New Years Day – 2013
On a morning when many awoke hung over from the previous night’s revelry, Aileen Sabira awoke refreshed and renewed. The Baltimore poet and part-time sales clerk decided against driving to Berkeley Springs on New Year’s Eve, where her spiritual community was holding an all night prayer vigil. Instead, Sabira spent the waning hours with her new roommate in quiet reflection; grounding herself for the coming new year.
Being spiritually centered is crucial to Sabira. It helps when she shares with others that she is also a cancer survivor.
I interviewed Sabira over breakfast fare at a popular diner along York Road. As we waited for our meals, Sabira began talking about the just finished year.
“Last year was really rough for me in so many ways – helping my best friend who was dying from lung cancer for about half of it – plus losing many other people I was connected to and cared about. I believe the losses were over 10 in less than as many months – each one powerful to my heart in their own way.”
When Sabira speaks about her heart, it is clear she is also speaking from her heart. Diagnosed in August of 2005 with stage 3A breast cancer, Sabira endured eight rounds of chemotherapy, two surgeries, radiation treatments and a broken relationship – all within the span of about nine months. A post-break-up photography and poetry retreat started Sabira on a mending path which included women’s gatherings, healing workshops and prayer groups. It was through the prayer groups that Sabira was introduced to Sufism.
Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. According to the BBC, “Non-Muslims often mistake Sufism as a sect of Islam. Sufism is more accurately described as an aspect or dimension of Islam.”
Sabira was touched by the peace she found in the Arabic prayers and the openness she encountered in the Sufi community. Now in remission, Sabira lives each day as its own special blessing and in the process reaches out to others in need.
“You can’t be judgmental. Everybody has issues they bring to the table. Some of the deepest healing not only comes from getting to the heart of a problem but by living through it.” Sabira adds, “We can go deeper the more we keep going.”
“There has been much learning around grief and how we hold it in society – or don’t – and the lack of space for it which is profoundly missing. And, in the midst of it, how to hold joy? It is something that dwindled greatly. For the new year, I am embracing much in the way of releasing of the old and welcoming more joy. I usually write it all down, but I sensed so much in just letting the past year go, as I’ve been so deeply present to the sadness, grief, loss, throughout the year. And the Spirit of my “Flee” is calling me forward to lightness and joy, and I honor her in that space when I really live.”
Sabira is happy to talk about the truths she’s learned on her journey but doesn’t see herself as an evangelist.
“I use to be a practicing Catholic, and people tend to only see the negatives in both religions, but studying Sufism, I can appreciate the subtleties of Catholicism. Evangelism is somewhat (problematic) because you want to respect other’s views but if something wonderful has happened to you, you want to share.”
“Other people are more like teachers. I’m meant to be an opener; a guide. Someone who points the way. My job is to lead with love and light.”
Leading with love, Sabira offered a hauntingly beautiful prayer – the al Fatiha – when our food arrived. Not being a student of Arabic, I asked her what the words meant.
“I simply prayed for opening and alignment with the Divine.”
Moving forward, Sabira already sees the promise of the new year. A casual conversation after yoga with her friend, Sahffi, on the last day of the old year, offered a tangible glimpse of good things to come.
“As we chatted, and I spoke of a possibility to get some equipment to try (recording) for live improvisational performances, I mentioned that I needed a microphone. Sahffi said she had one; that she got it just because she knew she was going to need to give it to someone! I felt another deep commitment called forth by the Divine: to perform, take risks, get out there with all of my art. So, a precious gift, a symbol and metaphor for speaking my truth, singing my song in all ways – a microphone, given to me on 12/31/12. Profound in opening.”
Sabira welcomed the omen and the energies of calm, centered, groundedness to the New Year. “It felt really right for my heart. It’s been freeing to welcome choice in how I meet a New Year. It’s not sad to choose to spend it alone or to pass a peaceful night with my new house mate, because it is a choice, and a way to meet the new year (secure) and not scattered. I felt the excitement of letting go of such a rough year, one I will challenge myself to explore: that every moment is a New Year, every moment a chance to be fresh, in the now, free of the past and devoid of future/attachments. I’m not ‘perfectly’ there. But then, who is?”
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a year-long series which will look at the places and people that make up the rich history and diverse nature of spirituality, belief and observance in Baltimore and beyond. Read the series here.