Gravity for Letters

What passes for patience
is a chessboard click of rooks
prim smiles with unlifted eyes
while tides of bile rise up:
the player’s lava. Boiled rock
clots up your sluices
if it doesn’t find an aperture
a slit in underwater earth
from which a stream of gas escapes
as bubbles, hot enough for crabs
or – better yet – a brazen hole
from which to rain down smoking
boulders over unsuspecting towns
with a belch of ill-digested
feeling. My cascades of ash and pumice,
are directed into hollow caverns
carved by quills
where they tumble on feet and heads
serifs and dots hot off the press
like iron brands of olden days
to stamp the blank white
paper landscape.
Here there’s no need for sweet ‘pleases’
and ‘thankyous’, underbrimming with
cantankerous intents
only a playground for words to skitter in
swing off branches, crash and crumble
knock each other senseless
til some sense emerges, breathless,
floating out of its own crushed importance
laughing, light-headed and happy
for the loss of its gross weight.
Gravity is overrated when
you are a letter.

The Battle to Surrender

Yesterday I felt first-hand the studded battlement walls of surrender. It was a shock; I had always thought I was doing rather well with the whole surrendering thing – I do my prayers, yadda yadda yadda – but now I’ve touched its actual perimeters and seen that no meek and compliant person could scale those walls.

That morning it had been my turn to lead our creative writing group; it went well, after much hassle of finding lifts (my car has kicked the bucket) and printing out worksheets (my printer is likewise pushing up paperchain daisies) and leaving kids in various places to be looked after. The class had gone well, with one person even commenting that I should run creativity retreats (something I have longed to do for many years). I was feeling rather grand.

With all this excitement, pride and caffeine swishing about my brain, however, I was on such a high that when it came time to calm down, return to a mumsier pace and make a meal, I nosedived. The urge to rush about, achieve things, create masterpieces and be ‘on my way’ (somewhere abstract and shiny) rendered the simplest task of welcoming my kids home and cooking something reasonably edible a crippling, outrageous imposition.

Needless to say, things went swiftly downhill. The tofu I’d just opened was so revoltingly off that I had to shower and change my clothes afterwards, the smell was so offensive (I did wonder afterwards if it was in fact a material expression of the interior stench made by my ego putrefying). Caveboy had a yelling fit. Cavebabe peed on the chair. I drizzled a supposedly über-healthy oil on my food (‘rich in alpha-linoleic oil!’) that made the whole plate taste of floor cleaner. I felt like throwing myself onto the floor and having a screaming fit myself.

The classic picture of the mother in Islam is a patient, obedient woman who devotes herself to her children and husband with unflinching self-abnegation. I don’t really match up to that image, and almost don’t believe that they can ever be real. But then I hear astonishing stories, for instance, of my Iranian friend’s mother who not only breastfed him (the youngest of nine), but also three or four other babies in the village. And then went out to work in the rice fields.

To live a life of conscience, one has to decide at every juncture whether some situation must be changed or endured, and it takes a great deal of wisdom to know which one is right. It is a truism passed down over many generations of Muslims (and many others besides) that the secret to happiness is being thankful when times are good and patient when times are hard. Motherhood is the real training ground for these skills; as Muhammad (s.) said, ‘Paradise lies beneath the feet of the mother’ (he might have added ‘because it ain’t a game of tiddlywinks’).

I suspect that the way we have been trained to think in the West has always been in terms of working, fixing, improving things outside of ourselves, developing technology, coming up with ingenious solutions to problems. It’s an approach that is ideally suited to a workshop, an office, a building site. But there are times when striving to make things better on the outside only drains our energy, creates frustration when nothing seems to work, feeds conflicts between differing opinions, and leaves us off-centre and wondering why our efforts aren’t making us any happier.

The answer isn’t to down tools, flop out into any easy chair and wait for the great Pizza Delivery Boy in the sky to bring dinner (well, maybe sometimes it works – think Rabi’a al-Basri and jugs of honey descending out the sky). But I think that it’s this word ‘surrender’ that catches most of us out.

Surrendering to what is necessary and unavoidable is not an easy ride. It might be domestic duties and creative frustrations; or it might be enduring a boring office job, or unemployment, or even going to war. When it is not a matter of ego but of clear need, an obligation made by life and not the command of any dominating authority, there is not need to dither or analyse, or to take pride in personal actions, individual skills, perceived genius.

Finding the clarity to see what needs to be done, and having the guts to do it isn’t ‘surrender’. It’s wisdom made tangible by courage.

Excuse Me (prod, prod), Am I Annoying You?

Insomnia ball, chilling in the moss

Not long ago, awake at midnight having conked out putting Caveboy to bed, and trying to use up my mistimed wakefulness with the self-hypnotic powers of crochet (see pic), I found myself churning over thoughts in my head, not unlike that machine most beloved to Shamsie, the humble concrete mixer.

What sprang out of the rumbling mortar mix of my subconscious was something Caveman and I had been talking about that evening; he thought he’d accidentally offended a mutual friend when he jumped into a misheard conversation with what was meant to be a witty comment, but which clearly left her stung.

I started thinking, as I added stitches to my lurid pink woolly pentagon: had I also offended her? That morning, leaving Shamsie at his kindergarten, all of the mothers had seemed a little off with me. Was I barging about like I owned the place, without realising the revoltingness of my behaviour? Was I making insensitive comments to sweet, stingable souls? Was I being (triple ugh) smug?

I was reminded of a story Caveman once told me about a man he’d met in India. Meditating peacefully under a tree one day, out of nowhere a slightly over-exuberant Indian man came up, prodded him in the shoulder, and said loudly, “Excuse me, sir! You like meditation?”

How do we know what effect we really has on other people? Short of them uniting in one voice and booing you out of the room, there is an infinity of possible reactions people might conceal beneath the veneer of common decency, cordiality, convivial spirit. Was I one of those people who others cringed at in secret? The idea made my crochet hook turn faster and, I fear, more haphazardly. Eventually I went back to sleep, but not without a sickening sense that I might be taking the world’s approval for granted.

Morning comes, and the other parents seem their usual chirpy selves once more. The friend Caveman thought he’d offended did not even recall the incident, let alone bear a grudge over it. Smiles once more felt genuine; perhaps they had all just had a better night’s sleep.

Annoyance, however, lingered on as a recurring theme for a number of days. The cave witnessed much aggro between cavespouses, largely due to my low-lying invisible tantrum rearing its head. I remembered that post on this blog a few weeks back, and reminded myself that when the toddler is throwing jars of peanut butter onto the floor it’s generally because he’s in need of some positive attention. That toddler in me has clearly not grown up, but needs the same wise treatment as I (sometimes) remember to give Caveboy.

But it is a far broader theme, annoyance. Spain is brimming with it. Whether it’s the rowdy drivers yelling abuse at roadhogs or poor parkers, or the fiery, passionate romances that drench the Mexican soap operas – and, by extension, the ordinary folk absorbing the melodrama – Spanish people seem to be quite happy to vent a bit of steam. It almost seems to be a national pastime. Petanque in France, yodelling in Austria, getting up each other’s noses in Spain.

The good thing is that the steam, once vented, quickly dissipates. Nobody stays ruffled for long. And for the things which really nettle us ex-pats, locals appear to have an immense elasticity and boundless patience.

So this morning, having dodged the herds of goats and sheep that so often block the rough tracks we live down, I found myself hunting for a parking space in the notoriously windy, steeply-sloped roads of the town, jammed to the hilt with traffic because the funfair has settled its vast, gaudily-lit wings on the main parking lot, and what do you know? The road is unexpectedly blocked by a cheery funeral cortege.

The grumpy man on the motorbike in front gives me a gesture indicating I hang back and be patient. The world slows to a dream pace for some minutes. Even the man on the motorbike putt-putts respectfully along behind the colourful, chatting mourners. Some things aren’t worth getting ruffled about, he is saying; don’t give the annoyance a home.

One Week Left

There are elemental
qualities of womanhood
that childbirth likes to elicit.

The quiet of a forest
patient digging of an ant
carrying burdens fifty
times its weight
accepting all without complaint
an oak tree growing
silently from nothing.

An Amazon with gritted teeth
a lioness predating
some roaring creature unafraid
tenacity incarnate
the ferocious crash of a
whale’s tail against water
the indomitable swell of a
tidal wave.

And after,
overflowing tenderness
giving all unthinkingly
the bliss of being more than one
careening from tears to kisses
transformed from child
to mother nature
gratitude that it all
worked out
for the best.