Mandatory reflection

This is an old post from autumn of 2006 that I thought deserved a re-run.
A couple of nights ago, I went out a night stroll.
I went out, leaving Svend doing his homework in front of “The Towering Inferno,” and Raihana playing on the carpet. I must be selfish and seek my inner space, I thought.
Then I came back in and said, “Wanna go for a walk?” I put her in the baby bjorn, and off we went.I want her to have some memory of peaceful nighttime family walks. She should know that she had not simply hours of watching ammi and abbu at their screens. Our evenings are so predictable: we’re sitting in front of the boob tube, with our laptops on in front of us. (Note: since we kicked cable, our evenings have changed).

I know I am who I am because I’ve spent hours and hours of boredom – yes, in my new life in the US we’d call it boredom. I would sit alone and idle, outdoors in the garden (we call it a “garden” not a “yard” – so much more picturesque, no?) in hot Lahore evenings, surrounded by the heavy fragrance of champa flowers. Boring, but profoundly shaping of the person I am today. Or long prayer vigils outside under the dark starry sky, as the isha adhan went up. There I would be reading long rosaries of Rabbi innee lima anzalta ilayya min khayrin faqeer (28:24) – (and NOT because ammi said you would get married if you recited that.) Where, today, do I have the hours of leisure to indulge in that luxury?

Those were the days, the mid-to-late 1980s, when I had no machine higher than the old Remington typewriter that accompanied us from England in the 70’s. TV was not terribly interesting. TV is now perpetually interesting. It holds endless promise. And even if there is only “The Golden Girls” and “Magnum P.I.” on, at least you can endlessly click the clicker in hopes of finding “Good Times” at least. In those days, at the most, you’d have “Dehleez” or some other Amjad Islam Amjad Urdu drama serial playing. And for that, you had to wait till Friday evening. Friday evening 8pm to 9pm, and then paradise was over and you returned to the world of Khabarnama (the news).

The entire city shut down for those drama serials, so rare were they: my father, a doctor, got very upset with them. He shut his clinic at 9pm, and sure enough, just as he was getting ready to go home, those patients showed up on their Vespa scooters with their coughing infants – “Drama vekh keh aajanday ne” (They finish watching their drama serial and then they show up). He hated having to stick around at the clinic for that paltry Rs. 30 for a paracetamol, or an injection, and he resented that his patients enjoyed their TV while he was stuck in his hot clinic, and then they kept him there 10 minutes longer.

Apart from the drama serial there was, for people like us, “Trapper John, MD.” And that appeared in snippets that survived the censor board, so that you could barely make any sense of what the hell happened.

And then there were days and nights where “load shedding” caused power outages so long you didn’t think that the Lord would allow such things to happen in the world. And yet they happened. Hot humid Julys with no fans or air-conditioners were pure misery. In the still air, sweaty and dull, you could not but reflect on the nature of the cosmos.

Thinking back of those nights and evenings, I’d like to make a spiritual exercise mandatory for myself.

Going outside. By myself. Preferably at night. Surrounded by trees. Surrounded by moonlit silence.
I’ve compared the indoors and outdoors experiences. Something about being indoors insulates me from opening my soul up. Something about light bulbs, indoor air, walls, concrete, carpeting, – is unhelpful to my soul.

This was one thing that disturbed me about living in the city in Washington, DC. Going out was no improvement over staying indoors. Our landlady had this overgrown berry-tree that deposited unhappy berries in smooshed piles on our doorstep. Fruit flies and ants proliferated on the steps where I wanted to sit and watch the moon. The overgrown weeds on the sides seemed to be there precisely to raise families of insects. And if the bugs were not there, the police car was almost always there at our corner, monitoring that group house with the pesky dog and the hostile young men. Outside was not a pleasant experience.

Outside in Islamabad, at the Islamic University women’s hostel, on the balcony–now *that* was outside. I was amazed there, by how many more stars were visible in Islamabad than in Lahore. And then, running to prayer across the cold, cold marble floors of Faisal Masjid, with the dark, dark hills towering over us. I’d be saying “I’m here, I’m here.” THAT was outside.

Here in Athens, too, there are tall trees, the moon over them, quiet air, and few passersby.

Reflecting, or just breathing, outdoors in the quiet, should be essential for such sleepy drowsy souls as myself.

I must allow Raihana to experience that. And then, when she needs it, she can draw on the memory.

I need it for myself too. There are spaces in our souls where no one else ventures, and we are alone with the One.

Darkness, aloneness, silence, and stillness outside help us hear the harmony within. Sometimes the sounds in my head are not pleasant. When I wake up and I hear the commercial jingles stuck in my head, looping around and around, I am upset with what I do to my evenings. I wish, instead, that I stuck my head in a freezer.

Or ran out barefoot in the quiet night, moon or not, mountains or not. And looked up and said, “I’m here, I’m here.”

Remind me if i forget.

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3 Replies to “Mandatory reflection”

  1. Your desire to be with the Divine is really moving; it touches something deep inside, stirs up something very real yet intangible, reminds you of that passionate yearning to be with Him that we all carry somewhere within. Please do mention me in your duas.

    “Rabbi inni lima anzalta ilayya min khayrin faqir.”

    –faqirat al-fuqara

  2. I just recently discovered your blog, many thanks for sharing such profound thoughts! As an aside, much as we’d like to share our “places of stillness” with our children, they usually develop their own. Coming from a coastal city, I still ache for the long, solitary afternoons on a desolate beach where each crashing of waves bore testimony to the Absolute Authority of the One, but my children (being raised inland) often find their faith renewed in the huge, empty spaces of our quiet rural town. In time, Raihana’s own space to reconnect may yet surprise you …

  3. very moving…
    i’m curious about whether or not you’ve been to either mecca or medina–and if yes, about your experiences there.

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