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?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Wise pillar-less

September 25

My favorite photograph of me on my wall is the one with you. Well, all three of them. Thinking of you is like listening to good music while walking – everything looks better, feels better, the grays in the sky are infused with lavender, the taller treetops are able to reach out and grab on to – for a while – the fleeting sunrays.

Of course sometimes the distance kicks in and then it’s like the battery ran out or I took my headphones off. And all of a sudden the world is ordinary again. It’s really quiet except for the rush of traffic in the background, and I no longer feel like I’m on the set of a TV serial.

I’m going to take the liberty and blame you for the most recent holes in my self-esteem. Or rather, the lack of you. In other words, I really miss you.

I go through memories like a stack of photographs, bagels and cream cheese, three is the perfect number of cigarettes, the comforting patterns of chauvinism and punches we would follow, how can you eat Chinese food without me?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Untied

September 24

A week later I’m already scaling boulders and rocks and whitewashed walls. Not. But I have moved to three sets of arm exercises – today I did it twice. That’s six sets. Wow. Stronger arms and math skills, I’m on a roll!

I’m also drinking milk. I’m half a half-a-gallon down in three days. That’s the beauty of blogs – narcissism at its shiny fake silver peak. Everything you do is worthy enough to be penned down because you are essentially just writing as you think and so Alice is in wonderland, slipping down dark green leaves and into pasta bowls. Sometimes your brain feels like a slippery fish, you try to wrap your fingers around it but it slips out again and again, slopping sloppily all over your fake wood floors. Or like overcooked spaghetti. Are you happy, you ask, peering down into the gray-pink folds of your mind. Are you sending the right messages out, connecting the dots and nudging the neurotransmitters that can keep you happy? Dopamine that is. Something doesn’t feel right, but rationally thinking I should be at peace, if I wire my wires right I can be more content so take a deep breath, reach for your mind like you would for a sweater with holes in it and sit down on a cane chair and patiently mend the tears. You’ll only see the silver linings if you put your glasses on because you’re far-sighed, Aisha. It makes sense. Or just turn over the dark clouds or just grab a silver market and draw the lines around.

My problem has always been that I start fretting about things that don’t matter to me. I’ve always been a believer of free will, control and freedom. Just because you feel a particular way doesn’t mean you give up and wallow around in it forever. You maneuver your own strings.

So, good news is I can reach for the sweatshirt hanging on the back of my chair and open doors painlessly now. Bad news is I went jogging today and I actually had to pause and think if I actually knew how to jog. Seriously? The weather was perfect, the sun slowly sighing into the blue backdrop, the air just cold enough so that the tip of my nose felt I had put my face in the freezer for sixty seconds. Once I learnt that you should jog so that your heels hit the ground before your toes I felt like an extra organ had suddenly appeared above my heart, between my lungs at the base of my windpipe. Breathing suddenly became a little harder, I decided to blame it on the leftover Thai food I had.

It was fun though and I think coupled with my already strict (ha.ha) exercise regime, frequent jogging will turn me into a superwoman.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"On, climb? Climb on!"

September 20

I have always loved movies about sports, my heart goes out to the underdog/s and I urge them on in their practice routines, as they drive or are driven hard, beyond the endurance of the average and then how in the end they always win while emotional music plays in the background. Even movies about dying children and women with cancer don’t make me cry but when the star basketball/hockey/football player is lifted up on the shoulders of his ecstatic teammates, my eyes tear up.

Human psychology is incredible and the lengths to which people are able to push themselves go beyond the imagination (or at least right up to the edge of imagination). The catch is, of course, you don’t really know if you’ll be able to lift that car debris off your kid until or unless the actual moment comes.

And while in theory and movies it seems like almost anyone (and maybe they can) can have the determination in a given situation, say a 100-metre race and they’re in awful shape (as in the most exercise they get is walk from their bedroom to the kitchen and the car in the garage) but if they would just put in that extra effort, just will it that extra bit, pump their arms and their legs, grit their teeth and squint harder through the sweat pouring down their face, if they could just give themselves the final push, they’d make the final 300 yards. But in practice, not everyone can. And I wonder if you can inculcate that will in yourself or if it’s just more of a you either have it or you don’t (even depending on the situation, of course).

Since I’m a proponent of free will, I’ll decide you can. Maybe you need to cultivate that passion, maybe you just really, really need to work out a bit so that you actually feel you have muscles in your body rather than dough.

Maybe if I pretend I’m in a movie? “Maybe you can go run up and down the WashU staircase and pretend you’re like Rocky Balboa!”

So, stripping the metaphorical crap away, I went in-door climbing. And although I had always felt and known that my arms (and the rest of my body too) are not exactly made for lifting heavyweight machinery, it was a whole different scenario to be surrounded by these monkey-like humans who climbed up and down the varying difficulty-level walls, well-defined arms and legs and palpable strength. I felt like I was a bag of dough. Somebody toss me in the pantry or just knead me into a useless sad face and stick me in the oven. And I think I did try as hard as I could, or at least 1/3rd of what I could, but I barely managed to climb a few feet high and then it was just like, okay, so I can keep hugging this wall and sort of hang suspended in mid-air (the rope-belay system is pretty cool though, part of my just wanted to get up really high so I could hang up there for a while and then swing for a while, and then slowly descend. Like an angel in a school play) or admit defeat.

“It’s like climbing a ladder!” says Mr Greek helpfully.

“They don’t have ladders in Pakistan!” says Mr American with the twinkly eyes and two years of climbing experience.

“This is so frikkin` hard,” I mutter.

“Maybe you’re just not trying hard enough,” says Mr American with the twinkly eyes and two years of climbing experience.

At the end of the day, the optimist that I am, I decided to take the whole experience in the best light: possible improvement.

It is refreshing, I told myself, to try something that I completely suck at. It’s been a while since I’ve learned a new skill and I think being able to climb could come in handy. If nothing else, it will be my personal inspirational sports movie that starts off with me moaning about aching muscles after that one day of pushing and pulling myself up half a fake rock face (it really does hurt! Even more the second day than the first – which I’ve been told happens to people who are really weak! Yay.). And of course, like all good movies it will end in triumph. Which I translate as being able to climb a 5.9 (or maybe even 5.10?) difficulty level wall.

Step 1: drink milk and do eight sets of the three different arm exercises Liz has taught me. I’ve already progressed from using cans of Garbanzo beans to actual 5 pound weights.

So far though, it still hurts when I push a door open or reach for something behind my back. But I’m optimistic. The next plan of action is to join the introduction to climbing course, a six-week course that’s going to cost me $110 but can you really put a price on proving yourself? Also, the next time I punch my guy friends, it will be so funny to see them cry.

(I apologize for my perpetuating gender stereotypes here. These readings on social justice and privilege are really making me think about what I think)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tangents

September 18

I have a tendency to get lost in lists; what with Japanese drummer girls, baby giraffes and hot air balloons all within reach, I think I kind of strayed too far away. And then a slight tug around my ankles, a vague fretting sensation, the beginnings of melancholy. Fears, anxiety, nostalgia, longing for someone you’re used to being part of your daily grind. A happening, happy life brimming with awesomeness? According to whom? For whom? Is someone really watching and measuring how cool you are; does anyone care? Is it really sad if nobody really does or does it work the other way around too? When do I stop being an insecure 16 year old?

Remembering your self-designed purpose in life can be difficult in these fast-paced times where it feels months pass like minutes, calendar pages whirring away in the kind of blur they show in movies to show time’s passing by. I put up so many little post-its and daily planner pages that the larger picture is completely covered up – the real reason I have to finish my research methods assignment, my social justice readings. It’s kind of like trying to stand on your knees on an inflatable flat float in a swimming pool. The float keeps slipping away, popping up and flopping away from you. But you have to keep trying.

Like the cheap foam pink Energizer bunny ears on my shelf say: Keep going.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Someone to blame

September 14

It seems like just a few months ago we were trying to come up with a different way to layout the “flood stories” (a deluge of stories about storms in those months) so people would still pick up the paper and read about other people whose lives were streaming away from them in muddy, brown waters.

When you work for a newspaper, news becomes old really soon. The tragedy of a city like Karachi is reflected in a city editor who has been in the business for 10 years and when there’s a bomb blast, what comes to her mind first is: what will the headline be this time? “I’m running out of ideas and new angles…” she would puff out exasperatedly.

Just halfway through our first year publishing news, we started taking things in our stride: ‘okay, so we don’t need to worry about page 2 and 3 because there are so many flood stories; the building collapse in Lyari comes with a really good photograph so that’ll be all of page 1 anchor (bottom part)’.

The tragedy of a country like Pakistan is we cannot take time out for a horror like Americans do for 9/11 every year with a million flags and memorials, reliving the heartbreaking disaster and making new or renewing old promises and prejudices alike, because if we were to hold a moment of silence for all the people we have lost to terrorism, there would be no sound for years, and if we were to build steel monuments in memory for the men, women and children who have been killed since 9/11, there would be no space for the living.

The tragedy, and maybe the mad resilience, the courage, the only hope, is in the fact that we Pakistanis continue to laugh, drive, eat, buy cigarettes and fall in love.

It’s strange to be so far away from home and be so divorced from the reality back there.

It seems like a few months ago that I was going through the wire agencies and all the photographs from Pakistan were of the flood. It feels unreal to open the Tribune on my laptop and see the same pictures again…except they’re not the same and it is happening again. It hurts my brain and I cannot digest it, even (or maybe because) thousands of miles away from the actual pain of it. Not again, not so soon, not the same disaster. I need someone to blame.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Candles

September 7 & 8

A new pair of shoes that finally fits right and you can stuff your foot in without untying the laces yet the shoes are still not loose, or a pair of jeans fresh out of the dryer that’s just a little tight but then a couple of hours later it’s perfect.

It was like hopping up and down, trying to prop myself up a ledge and today I finally managed to get up there. It’s a cute little niche and guess what I found there? Indian food, coffee chocolate cake, a strange drunk man, a really cute black coat and my first birthday hug in St Louis.

--

What a randomly adorable day. If you manage not to miss home on your first birthday in a foreign place, you have to think about how lucky you are. St Louis is really starting to grow on me and of course, it’s the people around you who make the connections in your brain that spell out the beginnings of love.

So when we’re born, all our neurons are just unwired and there are a million different ways they can be connected, forming behavior patterns, will you be a good dancer, is math your thing, are you doomed to be a wallflower, do you like roses? The magic wand that zips and zooms these connections into place? The first time you’re held, kissed, talked to. So maybe the reason I like words is because my mother was reading poetry while running her fingers through my adorably-black baby hair. It sounds like I read this in a magic realist novel but really, it was a human behavior textbook!

Also, did you know some races are more prone to certain diseases? It’s premature to say if race is the biological factor behind this or if it is just how society and environment deals with particular races in terms of access to health resources, social networks and what not.

Back to birthday celebrations: people give you birthday hugs and it’s really awkwardly adorable, and there was a lemony-pineapple cream cake involved. Coincidence. How to turn Aisha into a red light, put in a circle and turn on the spotlight, ask a generic question, expect a mildly amusing response. Heartfelt birthday wishes from a pretty lady from Kirghizstan

And people I barely know randomly taking me out – just because it was my birthday. For an introverted bookworm, I sure had a really nice time hanging out with some strangers, a couple of people I had met before and one cute, goofy person who turns out to be younger than me.

I forget the two years I spent after college and what with my baby cheeks, I have trouble being older than people around me. I thought everybody was going to be like old and serious in grad school but so far, so good. Not that I’m being ageist or anything, that would be very unsocial-worker like of me.

Monday, September 12, 2011

To feel or not to feel

September 6

It’s there in the motivational songs that get you pumped up for almost seven minutes at a time, the quotes you sometimes rip out of magazines and put up on your mirror and occasionally in the speech of people wearing rose-tinted shades.

But perhaps for the first time in my life, it is everywhere. It is in the conversation of young women sitting at a bar, on T-shirts, posters – and in textbooks and lectures. You can help change the world; you must help change the world.

If you’re lucky and you end up choosing to do your masters in something you believe in, it is an incredible experience. I am surrounded by people who share my passion and it is a different reality from the one I am used to. It is not idealism but practical implementation of how things can be better. It is learning how to be a better person, and yes, sometimes it is tedious.

There is a thing as being too nice and I do sometimes wish to punch the person who continues to ask me how this or that obviously annoying thing makes me feel. It annoys me. Mainly because it is an annoying thing. Two minutes later it will still be annoying me, added to the irritation of discussing my feelings in a classroom full of very sensitive souls for three hours straight. Seriously! I’m from Pakistan; I worked in a newspaper in Karachi. I typed four-line obituaries for 15 men in a single night, would it really break my spirit if someone called me a ‘bloody immigrant’?

I suppose it was tragic that in a class of students horrified by pictures of oppression they had chosen and put up themselves I was neutral to most of the photos. Police brutality? Been there, seen it from up close. Poverty, starvation, war, civil unrest, yeah, as common as wildflowers in spring.

For many of these students it is the shock and horror of what lies around them, discovering that it is everywhere, pain, oppression, injustice. For me it is about peeling off the scabs so it can hurt again and continue stinging till I manage to find a salve.

How does that make me feel?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Miles and minutes

September 3

A hundred small boats slowly, cautiously set out together in their solitary confinement. Their lone passengers hold fishing rods and soon, they start casting their nets out.

“Where are you from?”

“Texas!”

“Oh me too!”

The fishing lines entangle and the two boats are pulled closer to one another.

Words like nametags are put up on shirts and chests, attempts to introduce, make friends or just conversation. Gaps close up for the most time but some widen, just like the physical distance from your home, this one stretches thousands of miles between cultures.

Grad school is like other starting points in your life. You set out alone in your fishing boat and although it can be comforting if you manage to look outside your little sphere and notice that all the other lonely boats are wafting alongside, at the end of a night, you just wish somebody already knew what your favorite movie was and what you did when you woke up late on a Saturday morning.

It’s mildly amusing that the loneliest I was here was in a circle of mostly sweet girls. The setting was perfect, straight out of my journal, a string of fairy lights and okay, the revolving moon wasn’t the classiest thing to be on the rooftop but we were high up. The breeze was intermittent but sweet and red, yellow lights stretched on both sides of the road, dipping down and up. Conversation was polite, sometimes funny and sometimes I would slip out because I was tired of smiling at things I didn’t relate to.

It’s nice when people are nice to you but that doesn’t help with your lack of knowledge about mooching cigarettes off people here. A longing for your country, where you know what you’re supposed to do in group of people and what the standard notions of sharing are.

--

You know you’re more secure than you thought if you can still pronounce Pakistan ‘Paak-istan’ even when everyone around you always says Pack-istan.

There are the days when you meet someone sweet enough to hop off the normal chart of sweetness onto the smaller one of ‘things that actually made my day’. Instead of treading unchartered waters and blindly searching for things in common, you stumble upon them like a smattering of marbles on the floor. Mountains and foosball, why are you so brown-skinned? Alaska and photography, so many places I have to see and adjust the light so that the snow on the peaks can stand out sharply on the postcard picture I will print out and put on my wall. I promise I will never hold a slimy fish in my hands – unless my four-year-old daughter’s goldfish flips out of her bowl and is dying on the floor. Only then will I wrap my fingers around the scaly body of a non-blinker.

I hope you live up to your promise of rematches and the fake rock that I don’t have the arm-strength to climb.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Stripping stereotypes

August 29

One of the stereotypes that young, college students and graduates in Pakistan wield around and agree on is how Americans can be so stupid. They’re too wrapped up in their nice, first-world lives with automatic cars and blue nail polish and have absolutely no clue about what’s going on in the rest of the world and the many people who live in shacks with tin roofs or the diversity that exists in countries they have simply labeled with one photograph, maybe of a starved African child or a woman in a veil.

Well, if you ever came to the school of social work, your comfortable cloak of righteousness would be ripped off within minutes.

Two things that I have realized about myself: I’m not as liberal as I had imagined about people’s freedom to live and do as they please. Neither am I as compassionate as I have been trying to be all my life. I’ve met Americans (albeit mostly females) who have travelled all over the world, worked in orphanages in India and clinics in Kenya – when they were in their teens! I think back to how hard it was to get students in my university to volunteer for two hours a week at a place barely 20 minutes away.

Not only have they already gone to the underprivileged countries, they plan to go back. They’ve learnt the languages, the food, the culture and brought it back with them. It is impressive and I hereby take my half-baked stereotypes and bury them in a deep, deep hole. Then I take off my hat to them and hope that I can cultivate a passion to help and to grow as a person like them.

--

“What if they need something at night?” the curly-haired 17-year old looks up incredulously at the four other young women clustered in a group in the dinghy office. The yellow light casts pale shadows around the posters on the wall, the dusty pedestal fan sleeping in the corner. It is almost eight pm and time for the volunteers at the orphanage to head back to their dorms on the second floor.

But tonight there seems to be problem.

“I think at least five of the kids have the flu,” continued the girl, “they might get choked up or scared or something in the night. I think we should maybe spend the night with them in their dorm.”

“Uhh and catch the flu? I don’t think so! We just got here and it would not help to fall sick so soon!” the other volunteers seemed to be in synch.

The curly-haired girl stared at them and stuck out her lips indignantly. Fine. “Well, I’m going to stay there.”

The fans turn slowly on the ceiling and the girls whisper, the rustling of sheets and intermittent coughing and sneezing is not like the steady hum of air-conditioning that you can easily fall asleep to. But when her eyes flutter open, the girl realizes she had managed to slip into unconsciousness.

“Excuse me.” There is a small child standing right by her bedside, looking at her from the gray shadows of the corner.

After making sure her heart was still where it was supposed to be, she sat up and squinted at the small person. “Are you okay?”

The child sniffled, tears and flu make for a sad combination so the 17-year-old curly-haired girl makes room for the child on her bed, hands her a few tissues and introduces her to fairies that live in trees that have white bark all the way from the tips of the branches to the tips of their roots. Water, cough syrup and two more stories later, the child is led back into her own bed and by the time the young American girl is ready to fall asleep, she feels a telltale itch in her nose and scratch in her throat. But the warmth in her heart overshadows the flu premonitions and she slips into the sweet dreams of idealism.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Whiners whine

August 28

At the end of a fruitful day and a Nepalese meal, I miss my friends. The night sky is bright and the breeze is perfect for a brick ledge and maybe a smoke. I miss the comfort of old friends who know all my stories so I really don’t need to talk.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Edge of comfort

August 26

My eyes open. The alarm rings and I roll over in bed.

Ramadan in St Louis is lonely and I battle instinct to get out of bed and make my way to the kitchen, the corridor dark, the AC humming lullabies the rest of the world is still sleeping to. Monsters come to mind, girls with fangs and crazed eyes and I recite tasbeeh.

Wash my hands, look for the frying pan, drink water from the tap and debate over the three options I have for food.

I break an egg open into the pan and my heart drops when the egg yolk spills sideways. I need for the yolk to be perfect and round and just slightly pink so when I touch it with my toast, it spills dark yellow. My mother would make it. And if the first time it wasn’t beautiful, she would put it aside to eat it herself and then just fry me another one.

I eat my broken, imperfect egg and with a smattering of salt and pepper, it tastes just fine.

--

St Louis is imperfect. The blocks of granite that make the curb jut up and down, like a stationary model explaining earthquakes. I imagine the roots of trees, old and tired, with brown leaves - not the perfect trimmed artificial shrubbery of Seattle’s suburbs – with their roots pushing up the asphalt, tripping people and I imagine stubbed toes, broken nails, a girl grabbing her foot and yelling, with a hand on her chuckling friend’s shoulder. A cat walking by, with a disdainful glance.

The streets are not very safe, everyone says. Never walk alone after dark, keep your doors locked, be cautious. There is an alarm system in our apartment! It should annoy me, did I really want to leave my dirty, beautiful Karachi for a Western version of it? But it doesn’t. It actually comforts me that when you move around the photographs and bookcases in the big mansion that is America, you see the cracks and the stains and realize you shouldn’t be so hard on your own country and people.

Here too, the poor walk around like ghosts, looking at pretty people sitting on chairs watching a movie on a projector outside a restaurant with their fancy and plain bottles of alcohol. Nobody notices the outstretched hand, a mumble for a couple of dollars. The movie goes on and he moves away. The only difference is that this bum has sneakers on.

In some ways, it is more dangerous here than Karachi. At least back home I could have walked in my street at 9 pm – if I wanted to. But it’s not fair to compare. Ah. How cute. Not fair to compare – it could totally be the tagline of some social work-y thing.

Too often it is too quiet. Even though where I live is far from Seattle’s dreamy little suburb, the nights are silent. Mostly- the sirens ring in the background almost every night and it reminds me of Karachi again. But even then, there are more cars than people. There are no stray dogs, no little children, no guards whistling and talking, the sputter of rickshaws, the honking of cars and the tinkling bells of cycles. Sometimes it feels like I’m on the set of a futuristic movie.

We finally ventured out the other night, walked the brightly-lit streets of Central West End, an area definitely more uppity than the one where we live, with its broken teeth-pavement and weary trees. You could walk up and down and turn the corner to find something new and cute, maybe wine tasting or fairy lights strung above metal chairs or the King and I being screened outside a chocolate and coffee café.

The hands on the clock tick tock a warning. Cinderellas in this town have to turn in by 9:30 and so we walk to a bus stop and wait.

Fifteen minutes later, the metro lurches to a timely stop. “Hello princess! Another princess! Whoa another princess! It’s my lucky night!”

The bus driver’s age and the time of the night is just so that the friendly bantering appeared inappropriate. Not to mention we were the only three on the bus after the one nice black man hopped off at his stop. The bus driver offered his hand in marriage and narrated the many languages he knew, flattering us enough for us to desperately long for our stop. We finally did decide we were close enough to home and got off.

Stay away from the trees at night, is it safe to be walking home? And we’re back in our little sanctuary with the balcony we cannot go out on.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Now you have it, now you don`t

August 21

It’s like that arcade game in which you stand with a hammer in front of a field of holes and you have to bang the little moles or mice or whatever rodent pops up. Except you don’t know where it’s going to come from and as soon as you hit one down, another one jumps out. I’ve thrown a huge black blanket over my mind and I’m holding it down, on my fours, trying to keep it from slipping off and exposing the truth: I miss home; I don’t know what I’m doing, was it the right decision?

Of course there is no one moment at which the decision stands right or wrong and it will play out gradually and it depends on how I see it and how I deal with it. Right now, it’s play-doh in its little cute plastic box.

Making furniture, buying hooks to hang blue clocks on, trudging up a creaky staircase with bags from Walmart and Target and then spending the lonely hours in the night putting up photographs of all the people who aren’t with me.

It’s interesting to manage my religion in a place indifferent to it. I wake up for sehri, a struggle every early morning and I heat leftovers with a wary eye on the only company in those wee hours: a creepy-crawly that looks like a cross between a centipede and a spider.

Being positive can be difficult but it is essential.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Two-way streets

August 17

I had forgotten the liberating feeling of being on your own. Words have paths forking out in all directions, and so, right now, if I look to one side, the lane stretches beneath shady green trees and the sun sparkles gold like a child peeking out from behind curtains, racing ahead and stopping every now and then to look through the leaves, blurring edges in drops of gold. Freedom, independence, solitude.

The other path twists and turns, dim, dark and dinghy: alone, lonely, sad, without.

I had forgotten the sense of standing on your own. And yes, I'm not even on my own yet, I have people helping me, appearing out of the smallest doors and unnoticed corners to tell me which bus to get, how a student ID works, picking me up from the airport. But the small pockets of friendly comfort can't be there - and they aren't there - all the time.

I lay awake on the sofa, thinking of time zones. Did you know travelling to America from Pakistan is like stepping back into the past? You leave and a day and half later you're at your destination but it's just fifteen hours later than when you stepped into the airport back home. You have half a day extra but no idea where or who to spend the free minutes on.

But tomorrow. Tomorrow I will get my own apartment and I might have to spend the night alone there (my roommates come later), hard wood floors, empty and hopefully a mattress and pillow. I must get some music immediately! Freedom, solitude. Time. I hope I can find trees to make me happy.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Plane panic

August 16

It's a small tear, like when you try to stand up and your shirt gets caught under your foot, a tiny rrrr-rip sound and you stare down and there is a black hole in your heart. You skip a beat, try to catch your breath and notice the hole has widened. Panic. It is the fear of the unknown, of having left all your friends and family behind - who will call me brat, fat, love? How will I know who to call depending on what the weather and my mood is like? Not a single person will know who I am, how I am, that I dye my hair black every month or that I should never wear red nailpolish. The fear spreads like an inkblot on thick paper, a dark stain that's really hard to erase. A sinking feeling begins, like a baby elephant is stepping on my heart and I can't breathe. Is it normal to be so frightened, so lonely?

I guess I miss everyone. Why can't at least one of them be with me? I space my breathing, control the rhythm, recite tasbeeh and a few minutes later, it is possible to continue with my inflight movie.

I can be quite the solitary person who is good to go for several hours if there is a book and tea at hand - or at least I used to be. But starting my day-and-half's journey I wondered how long it would be before I could talk to someone.

"Does this look like the fast track to you?" the guy with the backpack ahead of me at the Fast Track, passport control at Karachi airport glanced at me.

"It's slower than the other queues," I sympathised because I was in the same line. We did eventually get through to the airport lounge and then on our flight. Three seats empty next to me, woohoo! Definite picture moment.

The food they gave me caused me some qualms too. I'm going to miss chicken makhni and daal chawal. I suppose I could always start cooking! Eventually.

At Abu Dhabi airport, I still didn't have a pen and I looked around the shops, wondering how I could travel without a pen! Me! With the perpetual notebook and other accoutrements!

"Hi again," the guy with the backpack was waving in my face. Did I really pack my glasses in my checked-in baggage?

"Hello. I'm looking for a pen."

He offered me three but I took two. Then we decided to walk together because of my fear of losing my voice because I hadn't conversed with anyone in so long got me over my usual reluctance to begin chatting. He was a stereotypical accountant who read only biographies and thought a degree in social work was boring. Since he was working in Toronto after doing his bachelors from UoFT, he was able to offer some comfort: the first month or so is awful and you'll miss home a lot. But then you'll make friends and you'll never want to go back!

I think of LUMS and agree, hoping it would be half as good as my four years in Lahore and that I could find half as many awesome friends here.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

On my way

August 11

The trees are planted at regular intervals and trimmed in near-perfect symmetry, the houses are colour-coordinated and every pink tricycle or oak rocking chair placed in the porch seems to have been arranged as if on the set of a movie. Even the houses where the shoes are not lined in neat rows but scattered near the door, even they seemed to add to the perfection of the neighbourhood.

I sit on a rocking chair, holding a round, warm mug of tea and if this were a painting it would be serene, good enough to hang in the guest bedroom. But I take a sip and the tea is awful. You can never seem to make it right here, is it the water? the absence of the correct milk powder? The silence is overpowering and I cannot concentrate on my book.

Trust a city like Karachi to make peace seem surreal, difficult to feel at home in. Trust distance to make you miss the noise, the sky, the clouds, the wind, the mess.

It's always too easy to scribble a litany of melancholy, nostalgia, things you miss, but the bittersweet sensation of thinking about something you still have and are just far away from is magnetic. And technically, it is not whining or being ungrateful.

"What do you see," he asks, looking out the plane window and down below there is an etch-a-sketch.

Chocolate hills covered with vanilla icing, coffee cream, it is what another planet would look like if I were to direct an alien flick, watch the misty clouds and wonder if Carebears really do live there.

"Permanence is frightening," he says, leaning against her back, hearing the rhythm of her breathing and falling in sync with it like an iPod connected to a computer with iTunes. She hears his voice vibrate through his bones and then hers.

"But changes are terrifying," she replies. "Especially if you walk from one chapter into a totally new one, without anything from the past. You know, like starting college but having two friends with you. Or changing homes but having your family or your favourite bedsheets along. But imagine being dropped into a new city, new life, new people and the only thing you have to hold you down is your blue jacket and old music."

"When I think I will be in this same position forever, this job, this routine, I think I will go mad. Even the good things in life are worn out like jackets you outgrow or jeans that start ripping from the seams because its just been too long since you'e had them," he tips his head back and they are Siamese twins.

"But I like this position," she says, smiling and he catches her smile, reflects it even though they are facing in opposite directions.

Memories can be as powerful as you make them, depends on what light you hold the photograph in. The sun is pale, how can a day be so devoid of colour? The celestial palattes rang empty, the paint ran out, diluted grays, white. Smell the fog, intoxicating, mesmerizing, like you running your fingers through my hair. It streams in through windows, into corridors, and you sniff, and sniff but it is never enough and you are an addict running through a foggy field where you can't see anything but hear the words of a favourite song. High on life and the years stream by.

"It feels like yesterday," my grandmother told my sister, looking at the lines and wrinkles on her face, her hands, her skin. "When I was as old as you." She seems wistful, perhaps a little confused. Do the beads of sand trickle so swiftly, falling all around us, covering our ankles, rising higher and higher and we don't even notice till our arms are stuck to our sides and we can barely move. "Time's almost out?" you look around bewildered and realize you're in a timeglass.

"It feels like yesterday I was 12 years old," the old woman sits on a chair in the terrace and her daughter brushes her gray hair, thin like an old woman's.

Growing old, like gramaphones in an age of mp3 players, and the record is scratched and it keeps getting stuck.

"What is he making for lunch?" my grandmother wears big, round glasses but her eyes look dim and she sits bowed over. "Bhindi," I tell my grandmother for the fourth time and the record spins for a second, no music, just a faint scratching sound and then - "What is he making for lunch?"

Temptations dance all around, like shiny soap bubbles, reflecting brilliant rainbows, but when I put things in (my) perspective, I wonder, what matters to me in the long term and I hope that I can work on everything, hold back mean words, gulp down anger, clean the table without grumbling, feel good enough in the dress I'm wearing. Not to point fingers and to turn many moments in my life worthwhile simply by thinking about it in a particular way. Beautiful flowers, SubhanAllah, I love you mom, prayers, sitting down to drink water and really, it is not your business (nor very important) if red shirts don't look good on him.