A SMOKING GUN AND A PLEA NOT TO JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS

It’s a horrible habit, isn’t it? Waking up and before you’ve even stretched to reach for your phone on the nightstand. I do it daily, scanning the news headlines and social media before my eyes have even focussed. It’s the sort of action which removes you from your physical environment and throws you into the external world. There you think you’re a participant, but more often than not, you’re a bystander, a spectator, a voyeur with cotton-mouth.

The kids and I went to a friend’s house for a Halloween party today. There were fancy dress witches and wizards, crocodiles and pirates. It was Geneva at its best, an eclectic mix of cultures celebrating a tradition that none of really grew up with. The woman whose house we visited is Muslim, a lawyer, who like me married outside the faith. Her children eat chicken sausage rolls and go to Qu’ran lessons. It reminded me that religion at its best does not have to be at odds with modernity. Instead, it is an enabler, a source of comfort and enlightenment that provides a framework for lives in which we still retain choice.

I sent the kids for a nap once we got home and crept into bed myself. When we woke I reached for my phone and it was then I realised the world had turned on its axis again: there had been a shooting in the Canadian parliament. The breaking news came to me via The Guardian, but I soon turned to live coverage from @josh_wingrove, a Globe journalist in the midst of the action, as he reported his experience tweet by tweet. There’s something macabre about our appetite for immediate on site coverage of trauma and atrocities. It seems less about empathy and accountability than to do with a morbid enjoyment of the unfolding events which reinforce our own fears.

Solutions. The overwhelming majority of global citizens abhor the crimes we see playing out on the international stage. Why are we unable, as a collective body, to block out the evil? Am I the only one who dreams of a flash of white and for poverty and hunger, war and disease to be felled? Childish fantasies. We may never truly know if evil exists in the womb, pushed out into the world in a gurgling baby cooed over by its parents. In his excellent essay entitled ‘A Devil on Both Shoulders’, @jabe842 says ‘it would be nice to think that Evil was that anthropomorphised little demon on your shoulder, an impulse that could be swept away like dust on your jacket, but as we know it’s not that simple’. More likely evil is born of desperation, a sense of injustice, trauma and manipulation. What worries me is that we have begun, once again, to label the other as evil.

Have we come to a point in history, where for the first time a religion is being used as a cover for baser instincts? Do killers now become Islamist converts as a fast track to murder, not because of their beliefs but more because it has become a club for the disillusioned, for those who can’t find the joy and hope to quell the darkness inside them? As a Muslim woman, I have to ask myself, what is it about our religion that gives shelter to dangerous misfits and tyrants, and that allows the weak to be manipulated?

After I read the news I stood in our kitchen in Geneva, a political centre that somehow seems untouched by world events, and I wondered why it was that Canada was attacked. It’s a country that, after all, isn’t as gung-ho as some of its international counterparts and doesn’t seem to be an obvious choice for terrorists. Much like Switzerland (though I was surprised to find here that our house has a nuclear bunker and that Switzerland is said to be the only country in the world with the capacity to shelter almost all of its population in the event of a nuclear attack) it is seen by many to be impartial. That is, until it recently joined the coalition against the Islamic State. Was this an arbitrary act then (unlikely, given the target was a war memorial and parliament), a lone gunman fuelled by some unknown slight, or was it a more organised attack, one that has its roots in religious fundamentalism? Even for a Muslim, or perhaps more so for a Muslim, it’s hard not to jump to that conclusion after September 11th.

It’s too early to draw conclusions about whether this was a terrorist act. Perhaps it was a coincidence that the driver in the hit and run accident, which killed one soldier in Canada and injured another just before the heightened terror alert, was a convert to Islam. The intelligence services noted extra chatter online that contributed to the raised terror alert. But as I stood in my kitchen questioning why Ottawa was a target, I wondered whether the attack was fuelled by the opening of the Toronto-based Ismaili centre and Aga Khan Museum, a project that cost millions and seeks to provide a deeper understanding of Islam, a symbol that there is good in this religion, that good people are Muslims.

More than anything, what works in favour of madmen is fear. They don’t want to foster understanding of Islam. Fear turns us against each other. It ostracises. It helps fuel their rage. Are we arming terrorists with our fear? After all, you can have the biggest army and the best weapons in the world, but can you wage a successful war against a hate-based, fear-fuelled ideology? I emailed a friend with my theory. Were the Islamists punishing Canada, not only for joining the coalition against IS but for supporting moderates, for allowing the Toronto centre on their soil? A few sentences, the word ‘terrorist’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘be careful’. I pressed send and wondered whether those words, taken together in an internet message, were ones that could land me on a CIA watch list.

I am a writer. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a Londoner, and an Indian, and a European. I am a Muslim married to an atheist. I accept the layers which have built me. I do not want to assimilate to the point where my heritage disappears and all that is left is my skin colour to show a distant past. I may no longer hang prayer beads in my car but I will not leave behind elements of myself in this new world order. I will not allow fear to consume me, though it inevitably leaves its mark. I am proud of my culture and my religion. My watery curries reflect a lack of skill, not a lack of interest. I feel guilt that my children do not speak the mother tongue of their grandparents and that they are removed from the organised religion and supportive community I benefitted from as a child, because these are good things. There is goodness in their father’s German atheist background and in my Indian Muslim one.

For now, we won’t jump to conclusions about the impact of my half-baked prayers or whether this was indeed an Islamist attack. Let’s just watch and wait and be ready to recognise where evil exists and where it doesn’t, and where the lines blur.

THE ROMANCE OF YOUTH AND ROMANTICISING WRITING

There is something enchanting about the innocence of youth. Have you ever noticed how the old take comfort from the young? As if an encounter with youth is a tonic for their own regrets, cleansing, a guard against mortality even. The promise of youth is a wonderful thing. Yet however exhilarating this passionate freefall, disappointments inevitably beckon.

Life experience teaches us to be wary and wise. Loss and failure take their toll on blind faith. We no longer approach our passions with the same zealousness as our younger selves. Often idealists are tinged by realism, hopeless romantics end up in hopeless situations (I’m thinking Die Leiden des jungen Werthers here) and those on the political left drift over further to the right.

For a time I mourned the dying parts of my personality. I recognised the setbacks and disenchantments that had changed me, and sought to understand how I had ended up there in the first place. We can’t control everything, my older self knows that. Back then doubt grew in the place of fearlessness.

Still, to romantise youth and spurn old age is folly. We can learn from the young to go after our dreams bravely, to dance in the rain, to view things simply. Age too brings wisdom and clarity. Too often we dismiss that we need both sides of the equation. That’s why our journey is so necessary and clever.

Eventually I recognised that growth doesn’t quash the integral elements of our personality, it simply adds complexity. I have found that my idealist streak ebbs and flows dependent on my encounters. Being with the kids reminds me to see things through their eyes. Exposure to politics allows threads of cynicism to take root. Writing feeds my romanticism. Moving countries unravelled some assumptions and reinforced others.

It is this diversity of experience that feeds our life and our writing. Conforming to one world view is always dangerous. The characters we write may be initially chosen to embody one angle, but like us they need to be exposed to the unexpected and the irrational and become multi-dimensional if they are to be anything other than cardboard cut-outs. I want to see the whole spectrum in the books I read: blue skies and thunder, imagined futures and burning reality, wizards and psychopaths. A psychopathic wizard even. Oh wait, Sauramon and Voldemort have that covered.

In real life, we don’t do ourselves any favours if we remain rigid. Some professions encourage realism. Others nurture idealism. I realised recently that I had fallen into the trap of romanticising writing. But tempting though it may be, this may be the very thing that is holding you back. To build up this profession so that is almost feels holy puts too much pressure on us. We do not magically download our words. If you wait for the muse you may not ever get your novel on paper. My kids believe in the tooth fairy but I am sure as hell going to get rid of the teeth underneath their pillow when she doesn’t show.

It is not a magical being who writes your book. You do. You develop the concept, research, sit at your desk day after day, chipping away at the story until you finds its core, rebuild it from there. Once the last chapter has been written you and your team edit and polish the manuscript and begin the work of formatting, cover design, marketing and sales.

It is work not a divine intervention. Choose when to be a realist and when to be an idealist. The heavens have gifted you your talent not the finished product. Indeed this cultural block, the underestimation of the labour that goes into a book, may be a contributing factor as to why writers are poorly compensated unless they reach the upper echelons of fame. Yes, writing is often much more than a job. But don’t knock having a job. Recognise that your emotional attachment to writing is both a source of power and an impediment.

Let’s demystify the writing process for our own sanity. Certainly for me, the huge industry around writerly doubt and fears is starting to grate. We don’t have to subscribe to the image of the tortured artist. Passions, fear, loss and disappointment are part of the human condition. At the end of the day, as in any field, success comes down to any number of factors but determination is one of the most important ones. If you really want something, just sit down and do the work.

LIFE IS GOOD

I wrote the following piece of short fiction today for an online contest. The instructions were to write a story of under 300 words on the theme ‘Life is Good.’ I couldn’t resist writing a macabre tale. You can submit your own entry for free here until mid-January.

Hopefully publishing it here doesn’t make me ineligible for the competition but it is too fun not to share. My husband is a bit worried though…

Life is Good

My husband died last week. It was my doing. I’d planned it meticulously. I began bolstering his ego a few months ago with little scraps of attention until he was sure I’d fallen in love with him again. Then I loosened the railings on our balcony.

Our anniversary is in fall, and we have quite a view from up there of the trees turning gold and bare. It’s the fifth storey, you see. I handed him a flute of champagne and told him to enjoy the view while I went to change into something I had bought especially for him. He couldn’t believe his luck. At least he was happy when he smashed his head in.

I was equally happy when I returned in my gloriously expensive mourning outfit and saw him lying there, splashes of red all around. A girl has to celebrate. I allowed myself a triumphant smile before I slipped my widow’s mask on.

Oh, I excel in this role. It’s the happiest I’ve been…such a natural fit. I think widowhood is quite becoming actually. There’s an elegance to it that is lacking in a mere mother or wife.

Now I stand here with my elegant up-do, a silken shroud of black accentuating my assets. My lips have been painted in nude and there is a hint of mascara on my lashes. Waterproof, of course, in case tears are required. Subtle glamour is the look I am going for. Too much make-up on a widow is unseemly, crass even, and I have a flawless reputation to uphold.

I am awaiting the reading of the will. Money I know is going to me, not his mistress. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. I wonder what I should splash out on first? Life is good.

WHY I WRITE

I’m it! Thank you Graham Milne for asking me to take part in the ‘Why I Write’ blog hop and for providing a balm for me on what had been a tough day with your honeyed words.

For those of you new to Graham’s writing, check him out on Twitter, at his blog or Huff Post. Sometimes in the blogging world, you find posts that don’t really touch the sides. Not so here. Graham’s posts tend to be long form. They are thoughtful, honest and he’s not afraid to address topical issues. He’s a feminist in the vein of the UN #heforshe campaign, and one of the original group of people who made me feel welcome on Twitter.

I’m it then. Did you play tag when you were younger, or stuck in the mud, kiss chase, cat and mouse, all those variations on chasing games that were so exhilarating as a child? I usually laughed as I ran, my lips pulled wide apart by the wind and my mirth, my bottom tucked in awkwardly lest someone be near enough to tag me. There’s not much that brings that sense of abandonment. Being tickled as a child, perhaps. Or being thrown up in the air by your dad, the strands of your hair lingering in the sky as you make your decent into his embrace. Or riding a rollercoaster and laughing despite the pain and fear.

Life grounds us. The longer our feet stay on the earth, the more roots come twisting out of it to bind us. Responsibility beckons with each passing day of our childhood. We become distanced from simple pleasures, like the crunch of an apple, the feel of springy grass between our toes or the fizz of a lolly on our lips. Writing reconnects me. It allows me to forget the bills, the illness and yes, the wars, and cocoons me in a world where anything is possible. Is that what writers are? Anarchists, egotists, foolish God impersonators?

Let’s stick with the it analogy. I’m trying to remember when I decided that physical exercise wasn’t for me. It was in my pre-teen years, I think, when I felt clumsy and ungainly. Now, I look at athletes and dancers, honed gym bunnies and yogis with a sense of awe, not so much for their physique but for the strength, radiance and litheness their bodies retain.

Power. We all seek it in different ways, don’t we? Over our bodies, in the workplace, the petty wars at the water cooler or with our neighbours, the respect and submission we seek in our relationships, the beliefs we impose on others, the money we seek to fill our wallets with, the bombs we rain down on foreign soil. Me, I seek it with the pen. With a pen in hand or my fingers flying over the keyboard I feel like The Bride in Kill Bill: poised, vulnerable, uncompromising, in charge of my destiny. That’s why I write.

Spoken words I sometimes find tiring; written words are for me a source of energy and understanding. I can take the time to weave intricate sentences or get the nuance just right without worrying that it is already someone else’s turn to speak or that I have bored my listener. I can examine a thought carefully, tangibly, without it slipping through the fog of my brain like a wandering child at a funfair.

I write because in this world of constant change and fleeting lives, it comforts me to leave a record of my thoughts. The physical act of writing, the tap of the keyboard, the soreness of my fingers after a long day’s work, the crease of the page and the glare of the screen that blurs my vision are satisfying. They mean I have done an honest day’s work. Fiction may be a lie, but writing is truth. It helps to write in a world that often feels destructive. It helps to create, imagine and make sense of the confusing. It’s a tool for self-insight and healing. It’s the closest I’ve come to magic.

There you have it. That’s why I write. I’ve seen lots of fantastic posts for this blog hop. If you’re still nursing your cuppa take a look at Joanne Blaikie’s, Mark T. Conard’s and Siofra Alexander’s responses. For now, I’d like to invite B.G. Bowers and Natasha Ahmed to tell us why they write. B.G. Bowers has just completed the first draft of her novel and is a blogger and poet. I was blown away by this recent piece of hers. Natasha is a blogger and novelist. Her novella Butterfly Season is on my to read list. Read about the origins of it here. Blog hops and awards can be time-consuming as Paula Reed Nancarrow discussed in her excellent post this week, so ladies don’t feel pressured to pick up the baton if you can’t manage it. Look forward to your next words whatever form they take.

ROUTINES: A DOOR TO INCREASED CREATIVITY

I’ve spent the past month yearning for time to write, to dive feet first into a pool of creativity and find truths in made up worlds. Today, with the kids back at school, London visits behind me and chores done, I climbed the stairs tentatively to the attic we have set up as my writer’s studio. It’s a calm, beautiful space, away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the house. I sat at the great expanse of my dad’s old mahogany desk and realised that the urgency I had felt to write had disappeared, only to be replaced by fear.

This cycle is so familiar it’s painful. Do you find that falling out of a writing routine is destructive for you? For me, it causes a disconnect from the psyche of my characters. The breath of reality can fill up our creative wells, but it can also interrupt our focus. It can be the prelude to a slow creep of crushing self-doubt. Writing is an introspective process; no amount of external validation can replace the need for self-belief. We are reliant on ourselves to find our rhythm again. I’m starting to realise that it pays not to interrupt that beat.

Perhaps that’s why Stephen King writes every day including his birthday. Or why Haruki Murakami mesmerises himself with a strict routine of early rising, writing and physical exercise when he is working on a novel. Or why Maya Angelou wrote daily in the writing hideaway she created for herself in a hotel room. Masters of the written word find the routine that works for them and deviate from it with great reluctance. They know the value of the dream-like, meditative state which aids creativity.

You may hear the word ‘routine’ and think of chores, repetition and drudgery. Creativity shouldn’t be a straitjacket. It’s freedom, a rush of pure oxygen, a fleeting bubble of awareness. Routines bypass fear, doubt and indecision. They put you on automatic pilot. A routine makes creativity part of your lifestyle, not just a hobby to tinker with. A creative routine is an affirmation that you are more than just a consumer. It makes it more likely that you will act on your creative impulses, rather than let them pass you by.

I choose to make writing a part of my routine because I don’t feel grounded without it. Words anchor me to thoughts which would otherwise pass through me unheeded. Words are a weapon against a disposable society. They allow us to examine our choices and make sense of the unfathomable. Words on paper are unhurried. They are both a luxury and a necessity. They connect even the loneliest people to each other. They build understanding. Without expression, we are merely empty vessels.

Writing is not a business of overnight successes. Whatever success means to you – finishing your writing project, a loyal readership, critical acclaim, financial independence, awards, fame, your name on book sleeves – to get there you’ll need to put in the work. Whether you’re at your desk, on a park bench or sprawling on your bed, writers write. I used to think talent was the key to success, but without perseverance we fail without even having started.

I’m still sitting at dad’s old desk. Its surface is marred by peeling paintwork. I find comfort in running my hands over the roughened wood. Autumn is on her way. A biting breeze has slipped through the balcony doors and has carried in a hum of cars from the road. The mountains are shrouded in cloud. It suits my mood. I’m going to delve into the stillness in me and work on a short story. When autumn comes, she’ll bring relief from the mosquitos, and fiery hues of burnt orange and mustard yellows. By then, I’ll be back in my writing routine, and this time I won’t be letting it slip.

‘Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about…say yes quickly, if you know, if you’ve known about it since the beginning of the universe.’ – Rumi

‘It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.’ – Seneca

‘I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.’ – Duke Ellington

VIOLENCE AND COMPLICITY

It is a joy to lose myself in fiction most days and sometimes it is a relief. Today, it just felt like frivolity. A blanket of darkness has settled on the world stage. It feels as if social structures are crumbling around us, yet still we carry on with our daily lives as if in a bubble.  In the West, by accident of our birth, we are privileged and safe, for the moment. We are faceless armies of men and women who tumble out of bed in the morning, put on the uniforms of our employers, earn a living and care for our families. But others aren’t so lucky.

I have been alternately avoiding and immersing myself in the news lately. As I grow older, the inclination to hide from the headlines increases. With the amount of media we are exposed to daily, you’d have to be living in a vacuum to have missed how fraught with danger the world is right now. It is easier than ever to obtain accounts of conflicts from around the world. All it takes is a click. But shocking headlines no longer have the power to move us. We have become desensitised to the vast number of deaths. We are so fatigued by the endless reports of death on our flickering screens that our empathy has been castrated.

We project our own truths but armour ourselves against perspectives that are not our own. We have become bellowing isolationists. Tragedy has become part of our global consciousness. We accept it, welcome it even. It serves to reinforce our sense of what is right and what is wrong. Reports from across the globe bring momentary despair. Then we shake off our leaden thoughts and try to forget that somewhere the blood of men, women and children not unlike us is seeping into the earth. There are exceptions. Twitter and Facebook are awash with calls for action in conflict zones and solidarity with the victims, but how effective is this armchair activism and can we find ways to translate it into concrete outcomes?

I have begun to feel complicit in the shady morality that allows acts of violence that we are currently witnessing to continue. Tell me, is it anything more than a happy coincidence that we are born into conflict free zones? What right do we have to tranquility while shells rain down on the people of Gaza? How can we sit by while political strife escalates to such a degree that hundreds of thousands of Syrians are displaced from their homes? In what world do people kill or maim in the name of religion or force others to submit to their faith? Surely history has taught us that we have a responsibility to intervene when minorities are being systematically persecuted? How can it be acceptable today for one country to annex part of another?

In truth, even in established democracies, we are only ever a few short steps away from civil unrest. Take the London riots of 2011, for example, after the death of Mark Duggan, or the events in Ferguson, Missouri. In what kind of civilised society is an unarmed man shot dead when he is in a defensive position? We may convince ourselves that these troubles are not on our doorstep, but we are not immune to conflict.

I’ve been very aware, for example, that anti-Muslim sentiment is gaining ground in the West. I am a Shia Ismaili Muslim. Since September 11th, on the rare occasions I’ve discussed my religion I’ve felt the need to explain how liberal and progressive we are. I don’t wear a headscarf (as if that should matter) and was free to decide who I married, you know. In actual fact, I’m proud of my religion. I’m especially proud of the development work Ismaili organisations such as AKF and AKDN do. But the term Muslim has become synonymous with inequality, zealot and terrorist. 2001 was the last time I hung prayer beads from the rearview mirror in my car. Over a decade later, in which the 2005 London bombings occurred, Lee Rigby was killed (2013) and violent Islamist factions have been increasingly active, I find I am still unable to state my religion in unfamiliar company without caveats.

Only now it seems that apologies and explanations are expected of Muslims in general, that is, from the peace-loving kind. Haven’t you heard? If it is indeed a peaceful religion as we claim, liberal Muslims shouldn’t be hiding in the shadows. We should be denouncing the actions of jihadists. What you forget is that the West is my home too, and I have 100 per cent more in common with you then I have with Islamist extremists. I am not the other. Religion is only part of my identity. Yes, I stand with you against the violent actions committed in the name of Islam, but you are mistaken if you think I hold any sway with the perpetrators. You see, I am more hated by him than you. I suffer with you. I bear the shame for his deeds although he twists my religion to serve his purpose and to manipulate his followers.

Complex historical and sociopolitical factors created the environment for the global conflicts we see at play today. Difference continues to drive a wedge between communities in even the most sophisticated societies. The world pulses with fear and greed, yet surely all most of us want is to be loved, to be safe from harm, to have food in our bellies and the chance for our families to flourish. Who needs complexity when it can be that simple? There is enough disease, poverty and environmental disasters for us to tackle without us fighting each other.

I wonder how much our collective consciousness could achieve if we acted as one, if we checked our egos and power play at the door and tried to rediscover our humanity. No one has the right to take another’s life. There is no absolute power. We are all answerable for our actions and that includes members of the establishment who make the wrong call. And it certainly includes the madmen in our midsts.

HELLO NEW LIFE

It’s been almost two weeks since the children and I arrived in Geneva. J had been living with a tiny amount of rented furniture in what was to become our new family home. It felt odd at the time he said, imagining what the house would feel and sound like when it was filled with our things and the sound of the children. It turns out that family life is quite noisy, especially if you happen to buy a second-hand washing machine which sounds like it is taking off during the spin cycle. I digress.

The truth is, I’m not sure Geneva will ever feel like home, or at least, not soon. I miss the old walls of our Edwardian semi in London. I miss our family and friends. We met our new Swiss neighbours last week. They were perfectly wonderful, and invited us into their garden for a glass of wine. They had seen a succession of rental cars that J had been using and had wondered if the house was being used as a CIA safe house. They were relieved to meet us. They told us about the different nationalities of people who live in the neighbourhood and that almost everyone has cats. The cats have territory wars and almost all of them wear little bells around their necks to help the birds escape. There are lots of birds it seems, especially singing outside our bedroom window first thing in the morning. In an irritable half-awake state I considered doing something drastic but think I may opt for ear buds instead.

We let the cats out today. They were free to come and go as they pleased at home, but needed time to get used to their new environment here. We didn’t want to risk them making for South London. Our female cat was cautious when we opened the doors. Her brother, a voracious hunter, quickly got over himself and set off, and now they’ll be British moggies mixing with the ginger toms and Birmans I’ve seen wandering around. It’s like our own situation in a microcosm. I wonder how aware they will be of the change in their surroundings. They will have realised the change in domestic setting, of course, but will they instinctively know that we are far from home?

The soil was rich when I was digging in the garden yesterday. The sun is strong and the air is crystalline, free of London’s smog. Just beyond our house we can see Lake Geneva. Everywhere you go, the Alps and the Jura can be seen. The views are breathtaking, so all-encompassing that after a while I imagine you don’t even perceive them anymore. To appreciate the magnificent, don’t we need the mundane in contrast? The vistas, certainly where we live, twenty minutes from the centre of Geneva, are unfettered by high-rises. As a result it seems there is a huge expanse of sky above us, with candy-floss clouds hanging low, ready to be plucked and consumed.

There is no aggrieved eye contact or menacing body language between drivers here. Congestion seems to be rare and therefore London’s on road aggression has been bested by a calm, measured pace. I can almost hear the Swiss drivers whistling an eerily jolly tune as they wait patiently at junctions. Come 6pm and Sundays, with the exception of late night shopping on Thursdays, retailers are shut. It is then that I miss cities that never sleep. Sundays are strictly family/no work days here. I’ve been told a woman was admonished by the police for ironing on her balcony on a Sunday.

It seems as if our courtship with Geneva will be a slow one, and perhaps that’s no bad thing. I was beginning to wane in London. Cities demand ceaseless energy from us, to power themselves, reminiscent of the heaving metropolis in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film. They are wondrous in the opportunities they present but they are also relentless beasts. I’m tired of wrestling the beast for now. Instead, I’ll embrace this slower pace and allow my mind time to clear. It’s in the quiet moments that stories take hold and refuse to let go. For a moment, I’d forgotten how to be quiet.

FAREWELL LONDON: A NEW STORY AWAITS

The clock has just struck noon and I can hear the spin cycle of the washing machine downstairs. Its rhythm and the summer heat are lulling me into a state of relaxation. It’s humid here in my parents’ living room. Their house pulses with heat even when the radiators are off: a blessing in winter, stifling in the summer months. I’ve not blogged for a few weeks as the whirlwind of moving preparations has taken hold. The logistical arrangements of car selling, renting the house, closing down utilities, packing and goodbyes reached a peak a week ago when the movers came in. It seemed to me that they were like anteaters: sucking up the remnants of our London lives with supreme efficiency.

Since then I’ve been with the children at my parents’ house. J is in Geneva already. We’ll be leaving for the airport in an hour. The cats, whose baskets have been liberally sprayed with pheromones recommended by the vet, will be travelling with us in the flight cabin. I feel like a cross between superwoman, a sad clown and the mad hatter: capable, emotional and increasingly unpredictable. It’s a relief to return to the blank page at long last, to draw calm from it. Already it feels that the strain is pouring from my fingers onto the page as I type. The blank page: a mirror, a sea of acceptance, a promise of renewal.

Tiredness is heightening my emotions at the moment. Geneva is just over an hour’s flight from our family and friends in the UK and we have no doubts about choosing this move. It will be a wonderful adventure for our family while the children are young. Still, however open we are to it, change is unsettling. It stretches us uncomfortably. Depending on the nature of the change, we are forced to adjust to new patterns, support networks, cultures and expectations. Was there ever an easy goodbye?

London will always be my home. I miss its vibrancy, architecture and spirit already. This city feels determined and resilient. It is both alien and a friend. I can walk the streets and disappear into its melting pot of cultures. The grey skies and murky river are home. The chimney stacks of the skylines near our house are as familiar to me as the lines on my palm. My story is etched in corners of this city, in its parks and art galleries, its restaurants and theatres, in the homes of our family and friends.

I will always return to you gladly, London, but for now, farewell. There is a new story waiting to be written in Geneva.

ARE YOU A DREAMER OR A TIGRESS?: SETTING GOALS TO GET AHEAD

I’m going to be 33 years old in a few weeks. Hardly any age at all perhaps, although the white hair springing up around my temples would tell you otherwise. I remember how at 14 years old those in their thirties seemed to me to be dinosaurs. As a child I was sure that by my mid-twenties the confusion of youth would have dissipated. I would arrive at my successes by design rather than by accident. The truth is that many of us feel our way through life from the starting line to the finish.

I look with envy sometimes on those who discovered their passions in childhood. Do you, like me, mourn lost time? Oh the hours I whiled away as a teenager. Back then, all I wanted to do was to fall into novels and let them swallow me whole. That time devouring books was wonderful. I wish though that I had picked up my pen sooner. Imagine little Johnny Robinson, barely four foot tall, practicing drop shots on the neighbourhood courts as the light dims. Or Leila Coombes, her fingers perpetually blackened by lead from the pencils she has been sketching with. Or Samir Khan, who can play the sax, piano and violin to grade eight standard by the time is 12 years old. Those kids start clocking up their Gladwell hours from childhood. They jump-started their careers.

For many of us it takes a while to realise where our talents lie. As we get older we are less prone to outside influences. We stop robotically doing what is asked of us and begin questioning our reality. We find our courage and our drive. This extra time isn’t a bad thing. It always seems strange to me that in the UK we ask our children to take crucial decisions about their path in life at the tender age of 16. With life expectancy on the rise, what’s the rush? In the UK in 2014, a woman can expect to live 82.5 years, up from 58 years in the 1930s; UK men are at 79.5 years and 62 years respectively. We have time. The world is more fluid, we can exploit international opportunities and many of us will work in more than one professional field.

Besides as a writer, each new life experience strengthens our creative muscles. Age matures our story-telling abilities. That niggling feeling you get as a writer, that feels like you haven’t done your homework, the one that feels like a heavy weight in your gut? Let’s just ignore that. The muse will appear eventually, shining in her sheer robes and looking at us benevolently, right? The thing is that you and I both know that when we switch into neutral gear, we are doing ourselves a disservice. It may be that we work into our nineties, hunched over our desks as we squint into the distance envisaging the fate of our protagonist. Even so, it would be foolish to ignore the sense of urgency we feel. Writing is, after all, a time-consuming occupation. We only have a finite amount of time in which to breathe life into our stories.

I am happiest when I am productive, aren’t you? The demons of idleness sing their mournful lullabies and we succumb, sacrificing endless hours at their altar. In the cold light of day we know it is the work that nourishes us. We leave our laptops languishing in the corner of our rooms because we are running away from ourselves. I know. It’s been two months since I resigned from my job at City Hall ahead of our move to Geneva this summer and I have yet to establish a regular writing routine. We are governed by fear. We live half lives in love and our careers because we don’t want to be vulnerable. We let our dreams escape through our fingers like ghosts because to fail at something we want badly would be painful.

Newsflash: ambition is not a dirty word. It is up to you to pull your dreams into the blazing sunlight. Don’t let yourself be consumed by the hazy twilight, that half-way house where you know what you want but are too fearful to go after it. We are bound by our conflicted natures. Shrug off that dusty mantle of doubt. The path to success is paved not only with talent, but with perseverance, commitment and labour.

I recently read an article in Forbes by Ashley Feinstein who advocates writing down your goals. In her article Feinstein mentions a survey of Harvard MBA graduates (class of 1979): ’Only 3% had written goals and plans, 13% had goals but they weren’t in writing and 84% had no goals at all. Ten years later, the same group was interviewed again […] The 13% of the class who had goals, but did not write them down was earning twice the amount of the 84% who had no goals. The 3% who had written goals were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97% of the class combined.’ The Harvard research only takes earnings into account as a measure of success, but it still shows how powerful it can be to write goals down.

Whether you are a pantser, planner or fall somewhere in between, here is a list to help you get started if you wish to have a go at some written goals:

  • Summarise your overarching vision including both personal and career goals e.g. I will write a novel, I will learn the guitar etc.
  • Set yourself up for success by creating achievable goals e.g. I will focus on improving my dialogue writing in the next three months, I will find a critique partner within six months.
  • Break down your goals into short, medium and long-term e.g. I will practice my guitar chords for ten minutes a day over the three months, I will have learned how to play three songs within six months, in a year I will perform for my family.
  • Each goal should be include a time-frame and should be measurable e.g. I will query my book once a week until there is a reason not to.
  • Turn larger goals into smaller steps e.g. I will write five pages a day.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate your successes. I promised in a previous post to upload a video of me dancing in the style of Hugh Howey and Ksenia Anske once the first draft of my novel is complete.

As for me, I prioritise my life according to my passions and the needs of my loved ones. I have never been the type to go obsessively after goals. I get distracted, pulled into family life. I dream. But there is a seed of urgency in my belly that is growing, and I am no longer happy to relinquish my ambitions. Often the needs of my loved ones come out on top but to be whole I need to give my writing ambitions a real shot. Tomorrow seems more fragile than ever before. To that end, I have been working on a list of written goals to clear my mind of clutter and focus me. There is something to be said for planning your course (my husband is German, after all) while factoring in some flexibility (that’s the Indian in me talking). The list will provide me with armour against the guilt I feel when I say no to loved ones because I want to concentrate on my writing. Now I am working from home, it will also allow me to see and celebrate my progress. I’m not going to view my list as concrete cladding, rather a loose framework that can be amended. Perhaps I’ll show you it when we know each other better.

In the meantime, let me end with a story about Jim Carrey you may have heard. In 1987 he was 25 years old and a struggling comic. He drove to a spot overlooking LA and wrote himself a check for $10m. The check was dated 1995. Carrey wrote on the stub that it was ‘for acting services rendered’. In actual fact, in 1995 his price for a movie was $20m. All that matters is that we continue chipping away at our dreams, that we have belief and drive. Happy writing, folks.

MY FIRST ATTEMPTS AT ORIGAMI

A few weeks ago @raishimi read my article on the disappearing art of handwriting and mentioned that she sometimes includes origami gifts with letters. It was such a wonderful idea, I decided to have a go myself. I spent £15 on a simple guide and a small stack of origami paper in bright hues. My favourites were the squares in sugar pink and bruised plum. I took my time choosing the paper for each design. There is a sensuality about origami paper, smooth to the touch, interspersed with foils.

I didn’t know much at all about origami until recently. As paper degrades quickly it has been difficult to establish where origami originated. Japanese origami came into being after Buddhist monks brought paper to Japan in the sixth century. Paper folding traditions seem to have sprung up independently in Europe and East Asia. Paper was so expensive that origami was used only in religious ceremonies. In China for example, traditional funerals include burning folded paper, usually representations of gold nuggets. In Japan, Samurai warriors are known to have exchanged gifts adorned with noshi, a good luck token made of folded paper. Origami stories in Japanese culture include Abe no Seimei making a paper bird and it coming to life.

Perhaps the most famous Japanese origami design is the crane, which symbolises peace. The crane also entered popular imagination through Sadako Sasaki’s story, who was exposed to the radiation in Hiroshima when she was an infant and died of leukaemia a decade later. Japanese legend that says that if you fold a thousand paper cranes, your deepest desire will come true. Sadako managed to fold six hundred and forty-four cranes. Today, a statue of her stands in Hiroshima Peace Park. Wreaths of cranes are left there in her honour.

Some modern origami artists have been influenced by Bauhaus design. Designs by the most gifted artists today have moved away from linear design and experiment with materials other than paper and foil.

20140603_114654As for me, even the simplest origami designs were harder to follow than I had expected. It turns out origami is all about symmetry, dexterity and focus. It teaches patience. I had trouble finding my inner zen while I was folding and pinching the paper. I’m not much of a linear thinker. I left blunt edges where there should have been crisp folds. I manipulated the paper so that stems and limbs went awry.

Still, I thought you might like to see my first attempts. I made: a fox that won’t sit properly because I made a mistake folding his bottom; a butterfly which resembles an aeroplane; and a tulip with a droopy head. The fox is for @raishimi, along with her favourite bottle of whiskey, for when we meet this weekend.

 

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