On the day he passed Grass smelled of sunshine, birds sang Wet cheeks touched his fur Hold him in you heart Don't cry, he was loved, lived well, and died in your arms A soul only needs To have love through this journey, be held when it ends.
From a generational perspective, I have a bit of a strange family. My parents are older baby boomers, but I have a millennial brother. My child, on the other hand, is a post-millennial or generation Z. Therefore, most of the time I feel like a mediator of the generational and cultural gaps existing in my immediate family.
Even before I turned half-a-century, my child would always comment on how dull and boring my life must have been without the benefit of the internet. But contrary to his firmly-held belief, I feel privileged to have experienced both analogue and digital aspects to my life. I had a childhood where I played hopscotch, throwing pebbles and marbles. But I also played a version of pong, one of the first primitive video games on a black and white TV, and wrote simple BASIC code on an early programmable calculator.
My mother gets easily flustered by technology. She only reads physical books, and keeps all her phone numbers in a notebook. My brother, almost exclusively reads eBooks on his phone, and my child only reads Wikipedia articles and is more interested in YouTube and social media than he is in any kind of publication.
I might be the only one in this tight family group who is comfortable navigating between both mediums. For my cooking, I have handwritten recipes, magazine cutouts, and cookbooks (both printed and digital). However, I sometimes still do a quick search on my phone when I get an ingredient I have not worked with before. I do yoga classes online, but I still have my illustrated books. I make shopping lists on paper just like my mom, but I type the things I need to pack for a trip on my notes app. I journal both on paper and on an online multi-platform app.
I am far from being a digital native like my child. On many occasions, I have consulted that pre-teen on a hidden smartphone setting. And I am quick to cry for help when I suddenly see a split keyboard on my tablet, which I never intended to create, and do not know how to return to normal. I probably use about 20% of all the features on my phone camera, while my child knows most of them. But I am clearly more comfortable than my mother with the device. After all, I can do my own updates. New technology does not petrify me. I learn to handle it, albeit slowly. But I do not feel pressured to get the fastest phone, and I can manage for a day or so without internet connection. My child hasn’t learned this essential survival skill yet.
Digital did make my life easier on many counts. Given my poor sense of direction, I am grateful that I do not need to carry city maps in my car. When I drove in Cape Town, I never went anywhere without consulting my city map first. But even my diligent study did not help, and I often got lost. Then, I had to hunt for a safe place to stop and regroup, find myself on the map, and finally re-route the car back to my destination. My google maps helper does this for me seamlessly now. I do not miss the time I spent checking city map quadrants for an unknown street address. But I keep my city maps, just in case. I also have an Africa road atlas. I use it for my imaginary travels. Something about seeing the thin road lines and landmarks on paper and flipping through its pages, gives a more direct feel of the distance. I have a better perception of miles traced with a finger, or pages flipped than those just scrolled through.
Perhaps it is just me, or maybe it is something that I share with some of my contemporaries of Gen-X. Those of us who still hold on to some analogue and approximate perceptions of life, rather than the strict digital hyper-realism of technology. I am more content to look at my watch and register that it is a little after ten to seven, rather than find out that it is exactly 18:51:29.3. I am happy to live with the intangible less exacting, unless I am waiting for the precise time to say Happy New Year to my loved ones. And even this moment is never fixed since we might be in different time zones.
In trying to assimilate all new technology, I sometimes feel like a novice who had stepped outside of a heavy cultural tradition. I am pleased to have adopted a new easier way of life, yet still attached to some of my familiar symbols. Some aspects of technology, I have adopted wholeheartedly. But others I am still reluctant to embrace or accept fully. It is not entirely clear to me whether I have logical reasons for this, or whether I am only reacting to anecdotal observations mixed with sentimentality and superstition.
Technology has given us a lot, but I think we sacrificed small pieces of our imagination for all the things we received. Some of the magic has been lost. When we travel, my child looks at photos of the city we are visiting and checks out such details such as what the room looks like, and the view that we would see from our window. I am more happy to leave much of this as a surprise to experience on arrival. If I arrive there having seen everything, then what would be the point of taking the trip?
On the surface it seems as if the digital age has allowed for more freedom and democratised creativity. But true creative power has become more difficult to find within a crowded world, where each person is a content producer. Truth has also suffered, since everyone is now capable of expressing immutable beliefs, and getting likes for them. Fallacies sometimes get more support than the humble truth. So while it is easier than ever to find and produce stuff, it is more difficult to find quality and truth.
Collectively perhaps we now read more on the internet than we ever read in the past on paper. But in the past we had time to read longer books rather than bite-sized, and mostly irrelevant, status updates. I once read the entire Sunday newspaper, but now I rarely look at print media. I sometimes look at online headlines or read one or two stories from reputable news outlets, but I am reluctant to pay for a digital subscriptions when I know I will not have the time to take advantage of it. There is no such thing as buying a digital newspaper copy, when you feel like it. You are always pressured for a subscription deal.
We are bombarded with information, and have little time to digest and process. We are confused, and less likely to make a carefully reasoned decision on anything. The closest thing to online shopping I experienced while growing up was shopping by mail order. But instead of scrolling through endless suggestions of things that are not quite what we wanted, we only went through one big (but finite) mail-order catalogue. We studied it closely for weeks. We lived in the pictures and imagined what it would be like to own that dress, that toy or that kitchen device. The choices were many, even then, but the static catalogue was always there, and we could examine it for months if we needed. So we took our time, and consulted the colourful pages together as a family, or dreamed about the items individually. Now shopping is more complicated, with more variety, more decisions required, and more pressure to buy NOW. I am not sure this is all an improvement.
For my post-millennial child, this is just his old mother missing her childhood. The truth is more complicated than that. By being a generation X-er I straddle the digital fault line, and I can still remember what has gone missing. The new humans born today are unburdened by this memory, and will therefore proceed fearlessly wherever this digital age takes them. Sometimes I fear that this culture of technology will be detrimental to the way the human race will develop, that it will damage our aspiration to evolve in spirit. At other times I read some ancient text where a person who had died centuries ago, asks the same questions we are asking ourselves now. And I am then reassured of the essence of human spirit. Perhaps, the more we change, the more we will stay the same.
For more insight into the digital age, and how the internet changed the way we think, I recommend the following book: The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read And Remember by Nicholas Carr.
I have mentioned here before that I have very simple taste in food. My favourite dishes are the ones that are simple to prepare, use accessible ingredients, and are made with very little waste.
I was not this diligent half a year ago. My interest in vegetarian cooking was born during quarantine. I avoided the shops and supermarkets, so I made an arrangement with a local farm to deliver a weekly basket of vegetable produce, that set me off on a cooking marathon from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon. And I started using ingredients I did not know, and parts of vegetables that I usually discarded.
Last year I remember buying a bunch of unripe bananas, as I usually do, to ripen slowly over the week, but the bunch remained green for the whole week and was destined for the bin. Nowadays I get these green bunches that never ripen, and eat them.
The first recipe I tried with green bananas was a curry-type dish in coconut milk and peanut sauce. I used the recipe from Kaluhi’s kitchen, but I was first tempted to try it after watching her step-by-step video. I credit this lovely lady’s lively instruction with seducing me to the simple charm of African (and Kenyan) cooking. I now check her out regularly and consult my Kenyan friends on traditional dishes. I love the resourceful way Africans cook their food with little or no waste, and using available ingredients and tools. On another Kenyan channel I found a recipe for a divine- looking stove-top baked chocolate cake ! It was fascinating to watch, and I trust that it works, because of its simplicity.
I later discovered that green bananas can be prepared simply, as a mash. There are two ways of doing this. The first method involves peeling the bananas with a knife or potato peeler then boiling them in water. This might cook the bananas faster but one would need to be careful with the resulting sap that might coat and discolour the hands or clothes. I read advice to rub the hands in oil before peeling. The bananas also discolour very quickly and you have to drop them in water immediately after peeling to prevent them turning dark. The second method is to cut the ends of the bananas, make a side slit in them and boil them in their skin. Once done, you can peel them easily while they are still warm, and you save your hands from the sap. There might be a discolouring to the pot, but this is easily remedied by putting a little vinegar in the cooking water.
I tried both methods and I preferred cooking the bananas in their skin. The resulting cooked bananas are light in colour and can be mashed with butter, salt and milk. The texture might come out less creamy than mashing potatoes, but the taste is comparable, and they are very filling. My choice of comfort food.
In terms of nutritional content, it might also be the type of guilt-free comfort food. Green bananas are 70-80% starch, but the starch is resistant and does not get digested in the small intestines, so while tasty and filling it could aid in weight loss.
In addition to green bananas, I learned also to use up root vegetable tops. Beetroot, kohlrabi and radish are all delivered with their leaves. Some of these leaves are higher in nutritional content than the edible root. The trick though is to wash them well and cook them gently for a short time to preserve their nutrients, or even use them in salad if fresh and tender.
I have waxed lyrical before on my love for radish. Another humble veggie that I love is the leek. I love its silky taste and the way it softens into sweet perfection in a stew. I have taken to making it with roasted turnip and kohlrabi, another of my favourite comfort foods that I never tire of eating, either with couscous or with buckwheat.
So my adventure continues. Sometimes the results are stellar, successful and tasty, but I also fail a lot. Other times I feel that the effort is not worth the result. I have yet to discover a carrot greens recipe that warrants the long process of cutting, sorting and washing the feathery leaves. I have so far put them in soup, and made them into salsa. The stalks I have used for broth. But most of the time I wish that I had a big enough compost pile, or a grazing animal to use them up.
Yesterday I turned fifty, and it was a day of many blessings. There was no huge party, no great announcements on Facebook and social media. It was just a quiet morning to reflect and be grateful.
I am lucky, and grateful, to have my mother greet me on my 50th birthday and celebrate with me virtually. As a gift she sent me long-forgotten, and blurry pictures of my childhood.
I am grateful that my child made me a birthday card, self designed, and adorned with a our picture, and Happy Birthday in 50 languages.
I am grateful that cousins and aunts sent me birthday wishes, some sang me Happy Birthday in English, German and Arabic, and one aunt drew my portrait, and sent it on Whatsapp.
I am grateful for friends who sent messages and virtual flower bunches, who commented on my old pictures and who just connected with me.
I am grateful that I could bake an ugly-looking cake that tasted heavenly of chocolate, coffee and spices.
At the end of the day I know that I am loved and remembered. Most of those who love me are in Germany, and those are the dependable family and friends whom I know and expect to care. Some greetings came unexpected from people I do not often think about. Two people who particularly wronged me at one time congratulated me, and I am grateful that I can let go of my grudges against them. I wish them well, although they can no longer stay in my heart.
The one person I missed most yesterday (as I miss today and every day) is the one who does not want to remember me. But even for him, I am grateful.
And my cake ? I can have it for breakfast today, because it did not pass the taste test of my chocolate monster. Too much coffee and too much spice, he said. So it is all mine, and I am also grateful.
I send only one, of fifty texts that I draft then say it's the last. Chiselled from heartache, my words pretend to be light, love hides in plain sight. And each time I get a thoughtless response, or none I swear I am done. But these pregnant texts, seem to be writing themselves, yearning to be sent.
The negative aspects of quarantine are often mentioned these days. I have seen some adverse effects in my own life. Today however is a day to appreciate some of the nice and simple things.
This is now my third month of home-based confinement. Like almost everyone else I am still finding it hard to keep to a routine, find motivation at work, keep my child disciplined with online school, and, frankly, keep a clean and well-organised house.
One of the responsibilities I had to take on recently was kitchen duty. Before quarantine, I ate lunch at the staff cafeteria, and my child had his main meal at school. We complemented this with eating out at weekends, and some light and easy to prepare meals, mostly omelettes or other quick pan-fried meals.
My domestic skills have always been challenged, but a woman (and a child) got to eat, now that all our sources for cooked food are gone. Now, I have to create our dishes from scratch. Fortunately, this is fertile Africa, and raw food is readily available especially vegetables. I signed up with a weekly fresh vegetable basket from a nearby farm and got to work.
My weekly veggie basket has become a notable highlight of my quarantine life. I cooked the traditional African greens like sukuma, terere and managu. Some of those I would have readily mistaken for weeds, if I ever saw them in the wild. I enjoyed salads with arugula, and at least four different types of lettuce. I searched for recipes that combine wildly different ingredients (bok-choy and beetroot; lentils and celery; chickpeas, leek and parsley; green banana and peanuts). To compensate for my lack in knowledge, I took photos of unfamiliar vegetables trying to identify them online. I also asked my neighbour for tips on local plant names and cooking instructions.
The vegetables I received, weren’t always as familiar as your broccoli, cabbage and leek. I know what rhubarb looks like, but was never tempted to buy it, nor bake a rhubarb cake from scratch. But I found the red stalks three weeks ago in the basket. Now even my long disused cake pan is getting a workout. I also got to meet live specimen that I only saw before on a food plate, like baby bok-choy. I had to explore the versatility of some strange items that are neither fruit nor vegetables, like chayote. I also suffered a few cases of mistaken identity. Last week, I prepared a smoothie with what I thought was a guava. Much later I learned that it was White Sapote (some strange fruit that is sometimes called Mexican apple). The smoothie tasted a bit like bitter almonds and I feared that I had ingested some toxic substance from the seed, but it tuns out that the slight bitter taste is normal in this fruit.
In short, I had to work with ingredients that I would have never bought from the grocery. I am a simple potato, onion, tomato and green pepper girl. Anything more requires research and a recipe I probably never cooked before. Furthermore, I always considered cooking a chore. I was, after all, raised by a super-human mother who spends half her day in the kitchen, producing delicious fare that took so long to prepare, and no time at all to polish off the plate. To complicate matters further, my child is a very picky eater, who dislikes almost every kind of food, so there was never any motivation for me to try anything new, and I stuck with the few tried and true dishes he liked.
Surprisingly, and even with the lack of encouragement from my younger quarantine mate, I managed to find pleasure in the simple farm order. One day I received the basket while I was on the phone with my friend. She laughed at me when I became excited at finding a small bunch of radishes hiding in my basket. I have always been a huge radish lover. But getting it from the farm was a treat because in addition to enjoying its crispy bite, I could also do something with its leaves. They are wonderful in an omelette and can also be cooked like spinach greens. When cooked, they retain the slightly spicy taste of radish. The radish itself, can go into salad but I love eating it on buttered toast with a little bit of salt and pepper. It is a poor-man’s feast and something that takes me immediately to my childhood. I think it was something that my grandmother ate with great enjoyment. My mother introduced it to us kids, as I introduced it also in my home. Even my finicky child liked it, so there must be something genetic about loving radish.
Radish the humble ingredient, is always present at the breakfast table at my parents’ house in Germany. Mostly for my benefit I guess, since its season is very short here, while in Europe it is cheaply available all the time. My father laughs at me when I eat it raw like a piece of fruit, but he always buys me fresh bunches whenever we visit them.
I have always been a sucker for simple pleasures. Now I am discovering the simple joy and adventure of cooking. I approach it with great abandon, like love. And while I chop and mince the ingredients, I am not afraid to try adding something different, or leaving something out. At times this works well, and at other it turns out horrible. I learned for example that chayote, as tender as it is, takes time to soften, so it is best to add it first not last to the pot. Otherwise it remains crunchy, while the rest of the vegetables turn to mush. I also learned that it is ok to alter cake recipes. When my rhubarb cake tuned too moist the first time, I added less milk on my next attempt and it turned out in perfect balance the second time.
Yes at times one might go wrong, but it is about the journey, not about this one dish. I am taking it as an adventure.
Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.Harriet Van Horne, Vogue Magazine, 1956
Difficult trials sometimes bring out the best in humanity, but they could also reveal its worst and most depraved behaviours. It depends on what type of news we want to hear. We could either see acts of solidarity and compassion, or witness domestic violence, looting and the re-emergence of dictatorships.
It has been a mixed bag for me. On the one hand I have been forced into a calmer simpler and more introspecitve existence. And on the other I have seen the revival of my inner recluse. The person who is happier with much less direct social interaction.
Even before the Corona Virus introduced the term social distancing, I had been practicing a form of it for years. I had trimmed down my connections to the few people I deeply care about, and those who bring positive energy into my life. While it took a self-quarantine order for some people to rediscover the comfort of retuning to what is essential, I knew exactly what this meant. A few years back, I realized that I only needed a few people in my life, those who understand me properly, and those who can be trusted with my pain, fears and darkest thoughts. I had little space for transient social acquaintances to drink, dine and party with, if the connection we shared was only over food, drink, good times, and trivial conversation. With less space in our lives now, most of us know who our true friends are. They are the ones we reach out to first, the ones we think about often and need to hear from. The rest are familiar faces we greet at the lunch counter or at the coffee station, in better times.
Today I count my blessings for being an introvert, and thus better prepared for long isolation. I am also lucky to have a steady income. I have a roof over my head, food in my pantry, and I get along with the two people I am confined with. One is a pre-teen who gets on my nerves at times, but I learned to smile at his antics and forgive his shortcomings. I can offer him the love and compassion he needs, because I have given them, and received them first from the other person I am stuck with, me. It is important to remember to care for, love, and get along with ourselves first. Because if we fail to nurture our soul with love and compassion, we will not be able to give them to anyone else.
Love yourself first. If you are single, console yourself with the thought that at least you are not forced into confinement with a partner you no longer love, or who had stopped caring about you. If you are on the other hand, thus confined, you can always try to look at that partner with a little more compassion. Perhaps dig down deep to what is essential, beautiful and still present between you. If you can, hold your child, and your partner a little closer. And if you care about someone and cannot hold them close, for now, tell them you love them more often. We need to spread more love around, to help us overcome this test, and survive.
Time passes quickly, and things could change in the blink of an eye. It has been over two months since I broke one self-imposed silence, and two weeks since we all had to self-isolate. I am glad that I met him while I could, before the offices, and our shared coffee stations closed. And somehow it was a necessary step towards letting go and accepting.
It happened on a Monday, my second week at the office after returning from holiday. I went through my usual routine of looking him up, to see whether he was away, or had blocked some busy times for meetings. His public calendar showed that he was free for the next 8 hours. I opened a blank email message, stared at it for only a minute or so, then drafted a single subject line. Do you have time for Coffee today? Without hesitation, I pressed send.
I don’t think I planned it. It was just a normal day, and on a normal day I think of him at least a dozen times. Thanks to technology and social media, I always know, in the broadest sense, what he is up to. I had needed to know, sometimes, even while I kept the pretense of trying to forget him. By the end of last year, I knew that my attempts at forgetting were futile. I also dreaded the prospect of a chance meeting that will disassemble me anew, and painfully remind me of things I never forgot.
The year I spent away, trying to get over him, had served its purpose. First, I walked away with my wounded ego, when I felt that he rejected my open adoration. Then I was confronted with the layers of my pain, and by chance discovered that it all originated from a deep unfulfilled need. Because while I had a wonderful childhood where I was loved and unconditionally by close and extended family, things drastically changed when I became and adult. As soon as I grew into a woman, I was judged superficially for my appearance rather than my essence, and found that I need to work very hard for genuine appreciation and validation from others, all the things that I received freely as a child. The moment of realization came one late afternoon. I was complaining to a close friend and colleague about lack of recognition from my supervisor, then I found myself talking with bitterness and pain about the abuse I suffered in my marriage. Finally, I dissolved into tears when I remembered the final rejection from the man I loved. This meltdown sent me on a journey of self-discovery, where I learned to be kinder and more accepting of myself and others. I now know that I can always offer myself the love and compassion I needed, and I no longer crave as much validation from others as I did before. The journey is ongoing, but I have gained a better sense of my genuine self, and I realized that letting go of the ego, means less pain or at least less suffering.
My trusty therapist accompanied me on this journey. After ten sessions of talk therapy, she told me that I was now better, and perhaps I did not need her on a weekly basis. At the time I was going on holiday, and it felt right to have a break. However, one question she asked stuck with me and tortured me. She asked me whether I saw the man I loved again, and I told her that I have successfully avoided him after our last chance meeting some three months ago. During the calm time of the Christmas holidays, and embraced in the safe caring circle of my family, I spent long times ruminating about this problem. Does avoiding pain really equate to healing? How can I be over my heartbreak if a chance meeting would tear me apart?
By instinct I knew that avoiding my almost-lover was useless. I always criticized others for trying to run away from themselves, yet here I was trying to avoid my soul’s deepest desire. How could I ever think that I could leave him, when he has never left me? But this had been a recurrent pattern of my life. My intuition and heart were always way ahead of my mind and intellect. So on that day in January, I let my heart lead my fingers as I typed the email asking to meet him.
When I sent the email note, I did not know that he was in the middle of one of his usual work crises. It took him some time to reply but when he did, he accepted my invitation without hesitation. Later he commented on my timing and how I caught him at the worst possible moment in his working life. I seem to have a knack of doing that all the time. He never asks himself why it is so, but I know that my soul must be very close to his that I feel his distress.
We did not meet for long. He bought me coffee and I filled him in about the most important events of the past year of my life. I filled him in about my trip home for example and the reason for it. He told me that he thought I had left, since he never saw me on the street. I said I was still here, but did not mention that my departure was still a possible future outcome. He did not say much about his life, preoccupied as he was with the immediate work concerns. I tried to point out that work was not everything, but he was quick to counter that it was a bad time for advice.
I did not need to tell him that I was still ‘weird’, I felt our connection just like before. I still looked at him in the same way, and he asked me, like he usually does, to stop staring. He said that we resembled an old divorced couple, and he joked that he did not remember the middle bit, just the divorce. He said it would be nice if we met again, every quarter, then left to resume his professional battles. I finished the rest of my coffee, alone but for the warmth he left in my heart. I knew that I still loved him, perhaps more than before. The pain was still present, but I would live with it. Neither of us could change what was and would perhaps remain between us. We were just one and the same. Time and space meant nothing when we were together.
I meant to write that love letter then, to tell him how meeting him, and recognizing him as my twin soul was one of the most unsettling and challenging events of my life. It was, and continued to be, my greatest learning experience, and the catalyst for my ongoing spiritual growth.
Before him, I was hiding inside my protective shell of cynicism and apathy. I saved my love and affection for only a few select people, and avoided the rest of humanity. Then he found me and eventually broke the artificial barriers I built around my heart, to shield myself from disappointment and pain. He broke through my defenses because he knew me, and I was not prepared to love so selflessly, to relate so completely, and to look into the mirror of my soul. The ego resists and rejects experiences of true love, because they threaten the boundaries we keep between the self and the other, between what is wholly ours and what belongs to God or the universe. But as love destroys the ego, it offers the clearest passage to enlightenment. I finally understood what God was. God is love, and love is where he is, in my heart.
I remember the only time I held him. In a hospital room, I told him that everything will be Ok. We will be fine. Then, I looked into his eyes and said: “You will learn something”. Undoubtedly it was my intuitions speaking even then, because -unbeknownst to my rational mind- my heart had already opened up to the spiritual journey, that our twin soul is destined to to take.
I never managed to write this letter, not on the first day we met, after such a long time. I still had so much to process. But I thought I would write it later here to celebrate his birthday in February.
But his birthday has now come and gone. I sent him a greeting on the day, even though I knew he was away, and invited him to a celebratory coffee a few days after his return. A day before the appointed time. His message ringtone chimed on my phone and I was dumbstruck at first then delirious with happiness. That ring tone has gone quiet for over a year, and I could never assign it to anyone else. For the past year, it had always unsettled me whenever I heard it from a stranger’s phone. The shock could hit anytime, in the supermarket, in the cafeteria, or worst while boarding a plane, and I would be back to the twin thrill and disappointment of hearing it, then knowing it was not coming from my phone. This time I was to keep the thrill. His text adjusted our meeting time, and I was drunk on my own happiness for almost 24 hours in anticipation of a small meeting over a cup of coffee.
That meeting was a bit longer, and he was more relaxed. He talked to me about his business trip to a desert kingdom, and his real and imagined adventures there. His real escapades included skydiving and bar-hopping and what I suspect some less important socializing. The imagined ones included running away to live with the Bedouins in the desert, and I said that I would join him for that.
While we were talking I thought I misplaced my phone and looked for it for almost a minute in my purse before I realized that it was sitting there next to my coffee cup. He confuses me this way, whenever he sits opposite me. He said that my forgetfulness reminded him of a movie he saw “The Notebook” where one character was suffering from dementia. I reminded him that I was not a movie person, and he said, that it was a nice love story.
This time I told him that I was waiting for news about an application I made to transfer to another duty station. He asked me when I would know the outcome, and I said, perhaps it would be a month. We parted, and I told him I was giving him a virtual parting hug.
That second meeting was tougher on me than the first. I felt more, and I feared saying goodbye soon. After I left, I shed some tears in the privacy of my office. Later at home, I realized that I had seen the notebook in December. My parents are TV addicts, while I only enjoy televisions programs as part of family time with them. I watch with half of my attention, while knitting or crocheting. Most of the time I listen to improve my German, but sometimes the story sucks me in. I was only half-watching for the first part of the movie. Two young people in love who end up together despite the obstacles. The second half seemed unrelated at first. An elderly man visiting a care facility and suffering the rudeness and maltreatment of a woman resident. He is often berated by younger visitors that he is wasting his time. At some points, we the viewers find out that the elderly man and the woman are the same lovers whose story we saw earlier. The man is retelling to the woman, through letter, or through this notebook he kept. He visits her all the time waiting for the one rare moment she returns, and recognizes him. I cried my heart out when I saw the movie. I cried again that Thursday evening, because that story was a metaphor for how I loved him. I was just waiting, never abandoning the distant hope, that one day he would, maybe, recognize me.
Since that second meeting that left me in tears. I reached out to him twice. Once near the end of February. He answered me that he was going to be unavailable for the next three weeks, on short leaves and then workshops. Then last week I wrote to ask him how he was doing with the self-isolation, but that email is not yet answered.
I wrote so many letters to the man whose existence in my life was an outward curse but an inner blessing. Two of them, separated by almost a year of suffering, punctuate and chronicle the evolution of my feelings for him.
In the first, the theme was an awakening. I described a cynical woman who has long given up on human connection, let alone a belief in love. On a sunny afternoon, the woman was enjoying time alone with her book and a cup of coffee, when a tall older man, with charismatic blue eyes, intruded on her space and insisted to make a conversation, which evolved into a connection.
Their meetings for coffee continued, and they were always more than just chats. The two connected on deep levels, even while they joked about their funny friendship. When the woman had to be admitted to hospital, he watched her awaken from post-anesthetic haze, held her hand, and planted a chaste kiss on her forehead. She knew by then that she loved him, more than she had ever loved anyone in this lifetime.
The connection was too intense for her, she refused to accept it even when it was exhilarating. And when it became heart-wrenching during the longer periods they stayed apart, she yearned for the times she was free of heartache. More than once, she attempted to walk away. She tried to regain her autonomy, her freedom from this connection that sometimes felt like a restraint to her free spirit. Yet even when he was not around, even when she refused to speak to him or contact him, he stayed with her. He was always the first person she thought of when she woke up in the morning, and the last image her mind conjured before she drifted to sleep.
Sometime in that first year, the woman conceded defeat. She simply could not resist the pure joy, the energy that their meetings generated. She realized that the few moments of connections she experienced with her love were more precious to her than some years of her life. The mere thought of them waking up in the same city or listening to the same rain shower was sometimes enough to give her a smile.
By the end of the letter, I asked to restore the connection. I asked the man I adored to write to me, text or email me, every once in a while, because I knew that I could not severe our bond.
To my knowledge, this first love letter remained unread. He refused to look at it, for fear of being drawn into the web of what he thought of as ‘my emotions’. Instead he took a course of denial, trying to dismiss or disbelieve what is written in the stars.
The second letter, was meant as a goodbye letter. A letter to forget. It was never intended for his eyes, and was not even meant to be kept. The therapist asked me to write it. The theme here was letting go of grief for the unattainable, even if it was true love.
In this letter too, I told the story from the beginning. I described our meeting, and the growing awareness. There were more memories, the kiss on the cheek that I stole from him as he collected our used coffee cups, and the way I turned away and ran after this unusually bold act. The surprisingly profound pronouncements I made from my hospital bed, with my brain in the semi-dazed state of pain-killer haze. I told him, that I felt him, “here”, and pointed to a space on the left side of my chest right under the rib-cage.
I recalled how every meeting with him felt like a sunshine in the heart. And how every short stretch we walked in step together felt like a winged flight above the clouds. I remembered the moments I felt he cared. But I still reproached him for starting this whole thing up, for persisting on breaking me out of my shell then retreating behind an indifferent mask.
In this letter, I still struggled to make sense of the experience, to put it to bed, to bury it, and say goodbye to it, because even the beautiful memories caused me pain. I cried while writing about them and I cried again as I read the letter to the therapist.
I have been broken by this and emerged as a different person. You have made me what I am, like the sleeping beauty that was awakened by a prince, and this is something I wrote in the letter you never read. I read every book I could on grief and how to survive it. But I often return to the theme of love, which I think I finally understand. I was always skeptical about the concept of soul-mates, and scoffed at love as a passing fancy. Now I know better, because it is enough for me to see you from afar for all this to re-awaken and torture me. I wake up at odd hours at night with this sense of loss. As if a part of my soul is missing and I cannot replace it. When the pain is too much I miss the days when I considered myself whole and above any feeling of desperate love.
In all my other relationships there was this desperate angst. The constant questioning and worry: Does he love me? Doesn’t he? will I be with him? This is totally absent in this one. I see photos of you on the web or on Facebook and I am struck by the single thought, that you are simply my twin soul. I am also certain that I love best this present version of you. The older man with the eyes full of pain and unspoken words. Not the goofy younger guy who was extremely handsome. If I had met you as a young man we would have completely missed each other.
I have exhausted myself talking about this and cried several times in the process of writing. I just pray that you are happy and at peace. If not, then there is nothing I would not give to make your life a bit less sad. I write this and the part of me that used to be rational cringes at what a pushover I am. I am the quintessential desperate female, but surely I am not on the lookout for love, or affection. It is just you are the one person who moved my soul. Again, lots of poetry and quotes about love seems to resonate with me and describe my condition quite truthfully.
In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte makes Catherine say about her love for Heathcliff – I do not know what souls are made of but his and mine are the same. And Elif Shafak in Forty Rules of Love writes this– “Every true love and friendship is a story of unexpected transformation. If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.”
You were the only person who changed me so profoundly and for the better. I wish I could tell you this in person. Because I believe that, at least on some level, I changed you too.
It has been a while, but I think I wrote this letter before the wound of my beloved’s final rejection. Before he told me off for being weird, and invited me to fall in love with Jimmy the postman. My last attempt to walk away came as reaction to this rejection. It was my final stand for my ego, because after his persistence on breaking me out of my shell, and after his role in liberating my capacity for unselfish love, I felt that he had no right to deny me my right to express those feelings and live them.
I managed to avoid contacting him, writing him texts or love letter for 447 days. During that time, every chance meeting broke me. And he never left me. Perhaps I forgot about him briefly at times when I was preoccupied with my sister’s illness, or when I was visiting her. I might have felt invincible against the pain for some time after a long therapy session where I read that second letter, and for a longer euphoric period after I finished my first marathon. But when those events faded or settled back into normalcy, he returned where he belonged, in my heart. So perhaps it is time for that third, and final, letter.
So much has happened since I last wrote to this blog. The year that passed came heavy with difficulties and heartache, and although I felt the urgent need to unburden, I was frequently torn between the need for brutal honesty, with myself and this writing space, on the one hand, and the desire to make things look pretty, palatable or worthy of publishing on the other. And since I value honesty more than visibility, I kept quiet. During the last quarter of 2019, I found myself in the midst of so many events, that I had first to absorb and internalize. I needed to make sense of what was happening around me and inside my mind before I shared it with the world.
This time last year I felt like the weight of the world has landed on my shoulder. I had my personal grief to deal with in addition to a challenging situation at work, where I was saddled with a supervisory role I was not fully ready for. The team I led, on a temporary basis until the vacant position of chief was filled, consisted of chronic under-performers with huge egos and unpleasant attitudes. I surmounted the difficulties as they arose, but eight months into the task, I found that I was thoroughly tired of being the hardworking odd-ball in a team of slackers.
It stung me initially, that I did not make the cut for assuming the Chief’s role permanently, but later I understood that perhaps I did not have the time and energy to constantly crack the whip behind this team, and I resigned myself to the time-tested method of wait-and-see. I kept things running as best as I could and waited for the next Chief to assume the position and take ownership of this problematic situation. I practiced patience and tolerance to the limit, putting my foot down only when it was absolutely necessary, and thus achieved the maximum cooperation possible from my troublesome and trouble-making colleagues.
I also practiced running, mediation and kept on with my therapy sessions. These simple actions, were my lifeline, and now I think that they rescued me from a total breakdown. The running, for one, was crucial. I was selected in the draw to enter the Berlin Marathon and worked since late 2018 to gradually increase my mileage. I thought that completing the marathon would be a worthy goal that I have full control over, something that I can achieve in the year I was faced with antagonism, failure, rejection, heartbreak and grief. I envisioned this achievement as an antidote to pain, and a remedy for restoring my faith in myself.
I fought hard to make it happen, from carving out training time in a busy schedule, to planning a short turnaround trip and absence from work. And of course, I also had to arrange care for my son in my absence. But as I crossed that finish line, the rapture on my face told it all. I went the distance, and the euphoria carried me on its wings even when my legs could barely function. The very next morning I was on the way back home already, and even as I dragged my aching legs to the office a few hours after my arrival, I felt triumphant and invincible, there was nothing I could not do. I made it to the finish line, and for a short while, I felt certain that I could surmount even the tenacity of my heartache.
The next obstacle was my long overdue visit home. This was brought about by my sister’s illness. My parents made the journey in September and I thought that I could coincide with them there for one week during a school holiday. The logistics of planning this journey were a nightmare, and the whole plan would have come to nothing if it weren’t for the assistance of family in Dubai. This time I dragged my son along, and left him behind with a cousin in Dubai while I took a flight to Damascus.
When I left Syria to the Gulf in the late nineties, I had no idea that my departure would be permanent. I first became a Gulf expat, and visited home a few times. Then I met my ex-husband and moved far to South Africa. The last visit I made to Syria was with my ex husband in 2002. In those 17 years, my sister got married, and became a mother to two boys, now almost young men. During the same period my parents and brother left Syria in their turn to settle in Germany.
Even before Syria’s rapid deterioration from civil protest to unrest to all out civil war, the prospect of a trip from South Africa was daunting, and given the fact that I had the competing priority of visiting my parents and brother, I somehow never got around to making that visit to my home country. And in all honesty I did not miss it that much.
My emotional detachment from my native country is an uncomfortable subject that I would rather tackle elsewhere. Because although there is a universal theme of expatriates frequently feeling like foreigners in their native countries. The Syrian experience, especially after the war, adds another layer of complexity. I had trouble with the Syria of the 1990s, but last year I stepped into a place I did not recognize at all.
The road from Damascus to Aleppo seemed endless as it made a very long loop around the rebel-held areas in Idlib province. Whenever I nodded off to sleep I was woken again by the car stopping for one of the scores of control points. They were mostly amicable and waved us through but their presence was a clear indication that this was still a country at war with itself. My native city of Aleppo was even more scarred, whole buildings gutted and showing their broken insides, with remnants of a living room or part of a kitchen counter overlooking the void where the other half of the building collapsed to rubble and dust. The city itself ends abruptly with concrete barriers cutting off a main street that was once a busy bypass to the north, connecting it to the Turkish border.
Like the city, my sister was also battle-scarred. But unlike the city, which to me changed beyond recognition on many levels, my sister still retained her fighting spirit. She changed too, but I could still recognize her feisty nature, and her ability to laugh at herself, and make fun of a terrible situation. Perhaps I recognized my sister because I still have much love left in my heart for her, whereas my love for my native city has run dry.
I went the distance, here too, to visit my sister. And despite the difficult circumstances we managed to reconnect and make some memories. There were also the awkward moments where I felt like a stranger in what used to be my father’s house, but the love and support that my sister deserved had to come first. Still, I could not help but see that whole city, the whole country, lived under a cloak of misery. Some of this misery was visible in plain sight, but most suffering lay under the surface, and manifested itself perhaps in my sister’s illness, my nephew’s rebellion, my brother-in-law’s dependence on tranquilizers and cigarettes, and my cousin’s obesity.
I choked on my tears as the ancient Airbus 320 lifted off from sad Damascus airport, and climbed to cruising altitude. I prayed for my sister’s full recovery, and I prayed for everyone who was left behind in my broken native country. In my heart I knew that I will never return.
The year was tough, like running a marathon, but I managed to end it too on a high. The last two months were more pleasant. News from my sister was encouraging, and my new chief arrived and quickly assumed his new position. I was pleasantly surprised by his forthright character and his willingness to work hard and confront problems. I gladly took a back seat and allowed him to establish his leadership and authority. I have learned from this experience that I function better as a supportive and diligent first officer, and that I have no interest in command.
I concluded the year with a long and well-deserved proper holiday. My son and I visited the family in Berlin. My parents had safely returned from Syria too. Their return trip was perhaps more eventful than mine. First they missed their original return flight because of the unrest in Beirut and had to reschedule a different departure a week later. Then they spent almost half a day in Beirut airport as the local low-cost flight from Beirut delayed its departure because of the ongoing protests.
My son and I made a city stop in Vienna before we headed to our final destination in Berlin. And it was a long and lazy holiday to finish off a really difficult year. I had time to knit, read, ruminate, and simply enjoyed being with family, without worries about the office. We shared our stories from 2019 and reflected on our hopes for the year to come.
Throughout this last part of the year, I felt I was experiencing a rare period of downtime. In my last visit to the therapist in 2019, she told me that she would not book another appointment for me in 2020, and advised me to call her, if I needed, next year. My biggest fear for the new year was to find myself adrift without a new goal or a challenge. I entered and was selected for the Berlin Marathon this year too, but I knew that running a second marathon is not as motivating as running a first. The stakes for the first one were not that high. It would have been no big failure to try and fail, and the success, when it came, was my big underdog moment under the sun. For this second marathon, however, winning would not be as sweet and losing may be doubly bitter.
I have thus concluded my summary of 2019, with the problems I anticipated for 2020. In trying to solve them, I started a daily gratitude journal and set myself on a course to surprise and challenge myself. A book I am currently reading suggests that life should be approached in a gameful spirit. And to keep my interest and skill in the game I need to devise and accept new challenges. I need to embrace new changes and challenges and believe that 2020 will be my best year yet.