As we continue with the lockdown that sometimes seems – despite glimpses of the light ahead – to be going on for ever, we must continue to find ways to cope and adapt.
I’ve been reading Amor Towles wonderful ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’. In it he quotes from the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, ‘If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them’. It’s a similar sentiment to the one that Victor Frankl expresses in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ (a book that begs to be read in lockdown) when he says, ‘When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves’.
So how do we master our circumstances when they are not of our choosing? How do we change ourselves when we can’t change our situation? How do we continue to accept, with good grace, having to stay at home – with all the frustrations, challenges and complications that brings?
For me the answer is books. The books that I can choose to read and the books that I am able to write. While I have been transported to post-revolutionary 1922 Moscow by Amor Towles elegant and moving tale and to the hinterlands of pre-politically correct 1970s Yorkshire by Kate Atkinson’s clever and witty Jackson Brodie series, I have at the same time, thanks to the gift of the internet, been having delightful conversations with two authors in different corners of the world: Faizan, a former teacher in Tanzania, and Roisin, a bright and funny Irish engineer.
Faizan and I were connected by his son Siv, who got in touch with me to say that he longed to know more of his father’s story, but that his father would not, perhaps could not, talk about the past to his adult children. Faizan had travelled to Tanzania from India as a young boy of 10 in the 1950s. His mother had just died and, with his bedding under his arm for the third-class journey, he was put on a ship for the two week trip to join his father. Months after he arrived, his father also died. Despite this second tragedy, Faizan went on to build a thriving business and to find great happiness with his wife and children.
Siv hoped that Faizan might be willing to unlock his box of early memories with a stranger and I was happy to give it a try. And so began a connection that has been a real joy.
Faizan, I have discovered, is charming and funny. As one anecdote leads to another and he tells me about life in a village in the Punjab seventy years ago, gradually the pieces of his story are coming together. As he recounts his tales, I have also been enjoying the glimpse into his life in Tanzania. He came to love his adopted home, a country very dear to my heart as I spent a good part of my childhood there. As he and I both discovered, when Africa and its magic gets under your skin, it stays forever a part of you.
When I talk to Roisin and she tells me about the family of tough Kerry farmers she came from and the battles she had making it as a woman in a man’s world, I revel in her brilliantly astute observations and descriptions and her endless stock of wicked and hilarious anecdotes.
I talk to both Faizan and Roisin via Zoom, which has been both a blessing and a challenge to so many of us. Faizan has never quite got the hang of positioning, so I mostly find myself looking at the top of his head or the acacia outside the window behind his shoulder, while he, cheerfully oblivious to his wandering camera, tells me of sitting on a mat under a banyan tree with his friends as the village teacher conducted the class. Piecing his story together for a memoir that will be of real value to his family is both a pleasure and an immensely enjoyable journey.
As for Roisin, she is gutsy and gritty and her book will be a clarion-call to girls to fight for what they want rather than what they’re given.
Both Faizan and Roisin – they feel like friends, although we have never met – have given me something precious. A glimpse into the bigger world outside my home and a chance to visit the imaginative spaces that take us into other worlds and allow us to dream of future times.
Along with the pile of books beside my bed they are seeing me through what might otherwise be a much tougher time.
- Names and details have been changed to protect clients’ confidentiality