I sat on the ground in a comfy floor-chair, waiting for the scholar who we traveled across states to hear. By February’s end, the chill seeps defiantly inward, and when coupled with my entitlement for springtime, I am predictably self-limited and hardened in my thinking. Whatever ails me will permanently force its stinking breath down my frost-bitten nostrils. There are no solutions at the end of winter. Just blah.
And so I went to hear the Shaykh. We all went to hear the Shaykh. He will know what to say if our hearts can listen.
As I sat, cozy on the floor waiting and reading, my daughter nestled herself inside my left arm, her head resting against my heart. There was another child behind me, much younger, scooting around on her back, kicking her life force into my kidney. I turned and smiled from time to time just to acknowledge that, yes, I can feel you kicking me. New toddlers like that sort of recognition. Eventually her mother, just a few spaces behind me, covered in a long khimar and swaddling an infant, while straddled by two other children, said: “Stop that! Stop kicking that sister.” The baby-girl kept kicking. I turned around and said: “Please, don’t worry about it. Trust me. I’ve got three kids. Leave her be.” Her smile spelled relief and assurance. I heard it say: With all I’ve got going on right now, you know there is nothing I can do short of leaving to make her stop kicking the daylights out of you. Then she’ll have a temper tantrum in the hallway in front of everybody. Reasoning and consequences are not presently practical. I badly don’t want to leave, because, like you and even more than you, I need to stay.
I know because I’ve been a swaddling, tired mama in the past before my kids grew to a little more independence. I needed an empty bed and a ticket to somewhere else– to sit in one place and fill my soul with something besides spit-up.
So we sat. We listened and all was well with the earth and sky and all the volcanoes beneath the flesh lay sleeping…shrinking.
O servant, seeking only His Face
With no inclination to a single pleasure:
Behold! You are called by His Grace
Invited and ushered to the Divine Treasure!
He favored you; He admitted you in
Before you repented at your leisure,
You’re now predestined to receive from Him
Knowledge and wisdom beyond measure!
(Shaykh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi, 24 Dhul Hijja 1431 H.)
By evening some of the children collected themselves in the generous space behind the men and in front of a thigh-high lattice divider. The calm, soothing words and wisdom of the Shaykh radiated throughout the large, open space and even seemed to fill the children. Young boys, including my six-year-old, wiggled around in that area and exchanged wide smiles and occasional whispers. Soon the other boys trailed off and only my son remained – rolling and grinning to his heart’s content. When a child of mine is quiet and he’s not touching anyone else or blocking someone’s view or asking if he can play a game on my phone to pass the time and I’m at a good lecture…..praise be to God…. at those moments, I am a very grateful collard green mama.
Before long, a woman stood up, towered over the screen, and caught my son’s attention. He froze as a startled deer and scanned the room for grown-up women who had now turned their focus on this side event. She shook her stern finger and ordered him with a loud whisper, and a sweeping arm gesture, away, away! I studied the woman. The two words that popped into my head were ‘well-kept’ and ‘powdered.’ She sat back down, satisfied, and rested her weight on her slender, left arm which ran down to her fine fingers. Her wedding diamond was mighty and zealous; the sort that refused to be overlooked. The volcano began to flicker. My son buried his head into my neck and cried with no sounds. His snot made a moist spot on my scarf.
I should not be defensive, I scolded myself. I should be sympathetic, I persuaded my volcano. She very likely does not have children. She’s entitled to her own space of comfort away from these rolly-pollies which distract her eye because she is not accustomed to filtering it out, I reasoned. The size of her ring is inconsequential. I lectured the believing space of my brain which has the unflattering ability to transform the disquietude of hurt into a familiar and somewhat cozy rancor. I’m sure it is located in the survival region of my brain which feeds rations to my ego.
Before long it was time to leave and because the night was very cold, and our hotel room still a way off, we exited twenty minutes early. Our van, however, would not start. One of our children left the light on in the very back and it drained the battery. I was now in the lobby of the lecture hall with my children and four other children who had collected there. They entertained themselves by hiding under the tables and giggling. Before long, the same woman who ordered my son out of sight presented herself with a dish of pre-cut fruit. The children descended upon it eagerly and I cautioned them, thinking that the fruit was for another group. However, she said that she brought the fruit for the children to eat because it is better for children to eat fruit than to run amuck. The children are ill-behaved, she explained, because of the junk food that they eat. Oh, really, I said to myself. My curiosity surged and the question spilled out: “Do you have children?,” to which she replied, “Yes, I have three.” An inaudible, yet present, Scooby-do styled “huh?!” was there, but I contained it.
I have children, she explained, but I left them at home with the nanny because this is not the kind of environment in which children are well-managed. Out of respect for the Shaykh, she added, I left them at home.
The volcano hit the ceiling on the roof of my mouth and nearly spilled out to the tip of my tongue. I’d had enough. My thoughts bellowed and splattered, heated by the inferno of ‘Say whaaaa…..?!’.
Nanny!? Did she say ‘nanny’?! Does this person of fine fingers and fine things have any clue about how women on Planet Earth function?! We did not absent-mindedly forget to leave our children with the nanny. We are women who do not outsource….women who scrub the dishes, the floors and the crust from the toilet. Women who taxi and teach and organize Eid potlucks, not catered events. Women who shop discounts with coupons and iron clothes. Women who have chore charts for our kids, because forget about the whole work-ethic advantage, we just NEED help! We are women who pick other women up when they fall apart and cook for them and hug them. Women who toil with and love their children…children that feed from them, tug on them, climb on them, and cry to them at will without nannies to run interference. Women, who at the end of the long day, comfort husbands and are comforted in the secrecy of night. And some of these women take no such comfort as they have no husbands at all. We are women who wake up at fajr and do it all over again. Women who must budget a trip to hajj…who sacrifice something they need in order to have something else. Women who typically can’t afford 4-star spiritual retreats and first-class world travel rihla adventures in search of knowledge. Women who are raising nearly ALL of the young children who will make up the next generation.
These thoughts raced and I couldn’t escape with them because the battery in my getaway car was dead! The lecture inside ended as a small stream of people began to leave. I needed a distraction. I needed…..and there in a side room off of the lobby I found it……a vacuum and a trampled carpet! Who-hoo! I turned that baby on and ran like Marshawn Lynch to the end zone. My volcano sputtered to a quiet halt. This was the sizzle of thirty-something angst. The world moves on. Be a big girl. Kill the drama. Keep going.
That night after the commotion of checking into the hotel room and the tickles, scoldings, and goodnight kisses, I peacefully drifted into sleep. The next day, after a dip in the hotel pool and back inside the lecture hall, my son forgot all about the finger-wagging business. He probably hoped he’d be bad enough to get a giant bowl of fruit as a punishment. He loves fruit. The nasheed played on and the mood was soulful.
Unconscious and unmindful of
Being a slave of lustful whim
Your enemy resides within your skin
So let your war ‘gainst you be grim
Be vigilant of the deceit of the self
And what it may embellish or limn,
Free yourself of your free will
And yield to His Will, then safely swim
(Shaykh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi, 24 Dhul Hijja 1431 H.)
The Shaykh said a lot of good, wholesome things. I filled my pockets to the seams with shells of wisdom that I hope will be more than pretty souvenirs on my mental shelf. I hope that they will scrape away at my ego, leaving me thirsty and hungry for more than the sound of my own voice. I want to be hollow….empty of the heat and weight of my ego. Empty of myself.
Just before the close of the final session, he began to say something that made me perk up and lean forward, posturing to catch every last gem that was about to fall down. He said when someone does wrong to you, insults you, and disrespects you, you should not dwell on that person’s conduct; rather, you should ask yourself: What wrong did I do with Allah (SWT) that one of His servants is doing this to me?
A yearning for stillness gravitated from my core. My body obeyed without blinking. I paused hard to understand the source of my new comfort. I was downright blissful even though the Shaykh had basically said that I was to blame. This new reality carried the possible extinction of every hard edge and fiery rupture. For now, I understood this on a very cerebral level. Someday, if I can put this belief into practice, I will know how to fly. Knowing something and living something is the difference between the valley and the summit and I’m grown enough to comprehend that knowledge is not acquired through acknowledgement; no, it is engraved through experience.
The realization is that I needn’t carry the burden of everyone else’s intentions. No more begging the question – ‘What is she thinking?!’ I need only to reckon with my own heart. Is my intention peaceful and loving or something else? Do I seek to be understood and affirmed, or do I seek to experience? Do I celebrate abundance and whatever beauty can be salvaged, no matter the occasion? My thoughts which inform my actions facilitate my passage here. Nothing is happening to me which I do not invite to come in. I can invite all of the love, forgiveness, beauty, light, joy, comfort, security, and serenity. I am free and the only danger to my flight is the limiting belief that I can be captured. To love and receive love begins with the emptying of all else.
“Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.” (Rumi)
We drove home at a slow pace under the fluid ping of tiny ice drops hitting the windows. The winter gave no sign of letting go. Yet, I was no longer holding on. I felt free and closer to empty.