Balance

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Warn­ing: Spir­i­tu­al Mes­sage Ahead

The Violent Volcano

Trey Rat­cliff via Comp­fight

 If you’re any­thing like me you’re on a con­stant mis­sion to cre­ate bal­ance in your life.

God? Chil­dren? Spouse? Work? Home? Health? Writ­ing? Self? In that order. Out of order. With poten­tial­ly a bunch of oth­er stuff added to the mix. Yeah?

A few morn­ings ago while dri­ving into work, traf­fic as insane as ever, know­ing the day ahead would be hec­tic, know­ing that I would not be able to accom­plish every­thing before clock­ing out, not hav­ing had my morn­ing cof­fee yet, and deep down wish­ing I’d just called off from work and feigned ill­ness, I had a lit­tle bit of a pan­ic attack.

Heart rac­ing. Head hurt­ing. Brow and palms sweat­ing.

I tapped through the library of pod­casts and songs on my iPod and couldn’t find any­thing that I want­ed to lis­ten to. So I turned it off. I start­ed to zikr, which for my non-Mus­lim friends means that I did some­thing akin to recit­ing the rosary. As I was talk­ing to God, I reflect­ed on two things that had occurred before leav­ing for work.

  1. I received an email from some­one who recent­ly read my book and loved it. It was a most love­ly wel­come sur­prise to know that some­thing I wrote touched some­one to such an extent that they want­ed to reach out to me. How awe­some is that?
  2. After read­ing the email I checked my book’s Ama­zon page to see if per­haps this love­ly per­son left a review. There was a new review but not by the per­son who wrote the let­ter. The per­son who wrote the review thought my book was mediocre at best giv­ing it a 2/5 star rat­ing. My first and only 2 star rat­ing.

I wasn’t bummed out by this. I long ago fig­ured it would hap­pen one day. And quite frankly I’m so new to all of this that I’m just hap­py some­one read An Unpro­duc­tive Woman and thought enough to write a review at all.

I reflect­ed on these two things and held them up in my mind as a sort of life metaphor. Each opin­ion about my book, both valid in their own right, exist­ing on oppo­site ends of the spec­trum. Me tee­ter­ing in the mid­dle. Me try­ing to bal­ance.

I’m not qual­i­fied to deter­mine what if any­thing God meant for me to glean from this suc­cess and fail­ure to reach my read­ers. For­tu­nate­ly, I did gain some­thing though.

  • No mat­ter how hard I may try, I will still be imper­fect.  But, that’s okay because Per­fect Is the Ene­my of Done.
  • I can’t please every­one with my writ­ing so I may as well please myself by cre­at­ing some­thing that at least I find worth in.
  • I can find the mid­dle ground in this life that often feels like noth­ing but extremes, if I try real­ly real­ly hard or just take it easy.

I also start­ed to think about the best review I’ve ever got­ten. It was four stars rather than five. The per­son who reviewed my book expressed true sup­port for my efforts in writ­ing my fresh­man nov­el and gave some very con­struc­tive feed­back that while not total­ly glow­ing, was still 100% pos­i­tive.  I feel as if I gained more from that one review than the review­er ever could have gained from read­ing my book. That review felt like bal­ance. That review is the one I always go back to when I need a boost, some affir­ma­tion that I am doing okay at this writ­ing thing and that I should keep at it.

For­tu­nate­ly, attacks of anx­i­ety don’t hap­pen to me often, but when they do, it’s usu­al­ly at times when I feel off kil­ter, when there are too many things to do, too many demands and not enough time or ener­gy.  Times when I’ve fall­en off that cen­ter line into the land of extremes.

I ought to have awe­some core strength, you know, because this bal­anc­ing thing is hard work.

What do you do to cre­ate bal­ance?

How I Got Schooled

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I had an inter­est­ing expe­ri­ence recent­ly that brought me abrupt­ly back to the sub­ject of cul­tur­al (mis)appropriation. It was one of those moments when an out­sider pre­sumed to school me about my own reli­gious and  cul­tur­al tra­di­tions.

The woman was a patient, some­one I haven’t met before. She seemed appre­hen­sive when I entered the exam room. I inter­viewed her about the side effects she’s been expe­ri­enc­ing with her cur­rent chemo reg­i­men. I tried to ease her appre­hen­sion by ask­ing about her fam­i­ly.  She showed me pic­tures on her iPad of her home in the coun­try, her kids, a sun­set.  Then she asked me about my fam­i­ly. Specif­i­cal­ly, she want­ed to know if my daugh­ters cov­er their hair as well. I answered in the affir­ma­tive, offer­ing eye con­tact and an hon­est easy smile as it is at this point that peo­ple often become uncom­fort­able because they think that per­haps I might be. I’m not…ever.  My years of apolo­get­ics are long past.  The rest of the con­ver­sa­tion pro­ceed­ed like this:

So the scarf is part of your cul­ture?”

I shook my head. “No. My scarf is a req­ui­site of my reli­gion.”  I didn’t expound and say that as a fel­low born and raised Amer­i­can my cul­ture and hers are essen­tial­ly the same.

There are a lot (I assumed she meant Mus­lims) who come here for treat­ment.”

Oh yes.  This is true. This being an inter­na­tion­al­ly renown can­cer cen­ter peo­ple from all over the world come here to receive what they believe will be the best pos­si­ble treat­ment.”

Well you know, the thing that I find so sur­pris­ing is that you’ll see these men push­ing their wives in wheel­chairs.”

At this point I no longer had to assume. I knew she was refer­ring to Mus­lims. I knew where she was head­ed, and despite the warn­ing voice in my head, I asked her to elab­o­rate. So I said, “Oh? Why is that sur­pris­ing?”

Well, usu­al­ly the women walk ten feet behind the men.”

Exact­ly ten feet? I thought is was six. Just kid­ding.  

?

Sté­fan via Comp­fight

I was dumb­found­ed and shook my head. “Uh, that’s not true.”

Yes it is and I see it all the time.”

Are we liv­ing in the same world? Why is it that I nev­er see this? And since I’m an obser­vant Mus­lim, I sup­pose I’m break­ing some age old law because I walk where I please with­out fear of an hon­or killing (I am being face­tious) or being sent to hell by Allah. I want­ed to ask her if she thinks that these men love their wives any less than Amer­i­can or non-Mus­lim men love their wives, if she believes that even rid­dled with can­cer these women would be expect­ed to trun­dle along exact­ly ten feet behind their hus­bands even after the expense and time of being flown to the USA for expen­sive can­cer treat­ments.

This was not the appro­pri­ate venue for me to school her about the dif­fer­ence between cul­ture and reli­gion, to divorce her of a stereo­type as old as dirt and as wrong as sin. She was my patient and it would be inap­pro­pri­ate and unpro­fes­sion­al for me to enter into a debate. So I said in a way that I hope sound­ed light-heart­ed, “Well if you see this, it’s not a pre­cept of the reli­gion (my reli­gion), but more like­ly a cul­tur­al prac­tice.”

The look she gave me, this pity­ing poor fool­ish igno­rant girl look, made me want to scream. Of course I didn’t though. Not out loud, in any case, but there was def­i­nite­ly tight ten­sion in the room until I left.

But hon­est­ly, where does she get off school­ing me about ME? I know where she gets off, because as I’ve already men­tioned, she and I do come from the same cul­ture.

There is this thing we west­ern­ers are guilty of… think­ing we know bet­ter, that we are the benev­o­lent teach­ers of right, that we mere­ly tol­er­ate the rest of the world’s back­ward cul­tur­al prac­tices. This is an unfor­giv­ably arro­gant atti­tude and it’s ram­pant.

But even deep­er and more sig­nif­i­cant, and per­haps this is my igno­rance here, how can any­one with access to tech­nol­o­gy liv­ing in this glob­al world be so incred­i­bly out of touch? Okay I sup­pose she can be. I mean as glob­al­ly savvy as we in the west like to think we are, we’re often just about as provin­cial and insu­lat­ed as we can get, as evi­denced by her obvi­ous igno­rance. The most aggra­vat­ing part though was her arro­gant per­sis­tence that she was cor­rect, that she knew bet­ter than me.

I believe there is an old no longer prac­ticed Japan­ese cul­tur­al tra­di­tion where the men walk ahead of the women.  Tra­di­tion­al­ly this was so that the men could serve as pro­tec­tion. This was not intend­ed as a means to sup­press or oppress the women. I have nev­er met a Mus­lim woman, who because of her faith, walks behind her hus­band unless she just hap­pened to end up there.

But that is all beside the point. I real­ly want­ed to talk about writ­ing. I want­ed to impress how impor­tant it is for writ­ers to be tru­ly glob­al thinkers. We can not afford, if we care about our craft and our read­ers, to lose the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn. We all make errors and assump­tions, but when faced with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn the truth from the source, unlike my patient, we don’t have the lux­u­ry of shak­ing our heads and shak­ing off infor­ma­tion in favor of hold­ing on to erro­neous pre­con­ceived ideas.

This woman is not a writer, her words won’t like­ly be dis­sem­i­nat­ed via the inter­net or some oth­er form of media, but let’s pre­tend she is a writer, a very pop­u­lar writer… Imag­ine the affect.

The Responsibility of Self-Discovery

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The pow­er of the self and self dis­cov­ery…

Tehran Sunset

Hamed Saber via Comp­fight

I read a cou­ple of arti­cles over this last week about the (mis)appropriation of cul­ture in writ­ing. This got me think­ing about our respon­si­bil­i­ty as writ­ers and read­ers and also as human beings.

We all have our respec­tive roles in life and we all have many. I am a Mus­lim, moth­er, daugh­ter, nurse, writer, wife… As I grow old­er I will, no doubt, adopt oth­er des­ig­na­tions and still yet slough off oth­ers. What we have here, hope­ful­ly, is the mak­ing of a strong bal­anced evolv­ing human being.

I start­ed to won­der how much of this per­son­al devel­op­ment influ­ences my writ­ing (or vise ver­sa) or anyone’s par­tic­u­lar pre­ferred form of artis­tic expres­sion.

When I wrote An Unpro­duc­tive Woman over a decade and a half ago, my life was under­go­ing a major spir­i­tu­al upheaval. The process of writ­ing AUW was cathar­tic and, believe it or not, I was in many ways buoyed by the strength of my main char­ac­ter Asabe.
Those who know me and have read AUW have told me that they envi­sion me as the main char­ac­ter, Asabe. I take that as a high com­pli­ment but I quick­ly set them straight. Asabe is the kind of woman I’d emu­late and I believe this is what I was going for on the sub­con­scious lev­el when I wrote the sto­ry. Asabe is a deep down good woman who is imper­fect.

These days I find that my main char­ac­ters, usu­al­ly women, reflect less of what I’d like to become and more the pas­sion­ate rebel­lious spir­it that already resides silent­ly with­in me. They are usu­al­ly good but deeply flawed and grow­ing in ways they nev­er antic­i­pat­ed. This would explain also, I sup­pose, why I fre­quent­ly hit char­ac­ter devel­op­ment road­blocks, because I don’t know that silent part of me as well, that alter ego

Whether right or wrong, my writ­ing is informed by me and me by it.

Recent­ly a movie enti­tled The Inno­cence of Mus­lims by Sam Bacile received more pub­lic­i­ty than it deserved. The film is an inten­tion­al­ly inflam­ma­to­ry piece of tripe meant, I would assume, to offend and harm the Mus­lim world com­mu­ni­ty. Most of the Mus­lims I know found it laugh­able and unwor­thy and then of course you know, if you’ve watched the news, that oth­er Mus­lims, to my cha­grin and mor­ti­fi­ca­tion, protest­ed loud­ly and unfor­tu­nate­ly vio­lent­ly. I cer­tain­ly don’t believe that the film was wor­thy of any action or reac­tion bar­ring dis­gust, but it does beg the ques­tion about the filmmaker’s intent.

We could begin by argu­ing about the right to free speech and thought. I believe Bacile had the right to make the film (with will­ing well informed actors), but what about his respon­si­bil­i­ty as an artist, as a per­son with the pow­er, how­ev­er small, to cre­ate change, to enlight­en, to objec­tive­ly protest what he may per­ceive to be wrongs. Obvi­ous­ly he had some griev­ances.

I feel that sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty when I sit in front of my key­board. It weighs so heav­i­ly on me that some­times my writ­ing lit­er­al­ly hits a wall. I am forced by some inter­nal check to eval­u­ate not just the direc­tion of my sto­ry but “why” it took that direc­tion.

I once felt as if my per­son­al mores choked my cre­ativ­i­ty, but now I would say that they have actu­al­ly checked my heart and moti­va­tions. This is a dif­fi­cult bal­ance to main­tain no doubt, if one is so inclined, but not a bal­ance I’m will­ing to forego just to main­tain my right to say any­thing that comes to mind with­out giv­ing thought to the poten­tial con­se­quences. I have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to myself and my craft and to a degree I also feel respon­si­ble for those who may read or be influ­enced by what I’ve said.

I des­per­ate­ly want to give life to char­ac­ters that are human, not per­fect cook­ie cut­ter fairy tale crea­tures (even in the midst of a fairy tale), but true rep­re­sen­ta­tions of, in par­tic­u­lar POC, women, and Mus­lims.  As we all know, no two peo­ple of any group are alike, so that is cer­tain­ly not an easy task. While I wouldn’t say that only a mem­ber of a cer­tain demo­graph­ic can give true life to such char­ac­ters, it cer­tain­ly helps. Also there are peo­ple who man­age to write their own demo­graph­ic wrong. I don’t believe any­one has the monop­oly on get­ting it right or wrong.

I lis­tened to a book a few months ago in which the main char­ac­ter was a woman, a very stu­pid, child­ish, whin­ing, woman, whose only appar­ent worth appeared to be her petite body, her fair skin, and her red hair. Grant­ed the book was poor­ly writ­ten dri­v­el, but this char­ac­ter exist­ed hap­pi­ly as a face and body. I don’t know a sin­gle woman who would wish to be seen in such a shal­low light. I kept scream­ing, “Real­ly? What woman acts like this?”
This brings us to the issue, in a very round about way, of the sub­ject of not just cul­tur­al (mis)appropriation, but gen­der and racial as well.

I can not expound on this sub­ject with the flu­id elo­quence of Nisi Shawl or Aliette de Bodard, but I can say this: Writ­ers have an oblig­a­tion to get the facts right, even in fic­tion, and to tell the truth the very best way they know how even if said truths hurt and ran­kle the author’s own sen­si­bil­i­ties, even if in the end their per­son­al prej­u­dices have been nul­li­fied.

Isn’t that what true art is all about?

This requires, in my opin­ion, the hon­est desire to do jus­tice to the work of art and an hon­est effort to make that hap­pen. Even if the facts are wrong I think most of us can tell the dif­fer­ence between will­ful deviance from truth and human error. I’m will­ing to make allowances for that. That said, none of this can be accom­plished with­out self-explo­ration and the under­stand­ing that must nec­es­sar­i­ly be born of that.

When I was in nurs­ing school, one of my pro­fes­sors spent an entire class dis­cussing the impor­tance of under­stand­ing our per­son­al lim­its. The con­text was this, that every nurse will come across a patient(s) whose cul­tur­al, reli­gious, per­son­al prac­tice may come at odds with their own. Some­times enor­mous odds. Do you ignore your lim­i­ta­tions and fail your­self and even­tu­al­ly the patient as well? Do you admit to those lim­i­ta­tions and seek help, guid­ance and/or a solu­tion? Before doing either, you have to under­stand your­self.

You have to know you.

reflections (B)

Camil Tul­can via Comp­fight

It is because I under­stand my per­son­al lim­i­ta­tions (to a degree…I’m still learn­ing and grow­ing every day) that I step back and eval­u­ate my actions with my most chal­leng­ing patients. I do this so as to ensure that I don’t cheat them of appro­pri­ate care just because I was annoyed or hav­ing a bad day.

Ques­tion: If an author is unable to approach a sub­ject with hon­est objec­tiv­i­ty, should they approach it at all?

We could hold up, as an exam­ple, the deba­cle of Reveal­ing Eden, which I could not fin­ish read­ing. Even today in the midst of near­ly unan­i­mous opin­ion that Foyt  is racist for hav­ing writ­ten some­thing as bla­tant, I still take issue with call­ing her such. I’m more con­vinced that she is instead, woe­ful­ly igno­rant about how to write an intel­li­gent­ly nuanced piece deal­ing with the immense­ly touchy sub­ject of race. I believe Foyt was lazy and that she did not do her research. I think she is guilty of being arro­gant enough to think she didn’t have to and for not fes­s­ing up when called out on her fail­ure. Besides being ter­ri­bly writ­ten, as we all know that there are many ter­ri­bly writ­ten best­sellers, I think she failed because she didn’t do the self-dis­cov­ery required to write a sto­ry with a sub­ject mat­ter so poten­tial­ly charged.

Did she ever ask her­self, “How do I real­ly feel?” Or “Why do I feel this way?” Or “What do I hope to accom­plish?” Had she asked any one of these or oth­er ques­tions requir­ing true self-dis­cov­ery, she might have been able to antic­i­pate the neg­a­tive back­lash that has since ensued.  She might have been able to write a tru­ly enlight­ened and reveal­ing piece of lit­er­a­ture

I think it is just as incum­bent upon read­ers to call out those authors who were too lazy to make the effort at self-dis­cov­ery, let alone fact check­ing.

As for the man who pro­duced the deroga­to­ry film about the prophet of Islam, well that thing (which I could not and would not ever watch) is akin to a tem­per tantrum. And as such, it was, like any oth­er tantrum, emp­ty of sense or worth. It was a lit­er­al mess. I’m not angry that he had the tantrum but I am dis­ap­point­ed that he didn’t try to do bet­ter, or that he couldn’t be both­ered to at least be hon­est with him­self and the verac­i­ty of his obvi­ous anger, which he is enti­tled to, if he wants to live with it.

But what has he ben­e­fit­ed? What have we ben­e­fit­ed? What was the point?

Only I can decide what my per­son­al moti­va­tions are and as much as I may want to, I can’t decide that for any­one else. (Don’t wor­ry, I don’t real­ly want to. That’s too much respon­si­bil­i­ty and work!) In the end the truth of it lays solid­ly in the lap of the artist. In the end the artist has to be at peace with the results, opin­ions be damned.

But isn’t that what the artist is in search of any­way? Opin­ion, prefer­ably the favor­able kind?