Working Out My (International) Travel Stories

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Traveling is a sensory overload.

I'm winding down on my international tour through Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. In a few days, I'll be back with family in Bangladesh trying to build a whole 'nother life on the subcontinent (though I'm sure my compulsions -- book buying, tea drinking, and writing about people in public -- will still stay much the same).

Drawing of Athens as seen from Mt. Lycabettus -- my phone overheated and so I took out my pens and sketched till there was no more light (thankfully I have been carrying red, black, and blue ink pens!)
On this trip, I've been drawing more than writing, photographing more than drawing. And each medium is so different. Drawing resonates with my emotions more than my eye; photographs give me a realistic slice of scenery, but not the depth (emotionally or physically). Writing just feels stubborn. How do you portray the visual and emotional in one line? How do you honor the place while not essentializing/stereotyping it or its people? I've been caught in the trap of overgeneralizing in my early drafts -- trying to capture the details in a very general way. Thus it's been my self-appointed writing assignment these past few weeks to capture the feeling of a place rather than its contours. I'm starting with a place that's in my near memory from just a few days ago in Istanbul. Stay tuned for more.

P.S. I'm also including two drawings that I've done on this trip -- both from amazing places in Greece. These pictures are straight from the notebook, so apologies in advance for the weird angles (neither, after all, is a photographic representation!). I think that they do well to capture the emotional energy of those places.

Drawing of a pebble beach against cliffs and the Aegean sea on Agistri in Greece, using pen and colored pencil.
She wasn't pretty like women you'd see standing on pedestals in the museums with their elegant robes draped just-so. She had hair that wound around her square face and eyes so dark and vacant that in the dim light they appeared pupil-less, staring past you. I stooped to look at her. The carved line of her cheekbone cast a shadow across the dark water below. Her head was upside down and, a few meters away, another version lay tipped on its side.

We had wound around the corridors - past the wishing spot and down a set of slippery stairs - to greet her. I turned to look over my shoulder at a patch of unlit columns, catching a glimpse of some fish encircling them as another amateur photographer's flash went off. I inhaled and turned back to her, her stone expression lit up and darkened as people drifted by. Many just went for the picture, a single burst, then power-walked back onto the path. I lingered. Then the next wave of paying guests arrived.

I was reminded of how often I've heard her name: Medusa. Snake-haired and turning people to stone (hence why she's been placed upside down/on her side). When I had safely returned to the dry and well-lit cafe area, I became aware of my shallow breathing. I was surprised at how much the eeriness had affected me; many tourist attractions lose their power due to the onslaught of people and gimmicks. The Basilica Cistern, underground and filled with dark corners, retained its well.

From being here, I've come to know a basic history of historical architecture: cisterns supplied the Ottomans with water before they installed pipe systems. I've come to know that several ancient empires had a lot in common, including their pantheon of gods. I've come to know that the way a few people find out about this place is through Dan Brown's Inferno. It makes me curious about how we put together the parts and pieces of our knowledge - popular literature, high school history classes, signs in museums - and reminds me of how terribly limited my own knowledge is from these sources.

It's hard to stumble upon these things in an American life. You have to want to know, then move from there. A day later, I stumbled into an English language bookstore and took a shot.

You Can't Get Here by Walking: Traveling between Coasts

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The prompt for this piece was an exercise that I did at the Indiana University Writer’s Conference this year with our poetry teacher, Gabrielle Calvocoressi. A fan of 3 or 4 pronged projects, she challenged us to write a letter that was also a map leading to (at the retreat) a cemetery to someone we’d not seen in a while. I figured it was the perfect way to write about my cross-country tour from New Mexico to Indiana, then Detroit, Toronto, and Chicago before getting back on a 2-day train trip to Seattle. Check it out!

You don’t get here by walking. You start out on a relay race of buses, trains, and airplanes with squalling babies all aboard. By the time you arrive, you’ve stripped off all the expectations of this place – you aren’t that kind of person whose researched and planned every moment of their travel, though there are moments you wished you were. Having so recently left the cramped dark city, the red rock cliffs astound you. The open spaces flecked with turkeys and mousing cats make you tingle with delight. Today, your friend helped guide a horse off a busy two-lane highway before you went on your way. There is laughter when you and your friend slather yourselves in mud and parade from hot spring to hot spring, feeling cleansed and sleepy on the way home. Home. This is the first state you’ve felt like you could live right when you stepped foot in it; you’ve fallen in love with the sprawling western-style houses and everything coated in chili.

When are you getting here? You’ve just missed the shuttle. The airport is humid. You spend your time re-folding clothes in your bag on a cushioned bench. When are you getting here? You come upon the tiny town in less time than you thought and wander where there are no stoplights, looking for all the greasy food you can handle. When the classes start the next morning, it finally feels as if you’ve arrived – a solid 6-8 hours a day drawing doodles and weaving images into plain notebook paper. Who cares if they’re good? At least they’ve gotten there. When social interaction is too overwhelming, you disappear to watch Midwestern roller derby, but remember too late that small town buses don’t run at night. Then you find yourself walking two miles down a dark road in a town you’re unfamiliar with – a story you tell only after you’ve survived it.

Take a detour and read my piece about wandering the city of Detroit.

Landing in a new city across the border, your first instinct is to go to the cemetery. To the old jail-turned-health-center and the small farm across the way. You find ponds that inexplicably frighten you; places where you think they could easily dump a body. Something about the city tires you. You meet new friends and eat bad Indian food and try to stay out of the rain. Meet me at the Necropolis, you’d like to say.

This is the last stop. It’s taken you an overwhelming amount of time to get here – night trains and day trains all conveniently delayed. By the time you’ve reached your host, you’ve started to flash back to New York. This is a scene familiar to you: big buildings clustered downtown, tourists flocking to the park. You get stopped by Christian college folk conducting surveys. You and your host pull out books and discuss them one by one. The night before you leave, you take in a play about Muslim women and post-9/11 Islamophobia that brings tears to your eyes. Then it’s yet another rain storm and yet another train.

The world is flat until Montana. You catch a glimpse outside your window when you’re not sleeping or nose-deep in a book. No internet here, sometimes no cell signal either. Spending two days on a train makes your teeth go soft; you clench your fists at some of the conversations of your fellow passengers. But every once in a while they surprise you. The conservatively dressed Amish people who depart in a cluster midway through. The older Idaho farm consultant, burned red in the sun, who talks politics with you into the night. For someone used to speed, this is not the way to go. But though the mountains slow you down, they also whisper “welcome.”

A Paper Cut, A Korean Spa, and Aspen, CO: Speaking & Publications of Late

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

I've just flown in from Aspen (and boy are my arms tired! #throwbackjokes). This week has been a flurry of activity - from getting a piece published on Refinery29 to speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I and my words have taken me all over. So this week I'm giving you a recap so that I can get around to talking about my recent US travels and then maybe, just maybe, write something new! Stay tuned.

I spoke at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival on a panel called "Millennials Losing Faith" with Casper ter Kuile, Naomi Schaefer Riley, Jane Shaw, and Mark Oppenheimer as moderator. My position is that Millennials are often spiritual but unaffiliated with organized faith for a variety of reasons, one major one being that traditionally marginalized groups (LGBTQI folks is one we talked about most) are not welcomed in these spaces. I talked about the importance of creating our own spaces within organized faith and making a distinction between 'bucking traditions' and not finding value in faith communities. Check out the video of the full session above! We also got a nice little write up in The Atlantic.

I also was asked to write a post for the Aspen Ideas Festival blog. I ended up interviewing myself! Read my thoughts on doula work, social justice, and art as spiritual ritual.

Refinery29 asked me to write a piece based on a Tweet I had about vulnerability and body self-consciousness at a Korean spa, so you can get into my head about that experience here.

And if you haven't gotten enough of me talking, I did an interview with Paper Cuts on ClockTower Radio alongside Elvis B., Sadie Barnett, and host Christopher Kardambikis. I read a potentially bloody, potentially hilarious segment of a perzine called By Their Proper Names.

And a final zine-y thing, my former boss and Feminist Zine Fest co-conspirator Jenna Freedman just wrote an awesome roundup of black zines for Bitch Magazine that shouts out the controversy at the BZF. Stick around for the rest of her series!

Ramadan is a Time for Feeling, Whether Fasting or Not

Monday, June 22, 2015

It's been a difficult beginning to Ramadan for me. Most of the time, I feel excited for the fast as a time of reflection and community. But this year I've felt stuck.

The night before the first full day of fasting, as we laid out dishes for the coming sehri, I felt irritated and nervous. I'd just come back from traveling across the U.S. and my body was already withered with fatigue; the hours of fasting stretched before me. I always set a few intentions during Ramadan, but this year feels like I'm getting back to basics. Feel more, write/create more, read religious texts and artistic works, challenge yourself. All the same things as the rest of the year but with the additional focus of fasting. I wanted to hurry up and prepare by making a few dishes of food, studying up on how much water to drink, and setting myself up well - in essence, I wanted to control it.

When I actually did begin the fast, I felt by turns resentful of others who were eating/drinking and then guilty for not sitting with my practice. I've been asking again and again the question: Is it better to keep going with a ritual when you feel embittered by it? Will you learn something vital simply by continuing to practice?

I think the answer to the second question is easier for me. I do believe that if I continue to fast, I will gain some greater insights into myself and perhaps even why I feel embittered this year as opposed to others (even while this year I feel like I've got my nutritional plans and other logistics better sorted than previous years). But I also want to respect what my body is telling me, with its mood swings and headaches, and make those decisions on a day to day basis. And so, I have chosen to wake up at sehri and decide then whether I will continue the fast that day.

With matters of religion, there are always people that will tell you that you're not practicing with the greatest level of piety. I have seen people floating around the phrase "let there be no compulsion in religion," which to me helps assuage the guilt of not being able to 'muscle through'. Because, in my heart, I know that's not the point of Ramadan. All of the intentions I've set point towards other purposes: Self-reflection. Going slow. Deepening spiritual practice. Listening to your body's needs and wants.

I'm excited to be going deeper with my practice through writing, reading Qur'an and generally practicing radical self-love. Here's to a month of profound spiritual wellness.

Ramadan Mubarak!

I'm going to be speaking at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival next week! I'm honored to be on a panel under the track "Faith, Conflict, and the Future of Religion." Stay tuned for how it goes.

Wandering the City of Detroit

Monday, June 8, 2015

Being on the road lesson #1: don't expect yourself to get as much done as you planned. I had this grand plan to write about each of the places I had visited right away, publishing a post a week, doing them all justice... alas. You'll just have to settle for my retrospective. We'll start where I just left:, Detroit. Eventually I'll get to San Diego, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Indiana. Now let's get moving!

I've been walking for days. Not having access to a car in the Motor City makes it pretty difficult to navigate the spread-out landscape. My pedometer cheerfully chirped out that I was a marathoner yesterday - a real neighborhood Olympian.

I've been taking a breather here to reflect and rest. I'd come from a writer's conference in Indiana that was jam-packed with inspiration but after a 5 days on a tight schedule and surviving on campus cafe salads, I needed something else. It's easier to sleep in when you don't feel like you'll miss out on some life-altering piece of information shared by your lecturer.

In my walking, I've seen a great swath of town. One one day, I went from Wayne State to John K. King warehouse of used books and back. Some pockets are going strong - the fancy coffee shops and pocket art galleries, the student areas with newly paved sidewalks - while others are a study in contrasts. Like the buildings downtown where, at one end of the block, you can order a $7 coffee drink and at the other stands a beautiful roped-off building with all its windows shattered. There's endless construction and demolition.

As a reader from afar, I romanticized Detroit for its arts and activism scene. Radical possibility rising from the collapsed heap of a capitalist ruin is an incredibly sexy metaphor. But, as I should come to expect, the lived reality is a lot more complicated. What I've loved here so far are the neighborhoods. Walking past houses where people say 'hello' from their porches. They have fancy brick turrets, most of them, even on the boarded up houses. I've loved going to free outdoor movies and participating in that DIY life with my host-friends. I'm privileged enough to see how the Motor City does Pride.

But I'm a little embarrassed to say that, of the five cities I've been to in the past two weeks, Detroit was the one I had the most expectations about. I didn't come with any plan other than to see what's here, but I did want this city to answer my question: what does it look like to build something new? And the answer I got was just another question, humbling and unexpected: what does it look like to live when no one's looking out for you?

The Wheel and the Hook

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Passionate about ordinary things, like how ingredients become food – that detail was included in the winning story told at the Moth event I attended last week. The detail was in reference to the storyteller’s friend (the subject of their piece), and I felt a kinship because of that choice; I too am passionate about ordinary things.

The storyteller was actually a Barnard grad. It was some coincidence to walk into a bar in Portland and be identified immediately by this piece of my New York life. On top of that, the story they told was powerful and hit close to home. It seemed closer to fate than coincidence when this person who shared several of my identities got up and told a story about their days on campus that played on the theme of the night: ‘Save’. I wish that I could have snagged them afterward to thank them for telling it, but by then they had disappeared into the night.

Me trying to feed a carrot to a b&w fuzzy llama; I'm trying so hard to get them to like me.

I have been doing a bit of travel lately. Apart from moving back to Seattle from NYC, I have also been visiting friends in common and uncommon places. Several weeks ago, I went to visit my high school friend in Arkansas where he is now teaching. I feel like I’m still processing that brief trip; it was my first time to the South and to a town like Pine Bluff, where the urban decay is so visible. I felt in many ways that I was in the Land of Contradictions, so I’ve been thinking about how to write in a way that really honors that. I’m working on a (more polished) piece about it, so stay tuned.

Last week I was in Portland where my best friend from elementary school lives. We did our usual gallivanting – thrifted for butter dishes and books, saw that amazing Moth Storyslam, adopted a cat. We also went to #realOregon for a sheep to shawl festival that I got very excited about. I’m an avid knitter and also am interested in the political implications of knowing about how we get our clothes (knit and otherwise). I’d never been to a shearing, so watching a llama get its hair taken off was actually super interesting.

But perhaps the best part was seeing people spin yarn out of fiber using nothing more than drop spindle. For some reason I thought that you needed the big machinery of a loom in order to spin yarn, but it appears that for a more traditional practice you only need a funny looking little wheel on a hook. As my friend remarked, it really does make you think about all the effort that goes into making a garment by hand. Sure, we do have factories now and different processes are more automated, but there are still so many hands that go into making the things that we buy (much too cheaply for the labor, I might add).

I’ve been thinking a lot about things that we take for granted: clothes, food, safety. Coming back from the trip, I found myself reading Vandana Shiva’s Staying Alive and Googling restorative justice programs. I don’t yet have a clear picture of what I’ll do with all this information – for instance, even though I now possess a drop spindle, I doubt I’ll start making all my clothes by hand. But at the event, I felt humbled and encouraged by the storyteller’s rendering of their friend’s life. Through their use of language, they elevated the ordinary and left me chewing on ideas of how to do the same.

Some Last Words (on the BZF and Leaving NYC)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Spread of watch parts and descriptions of watchmaker industry.

I'm moving out of NYC, my home of the past six years, today. I'll be setting off for a wild and woolly adventure around the country and the globe (in case you weren't aware of my travel plans, take a look!). I'm going to be taking some time to seriously commit to my work as a writer and healer by first giving myself some well-deserved space and self-nourishment.

But that doesn't mean I haven't been feeling mixed about leaving! I feel like there's a lot that I could still do in NYC, the most recent example being with the Brooklyn Zine Fest response and aftermath. As an update: we donated a good chunk of money to the Audre Lorde Project by soliciting donations during the reinstated Black Lives Matter panel (which I heard went well, based on the Tweets!) and selling Black Women Matter zines via Underground Sketchbook. Several zinesters also donated their proceeds to the cause, which was fabulous. And there were plenty of folks who were interested in continuing the conversation about keeping DIY spaces accountable to POC voices - names/emails were collected and a brainstorming meeting is forthcoming (if you're interested in joining in, email nyczinegroup [at] gmail [dot] com for more info!).

Basically, a lot of energy went into responding. And I'm both grateful for and tired out by it.

Organizing people is not only a logistical challenge, but also emotionally taxing. No matter whether the motivation is a healthy rage or a deep care for someone, it takes a lot of energy. We only have to look to recent news, with unimaginable tragedies from the Nepal earthquake to the protests for Freddie Gray to see that people are putting in tons of emotional labor. And it shouldn't be made invisible. Though only a small drop in comparison, there were moments during this process of putting out a response to BZF, planning my other workshops, while packing where I just wanted to say 'I am a human being with feelings, and I need rest.'

I won't give you another Dispatch from Burnout Land, but I will say how excited I am that I get to choose this upcoming path and spend time to recalibrate. I articulated it best to a friend this week: the work is important, but in many ways I am the work. In the end, I can only change me. As with the nights (and afternoons) when I've crashed after a baby's been born, I must remind myself that sometimes nothing is more important than rest. Taking care of me and knowing my needs/wants help me provide better care to others.

My bags are packed or shipped, I've said many a heartfelt goodbye, and I fly out tonight. Grateful to the many people who have made my experience in NYC both wondrous and survivable, a place of possibility and grand design. Here's to leaving our comforts to see where we can land.

Other things that I've been super proud of recently are: 1) getting my article on the capitalism of jealousy published on BlackGirlDangerous and 2) hosting a really lovely zine workshop at the Brooklyn Museum this past weekend. Take a gander at the article and don't hesitate to Tweet me with your thoughts!