This birthday is a milestone year for me, and so far it’s been packed with enough revelation, accomplishment, and teachable moments for me to now comfortably say that I am not entirely fearless, but I’m as close to it as I’ve ever been. I do want to tell you about the only thing I truly feared for a long time, though. But before I get to that, let’s get caught up.
I traveled alone again, and wrote part of this sitting in an airport eating bitter chocolate, erasing and rewriting bits of this, and taking sips of mediocre coffee.
In the beginning, the trip felt more like a reward for simply surviving to see another birthday (iA), rather than the grand reverie some onlookers presume it to be. And I chose to celebrate in Costa Rica for two reasons: biodiversity (waterfalls, beaches, volcanoes), and because the country shares its birthday with me. I trekked two volcanoes and one waterfall. I prayed fajr on foreign soil. I ate the fruit that fell from the cas tree at the hostel, and observed the sunlight dance on the beads of water that gathered on the leaves of the coffee bean bushes, which grew just feet away from the cas tree.
As I mentioned in another blog, this year has been rough–a bike accident, a bout of depression, and a court case. I’ve dealt with them all while juggling bills, motherhood, writing, and my almost non-existent social life. And while that may sound like regular fare for any normal adult, trust me, functioning through those things was challenging for me. There were days when I wanted to lay in bed, cry, and give up on life because I was truly exhausted. Also, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t done the latter before…because I have.
Not only have I retreated from the world before. I’ve done it enough to be an expert at it. Disconnected numbers, deleted accounts–anything to keep the vultures at bay. I truly believe in retreating in solitude as an effective form of self-care.
But, whisking myself away to remote locations for five to seven days of bliss at a time throughout the year is not what this blog is about. Full transparency? The original concept for the blog was about meditation as an “escape pod”–a way to work through chronic anxiety and fear. But then, this retreat unexpectedly became a special one, because something changed during this trip. Then, I got home and still felt it.
Really, I feel immersed in the afterglow of that shift even now. So it took me a little longer to finish this, but it’s worth it to me because I wanted to share it with you.
I want to share the dream about the thing that I fear most.
The first thing to know is that the craft I’m referring to doesn’t exist in this plane at all. It’s actually a vessel–an oblong-shaped craft–that I found myself trapped in throughout a torturous recurring dream.
I began having the nightmare late last year. It was so bad, it probably spurred some of the my impulse eating around that time. I purposefully didn’t discuss it before I believe discussing nightmares is taboo; in Islam, you don’t voice bad dreams aloud.
Because you feed them power in that way. In fact, you feed all negative things power in that way. But, power can be harnessed too.
I do think that if you have the same dream enough, though, you can start to pick it apart. Really, I don’t think it would’ve been possible for me not to pick it apart. Especially when its message was so painfully clear.
Anyway, I never actually got to board the pod in the dream. I always just reverse-awakened in it instead. (Is there another way to shorten the term, “awakened within the dream”? I don’t know.) From what I could see through the presumably dense glass that shielded the bow of the craft, I always began the dream while descending to a strange, dusty plane that reminds me of the surface of Mars. Only, the air there was breathable. But I only found that part out recently.
Because I had never been able to get out of the pod in that dream before…until the one time that I could.
Each time, it usually just landed itself with little more than a soft thud, sending a flurry of copper-colored dust as it planted its pronged, metal feet precisely on alien ground. The hull lights always dimmed at that point, and the airlock released and shuttered open. And then the door went up, Lamborghini style, and I stared at the display screen for the millionth time. On it, glowing in neon green Helvetica font against the black, was the same thing that was always displayed there:
Write something great. Finish it. Publish it.
And it was fucking terrifying. It always was. The words–the mere concept of it. Since the third grade.
That was the first time I was told I was an “exceptional writer.” But I scoffed, even then. “Who am I to be an exceptional anything? I’m…simply M’Shai.”
Look. I’ve been through trauma. I’ve felt invisible. Perhaps that’s why I raged against being invisible later in life, even creating an alter ego to speak for me to yell my words over bass-heavy, downbeat chords. To raaaage for me. An exoskeleton to protect the raw, peeled and hemorrhaging underbelly of who I was inside at the time, to seal a wound before I completely bled out from the pressure I was under, and the memories I contended with daily. But I left that, too. Because after that season had served its purpose, the business of it and spotlight from it began to exhaust my spirit.
Also, it wasn’t my task.
My fear and my honor and my task is to write. It isn’t stuck to my ruh in a superficial way, like an adhesive note. No; it’s double upholstery stapled in place. Cemented, even. It was there before I picked up a flute as a child, stood in front of a microphone as a teen, or receded into the semi-safe world of editing as an adult. I know it’s my task because I can’t get around it, frustrating as it is for me at times. It’s not a destiny that accepts partial payments, either; I’ve fed it articles, blogs, and stories for anthologies. That only expanded it, made it hunger. I have to goddamn write. Memoir, poetry, and fiction press themselves against the outer walls of my resolve to stay a safer, saner course. The pressure is gentle at first. But then it oozes into my core, gradually compromising the structure of my life. Day job? Romance? Everything eventually gets drowned out by a nightly cacophony of me rattling away at my keyboard. Story after story. Most with their endings still pinging around in my skull.
So, as I sprint into another year on this blue-green blip, I do so with the understanding that I can never outrun this task. Nor can I exchange it for something similar and still live as though I’ve won. I have to finish the stories. In fact, I know that the fear of not finishing them is what triggers the nightmare.
The cruel truth is that my escape pod has always had the same trajectory for every voyage–a circular path. It always parked me at fear’s door and waited until I crossed some powerful yet invisible threshold I hadn’t been able to articulate until now. It always took me to the same place–even when I’d started to believe that my one task would always be a Sisyphean feat. It ignored me as I banged my fists against its dreadful autopilot display while it burned across the subconsciously produced alien sky of my nightmare world to the rust-colored powdery surface. And its arachnid looking feet unfolded as it lowered itself onto that surface even as my outer palms throbbed with pain from banging and screaming “Let me OUT!” over and over.
But there was never any sound in the dream except one. It was the sound that the pod’s airlock door made as it opened into the chamber that separated the small main deck from its exterior door, and the sound that singular door made as it hinged upwards and open–an awful hissing sound that had always triggered the end of the dream.
It’s why I thought of it as a nightmare for so long.
Until one night, it just changed. I woke up from it and knew that I would never have to to think of it in that way anymore. So, I can finally share it with you because I know exactly what changed it.
While in Costa Rica, I ended my birthday by putting the last edits into a novella I’ve been tangoing with for months.
Even though I’d spent the day alone with strangers, I felt surrounded by joy as the country celebrated its independence day. I sang Feliz Cumpleanos, drank water from a coconut, and let my back brown as I rested under the sun. First, I just popped open my laptop because I felt that the only way to end a such a perfect day was to write in peace with no time restraints at all, and nowhere to be. So that’s exactly what I did. But once I dug in and actually finished, I found that completing another story in a definite way made me the most inwardly proud of myself I’d been in years.
But, immediately after closing the documents, I drifted off to sleep and reverse awakened in that accursed pod again. I’m sure I frowned in my sleep, because I hadn’t had the dream for months and thought I had it beat.
This time, my palms were sweaty in the dream. I wiped them on the thighs of my loose fitting jumpsuit. The jumpsuit was the same shimmery teal colored material that it always was, and bore the same insignia of a moon and star embroidered on the left breast pocket in iridescent silver thread…just as it always had. I heard the familiar sound of the airlock opening, but not my own screams, as usual. Yet, the nightmare refused to end.
Maybe it’s because I didn’t look at the screen? I decided I wouldn’t. I paced the pod instead, which was something I hadn’t been able to do before. And it put me at ease in the dream–something I’d never felt before. I discovered that there were no proper names on any of the controls. From what little I know about dreams, I imagine that this is because my subconscious doesn’t know what the names of those controls would be. I don’t know or understand the minutia of engineering. Or aerodynamics. Or piloting. I only know writing. At least, I hope I do.
I paced the pod some more.
I squinted at the dials and saw that they were labeled with the names of unfinished stories, or characters from the latter. I looked at the most recent.
A poem I wasn’t brave enough to include in Woman in Sujud.
As I read the names of the stories, the sense of ease I felt left me and I felt an overwhelming sense of failure. I wanted the nightmare to be over that instant, and having been in it before, I knew precisely what I needed to do.
I spun on my heels and read the screen.
I read the Glowing Green Helvetica Word Monster that had terrorized my nightmare plane for so long.
But I found that it had changed:
You can do it. You’ve done it before. Hell…you just finished doing it. You can finish things, M’Shai. So go write.
I stared at it until my eyes blurred. Then I wiped the tears with the back of my left hand, dampening the sleeve of my jumpsuit. I read it again. The tone was so familiar. The voice of it was.
It’s because it was my tone. My voice. Me. I’m the Glowing Green Helvetica Word Monster. I’m my own boogeyman.
Before I could absorb what that meant, the screen blinked, and the writing changed again. I read it.
The door hinges upward and I do it. The dream doesn’t end and the strange world doesn’t dissolve and I don’t wake up in the purplest part of the night swathed in sweat and despair.
Instead, I just step out.
And just like that, I was no longer in a nightmare that I wanted to run from. I’d arrived in a space–a mindset–where I could flourish. There was serenity there; invisible, but settled over the miles of coppery dust like an atmospheric layer. I could finally see the pod from the outside, and name of the novella I’d just finished editing was painted on its side in huge letters. But there was nothing else there, not even fear. The droplets poured from face and fell onto the dust.
There was only me.
There’s always, always been only me.
And I know I may have the dream again. Little things in it will be different. Maybe next time I won’t smell the scent of freshly opened cas fruit when I step out of the craft, because I won’t be in Costa Rica. Or be wearing Balenciaga space boots. (They could’ve just been their regular, fat-ass sneakers, though. It’s easy to confuse the two.) Maybe there’ll be different characters’ names on the dials. Maybe the dream will revert back into a nightmare if I slow down and forget my task. So my answer is: I simply won’t.
Besides, I’ve written some new things down for myself in my little black notebook and I plan to manifest them. And now I feel good about my odds.
Because now I don’t fear what’ll happen if I leave the safety of the pod, because I’ve already stepped out. Already given myself permission to do so, and I’ll do it as many times as I need to until my task is done.
In fact, now I smile when I think of the dream. I even think of time spent pondering its new meaning as a little escape. My escape pod.
So. Who am I to be an exceptional anything? I’m M’Shai.
Now watch me work.