To Whom Do I Belong?

 

 

I am the daughter of a single mother and a once-absent father.

My mother was born and raised in the farmlands of Slippery Rock, PA, whose claim to fame is their university and odd moniker. My father was born and raised in the fields of Amman, Jordan, populated by ancient ruins and the stories of refugees.

My mother’s family knows the toil of farm life and the joys of a large family and a full house. My father’s family knows the toil of a life in exile, living in a land which struggles to claim them as full citizens, and the joys of solidarity with a movement and resistance to a regime.

My mother’s hair is short, light, and blonde. Her skin is light, and it tans well. Not as tan as Baba’s though. His hair has receded and is streaked with grey, but his skin maintains its year-round, dark olive tone.

I carry the physical traits of both of my parents on my body: Mom’s eyes in shape and Dad’s in color, Dad’s hair in thickness and volume and Mom’s natural highlights.

My curls are looser than the tight-bound coils they once were. My nose is bigger than “average” and it hooks. My English contains a hint of a Southern accent.

I pass as a member of those who call themselves white, even though my body holds characteristics that don’t keep me quite there.

Both of my parents know the loss of family land. My mother’s family lost our farm the summer before I started high school, the farm on which I spent my infancy and toddler-hood, due to lack of finances. My father’s parents left Palestine before the chaos of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could deport them.

They know the loss and joy of leaving home for Orlando, Florida, in order to seek their fortunes, and they know the pain which resulted when things did not go as planned.

And they share me, their light-skinned, brown-eyed, chestnut-haired, social-justice-loving, strong-willed daughter.

I am the child of Amer and Elizabeth, a Mustafa and a Davis.

I am a child of America and Palestine, of long-time citizens and almost-refugees, of struggle and privilege.

I have lived here for generations, and I am the first generation to occupy this soil.

I am a product of the occupied land of Palestine, the Amman ruins, the ocean air of Orlando, the Slippery Rock farm, the city of Winchester, the rolling hills of Bridgewater and Harrisonburg, and the busy highways of Northern Virginia.

I love steak with a bit of pink in the middle served with mashed potatoes covered in homemade gravy and corn on the cob planted and harvested by my late grandfather. My mom’s spaghetti is my favorite comfort food. I love falafel and baba ganoush, and my dad’s Middle Eastern grilling is delectable.

My family has two sides, but I interact with one like a citizen and the other like a tourist.

I am fluent in Pennsylvania slang and can barely recite the Arabic alphabet. My nose recalls the scents of my Gammy’s apple pie and the earth after a rainstorm, but it is still growing accustomed to the smells of naan and an approaching Fort Lauderdale summer shower. I have memorized the funny and heartbreaking stories of my mother’s family and struggle to recount basic stories of my father’s youth and his extended family’s history.

I found much joy in being reunited with my father and have found many struggles in reconciling these two identities. I admire my mom for her resilience during the struggles of our life together, and I wish both of my parents had found a way to bridge their personalities and cultures so I could fully know and love them both.

Do I get to authentically embrace both sides?

Do I get to enjoy Mom’s spaghetti and Baba’s kufta with the same level of authenticity and pride?

If I learn Arabic and Palestinian history primarily through books and classes, am I still able to identify as one of them?

Do bi-racial kids who grew up with only one parent get to honor both of them, or must we choose one over the other?

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Country Roads and Labyrinth Paths, Take Me Home

Rita Robinson

Photo by Rita Robinson

I knew I had arrived in Harrisonburg, Virginia, when I rolled down my windows and the pungent scent of manure smacked me in the face.

I knew I was back at my seminary when I walked through the doors and inhaled the sweet smells of coffee and books.

I knew I was back with my people as I sat through my friend’s profound capstone presentation and embraced and reminisced with old friends, remembering how loved I am and how well I have loved others.

And after the reunions took place and everyone had returned to classes and homework,  I felt the call of the prayer labyrinth.

I’ve written about my experiences with my seminary’s prayer labyrinth in the past. It was one of the few spiritual discipline with which I could authentically and regularly engage during my dark and stormy nights of the soul. One of my favorite qualities about walking the labyrinth was how I didn’t always walk away with new insight or even necessarily feeling better about the state of things when, but I always left feeling God’s presence more than I had previously.

I’m not in a dark or stormy night as of now, but the labyrinth is still a part of my seminary home, and I missed it as if it was a friend. So I walked up the steep hill to it, and when I arrived, I stood and beheld that space of grace and transformation once again.

From my first step on the first stone, a flood of memories began to wash over me.

There were early memories of the young man in college who showed me how to play a guitar while ordering a cheeseburger, and the later memories of the two of us exchanging marriage vows. I turned a corner and felt the nervous giddiness upon walking through the seminary doors for the first time and the heaviness of leaving them for the last time. I gazed out at the Blue Ridge Mountains and remembered the professors who taught me to doubt, to believe in myself, and to look critically at my whiteness. As I caught a glance of the gazebo, I recalled the conversations I had there with my now-husband over the phone, wrestling with our respective callings and vocations.

The labyrinth took me on a journey through key points in my faith journey, with the choruses of both Michael W. Smith’s “Heart of Worship” and Gibbons’ “Almighty and Everlasting God” providing an eclectic soundtrack, because they, too, were part of my journey.

When I found myself in the labyrinth’s center, I did not bow down like I normally did. Instead, I stood tall, with my shoulders back and head high, as if to look God right in the eye.

And as I gazed upon the face of God, I met Her back with a bright, thankful smile instead of my usual snide smirk.

I made the sign of the cross to mark the moment and myself as holy, held my hands out open and wide to accept the grace of the moment, embraced myself in God’s love, and gave a small bow, all to say.

And for the first time in a long time, I said these words without a trace of irony, and only pure gratitude and love:

“Thank you. I trust you.”

As I took the winding path out of the labyrinth in preparation to return to my home in Ashburn, I felt more confident in the fact that I am loved and have loved others well. I walked away knowing I was leaving this home for my other home, and it would still be here to welcome me back again.

I understood that even as I move forward, there is always a home to which I may return.

Thanks be to God.

My First Anxious Moment

I remember I was 4 years old. Or 5.

I remember my best friend Emily was visiting me.

We were in the living room. Toys were scattered on the floor. My doll house. My fire truck. My Barbies and a few stuffed animals.

And I was crying inconsolably.

I sputtered out my reason between the sputtering sobs: “Emily doesn’t want to be here. She doesn’t like me. She isn’t having fun.”

My mother told me it wasn’t true. She even point blank asked Emily if she was having fun, to which she graciously, and perhaps falesly, replied “Yes.”

Later on, we went to the playground at the school where Mom worked, right across the street from our apartment.

Emily climbed the jungle gym. I stayed on the ground, once again weeping.

Same fears.

“She doesn’t want to be here.”

“She doesn’t like me.”

“She isn’t having fun.”

Same consolations.

“That’s not true.”

“She does like you.”

“She is having fun.”

And the big one: “The only reason she wouldn’t be having fun is because you’re so upset.”

Which inadvertently caused me to feel more upset.

Emily played. I wept.

(Emily and Mom, if you’re reading this and remember that day, I am so sorry.)

It’s been 23 years since this first anxious moment, and I’ve seen it play out so many times.

In friendships, classrooms, romances, my interactions with my family, the workplace, and church.

In every close relationship I’ve had, there comes a time when the song inevitably plays, and it often gets stuck on repeat.

“My best friend hates me.”

“My teacher doesn’t think I’m smart enough.”

“My husband is mad at me.”

“My parents are judging me for not being like them.”

“My colleagues don’t think I’m as good as them.”

“My fellow Christians look down on me.”

It’s a song I hate, yet it plays on and on, rarely ceasing.

That’s not to say things haven’t improved.

Yes, the thoughts ring in my head, but most days, the volume is low. The annoying sound becomes background noise, and some days, I can even hear a lighter, sweeter, calmer melody instead. Most days, I have some degree of control over the sound, so even when I notice the noise drifting to an uncomfortable level, I am conscious enough to turn it down.

That’s the medication and therapy and other forms of self-care at work.

And then there are days I lose control of the dial, and it’s cranked to 11, and the speakers threaten to blow out.

That’s also the medication and therapy and other forms of self-care at work, but instead they are losing to my mind, which has gone into dumpster-fire-mode. (It’s like normal mode, only over-caffeinated and with fangs).

When I find myself in these moments, I start to wonder.

I wonder what my childhood might have been like if I had actually felt like a child, not someone carrying the weight and worries of the world on her small shoulders. I wonder what my adolescence could have been like if the anxiety had not paralyzed me from pursuing my dreams of theater, athletics, and writing. I wonder how much less strain and baggage my friendships, family relationships, and marriage would contain if I could actually trust that all of these people loved me for me.

I wonder what is it like to be truly free from this burden, to not wait for the next panic attack, or to not beat yourself up when you say the wrong thing, or to not question if your dearest loved ones are out to get you.

I only catch glimpses of that Promised Land of No-Second-Guesses once in a while, and they are freeing and wonderful.

But to live a whole life like that? I doubt I’ll ever know what that’s like.

It’s hard to accept that the fears you had at age 4 are still the ones you carry in your heart in your late 20s, and maybe even will carry your whole life.

And the only way out I know is through struggle: the daily struggle to keep my thoughts from consuming me, to consciously remind myself that I am loved when I only feel worthy of hate, to battle with my mind on a regular basis.

I struggle, alone and with others on my journey, so I may rest again at the feet of contentment.

And each time, I hope the respite lasts longer than the previous one.

Things I Need to Improve On: A Comparison on How to Improve in These Areas at Age 14 and Age 27

When I was 14, I wrote a lot of my adolescent thoughts, sorrows, and dreams in this little journal.

Not gonna lie, I’m still super proud to say I drew the dragon on the cover.

Sometimes, I like to take a little trip down memory lane and re-read some of my old entries. Usually this results in me wincing at my own teen angst and wishing I could explain to this kid how all those “end of the world” scenarios were real trivial, and to encourage her to believe in herself every once in a while.

During one of those recent trips, I stumbled upon this little excerpt, which I call: “Things I Need to Improve On: A Brief Excerpt from the Journal of Lindsay Mustafa Davis, Age 14, Dated August 27th, 2004”

I was astounded to find that the list of improvements I made at age 14 is startlingly accurate to the one my 27 year old self would make.

I also laughed when I thought more about what I considered “being responsible” and “doing my best” at 14 compared to 27.

So I decided to do a little remix of this list, and take into account both my own adolescent thoughts and my grown up thoughts, both riddled with their own anxieties and desires to be seen as “having it together,” because funny enough, that didn’t seem to disappear after 14 years.

I call it: “Things I Need to Improve On: A Comparison on How to Improve in These Areas at Age 14 and Age 27”

1. Being responsible

Age 14:

  • Pay attention in class so you get good grades and have a good future.
  • Complete homework before 9 PM because that’s what responsible students do.
  • Clean the bathrooms every weekend without Mom asking more than once because you’re a good daughter!
  • Load and unload the dishwasher as needed because, again, you’re a good daughter and the only one who helps your mother around this house, darn it!

Age 27:

  • Balance a budget without going broke each month, even though this budget also includes Northern Virginia rent.
  • Wash the dishes right away instead of letting them pile up for a week like a gross person.
  • Meet quarterly goals at work to avoid the boss’ wrath and the crushing sense of defeat.
  • Make time to call your parents at least once a week, then fail at it and worry your parents don’t think you appreciate them enough.

2. Being honest to myself

Age 14:

  • Understand and embrace both your strengths and your weaknesses a la The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens, which was required reading for all incoming freshman of the James Wood High Class of 2008.
  • Realize when you are taking something too seriously and need to apologize for something you’ve done wrong because your friends already don’t like you and you need to grovel to maintain their good graces.
  • Tell your parents and teachers the whole truth all the time no matter the consequences because if you don’t, your mother will find out, and you don’t want that.

Age 27:

  • Tell people when you are too anxious to deal with shit, even if admitting you struggle with a mental illness is still stigmatized.
  • Apologize to your husband when you hurt him without getting indignant about it or spiraling into a panic over whether or not you’re being too “submissive.”
  • Understand when you are acting out an unhealthy pattern and choose to either be the stronger person and break the habit or keep going down that path, because sometimes acting enlightened is too fucking exhausting.

3. Doing my best in everything

Age 14:

  • Don’t turn in half-assed assignments because instead of doing your best work, you spent more time talking on the phone with your 3 crushes.
  • Even though it seems everyone could care less about the tenor sax section in Concert Band, resist every urge to not play the difficult parts in band class and let the brass, flutes, and clarinets carry the load instead.

Age 27:

  • Spend an hour a day writing without taking a Facebook and/or YouTube break every 5 minutes.
  • Make regular three-to-five day attempts to eat well and excercise before taking the path of least resistance and eating pizza three times a week while binge-watching Hulu.

4. Ignoring taunts

Age 14: Let the bully’s comments slide off your shoulders.

Age 27: For the literal love of Jesus, STOP ENGAGING WITH INTERNET TROLLS.

Epilogue: What I’ve realized about self-improvement lists that is true at age 14 and age 27:

  • Making these lists is easy.
  • Living them out is tough.
  • And I’m still loved whether or not I “succeed” in them.

Am I Arabic?

Imwas, my father’s family’s village, in 1968 after its destruction during the Six-Day War

Am I Arabic?

It’s a question I ask myself a lot lately.

I ask it when I fill in surveys asking for my race and ethnicity, when people hear “Mustafa” in my last name and ask me how I got it, and when my boss tells me I add more “diversity” to the office.

How do I explain to people, and even myself, that I still see myself as one of the whitest white women to ever exist?

After all, I might love falafel, kufta, and baba ganoush, but I had to look up how to spell those last two words right.

I might have the olive skin, deep brown eyes, curly hair, and hooked nose of my father and his family, but I’m still “white” to most people. To some, even an “exotic” white. They know there’s “something in me,” but they don’t know what it is.

I didn’t become emotionally invested in the Palestinian cause from birth. Instead, I learned about the conflict through talks with my Christian college chaplain and through books and plays written from a white perspective.

I have walked comfortably in this world as a white woman, and no one has ever suspected I might be anything else.

Hell, I barely have either.

I didn’t start using “Mustafa” as part of my last name until I was 24 years old. No one coerced me into doing it. I wanted to start embracing this side of my identity.

But it’s been 4 years, and I’m still not sure what it means to be a “Mustafa.”

I know what it means to be a “Davis” like my mother and even like my husband’s family. But I still don’t really know what it means to be a “Mustafa.”

So am I Arabic or white? Am I both/and, either/or, or none/neither?

There are stories about people who have a black parent and a white parent, a Latinx parent and a white parent, or come from other racially blended families.

But I have yet to find a story of someone with an Arabic parent and a white parent.

I want to claim my family’s story and identity in a way which is true and genuine, not to earn a cheap badge for the sake of “diversity.” Most of my life, I only had one family identity. Then one day, I discovered the second family. Now, as a married woman, there is a third.

And I’m still figuring out how to be a part of each of them.

I want to learn and engage with both sides of my story, but is it possible when I have to study more than live through one aspect of it?

How do I do this?

My Second Session with the New Therapist

Office

ChiroAssociates.us

I met with my new therapist for our second session last Wednesday.

During our first session back in December, we covered all of the basics: introductions, symptoms, triggers, an outline of my family dynamics.

It was nothing strenuous or profound. I did not leave with high hopes or a soaring self-esteem, but I did walk out feeling content with how we connected and the hope that we had solid ground from which to build a relationship.

This second session, on the other hand, was the most exhausting one of my life.

It began easily enough. She asked me how my holidays were. They were good.

She asked how I felt overall. I told her I was OK.

She asked if I had experienced any intense episodes. I had.

She asked what happened.

What I wanted to tell her was that my husband Bryce and I had a discussion that went from civilized discourse to mild argument, which caused me to downward spiral into a panic attack that left me in tears, gasping for air, and berating myself for being both a terrible partner to my husband and a pathetic excuse for a woman.

I only got as far as saying an argument took place that resulted in a panic attack.

And then I found myself silent.

She asked about the topic of our discussion-turned-argument. I said I couldn’t remember, and for a moment, I really couldn’t. After all, it had been weeks ago, and sometimes I mercifully wipe my mind blank of the details once a panic has passed.

It didn’t take me long to remember the topic, yet when I did, I did not want to share it with her.

At first, I told myself it was because the topic (a slight difference in political opinion) wasn’t important. Then, I told myself if she knew what happened, she would judge me for being too argumentative. Then I feared she would judge my husband for being too pushy, then judge me for being too submissive, and then I outright feared her having so much power to judge me when I needed help.

For what felt like forever, but was probably more like a minute, I sat in silence, my legs crossed, my hands clasped together, my head down, my shoulders tense, my forehead beginning to sweat.

I couldn’t find the next words to say. I didn’t want to find them, either.

I had met this woman on exactly two occasions, and I already feared her opinion of me to the point that I could not share anything with her, even if it would allow her to help me (which I did not trust her to do).

Going back to the topic of the argument, she suggested that I write down the details of those incidents in the future so we could talk about them more in depth. It was a solid suggestion, yet it took all of the energy I had within me not to run out of the office and never return.

I knew she was a doctor who needed to know how to help me, and I needed to do some work, too.

But I didn’t want her to help me. I wanted her to leave me alone.

I think she sensed my resistance, because she backtracked to the holidays again. I still didn’t want to say much to her, but I was willing to talk about spending time with my family, so I relented and gave her the information.

From the holidays, she asked about me and my mom. From there, she asked about her and my stepdad. From there, she asked about me and my husband. Gently and slowly, she helped me peel back those layers, but only enough to take quick peeks before closing them up again. She knew better than to cut too deep into an already frightened soul.

Finally, miracle of miracles, I told her more about the argument. I explained to her why I felt attacked, the contents of my thoughts, the ensuing exhaustion, and the patterns I noticed. She was able to give me some solid advice in regards to being a good spouse and having a solid sense of self in the midst of those heated moments.

It ended up being a really productive, albeit very stressful, session. I was glad I stuck around, and I was even more grateful she understood how to honor and work with my limits.

The session came to an end. We shook hands, and I walked out of her office still a bit shaken but feeling more solid and secure than I had in weeks.

I even made sure to schedule an appointment for February.

I’m looking forward to getting to know my new therapist more and actually allowing her to get to know me. I’m still afraid of being vulnerable, and that I will never have a bond with this new therapist quite like the one I had with my former. This being said, I need to keep telling myself that’s OK as long as, in my time with this new person, I grow and become more well.

I’m taking baby steps right now, and it’s hope in these little steps that gets me back in her office.

I Went to Church for the First Time in 9 Months

Episco door

Two weeks ago, my friend Shirley came to visit from Atlanta.

We met during a Spiritual Formation conference at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in June 2016. I was a Christian “none” who wore pink Chucks and asked unnerving questions. She was a purple-haired Episcopalian who wrote a thesis on Buddhism and Christianity and talked openly about how much she loved her cats.

We became fast friends.

Shortly after my husband and I married, she sent me a message about her plans to attend a conference in Alexandria, about an hour’s drive from our abode in Ashburn. She asked if we could loan her our couch, our kitties, and our board games.

I was more than happy to oblige.

The weekend was filled with lots of laughter, IPAs (for her and my husband), storytelling, and yummy food. It was refreshing, energizing, and wonderful for all of us.

And then Shirley had to ask me, the absentee Christian who had all but abandoned traditional church, if I was planning to attend a worship service on Sunday.

I wanted to be a good hostess and a good friend, and I figured if I was going to creep back into regular church again, Shirley would be a great person with whom to do this. As such, we spent Saturday evening surfing the web for local Episcopal congregations. We decided against the one 10 minutes down the road, whose website boasted a picture of an altar-housed American flag, in favor of a non-flag-flying church in a small town about 30 minutes away.

For the first Sunday in nine months, I found myself crossing the threshold of the red door characteristic of Episcopal churches.

It was a tiny sanctuary, quaint if you will. Most of the pews were empty, and the occupied ones contained no more than 3 people each. There were no kneeling bars, but there were adorable cushions embroidered with scenes both biblical and rural, from the Magi following the star to a map of the state of Virginia, from the Annunciation to cats snuggling in wicker baskets.

I also winced in internal discomfort when I noticed a plaque dedicated to past church members who served the Confederacy right above the pew of a black family in attendance.

My eyes and thoughts remained, for the most part, on this jarring example of Christian racism during the opening prayers and music. But the priest’s sermon drew my focus away from the walls. A seasoned metropolitan priest new to this particular parish, he began his sermon with jokes about Virginia Tech and University of VA fans and ended by calling out his own racism and the racism of our current administration and white Christianity, all while walking among us instead of standing behind his pulpit.

I sighed in relief upon realizing there are those who resist systemic evil in the name of Jesus, exist in flesh and blood, and do not just use Twitter as their pulpit.

After the sermon, as is traditional with an Episcopal service, we prepared for Eucharist, a meal I had not consumed at the altar in such a long time. So when the time came, I walked up to the bars, knelt before the priest, and partook of the bread and wine again.

Despite the hiatus, I did my best not to consume the meal too hastily. I savored the light, delicate wafer as it sat on my tongue and as I slowly chewed it. I let the small sip of wine saturate my taste buds, rich and sweet, before letting it fall down my throat.

It had been so long since I had known those particular tastes, and I wanted to hold onto them as long as I could.

After final prayers and final songs, and after taking pictures of our favorite kneeling pillows, Shirley and I had lunch at a nearby cafe, which boasted a much larger attendance than the tiny congregation. Over turkey sandwiches, kettle chips, pickles, and Coca Cola, we talked about God’s restorative work, living with mental illness, and eradicating white privilege and supremacy. In short, we had communion one last time.

And as I said my good-byes to my friend, I realized I had enjoyed my time with the congregation.

Yes, I had issues with the plaques on the walls, but I also had hope that restorative work could be done.

Yes, it was a 30 minute drive on a chilly morning, and it had been a bit unnerving to step into a church building again, but I had partaken of a physical and emotional communion, and I felt refreshed and excited.

To be honest, I do not know if this congregation will become my faith community, if I will search for one closer to my own home, or what my next step in this journey will be.

But I know that as long as my spiritual pilgrimage lasts, there will always be those to house me along the way, from visiting friends to small town churches with cat pillows, and everywhere in between.