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In Lieu of a Journal

by Rowin Omar Khan

I should have been journaling. I thought so at the very start. Then I saw several people suggest — even insist — that it was a good, necessary, RIGHT thing to do. But I didn’t. And now all I have is my tequila soaked, sativa scented memories.


I can't even really recall when I first heard of the Covid 19 crisis. What was I doing? What had I eaten? What did I think, feel?  The year’s thick, whirling flurry of events and their emotional detritus blot it all from hindsight’s famed clarity.


So, I suppose, if the question is “How do you feel?”  the answer is, “Mired in regret.” Or really just, “Mired.”  The makings of the muck are myriad and emulsified.  And, for honesty’s sake I’ll say, my state isn’t solely the fault of the pandemic and uprising nor the many wild players brought to stage in 2020’s production; its making spans years. 


When I moved to LA two years ago, I hit the ground running through a juggernaut of networking events, professional panels, auditions, and classes. These events of my first year proved to be a sloughing, stripping me of old, too-tight ideas of how or who I am and what I wanted. A skin under which bulged grief that needed space to stretch out and be seen was revealed. So, in my second year, I tried — journaling for the first time since middle school. Traveling and trying my hand at creative projects — a documentary about my big immediate family and our many tangled relationships in the wake of my father’s recent death, a scripted series meant to unpack my freshly upended romantic life, a collection of monologues addressing long neglected regrets. I abandoned each one in turn.  All too heavy, too sticky to handle at length. I sought a therapist to no avail. And all along I drank, smoked, and ate my way up several sizes. 


So by the time 2020 came around, sending me and eventually most of the country, indeed, much of the world to our rooms, it felt like an unlikely blessing. I started dieting, working out and focusing on yet another creative project: a podcast about creativity as an approach to wellness.  This was it! I had no possible distractions — nowhere to go and nothing but solitude and speedy wi-fi. (Damn when did Netflix get so many good options?) Nowhere to go when the bad news started flowing in; this one is sick, that one passed. (Is this apartment getting smaller?)  Nowhere to go when headline after headline evidenced the ineptitude of elected leadership and exactly how dense fellow citizens could be. ( I haven’t been on Tinder in a while…) 

Three weeks. Three weeks of fired up productivity before I flailed. Back to sipping, smoking and snacking. Building a deep-fried, barrel-aged, heady-high, binge-worthy, blind-swiping box around myself.  Laid in the hole I dug all 2019.  


Then George Floyd was murdered. 


So many others who — at the risk of disrespect, I’ll forego listing — met their end too soon at the hand of the militarized arm of our police-state. I try to follow Toni Morrison’s lead, insisting on being shocked when faced with institutional and individual malevolence, refusing to grow numb. But numbing was the name of the game at the time.  

Amy and Christian Cooper helped. Her intentionally vindictive histrionics filmed to pull back the curtain on the virulent perpetrators of Karendom had everyone, including me, sitting up, leaning in, shaking their heads in either vindicated I-told-you-so’s or unsettled I-can’t-believe’s. An opening act par excellence. Enter the main event. I’ll admit I actively avoided the video for a few days. Then someone, I barely remember who, sent it via Facebook messenger. I clicked on it absentmindedly and was instantly held captive. It’s perhaps useful to note, I don’t watch violence, generally as a rule. Worldstar videos, horror flicks, or any films’

particularly gruesome action sequences, I turn my head, close the browser window or otherwise cut the feed. But here I was glued, watching till the end, seething. The subsequent onslaught of images and videos from the ground across digital platforms, deaths, protests, riots and (mis)reporting made for an unlikely energizer. I was activated, ready to go to work, to do something, anything, about this. But everything from the idea of protesting, to donating to mutual bailout funds, to disseminating info and signing petitions felt inert. 

I needed to create but what? It felt opportunistic somehow, potentially even exploitative to think of drawing directly from these times. I didn’t trust myself with the unwieldy task; to be present for it and write simultaneously with any integrity or clarity. I didn’t want to write some impassioned but ultimately feeble protest song — besides, I hadn’t written a song in over a year or sung a note since January. But it felt irresponsible, irreverent, immature, almost absurd, to create anything else, amidst all this. 


So, what? What to do? I sat with the question through every stirring, devastating, maddening moment of the days that ran together like watercolors.  


Somewhere along the way, perhaps BG (Before George), perhaps after, I pulled out my chemistry supplies.  Six years ago, in the lobby of a recording studio, where I waited for some producer to call me in to lay down demo vocals for his project,  I’d found a science magazine, whose cover story talked about chemosensing and the history of perfumery. I was engrossed and, on a whim, stole it to read and re-read in the subsequent weeks. Shortly thereafter, I had a seizure and spent the following several months fighting for my life against the cancer that’d threaded its way through my lymphatic system from brain to liver. It was awful. But not without value. It snatched me into myself, demanding I be utterly present in my body, even as it conspired to betray me, or else submit to passing on. I passed on passing on. But while I couldn’t drag my body from bed, let alone to some NYC stage, I ached for a creative outlet. Re-reading the article in that magazine yet again spurred me to buy at least a dozen essential oils and immerse myself in study. I turned my home into an apothecary, bent on making all manner of hair and skincare products, salves and ointments, that served medicinally but also offered a pleasant scent profile. It was creative, productive, and easy on my body. And I didn’t need to show it to anyone, prove it held value or was worth being paid for. I had no intention of being the next Dr. Bronner or Sebi. I did not want or need to be the Beyonce of holistic healthcare. I just wanted to feel that particular pleasure of losing myself in thoughts and imaginings, committing myself to process, failures and do-overs out of sheer curiosity.  Art for art’s sake. What joy! What satisfaction!


When I recovered and left for LA, I brought along all my materials, mostly because they were expensive as hell. Most of my things I gave away. But those oils and absolutes and solvents and vials didn’t have a viable new home amongst any loved ones, and I damn sure wasn’t going to toss them. Anyway starting over is always easier with at least a little something familiar on hand. So, while cobbling a west coast life, that bit of creative home these scents afforded, served me well in the absence of venues and connections that could be tapped at any time to quench my artistic thirst. I abandoned medicinal leanings and focused purely on the crafting of fragrance experiences. But once LA and I built some momentum together, I enrolled in an acting program, booked a commercial agent, landed a song placement, and the scents got tucked away — forgotten. 


Enter 2020. It’s remarkable, isn’t it, that we can so easily forget how much we have. Whenever in the year’s scribble-scrabble timeline I found my way back to the old thrift store nightstand drawers where I stored the goods, I was struck by how much there was. In the hustle of 2018, I’d grown my collection significantly, I remembered now, and was glad of it. My dining area became my lab — my home no longer an apothecary, but a boutique. I scritch-scratched ideas on scrap paper and click-clacked formulas and progress notes in my Google docs. Between the artsy endeavor of fabricating sensory bliss and the logical demand of composing stable molecular bonds, my mind and hands were completely occupied, and I was a creator again. Art for relief’s sake, with room for joy and satisfaction. 


This was the way, I considered, that I always want to feel about anything I was putting my heart and hands on. I didn’t want to hold my feet to the fire of capitalistic expectations that I “actualize my potential”. I didn’t want to pulverize my passion to dust in the name of the grind. I don’t like work. I don’t aspire towards labor. For all my reputation in certain circles as someone of whom the best could be expected I found that the stumblings in my professional marathon dance over the last few years weren't because I'd forgotten the steps. I just hated the tune. It rang discordant, cacophonous in my bones and the chorus of voices telling me if I was gonna do it, if it was gonna matter, it must be major, had to refrain. I let myself off the hook. 

I can create because I want to, how I want, in the ways that feel good. I can do it for me, and not for the approval of any academy or applause of any audience. I didn’t need to persuade anyone of my genius, not even me. I didn’t need to be a genius. I didn’t have to get my family out the hood, or be a beacon to all the kids like me around the world or in forthcoming generations, be the first (   fill in the blank    ), break any records or otherwise seek validation in superlatives. I don’t need to prove to the record label that dropped me or any casting director(s) that rejected me they made a big mistake, Pretty Woman style. I didn’t need to feel or be important. I could just live, and make a life of pieces that pleased me. 


So I started writing again — journal entries, snippets of songs, snatches of dialogue, whatever. And I started singing again, in my shower, on my balcony, into the digital abyss of social media. And I cooked when a recipe caught my eye without wondering when I ought to post for optimal likes, if I took a picture at all. And I applied only to jobs where I felt I could thrive, resolved to quit at my discretion, and auditioned only for what felt fun or nourishing. Nourishment. That’s what I want from everything moving forward. That’s what I create towards, and the place I create from. The discipline will come; I’m cultivating it. I’ll share and submit when I want but not hang my worth on it. What comes of it will come and what goes may pass.  

It’s ok that I didn’t journal from the beginning. I go to bed at night and think about what I did and how I felt, and think about what I’d like to feel tomorrow. I write out on my whiteboard  what I think will lend to crafting that feeling. Not a list of “to do”, but “to consider”. When I wake up in the morning, I sit with myself, I meditate, or sing or exercise or take a bath to start my day. Sometimes all of those things. Sometimes none of them. I look at that whiteboard and consider if what I feel in the moment will be made better in the doing of the things listed there.  And I move forward accordingly. I take care throughout the day to be present in my body, attendant to my heart. I think, and daydream and take notes on ideas, reading and researching to make sense of my whimsy and see if there’s anything there I want to play with more. Sometimes there is. I dive in and it feels good until it don’t. I step back and ask why. And I listen. And I act accordingly. What sounds like itinerant meandering is really intentional molding of a new paradigm for living.


Not everyone will acknowledge it as a process at all; it’s my process these days. While I do feel mired in today’s world, I recognize the terrain firming. Or maybe, like with my writing, my career and life paths, my grief and feelings, I’m learning to see it, 2020, for what it is, rather than bemoaning what it is not. 


It’s a deluge of loss. Of lives, yes, but also of comforting illusions, of flimsy securities, of flawed faiths and false idols. It’s a slash and burn, by which new dreams, works, imaginings or society, can be cultivated. Herein, we might could breathe new life into this culture, American culture, creative culture as the cultures of capitalism and celebrity die off, revising what is acceptable, aspirational, appropriate for our lives. Who knows? It’s a process.

Follow Rowin on Instagram @Prose_and_khan

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