This Meteorology Article Just Blew My Mind. Check Out What Happens at Line 33. Seriously.

While London suffocates under a horrific quarter-inch of snow, here the worst part of an Alpujarran winter has kicked in for the second time: wind so forceful it’s upended our wheelbarrow full of firewood, and almost made it impossible to close the front door. It drives rain through the gaps in the not-very-energy-efficient window frames, leaving puddles amid the Lego on the kids’ bedroom floor. The children are up and down like the FTSE all night, while a mysteriously clanging pipe by our bedroom window chimes the hour.

As usual, I have been unprepared for the effect that all this has on my overall degree of bonkersness. I start entertaining wild notions that my skull is actually made up of millions of hairline fractures, invisible even to an MRI (not that I’ve had one) into which the wind miraculously creeps – bypassing the masonry entirely – rendering me significantly more irritable, depressed, argumentative, critical, and – to use the scientific term for it – unbearable. Under the influence of this stinker of a bad mood which no amount of essential oils, chamomile tea, dark chocolate or videos on YouTube of babies being scared by farts could subdue, I finally had one of those moments in which bloggers

go into an italicised bold indent for effect.

I started asking myself, ‘if I include a stock photo of models wrestling with deep and meaningful thoughts, will it help me finally become the life-coaching guru I’d always dreamed of being? Will I finally be able to sell an e-book explaining the meaning of everything that will pay for my early retirement? Will my words be printed in mock typewriter font over evocative photos and shared virally on Facebook? Could this even be – dare I think it – Oprah-worthy?’

Yago at sunset

This is what I look like when I am wracked with deep and meaningful questions.

At this point I laugh heartily, then have to stop when my belly hurts so much I worry I’ll go into labour a month early.

This was the actual thought: that there is nothing so tremendous, elemental, powerful or terrifying as the wind. Rain you can avoid with gumboots and an umbrella. Sun you can revel in, or escape under shade if it gets too much. Heat can be beaten with A/C or a plunge into cold water. Thunder and lightning? Electrifying when experienced from the inside of a house.

But you can’t just avoid the wind. Even inside a building it makes its existence known. And if allowed to come to its logical conclusion, it can turn into a hurricane, a tornado, a tsunami…Meteorological caprice might make it a soft and refreshing zephyr one moment, or a landscape-changing titan the next.

dramatic interior

“Woman expressing vulnerability in the dramatic interior.” Sorry, couldn’t resist.

It also struck me, as my mind went on its habitual meander into hypothesis, that for people whose landscape is dominated by desert, the wind must be even more unavoidable. Imagine being in a tent, or a small, cramped stone building with a palm-leaf roof, as the ancient Arabs would have lived – and indeed some still do – when a sandstorm hits. The word for wind in Arabic is ريح, rih, with a hard, pharyngeal h that even sounds like wind thundering through a crack in a wall.

Interestingly, the word for spirit in Arabic is from the same root: روح, ruh. The linguistic relationship reflects a semantic one: both are invisible forces only discernible by way of their effects – the things they drag along in their wake, the trees they tousle and uproot, the resistance they put up when you try to drive against them with hard, flat surfaces such as egos. It is a foreshadowing (you could cal it a ‘fore-shuddering’) of the powerlessness we feel at the unavoidable approach of death.

It’s quite a different picture to the classic Western notion of ‘spirit’, which has always conjured up images for me of dull conferences on esoteric themes, and women (or men) with long floaty hair who don’t say ‘hello’: they simply gaze meaningfully into your eyes, burning their greeting into your psyche like they’re tearing open a portal for you to comprehend what ‘hello’ really means.

When the early Arabs considered Allah breathing His ruh into each human being it must have seemed more like an inexorable power racing through every atom of their beings; for the average English person I imagine it feeling more like a pleasant summer breeze, carrying the scent of bluebells. Perhaps a song by Enya plays softly in the background.

Yet our word ‘spirit’ is also derived from the Latin ‘spiritus’, meaning ‘breathing or breath (respiration, or of the wind); breath of a god’. It appears in English referring to a supernatural entity from the mid 14th century on, and from the late 14th century to mean ‘state of mind’, ‘Divine substance’, ‘Divine mind’, ‘God’, and so on. The 4th century Latin Vulgate Bible used the term to translate the Greek psykhe (sound familiar?) and the Hebrew ruah (a not-so-distant cousin of ‘ruh‘).

Indo-European Tree. Big family!

Indo-European Tree. Big family!

In my home town, which swirls with thousands of people with long floaty hair and penetrating gazes who will talk to you at great length about the awesome power of raw food, coffee enemas and ayahuasca detoxes, there is an undercurrent of belief in the New Age notion of ‘manifestation’. That is, that whatever you are going through has arisen because of your mental state, your negative emotions, your attachments, traumas, toxic thoughts etc. etc.

Which can generate, on the one hand, a kind of god-complex in which people think they are capable of anything, and on the other a great deal of blame and guilt when someone is suffering from some major affliction, which must have been caused by their un-enlightened thoughts. As my mum said, “Whoever it is who cured themselves of Stage 3 terminal cancer by eating a macrobiotic diet, I’d like to meet them;” they’ve spawned an entire industry, one that is often trailed by stories of failure as desperate people pin their hopes on repeating someone else’s miracle cure.

While it’s certainly true that stress and anxiety contributes to ill health, and I’m sure we do have far greater power than we are aware of, there is a point at which things go beyond our control. We aren’t the centre of our own personal universes; we aren’t the masters of our destinies. That idea is so terrifying to the five-year-old narcissist in us that we block it out with the delusion that if we build up enough money, a glorious enough reputation, a beautiful enough body/wardrobe/home, we’ll be safe. There’s even a longevity diet for people who want to eat their way to immortality.

Surrendering into the knowledge that you are in far better hands than your own ends the deep argument that your mind is engaged in when it tries to be in charge. We need need, just as we need illness to make us stop and rest, or disasters to make us take stock of our blessings, or annoying people in our lives to teach us how to deal with them in a more mature way than clocking them on the head with a chair. When there’s a giant great hole in or lives, there’s the chance that extraordinary things might fall into it. When you’re stuck you start looking for openings; when you’re down you start to look up.

If Oprah calls, I’ll be outside double-pegging my washing.

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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.