“Brown girls don’t get to be sad,” she said, her face marked by disgust and disbelief.
I put my head head down, looking at my hands, too ashamed to make eye contact with her again. She was a woman who was beautiful, but not pretty: strong jaw, long, thick jet black hair falling loose over her shoulders, eyes so dark you wondered what might be lurking in them, skin deep and rich like sweet dates. She wasn’t a small woman by any means – tall and full, her delicate green and gold sari juxtaposed the boldness of her outlines.
When she got onto the southbound train heading for downtown, everyone stared at her. She was the kind of person you want to understand as soon as you see her, she draws you in simply by existing. You find yourself wondering where she is coming from and where she is going.
On February 1st this year, my 78-year-old uncle suffered a severe seizure. Although he’s recovered physically, he hasn’t regained his former mental acuity. Following a hospital stay and stints at a nursing center and an assisted care home, he’s now living in a graduated-care senior living community. He can no longer drive and relies on the assisted living support in his new home for meals, house cleaning, and reminders on medications and bills.
The house he lived in for decades recently sold, a recognition that he’ll never go back to how he was. Just like that, he lost his independence in life.
When I first heard what had happened to Uncle Tom, I thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.” With every twist in his saga, I wonder if I’m looking at my own future. Tom and I are a lot alike, you see.
This Ramadan has been hard. The long summer solstice days and deep heat. The nation charged with racial tensions. The obligatory iftars, the late night taraweeh, the early suhoor. The problematic tafsirs with implicit “-isms” that are so triggering. The thirst, the faltering, the not knowing if your piety is enough, and the wondering why piety doesn’t entail feeling more.
It is in this time of chaos and reflection that I choose to write. It’s the only way I know how to calm my mind, to focus my feelings. I know that if I can commit myself to writing one poem every day, that in those words I find healing energy, time to reflect, and a connection with Allah. It is for this reason that every Ramadan I challenge myself to writing a poem daily.
This year marks the second year I’ve hosted an online Poetry a Day for Ramadan virtual writing group. With close to fifty members, the only rule for poets is they must commit to writing daily. They can share if they want to. Just write. Make art.
This month’s Radical Love column is a video essay recorded live at Common Grounds in Santa Ana, California. It begins at 2:48.
“This is what it means to be an immigrant living in California, smuggling seeds in Ziplock bags from the motherland or buying trees from the underground market for the illegal fruits & vegetables that tasted like home.”
Read more by Tanzila, here.
Tanzila Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles. She can be heard and read monthly on the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast and Radical Love column respectively. An avid writer, she was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny and is published in the Love, Inshallah anthology. Her personal projects include writing about Desi music at Mishthi Music where she co-produced Beats for Bangladesh, making #MuslimVDay Cards and curating images for Mutinous Mind State. Taz also organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles. You can find her rant at @tazzystar and at tazzystar.blogspot.com.
A friend once told me when I was going through a tough time that nothing is permanent. As a person of faith I know not even death is permanent. That piece of advice has helped me when I stumble into fits of melancholy. I remind myself when I’m having one of those days where despite my best efforts, sadness or frustration or anger keeps blocking my path, that this day won’t last forever. But one thing I have also learned is that once you lose someone, the grief over that loss never leaves.
After my mother died, I was sad, of course. The permanence of her absence made me feel hollow. I had never really known how to talk to my mother, but suddenly that was all I wanted to do. I yearned for just one more conversation, just one more time to hear one of her rambling stories that never seemed to have any beginning or end. I would really listen this time. I would ask the right questions that would reveal something of who she was before the nervous breakdown that changed her permanently. I grieved over what was too late, what could not be brought back.
I have seen this grief that lives in me take on many forms. Sometimes it’s gentle as a sleeping baby’s breath on your neck. Its warmth tickles me, a remembrance of the way she girlishly covered her mouth when she smiled or the way she ended every phone call with, “All the best in the world to you.” Sometimes it’s invasive like a fist in my throat, fighting to breathe, pain touching every nerve in my body. Most of the time it passes through like an unexpected summer breeze but sometimes it stays on long past its welcome and I have to shoo it out the door.
In seventeen years of marriage, my husband and I have lived in one foreign country and three different states. At each of these locations, we’ve changed our homes at least twice, shrinking and expanding from a tiny apartment to a bigger apartment, from a smaller duplex to a larger high-rise, from a modest townhome to single-family home. And, within each of these homes, we’ve been different people and a different couple.
Our first apartment was a one-bedroom in Santa Clara, California with carpet so stiff it seemed to crunch when you walked on it and a kitchen so small that only one appliance could be opened at a time. For the year that we lived in that apartment, I was a busy student, wrapping up my last year of college while applying to graduate school. My husband, Hadi, was applying to medical school while working. On some weeknights Hadi cooked. Other nights, we ate out. But in both cases, these meals had to be rushed. I had to get back to studying because weekends were reserved for visiting my parents over an hour’s drive away. School and family had always been my priorities; it seemed only natural to me that my husband would follow, the next in line.