1. Earth: A backyard that is really a liquor store parking lot, a grey North London sky, a small child in her winter coat, swinging herself on a metal swing squeezed between two concrete walls, wishing she could fly; wishing that she had English parents because English people believed in pets. But instead of English parents, she got herself a shoebox and filled it with ants, and gave these tiny, shiny insects a few leaves to nibble. She pierced breathing holes in the lid of the box and tucked it into the corner of a crumbling air-raid shelter in her backyard parking lot. She went out every day to replenish the leaves and to spend time with the ants. She never tired of speaking to the ants even though they did not return the favor; they also did not sit in her lap or curl up at the foot of her bed. Instead, they traversed the cell-like cardboard until she felt badly that she had incarcerated them. So she returned them to the only bit of the Earth she had ever known—the wilds of North London streets.
2. Air: Wilds? Seriously? Well, North London Streets can be wild for children who feel like they do not belong. These children find each other on buses and trains; they find each other in bars that turn a blind eye to underage drinkers; they find themselves feeding ducks in city parks; they find themselves at political marches and rallies, they find themselves in the pages of books—the ones they are reading, and the ones they are secretly writing. But most of all they find themselves in music. In my time, North London streets have given the world Boy George and George Michael. North London streets have given the world Adele. And North London streets gave the world Amy Winehouse.
Even though I am a North Londoner I have spent only half a day on its streets in the past decade, so mostly I feel like a fraud for talking about it. But my birthday always makes me nostalgic. So: I miss it. And I don’t miss it. I hate it. And I love it. And when I am away from it I tend to forget that those streets always made me feel like a second-class citizen in my homeland. But every once in a while—like now—the memory catches me completely by surprise, and North London rears its head to call me home.
Hello, it’s me
I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet
To go over everything
They say that time’s supposed to heal ya
But I ain’t done much healing
Well, that’s not strictly true. I have done a lot of healing. I now have the kind of pets that sit in my lap. I still can’t fly, but when I want to feel like I’m in flight, I dance to the Georges—Michael and Boy—to Adele, and to Amy Winehouse. I fly to the latter so much I worry that the repeat button on my CD player will wear out her soul. But so far, she has kept on giving. But what have I given to her? (I feel like an ant.)
For you I was a flame
Love is a losing game
Five-story fire as you came
3. Fire: One evening in my early adulthood, inside a North London House on a North London street, I set myself alight—accidentally. My clothes caught fire and my body went up in flames. I had just come back from dance class. I was wearing a leotard. I looked down to see the Lycra being eaten by flames. And in a split-second that felt like an eternity, I thought, I’m going to die. But at the same time that I watched the flames dissolving my clothes and enveloping my skin, I also thought, These flames are beautiful. I know this is hard to believe, but it is the truth—as I stood there in flames, burning, fearing for my life, I also noticed the beauty of fire.
4. Water: And in that same North London house on the same North London street my tenderhearted, quick-thinking father soaked a blanket in cold water, wrapped me in it, and drove as fast as he could to the hospital. The memory dilutes after this: my father is the kind of man who cries, but I do not remember his tears. Or even his voice. All I remember is the silence of the drive home, the bandages wrapped around my torso, and wondering what part of my body will be forever scarred. It healed as well as I could have hoped—the new skin was a map of England, with North London falling on my left hip, and a river flowing across my stomach.
So, here I am—writing in a new skin.
So, here I am—writing with a soul of an indeterminate age.
In my culture, it is the person who is celebrating a birthday who treats others (not the other way round). So in the spirit of my people, I offer you three gifts:
1. A song from the man who once shared my birthday:
2. A song from the woman who once shared my homeland:
3. A prompt: write about the elements of your own memories.