Surrender: the upside-down beauty of the word “islam”

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I place my prayer rug on the floor in the direction of Mecca. It came from my grandparents, I think, from the old country. It has been a part of my life since I was a child, a fixture in our home, and now it is threadbare from wear. It’s limp like fresh chapati. The burgundy, velvet fibres fray on the parts of this rug that have cushioned our heels and knees for decades. I smooth out its wrinkles and bumps and imperfections with the brush of a flat, tender palm, like I’m tending a bed of soil in a garden. I sit beside it or on the edge of my bed for a minute or two. I breathe.

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Change is the only constant

Physicist Alan Lightman’s meditation on the flow of time. More after the link.

Last August my oldest daughter got married. The ceremony took place at a farm in the little town of Wells, Maine, against the backdrop of rolling green meadows, a white wooden barn, and the sounds of a classical guitar. Each member of the wedding party stepped down a sloping hill toward the chuppah, while the guests sat in simple white chairs bordered by rows of sunflowers. The air was redolent with the smells of maples and grasses and other growing things. It was a marriage we had all hoped for. The two families had known each other with affection for years. Radiant in her white dress, a white dahlia in her hair, my daughter asked to hold my hand as we walked down the aisle.

It was a perfect picture of utter joy, and utter tragedy. Because I wanted my daughter back as she was at age 10, or 20. As we moved together toward that lovely arch that would swallow us all, other scenes flashed through my mind: my daughter in first grade holding a starfish as big as herself, her smile missing a tooth; my daughter on the back of my bicycle as we rode to a river to drop stones in the water; my daughter telling me that she’d started her first period. Now, she was 30. I could see lines in her face.

I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?

Ayad Akhtar on faith, identity and storytelling

Pulitzer Prize–winner Ayad Akhtar on faith, identity, writing and storytelling.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on failure

“I always consider the entire process about failure, and I think that’s the reason why more people don’t write.”

Zahir Janmohamed: Writer of Color

Essay in Guernica magazine on being asked to speak for a whole community and region rather than yourself.

I wanted to say I am not a political writer. My life has never been political, but sometimes, like that one time when I was dressed in my swim trunks and flip flops and flew to Miami with my friends and a TSA agent pulled me aside and questioned me about the nature of “my business in the U.S.,” well, then the story of my life is made “political.” I wanted to tell them that if being a writer is to endure loneliness then being a writer of color in America is to suffer banishment: the only boat off this island often being if I write a certain kind of story in a certain kind of way for a certain kind of audience, which is to say—and we do not say these words enough—for a white audience. But I could not get myself to say these things and instead I just stared at my brown fingers hovering above the black keys on my laptop, unable to type.

Open call for stories: How do you pray?

I admit it: I struggle with prayer. The month of Ramadan is coming up in the Islamic calendar, which means I’ll be fasting from sunrise to sunset everyday for 30 days. (If you’re counting, that’s no food or drink from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m.)

It’s a time of introspection and prayer. Yet when I’m deprived of a good night’s sleep and regular food, I tend to space out. A few years ago, after my pre-dawn meal and morning prayers, I returned to bed for a few more hours of sleep before the start of the day. In a state of half-sleep during this holy month, I imagined I was in the Emperor’s throne room in a musical version of Return of the Jedi. The old guy can dance, let me tell you.

Yet despite the difficulty (and the show tunes), Ramadan is an essential part of my spiritual life. So is daily prayer; there are times in my life where prayer actually helped me survive. These practices help me cultivate a sense of gratitude and even optimism about my life. So, creating a space for that practice is important to me. Read more

Almost the second draft

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Getting close to officially completing the second draft of my novel. Picked up a print-out of the book yesterday from Staples. I’ll start a full read-through next week and spend the next month or so finalizing the draft. A lot of positive changes came via my six-month mentorship at Banff. The book is currently 85,000 words (332 pages in this format), down from 91,000 when I started the mentorship. Before that started, I had already cut it down from the 120,000 words it was as an official first draft. Throughout the mentorship, I had this fantastic feeling of watching the book get better and better with each passing day. Now I’m curious to see how all the edits turned out.

Out in The Great Alone

Out in The Great Alone on Grantland:

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race pushes participants to the brink on an unforgiving trek to the end of the world. And, as one writer who tracked the race by air discovers, that is exactly the point.

A true work of art: literary journalism and exquisite online production. From the moment you first scroll down, you know you’re in for something special. And Brian Phillips is always enjoyable.

(P.S. Looks like the New York Times made a big splash with a piece called Snow Fall a few months prior to this. A must-see as well. Funny how they classify it under Projects as opposed to just News or Features.)

How To Make Write

how to make write by grant snider

Grant Snider

The Science of Sleeplessness

Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker looks at the bane of my existence: sleeplessness.

Each of us has an internal clock, or, to use Roenneberg’s term, a “chronotype.” Either we’re inclined to go to bed early and wake up at dawn, in which case we’re “larks,” or we like to stay up late and get up later, which makes us “owls.” (One’s chronotype seems to be largely inherited, although Roenneberg notes, not altogether helpfully, that the “genetics are complex.”) During the week, everyone is expected to get to the office more or less at the same time—let’s say 9 a.m. This suits larks just fine. Owls know they ought to go to bed at a reasonable time, but they can’t—they’re owls. So they end up having to get up one, two, or, in extreme cases, three hours earlier than their internal clock would dictate. This is what Roenneberg refers to as “social jet lag”—each workday, owls fall asleep in one time zone and, in effect, wake up in another. By the time the week is over, they’re exhausted. They “fly back” to their internal time zone on weekends and sleep in on Saturday and Sunday. Then, on Monday, they start the process all over again.