Thursday, April 14, 2005

Saganaskee: A Personal Narrative About Retrieval

I pulled opened the backdoor and rushed down the apartment stairway as if someone were diving for my feet. I sped away in my red VW past the domed Mosque and turned south on to Harlem Avenue. In fifteen minutes I was at Saganaskee Slough, the same greenery and lake I had fished before as a boy, though back then it took me ninety minutes on my bike around 4:30 am.

I parked and pulled out unused fishing gear that I had kept in the back of my car for more than two years. It was a gift—my brother’s crack at luring me back into the sport because of something he and everyone else in the family saw in my face and carriage.

“I think what you’re doing is great, but listen, you got to have time for yourself,” he scored. The family around the table agreed. My brother narrated the times of my youth of fishing, golf, and other sorted games, my neighborhood buddies—all of them of the Christian realm—and the innocence of a friendship that I probably will not feel again in this life. I never let on to “The Committee to Save Me” that their words hurt me with serrated truth. But I was on a treadmill, gasping and unable to find the red button. So I did what I had learned really well: I changed the subject and began a stupid speech in which I had the eccentric temerity to say, “My mission in life . . . .” and other colorless piffle. It exceeded arrogance. It was undisguised insolence to speak this way with people who understood something about love—people who understood me, a science I gave up long ago.

I placed the gear on the concrete embankment (“the fishing wall”) facing the lake. I walked toward the woods south of the slough; there was no reason for my haste. I pushed away shrubs and ducked low branches of trees that were twig-thick the last time I roamed here. About thirty yards deep, I stood still for a few moments, listened carefully, and looked around as if to make a profound Thoreau-like observation. I then began. The first two large stones I dislodged were heavier than I thought and yielded nothing. The next stone covered thousands of red ants tossed into a panic, as if I had drawn their shower curtain. The calm green growth on the slabs was nice to touch. Another flat rectangular stone covered a dozen or so beetles, about an inch long, with shiny turquoise carapaces and large black pinchers. I let them be. But I did take the three brown slugs I saw nearby.

Beneath the next slab, my search bore fruit. “Bonanza,” I whispered out loud, a declaration that we used to make as kids whenever any of us found worms. It saved us precious dollars and a trip to Riecke’s Bait Shop on 95th Street.

Like a Bedouin, I raided more niches until my hamstrings and back cramped. But there was one large branch I needed to lift yet. It covered a harmless garter snake, black with gray stripes. It was young and coiled. It struggled to lift its heavy shiny head, which I touched to see if it were really alive. It was, although it did not show the movement one expects from life. I know how it felt. I gently lowered the branch and remained hovered. The congealed smell, the verdure, the touch of the branch, the feel of reptilian scales, and the flesh of my face pulled toward the earth dragged me into an earlier life. For a brief joyous moment, a boy ran wildly through a man’s body tripping over every nerve. It didn’t last long. The rest of the morning handed me issues that were clearly adult.

My raids earned me seven worms and the slugs. I held them in my hand and was surprised again at how fast worms inch up a human wrist and forearm. I needed something to put them in. One good thing about litter: I found a white Styrofoam cup. I walked back to the fishing wall, baited the hook, and cast the line into Saganaskee, one of the largest waters in the Cook County Forest Preserve. Per script, it was now time for me to relax.I turned my head and noticed a black Chevy Chevette pull up with piles of papers stacked on the rear dashboard. A man with a long gray beard got out and walked calmly toward the slough. He was no fisherman.

The man started to speak to a woman fishing nearby with her young daughter. It’s ordinary to ask how the fishing project was going, but the conversation went on longer. The woman smiled nervously and kept looking back toward her line and her daughter, trying to say with her posture that she was not interested in conversation. The man then darted out his arms sideways and stood on one leg and flapped his arms as he stuck out his neck and opened his eyes unnaturally wide. The woman looked threatened at first, then embarrassed.

I checked my line and put down my gear. I walked toward them with my invisible red cape. My presence interrupted the pantomime.

“How’s it going,” the woman asked me. She looked relieved.

“Not a thing,” I said, shrugging my shoulders and smiling. “How about you?”

“I got a bite about an hour ago, but that’s about it,” she smiled back.

“Hmm,” I said, nodding my head for no reason, remembering the slugs somehow. I looked at the man and said, “Hello.” He walked toward to me, his hands back to his sides. I was headed for something.

“I didn’t even know this was here,” he said pensively, gazing at the slough with the look of a philosopher. His tie clip brandished a crucifix, mostly likely of the Protestant realm.

“A friend of mine told me I would find herons here,” he said. “I’d like to take pictures of them. You should see them when they take flight from the water.” He lowered his head and began to flap his wings again. He stood on one leg before losing his balance, a common problem with people without feathers.

But he was right; herons are magnificent creatures with long legs and elegantly curved necks. White egrets, especially, are regal when taking flight, with the tips of their broad wings tapping the water surface, leaving two long rows of perfect ripples.

The man spoke more about his photography. But this was all bait. Behold, he started about Jesus. I wasn’t surprised: black double-knit pants, blazing yellow dress-shirt, pockets stuffed with tracts, an unzipped navy blue jacket, a beard apparently grown for a transcending reason, and the tie clip—not exactly the habiliments of fishing. I knew the conversation like I knew how to get worms.

“A long time ago in Los Angeles I met a blind man who told me that I needed Jesus,” his voice thickened and his look upon the water pitched lower and more solemn. It was rehearsed. He reported to me how his life changed after going through a second gestation and birth, how he felt renewed and gave up booze, cursing, reefers, and women. Even if it were true, why should his transformation convince anyone to worship the way he does?

“I am a Muslim,” I told him, hoping for a miracle end to our encounter. He nodded his head and calmly said: “Oh, really? Man, you can’t believe the change in my life.” He offered more about this blind man and the alcohol and joints.

“People change their lives for a lot of reasons,” I said, trying to avoid the snobbery of “So what?” Again, I was not mentally ready for this.

He didn’t listen and was apparently organizing his next salvo. I didn’t fault him. I do it all the time. People can talk to me for twenty minutes and my mind would be with something I had edited earlier. My wife chides that it’s obvious when my mind is missing during conversations. But I deny it and tell her with a wink that I have perfected the art of looking involved. She laughs at my strange confidence. People see it, she insists with no wink, but they’ve perfected the art of masking their offense.

The man next told me about a trip he once made to Thailand, where he saw a magnificent statue made out of beautiful ruby that people worshipped, hand fashioned with intricate detail. “It was majestic, but it still wasn’t God,” he said, scouting my face for signs of his bombshell. I felt burdened to tell him some of the governing pillars of Islam, about God, His oneness, and our view of the Messiah, although, to be honest, all I wanted to do that day was fish.

He spoke more: paragraphs about salvation, original sin, murder, ascension, Hell, and Paradise. I then said something about whether worshipping a man, even a great man, or a big fat shiny ruby statue—with details measured in hairs—it’s the same thing; both come from the material of the earth. And besides, our Maker requires no violence to forgive.

The woman and her daughter started to pack up. As they left, they smiled and waved goodbye. We waved back. The man and I just stood there looking out at the water. I then asked him whether or not he was a minister. He told me in an emotively sad tone that caught me off guard that he couldn’t be because in his denomination a divorced man mustn’t be ordained. He tried to explain why, but it was too late. My mind was somewhere else, at the kitchen table with my parents, wishing that I could tell them that they were right and always were.

The man ended his story in an abrupt way. Either it was too painful for him to have continued or he saw the passport on my face. We shook hands and spoke a little more about herons, then shook hands a final time. I caught no fish that short day. So I walked to the woods and emancipated the worms and the slugs into a grassy area. I packed up and left.

On the road back, I saw four blue herons in a nearby sanctuary. I would have stopped to stare at them, but I wanted to be home. My wife had been delighted with my return to something that informed so much of my boyhood . . . back to what would have doubled the meaning of my so-called “mission.” She understood how this simple sport embodied for me a cultural past that I voluntarily discarded in the name of piety when my spiritual rediscovery reached critical mass and when I needed some community for support, even if this community didn’t respect my context. Well-meaning, naive folks of my ilk raised in America accepted an immigrant religious instruction and aphoristic moralizing shamefully presented as infallible and spoken in a manner that subliminally made you feel foolish about Wrigley Field, golf tees, gray slabs, bobbers, finding an albino salamander in a dank cave in southern Illinois, capturing invertebrates off the Florida keys, or collecting parasites from fresh road kills. It seemed right to blindly wave a knife at cultural experiences, no matter how much of it was wholesome, how much good, how much godly.

Later that night, I drove my wife back to the slough. (She had her own pressures, daily excursions to a large aquarium full of sharks at Northwestern law.) The county sheriffs had not yet chained off the parking area, so we pulled in and looked over toward the woods. The windows were rolled down and the smells and night sounds of the woods aimed odd fear into me as I let my imagination move deep into the black thicket. It was vivid: I saw myself alone, with my face close to the dark earth. I watched the slugs trying to make it back to their element from which they had been abruptly evicted, and I saw that no matter how fast they tried, it was still a slow process. I empathized fully.


Originally written in 1998 and published in Q-News (1999), but modified here.


Blogger Julaybib said...


I am thinking, reading and provisionally writing about the issue of Muslim identity as a convert lapsed and reverting, still happily married to someone who is largely secular in her outlook.

I have just discovered Anouar Majid's 'Unveiling Traditions', which is the first book to really hone in on the issues that concern me. But I have a deadline to meet for the Muslim World Book Review. Ahhh! Things are just about to get hectic round my way.

I liked the shower curtain metaphor!



4/15/2005 5:21 PM  
Blogger Eiman Abdelmoneim said...

This one sentence really resonated with me. First time somebody was able to articulate the feeling I have had. Well said.

Well-meaning, naive folks of my ilk raised in America accepted an immigrant religious instruction and aphoristic moralizing shamefully presented as infallible and spoken in a manner that subliminally made you feel foolish about Wrigley Field, golf tees, gray slabs, bobbers, finding an albino salamander in a dank cave in southern Illinois, capturing invertebrates off the Florida keys, or collecting parasites from fresh road kills.

4/17/2005 10:08 PM  

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