"It’s like a library in here" my friend whispers. She’s right. It’s very quiet. Even though it’s raining outside, there are only two other people in the cafe. But without the usual sounds of people talking or the clatter of dishes and scraping of chairs, it doesn’t feel like a cafe at all. I take another sip of my mint tea. Fresh sprigs. In hot water. Hugely overpriced. I did get a small container with honey, and I’m trying to get my money’s worth by spooning every last drop into my tea. The girl sitting behind me is typing an email on her laptop. For a while her fingertips on the keyboard are the only thing we hear. "Okay," I say. "Let’s go." I leave half of my tea. Too sweet. Outside, we plunk down on a bench, giggling out of relief to be out of the stuffy cafe. My friend lights up a cigarette. She just bought a new pack. She offers me one. She always does, and I always say no. A group of eighteen-year-old girls walks by. Army jackets, converse, tights and short denim skirts. They’re carrying shopping bags and laughing at a story one of them is telling. "Remember when we were students?" I say. "The possibilities seemed endless." As soon as I say it I hear how corny it sounds, and I look at my friend expecting her to burst out laughing. But she takes a drag from her cigarette and nods. "Yeah." she says. "Without a care in the world." We sit for a while in silence, watching the girls make plans for the night and say their goodbyes. They have been gone for a while when we finally get up.
“What do you do when something bad happens?” He pauses, and looks around the room. There are eleven of us, seated on yoga mats. “You make up a story,” he continues, smiling forgivingly. “You don’t just observe that what just happened. You create a story that keeps you from feeling the moment. And you become restless. People create narratives to let things make sense to them. But it keeps them from finding stillness. From finding peace.” I let it sink in for a second. Just when I’m about to ask why that is a bad thing, he stands up as a sign that the lesson is starting.
As I’m trying to balance, stretch and bend like he is demonstrating so effortlessly, I keep thinking about making up stories. I do make up stories, yes. I’m probably somewhat addicted to them. Not lies, mind you. But I love the free association process that can start with me seeing a girl holding a red bag and end with kangaroos. I love public transport, as it gives me a chance to just sit there and make up stories about the people around me, and then see where those stories take me before my stop. Surely this is not what he means? How can you be more in the moment than that?
He clears his throat before he starts speaking again. “How did it go?” he asks, looking around the group. We’re all seated again, cradling cups of herbal tea. At first I found this ritual a bit unnerving, but now I actually enjoy this moment to just unwind at the end of a yoga lesson just before we dive into a few minutes of meditation. “Did you manage to stay out of stories? Did you, when you couldn’t bend as far as your neighbour immediately think, ‘hey, she hasn’t been doing this that long, how come she’s better than me already, I’m so stiff, I’ll never get the hang of this?’ Did you create a story like that for what you saw?” Some people murmur in agreement. And I have to admit the thought has also crossed my mind. “What would happen if you would just observe? Without any judgement or harsh thoughts towards yourself?” Wait. So this is what he means. Not stories so much as assumptions, insecurities and negativity. But why call them stories? How can the antonym of inner peace be story telling?
I raise my hand to say something. He smiles the encouraging smile of a patient man. I’ve been a silent participant for most lessons, so I start off a bit hesitant. “But,” I say, “not all stories are bad, right? I mean, they’re not all negative?” It’s the best I can do in that moment, voicing my tumultuous thought process. “No,” he answers. “But to shut out the negative ones, you have to become aware of the fact you’re making up stories in the first place.” I nod. That sounds reasonable. In the next few minutes, I close my eyes and try to find silence within myself. But all I find are questions about the man sitting in front of the group. Isn’t he my age? How did he get himself so together? Why does he speak like an old man? Does he have a girlfriend? Does he ever lose his patience? And before I know it I’ve dreamily imagined his life, from his Surya Namaste in the morning till his chamomile tea in the evening. When I open my eyes again the lesson is nearing its end. People are starting to get up and roll up their mats. He looks in my direction. “And, how did it go? Did you manage to stay out of stories?” This time it’s my turn to smile. He takes it as a yes. As he should.
I still miss you so much. I miss talking to you about my day. I miss you when my son asks for “pani” or “roti”. He reminds me of you too. The way he eats his food. Savouring every bite. I miss you now that the Turkish shop has the good plums again. You bought them for me when I was pregnant. Half of them were overripe because you had to select them by touch.
You would’ve loved meeting up at the petting zoo, showing your grandson the chickens, cows and pigs. The pigs are his favourite. He imitates them really well.
There are so many conversations dead-ended in my head.
When my bicycle got stolen a few weeks ago, I really wanted to tell you. It was your bike after all, and I felt so guilty I got it stolen. Somehow I thought it would never be taken, nothing would happen to it ever. Sorry I didn’t lock it better. I remember when we bought it; you needed handbrakes because they would make it easier on your knees. I’m so sad that I can’t really remember you cycling, even though we used to go cycling when I was a child. You taught me how to fix a tire and discover leaky valves with spit. I thought it was gross but it works. You would’ve loved going to bike shops with me. Asking the salesmen about the best bike they had, letting them go on and on about it, and then telling them it was too expensive. You would’ve gotten me a great discount.
So there are little every day things I miss talking about. And the bigger, life question things. I’m trying my best to deal with it all, but the truth is, I sometimes still feel stuck. And I know that you couldn’t have done anything about that, and that your expectations of me were sometimes too high. But I miss your rock-solid belief in me. That I’ll be all right.
Happy birthday, Dad.
Okay, it’s been far too long since my last blog. I’d like to post a little more of the draft I’ve been working on. You can read the first part here. Again, don’t be shy, tell me what you think :)
The next morning at breakfast Mrs Gupta was positively beaming as she busied herself with cups and plates. “Arre, your father told me that Mrs Chopra was asking all kinds of questions! What is she thinking, that I would consider her chubby Rakesh for my pretty Riya! She must have seen that your braces are gone.” Riya kept her mouth shut, knowing that anything she said, either in agreement or disagreement, would only result in more information about Rakesh or Mrs Chopra, two people she hadn’t heard of before yesterday and didn’t interest her in the slightest. She had other things on her mind. Her best friend Lauren was planning a party a week from today, and she had to get her mother on her side, as she was best in convincing her father in these sort of situations. “Mum,” she said, “it’s Lauren’s birthday next week.” “Oh that’s nice,” Mrs Gupta replied, while rummaging through a cupboard. “I wonder what university Rakesh is going to, did she tell you? Must be somewhere good, he is a smart boy, always was.” “No, she didn’t. But anyway, Lauren is having a birthday party at her house. I was wondering…” Riya didn’t even have to finish her sentence. Her mother stopped what she was doing and turned round to face her. “A party? Who is going to be there?” “I don’t know, Kim, Sarah, maybe some other girls. I don’t really know who else she has invited.” “Will her parents be there?” Riya knew for a fact that Lauren’s parents wouldn’t be there. “I think so” she said, and quickly took a bite of her toast to look inconspicuous. Mrs Gupta frowned, looked away and started to pour some tea into a mug. Placing it before Riya, she said “Alright, I will ask your father.” Riya exhaled slowly, only now realizing she had been holding her breath. She hadn’t told her mother it was a proper party, that Lauren’s parents were away for the weekend, and that she had invited the whole class—including the boys. But for now, her mother had enough information to initiate phase one.
"I’ve finished the rice and I’ll be making some baras,” my mother says on the phone, “You’ll be making the salad, na? What time will you be here?”
It’s my mother’s birthday today. She’s turning 68. “Mum,” I say, “If you aren’t expecting anyone, why are you cooking so much?” “Arre, you never know, who comes is welcome, and food never gets wasted in this house.” She is silent for a moment. “You know, I really miss your father today,” she says. “We’d be having breakfast together, and eat bara for lunch.” I nod, even though I know she can’t see it. He would sit at his spot at the dinner table in his pyjamas, coffee cup and mismatched saucer in front of him. He would tease her, about all her cooking, and she would silence him by letting him try the dishes she made. He’d smack his lips and lick his fingers in delight and sneak bites to my sister when he thought my mother wasn’t looking.
"I know mum," I say. "When are you coming?" She asks again. "Don’t let my grandson eat too much at home, let him eat here," my mother says. I agree. My son loves my mother’s food almost as much as my father did. "He’ll be eating his first bara today!” my mother laughs. “Okay beti, see you soon. I’ll get back to work then.” I smile. “See you later mum. Happy birthday.”
"I still need to find a bikini and a pair of cute sandals, then I’m all set," my friend said, leafing through the latest edition of Glamour magazine. "What do you still need to get for this summer?" I shrugged. "I don’t know, actually. I don’t think I really need anything." The question threw me off more than I’d liked to admit. I tried to picture my "summer" and my "winter" wardrobe to see where I was lacking items, but found I was having a hard time. In my closet, jumpers and cardigans are always fighting for space with frilly summer dresses and sheer blouses.
My Dutch friends take the first sunbeams as a starting signal to clear out their wardrobes. Sweaters and jumpers are washed and put away. Items are evaluated on fit, size and trend and then discarded or kept, and shopping lists are composed to complete looks. It’s a ritual that repeats with every change of season, from boots to sandals, from knits to tank tops.
I’m quite jealous of this. It makes them seem so organised. They always know exactly what they need. There is also something celebratory in marking the end of a season and the start of a new one. Truth is, I’ve never bought clothes for a particular season. I never really “clear out” my summer or my winter clothes. By the time I realise it’s too hot to wear jeans, all the cute summer items have already flown out the stores and new autumn/winter styles are dominating the sales floors. Don’t get me wrong, I love shopping. I’m just not very good at planning it.
Of course I blame my parents. Coming from a country with tropical temperatures all round, and not even a very dramatic rainy season to speak of, they thought the Dutch obsession with seasons to be quite amusing. Why wouldn’t you eat lentil soup in July? Or crave a salad in December? Why wait for spring to clean? My father laughed at his colleagues in shorts and T-shirts when the first rays of sun appeared. “Arre, you’ve become so dark!” my mother would say, “Were you sitting in the sun all day? You shouldn’t be so greedy for the sun, you’re not a Dutch girl!” But she forgot that I am. My parents had soaked up enough sun for a lifetime during their years in Surinam. For me, nice weather and sunlight are still things to be celebrated. Perhaps I should start by clearing out those jumpers.
“Go wash your head” my father would say whenever I wasn’t feeling well. He didn’t mean my hair. Or my face. He literally meant for me to wash my head. Scrub it. A shower could work magic according to my dad. It didn’t matter whether you just had a shower an hour ago (he wasn’t much into environmental issues, especially when personal hygiene was involved).
I still hear my father’s voice when I’m feeling low or unfocused, telling me to go wash my head. And sometimes I really wish I could wash it inside and out. Rinse all the cobwebs and unhappy thoughts away. Waves of fresh energy crashing through my brain, reaching every nook and cranny where negativity and insecurities may be hiding.
Maybe I’ll go take another shower.
These are the first few paragraphs for something I started once. I haven’t finished it (far from it), but someone told me quite recently that the best way to get something done is to just get it out there and patiently wait for feedback. So here goes:
Riya waved to her father who was making his way through the crowd, shaking hands left and right as he slowly came her way. Just as he was near enough for her to give him his coat, a plump woman in a grey sari stepped between them. “Such a pity we always meet at these tragic events,” she said as if they had been in the middle of deep conversation al along. “He was such a great man. Well spoken Gupta Bhai, it really was a lovely eulogy, so true what you said about the body being just a jacket we borrow for every life. How is your lovely wife? And the children?” Before Mr Gupta could properly answer she half turned around, grasping Riya’s hand. “Ah! This is your youngest? She has grown so much! Beti how old are you now? Doing well in school? Now, go fetch your father a glass of water.” Riya threw her father a puzzled look, but Mr Gupta nodded, smiling reassuringly. As she hung the coats she was holding on a chair and moved away, Riya could just overhear the plump woman saying “She’s getting pretty, na? Braces are gone? You know, Rakesh is now twenty-one…” Riya sighed and tried to get to the other side of the stuffy room as quickly as possible. People around her were laughing loudly, slapping each other on the shoulder and talking as if they hadn’t seen each other in ages.
The close relatives of the deceased didn’t take part in the chatter. They sat, huddled together, in a corner of the room. A woman dressed in a cotton white sari was staring at her feet, clenching a tissue with both hands. Riya quickly averted her eyes when she looked up and glanced in her direction. She didn’t know her well, and staring felt like intruding upon a moment that should have been private. Finally, she located a tray with drinks and made her way back to her father with a glass of water, hoping that the plump woman had moved on and they could go home. They were just saying their goodbyes as she handed her father his glass, telling each other to send this-and-that person their regards. “Tell Bhabhi I will come by soon, with Rakesh,” the woman said as she pinched Riya’s cheek, “These young people should meet each other, don’t you think Bhai?” Mr Gupta smiled mildly and nodded as he put his glass down. “My address has been the same for years Mrs Chopra,” he said, “you know you’re always welcome. Now, where’s my coat Riya, your mother must be waiting for us.”
So today I got some bad news. Work related. So in the grand scheme of things not that important I guess. But it feels important. Like there’s this wall I’m walking into (again).
Although I wish to let go of all these assumptions I make about what other people think of me, and the expectations they have of me, somehow I can’t shake them off. They cling to me like wet leaves.
When I look back at myself, about ten years ago, eager to start my professional career, I can’t imagine that we are the same person. I felt powerful then, in charge of my life, whereas now I feel like I’ve relinquished it all, floating aimlessly, not living up to what I thought was my potential, letting down that younger version of me. I feel her glaring at me. “Is this what I’ve worked so hard for?” she says, “For you to just give up?”
How can I tell her that it isn’t giving up, it’s giving in, instead of struggling against the current I’m letting it sweep me away. If these assumptions and expectations I had of what other people might think weren’t weighing me down, trying to pull me under, I might even begin to consider myself happy. Free.
But the assumptions are mine. The expectations are projected by me. It seems that I’m setting my own traps here. So maybe that’s a place to start.
My father loved water fountains. Any water feature for that matter. Whenever we stumbled across one on holiday, his face lit up and he made me take a picture. “Don’t just take empty pictures Kyren,” he’d say, “always ask someone to pose. You’ll forget what was special about the buildings, but you’ll never forget the people you were with.” We all posed obediently, even if we weren’t completely convinced of the esthetic qualities of the fountain in question.
I went to visit him last week. The graveyard was almost empty, foggy and wet, as if it quietly lay waiting for the end of the world, proving the Mayans right. I took the long route up to the alcove we chose for my father’s urn some time ago. It’s a pretty spot, a curved wooden wall looking out on a small water feature, two benches facing it. I can picture him sitting there, wearing his hat and resting his gloved hands on his cane, looking at the water and the trees in the distance, discussing the names on gravestones, most of whom he undoubtedly would have known.
As I slowly walked back to my car, I crossed a narrow bridge connecting a little park with the graveyard. A sudden sound stopped me in my tracks. There, in the middle of the little pond, a fountain had burst into life. A simple jet, spraying water up some two meters, and letting it fall down again on what was a smooth surface just a few seconds ago. I froze, for minutes, just standing there, blinking, looking at it. I couldn’t remember seeing it before, but now I couldn’t tear myself away. Only when a man crossed the bridge, walking past the fountain as if he didn’t notice it at all, did the spell break.
I wish I’d taken a picture, even though there was no one there to pose for it. Somehow I feel it wouldn’t have been empty.