If I had a cat he would be called Stevens. As things stands I don’t have any pets – but nevertheless, this is an understanding we have in our household. That one day, Cat Stevens may become a family member.
When I was a young girl in the 70s, we used to go out for drives in the country at the weekend, legs scorching on faux-leather seats, with the warm smell of my dad’s plaid shirt in my nostrils, and our favourite 8-tracks on the stereo. I would sing along raucously with my dad to Neil Diamond and ‘Forever in Blue Jeans’. My mum didn’t often join in with the singing, but neither she nor I could resist “Leaping and hopping on a moonshadow” when Cat Stevens offered his invitation.
Cat Stevens always made me feel safe. I was quite certain that no bad could happen in the world as long as he existed. I totally believed in the Peace Train, and couldn’t for the life of me fathom why anyone would choose not to climb on board. With his words in my ears I was protected from all harm. Or so I believed, when very young … Oh very young.
Despite my initial certainty, I began to learn that bad things did happen. The news was always on in our house, and when I started to pay attention as I grew, I began to see so much suffering across the world, and I couldn’t fathom why. I asked my mum why those children on the screen were starving, why were their bellies so big and yet so empty? – It just made no sense. My mum, as heartbroken by the images as I was, could not explain why there was more than enough to go around, and yet it didn’t. I sobbed in front of that TV screen as I realised neither she nor Cat Stevens were in charge. If they were, things would be better. Things would make more sense.
I still held faith that if only a little of the peace in Cat’s (or now Yusuf’s) heart could travel around the globe we would all be better off, a little kinder, a little calmer, a little less obsessed with what we could get from the world and a little more enchanted by what it was giving us already. Cat Steven’s himself had bad things happen to him. In the late 60’s, when he was immersed in his new young fame and travelling the globe (a far cry from helping out in his dad’s Greek restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue), he contracted tuberculosis and almost died. His lengthy convalescence gave him time to reflect on the meaning of his life and the nature of life in general – this was the start of his spiritual awakening. Years later, he once again nearly lost his life – close to drowning in the sea off the Malibu coast, he declared “Oh, God! If you save me I will work for you.” Within a year he had converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. And for me, he has always been doing God’s work. Spreading love, speaking peace, sharing hope.
Little did I know back then there were to be tough times to come in my life too. Those times made me ill, they made me ask a lot of questions about the nature of my own life, and life in general. They woke up my own spirituality. At this time there were only a small handful of singers I could bear to be around – Cat Stevens was my close companion as always, along with Nina Simone and Sam Cooke. They were all thoughtful people, they had gentleness and at the same time immense strength, they were sincere, they were the arms I needed to hold me at that time.
Last month I was in London for a book launch, a book I had some writing included in … writing inspired by those tough times, writing that helped me claw my way out of the hole I had fallen into. On that trip, as I often find myself doing, I happened to walk past the place where Cat Steven’s grew up (Soho being at the heart of any London trip for me). That same trip I walked past the pub my husband and I had sat outside of the night we had “The discussion” – the discussion of whether we would continue trying for a baby, have one more round of IVF, or give in and call it a day. It was a tough conversation. We were both exhausted. We were pretty broken. We were hurting. It was too hard. We had nothing left to give. So, the decision was made, and life would just have to be something other than we had planned. That same night, outside that same pub, I spotted that Cat Stevens was coming to London. He was going to perform at Hammersmith Apollo later that year. I told my husband I felt I needed to go, and that I felt I needed to go alone.
So that is what I did. The auditorium was packed to the rafters it seemed, and I was right up there in those rafters, right at the back. It was a good job that I was. Being in this same room with this inspiring singer / human being, who had been with me all of my life, who had sang me down the aisle at my wedding, who had walked my path with me and kept me feeling safe for most of it … this was the moment the dam burst. I sobbed, and I mean, really, really sobbed, from start to finish. I stood at the back and I sang my heart out and I cried my heart out and it felt so special, and so heart-breaking, and so beautiful and so needed. Cat Stevens could not keep me from harm after all … but his gentle words and his sincere soul could hold me while I dealt with the aftermath. I was so grateful and so very sad all at once. I wasn’t going to change my name to find my new path as he had done, but a new path was definitely going to be required.
That day was the end of the line for one dream. I had found myself ‘Miles from Nowhere’ but now I was going to have to find a way to move forward. And every day since I spilled my heart out in Hammersmith Apollo, I have been seeking what comes next, and I finally think I am ‘On The Road To Find Out’. I am using all I learned from those difficult years to start helping other people who find themselves lost and confused and at the end of their tether.
This past year I have been training to become a counsellor, and there is a long road yet to travel. It is a challenging journey too. But it feels so right, and I feel so blessed. I honestly believe I could not have done this any sooner and it could not have happened any other way. For so long I had no idea what I was going to do with my life since I wasn’t now going to be a parent, a grandparent, have a family of my own. But finally here I am … loving everything I am learning – about myself, about humanity, and about this precious life we all find ourselves in.
Like Cat Stevens, some difficult times awoke a spiritual self I didn’t know was in there. And, it has brought me to realise that the whole of the human race is my family, the whole of the planet my home, and I can offer nurturing and comforting words to other people who may be in need – without being their parent – but just by walking by their side as they share their sorrow, their confusion and their uncertainty. No, I won’t be doing it on a global stage as Cat Stevens has done (I don’t think?!) – but I rule out nothing in life now – as we never know what is around the corner, and it may be quite different to what we imagined or planned.
Having been to some very dark places, I now know that there is a way out. Cat Stevens (without even knowing it) has walked that dark path with me, and he still makes me believe in goodness, and compassion and the possibility of peace (in my own heart at the very least). I hope in my own small way I will now be able to help someone else back into their own light and to find their own peace with what life has to offer them.
So today I express my gratitude to Cat Stevens / Yusuf Islam and the peaceful trail he traces around the world – and if I ever get a cat, it really could only have one name.
P.S. We actually have to have two cats. My husband’s cat has to be called Nigel Johnson. But that is his own story to tell.
Copyright 2018 · Forty and Everything After