Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ramadan Reflection: Seeing the Glory in the Struggle

"Light Breaks Over Her" by Robb North

As Ramadan shifted deeper into the summer months and began its steady approach, I noticed a familiar dread, this curdling of pent up fear, inside me. Friends and family expressed how much they loved Ramadan, how much they missed it, and how glad they were of its return--but I was finding it difficult to feel the same. Their rejoicing, public exaltation, this unbridled happiness--it was almost suffocating. It wasn't that I didn't want to hear it, it was that I just couldn't measure up.

There is this universal ache among humans, regardless of spiritual beliefs, to want to begin anew. After a period of time, whether it be a spiritual cleanse, a physical one, or a combination of both, we want to shed our old skins and start fresh, a clean slate. We hope that we can be better and we are determined to try. I could certainly relate to the Muslims around me who, with the approach of Ramadan, clearly recognized the opportunity to devote themselves to being better people. I know the kind of spiritual high that feeds this momentum, this immense, almost giddy gratitude that inspires you to do better and therefore, be better. It's this insatiable desire to strengthen and fortify a personal relationship with God--and in Ramadan, something inexplicable happens to make you want to do it.

So why wasn't I feeling it? Why was this dread, like the smirk of a shadowy friend during tough times, always present at the start of every Ramadan? Yes, there was the obvious fear of long summer hours with no food or drink--how tiring, how hot, how looong it would be. But this fear went beyond the physical hardships I knew I would face--it was deeper and more troubling:

I didn't want to fail.

I didn't want to come up short and be a big disappointment--to God, to myself. I couldn't face the guilt of knowing that yet again, I failed to accomplish my goals. That again, I wasn't as disciplined, as focused, as incredible as I thought I could be. Because in my mind, I could be so awesome. I could be kind; I could be generous; I could hold my tongue; I could give the benefit of the doubt; I could be patient with my parents; I could be understanding of my friends; I could learn more about my faith; I could get more answers; I could stand longer in prayer, in devotion, in solitude; I could be so much more than I was--it all seemed so very possible.

In reality, I fumbled and fumbled often. I lost my patience; I said more than I should; I grew tired and went to sleep instead of standing in prayer; I wasted time; I read far less than I thought I would; I grew angry too quickly; I harboured ill feelings towards others; I held grudges from long ago; I was petty and petulant, irritiable and unpleasant--I was everything I didn't want to be.

I fumbled. I failed.

How easy it would be if these good qualities, this aspirational state of being came naturally, if it took no effort. How much more accomplished would I feel if I could just do the things I wanted to do without falling short so often, with such dedicated self-destruction?

But the thing is, I didn't try to be bad. Most of the time, I wanted to do better--I tried to be better. Sometimes I came up empty. Other times, I flourished. And really, it's as simple as that: there was no perfection; there was struggle.

Arabic is not my native language. I can read it phonetically, but aside from a set of basic words that have become second nature, I do not understand what I am reading. To understand and truly benefit from the Qur'an, I read it with an English translation knowing that no translation is perfect, that no translation can fully capture the nuances of the Arabic language, that some words in Arabic simply do not exist in English, or that they require full pages of explanations to provide context and understanding. Still, I gain so much from knowing what I'm reading. It takes me twice as long to read a page, but still, I benefit.

But sometimes, I just want to read. I want it to come easy. I want to fly through the words in this Holy Book, this guiding force in my life and I want everything to zip and zap through my brain in pristine clarity. Until I am lingual in Arabic, it won't happen. I know this. But still, sometimes I simply recite. I feel the words on my tongue, I try to perfect the pronunciation of a particular letter and soon, the words stream out of me in a regulated rhythm and there is belief, there is faith, there is something that presses itself on my heart and I connect.

It is a blessing. It moves me. I am not suddenly perfect. I have not emerged sinless and purified, but this struggle with language--the give and take it requires for me to truly benefit from everything it offers--it mimics the state of struggle that is my life.

Struggle is a state of normal and it's a good place to be. Yes, my Ramadan would be easier, less scary, more bright and hopeful, if all the good I wanted to do came easily. But it would be pointless. Yoda is wrong. It's not "Do or do not, there is no try"--the juice is in the try. Or maybe he's right--and the trying is the doing. As we struggle--we set goals, we try, we fail--and bit by very little bit, we move onwards.

Fear of failure, guilt as a result of failing--these stifle our ability to grow and flourish. I wasn't afraid of Ramadan--I was afraid of what I would not accomplish. This tremendous opportunity to be sincerely repentant, to be gloriously good--and what could I do but be imperfect?

Our success lies in the understanding that struggling is not inferiority, nor is it an excuse to give up. It's difficult and laborious; it leaves you feeling unsettled, sometimes empty. But keep striving, keep going.
Imperfection and struggle are not badges of failure--they are battle scars that serve as testament to the soiled, rumpled glory that is our everyday life. There is beauty there. There is joy.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How to Make a Dress Guard/Skirt Guard/Coat Guard for your Bicycle

If you want to outfit your bike with a skirt guard (or for the guys, a coat guard), there are increasingly more options for North American riders.

These options include metal netted guards or bright and colourful woven/crocheted dress guards that you can purchase online, or DIY projects that range in level of difficulty.

I chose the DIY route for a few reasons:

1. I couldn't figure out whether the metal guards sold online would fit my bike, or how I would attach them to my bike (there was minimal info available on these mostly European websites).

2. The bright and lovely crocheted guards require you to drill holes in your fenders to attach them (wasn't willing to do any drilling) while others come with clips that you can snap onto your fenders, but require a certain amount of space between your fenders and your tires to fit properly (didn't have enough space allowance to use this option).

I ended up consulting a tutorial on Instructables (the link seems to no longer be working) and made adjustments to fit my needs.

The tutorial and other DIY projects I've seen make use of tulle--that frothy net-like material used for weddings and ballerinas--but, I wanted something a little more sturdy, easy to clean, but just as affordable. Window screening was my answer!

Materials: Some old newspaper, black window screening (get a roll at your hardware store, or if you have old screens, you can use those! If you buy a roll, you'll spend from $8 to $13, but will have enough to last you several replacements should the need arise), cable ties, tape, scissors, and a marker.

Step 1: Template and Positioning

  • Using the newspaper, make a rough template of the guard, cutting and taping as necessary until you get your desired shape/coverage.
  • Decide where you want to attach your guard. This will depend on how much coverage you want, but also on where your bike will allow you to attach cable ties. I've used the bars from my rear rack, the seat stays, and the chain stays as my main attachment sites.
  • This part is like a dress rehearsal. Mark where you want to put your cable ties right onto your newspaper template. Use cable ties to visually represent where you will attach your ties and how far apart you want them to be. Make sure that your cable ties don't interfere with any brake lines, or shifting cables. At this point, I reverse-looped my cable ties (slid them through the way you're NOT supposed to) so they didn't lock and I could slide them out easily to readjust as needed.
  • Do a visual check. Make sure your template isn't interfering with any of the moving parts of your bike. Now you're ready to cut out the real thing!

Step 2: Cut!

  • Roll out some window screen and tape your template onto its surface. I chose black screening because its actually less visible than the traditional silver screens and I thought it would look better with my bike.
  • Now, cut. Leave about an inch of extra screening around the template (even a bit more is better). I cut my template to fit my bike exactly, and if you do the same, then you should cut out your screening leaving this extra bit around the edge. You can always trim excess later, but having that extra bit allows for more freedom when positioning the guard onto the bike and is necessary to correctly attach your cable ties.

  • For the guard on the other side of the wheel, I just flipped the template over, taped it down, and cut. (Note: clear tape does a bad job of sticking. I'd try sewing needles, or masking tape next time).

Step 3: Fit

  • This is probably the most finicky part of the process--it helps to have someone else hold the screening as you poke your cable ties through, but no fear! It can be done alone, as I sadly learned.
  • Place your guard on the bike so everything is positioned as correctly as possible. I placed my guard over everything (I did not weave it under the seat stays and bars). Select where you want to attach your first cable tie. I started in the middle (with my seat stay), thinking it would be easier to position. I highly recommend starting on one side (either the chain stay, or the bar from the rear rack) and working your way over to the other side.

Step 4: Attach

  • Start attaching your screening from one end and work your way to the other. In the picture above, you can see that I have folded the edge of the screening over the bar (that's why we left that extra bit!) and have poked my cable ties through the fold and pulled it snug to hold everything in place.

  • When working on the middle (for me, it was the seat stay), you'll poke your cable tie through and then you'll reach through the spokes (it's a tight squeeze--get someone with small hands to help you) to pull the end of the cable tie around the stay. Then, poke it back through the screen. One advantage with starting in the middle is that you have more space to maneuver your hand without the screen in your way...ah, well.

  • In the picture, I have just left the ends of the cable ties hanging (haven't looped them through to lock) so I can reposition if necessary. The screen is more likely to move if you do it this way, but if you tie (lock) at least one of the cable ties, there will be less movement of the screen and you can leave the rest of the ties undone until you're absolutely ready to lock 'em in place.

  • I fold the other edge over the chain stay and loop the cable ties through the fold and make sure there is enough slack to allow me to pull the cable ties in the middle (over my seat stay) snug, before I pull the ties on the chain stay snug.

  • As I pull each cable tie snug and lock it into place, I make sure I avoid any cables.

  • Or, if I have to go over cables or brake lines, I make sure my tie isn't super tight. It's not hanging loose, but it isn't squeezing the white cables either.

  • I chop off any excess screening from the edges.

Voila! This is what it looks like almost complete (I haven't chopped off the excess length on my cable ties yet.)

I've done a few test rides and it's been superb so far, although I'm still trying to figure out a way to attach the curved part of the screen to the fender so it doesn't hang out as much. I may try hot glue, but have avoided it thus far because (1) I can't find my glue gun and (2) I'm going for a method that isn't permanent and won't mess up the paint job on my bike.

Biking in Long Skirts is Entirely Possible

When I tell people that I've recently begun cycling and hope for it to become an important part of my lifestyle, I'm often asked how I plan to ride a bike wearing the long skirts/dresses/abayas/jilbabs that are a permanent part of my everyday wardrobe.

She's totally rocking it. So can I.
Image source:

Before I bought my bicycle, this was a major concern for me. I knew I didn't want to shift my entire wardrobe to fit into a cycling lifestyle, especially if I wanted to use my bike for more than recreation. I wanted to maintain the way I dressed while I made this slow lifestyle transition and I knew that for it to be successful, it had to be something I could keep up in the long run--and I'd only be able to keep it up if I didn't have to worry about what I was wearing every time I wanted to hop on my bike and go.

Image source:

I'm hardly the first person to think this way. There is a positive trend towards utility cycling that involves riders being able to commute to work without having to hike up their pant legs, or cycle in their "bike clothes" and then have to change into their work clothes upon arrival at work. Bikes conducive to utility cycling feature such wonders as fenders, mudflaps, chain guards (sometimes full chain cases) and dressguards/coat guards. These features prevent your clothes from getting dirty and from long coattails and skirts from getting caught in the spokes of your rear wheel.

Image source:

Dutch bicycles are paragons in this respect. These features are less common on North American bicycles though many manufacturers and bike shops have quickly caught on and are regularly importing Dutch bicycles (or designing their own) for North American riders, making them widely available for people who want to ride their bikes for transportation and not simply for recreation.

As I explained in this post, a Dutch bike is a hefty investment and as a novice cyclist, purchasing a vintage bicycle made in the 70s and upgrading it as needed was a more reasonable choice for me. One necessary element my bicycle was missing was a dress guard. Although they look very pretty on bikes, my desire for one was purely out of necessity (the looks were just a nice bonus!). Lovely Bicycle did a fantastic outline of their purpose and function in this post. I tried finding ready-made dress guards that I could purchase and snap onto my bike, but this proved too difficult. There are a few DIY tutorials on how to do this yourself, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

See this post to see how it turned out!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Over to the Dark Side: E-reader convert?

Well, I've done it. After a whirlwind week of research, I purchased an e-reader. Believe me, I never thought this would happen. I love the tactile experience of reading an actual book: the dust-musky smell of well worn pages, the soft pencil strokes of age-old marginalia, the scrape of page against page, the crack of a brand new spine--I could go on forever; nothing can replace it.

My decision to get an e-reader was a quick, easy one. There wasn't any of the expected hemming and hawing over whether or not it was a good idea. I was actually surprised it wasn't more dramatic.

After all, I've never been a proponent of bookless libraries, have never bought into the idea that the print medium is a dying culture that will soon be replaced by the snappy pixels of an electronic world, and I've always been very resistant to this overexcited desire to giddily embrace a world where real, solid books don't exist.

But while all this is true, I tried not to view the electronic world of books as a direct threat to the world of real books that I love.

With the e-reader I just thought, why not? It's an alternative platform that makes thousands of books easily accessible. I can borrow e-books from the library, access a bunch of free e-books (many of which are lovely classics) from booksellers, and if I want to, purchase an e-book for a bit cheaper than I would an actual copy. There was just something about having a device that would let me press a button and magically have a book appear that was exciting. Poof! There it is.

What's more, I didn't want to ignore something that had become an important part of the reading, writing, and publishing world where I function as an active citizen. There are many reasons why this electronic strand of the book world has become mainstream. I
don't think it's just a fancy trend; it's become an integral part of the system, a venue for accessibility and the dissemination of reading material to anyone, anywhere.

But then why, as I stood at my local bookstore toying with my e-reader, did I start to feel a little guilty?

Because honestly, as much as it is exciting, there is also something disturbing about the possibility of having books appear and disappear with the click of a button. Where do pixels go when they die? There's the sense that unless a book is a book--something solid that I can hold in my hands--it can be easily eliminated. Poof! It's gone. As if it never existed. A physical object denotes a sense of reality, a presence that cannot be denied. But, words in electronic form appear and disappear, are edited and re-edited, cut and pasted, rearranged to be anything. The possibilities are only limited by our imaginations and how far we are willing to go.

I know that with certain works, I'm more likely to purchase the actual book instead of the e-version simply because I want to actually have it. So far, I don't feel that any of the books I've started to read on my e-reader are mine. I'm enjoying the stories I've immersed myself in, but like with any electronic document on my computer, these are still words on a screen. There's a safe distance between me and the book and I haven't yet made a personal connection with the book as an object. There are no folded pages, rumpled covers, or hurried notes along the margins. It's all so scrupulously clean. With no cracked spines, how do I leave my mark behind? If I can't pass a book on to a friend, or thumb through the pages of an old favourite, how do I analyze my relationship with the book? Do we have a relationship at all?

We do; albeit, it's a slightly different one.
I think of e-readers, e-books, and all this electronic book paraphernalia as a supplement and not a replacement. It is simply another way to access the world of books, an exciting new dimension that contributes to book culture and can elevate the way we interact with books.

And that's key--the interaction. I purchased my e-reader to discover a new way of connecting with books. What perhaps, does an e-reader offer that a real book doesn't? Do my reading statistics--knowing how fast or how often I read, what time of day I'm more inclined to read, or how many books I've finished--make for a valuable reading experience? Do reading awards--an electronic badge for starting an e-library, for finishing a book, for electronically highlighting a passage--do these make a difference? What happens when I only have the words and not the pages, the cardboard, and the glue? How does my relationship with books, these beloved objects, change?

In the end, it's the words that matter. While the physicality of a book will provide a sensuous experience, it's the words that I'm drinking in. I'm far from replacing one with the other. I'm vying for a healthy marriage between the two. Whether I get the same level of pleasure with an e-book as I do with a real one is yet to be seen and though at times I'm doubtful, I'm willing to give it a good chance.

Images: Kobo e-reader from TechWorld; Kindle e-reader images are both from Larry Page; old volumes of well worn books from extended epiphany.