Watch Out– Your Mask Is Showing

One night, I got home and thought about all the outfits I’d had on that day.

There was the 3 a.m. nursing mommy t-shirt and shorts, glasses, and loose hair. A little later, the polished court suit, perfect make-up, hair slicked back tight. That afternoon, the jeans, pony-tail, Doc Martens, and sweater, as I took the older kids out in the double-stroller, with the youngest strapped on in the baby-pack. After making dinner, a quick change into a church skirt to attend a training session for Sunday School teachers. Finally, home again, and back into comfy mommy-mode.

It occurred to me that all of these outfits expressed a different part of who I am. They weren’t dressing-up to be something other than “me,” they were displaying a particular aspect of my character and responsibilities.

I’ve been used to thinking of dressing-up, or acting, or writing a character, as putting on something that isn’t really me. I’m just pretending. But it doesn’t work to just pretend. If we don’t believe it, at least a little, there’s no magic. It becomes preposterous, or humiliating, like poor little Ralphie in the bunny costume.

For example, when I first wrote the scenes with Zheng He, I had a specific outline, that generally followed what Evil Bob had thought was going to happen. Part of the control I placed on it was my awe of Zheng He– after researching his incredibly difficult and monumentally accomplished life, I was scared to write of him in a familiar way. But, he didn’t let me write it the way I’d planned.

After I wrote the scenes, I went back and wrote the entire section from his perspective, to see if I really believed it. I started to see ways that I could relate my own minor experiences to his epic ones. That’s when, for me, the magic started happening, when I could start to feel how he might have felt. Without that sympathy, it can’t feel real.

In the same way, physically putting on a costume isn’t fun if there’s nothing in it we can understand. When we put on a costume we enjoy, it works because there’s something in it that we can identify as being part of us, even if amplified out of all proportion, or freed from normal restraints. You might be setting Mr. Hyde loose for a night, but it’s the Mr. Hyde that was dwelling in you the entire time.

So, this Halloween, remember that when you’re covering yourself with all that makeup and costuming, you’re really revealing your deepest, innermost soul for all to see. 😉

Getting to know Zheng He

Last month I finished reading the entire Qu’ran (Koran). While writing the Zheng He scenes in “Stasis,” I wanted to be accurate on any references to his faith, so I read several books and articles about the Muslim faith and its history, choosing sources I thought likely to be accurate and/or sympathetic, and I attended a demonstration of a prayer service presented by members of the local Muslim church and asked them a few questions afterwards. However, I’d only read some short excerpts from the Qu’ran. In late September, I decided I should read the whole book.

Based on what I read, here are some things I think it teaches (I’m a Christian with no training in Arabic, who chose an English translation that seemed likely to be unbiased. I apologize to all Muslims for anything in here I got wrong):

1) Every woman and every man has a soul.
2) Every woman and every man will be brought home to God, who will judge each person individually based on their intentions, their faith, and their works. No one will be held guilty for anything anyone else did.
3) Heaven is a beautiful place of gardens and rivers where a person lives with their spouse and children. People who have believed in God, done good works, and followed God’s commandments go to heaven. Hell is a place of fire and torment where people drink boiling water and pus. People who have failed to do good works and haven’t truly believed in God (even if they said they did) go there.
4) God is a single individual with no wife, children, or associated gods.
5) You should only pray to God.
6) Jesus was a true messenger of God, created by God in Mary’s womb when she was a virgin, who taught truth from an extremely young age.
7) There was no atonement. God pardons sins if he chooses, and doesn’t pardon other sins if he chooses. You won’t have someone to speak on your behalf at the judgment. However, the end of Sura 20 says, in my translation, “Upon that day the intercession will not profit, save for him to whom the All-merciful gives leave, and whose speech He approves.” (As a Christian, I hope this phrase leaves a loop-hole to any practicing Muslims who want to allow Christ to intercede for them at the judgment bar. I’m certain God the Father approves Christ’s speech, and I’m certain He gives leave to Christ to claim those He’s paid for, if those people will let Him. I imagine that there are very few good Muslims who would refuse God if, at the judgment bar, God said, “You’ve done well, but you’re still guilty. Are you willing to accept Christ’s cleansing of you? Will you let Christ intercede on your behalf? If you do, you can come join me in heaven. I wish you would.”)
8) Unequal wealth is a bad thing. (There shouldn’t be an extremely rich and an extremely poor population; there should be a huge middle-class.)
9) People shouldn’t be upset when their child is a girl. That female child is a gift from God, and should cause them to rejoice.
10) Women need to cover their breasts with a veil in public. (Sorry, La Leche League.) Women shouldn’t go around in their underwear in public– women need to have a layer of clothing on top of their undergarments. (I didn’t see anything in there about women having to be entirely covered. There was one bit about wives of the prophet wearing their veils close so the prophet’s visitors wouldn’t gawk at them, but that was it.)
11) Men need to dress modestly at all times.
12) God sends to every country a messenger. A few people in that country believe the messenger, but most people hate the messenger, kick the messenger out of their communities, and try to kill the messenger.
13) You should recognize God’s power in your life by adding the phrase “if God wills” any time you say that you’re going to do something.
14) You need to surrender your will to God’s will, and believe in Him, pray to Him, and trust in Him whether things are going well or going bad in your life.
15) People who truly believe in the Torah or Bible, and truly follow the teachings of those books, are also trying to follow the messengers God sent to them. You should treat them well. However, if they’re people who stole your land and tried to kill you, you should have nothing whatsoever to do with them.
16) Lots of people make their caprice their god. This is a bad way to live.
17) People who believe in the Qu’ran should not go to war against other people who believe in the Qu’ran.
18) Women shouldn’t be cut out of the inheritance. They generally receive a lesser portion than men, but they still get a portion, their own property to control.
19) Regarding alcohol, there’s usefulness in it, and there’s evil in it, and the evil of it outweighs its usefulness. Therefore, stay away from it.
20) You write your own book, every day of your life, by your thoughts and actions. That book hangs around your neck at the judgment. If you’ve done bad stuff, your own book condemns you. Therefore, it’s impossible to do evil to someone else without doing evil to yourself.
21) You should follow the higher law. If that’s too hard for you, you should at least follow the lesser law.

So, lots of things in the Qu’ran I respect and agree with. Most of the passages that make me wince have similar passages in the Bible. I explain these passages by considering that some of them were concerning one of those brief battles where Mohammad’s people were facing the people who’d tracked them down and were trying to exterminate them. I suppose Sura 47 is like that: “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks, then, when you have made wide slaughter among them, tie fast the bonds; then set them free, either by grace or ransom, till the war lays down its loads.” This passage assumes that there’s an imminent battle, and at the end of that battle, you should go back to being peaceful with your neighbors. Look, for example, at Sura 60: “God forbids you not, as regards those who have not fought you in religion’s cause, nor expelled you from your habitations, that you should be kindly to them, and act justly towards them; surely God loves the just.” I picture Henry V yelling to his troops to be like the tiger and cry havoc; and when the imminent battle is over, ordering his soldiers to not abuse the populace with rough language.

Other passages that trouble me, I consider where they were– lots of idol worship, murdering children, selling women like chattel– and, taken in that time, even those rough passages in the Qu’ran are a step up from what was going on around them. (If you want to feel humble, take a look at how European medieval law treated women and foreigners up until the last hundred-fifty years or so. Imagine if our western law hadn’t been allowed to advance.) Further, I really don’t think that those passages were meant to be a ceiling on good behavior.

I thought the extra stories were interesting– Abraham and the idols, Potiphar’s wife showing off Joseph to her lady friends, etc.

The verses about God watching over those on the seas made me think of Zheng He; like in Sura 42: “And of His signs are the ships that run on the sea like landmarks; and if He wills, He stills the wind, and they remain motionless on its back. Surely in that are signs for every man enduring, thankful. Or He wrecks them for what they have earned; and He pardons much; and that those who dispute concerning Our signs may know they have no asylum.” Or in Sura 31: “Hast thou not seen how that the ships run upon the sea by the blessing of God, that He may show you some of His signs? Surely in that are signs for every man enduring, thankful. And when the waves cover them like shadows they call upon God, making their religion sincerely His; but when He has delivered them to the land, some of them are lukewarm.” I like the idea that Zheng He may have been thinking of these same passages when he was out on the ocean, hundreds of years ago…