A dream of work

Last night, I dreamed that I had a brand new job. No, it was a real dream, not a figurative one.

I was at this great big hotel, or hostel, where all the employees were milling around, living, talking, preparing to go to work.

LS Lowry's Returning from Work, 1929. LS Lowry's Returning from Work, 1929.  lowry returning
L.S. Lowry’s Returning From Work (1929)

But as I sat near a room, I overheard some of the employees discussing in hushed tones. They were talking about a friend or a cousin who was trapped in trying to pay off the employer, endlessly. The new faceless employer was covertly owning and enslaving people. People were trying to buy their freedom from the job. Some people were abusing substances, and the employer was facilitating their addiction.


I realized my new job was a total loss of freedom. A disconnection from yourself. It was a terrible thing. It was a mafia. It was a system where you would get consumed and never escape. After the celebratory moment where you land the job, become identified with the status of employment and salary, you discover you are trapped forever.

Then I looked at my watch, and realized I was late to work. I freaked out, and thought, I must get to work! I’m late! 


Capitalism? The time-bound enslavement and apportionment of humans in hours and pyramid.jpgminutes? The job, the work that you feel bound to, identified by, even when it destroys you?

In most cases, it sounds like the very nature of work today. We struggle to carve out an existence, a weekend, maybe if we’re lucky a vacation once or twice a year, – around the Pac-Man of work. Work threatens our hobbies, our leisure, our families, our marriages, our children.

When my daughter was six, she used to say, “When I grow up, I will have 100 children. And I will not go to work, so my children are not sad.”

And yet, without work, we are worthless. The “job” defines us. We emerge from high school and college, shiny and hopeful. We parade our cv’s around. If no faceless corporation checks our teeth and our muscles and takes possession of all our working hours, we hang our heads in shame: we have failed. We are without value. Our value is defined by the employer.

When I sought a career, I sought freedom. I saw how many women who didn’t have professional careers struggled to be beautiful, accomplished cooks, excellent housekeepers, and elegant, polite ladies, and celebrated the moment when Someone put a ring on all that. Without that Man, their futures were uncertain. Who would give them a home after their parents died?

tiem2.jpgI said, f*** that. I’ll be a person in my own right. I’ll put value to myself. I’ll earn my own living and enjoy my work and my leisure.

Then I discovered employment under Western capitalism.

That was the dream.


“Kubo & The Two Strings”

kubo-and-the-two-strings-art-design-5-600x400I wept so profusely while watching Kubo & the Two Strings, I thought I would never stop weeping. This humorous, playful, artistically innovative, visually stunning, and musically delicious film also engages head-on with grief, loss, death, and trauma. It plunges into the difficult problems of love and mortality, avoiding the Disney happy ending while rooting its reassurance in the profundity of the experience of love.

Oh, I guess I forgot to give readers a spoiler alert. kubo

Initially, I was extremely distracted, glancing over to check and see that my fairly sensitive daughter wasn’t scared and upset. The movie keeps a snappy pace, so there isn’t too much time devoting to dwelling on horror. The aunts, with their Kabuki masks, are absolutely terrifying. One moment I was moved to tears
at the painful sight of Kubo’s mother’s post-traumatic stress disorder, and her dissociative condition, and Kubo’s “parenting” of this woman. Then, however, she battles and defends her child against her sisters. kubo-1

Kubo’s magical imagination and musical creativity express his capacity for love and joy. The film beautifully uses Shinto ritual, origami, Japanese cultural practices in food, music, dress, art, architecture, and lifestyle. It is a treat for the senses.

kubo2.jpgI’ve come to hold death, grief, and loss as heartache that I am not really sure how to resolve. Kubo won’t magick pain away, but I had a taste of the catharsis that consumers of Greek tragedy experienced. “‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all” (Tennyson) may work for you. In the moment of grief and loss, it’s unlikely to help, but the Moon Beast’s dissociation of raging resentment offers no promise of healing. The world is aflame with fear, pain, and rage. Can the Moon Kings of our world replace their rage and loss with love and grief? Can the Mothers, after trauma, come back to life and return to their lost selves? Can the children, having sacrificed eyes and hearts, return to joy, music, and love?

Eid Greetings to all

14355781_1095719060475110_2534847048236480976_nApparently it’s Eid al-Scooter today. I couldn’t make it to Eid namaz for various reasons and decided to let this one have the kind of holiday she wanted.

On this gorgeous September day on a pretty quiet tree lined street in Chicago, when all the neighborhood children are at school, and we took a day off for Eid – even if it’s not a traditional community Eid – I’m grateful my child can have a real childhood.

On this day, my conscience and friend Najeeba Syeed shared the picture below, via Naveed Iqbal, of14322375_1293173024040785_6072772325920191031_n Syrian children celebrating Eid on an unexploded bomb in Aleppo.

I’m wishing and praying all the children and their families can have such normal, ordinary, calm days to celebrate, free from fear and free from the struggle to survive.

Ameen and Eid Mubarak to all of my living family, on the planet and beyond!

‘Cancer’ as shorthand for other stuff

I confess I don’t love ipicture-315t when a tirade against a social or global problem say “X is a cancer.”
But then I’m a cancer survivor.
Cancer is a cancer. Cancer’s not shorthand. Maybe to you it is. It’s not to me.
Cancer is getting that call from the oncologist that changes the trajectory of your life.
Cancer is vomiting in the parking lot after leaving a birthday party.
Cancer is that cloud of nausea and illness that doesn’t waft over you, but descends and crashes down upon you as you sit in those recliners at the chemotherapy center.
Cancer is finding clumps of hair on your pillow.
Cancer is realizing that chemo baldness isn’t a cute pixie cut but all-over-hairlessness, that you can’t even raise your eyebrows or flutter your eyelashes, because it’s all gone and you look like death warmed over.
Cancer is fatigue; always fatigue, exhaustion, a cloud of confusion. But productive, active people look at you funny and think, Well, she’s fine now, so why isn’t she pulling her weight like everyone else?
Cancer is the effects of chemo, surgery, radiation that live with you, long after people congratulate you on “Oh you’re well now!” because that means they don’t have to feel so bad for you anymore.
Cancer is aloneness. oct-2009
Cancer is people not knowing what to say to you. Not knowing what to say back. Losing people because what can anyone say? Losing people because making an effort is so hard now.
Cancer is not knowing what to say when people ask you what they can do for you, because you want to say: everything and nothing.
Cancer is being irritable because nobody gets it.
Cancer is becoming a target of everyone’s advice on lifestyle, diet, attitude, mental health, parenting, work, family, and self-help. Cancer is not being able to tell anyone to stuff it, because after all, you may need their help, and you don’t want to have a bad attitude. A cancer patient is supposed to be a suffering saint. A symbol. A Jonah. A big sign that says to other people PHEW. At least YOU don’t have CANCER.
Cancer is fear of losing your job, your marriage, your sex life, your life.
Cancer is losing your job and your sex life.
Cancer is wondering if your employer and colleagues really mean they will support you, or if they just want you to stop looking so miserable.
Cancer is trying too hard, teaching in the middle of chemo, doing fieldwork in the middle of chemo (picture 1), traveling, working, and still finding it was not enough.
Cancer is, often, realizing that your colleagues were lying about their “support”, and that they were angling to kick you out as soon as your hair came back. When the hair is back, don’t you know, you’re all better, and can be treated like shit again.
Cancer is the body fighting for survival, losing the battle as it wins.
Cancer is losing femininity, losing years, losing quality of life.
Cancer is peeling, blackened skin, scabbing skin, black pores, painful radiation sites.
Cancer is fake nipples that look like a cartoon, a joke; dented reconstructed breasts.
Cancer is feeling like a freak and a clown with one breast until they get the other part of your bilateral mastectomy done.
Cancer is fear.
Cancer is a huge change of plans like nothing else.
Cancer is wondering if you should plan to stay in a neighborhood, a city, a region, – or if it even matters because you might be gone soon, so maybe your spouse should be free to move elsewhere he can get a good job.
Cancer is wondering if you should write articles, do new research, write a new book, focus on teaching — or if you should spend all your time with your child because none of that stuff will matter soon.
Cancer is not illiteracy, cancer is not sectarianism, cancer is not hate, cancer is not all this other stuff. Cancer is something else. Cancer isn’t out there. Cancer is in there. In my body. Hiding. Ready to get me.
You may not have experienced it. Lucky you. But it’s annoying when people recycle cancer as a label for all the other things that spread insidiously.
When I get irritated about people calling other things cancer, I’m not protecting an identity. Some kind of cancer club.
What I’m actually doing, ironically, is protecting the rest of my life, I’m protecting non-disease discourse from the encroachment of cancer. Cancer has taken over enough of my daily working, resting, reflecting hours. No more. Cancer is cancer.

Day 1: My daughter’s new school

coonley-day1-5Day 1 at my kid’s new school was a success. As you can see from that huge dramatic scowl in that picture, she had a wonderful day at school.

We had sleepless nights worrying about that first day. We wondered how her teachers would read her. We worried that they would not be able to see the laughter in her eyes past the frown. We wondered, will they see her spirit blazing behind the eyebrows drawn together? Will they know her, or will she sit in the corner, in her lonely soul?

I cannot express how grateful I am to the underpaid, overworked teachers in these schools. They work hard. They make music in those classrooms. Surrounded by these children. These brilliant, fragile, powerful children with their blossoming minds, struggling to grow and flourish in spite of all their grown-ups and their inhibitions, their stereotypes, their nightmares. These children, these unique souls, who love to smile and to scowl and
shout and jump with all their hearts, who are being trained to enter the world of adults where they must NOT do anything with all their hearts, and definitely NOT to scowl and shout and jump and laugh too much.coonley-day1-3

I’m trying, I’m really trying, to help her be herself, my intentions are good, but then, too often, I keep demanding that she become me. I keep slipping into asking, pushing her to become a grown-up, an inhibited, conformist, anal retentive adult. But she keeps coming back, with that irrepressible scowl, that bright eyed raucous laugh, and telling me, THIS IS WHO I AM. Get used to it.

Keep doing that, girl. Keep fighting me.

Anniversary of an arrival

This August of 2016 is my 20th anniversary of arriving in the United States.

Not the anniversary of my leaving Pakistan: that was October 1994, and I went to Cambridge in the UK. Nor the anniversary of my leaving my family home: I left in 1991, at age 22, with an MA in English, to teach English at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, a world away from my almost 20-year home in Lahore. In retrospect, I was an unusual case in my peer group, leaving my home, my hometown, and my home country as a single woman, purely for education, rather than accompanying a husband’s career. Each anniversary is laced with excitement and fear, anxiety and aloneness, fragility and courage.


I remember being on the bus from Walm Lane to Willesden Green station, giddy with excitement. A PhD program! I was about to take flight!

I quickly abandoned most of my possessions overnight – leaving it to my friend Aliya to dispose of them – and packed a suitcase full of clothes I considered nice (they were too “nice”, it turned out, for the American everyday).

Twenty years ago, I got a budget flight on the now-defunct airline ATA, delighted with the lighthearted American tone of the announcements: “Welcome to Hawaii!” as we landed in O’Hare.