The Days Pass Slowly But The Years Fly By. Or, how to beat time.

On motherhood and writing. Exploring personal narrative and writing memoir with children. An essay on motherhood and writing, on Our Story Time

Not so long ago, I described time as a silk skirt twirling and swirling and falling in soft drapes but I’ll confess, lately, time feels a lot less romantic.

It hurtles past me, so close it might crush my feet, leaving nothing but a cloud of dust and tyre tracks behind. If time is a racing car, then my kids are the ones watching from the sidelines, waving little coloured flags and shrieking with delight: Go Faster! Faster! Faster!

If only they knew what they were wishing for.

Time feels different now than it did before I had children. Or, in my birthday month, let me put it another way: time feels different now than it did when I was younger.

Then, time moved, but it also existed in plentiful supply too. On the one hand, time couldn’t go fast enough for me, with the bright-eyed wilfulness that it takes to be seven or fifteen or seventeen or even twenty-one. I was impatient for it, always wanting to be at the next chapter of my life before the previous one had even begun. But on the other hand, another part of me always knew that eventually I’d get to where I needed to be. Another part of me trusted, somehow, that everything would unfold when it needed to. Because there was always time.

Then I had a baby and then another and another and suddenly time slowed right down. Life with a newborn baby lasts forever, only you are no longer quite as fearless faced with that sort of frightening, never-ending time. And it is never-ending; the long dark nights that tick, tick, tick and the dryness in your mouth sucked out of you by milk elsewhere.

Yet even in the thick of that milk and those blurry nights, everyone, everyone, tells you that time will go so fast, too fast. That they’ll grow up before we know it. It’s the cliché of parenthood. I used to roll my eyes at these platitudes On Time that friends would offer up while cooing over my days-old babies because in those early days, time was as painful as a sore latch, but now that my very last baby is a moving, climbing, talking toddler now, who needs haircuts more often than me, it is with a strange taste in my mouth that I realise what they mean.

The Days Pass Slowly But The Years Fly By (said every parent, everywhere). I have realised, however, that if you think about this for too long, it can sort of mess with your head. Because if you’re not careful, you’ll end up mourning for some sort of vague future you can’t even predict yet, before you realise you’re still in it. You’re still in time, this time, today’s time, right here, right now. Our hearts thumping, our limbs tangled in bedsheets. What is there to mourn, then, when we have all this dancing upon our fingertips?

I’ve decided, as I look ahead to celebrating my birthday in just a week, that I don’t want to mourn the future because I’m afraid of losing the present. I want to be excited by what’s to come, not worry about all that I might have lost by the time it comes around. I want to look back and remember every moment with the people I am lucky enough to know in my life: the boy whose green tea I accidentally took in a coffee shop one day and then married a couple of months later, the babies we brought into the world. I want to look to today, to now, and tomorrow, and find a way to enjoy every day we have made for ourselves.

Time has to fly by.

My kids have to grow up.

So do I.

And I want them to grow up, because they’re supposed to, because everyday gets better and better as they do, in so many ways. And though it may break my heart to see them move across oceans or travel into space or do whatever it is they want to do that takes them far, far away from me one day, it’ll also make my heart sing to see them soar the skies. I promise them every night that they can do whatever they want to do, be whoever they want to be. I owe them that, and I owe them the promise of this future, guiltlessly, without those maternal heartstrings holding them back.

I want them to be free.

But I also don’t want to be sentimental. I want to live in the moment and find ways to look back at this ice-cream scoop of a special, sweet time of living with under-fives that literally fills my life with laughter, and I want to do this in ways that don’t seem tinged by the sadness of a future which I should, truly, be looking forward to. And I am looking forward to it too - to writing books, to finishing what I started, to growing into another version of me, only one I don’t have to apologise for to anyone anymore, ever again.

So I’m beating time. I’m snatching it, by writing all of this down. The things they say, as they fling their damp arms around me at bedtime, things that catch me by surprise and still me for a second longer than they should or make me laugh when really, I’m supposed to be looking at them with my stern face. I’m saving the things I can’t put into words straight away.

But it’s not all about them either. It’s about me. It’s about me. I’m the one, finding my way.

And you see, this way, this way I win. I’m winning because I hold time in the tip of my fingers as I type, as I remember, as I hold onto the moments that might have only lasted a minute but felt like a lifetime. So long, sucker, I say to time as I hop my toes back as time drives past, racing right in front of my feet. So long.

Because I am the winner. I’m the one that gets to remember.

Will you join me?

Postcards Home is an online writing course designed not to feel like an online writing course but an inspiring nudge to help you want to write, to fall in love with writing, and to do it in a small, simple ways that aren’t overwhelming. Designed as a set of weekly essays, Postcards Home will gently, hopefully, 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 begins on Monday, May 20th, 2019.

Notes on memoir, and five memoirs to read

On memoir and writing memories. Writing memoir. Personal narratives. Why I write in first person. More, in an essay on Our Story Time

This piece is inspired by Postcards Home, my new online writing course.

“I love the memoir style of your blog,” a kind reader wrote to me not so long ago.

I’ll admit, the compliment took me by surprise, not least because accepting compliments does not come to me quite as easily as, say, accepting flowers or a cup of tea from my husband, but also because I hadn’t truly considered my blog to be “memoir-style” before.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it sort of is. Some of my strongest memories are those that when I close my eyes, I remember the way the light fell; how it dappled on my skin or dripped like mist through broken cloud, how it felt to walk through it just for that moment. Those are the moments I seek to capture because they are often tied up with something or someone else too; a swell of my heart, a touch of a hand, a kiss upon a forehead. Love, I guess. 

I love writing of it. And I love reading of it too, of other people’s memories and moments, other people’s memoirs; for me, they offer snatches of life that tell a story, snatches in which there is meaning, resolution; eventual understanding.

The best sort of memoirs help me find a little bit of myself in someone else’s story. They help me reflect as a reader, just as I’m sure the writer does a hell of a lot of reflecting too. And I suppose that is what I try to do on my blog; I tell a story through moments of my everyday life, moments that move me even in ways that are only small but yet still significant. When I write and hit publish, I hope that someone else might find a tiny bit of themselves in here too and thus feel at home right here, in Our Story Time.

Beth Kephart, a fine memoirist whose work I love, once wrote that: “Memoir yearns to understand what a life means.” She’s talking about memoir as books, of course, but I believe there’s no reason why that can’t also extend to first-person blogs too, the sort of posts I try to write here.

It’s this idea of remembrance and striving to understand that inspired me to write Postcards Home, my new online writing course on writing your memories and writing in a personal way (by which I mean, in a first-person sort of way). Throughout the writing of the course, I avoided using the words “writing your memoir” because I did not want to frighten off writers who are just starting to find their way. For most people, at least, the word “memoir” instantly brings to mind some big, heavy book all about their life. No writer, aspiring or otherwise, wants to be confronted with the somewhat terrifying prospect of writing any sort of big book straight away.

But of course, a memoir isn’t a big book all about your life. It doesn’t start with breakfast, aged five and end with bed time, aged thirty. It’s not a diary. It’s about writing of the things that have happened in your life that have changed you. Moved you, shaped you, made you more of who you are today. And I’d say this goes for memoir-style blogs too, as much as it does for books.

While we might not all be able to simply sit down and write our memoirs, we can at least start to catalogue some of our more meaningful memories together, for these are the little vignettes that might eventually loop together and tell a story, a story that might just show who we are and what it is that makes us real. A story that helps us understand what our lives mean.

And that for me is really all I try to do on my blog, and it’s what I hope to explore in Postcards Home too. I write about moments and memories from my near past, my far past, my every day, so that I can make sense of them, or so that I might simply remember something that mattered to me because of how it made me feel, no matter how small. It’s both a privilege to do this, to be quite so introspective, but it is also, I would argue, a necessity. For we are not fixed in time, after all, but looking back and trying to understand who we used to be helps us know who we are today, this version of us, just a little bit more.

I am aware that I am making it sound as though writing about yourself, writing your own stories, is this indulgent, selfish pastime that signals you as self-obsessed in some way. But that’s not it. That’s not it at all. For to write of yourself, you must first also write of your world. You must first look outwards, before you turn in.

Taking the time to observe, to notice, to feel the sights, smells, sounds of our everyday, to catalogue them through language that is both rich and expressive yet also simple, is one way to do this (and we explore this in Postcards Home, quite literally). It takes practice to stretch your skills of observation, to be open and sensitive not just to ourselves but to others, but I believe it makes one’s writing richer and more sensitive for it.

To be able to recognise the quality of the light on any particular day or the way his face darkens from disappointment or hers softens with content, is ultimately what enables us to look beyond ourselves. It enables us to capture the texture of our everyday. To look beyond ourselves.

Below, a small selection of books which I believe do just this; look beyond so that we might understand both what is hidden inside of us and what is also all around us:

Five must-read memoirs

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion - A raw, brutal and heartbreaking exploration of what was an unthinkable year of loss for Didion: the year her daughter fell into a coma and her husband died. It’s terrifying, searing, painful and intensely personal. It leaves you wanting to hold on to everything and everyone you hold dear, but also leaves you understanding, no matter how uncomfortably, how little control we have over this thing called life.

Hunger: A Memoir Of My Body, Roxane Gay - an incredibly powerful memoir on body size and the often humiliating and hurtful perception that others have of those who don’t confirm to the accepted stereotype of what a healthy or attractive size is, told through Gay’s exceptional voice. She shares what it’s been like, not just battling with body size, but to also feel so invisible and to carry trauma upon her body in a literal way. Uncomfortable, but also intimate and sensitive.

This Really Isn’t About You, Jean Hannah Edelstein - a beautifully understated story on coming to terms with letting go but also looking forward. Edelstein’s father died of cancer and not long after his death, she realised she carried the same gene that would one day cause her cancer too. This Really Isn’t About You is about coping with grief while trying to face the future. It’s written in a way which is subtle, sad but also funny, human, sensitive and moving. I have always enjoyed Edelstein’s journalism and you can also sign up to her sporadic newsletter which is always a joy to read.

How Not To Be, Priya Minhas - this is an essay which appears in The Good Immigrant USA but you can also read an edited extract of it on gal-dem. Minhas writes about growing up and finding the strength to be yourself, told through the lens of her childhood and all the things she was and was not allowed to do. Although it will speak to those from a south Asian background, who will most likely recognise so much of the life she writes of, it is also deeply relatable and universal in many more ways than the cultural references alone. It will speak to anyone who ever remembers being a teenage girl, testing boundaries and growing up to realise that you don’t have to be defined by anyone else anymore.

In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri - I admit I haven’t read this yet, but it’s on my birthday wish list and since it’s written by Lahiri, I already know I’ll be recommending it anyway. Lahiri is one of my favourite authors (the title of my collection of short stories, In Spite of Oceans, was inspired by a line from one of her own short stories) and this book is her first foray away from fiction into memoir. From what I have read, it’s about belonging or rather finding some place you belong, that isn’t bound by identity or heritage, but love. Lahiri moved from the US to Italy, out of a love for the language and culture and finds it more home than anywhere else, despite having no other connection to the place other than falling in love with its language, its richness: A few quotes that caught my breath: “Ever since I was a child, I’ve belonged only to my words. I don’t have a country, a specific culture. If I didn’t write, if I didn’t work with words, I wouldn’t feel that I’m present on the earth.” And later: “Here in Italy, where I’m very comfortable, I feel more imperfect than ever. Imperfection inspires invention. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.”

This post includes a few affiliate links that help me run Our Story Time at no cost or inconvenience to you. Thank you for your reading!

Postcards Home is a six-week online course to inspire you to write your memories. The course is designed to be thought-provoking, delivered through one weekly essay.

Postcards Home begins on Monday, May 20th, 2019.

Ramadan: moments of fasting

On Ramadan - finding meaning in fasting. Memories of fasting. Ramadan and children. Children’s books on Ramadan. More on Our Story Time

Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims, begins next week. It’s a time of introspection but also togetherness. Ahead of next week, Ramadan Mubarak to all my readers, of all backgrounds; to those fasting and to those not!

My parents were never subtle about waking us up for sehri, the meal we’d eat, half-asleep, in as little as five or ten minutes before our day of fasting would begin.

They’d wake us loudly, because if they didn’t, chances were my brothers and I wouldn’t wake up at all. They’d put the radio on, tuned into one of the Asian stations, so we might wake to the sound of Arabic prayers, and they’d clatter the bowls and cups in the kitchen, coming back upstairs every ten minutes to try and rouse us again in their exasperation. It would not have surprised me to have woken up in the middle of the night to one of my parents standing right next to my bed, banging a saucepan with a wooden spoon in my ear. It is a wonder they did not think to try this.

Eventually though, they’d succeed in waking us and we’d succumb and make our way downstairs where we’d eat as quickly as we could. “It’s time! It’s time!” my mother would rush us, as we’d hurry to take our last bites of cereal or toast or sometimes - please don’t judge - pizza in the dead of the middle of the night, before the exact minute our fast would begin.

I don’t recall how old I was when I kept my first fast, only I think I might have been eight or nine. I remember time passing slowly, though there was something exciting about the last few minutes of the fast. We’d count down again. “It’s time! It’s time!” my brothers and I would yell, rushing for a plate of dates and gulping down water at dusk.

On weekends, we’d visit the homes of family friends who’d invite everyone they knew for iftar, the evening meal to open our fast. Often, my parents would host these dinners too, our dining table covered with platters of food, a practice run of Eid to come. I remember how exhausting these iftars were, and I’d often fall asleep in the corner somewhere, but they were sort of festive too. They were small celebrations of food but also of togetherness and some sort of collective remembrance.

I grew up fasting regularly even though it put me in the spotlight of curiosity at my senior school, being one of the only Muslim girls there. So as the years went by, I learnt not to talk about it at all. It was easier than facing the same old questions, the same old expressions of disdain (“But how can it be good for you? What’s the point?”) by both teachers and my fellow pupils, even my friends, again and again. Often, I didn’t even know what to say.

Years later, at work in a busy newsroom, I learnt to use the same tactic. Even the most well-meaning of colleagues somehow felt they were entitled to make a judgement on something they did not fully understand. I wrote about it, from time to time and time again, but also eventually learnt it was easier not to. It was easier not to feel so singled out.

But things were different at university. I mostly had friends who were not Muslim, but some of them joined in with me each year at Ramadan, fasting a couple of days here or there, counting down those minutes with me again, reminding me there wasn’t long to go every time I felt like caving in to defeat in the form of cake. You see, that’s the thing about Ramadan. In many ways, it is a very solitary pursuit. But in other ways, there’s solidarity in the most surprising of places too.

The only time I deliberately chose not to fast was the year my father died. It was the first time I questioned whether I was doing it just because I had been brought up to. It was the first time I questioned whether I was only doing it because I was afraid of what my mother might say if I ever decided not to. It was the first time I wondered whether I might even have a choice. At the time, I lived alone and I was sad. So while my friends planned big group iftars, that year I turned down their invitations. I simply did not feel a pull to be a part of something so big as Ramadan.

As it happens, my defiance lasted only a few days before I realised that not fasting made me feel even more alone, before I realised that the habits I’d grown up with had instilled a sort of rhythm in me and I felt off and out of sorts without it. And so I fasted after all, and though I’m not overly religious and I don’t ordinarily pray five times a day, I spent that month pouring my heart out in this way, all alone, and without still being able to put into words why, I felt better for it. My faith is personal to me and I don’t often talk about it, but in a way, this is the only way I know how to explain it: I may not be especially good at it, but I simply feel better for knowing I have it.

When my husband and I were newly-weds, before children came along, we fasted together and there was something special about that. He converted to Islam before we married and though he had fasted before, our first Ramadan together as a married couple was different to any Ramadan I had experienced before. It was as though we had made our own little world - working apart in the day, the constant messaging to see how the other was coping, coming home to cook together, and then open our fasts at our candlelit tiny dining table that had just enough and only room for two. The night before Ramadan started, I remember he pulled out his phone and texted all his friends and family (who are not Muslim): Ramadan Mubarak! I remember being humbled, touched by the way he found it so easy to be positive, to be open about being Muslim when for so long, I had found it easier to not draw attention to it at all.

Soon after we married, I fell pregnant - and then again and again - and so for years, my husband has fasted alone - often through the hottest and longest summers, often still cycling a daily commute into central London - and, truly, I have felt terrible for it, for it is hard to do it on your own. But he quietly kept at it, and the days soon passed. And that’s the other thing about Ramadan. Sometimes, it feels endless but, it’s only thirty days. There is a rigour to it, a sort of focus. It’s an excuse to think about purpose. There is something deeply humbling to know that we both go without willingly but will also receive; that there will always be a meal at the end of the day, anyway. Though sometimes it’s all you can think of, it’s not just about food. It is, as with any season, a chance to start over.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: there is humility.

This year is my first attempt in six years to fast again, after consecutive years of pregnancy and breastfeeding thrice over have meant I’ve slipped through the net. If I’m honest, I’m not sure how I’ll cope. In Ramadan, we’re supposed to be kinder, more generous, more introspective and encouraged to reflect. It’s hard to feel this way and do all this sometimes when, at times, your hunger stabs your stomach like a knife and your energy leaves you languishing, but therein lies the other lesson: that of patience.

Growing up, I’ve watched and listened and learned and I know that when it comes to religion, some people can be prescriptive about their versions of what it is. It must be their way, or no way. Like this, not that. Five prayers a day or none at all. There is judgement, even though there’s not supposed to be. I am clearly no scholar, but all I know, all I think, is that it’s enough to try your best.

So this year, after six years, that’s all I’m hoping to do: try my best. I’m seeing Ramadan this year as a chance to slow down; an excuse to shift my focus inwards, to realign and take a little time out in my own ways. And also, I’m looking forward to enjoying food again: there is nothing like Ramadan to sort you out of a meal slump. At the very least, preparing new kinds of food passes the time.

New Ramadan Traditions

I have children of my own now, and though I’d like to think I wouldn’t be quite so obtrusive as my own parents were in waking us up (though, to clarify, I actually won’t be waking them up, my children are far too young to fast), I would like to instil some sort of anticipation, excitement even, into Ramadan so that they shouldn’t see it as strange or as a chore.

I like the idea of creating our own Ramadan traditions, which is something I don’t think my generation, growing up in England, ever really had, through no fault of our parents. It is hard to navigate something quite as powerful and intensive as Ramadan while also quietly going about your day. It was hard, then, when the resources for our parents were so few and far between.

Now, things are changing. I’ve slowly grown a small collection of children’s books about Ramadan - books I certainly never saw as a child - and I read them with my children and hope that in some way, reading about Ramadan helps them make sense of it or better yet, captures their imagination. If I’m honest, almost all the children’s books on Ramadan are very educational, often trying cheerily (or too hard) to explain what Ramadan is and how it works. My wish is that one day, it might be easier to find stories that are just stories, stories that just so happen to be set to the tune of Ramadan or Eid ticking in the background (like children’s books on Christmas, for instance). I wish also that there might even one day be more children’s books on Ramadan and Eid actually written by Muslim writers and illustrators too (most of them are not), but in the meantime, I am at least appreciative of the efforts that do exist, for it is better than nothing at all. The books we read most at this time of year are listed below.

I also hope to simply add books that tell stories of other cultures, of other lands; books that demonstrate compassion, charity and understanding without necessarily being textbooks of religion; books that tell stories like The Journey, Ali’s Story, Everybody’s Welcome.

Last year, we talked at home about being especially generous in Ramadan and though it initially took some persuasion, the boys sifted through their toys and soon got into the spirit of selecting some to give to other children who might enjoy or need them more. We dropped them off at The Toy Project, a brilliant initiative in north London which passes preloved toys to children in need. We’ll be doing this again this year; my hope is, each year it will be a little easier for them to understand the concept of kindness to strangers, to those who must go without.

Finally, I’ve been inspired by the idea of putting together a Ramadan basket for them too, although with a week to go, I’m not sure how far I’ll go with it. The children shall receive gifts on Eid, and I’m mindful not to let this season become too much about stuff so I’d like to keep it simple and more aligned with what is needed - new tees for spring, perhaps a little sweet treat or three. I have ordered this little wooden crescent moon to help them count down until Eid. Though my children won’t be fasting, I shall set dates and milk on the table at their dinnertime too; a sweet and simple way for them to join in a little traditional practice. Some nights, I shall slip baklava unexpectedly onto their plates as pudding. We shall hang fairy lights. Should I let them stay up late, we shall use our binoculars and hunt for the moon like small adventurers.

My hope is only to make this month, which may well seem so abstract to a small child, feel more real and also a little fun, a little cosy, a little special. So that one day they might even find it fun to countdown the minutes and cry: “It’s time! It’s time!”

Children’s books about Ramadan

1 Ramadan (Celebrate The World) by Hannah Eliot: a pretty and simple short illustrated board book. This helped me explain Ramadan to my own children (I also happened to read this to my son’s Montessori class when I did a little talk about Eid for them - this is perfect for preschoolers).

2 Rashad’s Ramadan & Eid Al Fitr by Lisa Bullard: Another little story suitable for preschoolers following a little boy called Rashad and his family in Ramadan. The story is incredibly simple, the illustrations cheerful.

3 Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea by Elizabeth Suneby: This is the only book I have come across which references Ramadan naturally, without being school-like in its subject of it. We like this book for many reasons. There’s a little brown Asian boy on the cover but it also talks about sustainability and looking after the planet as well as opening children’s eyes to a different country (Bangladesh). There are so many other positive messages here too, for any time of year, not just Ramadan - Iqbal is helpful, thoughtful and clever too. He cares about his family, and looking after the planet. Better suited to a four/five-year-old as it’s a little long.

further reading: six more links for ramadan and beyond

1 Simple Preparations for Ramadan: My friend Ashley takes a soulful look at family rituals. I especially love the idea of taking the kids up a hill to spot the new moon.

2 Ramadan is a season particularly intent on giving. If you like, you can use this consumer report to choose a charity for donations.

3 Dishoom at Kings Cross is hosting a magical and delicious charity iftar (all welcome, fasting or not). Tickets cost £12 and all proceeds go to Akshaya Patra – a charity working towards eradicating childhood hunger as a barrier to education in India. The iftar feast will begin with a call to prayer at sunset.

4 The Big Iftar has been running for years and is a way for people of all backgrounds and faiths and cultures and race to get together and celebrate the act of sharing a meal together. Some years ago, my husband and I invited a couple we had never met before round to ours for iftar too; it was truly lovely.

5 There’s more on Ramadan Baskets at Janine’s blog, The Gentle Art of Learning. She has written about her tradition of gifting baskets to her children the night before Ramadan and has also put together her own Ramadan basket for herself too. I love the idea of looking after yourself a little more too while you’re fasting. Thanks to Mim for letting me know about Janine’s beautiful blog.

6 And here’s more on multi-cultural and diverse children’s books for preschoolers

This post includes a few affiliate links that help me run Our Story Time at no cost or inconvenience to you. Thank you for reading!