Ramadan by Negotiated Agreement

My fast is closed but my heart is open.

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.

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.

Odd friends of Ramadan

Transformed by curious couplings during #Christians4Ramadan

Tonight, on Ramadan Eve, I finished two books, both of which were given to me. One by my daughter. One by a first year teacher.

A month ago, my daughter came home from Pre-K4 with I am Malala in her Ninja Turtle backpack.

Holding it up to me in two hands, like a stone tablet.  She said earnestly, (Ivy says most things earnestly) “Mommy I want to read this!”

She’d found it in the fourth grade classroom and I can only assume connected immediately with the tranquil gaze of Malala on the front cover.

“Umm…I want to read that too, five year old,” I said bemused. “Guess this is our first mother daughter book club.” We let Kip join too because…top bunk privilege. At bedtime, for the last month, we have been reading about Malala, Pakistan, Swat Valley, the rise of the Taliban, her Father’s activism, her own fight for human and children’s rights…and her love for Ugly Betty. Kip and Ivy have both been surprisingly riveted, only occasionally petitioning for a respite with Star Wars Rebels or Rosie Revere. After they become drowsy to the wisdom of Malala, I choose my late night profundity from a different direction.

Early in the school year, my colleague Andy (who had actually been a student at the school where I began teaching) asked me “Do you identify strongly with Leslie Knope?”

I gasped and grabbed his arm…

“Do YOU identify me with Leslie Knope?” I asked with rhetorical Leslie Knope-like eagerness.

“Umm…well that all depends…I guess some might see her as a little naïve.”

If by naïve you mean hopefully exuberant as she fearlessly charges into the world with blinders on to the peril towards herself or others but equipped with a bastion of binders to protect her…I guess I can see that.

I should mention here that my spirit animal is Leslie Knope riding a unicorn.

Andy took it all in stride and very thoughtfully presented me with Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, as a Christmas gift…which I finally finished today. I wish this pace could be explained by 1,500 pages, small print and no pictures…but the book is only 329 pages long and is laced with Polaroids, hand scribbled notes from 8 year old Amy, and large margins with riotous side-notes from  friends and colleagues. I have added to these with annotations of my own (should you wish to borrow my copy).

As I drink wine and write this, these two books sit next to me, the authors both gazing at me with challenge and expectation. I don’t think I seek out these kinds of peculiar pairings to be deliberately provocative. I’m just a reluctant sorter. They would seem an odd couple to anyone else…but to those who know me, this will likely not come as too astounding. The spiritual humanitarian alongside the hilarious hedonist. Sounds about right.

Ram-odd-an

I will write more specifics about my strange affinity for these powerful women and the lessons they have taught me in the days to come, but for tonight, I accept their odd juxtaposition in my life and their company into Ramadan just as I hope you will accept the oddity of an educational mystic once again inspired and cleansed by her pilgrimage through this holy month.

I don’t have a logical or convenient filing system for the world or the people in it. I don’t reject these curious couplings when they happen. When my daughter hands me book, I accept. When the first year teacher hands me a book, I accept. When a kid asks me to sponsor the Muslim Student Association…I accept. And then I also accept the possibility that, perhaps, we were supposed to co-exist all along. Become friends. Transform each other. Make the other giggle.

I think Malala and Amy might do some giggling together. I think I might join them. And you? You’re invited, too.

Giggle.

Accept.

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.

kip2

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.

Open Handed Writing

I’m beginning to wonder if the tightness in my writing is actually in my grip.

My writing felt tight this week.

So did my living, come to think of it. I didn’t love as loosely as I like.

In yoga, there is a constant ebb and flow between opposing forces. Effort and surrender. Death to re-birth. Breath in. Breath out.

Using the breath, we breathe into the spaces we are tight. Resistant. This may be a joint or a muscle. It may be an emotion or thought. In yoga we practice releasing these attachments. Physical, mental, and spiritual.

When I was in a college, I landed on a metaphor that I have kept with me.

Picture a hand holding an object.

When we hold things the pain we may feel when they are taken from us has more to do with our grasp than the object itself. If I clasp something to my heart, grip it with all my strength, wrap myself around it, then if it is taken, it must be wrestled from me, wrenched from my grasp. I cannot help but be injured in this struggle.

My pain is in my posture.

If, on the other hand, I hold an object in my cupped hand outstretched, though the object is secure it is not possessed in the same way. I am not possessed by it. It may be lifted from my grasp without violence or struggle.

At the time I came to consciousness of this metaphor, it was God who I imagined giving or taking away. This idea of open-handedness a practice in trust with the divine Father.

Anyone who has practiced or learned from Buddhism will recognize this metaphor as a classic illustration of the suffering that comes from attachment. That the end of suffering is the releasing of our attachment to temporal things destined to change, evolve, die.

Today, my yoga instructor said:

The world isn’t coming at you.

You are coming at the world.

I’m beginning to wonder if the tightness in my writing is actually in my grip.

Writing can seem so final. It ceases to evolve as soon as you hit “Publish.” A snapshot of your thoughts in a moment. And then your thoughts change. Grow. Your words, however, are static.

I have yet to figure out how to make my writing mimic the expansion of my life and spirit. How to hold it in the open-hand of offering rather than the grasping hand of ambition.

 

One of the things I love about the Catholic tradition is the ever expanding family of Saints. This acknowledgment that human holiness is not just a thing locked in the past, but possible today. Right now. In this moment.

Saint
Our Lady of Aparecida – Patron Saint of Brazil. She stowed away with me four years ago and has been my quiet companion ever since.

Once in explaining to someone why I had (seemingly) left Christianity behind I insisted, “It’s not that I’ve rejected the Christian Canon. I’ve just expanded my canon to include others in it.”

For many, this will seem like heresy or hubris. Ironically, it is the closest I come to humility, this acknowledgement of the vast wisdom that can be found from a multiplicity of human experiences across time and culture. Not just in the past, but in the present.

I was no saint this week. I do not aspire to be one next week either.

But in my practice to come, I hope to come at the world and my words with open hands and a looser a grip.

Unvarnished Writing

When our paint is peeling, we must decide whether we layer on a glossy new coat or strip ourselves down to the unvarnished beauty that lies beneath.

I struggle when I’m writing to trust my intentions.

What is my agenda? Truly?

Do I seek attention?

Gratification?

Admiration?

When I look back and re-read the things my earlier selves have written, journal entries and college essays, blog posts and Patch articles, whether I grin or grimace is determined by whether I wrote to perform and charm or confess and console.

As in writing so in life.

Throughout the day we decide moment by moment which parts of ourselves to hold up to the light or hide in the shadows. Which parts of ourselves will play well to the audience. What was once conscious choice becomes habit. We spend our days obscuring and augmenting ourselves. With eyeliner and intellect. With high heels and bicep curls. With job titles and Instagram posts. We pluck and polish. Dye and comb over. We posture. We avoid eye contact.

Writing, too, can be like this. I can edit. Refine. Find my best angle. Control the lighting. Amend a position. Strike a new pose. I can re-write this line so it better captures my precise thought. Or I can leave it alone as it emerged the first time. Only I will be able to distinguish one line from the other.

In writing as in life, we can vacillate between a frantic need to be seen and a desperate fear of the same. The words become flesh. The flesh shapes the words.

But oh the power of eyes that see and accept. The heady sensation when we do reveal ourselves and find a gaze that doesn’t turn away or gawk. We long for someone to look at us, see us, celebrate us.

This morning I sat in my car at Anne Arundel Community College before a meeting and wrote:

“Are we a culture that encourages authenticity? Are we people conscious of how we condition our fellow humans to reveal or revile themselves?”

This afternoon, I ran into a former student on campus who (after lifting me off the ground in a bear hug) showed me a screen shot of a text message I sent him over two years ago:

IMG_1459

You better have chills.

We long for spaces characterized by this culture of authenticity and trust. When we graduate or outgrow these spaces, we seek them again and again. Even better…we create them anew.

Hanging on the wall of my classroom was this poem called “Our Deepest Fear”.

It begins…

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

It ends…

“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

The Lenten season is my space to practice what I already believe deeply to be true.

When our paint is peeling, we must decide whether we layer on a glossy new coat or strip ourselves down to the unvarnished beauty that lies beneath.

I want to see you. Shine who you are. We’ll be blinding together.

Jeremy

Hearty Birthdays and the double “L’chaim”

“L’chaim” doesn’t promise “happiness” just “life.”

When I was 18, I left my home in Missouri and began my pilgrimage into the world.

18 years later, perched on the opening day of my 36th year, I contemplate the roots that ground me and branches that stretch me.

When I told my friend Courtney that I was excited about my 36th year of life, she responded:

“L’chaim l’chaim!”

“Double 18!”

If you’ve ever drank (or been drunk) with Jewish friends or family, you will have heard this toast, “L’chaim” “To life!”

L'chaim wedding

What I didn’t know, was that “Chai” is not only the word for “life” in Hebrew, but also the number “18”. (Learn more about the history and grammar of this number in the Jewish tradition here.) For this reason, when a Jewish person makes a donation, or gives a financial gift, they may make it out in a multiple of 18.

18 + 18 = 36 = “double chai” = fortuitous year.

Perhaps a decade ago, I stopped expecting other people to give me a happy birthday. While I’ll have my cake and presents too (when offered) what has become more meaningful to me is creating the space and giving myself permission to turn inwards and ask myself…Well, girl. What next? Then to turn outwards again and see where I feel compelled to wander.

Yesterday I wandered to Christs Church in DC where my college friend, the Revered Cara Spaccarelli, shepherds her Episcopal Parish through their lives on Capitol Hill. One of the best things about this parish, besides Cara, is the childcare. I can hand off my children to relative strangers and find quiet sanctuary in the sanctuary. (While I may have given myself permission for quiet reflection on my birthday…my twins have yet to be persuaded).

Twin'chaim

As I sat in the pews, prepared to be inspired on this my “double chai day”, I was met not with happiness but with…struggle.

First reading: Job chastised by God out of a whirlwind.

Second reading: supplication, loud cries, and tears.

Third reading: “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

Huh. Happy birthday to me?

Cara’s Homily framed the intertwining themes of these passages as:

“We can do hard things.”

So…not your traditional birthday card, Shabbat toast, or Facebook affirmation…but then, that’s not what I find myself needing these days.

Last year was the first year I ran in the Baltimore Running Festival. The second leg of the relay, 7.2 miles, wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it ought to be. This year (and with much less training then I intended) I ran the first leg and then portions of the second and third leg for what amounted to 12ish miles of Baltimore pavement, potholes, and cobble stones.  Not everyone’s ideal birthday weekend, but I think it may become my very own, odd birthday tradition.

L'chaim can do hard things

So hard. So good.

A huge part of what makes this physical endeavor possible, is the throng of friends and strangers toasting you onwards…with silly signs, cowbells, and Gatorade. It is this collective energy that makes such a labor not just possible, but transformative. We can do hard things!

“L’chaim” after all doesn’t promise “happiness” just “life.” And life, for so many, is so much harder than a marathon, so much longer than 12 miles. So hard…but hearty.

I wrote in a previous post I feel myself on the cusp of a wind change…like I’m on the wide expanse of the Midwestern prairie watching a storm roll-in…not with fear and trembling but instead with quiet, gritty determination.

We are strong. The house will stand. Life and love await on the other side.

So, Here’s to a Hearty Birthday, everyone.

L’chaim, l’chaim!