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Swingsets, Trees, and Masjids

smilewithsh's picture



            “I contend that this sense of deep connectedness, of being saturated with nature, yet unique and separate, is one of the core gifts of middle childhood. The sense of continuity provides the foundation for an empathic relationship with the natural world. The sense of separateness provides a sense of agency, of being able to take responsible action for the natural world. The deep bond creates a commitment to lifelong protection. The next question might be, Are these experiences really specific to childhood?” (Sobel, 15) Sobel comments on the idea of connectedness and separateness.  Both different feelings that work together to form a sense of commitment and care for the environment.  From a personal standpoint, my “seperatedness” and “connectedness” would mix and mingle from the different places I would be in growing up and the back and forth between a very spiritual environment and a ‘natural’ one.   

            My environment and playground consisted of so much. For one, I was inseparable with my swingset. I loved swinging outside, with the green lawn in our backyard in front of me. The only thing that bothered me was the lack of trees. When we moved from Alabama to Pennsylvania, we moved from a farmhouse with large trees and a pond to a newly built residential complex. When we moved to our new house, there was literally no landscaping the and the new “baby” grass looked more like balding patches of dirt. But nonetheless, the grass grew, yet the landscaping to add trees somehow fell to the back burner of priorities. That didn’t stop me from wandering around our new neighborhood until I did find a tree I could inevitably climb. I would be able to spend hours outside swinging, climbing trees, and lying in the grass. My usual company would be a book, Magic Tree house was my absolute favorite. I also had a trailing little brother who liked to play make believe games with me. I would climb a tree and would be “stuck”. He would be the firefighter that would rescue. My 11 year old self would sometimes indulge, othertimes I would literally trick him into playing by himself so I could escape to my book world. My swing set offered me solace and peace. I’ve experienced so much on that swingset since I was 6 years old. I saw my first shooting star on that swingset. I talked to a boy for the first time on the phone on that swingset. I encountered 3 bees nest, 4 stings, and a rabbit family because of that swingset. I’ve seen countless rainbows and summer showers, I’ve seen my house enveloped in snow from the seat of my swing. I’ve watched the birds, deer, and rabbits that come through my yard on that swingset. It’s so open too when I go to my swingset. The other backyards have trees and landscaping, but my lawn in landscaped by my swingset. My plastic and wood man-made swingset is my ditch.

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But there is another aspect of growing up with my environment that was so important to me. I was looking through photos to possibly use for this assignment and I kept coming across photos of me at a mosque. I brushed them aside but then I stopped to think. Growing up with Islam essentially made going to the masjid part of my environment. The beautiful thing about that it was the one universal constant that remained with me wherever I went. Whether it be Bethlehem, PA, Pakistan or Dubai, when Friday rolled around everyone would be getting ready for Jummah Prayer. I can’t think of a time when that wasn’t part of my life. When I was younger I perhaps didn’t understand or value my time spent at the masjid the same way I do now. My parents and Sunday school teachers encouraged me and the other children when I was younger to stay inside the masjid when prayer was going on, to not play outside for “too long”.

Sobel says,

“All forms of religion encourage prayer. In Buddhist meditation, the challenge is to step out of the flow of everyday reality, and into deeper, quieter place. It’s like leaving all the noise and arguing in your house and slipping into the private world of your fort. Does your five-year old daughter’s asking her imaginary friend for advice differ from praying to God and asking for help? Does one prepare you for the other? Does the ability to enter into play realities prepare you for the meditative state of prayer? Further, do we sacrifice a child’s capacity to enter a meditative space by not letting him go outside to play in the garden? And, if we keep him inside, does this make it more likely that he’ll use alcohol and drugs to find the altered state of consciousness that he didn’t find during childhood nature play?” (Sobel, 18)

Sobel’s comment intrigues me, the idea that we may be sacrificing children’s meditative space by not letting them go aside. I’m thinking of it personally, and why my meditative prayer space has become such a vital part of my young adult life. I realized that a large part of my motivation of essentially creating a bond with nature stems from the fact I was raised a Muslim and taught that essentially everything on this earth, including ourselves, isn’t “ours” persay we should try our best to respect and preserve it. It’s also interesting that Sobel sort of creates a negative connotation with the idea that using alcohol and drugs to find an “altered state of consciousness” is what happens when there isn’t natural childhood play. But it’s interesting, because in Islam alcohol and drugs are considered haram, or forbidden, and it really does focus on this idea of developing a relationship with Allah (SWT) and praying the 5 obligated prayers a day, which creates this “meditative state of prayer”.  Though Islam, prayers, and my mosque had been part of my life since I was a child, there was a point in high school where I went through a religious awakening, that shed light on my existing relationship with Islam and Allah (SWT) and the way I viewed how everything in my life had shaped me. For example, making 7 year old Shamial go to Sunday Islamic school was like pulling out my teeth. I absolutely despised giving up my Sunday to go my mosque. Yet, 17 year old Shamial willingly went to the mosque everyday during Ramadan for nightly prayers. The same mosque, same environment, yet experience, time, and the relationship with that environment was dramatically different.  What seemed like a chore to me initially ironically became my place of solace.

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My cultural and religious environment paired with my freedom of playing outside, swinging, and climbing trees created this connectedness to both the “natural” world but also the cultural and religious. There was no separation in my mind as I was growing up. However, my association and relationship especially with the spiritual environment did change and develop and grow. My spirituality, my relationship with my family and Islam, and my exposure to the blend of these environments is part of what makes me exactly who I am.     

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jccohen's picture

swingset and mosque


So interesting and compelling the way your connection with the outside/’natural’ world from the perch of your swingset and your connection with the internal meditative world from the location of prayer and your mosque come together in this essay.  You muse about Sobel’s comment that drugs and alcohol may be a substitute for “natural childhood play” the idea in Islam that these are haram and, would you say this is because they distract and detract from “developing a relationship with Allah”? 


I’m intrigued that although you note that a “large part of my motivation of essentially creating a bond with nature stems from the fact I was raised a Muslim and taught that essentially everything on this earth, including ourselves, isn’t “ours” persay we should try our best to respect and preserve it,” the connection between your experience on the swingset and your experience in the mosque seem to me somehow more intuitive, less rational than this might suggest…  Still, perhaps being raised with this as a precept fertilized the capacity for spiritual connection that evolved as you grew older; what do you think about this?  And thanks for writing about both of these dimensions!