Personal post: my son’s investment

After Jan’s passing, eldest son gifted me with a set of weights and an exercise mat. I’d been contemplating a gym subscription but I just couldn’t seem to take that first step. So, when eldest son asked me what was on my birthday wishlist, I thought I’d ask for stuff for exercising at home. I thought: a mat would do or a pair of dumbbells. I remember expressly pointing out some things that I thought were student-level price. (He was also saving up for his own computer, so I didn’t want him to spend a lot.)

I was rather flabbergasted when the packages arrived. Apparently, he’d done some research and opted for his own (more expensive) choices instead of what I had pointed out to him.

In the first year, I shed a couple of pounds and started to feel stronger. When I flexed my arm, I could feel something that felt like muscle. So I took the plunge and signed up at our local gym. My goal: more muscle definition please and make me stronger.

In times when I’ve wrestled with anxiety, I’ve found that a good workout tends to keep the worst of it bay. I’m able to clear my mind for a while as I focus on just making it through a set number of reps and sets.

Today, I thought back to that time after he got his first job at a local supermarket. I think of the late nights and long hours that he pulled and how that was the year he told me that he didn’t need pocket money anymore. I remember how flabbergasted I was when I realised just how much he’d spent on my birthday present and I remember him saying that I should think of it as him investing in me.

The returns on Joel’s investment have come in as we now use that set each time we workout during the week. It’s fun, it gives some sort of structure to days where hours seem to blend into each other, and I guess I’m vain enough to be pleased that the muscle I’ve gained won’t fade during the lockdown.

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( The 3 kilo dumbbells are a recent addition, and these shoes have been with me since I started working out 5 years ago. I have a 5 kilo disk on my birthday wishlist. I’ve read that weight training is important for women as we grow older as it helps maintain bone density and keeps our joints supple. What I can say is this: five years ago, I couldn’t run up and down the stairs, these days I can.)

Lockdown and writing with the boys

We were celebrating one of the younger cousin’s birthday, when the announcement went live.

We had been expecting it, of course.

“Well,” said the only other aunt who had showed up. “I suppose this will go down in family history as the Corona birthday party.”

We sat there, sipping our tea and coffee, while Ministers Slob and Bruins made the announcement. The room grew dark as twilight fell.

“A shame,” the other aunt said. “There was sun this morning.”

We made the appropriate sounds of assent and laughed at the sign language for hamsteren (hoarding).

Youngest son showed off a picture he’d made earlier in the day of empty supermarket shelves.

On tv the Minister says all pubs and cafes will be shutdown for at least three weeks; classes are suspended, and any gathering that includes more than your own immediate family is discouraged. And in particular, no visits to the elderly because they are the most vulnerable.

“That’s it then,” sister-in-law said. “So, I guess you should all go home.”

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I found myself thinking of absurdist movies and it may sound strange, but for a moment I couldn’t help but wonder if a director would jump out of somewhere shouting, “Cut”.

Of course, this didn’t happen.

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In the morning, my sons and I walk to the nearest supermarket. We’re out of bread and cheese, and we haven’t got a gigantic freezer or any kind of stockpile.

So, we walk because classes are suspended and I think children (regardless of age) need some sort of physical movement. I also believe that fresh air is good for you.

Already, the youngest son wants to know what’s on the programme for today.

I propose a short piano lesson.

“Not too long,” youngest son says. “Or else I won’t have time for anything else.”

Eldest son scoffs at youngest son’s declaration, but I promise that all we’ll do is learn the second phrase of Fur Elise.

“What about a short writing session in the afternoon?” I ask.

Both boys perk up and look interested.

“Is this going to be like the workshop you’re giving?” eldest son asks.

“Uh,” I look at youngest son. “I’ll have to adjust it a bit, but it might be fun.”

“Why not?” Eldest son says.

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Today we did two small writing exercises. Afterwards, I asked them if they would like to do this again tomorrow.

It looks like we will.

things I have been thinking about

I find myself thinking about spaces and the creation of spaces. I also find myself thinking about what it means to create space and to fill up a space.

I know there are lots of people who have thought about this before, and this is probably a thought that I keep returning to and which I will inevitably return to time and again. But still, I wanted to put my thoughts on the page, because I don’t want to forget them. Someday, I may return to this page and say to myself: look, you said that and so you must not forget about it.

Anyway, today’s train of thought was prompted by a question one of my students raised about the anxiety they feel when they start to write. I took some time before replying because I was very much reminded of the anxiety that paralysed me and kept me from writing or putting out any words for a very long time.

So today, I revisited Gloria Anzualda’s essay “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers”, and then I went and re-read Marjorie Evasco’s “The Other Voice: Reply to Anzualda”.  Reading these two letters helped me to think about what to say to my student.

I had to think about my own struggle with different kinds of anxiety. In the beginning, writing and setting my stories in the setting of mountain culture, felt uncomfortable. I worried about whether I would be seen as commodifying culture and history. What if the stories I wrote strengthened a stereotype? What if people got angry at me for writing in this way? What if I failed to live up to expectations? What if I made a mistake?

There also was a time when I was angry at my failure to be content to just be someone who took care of the kids, cooked the food, cleaned house, washed and ironed clothes, and tended to the needs of a husband. There was always this struggle to find time, to find enough energy, to carve out space, to make my voice heard, and at the same time raise my kids, help provide for familial needs, and be the ideal partner/wife/daughter-in-law. Let me tell you already that I often felt like I was failing in spades.

In the period after my husband died, after my sister died, after my father died,  I remember feeling stranded and bound by anxiety and fear. I was hobbled by trauma and grief and loss, and I thought that maybe I should just forget about writing.

But I think that writing, once it has taken hold of you, will not easily let you go.

I didn’t say all of these things to my student. (The above is about me and my student needs to know what will be helpful to them in their journey.)

Instead, I asked what it was that made them anxious about the writing. What is stopping you? and most importantly, what do you want to write about (not just aliens or other worlds, but the issues you want to tackle in your stories)?

Then, I told them about what it is that I do when I feel blocked.

These days, I find myself reading and rereading essays, books, fiction, nonfiction. I walk a lot and talk to myself out loud. I drink lots of tea. Eat chocolate on a regular basis, and I write as much as I can whenever I can in any form that feels right for the words that come to me.

I attached Gloria Anzualda’s essay and sent it off in the hope that Gloria’s words will inspire and encourage another young writer to keep on writing and making space.

(Saw this mushroom on one of the walks we talk sometime last year. Mushrooms are marvellous beings.)

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what it’s like to be working like this again

I thought I would write an entry about what it’s like to be working in this way again. To be engaged in science fiction work and to be leading an intensive 7 day science fiction writing workshop spread out during the course of one month and one week.

This blog feels like a natural place to dream out loud about the future I would like to see happen. ( It helps that I know this blog isn’t widely read. Also sometime ago I switched off comments due to anxiety issues).

I do want to maintain some sort of public record of my thoughts and process and also because there are so many people who have inspired me (and who continue to inspire me) and who have so generously shared their light with me on the journey.

I am grateful to Other Futures organizer, Brigitte van der Sande who triggered this reawakening and made me move out of the safety of hibernation into embracing a dream that I let fall from my hands when keeping things together took up all the strength I had.

I think back to things I’ve heard said and things I’ve learned in the past. How there is nothing to fear but fear itself and how sometimes we get paralysed because we don’t know how to go from where we are to where we want to go next because we get afraid.

I will admit that going through loss and heartache made me feel as if there was no way forward because each time I took a step forward something would happen to pull me backward; and then, I would find myself drowning again and walking through what felt like an endless tunnel.

There have been points of light that helped remind me to keep going.  There was the surprise of the Milford writer’s workshop bursary (someday I would love to go again), the first Other Futures Festival (where I was still somewhat in a daze). Small meetings with dear friends like Dean Alfar and Victor Ocampo. Emails from friends and fellow writers–the memory of a rainbow while going out on a walk with Liz and Kari when I was in Wales. Time spent with Nisi. Nalo’s hug. Surprise packages from friends and loved ones–all the small reminders that made me remember that time would come when I would have space, time and energy to dream of things other than the day to day.

I am still in the process of discovering what I want to do next  but I am glad for the pushing and the prompting that has shaken me out of hibernation. And extremely grateful for Brigitte’s counsel because she made me realise that I can do more than sell clothing in a clothing shop. (I will note here that while I mostly enjoy that, in the back of my mind I am aware that it is me running away from trying something more challenging.)

In conversation with a friend I love, I talked about a dream that I thought I had to let go of. Back then, I had been wanting to do more than just a one day workshop but couldn’t quite figure out how that would work.

As I said to my friend, what I would love to find out is if such a workshop can grow writers who represent the multi-cultural nature of current Dutch society and if such a workshop could raise up writers who are willing to tackle social issues and raise questions that lead to social change.

I am hoping that Envisioning Other Futures will lead to other such workshops because I believe it’s important to create spaces where writers and artists feel safe when talking about the issues they want to write about. I think it is in creating such spaces that we will see work being born that challenges existing systems; work that will lead to the kinds of change that we want to see. And to make this happen, we need to build relationships of trust and we need to work together. Stay in conversation. Listen. Think. Talk things through.

(Came across this while on a long walkabout with friends. And then I had to think of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s “The Mushroom at the End of the World”. A fascinating read.)

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Where I am at and dear God, but living is painful

Liz Williams sent me a note asking me how I was doing. It came at a time when I was in the absolute pits, thinking there was really no point anymore and I just can’t do anything right, can I? That short note was like a jolt of lightning.

How can I think of giving up on life when I have been constantly lifted up these past two years?

There is a point—I don’t know what it is. Is it grief? Is it mourning? Is it guilt? I don’t know what it is, but there is a point when giving up seems like the only thing left to do.

Just let me lie down and wallow in my grief. Just go away and leave me to be miserable and lost and chaotic and forgotten. Don’t look at me because what has overcome me feels so terrible that it might touch you too.

I was like that.

For a while, I decided I wasn’t good for anyone…even for my children. I thought, if I can just make sure that my kids are in a stable and safe place, then it will be all right.

This moment of despair came in part because no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t write properly anymore. (Still can’t, btw.)

When I write, it seems my words keep turning back to sorrow. I cry. My body aches. I read the words and the words turn into tears.

That is what writing has been like for a good long while.

There is this thing about grief and loss. It’s okay to talk about it for a while, but as time passes, we start to tell ourselves this story—

“You’re grown up. You’re an adult. You’re a strong person. You can do this.”

I also started to tell myself this story:

“Your grief is so heavy and burdensome. You shouldn’t be a burden to others. You mustn’t burden those around you with your grief.“

And so, it goes like that. That story I kept telling myself.

I guess, we all need just that one person to make us face the truth of how much bullshit that story is.

Grief strikes anywhere at anytime. Sorrow has no respect for passing time.

So what if a year has passed or two years or five or even ten?

It doesn’t make loss insignificant.

Just because I still feel the pain of loss doesn’t mean I am no longer intent on living and just because I am intent on living doesn’t mean I no longer feel the pain.

*with apologies to Liz for mentioning her note without permission and for my failure to reply in any way at all.

Slow small step

It has been quite a while since I wrote on this blog. My last entry was full of hope and looking forward and since then, life happened as it always does.

There have been moments when I wanted to erase myself from the world. When I wanted to give up, to just vanish, to just be no more.

My kids lost their father, their aunt and their grandfather. All within a short span of time. I lost a husband, a beloved sister and a father.

How do you write about such things? How do you help your children cope with loss when some days feel like a never-ending dream with empty spaces?

I am writing in this space because I need to remind myself that the journey has also had its beautiful moments. I need to commemorate the fact that we are here now and that my children are in a much better space than we were a year ago. I am in a much better space than I was in the preceding months of this year. I am able to sit down and write and I am able to raise my head and look to the future again.

Sometimes, I will encounter a friend or an acquaintance who hasn’t heard about our past 21 months.

How do you answer the question “How are you doing?”

I am doing as well as I can and coping as best as I can. In these past months it has meant not being on social media. It has meant limiting everything that requires energy. It has meant letting go of so many things.

I have sometimes wondered if I will be able to write again. Words seem meaningless sometimes. But here I am, writing words. I guess, this is how it is. Because I live so much in words, it won’t be real if I don’t write it.

One Sunday evening before going to bed, my youngest son told me how much he missed his father.

“I know,” I said to him. “I know exactly how you feel.”

I also know what it’s like to have to miss a father.

Moving forward means acknowledging loss and the pain of loss.

The Dutch have a great way of expressing the moment of acknowledgment: stilstaan.

A minute of silence. A moment of pondering. A time when everything falls still.

Our time has started up again. Slow small steps. We are moving forward.

Updatery and such

It still continues to be busy. In some ways, it’s busier than it was. In other ways, it’s a bit more quiet. I like that I get to have alone time when I can do whatever I like but the house has its demands and there are things that need to be done.

This past month, I finished working on an essay I’d promised Maurice Broaddus. I think of the encouragement that comes to me in emails, in publications (Magnifica Angelica Superable was published on Lightspeed this month), and in conversations had with beloved ones. It may sound strange but I feel like I am coming back from a long way away.

I think of Laura telling me how deaths of those close to us change us. I think of one of our friends telling me that when his father died, the world narrowed down and became somehow sharper. Different.

I think of what it’s like to fall in-between cracks and how there is that moment between losing someone and being alive when it feels like the left behind are hovering somewhere in a place like indefinite limbo while the world goes on.

It feels just right that I am reading a Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Intelligent Rodents with my youngest son. Youngest son can read the book all by himself, but we borrowed this book expressly to read together. A bedtime ritual where he listens and imagines while I try to make the story feel as real as possible with the reading of it.

There is death in this book. In the past two nights, two of the intelligent rodents have died. Pratchett doesn’t turn away from those deaths. Rather he lays it on the page, factual and clear. It happened. A rat died. We stand still for a moment, thinking on that death and then Pratchett moves us onward–the story continues. It’s not that the death doesn’t matter. It does, but life goes on and characters move forward and think about what happens next.

On some days, it’s a dilemma. How to make it so that a child doesn’t sink into the quagmire of sorrow and despair.

Tearing a book out of Pratchett’s page, I acknowledge my child’s sorrow. It’s sad and it’s a terrible thing, but tomorrow is a promise. Let’s think about what we want to do tomorrow. Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? What about next week? What about next month? What about next year?

I understand very well that grief doesn’t ever go away. That grief is not a neat and orderly process but it comes in waves and flags and sometimes at the most inconvenient and untidy of moments. It is as it is. There is no changing the reality. But we go on. We hang together. And then, I find myself thankful and glad that I can still be here for my children.

You don’t get over it

I am reading a book about grief and grieving children. Sometimes I think that with the passage of time, we will get over it. If I am strong enough. If I am cheerful enough. If I keep a positive outlook and greet everyday with a gung-ho attitude…we will reach a space where we are no longer grieving.

For a while, I hated the idea that my children were without a father. My first impulse being to do something, to find something–to reach out and fill up that gap. But slowly, I am coming to recognise that there is no filling up that gap because it is already filled. My kids are not without a father.

Yesterday, I learned that one of my friends had lost his father in a brutal wrenching away of life. This friend was 19 years old when it happened.

I told him about my youngest son weeping over the fact that he could no longer recall the sound of his father’s voice.

“It’s okay,” my friend said. ( Youngest son was listening in as we were talking on skype.)

“Your memory becomes a bit vague. You forget how he sounded. Sometimes, you don’t remember what he looked like. But you look at photos and you remember the feeling. The feeling is the most important thing.”

It dawned on me then that no matter his physical absence, their father will always be present with us. He is here in our memories and in the feelings that we have when we think or talk about him.

I think of conversations I’ve had with the kids–about boats and distant shores and rowing together.

My kids are not fatherless. Their Dad is always with us. In memories and in the feeling.

What it’s like

Today, someone asked me what it feels like.

“I mean, you lost your husband and then now you’ve lost your sister.”

How do you put into words what it feels like to lose the other half of your heart?  She was always there–my sister. In the darkest periods of my life, I hang onto the thought that my sister was always there. She was witness to my wildest dreams and imaginings and she was the person I confided in the most in times of deep despair. She loved me steadfastly even when she didn’t agree with the choices I made and even when it grieved her to see me walk away from the path that was familiar to us both.

I have a memory of my elder sister from when we were in grade school. Back then, going to school meant climbing down the mountain path to the gravelled road and then a 10-15 minute hike to the central school. I was always slow back then and a little bit of a spoiled child.

(My sister, being much quicker on her feet always was at least a few feet in front of me. )
In this memory, my sister has reached the bend in the mountain path–a couple of meters down from home. I am still at the top of the path. It had rained in the night and the path was a bit slippery and being the scaredy-cat that I was, I wanted my sister to come back and help me down the slippery slope. She, on the other hand, was already impatient to go to school because the first bell had already rung.

I remember my sister telling me to hurry up and I remember crouching there and crying for her to come get me.

Finally, she came marching back up the mountain slope. I still remember the look on her face.

Regardless of how aggravated she was, she helped me down from the top of the slope. She held my hand until we got to a place where the earth was less slippery.

My heart aches.

I have so many memories. Of stories shared in the dark of night after the lights went out–of listening for the crunch of gravel outside our bedroom window–of running up and down the mountainside.

There are not enough words to say what it’s like.

 

 

My sister

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Yesterday, my neighbour brought me lights for my sister. I made a spot on the living room table with these roses that seem to keep on blooming and a print of a happy selfie from the time my sister was here with me.

Loss is an ache inside my chest and it takes a lot of effort to keep on going.

One never dreams or hopes of losing their sister. I never thought or imagined that I would lose mine so soon. How is it possible?

My sister who I laughed with and cried with. The one I fought with and made up with. My sister who always won the contest over who got the read the books first…because she was (of course) the eldest. My sister who irritated me and encouraged me; who challenged me and didn’t hesitate to confront me. My sister who lives in so many of my stories; whose voice I hear when I am on the verge of throwing in the towel. My sister who refuses to let me give up and surrender.

My sister.

My sister who started the bookblog together with me; who made me understand that there are readers who just want to enjoy a book and who see its flaws but love it anyways because that’s how they are.

I remember fiery discussions over the dinner table, pillow fights in the bedroom, whispers in the night when the lights went out, secret conspiracies, mad adventures.

My sister who saw no need to conform to societal expectations but who chose to be exactly as she was.

My sister who loved and forgave wholeheartedly. My god. I shall miss my sister. There are not enough words for the agony of this loss.

I can only go on and do as she would tell me to do. Live because you have your sons. Live because you must write. Live because your path in life is not yet done. I must live because she wanted me to. Someday, I too will pass through the veils. I will see her then.