It is the eve of Election Day 2016. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will battle it out at the polls tomorrow, and, like much of the world, I am flabbergasted: How did we get to this point?? I want to remember how many of us felt during this season 8 years ago, as we waited to see if we were successful in electing Barack Obama as President of the United States, and even 6 years ago, as we evaluated Obama halfway into his first term as President. I don’t foresee I’ll feel any of the same unbridled excitement tomorrow — just relief or horror, depending on the results. But I want to share the post below, long-buried in my Drafts folder, so that we could remember what hope & happiness felt like.
one. A mother in dress clothes sat cross-legged on the floor of the train this morning, reading a children’s storybook to her young son in a stroller, and every one of us in the front half of that carriage was blatantly eavesdropping.
two. A (homeless?) man was playing the saxophone directly in front of a hotel on Market Street this morning. The hotel manager was exhorting him — politely but pleadingly in a low voice — to move to a different location. The saxophone man looked down, simply shook his head once, and continued his beautiful, haunting music. We passers-by watched, listened, and kept glancing back as we walked by. I felt badly for both of them, two men simply doing their job and trying to get through the day, but I hope the saxophone man is still there in front of the hotel, serenading San Francisco guests and pedestrians.
three. I ducked into Walgreen’s on my way to work with a dying phone battery, and stepped out two minutes later with a micro-USB charger that cost only $5 and is ORANGE. It makes me happy to see the sunshine-y color snaking across my desk.
It’s only 8am, and I think this day is just going to get better, inshaAllah.
My beloved sweepthesunshine.com has been resurrected with upgrades and updates, and, in scrolling back through old posts, I wish I had written more over the last 12 months, if only to have a coherent record of what was quite possibly the most challenging yet rewarding year of my life.
My husband has said often over the past year, “I want you to start updating your blog again.”
“Why?” I tease, “So I can write stories about you and Lemon?”
“No, because I want your life to be about more than just being a mother to Lemon and wife to me.”
At the core of it, last year was about marriage and motherhood, moving and settling into a new home, finishing a Master’s program, unemployment and job-hunting. As 2012 wound down, I found myself grateful for many things: That, close to the end of the year, I accepted the offer of a permanent, full-time position in San Francisco. That, three years after we first met and almost a year into our marriage, my husband and I were no longer in a long-distance relationship — that the distance we hated for so long has now simply become the space our arms need to cross for us to hug one another. That I have managed to survive motherhood (so far) with my heart and my patience still intact, although stronger and sterner now than I have ever known myself to be.
I thought nothing could be harder than job-hunting as if it’s a full-time job, but it turns out parenting is. Now that I look back on it, 2012 seems a blur — I barely remember anything about the wedding, the move, decorating and learning to love this condo, the struggle to get out of bed some mornings when job-hunting seemed like such a futile exercise and a long-distance marriage felt lonely. What remains bright and memorable is deciding to have Lemon, my stepdaughter, come live with me in August of last year, while my husband remained for the time being at his job in Las Vegas, his hometown.
My friends and family were thrilled with this necessary first step towards having me and my little family reunited in one place. The Lovely L Lady said, “I love you being Lemon’s mom.”
And C wrote, “I’d love you if you were my mom/stepmom. She is a lucky girl to have you!” When I admitted that, actually, I had no idea what I was doing, C, being a mother-figure herself, advised me:
“Set firm boundaries, clear expectations, clear negative consequences, so they know what to expect — although try to focus on their positive behavior — and follow through on it.”
It seemed like such a perfect, beautiful, simple summary of good parenting — but so difficult to implement when the time came. Still, in the months that followed, C’s advice provided a roadmap that I tried to follow.
Nearly overnight, I was entrusted with the care of a 9-year-old girl. And not just simple caring, but mothering. Did I overestimate how smooth a process I thought it would be? Possibly. And did I underestimate my patience and abilities? Yes. After all, I am proud of the mother I am, the family we’ve become. I knew Lemon and I would settle into our routines and expectations soon enough, and I didn’t realize that once that initial transition period was over, it would all, mercifully, feel like a blur. Mostly, I remember only the good things now — and because of that, it’s probably a blessing that I didn’t keep a written record of those days.
I taught Lemon to brush her teeth at least twice a day, to make her bed and hang up her bath-towel, to wear deodorant. Dirty clothes were never to be re-worn out of the clothes hamper, a spritz of perfume was not adequate substitute for a shower, and toys had to be cleared away before bedtime. Also: tomatoes were not evil, every food at the dinner table had to be tried at least once before she complained she didn’t like it, she wasn’t allowed to leave the table without finishing whatever was on her plate, and no, Ritz crackers didn’t constitute lunch. (All these things make me laugh now, but imagine the frustration at the time!)
Along the way, I somehow became the designated spider-killer extraordinaire, particularly on weekday mornings when we were all bleary-eyed and cranky, or nights when Lemon pushed her bedtime (“It’s time for you to sleep now, Lemon.” “Meemo, I see A SPIDER behind the door!”) She calls me “Meemo,” a nickname she and my brother-in-law invented together one afternoon based on my middle name.
I also became the post-dinner dessert-maker, the school-lunch maker, and the arts&crafts production assistant (I once sewed, by hand, a tiny backpack for Lemon’s Barbie doll, and, in the wide-eyed gratitude and compliments that followed, I felt like the most rockstar mother in the world).
Only Lemon, in the midst of her doing her homework or chores, could look up and ask very formally, “Meemo, can we put on some entertainment?” Only Lemon, with the sheer exuberance that characterizes her personality, could manage to pull me off the sofa and dancing in the middle of our livingroom — I, who am so convinced of my lack of physical coordination that I avoid the dancefloor at even my friends’ weddings. I thought I was a huge Darren Hayes fan, but that was before I introduced Lemon to his music. We have listened to “Bloodstained Heart” so many times, we have every single lyric and beat of music memorized, and Lemon, future cinematographer, has filmed me singing the song while driving her to school, while eating dinner, and while making peach strudel for dessert.
One of the loveliest moments of our life together was when Lemon accompanied me to a Love, InshAllah reading at my alma mater. Lovely, but surreal. All those years ago (2003!), when I started this blog and wrote incessantly about my life as a college student, never did I think I would return to campus as a wife, a stepmother, and a contributor to an anthology I lovelovelove. Lemon sat in the front row at the reading, beaming at me the entire time, particularly when I stood up to read my excerpt. Afterwards, she tentatively but very adorably asked if she could join us in the book-signing. How could we resist? “You’re awesome!” she wrote in audience-members’ books.
At my best friend’s bridal shower last fall, I had a great conversation about relationships and motherhood with her cousin, a Love, InshAllah fan and almost-contributor — then had to rush home to have Lemon’s mother over to our home for the first time. Debriefing about it later, I realized I would have felt rather awkward in her position — especially with me chattering away obliviously, “Here’s Lemon’s room and bathroom! And here’s my bedroom and bathroom!”, all the while standing in front of framed photos of me and my husband…not to mention, Lemon interrupting us with a copy of the Love, InshAllah anthology in her hands, excitedly babbling: “Look, Mommy! This is the book I was telling you Meemo wrote!” At the time, it was all strange and disconcerting — yet another surreal moment in the endless string of surreal moments that make up parenting. The next day, and now, I couldn’t help but laugh.
I have zero hang-ups about displaying my own artwork, and so my photographs hang everywhere in our home. Lemon never fails to remind me, “I want to be a photographer, like you!” She herself is naturally creative, as children always are, and so, besides the singing and dancing, we also do a lot of arts&crafts together. Rare is the day when I am not bombarded with questions such as: “Meemo, can you teach me how to draw?” “Meemo, how do you fold accordion-style?” “Meemo, can you help me glue the roof on a gingerbread house for my dolls?” Today, she made me a list of items she needs for replenishing her stash of art supplies:
– wooden dowels
– pipe cleaners
Autumn came late to the San Francisco Bay Area last year, and so we hung suspended in a deliciously prolonged summer for months. Lemon and I spent much of September and October at the pool and hot tub across from our condo, where I watched her practice her swimming. One Saturday morning, a lady named Dottie was there with her little grandson. We pulled our lounge-chairs closer and got to talking, and Dottie told me about her sister, who, long ago married a man with two young children from a previous marriage. They all fell in love, the kids adored her, a third child was added to their little family, and then Dottie’s sister, only 30 years old, suddenly passed away a year after her baby’s birth. “She had such a big heart,” Dottie reminisced.
She looked at me and said gently, “You have a big heart, too. Your daughter is going to remember all this.” I almost burst into tears at the side of the pool, all the while watching Lemon happily waving at me, the sunlight reflecting off her smile. Those were still the early days of parenting, when I wondered if I were in over my head. I hoped to God that Dottie was right.
In those days, my husband said often to me, “I hope motherhood has some joys in it, too, for you. I hope it doesn’t take away from who you are.”
I could never think of anything to say in response.
Once, he pointed out gently, “You’re different now — not in a bad way, but just different. Before, all you talked about was gelato and highfives and rockstars.” I found myself blinking back tears. I missed who I had been, even as I was simultaneously proud of who I had become. There were a lot of tears, frustration, a lingering sadness I carried around with me during those first few months of being a hands-on parent and constant rule-maker and enforcer. But then friends would say, “You’re doing a great job,” and the weight would lift, briefly.
Even Lemon’s mother and aunt said to me, “You have a good heart, and you’re doing a wonderful job with Lemon.” Her mother has said repeatedly, “Thank you for taking care of her. I’ve got nothing but prayers for you.” In my first week of parenting, as I marched forward armed with lists and schedules and intentions (even as I had no idea what I was doing), Lemon’s mother marveled, “You’re doing great, as if you are a mother already!” I am truly happy to have her trust and support in this process of raising Lemon.
One of the most favorite traditions Lemon and I instituted last year was to read together at bedtime. When I was a child, one of my favorite books was called Sarah, Plain and Tall, about a woman who comes from Maine to the Midwest as a mail-order bride for a widower with two young children. One night, Lemon insisted on switching our roles and reading out loud to me at bedtime — and the book she chose was called Skylark, the sequel to Sarah, Plain and Tall. (Did you know there’s a sequel?! I didn’t!)
I told Lemon she could only read 2 pages, as it was already past her bedtime — but it was so lovely listening to her, I let her read for 20 pages more. The story moved me, because of the obvious parallels to my own: stepparenting and blended families; a woman from a place of greenery and ocean; a man from a dry, dusty, drought-riddled land.
When she finished reading, Lemon put her book away, and said, “Meemo, when my dad asked me, ‘What do you think if Meemo marries me?’, I should have said something different.” (Her real answer: “You belong together.” Yes, really.)
“What would you have said instead?” I asked curiously.
“I should have said, ‘You should get married because you have the same name: Yas/Yas, you’re the same age, and you’re beautiful together, like –’ ” she paused thoughtfully. “‘LIKE SHAMPOO AND CONDITIONER!’ ”
Needless to say, the laughter went on far past her bedtime.
In November, my husband moved to the Bay Area to join me and Lemon, and we all eased into a shared life together. It felt like a long, calming exhale. Lemon was sweeter, kinder — the Lemon I knew when I was getting to know her father. I was lighter, gentler, more full of laughter. Being together as a family brought out the best in all of us.
Lemon is now 10-years-old, and already five feet tall (just an inch shorter than I am!). She knows far too much about pop culture and social media. Next year, she starts middle school, a thought which completely freaks me out. In the meantime, as 2013 continues to unfold at seemingly supersonic speed, I pray my little family and I settle even more deeply into the foundation we’ve laid the last few years. I am not a perfect mother, and I know no one expects me to be — but with Lemon I am sometimes impatient, often stern, and I always have high (too high?) expectations. And so, I pray for more joy and gratitude, more singing while cooking and driving, more spontaneous (and wholly terrible) dancing on the livingroom floor.
It is a testament to how perfect my husband is for me that one night last winter, during a rare moment when I broke down and cried through the insecurities I felt as a stepmother, he quietly went out to the living room and returned holding a copy of Fahrenheit 451 by my favorite writer, Ray Bradbury. He flipped through the pages until he found the passage he wanted, then read out loud to me this reminder of my tiny victories and long-lasting accomplishments as, no, not a stepmother, but a mother:
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
Besides the beautiful, endless support of my family and friends (those who are childless, as well as the few who are parents and stepparents themselves), I have been lucky to find inspiration and companionship in a few pieces of writing I’ve stumbled across during the past year:
I found this post languishing in my Drafts folder, dated nearly 2 years ago. You all seemed to enjoy my previous post on Open Letters to My Fellow Commuters so much, I thought I would post something similar again, this time open letters to a series of people I’ve encountered or appreciated.
Dear Butcher at Indus Market on San Pablo Ave., Berkeley:
Remember me? I’m the girl who wandered in a minute before closing, on the Friday evening before a long weekend, and announced, “I need ten pounds of ground beef and ten pounds of chicken breast, in two-pound bags, please.” Thank you for being so patient about my order, even though I have no doubt that in your head you were relegating me to a special place in hell. Thank you for also being sweet enough to carry all twenty pounds of meat to the front counter for me, so I could pay there. I’m stubborn enough to have insisted on picking up the bags and lugging them around myself — but the meat counter was too tall and I couldn’t reach them. Please consider installing a pulley or something for short people like me.
Dear Gil Scott-Heron:
Stop snorting cocaine and getting arrested, and please go back to making beautiful, hard-hitting music.
Note: Soon after I initially jotted down this note, Gil Scott-Heron died in May2011 of undisclosed causes.
Dear (would-be) gentlemen:
You don’t have to pull out chairs for me. (Although I’m sure plenty of other women may appreciate this. See, I never know how to gracefully fold myself into a chair pulled out and held by someone else.) But holding doors open is always lovely and highly necessary. And don’t walk in front of me, if we’re hanging out together. I hate that — I don’t care if your legs are freakin’ longer than mine. Also: Tip well. I believe anything less than 20% is completely unacceptable, unless the service was terrible. Finally, when you’re dropping off a woman, stick around just long enough to ensure she enters the building safely, before you drive off. It’s a classy and chivalrous thing to do. Feminism is grand, but that doesn’t mean you should be any less a gentleman. It’s about common courtesy, and basic respect. Keep it up.
Dear man selling handmade earrings on Shattuck Ave., downtown Berkeley:
You’re going to make me broke if I keep spending my bus/train money on your wares, all that beautiful plastic, wood, metal, and string creatively welded by your hands.
Dear little girl:
I think you must have been 7 years old, but I could be wrong. Regardless, on the days when my nose looks too big (or too crooked) for my face, or I’m not as tall as models and mannequins suggest I should be, or my eyebrows are unruly as if prepared for war, I think of how you skipped right up to me one afternoon in my beloved N’s kitchen, stared me in the eye, and exclaimed, “You’re so pretty, mashaAllah!” before skipping away again. Anyone who hopes to win me over with flattery would be hard-pressed to compete with your innocent yet sincerely-delivered compliment. And that’s the thing — you were so sincere, it was clear you told the truth. Years later, I still remember this encounter and believe your words. Thank you — and a thankyou to your parents, too, for raising you so beautifully. You’re so pretty, too — not only on the outside, but on the inside, where it counts.
Dear guys at Copy Central in downtown Berkeley:
You’re the best. Thanks for always dealing with my print orders on such short notice and with such rocking quality — this goes both for my professional projects as well as personal ones such as wedding invitations — and for having the most amazing turnaround time in the whole Bay Area. And for shouting out my name whenever I enter your shop.
Dear hot chocolate:
Thank you for warming my hands and uncoiling the lump in my throat on too many days to count.
Dear newspaper man at the El Cerrito del Norte BART station:
I have a confession to make: I rarely buy print news anymore — but sometimes I do, just to see you smile. I wonder what your story is, how old you are, how long you’ve been selling newspapers, what the process is for setting up a table directly inside the train station, how early you get there in the mornings. At an age where it seems you should be relaxing at home and playing with your grandchildren, you’re instead selling papers. Some mornings, you look awfully tired, and the lines on your face are more pronounced. But then someone walks by, and you nod in greeting, and flash that amazing smile that lights up your face. Next time, I will ask for your name.
Dear people who think it’s perfectly acceptable to reply with “Yeah” when I say “Thankyou”:
You’re rude. Also: Stop it.
I still remember that when I pointed out that your email about scheduled maintenance/system downtime referenced October rather than November, you took my corrections graciously. Thankyou for immediately sending out a corrected email to the masses, and a separate note to me that read:
We’re really sorry. We proofread it internally, and even had a 3rd party proofread it. Clearly we need a better proofreading plan.
Or a time machine.
We realize that for an error like that to occur on an email describing a major change perhaps isn’t confidence-inspiring, but please rest assured that this migration is expected to go smoothly.
I love that there are real-deal humans (with a sense of humor, no less!) behind all the technology and machinery. You have rocking good customer service.
Dear people who rush from the platform into the train before those who need to exit can do so:
Stop it. You clearly don’t know proper public-transport etiquette. Also: You must be related to those who don’t understand the concept of “stand right, walk left” on escalators.
Dear people at Au Coquelet:
There are only four electrical outlets, and they’re placed in such a way that only the lucky four of you who snag those tables can access them. I tried sitting five feet away and plugging my MacBook cord into one of your open outlets once, and everyone in the vicinity gave me a dirty look because they feared someone walking by would trip over my cord (rightfully so). So I good-naturedly unplugged my cord, and retreated back to my only-half-charged laptop, deciding I was okay with this.
What I was not okay with was looking up several minutes later to realize that you — yes, you, one of those who sit at the lucky four tables — was doing nothing more amazingly important than browsing Facebook. I was writing a final paper that, at that point, was 22 pages long. I would have loved an outlet! And you, with your laptop plugged in and charging away, were just clicking through your Facebook minifeed. I frowned and sent black vibes your way, without being too obvious about it, and was relieved when you packed up and left half an hour later. I promptly shifted all my stuff over to your abandoned table, sat down, plugged in my MacBook — and began writing a blog post.
Dear people who answer their phone with “Hello?” as if they don’t know who it is that’s calling:
I know you know it’s I! What’s with this questioning “hello?” I expect personal greetings, dammit! Also: If you don’t leave a voicemail, I will never return your phonecall.
Dear Damien Rice:
I love your songs, and have absolutely no idea what you look like, or what your story is. Thankyou for reminding me that your music — and my appreciation for it — should have nothing to do with your looks. (Although now I’m tempted to Wikipedia you.)
Dear Benicia Public Library:
Thankyou for having comfy couches in front of a fireplace. Could I stay forever, please?
Dear Mills College library:
Thankyou for floor-to-ceiling windows that make me feel like I’m in a forest, and for work-stations that actually make me productive.
Dear Walnut Creek library:
Thankyou for restrooms that smell so delicious, I feel like I’m at a spa.
Dear opera-singing girl standing in front of the downtown Berkeley BART:
You looked relatively well-dressed in your polka-dotted dress and flats — were you a Cal student? I wanted to ask where you got your stylish coat. It was a drizzly afternoon, but the rain didn’t faze you, and you sang beautifully, eyes closed, not even watching the people who stopped for your voice.
As Jane Eyre says, Reader, I married him. Or should I say, I married them? After all, we are three — I, my husband, and our daughter, little Lemon. There is much to write about our marriage, our new home, the life we are settling into together. I will get to all that in due time — after all, even my husband sends me textmessages pleading, “Update your blog!!!!!!” (with multiple exclamation points, no less, the blasphemer).
It’s July now; there are flowers everywhere, and the sun is bright and warm when I go for hikes on the trails outside my front door. Finally, I think — finally, this condo has become home; finally, I am able to walk the hills overlooking the water here without missing the apartment and water-views and marina I left behind in the weeks before the wedding in late January. I haven’t gone far — 25 miles is nothing, distance-wise. But as I wrote three years ago:
The East Bay is not the South Bay is not the North Bay is not the Peninsula is not the City. One can drive for an hour over half a dozen different interstates and highways and still be in the San Francisco Bay Area — and yet not feel at home in one part even while another part is familiar and comforting.
Regardless of its myriad geographies and communities, California as a whole is my favorite, though, and I am lucky to live here, and to not be asked to give this up.
It was a prescient statement, although I didn’t realize it then. When I met my now-husband a year after that post, I was relieved that we both agreed my California would be home. After I moved this past January from the apartment I had shared for almost 1.5 years with my best friend/cousin, Somayya, the only things I regretted were the fact that I was leaving that beautiful place behind, and also that — except for hundreds of photographs on my harddrive — I had neglected to properly document, in writing, my life during the time I lived there. So, this is an attempt to remedy that, and to explain why I found myself in tears during the most inexplicable moments in the weeks leading up to the wedding.
The tears — oh, those were interesting, especially from a woman who hates crying, particularly in front of other people. But there were tears at the post office, in the shower, while packing and loading and moving endless boxes, in my car while driving, and in between phone calls to various wedding vendors. Even as I excitedly looked forward to my wedding, and to the next chapter of this beautiful love story I had helped create and cultivate, I couldn’t help but mourn the apartment I was leaving behind. It took me weeks to understand that it was okay to mourn, and perfectly allowed. This was, after all, just the latest in a series of homes I have loved and left behind, only to eventually, blessedly, find yet another place to love. If I still falter when asked, “Where are you from?”, it’s because I now need both hands to count all the places my hearts expands to hold.
I am falling in love with where I live now (that is a story for another post), but there are things I will always miss about the 1.5 years in the last apartment, starting with the stunning sunset from our balcony, five floors up:
I dreamt the other night that it was the morning of my wedding. In my dreams, I awoke at my beloved forever-home, Casa420, to find that everyone I had ever known and loved was there. My father was out puttering in the backyard, as always, and as everyone else rushed to get ready, I turned to Somayya in bewilderment, “Wasn’t it just yesterday that there were five weeks to go!?” The sunshine and warmth spilled everywhere, and I woke up smiling.
In reality, there are only 16 days until the wedding festivities begin, and 18 days to the actual wedding.
There are a few reasons why I’ve not written about this relationship here before: mainly, I value my privacy dearly, and I much preferred to cradle this relationship gently over the past two years and discuss it only with my core group of friends. Secondly, this is not only my story to tell — it is a shared story of me and him, and also the story of the little 8-year-old girl, his daughter, little “Lemon,” who will also become my daughter as we step forward into this new stage of our lives together.
We think we have a beautiful story. I wrote about it for the anthology, Love, InshAllah, which will be available in two weeks, and I’m honored to have been included in such a groundbreaking and inspiring collection about American Muslim women and their love stories. This morning, I was highlighted in a Q&A on the book’s website.
It amazes and amuses me that connections made through blogging led to me contributing my story to this book. At the “old Zaytuna” one evening several years ago, a woman came up to me to say she liked my pants. I thanked her, and launched into my usual muddled explanation about how I had hated these straight-legged pants from Target and one day decided to sew red fabric along the sides. She smiled and introduced herself. â€œIâ€™m Yasmine,â€ I said in reply.
She peered at my nametag. â€œDo you have a blog?â€
â€œYes, I do!â€
She smiled again, and extended her hand. â€œBaraka.â€
And that is the story of how I first met Ayesha Mattu in person, so many years ago. Early last year, she encouraged me to contribute a piece for the anthology she and co-editor Nura Maznavi had been compiling. Ayesha and Nura have been fully transparent, compassionate, and trustworthy throughout this process, and I am honored to be included with 25 other American Muslim women in this anthology. The stories are diverse, as stories about love and faith tend to be; perhaps not all the stories will resonate with everyone, but each love story is a personal one, just as mine is, and each of us writers has taken a courageous leap of trust in sharing our personal journeys with the rest of the world.
With 18 days to my wedding, I have been overwhelmed with lengthy to-do lists, Excel spreadsheets, and the innumerable details that relate to wedding-planning: clothes, jewelry, food, centerpieces, guest-lists and seating charts, cake-tasting, mehndi, decorations, travel arrangements, photography…
Then I remember that this is not about to-do lists, but about love. This wedding is a culmination of the last two years’ discussions and decisions, and a celebration of a love story that, in all the ways that count, has gone so much more smoothly than either my fiance or I ever anticipated. To-do lists are good reminders, but the most important reminders come from my favorite 8-year-old, Lemon, who sends me textmessages from her father’s phone:
“My dad told me you are stressed out. I hope you are not stressed out. I miss you so much. I can help you with the wedding plans. I will be your assistant. You will be in charge of everything. Don’t worry, I am here. I will be right next to you.”
She is quick to remind me that WE are getting married; she calls it OUR wedding. We are three in this love story, and, as the days wind down towards the 27th and 29th of January, I can only smile as I leap into the new story we are creating together.
The framed print shown in the photograph at the top of this post (“God was the first to attend to my story“) is by the talented Nadia Janjua. As soon as I saw it, I felt it described my relationship perfectly. Visit Nadia’s Etsy shop for this print and other beautiful art.
This is a story about the afternoon I went to Target. And no, it is not about how I walked in to return a few items and buy some placemats and a pack of nails to hammer into the walls for my latest creative project, and somehow, inexplicably, walked out with $130 worth of purchases. Instead, it is a story about what I was wearing.
It was a rainy afternoon, so this is what I was wearing: a dress, a coat, pants rolled above my ankles (I am short, most of my pants are too-long, and I am constantly, accidentally walking into puddles), and — instead of my usual headwrap — a beanie smushed over my hair, with my bangs brushed to the side. Inside Target, as I picked up the items on my mental shopping-list, got sidetracked by yet more items, and zig-zagged my way across the store, I ran into half-a-dozen different Muslim women wearing headscarves. “Wow, there are a lot of hijabis in this city!” I exclaimed inwardly in surprise. Outwardly, I smiled brightly and exclaimed, “Assalamu alaikum [Peace be upon you]!”
And every single woman, without fail, replied very quietly and with a guarded expression, “Wa alaikum assalam [And upon you be peace].”
What surprised me was not the fact that the women didn’t guess on their own that I am Muslim. That’s understandable, given that we often use visual aids as a way of categorizing people, and so a woman like me, who was not wearing an obvious form of hijab, would not have automatically been recognized as Muslim. Rather, what surprised me was: 1. The confusion on each and every single woman’s face when I said, “Assalamu alaikum” (Why? Do they think only hijabis are “Muslim enough” to say salaam?), and 2. The lack of smiles in response to mine (Am I scary? Do they consider it a personal affront that I wasn’t wearing “proper” hijab that day yet deigned to say salaam? Are people in my city simply unhappy people who hate smiling?).
I gave the first few women the benefit of the doubt: Maybe they were disgruntled about the cold and rainy weather, perhaps they were sick, maybe they were preoccupied with their children, perhaps they’d had a terrible day. Maybe no one wants to see a happy, smiling girl on a crappy day when you want to stab everyone; it just makes you crankier. I tried not to overthink the whole thing too much — I didn’t want to feel defensive, blow things out of proportion, or over-analyze something that was possibly just a trivial, mundane interaction. But by the end of my Target shopping experience, when I’d run into no less than seven different hijab-wearing Muslimahs in various parts of the store, ranging from the makeup aisle to the office supplies to the home decor to the checkout line, I found myself rattled by the lack of smiles in response to my cheery, “Assalamu alaikum!”
Months ago, a Muslim woman I know posted the following facebook status, a beautiful little story that I’ve remembered all this time:
“An elderly lady kept smiling at me at Trader Joe’s. Every time we made eye contact, she grinned from ear to ear. Now I understand why the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] said, ‘Even a smile is charity.’ I feel like someone just gave me a million bucks for free.”
Smiles are a classy and dignified form of acknowledgment. There is a simple power inherent in them. A smile doesn’t have to mean, “I recognize that we are the same.” It could simply mean, “I acknowledge that we share this world, and I notice that we have crossed paths today for this millisecond, even thought we don’t know each other and may never see each other again.”
Each time I briefly interacted with yet another headscarf-wearing Muslimah who didn’t smile back at me, I walked away extra-conscious of my pants rolled above my ankles, my bangs brushing out from under my hat. They should see me on other days, when I wear sweaters with elbow-length sleeves or roll up my pants to my knees at the beach. Sometimes, when taking the garbage out to the chute at the end of the hallway of my apartment building, I even walk down the hall with my hair completely uncovered. The Target interactions made me feel defensive, even when there was no need to feel so.
In a sociopolitical climate in which many Muslims are wary of possible stereotyping and ignorance and hate from those who are Not Like Us, I have surprisingly found that the least understanding actually comes from my own family and other Muslims: “Why do you wear your scarf that way?” pointedly and repeatedly ask my aunts, and my cousins’ wives, and now even my tiny nieces & nephews. “Why is your neck showing!?” ask others.
“To annoy you,” I’ve come to retort. (It sounds even ruder in Hindko, which affords me brief moments of spiteful satisfaction.)
I tried to pep-talk myself out of hurt and exasperation. Perhaps all the unhappy Muslimahs in my city had chosen to visit Target that day; there must be other, nicer ones around somewhere. Or maybe I was just taking all this too personally, anyway. The lack of smiles didn’t equate to judgment; it just mean they were confused about how to categorize me. We’re human, we categorize people; it’s what we do.
On my way out of Target, I stopped briefly at the indoor coffeeshop to order a hot chocolate. Standing in line in front of me were two children, a boy and girl aged 5-7, along with their father. The little boy wore a bright-blue hearing aid in each ear. I surreptitiously glanced at him a few times as the line moved progressively forward; finally, as the little boy turned towards me, I smiled at him and said, “I like your hearing aids!”
“Thank you,” he mumbled shyly.
“Mine are red!” I said, and lifted my beanie above one of my ears. He smiled a tiny smile and nodded, his sister glanced at me curiously, and the father, in the midst of ordering their drinks, turned and smiled widely at me. That gesture of sharing my own hearing aids would have been nearly impossible on any other day, with my tightly-pinned headwrap usually covering my ears.
And so, on an evening in which the lack of smiles from my fellow Muslimahs felt like a stinging rebuke, I found that my spontaneous act of sharing something I rarely discuss in public, the acknowledgment of that personal condition and experience, and the family’s smile in return acted as a balm, soothing the bruise of non-acknowledgment from those whom I’d expected to feel most relatable to.
Who cares about headscarves and cranky Muslims? If I can get a smile out of a little boy over the fact that our collective ears all run on Duracell batteries, that’s good enough for me.
Once home, mulling all this over in my head, I realized this was not a story about what I was wearing (then again, perhaps it was, but I choose not to classify it as such). Rather, this was a story about open-heartedness. I remembered something I always try to live by: Other people have a choice in what they wear at home and when they go out into the world — their solemnity, their joy, their judgment, their truth, their sneers, their laughter, their lack of smiles. I can’t force people to smile, if they don’t at all feel inclined to do so (and, let’s face it, I have little patience for coaxing them).
But I, too, have a choice — to bring my heart in full force, wherever I may go.
Even if it’s just to Target, for a pack of nails.
The man sitting at the table next to mine in the coffeeshop this morning left his fancy-looking sunglasses on the table as he was leaving. I glanced over and noticed them just as the shop door was closing behind his retreating figure—and just as casually glanced away, making no move to scoop them up and run after him with an “Excuse me! You forgot these!”
Luckily, he re-entered the coffeeshop just two seconds later, his glance falling unerringly on the table at which he’d been sitting. “Oh, you left your sunglasses!” I said, feigning surprise, and he smiled back at me sheepishly. But when he left again, my polite smile transitioned into the frown my father hates so much because it creates deep grooves between my eyebrows. “Your face is going to get stuck that way,” he always warns me.
These days, I fear what I’m really going to get stuck in is the emotional rut of stress and anxiety that’s plagued me for the past few weeks. My sleep is short and continuously interrupted, and I have cultivated a newfound reliance on the hated coffee to get me through the days, the caffeine making me feel only more anxious and jittery. My to-do list keeps lengthening, with no end in sight; for every item I manage to cross off, I seem to add five more. But what worries me most is mornings like these, when rather than rushing to help a stranger in something so simple, something that would require little effort on my part, I instead selfishly look away.
This is not who I am, nor whom I wish to become.
Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.
– from “Prayer,” by Carol Ann Duffy
In mid-July, home for the weekend at my parents’, I spent an entire Sunday helping my mother re-upholster our dining chairs. She regaled me with stories as we worked together, but her efforts at entertainment still didn’t make it the smoothest or lightest of projects. There were moments during the re-upholstering when I grew impatient at her stubbornness to fix things that couldn’t be fixed; moments when I was annoyed at the time-consuming task of ensuring the corners of each piece of fabric were perfectly folded without creases; moments I snapped at my mother and then was upset with myself.
By the end of the day, my hand was so sore from wielding the staple gun that I could barely fold my fingers into a fist. “Show me your hand,” said my mother, reaching out with hers. She took my hand into hers, pressed it lightly, and — since she’s been suffering from some minor health problems lately — I thought she was about to make me note yet again how hot or dry or arthritic her hands were in comparison to mine. Instead, she unexpected brought my hand closer and pressed a kiss into the center of my palm. “Make sure you rub lotion on it tonight,” she said, “and take some Tylenol.”
In the weeks that followed, long after the soreness had faded, my fingertips remained chapped and peeling. My nails were chipped, and my skin was rough to the touch. My ummy’s simple, tender gesture made me think more deeply of hands, and how easily I take them for granted. Just as for many other families, hands are the touchstone of my family’s heritage, used for the holy triumvirate of food, work, and prayer. I am most reminded of this during Ramadan.
Munching on deliciously cold cubes and slices of fresh fruit during our pre-dawn suhoor meal the other morning, my father told the story of how, as a child, he was accustomed to eating roti, Pakistani flatbread, wrapped around pieces of cantaloupe and melon. And some days, the bread served as wrapper for slices of raw onions instead. For those who were poor, onions were an inexpensive substitute for a full-fledged meal. His mother used to say, “Pyaaz ey tha niyaaz ey” — onions are an offering from God, a blessing, and worthy of gratitude. With her hands, she prepared special meals for my father, her only child — makkai ni roti thay saron na saag (cornbread with mustard greens), parathhay dripping with oil instead of butter, because they couldn’t afford real butter (ironic, because they owned cows and sold milk and butter, but needed the money too much to keep any of the dairy products for themselves). I think of my patient, self-sacrificing grandfather, whose work-hardened hands toiled in the family fields every day, working alone because my grandmother insisted that their son, my father, attend school and become educated rather than being relegated to a lifetime of harsh physical labor.
My mother’s stories, too, are about hands: her mother, a seamstress for the entire neighborhood; her brother, who hauled rocks in a tile factory until his hands were raw and bloody; her father, who drove horse-carts and then, blind in his old age, must have had to acclimate himself to knowing things by touch rather than sight in his last years.
The morning of my father’s onion stories, I stood with both my parents for the post-suhoor prayer of intention for the coming day’s fast. We huddled together, hands cupped closely so that each touched the other’s hands, loudly reciting the du’a: “Wa bisawmi ghadinn nawaiytu min shahri Ramadan: I intend to keep the fast today in the month of Ramadan.” I was reminded of my childhood, when my siblings and I would join our hands together and then pile our hands over our dadâ€™s, much like those Russian dolls, one stacked inside the other, big to small, culminating in the tiniest one inside. A pile of hands, joined in du’a.
One of my earliest memories is of the 3 of us reciting duâ€™a with our father; I remember looking down at our hands and marveling how like a bowl each pair of hands seemed. Then I looked up and asked, “Daddy, why do we make our hands like bowls when we do du’a?” He opened his mouth to reply but, before he could speak, I answered my own question with childish eagerness, “Oh! I know! Itâ€™s so when Allah sends us blessings, they fly right down into the bowl so we can catch them easily and not lose them!” I donâ€™t remember my fatherâ€™s reply — he probably laughed and agreed with my explanation. But even now, every time I join my hands together in supplication, I still recall the excitement with which I processed that childhood epiphany: hands as bowls, fashioned to receive blessings from God.
One of my favorite lines of writing about hands and prayers comes from G. Willow Wilson’s essay for the New York Times, “Engagement in Cairo”:
“Itâ€™s a strange feeling, praying into your hands, filling the air between them with words. We think of divinity as something infinitely big, but it is also infinitely small â€” the condensation of your breath on your palms, the ridges in your fingertips, the warm space between your shoulder and the shoulder next to you.”
I think of all the hands I know: My father, who cradles geraniums and endlessly waters his vegetable garden, and asks for my help in creating constellations of criss-crossing strings to support the bougainvillea vines outside our front door. My sister, who uses paint to create masterpieces that spill warmth and vibrance into every home. My brother, who gestures widely and theatrically, whether on the stage or at the dinner table. My brother-in-law and my mother, who chop ingredients and mix spices and remove lids from pots to smell the fragrance of home-cooked food that fills our hearts as well as our stomachs. My friends, who hold and nurture babies, perform research experiments, highfive me, diagnose and soothe patients, hold me close on the rare occasions I cry.
And my hands? I’m not quite sure yet what they do. They write a lot (although not as often as they should) in precise, swooping (sometime angular and stabby) lines. They have taken photographs that I frame and proudly display on my walls. They type fast, and insist on correcting spelling mistakes that others would gloss over. They carry the to-do lists I scribble on my skin with permanent markers, and just recently made strawberry shortcake from scratch for the very first time. They know how to wield a staple gun, and caulk cracks in the walls, and hang paintings with the symmetrical, measurements-obsessed accuracy I inherited from my father. On the eve of my sister’s wedding, nearly two years ago, my hands helped hers in hemming silky Pakistani outfits by hand, when the sewing machine stopped working. I knew even then that that would be the sort of moment I would remember forever, once the hustle and bustle of wedding ceremonies and receptions had died down: our eyes tired, our hearts a little aggravated at this inconvenience, but our hands focused on carefully stitching wedding outfits in the middle of the night.
Y laughed at me last summer, “I’ve never seen a human being so intrigued by their own knuckles!” (This may or may not have been after I threatened to stab him with my sharp knuckles.) Actually, I’m most intrigued by my hands as a whole. They are, after all, the same hands that rested on my knees during prayers when I lived in Pakistan. So many things have changed about me in the seventeen years since, but my hands have remained the same: brown skin; raised, blue veins; short nails; light scars; and well, yes, sharp, bony knuckles. Every single time I look upon my hands in prayer, my mind rushes back to those prayers during hot summer afternoons and lantern-lit nights in the village. It comforts me to know they are still the same hands — if I could pray that way then, I still have it within me to pray like that now.
More than anything else, I associate my hands with prayer — which makes it all the more frustrating when I fall short in reaching out to and communicating with God. My prayers are both inward meditations and verbal invocations, often brief and spontaneous. But while I’ve been good about praying for others, I generally shy away from praying for myself. My hands, like the rest of me, are proud and strong and independent. I hate asking for assistance, whether carrying boxes up multiple flights of stairs or lugging groceries in from the car or asking God for favors.
So, while I try to keep God at the center of most of my actions and decisions, and while I like to think I am good at prayers thanking Him for all the blessings I have, I find myself lacking in other types of prayers, namely, those asking for help. Perhaps I over-think it (am I too arrogant, in believing it’s not necessary to ask because God will grant me what I wish for, anyway? Or am I too humble, in feeling I’m not worthy of making requests?). Perhaps I forget that God loves being asked for help, and that I should be humble enough to ask more often. I read somewhere once that Mahatma Gandhi had said prayer is a longing of the soul, a daily admission of one’s weakness. This is something I need to remember.
In these few remaining and most blessed days of Ramadan, I intend to use my hands for asking more for myself.
When He gives, He shows you His kindness; when He deprives, He shows you His power. And in all that, He is making Himself known to you and coming to you with His gentleness. […] When he loosens your tongue with a request, then know that He wants to give you something.
– from “The Hikam” by Ibn Ata’illah
Today is my 30th birthday. On this wonderfully sunny day that I’m enveloped in gratitude for the life I live, I’m most grateful for those who most helped shape me into the woman I am today — my parents. As I celebrate my birth and my blessings, I remind myself to celebrate my parents first and foremost, for starting it all. Below is something I wrote for their 35th wedding anniversary last year, and never posted.
An Open Love Letter to My Parents, on My 30th Birthday
(Originally written for their 35th wedding anniversary on 10 June 2010)