Moonlight peered through the dense cedar forest as the sound of night owls swept over some 200,000 graves spread across the forest floor. Granite tomb stones, from the simple to the ornate, cast shadows across the path.
It was Christmas night 2018 and I walked alone through the 1,200-year-old Okunoin cemetery in Koyo-san, Japan – the island nation’s largest cemetery. It was an evening that cleared the mind.
I didn’t take the two-week trip alone because I was unhappy – even though I knew I was not happy. Coming off a divorce, pondering my next steps personally and professionally, Japan was the ideal spot to divert my senses, to rethink my purpose. Whether it was walking along forest paths, bulleting across the countryside, or wandering vibrant neighborhoods, markets, and restaurants, I relished the feeling of solitude among many.
Along the way, I decided 2019 was going to be the “Year Ali Got His S**t Together,” or YAGHST.
I didn’t return home with a 12-step YAGHST plan. I knew I needed to rediscover my purpose, I knew I needed to create some forward momentum. I didn’t know how things might play out. But, I figured it would take a year. Or less. Because I am one of those irritating overachievers.
By June of 2019, I had purchased a house. Got to know my new neighbors. Bought furniture. Planted plants. Threw a YAGHST house-warming party.
Two months later, on a dating app unknown to any of our friends, I met Toya. (Some would call it serendipity. We call it a Black-Istani focus group of two.) At the end of our first date, Toya said to herself (but out loud), “That wasn’t so bad.”
Which I took as a sign I was getting my s**t together.
By the end of 2019, I was zeroing in on a new book contract. Things felt right.
Then, 2020 happened.
My dad was diagnosed with cancer two days before Covid shut down the country. Since my sisters had young kids, I immediately hopped on a flight and spent the first months of the pandemic living with my parents in their two-bedroom condo.
It was nerve-wracking. My dad was in and out of the hospital for days at a time. Since Covid protocols barred hospital visitors, the best my sisters could do is send food to the floor nurses while my mom and I talked, cooked and watched MacGyver. A lot of MacGyver.
After over twenty years on the East Coast, the stress of those months reconnected me to my parents. My dad’s determination (and seriousness). My mom’s love (and sense of humor). Surprisingly, it was some of the best time of my life.
During one of my dad’s hospital stays, I convinced my mom to share her story over a two-part podcast. I heard new stories of my parents’ sacrifice, the family she left in Pakistan, and how luck combined with perseverance to build the lives my sisters and I enjoyed. I realized anew that my parents had lived life with a clear purpose. And that purpose was us.
I returned to DC in May and, soon, Lady became our pandemic puppy. By the end of the year, Toya and I were engaged.
There was an unspoken urgency to things.
2021 was a whirlwind. We got married. I decided to leave a job I had loved for 14 years.
But I didn’t have a plan for next steps. Which very much felt like not having my s**t together. So, I re-evaluated the idea of s**t being together.
A friend asked me to consider three questions: Why am I in this? What do I seek in terms of mentors/mentees? What do I want to be known for?
I am not sure the answers I gave a year ago would be the answers I give today. But, just as there is no one YAGHST, I realize there are no set answers.
Which brings us to Christmas 2022.
I was not walking through an ancient, deeply spiritual, cemetery, where every cracked branch, whistling leaf, shrieking owl, tapped my eardrum.
Rather, I was at home. Holding Anisa.
In the early hours of December 23, I had witnessed the awesome power of Toya in labor and the incredible miracle that was the birth of our daughter, Anisa Marie Noorani.
And, now, Christmas night, deep in the joy of parenthood, I listened to Anisa breathe. Softly. Peacefully. Purposefully.
2023 will mark 50 years of me having – or not having – my s**t together on this earth. And while my 50th year will be dominated by a lot of s**t, I hope all of that s**t comes wrapped up in diapers.
If it doesn’t, that is okay. Because like there are no set answers, there is no one YAGHST.
More importantly, I have two new people in my life to help me answer the questions that life brings.
I can’t imagine a better partner in life than Toya. And, as Anisa sits in my lap tonight while I finish this piece, she is already teaching me that to live life softly, peacefully, purposefully is more than enough.
Happy New Year.