Mental Drought

Saturday, September 10, 2016

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I woke up and it was loud in my head.
I woke and the heaviness that sat on my chest prevented me from rising.
I woke and it was silent as a grave -
The smoke curling upward from a fire recently extinguished.
I woke to find myself on a bed of rustling papers, covered in tiny handwriting;
When I looked closer, it was just an endless list of names.
The heaviness sat on my chest and prevented me from rising.
I woke and I woke and when I woke again,
It was night.
                    (a poem of mine, inspired after days of mental drought)

Everyday for the past two months, I feel like I have been fighting fires.

The creative drought I have been in is pretty unsurprising, given the amount of hours I have been putting in to my day jobs and recuperating in between. I've been trying to be more gentle with myself and yet more disciplined, which is a tightrope act in itself. I struggled to eke out a short story in time for a deadline in August and I have been teaching some writing workshops in the interim, but it doesn't feel quite the same to steal these moments. Compared to last year when I was running around on my own creative journey, I feel like I'm not devoting "enough" to the craft. It was comforting to recently hear from other writers about their own experiences with this. They reminded me that it's a fiction in itself (one meant for people with immense privilege) to have the time to write without any of these other nagging thoughts about paying the bills and feeding the cat. But it's easier to be up in your head with anxiety about the work you're not getting done when there's so much other life keeping you away.

A few days ago, I picked up a collection of Wislawa Szymborska poems. I admired her work in college though I learned about her only after she had passed away. It was on a day when I was playing hooky from all my responsibilities -- technically it was a day off, but one filled with the self-filling task list that overwhelmed me until I just had to escape the house. Sitting in a nearby pizza shop, I read her Nobel speech and teared up at the part about inspiration:

"When I'm asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners - and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."

Though I may not have a lot of words to show for these past few months, I have been exploring that curiosity. I've been learning about cheese making with Harold McGee, playing tabla, getting trained on evaluation tools and drug rehab referrals, swimming at the local pool... Nothing is too large or too small. It's all too easy for me to forget that this is an essential part of my creative process -- a fallow season before the buds come up. In the meantime, I must cultivate gratitude even when it's uncomfortable or hard to see.

Convulsions, Premonitions

Sunday, July 10, 2016

I feel like I have had a certain conversation on repeat for the past few weeks, but I can’t stop myself. The words are there right under my skin.

“it is this time
 that matters

 it is this history
 I care about

 the one we make together
 as a lame cat on the loose
 or quick as kids freed by the bell
 or else as strictly
 as only life must mean
 a once upon a time”
        -- June Jordan, “On A New Year’s Eve”

I have sunk deep into this text. There is an awful but necessary type of witnessing that happens there. In June Jordan’s poetry, we hear clearly the continuity of violence and the preciousness of human life. In Melissa Harris Perry’s note, we read raw grief. I’ve curated myself away from Facebook posts, away from mainstream news, and have instead immersed myself in artistic responses and music. I have been reading aloud poetry by friends and strangers to my empty room, finding myself too often in tears. I want to have the energy to organize and make meaning but the part of me on loop keeps circling around and asking the same unanswerable questions. Why? What is the point of continuing forward?

The majority of my work is intangible. It’s about making connections between people and resources, people and ideas, people and other people. Even my writing work, the most concrete and visible part of the process, requires so much connective energy that I often feel overwhelmed by its weight. It’s very easy for me to feel too much – whatever that means – and yet at the same time desire to compress it all into a short period of time and space.

I took great time for myself last year to process burnout. I took great time for myself to travel and make space for my writing practices. I took great time, and now I feel like it has disappeared. Dried up. Just a few weeks ago, visibility took prime focus in my life. Now there is an impulse to fold in on myself and hibernate till the long winter is over. But really, when is it ever over?

Outside there are new plants reaching towards the sun. My immediate safety is not under threat -- a significant privilege. I’ve come off a month of extra shifts and moving at high speeds; what once felt productive now feels unsustainable. So I have been hardcore nesting and making my space as comfortable as possible, being selfish with the ways I use my time outside of work. I am consoled by my own gratitude for this life, for the reminder that we return to Allah’s light at the end of the journey, whenever that may be. It is our time to bear witness to those who have died and not turn away from the reality and the ritual of it. Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, Medina, and further. Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and…


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Project As[I]Am has re-opened its call for submissions! Submit your work by July 5th for a chance to be included in our issue, themed "Our Greatest Resource," on emotional labor and solidarity through love.

This week, I wanted to write about something completely mundane. I moved into my new apartment this week, putting everyone who helped me through hell. I started working on a bunch of fantastic spreadsheets this week. I interviewed young people about their experiences with arts programs...

But all of that got overshadowed by the obvious, by the tragedy that Orlando and hit our communities at large. I wrote a very personal piece about the experience of grief and media management over at CultureStrike, and I did two interviews about the incident as well. It was the only way that I felt useful, offering my words in place of anything more material. It still doesn't feel like enough. I mention it only briefly here because I have felt spent; it's worrying to me that on one level we are carving up every conceivable angle of the thing, but on the other the news cycle has already moved past it. It's a weird time to celebrate Pride. It's a weird time to forecast any sort of future...

In the past week, I also flew out to New York and attended the Kundiman writing retreat for Asian American writers -- perhaps because I was going through so many life transitions in the past month, it didn't fully register that I was going until I arrived in Newark off the red-eye and had to navigate my way into the city (hint: don't get stuck going the wrong direction on the AirTrain, it takes forever to get back). Little did I know that the retreat would be such a gift. It was so vital to me to bond with Asian Americans doing creative work and who have been doing creative work far longer than I have. Too often you have to hunt down Asian American literature in bookstores, and rarely do I feel connected to any sort of legacy. I walked away with not only a community of incredibly generous writing folk, but a long list of books to read all through the rest of the summer -- when I'm not furiously typing out my own additions to that canon, that is.

I'm leaving off this post with a few examples of my outlet writing for these past few weeks; though the form I wrestle with most is prose, I've been doing a poetry-a-day group for Ramadan as an outlet. Here are a few of my favorites from the month thus far:

Pantoum #1 
Bloodstained sheets, early morning,
Bound volume of poems,
Yellowed at the edge.
She carries it all with her.

Bound volumes of poems,
She never opens,
She carries it with her, always;
Reminding her of bloodied things.

She never opens,
Never tells the stories,
That remind her of bloodied things.
Instead, she carried them tightly bound.

She never does tell the stories,
Preferring to wash,
The things she carried tightly bound,
Bloodstained sheets, each early morning.

Red snake headwrap,
Blue round headphones,
Tongue perched on the edge of her mouth --
Nearly silent laughter.
Public places,
Work meetings;
She speaks volumes with her eyes.
At night, she performs ojhu alone at the sink,
In shorts with unshaved legs exposed,
Water on the tongue passing dangerously close,
To her throat.

He lived in a broken down house,
With peeling paint and shredded carpet,
Magazines and old newspapers taped up over the windows.

they come here to die, he said, and then repeated it.
I took a seat and listened.

at the end of their lives, he said,
they come here.
pale translucent skin,
running clumsily on broken legs.

Do they go quietly? I asked.
He didn’t seem to hear, or didn’t want to.
i just can’t ever put them out of their misery…

I watched one trail down the drain as he was speaking,
Turning, quivering, pausing,
The mere suggestion of an animal more than its flesh.

The Dramatic Everyday

Friday, June 3, 2016

Project As[I]Am has a call for submissions out right now! The topic is "Our Greatest Resource," on emotional labor, care, and love letters to yourself and others united for a more socially just world. Get your submissions in by June 4th -- we'd love to see your work!
These past few weeks have been a marriage of opposites. I’ve been trying to climb into a steady routine, but each time it’s been interrupted. Some things were expected, like feeling too tired to move after a full 8 days of work. Others were needlessly difficult, like my recent apartment search which ate up all the time I would have used playing with creative energy. And then along came loss.

I saw the closing of the old Hugo House, where I got my start as a 14-year-old writer. My own emotionality caught me off guard. During the last event, I wandered the halls and took pictures of the messages folks had put up. Tearful ones and frustrated ones, silly nonsense rhymes in the mix with professional artists sending the place off. I was reminded of all the years that I spent volunteering and taking classes there. Taking down the track lighting in the ceiling while standing on a wobbly ladder; being too timid to approach the mic during a performance class; people chuckling as my phone went off during a quiet writing exercise (at the time, the ring tone was my friend screaming “JORDAN, PICK UP THE PHONEEE!”). So, so many memories wrapped up in that space.

Then the last of my family’s cats died. Abby, the one whose kitten face is immortalized in a dusty photo on our fridge. Compared to the prognosis given a little over a year ago – that she would live only 3 more months with this kidney blockage, and in pain at that – she’s hung on for a good long time. She made a cross-state move to California, where my dad held her paws as she took her last breaths. The last cat that died is buried out in the backyard; though this cat's body is not here, the house feels even more full of ghosts.

It’s the mundane that unites it all. The dishes that must be washed, the laundry put away. The car driven, the apartment seen, the phone calls made – the spreadsheets too. The schedules updated and the to-do lists lengthened. This weekend, my best friend and I went through boxes of my old journals and got wrapped up in the nostalgia of letters sent as small children. What started out as a requisite task of moving turned into something more like a commemoration of the places and people who have been meaningful in my life.

It’s been therapeutic to shed what needs to be shed and to mourn what deserves to be mourned. I’m still losing a lot of sleep worrying about projects and next steps - but that, I suppose, is the complex blessing of being alive.

Lingering Images from NYC and Boston

Thursday, May 5, 2016

On the butter-yellow staircase at Poet’s House, I always take a moment to pause. The staircase leads on to a room I wish I had discovered earlier, with book nooks and wide tables overlooking the water. The building is in an unlikely spot down by Wall Street, and I got a chance to revisit only on my final day in NYC. At the tail end of two weeks of traveling, I was fried and needed somewhere to set down my overstuffed bags. There’s not much romance in NYC for me anymore, definitely not as much as when I left the Pacific Northwest 6 years ago. The energy tires me out rather than excites me. But the people who carve out space there still serve me a big helping of homesickness. I slept on their couches and took up their time, huffing through the grey labyrinth of city streets to meet for coffee, dinner, an event, or a stroll.

Snickerdoodles meant to be shaped like bears (from a cookie cutter courtesy of the Barnard Library!) ended up as balloons.
I got to Boston by pure luck. The bus manager let me get on the bus departing earlier and during the ride, by text message, I found out that my original bus broke down before leaving NYC. Boston is a place where folks I dearly love call home, and I regularly have to make a pilgrimage there. My clearest memories of my time spent there are very different than in bustling NYC. Rolling around on a black and white carpet well after programming hours, telling a close friend my abridged travel narrative. Making balloon bear cookies in my host’s well-equip kitchen (see photo above!).

You like to think you have some continuity in your decision-making, that it follows a thread which can be traced back. I think most of us make narratives of our experiences, not just the writers, and mine was that I left the Pacific Northwest – and this sounds bad – because it had little to offer me. I wanted to get far away so that I could find something “else out there,” and I don’t regret having done that. Even this return doesn’t feel prodigal. If I resonated with somewhere else, I would probably be living there. But what my younger self couldn’t see about Washington is now in view; I now feel like there are too many opportunities rather than too few. I am excited to put down roots and grow tall branches here. I am also excited to clear out old spaces and make a new home here. I’m just at the very beginning, but the path feels right.

Where in the World Is...?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Shaka - bracelets made out of shells, here shown in different stages of the cutting and carving process.

Currently, I’m in transit. I’m headed to New York to speak at the Muslim Protagonist conference at Columbia University. Just three weeks ago, I was in Dhaka living an entirely separate life. And for the interim it’s felt as if all of that melted away as soon as I left the landing strip.

Flying that long of a distance is really strange – your time perception gets messed up no matter how regularly they dim the lights and project a starscape up on the overhead bins. When I hit the airport in Dubai, the past 8 months already felt like an elaborate dream. And Dubai airport is not the place you go to get a grip on reality. I forced myself to sleep for the majority of the flight time – my special skill – but there was a painful few hours at the end of it where I couldn’t go into vampire mode. I sat there trying to imagine what going back to my childhood home would feel like after all these months (and even years) of being away.

I think the only thing that taught me is that it’s impossible to envision how you will feel in the future. I could easily picture the big kitchen island, but I couldn’t know how surreal it would feel to be there without my dad. How frustrated I would get when I didn’t know how to change the light fixtures; how many ghosts would creak up and down the hallways, making it impossible for me to go downstairs. The friends who I grew up with remarked on it instantly when they visited – the creeping emptiness now that my dad (and the cat) have moved south.

But that wasn’t apparent at first. When I landed at Seatac, it was just as if I had come home for another brief vacation. I still haven’t fully accepted that I will be living in Seattle full-time after coming back from NYC. I have barely processed how fast things have moved. In the past two weeks, I’ve accepted 2 part-time jobs, submitted several pieces, and hosted a writing workshop at Hugo House on writing complex characters of color. All while getting through the physical effects of too-rapidly moving through time and space.

I'm in transit, but looking forward to putting down roots. I'm here, but I don't yet own it. Ringing in my ears is the sound of the Homeland Security agent's voice as I entered the country: “Welcome home.”

(Slowly) Letting My Hair Down & Some Images of Dhaka

Thursday, February 18, 2016

This week, I was reading a series of Tweets called "Let's Be Messy on the Internet Together" by Creatrix Tiara, and I really resonated with the pressures of 'being an expert' and 'building a brand' influencing what one posts on their blog/social media. It's what has kept me from posting more deeply personal and not-quite-there-yet material on this blog -- I'm not really a blogger, per se, but I like to play with ideas and put them out somewhere. I'm also a recovering perfectionist and putting out lower-grade material freaks me out a little bit. Yet I am drawn to it still. There are several articles that talk about the less professionalized internet (oh Xanga, my first home) and I want to harken back to those days at least every so often, when I'm not sharing my obviously fabulous life stories and pitch perfect advice.

A photo of my bed in disarray -- a.k.a my creative process.

I realize that I haven't been talking a lot about Dhaka in terms of its images. Part of that is because I am still living here and it's hard for me to both experience and reflect at the same time. But another part is that I've been feeling a little bit protective of the experiences I've had living here, for fear that they'll be misinterpreted or that I'll be judged for certain things. People don't have a good understanding of what it's like to live in this city, and sometimes neither do I. The pinhole vision I've got is so based on my class and language access and spaces I inhabit. Yet the things that have now become common to me were not common at all before; the histories that I've been reaching back into just open up new questions about what life looked like in the time period I've chosen to focus on -- the late 80s and early 90s.

I think giving a long view of the city would be too much to do in these types of posts, though I long to do it justice in my fiction. But I have been collecting images here -- for the first several months I would write down 10 images a day (an exercise adapted from the advice of the great Lynda Barry). Here are several I want to share for now:

The crashing sound of a transformer bursting creates a momentary silence, then a sprig of yelling voices after

Punctuating our conversations about social space with the sound of killing moshas (mosquitoes)

 A corner stall selling hardwares -- no wider than one man -- with its shopkeep napping like a little boy on his folded arms

Sitting on a rickshaw caught in traffic, the inexplicable joy of seeing a fruit tree filled with large bats swooping overhead

 Recording the hum of the CNG as it accelerates onto a flyover

Painstakingly sounding out the words to a chapter book with my father over Skype

The moment after the lights cut out, a thunderclap