It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. Dickens was writing about loftier things than trying to juggle family life within the confines of a compound in the Middle East during Ramadan when he wrote these enduring lines, yet his words are ringing in my mind right now as I try to do that very thing.
Within the compound walls, we can do pretty much whatever we want, Ramadan or not. There are pools and parties, clubs and climbing frames, bowling and badminton. There are playmates and friends who bridge the 3,000 mile gap between us and our families. If I posted the pictures on Facebook, you’d probably think life looked pretty jammy.
But outside the walls, during Ramadan, we are not allowed to eat or drink during the hours of daylight, most things are shut and everywhere is being heated up more fiercely than me making dinner when we are late for football practice. The temperatures here now would allow you to fry eggs on the bonnet of your car as long as you didn’t then try and eat them publicly. There’s a friendly breeze that seems to want to offer relief, maybe not realizing it’s as relieving as a giant hairdryer.
So we stay inside the walls. I have only left the compound once in three weeks to go and sit in an air conditioned trampoline park. This weekend Eid brings with it an end to the fast and a few days of national holiday. Our family had planned a last minute trip to Bahrain for a change of scenery, to escape the four walls of our house and of the compound, but the day before we were due to leave, we cancel the trip.
Since then I have been thrashing around like a caged animal. I feel dangerously feisty, deeply resentful and devoid of peace. A knot has settled on my chest and I feel exhausted, unable to work out whether I am coming down with something or whether I am worn out by the raging in my mind and heart. I want to speak to people so I can tell them how I feel. I don’t want to see anyone so they don’t see how I feel. I am conflicted! And so is my family, the ones absorbing my negativity.
We spent a lot of yesterday doing an unhelpful post-mortem on why we cancelled. Was it work pressures, the children’s long faces at the thought of a trip away (they love life within the compound), the long drive? We all remember it differently. We could probably spend the rest of our lives trying to work out how we reached a conclusion that no one can now explain and still not agree the answer.
I wondered yesterday when I went to the gym to take out my anger on the cross trainer whether the knot in my chest was caused by the disappointment of not going on a trip I was looking forward to or whether it was the outrage I felt at not getting my own way! I don’t know the answer. I know myself so imperfectly that I cannot give a truthful answer.
Interestingly, the illness I thought was starting with vanished once the endorphins kicked in. I was struck by how powerful negative emotions can be: powerful enough to make us ill or think we are ill anyway.
Would a camera trained on us during our discussions and played back have revealed the truth of what went on, the equivalent of VAR for family disputes? Would a third party observer have been able to explain it to us?
I think these things may have aided our understanding. That’s why therapy is such a lifeline to many of us- that person who agrees to stand with their wisdom and training in the gap between us and the outworkings of our mind and heart. But lie detector tests, action replays, even the reasonable bystander or the expert witness- they will never be a complete answer to the question of what is truth. We all bring our filters, backgrounds, powers of observation and interpretation into the mix.
So what is truth? It’s on my mind as we try to raise children who have learnt they don’t always need to tell it. It was on my mind when friends this week told us they know when their children are lying and I have to own another parenting flaw because I don’t. It’s on my mind because there are big decisions for us to make at the moment and I want to know the truth in order to reach them. It’s on my mind because the novel I am currently reading started several paragraphs with the refrain ‘The truth is –‘, yet Maggie O’ Farrell’s ‘I Am I Am I Am’ does not provide all I want to know.
I am not referring to big abstract questions about truth. I am talking about the sort of truth that can be applied to my life in all its trivial detail. Why is family life so hard at times? Why does having a young family bring with it the best of times and the worst of times? Why do so many other people make life look easier then I do? Where are they getting their information or support? Where are they placing their trust? Who is helping them?
As I thrash about, I think I should pray and read the Bible but I don’t really want to. I am throwing in the towel and the worse my life looks since cancelling the trip, the more I can tell everyone we should have gone to Bahrain. So I have regressed to being a child! One with an adult mind who knows how ugly her behaviour is. But it’s a tantrum of desperation because I needed an escape and now I am clawing the compound walls, knowing it won’t actually solve anything because it’s a desert on the other side. I need a truth that can reach me inside the walls.
As I try to row away from my unhappiness on my static rowing machine, I wonder where I should be standing. I usually stand on the assurance of my family’s love, on my marriage, on my roles as wife and mother, but when everything is topsy turvey and life isn’t behaving, when we are being bumped about, where do we stand? What is concrete enough to take the weight of my disappointment and frustration, my failures and my flaws?
As I row, I picture Jesus standing before Pilate. I remember they discussed truth. I read the words:
I don’t want abstract truth, I want someone to listen to me. I want someone who doesn’t change like my own shifting emotions, someone who is steadfast and unshakeable. I want a person big enough to absorb the worst of me and loving enough to see the best in me. I want someone generous enough to stick around when I rant and rave. The word that keeps coming to me lately is: Surrender. It’s an invitation to lay it all down, to give it up, hand it over, shout it out. And so I do, in my head at least!
I tell the one who says He is the way, the truth and the life that I have lost my way, that I am baffled by truth and that I am struggling with life.
I leave the gym, calmer now. The battle is over. The knot has gone. I can breathe again. And I go home. I am kinder to my family. I don’t have big answers to impart but I am able to try again because He has promised to show me the way.