Tag Archives: love

What it’s like to get married at 18

by Aisyah Shah Idil

It was my first year of university, and I was missing my friends desperately. None of them attended the university I did, so I made regular trips on the 891 bus to see them. It was the midday bus stop crowd – full of bored, listless students. I sympathized – UNSW’s stairs were nothing to scoff at.

I milled about, checked my watch, looked to my right – and stopped, dumbstruck.

Him! I knew him! I’d met him years ago, at an Islamic class. We knew each other, but lost contact soon after. That I had a huge crush on him was of little consequence.

I crept up behind him and said hi. He tore his earphones out of his ears and grinned widely at me – the both of us erupting into excited catch-ups. I noticed his hands were shaking.

Half a year later, we were married.

My husband was seventeen, and I was eighteen. By most people’s standards, that’s a fairly young age to get married. It’s been two years since I saw him at the bus stop, and in that time, I have learnt so much more than I ever imagined. About myself and my husband, our flaws and our strengths – how difficult it is to assert your standing in family gatherings where you are both the youngest and just how fun it is to be in the same uni tutorial as your husband.

But being married young does have its challenges. Neither of us had jobs when we got married – or all the trappings of wealth that it came with. My wedding dress was a present from my mother, and he wore his beat-up Vans. We had no lavish buffet, no honeymoon abroad. We didn’t have the immediate aura of Adulthood ™ – but we were honest in our love for each other, and we were willing to learn.

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(Also, we’ve been accused of adultery far more than is reasonable. Hanging out at a bus-stop with my husband wasn’t exactly asking for a car full of men to stop outside and shout ‘haram!’ at us, but hey, what do I know. It seemed pretty clear to them, considering they came back three times.

Pro-tip: don’t accuse people of adultery. It will never end well.)

I always feel a little bemused when people ask me what it’s like to be married young. Young marriage is my only experience of marriage, and it’s about as strangely wonderful as it gets. When I procrastinate for my university assignments, I have my husband to hug me and tell me everything will be okay. When I realise I’ve been on my laptop too long and miss my friends, it’s my husband that makes sure I text them. When my husband got his P’s, I was the first person he told.

This is my normality. It is nothing like I thought it would be, and yet so, so much more beautiful.

When you have people mocking the idea that you, you with all your wide-eyed inexperience, your freshly framed school graduation paper, your lack of whatever adulthood is marked by, could ever love deeply enough to want marriage – could ever love deeply enough to make it last – it can hurt.

And when enough people do it, it can sound true.

But this is the thing – I believe that every single one of us is capable of immense, wondrous love. Love that is a tiny reflection of the sheer mercy and rahma of Allah, Most High. However it manifests is up to you – be it to your spouse, your friends, your parents, your teachers, your pets – or all of them! Because at the root of it, I believe love is the same throughout. It is the sincere concern for one another, the want to have the other be well, and whole, and happy and healthy. It is that longing to truly know one another, and to be truly known by one another.

And that is never bound by age.

Marrying my husband was a wonderful decision: A+ would do again. But it was still only a single decision. Far more important were the little ones – the decision to let my husband sleep in while I sort the groceries, the decision he makes to comfort me when I am scared of losing him. Loving is in action, and if you are worried that youth cannot love, then perhaps we haven’t taught them well enough.

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I’m not here to convince you that young marriages are worthy of respect. Opinions have no influence on worth, and every single person is worthy of love, respect and kindness. Whether they marry young, old, or never at all does nothing to change this. If I had married when I was thirty (as my younger self aspired to) with a career and car and savings all in hand, that would have been just as valid as my marriage today – no more and no less. No more deserving of people’s understanding, kindness and compassion; and no less of people’s condescension, judgment and assumption.

When I told the people around me that I was getting married, I took their ‘congratulations’ and ‘alf mabrooks’ with a healthy dose of surprise. Where was the ‘what are you doing with your life?’ or ‘you are far too young to make this decision’. The people I loved trusted my judgement more than I did, and that was humbling. They gave me loving advice, a soundboard for my fears and an assurance that no matter what: Allah SWT has me safely in His plan.

I got married with the quiet confidence that no matter what age I was, I would love and endeavor to love the man that Allah SWT opened my heart to. And at the age of eighteen, I promised Him to do just that.

 

My husband is Shia

The ‘Muslim community’ (if such a thing can be said to exist) is highly divided and segmented along a variety of ethnic, sectarian and intra-sectarian lines. Sectarian divisions have been increasingly exacerbated by recent political developments, and as such,  the Sunni and Shia communities have largely conducted themselves as separate entities.  Of course, this doesn’t at all preclude individuals from either communities closely mixing on a regular basis, both as friends or potential partners. I’ll expand on the issue of differing religious practice within a relationship in a follow-up post, but I decided to get a first-hand account on what can happen when two people of Sunni and Shia backgrounds meet and fall in love. The following is an account from an anonymous author on her marriage to her Shia husband, and the trials and tribulations they faced along the road to marriage.

I love my husband with a love so fierce it is often overwhelming. It is an intense love, and when one has such intensity in love there is equal, if not greater, intensity in the hurt that comes with it. Marriage is a constant battle of love and forgiveness and sadness and happiness and everything in between. I love my husband, but our relationship has not been easy, for one main reason: he’s Shia, and I’m Sunni.

The start of our relationship was tumultuous, to say the least. It was filled with hurdles and blockades, all of which we overcame. I saw something precious in him that I had not seen in other young men. I believe he felt the same about me.

My husband and I met at University. He immediately proposed coming to my house to speak to my father, but I was hesitant. I knew they would not approve. I was right.

My mother was mainly concerned with public opinion, and the effect it would have on our family’s reputation. It was a very difficult time for her. Her siblings shamed her for allowing us to marry and were cruel and relentless, despite all of their imperfections. For some, I remain the she-who-must-not-be-named of the family.

My father also feared the public backlash, but more importantly was concerned with the development of our religion and the raising of a family.

Image from topics.fusion.net

 

Despite their concerns, my parents allowed us to make the life-changing decision to marry, and were and continue to be supportive of our marriage. They have an amazing relationship with my husband, who they love and who he loves dearly. My mother loves his complimenting of her food. My father loves to joke with him. And my husband loves them and craves their approval.

Our marriage has been happy and filled with love, and like any marriage, also filled with arguments and disagreements. But our disagreements have had nothing to do with our religious ideologies. We argue the way any married couple would argue: due to a lack of communication, different needs, emotions, work, etc. We have taught each other to love all Muslims, regardless of their beliefs and to respect the ideologies of others, although we may not agree with them.

We don’t have children yet, but if and when we do, we plan to raise them with the best of both of our traditions. I know that my husband’s parents probably assume that our children will be raised to be Shia, but we have our own ideas of how to combine the best aspects from both sides.

If you’re going to go down this path, make sure you have supportive families and friends and remember that it will be a difficult path. People may or may not get over it. But most importantly you need to have the same overarching beliefs with your partner or it won’t work. And be in love, because when you’re in love, arguments are easy to overcome.

International Love

‘If I get really desperate, I’ll just go to Lebanon/Pakistan/insert-country-here and find someone’.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that statement, I’d be writing this from the Bahamas instead of my suburban couch. It’s terribly clichéd to say it, but I’ll say it anyway: increasingly, we are living in a global bubble. I often feel like there are so few degrees of separation between people that it’s all a bit claustrophobic. Social media gives us the sense, even if it’s not entirely accurate, that we have a portal to different countries, with those portals often being people we’ve never even met.

Even as we ‘connect’, the simultaneous sense of loneliness can fester. Routine and repetition can render us prone to the belief that we know everyone in our own city and that if there was anyone to meet, we’d have met them already. Put this sense of boredom together with the belief in global portals of discovery and we have some pretty interesting possibilities arising. We can talk to people in different countries and on different continents and see if there’s the potential of a shared life together, wherever that may be.

But it seems not all countries were created equal. There is often a marked difference in how people raised in Western countries view the idea of marrying someone raised in another Western country as opposed to marrying someone from their parents’ country of origin. This means someone in Australia may be perfectly fine with talking to someone in Canada, but they may not be as open to talking to someone born and raised in Iraq.

Much of this may be explained by language barriers. If someone doesn’t speak a language other than English fluently, they will naturally experience communication issues with someone whose English isn’t fluent. But it’s more than that. Many people refer to ways of being particular to the ‘third culture generation’: those who were raised in a Western country to migrant parents, negotiating their way through different modes of existence and forming their own mishmash of an identity. Those with a very strong sense of cultural identity may feel they relate well to people from their parents’ country of origin, and as such are very open to marrying someone who was raised there.

But even so, a kind of stigma is often attached to these unions. People whisper behind their hands, well, they clearly gave up and couldn’t find someone here. The perception exists that it’s easier to find someone to marry overseas, perhaps grounded in suspicion of the motives of those who don’t hold Western passports. It’s a common perception that many people are just after visas or green cards and will marry anyone to get it. ‘Fobs’ are the butt of many jokes, with everything from their broken English to their way of dressing becoming the subject of derision.

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I find it all very interesting, especially from where I stand as a person whose parents and relatives overseas speak English as their main language. I’ve certainly never had anyone show any interest whatsoever in my Australian passport when I go to South Africa, and so part of me feels sceptical when friends talk about dangling their passport in front of people overseas and watching the hordes run in. I also know many people who’ve simply met someone overseas and hit it off with them, just as they would with someone here, and so I hate to think that their relationship would be attributed to a mere visa hunt by the overseas party.

I also wonder just how similar the experiences and outlooks of Muslims in different Western countries are. How different is the Canadian Muslim experience to the British Muslim experience to the Australian Muslim experience? Of course, migration patterns differ between these countries, which results in different demographic mixes and community dynamics. For example, the migrant US Muslim community is known to be particularly affluent and well-educated. Friends I know who’ve mingled extensively with people from the US Muslim community comment that they seem more ‘liberal’ than people in Australia when it comes to relations with the opposite sex, which makes for interesting international love conundrums. Even here in Australia much is made of the distinction between Muslims in Sydney and Melbourne, and within cities all kinds of different communities and sub-communities exist.

Where is this all going to go? What kinds of identities will the children of Muslim Australian-US-Indian-Somali parents ascribe to? Will these apps and sites, created to foster country-wide and global connections, achieve their aims? I’m not sure. There are too many variables involved, too many factors at play. All I know is that the world for me has simultaneously contracted and expanded as I’ve gotten older. I’m more conscious than ever of all that lies beyond the city of my birth, but am also more conscious of how modernity and globalisation is condensing and eroding culture and difference into one soupy hot mess. I wonder about all the people who are getting left behind as people like me, the privileged, well-travelled, well-educated elite, continue to do our global dances from retreats to conventions to conferences, meeting more and more people just like us.

Would you marry someone from another country? Would it matter which country they were from?

 

 

Why don’t people matchmake?

The very word ‘matchmaking’ tends to send people running for cover, whether it be the thought of being set up or setting other people up. In a society where individual choice and autonomy reigns supreme (thank you, modernity), it’s not hard to see why. Many people are fiercely protective of their love lives, resisting any perceived ‘interference’. But is matchmaking really the big nasty it’s made out to be?

The answer is no, it’s not. In fact, it’s all the more necessary and handy for the Muslim diaspora in the West, largely displaced from traditional support systems for finding a partner and swimming in a big sea of ineligible classmates and colleagues. The increase in online marriage sites and Tinder-esque apps reflects the confusing mesh of requirements for love amongst Muslims in the 21st century. We want romance, but we also want commitment. Some of us have families who can find us someone, but we aren’t up for that. Some of us don’t have that option at all, whether it’s because our families are non-Muslim or simply not well-connected. We want ‘organic’ connections, despite knowing that the chances of simply bumping into that special someone are slim to nil. We feel like we know most of the people there are to know, and the people we don’t know…well, we just don’t know them and we aren’t sure how we could go about knowing them.

This is where the third party referral system can step in. I call it referral rather than recommendation because I know the very idea of vouching for a person’s character puts people off matchmaking entirely. They worry that if it doesn’t work out, they’ll somehow be held responsible. They feel like they’re just not qualified to make an assessment as to the compatibility of two people, and feel it would be presumptuous of them to even try.

But what are we really doing when we matchmake? At its simplest, all we’re doing is providing an introduction. Whatever happens from there is completely up to the people in question. Whether it works out or doesn’t is immaterial because we’ve done our part: put two people in contact who wouldn’t have otherwise had the agency or courage to. If I suggest a person talk to another person, I’m not claiming to know that they’re meant to be together. I’m not claiming that it even has a high chance of working out. All I’m doing is providing an ‘in’ for them to use as they see fit.

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Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should try to set two people up simply because one is a girl and one is a guy. Some thought should be given to whether they’d be compatible on at least a superficial level, but if it’s presumptuous to think two people are compatible, it’s also presumptuous to think two people won’t be compatible. People aren’t linear; they’re jagged and complex and multi-faceted. I’d much rather give two people the chance to discover that they’re not compatible for themselves, rather than simply assume that they’re not and thereby deprive them of even the slightest chance they may have had.

I know, I know, it’s not exactly how many people picture meeting a partner, but I’m pretty sure no one fantasises about meeting a partner on an app either.  At least with the introductory system, someone can at the very least vouch for the fact that someone is who they say they are and isn’t a wanted criminal (in this jurisdiction, if not elsewhere). A guiding hand in the process, however invisible, can also be invaluable. Negotiating everything on our own, as exciting and romantic as it may be, is often a spectacular failure, given the lack of parameters or set expectations. (Oddly enough, many of us seem to prefer the spectacular failures to the perceived rigidity and constraints of letting our family or friends have a hand in selecting a partner.)

The other good thing about matchmaking is that it’s a fairly fluid sort of institution. It ranges from people being set up who don’t know each other at all to people who may have an interest in each other but are too scared or don’t know how to go about pursuing it. In the latter cases, the matchmaker is simply there to facilitate the interest. This scenario is a lot more common than people realise, but it’s fairly obvious why it happens: it’s difficult, scary, risky and potentially darn embarrassing to try to make something happen with someone we barely know, and perhaps even more so when we do know the person.

If we see marriage as a purely individual, private project for each person to determine on their own, we’ll naturally resist both the impulse to suggest people to others or have people suggested to us. Frequently, the desire to respect people’s privacy or not to offend holds us back from inquiring about their lives, their happiness or lack thereof. The burden for seeking assistance usually lies with the person in need of it, but often people are too embarrassed or ashamed to ask. After all, who’d be comfortable to ask someone to help them find a spouse? It implies we’re incapable of doing it ourselves, and no one likes that idea. But if we see marriage as a communal project and the path to it as a communal struggle, we’re a lot more likely to both offer and accept help. People struggling to get meet potential partners often share similar issues: family pressures or constraints, lack of opportunity to widen their circles, lack of time or energy to actively seek it out. If we’re all on the same journey, why not give each other a leg-up and help to spread the love as we go along?

 

Love before vs after marriage

Am I the only person who notices a recurring theme emerge in any number of people’s lives? This week’s one is definitely the place of love in the scheme of marriage: when it should be present, how much, what form it should take. I find it really interesting to observe how this debate is played out amongst young Muslims in the Western diaspora, many of whose parents may not necessarily have had ‘love marriages’. There is little precedent as to how to negotiate the complex mix of romantic sensibilities, obligation and religious propriety, the online banter, the text messages and Facebook comments. The gap between love and marriage is often the size of a chasm, and the paths to reconcile the two steep and difficult to manoeuvre.

But what precisely is a ‘love marriage’ in any case? It’s difficult to say. Often, love before marriage, if it’s ever acknowledged to exist in popular religious discourse, is characterised as frivolous, the unwelcome by-product of too many Hollywood rom coms. Very few people actually talk about the extent to which romantic love should guide our choice in partner. Very few people talk about what it means to be in love with someone before we’re actually married to them, perhaps because the simplest paradigm is that love just doesn’t exist outside of marriage, and if it does, it’s illicit or sinful. But there are so many shades of grey in this discussion. (Way more than 50, that’s for sure.) Sure, love is undeniably richer and deeper within the confines of a marriage, but how many people can claim that their decision to marry someone was entirely clinical and detached from any form of romantic feeling?

The extent to which love guides people’s decision to marry someone varies considerably amongst Muslims. There are extremes on either side of the spectrum, but a large portion of people are simply undecided and hover somewhere in the middle. For ease of reading, I’ll try to condense them into the following categories:

1.) Love comes after marriage

The people who espouse this mentality like to keep things simple. They aim to treat the search for a spouse as a ‘scientific’ process, one with set criteria and a concrete means by which to attain the person in possession of them. They try to only look when they feel they’re ready to get married, which saves them from cumbersome and distracting romantic entanglements. If they do fall in love with someone outside of marriage, in their mind it doesn’t necessarily follow that they should get married to that person, unless that person also happens to match their criteria.

When they do find someone who matches their criteria, they can often commit fairly quickly and easily. There is no giant chasm to cross, no real barriers except purely practical ones to sealing the deal: if they’re ready, they’ll just go for it. They are confident that where rationality and propriety leads, love will follow.

2.) There must be the potential for love, but not necessarily love itself

This is probably the most common mentality I’ve encountered. For many young Muslims, some sense of cultural or religious propriety prevents them from falling in love unreservedly with someone before they’re married to them. Perhaps they just don’t allow themselves to get close or intimate enough for that. But they must feel that behind the tentative explorations lies at least the potential for deep and satisfying romantic love, the kind they’re certain exists even if they haven’t personally experienced it.

If they don’t have at least some sort of romantic inclination towards the person, it will often be difficult to go plunging ahead into marriage. Whether they do or don’t make it to the Shaykh will often depend on how much they want to get married. If someone really wants to get married, they can often proceed on the smallest of inclinations, but if they’re not in a rush, it’ll often take much more to get them across the line.

3.) Love is a must or it’s a no-go

For some, love is a prerequisite. They simply wouldn’t be able to make such a huge step as marriage without it. Their love may have begun in an entirely ‘rational’ place, such as shared values and interests, but it will quickly spiral into a huge, beautiful, complex, metastasising web of feelings. Of course, loving someone is no guarantee that it will eventuate in marriage. Love doesn’t conquer all, it conquers some. We’ve all seen those couples who were deeply in love and thus triumphed over all the odds, but just as many crumble on the hard, jagged rocks of cultural/financial/timing/other obstacles.

Sometimes love aligns entirely with what’s easy, and these cases are most likely to eventuate in marriage. For example, if someone falls in love with a family friend of the same cultural background, similar levels of religious observance, similar education levels, financial goals etc., then they’re highly likely to just get married. But people often fall in love with less neat possibilities, and for these people the trek to the Shaykh can be long and arduous and filled with prickly thorns. This is why some feel love should be relegated to the back of the line of considerations: it can be a messy, messy means by which to choose a partner. To say ‘I want to marry you because I love you’ may be both the stupidest and bravest thing of all.

People may inhabit different categories at different points in life. Sometimes people try their hand at romantic love, get their heart broken and consequently migrate over to the ‘love comes after marriage’ camp. Sometimes people try to force themselves to get married to the ‘sensible’ choice and find that they just can’t do it. Sometimes people marry the sensible choice and find that they fall passionately in love with them, and sometimes they just never experience passionate love at all and are content with that. There are no rulebooks in this game, no manuals by which we can operate. Each of us makes, and re-makes, and re-makes, our own path, losing love and finding it again as we stumble our way towards a life of folding laundry and making the bed with that special someone.

Where do you fit into this equation? Do you allow yourself to be guided by love when it comes to choosing a spouse?

Do people actually want to get married?

The other day, I was interviewed by a journalist about the topic of Muslim ‘dating’. At one point in the interview, she asked me if there is a ‘marriage crisis’ amongst Muslims. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. In previous posts, I’ve discussed reasons why it may be that people are finding it difficult to meet a partner (see the ‘Why Can’t I Get Married’ post, for example). But this discussion always assumes that people actually do want to get married, an assumption I’m coming to question the more people I see and talk to about this topic.

It’s easy to see why this assumption exists. Being in a relationship is seen as a default state for many, whether due to social conditioning or some innate primal instinct for companionship. For Muslims in particular, there seems to be a whole host of reasons why people would be keen to get married: religious dictates, prohibition of physical intimacy before marriage, familial pressures. But is it safe to assume that every unmarried Muslim is actually looking to get married?

The short answer is no. The long answer is, well, let’s-take-a closer-look-because-things-aren’t-exactly-what-they-seem. One thing to note in this discussion is that there often seems to be a discrepancy between the genders when it comes to this issue. The perception exists, whether true or not, that Muslim women are keener to get hitched than Muslim men. If this is true, there are some fairly obvious explanations as to why this may be the case.

Firstly, when we speak of people not wanting to get married, this is often a case of not wanting to get married right now, and there are many more reasons for Muslim women to be aware of the right now factor than Muslim men. For one thing, there’s the ever-present, oft-reminded ticking of biological clocks. A 35 year old single woman may be staring down the barrel of never having children, while a single 35 year old male is still looking forward to this possibility.

Another reason why it may appear that Muslim men are less keen to get hitched right here, right now is that they associate marriage with a high degree of responsibility. This may be both an expectation they impose on themselves or one imposed by women and their families. This being the case, it’s easy to see why some Muslim men may feel that they just don’t have it together. They’re not working full-time. They may still be studying. These aren’t prohibitive factors to getting married in a practical sense, but for some they form an insurmountable mental obstacle.

But wait, there’s more! There also happens to be the perception that women may attain more autonomy in marriage than they currently have as singles in their parents’ home, while men may associate marriage with a loss of autonomy. These men may be working full-time and have their finances sorted, but they’re keener to spend their dough on trips with friends and just ‘enjoying life’ than mundane, married people things like paying rent. In contrast, some Muslim women, even when working full-time, are simply not able to do the things their brothers can. They may not be allowed to travel on their own. They may have parents imposing curfew on them. For them, getting married may seem like an automatic ticket to adulthood and independence.

Of course, there are many reasons why people might not want to get married, male or female. Sometimes the thought of a lifelong commitment is just plain scary. As Muslims, it’s not like we can live with the person before getting married to them, so there are always going to be certain blind spots. Sometimes a history of heartbreak and failed relationships can render people unwilling to try again. Sometimes, people are just content with the lives that they have and feel no compulsion to complicate it with the introduction of another person.

Something I often think about is whether there will be a whole bunch of people who will just never get married, and not necessarily out of choice. Again, this seems to be more heavily skewed to the female side. This is perhaps part of the ‘marriage crisis’: people who want to get married, but simply can’t. Often, this seems to be a question of timing. At different parts of our lives, our desire to get married may be greater than others, and if we meet someone when we’re just not that keen, we won’t give it our best shot. But then we may find that in a year or two, when we’re actually seeking a partner, none seem to present themselves. This is why the funny little phenomenon of marrying someone almost as insurance for later comes into play i.e. people getting married partly out of fear that they won’t be able to find someone later.

Despite this rather grim little discussion, I still conclude that most people are at least open to the possibility of meeting someone, and if they like that someone enough, will do their best to commit to marriage. Everyone, from the broken-hearted to the happiest of singles can be coaxed gently into love and marriage. Our capacity to love and be loved is surprisingly strong, even against the odds, and there are many, many, many odds, so many that it seems wondrous that anyone even makes it to the altar. (Or masjid, to be more accurate.) But therein lies the very reason why we keep trying: the wondrous, frustrating, dynamic, amazing institution that is marriage.

2014

I’m sitting and listening to the rain fall for the umpteenth day in a row, and I wonder what on earth to make of this year.

Up until the age of eighteen, I kept regular diaries. At the end of each year, I did this fun little exercise where I’d evaluate its pivotal moments, its highs and lows, triumphs and tribulations. I don’t keep a diary anymore, but this particular habit is a hard one to kick.

What did the human race learn this year? Precious little, I suspect.

Systemic injustice prevailed in Ferguson, and yet again with Eric Garner. (We seemed surprised to know that it happens here in Australia too, and with just as much impunity.)

Gaza bled.

ISIS became ISIL became IS became the latest horrible thing to condemn/bomb/ignore state-sponsored terror.

The Ebola virus bothered us a little when it was contained in Africa, but bothered us far more when it threatened to hit our shores.

Malaysian Airlines shareholders everywhere winced, then winced again.

Iggy Azalea embarrassed Australia only very slightly less than Tony Abbott.

In short, it was pretty much the same as every other year: those suffering continued to suffer, the privileged few dug their heels in that little bit deeper and we, the comfortable masses, continued to share articles on Facebook to temporarily assuage our guilt.

What did I learn this year?

I learned how to run in high heels and that dabbing, not rubbing, gets stains out of my suit jackets.

I learned to look at the judge and only the judge in a packed courtroom.

I learned that if you put a cold teaspoon on your eyelids in the morning, it doesn’t look like you were up crying late last night. (Well, not quite as much.)

I learned that more often than not, the obvious answer is the right answer.

I learned that the Swiss like their beds hard and that the French are really quite friendly if you show them the basic courtesy of saying s’il vous plait as you order one of their delicious salted butter toffee crepes.

I learned that if you think things can’t get any worse, you’re usually wrong, but if you think that they can’t get any better, you’re usually wrong too.

I learned that you can miss things you hated, like tutorials and lectures and even, God forbid, writing essays.

I learned that pain, anger, anything at all, is preferable to stagnation and inertia.

I also learned how to bake really, really good brownies.

In previous years, there was always a defining incident or person or characteristic. 2002, the year of discovery. 2006, the year of deaths. 2009, the year of change and renewal. But it’s been a while since ‘the year of’, and I have a feeling that this is just how things are now. Occasional spurts of wonderful and terrible, of love and loss, are mixed in with the steady trickle of average, and I think to myself, what will I remember of this in fifty years’ time?

Up until the time I finished studying earlier this year, life followed a certain pattern. There was always a deadline, some kind of theoretical boundary of time looming in the distance. When I was in high school, it was final exams. At university, I lived from semester to semester, while simultaneously counting down, four years to go, two years to go, just five days to go. (I did two degrees in five years, so there was a lot of counting going on.)

But with ‘adulthood’ comes the realisation that this is it. Time stretches out endlessly before you, before me, and we can do whatever we want with it. We can work dead-end jobs, or mediocre jobs, or no jobs at all. We can get married, or not get married, or we can even leave a marriage (or two, or three) after we’ve entered one. We can stay in the same place and catch the same train and eat the same sandwich for lunch, or we can move from place to place, leaving little pieces of ourselves scattered across the earth for others to find. The only real deadline is death, the only real constraint is what sits outside the realm of possibility.

So I suppose this is what I’ve learnt this year: that life has no set path to traverse, that there is no overarching framework except faith, that there is no one ‘passion’ or cause to be defined by, that there are multiple lives just waiting to be lived at the press of a button or a swipe of a card. There are infinite possibilities, and this is as terrifying as it is beautiful.

What did you learn this year?