Archive | Confessions RSS feed for this section

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.

Advertisements

The Oil Lamp

10 Jan

“A person who teaches goodness to others while neglecting his own soul is like an oil lamp, which illumines others while burning itself out.” – Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) At Tirmidhi

Giving ourselves personal space to develop God-consciousness and self-awareness is a very Big Girl thing to do. Ironically, once we resolve to become grown up we have acquired so many duties, however joyful they may be, that personal space is deemed a luxury instead of a nutrient. Just a few months ago personal space was not part of my life. I was homeschooling my ten-year old son alongside my kindergartener, plus chasing after my two year old and keeping house. I was resentful which was not very big girlish of me. 

The story goes like this: when a mama raises children it is called motherhood, but when a mama homeschools her children it is called motherhood on steroids. (It’s just a joke, and I’m covered by the “unorthodox humor” disclaimer on my About page.)

Folks who find out that I homeschool my kids say roughly the same thing: “I just don’t know how you do it! I know I couldn’t do THAT.” This can mean one of two things.

If another mama gives you this line with her hand on her hip that is code for: I don’t believe anyone can do it, including you! This is true, especially if the next declaration concerns how anointed her kids are because they’ve all tested into elite classes and how much she just, “loves, LOVES, their school!!!”  Meanwhile I’d be saying to myself (hand on hip), that thar’ is a bonafide smarty pants! Then, I’d feel so pitiful and petty for fussing up my emotions like that instead of feeling plain old tickled-pink for her brood.

Now, if a mama gives you this line with her hand on her heart, then she really does think you are a saint and she only wishes you the very best. In that case, I’d wish to pour my heart out: tell her how strung out I felt, how exhausted I was, how insecure, and how scared I was to choose otherwise. I wanted to confess that it really is miserable to be potty-training one minute, critiquing a writing assignment the next minute, only to turn around and pretend to eat ‘princess cupcakes.’ Yuck! I’d want to fess up that the thought of waking up in the morning to be mama/teacher for the long haul depressed me to no end. I just wanted to tell her how friggin’ resentful I was. But, instead, I’d just give her some feeble, self-depreciating line like a good, little girl does and go about my day.

I wasn’t always resentful; most of the time, in fact, I was not. More often the satisfaction of being able to provide personalized lessons in a wholesome environment was highly motivating. In addition, I was learning along side my eldest on a wide array of subject matter so it was intellectually stimulating. What is even better, I live in an area where there are a plethora of resources and organizations to support homeschoolers, and homeschooling is not exactly the third rail. There are museums galore and it seems that all of them have a special event set aside for homeschoolers, or a series of classes catered to providing them with a hands-on multi-sensory experience.

Not only that, but I participate in a well-organized homeschool co-op with other families where my children take classes that indulge a range of their extracurricular interests. Even better, the co-op mothers are some of my closest friends and our children share a deep bond. That’s not all; a parent where I live need not strictly homeschool every subject. From science to history to writing courses – there are many series advertised at community colleges and centers which cater to homeschoolers. Minus the end of school year burn-out, homeschooling is mostly a sweet life. 

The crisis I encountered was not homeschooling, per se, but balancing my  eldest son’s educational foot-path with that of his younger brother and sister. Complicating life further was the fact that I was not using a prefab curriculum; rather, I was tailoring every subject with a special set of resources to try to offer the best mix. Everyday was an obstacle course, but not a course that one could study ahead of time; rather, it was a surprise obstacle course every day – no fail.

Younger children are less predictable in terms of their health and emotions which is why I never knew when I’d get surprised with a feverish child, one throwing a temper-tantrum, or simply one just wanting to squat down and play blocks with me for a while, just for the heck of it. While on one hand my adolescent excelled on structure, on the other hand, my younger children needed me to be more flexible. I was succeeding only by waking up everyday and performing lunatic acrobatics. As a result, my oil lamp was extinguished. For the first time in my life the only thing I could passionately identify with was the common phrase: going through the motions.

Strangely (and clearly a symptom of my condition) it wasn’t the fact that I was miserable that caused me to quit, it was the fact that my son was no longer motivated to study. School was drudgery. He started making careless mistakes on his work and the only clever edge he demonstrated was in trying to get out of assignments. 

 In retrospect I realize that the reason my son was no longer motivated to study was that I was no longer motivated to teach. My attitude had become infectious and malignant. The obstacle course I was running was stunting my spiritual growth because all of my resources were going just to running it. At the point when my light extinguished, and every day thereafter, I was of no benefit to my family besides taking care of their physical needs. Though I wanted to impart goodness; indeed, the very idea of it kept me on this blistering course, I simply could not succeed because I hadn’t been feeding my soul.

However terminal my condition, in the thickness of it I couldn’t sober up to the reality that no amount of tinkering was going to fix the problem. I felt guilty that I just couldn’t make it work and my guilt was shrinking my sense of empowerment to try something different and trust in Allah (SWT). It did not occur to me that my oil lamp had burned out. Didn’t it have some kind of auto-burn option!? Didn’t good intentions light it? If my ideas and my goals were so right, why did it feel so wrong? Why was it so unfair?! How come some women could do it and I couldn’t? Why couldn’t I just be more like sister so and so? How come my kids couldn’t just be more like her kids?! Maybe this is really my test in life; I need to keep a positive attitude and all will be well. Why can’t I keep a positive attitude for more than one stinkin’ hour!!??

I could only answer these questions after lightening some of my load and looking back on my circumstance. At the point when my oil lamp ceased to incandesce, I could scarcely remember that it once functioned, much less locate the means to light it again. My condition was so severe that it was not the loss of light which caused me to initiate a radical change, rather it was an event which happened outside of me to cause that shift. 

The fact that my son was no longer motivated to learn, of which I had tangible proof in the form of his written work- indeed, something out side of myself, made me sober up to the reality that would ultimately save myself. I picked up the phone, called my husband at work, blind with tears and said: “Baby, it’s time to outsource one of the kids.”

He immediately went into daddy-mode- enumerating the means and logistical steps to execute the outsource. Meanwhile, my alarm and skepticism grew under the impression that we were about to ship our eldest off to Kathmandu. What made it especially hard were the pleas of my son who was adamant that he wanted to continue homeschooling with his friends.

Armed with conviction, I steam-rolled the process of getting him enrolled. I made my first stop at a private school run out of our local mosque. I already knew mothers there, and best of all, my friend and former homeschool mom taught at the school. My heart sank when they told me there were no spots available. No mind, I got back in the car determined to go to the public school, which boasts a very good reputation. Two of our neighbors send their children there and since they are all sweet-natured, I was hopeful.

The grounds of the school were very tidy; as soon as I walked into the building on the left was a large, colorful display of a world map with a fanciful marker on every country to note all the places in the wide world where the attending students come from. A quick scan put my heart at ease that my son would not be the only Muslim there. Then, I walked into the front office and proceeded to wait in line. Naturally, no one gave me the familiar, warm welcome of “Asalaamu’Alaikum,” peace be upon you. Actually, I didn’t even get a hello, which is understandable given the busy mass in the office. As time passed it did feel a bit like the DMV, only much cleaner and without any Mountain Dew.

While waiting our turn, my two-year old started flailing because he thought we were in a pediatrician’s office and said he didn’t “want to get shots!” This scene, however embarrassing, did invite them to process me faster. They gave me a shiny stack of papers to fill out and sent me on my way. I asked if there was anyone I could talk to just to answer a couple of questions about the school’s pedagogy and policies, but they reminded me that I would need to first fill out those shiny papers. 

I left and went home to do what any aspiring Big Girl would do. I set my kids down to a kid-flick in the basement, proceeded to my bedroom, called a good girlfriend, sat on the edge of my bed and loudly sobbed over the phone. She said she’d come over later, but in the meantime I needed to chill out. The next morning I received a call from the private school that they would be able to squeeze our son in after all. After a prayer of istikhara (special prayer when facing indecisiveness) my husband and I decided to enroll our son in the private school. On the first day, we were all restless and scared, but it did have the edge of making us feel like we were merely outsourcing him to his cousin’s house for the day.

Our son made a relatively easy transition to school and, academically, he has excelled so far. Even better, I see his old ways coming back to him – that of getting excited about his subjects and crafting his own questions. He claims that he wants to return to homeschooling next fall, but he is just as likely to look forward to an upcoming project or period at school. I am still teaching my kindergartener and find that I enjoy homeschooling as much as before. I feel my lamp rekindling a little more each day.

A major life lesson I learned on my way to becoming a Big Girl, was to never wed myself to an idea so passionately that I starve my soul in the process. It is not that I must put my needs before others; it is that I need to prioritize my missions. 

When duty calls, I must interrogate my own persuasions to determine what relevancy they have juxtaposed to my daily pursuit to live courageously and authentically as a true servant of my Creator, and in proximity to my Lord. If I cannot truly seep into the pursuit of closeness to The Most Loving (Al-Wadud); if I can only speak of it to my children, whilst hibernating in the cloistered cave of my lofty ideas, then I am useless to them. My light will have gone out and they will, eventually, find no place near me to keep warm and seek sustenance for their own journey.  

The resolve to Be a Big Girl is a stranger odyssey than I ever imagined. It is sprinkled with mirages, no doubt. When I’ve mastered my thirst to the point that I no longer cry out for water…when I should be forgotten, at once, large founts of crystal clear liquid burst out, and I am brought back to my center. I remember the spiking, levitating stabs of thirst, which are remarkably more comforting than the narcotic of my former state.

Alhamdulilah. All Praise Be to God.

Much Love,

Danette

 

Be a Big Girl

3 Jan

2012. It’s got a ring to it. It sounds a heck of a lot better than 2011. 2012 is downright musical to the ear. I trust the optimism of a melodious sounding year. In fact, I felt so darn rallied by it, that I took to the task of redesigning Collard Green Muslim. You like?

Last week I visited my cousins in the Shenandoah Valley, along with my parents and 90-year-old Georgia-grandma. What is her secret for a long life, you wonder? Corn flakes and fried chicken. She eats plenty of both. She told me stories that I already heard, but asked her to tell me again, and some stories I heard for the first time.

I never knew that her daddy died just two weeks after her wedding or that she delivered her first-born at home. I never knew that as newlyweds my grandfather mortgaged their car to be able to grow fields of watermelons in Georgia and transport all their crops to market in Florida. They grew so many watermelons that year, they saved up enough money to buy a house in Winter Garden, Florida. I had no idea that my grandmother refused to be a farmer’s wife; that she insisted on living in-town. Or that her mother, my great-grandmother, was drop dead gorgeous with jet-black hair and spent most of her life with a sack around her neck, picking cotton. Or that my grandfather had a mentally handicapped brother who he looked after, as an adult, and I didn’t know that my grandfather and all his brothers were raised by a single father.

My cousin, Andy, shared some photos with me that I will treasure always. Here is my great-grandfather Jack Goodwyne on his Georgia farm. He fathered eight children, all girls. My grandmother was the youngest.

Great Grandfather Jack Goodwyne and (unnamed) Cousin

And, here is my grandfather, John “Shorty” Mask in front of a packing house where he worked as the foreman in Winter Garden, FL.

He was sixteen years her senior. Even though they grew up just five miles from each other, on different Georgia farms, they never knew eachother. It took a citrus packing house in Florida to seal their fate.

I feel grateful to be starting the year off with a little more knowledge of the past.

As for my New Year’s Resolution, I’ve resolved to be a big girl. I’ve settled into my thirties. It’s a good time. I’m over many of the insecurities and diaper changes of my past. By now, I’ve tapped the bitter-sweet serum of my ego enough times to at least know the various subtleties on my palette. I’ve wrestled with some of my demons and lost more battles than I can count. I’ve been whipped, and wrung out, and out of breath. I’ve been too big for my britches and other times not big enough. I’ve been around the block enough times to know a friend when I see one and sniff out an enemy, both within myself and outside myself.

I often don’t know which road to choose when I’m faced with a myriad of choices; I won’t say I’m sure-footed, but I know the lay of the land better and I’m ready to be a big girl. I’m ready to sober to realities, and stop fiddling with ideas.

Death is not a perception; it’s a promise. I’m going to face it just like all of my ancestors did before me. I’m ready to be a big girl. I don’t have enough time to spill over nurturing the image of myself -making it lovely and just so. I have to nurture the true soul within me. The one that keeps on surging, paying no mind to the shackles of this bridge called life; the true me that yearns to walk through fire to return to the Creator of me. I’m ready to be a big girl. I’m ready to love myself, not merely the idea of myself. I’m ready to love other souls, not just the idea of them. I’m ready to cast off the tidy packages I used to put people in to present them to my ego so that I could play mightly with them. I’m ready to leave off making assumptions about myself, and other people, so that I can love with a salve more distilled.

Now, with my big girl self, I’ve been very busy lately. We stayed up almost to 12 midnight on New Year’s Eve. Whoo-hoo! We didn’t even have the energy to clean up before laying down to 2012.

The next day I felt like making something uppity, so I chopped up a batch of collard greens, mixed them with a handful of shallots, a lot more garlic and some accents of kale, then threw it all into my wok:

Not tired yet- I threw my collards into this bed of bow-tie pasta with a marinade of salsa verde which I whipped up:

It was deeee-licious and made me get over all the traitorous feelings from cooking my collards that way.

The collards did me good. The next day I woke up with enough energy to tackle some organizational challenges. Thanks to a facebook friend, I borrowed this idea to keep my hijabs in one tidy space:

Just looking at them in a wide array- their cacophony and brilliant colors – puts me in a cheerful mood.

That’s all for now. I look forward to writing more about my big girl life.

Much love,

Danette

The Day My Soul Caught Fire

24 Mar

When my Muslim friends raised overseas ask me what makes growing up in the South so unique, I talk about church camp. All my good Yankee friends are surely going to protest:  I went to church camp too; the South didn’t trademark that!

Honestly, I don’t know because I never made it past the Mason Dixon Line until the age of 15; our town sent me on a mission trip to build a protestant church in Spain and convince the Catholic citizens of Barcelona about our Southern brand of religion. So, alright my friends, maybe ya’ll did go to church camp, but you never went to Jesus camp.

My collard green daddy didn’t send us to camp to explore new interests, like horseback riding, origami or basket weaving. Heck no! Jesus camp had one purpose- to teach you how to love Jesus and fear God. Those who loved and feared the most were honored with a baptizing ceremony at the alligator-infested lake. Breathing in the bloated, soggy air under lava-hot Florida sun rays, made the threat of alligators less irksome, and salvation, a risk worth taking.

We’d all go down there, singing a gospel song and gather at the muddy edge. The pastor would go waste deep and start baptizing campers one by one to a round of amen. I almost waded in once, but changed my mind after my friend came up to a shout of hallelujah, and poor thing, she forgot to wear an undershirt. That’s the closest I’d ever been to a wet T-shirt contest. The pimply boy-campers, hovering around like flies on the sweet-tea pitcher, pounded out an awfully sincere word of praise. She spent the rest of the week getting waited on hand and foot.

Meanwhile, I was in no danger of fending off a courtship. The most prominent thing about me was a nasty under-bite, for which my mama sacrificed three days wages to pay for an orthodontic retainer. That tooth lasso could usually be found clacking around my mouth, which no doubt, was an effective boy repellent.

I pity you if you never went to Jesus camp because it was a four-star kiddie vacation. There were the sing-alongs in the fellowship hall, the breakfast of pancakes and sausage, the obstacle course, swimming, nature walks, devotionals, calling the top bunk, reprimands for practical jokes- somehow always involving toothpaste, covert hook-ups, a crush on that very fine camp counselor-college student, giggles, verbal cat-fights, fumes of gossip, canoeing, bonfires, S’mores, and Bloody Mary stories- followed by high-pitch screams.

Last but not least, was the reliable, collard green inoculation against evil in the form of a well-choreographed finale sermon.  The whole congregation of campers held hands and swayed to the organ music. We swore from the bottom of our collard green hearts to go home and be better children, students, and community members…better Christians.

When my son was six-years-old a group of Muslim parents from North Florida organized a camp and registered participants at mosques around the State. It was to be held at one of the camp grounds where I attended as a retainer-sporting princess. I was ecstatic to learn that the program rules allowed younger children to attend, accompanied by their parents. The three-day weekend activities were centered on the theme of Islam and Ecology, and the goal was for campers to depart, affirming in their hearts that they would go home to be better children, students, and community members…better Muslims.

Several volunteers lined up to lead workshops; there was even a contest to determine which child delivered the best presentation, educating fellow campers on how to better care for our planet. I eagerly put my name on the volunteer list and started preparing for the role. Then, I talked it up every day till X marked the spot on our calendar. We piled in the car, my son behind my seat and his baby sister, along for the ride. Our voices alternated between Islamic themed sing-alongs and our favorite blue-grass hits blaring from the CD player. I filled my son’s head with visions of myself as a child, a few years older than him, sitting in the back seat, just like him, listening to the radio with my daddy, just like him, wishing the miles away in anticipation …just like him!

He hung onto my every word because the only thing he loves more than telling me about something he’s gonna do, is listening to me tell him about something I already did. His expression always hovers between disbelief and longing to walk into that world with me…as if he can hardly comprehend that I was a kid once too.

As we approached the entrance to the camp, the traffic accumulated. It was a two-lane road, running a path through flat, sandy earth yielding only brown tufts of grass. In the distance I could see a group of people huddled on either side, holding up fluorescent poster boards on yardsticks; they alternated pumping them up and down like gilded, iron horses on a merry-go-round. As our car advanced farther in the queue, we could distinguish the lettering enough to make out the words: Jihad Terrorist Camp, Islam is an Evil Religion, Get out of America …and more.

My son was not a fluent reader just yet; still, I tried to distract him, but it was no use. The protestors were shouting and their voices became audible as we moved closer.  His father turned up the radio real loud.

“What are they doing?” my son asked. I un-latched my seat belt to turn my full body around in the seat and look into his quizzical expression, laced with a trace of wariness.

I shocked myself with a rapid response: “They welcome new campers like us. It’s part of the camp spirit,” I said. “They even made signs! How cool is THAT?!!”

A big grin spread across his face, and revealed the gaping hole where his two front baby teeth used to perch. He perked up in his booster seat and gave them all a big wave and a holler: “Welcome to you too! Thank you! Welcome!!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, trying to make his voice more audible over the blaring radio.

He pleaded with his daddy to “roll down the window,” so that the “nice people,” could hear him shout back. His dad feigned grumpiness, and claimed he didn’t want to let the air conditioning out. I reassured him that the welcoming committee would be just as happy to see his smiling face through the window. My son didn’t ask why their foreheads were crumpled up and their fingers were shaking up a storm. I slumped back down into the seat, struck by the realization that a six-year-old will take his mama’s word for just about anything.

It was probably no more than ninety seconds until our car inched into the clear, but it felt like ninety years.  The weight of the world bore down. The reality of raising my Muslim children bore down. The sight of the protestors’ signs, their battle-cry expressions, and waging fingers, bore down. The sight of my boy’s tooth-less, gullible grin; the force of his hearty wave; the piercing noise of that radio, drowning out their venomous shouts; the bitter taste of that lie on my tongue – it all bore down.

I wanted to unleash a river of scalding tears, caged off and burning a hole in my throat…burning me so badly it felt like fire ripping through my entrails, and lighting my soul ablaze. I wanted to make an opening to exhale. I had something to say, muddled inside the inferno of my disfigurement. If you came here to shock us; if you came here to wound our notion of belonging; if you came here make us want to crawl out of our skins, just because you can; if you came here to make us weep into our pillow to muffle the sound from our children; if you came here to do all of that… you won, damn you. You won!

I am acutely mortal in such circumstances. I didn’t feel defiant, yet humble, like David before Goliath, or merciful and determined like the Prophet Mohammed when his people threw garbage and rocks at his head, yet he only responded with an earnest prayer, asking God to forgive them all. My mind didn’t instantly revert to the oft-repeated verse from the Qur’an: “And the servants of (Allah) Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth with humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace!…” (25:63). 

I’m not proud to say that I only felt smoke rising from my sudden, ruptured existence. I loathed them all.

I didn’t grip my husband’s hand, in a show of affection and solidarity. He didn’t grip mine. Whatever comfort we might afford one another, was muted in the shock of our predicament, and in the need to keep appearances for our boy- now nearly bursting out of his seatbelt in joyful agitation.

Our son almost opened the door before the car came to a full stop. The hot coal in my throat started to extinguish with the need to turn our focus on the details of registration and cabin assignments. The fire still flickered and I yearned for a private moment, just long enough to have a good cry. I wondered about the older children who read the signs, and actually understood them, but I didn’t ask. In these situations, people don’t want to talk, they just want to forget.

Those who lagged behind skipped the clan-like welcome. Even hate-mongers break for happy hour. They didn’t hold their ground against the “terrorist;” rather, they left voluntarily not long after our scheduled entrance. Apparently, it was not conviction that drove them there, but the sick thrill of capture…a hit and run. They smacked our kids real good; now, it was time to celebrate over a round of cold beers and high-fives. Maybe a reporter would even quote one or two protestors, then ask a Muslim camper to respond- as if it was a battle between two sides, and the public must decide. Only if the bigoted assault were directed at any other group of children would it be deemed a shameful act.  These were, after all, Muslim children and wasn’t it Muslims who attacked us on 9-11?

Meanwhile, we met in the Fellowship Hall. The keynote speaker told all the children that they had a duty to God; and as an extension of that duty, a duty to their fellow citizens, and a duty to care for the earth. He said it is not always easy to be faithful, but we must be sincere and try to do our best. We must not let hatred directed at us, interfere with that duty. The talk was followed by a communal prayer. When I touched my head to the floor, bowing down in worship, I noticed the burn was no more. I felt close to my Creator, and vast distances away from the world outside.

My son would soon read fluently; he would hear and see all things clearly. I could only protect him for a while longer.

My children will receive shocks of pain from corners that I never anticipated, and that I scarcely would have imagined as a child. They will know pain, but he will also know the sweet relief from bowing, in humility, in utter helplessness and submission before their Creator – like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus… like Mohammed, peace be upon them all.

I was reminded of this day, while watching a You Tube video featuring a group of protestors, led by fiery politicians, shouting down Muslim men, women, and children, as they approached the entrance to an event raising money for U.S. charities, aimed at stopping hunger and homelessness in America.

It is horrifying to watch and words do not do justice. I should warn you that it is not appropriate for young viewers, although you will see that many of those who attended the charity event were children.

Among the protestors, you will see more American flags than at a Fourth of July Parade, which begs the question- what does pure, unadulterated hate have to do with the symbolism of our flag?  The answer is so obvious, the question doesn’t even seem worth asking.

I protect their right to wave our flag. In fact, if that right were in serious jeopardy, I would hold it up for them, swaying it high over my hijab-wearing head (with giant ear-plugs). While I support their right, I disdain their work to make the symbolism of our flag the functional equivalent of a swastika. I wish they would don the disguise of their forefathers– a white sheet and pointed hood. It is, after all, an honest badge for those who cannot feel anyone’s humanity but their own.

This targeting of Muslim inter-faith leaders and community builders, along with their children, will be featured in a documentary aired on CNN this Sunday at 8 p.m. EST. It is called, Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door. Click on this link to see the trailer. I am hopeful that a mass media outlet is bringing this issue to light.

I will say goodbye, now, with a statement from the trailer. It was made by a Muslim mother who will be featured in the documentary. When asked whether she thinks fellow Americans hate her, she stated:  “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think people understand what Islam is and (what) Muslims are.”

I also want to conclude with a word of sincere thanks to a high school classmate who contacted me recently to say she made an appointment at her local mosque to address for herself negative assumptions about Muslims. So far so good; they gave her a warm reception over the phone. I hope the inter-faith relationships she encounters will last a lifetime. She’s collard green, of course. I know they are just going to love her.

High Talker

1 Feb

If you followed my blog yesterday, you may recall that I described myself in Spartan-esque glory. I said something about having a hard time waging sympathy for my husband who was sick. This was on account of having pushed out three offspring- two of them by natural labor, which is the ancient method of begging your midwife to either kill you or give you drugs during the last stretch of labor, while she coaches you to victory. Midwives rock! 

The part about natural labor is true, and I’d do it again, but one thing you should know about me is that I’m of the southern variety known as high-talker, but only with the best intentions. You see, I actually believed those things about myself yesterday morning, when all my wits were intact. Since then, I have succumbed to the evil legion of influenza, which hath no mercy, and I am begging for sympathy. Truth be told, I have no desire  to stylize myself as invincible – that is a hideous predicament of the male species…which is, actually, kind of cute and comforting.  

Here I lay, while Dora The Explorer teaches my other two offspring how to speak Spanish via Netflix re-runs. My husband is currently away at work with our first-born. He had to carry our son to the pediatrician this afternoon, then had no choice but to take him back to his office to get a lot of work accomplished. Yesterday, the boy’s shoulder got dislocated. While attending a home school co-op class, next to the mosque, he and another child were imitating luchadores, leading up to the injury.

Fortunately, there was a qualified expert in attendance, a doctor-mom, who knows how to remain calm in the midst of another freaked-out mom. I was running back and forth from the front porch, communicating with his pediatrician, whose receptionist was asking me repeatedly, and lethargically, to phonetically spell our boy’s very Arab last name. Thank God my doctor-friend knew what to do. She saved the day. Our son went to the doctor this afternoon to see about an X-ray. Now, we are looking at a future appointment with an orthopedic specialist. Yeah! All-in-all, though, it looks like he is going to be fine and he is not in any pain.

So, I’m home in bed, eating yesterday’s words and pitifully suffering. I am calling my very Arab husband ever so often to impress upon him my delicate condition. I’ve also asked him to rush home to rescue me, which does not look like he will anytime soon. 

This message is for you, very Arab husband, from your high-talker, collard green Muslim wife:

If you happen to read this, I think you should come home right away and bring a caravan-load of sympathy. Could you also make me some hot chicken soup (with sage and a lemon on the side), plus a warm crusty French baguette?  I think I might be dying. Thanks!