Words to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation

12 Nov

Words to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation:

On the Occasion of the Inter-Religious Family Dinner: November 11, 2017

I am so pleased to be here tonight representing my diverse faith community, and within it, the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Thank for this outreach to our community. It is a very kind gesture that will remain long in our hearts.

This occasion is ripe for reflecting on one of my favorite verses from the Qur’an, the text which Muslims believe God revealed through the Angel Gabriel.

O humankind! We have created you from a single male and female, and made you into tribes and families so that you may know one another. Surely the noblest, most honorable of you in God’s sight is the one best in piety, righteousness, and reverence for God. Surely God is All-Knowing, All-Aware. (Al-Hujurat 49:13)

O humankind! It says. Not O Muslims! O humankind. It addresses everyone on earth, not only the community of Muslims. I am being addressed along with all of the members of my human family.

We are connected by origin, by membership in the human race. Connection is a vital ingredient in a meaningful and pleasurable life. The need to connect socially is powerful. Our emotional and even our physical health depends on the quality of our human connections. In languages around the word we use the language of pain to identify social pain. So, we say, “He broke my heart.” Or “She hurt my feelings.” We are biologically “wired” to connect. I believe we limit well-being if we limit our connections to people who look like us and worship like us. We have the freedom to expand our connections to all of humankind!

Then the verse says: “created you from a single male and female,” which is our common ancestry in Adam and Even. Our Jewish sisters and brothers may refer to the Misnah, Sanhedrin 4:5 which states, “Furthermore, the first person was created alone for the sake of peace among men, so that no one could say to another, ‘My ancestor was greater than yours.”

When we view our individual selves on a continuum dating back to our first mother and father, the idea of racism, is dumb, even laughable. Thinking people will arrive at the rational conclusion that there is no pure race, no better people, no real hierarchy in the human family, beside the ones that we fabricate in our imaginations.  And this is intentional, because we come from one origin, one mother and one father.

So, there is no hierarchy. We are all the same, right? But no, we have evolved in a way that we are very different. We have differences and those differences are the inspiration for hatred, blood-shed and community-inflicted trauma. We niche out privileges based on color, class, culture, beliefs. Wouldn’t it be so much simpler, so much more peaceful if we were all exactly the same, if there wasn’t this overwhelming variety within us? It’s chaos, isn’t it? Why within our human family is there intentionally so much variety? What’s the point?!

This is a question that my eight-year-old son decided to ask me a few weeks ago, before my morning coffee. While I was all blurry-eyed, he asked:

“Why can’t we all just be the same. Why didn’t Allah create us all to be alike? It would be so much easier.”

He is a minority in a secular public school. Even though it is secular, in reality the special art projects and extended holidays cater to the cultural identities of Christian Americans. At school, our children make Christmas ornaments, Easter-themed spring decor, Valentine Day Cards, etc… Never Jewish dreidals or Ramadan Lanterns.  In fact, when a Jewish friend and I recently teamed up to point out this obvious fact, another PTA mom responded that it is important to celebrate the “prevailing cultures” holidays.

So, on Christmas ornament making day, my Jewish friend asked me to take her children for the day to play together. It happened to be a Friday and she gladly gave permission for her children to attend our Friday services in the Mosque. Two weeks before our daughters attended a youth group program in a synagogue where my daughter enjoyed an up close and personal reading of the Torah scroll and heard a beautiful recitation of it. We have to arrange these opportunities for our children, so that they will have an appreciation for their unique identities even if they are not celebrated by the “prevailing culture” as the mom phrased it.

In each instance, both at the synagogue and the mosque, our children were completely absorbed, looks of innocent fascination on them. They were totally in the moment, completely connected to the moment, to the people welcoming them, showing them: this is how we worship, this is what we say, this is how we sound, this is how we begin and how we end. The children were encountering and connecting to people. Connection.  The hearth of physical and emotional well-being.

We cannot truly know each other unless there is some mystery, some questions and discovery between us. We are species who, when living in a natural state are deeply curious, and able to be completely absorbed into the moment of discovery.

But then, how to convey that idea in simpler words to my child, in a way that he would accept my answer?

So, I said: “Well, Laith, I want you to imagine a world in which everyone is the same: same religion, same color, same culture, same language, all same. Same, same, same. If you want, close your eyes and imagine that kind of world.”

He paused.

“What is that world like, Laith? Do you want to live in that world?”

“No, he said, very determined. That world is boring. I don’t want to live there.”

“Then, aren’t we fortunate that God did not create us to live in such a boring world, that we have different foods and we can learn each other’s languages, and beliefs, admire each other’s clothes. That we get to know each other. That we get to connect through getting to know each other?”

“Yes! We’re lucky.” He smiled.

The third part of that verse I mentioned at the beginning: the noblest, most honorable of you in God’s sight is the one best in piety, righteousness, and reverence for God. In other words, do good deeds. Actions speak louder than words.

It aligns with the Babylonian Talmud Gitten 61a: “Our Rabbis taught, ‘Give sustenance to the poor of the non-Jews along with the poor of the Jews. Visit the sick of the non-Jews along with the sick of the Jews. Bury the dead of the non-Jews along with the dead of the Jews – Because of the ways of peace.”

In other words, we are all in this together. We all have shared interests. And right now, in America, we are at a heightened awareness of the need to celebrate our shared interests as religious minorities in our country.

Since last year’s election and even before, during the campaign, hate crimes and hate speech against Jews and Muslims skyrocketed.

We are witnessing a sharp rise in Nazi symbols, this year the White House intentionally omitted mention of Jewish victims in the President’s Holocaust Remembrance Day message. On the very same day, Trump issued a ban on refugees and anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries. Wearing a public symbol of the Jewish or Muslim faith, for example, my hijab or a Jewish man’s kippa, makes one a walking target for hundreds of organized hate groups, operating and gaining legitimacy.

Jews and Muslims are coming together to do good like never before. This year dozens of rabbis were arrested outside of Trump Towers while protesting the ban against Muslim refugees, and Muslims raised $100,000 to restore Jewish cemeteries which were destroyed by vandals in the wake of the hateful political rhetoric which brought Trump to an electoral election win.

We are sharing our common interests as citizens who are religious minorities in America and we are doing an even bigger job of making America arrive at a “more perfect Union.” We are always perfecting it. And it has always fallen on minorities to do the heavy lifting of advancing the human and civil rights, which are embodied in our Bill of Rights. Through our adherence to our respective religious texts and our consequent fellowship with one another we are making the ideals of our Nation’s founding, live and breathe instead of sleep as lofty words in a museum.

On behalf of my Muslim community at the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Thank you for this invitation. Thank you for this uniting gesture. We are sisters and brothers to one another, in common ancestry and purpose.


Expired Love Letters

26 Sep

I write love letters on small squares of thin paper. Sometimes they return home to me, sauce-stained, ink letters bloated beneath water marks. Sometimes the words don’t come back at all. They cling, wet, around another child’s half-finished milk carton in the trash bin. They lie in landfills of coffee grinds and discarded diapers from squalling, rash-angst babies, who have suckled on the deflated breasts of yawning mothers.

I stand by my children’s sandwiches in the early morning, crust sliced clean off, thrown to the tail-wagging, salivating dog. He gobbles it in one leap and paces the floor while I twiddle my pen between middle and index fingers, thinking, softening, aching, even, a little.

No matter what I write, it won’t inject the tide of this…

‘I love you.’

And I don’t care where that message ends up as long as it travels first through their hearts today. I love you!

I write that and a few other words, less important, then tuck the paper swiftly into their lunches. I want my children to read the letters when we are not face-to-face. I don’t want to watch them actually reading it at this very moment. Though, before it has happened, I see my children silently grinning on the words in the noisy, echoing lunchroom, here, while they are just stretched out and pajama footed on the living room rug, picking up the lint – swollen and sleepy-eyed – asking me, what is for breakfast?

God, it hurts, it soothes – how much I feel this thin piece of paper.

It has been four days since I wrote one. Four school days of absence –only plump grapes and slippery carrot sticks. No love letter, because I do not write them every day. Only on some days.

The youngest child flashes high the last letter, like a ticket to the fair, then sweeps it down on the kitchen counter to rest.

“This one is expired,” he informs, with a straight, sober expression.

We walk to school. My daughter races off ahead to be in time for safety patrol duty. The one with the expired love letter tucks his hand beneath mine. We will walk like this under the wooded canopy all the way until the edge, on the top of the hill where other children can maybe see. Then, he will gently, but quickly let-go.

I stand there as a night owl, still and brooding. My eyes follow him until he is gone. And even after, I stay while the dog slaps my thigh with his pounding, impatient tail.

I turn to go back and my feet step over the soft, freshly mulched playground where the workers discuss how to dig out and replace a deeply entrenched border edging. I pass them, head nod, and push my tongue to the roof of my mouth to hold the tear quiet in the crease of my eye.

I imagine all of my children as grown and engaged in whatever purpose they must pursue someday. How many expired love-letters till then?

My town can be loved, but cannot be loving.

13 Nov

I grew up in a small Florida town where Mexican children and their parents worked in our orange groves. Teachers hollered, No Spanish in the lunch line! In this town we called the place that African-Americans lived the ‘quarters.’ They sneered on Martin Luther King Day: Oughta’ celebrate the day he was shot! Once, we waited in a long line to watch a re-mastered “Gone with the Wind” at the movie theater – a few ladies dressed as plantation owners and they were admired.

In this town I heard that slavery wasn’t as bad as ‘they fuss about.’ And a white woman who marries a black man is white trash; her children will be ugly and laughed at. African-Americans are gorillas for jokes – lots of jokes behind their backs.

In this town, we worshiped blonde Jesus and laughed at the notion of black Jesus, because of course, that’s not true…haahaa! There was ‘thank God’ no law to make us worship in the same church, so given the choice, of course, we did not. They said black people were generally ungrateful because they never appreciated that they would have been forsaken in Africa – living in huts, wearing animal skins, without church.

We were not racists. We knew ‘good black people,’ watched Oprah, gave charity, and loved Aretha Franklin. We were patient, Christian, and kind, though under siege – plagued with integrated schools, affirmative action, and political correctness.

I grew up in this town like thousands of other towns; you also grew up there.

A town that can be loved, but cannot be loving.

The election of a KKK-endorsed candidate should not surprise me. But, it does. Thanks to Facebook I’m aware that many childhood friends voted for Trump. Years of sharing photos, announcing milestones and oozing ‘likes’ did not rally me to Trump, nor humanize my biracial family to them. The safety and psychological well-being of other children, not like theirs, meant nothing in the end. People from my town voted for a candidate whose platform specifically targets the emotional and physical health of other families. I fervently disagreed with them and they fervently disagreed that I had any reason to be concerned in the first place.

One childhood friend posted an announcement from evangelist Franklin Graham:

Hundreds of thousands of Christians from across the United States have been praying. This year they came out to every state capitol to pray for this election and for the future of America. Prayer groups were started. Families prayed. Churches prayed. Then Christians prayed. Then Christians went to the polls, and God showed up.

God showed up for a sexual predator – a seventy-year-old man who giggles about walking in on young girls changing at a beauty pageant, and brags about his own sexual assaults. God showed up for a man with a record of discriminating against African-Americans. God showed up for a man who makes fun of Jewish people and stated that he would have Muslims register just like Jews leading up to the Holocaust. God showed up for a man who makes fun of disabled people. God showed up for the same man that has a white supremacist fan club.

If God showed up for that man, because of these small-town prayers, then I think a lot of people around the world would be terrified to know it. No one in my town is capable of racism or sexism because those evils are defined so narrowly, the devil himself is a saint.

That is my town. It may greatly disturb other people to know that I still love it. You can love a place that can never love you back. My town is my flesh and my memory, though it is not my writhing conscious. It is my heavy heart, but it is not my thirst. It is my tears, but it is not my yearning. My yearning is to the common bond of sister and brotherhood.

My town is too fragile to yearn. It has been broken by the burden of its own generational rage. If it does not change, if it does not open itself to returning love, it will destroy itself. Like Pharaoh’s town, it will be suffocated by its own oppressive hate.

Some people are trying to figure out how this election outcome happened. They scramble for explanations. But we know because we grew up there, that not much has changed. I can hear the town in my ear. My childhood ear.

Jesus loves the little children of the world/Amazing grace how sweet though art! /For the Bible tells me so/Love thy neighbor/Lord, have mercy!

And then,

Pride always cometh before the fall.

Their voices make me cry. I do not think that they can hear their own words. Their tongues speak, but their hearts do not know. They do not cry for the others. They shout ‘victory, victory!’ They cannot feel pain beyond rage.

My town can be loved, but cannot be loving.

We Lovers

8 Aug

He shoved a body board into our overstuffed vehicle and closed it with a Spartan rush. If he flinched for even a millisecond and the van belched, torrents of non-essential camping gear would tumble to the hot pavement. One day my husband and I will master the art of simple living. We will leave behind the extra (just in case) towels, (not sure if that can be fixed) lantern, and assortment of breakfast options. Once we’ve evolved into that sort of species we likely won’t have kids arguing over seating priority and sleeping bag assignments. We’ll revert to a small sedan into which we’ll sling an over-the-shoulder tent for two. And we’ll make camping reservations on Thursday night instead of two months in advance because we’ll be spontaneous, like that pulsating flash of a firefly suspended in the blended hue of night, as it turns from a blushed day into a dark ripple.

Irreverently, I sat in the passenger’s wing greedily fixated on my e-reader instead of kick-starting the family excursion with a sing-song or road game. And besides marinating the chicken and packing a few things, I hadn’t done a whole heck of a lot to make this plan go down, as I usually would. My husband did most of the packing without any, I’m at my wits end!!, fanfare. He just did it. Nineteen years of marriage, reassuringly whispering a subtle tune into the sore heart: some moments don’t insist on an explanation; they belong with the inexplicable.  My lover says.

But if explanations needed to be given, well then, suffice it to say that I hadn’t been feeling myself – perched on that glorious, ruptured fault line nearing middle-age, and not on a wholly tragic scale. Metamorphosis takes more than a few still hours. It is as rare as an eclipse, but more drowsy like a humming melody down a winding summer trail. The soul bursts out to meet it, to brace itself for that much anticipated awe-glittered moment, but in that covey of expectation, flaring outside of time’s capsule, appears a quivered slice of lightening. It startles like a rapid hush consuming a clamoring crowd. In that space, kneeling alone, jagged stones are hurled from all shadowy directions — stones born from every muffled, young trauma that I ever endured– giving breathe to the most violent sadness and yearning scream that was never heard, nor held, nor soothed.

Who will hold this for me?! Who is strong enough?! The answer swoops down like a steadfast, speckled falcon on its unsuspecting prey, hard and enduring: No one, but you!

But, damn if I’m not happier in that exhaling sublime space than I can ever remember being in my entire life. More content than ever imagined in this lyrical landscape of soulful existence in which nothing is settled because it’s all crisply new. In that space where everything is perfectly the same and yet deliciously different — a swaying old song played on a new instrument.

Our campsite came into view after a few wrong turns and mean glares at a GPS system gone awry. We tumbled out to survey our home for the weekend. A shady, gravel pad tilted awkwardly to give us the shining view of the neighboring campsite, inhabited by a young couple whose SMART car fit all of their essential belongings. At sprinting intervals our eyes caught their loafing, wilderness adventures, and their eyes caught ours. A new camping pastime we’d all collectively and bashfully discovered. Neither couple could resist noticing the other, like curious characters peeking into a fairyland mirror, a magical model, which lets its users glimpse in fast-forward and reverse. And the glimpses gave rise to sputtering commentary.

Ah, see that’s the little generator I was telling you about? $300, but keeps it all running.

When we’re old, we’ll sit up for as long as we want in hammocks like those. Ha! Never mind, we’ll probably have grand-kids to push us along by then.

Everyone is wearing tattoos these days and beards are back.

He’s splintering the wood.

Wearing a fat towel on her head the whole time, not even tryin’ to impress! A nice rut, but still a rut. Done that. Yeah, I’m totally inappropriate. But seriously, when they leave it will be like the campsite TV turned off. Bummer. (laughter)

My wife, crazy (more laughter).

Two kids in diapers, three a.m. pediatrician visits, fevers, finding good schools, if they have the kid track on play. Had fun, but glad that’s over for us.

Our kids ran in and out, oblivious, gobbled up helpings of hot barbecue and chips. Warm globs of marshmallow crusted around their eager mouths. They smelled of ketchup stains and the potent lingering smoke of sulky campfires. As typical, their emotions grazed – they fell happily into our familiar laps, arms around our necks, kissing cheeks, giggling, then suddenly sad over some perceived injustice or pushing out a betwixt rebuttal to our game-plan. Over and over their alternations worked like chiming bells echoing into our hearts, sometimes grating, and at other times like flushed warm light, washing us.

The fire mesmerized with its sporadic ear-pleasing crackles shot from ruminating heat. From time to time my husband doused it in lighter fuel, producing scorching high crescendos to cheerful, approving claps: “Do it again, Baba. Do it!”

In the closed canopy of wooded night, lanterns alighted faces. Our kids along with their co-traveling friends in the same loop, bedecked themselves with ring-stacks of glow sticks, saturating their spry bodies. We saw them, their neon formations– running and hooting loudly as intergalactic tribesmen, which startled us into laughter, a momentary rush of reason-less joy that we shared with our young neighbors. The only moment we willfully acknowledged, at once, suspended – two sets of eyes locking with two others, whispering into the phantasmal mirror, Is that you? The gleeful unexpected occasion to indulge all of the otherwise monotonous tasks: eggs cooking, pan scrubbing, bed making, hunched over coffee, nose blowing, paper reading, paper shifting, phone scrolling, teeth brushing, sleep snoring, adjusting positions on the mattress that we brought home together on that drizzling dreary day…adjusting assuredly into the nesting, warm nook of the other lover’s curled body, arms wrapping to bring the other in, like a harbor crying ‘home’ for only one voyager.

We sat back down in our folding chairs, by now closer to the dissipating fire. A glowing heat concentrated into the belly of wilting logs, its scalding orange brightness worked into embers, sighing wispy white ashes into the absorbing black night. A lull between us. Soft, full bodied silence. The silence that speaks so eloquently, and more precisely than spoken words, because it has the capacity to listen. Silence on the page that if someone else picked up, they would see blankness – nothing – nothing spoken, but from which your lover reads volumes, recognizes you easily. Though blindfolded, could pick you out of a crowded mute room by your hand, out of that suffocating hovel into sublime airy togetherness, alone. Your lover sits near you just to be near. You travel your way. Your lover travels too, though, not the same road. No one, but you! Still, together in ruptured silence, your lover is there, over soul eclipses and un-glittering, monotonous joy.

Mamahood is…

27 Mar

Mamahood is a lot of trial and flotsam error.

It is…


wild and weird

sober monotony with psychedelic pauses

crying in an awkward place because you didn’t have the luxury of doing it sooner.

Take, for example –

Last January on a sunny snow-day my kids declared that we never do anything fun! They wanted to go sledding. I grew up in pitiful warm Decembers, drooling over Charlie Brown Christmas Specials. It doesn’t take much to twist my arm.

The whole family loaded into our flashy mini-van and set out for the local community college on a high perch overlooking an ideal sledding hill. The perch is very wide, distinguished by a steep climb on the left which I call Frikin’ Scary, and the gentler, less steep face which I call the Charlie Brown.

I like the later – this is the section for toddlers in football helmets, swaddled by middle-aged over protective mothers. Meanwhile Frikin’ Scary is where you find college kids, open containers, and the occasional torn condom wrapper.

An adventure seekers cornucopia!

Two years ago I got the nerve to slide down Frikin’ Scary and realized that sledding can actually be painful – not at all like Charlie Brown. It felt like I had become our flashy mini-van, hitting every pothole, going sixty. So, when my 14-year old pleaded with me,

“Mama, PLEASE, go sledding with me over there!,”

I abruptly said,

“Heeeeck no!”

Unfortunately, he inherited my obnoxious ability to repeat a request until it starts to sound reasonable.

Now, before I go on, I should let you know that I’ve been on lots of guilt trips in my career. I know that most moms are frequent flyers. It starts with choosing the right brand of pre-natal vitamins and never really ends. Teenagers are expert at choosing the right moment to take us for a guilt flight. They zero in like a fox tracking a furry bunny rabbit and then WHAM, pounce.

“Mama,” he said putting a hand on my shoulder and looking softly into my eyes, “Please go with me. You never do anything fun with me.”


Pretty soon I was huddled on the top of Freakin’ Scary in an over-priced bright green, plastic saucer purchased at Sports Authority the day before a historic blizzard blew into our town. I scooted myself off the brink of no return. Half way down my plastic green Sputnik drifted into a snowboarding ramp, fashioned by an inebriated, thrill-seeking college kid who can afford to bust his tail because he doesn’t need to drive through the mommy-line five days a week. Neither does he need to lift a 60-pack flatbed of juice boxes from the Costco shelf while commandeering a double-wide cart stocked with more boxes of frozen salmon, Go-Gurts, Marvel underwear, a giant patio umbrella, and a lifetime supply of post-it notes!


I flew up into the air not like Wonder Women, and for the landing instinctively stretched out my right arm, which would have worked just fine if I was Elastigirl Mom from The Incredibles. But, no, I’m Ordinary Mom just flying on another guilt trip.

So, instead of SWOOSH, the impact went more like SWACK! I hit the hard-packed snow on my left side and slid down further on my face which bled and eventually scabbed, giving me the appearance of a battered Muslim woman. Oh dear.

When I stopped sliding, it occurred to me that I was hurt as indicated by the dizziness, nausea, and my arm felt like a cocktail of fire and apathy. It was a dangling exclamation mark.

It was a Charlie Brown Christmas Special meets Chainsaw Massacre.

Fast forward seven weeks later and I’ve got my hijab tucked under a shower cap about to be stabbed three times in the shoulder for a necessary procedure called Shoulder Arthroscopy.

The anesthesiologist tells me to sit back and relax. Yeah right! I’d rather be at home watching Charlie Brown with my kids. She puts a Top-Gun mask over my face. I’m about to fly. Yee-ay!

She tells me:

“I’m going to put something in your IV. Some people like this sensation. Some people don’t.”

Alright. This should be interesting.

I don’t like it at all. It makes the room spin. It makes me feel, OH MY LORD, like the time two years ago I was living in Morocco and nearly died from gas inhalation because I had come from the land of personal-injury attorneys and product-recall posters.

I thought I’d never see my kids again.


Next thing I know a sweet voice calls out to me,

“You are all finished.”

Her voice is like honeysuckle when it first wafers into the warm air. Not at all like the nurse in Morocco who sat for a half hour telling me every gory detail of every story she had known wherein the person doesn’t escape gas inhalation.

Then, I start to cry, cry, CRY.

Cry because I’m alive.

Cry because I’m going to see my kids again.

Cry because I know precisely what it feels like to brace for death and I can’t un-know that now. Ever.

It’s not even minutely about the bucket list. It’s about the kids. The plea to go on for them. The horror that they will go on alone. Their father’s sadness.

Cry for the guilt because I was helpless to protect my little boy who stayed behind with me. He jumped up and down hyper from the effects of the silent, scentless gas crying “Mama, Mama!” Then his eyes rolled back and he dropped unconscious and pale while I screamed. My own equilibrium slipped. I could not open the window. I could not find the key, then, I couldn’t manage to force it into the lock. The building was empty. Why wasn’t anyone coming? No one could hear me.  “Look at Mama! Look at me, dammit! Look!! Open your eyes!!” I eventually dragged him down three flights of stairs in my own stupor, begging God for another chance. He will die. Begging. Begging.”I’m sorry. I’m so sorry! Please look at me!!!”

Even under the haze of lingering anesthesia I am too ashamed to tell that part.


Cry like I should have cried for a few weeks when it happened.

Cry…cry….like I am not actually surrounded by a room full of strangers wearing a surgical shower cap and a pair of blue dog-print courtesy socks.

Now this man is highly skilled and exceedingly comforting as he patiently listens to my entire saga, but in all likelihood, he wants to go home to his wife and kids because it’s Friday and I’m his last case of the day.

I imagine him hollering: We got a crier on AISLE EIGHT!! Clean up!!!!

I try desperately to access my verbal filter and dust it off. It’s there, but I can’t seem to locate it in the haze of opioids. I berate myself and try to stop crying, but I just can’t. No filter whatsoever. I can’t stop.

Where is my husband? Why doesn’t he waltz in here, see me crying, and try to cure it with a ripped-off line from the “Lion King”?! Like the time I cried after nursing my last child, and after a deep pause, he said: “It’s the circle of life.” To which I replied, “What the $%$&!??!”

Now, my husband is the best guy –  very courteous to details if ever I fall sick, still, he has this fingernails-on-chalkboard habit of offering generic comfort,

which in turn ticks me off,

which in turn makes me forget why I was crying in the first place.

Later, at my follow-up appointment, this good-guy physician consoles me with a hilarious story about the time he woke up from anesthesia and grabbed his doctor from the collar because of the pain. A friend consoles me about the time she woke up and asked if her husband “had sold all the goats.” I had a good laugh, but none of their stories actually took the sting out of bearing my soul to a Friday afternoon surgical suite.

After several weeks of hindsight (and an hour-long stint hiding from my unsuspecting kids at home in the back row seat of our van, avoiding bodily contact with a newly discovered chewing gum wad, while desperately falling over the edge, into the ear of my long time friend –  telling all the untold), I thought to myself – it’s a good thing. 

It happened for a reason. I got a two-for-one! I really needed that cry. Why not in a surgical shower cap with a little spit running down my chin? The whole hilarious spin and re-telling of it started to take the sting out of that pain. The suffering out of the pit of my stomach. The guilt off my chest.

Mamahood is wild and weird…

….pleasure and pain.

…honeysuckle and sadness.


Reliving Moments I Never Lived: A Mama-Hood Journal

11 Dec

One of the oh-so-yummy parts about mama-hood is reliving some of the blissful moments of my childhood through creating memories for my own brood. And just as special is reliving the moments that I never even lived. Snow is a case in point. I grew up in Florida, in a place where you can be guaranteed to never have a white puffy flake land on your tongue from the SKY! I never plopped down into a cushion of snow until I became a grown woman and moved away.

Every year or so we went to visit my cousins who were raised in the Shenandoah Valley, and you know what? It never snowed while we were there for as far back as I can remember. A few times when we arrived, it had just snowed. There were only little piles of it pushed into road side gutters, quickly melting and sooty. Still, I would hustle over and scoop up a few ounces in my cupped hands like manna from heaven, and then of course, throw it at my sister. SNOWBALL FIGHT!

So, I am not one bit embarrassed to report that after I delivered my third child, and less than two months later moved to the Mid-Atlantic, on the occasion of a very faint snow spell in November, I sprinted out with my kids and attempted to make a snow angel in our front yard. I couldn’t understand why all the neighbors were not out doing whimsical snow fairy dances around their young’uns. Sigh. They obviously did not grow up in the ‘Sunshine State.’

And the stinkiest thing about growing up in perpetual sunshine is that I have no tolerance for the cold. Now that I live in an oasis of four seasons, I have to start layering in early October and I typically can’t completely shed a sweater until early June. Even so, I love to plaster my nose to the window and watch my babies frolic in shaved ice.

snow ball fightI love to make hot chocolate and piping hot casseroles and call them in for breaks, then shoo them back out, dutifully layered, as only a Florida mom can manage.

Salma covered

When I do venture out, I mange to pry my gloves off of my hands and fumble quickly for the shutter button, so as to memorialize all of it, even their bare heads exposed to the frost despite my consternation.

Laith 1

I muster up the courage to venture out with them to find the best hills around town.

Laith sledding with SalmaI follow them like a Florida golfer caddy, pushing the little roly poly ones along with their sleds up to the tippity-top of the highest hill we can find, then listen to them try to convince me to slide.

Zayd on hill

I send them off and hear their belly laughter float, down… down… down, as my ruddy nose turns numb, and I can only see them far in the distance. I jump up and down with my flailing arms crossed over my head: Look at Mama. Look up here!! They finally convince me to stumble down and I ricochet painfully all the way over the worn out path, but I still pop up smiling because they are so proud of me.

When snow first falls, it really is beautiful, and it evokes deep, marveling praise to God for rendering such an ever-changing creation. Where there were fallen acorns and multi-colored leaves just a few weeks ago, now there is only the simplicity and surrender to winter, and settling down for the gentle passage.

Tree These are moments that I never lived, yet through raising my children I live them nonetheless. I watch them shifting in their sleep. Their visions of tomorrow are ignited in their ruddy cheeks and I am more alive than ever because of all the hours we have shared, and in my longing and hope for the days that only exist in our imaginations.

Eyes Playing Tricks

30 Dec

These days have been diluting, one into the other, in that otherworldly strain, when we break free of our routines; the moment we’ve been waiting for after weeks of toil. It’s called vacation, and this time we opted for largely a stay-cation, intending to truly rest.

Six year old Nelly asked her father: “Did you get fired from your job?,” curious to know why he is home for so many consecutive days. The cousins came to visit, towing along my sister and her husband. Sandwiched in between two snow patches was a crisp, clear, chilly day, fit for strolling and hot chocolate.

I marched us into the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, the perfect place I soon discovered to spend an afternoon WITHOUT six kids, if you really want to marinate in all the yumminess of folk art. Some of it is just plain kitschy, and other pieces spell-binding, helping to reveal things you want to know about yourself.

The boys lasted almost 45 minutes between the Lithuania replica made entirely from toothpicks (130,000 of them!) and the kinetic art display, featuring a gaudy boat made largely from styrofoam. Their uncle, who doesn’t like olive tapenade, vegetable pizza, or touring a three-story museum blaring the oft-repeated phrase: “Don’t touch!,” took the boys to the top of an enormous hill behind the building, overlooking Charm City.

I explored the gift shop, full of unpretentious trinkets where I nabbed a vintage-looking pin of Oscar, my favorite Sesame Street character. One wall featured an array of wooden placards with catchy phrases and emotive quotes – basically bumper stickers tastefully drawn up to double as wall décor. Three spaces down, on the far right, was a saying that gave me pause: “You’re the One You’re With.”

Ohhh….I like! Over and over again, I repeated it to myself, slowly and measured. You’re. The One. You’re With. Huh. Well that’s odd…but then, I get it. I totally get it! I should buy this, I thought, and hang it on the wall at home, where I’d be sure to see, say, and meditate upon it often.

You’re the One You’re With. Ain’t that the truth? Indeed, isn’t the root of every pain the absence of exercising that mantra? Aren’t the deepest heartaches, so sour they left a bad taste in my mouth for days on end, the result of trying to live outside myself so that I didn’t have to be with myself? Wasn’t every disappointing relationship only the result of trying to extract from another what I could not cultivate within my own skin? Didn’t every diversion that let me escape, only end up enslaving me?

If you are with yourself, deeply loving, and faithful to your purpose and nature, aren’t you truly joyful and merciful to everyone around you?

“The Faithful is the mirror of the faithful,” (narrated Anas ibn Malik; quoted by al-Tirmidhi). Is there any other means to absorb this prophetic wisdom and the teaching of the spiritual masters: “He who knows his soul, knows his Lord,” then to be (happily) with myself?

There was a tugging on my hand, and then a pulling, throwing me off-balance, into the adjoining room of posters and books. “Come on Mama, come look at this!,” Nelly led me to an assortment of vintage saris, hanging like swinging vines above our heads, as well as heaped up in a massive pile along the glass wall- ripe for the picking. We fed our hands into the silky trove, lacing our fingers through layer upon layer of tired things, worn by people, now old or maybe even gone.

I was eager to return to the sign board to pick up my soon to be mantra, ‘You’re the One You’re With,’ but Nelly had a few more things to show me. Finally our foot-path widened to the place where I had stood and grazed for wisdom. Far right, three signs down, it was there….but, no, it was gone. Another sign sat in its place. As clear as day it read. ‘Love the One You’re With.’ I turned my head away, like a taste-tester trying to clear her palette, then I looked back again, and again…and again. Love, Love, Love, it said all along, ‘Love The One You’re With.’ I scoured the wall, thinking that perhaps I had mistaken its whereabouts, but it was nowhere to be found. Had someone bought it? Was it so quickly replaced by another sign?

My eyes had played tricks so fluidly and masterfully, that I felt a pang of fear, tinged with the hem of sad fortune. I wanted the other sign, the one I read, not these 1970s folk-rocker lyrics. The irony riddled me- this vision of myself pining for the material advantage of possessing a thing to hang on my wall, in order to remind me of some intrinsic value- an irony so thick, it cast a smirk upon my face all the way to the check-out line. I paid for the Oscar pin, among a small scattering of other knick-knacks, and coasted out of the store, leaving my sign behind.

Outside, we climbed over that enormous hill and ventured to the edge of an overlook. “Let’s take pictures,” I sang out, which is such a predictable thing for me to say. My very Arab husband held the camera, but we had not yet converted our expressions into postured, spastic smiles. Rather, there was a loud, lingering hostility among our two youngest young’uns about pop rock candy and who should be made to share, which was thoroughly kicking this picturesque feeling in the gut.


Then, we changed pace.

Baba in Bmore

We nibbled on pizza at Brick Oven in Fell’s Point, then lingered over the cardamom gelato swimming in espresso and drinking chocolate at Pitango, thanks to the prompting of activist and cookbook writer, Gaza Mom. Yes, you should definitely go there, even if it means multiple flights and lay overs. My three-year old niece, sporting a swaggering satin bow, ordered anything pink. Nelly quickly exchanged her chocolate/strawberry combo for my grown-up choice, with a short, syrupy, “Mama, please,” ring – such a Nelly thing to do. Off and on she played with her cousin and then sporadically, and characteristic of her quirky charm, settled into a pensive mood.

Salma pitango

I love this way about her…so blunt and sovereign is her sense of self that it never seems to cross her mind to provide fodder for the merriment. She would never be anyone but herself, or ask you to love her for any reason.

Once, when she was four years old, she drew a very sloppy picture and asked for my opinion of it. Feigning rapture, I marveled at how “spectacular” her art work was, heaping grain upon grain of praise. Instead of beaming, she recoiled in visible horror, wanting to know why I had gone to such extremes of outward display; after all, she stated hotly, “It’s not even a nice picture!”

This is not something I’ve ingrained in her. You have to own wisdom to impart it. She makes it look so easy -eschewing the ego for truth; loving herself more than clinging to the false need to be loved by others. I wonder if I was ever as big a girl as Nelly. Was I ever this comfortable in my own skin? Did I ever value myself unconditionally? Did I ever truly love the one I’m with? Pondering all these questions makes me very still, in that kind of paralysis evoked from ruptured melancholy.

Some have hearts which know the truth, and some have eyes which feed the heart, if only for a glimpse, to satiate the self’s longing to return to its hearth.

So it is. You’re the one you’re with. Love the one you’re with.

Love of Memory

18 Dec

It was a rare shot.mother-and-sonIf photos could sing, this one would drop down into a soulful tune. If they could morph, it would flutter into a worn-out quilt on a lazy afternoon. If they could speak, it would whisper, hold that baby a little bit longer, while you can still do it with one fell swoop. My sister, her feet also emerged behind me, captured the moment. That was the first and last trip to Morocco we ever took together.

I became miserably ill by night fall. We’d ventured into a shady grove of figs, and by the owner’s permission, I had a fateful bite. All night, my sister held my head up over a bowl and remained vigilant, letting my son tangle her hair in knots, as he cried to be nursed. Near an open window, I laid on a thin mattress in the summer night’s heat, boiling with fever, trying to catch a breeze. As dawn approached I was retching and hollow.

When daylight burst, armed with my sister-in-law, she dove deep into the dusty, sun-latticed souk, looking for vegetables, herbs, and a fresh chicken {which she found, literally}, while trying to explain the absolute necessity of this American thing called chicken soup. The miracle broth gave me strength to move around and nurse my son without falling back. Big sisters are very essential people. I wish my daughter had one.

Eventually, we headed off to Marrakesh to do all the touristy things. Having pumped some milk, I was nervous to leave my son behind with my in-laws, even if for one night, but I was determined to show my sister other parts of Morocco besides the live chickens for sale. It started with a wobbling train ride moving south, wherein we sparred with a sweaty French man, then enjoyed a chat with a group of young, Moroccan graduate students, close to our age. They reminded me of every other graduate student of late- completely not like me, completely not mothers.

Not long after settling into Marakesh, my sister and I had a fight. She stormed one way, I stood there, then traipsed off to our hotel room, where I fell on the floor crying in woeful snots. It was a heated, ideological battle – the most useless sort. We’d made up within three hours and then headed out to a fancy dinner. Sister bonds are very sacred, and equally as complex.


She got a kick out of putting our water bottle into the wine chiller of the pretentious couple next to us after they left. We still giggle about it to this day, in one of those: ‘Remember that moments?!,’ not because anything spectacular happened, but precisely because nothing spectacular happened, yet we still managed to have more fun than anyone else in the room, a decidedly Collard Green trait.

The next day, we all headed to a resort pool where my in-laws met up with us. My sister and sister-in-law wore bikinis; in fact, I think my sister even borrowed one from my in-laws assuming that she wouldn’t need a bikini in a Muslim-majority country. Meanwhile, I wore pants and a long shirt, prepared only to keep an eye on my son in the one foot deep kiddie-pool. Soon, the lifeguard was rabidly blowing his important whistle, motioning for me to get out; I stood there, playing possum.

Coming down off his courtly, high stand, leaving all the children in the deep end to fend for themselves, he marched over to strongly impress upon me the importance of removing my feet and ankles from the pool since women in hijab (the Islamic headcovering) were not allowed. My sister got up and demanded to know what was going on. When I explained, she stood close to my ear and declared: “If you get out of this pool, I’ll never respect you again for the rest of my life.”

A double dawg big sister dare- what’s a Muslim girl to do?

I persisted, meanwhile the hotel director arrived to strike a compromise. He said I could come back after dark and stand there, but under no circumstances should I be permitted in the day light hours to stand covered with my feet in the water,  not for safety reasons, but because the hotel had an image to maintain and I was apparently holding up bunny ears. Then, they threatened to call the cops, despite my sister-in-law’s protests. This was getting serious; I was at a cross roads. Between losing the respect of my sister for life and sitting my Collard Green fanny in a Moroccan prison, I knew what I had to do…I skittered away from that pool faster than a crawdaddy can hustle.

A few days later we arrived in the suburbs of Casablanca, where I took her to a mosque – plucky and delighted to usher her into a house of worship in Morocco. We sat side by side with the other women (all elderly) along the perimeter of the sauna-hot walls, waiting for the call to prayer. One of the women asked us where we were from.

“Alwelayet Almoota7eda (The United States),” I replied, loving the sonorous texture of Arabic rolling off my tongue. The woman inquired: “Where’s that?,” after which her friend tried to explain. “Ah! France!,” she brightened, “I know some people who live there.”

Along with her friend, we tried again and again to place the United States on some reference point on her mental map. Then, knowing the final call to prayer was about to cut us off, I gave up. So many fellow Americans I’d encountered back home had no clue where Morocco was, so why should I be flabbergasted that this frail woman couldn’t pin me? The thinness of her wrinkled, weary skin, reminded me of my great-grandmother who hailed from North Carolina. “Yes, we’re French,” I reassured her. Enchantee! Le temps est plus belle au printemps, oui? She was so pleased to meet us.

The devotees were not about to give up on my sister – suddenly the spiritual tourist. Instead of focusing on her own prayers, the woman to my sister’s left, physically choreographed all her devotional movements, as the sweat dripped from our chins. She pressed down on her back when it was time to prostrate, and moved her right index finger to the call of la illaha illallah (there is no God but God), the way Muslims pray. My sister was gracious, and obliged their enthusiasm like a good Collard Green daughter, but secretly couldn’t wait to get out of there. So,when one of the women followed me out and insisted that we come to her house for dinner, my sister said she would kill me if I accepted; and the thought of her rendering bodily damage seemed plausible by the look on her face.

The woman insisted in the way that Arabs are known to persist in offering hospitality. At length I explained that I could not oblige her request; I could feel my sister’s pulse quickening beneath my own skin. Finally, feeling backed into a corner with no way out, I said: “Someone in my husband’s family has just died, and we have obligations back home.” She bid us farewell and promised to make du’a for the deceased, calling out prayers for all to hear. I felt wretched for having concocted two false stories in just under an hour, and frightened by my performance.

I left my sister at the airport, with seven days more clinging to my own itinerary, and no affordable way to change my ticket date. I’d already been there two weeks before she arrived, and I was homesick in that lonesome, collard green way- when you want to stick your nose into the warm neck of your birthplace, and exhale. As eager as I am to go to Morocco, in the end, I always claw my way back. My Collard Green daddy, chided me once: “You don’t leave the country very well.”

Transporting myself back in time to all of these moments brings me abiding, almost mystical pleasure. Memory is such a miraculous thing; again and again, we go back to past lives, basking in both subtle and bold, emotional shades. The colors swirl, within them voices arching high and low….sniffles and wailing, giggles and guffaws. Sometimes when I am lying in bed at night, I comb through these stories as if running broadly through a meadow of colorful spring flowers – weeds actually; the ones that rise up in the fields without any planning or forethought.

Then, exhausted, I lay down in them and drift further away from the clear colors and voices, deeper into the murky underworld, which drags me more rapidly until it lifts me back up to the place where I left off, only more crystalline than before, to a place where I can see and touch the whole periphery of my memory. Yet, we are in the most bizarre fashion, often out of costume and context – not entirely as I remembered. My feelings flicker in images and emotions, much stronger than the currents that sent me to this familiar, yet foreign place.

The love of memory is the backbone of life, for even when men and women deteriorate in old age, when they can scarcely recognize their own children and spouses, they can remember their lives.

Memory is the conduit that, by God’s grace, delivers us beyond worldly confines…the friend of the prisoner and slave. Our bodies will become fertilizer for the earth, then one day the mountains will blow away like dust. Yet, our memories will live on, delivering us to our final reawakening, when we will startle for the last time, and swear that this, all of this, was certainly a dream.

The Girl Who Laughed Into the Palm of Her Hand

6 Dec

In the second grade, I met a girl who I’ll call Lilly; a brunette, she sported a tomboyish haircut and was blessed with high cheekbones, always ruddy from the sun. Though she smiled a lot, she muffled her laughter into the palm of her hand. In our class, Lilly earned the distinction of being the fastest runner.

But for Lilly, I would have never fallen in love with softball; a game I proved very sorry at playing, and so learned, that you can be bad at something and enjoy it nonetheless. Lilly explained matter-of-factly: “It’s almost like baseball, but since we [girls] can’t play that, we play this.” I’d already tried cheerleading and ballet, and proved worthless at both. The ballet instructor said I was distracted and not cut-out. Ecstatic, I secretly cheered. Ballet was as much fun as picking weeds.

Lilly brought a paper to school with all the information about the girl’s softball league in Ocoee- a neighboring town. My mother took one look at it and said no can do! Practices were several times a week with games on the weekend  – too much hassle. Lilly had a solution, “My mama will drive you,” she assured me without even asking her mama. I thought she was nuts; after all, she had five sisters to keep her mama busy. I was dumbfounded when, the next day, she confirmed that her mama agreed.

I asked my mother if Lilly’s mama could be my chauffeur, which required providing her first and last name. I’d only seen her from a distance, a petite, slightly pudgy woman with Farah Fawcett hair, only shorter. She always wore boot-leg jeans atop sneakers and a t-shirt.

In a small town, of course, my mother knew of the woman, but I was surprised to discover that Lilly’s daddy worked under my father’s management, seasonally, in the orange groves. A man without an immigration problem who worked seasonally was likely a drunk.

At seven and 1/2 I already knew that there were two kinds of drunkards – no good boozers and functioning alcoholics. No good boozers let their liquor interfere with their livelihoods, whereas functioning alcoholics showed up to work {blood shot eyes, but still working}. The later always garnered more sympathy than the former. Lilly’s daddy was a boozer, but since he had the distinction of being docile and working hard when he did sign on, he was put into a rare, third category – alcoholics who neither harmed nor benefited society. A melancholy drunk.

I don’t know why my parents agreed, but they let me sign up for softball, provided Lilly’s mama drove me back and forth. Maybe I incessantly begged them, or maybe they just didn’t see any harm. After all, if we barred all the so-called struggling people, we wouldn’t have even been able to stand our own company.

Something else, though, made it extra-ordinary, something that is hard to be honest about, but you well know is the norm the world over, not the exception. What they called, dirt poor, did not socialize with working class, which is where our family fell. Working class people could cohort with upper class and vice versa, but neither had any dealings with dirt poor, unless it was direct, hand-to-hand charity. So, the extreme unlikelihood that I would ever be paired with Lilly for the two years that we were together is something that defies my understanding. Still, it happened, and not in a dream. I remember many of my Lilly days, though the ending of our story is as sparse and convoluted in my mind as the memory of my own beginning.

Like most childhood friendships, ours evolved in as much time as it takes to shell a bucket of peas. As the relationship deepened, my mother would come out and speak to Lilly’s mama and occasionally invited her in. My daddy called her mama, “Sugar,” and made her laugh, just like everyone else who came to our yard. When she did that, her shoulders shook, her head flew back exposing back molars, and she’d slap him on the back. I always wished my mother would laugh at my father’s jokes like that.

During softball practice, and at games, Lilly’s mama was always there cheering me on, which must have been hard to do because I was as coordinated as a lizard on a greased porch railing, and even worse, I was dead scared of the ball flying near my head. My strategy, as an outfielder, when a fly ball soared through the air was to duck with my arms over my head like a crazed shooter was on the loose. Then, I’d pop my head up, gopher the ball and throw it to the in-field. No matter, Lilly’s mama took me under her wing; between that, and Double Bubble Gum, all was well in the world of softball.

Lilly, on the other hand, was fearless on the field, so it surprised me when I invited her to a sleep-over at my house and she refused, confiding that she was too scared to sleep away from home. On the one night I managed to convince her, she was so petrified, she wet the bed. That was the end of that, she never came again. On the other hand, I slept at Lilly’s frequently.

The first time her mama came to pick me up in their faded, brown car, I got a kick out of Lilly’s littlest sisters crouching on the floor board to make more room. All the way, I bounced up and down on the vinyl seat, so happy to be with Lilly and her sisters. Just on the outskirts of town, we pulled into a trailer park, which stopped me from bouncing, and made me affix my eyes to the car window like a tourist on an exotic vacation. Lilly’s mama slowed down over the unpaved, dusty road. Skinny dogs ran from under their owners’ trailers, forced back with chain gangs, yelping over the loud engine. Throngs of trailers on either side lined the way, some in better shape than others. Lilly’s home was the last trailer on the right side of the two lane park; baby-blue with white stripes running lengthwise, and held up by cinder blocks- definitely one of the shabbier ones. It backed up to a running creek and was towered over by large oak trees, so that no matter the time of day, the light was always obscured.

Once inside I surveyed the strange wonder. On the immediate right, by the entrance, was the parents’ bedroom and on the opposite end was the girls’ bedroom. It had two queen-sized beds shared by all six daughters, plus a long oak dresser and an armoire made of thin plywood. There was one bathroom down the tiny path of aisle leading to the back bedroom. It was half covered with linoleum and half-exposed. There was a toilet there, but it did not flush. A bag was made ready for used paper and the flushing was done manually with a bucket of water from the bathtub, stained orange from the well water. There were no windows as it backed up to the tiny kitchen on the other side. A small living room contained two soft couches splayed with orange and brown windmills and country estates. I could get from one side of the trailer to the other in seven good skips.

As quickly as we went inside we left to go run wild outside, while Lilly’s mama prepared dinner. There were only patches of grass in her yard, it was mostly bald and dirt-packed. After a while Lilly’s mama called us in and we huddled around the black and white speckled diner-style table trimmed with chrome. The meal was pan-fried steak, mashed potatoes, carrots, and purple Kool-Aid. I’d never eaten a steak cooked on a skillet, or even a steak prepared by a woman. My daddy always grilled them. I noticed that these steaks were also thin, resembling country ham. I cut up a piece, and put it in my mouth, chewed, and chewed…and chewed for a very long time. Each sister was gobbling down her portion while Lilly’s mama sat on a tall stool, without a plate, looking over like a butler ready to respond to any of her daughters’ need.

My jaws were becoming very sore as I began to panic about the wad of meat in my mouth. How should I dispose of it discreetly with so many watchful eyes?  Prickly heat spread over my body along with perspiration on my upper lip and forehead. The room was spinning and I felt like I had my tongue stuck in a Chinese finger trap.

My hazy mind was sharpened when laughter erupted among the whole lot of them – uproarious,  causing Lilly’s mama to tilt off her stool, and one younger sister to fall out of her chair. Lilly held her laughter in the palm of her hand. Only the wispy blond-haired baby, the only blond in the bunch, looked as stupefied as me.

“You ain’t never had poor man’s steak, I can see!,” Lilly’s mama howled.

I didn’t know how to respond, but out of relief I stopped chewing. I couldn’t say “No ma’am,” because that would be insulting, so I just stayed silent. Finally the tremor of laughter died down.

“That’s alright, you don’t have to eat poor man’s steak if you don’ wanna,” she assured me.

I put the full force of my concentration on the round, plastic plate in front of me, and dipped my spoon into the milky, white mound of mashed potatoes, after which Lilly’s mama discretely piled more and more until I had my full. Later she made Jiffy Pop and we watched T.V. The images were slippery and grainy. With a small living room and six kids, it didn’t seem any trouble flipping through the three channels and adjusting the antennae without a remote.

Lilly’s daddy never came home.

But, I would see him from time to time, like an illusion, suddenly he appeared, though his presence did not fill the house like my own father’s. He did not say much, though he would always ask about my daddy and told me to pass along his greeting, which I never remembered to do. Sometimes he would tell me a funny story about my daddy, to which I always raised two eye-brows out of respect, but they never impressed me because it was common wherever I went. People liked to tell me how funny he was, as if by some bizarre twist that would surprise me.

Meanwhile, Lilly and I never exchanged daddy stories. She knew my daddy was a funny man and I knew hers was a drunk, and there didn’t seem to be any reason to talk about facts as obvious as the State Capital. What our shared imagination spun was much more fascinating over countless hours of make-believe. I had found my little girl soul mate.

One suffocating, hot day Lily said: “You wanna go ring an old lady’s doorbell?”

“What for?” I asked.

“‘Cause she can’t hear a thing, not even a church organ! She can just hear with her eyes,” said Lilly, while shoving both of her index fingers into her eye sockets for emphasis.

Lilly had peaked my interests, “How can she hear with eyes?,” I asked.

“Her whole house is wired. If you ring her bell it sends off blue lights- all over, then she’ll get up and answer, cept’ if she’s sleepin,’ then you gotta wait a long time. She’s super old!”

“O.K.,” I perked up, “Let’s go,” and away we ran.

“You push it!,” Lilly said, giving me the honors.  I was a little hesitant; what good reason did we have to ring the old lady’s door bell except to see if she would answer? Maybe she would knock us down with a cane?

“Just do it!,” Lilly assured me, so I did and we waited, but no one answered. It was pitifully anti-climatic. We came back a half a dozen times until she finally answered, without a cane and with a big smile on her face.

This is my friend, mouthed Lilly, and she placed her hand on her heart and then placed it on mine. Lilly pointed to her eye then wiggled all 10 of her fingers up in the air like flashes of lights, or at least that’s what she meant to convey, and the old woman understood.

She enthusiastically gestured for us to come in. Lilly stood outside and rang the doorbell non-stop while I looked in amazement at the blue lights blinking around her home, in the most unexpected places- like Easter eggs. I found myself wishing that my home was equipped with that feature…for what, I hadn’t a clue. Lilly made out a few more statements which the woman seemed to understand, and of which I was clueless, then we set off to some other destination in the trailer park.

Another day, when the flies were particularly annoying, humming around the watermelon rinds, and having explored as much wildlife as could be found in the creek, and tossed the softball till we grew weary of its weight in our gloves, and journeyed to untold imaginary places, Lilly suddenly perked up: “You wanna go to church?!,” she blurted out, like asking if I wanted to go to Disney World.

“They give out cookies and juice, and sometimes candy, and they tell good stories!”

All of my short life had been invested as a somber Methodist, and I’d just reached the age when I was expected to go sit in a pew from time to time and behave. Bearing this in mind, I tried to make sense of Lilly’s sincere enthusiasm.

The next morning her eldest sister fit me into one of their dresses. I had no choice but to wear my mud caked tennis shoes, and for that reason alone, hesitated. I’d never attended church without stockings and black Mary-Janes, which always made my feet feel like they were melting under a heat lamp in the Florida sun. I wasn’t sure if it was blasphemous to walk into the Lord’s house on a Sunday without the proper footwear, but Lilly assured me that some kids even came in jeans and flip-flops, “So, you’ll be fine.” Now I really had to see this church!

In order to get to church we had to catch a church bus at the entrance to the trailer park which was another novelty for me. Lilly’s mama told us to behave, and sent us off, staying behind with her baby and youngest toddler. Before long a short bus, bearing a painted, shining cross, smiling children and a white Jesus, came rolling up. The whole lot of us, unchaperoned children, piled on. A middle-aged woman served as the attendant – her hair that had been frozen solid with a can of Aqua Net, and a clear orange line of makeup ran down her jaw line. She was a happy one, clapping and leading us in songs about Jesus that we never sang at the Methodist church. Lilly knew a lot of them which made me jealous and feeling left out. It seemed this woman’s only job was to pump us up for what was to come, a sneak preview. The driver just sailed ahead, un-phased.

Lilly’s church was worlds away from any religious experience I’d ever had. Looking back, I count this as my first exposure to another faith. Though both of the Christian orientation, Lilly’s church was plain different. The congregation sang hymns, but in high and low voices, out of sync, and danced in place, looking exactly like my father jerking his legs and arms in a hallelujah grip, lip-synching Ray Charles, I Got A Woman. The preacher was the most peculiar sight. He couldn’t seem to stay put on the pulpit; in fact, he made it look obsolete. Sporting a blue polyester, three piece suit, he walked back and forth furiously, from one side of the church to the other. From time to time, for no apparent reason, the congregation would cry out “AMEN!” in staggered, yet powerful crescendos. I tried it too: “Amen!” It was not hard to stay awake and pay attention in Lilly’s church.

She was right that some people wore jeans and other casual clothes, but most striking about the congregation was that they were mixed. I’d only ever prayed alongside people of my own race and I’d never given much thought to any other way. Lilly’s church planted a seed deep within me, one which many, many years later would eventually give rise to a comforting voice in the loneliness of my heartache and thirst, it said: There are other ways, many other ways- be bright, sing high, and don’t settle for inheritance, no matter how much it promises you, when it comes to belief.

I wish I could tell you how my story ends with Lilly. I have looked for her in my mind, time and again, hoping beyond hope to find a morsel of our last days together. I have come up dry every time. I do know that she moved away and then came back again, but I don’t remember ever saying, Goodbye, Lilly, or, Thank you.

Many years later I was with my father volunteering at a ‘Toys for Tots’ campaign in the youth center. The volunteers were tasked with taking the participants around the room, whereby they picked out one toy for each child in their family. Doing this job made me feel very grownup, and on a mission, though I was all of about sixteen years old. As the line progressed I saw Lilly’s mama waiting for a turn, looking older than I remembered her.

Maybe you think I ran up to hug her neck or say I missed you, but I did none of that. I slipped behind a corner wall and hung there for a time, my heart beating rapidly. I wanted the wall to suck me in. Then, my father came looking for me. Of course, he had to show me Lilly’s mama, had to have me properly greet her. I inquired about Lilly, who she said was doing “just fine,” and that her older sister had already married. She had four tickets in her hand, for her younger children still remaining. That was her Christmas. The stark, shrieking contrast lulled my outward speech into superficial words and gestures.

The thought of walking Lilly’s mama around while she picked up her small gifts made me feel ugly. I hoped my father wouldn’t suggest…and of course, he didn’t. He just wanted me to pay my respects and then he walked away with her; slowly they strolled around the semi-circle of packages and I watched. I saw her laugh, her shoulders shake, and her head fly back as I clicked my tongue to keep the tears deep, deep in the well of my belly.

Still more years later I heard that one of Lilly’s uncles won the lottery – a big jackpot, but my source did not know whatever became of Lilly or where she lived. The news made me smile for the rest of the day. Since then, whenever I picture Lilly, I see her under perpetual sunshine, in a comfortable home with a swimming pool and acres of land for her children to run and play on. I have no hard evidence to substantiate this claim. It is all imagination, which was, after all, our sanctuary -Lilly and me.

May Allah cover you in His unfathomable Love and Light, Lilly, wherever the sun rises on your mornings.

Gratitude Custard

1 Dec

It was an Asian-inspired brown rice confetti from a fellow mom at our homeschool co-op. How did I get to be the lucky mom to sit next to her during lunch? I jotted down the recipe.

I decided, {one day} I’m going to make this, because {one day} I’m going to make everything, but most things just stay in my recipe files, and I keep making the same stuff over and over. After working all day [which is what homeschool is, after all], the last thing I want to do is make a fussy meal.

So, while dropping the older two off at Qur’an class, one of them gets the bright idea to ask me what I am going to cook for dinner. I absolutely do not like this question because I’d prefer not to think about dinner…I want to advance to the next part of my day which is driving {nearly} solo in the minivan with only the sound of the heater blowing after I say “good-bye!” Three-year old Dimples was in the back seat sleeping. I love when he does that.

“I’m going to cook lasagna,” I said, because that is the first thing that pops into my head.

“Oh, please, don’t cook lasagna!!,” they cry, while blocking the passenger door with their fannies, so that all the frigid air is laying siege on my bones. I want them to go away. Go away!! Go away!! Go away!! I chant in my mind..the place my kids have never really seen…God forbid! It is where, with impunity, I can say all kinds of wretched things they can’t imagine. All moms have one. It comes with the baby.

“Fine, I won’t make lasagna,” I say.

Then, I remind six-year old Nelly with my slanted eye and pursed-lip expression not to sass her teacher. She politely asks me {again} for the definition of sass; she is always very courteous when asking, so as never to be blamed for malintent. She promises to try real hard but she doesn’t know if she can because, of course, that’s like asking a mosquito not to bite.

Satisfied, Nelly, releases the door, crinkles her nose through the glass {it’s starting to turn red} and says what I love to hear anytime of the day, “I love you, Mama!”  Again and again, she says it as she delicately walks sideways all the way to the front of the door, so our eyes remain locked. She’s blowing kisses, but without puckering her lips because her smile is so wide…so precious to me.

I decide to pull out that recipe as soon as I get home and get straight to work not making lasagna.  I forget to use brown rice the key healthy ingredient, and start to boil white rice into a mushy, gunky mess. Not because I don’t know how to read the recipe; rather, due to the fact that I am interrupted by Dimples who wakes up hollering {every day like clockwork after his nap}. It’s always disorienting. I can’t wait for him to grow out of it.

“Shoot-a-roo!” I exclaim and then set about thinking how to use it anyway since the thought of tossing it would  render me a rotten excuse for a role model. I pull out eggs, milk, butter, sugar, raisins, nutmeg. Rice custard, anyone? 

Just when I’ve mixed and ladled it into a baking dish, unbeknownst, I set it down unleveled on the milk carton cap, and so it comes tumbling down on the floor, splattering my pants and oozing between my toes.

I run a finger over my pants legs and place a dot of the creamy goo on my tongue. Yummmmy….it would have been so good. But wait! There is a little bit left that wasn’t ladled yet. I tip-toe around the kitchen, like ‘Mission Impossible,’ reach for a small ceramic bowl, spoon and lift it into the oven to set.

It will take a long time to clean up as this is not just a mess, it is a splattered mess…on my hands and knees, moving things around, washing and re-washing. Thank God I have a machine and I don’t have to wash my clothes out by hand! And hot water from the sink to sanitize the floor. And a bath tub to clean my feet. And a dishwasher to put to work. And enough custard left to at least have a taste. And isn’t it better to have to clean up a kitchen floor covered in desert than, I dunno….a gas station bathroom in a red-light district? 

In the interim I’ve found the brown rice and try to improvise dinner. My husband comes home in the middle of it all. Thank you, God! He is so amused.

“My American wife,” he laughs, and hustles around the kitchen putting things back in place and helping me get the not lasagna dinner on the table. He always says, “My American wife,” and laughs when I’ve walked into a funk. I have no idea what he means by that – probably precisely what I mean by ‘my very Arab husband,’ ~a catchall for chaos.

So, I ask him, “What does that mean?”

He replies: “She made that, so you decided, I can do that too, and you did [but you didn’t].” My forehead wrinkles the way it does when he’s attempting humor [which is my job!], and I’m plainly confused. Should I try to set this straight? And then, Nah, I don’t care. I’m happily married 90% of the time and that’s purty darn good. I settle for asking him to pretend that he likes what I made.

The brown-rice confetti tastes nothing like the real deal, because I left out two key ingredients.  There is this little thing about directions….they require to be followed! Lesson learned for the 596th time.

My very Arab husband, sits down and very convincingly gobbles it all up so that at least two of the kids are convinced, and advance to the clean plate club. Nelly, no surprise, is not phased, and tosses her head on the table, weeping at the thought that she might be expected to eat mush for dinner.

“I can’t do it!! [big tears], please, I really can’t eat this!”  On and on she goes, like a battery-powered spinning top.

Lasagna would have been….so. much. better.

We strike a compromise. Then, what’s left of the rice custard gets eaten. I’ll have to eat this stuff all week because they aren’t going to amuse me any longer, but I don’t care. I’m just so grateful. I know I’m getting older, but I must be really getting older. I’m a Big Girl.

Some days it all goes wrong, but it feels so right.