Hour of None

Early Christians had a custom of dividing up the day into four blocks of about three hours, each with its own mood and prayers to say. It was actually a practice that historians say was adopted from Judaism as a way to structure and honor the passage of time. I was surprised to see the third portion of the day referred to as the “Hour of None.”

The None in this instance was derived from the word “nine,” referring to the ninth hour of the day, which generally fell at about three in the afternoon and led into evening. But what I found most interesting was how this particular chunk of time was characterized. It was considered the portion of the day when businesses closed for the night and people returned home to bathe and eat. It offered both a break from work and a transition before the last prayers; it played the role of sort of spiritual exhalation. I wondered about the synchronicity of the names—if, culturally speaking, we aren’t in our own “Hour of None.” Perhaps we’ve entered something of a pause, a retreat from the normal course of things, an opportunity to reflect and prepare for what comes next.

If we have arrived at such a time, this “time off,” then I have the opportunity to consider what to bundle up and smuggle with me into whatever phase awaits. From Judaism I’ll take monotheism, which I’ve come to appreciate as the birthplace of the radical notion that all beings on this planet—human and otherwise—originate from the same source and are, therefore, intrinsically connected. I want to remember the intent of Sabbath—a designated time to surrender productivity and allow myself to relish the freedom of simply being. I must not forget to take a moment or two each day to focus my thoughts once again on how miraculous it is to be alive, perhaps letting a simple but amazing sight—a cloud formation or a fragrant bloom or a loved one’s smile—trigger the thought. I would like to keep the Jewish custom of keeping the word “dayenu” on the tip of my tongue, letting it tumble out in those moments when I am suddenly overwhelmed with appreciation or, perhaps more importantly, urging myself to say it when I feel slighted or cheated or preoccupied with someone who appears to have it better. Dayenu! I have everything I need—more than enough. I only need tap a deep well of gratitude.

I refuse to go forward without the story of Jesus tucked close to my heart. Here was a free-thinking rebel of his day who broke with tradition so he could best demonstrate his love and care for others. He lives on as a powerful example: all that is noble and good can exist in a person, the divine can be embodied, we are capable of greater heights of love—for ourselves and others. I can’t not think of the way he died, how exposed he was on that cross; how he literally shared his death with the world, demonstrating that strength is possible even in our most vulnerable moments—maybe especially at those times. Even in my darkest hours, I can rest assured that I am loved because I am not exempt from that most personal message Jesus sent to every single person: I love you. But I must strive with all my might to complete the assignment he left humanity. He was quite clear that we are to experience joy and to love others, two things that one might assume are easy but are perhaps the greatest challenges any of us face.

From Buddhism, I’ll borrow the daily practice of sensing “the oneness” to which monotheism points. It shows me how to go beyond recognizing my interconnectedness as an intellectual concept to feeling the truth of it with every fiber of my being. I want to occupy that space of knowing for as often and long as possible, and when I forget I want to find my way back, because great comfort is found there. I can cultivate this sense of wellbeing and then I can turn around and share it, projecting it out into the world where it will manifest in ways too mysterious for my mind to comprehend.

If Buddhism helps me nurture a sense of belonging by focusing inward, then Islam encourages me to fix my gaze outward and translate this unity into a sense of duty. It urges me to assume a position—on knees, forehead to the ground—conducive to embracing my own vulnerability so that I am better able to empathize with people in need. Ultimately, it would have me transform empathy into action, finding concrete ways to help society’s weakest members. Then, as further challenge, it nudges me to expand the collective to which I identify. It wants me to push beyond the obvious affinities such as nationality, race, socio-economic status, gender, or religious affiliation to ever-widening circles of humanity. Perhaps, at last, I can arrive to place where I feel beholden to every living creature and the earth itself.

The Pentagon Chapel

One of the Pentagon Chaplain’s deputies (my second escort of the day) came in and said it was time for both of us to head to the chapel. On our way across the hall, the Chaplain explained that we were joining a group of European visitors. These were government administrators from various countries who were attending a conference in D.C.; they had signed up for a visit to the Pentagon Chapel. Some of them were Muslim, so the official in charge of Islamic services would be joining to conduct a little question-and-answer session, which would lead directly into Jummah prayers for those who wished to stay.

At long last, and in fewer than 10 steps, I was standing inside the chapel. In some ways, it was an exceptionally ordinary space. The size of perhaps three private offices combined and opened into one big area, it retained elements true to its original use like industrial-looking carpet and a drop ceiling covered in generic-grade tiles. Five stained glass panels offered the only obvious sign of the room’s function. All of them had images that spoke to me of patriotism and strength: eagles, American flags, sun beams, stars. Four served in place of windows, but the fifth was at the front above where an altar might go. The only one with words, it read: United in Memory September 11, 2001.

I joined the 15 or so individuals already seated. The Chaplain and Muslim leader greeted each other jovially and then teamed up to answer questions about the chapel’s construction and uses; I studied the room. All the furniture was moveable to accommodate different needs. The Chaplain and I had entered from the hall, but I noticed a more formal entrance at the back, where a glass door led to something like a foyer and, beyond that, doors to the outside. This must provide easy access for guests invited to the chapel for special functions such as weddings or memorials; during certain hours, it also allowed visitors who just wanted to see the chapel to have a peek.

I looked at those words: United in Memory. I thought about the oft-used motto, “United We Stand.” The unity to which these phrases refer suddenly struck me as so narrow. They implied unity against an enemy such as another country or group of people. The common denominator among every religion I had explored was this: the mindset of an all-encompassing unity, all of creation connected. I wondered if humans were capable of forming much broader alliances—uniting, perhaps, against truly universal enemies such as poverty, hunger, illness, greed, hate, and shame.

After the question-and-answer session, it was time for Jummah. The Muslim leader invited me to participate. Within a few minutes, the chairs at the front of the room had been moved and carpets spread on the ground. The chapel was transformed into a little mosque. I fetched my headscarf from my bag. A couple of the men from the European contingent stayed, and more people joined. Most were middle-aged, middle-management types, but some stood out: a young guy in fatigues, an older man whose blue bib suggested cafeteria work, a young woman in hijab. The orientation had shifted: not only were we on the floor but we were no longer looking toward the front of the room. The other woman and I had our backs against the outer wall of stained-glass panels. The men were only a few feet in front of us. We were all facing the interior of the building.

For months I had imagined doing Jummah prayers here; now I was doing them. It was a dream come true. I thought about what a long and demanding road this project to explore religion had been. I thought how religion should help heal and unite but, often, is used to hurt and destroy. I thought about the individuals who had died here. I thought about people all around the world killed because of war. As I bent to place my forehead on the floor, my tears dropped on the carpet. I let them fall because it seemed appropriate to leave some tears here.

At the end, everyone was invited to say a few words to the group. When it was my time to speak, I thanked them for allowing me, a non-Muslim, to join today. “I lived in D.C. at the time of 9/11,” I told them. “Being here today felt….” A sob caught in my throat and I didn’t think I could finish. Quickly, I managed, “…really good. Thank you.”

As we stood to leave, the old man in the blue worker’s bib approached me. I thought he might say something. I recognized the look in his eyes: a mixture of sadness and joy that needs no translation. He raised his hand and, without a word, I knew what was being asked. He wanted connection, but was unsure how. I looked at the floor, giving him access to the top of head. He pressed his open palm to my crown. I suppose what he offered was a blessing or healing of sorts; a gesture of love and gratitude, equally. Unspoken, it said everything.

The Chaplain

Back at the Office of the Chaplain, as I waited, I was still thinking about what the priest had said. It struck me as radical: the idea that faith leaders would cater to the spiritual needs of people regardless of religious affiliation. Chaplains in the military are working with young people whose job description includes not just an ability to kill, but a willingness to die. In the task of war, the differences that exist within the group become secondary to the goal of defeating a common enemy. These factors create an atmosphere in which inter-faith cooperation seems to thrive—but it’s unity forged in the context of a greater disunity.

The Pentagon Chaplain announced that he was free to meet. I sat opposite him in his office. Out in the waiting area, his mood had seemed jovial and light. Now a storm cloud had rolled in. Even his posture looked to be curving in as if he were a kid about to be punished. He appeared unhappy enough that I considered telling him we didn’t have to do this. I hadn’t expected a private conversation. I was still amazed I made it through the front door. I had gotten so much, now all I really wanted was to see the chapel.

Neither of us spoke for a moment and then he apologized. He explained that writers made him nervous. Since the chapel’s official dedication, journalists had come in to do stories that, when printed, never failed to generate a firestorm of criticism. Always, representatives from the general public were outraged that Muslims were allowed to worship in that space. Or someone else was fuming because their particular  denomination didn’t appear to have its own seat at the table. Or another person thought the entire endeavor was a joke and a travesty.

I tried to assure him that I wasn’t THAT kind of writer. I wasn’t a reporter, and the story I was working on wasn’t exactly journalism—it was personal, more like memoir. At the very least, whatever I was writing was unlikely to appear online in some national news publication with an open-access comments section. I told him I sympathized: those comments can be brutal.

He said part of the problem was that people didn’t understand the logistics of how faith groups came to worship in the chapel. It wasn’t determined by him—or any other Pentagon official, for that matter. The groups are formed by Pentagon employees, and not just military personnel. Anyone who works in the building is eligible: secretaries, cashiers, janitors. Islamic prayers are held in the chapel not for the purpose of making a political or social statement, whatever it might be, but because the Pentagon has Muslim employees who have the same rights as every other employee. Groups that hold weekly prayer services also include Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Episcopal, Hindu, and Jewish. And those are just the ones that gather in the chapel. Other faith groups meet throughout the building. To be given permission to form, the members must agree to certain ground rules. They cannot speak ill of any other faith or faith group, even in private. They sign a contract agreeing to this. Once a year, all the groups are asked to come together to participate in a multi-faith service.

The Chaplain’s demeanor had changed completely—he was back to being relaxed and friendly. He seemed to be thinking out loud: yes, the problem was also one of perception. The chapel had been designed as a space to serve Pentagon employees and, technically, that’s how it operated but this did not account for its symbolic function. The violent events that took place to create the chapel had been a very traumatizing, public experience. The plane crashed into the building at that exact spot. For this reason, people have a sense that the space itself, and all that takes place within it, belongs to everyone.

A sharp blade

After lunch, Abdul prepared to leave. He had a date with a sharp blade and the throats of two goats. He explained that a farm about an hour’s drive offered this service for Muslims in the region. For Eid, its machinery was cleaned under the supervision of an imam. Abdul could select his animals and personally slit their throat, which allowed him adherence to some of the ritual’s finer details: he would make sure his knife’s tip faced Mecca and he would not turn away from the sight of the animal’s blood. I was relieved not to have to witness the slaughtering. Abdul would do it on our behalf.

The resulting meat would be divided into thirds, Abdul told me. Most importantly, one-third of it would be given to a family that lived on a limited income—a transaction arranged informally through the mosque. His family members would eat one portion and they would share the final portion with friends, most likely preparing it themselves and inviting friends over to partake. I learned that while it is important that the slaughter occur on the Eid, the guidelines about consumption are looser and the meat might stay in the freezer for weeks.

Once her father was gone, Salma asked if I would be willing to speak with her privately. We sat together on the sofa in the family room off the kitchen. She said she had waited for her father to leave because she didn’t want to be disrespectful, but she wanted me to know that she did not necessarily agree 100 percent with his interpretation of what it meant to be a faithful Muslim. Take, for example, the practice of women wearing hijab. “My father believes women should wear a scarf any time they leave their own homes,” she told me, “Whereas my mother and I think differently.” She explained that she and her mother interpret the Quran’s passages on the matter more loosely; they read them as referring specifically to Muhammad’s wives whose coverings were a show of discretion around the steady stream of foreign dignitaries and others visiting their house. Salma explained that she and her mom cover their heads while in the mosque but for busy days at the office or school, they opt to leave the hijab at home.

I nodded as Salma spoke. I understood that not all Muslims see eye to eye despite efforts to reach agreement on even the finest points. After Muhammad’s death, his closest companions tried to ensure consistency by recording in writings called hadiths the wisdom the Prophet had imparted through his daily habits and personal opinions. Gathered into a volume called the “Sunnah,” this information serves as a supplement to the Quran and practical guide; it’s also the inspiration for the name “Sunni.”

But even with these sources, many topics were never mentioned by Muhammad or his confidantes—leaving shades of grey on issues as minor as nail polish. My first night at the mosque back home, my Egyptian acquaintance, Mandisa, caught sight of my painted toe nails and explained to me that polish is not allowed in Islam because it acts as a barrier to water during pre-prayer washing. That same night, as I was performing my first-ever communal rakahs, I noticed that the woman next to me had a pedicure. I was confused. In my reading, I had seen nothing about nail polish; I wanted to get it right before unleashing my bare feet at other mosques. One book had mentioned a hotline available in the U.S.—1-800-Fatwa—for obtaining rulings by contemporary experts on topics such as these. I dialed the number, but it was no longer dedicated to this purpose. Instead, I got a recording about a sweepstakes for a free Caribbean cruise. I decided to err on the side of caution and strip my toe nails bare.

Raj’s family

We made our way to an upscale subdivision filled with identical-looking brick homes. Theirs was at the end of a cul-de-sac, the front door dwarfed by the impressive façade. I parked on the street while Raj stood in the driveway waiting for me. He reminded me of my grandpa who was always affectionate with me, though I doubted my grandpa would have been as tender with a stranger as Raj was with me. Raj ushered me through the entrance in the garage that led directly to the kitchen.

Inside, the food was ready and the table was set. They insisted I take the head, facing the big picture window looking out to the yard. Through bits and pieces, I had learned that Raj was a retired engineer who dabbled in writing. He and his wife had lived in Texas for close to 40 years. Now he beamed with pride as his daughter explained that she and her husband, Abdul, were both doctors. To top it off, his granddaughter, Salma, was currently in medical school. I thought about how envious my grandmother would be—she had waged a many-decades long campaign to convince someone in the family to become a doctor but not one of her children or grandchildren had been swayed. Here, Raj and his wife were outnumbered by doctors.

Abdul asked what had brought me to their mosque and Raj said, yes, please tell us. They knew I was learning Islam, so I figured they wanted a longer version. As we ate, I gave it to them. I started at the beginning and explained everything. I had grown up with no religion. I got older and grew curious. Then I moved to a small town and began by going to churches. I worked my way through Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. It had taken several years, but I had finally made it to Islam. At home, I had done what I could to educate myself. Then I came to Dallas to visit my grandma and worship at mosques.

They nodded, but looked confused. I could see them trying to make sense of it. They wanted to know how my experiment would end, where exactly I would land. I didn’t know what else to tell them. I was trying to make sense of it too.

Abdul, especially, seemed baffled. He asked if I knew the pillars of Islam. I said them out loud, counting on my fingers: daily prayers, Ramadan, zakat (giving to charity), monotheism. That was four. What was the last? “Shahada,” Abdul said. Of course. The shahada, the statement of faith. He asked if I knew the Islamic view of Jesus. Yes, I answered, he is greatly respected and considered a prophet, similar to Muhammad.

I could sense the question—Did I intend to become Muslim?—on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he switched his approach. “You should become Muslim as soon as possible,” he said. What purpose did learning serve unless I planned to convert? I wasn’t sure he’d understand that, for me, knowledge was having the opposite effect: the more I learned, the less inclined I was to declare myself any one thing. But this hadn’t prevented me from developing a deep appreciation, love even, for the ideas and people I met along the way. I recalled Fatima saying she was eager for me to become a Muslim because then she and I would be sisters. I smiled at the sweetness of the sentiment. I wanted to say, “I hope we can be sisters no matter what.”

The gap

When he first began to spread his message, Muhammad’s focus was almost entirely social justice. He lived in a region where many prospered from trade while others struggled to meet basic needs. In Muhammad’s time, it was normal for the rich to provide loans to the poor. Equally common were unfair lending practices such as high interest rates and payment schedules that put debtors at a disadvantage. Borrowers who failed to keep up might suffer from another caveat to the agreement: being forced work for their lender on terms dictated by the more powerful party. The households of the wealthy would expand as the disadvantaged lost their freedom, trapped in an indefinite loop of servitude.

Women and children were especially susceptible to this cycle. Custom did not permit women to accumulate resources in their own names or inherit wealth. Even a widow was not the typical recipient of her dead husband’s money. A woman who found herself with no male head of house would have no means of supporting herself or her children. If forced to borrow money, she would almost certainly be unable to pay it back. A needy widow might have no other option but to attach herself to a wealthy household by whatever means possible, even as a slave. Children left with no parents were especially at risk of needing to trade freedom for survival.

Both Muhammad and his beloved first wife Khadija faced circumstances before they met that could have relegated them to lives of subservience. They managed not only to avoid the worst consequences associated with those stations, but to go on to lead happy, prosperous lives. Muhammad lost his parents at a young age, but was raised lovingly in his uncle’s household. Khadija had been widowed, but amazingly defied the status quo by obtaining her deceased husband’s wealth and his thriving trade business. But I think both Muhammad and Khadija lived with the “what if’s” of fates narrowly escaped.

Muhammad didn’t start speaking out for social reforms until after he married Khadija. With her love and support, he argued for changing lending practices and abolishing interest rates so that the poor could have easy access to resources. The wealthy elite hated his ideas, but Muhammad didn’t care. He believed women deserved the ability to accumulate wealth and receive inheritance. He insisted that the rich had a duty to care for the needy. While Muhammad’s message evolved and expanded, it was rooted in these issues that troubled him.

The problems that existed around Mecca during Muhammad’s life are not exclusive to that region or time. All over the globe and across generations, people struggle with the same things. The source of the disadvantage may vary—it might be race or education or illness or age. Women and children continue to make the list almost anywhere you go, though certain laws and government programs help.

After my parents broke up, I suppose my mom and I became a modern-day equivalent of Mecca’s widow and orphan. We landed at the bottom of the barrel resource-wise. Fortunately, we had my grandparents who lived in Dallas as a safety net. My mom’s parents lived in South Dallas, in a mostly African-American neighborhood. My dad’s parents lived north, in a much whiter and ritzier area. My mom and I were constantly driving back and forth between those two parts of town—between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Dallas is the first I was aware of the difference between wealth and poverty. Even today, after living in a handful of other cities with similar income disparities, I still think of Dallas as particularly polarized by income. I attribute this association, at least in part, with the low-income status I shared with my mom when we lived there. Ours was a modest means. But the other part of my association is certainly tied to the “Big D” culture of wearing one’s fortune. The rest of the country has since caught on—thanks to reality television, I fear—but Dallas was ahead of the curve: fancy handbags, head-to-toe designer labels, diamonds the size of ice cubes, cars that cost more than my mom would earn in a decade. Maybe the gap just seems so much wider when that extreme is flaunted.


Mostly Fatima and I practiced the passages I would need to perform daily prayers. We would go over the basics: the Tashahod and the Quran’s first sura—both of which are part of every prayer. But she’d also had me print out the phonetic versions of the Qurans last three suras, which are only a few lines each. With these, I would have options for the parts where it was “prayer’s choice.” This was the bare minimum I would need to do prayers right.

Fatima selected what we would practice each day. She would call out the words bit by bit, pausing for me to parrot her. It always reminded me of the famous scene from The Sound of Music where Julie Andrews teaches her young charges the basic components of a song by having them repeat the lines she sings. Only here it was called The Sound of Prayer. Fatima usually sat next to me as we practiced; occasionally, she would move around her apartment, tidying up and checking on her actual children. With my eyes glued to the appropriate cheat sheet, I would try to mimic what she said but sometimes, even after we’d been going over the same line for several minutes, it would turn to mush in my mouth. When that happened, Fatima would get close. It was the only time she was ever stern. “Look at my mouth,” she would instruct because I was always reluctant to take my eyes off the translation. I never thought staring at her lips would help but, somehow, it always did.

I adored practicing short phrases. After the twists and turns of the longer passages, “Alhamdulillah” (praise to God) and “Bismillah” (in God’s name) were like little treats. I wanted to repeat them over and over again. I loved how “Subhana rabbiyal A’ala” felt like marbles rolling on my tongue. Fatima’s favorite phrase was “Insha’Allah” (God willing). It peppered all she said, as natural as breath. She whispered it every few sentences even when discussing something as simple as what she planned to do that evening. But I noticed she said it even more for big things like the approval of her husband’s dissertation. “If that happens, we will be going home soon. Insha’Allah. Insha’Allah. Insha’Allah.”

One afternoon Fatima answered the door looking upset. Her concern was a recent headline about her country: an act of terror had killed a slew of civilians, some American. We sat together in her little living room. “I think it is worse now,” she said, referring to the instability since the death of the ruthless leader. She squeezed her eyes shut. “My country,” she said, swallowing a sob. Tears streamed down her cheeks. My own eyes welled up and I reached for her hand. For several minutes, we stayed like that—just holding hands. I wished for something more to say or do, but I could think of nothing better than to make her pain my own.


“You may sit here,” the monk said, pointing to a section of floor toward the back of the room. A photocopied prayer book lay at the spot. I sat directly on the carpet, which was so magnificently plush there was no need for a meditation mat.

I thought: so, this is a monastery of the Theravada tradition. The monks here do not seek to hold off attaining Nirvana for the sake of teaching others about that egoless state. Unlike the Mahayana tradition, these monks strive daily to dissolve their individual identities. This effort is their unique contribution to society. While not so prevalent in the U.S., this type of Buddhism is the most practiced in some Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Many young people, some just children, spend a portion of their lives working in monasteries and ascending the various monastic ranks. They receive education and Buddhist training. Most will leave eventually to rejoin mainstream society and have families, others will stay on. It’s a bit like the military in the United States, only theirs is a different method of obtaining peace.

Several younger monks, also in orange robes, filed in. They arranged themselves along with the older monk on the floor at the front of the room near a tall gilded statue of Buddha. Radiance from the setting sun flooded in from west-facing windows. I pressed my palms to the carpet, which was a rich crimson hue. Everything was glowing gold from the sun, the statue, the robes. The monks alternated between periods of quiet and chanting. From the snippets in English, I understood they were paying homage to the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Their deep tones vibrated the air and lingered. Light and sound saturated the room, spreading a buttery warmth. One of the young monks began to nod off, slumping forward by degrees. He would catch himself and sit tall, only to slowly melt again.

I had no idea I would be witnessing this sight—completely ordinary in the lives of these monks, but extraordinary in mine. I’ve operated under the impression that worship practices of the Theravada tradition are too private to have much effect on society at large. This experience gives me a new perspective. Like contemplatives or hermits of other traditions, they are working diligently to capture all that is bright and good and, through sheer force of concentration, send that energy out into the world. Sitting in the room with them, I was overcome with gratitude for their commitment to this taxing exercise meant to benefit us all. Even if most of us never see it, it is happening on our behalf every day.

The Hammies

After the noise-makers are passed around at the Purim celebration, it’s time for the business of the evening: the “Hammy Awards,” a spoof of the Academy Awards where winners are given a “Hammy” in place of an Oscar. It’s a poke at Haman who hoped to kill the Jews in his kingdom, transforming a solemn topic with fun.

The Master of Ceremonies is a rabbinical student with wheat stalks glued to his t-shirt. He announces the category for “Best Queen.” He reads, very seriously, “…and the nominees are: Queen Elizabeth…Queen Latifah…the rock band Queen…Queen Esther for saving the Jews. And the winner is…” he pauses for dramatic effect, “Queen Esther!”  The crowd goes wild. Noise makers in the air, feet stomping the floor, rabbi chugging beer. A beautiful young woman dressed in robes and a gold chain across her forehead makes her way to the front of the room. She graciously accepts her award, which is a shellacked hamantash pastry spray-painted gold. Mordecai wins for “Best supporting Jew.”

As I left the synagogue that night, I felt giddy and a little baffled. Since Rosh Hashanah, I had been cataloging my sins and adopting the appropriate attitude of remorseful sorrow. I had prepared myself mentally for this very serious mission, one that would culminate in several weeks with Passover, when Jews remember being freed from slavery and the promises they made to God. I had not anticipated my very first stop would be a raucous party-like celebration. I did not realize Jews had a holiday where the point is to be loud and dress up and get drunk if you want to. It reminded me of the Catholic tradition of Carnival or Mardi Gras, the wild public partying before the somber season of Lent. Some historians suggest that Purim and pre-Lenten celebrations developed in tandem as a result of Christian and Jews living for hundreds of years in proximity. They seem to capture parallel moods: a burst of joy before the dutiful weeks leading to Easter or Passover. Regardless of religion, it seems to be human nature to crave levity—a joyful respite in the midst of a serious journey.

I have my eye on the door of the restaurant because I’m nervous about Nina showing up. But as soon as I see her, I know it won’t be like that. She’s all of five feet, but she might as well be the biggest person in the room from the size of the smile on her face. We hug, and I am flooded with relief. After tonight I’ll email her and hopefully set up a get-together with just the two of us to catch up on the more serious aspects of the time we’ve lost. But when I see her I know this evening isn’t for that. We laugh and swap lighthearted stories. I relax and focus on how good this is—how wonderful to be reunited with Lisa and Nina. I’ve struggled with moving past my feelings of fear and guilt to carve out enough space where a sense of thankfulness and joy might flourish. Life is its own serious journey, and these moments of fun can help grow gratitude—if you let them. Tonight I’m just plain appreciative for my old friends—people who know firsthand the terrible mistakes I’m capable of and smile when they see me anyway.


When I arrived in Los Angeles, I dove right in to the Jewish leg of my religious explorations by walking into synagogues at the appropriate times. Carrying out my goal of reconnecting with old pals was a bit trickier. Lisa, my friend who had acted as a lifeline to the old gang, tried to get everyone to meet up after the sun set on my first Sabbath. She sent out a group email and made reservations at a restaurant on Main Street. Becky and Deb replied that they couldn’t come, but Nina RSVP’d she’d try to make it.

Of all my high school buddies, I was surprised Nina’s the only one to accept as ours was always the relationship with the most friction. At times we acted like we were in a battle for who could be the biggest jerk. Last we had gotten together, 15 years earlier, she had stormed out. Her mother had died of cancer a year or so earlier and she seemed to be milking some residual neediness that irked me. Everything I said and did that afternoon communicated that I would not indulge her emotional fragility. When she scooped up her car keys and fled, I was officially the valor in our little war. We hadn’t spoken since—not even when her boyfriend was killed a few years ago.

Thinking about the afternoon I last saw Nina, I feel the hot burn of shame. What had she needed from me? To be hugged and fussed over a bit? Could I not offer my friend these small gestures of comfort? No, I couldn’t; as I see now, I was too terrified. I could not fathom that Nina’s mother had gone from vibrant to dead in a matter of weeks, the brain tumor that first made itself apparent on a trip to Israel, of all places—when her disorganized thinking alarmed her travel companions—metastasizing uncontrollably seemingly overnight. It was like Nina was a balloon and her mother had been her tether to the ground. After her mother’s death, Nina seemed to float aimlessly. I didn’t want this tragedy to be something that could happen and, if it had to be, I wanted proof that a speedy recovery was possible. I needed Nina to be regular Nina, not devastated Nina. I was so desperate for her to be okay that I refused to reach out and pull her to earth, even for a few moments.

I’ve beat myself up about it. I could not be there for my friend because I could not get past my own fear and anger. It’s no different from what motivated the behavior of the people Moses left at the base of Mount Sinai. They were terrified at having been left alone, so they reached for the quick-fix to soothe their anxiety. They did this forbidden thing because they were only human. After his initial fury, Moses calms down. He understood because he was human too. God is less sympathetic. He wants to smite them all and start over with a fresh group of people. Moses talks him out of this rage. New people would have the same faults. Moses comes back down from the mountain with another set of commandments; the people get a do-over. This list of guidelines from God represents the crux of the faith: behavior, not material things, should be your source of comfort. Your actions, doing the right thing, what you think and feel as you interact with others and the world around you, these are what God cares about; this is all anyone can know for sure. As I waited to see if Nina would actually show, I nervously hoped for my own little do-over.