Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Eid Mubarak

It is Eid, alhamdulila!  For the first time in my five years as a Muslim, I did not wish the holiday to come too quickly - I really enjoyed Ramadan, fasting, reading, writing, and my fellowship with many of you.  I am so blessed this year, and I am very thankful to God and my Muslim community.  In most years, I suppose I would be very down about my present circumstances, but not this year.  I have been refocused on my blessings, and they are many!
It may sound suspicious and strange, but I have really made some great strides these past thirty days, maybe even some life changes. I move through my days as a Muslim man now, not only thinking about my conduct, but enjoying the feeling I have as I treat myself and others with respect. I don't feel self-righteous, nor do I compare myself with others - I simply feel good in my own skin for the first time in my life.  I don't feel the need to boast about my new condition, but I do enjoy the few discussions I have with others who are genuinely interested in my faith.  
This Eid is so much more than the culmination of a holy month for me this year. It is the turning point of my life - there have been so many transitions lately, and my faith has brought things together for me.  I am no longer chasing anything, nor am I running from anything else.  I will be happy and grateful no matter where I am, and I pray that Allah keeps or puts me into the right environment to capitalize on my talents and passions.  I can make a difference anywhere, and I will with His grace.
I am smiling now, knowing how slow I am sometimes.  I am thinking about the happiness in my heart, and how so many Muslims have know this for their lifetimes, how every Eid is so profound and joyous, and how I can look forward to such things for the rest of my life.  Now that I have the same things in my heart, I can't wait for Ramadan next year, can't wait to share this with my Muslim brothers and sisters!

Monday, August 29, 2011

My Speech

*Thanks for all the suggestions for my speech to 400 high school kids - I thought about your input and I came up with the following speech. It was very well received, I even heard the chair of the school board got choked up :)

Good morning, my name is Michael and I am in the business of dreams.  But before I talk to you about dreams and schemes and other things, I need to tell you how weird this all feels right now!  It seems like just two weeks ago I was sitting somewhere in this school listening to some old fart, I mean gentleman who was three times my age talk to me about careers and dreams, really it was thirty five years ago -so I know how you are looking at me right now.  But I need to tell you we are connected, more so than this fifty feet and thirty-five years - you and I have a lot in common, and I am told I have six to eight minutes to connect those dots to for you, and to talk a little bit about dreams. When I talk about my dreams, it is important that you know that they are no better or worse than the dreams of others - but they are perfect for me. I also need to tell you that I may not be the best role model for you, or at least that you may not want to do go about things in the same manner as did I.
Let me start in the present - I am living my dreams.  I am living them because I never caught them.  My typical year finds me working for nine months with students who are struggling when they come to college.  Their dreams lie on the other side of this experience, so it is so important to support them.  One month of my year is spent going to conferences, doing presentations, and networking with my peers to stay abreast of my field.  I then spend two months in the Middle East, working with teachers from refugee camps all over the area.  This last March I was in Jordan, and I will be in Syria this coming January.  It is a wonderful way to spend a year.  I know this might sound like the dreams of an old guy, but I love chasing them.  I haven't always been able to chase my dreams, as a matter of fact, I didn't always have them - I had to move here to Garrett before I would discover dreams.
I moved to Garrett during my sophomore year - prior to that I had attended fifteen other schools.  No, I wasn't a military brat, my family had issues, lots of serious issues.  So when I showed up for school here for the first time, I wasn't here to learn, have fun, behave, misbehave - I just wanted out of that house.  A few years ago, I came back to visit and drove by the old house.  As I drove by, I thought to myself, "that is a nice looking house."  Then driving down the street, I noticed a lot of other nice looking houses and I wondered how many of them held terrible secrets.  I suspect maybe some of you know, but I pray that you do not.
Back at school, I realized I could stay out of the house longer if I played sports, joined clubs, and worked a job or two - I was literally gone fifteen hours a day. Some nice things started to happen though, some very nice things.  Although I did nothing in my classes, my teachers were very kind and patient with me, more so than I deserved.  The students were wonderful, and I made many great friends.  I was welcomed unconditionally, and I began to feel normal for the first time in my life.  I learned how to help others as the clubs introduced me to community service, that lit a fire that is still burning within me. I learned that there were people with worse problems, and that I could help. It was a great feeling.
After a year, I began to develop a dream - we had already been in Garrett longer than any other place, and I began to dream that I could finish school and graduate here.  It was a small dream, but it was mine and it was important to me. By the fall of my senior year, I had begun to take the dream for granted, I really thought I would make it until the evening my father pulled up with a U-Haul trailer and moved us to Oklahoma over night.
It happened so quickly, I didn't have time to react.  I was enrolled in a school a few day later, and I found a job washing dishes at a local restaurant.  I stayed for a month, saved every penny and then hitch-hiked back to Indiana - remember, I may not be the best role model!
When I got back here, the Bartels signed a legal document which was very gracious and probably very foolish.  I finished the year, and barely made it to graduation.  I was 121/125 (remember,I may not be your best role model) and I was relieved that I wouldn't be last in my class - however, the other four didn't show up, I think they ran off to join the circus. I was now faced with my first decision - what to do after high school.  I had a good offer for a job as an apprentice plumber, and I also had a new dream.  I dreamt of playing football in college - I was new at this dream thing, but not too realistic.
So off I went to college and to football.  When I got there, I was shocked to know that I had to have a major other than football.  My advisor shook his head sadly and said "no son, you cannot major in football."  He then asked me what I wanted to study, and I replied "coaching."  Again, I got a sardonic smile, then he looked at me and said "you will be a high school history teacher."  I said ok, and my career was decided as quickly as that.  Well the football dream didn't last too long, but I learned my first great lessons about dreams - they can shift.  I shifted my dream to coaching, and went after it with a lot of energy.  I took a class in coaching, and when the opportunity presented itself, accepted a volunteer coaching position at a local high school.  It felt great to be chasing down my dream.
While I was working on my coaching dream, I started to be involved with the teaching aspect of my major.  The college started a new program where first year education students could volunteer in classrooms, and I signed up.  When they started a teachers club soon after, I joined that too.  I became more and more interested in the teaching, to the point that when I got to my senior year six years later (did you do the math there?  Remember, I may not be your best role model!), I had forgotten about coaching and was really into teaching.  My dream had shifted again, and it was about to slide a bit further.
During my senior year, I had met many international students, and I attended their functions and learned about their countries.  I also learned about the terrible amount of suffering around the world, and the limited resources so many people had. A new fire had been lit.  When graduation came, I had the choice between a safe teaching job here, or the option of taking off and helping the world - I went to Jamaica with the United States Peace Corps.   I got a job working in an orphanage teaching a group of young boys all subjects.  In the evening, I taught adults to read and write. It was a beautiful two years, and very humbling as I learned more about dreams. Most of the boys dreamt of living in a house and maybe being hugged.  One of my adult literacy students dreamt of being able to pick out a greeting card for his wife after twenty years.  Very humbling indeed!
When I finished my two years, my desire to work overseas was still burning bright, and I chose to go to work in Yemen.  I was assigned to work in a small village in the mountains teaching English.  But while in training, I heard about a volunteer building a school in a refugee camp for Eritreans, victims of the thirty-five year old civil war in Ethiopia.  I asked to be assigned there, and was told no, that the conditions were too harsh there and that the Ministry of Education would not allow it.  With some support, I fought with my administration and with the ministry, and eventually was assigned to the village near the refugee camp - my reward was living in a dry, dusty camp with no running water or electricity in one of the hottest places on earth - I loved it.
I helped the other volunteer finish the school, were I then taught the children of the camp ESL lessons for the next two years, and their mothers health care lessons at night.  There were dreams in that place too: The kids dreamt that they one day be allowed to return home, and on the slim chance for a future education, they hounded me to teach them as much English as possible - their mothers dreamt that the kids would survive the camp, many did not.  I learned so much about integrity there, saw so many beautiful, horrible, wonderful, and terrible things. I did not leave the same person.  I went on years later to work in other places, Tanzania, Palestine, Jordan, and London, and I never lost my love for working overseas.
Leaving Yemen, I knew I needed to go home and establish a base.  I needed to continue my education, start a family, and to begin serving people in my own country. I came back and stumbled on Developmental Education, that field that helped students make the transition to college work. As I took courses, I volunteered to teach classes to other graduate students, and I went on to make conference presentations and to do research with my professors.  I took any opportunity that came my way.  Within ten years, I had worked with many of the influential people in my field, and I had developed a good reputation for myself.  Along the way, I helped thousands of student with their dreams, and I even managed to raise two beautiful and intelligent daughters (gifts from their mom), one who is on stage with us now - my daughter Sindi.
Ten years ago, a wonderful thing happened - my two careers, international work and college work here, came together. I had developed enough flexibility to do both, creating the schedule I explained to you earlier.  So here I am, thirty five years later, full circle back at Garrett High School!
I am still chasing my dreams - you may remember me telling you I was in Jordan in the spring where I met a young woman (ony a few years older than many of you) whose dream it was to improve the education system in Syria, a very troubled and dangerous place these days.  She talked to me while I was there, and I think I am going to travel to Syria this winter to help her. I am still chasing my dreams, and sometimes, those of others.
Before I wrap up with a few challenges, I would like the members of the football team to stand up - I need to tell you guys that the last time I played against Dekalb, we beat them and I had two sacks! (it turned out that that was truly the last time they had beaten this arch rival - thirty five years before). I am challenging you to beat them tonight, I will be watching you!
Just a few more words - Remember, you are from the greatest place on earth!  This community will support you no matter what - you may stay here to chase your dreams, you may chase them elsewhere and return here, or you may leave but this place will never abandon you, I am living proof of that.  So, will you be the one who has the courage to chase your dreams?  Will you be the one to have the wisdom not to catch them too quickly, to be flexible, to follow them maybe, to seize every opportunity that arises on the way?  And if you are very blessed, will you be the one who chases a dream that overlaps with those of others?  I hope so.  I wish you a bold and adventurous future.  Thank you.

Ramadan Night 30

Say: I seek refuge
With the Lord
And cherisher of mankind,
The king (or ruler)
Of mankind,
From the mischief
Of the whisperer
(Of evil), who withdraws
(After his whisper),
(The same) who whispers
Into the hearts of mankind,
Among jinns
And among men.
S.114 A.1-6

This is the last sura of the Koran.  I like the first two lines, "I seek refuge with the Lord."  This has been such a marvelous experience, reading and writing each day of Ramadan.  I am also very excited for Eid, and hope to take a bit of time off of work.  I have emerged from this month with a clear conscience, a lighter heart, and a more encourage outlook for my future.  I know what I want to work on personally, professionally, and spiritually - and I have received a lot of support.
For the first time, I feel I am becoming a Muslim first, and American male second.  This has been very comforting to me.  And instead of alienating me from my culture, things have become less and less confusing, and I find I am not distracted by as much around me as I once was.  I look forward to praying and reading my Koran, and my nights are fare more peaceful.  I would like to thank all of you who have commented on the posts and who have supported me in other ways.  This month has been life-changing in many ways, and I am so grateful.
Thank you all once again, alhamdulilah.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ramadan Night 29

Say: I seek refuge
With the Lord of the dawn,
From the mischief
Of created things;
From the mischief
Of darkness as it overspreads;
From the mischief
Of those who practise
Secret Arts:
And from the mischief
Of the envious one
As he practises envy.
S.113 A.1-5

I have discussed my need to improve my thoughts and behaviors in great detail this Ramadan, and I have talked about how to deal with friends and peers who aren't always positive - it is time to think about moving away from certain people, certain mentalities. It is not natural for me to think this way, probably because I have worked and affiliated with so many different kinds of people in my life, and to avoid a particular group might seem stand-offish.  But I think I am ready to change my environment and the people within it. 
I don't want to be tolerant to intolerant people anymore.  I don't want to overlook negative comments about my faith in order to be broadminded.  And I don't want to be with people who don't want the world around them to be a better place.  I am gonna change my company.
I am longing to get back to the Third World permanently, and I will make that happen in the near future.  Being recognized this weekend my my hometown for humanitarianism was not the capstone to my career, it was the beginning of an even more passionate one.  I am gonna change my environment too.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ramadan Night 28

Say: He is God
The One and Only;
God, the Eternal, Absolute;
He begetteth not,
Nor is He begotten;
And there is none
Like unto Him.
S.112 A.1-4

I have a tendancy to intellectualize God, to think very logically and systematically. I look for the sense (and find it) in His word and his guidance. I am still learning how to embrace God however. This is a an issue in my ongoing efforts to open myself up. I have accepted an almighty God, a merciful God, a forgiving God, now it is time for me to meet a loving God.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Ramadan Night 27

His wife shall carry
The (crackling) wood
As fuel!
A twisted rope
Of a plam-leaf fibre
Round her (own) neck!
S.111 A.4-5

I shudder to think what the manifestations for our negative and destructive thought and actions will look like when we are finally judged! This is a very vivid metaphor that I think captures the essence of a life spent in spite and misery - "A twisted rope of a palm-leaf fiber round her (own) neck." I don't know what my soul's adornment will look like, but I do know if I died to day, it would not be unlike a twisted rope. I feel what I have been carrying these years and I don't like it. I want to discard it and replace it with something beautiful. Not just to gain access to heaven, but to have a better feeling now and the rest of my life, a peace of mind. I will think about this twisted rope, each time I am tempted to gossip, be negative, shirk a duty, or hurt someone. I will think about this rope.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What in the World Will I Say Tomorrow?

In about twelve hours, I will have to face down four hundred high school students at my alma mater, and I am supposed to motivate them - yikes! I have made hundreds of presentations, all over the world, but this is only the second I have made exclusively about myself, and I hated the first one (I think I even vowed back then never to do another). If nothing else, I hope to show them that there are many possibilities in their future, and that they can have the courage to chase their dreams.  I don't yet know how I am going to frame it tomorrow, and I hope it comes soon.
I can remember being in that same auditorium thirty five years ago, and I haven't forgotten what it was like then, but I am not sure how to show them thirty five years in eight minutes so that they can connect the dots.  That is the challenge, to connect what they do in the next year or so to their futures.  I have a lot to think about.

On the Road

My daughter, Sindi, and I are off for a long road weekend!  We will leave West Virginia today and drive to Akron, Ohio tonight.  We will then get up at 2am and drive to Garrett, Indiana for my induction into my high school's Hall of Honor:
After a full day of activities, we will return to Akron late at night.  We will then get up early and drive to East Canton, OH to participate in a charity golf event at the Clearview Golf Club, the first golf course owned, designed, built and operated by an African American:
Saturday evening we will return to Akron, and I will sleep in!  Sunday I will leave Sindi in Akron, then return to West Virginia. 
It will be a whirlwind weekend, full of fun and honor.  I will be fasting so that will be interesting, but I am grateful to spend these days with my daughter and friends.  Alhamdulilah.

Ramadan Night 26

When comes the help
Of God, and victory,
And thou does see
The people enter God's religion
In crowds,
Celebrate the praises
Of thy Lord, and pray
For His forgiveness:
For He is oft-returning
(In grace and mercy).
S.110 A.1-3

I started reading the Koran more than three weeks ago, focusing on very specific issues related to my thoughts and actions.  Now, as I am nearing the last suras, I am thinking more broadly, more comfortable to think about larger concepts like heaven and my final judgement.  Reading through the Koran has been a good exercise for me, as it has allowed me to put my spiritual life in perspective.  I have been challenged to look at many things differently, all of them related to my development.  Knowing what I need to do from moment to moment, day to day, year to year has made me far more comfortable and confident.  As I continue to study and pray, the concept of heaven becomes more and more real, and I think about it more.  Years ago, the thought of an afterlife had no appeal to me, now it is becoming a logical motivator for me, a logical extension of my faith.

It's That Time of Night Again

It is late, I have prayed, I have supported a friend who needed me, and I am settling down to be with God. I hear the low hum of the fan, and the rhythmic chirping of fat, contented crickets outside.   The room is cool and my thoughts of the days triumphs and travails are fading fast.  I feel good and warm, and I am waiting for that time between the moment my mind clears completely, and sleep overtakes me - that is the time I will let God have everything. I love the night.
*My friends - the last thing on my mind and on my lips will be a prayer for you.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ramadan Night 25 - The Ninth Entry

Say: O ye
That reject faith!
I worship not that
Which ye worship,
Nor will ye worship
That which I worship.
And I will not worship
That which ye have been
Wont to worship
Nor will ye worship
That which I worship.
S.109 A.1-5

I never know how these suras will effect me, truly.  I found this to be so beautiful, so full of compassion and respect. I would like to have this with me, always, when I hear people talk so definitely about the intolerance of Islam.  Moreover, I longed to hear something like this when I had lost my faith, and needed time to myself to reexamine my beliefs.  I was never given such a gracious dispensation in this culture - I was told I was confused, misguided, even doomed to hell, but I was never told I had the right to be where I was, as long as I did so privately. 
There is a great deal of wisdom in this sura - obviously the word of God is not naturally in all of our hearts, if it was, we would need no prophets or guidance.  We all come to God on our own paths, and those paths are not always direct.  I have mentioned before that I always felt a dignified respect from Muslims before I converted, as I did not malign their faith, or try to force mine upon them.  This is another wonderful example where I find in the Koran the words I have seen written on Muslim hearts.

Ramadan Night 25 - The Eighth Entry

To thee have We
Granted the abundance.
Therefore to thy Lord
Turn in prayer
And sacrifice.
For he who hateth thee,
He will be cut off
(From future hope).
S.108 A.1-3

I have mentioned several times that I am grateful for the goodness God had laid in my heart, but I haven't given Him proper praise for the lack of hatred in my heart also.  I have never harbored hate in my heart for anyone, though there has been resentment and pain.  I also may not forgive as quickly as I should, but I do not hate. I do not wish harm to anyone, at least not longer than an impulse that I shut down harshly a few seconds later.  I have been hated, I think, and I have marvelled at the energy it requires.  Hatred seems so incompatible with everything else I want in my heart - love, forgiveness, charity, and hope. I am blessed I know, and I pray that I never learn the lesson of hatred, knowing I would never put it down if I did. 

Ramadan Night 25 - The Seventh Post

Seest thou one
Who denies the judgement
(To come)?
Then such is the one
Who repulses the orphan,
And encourages not
The feeding of the indigent.
So woe to the worshippers
Who are neglectful
Of their prayers,
Those who (want but)
To be seen,
But refuse (to supply)
(Even) neighbourly needs.
S.107 A.1-7

I have talked about many of these elements, many times.  There is something new here, something very critical to me now - "Those who (want but) to be seen."  This is a new kind of vanity that might tempt me if I am not careful, the vanity of being seen as an "outstanding" Muslim.  I am not being flippant, I am referring to the temptation to profess the right deeds, the right thoughts to be held in higher esteem amongst my peers, my coworkers, the men at the mosque, anyone. There is often a thin line between wanting to be pious and chaste, and wanting to be recognized for it.  I know that line is near, and I want to be careful.  I have sensed this line since I have been writing these posts this Ramadan, knowing that I am working very hard and focusing very narrowly on many topics.  I have declared my intention to change behaviors and thoughts, and I have made many resolutions.  I know if anyone read these consecutively, they would see that "outstanding" Muslim I fear.  I hope it is clear that these are individual reflections, and I will revisit them to continue my development.  I will stumble, and I will keep coming back to them. I don't speak of these things outside this blog, and I never will.  I do hope though that I am eventually seen as a "good" Muslim, for the right reasons.  

Some Changes............

I will be taking some posts down soon that I no longer think are appropriate :)  I hope you don't mind.  I am so excited to be finishing Ramadan with those of you who are so kind to share these with me. You have no idea what your support means to me.  Thank you.  Michael

Ramadan Night 25 - The Sixth Entry

For the covenants
(Of security and safeguard
Enjoyed) but the Quraish,
Their covenants (covering) journeys
By winter and summer,
Let them adore the Lord
Of this House,
Who provided them
With food against hunger,
And with security
Against fear (of danger).
S.106 A.1-4

I often heard my Yemeni friends refer to this sura, as either the Quraish were of Yemeni descent, or that they traveled through the region extensively. I think this relates to me now in that if I conduct myself honorably and as a good Muslim, then I too will enjoy such hospitality in my earthly environment. I think a lot more lately, about my conduct and more importantly, about the thoughts and motivations behind my actions.  Not only do I want them to be viewed positively, I want them to be genuine.  I know that if I improve the way I deal with people, it will make my world better, and theirs too.  This is my new focus, not just some temporary goal that needs to be pounded out, but the care and welfare of those around me who will ultimately help me with my tasks. 

Ramadan Night 25 - The Fifth Entry

Then did He make them
Like an empty field
Of stalks and straw,
(Of which the corn)
Has been eaten up.
S.105 A.5
I realize this relates to the consequences of hubris and defiance of God.  Whatever I think I am building or accumulating will be devastated, if it is not done in deference to His plans or it is against His guidance.  This is a simple and stark reminder of the unfailing justice we will face if we are not true to God.  I shudder to think that my soul might be laid so stark and so barren!

Ramadan Night 25 - The Fourth Entry

Woe to every
(Kind of) scandal-monger
And backbiter,
Who pileth up wealth
And layeth it by,
Thinking that his wealth
Would make him last
For ever!
S.104 A.1-4

I have to sort this verse out carefully. I am not sure I had reached the status of "scandal-monger" or "backbiter", but I did deal in gossip and negativity. And though I never piled up any wealth to speak of, I guess I gained other kinds of capital through my actions, other types of political advantage.  Those ill-gotten gains did not curry me long-term favor or benefit, much as this verse says. I will think more closely about what I am trying to acquire, why, and by what means. What I want, why I want it, how I will choose to get it?  Good questions! 

Ramadan Night 25 - The Third Entry

By (the token of)
Time (through the ages),
Verily man
Is in loss,
Except such as have faith,
And do righteous deeds,
And (join together)
In the mutual teaching
Of truth, and of
Patience and constancy.
S.103 A.1-3
This verse is the entire sura, and I could write more about it than the previous 102 combined - dont' worry, I won't. "Is in loss" caught my eye first - I have been lost so long, I am not sure I can remember even looking for a path back, growing accustomed to the relative strangeness about me. Converting cleared my vision though, and for the first time, I saw what I wanted to become.  I have plenty of guidance now, and the confidence that God wants me to succeed  -  I am not where I want to be, but I am no longer lost.
I love the reference to joining together!  To often, I focus on my relationship to God's word, sometimes even losing God in the equation, let alone sharing these issues of faith with other Muslims. I long to do this, but don't know how.  Maybe these posts are my first attempt. 
Children of abuse learn to turn inward quickly, and I was quicker than most.  Most of my world has been lived in my own head, most of my experiences in my own heart. I have been told so many times that I immediately bring people into me, only to let them partially in.  I have lost the few people I have let in further, and then have been left with no one to share the pain.  I think there comes a time when it is no longer a matter of wanting to share things with people, when you cannot even imagine how.  This is not an appeal for a sympathetic comment :) rather the analysis of someone yearning to learn how to "join together" for the first time in his life.
I feel really good about my faith and my journey to God, and I would like to commune with others and share this joy.  I need to learn how to do this, how to open up to others. This will be my new task after Eid, one that will require a lot of patience and guidance.  If you are reading this, you are welcome to help..........
*My friends -  Today is a beautiful day, partly because you are in it! 

Ramadan Night 25 - The Second Entry

Again, ye shall see it
With certainty of sight!
Then, shall ye be
Questioned that day
About the joy
(Ye indulged in!)
S.102 A.7-8

Many of these verses "reframe" my thoughts - this is another.  I can honestly say that I feel good about the things I take joy in:  I take joy in helping others, I take joy in seeing my students smile, I take joy in helping a friend, I take joy in wishing an old friend happiness in a new life, I take joy in listening to my daughters ramble on for an hour about things I don't understand, I take joy in reading my Koran and "getting something", and I take joy in the fact that I am a decent Muslim.  Many of the verses I read challenge me greatly, some please my heart - this is an example of the latter.

Ramadan Night 25

Then, he whose
Balance (of good deeds)
Will be (found) heavy,
Will be in a life
Of good pleasure and satisfaction.
But he whose
Balance (of good deeds)
Will be (found) light,
Will have his home
In a (bottomless) pit.
S.101 A.6-9

There is a very important message here for me, that of balance.  I have a tendency to focus too much on my negative thoughts and actions, not giving enough credit to the positive, especially when examining my past.  For now, my plan is simple - ten good actions, ten good thoughts for every bad.  Figuring I can live another forty years, I should be ok...........:)

No, No, No, Naima!

I met Naima after I had started working at an Islamic school in London. We hired her as a principal for our boy's elementary school, based on the recommendation by a respected school inspector. We hired her in time to help with our upcoming school inspection, and it was a wise decision as we would not have passed it without her!
Naima was another one of the Muslim professionals I have worked with who had her feet in two worlds and her head on straight. She was a strong young woman, who had a wonderful knowledge of the British educational system. I often teased her that she could not have actually been a Moroccan, as all the North Africans I knew were anarchists - she humored me with feigned indignation. Naima was far too earnest a great deal of time, occasionally betraying her sedulous composure with a sly grin and an indecorous anecdote. She was charming that way - not unlike a boxer that sets you up with a dozen jabs then finishes you off with an uppercut from nowhere.
I knew that whatever task I charged her with, Naima would carry it out assiduously. She had a great sense of integrity, and never let a difficult task alone. She was one of those people I didn't always agree with, but I knew that whatever she was fighting for, emanated from her heart with no selfish motive. Her passion was her strength, and occasionally nigh on her downfall. In my more ornery moments, my favorite distraction was counting her staccato "no's" in staff meetings. I would watch her contemplating something being said, usually something a bit near-sided, and I could almost predict the moment of her controlled eruption. After a few times, being the bright woman she was, she would catch herself around the fourth no, and turn around and look at me. I would smile and mouth "arba" silently, the Arabic word for four. Her fervently furrowed brow would relax, and she'd grace us with her beautiful smile.
Naima was just one of a terrific staff we had at the school, but her knowledge of school inspections, and her singular, focused work ethic helped us carry the day. We received an adequate report, phenomenal as we had turned over more than 60% of our faculty that year, and was midway between two curricula. Naima helped us with far more that year, and I was saddened to hear she left shortly after I did. Naima has since adopted a daughter, and is married and living in Saudi Arabia, She comes to mind very often, when I indulge the fantasy of having a few of her while facing a current predicament with limited resources. Just a few of her though, not particularly relishing an orchestra of no, no, no, no's. I miss her.

Ramadan Night 24 - The Thirteenth Entry

And that which is
(Locked up) in (human) breasts
Is made manifest,
That their Lord had been
Well-acquainted with them,
(Even to) that Day?
S.100 A.10-11

This is a reccuring theme - God knows my heart now, and will judge it later.  I am getting more and more comfortable knowing God has access to all the regions of my heart.  Knowing that He does, and I am not already doomed to hell, gives me more courage to face the few things I have kept buried for so long. Not to be flip, but God and I are working on this - I don't know about letting anyone else in this far.  I am a bit overwhelmed honestly, ashamed of what God sees, afraid to look myself sometimes, and terrified that it will drive away anyone who might try to love me. 
Perhaps I just need to keep things closed down for awhile until I can make my heart a better place, at least for human habitation.
*My friends - I haven't forgotten you, and I am praying :)  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ramadan Night 24 - The Twelfth Entry

On that day will men
Proceed in companies sorted out,
To be shown the deeds
That they (had done).
Then shall anyone who
Has done an atom's weight
Of good, see it!
And anyone who
Has done an atom's weight
Of evil, shall see it.
S.99 A.6-8

My old self read this first, and was pretty dismayed - "an atom's weight of evil?" - I could spend a dozen lifetimes repaying that kind of sin! But then I took a deep breath, remembered so many who have shown faith in me recently, who have offered their support, and I reread the verse. "An atom's weight of good" caught my eye - I know I have done good things, and I know that God has planted far more than an atom's weight of goodness in my heart. I need to give myself more credit, and to build on what I have done well in the past, not to simply try to raze it all and begin again.  I don't know how much more atonement is in order for me to bring my scales back to balance, and I don't think I care.  If I could live only one more day, and I knew that there was not enough time to regain my soul, I would still live it as a good Muslim.  Each new day as a good man is worth a thousand liftetimes of the man I once was.   

Ramadan Night 24 - The Eleventh Entry

Their reward is with God:
Gardens of eternity,
Beneath which rivers flow;
They will dwell therein
For ever; God well pleased
With them, and they with Him:
All this for such as
Fear their Lord and Cherisher.
S.98 A.8

The more I read, the more I pray, the more I examine my heart as a Muslim, the more I begin to understand the appeal of heaven. I truly believe my poor self-esteem made me reject the notion of heaven as I did not feel I would ever be deserving.  That turned into some sort of self-righteous indignation about the exclusivity of the after-life, and I spiraled down from there. But now a new feeling is rising.  I recognize that which I read in this holy book as what I am beginning to feel in my heart.  Heaven will not be a reward I do not deserve, but a logical continuation of the progress I am making in my heart.  I want my heart to reflect the beauty of heaven, and I pray I have enough time to make it so.

Ramadan Night 24 - The Tenth Entry - The Night of Power

We have indeed revealed
This (Message)
In the Night of Power:
And what will explain
To thee what the Night
Of Power is?
The Night of Power
Is better than
A thousand months.
Therein come down
The angels and the Spirit
By God's permission,
On every errand:
Until the rise of the moon!
S.97 A. 1-5

I am so excited to be in the last ten days of Ramadan!  The Night of Power. This has been a wonderful month for me, and it keeps getting better.  I have fasted faithfully with a true understanding of the discipline; I have prayed more vigilantly; my daughter has been here with me for three weeks; and I have spent dozens of hours with my Koran.  I have never been this tuned into Ramadan as I have been this month - and I know it will only get better in the years to come.  I began the month with a heavy heart, and now I am free of that burden. I have also been able to help several of my brothers and sisters this month with transitions and distress.  God is truly merciful!
My month is ending with two blessings, and I am so grateful.  On Saturday, I will get to play in a charity golf tournament supporting a cause I have given years of my effort to and that I love.  The day before, I will travel to my hometown to be inducted into my high school's Hall of Honor for my humanitarian work.  I cannot tell you how humble and blessed I am feeling.  Although I will spend much of Eid al Fitr alone again this year, I won't be alone.  I will spend the day rereading my 114 posts, praying, and visiting the mosque.  I will be thinking of family, and old and new friends, praying for their happiness and success.  God is generous indeed!
*My friends - A special prayer ten times over each ten days.


Ramadan Night 24 - The Ninth Entry

Nay, but man doth
Transgress all bounds,
In that he looketh
Upon himself as self-sufficient.
Verily, to thy Lord
Is the return (of all).
Seest thou one
Who forbids
A votary when he
(Turns) to pray?
Seest thou if
He is on (the road
Of) Guidance?
Or enjoins righteousness?
S.96 A.6-12

I think this is describing the type of non-believer I was becoming.  I had cast off God, thinking myself self-sufficient in my arrogance.  I am not sure why I ended up in that place, perhaps I was only interested in a relationship with God on my own terms, and when that did not materialize, I turned away like a spoiled child, pretending myself injured.  I stayed quietly in that place for a long time, but then I began to enjoin people of faith in debate, but not with good faith myself.  I have talked before about the relative ease with which you can criticize and attack a specific doctrine or faith.  I think I did so gleefully, with no intent of coming to a truth, just something to play with in my misery.  I am deeply ashamed of this.
I am more ashamed as I read this verse, and I pray my irreverence never lead to the inhibition or prohibition of a votary and his/her faith.  I would like to believe that I was too superficial and they too deep for that to have happened.  But if I did lead someone to doubt their faith, I could ask no forgiveness for that sin.
I am careful now, how I speak to people about faith, especially as I have found mine.  I am respectful, and I only join discussions that are free and designed to share not divide.  I love talking to people of faith, any faith as it bolsters mine.  If I met my old self today, I would smile sadly, and walk away as he jabbered nonsense in the wind.
*To my friends - I pray you see the beauty in your hearts, and you know that any pain there is fleeting, as it cannot stand the goodness it tries to infect. 

Ramadan Night 24 - The Eighth Entry

We have indeed created man
In the best of mould,
Then do We abase him
(To be) the lowest
Of the low,
Except such as believe
And do righteous deeds:
For they shall have
A reward unfailing.
S.95 A.4-6

The things I always believed made me free, we also those that have brought me pain and nearly lost me my soul.  God gave me breath and then gave me the option to deny it.  He gave me goodness and grace, then gave me the choice to squander them.  God gave me the Koran, then let me choose whether or not to open it.  God then directed  my eyes to the world around me, the pain and misery of others, then asked me if I would rather close them.  I have failed at many of these crossroads, many times.  But the last freedom I have been provided, is the freedom to try again, the freedom to return to God and His blessings with an open heart.  This is my choice, my priority in freedom.
*A second prayer for my friends - I pray that God touches your hearts and soothes the scars that men have wrought.

Ramadan Night 24 - The Seventh Entry

Have We not
Expanded thee thy breast?
And removed from thee
Thy burden
The which did gall
Thy back?
And raised high the esteem
(In which) thou (art held)?
So, verily
With every difficulty,
There is relief:
Verily, with every difficulty
There is a relief
Therefore, when thou art
Free (from thine immediate task),
Still labour hard,
And so thy Lord
Turn(all) thy attention.
S.94 A.1-8

There are two levels of this verse for me - the first relates to how God raised man from His common animals, and the second advises us how to deal with the advancement.  God has expanded our breast, given us hearts that feel things other animals cannot apprehend, things that are beautiful and things that are terrible. This heightened sensitivity to our hearts brings us much pain at times, and there is solace here in this verse, if we can but accept it.
I have two friends who are suffering a lot of pain these days, suffering from their heightened hearts. Perhaps that is the price we pay to own these hearts.  I pray they find relief from the agony they feel, I pray they can let Allah grant them release.  This will be my prayer these last several nights of Ramadan, I pray they can lay their burdens down and turn their attention to the Lord. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ramadan Night 24 - The Sixth Entry

Did He not find thee
An orphan and give thee
Shelter (and care)?
And He found thee
Wandering, and He gave
Thee guidance.
And He found thee
In need, and made
Thee independent.
Therefore, treat not
The orphan with harshness,
Nor repulse him
Who asks;
But the bounty
Of thy Lord
Rehearse and proclaim!
S.93 A.6-11

Never has God spoken to me more directly and specifically than here. I was an orphan, though I knew my parents; I was wandering though I thought myself grounded; and I was needy yet had no needs. I have been an orphan in so many ways, and I have been rescued and provided for. But I do things backwards - I had to help other "orphans" before I could allow myself to be helped. Sometimes you have to learn how to help before you can be helped.  Now as I help anyone (we all may be orphans) I am returning my blessings.  If God could take pity on me, who could I not?    

Ramadan Night 24 - The Fifth Entry

And have in their minds
No favour from anyone
For which a reward
Is expected in return,
But only the desire
To seek for the countenance
Of their Lord Most High,
And soon will they
Attain (complete) satisfaction.
S.92 A.19-21

I have discussed in previous posts, that I have been blessed with the will/need to help others without reward or recognition - to a large extent this is true, but when I search my heart (as Allah will), I find I fall a bit short in this, one of my strengths. I do like to be acknowledged for my good deeds, and the recognition feels really good. I don't decorate my office with certificates, plaques, and student gifts, but I do pull them out once in awhile for inspiration. I have noticed that I do want the extent of my sacrifices known however, as I hope for some sort of karmic recompense or bartered balance as my sins seem directly proportionate to my better actions.  I once heard that a woman will never forgive you the sacrifices you made for her, and that no man relishes a debt he owes another. This makes better sense to me now, as I realize that sacrifices are like good deeds, they must be offered without credit or expected gratitude - they are not  to be cashed in or leveraged.
I also realized I had known this lesson before, as a boy watching a WWII movie.  A man redeems his many sins and weaknesses with a brave and heroic act - the one person who has knowledge of his secret deed comforts him at the end of the movie with  "Heaven knows Mister  Allison", the name of the movie.
I want to be this humble and this trusting in my God, my satisfaction delayed until I am brought forward. 

Ramadan Night 24 - The Fourth Entry

By the sun
And his (glorious splendour);
By the moon
As she follows him;
By the day as it
Shows up (the sun's) glory;
By the night as it
Conceals it;
By the firmament
And its (wonderful) structure,
By the earth
And its (wide) expanse:
By the soul,
And the proportion and order
Given to it,
And its inspiration
As to its wrong
And its right;
Truly he succeeds
That purifies it,
And he fails
That corrupts it.
S.91 A.1-10

I can read this verse over and over again - the grandeur and majesty of God's creation gently being brought down into my hands. The scope of the universe unfolded so that I might see the magnitude of God's gifts and the awesome responsibility He elevates me with. My covenant with God is sacred, and I realize in this passage the totality of my pledge - not an invitation to be discarded on a whim, but a promise to live my role in this tapestry, no more than humble weft in the fabric of Allah's weave. 

Ramadan Night 24 - The Third Entry

And what will explain
To thee the path that is steep?
(It is) freeing the bondman;
Or giving of food
In a day of privation
To the orphan
With claims of relationship,
Or to the indigent
(Down) in the dust.
Then will he be
Of those who believe,
And enjoin patience, (constancy,
And self-restraint), and enjoin
Deeds of kindness and compassion.
Such are the companions of the Right Hand.
S.90 A.12-18

"Down in the dust" - I remember finding my dignity in the dust of a refugee camp in Yemen. I was entertaining some children, many of them orphans, one evening by drawing words and phrases in the sandy dust on the ground outside of my tent. I was down there with the children, no mind for propriety or hygiene, just communing with some kids in their element. I learned then that dignity had nothing to do with elevation, rather the relative grace with which you can communicate with anyone in any place.  Deeds of kindness and compassion are not done at a distance; noblesse oblige is an intimate act meant not only to convey courtesy and charity, but to lay aside division and  caste.  I want to be at the place in my life where I no longer do things "for" people, but "with" them - whatever trinket or gesture I spare is dwarfed by God's rich reward to my heart - baubles for blessings, God is indeed Great. For if I am not careful, it may not be those that I affiliate with naturally, but the less fortunate that we may  neglect, that will ultimately constitute the "companions of the Right Hand."  


Ramadan Night 24 - The Second Entry

Nay, nay! But ye
Honour not the orphans!
Nor do ye encourage
One another
To feed the poor!
S.89 A.17-18

I think this verse refers to more than just the obvious obligations we have to orphans and the poor.  Unfortunately, there are many in the world that don't seem to see this basic duty, and they need the admonishment of God to move their hearts, or at least their checkbooks.  I think about class, station, and socioeconomic status when I read this. I don't think we are pedantic providers for the unfortunate, rather I believe we need to reach out at all levels, not just dispensing food from a safe distance, but truly  acknowledging our brothers and sisters. It is not enough for me to drop off a check for zakat al fitr at my mosque,  if its recipients are invisible or repulsive to me elsewhere.  We feed mouths, and we feed hearts and minds too!  
During this holy month, how many souls are hungry for companionship, even the gracious embrace of a handshake? Or the obliging respect of eye contact?  Simple gestures lost in the slipstream of man's conceited detachment. It is not enough for me to be thankful this month for my blessings, if I neglect the greatest blessing of all, the humanity I have in my heart for others.    

Ramadan Night 24

Other faces that day
Will be joyful,
Pleased with their striving,
In a garden on high,
Where they shall hear
No (word) of vanity
Therein will be
A bubbling spring
Therein will be thrones
(Of dignity), raised on high,
Goblets placed (ready),
And cushions set in rows,
And rich carpets
(All) spread out.
S.88 A.8-16

This is such a reassuring and inspiring verse. It touches me at three different levels: I love the imagery of heaven; I am motivated by the concept of "striving" rather than "toiling"; and am admonished once again to embrace dignity and to resist vanity.  Everything in this passage reminds me of what I am preparing for, not what I am waiting for - I am not passing time on earth in order to get to heaven, I am making myself worthy. Everything I practice here makes my world a better place, brings me closer to the souls of others.  This goodness I develop in my heart resonates in heaven; as I navigate my days with God's guidance I feel His grace, and at night my mind rests in His garden. He has placed enough of heaven in my heart for me to embrace the journey.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ramadan Night 23 - The Fourteenth Entry

By degrees shall We
Teach thee
(The message), so thou
Shalt not forget.
S.87 A.6

I am learning in degrees, and God has been very patient with me.  I should know so much more than I do, understood things much more clearly than I have, and prayed with much more diligence than I seem to have mustered. Yet God, and my brothers and sisters, have been very patient with me.  I have never been judged for a misstep during prayer, quizzed unfaithfully by a zealot, or viewed suspiciously as I entered a mosque. I like to think that a Muslim can look straight into my heart - and though that vision might produce a kind chuckle, the result is a warm embrace and tolerant support for my tardy development.  I love my faith and the perserverence of my Muslim family.  God is patient as He is generous.

Ramadan Night 23 - The Thirteenth Entry

By the sky
And the night-visitant
And what will explain to thee
What the night-visitant is?
(It is) the star
Of piercing brightness;
There is no soul but has
A protector over it.
Now let man but think
From what he is created!
S.86 A.1-5
I am not sure if this is referring to a particular star, but it is a lovely parable. The star is God's word, a signal fire in the darkest of our nights, strong and steady, beckoning us forward. Far enough to humble our vain aspirations and near enough to illuminate our path.  I have seen this star this month, and I have seen it brighten day by day as I read my Koran. I can look out into the summer eve, and find my star - a little larger, a little more lustrous than its peers, solid in the sky, a constant and unwavering beacon for my soul.    

Ramadan Night 23 - The Twelfth Entry

And they witnessed
(All) that they were doing
Against the believers.
And they ill-treated them
For no other reason than
That they believed in Allah,
Exalted in power,
Worthy of all praise!
S.85 A.7-8

I have made a new friend recently, and had I not talked to her recently, I would not have reacted to this verse as I did.  She is from Occupied Palestine, and has seen so much more misery and sorrow in her gentle years than I have in twice as many, even as I searched the world for it. I have never fancied myself a martyr, nor do I believe I have been persecuted for my faith - I have, however, been targeted and humiliated a few times by post-pubescent Israelis toting automatic weapons, whose boredom I abated as they taunted and insulted me.  On the odd occasion, I hear insensitive comments about Muslims and Islam, but I have not been singled out for a campaign of degradation and destruction. 
I talked in an earlier post about my admiration for those early converts to Islam who faced tremendous adversity, even death for their faith. Their courage and fortitude is a beautiful example of the strength and endurance Allah had blessed us with, humbling and shaming me for my trivial defeats. But there are modern day paragons amongst us, and sadly, their unmitigated sacrifices bleed out daily into the dry and dusty streets of Palestine and Gaza, while we watch indifferently secure in the knowledge that sand absorbs water and blood.
I have no means of measure to understand how these people, particularly the younger witnesses to this demiurgic genocide, keep their faith and their dignity, and miraculously a genuine desire for peace.  Unlike my friend, I have never been spat upon nor have I been made an alien in my own land. I have never been shackled and hamstrung, then had war declared upon me.  I have never been made the object of derision and scorn because of the faith I carry in my heart, the pride reflected in my eyes.  Perhaps it is only that pride their tormentors cannot abide, perhaps it is only that which they pine to replace with the brackish bile oozing from their hearts, unable to suffer the withering gaze of integrity. Perhaps they just want the eyes.
I pray for my friend, and the millions of others who purchase their faith and fidelity at such a high price, and I pray for myself, hoping that I will never face those trials, but if I do, I do so with such dignity and grace.  Most of all, I pray for the day when such decency need not be tempered and tested by so much enmity and hate.  

Ramadan Night 23 - The Eleventh Entry

O thou man!
Verily thou art ever
Toiling on towards they Lord
Painfully toiling, but thou
Shalt meet him.
S.84 A.6

I understand what it means to toil, and often when I reread some of my posts, it seems that I am toiling more than most - but this is not the case.  There are days when things are arduous, but on the balance, my days are filled with blessings, and working towards God's will most often brings me satisfaction. I have mentioned several times that He placed a sense of goodness and charity in my heart, and those two specific demands have always been  easy for me.  My toil, if it amounts to that, is centered around other responsibilities - praying, avoiding vain talk, indulging my selfish ego, and keeping God central to my thoughts and actions.  I don't think this life is one of misery and toil, I believe there is an intrinsic value involved in following my path, making the concept of a reward hereafter even that more beautiful.  This does not mean things are easy, or that I am doing all that I should when I should.  I will toil on my deficits and revel in my strengths and pray I have the wisdom to differentiate them. 

Ramadan Night 23 - The Tenth Entry

By no means!
But on their hearts
Is the stain of the (ill)
Which they do!
S.83 A.14

These last suras are shorter, but as in the case of this verse, full of insight and revelation for me.  This reference made me think of my heart in a completely new context - not just the place where I feel love and register pain, but the place I originate sin, the place where my malice for others is generated.  I always imagined my heart to be a tattered canvass where the joys and sorrows of my life and loves are splattered recklessly in a cacophony of color and jagged juxtaposition. It is a piece of modern art, having no discernible form, and one that looks better from a distance.  I thought the chaos that masochistically mingled the beauty and brutality reflected the good intentions of my love and the painful returns I suffered.  Now I see that painting differently, and instead of vivid brushstrokes I see stains, and the pattern of those stains rising up off the canvass.
I have hurt more than I have been hurt; I have betrayed more than I have been betrayed; and I have let others down far more often than they I.  The pain I feel in my heart is the pain I have inflicted on others. I don't know how to remove these stains, or if I am meant to paint over them - if I deserve to.  I do know that I don't want to add to this ugly, tangled mess, and that my heart is capable of producing something closer to art, something that reflects a  better man.

Ramadan Night 23 - The Ninth Entry

Him Who created thee,
Fashioned thee in due proportion,
And gave thee a just bias.
S.82 A.7

I take the "due proportion" reference here not to be physical attributions, but instead indicates we have been given the tools to accept the exceptional destiny He has created for us.  We alone of all His creations have been charged thusly, but He has not done so inequitably. We can reason, we can empathize, and we can change our environment for the better. I think I forget this responsibility often, instead focusing on the gifts I have been given, and the misdirected profits I accrue.  This is where I need to remember that I have a "just bias", the capacity to evaluate my thoughts and actions in relation to my duty to God.  There is no excuse for me to forget my path, and no forgiveness for me if I hurt others in my misguided and selfish actions. In the end, it is very simple - I have what I need to serve my Lord, I have the ability to recognize my success and failure, and I have His word to remind me - really much more simple than I often make it.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ramadan Night 23 - The Eighth Entry

Verily this is no less
Than a message
To (all) the worlds:
(With profit) to whoever
Among you wills
To go straight.
S.81 A.27-28

I have never been in a mosque where I had any sense of the socio-economic status of its worshipers, any sense of cultural or racial differences, any sense of any division at all.  Shoulder to shoulder, we stand in  comforting anonymity sharing God's grace. This is one of the glorious aspects of my faith, probably the only example of  a successful egalitarian community on earth.  With apologies to my Christian friends, I have never seen a beggar or misfortunate soul sitting on the steps of a church beseeching my help; rather I have seen them shepherded gently to a back door where they were tended to lovingly, but out of sight.  In contrast, I rarely visit a mosque where I do not have to pass these brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, to enter to make my prayers.  Their poverty, their plight, the rags they drape themselves in are indictments of my faith if left ignored or made invisible.  I walk into the mosque with the welfare of these souls added to my prayers.
I love the quiet sanctity of my faith, the universal invitation extended to us all, our willingness to live it daily and openly, and the recognition and embrace of our responsibility to each other, rich or poor, white or black, male or female, strong or crippled, blessed or destitute - a community devoted to a gracious God.
*I love this verse above, but my favorite verse in the Koran is also in this sura.  I wrote a post about it a month ago getting ready for Ramadan, and I have included the link below (didn't want to "cheat" my mission to read and write about each sura this month :)