Like Gardener’s Hands on Silk

I am all elbows
leaning on ledges
strangers’ shoulders
eyelids falling involuntarily
after nights fractured
by screams as gums are
lacerated slowly by
a knife tip tooth

My corners catch on everyone
like gardener’s hands on silk
bunions build up on my edges
myelin thickens to muffle nerves
and stiffens my walk to a
peg doll pace
so I cease to bend
and instead
start to
cr
ack

How can a woman come apart
– limbs popped out like a doll
in the inquisitive hands of a 5 year old –
and drag the pieces along by
fibres of some unearthly substance
below the threshold of her vision
whereby lunches occur in spite of her
beans falling out of the ceiling
into pans that manoeuvre themselves
onto the stove
loo roll replenishes itself
the baby picks up crumbs and helpfully eats them
crayons roll off the edges of the floor
into holes that return them to their place
like balls under a pool table
bread grows back from crusts
rugs stretch out like a man in bed
teabags multiply in hollow boxes
the emptiness inside cupboards
solidifies into the shapes of
jam jars and pasta twirls

If children can meet on Minecraft
and throw ocelots at zombies
while being safe
in their pyjamas on the sofa
surely I can
make magic too.

Two States

Two states compete
for my longing:
one, a room for living in with wood fire
burning behind smudged glass
a heap of books, some open
wet socks hung on the back of a chair
a bowl of fruit, some cut and not yet brown
shoes toed off and left at irreverent angles
something humming in a corner,
processing dried fruit or data and
even when the room is empty of people
it is thrumming with the echo of them.

The other is wall to wall cabinets
neatly closed, dust-free,
windows freshly Windexed
a bank of new steel iMacs
working glitchlessly
leather seats arranged to look casual
but there are no crescents of coffee
on the coffee table or
crumbs on the geometric rug
no scratches on the wooden floor
or piles of dry clothes to fold
no glasses waiting smearily
to be washed up.
A fug of central heating
closes throats to a polite silence. No ash!
Double glazing drowns out
the noise of the neighbour’s dog;
here one can concentrate
there are no cobwebs to sigh over
or interruptions by small children
thumping each other over felt tip pens
behind the cabinet doors are
stationery supplies to last
’til kingdom come
fresh orders of necessities
have been made weeks in advance
for there is no chaos here to hinder
business, no boring list of frets
to get on top of before projects
can fructify. This orchard
only yields polished apples
red and round
without pockmark or warp
grown under supervision
under daylight lamps
to industry standards.

The latter is where a half a million
is small change, where minds
boil and brew great schemes
reach nebular heights
dynamic people drop in
to ping ideas about
and everything occurs on time.

The former, though, is the only place
my mind will sink its toes
into soft soil, send down
taproots that drink from
hidden aquifers
and while my hands are
pairing socks
cutting paper snowflakes
making tea stains on the table
the real business is happening
on another schedule, one that
sees a calendar like any other piece of
earth-to-be
and gives misshapen fruits
that fall and lie embedded in nettles
edible gemstones
the ore of that ground called home.

The only guarantee
it gives me is that
nothing will be perfect
(at least I can’t be disappointed);
here the products hug me back
leave me love notes in scrambled English
and the day they leave
and my rug goes for weeks with
no hint of a crumb
I might finally get something done
if I can only stop myself
from spending all day blinking
in surprise at the quiet
and missing the mess.

On the Boot of Ukraine

The standoff is startling
pale-faced, clean-shaven
as patient as snow
on the boot of Ukraine

Meanwhile, bones grow in babies
floors dirty themselves
muttered grumbles repeat
between broomstick and brain

Men are ranged in steep banks
as though cliffs ploughing on
to raise slow-cresting mountains
against foreign terrain

But at home, the plates sit
crusted with rice and cheese
the washing needs taking in
safely out of the rain

Whispered terrors of war
thread through emails and towns
ignite testosterone
fan a wildfire chain

But the people still pee
move their bowels most days
dead leaves, soap and hair
still encumber good drains

That momentous decision
of conflict or peace
raises all of our stakes
queries what is humane

Yet food and clean water
still need to be sought
foraged, stolen or bought
hunted, fished, caught and slain

Ambulances are readied
tanks and great submarines
great causes flush hot
in the president’s vein

While his mistress is ironing
silk slips that he gave,
asks the housewife next-door
what works best on wine stains

Rallied shouts float above roof-
tops: “Fight for your rights!”
though the war’s still a theory,
immanent the campaign

Housewives beat their rugs
water aubergine plants
beetles creep inside bottles
herds of goats block the lane

The diplomats clinch it:
troops retire to barracks
blank and brotherless for bread
and soup to soften pride’s pain

Cotton sheets heave and snap
tangled children’s hair is brushed
trumpets polished, glasses too
doors opened and closed
cats, dogs, rabbits fed
compost bins evacuated
trees and roses are still pruned
bowls of oranges arranged
the Names of God mentioned as stars
set into violet dawns
planets drift the way they always do
deaf to all of mankind’s bluffs

while here on earth the grass grows green
and green it will remain

Here

Every place I’ve ever prayed

– four wall frames for this

absorbing act of art

marking the spot where

the Beautiful appears

in hearts turned clear as 

glass with love –

are, if I conjure them 

in qiyam, visible again

overlaid: same qibla,

same calm.

 

The world aligns

these scattered squares

landscape provided by

the odd park, forest floor

or mountain slope

that ever served

as mosque

while depth is added by those 

few times overall I prayed jama’

one stroke of paint in ruku’, a

Van Gogh of backs and heads.

 

This is just the same 

place, call it here or there.

Even though the compass

needle’s moved

from Spain to India

Turkey, London

Washington, Mombasa

my feet haven’t changed;

my head still weighs the same.

 

So is there, in the same way

there is only now and no past 

left, no future yet to be

no here, either?

No North or South

or East or West

no close to home

or far-flung nation

to judge one to be

God’s homeland

visas rubber-stamped by

angels, everywhere else

a plane ride’s reach

from the Real?

 

The scenery’s been changed

but this stage has

gone nowhere.

So many earths have crept 

beneath my soles and yet 

the solid rock beneath my brow

is deep as ever, the

plunging in always the timeless

spaceless swim it ever was

wherever it has been.

 

With every rak’ah

the archived frames return

mirrored around

reflecting out

while I sit here

reflecting in.

Here

Every place I’ve ever prayed

– four wall frames for this

absorbing act of art

marking the spot where

the Beautiful appears

in hearts turned clear as 

glass with love –

are, if I conjure them 

in qiyam, visible again

overlaid: same qibla,

same calm.

 

The world aligns

these scattered squares

landscape provided by

the odd park, forest floor

or mountain slope

that ever served

as mosque

while depth is added by those 

few times overall I prayed jama’

one stroke of paint in ruku’, a

Van Gogh of backs and heads.

 

This is just the same 

place, call it here or there.

Even though the compass

needle’s moved

from Spain to India

Turkey, London

Washington, Mombasa

my feet haven’t changed;

my head still weighs the same.

 

So is there, in the same way

there is only now and no past 

left, no future yet to be

no here, either?

No North or South

or East or West

no close to home

or far-flung nation

to judge one to be

God’s homeland

visas rubber-stamped by

angels, everywhere else

a plane ride’s reach

from the Real?

 

The scenery’s been changed

but this stage has

gone nowhere.

So many earths have crept 

beneath my soles and yet 

the solid rock beneath my brow

is deep as ever, the

plunging in always the timeless

spaceless swim it ever was

wherever it has been.

 

With every rak’ah

the archived frames return

mirrored around

reflecting out

while I sit here

reflecting in.

Here

Every place I’ve ever prayed

– four wall frames for this

absorbing act of art

marking the spot where

the Beautiful appears

in hearts turned clear as 

glass with love –

are, if I conjure them 

in qiyam, visible again

overlaid: same qibla,

same calm.

 

The world aligns

these scattered squares

landscape provided by

the odd park, forest floor

or mountain slope

that ever served

as mosque

while depth is added by those 

few times overall I prayed jama’

one stroke of paint in ruku’, a

Van Gogh of backs and heads.

 

This is just the same 

place, call it here or there.

Even though the compass

needle’s moved

from Spain to India

Turkey, London

Washington, Mombasa

my feet haven’t changed;

my head still weighs the same.

 

So is there, in the same way

there is only now and no past 

left, no future yet to be

no here, either?

No North or South

or East or West

no close to home

or far-flung nation

to judge one to be

God’s homeland

visas rubber-stamped by

angels, everywhere else

a plane ride’s reach

from the Real?

 

The scenery’s been changed

but this stage has

gone nowhere.

So many earths have crept 

beneath my soles and yet 

the solid rock beneath my brow

is deep as ever, the

plunging in always the timeless

spaceless swim it ever was

wherever it has been.

 

With every rak’ah

the archived frames return

mirrored around

reflecting out

while I sit here

reflecting in.

The World, Retranslated

Lately, I have been feeling an unusual pang of envy towards men.

It’s not penis envy. You can get one of those quite easily on eBay these days, and in any case I rather like sitting down to pee – it is by far the more convenient position for reading.

No; it’s more of a vague, pervasive, unsettling feeling that there is some wonderful thrill in being masculine. It was perfectly expressed, I noticed as I stood in line to pay a bill at Banesto yesterday, in the exhilarated faces of the Spanish football team as they raised the European Cup trophy. The bank, which sponsors the Spanish team, had printed an enormous, shiny, cardboard poster of this moment, which occupied a good size of the grey-tiled space that was otherwise completely empty. A bit like the coffers of most Spanish banks.

The faces of the lucky footballers were the picture of euphoria: hair flying, teeth exposed right back to the molars, fists raised in jubilation, heady yells of triumph captured and banished to a poster in a lonely bank office in a silent cardboard image. In that original moment, their happiness exploded out into reality with the sheer rush of achieving what they had worked for years untiringly, with nothing but massive amounts of money as an incentive.

The pang of envy, if it were to be put into words, felt something like this: ‘Here I am juggling a small child and bag and buggy and being polite and doing endless menial jobs without the distinction of a wage with all sorts of ideas for my novel/short stories/poems/songs/articles/plans for workshops/cure for cancer and only scraps of time to try to put them together meaningfully between the washing/lunch/school run/endless toddler toilet trips and there are those men with shiny hair and muscles standing out in exultation at their achievement with the world’s approval roaring in their ears. Wouldn’t that feel nice?’

It’s the classic feminist gripe, that men do things that women don’t. They walked on the moon. They developed the theory of relativity. They invaded Poland. It’s as if all of male-kind gets the credit for the actions of specific men who did specific things and got a pat on the back (or, er, the Allied forces down their throats) for it. They may have been stingy, unreliable, arrogant, unkind to orphans, overly fond of alcohol, neglectful of their children, terrible at making steak tartare, or just plain stinky. But there is this trophy raised glintingly in their hands, and they win the day and the approval of the masses (or, er, the Hitler Youth movement…OK, this was quite a confusing example).

The longer I stared at the poster of the selección española, however, the more their jubilation started to make me a bit queasy. The sweat was just a little too shiny; the muscles really did stand out in quite a grotesque way, especially on their necks; the teeth seemed too sharply pointed in the canines. The glory of winning made their eyes leap out in crazed bulges. They could have had a severed head hanging from their heads and flecks of blood on their medieval tunics, but the expression would have remained more or less the same, bar the nicely bleached teeth. The rush of vicarious adrenaline turned cold in my blood; perhaps that analogy about the Nazis wasn’t so far off the mark, after all.

So it got me thinking. Where does this man-envy come from? If we are all well aware of the heinous acts that male-kind has inflicted and continues to inflict on humankind, through political repression, warfare, abuse of prisoners, domestic abuse, criminal banking mismanagement, or making snarky remarks when we can find our handbags, why do we still feel that men have the upper hand when it comes to human value?

There might be many theories out there, interesting ones, but here’s by two bits: the world is, and always has been, in the grip of the major delusion that life is all about what people get. I mean by that the acquisition of status or credit or acclaim as much as material objects. But it amounts to the same thing; everything we acquire or achieve hangs heavily in our hands like the severed head of the blood-lusting warriors. They weigh us down, day by day more heavily, until they finally take us into the grave like leaden lumps.

What is the alternative to this spiritual gravity? Giving. There is a saying in Islam that whatever you give in life you are given in paradise, so when you give a gift, make it the things you love the most, and not some crummy thing you’d rather not have anyway. In my personal view, paradise is not only a state of consciousness that person finds after death, if they are open to it, but a state of consciousness that a person can at least get glimpses of while alive, if they are open to it. With every thing you sacrifice or give away, your attachment to the world and all its trappings become looser, and you begin to float above it, free.

If we look at the achievements of men compared with those of women, it is clear that men dominate the outward, the public, the world of prizes and accolades and severed heads – I mean trophies. There are more male comedians than female, more male CEOs, politicians, theatre actors, judges, university professors, and so on.

But if we are looking at things from our new and improved perspective, all of that is nothing but ten-tonne weights mooring a soul to the world, to the endless mill of seeking approval from others, of getting pole position, beating our records, outdoing our rivals, being number one. In whose eyes? The man (or woman) who wins a gold medal in the Olympics might be a total prick at home. Only the people who are most distant, the newspaper-readers, the television-gazers, the status-enviers will admire him (or her) for that achievement, not knowing that perhaps his (or her) family loathes the very sight of him. (Or her. Can I stop now?)

On the other hand, women, in a very general and blanket sense, are prize-winning sacrificers. We offer up our nutrients, abdominal cavities and breastmilk (not to mention perkiness) to bring the next generation of human beings into the world. The vast majority of women still do the vast majority of housework – an issue that the feminist champion Selma James has addressed in her many campaigns to make governments pay women a wage for doing housework.

We look after young children, elderly parents, siblings having life crises, friends going through divorces, dogs and cats needing treatment for mange – we even take part in collections of dry and tinned food for people hit by the financial crisis, like the one the Spanish supermarket Coviran is currently running. We give up careers to care for families. We give up afternoons rehearsing for charity pantomimes or putting on benefit gigs or selling raffle tickets for this or that good cause. My wonderful friend and fellow blogger Norah at Life in Marrakesh has just managed to set up a charitable initiative that offers cookery training to Moroccan women who have no means of supporting themselves, and then helps them sell their goods in a restaurant (see her latest blog post if you want to donate).

Here’s the politically correct bit: OF COURSE it’s not fair to say that all men should be blamed for the disgraceful actions of a few, simply because they are male. By the same token, we women can’t suddenly start thinking that we are all perfect enlightened beings who are always tolerable and lovely, even when we are ovulating. We can be downright horrendous when someone takes our – OUR! – role in said charity pantomime.

But here’s the thing. For a very long time, probably millennia, women have been thought of as inferior to men BECAUSE OF A LIE. We work ourselves silly trying to catch up to the giddy heights of male achievement. Mothers often do the work of three people – paid job, childcare, housework – and end up exhausted and frustrated because they can’t give all of them their full attnetion. We are stuck on a hamster wheel, racing in the wrong direction.

Imagine, if you will, a world in which the value of an action depended on how much benefit it gave to other people. Imagine a world where the measure of a person’s worth is turned upside-down, where the people who own the least are considered the luckiest while the rich are pitied for their anxiety over their burdens. Imagine a world in which people compete to be the most generous, the most genuinely humble, the most compassionate.

This is the world that women excel in. This is the world where things regain their real value. This is the real world; we are living in it right now. All it needs is to be retranslated.

Paper Dolls

For the last ten months or so, ever since Cavebabe was given the all clear from her urinary infection and brought back from a strip-lit, candy-toned hospital ward to a muddle of unwashed clothes and sibling rivalry, my greatest struggles with parenting have taken place on the inside.

Apart from dealing with a run of ill health that I am still trying to get over, I have been periodically assaulted by waves of anger, irritability, frustration, grief, loneliness, disappointment in myself, and guilt – as well as probably a few other feelings as yet unspecified in our language, so poor as it is in emotional vocabulary.

Where these feelings came from I puzzled over constantly, fruitlessly. A hormonal release catalysed by the shock of the hospital adventure? The burden of carrying two children under the leaky umbrella of an ill-functioning marriage? Toxins being dredged out of old fat cells now being steadily worked through by my breastmilk-guzzling babe?

The mind fumbling around in the lucky dip of life as it tends to do, I would think I’d ‘got it’, found the trick, the remedy, the therapeutic technique that would stop all this illness nonsense and return me from gabbling emotional wreck to sane, grounded specimen of humankind as (I thought) I always was.

Hah! Not so easy, as the blind men feeling the elephant’s trunk, leg and buttock – and each believing it was a snake, a tree and a rock – so amply prove. (Thanks, blind mythological men. You’re a great help sometimes.)

But this evening, that wave crashing over me, usually so dense and white with its own violent force, became transparent as air, and the thoughts that carried it forward suddenly stood out in its luminous arc like fish. It was so clear that’s what this wave was: a response to a thought, nothing more.

I went to my notebook and wrote out these thoughts, to see them even more starkly naked, exposed, caught red-handed in their crime. Phrases like ‘I am not creating a nurturing enough atmosphere for my family’ or ‘Caveman does not value me’ fell limp and artificial to the page in front of me.

Who cared if they were true or not? It was the thinking them that tortured me, filled my head with ‘if only’s, turned my heart into a battlefield between me and reality. I was scrabbling about on the peripheries of my being, looking for answers on Google when I had the right remedy closer to me than my jugular vein. “The heavens and the earth cannot contain Me, but the hearts of the believers do.”

All the therapies in the world cannot cure a heart of its longing for Home. All the distractions in the world cannot numb its desire to be returned to its Source.

So this is my medicine now, my panacea for all ills; come back to my core, the nucleus of my matter, the truth of what kindles life in me. Tonight that meant digging out a book about Sufism (The Camel on the Roof by Burhanuddin Hermann), and sitting alone reciting Quran, only understanding flashes here and there but relishing the sounds as they convulsed my throat and chest and mouth (al-yawmu tashshaqqaq al-ard – ah! Sublime) and being flooded once more with that familiar, indescribable beauty that renders all my imagination’s hobbies paper dolls.

That is how it feels to remember. And that is my favourite cure: to be true, to be true, to be true.