Old and new

We have moved to Champaign, Illinois. I am now working in a new faculty position at Millikin University, teaching Global Studies and Anthropology. Much has changed for the better. It is a great relief to make a fresh start, working with good people.

Today, Svend, Raihana and I went for jum’ah prayers at the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center (I sometimes type the abbreviation COMIC by mistake). The khutbah was a snoozer, not at all likely to make you sit up and weep for spiritual delight (Zogby poll results on Americans’ impressions of religious groups, anyone?)  But we sat in a large hall, and when I stood up to pray, the imam was visible straight ahead. When I glanced to my left, I saw Svend standing up next to Raihana in the men’s rows, just a few feet away. We finished the prayer, and then we got a mosque meal, and created our own little pocket of ‘gender-mixing’ as we ate together.

It feels very strange to be at this mosque now in 2012. I was here in the late 1990s a few times. At that time, a prayer hall where women prayed along with men was very rare, in my experience. I visited Champaign-Urbana from Indiana University, seeking a connection with Muslim student groups. Then I was invited, as one of a very few female speakers, to speak to the annual convention attendees. I was a hijabi, very MSA; my Sufism was downplayed because Sufism was, at that time, still a little dangerous in North American Islamic circles. I was single too, and at this mosque, I was suddenly reminded of how naive I was. Every scruffy young man, trailing into the mosque with his backpack and looking for a plate of food, was a prospect (though my behavior was entirely above reproach). Ah, youth. It is nice to be such an old married woman that I barely notice any man except Svend who is trying very hard to get Raihana to pray properly in congregation.

If I look back, like Daenerys in ‘Song of Ice and Fire,’ I am lost. I wonder why I am no longer youthful, naive, expectant, and always in a state of emotional turmoil, vulnerable to every sight of beauty and majesty.

To be static seems a kind of death.  But being 44 instead of 29, married and a mother instead of single, having surmounted a variety of obstacles and having NOT changed the world or achieved dizzying heights of success — all of these things must perforce make you wiser and calmer. Now we look ahead calmly, feeling that instead of strange mysterious mountain peaks, what lies ahead is a landscape more akin to the flat lands of Illinois. I can see exactly what lies around me. I cannot be sure what lies ahead, but I know that the skies I behold now are  clearer, the landscape older and well-trodden. This makes for a slightly less exciting journey, but a less fearful one as well. This year, when I hit 44, I felt that I truly grew older as never before.