Another world

Other people’s words about … Cairo

Sunlight was streaming through the shutters. I peered down into the street where a cat was sunbathing on a parked car. Friday morning was always the most peaceful time of the week in Istanbul Street. The doorman’s wife sat on the kerb watching her ragged child play in the clouds of pollen and dust. [My weekend away from Cairo] seemed a world away, a movie I watched last year. Cairo is so encompassing that when you are there all other realities seem to fade away. I thought of Hatton Garden and it seemed surreal that at that very moment crowds of London commuters were heading to work in the rain. It felt impossible that the two places could exist at the same time.

From ‘Playing Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City
by Hugh Miles

Many years ago, in another life, I spent about six months living in Cairo. I had happened there by chance, at the suggestion of my boyfriend at the time, who spoke a smattering of Arabic. We lived in the centre of the city, away from the ex-pat community, in a dusty fourth-floor apartment with faded red velvet sofas that gave off great puffs of dust whenever one of us sat down on them. At night, when we switched on the lights in the darkened bedroom, there was the sound of a thousand cockroaches scuttling out of view. The view from the rickety balcony was of life on the street below: the storekeeper of the small general store where we bought bottled water, washing down his front doorstep with water and a broom; the ta’ameya man at his food stand, stirring his big metal spoon through a great dented tin bowl of smoking hot oil.

I left Cairo as I came to it — by chance, at someone else’s bidding. I knew even then that I would never go back. For those few months in Cairo, I had not lived as a tourist, as most Westerner visitors do. Not exactly. Not quite. Cairo was in me, and on me, in a very physical, a very literal, sense: its grime lay in thick strips of black beneath my fingernails; its dust coated my skin. The city had, for those few months, as Hugh Miles so succinctly puts it, encompassed me.

And so I left, and I did not go back.

I found some old photos from that time recently, ones I took with an old camera, in those pre-digital years. I don’t have a scanner and so in order to reproduce them here, I actually used my camera to rephotograph those photographs. This accounts for their odd, slightly removed, unreal aspect — for, as well as Cairo in these pictures, you can see the glare from my window right here in Australia, the bend in the photographic paper.

I was going to apologise for this, originally. And then it occurred to me that in fact, this aspect of distance and remove is exactly right. In this context, it is right.

And so, no apologies today — just a glimpse into another world, a very long way away from here and from now.

You are not special

Other people’s words about … transformation

I looked out the window at the station. I had the sense that something in my life had ended [since my diagnosis], my image of myself as a whole or normal person maybe. I realised my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and that there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform the suffering into something useful. Nothing would. I thanked my mother for the lift to the station and got out of the car.

From ‘Conversations with Friends’
by Sally Rooney

I’ve written before about sickness and my own experiences of it (here, for example). What I like about Rooney’s words are the way she addresses what I believe is our culture’s pernicious need to make sense of our physical suffering and of our ills.

There are many, many ways we may try to do this. Some of us, for example, tell ourselves there must be a reason for our pain or our illness. Some of us tell ourselves that our condition makes us special, or different, or somehow better than we might otherwise have been if we hadn’t experienced it. Some of us try to see our condition as character-building. And some of us believe that if we talk about it, or write about it, we can make something useful of the suffering that it causes us, and of our lives.

But I think Rooney is right. There is no reason for illness and pain and suffering — not really. These things are, as she calls them, a mundane fact of our existence.

I don’t think this is a depressing realisation — or, at least, I don’t think it has to be — and I wish I had figured it out for myself a long time ago. The important thing, I think, is to accept the truth of your situation, however far away it is from the one you would prefer, and then to get on with the business of living your life — however you choose, however you can, however it happens to you.

Because the light will always filter through, if you look for it hard enough …

How to live well

Other people’s words about … health and wellbeing

My Top 10 Tips for Health and Wellbeing

  • Listen to your body
  • Keep moving
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Read the small print
  • Eat out less; cook at home more
  • Reconnect with nature
  • Reduce your stress
  • Appreciate the simple things
  • Share the love
  • Be grateful

from ‘Feel Good Good
by Valli Little

I am fascinated by other people’s tips for living well. I like Valli Little’s suggestions above, which are simple and practical, and come from years of experience.

My own strategies for living well vary, depending on my mood, but here are my current top ten:

1. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. And some cake.

2. Move — however you can, whatever your physical limitations.

3. Step outside.

4. Read books.

5. Spend time with people you love. Let them know you love them.

6. Know that happiness and sadness are like the clouds and the wind. They blow in. They blow out.

7. Practise gratitude for how things are. Don’t fret about how they could be.

8. Enjoy solitude. Know that you can survive loneliness.

9. Cultivate humility.

10. Find things …

… that make your heart sing.

Reading Elizabeth Taylor (again)

Other people’s words

I’ve talked before about the writer Elizabeth Taylor: her pithy, devastating prose.

How’s this?

The town seemed to her to be England at its worst, full of people trying to enjoy themselves and not managing it for various reasons — perhaps chiefly those of the weather and the deeply-rooted dullness it had caused.

from ‘The Soul of Kindness
by Elizabeth Taylor

One sentence says so much, doesn’t it?