31. final reflections on writing daily for a month

Today marks the final day of the month, and in turn, the end of a resolution to post daily on this blog through the month of January. I write this post in Bonn, Germany, a few hours before heading to a work meeting. This is one of the few occasions in the past thirty days during which I did not write from the desk in my bedroom, my little silver french press beside me, the Latin church beaming at me from across the street, and my fingers racing across the keyboard to beat the rising sun. It feels strange to end this endeavor nearly an ocean away from where I started it. Perhaps there is something metaphorical about this, with the crossing of physical space representing the crossing of new thresholds.

Some days, these posts took me three hours to write. I was so intent on telling the whole story that I would wake up at 5 a.m., determined to finish before going to work. Other days, posts came together in an hour with no need to extend beyond 800 words. On a couple exceptional days like yesterday, time was not on my side, and I put together whatever I could in twenty minutes. Every day, regardless of word count and time taken to complete the post, was instructive. I shared mid-month reflections on my process a couple weeks ago. Today, I would like to share a couple more lessons I learned along the way.   

Writing what you know is as liberating as it is limiting. Publishing a post everyday helps build a habit but prevents you from exploring unfamiliar themes and new writing formats. I chose to focus this month on life stories that I know like the back of my hand, and books that I have read so recently that their plots and lessons remained on the tip of my tongue. This choice was strategic: We are the experts of our own lives. It does not require much research to write what you know, especially when you write about knowledge that comes from your experiences. I wanted to focus on the act of writing this month, and doing so daily. I therefore stuck to topics that were readily accessible to me. It was liberating to take away the pressure (and additional step) of imagining an alternate reality, and then bringing it to life on a page. My sole responsibility was to render reality as I knew it into poignant stories and aesthetically pleasing images painted from words.

Yet, I started feeling confined toward the end of the month by the task of producing yet another episode of my life. Sometimes, it felt as though I was mining the depths of my memory to find a stone that was beautiful enough to justify the effort of polishing dust from its surface. The strategy of posting daily worked for thirty-one days, enough to get me into the habit of writing every morning. I am looking forward to both continuing my habit of writing everyday, and not having the pressure of posting what I wrote that day on the blog. The latter will allow me the space I need to take time researching topics outside of my experience and to experiment with long-form writing and perhaps even fiction.

– When developing a habit and trying something new, kindly ask your inner critic to please take a vacation. There were certainly moments in the past four weeks when I wondered if my writing was good enough to bother sharing with the world. It was new for me to produce words with so much frequency. I also experimented with poetry for the first time, and I somehow mustered enough courage to perform at a spoken word slam. My posts this month has been far from perfect. The piece of poetry I recited a couple nights ago resonated deeply with me, but was perhaps opaque to the crowd of strangers in the audience. None of this matters. My goal for the month was to try, in earnest, to develop a writing practice. I could not have done that if I let my inner critic silence me.

The days came when I compared my work to that of more established writers and felt wholly inadequate in their shadows. But I reminded myself that nobody begins as an expert in their craft. Innate talent can only take one so far, and after a short while, practice begins to make the difference between good and not-as-good writing. So I sent my inner critic packing. She would have never allowed me the audacity of confidence and faith required to keep practicing. I will let the inner critic back into my life now that I feel more comfortable with myself and my writing. This time, though, I will limit the self-critique to healthy doses that refine my voice, not stifle it.

* * *

For those of you who made it this far, thank you for joining me! You kept me going and held me accountable whenever I felt tired or uninspired. These posts have been selfishly for me, to satisfy my hunger and to feed my development. I can only hope that you got something out of your efforts as a reader.

30. departures

This post will have to be a bit rushed, as I am sitting at the Zain lounge in Queen Alia International Airport with one of my colleagues. Perhaps it’s a good thing to practice writing very quickly once in a while. Here we are, sipping cappuccinos and clicking away at our laptops, mindlessly taking our hands away from the keyboard every few minutes to snack on dates and cookies.

We have twenty minutes till boarding for our flight to Germany, where we have a strategy workshop for work this week. I am very excited to see a new country! I have been a bad traveler this time and failed to plan for anything during my time in Bonn and Berlin. I am hoping that my strategy of going with the flow will serve me well rather than backfire.

Luckily, our arrangements have been mostly taken care of for our meeting in Bonn. I will be taking a few days afterward to visit a dear friend that I met in Morocco, crossed paths with in Jordan, and now lives in Berlin. I know that I will be in good hands, so I am not too worried about my lack of preparation, or the fact that I haphazardly packed my bag half an hour before catching a taxi to the airport.

It strikes me that this has been a year of so many departures. I remember before coming to Jordan, I took travel quite seriously, especially international travel. Long lists were drawn up, extensive Google searches were made, maps were scrawled onto notebooks in case I found myself in a situation without internet or data. There was the anxiety that I would not know how to get around an unfamiliar airport, or to communicate my specific needs in the case of a baggage mixup or other minor emergency. No longer do these extensive preparations feel necessary. I have grown accustomed to the rhythm of arrival and departure.

I have been privileged enough to get used to this coming and going so frequently. I remind myself this as I zip my carry-on bag and head for my gate: Mobility is not something to take for granted.

29. dance

I have never been much of a dancer. This is despite my efforts. When I was very little, before I can remember, my mother signed me up for tap dancing classes. There are some cute home videos of me with clicking shoes, prancing around a mirrored room with hardwood floors. This did not last more than a year or two.

I returned from my dancing hiatus in third grade and took up hip hop. I had fun at my classes, though I remember feeling anxious about memorizing the choreography for our recital. We were going to perform Bow Wow’s “Basketball.” I loved the snappy bass and the staccato rhythm, the women like a choir chiming in between verses. A few weeks before showtime, they took our measurements for the sequined belly shirts we would wear on stage.

The news of our costumes, and how much they would reveal, finished me. My fears were not driven by a wish to protect my modesty. Rather, they came from a place of self consciousness. At nine years old, I had already come to understand that my body was not the type to display. It was not like the ones celebrated in magazines or television shows. I was somewhat of a chubby kid and painfully aware of it. I did not tell anyone the truth about my sudden aversion to dance; I simply dropped out of the class.

If I could go back in time I would tell myself to stick it out, to dance my heart out, to wear that belly shirt in pride. I would tell myself that I am beautiful, yes, but more importantly, that I worked too damn hard to let toxic societal norms stop me from getting on that stage. Alas.

Over a decade later, dance has returned to my life in unexpected ways. I had a strong urge to perform with one of the student groups during my junior year of college. I cannot be certain, but perhaps the urge to dance came as a wish to vindicate my third grade self. Luckily, the classical Indian dance team took me in. I had no qualifications to speak of, other than occasionally attending Zumba class. My ability to coordinate movement simultaneously between arms and legs was limited, at best.

I learned at practices in the basement of Ida Noyes Hall that I was terribly stiff and shy about the movements of my body. When I was told to accent certain postures with emotion, or to adopt a certain facial expression, I would break into laughter to hide my nerves. It is scary to move expressively in this world. The women in the group were more patient with me than I deserved, especially given all their years of training.

They gave me a real role in the performance. They trusted that through many hours of practice I would eventually embody the movements and the spirit underlying them. That trust was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I had no choice but to become the potential that they saw in me. Surely, I made a few errors on performance day and remained a novice among experts. But I took up space on that stage, and that was itself an accomplishment.

Here in Amman, I recently started taking contemporary dance classes. The instructor guides the first half of class without any choreography. She encourages us not to dance as dancers. She tells us to dance as the thing that occupies our body. In her class, dance is not so much the aggregate of moves set to music. Rather, it is a channel through which we learn to feel more at home in our bodies. I like this idea. I think my third grade self might have liked this, too.

28. resilient, not disaster-proof

There will be days when you don’t wake up feeling excited to write, or even to start the day.

Inspiration will not lift you out of bed. You will find the warmth of your pillow infinitely more alluring than the click of the keyboard. When you finally wrestle down inertia and manage to rise, you will make your coffee automatically. There will be no sense of wonder or contemplating how it looks like black silk as you pour it into a mug.

You will drink two cups and still feel tired.

You will not seek meaning in the sidewalks that lead to work, the vegetable market, the park where you recharge during lunch breaks. You will most likely be tangled in a loop of unhelpful thoughts, the storm in your mind sweeping you off the ground beneath your feet. You will feel anger and sadness, or other emotions that make you uncomfortable.

These days will come. You will eventually encounter pain, suffering, and loss. This is true whether you have made good or bad choices.

When hurt comes knocking at your door, avoid blaming yourself for not doing enough to keep it away. The best you can do is accept its presence. Maybe you can even allow it into your home for a cup of tea. It is, after all, a guest like any other. 

Hurt comes for all of us simply because we exist in this world. In Becoming Wise (p. 252), Krista Tippett reminds us: “All of our solutions will eventually outlive their usefulness. We will make messes, and disruption we do not cause or predict will land on us. This is the drama of being alive.”

You might fail at something. You may have a way of coping with loss or organizing your daily routine that has carried you through many years, and suddenly it doesn’t anymore. You might have a lapse in judgement that carries consequences. A relative or loved one may pass away. Several of them will, actually, through the passage of years. You could find yourself in the midst of a natural disaster or political violence. You might go to the doctor one day and walk out with a diagnosis that alters the course of your life. These are all terribly painful things, and it is terribly likely that at least one of them will happen to you.

There are no ways of living wholeheartedly that will allow you to avoid hurt. Brene Brown has discussed this brilliantly in The Gifts of Imperfection. She warns us that the only way to avoid hurt is by numbing ourselves. There are many distractions and painkillers at our disposable. But once we numb ourselves to hurt, we become numb to everything else: joy, curiosity, eager anticipation.

I think the best we can do on days when pain seeks a place in our homes is to remember our resilience. Returning to Tippett, I like how she has described this concept:

“Resilience honors the unromantic reality of who we are and how we are… [It is] a way of being that can meet the range of emotions and experiences, light and dark, that add up to a life. Resilience is at once proactive, pragmatic, and humble. It knows it needs others. It doesn’t overcome failure so much as transmute it, integrating it into the reality that evolves” (p. 252).

How do we cultivate resilience? To begin, we need to get comfortable with adversity and vulnerability. We need to find balance between loving and caring for oneself, and seeking love and help from others. We cannot do resilience alone, and resilience cannot be done for us. It takes practice, just like waking up every day to write. It is a form of muscle memory we develop, just like riding a bike. Whenever the going gets rough, it’s an opportunity for us to refine our resilience. These are the things I try to tell myself on days like these.

27. who will be next?

Chicago in the midst of October: Winter stretches her frigid arms, waving them to rid the prickles of so much rest. She wraps them slowly around each corner of the city. The corner upon which I walk is a few miles south of downtown, on the western border that runs up against the suburbs. I am accompanied by two middle school girls as we stroll around their neighborhood, a day out shared between mentor and mentees.

A mango vendor on 26th Street persists even as the weather changes. He sells slices of the bright orange fruit sprinkled with chili pepper and lime in clear plastic cups. I consider buying one, but the girls grab each of my hands and propel me toward La Baguette. We maneuver the narrow aisles of the bakery, using tongs to stack an aluminum tray high with dense, icing-laden pastries that cost only dimes each. Altogether the bill comes to one dollar and twenty cents. The woman at the cash register wishes us a good day: que tengan un buen dia. We carry our white paper bags that have already gathered translucent patches from the buttery treats, and walk in the direction of their homes.

We pass by mothers pushing strollers and gripping the mitten paws of toddlers bundled in so many layers. We pass by the Dunkin Donuts where blue-collar workers invigorate their tired bodies with caffeine, sugar, and a few minutes of conversation. We pass by murals that depict the Virgin de Guadalupe and protagonists of Mexican folklore. We pass by graffiti, some of it making an explicit political statement, much of it unintelligible. We reach the street upon which the two girls live.

Further down the street, I notice a home with front steps bursting in color and light. Bouquets of white roses and pink carnations rest against the cardboard image of a boy. He has the signs of a mustache, and looks no more than a few years shy of twenty. Glass votives adorned with saints contain candles of bright red wax, and are arranged in a semicircle around the vigil. The girls see my confusion and explain, “He died last week. Someone shot him.” Their faces furrow at the brow as they tell me this, but they betray no further signs of distress. This is not an uncommon enough occurrence to them, one that would warrant outward signs of shock. I try to offer a few words of condolences that they brush off like crumbs as they gather their pastries.

We promise to see each other soon and from there we part ways. As I walk to the bus station, I pass a brick wall wall covered with the names of men scrawled in paint. In the center, the anguished artist has posed a question in bubble letters: Who will be next?

26. an unsubstantiated theory of time

We enter the world with our arms reaching at anything they can grasp: a mother’s breast, a set of keys dangling from a father’s fingers, the invisible matter that we don’t yet know to call air. We take and we are given and so quickly we grow. One day, another millimeter. Tick marks on a wall tracking height show exponential gains in the matter of months. We keep stretching outward, to the sun and hidden light of other objects, with no sense of time. We fail to grasp that it is always passing, how it slips through our greedy, curious hands.

Structure is imposed into our lives, maybe through pre-school or just kindergarten. We play and learn, we are introduced to the concept of time. We are given pictures of clocks with movable hands push-pinned at the center. We swirl them around in wonder, still not yet grasping what the evenly spaced tick marks indicate.

In elementary school the concept of time begins to crystallize. Slowly it moves from blurry abstraction to sharp-edged reality. We read the clock and it means something. An hour has passed, two, three, four; twenty more and it will be a whole day. Some of us begin to wear plastic watches adorned with Pokemon creatures and Disney princesses. We barely glance at them, but feel somehow cooler with our timepieces. Adults begin to ask us what we will do when we grow up. Gleefully we oblige them. The responses roll off our tongues without a moment of thought, already conditioned by what we see the old people around us doing. Where are you gonna go? College! What are you gonna be? A lawyer! What are you gonna play? Basketball!

High school comes, and around junior year many of us learn to exploit this strange thing called time. Each hour of the day has a purpose: homeroom, biology, calculus, world literature, lunch, American history, and so on. Some of the hours move fast if the subject matter interests us, or if we have a sweetheart to hold hands with during the break between classes. Some of the hours drag and we fight to keep our eyes open. Many of us stay after the final bell for yet another two or three structured hours, conditioning our bodies with weights and endless sprints assigned by a tyrannical coach, or teaching our hands to play notes that appear on a page and issue from the horn of a trumpet. Our efforts are awarded with leather jackets adorned with pins and velvet letters and the school mascot. We are given incentives to keep using our time well.

Then we jump into college and time does something strange. It moves both fast and slow. Each year feels wholly distinct, each semester unique. We are fully immersed in these short-term goals that feel so far off; this honors class I can take next fall if I do well in the spring, that fellowship I can apply for my junior year, this job I am reaching for by end of graduation. Each year a new epiphany on what we envision to be the linear track along which we become somebody.  Days so jam-packed they pass in the blink of an eye, and yet the years do not blur in our memory; each one stretches only to the boundaries of the academic calendar.

Adulthood comes as a cliff from which we are pushed. The years begin to lose the fine-tuned definition of university time. No longer do we sense each 365-day cycle to contain the same abundance and potential for complete transformation. We are taught to try and stay put for a year or two or more in our first job. It is scary at first, to do the same thing day in and day out, even if we love that thing, and the eight hours of the work day pass by painfully slow. We are told that we will get used to it, that 730 days can go by so quickly, there is no need to start reaching now for the next thing. At first we don’t believe these words. Within six months we are living them. How did half a year pass? One year? Two? Did I graduate three years ago now? 

We wake up and pour our coffee; we dim the lights and softly encourage our bodies to recharge for the next day; we repeat. We cycle through so many tired Monday mornings, so many Friday evenings filled with guilty pleasures. Somewhere down the line we learn that a year or two or five is not so long to tolerate ambiguity, that making radical change from month to month requires so much energy we would rather save for other pursuits. Decisions are stretched over longer periods of time that feel half as short.

The years from 22 to 25 speed by like a train moving at 100 miles per hour. From 26 to 29 we get nervous about birthdays. After our thirtieth cycle around the sun many of us stop counting. We make big choices and live with them. Those choices affect others and we gather dependents. We put ourselves on autopilot to keep the one million plates we have accumulated spinning fast enough that they don’t crash to the earth. Forty comes, then fifty, they start calling us over the hill. We become the big ones asking the little ones what they will be when they grow up. We slow down and yet roll ever faster down that proverbial hill. We wait patiently for whatever comes next and accept its inevitability. We stop reaching and grasping and wanting. We let time take us. We come to understand it was never ours for the taking.

 

25. a few books by Arab & Arab American authors

The ‘noteworthy fiction’ table at the local Barnes and Noble was my favorite area of four square feet in Michigan. I could spend hours skimming the titles, reading back covers, deliberating over which of the titles to choose as my companion for the next few weeks.

As I entered college and began studying Arabic, I began to reflect on my literary choices. Why weren’t there ever any Arab or Arab American authors on the ‘noteworthy fiction’ table? Surely they exist. And they must write at least some stories worthy of note.

In Chicago, the Seminary Co-Op became my preferred bookstore. I felt my way through the labyrinth of shelves stacked to capacity with more uncommon titles. I sought out last names that indicated some sort of tie to the region I had been studying through language and connected to by heritage. Over five years, I had curated a respectable collection of books on my own shelf, with authors whose literary voices I didn’t have the chance to hear growing up.

I am excited to share a few highlights from that shelf with you. Below you’ll find a list of some of my favorite books by Arab and Arab American authors. Maybe you’ll get a chance to read some of them in 2018, or perhaps you’ll have favorites you’d like to add to the list. In any case, I would love to hear about your engagement with these titles. Happy reading!

A Map of Home – Randa Jarrar
This novel centers around the protagonist, Nidali, and her family as conflict drives them from Kuwait to Egypt, and then the United States. Nidali’s voice is so wonderfully fresh and sharp, and I often found myself laughing at her narrations. This story is interlaced with many themes, from displacement to the density of family relationships, but to me was ultimately about growing up. 

The Moor’s Account – Leila Lailami
This story is a fictionalized account of an historical event. It is written as the memoir of Mustafa, a Moroccan man who was sold as a slave after an unfortunate twist of fate. He is renamed Estevanico after being brought to Spain. He is then selected to accompany a group of explorers on an expedition to the New World, or modern-day Florida. It is full of adventure and exciting plot turns, while also diving into the dynamics of slavery and colonialism from a systematically silenced perspective. 

Lifted by the Great Nothing – Karim Dimechkie
This novel is both tragedy and comedy. Max tells the story of growing up in suburbia with his Lebanese father, who has attempted to give his son what he imagines to be a truly “American” childhood. But in the process of trying to protect Max, the father has spun an intricate web of lies. This sets Max on a journey to seek the truth. The relationships in this story are saturated with deep love and empathy, yet also grave misunderstandings.

I, the Divine – Rabih Alameddine
This is the story of a Lebanese woman who finds tentative peace in self-imposed exile in the United States, told entirely in first chapters. Sarah, the protagonist, attempts and re-attempts to tell the story of her life, and with all these false starts, a plot-laden narrative unfolds. The author of this novel is one of my all-time favorites. If you end up enjoying this one, I would highly recommend you also check out The Hakawati and An Unnecessary Woman. 

The Return – Hisham Matar
In this literary memoir, Matar tells the story of his search for understanding after the disappearance of his father during the Qaddafi regime. Matar also deals with the pain of exile and how it has shaped his identity, beautifully rendering attachments and relationships in Libya, New York, and London.

De Niro’s Game – Rawi Hage
I read this novel in a class taught by the brilliant Ghenwa Hayek, called “Narrating Conflict in Modern Arabic Literature.” This particular story is set in Lebanon during the civil war and told from the perspective of a young man who struggles to understand his place in it all. He tries to make a living for himself and his family, all while pursuing meaning in the senseless conflict and destruction that surrounds him. It is also a story about friendship and the different paths that we take.

The Hidden Light of Objects – Mai Al-Nakkib
A sparkling collection of short stories that stood out to me as tenderly evoked vignettes more than fully-formed narratives. I don’t remember the plots of the stories so much as how they made my feel; curious, filled with wonder, ready to seek meaning in the little moments that comprise mundane lives.

The Woman from Tantoura – Radwa Ashour
I saw this title in a charming bookstore in London, on the edge of Baker Street that leads to Hyde Park. I was drawn to the cover, which carried the name of my second-year Arabic instructor. Turns out she had translated this book! It follows the life of Ruqayya, who is born in a village of Palestine but displaced after the events of 1948. Ruqayya and her family are scattered around the world, but the events of the novel after the invasion of her hometown Tantoura unfold in Lebanon, Jordan, and the Gulf. Her voice is mature and measured, simple and frank, yet she does not shy away from evoking the bottomless pain of loss.

The Corpse Exhibition – Hassan Blassim
This is a collection of short stories that captivate the reader despite the disturbing images they evoke of Iraq during war and American invasion. His work recalls Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his use of magical realism and absurd treatment of violence. I would not recommend this title for readers with difficulty stomaching gruesome scenes. For those who can better tolerate such stories, I would say the challenge of reading this collection is instructive, especially for those of us who have been privileged enough not to experience war firsthand.

American War – Omar Al-Akkad
This dystopian novel imagines what America would look like if it split info a civil war spurred by political factionalism, regional disagreements about dependence on fossil fuels, and the imperial interests of other global superpowers. It is beautifully told and at the same time frightening, given the realities of climate change and political polarization.