Mary Catherine Ford is a writer in Queens, N.Y.
With mosques shuttered, community gatherings banned and the holy sites of Mecca and Medina closed, the world’s almost 2 billion Muslims are celebrating Ramadan in isolation for the first time. Here in Queens, N.Y., the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, I, too, am experiencing a Ramadan first. This year, I am fasting, praying and celebrating Ramadan with my Muslim family as a new convert to Islam.
For 20 years, I have stood on the periphery of my husband and our children’s faith, supporting them while maintaining a tenuous hold on my Catholicism. All these years, Ramadan has been the loneliest time of year for me, because it has meant distance from the people I love most. This Ramadan, when so many Muslims are grieving the loss of community in a time of being #alonetogether, I feel guilty that I am finding closeness and inclusion as my own faith takes root.
In March, almost overnight, my neighborhood transformed from a raucous, vibrant area to one of darkened storefronts and silence. The number of cases in Queens has since risen past 51,000. Empty streets, isolation and fear have replaced life here.
Inside our cramped apartment, my family has tried to keep the rhythm of our normal life. But with my husband out of work, our two teens wrestling with remote learning and me perpetually seeking a quiet corner to write, normalcy is an impossibility. Still, now that I’ve converted to Islam, my day has a new structure of prayer. Five times a day I join my husband and our two boys in the living room. With each prayer, as I bend and rest my head on the prayer rug, anxiety drains from me and peace replaces it.
My path to Islam was longer than that of many converts. For years, I was happy in my marriage to a devout Muslim while raising our children in a faith that was not my own. My conversion came only last year. We were visiting my husband’s family in North Africa last summer and the sunrise call for prayer rising over the city woke me from sleep as usual. But in that moment, I realized that the words of the Adhan were not just for others. Islam was no longer something outside myself but housed within.
Now, spring has come to New York, but with it this year comes a surreal fear of being outdoors. The dogwood trees on my corner fill with their blooms; the fragile crocuses, then daffodils and tulips flower in the small garden plot across the street. But in this time of the coronavirus, I mostly see spring in darkness. My husband and I take our walks in the evening when the streets are largely empty. In the darkness, I barely notice the blooming.
Instead, I am finding spring inside our apartment. When I sliced open a forgotten spaghetti squash, I discovered its pale yellow seeds sprouting green shoots, wrapping around each other. I unwound their limbs and planted them in an egg carton. My windowsills have since become crowded with other scraps and seeds: Avocado pits rest in espresso cups filled with water, the bottoms of celery bunches sprout new stalks, the top of a jewel-red onion sends up shoots. All come alive in the afternoon light streaming through our windows.
Cut off from the world, I find the softening of spring when I tend to my seedlings. I plant because I need to see a life take root and thrive, because I want proof I can protect something as fragile as I know myself and my family to be now. When I sow the tiny seeds of a bell pepper in a jam jar filled with soil, I tether myself to this world, no matter how changed. The roots of my squash plants read like tender etchings of a future.
My faith has been like those seedlings this Ramadan, as I join other Muslims in this holy month of submission to God. The death toll in my community has climbed to the highest in the world, yet each day of Ramadan my family and I fast, and at sunset, we gather to pray and break fast together with our Ramadan feast, just as so many other Muslim families do around the globe. Our table is set with bowls of steaming Algerian harira followed by our boys’ favorite holiday dishes, mashed potatoes and stuffing, roasted lamb slathered in honey, all garnished with snips from scallions and leaves of celery growing on our windowsills.
There is a hadith of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that says, if the end times come and you find yourself with a seedling in your hand, keep planting. In filling my home with new life, by completing my family’s prayers with my voice, I find comfort and, Inshallah, the way through my first Ramadan and through this pandemic.