who am I?

Posted on June 17, 2019

Who am I?

Three simple words. One weighty answer.

The response to this question which rises, deep, visceral, immediate from our bones, reveals more about ourselves than anything else we could voluntarily disclose. The labels with which we choose to identify, and consequently to accept as being accurate descriptors for the beings that we are, tell us how we see this world. And the strength with which we cling to them, tells us how we see the next.

How do I answer?

Am I my profession or education? The degree hanging on my wall or the job I perform — do I carry it with me everywhere? There is a big difference between working as a teacher, lawyer, businessman, or mechanic… and being those things. There is a fine line between understanding your professional occupation, and expecting others to address you by its title in every sphere of life. There are doctors who work as doctors, and those who are Doctors — everywhere from social media to the grocery store, as if the celestial essence of apples and pears put any store by man-made distinctions wheeling by. It is one thing for us to be pleased by an accomplishment; it is quite another to brandish it as a token with which to wallop over the head every person we meet.

Am I my family name? Do I have pride in my bloodline, as if I could not have belonged to another stream by a simple twist of fate? When I stand with what I consider to be my “clan” or my “tribe,” do I feel a sense of pride surging through me, as if I have somehow earned a special position simply by being born? What, truly, is in a name? We may acknowledge a root extending into the past, without parading it as a medal of honor in the present; we may be grateful for a map drawing out where we have come from, without using it to guarantee safe passage to where we are going.

Am I the role I play? Husband or wife. Mother or father. Son or daughter. Friend or guardian. Is my entire personality ruled by the character I see myself as? If I lost the thing which dictates my identity — such as, God forbid, my child — would I cease to exist? If all external factors and circumstance disappeared, would anything of me remain? A role, in truth, is nothing more than a function — and there is nothing wrong with fulfilling a function we have been temporarily granted in this temporary life; the problem arises, however, when we adhere to it in such a manner that if it were taken away, the grief of its absence would consume us.

Am I my hobbies? My interests? My talents? Is what I do, who I am? Am I the titles, labels, or identities which I assign myself? Am I the distinctions, praises, or criticisms others assign me? Am I my belief system or ideology? If someone disregards the Who I see myself as, does a great anguish burn within me, or do I remain unchanged?

Do I consider myself to be all of these things? Or none at all?

Do I know who I am? Or, at the very least, who I am not?

And if I know who I am not, and if I have sifted all of that away — at the end, what remains?

Who am I?

“You might say, “I know I am an immortal spirit,” or “I am tired of this mad world, and peace is all I want”—until the phone rings. Bad news: The stock market has collapsed; the deal may fall through; the car has been stolen; your mother-in-law has arrived; the trip is cancelled, the contract has been broken; your partner has left you; they demand more money; they say it’s your fault. Suddenly there is a surge of anger, of anxiety. A harshness comes into your voice; “I can’t take any more of this.” You accuse and blame, attack, defend, or justify yourself, and it’s all happening on autopilot. Something is obviously much more important to you now than the inner peace that a moment ago you said was all you wanted, and you’re not an immortal spirit anymore either. The deal, the money, the contract, the loss or threat of loss are more important. To whom? To the immortal spirit that you said you are? No, to me. The small me that seeks security or fulfillment in things that are transient and gets anxious or angry because it fails to find it. Well, at least now you know who you really think you are.”

–Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth–

 

my guide

Posted on April 26, 2019

my heart’s rapture holds the moment
when I first glanced upon your face
when all that mattered disappeared
and you remained there in its place

 

when we first met, you did not speak
yet until now, your voice I hear
and though the miles stretch out far
by the soul’s standard, you are near

 

I came to you in summer’s heat
with weary limbs and aching soles
upon your doorstep I then fell
feeling, at last, I had come home

 

resting your hand upon my head
you wiped my journey’s dust away
with you I sat, you marked the path
for one who’d wandered long astray

 

above us rose a blooming moon
its light extinguished all the stars
and it was then I realized
I am there only where you are

 

for years, the bottom of the well
had been enough — to just get by
but when we met, that disappeared
I felt now the desperate need to fly

 

you are the rope to which I cling
caught in the prison I’ve built up
trapped in the home I’ve made myself
amidst the dregs of this world’s cup

 

with bleeding hands I reach for you
your fragrance fortifies my mind
all’s left to cross: this distance now
my life, the distance of this climb

 

some days I race, forging ahead
some days I trail, falling behind
some days, the darkness overwhelms
relentless, jar the hands of time

 

around me, seems a boundless night
this evening stretches endlessly
just when I think of letting go
whispers my heart, your name to me

 

and in your name I find my strength
your teachings lift my spirit high
each step, al-Hadi… an-Naqi…
setting my face toward the sky

 

though trying years may stretch ahead
though in their midst perils may hide
though not unscathed, I’ll make it through
Allah has made you as my guide

 

I know now though my nails may break
may crack under the strain of stone
I know with you, I’ll find a way
with you, I won’t battle alone

 

this, all I pray, that when I reach
that edge of well, the final rise
the hand I see meeting me there
is yours, under a purple sky

 

when, at the end, here, of all things
night fades at last, pierced by dawn’s glow
may my fate find me by your side
in gardens, where rivers flow

80th and 1st

Posted on January 4, 2019

John Steinbeck said, “Once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough.”

Oh, how right he was.

I was lucky enough to call New York City home for the past few years, yet it feels as if those years lasted a lifetime. I truly believe there are certain spans we cross during our lives which, through experience, if not through time, cause us to age more than others. For me, this was one of those times.

When I first came into the city, it was with the fresh, bright-eyed, shy wonder of one’s early twenties. When I left, it was with a steadier gaze and firmer feet, the weight of understanding that sombers the soul as it leans forward, the closer side of thirty.

Each moment, from the first to the last, is a fresh memory. Even now, I can feel the heat of city summer on my way home from class, its relentless beat against the pavement, the stick against my skin and the sudden cool, stepping into a subway car. I can see the swell of umbrellas, rise and fall, as I step out for lunch, the rain pouring unceasingly as people flock for shelter beneath side-shop awnings. I can smell autumn sneaking in with the wind, crisp leaves and crisper pages, the turning of the chapter of an unfolding story, racing along the subway tracks.

In one moment, I am on the Brooklyn Bridge at sunrise, on one side of me, the fading moon, and on the other, the rising sun. I am on the steps of the MET late at night, lost in thoughts too large for the walls of my city-sized apartment. I am in Piccolo café, following Jean Valjean through winding Paris alleyways, and on a bench in Central Park, alongside Jane Eyre, wandering misty moors. In an instant, I am falling asleep to the blare of Gotham sirens, and waking, to the sound of snow pattering against the window. It is Christmas Day and we are exploring empty streets, making our way to that bridge in the park, overlooking that frozen pond — the distant sound of violins hanging over us like wisteria, lacing through the trees.

Towards the end of my time in New York, I would grab my jacket and head out the door to, for the final times, immerse myself in a city which had become familiar the way the face of a stranger becomes a face you don’t remember ever not knowing. Pick a train, any train. Pick a stop to get off. Find a bookstore for exploring. A café for writing. A pause in the bustle to remind you: every moment that you are alive is a chance to learn exactly what living means.

When you have seen so much of you pass through such a short period of time, you find yourself thinking about that time often. It is not the streets themselves that cause such a particular pang as much as it is the pieces of yourself that you left trailed across them. You find yourself remembering that unmarked heart which had so much yet to learn at the beginning – and those lessons, both infused with light and riddled with pain, which became its teachers through the end.

When you glance upon the surface of memory, you see first light begin to fall against the buildings as you rush to catch the train. You see last light begin to fade as you make your way home, exhausted from a busy day. But when you look closer, you see that between those two memories lies something much deeper. Between them, exist singular days, each guided by a Divine Hand, and each with a unique message to convey. Days filled with seeking and learning, serenity and aching, hitting the target and falling wildly off mark, filling pages upon pages with the ink of certain words, only to wipe them all clean and start from scratch, realizing all you did not yet know.

It is then that you understand, that it was the days spent in this city which made you. It was the realizations, grasped along the tunnels of this underground, which revived you. It was the battles fought in your heart, weaving through these crowds, which unveiled you. And it was the meeting of fate, at the corner of 80th and 1st, where you finally came face to face with yourself.

You have lived in New York. And it has become your home.

And no place else will ever be good enough.

this is not about you

Posted on October 26, 2018

When I think of the great artists of old, I lower my hat to them in respect. In their musings, sculptures, paintings, and art — there was a craft. What made the Greats great was their desire to create at the upper threshold of their ability, despite knowing that such an endeavor would require time, perseverance, discipline, and accuracy. Create exquisitely, or do not create at all, was the mantra. This art is not about you – it is about something bigger.

These days, however, the desire to dedicate oneself to a single skill, to work on it in seclusion, day by day, slowly, precisely, carving, cutting – hammering away at marble from twilight to dusk until a visible form begins to emerge – this craft has somehow stretched beyond our ability.

The motivation now is not to spend time creating something which will add enduring beauty or thought to our world, but to create something quick, flashy, or trendy, which will garner the most amount of likes or comments. Public victories no longer follow private ones, but have altogether replaced them.

For a society raised on the fodder of social media, instant appreciation has been conflated with intrinsic worth. If you curate your “feed” so your “aesthetic” is “on point” then it is assumed that your life is on point as well. The notion is that your persona – the online personality you create to be perceived by others in a certain way – is the same thing as your identity. Whether you actually are the person you have created doesn’t matter – what does, however, is that others think you are.

So much so that every person who owns an eye shadow palette is suddenly a makeup artist. Every person who has access to a mall, a fashion blogger. Every person who has cleaned out their closet once, a minimalist-lifestyle-influencer. And every person who can string together a few words on heartbreak or betrayal or don’t-let-a-man-do-this-to-you is an acclaimed poet laureate.

But the truth is, one poem, especially not one which is simply

a sentence
broken into
three lines

does not a poet make.

Art is not created in an afternoon, much as Rome was not built in a day. And no amount of self-promotion, self-glamorization, or self-worship can earn us that place in infinity which is reserved solely for those who work in humility, knowing that the Hand which guides their pen, brush, or chisel is not their own.

Once, a girl introduced herself and followed with: “You might already know me, I’m famous on Instagram.”

As I stood there, utterly baffled and suddenly clued-in to the truth — “No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity” — I began to wonder: just as we proclaim our fame in a virtual world to those in our physical world, will we do the same when we move on to the next? When we rise from our graves will we, with firmness and candor, present our self-given merits from our earthly realm?

“Hey, you might already know me. I was pretty famous on Earth.”

I wonder . . . might not the angels lower their brows in disdain, looking upon us with grave faces: “You are not here. You are not here, at all…”

 

“Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.”
— Flannery O’Connor —

thoreau, on social media

Posted on September 28, 2018

“Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. […] When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.

[…] Not without a slight shudder at the danger, I often perceive how near I had come to admitting into my mind the details of some trivial affair — the news of the street; and I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish — to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself […]? I find it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which to me are significant, that I hesitate to burden my attention with those which are insignificant, which only a divine mind could illustrate. Such is, for the most part, the news in newspapers and conversation.

[…] By all kinds of traps and signboards, threatening the extreme penalty of the divine law, exclude such trespassers from the only ground which can be sacred to you. It is so hard to forget what it is worse than useless to remember! […] I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality. […] If we have thus desecrated ourselves — as who has not? — the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to reconsecrate ourselves, and make once more a fane of the mind.

[…] How many things there are concerning which we might well deliberate whether we had better know them — had better let their peddling-carts be driven, even at the slowest trot or walk, over that bride of glorious span by which we trust to pass at last from the farthest brink of time to the nearest shore of eternity! Have we no culture, no refinement — but skill only to live coarsely and serve the Devil? — to acquire a little worldly wealth, or fame, or liberty, and make a false show with it, as if we were all husk and shell, with no tender and living kernel to us?”

there is a tale

Posted on September 10, 2018

there is a tale that aches the heart
whose telling tears its seams apart
a thousand years
of flowing tears
which call: ya Hussain

 
there was a band of noble few
who left behind all that they knew
to fight the fight
of dark and light
their chief, al-Hussain

 
of young and old their party made
both valiant men and women brave
with noble brows
this noble vow
til death! ya Hussain

 
with scorching days and bitter nights
the barren desert marked their plight
the wound struck first —
the children’s thirst
their cry, ya Hussain

 
the enemy in thousands came
crooked their cause, lowly their aim
blinded by greed
prepared their steeds
to kill… ya Hussain…

 
the river wept to see the scene
(salvation’s ark) (demon’s ravine)
spilling of blood
a crimson flood
lapping, ya Hussain
 
when every friend and brother fell
came then the time for this farewell
a sister’s cry
pierced through the sky
my life, my Hussain…

 
in grief, one lion, head unbowed
army of wolves, trembled aloud
one man of God
facing such odds
no man, like Hussain

 
they came to butcher, came to maim
to end Islam, to kill Hussain
yet through your line
Islam survived
deen ast, ya Hussain

 
arrows were struck, your body bled
a sword was raised, severed your head
yet who lived on?
in hist’ry’s dawn?
your name, ya Hussain

 
yours is the tale that soothes the soul
that turns the broken spirit whole
no earthly pain
nor grief remain
with you, ya Hussain
 
and yours, the tale that heals the heart
whose telling is a saving art
for all my years
for you, my tears

 
Imam,

ya Hussain

what matters most

Posted on April 22, 2018

There is a surrender that happens at the peak of life, and another at the edge of death, and the two do not weigh the same. There is an abdication when the first glimmer of light is seen on the horizon, and another when the last glimmer is about to fade, and the day between them is not the same.

And how you spend the day matters.

It is said, “To be pious in one’s youth is the style of prophets; in old age even the cruel wolf gives up his cruelty.”

What matters most is what you choose to do when you have everything to lose. What you choose to give up when it means the most to do so. When you decide, when you are young and beautiful and full of youth and life, what matters most to you and what doesn’t.

When you have the riches of Sulayman yet you set your face to the sky –  saying this is all from you and for you, my Lord. When you have the beauty of Yusuf yet you turn from temptation – saying this is all from you and for you, my Lord. When you have the strength and position of Hurr yet you race to Hussain’s side – saying this is all from you and for you, my Lord! When you have the youth of Qasim yet you ready your sword for battle – saying this is all from you and for you, my Lord…

When I examine my life and weigh the years in the balance – have I utilized my riches, my beauty, my strength, the way God meant me to –  or did I not value their worth enough? Have I put my head to the ground enough? Have I spoken to my Lord enough?

Have I squandered my youth in desire and play? Have I kept my Lord for my old age? Have understood the frailty of this world enough?

. . . There is a surrender that happens at the peak of life, and another at the edge of death. And there is a lifetime in between. And how we choose to spend that lifetime – how we choose to spend each day – matters.

Make it matter.