Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Uniqueness of Every Child

A friend and I were laughing because we both felt we are wonderful mothers
--while our kids are asleep. During the short pause in whining, screaming, and cleaning after, the ideas and inspiration and excitement begin to well up. It's almost like I want to shake them awake and read them a story ... almost.

Here is a short, inspiring clip to watch while your kids are asleep.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Knitting the Dishes

Sometimes we wash the dishes, and sometimes we knit them.

I’ve started my on-off habit of knitting again, because of the distant prospect of moving to a cold climate someday. Then, I hope my family will be happy for the thick, warm, homemade socks, hats, and mittens. For now though, the knitting habit serves to keep the housework from ruling my life.

A sink filled with dishes taunts me all day, laughs at me, and pulls me away from my kids. Every night, my daughter drinks two cups of milk before bed, and now that we are doing away with sippy cups (I’m tired of cleaning out milk that has turned into sour cheese), she sits in her chair and chats in her two-year-old vocabulary.

Normally, I would be unable to ignore the dishes. I would wash and scrub the sink clean with my children babbling in the background. But now, anchored to a ball of yarn and knitting needles, I can sit at our new kitchen table late at night, listen, and enjoy my daughter’s exploration of her newly acquired language.

“Ana ashrab balan. Ashrab balan. Ana ashrab balan. Balan min…al-baqarah. Ashrab balan min al-baqarah. Ashrab…aseer. Ashrab aseer. Ashrab aseer…min al-baqarah. Ureedu aseer min al-baqarah. Ana ureedu aseer min al-baqarah. Umee, ureedu aseer min al-baqarah. Umee, ureedu aseer min al-baqarah. Umee…”
“I drink milk. I drink milk. I drink milk from a cow. Drinking milk from a cow. Drinking milk … juice. I drink juice. I drink juice….from a cow. I want juice from a cow. I want juice from a cow. Umee, I want juice from a cow. Umee, I want juice from a cow. Umee, …”

I smile, knit, and ignore the dishes. And explain that only milk comes from a cow.

“Ana khayyat? Ana khayyat…ma’aki? Khayyat ma’ umee? Ana khayyat…kabeeeeeeela. Khayyat kabeeeeeeeela. Oooh, umee, jameelah. Jameelah jiddan umee. Khayyat ana jameela?”
“I sew? I sew…with you? Sew…with umee? I sew…when I’m BIIIIIIIIG. Sew when BIIIIIIIIIG. Oooh, umee, it’s pretty. Very pretty umee. I sew pretty too?”

Yes, Insha’allah you’ll sew pretty things too when you are bigger. The house is quiet and still, little sister and father are asleep. Our bedtime milk chat is almost done, and the sink is still filled with dirty dishes.

“Hibbeeni Umee? Hibbeeni?”
“Do you love me Umee? Love me?”

Yes, my love. And Alhamdulillah that I am knitting right now, not washing the dishes.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Creepy, Crawly

Several months ago, I posted a story about a snail, and how I was trying to teach our two-year-old daughter to love all things in nature, including the creepy crawly stuff. Even though mom is not too tolerant herself.

Here's a little update on our progress (it's a cockroach):

Well, we'll keep trying.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

If We Grow Old Alone...

I hoped to work on this a little more, so as to be a more presentable piece, but it's not happening. So here are my loose thoughts on a very broad topic:

The scene still haunts: an old Asian woman, tiny, frail, her back hunched over, a kind-looking face, digging in the trash cans of a San Francisco park. She must have been at least 70 years old, perhaps a mother, maybe a widow. She pushed a shopping cart in which she stored the bottles, cans, and recyclable items which she would then exchange for a few cents apiece.

While we sat in the park enjoying the community picnic, we saw four or five such elderly women foraging the trash bins. One of them looked self-consciously at us and other people in the park before putting her latex-gloved hands in the trash, ashamed.

The older I grow and the more of a "woman" I become, in terms of experiencing the various stages of a woman's life, the deeper my understanding of Islam's honoring, protecting, and empowerment of the female half of mankind. I always knew that Islam honored women, uplifted them and appreciated them, but the longer I live the more I am wordless to describe the harmony of this system with the human being's natural constitution. I am sure many other Muslim women journeying through life share that same realization.

The American discourse around the rights of Muslim women is largely dominated and addressed to the needs of the young, educated, middle-class population, only we don't see it. It is perfectly fine to discuss the rights of women with status, youth, and education, but some provisions in Islam just don't make sense unless they are considered from the viewpoint of all women and from the perspective of all stages in a woman's life. The presence of this discourse specific to our circumstances is good, but should not ignore the needs of all women.

Islam says to all women, "I don't care if you are elderly, poor, or unknown. I don't care if you are 15 years old or 90. I don't care if you had ten children, or none. I don't care if you are a businesswoman or are illiterate. I don't care if you are a divorcee, a widow, or unmarried. You do not need to be loved by a man to be valued. You, as a woman, are to be honored, respected, and provided for if you wish, and all society is responsible for ensuring that you are so."

Sometimes, we—and I'm assuming the few who will read this are American, educated, middle-class Muslims—look at Islam's provisions for women as overbearing. We go out of our way to demonstrate that a woman can work, that a woman is as competent in the workplace as a man, that she doesn't have to stay home with her children, that polygamy is not the norm in a society like ours. We forget that, for the overwhelming majority of women in the world, those provisions are life-savers and incredible sources of mercy and relief. Those provisions may not be the choice of every woman, but their existence in Islam is a source of empowerment for our gender, keeping women out of the dog-eat-dog struggle for survival alongside or against men.

I sometimes picture myself as a single mother, wondering what it's like for the millions of American mothers out there. Ya Allah, the job of motherhood is tough enough as it is, what if I had to play the role of breadwinner too? And then I imagine that I didn't graduate from college, that I didn't have a family to help me, that I was all alone—like most single moms. That I was forced to work a 12-hour workday at minimum wage, so that I could afford our rent in a dingy apartment and be able to pay the tuition at a dismal daycare with substandard health conditions. I could not watch my kids grow, nurture them, because I was so busy trying to feed them and clothe them. Because in her culture, it is survival of the fittest and no one, not even mothers or grandmothers, are entitled to more than any one else.

Most women are dealing with those issues. Many African American women don't marry period, because it is so difficult for them to find men who will care for them and provide for them (read this article from the Washington Post). Should women who are poor, unable to find a suitable husband for whatever reason, disabled, or widowed just give up on marriage and raising families? Or does Islam give them a way out?

By shifting our framework and forcing the discourse to take into consideration the situation of all people, maybe we can understand more deeply the way the Islamic system works for women. We can begin to appreciate that in Islam, a woman is entitled to provision by the closest male relative, and if he refuses, the government should take her right from him by force. If she has no relations, then providing for her becomes the responsibility of the state, which must ensure that she is safe, sheltered, and honored.

I know the Islamic system is not being implemented in totality anywhere in the world. But how comforting to know, that if it ever is, women would not be reduced to the situations they find themselves in today. And even within our daily lives, Islam intervenes to make sure we are living a full, valued, meaningful life. Islam's got your back, sista.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Bringing the Sand Monsters Home

In spirit of my last post, my daughters and I spent this morning on the beach, which is about a half hour away. (Actually, I left a stroller in the trunk of a rental car, which is the real reason I drove down to Galveston, but you don’t need to know that)

There are moments when I close my eyes and think about how blessed I am. Blessed to be a mother, blessed to have the luxury of staying at home with my children, blessed to be able to come to the seashore whenever I wish, blessed to have the wherewithal to appreciate these moments of peace and contemplation. There is something about the cool ocean wind that cleanses me and gives me clarity, sets aright my priorities. No other place reminds me so profoundly of the power of Allah (swt).

Oh, the joy of watching children taking in the seaside. Observing them is refreshing. The exuberant big one runs up and down the beach, chasing the sandpipers and throwing seashells into the waves. She runs as fast as she can, her short legs flailing and arms outstretched, face beaming. The little one, the scientist, picks up various shell fragments, delicately fingers them, turns them over and over again in her hands, daintily puts them in her mouth. Sand in her hair and on her eyelashes, she squeals in delight when the waves come close or the gulls flap their wings.

Then, when their hair becomes too tangled with the wind and their hands are too caked with sand to finish their sandwiches, I carry my sand monsters to the car. They sleep all the way home, and sleep for another two hours in their beds, with sunburned noses and sand between their toes. Usually, I can only be aghast at how difficult this job of motherhood is. But times like this, I think, oh, so blessed alhamdulillah.

We need to visit the shore every week.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Climbing Trees is Boring

When I was little, we used to climb trees. That was not fifteen years ago. When was the last time you saw a child climb a tree?

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv argues that American kids may have everything, but they are tremendously deprived. They suffer from what he deftly calls Nature-Deficit Disorder. Not only do they not know how to appreciate nature, relish it, explore it—they don’t even realize it’s there.

The evening of Halloween, I realized there were kids in my neighborhood. Lured out of their homes by promises of entertainment and sugar, I saw them in their costumes. I drive down my street everyday, at all times of the day, and I never see kids in the yards. There are swing sets and sandboxes, bicycles in the garages, lush backyards, but no kids.

Stimulated, indoors, overfed, entertained, overscheduled, and told how to play, children are losing their childhood. Many children, Louv says, cannot identify a single plant or bird. Few have ever held an earthworm, listened closely to a bird call, or observed animals outside of a zoo. What they are missing out on, what only contemplation of Allah’s creation around them can teach them, is humility. Wonder. Knowledge.

The Quran is crystal clear on the role of contemplation, thought, and observation of nature as a path to connecting with the Creator: “Do they not look at the camels, how they are created? And at the sky, how it is raised high? And at the mountains, how they are fixed firm? And at the earth, how it is spread out? Therefore remind, for you are only a reminder.”

Children are born with an overpowering sense of curiosity and desire to learn about everything around them. For young children, you only have to let them free and they will pick up sticks, squat in the dirt and watch the ants, and point in delight at birds flying overhead. For older children who are accustomed to being electronically entertained, this intrinsic curiosity and at-home feeling in nature must be awakened and revived. Somehow, in the process of growing up in the modern world, that creativity and curiosity is squashed. In the San Jose Children’s Museum, there was a quote on the walls that resounded with me, minus the part about the good fairy, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.”

I have always noticed, during our visits to area parks, out-of-the-way of the typical touristy places, that the people we find there are peaceful, friendly, and plain nice. The hikers we pass walk in silence for miles, no ipods or stereos within miles, watching in wonder, thinking. Their kids sit by a lake, waiting for the fish to bite, comfortable with silence and the buzzing of dragonflies. Maybe a better place to be present as Muslims and meet people is in such places, in addition to the city corners, lecture halls, and subway stops.

The finest education for a child is tiny plot of wilderness, be it in a backyard, a balcony, or a forest. You do not need to live in the Rocky Mountains. Find a creek where he can turn over rocks and watch what scurries from underneath. Place a pot of soil that she can tend and touch and feel. Let them run barefoot and free in the grass, splash in puddles. Forget the mud and dirt and bugs—that’s what bathtubs are for.

Show them the everyday animals and plants around them so they can study and watch in awe. Teach them to learn something then observe and build off that knowledge. In order to savor the experience of nature, the child learns to enjoy silence, be comfortable with solitude, and create activities for herself.

All of the insightful, exceptional people I know, whether intellectuals or activists, professors or mothers, have a fascination with something, a passion for knowledge and exploration. It is not all leaves and bugs and seashells—some wonder at the stars, at the layered worlds underneath the earth’s crust, at subatomic forces, at the development of a child’s mind. I’m not talking about passing or unexplored interests, all of us have those. What I mean is a deep fascination that consumes their thoughts, one that they could spend hours reading about or contemplating—a sense of wonder and awe towards creation that leads them, from deep within their souls, to worship the Creator. It is those little things, the leaves and bugs and seashells, that first spark curiosity and humility, which lead to great hearts and great character.

I worry for the kids of active Islamic families. Rightly but wholly absorbed with preserving their faith in their children, or sometimes too busy for holistic development of a child’s mind, they are unaware of the necessity of connecting children with nature, of developing hobbies, the essential role of outdoor exploration and free play. I see a lot of Muslim kids with stunted creativity or an inability to entertain themselves. I would argue, as important as teaching children about the prophets or the companions, is to teach them to marvel at the mountains, to identify plant species, and wonder about the language of the bees.

Faced with a field of toads, wagons to pull, shovels and buckets, and trees to climb, they can only say, “This is so boring." And sit on the curbside and playing portable video games.

Nothing impresses them and nothing sparks a drive to learn more. Everything in their surrounding entertains them and stimulates them, even those who read are increasingly fed the Harry-Potter genre that is high on instant humor and leaves little to the imagination. They must only remain passive to enjoy the fruits.

Not that the average American kid is any better off. But I expect more of Muslims, who have Islam to teach them what is most in harmony with natural human constitution. If we lose this connection to the earth and do not foster in our kids an attachment to Allah’s creation, I fear we will lose a crucial aspect of the Islamic personality.

Where do we come in as parents? I often fall short of immersing my children in nature, because sometimes the overwhelming task of parenthood leaves little room for creativity. Rachel Carson said, and this gives me motivation, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

We must model a connection to nature and revive our own interest in aspects of nature, if we are to pass it on to our kids. Think about it--really, would you rather spend your day cruising shopping aisles or sitting on a bedsheet in a park while your children romp, eat fresh cucumbers, and watch the clouds. In the process of slowing down and reconnecting, we may just find our faith rejuvenated. What a wonderful gift to pass on to our children: a lifelong passion, a healthy pastime, and the way to a place, just outside their back doors, where they can always reconnect with their Creator.

So let's take our kids and go climb a tree!