Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Are You Happy?

June 21

The question really throws me off.  Even if I am lying on a beach under a shady umbrella, with sand flecked toes and a perspiring cold drink in my hands, the question about happiness makes me pause.  I am never sure.  Do you mean right now, this very instant?  Or do you mean generally, overall?  Do you mean ‘most of the time’ or a ‘majority’ of my days?  Do you mean satisfaction with where I am headed?  Do you mean to say if I have many regrets or complaints?  Or do you mean a sense of sated peace that makes it easy to breathe and sleep, that makes my heart feel as light as a wispy cloud, that makes me want to perpetually smile, with my lips, my eyes, my soul?
There are very few mornings when I wake up and think to myself, what a beautiful day to be alive! That may be partly because of my sleeping, eating, living habits, or maybe it is because of my tiresome dreams… nevertheless, I don’t wake up with a spring in my step and a big smile on my face.  My shoulders are usually achy and usually I think about why my hair is such a mess.  Why couldn’t God have given me silky hair that bounced in beautiful, shiny waves and I would always wear them down no matter how hot the day because it would almost be a sin to hide it in a tight bun?
To brush or not to brush, settle on a cursory few strokes that leave suicidal strands of hair in my hand. 
I guess if I want, I can be happy.  I used to think if its taking me so much thought about my state, then I must not be happy.  I might not be sad, angry, jaded or depressed either, but if I were happy, I’d know for sure, right?  The answer should rush out of my mouth before the finger hits the question mark key, my eyes bright and glimmering proof of the joy that flies around inside my body like drunken cupids!
Or maybe not.  Maybe I need to revisit my notion of happiness.  And don’t we say that happiness might be overrated?  Isn’t it also important to be ambitious, generous, self-sacrificing?  How happy do you think social workers are who work day in and day out in a hospice or a foster home, how happy are doctors working in a broken down government hospital environment, stitching gaping wounds or peering over festering injuries?
There are probably many, many kinds of happiness.  The carefully orchestered joy that you plan with your friends for the perfect birthday surprise, a fishing boat expedition that goes just as you thought it would, it surrounds you gently as you sprawl on the upper deck on a fancy stolen carpet, the boat bobs gently and the wind wafts lazily through, flirting with your hair, your skin.  The sudden happiness that magically appears, like a fluffy bunny in a hat, the kind that is saturated with almost guilty gratitude when you look at your parents laughing together on a wooden bench, or see your sisters excited about buying makeup for you.  The whimsical romance that settles over you like invisible silk when your mind and heart cooperate for a change and you re-realize you love your fiancé.  There is the nostalgic happiness of moments, years, times passed, achievements that didn’t feel like much when they happened but in retrospect smoothen out creases of worry that stir up trouble inside. 
Sometimes we have to create it (and yes, all plans need lady luck’s help) but then sometimes we just have to notice the happiness that flits in and out of our lives like a humming bird and then disappears into the shadows of everyday life, present but usually ignored, in the background.
Think about what makes you happy, going to the gym or sharing the perfect cup of tea, and remind yourself that it’s okay if it takes you sometime to answer the question of happiness.  And if in the last 48 hours you can remember the coolness of the breeze the teased your anxiety away or a kiss that etched a smile on your face – give yourself the liberty of ‘yes’.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Caffeinated Dreams

June 6

Soft tendrils of smoke swirl above my yellow mug, caught in the morning sun that has joined me for breakfast. I could only see the smoke from a certain angle, and it moved continuously, changing shapes, beautiful and dreamlike, like a lovely memory that stirs when you hear a certain song, or catch sight of a silver chain around someone’s neck – you have no control over it, you can only see a part of it, and you can’t reach out and touch it. And just like that, it slips away, dissolving back into the past that follows us around on tiptoes.

I love mornings. Especially when everyone else is asleep and the solitude of a cool day that hasn’t quite stretched itself out and started about its business, with the warm sunlight that brightens all colors, the promise of a new start, the resolve of getting things done strong like coffee brewing in a pot. Add hazelnut creamer to give it just a little sweetness, stir, inhale.

A cup of hot tea, strong with a teaspoon of sugar to bring it to perfection, or a yellow mug of strong coffee, the smell of coffee beans that streams into your brain and plays it like a piano maestro.

Like a cigarette that glows orange when someone presses their lips around it and inhales deeply, and the smoke that swiftly twirls away – the sight of a bright mug that’s warming someone’s hands on a cold Sunday morning as they stand in their house slippers on dewy grass, taking a slow sip before they lean over and pick up the newspaper. Or when someone comes back from a long day, makes a cup of Earl Grey and then sinks down onto a plaid couch. The first sip that relaxes your shoulder muscles and suddenly everything feels manageable or at least easier to shove under the rug.

This was supposed to be about dreams, and how sometimes it feels like they’re slipping out of our back pockets as we walk the ever-speeding path of life (reminds me of those moving walkways that go a little too fast; I always feel bad if I’m not walking even though it’s a moving walkway and I don’t really need to. And then there are always those people who need to go faster than whatever speed you’re at, which makes you feel slow). But I guess tea, coffee and dreams can always go together.

I remember reading about coffee cafes in Pakistan, years ago, when writers, thinkers, poets, and people who made time for writing, thinking and poetry would gather in cafes and talk, ordering a steady stream of caffeine, served in small cups and big mugs, strong and dark, stirring thoughts and wakefulness, bringing people together, keeping dreams alive.

I can’t imagine a newsroom without tea cups – at any time someone or the other will be bringing a cup to their lips, eyes on the screen, trying to come up with the perfect headline for a story that’s been told before but needs to be retold a million times because it’s still happening and is still tragic. How would we finish 1,000+ word papers without cafés and teabags? Conversations with friends that keep us sane or make us laugh, early in the evening or late in the afternoon. Doesn’t it always make you feel special when someone remembers how much milk and sugar you want in your tea? The camaraderie of caffeine! It creates a bond, nourishes friendships and nurtures relationships, gives us a reason to sit down with our feet up and share, more than just the cups of tea and coffee, it gives us time to share our lives, hopes and fears.

And then it’s a personal relationship too. Sometimes pouring boiling water over an orange pekoe teabag is exactly what you need to drive you to the writing table and start typing words, because no matter how long you keep those dreams dusty and rusty on the top shelf of your kitchen cabinet (the one that you need a stepstool to reach), you know these are important pieces of your puzzle.

Sometimes all you need to keep your hopes of being a writer, detective, astronaut, discoverer of awesome things, alive is making a cup of coffee or tea and sitting down with the dreams. Poke them, prod them, bring out a notepad and ponder over concrete steps to move towards them. Don’t be discouraged that you’ve had the same dreams since you were 8 years old and it feels like you’re just as far away from their realization. The most important step is to keep dreaming. And of course, keep drinking your tea and coffee. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


June 3

Bagels. Low-fat cream cheese. Enough cute, quirky cafes hidden in neighborhoods to still boredom for years. Live music in restaurants. A gym within walking distance from my house. Actually going to the gym and all the joys that come with it: buying yoga pants for the first time, moving from 5 lbs. to 10 lbs., being able to fill out ‘three days a week’ in health questionnaires, looking at guys that have found the right balance between tank tops and trees-for-arms. The less-glamorous but just as important skills of cleaning the toilets, realizing the never-ending chores that come with living in a house without parents.

America, and in particular St Louis, was kind to me, with its million varieties of bread and cheese that always make grocery shopping a nerve-wracking experience, and its relative first world calm where people obey traffic laws, stand in queues and you can look to the police and the courts for justice. Usually.

People always talk about how young men and women come to the US and then never want to go back for all the above reasons and more. But for all the $1 bagels and comforts of public transit, I never felt the need to stay. I’d be lying if I said there were never moments of perfect solitude – usually in a quiet, leafy place on a perfect 70 degrees kind of day – when I would think it’d be nice to pause and live worry-free… but of course, those moments are exactly that. Transient minutes that slowly roll over like drunk leprechauns into the distance and disappear. Not firmly founded in the reality that I have chosen.

I know what I am going back to, when I think of Karachi and when I think of Pakistan in general – the mayhem, the traffic, the electricity crisis, the corruption, the fear and distrust of authorities, the poverty that is more stark than the sneakered homeless of America (as a social worker, I apologize for this insensitive statement). Back to where I can run into far-flung relatives that recognize me and I don’t have a clue as to why they’re stare-smiling at me, where all the aunties are intrusive enough to point out if I’m too skinny or “too healthy” or why my color is darker, “why did your skin suddenly breakout?”, because of course I received a letter of explanation from my skin before the zits come to visit. Where I’d have to think long and hard before going to the park alone or walking to a café to read.

But then I turn to the window that looks out at the highest mountain ranges in the world, the monsoon, the lack of umbrellas and people who I love. I won’t need Weather Channel to know what kind of clothes I need to wear in the morning. If someone is rude to me in a shop, I’ll think, ‘wow that’s a rude person’ rather than ‘is it cause I’m Pakistani?’, I’ll be comfortable enough to tell rude people off or ask for help. I’ll have a car! I won’t need to clean the bathroom, unless I really want to. My friends. No more long distance relationship! Actual dates with my fiancé. My cousins, my nephews and nieces. I can pray in the car without feeling awkward. Mangoes. Pakoras. I can go to the beach and jump into the water with all my clothes on. I can talk in my mix of Urdu and English. I can be myself – no dilutions, no pauses, no cover-ups.

I know I will miss the calm and stability, but I also know I am returning home. And it feels pretty good.