(Me)mory, Re-learning and Moments

When you’re struggling with illness you fear losing a part of yourself. I am struck by the realization lately that I am not the same person I used to be. A diminishment of self is what I fear, instinctively. I try to hold on to fragments of my life, my memories, the parts that make up this “me.” I keep realizing that no matter how hard I try to document, to remember, to record, I cannot relive any moment. I cannot conjure the parts of my life I have lost and the parts of me I want back.

And here I go with my vagueness. Write it. Write it is what Bishop tells us. I’m including the poem here:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

I remember re-learning how to walk. That was an art. The art of losing, the art of mastering it again. The fear that came with trying again, placing one foot before the other, recognizing my toes were mine, my feet had to do their job. I had never imagined I would forget the mechanics of walking. Looking up, holding on to safe and sturdy arms, step by step. And then finally, I was finding my feet, my rhythm, and Mama was there, waiting. Watching, wanting to see if I would make it without falling.

That memory, that image, makes me think of how vulnerable we are. Childlike steps, just like a child takes her first steps as her mother watches, waiting for her at the finish line. And the joy that autonomy brings. Who would’ve thought that moment would repeat itself?

I’m at a vulnerable point in my life. I am trying to preserve parts of myself. I wonder if I’ll re-learn. I am struggling to retain information, and I sometimes feel a disfigurement of my mind is taking place. I just can’t put my finger on it. And yet, here I am, writing this, grateful that I can write it. I’m able to say I am afraid and stay with that. I said the words out loud the other day and while Shame was meddling I recognized the exposure of the bloodiness and messiness of MS. It’s messy. It’s hard to stay in the moment. It’s hard to avoid thinking of the future.

But as always Virginia Woolf saves me. I remember her diary entry in which she says “Stay, the moment. Nobody ever says it enough.”

Pictured below: teaching moment, 2018. Drama class. And is life (and illness) anything but a drama?

Depth and words

I recently experimented with a release of a small prose-poetry book. It doesn’t really have a genre and I was approached by a local publisher (they only publish Arabic books), so I was hesitant and didn’t think the book would receive any attention. Forget the Words is not as close to my heart as On Love and Loss which is still selling rather well on Amazon.

But this is not the point of this post. The book managed to reach a few people’s hearts, on a very intimate level. Firstly, my mother read and understood it, and she was able to see that the book was fragmented because I believe in fragments and inconsistencies. My mother is not one to enjoy English books, which reminds me of Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” – in which she asserts that as long as her mother could enjoy her work, then this means she can reach a wider audience.

I received feedback from people I hadn’t  met, sending me messages, emails, letting me know that the book spoke to them, that they were able to connect. Some were previous students of mine, others were new, and then there were those who had simply heard of the book by word of mouth. I am overwhelmed with the amount of citations on Twitter and Instagram! I type in #forget_the_words and random pictures come up with quotes from my book! It is, needless to say, an exhilarating feeling.

When I wrote the book, I was simply angry with words, with life, and I hurled the book at the world. I didn’t care for its success. I haven’t even shared it with all of my colleagues, it is not academic, not scholarly, not what I would term creative fiction. One colleague though, and a beautiful friend of mine, Janet, took the time to read it and reflect upon it. I think that’s what really got me- she actually did reflect on it. She didn’t read the book because I wanted her to read it (at least that’s not what it felt like) and she was able to make the links, the connections. She told me that the words took her to another place, that she was immersed within the dialogue and the symbolism, the metaphors I used. And that’s precisely it, I just hadn’t realized it. Janet helped me put it into words, and I’ll just borrow her analysis here: I wanted those who read it to feel as though the dialogue wasn’t mine, that the Sun and the Moon represented much more, and that human connection and depth is all we could ever live for. I seek depth everywhere. I seek depth in conversations, in friendships and relationships. Like Anais Nin once wrote: “I must be a mermaid, I have no fears of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”

So the book has given me a chance to connect with people on a deeper level. I am grateful to whatever entity is in charge, the Universe, the publisher who took a risk publishing in English rather than Arabic, my friends who read the book, readers who I never met, and those who took the time to think about the words, when I so blatantly asked them to ‘forget the words.’

  

   

       

Love and Academia

Today someone reminded me of how difficult it was for me during my undergraduate days. My postgraduate days were extremely exhausting and very gloomy at times. There were many days where I thought of giving up on academia. There were times where I couldn’t hold a pen. And yet, despite the struggle, I managed. Today my papers fell out of my briefcase, everywhere, it was a total mess. And as a student of mine bent down to help me gather them, for that one moment, as I looked at her, I had a flashback of myself, as a student, struggling to carry my literature books and dragging myself to class. As we gathered the papers and I thanked her, my mind went back to the past.

It has been only two years since I got my PhD, October 2014. That day was a day where the clock stopped ticking, the viva seemed to go on forever, and I couldn’t bring myself to see the end of the tunnel. But at 3 pm that certain October day, I was finally who I wanted to be, and where I wanted to be. I rememebr being in shock for a few days after. And when I came home, I was met with endless love and celebration. 

People look at me today and assume it was an easy journey. Some people tell me I am too young to be a professor. Some tell me that I wasted years amongst books. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was never about the degree. It was simply about love. 

   
     

What Went Right

As this blog remains a personal rather than an academic one (but the personal and the academic are always intertwined for me), I was hesitant to write about this. But here goes. Recently I have suffered from a physical relapse, one that has hindered my ability to walk. I have also developed tremors, a very nasty and frustrating shaking that does not seem to go away. I won’t go into the boring details, but suffice it to say that it has been a challenging month.School started, and faculty had to go back to campus. I was very hesitant about showing up to school with a cane. Yet I did, and it was fine, but of course there had to be one remark that infuriated me. A superior suggested that it was “all in my head” and that I should “toughen up.” At the time, I was struck by the audacity, and was unable to respond. Later, of course, I dealt with the situation. But again, this post isn’t about negativity or what went wrong.

Let’s talk about what went right. I went to the University of Oxford for a conference I had been so excited about. I had spent months waiting for this conference, waiting to visit Oxford, to speak at the conference. I was giving a paper on madness and its potential for subversion. I never imagined it’d be like this – that I would go alone, and that I would go not as functional as I would have hoped. Simply, I was scared. When I voiced my fear to a wonderful person, Dr. Noor, someone with both a scientific background and an interest in Disability Studies, she told me that my fears were “perfectly normal.” A conference, in itself, is nerve-racking, she assured me, and to add to that, a body that is struggling to make it. We had met during an informal meeting to discuss our careers, but we quickly established a strong connection. Dr. Noor and I work from similar angles, similar research frameworks. We consider the ways by which illness and the body is socially constructed, how a sense of identity emerges, and the importance of dialogue between physicians-patients-society. This is a three way conversation which still needs to begin. 

I might be portraying Dr. Noor as simply a colleague, but she is way beyond that. She has helped me on a personal level, and is a friend I have been blessed with. Even when I suggested that I may be afraid of going to Oxford alone, her response was: “But I believe in you, Shahd.” We spoke about how hard it might be, but how I would have to get out of my comfort zone, if I really wanted to attend the conference (which I did)!

I am glad I didn’t give up on it. I was about to. Family and friends told me that there would be many other conferences, better health days. But if you know me at all, you would recall that I do live for the moment. I live for today. Maybe the circumstances weren’t the best, but I learned that every time it feels like it’s almost over, that is the crucial point where you shouldn’t give up. That’s the very moment where you shouldn’t let go.

I have been let go of, very recently. On a personal level, someone I believed would be there for me, there with me (at Oxford and everywhere else), has decided that it was time to move on. Of course this hurts. And it leaves you wondering where you went wrong. What you possibly could’ve said or done, or changed in yourself, to make them stay. At the same time, my walking ability has decided to let go of me, at least for awhile. Perhaps we’re on a break, as I like to think of it.

On the flight, I was recognized by students who made the connection that I was “Dr. Shahd” who teaches English. One of them was especially happy to be sitting next to me, and she was very friendly. When we landed in London, she noticed that I had a cane. The look of horror and shock on her face was something else. She couldn’t help herself and started asking so many questions. I responded and explained that I was okay, but she insisted on knowing “how” ‘why” and if I was “born this way.” That’s a story on its own, but again, suffice it to say that I handled it. 

At the conference, which was on madness, the social construction of illness, mental and physical, and its representations throughout history and literature – we spoke about how normalcy is overrated. I was reminded by a friend’s consolation of me by saying “Walking is so overrated.”

 But here’s the thing, at the conference, amongst academics, I felt like I finally belonged. A professor of Schizophrenia and madness, asked me how I felt about MS. I explained that it was a random disability, and I alternated between the binary of abled/disabled. He called it “Bonkers!” and asked me to “enjoy!” Richard and I became good friends afterwards. He was right to suggest that it was bonkers, and to tell me to enjoy, because this strange state of being human is always enjoyable, in its complexities, its inconsistences, and its nonsense. 

And maybe what went right was that it was okay that everything went “wrong.” 

Here are some images of the trip. 

   
     

Crash

I am not afraid of death. I have never been afraid of death. Death is a theme in my life, and rebirth is right next to it. For those of you who know me, and if you read my blog at all, you might be aware that I have done the whole “died and came back to life” in the past. *See post on “25 Going on 15” which relates the story of my experiment with Stem cells.* But for the sake of this post, let me just say that I am overwhelmed this time. A month ago, I bought a new car, and I was ecstatic about it. I had worked so hard to purchase and be able to drive this car. And yet a week ago, I crashed into a bus, and my car spun around and hit three different times before finally deciding to stop. I was left with bruises and a bad burn, but I came out of it alive. While the crash was taking place, I was thinking “I’m going to die. Yup, I’m going to die in a car crash. Damn.”

I won’t dwell on the gruesome details, because we all know what accidents are like. What happened after the accident is extraordinary. I had been feeling very down and helpless before the car crash. I was struggling with chronic pain (as usual) and I was starting to feel hopeless. After my crash, everything around me also crashed. People. Relationships. Everything either solidified or disappeared. I was amazed by people’s reactions. There were those that let go and those that stayed. There were many surprises. It was a near-death experience, and it crashed into my face, how much I had misinterpreted and assumed I understood it all. I didn’t. I still don’t.

I am overwhelmed with the way my sisters stood by me, with the way my baby sisters (not so-baby anymore) took care of me. I was touched by my best friend’s presence, leaving her baby to come rushing to the hospital, fearing for my life. I was shocked that my students, who I assumed only considered me their teacher, called me, sent me emails, told me how much they appreciated my existence. I cried when I realized that I had touched my students’ lives, that I had made a difference somehow. I kept repeating to my sister, Abrar, that this was all “too much.” It felt like it was too much. I hadn’t just crashed my car, I had crashed into reality. Love was all around, and not in the way I had expected it, from one person, but rather, it was dispersed and distributed. The intimacy and vulnerability of the accident made those around me more open, more verbal, and it shook my soul. Everyone had something to say. Each person had their own take on it. People either stayed or ran away.

So I guess I’m alive, and it looks like there must be a reason. Only the Universe knows how and why. Meanwhile, I know I have to return all this love and appreciation. So thank you, to everyone who cared. And thank you, to those who put up with my blog ramblings.

    

My New Book

My first poetry collection is now available on Amazon. Here is the link: http://www.amazon.com/Love-Loss-Shahd-Alshammari/dp/1631358901/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1433966269&sr=8-1&keywords=on+love+and+loss+shahd

I expect that copies will soon be available in Kuwait. I don’t claim to be a poet, or a writer. This is merely an experiment, as all things in life are. Trial and error. Let’s see how it goes!

Scab

We were friends. Every night, I went to sleep, not thinking of consequences. But one fine morning (nah, I’m kidding, it wasn’t fine), I found that the cat’s scratch was right underneath my eyelid. I ignored it. The following morning, the scratch had made itself at home. I stared at its presence. Words on flesh. The cat’s constant purring was too close for comfort, and just when I thought I could hold her close, it pawed at my face, clumsily perhaps, but nevertheless, there it was, a scar had formed. On my face. Just in case I tried to forget. I am still me, except for the scar she carved. But the cat is still a fine creature, demanding of attention, willing to reciprocate every once in awhile, moody, loving, and unpredictable. Would she have scratched if she cared “enough”? Can you measure a concept as vague and as fleeting as affection/love?

After a long day, when all I want to do is drop my guard, she climbs onto my lap and stares at me. Anticipating. Waiting. Inquiring. Greeted by silence, she meows and purrs as though we have no history. I don’t recall the words, it’s hard enough when we speak different languages. I can only touch the now scabrous skin. Each night it digs itself further into me.

  

Random 

I lost my hearing today – only for a few hours, luckily. And I sat thinking about what it must be like to live completely deaf. One adapts. 

We are always so scared of deafness, blindness, paralysis, the deterioration of the body. But everything we are so afraid of is actually not as terrifying when it actually happens. When we lose someone we love, we think we’ll never get out of bed in the morning. When we lose one of our senses, we think we’ll never survive. 

But this survival is a concept that needs a longer post. I need to think about survival, and what it means. I wish there was a course we could all sign up for: Survival 101. And once you pass the course, you’re set for life. Then again, we’re never really set for life. Perhaps that’s the miscalculation right there. It’s all random. 

I probably should make friends with Randomness already. As an individual, I have always been so predictable, so consistent, and yet everything about my body, and how I react to it, is random and inconsistent. 

And that’s all for now

Persevere 

Key word. Persevere. Fight. Keep going. Go against all odds. You get the picture. 

But when I am left alone with my thoughts, I question it all. What was the point of difference between you and I? Which part of all this perseverance is mine, and which was yours? To fight means there’s a battle to endure. I had my battles. You fought my demons, but never could fight your own. And as much as I like to believe I was a warrior, I could never fight against you or your chosen allies. 

We choose our allies. And now I am left with the ghost of an ally.  

Below: the theme of it all. 

 

Distance and Voices

I walked through the aisle at the Sultan Center today, trying to find the usual groceries we used to buy. My purchases have changed. My needs have altered. My hand reached for the canned mushrooms, and I heard your voice complaining about freshness.

“Don’t forget your vegetables. Get them fresh. No, no, that one – this one looks a bit discolored.” There. That was definitely your voice speaking to me. Clearly, that was your agitated tone, and the apologetic smile.

Hands fumbled as I examined the greens.

Then someone smiled at me. I wondered what you’d say.

The stranger smiled, and walked away. I thought about your smile. You had smiled endlessly, countless days, and you had still walked away, left me barely standing on my own. I know that life is all about moments. I know that we are doomed, and I know that we make our own realities, and we make choices. Choices are all about constraints and chains. But then again, there are choices that liberate. There are choices that help us rise from the ashes.

Would you do it all over again?

I can’t answer that question, but I’ll ask you. And I know you can read between the lines – so are you still you?


The photo is from I Wrote This For You by Iain Thomas.