From Difficulty to Kindness

 

 

incense-smoke-heart.jpgDuring one of my summer visits to Egypt before I moved here, my aunt’s friend’s house was broken into. The thieves took everything. They took the blender, the fridge, the oven, the washing machine. Everything.

The woman’s husband walked in from work one day and found her crying as she juiced tomatoes with her bare hands.

Coming from a middle class American household, my immediate reaction was, “Wow, that totally sucks. Why don’t they buy new appliances?”

My aunt looked at me and spoke with the condescension of those who know to those who do not. “With what money?”

“With their savings,” I said.

She let out a sardonic laugh. “Here, there is no such thing as savings.”

No savings? Really?! What would these people do now?

It was a foreign concept for me that people could work and not have money in the bank. Not because I come from a wealthy family, because I do not. But because I do come from a family where savings was a given. There was always money in the bank for emergencies. My parents saved to send their children to college. When we needed something, we could always get it. Alhamdulillah.

But that middle class is not the middle class of developing countries. Here, most middle class get by paycheck to paycheck and there is no such thing as emergency funds. If you need money unexpectedly, you have two options: You either borrow from friends or family (often from many people at once), or you simply go without. How many cars don’t get fixed because there isn’t the money to do so? How many appliances don’t get replaced because there isn’t the money to do so? How many medical procedures aren’t performed because there isn’t the money to do so? Far too many. When my third son was born almost three months prematurely, I didn’t have the money needed to cover the hospital expenses. If it hadn’t been for my parents…well, you get the picture.

We are all naïve of the experiences we have not lived through. We think we can understand them from afar, but our empathy at seeing a difficulty is not nearly as potent as our insight once we experience it. This is why people tell you you won’t understand what it’s like to be a parent until you become one. This is why most activists have firsthand experience of their cause, and others move to the geographical heart of their issue so that they, too, may experience it.

I do not point out the differences of people living in America to those in Egypt to claim that one country is better than the other. In all of my work, I do not highlight difficulties to dwell on them nor to lay blame. I highlight them to inspire

Last year when I held a book signing at Books on the Square in Providence, RI, one of the listeners told me she appreciated what I was doing. “What you’re doing is great,” she said, “because as artists, our job is to inspire.” She was just visiting the bookstore that day by chance, but I feel truly blessed at having met her, because what she said is exactly on point.

“Our job is to inspire.”

There is so much depth to that phrase. Our job is to inspire other artists: to inspire them to express themselves and bring out the best of their work. Our job is to inspire our children: to inspire them to reach their full potential and beyond. But more important than all of that, the reason I mention the differences I’ve discussed above, the reason I highlight difficulties in my writing, is to inspire for the hope of a better world.

I write about not having the money to cover hospital costs, or dealing with the concept of victim blaming (like in Normal Calm), or dealing with infertility (in Behind Picket Fences) to inspire my readers to think and feel. Through my writing, as in how I live my life, I aim to inspire gratitude. And kindness. And compassion. Because even if gratitude, kindness, and compassion do not lead to solutions to the problem, they still make the world a better place.

Don’t you think?

 

 

 

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Figment or Fiction

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I recently met with one of my great aunts whom I hadn’t seen in many years. Last time I saw her she was independent, living alone, summering on her own, and enjoying her life in general. During this visit, she was someone else. She’s recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and she’s become thinner and more frail. I think this was my first encounter with someone with Alzheimer’s. I stayed with my aunt as her daughter and my mom left to run a quick errand. As they were getting ready to leave, my aunt got anxious and asked her daughter in an almost frightened voice where they were going. Her daughter threw her purse back down on the couch, clearly having seen this type of separation anxiety from her mother before, and tried to tell her that she wasn’t going far and would be right back. The behavior reminded me of a new mom dropping off her child to preschool for the first time, the child upset at being left behind. Only in this situation, the mother was the one upset that her daughter was leaving and the daughter was at her wits’ end by her mother’s clinginess.

They were gone for maybe half an hour, maybe a bit more. During that time, my aunt would reply if we spoke to her, and she kept a smile on her face. She didn’t engage in conversation the way she did before the decline of her health, but she wasn’t completely reserved either. She did, however, ask us three or four times where her daughter had gone. And when they got back, her face lit up, relieved that her caretaker had finally returned. Their roles have now been reversed; mother has become dependent on daughter. And while I understand that this happens, that often our parents require our assistance in their old age, it still makes me sad. Yes, it’s part of life, but it still breaks my heart.

I used to think it would be awkward to care for another adult. That I would be embarrassed to, say, bathe someone or help someone in the bathroom. But recently I was blessed to be given the chance to help my aging mother-in-law. Yes, I used the word blessed, because during that time, she needed someone to be there for her, and God chose me to be there. It wasn’t an embarrassing experience at all; it was truly humbling. I am humbled every time I pass by an older person who walks with a cane or walker. I am humbled every time I help an older person retrieve an item that they dropped. I was humbled to help my mother-in-law. And I was humbled to spend those few hours with my aunt. I am humbled by these experiences because I know that once upon a time, these people were as physically and mentally agile as I am now. And one day, I will probably be in their place. I praise God for the blessing of my mind, for the blessing of my body and independence, and for the blessing that both my parents are healthy and independent. Praise God. I pray He continues to shower us with his blessings for all the days of our lives.

Just a few weeks before this visit with my great aunt, I saw an uncle of mine who is also suffering from memory loss, but this seems to be onset by his medications. My cousins told me he sometimes talks about people they don’t know. It made me remember when my best friend’s great aunt, in her final days, kept mentioning a young boy—Nicholas—although there is no Nicholas in their family at all. I wonder where these names come from. Is it possible they are childhood friends, names of people they loved decades ago? Or are they simply figments of their imagination? Is it possible they were not figments but another part of their imagination…

When I write fiction, I live with these characters that I’ve created. They become a part of me—I cheer for their victories and cry at their defeats. They become so close to me that I wonder if one day—when I’m older and my mind starts to lose its edge—I’ll expect them to walk through the door. Or I’ll tell my grandchildren about them, never really aware that they only ever existed in my imagination. Is it possible that I’ll become so connected to them that in my old age I will mistake them for friends and family? I wonder…

 

An Unsatisfied Reader

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My aunt has been a longtime fan of Danielle Steel. I think she’s read every one of her books.

While she was reading her latest pick, Magic, she told me it was a real page turner. She suggested I read it, basically to see how such powerful buildup is done. I didn’t hesitate. I’d never read a Danielle Steel novel before, but I was looking forward to it. I knew there was something to be learned from such a successful author. I anticipated a great story and great writing. You don’t always get both in a book, but with acclaimed authors, you certainly expect both.

Now, I’m not a particularly picky reader. I like lots of different genres: sci-fi, young adult, crime fiction, historical fiction. I even read a Western once and I loved it. Yes, I do tend to stick with general fiction with themes of family, love, and overcoming hardship, but even when I venture away from my “usual,” I am rarely disappointed.

But I was disappointed with Steel’s Magic. While the story was ok, the writing was not. It seemed to have been written by an amateur and edited by someone with even less experience. Words were often unnecessarily repeated within a given sentence, and the flow of the narrative was sometimes discordant. The characters, while clear enough to be realistic, did not stay with me.

As I found myself delving further into disappointment, I started to wonder what was wrong with me. This is an author who has sold hundreds of millions of books. She’s probably won awards. Why wasn’t I enjoying her book when so many people loved her writing?

The answer came to me in the form of a rating for one of my own novels shortly after I’d finished reading Magic. The reader—who had a very strange username like Lmnopwxyjz—gave my book a one star rating with no review. I’d like to believe that this is a mistake, that  some little kid was playing with her mom’s tablet and through a series of random clicks managed to sign up to Goodreads using that anomalous name, land on my book and highlight one star. I mean, my kids have done similar things…it could happen! I know, I know…not likely. The truth is that it was probably a legitimate reader who simply didn’t enjoy my book.

And that’s totally fine.

While writers (and artists of any kind, actually) hope that our work will resonate with everyone, the truth is that that notion is the fastest route to feeling like a failure. Each and every person has his or her own likes and dislikes, and there is no way you can cater to them all. Not everyone likes caviar. Not everyone likes mangoes. Not everyone likes chocolate. I know! THAT sounds outrageous! I mean…chocolate?!

But that’s the truth: not everyone likes chocolate. And not everyone likes Danielle Steel books. And not everyone will like mine. That’s the way taste works.

So, I keep writing for my intended audience, and hope that they remain intrigued. And if some readers from outside of my audience happen to enjoy my work, well then that’s a wonderfully surprising win.

But what about me disliking Steel’s book? What does that say about me?

It says that I, too, have my own taste, and don’t mind one bit if I differ from her hundreds of millions of fans.

Being in the minority makes me unique; it does not invalidate my opinion.

 

Fun With The Kids

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I haven’t written a blog post in almost two full months. Partly I’ve been working on my novel, but mostly it’s because I really want to post something light, funny maybe, and lately, with the distressing state of the world, I haven’t felt that way. But the other night, I had a great time with my kids…

We just subscribed to our free month of Netflix. I know, I know, Netflix is old and I’m so behind. But I wasn’t even sure how it would work here in Egypt, and quite frankly, I totally plan on cancelling before the free month is over. Anyway…so we watched our first movie the other day. We chose ‘The Prince of Egypt’ as our first pick. I was rather disappointed by it all. The makers did it a disservice to the film by removing almost all religious context from the story. Throughout the entire movie, I kept having to tell the kids, “Well, that’s not the real story; that’s not how it is in the Qur’an…and probably not how it is in the Bible.” Disappointing.

After that let down we needed something funny. Scrolling through, we found ‘Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.’ Now, most parents would not encourage their children to watch a movie about a young student who ditches school and goes all over Chicago having a grand-ol’ time. Most parents would not want their kids to get ideas about how to deceive their parents, how to trick their school administration, how to take their parent’s car without permission…and after all this, never get caught. Most parents are far too responsible to expose their children to all of that….

Well not me! As soon as I saw it on the list, I yelled out, “YOU GUYS HAVE TO SEE THAT! It’s such a good movie!”

Clearly, there is something lacking in my parenting skills…but whatever! Now’s not the time to dwell on that…

We had a blast watching Ferris as he played sick, fooling his parents and his friends (not his sister, though!). We loved watching him take the restaurant reservation for the ‘Sausage King of Chicago,’ then sneak out without his father seeing him. His rendition of ‘Twist and Shout’ on the parade float was well appreciated by all (although, the kids probably liked it just because I was making a fool of myself singing along!). They loved watching the beat-down Ed Rooney chase after his car as the tow-truck pulled it away! I wonder if they wished the same fate upon their own principal?

We laughed the whole movie through. It was a great time. And for that, I’m gonna go ahead and count it a parenting win. Not because it was a good choice (because who are we kidding?), but because we spent time together, laughed together, and hopefully, they’ll remember that more than any of the specifics of the movie. (I know, I know…not likely. But it could happen!)

Thank you for reading my post. Please give it a like. If you’d like to read some of my fiction, simply click here to read the character interviews for the women of my latest novel, Behind Picket Fences. The interviews were super fun to write and I think you’ll enjoy them. Again, thank you so much for your support. 

Divided We Fall

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The other day I saw an image quote that said something like race, religion, and politics divide us. Well, I think that’s a load of crap. I think that while race, religion and politics may differentiate us, what truly DIVIDES us is disrespect. We can be different, and still stand together, united, as long as we have mutual respect. When we are divided, then it is not race, nor religion, nor politics which are to blame: it is disrespect, plain and simple.

The truth, which for some reason people find difficult to voice, is that when we differ, we are in essence finding fault with the other opinion. For example: I, as a Muslim, do not believe that Jesus is God nor the son of God. I believe that is false, that it is wrong. And Christians, by their own creed, must believe that I am wrong. But what the hell is wrong with that? What is wrong with thinking another person (or group) is wrong? Nothing! Absolutely nothing…as long as our disagreements are not coupled with disrespect. I have no right to disrespect my Christian brethren. I have no right to disrespect them with words, nor with caricatures mocking their faith, nor with hateful actions. I do not have that right, and they have no right to disrespect me.

But that’s not what happens these days. These days, when people talk about religion or politics, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “You’re an idiot for thinking that!” The problem we have in our society today, is that we don’t know how to respectfully disagree. And that disrespect often manifests in the form of verbal and physical hate crimes.

In the Quran (chapter 49 verse 13) it says what is translated as “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” God created us with all our differences so that we can LEARN from one another! There is an innate beauty in our differences, if only we could recognize this.

Recently one of my Facebook contacts implied that I have no right to voice my concern about the results of the recent election. She claimed that since my feet do not currently tread on US soil, I don’t have the right to care about what happens there. I am simply enraged by her disrespect, on so many levels. She tried to revoke my freedom of speech, and she questioned my patriotism. She had no right to do either! Yes, I do not currently live in the US, but it IS my home. Not only is my family there, but I was born and raised there. I was educated there, I worked there. It is a part of me. I want to see it flourish, I want goodness for it. I was blessed to have been born and raised there. And although I think I may feel this way no matter where I had been born, the truth is that freedoms and privileges in the US shine above so many other countries. I’m not saying it is a perfect country. No, it is not. There is racism and sexism and all sorts of other prejudices. But the BEAUTY of America is that its very constitution works to keep those prejudices at bay. Its beauty is that at its very core is a promise to strive for a society free of prejudice. I wanted to see it keep moving forward, keep improving. I wanted to see the incidents of hate crimes decline and to see the gap of inequality diminish.

Since the results of the election, there has been a rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the US. Latino students have been verbally assaulted with chants that a wall should be built to separate them. The list does not end there, but the point is clear: the disrespect which the president-elect showed to so many minorities during his campaign is being put into action as hate by at least some of his supporters. And that is the saddest part of this election. It’s not about one man…it was never about one man. It’s about those who show support for division. If this behavior is not quelled immediately, it will undoubtedly grow out of control, and the country will fall. It’s that simple.

I do not want America to fall. The freedoms that it represents are too precious.

So what’s the answer? How do we teach respectful disagreement? How do we teach it with a president-elect who does not show it?

I want to say, as some of my friends have already pointed out, that discussion is the solution. That learning about those who are different from us from those very people may help relieve our fears and grow a feeling of respect.

But if I’m being honest, I do not think that will work. If an adult does not already recognize that they must respect people around him regardless of their race, religion, or any other differentiating factor, I do not think that he will learn it.

I want to be wrong. I want to be wrong about the direction the US seems to be heading in after this election.

I put my faith in God and pray that He will protect my brothers and sisters in humanity from all forms of disrespect.

This poem is my prayer of love for you.

 

Rays of Love

 

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I pray the hate never finds you,

I pray you live protected from its jagged blade.

I pray it does not tear at your heart,

That it does not shred you

From the inside out.

 

I pray the hate never finds you,

I pray you live protected from its jagged blade,

I pray it does not puncture your flesh,

That it does not shred you

From the outside in.

 

Come,

Hide ourselves and our children in the bosom of compassion,

And when hate comes,

Hold up our shields of brotherhood,

Warn it off with our saber of love.

Stand our ground, lock arms,

And let it not penetrate the circle.

 

Multiple rays of love can melt the hate.

 

I pray the hate

never finds you.

©Hend Hegazi

 

(Thank you for reading and liking this post. You may enjoy reading the four interviews I wrote for the women characters of my novel, Behind Picket Fences. The interviews were super fun to write, and I think you’ll find yourself wondering if they are characters from a book or real people. Click here for the interviews.)

Homesick in Autumn

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Today it looks like it’s going to rain. I miss the rain.

But I miss the rain that falls on grass and makes puddles. I miss walking with its pitter-patter bouncing off my head and shoulders and its calm wetness melting on my tongue. I miss the rain in a place I still call home, which will soon no longer belong to the family who has owned it for nearly forty years. I miss watching the rain through the bay window. I miss that bay window. I miss my room, next to the bay window. And sitting in the yard, enjoying the soft shade and fresh breeze. I miss the oranges and reds of autumn, and that serene, smoky smell is holds. Oh, I can almost smell it! I don’t go there enough in my mind. And soon, I won’t even be able to go there in body.

After all these years, why do I still call it home? I live ages away from that place now. Here, the rain is not the same. Here, the rain forms rivers on the paved streets and spits grime on my clothes. But this is my true home now. This is the home that shelters me, and in which I live and love. And I am happy here, despite missing the rain. So why do I still call the blue house with the rock in the yard my home?

I spent my childhood there, all my youth. It was the only home I knew for twenty-three years. It will always be home, even once it isn’t. It is not a building, it is an entire system; it is the people, the experiences and the settings that nurtured me. It will remain where I grew up, where I played. It will remain the place that held me so that I could become me.

Today, it looks like it’s going to rain.

I miss the rain.

 

(Thank you for reading and liking this post. You may enjoy reading the four interviews I wrote for the women characters of my novel, Behind Picket Fences. The interviews were super fun to write, and I think you’ll find yourself wondering if they are characters from a book or real people. Click here for the interviews.)