Just Cancer

In the urban institutional expanse of the hospital where I see an oncologist, I am taking a moment to recoup my emotional energy. I just saw my breast cancer specialist. She spent 3 minutes walking her fingertips over my breast and armpit area. I am full of gratitude. She is spending time on my damaged body. She is examining it for traps and hidden venom, pitfalls, lumps, tumors, ways that my body can betray me, silently and surreptitiously.

It is nothing. Just scar tissue. This time.

I am overwhelmed for some reason. Why? This is a journey I have made innumerable times now. It is June 12, 2019. My abbu’s birthday, by the way, as far as we know. The first birthday we will not celebrate, because he died in September.

It is also the tenth anniversary, plus one month, of my discovery of breast cancer the first time. May 2009, when I was completing my first year on the tenure track, and preparing to enjoy the summer and the time to enjoy health insurance checkups like ‘free’ mammograms. Hurrah.

“There’s something,” my kind, young Indian doctor back in Oklahoma had said, “but it’s probably nothing. Come back and we’ll check.” It was something. Come back, and we’ll do a biopsy. Oh, wait. That’s something. And then the phone call. I had been alone at home, and there were the words: aggressive; so sorry; surgery.

Most of this journey, despite my little family, I undertook alone. The American workplace was relatively kind to my husband, allowing him a few hours a few days here and there, but most of my journeys were alone.

Burned into my memory, that first drowsy drive back to Stillwater from Oklahoma City, alone, from a Surprise We have Chemo For You, Sooner the Better. And a kid’s birthday party in the evening, where I couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to socialize, and I emerged to vomit all over the parking space. Then the mercifully short drives to and from chemotherapy in town. The helpful offers to pick and drop my 3 year old from preschool; the helpful offers drying up, turning into an occasional impatient snide comment – rarely, but oh it hurt, how it hurt, how it still hurts, because of how alone I was.

That night in summer 2009 when I was putting away food and the post-chemo meds hit me, and I wilted over the stove in the kitchen, and my 3-year old found me there. She took one look at me, asked me, Mama, are you okay? And then took my hand, and told me firmly, “Let’s go to bed, Mama” and led me to my room, and snuggled down with me. She shouldn’t have to be my parent, but how alone I was. In those hot, baking summers, miles and miles from family and friends, relying only on a man.

We hadn’t been married long – eight years seems like a lot, but we were still working out the rough edges of the relationship. We were living out in Oklahoma – no family, no friends, and an astoundingly toxic workplace. I was still bald when I got the letter that said I wasn’t going to be reappointed because of teaching issues (student evaluations: the score was skewed by one student in a class of five. See how I feel like I have to explain?) Exhausted in body and mind, I was plunged into a world of legal discussions, diversity officers who didn’t do anything, an incestuous world of faculty and administrators who ended up being a united front against the brown Muslim interloper who had the audacity of opinions, who kept publishing stuff and didn’t just hand out A’s. Most of the women in my program, including the White feminist scholar and the immigrant woman of color, shook their heads in saintly compassion at my disease and then stabbed me in the back with relish. The provost overruled their decision and I was reappointed, but they were going to hound me out, he implied; “you don’t really want to stay with a department like this, do you?” I knew I was alone.

At that time, in 2012, I was courted by the small private college, Millikin University. The mentor gave me a hefty course teaching schedule that started at 8am, with a one hour commute. Could we please start a bit later? I didn’t want to use the c word. I am a survivor, but I just started here so I can’t tell them my sob stories. The mentor snapped at me: “First do your time, then ask for accommodations.” I did my time. A year later, the Dean, a poet, in a turf war with my hiring department, handed me my termination. No reason. Cutting costs. Nobody came to my aid. People withdrew into the safety of their offices and said not a word.

There were those few months when I had one boob, and wore a prosthetic. My boob was alone. It was a relief to get the full mastectomy and not be asymmetrical. There was the time when I was still vomiting and drowsy after a partial mastectomy. Around midnight, the hospital resident told us we had to leave. Not allowed to stay overnight, he said. But I’m nauseated, I said. They handed me a paper bag, put me in a wheelchair, and carted me out to the car. An endless hour-long journey from Oklahoma City to Stillwater, in and out of consciousness, fresh from surgery. Oops, the Oklahoma University Medicine folks said afterward, too bad.

But let’s return to today. Let’s check one more checkup off the list. Symptoms, I say, the same and more. Side effects of the hormonal therapy. See the eye bags? Insomnia.

Last week, I came in for an ultrasound. I’ve been feeling what might be lumps for months now, embarrassed to tell the doctors, embarrassed for a Gah It’s Nothing visit that costs me $100. Include the day it takes me to get to the downtown parking garage, and the writing I could be doing instead of this. The lump today was nothing. Cancer is a bloody waste of time. it is a research project. It is a running around from office to office. And then the potential employer says, “Wait, you didn’t publish anything that year? Oh, cancer. But that’s too bad.”

The lump today was nothing. Until the bulging black and white images on the screen, it was Something. This could be another. This could take up the entire summer, like the summer of 2009, of 2016. Or it could be the end of summers. There’s always that possibility. You have to live with a trajectory mapped out in your head. Cancer messes up your trajectory, because your satellites have to be ready to create a new navigational path at any time. It’s tiring to be ready. All the time. And you have to be ready alone, because nobody has the bloody time or energy to do this readiness with you. It is not time-limited. The readiness is open-ended and endless. And the readiness is all. You are a vacuum, a lack of plans, an openness, in sweat pants, ratty sneakers, and eye-bags surrounded by a whole lot of planning in tailored suits and coffee cups striding to the train station.

And there’s always something. A lump. A tenderness. A twinge. Fatigue. They just throw up their hands and say Sigh. There is no clarity. Just Cancer.

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My Eid prayers; or, Why men and women need to pray in the same prayer area, or No More Balconies

This is what I saw during the prayer.

We went for Eid prayers to this masjid.

The people were nice. I should be specific: some were nice to my gora husband, and then to me. But as soon as I arrived, in the space of a few seconds, at least two people insistently told us “You have to go upstairs. That’s the women’s area. THIS is the men’s area over there. You have to go upstairs.”

Calm down. I’m not trying to check out your men. I’m all set.  

My husband introduced me to a man he’d met during taraweeh. We exchanged a few courtesies in the lobby. An officious lady started saying “Salah is starting, let’s go” and grabbed my arm and steered me toward the musalla. Maybe the sister was offended by my husband, myself, and a brother speaking politely with each other.

MIXING!! Who knows what’s going to happen next, right here in the lobby! 

People: as we say to our toddlers: “Use your words, not your hands!” I told her thank you, grabbed her hand and removed it physically from my arm as a (hopefully) clear signal. Yes, dear sister: I am going to the musalla. I am here at the masjid at the time of Eid prayer precisely because I’m going to the musalla. I am not here for the suffocating heat and the crush of people in the staircase. 

We settled in our places – my husband downstairs in the men’s musalla, and my daughter and I upstairs in the balcony. The dream of a family mosque remains in the future. Or elsewhere.

It’s ok, I told myself. Nice mosque. Nice community. Pray the prayer. Be a good example for your daughter. Roll with the punches.

Once the prayer started, the confusion began.

It’s important to know what the imam is doing. For Eid prayers, most of us do not rehearse Eid prayers during the year. Those of us who aren’t really diligent and meticulous forget the 7-takbeers in each rak’ah issue. Eid prayers, as you know, brings together a diverse congregation, many of whom do not normally attend congregational prayer. 

You could see that the balcony was longer than it was wide, so only the first row of women could see the imam and the congregation. I’m sure this was not deliberate. That is not the point. We should learn from the results of these architectural and structural decisions. Mosque after mosque is constructed and structured in such a way that women are left out in the cold.

Even I, who have been praying Eid prayers for decades, forget the 7 takbeers sometimes. Having others to follow and learn from is the whole point of congregational prayer and congregational practice.

But the imam was for men. We could not see him.

In the second rak’ah, the Allah Akbars started racking up, and there was disarray all over the ranks in the women’s musalla. Some are already in prostration. Some are in ruku’. Some are standing and doing takbeers like they ought to. My daughter next to me is down in sujud. I touch her arm to signal her to stand. As I do so, I realize that the standing-takbeers are over, and in the confusion, I too lost track of the count.

Over the bodies of a few prostrating women in the row before me, I can now – for the first time – see a glimpse of the congregation downstairs, and they are in prostration.

So I quickly go down. I’m annoyed and rattled.

Instead of praying, I’m shouting in my head, this is why we should pray in one prayer area.

It’s okay, folks, nothing will happen with men and women in the same area. We will all learn, in fact, from existing in the same and behaving in a moral fashion. And if something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, and this is the world Allah created with sexual instincts and biology, and we are navigating that by Allah’s will. 

Once the prayer ends, I try to calm myself, and remind my daughter to listen to the Eid sermon silently.

But the khateeb is mumbling. The only thing worse than a shouting khateeb is a mumbling khateeb.

The mike is ineffective. We cannot hear him. We hear snatches of And Allah says in the Quran [Arabic Arabic Arabic] [English English English mumble mumble].

It is pointless. I give up and take selfies with my daughter. I help out the young mom who is struggling to keep her toddler from escaping. It is a better use of time than trying to be silent for the imam.

Officious Lady is standing in the back glowering her disapproval.

And the Eid prayer is over.

Still an immigrant Eid

Erna Dolmazova Celebration Of Loneliness 

Eid depresses me as an immigrant.

The Moon Wars – this phenomenon of two or three different Eid days because some people must wait to see the moon with the naked eye, and others accept the more reliable astronomical calculation – exacerbate our isolation. Today, for instance: we hurried to go to Eid namaz at our nearby mosque, only to find it shuttered. It turned out that they were celebrating Eid by the moonsighting method. The moonsighters were up late-late last night, waiting for moonsighting reports.

An email was sent at 1am to confirm that Eid prayer was not to be held today.

Yes, we missed that 1am email. Hence the ludicrous display of a small family, including a child, dressed in their Eid finery, knocking desolately at a quiet, empty mosque.

Most of the people we typically hang out with are celebrating Eid tomorrow. The others are celebrating with their parents and in-laws in the exurbs.

My spouse took a day off today. Then we discovered that the one Eid get-together we had planned was moved to Wednesday. Now my spouse is spending the day working at home to compensate for that additional day he has to take off. So festive.

Being isolated for Eid, having to scrounge and scavenge for time with my family, – these are all just ways for me to focus to a fine stabbing point how much Eid generally depresses me as an immigrant. And I’ve got a family. Imagine how much worse it could be, and how much worse it is for so many.

This is also the first Eid with abbu not in this world. My world back in the homeland has changed, and is threatening complete change.

Having an Eid prayer where we can see people, feel real, yes this is a celebration, look at all those people celebrating – having places to go, are all ways for me to bury those feelings.

Too often, I am left with no ways to bury my ambivalence. 

So much have we moved around (for work, not by choice) that every bit of community has to be hard-earned by effort and travel, waiting for it to bear fruit in natural camaraderie. At which point, I suspect, we will have to move again.

Every little obstacle is another way to kill the vibe. Even the very hard voice on the automated call from Chicago Public Schools telling me your child has an unexcused absence from school today threatens to kill the Eid vibe.

I’m irritable. I’m struggling, cooking desserts and lamb chops on my own, to clean the house and make it Eid-worthy (no, no special Eid decorations; getting the dishes done was our achievement) and to plan things to do.

Ultimately I am tired and frustrated because it is not fun. It is too hard. My body is tired. My heart is weary. I am sleep deprived from Ramzan. And now my family are annoyed by my irritability. So now I am truly alone. Eid Mubarak. May God forgive us, and some day may we all be granted the Home which abides.

So today this poem I wrote in 2005 is 14 years old, and still relevant.

Kids plugged into the Internet. ALL DAY LONG. (Hello, schools)

In the past few years, I’ve seen computers take over my child’s life.

And when I say “take over,” I’m talking about a hostile take over. Not as a useful tool, but as a pervasive presence. As a germ that has insinuated itself into my child’s glorious imaginative world, her adult-level reading skills, and her ability to think independently. In Grade 7, my child’s reading level is affected, she speaks in internet-speak, and she is obsessed with memes and popular culture. Her strong spirit is also full of anguish that she finds herself addicted to the internet.

Who did this? you ask.

SCHOOL.

My child reports that kids at school are using computers ALL DAY LONG in the classroom. The internet is required for all kinds of assignments, so there is no unplugging almost at all.

She can’t unplug even when she gets home, because there is a large quantity of homework, and all of it relies on – you guessed it – the internet.

This is happening in the US, the UK (see this article: “Children are tech addicts – and schools are the pushers”), and elsewhere.

Dear schools, teachers, Education practitioners:

Are students using computers ALL DAY LONG in your classrooms? Because that’s what this parent sees. Especially in grade 7, my child reports that kids are on the internet, goofing off, REGULARLY. ALL DAY LONG.

I cannot understand how a child’s intellectual and holistic development can occur if their minds are constantly consuming junk, porn, computer games, memes, popular music all day long. My own child’s absorption in the internet is harmless except that it’s pervasive.

I have received the occasional complaint from teachers that my child has been referring to the laptop – which is always in her possession at school – when she is not supposed to. I have asked teachers, repeatedly, if the laptops can’t be removed from children’s possession at certain times of the school day.

I am told that this is impossible.

I find this impossible to believe.

Even as an adult, the only way I can function is by removing my devices from my possession during certain times of the day. How is it that, with children’s malleable minds, we are throwing them to the wolves of the internet ALL DAY LONG? For my part, I use internet and social media blockers to boost my productivity. But teens and tweens can’t use them; because these are their sources for school research ALL DAY LONG.

I have wrestled with this perpetual presence of the internet in my child’s life.

Do you know what beats me every time? Not her stubbornness. Not my own lack of supervision.

Homework. In Grade 7, it is almost ENTIRELY based on the internet.

I wonder, when I -as an academic trained in Education – see this, as to what curricular and pedagogical knowledge and skills my daughter’s teachers are putting into practice.

At age eleven, my daughter was evaluated as reading at adult levels. Her grades in literacy have dropped.

She knows this. She wants to escape. But there is no support. There are no escape routes. At school, the laptops are constantly in their possession. At home, homework – on laptops – is constantly a presence.

I have heard no conversations at her school about how to control the harmful and deadening, numbing presence of the internet in kids’ lives. I have reached out to ask teachers if they will reign in their required use of laptops, and this suggestion has been rejected.

Do we have to kick homework – especially the cut and paste busy work – in order to kick the internet addiction? I am currently leaning that way. Because I am not seeing signs that schools practice any of the recommendations for preventing screen addiction.

Is it because these schools are “cash cows” for Silicon Valley, while the children of Silicon Valley elites attend low-tech schools?

“Pretty much every elite school I encounter is low-tech or no-tech (especially no edutainment) except limited, very high-end stuff. Instead they’re low staff-pupil ratio and pay teachers well, which public schools don’t—especially with such low rates of taxes paid by corporations.” – Zeynep Tufekci

I suspect this is the case.

That through an addiction to technology, we are training a new generation of unimaginative conformist low-wage workers unable to think for themselves.

Teachers, school, and homework have thrown our children to the wolf of the internet.

If schools do not fight this invasion and takeover, we will have to fight the schools.

A really fun book on contemporary philosophical questions

I like this book. But the title is misleading – it is not a book that is only about Marx. It’s a reflection on contemporary questions. The questions will draw you in, ranging as they do among:

  • My car has just been stolen! But can I hold the thieves responsible?
  • Should I watch what I say on Twitter?
  • Should your children benefit from your success?
  • Should I bother to vote?
  • Who should look after the baby?

And so on. These questions are explored, with historical reflections, and philosophical insights drawing upon a variety of theorists (including Marx).

I’d happily teach a problem-solving PHIL 101 using this, except the title might spook some folks. (It wouldn’t spook me, of course).

Alienation in Academia

Mulling over a vague feeling of disempowerment, boredom, and apathy, we discover again that Marx has some answers for us. By us I mean people who work for a living. Because of what I do, I speak more specifically of academia.

I often think of academics who work in spaces where faculty governance is not properly practiced, where embarking upon exciting new mid-career endeavors becomes a veritable minefield. One struggles to find meaning anew in the workplace, but these liberties are not available to all equally.

Autocratic administrators are loth to share control of faculty work. When faculty are delivered most decisions from on high, resentment and apathy grow. When faculty decision making entails only “Check yes or no,” they have little reason to be invested in the growth and creativity involved in academic work.

When faculty do not engage in collective decision making, resentment due to differential treatment also occur. After all, administrators like some faculty more than others, and they also fear some more than others. They may spend more time with some faculty more than others, and listen to some more than to others. Their decisions are informed and shaped by their subjective views.

Even routine matters become an activity devoid of personal meaning, as administrators hand down decisions with little discussion. In this climate of precarity, especially for junior and contingent faculty, any discussion of decisions can be fraught with danger.

Academic workers become alienated from each other, since the only route to getting the course, the sabbatical, the approval, or the funding you need is through the administrator – who divides and rules.

In such organizations, as apathy grows, collective investment decrease, and faculty lose the ability to work together, power becomes even more concentrated in administrators’ hands.

When it is difficult for faculty to design work that is responsive to pedagogical strategies, scholarly growth, long-term professional plans, or family and personal needs, they become alienated from their own academic labor.

An autocratic administrator is the death of an academic institution. He destroys the faculty’s desire to work by cutting off their creative and collective decision-making, gathering all power and all vitality in her/his own hands.

Honoring the small struggles, embracing the Plan

I am exactly where I should be.

There is no mistake.

I keep questioning where I am, my location, my journeys, and the struggles I am placed within. The dysfunction of persons, organizations, and movements, the profound oppression and injustices by individuals and collectives, the heartache of disconnection.

God is manifested in beauty as well as majesty, terrible as well as compassionate. The Prophet instructs us to attribute ourselves with the attributes of Allah, and Allah’s Mercy and Love overcome God’s ghadab (hardness/wrath/displeasure).

But in our interactions with people, we encounter hardness, injustice, perversion. We encounter hardness and injustice in our own selves as well. For many of us, this generates a tumult of disorder. It feels wrong to be hard and unjust. It feels wrong to engage with it. It is an imbalance. Even the Beloved Prophet grieved over the oppression of the Quraysh, and even he went to war.

I’m placed in a Struggle, a series of small struggles, many of which involve engaging with injustice, oppression, selfishness, dysfunction, imbalance. They all feel wrong. But they are part of a larger plan. They are there to be fought. But on one level, they are not a surprise.

I try to find serene embrace of the larger Plan for us, while I honor the Struggle into which I have been placed. I still wrestle with my embrace of the Plan, and I still wrestle with putting the small struggles into their perspective.

Stop working

I had a breakthrough on my birthday this month. I was extremely stressed about some things, and it became so unbearable, I took a moment to call a friend.

I realized that just talking to her made my worries seem relatively trivial. Not pointless. But less significant.

I realized that all my days are spent simply in work. I have no time for joy. So anxieties are all I have.

The academic work calendar – perpetual work on weekdays and weekends – has much to do with this. And then we have bad family habits of perpetual work. So I sat my husband down and said, “We need to change these habits. We must do things that are not work. We must allow ourselves joy.”

Anxieties are king in our hearts and minds when they have no rivals. When joy is not sought out and claimed, the only occupants of our hearts are worries and grief.

I know for many of you this is commonplace knowledge, but some of us have to re-discover this. Repeatedly. And rescue our hearts and souls from the soul-crushing monotony of the endless work cycle.

Teaching post: Watching ‘Shikoku’ in ‘Religion in Documentary Film’

Today, for my Religion in Documentary Film class, my students and I are watching one of the Bruce Feiler Sacred Journeys: Shikoku. We are using the film as a window to some Buddhist ideals and experiences, while examining how the film frames the Shikoku pilgrims.

I ask my students to compare the Shikoku pilgrims to people visiting a Sufi tomb/mazar. What are the purposes, experiences, and rituals, in this Buddhist pilgrimage? Is it similar or different from Hajj or umrah, or pilgrimages to the gravesites of revered Muslim persons? What is the role of hardship, nature, relics? How does the Shikoku pilgrimage shed light on the key pursuits and concepts of Buddhism? What appear to be features of the Shikoku pilgrims’ religious and spiritual lives? What questions about Shikoku pilgrims and Buddhist life does the film not answer?

But technically and politically, I ask them to compare the framing of this film to Life in Hidden Light, a film about Carmelite nuns which uses no voice-over narration. What purpose does the narration play? How does it frame the religious experience? How does the creator of the documentary portray the Shikoku pilgrimage and the pilgrims?

I miss you abbu

Around this time of the year, I was born half a century ago or so.

And because I can’t get time off work easily, I miss the woman who gave birth to me and who is devoted to me, as she ages swiftly.

Because he is dead, I miss the man who loved me fiercely. I cry in anguish for him and his fierce protective love. Loss and pain take out chunks of me.

His love was not cool and rational, his love kept him up nights suffering for me. His love for me knew no balance, no limit. Sometimes, often in fact, he passionately hated others who caused me the slightest pain. Sometimes, he was furious that he couldn’t just keep me in his home forever, and he lashed out in fury. Because his love was not temperate. I reach out to him. Why aren’t you here to protect me, to fight for me? I am unarmed in this world, and it has been so long, so long.

As I age, I find myself holding on to memories, struggling to keep those loves in my life. Demanding that he now reach out to me, – no, I don’t believe in life-death boundaries that chop us off from each others – to feel my heart ache and to hold me in his fierce bear-hug.

Loves and kindnesses in my life right now are too calm and too light, too infrequent. I miss you, abbu; stay with me.