Archive | November, 2012

{wide as the womb}

27 Nov

The night was young…

Two hot chocolates down and a vat of popcorn between us, we slipped into the second to last movie theatre row, shades flipped.

Instead, a commercial! Ggggrrrrr!

A shiny family appears on the screen {all smiles}. They are standing in front of their brand- new van. So content. The prepubescent daughter, arms folded, smirk-laden, and as defiant as a whiplashed bug on our 2001 [long been paid for] minivan, remarks: “Now, I don’t hate my parents anymore!” She cocks her little blonde head. 

Parents beam!

Parents. Beam.

Announcer tells us parents how to rock. You can do it. Walk on coals, feel the fire, don’t stop! This parody of family is too much {funny, that is}, the audience reels with laughter.

My son, 11 years old, mouth gaping, startled….looks like he just saw two pimps beat up an old lady and take off with her heirloom wedding band. He shakes his head. He wants to say words. The words won’t come. I’m also lost {to this world}. And then….

“My mom always rocked!,” he asserts, fist pumping, with the zealotry of a radical.

Big moon-smile erupts.

As wide as the womb that bore him.

The Principal Died

25 Nov

Recently, I spoke on the phone to a dear friend, an expat living in Morocco, whose children’s’ school principal died suddenly after complaining of chest pains. Earlier the same day, her daughter spoke to the principal about a problem with another classmate. After lunch, he never returned.

One moment here, the next moment…..

How do we speak to children about death? How do they do it in Morocco? I wondered.

Matter of factly, my friend, a former school nurse in the States explained. This isn’t America, she chuckled as if to let off some of the pressure. There isn’t a grievance counselor or special team to talk to the kids. Her children found out when fellow students came running up at school yelling, l’moodeer maat!!! {The principal died}.

Everyone went home. The next day the children filed down stairs to wait for the school bus. The driver came by on his rounds, reporting to the children {not their parents} that school was closed  – the principal died.

There were no notes sent home to parents, or phone calls made, or condolence messages posted on the website {what website?!}, or candle lighting ceremonies, news crews, or crisis hotlines. Within 24 hours He was buried, swiftly, without embalming, in the Islamic manner.

She spent time talking with her kids about their feelings. Then, they curled up under blankets on a grey, misty, Casablanca morning, and watched a movie to pass the time. She’s agonizing. Her third grade son, especially, loved the principal. They had built a deep attachment to one another over the past few years. What will happen now?

I prayed for my friend’s son and for her. I prayed for the principal’s family as well. He left a widow and minor children behind. I shivered, ruminating selfishly, what if that tragedy reigned down upon this house?  Another thought: Would this Moroccan principal have known that a Collard Green mama of three would be praying for his family upon his death? Would I have ever known? It’s strange how strangers connect after life.

Then, in the aftermath of the latest bombardment of Gaza, scanning the news, my eyes caught a photograph of a classroom – the young students sat in desks, two by twos.  A child looks up into the lens, a diluted smile on her face, eyes defiant and ruminating. The seat next to her is empty, in its place is a wide placard. In Arabic it reads: “The Student Martyr, Sarah Al-Dalou.”  The photo’s caption explains: Sarah and 10 of her family members were murdered …during the Israeli assault on Gaza strip. Out of 160 Palestinians killed and 1,000 injured, about one-third were children.”  I looked back at the classmate again. This child must feel her companion’s absence as heavily as she feels her own survival. I could not make out the expression of the girl before, but now I saw it clearly.

The news somehow made me flash-back to the ninth grade when a fellow classmate drowned over Labor Day weekend at the beach. For a week, our guidance counselor followed the boy’s schedule – he sat in all of his seats to fill the otherwise vacant space. I don’t remember exactly what he said, just that it seemed dainty and somber. He sounded like the preacher on the pulpit – only irreverent, because he didn’t mention grown-up Jesus, or even baby Jesus- not once.

What do you say when a child dies? He lived a good life? I do remember that the guidance counselor assured us that we should feel comfortable to come to him at any time to talk things out. The boy sat behind and to the left of me; he was soft-spoken and pale, sporting square glasses that dipped below his cheekbone, overshadowing his small features. I can’t remember ever exchanging a single word with him, yet when I found out he was erased from our world forever, I could remember the exact tincture of his sandy-blonde hair. The absence of his presence hung heavily for many days. In his desk, the guidance counselor looked over-grown and I thought, goofy, towering with his bulky forearms and clasped hands extending over its perch. The ceremony only punctuated the boy’s absence more, yet the absurd sight of that balding, middle-aged man, with the concerned eyes, sitting in the lost boy’s seat, made me feel like the earth might not be trembling after all.

I asked my very Arab husband who is from a small town in Morocco, how adults spoke to him about death. He told me that growing up when folks died, the funeral procession would have to take its course on foot over the hard-packed dirt paved alley in front of his home. As children, they’d peer from the second floor window perch, say a litany, and acknowledge, within themselves, that humans die, just as their farm animals do. They understood that one day they would die as well, along with their mothers, fathers and all their loved ones. Everyone is born and dies.

“Did anyone ever talk to you about this…topic?” I asked.

“Death?” He said effortlessly.

“Yes, death?” I repeated.

“What would they have said?” He asked earnestly.

{What would they have said?!} I could think of a dozen things! As a natural talker of all trades, I can always think of at least a dozen things. No one said any of them?!!

That didn’t cut it for me. I’d have to say at least three of these dozen things. I’d have to solicit my children’s’ responses and surgically analyze them in my private moments. It’s a heavy subject; it seemed that his people dealt with it…errrr….callously.

And, yet, I pondered it’s not a callous people by any stretch. People from my husband’s town, Oued-Zem, are some of the most sincere, hug you by the neck and never let go people. They are so affectionate with each other, you find two people walking in pairs engaged arm and arm, or attached to one another even if only by the thread of intertwined pinky fingers. Even alpha males will hold onto one another when they walk. Their display of outward affection, when compared to even Collard Green folks, known for their gregariousness, is more apparent and uninhibited. Children are less often seen fidgeting in strollers and more often slung on their mother’s backs or hoisted over their father’s shoulders, or that of their uncles, or maybe just the neighbor five doors down. If a child howls for as much as a piece of candy, it is not uncommon for a perfect stranger to assuage the wailing boy or girl.

Upon further reflection, I surmised that it’s not a matter of dealing with death unceremoniously or without deep reflection; rather, it is  because on the whole my husband’s people have a shared understanding of what happens upon death; they’ve conveyed that understanding from generation to generation, through recitation of the Qur’an. Muslims believe that the children of Adam and Eve die, and then they are questioned about whether they were obstinate disbelievers. They are shown their final end -whether heaven or hell. In preparation, they pray for the deceased feverishly during this time and repeat after his/her name- Allah yurhamuhoo(a) { Allah, have mercy on him (her)}.

The sorting out is not for the living who still have the opportunity to repent and seek the Mercy of God; the intense focus, rather, is concentrated on the deceased who cannot return to shed any remaining traces of what separated them from God – their ego’s excruciating pull, and with it, their ambivalence about the finite substance of life.

Muslims believe that the deceased are aware of everything happening around them until they are buried. So, they speak soft, loving words, and facilitate recitation of the Qur’an in beautiful, soothing voices. Not to prolong the deceased experience of this mourning period, and in accordance with Islamic law, they bury the body within 24-hours. They do not delay the proceedings for make-up sessions or to make flights for eulogizers.

Days after talking to my friend, I was at the mosque for Friday prayers with my children. My eldest son was on the men’s side alone because his father was attending prayers at a mosque closer to his office. After the sermon and prayer, the imaam announced that a member of the community had died the night before. “Please stand up,” he instructed us to pray the janaza (funeral) prayer. And so, it was…my son alone. He watched them bring the closed coffin out and set it down, and with the rest of the congregation he prayed.

Afterward we met in the atrium of the mosque before heading out into the parking lot. Of course, the first thing my son asked was: “Why did that man die? Who was it? How old was he?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?! Can you ask someone?,” he pleaded with me.

I looked around; it was a large congregation, people were flying by us left and right trying to make it back to work as they’d likely used their lunch break to attend Friday prayers. I didn’t see any familiar faces. By this time we were well into the path of swerving cars in the crammed parking lot. I clutched both of my smaller children by the hand.

“I can’t ask anyone, we have to go,” I said, as my son trailed beside us trying to keep up.

“Pray for him,” I said making my voice audible over the traffic and strepent voices. “Pray to Allah to forgive his sins!” I called out, weaving my way between two parked cars, into an opening to pass into another lane. “He’s dead. That was the appointed time for him and now his life is over.” My son heeled on my footsteps, while I pressed on. “He can’t go back. No one can be at peace but by Allah’s mercy and His name is All-Merciful.”

We snaked our foot-path between more cars, until finally emptying into the outer-bound hilly, grassy area where I parked. My son spotted two friends from his homeschool co-op. “Hey!,he called out smiling. Are you done with school for the day?!”

“Yeah,” his friend bragged. “I’m always done at 1:00. “But not him,” he chided, nudging his little brother, “He’ll drag it out until 5:00.”  The younger brother looked down and smiled sheepishly as if to convey that he was half annoyed and half pleased with himself.

Alright, see ya’ later,” the older brother tipped his hand

O.K. bro, bye,” my son replied, which is the pre-teen boy version of stately.

I haven’t made up my mind about how best to talk to our children about death when they face it head on. Like most things ‘child-rearing’ – I sigh and grovel at the thought that I’ll figure it all out in retrospect. At least the grandchildren will profit, if our brood ever warm up to the idea of me as sagely; and then, I’d also have to reckon with that notion myself.

All I know now is that the principal died.

Sara Al-Dalou, and 10 of her family members died.

The unknown man at the Friday prayer died.

One day I will die, my husband will die, and our children as well.

Knowing that scathes, and yet, mercifully refreshes the entire outlook for today.

No Use Crying

11 Nov

Our friends left and I don’t suspect they’ll ever return. We have their teapot and their book which are lovely, but will never be as lovely as they were.

Our sons are best friends. Because I’m {that} kind of mama, when my son left his email open, of course, I read it! Their last words to each other before the flight:

May Allah always guide you to the right path! (My son).

May Allah accept all of your duaas (prayers)! (Her son).

I took my boy out for ice cream after they left, but it didn’t even taste sweet.

I picked up their book and read it to my children to pass the hour before bedtime.

‘Come, there’s no use in crying like that! …I advise you to leave off this minute.’ She [Alice in Wonderland] generally gave herself very good advice (though she seldom followed it).”

How I wish, this time, that I were not exactly like Alice. If only there were no rabbit holes for friends to slide down- to places we cannot reach. I wish there were no keys to open doors and magic potions to make friends shrink down well enough to walk through; so far that we cannot even see them in the distance. Gone, gone….

We took a long walk, but we did not find them. The berries we ate in summer and the greenery that surrounded us have vanished. Autumn hung by a thread, with only specks of color.

Seasons turn familiar ground into new territory. Change is the only constant, which doesn’t sullen the mood of some who know.

But not me and not him – not today, anyway.

These are the days of vexing thorns and longing for what can never be {again}.

Oh Lord! Oh Compassionate and Merciful. Oh Most Kind and All-Sufficient….suffice us.

Winter’s Thorn

9 Nov

Winter is creeping in. I don’t like her. O Lord, help me {because I sincerely do not like her} I know how dang-awful it is be of that mind-set. I have chirpy, yankee friends. They’ll preach to me of winter’s charm – the snow-covered hills, crystilline icicles, sledding, hot cocoa, fuzzy blankets, snow angels, anyone? All I can think about are skinny animals dyeing from starvation and the way snow looks two days after it falls – like a pile of dirty laundry on the side of the road.

Ya’ll, I’m a Southerner, from as far south as you can go before needing Spanish as a second language. I love sunshine, sweat, and aerifying myself with ‘funeral home fans.’ Really cruddy thoughts come to mind as winter approaches; the most gruesome of all: how am I gonna keep my brood occupied inside all the live long days?! 

Having said all that, however, I actually do have a soft spot for winter, because as a fitting allegory for life’s struggles, it provides teaching moments. When I am under winter’s spell, I think of the winter of the soul, and this warms my center considerably.

There are roads we take, others we are tossed on; sometimes we want to escape – still we march, tight-fisted, brazen and determined. Our surface looks depleted, yet within us new life is forming deep within the quiet darkness of our contemplative selves.

We turn the corner, nearly unrecognizable to passerby. Others underestimated us, but worst of all we underestimated ourselves. Until when…we bloomed- content to be still and perpetually at peace, not because the thorn had been removed, but because it lost that quality of vexation.

Pain is pleasure.

In the dead of winter, we shedded a few needs   – the need for comfort, assurances, safety, promises, perfection, power, position, appearances, validation, pay-backs, attachments, affiliations, perks, recognition, revenge.

We cry out, My Lord! I am well pleased; am I well pleasing? We crave no sustenance other than the answer.

May you and I be granted the winter of our imaginings and the spring of our aspirations.

Something about Ummah

2 Nov

I came upon the term ummah after delving into the study of Islam fourteen years ago.  It’s often translated tightly as community, but it’s so much better than that. So much on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t ever find the precise words for the feeling…like… the most sublime tremor of well-being just to be alive and connected.

No. That won’t do. Scratch that. It’s something else. Something I can’t tell you, just as you can’t tell me how un-done you felt to be in love when you finally realized what it was -with the fear, thrill, and anticipation that sent you laughing yourself to sleep that night.

O.K., you have a point. That’s not fair– to let you in on something, and then not tell you what {it} is!! I agree. Well then, I’ll try.

Ummah is a refined acknowledgment of connection that transcends all boundaries of tribalism and national borders for the purpose of seeking the pleasure of God Most High. It is an idea that breeds transcendence, so it is only natural that ummah will be more palpably felt between two people of different languages and tribes, which is commonplace, for one, in my neck of the woods. Lucky for me! I have so many ummah stories that I could share with you based on my experiences over the years…they are treasures which I pull out and dust off from time to time to rekindle.

Last week marked Eid ul-Adha, the world over – a day of commemorating the Prophet Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his own son, based on his literal interpretation of a vision from God. Prophet Abraham’s son willingly accepted to be sacrificed believing that it was God’s will;  however, God intervened through the Angel Gabriel, before the sacrifice could take place, and Prophet Abraham was commanded instead to sacrifice a sheep, a thing much less beloved and prized to him. Prophet Abraham had already demonstrated that seeking the pleasure of God reigned supreme in his heart, even when the logic was not apparent on the human, cognitive level. As Muslims, we reflect on his vision as a metaphor, to unhinge ourselves from the world- to give preference and space to love what is Everlasting over what is ephemeral. This story is one illustration by which we can get a sense of the incomprehensible rank that God bestowed on Prophet Abraham by deeming him His friend.

In the U.S. on Eid, Muslims raising young children often gather in public spaces such as parks during the afternoon period. The festivities eventually transport to cozy homes. It is typically a frenzy of idleness, with fired up grills, bags of candy, and throngs of children running as independent bands- coming to their parents only for more juice, or another cupcake. Eid is all about fun and not stopping until you lay, speechless, having said all there is to say, and exhausted on one’s bed – sighing and falling into a peaceful sleep born from doing nothing that isn’t pleasurable.

So, on this Eid, our family packed into the car, then took a detour to pick up the children of a friend who was ill. We piled out expecting to walk into a large crowd of Eid-goers only to discover no one around. There was a large gathering of Muslims in one gazebo, none of whom I recognized. Clearly Palestinian, I thought by surveying the collection of men who needed a BBQ grill so big they brought their own. The pithily one at the park would never do for the massive amounts of beef and chicken they were about to unleash. I understand. I’m Collard Green.

The other dead give-away were the men dressed in brightly colored shirts underneath snug, black polyester vests, coupled with fitted pants reaching to long, black and well-shined, square-toed shoes. Picture minions of Godfathers hovering around a grill next to a massive playground set. The grill master, a young guy, wore his dress sleeves rolled up, and extending from his left hand were five kabob poles extending three feet or more in the air; his other hand swiftly turned the sizzling kabobs still on the grill. The aroma was marinated, charred yumminess- a feast that only a zealous vegan could refuse with satisfaction. I wanted to ravage the place.

Impatient, I scanned the horizon. Where were all our people?  I spotted two familiar faces, likely as disappointed as me over the weak turn-out. We convened and made a few phone calls before realizing that folks were on their way; a phenomenon I’ve come to know as ‘Muslim Standard Time.’ Before long, a Nigerian friend showed up and soon her kids were running around the park; they disappeared into the haze of smoke. She leapt in to retrieve them, and no sooner than she could exit, they insisted that she : EAT! EAT! TAKE! SOME MORE! NO, THAT’S NOT ENOUGH! The men busied themselves with heaving generous portions of food on her plate.

She didn’t know any of them, yet because she walked into their midst for less than a minute, she was obliged to take something away. That’s ummah.

So, we huddled in our barren, yurt-like gazebo and ate the Palestinians’ food. It was so good. I could hardly complete a thought, but when my consciousness returned, I felt guilty to have left a sick friend with an empty stomach. My intention had been to bring  her some of our food, but not enough in our party had arrived to start grilling. Not having grown up in an ummah-centered culture, I was too shy to walk up to the Palestinians and ask for more food, even if for a sick woman. That’s what Collard Green people would call tacky. But, there’s no tacky in ummah which is what my Nigerian friend knows. She didn’t hesitate to return. With wide smiles, like greeting a long, lost friend, they encouraged her a second time. EAT! EAT! TAKE! SOME MORE! And this time they handed her an entire tray full of freshly grilled shrimp to go along with her over-flowing plate.

Eventually our party showed up; we were able to start our own festivities. Toward the end of the day, I navigated my way into the Palestinians’ enclave with a measly plate of fruit. Meandering around the men, I crept deep into the belly of the party where all of the women, from the Palestinian region of Gibran, languished. Their space was dim and hazy. The smoke from a shisha pipe rose – hovering like cumulus clouds over their lair. Their heads cocked back -mouths gasping for air because it was just so funn-y…I can’t speak..I can’t breathe…my love, habeebti!!!

In their colloquialism, I had no clue what they said. What caused them to laugh so convincingly? They looked the way life does…when it is living.

A thin, petite woman took my plate and winked, thank you, she said. I did not stay; in fact, I ejected myself swiftly, feeling like a school girl who’d slipped out of bed and tip-toed into her mother’s party, uninvited, but then stricken by being so far out of her element, scurries back to bed, only to wish she had stayed.

There was more goodwill to be had. The Palestinians made these fantastic high-end goodie bags and proceeded to throw them into the arms of any child within reach, including my own. To which one of my kids exclaimed: “They have really good stuff!”

Our parties had mingled so much, they would have been indistinguishable by passerby.  One of the Palestinian women made her way to our huddle and lamented that she had left her broom at home. “Do you have one?,” she asked. “I can’t just leave the place like this!” she lamented. Of course, how could she leave her first-come-first serve gazebo so un-kept?! Doesn’t everyone sweep up the concrete floor after a BBQ. How disappointed would the next party be?! “Sorry,” we replied, we are fresh out of brooms.

Later that night we ended up at our friend, Laila’s house for an all dessert pot-luck. Families with roots in Korea, Pakistan, Nigeria, Malaysia, Palestine, Turkey, Morocco, and my very own ‘Merica, amassed on the main floor with the men huddled in the basement. We had our own version of a smoke-filled room, without the smoke. Over-indulged on the qatayef, chocolate, and coffee, we remembered the Palestinians and felt joy.

Ummah is a thing that eschews mere politeness; it scoffs at minding your manners. It is a surging wave that thrust itself forth, covers the other, washes over and quenches the thirst of its members – both giver and receiver. It harbors no refuge for the ego; for to experience it you must peel off the coarse layers of yourself and meet with the tender heart of another. Like Prophet Abraham’s vision, it forces you to see beyond the ephemeral and dive into the timeless Source of all Pleasure.

I can’t tell you precisely what it is, but I pray that you will feel it on the tip of your tongue one day….so close, but never able to convey it precisely. Who can define love, after all?