I have a 450-square foot studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My bed folds into a discrete cabinet against the wall, and my sink is always full of dishes. I have a tuxedo cat named Emma who doesn’t like anyone except me and has scratched up the ends of my armchair and leaves fuzz and hair wherever she sits. She tracks small pieces of litter across the apartment. My coffee table is covered with plastic bottles, coasters, leftover takeout containers, and graded papers. Working sixty to seventy hours a week, I roll in and out, often too tired to even put my clothes or shoes away in the right place, leaving them instead to hang out in piles on the floor or over my barstools.
On Fridays, I hurry home from work, turn on bad reality television (Hell’s Kitchen mostly) whilst drinking a frappuccino, and start vacuuming. I sweep up all the white and black cat hairs, and vacuum them out of the sofa and throw pillows. I mop until the floors smell like lemon, sweep and wipe down the bathroom, throw my trash out, put away my recyclables, and finally fold my clothes or put them in the laundry. I take off all the extra things from my coffee table, light a candle, put a record on the turntable, turn on my string lights, change out of my work clothes, and wait for the first guest to arrive.
My friend Wynton will do my dishes with a smile and boil some water for tea. My friend Eric will settle in the cat scratched armchair and proceed to tell us all about his latest encounter with a younger generation and how confused he is by people in their late twenties and early thirties. A newcomer will sit, confused, with his or her hands on their laps, wondering what to make of the event or the characters already seated inside. My friend Yassy might venture up from Brooklyn, talk about how much she misses the Upper West Side where she used to live when she was a student at Columbia, and listen to me be offended again about her decision to move away. The doorbell will ring again, and in will come Kristy or Jordan, acquaintances I met once who I hadn’t seen in years, who decided they’d finally go back to that devotional gathering that made them happy once. Another new face will arrive, point at the floor as if wondering if they’re in the right place, say they were invited by Eric or Wynton or Yassy or Kristy, or that they were a friend of so and so who I knew from x, y, z, and thought an evening of devotions and lively and thoughtful discussion about “Feminism and Spirituality” sounded interesting.
There could be ten people tonight, there could be five, maybe fifteen. Sometimes only one person arrives. Maybe it’s only me, Kafele, and Molly, so we’ll say a couple prayers before talking for four hours. Archwana and I will order sushi and watch Hulu if she’s the only one who shows. Jimmy and Eric will talk for ages about music and television, while I glance at my phone before realizing I understand a part of their conversation and can jump in.
No matter what, there will be cookies. There will be tea. We’ll smile and say one interesting thing that happened to us in the last week. My cat Emma will watch us from her spot on top of the bookshelf, where she’ll behave and keep her paws to herself as long as no one looks her in the eye. We’ll read from the collection of prayer books and holy writings in the middle of the table. We’ll share ideas from philosophers, writers, actors, world leaders, and scholars. We’ll watch documentaries. We’ll read articles. We’ll discuss the implications of a world more devoted to the cause of gender equality. We’ll hold ourselves accountable and explore our consciences. We’ll deepen friendships as we laugh, challenge each other, and learn.
We always end at 9:30 and say a closing prayer. We’ll file out of the apartment, down my little narrow hallway that isn’t wide enough for a pizza box to fit through the doorway. We’ll tie our shoes in the hallway and whisper because quiet hour in my building starts at 9 PM before taking the elevator downstairs and waving goodbye to my doorman who smiles as he studies our faces, looking to see who he recognizes and who he’ll let up without questioning next week.
We’ll walk the two blocks to my diner, where I wave hello to the owner who nods and smiles at me in recognition, pointing us to our table. The waiter will pour me decaf coffee before asking, and another will bring over a plate of jams because my friend Jian always asks. He’ll try to guess our orders, and as the newcomers ask me what’s good, I tell them not to venture beyond eggs, burgers, or grilled cheeses.
We’ll talk until midnight, our arms draped over the backs of booths with our feet sometimes on the bench. We’ll glance out at the street lights and point at the different businesses outside and ask questions. We’ll take pictures and post self-made memes to Instagram. We’ll answer questions about the Baha’i Faith. We’ll keep debating ideas within feminism. We’ll tell each other about our health problems, our work problems, our travel plans, our joys, our sadnesses, our parents, our kids, our partners.
We’ll create a community: a small pocket of joy, camaraderie, and fellowship that started out of a tiny apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan simply because a young woman wanted to talk about God and women’s rights.
We all might come back next week, and we all might not. My door will be open. My cat will be meowing. I will look forward to Fridays because they make me clear my coffee table of graded papers and empty bottles. They will make me vacuum the cat hair off my Persian rug and mop down the floors. They will make me make my apartment smell like citrus fruit and they will make me feel at home and warm as records play, the air conditioner buzzes, and water boils for tea. They will make me remember I love being alive, I love being surrounded by joy, and my home can create it.
My home is the home of peace. My home is the home of joy and delight. My home is the home of laughter and exultation. Whosoever enters through the portals of this home, must go out with gladsome heart. This is the home of light; whosoever enters here must become illumined.1
My devotional opened me up to the capacities of my home, and what I have to offer. It’s a small nook nestled in quiet neighborhood of Manhattan, safe, warm, well-lit and well decorated, and it is the meeting place of joy, and the dayspring of happiness.
- Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, vol. 9, no. 3, 28 April 1918, p. 40 [↩]