The Slush Puddles of Life

Thursday, January 28, 2016 - 6:35 am

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, 
    sometimes 
         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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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 TimesNewsweekWashington 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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