Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Heartbreak ~ The Scintilla Project ~ Day 10

Talk about breaking someone else’s heart, or having your own heart broken.

I wasn’t going to go anywhere near this prompt.  Almost all of the Scintilla prompts have made me wince at how personal they are, but rather than write something safe and not as meaningful, I’ve taken them as a challenge - to lean into my discomfort and try to understand what I’m afraid of, and write anyway.  There is something about revealing too much about myself, feeling exposed and vulnerable, a fear of being judged harshly.  The subject of heartbreak takes that fear to a whole new level.  There are a few too many stories I could tell about that but it occurred to me that perhaps all of our heartbreaks are a result of the original heartbreak, the one I think most of us experience and spend most of our lives trying to repair or get over or even deny – the first heartbreak(s) we experienced in relationship with our parents.  If I’m honest, when I really think, or rather, feel, about heartbreak, these are the two memories that come up straight away.  They are both connected to my Dad and they both occurred when I was in my teens.

I can’t remember exactly how old I was, I’m guessing 14 or 15.  We were visiting Thailand over the summer and we went to a “Dairy Queen” in Bangkok for some ice cream sundaes.  I remember the coolness of the air because of the air conditioning, I remember how everything was white – the walls, the leatherette seats, the formica tables.  I sat down with my ice cream and my Dad sat next to me.  Suddenly, he started to play with my hair.  It was so unexpected that I froze.  Both because it was so out of character – my parents were not demonstrative in the slightest and it was my brother and I who instigated hugging in our family when we were in our late teens – and because I was afraid that if I moved even a fraction of an inch, he would stop.  He did stop not long after and it was never mentioned. 

The second memory was from when I was 16.  We were living in Cyprus and my father was dropping me off outside the cinema where I was meeting some friends and the boy I was dating at the time.  He’d parked so that my door opened onto the pavement side of the road.  I didn’t look as I opened my door, but I wasn’t expecting there to be any traffic to look out for.  As I opened my door, an old man on a bicycle was riding by.  He collided with the door and fell off his bike.  He was a little stunned, but he was unhurt.  However, my Dad insisted on driving him home.  I thought it was all under control, so I said goodbye to my Dad and went to meet my friends.

When my Dad picked me up later, I asked how the man was.  My Dad answered that he was fine.  Otherwise, he didn’t speak, but that wasn’t unusual for him.  The next day, after I’d gotten home from school my mother waylaid me and took me into my room for a talk.  She closed the door and had her serious face on.  I immediately went into a panic, wondering what had happened, or what I might have done. 

She reported that I had bitterly disappointed my father, that he thought he’d raised me to be better than the selfish person I clearly was.  My stomach fell through the floor - my stomach, my heart, my blood - I felt like I’d been hollowed out.  I could not fathom what I might have done to deserve such a judgement.  Then she told me.  By going into the cinema to meet my friends the night before, rather than stay behind and accompany my father and the old man to his house, I’d shown myself to be utterly and wickedly selfish.  I was shocked.  Shocked that my father had felt that way but said nothing to me at the time.  Shocked even more that he couldn’t talk to me about it himself. 

My father rarely loses his temper and rarely expressed any disappointment in my brother or I.  When we didn’t do quite as well as expected with our grades or failed to complete our chores or any number of things my mother never let us get away with, my father was always more understanding, more encouraging.  So to receive this judgement from him was a real blow.  I felt utterly misunderstood.  I don’t think I’d ever felt so unfairly judged as I did then.  It was so upsetting to me that I felt like I’d been abandoned.  I felt my father’s disgust for me as physically as I’d feel a shove in my chest.  It was all the worse because he couldn’t even tell me to my face.  And by sending my mother to talk to me, I couldn’t even defend myself to him.  I remember trying, trying to explain to my mother and then feeling angry that I even had to explain and then I just started to cry.  Maybe I imagined it, but I think she felt some sympathy for me.  Because her tone was soft, and her tone was hardly ever soft.  I don’t think she enjoyed being my father’s messenger but she had a belief in his authority as a parent, even over her own, even though she was the one who always did the real parenting “work.”  I remember her saying that she would talk to him, but I felt deeply ashamed for a long time around him – ashamed and angry and disappointed.  I still feel shame when I remember the whole thing.  It was far worse than any physical punishment I’d received from him and it says a lot about our relationship and my long struggle to ever feel “good enough.”

This week, Jake and I were Skyping him and my Mum.  At the end of the call, when my parents had to go, Jake suddenly got really upset.  Usually, he’s quite happy to say goodbye to them but not this time.  This time he was absolutely sobbing and wailing that he wanted to stay with them a bit longer.  I did what I usually do when he’s upset – I held him and kissed him.  Sometimes he pushes me away but this time he let me hold him.  In the meantime, I could feel my father’s extreme discomfort about Jake’s crying.  He started by saying that he had to go because it was getting dark and he had to go for a swim before the mosquitoes came out.  Naturally Jake has no idea what any of this means.  Then he went into the awful good boy speech.  “You’re a good boy aren’t you Jake?”  My heart broke when Jake nodded, tears rolling down his cheeks.  “So, if you’re a good boy, you should let people go when they want to go, right?”  My heart sank.  Jake, to his credit, shook his head.  “Oh, so you’re going to be a bad boy then?”  At that point I held Jake very close to me and said to him, “You are a good boy Jake.”  Jake was looking at my Dad’s face on the screen, sad and confused.  So I started to try and talk to Jake about why he was crying.  I said, “Are you sad Jake?  Are you sad because you’re going to miss Grandma and Granddad when they’re gone?”  He nodded.  So I repeated that to my parents, telling them how he felt in the hope that they would acknowledge it and reflect it back to him, so he would feel heard and understood.  But they said, “We miss you too Jake but we have to go now…”  He just carried on crying and shaking his head and saying, “Please, I don’t want you to go, please just stay a bit longer.”  Then my Dad started making stuff up – saying that Skype were sending them a message saying that they had to go because they were going to close the office and cut off the connection.  “You see Jake, it’s not us, we don’t want to go, we have to go, they are going to close the office.”  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  But at the same time, I remembered that my father’s like that, that he’s always been like that.  Jake carried on crying and looking confused.  Then they said, “OK, we’re going now” and ended the call.  Jake cried harder, grabbing the mouse and saying, “No!  No!  Call them back, call them back!”  He frantically directed the mouse to the “Call with video” button and clicked on it and managed to call them back.  They answered and the whole thing went on again for a bit longer.  Then, as I held Jake in silence as he sobbed, they suddenly fell silent.  For a minute or so, we all just sat in total silence.  It felt powerful.  I felt hopeful that they’d be able to just sit with his feelings and their own without running away from it.  But it didn’t last.  Soon after I had this thought, they ended the call, this time without even saying goodbye.  Jake cried again and frantically tried to call them back.  This time, they didn’t answer.  Jake was fine after a few minutes.  I just held him and kissed him and then he was fine.  Me though?  I felt heartbroken by the whole thing.  I felt that it wasn’t just Jake I was holding through the tears, but my own 3 year old and 14 year old and 16 year old self.

(NB ~ Even as I post this, I am wincing wincing wincing.  This feels like such raw exposure.  And I keep hearing these voices in my head laughing at the triviality of my pain, saying, "Jeez, you think this is heartbreak?  I'll show you real heartbreak!"  But hey, this is my post and this is what I have to say.  So bite me.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Surprise ~ 100 word moments

Yesterday, walking through the marshes with Jake, away from a park full of couples and families belonging to each other, a bloke rode past on a bicycle, trailing a sound system under a huge yellow umbrella.  Through the chilly sunshine, Frank Sinatra sang.  I closed my eyes…Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you, and the way you look tonight... Yes you’re lovely, with your smile so warm and your cheeks so soft, there is nothing for me but to love you
Why does longing always take me by surprise?


If you can, go grab someone and dance...

23 for The Scintilla Project ~ Day 9

Write a list of 23 things...

Here's mine: 23 titles from my bookshelf to be used as prompts for 230-word micro stories

  1. Skin
  2. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
  3. Thaw
  4. Apples
  5. Emotionally Weird
  6. Stitches
  7. A home at the end of the world
  8. Until I Find You
  9. When Memory Dies
  10. Map of My Heart
  11. Fun Home
  12. Out
  13. Disgrace
  14. What if?
  15. Small Wonder
  16. The Tattooed Map
  17. Sleepwalk
  18. Holes
  19. One True Thing
  20. The End of The Affair
  21. The Lover
  22. Wild Things
  23. Bad Behaviour

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Right now

I'm feeling a little sad and I wanted to say so.  I don't know why.  Sometimes, when it's been a lovely day or I've seen something beautiful, it makes me sad.  There is a magnolia tree in somebody's front garden in my neighbourhood.  I love magnolia trees.  When I saw it, for a moment, I thought it was full of quiet pink birds perching.  It made me stop, its beauty clutched at me.  And then I felt sad.  I didn't see it today but when I thought about why I might be feeling sad, that is what came to me.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Simple Pleasures ~ Scintilla Project ~ Day 8

What are your simplest pleasures?

Finally, a nice easy question!  Especially since this is the second time I’ve been asked it this week...

feeling the sun on my skin ~ standing in the open air, anywhere, and looking up at blue sky ~ the smell of Jake’s head ~ a slice of lemon drizzle cake ~ a still warm cup of tea ~ hot buttered toast ~ a candlelit bath, scented with aromatherapy oils ~ breathing ~ breathing in downward dog ~ the feeling of spaciousness at the end of a yoga session ~ getting into freshly washed pyjamas or a bed dressed in newly washed sheets at the end of a long day ~ a good book + my duvet ~ the sound and warmth of Yoshi purring in my lap ~ eggs and bacon ~ a kiss and a hug from Jake ~ a hug from a dear friend ~ hearing someone I love say my name ~ playing my ukulele ~ closing my eyes and letting a great song live right through me ~ seeing the sea ~ the sight of cherry blossoms ~ the pair of robins I saw on a silver birch today ~ a poem that sings and breaks my heart at once ~ episodes of In Treatment ~ long, slow, deep kisses ~ going to the cinema ~ crispy duck pancakes ~ the sound of Jake’s breathing deepening, just as he’s fallen asleep ~ sleeping in a tent in an attic room ~ lentil soup ~ the smell of rain just before it arrives ~ the sound of rain just as it arrives ~ the colour red ~ black ink on white paper ~ standing before my bookshelf, deciding what to read next ~ writing on Show Me Your Lits ~ the rosy glow of sunrise on red brick ~ laughing, especially with friends ~ the sound of Jake’s laughter ~ being with wonderful people ~ writing a letter by hand ~ receiving a handwritten letter ~ a steak Bavette with fries and green beans from CafĂ© Rouge with Mad ~ sleepovers ~ sleep

Parents as their own people ~ Scintilla Project ~ Day 7

Talk about a time when you saw your mother or father as a person independent of their role as a parent.

I’d always experienced my mother as an unhappy person.  In childhood, I remember her as being very temperamental, very quick to anger and often violently so, though she would be very different in company.  She could turn on the charm just like that and you’d never know she could spit venom at me for putting too much fish sauce in the omelette or hit me over the head with a book because I couldn’t grasp fractions.  But I grew up thinking this was normal.  I hadn’t spent a great deal of time with other people’s parents and even when I did see other adults, I never entirely trusted what they were like “in company.”  I don’t know when it became clear, but it seemed painfully obvious to me that most of them were putting on an act.

Then, in my late teens, I was home from University during a summer vacation.  We were visiting Thailand and one of our rituals whenever we went “back home” was to visit a particular dentist as a family, even though we regularly saw a dentist in whatever country we were living in.  She would examine every single one of us, even if we had no complaints.  When it was my mother’s turn in the chair, we were in the waiting room and my father was talking to the dentist’s brother, who worked in the practice with her.  I was reading a book and they must have thought I either wasn’t paying attention or that my Thai wasn’t good enough, or more likely, still saw me as a kid, rendering me invisible.

The dentist’s brother asked my father how my mother was.  They referred to her by her Thai nickname, which made me realise that this man knew my mother better than I’d thought, and possibly even better than I knew her.  I later deduced that they must have been friends a long time ago.  My father said something that seemed fairly non-committal, something about her having her ups and downs.  Then the dentist’s brother talked about my mother as if she had a serious mental illness.  I couldn’t fully understand all the Thai terms, but he urged my father to get her serious professional help.  I was shocked and outraged, but of course I didn’t show it.  I pretended to be absorbed in my book.  I think I was more outraged by the fact that my father didn’t stick up for my mother but just went along with it, even nodding as if he agreed with the man.  And yet, I knew my father would do nothing, just as he always did nothing, in the face of one of my mother’s “moods.” 

When my mother came into the waiting room, her bridge expertly replaced, they smiled at her as if they’d been talking about the weather.  I felt as if we’d betrayed her, even me, even though all I’d done was unintentionally eavesdrop.  I never spoke to either of my parents about what I heard.  And I don’t think I saw either of them in the same way again. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

On Faith ~ The Scinitilla Project ~ Day 6

Talk about an experience with faith - yours or someone else's.

When I was 17 (and living in Cyprus), my boyfriend at the time and most of my friends were born-again Christians.  Most of them hadn't been, when I first met them.  Then, they started hanging out at a Friday night youth group run by a super-friendly and welcoming English couple.  They didn’t seem like Churchy people or odd people or any adults that I’d ever known.  They seemed youthful and vibrant and unafraid to talk about anything, answer any questions, even about sex.  Reluctantly, I started going to these youth group meetings too.  First because I didn’t want to be left out, but then it started to become important to me.  Eventually, I ended up converting too.  

I often look back on that time and cringe.  I can see that I joined in because I desperately wanted to belong and because it gave me a sense of purpose, no matter how misguided.  But it’s not something I’m proud of and I’m reluctant to admit to it or talk about it.  Mainly because I became very over-zealous about it, especially when I went to University (in England) and met a group of people through the Christian Union there.  It was a small group and we didn’t really affiliate ourselves with any particular church, but for a while, it was very fundamentalist, evangelical and extreme.  We met regularly to pray together and always someone would be “speaking in tongues.”  There was always a great deal of emotion being poured out, usually in response to cheesy Christian music.  I’m certain that I was addicted to the way that made me feel – supposedly overflowing with love and yet I managed to ignore the emptiness that always came afterwards.  At one point, our group were walking around campus at night setting up angel sentries because someone read a passage in the Bible that said that the truly faithful could command the angels.  I also remember praying outside a metal gig that was taking place in the Student Union one night, in the belief that we were battling Satanists. 

There was one of our group in particular whom I remember going to America one summer to attend a programme with a well-known American evangelical minister and who came back completely changed.  He had a crucifix shaved into the back of his head.  He renounced his family and all his non-Christian friends because they refused to convert and he told them they were all going to hell.  He even told a friend of ours, a fellow Christian, that she didn’t have enough faith because she had a disability - that if she were a "true" Christian, she would already be healed.  That was the beginning of the end for me.  

I started to cut ties with the group and worried that they would hound me to come back.  It was the opposite – it was as if I’d never existed.  It was a huge relief.  I started to question my “faith” – something I hadn’t allowed myself to do before.  I met some Christian priests and a nun on a counselling course I took a short time after I left University and talked to them about their faith and was shocked to see how different it had been from my experience of Christianity.  I then started reading about other religions and spent years exploring all kinds of spiritual and “new age” subjects, although I made a point of not having any sort of religious or spiritual practice for a long time.  I have remained sceptical of any organised religion and of belonging to any group with religious or spiritual overtones, even a Buddhist meditation group, though I do follow a meditation practice of my own.  And I will happily chant Om in my yoga class, or other mantras on my own at home.

I read a great book last year by the Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg that resonates a great deal with what I feel faith is really about – trusting your own deepest experience.  I don’t think there is really a substitute for that, no matter what fancy clothes it might be dressed in.

Where'd I go? ~ The Scintilla Project ~ Day 5

Show a part of your nature that you feel you’ve lost.  Can you get it back?  Would it be worth it?

Do we ever lose any part of us?  Even if it may not be manifest, does it ever really disappear?  Maybe the parts that don’t seem obvious to us are simply that, not obvious, or maybe even just dormant.  Maybe they’ll always remain so, or maybe they’ll wake up one day, jolted by something or someone.  Maybe it’s like the rings of a tree – another layer that forms part of who we are now.  There’s also the question of who we really are anyway.  We are only alive in the present.  The past is a construct, all of our memories are constructs and the dramas and stories that we cling to about them, even though they feel vivid and real, are not the absolute, fixed, unchanging objects that we might believe them to be.  The future is only projection, only thought.  Is thought solid?  Where does it come from?  Who are we really?  And what of all these feelings that are attached to us, that live so very physically in our bodies?

In my head, I know that someday, I’m going to need to sit down and write about all those losses from my childhood.  Not just the loss of what I briefly had, but the grief for things I never had.  But there’s a part of me that feels that to try to pin down one part of my nature that I’ve "lost" is like trying to slice up and keep a piece of a sea.  I just can’t see it that way.  One part that can be separated from the rest of me. 

The closest I can come, without picking too many scabs, is talking about, in very general terms, a vivid experience from which I know I changed markedly.  An experience that caused me to shut down and harden my heart and armour myself in a way that I hadn’t done before, and as a child who had learned to detach, over and over again, a child who never really learned to deal with loss or feel grief, that’s saying something.

I was in my 20s.  I don’t want to go into the details of the experience, what caused it, why it hurt so much.  But the way I chose to deal with it was by believing, for a very long time, that I couldn't trust or depend on anyone but myself.  I then spent over 10 years suffering from it, living the fallout of the pain of it, learning the hard way how impossible it is to live with a closed off heart. 

I’m aware of it now and can have some compassion for myself for what I went through and the part I played in it.  But I still think there’s a possibility it could happen again.  Perhaps that’s why it feels so important to me right now, to actively practice, or try to practice, openness of heart.  I was going to say that without that experience, I wouldn’t be where I am today.  But I think that’s true of everything we live through.  

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Childhood Rooms ~ The Scintilla Project ~ Day 4

Talk about your childhood room.

I laugh at the implication of one childhood room, the same room you spend your whole childhood in.  I know that’s the norm for a lot of people, but it isn’t that way for everybody.  To me, growing up in one place is exotic.  I don’t even know how many houses I lived in.  I don’t remember any of the ones I lived in before the age of 6. 

At 6, my bedroom was shared with my younger brother.  We were living in a house in Pakistan that had three bedrooms, but my mother used the third bedroom as a storage room and somewhere to hang the laundry.  So my brother and I shared.  I remember that it had no carpet, the floor was smooth stone, the walls were bare and white.  Each of the bedrooms had a bathroom connected to it.  My strongest memory of that room is my friend L coming over one day and introducing my brother and I to the game of doctors and nurses.  Even at that age I knew it was something to be hidden from my parents.  Even then, I was already keeping secrets.  We lived in that house for 3 or 4 years.

For a few months, when I was around 9, we lived in Srinagar in India.  We rented a huge apartment in a building.  It was very different from the house in Pakistan.  The house in Pakistan, in Rawalpindi, was all on one level, big but felt stark and bare, the walls were white, the floors were bare, there was no colour.  Outside there was just a lot of dust.  That’s what I remember.  In Srinagar, it was completely different.  We were in the mountains, there was greenery, flowers, colour.  The sky was bluer there, even the light seemed diffused with colour.  The apartments of the building we lived in had balconies, the rooms were carpeted and painted.  The furniture was ornate and old.  Wooden, upholstered.  I remember a room painted green, a cabinet of dark wood that I wanted to hide in as soon as I saw it.  But I don’t remember the room I slept in or whether I shared it with my brother.  We weren’t there long.  My memories of that apartment: there were daily power cuts.  We used to sleep by candle light and wake up in the morning and blow our noses and it would come out black from the candle flame soot.  Also, there was a bookshelf in the living room, a room no one seemed to go into but me.  My mother gave me my first novel to read then, Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth.  That was the day I turned into a bookworm and a future writer.  I also had a Math tutor called Mrs Hitter.  She would teach me math then show me how to make bubbles out of soap.  She didn’t come for a while and later I learned she’d been in hospital to have a spider removed from her ear.  When she came to see me again, she brought the spider along in a small square plastic box with a clear lid, the kind you might put jewellery into, its body resting on a square of cotton wool.

Then we moved to New York.  It sounds glamorous but we lived in Long Island and I had to go to an awful Catholic school.  I remember our apartment well, I even remember the address.  31D Stephan Oval, Glen Cove.  It was compact and had wooden floors.  The rooms were all very small.  I do remember my bedroom – shared with my brother.  We slept on mattresses that were laid on tin trunks.  There was hardly any space between our beds.  I had Strawberry Shortcake bedding and my brother had Spiderman.  We also had a humidifier, a huge pale blue thing that looked like a model for a UFO and used to make a loud humming noise all night while it was on.  That year we discovered Toys R Us, Hershey’s chocolate syrup squirted into milk, Ruffles Potato Chips and Atari games.  I remember watching bits of Princess Di’s wedding in that apartment.  But the only memory I have of that bedroom is going in there one day, when I had the chance to be alone, and writing in my very first diary, a hard backed, five year diary with a pink cover and a drawing of a cartoon girl on the front, all innocent and sweet.  It was a gift from my mother – to encourage my writing.  For each day, there were 5 squiggly lines for me to write on.  I’d had the diary since January but hadn’t been able to write a single thing in it.  When I finally did, it was June, the end of the school year, which had been lonely and difficult.  There had just been a school trip to Christopher Morley Park where I’d spent most of the day alone, because I hadn’t really made any friends at that school and all the other kids were hanging out together in cliques.  But when I got home, I wrote all kinds of lies in my diary about what a great trip it had been.  I tore that page out some time later.  Thankfully we were only there for one year.

After that we moved to Damascus, Syria.  We lived in 2 different houses there over 4 years.  If you count the first place we stayed in for a couple of weeks, then we lived in 3.  The first place belonged to a Thai couple who were already living and working there.  They had a dog that used to do tiny craps all over the floor, which was tiled and speckled and you couldn’t necessarily see the crap before stepping in it.  I think all four of us were sleeping in one room until we found our own place.  My distinct memory of that place is of being left alone with my brother one afternoon while my parents and their friends went to look at a potential house for us.  Before arriving in Damascus, I’d met someone who was going to the school I was about to attend, and she told me that they shot people in the streets there.  So when my parents were out and I looked out the window and saw a hole in the back windscreen of our car, I had a complete freak out and meltdown.  I screamed and cried and sobbed in absolute terror, convinced that my parents had been shot and killed and that my brother and I were now all alone in the world.  I came out of it when I looked up to see my little brother praying over me, the blue plastic rosary from our previous school around his palms.  Something in me snapped and I went into my usual detached-coping mode.  We didn’t even need to speak of it, it was simply known between us that it was something we would never tell our parents.  So they never knew.

Shortly after that, we moved into a house with a garden full of orange trees, and a small swimming pool flanked on one side by a wall covered by a jasmine bush.  The bedroom in that house was also shared with my brother.  We had bunk beds.  I had the top bunk and we had no privacy.  You had to walk through our room to get to our parents’.  We didn’t have a door to shut.  On one side it was open to the rest of the house, on the other, there was a door to my parents’ room, and on a third wall, there was a glass fronted door that went out onto the garden.  In that room, I put on a play that I wrote myself.  It was acted out with paper dolls that I’d also made myself, with a set that I put together using a cardboard doll’s house.  The play was put on for my parents and some of their friends.  I think it was a hit.  That room was also once turned into a haunted house.  When we lived in New York, we spent one of the school vacations there driving to Florida to visit Disneyworld.  We visited the Haunted House and we tried to recreate it in our bedroom one Halloween.  That was a hit too.  And then, the Halloween that I was 12, when my mother dressed me up as Snow White and my friend came to the school parade dressed as a prostitute, and we went off school grounds together after dark while she was still dressed like that, that night, I was silently thrashed by my father with his belt for committing some offence that I had no capacity to fathom at the time. 

We moved to another house after a year or two, but I don’t remember much of it.  I did have my own room there, with a door that closed.  My memories of that room?  My father killed a huge cockroach that was crawling up the wall next to my bed and even after its body was cleaned off the wall, the stains from its crushing remained.  I also made my first and only attempt to run away from home from that room.  I don’t even remember why I did it, but I know that it was during Ramadan.  The neighbours were up breaking their fast, there was a lot of noise of feasting.  I climbed out the window in the middle of the night with a small bag, determined until I got to the end of my road and heard soldiers firing their guns into the air.  We lived near a military base and soldiers firing their guns into the air was how they celebrated.  But as soon as I heard the shots, I ran back home.  Nobody even knew I was gone. 

At 13, we lived in a small apartment in Herzliyya in Israel.  We were only there for one year and we were there without my father, who remained behind in Damascus and visited us at weekends.  I did have my own room and remember spending a lot of time in there, scribbling furiously into a diary about how much I couldn’t stand my mother.  There was a lot of door slamming and shouting that year.  My main memory of that place is sitting at the tiny kitchen table when my father told me during one of his weekend visits that we would be moving again.  I’d really fallen in love with my new school and was just starting to feel like I belonged.  Except this time, instead of accepting news of yet another move quietly and meekly, I cried and got angry and asked him why.  He didn’t have much of an answer for me so all I could do was cry and rage about it.  It was the first and only time I cried and raged about being moved.  Then I just got on with it.

We then moved to Cyprus, where I spent the next 4 years, and finished school.  We lived in one apartment there, I had my own room.  It had two windows and got a lot of sun.  It was next door to a Montessori nursery so I remember always hearing the noise of children playing.  I have a lot of memories of that room.  It did include letting two boys in when I wasn’t supposed to.  The first was when I was 15 and my parents were home.  He was one of my best friends but he had a crush on me.  We went into my room, turned off the lights and slow danced to a Scorpions song.  My Mom twigged, knocked on the door halfway through and told him to leave.  The second time I had a boy in there, I was 17, my parents weren’t home and that’s all I’m going to say about that. 

And then I left my parents’ life and my parents’ homes and went to University and spent the next years of my life moving from room to room, from flat to flat, to different towns and cities, around different parts of the same city.  To this day, the longest I ever lived anywhere was 6 years and that was in a flat in London in my late 20s / early 30s.

My childhood never really had a room.  It’s still carrying everything in a bulging suitcase inside me.  Every now and then I jostle it and it causes a lump in my throat.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Scintilla Project ~ Day 3

A memory triggered by a song

Whenever anyone asks me a question that requires me to pick a particular song / book / film, my mind always goes blank.  When I first saw this prompt, I tried to think of a song, any song, to see if it triggered any memories, and I couldn’t.  I went to my shelf of CDs (yes, I still have CDs!) and tried picking some out at random but the ones I got also produced blanks.  Now, a few days later, I remember a song that will always have a particular association with it.

It was June 1985, I was 13.  We were living in Damascus.  It was the last day of school and I was going to the end of year “graduation” dance at the American International Community School I went to.  I was gawky.  I wore white sandals with white socks to the dance.  I had braces and no notion of what it meant to be cool or graceful.  But I did have a boyfriend, my first.  Willem – my best friend’s younger brother.  We’d gotten together, after my friend acted as go-between, about a week or so before the dance.  But being the kind of kids we were – geeky, bookish, shy and awkward, we’d spent most of our time together being geeky, bookish, shy and awkward and had not, much to my friend’s dismay, even come close to a first kiss.  The physical contact we’d had was limited to a few slow dances – you know, the kind where you dance so far apart, you could fit another person in the gap between us.  There was a lot of looking at the floor and after the music stopped, an almost immediate withdrawal, as if our parents had caught us doing something naughty.  But that all changed the night of the dance. 

It started as most of our school dances did – boys and girls not really mingling, lights and music blaring, chaperones on watch.  But then something changed.  I can’t remember why, but there was a very distinct moment when it felt as if we’d been left to our own devices.  The room went dark and they started playing slow songs.  When the first few chords of Purple Rain started, Willem asked me to dance.  I don’t know if it was because it was dark or because it suddenly felt as if we were alone or because he’d been under his sister’s instructions, but this time, there was no space between us.  I can remember those minutes so well, the way the room looked and felt, the way his arms felt around me, the warmth between us, the frantic beating of his heart and mine.  During that song, we had our first kiss, the very first kiss either of us had ever had.  It wasn’t what I expected, I’d never heard of a French kiss and had no idea what to do with his tongue in my mouth, but it was warm and soft and sweet and because they played the full 8 minute plus version of the song, it was long and lingering and it seemed like we melted into each other.

We got better at the kissing.  Over the next 10 days or so that we had left together, we went to a lot of parties.  We were teased by our friends for being the sweetest, most “stuck together” couple in school.  It was even better because it was all so innocent.  We were just two kids who really liked each other.  There was no malice, no jealousy, and despite the shyness, no fear.  There was also no pressure.  Except, that is, for mortality and transience and everything coming to an end and life being completely out of our control. 

At the end of those 3 or so weeks we had together, his family went away on vacation and mine got ready to pack up and move on.  My father was being transferred again, this time to Israel.

While Willem was away on vacation with his family, I remember trying to pick out a card to send him, from a hotel gift shop.  It was one of the few places you could find things like greetings cards in Damascus at that time.  I couldn’t find one in English, but there was one in French.  It was blue and had a cartoony white rabbit on it and inside was written Je T’aime.  I blushed at my boldness, it felt so utterly serious and daring for me to give such a card to a boy.  I didn’t know if I meant it or not and yet, I didn’t want to leave without saying something.  So I sent it to him.

We didn’t see each other over the summer but my Dad had to go back to Damascus briefly before school started so I arranged to meet Willem at a hotel pool.  I wasn’t sure if he’d still care anything for me and a big part of me had already become detached. I was already in that all too familiar place of limbo-numbness.  But when he saw me, he gave me a present.  My first from a boy.  It was a tiny silver heart, with a leaf over the top and the “evil eye” in the middle.  In the Middle East it is considered a charm to ward off evil and bad luck.  I remember receiving it with little emotion.  I didn’t know what it was supposed to mean and even if it meant something, I didn’t know what I could possibly do with it since we would probably never see each other again. 

At the time, I didn’t consciously perceive this and I certainly didn’t allow myself to feel anything about it, but looking back on it now, I remember my reaction was one of painfully absent emotion, perhaps a bit like a rabbit in the headlights.  Willem wasn’t detached though.  His face, when he gave it to me, was lit up, full of warmth.  It didn’t seem to matter to him that we weren’t going to see each other again.  It was probably the purest expression of simply, wholly giving, with no agenda, no expectation of anything in return, that I can remember being on the receiving end of and it makes my heart ache for the girl that I was then, not knowing what to do with such a beautiful gift, except put it away in a box.

I’ve been given jewellery since, but it’s not something I’m fond of.  I never wear any jewellery, I just don’t like the feeling of having anything around my wrist or my neck or even on my fingers.  And it’s never really taken my fancy.  I’ll go wild for a good book or a beautiful poem but pearls or diamonds do nothing for me.

Recently though, while reading Hemingway’s Across The River and Into The Trees, I came across a scene between the two main characters where they talked about how neither of them were showy people who cared to dress up or have things like jewels to draw attention to themselves but they wanted to give one another something solid, something solid and beautiful that, when touched or seen, would give the other happiness, because it would remind them of each other and how much they were loved.  I suppose this is the real reason behind gifts of jewellery, or any gift really, and yet it struck me as if I’d never known this.  So much of this seems to be lost in gift-giving these days I think, but that scene made me remember Willem’s silver heart.  Suddenly it seemed very important that I find it, see it, hold it in my hand again.

I knew where it was, in a small wooden box packed away in a cardboard box, behind some other cardboard boxes somewhere up in the attic room.  But I dug it out.  I shifted a chest of drawers, opened boxes, unearthed memories, forgotten books, letters, half-filled notebooks, photos.  And finally, the small wooden box.  Willem’s heart was still there.  And when I found it, I was overwhelmed by emotion.  As if all the emotion I couldn’t feel then had finally found its voice.  Willem and I never saw each other again but the 13 year old girl inside me could finally receive her gift, wholly and simply given, still present and powerful after all these years.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Am I growed up now? ~ The Scintilla Project, Day 2

When did you realise you were a grown up?

On my 12th birthday, I wrote a poem for my parents entitled Response-ability.  It was all about the wonders and virtues of being, you guessed it, Responsible.  I recited it for them while they were eating dinner.  They gave me glowing reviews.  I thought that would make me happy.  I just felt sick. 

When I was 17, my father travelled to London with me and then onwards to Staffordshire, to deposit me at University.  He was supposed to stay for a couple of days to help me settle in, then fly back home to Israel, where he was based at the time.  On the day we arrived, it took a lot less time to get me registered and into my accommodation than we expected.  A few hours after I arrived on campus, my bags not yet unpacked, not yet having met anybody on my corridor or seen a potentially friendly face, my Dad announced that if he left straight away, he could catch a train back to London in time to get an early flight back to Israel the next morning.  I’d been looking forward to having dinner with him at least, had been hanging on to a last Chinese meal, just me and my Dad, before I had to face this whole new life on my own.  But I couldn’t say anything.  He wanted to leave.  So I let him.

I’m 40 now, and a mother.  I think that’s supposed to make me a grown up.  When I’m watching cbeebies with Jake and the presenters are using scissors or putting something in an oven or elaborately painting something plastic with PVA glue and leaving it to dry, we are told that this is when a grown up is supposed to help.  Sometimes I forget that I’m the grown up.  Other times, I feel a vague sense of panic and then reassure myself that it is okay – in this instance, grown up means someone with advanced motor skills. 

I got a letter from a friend today.  She wrote that I seem to have flowed into motherhood really naturally and asked if that was how it felt to me.  I laughed.  Because the image of motherhood that I had before Jake arrived is so different from what it feels like.  When things are going well, when Jake and I are in tune and connecting, when it all flows, is when I feel least like I imagine a grown up is supposed to be, and most like a child – or at least, most like the way Jake is a child – open, spontaneous, trusting, joyful, but with (marginally) better control over my digits and limbs and the ability to get things out of high cupboards.  When things are going badly, when I am stressed, angry, tired, irritable and unable to connect and go with the flow, I also feel like a child, the child that I was back then.  Not the well-behaved, obedient, responsible child that made my parents so proud, but the one underneath – the silent, thwarted, lonely one. 

When I was pregnant, we moved house in my third trimester – a month before Jake was due.  I’d already decided I wanted a home birth and the midwife I’d had up to that point had been supportive.  But moving meant registering with a new GP, meeting a whole host of new faces involved in my care.  I’ve blogged about it here, so I won’t go into the details again, but I was faced with a lot of hostility when I asked for a home birth.  I was feeling very vulnerable and angry that I was not getting the care I wanted.  I did not want to be doing research on maternal death rates due to post-partum haemorrhaging when I was 38 weeks pregnant.  I went into high-functioning responsible mode - I spoke to lots of people, asked a lot of questions, remained calm while a junior Doctor who really should have been in a boy band told me that the risks were too high.  All the while there was a part of me wishing someone else could deal with it all while I hid under my duvet until it was over.  Then it hit me that it was entirely up to me.  I had to speak up for myself, I had to make the decision and believe in it.  I had to believe in myself.  This baby was going to come out of ME.  Could I do it?  Did I have it in me?  That question had never been so crucial.

Two days before Jake was born, it clicked.  I was flooded with a complete and very physical belief that everything was going to be fine.  I could feel it in my body.  I was undeterred in this belief and everything went smoothly.  Jake was born at home after a 7 hour labour.  I didn’t bleed to death and we didn’t have to see the inside of a hospital.  I could say that the moment I made that decision, I was being a proper grown up, perhaps for the first time in my life.  But to me, it felt like an act of grace, a gift from something, somewhere bigger than me.  Either that, or super kick-ass hormones.


For more on the Scintilla Project, go here.

Red Lentil Pancakes

Oops, scoffed most of them before I remembered to take a sexy food photo...

Yesterday, I made red lentil pancakes for the first time.  I adore red lentils and these were the easiest pancakes to make ever...if you don't count the time needed to soak the lentils (overnight) and then carefully blend them in the world's tiniest food processor.  I was worried they wouldn't set and fall apart, I was worried they would burn - these are the things that usually happen when I make pancakes.  But no - they were perfect.

I liberally adapted this recipe and made my batter with chopped onion, garlic, tomato puree and paprika instead of the suggested ingredients and I used good ol' sunflower oil instead of coconut oil.  They were delicious.  The possibilities are endless.  Today I chopped up sundried tomatoes and ham and added them to the batter.  Yum yum.  The only thing I'd do differently next time is use less salt.  They are wonderful served with ketchup, or mango chutney, but I really wished I had some sour cream.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Scintilla Project ~ Day 1

Who am I?

I am full on fried chicken and rice fried with aubergine and cherry tomatoes.

I am sitting on a hip that’s out of balance.

I am alone in the house, except for Yoshi the cat, because my son is at his Dad’s tonight.

I am writing by hand again, sending letters to friends and postcards to strangers.

I am finding out what friendship really means. 

I’m discovering more than I’d like to, about what isn’t enough.  But it means I’m learning to recognise what is.

I am learning to play the ukulele.

I’ve just learned that I’ve been spelling ukulele wrong.

I am starting yet another project. (It's ok, this one is only for a fortnight).

I am being frightened by a small child I used to know.

I am trying to be kind.

I am trying to live with the following suggestions:

-         stay open, no matter what
-         always cultivate a joyful mind
-         no blame, be kind, love everything
(I think they all sort of mean the same thing)

I like stripey socks.

I am 40, but I still find farts amusing.

I am meeting several of my online friends next week, our first time seeing each other face-to-face.

I have stretch marks around my belly button.  They are in the shape of a flame.  But I refuse to call them tiger stripes.  I don’t need anyone to look at them and see tiger stripes.  I know what they are.  My skin's memory of the weight of my son.  My life's greatest privilege.  They are what they are.  Even when I wiggle my wobbly belly and they look like a flickering fire.

My son is my biggest supporter.  And he calls marshmallows smarshmallows.  His Dad taught him that.

I may not jump out of airplanes but I take risks, all the time.  I may seem quiet, but my heart roars.  (Yeah, writing that made me cringe a little.  But I'm also trying to make friends with the things that make me uncomfortable.)

Come roar with me.


This post was written as part of The Scintilla Project, which I first read about in Elizabeth's Marie's fantabulously beautiful post.