Ramadan, the special month of fasting, prayer, and contemplation, has already come and is almost gone. This year it was preceded by a series of unordinary encounters in my life – events that put me in touch with people I would otherwise never chance to meet.
In early June, while riding with my kids in the car on a two lane country road, my serpentine belt popped off, which I quickly discovered shuts down every important function in a car. All at once, the power steering quit, the engine light turned on and the car came within seconds of overheating. To make matters worse I was already straining to see the road because of a heavy downpour. With my husband many, many miles away, my first instinct was to freak out, but since my brood was watching, I had to act like a sane human being- not a freak-out mom. Slowly, over the period of an hour, I managed to inch the car into a gas station. My first question was to ask the attendant where I was and the next move was to call a mechanic. I knew I was in the middle of nowhere, I just didn’t know which nowhere. It was a farming town in north Maryland- a place of rolling hills, rich soil and old stone facades. Richly idyllic, unless your serpentine belt pops off, leaving you stranded with kids.
The rain stopped abruptly, mimicking the kind of weather I’m used to back in Florida -a quick flash of lightening and sharp rain, then poof, like it never happened. Even more spectacular, the sun was receding, revealing a horizon swathed in blushing hues, lending the imagery of a seamless, silk blanket rolled out above the earth.
I was disappointed to discover that the mechanic was miles away and not likely to be lulled from his pub on a Friday night to rescue the likes of me. A couple of men stood around and scratched their heads trying to figure out why my belt suddenly popped off yet remained in tact. If I could just find a mechanic to loop it back on, I’d be on my way. These swarming Yankee-Doodle-Dandies, however thoughtful, were proving themselves completely useless in the rescuing a damsel in distress category. A Collard Green man would have called me honey and popped that belt back on by now.
There were clearly no rent-a-husbands here. My own husband was scheduled to head out on a business trip early the next morning, so I held off calling him to drive several hours back and forth to come get us. Plus, that would have required leaving the car in the middle of nowhere. AAA was no help; we’d used up the service calls on a mechanical issue weeks ago. Surely, I could find a way to solve this problem. Then, poof, a petite woman, carrying a half gallon milk jug, came by and informed me that a mechanic lived behind the gas station. Really?! Perfect! Why didn’t anyone else mention this, I wondered.
After knocking on the fiberglass door of the trailer, a woman peeked out. We looked at each other for an awkward moment, but she didn’t say a word, just smiled. Realizing that there was a communication barrier I attempted to dust off the mental file containing all the Spanish I learned in college – it hurled from my tongue in a gnarled, grating pattern like the hinge of an old screen door which hadn’t been oiled, and flew open in the wind. Despite the awkwardness, I managed to communicate my predicament, only to discover that the mechanic, her husband, was out working his dishwasher job until the wee hours. His two older sons, however, were available; they’d only been in the U.S. a couple of weeks- badly homesick and completely shell-shocked, they seemed eager to plunge into some project.
Fortunately, although my spoken Spanish is very bad, my comprehension is decent, so I was able to understand when the boys told me they had just crossed the border illegally on the famed La Bestia – a ghastly train service which by default carries many a eager man and woman, non gratis, for free a top its boxed cars from Central America. They managed to stay awake to avoid falling off and permanently maiming or losing a limb. Men, women and children fail prey to it regularly. If they are fortunate enough to ride all the way, then walk through the scorching heat undetected, with only a few drops of water, and a square meal a day – they have the pleasure of working a back breaking job in landscaping or at a greasy fast food joint, completely off the grid of health benefits and 401Ks.
While the brothers set off to work, and with the night sky fast approaching, my son and I had to perform the fourth prayer of the day known as the Maghrib prayer. I settled our straw mat on the grassy margin bordering a farm next to the gas station. The men followed me with their eyes, perplexed.
Not knowing the word for prayer in Spanish, I tried to announce my plans as best as I could.
“Yo voy a Dios”, meaning literally, “I go to God.”
“Si, Si,” they smiled, and motioned me with nods of their heads, like ushers, making shooing gestures with their palms down, “You go to God,” they affirmed. “We understand.”
And so I did and felt all the better for it – very relieved and soothed to be praying near my son under a blushing night sky, with fire flies twittering about and the murmur of cicadas beginning to erupt. After the prayer, I bought the gas station out of its crispy fried chicken, as an initial offering, and was invited to sit with the boys’ mother in her tiny cubicle of a kitchen- its floor of brittle, pale linoleum peeling up in the corners, showing its underbelly of plywood. She made homemade tortillas while my kids happily depleted their attention spans on a slew of cartoons via their bulky, tubular television set. At this point they weren’t sure if they could fix the problem without their father’s tools, so they invited us to spend the night, as eagerly as if they were inviting a member of the family. I called my husband and he said something to the effect of: “Woman, have you lost your mind!? Where are you? I’m coming!!” Where am I? Err….in a very nice lady’s kitchen on a hill top, eating warm tortillas. Kids are watching Tom n’ Jerry re-runs and have red juice-staches. I’m not sure exactly where I am but I’ll call you very soon. Don’t worry! Love you. Bye now. Click.
While the brothers continued to work, the mother told me her story of immigration – how she escaped to the U.S. from the bandidas (bandits) who had gashed and broken her leg because she couldn’t pony up the cash to pay them protection dues for the hardware store she owned with her husband. ”You see here,” she pointed to a thick mass of lightly pigmented scare tissue splayed out and contrasted against the rest of her thin, olive colored shin. Before her husband fled, the bandidas kidnapped and tortured him for a week for refusing to pay. The police, either in concert with the bandidas, or out of plain fear did nothing. The trouble was her husband simply had nothing left to give. They had already closed up the store, but the bandidas were unrelenting. They fortunately paid no mind to the four penniless children; after all, it was nothing personal, just business.
In progression, after the father arrived in the U.S., he got down to working odd jobs to earn the transport money for a coyote to bring them ”safely” across the border. The mother followed on the illicit Bestia. She fell into the clutches of drunken co-passengers, who at knife point ordered her and all the women huddled to strip naked while they humiliated and molested them. After the ordeal, other riders threw them clothes from their own bags- merciful gestures, trying to restore them as if it never happened, but their kindness never erased it from her mind. Every time she hears the train whistle just beyond the perimeter of her trailer she twitches and wrings her hands – she’s haunted, she says, she can feel them touching her even though there is no one there. She was later captured by U.S. Border Patrol and spent several months in an Arizona prison before she managed to get out and make her way up North. She is currently working to be able to bring her two other children to the U.S.. They fend for themselves now, she sends them money enough to survive, and they wait.
Her American dream is to have all of her children in one home, and make a sky-high pile of homemade tortillas for them – to sit and talk with them and laugh, for no other silly reason than that it feels good. She wants to watch them breathing at night as they sleep unaware and kiss them on their foreheads, and never worry about another bandida at her door.
Within a few hours the brothers emerged and announced that they managed to loop the belt back on. I felt like hugging someone in a sigh of relief. I gratefully paid for the service, though they looked away, seeming shy to acknowledge a rightful wage. The next morning the mother called to ask if I had made it home safely.
I couldn’t stop thinking about them all day long, and the next day… and then the next. I hugged my children a little more, lingered longer at the breakfast table, and gazed at them with a deeper sense of gratitude in my heart, but tethered to an anchor of melancholy plunged into my stomach. It somehow doesn’t feel as good when you know that someone else is aching for the same morning, but can’t have it. The sun’s rays don’t illuminate with that particular lightness of being.
Two weeks later, I drove to Assateague Island to go camping with my kids among the wild horses.
My husband, again, could not come along because of work obligations, but I was determined to make the best and even better of it. Within less than an hour of arriving, while setting up camp, we met some campers about to have an all out Moroccan feast. I was pitching our tent when they came off of the beach. Seeing me alone with my children, and Muslim like them, it sparked their curiosity. The day was waning and high winds made the task of simultaneously holding down all four corners of my tent nearly impossible. Every time my son and I would lay it down to figure out which side was which it would completely fold over and whip sand everywhere. One of the Moroccans enthusiastically jumped in to help. When I thanked him, he averted eye contact, and with that distinctly Arab gesture of hand on heart, simply replied: ”bent bledi”, which means ‘daughter of my land.’
The spread was spectacular. I thought who else but a Moroccan would turn a camping trip into a foodie experience?! It was awesome down to the petite pot of mint tea brewing on the grill. Conversation dawdled on what each person did. The benefactor of the whole feast, co-operated a deli in downtown Washington D.C. with his brother. Another Moroccan in the group, originally from Rabat, was middle aged; she had settled into life as a nanny after the economy withered. The money isn’t bad, she explained; she genuinely loves the kids, but the parents are complete brats who never thank her beyond writing her pay check every two weeks. She wished she could get a little more recognition for kissing boo-boos, making oatmeal, reading books, and all the other things a stand-in mother must do. She never expresses these feelings to her employer. She needs the job. She wasn’t looking forward to rubbing elbows with upper class white women and their nannies during one of the hottest summers on record. I sympathized. She had tried to move back to Morocco at one point, but having been gone for so long, first in France and then in the U.S., she didn’t feel her place there anymore. Trouble is, she doesn’t feel her place anywhere; she has no partner or children of her own…she feels un-rooted and solemn most of the time.
The deli operator, when asked about Morocco, looked up to the sky, and smacked his lips over his right hand as if sending a greeting across the Atlantic.
“My country,” he says, “I miss my country,” he cries. “I never should have left,” he laments, looking about as one adrift, with deep set cavernous eyes, like a man who had heedlessly cheated on his one love, and can never return to hold her again.
I asked the obvious question: “Why don’t you return?”
“If it were that easy,” he shook his head.
“Why isn’t it?,” I ask bearing my plucky, American grin, with its over the rainbow all things are possible glitter. He explained that he was an accountant with a solid job, enough money to spend and enough to save, but his big brother, aching for companionship of his own, had put visions in his head of streets lined in gold. He was itching for change because such is the condition of man – always convinced that just over the next bend, the next tier, is a whole new world, a better place waiting, and if he can just get there he will be happy ever after. Truly, man was created, very impatient (Qur’an, Al Ma’arij, 19).
Instead, of utopia he found a tasteless existence, with heaps of meat waiting to be sliced and served to the next lucky patron. He’s lonelier than he’s ever been in his life. He sits in his deli serving lines of busy customers, all of them strangely eager to grab a swath of food and eat on the go -never stopping like back home to savor the sights and the smells; to sit, for no better reason than to eat, digest, and listen to their bones. He misses his home country but he can’t survive there anymore. His old job is gone, the economy has tanked, and frankly he’s scared to return with meager savings and no job prospects. There was a space of silence after he explained the reason. What more could I say?
Quixotically and impressively, he shook off his fermented sadness, breathed in the salt water air, and dug into his cooler to produce an elaborate, chilled fruit tray to share.
The next morning I brought breakfast to their camp and bid them farewell as they packed up for the day. I sat on the beach under an umbrella, digging my toes further and deeper into the sand until they reached the hard-packed, cool underbelly of the shore. The kids ran back and forth for sandwiches and juice. They spent several hours catching hermit crabs with their buckets, only to return them back to the ocean again and again- never tiring of the monotony. I thought of our hosts the night before. If only it were so easy to go back home.
The next day my camp stove malfunctioned and set fire – a big hazy fount of flames sprung up from the device while I said something to effect of: “Umm…someone…please HELP!” Fortunately, the father in the campsite next “door” sauntered over with a fire extinguisher and nonchalantly put the whole drama to rest. His profession had something to do with the fire department so he wasn’t too hyped up by our little emergency; his cool demeanor was contagious so that I was able to blow the whole thing off myself. Yeah, I almost burned down a national treasure, no biggie. That is not my modus operandi. I’m more likely to be seen jerking my body like I’m twirling an imaginary hoola hoop if ever a drama is in the works.
In my haste I’d forgotten a bag of Twizzlers by my car. One of the wild horses gratefully clip-clopped over, tore the bag open with his mouth and glutinously devoured its contents to the tune of my three year old howling in the background and pleading with me to call the cops to have the horse arrested. Fortunately, we didn’t go hungry. The family who put out the fire also generously offered their camp grill so that we could cook our dinner. Meanwhile, we shared a nice long talk about the primitive thrill of camping in the Adirondacks with bears- something I’ve determined from that conversation never to do. When the family left to take an evening drive, the horses came to their site and attempted to gobble up all of their left out groceries. My son and I swatted at them from a distance with long towels which herded them back toward the beach. I felt grateful for at least a small opportunity to repay their kindness.
The next morning just before dawn a storm blew in – a really, really big storm. I didn’t have have enough warning to break down my tent, so I had to throw my kids in the car and back it up against all of our camp gear to keep it from flying away. It worked, but the force of the wind snapped our tent poles in half. Our good Samaritan neighbors had their entire pop up canopy wrecked, which seemed entirely unfair given how downright nice they were. We spent the whole next day levitating like slothly castaways on the beach, weathered and grateful to have made it out relatively unscathed. I thought about all the kind people I’d met recently- contemplated on their generosity and also their personal tragedies. I felt grateful to carry their memories with me and made prayers for them along with myself and my family.
Now the month of Ramadan is upon us. Long days and nights of fasting, reading Qur’an and praying are this month’s focus- not getting myself into predicaments. I was feeling a bit depleted before Ramadan, plagued by the thought of so many people who want but have not. I could not reconcile the seemingly topsy turvy distribution of hardship and ease. My center was off, the place where you momentarily fail to glean the whole purpose of life. It is hard to grasp that notion, much less hold onto it indefinitely. I find I am always catching it and letting it go, berating myself, and catching it again.
Ramadan is here and all I want to do is be alone with it. This is the one time in the year, when honestly, I could detach from everyone for a month. That is completely impractical and impossible, of course. The days must go on and I must go with them, stretching to find that rhythm of spiritual balance, that place where you are in the world but the world is not in you. Life is full of tailspins and ending up for miles on other roads- some good, some bad, and what we at once perceived as lost, is in fact, exactly where we were meant to be.
Life is not always a happy ending- not always a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That is about the most honest, Big Girl thing I can say at this moment. It’s hard to admit. It almost feels unpatriotic. The truth is, needs and wants are so relative and sometimes hardship endures. One woman wants a swimming pool in her backyard and another woman just wants her children. One man wants to take that New Zealand trip to go skydiving this year, and another man just wants to go home. Life is certainly not “fair,” and it isn’t meant to be. There is no enduring happiness attached to any momentary pleasure in this world.
Is it not through the remembrance of God that hearts find tranquility? Quran 13:28.
God asks me this question and I’m intent on answering it for myself. Sometimes the answer is beyond my reach because I am not still enough to ponder the question. Now Ramadan is here and I’m very still, and very alert. I can discern now what was woolly.
Rememberance, tranquilty – the later is completely dependent on the former. The only one who truly loses in this world is the one who never discerns his true purpose; the one who continually forgets.
Indeed, life is full of tailspins and ending up for miles on other roads- some good, some bad.
Nothing in it endures. Everything passes as it should. Life is a bridge. I’m walking on it right now, but I cannot always perceive it – my senses are so often dulled. The only abiding peace is in the redeeming act of rememberance. If I remember God, Al-Wahid (The One), I remember eternity, and if I remember eternity I perceive my own mortality and the mortality of everyone around me. I perceive the temporal space around me and the mechanics of my body as a holding place, as something that was never designed to remain. The only part of me that will remain is the part of me that is capable of remembering, with deep attraction and longing, my Creator.
Ramadan is a month in which our purpose is to learn self-control, and in order to gain that control, as a prerequisite, we must know the purpose of the self. In Ramadan we feel that purpose acutely – we sober to reality, which we are enabled to do because we give up the trivialities of excess food, speech and sleep.
All I want for Ramadan is to deepen to the remembrance of God, then to let it hold me the rest of the year, like a torch lighting each step through the sunken passages and sudden turns on my journey. Through each encounter, with each new experience, I want to discern the reality of the inescapable passage of time and purpose of life.
Imaam ibn Al-Jawzee a scholar from Baghdad in the twelfth century, said: “Beware of every hour and how it passes, and only spend it in the best possible way, do not neglect yourself, but render it accustomed to the noblest and best of actions, and send to your grave that which will please you when you arrive to it.”
May we spend the rest of this month ‘in the best possible way.’ May we discern ourselves, remember God, and be at peace.