The beauty of the ordinary

string shelves lined with books in a living room with a little boy in front of them

A few days ago, someone who doesn’t know me very well asked me about this blog and what I write about. I was surprised at the question, which popped up at the school gates, because I am still uncomfortable with the idea of people knowing I even have a blog. My first instinct was suspicious. I wanted to enquire: How do you know I have a blog? But instead I simply said: I write about my everyday. I tell stories of the ordinary things in my life, incidental things that might only be small but are still somehow special to me. (Or something similar to that).

She looked me in the eye, and held my gaze steady. I smiled; her expression was entirely expressionless. As if it might offer clarity, then I simply said: I write about life. She raised an eyebrow. I felt delusional.

I knew what she was thinking for at times there’s a voice in my head that thinks it too. What about my life could be interesting enough to write about? What about my very ordinary day-to-day could be worth sharing? Why, when you have a chance to write and readers who read you, would you not write about the extraordinary? Surely the extraordinary is more interesting than your ordinary? And if you have nothing extraordinary in your life of which to write, then why not imagine it, make it up, write fiction, instead?

I also know better than to listen to that voice.

Here’s what I tell it, that voice that tells me I have nothing of consequence to write about, although I did not tell it to the person to whom I was talking at the time: I think the ordinary is underrated and the extraordinary far too overrated. The extraordinary might be juicy. It might be big, explosive, noisy, dramatic. It might hold our interest for a moment or two, for the length of a celebrity autobiography or a catchy headline. But extraordinary isn’t always real. It isn’t always meaningful. Extraordinary won’t last. It might, on a good day, be magical and mesmerising but it’s there and then it isn’t. It’s gone again before you know it. A click of the finger. Over, again.

But the ordinary. Oh, but the ordinary. It’s always there. It’s the touch of a hand in a small of a back. It’s the familiar smell of a baby’s neck. It’s a glance, shared across a train carriage. The familiarity of routine, the mere comfort of it. Or else it’s those words that break your heart, the tears that come from nowhere. It’s loss. It’s loneliness. It’s everything.

It’s in the ordinary that most of us live, and if I can’t find meaning in my most ordinary of everydays then, well, that leaves me feeling desperately sad. It is the ordinary that I know I’ll miss the most when it’s no longer there. The sound of his key in the door. The smell of a jumper. Little fingers, running through my hair. Evenings curled up on the sofa, a bowl of satay upon my lap; a hand to hold.

Beats of hearts.

*

Sometimes someone else’s ordinary does something to you. Makes you catch a breath or else the hairs on your arm stand up or your eyes grow damp or tears spill and you don’t quite know why. It’s empathy, but it’s more than that. It’s stretches deeper. It’s ordinary but majestic because it is real.

It threads us together. It reminds us we’re not the only ones.

Ordinary puts an arm around you. Catches your eye. Looks straight deep at you when you speak, and listens. Really listens. It doesn’t just sit there, playing with its phone, waiting for someone better to come along.

And so.

You might think your life is entirely ordinary. You might think you are just a stay-at-home mother, or have a boring lawyer job - nothing of any extraordinary substance, you might say. To you, I say: to hell with extraordinary. Ordinary makes the world go round. Ordinary, damn it, is extraordinary.

So I’ll tell the ordinary stories of my ordinary everyday as an ordinary woman. Because they matter to me. Because they might matter to someone else too.

I urge you too to tell your stories (indeed; I ask this of you in Postcards Home) because I need your ordinary.

We all do.

Will you join me?

Postcards Home is my online summer writing course on writing your first-person memories and in it, I write more about the beauty and the strength of writing about your ordinary. It’s designed to inspire you to want to write, to fall in love with writing, and to do it in a small, simple ways that aren’t overwhelming.

The next round of Postcards Home begins on Monday, July 1st, 2019.

or

Bicycles and birthday cake: on celebrating Eid

bicycle with basket leaning against a brick wall

When I was seven, Eid-al-Fitr fell on my birthday and I felt like the luckiest girl alive.

I was almost sure that I was going to get a bicycle - a lemon-coloured bicycle, to be precise, with a white basket. It was to be both a birthday present and an Eid gift; a double win. I was almost sure I was going to get it, because I’d picked it out and had already asked my parents for it already. And I was also pretty sure, because I’d caught sight of it, just a glimpse, in the corner of our garage a few days before. I loved surprises so I was sort of mad at myself for noticing it, but I was also willing to be patient and so pretended I hadn’t seen it at all. A bicycle it was, then.

On Eid morning, after we had been to the mosque and slurped milky vermicelli pudding out of my mother’s best china bowls for breakfast, I recall my bike being wheeled out of the garage, with a ribbon or two twisted around the handlebars. I don’t remember much about being a child. But I do remember that day, when my birthday (sort of) coincided with the sighting of a new moon, was a happy day.

My father had filled our dining room with balloons, hanging from the walls and the curtain rail, and my mother had equally filled the dining table with birthday cake and Pakistani sweets and all manner of dishes. Eid was the one day when dessert wasn’t on pause; instead everything was served up at once. It was not unusual to find a bowl of creamy kheer, a sweet, thick rice pudding dusted with ground pistachios, placed side-by-side next to a platter of puffed-up pilau or fat kebabs shaped like chubby thumbs. Hot naans were piled high in precarious tin foil towers, right beside plates of lurid orange jalebi, swirls of pure sugar in fried form. A bite of this, a bite of that.

Later, our home too was stuffed, full of friends and family who gathered around the dining table to sing to me. I blew out my candles, utterly charmed, utterly full.

Now that I am grown, I appreciate that there is a bit more to Eid than simply the celebration of food and the receiving of gifts. I understand now that it offers something symbolic and more meaningful; a sense of renewal, of starting over.

But all I remember on that day, when I was seven and only ever wanted a lemon-coloured bicycle with a white basket, was that after a month of fasting, Eid was a knock-yourself-out sort of day.

*

This year, it just so happens that my middle child, my little boy in betwixt his brothers, celebrated his birthday on Eid. And it just so happens that he too asked for a bicycle.

This Eid, after a month of fasting and a morning of prayers at the mosque, after remembering the ones who are no longer with us and scattering petals at their graves, we gathered around my mother’s table once more.

She filled it with food, and I topped it up with birthday cake. We hung balloons from the curtain rail for him and we sung for him and I picked him up so he could blow out his candles and I stole kisses on that cheek while I still can.

We knocked-ourselves-out. We remembered how lucky we are that we can.

Will you join me?

Postcards Home is my online summer writing course on writing your first-person memories. It’s designed to inspire you to want to write, to fall in love with writing, and to do it in a small, simple ways that aren’t overwhelming.

Postcards Home will gently remind you to look out for the details in your everyday, both your present and your past, and take note so that one day, you too might remember everything you want to through your very own written words.

Postcards Home is available in two ways: as weekly essays released one by one (one each week), so that you may take your time to reflect and follow a writing journey, or as an immediate download for you to read through in its entirety,

The next round of Postcards Home begins on Monday, July 1st, 2019.

or

On Europe

A little boy, reaching up at a world map. Trying to understand Brexit. More on my blog, Our Story Time.

This blog post is an edited version of an essay that appeared in Afterthoughts, my monthly letter to my subscribers. With the EU elections last week it felt like a good time to share this again. My inbox went wild after I originally sent this went out, with so many people telling me they felt the same way, so I thought I’d share it here. If you’d like to sign up to Afterthoughts, you can do so here.

Brexit is confusing me.

It’s happening, it’s not happening; I don’t know.

I simply can’t understand it, or rather, I can’t understand how we got here, to this point of calamity. To this sort of indifference we are verging on, the point at which we begin to stop caring because it’s white noise we’ve learnt to get used to, because we’re glossing over the articles and turning the news channels and carrying on as normal because there’s no resolution in sight anyway.

We all thought this would never happen, but it did, and then Trump happened too. Good lord, 2016. But what does it all mean? Well, I don't know. Perhaps it was meant to happen this way all along; we just didn't see it, or didn't want to. Maybe all Brexit means is that we are incredibly naive. 

It's hard to fathom now but at university, as a wide-eyed literature undergrad, I joined the Young European Movement. We were hardly activists but we were inspired. We listened to lectures about Europe being a place of promise. We watched French movies like L'Auberge Espagnole and we lived for our Erasmus years and we wrote that quote - "Je suis français, espagnol, anglais, danois. Je suis pas un mais plusieurs. Je suis comme l'Europe,  je suis tout ça. Je suis un vrai bordel" - inside our planners, because we believed it. Because we wanted to. That quote - “I am French, Spanish, English, Danish. I’m not one but many. I’m like Europe, I’m all of that. I’m a complete mess” - was made for the Erasmus intake of 2002.


Back then, we wanted Britain to join the Euro, not because we truly understood what it meant economically but because we thought it symbolic in some generous, gesture of a way. To be a part of something.

Those undergraduate years inspired me to study European politics for my Masters at a place called Sciences-Po, a political science institute of some acclaim in Paris. I studied what I thought was going to be my future, Europe, while sat in the same halls that Macron, Mitterand, Sarkozy et tout and even Proust and Dior once studied in. (Honestly, I have no idea how I got in).

This was a place seeped in history, politics, privilege; the accomplishments of mostly men celebrated, though there were those of some women too. Though the elitism was not lost on me, at the time, I still thought it held promise; even for me, even though my background or my heritage had no reason to bring me there. I remember walking through those security-guarded gates and those grand halls often in a daze. I felt like I was a part of something, which was all I had ever wanted to feel.

But despite all that, despite what I thought I'd learnt and studied and understood about Europe then, it all means nothing now. Because how did we get to this point, this vrai bordel? I read the papers but can make neither head nor tails of who says what this time. It's as if the confusion is purposeful, designed to make us feel like it is out of our hands anyway.

But there is one thing that I have read lately that sort of does make sense to me, and I'll share it here, with no other remarks other than to say: I read this, I underlined it, I understand what she means. For in her essay, Fences: A Brexit Diary, found in her collection Feel Free, Zadie Smith writes: 

Much has been written since about the shockingly irresponsible behaviour of both David Cameron and Boris Johnson.... That two supposedly well-educated men, who have presumably read their British history, could with such utter recklessness throw into hazard a hard-won union of three hundred years’ standing - in order to satisfy their own professional ambitions - appeared that morning a larger crime to me, than the severing of the decades-long European pact that actually prompted it all.”


Such utter recklessness.

We thought it would never happen, and yet it did. So, tell me, what does that say about us, that we never saw this coming?