The books choose you

I love books. And I love bookstores. The cute tiny ones tucked away in a side street, the massive big-brand ones with multiple rooms filled floor-to-ceiling, and anything in between. I love wandering the aisles, perusing the shelves – finding old favourite books, looking for titles that come strongly recommended, chancing upon new surprises that might find a place in your heart once you get acquainted. (In the interest of full disclosure, my dream rom-com movie meet-cute would be when you see someone at a bookstore and both of you reach for the same book; that kind of chemistry is way more appealing than the tired ‘guy sees girl across the room at a pub and sends over a drink’ cliché. But, I digress.) Spending hours in bookstores has always been one of my go-to happy places.

And then, about 18 months ago, I moved to a country where there are still bookstores (albeit no online book shopping sites, an almost anachronistic reversal;) however, they sell books, almost exclusively, in the 2 main languages used here (French and Arabic,) and not English. I knew this when I decided to move to Tunis. I made my peace with it; even gave in and bought myself a “practical” e-book reader. (It doesn’t hold a candle to that gorgeous feeling of holding a book in your hand. If you know, you know.) However, the universe was clearly amused at my plight and helped me discover 2 bookstores (thus far,) that have a selection of books in English. And, by a selection, I mean a shelf of English books. One shelf. Singular.

The collection on this singular set of shelves is rather eclectic. It is not uncommon to find books by James Patterson, Sophie Kinsella, Haruki Murakami, Danielle Steele and Lou Dobbs lying side-by-side. There is no way to know what books might be coming in the next shipment or when that might arrive; in one of the shops, the English books aren’t even part of the online catalogue. There’s definitely no way to hunt down a particular book or set of titles you’re looking for, or have them ordered for you. You can’t really make your own wishlist and go shopping. What you see on the shelves is what you have to choose from.

And somehow, there’s been something quite liberating about this approach to book shopping. Sure, there’s plenty on my reading list that I cannot find here, and I wish I could. However, I’ve taken myself repeatedly to both these stores (because there aren’t enough words to explain how much I love reading physical versions of books;) and, in doing so, I’ve stumbled onto some incredible pieces of literature I’d probably have not known to go looking for. I picked up Stardust, a collection of poems by the young Tunisian poet Rania Attafi, and was fascinated by the simultaneous feminist and existential layers in her poetry. I fell in love with Amin Maalouf’s writing when I read the enchantingly lyrical and endearing Ports of Call and can’t wait to get my hands on another one of his books. I read my first Jodi Picoult novel and bawled my eyes out through most of Sing You Home. I (re)read Toni Morrison’s Home after decades and it brought the nostalgia of my college Literature degree years tearing back. I have all 3 books of The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz and 2 books by Jojo Moyes waiting for me on my desk – both, authors whose writing I’ve never read before and am now incredibly curious to explore.

Choice is an interesting construct. As a reader, I’ve love to go after the books on my list that I know I want to read. I’d have thought I’d enjoy those books more. But, in not being able to do that, I’ve ended up with a whole different set of books that were, perhaps, also meant to make their way to me. I didn’t go to the bookstore with the intention to buy any of them. And still, each of those books has left me so much better off, so much richer, for having read them. Choice really is an interesting construct. Sometimes, you choose the books you read. And sometimes, the books choose you.

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Finding joy in 2020

A side effect of 2020 that I did not anticipate has been being unable to write like I used to. In navigating life during a pandemic, I’ve found myself frozen when it comes to something that used to be intuitive and nourishing – the ability to journal and express myself easily. This past week, inspired by some gorgeous Byzantine ruins and fellow-journalling-friends, I sat down to reflect on the year that’s drawing to a close. 

Now, truth be told, any journaling I do around New Year’s Eve typically tends to be focused on gratitude, on acknowledging the positives of the year; which honestly, in 2020, feels like an oxymoron. Because this year – this surreal, seemingly dystopian, almost maniacal aberration of a year that sent the whole world into a tailspin – has been anything but joyful. For me, this has been the year where everything that would typically fuel the life I lead got turned on its head. This has been the year of not being able to see family, friends, people I love; of staying in my new home country and, quite literally, not being able to go anywhere else; of hugging pillows and sorely missing real human contact and intimacy; of simultaneously being grateful to have a job and also have that job morph into something I had no idea how to do; of not knowing what could happen the next day, week or month, and not really being able to make any concrete plans; of feeling alone and anxious and overwhelmed almost all the time. Anything that would historically nourish me did not exist in 2020.

And even so, as I sat down and put pen to paper this week, I realised that there has been plenty this year that I could be grateful for. Joy did have a place in my life; it just looked different than it did in years past. Here are some things that made my heart smile in 2020:

  • A text message from someone checking in on me.
  • Big chunky sweatshirts and comfy pyjamas.
  • Taking care of my plants.
  • Trying new recipes and enjoying doing that, despite the moderate success rate. 
  • Hanging up fairy lights in every room of my home.
  • Long walks in open spaces filled with blue skies and greenery all around.
  • Meme/GIF wars with friends who are as dorky-cool as me.
  • Series of ‘no-bra’ days (and then weeks) because, well, lockdown. 
  • Working on my sorely lacking millennial skill of taking selfies (how do people do it?!)
  • Rediscovering a song I once loved when listening to a playlist on shuffle.
  • Staring at the flickering flame of a scented candle for calm.
  • Playing cross-continent antakshari with a friend using Whatsapp voice notes.
  • Finding the ‘sunshine spots’ in my apartment – tracing where there’s more light and warmth at different times in the day.
  • Swapping Netflix recommendations with my 70+ year-old father, who discovered the joy of movie streaming services during this pandemic lockdown.
  • Friends from Chennai moving to Tunis and bringing that feeling of home with them.
  • Sitting on the balcony and watching the riot of colours in the sky during sunrises and sunsets.
  • Reading a book and finding a couple of sentences which resonate so much that it seems like the author is talking directly to me.
  • Walking through (and sitting in) ruins from over a thousand years ago – always a solid reminder of how perpetuating life is.
  • Rediscovering childhood hobbies like making friendship bracelets (remember how wildly popular that was in the 90s?!)
  • Finding new ways to hang out with friends in a pandemic world (my current favourite is cooking swaps – you and a friend who is following pandemic safety guidelines meet in each other’s homes and teach each other how to make one of your favourite recipes.)
  • Reconnecting with people that had faded away in the bustle of “normal” life.
  • Letting go of people who … well, needed to be let go of.
  • Bonding with new people in my new home city over the shared experience of living through this year.
  • Having a series of good health days
  • Embracing solitude and those small moments of mildly believing that maybe I am enough, maybe I can do this.

My New Year’s Eve journalling also typically tends to be hopeful – the whole new year, new beginnings, clean slate, put the last 12 months behind you, onwards and upwards deal. This new year probably isn’t going to be that kind of year, at least not for a while. The world is still poised rather precariously and life “as we knew it” might be some ways down the road. 

But if there’s one thing I’m taking with me from 2020, it’s the realisation that it is possible to find joy in the most adverse of circumstances; even in the likes of this year. Joy might appear different, might take on different forms than you’re used to. It might end up being in simple things, in those small moments of life that happen when you aren’t typically used to paying attention. It might ask that you shift your lens a little, eliminate the typical trappings of life; that you hone in, be more present and mindful. And in doing so, you can find those moments that truly matter, which nourish you and make you smile. You can hold them close in your heart and harness their positive energy and keep going. Over the course of this year, I’ve learned that it is possible to do this. And that for me is the biggest joy of 2020.