Ramadan: Expectations vs. Reality

I have been looking forward to Ramadan for the last six months or so. My first two years fasting, I did not fully understand how and why people got so excited about it. Now, approaching my third Ramadan, I realize I have become a part of the crowd that eagerly awaits it. For me, I look forward to committing to my religion so deeply and powerfully for a full month. I love making a physical commitment to my faith and being reminded so constantly throughout the day the blessings I take for granted and how much God has given me. I look forward to reconnecting with Islam. I understand now how people can look forward to a month of not eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset with the same enthusiasm as I used to have toward Christmas.

The first Ramadan was an extraordinary experience, and I had many an interesting encounter living in Washington, DC and surprising people when I told them I was fasting. It being my first year, I also had to navigate telling friends about what I was doing and fit it into my social calendar. Even though I was living away from home, I still visited, and then too had to figure out how to be as minimally disruptive as possible with my family while still honoring my commitment to Ramadan. When I first started, I thought I would “try” Ramadan and only fast on the weekends. I realized after two days that it was something I felt in my heart I wanted to do for the whole month. I loved it, but it was still challenging.

Every year I struggle with what I wish Ramadan could be for me and what it actually is. My first year fasting, I was living alone in DC and it was hard – I spent a lot of my days working in my room and had no one to talk to. I would break my fast, alone, usually with a sad dinner of grilled chicken and quinoa, and then watch a lot of Netflix. I knew of ‘potluck iftars’ on the National Mall, but I always felt too awkward and anxious to go. This was before I had officially converted, and I was still in between religions; I did not know how to explain myself to people. There were some disappointing evenings as I lamented not having a stronger network of Muslim friends or family that could help me have the Ramadan that it seemed like everyone else was having – the Christmas like experience, for lack of a better phrase.

My second Ramadan, I was living at home. I am very thankful my parent were accepting of my decision to fast (I had not yet converted then, either) and were generally laissez-faire about it. I remember going to fireworks with my family – a July 4th tradition – and my mom packing a full cooler of food and drinks for me as I would not be able to break my fast until we were already out at the park. I remain deeply appreciative of their support, however tacit. I was grateful the second time around for some more human interaction too, but there was still disappointment in my heart that I was not able to spend nights at the masjid or celebrate Ramadan or Eid with a big family gathering. I was envious of my boyfriend’s family as they came together for the holidays. The extended family drove hours from Canada, they made mountains of food, only the best outfits were worn, kids ran around with their cousins…. I made my boyfriend give me detailed rundowns of his days so I could live Ramadan vicariously through someone celebrating it as I wished I could.

I was sad, ultimately, that my Ramadan was not the same – as if I was not meant to have that authentic experience yet. I wanted to go to taraweeh, but did not have my own car and did not feel like I wanted to lie to (or make up an adequate alibi for) my parents in order to be out so late. Plus, I had never been and already felt overwhelmed and panicked going to into the masjid on quiet days – how could I handle feeling out of place during the busiest time of the year? Same with Eid: I desperately wanted to experience Eid prayers, and to eat copious amounts of biryani afterward, but such was not possible for me. No car to get to prayers and no friends to carpool with, not to mention I had work. So Ramadan has always been bittersweet – it is fulfilling to me personally, despite there always being something missing.

This year, Ramadan brings even more *feelings* as it is technically my first year since converting. There are, blissfully, signs that things are going to be better than years past: I will have a car, which means I can take myself to taraweeh or the Qur’an studies class on Sundays or Eid prayers. I feel less out of place than years past – which is not to say I feel like I belong – but the anxiety has lessened. Still, I wanted to talk about some of the things I continue to worry about and fret over.

I am dismayed this year that a dear friend’s wedding out of state coincides with the beginning of Ramadan. Ironically, I will be back in New Hampshire, where a few months ago I had an epiphany while praying on my grandmother’s floor, about redoubling my efforts to be connected with Islam (and start this blog!) So it seems somewhat serendipitous, if not ordained, that I will be coming back at the start of the holy month. Still, I have been trying to figure out how to manage fasting, praying, and going to a masjid while I am away. I want to fast, but at the same time, I am not sure if doing so overtly while staying with my grandmother is the best choice for me. She lives in an assisted living facility, where meals and eating are pretty much the only things to do. Depriving us of that shared experience seems counter-intuitive. For the record, I think she would be fine with me fasting – I just would rather not disrupt her routine. Technically, too, as I will be traveling a significant distance from home, I am not obligated to fast. Call me an overachiever, but I still wanted to. It feels wrong to start of Ramadan not fasting.

As far as masjids go in New Hampshire… well, they’re very few and far between. There is one thirty minutes from where I am staying, but it is not a permanent masjid. I am not certain whether there will be any taraweeh, or if the masjid (read: rented out office space) is even open aside from Friday prayers. The other masjid is larger, but an hour away. It means if I just to sneak off and visit, I am looking at at least a three-hour trip away from my grandmother. I designed this wedding trip so that I would be able to spend time with her, so again it seems counter-intuitive to forgo that in favor of driving around trying to find a masjid. God knows best. Perhaps I will be able to make a trip out to it on Saturday night for taraweeh – but even as I consider that, the same feelings of being out of place and alone creep up. Certainly, the Muslim community in southern New Hampshire is small, and surely everyone knows everyone. I hate the idea of walking in somewhere and being the only person not welcome. Plus, I have never been to taraweeh and have no idea how it works. It is a lot of ‘out of place’ feelings for me to come to grips with.

That element of Ramadan is hard: being a revert who does not quite ‘fit the picture’ always leaves me feeling some degree of excluded. My boyfriend does not understand: his brown skin and beard means he could walk into any masjid and immediately expect to receive handshakes, hugs, and salaams. I, on the other hand, have frequently been ignored. I would like to think of myself as a person with the capacity to be extroverted, but I find myself at a loss in those situations. It hurts my feelings, to be honest. It is like being the new kid at school and having nowhere to sit at lunch. The exclusion is compounded by groups that stay insulated among themselves based on ethnicity or nationality. Ramadan exacerbates how left out I feel.

So every year as Ramadan approaches I have these grand visions of spending my weekends and nights at the masjid, making friends, having family around to spend time with, getting closer to Islam, and coming home to delicious iftars and cute decorations. Inshallah one year soon I will get that. But for now, things are a little bit more austere, and while it can be disappointing and upsetting sometimes, I realize that is not the point of Ramadan. Ultimately, Ramadan is still about your personal relationship with God and Islam. I am in a better place than I was last year ago – Alhamdulilah, I am Muslim now – and even better than two years ago. Here again, I need my sabr. I do have faith that in the near future, inshallah, Ramadan will be like the idea I have in my head, with friends and family celebrating together and time spent at the mosque with as little anxiety and awkwardness as possible. Like all good things, it takes time and effort to really appreciate Ramadan. Ramadan’s very nature – fasting for a month – is designed to make you slow down and count your blessings. So that is what I am going to do.

Ramadan Mubarak, all. I hope your month is blessed!  ❤

Overwhelmed With Gratitude

I recognize that for a time, a lot of what I wrote about on this blog was to some degree negative. I did not mean for it to be that way, and it certainly is not entirely reflective of my experiences, but sometimes the hard and thorny things stand out more noticeably and demand more attention than the easy, smooth things. I think it takes longer for the good things to really sparkle in our minds sometimes; it takes more effort and time for us to come around and appreciate them.

I have been thinking a lot about the concept of being overwhelmed with gratitude. Suffice to say, I am a person that feels uneasy when things are good: I tend to operate better when there is something to be fixed, or improved, or some modicum of instability to navigate around. It keeps me sharp, and it helps me to feel like things are real. When I get too idealistic, I lose sight of reality and set myself up for disappointment. When life starts to get too good, I start waiting for the other shoe to drop. I have gotten better at quieting this mindset but it is persistent.

In the last couple of months, life has been unpredictable. There has been a lot of stress, mainly due to a volatile job situation and a complicated relationship dynamic. Both, in their own ways, exacerbated my already-tenuous relationship with Islam and being Muslim. I had a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head and a lot of doubt. I frequently felt lost and adrift, hence the blog posts that centered more on the struggles of being a secret revert and the feelings of insecurity and inadequacy that came with it. A central theme of that time was a general lack of confidence in who I was, or what I was doing with my life.

Before, I felt tremendous pressure not knowing what kind of job I wanted, or if I was even going to be able to find a job, or how I was going to survive in the increasingly untenable one I have. I felt stressed while my relationship tried to weather the difficulties of the pre-med track and dating in secret. I felt stressed about not being a good Muslim. It was perhaps the beginning of an existential crisis. It felt like nothing was on solid ground – not at work, not in my heart, not in my soul. But I could not stop, or give up, or crawl into a hole and hide – as much as I wanted to. Life demands forward movement, however small and incremental at first. And that is what I did: I applied for jobs as often as I could, – even though rejections made me doubt everything all over again – I waded through the brambles and tried to untangle and heal the problems in my relationship, and most importantly, I took the internal pressure off of myself to be a perfect Muslim. It was my own choice – my own triage – but I recognized that for me personally, the most critical element of my mental well-being, and the things that everything else hinges on, is having a different job. It takes up the bulk of my day, and I need to have something that makes me happy and fulfills me. I need something that will get me out of the house. I need something that will allow me to go to the masjid for jummah. Worrying about my daily prayers went to the back burner. It is what I needed to do to make it through. My rationale is that with a new job and the mental stability that follows, I will then be able to better commit to Islam.

In the last few weeks, there has been a marked turnaround in how I have felt about life, and even having put Islam on the backburner, I am finding it is resurgent nearly every second of my day. Taking the pressure off eliminated the negative feelings that so often cropped up in my head. Taking the pressure off allowed me to reconnect to the quiet voice of God that exists within my heart, and hear it clearly, without pretense, for the first time in a while.

I think we are all guilty sometimes of wishing God would just let us be in charge of our own plans for life. Certainly as type-A as I am, I have been guilty of wishing God would just let me do it because I promise, I know exactly what I am doing. So it is incredibly humbling when plans do not work out, or plans take on a different form than what I expect, and when somehow despite my best attempts to make everything just right I come up short – things still turn out okay. To me, this is one of the beautiful aspects of believing in God and in a higher power, and with that a higher meaning and reason for your life: everything is happening for a reason, and sometimes the reason is clear, sometimes it is not, but there is always an underlying purpose. There is an undercurrent bringing you toward where you are meant to go. It is also humbling to believe that God has a distinct and important plan for you, and that He cares, and that He is always somehow overseeing the vast array of chips and dominos and chutes and ladders that are falling and moving and changing direction and ultimately make up the trajectory of your life. I think I am humbled most by things almost always mysteriously working out because I am so convinced I am the only one who is capable of making good plans – I am doubly impressed, floored even, when God shows that He is the Most-Capable, too. 

So the last few weeks have been steeped in this mindset. Going from the beginnings of an existential crisis where everything seemed wrong, impossible, and uncertain, to right now where I have two strong jobs (God willing) lined up, my relationship is healthy, I just returned from a beautiful vacation – I am truly overwhelmed with gratitude. Even before I left for vacation, I found myself feeling guilty because things were too good and I felt like I did not deserve a week away on a tropical island. I was, and still am, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But with that said, I am trying to not be negative about it – I am trying to not respond to blessings with harshness and cynicism. I am working on being more mindful in the moment of the blessings before me, whether they are small things like a sunny day after a torrential downpour, or an interview that went spectacularly, or a quiet night at home with the person I love, takeout, and Netflix. I am trying to be more effusive with my gratefulness. I am giving that inner voice that recognizes God’s gifts a bigger platform. I think a part of this is also allowing myself to feel like I deserve good things – though that admittedly is a more uphill battle.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that there are parts of this period of intense gratefulness that are difficult. I think about the things that are going well in my life, and how things have seemingly worked out so perfectly, and (especially on vacation) I think about the majesty and beauty of nature and life all around me, and I am consumed with wondering how I can ever repay God for this. I believe in the Christian tradition, there is a greater emphasis on the sacrifice having already been made so that God’s children can enjoy the fruit of world so long as they give thanks. The debt, in essence, has already been paid. In Islam, believers are commanded to continually put in the effort to ensure they are worthy of God’s eventual paradise. Theirs is a debt that is never completely satisfied, only until death and God willing, in jannah.  I am still struggling with my daily prayers – I think it is accurate to say I am on a hiatus right now – but I think about the sheer magnitude of God’s blessings toward me and everything around me and it leaves me feeling microscopic, and how could my meager attempts at salat ever come close to being enough? Here is where I end up getting back into that cyclical perfectionist’s curse: why bother doing it if it is not going to be good, or perfect? Better to just not try at all. I get stuck here feeling like I either have to be a 110% perfect Muslim for the rest of my life, or I am just doomed and should not bother. Is the other shoe soon to drop because I am not always the kind of Muslim I should be? How do you find a balance between ‘perfect’ and doing your best when everything is on the line? This is the question I am grappling with at the moment.

I suppose, ultimately, it is better to be overwhelmed – and therefore cognizant – of blessings and things to be grateful for then unaware or take it all for granted. I feel Islam has taught me in a more powerful way than Christianity ever did to consider the depths of God’s creation and ability all around me, day in and day out. I am constantly humbled. I suppose coming to this realization and understanding of God’s might and bestowing of blessings upon me might be the first step in my deeper relationship with Islam, while the rest, like coming to terms with how to properly and adequately show my gratitude and live according to the principles He envisions, will come in due time. How ironic that even in one’s personal journey with religion, sometimes our own plans are not sufficient nor proceed the way we envision or think are best – indeed, God always knows best.