Sunday, September 11, 2022

21 years

 I was 21 when 9/11 happened, and on this anniversary my life is literally sliced into perfect symmetry -- I lived half before this day, and half my life afterward.  In terms of pivotal moments, I can always pinpoint this day as a clear change in trajectory in my life. I was already on the path to becoming a teacher, a writer, an anti-racist thinker, an activist -- but this day propelled me into a passion for always learning more - about America's role in the world, about imperialism, capitalism and global power, about nationalism and its role in dividing and conquering people who have more in common than different from one another, across the world.

Many people assume that I started learning about Islam when I married my husband, but it was in 2001 that I responded to the attacks in New York by wanting to learn more, wanting to understand why when classmates or family members said "they hate our way of life/our freedoms", who is the "they" and who is "us".  I wanted/ to understand a faith vilified by American media before but especially after 9/11. I never knew then that I would be engaged in a mosque, be married to a Muslim man and raising 3 Muslim kids; so it wasn’t personal then, the way that it is now, 21 years later.  I simply wanted to learn more so that I could teach more, about love and compassion, common humanity, as well as the geopolitical reasons why the U.S. is so hated across the world. 

I still don’t always know what to do with my hands, often I write first, try to reflect and make a plan for action and then I try to act, to move, to help, to push toward justice.  One of the hardest parts of the days after 9/11 is that everyone wanted to help, but we couldn’t find ways to be helpful, and we felt helpless, and hopeless.  We tried donating blood, the lines were 7 hours long on the first day, but they didn’t pull people out alive, and ended up not needing extra blood like they anticipated, which was a terribly grim reality.  We wanted to go downtown to volunteer somewhere, but the air was toxic and they wouldn’t let anyone unauthorized below Houston St.  We flocked out to the streets, to Union Square Park, Washington Square, any public space we could find, to see what we could do, to organize, to connect, to write messages to loved ones, to mourn, to hope, to try and figure out how we could act, how we could be useful. 


The first night, we took to the streets to chalk messages to our community.  It was a tangible action that Louisa, Jennie, Nicole, Emily, Eli and Eleanor came up with that felt important, would be visible, encourage critical thinking about the media we were all consuming and the immediate message of nationalism and unquestioned patriotism that seemed to be all around us.  In the face of the unknown in the morning, with tanks rolling down University Place outside my bedroom window, it felt like something we could control. We received a lot of supportive cheers and “right ons” and some haters, but it felt important and right.  After that night, we turned to focus on anti-war protests, and more locally, a teach-in at our college about Islam, using the opportunity to organize on campus about the anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiment that was already spreading like wildfire around the city, and the country.  A woman in Hijab attacked in a grocery store parking lot in Queens.  Sikh men mistaken for Muslim harassed on the train.  The polarizing “us” (read:  white, Christian, straight, male = “American” 🙄) vs. “them” (read: non-white or racially ambiguous, non-Christian, queer, female/marginalized genders = “unAmerican”) in a terrifying throwback to McCarthyism of the 1950s.

One detail I’ve failed to write about very often in 20 years is the missing posters.  They still haunt my dreams to this day.  Photos of loved ones, wedding photos, people with their children and their families, on vacations, professional headshots from work, what floor of the towers they worked on (99th floor, 102nd floor, 86th floor) and how to get in contact with their loved ones if they were found.  Every available surface across the city was plastered with missing posters, starting Tuesday afternoon and multiplying throughout the week like viral .  I would turn a corner and see a wall of scaffolding on a building covered in them, and immediately begin crying.  I would stop and read them, look into their faces, trying to hold space for each of them, since I didn’t have anywhere to go or be that first week while classes were canceled.  Each encounter a private memorial service, because I knew, as many of their families knew when creating them, that they were probably not alive.  But there were miracles of escape and folks delayed on the trains who never made it to work that day, and we heard these stories as we escaped to the bars for a sense of normalcy, comfort and release from the stresses around us. 

All this time later, I am thinking about the ways that we took action, the ways that we held space for each other to process and grieve, and the ways that we forged new community in the face of tragedy.  It is true that New Yorkers felt connected in a clear way, but we were not united under patriotism, as is often the narrative: rather many of us were united under the banner of being anti-war and NOT retaliating, though of course, this event led to a 20 year war beginning in Afghanistan and shifting to Iraq, where in response to the loss of nearly 3,000 lives, our military took over one million lives.  We cannot call out terrorism, then perpetuate it with millions of times of the military power, and still call ourselves the Land of the Free.  We cannot limit citizens’ freedoms with the Patriot Act, and insist that we are still the model of equality and human rights. Yet, this is America, and we are exactly this hypocrisy, as Frederick Douglass told us.

But we MUST face history to remember, we must look clearly at the past in order to make change in the present and NOT repeat what has been told to us as the truth.  We must critically question the media, create our own media, share our stories, write our own histories, so that history is not only told from the winner’s perspective (Orwell, 1942), or tainted with red-white-and-blue colored glasses.  

Monday, July 25, 2022

in avoidance of hard truths

i have been avoiding reading and writing all summer, and i'm a bit embarrassed about it.  i have touted writing as my go-to in terms of how i process and heal, and in a summer of proclaimed healing and resting from the tough school year that ended in June... it seems like i'm avoiding something.  i'm circumventing hard truths right now, i realized in therapy last week, and intentionally not-writing so that i do not look at myself in the mirror.  

now seems like a good time to unpack that, and i'll start with this:  there is going to be unprecedented school staff shortages in the fall/next month.  programs will close, departments will shift, schools will shutter, lots of things will shift to virtual, which is a hierarchy in the quality and personal attention of public education.  the institution of public schools is in the process of ending, and what it will become is what so many Republicans have been working toward for the past two decades of my life and work: voucher systems, private charters with no accountability, an exacerbation of the school-to-prison-pipeline which places our Black and Brown students online to self-navigate through computer correspondence courses, and calls that an education.  segregated schools have never left our national ideology, we know this. 

i don't know what this means for me.  how long can i exist inside of a toxic system that does not want to see young people as human beings with aspirations, goals, lives to build?  i want to work in a place where my contributions are valued, truly, not with awards and vague understanding of what i do, but in a way that uplifts our community, empowers our young people and encourages them to build long and lasting relationships with teachers, friends and family as they grow and understand themselves.  

we need to address the violence that has taken so many young people in our community.  how COVID-19 has ravaged and set grief upon our families at an even more accelerated rate.  how poverty and houselessness have impacted us.  we need to have spaces to process, grieve collectively and work toward healing, share resources and hold each other up.  this has always been my goal in working within schools: to use my location to positively impact the community, but it must extend beyond the schoolhouse to families and the community.  if we teach restorative practices at school, but they learn something different at home, who are they going to trust?  and why should they trust the school at all? 

i don't know what's next.  i do know that i've begun to put into the universe what i want, that i've spent time building relationships with other circlekeepers who i deeply value and respect, and that my love for my work is reaffirmed whenever i have the opportunity to be in circle with others.  i had such an opportunity this morning and i'm convinced it's the reason why the words are flowing out of me now.  i have to stay open, and willing to connect with others.  but grief and healing is really hard and ugly work, and i have to commit to it, for myself, for my children, for my students, for my husband and family and friends.  i need to be the best version of myself, and that begins with taking the time to rest, to unpack, to resolve, to heal, to dance and locate joy wherever life will bring it.  

also, there is so much pain in our community, and i must heal myself so that i can help others be able to navigate their pain, and provide resources and empowerment to parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles just like i have tried to do with students over the past 20 years (and will continue to do with young people, no matter what path i walk).  real healing work does take the whole hood, and United Playaz continues to inspire as i figure out the next way forward to a Better Me, and a Better Us.  our young people deserve it, as does each member of our beloved community.  

Saturday, February 19, 2022

titles change things

working on poems with my 9th graders, and just finished a poetry unit with my 10th graders, we've moved onto a Jason Reynolds book and i am finding the rhythm of back in the building, in a new system (quarters) where I must work hard to build relationships and pack content into 9 weeks.  it's challenging, and i appreciate challenge, but this year it almost seems like too much to do anything more than teach my classes.  the work life balance has shifted since COVID, and i want to be more present at home, especially as winter melts into spring (maybe sometime, right now we're covered under a fresh 6 inches).  by the time i get home from work, i have used all of my patience.  i feel anxious.  i want a clean, quiet space to help with my anxiety, and my home is the opposite.  i don't know when i will ever get used to a maladjustment of my spirit, but i do know that titles change things.  we wear the mask in our buildings, and we read dunbar, angelou's riff of dunbar and deonte osayande as we asked ourselves which masks we wear.  here's the mask i wear: 

at this point, 
i have become 
used to wearing
the villain mask.
I, terrorist of the
living room kingdom.

i am tired of the mess:
your worst storms, 
amplified by years of
desert island isolation.
i am under a spell 
of exhaustion. 
tempered and tan-toned,
i have become 
exactly what i said
i wouldn't.

i don't know how to unsee
the mountains, how to let 
the molehills slide,
how to stay quiet like breath
when you thunder-rumble.
i am tired of asking, 
and getting silence
in return.  you are tired
of talking, and i am a griot.

i turn off myself 
like a light switch.
taking rest and searching
for what i need in
wild dreams of turquoise
water on our skin. 
i have to be the hero
of my own life, even
if i'm always the villain
of yours. 

titles change things: 
(mom poem #893453495)

Saturday, February 5, 2022

joy and rest

well, to answer my last post, yes, i do know how to rest.  but i have turned a corner and fallen from a steep cliff, my body needs the rest so much that i cannot climb out of bed.  it has been a winter where i've consciously been focusing on joy and rest, but it seems that the joy is centrally located in my classroom, and the rest happens at home.  to be clearer, i beeline from the front door to my "home clothes" to my bed.  this hibernation is normal for me every year, but it is not yet normal to my kids, and it's to a deeper degree than in previous years. 

i am trying to create spaces for joy and quiet during the winter, as a part of our practice.  we slow down, we read, we create, we connect, we gain inspiration from the stars, we are cozy, we sleep.  this is the counterclaim to their vibrancy, and they're not sure what to do with all this gray.  i promise i will get my color back, in the spring and summer. 

the winter is an important time to rest, and yet i've been struggling with the guilt around it.  i should be doing more, i should be cleaning this, organizing that, showing up at this event.  i am so, so tired, though, and i am struggling to hold space for the grief that has taken over my body.  i just need to be here with her, and let her wreak havoc.  we must break open to heal, and must trust that rest is what we really need. 

thank you for being with me as i break open, and fold over, and hunker down in the snow.  spring will come.  in the meantime, joy in the everyday and allowing the rest my bones need. 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Anxiety and a Break

I realized a few weeks ago just exactly how much I am struggling.  My house is a mess and I can't find the energy to correct it or care.  I miss people, but I feel so anxious each time I'm in a public situation (including work), that I cannot find ways to reconnect in person that make me feel safe.  I don't know when I will enjoy being at shows or at a bar or party again.  My kids are struggling to get along with each other at home, and with peers at school.  There is an anger seething on the surface of everyone, which of course is grief presenting itself with armor.  We are sad.  We are depressed.  We are grieving, and still unable to celebrate and mourn together in the ways that are most healing. 

I preach mental health all day, everyday, to anyone who will listen, and of course it has been hardest for me to take my own advice.  But in my daily struggles with managing my life, it's really hard to make the time and space for myself, and I need to see this as a fundamentally flawed way to exist.  I cannot sustain this anymore.  I finally got myself to the doctor last week, and asked for a referral to begin therapy again.  I started meds for the first time since I was in my early 20's.  I realized that as much as I've been holding it together, I am not functioning well, at home or at work, and I needed to take action to care for myself, truly... not in the vapid, consumerist ways that we talk about self-care, but in the deeper ways, the difficult ways, doing the things we have been avoiding for so long. 

So, here I am, fumbling in my anxiety and on my computer on the first day of break.  Do I know how to rest?  Do I know how to take care?  Let's find out. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Reflections on Q1

        I don't remember any other quarter in a school being so tough.   We are understaffed, exhausted, and all meeting'd out.  We are trying our best as human beings stretched thin, caring for our own families and our school family.  This is the prime place for students to begin to have some ownership over their school, and where leadership can begin, but it also feels like we're always on the precipice of disaster.  Adults are in reactive mode instead of thoughtfully planning longterm, myself included, and I think what we need to do is quietly reflect and sharpen our craft, instead of create the turmoil of change, again.   

     Everyone wanted to return to school so badly, myself included.  We also knew, and planned for, the trauma and pain that students would be carrying when we returned, but it is a deluge more powerful than I have the words for.  I can't talk about resilience when there's still so many funerals, some for COVID, but many for the gun violence that our community is experiencing, daily.  We are hardest hit by multiple pandemics, and many students don't know how to navigate it all.  Adults don't either.   

    In week 4 of the quarter, we had a circle in the media center where a young person spit the truest game I have heard in 14 years of teaching.  She laid out a play-by-play narrative of why students don't engage in school and what they're actually dealing with during the rest of their day.  I will think about her often throughout my life, and her challenge to educators to build lasting relationships and actually be there for students in a meaningful way.  The rawness of her grief allowed me to share my own and to remind myself of why I'm here.  I placed myself here for a reason. 

     All I know how to do is to keep showing up everyday, and keep trying to build relationships, to show that I care, to check-in and be consistent.  All that I know how to do is infuse power into the young people I am blessed to be in front of, and I weigh this quarter as successful if they see that within themselves.  Maybe they won't yet, but I'm confident that we have planted seeds that they will sow later.  More than anything, I hope that they remember ACCE as a place where we tried to take care of their whole selves, while healing ourselves.   There is so much more work to do, but many hands make light work. 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

20 years.

this year, we had an early soccer game, a play date in the open, breezy air at the park by the river, and it was rather lazy and uneventful.  i am grateful for the distance, and the reflection.  it truly feels like another life, but my body remembers each year.  

different details open up in the corridor of my memory, this year i am thinking about the ways that we tried to volunteer in the days afterward, trying to give our helplessness a job, trying to think of others instead of focusing on how we were feeling and doing.  with kids sleeping on my floor in Union Square, and dorms unable to access, with mental health on edge for each person in the city, we didn't know what to do with ourselves, with all the time of classes cancelled.  trains not running.  phones often busy and cell phones unreliable.  the smell of fire hanging in my nostrils for weeks, but blowing that first day toward Brooklyn and then uptown.  if we had open windows, we all had the silt coating our windowsills and mantles.  the ghosts were all up in our conversations that first night.  we were out in Union Square, attending vigils, rallies, there when the antiwar marches began, and through the next few months as countless families of those missing told us that they did not want retaliation, for more sons and daughters to die. 

a few panels from a zine that Jenna Freedman of the Barnard Zine Library unearthed for the anniversary this year. 

this is what i'm thinking about most this year, in a never-ending quarantine - what do we do with our hands?  we tried to give blood, they didn't need any.  tried to donate food/water/supplies for the rescue, everyone kept wanting to go downtown and i couldn't go there for years.  so I bought dog food for the rescue dogs. 

in 2003, taking the path train into the open carcass of the wreckage unexpectedly set off a panic attack.  20 years later, there is a haze over the direct route to the terror of that day, I have closed off corridors that are harder to navigate in my memory.  collective trauma brought us together, but I knew that I would need to write it down, because I forgot much of it.  still feel this way about ghosts, and they're still here. 

the missing posters are something i've seen in dreams for years.  the North tower falling, the plumes of smoke.  i keep wishing for a new revelation to surface, after 20 years of reflecting, and it's the same thing.  tomorrow isn't promised, we never know what tomorrow will bring, if it will come, so we have to be prepared to look death in the face.  take the afternoons to sit by the river and spend time with good friends.  keep fighting imperialism, oppression, terrorist tactics perpetrated by individuals or governments, systems that reinforce white supremacy. keep questioning the media, keep doing your own research, protect ourselves in the face of a ravaging pandemic, take care of each other.  envision what our world can look like if we take climate change seriously and act with urgency.