Today I enjoyed the pleasure of dining out to lunch with a friend – something I’ve been hankering to do for a month now.
A few weeks abck I wrote about Respecting Ramadan, and how I’d taken on the fasting element of this annual Muslim tradition.
I didn’t claim any deep religious purpose. A month without lunch, for this layman, was about as big a goal as I thought I could handle. I was not attempting, or expecting any deeper outcome than that.
But in the end, I do feel I gained a smattering of insight while losing a lot of sleep and a little weight.
My schedule didn’t take long to establish: wake up before dawn, stumble to the kitchen, cook a meal of as much protein and much water as I could choke down that early in the morning. Read Islamic religious information (ultimately, I started on the Qur’an) and then sleep for another couple of hours.
Walk, or bike to work slowly, trying very hard not to break a sweat: water is precious. You can’t drink any between dawn and dusk during Ramadan, about 15 hours at this time of year in this time zone. And dehydration is no joy.
Come home from work – rest easy, meditate or nap. There’s a lot of time to kill between getting home from work, and eating – on average, I had my supper well after 8 PM. Spend the evenings eating and drinking enough to build strength for the next day. Wait til the sun goes down before taking on any major exercise or hard work around the home.
On some evenings and many weekends, there’s another challenge: summer celebrations. While many Muslims don’t indulge in music during Ramadan, I’m a musician and my gigs were booked. I had to spend a lot of time in bars and at folk festivals, where cutting loose has always been part of the fun for me.
Getting on stage with low blood sugar, and no water to drink is an interesting challenge. But I found it focused my thinking, and brought me into a new – if hungry – state of awareness. And not letting the audience down meant I had to work to be very present even in that challenged condition.
The hardest challenge, and probably the pinnacle of my Ramadan experience, was a weekend where I had not one, but two folk festivals to play, and hours to drive between here and there. Here’s how that looked:
On the Friday morning, I gave a speech in Toronto, then spent the day in discussions at a social media conference – politely skipping the delicious-looking buffet lunch. Hitting the highway at 4 in the afternoon, I drove north for a gig at the Eaglewood Folk Festival where I had a one-hour solo gig on the mainstage at 7 PM – well before eating time!
I made it through okay, and gained enough strength after supper to do the requisite strumming around the campfire til around 1 am. That gave me time for about 3 hours of sleep before I had to wake to break my fast in my tent with water and some trail mix.
At 10 am, under a blazing sun, I was on the road again, to Peterborough Folk Festival, where I hosted and played an hour-long workshop noon in the full heat -then had to spend the day in the sun before another gig, this time with my band, The McFlies at 7 PM. Again, I couldn’t eat til I got off the stage. Then the boys in the band insisted on heading to the pub, where I patiently teetotaled my way through a long evening of indulgence on everyone else’s part. Bedtime at 3 am. Wake-up at 4 am, water and trail mix again.
Back on the road at 10 am and back to Eaglewood again, where I had been booked for three consecutive hours of performances through the afternoon, and I still had to wait five hours when I was done before I could eat and drink again.
There’s a funny feeling you get when you can’t escape the circumstances and you just have to wait it out, patiently even if painfully. In a strange way, it is deeply energizing. I can’t explain why.
That was a tough, but rewarding weekend, and as with other gigs through the month, I’m happy to report that my audience never seemed to notice. And I never fell off the wagon, even for a sip of water. Maybe we have more in the tank than we sometimes think.
Still, despite having managed under those extreme conditions, I did make an exception for the following weekend, for the wedding of a very close friend.
I had a key role to play in the ceremony, the reception, and a weekend of celebration. It was my friend’s wish that I share in the food, drink and fellowship of the occasion fully. After deep consideration, and out of respect for his family and their customs, I suspended my fast for that time to participate fully and mindfully.
It didn’t make sense to me to trump a religious and cultural ceremony of my own tradition for the one I was lightly exploring, and after consulting many moderate Muslim friends who make similar accommodations, I decided to take full part in that series of important events.
I’d planned to tack the extra three days onto the end of my fast, but was told it’s important NOT to fast over Eid al-Fitr. Instead I’m going to make those three days up at some point between now, and Ramadan next year. Apparently this is commonly done.
All sacrifice and accommodation aside, I do hope to experience Ramadan again – partly because I think it was good for me, but mostly because I I feel there’s so much more for me to explore.
Having to deal with the fast required a lot of focus and energy and planning for me, as a newbie – and because I don’t have a Muslim family or community around me, it was something I had to do all alone. While I welcomed the discipline, that meant I missed out on many of the important aspects of Ramadan as I understand it, which includes a deeply social element. Now that I understand the fasting aspect, I feel I could give more to the social side of the month next time around.
I was fully aware I’d be missing a lot of Ramadan’s religious aspect. While I did some exploration of the meaning, scripture and practices of Islam, I did not pray in Muslim fashion or attend mosque. I wasn’t comfortable going that far. I took some criticism for that in a previous post, though significantly, not from Muslims. Every Muslim I spoke to was entirely supportive of my journey, even if was doing what I termed “Ramadan lite”. Still, there’s much more to learn there, and I welcome the next opportunity.
I was invited to take part in evening meals and Eid celebrations with several Muslim families, which was a wonderful gift. I regret not being able to accept that, only for reasons of scheduling, and I’m conscious that I missed something there. I hope the invitations come in again next year!
While Eid celebrations were in full swing over Toronto (word on the street was, you couldn’t get a cab on Friday night), I was breaking my fast according to my own, less exalted tradition: with beer and bourbon in one of my favourite pubs. (Though I did give money I might have spent on beer in the previous weeks to the relief efforts in Pakistan. Charity is a crucial part of Ramadan, another one that bears much more exploration.)
I’m not bothered by having done things my own way, but next chance I get I’d like to go deeper, and to experience all those social evenings, family events, mosque, charity work and Eid as well.
The most fascinating thing about the Ramadan fasting experience, for me, was how many questions I fielded from well-meaning friends and even strangers of non-Muslim heritage. I mean questions about Islam and its issues and implications: theology, traditions, beliefs, practices. The big ones – from terrorism to polygamy – got more play than the little ones about alcohol, pork, and charity, but there was a genuine desire to know more about it all.
Of course, I don’t represent anyone’s faith or customs, especially about what happens in faraway parts of the world, like Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia… But maybe I’m first opportunity some people have had to comfortably ask the questions.
There’s a lot of pent-up curiosity out there, and I understand that. In fact I may even have more questions now than I did a month ago.
But my eyes are bright, my belt is two notches tighter, and my drinking buddies say they’re proud of me.
I think I’ll call that a success.