Ramadan Day 13: Through the Open Door


In writing as in life…

My sister Ber sent this over.



I’m sometimes asked about my ability to write during Ramadan. Once, I wrote a story that was quite painful to recount because it still sucks, but I want it to be good. It’s called “The Sleepers.” Part of the story is a love triangle manga, and the other part of the story is about a woman who, due to past abuse, serially takes out Craigslist ads to ask women to sleep with her. However, they must sleep “platonically” with her. The realist protagonist in my story is a well-meaning friend who must decide how to help one of her closest friends.


I had dinner with a beloved mentor T. We discussed some of the problems with it.


“There are a lot of great points to the story. The friendship, for instance. You can still save the story, Serena, but there’s too many problems in one narrative. You only get so many pieces of candy. Another thing, everybody in the story is too well-intended, too clean. They don’t really make mistakes. You’re protecting your characters.”

“I guess because I based this story on people in real life, even if the plot isn’t real.”

“Yes, but nobody in the story is really flawed, and they’re delivered as if they’re all wholesome people.”

“I don’t really think of them that way.”

“Maybe that’s a problem,” T said, “in the way that you see people.”

“But can’t I only see people the way that I do?” I was perilously close to whining.

“Yes. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

“So you’re basically saying that to become a better writer I need to be a better person?”

“Yes, and that’s something not a lot of people will tell you.”

There is a second Hebrew word for fear, yirah. Rabbi Lew describes yirah as “the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting. It is also the feeling we feel when we are on sacred ground.”

from blogger Tara Sophia Mohr

My dear friend Alpaca once sent me this quotation after we had a long talk. We were discussing leaving my job, which was, at the time, as an executive assistant. Alpaca was, gently, trying to point out the irony that I who had taken so many risks to become a writer and was feeling stunted in my current job was scared of losing this job, at instability. Part of it, quite honestly, was that after my last break-up I’d felt so bad about my ability to make any decisions. This fear included related fears such as dating or choose a partner, but it quickly bled to following my dreams or trying to get what I want.


A writing teacher of mine, David Mura, once sent his workshop an article about how there’s no such thing as writer’s block. That most people really can always write, but they stop because they are worried that what they are writing is good.


During Ramadan, I have considerably less than energy than I’m used to. This manifests as a flatter affect and a shorter term memory and a more scattered attention. But it also manifests with less anxiety, less stress, less anger, less fear. I’m more direct, in some ways.


I like to use the fast to do things I don’t ordinarily have the courage to do. In law school, I had a best friend who was a total wild man. I adored him. He inspired me, and he always urged me to move past my fear. We spent all our time together, and because of him, I helped to organize a fight for racial equity. One of the few differences between us was that he wasn’t afraid. He used to tell me that I was the one with courage because I was so afraid.


One thing I haven’t had the courage to do is to move past a couple losses in my life. These are friend losses, which for any of you who have lost friends, know that it can be as hard and emotionally intense as losing romantic partners or even family. I’ve moved past many a break-up, but whereas the way I process and suffer through a break-up is like a fire that burns clean through and destroys me – a friend break-up feels like a thousand cuts. The intensity isn’t usually as terrifying, but each time I remember them, it feels like a small cut. It can be an article I read, or seeing a mutual friend, or hearing a song I want to share. Sometimes, it can even be Ramadan.


Nearly a decade ago, my friend Blissey and I took a walk near Pacifica. We didn’t see any whales, but the day was crisp and the gulls mixed with the salt air until we were intoxicated. We walked with a certain self-possession, a close connection to the largesse in nature, and in ourselves. Blissey told me about one of her dearest friends who had also become incredibly toxic, shutting Blissey out of her life repeatedly, and at times, going to extremes with negative comments. This had been going on for a decade, and they were in a period where this friend was no longer speaking to Blissey. A part of me wanted to tell Blissey to keep trying.


Blissey, like me, is exceptionally loyal. My friend Debbie used to tell me, your loyalty is almost spiritual in its devotion. Hmmm… I think my standard and understanding of loyalty is spiritual in its devotion. I only wish my practice were that high. Still, it says something that loyalty is a value of mine.


“Sometimes you have to close one door to open another.” It was one of the first times that oft-repeated saying would emerge from my lips.


I think she understood it the way that I meant it. I was telling her, which was very unlike me (back then) not to try because her energy focused on that one place was preventing her from focusing it elsewhere. It wasn’t because I didn’t think her friend would or wouldn’t return to Blissey. I can’t know that. Even if she returned, I did know that it would be as a different person or Blissey would be. I only knew that there are doors in each of our lives. So many of them. And we can’t go through all of them at the same time. And one thing for darn sure, we can’t spend our limited energy holding open a door when somebody else is trying to slam it shut.


That’s how it’s been with my mother. For most of my teenage years, and then my twenties, she closed the door on me, and I closed it right back. Our house was a series of bang bangs.


Being queer has its perks but peaceful family bonds and relationships are rarely among them. It’s only in my forties that I’ve come to realize that this woman who I’ve blamed for so many of the hurts in my life is also the person who has my back in life more than any other. It’s taken years of tough work to get there, to allow my mom to be a different person than how I saw her. And vice-versa. Although I believe my mother was always more connected to her love of me than I was to mine of her. I think it’s a mom thing. Now she is as loving and kind (and let me just say it, a tad smothery – sorry mom, hope you’re not reading the blog today) as she is capable of being. And she has met me more than halfway. She is delighted to have me see her not as a persecutor, but as a Friend, to understand that she is one of the great loves of my life, which is how I always used to dream it would be.


This isn’t true for the two friends to whom I no longer speak. One friend, I haven’t known that long in my life schema, and I’ve come to accept is not in the emotional place to be friends with me. I don’t know if she’ll ever be, but I hope so. Our relationship wasn’t strong enough to withstand our conflict, no matter how inconsequential I thought our conflict was. The loss, however, was hard on both of us. But I don’t get to decide. She has less capacity for repair than I do. I only get to decide how long I want to keep a door open. Lately, I’ve started to realize that I can prop a stick on that door and redirect my energies elsewhere with minimal effort. When I was a child, I used to need the door cracked open just that little bit, with the hallway light on, so that it wasn’t totally dark.


“You’re so annoying. Turn off the light,” my sister would say.


Another friend, J, I’ve known since I was nine years old. That loss of a childhood friend is incomparable, because they’re more than friends, they’re witnesses to who you are. As long as people will know you, only the childhood ones will know that part of you. For everybody else, that childhood person is some inconceivable hypothetical, built for laughs or a notch on a measuring stick.


It was inconceivable to me, despite how severe our mistakes were toward each other, that J would stop being friends with me. Truthfully, I didn’t think we would even know how to do that. Perhaps we’d stopped being friends for years when I was unable to forgive her for not going to my dad’s funeral and became, ever after, a rude and biting friend at many a juncture. That was idiotic of me, but for some reason, I couldn’t let go of it. I couldn’t accept her for who she was and what she needed in that one summer month. Before she left, I helped her one last time with a huge life crisis, while I was in crisis. I don’t know why I did it. I resented her, but I didn’t want to abandon her. Maybe it was a mistake. But I think I humiliated her and wounded her pride while I helped her, which fills me with sorrow at my own crappiness.

I’ve reached out a couple times in the last 5-6 years. But I sometimes wonder if I will ever reach out again. I wonder often about her and how she’s doing, but some part of me knows that she may never have the energy or desire to be friends again. Also, that I may never stop being surprised at that truth.


How do I accept these losses?


Well, as a practical matter, I definitely don’t wake up one day and decide to write my friends letters telling them that I’m closing some existential door. (Really didn’t want anyone to think that would be my advice.)


As a less practical matter, I adjust. And that’s all internal work with which I’m in-progress.


But didn’t I go on and on about closing doors? I mean, here I am propping one door open, and the other part of me is talking about accepting loss.


I’m not there yet. I mourn. The door that I closed is the panic. I feel that I will never close some doors completely. The past couple years I’ve become okay with that. It doesn’t mean I don’t have the feelings. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever reach out again.


I have to remind myself that how I love has its price of a deeply felt loss, but I also have the capacity to love, to hold within myself a space of support and kindness for some people. All that energy must be treated seriously, as if it’s precious. Because as much energy as I have, there’s also a huge space in my life for change. For book and baby and love and more I don’t even know. I’ve had yirah, and I listen to my fear now. I’m right to be scared, and I’ll need my energy to navigate this larger and larger world. I didn’t realize that when I was young and invincible. I was looser with my boundaries, to my detriment. I was careless because my world was smaller, but felt, bigger.


You only mourn for however long Allah lets you mourn before throwing the next challenge in your face.


“Sometimes you have to close that door and walk away, before you can open it again.”


I’ve become a better person in the last decade. Maybe some of that was fasting. Maybe some of that was taking huge risks to do what I want. Maybe some of that was falling in and out of love.


I do sense, though, that what I didn’t know in my twenties and thirties was how many doors would open for me. There are, in fact, so many doors that I spend less energy worrying about whether doors will open, whether the universe is abundant with love, and I spend more time trying to discern which love is worthy, which love will back to me – and then go toward the doors with the biggest, brightest rooms.


The leaves of the dogwood are turning orange. Which

means the earth is swinging around the sun; each day

the time until fast-breaking shortens by two minutes

because the days are getting shorter and shorter.


Fire that summit of orange can nurture or combust.


A body that eats food burns food all day long and

Requires more.


A body that fasts has to learn a new way, to sustain

its energy and nurture itself; the fasting body can–

not burn because it becomes dimly aware that the

better you burn the faster you burn, and that when

you burn you must create more and more fire.


And if the only way you know how to live is by

Burning, then at the end all you will have left is ash.

from Fasting for Ramadan by Kazim Ali


Screen Shot 2018-05-29 at 12.48.53 AM


My mother, sister, nephews and I went to my dad’s place yesterday.


My sister, ever the thoughtful one, usually prompts us all to visit and to bring flowers, a spray of white chrysanthemums. Her eldest, B, brought a Magic the Gathering plains card — a mystical land with cool powers, and we placed it among the flowers… First, the boys bowed, and then my sister and I did the ritual bows.


When we arrived, though, there were already a few white flowers in the holder of my dad’s headstone.


“Look, somebody already visited dad,” my sister said. She bent down closer, “It’s a new neighbor.” We were all surprised. After more than a decade, my dad was finally getting a person right next to him. It felt a bit cramped as we do kind of have to walk over the dead to get to the other dead. Whoever was visiting this recent arrival had put flowers on my dad’s grave as well as the grave on the other side of their beloved’s headstone.


“They’re so sweet,” my sister said. We all smiled at each other. We discussed how the tree planted nearby was getting humongous and how its shade would be so lovely someday. My sister and mom were interested in the placement of some headstones that we felt were too near the tree’s root system.


We put a chrysanthemum in my brother’s friend’s grave too. She was a paramedic, a lesbian, and had died young. There’s a picture of her standing next to her seated wife, wide smiles, both arms around her wife’s shoulders. We noticed a new weeping willow, sat on the rolling hills of grass. Of course, flags were everywhere since many veterans are buried here. It’s a catholic cemetery. They keep saying they’re going to move her, but Iris Chang is kiddy corner to my dad, so I took my nephew B over to put a flower on her grave too. My Aunt Margaret is on a plot that faces across a road. It feels like the place is getting full, in a way that doesn’t depress me.


I didn’t say much because I was fasting. I didn’t pray for it, I realized, the way I did when I was young. I do wish he’d been given more years, but I didn’t feel the sharp, familiar pang of regret at how many of them he spent angry. Nor did I wish that he’d accepted me for who I was before he died. I felt how much he cared for me, despite our differences, and how close he was to me, despite the fact that we barely spoke those ten years before he died.


Perhaps bizarrely, I thought, it’s a full house. I was glad for it. I didn’t want him back in that persistent, nagging way that pecks at your heart, though of course I always do. I didn’t hope for another chance, though it’s a fantastical ideal. How lucky I am, I thought, to have been so loved. I know I don’t get forever to be in peace, that new loss and new love are just around every corner. But the longer an absence, the more space there can be, to heal. For this small mercy, I am grateful.


Memory and time, both immaterial, are rivers with no

banks and constantly merging. Both escape our will, though

we depend on them. Measured, but measured by whom

or by what? The one is inside, the other, outside, or so it

seems, but is that true? Time seems also buried deep in us,

but where? Memory is right here, in the head, but it can exit,

abandon that head, leave it behind, disappear. Memory, a

sanctuary of infinite patience.



We can admit that memory resurrects the dead, but these

remain within their world, not ours’. The universe covers

the whole, a warm blanket.



To see something is to remember it; otherwise there’s no seeing.


Memory is intelligent. It’s a knowledge seated neither in

the senses, nor in the spirit, but in collective memory. It is

communal, though deeply personal. Involved with the self,

though autonomous. At war with death.


It helps us rampage through the old self, hang on the

certitude that it has to be.


But what about the ocean’s intensity that echoses our own,

the fever in cold weather, the soul’s descent? What about the

weight of the angels’ wings?

from Night by Etel Adnan




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: