Ramazan Day 12: Self Care

Perhaps you would do me the courtesy of listening to some amazing Ramzaan music while you read my blog? You might get a sense of the creativity I get to participate in as part of the Poetry-A-Day for Ramadan group, founded by Tanzila Ahmed. The music comes to you courtesy of Azeem M. Khan.

By Azeem M. Khan


 

Time passes slowly when you’re fasting. I’m exhausted. I’m relaxed. I saw The Lorax today with my nephews. Mostly, I laid around and tried to beat back a headache. For me, fasting is easier as a reprieve to everyday stressors than as a state to spend vacation days. It’s understandable, vacation is fun – real life requires a vacation. Is fasting a vacation?

 

Not exactly. But it is self care. I was talking to Libya (pronounced [ley-bee-uh]) the other day, and we went off on a whole rant about the pervasiveness of the term self care these days.

I can’t handle it, I said. At first, it was used to mean people finding joy even in difficult times. I had a lot of love for that usage. But now, it’s become almost hedonistic. Like so many good ideas, it’s been corrupted by capitalism. It feels sometimes like a call to spend money. As well, it’s been corrupted by whiteness – by a force for singularity, by the thought that Americans are entitled to have a good time as individuals, by the way that whiteness functions to normalize and center itself as the right narrative.

So, self care as we see it fed to the masses is an assumption – that the self is the priority. It takes place outside of community. It’s not about nurturing, supporting, and healing each other. It’s about getting what’s yours. You may roll your eyes at the obviousness of my thinking. Fair enough.

 

The shift in what self-care encompasses falls along the same wrecked scale as the co-optation of mindfulness and religious practices such as yoga or meditation. (Here I’m rolling my eyes at the Buddhists who’ve stripped Buddhism from its cultural context, full of – guess what? All the shortcomings and graces of any other religious practice as an aspect of a larger cultural existence. That means you can inhale homophobia and exhale classism.) It’s the concept behind why you can have a job that is the most stressful, ever. You can concentrate on whether or not YOU are successful and ignore your part in a world where immigrant children are being deported and disappeared (yes, Patricia Smith did say: “Imagine if Barack Obama had ‘lost’ 1500 white children.”). It’s why you can flake on people in your life who maybe need you (like the family that you can’t stand) or not deal with your problems (who has time for that?) or run yourself ragged in a situation you hate because you have #goals – and then you can meditate for 5-20 minutes and presto, you don’t have to change the context. You can take the easy way out: breathe and be centered.

Ommmmmmmmm

Ommmmmmmmm

Ummmmmmmmm

No doubt meditation helps with that, but meditation is no excuse for short-sightedness. We’re not trying to be present so that we can leave our lives behind and escape. We’re trying to be present so that we can accept where we are, the now, and that takes real strength. How to listen to yourself. Sama, the deep listening, the Sufi way.

 

Fasting is self care too. It’s the kind of self care that we need in the world right now. Especially, fasting for Ramadan. Millions of people willingly depriving themselves of food and water from sun-up to sun-down so that they can be closer to God. And to be closer to God means they are trying to understand what it’s like to starve, because our people are starving, because our community is thirsty. Because experiencing a fast is about appreciating what you have by letting go of human food so you can be fed by soul food.

 

Once you’ve appreciated it, you can share it. Radical self care, then, is about working so hard to heal yourself and to rise up that you will have enough to give to the people who need and want you. It’s about the fact that giving also heals us. I’m not saying give thoughtlessly. I’m saying the opposite, which is what is your intention when you take care of yourself? Is it to disconnect completely because you think this world is full of crap, or is it to love yourself so much that you find the moment where you can connect in what is best about yourself, and best about people?


 

By Azeem M. Khan


The question of community is a real question for many people of color and indigenous folks. Poc professionals, be they writers, professors, lawyers, musicians – any career where peeps are underrepresented. What must we give back if we’re successful? When do we need to give less in order to simply have a career? What is owed when success is clearly owed, rather than an entitlement?

 

This is the question of who do we take with us? How do we support each other? This question I have found to be very central to my understanding of myself as a writer. But I didn’t start that way. Until I went to law school, I only thought of success in terms of me. But once I realized that I could get a degree that would give me the power to help people, it helped to heal some part of me. I didn’t realize how broken I was, of course, but I did realize that I was the one who benefited from caring for others.

 

I have a friend, Hazel Reincarnated (Hazel R.), who was a professor for a long time in a Los Angeles college. She did get tenure. But, this college had a lot of problems around how they treated students of color. (Surprise.) Students were constantly organizing and some even sued the school. Hazel R., as one of the few professors of color, was always being asked by students to show up at events, to counsel them during non-class hours, and she always did it. She said it was the best part of her job. It was also what led to her burn out and anger, an anger that seared the rest of her life, personally and professionally. Hazel still has an institutional job – she spent decades at that college, but the new job is kinder to her. I don’t think she regrets any of it because she’s present in how to use her position at this next job to help, you guessed it, people of color.

 


Who ever walked behind anyone to freedom? If we can’t go hand in hand, I don’t want to go.

-Hazel Scott, Jazz Pianist, Activist, Changemaker


 

Why am I writing about this? Because I have some questions and doubts about who I am, if I’m doing enough to help other writers of color, especially queer writers of color. I have a request in front of me to help an organization that I love, that helps writers of color. I’m also only months into quitting my job because I need to finish my novel and I want to have a kid.

 

But I don’t know if I’m doing enough to help other people of color, not just writers. I spent a decade as a public interest lawyer, and I would give myself the advice that my life is about being there for community, one way or another. When things get rough, though, like with the news these past two years, I still wake up not wondering if I’m doing enough. I don’t feel that I’m a successful writer, either. So I don’t feel that I can mentor people at this stage. I feel that I should be focusing my energy on my challenges – finishing a novel and having a baby. I feel that the constant call of responsibility has become a bit of a burden. I’ve stopped being grateful for all that I have and started to doubt that I have what it takes.

 

And I’m not alone. If you’re an adult who doesn’t have trouble navigating the line between giving back to whatever community you feel needs you or a people that you represent and getting it for yourself, then truthfully, I don’t have much to say to you. You don’t need to be validated. You certainly don’t need me to say or do anything. Maybe you probably need to fast. Allah would welcome it. Allah is certain. I’m clueless.

 

Fasting for Ramadan, as cool as meditation and yoga put together.


 

 

By Azeem M. Khan

(I have to say this Roza is my favorite of the ones Azeem has put together.)


 

One night, during the summer, I heard cicadas for the first time. I was in D.C. probably out on a sidewalk stroll near dusk. I could see a few stars, hazy in pink. There was a light breeze. People drinking on bar patios clinked glasses and chattered. I’d moved there after college because I wanted to know how power worked. That’s how I ended up slouching through the halls of Congress. Maybe I wanted some of that power for myself. It’s hard to tell. I was also very confused and didn’t know yet what words like queer and poc were going to do for me. I only knew how to wear a power suit.

 

A lifelong West-Coaster, I was used to the sound of crickets, and they chirp here and there, the blend of a trumpet and a trombone, a flute. It’s the symphony. Musical. Cicadas felt like the noise the water makes when it lands after a fall. Roar. Everybody together.

Now.

I don’t know the decisions yet, but I trust that I’ll make some good ones. I trust that I’ll do my best. You and I didn’t get here because of luck. Or because we aren’t used to the question of community. We got here because we will live with this balancing act our whole lives, and we will carry the burden of consciousness. Some of us will die from the stress. Others of us will live with it.

I have faith that I’ll wake up grateful for the roar.

Recommended Reading: Presumed Incompetent, edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez and Angela P. Harris


 

By Azeem M. Khan


 

Dear Serena-Galumph,

 

I love your Ramadan blog and read it religiously. It’s the only way to read such an honest, eloquent blog. When the Galumph first asked for questions, I thought, I don’t have questions. The personal conflicts in my life are ones I’ve been meditating on for awhile, and I feel closer to a certain peace about them. But here’s something I’d like to share–other than my deep appreciation for your writing–I am often overwhelmed by what it’s like to be a writer trying to publish. Do you ever get mad or frustrated that your work hasn’t been accepted for publication? Do you, like me, slide into the realm of self-pity when you think that your work lands on deaf ears? Do you start to wonder if you’re doing it all wrong, especially when you read the work being published in top journals? These questions are, of course, the shadow side of the Don’t Give a Fuck, Write attitude I generally carry, which is fueled by the knowledge that I write the way I write, and maybe that’s for me to know, rather than for any appreciation by others. I know people in places but I don’t want to use those connections. Maybe playing the game would land me out of the slush pile, but I feel a certain sense of embarrassment even considering it. Am I shooting myself in the foot, Galumph? Should I be less ambitious? Am I naive to think I might get lucky and publish in a good journal?

 

 

M.


 

Dear M.

 

Thank you so much for writing me! For encouraging me, because writing during Ramadan is lonely sometimes, especially today because I’m writing two blogs in one day, having arrived home too late last night to write. I’m gonna tell you now that at first I was totally perturbed as to how to answer your question.

 

The very act of you asking it suggested to me that you think I might know anything more about the process of writing and publication than you do. I don’t think that way about myself. At all. Because I don’t think of myself as a successful writer. And I’m fairly certain I’ve never published in what some people might think of as a good journal.

 

So, I’ve been marinating on your question, and after days of deliberation I’ve decided that I don’t need to know anything or be an authority to answer it. I simply need to galumph. The galumph has reservations about me answering a professional question with professional tips. The galumph wants to talk to your heart.

 

This blog is very personal. Let me tell you why. Writing it came from a project of desperation. I’d always be deep in a project, sometimes legal but often creative, and then Ramadan would come along. It would, I’d feel, take me “out” of everything. For years, I always took a break from writing so I could fast. When I fast, I feel like a sea creature, submerged, everything a rush in my ears, a certain pressure and lightness causing dizziness in the head, resistance, sluggishness, blur, distance. I’m here but not here, and writing takes energy.

 

It wasn’t until I read Kazim Ali’s Fasting for Ramadan, a gorgeous manuscript, that I willed myself to start writing. It became easy, over time. All I had to do was let go of the projects. I only write during Ramadan, because it gets me closer to me. I write about what interests me. I write for fun. I write for the challenge. I write for my friends. All those worries about an imaginary audience, publication – they all go bye-bye.

 

During Ramadan, my work doesn’t fall, as you put it, on deaf ears. It’s read by people such as you. People who know me. People who appreciate how hard it is to write, and who imagine that I’m putting my back into it to generate during Ramadan. People who occasionally laugh when they see a made-up name. People who fast. People who don’t. But people who love that I do.

 

While I would love to see a story of mine in Ploughshares, or even better, while I’d love to be awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant after I publish my novel AND get the Pulitzer, I have to tell you that writing my Ramadan blog doesn’t feel like second best. I have no idea how any of the big awards feel, so truthfully, who knows what I’m missing? I know how the blog feels, and it feels great. It puts me in touch with what writing means to me. This is also how I feel about writing poetry. Because I don’t consider myself a poet, so I rarely worry about publication or having to produce.

It’s a gift I give to myself, I told Libya and Heka the other night.

“You give yourself great gifts!” Heka said.

But sure, I get frustrated. One time, a friend of mine was published in Glimmer Train. She’s about 15 years younger than me and writing is the first career she’s ever known. She got her MFA about 2-3 years after graduating from college. I was whining to her about something, and ya’ know I was jealous as fuck. And then she said, “I worked on that short story for over a year, and only that short story, during my MFA program. I took every piece of advice and rewrote it again and again. I submitted it to 72 journals before one accepted it. Then, Glimmer Train published it.” I love telling that story because I imagine it’s as inspiring to you as it is to me.

 

This year, I began a project to get 100 rejections because the most I’ve ever had in one year is less than 10. That’s because I’ve never applied to more than 10 things in a year – that includes journals and that includes residencies. That’s the truth. Until this past six months. Now I’m slowly but surely increasing my rejection stockpile. And, yes, my acceptance one.

So I said I wanted to talk to your heart. Here goes nothing!

I used to dislike and even disrespect a lot of judges when I was a Public Defender. They’d always complain that their hands were tied, and from what I saw, so many of them were people who cared about status, rather than ambition. One day, my friend Aniyah, a devoted Public Defender, told me she wanted to be a judge. Without even thinking, I pooh-poohed the idea, “Why would you want to do that? You’re an advocate! Being a judge is for somebody who just wants to feel powerful, but isn’t really changing the system.” I’m not saying I still hold this view – I don’t. Anyway, Aniyah’s whole face fell, and she didn’t talk to me for a day.

The next day, she came into work with her suit crisply pressed and her face looking like she’d swallowed a galumph, “You know, how would you feel if you told me your dream was to be President, and I just poked holes in your dream? Why would you even do that to somebody?”

 

Well, it’s about those journals. When I first read your question, I couldn’t help but think that my ideas of prestigious journals weren’t your ideas of prestigious journals. Many of the journals that are considered so great, I don’t even read. But some of them I do. Probably many of the outlets that I enjoy wouldn’t be considered literary. But that’s not the point. This isn’t about your taste…or mine… Because journals are a niche field, and to find a niche, you kinda have to navigate.

How? you ask.

Well, you’re a great writer! You should be ambitious. If what you read in a journal makes you want to tear your hair out because you don’t think it’s worthy, I do think cross that specific journal off your list. But there are plenty of prestigious journals that have writing that you love. Right? So be more ambitious. Get into those. Do it. And use your connections.

Connections are the most disturbing thing for me to ever tell people to utilize. Informal connections, country club attitudes, golf club cocktails — they are exactly what kept people of color down for so long, and womyn of color, and white womyn. All the misfits. You’re a white woman. A little political part of me is screaming when I say use your connections to anyone who’s white. But the larger part of me is saying, quite honestly, USE YOUR CONNECTIONS. There’s no fair shake in the journal world. Have you worked for a journal? Those slush piles are obnoxious to the max and they’re huge. It’s luck, partially, that gets you out of the slush pile. You’re going to have to believe that if you get out of that pile, and you get published, that you wrote something worthy. It doesn’t have to be the best or better than all the rest. It has to be good enough and somebody who has power there has to like it. There’s almost no chance, in my view, that the person at a prestigious journal is the only arbiter of greatness. They have their specific taste, and so there’s going to be beautifully written stuff that they could care less about. And stuff that you might think really kind of isn’t your cupt of tea. And they love it. If that somebody is someone you know, then go. for. it. I would. Because there’s no objectivity – these folks are connected. They’re reading things and selecting things with complete and utter bias. And they might as well be connected to you.

 

But I said I’d talk to your heart. See how these professional things eat people up and get us so far away from our hearts? Even the galumph fails in this regard.

 

M, what I think deep down inside is that the real question isn’t about ambition. Ambition is awesome. You deserve success. It’s almost like a mask that people wear to an advice column. It’s too easy. The real question is why you wrote that it’s about you getting lucky.

 

If you get published, I hope you’ve worked for it. I hope that story took your hard work and energy. I hope that your privilege helped. I hope that your oppressions didn’t block you or hurt you too much. I hope that you understand that you have what you have and that you have it, in part, because you did get lucky. How you use it is the question.

 

The real question is why are you asking me about these journals when I know you’ve been writing a masterpiece of a novel? Get that done and get an agent.

The real question is whether you can define success for yourself in a way that doesn’t make you feel short, doesn’t make you feel a lack. The questions are: what’s your vision for yourself? What does your success look like? Plan on it. Who will you bring with you? How will you connect? Who is in your community? How will you become a better person so that you can serve your writing?

I don’t know the answers, but I trust that you have the intelligence and perseverance to figure them all out.

Your fasting friend,

the galumph

p.s.

Also here’s a dead white dude who said everything I’ve ever wanted to say about writing, but honestly way more extreme than how I think about it — and way more eloquent, too:


“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write, see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night, must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple, “I must“, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

From Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Stephen Mitchell


 

 

By Azeem M. Khan

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