Sometimes I wish there was some kind of unit with which to measure change. At one point, I tried to measure change in habits – in the things that carved my days into shape, in the catchphrases I used, and so on. This method worked for about a week until I realised that it didn’t account for many things.
For what it’s worth, I still believe that overall change is the effect of smaller shifts in the cosmic fabric of our existence, that it is the sum of its parts, but I had forgotten that in the case of such an investigation, I needed to be able to shift perspective when spotting the difference: zooming in and out, trees and woods, sand and desert.
One example of the failure of the method could be found in my writing. Noting that gore and bloody imagery were featuring more often in my writing was not equivalent to actualising the integral shift that had occurred in the span of a few months and the incongruence between the excerpts of my writing: “I’m not good with anger or with gore, with the sensation of flaying yourself and painting driveways with spilled guts” in December and “let the acid burn through my skin until i was / all flesh and blood so raw / that even your innards could not bear / the violence of my existence and spewed me out” in March. Simply adding up smaller adjustments was not quite enough for me, it seemed. There was an entire reaction missing in the equation.
Blood used to bother me for too many reasons to count – and really, it still does. This was not the sort of thing you could simply say goodbye to. But mostly, it bothered me because I was afraid of seeing it as catharsis. If I ever approached it, whether virtually or physically, I stuck a post-it note to the walls of my skull with a reminder that a wound was never a good thing, even if it pretended to be. But writing about it felt good, like I was carving my feelings into marble and then taking a sledgehammer to them, so I let myself write about it carefully at first, in a room with no sharp objects, and then in any room I could lock myself in.
I had no words to describe the invisible alteration that I was certain was made. I’m not sure what the catalyst was – courage or comfort – maybe a little bit of both. Maybe it was the grief I felt for the body I tried to ruin or the person that had tried to ruin me. Either way, I felt both sensations keenly in myself – and then I didn’t feel much at all.
I wonder if this new thing was built from nothing or rather on top of the old – fear compounded. I look at the words I’ve written then and now like I’m comparing pieces of evidence – which I am, perhaps always. I wonder what this means for me, for the person I’ve become.
I’ve spent hours upon hours sitting on the swing in our front garden holding conversations and conferences with myself, and familiarizing myself with the girl that I am, that I was. It happened so often it became a running joke between me and my father: “Meditating again?” he’d ask on his way to Ishaa prayer, and I’d say, “The weather is good today,” with a loud laugh, pointedly not answering his question. He would later come back and I would still be there. Lately, I haven’t had the time and my understanding has lessened. Have I become monstrous? Have I always been or could I ever be – if I want to be – the blood lusting creature that my writing has become, emerging only past midnight, on the cusp of sleep? I’m not sure.
In Islam, we don’t speak of our nightmares to anyone else, because they may come to harm us later on if we do. I am not saying that the words I write are a nightmare, but sometimes, after I’ve completed a poem, I feel my bones shaking in the embrace of my flesh and my chest trembling with exhilaration. Sometimes, after I’ve written a poem, I read it back to myself with a half-terrified, half-awed voice and wonder what I’ve brought back with me.
Other times, I wonder if I made my writing or if it made me. A long time ago, back when the only thing I wrote were stories with shallowly-conceived teenagers making vaguely witty jokes, I would have said, with minimal, if not non-existent, hesitation that it was the former. When I started writing more poetry, these lines began to blur almost imperceptibly: I did not always write angry poetry, so to speak, but rather, I wrote poetry that made me angry and then I felt it course through me residually for hours afterwards and drain out, the way some people do juice cleanses and feel everything they hoped to rid their bodies of flow out of them.
It’s always so difficult to pinpoint where and how I’ve changed in the midst of all these transitions – the poetry, the blood, the elusiveness of time, or if I had to narrow it down: growing, which I suppose was something we all did and went through. How was I caught in the middle of all the roads moving forward? Where was the intersection and where did it take me?
I know that I have been refined somehow (more mature, more focused, more eloquent, better taste, and so on), from crude oil to petroleum, but I also know I can be distilled further, into something better and truer. I have heard people call youth a whirlwind so many times I’ve started to believe them a little, and I’ve been trying to find some perspective on this, some clarity. But the eye of the hurricane is nowhere to be seen.
There is always something to be said about hindsight perhaps, but I’ve never thought it was ever clearer than the now or the better vessel for viewing an event. Memory distorts things, washes them out even when not much time has passed. Right now, I can’t be certain what brought on the changes in myself exactly, but it was volatile and mean in itself. I don’t really remember this, but I remember snippets (the anxiety attacks that had me limb-locked like I had never felt before, the threat of relapse looming closer and closer, the frantic pages of writing when I got on the bus and the morning had been too much to bear) almost like an amnesia patient, and I interpret from that.
Writing (and art, generally speaking) brings you closer to yourself, because it’s the rawest thing to come out of you, so much more than expression or tenor. For a long time, I thought this was only an occasional thing, like striking gold, appearing only in fits of a mad genius’s inspiration, but I’ve found that even when you’re pushing yourself, drawing from a well that seems too empty to give, it remains true. And this, too: I am pulling something out of myself, out of a well I thought had run dry, so there will always be something of me in it.
The thing I love most about writing is that it’s incendiary, in a way that never stopped thrilling me, like it was a magic trick I was watching over and over again. And in my better moments, I can let myself forget that fires not only swallow and rise higher, but also burn down whatever they find. I let myself forget that sometimes it feels like I’m being burnt down to my very foundation, to whatever it is within me that keeps standing and creating.
I once read that creativity is a lot like a tree – dormant at times and fruitful at others, but the tree is of no use if only ashes remain in its place. It takes far too long for a new bud to sprout from the ground: years and years. The fear of silence swallows me and I pray that I have not become the aftermath of a forest fire, blackened and sooty and dead.
For the longest time, this dormancy bothered me more than anything: the grains of time were slipping past my fingers and I sat, studying maths and biology and whatever other subject I had no intention of investing myself in while my writing lay abandoned somewhere in a darkened corner of my head, gathering dust, along with every ounce of motivation I possessed to do something. It felt like I was failing a test, a sensation I was extremely unfamiliar and uncomfortable with.
In a way, I was failing a test – one that I had set for myself so that once I passed with flying colours, I could say to everyone look I can do this, I told you this was it. The only barrier was, well, a lot of barriers combined. There was the black hole all my time was being sucked into, and there were the doubts that whatever I wrote would be unreadable anyway, and then there was the fact that I was more content and not completely dependent on writing as an emotional outlet. Although writing still speaks to me like nothing else, I no longer wrote with the same depressive desperation that had driven me at twelve and thirteen. At my worst, when time wore on and motivation wore thin and I still had nothing to show for it, I wished that it was like before, and then I stopped myself before that thought could progress.
A few weeks ago, while we sat in the kitchen waiting for iftar, my mother asked, “So when are you going to write a novel?” and I made a plaintive, frustrated sound that perhaps explained more about how I was feeling about the whole process that anything I could have told her. Luckily, the kebabs in the oven were well past ready and I escaped having to expand on that to her.
This only made it more difficult every time someone asked what do you want to be? and I wanted to answer writer and painstakingly, could not. Not just because writing was not an ideal career choice in the eyes of Arab society (Architecture, my mother suggests, after I had automatically vetoed the obligatory options of doctor and engineer. I refuse, as politely as I can. Interior design, maybe. Maybe not.) but because I did not feel I could claim to be a writer when the only thing I’ve completed of note was a mediocre-at-best novella that I wrote when I was twelve.
But I remember the summer I wrote all forty thousand words of that novella before we visited Amman, and my mother said to our relatives in my grandmother’s sitting room, “Don’t you know? She wrote a novel,” the pride in her voice almost an afterthought. I never bothered to correct her or help her make the distinction between novel and novella. I don’t miss this feeling of being a bug scuttling under the gaze of a magnifying glass. Not really. Not at all.
It’s a little cliché but the time has passed so quickly: the day, month, year here and then suddenly not. I take a moment to think of what has been done and I am struck with the indecision that I have done a lot and not much at all.
I tend to measure years as the intervals between the end of one Ramadan and the beginning of another, because it passes the fastest and I remember it least. It’s always a little too busy and a hazy mirage of meals and dreams and laughter – memory often fails me, but it’s been trying harder. Ramadan is not a month for productivity but I try to find exceptions in between.
I wrote two measly chapters of a novel; I wrote a few dozen poems even though I’d never read most aloud; a couple of those poems have been accepted by certain publications; I rid myself of someone who had stopped being a healthy presence a long time ago and I wrote angry, angsty poetry about her; I got new glasses; yet, I am forced to ask myself what has been really done?
It’s a duality that has haunted me for much of my life. Sometimes, I think it’s simply part of being an artist, like that innate need to be able to glance at something and understand it wholly, every angle and facet, and what that means. Sometimes, I think it’s part of being young: all that conflict and confusion, but isn’t that what the world does to everyone? Sometimes, I think it’s just a part of being human, but I have seen people sure and certain in way I could never conceive.
In my loneliest moments, I think it might just be me, but then I’ll talk to a friend or go on Tumblr, find something to relate to, tell myself to get out of my own head, try to give myself enough time to blink out of it, and it works enough times out of ten that it’s become routine.
I am measuring change in traits now: I’m kinder to myself, perhaps to others, too; I’m a little less lonely but not quite; my posture is still just as bad but my chin lifts a little higher; I’m sharper and I’m a little wounded and grudging; I have found new things and people to love. In the end, I am myself, and I am what remains.
Tasneem Maher is an Arab writer and poet who encourages theatrics and melodrama of any kind. Her work has been featured in Vagabond City Lit, tenderness lit, Jaffat El Aqlam, and more. She tweets @mythosgal.