Homeless

It doesn’t feel like anything else. I feel like someone who has been unconscious for years and has suddenly woken up to another reality, another world I am unfamiliar with. As everything else is so new, so alien – and since I cannot remember the past – I don’t now know what to do, or how to handle that strange feeling of emptiness inside me.

It is not similar to what I felt after the death of my father who passed away in my arms at the end of a protracted struggle with another illness. Yes, my father died at a relatively young age; still, he had lived life to the full. We knew why the illness chose him; he had called it upon himself. He had turned a blind eye to doctors’ advice and opted for a prolonged, slow suicide. But he wasn’t five-and-a-half years old. The life he had was probably longer than the life he would have had.

Luca, on the other hand, was not there yet. As the famous Turkish poet (indeed a close friend of my father) Cemal Sureya said, “every death is an early death”, but he has not had enough of life to be able to say “keep the change”. Not to mention the fact that he did not give up on the future voluntarily. There was no known cause for his disease. The angel of death, who selects one among 1 million children every year, had decided to fill his annual quota with him.

Thus, what you feel doesn’t look like what you would feel when you lose somebody you love, even one of your parents. Since the memories you have collected are limited, when you close your eyes, what punctures darkness is not happy moments or memories. The last few weeks, the last day, in fact the last night – that indescribable, excruciating last night – creep through every single hole, like a lethal chemical gas, filling the void and asphyxiating every bit of emotion it encounters. It leaves only an eviscerated, soulless shell behind.

Of course life goes on. You don’t want to stay in bed the whole day. You cannot sleep anyway. Alcohol, anti-depressants, or different combinations of these don’t work. You don’t want to stay alone, because whenever you do, the chemical gas returns. Just for the sake of living, you are obliged to get by. You try to distract yourself and build a routine that reeks of “the normal”.

And you do. You spend time with close friends who won’t make you tell the story from the beginning and don’t repeat clichés like “words fail us” or “there is no way to describe your grief” (not that they are wrong or you don’t appreciate them; they are a thousand times better than utter silence); you eat, drench your suffering in alcohol, watch the World Cup. Then, suddenly, while chatting about something trivial, you find yourself talking about him. “He loved football too. When he grows up, he’ll play football probably”, you say, and take a pause there. What did I say? Did I use past tense? “Loved football?” Did I say, “when he grows up”? But he won’t grow up. And you reach for another bottle of beer.

Even when you realise you are being emotional, in fact simply irrational, your compass is him. You want Sweden to be defeated by England for example. When they concede a goal, you rejoice. Then you remember that only a few days ago, you were rooting for Sweden – how you were explaining Swedish jerseys to him. “Like the Minions. They have the same colours as the Minions”. He laughs, feels a sudden joy. “Minions!”, he says. Grandfather, grandmother, bonus grandmother cheer for Sweden shouting, “Go Minions!” He wants to stand up, to jump. He cannot. Because he cannot stand up.

When that memory interrupts your fragile routine, your attempts to reconstruct a new “normal”, you collapse. You are instantly detached from the present, your surroundings, even the whole world. If your friends are close enough, they notice it and bring you back to the present, quietly. You return, until the next interruption.

Some time after, you start reflecting on some of the things someone you care about told you, “slowly, step by step”. Or the gentle reminders of his doctors, a mantra you have memorised over the years, “one day at a time”. That all sounds reasonable but weren’t we supposed to get rid of this when all is over, one way or another? Weren’t we going to be able to re-establish the link between the past, present and the future? Why can’t I still make plans about the future? Why don’t I want to remember the past at all?

The present? Well, it is the incarnation of Dante’s Inferno. I have already passed through the door upon which the words “Abandon all hope, ye who enter” (Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate) are inscribed. I have started travelling down the concentric circles of hell. I have been conversing with sinners and damned souls hoping to come to terms with anger and the feeling of injustice. Knowing of course that no matter what I do, I cannot bring him back.

As I know that I cannot go back home, that there is no home anymore, that I have lost my sense of belonging, the only thing I believed in, the deepest and most genuine love of my life.

💚

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A grim view of…

She sipped her drink. “People don’t have any mercy. They tear you limb from limb, in the name of love. Then, when you’re dead, when they’ve killed you by what they made you go through, they say you didn’t have any character. They weep big, bitter tears— not for you. For themselves, because they’ve lost their toy.”

“That’s a terribly grim view,” he said, “of love.”

“I know what I’m talking about. That’s what most people mean, when they say love.” She picked up a cigarette and waited for him to light it.

James Baldwin, Another Country

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A love like no others

A dark hospital room illuminated only by the dim light emanating from the IV drip he is attached to day and night, the silence interrupted by the odd beeping of the machines when the quiet flow of the “toxic cure” is blocked. A frail, pain-stricken body tossing and turning in bed restlessly, hugging a brown or blue monkey in search of a sense of security.

The concomitant loss of the sense of time and space. The past reset since that fateful day when you walked into the room where you are told by a caring doctor that the “entity” they discovered is malign; the future vanishing into thin air when you realize that all you can do is to go through one day at a time; eternally trapped in the present, trapped into now and here, trying to make the best out of it, or to avoid the worst of it. A calendar dotted not by festive days, but by weekly or monthly intervals, depending on the type of treatment he is currently on, in between the start and end days. An episodic existence indexed on “good” times and “bad” times, an itinerant life where “being home” is a luxury you cannot always afford.

Notes detailing which medication needs to be given when and at which dose, a list growing uncontrollably as side effects of chemotherapy kick in; text messages between mamma and baba outlining the “symptoms of the day” or offering a tally of the quantity of food and liquid he has consumed, accompanied by a smile when the figures are relatively high; the unique joy you feel when the number of meds he is on is going down while the quantity of food he consumes is increasing, sometimes to the point where you enjoy the “very bearable lightness” of not counting.

The dismal realization, which mostly hits when you are alone or while watching the little angel sleeping, that this is his “normal” life, the only life he has known – a life where he can only attend birthday parties of his friends or take a swim in the pool when his blood counts allow for it; where plasters or bandages covering the countless punctures in his frail body turn into an object of obsession he cannot live without. The intense feeling of revolt and the profound anger that gradually become the “wallpaper” of your existence, running in the background of everything you do; the often unfulfilled quest for compassion – not differential treatment or pity. Just pure, simple compassion.

All this combined with a firm determination to persevere against all odds, defying statistics and resolutely chasing miracles. Encouraged by his superhuman strength, his “epic” struggle; rewarded by his boundless happiness and his disarming smile; motivated by his eagerness to turn every ordeal into a game where the good guys always win, where the Green Ninja defeats the Snake or the Great Devourer, where Minecraft Alex triumphs over the Skeleton or the Zombies. A hero who doesn’t mind learning to swallow pills while his peers play hide and seek in kindergarden; a little big man who thinks being bald is “cool”; a “peaceful” warrior who ponders over his next lego project while surrendering his teeny-weeny finger to the nurse for his 1500th blood test.

A boy with a will to live like there is no tomorrow. Maybe there is no tomorrow. Maybe he knows something that we, adults, don’t know. Maybe he has a mission, a purpose to show us all that life, however fleeting it may be, has a meaning that transcends time and space as well as the worldly and the spiritual.

For us, his family, he simply means “love”. But a love like no others.

Luca la Rambla

Poetry is loving… Silently

3.

Friendship or love involves opening up.

Baring the heart of one to let in the fire of the other.

It is self-obliteration in favour of the other.

Where there is a seed of suspicion there is distrust.

Where both are rock-bottom weak and harmless,

There will grow a joint strength to protect the duo.

Since even I distrust myself at times, most times

A friendship that gives one some other soul

Who is as foolish as one is just too good to miss.

DNTABAN2010A

Dedicated to those whose love crosses the boundaries of “time and space”…

Taban Lo Liyong, untitled, in The Words that Melt a Mountain

Nothing compares to you

Let’s get on with the theme, shall we?

I had written in one of my previous posts, “Black”, that some songs become synonymous with a period or a moment of our lives. They come and go, rather quickly, like most feelings that are subject to the whims of time. Sometimes you revisit them just to remember those moments and feelings. Sometimes you avoid them like vampires avoid the light, because they remind you things you have tried so hard to forget; they would “burn” you like daylight supposedly burns the mythical vampires.

One such song for me was “Nothing compares to you”, made famous by Sinead O’Connor and the memorable video she shot for it. I wasn’t aware that the song was written by Prince, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The song has come to symbolize my break-up with my first big love. Well, being dumped by my first big love, after a 3.5 months relationship. The year was 1989.

I grew up of course. Not only biologically but also mentally and emotionally. Yet I have never managed to conquer my aversion to, no blatant hatred for, that song. I listened to the original by Prince; nah, didn’t work! Then the 1980s had a comeback and the radio stations started playing it over and over again. I zapped and zapped. To be honest, I never liked the person Sinead O’Connor turned into either. That purist Catholicism, the patronizing public letter she wrote to Miley Cyrus…

Then the leaves of our youth started to fall one by one in 2017. Bowie, Cohen, Prince himself, and countless others. Some deaths of famous people touch us more than others – guess this is a familiar feeling for many. We know how traumatic Kurt Cobain’s suicide was for many in his generation. Well for me, it began with Freddie Mercury (yes, I am old!); then Heath Ledger and last year particularly Bowie and Chris Cornell! A man I was barely listening to; a man some of whose songs I detested (“Black Hole Sun”). But his suicide, for a reason that must surely relate to my personal life at that time, had a lot of resonance. I started reading about him; his past depression, his record of drug abuse. I couldn’t get my head around the fact: why would a successful, happily married father (at least as it appears from the outside) can do this? To himself, that’s easier to fathom. To his loved ones? Hours after giving a concert with his group. When, apparently, nothing seemed wrong.

I guess, the famous aphorism holds true: we can never know what’s in a wo/man’s mind.

During my week long obsession with Cornell, I bumped into one of his recent live acoustic recordings. For the online radio station SiriusXM. Guess what it was? An amazing cover of Nothing Compares to You! I thought, this cannot be a coincidence. I know, you won’t expect such spiritual sentences from the arch-constructivist, but I have become much more spiritual after my son’s illness.

So yes, this couldn’t be a coincidence. I had to make peace with that song after 28 years. And I did. With the wisdom of knowing that nothing could be further from the truth than the title of the song. Of course, “they” can be compared to each other, our loved ones. People may be unique in their own ways; feelings are not…

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuUDRU9-HRk

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On love and constructivism

It was the beginning of the 2000s. God knows why, I have decided to write my first single-authored academic article on “ethnosymbolism”, the particular approach to nationalism developed by non other than the late Anthony D. Smith, the doyen of nationalism studies, my instructor at the LSE, the person who taught me most I know on nations and nationalism. (No, no, don’t worry, this is not an essay on nationalism of course! It is on love and constructivism).

Anyway, as if it was not foolish enough to pen a scathing critique of his theoretical perspective, I have submitted it to the journal he was editing! Great thinking, right? To my surprise, the article had good reviews and eventually published. And, naturally, Anthony smashed it into little pieces in a short reply (though, to this day, I believe I won the argument but that’s another question).

My kamikaze mission contained a passage comparing nationalism to love, individual love, in the context of a discussion on constructivism:

According to Smith, artefacts cannot generate passion. Are we to assume that only “genuine”, “authentic” things can generate passion then? What is genuine and authentic anyway? Take love. Is it real or constructed? Do we love someone because he or she is the real, the authentic partner for us? Do we [continue to] love that person because the myths, symbols and memories of our relationship have a long history? How do we manage to forget that person and carry on in case we are dumped? How do we manage to love someone else if he or she [was] ‘the authentic’ partner? The answer obviously is that love is something we have created in our minds, but also something we feel. The fact that our feelings are the products of some complicated cognitive processes does not make them less real to us. The same goes for the love of the nation, and in fact any other kind of love, of God, of family, and so on. It is Anthony Smith who reminds us of Durkheim’s famous dictum and rightly so: ideas, once born, have a life of their own.

Anthony’s reply to this passage was rather unexpected:

As they may indeed be prepared to die for “love”. Here Dr Ozkirimli treats us to a charming excursus on the reality or constructedness of individual love, even if we may not in the end wholly agree with his conclusion that the fact that “our feelings are the product of some complicated cognitive processes does not make them less real for us”. Love as the product of cognition? Surely, a cosmopolitan philosopher’s dream.

Now, how on earth did Anthony link my metaphor to cosmopolitanism, I don’t know. What I was trying to say was quite simple: Love, or any other feeling for that matter, is contructed in the sense that it is “cognitive”. Oxford English Dictionary defines cognition, in its philosophical sense, as “The action or faculty of knowing taken in its widest sense, including sensation, perception, conception, etc., as distinguished from feeling and volition” and adds “A product of such an action: a sensation, perception, notion, or higher intuition”.

In other words, cognition which I claim is the root cause of love involves “sensations, perceptions, conceptions” which, depending on our needs, expectations, our strengths and vulnerabilities at a particular moment, develop into, in fact morph into love, anger, hatred, you name it. Don’t external circumstances matter? Of course they do. A beautiful woman, a handsome man, individual intellect and humour can and do act as a trigger or catalyst. But we don’t fall in love with every beautiful, handsome, intelligent, humorous person on earth, do we? When we do fall in love, that is our mind, our thoughts, our perceptions and sensations – in short our cognition – which do the job. We create the object of our love. We embellish it. And all this is not always experienced (even though sometimes it is) at a conscious level. It just happens. And, this is the part Anthony chose to conveniently disregard, it is real. The euphoria is real; the ups and downs are real; the suffering is real – in their effects.

Let us not go into a discussion on the notions of “truth”, “reality”. If you have ever been in love, you would know what “real” means under those circumstances. If you lose someone you love, your suffering is the only “truth” that matters. All I am saying is, this is all in our minds. Not hearts. The heart pumps the blood that is necessary to do certain things love requires. The mind falls in love; the mind falls out of love. The mind is that which creates love and the object of love, with all its reality.

Perhaps then, the French novelist Stendhal who produced the theory of crystallization was the first constructivist?

Leave a lover with his thoughts for twenty-four hours, and this is what will happen: At the salt mines of Salzburg, they throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later they haul it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig…is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable. What I have called crystallisation is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.

Unknown

Black

Some of these days you’ll miss me honey…

Do you know the song? Or maybe I should ask, have you ever listened to it? Because I didn’t know of the song until I saw the lyrics in Sartre’s Nausea. Repeated several times. I had read the book when I was quite young – no, not at an age you should be reading French existentialist novels! – and naturally, all I remember are glimpses.. One of the protagonists sitting in the park and observing a tree (“How could one devote so many pages to this?” was my first reflection of course) and these lyrics. Some of these days you’ll miss me honey…

Oddly, perhaps understandably given my adolescent boredom while reading the book, I have never listened to the song. Never even checked what it was, who sang it and all. Apparently, it was an old song from 1910, covered by many singers. Nothing special about it if you ask me, but… It must have meant something to Sartre. There must be a reason he chose that song and not another.

My completely non-scientific theory is, he was listening to it while working on his novel, that’s it! Probably it didn’t mean much to him; at least I would like to believe so. Or it did mean something that pertained to the period he was writing.

Some songs mean something only some times, and not others. You may already know the song; you may have accidentally noticed it. Who knows. But for one reason or another they become synonymous with a period (should I say “moment”?) of your life. They come and go. You don’t want to listen to them later because they might remind you things you have tried so hard to forget. Or you do listen to them just to remember those moments. Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about extended periods in one’s life, when one is obsessed with a certain kind of music, certain bands or singers. Just one song, just a very short period of time. Days, maybe one or two weeks. Until you move on.

I had written about such a moment, at hospital with him, when we had danced frantically over Jethro Tull’s “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day” – hardly a dance song, I know. But a happy one since it made him smile.

I met the song of this period of my life accidentally, while fooling around on youtube. Eddie Vedder was singing it acoustically in Firenze, as a tribute to Chris Cornell who died last year. I didn’t know they were good friends. I didn’t know that it was Chris Cornell who convinced Vedder, a surfer in San Diego, to come to rainy Seattle to audition for a new band. Vedder recorded three songs as a demo and sent them to Seattle. They told him to come over via Cornell. He recorded three songs but wrote lyrics for one more, a ballad composed by the guitarist Stone Gossard who called it “E Ballad” until Vedder wrote the lyrics.

The group was Pearl Jam. The song that would make it to their debut album was “Black”. They never made a video for it; Eddie Vedder refused, believing that it would kill the song. When asked the story behind it, he said: “The song is about letting go. It’s very rare for a relationship to withstand the Earth’s gravitational pull and where it’s going to take people and how they’re going to grow. I’ve heard it said that you can’t really have a true love unless it was a love unrequited. It’s a harsh one, because then your truest one is the one you can’t have forever.”

When he sang “Black” with a very enthusiastic crowd in Firenze, he changes the end of the lyrics and calls out to Chris Cornell… “Come back! Come back!” The third “come back” is barely heard. While he cries.

Hey, oh
Sheets of empty canvas
Untouched sheets of clay
Were laid spread out before me
As her body once did
All five horizons
Revolved around her soul
As the earth to the sun
Now the air I tasted and breathed
Has taken a turn

Oh and all I taught her was everything
Oh I know she gave me all that she wore
And now my bitter hands
Chafe beneath the clouds
Of what was everything
Oh the pictures have
All been washed in black
Tattooed everything
I take a walk outside
I’m surrounded by
Some kids at play
I can feel their laughter
So why do I sear
Oh, and twisted thoughts that spin
Round my head
I’m spinning
Oh, I’m spinning
How quick the sun can, drop away

And now my bitter hands
Cradle broken glass
Of what was everything
All the pictures had
All been washed in black
Tattooed everything
All the love gone bad
Turned my world to black
Tattooed all I see
All that I am
All I’ll be

Yeah
I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life
I know you’ll be a star
In somebody else’s sky
But why
Why
Why can’t it be
Why can’t it be mine

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2GcJ32m13Y

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The void

“My heart is void.” For some time, I thought it wasn’t. I thought I found true love – the meaning of life some say. I felt I belonged. The love had a name. His name was Luca.

My love was unlucky. A rare disease found him. He was only 11 months old. He fought bravely for 3.5 years. The beast was strong; he was stronger. There were times the doctors lost their hope. There were times everybody lost their hope. He has proven them wrong. For how long, we don’t know. But right now, he is a happy, healthy boy.

I am not. Therapists call this “compassion fatigue” or “burnout”. I need to stay afloat; I need to heal. And the only way to heal, at least for me, is to write. Not useless academic crap. Not equally useless repetitive op-eds. Just write. About Luca, about his struggle, about our struggle… About life and most of all, my life.

Why share? Because I have never written for myself only. And maybe, maybe there will be things in our story that others facing a similar fate would find useful.

That’s all really.

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