Until I had kids, fasting was a bit like taking a beautifully serene natural drug: beatific sensations, mild hallucination, strange taste in the mouth, that kind of thing.
Now that I have afternoons in which I crave siestas and get a house full (occasionally) of flying fists, books, shoes, rude words and sprayed saliva instead, I’ve had to start thinking of Ramadan in different terms.
It’s not just about reducing cholesterol, is it? Otherwise it would say in Qur’an ‘Thou shalt eat plenty of oats’. So there’s an element of that phenomenon all parents sooner or later lecture their kids about when they start whining about the ice-cream being the wrong sort of pink: character-building experiences.
Camping! Cross-country running in horrible gym knickers! Fickle school chums! All these delights and more did an essential job in your life, to wit, sloughing a layer of immaturity off your puerile personality. It worked, didn’t it? Now that you can see what you don’t want your kids (or yourself) to be like, you can be thankful for all those times you had a red F mark, or failed to be chosen for the basketball team, or fell off the stage in a donkey outfit at the school nativity play.
But despite our lofty position of wisdom, having gone through untold trials and survived with our mettle burnished and bright, it doesn’t change the fact that sometimes, around, oh, 5pm, our spiritual resolve starts to flag. The whinging starts to feel like a bradawl in the skull. The petty arguments about pop song lyrics start to burn like acid on the brain. At one point I couldn’t take it any more and howled at my children ‘I don’t know how anyone is supposed to fast with all this! The Buddha would blow a fuse!” Which at least got a laugh out of them.
How did Muslim women of yore put up with it? Possibly their kids were quietly attentive, polishing brass trays for fun and competing to memorise the Qur’an faster than the neighbour, but I suspect it had more to do with the fact that kids all over the world spent most of their days out of doors among other kids, and not raking over their mothers’ nerves with red-hot nails.
With the advent of the automobile, alas, that happy vision (conveniently excluding poxes and wolves) came to an end, and now we are confined to a strict schedule of kids’ outings, play dates and activities every afternoon, with only other harassed mums for company.
DRATTED CHARACTER-BUILDING AGAIN.
Joking aside, this time of year can bring on serious anxiety, depression, psychosis, even suicidal thoughts for some mums. Needless to say, a state that bad must qualify as an illness worthy of breaking the fast for.
You have to ask yourself: can I drive to that person’s house this afternoon? Can I take my kids to the park and just sit like a zombie on the bench? Will I feel horribly guilty if I just put the TV on and retire to my bed all month? Mother guilt mutates in Ramadan: her kids are studying the 99 Names…I feel about as spiritual as that turkey sausage I just grilled for the kids…
What can we conclude from this? Firstly, that while the body works its way through energy stored, the mind is also trawling through all those dark thoughts it’s been storing away for a rainy day. Secondly, judging other parents should be on the list of things to avoid. But also that we often have set ideas about what spirituality ‘should’ look like. Lately I’ve been finding a lot of joy in playing Latin American music on my guitar while fasting. Sure beats watching the clock.
The greatest benefit I’ve found to fasting en famille, however, is that classic element of surprise for non-Muslims – the lack of water. The first Muslims were used to having little food to eat, but going for long hours without water was the tough part of fasting (especially in a desert) – hence the du’a when breaking the fast: ‘Thirst has gone and the veins are drenched, and the reward is assured, if God wills’. No reference to ‘Hurray for chicken wings’ there.
What happens when your mouth is dry? You stop talking so much. You reserve words for things that actually matter, like ‘Don’t put that lizard up your nose’. Of course, you can also physically remove the lizard yourself, but when energy is low you can’t run, or shout, or even explain. This is a revelation for someone who has relied on Doing Things Well for self-esteem, and therefore ended up doing far too much for her kids. (That’s me, in case you’re wondering.)
It also softens my main vice: sarcasm. It’s an ugly way to communicate, but a habitual one when stirred. Take away cruel speech and you open a lacuna in which a more honest, beautiful communication can bloom. Not having much energy also makes you take much more care about throwing it around needlessly; you might feel like a snail on Valium, but you’re going to be a snail that doesn’t waste time ooching around on non-vital errands. (Women have a monthly recollection of this, as I wrote about here.)
But I can’t describe fasting in Ramadan better than Suhaib Webb did recently – as a daily reminder of our life cycle: “We start the day strong; that’s youth. My mid-day, we start to to feel its impact; that’s middle age. By afternoon, we get feeble and tired; old. At sunset, our faculties begin to fade; death. Then, we break our fast, reminded of paradise.”
This weakness can yields so much wisdom, if we can yield to it. We aren’t the captains of our ships, fearlessly making our own destinies like little gods. OK, maybe we’re like the second mates of our ships, but still, there’s a force that we must reckon with or we risk becoming narcissistic sollipsists, or just really intolerable people.
Besides, there’s the reminder of the inevitability of death, and then another day that follows it. There is no better way to put things into perspective short of sitting by a deathbed or washing a corpse. That’ll be us one day, no matter what we do with our lives.
On that cheery note…no really, it’s not sad. We’re like trees putting out shoots and flowers and then going to seed; who knows where they will grow? Or whose hearth our wood will warm?