Advice Applied: A Humorous​ Short Story Based on a Mark Twain Speech

Here is a short story I wrote for my writing class that is loosely based on a Mark Twain speech.

“Gertrude!” a woman yelled up the stairs to her young daughter. A pudgy, young girl of short stature bounded down the stairs, taking each one as if falling from the one before. Her short brown hair waved around her head like swings on a carousel. Prior to her mother’s calling, she was stuffing her face full of sweets in the family’s attic. She had been doing this because she knew what day it was and that she would not have access to her much-craved chocolates for the rest of the day. This was the day that her mother had talked with much excitement about weeks ago. The whole family was going to attend a speech by Mark Twain. Gertrude hated Mark Twain and all his writing with the same passion that she reserved solely for chocolate, especially chocolate-covered marshmallows, of which she was rarely able to partake.

Gertrude’s sister, Liesel, who was always reading boring books with horrendous covers, had paid her in chocolate to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and she had regretted giving it a try ever since then. “Chocolate dissolves in one’s mouth and is gone, but words often stick in the mind forever,” she said bitterly to her sister, months after reading the book. In addition to this, she realized her sister’s chocolate was not hidden in a very good location, and the dog was too easy to blame. She stopped reading the book that day.

When they arrived at the place where Mark Twain was scheduled to speak,  Gertrude was huffing and puffing to herself about how she didn’t like authors; she didn’t like speeches, and she really wished she had secretly stayed home and raided her mother’s chocolate cabinet. Gertrude was a simple girl; she liked chocolate and dreaming about how she could get out of school assignments. She did not like speeches; she did not like books, and she did not like Mark Twain.

All of these troublesome thoughts came to an end as Mark Twain addressed the first point of his speech, saying, “Always obey your parents, when they are present.” This sounded delightful to Gertrude. All of her life, she had been told to obey, obey, obey, always and without question. “Don’t eat too much chocolate,” her superiors would say. “Respect adults,” they would advise. “Stop chewing on the corner of that book,” her mother had told her in one particular instance. Now… this idea that Twain was purporting made so much sense to her! Why would anyone obey their parents all the time? Surely it was more fun to do as you wish, eat chocolate as you may, and say whatever you like to teachers, rather than march around and be good.

Mark Twain continued to catch her attention, “If a person offends you, and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch for your chance and hit him with a brick.” For days, Gertrude had agonized over how to address what her friend, Patrick, had said to her, “I don’t want to play with you right now.” He wasn’t really that mean, but Gertrude was offended, and she needed a way to let him know. This suggestion from Mark Twain was perfect; she could wait for Patrick where he always went to read after school and drop the brick upon his head! This way, perhaps he would realize they weren’t on the best of terms, and then they would be able to talk about it.

The end to his wisdom had not come, and Gertrude listened more intently than she had ever listened to anything in her life. “Be very careful about lying; otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught.” Suddenly, Gertrude made the decision to lie only when she was absolutely sure that no one could find out. She had to build trust with people and be honest when she had stolen various goodies out of their cupboards so that when she desired to succeed in larger chocolate heists, they would not suspect her.

On the ride home, Gertrude could not stop thinking about all her plans, and how much Mark Twain’s words meant to her. Nevertheless, she would never read any more by him, because she hated his writing.

The next day, her mother asked her to dust the dining room, which would have been well and good had her mother stuck around to see her do it. Gertrude decided to walk to the park instead.  The walk was not too long, and the birds sweetly singing in the trees were not too great a burden on her ear. As she approached, she noticed her friend, Patrick, swinging slowly on a swing set near the large oak tree he always read next to. She soon realized it was a perfect moment to enact her plan. Swiftly, she looked around for a brick but then decided a rock would do. Slowly and quietly, she crept over to him. He was singing to himself and didn’t notice her. A few steps closer, and then, before she could convince herself to do otherwise, she flung the rock at him and ran away. The next time she asked him to play with her, he probably would. Of course, Patrick never knew who threw the rock at him, because the pain was too great for him to open his eyes and get up off the ground to see.

When she got home, her mother stood at the door waiting for her, a judgmental scowl on her face. This was problematic, for Gertrude had not realized her mother would be back so soon. “Where have you been, young lady, and why have you not dusted the dining room?” her mother yelled.

Gertrude thought for a moment, then remembered a good tool she had acquired from the speech that day. “Just after you left, a young girl, much younger than I knocked at the door and said her mother needed assistance, and I ran and helped them,” she told her mother.

“And which way did you go?”

“It was a new way I’ve never been, and we went so quickly, I didn’t really keep track…”

“I see,” her mother answered.

“So, I was able to help them, and I came back as soon as I could,” Gertrude explained.

“Well, go and dust the dining room before supper,” Mother instructed, and Gertrude quietly complied.

Throughout the following days, she continued in the academy of lying, revenge, and quiet disobedience. Just as Mark Twain had promised, she soon realized she had developed a moral code with much resemblance to those around her. She was still determined to never read anything written by Twain, even if she were paid all the chocolate of the world, but she would forever treasure his wise words for living given in his speech.

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Stories from Germany, Day 10

We had to leave for the airport to go home at 5 am. I woke up at 4:55 am. Thankfully, I had been very detailed in my planning and had everything ready to go, so I just had to throw on clothes, grab my things, and run out in my bear feet! It was cold.

After a fairly long road trip (maybe an hour and a half), we got to the train station and rushed in with our bags. By the time we were on the platform, the train was still not in sight. We said goodbye to the missionary and talked for a bit, then I boarded my very first train ride. I think most of the group fell asleep, but I couldn’t. It was too exciting to be on a train and see German scenery flying by. We stopped four or five times, but not many people got on. Here is a picture I took, looking out of the train at sunrise. (Random side note: I was listening to a podcast called 99% Invisible for part of the train ride, then switched to an audiobook by Ann Coulter.)

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When we got to the airport, we went to a McDonalds for breakfast. This is a conversation I had while buying my breakfast.

Me: I would like an Egg McMuffin.

Cashier: Alright…

Me: OH! And a hashbrown.

Cashier: No hashbrown in germany.

You will never understand how depressing those four words were. So, I ate my Egg McMuffin and drank my bottled water, then we went on a million escalators up, over to another side of the airport on some kind of tram thing, then went down a million escalators. Just as I was getting used to jumping off the escalator at just the right moment, we went through security. They asked us questions and looked through our luggage and things, then we went to the almost last ticket check. When I came up to the lady who was doing the final passport check, I said “Hallo, guten Morgen,” and after looking down at my passport and seeing that it was clearly one from the US, she complimented me on my German accent, and I was so proud of myself.

We waited for around thirty minutes to board the plane, and two in our group who had not given devotionals yet took the opportunity there. A short time after getting on the plane, I noticed a young woman near me who seemed to be distraught over something. I felt like I should do something; I couldn’t just let her sit there and not say something to make sure she was okay. So after a few minutes of agonizing over a decision, I wrote a note that simply said, “are you ok?” This began a little conversation of notes that went on and off until we landed in the US. I am really glad I said something. Sometimes people are nasty, and sometimes the response you get won’t be all rainbows and flowers; sometimes hurting people are bitter towards the whole world. But it never hurts just to ask, and often, it ends up meaning a lot.

The meals on the way back were much better than the meals on the way there, so that was nice. When we landed and walked out into the airport, I was overjoyed to be on American soil again. As much as I missed Germany (and would have stayed there a few more months if possible,) I was sort of glad to be home.

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I was surprised by a lot in Germany. I was surprised by how much – and how little – it was different. But mostly, I think I was just surprised by how little changed about me after going to a foreign country. I think we feel that when we leave the country and hear other languages and see a different culture, it will change our foundations of thought and our heart will never be the same. But I’m still me. I still have all the same religious and political beliefs; I still feel much the same about everything. I’ve discovered that the rest of the world isn’t much different.

Someday, I would like to go again. But even if I can’t go in the next few years, I’ll always have that desire to go and see other places and ways of life and hear other languages. Maybe someday, I will see my friends in Germany again.

Stories from Germany, Day 9

We completed the major projects that the missionary had for us a bit early, so on Saturday, we went out for another day of sightseeing. We went to Heidelberg and ate lunch there (I think – we may have had lunch at the house, I can’t quite remember.) and then walked the streets and bought treats and souvenirs and ice cream. (I also bought some macaroons that were AMAZING. They weren’t dry and tasteless like others I’ve had. They were cold and moist and just wonderful.)

We ordered some ice cream (I got vanilla and chocolate in a bowl) that tasted really good. When we had finished, we walked up that street. A friend and I walked into a really hipster-looking bookstore with a winding staircase that went four floors up, but all the books were in German. My friend found some neat music books and suggested I try to find a book I like in English and get it in German as a souvenir, but all we could find was Artemis Fowl and I haven’t read that yet.

We then went to a candy store and I bought some more gummy bears. As I was waiting for the rest of the group to buy their things, I noticed a woman trying to give away samples of something. No one talked to her (Germans aren’t nice like Americans are) and so I thought I would walk over and talk to her, assuming she could speak English as most Germans around her age could. As I crossed the street, though, someone else from the store replaced her, a guy who seemed less talkative. So I decided to awkwardly stand nearby and keep an eye on the candy store for my group. The guy soon asked me if I wanted what was on the plate, but this was all in German, so I didn’t know what it was. I took one to be polite, even though they didn’t look very appetizing. I just held it in my hand, until the man said something more about it. He made the mistake of using the word “essen,” which I knew was German for food. So, I took this to mean that he wanted me to eat it. Well, apparently he was saying “it’s not something you eat,” because as soon as it neared my mouth, he went nuts. He switched to English and told me it was soap. Yup. This story embarrasses me a lot so this is the end.

After that, we went into a neat store called Butler that had lots of home things and some books. I found some knobs for my roll-top desk and decided to buy those, then I found a German colouring book and decided to get that too, even though all the pictures were in German and I have to translate the flowers and leaves through something to be able to colour them.

We also went into a huge bookstore that looked like a Barnes and Noble-type place, and I found a book by our President, Donald Trump! It was super neat; the title was in English but the words in the book were in German.

That evening, we went to a really neat but odd restaurant and got “doners” for our last meal in Germany. They’re like huge beef tacos with an interesting sauce. I (surprisingly) LOVED it. It was huge, but I ate the whole thing fairly quickly.

That night, we did some talking and played some games, then everyone slowly went to bed. It was bittersweet, but mostly bitter, at least for me. Going home to the USA would be nice, but I loved Germany and I was not ready to leave yet. I could have stayed there a few more weeks and probably still not felt homesick.

I finally walked up the three flights of stairs to the attic bedroom and started packing all my things. Quite surprisingly, I didn’t forget anything, on the way there or coming back! I half-wish I’d forgotten my passport and had to stay there a few more days, but that would have made it stressful on everyone else, so it wasn’t a valid option.

After all of my gummy bears and chocolate and my colouring book and my leftover euros were packed up, I went to bed at around 2 am.

Stories from Germany, Days 5-8

These were the work days. We worked on a building that will someday be a meeting center for missionaries in Germany. My job was mostly cleaning and organizing, but that first day, I did a fair amount of heavy lifting up and down stairs. That was not a cup of tea.

There was a retired gentleman working there with us who only knew German. One day, I heard whistling. Specifically, someone whistling the song “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. AND IT WAS HIM! So I started whistling with him, and soon he realized that I was and it was a super neat language-barrier-crossing thing.

One of the days, I got to help in a kids club and talk to little German kids. I played Connect 4 and had a minimal conversation with one girl using Google Translate, but as more kids poured in, the only English I heard was “I love you,” because that’s about all the English they know at that age.

One of the last days, we had to clear out a collection of shoes on the top floor of the building. (I think there were four floors to the place.) Two of us started chucking them out the window to retrieve later. Once we went downstairs to gather them all in a pile and put them in a bag, we realized we needed something to tie up the bag. Our fatigued brains immediately went to one shoestring we had noticed… On the top floor. I cheerfully skipped up the stairs and found the string, but when I brought it down, it had apparently struck their minds that we might just use ONE OF THE SHOESTRINGS IN THE BAG OF SHOES WE WERE THROWING AWAY! Needless to say, the shoestring I walked up for was, well, needless.

The very last day, a few of us guys on the team decided to take a walk on the trail behind the building. We soon realized it ran along a rather numerous series of bridges, and we stopped at each one to take a few pictures. Here’s a picture that I took on that walk.

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The dog in the picture was walking leashless with its owner. As we passed, it stopped and watched me. It acted as if it may stay there forever, but as we turned a corner in the trail, it finally pranced away.

Stories from Germany, Days 3-4

This is the second post about my time in Germany.

Day 3: Sunday

A German church service is longer than an American one. Or it just feels that way because it was all in German and I didn’t understand a word of it.

Then came the part when our group got to sing In Christ Alone and How Deep the Father’s Love for Us. It went really well, and I think they liked it. An elderly lady told me I looked exactly like her grandson.

Then we had lunch. I don’t really remember what it was… Maybe lasagna? I know we had lasagna a once while we were there and it was wonderful.

After this, we went back to the house. Much of that day is a fog because I was extremely tired.

Day 4: Monday

This was one of the tourism days, and it was super neat. We went to some German cathedrals and then to some Luxembourg places and then to some French places. I was still tired and continued to fall asleep in the van, but it was super neat and we got to see a lot of places. Here are some things I did:

  • Had lunch at a really good German restaurant.
  • Accidentally donated 15 cents to the Catholic Church. (It was for a postcard. The moment I heard my money ring in the coffer, I regretted it, knowing I had just let one of my relatives escape purgatory.)
  • Got a Coke at a McDonalds.
  • Greeted a German using what little German I knew who said she was good and asked how I was.
  • Saw an ancient roman wall underground.
  • Got chocolate at a Lindt store and didn’t have to use English to buy it.
  • Walked into a Levi’s Store and turned red as I heard a rap song in English with words you’d hopefully never hear in an American store.
  • Saw a person pretending to be a statue. (It was super convincing.)
  • And took photos…

Somewhere in that tired day, we went to Luxembourg. I didn’t know it was a country until I was literally in the country. Yeah. (Here is a fun thing I discovered Googling this place: they speak French, German, and LUXEMBOURGISH. I am serious.) It was pretty beautiful, and I actually took the photo that’s the header for this post there. It’s a big bank or something.

The first place we went to see there was an American WWII Cemetery. It was surreal. All those graves were Americans who fought in the war, and here it was, being taken care of by people of a country I’d never heard of. General Patton had a special grave there that I got to see. The whole place was beautiful.

For supper, we went to a place in France called Flunch. I liked it. The servers and manager were the only nice French people I saw. Everyone else was rude. Which is sad, because I’m French.

Stories from Germany, Days 1-2

From March 3rd through March 12th, I took a trip to Germany to help out in the building of a center for missionaries there. The place will be used for training and hosting many people who go to minister to Germans in this beautiful country.

I am so thankful for the opportunity and for the people who supported it and prayed so much as it was coming up and as I was there. It was a crazy-amazing experience, and I will remember it FOREVER.

Because the original post was getting to be incredibly long, I decided to make it into a sort of series. This is the first post, sharing stories during days one and two.

Day 1: Friday

We head off from the church towards the airport. Here is a timelapse of our scenery from the outskirts of Chicago to the terminal.

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Things were pretty chill when we got there; we were totally on time and the airport wasn’t busy at all. Once we checked in and made our way through security (which was actually a lot more simple and less stressful than I thought it would be) we sat down at a couple sunny tables and ate some lunch. Everyone else had Mexican food, I think, but I had pizza. It was good pizza.

Then we boarded the plane. That first one went from Midway to Atlanta, so it was only a two-hour flight. I watched most of The Giver on that flight, a movie based off the book by Lois Lowry, which I haven’t read, but don’t make me feel more guilty about it. It was a good movie. We also got pretzels and cookies, and the little cookies said Delta on them, which I thought was funny.

OH! And TAKEOFF! It was my first time flying in a plane, and… yeah. I just went nuts, it was so crazy. Before I knew it, we had left the ground, and it was getting smaller, and I could see everything because the sky was clear.

Day 2: Saturday

We time-travelled. I’m telling you, that’s what it felt like. Germany is six hours ahead of our time zone, so it was definitely something to get used to. I didn’t sleep a wink on the plane, and there I was in Germany, 9 am, and I had the energy level of 3 am. The nice thing was my mind adjusted to the schedule fairly well. 9 am really felt like 9 am, and the only thing that felt odd was eating lunch and feeling like it should have been supper for some reason.

After we were picked up from the airport, we went to a store called Globus. Here’s a photo I took by complete chance on the way there:

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It’s basically what Walmart is here, but because this is Europe, it has a cooler name and no one wears their pajamas. I loved to hear people speaking in German and I tried to say hallo and danke to the cashier. It was neat to be in Germany and know just enough German and look just enough German to pass as a German. Several cashiers and people at various stores and places spoke to me in German, and I either would pretend I understood and accidentally eat soap, or admit I spoke English. Because they’re so neat, they could just switch to English and talk to me. That was helpful. I bought gummy bears at Globus, or “gummy bearchen.” They were really good, and not the last gummy bears I bought over there.

We took a walk to help us adjust. The scenery was amazing, we could look down and see the whole village, the little white houses and red roofs all smushed together in a river-like formation. Below is a photo I took. I don’t remember why I took it. But I like it.

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That was another thing I noticed. On our side of the ocean, everything was in grids. Ponds, baseball fields, corn fields, houses, even the rivers were overcome by the grid. Then, after hours of starry darkness, as we arrived in Germany, everything went to grooves and valleys and rivers and everything was built around water and farms instead of paperwork and skyscrapers. I like Europe for that. You can tell it’s older than the USA because while they made villages, we made civilizations. By the time we built our country, we had figured out how to do all those geeky geographical things.

When we got to the place we were staying, I was honestly quite surprised as to how cozy and beautiful it was. I had expected… A place more “mission tripy”? Simple concrete walls, cold floors, minimal furniture, a half-completed bathroom. But this place was somebody’s home, and a really nice on at that. I could have moved there and loved it.

We ate schnitzel and drank apfel shorle for lunch. The former is breaded pork, the latter is carbonated apple juice. I loved it, which was lucky for me because it was either that or carbonated water at many meals, and that stuff is nasty. Ever since their economy became more stable many years after the war, drinking normal water has been associated with being poor. Specifically, being poor because of a war that killed 3% of the world and was started by your not-too-distant ancestors.

For supper, I just had a sandwich because I decided to go with the assistant to the pastor we were staying with to a youth group meeting half an hour away. I definitely feel asleep on the drive. There were only about three teens there, but it was really neat to sing with them and listen to an all-German presentation about the armor of God and gangsters. And get this: some of the songs we sang were in English! They all sang them really well. Granted, they take much more English in school than we take German, but it was still cool to hear them sing familiar songs.

Then I went back to the house, stayed up one more grueling hour, and fell asleep in a hammock hanging from the beams of the attic.

Quite Conversational: 7th Day Adventists

It was a quiet, calm, slow Summer Sunday evening. I hopped on my bike and rode for maybe ten minutes, going to a place I often went to think and pray and hope. It was a forest trail; a long, winding, rising and falling path that welcomed the thoughtful soul. Birds chattered in the earlier hours, but most of them were snuggled into their bedded nests by now, their young ones safe in their wings. It was about eight’o’clock and were it the shivering months of winter, the sun would have been gone long ago. But instead, it stayed in the sky, content to continue its conversation with the trees a little longer before it went on to visit its other friends.

I pulled onto the path and begin walking the narrow wheels of my bike along the grassy way. It opened into an area that surrounding a small, man-made pond. In Ohio, they would call it a lake. Next to the pond was a picnic table, and I often stopped her to be particularly contemplative before going the rest of the way. Today, however, was already getting too dark for a visit to the forest, so I decided I would go home after sitting on the bench a bit.

I heard singing. Sweet, good singing, the kind that can only happen when a family sings together; their ribbons of harmony and melody twirling together into a heavenly, united sound. Yet, I did not understand the words. I sort of recognized them, though, as being German. Finally, this singing family emerged from the path and looked at me pleasantly. Me being the talkative sort that I am, I smiled warmly and began conversing with them. I asked them what they were singing, and I realized as they explained it that it was a hymn book. I assumed they were Christians of course, and I don’t know quite how I realized they were Seventh Day Advents (not to say that Seventh Day Adventists can’t be Christians of course) but maybe they told me.

At this point, I knew very little about the Adventists. I considered them to be sort of like the Mormons or the Jehovah’s False Witnesses, but having met a few myself I now wouldn’t be so harsh in my judgment. A few quick things about the Adventists: (1) they worship on Saturday and take Sabbath very seriously, and it really seems to help many of their communities, as they often live to a hundred or more. (2) Their history is rampant with people saying “Christ will come back, let’s go to this hilltop on this date and wait for Him! Then… it doesn’t happen. The Adventists learned after a while that a worldview based on unkept promises is not very convincing, so they stopped making these declarations at some point. (3) Ellen White is their false-teacher in chief, being praised as a prophetess by many, and she claimed to have visions. She also plagiarized other writers and speakers. A lot. So… that doesn’t really make her look good. To read more about White, read this.

As our conversation progressed, the debate over works versus faith came up. Is faith  by works, or works a sign of faith? My stand is that works are a great evidence to faith, but they don’t give us our salvation by any means whatsoever. If they did, we’d no sooner be in Heaven than we would be bragging about how we accomplished our own cleansing and made it possible to come to Paradise by buying the ticket with our own good deeds. They of course, were not about to communicate what I have just explained, because that makes it sound wretched. Nevertheless, what they said certainly made it sound like this is what they believed.

I think that’s a commentary on every quietly-kept religious group. (I wouldn’t use the term ‘cult’ for the Adventists like I would the Mormons or other groups of the same nature, but there is a slight resemblance.) It’s hard to understand what they truly believe through all the layers of explanation they offer. Plus, as is the practice with the Mormons, many groups like these seem to keep a watch out for new valid objections to their doctrine,  and strike it down with new side-skirttings that are spread through the ranks and taught to all members. Then, anyone who cares for solid doctrine has to go find another contradiction to bring up against them in conversation.

At the end of all of it, through a couple conversations later and much research, I developed my understanding of the Seventh Day Adventists: I respect them for their keeping of the Sabbath, and, while I don’t think we are held to that, I think everyone would do better practicing it. I disagree with their fantastical revelations about future events, but accept that much of that is in the past, and most Adventists don’t teach things like that today. Personally, I think that many of them are likely very true Christians, which is not something I would say about Jehovah’s False Witnesses or the Mormons. (Or, as they put on their name tags, “Latter-Day Saints.”) As long as they give glory to God for their salvation and don’t hold everyone else to their Sabbath standards, I think they may very well be our brothers and sisters in Christ. And, as outlandish as it may sound, I think we may have a few things we could pick up from their way of life.

 

Quite Conversational: Muslims in the Park

All sixteen years of my life, I’ve talked to everyone. One day last summer, I had a conversation with two Muslim women I met in the park.

That day, I had gone through a rather usual routine of going to the library, getting a book, and running down to the gas station to get a drink to enjoy while I read. After reading a bit of my book, I decided to walk through some of the gardens. After finishing my short walk and coming to a playground, I saw some kind-looking Muslim women and decided to talk to them, particularly one who seemed old and sweet. Playing in the playground was a young boy who was probably this woman’s grandson. The older woman wore a beautiful hijab, with one of those long, flowing robes. It had intricate designs and fell almost completely to the ground. I approached her and talked about random things like the weather or something, or the age of her grandson, and my siblings and their ages and whatnot. After a few minutes, I asked if I could sit on the bench next to her, and she kindly said “of course.”

Despite her saying she was not very good at speaking English, she knew pretty much everything I asked, and when she didn’t, I just had to rephrase it. I talked to her about a whole myriad of things, (i.e. Islamic “Extremism”, the Quran, Muslim prayer beads, et cetera), and I even had a chance to talk with her  daughter, who was probably in her late twenties.

As we first began to talk more in-depth, I noticed an interesting set of beads that she kept moving through, touching each bead, then going to the next. It reminded me a lot of what the Catholics do with the Rosary, so I asked her what it was. After a bit of confusion and explanation, I realized she had memorized passages from the Quran, and was repeating one at a time to herself as she touched each bead. I was struck with sadness that she had wasted so much time memorizing and digesting in her mind a book like the Quran. But I didn’t say anything like this to her. Instead, I moved on.

I wondered how she felt about Muslim terrorists. So, I asked her, and she obviously didn’t condone what they were doing. She said those people weren’t real Muslims. I also asked how she felt about President Obama, and she replied that he was “a good man.” I had suspected she would say this much, seeing that he seemed to care more about Muslims than anyone else when addressing Islamic terrorism. But I wondered about something. Obviously, Obama was more liberal than a Muslim would be – right? Well… maybe not. I asked her “how do you feel about the gay community? Obama supports them and really supported the Supreme Court decision, but do you?” And honestly, I was really surprised by her answer. She said “The gays… they do what they will, the gods [I chalked the accidental pluralism to being new at English], they made them. I cannot say they are wrong.”

Now, to be clear, you can never completely trust a Muslim. This may seem incredibly harsh, but the Quran spells out that a Muslim can lie to a non-believer if it helps their message. So, using this “loophole”, this woman could have just decided to seem nice and accepting because she thought it would make Islam as a whole seem nicer.

However, I do personally trust that this is the way she honestly felt, despite this belief being in direct contradiction to Shariah Law.

The more I talked to her, the more I felt that “either this woman is not being honest, or she is not much of a true Muslim at all.” And that is the conclusion I brought away from my conversation with her. Her, her daughter, and no doubt thousands of Muslims across the US, are likely only cultural Muslims (just as many Christians across the US are only Christian in culture). While they may not parade across the globe taking over countries, killing men, and stealing wives, they still have Muslim heritage and Muslim tradition that’s hard for them and their family to depart from. And frankly, I’m glad, because a cultural Muslim is much safer than a real one.

Since this conversation, whenever I’ve heard the term “Islamophobia,” I’ve always thought “sure, if someone is afraid of the kind-faced lady walking through a grocery story or a park with a hijab on, then they may be irrationally afraid of Muslims. But I don’t really think you can be irrationally afraid of Islam.”

Najma – A Short Story

It is August 7th, 2002. It is a bright, warm day. I am born; a boy, twenty-one inches, seven pounds, two ounces. My ‘ami and ‘ab give me the name “Najma,” which means “star.” On the two-hour drive from the hospital, they are hopeful. They have been married seventeen years. They have just restarted the clock of child-rearing.

It is August 7th, 2003. I still have the scar on my forehead from when I tried to walk, and I’m tentative about trying again. I jabber often, I can say “‘ab,” which means dad, and “‘ami,” which means mom. I am working on saying “Yana,” which is my sister’s name.

It is August 7th, 2004. I am two years old. I often run with my mother as she goes to the store. Then, before I fall and get the dust from the road in my eyes, she scoops me up and hands me off to my sister, who attempts to rein me in. I know that Yana is my sister because she never looks away when I am hurt.

It is August 7th, 2005. My ‘ab gives me a small bear. It is brown with soft fur and a strip of fabric that Yana found around its arm. I give my ‘ab and ‘ami big hugs after this, I am very grateful for my gift. The strip of fabric is red and has green, black, and white stripes. It reminds me of the flag down the street.

It is August 7th, 2006. I can say the numbers wahid through eshr, one through ten. I can also say most words, but Yana is trying to get me to say “hill” instead of “heel.” This is difficult for me, but I am trying. Yana helps me make a fortress outside with some dirt and stones.

It is August 7th, 2007. I am five years old. I like to play with my friends. I make up songs and sing them to myself as I lie in bed, “uhibb amy, uhibb amy.” Mommy and Daddy come to my bed and give me hugs and kisses before leaving me to fall asleep. The world is calm and quiet.

It is August 7th, 2008. I find a beetle outside, struggling to travel across a small pathway of dust. My cousins, Mohammed, Johnny, and Asil come to our house for my birthday. We play lots of games and sing songs, but Yana and Asil will not let us play with them.

It is August 7th, 2009. I wake to the sweet smell of my ‘ami baking maamoul bi ajwa. This is my favorite dessert, she made it for me because it is my seventh birthday. I get a shirt with blue and green stripes. I wear it, and decide that I will wear it for as long as I can; it is my favorite.

It is August 7th, 2010. Ramadan is soon. My ‘ami and ‘ab will fast all day during the holy month, as well as Yana, but I will not, because I am eight years old, and ‘ami says I will not take part in Ramadan until I am about twelve or thirteen. I am happy to eat in the day for now.

It is August 7th, 2011. My ‘ami says these are hard times for a nine-year-old boy. I saw hundreds of people with signs over the last few months. Now I only hear scary sounds, like screaming and loud bangs. Neither my ‘ami nor my ‘ab will tell me what they are, nor will Yana. They only cry. They tell me that my cousin, Mohammed, was killed. Then I cry.

It is August 7th, 2012. I question everything as I lose my sister Yana, then my mother, my ‘ami. My ‘ab goes out to fight. I am scared.

It is August 7th, 2013. I am eleven years old. I live without any trace of a family. Now I live with a family who lives down the road, in a quieter place. They are not my family. They do not give me hugs. They do not make the meals my ‘ami made. They do not sing the songs my ‘ab sang. My eyes are dry from the flowing of so many tears, dry like the dust outside that swirls around the tanks that drive around the city that sits in Syria.

It is August 7th, 2014. Today, I journey away from the crumbled remains of the place I used to call home. I wonder if there is any purpose for my life. All my family is either dead or missing. My ‘ami and ‘ab are dead. My dear sister, Yana, is dead. My aunt is missing. My uncle is dead. My cousins, Mohammed and Johnny are dead. Asil is missing. My entire existence is crushed, my bones and my muscles ache with the thoughts that run through my head. There is no hope.

It is August 7th, 2015. I am cast away, there is no use for me, no purpose for my existence. I am an orphan, and that is the reality that waited for me this birthday, my thirteenth. I do not understand why this happened. I do not understand how this happened. I am angry with the people that lead my country, and I am angry with the people who are attacking my country. I now return to a place that is safer in Syria, but it is still uncertain. I wonder why I am fighting to live at all. I suppose I am hoping for a better future. But how can that future be accomplished without my family? They were everything to me. I do not cease to think of them for one moment, they are always on my mind. I treasure the images and words I can recall, but that is all I have of them.

It is August 7th, 2016. Today is hopeful. I am journeying to Germany with others from my city, but I cannot help but be worried. Worry is a feeling that has become so natural for me. It is always there, always gnawing at my thoughts. I can only hope for a brighter future.

It is August 7th, 2017. Today is my fifteenth birthday. I feel as if I am a completely new and different person from the boy I was five years ago, even one year ago. I have an empty place in my heart and my thoughts, one that was occupied by my family. I remember many beautiful memories of my ‘ami baking me treats. I think back to Yana reading me stories and playing outside with me. My mind replays the words my ‘ab spoke to me, only days before he died, “we can only continue, there is no place for regret.”

Though not all is calm as it was in the years of my childhood, there is hope. Though not all is at peace as it was in the years of my childhood, there is hope. Though not all is happy as it was in the years of my childhood, there is hope. There will always be hope. All there is for us to do is continue. There is no place for regret.

A little note: this year, I’m taking a class with a co-op on writing. I like it. One of the assignments this semester was to write something for a writing contest. I found one from a college called Bennington, and I decided to enter it. My piano teacher, Leah Wendt, gave me the idea to write about a Syrian refugee. This required more research then I first assumed, but with help from sites like this one, I learned enough to write a fairly-informed piece.