Introduction to When You Wave at a Train and the Train Hoots Back at You

This may be my most personal book, as I wrote this collection of poems as an attempt to definitively and honestly connect in a deep way with Farid, my teenage stepson. The dynamic of our relationship, from the time of our entrance into each other’s lives after I married his mother in 1980, when he was a little over two years old, was basically sound. But perhaps as with all teenage boys and their dads, step or no, by the time he was thirteen we were somewhat, though never disastrously, at odds. As a writer of poems rather than a swinger of baseball bats, a caster of fly fishing rods, a shooter of pheasant rifles, and as someone who had sat at the feet of various saintly shuyukh, or Sufi Masters, in particular the great scholar and Qutub Shaykh Muhammad ibn al Habib of Fez, buried now in his Zawiyya in Meknes, I thought I might try to instill some wisdom into the proceedings as the seal of our spiritual bond.

This book has been in manuscript since I wrote it in 1991, a year after our large cross-country move from California to Philadelphia, from the sunny beaches and horrendously high-priced accommodations of Santa Barbara, to the four-season’d urban life of Philadelphia, original home of my wife and Farid’s mother, Malika. There was some excitement in all this, and mountains of adjustment for a thirteen year-old boy having left friends behind and working his way into new circles of peers in a very new and often suspicious environment. So I was also conscious of extending a hand of understanding, both in real terms and in these poems for him, and hopefully for others in similar situations (though I eschew poetry as sociology, which it has often become in our present day). The fact that his father (renowned British photographer, Peter Abdal-Atheem Sanders) resided in London with a new family and three half-sisters, and his full brother, Mukhtar, two years his senior, was also growing up apart from him, while he lived in Philadelphia with us and his American half-sister, Salihah, who was nine at the time, was the actual and emotional environment of his early teenagehood. Caught between biological father and stepfather and two families, one far off in England and his immediate family in America, was certainly for him a thickening of his familial plot. This was also the maze I made my way through in this series of poems, veering off here and there into my own brand of “magical realism,” then coming back to facts and “things as they are,” or at least attempting to.

Connecting with people, especially in our immediate families, is a dimension of high-voltage dynamics that have perplexed folk through the ages. Shakespeare would be nothing if all the stretched and stretching lines of relationship were easy. From Genesis on, the actions of siblings and honoring of parental connections and the ever-shifting menus on the part of parents themselves of what to impart, what to hold back, what to expect, what to let go of, are multifarious. Diving into this domain, then, was as much an impulse of my poetic imagination as a personally domestic one.

But after emerging from his teen years, shining in college and moving upward in his career, a trustworthy, sane and spiritual person of great integrity, Farid will be thirty-one in August of 2008, and I’m taking this opportunity to dust off the manuscript and publish these poems today in honor of his wedding in his new home of Zurich, Switzerland, to Swiss native, Tina Theler, who seems in our eyes and obviously in his, to be a perfect mate. I intend this little book to be a blessing for their life together… a raised toast (with the wine of God’s wisdom), and an affirmation.

After all its meanderings, homilies, historical memories, surreal asides and linguistic bridges, I think the core reverberant line is “You’ve been grafted to my root,” which turned out to be the central discovery for me early in the writing of these poems, and which sealed the deal for us both, and continues to do so to this day, and to the end of our days, with God’s Grace and Permission.

Categories: Author's Introductions