Ramadan Day 25 – Childhood Home

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“Where can a story end? If it arrives from nowhere.” – BH Fairchild

 

*

 

My father went to our backyard

when I was nine and said, both hands

round his waist, let’s build a

pond. Would you like that Serena?

 

*

 

How many miles are you from home?

Can you count distance by the quarters

left behind in a phone booth? Or pages?

Can you count clouds, silkworms, and

mulberry leaves, and in two weeks

mourn the passing of hundreds?

 

*

 

Somewhere back there I hold one thought

the only thing that ever belonged to me

was the way the sun glinted golden off

the yellow wallpaper, gilding my tears,

Splotchy was dead, that comfort of knees

being in bed, pillow, able to run my hands

along multi-grained speckles of wall.

 

*

 

We dug the trenches pretending we were

at war and acted as if the narrows were

bunkers, but when he turned the faucet

on, the water rushing from the green hose,

salad bowls our buckets and whistled

while we worked, acting as if dwarves, not

children, our slip-and-slide castle, he coated

the sides with glaze. It looked finished and like

a pale yellowed worm with cracks in it, but

to me, in my dotted swimsuit, it was childhood.

 

*

 

I confess that I’m unlike many writers I know.

I write nearly every story, every poem

in varied locales, sometimes draped over

a couch, sometimes butt-boned on a bench,

I wrote a poem once in full view of a bridge

in Prospect Park that saw me

and did not move.

 

*

 

Jill McCorkle gave a craft talk today –

 

“If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.”

 

The sound of a mother’s voice, notwithstanding

the relationship you have with your mother, is

a sound imprinted for all your life; she hears

the interstate and the ocean, remembers a boy

who curled for a nap in the dark hearing the

background noise of the register in his parent’s

Chinese restaurant comfort him, tied to the beginning

Seamus Heaney’s local roads, her daughter watched

television in her womb, and taken aback, she believes.

 

“We don’t see the connecting filament until

the sparks appear and we wonder where it comes

from. Are you more like a skunk or a turtle?”

 

*

 

I’m making friends with a writer at Sewanee:

I’ll call her Frenchie from Washington, for short.

What Jill said about those childhood memories

really sinking in, this part of our brain that

instinctively comforts us – I spend so much time

worrying about how my kids will wake up,

what will they smell? what will they see?

Frenchie’s eyes round the bend toward the West.

 

*

 

Even after Splotchy, the koi (mine), eaten by

raccoons, as were my sister’s and brother’s

fish, I reminisced for him, how alive his tail

water flipped in droplets swished the surface,

the bob of his mouth, nibbled fingers, how

he hid underneath the water lily, waved a slow

back and forth, waiting for me to come or go.

 

*

 

Overheard from Jill McCorkle:

 

Stanley Kunitz once said, “The remarkable thing that

I feel despite the aging of the body…of my body

is that the spirit remains young. It is the same spirit

I remember living with as a child.”

 

Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”

– “They is. They is. They is.”

 

Like a skunk that when it gets angry, sprays its words

Or like a turtle, do you hide your words?

 

If you keep asking my mother for her address,

she will give you her childhood home.

 

*

 

Our cat Christina would stealthy and poise

in a flash biting golden fur on her belly, one

ear cocked for the cry of mee-mee, which

meant food, one eye cocked toward the koi

pond lined in flagstone, my father’s hands

lined with the fine dust of shale, bricked

piece by piece, the way his heart fit like

the odd kitchen tile, snugged in that

final space, dinner, my mother’s voice.

 

***

 

 

 

Ramadan Day 24 – Journey South

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The bus to the Sewanee Writers Conference in Tennessee is freezing, and I fall asleep, numb. I stumble out of that sleep when rain drops down on the bus. All sides chattering, the rain is making conversation. In the air, millions of white men are clearing the chairs. Tell me it’s gonna be ok, I say.

 

Patter

Patter

 

At the lectern tonight, reading her poems, Claudia Emerson doesn’t look like I thought she would. Her hair is nearly gone. Her smile is brighter than her Pulitzer. I cannot see her eyes behind her glasses.

 

For the last four days, I have offered up duas because I could not write. Writing is my dua this early into the late, late night.

 

I couldn’t write because there is a heavy press against my heart. My friend Gloria writes me with news. She doesn’t tell me she has cancer. She tells me she will have surgery and then chemo. What she means to say, I think, is don’t worry about me. Don’t fear. Don’t fret. I will survive.

 

A lover once told me that it insulted her when I worried about her. You’re sending negative energy into the world. Don’t do that. Instead, think about the positive.

 

I think about the missing schoolgirls in Nigeria. Is it odd that I think about them every time during the last week when the Palestinian dead are announced? Is it odd that every third thought is about the U.S. deporting undocumented people, refugees? Is the center of pain moving so that it can link to the center of everything? Oh, Allah, how we spin in no direction.

 

Claudia Emerson is the first reader, and I am not familiar with her poems.  She reads one called Chain, Chain, Chain riffing off Aretha Franklin. The deep well that words can be, she says. Metastasis, she says. When I heard that the tumor had metastasized, I found myself looking at the word. It means to move, to shift. Nobody wants to feel that their brain has been shifted.

 

Less than two weeks ago another friend forwarded me a letter. Her mother’s treatment is beating back the cancer. When I first read the words, I didn’t believe it. Happiness is unrecognizable.

 

My father withered under his treatment, the sun baking the dandelion until it sought a cooler place. A decade, until all that was left was flame and bone. I burned with tears at his funeral, and the casket wood burned my hands. Was it raining that day too? I don’t remember.

 

I’ve always had a thing for words. I pluck them from the word tree. It grows wild and looms over me. We should have had that thing pruned years ago, my mother says, or cut down. Now it is too late, and it’s dangerous. What if it falls on the house?

 

Dear Allah, help me quit. You know what. Because I want to live a little bit longer than I used to think I did.

 

How are you doing today? I text Gloria. She’s watching the Godfather. Her body is uncomfortable, her stomach distended. Give me your 5 sentence opinion about Israel and Palestine, she texts. I write 5 sentences at a bus stop between a writing group and Iftar. One sentence includes genocide. It will not be enough to simply stop what is happening now, I think to myself.  We can never return to zero, no matter how hard we are trying.

 

Before someone tells you they have cancer, you act like they don’t.

 

Gloria once told me that it’s important to take a break from the serious things, from the processing, and to make talk about daily things.  Don’t spend your time focusing on the problems.  Just live your life.

 

I’m taking a walk now, Gloria writes.

 

Claudia Emerson says she has a new idea about teaching poetry from being treated at a teaching hospital. She enjoyed the attention of all those students asking the same thing, wearing their new coats. Why should the study of poetry be less rigorous than medicine? She pounds one fist on the lectern. She wanted to buy everyone in her workshop a stethoscope, but they were too expensive.

 

I am ready to laugh.

 

List five gratitudes:

 

Allah, for my life, my friends’ lives.

 

Allah, for every moment during which I felt safe to cry.

 

Allah, for Ramadan and the fast.

 

Allah, for my family.

 

Allah, for the way the words shift and change under the tree canopy, up here on the wooden bench, your butt falling between the slats, the way the window is filled entirely with green, the rain here is lush, different than in Brooklyn where it all falls from a giant air conditioner in the sky, no chorus of cicadas. I’m traveling in between. You offer me two spaces –

Gloria –- here is, once where I was sad.

The other room full of hope due South.

 

 

Without rain, the poet Mia X said, there can be no rainbows.

 

 

the way a snake slips past

its discarded mouth into another year

or knowing nothing of a year

into time itself.

-overheard from Claudia Emerson

Days 18 & 19 – The Poets

Today Poets fed me.

 

Dinah kept me company as I waited for the bus. On the way to the bus stop, Dinah remembered that she had made a surplus of lentils. We rushed back to her place and made a plate for me to bring to Iftar.

 

Bahar, a dear VONA friend worked with me later in the afternoon and made a dish for me to bring to Qur’an study – marinating the tomatoes in herbs, oil, and garlic, adding fresh basil to the pasta dish. We didn’t speak about much, but we made time to discuss the sadness of this most recent killing of Palestinians by Israelis. You only have to be human to think this is wrong, Bahar said.

 

I arrived in Manhattan anxious and a bit nervous about my first Qur’an study with relative strangers, laden with food, my mind unable to hold on to either horror or kindness.

 

***

 

The other day as the air cooled in the breeze of Jersey City and opera singers delivered their librettos in the open air market next to Grove Street, I wished that I could capture the anticipation and sheer joy I felt.

 

After having basically messed up Monday with my high school summer students and almost breaking my fast on Wednesday to try considering how best to be present for my students in Newark, I decided to learn from my earlier mistakes and to see what a little faith in Allah could do.

 

Despite the fact that I may have been weaving a little in the classroom, and the students continued to challenge me, I stayed with the fast.

 

It was an inauspicious start. (At one point I said to the students that they may as well use the restroom at the beginning of class rather than in the middle, and half of the class got up and went to the bathroom. I didn’t have the energy to stop them. But, they all returned…eventually.)

 

One student, I’ll just call him Beeswax, has not done any of his readings. I give him catch-up work while I have a discussion with the other students about the readings. Beeswax raises his hand several times in the class to ask interruptive questions about whether he can have a tissue, whether something counts as a paragraph, but I’m determined to teach him too.

 

I’ve been telling Beeswax that he’s smart (which he is), and that I want him to pass. Beeswax reminds me of me – he has a problem with authority. He performs rebellion a lot more noisily than I do or did (no eye rolls from my friends, please.) Unlike me, however, he wasn’t given every educational opportunity in life. He looks dubious when I compliment him, as if I’m lying out of my teeth.

In my classroom, Beeswax finds himself in a corner. He’s on the verge of not passing. I know he wants to pass, so he slogs through and tries to answer the questions. Eventually, Beeswax raises his hand and tells me it’s too much work and that he has another question (which is likely to be about going to the bathroom again). I say to him before he leaves to the bathroom: do the work because everybody else had to do this much work to pass. It’s not fair! He complains.

 

I tell him to do his work and for every assignment he does in class, I will modify his assignment for the weekend. Show me you’re learning, I say.

 

Beeswax comes up to me and gives me his hand at the end of class. Ms. Lin, he says, you are a fair teacher, and you were fair to me, and I’m going to do all the assignments so I can pass the class. I’ve been behaving every class.

 

You weren’t behaving the past classes, I say.

But, I’ve been behaving now, he says.

 

***

 

So there I was on a bench at Grove Street, hungry, listening to the music, happy with my progress in my class, about to have dinner with T, dear friend and mentor.

 

I continue to appreciate how T shows me how to be a better person through her own actions, as well as a better writer. Tonight was no exception.

 

Walking to the restaurant, we ran into her neighbor on the street. The next thing I know, we’re hanging out and having drinks in her apartment. I’m eyeing the clock so I can take a swig of my smoothie.

 

This neighbor has two lovely kids, one of whom stood next to me as T and the neighbor discussed the injustices toward Black boys in the system. How do you feel about this? I ask him. He looks at me seriously and says, I’ve heard this before. I like videogames.

 

He showed me how to get cool new skins on his videogame avatar. Later, T’s neighbor told me she loved my hair because it sticks straight up and that my hair was just freedom. T builds community in her neighborhood, and that is just another one of the qualities I adore about her.

 

Eventually, over dinner, T mentioned to me that I’m not a good judge of character. This remark was addressing the praises I’d sung of a person who, admittedly, is a bit of a self-serving character and not nearly as wonderful as I thought. I won’t use the precise terms, but the gist of T’s remarks was that I give people a pass because I think they’re oppressed, or that they’ve had a shitty deal in life because of systemic injustice. Or, to put it more bluntly, I’m sometimes accepting of poor behavior or even bad characters – I’m taken in.

 

Initially, my argument was that I used to be a Public Defender and successful complex multi-party negotiator, and I (and my colleagues) used to prize my intuition and instinct. I could read people, their sincerity, their intent, and sometimes intuit their thoughts even before they spoke. When did I lose a step?

 

Something’s changed. What was wrong with me now?

 

I saw Dinah the next day, and she pointed out: it’s not that you have poor instincts, it’s that you don’t trust them. Maybe, I wasn’t fighting for power the same way that I used to fight for it. I wasn’t using my instincts for a clear goal. Instead, I was using them for something else, and now I wanted to err on the side of generosity.

 

For an attorney, suspicion and analysis are key spaces. For a healer, it is important to contextualize situation. Art heals us, and in some ways I’m invested now in seeing the layers of pain and hurt that most people carry, because I don’t have a side anymore.

 

I want, more than anything, to be a poet. Someone who can care deeply about the love and hope in everything, and everyone, but I also think the path to becoming a poet is to see the world with honesty.

 

But if I’m avoiding difficult understandings people, which I’ve come to the conclusion I’m doing, then what is it that I’m afraid I’ll find?

 

 

***

 

 

A couple weeks ago, I purchased my first copy of The Holy Qur’an translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. It’s just an English translation without the commentary and sadly, without the Arabic – I’ll get that later. I read through a few passages, but I was quickly overwhelmed.

 

I tried my time-tested technique for getting a sense of anthologies, as it were. And, I flipped blindly through the pages, looking at only the headers, until I could find something that was interesting.

 

This is from the Qur’an:

 


Sūrah 26 Ash-Shu’arā

The Poets

 

Section 11

217 And put thy trust in the Exalted in Might, the Merciful –

218 Who seeth thee standing forth (in prayer),

219 And thy movements among those who prostrate themselves,

220 For it is She who heareth and knoweth all things.

221 Shall I inform you, (O people), on whom it is that the evil ones descend?

222 They descend on every lying, wicked person,

223 (Into whose ears) they pour hearsay vanities, and most of them are liars.

224 And the Poets – it is those straying in Evil who follow them:

 


 

 

I felt like shutting the Book. What does Allah have against poets? I wondered.

 

225 Seest thou not that they wander distracted in every valley?

 

Ok, yeah, so they like to touch all the flowers…

 

226 And that they say what they practise not? –

 

I was clutching at my blankie and huffing right about now.

 

227 Except those who believe, work righteousness, engage much in the remembrance of Allah, and defend themselves only after they are unjustly attacked. And soon will the unjust assailants know what vicissitudes their affairs will take!

 

Okay, I thought, Allah definitely hates the poets. The phrase unjustly attacked rang through my mind. I felt attacked.

 

My instinct was to push away the Book and also to return to this passage. I didn’t know how to reconcile the words and their severity with the way I’d imagined poetics.

 

***

 

After I wrote a blog post on Day 15 “At The Table of Allah” – a dear, generous soul, let’s call him El Capitan, wrote me and said, Hi – I noticed that you were questioning whether to come to Qur’an study. I just want to make sure you know you were welcome. I wrote to El Capitan immediately and thanked him.

 

Note to self, I thought. Make it a point to go to queer Muslim Qur’an study. Stop being a wimp. After all, my biggest fear was that I’m not really a legit Muslim, that I’m not sure I ever want to be a legit Muslim. I didn’t want to appear foolish or stupid (silly, I know) by praying wrong or saying ignorant things that would appear disrespectful. I waited.

 

Tonight, I spent the day with Dinah then Bahar, then went to Qur’an study.

 

There were only a couple people there, Amelie and Rasta. Rasta and I had met before but have not had much by way of conversation. Amelie I was meeting for the first time. Often, there’s more people people. As we opened conversation awkwardly, with Amelie facilitating, we tossed the question around as to whether anyone had a passage.

 

I said no. (In the back of my mind I was thinking there’s that horrible one – of course.)

 

Rasta and Amelie were patient. They encouraged me to pick again. I hemmed and hawed, but somehow, I asked if we could discuss Sūrah 26 Ash-Shu’arā.

 

Just reading it, I got all hot again. What is this? Why are poets bad? They’re not bad! My thoughts ceased as Amelie and Rasta began reciting the Qur’an in Arabic. It felt so right. Their voices were angelic to me. Even if there was a stumble or quaver, it sounded, well, like poetry. Like song.

 

Amelie pursed her lips as we began discussion and looked thoughtful, flipping through the rather lengthy passage again and again. Rasta suggested that we read the footnotes/comments in the Abdullah Yusuf Ali version of the Qur’an.

 


3237. The Poets: to be read along with the exceptions mentioned in verse 227 below. Poetry and other arts are not in themselves evil, but may, on the contrary, be used in the service of religion and righteousness. But there is a danger that they may be prostituted for base purposes. If they are insincere (“they say what they do not”) or are divorced from actual life or its goodness or its serious purpose, they may become instruments of evil or futility. They then wander about without any set purpose, and seek the depths (valleys) of human folly rather than the heights of divine light.


 

As we were discussing my inability to critically examine real people, T gracefully weaved in her critique of a story I’d written.

 

In one of my stories, Lula (wow I almost just gave a fake name to my fictional character), one of the characters, has had a terrible life; she’s truly wounded by the immigration system, as well as being subjected to sexual abuse, and in order to heal herself, she seduces another character.

 

T called me out and said – the problem with your story is that Lula is doing this selfish thing, but the story is so sentimental that nobody, including the main character is being honest, about Lula’s behavior. I mean, if the characters aren’t honest that’s fine, but then the story has to be honest.

 

How would that happen, I asked T, if I’m writing about dishonest characters? Then I confessed – I know somebody who is a lot like Lula, and I love her in real life.

 

T told me: you could have at least one character be somewhat critical, or you could do it through the narrative voice. But, the real problem is that you the writer love these characters so much that you’re not willing to see them for who they really are. It shows in the story.

 

You know how a story gets flat. That’s because the writer isn’t willing to go to the hard emotional confrontation, the acceptance and struggle with what is really happening. Your story is so nostalgic because you are nostalgic.

 

An interpretation of a truth I’d heard from so many writers, including Junot Diaz, replayed itself in my mind. Every fucking flaw you have as a person shows up on the page.

 

I guess it’s true, I said to T.

 

 

***

 

With Amelie and Rasta, I struggled to justify this passage of the Qur’an, still feeling defensive. Amelie continued to read. We were quiet.

 


 

3238. Poetry and the fine arts which are to be commended are those which emanate from minds steeped in the Faith, which try to carry out in life the fine sentiments they express in their artistic work, aim at the glory of Allah rather than at self-glorification or the fulsome praise of women with feet of clay, and not (as in Jihād) attack anything except aggressive evil. In this sense a perfect artist should be a perfect woman. Perfection may not be attainable in this life, but it should be the aim of every woman, and especially of one who wishes to become a supreme artist, not only in technique but in spirit and essentials.


 

 

My mind summoned T. I told them immediately about our conversation the other day, eliding the irrelevant parts about my writing.

 

I know this is going to sound strange, but I was having this conversation the other day with this wonderful writer T. An artist must strive to be a better person. That we can only be as insightful a writer as we are a person. Maybe this is what the Qur’an means? That an artist must not shy away from her weaknesses. Instead, in our real lives we must become the Poets. We cannot write without confronting ourselves.

 

Rasta thanked me for what I’d said. You have such a good friend in T, she said.

 

What do you mean? I asked.

Somebody who will be honest with you and help you — doing this not to hurt you but to help you improve.

 

Amelie had been so considered. I already sensed that, like Rasta, she had deep wells of knowledge.

 

I see the arc now of the passage, she said, her voice emphatic. It begins with the Qur’an asserting itself as a holy text, but it ends with the Poets.

 

217 And put thy trust in the Exalted in Might, the Merciful –

218 Who seeth thee standing forth (in prayer),

219 And thy movements among those who prostate themselves,

220 For it is She who heareth and knoweth all things.

 

In Arabic, Amelie said, the word for heart literally means turning.

I don’t know how to translate this, she said.

But Imam Shafi’i the poet has a saying:

It was not called the heart except that it turns.

 

Amelie tells us that the Arabic word for heart is also the same root word for turn.

 


 

She’s only called woman cause of her forgetfulness,

and it is only called the heart cause it changes so rapidly

- Imam Shafi’i (translator unknown)


 

***

 

T, I confessed with such earnestness that it hurt me, I don’t think I can fix this story. I mean, what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to be a better person? I’m not able to see and accept all the parts of the people in my life, especially the parts I don’t like. I don’t know if I can go there.

 

Try, she said. Struggle with this. Otherwise, your story will be flat. You can’t only write what appeals to you and not dig deeper.

 

A great writer must be a great person. They must have a personal encounter with what they’re writing.

 

The other night, I didn’t tell T that I was defending myself against my own judgment, against all the times I’ve been a poor judge of character. How I saw the good in other people, especially the people who treated me poorly. How I craved them, because they showed me the part of me I could accept. I tried for so many years to keep people away from the best parts of me. That was the part of me that I knew belonged to somebody else.

 

A true poet reflects their truths and examines their self and others full in the face.

 

At one point, T smiled at me and said, you can either keep doing the same things you’ve always done, T said, if you’re fine with how you are.

 

Or, you can change.

 

 

 

 

Ramadan Day 17 – Sgt. Lonely’s Queer Club Band

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(Photos and Collage of Brick City Speaks! by Bryanna Tidmarsh)

 

***

 

Poet joke #1: How do poets say hello?

Answer: Hey, haven’t we metaphor?

 

On the PATH train platform at World Trade Center today, humming, on track to be early to work, the word unregenerate flashed up on the screen.

 

Unregenerate: not reforming or showing repentance; obstinately wrong or bad.

 

In the darkened room, hushed in heat and awe, as an audience member in Santa Ana, California, I listened to Cherríe Moraga and Adelina Anthony, and crew give a talk-back after Digging Up the Dirt, one of Cherríe’s play. I think about those kids that knew they were queer. I don’t mean this about only your sexual orientation, but that you were really, truly queer at a very young age.

 

A small kid in the back of the room raises her hand. She looks just like me.

 

She knew she was special.

 

 

Poet joke #2: What has 14 lines and upholds the current race and gender hierarchy?

Answer: A patriarchal sonnet!

by Dinah Fay

 

 

Thanks to Fast Brain (yes, ironically, slow brain), I did the unthinkable today. I missed an important obligation by half an hour, letting down an entire group of people. I’m too embarrassed to go into further detail. I failed, and that’s the best that can be said about the situation.

 

A half hour later, I received a phone call telling me that a job I really want could be mine.

 

Two hours after that, I was on the internet reading poet Safia Jama’s blog, laughing and constructing what I hoped would be a brief, but fitting tribute to her for a poetry reading I was co-hosting with Dinah for Brick City Speaks! in Newark.

 

Four hours and change, I was desperately trying to remember the given names of people I’ve known for the past year on the microphone. Hold your fast, a voice said. My hand trembled, but I did. In walked Anisa, a writer and friend who I’ve only recently met, who had said she’d be present and also that she would keep me company while I broke my fast. As I downed a smoothie that reminds me of the Don, I met Anisa’s eyes, and Dinah’s to the left of me, I felt a surge of love that lifted me.

 

There is a common wisdom about fasting for Ramadan. When you are fasting, what matters is only what is truly important. You don’t have the energy to care about anything else.

 

What was I doing while breaking this commitment? I was being consoled by T, a dear friend, teacher, and mentor. T said the following as I poured out my heart about the mistakes I’ve made lately:

 

Your best quality and your worst qualities are the same, you know? You’re the kind of person who’s been an activist your whole life. You love helping and being around oppressed peoples. But that also means that you are attracted to oppressed people, people who are suffering and have problems. But that’s not good for your love life.

 

All these years I’ve been falling in love with my broken self, in the hopes that I could heal her. I’m a walking cliché, a living testament to the fact that you can accomplish so much, even in your own small way you can make a difference, help people, be capable, competent, compassionate, and not believe that you are worthy of acceptance or love. You can become the very person that inspired you to change the world: the person who rejected you.

 

Self-sabotage is not a path forward.

 

I am not alone. Many writers come from this place. My place. The place of the outsider. A person who rejects community and belonging because she’s never even belonged to herself. So forgive me, Allah, because I can’t stop extending my heart to my unregenerate soul.

 

T, I said, I don’t know how to let them go?

I don’t want to hurt them. I want them to feel loved.

Let them go in the way that is most loving to you, T said.

 

 

 

Poet joke #3: What do you call a high heel with one stressed and one unstressed syllable?

Answer: An iambic foot.

by Dinah Fay

 

 

 

The other day I wrote a post about hesitating to join a Qur’an study group. Within eight hours, a friend from the group wrote me a message stating that they had seen my blog, and they wanted me to know that I was welcome and invited to the group – that they hoped I would come.

 

An ex of mine once said, a soul mate (not banned from poetic use after all) once told me as she broke up with me, and before she married a man and had her first baby and then let me know that she’d never stopped loving me: you know what I hate most about you. You are so fucking loved. You are spoiled, and it’s annoying, because all you’ve ever been is surrounded by love. And I don’t have that. And I love this about you too.

 

Outside of the reading as the rain sizzled onto the pavement, and Bry held aloft a floral parasol and Melissa and I compared notes on how hard it is to find good pants in butch fashion, and Dana breezed in I proceeded to finish the final heel of a bad sentence. It runs along the lines that I don’t like to be vulnerable enough.

 

“That’s fucking bull-shit,” Melissa said, exhaling in a protective puff. “What the fuck?”

“Obviously, they don’t know you,” Dana said. “You’re basically one big broken heart. That’s not even a real statement.”

“I remember the first time we were in a class together,” Bry said, “and the first thing you said was about your insecurity. You were totally insecure.”

 

Poets

Meanwhile, one arm wet from the rain

my heart sang.

 

You just love being loved — my friend Sandra said recently as she scooped out a delicious spoonful of eggplant and bell peppers that she had made for dinner.  (Mind you, she’d made it for out of town guests, said I could come over and eat, and yeah most of it ended up in my gullet!)

 

And in the morning, on the PATH platform, before the concrete cut off the signal, I read Cleo’s message telling me that the bad day would get better. I believed her. I’ve never stopped believing her since that second time she got me off the kitchen floor.

 

The Doctor once said – has it ever occurred to you that you should have relationships and let yourself become vulnerable to people because you will need people in the times you struggle?

 

What am I protecting?

 

The first time I studied the Enneagram, I was asked to choose which was the stronger urge: to be strong or to be perfect. Please, I thought, let me be strong enough to survive trying to be perfect.

 

When I was in law school my first year, before I woke up from a daze, and a sun set behind my eyes, and I had this queer vision and led a delegation to Michigan because, as I told everybody, we’re fighting for affirmative action, and I think that this case, this situation, is going to be the one that decides this issue for us. (See Grutter v. Bollinger – didn’t exactly change the game, but it was a step in the right, as opposed to wrong, direction.)

To this day, a part of me believes that it is our lived experience that changes us most.

 

When – there is no when – before I ever felt I deserved to write, I was with a friend (Mustafa), and I was crying, and I said, Please don’t ever tell people this because it’s going to sound crazy, but I had this dream of becoming a writer, but then I just felt that God wanted me to use my creativity for something else. And I just keep asking for that to change because it feels like my heart is breaking.  But I can’t stop.

 

I didn’t save myself then. What makes me think I’m going to do it now?

 

Yet every word is richer for listening to that voice that could have been a demon, but also could have been Allah.

 

Sometimes, we don’t see much in our hazes. Everything is quiet.

You just want to be loved.

 

A friendly acquaintance I know asked me how I was doing today, on the steps of a building in Newark. I started to spin my tale of woe. She said, You need to stop. Just stop. Stop looking for love. I figure it’s a 50-50 chance, but looking doesn’t affect your chances. It’s one of those things you can’t control. You’ll only find it if you stop looking. Stop looking. It will only hurt you.

 

 

 

Poet Joke #4: What do you call two British men trapped between the pages?

Answer: A chap book.

(By Dinah Fay)

 

 

 

So you understand that this is a love story right?

 

What it was like to be up there tonight, fasting, having messed up most of the day, totally emo, yet still trading jokes with Dinah as a co-host.  She was present even though she had a day more difficult than most – the sheer genius of her jokes, all of which she’d been smart enough to write herself, while mine were from the Internet.

 

What it was like the first three times I fell in love, and then started realizing that every single day I’ve written in this Ramadan journal, another person (often a different person) has written me a note of appreciation or encouragement or love.

 

What a relief it was that words poured out.

 

What it was like to say in a night of prayer at the Mosque in the OC to Saimo and her mother that I wanted a prayer rug. To receive a prayer rug as an Eid present from the O’Husain’s.

 

What people don’t know about you, Debbie always said, is your incredible faith.

 

What it’s like to be so hurt by people that you don’t even care about yourself, and then climb up that mountain and look down. How you still love them as much as you did the first time your heart jumped.

 

What it’s like to forgive when you know there is absolutely no way, no human way, that you could ever forgive that.

 

And if I’m only one single queer heart out there in the Universe

then why is it that I look up

and see all these stars?

 

This is love.

 

 

 

***

Didn’t drop the secret

Then

No use dropping it now

 

Yes Poet

I dreamed you

 

All these songs

And not one to go home with

 

*Words remembered (loosely) from a reading of Shorty Bon Bon by Willie Perdomo

Ramadan Day 16 – Pharaoh’d

In the nighttime, split into two, it is my shadow writing, not I.

Alone, in the light, my bright face rattled at the thought of entertaining company, I can take off this mask.  The secret one covets her aloneness, covets the trace of her thoughts outlining only her one mind.  What I give to others is returned to me only when I return the favor of giving to myself.  Here, with this pen, or computer, or typewriter, or flickering candle, I am replenished in a way that company and conversation cannot give me.

Today I continued an unhealthy pattern in my life by allowing injury into my life when I could have avoided it.  Some part of me felt impervious to hurt because I was fasting, unjustified in bravery.  Yet when I drank and ate, a rush of feelings descended, and I said to myself — hey, no big deal, tangle with trouble even though trouble has announced herself with a calling card.  I can control how I feel.  So this is pride?

I console myself that fools do learn.  Honestly, what a relief it will be to turn to fasting again tomorrow.  I hope I will not have the energy to invite mischief into my life.

I don’t have much more to say.  Thanks to Allah.

Instead, I will try to memorize this poem by Kay Ryan instead by typing it out.  The first time I heard Dinah read it, I could not stop repeating its final lines.  Over and over.  Terrified.

 

The Pharaohs

by Kay Ryan

 

“The Pharaohs killed those who had built the secret chambers

of the pyramids to ensure that any knowledge of their

existence would be lost.”

- Henning Mankell, The White Lioness

 

 

 

The moral is

simple: don’t

help other people

with their secrets.

But within the

self, what defense

is there against

the pharaohs who

demand chambers

we must build

on pain of death

after which

we’re killed?

A person is

as a kingdom

and can afford

some losses toward

the construction of

underground systems,

say the pharaohs,

shutting their

cunning doors

that never were

and won’t be

evermore.

 

 

Ramadan Day 15 – At the Table of Allah

photo 1

 

“There is no joy without sorrow. Life is full of oppositions. We are all large and we contain multitudes. My challenge is to run to Allah when I feel like running away.”    – excerpt from “Ride” by Ramy Eletreby in Salaam, Love

Dinah expressed to me again today how difficult it is to write, or write well, when happy.  Earlier tonight I ate at the table of love, an Iftar prepared by two fellow fasters.  How can I write, I thought, when I want to sing with joy?  For I am eating at the table of Allah.

Hours later, I sit in contemplation of vulnerability.  I am instantaneously filled with worry – ah, I’ve found my unhappy place, even though I feel decently happy.  I kind of want to scowl.

***

You must be vulnerable to take a risk and as a dear Friend said about me — much of what you choose to do or not to do is because you don’t want to be vulnerable. Maybe you should take a risk. We were discussing my frustration with praying at the NYU Islamic Center because I wasn’t sure where I would or should be able to pray (back, side, next to others) as someone who believes in Allah but who has not converted. As well, I was questioning whether I should attend a Qu’ran study with people who don’t know me very well.

 

In particular, I fear my ignorance. Ignorance has often led me astray. What I don’t know really would fill the book I haven’t written. I’m scared that I will pray wrong, and others will laugh at me, or think in their head: she’s not a real Muslim. How is it that I, who have not converted, am afraid that people will see me for what I say about my own self. Is the corollary true: do I want to be a real Muslim? Do I want to convert?

 

This question shakes me to my foundation. Allah is waiting for me to live my life with Her love in my heart. I tell myself to be open to the call. I’m certain tonight that I will know it. I’m scared that I will wake up tomorrow and forget this knowledge.

 

I’m scared that if I accept a religion instead of my own relationship with God, I will weaken. I am frail. I don’t want to be so discouraged by closed-mindedness or pressures upon us all to follow patriarchal or sexist teachings. I don’t want to close some part of myself off to Allah. She sees everything inside of me, and for that I am grateful. That is a certainty amidst so much instability.

 

Simply not belonging to a group can be a stressor. My reaction to stress is a weakening – I remove myself from the present, and I enter a state of doubt. I have peace right now, so surrounded by love. I would like to protect that peacefulness. Am I right to protect this peace?

 

But it is not Allah or my relationship with Her that is truly frightening. It is my fraught relationship with other people and their institutions. Like many, I’ve lived a life full of disappointment and failure as well as full of love and comfort. I have had to keep myself apart, or keep a part of myself hidden, merely to walk around and not draw the ire and judgment of others. I thought that was the only way to keep love and comfort in my life.

 

So here is my prayer this morning: please, help me learn to love people, to take the risk of loving them.

 

There are times that I have become enamored with romantic love. I was concerned with attracting people who reminded me that I was worth loving. In those times, I have pushed aside the more difficult task of loving myself. I wonder if in those times, I have also been less capable of loving others.

 

When I see myself as scarce, what am I giving?

 

Once, sitting in the front seat of a car in Pasadena, when I was mad crushing on a poet who was writing inside the cafe at the time, another poet said that it must be hard to love me because I would never give anyone all of my love. And to whom would I give it? I asked. To your art, she said, and to your writing. I felt cursed.

 

Years later my inability to be vulnerable in my real life has shown up in my writing.

 

This softness is one of the most beautiful things about writing during Ramadan. I’m writing without the restrictions that usually come in shaping a story or a poem. I’m simply writing what comes to mind. When I demand too much, the fast has a way of messing with my brain, and I am unable to produce what it is that I intended. It’s as if I am writing from the subconscious, as if my censor has been removed. My censor is useful, practically speaking, but without food, a spirit fills me instead. That spirit is a greater closeness with myself. Perhaps during Ramadan I am more honest.

 

I have stayed awake and prayed, and now I must sleep, but I have a better sense of the questions in front of me. A dear Friend said once to me that when someone talks to you about religion they are teaching you about their relationship with Allah. There are many relationships to Allah.

 

One for each Muslim.

 

Dear Allah,

If you don’t know it already, I want to say thank you for what you’ve done for my friend S’s mom who is sick. It moves me so deeply, your compassion and healing works. I was waiting for the right time to light the lucky candle Justin gave me. When I heard that S’s mom is healing, I wanted to jump up and hug you. Improper as it is, I hope you will accept my gratitude, for I owe you Everything.

 

Love,

Serena

 

photo 2

Lit. Thank you Justin.

 

 

Ramadan Day 14 – There is no “Middle East,” There is only You and Me

Until I sort out my thoughts, this post is in flux.

I’ll leave this article as food for thought.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/12/disabled-palestinians-unable-escape-israeli-air-strike

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