Life is a series of breaths, the first being the unexpected inhale and the last being the anxious exhale. But even before we are born into the world, breath defines us. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said that when the fetus is 120 days old, a soul is breathed into him, making him suddenly distinct from a mere lump of flesh. God said that our father Adam was fashioned from clay and “then We breathed into him” and he came to life. Our bodies need breath to survive, and that which defines our true selves – our soul – is none less than a breath from God.
I didn’t understand the significance of this until 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic fundamentally changed how we communicate, work, socialize, shop and experience the world. For me personally, the lockdown followed retiring from paid employment, leaving my last volunteer position, and living in an empty nest. For months, like many others, I was trapped in my house and, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, I got stuck in my head. I realized it was a mess.
Like junk stacked in corners of a dusty attic, my thoughts needed to be disentangled, examined, sorted. I could have avoided the work ahead because the disarray was tucked away, conveniently ignored or forgotten. But 2020 sent me deeper and deeper into my mind, where I found many questions. Who am I? Where do I belong? What do I want to do? What is important, if anything? I didn’t like the dark space I occupied but there was no escape. And so I faced the dusty recesses of my mind, forced to process the relics and junk packed away in my mental space.
I experienced a recurring theme in my dreams during this period. It revolved around preparing meals for others, and ended in frustration and failure – burnt or undercooked food, missing ingredients, frantic deadlines, double bookings, unhappy guests. I laughed it off at first. But the final dream in this sequence was the key to one of the boxes marked “childhood.” In the dream, I had bought a handful of orphans each a happy meal. But to my dismay, they complained about the taste and nutritional value, and were clearly unhappy with what I thought was a great idea. The dream took me to the memory of cooking meals for my younger siblings. I was ten when my father abandoned us and when my mother took a second job, leaving six kids at home to depend on themselves. Despite my young age, I often cooked for my siblings, dreaming up recipes with the poor quality and limited food staples from the pantry. Suddenly I realized how that experience impacted the next fifty years of my life and that it was time to let it go. I needed to stop blaming myself for things out of my control and for what is not my responsibility to begin with. I needed to remove the burden of accountability for the wellbeing of others from my shoulders and remember what childhood feels like. It would take some time to reconcile my passion for and anxieties about food and hospitality, but at least one box was opened.
Memories from childhood turned into memories of my own children, who have grown and moved away. There was both sadness and relief when I finally admitted to myself that they no longer need me; in fact, I realized that nobody really needs me. A long forgotten sense of freedom and possibility surfaced at times, teasing me to consider a fresh start. It was exhilarating to think that my husband and I could embark on a new adventure together. But among the daydreams were those where I was alone. So I had to reassess my roles as wife, mother, homemaker. Certainly these roles defined me in the past but, like outgrown shoes, they now felt uncomfortable and outdated. Feelings of irrelevance and confinement made me face a question I had to ask and a decision I had to make. In the attic of my mind, I decided to dust off the old photos, frame them and proudly display them, to remind me of what has been important in my life and to inspire me to find new ways to add value to my idea of family. We may not need each other, but we love each other. No adventure, no opportunity, no freedom could replace what I have cultivated over forty years of loving-no-matter-what. I chose my family.
But I knew I needed something more. I’ve always had many interests and have worked hard most of my life. My last position as associate professor at a teachers’ college gradually felt routine, unfulfilling, and futile. Feeling boxed in a job that was never a good fit for my skill set, I retired early. My long-standing volunteer work as manager of an NGO kept me busy for a while, but a shortage of essential support from senior officials made me increasingly discouraged and cynical. I decided to leave and give myself time to figure out what next. Having literally nothing to do – apart from daily routines – was difficult because I have always kept myself extremely busy. But the pause was needed. It gave me time to disengage from my professional identity, and space to discover interests from a more genuine place. It was hard to resist the urge to follow the path that my education and experience laid out for me. I had to force myself to stay in the present moment and wait for a question, an interest, a project or a passion to surface. It took months to unearth what I enjoy and to give myself permission to pursue what makes me feel authentic and alive. I know if I commit to developing my passions and answering my calling, work will manifest. But even if it doesn’t, the sense of purpose and accomplishment I get from doing the things I love and doing them well will satisfy me. Being authentically me will be enough.
But who is the authentic me? The question, “Who am I?” was hardest of all. I looked at all the versions of myself packed away in my mind’s attic. The ten-year-old homemaker. The troubled teen. The young mother. Wife. Teacher. Volunteer. Grandmother. What defines me? Who was I before I became all that? How does my perception of myself affect how people perceive me and treat me? What destiny have I made for myself and what power do I have to change it? Who can I become? And, more importantly, who do I want to become? I was looking into a mirror, seeing myself but not sure I knew the person looking back at me. The gaze penetrated my soul and demanded answers. It wouldn’t let me turn away.
During this time of soul-searching, I received an email advertising an online course in spiritual healing. Trusting the coincidence and needing some emotional relief, I enrolled. The course mentor, Ihsan,  taught about the natural psycho-spiritual state of innocence, joy and love, and the inevitable episodes of trauma that are designed to help us grow emotionally and spiritually. I learned about the effects of unhealed trauma and ways to restore balance, peace and harmony. He encouraged deep breathing, mindfulness and meditation as a way to tap into the Divine Presence, where we can experience true beauty and love. The course helped me in many ways. Most helpful were the guided meditations that urged me to “remember…. remember who you are…” It was exactly what I had wondered. “… a servant of the Divine… a Divine breath…”
All this time I’ve been searching for God, and I found Him in me.
And so, before and beyond all my labels, titles, positions and duties, I remembered my source in God, His breath breathed into my tiny body, and eventually a breath my body will exhale as I make my return journey to my Maker. Now I’m sure of who I am. And now that I know myself, I know everyone. We are all, essentially, a breath from God; we are from Him, we belong to Him, and we are returning to Him. In the meantime, I will do my best to honor the privilege of my existence and implication of my origin. I will respect myself, and strive to be whole and wholesome, loving and loved, tender and joyful. I will honor all living things, since they, too, house that divine breath. I will stay conscious of my source and my destination and, in between, during this sojourn on earth, I will do my best to stay true to my essence, to always be, first and foremost, a breath of God.
When I leave my bodily dwelling and return to God, I hope that I am recognized as belonging to Him, deemed worthy of His presence, welcomed home at last.