On Being Blog
I wanted to share a tremendously informative piece of writing that came into my inbox yesterday — an essay by Omer M. Mozaffar about the passing of Warith Deen (often referred to as W.Deen) Mohammed titled “American Islam Enters its Next Phase.” Mohammed was a gentle but towering figure in the history of Islam in the U.S., yet remains little known in the culture at large.
Fully one-third of U.S. Muslims are African-American, with a noble, fascinating history and theological trajectory all their own. We first waded into these waters when we did an early post-9/11 program on “Progressive Islam in America.” (If you listen you will find that it sounds quite different from the programming we do now, though it remains kindred in spirit and intent.) One of the voices in that show is the supersmart fast-talking Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, a third-generation African-American Muslim. I will never forget discovering her, and discovering all I learned about African-American Islam as I prepared to speak with her.
I’ll boil my most surprising learning down to this: although Louis Farrakhan is still to this day known best and heeded in U.S. culture as the face and voice of African-American Islam, he has long spoken for only a sliver of this movement (tens of thousands as opposed to millions). The vast majority of the African-American Islamic community went through a profound mini-reformation, which W.Deen Mohammed led and exemplified and which mirrored the conversion Malcolm X underwent near the time of his death — away from the more militant, racially separatist roots of Farrakhan and Elija Muhammad (W.Deen’s father) and towards a universalist, orthodox Sunni Islam. To put a finer point on this: Farrakhan speaks for tens of thousands; but the gentle Mohammed embodied a religiosity of millions who, as Mozaffer says, will now move into their next phase as a community formed by his example.
It’s a mixed bag when somebody verbalizes what others dare not express. There’s always one loud-mouth that says something that makes people around him feel completely uncomfortable, even if he’s saying something that is at the back of others’ minds.
From David Kirkpatrick’s “Abortion Issues Again Dividing Catholic Votes” in this morning’s online edition of The New York Times:
“One parishioner ruled out voting for Mr. Obama explicitly because he is black. “Are they going to make it the Black House?” Ray McCormick asked, to embarrassed hushing from a half dozen others gathered around the rectory kitchen. (Five of the six, all lifelong Democrats who supported Mrs. Clinton in the primary, said they now lean toward Mr. McCain.)”
Unfortunately, I hear some of the people (loved ones included) from my home when I read this statement. I just have to wonder if some Catholic voters aren’t using the Vatican’s stances on abortion and homosexuality as a pretext, a protective shield for their prejudices. And this gets conflated in reporting about Catholic and Evangelical voters and the issues that will determine these voters’ decisions in the booth.
For one, I’d like to thank the man for articulating a sentiment — racially discriminatory though it may be — to a reporter, in public. I may have cringed, but it needed to be said — in a parish rectory, no less. And thank you to Mr. Kirkpatrick for diligently teasing out the lingering mindset of racial discrimination from social issues girded by one’s faith.
As you can see, I have strong opinions about this. What do you see? What do you think?
I woke up this morning around 4:45 a.m. to eat before my day of fasting. To keep myself from passing out into my leftover veggie omelet from the night before, I turned on the TV. It was about 4:55 a.m. The first thing that confronted me as I scooped food into my mouth was the destruction of Haiti. People standing in mud, broken. Helicopters dropping off bags of food, long lines, the complete absence of buildings. The government has apparently stopped counting the death toll. Without numbers, the reporting on Haiti is going to end up even further down from where I found it: the last report of the hour.
Following the report, the beautiful, dark-haired host smiles with her moist lips and signs off, wishing me a good day. A good day? Are you mad?! I’m ready to intentionally deny myself food to try vainly to understand where I stand in this world. As I’m eating, there are people on the other side of the glass who are traumatized after three (or four?) hurricanes. And the host has the gall to wish me a nice day? Did she even watch the segment that just aired? The cognitive dissonance was a bit much, but there I sat with my leftover veggie omelet, my juicy organic yellow peach, my full glass of milk, and my disgust of the human race, cursing at the screen. I heard Heschel blaring at me, at the newscaster: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
At 5:30 a.m., I went back to bed, to catch a few more hours of sleep before heading off to work. I lay there wishing for a red cape and blue tights and the chance to fly across the continent and do something. But you never see Superman fighting systemic poverty, or downgrading hurricanes by flying in a counter-Coriolis trajectory. He fights Lex Luthor.
It’s the afternoon now. I’m still hungry, but come 7:23 p.m. tonight, I’ll eat. I can. Yet today, my life feels like the platitudes of that news anchor. I saw something horrible, yet I got on with my day.
In conversations I’ve had with friends on this subject, the answer is invariably that it’s my duty to live my life more fully and more appreciatively, that the more tempting response of sullenness isn’t going to help anyone. Instead, bring your earnestness into whatever else you do. Working here is important to me because I can integrate my skills and energy toward something that is, in my view, part of some larger solution. And that’s good. Still, every time my cheeks stick from thirst, they drag my thoughts back to this morning, faithfully as a dog on a leash.
Kate got me into yoga — coming in day after day last fall glowing from Bikram. Bikram was too hot for me, literally, but I discovered “Core Power” soon after and was hooked. And grateful. Kate is thinking of posting a photo of herself in corpse pose. It doesn’t occur to me to do something like that, as I am incredibly word-centric. And that is part of the reason yoga is fantastically healing for me. I came off a long stretch of years of writing my book where I was desperate for a break from the thoughts in my head. Yoga has taken me out of my head. Rather, more accurately, it has helped me center myself, including the thoughts in my head, in my body. This is a relief, practically a whole new life.
As I’ve grown into this practice, I’ve experienced other intriguing epiphanies. About six months in on a very regular routine, I experienced a surge of energy. This was nearly overwhelming for a few weeks; I was sleeping several hours less than normal and waking up energized. It was as though yoga had unblocked or tapped more energy than my metabolism knew what to do with. And after about a month, that stabilized, settled down. I also went through a period a few months in of a deep, visceral, unnamable sadness. I’ve written in my book and done radio about my history of clinical depression; and for someone who has struggled with depression, sadness can be scary. But this felt natural and safe somehow. The scary part was that it eluded words and conscious analysis; I could not think it through. As it was arising in my body, I sensed it would have to work its way out of my body. And it did. I do speak about this with Seane Corn in our interview, something I’d been looking forward to.
There’s a lot of talk in yoga about taking the practice “off the mat” — letting its lessons infuse daily life. I didn’t notice this immediately, and the ways I find it happening now are quite mundane. But they’re still powerful; they are reordering some of the ways I approach what is mundane. So, for example, I’ve always been driven and goal-oriented. But in flow yoga, every transition is as important as every finished pose; and grace in transitions is as important as getting the final poses right. Somewhat to my surprise, I find that I’m able (sometimes, not all the time!) to spend more time and care on graceful transitioning and processing as on final products in other parts of my life. This is liberating — it’s like I’ve been missing whole stages of experience, at an ordinary level, all my life.
Finally, I also see the deepest lessons of yoga taking hold on me as I go lighter rather than harder on myself as I in fact become more advanced. This is perhaps the first passionate endeavor in my life in which I am absolutely content that I don’t have to be great or best or always better. I take as much pleasure in slow poses as in fast; I cut myself slack when I’m tired or distracted. I let messy, inconsistent life be what it is. I learn to delight in my body just as it is, at 47. And this does somehow translate into being easier on everything and everyone else around me. For a lifelong perfectionistic over-achiever, this is a seismic step forward into wisdom. I’m amazed to find this practice helping me literally embody many of the great spiritual teachings of my own faith and those that inspire me in others. So I’m grateful to Kate, and grateful to all the sages and practitioners who kept this spiritual technology alive for something like 5,000 years so that I and other 21st-century mortals could discover it when we need it most.