A few years ago, when my daughter was nine or ten, one of her classmates came over to me in the playground.
‘My mum wants to see you,’ she said.
I followed her over to where her mother was standing, in among a small group of women. She greeted me happily, and told me that the family was moving back to Saudi Arabia soon, after spending several years in Scotland.
‘I always remember that you were kind to me when we first moved here,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry our girls didn’t become friends.’
Then she fished in a plastic bag, and took out a small, wrapped gift, and a card in an envelope.
I thanked her, and wished her luck and a safe journey home, and that was that, I never saw her again. If she hadn’t told me she was leaving, I probably wouldn’t have noticed she was gone. My daughter’s primary school had the family accommodation for Edinburgh University in its catchment area, and her class changed from year to year, term to term. I hadn’t been friends with this woman, we had just been a pair of mothers, with our daughters in the same class. We stood in the playground at the same times, and for a little while we both helped out with getting the girls ready for their swimming lessons at the pool across the road — she was very good at putting on the girls’ swimming caps, and I wasn’t, so I would send them to her. I chatted to her about inconsequential things before the bell rang and the playground swarmed with children. When her son was born I congratulated her, and cooed over him. Normal stuff, just everyday interactions, or even, if you like, basic manners. I didn’t think I had shown any particular kindness.
Furthermore, ‘kind’ isn’t a word most people would use to describe me, and certainly not one I would use to describe myself. I am too quick tempered, too judgmental, too keen to find a punchline at another’s expense to be ‘kind’. Kind sounds soft, to me, lazy, maybe.
It was a surprise, then, that she thought that I had been kind, and I was moved by her gesture, and her words, and when I got home and unwrapped my parcel to find a glass paperweight with an engraving of the mosque at Mecca I put it up on the mantelpiece, beside the china cats, and the fat wedges of postcards, and the pieces of flotsam I had gathered, mementoes, ornaments, the obligatory pot of paperclips and drawing pins and buttons, all gathering dust. Later on, my daughter showed me that there was a switch on the bottom of the paperweight, and when you turned it a small LED display started up, light seguing between colours like a tiny, shelved disco, and this delighted me.
At the same time as I was being kind to a stranger, I was feeling deeply unhappy, both discontented and distressed by my situation. I was raising my daughter alone, and though she had been an easy baby to look after, the last few years had been a struggle. Her behaviour was unpredictable, and didn’t seem to fit in with parenting manuals. She wasn’t settling in to school, hadn’t really made friends at nursery. I had given up work to launch a writing career, which hadn’t materialised, and now I was waiting for my daughter to become contented before I found another job. So I was broke, and single, and unsuccessful, and a terrible mother, and my child was unhappy. There are probably worse places to be, but for me it was rock bottom. And yet — apparently — I had had enough of my wits about me that I could still show kindness to a person who needed it.
This is what I remember, when I look at Disco Mosque. We were two very different women — I was a youngish, never married mother, I liked going out dancing with my friends, I wore short skirts and makeup. She was a little older, an observant Muslim, she wore a veil which covered up her entire self, all except for her eyes, and the only times I had seen her face were in the girls’ changing room at the swimming pool. Probably, if we had had a lengthy conversation we would have found many, many subjects on which we disagreed, perhaps we would have found a good deal to dislike about one another. But as it was, we both made the effort to take a step towards one another. We made eye contact. We smiled. We chatted, about the weather, about babies. And now I knew that my step had made a difference to her. I don’t know if she was lonely, or if she was worried about her child fitting in to primary school, I don’t know what her private life consisted of, but I know, now, that a small, imperfect, ordinary act of kindness was memorable to her.
I have kept this in mind, the lesson of the Disco Mosque, that even forced and unhappy kindness — kindness, that is, that doesn’t stem from a deep sense of fulfillment and goodwill — still counts, is still absorbed by its target.
The other word I think of when I think of Disco Mosque, and this woman whose name I could never remember, so I just thought of her as her daughter’s mother (like dog owners, parents must give in to the truth that your primary identity among a swathe of your acquaintance is now Spot’s mum, or Susan’s dad) is tolerance.
It’s not the best word, I don’t think. To tolerate something means to put up with it, against your will, maybe. There’s a good Scots word, ‘thole’, which means to put up with some hardship or indignity. It doesn’t have the ambiguity of ‘tolerance’, which is often spoken of as a state to strive for. We say we should be more tolerant as a society, as individuals, when what we mean is we should be inclusive. We say we should ‘tolerate’ the opposing views of others, when what we mean is we should not act violently or angrily towards them. So when I say Disco Mosque makes me think of tolerance, I feel like I’m suggesting that either I, or my friend (let’s call her my friend, now) took a deep sigh and chose to rise above our rightness, and put up with each other, and this is not what I mean at all. Instead, we tolerated one another by choosing not to focus on the things which made us different (religion, language, our respective moral and social codes) but instead to co-exist happily amidst the things that we had in common (our daughters, our friendliness, our desire to find anything to laugh about).
It was easy to do. Most of us do this, most of the time, I think. We put forward only the aspects of ourselves which we think will please the people we are with. Each person is a deck of cards, and we shuffle and deal as the situation warrants — at work, at parent’s night, in a bar with friends, I show a different hand.
Social networking makes it far trickier to carefully curate the shown self. I know that I try to muffle my more strident self (the self that anyone who has had to spend a lengthy period of time with me will recognise with a flinch). I attempt to seem whimsical and lighthearted, with a limited and hopefully not annoying streak of political decency. It’s a required dishonesty, I choose not to become involved in online squabbles and rages, because the schisms caused by these don’t let new and healing air circulate around an argument, they just make us wobblier, and more uneasy.
So, online, at least, I am a docile kind of tolerant. I try not to argue, I try not to attack, I try not to sneer, even if I am fizzing with rage, bubbling with irritation, guffawing at vacuity. It’s not the best kind of tolerant. It’s putting up with, tholing. I think I’m right, but I won’t force the issue. I won’t cause a fight over this, not this time.
It’s not great, though, is it? None of us wants to be tolerated. We want to be loved, envied, admired (I do, anyway, I’m a youngest child with an inflated sense of my own importance).
So to the second type of tolerance, the ability to co-exist comfortably, happily, with people whose views can directly contradict our own, to remain calm and kind when another person’s behaviour causes us irritation or inconvenience. This is the kind of tolerance that takes real effort, but this is one I try to practise, mainly because I have been on the receiving end of it myself.
Around the time I was being kind to the woman who later gifted me the Disco Mosque, my daughter’s behaviour was gradually explained to me, and she eventually received a diagnosis of autism. I had given up parenting according to the books, and had made my own rules and standards, which worked for us. When I read different books, ones written for parents of autistic children, I found that they advocated the techniques I had resorted to.
By the time I unwrapped Disco Mosque, I was no longer miserable. I knew how to make my daughter happy, I understood why she was who she was, and I knew there were limits as to how far she was ever going to ‘settle in’ to school and so I stopped waiting for this to happen, and found a job, which I loved, and childcare which just about worked for us. My writing began to appear in newspapers, and on the radio. In fact, by the time I unwrapped Disco Mosque I was happy — contented, fulfilled, in an ideal position to tolerate the intolerable, to dispense easy kindness.
Now I discovered what it was to be tolerated by others. I grew to love the strangers who smiled at my daughter when she was in the middle of a meltdown, who listened fondly to her when she was talking, at great length, about some subject or another. I loved the parents at the school who kept me updated if their children had seen some injustice committed against her. I loved the children in her class for taking their time with her, and moderating their behaviour so that she could join in a conversation or a game. I discovered the type of tolerance which is a kind of love, an inclusiveness, a willingness to open up your own notions of what is right, or proper, or inarguable, and to accept and advocate for someone who exists and behaves some way outside those boundaries. I learned and benefited from this kind of tolerance, and I try to practise it now. I try not to get enraged by things which can be classified merely as irritations or disagreements (talking in the cinema, cutting it fine through a red light), which means I have plenty of energy left over to get angry when it matters, and when the fire behind a good bout of fury can be put to good use.
‘I’m sorry our girls didn’t become friends.’
I remember this woman passing me a token, a souvenir, and saying this to me, and I wanted to explain to her how difficult it would have been for our daughters to become friends, but this would have been another layer of another story, and instead I smiled and thanked her and wished her well.
Disco Mosque is on the bookcase in our sittingroom in our new house. The battery has run out, so it no longer discos. When I dust under it I handle it carefully, with gratitude. It reminds me that even a small, forced kindness can matter; it reminds me that tolerance is an action of love, not merely an absence of antipathy. It reminds me that even though I’m not a kind person, or a good one, that although I’m angry and imperfect, that even when I am the saddest I have ever been, I can still be a person who makes a small, good difference, to someone else’s day.