Believe it or not: there is a major Human Rights violation occurring in Canada right now. Since 1980, at least 1,182 Aboriginal women are missing or have been murdered.  The Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, however, admits that, despite these statistics, this number is likely substantially higher. How does something like this happen?

Twelve hundred mothers, sisters, and daughters have disappeared or are dead.   Breaking down the issue, the statistics surrounding this are staggering. Aboriginal women report violence 3.5 times higher than other Canadian women, and are 5 times more likely to die of this violence. Furthermore, the level of violence reported by Canadian First Nations women is more severe than that reported of other Canadian women.  The province of Alberta has the lowest “clearance” rates in the country – which means that the majority of the cases are not resolved. Why is this happening?

An inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada, (MMIWC) is taking place to investigate the underlying mechanisms that make Aboriginal women more susceptible to violence, and the corresponding response of government and other institutions. The inquiry is set to be completed in 2018 – after 2 years of data collected. However, the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Report card on the inquiry so far has it falling short of some expectations.

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Why Should You Care?

  • This issue has lasting impact. The majority of the missing and murdered are mothers. In 2010, an estimated more than 440 children were impacted by the loss of their mother. What becomes of these children in this intergenerational issue?
  • While the violence inflicted on aboriginal women is often done by their partner, Aboriginal women are 3 times more likely to be victims of violence from a stranger. This means that the crime has a lot to do with the vulnerability of the victim – and is far from simply an inter-familial or inter-cultural issue. This means that there are perpetrators among us who are actively seeking the most vulnerable members of our population.
  • Although MMIWC are receiving attention lately, this has not always been the case. There is a societal bias that this human rights violation has much to do with the risky lifestyle “chosen” by the victim. Victim blaming has no place in our society – a crime committed is the fault of the criminal, not the victim. As human beings, we are much more than what field we choose to earn money in. We all have multiple roles – and these women are daughters, mothers, friends, and “stolen sisters”.
  • If your set of personal ethics doesn’t lead you to be concerned, the very fact that there is a large inquiry being undertaken into this matter, that MMIWC is a well-known acronym, and the fact that Amnesty International has found this to be a significant human rights violation should stir you into concern.

What Can I Do?

Educate Yourself:

  • Gain knowledge in Canada’s historical treatment of Indigenous peoples and how these historical events, in particular, the Residential Schools, are impacting Indigenous peoples today.
  • Take a look around at the women in your life. Try to imagine what it must be like to physically search for them, maybe never hearing from them again after they disappear one night, or finding their remains after weeks or months of searching. Thousands of families and communities are directly affected by missing or murdered women. Make it real to yourself. Meet people who are searching. Hear their stories and recognize their humanity as well. Then lend a hand.

Create Awareness:

  • Help out with The Red Dress Project, where red dresses are displayed annually to symbolize each of the 1, 182 missing or murdered.
  • Partake in the Annual Women’s Memorial March that occurs in and around February 14 in various cities.

Influence Change:

  • Do not allow racist dialogue of any kind to occur around you.
  • Spread the word: do not be afraid to tell people that this issue matters to you, in-person and on social media.
  • Expressions of Reconcilliation – become involved in the truth and reconciliation process with suggestions found here.
  • Support feminism – which seeks to find equality for both genders and all races.
  • Reach out to groups doing work around these stolen sisters and at-risk Indigenous women, and lend your time, money and support to keep them safe.

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Erin Newman, M.Ed. is a mental health therapist specializing in the treatment of youth in both private practice and in the public sector. She is also passionate about feminist issues, Indigenous rights, and advocacy for children and youth. Academically, Erin was the recipient of the Indspire Scholarship and the Metis Bursary Award for social services. She hopes to pursue further graduate studies exploring how movement, dance and therapy can assist in healing trauma. Erin uses gardening, nature, and animal therapy for her own personal growth, is a dancer with the integrated and political performing group, CRIPSIE, and spends the rest of her spare time chasing after a toddler.

In the Name of Allah, The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

Thank you so much for having me today. And thank you everyone for being here. I would like to reiterate that we are situated on Treaty 6 territory and that these are the traditional lands of Indigenous people who have lived, gathered and passed through here for many thousands of years. They are still here and it is on you to insure that that is forever the case.

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I also want to acknowledge that I am a white, cis woman, the child of Italian immigrants to this land, and the mother of a beautiful, Arab girl, a convert to Islam and all those things are combined, I am afforded certain privileges and I pray that I am using these to the advantage of every person, people of every gender, orientation, religion, ethnicity, ability and anything else we use to identify ourselves.

I came here today to inform you that the day you were born was not the day you came out of your mother’s womb. The day you were born was the first time you witnessed injustice and you decided to take a stand. Deep down inside you, alarms bells started ringing and a call resounded through the center of your being. A call to take action, a call to stand up and use your voice to say, “No, hatred will not live here, Oppression will not be tolerated, injustice will not be served today.”

The day you heard that call may have been November 8th, when the one who shall remain unnamed was legitimized in his hatred and misogyny, and propelled to the highest institution of the most powerful nation in the world. And we will oppose him. And all echoes of him at home.

That day might have been before. It might have been after. The day you hear that call might be today, right now.

For it is a call I am issuing. This is not a call to silent prayer but a call to submission of the ego in the service of others, even if those others are a future self in need of your present compassion. It is a call of recognizing that any of us could be oppressor or oppressed and that many of us are both, and we’re standing on a fine line and you are choosing dignity, respect and compassion that every single one of us has earned by virtue of our existence.

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It is a call to make space for one another, to take space when it is not yielded, to recognize that we create the worlds we live in, and that hatred and love take effort of an equal measure. The day you were born was the first time you saw hatred in action and you chose Love.

Fierce love. Love that dismantles and is disobedient. Enraged love. Disappointed love. Grieving Love. Love that refuses to accept anything less than solidarity, anything less than taking care of one another.

Taking care of one another does not only mean fixing dinners and giving shoulders to cry on – though those things are important. No, taking care means a commitment to the idea that, even if I have never met you, I love you and I respect your right to a life of dignity and hope, a life of self-actualized growth and I will fight for you.

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I do not accept that black, brown, Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish people with varying orientations and degrees of ability are made the collateral damage in the bulldozing path of a historical lie spun incessantly about racial and social superiority, while those who spin it hold our planet, our children, our wealth, our future, our collective soul hostage. I do not accept how they divide us. I do not accept that our trauma and violence are painted as intrinsic to who we are, while they cover their colonization in the fog of words, in a war of semantics, in imperial programming. I refuse to normalize their hatred.

The day you were born was the first moment you witnessed power in action and you said no to it. Where you traced its institutions, its circulatory system, feeding life into those who designed it and relegating the rest of us to despondency and despair. You deserve better than a life of despair.

Answering the call is a commitment to replacing despair with kindness, even when kindness means blocking roads and lobbying governments. Especially when it means that.

So I want to ask all of you and please let me hear a beautiful Yes:

Do you hear the call?

Do you hear the call today?

We are not here to feel good about ourselves. We celebrate who we are and we resist in our joy but we are not here to joke around about what is happening south of the border, around the world, in our own backyard, in our families. We are here to make a public declaration to do better and to stop those who won’t.

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The work does not end here, it starts right now.

I want you to turn to the person next to you, put your hand over your heart, look them straight in the eye and face their humanity. Thank them for being here today. Thank them for taking a stand and answering the call of Justice.

Repeat after me:

I am here for you.

I will always be here for you.

I will defend you.

I will use my voice

In the face of your oppression.

I will work for justice.

I hear the call.

And I answer it.

Very good.

Hear this call today, everyone, I am holding you accountable Let it echo every day in every action you take.

It is history calling, wondering what side you will be on.

It is our duty to memory, wondering how selective you will be.

And it is the scales of justice calling, wondering what your balance look like.

All our lives hang in the fold.

Thank you.


Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

Photography: Lindsey Catherine Photos & Media

Video: Radical Citizen Media

“Self-care” has become a popular term in the last few years, and with good reason. The Audre Lorde quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” resonates with many who have popularized the doctrine of self-care. Femininity and femaleness bear care-giving and nurturing associations, which often become expectations (both internal and external) and demands.  “Self-care” is a reminder to prioritize our own well-being amongst the other emotional labour we do, whether that is parenting, being a good partner and friend, working in a profession such as teaching or counseling, or social activism. Self-care reminds us to set emotional boundaries, and boundaries on our time and outward productivity. Time spent nurturing our own well-being is just as legitimate as time spent at work or on other “productive” tasks, but we often feel anxious or guilty for taking that time.

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The problem with the popularity of “self-care”, is that it risks being conflated with the Parks and Recreation-coined phrase “treat yo self.” Now, I am not here to condemn “treat yo self”! Far be it for me and my thirty-six lipsticks to judge anyone for enjoying some retail therapy… or Netflix binges, or dessert for no reason, or sleeping until noon…. But, reducing self-care to various acts of consumption removes the nurturing, and radical core, of the concept.  A holistic understanding of self-care ultimately has to focus on the care portion – instead of being a moment to stop caring because you’re overburdened, it should be a moment to turn your caring and nurturing energy inward to rebuild.

To help me maintain a good balance of tough (self)love and more gentle nurturing, I use what I call the Maternal Theory of Self-Care, which is that sometimes you have to be your own mom and sometimes you have to be your own grandma.* Being your own mom entails things like making yourself do your chores when you don’t feel like it, making sure you’re eating balanced meals and going outside to play enough, sitting yourself down and having an honest talk about “what’s bothering you?”, and sometimes even putting yourself in a time out when you’re not playing well with others. The strict, but caring “for your own good” stuff, in other words. Being your own grandma, on the other hand, involves treats and sympathy.

*Speaking archetypally, of course. You may not want to model your self-care after your own particular mother or grandmother, or may have other figures who fill these roles better.

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 10 ways to be your own mom

  • Clean your space. It’s a pigsty. Do the laundry while you’re at it.
  • Cook a proper meal with all the food groups. Maybe even cook something that isn’t cooked all in one pan! Or even go full mom and write a meal plan for the week.
  • Go for a walk/run/work out. Play outside.
  • Wash your face every day (and don’t pick at that pimple). Take your make up off before bed, too.
  • Make that appointment; doctor, therapist, hairdresser, whatever. And then go.
  • Don’t skip that party. You know you’ll have fun once you’re there!!
  • Take your meds, if you have them.
  • Do the damn dishes and clean the kitchen counters. How do you think you’ll feel coming home from a long day at work to that, hm?
  • Purge your closet. Are you really going to wear that again? It’s just taking up space…
  • Why don’t you ever use that musical instrument/bicycle/art supplies/etc? You paid for that and used to love using it…. (in other words, make/do something fun! Return to an old hobby or start a new one.)

 10 ways to be your own grandma

  • Make (order) your favourite meal. Have seconds!
  • And save room for dessert….
  • Take the day off and go on a nice outing.
  • Or stay in and spend quality time with yourself.
  • Cozy up and have a nap.
  • You don’t have to go to that party. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, dear!
  • Make yourself some tea.
  • Tell yourself you look beautiful.
  • Let yourself get away with being fussy, angry, and sad. Be sympathetic to yourself and validate your feelings, even if you know you’re being a bit of a baby.
  • And, of course, buy yourself a present for no reason.

lizElisabeth came to Edmonton to do a Masters degree in History at the University of Alberta after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History at the University of Victoria. Her research interests include medieval and early modern social and cultural history, especially issues around medical history and persecution. In the first year of her Masters degree, Elisabeth received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, followed by the Walter H. Johns Fellowship, Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship.She  presented at the HCGSA Conference at University of Alberta in 2016 and will be writing the entry on Leprosy in World Christianity for the De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (forthcoming). She has worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, and as a contract researcher and writer for the Government of Alberta’s Heritage division. In addition to her work as a writer and researcher, Elisabeth works with the Art Gallery of Alberta.

I was approached by The Green Room (IFSSA) to share stories of my life at an event called OUTSPOKEN on March 29th. The event was an intimate gathering in a carpeted room of vivid colours, sparkling lights and star decorations hanging from the ceiling. There were four women, including me, gathered on cushions on the floor, sitting and facing a small audience of several dozen. The atmosphere was friendly and informal. It was a safe space – a “container” one woman called it- where words that are said are not be repeated, but are to be felt nonetheless: the residue of our affect being what we carry away with us. The beauty of just listening to stories lived by those among us, our sisters, immediately resonated with me, and the impermanence of it struck me. We just had right now to connect before we were swept into our lives again. The room became a liminal space, equalized and perfumed with communitas where we spoke and were heard: a lost art forged anew.

What follows is the story I told, for the first time, in a public space.


When I was first asked to speak about my story in womanhood, my first thought was “what does that even mean?” I was worried I would be participating in a discussion about normative femininity in which the dictates of some so-called essential female characteristic traits were expected to be invoked when I really only believe that gender is culturally prescribed and performed.

As a Muslim, I have a prescription and I engage with my performance of what “being a woman means” (for me) daily, but I don’t think this has any essential tenets beyond:

-being equal to men (which is an equally performative category)

-and having prescribed roles, but not necessarily traits or ways of being within those roles.

As Muslims, all of us are implored to swallow our anger or pride, to act justly, to seek knowledge and to be examples of peace and kindness for everyone.

So I won’t be talking about softness or intuitive motherhood, or the kinder, more nurturing sex. I will be talking about what happens when universalizing narratives suffocate individual stories of what “womanhood” really means, on an individual level – stories which are the reason we are gathered today.

Naturally, I thought of the moment that most people would associate with womanhood, (if we are to talk of such a thing) – so today, I am going to tell the story of my child’s birth in a series of vignettes and I hope, that in doing so, we see how damaging normative, essentializing womanhood characteristics can be, because for every trauma I experienced in that birth, each event making up the whole event, we can trace it back to what someone else thought my womanhood ought to be.


In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful

The bags were heavy, cutting through my fingers as they spun around and around. The sunshine exploded across the dusty street as I carried my groceries down the block to the front of my apartment building. Humidity fogged my glasses, perched over reddened cheeks, and wisps of hair poked out from my hijab, plastered to my temples.

My steps were slow and careful as my floor-length djelleba skirted the street at my ankles and my body lumbered and swayed under the girth of my swollen belly and two armloads of groceries.

Astafirghallah, God forgive me, I muttered under my breath as I stared at the staircase to my apartment building. Five storeys up. I’d have to carry these bags five storeys up, choked by my hijab, trying not trip on my djelleba, trying not to curse my husband’s name too loud for fear my neighbours might hear me.

I had had what some might call a perfect pregnancy, without complications and with plenty of sunny days spent writing in Moroccan cafes on the Mohammedia beach or evenings spent teaching my students at the English Center. My husband had left for Europe at the opening of my third trimester to finalize his permanent residency there.

As I lumbered up the stairs with my groceries, I could hear our earlier conversation replaying in my head, spiraling up those stairs with me.

It shouldn’t be much longer, he’d said.

You said that last week, I replied.

Why can’t you just adapt without me? he shouted.

The question cut through my laboured breathing as I took a break in front of my neighbour’s landing. I rubbed my purple creased fingers while my bags rested on the floor, touching the place where my wedding ring had been before I had taken it off from the swelling.

What did it mean to adapt? Especially to a place not your own, a land of your adopted grace where the language reached your ears in a garbled euphonious mess, the tea was always frothy and nothing ever made any sense. What did it mean to adapt? Especially alone, spending silent days chopping vegetables in the kitchen or singing You Are My Sunshine to the growing stranger in your womb. What did it mean to adapt when you went to doctor’s appointments alone, feigning understanding in three different languages, while this wholly mysterious process you were now tied to (a train you could not get off) would just continue beyond your control in a place where everything else is beyond your control too.

Adapting meant being quiet: accepting exile in stride. It meant exodus, like Mariam (May Allah be pleased with her), reminding yourself not fear but feeling it all the same. It meant swallowing that fear and putting a smile on your face so you mother can hear it on her end of the phone in Canada. It’s telling everyone you’re fine, when you’re not.

It is the triumph of reaching your door after five storeys in oppressive heat, the triumph of making it home again, that you did do it alone, but wishing you didn’t have to.

***

My doula arrived a few days after my husband returned from Italy. We met her at the airport and drove back to our place to unpack her bags and get her settled in. She’s a bubbly person who wears only black and has developed an anxiety about how many rolls of toilet paper you have in the house. She took our bedroom while my husband and I crammed into the spare, sleeping on two twin beds, only a few feet apart but separated by oceans.

We spent two weeks writing birth plans and going over the process so I could know what to expect. We spent our days watching marathons of our favourite shows, getting her to try the latest tajine at a local restaurant of experimenting with making couscous in my kitchen – a room where the cupboards held the moisture of the ocean and always smelled musty, and where an open window was an invitation for songbirds to snag your bread off the counter.

One afternoon, we went to the beach and she floated me in the ocean, wearing a long blue dress that disappeared beneath the lazy waves, my rounded belly bobbing up over the water line – a growing vessel. Layers of water within water pulling you the center and pushing you out again. The sky was clear that day and the sound of laughter carried over the waves from the beach, where kids (out of classes) played soccer with a broken Coke bottle and you could hear the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves in the sand as a police officer made his rounds, checking the marriage licenses of necking couples along the shore. I had put my head below the surface, my hijab protecting my ears from the cold bite of the water, and a bubble formed. A time of quiet and calm where I could feel the baby move in time to the sea’s rhythm and I wondered when I would meet her.

***

How could you?  I moaned as each contraction brought me up, way up and then crashing down again. I was vocal while labouring, my doula fighting back both laughter and sometimes tears at what came out of my mouth. It ranged from a long hellllooooooooo to proposing marriage to my husband again. Will you marry me? was interspersed with how could you leave me here?

In a chair with impossibly high arms in the spare bedroom, I laboured like a queen on a throne, feeling the shuddering and opening of my body while my husband read a newspaper in the next room. Opppppeeeeennnnnnn, I groaned to myself, wind rushing from depths I didn’t know I had and whistling through my teeth.

Outside the window, we were in a cloud as a fog rolled off the ocean and took over our block, the haze of the streetlights barely strong enough to cut through. The fog covered everything and the walls dripped as my body wrenched itself open in ways I had never imagined. In moments of rest, I thought, “Who has control over this?” And another contraction would hit as I called out to Allah.

I didn’t wish for death or oblivion then, as I knew Mariam (may Allah be pleased with her) had beneath the palm tree. That would not come until later.

***

The doctor was looking at me and screaming for me to push. I did not know how long I had been there, how long she had been screaming at me, her hands making a slicing motion as she threatened me with a C-section.

My legs were locked into table stirrups. The left one kept falling down and a nurse kept strapping it back in. The same nurse who had kicked my doula out of the room and injected me with Pitocin against my will to speed up the contractions. Everything was in and out after that until this moment of pushing. At some point, I had been cut, a vacuum used on my child’s head, the stomach I had been so careful not to bump into anything – jumped on by the nurse. Snapshots amidst blackness.

And suddenly, my husband’s hand in mine and his voice from somewhere far away: “She’s telling you to push.”

“Oh, I see,” I replied calmly, not realizing I was screaming.

I set aside the images of this doctor telling me to shut up and let her do her job. I put aside her rage when I had ventured to ask what she was doing to me, as if my baby was coming from her body and not mine. I put aside my own tears while her slices silenced me.

I found a tiny light inside myself, closed my eyes and pushed down on it. The first push was exploratory and the light got brighter. I found the place my strength comes from. I snapped my eyes open, locking them with this doctor, hearing her laughter in my face a few weeks back when I said I had a plan and a doula. I pushed down on that light and it got brighter. My eyes never left that doctor’s face.. She would not rob me of this.

I birthed in rage. And the light got brighter and more blinding. I felt the sway of my husband to my side as a nurse caught him and pulled him out of the room, on the verge of fainting. The light filled the room and a sound emerged from it that has no description: animalistic, but musical; the sound of being a part of creation, of ultimate hereness, of right now.

And before my husband’s feet passed the door’s threshold, my daughter let out a cry and the light dissipated across the room.

***

I don’t know when I laid my head down but the next thing I remember was the nurse massaging where a baby had been, a baby who was now crying across the room. There was a woosh and a splatter at the sound of my blood hitting the floor. It sounded like the ribbons of water on the pavement when the Berber women washed away the evening dust.

The sound of my blood hit the floor in time to my voice, soothing my whimpering child. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you.

Someone asked my husband my blood type.

A negative, he replied.

Allah! was all that came back.

***

When I woke up, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t breathing. All I wanted to do was take a nice, deep breath. But I couldn’t. I started counting the seconds, trying to track how long it had been, trying to remember how long the human brain could be deprived of oxygen before it became a vegetable.

Sounds of the room flooded into my ears. My eyes would not open. Someone was between my legs, sewing me up.

I’m in surgery, I realized. I’m awake in surgery.

Why haven’t I taken a breath yet? I ask myself, forgetting the breathing tubes down my throat.

Is death coming? Oblivion?

I hear my heart racing on the monitor, impossible to find spaces between the beats.

And in this space, I remember Mariam, leaning against the palm tree, crying out.

I mourn the life my daughter will have without me and in my head, I say my shahadah.

La ilaha ill Allah, Muhammadur rasoul Allah

***

Someone is holding my hand. I can feel soft hair on the knuckles. It is a strong hand and it keeps trying to let go but I am grasping at it. I have to hold onto it.

What did you eat for breakfast?  he asks.

I don’t understand, I reply.

His tone gets more urgent. Just tell me what you ate for breakfast, sister.

Why are you asking me this? I reply in broken Arabic.

He starts firing questions to nurses and looking under my eyelids at my pupils. I realize he thinks I am Arab and can’t understand why I am barely making sense.

Brother, I’m Canadian. I’m not Arab. I’m alive. I squeeze his hand.

He chuckles, You’re alive, sister.

Allahu Akbar! What’s your name brother? Don’t let go of my hand.

Abdul Aziz, he replies as he wheels me to my room to see my daughter.

The slave of the Mighty One.

The One who provides, without discrimination,

The One, who when Mariams leans on the palm, rains dates upon her for sustenance.

As time moves on, each triumph comes to me like the sweet chewy flesh of a date, a hard-earned delight that fills your mouth with joy for a moment in an ever-changing and endless stream of a life that will never be the same.

Like the time I crawled up those same five storeys on my hands and knees, taking an hour to reach my apartment door, shaking. Still triumphant.

Or the time, six months later, I raced up them two by two, skidding through my front door with a bouncing baby on my hip.

***

What does it mean to adapt?

It means finding that light within you, that space where your strength comes from, and pressing on it, even in the face of those who try to dictate what you are made of, and then letting that light fill the room.

It means embracing the exodus and the resiliency you earn because of it.

In that moment, before the dates fell, when the doctor placed my daughter on my lap for the first time, I closed my eyes, heard the sound of Mariam’s bubbling stream below me, and slept.