Halibut Cheeks and the Interconnectedness of All

Last night, I ate halibut cheeks. I couldn’t have imagined that the cheeks of a fish would provide enough substance for a meal, but I hadn’t known that halibut is one of the largest fish in the ocean. It can grow to eight feet long. Its cheeks are actually thick, as thick as the backsides of other fish.
We went to a seafood restaurant for dinner. As I was not too hungry, I decided to try something new. Our server described the cheeks entree, cooked with a ginger-teriyaki glaze, served over a bed of herbed rice and fresh pea pods with carrot slivers. Curious to see whether the cheeks of a fish included bones or cartilage, and whether its meat had substantial density, I ordered the dish.

It arrived as described. The cheeks looked like giant commas, and had no bones or other inedible parts of fish anatomy. The texture resembled that of scallops— stringy, tender, sweet and white. Every bite dissolved in my mouth, full of flavor, and I couldn’t even finish the dish. I took it home for this morning’s breakfast.
I’ve eaten lots of fish, especially during my Riyadh years, but I’d never heard of halibut cheeks, and now I am hooked!

Where had that fish originated? I forgot to ask, but I presume from Alaska. I wondered how the fish grew, where it swam, what it ate, and how it encountered the net which started the journey that ended in my stomach. Neither that fish nor I ever imagined we’d be joined, especially in such an intimate manner. An image came to mind, the image of the butterfly that flaps its wings in Japan, and initiates a chain of events that culminates on the other side of the world.

The interconnectedness of all species continues to intensify, as humans extend their influence throughout the natural world. Such a tremendous responsibility falls upon us as a species, yet how often do we think about it? How often do we realize that even our haphazard actions have an effect that ripples through the world beyond our private experience?

The reverse concept also applies. How often do we acknowledge the chain of events that occurred to make possible the experiences of a moment? Do we even give attention to the fact that all moments are but consequences of the moments preceding them? Do we consciously act in the awareness that our actions set in motion a particular path, and that at every moment, our individual choices can alter those paths?

We all know that this is true with regard to big events. We know about the driver who drinks and causes an accident, injuring the person who happens to be at the wrong place and time. We’ve heard about the right lottery ticket bought casually along with a tank of gasoline, and we may have experienced the meeting of eyes across a crowded room.

A  fish swimming in waters off Alaska ends up giving its cheeks to my stomach. While the consequences of this event affects just me, the fish, and the parties in between, it illustrates the veracity of the concept. Everyone, everything, is connected and interconnected, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we behave consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or haphazardly.

The significance of this realization informs us that even our most casual actions, such as eating, are both the result and the continuation of processes that began long ago and will continue.  We may not have absolute free will, but we do contribute to the alteration of paths, the modification of conditions, such that we put a paintbrush to our lives and the lives of those around us. We are all artists in the most fundamental sense of the word.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Arabic Language, Again

Lately, I’ve been spending more time on the Natural Arabic website. I’ve been studying the vocabulary, taking the quizes, replaying the selections, and doing my best to put those new words into my long-term memory. It’s not working very well, yet I continue to do it, as if learning Arabic is something I should do, can do, and need to do. I apply myself to it as if I haven’t already applied myself year after year with the same poor result. I am not fluent in Arabic. In fact, I can’t even understand it whether it’s spoken in Fusha, Saudi dialect, or Egyptian. I worked so hard, the entire time I was in Riyadh, to learn this language, and I had no support from my husband, except for learning the Qur’anic language, and yet, after twelve years in Riyadh, I should be farther along. I should have been fluent years ago.

Why am I resuming my study of Arabic? I abandoned it from 1998 til 2008, while I struggled to reestablish my life in the United States. I missed it, and felt sorry that I couldn’t achieve fluency. I still loved the language, and felt my disadvantage in not knowing it. When I took it up again, I was surprised to discover that I hadn’t forgotten much of what I’d learned. Has I learned so little that retaining it was not difficult?

I remembered the basic grammar. In fact, I can still look at just about any Arabic word and tell you its grammatical structure, if not its meaning. I remembered how to form possessives. I remembered the dual,  I even remembered some of the common verb forms and how to conjugate them.  I remembered the particles and many of the verbal nouns.

Reading is still easy. It’s just the meaning that continues to escape me.

I can’t even blame my retardation upon Arabic’s expanded vocabulary (compared to English). Even the common words that I recognize easily enough do not register with meaning in my mind. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of repetition, I thought, as I applied myself to the lessons of Natural Arabic. I repeated words and phrases and entire articles over and over until I was sick of them, then went back the next day, and couldn’t remember half of what I’d learned, so I’d do it again, and come back the next day, and maybe remember a few words.

I love the Natural Arabic website. It’s user-friendly, efficient, and the most engaging Arabic language tool I’ve discovered, so I cannot blame it for my incredibly slow progress.

I downloaded the articles and put them on CD so I can listen to them in my car. The result is that I can now read and recite along with the CD, but I still don’t get the meaning, entirely. Oh, I can usually get the gist, but the gist is not good enough. I want to remember the meaning of every single word, every phrase, every idiom, and I want to remember them instantly, almost like the native speaker I should have become.

Now that I’m sixty, I refuse to believe that my mental capacity for languages has diminished. My daughter wants me to speak Arabic with her son, whose first language is necessarily English because we live in the United States.  She wants him to grow up with Arabic, also, so I am finally getting my chance at speaking, even if it is with a three-year-old. I’ll really be mortified if he learns more than I do, and learns it faster. Well, at least I can still claim the technical achievement of knowing the alphabet, word structure, and how sentences are put together. He’ll have to grow half up before he can grasp those basics. I’ll probably be a goner by then.
So why am I doing this? I love sound of the language.  I’m doing it for love.


Friday the Thirteenth

My cousin Dave, coming home for the last time:
November 2009
Last November thirteenth fell on a Friday— Friday the Thirteenth. I had never felt superstitious about that day or about anything else, and I still don’t. Friday the Thirteenth had been a day to make fun, to pretend in ghosts and bad luck, and to attribute any of the day’s unpleasantness to the fact of Friday the Thirteenth. Famous movies have been made along that theme, but I haven’t bothered to see any of them. Last Friday the Thirteenth, my family experienced its own worst nightmare.

The phone rang late in the morning. I answered it, and heard my aunt’s voice, as she skipped the usual, “Hi, how are you?” salutation, and said, “David was killed this morning in Afghanistan.”

“What?” I said. Had I heard correctly?

I had.

He and his troops had been hit by a roadside bomb. He and one other man had been killed.

“A roadside bomb?” I said. How could such a thing have happened? David had been a Navy SEAL. He had been deployed in dozens of dangerous, secret missions, and always came back in one piece. He did this for twenty years, after which he still hadn’t had enough, so he returned to the hot spots as a civilian independent contractor. He didn’t do it for the money– he’d already earned a fortune– he did it because it was in his blood. He couldn’t stay away. Every year he was off to Iraq or Afghanistan or someplace he wasn’t allowed to reveal not even to his wife.

He had won awards and recognitions for bravery and saving people. I never knew the details, and I didn’t ask. He was my cousin David, and I loved him for being my cousin and part of my extended family.

My three siblings and I flew to Virginia Beach for the funeral. Many of my cousins were there, some from Wisconsin and from California. We all stayed in the same hotel, and rented cars to get us to the funeral and to his home afterwards where we gathered to keep his family company, and exchange condolences.

They had laid out his body dressed in formal navy uniform, in an open, white casket. He even wore his hearing aid, which, I thought, was odd, until I noticed that many of the men present also wore hearing aids, because of exposure to one too many bombs, one too many rounds of gunfire. The hearing aid indicated something more than hearing loss.

The only sign of trauma was a slightly misaligned jaw and some superficial facial abrasions that had been well-covered with make-up. He had died from concussive shock. We were surprised. When you hear of a roadside bomb, you think of blood and guts and limbs flying all over the place. David appeared nearly normal, making his death from a roadside bomb almost surrealistic. I wanted to know how one dies of concussive shock.  When I got back to work the week after the funeral, I asked one of the pathologists at my hospital.Concussive shock is like super blunt force trauma; it can shear off main arteries, scramble brains, crush major organs, and short-circuit the nervous system into a fatal arrhythmia.  Any one of these insults can kill a person. I wanted to know which one killed David, so I could further understand his death. I didn’t ask.

The funeral home looked like all funeral homes in the United States, with large rooms holding formal upholstered chairs, gold-leafed frames around classical art prints hung on pastel walls, all creating an air of a settled family home. Crowds congregated in each of the rooms; evidently, David’s funeral was expected to be well-attended, and the funeral home allocated several rooms for us.  We arrived, greeted his wife and children who stood blank-eyed, receiving guests. Hugs and more hugs, tears and more tears, quiet voices and an occasional chuckle filled the rooms for several hours as we all mingled, remembered Dave, and watched his photo DVD.

In America these days, family members put together a collection of still photos representing major stages in the life of the deceased. The funeral homes put these photos on DVD, then project them onto a screen or a blank wall while guests mingle and watch. One of David’s photos included my father and his father,  laughing during one of our family dinners. All three— now gone. I cried.

After the wake, we broke into small groups. My siblings and I went to dinner with our California cousins who we now  see only at funerals. My sister tried to make her usual social jokes and stale conversation, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there, go back to the hotel and read a good book.

The next morning, we all piled into the car I had rented. My brother wanted me to use the GPS to find the church,  but I am more comfortable looking at a map and putting the route into my head. They all criticized my driving, which was evidently more aggressive than usual, but not one of them offered to drive in this city to which none of us had ever visited. I took up the challenge, as the eldest and the one most experienced in navigating beyond the shores of home.

I don’t know what kind of church it was, and I didn’t care. Arriving early, we walked around the grounds and stood under a golden-leafed maple tree. Then we heard the rumble of many engines, as motorcycle after motorcycle entered the parking lot. Denim, leather and steel dominated the view from then on, with an occasional American flag atop it all. They kept coming, until I lost count. I tried to take a picture of them on my cell phone, but I couldn’t fit the whole view on my screen. As the last of the motorcycles crowded into line, we noticed a military formation practicing their moves. David would have a twenty-one gun salute.

The service focused on David, God, love, family and all that is good about America. Open weeping continued throughout the rituals, except when the coffin was carried in by uniformed Navy men. Everyone fell silent as if on cue. The American flag was folded and presented to David’s wife, the twenty-one gun salute was performed, followed by a strong, slow sounding of Taps, which covered the weeping that had, by that time, started up again.

Throughout it all, I thought about Dave, our childhood milieu, and how his life had developed. He and I went to military service within a year of each other during our twentieth year, me in 1970 to the Air Force, and he in 1971, to the Navy. Two years later, I washed out, and he continued on toward distinguished service, SEAL training, and a decorated career that continued well beyond his twenty-year military commitment.
I tried to identify childhood markers or personality traits that could have predicted the opposite paths each of us had taken in the military.

David had always been an adventurous one, finding the excitement of the unknown worth the risk of consequences. Once, when we were children at his house, he wanted to play “doctor and nurse” with me. This is the game most kids played sooner or later in order to explore each other’s private parts under the pretences of innocence.

I refused to play not because I didn’t want to but because his mom was in the kitchen and might hear something. David persisted in his urging, and I persisted in my refusal, until our squabble reached his mom, who came into the room and scolded us.

I kept that memory to myself throughout the funeral gatherings, but other relatives recounted other memories in which David played the thrill-seeker, the risk-taker, the one drawn to  the excitement of the dangerous and/or the unknown. It must have been in his blood, more than in mine. All I ever wanted was to find a husband, love, be loved, do my art, read and write. My search never found its goal, except piecemeal, and sporadically, while his endeavors took him upon a constantly inclining track marked by money, honor, and the extremes of human capabilities.

I knew he had killed people during the course of his assignments as a SEAL. I knew he had won some sort of honor for shooting his way out of an ambush and saving his troops. I never wanted to know the details. He was my cousin Dave.

After the funeral, we all went over the his family’s house. I would have preferred to go back to the hotel straightaway, but my siblings insisted, so I studied the map, put the route in my head, and drove us to Dave’s house. Though we’d never been there, we knew Dave’s house as we approached it, not only by the clutter of cars but by the eight floral arrangements that had been set on tripod and planted in his front yard. Why had I waited until now to come visit my cousin Dave and his family? Why hadn’t I visited this house at least once during the previous ten years after which I’d repatriated to the United States? Now, this would be the first and last time I would do so.

Casseroles, fried chicken, sandwiches, salads, biscuits and cakes and more of everything fed the crowd that meandered in and out of the house. I noticed a young man wearing a hearing aid, and I wondered if he’d been a SEAL. I noticed another man wearing a left hand prosthesis. I wanted to talk to these men, to get a sense of what their lives had been like, what attitudes had shaped their actions, what quirks of upbringing or personality served them well in their military activities.  Most of all I wanted to ask them why their particular brand of service needed such extremes of action, risk, dedication, and ultimate sacrifice. Of course, I couldn’t talk to any of them about these things. I didn’t talk to them at all, except to say, “Would you please pass me a bottle of water?”

In the living room, I saw several photos of Davie’s son on horseback. His son owned three horses. My stomach turned with envy. I had never been blessed to own even one horse, and here was a fourteen year old boy with three. Living in Virginia, he was able to ride all the time because the winter never brought snow or ice or even very cold temperatures. I asked him if he ever needed help exercising those horses, and he said yes; if I lived close-by he’d let me ride them whenever I’d want. He didn’t want to talk about horses, however. He was more interested in the Italian side of his heritage, and looked at me in awe when I told him I’d been to Italy several times and met our distant relatives.

America is so big. Travel across it needs time and money, and yet American families continue to split themselves in ways that isolate members who should not be isolated.  My siblings and I stayed for three days, and then flew back home. By that time, articles and photos about David’s life and death started trickling into the Internet. One article claimed that he was helping in the effort to eradicate the poppies of the Afghan drug trade. That must have sounded thin even to readers who didn’t know his military career. Another article mentioned reconnaissance. Word of mouth suggested that he had been working on the disassembly of roadside bombs. Who knows? Maybe he worked on none of that.

I read everything I could find several times, and studied photos.. David had aged well, having kept himself fit and healthy, unlike me, who let myself go. Maybe if I’d lived closer to his family, I could have been riding his son’s horses all these years and stayed fitter and healthier. Virginia felt like a much more comfortable place to live than Wisconsin.

In the months following the funeral, I read books about SEAL training and memoirs written by SEALs. I saw my cousin Dave in every one of those authors, and I felt closer to him for having read those books. David had fulfilled himself in a way that many of us do not. He had developed his special talents, called upon his tremendous personal strength, and sought the means to put his entire life in service to a cause greater than himself. He was happy, and he always ready to answer a call. Every time he deployed for an overseas mission, he made sure his wife knew what to do in case he did not return.


WNFIN— Progress Commentary

Excerpt from the WNFIN challenge:
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
597 words

Maybe my ambition to write  is nothing more than a diversionary tactic to romanticize my life now which is entirely devoid of romance. Maybe my desire to write is nothing more than a sublimation of my desire to escape the routine of working. Not yet a week into this writing challenge, I am threatened with doubt about my intention as well as ability to write. The goal is fifty-thousand words during the month of November. Granted, I joined late, which means that to reach the goal, I’d have to produce about two thousand words each day, which should not be too demanding for a real writer. I, however, have fallen short of even half that measure, and I can not rationalize by blaming my job or other worldly responsibilities that rob my writing of its due.

The truth is that I spend less time writing than I do surfing the net, playing Spider Solitaire, downloading music, watching Italian films and even  inferior American films. I also do my Arabic lessons on-line, and read dozens of emails and blog comments from various sources. I am currently not doing digital photo editing, but when I get on a roll, I do nothing but digital photo editing which doesn’t even have redeeming value, such as a  family album for the grandkids; it’s fractals and kaleidoscopes and combining unlikely layers into patterns and colors that thrill my eye. No one even sees half those images, except perhaps a few of them that I put on Flickr and are looked at by a minuscule slice of Flickr membership.

All of this activity entertains me, engages me, and inspires me, but at the end of the day, I have not written the stories I think I’d like to write, so what’s going on? Even my Intensive Journal certification course has fallen by the wayside, but that, at least, is an effort I always preferred to develop in retirement.

I love reading memoir, and this year I’ve read at least a dozen, with several dozen more sitting on my bookshelf and in my Kindle, waiting. I fancy myself adding to the tidal wave of memoir that now overruns literary circles, but here I am, right now, at the keyboard, giving myself the chance, and what do I do? I complain about my lack of production. So what can a rational soul think about a person like me, a writer like me?

Well, I do have talent, that is indisputable, evidenced in the fact that I’ve been positively reinforced for it all my life by people who own  credentials. I’ve even been published a few times, once by TIME magazine when I answered one of the their questions to readers about phobias. They wanted a few words– literally– about their reader’s phobias, so I crafted a statement about my phobia of nasal congestion, and several months later, my brother was on an airplane and read my blurb. He was so shocked he said out loud, “Hey, that’s my sister!”

The TIME piece, novelty as it was, is not something that would go into my portfolio, but it does stand next to the handful of magazines, chapbooks and anthologies that include my name. So, I have talent, and that fact makes my lack of production even more suspect.

I am rambling. Yes, I am rambling, and I hate rambling, but I am doing so in order to fill the screen with words in an effort to reach the daily goal. It’s not going to happen, not today, at least. Maybe tomorrow.

Marahm Turns Sixty!

bismillah5bynafee I am sixty years old today, and I am happy.

I am happy because I’ve lived more than half my life, and I’ve been spared the worst of calamities, alhumdullilah. I’ve not been struck by the bulldozer of bad health nor the tragedy of untimely death. I’ve watched both my parents live well into old age, and I’ve seen my siblings enter middle-age in good health and security. My girls are grown and married and have magnificent children of their own, and they are taking good care of their families.
My job is secure, and my home with my mom is so comfortable. Allah has blessed me  richly, and I thank Him for everything.

My life has been marked by personal strength and emotional distress which have both left their marks. I understand much about myself I never understood years ago, thanks to my work in Progoff’s Intensive Journal, as well my general attitude of questioning and pondering everything worth pondering. I’ve had luck, both good and bad. I’ve made choices, both good and bad, but Allah has protected me from the worst consequences of either.

The decade of the sixties is the decade of retirement, of taking permission to close the door on formal employment. The decade of the sixties renews my commitment to nurturing myself in ways I’ve been unable to practice because of having to go to work. This is the decade in which I can finally give myself the opportunity to develop my talents, and perhaps achieve a few life goals.

This is the decade in which I shall dedicate myself to supporting my extended family even more. These next years are the ones during which I need to develop a regimen of physical exercise and dietary prudence . They are the years in which I will fulfill my lifelong ambition of becoming fluent in a foreign language, of delving into my writing (without being interrupted  by having to to go work), of organizing my recipe files, of sorting my belongings and downsizing my footprint. All of this begins today, inshaAllah, and I am very happy.


Writing Nonfiction in November

For years, I’ve been aware of NaNoWriMo– the annual challenge for fiction writers to produce a fifty-thousand word manuscript during the month of November.


I’ve always wanted to participate, except that I don’t write fiction. I encouraged Brandy Chase (of American Muslimah Writer) to participate.


Actually, I suggested that if she took up the challenge, I would, as well, so she took up the challenge, and I am left with the fact that I am not a fiction writer.

Enter Jung’s concept of Synchronicity. Just this morning, while looking for something unrelated, I discovered the nonfiction equivalent to NaNoWriMo– WNFIN, Writing Nonfiction in November:


So, off I go to begin the challenge!

How shall I approach the task? I’ll need to produce about two-thousand words a day to complete the challenge. That’s a lot of writing, especially for someone like me, who hates to babble. I write deliberately. Free writing and verbal effluvience are not my strong suits, nevertheless, they will have to become so in order to meet this challenge.

I think I will make a list of subjects having to do with the events of my life, and the attitudes that have shaped my choices. Each day I’ll take up a new heading. Hopefully, some of this work will find its way to my blog. In that way, I’ll infuse some fresh material into it. I’m getting kind of saturated with writing and thinking about religion. I need a diversion.