What Nourish Meant

When humans eat alone, we are often left hungry.

“It’s been nice not eating with you, Barb.”

This was the sardonic line delivered by one of my colleagues yesterday. As the school year wraps up, there have been A LOT of end-of-year dinners, luncheons, and (not so) happy hours for me to attend…just in time for Ramadan.

To my right is a pita platter. To my left, pasta primavera.  I am hemmed in by temptation on all sides with only my haram iced tea to comfort me. (Yes, know it all. I realize I’m not supposed to be drinking during Ramadan. Mind yo’ bidness and tune in next blog for “Rama-my-way.” And ignore the mint in the background.)

tea

Situations such as these elicit a lot of apologies, as people bite into their bacon turkey clubs.

It is an interesting quirk of my spiritual impulses, that while I rarely seem to mind being the center of attention, say, on spirit day when I’m prancing around in a purple tutu, when it comes to matters of faith…I’m more comfortable with spiritual subtlety.

tutu you

I never wore a gold cross around my neck, never flew in an airplane with a Bible on my lap hoping for a conversion conversation, never wore a shirt that said “WWJD”, never bought an fish for the back of my car.

And now that my spirituality has become a syncretic mystical mix, I may write reflectively in a public blogging space or answer any direct questions, I’m not knocking door to door to hand out certainty in pamphlet form.

This is all to say, collective meals during sun-up make me feel awkward. I almost skipped this one.

But then…

Something funny happened (as it often does) when we lean into rather than away from spaces and situations that discomfort us.

Because I didn’t have to pay attention to food, I could pay attention to people.

fast break1

During Ramadan, you begin to realize just how much of your day is focused on your belly. What goes into it, how it’s feeling, what it’s saying, how big it’s getting, and on, and on, and on. Even at this meal I would have devoted time to choosing my food, eating my food, comparing my food to those around me, trading my food for theirs.

I’ve always found it fascinating that we humans the world over have taken this…well, kind of gross thing we must do to survive (aka: crushing up living things in our mouth into a moist paste) and created so many rituals, recipes, and reality shows around this most basic of acts. Trees have a much more elegant method of survival. Sun from the top. Water from the bottom. Imagine everything they can get done because they don’t have to shop at Harris Teeter for the 42 line recipe from Cook’s Illustrated!

What’s more, we know that particularly in our country, this act that is simply supposed to nourish us has made us sick. We have made our taste buds, not our tummies, the gatekeeper of what enters our bodies. All kinds of food like substances that don’t end up nourishing us at all. Instead they give us heart disease and colon cancer.

Last Ramadan I realized that my WORST eating habits happened in isolation. I was most likely to eat a bag of leftover Halloween candy unobserved in my cinder-block office, or a block of Manchego cheese before my kids got home from school, or a Chic-fil-a sandwich and peppermint milkshake in my car and quickly get rid of the evidence (in my progressive shame), or a carton of Cherry Garcia after my husband went to bed the night before Ramadan.

For me, peer pressure has never made me bad. It’s helped me be good. This is true of my eating and my being.

In contrast, During Ramadan, both eating and NOT eating becomes a communal rather than individual act. Iftar is the meal that breaks the fast. At sundown you wait for the call to prayer, as the last rays descend below the horizon you eat your date and guzzle your water, migrate in to pray, and then migrate out to stuff your face with platters of house prepared delights. If you celebrate at the mosque you will do this under a great white tent with all your fellow parishoners (mosque-ishoners?), or alternately you will do this at home amidst the tangle of your family. Like 40 days of Thanksgiving at dusk.

Date with date
“You got a date with a date!”

Consequently, Ramadan can be a very isolating experience for solitary Muslims. Men working abroad away from their families. College students without an MSA. Anyone who has unwillingly spent a holiday estranged from their people will be able to sympathize.

Just in the few days I have been fasting, I feel the hunger most acutely in isolation…and somehow not at all when I’m laughing on the stoop with my neighbors, chasing my kids down on their bikes, sweating through yoga next to strangers, telling and hearing ghost stories while I sip my iced tea next to a sardonic pita pounding colleague.

 

The hunger abates.

I feel satiated.

stoop break

I wonder if what we mistake for hunger pangs may be a society starving for deep human connection.

 

When humans eat alone, we are often left hungry.

For what?

Each other, I think.

Now that’s a craving I’m happy to cave into.

Declaration of SIG-dependence

Students are gathered in an outdoor pavilion at Arlington Echo hunched over a piece of poster paper. They are laughing, talking, calling out ideas and corrections while one student tries to get it all down.

“This is like the Declaration of independence,” declares one.

“Yeah, because Signature emancipates us.”

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This is a two day overnight trip for Signature Program Seniors. I have taught many of them since they were freshmen. The final activity of this reflective retreat is drafting a definition of what “Signature” is. Despite the fact that almost every student has declared the impact of this program on their lives, our greatest struggle has been and remains DEFINING it.

Five years ago I stood with a different group of students. Before the Signature Program was developed, it began with a “global cohort” of students and a question of “What should education offer to the local, national, and global community?”

Now, five years later, a different group of students are under the same pavilion on the other side of the question. They have been a part of program that has taken them to local farms and to international exchange programs. They have started diversity clubs and political internships. They have created curriculum, videos, conferences, and all manner of other real world products and projects swirling around their signature experience.

I am their teacher…but they have made me obsolete. Finally.

As they begin to string together a statement of purpose, I watch them with pride but also with poignancy, because I know something they don’t:

I am leaving them.

One week from now, I’m going to sit them down in the Library and tell them that I am taking a new job at a new school where I can bring and build Signature with a new group of students. I know they’re going to be shocked…but I have set them up to see they’ve outgrown me anyway.

Earlier in the week, under the same pavillion, I asked them to draft an annual plan for signature. What would they do personally and collectively by the end of the year? What were their goals and how would they get there. 10 minutes into the activity, I gave them a hypothetical crisis.

“The new Superintendent has declared he does not believe in Signature Programs and thinks they are a wasted investment. How does this change your plan?”*

10 minutes later I gave them a second crisis…this one less hypothetical.

“Your Signature teacher has been poached by the department of education to work on global citizenship education nationally. How does THIS change your plan?”

Arlington crisis

In both instances, the students responded that their plans were not dependent on even these seemingly cataclysmic scenarios. In the words of one of the students: “Sig is an institution. Not a single teacher/administrator will prove the downfall of the entire program.”

The following week when I announced that I was leaving, I hung up their plans and their words declaring the longevity of the Signature way.

Many of them wrote me emails and letters in the weeks to come. My favorite came from a student who over the course of the 4 page hand written note went from grief and anger to acceptance and confidence…with just a touch of doubt:

“I feel like signature is still a baby. The first sig completer class hasn’t even graduated, yet your’re leaving…so soon…But maybe it’s the best time…Even though I’m broken and sad, I know Signature will not die. We can’t let it. You’re forcing us to be strong. We have been ready for this all along, we just didn’t know it. Very clever of you to put that scenario in our activity at Arlington echo, then tie it to your announcement. Now I get it. Ha. I’m ready for this. Sort of. I guess.”

There were still tears. Still disbelief. Still anger. Still feelings of betrayal…but then on the other side there was strength. There was conviction. There was confidence that I was not the center of signature. THEY were.

When students at Arlington Echo finished their Declaration of SIG-dependence, they signed it and hung it on the marquee….where they hoped the visiting superintendent would see it.

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Julia ended her letter with a pledge. She wrote it for herself, but it belongs to all of us who have been touched by this thing we call “Signature.”

“I pledge to myself to myself and the program that I will do everything I possibly can to continue what we have been working so hard on.”

We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.