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.