Thursday, December 8, 2011

Winter stories

December 8

Sometimes I miss the comfort of permanency. Even though I think part of the reason I applied for masters was to step off track and start walking in a different direction, knowing it was going to be a short-term journey.

I know that, but sometimes walking back home in the cold to wonder over which frozen kebabs to have for dinner, I think it would be nice to be settled. To have a good job, a husband, parents close by, friends, cousins, relatives, colleagues in neat concentric circles around me and my perfect house. To know people on the street, wave at the guard everyday as he helps me back my car out of the driveway. To invest in real furniture, rugs, frames – you can tell the difference between students and real people when you visit their houses and see the posters, photographs, and postcards put up on the wall with tape. Real people have nice glass frames. And lots of lamps, and cushions on the couch that match two of the coasters on a non-Walmart coffee table. At least when I’m a real person, that is what my house will have.

I like the transience of grad school because it enables you have the bittersweet longing for a future that is expected to be different, better, not too distant.

I’m planning to have a good next week. Oh. Just a little over a week left before I pack my bags and head home – which has shifted paradigms too.

So going on a power drive I ploughed through my assignments this last week and now I’m looking forward to days spent drinking coffee, reading a good book (must find a good book first!) and spacing out, doodling, scribbling in at least two different cafés, walking around in the sun (or snow! Give me one or the other, don’t give me in between clouds), going to the art museum, shopping, maybe going to see a movie at the quaint cinema just five minutes away, maybe puffing some hookah at The Vine (pronounced with a v and not a w, not something South Asians can do that easily), maybe walking around Civic Center with its cutesy Hard Rock café and little paddling boats under a metallic beamed sky.

***

It is a cold early winter morning. The day is partitioned into tiny little boxes of purposiveness and each step is checked off – catch the train, wait for the bus stop, pull the wire at the right stop, attend the session, catch the bus again, and then wait for the train – a series of checks and soon it will be noon, and half the day will be over.

If you spend enough days doing the same series of actions, does it become second nature or do you lose your mind because just getting to one place requires so much planning?

It is a cold early winter morning and she exhales wispy little clouds into the brittle air. There is a bright green bench next to a bright green dustbin. Everyone is wearing dark colors, hoods over their heads, they stand alone in corners because it is too early to engage in a friendly conversation about the weather. Almost everyone is puffing a cigarette as they wait for their respective buses, people look weighed down by the dirt accumulated in their sweaters and jackets, their knuckles cracked.

The little boy looks like he has not washed his face in a few days, his tiny jeans are ripped at the knees but it takes her a while to figure out that he is not wearing any pajamas or leggings inside because his knees are so grimy.

The woman on the metro sat with a child in her lap, and two girls with curly hair and puffy jackets asleep with one’s head on the other’s shoulder. They wore backpacks and the mother had a small bag on wheels at her feet. The baby clutches on a red Twizzler as she dreams of clouds and teddy bears while her mother battles her own nightmares. Is she running away from her abusive husband? Is she running away because she hadn’t paid rent for the last two months and could not afford to pay it? The train stops and she nudges the girls next to her, nudges harder till they finally wake up and slowly follow their mother out into the cold, weighed down by their backpacks and sleep.

The boy in the flannel shirt twiddles his thumb as he sits on a table with other young men and women who ran away from home because their fathers drank too much, or because they had no parents at home and were under 18 years, because their older brother took them along on a mugging spree, or because their hearts and heads did not align on who they wanted to be, who they wanted to love. The boy in the flannel shirt had a nice home and parents who taught him good values, but the boy in the flannel shirt left his nice home and walked for sixteen miles in one night, his hands deep in his pockets as he listened to music on his Ipod and walked out of the suburban neighborhood, across the bridge, and into the city where some street lights worked and others did not.

***

There are so many stories around me. I wish I could go around, watching and listening to people, picking up pieces from different corners and cafes and aboard buses, and then stringing them together into stories and publishing a book.

I want to open a shelter for homeless youth where they can come for a shower, read a few books, sit and have a warm meal. I want to give them a safe environment, clean clothes, teach them how to read, write, apply for a job. How can I do this in Karachi?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Psst...its the past

December 3

There are some memories that are so perfect, like powder fresh snow, that you’re scared to remove them from the shelf in your brain, afraid that if you transport yourself back to the sidewalks that served as your everyday sitting areas, the paper cups of tea that strange bees would attempt to sip and in their attempt to sip they would drive you mad, zipping around your hands in circles; to the green benches, the photocopied reading packages that were perfect for straightening out crooked postcards; to the nights spent playing games and just talking, leaning back to put your head on somebody’s bag, the nights spent fighting sleep to reach that stage of delirium when everything is funny and everything is okay and oily halwa poori seems like the only thing that make sense; you’re afraid that if you are able to turn back enough to see all that is over, your heart will crumble, like a moldy cake, or an over-baked cookie.

Basit Koshul was so cool and so were Peirce and Allama Iqbal in the way they saw opposites as the different ends of the same coin – happiness that was so complete it drenched you like the monsoon rain in Lahore, the everyday joy of being, the series of moments up on the wall of amazing in your mind and your heart, that now stab you with a blunt-edged knife, or pummel at your innards slowly, with the gloved hands of a child, but persistently so that it eventually starts to hurt really bad.

I like the fact that I remember the past in the shimmery lovely light of the afternoon sun but it makes it all the harder to think that it’s kind of over. I say kind of even though it’s definitely and utterly over.

But since I’m an optimist and an idealist, I think of a bright(er) future too. And I know we’re all growed up, and we might not have the time to stand around a slug, draw a chalk circle around it and start an hour long dialogue on which direction the slug would take, where the slug had been, and where it would go – does it really notice the circle of chalk around it? – I think Gollum still dances all the time, Teeru still loves to nibble on sweet and salty stuff, Reem’s face is still like a baby which makes her no-nonsense attitude so adorable, Hera still laughs at all my jokes and almost-jokes, Rouje still has mild trouble articulating her profound thoughts, Dija still snorts occasionally and then laughs even more uncontrollably because of her snorting, Mony would probably eat her children’s share of cheese samosas, Barri still annoys the living daylights out of Gollum and Hisham when he talks about all bloggable things, Billu reminds me forever of how much I suck, Hisham is still the goofball who makes everybody laugh, and the list goes on.

And I can picture it now – meeting up in London or a tiny town in old England, in Canada, observing the desis in Toronto and then taking a four day trip to Montreal, riding the psychedelic waves at Hawksbay, making a hundred lists of things to see in Karachi and ticking most of them off.

Watching a video from senior year of college is as bittersweet as the word gets. I don’t even want to calculate the number of years (three) since then. It feels like it was perfect. And I’m pretty sure it was.

Conjuring perfection

November 29

The skies cleared today and the sun returned from a three-day holiday in the Bahamas. The air warmed up, the colors crept out, over the trees, flinging themselves into the breeze, brightening the blues, the reds and browns of roofs and onto the few lazy leaves still hanging on. I stepped into the porch and country music followed after me. It finally felt like it was day – a bright, beautiful early winter day, crisp and cold. I leaned forward with my elbows on the rickety wooden banister and you came out to stand next to me.

‘Why are your hands so cold?’ you wrap your warm hands around mine.

‘Because I’m about to die,’ I lean my head on your shoulder.

‘There’s gotta be more than this…’ drawls a country singer.

No, I tell her.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Vague aches

November 27

It feels like nine but it’s just past five. Winter is here, I felt it in the sharp tingling on my skin as I walked from the Metro station to my house, a thousand and five pins of ice smattering across my face. The windows are foggy and the heat is humming constantly, trying to churn up some life in the house. It seems empty, we need rugs and couches.

Ah, couches. I spent the most indulgent weekend and the couch at my brother’s was just amazing. I mean, I’ve always defended our free-Walmart futon but it is definitely not one of those castles of comfort in which you can sink and just remain static for hours – even though my roommate would beg to differ.

Goodbyes can be like thorns, stuck under your nails, constantly painful or like small holes within your chest, as if something is missing and the feeling of something amiss sits on your brow, balancing itself on your eyelashes, you feel it every time you blink, you’re not sure what it is, it’s like something dancing at the edge of your vision. You might look up and see it’s not there but as soon as you try and finish an assignment, it’s there again.

There’s a vague feeling of pain in my heart – I miss my mom, the baby, comfort of home, of being with people who make breakfast for you, pay for your faux leather boots, drive you where you want to go, wake you up for Fajr, cuddle and kiss, are tied to you with years, blood, DNA.

I guess I’ll get into the routine soon enough and I guess I should focus on the fact that I had an amazing weekend, interspersed with food, family, baby and lots of TV.

I mean, seriously, what can beat lying on a large, soft beige couch with a blanket over my knees and a cup of tea on a table within reach? I’ll tell you: lying on a large, soft beige couch with a blanket over my knees and a cup of tea on a table and a baby with blue eyes and soft cheeks lying on my chest, with his heart against mine.

Potato casserole, pumpkin pie, biryani, chicken roast, chai, rusk, and an endless litany of delicious food; baby Ryan’s cooing, obsession with fans, his tiny little hands and nose and blue eyes that stared at you and then back at his friend the ceiling fan, the noises he would make when gulping his bottle of milk, the furrowed brows of a tiny grump in a Thanksgiving outfit. Sigh. Not having to use my wallet the entire weekend, being fed and the one game of scrabble I won! Spending the evenings on the sofa, warm and cozy, marathons of F.R.I.E.N.D.S., Big Bang Theory, and other comforting, funny sitcoms.

Hartsville is a tiny town where everybody knows everybody else – except for their neighbor Dan, who moved from New York City to live in a three-bedroom house with a shed in the backyard. He walks around in a bathrobe, smoking a cigarette, watching the tendrils of smoke glow blue in the sunlight and his heart is lost. He carried the pieces of his broken heart in his chest for months but the shards kept cutting into his flesh and so he decided to just get rid of them. Now he listens to Avril Lavigne all day and works night shifts as a janitor in a hospital in the small town of Hartsville. He listens to music, smokes cigarettes and walks around in his bathrobe, rustling dead leaves under his feet, feeling the weight of the gun in his right hand.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

November 22

Words can be like hamsters. If you’re not careful and you look away for too long, they can escape and hide. And when you finally set around looking for them, you can’t find them. You’re forced into a hide-and-seek game and it’s not as easy as playing with four year olds who always hide in the same places, no, you really have to work on it, bending down on your hands and knees, looking into dusty corners, between pages of a book tucked far away on the shelf, maybe curled right in the middle of a bunch of receipts you were supposed to use to finally record how much money you really spend in a month.

I saw what looked like a doll made out of straw in the branches of a tree and I wondered if squirrels are smarter than we think. I also never realized what an annoying sound squirrels make – strange, high-pitched birdlike squeaking. Screeching like very tiny, angry ghouls. Which makes me wonder about all the noises animals make. I mean, one of the first conversations we have with toddlers revolves around what does a cat, dog, cow, duck do? The immense pride that parents bubble with when the little critters get these sounds right is amusing – I mean of course, if little Susie/Sara/Saleem can cock-a-doodle like a rooster that means they’re destined for success? If the children are really hitting the genius scales then they might also know how elephants and horses speak too.

But. What about zebras? Ostriches? Giraffes? If there were a social justice class for the animal kingdom, we’d definitely talk about that.

Speaking of social justice, sometimes I feel so happy I’m going to be a social worker in Pakistan and not in America. So what if my two years of hard work will be equated with all rich and generous people who do charity in their spare time – at least I won’t be sitting around in a support group for people who feel oppressed and sad and discriminated against all the time. I won’t have to deal with how an African-American woman feels when females of other races talk about washing their hair and she is estranged because her hair doesn’t work that way – or how 14 year olds started a rumor about poor, geeky Estelle and reduced her to an anorexic, wrist-cutting wreck? The young man who locked teenagers into a gym and shot half a dozen of them with a shiny revolver?

Sometimes I think I’m not cut out to be a social worker because instead of asking people how they feel, I want to tell them to get a grip. Pop your bubble of self-induced misery and low self-esteem and realize that there are other problems out there too.

I want to be working against poverty, unemployment, child abuse, corruption, illiteracy and yes, unhappiness too but not the kind that you might be able to rip yourself out of by just thinking above and beyond.

I know I sound callous so I’m going to switch to an easier topic – weather.

It’s getting colder and it’s getting easier to work at my desk because the trees outside are so bare. Their leafless branches stick out sharp, dry, withered. Still clawing at the air for the leaves that fluttered away so happily, so dreamily into the wind.

I loved Fall. The colors, the wind, the flurry of traffic-light colored leaves that whirled around in the breeze, on the sidewalks, momentary whirlpools.

I’m going to wait for the snow now. It might be worth the painful mornings that gleam white and cloudy outside my window while I battle alarm clocks, schedules and the whimsical fairies which dance around my head, pulling my blanket over my head, whispering in my ear to just skip class, it’s too cold to walk in a drizzle…

Seasons are so cool. I’m glad break is here and I can switch off my mode of independence and go see my family. Here’s to five days of not cooking, cleaning and using my debit card!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Reference points

November 12

Grandparents are important in our culture. They sit sturdy like rocks in the center and no matter how many directions the children go in, how far and how entangled the lines get, their presence is like a magnet. When weddings, funerals, births, Eids and summer vacations come tumbling down the pathways of time, the grandparent’s house lights up.

America is struggling with an aging population. In the midst of individuals who lose all connections in their passionate struggle to be independent, climbing up a mountain of freedom to realize there is only room for one person at the peak and at the end of a day, it is a terrifyingly empty and lonely place to be, in the midst of anti-aging products lining shelves upon shelves in an explosion of consumerism, small red bottles of magic potions and green bundles of money, red, blue and white plastic credit cards, in the midst of a manic fear of growing old and weak, live an ever increasing number of older adults. Nursing homes are a priority, and the over here, importance our culture attaches to grandparents and older relatives shimmers like a cobweb in sunlight – faint, transient, is it really there?

I think of my grandparent’s house in Islamabad as a place of magic and memory. After both my dada abu and dado died, the walls were repainted, my chachu and cousin moved in and the furniture was revamped, photographs were replaced. Eid dinners are a more quiet affair now, some say it’s because all the cousins moved away to study, marry, live and be but a part of me thinks it was an inevitability that was curled up in a corner since my dado died a few years ago, slowly unfurling into reality.

There are memories in every part of that house. Sometimes it feels like falling into a never-ending pile of photographs, sometimes it is like time travel, one minute you are opening a door to hang your wet towel in the sunlight and the next you’re ten years old and holding a cricket bat, wondering why the neighbor’s cat is so fat, the memory vanishes in a second but the aftertaste lingers and I stand in the cold late afternoon light of a winter sun for a moment too long, my fingers growing numb as they hold onto the corner of a blue towel. Sometimes it is like watching a silent film and the images flicker by, one after another. My cousins trying on my grandmother’s thick bifocals, laughing with delight at the way our eyes would become big and round like a bug’s, sprawled on the carpet in the lounge and watching Blair Witch Project, upset and a little awed at the number of times the word ‘fuck’ was used, terrified of the carrot-haired Chuckie in Child’s Play, the smell of rain that would waft into open rooms and the monsters that Arshia would create in the shadows of her room, sending us screaming and giggling into the blankets. The house lit up on weddings, and cars would block the driveway on Eid, and we would all pile out and stand in the pretty, warm light to take family photographs – do we fit in a frame, no, squeeze together…

Grandparents are important in our culture, they stand like rocks. They are the books we keep on the four corners of posters that have been rolled up for too long and need to be straightened out, they are the pegs that hold down flapping tents in the wind, they are the center point where we all come back at the end of the day, month, year like Hansel and Gretel following a trail of bread crumbs. They have stories to tell, memories they are steeped in. They collect photographs from all their children all around the world, they are like astrology books we can look up to connect the dots in the heavens and see which stars we belong to, what our history is, what our future will be.

I miss my grandparents. I hope they're happy in heaven.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

See, smell, touch, be in New York

November 8

The city assaults all of your senses – the smell of perspiration, people, piss, the sight of so many people, black, brown, white, yellow, blending in together like a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces are different but when you put them together, it’s just right. The skyscrapers, the lights, the hats, the boots, the people, the people, the people.

The sounds – of an off-key drunken man singing about change and the beat of drums in the dingy basement of a subway station, the trains chugging by every five minutes five miles away, the scattered group protesting against Israeli oppression… “Speak out against Israeli oppression…” yells a compassionate man into a loudspeaker, “You’re an asshole,” says a nearby pedestrian, “So are you, we’re both assholes,” the compassionate man replies compassionately, adding, “And you’re a fat asshole, at least I’m not fat.” You hear so many languages you forget which one is supposed to be the dominant one and the joy of catching a phrase in Punjabi as you walk past two brown men is incredible.

Feeling the edge of stairs as you scamper down steps, the rush of wind that blows hair off your face every time the train speeds into the station (“always makes me feel like I’m a heroine on a movie set!”), the elbows touched, the shoves received, the battle with Closing Doors. I found the whole “stay away from the Closing Doors” warning quite funny. Instead of thinking about the doors closing you imagine Closing Doors as an artifact that belongs in Harry Potter books/movies.

How many people would jump right into the middle of the Closing Doors for you? Not that many. I miss my person in New York and I especially miss the wild panicky determination on her face as she yelled at me to hurry up while holding the doors open for me like a tiny, female Tarzan.

New York is a great city, filthy, but amazing. 1 am and do you want fries with your nicotine? It gives multiculturalism a new dimension. I mean, it’s cool to see so many different people coexist but it’s even cooler to notice that you can’t really tell they’re different. One race/ethnicity/nationality doesn’t stand out because there’s many from all categories, who’s white, who’s black? Everybody gels in and you only stand out if you’re standing on your head in the middle of Union Square. It’s actually kind of easy to stand out there because people always seem to be expecting things to happen. They’re very likely to form a circle around anything remotely out of the ordinary, slightly kooky, the cameras will come out and people will just stand to watch and when people stand to watch, more and more join in and usually most of these people don’t really know what’s going on … but since there are people there, there must be something going on, right? Not.

Sigh. New York must be so conducive to insomnia.

Stinking awesome

November 4

The buildings stand tall and solitary, in a solemn queue awaiting the sun that knights them with a ring of burning gold, glory for a minute and then it’s gone, the buildings are dim again. But when it gets really dark, they’re going to light up from within.

I’m starting to like New York. The city makes me lonely but it’s the romantic loneliness, the kind that could inspire prose, poetry and graffiti. The lady with the red shoes, the boy with the incessant desire to write mediocre short stories and the fat, bearded man who turned into a son-of-a-bitch every time he eats a banana, the rats scampering along the dirty train tracks, the thousands of hands that touch a metal railing in the subway, leaving imprints of grease, germs, baby powder, blue lint from gloves, sweat and sadness. The red-eyed man who was going home to dirty dishes and a loving wife too drunk to remember that she loves him.

I like how people here carry around paperbacks. Guys just need to be wearing glasses, mismatched clothes and carrying a book to look interesting. For me, that is.

The sun moves quickly when it’s getting closer to the time she needs to leave for home, but in her rush, she leaves behind little bits and pieces of her. And then long after she disappears in a silent explosion of flame, the rays left behind slowly move after her, and finally, the colors are gone. Clouds can be clingy though, they hold on to the saturated hues of purple, pink, orange and yellow and refuse to let them follow the sun.

“Let us go, we need to be with her,” they tell the clouds gently, but nobody wants the warmth to leave…but of course it has to, and slowly the colors slip away and the sky is just plain old blue, brooding at being left alone, darkening as the minutes tick away.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Coffee to go

November 3

The privilege of not caring. The privilege of thinking of family first, of taking a break, of letting go. I always felt I was so smart the way I try and rationalize, convince the knots of stress in my shoulders to unknot simply by listening to the logic of my argument, about what really matters in life. Your family is more important than an assignment, sometimes you just need to give yourself a rest and indulge – ice cream, or an awful reality show.

But everybody doesn’t have the luxury to think of themselves first, even if it is now and then. Even worse, everybody doesn’t have the privilege of spending time with their family, even when they need them most. It all comes down to money and that crushes me.

Somebody argued me once about religion and all the wars it has caused. What about all the misery money causes? All the wars, the big ones and the ones that go on in thousands of countries, cities, millions of neighborhoods and households every day?

“Well the economic system can’t survive without money, but we can survive without religion.”

I disagree. I don’t think I would be able to survive without religion. I think of the people who live in villages scattered up and down mountains in Kashmir, who lost everything but faith in the 2005 earthquake. If they survived on money, they wouldn’t have made it. But faith kept them going, keeps them going.

The disparity in income and wealth is disgusting and it is pervasive, present everywhere. You can’t escape it, even if you buy and island and lie in a hammock under the sun.

I’m flying to New York today. I’m wearing leggings, boots and a coat and after I breezed through security (one of those days in which my being a South Asian isn’t a big deal) I bought an almost roasted cappuccino and hashbrowns. I’m sitting on a stool that’s really slippery and inconveniently far from the table/stand thing in front of me. The sky is compartmentalized in large, glass squares and it looks cloudy, misty, rainy. The convenience and comfort has transgressed and gone beyond its borders, changing from its comforting blue, lavender colors into a murky swirling dirty mustard, brown – guilt.

We’ve talked about the costs of privilege and this is one of them – everything is so easy and good that you can’t help but think of all the places where it isn’t like this, and the sheer number of those places makes my head spin. It robs the calm from this moment.

There are always those movies, photographs and books in which coats, legging and a to-go coffee cup is the epitome of everything you (as a 20-year-old relatively privileged female) want. It’s the impersonal and individual dreams that materialize and you realize the emptiness. I mean, the coffee tastes good but you know what tastes better? Tea and butter toast on a window ledge, homemade french fries with chilli garlic sauce and tang on a rooftop, Chinese food on a bench.

Life isn’t worth living without friends, family, faith. And I’m privileged because I have it all.

I hope becoming a social worker helps me relieve the guilt. I can’t wait to go back to Pakistan and start working. I know there will be obstacles, I know I will hate the traffic, the dirt, the electricity company but I will love the people (hopefully, mostly, usually?), the monsoons, the family, the comfort of belonging. Of a people with more love and less hate than it is believed, advertised, talked about.

Man, I love kids. There’s this adorable little boy sitting in front of me with his slightly less little older brother and father. He keeps squinting and tilting his face, just sitting there and blinking, making funny faces. It could be because he’s eating the sour Skittles, or because he’s doing that thing we all did (do) when we focus on an object and close one eye, then close the other one and repeat quickly to make the object move. Or maybe he just likes squinting and blinking. Sigh. I love kids.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I promise you, gaanaa abhi uthay ga

November 1

All the watches and clocks disappear, time as a concept dissolves and all that exists right now is the crisp Autumn breeze. The sun shimmers in a pool of gold behind leaves, the trees are tall, beautiful and that is my world at this moment.

It is the best kind of silence, the solitude that glitters like a drop of rain on the tip of a leaf. It is momentary and that is where its perfection lies. Two squirrels perch on our fence, an old, faded blue rug hangs on the banister, and every now and then leaves swirl down as if in a dream.

I’m sitting on my back porch, with Coke Studio, a glass of pink lemonade and the after effects of a single cigarette. I think of you and when we sat on the brick ledge after our Aasim Sajjad class, sharing headphones and you wanted to listen to a fast paced song. “Listen to this,” I told you. “Yeh gaanaa abhi uthay ga.”

I miss you, Rouje.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Higher

October 30

You know you’re having a lucky day if you hit your Walmart desk with your Walmart rolly-chair five times and still nothing falls off. Not even the gigantic blue mug of elaichi chai.

So, Elizabeth and I finally pushed one another out of the house, onto the metro and into Upper Limits. We weren’t sure how it would work out considering neither of us knows/remembers how to belay very well but it turned out well for us because that gym had auto-belays. And they were situated very conveniently near the 5.6 to 5.8s. All you have to do is clip on twice and then climb up.

Seems easy enough. And so I started the 5.6 and it truly was simpler than I had expected. The ‘rocks’ were spaced at easy intervals and they had nice upward curvy corners that provide good grips. About 20 feet up I started to feel a little scared though. Not because I was tired or the climbing was hard – no, it was just a thought that casually came and perched on my shoulder like a parrot. “You’re going to fall and break your leg, ankle, knee,” it squawked into my ear. Yikes. “Liz! I’m going to fall and die!”

“No, you won’t. The rope’s got you, it’ll just bring you down,” Liz said conveniently grounded.

“You’re going to die, the rope’s too thin, you’re going to break your arm, elbow, nose!” the parrot wouldn’t stop squawking and my heart was pounding harder, my hands getting sweatier which is never helpful on a climbing wall, my mind flew away with rationality sitting on top of it, waving at me cheerfully. I didn’t notice, of course, because I was busy panicking. “I don’t know what to do! I can’t climb further up because that just means I’ll fall from a greater height!”

It was like standing on a tightrope. Or being told to jump off a plane without a parachute. Granted it was not as high but the panic was similar. Flashback to my first trekking experience: 8 kg backpack slung across my happy shoulders, feet snug in good-looking tough Diggers, a blue cap on fat head, and a narrow, snaking dirt path going downhill with a fall that would probably break more than leg, ankle, knee, arm, elbow and nose.

The panic that swept over me like a 10-foot-wave and would have probably swept me over the edge had the little Pakhtun angel not descended with a comforting hand to help me move.

Of course up there on the climbing wall there were no angels descending but thank god for Liz.

“I promise you won’t fall! Just let go a little bit!”

I didn’t agree but at least I managed to overcome my panic enough to just climb down. Finally, I had my feet firmly planted on the ground.

“I guess my fear of heights took over a bit.”

I let Liz take on the 5.7 first and then I tested it out. Climbed halfway up and came down to make sure the rope would hold, and it did and it was kind of fun. The auto-belay really doesn’t pause and it brings you down as soon as you let go of the rocks. And it brings you down at a steady, quick pace. I always wanted to hang from the rope part of the crane and this is as close as I can get – unless I was a log or a cinder block I suppose.

It took me a couple of tries but I finally completed the 5.7 and it felt so good! The most annoying part was that my hands would get sweaty really fast. And then I sort of had to find a comfortable perch and hang on with one hand while I would reach into my chalk bag with the other and then repeat.

We took turns climbing and cheering one another on and although I didn’t conquer the 5.8, I managed to climb two-thirds of it. It had a tricky part where you had to sort of go at an angle. I do think I need to push myself more, stretch my limits a little more.

All in all, it was so much fun. So much better than my last climbing experience! I hope we can go again this Wednesday – despite the fact that our bodies feel as if they’ve been rolled down a rocky hill. I have a series of bruises on my knee and my arms, ribs and strange parts of my body ache. Introducing me to all these muscles that usually just lie there unused. Like new shoes you need to break into and before you do, they cut up the backs of your ankles like mad little chipmunks.

Although I’m still drinking milk I haven’t gone jogging in two weeks! I haven’t been lifting weights either. Terrible. But if we go climbing on Wednesday it would make up for my slacking. It would also be amazing if I can manage to climb all of that 5.8…

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Pakistani dream (I)

October 27

So I’ve been thinking about it for a while but it feels like a harder task so I’d been putting it off. I was either too sleepy or too tired and Desperate Housewives was easier. But right now, listening to Laal singing Habib Jalib’s poetry, I’m revved up like a clockwork toy all wound up and waiting to whir forward.

In my attempt to make sense and not fall off a cliff of alliterations and magic realistic cotton candy-colored thought bubbles, I will tackle this on two fronts: 1. our perception of America as the place to be and 2. the nerve of American (government, politicians, media and population that falls into this category. I take care to point out the Americans who stand vehemently opposed to what follows) to push Pakistanis and Muslims down a muddy slope of negative stereotypes, sticking them with labels of terrorism, underdevelopment, fundamentalism, extremism and oppression, cover us up with so many labels that you can’t even tell what lies beneath, blind us, stifle us, silence us. Force us into a box that we don’t fit into, a box that they have lived in for years and continue to live to this day. A box they created and maintain. Yes, I mean oppression, discrimination - nightmares that exist in America and should stand out even more blatantly because of the sunshine, wealth and rollercoasters that exist side by side with racism, sexism and poverty.

America has some very bloody stains on its history - we know that and it’s important to remember them. It is even more important to see what still exists. Obama’s president now, racism is gone? Think again. I’m all for optimism but not if it makes you turn away from an issue that still exists. Yes, think of it as a positive step so that it motivates you to go further down a path. Don’t think it’s the end. The poverty in America is different from that in Pakistan, I agree but inequality in this country is more than any other industrialized country. Some facts – An average CEO earns as much as 157 factory workers (Sklar); white males make up only 29% of the workforce but they hold more than 90% of the senior management positions. In 2003, white people had 14 times more in assets than blacks and 11 times more than Latinos. The statistics are similar across all fields of life – and when it comes to the level of vice president and above at Fortune 1000 industrial and Fortune 500 service industries, 96.6% of the executives are white males (Gallaghar).

You think Pakistan is a patriarchy? Come to America and women might not be “oppressed” with veils, but check out statistics on rape, domestic violence, depression, divorce, employment, salary, sexual harassment. Don’t widen your horizon and mind so much that you stop noticing what is on your doorstep. Sure, speak out against what’s wrong in other countries and cultures, walk down righteous paths but do glance down and see if your shoes are covered in your own dirt. Maybe you want to go ahead and deal with that first?

I know it’s been said before, America’s the only country to use the nuclear bombs, America’s a fucking hypocrite but I feel like it still isn’t said enough. And the own problems this country faces are not talked about enough.

Living in Pakistan, America’s the place to be, let’s go study there, it’s a liberal, free country and we can learn so much. And yes, I am learning so much but fortunately for me, I am learning of so many reasons to not be here. Yes, we have our own problems in Pakistan but the history and current state of discrimination in this country exists across so many different levels and more are coming in all the time.

For this part of the blog, I’m going to introduce you to eugenics – a movement I had no idea about. It started with a British scientist who came up with the brilliant idea that not everybody is allowed to live and procreate. Yes, some people are just not ‘right’ so they don’t get to marry and give birth – an effective way to ‘weed out’ and destroy certain genes that really aren’t that good anyways and so should not be passed on.

Who fell in this category of not right? Colored people (who the fuck came up with this term colored people anyways. White is a color too. Well. Actually its achromatic so maybe not but then black is achromatic too. You get what I mean.), disabled people among others. The way to deal with this? Forced sterilization. Yes. This means you cut away body parts so people can’t reproduce. (And they speak out against male circumcision – which has been discovered to have health benefits! Oh, it makes my blood boil. The righteousness of people with such an ugly, terrifying history). So while everyone was up in arms and horror about the sterilization and genocide that Hitler was carrying out, who talks about what happened in America? The horror of the holocaust must not be forgotten. But at the same time, what happened because of eugenics in America must not be forgotten either. To quote from one of my readings: “In 1933, shortly after the Nazis assumed power, they passed a law designed to forcibly sterilize persons with a range of disabilities. The text of this law was, sadly, heavily influenced by the eugenics laws of California” (Reilley). The magnitude of this fact blows my mind away. It was mandated by law in most states! And these continued till 1970s. The 1970s!

Can you believe it?

And yes, everyone knows about racism but I need to talk about the Tuskegee study. Not right now cause I really should start working again but I will. It also went on till the 1970s and even to this day, one of the people behind the study see nothing wrong with it. Mind-blasting.

Seriously, social work school rocks because it makes me see the beauty and potential in my country, in my people. Yes, so we get riled up in Karachi over ethnicities but the discrimination there is nothing compared to the racism that still strikes people in this country, how it affects their day to day existence, the economic differences and the questions their children come home with about their color.

I think of the family in a village in Sindh who lived in a one-room mud hut. A naked child was running in the distance and the only furniture were the two charpoys we were sitting on. One of the men in the house was cooking bhindi. “Will you have lunch with us?”

I think of the generosity, the resilience, the humor, the adventure, the love that exists in my country and I pray, I pray with all my little four-venticled heart that these people are given a chance. Because they deserve so much more.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Friends like hammocks

October 24

The difference is like that between falling into a groove cut exactly to fit you and sitting patiently on your knees at the edge of a stiff heap of clay to slowly carve and mold a new one to fit you. To not have to think about whether you’re talking in English or Urdu, to have a list of people to refer to and wonder and ask about, where is he now? When did she decide to go there? To have a few years of memories together so that hanging out is kind of like chilling out on a hammock. It’s easy. Old friends are like old jeans - the more worn-out they get, the better they fit and the more you love them.

So I went the entire weekend without touching a book or notes or an assignment. Grad school is about priorities.

You can’t let work get in the way of going to Chicago because those opportunities just don’t come by the dozens. Kind of like trying to find someone who is going to the Indian store. You just have to put it first. And am I glad I can make the right choices because Chicago is beautiful. It’s got the tall buildings with cleaners balancing on tiny planks high up scrubbing shiny glass windows to make them even shinier (they looked like little Spidermen), it’s got a river and bridges that rise up to let boats pass through, kind of like a domino effect, or maybe like a series of salutes. There are protests around the corner with trumpets and caped men, high school students trying to dance near a massive fountain without any water and a man trapping dreams and lights in soap bubbles. Rainbows hang suspended in midair and then a child kisses the bubble and it bursts. Bring your soapy hands together and pull them apart slowly, creating slow little transparent circles, like a magician. Chicago is big and bustling with life but everybody seems to be in a good mood. It’s clean and the trees were yellow, red, green. Traffic lights smeared on the tops of branches, people offering to give you a boost on to a metal cow or take a photograph of you with your friends so you can be in the picture too. There’s so much to do and even if you decide not to do any of it, you can just walk around and count the number of institutes and colleges located in downtown.

It’s supposed to be a windy city but I guess since everything had to be perfect that Saturday, the weather was warm and the wind was a slight stir every now and then, a definite anomaly in late October. It was supposed to be freezing cold with a wind that wants your nose to break off from your face like an icicle from the roof of a cave in a very cold place – but since it was a perfect Saturday, I barely needed my coat. The deep-pan pizza was delicious, mushrooms and cheese that melts in your mouth, and Earl Grey to finish. I can put my boots up on a chair and discuss the perks of relationships with people who are not identical but just different enough that you become a fuller person with them. Sort of like jigsaw puzzles. You can’t fit two identical pieces together – they should be a little different but their contours should fit into one another so they make a more complete picture.

Because I have dementia, I find it easy to be happy. Green fields, shooting stars, blue beanies, windmills and rows of corn stretching into the distance – I’m easily impressed/awed/pleased and excited. Will I lead a happier life? Maybe. Is it because I forget all the cooler, more breathtaking things I’ve seen or because I realize that the highest of snow-covered mountains shouldn’t diminish the beauty of cornfields? I'd like to think it's the latter but then I guess it depends on whether I do have dementia or not...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

`Mulch` on my mind

October 12

I hear footsteps and my heart pounds. I open my eyes and stare at the ceiling, concentrating on the sound of soft slippers slowly walking away. I dare to sit up and my door is open just an inch more than it was before I fell asleep. Sweat starts to pour down my forehead and I try and remember if I had locked my front door properly. I did, I didn’t, I’m sure I did, I always check all doors and windows at nine pm, but did I get a phone call – what’s that? My train of thoughts derails, the track disappeared and now all I can see is the shadow of a person standing outside my room.

“Are you awake?” someone asks and the fake concern, the imitated normalcy of the tone catches me off-guard. Chills creep up my spine as the person just walks into my room, peering into the dark.

Maybe if I pretend I’m asleep…but I’m sitting up…who is this? Who took away the dagger I keep under my pillow, my hand searches in vain for the comfort of a sharp edge.

“Mirrah? Hey, are you okay?”

I nearly choke, unable to move. The person knows my name. “No…” I manage to gasp, and then louder: “Get away from me! Who are you!?”

The person switches the light on, bathing my room in bright, white-blue light. I blink, look around the eerily neat, comforting blue and lime green sheets, a symmetrical painting hangs right above my head. My knuckles are white, my throat is dry and my heart is trying to pound its way out.

“Did you take your pills, Mirrah?” the person with the concerned voice puts her head to one side and looks at me carefully. “Mirrah? Did you take your pink pills?”

--

Today, I woke up and it was still dark outside. The sky was hanging low with the weight of the wet clouds, and the carpet of crunchy yellow leaves on the sidewalk was soppy, sad, hiding sticky patches of mulch just for me to step on in my rain bootless feet. Today we watched a documentary on mentally ill people being detained in prisons and so today, I thought of what it would feel like to be a paranoid schizophrenic. To always be scared, on edge, like someone was hiding in the shadows, laying out invisible bear traps or holding up a taser to your brain whenever you dared close your eyes.

You would never be able to play human dominoes – just crossing your arms and falling backwards into the arms of a friend or a stranger. You could never walk on the street listening to your Ipod because you’d feel like somebody would sneak up on you. You’d never be able to close your eyes when you kissed. You’d always have worms of insecurity and fear crawling in your heart, swimming in your blood stream, tickling the edge of your skin. No blanket would be soft enough, no arms warm enough for you to fall asleep in.

Speaking of physical comfort, I miss mine. I miss putting my head in my mom’s lap when she’s sitting on the jai-namaz, I miss leaning into you and feeling your hand on my face. I even miss having my cheeks pulled. I definitely miss my slumber parties with the girls and just making human pyramids or lying in connected shapes to watch a movie or pictures from the past. I miss hugging the kids, my sisters. Sigh.

I woke up today and the sky was so gray I had to turn on my lamp. But I had all my mental (mostly) faculties in control and arms and legs and eyelashes too, so I decided not to be too mopey. At least I’m not incarcerated in a tiny room with a hundred different people in my mind, driving me insane(r).

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Letting in the light

October 9

The best part about studying social work is the constant tap on the shoulder that makes you look in a different direction. Things I read or hear pop the bubble around my head, grab me by the ankles and pull me out from under my sofa of inane insecurities. I blink because it’s so bright and then sit back and examine the words that construct, deconstruct, shift and reorganize my thoughts.

As awful as the three-page instructions were, I started on my assignment – which is to understand, analyze and study a privilege we have – I’ve decided to choose my ability (that is being non-disabled) as a privilege simply because I never thought about it much. I mean yeah, every time I’d read Helen Keller or see someone in a wheelchair, sometimes when the electricity would go and refuse to come back I would wonder what it would be like to be blind but I never had to analyze what disability is and how as an able-bodied person I perpetuate a system of oppression.

Ha! I sound like an obnoxious masters student. In simple and better terms, I never thought about disability in relation to myself and what part I play in making life difficult for disabled people simply by never thinking – and therefore never doing – anything about a world that is built to suit people without disabilities.

Something I read in my book deserves to be reread and quoted:

‘What was it like to be a young man being lifted, moved, pushed by a woman? What was it like to have to ask for everyday materials to be taken out of your bag slung unreachably behind you on the chair? What was it like to request a straw for the glass of water naively placed on the wheelchair tray by the researcher, to have to request the glass be brought closer to the mouth, to have to request that a cushion under one’s neck be adjusted?’

People back home asked me why I would go for social work for my masters, is it really an actual profession, what am I going to learn, really? Well, this is why. Studying social work helps me get in touch with things I believe in but which get shoved back under piles of temporary files. It brings things into perspective, lifts up curtains we hang up consciously and unconsciously everyday so that we can live more easily, more robotically, divide time between TV shows, assignments, family and friends without having to see who lives around us, sleeps on a pavement, gets shot because their skin and clothes are hinting at a certain race/ethnicity, has to wait for hours before someone can walk by and push a door open.

I make fun of the touchy, feely, self-help group style classes I have but the self-analysis is profound, enlightening.

The best part about my masters is there are no lines, no cordoned off areas, no gated communities. I’m not learning something that will apply only to my career – I’m learning how to think, act and be something more than I am right now. Not just as a social worker but as a woman, student, person. And I could totally compare how that is cooler than a myriad of professions/masters degrees but since I’m a social worker (in progress) I will not.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Fat and sad

October 7

It’s like walking on thin ice, or a field with pits and holes dug all over and then covered with dried leaves. I don’t know when I’m going to fall but the feeling of falling is imminent, it hangs over me like a cobweb – I can only see it at a certain angle in a certain light.

I was walking on a tight rope over an abyss of loneliness even before the sun set and then, as it became darker outside, instructions to an assignment pushed me over. When you’re on a tight rope it doesn’t take much to make you slip but seriously, three pages of instructions for one assignment tells you something. It tells you you’re in for two awful weeks, for long stretches of researching. My eyes will shrink, the muscles between my shoulders and neck will tense up, knot together in wiry balls of stress, my brain will stop functioning eventually and I will eat incessantly and get depressed at a rate proportionate to the food I’m shoveling into my mouth.

I wondered if I should take up on a friend’s offer to spend my Friday night more productively (productive in terms of Friday fun. It’s Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday, intoned Rebecca Black in her supremely successful attempt at redefining tragedy that’s so great it slips into comedy). But I’m lying in the pit of hopelessness. Also wearing my PJs. So I decline and then it is just me, a very big bag of baked pita chips, a small tub of hummus and Desperate Housewives.

On a separate note, I managed to jog for fifteen minutes straight yesterday. On a similar note, I think I’ve pulled a muscle in my left calf. On a tangent, it is so amusing to hear Americans from different regions discuss accents.

“Gimme a fuckin` quorta so I can park my fuckin` caa-r!” say people in Boston.

“Shi-Kaa-go!” with nasal emphasis on the ka, say people in Chicago.

Southerners will speak in French and bye is au revoir pronounced phonetically au revoir. Apparently there is a Baghdad in Kentucky.

It was amusing to hear because it reminded me of the whole Karachi vs Lahore or Karachi vs Islamabad (okay, the latter is not even worthy of a pretend scenario) debates. I love picking on trends that exist across continents and cultures. Like Cotton Eye Joe, or how 25-year-old men have the same sense of humor as 16-year olds no matter what side of the Atlantic you’re on, or how parents always walk in on the one dirty scene in the movie you were watching with your friends.

I’m learning so much and doing so much. I’ve met some really cool, interesting, awesomely diverse people but there are those moments.

Those moments in which you feel like you’re trying to cover up a hole with a blanket of leaves. And this blanket isn’t going to be strong enough to hold you up when you eventually, inevitably get tired of standing and slip.

I think it’s that stage of being away from home in which the novelty is wearing down and I’ve finally gotten into a routine and my mind has finally stopped whirring around just enough to pause over the distance. Family, friends, fiancé. Sigh. The little comfort offered by alliterations.

I really shouldn’t have eaten so many baked pita chips. Damn you, awful assignment.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Knitting socks, scarves and sweaters

October 4

The beetles and bugs and butterflies line up before the little tubs of paint at 10 past 10 every night and one by one dip their little feet into the tubs of yellow, red, orange and brown. Some choose one color but others mix and match and then they all spread out, across the asphalt, grass, ground, up the tree trunks and onto the leaves, changing the green into colors of autumn. Yellow like marigolds, orange like the rust that lines the windows of houses near the sea, deep red like black cherries, brown like your eyes.

Trees with their tops still green and the lower branches ready to flick off rows of brown, the leaves still green in the middle but toasted around the edges. I love the red trees, with all their leaves drenched in shades of cerise and maroon but I think I love the trees that are in between, peachy, soft pink-orange colored, even more.

There have been frequent robberies around our neighborhoods in the past two weeks. Somebody got whacked with a tennis racket! Most of the social workers/public health students who hear this burst out laughing. Which is definitely very unsocial worky, I’m sure. I think it may be our classes which are starting to grate on many nerves. I’m learning a lot for sure but there are moments in which I want to roll my eyes like I used to when I was 7. For instance, today one of my readings was about adultism – discriminating against children because of their age and not giving them the respect they deserve and giving them the right to vote and what not. It was well-argued, I felt, but just the whole lens of oppression that we have to wear for our social justice class is getting me down in the dumps.

The problem with wearing any lens is that then you can only see through this lens and the entire world is the same color. It is important to understand how language and knowledge is exploited and used and is a powerful tool in creating power dynamics but there has to be a line drawn somewhere otherwise we will be too scared to say anything.

Everything is so fucking politically correct here.

I miss my city. When I think of Karachi, I imagine the sea, the gray waves topped with foam stretching endlessly into the distance, the clouds that hang low over the city and move incessantly, spinning above in the saturated skies, I can feel the breeze and I can hear the trees in my street rustle. I picture the curved yellow M at the beach and even the little sandy-haired children selling disgusting gum and cajoling half-eaten burgers, coffee and ice cream from people are part of a melancholic nostalgia.

Thousands of miles away, I forget the daily crime statistics, the fear that erupts in little beads of sweat every time two people sitting on a motorcycle come up close to your car after 8 pm, the honking that starts two seconds before the red light turns green, the power outages, the stench of dead fish that the breeze casually pushes into your house from time to time. Being away from home, I’m cautious about putting these images up for others to see. I know prejudice, hate, terror, violence exists in my society and my country but everybody already knows about these pictures. I want to put up other pictures in this album labeled Pakistan.

I want to photograph the man who sits perched on three motorcycles outside a bakery and helps me park my car in a tight spot, I want to write about the artist who goes around the city drawing pictures of love, change, struggle, I want to talk about the café where you can sing, play scrabble or just dream about peace. A man selling paapurr gives two girls a lighter because the sea breeze is too wild to light a cigarette with matches, the nachos at Atrium taste so good, the children in the apartments come out to dance when it rains, a teenager qualifies for freestyle football in an international competition, old boys, young boys play cricket late at night under a million stars and twenty street lights, a baby zebra comes into the world and survives, a thousand turtles are saved, engineering students design an environmentally-friendly car, a paper boat floats in a tub of soapy water.

This African woman talked about the dangers of a ‘single story’ – how certain dominant, prevalent images and mass media can define countries or people or anything in a certain way and it struck all the chords in my heart. Who gets to define your story? What happens if you don’t pick up the pen, speak out, hold up your hand and say, wait a minute, that’s not it. There’s more to it than that.

The trouble with stereotypes, the lady said, is not that they’re untrue but that they’re incomplete.

Which made me wonder about my part in changing the pieces of the puzzle so that it resembles the sea, the sky, the clouds and the pappur man more…

Say hi to my city for me.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bedbuggered

September 29

I woke up that day adrift in a sea of blossoms, pale pink, delicate, silent. Except they didn’t smell like flowers, more like mothballs or dust and then when I leaned over, closer, the blossoms turned out to be scrunched up paper, I barely touched one with a finger that the entire sea shook, shuddered, rustled and it sounded like rain or a child beating on tin sheets, and the papers unfurled, words poured down, catching in my hair, bruising my skin, scratching, tearing.

I woke up one night to find myself standing on a bridge made of playing cards. It was dark all around me so I couldn’t tell if I was surrounded by water or fire or a just a deep abyss. I’m afraid to move because I fear the bridge might collapse so I continue to stand, gingerly, terrified and stuck. I hope the sun rises soon so I can see clearer…

Thoughts can sometimes be like bedbugs. They make you twist and turn and roll around, they yank sleep away just as it starts to settle on you like a film of dust on black furniture, fling it away so hard it curls up in a corner and refuses to come back. So you continue to shift and sift and sigh, muttering and grumbling. When you finally get up and turn on the light, there is no sign of a bedbug but you know it even as you reach for the switch, as soon as it gets dark, the little critters will creep out and make your skin itch.

We move through life fast, taking changes in our stride or at least pretending to. No time to deal with issues, mope, cry or analyze how we feel about old homes, friends, family, emotions, not just because there is a paper to write, daal to make and self-esteem to prop up – it’s because it’s easier to stuff it into the back of your cupboard, under your bed or into a crooked corner. Write it on a piece of paper, scrunch it up and shove it into the background. I lived in a house for 23 years, I lived in a city for 23 years minus four years, I fell in love with red bricks and the way the asphalt felt against my sneakered feet, my mother’s hugs are warmer than any fireplace in Seattle, the comfort of green grass, Earl Grey but in the correct order and combination of sugar, friends and yellow mugs with leaves, the terrace I sat, slept, swam in.

You’d think humans would have adapted to the concept of change by now. It happens all the time, shouldn’t it be easier to deal with, take it in our stride rather than have to pretend to? And then you wake up one day adrift in a sea of blossoms except they’re all pieces of paper with words scribbled on them, smelling of nostalgia and dust. They keep piling up, higher and higher and now it’s a mountain of blossoms, except they’re not flowers, they’re all the things you need to deal with but what about the human behavior test this Friday?