Before the Removal Men

Beloved friends leave us
keepsakes to remember them by
a curl of their hair in a locket
a scarf that still smells of their sandalwood
but You don’t have hair
or need for neckerchiefs
What You have is Spirit
or what You are is – the knots
words tie tongues in! –
instead, You left a trace of Yourself
in every human’s being
so we could close our eyes
shut our mouths
sink our yearning faces into it
and smell our way back to You

You left in us a doorway
that was once the only place we’d stand
backs turned to the
grimy storeroom of our brains
contemplating only Your garden
but noises from this side distract
furniture gets in the way, bruises shins
boxes of sentimental value build up
each one blocking out that marvellous door
by another cardboard square
until at last we place a wardrobe in front of it
and forget it ever existed
And we only remember
when the house is crumbling
the wardrobe eaten by woodworm
and in the moment the wrecking ball
tears off the roof
that golden opening blinks

God, help us clear away all this junk
before the removal men come
for us

The Spiked Thresholds of Bliss

I recently went to the celebration of a friend’s life, who passed away not long ago at the tender age of 38 from cancer, leaving behind a two year old daughter and a twelve year old son.

It was, as you might expect, a heart-rending memorial, but she had been keen for people to enjoy it as a joyful reliving of the many marvels her life had brought. About a hundred of us gathered on a field above the river near her home and sang some of the songs that she as choir mistress had taught us, shared a few memories, and read some poems (one of which was the poem posted here). And, surprising as it might sound, it was joyful, not just in remembering all our funny adventures with this colourful being who we could not stop loving now, but also in recalling that life is insensitive to our clinging: it keeps moving on without looking back in anguish, only racing towards its meeting with the ocean.

Two things occurred to me on that field: one, that death is so utterly real that it renders everything else frivolous and temporary in comparison. It was the first time I had ‘lost’ someone close to me; all the funerals I had ever attended had been of nonagenarians who lay in their coffins with an expression of deliverance on their static faces, while family members happily ate strawberry and cream on scones in the sunshine. These were people who had watched the door every day for decades in anticipation of the Angel of Death. For those saying goodbye to them, bereavement doesn’t sound like the right word: bereliefment might be a better term for it.

The other thought was this: “When the sky weeps, the earth rejoices. Don’t be sore that your sheets get wet.”*

It’s not much solace to those of her family mourning her, for whom their sheets are not just wet through but fairly ripped to shreds. But seeing her twin sister since then, and other relatives and friends who held her in a cocoon of reassurance and round-the-clock care for the last months of her life, the refrain that keeps returning is of the exquisiteness of the atmosphere surrounding her, utterly peaceful and loving in every way. Some likened it to the atmosphere around a birth; others said it reminded them of a saint’s tomb.

So many golden filaments of love being sent from hearts dilated in waiting and hoping that it wove a light, permeable, glowing cloud around her bedside, impossible to reproach or hate, unless you only saw the facts from the frosty distance of a medical report. Everyone who passed through those doors felt this coalescence of sadness and wonder, the way a parent watching their first child leave home gazes after the receding train through eyes blurry with borrowed anxiety, and a heart blown open by the realisation that they were not their property in the first place. This is the path they take alone, threatened by trials and yet free.

I wonder how we can find it so easy to forget – or ignore – that everything we think we possess, including our bodies, families, health, homes, wealth, kudos, career – will eventually be no more than a few words in a historical document, at the most. (And if that’s all digitised, how permanent would it be?) Yet those very things occupy so much of our mental space that we allow them to outscream the wisdom of our better nature, which is to hold them lightly in the palm of the hand, instead of clinging to them like a drowning sailor to a rope.

But death always seems to put a sour note into things. It never happens the way we want it to; it’s never fair. Rowan Williams observes in a recent book review of old German and Arab fairy tales that these archetypal stories offer an antidote to the cotton-candy world of Disney’s logical conclusions and pop psychology morals. They portray (more accurately, I think) the way in which our chaotic world can bring ‘bad’ things to innocent people, and yet assistance also comes from unexpected, wondrous sources. The protagonists reach a point at which they can only really throw themselves on the mercy of the Divine and accept whatever may come. The interesting part of it is trying to work out what it all means, the state of questioning itself.

Rewind to the very beginning of life and you’re faced with the other end of that spectrum, that spiked threshold of life on which the most astonishing pain gives way to the most astonishing bliss. Once the sharpness of a contraction ends, there is an endorphin rush to balance out the suffering. But – and here’s the stinger – if you’ve anaesthetised the pain of the contractions, the hormones that bring on the bliss afterwards are inhibited. Hence decades of screen births involving buckets of blood, screams of agony and women pinned down to hospital beds like they were having a Gremlin surgically removed from their bowels. Virtually every woman who’s had a non-intervention birth would tell you that it could not be more different (though her mother-in-law might still have a few scare stories up her sleeve).

Perhaps it seems strange to begin the year with this post, especially as Cavebabe the Third is due in barely two months. But I get a strange sort of satisfaction in the reminder that everything is passing. It makes it much less stressful knowing that it’s not ultimately in my hands, and that the only wealth to delight over is the appreciation of what is here now. How many people regret not telling someone they love them once it becomes too late for them to hear? How would your life be if you loved people as though they might be gone from your life tomorrow?

In conclusion, life is peppered with insults to our idea of what it should be like, and isn’t it all the more wondrous for that. May this year be filled with good stuff for you, and if that’s not the way the dice roll, then at least you can be safe in the knowledge that it’s made you wiser. Or, with all that good material, a writer.


(* To be included in a forthcoming collection called the Aphorisms of Cavemum, available very exclusively hand-written in saffron dye on antique gazelle skin from a bloke called Abu on a street corner in Marrakesh.)

The Lowdown Souls: Old Moon in the Arms of the New


Oxford Botanical Gardens. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

  Autumn encroaches. In tiny increments it pulls its covers up higher each night; dusk always seems to surprise us, as if it really oughtn’t be doing that.
  Nostalgia for summer tapers every conversation, string vests and grown-up blonde dashes clung to in the hope that warmth really will return. It’s as though we haven’t lived through this every year of our lives, that as far as we have heard, as far back as our genetic memory serves, this is something new and vaguely frightening.
  Lanterns are lit, ghouls shooed away with rituals that keep their attraction. And the gravity that follows the upward throw of any dense object brings it crashing down towards us, unprepared and flapping our hands.
  Perhaps other people deal better with autumn than me. Reading a book on Biodynamic gardening, I was reminded of how obvious these things should be – if, that is, any of us spent long enough in the elements to remember that this downward pull is only the other side of the cycle that everything turns. The moon waxes, shines, wanes, disappears. The waters in us and every other moving thing rise tidally towards it, dropping back when its magnetic allure fades.


  This month, the triply descending cycle of autumn, new moon and (squeamish men look away now) an unusually well-timed period brought it all home to me. I could almost feel myself being lowered into my grave. I felt profoundly sad, a feeling I am rarely overwhelmed by, being more partial to the natural highs of laughter, growing things, creativity.
  But I cannot describe how much I valued feeling so low. I had the distinct sense that it was a kind of preparation for death.
  The day after descending into my grave, so to speak, I went to a Red Tent evening at a friend’s house – well, yurt. (Don’t tell me you didn’t realise I was such a hippy.) After the usual hugs and teas and catching up, we went straight into the heavy stuff: menopause and death.
  As one woman, a nurse, pointed out, we Brits do death very badly. We prefer not to think about the finality of our earthly lives, concentrating on practical matters – healthcare, wills and testaments, inheritances (those enticing burdens that make a relative’s death seem confusingly attractive). We do the usual British thing of not wanting to cause a fuss, to go and hide somewhere with our grumbles and get out from under other peoples’ feet. So the elderly get packed away in homes, anaesthetised to numb them to their mortal process. Is it more to ease their suffer or to protect us from the sight of someone going, fully aware?
  Spain is so different. Elderly parents, dotty and deaf as they come, are dutifully cared for by grown-up sons or daughters, taken out to events slowly on unsteady, slippered feet, forgiven for wandering off and falling asleep in strange people’s cars. This is the comedown after a lifetime of general good health, of being in service to other people: it’s an expectation that is becoming harder to honour as the grip of the Northern European work fetish tightens.


  As my biodynamic gardening book maintained, winter is a time when the garden appears to be dead, but there is just as much going on beneath the surface as there is above it during the rest of the year. Life is dispersed among millions of micro-organisms, microfungi, worms; more than that, there is a quiet in this temporary fallow period that is an essential antidote to the activity and production of the rest of the year.
  I like being around old people. They offer the long view, neutralising my anxiety about getting to where I want to be quicker (in that self-defeating tizz of wanting to be somewhere than isn’t the present moment).
  If I live to be 80 (God willing), I’m less than halfway into my time here. What does it matter than I don’t have my book of poetry (self-)published yet, my novel finished, my album recorded? Let alone the deserts I would regreen if I had the chance, the disadvantaged youth I’d educate, the single mothers I’d support with all the millions of pounds I would have if any of those projects miraculously became huge successes. (Ha ha.)
  I find I can end up turning from one goal to another with such dizzying speed, and always with the same urgency, that I drive myself closer to the ground – which is probably right where I’m needing to be.
  Just as wholistic health looks at the wellbeing of the body rather than treating symptoms, and permaculture (or biodynamics) says “Look after the soil and the soil will look after you”, the soul needs lowness – not only to remember how beautiful it is to be high, but for the value of lying fallow and being nothing.
 And the moon is generous when she returns: when we can see the dark lacuna of the ‘old moon’ beside the glowing curve of crescent, it’s known as ‘the old moon in the new moon’s arms’.


(If all that sounds too depressing, follow this link for things to grow through winter:

Is She Dreaming? Or Is She Dying?


Farewell, Rambinos.

It’s been a pretty intense time on the El Cura ranch. The heat of August soared to 46 degrees centigrade (that’s 115 Fahrenheit to alla y’all), and while some of us were metaphysically dying in the heat, three of the sheep we are looking after on our house farm-sit literally died from it.

The first one I found in the bunker underneath the alberca/swimming pool. It was dusk, and I had left Caveboy with my parents to take down to the Sufi watering hole for iftar (yes, there were actually people fasting from food and water in this heat). Usually I give the sheep food (hay or ‘forraje’, dried herby grass, plus oats and water) at sundown, and put them into their shed to keep them safe from wild dogs.

But while counting them up, I kept trying to make them add up to eight, and getting confused at only finding seven. Cavegirl was meanwhile yawning and rubbing her eyes, hungry and dinnerless, but nevertheless determined to ‘help’ me. I was in a rush to get to the iftar meal, and ended up running up and down the hectare of land looking for the last lost lamb.

Finding the prostrate woolly figure of the poor beast under the swimming pool sent me into a state of total panic. What the heck…?! My husband was away working at a festival in Portugal, I was on my own, my kids needed to eat…in a mad flap I ran about looking for the right course of action. OK, ring the sheep’s owners…and then what? The only sensible answer that came back was to go have something to eat and wait for morning.

Dead sheep number one buried, I thought my turn as sheep-sitter was already looking pretty bad, when a few nights later, just as I had just got my kids to sleep, I heard a tremendous clattering and baaing going on in the barn.

Still in my stripy PJs, with a pitifully small bicycle lamp in hand and a swell of trepidation in my chest, I crept out to see if someone was trying to steal the animals, or a dog was eating one of them alive.

But the most peculiar thing confronted me. One of the lambs (a full-grown ewe, really) was lying on her side, running like a stabbed bull. Her hooves scraped the wooden sides in a hollow, futile gallop; her teeth were grinding, her head thrown back, eyes swivelling up in white-striped terror, foam frothing at the side of her mouth.

Stunned, but strangely set into pragmatic mode, I went back to the house in search of Bach’s Rescue Remedy, the only thing I could think of that might calm her down as it has done a hundred times on my tantruming kids. It did the trick; the gallops started coming in waves, interspersed with peaceful lulls in which she panted in a a paralysed trance.

I also did the other thing that comes to mind when trying to calm my kids down, which was to sing them the last few chapters of Qur’an in a lullaby voice. Slowly the gallops became less insistent, the pauses for breath a little more protracted.

I started wondering what on earth was wrong with her; I was reminded of an experiment on cats I’d seen a film of in which scientists had removed the part of the brain responsible for paralysing the body during REM sleep. Sleeping cats were filmed acting out physically all of the actions it was obviously dreaming about – running, biting, hunting. The thought crossed my mind: Is she dreaming? Or is she dying?

Despite the puny LED light shed by my torch, what struck me about the musty, dung-perfumed atmosphere of the scene was its primordial, almost Biblical nature. How many times must this have happened in the past, in exactly the same way? The other sheep were absolutely calm now that their shepherdess was there (oh, how naïve sheep are!) and carried on munching their hay blithely. Meanwhile, her legs became stiffer and stiffer – presumably the root of the Spanish expression for ‘kicking the bucket’, ‘estirar la pata’ (to stretch out one’s leg). Perhaps that’s where’ kicking the bucket’ comes from too.

It was abundantly clear now that she was dying. A powerful peace descended on us, and I was overcome by the sensation of what people describe as an angelic presence, in that way that precedes the verbal formulation of it being angelic. In my tearful, sleep-deprived state I felt almost as though I was witnessing the birth of Jesus, in an anachronistic barn that had landed on the wrong continent in a malfunctioning time machine.

I finally left her to her dying stupor, and somehow the peculiarity of the experience ebbed to the sort of stoical acceptance worthy of a weather-beaten peasant farmer, or even, perhaps, a sheep. The lamb had been born in that barn, so it seemed kind of sensical for her to die there too. Life and death are, after all, both threshold experiences, opposites ends of the roll of film but double-exposed, different panoramas both taken with the same lens.

“Only ewe….”

Now slightly inured to the visceral, animal vision of death – this time, according to the vet, it was caused by septicaemia – I was better prepared (though pretty dismayed) to see another lamb wobble dangerously on his feet as he came down to the barn a few evenings later, collapsing as he arrived. I had to grab him under the belly and hoist him into the shed to be able to close the door, but he stood there in a daze, not rooting around int he boxes of hay like they usually do.

The kids were picked up by their dad at 10pm that night; I had to get him to heft all 50 kilos of the poor beast out of the shed onto the cool ground in the light of the car headlamps before they went (much appreciate it, ex-Caveman). I then put on my gingham lycra campesina superhero outfit and sprang into action, making phone calls and racing into town to find rehydration salts.

En route I co-opted a few friends who gave me packs of salts and sugar, and another who obligingly came down with her son at 11 pm to help lift the lamb’s head up while I shoved a syringe of salty sugary liquids down its throat. Over a litre went down in 40 ml doses, sometimes trickling out straight away as he had lost the strength almost to swallow. His teeth chattered against the plastic of the syringe; a heavy fever had already set in. He lolled his head back, panting, dragging his legs back and forth across the grass, making straw angels in the dirt.

At midnight we all withdrew. There was nothing else to do, short of sleeping on the manure-imbued earth beside the barn to keep watch over him, but I’m afraid I couldn’t muster up the saintliness for that. In the morning I went straight over to see if he was OK, but he was exactly where I’d left him, immobile, eyes dusty and frozen, his oily wool coated in icy dew.

Dramas aplenty for one week, you might think. But no, this is the Alpujarras, land of pirates with green moustaches and hippies selling balls of enchanted mud in the market – anything that can go weird, will!

So two days later, due to various bureacratic headaches, and probably a truck-driver who has just now decided to go on holiday, the carcass of Rambino number 3 is still lying under a plastic window blind on the edge of the land, rotting (I am waiting for the campsite next-door to start complaining of the stench). Yes folks, now is not a good time to come and visit Cavemum.

And to top it all off, in the midst of that bubonic hum, together with my new friend Ricardo – a seriously cool old man from the mountains who doesn’t bat an eyelid at this sort of thing – I helped sheared the remaining five sheep this morning…with my kitchen scissors. Actually he used my kitchen scissors, I used my sewing scissors; I had to wash off the greenish lanolin with Ecover afterwards.

Shearing a sheep by hand is quite an amusing experience. Pinning them down is one thing; one of the feisty mamas carried Ricardo halfway across the land while he clung onto its collar for dear life. Then we had to tie three of its legs (leaving one free so it can still breath alright), and get to work snipping away a two-inch deep layer of wool so dense and encrusted with mud and God knows what else that it seems we were chopping up a very unsavoury hippie’s foam mattress. Twice a sheep protested by spontaneously pooing all over the mounting heap of wool.

It took an hour and a half, during which time we bantered about life and drugs and divorce and farming and Kenya and brain tumours and all sorts. Nothing like a tough physical job and a conversation with a weather-beaten man of the earth to set you right. After a vigorous cold shower (my gas bottle is empty), I left for the market feeling on top of the world,remembering why I was drawn to a life on the land in the first place. It’s real life, in all its shiny, delicious, stinky, hilarious glory.

Well, I have blisters from the scissors on my writing hand, but one thing’s for sure, it’s going to make for good material. (Writing material, I mean, not fabric. I don’t think I’ll be washing that wool to make felt with anytime soon.)

The Tiger and the Radio

A tiger stalks the cemetery.

He sniffs the stones, orange lichen
encroaching like ripples in water that
do not disappear but marl the granite
in a vivid quilt of living-on.

A radio buzzes in a distant house;
puzzled gentlemen are arguing over
what to call the Zeitgeist.

The acronyms are rude, the monikers
clumsy or just plain incorrect.
One says: “The whole idea is to
catch what’s real for us right now
and make a home for it inside a name.”

The tiger spies a grasshopper
springing between Josaiah Phipps
(May His Soul Rest In Peace Evermore)
and Mary McStephens (Beloved; Gone
But Certainly Not Forgotten).

A cub again, eyes sharp and green,
he tenses and pins the insect flat
against the grass with a paw as broad
as a china plate.

But his paw is too wide, the claws
set so far apart that when he tilts it
and splays them, the grasshopper
leaps off to land on Isobal Mulligan’s
memorial carnations.

The tiger loses interest and skulks off;
the sound of the radio scrambles on, their
argument unresolvable.

Fifty souls whose names have been
effaced by rain and wind
turn their faces and listen to
the grasshopper rustle away,

and they smiling at the sound
receding into oblivion
like them.


While laying drains they found a body
immaculately dressed, black hair a centreparted book
neat pencil moustache still a waxy line,
eternal hands in posy clasp.

Lugubriously, they took his stats: five foot nine
inches, no wedding ring, a jagged scar
on his eaglebeak nose, tattoo of Englebert
Humperdinck over his heart, a moley back.

Like wasps the papers began to buzz:
“The Longest Wait” – “He Fell in Love, Into a 
Shallow Grave” – “E. Humperdinck Greatly
Distressed.” The frothing whys cast
leery nets that sieved the land for that girl
he’d plucked daffodils for.

The posy, crushed, was now in plastic 
marked ‘Exhibit A’, dusted for crumbs
(Was his last meal a clue? Digestive poisoned?
Toastie spiked?) His rictus grin was measured for
authenticity, his blood – now solid – scraped and
scrutinised for suspicious substances.

What didn’t figure – and maths was fighting 2 and 4
to work it out – was how damned happy 
this man looked, eyes melting at a vision
now many bus journeys away.

While the red-tops cawed about his date with 
death, Irina Crawley, optician, spinster, flame-
haired fawn, rolled down her shutters in
black flag mood and swore she’d never
wear that turquoise silk lace dress
to town again.

His Old Clothes

Baraka de Ibrahim

There was a box on the table and a suitcase open on the gravel near the long benches, littered with large dishes now almost empty and being picked at by the last few lunchers. The box and suitcase were full of jumpers, polo shirts, a windbreaker jacket, trousers. They looked small for someone of his stature; he’d been solid, bear-like, as though carved from wood. A Russian Tartar with a full mouth of gold teeth and a neatly groomed moustache. I only ever saw him a few times before he got ill.

His widow Katya sparkled, her lipstick a girlish shade of candyfloss, her Spanish stilted and apologetic, her hands warm and squeezable and whitened with cooking fat scars. She was getting used to her new name, Karima, having become Muslim only days before he died. It was one way to remember him. Now she smiled with an immense joy for having people to give his clothes to, gratitude for having had him in the first place, excitement at sharing him out to everyone the way a musician is thrilled for a rapturous reception.

There were often things for sale or give away outside the mosque on a Friday afternoon after Jumu’ah prayers, boxes of Sadaqah clothes, halal chorizo and salami, booklets of transcribed teachings. Today another woman was laying out dresses, oriental perfumes and jewellery on one of the tables that sloped at an unfortunate angle.

The worshippers were already drifting to their cars, cajoling their children to get their shoes on, put down that poor kitten and get in. My toddler kept running off to see the older kids, the cars starting up, the two donkeys brought down belatedly by a neighbour for the last few children to ride on in the dustbowl car park. Some of the men, having lingered this long after the food – Karima’s unbelievable chocolate and almond cake – had called the adhan for Asr and were inside praying. Meanwhile, the rest of us (mostly ladies, no surprise there) were pawing through the clothes and perfumes, appreciating them in muted voices.

That was when I noticed the things Karima was offering, not knowing whose clothes they had been. I love a good jumble sale; I’d once planned on holding a monthly ‘Rumble in the Jumble’ in the sleepy English village where we used to live. My newest ruse was to find wool sweaters, over-sized, and to felt them in a hot wash cycle to make neat winter things for me and my son.

I could see, being slowly uncovered as others pulled overlying garments out of the boxes, a peach of a jumper. It was sort of oatmeal in colour, but it was more the feel of the wool that my eyes were already stroking that made me pick it out.

“Baraka de Ibrahim,” Karima said with warmth. 

So this jumper – these clothes – had been his! The man who, less than a month ago, was released from his breakneck descent into amnesia, incoherence and disability as his cancer metastasized and consumed him from the inside out – these were the textiles that used to hug him loyally, through pain and calm, hold him like those strong hands of Karima’s did. 

During that time there were men going to see him by turns every day, helping him to move about; he was too heavy for Karima to carry. She was also being visited by the women, who brought her cooked food so that she didn’t have to cook for herself, though her own cooking probably far outshone theirs. She was still working in the mornings, cleaning someone’s house and helping their decrepit mother to wash herself and go to the bathroom.

Maybe I thought that, being just pregnant with my second child, I was too close to the start of the existential roundabout to be an appropriate presence in their home, a mirror into what their own lives were like thirty years ago when their children were still in nappies. One way or another, I felt they’d understand if I didn’t call by. Ibrahim’ death didn’t need to be a bandwagon.

When he did die, mercifully not too long after the worst of his illness had started to bite, the men followed the traditional Islamic rites of washing his body so that it didn’t putrify in the ground too soon, wrapping him in shrouds, perfuming him, and laying him directly in the ground without a coffin. My friend, a carpenter, had made a sort of wooden deathbed for the body to lie on in the grave, so that it didn’t touch the earth immediately. The whole process takes a day, and the work of perhaps ten strong men to fill the grave – six feet of empty space, minus that occupied by the body, astonishingly small once the life that once animated it has left.

The whole way through this process, it was human hands that had touched him, held him, carried him, washed him, buried him. These were the same hands that had shaken his while he was alive, had passed him plates of his wife’s superlative potato and chicken casserole, or grapes and persimmons from friend’s gardens, or slices of watermelon to slake that unbearable summer thirst. The voices that sang his funeral cortege up the hill to the Muslim graveyard, where people could be buried in the ground instead of in slots in a concrete wall like in the Catholic cemeteries – cementerios as they are so aptly called – those voices were familiar to him, had also touched him acoustically.

The night of the funeral also happened to be the wedding celebration of the sheikh’s daughter. Some of the guests there had also been at the graveside only hours before. It had drizzled that day, a damp and welcome conclusion to the furnace that had been September – baraka, everyone said: blessings.

The rain didn’t dampen any spirits that evening. The double duty guests had changed their clothes, scrawled on some make-up, adjusted their outlook from one of grief to one that straddled endings and beginnings, joy and sadness being joined on an elastic band, one pulling the other after it in a perpetual hopscotch. The sheikh’s daughter danced; the flamenco dancers danced – even the random Senegalese guest who gatecrashed the party danced. It was a wedding that embraced all things sober and ecstatic, the Sufis and the teenage fashionistas, the old people (even me, aged with parenthood) looking back, wistful and relieved, and the young people looking forward, daring and unharmed.

At the Friday prayers a month later, the young couple had already moved on, as had so many other things. The plates of food had not yet been laid out, the boxes of jumble and perfumes still sat unopened. The bride’s father was away and an Algerian man gave the khutba which, admittedly, I largely spent stroking my son’s soft bare feet and round little nose. But several of the women were in tears, of release and not of sadness. Even one of the toughest, most self-abnegating ones among them was startlingly serene, her eyes closed, no longer clacking nervously on her tasbih beads and sighing with the hopelessness of her spiritual task.

The tears being shed fell from faces made tender through sudden exposure to an intense, boundless, undiscriminating love. There was no hurt, or guilt even, except perhaps regret for never having noticed it before, for having complained despite it. Even the usually raucous kids playing outside had inexplicably chosen not to beat each other up with sticks or throw one another into a hole.

I was hardly listening to the talk he gave, confronted as usual by the initial culture shock of going from my house/local supermarket/yoga group to this place where women wore dozens of layers of clothing even in hot sweaty weather and people stood in rows putting their foreheads on the carpet. Even though I was born a Muslim and brought up with Sufism as a daily part of my life, I still experience this jolt of misplaced expectations, of my perception of normality, whenever I come to a mosque without steeling myself for the turbulence in advance.

But when surrounded by people whose whole beings seem to have been pounded by some powerful waves, and who have yielded to them and come out freed from their stiff, powerless defences, it is impossible to be impervious. The love-ache spreads and you learn that you only feel bruised when you try to repel it.

The hugs and kisses that always come after a Friday prayer were this time long and fully felt, not the usual mosh pit of women trying to kiss each person, mentally ticking them off the list. It was as though all of us were rising out of a surreal and beautiful dream at the same time and recognised people they had just been dreaming about.

Not much was said that I can remember. Orders were called from the kitchen and we drifted out dozily to plates of rice, salsa, lentils, olives, pumpkin soup and Karima’s potato and chicken casserole, which was so delicious I have to mention it again. “Very easy,” was all Karima managed to say among the dazed chatter. And then came her chocolate and almond cake…never had so many women wanted a recipe so badly. I was sitting next to her. I wanted to eat her up, her food was so good.

In the porch of the mosque that afternoon, a golden sense of unburdening lingered on well after the meal was cleared away and digested, the obligatory Moroccan green tea drunk, the various tasks as home needing to be done remembered. I don’t know what it was. Sometimes a great collective weight eases from a people’s mind, the strain of keeping heads above water giving in to an overwhelming urge to let the tide carry them to shore – whatever shore it may be. I am reminded of something sweet my father’s sheikh used to say: “Relax your mind and learn to swim”.

And there was Karima, her husband now fully relaxed and swimming in the tsunami of the infinite, giving away her cake recipe and his old clothes in candyfloss pink lipstick. I wondered if she felt that neither had ever really been hers to possess. As the Prophet Muhammad said, peace and blessings be upon him, whatever you give away you will be reunited with in the Garden. Our greatest losses in this world are our greatest gifts in that ever-present other.

October 2009

The Death Knell of Illusion

Shock is the death knell of illusion. The initial impact wakes us out of a stupor, and as the reverberations die out the stupor returns, only to be dispelled again with every remembered toll.

I had been given my neighbours, a retired couple from England, Spanish lessons for several months. The last time I saw him was at our lesson; I was drilling him on the conditional tense. He seemed distracted, in love with his garden, almost floating, but still badgering me to create a strict lesson plan so they could keep learning. Less than a week later, his wife and daughter came by to tell me that he’d died.

It shouldn’t be a shock to us that people do that. Has anybody ever heard of someone who didn’t die? Apart from the ones who haven’t yet? People get ill, parts of their bodies recriminate them for their former lifestyles, their unintentional neglect, or merely their genetic code.

But death is the sharpest revealer of our imagined state of permanence. If it weren’t for the illusion that we’ll be hanging around forever – from which we all suffer much more than any physical disease – death wouldn’t come as a shock at all. Mundane reality would recognise its own constant loss; it would see itself trickling away from the solid shape of ice into the clear liquid it was carved from.

Is it possible to maintain that clarity of vision all the time, aware of the true nature of being in the world without feeling sad or lost or robbed? Would it be a burden to keep it up, or does it come naturally with a certain realisation, hearing that death knell and never returning to the happy dream of immortality? Must it take a death to bring us out of the neat-fronted shops in which we stack up our merchandise for the world to see, the reassuring to-do lists of work and entertainment, the day as it’s defined by a plastic ticking tyrant?

If we saw a train heading for us full pelt, we wouldn’t shut our eyes and pretend we were ice-skating. As someone told me before the birth of Shamsie, it’s only the anticipation of some unknown event that creates fear, just as the anticipation of pain creates pain.

Once you’re there, fear is ridiculous; it’s a corridorful of marbles when you’re trying to get out the door on time. And when that self-concocted hindrance is gone, you can see the liberation of death, just as you can see the mind-combusting beauty of birth, over and above the pain and the inelegance of either.

I remember thinking during my labour with Shamsie, ‘I don’t feel anything, no great psychedelic experience, no overwhelming presence of the Great Spirit or anything!’ At first I thought I’d been conned. But a moment later I thought, Perhaps this IS God. The idea came as a shock, of course. My expectations had been shattered; my ideas about how God would be were, as all ideas about God are, my own creative nonsense.

It is at the thresholds of earthly existence that the no-thing-ness of reality sinks in. The birds keep singing outside. The cars keep beeping their horns. But something essential has been transformed on the inside, and there is nothing to grab onto. Words cease to be useful coat hooks to hang concepts on: it is all just as it is.