Once Upon A Bus Ride…

I’m tired.  My eyes burn even when I’ve just woken up and washed my face.  I’m moving slowly…sluggishly almost.  My reflexes are dulled; it takes me actual seconds to hear and register what another person is saying and sometimes I only understand what they said after they’ve left the room.

I want to go stand on a hill and yell at the world until I get an answer.  But chances are that by the time I trudge to the top, I’ll see my little abandoned hut waiting loyally for me and all I’ll really do is slip in through the familiar door, find a spot on the rug infront of the fireplace and just stare at the empty hearth for hours wondering who’s going to get up and get the logs crackling.  And when I realise there’s only me to do it, I’ll probably turn over to the other side and stare at the wall.

That makes me sad.  And while the tiredness should pass with time, the sadness is here to stay. 

I’m the kind of person who advocates the use of ‘safe’ quantification. A long time ago, I learnt – through the unsavoury process of having to eat my words – that one should avoid using superlatives.  I still stand by that. 

Don’t say things or make declarations that you know there might be even a 1% chance you will have to go back on.  If you must express such sentiments, always add a clause to factor in your own humanity and the reputation circumstances have for being fickle.  So if you’re going to promise someone “I’ll never hurt you”, it’s safer to say “I’ll never hurt you knowingly and if I do it unknowingly, then I’ll be sorry and make it up to you.” 

Yes, I know it’s a mouthful and not as romantically grandiose, but I’m a cautious person. It’s always better to remember not to expect perfection because at the end of the day, we’re all human.  And thus flawed.

So backtracking a bit, what then makes me – a usually sensible person – make the unequivocal statement that this sadness will always stay with me?  I guess that’s what this (long) post is about…

About ten or so years ago, I was in another country on holiday and took a bus from one city to another.  It was a long ride and there wasn’t much to do except watch the foreign scenery.  Somewhere in that time, there was a small half hour when everyone was asleep and it seemed like we were all on a ride not to another location, but to another moment in the future.   We were of course doing that as well, but it seemed like a surreal mass movement of so many individual lives to The Next Step on their respective timelines.

I remember thinking about what life would be like ten years from then.  What would I be doing? What would I have achieved?  But more interestingly, if I was sitting in that bus would the decade of unknown experiences change the essence of my feelings or my perspective?  Would I be the same person or would I have become someone different?  Would I believe the same things or would I change my opinions about this world?

By that particular year, I had settled into a routine of sorts.  I wasn’t expanding my social circles so the thought of making new friends or having new influences was a pretty foreign one.  It seemed like life would move forward, but around the same people and that I would change individually as would they, but none of us in too drastic a manner.

Towards the end of that reverie, I remember distinctly looking at the seat next to mine, which was empty, and thinking,  “Ten years from now, will there be new people in my life?  Someone sitting next to me who will have changed how I see things?”  I briefly wondered who it might be.  A friend? A companion? A relative?  Would it be someone younger or older?  Male or female? Adult or child?  Would it be someone I knew already or a stranger I would meet?

And suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps ten years down the line, the seat would be empty just as it was then…which was when I was first introduced to what I call ‘ghost nostalgia’.  It’s a feeling like the ghost pains people who have lost limbs feel in those parts of their body that are no longer present.  But I suppose, in this case it comes from the heart and not the brain.  I was missing a presence I didn’t even know yet.

I’d had a similar yearning-cum-expectation feeling on and off since high school.  A sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I used to stand still in the school yard and just feel the air move.  The world was changing and I could tap into the energy it was creating from that journey.  There were days when I was sure that just around the next minute something would happen that would change my life, that a door would open somewhere and all I’d have to do was walk through it and I’d finally be where I truly belonged.  But every minute simply slid into the next without fuss…

That day on the bus, the feeling of misplacement came back and finally settled in for good.  It was as if a part of me accepted that I’d either walked through the wrong doors or that I’d simply missed and walked past the right doors.  If parallel dimensions existed then I’d say the Real Me had walked down another branch of the probability tree and I was a splintered version that had taken a different road – one that seemed perfect, but was missing something essential.

(A little general knowledge follows so that this doesn’t become all about me only…)

Now there’s plenty of theories on what this missing element could be:

a) Plato talks about the “other half” that we all have because Zeus split the original being into two to reduce its power.  Thus we are all destined to wander in life looking for the other half of us to make us whole again.  If you’ve watched The Butcher’s Wife, you know what I mean.

b) Richard Bach says this missing element might be the ‘soul mate’ who is “someone who has the locks to fit our keys, and the keys to fit our locks. When we feel safe enough to open the locks, our truest selves step out and we can be completely and honestly who we; we can be loved for who we are and for who we’re pretending to be. Each of us unveils the best part of one another. No matter what else goes wrong around us, with that one person were safe in our paradise. Our soulmate is someone who shares our deepest longings, our sense of direction. Our soulmate is the one who makes life come to life. "

c) Thomas Moore has said that we need someone "to whom we feel profoundly connected, as though the communication and communing that take place between us were not the product of intentional efforts, but rather a Divine Grace. This kind of relationship is so important to the soul that many have said there is nothing more precious in life."

d) The Sufis live out their lives attempting to reunite with God before death forces them (as it will all of us) to do so and say that seperation from the Divine Unity is what causes this ‘incompleteness’ in our lives.   That life is about returning back to Him, and that the motivation to actually live life is brought about by the need to complete ourselves through surrender to Him.

I believe there is a little of all of this (except the first one, since Zeus is a myth) in our lives.  We are all looking for whatever it is that will make us finally understand our selves and our purpose better. That will give value and meaning to our lives.

Sometimes we find in in bits and pieces: through achievements and friends, through accomplishments and experiences.  Sometimes we find it in bigger chunks.  For example when you graduate from university, you might feel like something has fallen in place and then when you fall in love, you suddenly feel like you’ve found your place in the world and I have no doubt that when a mother holds her first baby, she understands a lot more what her own purpose in existing is…each experience is profound based on how much it affects your soul and your character.

But sometimes, we seem to come really, really close to making sense of one part of the jigsaw.  When it seems a particular section suddenly becomes a lot clearer and finally from your new discovery, you can move on to exploring more of the bigger picture and creating the masterpiece that you want your life to be…and then someone walks away with the pieces you need.  And suddenly you’re back where you began.  The image you had so eagerly anticipated finally seeing fades away and you’re left once again with a puzzle you can’t make out.

Sure, you can move on to another section, or if you’re really tired, you can simply decide to make a smaller puzzle and not bother with the bells-and-whistles version.  But always, the ghost of that picture you could see so clearly will haunt you. When you look up and take a break, you’ll wonder who took the pieces and if you know who did, you’ll wonder why they wouldn’t let such a beautiful image be completed.  Why not give it a chance to exist?  And if you have the capacity to dream and feel, that almost-picture will always make you sad.

On the bus that day, I felt that through the choices I had made until then I had misplaced a lot of pieces of my puzzle and that I had to settle for a smaller one that didn’t make much sense then.  And that’s why I was sad.  I missed a future that hadn’t even happened yet and while I felt with a deep conviction that I would carry that feeling with me always, I was still naively willing to let life prove me wrong.  The only promise I made myself that day was to stop one day ten years later, remember that half hour and assess how things had really turned out so I could better understand myself.

That day was today and this is what I’ve realised:

Over the past decade, I’ve worked on my little puzzle and carried with me that nostalgia of a future – or many futures – that I would probably never see.  It wasn’t a bad sadness, because I knew why I wouldn’t see them and I understood why I had to make the choices I did.  Everybody has to give up certain things, but priorities help us to not only accept but appreciate the sacrifices we make.

Recently, I saw a glimpse of an extension to my puzzle.  Maybe it was the bigger picture I had given up on, maybe it was another open door, maybe it was a portal into a parallel existence…

There’s many open doors I’ve walked past, many I’ve walked up to too late, most I didn’t even mind when they closed on me.  But every once in a while, a door opens that you want to walk through and you make a run for it because you don’t want to miss out on what’s on the other side.  And when you’re standing in front of it, you know you’ve finally arrived where you belong, almost as if the door was made to measure and you simply fit in its frame.

So what happens then if you have one foot in the doorway and it slams shut in your face? 

Two things: one, you get smashed in the face and that hurts like hell, but worse is two, you find yourself sitting on the doorstep dazed and confused about what just happened.  Wasn’t the door open?  Weren’t you invited in? Did you step in with the wrong foot?  Did you miss out on some essential courtesy that would qualify you to pass through?  Why are you on the outside of a firmly shut door instead of the inside of a wonderful new place?

I’m sitting on that doorstep right now, nursing my bruises – sometimes knocking warily, sometimes trying to figure out if there’s a magic formula to chant to unlock it, sometimes just hoping it was shut by mistake and someone will notice I’m missing or remember I got left behind and come to open it…most times just feeling very lost.  And I’ll probably be here until Life shuffles along and pushes me forward into line willy-nilly.

But I know I’ll keep looking back wondering if perhaps that’s a creak I hear as it opens again? And when I’m forced out of its sight, I’ll carry the memory of its shape and colour, the texture of the wood-grain as I leaned against it waiting, the cold of the doorstep while I tried to figure out the silence from the other side and I’ll always wonder how different my path would have been if I’d had been allowed through and perhaps more achingly – why I got left outside alone.

So if I was sitting back on that bus now, taking that same ride, I know the ten-years-younger me would recognize this me in the same way you would an old friend.  She’d be a little sadder that she’d been proved right and then she’d fade away and I’d be left with this familiar sadness which she always knew would be there. 

It is based on that knowledge that I know ten years from now I’ll still feel this way – perhaps less intensely, but no less deeply.  ( And insha’Allah, I’ll blog about it then if I get a chance. )  My consolation comes from the saying of the Prophet (s): “Allah, the Mighty and Exalted, is worshipped through nothing like continuous sorrow.” 

Yes, I know that he probably meant a very different kind of sorrow, but hey, it’s sorrow and it’s continuous so that’s a start, yes?

bint Ali


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