Extemporaneous Writing

I have had so many days lately that made me feel like I was carrying pebbles in my chest. Reflecting in bed at night, I feel so weighed down by the day's events -- maybe I shouldn't have given Jahan that piece of chocolate, I shouldn't have yelled at her when she wasn't listening, I should have carved out some time for reading and writing, I really should have organized the garage. On days like this, I feel like I am at war with myself. My thoughts are all so critical, so negative. 

I wish I could identify an easy and sure solution to quiet the incessant critic in my head on such days. A magic shut-up spell. Something. Writing is the obvious answer, as I am doing now, because I cannot bear to spend another minute examining the minutiae of the past few days. There are also cooking and baking, something to turn back to as we settle into the routine of school/work this week. But I must acknowledge the elephant in the room -- the reason all this is happening in the first place. The anxiety of going back to real life has been mounting these past few days, and now on the eve of "back to work day," I am certain that I must have something to show for the last two weeks. Not one book have I finished (though I have read a fair bit of poetry). I have not attempted a single poem, much less written one. And now I won't have a break like this for a whole year. The year seems to stretch before me endlessly -- no wonder I cannot find any joy in this first week of 2015. 

I really don't know what the point of this post is. Better sleep now. 

Back to Basics

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!

Telling Our Stories

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
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.

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

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

Wishful Thinking

I am moved deeply by weather, which is why living in Northern California is such a beautiful thing. We get one or two heat waves over the summer, but living only an hour's drive away from the coastline and within viewing distance of the gorgeous mountainside has a calming effect. When I first moved to California, I was completely unnerved by the winter rains. I was used to the fierce monsoons, the temperamental storms of humid summers that caused power outages and floods. But here, the rain was different. It raged from time to time, goaded on by one cold front or warm front or something of the sort, but usually it just fell at a steady pace, often for several days in a row. Even the rain in California was temperate.

We are in a drought this year. There has been almost no rain, and water conservation efforts have taken on a new importance and urgency. The winter has been uncharacteristically warm and dry. I wonder if the lack of rain somehow caused a drought in my writing, too. I have felt disconnected from it. While this is ordinarily a cause for alarm, this time I have just been apathetic. This morning, though, the clouds shivered ever so slightly and we got a tiny bit of rain. The roads were slick in the morning as I pulled out of the driveway later than usual. In the office, I was quickly swept into meetings and discussions, having very little time to appreciate the view from my window - the overcast sky, the juxtaposition of vibrant and muted colors, the brief rain making everything sharper while the haze in the air and the coverlet over the sun making it all distant, almost sepia colored. But now, I have a momentary reprieve, and I find myself getting drawn to this blank page (no longer blank), some odd compelling force swelling inside me, willing me to write - anything. And so, I do. 

I find myself wishing for a real winter storm, for the clouds to erupt and end this drought, end this state of unease and disuse in me. I am wishing for winds and heavy rain and thunder and the sound of all of it, the whistle of the wind, and the prattle of the rain, and the deep cough-like hum of the thunder. And as I wish for this I close my eyes and imagine the smell of such weather wafting with the wind through the kitchen window, a pine-scented candle burning on the counter, a steaming mug of cardamom chai, my baby playing with her books, the Food Channel playing in the background, and the death-grip suffocating my writing finally loosened because of the sudden release of winter rain.

Photo by Rebecca McCue

The Conflict of a Reader

I am listening to The Jungle by Upton Sinclair these days narrated by Casey Affleck whose performance is strong, clear, and very moving. I obviously don’t agree with the customer reviews on audible.com in which Affleck’s performance has been called anywhere from “underwhelming” to “poor.”

It is a brave thing I do, playing this book every morning when the sky is still fractured with tinges of gray and orange and if I listen carefully, I can hear birds chirping somewhere just out of sight. Deciding then, when I should be celebrating every vestige of peace, to be transported into the bitter winters of poverty, hunger, disease, and suffering in early 1900s Chicago stockyards takes courage.  It is also easy to do - cocooned as I am in my car with the heater on, the January sun slumbering on until well past 7AM in the unusually warm California winter that allows me to not even reach for a pea-coat when I get out of my car to walk to the office building.

I have read some articles on how this book has made others feel. The horrors of the meatpacking industry laid bare by Upton Sinclair have the power of turning an attentive reader into a vegetarian for life. Shock, disbelief, sadness, disgust, compassion – I am sure readers have felt all this and more for the characters in the book. And I, too, feel all that, but I also feel gratitude. I am grateful to be born in a time when it is important to people to live well and learn what kind of food they are eating. I am grateful that I have had a very different (positive) experience as an immigrant compared to the characters in the book. I am grateful for having an education and to have had the opportunity to choose what to do with my life rather than being a passive spectator of its passing.

There are corruption and discrimination and oppression still in the world, but I am grateful that there is at least some degree of accountability, too, disproportionately present, but there.

There are suffering and poverty and hunger still in the world, but I am grateful that there is a more crisp awareness of all these deprivations, so at least there can be a stronger hope for help to come.

As I continue to read the book, about the squalor and starvation and lack of humanity, I choose to think that this wouldn’t be possible now. I am fooling myself - I know that. The conditions mentioned in the book still thrive, perhaps not in the meatpacking plants, perhaps not in Chicago or in the United States, but in sweatshops and factories all over the world and…I have to mention this…war-zones. I choose to be grateful because I should be. I have seen no despair in my life, not real despair anyway. And when I park my car and pause the book, my jaw is set. I walk out of my comfortable car my heels click-clacking on the asphalt of the parking lot, and I enter my centrally heated office with its large glass windows overlooking a beautiful patio with comfortable chairs and round picnic tables. I choose to be grateful for all this because I have good reason to be, along with the ability to walk away from the book, the impulse to nurse the notion, “Surely this doesn’t happen now.” This, I tell myself, was a long time ago. Those were other people. And what do I know? The winter is never bitter here in the Golden State.

Christmas Through the Years

I cannot recall now if the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore, the beautiful and imposing building I came to love during my childhood and early adolescent years of schooling, had a Christmas tree every December. When I close my eyes, I can see the beautiful red satin bow that appeared on the door of the main hall (a room I imagine every time I read about the Great Hall of Hogwarts) during the month of December. I cannot decide whether there used to be a Christmas tree somewhere on the grounds or not - I can picture a Christmas tree when I try to think back, but I don't know if it is a true memory or something that I have crafted after seeing hundreds of well-decorated trees around me over the years. I do remember clearly, however, peeping into the main hall when classes were in session, or passing by one of the audio/visual rooms and seeing the Christmas play preparation by the Catholic students. 

I have always loved this time of year. I am not sure now if it felt as festive back home - too many years have passed and my memory is rusty. I feel as though Lahore used to light up from within during December, maybe because this month coincided with the settlement of winter in the city. A thick fog became ever present in the evenings. Roadside stands opened up, selling everything from toasted peanuts to hunter beef. Street vendors sold walnuts and pine nuts and raisins by the kilo. Chai-sellers boosted their sales, too. Chicken corn soup stands sprouted up overnight in marketplaces. On Christmas Eve, my father used to buy cakes from the local bakery and we would drive to one of the local churches to visit his friend, Father Morris after evening mass and distribute the cakes. One year, my father bought a beautiful crystal slab with a sterling silver cross embedded into it. I presented it to one of my teachers as a Christmas gift who was overjoyed by it. I only have a handful of these memories, but they still fill me with so much warmth and comfort. Just thinking about the great airy corridors and verandahs of the school fills me with a sense of security. 

When I first moved to America, I started helping out a family friend with her business at the mall while taking classes full-time. I memorized all the Christmas songs on the track that was played from 9AM to 10PM every day in the mall as I worked. I began to hum "Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer" absentmindedly at home. Some days I worked well past midnight preparing orders for customers. For two consecutive years, I stayed in the mall until the small hours on Christmas Eve. On those days especially, even with so much Christmas cheer around me, I found myself wishing to be transported to the simpler days of childhood, for the cobbled pathways and perfectly manicured lawns of the Convent and the small L-shaped cafeteria counter where I used to buy my lunch every day. The girls used to call all the men serving at the counter by the same name: "Bernard." Perhaps the man who worked there many years ago was called Bernard, and the name just became associated with whoever was behind that counter. Generations of girls probably called different men "Bernard." Simple times.

Christmas in Utah
UC Davis
I stopped working at the mall during my junior year because of my upper division class-load and plant science research. During the last two years of college, I spent my Christmas break in the lab, extracting DNA and doing PCR and watching ABC's 25 days of Christmas every evening. One year, I went with my college roommate, who has been nothing less than big sister to me, to Logan, Utah to visit her parents. It was the first time I saw real fresh powdery snow, a blanket of it all around me. My roommate, Haena, and her mom made me warm and satisfying meals and we spent long mornings underneath quilts watching Korean dramas. On Christmas Eve, we went to the church and Haena's father, the pastor, introduced me to the congregation. We prayed. They sang. It was beautiful and touching (and so, so, so cold outside - I don't think I have ever worn that many layers. Living in California has spoiled me).

Photo by Rebecca McCue
The other day, while talking about Christmas at work, I suddenly realized that we are already two weeks into the month of December, and I have not had the time to watch a single cheesy made-for-TV Christmas movie! I have come to associate the month of December with general laziness, shopping, and watching television and films guilt-free. I am only now realizing, during my third December with Jahan, that the Christmas season has once again undergone a profound change for me. This year, I will watch all my favorite movies during my two weeks off from work. "Love, Actually" will probably be played multiple times along with "Home Alone." But I am also looking forward to doing a great deal of thinking and writing - an annual winter organization of thoughts and ideas, so to speak - a quiet and reflective Christmas break.