A Late Review of 2019

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.

On The Couch

On a recent visit to my therapist, we went through an exercise aimed at helping me find closure. I read a letter I wrote to the man I love, and tried to process it while listening to alternate drumbeats through the headphones. At the same time, the therapist, standing behind my chair, gently tapped on my right and left shoulders alternately. The session, as she explained, was aimed at taking the experience from the feeling side of my brain to the analytical side. I understood that this might limit my emotional reactions, and bring me back to the realm of logic. I am always in for that, but I am not sure whether it worked for me on that day.

I wrote the letter some ten days ago, on the same evening I had my previous therapy session. Writing it was heart-rending, I cried over the text several times and became exhausted by the memories it evoked. Reading was less intense, marginally. I could read some sections without emotions, so I am quite curious whether the alternate activation of my brain hemispheres did actually have some effect.

At the end of the exercise the therapist asked me to visualize the man, to make him progressively smaller. I jumped the cue on this and immediately visualized him very small and held him in my palm even before she asked me to do just that. Her aim was to make him gradually smaller, reducing his power over me. I am not sure whether that strategy worked for what ails me, where the man is concerned. As I saw him in my mind’s eye, small and vulnerable, my feelings for him changed, but not in the way the therapist expected. I felt tenderness towards the little creature he became, as if I held a tiny animal, a bird, a hamster or even a mouse. I wanted to hold him gently in my palm, and perhaps keep him safe, and care for him. I never had the urge to crush him or obliterate his existence.

When she finally asked me to do whatever I wanted with the miniature man, I turned him into a bird and let him fly away. Then, on her request, I imagined walking away from him and from the situation of my prolonged grief. I walked away towards a sunset on Shela beach in Lamu. The wet sand was glimmering under the sunlight, and I could see the green of the mangroves, and the metallic blue of the lagoon. I was at peace, but a tiny bit of my heart still wished that the little bird I set free would alight on my shoulder again.

The only power the man has over me is his love. And the love I carry for him has no remedy, at least not on the therapist’s couch.

Trying to Heal My Heart

It is over a year now since I first met my beloved, and I now admit that I have initially underestimated the depth and resilience of my feelings.

The last post I wrote took a while to compose, I wanted to mention that on that day I met him again, but then the serious issue of the post took over, and I found it hard to bring its tone down by going back to the sore (and now sour) subject of my heartache.

Even though love itself lacks reason, there are certain qualities that first drew me to my beloved. The one I appreciate most is his empathy and his genuine desire to stand for what he feels is right and just, to champion the weak and marginalized and stand up for them. So it is natural that he shows up in an event against homophobia. I know from experience, that once I see him, whether face-to-face or in passing, the damage is usually already done, I know that I will be in for a day or so of sadness and despair, so I might as well speak to him and face the consequences. So I met him head-on, and gave him a little rainbow flag to stick in his shirt pocket. He kept looking at his phone and commenting that he was texting people and urging them to join the event.  He also wondered about his Christian colleagues and where was their love for humanity. These are some of the small reasons why I love this man.

I do not remember much of what I said to him in return, but all I know is that in a room full of people I forgot about everyone but him. I was just lost in his presence. I remember he asked about my brother. A few days ago, and because my beloved would appreciate the irony, I had texted him that my brother was asking me for advice on how to make sure a girl likes him. I have found out since that my brother did not win his girl. But lucky for him and his clueless heart, he was not the worse for it. In fact he was quite amazed at how quickly he bounced back from the rejection. He was already on the mend that same day when his love interest told him she was not ready for commitment, how I envy him. I think I complained to my beloved how difficult it was for me to forget him. And even though he made fun of me and told me to listen to my mother and that there were “so many other fish in the sea” I could just look into his eyes and forget what he said and believe instead what his eyes were telling me. I might be delusional or clueless about the language of the eyes, but he told me that he was “bereft” that he did not have any books to read. If there is a word in the English language that would always remind me of my beloved Englishman it is this one, and it always brings back the feelings of loss that I lived with since I knew him. I am bereft too, and disassembled by loving him.

But since this is my life, where I am bound by some old-fashioned principles, the reality has to hit me even while I am fighting the depth of my feelings. I was standing next to him when his phone signaled an incoming call with the call ID of his wife, and in an instant I was brought back to the impossibility of imposing my presence into this script. I would never judge any woman who chooses to take a married man as her lover, if it is clear to all that the intention is to keep this as an affair, a love match that never gets formally recognized. But my feelings for the man are neither trivial nor transitory and I cannot degrade them in an affair that will inevitably taint my love with guilty and self-loathing. On the other hand, I know that an affair is all I could ever have, so I am done for either way. There will never be a “Bridges of Madison County” role for me, and it is best to walk and really mean it.

I have never loved anyone like I love this man, and I know my feelings for him are real, because I wasn’t out fishing when his love found me. I was not looking for a relationship and I will not even start looking now. It was foolish of me to think that an account on Tinder or OkCupid will help me solve the problem of accidentally falling in love with him. Because nothing will be solved until I heal my foolish heart. My problem is that love found me, where I did not want to be found. And as much as I am grateful for the colours it added to my life, for the depth of feelings that I became capable of since our first encounter, for the rebirth of my awareness of my appeal and sexuality, and for the renewed attention to my health, appearance and figure, as much as I appreciate and enjoy all that, there are times when I feel that I have given too much of my body and soul in return for a flood of tears and a load of heartache.

Maybe the happiness I had before was just an illusion, a sense of self-sufficiency that was thinly veiled by contempt, apathy, and cynicism. But I was content in my ignorance, and cushioned by my triumph over my past. Now I know that love exists, and I can no longer scoff at it nor deny it. But I cannot find full gratitude for its presence in my life. Given a choice, I might have wanted to remain ignorant.

So on the 17th of May this year, I decided to retreat into my shell. I wanted to disappear completely, and change my routine so that our paths never cross. I vowed to  keep a low profile and not go again to any event where he is likely to be present. I intended to reclaim the empty and peaceful space within my heart, hold in it only those who are already there, those who love me or need me, namely my son, my family, and my closest friends. I wanted to read and write again and maybe go back to school.

I am carrying this through to the best of my ability. And I am sincere in my desire to break free from the Englishman’s spell. I never venture anymore to any place where I am likely to meet him. I never drink coffee on his side of the compound. I spend minimal time in common areas, and mostly take my lunch at the office or in some other place where I am sure to be alone. I keep to my practice of meditation, as I turn to my nerdy nature and ask for healing from within.

Some days are easier than others. It helps sometimes when I am busy with work and my other regular responsibilities as a bread-winner and single mom. At other times the load gets heavy, and busy becomes swamped, and I begin to drop one or another of the many balls that I am juggling. At these times I feel so lonely and need a kind word, I miss him then terribly, because his eyes spoke kindness to me and promised a shadow of understanding and compassion that I was desperate for. And every now and then all the various disappointments, all the heartaches big and small, fuse together into a single red-hot point, and combined they choose to hit me in the solar plexus knocking me off my feet. In the grip of my sorrow, I am still aware that the Englishman is my illness and my cure. Because it is his shoulder that I need to cry on, and his arm that I want to hold on to when I stumble.

I tell myself that leaving was my only option. I reason that every day will get easier than the one before. On most days I do well, I can remember him without sorrow, but then grief hits me in the gut, and I have a tearful day like today.

I have not lost hope. And even on my worst days I still work on healing my heart. But I am not interested in the other fish in the sea. Love found me while I was peacefully drinking coffee alone and reading Dostoevsky. If it wants to find me again then it will, no matter how well I hide. By then I hope to have healed my foolish heart. By then I will know if it is the right love for me, and I will know not to mess with it if it was likely to burn me. I will wait, I have the rest of my life.