Improbable

This time last year, I was found ruminating that it was likely impossible that amidst a population of sixty-seven million citizens my path would ever again cross with those I had once known. Of course, within months, that hypothesis was thoroughly blown out of the water by reality.

But should I really be surprised? A few years ago, my wife expressed her amazement that a former colleague of hers had settled in our sleepy market town. That in itself was not particularly amazing, though, for ours is a commuter town, last stop on the Metropolitan line out west. Many employees with jobs in London settle here, in search of relatively affordable housing.

More amazing, perhaps, was that when my wife invited him and his wife over for tea, we realised that I had known the couple long before she had. Whereas my wife had worked with the chap in the early 2000s, our paths had crossed in the late nineties when I had briefly attended their church in central London.

It turns out, though, that this is not particularly unusual or uncommon. In March I thought of a friend who lives in the Gulf one morning, and ended up having tea with him in London the very same evening. A few weeks ago, I anonymously wrote an ode to an old gentleman I once knew, and hours later his son commented on it. Oh yes, but that’s not the half of it.

Let’s face it: though we may not even know our neighbours ten doors down on the same street, let alone the residents of parallels streets, if the Lord of the universe wishes our paths to cross with another, even on the other side of the planet, it will happen. Even if we tell ourselves that it is impossible that we might bump into an old friend amidst the 8 billion souls that currently reside on planet earth, if we are meant to, we will.

Strange, but true. Much like life itself, which is far more improbable than these crossings of paths. Study the workings of the human cell if you don’t believe me, or the formation of a single amino acid. If your mind has been blown by paths crossed, wait until you’ve deeply pondered your own creation.

No prison

Frequently, while socialising with friends, conversations turn jokey, about how awful married life is. Analogies of prison are often invoked, causing much hilarity all around.

But I tend to be quite frank with friends at this point. I don’t relate to that vision at all. For me, marriage was and is a huge mercy, for which daily I am in awe.

It’s not that we live in pure bliss. We wind each other up at times. We don’t always see eye-to-eye. Perhaps we each have habits which annoy the other. But on balance, its good far outweighs anything negative.

For sure, after the honeymoon there were lemonmoons, gingermoons, peppermoons, chillimoons. Every period of life brings its trials and tests. As in life in general, there will always be ups and downs.

But for me, given all the burdens I carried before we met, our union was a gift so immense that only sincere gratitude seems a fitting response.

I’m sorry if that makes me a killjoy in moments of jovial play, but really, I could never belittle the generosity of the One who brought two strangers together, bestowing love and affection between us. In this, liberation, not constriction.

Misunderstandings

My detractors used to warn others, “Be careful or he’ll be after you,” as if I was a hunter in pursuit of prey. Perhaps it was my fault, for not understanding what my friend was on, or what he would say on my behalf. I thought he was from a very religious home like me, constrained by the same morality.

It turned out I was severely mistaken. Unfortunately, the first time this occurred to me was at our leaving party at a nightclub in town, witness to the behaviour of his friends. Perhaps that was the first time I wondered what had actually come out of his mouth in his defence of me months earlier. For sure, we were poles apart in our approach to life.

But I was not alone in misreading everything. I was from a very strict religious family, our home out in the affluent suburbs. My mother had just been ordained priest, working both as a chaplain at the hospital and at our local church, and my father was managing partner at the foremost firm of solicitors in the city.

There was no way in the world a kid as shy as me could be a hunter in pursuit of prey, seeking out conquests or one night stands. I was never, ever after anything like that at all, for my conduct was forever under scrutiny and subject to the high expectations of my parents and grandparents.

That’s not to say I wasn’t seeking companionship. I was, just like any young person, with blood pulsating through their veins. In truth, I was hoping to follow in my eldest brother’s footsteps, who met his lifelong partner while studying for his A-levels.

My problem, though, was seeking a companion sympathetic to the morality of my family. Foremost amongst them, that expectation of no intimacy before marriage — an expectation which seemed to fly in the face of the popular culture promoted all around us.

Unfortunately, that worry would be my downfall. For while the one I fell for — in my head alone — would probably have been sympathetic to that understanding, that was just the tip of the iceberg. In attempting to conform to my own family’s culture and high expectations, I had accidentally fallen foul of the cultural expectations of others, which turned out to be far more demanding than my own.

Alas, as my cross-cultural awareness was virtually nonexistent in those days, this was a reality I would not understand for years. It never once occurred to me that I was wandering amongst young women who might already have been promised to others. For all I know, some of them may even have been engaged. In any case, theirs was a culture of chastity.

But the misunderstandings were many in those days. It cut both ways. For while others perpetually warned against me, thinking me a predator after anyone like them, the subject of my crush was one alone. Well her, and Julia Roberts. In fact, friends witness to my infatuation tried to persuade me to take an interest in a friend of hers instead, but I could not be moved. Indeed, my devotion to her lasted long after we parted company, which seemingly couldn’t even be shaken by the shocking revelations of an old friend.

There were so many misunderstandings back then. Mostly they were my own. I misunderstood interactions and glances; an understatement, if ever there was one. I misunderstood words I overheard. I misunderstood the lingering stares that seemed to follow me around. Worse than that, I didn’t understand the cultural expectations of those I was wandering amongst. I was very naive in my understanding of the world, and undoubtedly patronising in my attitudes. Nor did I understand how I was perceived by others — only now, looking back on old photos in horror, can I see what they all saw.

But no matter. Perhaps those misunderstandings were good for us at the time. For me, they led to a lifelong mission to better understand others. I wasn’t content to rest on my laurels and revel in my ignorance. Instead, I set out on a road of discovery, which carried me far from home. In a way, though it was once so painful, I am grateful for those misunderstandings. In a way, they changed everything. In that we might say, “It’s all good.”

For sure, today I would apologise to those who were bothered by my eyes back then, when their focus was solely and squarely on their studies, laying foundations for the future. I would apologise too for my runaway heart, which could not be reasoned with, no matter how hard my detractors tried. If I encountered those folk today, I would certainly say, “Sorry for those misunderstandings.”

Bodies

I wonder. Do others ever look back on the past to question longheld assumptions, as I do? Do they ever ponder past interactions, wondering if they did the right thing? Do they ever wonder what happened to those whose paths they crossed? Do others wonder what became of those they once shared days and weeks and months with, long, long ago? Or are we just travellers, clambering over one another to get ahead? Are all we encountered immaterial? Just bodies, slipping out of view? I wonder.

Paths converge

We’re visiting friends today. Both my wife and her friend originate from the same region of eastern Turkey. They both married an English Muslim. Both of our families adopted. We both bought modest homes so as not to be saddled with a huge mortgage. We both invested in a place over there, while we could afford it. Seems we’re all aspiring to the same things, dreaming of life when the children finish their education, yearning for a different kind of existence. Interesting how paths converge.

Planners

We plan, but there’s always a better plan for us.

I remember that conversation with a friend in Southall in the early months of 2001, when he was asking me what kind of woman I one day hoped to marry. I told him I thought it best she be a convert like me. By that I meant somebody of a similar background: in my mind’s eye, an English or Irish girl.

But though we plan, what is written for us is infinitely better, its perfection unfolding as the years pass by. Just days later I would be introduced to a young woman who had embraced the deen anew at the same time as me, but she was neither English nor Irish, although my Irish grandmother could well have been descended from her people five thousand years ago.

Before we wet, I had no cognisance of her people at all. Nor was I familiar with the eastern Black Sea, or the diverse cultures of that land. To have been joined to that world: it still blows my mind daily. This shy man from Hull all of a sudden eniste to a sprawling family from a region of the world I knew nothing of.

I could never have imagined back then what a good fit our union would be, in so many ways. Although we faced significant opposition at the time — mostly because we were rushing into it — I was placing my trust in the One who brought us together. So it was that we were married four months after our first meeting.

Over the years since then, the blessings and mercy of our introduction have become ever more apparent, sometimes in truly inexplicable ways. Daily I can’t help whispering into her ear, “Thank you for marrying me.” To which she always replies, “Thank you for finding me.”

But the truth is, I didn’t find her. We were brought together by the One. I could have planned none of this at all, and that is the absolute truth.

Grateful

On reflection, there was so much my companions did for me in those early days, intent on smoothing the way for me. They facilitated my move from the my grotty flat opposite King’s Cross station to a flat share in an upmarket apartment in Waterloo.

They attempted to fix my body by prescribing a personal trainer, with whom I’d run early morning along the South Bank, then through the City and up to Primrose Hill workout park. Well intended, but it did not help, for we had all misdiagnosed what was wrong with me.

Those were the days of great hospitality and generosity, as strangers opened their hearts to me. Such different times to my first year and a half in London, which had severely tested me. Some relief after hardship. In those moments, lifelong friendships were forged, for which I will be forever grateful.

The coat

I remember that day at university when my new Muslim friends clubbed together to buy me a smart long woollen coat, to replace the threadbare jacket I was found wearing. It must have been shortly after my testimony of faith, when they didn’t yet know me very well. It’s amusing to think of it now, because they must have thought me to have been raised in poverty, going on my appearance: that skeletal frame of mine, gaunt face and worn-out clothes.

Funny, because it was those gifting me that expensive coat who were from deprived socio-economic backgrounds, whereas I had been raised in privilege. While two hundred miles north, my parents had just moved from their five-bedroom house in the affluent suburbs of Hull, to take up residence in a vicarage near York, my father was still driving his luxury saloon. By rights, I should have been the generous one, bestowing luxury gifts.

I wore that coat through the cold winters for the next few years. It kept me warm when I moved up to Scotland for my Masters degree. I may even still have been wearing it in the early days of my marriage. It was the most generous of gifts, so unexpected. May Allah reward those friends of mine, and always keep them warm as they kept me warm. May God shower blessings upon them and grant them a good return. May He always clothe them as they clothed me.

Probability

My parents were just telling me about miraculously bumping into a close friend of theirs from church while out and about seventy-five miles from home.

So we’re all walking that road, it seems, crossing paths, thinking to ourselves, “What is the chance of that?”

So much for those reflections a year ago, thinking it impossible that my path would ever again cross with people I once knew. Given the UK population is now above sixty million, I decided that was highly improbable.

But of course, in the intervening period that hypothesis has been shown to be completely false. What’s the probability of that?

Projections

Throughout my life, in understanding their actions towards me, I have projected assumed piety onto others. In my mind’s eye, I convince myself that their behaviour was justified, in upholding lofty principles or morals.

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A time comes

And another reflection. Perhaps all that surfaced would and could only surface when I was ready to forgive and be forgiven. Perhaps those realities could only materialise when I had set aside my bitter rancour, and found myself capable of viewing the world from another’s perspective, admitting that I was the one at fault. It’s as if the cosmos was waiting for me to acknowledge that, and then, “Wham! Here’s some reality for you to chew on!”

Blessings

Sometimes you don’t see what blessings you truly have for years and years. Some things you only see after decades have passed. However traumatic the events immediately afterwards, now I see what incredible mercies were packed into that introduction of ours all those years ago. Yes, there was opposition, my family alarmed by the speed of events, but even so everything slotted into place so easily. Back then, miracles, one after the other… your name… your face… and yet still more, hibernating, awaiting their moment to surface. Alhamdulilah. Alhamdulilah for these blessings.

And I love her

I discovered Passenger (Michael Rosenberg) in 2017, in the midst of our attempted migration to Turkey. My wife and children were settled over there, enrolled in school and enjoying life to the full, but I was having to come and go due to work. Although we had Skype then, most of my colleagues were not yet ready to embrace it, as they proved themselves more than capable of over the past two years.

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Experiences

Two experiences have impacted me recently. The first of them, watching our kids confidently taking on the high ropes treetop challenge at Go Ape. Actually, it was the crowd of ten year-olds in the slot before them which knocked me back: their bold tenacity, clambering over those obstacles high in the trees, their energetic enthusiasm, and their self-assurance as they yelled encouragement to one another. They seemed so well-rounded for their age. Naturally, that had me reflecting on my own childhood, because I wasn’t like that at all. I was so timid and anxious, rarely found amidst crowds, with barely a word on my tongue.

The other of those experiences, yesterday, when friends came over. Their eldest, whom I have known since he was a toddler, is now sixteen and attends sixth-form college. As he sat quietly in a corner reading a book, I couldn’t help observing how mature he has become, both physically and emotionally. That was equally true of his younger brother. Looking at them, we could legitimately call them “young men”. As for me at that age: no, I was just a boy, so immature. It’s no surprise, really, that I was a laughingstock back then. I couldn’t see myself as I do now, glancing at old photos in horror.

Raising children has opened my eyes to a lot of things. Sometimes I am in awe of our children at just how grownup they often are, and how articulate and confident. Again, I had none of that. But sometimes I am also struck by how mean they can be, and how compulsively silly. In the car the other day, I was surprised when our daughter referred to a boy in her class as “just a mute” who never says a thing. I guess the same would have been said about me. As for their perpetual mockery of others — each other, parents, classmates — they just can’t help it. It just flows out of them. And so I realise, yes, those we encountered back then who did the same probably weren’t malicious: it was just their happy humour.

I always feel like I’m running late with this thing we call parenting. My parents would have been in their early twenties when they had their first child. We’re a decade behind, and so all of that making sense of our youth has occurred late too. There’s a gap of thirty years between those experiences and helping our children through their own version of those moments. The actions of parents and teachers makes more sense now that we walk in those shoes. So it is that we become more forgiving of all we encountered along the way.

As in that famous family joke which recalls that I was always late, I have lived my entire life this way. It’s true: I have always been running late, so immature, late to make sense of anything. If I have started to grow up more over the last few years, it could be attributed to being a parent. Equally, it could be attributed to medical interventions, addressing those pervasive deficits head-on. It could be a bit of both, combined with simply reaching the hallowed middle-age. There’s nothing I can do about all that led me to this point; I can’t go back and fix anything, other than to say sorry to those I wound up along the way. All I can do at this point is help our own children to live better lives, and to try to live my own life better from here on.

I suppose this is the value of experiences — even negative ones — in giving us impetus to change.

Nourishment

It’s funny the things which trigger memories. The latest, a curry, dispatched to me via my wife from her friend two nights ago. She said she’d made it especially not hot for me… which can mean one of only two things: either there was a mixup with the tupperware in the kitchen, or we’ve just discovered the source of her husband’s high blood pressure.

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Paths converged

Wandering in the woods yesterday, I couldn’t but be touched observing that so-called mixed relationships are now not just accepted, but have become the norm.

At one point, where footpaths converged, it was like the meeting of the united nations. Gone the days — at least in that square kilometre of woodland — when such relationships would be considered untoward.

Today we see grandparents of every background taking their mixed-heritage grandchildren on a day out. Gone the disapproving stares once so common in some communities. Now just smiles and acceptance, as couples in love wander on hand-in-hand unperturbed.

I celebrate this era, where whole families now embrace the outsider, considering him or her their own. This is progress: a source of new optimism. This is how it always should have been.

Be

Why do I think the best of people I have no reason to think the best of? Am I hopelessly optimistic or simply extremely naïve? Why do I imagine them to be pure of heart, their motives clean? Is it merely wishful thinking, or have I truly read them right? I suppose I have a hope something like this:

Dyson Fury

That moment of trepidation after an afternoon spent vacuuming the house… awaiting your beloved’s judgement. Will your efforts meet her exacting standards, or will she spot the bit you missed and get the Hoover out again to do the job properly? I like to think I’ve developed one talent in twenty years.

Phew. This one’s a pass. Stand down.

No debt

Blame my irrepressible blues, blame contrition: March was the month of reaching out. I suppose there was nothing new here, for I had spent the month of February a year earlier doing the same, this time apologising to my parents and siblings. Indeed, much of that year was spent looking for those to whom I felt I owed an apology. Only one of them was I able to reach, but by then — twenty-five years on — they said they only remembered me fondly and couldn’t remember anything negative. All of the rest, it seems: completely lost in the mists of time.

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No regrets

I have resided in such a different world from that of all I passed along the way, but I have no regrets. This life of mine I would not trade. The peace within: I cherish it.

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Stranger

I was the first person to think the best of a stranger in our midst, even when I had no reason to. I was the first to defend them from mockery too, though for that my friends lambasted me. I also thought the best of them the longest, even as the decades flowed past. I have always thought the best of them, and always will.

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Two opinions

My niece is very nice. She says such sweet things. We’ve watched each other growing up. Me as her auntie’s English husband forever shy; her as a hardworking student.

At out Istanbul wedding twenty years ago, she became our accidental bridesmaid. That was my doing; she must’ve been about seven, and I insisted we buy her a fancy white dress, knowing her parents were living through hard times.

Now she’s a qualified teacher, confident and brave. When she greeted me on our arrival earlier, she felt moved to sing my praises. Though I know I don’t deserve them, I just smiled. “Tell that to our dear daughter,” I laughed, “she will tell you I’m the worst dad in the world.”

Two young ladies who have watched me closely, with differing intensity over different periods of time. Perhaps our daughter offers the truest critique, no holds barred. Teenagers don’t filter their opinions through diplomacy; they just say it as they see it.

So these days I’m always angry, and an ignoramus who doesn’t understand anything. A less flattering evaluation than the one proffered by our niece, but perhaps it is true. Certainly I’m more likely to defer to our daughter’s critique, rebuking myself for these shortcomings, than take seriously our niece’s glowing assessment.

Perhaps the true measure will be asking our daughter’s opinion again in her mid-twenties. Will anything have changed by then? Will she at last see some good in me? Only time will tell. Who knows what the next decade will bring?

Thief

These days, I don’t do well with this thief, nor with those virtues that would undermine it. I have a rage these days, which flies out of me when faced by mundane tests.

The antidote in these moments is supposed to be patience, contentment and humility. Instead, I fail this test daily, losing my cool in the face of disrespect and poor behaviour.

I am like a coiled spring, suddenly unwound. It’s true what my family says: I have lost my patience, no longer the calm man they used to know.

Somehow I must find a way to reset and reform, to become more mindful, and to overlook the constant provocations. Somehow I must find a way to restore the calmness I was once known for.

Angry man

My anger… this rising temper… I don’t think it has much to do with external stimuli… something which did or did not happen.

The main cause… and this was known to be a risk… was restarting treatment after neglecting it for such a long time. So if my family notice a sudden change in my character and mood… this is probably a good indicator of what’s happening.

The alternative is the calm man they’re used to… largely calm due to lethargy and fatigue. I actually prefer that state, but it has drawbacks… those intense blues… and the weakening bones.

So that’s your choice… angry man with energy and positivity… or calm man who feels like shit. On the other hand, maybe you could help… calm down yourselves… stop constantly winding everyone up.

I’m stuck with this condition. Yours? You just have to grow out of it. Quickly, if you can. Or just get used to the daily fireworks.

Gönül Dağı

The kids love watching a Turkish comedy-drama called Gönül Dağı. Actually, they’ve already watched the entire series on YouTube back home, but as we’re here, they’re quite content to watch repeats on television.

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Most engaging

Second thoughts on engagement, post party. I confess to be confused the following morning, because what we experienced was basically a wedding, without the marriage. There were the vast numbers of guests, the dancing, the photographs. The only thing missing was the nikah. Which begs the question: why not just get married?

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Glorious fourth

We didn’t get away, just the two of us, to Kaf Dağı Konak hotel. Nor did we have cake. Instead, a day spent in Teams meetings for me, carers duties for my beloved downstairs. Still, it’s not as if we’re deprived. Even in adversity, we reside amidst such beauty. We can’t complain about such blessings.