Ramadan Day 26 – Allah in Tennessee

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(Fine Dining with Allah, Sewanee 2014)

That night, before I walk with Billy, before I encounter Bats for the second time, before I listen to the Irish music playing at the pub and go to several readings, I eat by myself while the staff clears the table. Everyone else is already at the reading, which always start around Iftar. Every bite in the company of Allah fills me with such joy that I’m glad to be alone. I don’t feel alone. I don’t feel desperate. I feel as if Love herself has sat next to me and prepared a plate.

*

“Fasting is to be just with yourself and others.” – Tariq Ramadan

*

Have you ever tried writing about your real life? Billy asks.

Billy is unusual looking, colorless eyelashes, and a drawl so deep that I don’t blink as I wait for his story to finish. I’m so grateful to have him entrust his stories to me. He’s from Kentucky. There’s something vulnerable about him. He cares about the words he’s letting out.

I don’t tell him that I’m writing this journal. Or that I’m fasting. But, Yes, I do it all the time, I say. Usually, though, I change the facts, I joke.

There’s this story I want to write, Billy says. I can’t write it because people think it’s so unbelievable. He tells me about his friends – people in that group they’re just together, you know. We’ve been together our whole lives. There’s even one of them steals, and everybody knows it. Nobody says anything either.

Real life can be the darndest thing, I mention to Billy. We write it, and nobody believes it because in stories we’re expected to find meaning. When these things happen in real life, we didn’t create the meaning. We don’t expect it to make sense, so it feels okay to have remarkable coincidences. In a story, the author has to make all the choices.

Yeah, exactly! Billy says. We smile at each other.

I am grateful that Billy slows his gait as we amble along, full of breath and thoughts.

I read what you wrote me today about my story, he says. I really appreciated your comments.

Thank you, Billy, I say. What I’m really thanking him for is the stories he’s sharing about his life. He’s making me think about his South, about how every corner I’ve turned I’ve been met with graciousness, and in a few moments, with appalling rudeness. About how even his close group is friends is filled with dichotomy. How when you get to know someone you can’t feel however you felt before. The extremes are replaced by complexity.

The South fills my heart with its beat. Everything feels closer to the surface here, as if the heart is without skin. It feels as if I’m taking some giant risk by being here and continuing my fast, although in truth, all the staff and the couple people I’ve entrusted with the fact that I’m observing Ramadan, have been nothing short of a gift.

It’s after 8PM, and everybody else has gone to the reading. I’m at the Sewanee Inn eating. The night is full of buzzing and a desperate energy. People at a conference get to a point where they need to make connections. The loneliness is palpable because we come to these places to do exactly that, and also because most writers are lonely.

 

*

I go up to this guy, Bats. My first night here, Bat and another guy locked themselves out and pounded on the glass door at 3AM, startling me, yelling for me to let them in. I didn’t know if they were with the writing conference. I decided to let them in for fear that if I didn’t there would be a bigger scene later. They didn’t introduce themselves after I let them in. They weren’t nice about it. Their biceps were bigger than my head, the result of relentless workouts. The one with his head shaved stared at me, and they stumbled around the lobby area where I was working alone before disappearing down a hallway. I felt frightened by their presences, so foreign to me, but I went back to writing.

My brain sounded a light. I was suspicious, remembering that I’m in Klan territory, and the shaved skull. I’m not sure this is going to turn out okay. The next day, my conference buddy Frenchie hears about the incident. That’s not okay. You need to tell the dorm monitor, she says. Also, it woke me up, all the pounding – it was loud.

“You know,” I say to Bats after sitting in the lobby with him and several others for an hour, “you came in here wasted the other night after you locked yourself out. I’m the one that let you in. I gotta’ say you startled me. Do you remember this?”

“Did I?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“Oh wait. Yeah, I’m so sorry. You can see I’m not that kind of guy. I’ve got to stop drinking like that. I’m usually really nice when I’m drunk. I can only have a couple drinks. Got to check myself. Oh, and yeah, my buddy, his head is shaved, is that why you were startled? Yeah, sorry sorry.” Bats keeps rolling his eyes downward as if he’s trying to look at himself. He can’t see through my eyes, but he is realizing something. We both feel it, and the tension pushes up against us. Bats is scared that I’m judging him.

“What workshop are you in?” I ask him.

Bats is excited to talk about writing, goes over to where he was seated and returns with a book called Corpus Christi about Texas. “Have you read this? It’s one of my favorites.”

Over the next few hours, Bats continued to apologize, and he is sheepishly grinning each time I see him. I feel bad for Bats, but I don’t feel bad that I protected myself. I don’t apologize to Bats because he upset me.

Instead, I accept his apology. I hope Bats and I both feel better about that night. I move on. This is a thing I’m doing that isn’t always easy. It’s still awkward, but maybe now it will be better.

*

Saima couldn’t have known when she sent me one of Tariq Ramadan’s daily videos how much it would mean to me today. I will share it with you because it’s beautiful.

 

*

I hit a wall. Perhaps it’s because Ramadan tips me toward introversion, but I’m exhausted. A lovely young Chinese American poet, one of a scarce handful of people of color at the conference, told me that I looked exhausted. Another poet told me: do you. It’s very white, and sometimes on the two coasts, I’ve forgotten the rest of America.

 

Here, I am learning how small I feel in the face of it, but also how wherever I go, there are always Friends. Nobody knows anything about this country, I realize. Everybody’s worried – even the people who I always think have so much power – they’re wondering if I judge them. They’re wondering if I like them. It’s an odd thought, filled with turbulence.

 

I excused myself from activities in the early evening, and instead I skyped with my Qur’an study group.

Rasta is there, happy to see me, which warms my heart. Farraj is facilitating. We read the Sura of Maryam. Pelé calls her a badass for having a baby alone.  We talk about parents and control.

I nod, but the video chat  is shoddy so it’s an unreceived nod.   Then, Pelé stuns me with what she quotes, discussing this Surah.

“I’m still auditioning for my family’s love. You know, I still hold out this kind of thing where they’ll be nicer if I play along. …Guys, it’s tough. Most of us…you wrestle with your family your whole life. People who don’t, I think that’s like the most blessed resource in the world. Because the rest of us are caught in a dynamic that doesn’t always leave much room for you to be compassionate to yourself.” Junot Díaz

What does this mean to all of you? I ask the crew.

What does it mean to you? Rasta asks me.

I don’t know, I say.

What I don’t say is that I’m worried because I’m compassionate to myself.  I wonder if that’s only happened because I stopped auditioning for my mother’s love. Did I miss the change? I wonder.

I used to go to all the try-out’s, especially if my parents knew about it.

Now I feel afraid to tell Pelé, and Rasta, and Farraj that I’m the most blessed person in the world.

What if I lose that too?

*

I am blessed, I think, as I eat dinner alone.

I am blessed to be here in the South: where I feel totally alone and isolated, where there seems to be no context for my family, the family that would give anything to keep me from harm, the family that can’t stop me from harming myself, where I feel like a minority rather than a person of color, where the only bravery I have is not because of the courage of my friends, but because Allah operates in me when I have neither the energy nor the strength to operate for myself.

Here is where I miss home, because I am not there.

My compassion is infinite suddenly,

I am not stretched, but disappeared

within love.

Here I am with Allah:

 

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Ramadan Day 29 – Is This The End, My Beautiful Friend? | Drunken Whispers

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