What Japanese Women Taught Me About Love.

When the cold and pristine winter air first kissed my face as I got off the plane at Narita Airport, Japan, I opened my mind to a world full of infinite discoveries. I’ll be honest, there are certain concepts and elements I am yet to fully grasp as a writer; Love is one of them. I was hoping Japan would help me understand it a little better.

On the 8th day of my Japan expedition, a tiny house in one corner of Saiki Bay made a few revelations. I finally fell in love again, and I’m pretty sure I understand it a little better. So here’s what Japanese women taught me about love.

Who are you really? (Himino-chan, age 6)

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– Every relationship starts with a conversation, if not, at least with a feeble attempt at one. However, from time to time you’ll come across a woman who speaks a different language. She probably won’t share your obsession of sipping freshly ground coffee from your favourite mug. Maybe she swears by the subtleties of white chocolate while you choose the intoxicating allures of bitter dark ones; it doesn’t matter. Words are lost in translation, emotions are not. Deciphering her tongue takes exhaustive efforts; she’s met many who speak the same language but still never really understood her. She could speak Japanese for all I care; but does that mask the honesty inside her every time she starts to speak?

– Learn to intrigue every little part of her imagination to the point where it bursts at the seams. Don’t do the same magic trick over and over. You might have the upper hand now, but someday she will learn to play her cards better, or worse, learn to read yours. Be unpredictable. Don’t pull out a rabbit from your hat, pull out a cat; maybe it’ll claw at your fingers and embarrass you completely but your misery will be worth her laugh. The day magic stands still, the world will think it’s a trick; for it to remain a beautiful illusion it must be rethought, reconsidered and reinvented for what it is.

– Learn to forget yourself around her. You’re not 22. You aren’t someone who has seen more or less of the world than she has. You’re never too mature or too naive. So every time she tries to discover you, learn to blur your lines. For you to win her over, you must make yourself vulnerable to her first. Remember, no conquests were made from staying under defensive cover.

– Make a conscious effort to give her choices a chance. Don’t you already know most of what you love and prefer? Maybe it’s time for you to indulge in things that have always differed from what you’ve loved. Maybe she thinks fish tastes better fried than when it’s poached. Maybe she thinks an accompaniment of seaweed is more digestible than a helping of sautéed onions. It never hurts to try the things she loves. After all, you’re one of those things, aren’t you?

The things I never say (Tsubaki Chan, age 3)

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– When she looks at you for the first time, do not mistake her quiet, piercing gaze for aggression. Some women measure your worth before they grant you the privilege of a conversation.

– When she finally acknowledges that you exist, make every little gesture to tell her that you care what she talks about who she is. If she’s 3 feet tall and you’re 5’7, don’t let her crane her neck when she speaks. Don’t be distant. Don’t be out of reach. Instead, go down to your knees and look into her eyes when she talks. Her voice will be warm. Her smile will be warmer. You can tell by the tinge of pink that spreads itself across her rosy cheeks.

– When she pulls you by your hand (or even wraps three-year-old fingers around your solitary index finger), don’t stop to question her intentions. Let her lead you wherever she pleases. Live the quivering excitement in her voice with her, watch her eyes grow wide in anticipation when she opens the surprises she keeps giftwrapped inside her mind. She wants you to be a part of her wonderment, her emotions, her universe. Why would you even refuse?

– One day, she’ll let out slivers of thoughts you won’t be able to grasp. She’ll say words with a weight you cannot comprehend, or maybe she’ll just sit across you and break down into quite sobs from beginning to end. At times like these, let her know that you’re listening and hanging onto every thing she spills. A gentle nod, a reassuring nudge, an encouraging word; little gestures to remind her that everything she said is heard. She could speak in rapid Japanese for all you know; in the end, what you sense matters more than what you take in.

– When it is time to say goodbye, give her something to remember you by. Embrace her, leave her with a little kiss; like you want the warmth on your finger tips and your skin to fill her empty depths with happiness. When people leave, all that is left is memories; so give her one that she can go back to time and over. Be the book she never gets bored of reading, be the song she replays in her head when she’s breathing in emptiness; when she needs something to remind of reasons to keep existing. That way, if you find yourself living a day when you have to leave without knowing when you’ll return, at least you’ll say good bye knowing you did everything to be a part of something she’ll cherish all her life. She’ll grow old, she’ll grow up with them; one day when she gets to where she wants, she will remember you.

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TEDx Talk: Social Media and Moving Beyond Numbers.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. My name is Shamir Gabriel Reuben, I’m 22 years old. On most days I’m a writer, but today I’m just REALLY nervous.

When I was invited to speak at this event, I didn’t hesitate to choose a topic that I knew would resonate with the age group I am currently addressing. This aspect has in the past decade, not just become a vital part of our lives, but has become a powerful extension of how we project ourselves in the online space. Social media isn’t just an app or a network anymore; it is a parallel universe where a variety of elements co-exist to conceptualize, share and execute ideas.

To understand just how deeply we’re entrenched in this phenomenon, let me give you a few examples. The world’s population currently stands at 7.2 billion people. A little less than half that number, 3.01 billion are active internet users. 1.4 billion are on Facebook. Remember, that’s 1.4 billion despite China banning Facebook. Also, two new people are joining LinkedIn for every second that I take up on stage, which tells me I should finish early or there’s a good chance I won’t find a job. Singer Katy Perry has more Twitter followers than Spain has people. These figures are mind-numbing as they are, but we haven’t even taken into consideration the myriad of thoughts, ideas, expressions and beliefs that one individual is capable of, let alone seven billion of them. In the digital space, which is a democratic medium with minimal gatekeeping, people have the freedom and the motivation to vent. This has brought on something we call the age of hyper-information. Allow me to elaborate.

Every day, the world generates 70 million pictures on Instagram. Considering most of it is food that’s a lot of hungry people on the Internet. Also, every single day the world churns out an incredible 500 million tweets. That is enough to fill a notebook with roughly 10 million pages, every single day.
With the sheer volume of information disseminated on a day-to-day basis, one of the most genuinely intimidating questions that come to mind is – In the midst of all this mess, how do I get my voice heard? What if I have something to share, but the world won’t listen because there are a billion other people who are voicing opinions simultaneously? Intriguing thought. Before I try and answer that, I want to show everyone here how social media decides whether you’re worth listening to.

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In one word, could I hear from the audience a common thread to both pictures? A common link that stands out for you? Take a close look at the first picture, it’s a screen grab from one of the world’s largest social networking site – Reddit. If you look to the left hand side of the picture, you’ll see a row of numbers next to each headline. These are called “upvotes”, which are basically Reddit’s version of likes. The more likes a particular story has, the better its chance of being read. The same is the case with Twitter, Facebook, Imgur and any other social networking website that comes to mind. Let’s not lie to ourselves and say that the number of likes on a picture or the number of retweets have never swayed us.

So the answer I was looking for? That’s right, numbers. Just like the real world, social media follows a hierarchy. The better your numbers, the more likely you are to be read, watched or heard. The more numbers you are able to sustain frequently, the more influence you wield in the digital space.

Sadly, it is because of this obsession with numbers, that we’re losing the true essence, purpose and strength of what social media is or can do. While the number of people on social media is rapidly going up, we’re starting to see trends that suggest that we’re not just growing, but we’re also growing apart. A study revealed that 1 in 3 people feels dissatisfied with their lives every time they visit Facebook. Multiple studies link social networking to depression, because of envy, social isolation, competitive exclusion, poor numbers and a malformed image of social standing. In fact, researchers have considered this trend to be serious enough to be given its own unique definition, called “Facebook Depression.”

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These trends suggest a partial realization of everything wrong with the online world- insensitivity, the dangers of online disinhibition, a society with which is reckless with its freedom and constantly grappling with its own self-esteem. We’re losing ourselves to the numbers and the chaos that we’ve made social media to be.
So when I started off with social media, I promised myself that numbers would never govern the way I use my profiles. I told myself that I was going to use my social media to go beyond numbers and make a difference where it matters. Here’s how the results turned out for me.
The WordPress Chronicles

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I’m going to start with the one thing closest to my heart, but for that I need to turn back time. When I was 7 years old, my Dad, who is an ex-fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, crashed his plane during the Kargil war and was gravely injured. He broke his spine and had other serious injuries, some of which have been causing him immense discomfort for the past 15 years. When I was 18, my Mom was diagnosed with cancer. For the next year and a half, I saw my favourite thing in the world fight valiantly in a desperate cause. When she passed away, everything changed. The only thing that kept me going through these times was my love for writing. I couldn’t really vent to anyone about these emotional predicaments, so I just started writing on things that had changed me, most notably, cancer. As I grew more able at dealing with the emotional repercussions, I started putting all of this publicly on my blog, called thedevastatedreamer. In a year or so, I realized that my personal experiences were doing far more than I first envisioned.

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This pretty lady you see behind me is Maryam Azaz Khan. Our friendship began around six months back, when she randomly messaged me on Facebook. She said she was going through my blog, and loved a post called “Happy Birthday, Mom,” a small letter I had written to my Mom on her birthday after she had passed away from cancer. She said it moved her, and she related to it strongly. She told me, that her Mom was undergoing treatment for cancer and that my letter made her realize just how much she cherishes her mother. Since then, we have kept in touch and we talk regularly about things like cancer, about coping with stress, academics and what not. We have never spoken over the phone because Maryam is from Pakistan, and well international calls are a bomb. Our friendship is kept alive by WordPress, Whatsapp and Facebook; basically the three musketeers of social media.

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A few months later, I was messaged by another girl who read the same post. She said she that she loved the letter I had written, and that it gave her strength. It was almost déjà vu in terms of what had happened with Maryam. My heart violently skipped a few beats as I asked her, why it gave her strength. She then told me, that she was suffering from bone cancer. She also told me that she was just 14.

Just like in Maryam’s case, I did my best to be there for someone who was to me before that day, just another number. I couldn’t change the physical effects of cancer, but I sure could at least try and take care of the ones that tend to cause elusive damage. She is 15 now, and thankfully she’s recovered from the cancer too. If it weren’t for social media, I would surely have missed out on an incredible person, one who inspires me even today.

Thanks to such wonderful experiences, I went on writing and on Father’s Day, I decided to write something I had wanted to say for a long time. Tired of seeing my Dad’s habit of smoking, I wrote him this little note called “Lethal Addictions.” The very same day, he promised me he would kick the habit altogether. It didn’t stop at that, a few people made their fathers read the post, and two of them told me that their Dads stopped smoking too.

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And to think it all started with me writing down my fears, inhibitions and insecurities. Now that I know that being on these social media platforms does humanity some good, it only serves to motivate me to write more, and help those who’re going through what I had to endure.  Thanks to social media and the tremendous reach it provides, I have a platform which is slowly but steadily altering people’s thought processes.

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The Ask.fm story

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What the website is basically, it is a networking site where users can send each other questions anonymously. The users have described the website as a boon for teenagers, who need a place where they can express their views without being judged, harassed or publicly embarrassed. So yeah, even I was fascinated with the entire concept, so I joined the bandwagon a year and a half ago. It started off with very innocuous questions, things ranging from “What’s your favourite colour?” to “What are your thoughts on true love.” Sometimes the questions are plain ridiculous saying “Hi I’m 13 years old, and my boyfriend left me. I don’t think I’ll ever fall in love again. Could you please help me?” I know, ridiculous! But then, at times, I end up getting questions like these.

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I remember multiple occasions that I was anonymously told that they were suicidal and needed help. Just to give you a bigger picture, Ask.fm has caused more than nine teen suicides due to cyber-bullying since its inception. And when someone sends you a message like this at midnight, you really can’t think straight. But I managed to talk to her for a while, and convinced her not to do so. During the course of my stay on Ask, I have talked to more than a 1000 people. It’s almost become like an Agony Aunt column now, and people on the website call me old man, because the site is a rave with teenagers and at 22 years old, I’m a relative grandpa. There have been six different people who have confessed to being suicidal, and I’m really relieved to say I convinced all six of them not to take the drastic step. The girl who wrote this message was one of them, and she’s doing better than we spoke the other night. So what began as an exercise in random human curiosity, has led me to a place where I am changing, if not saving lives.

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To put it all into perspective, I firmly believe that as a society, we aren’t utilizing the true power of social media and its infinite possibilities. History tells us that societies and civilizations have started revolutions to find a land where everybody has a voice, but now that we have a realm where everyone can speak, we’re all caught in a hysterical scramble where everyone is trying to shout the loudest. Stop looking at social media as a bunch of numbers to massage your egos. We need to look beyond the obvious and start making a difference where it truly matters. In a world moving too fast for its own good, be someone’s constant; give something to the world that they can hold on to. You can’t be God, but you can definitely be the answer to someone’s prayers.  So take control of what you have, and make a difference because you can.


How To Woo A Writer

Know the easiest way to woo a writer? For beginners, don’t set your sights on being their muse. A writer’s work tends to be a reflection of things they understand, but their minds are constantly preoccupied by thoughts they cannot grasp and concepts they cannot comprehend. A writer is curious and eternally intrigued; what they already fathom will never fascinate them.

In essence, never be a known entity to a writer. Instead, be the enigma that evades them. Be the emotion that toys with their inhibitions, but one they would still give a part of their sanity to decipher. Be an incomplete poem, be a half-written story; be the crumpled piece of paper tossed frustratingly into a bin because they couldn’t find the words to describe what lies within.

Know the easiest way to woo a writer? Be the paradox they couldn’t put into words.


The Power of Silence.

I stepped out of the crowded train, grumbling under my breath. The night air a peculiar mix of petrichor and a stench of sweat. I whipped my bag off, it was soaking wet, trying to find the umbrella that I usually kept. I searched frantically but couldn’t find it. Before I even opened the other compartment I was rudely reminded; my sister had taken it just this morning, the anger I felt was blinding.

The drizzle turned to torrential rain, lashing against the metallic shelter; under which crowds of frantic people were now running helter-skelter. I went down the stairs and took a right, as my path opened into the night; I stood just away from the grasp of the wet ground, waiting for the rain to subside. I cursed at sour lady luck, repeatedly used an expletive that rhymed with “truck”, wishing tonight had been a little different and I wasn’t here, cranky and stuck.

As I stood there with a blank stare, muttering quietly in despair, I suddenly smelt a delicious fragrance diffused into the damp air. I looked around like a wide-eyed owl, with a confused expression and a curious scowl, and as I spotted the little sandwich shop, my stomach let out an angry growl. I sprinted towards the store my heart in a little flutter, the aroma of grilled cheese and burnt butter on the side of crusty bread was making my mouth water. Two minutes after that, I stood with two grilled sandwiches in my hand, happy that this night was finally doing something except wanting to get me mad.

Fatigued and famished from all that waiting, I was salivating as I moved in for the first bite. But then I saw something else in the night that made me stop before I could eat. In a dark corner across the street, sat a man alone, on the stone pavement just a few feet away from where I stood. He sat still with closed eyes, arms raised to the open skies, his lips moving in quiet prayer for the Gods that I couldn’t see. His clothes were riddled with gaping holes, so were his shoes with torn soles; he shivered involuntarily every time a raindrop kissed his skin with jarring cold.

I covered one sandwich with a paper plate, hoping to preserve it from the rain, as I walked carefully in his direction I could see and feel his sorry state. As I stood before him, I could hear his breathing; rugged and heavy, the words receding, fading into the sound of raindrops crashing against everything. I tapped his shoulder and he opened his eyes, registering a look of sudden surprise. I lowered the plate and he lowered his arms, his eyes dropped their gaze from the skies.

When he spotted the food, a giant plateful, he looked at the heavens and prayed, immensely grateful. He gazed at me then, all the while, his lips stretching into a smile as I looked at him and returned the gesture. I stood over him and watched him eating, savoring every tiny bite even with the rain beating furiously against his skin. The sight made my heart melt so fast, I opened my sandwich and sat next to him.

For the next 15 minutes two strangers sat; with a pact of silence, both soaked and damp. Words unspoken, the quiet unbroken, yet one of the best conversations I’ve ever had. After I finished my treat, I got off my seat and smiled at him one last time. I turned around, without a sound, and quietly walked off into the night. A heart uplifted with new found hope, body and soul thoroughly soaked, I looked back at what I’d left, and I saw him embracing his torn, old cloak. Before he faded into the dark, I saw him slowly lifting his arms; the inaudible prayer resumed in all its glory-probably tranquil whispers of our story. He sat still again in pious defiance, amid the thundering of nature’s violence; I looked up and prayed for him, hoping the Gods could hear the power of silence.


Empty.

I do this once, maybe twice a year, and it makes it all the more difficult to write this. I hold on to 364 days worth of memories and regrets, only to struggle with myself on your birthday. On the first of October every year, I take something from the empty space inside and try my best to cram it into an empty one outside. There are just too many memories to choose from, ones I recall like it were only yesterday.

Yes, I remember putting a hand on my zip and dancing like a second-hand Michael Jackson for you when you were on your wheelchair. I also remember how you spilled filter coffee on a pristine white bed-sheet of your hospital bed, and the nurse gave you a look like you had murdered her family or something. I still remember laughing until my eyes watered.

I also remember not-so-happy things; fighting with you and telling you I wouldn’t talk to you until you ate, didn’t matter if the cancer made you nauseous. I remember carrying you to the bathroom in the middle of the night as you winced in pain. Things that I try not to think of, but still a part of the limited time we spent and loved together.

So today, as I write this, everything just comes flooding back. It happens everyday, but just that little bit more today. Happens when we cut your birthday cake without you; it happens when we eat a dinner dedicated to you with one empty chair at the table. But it also reminds me how lucky I have been, and how much I’ve learnt and continue to learn from you. It also keeps my feet on the ground; the standards you’ve set for perfection are so far and distant that it drives me on even more to keep your legacy alive. You live through me and I know I might never get there, but I promise to try and show the world who you really were.

I love you, you beautiful, beautiful person. I miss sitting on your bed, staring into the same eyes you gave me and talking to you.
Happy birthday, I miss you. Thank you for everything I am today.


Rings of Smoke.

I was 7 when I saw you for the very first time, blowing rings of smoke into the air,
I mustered enough courage to tell you to stop, only because I genuinely cared.
But all you did was you ruffled my hair, said “Just one last time, I’ll finish it fast!”
One hour I waited as the entire packet ran out, and the cigarette butts littered the grass.

At 16, I came home from college one night, saw you standing at the frame of the door,
The stench of tobacco and traces of ash, enraged every part of me to my core.
I shouted, I screamed, about the fears in my dreams, wondering what would convince you to drop it.
But all you did was you ruffled my hair, and said “Just one last time and then I’ll stop it.”

At 21, when Mom left us all for good, I saw you crying and slowly breaking apart,
Breathing in wisps from a million smokes, hoping it would help fill the hole in your heart.
I begged, I pleaded, told you this was not what you needed, desperate to turn you into a new leaf,
“Just one last time” you said once again, “I need it to keep me from drowning in grief.”

From that time on, not a day went by, that you tried to stick to the promises you’d made,
I constantly reminded, that the smoke had you blinded, to your health which had started to degrade.
Then came a point when I had to accept, that nothing could change how things were,
My words to you, were like the smoke you blew, they swiftly vanished into thin air.

So I decided to keep absolutely quiet, never to give you a warning in the coming years,
Why should I waste my breath to save yours, when I saw it all falling on deaf ears?
Not that you seemed to care anyway, one cigarette lead to the next like a trigger,
I sat and watched in painful silence, as the heap of burnt matches and smokes grew bigger.

Now that I stand over your hospital bed, in silence broken only by the ECG’s noise,
Your million cigarettes burning a hole in my heart, knowing I said nothing when I had the choice.
Now the cancer works its way through your lungs, and I can do nothing at all but squirm,
Realizing that through the years by gone, all I needed to do was be a little more firm.

Then you opened your eyes and looked at me, we both didn’t know what to say,
Both of us knew that if we’d played our parts, things wouldn’t have ended this way.
It was far too late to see things now, through the smoke that made our lives gray,
“Just one last time” you managed to say, and then like the rings of smoke faded away.


How I Found Home Again.

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I had never felt so uncomfortable in a place that I had come to call my second home. The small, muddy ground with two rusty goalposts at each end had always been reassuringly familiar to me; but not on that one night. Over the past year, I had covered every inch of the ground more than a thousand times; right from the first day of college to the last day of the university team trials. I loved the ground so much that my once gleaming, white Star Impact Spectras were now permanently coated with a dull brown tinge that so often ended up on my shirts after rough falls. My legs had almost memorized the physical attributes of the turf; how the far left corner was slightly elevated and how a little patch halfway up the ground was particularly hard to sprint on. I can embarrassingly admit, I didn’t even know my girlfriend as intimately as I knew about the little, muddy pitch in the centre of my college.

When Mom’s cancer happened, I was forced to see two of my most cherished things in the world spiral towards unimaginable predicaments. With Mom’s steadily deteriorating health, I was slowly starting to spend more and more time away from the little field I used to practice in. I sorely missed what it once made me feel – the thrills of exquisitely timed sliding tackles, the earthy aroma of petrichor during rainy football sessions, the joys of the wind beating against my chest while sprinting; the sheer nostalgia of memories was overwhelming. Those poignant shards of a shattered imagination were now replaced with far graver memories.

On that night, I stood once again on the same ground after God knew how much time. The sound of gravel scrunching beneath my shoes felt like listening to a song that I had long forgotten, but one that I suddenly rediscovered on the radio. I could hear the crowd roaring and the bright floodlights illuminating the field radiantly, lending its brown colour an alluring, lustrous glow which I think it always deserved. I had been there so many times before; soaking in the pressure, the crippling expectations and the electric atmosphere. But that night was different. It was strange for me, this feeling. I had built my footballing reputation on being a calm central midfielder who feared little. But on that night, I felt nervous and uneasily anxious. The worst thing was that I was fully aware of why it was happening.

I didn’t look on my right-hand side because I knew she was watching me. I also knew she understood little about the game; had no clue about the intricate tactics, the industrious endeavor and the orchestrated teamwork it required to assert one team’s supremacy over the other. All I knew was that I would mean the same to her on the pitch as I did off it. She cared little about my team or the opposition’s, she was only going to watch me and be oblivious to the rest of the world. In 18 years of my life out of which I had spent 10 playing the beautiful game, this was the first time that she had come to watch me play. That night, I wanted to give her something to smile about after what had been a tumultuous few months for all of us.

I still remember how it felt the same way like my first match did. My legs felt like jelly, my stomach had turned so violently that it felt like someone had tied my guts into a scout’s knot. I couldn’t focus, I was sweating and the game hadn’t even begun. Trust me, there is nothing worse than sudden self-doubt on the big stage; that one moment when you completely forget your very purpose of existing. That horror of letting everything unravel when it matters to most was terrifying to me.

When I heard the whistle, it took me a few seconds to register that the game had kicked off. It was like the world had dropped its burdens on my shoulders, but I told myself that nothing mattered more to me than the lady who got up from a hospital bed after a chemotherapy to watch her son do what he loved. I wasn’t going to let her down, I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I did. Failure was unacceptable on any night; but tonight it was simply unthinkable. I had no way of knowing if she would ever watch me play again, so I knew had to make this one performance count.

Over the course of the next 20 minutes, I played like a man possessed. I dived recklessly into tackles, ran twice as hard as the man I was supposed to mark, and constantly told myself that this was just another game. I don’t think my body was listening. By halftime I looked like I had taken a momentary dip in the college’s heritage well; my head was aching with the lack of composure that usually regulated my body’s physical output. It was then that I realized what my fear truly meant. And for the first time since the match started, I smiled.

I realized that I felt different because that night, I wasn’t playing for myself anymore. I was playing for someone else, someone far more important. None of the hundreds in the crowd had ever seen what it took me to become the footballer I was, but the lady smiling quietly at one dark corner of the field certainly had. She had seen me caked in mud and exhausted from training camps, she had seen me in hospitals with sprained ankles and torn muscles, she had seen me distraught after defeat. She had witnessed and understood the true aspects of my art and my worth as an artist, which is why on that night, the weight of expectations felt heavier than it ever did before.

Before the second half began, I went up to her and talked to her. My heart felt lighter knowing that today, all I had to do to make her proud was just to be myself. Just like how I was the centre of her universe, she was all that mattered tonight and nothing else came remotely close. Win, draw or lose, it didn’t matter anymore; just knowing that she was watching me was all I could be grateful for.

I played the rest of the game with a heart that knew, for the first time that night, just what it had to do. I ran my socks off in the second half and also scored a goal that I still regard as the best of my life, considering who I owed it to. We drew the game 2-2, but the disappointment of the draw didn’t wipe the smile off my face for the whole night. The ground felt familiar once more, and I smiled again. She looked at me, she smiled too; and in that moment, I found my home again.