Justin, with love.

One summer, when I was 19 or so, I drove out to the Gateway Ranch, which sits on the edge of the Navajo reservation, near Flagstaff. Intended to be a place of environmental sustainability and responsible, respectful cultural exchange, it is the home of a former AIM activist, who had been invited to be principal of the reservation’s first native-run school. I went with my friend Jenn, taking turns driving her Toyota eight hours out of the subtropics of South Florida, where we were at New College, and then nearly 3,000 miles across the Deep South, and Texas, a country all its own, and finally, into the dusty southwest.

That summer, I met a man named Justin. He was Navajo, and I didn’t know yet how Navajo men came to have names like Justin. I took him at face value, accepted the version of himself that he offered. He worked sometimes at Gateway, planning and putting in the permaculture garden, and at the school, doing the same. He had been off the res for several years, in the Vietnam War and then travelled around some, spent some time as a mushroom farmer in Japan. But when I met Justin he wandered around the still wild parts of the res, studying the slopes of the land and building long, elegant, tapered retaining walls out of rocks he found scattered around. He built them to capture water, he said, so that the trees he planted would grow. He told me that place was all cottonwood trees before it became a reservation, and all the trapped people cut them down to build with. Cottonwood trees catch and hold the rainwater in underground oases, and without them, he said, he had to contain it before it dissipated in the sand.

Justin planted every seed, from every plum or peach or nectarine he ate. I don’t know how many of those seeds sprouted in the desert, but Justin had a vision of abundance in his spirit when I knew him. He was graceful and kind. He invited Jenn and I to camp on the large, flat boulders near his place under the stars, and we did, wary as we were of snakes. He slept several dozen yards away in his modern version of a traditional hogan. It was the very first and the last time in my life when I was not at all afraid of a man twice or maybe three times my size. He must have been more than twice my age as well, but he was a real friend, the kind who show you their treasures plainly and only hope that you will see and appreciate them. We went for a walk to a mound made of broken Hopi pottery, and his sadness was quiet but evident. When I left, he gifted me an abalone shell that I carried with me though ten moves until it finally broke and I buried it. We exchanged letters, once or twice, but I moved so often then.

I think maybe we recognized a little bit of lostness in each other–a sense of being in-between cultures, and trying very hard to learn what it was to be good without any reliable yardstick. He had seen things that most people around him had not–war, and the atrocities it entails. And I had seen things that were entirely foreign to the suburban whiteness around me–the stark, brutal poverty of southern Pakistan, young children with limbs cut off to more effectively beg on the streets. We both held things that could never be integrated, or even really spoken. But he had demons I had not imagined yet: the generational scars of genocide and forced displacement, of a reservation home that would always be, at least partly, evidence of ongoing occupation.

I learned yesterday that Justin died six years ago, after some hard times and before I had a chance to tell him how dear he was to me. It’s breaking my heart. So I am telling you.

Faith and Charlie Horses

It’s hard to explain faith. Someone–an acquaintance from college–recently wrote that they were doing me a kindness by not considering me evangelical and writing me off.

The truth is, I don’t mind being written off. But I am concerned about being considered evangelical. Because I’m plenty busy with keeping myself in line without getting involved with what anyone else is doing. (Unless those someone elses are trying to devastate large parts of humanity. Then I get upset and noisy.)

I can’t tell you exactly why I’m a person of faith. What I can tell you is that it has little to do with identity politics, or what I was born into, although those things are real and provide context.

It’s a million lonely moments. Times when I was crushingly without direction and full of anxiety. For some time just after 9/11 I lived alone above a little violin shop in Germantown. Muslims in America had gone from mostly unremarkable to public enemy #1 virtually overnight.

I had recently gone through a divorce, having found out that my (now ex) husband was involved in some behavior that, beyond wrecking everything I thought I’d known of him was just downright….creepy.

I was working a lot, running an evening clinic on top of my day job. And I was fighting to figure out where all of the energy to keep going was going to come from.

And the weirdest thing started happening. I’d been praying, for solace, out of desperation, I’m not sure exactly, except it was a space of peace. But I could never wake up for the pre-dawn prayer. Until I started getting charlie horses–muscle cramps in my legs at the exact time of the pre-dawn prayer, so intense it felt like my calf was being wrung out like a rag but someone forgot about the bones. First time in my life I had had them and I though I was dying; they’d wake me out of a dead sleep.

Once, a mouse trap went off just at the right time–the violin shop was next to a dive-y Chinese take-out place. Kind of terrifying because I can’t handle mice. It wasn’t always idyllic, but it was my small, strange conversation with something bigger than myself. I had asked for more equanimity, more comfort, more steadfastness and the morning prayer was it for me. It anchored something that had come unmoored, maybe something that had always been unmoored. It was the honey of my spiritual life, if only I could manage to wake up for it.

That period in my life revolved around a conversation more intimate than I can describe, made of dreams and mousetraps, pain and laughter and tenderness. And, you know, that’s what my faith is forged in. Not in what or how anyone else believes, not in a text or a cultural tradition, but in those minuscule, unimaginable, ridiculous moments of intimacy with the Divine in the form of charlie horses at 4 a.m.

My life is a lot different now, noisy with two young children. But the sweet nourishment of that time is what everything else is built on. It’s the well that I drink from; it’s how I make meaning.

The Sound of Music and Partition and How Normal Everything Can Be Made to Seem

One of my favorite films growing up was the Sound of Music. I know, I know–but one of the scenes I found most confusing was towards the end, where the VonTrapps go perform in a show in a big theater just before fleeing the Nazi regime. I thought surely, in times such as those, no one would be performing in theaters and doing things that seemed at once so normal and so frivolous.

It turns out that this is a dangerous misunderstanding of how things work. Right now, American democracy is under serious attack and the federal government is being actively starved and narrowed to increasingly autocratic and erratic rule.

And yet, life goes on. We are, inevitably, preoccupied with the stuff of life. In some ways, this helps us retain our sanity—at least we aren’t those bizarre militia guys in the backwoods of Georgia preparing for a culture war by shooting guns in the woods. On the other hand, we spend a lot of time hoping that if we just do things as we always have, we’ll continue to have the lives that we’ve always had. When you’re Muslim in America today, this is both an exceptionally comforting and an exceptionally naïve approach.

While I was rambling about this very thing this morning, my husband reminded me that his mother and her family fled Hyderabad, India, by “going to the cinema.” As part of the Muslim Hyderabadi elite in the middle of what was suddenly a postcolonial Hindu state, his family was already under house arrest. The brutality of partition had begun, and they were certain that their lives were at risk. Still, on one occasion, they were permitted the seemingly innocuous freedom of a trip to the local cinema under armed guard. With the guards at the front of the theater and the movie underway, they slipped out the side doors, split up and made their way alternately westward across India to Pakistan, and (in the case of my mother-in-law, who was a young child, her siblings, and their Mum) toward what is now Bangladesh and onto a boat around the tip of India to rejoin the rest of the family.

That day, having legitimate fear that they would all be separated, dispossessed, and possibly executed in the place their family had called home for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, they went to the cinema. Which was still functioning. During partition, in which millions of people lost their lives in perhaps the largest mass relocation of humans in history, it was still normal enough to go to the cinema that it was not suspicious at all. Because everyone was still mostly pretending that nothing had changed.

So that’s what we’ve been chewing on around here.

What’s Headed for You

I’d like to point out that we’ve crossed well over the line into President Bannon’s vision for destabilizing America. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just google the key words from that sentence all together.) This isn’t about racism or bigotry or misogyny. Or at least, not just those things.

The Executive Order and budget proposal calling for agencies to kill entire departments? I’d put my money on every Office of Civil Rights across the executive branch. But beyond that, these agencies govern every service and protection that ordinary Americans—every last one of the 99%–rely on every day. Schools, hospitals, roads, food: all of them are envisioned, researched, organized, funded and regulated by the executive agencies. This is a war on the actual functioning of society, on the quality of life that the vast majority of Americans (even the ones who say they don’t) enjoy.

Stopping Canadian church groups from coming to do Hurricane Sandy clean-up in poor American neighborhoods? Canadian nurses from getting to their hospital jobs in Michigan? Those are white and mostly Christian folk. There’s not even an arguably racist “national security” motive there. That’s a very North Korea move to keep outsiders from seeing what’s actually happening in our neighborhoods and hospitals while our “Dear Leader” crows about making America great.

This administration is dismantling the government. Congress was already compromised, and so now are executive agencies. The only remaining “check or balance” besides you and I is the judiciary. You know what that reminds me of? Pakistan. And I love the people and cultures of Pakistan. But things run, mostly, like a donkey cart missing a wheel because people survive in spite of, not with the support of, their government. Meanwhile, government leaders have lives of unimaginable wealth and luxury. That’s what’s headed straight for you.

What Won’t She Sell Out? The Opportunism of Asra Nomani

“…For some reason, Nomani has chosen this moment to stop walking that thin line, unapologetically aligning herself with President-elect Donald Trump. In this article, she lists her nonsensical reasons for supporting Trump: Obamacare and the president’s loan modification program, “HOPE NOW,” didn’t help her. Rural Americans in her hometown of Morgantown, WV are still struggling to make ends meet.

Nomani does not link a single one of these factors to any credible plan or promise Trump has to resolve these issues. That’s probably because there aren’t any such arguments to be made…” Read More

Anti-Muslim Extremists: The SPLC’s Field Guide

“…You may remember SPLC’s astounding report, The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nations Schools. It provided the results of an online survey that found widespread anxiety in and increased harassment of Muslim students and other students of color. The report is an important tool for parents, educators, and activists who are on the front lines, arguing that the changes in their children’s school environments must be met with proactive anti-hate messaging, diversity training, and Islam education and awareness.

SPLC has just released their Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists, which profiles 15 prominent anti-Muslim extremists….Read More