I saw her at my daughters’ nursery. She was settling her child in and so was I. She had a beautiful round face and a calm composure. We said goodbye to our kids at the same time and left. Once outside, we started to talk. I tried to guess where she was from. “Iran”? I asked. “No” she said, “Lebanon.” Her urban, hip-hop look suited her. I liked the combination. Middle East meets New York. And it worked. I was attracted and wanted to know more. We chatted easily. She told me that she was alone, that she had had a good job in Qatar but had left it all behind to come to the UK and get married. He was a British Muslim who followed a Sufi spiritual leader. He had urged her to come after meeting her through friends on his travels. He impressed her with his knowledge of Islam and Middle Eastern culture. Once married, he lost interest. He stayed out late most nights, holidayed without her and showed no interest in their daughter when she was born a year later. She was afraid to leave but she overcame her fear because he made the situation untenable. He found a young lover whom he impressed with his knowledge of Middle Eastern music as he had done when he first met her. He talked openly about how he envied his friends with more than one wife and refused to touch her. So she left. She talked in a gentle, measured way. I felt rage. When I expressed my anger she responded like this: “you know what, I am grateful that I have my beautiful daughter. Sometimes when I think of him and what he did I feel anger but mostly I am happy that there is now peace in my home and that I can enjoy my daughter. I am no longer afraid of being alone and I have my whole life ahead of me”. I trusted her sentiment. We said goodbye and I thought how strange it is that when faced with the challenges that life and love present some of us choose bitterness and sorrow and some of us choose peace.
I met her in the local Catholic Church where my daughter does pottery. She looked about eighty. She was struggling to get up the stairs to the storeroom cupboard. I offered to help but she refused. After a few minutes she came down with what she had been looking for. It was a box of shoes for a homeless young woman she had befriended. She introduced herself as Sister Anne. She was a Jesuit nun. She had bright blue eyes that were clear and youthful although her frame was weak and hunched over. She talked in a soft Irish accent about the homeless woman she looked after. She told me that the woman had been put into a home when she was a young child because she was considered too hyperactive. She had since drifted from home to home. She was now a homeless young adult. “Imagine your own parents doing that to you. How do you recover from that?” she asked. I guessed it was a rhetorical question.
Sister Anne had been the young woman’s friend for over six years. She was among the many homeless people she looked after. She talked about their antics as if to give them dignity, to ensure that they were seen as more then just homeless. “They are quite fussy you know. They still have standards even though they live on the streets. There is this one chap that is very picky about the kind of shoes I bring to him”. The conversation then moved on to the best ways to parent. She talked about how important the early years were. She held the top of my arm in part for support but also to make sure she had my full attention: “Children need a lot of love especially when they are young but they also need boundaries. Kids today are given too many things they don’t need when what they really need is our time and our love”. I could tell she had a lot more to say on the subject but she cut herself short… “I must be going,” she said. She picked up the box of shoes and left. I wasn’t sure how far she had to go. As I watched her walk slowly down the road I felt a sense of loss, perhaps because I guessed that once she was gone there would be no one to replace her. I was sure that the younger generation would produce their own version of Sister Anne but wasn’t sure what she would look like and whether she would value the importance of taking time, of slowing down long enough to notice what mattered.
The Belly Laugh
I was on the 210 bus the other day winding my through Hampstead Garden suburb on my way to Golders Green. I had taken this particular route often enough to know that most of the people that used this bus service were not people that lived in the area but people that worked in the area. As I watched a Filipino nanny struggle onto the bus with a pushchair and shopping bags I wondered how she was feeling. Was she grateful to have a job? Did she have her own kids back home and if so did she get the chance to go back and visit? Did she ache for them or was she happy that she could at least provide them with an education or neither? As I was busy musing two large African women got on the bus. They squeezed into a seat for two and began talking. I couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying but I could follow the rise and fall of their melodic voices. I began to wonder about them too. What jobs were they doing? Did they work together or were they friends? I was pretty sure that they had just finished work, as it was the end of the day, they looked tired and had simple house shoes on. The truth was probably a million miles away but I was enjoying my imaginings. Then they began to laugh. At first the laughter was stifled but then it got louder and louder. They were laughing from their bellies and their voices were rising. I continued my imaginings and decided they had just come from work in one of the big houses we had just passed. I wondered whether their employers had laughed like that recently. I recalled a short (true) story by Maya Angelou about a black maid who was treated so-called well by her white employers. Unlike some of her friends she was allowed to entertain guests in her little room in the servants quarters out the back. One night as she was drinking whiskey, playing cards and having a merry time with a special friend, she heard a noise outside her door. When she went to see what was going on, she saw her two employers standing meekly outside. They asked if she wouldn’t mind leaving the door slightly ajar so they could listen to the sounds of merriment coming from the room. They had the money and the big house but not enough spirit or joy to carry them through the winter nights so they became voyeurs of joy instead.
Of course the story was from a different place and era. Times have changed thank god. But what hasn’t changed is that true joy and happiness comes from a spirit within, a spirit that no money can buy and no big house can give you.
Today I attempted to go to the Sunday service of the Pentecostal Church in Archway. I have been to very few church services in my life but one that stands out in my mind is when I went to a gospel church in the mission district of San Francisco in the 90’s. The spirit and sense of hope that one hour gave me still comes back to me 25 years on. Watching a big black preacher singing and swaying to ‘we shall overcome’ whilst the whole mixed race congregation held hands and sang along was a beautiful thing. Whilst there is little in common between the ultra conservative Pentecostal church goers in Archway and the hippies and liberals that attended the gospel church in San Francisco, the soulful singing that comes from the church in Archway, fills me with the same joy and ease. I had been wanting to check it out for a while and today felt like a good moment so I went in. Samuel from Ghana stopped me as I walked up the stairs. “Can I help you?” he asked. “I was hoping to come to the service and maybe join in with some singing,” I said. He smiled: “Please do. We would love to have you but the singing comes in a few hours time. Now we are doing bible study. Come and talk god with us”. “In a few hours time? Is the service that long?” I asked. He smiled again. “Do you think that is too much time to dedicate to god? I personally think it is not enough. We are happy to spend hours in the pub but only give an hour or so to god. Is that enough?” I wasn’t really focusing on his words but just enjoying looking into his open face. I loved his vibe. I didn’t care that he probably believes that a woman’s place is in the home and that Jesus is the only one that can save us. He had true faith in god and a certainty about the way things should be and there was a joy that flowed from that. I wished in that moment for true faith and then recalled a comment made by Isabel Allende when asked if she believed in god. She said “ faith is not a choice…you either have the gift or you don’t”.
Feeling a little spiritually weak, I decided to come back another day and left!
We took the kids to the science museum today. As we boarded the tube at Archway, I started to do what I always do when I hit the London underground: try and deflect the onslaught of adverts that are taking up every freely available space on the walls so that ones gaze is not free to wander without falling on one. The constant interruptions to my reverie particularly pissed me off today as I noticed how each one kick-started a thought pattern that made me uneasy and in very subtle ways made me feel that my life was lacking in some way. I became conscious that I couldn’t afford to take that city break to Istanbul or take my kids to see Cirque du Soleil and that I didn’t have time to read that latest book release or see that film when all I wanted to do was tune into the moment and enjoy a Saturday out with the kids. And then something happened when we hit Green Park tube station. As we were walking down a long passageway to get from the Victoria line to the Piccadilly line a strange sense of peace came over me. My breathing slowed down and became deeper than usual. The un-usualness of this feeling made me stop and take stock. It dawned on me that there were no ads at all on this whole stretch of wall, only beautiful white and blue tiles. For a whole two minutes I had the pleasure of being able to look around without any distractions. The mental space was wonderful and made me feel warm inside – and only because I had had two minutes reprieve! I was reminded of my time in Havana, Cuba where I saw not one ad or poster in three weeks (except of Che Guevara) and how great it had felt. I began to fantasise about how it would feel if the whole of the London underground were filled with art or simply blank spaces. How much more peaceful it would be for the brain and how much happier we would be at the end of our tube journey. I reckoned that with space to let the mind wander, to tune in to ourselves, to have little inspirations not associated with the need to own a product or pay for an experience we might reach our destination daring to believe that what we have is enough.
Anyway, the science museum was great – it’s a wonderful thing that museums are still on the whole free. We loved the bubble show and especially loved that it was performed by a young Muslim woman wearing a Hijab. Filled with warm feelings about the diversity of my city we got back on the tube at South Kensington.