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!

Suggestions for Response to the Brooklyn Zine Fest

Saturday, April 18, 2015

I've brought up and expanded the list of places to donate proceeds and/or volunteer. If you are at the fest, please consider these locations!
In response to an email I received, I want to make clear that the choices below are suggestions - different folks were asking me for options on how to respond, and so I have chosen to collect them in a list. Please choose which one(s) makes the most sense for you.
- Consider donating part or all of your proceeds to an organization working to end police violence or volunteering/getting involved with their work (suggestions below).
Safety Beyond Policing
Audre Lorde Project
Brooklyn Movement Center
War Resister’s League
Radical Social Workers
Cop Watch NYC
Disarm NYPD
Artists Against Police Violence 
Women's Prison Association
FIERCE (LGBT youth org)
Sylvia Rivera Law Project
You can find more suggestions and links to donate directly to the families of victims of police violence on FergusonAction

- Give up your table, do not attend, and tell them that you disagree with the choices made by organizers around the Black Lives Matter panel and/or their response to the statement on POC erasure from the space. This is only if you feel like you can take the financial loss and/or willingness to do so!

- If you table, make signs for your table and print out the statement (or your own statement) regarding this issue. If you attend, make sure that you are aware of the issue - read the statement, talk to tablers who are in support.

- If you have a resource - such as a venue, a publication, a reading series, etc. - (or a request for such resources) share that on this Google Doc, so that we can offer other spaces to black artist/activists and non-black POCs in solidarity.

- Apply to speak on the Black Lives Matter panel - strategically! Make sure that panelists are paid since **other panelists at the fest receive a stipend** and make sure that there is a donation jar set up so that folks can donate to organizations doing anti-police violence work.

I want to emphasize that this panel does not do the on the ground work of eliminating police violence. The real work is being done by activists on the ground. This panel was meant to have a discussion about how arts and activism come together around a particular political moment, the Black Lives Matter movement. The aim was (and still is) to elevate black artist voices and give the audience ideas/methods about how to engage in this work in their own communities. A panel is not an ideal format, yet giving a platform to marginalized voices was how I saw myself in solidarity. Finding ways to best be in solidarity is hard, but it's absolutely necessary. Find ways you can do so amongst your own people. Feel free to share your thoughts and suggestions!

White Out: Erasure of the Black Lives Matter Panel and People of Color from the Brooklyn Zine Fest

Friday, April 17, 2015

My name is Jordan Alam and I was formerly the panel coordinator for the Brooklyn Zine Fest. I had to quit my position because the main organizers chose to remove a panel on Black Lives Matter zines, which communicated to me that black and brown voices were not valued in the space. Below is my experience.

I proposed 4 different panel topics for consideration – on intergenerational zine making, writing on uncomfortable topics, the prison industrial complex, and Black Lives Matter zines. As a non-black zinester of color with the opportunity to elevate black zinesters, I saw solidarity as giving them that space. After my proposal went out I was asked to join the two main organizers, both white people, for a meeting.

I prepared a list of potential panelists and topics of discussion. I brought the zine Black Women Matter as a way to show relevancy. But when we got to talking, it became clear that these documents would not move them. I was surprised at first, but my surprise quickly hardened into a stubborn discomfort as I saw where things were headed. They first struck out my idea for a panel featuring zinesters who write about incarceration or are in communication with incarcerated folks. They cited that they wanted to keep the panelists to the people who were tabling, which narrowed my options considerably.

The last panel we talked about was on Black Lives Matter zines; at that point I had not seen the full tablers list, but I was still pretty confident that there would be people who could speak on the movement. One of the main organizers said straight out to me that they consider this fest to be an apolitical zine fest, and that the language of my email made them feel that a Black Lives Matter panel would be too political. I could feel my heart pound as I made my arguments about the importance of this political moment. I had made very clear that this was the panel I was most invested in – in my head, I had resolved that if the panel did not happen, that I would quit being panel coordinator.

The coordinators also mentioned feeling unsafe because there had been an undercover cop at the Anonymity panel that I hosted the previous year, a fact I didn’t know until they told me at this meeting. I wasn’t sure why they brought this up – the most vulnerable people in that room would have been the speakers, especially those who talked about anti-police riots. Yet their panel was somehow seen as “apolitical” enough to be included in last year’s fest. I could only conclude that because the panel was composed of mostly light-skinned or white presenters that it passed the test. Finally, the organizers drew the connection that hosting a Black Lives Matter panel would invite potential violence by citing an unrelated incident at the 2013 Anarchist Book Fair (long before Black Lives Matter was a familiar movement).

By then I was doing all I could to hold it together and keep a professional tone; I was gripping the arm of my chair the entire time. I caught on a comment they said about having been criticized previously for hosting a mainly white zine fest: “they just didn’t know where to find the non-white zinesters.” I switched tactics to talk about how having this panel would help invite people of color in by showing that there is space for conversations that matter to them. The organizers didn’t bite.

Instead they said if we “took the politics out of it” and made the panel “Black Zines Matter” – an appreciation event of black zinesters – that it could still go on. I left that meeting feeling tokenized and angry. I walked home from the museum, stumbling along in the snow. But I resolved that this compromise would allow me to at least shape it to my liking. I was hoping to change it to a #BlackBrilliance panel because that seemed at minimum less tokenizing (I had seen this hashtag being used on Twitter and it came from black folks themselves), even if it still felt problematic and complicated.

A week or so later, I realized I had made a mistake: I had double booked myself the day of the Brooklyn Zine Fest panels. I emailed both parties to see whether I could change around the dates, but it wasn’t possible – I would have to get moderators for at least some of the panels. However, the organizers took this as a moment of opportunity:

“So, since we won't have you to run things like a well-oiled machine at BHS [Brooklyn Historical Society], we'd like to cut the number of panels down to two.  This will give us time to work with each of the panel moderators/leaders to make sure they're set and comfortable, without having to pack too much into one day… Out of the ideas we've discussed, we really like the "How I Came to Zines / Generations of Zine Makers" and the "Writing About Uncomfortable Topics" the best.

You can guess which one they cut. I sent my resignation email a few days later and have not yet received any reply.

This was perhaps the least slick way that I have seen someone exclude black and brown voices from a conversation aside from direct removal. I am upset that I had to quit because I know that now there is virtually no chance for my community to be seen at the Brooklyn Zine Fest, but I refuse to work with people who keep narrowing my options to create space for black and brown experiences until they are non-existent. White DIY circles, no matter whether they perceive themselves as alternative, have made it clear that they do not see us, and that to them it undermines their work to have us appear as we are.

Too often, in both ‘traditional’ and ‘alternative’ creative spaces, the voices of people of color are excluded or must be made palatable to white audiences. In spaces where we make our own media, it is even more hurtful – zines are meant to be a form where we control how we are portrayed and are on topics that we care about. To be excluded yet again because our narratives make white people uncomfortable, and implying that political discussions invite violence, is yet another injustice against us.

Our bodies and lives do not have the privilege to claim that they are ‘apolitical.’ By our basic existence, we must contend with the very politicized assumptions placed upon us, black people most of all. Shutting us out from programming is a choice to align with the dominant racist and anti-black culture.

I ask that you support our campaign to add another event to the zine fest lineup. We will use this platform to share anti-racist zines/materials and discuss active ways to resist racism in alternative communities, with a focus on black voices. Please share my statement, email the organizers at brooklynzinefest@gmail.com, and post on their Facebook and Twitter the following letter (or come up with a message of your own):

Dear BZF Coordinators:
Apologize for your removal of the Black Lives Matter panel and open up space for anti-racist discussion at the Brooklyn Zine Fest. I do not support the marginalization of black and brown zinesters.
Signed _____

If you are tabling, consider making a sign for your table saying 'Black Lives Matter at the Brooklyn Zine Fest' and if you have been asked to speak on a panel, please state that you do not agree with the removal of the Black Lives Matter panel. If you are interested in participating or helping with the alternative event, please DM me on Twitter @thecowation.


I am including the text of my resignation email to the Brooklyn Zine Fest, as their response characterizes it as "aggressive," which they say is the reason for their not responding until today's statement. For the record, we discussed and I offered to get another moderator for the panels day-of if I were unable to make it in person. Below is the email, sent March 14th:

Matt & Kseniya,
I unfortunately cannot continue to work on the Brooklyn Zine Fest panels this year. Since your last message, I have been thinking a lot about the erasure of black and brown bodies in DIY spaces. Though it may seem like a benign omission from your standpoint, taking the Black Lives Matter and/or Black Zines Matter suggestion off the table reminds me about how often I personally and my communities systemically have been excluded from and erased in spaces that are meant to be 'alternative'.

Particularly, I take issue with the idea that an 'apolitical zine fest' can exist or should be encouraged. Your tablers and your audience do not exist outside of politics, and the only people who can ignore or deny that they participate in systems of oppression are those privileged enough to have power supported by structural inequality. When we met, you alluded to violence at the Anarchist Book Fair and an undercover cop making things 'uncomfortable' at the last zine fest. Bringing up these examples assumes that having a discussion highlighting the structural inequality around race - whether through celebrating black artists or actually talking about violence against them - will invite violence, or at the very least unease. But your decision to remove that conversation altogether does not create safety or comfort, especially not for those artists or other artists of color impacted by these systems each day. Instead it makes it harder for us to collaborate with you, knowing that the things most important and integral to our lives will not even be given a 1 hour time slot.

I feel let down that an event meant to create space for unique ideas to thrive will not allow space for marginalized people to speak on their own experiences. I can no longer collaborate on or contribute my work to an event that does not have room for that discussion.

Jordan A.

Failing Gloriously

Monday, April 13, 2015

Wood-floored hall of library (specifically Poets House in NYC)
If I had known anything about teaching interviews, I would have bowed out. Or at least that's what the talking head version of me, filled with hindsight, says from on high. I had aced the first interview, I thought. They were enamored with my writing and the previous teaching jobs on my resume. But this is a story of the second interview.

My second interview was in a windowless gym separated by rolling dividers for the three grade levels. I walked to the back where there was a table set up with a few older-looking folks who were the teachers, two folks who were kind but didn't pay me much attention. The 'classroom' itself was a bunch of circular tables where a few teenagers were stationed, the majority black and Latino.

I was meant to facilitate the warmup activity. There was a game we'd played in a summer program I facilitated where kids are divided into three groups, line up, and they get to write one word of a sentence on a big piece of paper on the wall. The game is timed, and you have to pass the marker to the next person - you can play it where the firs team who finishes 'wins' or the team with the best/funniest sentence 'wins'. I should have known when the paper kept falling down from the dividers that this wasn't going to go well.

Trying to get them into a line was the first thing that failed. And then there was the passing of the marker; most folks were more focused on their phones and I am a terrible disciplinarian. 'Clap once if you can hear me!' and 'Would you put that phone away?' don't really work when you're nervous. I must have looked panic-stricken when I turned to one of the other facilitators; to their credit, they tried to bail me out.

I realize now that there was no reason for them to trust me. I didn’t look like them and I didn’t come from their neighborhoods. And since I was a newbie, they could do whatever they wanted without much consequences. Picture the most sitcom-like experience you could have as a teacher – a substitute teacher at that.

I burst out onto the darkened street afterward, my toes curling in my shoes from embarrassment. It was the first time I felt like I had gone out of my body to watch myself tank so badly. But something about it was also hysterical to me. When I got on the train, I couldn’t help but smile. It went so badly it was funny. There was no way in hell that I was going to get the position. And yet the world hadn’t tumbled into a fiery abyss behind me. I had only metaphorically died of embarrassment.

I’ve felt like I spent a whole year and a half unlearning the idea of perfectionism. During college, it was a prized skill no matter what group I was in – even amongst artists and activists, achievement was highly correlated to your value. And before that it was a survival tactic: if I did a lot of stuff, it meant I didn’t have to be at home very often. But after school ended and I couldn’t get a job for five months, I had to find a new strategy.

I’m still not all that great at appreciating my failures but now it’s easier to see them as experiments, moments that I can put in my back pocket for later. When, later that year, I attended my first birth as a doula, I tried to keep this experience in mind – though I may have been embarrassed or unprepared, I did all that I could with what I had. Even if I was failing, I wanted to fail gloriously. And be easier on myself in the process.