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Seven years ago I finished writing a book, a collection of creative non-fiction stories that have defined my life. When the cover of the 300-page paperback touched the palms of my hands, I exclaimed with tears of joy: "This is the fourth-happiest day of my life!" (The births of three children prior to this had eternally occupied the first three positions.)
Naively, I thought I had something to say and imagined somebody out in the world finding value in reading it. Many who did read it corresponded with me, telling me their own stories and sharing their insights. That part was rewarding – in fact, it was the most rewarding aspect of writing the book. I discovered that the collective of readers' responses had more to teach me than anything I had to contribute.
But with all that came something else, something I wasn't looking for: my own private insight. Me and my story – or should I say my story and I? Poor little me, and all the injustices that have been inflicted upon me.
My personal narrative became a box that I willingly placed myself inside and, with a bright grin of satisfaction, I nailed the top over my head and prayed to view the stars.
In Arabic we have a saying: "God have mercy on a person who realizes his own self-worth." Self-realization is painful. I wish it on my worst enemies.
I was your classic over-achiever, type-A personality, feverishly balancing career, family, political activism and volunteering. I was the proud owner of a dream lifestyle. But therein lay the rub: How much of all this was performed with heartfelt integrity, I asked myself.
Life after publishing the first book became a daily exercise in identity shedding.
I'd had good reason to avoid looking into the dark, abandoned corners of my existence. But once you attain insight you have no choice but to roll up your sleeves and do some work.
What followed felt like walking chest-high in thick brown sludge. In the morning, while still in bed, I would visualize putting on a pair of wading pants as a way of getting through the day. For a couple of years, each day was a trip to the sludge entertainment park, starting with a ride on the sludge roller coaster, then a visit to the sludge splashdown park and the sludge super slider, where I'd experience a gut-twisting gliding motion right before being dropped into a big barrel of sludge.
At the end of the day I'd find myself in an endless lake of sludge. My imaginary wading pants became my best friends. In the process, I transformed myself from story to storyteller of my own destiny. And now I'm releasing a second book into the world. Once again I have a grandiose delusion: "I have something interesting to say and somebody out there will appreciate reading it."
Silly me. I wake up in the night with waves of anxiety so high that expert surfers would hesitate to ride them.
I remember going into labour the second time. I arrived at the hospital trembling like a leaf dancing to the secret choreography of the wind. I was holding each forearm with the opposite hand in a futile attempt to stop myself shaking.
The nurse covered me with a variety of blankets, and I duly threw each one on the floor. In frustration, she said: "Tell me what I should do to keep you warm."
"I am not cold," was my reply. "I am afraid."
"Of what?" she asked. "The hard labour hasn't started yet."
"I remember what it was like the first time."
I honestly never understand what it is I'm writing during the act of writing. I only see a superficial side. The full meaning arrives a year or two after the ink has dried. Now I understand why so many writers drink themselves to death. Unfortunately for me, I don't enjoy alcohol.
You might think it's fear of failure that molests my quiet moments, but failure is a small potato. If nobody reads my novel I'll tell myself one of two things: I'll either embrace arrogance and say, "I am ahead of my time; nobody gets me," or, if I'm more down to earth, "I wrote a piece of garbage that nobody cares about." It does sting, but I can make my peace with that.
It is the possibility of insight that sends me grasping for wading pants.
As the colourful cover of my new novel touched my hand for the first time, there were no tears of joy, only a quiet prayer: "Please, please, please … no more insight. Whatever it is I am not aware of about my life, I don't want to know it."
Just in case, I've prepared not one, but three pairs of wading pants. My favourites are the red ones with white polka dots. Once I'm covered in sludge, nobody will see my colourful fashion statement, but they do give me a confidence boost.
I also prepared Body Shapers wading pants. They provide a smooth look to my imaginary body line. I feel like I've lost 10 pounds when I put them on.
And for special occasions I've obtained designer wading pants with eyelash-lace trim and lilac butterfly stencil. These beauties will make me feel like a princess from enchanted days. They come with an electronic cooling and heating device that I can set on auto-regulation to guarantee optimum temperature.
My future personal hell shall be fashionable.
Elen Ghulam lives in Vancouver.