The Sort of Person

I am the sort of person who keeps my friends in my life for as long as I can.  I have a huge capacity for friendship.  It’s why I have friends from almost every part of my life.  Many of my friends have known me since I was really young (like zero).  Much of that is due to my tight knit immigrant community (like our parents were friends and took for granted we would be friends when we were still in the womb).  Much of that is due to my friends being genuinely stellar, solid people (like they tether me to the earth every time I have tried to float away) who are, to a one, remarkably interesting and amazing.

Some small part of that, I hope, is due to my capacity to love.  The larger part is due to theirs.

One reason, however, that I have any friends at all was brought to my attention tonight.  It is my ability and desire for meaningful conversation, and their ability to meet it.  It takes courage and strength to engage with people even when we are scared.  I was born with words.  I don’t know why.  I can’t say that having a bunch of words is always useful.  They don’t make sense much of the time.  They don’t even really seem like they’re from me.  They come at me as if from a distance.  All of a sudden they are coming from me.  That is how I feel about being me.  Constantly surprised.

I will try to the point of exhaustion to be open to what people have to say.  Most of the time I fuck it up.  It is not my usual state, being open.  But I am usually up for trying, again and again.  Sometimes, I will try pointlessly and counter-productively.  I used to do those conversations a lot more.  The not-fun, circular ones.  I’ve learned the importance of timing, of trying to gauge my self, and where I am now.   I’ve learned the difference between me and other people.  I’ve learned not to take other people’s problems so personally.  I’ve learned that I can intellectually want to forgive and move forward, but that my heart is sometimes not ready.  I’ve learned that sometimes people need to walk their own path.  I am (more) patient.

Eventually, on their own time, people get up from the ground and rise.  There are voices traveling through the air that we do not immediately recognize.

While my philosophy has its many downsides, the truth is I have also reaped a huge benefit by never saying no to an honest conversation.  I’ve learned from my mistakes.  It is an under-appreciated skill to know the difference between when you are ready for an honest conversation vs. when somebody else is ready for an honest conversation.  I’ve learned the difference between setting a boundary and allowing a lie.  I am constantly trying to separate where I am and where somebody else is.  My inability to know and recognize these differences have led me into terrible pain.  Empathy is part curse.  I give my attention to others most fully when I am also giving it to myself.  I’ve often sucked it big time at giving attention to myself.  Ergo…yup.  Room for improvement…check.

I can’t give up on the transformative conversation.  That is because I am the beneficiary of my friends.  They have literally saved my life.  Much of this saving has taken place in messy, disastrous conversations where I have said questionable and regrettable things.

There was a time when I cruised around town loaded with violence for my shadow.  I never caught up to us.  Good thing, because that would’ve been a hard way to go.  Now, I am trying to let myself be.  Just be.

I try not to shut my door to any human being.  I try instead to continuously tidy my house so that I can keep my doors open and continue to invite visitors in.  Lately, I feel that my house is in shambles.  I am embarrassed by its state and do not wish to have guests.  They still knock.  I still answer.  I explain that now is not a good time.  Do you still want to be here?  Some, but not all, do.  I show these folks in, and I point to the sign that says take your shoes off.  Some of them do not like the mess.  They exit quickly, and I am grateful after some initial outbursts about rudeness.  Some want to clean it up.  They are frustrated easily and blame me for their failure.  I get them window cleaner so we can see the houses across the street.  Others pretend to like it and engage in polite conversation while eating crumpets and other British inventions.  They don’t believe in real magic and are easily entertained by distraction.  A few sit and keep me company while I try to tidy it up.  They smile at me with their sad eyes and hold me with their presence.  They stay.

That was not hard to say.  This next part is:

It took me all these years to see that I have true friends because I am one.  I stay.  I have stayed for so many people over the years.  I have stayed even when I hated myself so much that I didn’t think I deserved to have these same people stay with me.   I have stayed even when I knew that as soon as they were better, we would no longer be friends.  I am capable of staying.  I’ve only ever run away from people a handful of times.  Each of those times, I turned around and stopped running at some point.  I am so deeply flawed, but I am trying to accept myself.  It is scary for me to say this because I have given more to others than I have asked for myself.  And every time I have done that there was always somebody in my life giving me more than I gave them.

I grew up believing I deserved less than what I was capable of giving to others.  This imbalance and inability to perceive myself for everything that I am led me to a profound aloneness.  The aloneness gave me the courage to let good friends into my life.  Those friends helped me become less lonely.

Three things I read/re-read today that inspired this post.

***

http://www.upworthy.com/loneliness-illustrated-so-beautifully-you-will-need-to-tell-someone

(thank you for this link Courtni)

***

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/opinion/sunday/how-not-to-be-alone.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

(thank you for this article Aimee)

***

“People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.
When you figure out which one it is,
you will know what to do for each person…

“When someone is in your life for a REASON,
it is usually to meet a need you have expressed.
They have come to assist you through a difficulty;
to provide you with guidance and support;
to aid you physically, emotionally or spiritually.
They may seem like a godsend, and they are.
They are there for the reason you need them to be.

“Then, without any wrongdoing on your part or at an inconvenient time,
this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end.
Sometimes they die. Sometimes they walk away.
Sometimes they act up and force you to take a stand.
What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done.
The prayer you sent up has been answered and now it is time to move on.

“Some people come into your life for a SEASON,
because your turn has come to share, grow or learn.
They bring you an experience of peace or make you laugh.
They may teach you something you have never done.
They usually give you an unbelievable amount of joy.
Believe it. It is real. But only for a season.

“LIFETIME relationships teach you lifetime lessons;
things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation.
Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person,
and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life.
It is said that love is blind but friendship is clairvoyant.”

— Unknown

(thank you for this poem Justin)

Prospect Park No. 1

The bridge is green and metal.

The sign on its arch is 1889.

The ducks are idle on the algae.

Everything sits on the surface.

Everything floats toward motive.

Underneath something scares me.

 

I grab my knees and stare.

There are points, scabs, and scars.

I still see the orbulent sun.

It lingers quiet between two trees.

I still hear two women seated to the side.

They are spilling their secrets, secretly.

 

A boy is fishing with a modern line.

Something tugs at him.

Something else tugs at me.

I see the water gliding this a way.

I see the one-eyed swan approaching.

Dropping its neck, it plunges into the world.

 

Image

EID

For the Don

Eid was last Thursday.

Today is Monday.

The Don is leaving tomorrow back to California – my dearest friend here in New York City.  I hugged him at least eight times today, upward of fifteen times in the past week.  I felt as if each time we touched, I was trying to keep a part of him here.

I noticed you haven’t written about Eid, the Don said, a half-smile on his face.  It took me a moment to respond, but there are things we say out loud and then there are things we say to ourselves.

Out loud:   I’ve been so tired.  Don, do you think I should write an Eid post?  Definitely, said the Don.

Inside:  I can’t bear another goodbye, not even to Ramadan.

***

I had quite a bit of fun during Ramadan.  I attended Eid prayer at the NYU Islamic Center.  Later, I walked to Chinatown and the Canal Street Area with H, my gracious new friend and host to the Islamic Center from an earlier post.  We met my brother for dim sum, scrupulously avoiding the pig.  Shrimp rolls, turnip cakes, chicken feet, dumplings, green onion pancakes.  We went to an Italian cafe in Little Italy for gelato and iced coffee.  Italians replaced by Chinese replaced by an-answer-in-flux.  We laughed together.  Our chatter filled the room and mixed with the chatter of other groups.  What are we all talking about? 

H’s friend from Baghdad joined us, a vivid man, slender and youthful, whose smile was an oversize shirt.  He learned English in a year.  The two of them left to pray.   Justin and I remained, idly talking about our difficult past.  It was a good interaction.  I apologized for things I’ve said and done in his presence.  Things that made him feel helpless and angry and hurt.  Things he doesn’t seem to know how to forgive.  Do any of us know how to forgive other people, or for that matter, ourselves?  He talked about these old wounds that are fresh for him.  Yet they somehow remain bandaged during our conversation, and we are calm.

One person I spoke to about our interaction called you a bitch, so I stopped talking to him.  I thought it was crazy that he said that so I stopped talking to him.  Oh?

I remained calm.  Why do we say choose to say some things and not others?  Who is the speaker?  Who thought I was a bitch?

I still have a hard time setting boundaries with you, Justin says, looking at the remains of a past that is dissolved Cappuccino in a silver goblet.  The wound reappears, disappears.  A flash.

My brother who struggles to manage his feelings toward me came to spend Eid with me.  In time spent, even in difficulty, we find each other.  Family.

We ended without fighting.  That felt great because I cannot control what other people say to me.  I can control myself.  I am practicing not fighting.  It’s going okay.  I’m not great at it.  It means choosing to be okay with people with whom I have conflict.

The boundary with which I struggle is the one that defines me.

***

Justin walks with me to find the subway station.  In a dazed rush, I catch a train to Westchester with Roopa where we have Eid dinner with her friend, M, and M’s family.  We had not caught all of each other’s text communiques, but running onto the platform, I hurl toward Roopa who is waiting on the platform.  Finding luck.

M is an out queer woman to her family and to her broader Egyptian community.  She is tall and lean; the lines of her face are sharply etched – I imagine with bravery and resistance.

Our meal is a beautiful festoon of lamb and rice, fig-filled cookies, and fruit and cake.  Her family welcomes us with open arms.  Everybody in the family is a poet.  Roopa and I join in an impromptu poetry circle.  Roopa singing.  Me reading from a phone.

When M drives us to the metro stop, I talk about my Eid prayer experience at the Islamic Center.  M says, Did Roopa tell you about what happened when we went to the mosque?

No, please Share.

M begins, Sometimes I get so angry.  I wonder how can anybody not get angry when they go to a mosque?

http://sideentrance.tumblr.com — a website the Don told me about earlier during the fast.

M’s story is a narration for the website:  Roopa and I went looking for a mosque for Iftar the other night.  We went to 3 or 4 where there was a full meal laid out.  The men were gathered around breaking their fast.  But there was no space for women to pray.  Imagine, you cook all day and you bring them food, and you cannot break your own fast there.

The mosque we finally went to was actually better than other ones I’ve attended.  At least this one wasn’t a prison cell, and the microphone is busted and the women are cramped together in a tiny, dark space.  At least it was just a windowless room and not in the basement.  I don’t want to sound like a Western Feminist, she says.

(Roopa and I make low sounds, reassuring M.)

M sighs.  Her jaw muscles clench.  I can see her face in the rear view mirror.  It fills with frustration.  I feel such an outpouring of sympathy for her struggle.  How difficult it is to change things within Islam when there is so much Islamophobia out there.  So much prejudice and bias and racism that we cannot speak honestly about our own communities without fear of thousands of Westerners breaking their talking sticks upon the backs of Muslims.

I understand the error:  how one comes to stand for the whole.  How can a poet learn to use metonymy?

I understand how we must be silent; we must be perfect, because we are not supposed to allow our people to be judged by those whose true agenda is feeling better about themselves.  Those same people come to us in the name of aid and curiosity, praising “diversity,” but they really want to win the race and culture wars.

Whenever I try to win, I spend so much time being scared of losing.

***

At the Islamic Center, I was surrounded by hundreds of other men, in the front of the room, and other women, in the back of the room.  I enjoyed the breakfast.  I met a convert who asked me, after hearing that I’ve been fasting for Ramadan for years, why I didn’t convert.  I told him that it was private.

This person asked me the same question again, as we realigned in orbit around the room.  At first, I felt frustrated, but then I realized that it did not matter – all the complexities of that answer were not something I was going to be able to articulate.  But this time I wanted to answer.  He seemed to have some need to know — that can be a gift.  What would a public answer be to a private question?

The first thing I blurted out was:  it’s because I’m queer; I can’t convert to a religion that will make me feel like I am less after all my past religious experiences made me feel that way.  I don’t want to be told by conservative men how to have my relationship with Allah, I said.  As I spoke, this man’s wife nudged a young man next to her.

I remember the young man’s eyes.  They are large, luminous, and careful, as if they could fill with tears at any moment.  He seems vulnerable.  I stopped talking when I saw the woman nudge him.  I wanted to acknowledge this attention, if only for a moment.

I’m a transsexual, he said, and I have been thinking about these same things.  He was so comfortable with himself that for the first time that day I truly relaxed and at home in the room.  He is a dancer and a writer.

I asked him to walk with me for a moment to get some food.  He came to Islam because so many of his favorite people, and people he lives with, are Muslim.  He seemed a little doubtful – that perhaps it was less legitimate, his journey.  I felt the same way about my journey.  We talked about wanting to feel good, about our doubts as to our place in Islam, but also about our relationship with Allah.

Us queers, people of color, wandering a prayer room, during Eid, finding solidarity, afraid of the discoveries that lead to rejection, but we are present nonetheless.

Later, we were joined by H, my new and gracious friend, who talked about how there is a mosque out in California somewhere whose Imam is a woman.  We talked about the Sufi mosque in Manhattan where the women and men pray side by side, though still separated.  So many roads to Islam.

The funny thing is – I myself came to Islam through a very specific set of people/relationships.

In many narratives the successful story arc is because the reader cares about what happens next – if nothing happens, the story tends to flop — unless you’re the kind of writer whose beautiful words and eloquent phrases obviate the need for motion.  Plot often feels like an accidental series of events whereupon the protagonist connects with certain people.  By the end, these occurrences which have previously just happened bring the reader some sort of meaning.

Some of those people happened to be Muslims.

Some of those people happened to be Catholics.

Some Hindus Some Jews Some Daoists Some Buddhists

Some Polytheistic Some Santeria Some Sikh

Shinto Zoroastrian Pagan Mix

Some of the strident Atheists demanded that all

Fundamentalists be removed from their perches,

post haste.

The rain comes, hit all the stones.

The grass sprouting out of the cracks turns to sky.

I walk underneath the Arch

thinking of You.

I am moved by the Muslim community in the same way that I have been moved by lovers, changed thoroughly whether or not I remain in their lives.

I have been to so many churches and temples at that point, but somehow this community called to me.  I want to explain it.  I really do.  But how can anybody besides Allah truly know I am alive?

Kindness converts me every time.

Life itself shapes us, its current smoothing out the rocks.

The story of an enlightened being:  I will be glad to explain what I have seen to each and every one of you, very soon.  I also plan to do a TED talk on miracles and the awe we feel in discovering patterns in something we once thought was random.  I hear it took the Buddha hundreds of years of meditation in a secluded cave to develop a power point good enough for a general audience.  Some say he has never emerged.

I hear this whispering in my ear.  Don’t worry about boring the pious.  They are already sleeping.

***

I tell my new friend with the liquid eyes the story of my fasting for Ramadan, its humble beginnings in romantic (queer) love, and the stumbling my way into continuing to fast, how I honor my spirituality by participating in this way in organized religion, how I am engaging, and how, ultimately, it is my friends that keep me fasting and teach me about Allah.

How many words are there for love in Arabic?

We expect our religious moments to be some grand thing, but instead we learn to recognize the spirituality of our daily lives – that is how we bless our living.

Coming to Allah is a long walk through Prospect Park.

Over there is the Lake.  The Bridge.  The drum circle.  The woman selling berry smoothies.  The man waving his arms by the grass.  He could be doing Tai Chi or just keeping his arms from losing circulation.   He reminds me of my grandmother.  The couples with their dogs can be annoying.  Or, they can be cute.   The softball field is full of children.  The soccer game.  The people running reproach you with a look when you get in their way.  They are tired; they are sweating and even their ears are hot – those ear-buds.  Here we are on the path, and the leaves are falling.  Our feet are shaped like gravel.  There is the Arch again, coming into view.  Beyond that the library.  That is the old woman sitting on the bench wearing hijab.  The sunset is approaching.  There is another woman next to her.  I cannot see her face.

We are becoming each other.

When I come to the end of this walk, I am changed for having gone through this walk.   It’s just a loop, but each moment in the circle feels fresh and new, even if we take this walk each day.  Each detail.  Each happening.  These were all events shaped by Allah.  These are all as holy as a sermon.

I have come to trust what happens in my life.  This is a sort of peace.

There is more than one way to Allah.

***

During Ramadan, I kept a blog, a Ramadan journal inspired by my fast and various poets, especially Rumi and Kazim Ali.  While I was fasting, I found it impossible to write fiction.  I only had the energy to digest poetry and to pluck away at these journal entries.  As soon as I finished fasting, I was dismayed that I had not finished any of the stories I was supposed to complete this summer.

A few days before Eid, John Keene, a writer and teacher of mine at Rutgers, asked me how my writing was going in our e-mail exchange.  I said that I had not been productive.  He writes me back.  He has read not only the Ramadan post I sent him, but read backwards through my previous Ramadan posts.  He tells me that this journal is writing – that I am sharing my vision with others.  He encourages me to continue.

I am writing.

***

One of my favorite titles of a poetry book is a volume called, The Subject Tonight is Love:  60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz, trans. by Coleman Barks

In his Khutbah, the Imam of the NYU Islamic Center, Khalid Latif, began by telling a story.  I’ll paraphrase his sermon:

Human Beings are Allah’s creation.  They are the most beautiful and divine parts of this world.

We shouldn’t be building more walls between each other.  We should be respecting each other and especially women.

Finally, the Imam reached the end of his Khutbah.

Having fasted for this month of Ramadan, what will you take with you from Ramadan?  You have shown discipline.  You have refrained from drinking or eating during the day.  You have prayed.  Now that Ramadan is over, what will you bring with you into every day of your life?  You have achieved peace during Ramadan.  You could not respond to things that troubled you in the same way when you weren’t so hungry and so thirsty.

You have found peace.  How will you let Ramadan continue to change you even though it has ended?  Continue to live in peace, to be humble, to be with Allah.  Do not give up your peace for anything less than heaven, than paradise. 

Do not let yourself succumb to irritation and annoyance.  Allah created you and so knows that you will make mistakes, and while you may not be able to forgive, while you may be angry, Allah is great and Allah can forgive.  Allah continues to love you.  Allah does not make mistakes.  And when you lose yourself, when you make a mistake, you can give yourself to Allah, who will hold you in his infinite kindness and compassion.  Allah who is peace.  Allah who is love.  Allah who is divine.

***

There is alchemy in how the mystery of each day is revealed.  `

To be present, the Don reminded me, even when we are stressed or trying to say goodbye, is important.  We don’t know what will happen next.

During a quiet moment today in a coffee shop in Ditmas Park, the Don stopped during our conversation to take a picture of the street.  We were discussing family – how hard it is to speak to them, especially when we have built up so much frustration, especially when we do not know how to ask for what we want.  Sometimes we don’t even know what we want.  We are scared of what we want.  We are scared of getting it.  We are scared of not getting it.

I want to be okay wherever I go, wherever those I love go.

As he looks into the golden intersection, the Don tells me how this place fills him with such love.  His enthusiasm is contagious.  I love it here too, more so because he has helped me to find a home here.

Newkirk Avenue is flooded with such mixed emotions.  He might really be leaving, I thought.  Why else would he take a picture of a building he sees everyday?

Beyond the brick apartments all I can actually see is the light filtering down between the green leaves of a tree.  Something about the branches is a frame for the light.  Something about the tree extending its arms into the sky reminds me of prayer.  The camera inside us is a holy thing.  We take pictures during these moments when we experience our strongest feelings.

What is this love I have for another person?

As I walk him back home, the Don takes pictures of the pink hydrangeas blooming next to his apartment building – for his mother.  See, he explains, I am always thinking of her.

Not the object, nor the subject, but the light that allows me to see the world.

***

After the Don leaves, I take a walk and stop in my favorite Halal restaurant on Coney Island Avenue, MashAllah.  The guy at the counter recognizes me from my many stops, looks at my droopy face.  He hands me two pieces of fish.  Eat this, he says, while you wait.  I pick up some biryani thinking of all the biryani I used to eat with Saima O’Husain.  I pick up an extra kebab sandwich thinking that it would be so great if the Don could eat it with me.

I walk down the wide streets, past the kids playing basketball.  One of them is shamelessly traveling, just like I used to do, intimidating the other kids with his bravado.  Several women pass by me carrying babies and pushing strollers.  The street is hushed, the only noise the sound of a leather ball rhythmically chunking at the pavement, as if sharing my reverie.  The Don has gone to his final kickboxing class.  I feel empty and hollow.  Is this how change feels?

The Don and I agreed earlier on not having a tearful goodbye.  He said, Because you’re my friend from Los Angeles, and we knew each other before we came to Brooklyn, I feel like we will continue to be in each other’s lives.  He’s right, I’m sure.

I walk through the co-op’s grocery aisle.  I don’t have the heart to buy the eggs or produce I intended to bring home.  I am weighted down.  Instead, I pick up some hummus I don’t need.  It is light and won’t break if I drop it.   I walk a block down toward my home and

I didn’t get a last picture with the Don!

I text him.

He calls me immediately.

Where are you? he asks.

Here! I’m here! I say.

***

Thank you to every single person who spent time with me during Ramadan and who took the time to read this Ramadan journal.

Eid Mubarak, My Loves!

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Ramadan Day 29

Nothing can heal anger except compassion. – Thich Nhat Hanh

 

RAMADAN DAY 29

 

            Today is the last day of Ramadan.  Tomorrow is Eid.  What, asked the Imam at the NYU Islamic Center, will you take away with you?  What has Allah blessed you with during this Ramadan that will stay with you even after Ramadan, this fast, is over?  We will all some day go to the final court.  You and I, we will all go there to be judged by Allah.

 

            I am in my room.  It is dark outside.  As my head touches the ground, I feel I cannot lift it.  I do not know the words to the prayers so I must make up my own.  I say them in my mind, usually, but sometimes my mouth moves a little.  Today, I am trying to go slowly.  I am a fast person.  Being slow and deliberate is not easy for me.  How can I slow down when my body is filled again with food, with energy?  How can I use this energy not to engage in ceaseless skirmishes to win fights that I really don’t need to win?  How can I use this energy to be compassionate, to rise above?  To give understanding even when it is difficult for me?

 

            Yesterday’s fast was one of my worst.  It was the first day I was fasting after over two weeks in Spain.  It felt like the first day of Ramadan.  29 days ago, I was prepared.  I had given up my silly addiction.  I had stopped drinking coffee.  For the last two weeks, I had indulged myself.  Yesterday, I was back to square one of fasting.  I was frustrated that the benefits of fasting for a long time, that stillness of the mind, would not be mine.

 

            I meandered my way over to the Islamic Center I’ve never been to before, terrified because I didn’t have the energy to face so many strangers.  I was afraid of being judged because of how I look, because I have not said the words that make one a Muslim, not been witnessed in the Act.  The Don had even texted and arranged with his friend to keep an eye out for me when I told him of my anxiety.  As I entered the building covered in glass, I grew more scared and then I was inside and I didn’t have the energy to run away.

 

            I stood in prayer in the back, keeping my eyes out to make sure I performed the right motions.  A terrible headache worried me.  As I proceeded to Iftar, sitting alone against the wall, waiting to see a friend, I felt lonely and unapproachable.  A young woman pushed between the wall and the small crowd and asked if she could sit next to me.  Of course! I thought, Please, please sit next to me.  We ate silently before I introduced myself.  She asked me, how was your fast today?  Instantly, I felt at home.

 

            I told her a little about Spain and returning and the first day of fasting always being the worst.  She asked me if I would make up the days I had traveling or if I would make them up later.  I didn’t know if I even would — make them up. 

 

My mother has written me almost every week of the fast telling me how glad she is that the fast is over, and I can drink water again.  I write her back every time in sharp words saying, Please stop writing me how glad you are the fast is over because it’s not over.  But she does it again today.

 

            This new friends tells me that her fast had been hard and that she felt bad, but she was glad it would only be one more day.  We laughed a little.  We are joined by a friend, H, that the Don has asked to greet me. 

 

My new friend leaves quickly.  She says she is still hungry and needs to eat more. 

 

I move into a small circle of people, most of them queer Muslims with H as my gracious host, keeping me in mind with small glances to the side.  I sit just outside the circle that has formed, unable to participate fully.  My body is now in so much pain.  My head is throbbing.  I have to leave.

 

A woman from the group, a former lawyer, someone who seems as stubborn as I am, walks me to the subway station and tells me her last partner used to break fast with a cup of coffee and a cigarette.  That she thought it was disgusting, but he used to say it was the only way.  You, she said, are in withdrawal.  I am very sick, she said.  Well, she said, your body is just adjusting itself to the feeling of being empty.

 

On the way home, I sat next to three men on the train eating what could have been cheeseburgers and potato chips.  I was nauseous.  I got the shakes and chills.  I had to wrap the headscarf around my body to stop shivering.  I prayed that I would not throw up on the train.

 

I thought to myself, Where are all the benefits of fasting?  Why does this feel so terrible?  Maybe my mother is right, and I am simply harming my body.  Have I accepted Allah and Muhammed as his prophet?  Thoughts flashed through me like a movie screen.

 

I felt lost.  Queerness and conversion seem so at odds to me.  It is something to further consider, I realize, after Ramadan.

 

            Things that seemed so simple to me before this Ramadan have become even more complex.

 

            I am changing.  I review the ways in which I interact with people and I see that as many people as I have helped and even inspired, I have also disappointed.  Some people even love me.  Just as many are scared of me, my terrible temper, my walls, my self-righteousness.  I go fast, too fast.

 

            I am told that according to Allah the person who is angry and who does not speak or act out their anger is the better person.  I am also told that the person who knows they are right and yet does not have to win the fight is the better person.  Sometimes, I have been successful at the first.  Almost rarely have I been right at the second.

 

            Part of the equation is why I became an attorney.  I have a strong sense of justice.  I’ve been an advocate.  So much has relied on my ability to win.  Ironically, so much of how I won as an attorney was not by arguing people down (although sometimes that helped).  Often, I was flexible and met people where they were, this includes juries and opponents.  Yet even to this day, when I do something really well, I like to keep doing it.  I fight to win.

 

            When I have been in the room, and we are fighting, I am always trying to win.   This is undoubtedly the reason I have been in so many battles.  It is also why I’ve lost.

 

            I had a phone conversation with the writer Patricia Powell when I was considering attending Mills for my MFA.  I was not sure I could do social/criminal justice work at the same time that I was getting a writing degree.  Don’t do it.  Her rich voice.  She said that I was right to be wary — you seem like a person who is well-equipped for the outer journey, but now you are engaging in a new journey, the interior one.  For that, she said, I am worried that you will not know what to do.  It is like being up a creek without a paddle.  The things that worked for you before will not work for you there.  You will have to learn the tools because right now you do not have them.

 

She’s right.

 

            When I was a child, I perceived so many injustices.  Things were unfair to me.  I didn’t have words like sexism or racism, class and sexuality.  I saw adults and other kids make decisions that I did not understand.  They seemed wrong, but they weren’t interested in what I thought.  Maybe all along I was waiting to grow up and have enough power to address these things.  Maybe I protect people now because I couldn’t protect anybody, including myself, back then.  If I can just be in control now, I can stop the bad things from happening.

 

            As a child, I felt victimized by peer pressure, by societal norms.  I felt powerless to stop myself from being bullied.  I felt powerless when I witnessed adults who were physically and emotionally violent to other children.  I was sickly and spent much of my summers in an emergency room.  I played dodge ball and a bigger kid slammed the ball into my head.  He laughed when my head hit the concrete.  I sat up on the ground, bleeding.  I didn’t know if it was okay to tell anyone.  There’s more.

 

I could do nothing as people I loved, including myself, internalized shame around money, and around sexuality.  I watched those who grew up as girls turn into women who were constantly struggling with being less than men.  Like them, I never felt beautiful.  I never felt like I was enough.

 

            One day the ugly child grows up.

 

            She is very angry.

 

            I am finding compassion for her.

           

            I hope that after this Ramadan is over that I move a little more slowly.  I hope that I am more flexible and more tolerant of others.  I hope that I can be less easily angered and more compassionate when I feel that somebody is wrong.  I hope that I will not see wrong and right so quickly.  I want to put down my sword because I’ve won a lot of battles, but victory didn’t bring me peace.

 

I hope I will do the hard, hard work of loving myself.

 

When we turn around, there is this wise, attractive, and kind adult embracing you, who knows herself, and who therefore, can get to know you.

 

Thank you, Allah, for Ramadan.

Thank you, Allah, for the health and safety of my family and friends.

Thank you, Allah, for looking after my loved ones who I will get to see when I get to see you.          

Thank you, Allah for all the ways you show yourself to me.

Thank you, Allah, for giving me the strength to fast.

Thank you, Allah, for teaching me.

Thank you, Allah.

 

 

Listening

 

What is the deep listening? Sama is

a greeting from the secret ones inside

 

the heart, a letter.  The branches of

your intelligence grow new leaves in

 

The wind of this listening. The body

reaches a peace. Rooster sound comes,

 

reminding you of your love for dawn.

The reed flute and the singer’s lips:

 

the knack of how spirit breathes into

us becomes as simple and ordinary as

 

eating and drinking. The dead rise with

the pleasure of listening. If someone

 

can’t hear a trumpet melody, sprinkle

dirt on his head and declare him dead.

 

Listen, and feel the beauty of your

separation, the unsayable absence.

 

There’s a moon inside every human being.

Learn to be companions with it. Give

 

more of your life to this listening. As

brightness is to time, so you are to

 

the one who talks to the deep ear in

your chest. I should sell my tongue

 

and buy a thousand ears when that

one steps near and begins to speak.

 

– Rumi, trans. by Coleman Barks from The Glance

RAMADAN DAY 28

RAMADAN DAY 28

 

Undressing

 

Learn the alchemy true human beings

know: the moment you accept what

 

troubles you’ve been given, the door

will open. Welcome difficulty

 

as a familiar comrade. Joke with

torment brought by the Friend.

 

Sorrows are the rags of old clothes

and jackets that serve to cover,

 

then are taken off. That undressing,

and the naked body underneath, is

 

the sweetness that comes after grief.

 

– Rumi, trans. by Coleman Barks

 

***

 

Putting Clothes Back On

 

Oh crap, it’s my first day, and

I may have improperly begun my fast this morning.  I’m pretty sure I woke up my roommate clanging around fixing eggs and heating up a leftover kebab.  I started watching a new episode of Dexter while eating said breakfast and then realized that I should probably try to be present.  I ran downstairs and fed a habit – something I had not been doing at all before I left to Spain because I had shockingly managed to reduce to less than one a day.  Fajr came, and one minute over, I realized that I had blown the fast already on my first day back into it.  I drank water up the elevator, forlorn.  Further compounding the problem.

I considered that perhaps it was done.  There was no point in continuing to fast for Ramadan.  After all, I wasn’t able to do it for the last two weeks.  I was plagued by my thoughts; they swirled and danced around me to a violent salsa beat, hurting my skull, crushing my toes.

I gave up.

I put the bottle of water down.

My morning prayer felt short and wasn’t particularly sensible – so I left the hard work of what I was trying to say to Allah.

I don’t have to make sense of things.

All in all, an unceremonious beginning.

An unceremonious beginning is still a beginning.

A lover once observed that I rushed to put my clothes back on, after.

My brother called me a never nude the other day because I like to layer.

A friend of mine once told me that her family walked around naked in their

House.  I couldn’t sleep the next two nights.  I was terrified by their customs.

 

I call my friend Zahra so we can discuss a book she’s recommended me.  We dialogue about this term:  vulnerability hangover.

I assumed a vulnerability hangover was what people experience when they’ve been vulnerable one day; they wake up and they’ve had too much vulnerability so they don’t set boundaries and people are now treating them badly.  This could be called an interpretation by a control-freak, AKA me.

In Daring Greatly, as interpreted by Zahra, a vulnerability hangover is actually what happens when a person has been vulnerable.  The next day they walk around analyzing and processing, worrying about what they’ve said, if they’ve said too much, if the people are judging and criticizing them.

We have all felt this way.

 

I love listening to other people’s problems which are always much more clear than mine.  I have good advice.  Zahra laughed and told me that’s because you don’t have to live with the consequences of your bad advice.  Oh, yeah, that.  I can even just listen and not give advice.  I try to give my perspective.

 

Yesterday, I was walking down the street in Brooklyn and it was a perfect summer’s evening.  The heat was on mild, not sizzle.  The air smelled crisp and fast, of fire and food and leaves.  There was red and green and orange everywhere.  I started the walk in the company of an old friend and a new one after we had Iftar together (MashAllah on Coney Island – a mean kebab sandwich).  Some corners later I was alone making my way home.

My mind wandered.  I was meditating on the difference between a beginning and an end.  Honestly, I could not figure it out.  The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that all my beginnings and all my ends were wrapped up in each other.  It was like staring at a word for too long.

 

I started to think about the Don who is contemplating moving back to Los Angeles within the week.  He is being very brave because he is struggling to identify the difference between what he wants and what is expected of him.  Family expectations are especially weighty for many of us queer folk.

We have already been the ultimate disappointment to our families.  We internalize this.  So do they.  We disengage.  All that’s left is an ocean of small and petty expectations to remind us that we are left at sea.  We navigate each of these decisions in such vulnerability.  The bigger swells, choice of career, choice of where we live, and choice of whether we have loving romantic relationships – we still make these decisions that could be about us about the people who have rejected us, or depending on how you look at it, who have failed us.

We know that our doing what is expected of us is about trying to make good, trying to come through, trying to show them that we are worthy of love.

You can apologize and even make up for your choices and behaviors.  100% responsibility as Debs would say.

But what happens to you when you are trying to make up for yourself?

 

 

When you turn your eyes toward them

the sun no longer sits

behind the moon

breaking that circle

you cannot see how perfect you are

how wonderful your vision is

how strong you have always been.

 

 

There are days when I walk around with a smile on my face and welcome in my eyes.  I have no idea what I want.  I have no idea who I am.  I don’t particularly like freedom even though I want it so desperately.  I wouldn’t know what to do with it.  I’m too disappointed in myself for turning out this way to entrust myself with such important decisions.

 

So really — why do endings bug me so much?  I feel an ache just thinking about certain endings, the break-ups, the moves, the deaths.

 

This ache is a

living thing

sparking in my body.

Its fire is memory

and nostalgia.

Its water is time.

 

 

Endings are more poignant before they happen.  As they draw near.  Endings, I’ve come to realize are scary and bigger than we are until we have lived past them.  Then, we are in the same place as the ending, and we have continued.  From that point on, the ending is a beginning.

You may not like this next portion.  You may find that it’s filled with grief and despair, even regret.  When you have moved past those things too (which will take years) you will look at it and you might say:  I remember that after I came here to the East Coast and lost my home and saw the worst parts of people, strangers and friends, had my heart broken, went through staggering housing problems, experienced PTSD, struggled with addiction, had to depend on family members and friends who did not have the capacity to help me, lost my temper more times than I could count, lived in nightly fear that I would never have kids and would die alone, I stopped following my dream of becoming a writer, and then it was over.

But then you step up to the table again.

The next thing you do just by continuing to live changes everything because it rewrites your ending into the beginning.

It could be:

And that’s when I really started to see and accept you.

And that’s when I met the love of my life…and was able to have my first positive, loving, and enduring relationship.

And that’s when I quit and became a brilliant HIV and medical research scientist who found the cure for cancer.  They said I was too old to get that degree.

And that’s when I found a new purpose.  I founded an organization to help empower people of color and especially queer people of color.

And that’s when I started singing and playing the piano again.

And that’s when I really started to see my mother and how much she’s always wanted the best for me.

And that’s when I was finally able to mend the wounds between my brother and I and between my sister and I.

And that’s when I learned to receive love.

And that’s when I started fasting again.

And that’s when I really started to write.

 

And then you start over with the ending again.  You keep rewriting and rewriting.  You enjoy the process.  You don’t ever want it to end.

 

A Voice Through the Door.

 

 

Sometimes you hear a voice through

The door calling you, as fish out of

 

Water hear the waves, or a hunting

Falcon hears the drum’s come back.

 

This turning toward what you deeply

Love saves you. Children fill their

 

Shirts with rocks and carry them

Around. We’re not children anymore.

 

Read the book of your life which has

Been given you. A voice comes to

 

Your soul saying, Lift your foot;

Cross over; move into the emptiness

 

Of question and answer and question.

 

– By Rumi, trans. by Coleman Barks

 

 

One of the great loves of my life is Rumi’s The Glance translated by Coleman Barks.  I gave my only copy away to a great man who is leading an organization in Los Angeles.  I purchased another copy recently.  It arrived before I left to Spain.  It feels so delightful to be able to hang out with this book again in these last few days before Ramadan ends.

I remember being in love.  The relationship ended and all communication with her along with it.  I no longer feel sad when I think of never speaking to her again.  I am at peace with that.

Instead, I remember that ending as one of my many beginnings.  I learned so much.

 

One night, alone in a room, with the light shining behind her, directly through her eyes, she turned to me.  I could hear her breath in my ear.  She cupped her palms and held them out to me.  She asked:

Serena, why is sorrow sweet?  Do you know?

Ramadan Day 27

RAMADAN DAY 27

 

These lines are from the final entry of Fasting for Ramadan by Kazim Ali.

 

A book is a guide.  You wouldn’t say “only a guide”

Because its influence is much bigger, bigger than the

universe as a guide—a huge golden arrow pointing

out into space, the way the golden arrows embedded

on the ceilings of hotels in the Muslim world point in

the direction of the qibla.

 

The rose is my qibla, wrote Sohrab Sepheri. All the

Heavens were a Bell—and Being but an Ear, wrote

Emily Dickinson.

 

The book and the fasting body both are guides. The

body too can think. After all perhaps the mind is

only the bard of the body, one of its constituent parts.

 

And the “self,” the thing we call “I,” floats across the

surface of the mind like petals on a pond.

 

Each white fasting day trickles through the ghost-

house of a month from darkness and absence to the

full moon, and then wanes and wanes to the end.

 

Shape of the month’s empty hallways, the shape of

a fast in inverse. So each day is the opposite: one by

one, one passes through.

 

And once the month is over you do what you do.

 

How do you hold it in your hand? The month grows

full and then recedes. Re-seeds.

 

A month that is a petal floating in the cup of the year,

which like a life lives in days, circular time, like a season

or a year that goes in one direction but promises to

return.

 

CLEARING

 

Ramadan, I miss you.

 

Today a friend walks through the door and smiles at me, radiant.  She sings a song using my name.  She tells me she is hungry.  She is delighted to be with me because she says, We are both fasting.  When she sees a coffee in my hand, she is disappointed.  She says, I was looking forward to seeing you.  I wanted to be in solidarity.  It is hard today to be around people eating.

I understand, I say, I will not be eating in front of you.

I am fasting too.

Every single thing I am doing today is with mindfulness and intent.

I am whole-hearted.

I am here.

 

This same friend has told me she missed my Ramadan posts.  A few friends have mentioned this enjoyment of my writing.  I have missed them too.

 

I have been unhappy.

 

I punish myself for not being happy.

 

I would like to be happy.

 

She said, You made this mistake and these choices because it will prepare you for love.

Once I felt such anguish and loathing to hear that all my mistakes, all the happenings of my life, were merely a preparation.  That’s not true, I argued.  My life is happening now, and isn’t what I do the real thing?  Doesn’t it count?  Don’t I already have love in my life?  Yes, she said.

Everything I do is in preparation for love.

Upon my return from Barcelona, I discovered that I could not return to fasting the very next day.  I was embarrassed that I was not fasting.  In a writing class last semester, the professor mentioned that lists are often used in great writing (paraphrased and reinterpreted.)

 

Here is my powerlessness:

 

I was hurt and angry that so much of what I felt during that time was difficult, and my vacation was not supposed to be difficult.

I tried to write and could not concentrate.

I did not fast.

I did not find the mosque in Cordoba.

I did not find a mosque in Barcelona.

I spoke ill of another person because I needed to feel better about myself.

I felt excluded and hated and small.

I was defensive.

I did not let go fast enough.

I trusted people without being realistic about their capacity.

I was not prepared for what happened.

I allowed myself to engage and fight.

I didn’t respect myself.

The mosquitoes ate me without my permission.

My addiction came back.

I was stressed out.

I felt unhappiness.

 

Here is my power:

 

I read three books.

I showed courage.

I acted with dignity in the face of hostility.

I gave my silence when I could have given barbs.

After I refused a fistfight, I refused to fight at all.

I used my body to protect a friend when we were confronted by robber barons.

I navigated a strange city alone under foreign circumstances.

The strange city navigated me.

I was inspired by the art of Miro, Tapies, Picasso, Pasolini, Baudelaire (Eric), and Gaudi.

I saw Profesor Lazhar by moonlight in a castle courtyard.

I drank beers with a Colombian bicycle activist

I asked my friends for help.  Both in Barcelona and a continent away, they helped me.

I learned the term vulnerability hangover.

Some friends continued to fast.

Some friends stopped and took care of themselves in other ways.

A poet wrote love letters to Kazim Ali that felt like love letters to me.

My sister sent me a video of my nephew drawing me (with a long neck).

My brother made sure I was alive.

My mother told me she missed me.

I jotted notes in my journal.

It was very hot in Cordoba.

I didn’t say too much.

I told the truth.

I felt love.

I know myself better than I did before I left.

 

But I was not happy.  Therefore, I internalize this difficulty I have experienced.  It is my failure.  It is mine.  If I do not find my self-worth soon, then how can I fast?

 

The only person/thing I can control is my self.

I would rather blame myself for the storm than feel helpless again.

That is how I felt as a child.

 

When we consider ourselves adults, we feel anguish at the thought that we are experiencing the same as we did when we were children.

 

I would rather hurt myself

than watch you

hurt yourself

To not be able to rescue you

To not be able to help you

 

I would rather not

remember that

To hurt you

To stop you

from hurting me

I hurt myself

 

Yesterday I was a bad person.

 

Today I am an apology.

 

Tomorrow I will be at peace.

 

My mother said to me once that she felt so sad for the people of Palestine.  Why? I asked her.  Think about how hopeless you have to be Serena, to take your own life and that of others.

 

I am still thinking about what she said.

 

It is another day.  I could have fasted this morning, but I chose not to because I wanted my emotional energy for something else, something that felt important.  A conversation with myself needs to take place.

I am not right with myself.  I am seeing myself with such cynicism and depression after returning from my journey.  I would like to honor Allah with a better me.  I am tired of failing.

In the exact moment I have this thought my friend reads me a line from Kazim Ali:

 

Of course I always fail at anything important. It

feels essential that I fail. And so must release what-

ever I have enslaved; held captive.

 

What if I let go of the desire to fail and allowed

myself to come to fruition?

 

Fruition with twelve days yet to fast?

 

What happens after I cease failing?

 

***

 

The last time I was not at peace with myself, I contemplated leaving my own life like an abandoned tire rim on the side of the road.

In Los Angeles, I drove by and ignored what was not on the road.

I caused pain.

I cannot accept this brutality inside of me.

I tell myself I am not that same person.

I am angry.

 

In the sunlight, I put one foot in front of the other and ignore the scabs on the pavement.  I’ve always wanted a different neck — the kind that concaves where it meets the shoulders.  That neck forms a hollow.

I look at my reflection in a coffee house window.  How unusual my neck appears.  How beautiful.  It curves like a swan.  It is shaped like a question mark.

 

I am a visitor today to a house of sorrows, and it is good to be a visitor because I know I do not have to stay.  My jaw feels tight as I attempt to write this entry.  This and my hands ache.  My pain.

 

Tomorrow, I can fast again.

 

How militant and hard we can be at the beginnings of our journey.  And like the outstretched stone upon which the ocean performs its battery – we are softened, softer, softened,

soft

 

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