Faith, Nonfiction

To Die is Gain: On Meriam Ibrahim and Freedom.

Meriam Ibrahim, pictured with her husband of three years, Daniel Wani, a biochemist and Sudanese U.S. citizen

Meriam Ibrahim, pictured with her husband of three years, Daniel Wani, a biochemist and Sudanese U.S. citizen

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. […] Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. […] For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him….  — Philippians 1:21-24, 27a, 29, NIV

They say that even in labor, your swollen legs remained shackled and that your son, Martin, just over one and half years old, has been living with you under hellish conditions in Omdurman Federal Women’s Prison since you were arrested in September 2013. Yesterday, the world saw you holding your newborn daughter in a photograph. She was also shown resting in her father’s arms; this was the first time they had been allowed to meet. Her name, by coincidence and serendipity, is Maya, born days before the passing of the most renowned “Maya” the world has ever known. Your baby girl is breathtaking, as is your tiny son, whose large, dark eyes are like yours: serene, aware, uncompromising.

You are 27 and Christian and married. In America, this would be referred to as “doing things the ‘right’ way.” Had you married here, you could’ve danced to “My Baby Just Cares for Me” at your reception — simply because it’s true. No one would’ve questioned the validity of your union or labeled your joy as apostasy and you as an adulterer. You would’ve been lauded, held up as an exemplar of wholesome living. And had you been born here, it would be simple logic that you would adopt the religion of the parent who raised you — but only if you were so inclined. Your mother’s faith, after all, is the one to which you have been most exposed, the faith that you would have observed in action. Your father has been absent since you were six; who can know what he believed, other than that men can leave wives and children whenever they wish?

In America, faith is languorous and theoretical. We are extended the leisure of lifelong contemplation. Many of us are only as close to God as we feel and when we seek Him, it is often because we are wanting, unhappy with ourselves, after moral superiority, or courting approval. We pretend we have not come to Christ for a relationship that’s transactional, but too many of our churches preach that this is exactly what Christianity is: belief that if we perform, we will be rewarded. To be fair, I may be perched at the more cynical end of our faith’s branches. It has been a long while since I have seen fresh fruit from this vantage, so long, in fact, I sometimes wonder if the flock of us here are figs accursed: either tough and underripe or so fat and dripping we are on the verge on rot.

You should be in the throes of an intercontinental love affair, well on your way to joining your Sudanese husband in the home he’s secured for you with his U.S. citizenship and his residence in New Hampshire. By now, your new neighbors should have the benefit of proximity to your faith, so distinct from their own in that it has been threatened with government-sanctioned death. When you get here — and my faith is still strong enough to pray and hope and believe that you will — Americans will try to tell you that we know religious persecution. They will tell you our government has taken prayer out of schools and they’ll give you anecdotal evidence about gunman who’ve asked victims to deny God before shooting them in cold blood. They’ll cite abortion laws and tell you how challenged and buffeted they feel by The World’s changing mores. They’ll also have stories about missionaries at the ready — jailed for smuggling bibles and murdered for sharing the gospel.

Here, in order to access empathy, we distill people into the facets of themselves with which we can identify. To comprehend their plight, we need their reality to bend toward our own, and we discard the dimensions that are too complex or inaccessible to do so. (This is, in some ways, an inversion of what your own government is doing, in isolating the parts of you it cannot comprehend — not just your Christianity, but your insistence on maintaining your agency as a woman, as a daughter of a Christian mother, as a wife of a Christian husband, as a mother to Christian children you are willing to die to see raised in your family’s chosen faith.)

But if we are at our most honest, we would have to admit that a faith strong enough to submit oneself and one’s toddler to disease, interminable confinement, 100 lashes two weeks post-birth, and hanging in two years — as soon as the baby is weaned — is foreign to many of even our most devout. We have little context for women like you — yet women enduring punishments similar to yours are not uncommon. You are being flogged, killed, or threatened with either fate not just elsewhere in Sudan, but in the Maldives and Iran and Saudi Arabia and in countless countries other than my own. I would be remiss and disingenuous to attempt any personal parallel to that kind of suffering; I wish this were true of all of us who know full and well we will never face such brutal conditions.

Nonetheless, forgive my naivety in feeling grateful to have heard of you, at least, while there are still a few days left to fight for you. I’m sorry our embassy has so thoroughly failed your husband. We didn’t act when he first made us aware, waiting instead until your beauty and faith and cherubic children made your story more accessible to our sense of what’s right and just. It feels so late and impotent an effort, but we are fortunate to be forced to reckon with our negligence and what it does to families like yours.

We need to see the cost of unbroken faith, need to be ever reminded that the persecution of the privileged is not equal to that of the oppressed, need to recall what a woman who refuses oppression looks like after months of enduring the worst conditions and least possible care in a country that has always denied her freedom of speech, faith, choice, and identity.

It is not a universal experience. You are your own — and you are willing to die to remain so.

Here, we are often asked if we are willing to die for what we believe in. But we are asked in air-conditioned churches, where interfaith couples are as common a sight as dresses and suits. When we say yes, it feels like a favor; we are willing to give up a world where we have always felt some level of freedom for an eternity where we will feel yet freer. You are giving up a world that has denied you even the most inalienable of rights for a God who has always understood how vital those rights are to your existence.

I hope you live. I pray you do. I believe you will. But if you are martyred in two years or earlier, know that we who remain as witnesses will make sure your son and daughter know why you held on so tightly to yourself and your God. We will be here to help them make sense of your reported words to your husband:

‘If they want to execute me then they should go ahead and do it because I’m not going to change my faith. I refuse to change. I am not giving up Christianity just so that I can live. I know I could stay alive by becoming a Muslim and I would be able to look after our family, but I need to be true to myself.’

We will all be freer for it.

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Nonfiction, Parenting

Psalm 37:25.

I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.

On occasion, I imagine myself as a woman of wisdom and means. I am 56 or 64 or 73 and several ebony strands still assert themselves in my cirrocumulous hair. During my nightly constitutional, I pretend I live near the Ganges. I imagine myself standing open-palmed under Victoria Falls. I let my mind drift to places eternities away from where I’ve settled. Gauzy, hand-dyed fabrics drape my body; the wind whips through them and I feel at peace with a fast-approaching future wherein I, too, will exist as little more than wind, whipping though another woman’s sails.

In my pockets, there are many keys.

I live without regret, save for a mild but persistent pining for days long past. Youth, as is often said, is useless to the young. I do not wish to see this foregone squandering in you.

When you visit, we curl into the hammock on my screened porch, tittering like sandbox girls as we teeter. I allow you this levity, this feathery love that daughters so seldom get to feel with their worried mothers. Then, I pull you close, two thin and veiny fingers ’round your wrist, like a cuff, like the strong arm of law, meant to warn you: This is serious. I look at you, curled and soft as a mollusk—at 27 or 35 or 44—and your face has made strides toward solace, awareness and confidence that mine did not, until I was much older. But there is still the residue of self-questioning there, an uncertainty skulking along the brow, a sadness in the sanguine rim of the eye.

These are unfortunate inheritances.

I tell you first that I wish you had taken the part of me that is feral. I wish that after all these years it no longer made sense to hide the wildness inside us, that our culture had come to terms with the ferocity women must hold onto in order to survive. I wish it were freeing, rather than ignominious to lay oneself bare in the open. I wish that, for us, there were no triple consciousness, no necessary switching of codes for white, for black, for patriarchy.

But this will never be so. There are too many men who siphon power by depleting ours. It is too tempting to spend scarce and precious time convincing them that, though society often seems a soundproof room, we have voices. They echoing in corners, through caverns: We deserve… We deserve… We deserve…

But stalactites have no ears, and we winnow centuries at this war.

The hour is late. And the light of your youth has grown dim. Have you listened to the men, to your father, to me, to everyone who’s admonished you to, “Be a good girl?” Oh, how I wish you hadn’t, I lament, lifting your chin.

We always expect more for our daughters than for ourselves.

I tell you to dive and note the beauty of the bottom. I urge you to annually step into the baskets of hot air balloons and remind yourself how small it all seems when you’re soaring. I implore you to marry the man who compels you, whose interests swim in synchrony with your own, who hears you, understands you are not a caged thing. Tell him, “This lioness has no need for taming.” Tell him, “If I am to answer to you, then we are to answer to each other.”

For the sake of your God and your country, do not accept the hand of the man who prefers you porcelain and pirouetting in a music box of his making. You will find yourself pining for days long past, imagining the Ganges, the Falls.

When I am gone, I whisper, I will leave you all the keys in my pockets. I will leave you the possibilities beyond each door.

You whisper, In the meantime, just use them. Mother, you were meant for much more.

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Nonfiction

Marriage, in 30-Second Increments.

I’ve been seeing a little too much of this Subaru Outback* commercial these days.

I worked in advertising for nine months. It was my first salaried, full-time, post-college job. I was just a proofreader, and I spent more time blogging and working on a manuscript and IM-ing than I did circling typos. Most of the employees forgot I’d been hired; they were used to proofing their own stuff. And needless to say, I wasn’t what you’d call a go-getter back then.

Still, I learned a lot about commercials there. Successful ones sell you an experience, rather than a product. They make you desire a lifestyle you never considered. They make you long for an emotion you didn’t realize you missed, didn’t realize you could even feel. (It’s the same concept around which the entire run of Mad Men is situated.)

For those 30 or 60 seconds, there it is. Right upfront, right in your home, for you to see and feel and want. And as it flickers like a flash of what might be gold in your pan, then ends before you want it to, the advertisers have left you wondering: Now what are you gonna do about it?

If they’re lucky, you connect that call to action to their product. But when I see that Subaru Outback commercial, I want the experience. In any car. This idea of starting a new life with someone, cloistered in the woods, blossoms ringing my hair, drenched and laughing and escaping a collapsed tent… this is an idea worth coveting.

I had the same experience with this Mitsubishi Outlander commercial in the early aughts. There’s a very brief scene where rose petals are swirling into the face of the driver’s new bride; when I first laid eyes on that in ’03, it was pretty spectacular. (Incidentally, this commercial has some of the best subtle “face-acting” of any I’ve seen to date. And you really get the sense that you’ve watched a character evolve and mature in the minute you spend watching it. I’d enter this commercial as evidence in my argument that a well-executed commercial can provide the same narrative satisfaction as flash fiction.)

The point is: like most unmarried people, there’s a part of me that will always romanticize marriage. If I marry, I will have some minor, irrational expectation that roughly 75% of my marital experience will evoke the emotions these commercials capture. Ideally, I want to be with someone who makes me feel that, regardless of the unforeseen–triumph, tragedy, great gain, profound loss, joy, sickness, treatment, remission–there simply isn’t anyone else with whom I’d rather be.

I haven’t married, in part, because of this. I am expecting something more spectacular than I’ve experienced.

You hear these aphorisms, these “marriage is what you make it”/”it’s a partnership” cliches, and you know there is truth at the heart of them.

So few of us go into a wedded union with any concept of the mundane, of the dying down of euphoria, of the reality that we simply cannot be confident of how our partner will respond to certain of life’s curve balls. We trust that the love we feel in the moment, in the first months or years or even the first decade , will deepen into a mature and constant, if unexciting love, that will guide us into our golden and twilight years, that will end with us at the other’s death bed.

And sometimes, the person with whom we began that journey becomes unrecognizable as the same guy earnestly floundering under a honeymoon tent, willing to soak himself down to the marrow in order to deliver on the promise of a caring, devoted, monogamous, self-sacrificial life.

I find that kind of risk utterly terrifying, and I haven’t found myself in the eye of a relationship that felt worth it.

I just don’t want to marry someone because I long for the 75% these car commercials seem intent on selling me, only to find myself hiding out in a greenhouse, growing increasingly bitter as I mist the potted orchids, until:

*Those Subaru Outbacks are dope, though.

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the Nine series (novel excerpts)

Retracing.

Work backward. Think of the moment they married, between the 8 and 11 o’clock services at your church on that July Sunday when you were ten. Think of the accordion partition, cordoning off their nuptials from the simultaneous Youth, Singles, and General Sunday School classes being held in various other sections of the sanctuary. Think of iridescent streamers that should’ve been there, descending from the walls in curling tendrils, or the tiny votive candles with their wavering yellow-orange flames, or the delicate boxes of cherry cordials offered as party favors. Pity that you had to dream them. Pity that they were whipped from the same imaginative froth that conjured unicorns, castles, and faeries to fill all your lonely spaces. Think of the eleven or so guests–three of whom you did not recognize–gawking at the vow exchange like a side-ring act at the circus.

Remember that you felt pretty. Your hair had been hot-combed for the occasion and wrangled into a menagerie of rubberbands, twisted into a series of puffy little ropes. You could hear the plastic pink barrettes at the ends clacking gently whenever you turned your head. You were turning your head all day, eager to hear all the overlapping grown folks’ conversations. Like a chorus in the round, there were toasts and traditions and whispers of lingerie.

There were no warnings.

Consider the pomp and the tumult: the non-alcoholic champagne for toasting; your grandmother’s ex-boyfriend, pitching his lilting baritone above the din of clinking glasses; your mother’s cavernous absence, once as she absconds to Centennial Lake for wedding photographs, then later, as night falls and her new husband whisks her off to Delaware.

Who honeymoons in Delaware? You should have noted that. You should have recognized forboding when you felt it.

Recall how unaccustomed you still were then, to the tenor of your stepfather’s accent, how it still reminded you of coconut and calypso. Because you were young, you were full of stereotypes. Because you were young, you knew nothing of Jamaicans you hadn’t gleaned while watching the “Hey, Mon!” skits on In Living Color. Because you were young, you thought brown skin meant common culture, that Black Americans and Black Jamaicans understood one another. You did not know that patois was not language, but lifestyle.

But you mustn’t drift into the lofty.

Think of the Peptol pink of your dress and how you grinned and you grinned and you grinned. Think of the navy blue suit worn by your best friend in the world, a boy (named Kenya). Note now, as you never could have then, that he was your insulation. He, of the goofy faces and marathon games of tag, he whose single-mother upbringing left him mannered and intuitive and kind. He, who encouraged you to forget what you were getting into and allowed you a well-deserved respite from all your tiring precocity. You would love him, long before you understood why and long after he disappeared.

Pull the recollections around you like an electric blanket. Pull, until you’re so uncomfortable that you smother and wriggle and sweat. Pull until you have no choice but to let go.

Only then will it become apparent that when they were pronounced man and wife, you called him Dad because your own father was missing. In those days, you uttered the word with abandon. You uttered, unaware of what would come: the ten-year litany of accusations; your volleying waltz across their marital chessboard; your mother’s cavernous absence.

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