Ramadan by Negotiated Agreement

My fast is closed but my heart is open.

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Today marks the end of my fasting for Ramadan. My final Iftar took place in a pub at BWI before I got on a plane for a family vacation.  I broke this fast in the daylight with a beer and a bacon burger. So…not strictly speaking a traditional Ramadan success story.

ram-burger

I have written previously about my distrust of perfection further affirmed by my favorite sage, Sister Anne Patrick, who often said “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I can acknowledge this is one of those truths I cling to, in part, because it’s convenient.

Sidenote: always distrust sage advice that is too easy for you to follow…not because it isn’t true for others, but perhaps not quite so true for you.

Here are all the ways my Ramadan fast was less than perfect:

I did not always wake by 5:30 to eat my breakfast before sunrise. Sometimes I did. Other days early morning runs, or yoga, or other forms of rationalization had me eating my breakfast in the guilty gleam of the morning sun’s rays.

ram-also
I found myself eating a lot of dessert for breakfast. Cue cannoli. 

Also,

I almost never waited to break my fast at Sundown. Instead I would break my fast in the evening (ahem) or late afternoon when I sat down to dinner (ahem) or stoop sitting with my family (ahem) or close neighborhood drinking moms.

ram-neighbors
Pilgrimage to St. Casimir’s street fair with the neighborhood crew.

This brings me to,

I often broke my fast with an adult beverage (drunken Monk style). My kidneys, turns out, did not appreciate this.

Ram-cocktail
Wine smoothie.

Which is why,

I drank water during fasting hours. It comes as a surprise to most non-Muslims that the Ramadan fast means you do not eat OR drink during the day. Not so, in Christian fasting. Thirst rather than hunger in my experience is by far the more difficult craving to stave off. Last Ramadan I was only able to pull it off a couple of days.

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

Speaking of which,

I may have taken a few days “off” from Ramadan. Sundays, for example are NOT counted in the 40 days of Lent. SOOOOO….I reasoned for this to be an ecumenical blending of traditions, maybe I just ate one less meal than usual that day. Who says brunch can’t be transcendent?

 

One might ask with all this “Ramadan by negotiated agreement” why do it at all? More importantly, might not all this compromise be viewed a disrespectful to all those devout Muslims around the world who adhere to these directives fervently? Perhaps. Though that is not their intent

This is my sincere confession. Forgive me.

Ramadan, I have learned, is not just about what you (try to) subtract. It’s about what you add.  Muslims read the entire Koran during the month, they do works of charity, they make amends to people they have wronged.

ram-food
Food drive at Brooklyn Park Elementary.

 

One of the most beautiful reflections about the multiplicity of meanings that emerge out of this Holy month come from “Ramadan Revealed” with American Muslims around the country, recorded by “On Being.” I listened to it last year and this year while I ran along the Baltimore Harbor in the early morning light. Please make the time for these beautiful stories. They are full of humor, generosity…and MacDonald’s French Fries.

Many of these American Muslims tell stories about how challenging it is to keep the fast in America…hemmed in by 24 hour neon signs for french-fries and doughnuts. One confesses, when she fasts in America she feels like the only person in the world not eating. Not drinking.

MeanBox
Haram in a box.

 

I can’t say I strictly identify. I can say I do feel different even when I do Ramadan imperfectly. I feel more patient. More loving. More grateful. More mindful.

 

Even when I do less, I feel more.

Maybe it’s because all that blood is rushing to my brain and not my digestive tract. Maybe because so much of consumption isn’t nourishing. Maybe because I have used the discomfort of hunger as an excuse to be grumpy or impatient.

ram-acrobat
Acro-Kip.

Maybe for some other mystical reason.

My hope is that one day I will do more and be more because of it. One day I will work up my spiritual stamina to 30 days of true pre-dawn profundity, alcoholic temperance, and sundown first sips.

ram-meditation
Me: Ivy what are you doing? – Ivy: Meditating. – Me: Who taught you to do that? – Ivy: Ninja Turtles

Until then, my fast from food is closed. (I’m on vacation and one of my former students told me you’re not supposed to fast when you’re traveling, so, another convenient truth for me to adhere to).

But my heart is more open.

 

Thank you Ramadan. I’ll open my fast with you again next year.

Be still, my monkey…

My son moves at a pace faster than the speed of sound. That is the ONLY explanation for why he only hears me the third time I say something.

 

Kip.

kip1

Kip!

kip6

KIP!!

kip7

 

(sigh)

Kip happens.

My son moves at a pace faster than the speed of sound. That is the ONLY explanation for why he only hears me the third time I say something.

Zippy Kippy.

Skippy Kippy.

Kip-to-my-lou.

Oh, my darlin’.

It is hard to be angry with such an exuberant, gregarious, hilarious primate. Somehow we still manage it.

Just.

Be.

Still!

Stillness is not easy for the five year old.

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Stillness is not easy for his mother, either. Neither in body nor in mind.

Last Lent, I wrote about my monkey mind

It jumps from one idea to the next. Knocks things over. This is true if I’m reading. Writing. Teaching. Walking. Eating… You get the picture…the fragmented, sparkly, frenetic picture.

Yoga, I wrote, was one of the only things that could calm my rushing psyche. The faster the flow of my body, the slower my mind becomes. When I began my practice, I gravitated to the hardest teachers. Barely keeping pace with my breath, dripping in sweat, my feet squeaking and slipping, this was the soggy path to my Zen moments. I would catch glimpses of silence and stillness in my mind before they slipped away around a corner of my frontal cortex.

Lately, though, I find I don’t have to chase down stillness. It has begun to come to me.

This week my friend Libbie invited me down to Annapolis to meet and practice with her favorite Yoga instructor. Tina.

Her class was without heat. Without sweat. Without mirrors. Without haste.

We began with seated meditation. We ended with seated meditation.

There was movement between, but all I remember, all I craved was the stillness.

Afterwards, I sat with her for a moment and marveled aloud how much I had reveled in the methodic, meditative slowness of the class. How did this happen? When did I change? How did I slip into someone at ease with silence and stillness?

“You’ve trained your mind,” she said.

When did that happen?!

 

Be still my heart.

Be still and know.

Peace. Be still.

kip3

 

In stillness we hear.

In stillness we’re here.

Sleep tight, little monkey.

Monkeys in the Monastery

The mind as an open vessel floating on a still lake stretched out to the horizon.

This image came to me several months ago in the midst of my yoga practice. A metaphor for the mindfulness one hopes to achieve when deep in meditative practice.

Balance.

Calm.

Oneness.

Yeah, this is not an apt metaphor for my mind.

A better one might by a monkey in a sequined leotard. Distracted by shiny things, including its own outfit…and its tail.

Monkey
Ask me to monkey dance sometime…

Yep. That sounds about right.

I have what they call in meditation circles… “a monkey mind.” It jumps from one idea to the next. Knocks things over. This is true if I’m reading. Writing. Teaching. Walking. Eating… You get the picture…the fragmented, sparkly, frenetic picture.

The only time it ever really stills, the only thing that can routinely calm it in to brief pause, is yoga.

I come from a faith tradition that is very noisy. Drum sets and Hallelujahs. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t a place for quiet prayer.

“Be still and know…”

But even that quiet time for me was filled with constant questioning, connecting, and emoting.

Being still can be exhausting.

When I began to study religion at college, I was introduced to various methods of meditation, which exist in some form in all faith traditions. I gave it a go.

I would go to the balcony of the chapel on campus. The building would be empty, light streaming in from the stained class. I would sit at the highest point in the building and try to be still. Try to quiet my mind.

I would bribe myself.

Just one minute.

Think of nothing for just one minute.

Just.

One.

Minute.

Has it been a minute?

I would often give up and journal instead. I re-read one journal entry recently where I was distracted by a pencil on the pew where I was trying to meditate.

A pencil.

I wrote a whole journal entry about it. The person that held it before me. Who they might have been. In fact just now I stopped writing to look for the entry again. I didn’t find it, but that damn pencil from fifteen years ago is clearly STILL too much of a distraction for this sequined monkey.

Moving is the only thing that seems to make my mind go still.

When I studied in England I would disappear for hours. I would walk through gardens. Walk through the tangle of London streets. Walk through sheep fields. Walk through castle ruins. These walks, the colors, the perpetual damp of the English spring, the richness of the tea and scones afterwards, they are so vivid even now.

And, oh, the Mystic wonder of the wanderer.

I have never felt as close to the divine as I do when I walk alone in solitary country or bustling urban landscapes such as these.

I feel the chill of connection even now.

What a relief it was when I met the Jesuits and Ignatian Spirituality. “Contemplatives in Action” they are called.

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was the catalyst for a huge paradigm shift in what it looked like to live a religious life. Traditionally, if you were a priest or a nun it meant that you were monastics, living in community with your spiritual brothers or sisters. There were regimens of prayer that occurred perhaps five times or more a day.

This meant if you were working in the garden, tending the poor, transcribing a text, you had to stop every few hours to pray. You can’t go too far with a two hour turn-around time.

The Jesuits, on the other hand (and the Franciscans as well) are called “mendicants.” Travelers. Theirs is a spirituality on the move.

Indeed, one of the few requirements Ignatius had for Jesuits in the “Spiritual Exercises” was called the Examen and was to be done twice a day. Once at noon. Once at the end of the day.

  1. Become aware of the divines presence.
  2. Review the day with gratitude.
  3. Pay attention to your emotions
  4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
  5. Look toward tomorrow.

Even a distractable monkey might be able to handle that.

I am not meant for the monastery. I would drive my fellow monks mad. But perhaps I am meant for the traveling circus, where twice a day me and the other monkeys can try reflect on the profundity of sparkly things…for just under a minute.

Contemplative (monkey) in action (with sequins).

Mind
Sleeping Buddha…meet smirking Barbara.

Imperflections

A wise nun once told me, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Those of you who have been taught by Sister Anne Patrick will understand the irony of this most sacred advice coming from, perhaps, the most meticulous person I’ve ever met. Her advice came at the onset of a great endeavor: our senior seminar at Carleton for the completion of our Religious Studies degree. Several months later (and one typo in the opening line) I submitted my senior comps. 30 pages felt like quite an accomplishment back then.

30 minutes is about all I can manage today.

Lent begins tomorrow. Forty days in the wilderness. I never really observed this religious rite of passage until I came to the East Coast and found myself surrounded by Catholics. Christians who love Jesus with a good beer. Christians who are steeped in historical traditions going back centuries.

Those of you who know me well know that I can but rarely take any tradition at face value. I always have to tweak or question something. So I have never attempted to give up some of the more traditional abstentions: chocolate, coffee, television, sloth, vanity, etc. I have had the most success with a more mindful approach. One year, for example, I gave up anger. I didn’t stop feeling angry, but I did start to notice patterns and started asking questions. “Why am I angry? Is it justified? Didn’t this happen at the same time yesterday?” For those of you who do yoga, meditation, or metacognition, this practice of “observing your thoughts” will resonate.

As it turns out, 40 days is about how long psychologists say it takes to make or break a habit. My bad habit? Perfection.

Nun are perfect...

Don’t laugh. Seriously. No scoffing. Despite how my EXTERNAL world may appear to you (See: messy room, messy desk, misplaced keys, losing train of thought mid-sentence) it may surprise you to know that there is ONE realm where I become immobilized in fear of imperfection. My writing.

I must have dozens of drafted but unsent letters, emails, blog posts, and tweets that somewhere between writing and sharing I lost my…focus? Conviction? Nerve? That’s not to mention the unwritten drafts in my head…filed haphazardly but visited or stumbled across again and again.

A friend once told me that I was like an open field with an invisible wall…that you run into full tilt because you don’t realize it’s there. Perhaps this is true of many of us, but I can’t speak for many of us. Only for myself.

I know that I must write. I know that to do so is to reveal to the critique of others my thoughts half formed. Ideas have imagined.

I know that I have also struggled to write because to do so one must withdraw from the world…at least momentarily…and I do so love the mess of the world.

So this Lent I commit to breaking the habit of narrative immobilization. For 30 minutes a day (the length of a Daniel Tiger) and without time for edits, revisions, or doubts, I will embark on this study of imperflection to see where it will take me and shape me as a human, as a writer. I’d welcome anyone who wishes to join me. We are all so beautiful in our half-finished stories…and that’s TIME.