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.

Scared

This matter of relocation is definitely not for the fainthearted. I am already intimidated, and I am mostly doing this alone. The entity employing me only gives me phone numbers and contacts, and it is left to me to sift through the mountains of information out there, and verify them if possible on the internet.

I realize now that I haven’t actually spilled the beans yet on what or where this is about. I am going to be employed by an international organization based in New York as an Associate Arabic Translator. This is of course a wonderful opportunity for me and for Robert but there are many challenges involved, and I am trying to overcome them one at a time.

The biggest obstacle so far is finding a proper pre-school for Robert, somewhere where he will be happy and looked after. He is doing so well at his pre-school here in Cape Town, and I am only going to enroll him at a pre-school in New York that is on the same level or better.

A few days ago I was so happy that one particular Child Care center in Midtown Manhattan had space for him. I thought that I had this figured, until on closer examination it turned out that the pre-school was in a basement of an office building and the children had only limited access to natural light. I had the disturbing image of child-prisoners going out for fresh air once or twice a day. I cannot do this to my son after living in the sunshine of South Africa and having access to open air playgrounds during school hours.  Of course South Africa has more sunny days than most places on earth but still, can you imagine having a child deprived of daylight ? The woman working at the centre said their working hours were from about seven in the morning until six in the evening, so it is conceivable that during winter some kids will arrive in the dark and leave in the dark, I cannot think of anything more depressing, even for an adult let alone a child.

My ex husband said that there are so many people competing on very little resources in Manhattan, so I am expanding now my search to residential areas with good transit access to town and wherever I find a good pre-school it will be where we will live. As this is my main focus now I haven’t even thought about shipping my few things, the logistics of moving my cat (if at all conceivable) and many other little problems that will surely present themselves as time moves on closer to the d-date.  I haven’t committed myself yet to the employer but I already gave notice on my rental flat and I have to be out of here by April 1st, so I hope I will manage to solve my problems until then.

If all else fails, there is help from family. My mother generously offered to be with me for the initial relocation period in New York, and thanks to this lifesaving gesture my fear has not reached the point of panic (yet).

When I first applied and attended the exams required for the job, I desperately wanted to be based in New York. Now I am not so sure, it seems it is awfully crowded busy and noisy and I have always been a small town girl. Cape Town to me is just big enough, and I cannot imagine living in a city where I have to compete with millions. I have to dig deep and keep my faith that things always work out in the end.

New Beginnings Beckon

Early this week I stated that my life is on autopilot and there is fair weather ahead. I think I spoke too soon. Less that 48 hours later I get news delivered to my inbox that might bring a monumental change into our lives; a change even more profound than what divorce wrought on almost three years ago. In short, we may be departing the South African shores in the next few months. I have very mixed feelings about this particular development although I worked towards it since June 2009. I have been living in South Africa since 1999 and although this doesn’t seem like a long time, it is still half my adult life, the other half I spent between my native Syria and the UAE. So when I leave it behind I will also leave a huge chunk of life, memories, experiences and very dear friends.  And without a doubt Cape Town will always be the place I call home, and where I shall hopefully return in due course.

As this happens my son has started at a new school. He is now officially a pre-schooler or Grade-R pupil. Initially I had some trepidations about starting him in a pre-school that uses German as a teaching medium, but I always wanted him to retain the connection to this language, and in my mind I wanted the German taken care of at school so that I can perhaps introduce the Arabic. Admittedly, having my child tackle three languages will be a challenge but I feel he has a keen interest and keeps asking about words and their meaning in another language. He often inquires what is this “auf deutsch” or what do you call that “bel3arabi”(in Arabic). He also asks me to play some of his DVDs in Arabic, or German (or even French and Spanish), so I am encouraged about capacity for learning language.

As early as his first day on Tuesday, he already told me that he likes this new school and prefers it to his old school. There are a few hurdles to conquer, though. On the first demonstration of “Play Ball”, one of the extramurals offered, he went into total strike and was the only child crying. Throughout the demonstration he sat glued to my lap and only approached the tasks of kicking the ball once or twice and very timidly at that. I tell myself that I distracted him with my presence and that he will do better next week, but I still worry about his shyness. It is largely my fault, I know. I have never been one for socializing, so he does not get the benefit of play-dates and parties very often. I am hoping this will change with time as he gets into his own character, but if social aptitude is genetic, he will probably end up on the reticent side, because he gets it from both parents.

It breaks my heart that I have to tear him away from the few friends he has. On Wednesday I watched him play naturally and spontaneously with Britt’s little girls, and this is something that had just started to evolve after many months of visiting. I wondered about the adjustment required of him in the future. I keep hoping that it will be easier for him than it will be for me, I know I will pine for my friends here and for my warmhearted Africa.