The Slush Puddles of Life

Thursday, January 28, 2016 - 6:35am

The Slush Puddles of Life

Puddles! Puddles! What if enlightenment is found in sparkling icy puddles? And in our response to these same puddles?

Some 15 years ago, I got my first job. The job took me to a small village in upstate New York, a part of the country I had never been to, and knew little about. I had not even imagined the whole world of New York state beyond New York City. Upstate is vast, sparse, beautiful, and… cold.

When I travelled north for my job interview, it was the winter season. My flight back got cancelled because of a snowstorm, and I spent the night in a hotel room looking out the window at the unbelievable mounds of snow that had been shoveled out of the parking lot. Looking at these frozen hills, I was terrified by the sheer scale of winter. I called my then fiancé and told her, “Honey, it looks like there was a war between nature and humans — and we lost.”

We moved to a place with a stronger sense of community than anywhere else I have lived. A small village with 2,000 people, where playful kids roamed from house to house and got fed by neighbors. People took pride in not locking their cars, and neighbors would bring you meals and clothes when you’d have a baby. It was a beautiful place.

It was also… cold. Colder than anything I could have imagined. In the year 2000, the second year we were there, we had 192 inches of snow. Seventeen feet of snow. Another year we had a stretch of 19 straight days when the high temperature did not get above zero degrees Fahrenheit — without the wind chill factor. Each and every one of those 19 days, the low temperature would be minus-25 degrees Fahrenheit, and it would rise up to zero. With the wind chill, it would “feel like” minus-40 degrees warming up to negative-15. It would be so cold that there would be ice inside your nose. Imagine icicles forming from the moisture inside your nose. There was ice in places I would have never imagined ice could get into.

The local TV show would compare the snow in upstate New York with the snow in Cleveland and Buffalo. All I kept thinking was: no one is winning. We are all losing in this snow game.

The snow was a part of life. Life happened in the snow, including bringing new life into this world. We had two children who were born in that village. They grew up there, and headed to their first school there. I remember walking my baby girl to her school and back. In the spring and fall, it would be a beautiful, joyous walk. In the winter, well… ice in the nose. Miserably cold.

Did I mention that I grew up in Florida, Iran, and North Carolina? I was not cut out for the cold. Walking to and from school, I muttered under my breath that brown people like me were not meant to live in the cold. Mumble, mumble. Grumble.

And here is where the Zen moment came one day.

As I walking my beautiful baby girl to school, trying to avoid the icy spots and falling flat on my bottom, I noticed that it had warmed up enough that some of the ice and snow had turned to puddles. I don’t understand the chemistry of it, but somehow the mixture of the ice and the salt that they laid down everywhere had turned into a frozen slush.

Lost in one of my usual daydreams, I stepped into one of those slush puddles. The icy, slushy mixture seeped through my boot, and I felt the frozen cold seeping into my toes, till my bones themselves felt frozen.

Cold in my nose.
Cold in my body.
And a cold that I cannot even speak of in my toes.

My baby was walking with me, so I couldn’t utter the choice, four-letter words I wanted to shout out loud. I took those nasty words back inside, back inside my cold, frozen soul. In that moment, I hated life, hated the cold, hated my frozen toes, hated the slush, hated winter, hated everything.

It was a high-pitched, giggling, gentle voice that snapped me out of my misery. I lifted up my head and saw my little baby girl, she of the amazing sparkling eyes, three years old, jumping with both feet in the next puddle.

She shouted with absolute and total joy, "Puddles! Puddles." She then looked for the next puddle and skipped over there, again jumping in with both feet, “Puddles! Puddles!”

Oh the giggles…

As I walked over to my baby, I saw what she was seeing in the puddles, a rare moment of sunshine reflecting in the slushy puddle. Here, there, right in the ice puddle, there were sparkles of light, all lit up like jewels. Who needs a lotus flower in the pond when you have jeweled sparkles of light in the winter slush?

Same puddles.
I cursed the puddles.
She giggled and jumped in.

Same puddles.
Different responses.

I don’t belittle life’s circumstances. Sometimes there is genuine suffering, real poverty, institutional discrimination, war, homelessness, occupation, and violence. Those are real.

And then there are the puddles of life.

It’s hard to be joyous about everything that happens to us. But is possible to be present, and grateful, in every moment.

Life is not merely where we find ourselves. It is also what we bring to the moments where we find ourselves.

And when we do, 
         we find ourselves.

Life’s not just about the icy puddles. It’s also about the jumping in, the giggles, and seeing the sparkling jewels in the frozen puddles of light.


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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.


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What a beautiful, life affirming way to look at our long, hard winters. I was born in the Caribbean, and I often grumpily say moving to a cold climate was the worst thing for me. The irony is all three of our children were born in a very cold part of North America and they love the snow. They come alive in a snow storm.Their joy is contagious. So now I see the brutally cold days of February as a joyous occasion. Old Man Winter's days are certainly numbered according to my 13 year old, Spring is almost here.

I grew up in Upstate New York. Later moved "south" to Cleveland, where it seldom gets cold enough for ice to freeze in your nose. I can relate to days when the HIGH temp is zero and to the feeling that humans and nature are at war and we lost - the same as I feel about the battles against injustice, discrimination, hatred . . .
Thank you for the 3-year-old jumping in the puddles. This is one of the loveliest, most hear-lifting things I've read in a long time.

I always enjoy reading your words Omid. Thank you for them. Today's take me back to being that little girl myself and the times I delighted in finding water of any sort to jump and splash in . When it was deep enough to sit and thrash around in, so much the better.. That was in Texas where I grew up on the edges of San Antonio near a semi-wild place we kids called the Texas Ranger Ranch. When I was still early school age, my mother once had to come pull me out of a mucky puddle in early spring where I was mired, having been lured in by tadpoles. She was not happy, but I was ecstatic and even the tiniest of puddles still excite me today.

I'm so lucky, at 75, to have Twitter and OnBeing, and to be on the spiritual journey that discovered me. Thank you, Omid, and thank you, Krista.

Delightful ! Your words reminded of many snow
puddles my life ..before retiring in Florid .
However ,we have puddles in Sunnybreeze this morning also...after 5 inches of rain.
Yes Life has Puddles days....Its all in how we choose to experience it.

I LOVED this article! I currently live in NYC and while my first 2016 dream came true of a blizzard w/ 2' of snow...the city, being uber efficient this year, crushed those dreams but having impeccable snow removal. With the dumbsters being filled with snow to cart it off NYC is missing the best part of winter...the puddles, the slush, the QUIET, that comes with being with snow. I LOVE the snow as it is not only beautiful and necessary in this region but it also provides all of us with the chance to slow down, get quiet, drink hot chocolate w/ abandon...and just be. Hurray for your daughter! (And PS I do agree ice in the nose is aweful!)

Thanks...I have just experienced an "icy puddle " of sorts, and find how I choose to look at it makes all the difference. And there is always a choice...especially in our response.

Personal, intimate, and touching.~~Bravo!

Thank you Omid for a wonderful piece of your words! They took me back to our North of Boston winter ,a year ago.
I love the seasons with all their great gifts of nature!
At age 78 last winter I got in good shape,simply by having been forced to shovel ,shovel and shovel more.
There was so much beauty around me,much stillness,and the gift of slowing down!
I was very aware of the luxury I was able to live,simply by being the age I have reached, for all who had work to go to,it was a hardship for sure.
I am so very blessed to be able to read the great contributions of many special people who offer their columns on Krista,s :On Being!
My deep thanks for all who bring so much life to us who read and ponder the gifts who are offered.

yes, though one's perspective is probably helped by rubber boots... :-)

"...what we bring to the moments where we find ourselves". I find that children so often lead us back to the present. Their unencumbered joy. Thank you for this. I must go out soon and take in the sparkling jewels in the slush.