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On Beauty

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I’ve always thought of myself as a woman who was not good looking. Sometimes I thought I was ugly, and other times I thought I was fat. Perhaps there were momentarily feelings of beauty, but mostly those emotions were punctuated with clear awareness that I was not beautiful. When I tell this to friends they find it surprising, and sometimes they think I am exaggerating or lying. But I am not. Not identifying as beautiful was part of my truth for most of my life until recently.   The transformative magic was not due to exterior change. It was not related to losing weight or changing my hair cut; and it was definitely not about considering plastic surgery. The shift in my understanding of personal beauty took place within a very internal process. I wish to extend great gratitude to two female friends who work in the hearts of the fashion industry and helped me take a different look at myself and see the beautiful part I have always ignored or denied.

In the process of this most recent transformation, I learned that what mattered the most was my own attitude towards beauty. To start with, I thought beauty was something to be hidden and that triggered a relationship of shame rather than celebration. It also prompted me to cover up my body with loose and baggy outfits. I would often go out of my way to “uglify” by hiding as much of myself in my choices of clothes and the way I walked, with a hunched back—almost wishing to disappear into the background. I did all that was possible to make sure that people see what is in my mind as opposed to any aspect of natural beauty. And that entails often talking a lot and putting the confidence in my opinion, as expressions that distract from any definition of beauty. Now, mind you, this may very well be a mind game that I played with myself without others being aware.  But again, what mattered was not the outer world’s perception but my own self-image and feelings.

When I hang out with other female friends I perceive as beautiful I never feel jealous. I respect and admire their beauty and always feel that it was something that is just not related to me. I am comfortable with what I observe as my physical disappearance. For example, if a group of female friends enter a restaurant together, I always assume that I am the one who was not seen by others. And I was always comfortable with that. It’s always surprising and even shocking to me when I’m told that I was noticed. And that story goes as back as my teenage time in Baghdad Iraq.

You may think of some of my behavior as modest and good but that was not how it landed in my heart. When the relationship with beauty is out of shame rather than celebration, it leads to a form of self-torture and denial of the most essential blessing of God.  As a woman’s right activist, I particularly took on the “lack of beauty” as a form of identity. I wanted no one to pay attention to how I look and everyone to hear only what I say. But that way I only took on one way of expressing change I wanted to see in women’s lives, as I was only speaking through the power of words and actions.

The change of attitude first happened when the women I was working with in war zones started asking me to bring them lipstick. When they saw my flabbergasted reaction, they quickly explained to me that lipstick is the simplest way to show beauty. It helped them feel good about themselves and that, in turn, was an essential part of their resilience. That captured my attention and I started noticing women who witnessed and survived the worst acts of humanity in the wars of Congo and Afghanistan were carrying themselves with such graceful beauty. That’s when I first noticed that beauty is not to be denied. It should be encouraged and celebrated, as it is a core source of human spirit. It was then that I started applying my own lipstick and paid a bit more attention to my clothes.

Still, the change that occurred in my relationship with beauty was more out of my activist self rather than the primary woman within me. The relationship with beauty may have transformed within but it was still not a settled matter within my heart. But unsettled matters are also the source of our vulnerabilities, where our insecurities lie, and in our securities there is always the risk of our own self-betrayal. I know I betrayed myself by denying the peace of beauty from within for way too many years until my friends started helped me, at the age of 44, to transform my relationship with beauty from within. Not as a political aspect. Not as a goal to help women—but as a process from within to create inner peace.

That is when I started working out as my duty towards my body. That is when I started paying attention to what I ate and showing respect to the body that God gave me. And that is when I started wearing clothes that celebrated my entire being and worked with my body instead of shapeless outfits whose purpose was to hide and deny. This led me to walk with a straight back rather than the old hunched one. I am neither denying nor fearing whatever sense of beauty I feel towards myself. Indeed I am grateful for it every day as I wake up and put my feet on the floor as I step out of bed. In that moment I start my gratitude towards God for giving me a functioning body from my smallest toe to my big nose. Suddenly, I love every part of myself as part of my gratitude towards God’s gift. How dare I deny my blessings for so many years and consider it a source of shame. Beauty, as the saying goes, helps us get closer to peace and, consequently, peace helps us get closer to God.

I only attained this attitude about a year ago. Yes, believe it or not, only a year ago. It took a series of events, some pain, and immense openness to the possibility of being wrong in my past attitude and letting a new one in. As my friend Donna Karan always says, “Clothing is not in the mere act of dressing. It takes dressing and addressing for women to feel beautiful.” And, indeed, she was one of the critical friends who helped me address my inner sense of beauty to arrive at the outer comfort with it.

That transformation revealed other realities. First, I buy much less clothes than ever before. Now that I am actually comfortable with loving myself, I do not feel the desire to buy clothes at all. The few pieces I have—and I promise you my entire wardrobe fits four medium suitcases—is more than enough for me. The pieces I buy are ethically produced and fitting for me. They are less about the new fashion and much more about what my heart desires. And I could not feel more beautiful than I am feeling these days. Secondly, the pressure to constantly change one’s appearance is so huge that it can easily lead to self-doubt and more buying-obsessed behavior. I am constantly asked to dye my hair, adjust my look, get new makeup, change my nose, buy a certain color, and do this and that. And if I listen to everyone around me I would easily slip back into an unhealthy relationship with myself. My own self-love and comfort within my skin is the only foundation that keeps me centered and released me from succumbing to pressure to change anything.

Ultimately, one qualification or another does not measure beauty. I am convinced beauty is a source of inner light and that light knows not a color or size or shape of any body part. A light is a light and it is that beacon that is the source of beauty. I am in my mid-forties and I love my gray hair, my big nose, my big thighs, and I welcome these kind wrinkles around my eyes. What I see of myself is not the imperfections. I recognize my beauty unconditionally and I cultivate that understanding from a source of love and peace within myself and to God.  If I could do this transformation then any woman and man can. It is all in our hands and has nothing to do with what we purchase—but who we are.


Knock My Socks Off

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Sitting by a river in Montana, observing the sun set on a beautiful fall evening, I started crying.  The open plains, the silence that comes with sunset, the breeze, and what was left of birds humming all triggered my longing for a sense of home—my home back in Iraq—but I felt the bittersweet pain of knowing that that home was long gone. Destroyed. I sat there with tears in my eyes. You know, it was just one of those moments where pent-up emotions just pour out, as I mourned loss in my life, my family, and my country. In that instance, a young man who was staying in the same compound as me approached me and offered his comfort. I didn’t know this man and although I used to immediately have faith in strangers and welcome sympathy, over the years I have become more reserved and less trusting of strangers.

“No, thank you,” I replied to his offer to sit by me. “I do not know you. And frankly I do not trust any stranger,” I said honestly and clearly.

“But all I want is just to comfort you even if I don’t know what are you crying about,” he assured me.

There were days in which I trusted people’s words—especially when they were loving. Friends often say “I love you” to each other. “You are my dearest friend”—God knows how often I myself said that to so many people. “Oh, don’t you adore so and so,” and so on. Are you familiar with these repeated expressions of affection and niceties that friends share with each other? Well, I often said, and meant, them from the bottom of my heart, and I was one of those who believed people when they expressed companionship through simple and earnest phrases.

However, over the years, I noticed that there is a difference between words and actions. Words are easy and plenty. Actions are hard and require showing up.  Words are fancy. Actions are rugged and demand courage at times.  Words are beautiful. Actions may entail uncomfortable conversations. And after many experiences, I realized that friendships are not about merely sustained by hanging out with each other, going to movies, or sharing meals. These are all fun things we do to stay in touch, but they only deal with the surface of what true friendship really means.

So when the young man offered to comfort my tears, I looked at his words with a complete lack of trust for they were only nice words. And that’s all I heard.  Respecting my decision, the man sat to the side, giving me some space as I continued in my reflections and thoughts.  And suddenly, he reached out again—but without words this time. He took his socks off from his own feet and put the socks on my own bare feet. He noticed that I was shivering from the cold breeze of a Montana evening and without saying another word he simply acted and fulfilled the words he said a few minutes earlier. This time the comfort he brought was not language, but warmth to my feet. It was in that moment that I stopped and looked at him and said, “I trust this act.  I trust what you just did. I still don’t know you and I am not about to pour my heart out to you, but I can trust what you’ve just done.” It was real, tangible, and authentic. The moment was sincere. I was truthful to myself even if I may not sound as grateful as you would expect me to be. You see, I think we miss the true meaning of friendship when we are merely satisfied repeating nice words. Of course, verbal expressions of appreciation are essential, and these words work as long as everything is OK and everyone is having fun. But they’re only part of a friendship—not the cornerstone.

Ask yourself about your ability to have a truly honest conversation with a friend that requires you to fully show up, either for yourself or for your friend, even if that openness may risk you losing the friendship.

Are you able to listen fully to a friend’s grievances about you and assess where you own your part of the story and where you don’t?

Are you able to apologize when you cross a line with a friend?

Are you able to go out of your way just to be on hand for your friend in times of hardship?

Are you able to see your friend for both their goodness and flaws and still love who they are?

Are you able to make choices that your friend may need as a sign of caring about them and your friendship?

Are you able to be generous with your friend without fear or worry of their judgment or projection?

Are you willing to be utterly vulnerable in front of your friend and not only present when everything is going well?

I thought to myself that I was perhaps asking for too much from friends. But then what is life if we cannot be in truth to ourselves, our values, and to each other? Asking friends to act their friendship rather than just say it may result in less friends by definition. But hey, never mess with someone’s hope, and promise only what you can deliver, was something I used to say when working with refugees all over the world. Hope is the most precious thing each person holds onto in times of war. But here I am in a peaceful country and I say never mess with someone’s hope about the true meaning of friendship. Say only what you mean and are willing to do. And be a friend who walks the walk and not only talks the talk.

For years I put the meaning of friendship all in one bucket, which entailed that I liked you and thus I opened my world to you. And over the years some people exhibited integrity, and some people left the meaning of friendship at the service of words. At times that hurt me a lot but over time I’ve come to trust actions of friendship that build the foundation for a relationship—step by step and one sock at a time.


On Happiness

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Years before the news of ISIS in Iraq, I took my colleagues out to a restaurant for lunch to celebrate their hard work at Women for Women International Baghdad, Iraq office. I sat next to Umm Ahmed, the office cleaner, but almost didn’t recognize her at first. Instead of wearing her cleaning clothes, she had on a beautiful purple dress, a nicely pressed black shirt, and a matching purple scarf. She looked lovely as she turned to me and said, “I can’t thank you enough for today. This is the happiest day of my life.”

“Wonderful!” I said. “But let us wait for the food to arrive and hope it is really good.”

“It doesn’t matter how the food tastes,” Umm Ahmed explained. “I am just happy thatI am inside a restaurant. I have always dreamt of getting into a restaurant and today you made my dream come true. Thus it is the happiest day of my life.”

This took me by surprise. I admit going to restaurants is something that I take for granted and never think of as a source of privilege. So the awareness that going to a restaurant is something many never had access to was a humbling learning experience in and of itself. But for that act to be the happiest moment in this woman’s life was hard for me to accept. So I pushed forward, inquiring, “Truly, there must be another happier moment in your life Umm Ahmed.” And with this I asked her about her marriage and the birth of her children and she kept insisting that none were pleasant memories.

Her arranged husband to a man 20 years her senior did not bring her joy, the birth of her girls brought disappointment, and the birth of her son came at a time when there was no food to share. But when I asked about her childhood I finally saw a joyous twinkle in her eyes. She initially denied there were any happy experiences, as she faced poverty in her youth and went hungry many nights. But the spark in her eyes finally came when she talked about the days her father came home with food, as many other days he didn’t arrive home with groceries.

That childhood memory of food evoked the same happiness she exuded when she told me about her dream of dining in a restaurant. Both sources of her happiness were related to money, or that’s how she saw it when she explained to me: “At the end of the day, the reasons for all my sorrow, my fights with my husband, my daughters quarreling with their own husbands, is ultimately about money. We didn’t have it, and we still don’t have it, so it consumes all of our attention and takes away all of our joy.”

Well, one cannot deny that the lack of money and resources in general can lead to a lot of stress and stress does indeed lead to unhappiness. To deny this reality and instead tell people you are free to create the life you want is, in my opinion,insensitive to the reality millions of people live in around the world. It helps to have education, resources, and a support system—even if it’s just one person who believes in you—to walk the journey of your chosen destination. When none of these factors exist in someone’s life, it is not impossible, but it is darn hard—very hard—for that person to come out on the other side and achieve her or his dream. We simply need to acknowledge that reality even as we talk about the possibilities of hope and change in people’s lives.

Having said all of that, I still believe that money is not the source of happiness. I may have worked with the poor for 20 years but I know many people who have all the wealth in the world and they are still struggling with the same concept of happiness. In a nice restaurant in New York City, a friend recently told me, “I just got this beautiful house. I had it built and thought of every detail in it. It is beautiful in every way I can think of. But can I tell you I am happy? No. I am not happy.” For this friend, all the enjoyment that can be achieved by money, a successful career, and a wonderful family were indeed met. And yet after years of working hard to get all that he was able to attain, there was still, to his surprise, no happiness. So what is happiness then and how can we get it?

Recently I was hiking in the mountains after a year of addressing some sadness I was carrying in my heart. And in the midst of the silence of the mountain, I thought of all the beauty that Mother Earth provides us, and surrounds us always. Yet we keep on looking for heaven and peace as if it’s in another world, in a place that we cannot reach and attain until we die. But indeed we have it all right here, all the time, in front of us, in the most equalizing factor for all beings: humans and animals, poor and rich, countries and cultures, ethnicities and race. In that moment, I realized, like Umm Ahmed and my friend with the new house, I too have been looking for happiness as if it is somewhere I could not reach—something that existed outside of me, be it love from other people, resources, or whatever we each concern our minds with. But what if happiness is not something to attain from the outside? What if it is inside our hearts that are as close to us as nature is to us all. And yet we spend years thinking it is as far away as heaven is to us all?

The motto for hiking a mountain is go slowly, slowly. This way you do not exhaust yourself fast, at least in technical terms. When I was forced to walk slowly, I realized that the patient pace was forcing me to hear myself better and to be more in tune with what is around me. This made me think of my life, the lives of many other people, and how fast we go about it, valuing our doings and not valuing our “not doing.” But that very process exhausts us and makes us miss hearing our own soul’s wants and needs. Inner peace lies deep in silence, as silent as the nature around us. It’s like we run around and make noises and spend and drink and dance and do all these things to attain happiness from outside ourselves. What if it is the reverse process? What if, within that slow confrontation of the silences, we can eventually tap into what I call peace? Peace being the ultimate happiness as I see it. What if we are each individually the cake of our own happiness, fully in charge of what bring our souls joy, and that the people around us are the cream on the cake? They can sometimes make life tastier but a cream by itself is never the main ingredient of a delicious cake.

Happiness is not a mythical concept that is hard to attain. To achieve happiness,however, does entail much work. But that work is done on the soul level and not a material one. Material resources help give us the time and space to focus on what is meaningful, and a peaceful environment can do the same, but ultimately the path to peace and happiness is through the clearing up of whatever issues may have provided obstacles to being who we truly are. Addressing our own responsibility for each story is essential, as well as communicating our truth with loved ones in ways that lead to healing rather than blame. That is hard work—very, very hard work—that no one else can do for us. In the process of doing the personal work, staying in the uncomfortable moments of pain, and holding the space to those feelings without rejecting them or filling them with busy activities eventually leads us to peace within the heart. This peace is what brings me joy, personally. This peace is being fully present in the moment, wherever we may be, and fully absorbing everything around you. This peace is being in nature, the earthly heaven that is right here in front of us.This peace is in the ability to find love and joy from within and not become preoccupied with outside forces. What if happiness is as simple as silence? What if it is as beautiful and quiet and free as nature? What if our heartbeats are as peaceful as that of Mother Earth’s? What if we all can find that quite and peace regardless of our circumstances? Is it possible? It may be harder for Umm Ahmed to defy her harsh circumstances to get there and when survival is at stake it is that much harder, but even she can access that serene peace inside her heart. And if your basic needs are met and you are living in a country with no wars, you definitely can. Just take one step towards the beauty that surrounds all of us and feel that silence in your heart. And then yes, you can. Happiness is right here inside.


January Blog 2013

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The world we live in is a product of our imagination, so we might as well reclaim our imagination.

On December 21st, the day the Mayans predicted the world would change, I got together with friends recounting our learnings from 2012.  I had embarked upon last year with Martha Beck’s advice of resting until one needs to play and playing until one needs to rest.  It took me a while to come to an understanding of that way of life.  At the beginning I thought the resting meant sleeping and the playing meant playing pingpong.  But eventually I came to the realization that what she meant by resting and playing needs to be felt in everything one does.  In other words, if whatever you do does not feel restful or playful and thus not lifting your spirit than it is probably not the right thing to do.   I had been working so hard all my adult life that it took me a long time to find my new equilibrium, my balance, and my peace.

It is in that peaceful silent space where I got my learnings from last year.  In that space I learned that only if one feels love to themselves can one feel and see the love in others.  I had always shied away from love for myself thinking of it as selfish.  It took me reading Warming the Stone Child by Clarissa Pinkola Estes to understand that loving and mothering thyself has nothing to do with selfishness and everything to do with maturity of spirit and an understanding that the love we are seeking is not outside of us but lies within us.  As a matter of fact, everything we are seeking lies inside of us.  If we love the Mother and respect her, than we need to love ourselves and give the proper respect to how we treat ourselves.  She can only exist inside each one of us.  And if we are waiting to see Her outside of us than it is going to be an endless process of waiting.  Imagine how different you will treat yourself if you actually will give the same treatment as you would to the Divine Mother; the Mother in each one of them; a mother that is not only kind, loving and generous but also strong, determined and clear.

To love oneself means to also accept all of the self: the shadow and the light and and good and the bad.  Up until recently, I had separated all of these meanings away from me thinking of their existence as only outside of me.  But in truth, in love one can see the shadow that exists within oneself, and rather than reject it or hide it, we need to see it, acknowledge it, and accept it as part of the self.  For me this was an ordeal and a painful process to accept the part of me that I was embarrassed of and that I hid in the caves of my caves.  But as long as I was hiding it, I could never address it, and eventually I came to the conclusion that only when I acknowledge it with love can I actual love myself fully and thus calm and balance that shadow within me.  Wilma Mankiller once said when asked about a necklace of two wolves she was wearing where was black and one was white, “they are both part of me.  Which one I choose to feed more is my choice”.  I had quoted her for so many years but only when I came to realize that darkness and light are both inside me andonly when I love that full part of me and do not deny either can I address my light and my darkness with consciousness and will.

I can never explain the relief that comes with this process.  I felt like I was particles of sand dispersed all over the place, and only when I loved the fullness in the light and in the shadow could the particles come back together and form the full me and only when I could do that could I make the conscious choice that Wilma Mankiller was talking about.  Otherwise my suppressed side always forced itself outside of me despite of me.

Then, and only then, could I deal with all the things I have been struggling with: my doubt, my pain, my hurt, all of it in a way where I acknowledge the feelings for what they are and make the choices to listen to them or to move away from them.  The choice was mine.    And then, and only then could I take full responsibility for the love I need to give myself not as being selfish at all but rather as  being mature and responsible towards oneself.  I realize that only then I could show true love to others.  Love that understands  my boundaries, my good and my bad, much better.  Love that understands that unless I give myself what I need, I could never receive it from others outside of me.

Nothing in this journey is magical outside the realm of our imaginations.  Each one of us, all of us, are part of this experience.  The divine lies in each one of us.  In our love, in our innocence, in our joy, and definitely in our freedom.  The secret to all of that is to get the “I” out of the dynamics.  The trap is when we think that only “I” am special.  Only “I” feel this or that feeling.  The truth as I see it, is only when we get the ego out of the way can we actually feel the divine.  For we are all part of the oneness of this world and only in oneness can we feel the divine.   And only in oneness do we all exist.

A farmer once told me “I don’t understand why everyone is so obsessed with self-sustainability.  Nothing on earth is self-sustainable.  Everything on earth is dependent on each other, so why we humans think we can be self-sustainable.  It just doesn’t make sense.”   What he was sharing is true to everything we do.  Our actions are interdependent and codependent on each other, our survivors, our food and our energy and definitely our feelings even though it is far less obvious.

So with that spirit, my friends and I started imagining the world…. a world where every time a man rapes a woman, he feels that violation onto himself….a world where every time a person carries arms to kill, he feels that death inside himself and drops the arms as quickly as he picks it up.  We imagines a world where every bite we take out of an apple or any food we think of how the earth was treated, about the farmers that picked it, the person who packed it and sold it and about the apple itself.  We imagine a world were we are all free to fulfill our full potentials. We imagined a world were we can lead out of love and not out of fear.   We kept on imagining and went wild with our imagination until we came to only our breath.  And that is when we realized we are but breath in this massive, beautiful amazing world.

The world we live in is a product of our imagination.  So we might as well, with the beginning of a new era and a new year, reclaim our imagination and make magic happen.  But remember, the journey always starts with the self.  It may be the hardest journey to make but the one that holds the secret to utter joy and love.  Happy new year everyone.