Life by the #'s
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is an urban strategist whose work focuses on deepening democracy and improving public engagement. He is also an Interfaith America Racial Equity Media Fellow.
Memory and history have always fascinated me. This is why I read Roots when I was nine, why I studied history in college, and why I salivate when I have a chance to read historical novels and non-fiction. Literature illuminates the past and the people who lived in them. When we record the past in written word and read it later it makes it feel real – almost timeless. This is partially why the genre of biography is so popular. In truth, however, if there is not a primary source like a letter or photographs, or other descriptions, most of the details and nuance of the lives of people of the past is subject to our forensic imagination. Most of what really occurred in the past simply gets lost.
In the past year with so much death I have often wondered how history is being lost with every soul that passes. My older brother and one-year younger sister and I were together at a really critical time. It was the 1980’s, it was Brooklyn and then later Upstate NY. We shared countless moments because we usually did not have television and, because of the crack epidemic raging outside, and parents working there was no place for us to be but with one another. My siblings know my deepest secrets. They know the things that otherwise only the Creator of the Universe knows. But now, when she is gone those parts of history are largely gone. None will ever know the reality we shared. They won’t understand how those events shaped us – none of the names and faces of the blocks we lived on. Or the smells and sounds of the universe we inhabited.
It is in this spirit respeaking memory and finding time to etch it into the future that I offer the following exercise. It is designed to do with your friends or folks – preferably three or more. Take some time with it. Use it as a catalyst to tell stories that you think may be lost in the labyrinth of your heart.
Here’s the exercise: Write one line per year. But in that one line try to sum up that year. Consider lines that are facts, the opening of a larger story, poems that house the essence of you in that time – either way be honest. Should be a trip. Here’s mine:
My life in the 1’s
In 1981 A few years after my Nana died I thought i heard her ghost in the kitchen
In 1991 I rushed for over 800 yards in 5 games as a sophomore on varsity
In 2001 met a guy we used to call “death” and he asked me how my family was
In 2011 my first son was born
My life in the 2’s
In 1982 my dad still lived in Jamaica Queens and we went to Masjid Taqwa every week
In 1992 was asked, “you wanna go downtown and make $500?” flashing a bag of crack
In 2002 I swapped out my honda civic for a stick shift Ford Escort
In 2012 we moved to the Capital of the Confederacy for exactly 10 months.
My life in the 3’s
In 1983 I knew nothing else in the world but afro centric Brooklyn – I was ready for the revolution
In 1993 we were champions and I saw Digable Planets and Sade live in Saratoga
In 2003 I wandered barefoot on the nooks and crannies of Big Island, Hawaii
In 2013 my second son was born, and we call him the “heart of the family”
My life in the 4’s
In 1984 crack vials greeted us on the playground every morning at P.S.307
In 1994 I made it to states in the 55-meter dash and was a NYS Shakespeare monologue champion
In 2004 it was all about Rudemovements and yelling w/o a microphone just above La Perla
In 2014 I felt like I was swimming even though everything looked alright
My Life in the 5’s
In 1985 I used to say, “I don’t like hip-hop, I like Jazz” and loved Graf on the 2/3 train.
In 1995 I headed to college on a football scholarship
In 2005 I danced in a samba school in Sao Paolo on my first trip outside the USA
In 2015 It was a blur of work, kids, marriage, and me feeling sorry for myself
My life in the 6’s
In 1976 I was conceived
In 1986 I moved from the crack-ridden NYC streets to the rolling foothills of upstate
In 1996 I was rooting for OJ in the white Bronco from my dorm room
In 2006 I was learning Arabic from Usama Canon at Zaytuna Institute
In 2016 my third son was born. We call him the protector of the family and of the plants and animals.
My life in the 7’s
In 1977 I was born
In 1987 I used to ride my bike to football practice with pads on
In 1997 I was snapping my fingers as the host of an on-campus poetry reading
In 2007 I met my future wife
In 2017 I moved into a big white house
My life in the 8’s
In 1978 my Irish twin sister Jehan was born
In 1988 Ben Johnson won the 100m in the Olympics and I swore I would make it to that stage one day
In 1998 I came to football camp like a hippie and a holdout and in the best shape of my life
In 2008 I graduated from grad school and was broke.
In 2018 I completed all the rites of Hajj
My life in the 9’s
In 1979 my nana died. She was larger than life and is missed til today
In 1989 I was like Huey from the boondocks living in an all-white town in rural NYS
In 1999 I graduated from URI and moved back to Brooklyn + the Knicks went to the NBA Finals
In 2009 I made some of the worst decisions in my life and nearly ruined everything
In 2019 my sister Jehan died of cancer
My life in the 10’s
In 1980 I lived in Queens, played with a green tonka truck, and had a KISS lunchbox
In 1990 I competed to see who could get the most demerits
In 2000 I slept outside more than I slept indoors, climbed mountains, and had no home.
In 2010 I got married and started working in the Bloomberg Mayors office
In 2020 … Yo…
Ok, that’s me. Now you do one! And share with your friends, etc. A nice way to get to know folks in a group training setting and can be adapted into an evening tea and cookie party question round robin – #halalvibesplease #lifebythenumbers #springreflections
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.