Shalom?

I went to church today for the first time in over fifteen years. I know – this is a blog about a convert to Islam and the title of this post is shalom and I am writing about church. Bear with me. This is part a short, funny story – of which there are many related to being a secret revert to Islam – and a brief background about my family, my relationship, and my religious upbringing.

I was raised Episcopalian and went to church up until the end of middle school. I never loved church; I would have rather slept in on Sundays instead of having to put on a fussy outfit and stand and sit for upwards of an hour. Admittedly, I never paid much attention to the stories, preferring to color in the children’s pamphlet that was handed out, or in later years, count the bricks on the ceiling. I understood the meaning of what church taught: be kind unto others, help the poor, feed the hungry, pray for people, be good. Communion meant a break in the monotony and a chance for a taste of bread and grape juice. I almost never ate breakfast in the mornings so usually by Communion I was starving, too. But the ‘this is the blood and body of Christ who died for you’ always struck me as odd, if not silly. Sunday School was also uncomfortable: I frequently felt like the odd kid out, not knowing others from school or local groups, and the activities were boring. Looking back, I cannot think of a time I was ever really ‘into’ it. There were things I liked, such as the old building of the church and the way the light came in through the stained glass windows, or during the Christmas Eve service when we would sing Silent Night all holding candles while the lights slowly faded in the prayer hall. But all told, it never resonated with me. Church never pulled me in. God did, and I felt in later years after I had stopped going on Sundays that I was still ‘spiritual’ but not really sure about organized religion. I was not against it, but rather confident that I was able to speak to God and have a relationship with Him outside the confines of a particular building or doctrine. That belief – that I could be religious more or less on my own – continued for a long time, even after I reverted. That is a story for another day…

***

So I was back, for my grandmother’s memorial service. It was a family event, so I had no reservations participating. But, I also wanted to honor my beliefs and stay within my religious comfort zone. I sang the hymns and recited the prayers while skipping over the lines I felt conflicted with Islam. Thankfully, my family decided against having a Holy Communion at the service, for which I was grateful: I am not sure how I would have navigated declining to participate. There really is a lot of overlap between the Christian tradition and Islam – so I was able to substitute lines here and there with verses from the Qur’an to feel like I was keeping with my religion.

During the service, I was looking to see who was there. I was looking for one person in particular, my boyfriend’s mom, and was simultaneously disappointed to not see her but also not surprised she was not there. She had reached out to me when she heard about my grandmother’s passing and mentioned she would come to support me and my family. For normal relationships, that would be a kind and perhaps expected gesture. But my relationship is anything but normal, and her gesture was unexpected: my boyfriend (henceforth A) is Pakistani and his family does not know about our relationship. I have had limited, but pleasant, interactions with his mother over the course of our relationship – so far two and a half years – and I am striving to be in her good graces. But I am certainly nowhere close to ‘prospective daughter-in-law’ territory yet.

Imagine my surprise and utter delight when I exited the church and saw her standing outside. I rushed over to her, in shock but with a smile on my face, leaning in for a hug while offering a ‘Salaam aleikum!’ I was so comforted to see her, as it assuaged some of the anxiety that had been creeping up recently about my distant relationship with A’s family. Plus I am low-key obsessed with her. But then the panic set in. As I engaged in small talk with A’s mom and other guests around me, fielding well wishes and questions, my brain was a frenzy. ‘Who else is going to talk to her? What are they going to say? I hope my crazy uncle does not make a scene. What if my chatty aunt says something about A being my boyfriend? Please let my mom be wise enough to handle their conversation. What will she and my mom even talk about?!’ I was trying so hard to stay calm on the outside, but inside I was legitimately fearful.

To my horror, my chatty aunt who means well but is woefully ignorant ambled over. ‘This is my aunt,’ I offered, introducing A’s mom to perhaps the riskiest family member there is. I prayed it would go smoothly. I expected my aunt to make a comment about the hijab A’s mom was wearing, but instead, she said ‘Shalom!’ I hoped she was barely heard. I cannot even be upset about the faux-pas, but it struck me as a funny exchange. Here I am stressing, sweating, nervous about A’s mom being around my family and assuming someone will bring up religion or Trump or my relationship, and I realize my concerns are over-estimated. Still, it is clear I have my work cut out for me.

***

Later, at home, I talked with my mom about the service and her conversation with A’s mom. Thankfully, it went smoothly. My mother, bless her, was indeed wise enough to not say anything that would raise an eyebrow. It turns out they talked about baby pictures. It was the first time they met and I hope it is not the last.

My mother said something else, too, that gave me pause. I have always been aware of my mom’s suspicion about my conversion to Islam. I am okay with her suspecting it, but I am still not yet ready to sit down in the living room and have that conversation. ‘I noticed you skipped over some things during the service,’ she began. I felt my face blush and my brain start to think of ways to steer the conversation in another direction. ‘Was that because it conflicts with your religious beliefs?’ she continued. She definitely knows. I deflected. ‘As you know, I do not care what you believe so long as you believe in something,’ she finished. I think I must have blacked out for the minute, as I cannot remember what I said or how it ended. Strange how I yearn to be open about being Muslim, but then go into ‘fight or flight’ the minute someone seems to be figuring it out.

Later, turning over the day’s events in my mind, I am struck by the contrast between an aunt offering ‘shalom’ to A’s mom, and my mother doing her best to make known her acceptance (and keen observations about) my religious beliefs. It too, is a paradox. My experience being a secret revert will never be a clean, orderly, controlled thing; rather, it will be messy and dynamic and stressful and rewarding all at once. It is probable there will always be someone making ill-conceived or misplaced comments, at best. But it is also probable there will come a time in the near future where those closest to me are genuinely supportive and I, in turn, am authentically me.

Paradox of the Secret

It has only been a few hours since I posted my ‘Introduction’ and there is no mistaking the anxiety I feel. One second I am worried about someone I know finding it, or someone Googling my name and putting two and two together. I considered deleting the blog already. I have doubted it, thinking no one is going to read it (no one has, yet, so the doubt remains) and that it will be a waste of my effort. There is a quantifiable fear in my heart that I will somehow be found out – which I recognize is an irrational fear to some degree – as I have willingly begun publicly publishing my thoughts and feelings about converting to Islam. Every time I tell someone I am Muslim, or that I converted (as if one could have happened without the other) I feel a rush of excitement, but always followed with a surge of panic. ‘I shouldn’t have said that,’ I always think. I chastize myself for spilling a secret I feel like I should have kept. I blame myself for not being able to keep it, and for wanting to tell it.

This is the strange paradox of being a secret revert: I am simultaneously desperate to tell my story, to live completely authentically without any hiding anything, while also being completely averse to sharing the details about my religious affiliation.

I am without a doubt still afraid of what people will think: I am uncomfortable knowing I will not be able to control the narrative of other people’s inevitable conversations about me. I will not be able to stand up for myself. Granted, some days I do not care what others think, and certainly, I have become less and less concerned about it in the last year or so. I am so happy and content with my life, and its trajectory, that I cannot be bothered what becomes fodder for gossip among others who are most likely unhappy and unfulfilled in their own ways. I have cut down my social media presence, and those that have access to it, considerably, because I am sensitive about the number of casual acquaintances whom I let into my private life, and in anticipation of a time when I am more forthright about its intimate details. Still, knowing this revelation is going to happen in some way, at some point, is unsettling; it is hard for me to let go of control over the details.

My friends, I am sure, will be more receptive, and indeed, some of them (read: 2) I have felt comfortable telling. I do not worry about their judgment, as I trust they will know best that I am happy and that I made a choice that suits me well. I suspect many of my close friends suspect me in return, but refrain from asking me outright until I am ready to tell them myself. I do not worry much about letting my close friends in on my conversion, though I am apprehensive thinking about whether they might feel like certain elements of our friendship will now be forbidden. I am still pretty much the same person, but changes, albeit slight, have occurred. I feel some guilt, too, thinking about the activities or behaviors I have engaged with friends in that I am no longer gung-ho about, either due to maturity or a product of converting. I am typically reserved, never one to announce my thoughts and feelings unprompted, so I worry private decisions I have made to abstain from alcohol or perform daily prayers will seem alien, perhaps disingenuine, or worse, only a forced result of suddenly being Muslim. I have sometimes worried friends may be offended I waited so long to tell them, or in some cases, outright lied. When I first reverted I told myself I would never commit a lie about it, but as it happened, people asked me directly sooner than I expected and I found myself undeniably uncomfortable with responding truthfully.

Again, a paradox: I fret about the ‘real me’ not being seen or understood, but I am unable or unwilling to entrust my friends with her.

Then there is the issue of my family: how will I navigate that dynamic? I have always strived to be a ‘low-key’ person: I avoid drama, rumbles, upheaval, and prefer to keep things running smoothly and efficiently, always looking to minimize issues by intuiting where they may spring up. I struggle with the idea of dropping what feels like a pretty cumbersome development on them because it goes against my accommodating nature: I feel like I will create chaos, and my whole life I have tried to prevent it. I do not want to make things difficult. I do not want to create awkward conversations. I do not want to become the elephant in the room. Honestly, if I could make it all happen my way, I would continue living my life in quasi-secret, without ever confirming or denying being Muslim, until old age. Granted, my immediate family has gotten used to me not eating pork products and fasting for two Ramadans, and comments they make here and there give me hope they are more receptive than I am giving them credit for. But thinking about the extended family only brings more anxiety. What will I do about the FOX News watching, creeping sharia worrying, right-wing conservative uncle? I struggle to relinquish control and put myself in an unfamiliar situation.

Being a secret revert is an exercise in anxiety and uncertainty. I am learning, no doubt, how to live more authentically, but am doing so while still concealing myself from most people around me. I am chronically over-analyzing how what I do will affect those around me, and per usual, I take the ripple effects of my actions into greater consideration than my actions themselves. Which is not to say converting to Islam is some great calamity I need to apologize for – it unequivocally is not – but I suppose I am not used to the idea of being such an outlier. Another paradox, as I have always gone against the grain a bit, but it seems like this one still comes as a surprise to me.

An Introduction

Salaam aleikum.

Where to start? I have been a revert now for over six months, though unofficially Muslim for a year prior to that. I am just now reaching a point where I feel really comfortable with being Muslim, which surprises me, given how uncomfortable and unsure I was at the beginning. It has been such an experience. It is so dynamic, such a mosaic, to have made this choice and be living in it. It is also lonely. I have experienced so many things, had so many thoughts about all of this, and yet I don’t really share them: partially because I have no one to share them with, partially because I am unable to form the words and make them come out of my mouth. It is all still such a foreign thing. Less foreign than it was at the start – I am no longer brought to tears in overwhelmed frustration thinking about everything I do not know – but it still a constant, quiet anxiety. Like living in a foreign country where you can now speak the language enough to get by, and feel accomplished and enmeshed in the culture most of the time, but are still set back by minor things that, when they catch you off guard, wound you disproportionally.

I started this blog just after formally taking my shahada, a week or so after the end of Ramadan in July 2016. At the time I was swirling with ideas about writing exhaustively about my experience; as it turned out, I was too exhausted by the experience to write anything at all.

It has been several months since then, and here and there I have felt a need to write about how I feel being a Muslim, a secret one, in these times. Each time I have found a way to suppress my thoughts, cognizant of how thinking too much about it tends to drain me of emotional energy. I am a perfectionist, and I put too much pressure on myself. I also doubt, severely and significantly, other people’s interest in me. Yet I require other’s appreciation, deeply. It makes me yearn to tell my stories and connect with others, while I fret over the sharing of intimate details of my life. I am anxious that I will bare my soul and people will not find it very interesting. Perhaps that’s the essence of my insecurity: I do not think I am very remarkable, even though my experiences, discretely, may be.

It was this past weekend, spent in a rural part of New England, effectively cut off from the news and social media, enjoying a slower pace, existing in quiet in the way only possible in remote areas, where I found my voice again. I found myself praying in my grandmother’s living room as she slept in the next room. My grandmother, whom I love dearly but whom I expect never to tell about my conversion. It was such an odd moment for me – rising and falling in sujood for each rakat – thinking about my relationship with my family, especially my grandparents, my presence as a daughter and granddaughter, the stark contrast between my existence with them and my existence as a Muslim. Those existences are so different and separate, and yet there I was praying in the living room, blending them.

Of all the moments and occurrences I have made note of since converting, that one is probably the least poignant. There have been so many others, which I am sure I will write about soon, that evoke stronger emotions and are more noteworthy for their uniqueness. But there was something about its plainness, the simple act of salat in the living room of my grandmother’s apartment in her assisted living facility that gave me pause. My journey to Islam and with Islam to this point has been anything but ordinary, so the moment stood out precisely because of its easy straightforwardness. I want to write about this journey – how I got to this point, cherishing the seemingly uninteresting accomplishments discovered while being a revert to Islam.

I will be honest – I am very much certain I will lose my voice again: I know when I get stressed I compartmentalize, and triage the parts of my brain that tend to over-analyze, critique, and worry. My relationship with Islam is saturated with things that can be over-analyzed, critiqued, and worried about. It is often, though less frequently than before, the first thing I find myself avoiding thinking about. It is not yet a clean, easily sorted or stackable item in my life, and so sometimes I have to ignore it. Despite that, there is so much I want to say. It truly has been the most profound, challenging, and rewarding series of decisions and experiences in my life to date. It is a driving force behind a majority of my personal growth. I am content in a way I have never been in twenty-four years of my life.

So I am going to write about it.