Monday, February 17, 2014

Almodovar inspires: Life is not just an endless, onward push into oblivion

Van Gogh's "The Olive Trees" 1889
In the small masjid that flanks the west side of the house, we sit fanning our faces with our hands, the air heavy and warm against our necks. Maghrib prayer has just ended and our hosts are seated at the front of the masjid, their voices soft in the din of cicadas that rises from the grove outside. They speak of their efforts with Junta Islamica, an organization dedicated to the establishment and integration of Islam in Spain and Web Islam, a project of Junta Islamica that focusses on the dissemination of information about Islam in Spanish

Over the years, Web Islam has become the primary Spanish language website providing information about Islam. It aims to fulfill what we've quickly come to recognize as a hunger for information related to Islam. There is a genuine curiosity among the local populations to investigate a history that weighs heavy with Islamic influences, a history that simultaneously seems to coincide with and provide new light on modern day events. I make note of the website and then slide my journal into my satchel, my eyes drifting to the doorway.

Outside, there is a fountain-tap – a tiled structure with taps that stream cool water used for ablution before prayer. The masjid spills a circle of light onto the pebble-flecked dirt that is packed around the fountain. I step over ankles and knees and slip my feet into my shoes.

The sky is inky blue, almost black, and it rises in breaths of stars. I stand at the edge of the grove, where long strands of dry grass have webbed themselves into heaps that scrape at my ankles. I look into the darkness between the trees. Olive trees are squat; their branches drape low and I can reach out and hold a young green olive between my fingers. The leaves are small and slim, they taper to a point and I think of what my mother – an avid gardener – would notice if she were standing here in my place, these stems of olives in her hands.

"Olive Grove Night Drive"

But as I look into the trees, I am frustrated with my own insistence that there must be meaning, that there is something to be gained from simply making an effort to find it. This insistence that meaning must exist wherever I look is the kind of hunger that isn’t satisfied. It doesn’t allow for a moment to simply exist, for you to exist in it as a point among many points in a diagram of infinity. It dismisses insignificance and makes an appeal for purpose, for signs, for something that tells you that you are here and you matter, this matters, the world itself matters. But as I stand in the grass, brushing my ankle with the toe of my shoe to disperse imagined insects, I want to simply be still. To allow myself the simplicity of existence. Of being here just because He decided to put me here.

Something lands with a thud by my shoe. I bend and find a purple, plastic pony, its nylon hair gleaming in the light. I turn, pony in hand, and find a small girl standing a few feet from me, a half-smile tilting her lips. She wears a cotton flowered dress, her hair in a slim braid that juts out from the back of her head. I smile and fling the pony into the air, watching it arc into the sky. As it rockets down, I reach out and catch it in midair. The girl skips and breaks out a smile. I toss the pony to her and she reaches out to catch it. It bounces off her shoulder and hits the ground.

She picks it up, throws it to me, and I catch it. She jumps, clapping her hands together.

            Me llamo Khadeeja. She points to her chest. Como te llamas? She points at me with her chin.

            Me llamo Shoilee. I press my hand to my chest.

We toss the pony back and forth skirting the edge of the olive grove, the moon a saucer behind us in the sky. As the pony arcs through the air, sometimes landing at our feet, sometimes hitting an elbow or flicking off the tips of our fingers, we trade words.

            I point to the olive trees.

            Oliva, she says.

            Oliva, I repeat. I turn and point to the sky. Moon.

            La Luna, she waves her hand in the air.

            I toss her the pony. She catches it and her eyes widen. I cheer.

 She flings the pony into the air. It sails past me and rolls into a heap of dried grass.

We toss the pony back and forth – oliva, la luna – before I head to the fountain. The group has begun to spill outside, women reclining against the fountain, breathing in the night air. One of the women turns on the faucet and splashes water onto her face, leaning forward into the spray. Even after sunset, the heat is thick, the air like a sodden blanket on our faces. The tiles are wet from splatters of water. I find a dry spot and sit, leaning back on my arms. Khadeeja stretches out on her back next to me, her eyes squinting in the dark. She asks me a question in Spanish, her brows furrowed. The words spin from her mouth in quick succession. I shake my head and offer her a half-shrug. She wrinkles her nose.

             I ripple my fingers towards the sky.

             Stars. What do you call them?

             La estrella. 

Khadeeja raises her hands in the air and then clasps them over her chest. She turns to me, her gaze insistent. She repeats her question twice, then three times and I can do nothing but shake my head and smile weakly.

I have no words to offer her – I wish for the ability to say something more, to have words click with meaning in my mind and roll off my tongue in those fleshy notes of Spanish that seem to dance out of peoples mouths so musically. I lean toward her and smile.  She sighs. She speaks to the sky. She speaks with such emphasis, her brows furrowed, her lips screwed tight, her hands playing with the air. In moments, her voice drifts into soft, dreamlike tones and it is as if she is the only one here, lying under that giant platter of a moon, ripples of light painting stripes across her face.

Gathering for our evening meal. Photo: Khalidah Ali

In a few moments, everyone trickles out of the mosque and gathers on the verandah for a home-cooked dinner. The walls are a burnt-orange and in the light that spills from fixtures that look like lanterns, everything glows. We balance small clear bowls of brothy soup on plates piled with potatoes that are so soft, they fall apart on our tongues, with stewed eggplant that boast a tart, but heavy-bodied flavour that heats us from the belly up. There is warmth and simplicity in this food; it fills us up and our hunger is stayed, but it does something else too. In the best possible fruition of clichés, it fulfills the most basic of bodily needs, while triggering our souls into a state of gratitude.

It is awe that propels us into gratitude – look at where we are, our legs dangling over the edge of a verandah that overlooks an olive grove, the soft burn of conversation rising around us, this limitless sky, this gift of a perfect evening. But, there is also fear, this unrest that curdles in the centre of your chest and spreads out in a paralytic haze. This is the burden of gratitude.

Home cooked meal at Almodovar. Photo: Memona Hossain
Dua – the act of calling out to Allah (swt) is something that we consciously do, but it is also something that our hearts, in commune with our souls, is in a constant state of doing, sometimes without conscious effort. Our souls attach themselves to their Creator and it is as if when our existence begins, we are in a lifelong battle to return to Him. When there is pain in our lives, often so overwhelming it creates a state of numbness inside us, it is a manifestation of our need to connect, to be understood, to rise from the daily infliction of pain in its multitude of forms and simply be relieved, to exist in a state where you no longer have to get up.

With our hearts in their vulnerable, even nightmarish states of pain, disease, and disillusion, I don’t wonder at our inability to articulate what it is we need to heal ourselves. And I think, it is in these stretches of silence that the duas we never thought to make, are taken up by Him and fulfilled. When we are given moments like this, when we experience connection and unity and fulfillment, when we find ourselves standing up with every cell in our bodies somehow revived, it is thrilling, but it is also terrifying.

Awe can bring us to gratitude, but gratitude is also a state of awe. And perhaps this is it – the acute understanding of His magnitude, His endless mercy, His understanding of every shadow that spreads like a watermark across our hearts – perhaps this is what brings us to our knees. This is what makes us know how small we are, but also how much what we do matters. The realization that everything matters – moments don’t just blip on and on into an endless compendium of other moments. They exist as pinpoints in a map of our life, every moment contributing to the next one, every destination a prerequisite for how we can or will be in the moments to come and how those moments affect and collide with moments in a million other lives in ways we can’t begin to imagine.

And so, this evening with the Almodovar community of Muslims, this witnessing of community revival and survival, this experience of how vast and varied the spread of Islam was and continues to be, this union of goodness among people of such diversity – it places the tremendous weight of gratitude upon our hearts. But, with this weight, there is hope. Life is not just an endless, onward push into oblivion. There is hope that what we do with what we are given, however small and labored our efforts, is accounted for, is part of something bigger that we haven’t come to comprehend, but we believe in. It’s how we go on.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Almodovar: Against Soft Sighing Skies

Early evening light drips through the giant windows of the tour bus and we lean our heads against the glass. We've spent the morning at the Grand Mosque in Cordoba and now, as the sun slowly makes its way across the sky, we wind our way up a road that twists round hills of dry earth. We are just outside Cordoba en route to a family farm in the hills, where the Almodovar community of Spanish Muslims are hosting us for salat al-maghrib (evening prayer) and dinner. As the bus heaves up the hill, I place my hand against the glass and feel the warmth against my fingers. I hardly know where I'm being taken, but this sense of submission, of being lead to where you need to be, no input required, is liberating.  

"Look up there -- " Our guide, Tariq (from Andalucian Routes), points to the hills. We shift in our seats and follow his gaze. The skies are already yellowed from the onset of evening. "Do you see that building? That's Madinat Al Zahra -- that's where we're going tomorrow." Tariq holds the microphone loosely in his right hand and there's a furrow in his brows as he explains how we will visit the ruins of a palace built by Abdur Rahman III, that we'll walk through the remnants of what was once the most functional, advanced, and prosperous city of its time. 

Tariq has a particular way of speaking that even on this -- the second day of our travels -- I've come to enjoy. He is impassioned, but not overbearing. His accent doesn't have the grating edge of a posh Londoner and though I know he's from Birmingham, his intonations are soft, but quick, one word kicking into the next in quick succession. Combined with his placid demeanour, his voice has the unique effect of simultaneously engaging and calming you. 

Out the window
I scan the hills--mounds of green shrubbery dot rippled earth that alternates from ruddy brown to light shades of dry brush. I spot a sprawling building perched against the rocky cuts of earth -- its walls are a soft, butter yellow and the ledges are carved into delicate motifs that seem to scrape gently into the surrounding scenery. I glance around the bus to see if I've spotted the right structure and as if reading my mind, Tariq leans over and looks out the window. 

"No--no--not the monastery. That big yellow building is the monastery. There -- up, on the left." He points again and as I shift my gaze, the bus rounds a curve and the view is lost. 

Shaykh Abdullah Hakim Quick sits at the front of the bus, just in front of where Tariq now stands, and when Tariq pauses, he turns in his seat and speaks to the group. 

We are immediately attentive. As anyone who has grown up listening to the Shaykh's lectures knows, his measured, but direct manner of speaking has the effect of making you pay attention. Every sentence seems to have a push of energy behind it, an intensity that exhales into a state of awe--it's as if he is always marvelling at how things are and how they could be. 

"Madinat Al Zahra is the point when the idea of building palaces for yourself, the idea of a leader somehow deserving a palace--this marks the beginning of a loss of imaan (faith)." He nods, his glance flitting up the aisle, then resting at some distant point out the window. He turns back, handing the microphone to Tariq. 

Already, there is a sense of loss that accompanies each site we visit. As the bus lurches on, up this winding road that seems to curve on and on into the burning horizon, I have the distinct feeling of being placed in a story, of knowing what it truly means to be a traveller. You step forward into new landscapes with your chest split down the middle, your ribs yanked open like a gateway. The good --  it flows in easy and you walk on eager, chin lifted to the sun. But to lead with an open heart, is to walk forth vulnerable and exposed, every branch in your path scraping your heart raw, every moment you experience taking hold and not letting go. And though this can injure, I think there really can be no other way to travel -- not if you want the experience to be more than fleeting. 

We have moved deep into the hills and as the bus curves round, we see the first signs of the village -- lines and lines of whitewashed houses stacked like lego bricks at the base of a hill. Tariq points out the window again, half smiling. 

Almodovar Castle, Cordoba
"They've got a castle in their backyard." 

High up on a hill, rising up from the earth like an ancient fairytale is the Almodovar Castle. Built by Muslims in the year 760, it was lost almost five hundred years later to Fernando III in the year 1240. It stands today on one of the highest points of the landscape, perched like a crown against soft sighing skies, a testament to the way history will unravel itself in slow, but deliberate turns, every catastrophic loss a pinpoint on a map we can only see in fragments. There is perfection, but we see it in hindsight; we hardly recognize the light or the beauty until we stand at the very edge looking back.  It could not have happened any other way.

The eastern sky sighs from blue into white and we circle round and round, higher, then deeper. We snap pictures, our shoulders pressed up against the glass, the reflections in the window showing up as gleaming streaks in our photos, the flashes from our cameras as flaring, artificial moons. 

The bus pulls to the side of the road and exhales, slowing to an abrupt halt. 

Into the bush

Cicadas -- we are off the bus and trekking down a wide path of hard-packed dirt into a deafening cacophony of shrieking cicadas. The path is lined with thick vegetation -- short, stubby pomegranate trees with nubs of small fruit, low draping branches of olive trees, the giant, dinosaur-like aloe vera that looks monstrous enough to eat you. The incline of the hill is not severe, but we are breathless once we reach the clearing. Here, the rest of the group has already gathered. Tariq stands next to a young man -- he is slight, his features gentle. He smiles wide. 

"Welcome--" He addresses the group in English, a Spanish lilt edging his words in thick strokes. He tells us that this place -- a family farm, but also a hub for Islamic gathering and learning -- was started by his father, a Spanish Muslim, and continues today through the efforts of his children and the local Spanish Muslim community. As the day slips out from under us, I smile. There is loss at every turn, but then there is this -- a small community of Muslims amid groves of olive trees. Muslims, here in Spain, passing the branch of Islam from one generation to the next, and the next -- 

Almodovar, Cordoba

The horizon deepens to rust and we climb an iron staircase that leads to the rooftop.  From here, we stare out at the plains where lines and lines of olive trees roll over the dry earth in calligraphic strokes of brooding green. We lean over the railings almost breathless -- the sun burns low behind the hills and the sky sinks from bright white to purple shadow, the air still. And all the while, cicadas buzz like electricity in voltage lines -- everything seems electrified. We take turns posing for pictures with the backdrop of the castle behind us and at sunset, a hush spreads through the group. The adhan, quiet amidst the hum of the cicadas, undulates outward into the plains, or emanates from it -- it seems part of the landscape, rolling out from the earth itself. 


The call to prayer is just a human voice that beckons people to submit. To come, acquaint yourselves with success, to walk forth in the name of your Creator, to press your forehead against the earth and know with certainty that He made you. That your heart, that nub of flesh that winds in upon itself in hurt, in grief, in anger, in rebellion, in abandonment, in hope -- that your heart is made by Him and He knows, He knows. Every pulse of pain that makes you cave inward -- He knows. Every grief that has you press your hand against your chest to dull the ache  -- He knows. And the adhan -- it calls you to Him, to return again and again and again to the one thing that will relieve and revive you, to the one thing that will carry you through.

Adhan in Almodovar
Photo Credit: Khalidah Ali

The group slowly files back down the steps to the mussalah (a dedicated prayer space) to join in congregational prayer. I turn back and rest my arms on the railing -- I know that this was written for me, for each of us. To think that He wrote this moment for me -- standing on a rooftop in the plains outside Cordoba, me and these brilliant burning skies -- to think that He put each of us here so we could speak to Him, so we could bear witness to the perfection of His plan -- is this not a blessing? Is this not mercy? 

The sun has sunk low and the horizon is ink against the fire of the sky. I am alone on the rooftop and the cicadas still hum, their buzz like the white noise of rainfall all around me. I hurry down the steps to join my companions. 

Stay tuned for Part II of our visit to Almodovar.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Greetings from Al-Andalus: Contemplation (1)

My journey to Al-Andalus -  the Medieval Islamic empire that covered what is now Spain, Portugal, and the Southern bit of France -- was something I'd booked with hardly a second thought a few months ago. It was a historical tour of Islamic Spain with Sh. Abdullah Hakim and guided by Andalucian Routes. After a quick browse of the website and an additional week in Morocco added to supplement the time we would spend in Spain, it was booked and almost forgotten.

In the days leading up to my departure, I found myself in a such a hectic frenzy of obligations, I hardly had the time to reflect on what I was doing. I didn't pack until the night before and I barely checked our itinerary until the day of our actual flight. I relied on my friends to tell me when to be at the airport -- and for someone as OCD about flight times and details as I am, this was just something else. I wanted to avoid this kind of frenzy, this mindless onward push through life, but there I was yet again, in the midst of it all, barely breathing. 

“[Those] Who remember Allaah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], 'Our Lord! You did not create this aimlessly…'” [Quran 3: 191]

Contemplation. This is what leads us from one peak of our life to the next. It's what guides us out of our valleys, up onto the rocky sides of mountains we don't think we can climb, to the brief plateaus where we marvel in awe, in grief, in submission, and up, up, up to the highest point of our lives. 

Life pulls you on and on and sometimes it pulls you so far in, you are pulled apart. You wake each morning and you fulfill your obligations in a state of numb disarray; you do because you must, or simply because it's what you've always done. A litany of destination points stretch out before you--you will meet each one and then you will move on to the next and you will go on doing and doing. And the years will pass. 

There is a point high above you on the horizon that you never reach -- perhaps you're not even aiming for it. It's a point that remains in your peripheral vision all your life, and though you can see it, you don't always know how to get there. Sometimes the desires of the self, rather than the soul, lead you down other routes. Other times you are lost in the syncopated rhythm of life, every step another beat in an unknown direction. But that point was placed for you in your line of vision and it never moves -- in His wisdom, it's there even when we look the other way. When we turn towards it, He pulls us in. It's the point that leads us home, to Him, to the kind of fulfillment that holds your heart and fills it with light.  

Our hearts -- our hearts -- they are strong and resilient, but when they are in a state of pained existence, or worse, when the heart is in a state of such worn fatigue that it simply wants to lie flat in a plane of nothing, because in the absence of everything at least it can find rest -- in this state, the rest of the body suffers, the minds suffers, and the soul--it wants to flee. Because truly, how does one exist when nothingness replaces your heart? 

Al-Andalus was a point placed on my horizon and when I reached it and looked up, I felt my heart unfurl in the way a leaf uncurls itself to soak in the morning light--hesitant, but so eager for nourishment. I am no great human being; none of us deserve the blessings we receive; they come to us in blinding waves of mercy from Him because even as we cradle our own hearts in fear, even as we build fortresses around our hearts in a desire to protect, He knows our hearts more than we do. He knows, and so He gives. 

I do not want to be the traveller who stands before the wonders of His creation and can only see the inside of her own mind. To contemplate the state of your heart and relate what you see to your own life, desires, and purpose is beneficial. But left unbalanced, it can very quickly draw you into a vacuum where you trap yourself inside your own struggles and fail to truly see the blessings that have been placed before you and the responsibility that has been laid gently, but pointedly into the palm of your hand. If you do not lift your head to breathe, you will miss the brilliance of how the world works so beautifully, you will miss the warmth that exists between your fellow beings, you will miss the miracles. 

Contemplation. This is an all-encompassing act - it combines the necessity of inner reflection with the twin necessities of external connection and individual action. Contemplation stirs the heart so it can beat in the world again, purposefully, with direction. It is what allows us to receive the blessings we are given with humility and gratitude. 

“[Those] Who remember Allaah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], 'Our Lord! You did not create this aimlessly…'” [Quran 3: 191]

He did not create all this, or us, aimlessly. Every moment has a purpose. Our lives sometimes seem like maps of scattered constellations -- how do we make sense of it all? But there is wisdom in the way our lives spin out before us, wisdom that we don't understand until we're standing at the edge of the map looking back and taking everything in. Only at the edge of not knowing can we look back and see so clearly how everything in our lives is laid out in precision, how every moment had a distinct purpose and that we are brought to where we are by virtue of a thousand moments that only He could place in our path.

I pray these records of my contemplations in Al-Andalus will be ways of striving towards an understanding of our ultimate purpose. May they be sources of goodness for me, and for others, InshaAllah (God Willing). 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Be Still: The Art of Not Writing (or, Writer's Block)

I was in that place -- that lush, viney creative jungle where everything is vivid, colours blare, and the ideas seem endless--everything is bright and ready. The grey of your everyday is  electric with detail and there are connections everywhere. Small things, subtle things, they zip across your line of vision and you hold them; they have weight, potential meaning. You can string together an entire life in a night, or tunnel into the psyche of a character who lay lifeless for months. It's a great place to be. Life resumes purpose and you can smile again.

But there are dangerous thoughts.

The creek will run dry--this seems like a non-negotiable conclusion. Eventually there will be nothing to say. You'll reach that place where you look out across a burning skyline and think that this is nothing new, that this is just sky. There are no spires tipping into the wilting fog--there is sky and concrete and the heavy burden of people's stories. This is drudgery. This is too much. Your world is a dry plateau and  if you thrust your heel into the earth, there is a disconsolate thud and nothing more. You don't imagine there could be more. Why should there be?   Will there ever be anything new? Is this the only thing you will ever create? 

And I suppose this is where the melancholy dips dangerously into a stagnant depression. It feeds a cycle of non-creation and guilt, where once stopped it is difficult to get started again. But I think when you reach a place where stories become burdens, where you can sit in a train station and scoff at the people walking by because you don't care anymore, their stories are simply too much for you to take in--it is a time where not writing becomes a defiant, desperate, but ultimately creative act.

If you are not writing, you may in fact be creating--or more accurately, cultivating the grounds within yourself that are needed for creation. If stories are burdens, there is a creative need not being met. It is the need for regeneration, the need to recluse and lie flat. This is a period where you feel stagnant, but you must allow nothing--the invigorating blankness of nothing--to lay itself over you. You must relieve yourself of guilt. To be stagnant is to be in a state of non-movement, seeming non-progression. But the stillness you allow yourself, makes it possible to feel again. The urge--to notice, to be interested--comes back.

It is difficult to be still. Other people move past you; they are alight, everything bright and bursting for them. But, you are here. You are probably alone. It seems that you should be doing many things--writing, creating, accomplishing, but you are doing nothing. This is desolate.

But to recluse oneself in this circumstance does not mean you must go into seclusion--it can, but it does not necessitate withdrawing from the world and living only with the degeneration of your own thoughts. It simply means to remove yourself from stimuli that you cannot, at the moment, take in. It is a period of latency that is necessary for the period that follows--a period of renewed creativity and vigour.

Allow yourself to be still. Time will pass. Let it.

You will start to notice small things--just a word or a phrase that sits on your tongue; you like the way it feels, the roll of it against your palate. Out of defiance, you may resist--you may not want to begin again, but soon the world will start to light up one detail after another. This is when you begin to stir. You push yourself. You write something down. It starts small and simple--the way late afternoon light  hits the side of a woman's nose, the skin wet, hair follicles perspiring--and grows.

The world buzzes.
Begin again.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Love, Los Angeles: The Last Bookstore

Visiting The Last Bookstore on South Spring Street in Los Angeles is like stepping into a fairytale. When one of the clerks at Skylight Books learned I was exploring independent bookstores during my stay, he recommended I visit this new-and-used bookstore located downtown. His description was a little cryptic--he told me it was pretty magical and that there were two floors with lots of books upstairs. I thought, okay--great. Two floors. Books upstairs. Magical. That's nice, right? 

I walked three miles from my cousin's apartment in Koreatown and arrived blistered and breathless at the entrance. The security guy tucked my backpack into a cubby and told me to enjoy myself. He seemed genuinely excited to see me and even more thrilled when I told him it was my first visit. You know a place is special when the security crew are smiling about it. 

And then I stepped inside. Maybe it's because I've been boxed away in the big box chain store world of Chapters-Indigo and Barnes and Noble--the gloss of these stores are shiny and appealing, but also sterile, the uniformity and efficiency busying me into a mode of comatose book buying--but, from the moment I stepped into The Last Bookstore I felt like I was unraveling some great mystery, as if I had stepped into some secret world where bright-eyed bookish people gather to frolic. 

The store's sky-high ceilings and rows of white columns speak to its architectural origins--the building, called the Spring Arts Tower, was built in 1914 and housed the Citizens' Bank. There are old leather arm chairs, worn and torn, soft and deep, along with velvet backed claw-foot chairs that look like they're from 1930s Hollywood hotels. These are set up against columns, people sinking in, heads bowed, books splayed across knees.

Sky-high ceilings

Who perched on this chair and had their afternoon tea before it made its way to book heaven decades later?

A distinguished library chair. Also the most appropriate place to smoke a cigar.
A tattered, but lovely reading chair and ottoman.

Upstairs, there are thousands of books, all on sale for $1. When you're up there, you really feel like you've fallen down the rabbit hole. You're in a labyrinth of books, strange little art installations tucked into hidden corners, as if this is an old curiosity shop--which in many ways it is. An elderly gentleman, cap and all, shelves endless carts of books and offers a multitude of historical tidbits when asked. He tells us that "unfortunately" they do have children's books--far too many. An entire back room overflows with them, bright paperbacks slipping haphazardly off shelves that wind back and forth and round and round, never ending.

Looking up
Looking down through an art installation (apologies to the artist--I did not write down your name!)
Photo Credit: Aditi Mahmud
Through the rabbit hole! Photo Credit: Aditi Mahmud

Their science fiction collection is housed in what used to be the bank's vault. An actual, bolts, combination, straight from the movies vault. If you get trapped inside, the original notice on how to ensure a nice flow of oxygen while you wait patiently for help, is posted in the window--the paper is yellowed, the typeface faded and it very clearly indicates that the vault cannot be opened from the inside.

The text reads:
Procedures to follow if accidently [sic] locked in the vault

The wheel located directly above the vault door should be turned as far to the left as possible. Pull wheel and attached spindle out.
This leaves a small opening through which air may come into vault. It also may be used to communicate with out-side the vault.
It is not possible to open the vault door from the inside.

The store regularly hosts readings, musical events, lectures, and other "unforeseen combinations" accepting applications from the public on a quarterly basis. They also feature art installations by local artists and display them throughout the store.

Bicycle wheels!

I couldn't figure this one out--but something was happening inside a birdcage.

A table--with pipes for legs!
It's all about the decor. Photo Credit: Aditi Mahmud.

One of the things I truly loved about this store was how new and used books are placed side by side on the same shelves. If you go looking for a book, you're likely to find the used version sitting alongside a new copy of the same title. Of course they make a profit on the used books they sell, I wouldn't expect anything else. But even so, the focus seems to be on the dissemination of books, rather than simply selling for the most significant profit. And look, I am an avid book buyer--it's the one thing I will readily buy guilt free, money gone in seconds. I think the publication industry needs readers to buy books and I think we should buy them. I just feel that a store that puts reading at the forefront and makes it more financially accessible deserves plenty of accolades. 

There's a genuine feeling that this store is an informed participant in the larger literary and cultural community of Los Angeles. It's part of the culture and in many ways defines it, but it also cultivates it and takes an active role in promoting and fostering a healthy book culture and community. I think this, in the best way possible, describes what a bookstore should aim to be: a dynamic, constantly evolving community hub where words and ideas fuel a cycle of creativity.

 Even for a few brief hours, I liked being a part of that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Love, Los Angeles: Skylight Books

I visited Skylight Books on N. Vermont Ave on a warm, breezy Tuesday evening after I had just finished reading Simon Van Booy's short story collection Love Begins in Winter. I didn't know how much I needed to read work like his--stories that shatter your heart and then very calmly and tenderly, piece it back together again. I don't want to call these fairy tales, but they have that frail spirit of bringing into fruition what you didn't think was ever possible. His stories are emotionally honest--lines press at the deepest part of your psyche and you think how true they are, how they pinpoint the most fleeting moments of recognition.

Once I finished reading, I wanted more stories. I wanted more secret entryways into the lives of people I didn't know--strangers flitting past me on downtown streets into the muddle of their own tragedies. I wanted to reach out and brush my fingertips against theirs, maybe sit on a park bench and hold their hand for awhile. Short stories make this possible. And now that I had finished a collection that had been a companion to me for weeks, I needed something to replace the void.

I looked up independent bookstores in LA and Skylight Books came up over and over again--reviews said what I wanted to hear: the people at Skylight know their books. I wanted to walk in and ask someone to give me a book they were passionate about. In my mind, it played out like a scene from a movie: I walk in, brow knitted with sweat from the dizzying Los Angeles heat and the clerk at the front desk offers me a deep, knowing nod. Soon, we're mired in passionate conversation about words and stories and the power of forging onward and upward and then there it is: their eyes light up like signal fires, fingertips brush against my elbow, they lean in close--and urgently press a book into my hands.

It didn't happen quite like this, but my experience at Skylight Books was more than fulfilling. Located on a quiet street lined with dimly lit restaurants bursting with flushed diners who spill happily onto patios late into the evening, the store has a communal vibe. Open late (everyday 10am to 10pm), it really does feel like the "neighborhood bookstore" where you stop off to pick up a book as if you were picking up a jug of milk from the dusty convenience store on the corner.  Their calendar boasts readings, signings, and discussions almost every night and I felt a little forlorn that I didn't live in LA so I could be a member of their "friends with benefits" club that offers discounts and access to special events. 

One of the gentlemen at Skylight spotted me staring blankly at shelves of books and when he asked if he could help, I pounced. I'd been waiting for just the thing. When I told him I wanted to discover a new short story collection, he spent the next ten minutes combing through the store putting together a reading buffet for me. He piled the books on the table  and went through them explaining his choices and giving me mini histories on each author. He shared collections he was currently reading, gave me a sense of writing styles, and shared authors he hadn't read, but heard great things about. He offered collections from the canon, newly launched books, as well as local Los Angeles writers. And to think that when I'd walked in, the first thing I'd looked for was a computer terminal so I could conduct my own antisocial search. Such a hermit.

From the buffet, I purchased Aimee Bender's Willful Creatures and Haruki Murakami's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.  Bender's stories have so far succeeded in creeping me out and making me cry (in that disconcerting, oh my goodness the ants are eating my skin from the inside kind of way)--and I suppose this is both a good and bad thing. I have to give it a fair chance before I wilt away completely. I'm looking forward to Murakami's work and am grateful for Skylight's helpful and diverse suggestions.

Read on, minions. Read on.

Mythical Skylight Cat


I must say that the best thing about this bookstore is that it has its own cat. She preens and stalks about like she owns the place. I think she probably does own the place. Isn't every bookstore owned by a cat?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Love, Los Angeles: Walking the streets

My favourite palm lined streets in Los Angeles have dozens of dusty corner cafes, pupusa shops, thrift stores selling electric blue lamé leggings for $1, and mini malls blaring salsa and merengue tracks from speakers hidden behind mural slathered walls. There are very old men dressed in crisp white shirts hunched over ice cream carts, tailor shops with sewing machines whirring in bright slats of sun, tiny shops with cardboard signs announcing Tomales! in thin strokes of red paint.  

There's a thin, small woman waiting at the bus stop outside a grocery store and she looks stern--her hair is pulled back so tight, it could be scalp, and her vibrant blue eyeshadow strokes up against her thin, arched brows. And there's a man, very tall and robust, his arms full of odd shaped packages, his mouth puddling into a frown because he's irritated--the older woman he is with (his mother? his aunt?) wants to take one more look, in one more shop. There are two men carrying chairs--they have that energetic push in their step that tells you they are not from around here, because yes, they're white and yes, they're antiquing. If you're from around here, you are waiting for the bus, or you are walking with a steady gait to the food mart with a portable buggy, your kids have backpacks sweating up against their small necks, barrettes snapped tight over dollar store hair extensions--one pink, one blue--and you have the weight of life slowing you down.

But there's this energy beating up against the soles of your sandals, a syncopated beat flicking off the uneven pavement and you know that whatever it is that makes you love this city is right here, striding along with you, heating you up and making you go on, earnest and true.

"Los Angeles" by Shht! (m.caimary)