Remaining emotionally alive

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A few months ago my baby and I were sitting on a porch swing under the shade of my friend’s beautiful tree-lined garden. She had recently housed plump little hens in a homemade chicken coop, and they were happily pecking and scratching around our feet.

I asked after someone we both know, and she said:

‘since she broke up with that young man, it is difficult for her to open her heart again.’

I replied:

‘that is understandable, it only happened recently.’

and I thought about my own journey.

My friend continued:

‘her father is articulate about his feelings and sensitive to others. I think it is difficult for her to find someone in that image, most young men can’t talk about their emotions. ‘

I said :

‘there are many women who can’t either.’

What I meant by this is that I have learned that life is too short for me to surround myself with unsupportive women. There are people who have awful life events, but are blessed with a mature emotional vocabulary and a self-knowledge that allows them to heal. These people are light, and bring healing to others by drawing them to their light.

On the other hand, there are those whose life circumstances meant that they were never given an emotional education, as in they were taught to shut out deep trauma and engulf themselves in something pleasurable and not deal with their feelings. These people are darkness, and can pull us further into the dark.

What is it about our lives that, as we get older, we find more and more people in pain? I have found this helpful from Tiny Buddha:

It’s not easy to release a pain identity, particularly if you’ve carried it around for a long time. It may help to remember who you were before that experience—or to consider who you might have become if it hadn’t happened.You can still be that person, someone who doesn’t feel bitter or angry so frequently.

I have found looking through old photo albums very helpful. There is a lot that we manage to edit out of our personal narrative when experiencing a strong emotion. When we are angry with someone, a sibling for instance, it is easier to forget the sweet things they do for us, or the many kindnesses they have shown us.

I looked through old photos of myself with friends, on holiday and at home. What I think about is the warmth and love I experienced. And it reminds me that in the course of a lifetime:

  1. The little arguments and things that make us cross don’t matter at all.
  2. The huge, devastating emotional things matter at that moment, then they cease to matter.
  3. Worrying about the future has zero impact on it.

I often find myself wanting to know ‘What is the prognosis? Is this something I can tidily handle?’

But none of us knows. That is what is beautiful about being present. We are not our emotions, they are not our past and future. There is only now, and now I can understand there are some things within my control, most things are not. But why not use the things in our control to our advantage?

A heart can re-open, just as a body can heal. Reflection has strengthened me in many ways, and made me realise that my little son, the rainbow baby, is born of my love and loss.

He has also borne my love and loss.

 

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Believing in your Vision

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Martin Heidegger, in Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry reminds us:

‘…poetry never takes language as a material at its disposal; rather, poetry itself first makes language possible.’

And this means, to me, that articulating the empty spaces left inside us, just as poets do, shapes the way we feel, and subsequently, the way we think about the way we feel.

I remember in the weeks after Jannah died, my mother-in-law had no ability to comfort me. I cried at any moment, once when I was making tea in the kitchen, bent over and sobbing. She was cooking there at the time, and looked at me. She stood awkwardly, and watched me, but carried on stirring the spoon over the stove. It was so strange at the time, especially as I was told that she had herself had a late miscarriage. I wondered, how could a woman not sympathise with another woman? Over similar life experiences? But now I know why.

There is a spectrum of learning disabilities, weaving a complex web of needs for the person who suffers from them. Autism, and other conditions like it, has differing manifestations, but one behavior that I can recognise is that my mother in law couldn’t read emotions, and this meant she could not give comfort, to me nor her children or grandchildren.

A friend of mine who is a clinical psychologist told me that young children need their primary caregiver to frame the emotions they feel, and learn how to express those emotions. Being raised by an autistic parent who has trouble with their own emotions must make life far harder for their children. They have to find their own way.

This is where my memory of Heidegger’s use of poetry came to me. When at our most vulnerable, it is only poetry that makes it possible to discuss the darker things most social structures wish to suppress. Any functioning organisation, by virtue of its needs to continue functioning, needs its members to move on from grief, not dwell on death or war or exploitation and injustice. But poetry is where the language runs free, and where we find the most expressive empathy for what we feel.

Although I can look back now and see that the birth of a child after loss is in itself complex and filled with anxiety, I had this vision: I wanted to have a pleasant home, and to take my baby swimming, and to have weekends with grandparents and cousins sharing food and laughing. It was a difficult road, but it was in front of me, and it spurred me on.

And, I think, now we have gotten here, I can breathe.

 

 

 

How to let go of the past

I don’t quite know how to word the things I have to say. Upon entering the next stage of life, one that we’ve imagined and anticipated, there can be multiple emotions in parallel with one another.

it is OK to be worried, and afraid for myself, alongside exquisite happiness.

The liminality I am in the midst of comes with the anticipation of the second anniversary of our baby’s death. That is when things really changed, in March 2015. My husband left his job, I started a new one, and we cut away from the people who caused us the most pain whilst we grieved. After a year, my husband was better, in a great office, and we moved to a quiet, peaceful town where, six months later we had our bouncing baby boy, who is asleep next to me as I write this.

So this is my next stage of life. I had counselling through the pregnancy and in the period afterwards, which helped immensely. I had anxiety over my credentials as a mother, but with lots of swimming classes and sleep, my moods slowly changed, and I love my life now.

Swimming is what has always carried me through difficult times: loneliness when I first moved to a small town, stress during my postgraduate, and now early motherhood, it helps me trust my instincts, learn to re- balance in an unfamiliar environment and keep my head above water. There is something more tangible in exercise than simply moving, we are sensory creatures after all, we crave sensation, in our spirit, mind and body.

Going to mum and baby yoga, reading about baby-led weaning and changing nappies is the order of the day. It is wonderful, better than I imagined, but I am also trying to let go of the bitterness of the past. I no longer want to confront the people who let me down, although I am not experiencing hot, white anger as I used to, I haven’t forgiven yet, it has come down to a more gentle dislike, and the knowledge that life is too short to waste on doomed relationships.

Our friends are our companions. I was unfortunate enough to choose quit selfish people to be my friends, who thought only of themselves when I suffered my loss, and I promised myself to do better, to be enriched by a sisterhood around me, not hurt by it. I think I have accomplished that.

 

 

The Sound of Nourishment

I am attempting to expose myself and my new baby to the balm of nature, by going on walks in the autumnal woods.

That word, nature, is a healing and wholesome word we use to describe raw biology. It is the same word you could use to describe the intensity of pain in labour, or the heavy grief of bereavement. They are all natural, and when I used to walk in Hampstead Heath after Jannah, my baby daughter died, I would look at the leaves on the trees and know that they have a caretaker, a life force that will cause them to fall, and for the tree to continue living, to blossom again in the spring, to grow deeper roots and for new green leaves to come again. I was entirely baffled by it.

I have realised that nature is not something to visit once in a while in a park, like an elderly relative that sits still.  It is the awesome weather storms that nourish our thirsts, and at the same time, the emotional turmoil that governs a heartbeat.

If you listen to the music of Vaughan Williams, you can hear nature. It is, to me, the sound of England.

Romance by Vaughan Williams

It is the musical equivalent of an ode written by Keats. You could almost hear the wind.

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Becoming a mother is a rite of passage. Every woman goes through the intensity of emotional upheaval that comes with caring for a new baby, and the term ‘baby blues’ really does not do it justice. It is more like ‘shrinking selfhood’.

A young woman, thick with creamy youth, sees her skin expand. Simultaneously her experiences envelope her emotions as she becomes the natural protector of her young. Nature saturates her mind with the baby’s survival, and no other thought, not even for her own wellbeing, can be tolerated. This is how our species has survived.

That saturation is what we call love.

The Tea Leaves in the English cup of Tea

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English is my second language

I am the tea leaves in the English cup of tea

And I was a child born in Hackney,

 

My forebears in Bombay built the British fort

Left on the spine of the ancient water-port

Muslim soldiers, buried at Horsell Common,

(Who fought for each British man and woman)

Had to be removed from those sacred grounds

When the National Front brought hunting hounds

Had the Unknown Soldier been an Indian hero

In the woods would stand an ancient Willow

Weeping and whispering: ‘here they belonged

Farewell brave soldiers’ goodbye, so long’

Far and away from their native roots,

They died for England’s green and pleasant shoots

And when young migrants flew into Heathrow

Overcome by whirlwinds of bitter-white snow

The weather was as chilling as the English faces

Of frosted hostility for browner races

And a ‘social problem’ was the migrants’ label

Causing ‘total transformation’ of the English fable

 

I am the tea leaves in the English cup of tea

And I was a child born in Hackney,

 

I began to memorise lines of the Qur’an

With passages of Dylan, Blake and Iqbal

At school I recited Macbeth and played lacrosse

as if I’d attended Shakespeare rather than the mosque

The revolution in Iran made me delve into Nizami,

and I remember reading the words of Albert Hourani

On Nishapur’s school housing Greek thought

Where works of Plato were poured over and taught

The teachers stopped handing me commendations

As students could not bear the shameful degradation

Because English is my second language. But, wait, no,

English came from Indo-Iranian seeds that grow

We mute, obscure immigrants are not undone

English is not our second tongue, it is your only one

And we await the day you learn ours

So that conversation finally flowers

 

I am the tea leaves in the English cup of tea

And I was a child born in Hackney

 

Coping with the Past

 

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The Plaque of T. S. Eliot on one of the SOAS buildings, formerly the office of Faber & Faber

You can order your life by the chronologically startling events that punctuate it.

These aren’t always happy, exciting events, but dark and terrible moments too.

How many soliloquies of an acquaintance have you heard beginning with ‘When my mother died…’ or ‘the year I got divorced…’.

The most significantly painful memories cleverly enmesh themselves into our moments of greatest change and transformation, like the period of time it will take to shed skin.

This is a deeply painful process, nonetheless, but vital in colliding our fantasy of our lives with the reality of what it has become.

As a student at SOAS, I attended lectures in the building displaying the above plaque, and had little notion that, alongside writing one of the most influential poems ‘The Waste Land’ and inspiring the poetic revolution in Iraq through انشودة المطر ‘Rain Song’ by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (‘Eating the earth around her, drinking the rain’), T. S. Eliot also wrote a poem entitled ‘The Triumph of Bullshit’. He enjoyed detailed observations of the pathetic, the superficial and the humiliating.  The point to be made is that pressed up against the window pane where you will daydream your best work, is the categorical failure, trauma or anguish required to fuel your journey towards it.

Soon after my baby died, I spent a long, lonely afternoon in the Waterstones in Piccadilly. This is the largest bookshop in Northern Europe, and a cave glittering with gems of ideas where you will be left alone to browse, read, sleep and ponder. I read ‘Very Good Lives’ by J. K. Rowling. She talks about failure having the power to reveal ourselves, in a brutally honest fashion, stripping away the misdirected thoughts and aspirations we had.

I am now in what John Agard calls ‘a pregnant moment’ of my own history, both metaphorically and physically.

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Pregnancy after loss is both thrilling and uncertain. I am aware of the weighty impact and responsibility now of every decision I make for my health, my mental wellbeing and my spiritual growth. I have emotionally come through a cycle, a flow chart of growth:

flow chart

I accept my limitations. I cannot see the future, and I know I have human anxieties and emotions that make me imperfect. Imperfection, as many learned men and women try to reiterate, is the ingredient to a wise life, because in overcoming our powerful desire for superficial order and symmetry (and never taste disapointment) we are on the road to a wiser, more contented life.

We enjoy escapism, fantasy, the arc of the narrative and the subsequent happy ending. But this is not what we experience in life. As T. S. Eliot writes:

‘…said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.’

So never stop daydreaming, keep writing nonsense stories, painting and indulging your appetite for sitcoms. Be ever aware, though, that these are part of your consolation therapy for being a troubled human, and that you will have to take the path towards deep growth and resilience if you want to make difficult experiences empowering.

How to make a fresh start

We, my husband and I, moved into a cottage. The cottage is on a road where no one knows us, and in a town where neither of us work. Today I took the train from the train station, and arrived at the office, bypassing new, green landscapes.

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I have moved house many times. It is something apparent in the generations that were before me. I lived in six homes before I was 17 years old, a testament to the social housing problem in Britain which meant every home I had was temporary, and we never knew when we would have to move on to another Local Authority.

Marrying David took me to Surrey, then to Alexandria in Egypt, then Damascus in Syria, back to London and then to Surrey again. Now we are in Hampshire. Why is it different to any other move? Because this one doesn’t start with ‘It’s close to my parents/university/office and will do for a while.’

When you live in multiple interiors for short bursts of time and on a budget, especially in different countries and continents, you get used to things not quite working, or illogical layouts, bad plumbing, pests, damp and long-term problems that will need work and time that you don’t have, because you are only investing a year, or less, of your life in that property.

Case in point: whilst spending a month in Alexandria to study Arabic, David and I didn’t have the money, time or inclination to move from the flat we found by word-of-mouth. It was on the 17th floor, dusty and filled with mouse droppings. The bathroom window had smashed glass and the kitchen had cockroaches. We also had a nightly visit from a rat, until David killed it. We kept telling ourselves, it is only a month, then we are moving on.

It turned out, our next rental property was pretty awful too. It was cheap, dirty, and in a noisy street, but was in the right location, in Central Cairo.

So we  were living as impoverished students for so long that we got used to modest conditions. I sewed my own curtains, we rode bikes instead of having a car and went to charity shops for clothes.

Marrying in your early 20s and being part of Generation Y means this: that you start with nothing. That is, nothing materially, but bursting with all the good humour and naivety to yoke your lives together.  Now, seven years since our wedding, having lost our daughter, I vowed to customise our life, and work towards better quality in everything: in our home, our purchases, our friends and our time. Life, family and love is precious. They require investment and effort.

So, the first step to making a fresh start, reader, is to take time in researching where you are going to go, and what exactly you are looking for.

I took time selecting the neighbourhood. Spending more doesn’t necessarily mean better quality of life, you need to weigh up many factors. A nice house with bad neighbours is a disaster waiting to happen. As the Arab saying goes:

الجار ثم الدار

the neighbour, then the house

In other words, the area has to be your priority before falling in love with all the storage space. What kind of community would you like around you? If you enjoy intellectual stimulation, live in a university town, if you love hustle and bustle, move closer to a market town. Your neighbours are affected by the environment and surrounding resources.

Going deeper in the countryside meant more square footage for our money, so more space for our family to visit and stay, but more distance from the capital. What we needed was warmth and functional facilities. I wanted a garden, and quiet, two things that can’t be gained in a city, for love nor money.

And my health is worth it. My habitat, the place I eat and sleep in, the place I share my life with my husband, has vastly improved compared to anything I’ve lived in before, and it matters that the cottage is well structured, and that I can hear birds singing.

Step two is subject to the amount of distance you want from your old life. It entails taking a break from social media. I quit Facebook altogether, and felt better for it. If there are people in your life that you have an unbalanced relationship with, you will realise it.

Your time is better spent nurturing relationships with those that you respect and who share your values. Even a short break from WhatsApp/Instagram will help un-cloud the fog of confusion around who is supportive in you life and who isn’t.

It isn’t easy to break up with bad friends, it takes guts. But every time you do, you revive your soul a little, and bow to peer pressure a little less. Your self-reliance muscles strengthen and you realise that the approval and acceptance you once looked for was there all along in your life, held by people that reveal themselves in the most difficult moments.

The third step is the space and time to explore the occupation and pursuits that make you happy. This part takes longer than you may think.

After I graduated, I thought I would settle into a career smoothly. Some opportunity would fall into my lap. In fact, trying to identify a career path was hard. I listed my skills, and my interests, I went to career fairs and finally chose academic publishing. That time thinking about what suited me was worth it, better than being in a dead-end position that I would dread every day forever. And I am happy now, earning money for doing what I enjoy.

Your happiness is worth it. It is worth every ounce of effort, and every clear moment you say ‘no’ to unreasonable requests, and every clear moment you pursue the best for yourself.  And what is it you are sacrificing? Possibly the expectations of others? They don’t have to live with the consequences of your poor decisions, but you do.