Are you ready for death?

My mother is death cleaning.

She has told me she is organising her drawers, throwing out expired medicines (which really should be part of death-avoidance cleaning I think) and destroying any papers she doesn’t want to be discovered after she is gone (although there isn’t anything of hers that we haven’t already read).

She has also written letters to us.

My siblings and I are petrified by this ultimate form of having-the-last-word.

This death cleaning has been inspired by the concept of döstädning, the Swedish practice of “death cleaning”. Death cleaning applies a simple formula to the process of dealing with our possessions before we die looking at each object and asking whether anyone we know would be happier if we save the object.

The concept, döstädning, is a name for a set of what I think are natural behaviours. (We like giving names to everything now. It makes it more easily hashtag-able). My grandmother who lived to be more than a 100 liked to give away things faster as she got older. Near the end of her life she would give everyone around her money at least a few times a day. All recipients knew to take the notes that they got and put them back in the bowl next to her bed so she could do it all over again…

I have been doing my own kind of death cleaning for a few years. (It is not a morbid sorting out of my belongings. That happens naturally when you live in London homes with their confined spaces. I am sure I am (mis)quoting someone famous when they said, “When you pee in London bathrooms you have to leave half your body standing out”. I am sure one of you will tell me who it was.)

My form of death-cleaning was inspired by an exercise my leadership coach asked me to do at work recently. She wanted me to  develop a 10-year plan on a piece of paper. This wasn’t the usual where-do-you-see-yourself-in-10-years plan anticipating a future interview question. She wanted me to imagine myself- my priorities and ambitions- and the people most important to me 10 years from now. She then asked me to think about how my current ambitions and priorities sat next to myself aged now+10 and to the people that I most care about.
• How many of the people who I love would be alive in 10 years?
• Would my children have left home?
• What would I feel about my career at that stage?
• Would S. and I have run out of things to say to each other?


The exercise was terrifying. In my imagination  my future life emerged as a painting by an artist of minimialist persuasion. What would make me really happy was a chaotic Matisse.The exercise made me understand (in a gut-clenching sort of way) how important family and friends are in my life.

Family. This blog is not about them (that needs several).


Friends. If someone was to ask me now or in the past whether friends are important to me. I would say of course. But am not sure I live this day to day. On a “normal” day I have spoken more to school mums, people at work and been kinder to random strangers during a supermarket queue than I have to a “friend”. This is not to say that people at work or school or supermarkets cant (or havent) turned out to be the best of friends but most of the time I interact more with people who I may not stay connected with if I moved to a different school lets say, or a different job or even a different supermarket…Ever since that life coach discussion I have been trying to connect with friends who I see in my life now and in 10 years. Friends who I can imagine would be there at my funeral. Even cry.

True to my generation this tribe of friends is spread across space and time (zones). A long time ago, the physical distance of these relationships- not being able to express what I want to say by a shoulder squeeze; or sitting together in silence – felt like a loss. Goodbyes were painful. But now, being older and wiser, and knowing that actual living, breathing, normal (or my kind of mad) people are so (so so) rare that I am just grateful that they one were part of my life. My younger self liked the one liner “people can change my future but no one can take my past from me” but its so embarrassingly dramatic now I can only ventriloquize it through a younger me.

My form of death cleaning or life+10 planning consists of really small actions. A resolution to check in on someone new every day through a whatsapp. A long email that goes beyond the usual facebook pic “like”. An actual birthday phone call (a  friend reminded me recently on how odd it is that we don’t call people any more on their birthdays). Our holidays forage out friends far away. In the summers we let ourselves be foraged by friends visiting London (we insert ourselves between the Harry Potter studio tours and museum visits).


It is a powerful exercise. One of the first people I met after my life-coach discussion was one of my besties after years from when I went to university in Toronto. I had forgotten all about my undergrad- in- Canada self . There was the whole not-yet-18 into a totally different country and not-being-at-all-cool challenge. There was the financial pressure of choosing a university that didn’t have a scholarship that renewed to the same level as the one they offered me in my first year. There was the guilt of not having chosen a university that did offer me a 4-year renewable scholarship. So at any one time I was doing at least two jobs, classes and extra classes (as I tried to finish my degree in 3 years rather than 4) while maintaining a decent GPA. The friends who stood by the stressed out, refusing-to-own-a-cell-phone; forever-busy phase of my life mean so much to me. The kind of friends who orchestrated “you need to have fun” interventions; the ones who brought me their cooking  the type of friends who celebrated my graduation as if it was theirs.


Seeing her  reminded me of how lucky I had been. It also made me clock that when you  reconnect with friends you understand better the people they are becoming and you understand yourself better too.  Because every friend is witness to a different part of your story.


I have been lucky enough to see so many other friends who each hold a  different part of my story  in recent months and years. Cousins- the first friends who know you from bathroom-humour-days; friends from school and college the custodians of all the silly dreams you had about what your life would be like and what you would do (and don’t remind you of it); friends from saving-the-world days when everything seemed possible but nothing really was; friends from sleepless mummy days, the precious one (s) who didn’t judge the anxiety that I constantly showed but understood it as a gut instinct for the parental challenges I  was about to see. Then there are the “new” friends, the ones I have just met who I know I am going to be creating many memories with in the years to come.


So many special people in my life both in the years gone by and the years to come. (So many blogs waiting to be written).


So that’s how far I have gotten in my death cleaning.  How far are you on yours?



Life. That which connects us all.

Life. Whether bringing it into the world or being witness to its loss, the experience connects us all, no matter who we are, what we do and where we live. The lowest common denominator. I found this email from 10 years ago that I had written to a friend in the extreme highs of having given birth to my son now (gulp) nearly 10 years ago. It made me smile. It should make you smile too. [If nothing else you can laugh at the fact that I had no clue of the sleep-deprivation; leaky nappies, “put my buggers back in my nose”, A & E visits, “but my right hand slapped by left hand”, “you just sat on my invisible friend and killed him” nights and mornings to follow]

Dear A.

I never thought I would be writing an email like this. I always thought new mothers so decidedly irritating in their smugness, in their comfort in their own sweaty skin, in their new found peace with life. But there it is. Much as you fight life, nature, the inevitability of the sequenced moments in front of you, there it is. Much as you think you are just a spectator watching life’s play with lots of intervals in between- you are part of the whole drama. You are part of nature- the sparrow twittering on the branch outside this window, the lovely rose growing in the dirt outside with yellow pollen dust sprinkled all around it.
I have never had so much feeling inside my toes and hands and all over my body ever. Breakups, the loneliness while crunching across Toronto snow, the freshness of the blue nile in Ethiopia, the tears I lost over the relationship that only existed in my head, the insipidness of being in a relationship with others not meant to be, missing my parents, family, life, everything means something. There is something connecting all the pieces of my life- the thread I have been searching for so long. I wrote to so many different people about K.’s arrival, people I know from all my lives, the many different places I have called home and it meant something to all my memories, all my moments spent with those different parts. I cant describe it. I have an identity now that is never going to go away. I can be red lipsticked, heeled, curled zainab or the development buff in a giant gap grey sweatshirt but I will always be a mom. His mom.
Sorry I am typing this at high speed but just wanted to share this with you. Sunsets are beautiful, knotty decisions no longer difficult, life is well….its a life I am living. Not just watching from the side lines.
Love always,


The Fast and the (definitely not) Furious: Ramadan at Work

Last week or so, a few colleagues and I thought it would be a good idea to mark the coming of Ramadan in some way, so we brought suitably calorific goodies into work and sent out a little message to our team about what the month meant to us. We received a response that we, and certainly I was not expecting; many insightful comments and a lot of very thoughtful questions which showed me how people can value the diversity colleagues bring from the, outside in (especially if it is accompanied by a snack or two!). I was then asked to write a blog about Ramadan for work which I thought I would share more widely.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar begins next week. It is an important time for the Muslim community. At its core, the month is about giving more and consuming less; patience over instant gratification, reflecting rather than reacting and thinking of others over our selves.

Most people associate Ramadan with not eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset. In the UK this works like a charm when Ramadan comes around in winter, slightly less so when it falls over one of the longest days of the year. In the good old days, before sugar became the new poison and bread could be consumed guilt-free, the idea of fasting seemed novel. When I used to explain the concept of fasting to people who hadn’t heard it before I would usually get some surprise tinged with (I like to think) a little awe and respect. Now, the idea of detoxing as becomes so irritatingly fashionable the reactions are different.

Just recently, I was talking about Ramadan to a very health-conscious neighbour, “So what do you eat when you are not fasting”, she asked. I explained that the fast was punctuated by two big meals on either side, a breakfast called suhoor and an enormous dinner called iftaar. What exactly is eaten in these meals is culture specific but traditionally milk, dates and copious amounts of water will feature. “Aah”, she said. “So you mean you can eat carbs…fat…gluten and caffeine?” “Yes, yes and yes”, I said thinking about how much I enjoy the feeling of my sip of caffeine at the end of my fast, the crunch of a greasy samosa and a red velvet cupcake for my iftaar, “it’s the only time I feel I deserve to eat everything” I said laughing. “Interesting”, she continued, clearly disappointed by my lack of self control “I will be doing a complete detox in June for a week. No carbs or fat for me!” My turn to be surprised and more than awed by the thought of that kind of fasting…

Fasting in this month though is not only about not physical abstinence. Equally important is controlling behaviour- no lying, cheating and certainly, as my teachers liked to remind me in my teenage years growing up in Pakistan, you are absolutely not allowed to get the grumps. In a moment of what I have come to regard as pure insanity, I shared this with my then 7 year old son and 4 year old daughter last Ramadan. “So you mean you are not allowed to get angry?”, they asked innocently, and then with a determination known only to little people proceeded to test this over the next 29 days. “Now now mum, we have been using your phone to take 200 pictures of the left dining chair leg but you can’t get angry. Remember. It’s not allowed” etc etc. I spent that Ramadan hopping around like like Master Shifu from Kung Fu Panda trying to find inner peace but not quite getting there.

Not all Muslims fast and it is certainly not advised for the very young, the very old, the sick or those bringing new life into the world. My husband doesn’t fast and for this he is required to give charity equivalent to feeding three square meals a day. In actual fact, he pays much more. You see, as I am fasting, and he isn’t, he becomes the go-to parent in the evening by default. Children homework duties. Nightmare duties. Lego-stuck-in nose-emergencies.   Forgot-school fair-bake- cupcake-last-minutes duties, all fall to him. It’s brilliant. By the end of the month I am spiritually and physically refreshed while he poor him, looks completely exhausted…

That is one reason I love this month. There are several other (less calculating) reasons. The three top ones for me would be:

  • It forces me to stop, stop running from work task lists to home ones and pause and reflect on life and living.
  • It prompts me to think about lives less fortunate than mine and imagine what it must feel like to be endlessly hungry and not know when and where my next meal may come from.
  • It makes me practice patience. In our current culture of instant access to gratification, it is so educational to experience waiting.

Is fasting difficult at work? To be very honest, yes. There are the embarrassing tummy rumbles at important meetings. There is the lack of caffeine to prop you up through the day. Fasting during the summer months are very long and I find that although our bodies are remarkably adaptable when it comes to food and drink, they are less forgiving when it comes to lack of sleep. And given the length of the day there is definitely interrupted sleep especially during the last ten nights of the month which many Muslims may spend in additional prayers. At these times, managers who support flexible working and colleagues who don’t put in meetings late in the day in diaries become extremely valued.

It’s not all bad though and there are certainly benefits for work as well.

  • I find I really value coming into work, the busier the better, as the day dissolves quickly when you have a lot to do. Weekends are killers.
  • At lunch, I go for a walk. This I think does more for more productivity than a sandwich slumped over my laptop
  • I find I am ruthlessly pragmatic with myself about what I can do during the work day and therefore I plan and set expectations more effectively. I also get remarkably good at prioritising.
  • Most importantly for me, I become good at listening to others (especially at the end of the day when my energy levels are low!). This at all times is very useful.

Those are things that I practice this month that improve the way I work. There are many many other lessons on life and living. Like any L& D activity though the challenge is always making that learning stick.

My Small Wonder

When I was six my mamu gave me taped episodes of a programme called ‘Small Wonder’. It was a programme about a family with an inventor father, mother, son, daughter and a girl robot. The girl robot, Vicky (with a V) is part of the family, disguised as a distant niece.  Everyone treats her like she is a child. She tries very hard to pretend to be a child. She imitates actions. She repeats dialogue. She even invents a laugh. She is nearly like any other child. Nearly.

I loved those episodes. I watched them over and over again till that VHS tape reel hung out from the edges. Somehow even at six I knew I would have a child-that-was-nearly-like-any-other-child. Even at six I knew I would have a small wonder.

My son was born what seems like yesterday.

He laughed cried, hugged, kissed, pooped, had high fevers, crawled, sang, vomited, watched baby TV, tickled, and smelt of lemons and roses. He loved the colour red. He loved crawling under small spaces. He loved using his thumb to trace my shoulder bone.

He did not love the playground unless he was the only one there. He did not talk. He did not share.  He did not chew solids. He did not play with any ‘stimulating, good-for-hand-eye-coordination’ toy we got him. He did not know what to do when I asked him to do simple things like putting a cup on the table or giving the tissue box to his dadi.

He had a look that terrified me. An expression in his eyes that said he was dreaming about belonging to a world other than the one he was in. It terrified me, fear wrapping itself around my heart and squeezing out any hope, dream, and thought of the future. A fear that kept telling me that he would wander off to this other world in his head and never make his way back home, never make it back to me.

And then he fell in love. He discovered the alphabet. His eyes gleamed with excitement as he put A, B,Cs in the right order, as his pudgy fingers traced the curve of the ‘S’ and the peaks of an ‘M’. But his favourite was the letter ‘V’. He would try and spot it everywhere at the back of delivery vans, volvos and Venus drycleaners (we could take our dry cleaning nowhere else after that). He could read letters out loud before he learnt to say his name (or mine).  He started reading small words at two. He started typing out words soon after.  He was reading fluently at three.

Reading gave him a map to the world.  He learnt about giraffes that dance when they have the right tune and some dogs that can fly. He learnt about how zebras got their stripes and how small ladybirds can defoil robberies. He learnt about smart giants, magic beans, Neverland, witches and broomsticks and the magic far away tree. He read and read and read finding clues about how the world worked. The best thing was that he could do this himself. He didn’t need a translator. But then the reading became a source of extreme frustration. You see, he now had access to dreams, ideas and thoughts of others but he couldn’t express his own. He was absorbing the outside at an exponential rate but he still couldn’t express his thoughts, dreams and ideas. It was verbal constipation at its extreme.

We dealt with it as best as we could. There was speech and language therapy to help him put his thoughts into words.  And there was occupational therapy to help him (another other things) put his thoughts into writing. We used every opportunity to develop his speech, narrow and gross motor skills. Showers became an opportunity to trace letters on the steamed glass. Catching balloons became exercises in bilateral hand coordination. Straws became instruments to blow bubbles and paper across tables. His favourite toys were thrown into sand, water, shaving foam, jelly to get him to access different textures. Mattresses became battle grounds. Pillow fights, blankets, nail cleaning brushes became sensory experiences.

There were many successes. But the writing…the writing never came. The outline of the letters would start forming but very slowly would fizzle out into bits and bumps. School started. Yes yes he was good at reading. But there is no inference. No imagination. No writing. No answers. No intelligence.

There were more exercises. More writing programmes, Handwriting without Tears, Write Dance. I knew all those exercises were doing something. Building muscles maybe? Stretching ligaments and developing strength so his hands could push his thoughts onto paper. It was as if his fingers were standing there ready at the starting line waiting for the sound of a gunshot that never came.

Then one summer afternoon, both of us exhausted from another OT session lay exhausted in the garden. I had a pink chalk in my hand and I lazily started scrawling letters on the ground started making up stories about each letter. The ‘E’ was mama dropping off his sister to nursery first and then him to school, the ‘8’ was mama running around his circles having forgotten something at home, the ‘Z’ was papa zipping from work through the roadworks on our street. He laughed. I laughed. The fingers heard their gun shot.

That day he started writing and didn’t stop. There was the ‘normal’ writing which delighted his teachers. Then he set his eyes on cursive joining writing. His teachers said no, he wouldn’t be able but this was where his selective hearing was very useful. His fingers danced out beautiful cursive writing. And now because he could express himself with his fingers as he never could (or can) with his lips the school suddenly found he was brilliant. His inference was suddenly beyond his years. He suddenly had brilliant imagination with stories about one-tooth monsters and alien postal workers. He knew answers to their questions.

And then there were the letters. There were letters to love-starved grand parents. Letters to long visited cousins. Letters to us. He had so much to say, memories he had been saving up for years. If he would run into a classmate in the playground he would start writing a letter to them: sorry for missing your party one year ago I wasn’t feeling well, you looked very pretty at so and so’s party, can you come to my house for a play date?

Technically children like him don’t have the narrow motor skills to write. Technically children like him are not supposed to be good at creative writing. Technically children like him are not supposed to be good at inference or at math word problems. But love and laughter are funny things. They make technically impossible things possible. Especially when the love is for a letter like ‘V’. A letter that rises  gracefully upwards after it hits line bottom. It is now my favorite letter too.

So…are you happy?

So…are you happy?”

Ten years ago, if I would have asked my friends the question, “Are you happy?” most would have said, “Yes!” There was the hope of prestigious careers: select graduate schemes in the Big Four, a Fulbright scholarship, a job dedicated to eradicating polio in Pakistan. There was the promise of romance. The gallant husband who had planned the honeymoon in Venice, the one who enticed with the LSE or Colombia degree “right away ” after marriage, and the one who was simply “so cute na!” For some there was already the Johnson-scented whiff of motherhood, the joy of the first step, the first word and then the first birthday for Goopoo with the giant racing car themed birthday cake. For the others for whom life had already been rough there was the promise of a better life, a series of white, fresh tomorrows that would make up for the grey yesterdays.


To be honest, ten years ago I wouldn’t have even thought to ask anyone the question. It would have been silly, pretentious. Awkward. Stupid. Ten years, past the question doesn’t seem so silly anymore. It seems real. The start of an honest conversation.

My question is first met with silence. A deafening pause punctuated by the slow clinking of spoons against mugs of chai. The careers are now less glamorous. There are long hours and a lot of competition. Polio in Pakistan remains. It seems changing the world is beyond one person. The picture of the honeymoon in Venice is there on the mantelpiece in that house with vanilla scented candles, plump Khaddi cushions and other happy memories, but most travel in the family now are husband work trips. The LSE/Colombia degrees never happened. The children came fast and early. And that cute husband has now lost his hair. Goopoo has outgrowth racing cars but not wetting his bed. The doctor says the triggers are emotional.

Then begin references to the search of the elusive “something”, “I don’t know what I want. But I want something. I want to do something”.


“I don’t know. Something. For me. Around the kids timings, you know…”

Research assures us this mid-life dip is normal. Apparently all of us go through this low sometime between our thirties and fifties when all that we thought possible chaffs uncomfortably against reality. This is not true just for humans. Apparently apes hit this dip too.

Study on happiness






But I don’t think the “dip” is natural or inevitable. A lot of it is design. For when we are young and havent yet lived, we are  given a map to happiness . We are told we have to study hard and graduate. We are told we have to find careers that gave our lives meaning. We are told we have to fall in love and get married. We are told we should have children. We have to have houses with vanilla scented candles, plumped up cushions and kitchen windows that look out to rose bushes. [This happens in all cultures but it is particularly acute for desis where the “Aunty” – the ultimate True and Genuine custodian and chief propagator of happiness- encodes this formula into our DNA . Especially important to desi happiness is marriage which is the only really only route to independence, adulthood and of course happiness.]  And we somehow we come to beleive that once we have followed these directions, this map to happiness, we will arrive at our “happily ever afters”. We are wrong. The map is wrong. There is NO map [damn you Aunty].

I am not saying that an education, a job or being married or child are not important. Of course they are and a source of happiness, pride, belonging….but they are also a source of pain, anger, stress and sometimes terror. Remember the touch of their baby skin against yours, and the feeling of pure belonging that comes from knowing that their life is completely dependent on yours? Now remember the terror of that night when you sat through holding them as they shivered through, their tiny body racked with a fever that wrung their insides. Remember the heady smell of roses mixed with wood of your marriage and all the time that lived yet to come? Now think the smell of socks that never (never) make their way to a laundry basket but live beside beds and sofas where you are likely to see them for the rest of your lives together (unless you pick them up. Which you do. Every time). Remember the high of that work presentation, the one where you wore that confidence as easily as that tailored black suit, and convinced the audience of your message. Now think of all the times you when into meetings believing it was the day that everyone else would find out that you actually know nothing…

Marriage, children, work are important stages in our journey through life but  they cannot in themselves, automatically make us happy.  On the contrary, I think to be successful at  relationships in work or at home we need to have found that calm happiness within ourselves that is impervious to time, space or sharing.  And although other people and life-happenings have the power to make you terribly unhappy, the one and only person that deliver that kind of happiness for you is : You.

So my suggestion for this year for you is to spend some time getting reintroduced to yourself. And find out what it is that makes you “calm happy”, the “something”. Then do a little bit of it and then a little bit more. Some of my friends are already there. There are food blogs that have grown into a network of culinary connections. There are marathons for cancer. There is going back to LSE/Colombia/school (themselves). If you want more suggestions of what it is for you, you may want to look at what an LSE professor has to say about it:

Five things you can do to be happier right now

What makes me happy? Writing. I don’t care if I can only tango clumsily with words across the page, it is what makes me happy. I feel like when I am writing I am not pretending or being what someone wants to be. The only person I am being is myself. When I write, I find myself. Now that I know this I am going to be more determined about blogging. That will make me happy. For you reading it, I  hope it does the same…:-)




It wasn’t me

It wasn't me, I say,
My religion is one of peace,
We turn to nothing but prayer
In hardship 
And in ease

It wasn't me, I say
I believe in an Almighty God
Then how can I but a simple Man
Dare to look inside you,
Dare to judge

It wasn't me, I say
How could I be violent?
I fast,a month,a year
To learn to control my Self
My deepest insecurity, my worst fear

It wasn't me, I say
I know the difference
Between the ignorant and the wise
I know we are the same
Only our extremes collide

It wasn't me, I say
Then why does my head droop with such shame?
Why do my hands clench and unclench
Why is it that when they ask who did it.
I want to take my name

It wasn't me, 
I hear myself shout
Then why do I feel this Guilt
Maybe because the day when I should have spoken
Only Silence had come out

You and I

You and I

There was our first goodbye

And then so many others

Their whispery echoes

Have long become quiet

Even my memories

Have had to let go


We didn’t cut

The rope that bound us

In one clean slit

Its untwisting was slower


A slow drifting from your shores


One day I woke up

And I was no longer


It wasn’t your name

I filled on official forms

Not your identity I took as my own


There were others I came to love- I admit

Over the meeting of desert and ocean

And in the silent moonlit snow

Our memories of summer monsoons

Playing hopscotch over commotion

Becoming an ever distant glow


I tell myself places don’t matter

It is the principles we live by that are key

Why is it then when they kill your children?

To make you ever more noble and pure

I can feel someone’s hands sticky with blood

And that someone is me


Why is it when they strangle your soul?

Destroy you, your grace, your dignity,

Your future and

Your dreams

I can feel their hands around my neck

I can hear your silent screams


Why it is

When we no longer belong?

That now you lay


I die a little

Each day too