Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Mohammed Baba

I have met a handful of truly gentle souls in my life, most recently while working for the King Fahad Academy in  London six years ago. Mohammed Baba was a science teacher there for several years by the time I arrived, and had become an integral part of the academy. He was African, and I can't remember from which country; normally I attend to such details as I enjoy culture and often think in those terms. Mohammed was different though, his gentleness and kindness transcended ethnicity, heritage, race, religion, or geography - it just seemed kinda pointless to try to locate him in any other place than as a sweet human being.
Mohammed and I worked together quite a bit in my capacity as Director of Academic Affairs and his role as Head of the Science department. He was always so helpful and kind, and I knew I could rely on him to do anything, even as he was perpetually overloaded with work. Always busy because he loved the school and its students, and was always prepared to pitch in, even if he was doing more than the others around him.  Mohammed came to work early and left late, never complaining, never comparing himself to others. I admired him greatly for this.
I had the chance to see his effect on students in several instances, and I could tell, like me, they recognized the incredible depth of goodness inside him and loved him for it. If not, they would have run all over his good nature. I taught a lesson for him on some particular statistic, I believe it was Chi Square, and I enjoyed my interaction with the boys. They were a bit surprised that I was their teacher that day, but when they answered my questions correctly, it was not I that they looked to for approval, it was Mohammed sitting off to the side patiently watching. His tender smile became theirs.
Mohammed also helped me out by sending a small contingent of students to my office to advise me on a new code of student conduct. The boys, much like their mentor, worked very diligently at the task and produce an equitable, balanced set of guidelines that I was very proud of. They focused first on their responsibilities and eventually on their rights. Years later when a particularly evil soul charged the academy with educating terrorists (something the nation's wretched tabloids embraced), I wished I could have returned and showed them that simple document those young Muslim boys and their teacher had produced. Too simple and sincere though for the jaded adult palate these days.
I don't know how well Mohammed was appreciated at the King Fahad Academy before I got there or after I left - I only know how much I valued him as a teacher and as a man with so many graceful gifts that I lack. I miss him.

Ramadan 1433 - Bassam & Bassem

I had the phenomenal privilege of leading (at least for a bit) a remarkable group of leaders in the Academy. I have visited some already this month in this blog, but I want to acknowledge two men who come to my mind first when I think of the construct of leadership. Bassam and Bassem lead in two very unique ways, and I would hate to have to keep up with either of them. Passion manifests itself in various forms, and has to decided to be very creative as it inhabits these two men. I have never been around two more authentic individuals.
Bassem is a quiet man who is deeply and sincerely motivated in his work. I didn't get to see him teach, I didn't have to. He is the only teacher I have ever met that cannot speak about his profession without tearing up a bit. I imagine he teaches as he parents - lovingly, patiently, and firmly. Bassem is one of the academy members who serves as an emulsifier of sorts, always concerned about the group, always reaching out to unite us and keep us together (the male mudeera kabeera :).  During our week-long Academy workshop, I heard more testimonies to Bassem's dedication and passion in the classroom than I could possibly remember. I respect him a great deal, and more importantly, so do his peers.
Bassam, on the other hand, has no quiet gear for his passion. I have used the term "force of nature" already to describe a member of this group, and I probably need a stronger nom de querre for Bassam - he reminds me of the tornado that swept through Oklahoma in 1999 (in the best possible way of course) - in a area of the country most often rocked by these phenomena, that particular storm caused the meteorologists to change the scale they measured such things with. Bassam does the same; he raises the scales that the rest of must now be judged by, and does so humbly. Bassam could have done this Academy project without me, he has all the tools and skills (more so probably), but he participated equally with the other supervisors and teachers creating a wonderful sense of equality and partnership. I have seen him work with young people in his program in Amman, and have never seen a more wonderful mentor and more capable peer.
When I started the academy I was naively concerned with sustainability and a possible over-dependence on my contributions - knowing these two men has made me slightly embarrassed for that unfounded worry. Both have worked hard to keep people together, to push the academy forward, and to pave the way for more teachers to benefit from the experience. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Academy is in strong and capable hands. After all, once you have heard Bassam sing a rousing song about a fly, how could you doubt anything?
Brothers Bassem and Bassam

Ramadan 1433 - Asil

I have seen death, even held it in my arms. I have seen children die, and seen many others once removed from a horrible fate. And of all these images that return to me from Jamaica, Yemen, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda, it is a single tear drop in the corner of an eye of a survivor that haunts me most regularly. One tear drop, one moment twenty three years ago. Sometimes small ghosts are the most persistent.
I remember the first time I saw Asil (not her name, I never knew it even as we watched her only child die one terrible evening); she was bent over at the waist washing some old clothing carefully in a bucket of water. She was very tall for an Eritrean, and as thin as most. I was walking through the camp to my little shack that day, and I may have even stopped in my tracks as this elegant refugee stood up from her task and stared at me curiously. She wore a beautiful batik covering with a matching scarf draped impossibly, perfectly over her hair. Asil was very dark, had some sort of tribal scars on her cheeks and big elongated gold ring through the middle of her nose. She straightened and glanced at me shyly betraying a beautiful smile and a slightly pregnant tummy. I had no schema for this kind of beauty.
I saw her regularly as I passed though the camp daily on my way to the village school. I had no idea if her husband had abandoned her, was off  fighting Ethiopians, or was dead - my Afar never developed enough to gather such distinctions. I could usually count on a slight nod and quickly turned down smile as I passed, and I looked forward to the platitude. Her stark features began to wear on my western sensibilities, eroding biases and redefining aesthetics. There was also a keen intelligence hiding behind those dark eyes that probably threatened me more than the loss of my superficial sense of beauty and grace.
I watched for months as she labored around her small hut as her pregnancy developed. I wasn't in love with her, most likely as I knew I would never deserve her, never be the man who could be confident enough to look into those eyes and protect her from the world that had treated her so cruelly. No, I wasn't in love with her, and there was a certain amount of relief in that, a certain freedom to continue to make my way past her each day, the efficacy needed to return her smile on the rare occasion I could maintain eye contact. I thought I was comfortable in this pleasant peace until the day I was beckoned to come help Asil and a few other women in a dispute with a local farmer over their goat and his vegetables. The negotiation was ponderous but ultimately successful, but my relative contentment was shattered in a moment of accidental embrace and the tang of a bitter sweet melange of sweat and musk fabricating love.
One of my students intercepted me and pulled me by my hand out of the camp and to a local farm where a group of the women were in an animated discussion with an impatient Yemeni farmer. I walked up and addressed the older man who was quite agitated. As I stepped towards him, he advanced on me quite aggressively and Asil turned away and stepped right into my arms. For a second or so I had my arms around her, felt her slight frame and bulging belly, and I smelled her. Dank and earthy, her scent nearly buckled my knees and if it were not for the short but eminent threat from the outraged vegetable owner in front of me, I might have gone down. At once, I would never appreciate fancy soaps or perfume on a woman's skin ever again, as a matter of fact, they became ersatz and acrid in an instant. I cannot even walk through a women's section in a department store in a mall since taking in Asil that day, my nose objects, or maybe it is just an aromatic excuse by my heart. She slid on by unaware, I thought, of my vulnerability, and I eventually paid the ransom for the incarcerated goat and returned it to the women. Asil and her peers led it away and my antagonist from moments before invited me into his humble house for tea. She went one way, I went another and I did not see her again for several months.
I had heard she had had a baby boy, and I was happy for her and relieved I had some time to process my new worldview, an astonishing revelation born in poverty, dirt, and diligence. A half a year later, I stood by helplessly as her baby died; dehydrated from diarrhea, heat, and no medical facilities. Her son was too young for the rehydration therapies we were implementing in the camp, and she had waited too late into the night to get the child to a hospital an hour away. As I picked up the child to examine it (after the camp doctor had been arrested, I was often called to situations as I had the only medical book in the camp) I felt the same sickening lack of elasticity in his skin that I had felt once before on a mountaintop in Jamaica. I gave him back to her and she went into the adjoining room to try to feed him. I am not sure when he died, but I was a dozen feet away, separated from his passing by a dirt floor and a worn sheet serving as a privacy wall. Asil emerged hours later with a swaddled bundle in her arms and that one lone tear drop refusing to fall in my presence. She disappeared into the night, to wherever one goes in a refugee camp with a dead child.
I think of Asil less often now, but the tear drop she held onto persists. I don't know what happened to Asil after I left the camp, and I did not see her much after that night. I do know that she realigned my notions of beauty, dignity, and courage in a place most would find brackish and repulsive. Sometimes, decency and desire dance in the dust.
 *On a brighter note - I did see Asil smile one more time, actually heard her laugh. She was outside her shack one day watching as I played with some children nearby. We had found some electrical wire, treasure by many standards, and I had commandeered it for an hour or so. I tied one end to the post of a nearby hut and gave the other to the tallest child I could find. I had her twirl the cord and I introduced the art of jumping rope to the group of interested onlookers, young and old. It was probably the first time I stumbled and fell into the dirt that I looked up and saw her. That image of her holding her face, nose ring and scars partially covered, her laugh unsuccessfully stifled, is the one that I prefer to carry forward.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Z and S

I have met so many wonderful people while working with the Academy in Jordan, that I could probably spend a year writing about them. As I mentioned, I want to acknowledge those folks who have made a positive impact on my life, and I am continuing in this post with two remarkable women who have proved themselves brave, loyal, and above all, honest. And like some others I have profiled here already during this blessed month, very different women.
Z is a very serious and silly person. She is very professional in her work, a great leader and role model, and has a very compassionate heart. Sometimes her serious facade cracks a bit and you see that playful smile she tries so hard to hide. I have watched her in classrooms and in the academy, and I know that UNRWA is so blessed to have her in her job. She has been a great help with the work of the academy, and has been a good mentor so many of the other teachers.  Z works very hard, and is always willing to help anyone. She needs to eat a bit more during workshop sessions though.....
S is a very silly and serious person. She has a lot of passion and energy, and can be very playful and engaging. But S can be very frank and earnest too, and I was amazed with the zeal she displayed when she was defending the academy against some noxious and immature attacks. In the classroom she is like a gentle and firm older sister to her girls; one minute gently admonishing, the next cajoling and reassuring. I saw a lot of confidence and trust in the eyes of those little girls, quite a testament to their teacher.
In January, both these busy professionals took time out of their schedules to spend a day with Shirley and Rachel, and it was one of the things those two appreciative Americans talked about long after we returned. Z and S are special, because in their own ways they are so indicative of a large number of incredible women making lasting and substantive changes in the lives of Palestinian young ladies in Jordan. When the world looks at Middle Eastern issues, it fails to focus on heroes like Z and S (Mudeera Saghera and Mudeera Kabeera, Ahmad and Sultan) and many other wonderful souls I will get to later this month. This oversight is the world's loss!

*BTW, when I use the word "silly" I use it in an American sense as a very large compliment - letting others see the softer side of your nature. It is a rare skill and so important in a classroom or group setting.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Two Jordanian Little Brothers

I have met a lot of great guys in Jordan, especially while working with the Academy group we started eight months ago. When I saw this picture below for the first time, it struck me that these two characters (the term used in the best possible way) would be like my younger brothers. Ahmad and Sultan are two very active members of this group, but are two very different men. I enjoy their company, and together "they make one fine human being" - an old joke from a movie I like.
I have spent a lot of time with these two men, and have observed them in their schools - I was struck immediately by how much they cared for their students, and what great role models they were for those young boys who have a lot of challenges ahead of them. They were like two older uncles, kind and caring each in their own way, and I know the boys looked up to them. I don't think I had those skills when I was their age.
Ahmad is the more serious, sober brother. He is very earnest in the classroom in a very caring way. He is also extremely diligent, and proceeds very carefully and deliberately. He makes his way around the classroom gently but firmly, reassuring his students often. I am always amazed at his good natured personality, and his sincere responses, even when I am kidding him. He has a very pure heart, and is very considerate to others.
Sultan is equally caring, but is the more outwardly (and maybe inwardly) passionate of the two. If we were the Brothers Karamazov, he would be Dmitri, at least in spirit. He has a great deal of energy and it always shows or is just under the surface. This wellspring of intensity serves him well in the classroom - he manages to utilize it to keep the boys engaged and interested, and more importantly, awake. I have marveled at his advocacy for some issues since I have known him, and it amuses me to think sometimes how he must keep all of that fire under control. He does though, to the great benefit of his school and the academy.Sultan is also extremely loyal (as is Ahmad), a very rare and precious quality these days.
So yeah, they are like my younger brothers, and like most older brothers, I am very proud of them. When I started this academy I hoped there would be great teachers and great humanitarians in the group - there were many of both, including these two fine gentlemen.  Someone does need to tell Sultan though that he has my sweater on.................

Me and my two younger brothers, Ahmad and Sultan

Monday, July 23, 2012

Ramadan 1433 A Poem

It is the joy of children,

The peace of mind,

The love of heart,

The freedom of soul…

It is the time you gather all;

meet, laugh, eat and talk ..

It comes once a year, and no more…

It comes to help and get out the fear locked for so long…

It comes to set free your heart and soul,

to charge your ALL

with faith… to Allah they all belong!

It is to walk down a street and meet all friends and neighbors who leave you no seat!

It is to walk and buy extra sweets with the much money you receive,

the money you receive as a reward for you had no EAT.

While you maybe did some cheat

and had little eat passed by a twin or a friend in need!

Don’t worry no one see, no one see!

Now I know that He had seen

and now I pray He forgives me.

It is to see the colorful lights at night,

not the starts nor the tiny crescent,

but the candles, lanterns and fireworks with children playing hide and seek!

It is the prayers rise to sky,

of believers,


and every wonderer who seek answers locked inside.

This how little kids see and feel….

One more year,

and years to come

now you know it is all you need,

to settle down and have some breathe,

breath of mind, heart and soul,

yes it is those to always call:

It is your heart, mind and soul

To Him you go with faith in heart,

with raising hands and crying eyes:

" Your forgiveness all I need,

Your contentment all I seek!

I give one, you make ten… He is Allah (He is the) one"

In Your verses I believe,

every second, every moment,

it is your faith that I breathe…

In this month You sent Your Glorious book,

In this month You set the Night of Fate,

Night of Qader…

A night equals a thousand month!

And we pray five a day,

every day,

all life long,

all the way…

yet this month made to grasp all missed ways,

and to promise to make it right & perfect ways

with true hearts and silent eyes.

It is the time to feel All One,

it is the time to feel the poor, and visit the Mom!

Your relatives, parents, brothers and sisters, leave No one!

Winter, sun or cold or none,

here it comes fair for everyone,

no matter where or when,

All what matter's that we're all ONE!

Once a year, once again..

Time of peace,

nights of relief,

with no pain and no fear…

You give one … He gives Ten!

Count your ones and go for tons.

Hence it comes once .. once!

Yet rewarded now and then!

Earthly Eid and heavenly win…

What a time what a month!

Oh Allah, we now pray;

for the "now" and the "then"!

Waite a one!

This ain't for everyone!

It's for the wise and the true

who spent the time to worship the One!

Go for now and be one, since it comes only once!

Ramadan Mubarak!


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Ramadan 1433 - Theron

Theron is visiting me today from Texas, after having spent a month or so with his family in Detroit and Indiana. He is being a bit too sensitive to my fasting right now, and I am not sure if it is genuine concern or he is just trying to wind me up. This good natured bantering was born fairly I suppose, given that he had threatened to beat me up a few weeks after we first met.....
I met Theron in Philadelphia in 1988 as we were both about to go off to Peace Corps Yemen. Although we (about thirty in total) spent several weeks in Pennsylvania together waiting for our visas, I didn't interact much with Theron. We didn't really talk until we were in Yemen, immersed in our three months of language and cultural training.  My first impression of him was the he was just another English major, kinda aloof and effete, and that I wouldn't be rushing to get to know him. And then there was the matter of Kat, the volunteer he was obviously pining for - I figured he would be a busy guy. The first time I do remember talking to him, he had just been sick and was looking very weak. I must have been teasing him because he became upset and returned several hours later to confront me.  If I hadn't been recovering from typhoid, he might have tried to beat me up, but mercifully, I was spared the experience.
After our bumpy start, Theron and I became good friends while in Yemen. I respected his passion and his introspective view of the world. Theron could be quite serious one moment and then quite whimsical the next, breaking some sort of silent code by chuckling at his own mirth. His silliness was strange to me but I liked it. Most of all I like the quiet passion that lay beneath it. Although we grew somewhat close during those two years, it would be almost a decade before I would really get to know him well.
I should stop here for a moment and talk a little about the bonding that happens in Peace Corps. I have been a volunteer twice, and I have supervised 100+ volunteers. I have thought long and hard about this phenomenon. Peace Corps service can be very foreign and bleak, often exposing people creating a kind of vulnerability they have never experienced. When you serve with people in this environment, you develop bonds that are very powerful and lasting. Often, you get close to people that you never would have associated with in your home country. You share things too, like music. I came back from each adventure with great, life long friends and a much broader, eclectic musical scope.
So Theron and I and his new wife Kat, stayed in touch those years after we returned, and I knew that they had spent time in Japan and had had a son, Theseus. When they returned, Kat called me and asked that I help Theron move their furniture from Cleveland, Ohio to Arizona, some 1,500 miles. He rented a truck and we made the trek while Kat and Theseus flew home. Those three days were a lot of fun, and I got to know him a lot better. Years later, when Kat left him and took Theseus with her, I would learn far more about my friend.
Over the next few years, Theron and I spent a lot more time together, often at his mother's cottage at the lake where we just fished and hung out. I loved our conversations as I felt he knew far more about literature and philosophy and I just a little more about life. I felt honored that I was allowed to be there in his life when he struggled, and that he trusted me with this new level of vulnerability. I learned a lot about being a man from Theron, a lot about real strength and family. He is a great father and a dedicated son, two things I was never good at.  I  never leave a conversation with him not thinking of something new, or learning more about myself.
So here we are twenty-four years later, and Theron hasn't threatened to beat me up once this weekend. He has been patient as I have teased him about his lizard and cat (my two newest house guests. We managed to retrieve his car after it was towed, and tomorrow I will even let him drag me down the Jane Addams Hull House museum; a true testament to the virility of Peace Corps friendships.

Ramadan 1433 - Mudeera Saghera and Mudeera Kabeera

I am very sure I will be doing many posts about my friends and colleagues in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Academy during this holy month. I don't think I have worked with such a group that had the density of integrity, compassion, and dedication of these 30+ teachers from humble schools in Jordan. Of these wonderful professionals, two always come to my mind first, Mudeera Saghera (MS - the Little Boss) and Mudeera Kabeera (MK - the Big Boss). MS and MK teach at the same school, have equal levels of passion and fire (manifested differently though), and are about a foot apart in height!
When I designed the academy experience, I had hoped there would be individuals who would step up and carry if forward so that the whole adventure would not be dependent on me. To my great pleasure, many of the teachers did so, but none more so than these two ladies. The academy is alive and well now, and these two help keep their peers involved and energized. When I think of how little they are paid, how difficult their day to day circumstances are, and how easily their talents could have taken them anywhere but the refugee camps they work in, I am truly humbled. True of all of the teachers in this group, even more remarkable in these two given the extra work and love they have poured into this simple mechanism that has come to mean so much to so many.
MK is a force of nature - I once called  her a hurricane in a teacup, not because she gets angry, simply that her energy fills any space she inhabits. She frowns and smiles alternately, as her brain moves at light speed between challenges and solutions. She has more drive than most anyone I know, including myself! She balances her family, work, and extra-curricular activities well, and I know that has not been easy. I would hate to have to keep up with her in any context. MK has created a blog and Facebook page for the group (amazingly on a few of her networking activities) that has kept the group in touch and motivated. She wears her heart on her sleeve and I really do not know how she does all of this for her family and for the academy family, but I thank Allah the she found her way to our group - our guardian angel.
MS approaches the world in a much different way, being shorter and younger (sorry MK), she has created her own influence in more creative and subtle ways. She is very speculative, and I often accuse her of being a philosopher, which she quickly denies but probably secretly admits. MS is a juggler too, balancing her teaching, the academy, and her school work while managing to cope with her twin sister. She is very meticulous in many ways, from her dress to the slow and measured cadence she delivers her words when she finally is ready to do so. Often the most diminutive in the room, she commands respect though as she thinks and speaks well, and is clearly motivated by an honest and open heart. Early on in the academy, I knew she would be the person I would ask to lead the small leadership team that would be so crucial to the future of our project - she has done a great job since, and I have had a lot of fun watching her manage things. She may not be a mother yet, more like a younger aunt who keeps everyone in line with a serious demeanor and the beginnings of playful smile always threatening to spread from the corner of her lips.
I have been blessed to work with these two lovely young ladies, and I am tempted to let them go thinking that it was I who has helped them in some way. The truth is I have learned so much about motivation and dignity from them, and I couldn't imagine this academy without them.
Mudeera Kabeera
Mudeeras Saghera and Kabeera

Ramadan 1433 - English Homework in Petra

This past January, while visiting Jordan to create our first Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Academy, I took my two American friends (Rachel and Shirley) on a one day whirlwind tour of the country. We covered 500 miles that day, stopping in Petra, Aqabah, and the Dead Sea. It was during that brief stop in Petra that I had a very lovely encounter with a young Nabataean girl over a table of trinkets and an English exercise book.
I had been to Petra several times before, and had been there in the winter - but nothing prepared me for how cold it would be on this trip. When we arrived at the park gate, we hired a horse and carriage for the two ladies, as it was far too cold for them to walk the several mile trek to and from the valley. Shirley and Rachel bundled up, and they were off. I decided to walk, briskly, down to the bottom of the valley and back for some exercise, and maybe even to exorcise a few ghosts I had acquired at the place. It was a very cold process.
I reached the bottom of the central corridor of Petra and met the ladies for lunch at a swanky little hotel restaurant. When they had warmed up a bit, they went out and found their chariot to make their way back to the entrance, and I decided to redouble my pace pack up the valley for some overdue cardio work. As I motored past the souvenir tents near the amphitheater, I noticed a lone young girl sitting behind a small table covered in the ubiquitous discounted treasures of this newest seven wonders of the ancient world. She was huddled in the corner of the shelter, hunched over a worn exercise book. I stopped abruptly in front of her and she offered me a pretty but very shy smile. She stood up and waited for me to indicate some interest in her wares, and I knew she was not the regular sales person, probably the daughter or granddaughter of the proprietor. I asked her a question about a necklace, and learned she had very little English. I asked her the price in Arabic and paid it. She wrapped the necklace carefully in some paper and handed it to me demurely. I started to turn to leave when I caught a glimpse of her open notebook. She had been practicing basic letters in that cold corner of her tent, and there were rows and rows of carefully printed q's followed by a new line of r's that weren't quite right.
I smiled at her and asked her in Arabic if she was working on her homework. She nodded enthusiastically and I asked her if i could see it. She turned and grabbed the notebook and proudly handed it across the table to me. I gestured if I could come around behind and look at it with her and she smiled.  I knelt down behind the table and placed the exercise book in front of her. She looked keenly down, delighted in the interest I was showing her.  I pointed to the misconstructed r's and asked her what letter it was. "ERRR" was her response, "mumtaz" was mine - she smiled even more broadly. I said excuse me, and asked her for the small stub of a pencil she had been working with. I pointed at the letters and then printed one correct r beside them. She got very excited and grabbed the pencil from my hand and hurriedly began to create a perfect line of r's across the page. I was having a great time and would have stayed longer (there were no tourists about on this frigid morning anyway), but I needed to get back up to meet my friends to continue our odyssey.  I stood up and smiled at her as she was launching into her second line, and she gave me one more beautiful smile for my efforts before scrunching up her face and squeezing her tongue out of the corner of her lips as she returned to her work. I bounded up the hill, and made my way back to my friends. I had vanquished any ghosts I had carried into the place that morning, and my heart was light and free as I emerged from that ancient, magical wadi.
I know I am often brusque, aggressive, and even obnoxious at times. But I do love my intrusive gifts, and they have served me very well across the many cultures I have traversed. I am a teacher, and there is always a sacred suspension of protocol when I come upon someone studying or reading something. I lean in, show interest, and any query or subvention I offer is almost always welcomed, in any place, in any context. I love this gift Allah has given me, this ability to step past all the nonsense we have created in a dozen millennia, to forge a beautiful albeit temporary communion with another human being over a discrete dimension of their dreams. Education is not a dream, but the exchange within it is elegant and it is honest. In that brief intersection, I put my footprint into their path to their dreams, and it cleanses my soul.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Ramadan 1433

Ramadan is here, a bit quicker than I had expected though :)  I am well into the first day and doing well. I have settled into my new job and location, and I have so much to be thankful for. Last Ramadan, I read through my Koran and wrote a post about each sura. It was a wonderful experience, and the discipline was very comforting. This year, I will read my Koran again, but I want to do something different here. I have decided to write a post about the people in my life who have influenced me, some in very small ways, some in very profound ways. I am not sure how many posts I will produce, but as I write them, I will revisit the lessons I have learned the inspiration I  have borrowed from these individuals. Some of these folks are already mentioned in previous blogs, but I want to single them out again to honor the goodness that they have shared with me.

There is a young man who haunts me these past thirty-eight years. I have an image of him, but I am not sure it is correct. I never talked to him, and probably only saw him a handful of times, yet I think of him often, and he was the first one I thought of today as I thought of people to write about. When I was fourteen, my family moved to Pontiac, Michigan to a very rough side of that rough town. We only stayed there for six months, and I am convinced I would not have survived if we had stayed too much longer. I won't go into the details of the place (I did that in Train Kept A Rollin), but it was a place like none I had seen before or since. Between its iniquities and my weaknesses, I barely escaped with my life, literally. I spent five months in an inner-city school there, and that is where I encountered this young man - I started to say this remarkable young man, but I am not really sure if he was. His memory is though, and I will stick to that.
I moved through the school warily; the violence, drugs, alcohol would rival a rock concert on most days. I found a few friends for security, and we did our best to avoid too much attention. One day, while listening to a few girls talk about their drug-fueled dates the evening before, I noticed him sitting a few tables away. It was a dramatic moment, as he was so comically out of place. Looking back now, I suppose he was as Muslim, a member of the Nation of Islam by his dress and demeanor. He was very serious, immaculately dressed with a bow tie, and carried around a brief case that I am sure got him beat up from time to time.
He was always alone when I saw him, and I never noticed him communicating with anyone. He did not become a major point of interest for me, but I do remember puzzling over his presence there. I thought him single-minded and stoic, and I supposed that was in his mind the only way out of that sewer to a better life. Still, I could not imagine forgoing the immediate environment (no matter how bad it was), its pains and pleasures in pursuit of some future contingency unsure, unsettled, and surely not guaranteed. Whatever lay in the day, had its own security - to walk right past that deliberately and almost contemptuously was an act of personal anarchy that I would not appreciate for several decades.
I love this recontexutalized reality that occasionally constructs itself for me as I revisit old memories with new schema and motive. Looking back and seeing something for the first time (no, not differently as it was a incomplete or incorrect image in the first place) is the closest I get to epiphany. On most occasions, I engineer this new vision while revising incidents in relationships (usually failed) in my desperate attempt to understand something when the only source of enlightenment is long gone. When it happens naturally in other contexts, I make a significant shift towards a semblance of wisdom that then erodes but not completely, leaving me with a small residual gain.
I think about him often, wondering if he made it to where ever he was going. I think about him when I pretend that I don't worry what others think about, when I think I am brave and solely courageous. But most of all I think about him when I am lonely, and I wish I would have had the decency to talk to him all those years ago.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


I don't remember what dreams I held as a child. And later, I had aspirations, but I am not sure they were dreams. I spent much of my life in a juvenile pragmatism, looking forward to the next challenge, forgetting the last. I didn't romanticize many things, other than the books I collected, least of all any semblance of dreams or fulfilling notions of future contentment or bliss. I wasn't unhappy though, as I now realize I was drafting off of other people's dreams, the nobility of their struggles. This borrowed life is lived in the moment, as my bank account, retirement plan, and long-term goals reflect - and now, five decades into this latent lend-lease, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Stepping into to someone else's dream is delicate work, and delicate work is probably not my forte'. Sometimes you are invited in, other times begrudgingly given access, and often you just sort of push your way inside. Perhaps your vision is different: They see the goal, you see the path. Most mysteriously though, you often get involved in another's dream that they don't completely appreciate, or that you actually seem to care more about - this may be the hallmark of teaching.
I see folks dreaming daily, and I am amazed at the manifestations of those endeavors. Yesterday, I saw a man sitting a table in the hallway outside of my office. He was in his thirties,dressed fastidiously, and was carefully and decidedly maneuvering papers around for quite awhile. I knew this dream mechanism - the more he organized, the more he prepared, the better he felt about the coming appeal or proposal. The efficacy of his dream lay at his fingertips at that moment, he would never have anymore control over his destiny than he did over those papers. There was a comfort in his eyes I envied. I hope to see him again, a step closer on his path.
I remember a prostitute in Jamaica who dreamt of reading to get a better job to buy a mattress for her children; children in a refugee camp who dreamt of small shacks with dirt floors and thatched roofs owned not by governments, but by their parents; parents of children in refugee camps that dreamt that their children would survive long enough to leave the camps; first generation college students who dreamt of decent jobs that could feed their families and their brains; students who had suffered horrible childhoods who dreamt of jobs helping others; friends who dreamt of making elegant cakes, poignant stories, inspiring lectures, moving speeches, beautiful music, perfect photographs, happy children.
I have injected myself in some of these dreams, and by doing so, have traded my own for theirs. Probably not very noble, as I will never face the day to day drudgery that can eventually chip away at the corner of dreams gradually dissipating the passion that hydrates them. My dreams are born and reborn daily, and are always as vivid and fresh as the interaction I share with their owners. My strength too is refreshed regularly, and relieved from any nagging notions of selfishness and ego, knowing there is much less guilt in the neglect of my loved ones on behalf of adopted dreams rather than my own.
I told a friend the other day that my life's goal now was probably just making it to my own death, and I suppose he found it morbid or pessimistic. I didn't mean it that way and still don't. There is no light at the end of my tunnel, no grand dream to be realized and cherished at the conclusion of my journey. My eyes are not there, not future focused - rather wrapped warmly around the dreams that inculcate my days, the images and pursuits that fly around me constantly like embracing wraiths as I navigate my way through hundreds of diverse dreams in hundreds of diverse hearts. The end is neither here nor there, but every additional day is a blessing!
I am off now to the tutoring lab to factor a few trinomials, and a few modest and fruitful dreams.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day

I am struggling today (the 4th of July) to appreciate the significance of the day. It has long been my least favorite holiday, as it has come to symbolize not just another intoxicated holiday, but one including drunks and gunpowder. I am also perplexed sometimes by the almost religious fervor my non-religious friends hold for the founding fathers and the constitution. The same folks who sometimes... hold my beliefs in disdain, yet swap an oligarchy for a prophet, allow for a wee bit more flexibility (i.e., amendments and occasional curious supreme court rulings) but not much, and weave their own brand of Sacred notions on a very partisan but curiously incestuous political loom. When I do get to the day though, I arrive at the same place I do when I pray, when I meet a Christian I trust, or any other human who carries themselves with the dignity of a man or woman with a belief system behind them that guides them on an ethical and humane path. People that acquiesce their own wants and needs at times for something not personally constructed. That, in analysis, is what I am reminded of on this day, not a group of men, a paper, wars, or even the sacrifices made in those wars (another level of appreciation, another day). I am reminded that I live in a country that was founded on a set of ideals, and as an American, those ideals should be evident in my thoughts and actions - and others should be able to count on them. As a Muslim, I appreciate this consistency and submission. It is a day I celebrate living in a society where I continue to be guided by those ideals, and most importantly, acknowledge and respect others for the disciplined and sanctified beliefs that direct their lives. This is what is Sacred to me.