How to find light in the darkness

There are conversation that are hard to forget; hard to forgive.

A few years ago, a conversation with a friend turned awry. During our conversation, she brought up the topic of religion. She started with the question: “What does Allah mean?” I explained that the word was an Arabic term for the word God or dios.

I thought that was the end of her curiosity, until she responded with “Allah is not God. My God is not your God.” I was confused my her remark, so I responded with, “Well, there is only one God.” She went on to explain that her God is one of love, mine was one of war. I was deeply hurt by her comment, but I approached it gently. I told her that she may have misunderstood from the media what the meaning of Islam was (I reminded myself that she had never been exposed to another religion).

She was physically worked up; angry that I did not accept her explanation. I began to realize that she was purposely trying to provoke a reaction.

I remember feeling my throat closing and a sharp pain in my gut. The same reaction I feel when I am about to cry and cannot run away.

Then, she said to me, “Everyone knows the evil in your religion; how you have to deceive and befriend Christians in order to “get by” in the world. I don’t know why you are the only one blind to it.”

My friend, whom I treated as part of my family. One of the only people I trusted to care for my children. I felt like collapsing. It is so different when a keyboard warrior attacks you, but when it is a person that you hold in high regard turns on you, how do you respond? I wanted to physically collapse.

I ended the conversation by calling her an “ignorant person” and asked her to leave my home. After she left, I cried a lot.

The details of the conversation are much worse than I can write.

One week after the confrontation, she called to apologize. I accepted her apology and have since tried to repair my relationship with her. We have become friends again, but it has been almost a year and I still feel very hurt when I remember that conversation. The words that hurt the most were “everyone knows about the evil in your religion”. For the past year, I accepted those words from her. I have second guessed many things; the sincerity of my friendships, my Muslim community, among many other things. I have found myself avoiding talks of religion and any conversation that may reveal that I am a firm believer. For the past year, I have been truly afraid that another person I trusted would turn on me, like the comment section of a social media post gone incarnate.

I have become very nervous when people around me bring up topics surrounding Islam. The words, “everyone knows about the evil in your religion” has made me second guess my family and friends, feelings that they are simply to scared to lash out at me in the same way my friend did at my home.

It has been really hard to forget this particular incident, although I have chosen to forgive her. I hold no ill will towards my friend. Although she was wrong, she is not completely at fault. I have accepted to believe that there are many other factors at hand that have influenced the way she reacted that day.

I try to have hope that forgiveness, especially with your loved ones, can start a process of healing for oneself and the world at large. I try to hold on to this idea.

Today, a friend announced that he would give his first sermon at his Methodist Church. He asked the social world for prayers. A prayer that always makes me surrender myself to God on important days came to mind, the Prayer of Light, also known as the prayer of the prophet Muhammed (pbuh). I hesitated to send it to him, but I went ahead and did so in support of his calling to spread the word of God. I had not shared anything Islam-related with anyone in a very long time, so was a little bit afraid of his response. He responded with gratitude and went on to say how beautiful he found Islam. He further explained that he enjoyed the Quran and recitations. His response made me cry. A Christian, a pastor, validating my beliefs as ones that are good.

It took me a few hours to respond emotionally to the message. Tonight, I have cried a lot. I remembered the scar that my friend left a year ago. That feeling of invalidation and spite towards the path that I hold dearest to my heart; that path through which has penetrated every part of my being with Light.

I am recovering from an encounter that has greatly affected the way I express myself religiously, because I am afraid to do so. Today, my pastor-friend’s message has started the healing process.

There are so many other things going through my mind. How are people able to find common ground despite their religious differences? How do we use framework of our chosen religion to better love others? How do we transcend the human limitations of our chosen religion to connect with people from all walks of life? Is that still possible in today’s world? I know it is possible and I need to hold on to this thread of hope to continue to heal emotionally and grow spiritually.

A Stream of Thoughts on Depression and Death

It’s 4.41pm when I begin writing this post.

Just today, I applied to 17 job postings to which I meet the minimum requirements and qualifications. 17 carefully crafted applications in one day. Each submission bringing a new hope and a different vision of how my life could be. Of the various possibilities of my grown up life.

Over the past few months, I decided that I should begin taking career-searching seriously. I mean, I had been running a business for over 2 years quite successfully and profitably. However, the past two months with the critical illness of my father, I have fallen into a depression.

This is the story of my great depression.

It’s only been two months since my father fell critically ill and my family went through the hell of his near-death experience that eventually lead to an amputation of his right leg. He had lost the left leg to diabetes 18 years ago, when I was eight years old. I still remember when my dad returned home from the hospital after his first amputation. I spent a whole week without looking at him. I was afraid of what I would see (or would not see). I remember him feeling hurt, but taking it slowly with me. Not my brother, though. My brother jumped right on my dad to hug and kiss him. One day, he asked me if I wanted to see it, and I was afraid, but said yes. He showed me the stitch marks and I asked him, “is that it?” I lost my fear. Truth is, that while he had been hospitalized for 3 months, I had convinced myself that he had died and that the father who had returned home was a robot that my mom ordered so that we wouldn’t have to feel so bad about my dad. I had nightmares of my father being a robot for weeks, or months.

Over the past months, I have fallen apart emotionally, psychologically. Waking up in the middle of the night yelling in panic because I had dreamt that I was in the surgery room while surgeons patiently and painstakingly amputated my father’s legs and rewired him back together. Like an automobile. Like the inner plumbing of your kitchen sink. Our bodies. They are nightmares. And doctors, their hands.

Four years ago, I vowed never to have an alcoholic drink again. I became Muslim and this was my big step. Three weeks ago, I had an entire bottle of cheap wine and cried myself to sleep. For those who aren’t regular wine drinkers, the sensation goes like this: you take a sip and get goosebumps all over your body. The hairs stick right up. After a few sips, the cheap wine begins to taste bitter; it never tastes sweet as it should. After many sips, you begin to feel numbness on your skin, hands and things move a bit slower. It’s like anesthesia running through your veins. My husband came home to a mumbling wife. It’s truly tragic to think about what I have become over the months. A depressive maniac who cries and yells from macabre nightmares.

I have another confession. This one is worse, but please just listen. This one made me cry for a long time. Two weeks ago, I decided to spend the day with my 15 month year old daughter, so I kept her from daycare. I went to the yarn store with her because I wanted to make her something warm for the approaching cold weather. It was 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I left her inside the car. I did. She grew quiet while driving and since I wasn’t used to having her with me during the week, I simply forgot her and left her in the car when I went shopping. My hairs are raised just remembering what I did–to remember that my daughter could potentially suffocate because my head is no longer clear. It’s a confession that I am deeply ashamed and disturbed by. At the store, I suddenly remembered that my baby was in the car, dropped the 6 packs of holiday-colored ribbons on the ground and ran out of the store screaming with tears in my eyes. When I found her she was sweating, but she was okay. Thank God. She was okay. I cried myself to sleep that night too and had more nightmares. My head is no longer clear. I love my daughter and am usually the best mother. But, this day, I failed.

I applied to 17 jobs today, because I need healthcare. My husband’s healthcare cannot be extended to us (for reasons I can’t go into now), and I need healthcare. I end up tossing myself in cold showers every time I get a fever as to avoid the hospital. Over the past 6 months, I have applied to over 80 jobs that I qualify for and nothing. Nothing to show for a Master’s degree and plenty of unpaid student loans. No way to pay those loans back without a steady job. Lenders won’t stop calling and I tell them the same story, “I am unemployed, cannot pay anything and that I wish I could.” I really wish I could pay my bills–it leaves me satisfied and I used to enjoy watching my credit score go up a few points each time I paid off any bill.

After my father’s amputation 1 month ago, I lost interest in my consulting business and just let it fall apart slowly. I get work every now and then, but mostly, I get a bunch of hagglers. My desperation stinks and they can smell it. What I used to charge Whole Foods value, I now charge at Walmart price. I hate being the Walmart of College Consulting. It’s pathetic.

I really need to know if we are going through a something like the 1930s Great Depression. There has to be an explanation why I cannot find employment with a Master’s degree. I remind myself that I am bilingual, fairly good looking (looks count), smart, have 3 degree all with honors, solid work experience, I have so many skills…I am a good catch. Yes, there must be another explanation about things that are beyond out control.

I bomb most interview. Never get the job. Yet, I am overqualified for any minimum wage job to get by until I find a good position. Most employers think that someone with a Master’s will demand a higher salary, so they simply never call. People without college degree, I think, tend to stay at their jobs for longer periods of time because they are perceived as less ambitious. I am not ambitious. I just need to be employed. I need healthcare.

It’s 4am and I am staring at my computer, rewriting this post, yet it all sounds like the same old thing.

Watching Chuck on Netflix.

I prayed today, but I didn’t feel anything. That anesthetic effect is taking over me, but I can still feel my husband toes on my toes. I measure his love by his efforts to intertwine his legs and toes with mine while he sleeps. This is the measurement of love. Of affection. Of marriage.

Hands are numb and it’s getting hard to type.

High tides; A love story.

I used to believe that we shared things–
Like the moon.

And I trusted that a current would instinctually bring us together
The same way in which birds flock to the South in the Winter.
We were part of natural order.

I used to believe that all things were written in a large, unalterable Book;
but I learned that God never paid attention to the details.
We write those ourselves.

When I learned you were back, I was in traffic–
waiting for the light to change.
I knew I would not call, so I rolled down my window–
taking a deep breath.

I still believe that we share things–
like the salty, coastline wind;
and that the tides reconcile our differences.

As time dissipates and waves wear at our spirits,
I search for a trinket–
a manifestation of a good memory; my good story.
It makes me feel juvenile.

I believe we share things–
like recollections of springtide.

[A draft, always].

Another Conversation with Mami

It isn’t often that I find good moments to talk with my mother about Islam. The first time I told her I was Muslim, we were stuck in traffic jam for an hour. We talked a lot that day. Soon after that conversation, I haven’t really found the time nor the place…nor the courage….to bring up the subject again. I am so afraid to hurt her, that I do not want to bring up a subject that may cause her confusion, discomfort…

Well, today she got stung by an insect. Her foot swelled up real bad. She said that perhaps she got stung by the bichos (insects) that give lyme disease or yellow fever. I told her I have no idea what she was talking about…She said her bones hurt and that perhaps the small insect bite would be the rotten thing that kills her…. I told her it would stop swelling if she puts her foot in a hot bath…She agreed. So, I prepared for her a water bath for her swollen foot. She threw in fresh mint. She said it would kill the bacteria. We both sat in the living room together without the television and she asked me why I wanted to leave in a week.

Me: I need to get work done…

Mom: But school doesn’t start until late September…you will be so lonely there.

Me: I know…but I think I just want to go back.

Mom: Don’t go back so soon…I will be lonely here.

Me: The truth is mom…

Mom: …

Me: You know, “we” celebrate Ramadan.

Mom: (laughs) who is “we”? and what is Ramanan?

Me: Ramadan is the month that Muslim fast, mom. Remember, I told you that it’s one of those main things “we” do besides pray and give money to the poor…remember?

Mom: Oh, yea…so what is the problem with celebrating Ramadan here with us?

Me: I am afraid you won’t understand….

Mom: Well then tell me what I have to do…

Me: You dont have to do anything. I will fast; not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset.

Mom: So why can’t you do that here?

Me: Because you are always trying to feed me…and you put ham in my food last week… remember…?

Mom: it’s was just a little ham, hija. I didn’t know…I forgot.

Me: I know you forgot. I know you don’t know…

Mom: It was just little pieces of ham, I didn’t know. I thought you just couldn’t eat pork…

Me: Yea. I don’t eat any pig product. I don’t eat gummi bears anymore, you know…

Mom: Gummi bears? They’re just gummi bears…

Me: But they are made with Gelatin. It’s a pig product…so I don’t eat them.

Mom: Wow…gummi bears…

Me: Yea.

Mom: Well, I want to respect you “things”… So, what kind of food should I make for you?

Me: Just make a lot of rice…but without ham or pork. And beans, I like your black beans, they’re good…

Mom: Ok, just tell me what to cook for you…

Me: Ok…but remember…please, not before sunset, ok?

Mom: Will you stop celebrating Christmas with your family now?

Me: I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I will still buy you presents.

Mom: How about the Christmas tree?

Me: Yea, I guess. Can we call it a holiday tree?

Mom: Sure…(laughs)

Me:…(laughs)

Mom: How about the pork on Noche Buena?

Me: No pork, Mami…

Mom: It’s ok, I can make you some chicken on Noche Buena, so you can eat with us too.

Me: I like chicken…

Mom: Do you cover your head?

Me: sometimes…

Mom: Oh… Does it get hot?

Me: It’s hot without it…

Mom: true…

Me: I always wear it to pray…

Mom: When do you pray?

Me: Everyday…remember mom? The 5 “main things” I told you about?

Mom: Oh yea…you Muslims pray a lot. But praying is good…

Me: Yea…

Mom: Do you tell everyone you are Muslim?

Me: Some people know, some people I don’t really care to tell them anything…

Mom: Oh…

Me:…

Mom: just ten cuidado, hija. (“Be careful, daughter”).

NY Subway Scene # 2

I really think that if I sat in the subway all day with a notebook and pencil, I could get enough material to write a series of books. Definitely comics. I guess I would just need both talents: writing and drawing to make a successful living out of it. It could be my 9 to 5, I suppose. I don’t think I would ever get bored of watching the people around me.

This takes me to my new subway story.

For some reason or another, yesterday happened to be the day when all Dominican men I met were fascinated by my hijab. In the morning, on the way to Columbus Circle with my girlfriend, I sat on the subway across three Dominican men. One was about my age, one was his father, the third was a friend who was about 50 y/o.  The conversation went something like this. (For readers’ ease, I will translate the conversation to English as much as possible)

Some: Look, she is all tapada (Spanish for “covered up).

Father: Si! Those Muslim women cover up everything.

Son: But, how can it be! Why would they cover?

Father: They cover completitas! They cover so the men can’t see their bodies.

Son: No joda! Spanish expression for “Don’t mess with me!”

Father: They cover their hair, and even walk around in burkas and everything!…but they’re OK. They don’t look that bad. They’re alright.

Son: Yea, better than being naked I suppose.

At this point, I decided to look at the son and smile politely. I looked over at my friend while he was still staring at me and said to her, “ellos se piensan que no entiendo espanol” (Spanish for: They think I don’t understand Spanish). My friend, not understanding any Spanish just nodded with confusion. The son looks at his father and says “la muy cabrona entiende todo!” (Spanish for: The little bastard understands everything). The three men looked at me with embarrassment and laughed. If my girlfriend’s parents weren’t with us, I might have just started a conversation in Spanish with them.

Raw Conversations

Conchita: Have you ever heard the voice of someone who’s deaf? The voice is crude and ancient , because it has no sense of direction or place, because it doesn’t hear itself and it doesn’t know if anybody else in the world hears it. Sometimes I want to have a long conversation with you, like this. Like a deaf person. As if I couldn’t hear you or myself. But I would just talk and talk, and say everything that comes to my mind, like a shell that shouts with the voice of the sea and it doesn’t care if anybody ever hears it. That’s how I want to speak to you, and ask you things.

(Anna in the Tropics, Nilo Cruz)

My Father’s Stories

One of the earliest memories I have is going to my parents’ room around the age of 5 because I was too scared to fall sleep. My mom let me sleep between her and my father. Sometimes, if they were still awake, I would ask him to tell me un cuento. His cuentos were about his adventures as a mischievous kid in Cuba. The story’s climax usually involved him and his cousins breaking something or hurting someone (in the way all boys who run freely do). I always predicted the end of the stories: his return home and his father beating him. I liked these stories. I always laughed.

As I got older, I stopped asking my father for stories. My father took me to school every single day from middle school until the end of high school. On the ride to school, he told me stories. On the way back home, he told me stories. I never really listened to the morning stories because I was too sleepy. I never listened to the afternoon stories because I was usually thinking about drama with friends or boys. During highschool I felt too cool to hear his stories about how things were back in his day. Sometimes, on our drive back home, we would spot high school kids walking home. If their pants were below their waist, he would remind me how elegantly he used to dress despite the fact that he was poor when he arrived from Cuba. “I may have been poor,” he said, “but my pants always fit me.” Of course, this is my own politically correct version of his words.

My father stopped taking me to school when I started the university. I already had my car. My red Ford Focus. My dad still drove my brother, though. Since my father is handicapped, we all knew that driving us to school was what gave him a sense of purpose. Once my brother and I no longer needed him to drive us around, I know he felt a sense of uselessness. What was worse is that he could no longer tell us sarcastic and politically incorrect tales that always made us either laugh really hard or scold him for making a really racist remarks. My father isn’t racist really, but he knows that our generation is different. We (my generation is America) like to be polite in what he calls an hypocritical way. So, he just believes in saying it straight out as he sees it. I admire him for that. We all hide behind so much political correctness that we become censored out of fear. It’s a double-edged sword, I guess.

Now that I am in grad school and really thinking about narratives and stories, I wish that I could remember the stories my father used to tell me. Sometimes he told the same story twice, but changed some details, making the same story interesting and new. Sometimes, he would make up stories. When a friend once came over my house, my father used to talk to him about the military. My friend was in the military and liked to hear my dad’s stories. My dad knew that Jon liked his stories. Sometimes, he would spend over an hour telling him stories about his time in the Army, how use used to go deep-sea diving, shooting, sky diving. Things I never knew my father did, and things I’m still not sure he really did at all. But they made good stories. My friend liked hearing his stories so much that sometimes I would get angry at my dad for taking up my time. It makes me laugh now.

About nine months ago, I asked my father to write about his experience coming to the United States from Cuba. I was in Columbus and he was in Miami. And I told him that I was doing a narrative project and wanted to do it on his experience coming to the United States. I asked him to write down everything he remembered. At first he got excited. Deep inside, I know my father and I know he is dying for an audience. He wants to tell his story. He said, “Ok, I will write for you. When do you need it by?” I said, “In two months.” And he responded, “But Mami, it will take many many pages to write my story. I think I will just write about the many girls I met when I was young and handsome…but you can’t show your mother.” We both laughed. Something about telling his story both excited him and frightened him. I wonder if it writing would help him reconcile any bad memory. Or, if it would pry open old wounds.

He never wrote down the experience as I asked him to do. He is using his loss of vision as an excuse. Or perhaps it isn’t an excuse. Perhaps he really can’t see well enough to write. I don’t know. But I know that I don’t want his story to disappear with him. Other than my father, my family (mother, grandmothers, grandfathers, etc) never shared their past with me.

I like to think that life is just a collection of stories. Stories have beginnings and endings. Like moments in our lives. If I think too hard about some moments in my life, they become painful. Even the best memories cause pain because they are gone…When we transform them into tales, then we can manipulate them (like the details in my father’s stories that always change). As fantasies, we can rewrite or relive them. And we can continue living…