“It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believe these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life”
I wish I could say that I wrote the above paragraph for it describes so perfectly what I was feeling at the time. Alas, it is the opening paragraph of the novel Unless by the unique Carol Shields. I would describe myself as a happy person, a cheerful person, an optimistic person. I didn’t realize that I was just lucky. When my lucky pane of glass shattered into tiny little pieces, I found myself befuddled by the unfamiliar territory. I had no choice but to move into a different sort of life.
I went back in memory to my two trips to Spain to pursue flamenco and remembered the state of extreme euphoria that I experienced both times. Once, when I described my feelings from those trips to a friend back in Vancouver, she was certain that either alcohol, drugs or sex was the culprit behind the mystery. When I assured her that none were present on the stage of reality, she didn’t believe me. This experience was a bit of a mystery to myself as well. Here I was, all by myself, in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, taking dance classes that went over my head. I should have felt lonely, alienated, frustrated with my limited dance abilities. To top it off, on my first trip, it rained and south of Spain was having unusual cold weather. The apartment I rented didn’t have adequate heating and electricity went out several times. Things were breaking left right and center, when it wasn’t the washing machine, it was the oven or the water heater. Cold showers, cold rain and a washing machine that was eating my clothes didn’t put a dent in my mood. I did have moments of loneliness, feelings of yearning for my children especially. I did have moments of frustration and alienation. But overall I was overwhelmed with an elation where I thought I was walking on clouds most of time. When it rained, I wore my Vancouver gortex jacket and went outside singing “I am dancing in the rain” to the tune of “I am singing in the rain”. When the electricity went out in the apartment, I purchased candles and admired how romantic my apartment felt. When the washing machine ate my t-shirts, I simply threw them out and purchased a cheap batch of new ones. I would lying if I told you that I found a positive spin on taking cold showers when the heater broke, but even that didn’t put a dent in my mood. This puzzle was nagging me in the back of my mind for a long time. It wasn’t even a fluke of circumstance. Since on both trips the same mysterious phenomenon occurred. Now that the unemployed me had plenty of time and with my happiness shattered to smithereens I decided it would be helpful to sit down and reflect on what happened and research these two trips for clues that might help me rebuild a new happiness chip to place inside my brain.
Clue number one: the dummy factor. I don’t speak Spanish which meant that most of the time I was the dummy that didn’t understand what was going on around me. It also meant that I wasn’t able to contribute to any conversation except with smiles and friendly nodes. More importantly I couldn’t read the newspapers nor listen to the news on the radio. Which meant that for several weeks I was completely in the dark with regards to world events. When you are Iraqi with relatives living in Palestine there is something on the news daily to depress you.
Clue Number Two: observer effect. When you are in a foreign country, you get to witness all sorts of things, but you have no way of assessing them. In Seville for example, I kept bumping into religious processions or people practicing for them with elaborate floats and outfits and trumpets playing. It was interesting to watch, even intriguing. But as a foreigner I have no clue as to the significance of these procession or any insight as why people were participating in them with such intensity. The way some people consume alcohol for breakfast, the way everybody seems to be flirting with everybody else, including married people. Things that might disturb me or bug me on more familiar turf, were simply observed with curiosity and not judged. When the elderly coffee shop owner where I frequently had my breakfast asked me to marry his son after extoling his virtues; instead of telling him that he was insane. I simply responded with “Your son seems like a very nice and intelligent man but I am already married and I have three children” then I proceeded to show him family pictures. Who knows? Perhaps I misunderstood him with my limited Spanish and perhaps he wasn’t asking what I thought he was asking. Perhaps it was some kind of a joke, or maybe a common friendly gesture that is not to be taken seriously. In a foreign country, there is a moral ambiguity because there is no frame reference to judge things by.
Clue Number Three: novelty of ordinary things effect. While in Spain my café con leche tasted so good each and every day. I would wander around the city of Seville and feel mesmerized by every building I passed. A simple toast with jam in a coffee shop tasted like a prized treat. Even the graffiti on the walls of the grittier parts of Jerez seemed interesting and I don’t like graffiti. I would ease drop on the conversations of people around me and enjoy the musicality of Spanish language even though I didn’t understand what they were saying. The novelty of everything leads to greater enjoyment of simple activities. Buying a yogurt at the corner store turns into an adventure.
Clue Number Four: Walking effect. Since I didn’t have a car while in Spain I ended up doing lots of walking. In fact, on most days I walked for hours.
After contemplating my experiences in Spain I came up with a self-made recipe to help me heal my broken heart. I would pretend I was a foreigner in my own city and pretend that I was experiencing everything for the first time, suspending judgement about it. I would greatly reduce news consumption to once a week instead of daily and even then limit it to a quick browse instead of detail read. I would go for long walks and make an effort admiring beauty wherever I saw it. My last ingredient for self-made heal a broken heart remedy was a nightly visualization that I came up with that had nothing to do with Spain, but seemed to help. Every night, before going to sleep, I would visualize that my heart is dark box. Then I would visualize that a ray of light was coming through and over time filling the dark room. I would to sleep imagining that the light was spreading throughout my body.
“You are the equivalent of three men put together, I am not worried about you”, said my father to me one day to me addressing my new state. Indeed, I have been a pillar of strength until that point. Facing each difficulty by rolling up my sleeves and going about the business of dealing with it.
“Unless is the worry word of the English Language.” Tells us Carol Shields in her novel to explain the unusual title. “ It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence. Unless- that’s the little subjunctive mineral you carry along in your pocket crease. It’s always there, or else not there. (If you add a capital s to unless, you get Sunless, or Sans Soliel, a very odd Chris Marker film.)
Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you’re clear about your sexual direction, unless you’re offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair. Unless provides you with a trapdoor, a tunnel into light, the reverse side of not enough.”
It is a good thing that Carol Shields wrote her novel about the middle aged woman, because my version would have been called Despite. Despite the fact that I am a woman, despite the fact that I am an Arab, despite my country of origin, despite my circumstance, despite other people’s expectations of me, despite of what the world might think, despite my short comings, despite is the declarative word of the English language. It announces itself like an elephant in a room, you might choose to ignore it, but it will force itself into your attention span weather you like it or not. Despite, is the samurai sword you carry in your scabbard ready to unleash at a moments notice. If you remove the d and e from despite it becomes spite a word that reminds me of a fantastic Kathy Bates movie called Delores Claiborne. Despite leads you into victory, up the mountain, all the way to the top. Enough is never enough, there is always more to be had. Despite is the reverse side of defeat.
That afternoon when my father told me that I had the strength of three men put together I told him that he was right, but I was sick and tired of being strong. I was now on a new mission to explore my fragile side.