Last year was the best Ramadan of my life. I am afraid of what is supposed to take place on Thursday, the birth of a month as old and as familiar to me as my own family. I keep thinking, was that the peak? Will I never experience a Ramadan like that again?
When I assess what worked, I think back on my time in London, how much I blossomed in the face of freedom, how silence consumed much of my world until I decided it didn’t anymore. Dull silence, the kind of silence that can be found in the middle of bustling Oxford street, crowed along the south bank as families pace with their children along the Thames, the kind of silence in a small, small, flat with a giant slanted window that creaks open to the thick and polluted London air, the kind of silence that I break when I choose, when I call my mother back home, when I take the train to Rumi’s Cave, swallow my social anxiety in all its intensity, and join the community for Iftar. I loved it– the aloneness that was by choice, the ability to walk and walk and walk and walk and walk and still have a sparkling city beyond me.
Part of the spiritual path of a Muslim is reckoning with small-ness, is coming to terms with the vastness of Allah and the quick, flash-like nature of ourselves. London gave me that, Philly does too, in its own way. Cities can do that, you know. You take one look at the subway map, the long long list of the buses and their stations, walk down the street and look as far as you can see and still, the city’s periphery is uneducable to the human eye.
Last April, my grandparents came to London to visit and we took a trip to Edinborough, Scotland. There, we toured an old medieval castle and walked down streets that have held the same cobblestones for hundreds of years. It was humbling, frightening, and bizarre, to stand on the earth of the colonizer, earth that has existed for so very very long, to stand in streets full of millions of people who do not know your name. To know, that in returning to London, if I had disappeared in a quick flash, there would have been no one in the whole of the UK who would have noticed my absence for days.
I think the smallness gave way to an opening up to the Divine, to quietude, to long walks in Regent’s Park all by myself, singing to the ducks, smiling at the runners passing me on the path. And what is Ramadan without openings?! Without the de-fogging of your hear?! How much softer do long days of fasting become, when there is the bright big world to dance into during the day and the warmth of newfound friends to huddle around at night?
And so, for much of these past twelve months, the unspoken theme has been “Gardening”. Inspired but the words of my father, who once shared with me the words of a scholar who said, “My garden is in my heart, and my heart is in my chest.” I don’t know if I have a garden at all. Perhaps if I do it has been overgrowing in my imagination, a distant and misty place where you can get trapped by the siren songs of what-ifs and maybes. And that has to change. You see, my first instinct whenever I reflect on my time in London, is to say, I must go back! Time to save up for a ticket! I even considered moving there next year, chasing (fast, desperately, longingly) the feelings that have long flown the ribcage.
It seems though, that life isn’t about racing back to places where the heart was connected, but rather, about building the garden of contentment within oneself. The world is never going to be the same again; once the perils of the invisible, fatal virus have passed over us nothing will ever truly be as it was before. It just isn’t possible. That is not how time works, we can only move forward never backward, a moment, once passed, is lost forever. I cannot change the feelings of yesterday, but rather must dig in the soil of my own chest and plant my own inner saplings.
Next year, I will no longer be a university student, mumbling along on walks down the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, shivering in my bed beside the window in Gregory college house, listening to the droves of fraternity students passing by my window on a Saturday night. I will not be sitting under a tree in Kensington Gardens, watching children strode tricycles along the path. I will be doing things I have never done before, in place s I did not dream of, with much less fortitude and gracefulness than I had banked on having at this age, even months before this one. And yet, we march forth, into the tomorrows of today that will soon melt into yesterdays and then distant memories. The airlines may shut down, the school may close and the masajid may shut their lights off, but I must be able to locate contentment somewhere. I must have clarity, have comfort, have the softly glowing light of Truth beside me whoever I may be, whatever sharp turns lie ahead, no matter the kinds of isolation I must take on (for the protection of mine and others’ physical bodies, or our spiritual selves).
So perhaps, this Ramadan will be about the largeness within the smallness, the gardening of the heart, the long-neglected deep cleaning of inner parts of me I did not think I fit into anymore. The world must be inside of me, and the world around me must only be a means to honor the one who gave me, myself, and myself, to Him.
So come Ramadan, and be gentle with me, with us all. We have missed you and yet we do not know if we will recognize you, if we will ever be friends again the way we were last summer, the way we shared deeply and brought one another joy, when the sky was big and I could see myself beneath it. Last year, You gifted me joy, and this year, I humbly ask for seeds.