“Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique….Every man’s foremost task is the actualisation of his unique, unprecedented, and never recurring possibilities…”Martin Buber
It’s way past noon and I should have read my afternoon prayers hours ago. Too late, my nephew has decided to repurpose my prayer mat and meditation cushion for his own recreational purposes. He often does this and I never have the heart to pull him away from his favourite blanket, reading his book under its cover. His outline looks like the drawing in Le Petit Prince of a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant. I can no longer hide in my room alone anymore, before long there’s always a knock on the door as he settles into his favourite spots like a little cat. He can crawl into the smallest spaces but the largest space that he occupies is always in my heart.
The chaos of COVID has given him an opportunity of transformation that he might not have otherwise had. He’s a special child whose needs set him apart from his siblings and peers. A stranger observing him during his once epic meltdowns may have considered him anti-social, a troublemaker, a nuisance even. Had he been born in the US, he would have surely been put on medication by now to control his behaviour by chemical means. Yet, the irony is that it’s chemicals and artificially grown food that were the main triggers for his inability to cope with the sensory overload of daily life. Noisy venues, bright lights and crowds add an extra burden to his nervous system. Now that the whole world is being pushed to go inwards, he can finally relax and enjoy life outside for once.
The simple act of changing his diet and bracing through the discomfort of taking away his favourite foods has paved a path for him that none of us could have imagined. When the second television purchased broke (to replace the one before that) it wasn’t replaced. Time spent in front of the tv has been replaced by long walks in nature and sitting on swings. His mind, body and soul have begun the slow journey back to health as the neural networks in his brain and gut continue to gather strength. I’ve watched him transform from a chronically unhappy and misunderstood little boy into a carefree happy little soul.
It’s a blessing from God that most people don’t feel every touch, taste, smell, sound that can assault the senses from living in urban spaces. It would overwhelm the nervous system and daily life would become burdensome. On the other end of the spectrum are people who have become so numb to what they see around them that they no longer feel anything. Maybe the events of 2020 have taught us that skewed ethics in the world of medicine, pharmaceuticals and food companies that have normalised corrupt practices can no longer be ignored. With food intolerances and allergies increasingly on the rise, it’s an obvious sign that young bodies are rejecting food grown from seeds that repel creatures of the earth and become sterile after just one use. It’s our greatest hope that there are greater forces at play than those who are solely driven by profits at whatever cost, to rebalance the effects of all that is unnatural in our world.
I have no scientific evidence or peer to peer reviews to prove what I know to be true, only the anecdotal evidence that therapists share with desperate parents looking for a solution for their children. Obscured facts, unanswered questions and hidden solutions found by the grace of God are all part of the journey. The simple act of doing daily sensory exercises to increase his upper body strength while reducing tactile sensitivity have brought much needed solace and calm into our family home. Ahmed’s personality can finally shine after many years of confusion. My day begins early with his brightness and laughter, though he is starting to learn that Auntie can’t reciprocate his enthusiasm so early in the morning. ‘Shhh.. we have to be quiet!’ he parrots back to me as he jumps on my bed and makes lazy mornings a distant memory. He’ll be the first to stand at the door when I come home and the first to cry when I leave. When I do eventually return, I get the rare treat of a hug when the pain of separation becomes greater than the fear of closeness.
I finally have a companion in the family home, another wanderer and procurer of Divine mysteries. We listen to the same music, and he pretends to read the same books, looking at the grey pages of endless words as if deep in contemplation. His growing collection of books sit next to my pile upon pile of hardbacks and paperbacks that I’ve collected in my years of travelling. A lover of trains, he looks disappointingly at Dostoyevsky’s ‘Notes from Underground‘ hoping each time that he opens it that the words of a cranky old civil servant will magically turn into the colourful map of the London Underground that he already knows off by heart.
He didn’t talk for the first five years of his life and now he’s making up for lost time. Yet in all those years he’s always been speaking a secret language that few understand. He constantly makes noise to drown out the noises around him, his brain perceiving them louder than the rest of us. The few words he can speak have been learnt through repetition as his brain expends a lot of energy to co-ordinate the muscles of his tongue to make the sounds he wants to. Instead he communicates through his actions, making it difficult to know if he’s in physical pain or psychological stress. The simple act of teething is a ritual all children must go through but for a child who can’t tell you he’s in pain, life becomes a lottery in which they can only hope that the adults around them can put the pieces of the puzzle together.
He hates change and so if there’s a change in plan or delay to the day, the quickest way to make him smile again is to impersonate a train announcement. The hardest part of lockdown was being separated from train carriages travelling at high speed through the English countryside, his face mesmerised by the same scenes over and over again. When a plane flies overhead, he’ll rush to the garden and crane his neck to see which airline it is. We try and guess where it’s going. He can name the main tourist attractions in London, Paris, New York, Istanbul and Islamabad. I wonder if my favourite places will become his favourite too. But I don’t have to guess about Istanbul. Like a bee to a flower, all things Turkish bring him endless delight. Maybe it’s because he travelled there with his parents before he was even born. It is said that an unborn baby recognises its father’s touch on its mother’s belly. In the same way maybe his soul recognises the places he went to before he made his entrance into this world. It’s always intrigued me why we’re pulled to places and cultures other than our own, like a Divine push to rediscover parts of ourselves in places that reawaken us to our true nature.
Now that COVID has effectively ended my care-free days of travelling, I am looking closer to home for new adventures. And there is no greater adventure than nurturing a child and watching them grow through all the joys and challenges that they experience. Taking a temporary hiatus from social justice, my decision to devote my time on focusing on one precious child has transformed my life in unimaginable ways and helped me to overcome my own fears of giving and receiving love.
If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one life the aching
Or cool one pain
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again
I shall not live in vain.Emily Dickinson
Descriptions of unconditional love are usually related to parental love towards a child. But in reality, I’m starting to realise that it’s actually children that love their parents and the adults around them unconditionally. Until a certain age anyway. If they’re lucky they’ll grow up to be secure adults otherwise they’ll spend the rest of their lives trying to make the distinction between unhealthy and toxic connections from reciprocal loving attachments. Young children often overlook mistakes, fumbles and misunderstandings in a second and start afresh the next day. My nephew is my greatest teacher in unconditional love and infinite patience.
It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while you come across a spiritual teacher with a dose of pragmatism of the challenges of everyday life. I think of a Sufi teacher who once told me that every child born into a family is born with a God-like quality that is much needed, but often not appreciated. In order to fit in, the child suppresses its natural qualities to fit in and become the person they are expected to be. It usually takes a crisis in adulthood before the will of the Divine finally takes precedence and the original quality given to that person is rediscovered. The process of polishing and reconnecting with this quality is what often leads a person to their calling. If they were rejected for it, it only means that there are unknown people waiting to benefit from it. Otherwise why would they have been given it?
After a particularly challenging day recently, I was facing a difficult choice in facing a situation head on or taking up an offer of a more comfortable position. As I toyed with my options, I remembered a book I’d picked up of a London Rabbi returning to pre-1989 Germany to face his childhood memories of the rise of Nazism. Taking a sabbatical from his congregation, they’re stunned when he chooses Berlin over the obvious choice of Jerusalem for his time away. He argues that though the latter would bring him more joy, going back to Germany offered more scope for growth. For years he’d carried in his wallet a ripped up note in reply to a painful rejection from the philosopher Martin Buber. He’d decided he no longer wanted to carry the burdens of the past. The answer became clear, I needed to stay. For the time being anyway.
On the rare occasion that I do still go away, the days of my departure have to be marked on our shared calendar in aqua blue ink. I have to bribe him into letting me go with a promise of a short trip to the outskirts of the city to our favourite country park when I come back. We like to walk for a few miles to the top of a hill just to see the wide expanse of the city view, also his favourite spot to indulge in his favourite pastime of trainspotting.
Even more sensual light is kept from you
Inside your pupils, where you cannot view.
How will you see that Holy man’s pure light
When you can’t see the earth’s with your pure sight?
The sensual light is hidden from your eyes;
More hidden is that light beyond the skies.Masnavi II 1302-1307
Every evening we say ‘Bye bye blue sky, hello night sky’. He cries each time the sun disappears out of sight. I reassure him that it’ll come back eventually, it always does. Just like Auntie, who always comes back home after her travels. Only now, each time I carry my suitcase out the door my heart feels heavy knowing that there’s a little boy counting the days until I come back. One day I’ll have a home of my own and when I do, it’ll be me counting the days until I see him again. I’ll never lose my love of travelling, but perhaps I won’t be as frequent as flyer as I used to be. It’ll be him flying in the sky above, perhaps as a pilot or passenger, or maybe both. The family tradition will continue with him I’m sure. I think of my uncle who spent long periods living with my family between his travels and the treasures I collected from all the places he went to. There’s always one troublemaker in the family, and now there’s two of us. I smile as I look forward to the adventures that await us in the future.
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