Wednesday, 11 March 2009
My colleague ducks his head through the doorway this evening on his way out of work and calls out, “Bye, Jasmin!”
“You call me that again, and we are not going to be friends anymore,” I mutter sourly, without turning my eyes away from the computer screen.
His long-legged stride has already carried him halfway down the hall, but he hears me, and turns around to come back laughing. “Alright. Alright, Yasmine. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“FINE,” I say.
The office slowly empties out, but I stay on for another two hours, working on an East Coast project so that the folks there can look at it first thing in the morning. It doesn’t hurt that my PC refuses to get with the Daylight Savings drama and switch forward one hour to the new time, instead obstinately changing back to the old time whenever I’m not looking. As a girl who is slightly obsessed with time and dates and documentation, I find this frustrating.
The PC tells me I’m an hour behind, the East Coast project makes me coordinate everything three hours ahead, and when I finally switch off the lights and lock the door and make my way down three flights of stairs, it’s still daylight outside. It’s highly disconcerting, the fact that it’s not dark anymore when I leave work. But the daylight makes it feel like there are more hours in the day, and I don’t mind this sort of trickery so much.
Outside the office, I pass a man I’ve seen before. He’s old and friendly and always nods politely when we cross paths. Today he smiles and says hello.
“Hi,” I say. “How are you?”
“There are 86,400 seconds in one day,” he says. “I just keep reminding myself to breathe through them all.”
I laugh. “That’s a good way to go.”
He peers at me closely. “Are you Pakistani?” he asks, and I blink, surprised. “Yes. And very few people manage to get that right on the first try!”
He leans in, asks in a confidential tone of voice, “How’s the situation over there?”
I pause, then shrug exaggeratedly. “Honestly, I don’t think the situation’s so great anywhere these days.”
He nods. “Just like here.”
I exited the train at my stop 40 minutes later, and the first thing I saw when I stepped onto the escalator and glanced to my right was the moon, hanging like white disk over Mt. Diablo.
I immediately thought of S, our personal superman, whose four-year-old text message is still saved in my phone: Look at the moon tonight, it looks hella beautiful.
In Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith, he writes about his wife, who belongs to “a brand of Sufi Islam” whose adherents stop to recite the Shahadah, the Islamic declaration of belief, when they see the moon. I remember reading that passage last week and realizing how long it’s been since I’ve even looked at the moon in a spiritual context. When I was little, our mother would gather us to her and have us peer out at the moon through our dining room windows, or herd us out onto the front porch, where we would raise our hands in prayer for the new moon.
When I lived in Pakistan as a teenager, our bebe (paternal grandmother) did the same in the courtyard of our village home. We stood outside one night when my father was briefly visiting from America; male voices drifted out the behtuk door while she and I stood out in the veyra. Bebe prayed in loudly mumbled whispers, and, when we had concluded by saying “Ameen” and passing our hands over our faces, she fondly relayed stories of my father as a child growing up in the very same house - stories my father would, as usual, later discount as Bebe’s exaggeration and natural flair for storytelling.
The moon leads me all the way home, where I pull into the driveway and then turn around to park in my usual spot along our street without sidewalks, careful not to scrape my car against the low brick walls dividing the road from our side yard. I never forget to mention the bricks when giving people directions to our home: Continue for about half a mile on the narrow, winding road. Make a left up the hill, and we’re house number 420 on the left-hand side, the white house with all the red brick-work in front. More often than not, they ignore my directions in favor of commenting on my address instead: “420?! No way!” they laugh.
My parking spot is on a slope, and this is the home where, when I returned as a teenager, I first learned how to parallel park on a hill, using “Up, up, and away,” as my mantra, a line that I remembered easily only because it tied right back to Superman, whose comic books and television shows I grew up with, even during those 18 months in Pakistan. Turn your wheels away from the curb when parking uphill. Turn them towards the curb when downhill. Looking back through my review mirror, I see the moon behind me now.
Over dinner, we discuss moving - as we have been discussing for the past two months. And while part of me is wary yet resigned, another part of me is intrigued by the idea of change. I wouldn’t be my father’s daughter, if it were otherwise. And it is endearing, watching their excitement, hearing the energetic rise and fall of their voices as my mother dreams out loud of a fireplace and new kitchen cabinets and the daddy-o maps out decks and balconies and french-doors. Where we live now is my first home, our favorite home, but even still I’m amazed that Phase2 of our lives here has lasted so long. It’s been 10.5 years since our grand return, and don’t think the daddy-o’s nomadic tendencies haven’t been asserting themselves for a while now.
I have spent a lifetime stuttering when asked the “Where are you from?” question, only because my life has been comprised of shifting roads, different rooms, varying walls and windows. The people I have loved and lost - and found again, or ignored - are manifold. I resurrect old email threads only to unrepentantly archive them without answering the pleasantly surprised recipients, and wince through international phone calls, and let my blank gaze coldly skitter past unexpectedly familiar faces in shopping malls or coffeeshops or on BART platforms, choosing to ignore those people for whom I can’t find words anymore - or those to whom I’d never had much to say in the first place.
Houses may shift and the view outside my windows may change and my question to people may always be a confused, “Where do I know you from?”, but I soothe myself with the fact that the moon will always be there, that I have a good memory - an “uncanny” one, even, I’ve been told - for faces and dates and details, that the sunshine falls the same everywhere, that I can raise my hands in prayer wherever I go.
But the East Bay is not the South Bay is not the North Bay is not the Peninsula is not the City. One can drive for an hour over half a dozen different interstates and highways and still be in the San Francisco Bay Area - and yet not feel at home in one part even while another part is familiar and comforting.
Monday, 16 March 2009
I finished writing the bulk of this post in a coffeeshop in Sacramento, 75 miles from home. At one point, I looked up to see a girl I remembered from one of the high schools I had attended. Her blonde hair was now reddish-pink and her name didn’t come to mind right away, but I recognized the smile and the laugh and the slightly awkward knobby-kneed coltishness. I didn’t say hello. A few hours later, driving down H Street back towards 80 West, a man jogging along the sidewalk reminded me of a boy with whom I’d gone to school - but which city, and which of the seven schools I’ve attended, I had absolutely no idea.
On the way home, my sister and I stopped in the university town where we’d lived as teenagers, and where I’d returned for my undergrad. “Dude, I haven’t been back in years,” I said, as we exited the freeway.
“And how does it feel?” teased the sister.
“I’ll let you know when we drive through the streets.”
On a mission to “stop by the new masjid” before heading back to the Bay, our jaws collectively dropped when we drove down the main street and saw the new Islamic center. Inside and outside, it was beautiful, with an inspiring attention to detail. “This place must have been designed by engineers from the University,” I joked, referring to an event we had attended a couple of days before, at which the MC had deadpanned, “This program was put together by two engineers, so it’s going to run like clockwork.”
There was a blue dome. And small blue square tiles embedded in the entry areas, and the eight-pointed Islamic star integrated into the design, and lovely chandeliers and soft, light-blue carpeting. We couldn’t stop smiling. “We used to attend Sunday school at this masjid when we lived here,” my sister said to the president of the Islamic center, who noticed us wandering around the building and unlocked the doors for us.
“When was that?”
“‘95 through ‘98,” I said, and he smiled and asked what our parents’ names were. When we told him our father’s name, he nodded in recognition, although I don’t think he remembered the face to go with it.
There were yellow flip-flops waiting to welcome me when we slipped inside the marbled, clean and shiny women’s bathroom to make ablutions for the afternoon prayer. And when we stood shoulder-to-shoulder for Asr salah, my sister pointed out that, as travelers, we could technically pray the amended two cycles of prayer. The prayer of the traveler is allowed to be shortened.
“I’m praying the full four,” I said. “It feels like home.”
On the way out, we marveled again at the lights, the tiles, the shelves, the careful neatness with which everything was allocated a place.
“It gives me hope,” said my sister as we were driving away, “to know that there are people who pay attention to beauty and detail.”
Down the street was the Victorian house in which we had lived during those three years - the one with the bay windows. We drove by slowly. “It’s still gray and white!” I exclaimed. The brick walkways and geraniums have been replaced by grass, of which I highly approve. Ten years later after we left, the back deck is still the one we built, and the wrought-iron railing by the kitchen door is the same, as is the old, detached garage, and the city fire station directly across the street.
But not everything has remained unchanged. “Remember that tree the city planted for us?” I asked. “Is that the one?” I gestured towards a tall, sturdy tree at the side of the house.
“The city didn’t plant that,” said my sister. “We did.”
“Well, remember how it was all tiny and scrawny? And look at it now. It’s huge!”
I can never manage to tell people “where I’m from,” which is probably also why I never have a good answer for where I’m going. And more than any other word or concept, the idea of “home” has always tripped me up and stopped me in my tracks - and intrigued me the most.
There is nowhere to go. Everything is perfect, says one part of me.
The other says, Everywhere you go will be somewhere you’ve never been.
And if there is one thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of being the daughter of a man with nomadic tendencies, a man who so nonchalantly embraces change as “adventure,” it is this: The end is just the beginning, and every point in between.
At least 86,400 points, come to think of it, on any given day.
“I have homes everywhere, many I have not seen yet. That’s perhaps why I am restless. I haven’t seen all my homes.”
- John Steinbeck