“How the heck does one become radicalized?”

December 6th, 2015.

Note for former students I have taught:  I know (and appreciate) that some of you read everything I write. I want to let you know that there are some things in this post that might be too complex for you to understand. I have never censored complicated topics from any of you before, no matter your age, and I have always encouraged questions. It’s okay if you don’t understand everything I have written.

 

My mother says I should write something. I tell her there are many others who have already written something on this topic and written it well and their voice carries a lot farther than mine. Farther is important right now, I tell her.

She is convinced that somehow my voice is stronger.

“Their voice may get 15,000 page hits. Your voice changes people. Your voice is not an alternative opinion. Your voice illuminates.”

The power of a mother’s love: the perpetual audacity to see her child as unique.

“No,” she says, “That’s not why. Every voice counts right now. Every.”

So, I am writing for her.

This is for you, mama.

 

 

My mother says I should write something about “this mess.”

This “mess” would be the acts of terrorism in San Bernardino, California.

“I am so relieved the ‘face of confusion and self-hate’ is available to all,” my mother said the other day.

The “face of confusion and self-hate” is the photo of the female wearing the hijab who was one of the terrorists.

“This ought to give every hijabi a pause,” she adds sadly.

This sounds judgmental. It’s not.

 

For the majority of Pakistani people, especially those live in Pakistan, Pakistani women wearing the “hijab” is odd.

In Pakistan most women don’t wear the hijab. Some women wear something called a “dupatta”, a colorful light veil, and that too, seldom over their heads. It usually stays around one shoulder or both, depending on the style and comfort level. The women who do wear a full burka (the beekeeper suit where only your eyes show) are considered “paindoos”—which translates to uneducated, illiterate, villagers. This is not my opinion but a general understanding. The “hijab”, the headscarf, is a Middle Eastern, Iranian, Turkish accessory, with the exception of Saudi Arabia where women are forced to wear something called an abaya, the same as the beekeeper suit.

Moreover, any reference in the Quran to “cover yourself” is for the benefit of women, not just in those times, but even today in our current times, where women have to protect themselves from the perversions of men in very patriarchal countries where they get molested and raped if they show “too much of themselves.”

This is clearly not necessary in Western countries. In fact, in Western countries, it has quite the opposite effect: it draws attention to oneself as opposed to deflecting attention. Moreover, many of the women who do cover their heads, their make-up is impeccable and alluring to the point of leaving one mesmerized. This is especially true if you have an attractive well-proportioned face with good skin: there is no visible hair and all you see is the perfection that is your face. Quite the opposite of humility.

When I was in Morocco in 2006, I was surprised to learn why some women there wore the hijab and some didn’t.

“I cover my head when my hair is not washed.”

“I cover my head on the way to the hamam.” The hamam is the place of communal bathing, segregated by gender, akin to a spa without the bells and whistles; there are fancy ones for tourists and then there are the real ones for the locals. By the way, to this day, the cleanest I have ever felt was after bathing in a local hamam in Morocco.

“I wear it for style, like the French.”

“I wear it because I am an old granny. It gets you respect.”

Not one woman there told me that it was in the name of being a Muslim.

Yet, in the United States of America, women from South East Asia, Pakistan included, cover their heads as if they are Middle Eastern.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have anything to say about this, if they were indeed following some stupid trend, like Madonna putting in “mouth grillz” or the “Rachel Dolezal” complex but these women are doing it because they believe it makes them a “better Muslim.”

 

Part of the reason I have not written anything on this topic is because I don’t identify myself as a Muslim. If you are interested in alternative Muslim-American perspectives, here are links to read: “Bad Muslim?”  “Sex and Islam Do Mix, But Not In America.” and on this highly visited blog, you will find many Muslims voicing their clarity through their confusion. Here is an excellent analysis on YouTube of Radical Muslims, Fundamentalist Muslims, and Moderate Muslims.

 

This is not to say I was not brought up with values of the Quran. I am lucky because my father is a scholar of Arabic—many of the people preaching Islam can pronounce the Arabic words but do not know what they mean—and in addition to the Quran, deeply familiar with the Bible and the Torah. I grew up in a home with literature from every country and perspective.

While growing up in NYC, my first best friend, Hila Bakal, was Jewish. We didn’t know any differences. We liked Paula Abdul, reading and jokes. One Saturday we were supposed to hang out but she had to go to the Synagogue first. Our parents’ schedules allowed the dropping-off-and-picking-up routine only if I initially went to the Synagogue with her and then to the park near her home. I recall asking my father, later in the week, as a 12-year-old, “Do you think it is okay for me to go to a Synagogue?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Well, it’s a Jewish place.”

“So?” he replied.

“Well, I didn’t think we were Jewish. I thought everyone goes to their respective place of worship depending on what religion they are. No?”

“You can’t be a good Muslim if you aren’t a good Jew or a good Christian,” he replied.

This confused me. “But we don’t even go to a Mosque!”

“Yes, I have kept you all safe from the mosques this long and I continue to keep doing that.”

Hila and I never discussed religion because it was a non-issue. Growing up in Stuyvesant Town in New York City, most of my friends were Jewish. The differences among them were many. I had another friend whose name I forget now who was Jewish but an immigrant from Russia. I had another friend who was Catholic from Romania. Her family was a very different type of Catholic than our other friend who was also Catholic but from Greece.

That is the New York I grew up in, that’s what America was to me. It wasn’t just “diverse”; it was politically incorrect and we figured out how to get along despite it. I didn’t have any Pakistani friends because they were all very confused about being Muslim or Pakistani. I was too young to know why other than that I didn’t have anything in common with them. I was “allowed” to have crushes on boys, have photos of New Kidz on the Block and Boys II Men on my walls (this fact has to be admitted at some point!). These were things the Muslim girls weren’t allowed and you weren’t allowed to talk to boys and I liked engaging in debates with boys to show them girls were smarter. I was 12 and there was no PC police back then.

Once again, when I would ask my parents, were we really Muslim, their answer was, “There is something wrong with their parents. Don’t worry about it.”

As I grew up and went through high school in Kansas City, I encountered other Muslims who came from very wealthy families, and they considered themselves to be “modern Muslims”—meaning, they engaged in drinking, having sex, listening to hip hop, pretending to be either white or black. My best friend in high school (we are still the closest of friends) was black and yet I never thought I was black nor did we ever confuse our issues with the others’ while growing up in a very white suburban part of Kansas. Most importantly, both of us also had white friends. No cultural issues came up because both my black and white friends had curfews, couldn’t date, and we all thought our parents were trying to imprison us. Essentially, we were all kids who had parents who worried about us.

So, right at the time, when a second/first-generation person is naturally confused and decides to “turn to hijab” or “religion” (no different than anyone who decides to become a born-again Christian), I once again inquired, “If we are not like those Muslims who go to Islamic Centers and Mosques and we are not like those Muslims who can engage in promiscuous behaviors, then who are we?”

“We are Americans,” my father replied. “We are Americans.”

This meant we explored religion. My brother Zain and I explored being an atheist to Buddhist to various aspects of Christianity to questioning everything Islam had to offer. We questioned dogma, authority, institutions, our parents, without fear of political or religious persecution which my father had endured majority of his life.

This is what being an American means: you value freedom, yours and others. You disagree with your government and have the option to run yourself. (I understand things are very different in the United States now given corporations are governing everything, from judicial branches to legislature to Congress to education but there are still enough of us who remember how America used to be).

 

So, how do you become radicalized? It’s done in the name of becoming a better Muslim. In order to become a better Muslim, you go to mosques or Islamic Centers.

The Islamic Centers everywhere in the United States are a very big part of the problem.

While every Muslim in America collapses with anxiety after yet another tragic incident for which a “radical” Muslim is responsible, I find myself wishing that for once it will be realized what happens in these Islamic Centers.

Extremist. Radical. Fundamentalist. Moderate. Modern. Non-practicing.

These words are offered like varying shades of blue for repainting your living room.

“We are not them.”

“Islam is a religion of peace.”

“We don’t call white people Christians when they bomb Planned Parenthood.”

“#MyMuslimApartment” was the hashtag response on Twitter in response to the analysis by Western media of the terrorists’ “Muslim apartment” in San Bernardino.

These sentences are supposed to serve as shields against the reality of that which is “moderate” Islam.

 

We are no longer dealing with Western philosophies clashing against Eastern philosophies. East is West is East now.

I have never identified as a Muslim yet the best of me comes from values our father instilled in us which came through Islam, which the Quran refers to as a system of governance, akin to the United States’ constitution, not a religion. (Disclaimer, having studied the law, I prefer the South African constitution, it is very explicit in ways the United States’ constitution isn’t which has often been interpreted politically and not legally and ethically).

Their rationale  for the extremists’ behaviors in Islamic Centers pendulums between anger towards US Foreign Policies to American television being the pinnacle of Pamela Anderson.

The jihad is against freedom, not in the way Americans view freedom, but the responsibility which comes with freedom, the burden of consequences of your choices, the paradoxes that surround us as human beings.

If the FBI and Counter-Terrorism agencies understand the intricacies of gangs, the psychology behind joining a mob or a gang, then they too must understand the pathology of “turning” to an Islamic Center once in a Western country. I admire the principle of freedom of religion, but what if that which is being preached is not religion but “How to be a better Muslim while living in America?” or “How to be a better Muslim while everyone around you is dressing in mini-skirts?” or “How to ignore peers who are dating and having sex?”

It’s not Islam but how to shut yourself out from being an American.

If I had any influence over authorities about how to proceed, I would put any and everyone who visits Saudi Arabia by choice on the terrorism radar. I would take people who don’t attend mosques or Islamic Centers, and place them in Islamic Centers to report on what is being preached there. It’s not hate but it is definitely an us-against-them mentality, highlighting the differences as a “good Muslim” versus those who are Americans. Sure, if you go to a fundamentalist church, they too are preaching “Jesus is the way, the only way…” but they aren’t doing so in the name of being an American or un-American. They are Americans and they are religious or orthodox.

The worst judgment and prejudice I have ever experienced  is not by white Americans (sure, I too have been subjected to comments and questions that are ethnocentric and ignorant but I am speaking of spite) but by those who wear the hijab and go to Islamic Centers.

 

I asked my mother, “These pseudo-Muslims have made it impossible to live anywhere. Where does one go from here?”

Unlike other Muslims who come here with money so as to make more money so they can live like royalty in their countries of origin, my parents came here because of American values. For freedom. 

“No where,” my mother replied. “We have lived in United States of America a lot longer than any other place; you fight for the land that has offered you so much. This is home.”

And if it is at all possible to sum any of this up, I would just say, the biggest problem with hyphenated immigrants is they don’t see that Muslim-American or Pakistani-American or Arab-American gives you the privilege of being whoever and however you want to be, not the burden of rejecting one home for another.  I don’t agree with many acts by the United States government and I believe many of the policies are detrimental and myopic. But I have the privilege of disagreeing and going anywhere in the world where these policies impact the local people and participating in initiatives that are contrary to the government’s policies precisely because I am an American.

People who don’t see themselves as American are always going to rationalize acts of domestic terrorism against Americans. These are the view points that get nurtured in Islamic Centers and mosques. No doubt, most people just go to pray or for bonding with a community but those who are confused, weak, and feel guilty for their thoughts are prime targets who can be radicalized.

Light Branches Connecting

I have been very busy the last 3 weeks. However, I have enjoyed every moment of this new transition.  I couldn’t be more grateful for how things are coming together, as if there is an invisible magic wand orchestrating everything. “Meant to be” is some light, indeed.

 

I took this photo because I couldn’t help looking up to follow the light. I had seen this tree before and yet here was an entirely new world within.

Yesterday in yoga practice a moth was in the studio trying to get out. It was distracting at first because it wasn’t the pretty-kind-of-moth and was initially confused with an “ugly-gross-bug-trying-to-attack-me”.  I wanted to play hero in the class and capture it and release it. As I focused on what I needed to do, I forgot to play hero, and forgot to pay attention to it. I wonder if he found an open window or was eventually transported out. What was he doing inside? Did a moth need a downward dog stretch to redistribute energy within? How does a moth say Om?

I didn’t think of that moth again until just now. I couldn’t help but think that even a creature wired to look for light stumbles into the wrong setting, so how dare we hold onto life’s detours that sometimes lead to darkness instead of light?

Much more to share over the summer!

-a.q.s.

 

Light Branches

 

Still Sundays

Still Sundays.

April 12, 2015.

 

This morning I woke up thinking about the word exile.

When I say the word aloud images of a long dark aisle and an isolated isle pop up simultaneously in my mind.

The word sat there in my head to be grazed by my very cow-like laziness this Sunday morning.

 

I don’t come to writing like I once did because I don’t want to write what I once wrote because I don’t think what I once thought. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Once you grow you have to get refitted for Stillness.

I have developed a resistance to writing in stillness due much in part to the last two years here in California where I would mostly read on Sundays. Any writing has been personal. Not all growth can be shared publicly. In fact, I argue that the deepest evolution cannot be framed, put in words, or even shared. We just show up after that kind of change and the world must adjust.

So in that sense, Stillness and I are reacquainting. Surely, it is me who has changed.

 

The word exile, as defined by contemporary dictionaries, has something to do with being removed or banished from one’s country of origin either by force or circumstances.

In an unpublished essay author Cristina Garcia, who was gracious enough to share that essay with me after I met her at a conference, writes, “It is a severing from one’s homeland, a rift between here and there, a longing unsoothed, the terrible sense of un-belonging.”

She continues in her essay about exile and Cuba,

“This is not to say Cubans are permanently stuck in el pasado, the past. There is too much work to do in the present. Thoughtful Cubans on both sides of the Straits of Florida (and beyond) continually ask themselves: What does ‘home’ mean? Where do I belong? What do I owe the past? The future? What does it owe me? What does it mean to be Cuban?”

 

Exile.

Before this brick of a word landed on my head this morning, a few days ago a couple of things happened.

 

First, I was recently interviewed by Jessica of Jessica Ann Media  for a podcast series she is launching titled Art of Humanity: Fresh Perspectives with Artists, Leaders, Authors, and Entrepreneurs. Although usually I am weary of “marketing consultants” Jessica and I connected because of my blog a long time ago and I have paid attention to her pursuits and efforts. She truly does bring a new level of consciousness and a much needed fresh, creative perspective to the PR business. Hesitant, I agreed, honored that I could add some value to her series. The depths of her questions were a welcome surprise and I am looking forward to the beginning of the series.

During one part of the conversation she brought up my “bio” and the seemingly constant nature of my moving, from one city to another, not to mention from one country to another country to yet another. I stumbled to explain that I was not a vagabond by any means although to an outsider it might appear as such. We moved on to other topics but that part of the chat stayed with me.

Second, a few days ago I connected with writer, Natasha Moni, and in one of our exchanges she brought up the tiny nuance of being a first-generation versus second-generation American. How we connected is a very convoluted story that I will save for another time. She lives in the Seattle area and our email conversation thread is titled, “Books and Things”. I told her I had never thought of the difference and perhaps there is no difference and paradoxically that is the difference.

Third, Seattle based attorney and fellow writer, Charles R. Wolfe, shared with me a recent article by him about the changing face of his city. He writes beautifully about ever-evolving cityscapes and the memories between and impacts beyond. You can find more of his photography and essays at My Urbanist.

His article “Using Urban Observation to ‘Ghost-Bust’ Cities” in the HuffingtonPost.com strung several chords.

First chord: I thought of these fantastic, very moving paintings by Jennifer McDaeth, a Seattle based artist.

Second chord: I recalled parts of A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. This book was a recent Christmas gift from my brother-in-law. I learned about Rebecca Solnit because of a comment by Peter Ciccariello on a Still Sundays essay from May 15, 2011 but it would be now that I would finish reading her book.

 

Here is the music…

 

Charles R. Wolfe begins his essay that while walking on a familiar intersection in Seattle, he “[…]saw a ghost, of a missing building from a boyhood memory—something that Amazon might have retrofitted, today, if it were still there for the taking. Gone from this layered, contemporary scene was something significant to the history of Seattle, the Orpheum Theater […]”

He continues,

“I hold that scene in perspective, because I’m old enough to recall what was there before.

I’m also an inductive, first person urbanist, always looking for context in what I see. Amid urban change, I see ghosts of bygone images, wondering, ironically, about their unrealized role in today’s vitality. This approach, allowing for and explaining the stories behind our redeveloping cities, should not be viewed as antiquarian, academic or obstructionist.

The tool of human memory, discerning eyes and understanding both the pragmatism of the present and the symbolic, collective meaning of a given place are often left behind in today’s discussions of urban solutions.”

 

When discussing her recent art in progress, Jen Macdeath, wrote,

“I completely get this [referring to the Seattle article by Wolfe].  It makes me so sad to see the incredible old buildings being knocked down and destroyed!

 That is why I did my Ode to Piecora’s series as our favorite pizzeria and the entire block was being demolished for new crap condo buildings.

 Ocean [the artist’s daughter] said she is tired of seeing her childhood memories being turned into condos! 

This Seattle doesn’t feel like my Seattle anymore and it breaks my heart!”

 

Exile then is not a mere banishment from one’s country of origin but can happen within cities, communities, professions, and worse without an option to leave that very place that now feels absolutely foreign. What I am talking about is more than mere gentrification, it is a complete stripping away of time itself and vis-a-vis a part of oneself that only exists inside one’s mind.

Rebecca Solnit describes emptiness by quoting another text, “‘Emptiness is the track  on which the centered person moves,’ said a Tibetan sage six hundred years ago, and the book where I found this edict followed it with an explanation of the word ‘track’ in Tibetan: shul, ‘a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by—a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in the flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there. […] As a shul, emptiness can be compared to the impression of something that used to be there.'” (50-51).

 

So here we all are, experiencing this scared emptiness, where we don’t recognize our streets, our schools, our neighborhoods, our professions. We pack and move from one place to another so as to belong to ourselves at the very least. There is no ‘there’ to go back to and nostalgia hurts more than it helps as we move forward.

The corporate take over by Wall Street from one end and Silicon Valley on another, of every single non-corporate industry, leaves no room for the majority of Americans, whatever their ethnic backgrounds. Many of us are now exiled within other exiles.

 

Charles Wolfe ends his HuffingtonPost.com essay by mentioning a link to blended superimposition images of London to show how much London has and hasn’t change and therein lies her charm.

As “Pakistan’s democratic rebirth remains constantly under siege” thanks to Islamic fundamentalists and all “moderates” who look the other way, I can’t help but feel frightened about American democracy.

After all, America has been home for so many in exile that I honestly can’t imagine how one even begins again if the very word exile must be redefined given all that is happening in this country.

 

Cristina Garcia ends her essay by stating, “But like all great loves, a homeland is not something one can ever fully possess.”

And yet we, and only we, can possess this emptiness which serves as a “shul” of all that was once there.

And if we continue writing about it, talking about it, sharing about it, we are bound to recreate that very thing that has been lost.

Perhaps all of this going forward has always been about going back.

It’s about time. It’s about Time.

Still Sundays.

March 29, 2013.

It’s about time. It’s about Time.

My mother tells me the weeks before my birth she had her fingers crossed and continuously prayed that I not come into this world the same day as Pakistan would hang Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.  “That would be so tragic. I didn’t want you to be born on a tragic day,” she says. I wasn’t born on April 4th but it would turn out to be a tragic year. Pakistan, barely thirty-two years into freedom from India and the British, would begin its downward spiral to the dust it is today due to religious fundamentalism and politicians who take western bribes as vitamins.

In a different part of the world the Iranian “Revolution” would take place that year creating the movement for Islamic Fundamentalism as a political force.

In 1998 at the University of Kansas I befriended two twin brothers from Iran who shared the same birthday as me and I would become their de facto twin sister.

1979 would be the worst year for industrial disputes in Ireland involving the Army during a nationwide bus strike, also including a national postal strike which would last for months while my father was in Ireland unable to communicate with my mother about me.

In 2003 for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary while others might have preferred Hawaii or Bali my father took my mother to Dublin and parts of Ireland. He even introduced her to the people (we don’t know how he found them since this is pre-Social Media) who provided him room and board, or more accurately “a room without a wall”, to show her the bike that still sits locked against time, the streets where he drew art to make extra money while he waited to sort the paperwork to pursue medicine as a physician, the Irish people who welcomed him despite him being a foreigner, the post office that never opened again, the cobblestones that received his tears. My father is a very humble and frugal man, and usually you have to convince him to spend money on himself, but this visit he stayed in the most expensive room and hotel in Dublin to note his triumph against fate.

In 1979 U2 would release their first EP album with three songs.

The year would end with the beginning of the Soviet War in Afghanistan that history books would note as having lasted nine years, but as we all know, it continues to this day in one form or another.

I would come into this world 6 years after the United States Supreme Court would decide the landmark decision about a woman’s right to have an abortion balanced against the state’s two legitimate interests in protecting pre-natal life and protecting a woman’s health.

A year before I would be born another controversial landmark decision would set the stage for a series of “affirmative action” cases to further complicate race relations in the United States. In 1978 the Supreme Court would hear Regents of the U. of California v. Bakke and decide for Bakke, a white medical school applicant who was denied admission under the “regular” program while minority applicants with lesser scores and grades were admitted under another review system established to promote minority students. The Supreme Court held against rigid quotas but concluded that race was a permissible factor to consider, among other factors, for purposes of admissions.

Years later, because of the privilege of hard won cases, I would have an equal opportunity to attend law school. Moreover, in 2005, in New York City, I would find myself in a Constitutional Law Seminar course taught by the man who was one of the attorneys who was part of the team that had filed amicus briefs in three landmark affirmative action cases, including Bakke. This professor would become one of the most influential people in my life. In 2015 I would discuss with him the the law as it pertains to the mess that is our education system.

 

Part of the last cohort of Generation X, I came into a very divided world, as if one foot in heaven and another in hell.

 

The last two and a half years in California have pushed me so far deep inside myself that whatever I am to write for the next five years is going to crack a universal bell. My words will be the clapper and you will be the waist of the bell and the sound will be justice.

Henry Miller in his essay “My Life as an Echo” in Stand Still Like The Hummingbird writes about the time he was a personnel director in the Western Union Telegraph Company in New York.

“The four years I spent hiring and firing the miserable creatures who made up the fluctuating force of messengers of this organization were the most important years of my life, from the standpoint of my future role as a writer. It was here that I was in constant touch with Heaven and Hell. It was for me what Siberia was for Dostoevsky. And it was while serving as personnel director that I made my first attempts at writing. It was high time. I was already thirty-three years old and, as the title of my trilogy indicates, it was a rosy crucifixion which I was about to experience.

[…]

What a tremendous relief it was to cease blaming society, or my parents, or my country.

Suffering belongs, just as much as laughter, joy, treachery, or what have you. When one perceives its function, its value, its usefulness, one no longer dreads it, this endless suffering which all the world is so eager to dodge. When it is regarded in the light of understanding it becomes something else.

[…]

To become a writer! Little did I dream, in begging the Creator to grant me this boon, what a price I would have to pay for the privilege.”

 

The last two and a half years have offered me an understanding without which I can not imagine continuing as a writer or an educator.

 

I am getting ready to place another birthday card given to me by my parents on the wall above my desk. The one from the year before sits there too. Held open by thumbtacks, like a bird’s wings, so I can see their words, so I don’t forget their love, support, and faith in me. Also, to have their faith in a God/ Universe visible to me when on most days I feel like inviting God to a boxing ring made of humanity’s bruises. I demand a solution for the mess created by people everywhere! Help me pick it up!  My parents are people who continue to believe despite everything; I on the other hand have to roll the dice on some days to understand all that probably can’t be understood.

The ‘Greatest Power’ is a prayer you can hear yourself. Must hear words out loud.”  A different part of the same card from last year, in my father’s bold, lavish script, reads, “He gives to all those who ask of Him.

It’s not a surprise I would end up marrying a man whose mother believes the same as my father. When we doubt so much we tend to draw towards us those whose faith can see beyond one’s own eyes.

 

As I reflect on the last two and a half years in California and our time here comes to a close, it’s hard not to note a myriad of tiny and huge things that tested every fiber within me that makes me ‘me’.  And somehow I kept going. I kept writing. I kept teaching. I kept dreaming. I kept inspiring. I kept being inspired. What is this “somehow” made of? I was always surrounded by immense love, provided by Jamie, his family, and my family. This love provided the buoyancy needed each day of each week of each month to make it past all the razor-edged bumps hitting against the surface of my essence. Yes, there are bruises, but nothing that love and time can’t heal. That “somehow” has to be love then.

What do I most want this year? Who can keep track of a Universe that gives and takes as it pleases?  I suppose it doesn’t matter as long as there is love and I can be me.

Always hold strong to your faith in the Higher Power who brought you to life…and always be True to Yourself.” That’s what this year’s card says.

Oh the price to be True!
The price to be Yourself!

I am back.

It’s about time. It’s about Time.

There is much to celebrate. We are the ones who save ourselves and we are never alone.

“Death shall have no dominion…” ~ Dylan Thomas

January, 18, 2015.

I will be reading parts from this today at my grandfather’s memorial service.

 

Over the holiday season, Jamie’s mother, my mother-in-law (if you are subscribed you received my occasional newsletter which included a photo of an enchanted Jamie and me getting married in November in NYC and I do plan on writing more about that another time), Patty shared that she was exploring a practice about self-awareness which involves no complaining. This surprised me since Patty, definitely some saint reincarnated, seldom complains about anything and is a very happy-go-lucky woman. Part of the practice involved wearing a rubber bracelet as a reminder not to complain and that every time you complained about something you would snap the bracelet on your wrist and then switch it to the other hand and start all over again. She boasted that she had gone on five consecutive days without complaining at one point! The object of wearing the bracelet was to eventually get to a state of mind that didn’t mention the trivial things we complain about as a manner of conversation.

If that bracelet had been placed on my grandfather’s wrist the day he was born, Nana g probably would have never switched that bracelet from one wrist to another till his last breath which he took on Thursday, January 8th, 2015 at the age of 95. I can’t ever recall hearing him complain about anything despite life’s many challenges that he faced throughout his life even as he got sick and weak towards his last days on earth.  Yet despite all the challenges, the sum total of his life seems like a collection of social gatherings with friends, gatherings that seem like a myth to people now, gatherings involving good conversations with good food and authentic company that appreciates the moment, and his attention to his grandchildren.

When I visited him in the hospital a few weeks ago, I was struck by how indeed true this statement is: it is not death that which scares us but life. Yet here was this frail man, agitated like a baby who just wanted to rest, who wasn’t afraid of what was next because he had lived his life to the fullest.

 

Grieving doesn’t have a time table. Sometimes I feel such a profound sense of loss that it seems akin to floating through star dust all by myself where I can barely hear my own heartbeat. Other times, I rejoice with happy tears for the ways he influenced me. And then there are times, I am fine. Just fine. Then it begins all over again. I also can’t help but note what this loss means for my mother and her siblings (and even my father since he was very close to him too), which leads me to panic at the untimely and selfish fear of one day having to live without my parents instead of focusing on what my  mother is going through. Then the tears come back but they are about something else instead of his loss. They become about living my life in a manner which honors who I am, who I really am, just like he did.

My grandfather was a very social person but by no means did he desire to be the center of attention. In fact, he was a man who minded his own business and I don’t recall him being too verbose. Yet his influence is far reaching to say the least.

 

Everyone can recall some of their favorite childhood memories. It doesn’t matter whether these recollections are wrapped in precision or even entail accurate facts. It matters not whether these memories are based on confabulations as narrated to you by the adults who are supposed to be the guardians of the Exact Past. The significance of these memories is that as you grow up and continue to dip your adult awareness in that vast river which began long before you could actually recall much of anything, shapes your essence as a human being regardless of what you end up doing with your life or what you have to show for it. At least such has been the case for me and who I continue to become. This is due much in part to the memories I have attached to my grandfather, my mother’s father, my nana.

As a ten year-old I grew up knowing with charged conviction that I knew something extra special about the power and meaning of words because “they” say my nana taught me the entire alphabet and basic vocabulary that went along with the alphabet by the time I was two or three years old. This wasn’t done with the intent to get me into some top kindergarten program or win a prize for young babies. This was done out of love. How could I not grow up to love reading and writing?

There are other stories too that have been transformed into memories. Memories of him taking me on walks with him and his love of talking to strangers and listening to others’ tales which created a blueprint for my desire to explore and understand others. The truth is that I don’t have a clear recollection about a lot of my time with him. He was part of shaping my consciousness at an age when a child is too young to remember everything and yet never forgets those moments either.  The past that continues to shape my truest and highest self comes to me in flashes: tenderness upon seeing a Bhaad-Gaaule black cap or better known as a “topi”, any elderly feeding pigeons, laughing as a form of wisdom, and the power of unconditional faith.

My young adult years provide for less hazier memories. I recall he was always reading, he was always quoting poetry, and he was always quizzing us on historical information. I also remember he was fond of writing letters which is something I too still continue to this day. The greatest gift he gave to me is to show me by example that reading, writing, traveling, exploring, keeping in touch with friends through letters, and finding contentment beyond the material world,  are not done to prove something to someone or because of a lack of anything, but are cultivated because, as author and educator Tom Romano stated, this is how we “bring ourselves to realization.”

His most deep-rooted influence in my life is his love for his wife, my naani, who passed on before I was even born. He was a widower for a good portion of his life. His love for her and his commitment to continue to live his life for his children despite missing her created a lasting impression about “true love” in my mind and for that I will be eternally grateful. His love for her embodied the line from Dylan Thomas’ poem: “though lovers be lost love shall not”.  Whenever I would ask him about her he would have wonderful stories to share about her and he never seemed to forget to add how beautiful she was. His love for her left a permanent impression about what constitutes love in my mind and probably served as one of the reasons for my delayed nuptials, relatively speaking. I wanted something “more” than getting married.

 

Finally, if there is anything I desire out of life after reflecting about his life it is simply this: I want to be content. I want to be a happy person. He was able to influence so many because he was content. I see this contentment in my mother and her brothers and for me it would be the highest achievement. He lived his days fully engaged with life and didn’t let life’s challenges stop him from enjoying what really mattered.

 

Grateful to Jamie for reminding me of this Dylan Thomas poem which is most appropriate.

 

Death Shall Have No Dominion” By Dylan Thomas

And death shall have no dominion.

Dead man naked they shall be one

With the man in the wind and the west moon;

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

Though they go mad they shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Though lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.

Under the windings of the sea

They lying long shall not die windily;

Twisting on racks when sinews give way,

Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;

Faith in their hands shall snap in two,

And the unicorn evils run them through;

Split all ends up they shan’t crack;

And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.

No more may gulls cry at their ears

Or waves break loud on the seashores;

Where blew a flower may a flower no more

Lift its head to the blows of the rain;

Though they be mad and dead as nails,

Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;

Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,

And death shall have no dominion.

Still Sundays: Ghosts of Elsewhere

October 12, 2014

 

I have been traveling in other worlds lately. The worlds of William Maxwell and Frank O’Connor’s words. I am in Ireland and in New York but I am still here too as I stare upon Elsewhere.

“Elsewhere” is always a place in Lahore or somewhere in South Africa. I see corners of streets from “Elsewhere” if the sunset’s light hits the smog on the leaves a certain way. Some days, the quiet on a street after the cars leave an intersection takes me to this “Elsewhere” to which GPS coordinates don’t exist.

I have lived many lives and when it comes to “Elsewhere” I have lived them more than once in this very lifetime.

I sometimes wonder if I am everywhere but Lahore on purpose, at least in part unconsciously. Some secret resolve to keep oneself protected from such depths one can’t claw out of, at least not without bleeding. How much blood can you shed for the past? It requires immense strength to pull your entire body weight to toss yourself over the other side of a wall. Now, add to that weight the additional poundage of memories, good ones, of a world that doesn’t exist anymore, not even in pictures that can now be touched to insta-glorify even garbage.

I think of William Maxwell’s words, thoughts, dispositions, in his stories, interviews, anecdotes about him, and his letters and editorial notes to Frank O’ Connor. I relish the characters in Frank O’Connor’s stories; I have been reading many of them, almost all of them. “Ghosts” is a remarkable piece of art, sheer genius in my opinion.

“They could go looking for ghosts, but he had ghosts there inside himself and I knew in my heart that till the day he died he would never get over the feeling that his money had put him astray and he had turned his back on them.”

That’s how it ends, that story, and that’s how it stays with you forever.

The ghosts within us, of our other selves, that remember different worlds, aren’t scary but they are persistent. They don’t haunt us for the sake of nostalgia but as a plea to save the present.

 

Anyway, I think of William Maxwell and others and can’t help but wonder if any of them could ever relate to the stories I want to write, characters that don’t belong to one city, characters whose edges can’t be neatly cut according to most MFA programs that follow a trend even when they try so hard not to follow one. More importantly, I wonder if any such editor exists now. What I mean by that is, editors who hold their current positions because they are or were writers first. I mean, take the current editor of The New Yorker, Deborah Treisman, I can’t seem to find any creative fiction she has penned despite being part of the literati long before taking on the role as an editor. (Side note: I use The New Yorker just as an example, not as some implicit attack; perhaps it is not fair to mention an example of a magazine whose fiction I don’t read, it was a very different magazine before the 90’s. This is not to say they haven’t published authors who deserve their public or literary reputation, but one doesn’t have to read The New Yorker to “discover” them).

 

But perhaps there is hope after all? The recent Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to an unknown author (to me and probably majority of the United States’ readers), French writer, Patrick Modiano.  Lucy shared an article with me which sheds light on the current creative conundrum. Horace Engdahl, Nobel judge, part of the Swedish Academy, hopes “the literary riches which we are seeing arise in Asia and Africa will not be lessened by the assimilation and the westernisation of these authors.” The article in The Guardian continues, “Engdahl slammed novels which ‘pretend to be transgressive’, but which are not. ‘One senses that the transgression is fake, strategic,’ he said. ‘These novelists, who are often educated in European or American universities, don’t transgress anything because the limits which they have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist.’”

What precisely constitutes as “westernization” is a dated concept in itself in my humble opinion. It’s not as easily defined as it once was. The advent of social media has changed the landscape in many ways, but in as many ways Internet and social media have brought this change, in equal amounts, thanks to people’s self-absorption everywhere, they now know even less about the world outside of their mobile devices and computers.

 

Frank O’ Connor’s Ireland reminds me of Lahore.

“I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people merely because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said; but that doesn’t mean that the stories themselves were inspired by events in Ireland. Many of them should really have English backgrounds; a few should even have American ones. Only language and circumstance are local and national; all the rest is, or should be, part of the human condition, and as true for America and England as it is for Ireland. The nicest compliment I have ever received was from a student while the authorities of the university were considering the important question of whether I was a resident or non-resident alien. “Mr. O’Connor, I find it hard to think of you as an alien at all.” (Steinman, Michael, ed. The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O’Connor and William Maxwell 1945-1966. 15. New York: Knof, 1996. Print.)

 

Writing stories makes feel less of an alien on this planet, where geographic divides don’t make sense, given the human condition, made of ignorance, sufferings, joys, dreams, are as common throughout as the oxygen we need anywhere to stay alive.

Sometimes I feel this digital space will be known as the place where I recorded my challenges “to get it down right” till I finally got it down, even if not right, and I could care less because there would be no more ghosts.

“seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout” ~ E.B. White

Still Sundays.

 

September 1, 2014.

 

It isn’t September quite yet but I would like to think I can see around the corner. When I sit to type, the letters on the keyboard feel like the keys of a piano: you don’t forget to play, even if you can’t play as well due to being out of practice. Sure, it doesn’t sound like a song, but there is music.

You don’t just want to make noise with an instrument.

If I decide to write as I listen to music then it all comes together without effort. My fingers take a life of their own. I like to see parts of the body rise to their own wisdom, beyond the one my mind has set aside. This used to happen with more ease due to a consistent yoga practice which now is  down to only twice a week but that’s only for now. Now is so many months sometimes. But months pass.

I would like to invite my disbelief to have a seat at the Table of Questions and digest, without the Fork of Answers, how 2014 will be over in 4 months. What a tricky two years it has been!

If two years ago, on September 2, 2012 when I flew on a one-way ticket to California, someone had told me that I would be in California for two years, I would have laughed out loud at the absurdity of that statement. When I left my home in New York I knew I would be away from New York City indefinitely, dabbling in visits as frequently as possible, but I didn’t anticipate being in California this long.

How I feel now, as compared to when I first moved here and stopped writing about California altogether so as not to turn this space into a can where one spits the day like chew, can very easily be summed up in the words of John Steinbeck from his 1953 essay, “The Making of a New Yorker” in the New York Times.

“New York City is the only city I have ever lived in. I have lived in the country, in the small town, and in New York. It is true I have had apartments in San Francisco, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Paris, and have sometimes stayed for months, but that is a very different thing. As far as homes go, there is only a small California town and New York. This is a matter of feeling.”

However, it is important to keep the context of his words in mind. One can tirelessly go on about why people move to New York City and why they end up leaving or whether they should. Steinbeck left because he couldn’t write there given the circumstances, not just because the City is demanding, to say the least, for any individual of average means. Those who have “average” means sacrifice plenty—space to personal relationships sometimes—so as to be “in the City.”

NY in Paris

Paris, 2014.

 

 

Looking back on the last two years, regardless of the toll on my personal health and writing, I have gained more than I have lost. Moreover, these past two years will probably be instrumental for the next phase of my writing. I can understand that now even if I can’t yet articulate it. And finally, it has given me a new sense of compassion for wherever people are and will remain.

One of the most important lessons I have gained by living here is by observing how one becomes “old”.  Old with anger. Old with a stubborn disposition. Old with holding on to the past. Old with flipping through old memories as if they are the now. Old with life. Old with a spirit that can neatly fit inside a shoe box made of explanations that make sense. Old because your happiness depends on your spouse. Old because your happiness depends on your children. Old because. Some old “because”. Old. Just old.

I feel as if Life has most of us categorized in three groups: 1) those who don’t know there is a rug yet; 2) those who are stumbling trying to hold onto the rug; 3) those who can see themselves, their place in the world, and the world at large when the rug gets pulled and it feels like they are falling.

The rug is our construct of who we think we are based on everything outside of ourselves. The yarns in the rug consist of our relating to where we live, what we do, and all our notions, some real and some not so real, about who we are.

I admire the people who appear forever young, content, satisfied, filled with joy, pursuing life sometimes like lightening and other times like a lightening bug.  These people don’t always appear to have it “figured out”  or whatever version of fill-in-the-blank success, but they are the ones who have learned to dance in the air, again and again, without that rug. Perhaps the rug is a necessary element to float through time and space in order to have this human experience, but I now understand why the rug gets pulled from under our feet. And you probably do too.

In this regard, the antidote to “getting old” is to really live, which sometimes means staring at yourself after the rug, made of your construct of an image of yourself, is pulled under you. It also means choosing new adventures and seeing the pit stops as adventures too. Most importantly, if in any shape or form your compassion has served others without the residue of self-indulgence, then you shall remain forever in sync with life’s cycles which aren’t necessarily determined by your planning nor the chronological years that pass too quickly and therefore will never feel “old”.

Reading this article, “Where are they now? The Kings of the 90’s Dot-Com Bubble”  made me reflect what had these people really contributed to humanity. Yes, they made money, but other than Jeff Bezos (and the jury is still out on him), does anyone even recall who they are and what they did? And I thought about  this not within the framework that if one has money then he or she ought to be a celebrity too, but in quite a literal sense. Often people with this kind of “lucky” wealth have an image of “serving others” but they lack a real vision and seldom are those visions altruistic.  I find this quite distressful and it can all be very overwhelming.

But there is hope. There is always hope.

I happened to pick a print copy of the most recent Reader’s Digest issue and it took me back to the time when one could indeed trust an editor to curate the best articles, without having to read through people’s sloppy comments, “likes”, and all sorts of unnecessary noise that we now encounter while reading online; back to a time when you would cut and save an article because it was so good; back to a time when articles from the past remained forever connected to articles in the present, alongside “Life in the United States” and “All in a Day’s Work”.  This recent issue reprinted (of course available online too) a response by E.B. White  to a letter he received predicting a grim future for humanity. The letter, written in 1973, begins, “As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time.” Then it continues,

“It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably  harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.”

That was in 1973. I don’t know what E.B. White would have to say now. I do know what I have to say. The conditions are always right to allow the “seeds of goodness” to sprout.

Still Sundays

Still Sundays.

Trip to Philly. Maximo Park at The Troubadour in West Hollywood. A trip to Oakland. Beauty in chaos. Mark Nepo. “Thin Places”.

June 15, 2014.

 

There is a stillness that is so rare that it can only be compared to the “green flash” optical phenomenon.

Although this green light, found during sunrise or sunset, is quite rare to witness, airline pilots can see it more regularly when they have an unobstructed view of the horizon. Information presented online is not as reliable as it once used to be, or perhaps I should say easy access to so much information now requires as much research as one had to do in the “non-digital”, pre-Internet times if you desire any accuracy. I contacted an airline pilot who has been flying planes for a very long time and even offers flying lessons and he said he has yet to see the “green flash”. There are many literary references to this light, the most specific being Le Rayon Vert or The Green Ray by Jules Verne where two people end up going on all sorts of adventures in search of this green flash.

 

Similarly, the Stillness that is akin to the “green flash” occurs under the right circumstances and often these come from life slowing to a complete standstill. To an ordinary human being such times often resemble as if  “nothing” is going on, but to those who are pilots navigating uncharted territories, this state, characterized by lack of motion, is not necessarily without progress. Moreover, this “green-flash”-stillness that appears due to a seemingly standstill pause is actually a byproduct of momentum at prodigious speeds.

In many ways since I last wrote I feel I have merely been a desperate passenger who hitched a ride with a stranger called Life that turned out to be a driver who had no direction or sense of speed. Despite all the challenges and disappointments these last few weeks have presented, I am blown away by how much I did that I wanted to do in spite of everything. In the words of John Donne, “Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail.”

 

The month of May began with an intense trip to Philly. We went there to attend my friend Erica’s wedding. Although I didn’t spend much time with her it was a joy to see her and the groom, the wonderful Louis, so happy.

 

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The rest of our time in Philly was spent exploring the “other Philly” that I never visited despite visiting Erica on numerous occasions when I used to live in New York City. This is mostly because the purpose of the visits used to be to catch up with her and not the city. To that end, leave it to our good friend, Shayne, to be the embodiment of the best of Philly. As most of the readers of my blog already know, not only is he a very dear friend, he is an incredible poet and a very gifted singer and pianist. His version of “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” is better than any other I have heard. I heard the sneak preview last night in fact. It was magical to spend time with him and catch up in real time instead of our regular exchanges over distance. His passion and understanding of music is redefining contemporary jazz.

 

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Philly, like any other urban city in America, is beginning to see the impact of opportunities that only favor one class.

 

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Despite the very apparent discrepancies in the city, it is truly a city of love and hope. I am not sure how long before it becomes another uninhabitable New York but for now she gets to be herself, a place for everyone.

 

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After the Philly adventure, it wasn’t very long before we had the wonderful opportunity to check out Maximo Park play live at The Troubadour in West Hollywood. It was a magical night. Despite the exhaustion from everything related to my work—a lot of my fatigue comes from my inability to be on auto-pilot even if my survival depended on it; I am hyper-alert to the deepest unconscious ebbs and flows—I experienced a performance unlike any other I have seen. This band gave everything and more to their fans and the fans equally reciprocated an energy that could be felt with your bare hands. It was also a fantastic experience because the venue was sans hipsters, it was a mature audience regardless of age who didn’t need to abuse substances to get high, the music alone was enough. This is not a “big” band. Yet. I believe they are going to get very big very soon. I am glad I discovered them before that happens. It isn’t about that. They have been around for a very long time and making music regardless of the number of their fans and the fans they have are very real and supportive.  I am grateful to Jamie for introducing them to me; his music collection is the equivalent of the ancient library of Alexandria . The last time I felt this moved at a concert was seeing U2 perform at a small venue in Paris many years ago.

You know a band is good when after seeing them perform live you appreciate their latest release even more. I have been listening to their latest album, Too Much Information, on repeat for some time now. It just doesn’t get old for me and every listen brings forth a different fragment to which I can relate. My two favorite songs, according to the repeat counter on my iTunes,  on their latest album are “Leave This Island” and “Drinking Martinis” although I like all the others equally. It’s invigorating to know that art does this: it turns you into a Phoenix that rises again and again and again. As I listened to the live performance the meaning of the song “Leave This Island” became clearer and clearer—of course this is subjective—sometimes the person you have to stand up to is the you who has given up.

Have you ever been compelled?

Under a spell? From a protagonist

who knows you far too well? Have

you ever been undone by a slip

of the tongue? And betrayed a

side of you that felt hard-won?

 

 

 

 

Still buzzed from that weekend, I hardly had a break before  I left for the Bay Area to visit a very good friend visiting from New York City. She was there leading an education training for principals at a conference in Oakland and her family came along because it was Memorial Day weekend.  I had a wonderful time hanging out with her and her family and I realized just how much I miss my friends. I also had the rare occasion to catch my brother who is very busy with yoga and his DJ gigs. His yoga practice has expanded to another level and I am so inspired despite my own practice lagging. Yes, this is him and not Mr. Ieyngar. What I find the most fascinating about my brother is his ability to work with those who have never done yoga. He is an incredibly intuitive teacher and his communication and patience are unparalleled. And he is only beginning. I am convinced he is going to redefine the practice of yoga in the West.  On that typical Gemini note, he celebrated his birthday a few days ago as he mixed music for many who admire him and music.

 

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Lauren, his graceful partner who is also a fantastic yoga teacher and practitioner, has added wonderful touches to their living space in Lake Merritt which was a welcome sanctuary for me.

 

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I enjoyed my visit to Lake Merritt and I am grateful I spent some time with them and my friends.

 

 

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Since the beginning of June it has been a whirlwind. And I am no whirling dervish who can keep spinning without getting dizzy. In many ways, recent events left me with a very human interpretation of standstill, unable to see beyond the daily undertakings. Therefore, it should come as no surprise, that a woman I befriended during Erica’s wedding reception in Philly, Louis’ friend, also happened to be a fantastic jewelery designer. The pieces she was wearing were so unique. Our conversation that night began with jewelry as “art object” (something about which I have written previously) and became deeper before we went our separate ways. I was very excited to have a very unique piece made exclusive to my tastes–and perhaps state of mind!—before the official website launch. Apparently the demand of her products led to finally creating an official space for her pieces which is inspiring.  She sent me this a few weeks ago.

 

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I am enjoying this ring very much. I love the weight of the silver, a constant reminder there is indeed beauty in chaos and all that weighs us down can also be used to lift us up. No pun intended to the finger.

 

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Ah yes, back to the stillness that is a “green flash”.

 

Last week I received an email from a young woman–well, younger than me anyway— I knew from when I first began yoga with Marco in 2007; she used to work at the front desk and also practiced.  Her email was short and I indeed wanted to know more about how she had spent the last four years in Hong Kong and South Korea. Her recent update had a thread from our last exchange in 2008.  I was pleased and surprised that anything could surprise anymore in this digital age where anyone can get a hold of each other on the “networks” without connecting meaningfully under the assumption that nothing has changed because in some ways digital remnants in blog posts or photos make it seem as life is static. I was delighted to connect again and told her I knew of no better definition of an “angel” than one who begins an out-of-nowhere exchange to lift us from our current perspective and give us another, preferably a bird’s eye view.

My last email to her in 2008 laid out what an awful year that had been and it was only half over then.  As I re-read my own words I was taken by how very trivial it all seemed now yet I had a very clear recollection of each event that had led up to that email. Past is a funny bone that doesn’t hurt when hit against the present.

When I began my reply to her, I quickly gathered there was no way to sum up all that had taken place since 2008 so I created a few bullet points highlighting the major events. The last few weeks’ hours had felt like years and yet I summed it all up in one sentence. Tragedies should either be novels or a sentence, anything in between is wasted effort because life is hard no matter how the coin lands.

I included in my email, “My yoga practice is not as consistent either, but if yoga means to connect with yourself, to yoke with life, to be grounded when you can’t carry on, to bend beyond your wildest imaginations, to be amazed by breath as a prayer to make it another day, then I have done more yoga in one year than I did in seven years with Marco in NYC!” That being said, the one thing about a consistent yoga practice is that it makes you very strong in addition to feeling grounded, and when we are physically strong it makes our perception of events that happen to us clearer. So, in that regard, I hope to practice more regularly. However, right now I am also exploring free weights because it also demands alignment of breath.

So, while others may contemplate the meaning of life or their purpose, I have been wondering what’s the point of being strong and why–and if not why then how—I am so strong. Is it genetic given my parents are nothing short of sparkling warriors who bow to nothing and no one but Truth, equality, and peace? Is it nurtured because I have never known my father or mother to give up? And most importantly what is the point of “be strong”?

The answer came unexpectedly (and yet obviously) towards the end of a yoga class. Francine, who teaches in the Iyengar tradition, ended the class yesterday with a quote from Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening.

As an inlet cannot close itself to the sea that shapes it, the heart can only wear itself open.

One of the hardest blessings to accept about the heart is that in the image of life itself, it will not stop emerging through experience. No matter how we try to preserve or relive what has already happened, the heart will not stop being shaped. This is the magnificent key to health: that, despite our resistance to accept that what we’ve lost is behind us, despite our need at times to stitch our wounds closed by reliving them, and despite our heroic efforts to preserve whatever is precious, despite all our attempts to stop the flow of life, the heart knows better. It knows that the only way to truly remember or stay whole is to take the best and worst into its tissue.

Despite all our intentions not to hurt again, the heart keeps us going by moving us ever forward into health. Though we walk around thinking we can direct it, our heart is endlessly shaped like the land, often against our will.

 

I know of no one else who is more shaped by land than myself. Or so I thought. My friend, and literary comrade, Lucy helped me understand this beyond a mere topophilia. She sent me a link to a blog post where the author talks about “thin places.”  In her post the author mentions an article from March 9, 2012 in the New York Times by Eric Weiner who aptly describes what I have been unable to all these years. “Thin places”:

…places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again…They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.

Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world.

 

 

Although my current geographic location is as far away as possible from “thin places” I am grateful for the opportunity to be traveling soon to such places: New Mexico (again), Prague (again), and Paris (again).  Although New York City’s every bench and corner served as a “thin place” for me, I am beginning to find value in being away from “thin places”. This value comes as a “green flash” in the form of images that flash right before consciousness slips into sleep and dreams that one can barely recall because the mind is too exhausted to remember anything. Images that don’t make sense because one is too tired from the paradox of motion within a standstill state. If “thin places” offer what constitutes as twilight, that awe-inspiring time in between day and night and night and day, then non-“thin places” are the “green flash” seen by only those who leave everything they have ever known to create something truly original. There are no rewards for being strong, that much is true, strength is its own reward. However, it requires valor beyond imagination to last day after day to see the green flash and live to tell others about it so they don’t stop seeking.

 

After I wished my father “Happy Father’s Day” today he said, “Remember, Picasso.”

I replied I didn’t care for Picasso.

And he reminded me about his earlier works.

Then he said, “Remember what Picasso said: “The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.”

 

What I have experienced in non-“thin places” makes as little sense as what the “thin places” offer and now that I have the complete picture perhaps I can truly create a Drood-kind of story about how it really was and is and can be.

Still Sundays: “mechanics of understanding”

March 2, 2014.

I recently read an article about Carl Sagan, “Star Power”, by Joel Achenbach in the March issue of the Smithsonian magazine.  The article discusses the revival of the show “Cosmos” as it coincides with availability of all of Carl Sagan’s papers—all 798 boxes—at the Library of Congress. The show “Cosmos” is back much in part to Seth MacFarlane, creator of the television show “Family Guy” because he believes most of the science available on mainstream television, if any, is “fluff”.

The article quotes a note from Carl Sagan’s 1981 file after “Cosmos” was a big hit, “I think I’m able to explain things because understanding wasn’t entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand. I can remember what I  had to do to figure it out. The very brilliant ones figure it out so fast they never see the mechanics of understanding”  (Achenbach, Joel.  “Star Power”, Smithsonian. March 2014: 68. Print.).

This part from the article took me to the vast universe within myself. When it comes to certain things, especially people, time, and cities, there is so much I understand so quickly, that it makes no sense to others. This, trying to translate what I understand, has been a struggle for me ever since I was little. As I grew older, I realized it was better to allow the natural course of events “show” at the mercy of Time instead of “tell” based on my understanding. I don’t think it makes me or others like me “brilliant” per se, when it comes to higher math, I have to show my work to understand it. Moreover, some of us who do figure things out faster, regardless of previous experiences, do see the “mechanics of understanding”, it is just that there is no medium to per se communicate these mechanics. That being said, there are times when I am so convinced of the merits of what I understand that I am compelled to translate it all, step-by-step, to others.

Perhaps that is why music is a phenomenon. It transports us to the “mechanics of understanding”.

Despite not being an opera aficionado, I recently learned that Italian composer Giacomo Puccini of “Madama Butterfly” wrote, “The conscious, purposeful appropriation of one’s own soul forces is the supreme secret.” Puccini believed that he “would not have been given desire without also being given the ability to create whatever it was that would come forth” through him.  

 

I shared this article, “Ten States Where Income Equality Has Soared” about the impact of gentrification with some friends. One friend replied, “Class division hurts my heart. This is NOT the land of the free.”   This is where my “mechanics of understanding” fail me. I don’t understand why there are people who can only feel good about themselves at the expense of others not having enough. How do we fix this? Can we? It’s existed as long as we can trace back recorded history. Then I reflect about what is going on in Ukraine and Pakistan and I feel justified to say, “At least it is not that bad in the United States. Not yet, anyway.” Is that the new standard of freedom?

 

A fascinating article in The New Yorker titled “In the Sontag Archives” by biographer Benjamin Moser states that his recent research led him to discover that “Susan Sontag wrote seventeen thousand one hundred and ninety-eight e-mails, which will soon be available for consultation on a special laptop. I was given a special viewing at the library, and the experience gave me a queasiness that I have never felt during the years I have conducted historical research. […] To read someone’s e-mail is to see her thinking and talking in real time.”

17,198 emails. That is nothing for most of us given the internet is only 20 years old. Most of us have many accounts and many more emails than that.

I think about this a lot. After I am gone, what of my emails? They are just a record of passing moments. What can a moment tell us? I was thinking about leaving California on February 9th and on February 15th I found a new sense of purpose here. All of a sudden I am invigorated by unprecedented opportunity for reforming education and closing the literacy gap. The emails before February 14th will give you a bleak picture that will make you question everything you knew about me. The emails since might reflect I am high on rosebuds. I think the more we digitally share, the less others really know us. I once wanted to tweet: “I am so spoiled by love.” I didn’t. That means so many different things to so many. I prefer communicating over explaining. Social media is no longer a platform for communicating authentically, even with the best of intentions.

The article continues, “Sontag wrote that photographs are as much about what they don’t show as what they do, that what we see depends on where the photographer places the frame. Her journals reveal a love of statistics and astonishing facts, but the moral center of her writing (about photography, about war, about politics) is an insistence that what we see is not always what we get.”

Benjamin Moser ends the article with this poignant thought which sums up our digital age:

“Now our lives are increasingly lived on the computer. The amount of data on our smartphones is far more than she could have imagined in her lifetime, though she died less than a decade ago. For anyone who believes in the value of historical research, hard drives, like those preserved at U.C.L.A., will be the locus of that research. Will they end up revealing more about our lives—or, by revealing too much, ultimately reveal less?”

I think they will reveal much less as we continue. 

We do all sorts of things, and say all sorts of things, and listen to all sorts of things, for all sorts of reasons. We remain unpredictable. I never thought I would but I deleted my What’s App account after Fakebook bought it. This saddened me given it was my primary way of keeping in touch with friends overseas but it had to be done.

 

I don’t believe in seasons. I think a winter can last one whole year and there can be three summers in 365 days. March 2013 to yesterday was one such winter. I will just borrow Lemony Snicket’s series title to sum up the longest winter which lasted March to March: a series of unfortunate events. This past year, despite all the wonderful things that came my way, demanded so much out of me due to work. This will no longer be the case. It finally feels like a new year.

Despite everything, I still managed to finish Collection of Auguries. Not just that, also around February 14th, I learned that Publisher’s Weekly decided to review my book and gave me a review that made me feel like I had finally reached the shore. This is not just because it was a review from PW, it is because I could feel that whoever read it felt the life-force in the stories. It was an affirmation for me: stories are living things.

 

When the topography of the land of the free no longer feels familiar no matter where you go, freedom becomes a moment-to-moment undertaking. Freedom becomes standing up for truth in meetings; freedom becomes refusing work without compensation, freedom becomes sticking to your values in a digital age where “selfie” is part of the value-system. Freedom becomes praying for rain because geologists have given up on a solution to the drought-like conditions in parts of the southwest.

After a year of feeling that stillness may not exist in equal parts throughout the world, you finally land on the shore, bone-dry from being tossed in the ocean, ready to redefine stillness. You are humbled that all your previous definitions were such mechanical understandings and the very reason you made it, as you complained there is no stillness, is because of an infinite reservoir from where Stillness pours. You understand that the very reason you, or anyone, makes it through winter, is love. When we are grounded, we sense that love as stillness, quietude even. When we are not, it is always love that which carries us back to our human interpretation of stillness.

The horizon looks promising despite the uncertainty, bad news around the world, and empty-calories in most internet content. As long as there are those who want something more, the way will be carved by a love for something more than oneself, the very love that carries us to the shore.

If you have a desire to change the world, you also have the ability.

I leave you with “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry:

Communicate slowly. Live/ a three-dimensional life;/ stay away from screen.  

And words fromHow to Write Poetryby my good friend, poet, singer, artist, and kindred spirit, V. Shayne Fredrick:

live and give others the freedom of life.

2014: Sublime Flux

I wish Isaac Asimov were still alive.  He is not but I am.

He predicted robots and computers in 2014. I predict we won’t even be able to decipher humans from robots by the end of 2020 if we continue to teach according to the current education “reform” movement.

I have a favorite gift from the holidays. I was given this very comfortable sweatshirt that says the following in the front: “Those who can, TEACH. Those who can’t, pass laws about education.”

I will wear it on those days I think I can do more with my law degree.

 

I saw the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Besides the blatant advertising throughout the movie, I enjoyed it very much. I wish Roger Ebert were still alive. I wanted to read his take on the movie, to give us more than the movie ever intended and the movie would be even better for it.  I wonder what he would have written about the scene when the photographer, character played by Sean Penn, says to Walter Mitty, something along the lines, If I really like a moment, I won’t capture it.

How many photos of our sky, our food, and our selves can we take?

I feel like the advent of social media was a bad prank by bored kids (which it was) and despite resisting Fakebook, I fell for the rest of it. I feel dirty. I just want to hit refresh, restart, and delete everything. Most of the articles I read online all sound as if the writers/bloggers are working in the same room with the same words and the their brains are networked to think alike. Every “alternative” opinion is in reference to something in the vacuum of the Internet at large. I have renewed my subscriptions to several magazines.  Hopefully, people will catch on by 2016.

 

I read an article in The Atlantic titled “Make Time for Awe.” I don’t really remember the content. No awe in that. I predict I will read a 100 more such articles before the year is over.

If you have to “make” time for awe then the awe train swished by you. When I have been awed I have pulled over on the side of the road, I have reached out to a complete stranger without thinking twice about it, I have grabbed my phone to call someone and tell him or her to “watch/read/see this now!”  Maybe now our threshold of awe requires more thanks to immunity developed through various digital vitamins, so not much awes us like it once did and we must indeed make time for it.

Usually when my core spins in awe, I have not been able to “do” or “say” anything: no words, no sharing, nothing. Just a big, silent mouth created with the crayon of my imagination that gets filed inside the unorganized library of humility.

 

2010 is when I began writing and sharing here quite regularly. Here is my reflection of the year 2009.  What can I say that hasn’t already been said? 2013 felt like a boxing match. Is it still winning if you are smiling, holding your hands up high inside the boxing gloves, with all teeth missing?

I had three weeks of vacation. Yes, it’s true. In this day and age, solid three weeks of lots of jolly-nothing. It was one of the best vacations I have had and most wonderful time with family. These three weeks, which are almost over, were earned after NINE months of working 12-hour days, 6 days a week. Everyone tells me this is just how it is. I continue to refuse to believe that. I will carve another way.

 

The other night I had a dream I was sitting on a wall like Humpty Dumpty except I had a less oval shape and my legs could touch the ground. I wore an ugly crown,  made of cardboard, which didn’t fit me quite right, that had written on it, “Literary Dumpling.” I know this dream was weaved after having had a conversation earlier that day where I had retorted, “And how exactly does one go about becoming a ‘literary darling’?” and then I had added, “I never hated the word darling more than when placed next to the word ‘literary’.”

Words can be so disappointing.

So, in my dream, I thought dumpling meant fat and I didn’t want to gather “high literary cholesterol” and I was trying to take that crown off of myself and make myself fall like humpty dumpty so I would wake up or at least break the crown but I couldn’t fall because my feet touched the ground.

I woke up thinking: why can’t I fall when I can put myself together again?!

 

2009 marked a year of losses.

And beginnings.

Small ones.

 

2013 marked a year of challenges.

And opportunities.

Small ones.

 

I don’t really know what to say about 2013 other than the fact that I had only one goal and it was to make my collection of stories available for purchase. It is said to define what constitutes as success as early as possible at the onset of any project. I succeeded: you can now even buy it on Amazon. Considering everything that stood in the way, I will recall 2013 as having triumphed despite it all. The cherry limeade at the end of the boxing match is this review by Lucy Pollard-Gott. I have received two wonderful emails about this review and I am so grateful for her finely crafted thoughts and inviting new readers’ energies that reverberated because of it. I couldn’t ask for more.

Except…

That collection happened because I did nothing but write for two years, which would not have been possible without my family’s support, akin to folks who go get an MFA or writing residency. 2013 taught me that I have absolutely no idea how to carve time for writing— which is a full time discipline, there existed a method despite my wildly random days— and working in a very demanding education sector that I left once upon a time because it felt counter-productive to actually educating.

The psychologist Edward B. Titchener in his book 1928 A Textbook of Psychology, explained déjà vu as caused by a person having a brief glimpse of an object or situation, before the brain has completed “constructing” a full conscious perception of the experience. Such a “partial perception” then results in a false sense of familiarity.

Here is to hoping 2014 is actually new, not some counterfeit version of years gone by. And if it is going to be as challenging—which is fine, for such is the nature of life—-I would like to be navigating unfamiliar terrain so it transforms into an adventure instead of a boxing match.

I leave you with John Steinbeck’s words from East of Eden: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

I am excited about embracing and being simply good.