When I was 20 years old I moved to Cairo for one year of study. I said good-bye to my grandma at a Chinese food restaurant and it was the first time I'd seen her cry. It was as if we both began mourning her death then, fearful she would die while we were continents apart. While I was away my grandma wrote me letters.
She wrote about how much she missed me, missed hearing the roaring sound of my car engine and amped up music that signaled the start of my visits. She wrote to me the inanities of daily life, trying to get the dog to play fetch, pulling weeds in the garden, and growing old. Once I wrote to her reflecting on what my next steps should be in life, and she responded:
"Now, wondering what to do with your life is not nearly so difficult as wondering what you should have done -- Is this relationship good for me? Do I need a therapist? Do I want children? Do I need organized religion in my life? Should I move? Should I consider traditional marriage? Have I always been gay? Should I take a year off and move to Bali? Is 40 too old to join a cult? These questions or ones like them are always with us. Until you ask yourself, 'why didn't I?'"
My grandma died on Christmas Eve. Cancer consumed her body. When the doctor told her she was going to die, she asked everyone else to leave the room and struggled to drag her frail, IV-tangled body up to stand. She looked me square in the eyes and said, "This is how it's supposed to be." The next week I sat with her through the night, listening to her rattling breaths. And then the breathing stopped, and I had lost a friend.
The entire family gathered around the body. Someone suggested saying the Lord's Prayer, but it didn't seem fitting, as my grandmother wasn't religious. I began to read from Khalil Gibran's The Prophet: "For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?"
It's funny, my grandma may have been an atheist, but after her death, my little sister said, "I didn't really believe much in 'the Spirit' until Granny died." The face off with mortality is also in some ways a face off with meaning, and with God. I struggled to build new routines without my grandma in my life. I went to work. I went home. I floundered.
The closest place of worship to my house happens to be a mosque. I live just one block from Lighthouse Masjid in Oakland, and I began to go there on Tuesday nights with a friend, listening to Imam Zaid Shakir talk through the meaning of the Fatiha. I sat in the back. My grandma's words echoed in my mind, "Do I need organized religion in my life?" Another part of me wondered if humans just invent God because we're scared of death, finding our God out of our own fear.
This Ramadan I decided to fast. The first days I was flat out from caffeine withdrawals and I began throwing up after Iftar, the meal to break the fast. I continued on. I memorized Quran verses. I prayed. Fasting was an exercise of focus and humility and, for me, solitude. I ate Suhour, the pre-dawn meal, alone, I broke my fast alone, and I prayed alone. On the weekends, without work to distract me, I cried. My fast was not out of devotion to God, but out of desperation to find Him.
When I'm running on the back roads in my small hometown, or watching the sunset into the haze of a megacity, I know that God is real. My life is bigger than me, and the world is bigger than us. When I'm in the mountains, I have no doubt that each individual, while finite, is interconnected with the eternal threads of the universe.
My favorite part of prayer is Sajdah, the part of prayer where your forehead is on the ground. I linger in Sajdah. There is something about the immense humility of placing your face on the ground that has brought me to Islam, or literally "submission." In Sajdah I feel that while I'm small in the face of the mysteries of eternity, through my recognition of this I can also be a part of something bigger. In Sajdah I've learned to accept with grace that I can't always know my next steps. What will happen will happen, and as my grandma said, "This is how it's supposed to be."
I am not yet Muslim, but I miss Ramadan, and how fasting put my struggles into focus. In spite of my callous and career-driven attitude, I have come to value humility, and recognize that spirituality is not a weakness. Through the practice of Islam I have realized that while the path of my personal ambitions is narrow, Sirat al-Mustaqim, the straight path, is wide. I am still not sure whether true faith requires certainty, but I'm hoping Sirat al-Mustaqim is wide enough for my doubts.