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.

Finding Balance: Struggling with Salat

In my last post, I mentioned how feelings of insecurity and inadequacy about being Muslim have led me to struggle fiercely with salat. Salat is this elusive thing for me: sometimes I have it and I feel good about it, other times I cannot bear to think about it, other times I just feel guilty about it. In that respect, it is always on my mind. Perhaps that is also the reason why I feel exhausted by it, even when I am not even making my prayers. I have had a few periods where I was committed to salat, but the majority of the time I am engaged in a tug of war with it. Often times, I do not talk about this struggle, as it is the biggest source of my insecurity and feelings of inadequacy, and I am so uncomfortable admitting weakness.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about salat and trying to figure out the root of my struggles. In the beginning, when I first reverted, I went from 0 to 5 prayers a day immediately. I kept it up for a week or two, but it petered out. Later, when I tried to figure out my emotions about it, I realized that transitioning so quickly made me feel fanatical. I was adding this foreign act into my life, and it was taking over my day, and I felt unsteady. I heard the voice in my head asking if this was really something I was going to do – could do – five times a day for the rest of my life. For several months my salat was sporadic. I might pray fajr before I got started with work for the day, and maybe ‘isha before I went to sleep. But by no means was I consistent. I felt really out of place with salat, and even after I had all of the prayers and surahs memorized, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing.

I recognized when I was making excuses for not being able to make salat, and also recognized how weak my excuses were. “I have work,” I would think. Except nothing is ever so pressing that it cannot be paused for 10 minutes. Yet, I found myself so engrossed in my laptop and watching my prayer notifications flash and fade throughout the day. Even though half of the time I am frustrated with the work I am doing, or mindlessly scrolling through social media to procrastinate that work, I felt it was ‘too important’. “I do not want to do wudu,” I thought. It felt like such a burden to perform wudu, to get my hair wet, to wash my face, that I avoided doing it. “There is no time,” I would reason, even though salat only requires a small amount of time, and it is a minuscule offering for the gift and opportunity to live through each day. I hated that even upon realizing how lame my excuses were that I still could not overcome my mental and physical obstacles to salat. It weighed on me and continues to, heavily.

Eventually, the specific excuses died away, as with time I fully rationalized that they were flimsy. Eventually, I realized my issue with salat was that most of the time, I just did not want to do it. It took longer to figure out the “Why?” for that.

More recently, I have been able to get to the root of my issues and salat. It has not been a pleasant process. My apparent inability to do the basic thing that is required of all Muslims stings me every time I think about it. As a perfectionist, I often chastize myself for not being ‘better’ at being Muslim. I look at my salat struggles as a deep blemish on an imperfect fruit. It adds insult to injury.

It has become an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy. I feel inadequate and insecure about my reticence toward salat, and that metastasizes as me feeling like a ‘bad’ Muslim. When I feel like a ‘bad’ Muslim, I see no point in performing salat. “What is the point,” I think, “of doing this if I am no good in the first place?”

It seems so simple, honestly, written out. But dealing with the devil in the dark recesses of your mind and soul is terribly complex.

But in coming to terms that it was a question of insecurity, and the inverse – a lack of confidence – revealed a lot to me about my mindset and what it means for my relationship with Islam. I have been aware that, as a compulsive perfectionist, I tend to shy away from tasks or activities I feel I will not be able to succeed at. I avoid situations where I might be setting myself up for failure, or looking weak, or seeming confused. And Islam has become a massive hydra of exactly that: activities and tasks that I am not sure I am going to be good at.

In February, I was consistent with my salat for an entire month, even making up prayers when I was traveling. And at the time, I do remember feeling incredibly connected to Islam and secure in my faith. I am not sure why after February things fell apart. Perhaps it is getting out of the habit for a week every month that does me in. I thrive on routine but interruptions set me way back.  Perhaps I got scared to commit. Perhaps I did not trust myself to keep it up for the rest of my life, and I did not want to set myself up for failure. Perhaps I felt an absence of God’s love and support at the end of the month and I stopped.

That aspect – feeling God’s love and support – brings up a tangential issue. Rationally I understand the God I was raised with in the Christian tradition is the same god as Allah. But I still see them as different sides of the same coin, which may be fair seeing as how differently each doctrine conceptualizes God’s power and relationship with followers. In the Christian tradition, there is a profound emphasis on God’s never-ending love and compassion. You are already saved; you are already forgiven. The conversation was always positive. (I recognize that this may have been different if I was raised in a denomination that emphasized the ‘fire and brimstone’ a little more.) But with Islam, despite the emphasis on Allah being the Most-Merciful and the Most-Compassionate, I still feel like there is a fear and punishment element that was not there in Christianity. And I do not respond well to it. This is partially where I feel the futility of my salat the most: “If I am probably already going to hell because of my inconsistency or inadequacy with being Muslim, why bother?”

I have spoken with my Muslim friends about the fear and punishment element, and they confirm there is a greater emphasis on the wrath Allah could rain down on those who disbelieve or go against the religion. They were raised knowing full well what terrible thing awaited them if they did not meet their religious obligations. I do not remember hearing or reading much about Hell when I was going to church, but it is a frequent topic of conversation in Islam. While I absolutely love the duality and balance of Islam – I think it is more practical and realistic and beautiful – I do struggle with feeling like I am compelled to do something because there is an ‘or else’ attached to it.

All of this is not to say I have completely ‘given up’ on Islam because it is hard. Islam is constantly pushing me out of my comfort zone. I am learning, slowly but surely, how to get over my desire to be good at everything and appear in control and live with uncertainty or doubt or the ubiquitous ‘I have no idea what I am doing’. But to be fair, much of that is still at the surface level, and while I have been able to overcome fears about going to masjid or talking about it with people I am close to, what is far below the surface has been much harder to deal with.

That is where salat is for me – leagues under the surface. Even before reverting, I looked to Islam in awe as its adherents were so committed to be prostrating before God five times a day. That commitment was absent in my experience growing up Christian. In fact, it was the opposite: my family and friends would joke about the ‘Christmas and Easter’ Christians who went to church twice a year for the major holidays. Even then, the most religious people I knew maybe went to church once a week. So I saw Muslims as what religious people should be – demonstrating their strong relationship with God day in and day out, no matter the time or the place, forgetting about worldly responsibilities or distractions for a few minutes in order to observe something more meaningful. It was a powerful and beautiful example and it always captivated me. When I saw Muslims praying, I saw their ability to transcend the trivialities of everyday life and attach themselves to something greater and more meaningful. It also looked like an intense dedication; every time I saw Muslims praying I appreciated it for what it was, but also because I wondered if it was something I had the capacity to do in my own relationship with God. Salat was how I thought religion, and a relationship with God, ought to be.

So salat, in my eyes, was always the *difference* about Islam. Over time I have come to appreciate other aspects of Islam that make it unique, like the Qur’an, and Ramadan, but salat is the original distinguishing factor. For better or worse, I view salat as the thing that makes or breaks whether you are a true Muslim. It seemed like to me, especially of the Muslims I was coming across on social media, that the difference between being a ‘cultural’ Muslim and ‘the real deal’ was whether the obligation of salat was honored. The more pious Muslims made their daily prayers a priority, no matter what. I considered performing salat the mark of legitimacy. I say for better or for worse because this perspective has indeed contributed to my own issues with salat: my many roadblocks to salat make me feel as if I’m illegitimate, which then makes me wonder if my salat is futile.

I am not sure why salat and I have such trouble. Sometimes, it is because salat is a grounding action, anchoring, and sometimes I do not feel like I want to be tethered to anything. Sometimes, I feel like I need to have the freedom and flexibility and not be weighed down. I recognize, however, the contradiction in this: the stress of my life at this moment, mostly due to a frustrating and unpredictable work situation, should cause me to seek out anything that brings stability to my life.

So that excuse, like many others that came before, does not really hold itself up. The deeper roadblock and the one that has taken me nearly nine months to figure out is the lack of a positive and confident mindset with regard to being Muslim. I know I need to go easier on myself: there are a lot of factors that contribute to my inability to be the kind of Muslim I would like to be right now. Certainly, others have done more with less, but all things considered, I do not have a lot of work with. Inshallah there will come a time and circumstances in the near future that allow me to live more authentically as a Muslim, but for now, I have to make peace with the unideal.

The mindset issue, after some deep introspection, seems to be the culprit. I questioned why I have no trouble with fasting for Ramadan, a month-long commitment some might argue is on par with salat. I have reasoned that with Ramadan, I can still generally be myself with only a few minor adjustments, and still fulfill my religious duty. Salat, on the other hands, feels more like a radical change to me. For whatever reason, during Ramadan I am always in a positive mood, whereas with salat, one has to be in a concentrated, positive headspace about Islam and being Muslim, five times a day. Simply put, I just do not have that level of good feelings on a daily basis.

Sometimes I wonder how necessary feeling “good” is to do salat. I am sure there are many people who are still able to do it even when they are having an off day or some kind of existential crisis. But salat has also made me feel worse about my inadequacies as a Muslim: because it does not come naturally to me, or because it feels like a distraction or burden itself, I view it as something that points out, glaringly, my shortcomings. So I avoid it.

This is all 100% the wrong way to handle these issues but I am not entirely sure how to navigate toward handling them better. Inspirational YouTube videos from prominent sheikhs touch on the importance of salat, or the beauty of it, or give advice to new converts, or teach them how to do prayers, but there is no advice for a person in my situation: I want to pray, I know how, but a mess of insecurity is holding me back. This is another place where being a revert can be incredibly isolating; I have yet to find anyone else struggling in the same way I am or talk to someone who really *gets it*.

Yet I am confident at some point these issues will fade away. I have mentioned a lot of my inner tumult is a product of stress related to my job, and I am certain with a new one a lot of this anxiety will quickly cease to exist. I need to be patient. I need to do my best and be okay with that. Still, salat and my struggles with it are on my mind day in and day out. I wanted to write about it to be more transparent about the nature of things I am working through. Part of working through this insecurity and feelings of not being a ‘good’ Muslim are rooted in me, for various reasons, not having a strong attachment to Islam, and I believe one of the most constructive ways for me to work past that is to really come to terms with my roadblocks and be open about them. I am reminded of a quote my grandfather lived by: “If you can get it out in the open, you can deal with it.” So that is what I am trying to do.

Note: I would love to hear from you if you are reading this and have been in my shoes or have some words of advice!

Finding Balance: Jeykll and Hyde

This is going to be a really intimate, personal series of posts. I feel I need to caveat them and reiterate that I am happy to be Muslim, I have no regrets, and that it still feels like the right decision for me. But this process has been so difficult – mostly navigating the mental struggles that come with being a revert, and a secret one at that.

***

I have often felt like I am the only one going through this strange situation, and that I must be doing something wrong to have it never feel quite right. In the age of social media illusions, it seems like other reverts I know online are so put together and solid in their beliefs – and of more interest to me – they have this ability to live as a revert to Islam so authentically, so casually. It *seems* easy for some people to live comfortably in this major decision they made, transitioning quickly to hijab or even feeling secure enough to show their face on the Internet. I do not feel that, and it makes me wonder why my path has been so difficult and unsteady. I desperately want my relationship with Islam to feel easy and natural, but it does not.  I should be able to be open about my religion and my experiences, but I hold myself back. I deliberately keep the Muslim side of me hidden away. The Jekyll and Hyde aspect of me being Muslim feels critical for me to protect, even though I am realizing how damaging it is. Keeping the Muslim me separate from the other part of me is a habit, but it is making coexistence ugly and impossible.

I have always been averse to people knowing my business. I have always been cagey with friends or family about personal things, preferring to keep things private and close to the chest. Friends in college would laugh when I would suddenly disappear from parties, or slink in halfway through, without really answering where I was going or where I had been. When I lived in the Middle East alone for a few months, I relished in the raw power I had each day to come and go wherever as I pleased. I like not having to answer to people; I like being the sole decision-maker. But I recognized where that was getting me into trouble: I was so restrictive with details it was obvious to those around me that I was not willing to let them into my life, and that makes it difficult for people to want to be friends with you or trust you with their life. That hurt me because, despite my evasiveness with others, I actually yearn for deep friendships and connections with people, and would do anything for them. So I had to adjust and became more open and willing to share (within reason).

But this is also why I struggle with not being as vocal or open about being Muslim as I want to be. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I would have no problem if someone figured out I was Muslim and asked. In that instance, I feel as though I would be able to control the narrative to some extent, through talking to them and explaining the decision. One of my biggest fears is someone getting the wrong idea, and knowing there could be people out there with a twisted view of me becoming Muslim upsets me. Islam is horrifically misunderstood as it is, and to be a white revert who works in national security who happens to be dating a Muslim guy gives way too much fodder for speculation than I can even handle. Still, even for myself, I suppose it is the act of admitting I converted, of being the one to blow my cover, that also gives me anxiety. I view my conversion to Islam as arguably the most private, intimate, personal thing I have in my life, so my natural reaction is to keep it away from prying eyes and gossip. It is sacred. And finally, there is a control aspect: if someone were to find out somehow, without my consent so to speak, exposing who I really am, it takes the control away from me.

Despite this, I have not kept my entire relationship with Islam a secret. I have told a few people that I converted. I did not fast in secret during Ramadan. I have tried to be open about things to the extent I feel comfortable doing so. But it is not enough. I feel so strongly this division between the ‘original’ me and the Muslim me, and it feels as though the two are incompatible. My friends who were born Muslim have learned in a way I envy how to grow up and become the persons they want to be, with different interests and personality traits, while still being Muslim at their cores. I feel like I grew up and figured out who I was, then added this attachment onto myself that does not seem to be meshing the way it should.

I feel like to be a ‘good’ Muslim, there are certain things I have to change about who I am at my core. Then I feel like these traits or feelings that seem at odds with Islam are somehow ‘wrong’ – except they are me, and I grow frustrated trying to figure out how I am supposed to make both work. This struggle is exacerbated by the fact that I have an extremely Type-A personality; I would even argue compulsively perfectionist. I feel a compulsive need to be ‘perfect’ at Islam – but it is literally impossible. When I inevitably fall short, it erodes my confidence as a Muslim. When I honor the ‘original’ me, I feel guilty for shirking my duties in Islam, even though I have no desire (nay, I refuse) to radically change who I am. I need balance and I do not know how to find it.

I recognize there will always be some back and forth between these two versions of myself – but I let this feeling like I *must* have everything together set me back. As my confidence as a Muslim erodes, I feel less and less connected to Islam. I feel less like reverting was something that was meant to happen and more like I am stumbling along, lost, and not really sure if I made the right call. Being a revert by default brings an enormous amount of insecurity and doubt. Not only do I fret about how I will be perceived by the Muslim community, but also about how my family and friends will receive me, how I will ever gain all of the knowledge I am supposed to, and perhaps most significantly, whether I am legitimate.

These feelings, of insecurity and inadequacy, are crippling. It is one of the reasons why I have struggled so fiercely with salat – though I will save that story for another post. In short, when I do not feel confident, I start to question what the point is of me trying to be a good Muslim. I am a perfectionist – which most of the time is a positive thing – but the ugly side is not wanting to do something if I do not feel like I can do it well. That is where I am at with Islam more often than not. This is why Qur’an 94:5 speaks to me: Verily, with every hardship comes ease. I may feel the pain of each and every shortcoming now, but inshallah eventually I will get to a point where I learn how to overcome them and be at peace with myself and Islam.

I need balance between ‘me’ and the Muslim me. I need to figure out the right way to honor both – to uphold my responsibilities as a Muslim while remaining true to who I am. I need to let go of my need to control everything; I need to let go of what is beyond my control. I need to learn how to be okay when both sides of me are not perfect. I need to understand that an imperfection on one side does not threaten, nor negate, the other. I need to figure out how to be me and Muslim at the same time.

My First Masjid Visit

My intention for starting this blog was to share all of the weird, funny, unique stories and experiences I have accumulated since becoming Muslim. It always me to some degree to have these interactions or conversations or to have found myself in an odd situation, and not really have anyone to share it with. Being a secret revert is such a minority experience and the more time I spent as a Muslim, and the more stories I accumulated, the more I felt like I needed to write them down. It was also important for me to memorialize my experiences because when I was grappling with Islam, and eventually converted, there were so few accounts of other reverts like me that I could read and learn from. Sometimes I really felt like the *only one*, which is incredibly isolating in what was already a lonely experience. I will be the first to point out that I have not undertaken this process by the book; it is full of missteps and questionable choices. I feel a lot of pressure with Islam to be ‘perfect’, on top my already Type-A/perfectionist nature, but I have learned to forgive myself for those missteps and appreciate the beauty of my experience, awkward moments and all.


I used to live in Washington, DC and it was there that I began coming to grips with my religious beliefs. I fasted my first Ramadan there too. At some point, I will write the (long) story of my conversion to Islam, but in short, I had been ‘practicing’ for upwards of a year before I took my shahada. I was trying to learn how to pray and had put together a binder full of notes about surahs, rules, and quotes related to Islam. I was by no means fully committed to Islam, but enough so that if someone had asked what my religion was I would have struggled to answer the question. In DC, I was living a relatively solitary existence. It was not necessary for me to be at the office every day, so I found myself working from my apartment day in and day out. My roommate, who happened to be raised Muslim but was not fully practicing, was often elsewhere during the day, so I was alone most of the time. While I had a few weekly commitments with friends, I needed to find other ways to occupy my time and get outside. I took to taking long walks, upwards of 3 hours, around the city on the weekends. I loved it: there’s something about just walking around a busy city at a leisurely pace, catching details you might not otherwise see during a rushed commute, that helped me find some inner serenity. Many times I would make up a route as I went, turning left or right down streets if I felt like it and seeing where I ended up. It was on one of these endless walks that I found myself adjacent to the Islamic Center of Washington.

The first time I passed it, I wanted to go inside but was not properly dressed – though even if I had been, there is no doubt I would have rationalized not entering for a different reason. (‘Ah, the gate looks shut they must be closed.’) It was dark, and I was lurking in the shadows on the sidewalk across the street, but I still felt sickeningly nervous and anxious about being there. It is ludicrous, but I worried about a friend or coworker passing by in an Uber and seeing me as I stared at the masjid. I worried about a colleague or professional acquaintance walking out of the Islamic Center and recognizing me. I wanted to be invisible, but I also wanted to be there, and I did not know how to rectify that struggle. In retrospect, it is so clear to me how uncomfortable I still was deep down about wanting to be Muslim. My discomfort was not with Islam, but it was with trying to wrap my head around me being part of it. It was (and still is) a constant tug of war.

I would pass by the Islamic Center a few more times on various walks over the course of several months. I noted how the cab drivers would swarm during prayer times, but how there were otherwise only a few people coming and going. It legitimately took several months for me to work up the courage to think about going inside. I still constantly worried about seeing someone I knew: DC can be a horribly small town when you least want it to be. I also worried about having to explain what I was – partially because I did not actually know, and because I was still so uncomfortable assigning words to my experience.

My journey coming to terms with being Muslim took on strange forms at times. I had a strange aversion to walking into a masjid, yet I found myself buying hijabs and assorted accessories in preparation for the eventuality in which I would be attending mosque regularly. If I had to psychoanalyze myself, I think stocking up on hijabs was my way of helping myself feel like I was fully prepared and ready to make the transition to being Muslim. I did not want to jump into something unknown without having all of the necessary tools to make it a success. (Type-A strikes again.) Part of it too was feeling an anxiety about being different: I envisioned scenarios wherein I would walk into a masjid with a poorly tied scarf around my head and everyone would know I was lost and confused. I wanted to blend seamlessly; I did not want to call any more attention to myself than my pale skin would. It is strange to me, looking back, that I thought someone would have noticed my ‘otherness’ or newness and seen that as a sign of weakness when clearly that was only a figment of my insecurity.

I hated that I was making going to the masjid such an obstacle for myself. I can safely say that my journey to Islam has created more mental battles than anything else in my life, and it has also led to me overcoming them. One night in June I psyched myself up to go; I told myself I was going to do it no matter what. I rationalized it practically: it was less than two weeks until Ramadan, and I knew it was going to start getting crowded in the coming days. I did not want to fast for Ramadan without having ever been in a mosque; if I was going to commit to fasting for Ramadan, the more arduous of tasks, it was silly to be struggling to step over the threshold of the Islamic Center.

I brought with me an easy black hijab, one of the ones with a pre-sewn face hole that even I was able to make look ‘expert’. I was nervous and excited – that same mental battle – excitedly taking each step forward while telling myself to slow down, drag it out, you do not need to do this today. The Islamic Center is on Mass Ave in DC, a high-traffic street with lots of cars and embassies. The side streets leading towards it are quieter, if not deserted save for the occasional Diplomat-plated car cruising through. I worried about putting on the hijab on Mass Ave: what would it look like to someone driving by to see this blonde girl pulling on black fabric over her head? This time I worried less about friends in an Uber seeing me, instead I worried about someone catching a glimpse of my veiling and fearing a burglary, or worse, a threat to national security. (I work in the field, so it unfortunately crossed my mind.) I did not want to put it on at the mosque, either, for fear or someone there seeing me or in case my rushed fumbling with the fabric made it look askew. So there I was, in the shadows on a side street, methodically pulling on, folding, and pinning my new hijab and walking the remaining five minutes to the Islamic Center.

I felt like a completely different person in an instant, it was thrilling. I felt comfortable, my panic reduced to a dull ache. I felt okay. It felt right. I have the benefit of perspective, now, and I can see how important this moment was for me. It took me a while to work up to that point, yes, and there was a lot of unnecessary worrying and second-guessing, but ultimately that I was able to make a choice to go to the mosque was tremendously significant. It was the first of many times when I would have to push myself way out of my comfort zone to reach Islam. It was the first step on a very long, ever-growing, walk to self-discovery.

The buoyancy of the moment was hilariously short-lived. Approaching the Islamic Center, I realized my preoccupation about the hijab and timing my visit for a quiet night meant I had neglected to properly case the joint! I had no idea where the entrance was. All of my efforts to not look clueless were for naught, as I stared blankly around the complex wondering if I was meant to go in the front gate, or the side door, and whether the building was even open at all. I directed some frustration at the Islamic Center, for not understanding how nervewracking an initial visit for a revert or someone interested in Islam could be and putting information about hours and entrances on their website. It was just past 8pm, so ‘Isha had already happened but not so long ago that they would be locking up for the night, or so I had thought. I considered turning around right then and there. The panic bubbled up again. I wanted to leave, but the tiniest voice in my head told me to keep going. I knew I would be disappointed in myself if I had gotten that far and turned around because I was uncomfortable and afraid. I knew it would not sit well with me. I went around to the side gate, keeping my head down as a couple of cab drivers made their way out.

I went around to the side gate, keeping my head down as a couple of cab drivers made their way out. ‘Do I say salaam or am I supposed to not say anything?’ I kept walking towards what I hoped was the main entrance, a massive door (closed) with floor to ceiling shoe cubbies to the left and right. Three people were making their way out, and as I passed them, the man in the group stopped walking with them and turned around after me. I cannot remember much about the conversation because I was so nervous, but I do remember him asking if I had been there before, and if I was Muslim. I responded truthfully to his first question but heard a lie coming out of my mouth to the second: ‘Yes.’. I did not know how to explain what I was: I did not eat pork, I was planning to fast for Ramadan, I accepted the Oneness (non-Trinity) of Islam, but that was as far as I had gotten. So, perhaps yes, technically I was Muslim, but I had yet to take the shahada, so maybe I technically was not. I did not want to say I was interested in Islam, because I knew the response to that would be a lecture about religion. I did not need convincing; I needed to figure it out on my own. I know he meant well, but I was very guarded about explaining my situation. I was so accustomed to feeling like anyone I told was going to react with horror or try to talk me out of it that I was used to deflecting every inquiry.

He departed, while I again worried if I had committed some grave error by shaking his hand. I made my way over to what I hoped was the women’s section. It could have also been the storage area for extra chairs, I might never know. It was blocked off from the main prayer hall by tall wooden dividers, which made it impossible to see the rest of the space. I wanted to see the architecture and the designs, to appreciate the beauty of the building as I had once appreciated churches, but I did not want to be chastized for straying from my designated corner. A janitor turned into the section with a vacuum, but saw me and practically ran away. I wanted to feel some kind of magic or divine spirit being there, but so far the experience was devoid of that. I felt more like an intruder than anything else. I took some pictures, and a selfie to prove I had done it, but ended up heading out shortly after I had arrived.

Except my shoes were gone. Nothing, so far, about this visit had been seamless. I looked in each cubby, hoping someone had just moved them. No luck. I thought about my walk home, was it something I could do in socks? It was, or there was Uber, but I also really liked those shoes. I went back inside. It was funny, I thought, that I was getting to experience the disappearing shoe problem collectively experienced by Muslims at the mosque. It was, in that respect, now an authentic visit. I sheepishly asked someone if they knew whether shoes from the outside cubbies had been brought inside. He looked down at my feet. We walked down a back staircase, into the washroom area, and he presented me with a bookcase full of mismatched shoes. To my dismay, none were mine. Several minutes later, another trip up and down the stairs, and another bookcase of shoes later, they were located. Alhamdulilah.

I felt content leaving, and also very content to leave. It had certainly not gone as expected, but as I walked away I realized what better situation for some things to be awkward: I was alone, no witnesses to my stumbles, and surely now I could deal with anything that came next. It had not gone the way I planned it, but it was a good experience nonetheless. This is a lesson I am still learning.

I walked toward my apartment with my hijab still on. I could have removed it the minute I turned down a side street, but I recognized there would be few opportunities where I could wear a hijab out in public and not be completely freaked out. I passed people and tried to see if they looked twice. It did not seem so. How marvelous to feel so different on the inside, and to know you look drastically different than you normally do, but appear completely normal and – especially in DC – uninteresting to bystanders.

I think back to how nervous that visit made me, and how flighty I felt being there. It is funny to me now that when I am in DC for work, I am always trying to fit a visit into my schedule. The nervousness I felt before going into the Islamic Center in DC is gone, but now I feel it just as fiercely when I am going to the masjid near where my parents live, which is where I moved to. I still feel out of place when I am wearing hijab at the masjid – I have not worn it in public since that night – but less so than I did the very first time. Perhaps most importantly, I have become much better at articulating my relationship with Islam, and dealing with the insecurities it triggers. I could not have known in June 2015 how significant my visit to the DC Islamic Center would be in the grand scheme of things.

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.