Attempting to Come to Peace with Middle England and My Many Selves
For years, I’ve been in the habit of going for a walk or run at least every day. It’s one thing that I have found greatly improves my mental health and allows me to think and reflect on myself with clarity. When I started living with my parents again due to lockdown, it only seemed natural to try to continue that habit. I took all the different routes that I could think of around the town and around the countryside, trying to realign myself with the world around me. Some things I began to appreciate – I never noticed how beautiful the endless stretches of green fields were. But, soon I noticed that although I’d walked down nearly every path in my area, my feet refused to walk down a certain route. I, a fully-grown 21-year-old woman, could not walk down the same route I used to take to school.
I grew up in St Neots, Cambridgeshire. Growing up as a mixed-race Muslim kid in post-7/7 small-town Britain, I had a lot of uncertain feelings about myself and my place in the world. I felt so much shame over myself, my religion, my family, and the beliefs and cultures which shaped me inside. I suppressed these parts of me on the outside to avoid ridicule. Or, worse yet, I would ridicule these parts of me out of insecurity, to the point where I myself became problematic. My memories of growing up in St Neots are almost entirely shrouded in feelings of alienation and depression, of feeling like I didn’t have a place.
But now that was behind me, I was sure of it – I had been living in London for two years and Singapore for another: they were both places where the vast diversity of the world was apparent all around me, and I never felt alone because of my ethnicity or creed. I thought I’d left my feelings of alienation behind me, that I had transcended my past. And yet here I was, the feelings I had long buried rushing back over the simple act of walking down a footpath. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I confront this place? Why couldn’t I find peace?
I stopped taking my walks. I stayed in everyday applying hopelessly for jobs in London and looking into places I could move into straight away. I felt that I had to leave, that any hope of resolution was futile.
But then one day, after getting rejected yet again for a job, I left my bed for the first time in ages and started walking through the town and countryside again. The fields were now a golden yellow, a bright luminous ray stretching all around me. In this I saw so much possibility, the endlessness of it all bathing me in the limitless future ahead of me. However, I then remembered how it felt to look out of the window as a child, the vast expanse only solidifying my feelings of alienation. In the fields, I felt the future and past happening at once. And that was the answer.
The hardest part of confronting the past isn’t forgetting. It’s easy to forget the feelings I once had here. It’s easy to try to replace old feelings with new ones. The hardest part is accepting those feelings as a still-formative part of me, in a present immersed in many pasts and possibilities.
I started slowly putting myself back together. I started acknowledging and embracing my experience growing up as a mixed-race Muslim child in Britain, talking to my friends about their own experiences and reading books on the experiences of various diaspora communities in the UK. I even started a book club, Diaspora Reads, to form a collaborative community to explore diasporic experiences through literature and discussion.
The other day I passed the route I used to take to school. For a moment, I stopped and contemplated walking down that path. Do I want to? Do I need to do this to heal?
I took a hard left and headed in the other direction. And maybe that’s okay.
Maybe that’s what it means to come to peace with my feelings, my past, and my future.