Monday, 21 December 2009

Solstice reflections

It's the solstice where, being a twilight/night girl, I mourn the return to lengthening days - though I won't mind them until it's still light at 7.30-8pm, which just feels so wrong.

But it's also a marker of the dark night of the soul, one that I've been going through for a while now. Not always depressive, though sometimes so, but lit by what Julia Kristeva would refer to as 'the black sun', a 'dark luminosity' - something deeper, something more, than what the author of the book I'm reading, Thomas Moore, would call 'naive sunshine'.

Whilst in this land lit by the black sun - a land with which I have a deep affinity, one that offers me the kind of light by which I prefer to navigate - I 'm realising that whilst I've travelled it, I'm not sure I really KNOW it. I'm not sure I've explored it, though I know the landmarks I've passed on my way through to somewhere else.

It's a land that I love, but I fear I don't know it as well as I thought I did. This time, I'm going to wrap myself in this land of half-light and numinosity and learn it, know it by heart as I know those places I consider home. This is my home too, perhaps the one that is most real.

I'm loving my re-read of Thomas Moore's "Dark Nights of the Soul" - I didn't quite speed through it the first time, but I loved the language so much and kept thinking 'Yes!' so often, that I don't think I absorbed it properly. This time I'm relaxing into it, musing, allowing it to sink into my bones.

There will be several posts on Moore's book, I think, reflecting on different parts of this Land of the Black Sun.

Today? One of my biggest struggles: religion, spirituality, inner intuition vs. my outer experience/sense and my struggle to bring the two together, to be able to follow my heart, yet walk with fellow pilgrims on the way. It's a struggle that can bring out the absolute worst in me in a way only my family can.

Which suggests, perhaps, that it is a seminal struggle and one that can and will be immensely fruitful. I'm less certain that being somewhere comfortable would be quite as good for my spiritual health.

More and more, I find I'm missing the darkness in God and religion. It's...too bright, glittering, blinding - God is all good and God is all love - but if God is THE Creator, the one from whom all other things emanate, then darkness must be a part of who God is. As must Lucifer's pride, Kali's destruction, suffering, hate, anger, vengeance - all those things we find in ourselves as images, reflections, of the Creator.

I love Holy Week, especially the Vigil, but hate Easter morning. I love the Midnight mass approaching this Thursday night/Friday morning, but shy away from Christmas morning. I'm not sure why. In the light, it's too much: the glare eliminates texture, subtlety, nuance. It never feels quite right.

Even when people talk about Jesus saving them, pulling them out of darkness, I wonder - what if that's not Jesus' purpose? What if he's simply meant to be with you whilst you explore your land of the Black Sun, not rescue you from it? Love isn't about rescue from places we find uncomfortable. Love is about being present, offering strength and holding the space whilst we discover the gifts our personal land of the Black Sun has to offer.

And maybe God's love isn't so facile as so much religious imagery makes it - there is hard compassion in failing a student when passing them would only set them up for disaster later or in a wolf mother killing her mortally wounded pup (from Pinkola-Estes); there is true love in telling someone that they are losing their integrity; there is true intimacy in the dark moments of grief and pain shared.

Do you genuinely believe that someone who constantly tells you how utterly amazing you are and how perfect you are really *loves* you? How can they? They can't see YOU - you're not perfect, no one is. And honestly, we're not working towards perfection. We're working towards wholeness - which is what God is. Whole. It's so much more than perfect. Only someone who knows you in your darkness, someone who can sit with you in it, who can both say, "You're amazing," "You can be a REAL bitch, you know that? You were out of order," and who can hold you through the darkest nights of your soul can truly claim to love you.

But we so often believe that love is a mirror reflecting and affirming us. Agreement isn't love; it's just agreement. Fulsome praise is just fulsome praise. Fawning is just fawning - and the latter two have more to do with self-interest than love. And so often, that's what we want our God - Jesus, Allah, whoever - to give us. We make God in our image, not the other way around.

Moore's thoughts on religion during a dark night begins to articulate my struggle, my feelings:

Religion, too, often avoids the dark by hiding behind platitiudes and false assurances. NOthing is more irrelevant than feeble religious piousness in the face of stark, life-threatening darkness. Religion tends to sentimentalize the light and demonize the darkness. If you turn to spirituality to find only a positive and wholesome attitude, you are using spirituality to avoid life's dark beauty. Religion easily becomes a defense and avoidance. Of course, this is not the purpose of religion, and the religious traditions of the world, full of beautifully stated wisdom, are your best source of guidance in the dark. But there is real religion and there is the empty shell of religion. Know the difference. Your life is at stake.
--Moore, Thomas. Dark Nights of the Soul: a guide to finding your way through life's ordeals. London: Piatkus, 2004, p. 15

It is indeed. Moore goes on to say that "Flight from the dark infantilizes your spirituality, because dark nights of the soul are meant to initiate you into spiritual adulthood...[t]he spiritual life is both deep and transcendent." (p. 15)

Flight from the dark, in the end, puts your life at stake - because you never grow up, and parts of you in potential, meant to come to full growth, shrivel and die.

That's why I'm not just travelling through this time, or hoping for a divine hand to reach down and pull me out.

I'm hoping for divine presence, and occasionally, through the people who can hold me in my darkness, I'm sure I feel the brush of a wing against my cheek. Thank you for meeting me here; it means more than you'll ever know.

I know there are those who would will my emergence back into bright sunshine, believing it best, and I love you for it. But not just yet - I need to explore this part of my home. Be with me if you can - but if not, that's ok too.

Just remember that I'm not here because I want to die...

...but because I want to live.

Monday, 14 December 2009

A Catholic male on female beauty

I got involved in a discussion with the friend of a friend on said friend's plank, oops, I mean wall.

He sent me a message about something I had written, admired my profile pic and asked if it were my tattoo. When I responded I chose it b/c I'm not photogenic and no one should have to suffer a picture of me, he responded:

Thought that would make you laugh! But as for photogenic, that is in the eye of the beholder. I would have turned down Miss World for my wife, and true feminine beauty comes from within, whilst the physique or face may not be classically beautifull the whole face can light up when someone smiles, or they may have such wonderful colourful eyes, or even on older faces the lines set into the face or the silver hair can be elegant or have a warmth. God made us in his image and everyone is beautiful to him.

After having spent far too much time in circles that view women as 3rd class citizens - having to fight to prove myself as good as any man; suffering perpetual mockery; having to deal with men who struggle with my not being 'safe' (married or asexual) - this was balm to the weary soul.

And he's a heterosexual Catholic male. Who likes women. Genuinely likes us. I could weep. His wife is a lucky woman.

Where's the 'Permission to clone humans' bill? I'm ringing my MP to vote 'aye'.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Ordinary moments, gifts and my grown-up Christmas list

Do you remember me
I sat upon your knee
I wrote to you with childhood fantasies

Well I'm all grown-up now
And still need help somehow
I'm not a child
But my heart still can dream

As a Muslim girl, I never sat upon Santa's knee, but I did childhood fantasies with the best of them. I wrote my angels for the things I thought I wanted: straight As, something nice to wear, the latest must-have. I poured my heart out in the letters that ended up in my father's chest of drawers - with lists that probably equalled many a Christmas list sent to the North Pole. I was desperate as any child on Christmas day for those things to arrive.

Growing up, my world was one where my parents judged people by their position and what they owned; whilst that tendency didn't manifest in me in exactly the same way, it was there: friendships were measured by whether someone remembered to give me a present; if they knew what to give me; how much thought they had given it.

So, as ashamed as I am to admit it, those shiny packages mattered.

As children we believed
The grandest sight to see
Was something lovely
Wrapped beneath our tree

It took years for me to realise that what I really wanted was the freedom to wear that skirt, the freedom to read something other than school books (one of the best pressies I ever got was a LotR set from Larisa and Nicole), the freedom to really be a member of my generation.

Well heaven surely knows
That packages and bows
Can never heal a hurting human soul

And that what I wanted that present to do was reassure me that I was cared for; that I was loved.

Over time, dinners, laughter, glasses of wine at midnight, discussions about the afterlife being a pool room in which you gather with your soul family, became far more precious than a physical gift. Memories, history woven together, time together on the pilgrimage of our lives became a far more potent measure of love and friendship than packages.

I'll always remember a piece by Stephanie Gilliam in the Washington Post on ordinary days: about her walking into the house, calling up to her son, the dog greeting her. And how it struck her in that moment that when the catastrophic happens, when we are in the depths of grief, we don't want to feel rapturous, we just want to feel NORMAL. That we come to realise the real gifts are the ordinary days - the normal interactions with those we know and love, the changes of season, and so on - miss them and you miss your life.

That's what I'd say to the cleric friend of mine who said he didn't get how couples stood the boring parts of marriage (read: ordinary days) - those ordinary days are the building of a joint history through love that isn't always inferno bright, and they are just as, if not more, true than the big moments of a proposal or wedding. They're the days that bring you to the other big moments like the birth of a child or a special anniversary. They're the bricks of the house you build with love. Just like the little touches say far more about the love between a couple than tonsil hockey does.

And the ordinary moments of my friendships are the same - the real heartbeat of our relationships.

Now don't get me wrong - I still love packages and cards, and even more, I love giving them. Yes, I still love bath stuff, etc. I'll never be an ascetic; the sensual will always be one of my pleasures. As will books. But this year, I'm really looking forward to the present of a friend's artwork and poem that I know is coming my way.

Oh, and let's not forget the pleasure of the cards that land on the doormat, with scrawls about how friends are, pictures, design choices that reflect the friend's personality.

This past Friday, I came home, poked my head in the lounge to say "Hi" to Greg, and my eye fell on the post. My heart - and I - smiled as I saw "The infamous Miss Irim Sarwar" on the envelope and the American postmark. My grin grew wider as I turned the envelope over to the side that had, to quote Hyphen, "been attacked with markers."

My laughter mixed with tears as I opened the envelope and first pulled out a drawing of four faeries with blue accents, signed by the artist in a heart: "Love, Lily". Next, I pulled out a drawing of two faeries (one in a flower, one flying) on a sunny day, signed "Love, Ellie". Finally, a water colour, by an up and coming young artist, simply signed "Bazzy".

Greg looked at me curiously, so I handed him each drawing as I pulled it out, almost as if I were a proud aunt. And finally - the card, with pics of all four wee ones, Brad and Hyphen. The message from Hyphen on the back made me well up even more.

That card and those drawings will never see the inside of a recycling bin. My dusty drawers, most certainly, but I'll always have them. As I will the card from Vanya, drawn by her stepdaughter, wishing me a Happy Kristmas.

Simple, but utterly, utterly perfect.

So what do I really want for Christmas? You. An evening or a coffee with you to build more of those moments. (Aside from the above-mentioned gift and the keychain with a picture of Hyphen's Adeline with her WTF expression) Time on IM, time via email exchange or Skype, just *you*. More giggles, tears, and heart-to-hearts - our unique blend of soul-time that weaves another thread into our tapestry.

I want more moments like recent ones: Hazel's 2.9 yr old, Daniel, saying, "Daddy, I love Irim!" on a night that he couldn't possibly have known was one that I needed it most; a 5 week old baby perfectly curled against my shoulder, settling into sleep; a heart-to-heart with Dani on Friday; being able to lean against Dom today.

Those are my greatest, dearest gifts - you - all of you. I love you.

But if you want to know what the other things on my list are, well, here you go:

So here's my lifelong wish
My grown-up Christmas list
Not for myself
But for a world in need

No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
Everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end
This is my grown-up Christmas list

Chanukkah sameach, Happy Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa and a blessed end to the noughties (damn, I loved saying that!) and start to the teens for all of us.

Every one.

Saturday, 5 December 2009


At 13.45 on Thursday, 3 December 2009, I paused in the cool, dark entryway to the house of those who once ran the Inquisition; the place I'd once worked cataloguing books old and new. A place of sanctuary from the hustle and bustle only feet away. A home away from home, and the home of some of those clerics dear to me who will be filling the sanctuary at my funeral one day.

But today wasn't about the Church, or religion, or anything to do with the clergy.

This moment was about coming home to myself.

I opened my rucksack and took out the box I knew I was going to buy the moment I walked into Boots. The plastic crinkled as I ripped it off, and I stroked the familiar, almost velvety box I hadn't owned in well over a year, before opening it and pulling out the bottle that fit perfectly into my hand.

I opened it, sprayed some on my wrist and at the base of my throat, then put the bottle away.

I rubbed my wrists together and inhaled deeply, revelling in the sharp, citrusy top notes that would soon fade into the warm, woody, spicy, rich heart notes that I identify as my signature. A scent I love even 10 hours later when only the base notes of vanilla and musk are left. And suddenly, for the first time in a long time, I was back.

Which? Calvin Klein Obsession. A classic, oriental amber scent (ironically, the same family as my mother's Estee Lauder Ciara, which I hated). For those who are interested, here's the composition:

Top notes: green, mandarin orange, peach, basil, bergamot and lemon.

Heart notes: spices, coriander, sandalwood, orange blossom, jasmine, oakmoss, cedar and rose.

Base notes: amber, musk, civet, vanilla, vetiver and incense.

In 2004, I decided I wanted a signature scent. I knew that mostly citrus would make me smell like a cat's litter box; I'm not floral by nature; I love rich, oriental scents - sandalwood was an absolute must in anything I was looking for; in fact, I wanted it as a base note, which was why I nixed Obsession when I was hunting online.

In the end, I knew I had to just go to Boots and Debenhams and run down the list. Hugo Boss Deep Red was going to be a top choice, till I realised that it reminded me of strawberry jam, with the sandalwood base note nowhere to be seen.

But I kept coming back to Obsession, which I loved when I spritzed it in the air. Finally, I gave in and sprayed it on my wrist. As the top notes faded, I fell in love with the perfect marriage of scent and skin.

On 11 September 2004, it became my scent, the one that at least one man will remember me by. I was never without a bottle until 2007, when suddenly, I just stopped buying it. I stopped wearing lippy to work too.

As a perceptive practitioner put it so well all those weeks ago, "What is someone like you doing here?" Then answered her own question: "Hiding."

The abandonment of lippy and a scent that is thoroughly me would seem to confirm that - both make me noticed and remembered; to stop using one, let alone both, is an unequivocal "Please don't look at me."

No longer. Look at me. I'm real. You, be real. And if you're one of my pack, you can bet I'll be keeping YOU real.

Look out, world, I'm back with an obsession.

For life.