Don’t Grasp …

The parting gift of 2021 for me was a little bit of wisdom and understanding. It did not come to me cheaply or quickly, but I still believe it arrived on time.

Intellectually, and from my pervious dabbling with mindfulness mediation, I already understand that life is only the present. Yesterdays are gone, and the future is an uncertain gamble, at best. Those who grasp at moments of past happiness are reconstructing remembered experience in hindsight from the viewpoint of the present. On the other hand, dreams of the future are sometimes just an escape from present discomfort. Living this way is a permanent sleep-walking state. We become completely or partly oblivious of the present moment, either imagining a future that might never arrive, or re-interpreting the past. In either case we are missing the point. Life is moving along in ever-changing patterns of good and bad times. All of them are temporary, and the point of it might not actually be where we have been or where we want to be next. The point is just the journey, the dance we perform and the music we play along the way.

In the past few months I was stuck in such a futile pattern. I came here, to the city of music and culture from a place where I knew I was happy. It was a place where I found love and glimpsed my own version of enlightenment. I missed Kenya. I missed Africa, the sunshine, the people, the coffee, the avocados, the simple uncomplicated life. I felt overwhelmed by learning about my new job, the challenges of raising a demanding teenager, the difficulties of adapting to a different lifestyle, and of simply finding a place for myself in foreign city. Most of all I missed the person that I became when I was fully embraced by my beloved Africa. So I tried hard to recapture that luminous phase of my life, and I grasped at everything I thought I lost. When I went shopping I tried to buy the exact same tools and utensils I had in my previous life. When I lost my beloved chain bracelet I tried to order an exact replica. I looked for Kenyan coffee, to recapture the taste of sunshine and inject life-giving warmth into my cold mornings. I grasped with desperation at memories, at moments where I felt my heart expand to encompass the whole universe, when I reached out to receive the world’s loving embrace. I remembered how well I loved, that I became wholesome in loving, and the universe seemed to hold and lift me, even while my beloved remained aloof and silent. I desperately wanted all that again.

The inevitable failure of my grasping phase came in little pointers and signs. The replacement bracelet was expensive and underwhelming, not at all like the one I lost, and the tools and utensils became useless white elephants, unsuitable for my modern European apartment. The coffee tasted like cardboard, and did not live up to my idolised version of African coffee. Each little failure was another loss, and another reason to wallow in misery and grasp even more at the past. In Kenya, I thought, everything fell into place for me, whereas here, everything went wrong. My spirit suffered as well. My attempts at recapturing the spiritual heights I experienced through running, yoga and meditation were half-hearted to non-existent. My heart felt closed and constricted and no longer capable of unconditional loving. I regained my cynicism in matters of the heart and started to re-interpret my emotional experience more rationally.

Comparing my present state of mind with the past one I remembered was jarring and unsettling. Sometimes I felt like I fell from grace, and descended from paradise to earthly suffering. At other times I thought that I must have been floating on an opioid cloud for the past six years, and just sobered up now to cold reality.

Eventually, and perhaps with the help of a lecture I listened to from Alan Watts, it dawned on me that neither my emotional nor my rational interpretations were correct. I simply failed to understand one basic lessons. Life is a flowing river, and it is a bad idea to grasp at flowing water. The clenching fingers fail to hold a single drop, and the tense limbs are no match for strong currents. That lesson holds for some things in the physical world too, like trying to fall asleep or trying hard to float in a pool. Trying too hard is sometimes the surest guarantee of failure.

Today, I have decided to float freely and stop grasping. However, in doing that, I also want to remember that I should not try too hard. True acceptance after all, is the absence of resistance, and sometimes the pull of the past will still be felt, but I need to understand it for what it is, an illusion, a re-imagining of the past from the viewpoint of the present.

There will always be things that I can, and should, work harder at, like getting more exercise or practicing meditation. But the present experience should be the heart of the practice. I should enjoy the meditation session, the single run, and the yoga lesson. And while the end goal of running another marathon or getting fit and flexible in my middle age years could work as a motivator, the end goal is not as important as the present experience. My present moment is all I have, and I will make it count.

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.

Love and Absence

I thought it would be easier to tame my longing in your absence, I was wrong.

Love survives the distance, and absence could make the heart grow fonder. Sometimes love defies even the distance between life and death; ask any soul who still grieves, years after the loved one is gone. Sometimes it survives on longing, on dreams never realized, ask the mother who still holds her stillborn child in her heart. Love knows no reason, although it is sufficient reason for everything.

Months have passed since I turned away from you, and I only tamed the pain of grieving for you. Now my awareness of your absence has become my companion, I ask it about you, and how you are. I can touch it gently and feel it aching like an old bruise. It will be there for a long time. I have stopped counting days, they do not matter anymore. The time of your absence stretches into the unknown, and your empty space is now acknowledged and familiar.

The loves that I have known in my life were like domesticated carnations, fragrant and pretty to look at in their prime. They survived for a couple of seasons, then withered and died quietly. Your love is wild like a dandelion, an invader that survives drought and fire, and grows through parched and rocky earth. I can neither fight you with fire nor with steel, so I surrender and bow to your resilience.

When it rains, I have to remember you my beloved and hardy dandelion. I send you peace, and surrender you and everything you meant to me to providence. I send you love, and forgive you for stealing my heart. I accept the pain of permanent absence, and open my soul to the lesson you came along to teach me.

Love is still steering my course.

The Resilience of Longing

The English language in its practical and innovative usage, and in its diverse richness of synonyms comes up short sometimes in expressing feelings. In my profession as an Arabic translator, dealing primarily with technical and scientific subjects I am often frustrated with the opposite problem in my native language.  Arabic often fails to deal with practicalities while it has oceans of words for feelings.  For those who are interested in the subject there are apparently 14 degrees of love in the Arabic language, some scholars have named even up to fifty. I often bemoan the shortcomings of my native language in my professional capacity, but when I am feeling nostalgic, blue, or when I am struck by deep longing for my lost love, I always listen to Arabic songs, or read love poems in Arabic.

I am sure the classical English poets have burnt through their papers with ardent poetry about love. There are many well repeated and quoted sonnets, describing in detail the intertwining feelings of love’s joy and pain. But the terminology of feelings comes sometimes lacking and borrows much from imagery or from other languages. The English, it seems, have no word for the deep longing that the Arabic expresses in those many synonyms for love, they even fail to express it as poetically as the Germans do in the expressive term “Sehnsucht”. The single word combines longing with obsession and addiction, and mirrors the torture of pining for someone who is not there, or no longer there.

My longing for the presence or even the sight of my beloved has been the hardest to overcome. The resilience of this longing continues to surprise me as I am never sure when or where it will spring from. It could be triggered by a word carelessly uttered, that reminds of something he often said. My son could show a sudden dislike of bananas and it will remind me that he hated them too. Or I would hear a song I have always loved and realize for the first time that its opening features the sound of the saxophone, his preferred instrument.  I never know whether the longing will be a passing thought, or a stab in the ribs. I never know whether it will bring on a smile or a deluge of tears. But it is still there, and its longevity after my last meeting with him, is always a source of wonder. I just allow myself to feel it and acknowledge it as part of love and loss.


Walking Away from Love

When it comes to love, it is either given or returned. It is neither forced upon someone, nor taken. It can be perhaps learned, and practiced, and willed into existence like a forgotten habit. It can also wither and die without sustenance.

My love for Aquarius was a force of nature, a phenomenon all itself that I was not prepared for. Its singularity left me without options, I wanted either to embrace it or abandon it entirely to embrace instead the full grief of its loss.

While I gave generously and completely, my beloved was pleased to receive my adoration. He shone in its warmth but was not prepared to return affection in the same way.  I could not force him to acknowledge the depth of my love and reciprocate it. Even though I knew that I could have pressed my advantage, exploited his weakness, and the emotional need I felt he had for me. I did not want to be just a passing fancy, a fling, or a quick answer to an unfulfilled desire. I loved him too much to settle for this. I would have settled for the role of an occasional or temporary lover, I would have taken the love affair, with all its guilt and inevitable breakup. Love though would have needed to be an acknowledged part of it, not the close friendship he wanted it to pass for.

Perhaps I am paraphrasing Gibran when I say that love gives only itself and grows by the giving. And only a heart that completely gives itself, and opens itself to pain is capable of thriving in love, or at least truly appreciating its force. Many people approach life with a closed heart, whether in the interest of self preservation, or to protect the self or others from pain, and those will never uncover the mystery of true love.

I still grieve over my love, that was never meant to be. I still cry sometimes over what I could have had. But I am comforted with my conviction of freedom in love. I always accepted the choice of those who walked away from me, and exercised the choice to walk away myself when love ceased to be enough.

It is easier to remember the callous, self-absorbed, and constantly complaining Aquarius, when I do not have to gaze into his eyes. His eyes always told me their own story. Through them I looked into his gentle soul, and peeled away at the layers of pretense. My beloved’s true substance, I felt, hid under all these layers of opinionated adherence to certain form, style, physique and diet. If I do not see his eyes again, I can no longer interpret the subtext of his soul, or misinterpret it.

I am starting to rewrite his memory, it is my way of forgetting what I felt.  The English say, out of sight out of mind. In my Arab culture this saying goes, literally, “Far from the eye, is far from the heart”. This literal image fits my situation perfectly. His eyes were his way into my heart, and by walking away from them I am trying to set my heart free.


Still Missing You … Fifty Days On

You remain my beloved, even when you rejected the opportunity to become my lover.

Everything I know about love, are the feelings you have taught me. I will never reach out to claim you, steal you or borrow you, but I keep you within me, and missing you is my silent companion. I feel like I belong to you, and as time passes I wonder whether the thoughts of you will ever set me free.

Before I met you I neither knew nor touched the depth of my intensity. During my first year in Kenya, I met a young Kenyan man, who was attracted to me physically. He claimed that he felt my intensity, the way my eyes spoke, he called it. I almost laughed, and considered this some innovative pick-up line. Eventually, I let him down easy after two dates. He was married and much younger than me, and I did not want to complicate my life.  I always thought that men mistakenly felt this vibe from me because of physical attraction or plain lust. Then I met you, and your eyes were twin mirrors reflecting back the intensity of my own soul. If I had imagined this, I would have never stayed for that first coffee, and avoided meeting you again. But I got addicted to that connection, because I recognized you, beneath all your uppity exterior and snobbery. You are my emotional twin, a mirror to my soul.

One night last week the pain of missing you made itself felt again, and I lay awake torn apart by longing. The hours dragged past, as I tried to breathe slowly and deeply through the agony. Eventually sleep arrived, but not rest. The next day I caved in again and texted you. You were your usual nonchalant self, speaking how you are sick of having lunch alone, and you even mentioned your solo birthday lunch. You will never know how much it cost me to say no to meeting you on that day. I spent the lunch hour outside in the office garden, away from people. I put down a mat on the grass and lay face down in the afternoon sun, weeping silently into my folded arms.

You offered me coffee again, and said that you will be happy to see me “when you feel better”. What if I never feel better? I know that I cannot meet you anymore in the open, without letting my arms reach out to you, without hugging you so tight that I crack my ribs, or yours. How dare you try to make a friend out of me when you are my beloved? It is not fair. Love is still steering my course, I set it free, I breathe it in and out, and send it out to you on the wind, with every silent tear. I send it out to you at night when I put my head down to sleep and in the morning when I first open my eyes. I do not resist it, nor resent it, I just accept it along with its suffering.

My longing is deep and powerful, and I treat it like a wild and unpredictable animal. I let it fight and pull against its restraints, I let it act out its wild nature, in the hope that it will become tamer one day. Sometimes I wish I was dealing with something as natural, primitive and elemental as lust. Because physical desire is a wild animal that I can understand. It just needs to be fed and satisfied. My longing for you defies understanding, and it can neither be fed nor forgotten. I try to survive one day at a time as Zen teachings dictate. There is no past and no future, I just need to survive this moment, without you.

One day I will stop counting the days since I last had coffee with you, but today I still know, it has been fifty days.