Little Reminders To Ourselves

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The evening that this latest lockdown was announced in the dead of winter, a friend sent me a message and asked, ‘What are you grateful for?’ along with a lovely list of things she was grateful for. It was a good antidote for the frustration (to put it mildly) that the seemingly neverending lockdowns could so easily bring on. I found that I was able to write about a dozen things without even stopping to think about it, which in itself gave my mood a boost.

Gratitude is very important for our mental health and something we could no doubt cultivate a bit more throughout lockdowns and beyond. It feels like an exercise in creating the sort of person you want to be, if you’re not someone who on a daily basis thinks about the good and lovely things in you life. Surely this doesn’t only cheer ourselves up but also radiates out to the people around us?

I have also noticed how many things from Before I’ve sort of forgotten, even though it’s only been about a year with the pandemic. I’ve gotten used to this shrunken-down life that mainly happens within a radius of a couple of miles. Last week I went into town to pick up a Valentine’s dinner as the restaurant wasn’t delivering to our area, and I found myself getting really annoyed with things like how incredibly loud the buskers were. I felt my whole system experiencing some sort of input overload.

Were they always that loud? Who were they even playing for? There were about 6 other people on the street. I’ve never understood why they’re allowed to busk with giant speakers and industrial amps in the middle of the high street anyway, but hearing the racket after months of absence from town really put me in a state of fight-or-flight. It made me realise than once we’re released back into the wild, I might need to slowly reintroduce myself to human society. And wear my noise-cancelling headphones even more than I used to.

So today I want to write two lists: one to remind myself what I’m grateful for and the other to remind myself of the things I used to enjoy and look forward to being able to do again. Whenever that may be!

I am grateful for:

  • My friends — my tribe
  • My partner
  • Our good health
  • Our beautiful doggy and kitty, even though one snores like a jet engine and the other likes to walk all over my face at night
  • My workplace and my colleagues
  • Having an office (I work from home and this is the first time I’ve had an entire room just as my office, it’s the wildest luxury)
  • Our key workers who keep the country running, my partner being one of them
  • The fantastic green areas in my vicinity. They’ve saved a lot of people’s sanity, I bet
  • Music streaming
  • E-books from the library, even though the libraries are closed
  • Online writing buddies who have helped me stick to my plan to blog every Saturday

Things I am looking forward to:

  • Going swimming
  • Going out with friends. We’ve missed so many birthdays, I think we must have one giant party for everyone and to celebrate our freedom
  • Sitting in a café with a slice of cake and a mocha, reading a book or scribbling in a notebook to the backdrop of the usual “café noises”
  • Being able to ask friends to meet up in town spontaneously and just catch up
  • Going to Manchester Central Library, one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve ever seen
  • Taking a trip somewhere. Off the top of my head: the Peak District, Liverpool, Whtiby and other seaside towns. Denmark! And, of course, LONDON 🤍
  • Getting dressed up and going out for dinner
  • Browsing in charity shops. I LOVE charity shops
  • Having people over, omg, can you imagine?
  • A real holiday somewhere

Maybe more things will come to mind later, now that I’ve started thinking about them!

What are you grateful for? What are you looking forward to? 🙂

‘I Don’t Mean YOU. YOU’RE Alright’

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I’ve been a foreigner for going on 28 years, so by far most of my life. Now, obviously, your identity changes as you grow older and also the longer you are in a place–you gradually grow to belong to that place and it rubs off on you and you rub off on it. Some places are easier than others. I’ve had many, many addresses since my childhood home and since we were chased out of Bosnia-Herzegovina with bullets flying over the river. Many of those 28 years were spent in Denmark and many of them here in the UK.

All this to say that I have a lot of experience in being the Other in one sense or another. One thing that always annoyed me was when people would be anti-refugee to my face and then add, ‘I don’t mean you. You’re alright.’ As if that made anything better?!

Nadine Dorries famously warned of a ‘tidal wave’ of immigrants from Yugoslavia in 2014 in a TV programme discussing the relaxing of immigration restrictions for Romania and Bulgaria (which initially didn’t have the same rights to freedom of movement as other EU member states). It was a mistake, and everyone can make a mistake. Especially in modern debate culture which allows no time to reflect and especially on TV where ‘dead air’ is a cardinal sin.

What’s interesting is not so much the fact that she said this as why she said it: She had just been confronted about racist rhetoric by a member of the audience who was himself Romanian. And immediately she deflected. It’s one thing to state your opinion to no one in particular and an entirely different one to say it to someone’s face. Especially if that someone doesn’t in fact look and sound like the proverbial boogeyman but is a completely normal human being.

So if the threat was Romanian, and a Romanian said, ‘Hi, I’m here, would you mind explaining that to my face’, it’s a lot harder to defend your initial position than to simply move the label of Threat to someone else — who is not present. (And who better than Yugoslavians who haven’t even been around for decades, amirite)

I’ve had so many of these episodes in my 28 years of Otherhood.

Some person: ‘Man, those refugees, all they want is to exploit our benefits system and suck us dry. They’re probably not even refugees, it’s all made up.’
Me: ‘Hi, I’m a refugee from Bosnia-Herzegovina. I don’t at all recognise what you just said, can I perhaps clear anything up for you?’
Some person, quickly and flustered: ‘Oh, I don’t mean you. I mean those other ones.’
One of ‘those other ones’: ‘Hi, I’m one of those other ones, would you mind elaborating that for me?’
Local person, quickly and flustered: ‘Oh, I don’t mean you. I mean those other ones.’

Ad infinitum.

You can’t ever actually dismantle the ‘argument’ because it’s not an argument. It’s a free-floating fantasy of a threat and a villain that can be reassigned as needed and very frequently is. This can be about race, sexuality, people on benefits, anything at all that you want to hold in contempt. The contempt must be maintained regardless of any evidence to the contrary. No amount of ‘decent foreigners’ can make a dent in the fundamental contempt because they will forever be Excepctions™. All of them.

‘All the foreigners (gay people, people on benefits, etc.) that I know are good, decent people. The ones I don’t know? They’re bad. They must be, because they are the thing I dislike without the benefit of being three-dimensional human beings to me.’

I wonder whether they ever consider their contribution to creating a hostile environment for their own friends who they stubbornly see as Exceptions. If they are out there spreading and perpetuating the view that Foreigners Are Bad, and only the foreigners they personally know and have approved are alright, then the same must be true for everyone else. Since I can’t ever know everyone in any one country and I have only been ‘approved’ by a small number of people, then I am an Other for everyone else.

So if I’m walking down the street looking and sounding foreign, then anyone who dislikes foreigners and doesn’t know me personally would by this logic be justified in harassing me or attacking me or plain old discriminating against me. They don’t know that one of their comrades has vetted and approved me, do they? So how could it ever come as a surprise to them if one of their own friends is one day harassed on the street? After all, aren’t they themselves contributing to the general view that Foreigners Are Bad and adding their voice to that choir, encouraging others?

Again, this goes for any group that someone chooses to malign as a whole. ‘Foreigner’ is just an example here. I’m not strictly talking about racism, I’m talking about the mechanism of maintaining this contempt at all costs. And the disconnect between maintaining something that hurts one’s friends while telling them it’s nothing against them. It’s those other ones.

✉ My Snail Mail Renaissance ✉

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Letter writing! Who else used to write letters back in the pre-internet days? I was an Olympic-level letter writer in the 1990s and even a few years into the 2000s. One of my closest friends was in Canada and we used to write super long letters to each other, usually starting the next one as soon as one was sent off. Later, my letters slowly dwindled to practically nothing except birthday and Christmas cards.

This past Christmas I realised I missed writing and receiving letters as I crammed as much text into my cards as I could. I think the pandemic and being cut off from other people has made me want a more physical contact with people than email and instant messages and even video calls. ‘Here is a thing that was in my hands, I made it, and now it’s in your hands’, that sort of thing.

It felt silly and awkward at first, writing my letters. Not least because I am frequently in touch with my friends on various apps and it’s weird to have two streams of communication going at the same time with the same people when they happen at such different speeds (also, they don’t know I’m writing them a letter). But apart from that, I’ve had so much fun with it that I will definitely carry on, awkward or not. I’ve gone right back to childhood, crafting cards, using all my coloured pens (which I quickly found out go right through my paper and I need to switch to pencils), I even went online and bought stencils to draw by as I’m not at all confident at drawing. It’s hilarious; I am nearly 40 and getting childishly excited about putting stickers and doodles on letters.

There’s something so cosy about the whole affair. You get all your supplies around you, you put on some music, and you slow right down. Writing by hand is a very different animal than typing. That’s why it’s recommended to do Morning Pages by hand and not on a device, because we’re after depth, not speed. I also want to make things look nice, so I can’t scrawl as fast as if I were only writing for myself — I do, after all, want my friends to be able to read what I wrote.

In January, I had a look online for other people who were reviving the art of the letter and found some nice blogs in the WordPress Reader, one of which recommended a book called Jane Austen’s Letters. I got hold of it and eagerly started reading (Jane Austen is very witty and sharp), but I quickly realised that her letters were mainly about the people she was meeting. And I can’t meet anyone other than my partner right now! So much for taking inspiration from the great Jane Austen and impressing my friends with my great wit. But I suppose that forces you to be even more creative, when your source of outside inspiration is limited as it is right now.

Last month I managed to write two letters and yesterday I finished one more (TS, if you’re reading this, it was you ♡). They take me a few days to write and, unlike back in the 1990s when I practically had an inner clock attuned to the postal services so that I knew without thinking when precisely my letters would arrive anywhere in the world, I now have no idea how long it will take this one to travel from the UK to Denmark. But that is also part of my letter revival process — re-learning the rhythms of international post.

It’s being posted today and I am already thinking about the next letter: Who is my next recipient, what sort of paper should I use, how should I start it, how will I make it pretty? It’s brilliant fun. And so retro. You should definitely do it. 🙂

Digital Baggage

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How old is your email address?

The oldest email in my inbox right now is from late 2008, so that makes it at least 12 years. A dozen years of all kinds of thing I have been involved in, interested in, enquired about, discussed with friends. A dozen years of events, gigs, travel, films — although maybe not all of these things have had online tickets available for all that time. A dozen years of job applications, competitions, emails from long-lost friends seeking to reconnect, pictures of pets who are no longer with us. Emails with people who are no longer in our lives. Emails about why those people are no longer in our lives.

How many of us have such digital baggage that we, in a sense, carry around?

Leaving our emails sitting there and growing into an endless inbox is the default. Letting Gmail & co. save our messages in perpetuity requires no action from us, while deleting them would. Which emails do we keep and which do we delete? You could take weeks or months of your life to get your digital house in order and get down to Inbox Zero, but who has time for that? If you haven’t been deleting as you went (and let’s be honest, how many of us were that clever?), by now you likely have thousands of emails to deal with.

A while ago, I realised I still had a ton of emails between my ex and me in my inbox. Years of our relationship, the early days, the time we spent living in separate cities, the time we moved in together, the time I left the country, the time we were breaking up. And everything in between.

Even being on good terms with him today, I realised I felt really uncomfortable about some of those emails. It was a different life, a different me. But there were so many. Just thinking about sorting through them, looking to see if maybe I could learn something from my own emails or his, it was just too overwhelming. Eventually, one day I simply filtered on his email address and deleted everything.

We’re not meant to have such detailed records of our intimate ups and downs years later — in perpetuity, if you ask Gmail, Facebook & co. And of course they not only save messages from other people, they neatly save our own with them in organised threads so it allll there, in one place. Good for their business model, no doubt, but is it good for us?

When I broke up with my first boyfriend, I tore up all his letters and threw them in a dumpster (before you ask, it was for paper only). It felt good to let go. Getting rid of them made sense because they were physical objects I didn’t want to literally carry around as I moved addresses. It would take me much longer to realise I should do the same with emails from a later ex.

In the Olden Days™, letters would be all you had, and maybe not that many of them at that. You might have a small bundle of envelopes tied up that you could easily dispose of (perhaps in a fireplace, if you’re feeling theatrical). Meanwhile, nowadays… oof. I imagine even Marie Kondo would give up if she saw my inbox.

As we mature into the internet age, this issue will probably come up more and more. And we’ll have to make a decision. Do we want to carry around a record of our past in unprecedented detail, or is there something to be said for how things once were — a few letters, maybe some diaries, and our own memories?

Blood Is Thicker Than Water, Really?

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How often did I not hear this phrase growing up, ‘Blood is thicker than water’? Family sticks together, family has a sacred bond, you can always count on family, etc., etc. Lovely fairy tales for innocent souls.

As you might gather, this has not been my personal experience. My family and I have no relationship and haven’t had one for many years because I chose my own path in life rather than having them choose it for me. I wouldn’t toe the line, therefore I was pushed out. It is what it is and I have never regretted my choices even though I lost my entire ‘tribe’ because I refused to lose myself. Sometimes in life you get punished without having done anything wrong and freedom comes at a great price.

Because of this, it has long grated on me when this proverb would come up (another one being, ‘There is no love like a mother’s love’ — eyeroll). I would inwardly scoff and maybe even check out from the rest of the story, almost defensively, because I couldn’t relate. Some people have that life experience, I really do not.

Oh, I remember how it felt to be part of a big extended family as a child, don’t get me wrong. I grew up as the youngest grandchild on both my parents’ sides, and I grew up thinking how all those people were my people and how lucky I was that they would protect me and always be there for me. I celebrated their successes and looked up to them and wanted to be like them when I grew up. I went to their weddings and fully expected that they would all come to mine and be full of joy when the time came. A child’s logic.

It didn’t last. I got older, started thinking for myself, my immediate family really took issue with my attitude, specifically about dating — our disagreement being that they thought they had a say in it and I absolutely did not — told me to pack it in or I would be dead to them, in those words and on more than one occasion, and I took them by their word. Years later it would dawn on me that it might have been a bluff to scare me into doing as they said, but 17-year-old me took extreme words like that very seriously, and they never bothered to correct me. Once I lost my immediate family in this way, I drifted away from everyone else too because I had no idea where the wider family stood and I was too wounded and traumatised to set about finding out.

(A small note here: People usually ask me if this happened because my parents were Muslim. It did not. They were never even very religious. This happened because they were deeply conservative and patriarchal. That’s a very cross-religious / areligious mindset and so should be easier to relate to.)

A couple of years ago I read that the original proverb is supposed to have been, ‘The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb’. My heart did a little dance when I saw that. This I can relate to. This speaks to me.

Throughout my adult life I have collected a family of friends for myself that has done a much better job of supporting me than my blood relatives. In a time of crisis, they are the ones who will spend ages on the phone with me — and I will do the same for them. They’re the ones who will give me advice and encouragement and just plain take an interest in my life and wellbeing. They’re the ones I fret over what to get for a birthday, they’re the ones I do regular video calls with, they’re the ones I am going to visit as soon as we can visit again.

Simply put, they are my people. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything all the time. It means we genuinely wish each other well and would go far to make sure that happens. That is a family I am proud to belong to, and none of us share a drop of blood.

I have come to realise there are a lot of people out there with a similar family dysfunction like mine, even though it’s something that’s rarely talked about because it’s so embarrassing. For me, it was always extra embarrassing because I knew that, being a minority, being Bosnian refugees, any failing we displayed would paint every single other Bosnian in the world with that same failing and I didn’t want to do that to them. The price was just too high. But this is a human failing. Not an ethnic one.

This supposed original form of the proverb — The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb — is apparently not easy to document. It would have been nice to find good sources, but it’s not exactly crucial. It’s ‘internet true’ and that’s good enough for me here. Maybe it’s an ancient proverb, or maybe it’s one from our modern times where more and more people go through traumatic losses like this and decide to create their own families made up of people who want them rather than people who by biological chance have to be in their inner circle.

Someone put it as, ‘I lost my safety net, so I decided to knit my own’. We have all worked hard to make these new families. We deserve this old/new proverb, and so it is ours.

And I keep it pinned to my notice board above my desk, right where I can see it every day.

Go Forth and Create

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There is no end to the amount of information, input, entertainment and opinion out there to lay claim on our time. So it pays to occasionally remind ourselves that time is our most finite resource. Once spent, it’s gone forever. There is no getting it back, so we better make sure to spend it wisely.

The other day I took part in a webinar about storytelling through photography with Tjalling Halbertsma organised by The Creator Space Mobile Digital Arts Lab (no affiliation). He said at one point (I am paraphrasing) that once you turn off your Netflix and put away your phone, when you stop and mute all those inputs clamouring for attention, when you strip all of that away, what is left is you and what you want to say and do. Your message and passion.

Your life, your ideas and your fantasies are the best thing you have, and above all, they are unique. They are your gold mine for being creative and making something new in the world that wasn’t there before.

Give yourself time without any inputs so this new thing has a chance to form and come forward. It might be uncomfortable at first after years of surrounding ourselves with a wall of ‘noise’, but it will be worth it. It will be time well spent.

Yes, of course it’s important to learn from others, but at some point it’s time to put that on the backburner and go out there and make stuff. There is a wealth to learn by actually doing. That’s what they always say, isn’t it: Your writing will become better by writing. Your art will become better by making art. Not by passively reading about it.

What he said told me to start approaching my time and creativity with the mindset that what I have to say is more important than what they have to say. ‘They’ being the limitless world of streaming, endless scrolling and the cacophony of voices out there, all making their cases, all busy taking up time and space. Do I want to prioritise being a consumer of others’ creations, or do I want to create? If I don’t join them and take up my space, something important will be lost.

This felt radical. And fantastic. And so very, very energising.

I am spending this Saturday making things. Important things, silly things, first-time things, even edible things. What will you make?

The Illusion of Doing the Thing™

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I hoard self-help instructions. I realised this the other day, as I recorded a mindfulness meditation from a library book (we’re in lockdown here in Manchester, UK, but I can still check out e-books which is a godsend) and took careful notes for my little folder — ‘AJ,’ I thought to myself, ‘are you actually going to implement any of these clever things one of these days?’ Because it’s not the first meditation I have ever saved, of course. I have recordings for relaxation, for better sleep, for self-compassion, for staving off anxiety, for you name it.

How often do I meditate, you ask? So far, remarkably rarely, considering my sizeable stash, not to mention the wealth within Insight Timer on my phone. It’s not because I feel I’m “bad” at it because my mind wanders and I have to bring it back over and over; I do understand that this is not a problem and is in fact a sign that I am meditating. It’s not the Doing that’s a challenge for me, it’s the Starting. Also, the Sticking to it. My mind is too frantic and distractible, and that, of course, is a sure sign I would definitely benefit from meditation, if only I would get down to it.

There is always the next thing to get lured by, the next manual I can read and will surely learn all the secrets from. Just one more, one more. And if I fall into a YouTube rabbit hole, it will be for organisational systems, productivity tips, bullet journalling, morning pages and all those brilliant tricks that won’t do a damn thing for you unless you start doing them. Consistently.

Same as with writing. When I decided to get back into writing last year, I spent an enormous amount of time reading about writing before I ever attempted putting pen to paper again. But there is no substitute for experience. No substitute for warming up your muscles and going for it.

Like innumerable other people on this planet, I have also hoarded a respectable stack of fresh, blank notebooks waiting to be filled with genius in very neat, flawless lines of writing. (It has to be neat and flawless, you see, otherwise the whole notebook is ruined and you might as well start with a new one — oh look, this one has cats on it!)

I didn’t buy all of them myself, at least. Some were presents and are just too pretty to use until I have the perfect thing for them (high-five to all my fellow weirdos who know exactly what I’m talking about). Some years ago on tumblr, I saw someone asking what causes this compulsion to collect notebooks and love buying fresh new supplies, what is it that makes it so hopeful and intoxicating? And someone else’s reply: ‘It’s the illusion of productivity’. I still think about this. Even as I recorded my meditation yesterday, those words echoed in my mind.

‘This is the illusion of doing the thing. Snap out of it. Do the thing.’

So, naturally, I decided to come on here and write. Maybe you too detect a slight mismatch in my Things, but it all counts, right?

P.S. I do have a tip to help you buy fewer new notebooks, if that’s your vice: I collected all my unused ones in a box that I can go ‘shopping’ in when I need a new notebook. They’re all very different and some I even forget that I have until I see them again, so it is really like shopping and getting a brand new thing — without any money leaving your pocket.

Bonus tip: Do morning pages. They will not only help you sort out your brain in the morning, but also burn through notebooks on a regular basis, and the feeling of finishing a notebook is possibly even better than starting one!

Little Sounds

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There is a small sound. A little click of wood giving way that my worktop makes when I knead my bread. It hasn’t always made this sound, it has come with time. I have built it with every bread I’ve made in this house.

I remember sitting sideways on a kitchen chair, leaning back on the wall and watching my mother knead bread. Her back to me and beyond her our small rose garden outside the kitchen window. Click. Swoosh. Click as her body rhythmically forced the worktop down the tiniest amount. Swoosh as her hands swept along the floured surface to gather the dough and then fold, pressing it down with the heel of her palm. I do these same motions now. Our breads are very different, but I do what I have watched her do and I recognise the click of the worktop giving way to me. It is rhythm, it is ritual.

When I was little, I was fascinated with the way my older sister could make fine gravel crunch under her shoes. I tried everything to copy her, I told everyone to be quiet as I emphatically walked over that same spot, working hard to emulate the sound, but I never managed. I was convinced at the time that it was her shoes, her worn white Adidas high-tops, and that I would never be able to make that sound until I had the same shoes. Of course, the shoes had nothing to do with it. It was weight. I was simply too small and too light to make the gravel crunch in just the right way.

Now, if I happen to walk across some fine gravel and it makes the right sound, I often turn back to walk over it one more time and savour the moment.

Crunch, my past echoes.

Click. Swoosh, my morning says.

Back to Basics

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Fifteen years ago I started my first blog, right here on WordPress. The platform looked very different then, and so did the world of blogging. It was new and innocent and hardly anyone made any money from it. I ran that blog for four years. I wrote a lot, I wrote on most days, and I was fast and I was furious. I had a knack for good headings. When I wrote, I was wired because I felt like I was doing something worthwhile.

Three very different blogs later, I’ve decided to come back to basics. This time I am here simply because I want to create and share. I want to write on most days again, even if it’s only what I can manage before work – fast and furious. I am here for that feeling of the words flying out of my fingertips and across the screen, imperfect and free.

Hence the name Creative Café. This is a sandbox, a playground, a workshop, a place for working things out – not a finished and polished product. This is for building the habit of showing up.

I am also here for the community I know blogging can lead to. I made friends with my first blog all those years ago whom still love and have in my life to this day. I am here to find a new community again, one that is creative-minded and freely exchanges encouragement and support.

That is you, dear reader! I am very pleased to meet you. Do drop me a line, link me to your blog or social media account so I can visit and learn from you, and check back every now and then to see my works in progress. Until then,

AJ x

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