The Shifting Landscape of Longing

Whether I am at my best or my worst, I always try to read. I read more when I am the best version of myself. And at those times, I have a structured route map for where I am going with my reading. My life would be going somewhere, I would be getting over specific difficulties, trying to learn something new, or attempting to fit what I am experiencing to some philosophy, life path or self-help doctrine. But there are also the times when I find myself completely without a compass. I lose sight of the meaning I once derived from suffering, love, or the struggle to learn. At those times my reading becomes equally lost, and I read discarded pieces of ideas, or obscure titles that I want to sample or consume before passing on. I try to grasp for meaning in once cherished practices, and get once more in touch with my hidden longings.

In the past three years I experience profound changes in my inner life. I suffered a lot, but I thought that I came out as a better version of myself. I ran a marathon, ate healthful food, exercised and meditated. I read and wrote a lot. If not on this blog then at least in my daily journal, and in my gratitude diary. Yet everything else in my life was in a state of flux. I was in a holding pattern, dealing with the worsening toxic situation at work, and the constant mismanagement from my supervisor. When Corona hit, I was not sure what to do with my travel plans, my career, and my investments. Only my soul was following its own north star, and steering by it. I loved, and the love I felt overflowed to everyone around me. It lent meaning to my life.

In my native Arabic language, the word “heart” shares a root with the verb to shift, change or reverse. So it is not a good idea to place too much trust or meaning to the whims of the heart, or trust the shifting landscape of longing to provide a permanent map. My guided meditation practice often dwelled on the idea of “impermanence” so I knew intellectually that change is inevitable, and nothing ever stays the same. In fact everything can change completely in the blink of an eye. And this is what happened to me. I was already feeling disillusioned with my life. My struggle with the toxic work environment has reached a new high that drove me to draft a formal complaint, and apply to jobs in places that I did not like, just to escape. And my trust in the capacity of my own love was starting to erode. I retreated to a selfish state of self-preservation where I stopped opening my arms to embrace the universe (or to get stabbed in the chest by its inhabitants). I cowered instead in my shell, waiting to be acknowledged, sought, and consoled. I lost sight of my north star, stopped exercising and meditating, and simply devolved into a worse version of myself. Not quite the worst, but one I knew was so much inferior to the one bathed in loving kindness, and positive cosmic energy.

At this time, I met a strange book. It is an obscure volume by a British/South African author known for his police procedurals set in South Africa (Imago by James McClure). The book has some hints to the crime genre, by masking or hiding the motivation of characters and then showing the strange influence these motivations have on subsequent events. But in truth, the story is about a competent doctor who is suffering a midlife crisis. Tom the main character, is a married doctor in his early forties. We meet him, as he becomes besotted with the teenage daughter of a friend. In a space of a few days, his life takes an absurd turn as he pursues this love, with the stories he tells himself. He mis-interprets events, misreads the meaning of each encounter, and lies to cover up and misdirect in the manner of a confused teenager. I cringed as I watched his laser focus, which should have been on his work and patients, turn to this new object of his longings, to the extent that he only performed all tasks mechanically, as he went on inappropriate flights of fantasy.

The story takes its tragi-comic turns, with flawed characters who are blindly following their own route map of longings, and unrealised dreams. The irony of finding the book, when I did, was not lost on me. I did not think I was as delusional as Tom in my love story. I definitely had more evidence that the object of my longing had some feelings for me, but did I really? If I took the approach of hard logic to my narrative, I could have also been reading non-existent signs in the sand and misinterpreting innocuous kind remarks or facetious flirtations. It is all a shifting landscape depending what you are looking for, and what you believe. For Tom, the delusion gave way to something new, but it somehow mapped the rest of his destiny and pointed him to a new direction that answered to his longings. Maybe it will be the same way for me.

Shortly after the book found me, my world tuned itself around. I am now in the midst of switching workplaces, countries and continents. In two months, I will be departing from my beloved Africa, and starting a new life elsewhere. I am also leaving a piece of my heart here. My inner life is now coming into a state of flux, while my outer life is changing completely.

My heart still wants to believe that there was more to my love story than the void I am now left with. And I still long for the better person I was, when I loved. But I am not abandoning hope of one day finding a new meaning, a new direction to follow in the shifting landscape of longing. And while the evolving chance for change presented itself to me, by an unexpected, and welcomed, relocation, I will always remember the mesmerising blue eyes that first led me to search deeper into my soul.

When I Loved..

I was a better human, 
I floated on silver wings and saluted the sun.

Never worried who called or texted first, 
Reached out to those who have forgotten me. 

My sorrow turned to joy, in a heart consumed by fire, 
And the fire lit and enlightened my soul.

When I loved, the universe made sense, 
I knew my own spirit, and yours, 
I was one with humanity, its joy and pain. 

On the morning I stopped believing, 
My wings burned to ashes, my heart stopped expanding, 
settled back in my mortal chest.

My pain constricted
to the size of a single human, 
but so did my once boundless joy.

Now I go to sleep with the small sorrows of  living, 
And rise to diminished potential, 
once a carrier of light, now a fallen angel.

And I still question, the half-remembered dream, 
where I danced with the spirits, and almost touched the divine

When I was fully alive. 











Love is…

In the previous post, I tried to discuss love, aided by the definition* given by M Scott Peck, in his important book The Road Less Travelled. Today I will expand a little bit on the definition with my own ideas on the subject, by way of introducing my own experience of love as an intense soul connection.

As wide and varied the concept of love is, I think the Greek philosophers gave a good approximation of its various types and degrees. According to them there are eight types of love. The three most well known ones are: Agape – Spiritual, unconditional love; Eros – Romantic love and Philia – affectionate love. And then there are five further types: Philautia – Self love; Storge – familial love; Pragma – enduring love; Ludus – playful love and Mania – obsessive love. On this spectrum of eight types, agape is the most noble and evolved type of love, while mania represents a regressive type of love, that turns it sometimes into a destructive force, both for the lover and the beloved.

If we try to apply these archetypes to human relationships, we can see that they are not discreet. Because romantic love can be playful and affectionate. In rare cases, it becomes the enduring love of couples who have loved each other since their high-school days. It can also show the dark side of mania. Similarly, familial love can be affectionate, unconditional, and even obsessive.

At first glance, self-love might look like an odd one out among all the types of love as an emotional bond between humans. But it forms the unseen foundation for all types of love. Loving and accepting one’s self is a pre-condition for experiencing a wholesome and evolved love. It did not escape my attention that the definition of love in The Road Less Travelled, included an element of self-love*. It is important to understand here that healthy self-love is quite the opposite of narcissism and arrogance. True love, by Dr Peck’s definition is a quest for spiritual growth and evolution. It is a journey that starts with accepting our faults and continues with embracing others with kindness and forgiveness. And it has no end destination, the ultimate goal is to continue growing and loving. There are many spiritual traditions that aspire to growth through unconditional love for all of creation. For the Sufis, for example, the ultimate goal is to be one with the universe and its creator. This is the ultimate evolution of love, to embrace the whole universe in the heart, and to experience what is felt as the creator’s ultimate love, the highest form of Agape.

There is no one definition for love, because the way we love is dependent on the stage of our spiritual evolution. Love, the way it is perceived and given, mirrors the awakening of the soul. I came to this conclusion after I was led on my own journey of love, which is still ongoing. Up until then, I was convinced that love was a proclivity of youth. Hormones, physical attraction, and an urge to procreate drove this emotion. I had a lot of sympathy for my younger (and sometimes older) girlfriends who suffered heartache. But I was smug and happy in the knowledge that the years of my angsty youth, and the ticking of my biological clock were long behind me. I didn’t see myself as an easy victim for Eros, and I didn’t believe that other kinds of love existed, but destiny had other plans.

Heartache was a territory I knew, and was not keen to visit again. My biggest heartbreak thus far had been my first boyfriend. I cried my heart out over him, but the young heart heals fast. It is easier to replace one lost love with another. The angst of youth, the neediness, the wish to be attractive and desired, are all faults of youth that invite fresh heartache, but they also keep young hearts moving from one relationship to the next, healing old wound by acquiring new ones. It is said that the young have elastic hearts, so falling in love and out of love is much easier on them.

Love is easy on many older people too, depending on how they perceive love. The less evolved spirit would mistake animal lust, attraction or infatuation for love. The more mature spirit would settle for affection and friendship. Some couples get lucky and evolve together from one stage of love to another, arriving together onto a mutual level that is satisfying for both of them, or achieving enduring love. This makes me think of love as a mountain. All people are capable of stepping onto its base, some get to the top half, and very few reach the summit. I think of Eros as the base, and the most accessible part of that is simple sexual attraction. The next level is Philia and the farther limit of that is enduring love. But the true triumph of the spirit is to reach the summit of agape.

Almost all works of psychology take a secular view of love. They recognise erotic love as fickle and temporary, and accept Philia and Pragma as the only types of true love. So Peck’s work of love could be understood as working to advance from one level of less enduring love (like Eros or Philia) to Pragma. This is a very “pragmatic” and secular view of love. I feel that the concept of Agape, on the other hand, was overtaken by its devotional and religious content. Sufi love and devotion are a form of Agape, so is altruism and the love for all humankind. But in some cases this “Higher Love” is also possible between mortals, and when it happens then it is an ultimate love that can encompass all other levels. To come back to my mountain analogy, those who scale the summit have previously reached the lower base camps. Similarly, when you love an individual on the highest level, you are also capable of feeling affection and erotic love towards them. The only difference is that these emotions are not central to your connection.

Soul connections are not recognized by psychology. They only come up in esoteric spiritual traditions, mystic fringe beliefs or pseudo sciences. I was myself an agnostic, or even an atheist when it came to my faith in love. I wrote a post about this some years ago. Ironically, it was written while I was experiencing the first stirrings of my soul connection. My rational self, and my ego, were trying to remind me of what was real on earth. I rejected love, all the secular or garden variety types of it. And I would have laughed at anyone who claimed that true love existed. I thought that people who spoke, wrote or sang about the love that stir the soul, then rocks it and purifies it from the inside out were either using extensive poetic license, or mind-altering drugs. That is, if they weren’t nutcases or outright liars trying to sweeten the bitter fruit of love for the unafflicted. From where I stood, the lower slopes of love mountain looked rocky, barren and uninteresting. And although the higher sections looked greener and more inviting, I was convinced that I was too old to care about reaching them. The summit was completely invisible to my eyes, and I did not believe it even existed. I was trained to believe only what I could perceive with my senses.

But I was about to be taught life’s greatest secret, about the essential things that can only be perceived through the heart.

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

Le Petit PrinceAntoine de Saint Exupéry

Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

The Little Prince – English Translation

* In the Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck defines love as “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”.

Loving the One You’re With, is it really the Road Less Travelled?

A few months ago I read, with great enjoyment, an old but still very relevant book, The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck. The book is subtitled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, and it is definitely worth reading.

The author, is a psychologist by training and brings out several interesting ideas with examples about common types of neurosis and disorder in the human psyche. Yesterday I started reading the section on love, a main theme in his book as can be deduced from the subtitle. He defines love, as the ” the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth“. The author admits that his chosen definition might not be the only one, or even the correct one, but he is content with emphasising the choice and action elements of love. He refers several time to the “work of loving”.

The author also acknowledges that love is too big and too wide to limit to a single definition, so he tries to establish common grounds through a process of elimination. Because while philosophers and psychologist differed significantly on defining what love is, there is general agreement on what love is NOT. The books itself gives several examples on cases of dependency and self-sacrifice that are clearly not love. But the author also insists that love is NOT an emotion, it is action. He repeats several times that “love is as love does“. He also feels that the term “falling in love” denotes an emotion based on erotic attraction. It is nature’s way of tricking us into reproducing and preserving the human race. Once the honeymoon phase ends, he says, we slowly fall out of love and this is where the work of loving starts. What he calls real love, or true love, is rooted in the will, so choice and intellect play a huge role in it, unlike the falling in love, which is all emotions and seems mostly to be out of our choice or control.

Interestingly, he does not deny the potential and power of the emotion. He explains, that falling in love with another person destroys the boundaries of an individual’s ego. The lover becomes hugely invested in another person, and this destruction of the ego, feels exhilarating. When we fall in love we are reborn into the wonder of feeling unity with our beloveds. He compares this unity to the one we felt as newborns with our mothers and the whole universe. But the novelty of this feeling wears off, and we soon find out that our needs do not match those of our lover, and the ego boundaries rise again. For babies this is the moment of starting awareness and experience, and for a couple it is where falling in love ends and the work on loving starts. The journey of loving, as he sees it, is made of the effort of listening, giving attention and bracketing, the conscious act of putting oneself into the shoes of another, suspending judgement, and seeing the world through their eyes.

This rational view of love mirrored one I have believed in for the longest time. It is also rooted in the teachings of Christianity where the sanctity of marriage, and monogamy, need to be protected and preserved. It is also a simple practical tenet of life: If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Or simply just love the one you are with and ignore all impulses of love that come your way, because they are an illusion anyway. True love is hard work and commitment to a common goal, to raising a family, to mutual spiritual growth. I agreed with this wholeheartedly until a few years ago, and I still agree now but with many reservations.

I have seen many working marriages, even good ones, that are based on types of partnership and reciprocity, on the work of loving, in the words of Dr. Peck. These marriages always have some rewards and fulfilment for one partner, or both, and they can be very solid, with each partner being courteous and attentive to the other. But while I once believed that attaining a good marriage through the work of loving is the only happiness possible, I now recognise that this type of love has its limitations.

There are times when two souls, despite all good intentions, can head towards two different paths of evolution. There are times, when one partner evolves, and another stays on the same path. No amount of loving work can fix this. The answer sometimes is to accept it, and continue to love, if not the husband (or partner), then the children (or the life/business/career/home) we created together. The mutual love for the children carries many marriages through. Countless women have settled for it in my culture. They married, they loved and adapted to their lot, their destiny, and that was their life. But sometimes there are other choices. The author himself admits, perhaps grudgingly given his Christian background, that he believes an “open marriage is the only kind of mature marriage that is healthy and not seriously destructive to the spiritual health and growth of the individual partners”. So deep down it seems that his belief in the work on loving, in exclusive monogamy, is rather flawed.

The work of loving, and the will to love are powerful antidotes to human promiscuity and experimentation. It will certainly allow many couples to experience gentle loving, and sometimes very happy, relationships. It is a good rule, but it does not explain everything there is to love, even if it accounts for most shades of it. From my observation, I feel it is rather the road we are most likely to travel towards a rational and secular type of love. It accounts for the true love of friends, companions and for most lasting partnerships. The rarest type of love, however, is the one that stirs the soul. And the journey to this type of love is truly the one very rarely travelled. I will try to delve into this in my next posts.

________________________________________________________________________________________

You can borrow a copy of the The Road Less Travelled from the Openlibrary, which is an excellent resource for reading out of print books.

What A Gen-X Remembers

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.

Mashed Green Bananas and Other Comfort Foods

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.

Cake For Breakfast

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.

Lament of the Forgotten

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 Humble Radish and Other Simple Pleasures

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