devoted to him until her last breath? Isn’t is utterly fascinating, the story of this young orphan, who fought abject poverty and his slated fate to be completely mediocre and forgettable, and instead achieved fame, fortune, and the highest civilian honor of his nation -- all because he dared to believe that he could do something extraordinary in life and then went on to demonstrate this belief in his art. My parents are those rare people who fed their family from their art. They loved what they did for a living, and for a while, they did it together. I, like my father, have always run towards what I love, tried to find contentment in my work, but have always been riddled with this certainty that there is more I could be doing, there is a lot more work to do. And so, like him, I keep searching.

My father, now 66, rises early, does not believe in vacation, and works constantly. When he is not working on his projects, he is working around the house. He likes to work with his hands on everything from assembling furniture to cooking. In our WhatApp group, “The Noors – Papa & Kids,” he sent pictures of turnip curry he cooked one afternoon in response to the culinary creations of his three girls and the street food adventures of his son. The frame was artistically composed in his signature style: the food presented in a clear serving dish, a pomegranate, an apple, and a grapefruit in a bowl next to it, a small box of milk, two rotis. The caption reads: “Made shaljam for my Rukhsana today and said a prayer for her. I hope the aroma of this effort reaches her. Ameen.”

This is how we live every day after her – a little high, a little low. Always we find each other, these five wandering souls – the Noor Papa and his kids.

Who are you? Where have you come from?

Who are you? Where have you come form? We spend our whole lives crafting answers to these questions. We spend day after day after day defining who we are, we try to stay true to ourselves, we attempt to be mindful of our values when we conduct ourselves in society, in polite company. Who are you, we are trying to figure out. Some of us spend years laying down roots. Others expend time and effort to distance ourselves from our roots, rise above our origins, overcome circumstances, elevate our situation in life. 

I am reading Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread these days and there is a scene in the book where we hear these questions as a character's internal musing. "Who are you? Where have you come from?" It made me think. What answer do I have for these questions. The answer I have is very different from what my father must have or what my child will have in the future. I come from a father who crafted a place for himself in the world, who rose above his origins, who fought against the status quo, who gave to his children more than he ever had. I come from writers, from dreamers, from parents who are brilliant and creative and flawed and sentimental. I, too, have risen above my own roots. I have done my fair share of challenging the norms. And there is so much work still left to do. What will my daughter say to these questions, I wonder. Will she know what it took for us to get here, her and me together? Will she know the depth of longing that had to be overcome? Will she appreciate the force with which I cleaved myself to reality and shunned sentimentalism to get here, to be me, to make her? 

In the same book, there is a scene later on in which the family's two daughters are packing up the house and their belongings, a home with two generations of history. It is one of those brilliantly written scenes that will resonate with every audience. A few months ago, my parents sold the house I grew up in. 404, we called the house, referring to the number. In my dreams, I still walk in that kitchen, I still splash water on the epoxy floor of the garage and glide a squeegee across the wet surface, I still sit at the rickety old dining table and demand lunch impatiently, with the entitlement of a first-born. In the book, the two women talk about picture frames and pieces of furniture and china and old clothes. I wonder what I would have taken from 404 if I had had the opportunity. Maybe the plaque my father installed in the drawing room that said "A daughter is love." Maybe I would have taken a chair, an end table, and maybe in the end, nothing at all, only memories of all the years we spent there. Sometimes I wonder how my mother feels about leaving that house. Does she dream of the pitter-patter of little girls' feet running up to her, does she think of the roof-top that saw so many summer monsoons lash across its concrete floor and just as many winter chills? "Why do we accumulate so much when we leave it all behind," one character muses in the book. And I nod my head in agreement with her. We accumulate so much, maybe as a protest against the very fact that we will leave it all behind, an act of defiance. 

In the end, when I come back to the original question, I think of my roots. The roots my parents laid in that small house, 404, all those years ago. The roots that traveled with them to their new house without me. I can't not think of that house and those years when I try to compose an answer to these questions. Who are you? Where have you come from? I have come from the city of dreams, I think. From a small house in the mediocre part of town. From people who defied boundaries and limitations and showed their children how to dream. But I taught myself to make them real. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Being a Working Mom is TOUGH! I love it anyway.

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 a Poet Marries an Engineer - A Found Poem

me:  I'm extremely upset with you.

usman:  i apologize

me:  apology not accepted
          in fact
          apology trampled over mercilessly as if apology were a spider - now mangled and 
          killed by my high heel
usman:  that's a poem
Sent at 12:00 PM on Thursday

me:  what do you know or care about poetry
Sent at 12:01 PM on Thursday

usman:  my wife is a poem writer

me:  whatever
Sent at 12:14 PM on Thursday

usman:  when u coming
 Sent at 12:16 PM on Thursday
me:  3 30

usman:  Ok Luv
Sent at 12:24 PM on Thursday

Photo by Rebecca McCue

If it comes back to you, it's yours

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.

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

A Celebration of the Weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Rebecca McCue

"I miss you," I say

When you tell someone, “I miss you,” you are usually not saying that you miss the person, but something that is probably lost forever. We are changing constantly. When you move away from each other, you morph into different people, and since you’re not changing together, the difference can be of great magnitude. So, when you tell someone with all the conviction you are able to muster, “I miss you,” you’re really telling them, “I miss all those summers we spent on the cement terrace of that old house sucking out the pulp of countless sweet mangoes and talking about young heartaches.” You don’t miss the person as much as you miss the time, the lost time, the time that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t imprinted in your memory - that piercing sunshine, the soft flannel picnic sheet underneath your chunky thighs, the rich scent of mangoes peeking through crumpled newspapers stuffed inside a wooden crate, the recitation of cliched precocious poetry, lazy summer afternoons.

“I miss you,” I say over the phone. “I miss you,” I type in my emails. I miss so many people so badly that when I utter this hackneyed proclamation over and over and over, I feel it blooming deep inside my belly, becoming full-mouthed and drooping like a wild rose in Spring. It threatens to suffocate me. It slows things down, my breath, the click of the second hand of the clock, the change of light in the clear blue sky from sharp yellow to syrupy orange, the passage of the cumulus clouds that linger on the horizon like soft peaks of whipped cream. “I miss you,” I say with vehemence. I put all the scent of the wild rose burgeoning inside me into the word, I pour my memories into it, a jigsaw puzzle of recollections, evidently with missing pieces… I try to paint the images of my childhood on its surface - crisp cotton sheets on Eid mornings, soaking up the first rain of the monsoons, men and boys swimming in the canal on hot June afternoons, their shalwars ballooning in the water, swallowing mouthfuls of goll gappay on the street, walking through sugarcane fields around the farmhouse, and buried in all of these misshapen memories, the feeling of being so certain about myself, the absolute assurance of who I was, and the acceptance of it, the pride of it.

“I miss you,” I say, but I mean so much more than what these three words can conjure in your mind. When I say this, I see you, whoever you are, in a particular moment we shared, or one that I witnessed. If I say it to my father, I see him lounging on the sofa, his pen moving across a legal pad with such ferocity that it both fascinated and scared me. If I say it to my mother, I see her lying on the floor on her stomach, her hair fanning across her back, her chest raised from the ground, a book before her eyes. If I say it to my sisters, I see us as children playing school or house or talking before drifting off to sleep in the same king-sized bed. I said it a few days ago to my husband while we were driving home. The moon was large in the sky, our daughter was talking to herself in the car-seat, and the car was winding along the hill towards our neighborhood. There was something present in that instant, the cold gleam of moonlight or the swarm of moths near the streetlight that transported me, hurtled me through years and across continents and oceans. “I miss you,” I said, and he looked at me with his bemused smile. We left it at that. But, I meant I miss those days when we were consumed with a singular focus - each other. I miss the way I was, I miss the things we said, the things we did, the kids we were. When I say these words, I see moments and seasons and years and sometimes I don’t see people at all, but something associated with them. A tube of lipstick. A bottle of ink. A jewelry box. A pair of shoes. A basket of bruised jamun crushed in a plastic bag, sweating from a long journey between two cities. A garland of roses wilted around the edges reminiscent of the one who wore it.

There is so much that I try to encompass in my voice when I say these words, plaintively sometimes, and savagely at others, “I miss you.” What I am really saying is much deeper and far more selfish than what I am able to communicate. Yes, I am unhappy that you (or the version of you monopolizing my thoughts at the moment) are not present in my life right now. I long for you - to see you, to speak with you, to hear you, to love you in that old way again. But it’s more than that, you see. I am wistful for a bigger reason. I miss the moment, that small capsule of time we shared in which I was someone different than I am today. I miss the way I was in that fine grain of time - with you.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

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

Defining Principles

noun: principle; plural noun: principles
a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.

It is a hard truth to stomach when you are made to realize that no matter how loudly you toot the horn of “your principles,” you are not in fact living by them. If in fact, you were living by the principles you hold so dear, maybe you wouldn’t be in the house you are in, maybe you wouldn’t be married to the person you’re married to, maybe you wouldn’t even hold dear the possessions you presently prize. No matter how hard I try to reason with other people, vehemently and often quite belligerently, in order to elucidate my principles and beliefs and all the things that are wrong with “the system” in terms of discrimination on the bases of religion, caste, color, wealth, gender, and other such constructs, I am in fact living in “the system,” and haven’t done anything to discourage these discriminatory behaviors around me other than speaking against them, which in itself is a little hypocritical, isn’t it, for I am talking against something, but still living by it. Am I even allowed to call these ideas my principles then, if a significant portion of the above definition is absent, that is, while I use these grand ideas as a belief system, they don’t often translate into my behavior by virtue of the limitations I have in my present situation and my actual origin. 

Let’s state facts. Who am I? I am a 28-year-old woman, born and raised in Pakistan until the age of 18. I moved to America for a college education ten years ago. I left behind my parents, two sisters, and a brother. I am married to a Pakistani man, whom I fell in love with while we were both living in Lahore, Pakistan. He also moved to the United States to go to college and left behind his parents and two sisters. We have a daughter, a child of Pakistani immigrants born in America – by definition, a Pakistani-American. What are my principles? It is hard to define what these are succinctly and comprehensively. I believe in the basics – you know, like all good people, don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Don’t screw someone over for your personal gain, give charity, et cetera, et cetera. 

But let’s face it. I didn’t start this post to go on and on about the basics, did I? Something sparked me into action here and it wasn’t the one white lie I told yesterday, so it couldn’t be the discrepancy between my belief of not lying and the actual practice of doing precisely that. No, it’s something bigger than this. While speaking with someone about how unhappy I become when I have to defend my principles of fairness and gender equality among primarily Pakistanis, the response given to me intimated that if I really wanted to live by my principles, then I shouldn’t even be married to my husband, should I, because in fact we disagree on some fundamental issues. Essentially, my life as I am living it does not show that I am living by the principles I claim to hold so dear. Let me take a step back here. Gender inequality exists everywhere, including America. I was talking about specific things that I have witnessed in the Pakistani culture, like the expectation from a woman to sever all but the most formal and superficial of ties with her family after marriage, because her allegiance now should rightfully be with her married family. I’m sorry, I call bullshit. And this particular act of calling bullshit is under question here. If I am so concerned about a particular expectation that is ever present in my culture, then why am I married to a Pakistani man, who may actually support this very ideology (he doesn’t and neither does his family)? Why am I not living by my principles rather than simply talking very loudly and very ineffectually of possessing them?

Let me tell you why. This has been an uphill climb for me, even to reach a point where I can very openly and without worrying about consequences, voice my opinion about the gender inequality issue – you could perhaps call me an accidental feminist. One fine day, I suddenly started to voice my counter-arguments about this very issue in polite company and I haven’t looked back since. I have faced a few things in my life. I have witnessed injustices that women very close to me withstood only because they were too afraid of the alternative. Loneliness. Divorce. Stigma. “A woman alone has no respect in society,” I have heard reasonable, educated, modern  women utter this. “If a girl is not married, she has no future.” “There is no man that does not push around his wife. It’s completely normal.” We are made to realize that our men do us favors by accommodating us in their lives. “You are so lucky.” No, let me tell you why the vast majority of us are the exact opposite of lucky. In Pakistan, a male-child is a coveted blessing of God. A girl-child is a burden. Yes, even now in the 21st century. I have been so conditioned by this very idea that when the ultrasound technician told me that I was pregnant with a baby girl, I told him to “check again.” This single, almost inadvertent act of ignorance is the most shameful moment of my life. I do not believe that my daughter is lesser in any way than a boy. Yet, I uttered those two words in that small office. If this is not social conditioning, I don’t know what is. It was not a temporary lapse in the practice of my principles. That weak moment in the hospital was a lapse in conscious thinking. 

It’s like scaling a mountain, you see. It’s treacherous and back-breaking. Sometimes I stumble backwards, and I have to reevaluate my approach, but I am working towards a goal to reach the apex. I want to one day be able to say without reservation exactly what I think of the unrealistic expectations society has of women. I want to tell self-important looking Pakistani aunties with their opinionated first-born sons in tow to wait and think about what they are saying. Do they really mean to say that their son is better than someone else’s daughter or even their own daughter? Do they really believe that a woman is successful only if she is able to secure a well-suited groom? Do they really think that a battered woman should continue living with her husband because “he doesn’t mean it” or “she drove him to do it” or “he was just rough-housing?” Are we ever going to be free of the traditional gender roles that require us to cook and clean and keep house and change diapers and raise sons so that they think they are invincible and raise daughters with a sense of submission? I didn’t lie when I said that it is like scaling a mountain. I don’t always vocalize my discontent, and conversely, sometimes I yell and scream about it. I am an amateur at this. I am learning along the way. All I know is that I cannot support these ridiculous notions. I simply cannot – being a woman, being the mother of a girl – I cannot overlook these ideas that have penetrated into the very fabric of society like a systemic infection.

I also know that sometimes I do not live by the principles I claim to have – I stay silent, I give in to something, I overlook or shy away.  There are many ways in which we do not live by our principles. Does that mean we should stop having a belief system? If I am married to a Pakistani man, for instance, am I not allowed to criticize the expectations and ideas surrounding marriage in Pakistan? Do I have to sit down with my husband and parse out every last detail of what we disagree on before I can voice my opinions about subjugation, misogyny, and gender inequality? I don’t think so. I am going to continue to talk about the principles I believe in, the principles I would one day like to live by even if they are not reflected in my current way of life. Or maybe I won’t talk about them and continue to write about them here in this space, because this, at least, virtual as it may be, is my own.