I have only one word to describe this past week: Rich.
Rich in terms of learning and understanding.
I spent several nights reading The Broken Circle: A Memoir of Escaping Afghanistan written by Enjeela Ahmadi-Miller. She recounts her family's escape from their hometown, Kabul, during the Soviet invasion in 1980. It is an incredible journey through the mountains into Pakistan, then all the way into Bangladesh and Nepal before they enter India, where she is reunited with her mother and other siblings whom she hadn't seen in four years. The book touched my heart in many ways.
A story like this often leaves me in awe of the indomitable human spirit. (The author herself goes on to become a successful businesswoman in the US later in life.) This time, however, it also left me thinking that for every such story of bravery and heroism that is shared, there are countless stories of those who did not survive to share their tale. It also got me thinking that one of the biggest factors that helps people overcome impossible odds is the kindness of strangers and help received from unexpected quarters at crucial junctures.
I shared this story with my friend whose wife's family originated from Afghanistan. And he shared with me that her parents too had made the treacherous journey through the mountains with two young kids (his wife's older siblings), not even five years old at the time. And when they made it into Pakistan, her father was kidnapped and kept in a hole in the ground for six months and fed cabbage soup everyday.
To read such accounts is one thing. To know, or know of, someone who has experienced something like this is an entirely different thing altogether. I suppose it brings that adversity closer to home in some sense. Along with courage.
I mostly read The Broken Circle at bedtime, while during the day, I tried to catch up on other inspirational reading pertaining to creativity and writing and making a living from a creative pursuit. (Even when it comes to podcasts and videos, I prefer to read the transcripts than listen to the audio or watch the video.)
In her talk with Marie Forleo, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how she did not leap all in when it came to pursuing her creativity but chose a relatively safer, financially conservative route instead. I have pasted an excerpt below. It's fairly long but I think this was the message I needed to hear, and I want to remember this for the rest of my life.
... we live in this sort of bumper sticker world where the two bumper stickers that I always want to edit are the… with, like, a Sharpie in the parking lot. There’s the one that says, “Jump and the net will catch you,” and there’s the one that said, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Right? So the edits I want to make are, “Jump and the net might catch you,” and, “What would you do even if failure wasn’t even, like, a word that you were caring about?” which is a long edit and makes for a terrible bumper sticker.
But what I’m getting at is I don’t like the… the sort of… I don’t like the ethic that says if you try really hard and you… and you put everything into it, you’re gonna get everything that you want. Because we’re all grownups here, so can we just say that that may or may not happen? You may or may not get everything that you want. You might put everything into something and it doesn’t work, and that’s ok, if you didn’t mortgage your house, risk your family, like, empty out your IRA, and just put yourself in a really precarious situation such that you can never do it again.
Right? That’s the other thing. Such that you’ve been so battered by how you set up your life so that now you’re so cornered and strapped and anxious and shamed that you just say, “Well, if that’s what it feels like to give 100% to something, you can keep it. I’m gonna take nothing but safe choices for the rest of my life,” and that’s it and you just shut down. Right? I never wanna see somebody put in that situation.
So the contract that I made with writing when I was 15 years old and I lit my candle and made my deal with the universe and said, “I’m gonna be a writer for the rest of my life,” one of the promises that I made to the work was I will never ask you to support me financially. I will support both of us. I’m a resourceful person, my parents raised me to be a worker. I will do whatever I have to do to pay the rent and you and I will have a love affair on the side of this that is not contingent upon monetization.
And I have watched so many creative people murder their creativity by insisting that they are not truly creative unless their creativity pays the bills. And if it doesn’t pay the bills, which it might or might not, or it might for a while and then it might not. You might go out of fashion, your thing might change, people might not want that anymore and all of a sudden you’re stuck. And I see those people go into depression, bitterness, rage, resentment.
You have to be child like in the pursuit of your life, but you cannot be childish. And this is a really big difference. Childlike means walking into the world with wide open wonder and being open and letting go of bitterness and ready to be amazed, ready to be taught, ready for everything to be new. That’s childlike. Childish means I want it and I should have it and I don’t… I don’t like the way this turned out, it’s not fair, I’m gonna have a temper tantrum now, nothing ever goes my way, I didn’t grow up in the right family, I don’t have the right tools, I didn’t get to go to the right school, nobody likes me, I quit. And… and just because I want it, I should have it. That’s childish.
So you have to separate those things out. I believe you can be childlike and mature at the same time. And mature means looking after yourself in the real world in a real way.
In the same talk, Marie Forleo herself mentions how she had day jobs for seven years while she set up her coaching business alongside and grew it into something that could support and sustain her financially.
This interview helped me as I woke up on Saturday morning, on the verge of panicking, at the prospect of having committed to spending that morning working on an editing job. The old thoughts cropped up to haunt me: I should be writing instead. Why am I wasting my time? Why am I not 100% dedicated to my writing? And so on. And so on.
For a change, this time I was able to remind myself that I had gone down this rabbit hole the past two times but the subsequent turn of events had been entirely in contrast to what I had feared. I had not only enjoyed my editing jobs but also recorded some of my highest weekly word counts alongside. My breath less laboured and more stable, I spent the early morning playing with D, then came up to work right after breakfast, and spent a good three hours working, engrossed and happy.
Another inspiring talk that I read was Ethan Hawke's TED talk on creativity: Give yourself permission to be creative. I want to post the entire transcript here, so much did I love every word of it. He narrates a funny incident about a poet named Allen Ginsberg, and then goes on to say -
... I think that most of us really want to offer the world something of quality, something that the world will consider good or important. And that's really the enemy, because it's not up to us whether what we do is any good, and if history has taught us anything, the world is an extremely unreliable critic. Right?
So you have to ask yourself: Do you think human creativity matters? Well, hmm. Most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about poetry. Right? They have a life to live, and they're not really that concerned with Allen Ginsberg's poems or anybody's poems, until their father dies, they go to a funeral, you lose a child, somebody breaks your heart, they don't love you anymore, and all of a sudden, you're desperate for making sense out of this life, and, "Has anybody ever felt this bad before? How did they come out of this cloud?"
Or the inverse -- something great. You meet somebody and your heart explodes. You love them so much, you can't even see straight. You know, you're dizzy. "Did anybody feel like this before? What is happening to me?" And that's when art's not a luxury, it's actually sustenance. We need it.
Now that I had somewhat been able to accept my newfound balance between my editing work and writing, I thought I'd be at peace at last. But no. I went to bed on Saturday night and woke up this morning with an emptiness I'd been feeling for a long, long while. For years, in fact. I had long assumed this had had to do with my inability to find any satisfaction in the way my work had been progressing, but now that that dilemma had been resolved, at least for the time being, I couldn't figure out at first why this feeling lingered. It was only after KrA woke up that it struck me how dispirited he too had been these past few days.
Last week had been exceptionally difficult with KrA resuming work after a nice, year-end break, and D starting online learning, even though his school has been incredible about not keeping the little ones glued to the screen for longer than 20-30 minutes at a time and making sure they are well engaged.
But the story of our exhaustion and isolation runs longer than that. Pandemic-related lockdowns in Ontario began in mid-March. The fact that almost everyone else is in the same boat seems to make the misery of it more bearable.
KrA and I feel as if we've been in isolation for the past five years, beginning with my difficult pregnancy (entailing bed rest and hospital stay for several weeks) in early 2016 and subsequent caring for D without any family or friends to turn to for support, neither physical nor mental or emotional.
Even now, looking back, the thing that I feel was the hardest for us in those days was not having a single other human being to simply call up and weep to, to say how hard parenting is, to talk about all the conflicting emotions and anxieties and fears.
During this period, our relationship with family became very fragile, fraught with a lot of judgement and advice but no genuine support or empathy. I came across a quote this morning by Positive Energy+, which goes like this:
Family does not mean: keeping secrets, walking on eggshells, lying to keep the peace, pretending others are healthy when they are not, tip toeing around the truth, attending events that derail my healing process, defending poor choices, engaging in toxic behaviour, remaining loyal to destructive patterns, or sacrificing my needs in an attempt to fix or save others. - Positive Energy+
And boy, I am so guilty of all of the above. So much had I yearned for love and acceptance from 'family', until D came along and taught me to be authentic, true to myself, to love myself first and set healthy boundaries.
When it came to friends, I realised we hardly had any. Sure, there were friendships from the past we occasionally tried to revive but such encounters seemed to mostly pass in exchanging notes on weekend plans and vacation plans, both of which were, and still are, non-existent in our case. (Two questions I have come to despise in the western world are these: "What are your plans for the weekend?" and "How was your weekend?" As if a weekend not filled with any impressive plans is not worth talking about.) Friends who didn't have children were obviously clueless about the issues we faced. Friends who had older children had long forgotten what it was like to care for an infant all alone. There were hardly any 'friends' we could unburden ourselves to and say, without hesitation, how difficult we were finding it all. I went to as many community centre events for kids as I could, but I didn't find lasting friendship or much emotional support there.
Somehow we survived those years with a lot of tears and seemingly endless despair. When the lockdown began in March 2020, I remember feeling so relieved that KrA would at least be home all day. Just the presence of another adult during the day felt like a blessing.
Now that everyone has been going on and on about how the isolation imposed by 2020 has been impacting them mentally, I am finally able to give myself permission to admit how tough it has been for us these past five years.
So the fact that I didn't spend these past five years building a backlist of 20 novels is perfectly human and normal and fine. It is perfectly OK. The fact that even now, it takes me way longer than I'd like to get my words down, is perfectly alright. It is not time wasted. It is not effort delayed. I will not waste another moment lamenting where I am on this journey right now and the pace at which I am progressing.
And I will be mine and KrA's biggest and loudest champion. I already am a very positive voice for D and will continue to be so.
I will end this post with an excerpt from The Broken Circle. When Enjeela and her siblings get into a rather rowdy quarrel with each other, their father takes them to a garden and points to the trees and says:
"What you see is what love looks like. They (the trees) can touch each other, yet they don't irritate or enrage each other. All throughout the world, love speaks to us, what it means to cherish and be kind and to respect each other. If we miss the message, we will get lost. We will lost out on what's important." - Padar in The Broken Circle by Enjeela Ahmadi-Miller
I have already determined what is important to me: KrA, D, and my writing. So here's to a year of being a champion to myself and to the two cherished blessings I have in my life.