Soul Food

sureya2The luxury of finishing a book: you can meet a friend for lunch. That’s what I did last week at a homey Turkish restaurant near where I live. It began life as a rug shop, but since Sureya, the proprietor, loves to cook, she started serving food among the rugs. People turned out to love her cooking in return — I’ve taken Turkish friends from out of town there, and they practically wept with home-sickness – so the rugs retreated to a small pile at the back of the room. Plain wooden tables and chairs multiplied, and the news spread.

Last week was a normal mix for this place: a pink-haired student with Gothic script tattooed on her bare shoulders; a couple of hijabi mothers with babies; plaid-shirt-and-chinos software types; even a suit or two.

My friend and I ordered lentil soup and some eggplant dishes, and when Sureya brought them over she told us about her plans to move to a larger space nearby. The color scheme would have lots of turquoise, she said, and she was already haunting eBay in search of beautiful plates to replace the plain white ones we were using.

Maybe there’s something about Sureya that calls forth truth, or maybe I was still light-headed with having finished the book, but I said “Um, Sureya, you know, people tend to get light-fingered around beautiful plates…” And I found myself telling her about the time, many years ago, when I was out with a few friends in New York, at an Italian restaurant that the waiter told us was due to close soon. I don’t remember how many bottles of wine we’d drunk, but it must have been a few, because by the end of the evening, it seemed an awful pity that this restaurant’s hand-painted ceramic plates were to disappear along with the place itself, which is why several of them were somehow transferred into purses, jackets, and trousers — including those of an assistant district attorney from a major American city I won’t name here.

My friend looked on in bemusement at anyone so foolish as to tell such a story to a restaurant owner even as she was eating in her restaurant.

“So maybe stick with the plain plates?” I concluded.

Sureya seemed puzzled, as though I’d suggested the most peculiar thing. She thought about it a moment, and then her response knocked me for a loop.

sureya3“Why?” she said. “Let people take if that’s what’s important to them. Why even worry about that?” And I realized she was right. Who would even dream of stealing from a woman like this? That would be to invite such bad karma…

She was smiling as she reached behind her for a blue glass dish, and held it up in both hands. She moved it around in front of her to catch the light, swaying as she did so, almost dancing with it. “Look,” she said, “how could I not use this? isn’t it beautiful?”

It was. And so was the eggplant. And so is she.

Yippee!

So this morning, I pressed ‘Send’ and the last chapter of the new book went winging its way to my editor in New York.

There was a brief glow of accomplishment.  A full-body glow, all shiny and radiant.  “Finished!” I thought, even as I knew this was untrue.  Books are never really finished.

There’s a final edit to be done, and then copy-editing, and then the dreaded “author’s questionnaire” will arrive from the marketing department, and as on just about any questionnaire I’ve ever encountered, I just won’t fit.  Among other things, it’ll ask me (in slightly different language) to “please describe in 200 words what just took you a whole book to say.”  I’ll agonize over these 200 words, and never manage to get them right.

And then I’ll wait, heart in mouth, for the pre-publication reviews, which will determine whether ‘Agnostic: a Spirited Manifesto’ — yes, that’s the working title — will thrive in the big wide world.  And then for the post-publication reviews, in early 2016, which will determine if it survives at all.

Yet since there’s probably a certain masochistic element to being a writer, I’m looking forward to it all.  In the immediate future, though, what I’m looking forward to is getting back to posting here on The Accidental Theologist.  Some people manage to write short and long (post and book) at the same time, but I’m not one of them.  That’s why I’ve been relatively silent over the last several months, restricting myself to brief squibs on Facebook and Twitter.  It’ll probably take a while to get back into the rhythm of blogging (some of you will be able to tell I’m not back into it since I just mistakenly pressed Publish instead of Save), but with months of thinking stored up, who knows what might happen…

Muhammad’s Tears

The cover of this week’s Charlie Hebdo leaves me speechless, in a good way.  And in tears too.  (And yes, it is indeed deeply Islamic in spirit.)

o-CHARLIE-COVER-570

My Inner Sergeant-Major

Less than three months to go before I hand the new book to my publisher, and I recognize the signs.  This afternoon I drove through Christmas traffic to the market, filled up a shopping cart, got to the checkout counter, and discovered I’d left my wallet at home.  (The next stage is finding that I’ve locked myself out of the house, which is why spare keys are judiciously distributed among my neighbors.)  My head is not quite in this world.  Close friends tell me this is how I always am near the end of a book.  “It seems worse this time,” I say, only to have them remind me that this is what I say every time.  I reluctantly acknowledge that they may be right.

The checkout guy knows me, so he let me put the cart to one side and hold onto the freshly-made warm frites I’d bought, or would have bought if I’d had any money on me, reminding me to save the price tag for when I got back with credit card in hand.  The frites were perfect, thin-cut and salted just right, and I dealt with the traffic by devouring them as I drove home, where I gulped down a glass of water (the salt!), grabbed my wallet, and set off back to the market, only to realize that the car now stank mightily of frying oil, and so, therefore, did I.  The glamor of the writing life continually amazes me.

Since I’ve been tussling with big, undefinable things like God, consciousness, and infinity, I guess it was a bit much to expect that I be a normally functioning member of society at this point.  It should certainly have come as no surprise that even as words accumulated in presumably satisfactory numbers, they turned out to be slippery, slithery creatures.

I’d already done all the right writerly things.  Per the admonition to “kill your darlings” (Hemingway? Woolf? — it’s one of those “variously attributed” sayings), passages waiting to be lauded as beautiful writing had been duly slain, a process that left virtual blood all over the keyboard since I find it far harder to delete than to add.  But the surviving words still displayed an alarming tendency to slide around from page to page.  Stubbornly refusing to stay in place, they were acting like a pack of unruly schoolkids.  I could practically hear them shoving and poking each other:  “Here’s where I want to be!”  “No, here!”  “That’s my place.”  “Tis not.”  “Tis too.”

By last week, I’d had enough of it.  “Take charge of the words!” I wrote on an index card, in all caps, and pinned it over my desk.  Forget “being a writer” — I’d become a sergeant-major, and order these green recruits into shape.

I printed out the most troublesome chapter, pushed the computer monitor aside, shoved the office chair out of the way, and stood over the desk, leaning in like a commander about to ream out a subordinate.  I set to, marking up the pages with slashes and arrows, dictating what went where, giving insubordinate words what for.  And though it took a few days, they caved.  They fell into place.  Lined up for inspection.  Reader, it worked!

william jamesAt least I think it did.  I can’t be sure of it.  How could I be?  This is an agnostic manifesto I’m writing, and it hinges on imperfect knowledge, on the importance of doubt, the inhumanity of certainty.  As William James put it (he of The Varieties of Religious Experience):  “So far as man stands for anything, and is productive or originative at all, his entire vital function may be said to have to deal with maybes.  Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe.”

I love James despite his peculiarly Victorian assumption that only men “stand for anything,” and this quote from him survived the slashing.  But there are still times when the writer in me needs that inner sergeant-major to let me know in no uncertain terms exactly what I can do with my maybes.  I suspect James had one too.

 

Sun Dog

People experience awe in very different ways. One person’s exhilarating glimpse of something infinitely grand can be another’s nightmare, to be denied, even exiled from consciousness.

This happened some years ago, before the ubiquity of smartphones.  It was dawn, the midsummer sun not yet risen, as I sailed with a friend out of Neah Bay, the small native American township at the northwest tip of the United States. I stood at the helm as my companion huddled over charts down in the cabin, plotting our course across the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca where it opens up into the Pacific. The sea was cutting short and choppy as the incoming ocean swell came up against the outflow of the strait, but I was suffused with a feeling of calm. We were the only boat in sight, the only sounds the water against the hull and an occasional flap of the sail. The world, at that moment, was perfect. And then it became more so.

The sun began to rise over the mountains to the east – a large, fuzzy sun, the color of a white daffodil. Mesmerized by its slow ascent, I waited for the moment when it would detach itself from the mountain ridges and assume a perfect, independent roundness. Except it didn’t. Just when I expected to see clear sky between sun and mountains, there seemed instead to be something beneath the sun, pushing it upward, and I realized that there were now two suns rising — two suns of equal size, conjoined, one on top of the other. “A sun dog!” I shouted.

My friend came running up from below, took one look, and froze. “That shouldn’t be happening. That can’t be happening,” he shouted, adamantly refusing to believe the testimony of his own eyes. “That’s impossible!”

I tried to tell him that somewhere, some time, I had read an account of just such a twinned sunrise (in a novel? a short story? I’ve searched since, but never been able to find it again). But he’d have none of it. Instead, he scrambled down to the cabin to bring up an armful of meteorology books, and with his back resolutely set to the splendor of the sky behind him, started leafing frantically through them. “See!” he said, jabbing at a page. “It can’t be a sun dog. A sun dog is a parhelion, a much smaller mock sun, and they come in pairs, at an angle to the real sun. Not this… this abomination!”

Abomination?  I’d never expected to hear that biblical word from this eminently rational intellectual – a pastor’s son turned insistent atheist. “Can’t you see?” he wailed. “Something awful is happening, against all the laws of nature.” I’m not a hundred percent sure if he used the phrase “end of the world” — surely not, though it seems to me he did, and he trembled as though some form of apocalypse was in progress.

I admit I was no help. “Just look!” I kept saying. But he only dashed back down into the cabin for shelter from the sky, leaving me alone to watch as it became still more extraordinary. The lower sun assumed a deeper color and more definite form as it rose, and as the upper one faded, a thick pillar of white light took shape between the remaining sun – the real sun — and the mountaintops. It occurred to me that it may have been as well that my friend was below deck: a pillar of light was so damn biblical. And then that in turn gave way to a huge double rainbow in an ellipse around the risen sun, and I could only stand there shaking my head and laughing, tears in my eyes, knowing that I would never again witness a sunrise as stunningly eerie and beautiful and grand as this. Not even my companion’s panic could change that.

Long after that friendship’s inevitable dissolution, I occasionally searched meteorology sites online. My companion had been right in that most sun dogs are indeed much smaller images at an angle to the sun, but I did eventually find a couple of photographs of two suns, even if not quite conjoined, and horizontal rather than vertical.  I also found explanations of how the acutely angled light of the sun is refracted when layers of ice crystals form barely visible low-lying fog in the chill early-morning air, acting as a kind of mirror.  I could now explain how come I’d seen what I saw. And yet the explanation did nothing to diminish the splendor of the memory. Or the experience of pure wonder. Or the knowledge that what had delighted me, had terrified another.

double_sun

 

Who ISIS Hates

I know Muslims are sick and tired of the Islamophobic refrain of “Why don’t they speak out against ISIS?”  Some refuse to accept the terms of the challenge, seeing it as a demand that they apologize for being Muslim.  Others denounce terrorism, to deaf ears.  But it wasn’t until I read this piece by New Zealanders Khareyah Wahaab and Jason Kennedy, who made news a couple of years back by inviting a racist MP to dinner, that I realized how Muslims in the West are doubly threatened by extremism.

[Tim from Timaru, by the way, is the New Zealand equivalent of Joe Bloggs — or perhaps Joe the Plumber.  And it should be noted that before ISIS took to beheading Western hostages, they beheaded dozens of Syrians in Raqqa. They stuck the heads on the points of railings in the city’s main park. Western media paid no attention.]

This may come as a shock to some, but ISIS hates us, a young Muslim couple in the West, with the same vehemence as Tim from Timaru.  Except, unlike Tim, we have many ties to the Muslim community in New Zealand.  It’s a small community and our family is known to most Muslims here, who in turn still have ties to their countries of origin.  This means that if by some freak chance a terrorist group were to put a bounty on our heads for speaking out against them, they have a much greater chance of finding us than finding Tim from Tumaru.

More than anyone else, terror groups seek to punish those they view as apostates of their own religion.  Radical fundamentalists thus hold all Muslims hostage.  Even in New Zealand, where our freedoms of speech and religion are a given, we still live with the risk of terrorist reprisal for speaking out, precisely because we are Muslim.

Terrorism is not aimed only at Westerners;  it’s a daily experience for those who must live among extremists.  Muslims have immigrated to the West in a conscious decision to escape violence and instability, seeking to build a better life, but many fear that if they speak out loud, they and their families “back home” will suffer.  You may call this cowardly, but first ask yourself if you would be willing to jeopardize your family’s freedom and safety if you legitimately feared reprisal.

Many do so nonetheless.  In public gatherings, demonstrations, formal statements by imams, even teenagers posting their frustrations on YouTube, the message is the same:  “ISIS does not represent us.  ISIS does not represent Islam.  We condemn their actions entirely.”  You don’t hear them because they’re not considered newsworthy, but engage a Muslim in conversation, and you are very apt to find someone who feels exactly the same way about extremists as you do.

How can we, two Kiwis who have never had anything to do with the Middle East, possibly answer for the actions of extremists with whom we have nothing in common other than proclaiming to be Muslim?  Like every other Muslim we know, we choose to follow the progressive, peaceful tenets of Islam, and leave the rest to the annals of a long and tumultuous history.

With biblical literalism still prevalent in many churches, it should be no surprise that Islam also struggles with literalism.  Most Muslims in the West gloss over the violent passages in the Quran in much the same way as Christians disregard the violent passages in the Bible.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, they recognize the need for reform.  But Martin Luther’s reform of Christianity didn’t come until the sixteenth century.  Islam, a faith 600 years younger, is now, in the twenty-first century, grappling with the same need.  Progressive western Muslims will certainly lead the way.

And if you haven’t managed to hear it by now, then hear it this time:  Yes, we are Muslim, and yes, we categorically denounce ISIS and all forms of terror.

 

Shameless Advice

The advice-to-young-people racket is utterly shameless. Even William Burroughs gave in to the temptation, proving that the best advice-to-young-people may be to ignore all advice-to-young-people. Unless, of course, it comes from The Stranger, Seattle’s ornery, Pulitzer-prize-winning alternative weekly, whose annual back-to-school issue confronts incoming freshpeople with all manner of weird, ironic, and occasionally even useful advice on life, love, and… oh yes, sex.

This year, they decided to go for broke and include religion, and who else would they turn to but the Accidental Theologist? — who obligingly came up with ten questions for “young people” to ask if they’re trying to choose a religion:

1. How loud do its proponents talk? If they’re shouting, that doesn’t make what they say truer. On the contrary: There’s generally an inverse relationship between decibels and truth. Besides, do you really enjoy being preached at?

2. Do they know what God wants/thinks/intends? If so, either they are God or they think they are God. That’s called heresy if you’re religious, and psychosis if you’re not.

3. Are they obsessed with sex? If they’re threatened by women or are LGBT-phobic, there’s weird sexual stuff going on. If you’re similarly threatened and phobic, Westboro Baptist Church or Mars Hill Church will happily provide a home for your penis.

4. Do they have good music? Christians might have this one beat (Bach’s Mass in B minor, gospel music…), but if you’ve never heard Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, you have an ecstatic Sufi feast in store.

5. Talking of feasts, do they have good food? Communion wafer, anyone? At least Jews have matzo-ball soup and four glasses of wine at Passover. And Muslims get to dine on fatted lamb at Eid al-Adha—but winelessly.

6. Do they cite chapter and verse at you? This is the primo tactic of fundamentalists: cherry-picked quotes, out of context. Try tossing this one back at them: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” (And since they can’t hear you unless you add numbers, that’s 2 Corinthians 3:6.)

7. Do they have any idea what “metaphor” means? If not, gently suggest they sign up for English Literature 101—no, demand it. Do not put up with literalism.

8. Are they into social justice? That’s the essential subtext of both the Bible and the Quran: social and economic protest against corrupt elites. The Big Three monotheisms began as the Occupy movements of the ancient Middle East. Where do you think Marx got his ideas from?

9. Do they insist on your swearing belief/loyalty/obedience? If they lack a sense of mystery and claim to have all the answers, run like hell. That’s not faith, that’s dogma.

10. Are they into joy? Do they celebrate life—in this world, not a next one? Do they make you want to laugh, cry, hug, dance, stay up all night and watch the sunrise? Do they make you happy and grateful and goddamn humbled by this strange thing we call existence? A++ if they do.

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