Five Years Later

My dad died five years ago last week. He died of lung cancer, though he had quit smoking over 13 years before he passed. I would like to share some of the things I’ve learned in dealing with his illness, his passing, and my life since:

-Stress is a part of life, and having a constructive outlet to process the stress and trauma experienced is essential to maintaining mental and physical health. Arts are healing, especially when the work tells your story, and you share that work with your community/family/friends. If my dad had integrated into his life a creative outlet that allowed him to share his story, I think he would have lived for a few more years at least, and would have been way happier. Unfortunately he came from a culture where repression of feelings is the norm, and thus never felt comfortable expressing (or even investigating) his deeper issues.

-Children unconsciously inherit the traumas of their parents, especially if the parents have accumulated stress without a constructive outlet for it. All the material comforts and luxuries provided still will not insulate a child’s psyche from the influences of his/her environment. These children then grow up burdened with the baggage of traumas past, possibly passing their trauma onto their own children, and continuing the cycle of stress and violence. To break this cycle, our lives must allow for us to express ourselves honestly and without fear of judgment, and integrating opportunities to be honestly expressive into the lives of young people is essential for a healthier society.

-The passing of a parent is a regular rite of passage into adulthood. It is the way things are meant to go according to the cycle of life. However, illness and suffering are unnecessary, and we should aim to live lives that avoid burdening our children or caretakers from having to take care of us as sick people.

-After your parents pass away, you have an opportunity to re-invent yourself as a new type of adult. Maturity generally peaks as a person becomes a member of the oldest living generation of their family. Though losing a close family member can be traumatic, it is also an opportunity to free yourself from constraints and expectations that have been put upon you since infancy that you may have lived with unconsciously.

My father was a great man in his accomplishments, especially given that his life started in conflict, and that he grew up in refugee camps until early adulthood. He provided the utmost for his family, and was a radical in his attempts to steer our world into a sustainable path. I have had the privilege of a well-rounded education (which I am very grateful that my parents insisted my brothers and I have access to), and have discovered what I need to do to heal myself from those inherited traumas, so I am hoping to continue my family tradition of being an agent for radical, constructive change in our world.

Saleem and Yazan
Saleem and Yazan

BHM: Belton Sutherland

February came and went, and I managed a few posts about some of the Black American artists I love and have been inspired by, but there are so many more. Black Americans in general deserve greater recognition for their contributions to this country’s abundant wealth and culture, so Black History Month continues for me.

I discovered Belton Sutherland, a generally unknown blues player, in the music documentary The Land Where Blues Began (1979, dir Alan Lomax) (watch it here for free). I bought a DVD of it after seeing that my great blues idol RL Burnside had a few performances in it.

All of the performances in the film by various artists are remarkable in their own way, but something about Belton stirred me deeply. He was not a professional artist, just a man hardened by a punishing existence, expressing some dark and heavy blues — maybe the heaviest I have ever heard from a country blues performer. His lyrics are brutal — “Kill that old gray mule / burn that white man’s barn / I didn’t mean no trouble, I didn’t mean no harm”. This is folk music of a systematically oppressed and impoverished person.

He looked so badass too, with a cigarette barely hanging off his lip and his cold stare. Back in 2010-2011 when I was just starting to learn to play and sing in a country blues style, I dreamed that I could be that bad some day. So, I ended up buying a 1938 Gibson L-50 archtop guitar on eBay that looked just like his, and that’s the main acoustic guitar I still use today. I am still nowhere near as bad as he was though, and will probably never be (I’m cool with that).

BHM: James Brown

James Brown is the greatest performer of his generation: energetic, theatrical, uniquely idiosyncratic, and musically groundbreaking. I got obsessed in high school with his music, though it was only after YouTube that I got to really check out what one of his performances (and interviews) was like. The only performer in my mind to take it to the next level was Prince — more on him from me this week.

BHM: Eddie Hazel

Back in summer 2004, I was in an office working for the City of New York, and I remember sitting on my chair at my desk, under a blanket trying to insulate from the extreme air conditioning in the building, and this tune came on in my headphones and it was the first time I’d really listened closely to the singing towards the end of the tune, and I just started crying uncontrollably, right there in front of everyone. I still get choked up listening to Eddie’s beautiful voice.

BHM: Sly Stone

The musical mind of Sly Stone demonstrates a beautiful balance. His monstrous band serves music that is harmonically rich and supremely funky at the same time. The diversity of his material and his band are hugely inspirational — someday when I have a family band, my kids and I will be singing “Thank You” in harmony. Sly was marginalized after succumbing to addiction, but he has recovered somewhat, and is still alive and has wisdom to offer — check out his more recent interviews on YouTube. Thank YOU Sly Stone!

This post is part of a series where I pay tribute to the numerous Black American artists that have inspired and influenced me over the years.

BHM: Boyd Rivers

Boyd Rivers sang and played with the spirit and fire of a man doing his best to save us from certain damnation — he’s the baddest preacher I have ever come across. Discovering this video blew my mind that this man was virtually unknown outside the communities of dedicated blues listeners. Watching it taught me about singing from a deep place in my body, and to do it with style and joy. There are a few rare recordings of his out there — all worth checking out.

This post is part of a series where I pay tribute to the numerous Black American artists that have inspired and influenced me over the years.

Dissolve Patriarchy

A few weeks ago I posted a photo on Instagram with the hashtag #dissolvepatriarchy, and when I searched for that hashtag I found that I was the inventor of it. No one else has used that hashtag on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

A search turns up the only use of #dissolvepatriarchy on Instagram

This is a little disappointing to me, especially considering how popular the hashtag #smashpatriarchy is on those social media networks (almost 6,000 posts on Instagram). My main reason is that the act of smashing something is a relatively patriarchal gesture — it’s a masculine way of trying to deal with a problem, especially in contrast with the act of dissolving the obstacle in your way. If we are trying to get rid of the patriarchs who rule currently, we should consider an approach that is feminine in its methodology, which implies a gentle, non-violent action, and one that integrates (as dissolving does) instead of creating further separation (as does smashing).

If we want to get rid of our currently masculine-dominated hierarchical systems, we have to first start thinking about how our actions are affected by the current zeitgeist, and evaluate whether we are perpetuating the established systems unknowingly.

Alcohol and Me

I decided on New Year’s Day this year that I would drink for up to five celebrations this year, but that I would only decide to drink in a celebratory manner from now on.

The perfunctory drinking of the past is unsustainable for me. If I continued doing it, it would destroy my health quickly. I realized that I would rather limit drinking to special festivities, and even so doing so in moderation. I have drank enough in my life that I have enough good associations with drinking to want to continue to do it, especially under stressful circumstances. This year I am putting into practice an attempt to create a lifestyle for myself that is sustainable, and offers for me controlled growth. I find that alcohol’s side effects are numerous and affect many parts of my life negatively. For example, I eat more impulsively after drinking, and drinking’s effect on my blood sugar makes me want to eat more. Now that I drink a lot less, I also eat a lot less. I also sleep less, and get better quality sleep, so I can do more in a day.

I used to love going to bars because it meant I might get lucky and strike up a spontaneous connection with someone, maybe getting me laid. Now I realize that a relationship that starts under those circumstances may have fundamental problems. The need to drink to feel uninhibited or intimate is something I am working towards changing. As an artist, it is up to me to open my heart and mind up perpetually, and to rely on substances to do so compromises the quality and integrity of my output. I would have a hard time sustainably relying on substances to allow me to create good work.


The party’s over. Seeing the way our world’s leadership is failing at actually leading humanity towards a more certain progress, I feel strange dulling myself almost nightly with alcohol when there is so much work to be done. It is still important to remember to celebrate life and parties are healthy social expressions that need to happen under even the most repressive of circumstances.

Emotional Alchemy

It is ideal to receive even badness with goodness, and of course to receive goodness with goodness (which is more difficult than it might appear). To respond to badness with goodness is initially an act of resistance for most people, and requires conditioning yourself over time to learn to identify the badness that you are reacting to first, and then to make sense of it before you react to it emotionally or physically. Even if you immediately, uncontrollably react badly to the badness, you must use that as a trigger to shift into physical consciousness by taking a deep breath and pointing your awareness on the sensation of the breath. This disables the thinking part of the reaction, even if only momentarily in your first attempts to shift consciousness in those difficult moments, and over time this practice will allow you to extend your attention to physical consciousness to longer times and deeper sensations. This will allow you to control your breath, and you will continue to breathe deeply and intentionally for longer and longer periods of time with practice.

Gastrointestinal distress is a major subconscious cause of agitation. Breathing deeply to aid in digestion is both chemical (oxygen being delivered steadily to the gut to help break food down), and mechanical (your diaphragm pushing the bulk down with every proper breath). A few minutes of deep breathing after a heavy meal will bring lasting relief.

For years, when I didn’t engage in regular challenging physical activity, I often avoided spending time in the state of a physical awareness. I felt I had little use for my body besides minimum maintenance and pleasure centers. Learning to extend your state of focus on your body allows you to remain calmer for longer periods of time. It also allows you to program your neural circuitry more efficiently. My discovery is that I learn the most quickly and easily when I am relaxed physically while I practice or read. The problem is that many people are like I was, avoiding deep focus on my physical state. For me, this was mostly related to my shame of my physical state, indicated by my poor posture, my flabby musculature, and my lack of self-esteem about my body in general. I am familiar with wanting to avoid focus on that aspect of my self, and instead existing in a mostly mental state of consciousness. This is the state I observe most of my first world compatriots to exist in — a state of overthinking. Another way of saying it is that the thinking consciousness is dominating over the physical consciousness, and that sometimes makes it hard to break into the physical consciousness when the necessary time comes, like in a time of acute anxiety.