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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Reverb10, Day 31: The core of the story

 Prompt: Core story. What central story is at the core of you, and how do you share it with the world? (Bonus: Consider your reflections from this month. Look through them to discover a thread you may not have noticed until today).

Author: Molly O'Neill
Harper Collins Children's

I have a tradition that I started a few years ago on new year's eve. I spend at least the last hour of my current year reading my journals from the months leading up to new year of the previous (i.e. 2009) year, and then writing a journal entry for the start of the new year.

Tonight my journal writing is accompanied by a crackling, blazing fire. I am on my last two logs, and there are 20 minutes until the clock strikes 12.

Looking back over the last year, the story that seems to be at the core of me is one of relationships, service and presence. My relationship with God and my faith. My relationships with family and friends. My relationship with the land I am inhabiting, with the colours, textures, flavours, aromas, sounds and light that surround me. I feel a deep gratitude for all of my relationships, whether they be with myself, others, or the natural world around me. I feel deeply blessed.

The other story that seems to keep rising up out of me is service. My own service to my community. The service that family and friends are rendering to the world around them. Acts of service that are making this world more beautiful, peaceful, diverse, joyful. More like home.

And presence...I am still exploring presence. So much of my life has been about the parts that are absent. I am in the US, but part of me is in Cyprus. I am in Cyprus, but part of me is in Canada. I am in Italy, but part of me is in the US. I am in Canada, but part of me is dreaming of Cyprus. And now I am in California, but of course, I somehow managed to leave a large piece of my heart back in Canada! You would think that since I so deeply want to find a home where I am fully present, I would have figured out how to do it by now. Even I am shaking my head here, because the truth is that I haven't figured it out yet. This blog does provide me with an opportunity to practice presence every day though, and I think I am actually making progress!

I am grateful for this wild year of adventure of exploration. I am looking forward to the opportunity to continue learning and growing towards presence in the new year. To more service, to new relationships, and to continuing to deepen the relationships that I am already blessed to share.

Here's to the the story that radiates from the core of each of us! May it radiate outwards into the world even brighter in 2011! May we continue to believe in our dreams! And may we be empowered to pursue them with everything we have got, and make them come true. Anything is possible!

The fireworks are going off, so I will close here. Happy new year to you all! 

Reverb10, Day 30: Giving thanks to you, on the eve of a new year

Prompt: Gift. This month, gifts and gift-giving can seem inescapable. What's the most memorable gift, tangible or emotional, you received this year?

Author: Holly Root
Waxman Literary Agency
My family. Rock. Daily support system. Source of never ending patience and love.
This one is dedicated to you. Yes, you. My readers. My friends. My mentors. My family. My community. My boss. My boss's mother. My fellow writers. My fellow farmers. All of you.

My Siamese twin. Reader. Read. Writer. Fitness ninja. Inspiration. Soul sista!
The best gift this year has been the unwavering, inspiring, encouraging support from you. Letting go of everything familiar. Jumping off the cliff of security without knowing whether I would suddenly sprout wings, has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. Saying: I want to be a writer and a farmer. I want to love my work. I want my work to be joyful and inspiring. I want to be passionate about my work. I want my work to be a form of worship. I want it to be an act of service. I want it to contribute to the betterment of the world -- takes a lot of courage and faith.

Community. Readers. Support. Heart. Home.

Mentors, soul sisters, readers, inspiring souls, friends

Readers. Encouraging supporters. The people who remind me to be silly :-)

Life long friend and soul sister. Constant source of inspiration and encouragement.

When I started this blog, I wasn't sure anyone would be interested in what I had to say. I wasn't sure that I would say it well enough to grab your attention. I wanted to contribute something to the world that would contribute to the beauty and joy of the world around me. That would make you see things that you experience every day from a slightly different perspective -- from the perspective of presence.

Fellow writer, explorer, reader and soul sister for life.

College roommate, inspiration, spiritual sister

Soul sister. Life long friend

Mentor. Friend. Community member. Reader. Inspiration

Fellow writer, inspiration, friend, soul sister
Within a few days of starting this blog, a few of you totally fantastic people (you know who you are) signed up to "follow" my blog. Since then, more and more of you have started "following" this humble blog of mine, and many more are reading it every day.

Lifelong friend and soul sister

Friends, mentors, colleagues

Lifelong mentor

My (former) boss and mentor

Colleague. Reader. Inspiring soul. Friend.

My (former) boss's mother, and good friend

Friend. A lady whose courage and determination inspires me to no end!

Mentor. Wild woman. Adventurer. Friend. Family.

Family. Friends. Spiritual inspiration. Fellow farmers.

Soul sista. Life long friend. Amazingly inspiring woman.

Long lost sister. Life long friend. Inspiring, beautiful, creative dancer

Mentor. Life long friend. Spiritual colleague. Community. Family.

Life long friend. Writer. Met when we were toddlers. Amazingly, she still puts up with me!!

Inspiration. Friends. Mother. Readers. Graceful, fun-loving soul sistas!
You are reading in the morning. You are reading while I am sleeping. You are reading while I am writing. You are reading all over the world! Having people like you reading my blog on a regular basis totally blows me away! I love to write, and will keep writing no matter what, but knowing that you are reading what I write, and that it is contributing something positive to your life, is invaluable to me. The connection between me as a writer, and you as a reader, is a spark that sends reverberations out that invigorate my creative process...big time!

The wildest, most creative people in the world. Life long friends. Support. Inspiration.

Soul sister. and brother. Fellow travelers. Inspiring scientist. Well-loved computer geek. Encouragement.
 So this entry is my gift to you. You who inspire me as a writer every day, and teach me about being committed so that I, in turn, push myself to be more committed to my writing process -- to sit down and write regularly and consistently. You who write to me to tell me that my blog is inspiring you and your creative process. You who are inspiring me, and supporting, and encouraging me to pursue my dream of writing by calling, or writing me hand-written letters, or sending me emails...knowing that I am surrounded by a supportive community of friends who believe in my dream and cheer me on as I grow as a writer, blossoming farmer, entrepreneur, woman, friend and traveler is an incredible gift.

Fellow children's class teachers. Soul sisters and brother. Creativity central. Inspiration. Joy!
So thank you for the gift that you have given me this year! I would not have made it this far without you. I am learning that one does not succeed at anything in life alone. Success is the result of living in a community composed of supportive and inspiring relationships with others. Of being present.

Beautiful family. Loving. Supportive. Joy.

He is teaching me the piano. Constant, never ending source of inspiration.

Spiritual family.

Sister. Writer. Reader. Amazing creative genius!

Friend. Colleague. Fellow world-traveler.

Soul sister. Friend. A woman who keeps me humble and open hearted.

Family. Sister. Brother. Writer. Photographer. Inspiration. Support. Friends.

Community. Possibility. Encouragement. Diversity.
Thank you, you inspiring people!! I hope the year ahead generates more excitement and creative inspiration for all of you! I look forward to hearing from you more. To learning more about your stories, thoughts and reflections, as well as how my blog contributes positively to your creative process and life.

Happy new year to you all!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Reverb10, Day 29: 'Abdu'l-Bahá's North American boots

Prompt: Defining moment. Describe a defining moment or series of events that has affected your life this year.

The author of this prompt is Kathryn Fitzmaurice:
The Year the Swallows Came Early


Most people I know visit Montreal for the famous Jazz festival that happens in the summer. Or to go shopping, and enjoy the good restaurants and cafes. My main reason for passing through the city was that I wanted to go visit the home of the Maxwell family – a well established family in the Montreal area who welcomed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Baha’u’llah (the founder of the Baha'i faith), into their beautiful home when he visited Canada in the mid 1900s. The Baha’i community has maintained the property, recently restoring it completely and bringing all of the furniture back to the home that had been there when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited. Over time the home has become a place of pilgrimage. A spot where Baha’is can go to reflect, pray and connect with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Recently the site was named the first official Baha’i shrine in North America.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá spent nine months touring North America in 1912, at the age of sixty-eight. He traveled tirelessly all over the country, giving public speeches at universities, churches, synagogues, clubs and private homes. His speeches were about the message his Father had brought. They were about peace, unity, the elimination of all forms of prejudice, and spiritual life, among many other topics. You can read an account of his time in America in Amy Renshaw's book Voyage of Love: Abdu'l-Baha in North America. You can read a wonderful selection of his talks for free, here. A dear friend of mine, Brent Poirier, is another rich source of stories ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. He website, Storytelling in the Baha'i Faith, is a gem of a resource, if you would like to read more inspiring stories. The photograph of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at the top of this blog entry is "borrowed" from his website.

I started getting to know ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as a child. The first prayer that I learned as a child was written by him. It goes: "O God, guide me, protect me, make of me a shining lamp and a brilliant star.  Thou art the Mighty and the Powerful." ~‘Abdu’l-Bahá

My experience of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as a child and young adult was as a white-bearded elderly man wearing a simple robe and turban, the customary attire for men in much of the Middle East during his lifetime. I always had a photo of him in my bedroom growing up, and I envisioned him as a kind, loving, gentle, grandfather-like figure. I had heard many stories of how much ‘Abdu’l-Bahá loved children, so I always felt a closeness to him. 

Last year I took part in a Ruhi book 8 study course. The Ruhi Institute conducts educational programs for individuals from the age of 5 through adulthood. The materials were originally developed by the Baha'i community of Columbia to spiritually invigorate their community, and to help provide community members with training that would give them the practical skills to best serve the needs of their communities and the world around them. The Ruhi materials were so successful in generating community development that the materials spread, and today are being used all over the world. The Ruhi materials are constantly being updated, and as communities have more learning experiences with them, new materials are being developed. Ruhi book 8 is about the Covenant of Baha'u'llah, and much of it is about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, because he is the Centre of the Covenant for Baha'is. The stories about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and the extracts from his Tablets are deeply inspiring and moving, and by the end of the course of study I felt a much stronger and personal connection to him than I had felt before. 

I chose to go visit the shrine in Montreal on a chilly February night. Bundled up in as many layers as I could get away with and still be able to move, I took the metro across the lit up city, transferred to the bus, and then walked down the icy pavement along a long line of beautiful, graceful stone homes. My silver breath hanging in the air, the snow all around me, and the elegantly style in which the homes were built made me feel as if I had stepped through a gap in the time continuum. I half expected a horse-drawn carriage to clatter by along the street beside me. 

Eventually I came to a home whose windows glowed with a warm yellow light, and I turned up a short walkway and rang the bell. The door was answered by a young Persian man with a radiant smile. He welcomed me in and showed me into a small cloakroom where he said I could leave my belongings during my visit. Having set down all my belongings and removed my shoes, another man approached and offered to give me a tour of the home. I was lucky, he told me. I was the only visitor, and given what a chilly night is was they would not be surprised if I were the only visitor all night. I was taken into the living room where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had given many talks while in the city. It was a large rectangular room with a fireplace at one end. My tour guide explained that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá used to sit next to the fireplace when he gave his talks, this being the source of the term “firesides” that the Baha’i community often uses when referring to gatherings of people for the purpose of discussing the Baha’i faith. 

I was also taken into the office of Mr.Maxwell. The office had the beautiful, heavy antique desk in it that Mr. Maxwell had done his writing and other work at, as well as a number of ornate pieces of furniture. I was told that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had met with Mr. Maxwell in this very room on numerous occasions during the time that he was staying at the Maxwell home, and I conjured up images of the two men sitting deep in discussion in this richly decorated room, with the city of Montreal busily going about its business outside, oblivious of the noble visitor that they had in their midst.

Upstairs, I made a rather quick sweep of the rooms that had formerly been inhabited by members of the Maxwell family, before entering the room that drew me in like a magnet. I stood for a long time in the doorway of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's room, taking in the placement of every piece of furniture: the old four-poster bed with the white embroidered bedspread over it; the dresser; the windows on the far side of the room that looked down the hill over the city of Montreal; and the chair that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had sat in next to the windows. I paused at the door because I wanted to take it in, but also because I felt the need to prepare myself to enter the space that he had inhabited. I had read stories of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, his kindness and generosity to all who crossed his path; his ability to sense what his companions were thinking without their uttering a single word; his absolute devotion and humility; his attitude of servitude and his love for all people, but entering a space that he had actually inhabited made all the stories come to life in a way that I had never before experienced. Although he was not in the room, I felt as though I was entering his presence, and it took a few minutes to ready my heart to enter this special place, and be wholly present.

I stood by the bed first, and imagined ‘Abdu’l-Bahá resting upon it, his white beard and hair flowing over the pillow. I walked around the perimeter of the room, stopping to take in each detail and commit it to memory. I found myself being drawn to his chair. I stood in front of it, then knelt, and was suddenly overcome with a rush of emotion. I felt deeply blessed to be in this room alone, and to have the chance to talk to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá like so many had done in person not so long ago, in this very place. I said many prayers, and in between the prayers I spoke with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. I thanked him. I asked questions, and for guidance on my journey. As I knelt in front of his chair, I felt as if he was sitting there right in front of me, and an overwhelming feeling of love poured over me. Love for this man who dedicated his entire life to serving others. I was there for a long time. Time seemed to disappear, and all that existed while I was between those walls was my heart, and the conversation that it was having with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. 

When I left two hours later it felt as though all my worries and concerns had been removed, and as though the space they had occupied had been filled up with a deep and tender love unlike any I had felt before. I felt as if I was carrying in my heart the most precious gift I had ever been given, and I held it tenderly in my chest as I walked back to the metro stop, awareness centred inward to the warm otherworldly silence of the blissful connection I had just experienced as the lights and voices, horns and vibrations of Montreal slid past me like a dream. 

The Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette stunning against a blue sky
About a week later I visited the Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. It is a spectacular architectural achievement, and I spent a few hours taking in the sheer beauty of the structure, and saying prayers. 

These pillars on the House of Worship have the symbols of the major world religions beautifully carved into them. Baha'i Houses of Worship have 9 sides, which represent the nine major religions of the world, all of which converge into a single point at the dome, to represent the unity of all the world's faiths. They are open to people of all faiths, for personal prayer and meditation.
The Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette at night
Below the actual Hose of Worship are many offices and the Baha'i archives. I had not planned on visiting the archives, but one of the very kind souls working in the House of Worship insisted, whisking me down a hall and introducing me to the archivist. There was a lot to see. Tablets and photographs and other personal items belonging to both Baha'u'llah and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. But the items that touched me on this occasion the most were ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's shoes. It might seem rather plain, when I was surrounded by so many rare historical objects. There were two pairs of shoes sitting in the glass case. One was a pair of cream-coloured Middle Eastern slippers. The other was a pair of big black boots. The boots may have been from the Middle East also, but they looked very western. They struck me because precisely because they were so ordinary. They were well worn and scuffed, not shiny and new. They looked like a sturdy pair of boots that someone living in North America at that time in history might have trudged through snowy streets in. Practical. Comfortable. Ordinary. Very ordinary. 

For some reason, all my experiences of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá -- the prayers, the tablets, the stories, the simple photographs, and my experience in Montreal--all seemed to connect to a very real person in the form of these boots. It impressed me that while ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wore his traditional clothing, he chose to wear western boots on his feet in North America. He seemed to be embodying the need to be adaptable and practical, and at the same time communicate a grounded sense of humility. Just as I had felt when sitting in front of the chair that he had regularly occupied in the room that he had stayed in, in Montreal, as I stood in the basement of the House of Worship in front of the glass case of personal objects, I felt as though he was standing right there in front of me in his American boots, smiling. I do not know why those boots made such an impression on me. But since that day last winter, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has become a much more real presence in my life. I feel like he is someone I can take a walk under the changing Autumn trees with; or a friend that I can sit with in silence and just be. 

As I move through my days, he inspires me to serve, and accompanies me as I do. He reminds me how important it is to listen, to be loving, and to practice humility in my everyday interactions. He reminds me to persevere, and to look to the limitless strength of God instead of my own limited resources when I am attempting to accomplish something. He has taught me about being lighthearted. My favourite stories about him involve laughter, and the image in my mind of him laughing in joyful delight never fails to curl the edges of my lips into a smile. I do not know why those boots made such an impression on me. Perhaps ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was humorously teaching me the importance of walking a spiritual path wearing practical shoes. Boots, to be precise!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reverb10, Day 28: Achieving economic prosperity

Prompt: Achieve. What’s the thing you most want to achieve next year? How do you imagine you’ll feel when you get it? Free? Happy? Complete? Blissful? Write that feeling down. Then, brainstorm 10 things you can do, or 10 new thoughts you can think, in order to experience that feeling today.

The author of this prompt is Tara Sophia Mohr:
The Women's Seder Sourcebook: Rituals & Readings for Use at the Passover Seder

"The best of men are they that earn a livelihood by their calling and spend upon themselves and upon their kindred for the love of God." Bahá'u'lláh

"...cooperation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly." 'Abdu'l-Bahá

"Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements."  Bahá'u'lláh 

"...the implications of the law of Huqúqu'lláh for the realization of a number of the principles of the Faith, such as the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty, and a more equitable distribution of resources, will increasingly become manifest as the friends assume in ever greater measure the responsibility for observing it...this mighty law, a source of inestimable blessings for all humanity." The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2006, Huqúqu'lláh Compilation 2007, 104. 

Two words: Economic prosperity. No more scraping by. It was fine to have to fall back on my savings when I was in my twenties. It is no fun now that I am in my thirties. I have lots to offer the world, and I am prepared to work hard, but from now on I expect to be compensated accordingly. There are things that I would like to do with my life, such as raising children, paying off student loans, contributing to the Baha'i fund, buying a piece of land, and building a home. I do not want to live excessively, but I do want to know that I can provide for myself, and, someday, for my family. I feel strongly about being capable of being financially independent. I need to know that I can stand on my own two feet. As a Baha'i, I have a spiritual and moral responsibility as a member of the human race to be contributing to leveling out the current economic inequalities that exist between the wealthiest and the poorest members of our global community. I am not alright with the differences between my quality of life and the quality of life that I saw many people living in Cairo when I was there in 2006. And I know that the citizens of many countries, like Haiti, fair far worse. Achieving personal economic prosperity means I will have the freedom to contribute more generously to the many global efforts that are working to level out these inequalities. Economic prosperity has both material and spiritual implications. 

I imagine that being economically prosperous would mean that I would feel more peace of mind, because I would have the means at my disposal to be an agent of change at a level that I currently do not possess. Of course I always have my time and my skills, and I give of these whenever I can. But sometimes making things happen in life means having the material resources to do so. I also imagine that being economically more prosperous would mean feeling freer to travel, to pursue business ideas, to give to charities, and to attend family gatherings and important life events such as a close friend's wedding every now and then. Other states of being that I associate with economic prosperity are feeling less stressed, and more independent; possessing a greater degree of self-confidence, and having the ability to pursue a wider range of creative and educational projects that will benefit my community. 

So I am obviously not there yet. I have goals, and I am working towards them, but I have a ways to go before I will be able to be making large contributions to charities in Haiti. I will keep working towards my long term goals in the new year, but in the meantime, there are small things that I can do now to help me progress towards my goals. 

I have come up with a list of 10 things I can DO or THINK RIGHT NOW that will empower me, give me peace of mind, help release stress, and make me feel more independent and self-confident (most of the feelings I associate with financial prosperity). Hopefully some of these will inspire you on your path towards your own goal!  

1. Pray. Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i faith, says that our prayers have a profound effect on our lives, even if we cannot at first see the effect: 
"Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee,
as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him,
that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul,
and attract the hearts of all men. Whoso reciteth, in the privacy of his chamber,
the verses revealed by God, the scattering angels of the Almighty
shall scatter abroad the fragrance of the words uttered by his mouth,
and shall cause the heart of every righteous man to throb.
Though he may, at first, remain unaware of its effect, yet the virtue
of the grace vouchsafed unto him must needs sooner or later exercise
its influence upon his soul." -Baha'u'llah

2. Compile a list of positive affirmations and quotes. By repeating certain ideas or thoughts on a regular basis, they become an integral part of how I think. Two of my favourites, which I repeat to myself regularly, are:
"I give you a commandment which shall be for a covenant between you and me — that ye have faith; that your faith be steadfast as a rock that no storms can move, that nothing can disturb, and that it endure through all things even to the end;...As ye have faith so shall your powers and blessings be. This is the balance---this is the balance---this is the balance." -Abdu'l-Baha


"The greatest divine bounty is a confident heart. When the heart is confident, all the trials of the world will be as child's play. Should they throw him into a prison, should they cast him into a black well, should they heap him all manner of afflictions, still his heart is content, peaceful, and assured." -Abdu'l-Baha

3. Do yoga. I was never into yoga. I have always thought that the only sports worth my attention were the vigorous ones that required considerable huffing and puffing, like running and gymnastics. But I am finding that yoga not only keeps my body strong (and sometimes very sore!!), it also does truly amazing things to my mind and heart. It helps me to keep my attention focused on my goals, which brings me closer and closer to achieving them. 

4. Pick the brains of people who are economically prosperous. I have been learning the immense value of role models lately. Surrounding myself with people who are where I want to be is a tremendous encouragement and learning experience. I may not have my dream job yet, but there are plenty of people living all around me who do. I just need to find them and flash my angelic smile ;-)

5. Give myself a break. I can be incredibly hard on myself. Every now and then, stopping and actually saying out loud "thank you for sharing that opinion/criticism/comment -- but personally I think I am a rock star," is always helpful. Anything that lightens the heart and makes me smile at myself is a positive step towards achieving my goals. I was just at an an exhibit of post-impressionists in San Francisco the other day, and was reflecting on the fact that Van Gogh only sold ONE painting during his lifetime, and he sold it to his own brother. I mean, really. How many famous people have stories like this? tonnes, that's how many.

6. Re-read Marianne Williamson's quote, made famous by Nelson Mandela. I won't quote it all here, but you will know what I am talking about by the this short piece: "We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, out presence automatically liberates others." If that does not make you feel hopeful, I do not know what will. Sheer genius, I tell you! 

7. Celebrate the small steps. Whenever I first start trying to work towards something, my goal feels really far off. Celebrating the small accomplishments along the way breaks up the distance between where I am standing right now and where I want to be standing. It also encourages me along the way! 

8. Talk to a friend. Friends are the best thing to ever walk the surface of the earth, in my opinion. Whenever I am feeling like none of my plans are going to work out, and as though I would be better off to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head, I put in a call to a friend who points out all of my assets, and how much progress I have made, and how valuable my contribution to the world is, and the world suddenly gets much brighter. Works like a charm every time. 

9. Serve. Offering service is like a magic salve to any of life's problems. Serving others always makes me feel ten times better about my own life and capabilities. I feel peace of mind and heart, less stressed, and far more optimistic about what I have to contribute to the world. 

10. Have a little faith. Having faith when I am feeling shaky sometimes feels almost impossible, but when I push myself a little, and assure myself that if I have a little more faith, things will work out, I usually find that things start looking up. 
So there you have it! I will end this blog with a poem that lifts my spirits every time I read it. It is by Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum:

To walk where there is no path
To breathe where there is no air
To see where there is not light-
This is Faith.

To cry out in the silence,
The silence of the night,
And hearing no echo believe
And believe again and again-
This is Faith.

To hold pebbles and see jewels
To raise sticks and see forests
To smile with weeping eyes-
This is Faith.

To say: "God, I believe" when others deny,
"I hear" when there is no answer,
"I see" though naught is seen-
This is Faith.

And the fierce love in the heart,
The savage love that cries
Hidden Thou art yet there !
Veil Thy face and mute Thy tongue
yet I see and hear Thee, Love,
Beat me down to the bare earth,
Yet I rise and love Thee, Love !"
This is Faith.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Reverb10, Day 27: No such thing as an ordinary moment of joy

Prompt: Ordinary joy. Our most profound joy is often experienced during ordinary moments. What was one of your most joyful ordinary moments this year?

The author of this prompt is Brené Brown:
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Friends who stopped to smile. From Japan, UAE, New Zealand, the US and Brazil
It is a cool evening in northern California. The buildup to Christmas is over, but Christmas trees are still glowing in everyone's windows, and the strings of lights along the eaves of most of the homes and many of the oak trees on the block are still glimmering. I am not Christian, but I have enjoyed the general good feeling that Christmas seems to bring no matter where I am living. People in coffee shops, at art galleries, and even in the line at the cinema who I have never met before stop and take the time to have a conversation. When I walk down the street, people who usually take great care to not look up are suddenly not only making eye contact, they actually smile and say "hello", or "merry Christmas."

The choices that most of us living in western cultures seem to be making on a daily basis create a world that feels like it is spinning faster and faster every year. We are working more than we ever have before, making more money than we ever have before, and we seem to have less time to spend with our family and friends than we ever have before. The anonymity of city dwelling allows us to live next door to people, sometimes for years, without ever even knowing their names. We go from our homes to our work and back home again in the evening, and apart from essential interactions with colleagues in our workplace, we often get home in the evening without actually having made eye contact with anyone else during the course of the day.

For the past six years, I was living on Prince Edward Island (PEI) in Canada. PEI is a tightly-knit, rural community where almost everyone knows almost everyone else. A common introduction on PEI is "now what is your family name, dear?" or "who is your father?" When you walk down the street most people smile and greet each other. You may not know the person (although if you do not, your father, mother, sister, brother or grandparents undoubtedly do), but once you have seen them once, they are bound to appear again at some point behind the counter at the pharmacy or the post office, or behind a mask when you sit down in the dentist's chair, or counting your cash at the bank, or turning up to fix your pipes when they burst, or pulling over in a winter storm to help haul you out of a ditch. I am sure that Prince Edward Islanders are friendly and warm because they do not want to rock the boat and risk offending people, but I also think that people in smaller communities tend to lead lives that move at a more humane pace, and they also have more time to connect with those around them. Life in small rural places is dependent upon strong interpersonal relationships. A few of my acquaintances back on the island who did not live in Charlottetown (the capitol) told me that they drive all the way to Charlottetown to do most of their shopping, even though there is a local supermarket in their community. The reason is that they have to budget at least two hours when they visit the local market, because they know they will run into a constant stream of people that they know who will want to catch up. Interestingly, these same people told me that at least once a week they would allocate a couple of hours to go to their local market simply because they recognized how important maintaining strong relationships within their community is.

Over the past few years I have been equally as amused by how foreign the idea of relating to other human beings is to my city-dwelling friends as my friends are by my irrepressible inclination to reach out to total strangers. I am a guaranteed source of never ending amusement for them when I smile at strangers on the sidewalk in San Francisco, or on the London tube. The first few times that it happened, my friends pointed out to me that it was obvious that I did not actually live in London because of how I made eye contact with the people sitting opposite me on the tube instead of burying my head in a book or newspaper, and how I did not avert my gaze when people happened to look up and accidentally catch my eye. At the time, it had never occurred to me to behave otherwise. The desire for human connection was, and still is, a vitally important part of my sense of place and belonging. It is an essential part of what makes me human.

Living in another city for the last nine months, I often notice myself falling into the pattern of not greeting those who pass me on the sidewalk or sit down next to me in a coffee shop. I am conscious of it, though, and whenever I notice myself withdrawing into myself I stop, look up, and smile at someone, just to turn the tides! 

I have always experienced my most profound moments of joy in what might seem to an outsider as rather ordinary places and in rather mundane circumstances. A cup of tea with a friend is a gift that I look forward to tremendously. Silent time to sit and pray or write in my journal. Stopping to smell the roses growing over someone's fence as I walk by, or taking the time to listen to a stranger tell their story at a coffee shop or on a train. This last week, as people celebrated Christmas, I noticed more of a hop to my step as I walked around the city, and I think it is because I was not smiling and saying hello to faces that did not look up. I will probably always be someone who experiences joy in the act of looking a stranger in the eye and smiling, whether they reciprocate or not, but when they do look up, our eyes meet, and we greet each other as fellow human beings, there is something profoundly uplifting and joyful that transpires. I think it might be that in acknowledging each other and the common experience that we are having, we are also honoring that part of ourselves that we share -- our soul. And when we acknowledge what makes us the same, we are no longer strangers. We have suddenly, instantaneously, if only for a split second, become friends.

Reverb10, Day 26: What happens when three tea loving art enthusiasts descend upon San Francisco?

Prompt: Soul food. What did you eat this year that you will never forget? What went into your mouth & touched your soul?

The author of this prompt is Elise Marie Collins:
An A-Z Guide to Healing Foods: A Shopper's Reference

A few days ago I spent the day in San Francisco. For some reason, San Francisco does not feel quite real to me. Maybe it is how it is nestled into the lush, green, hills that slope sharply down to the Pacific Ocean. Maybe it is how all the houses look like rows of doll-houses or gingerbread houses, with their sloping gables, tall facades and ornate trim. Maybe it is how the city is frequently enveloped in a thick blanket of fog that visitors have to descend down through in order to enter the city, or that driving over the deep blue bay across one of the most well-known engineering icons of the west coast feels more like a rite of passage than the most direct route into the city. Whatever it is, San Francisco envelops me like a dream when ever I visit it, and I often find myself stumbling through my day like a wide-eyed child dropped suddenly into the swirling world of a surrealist painting.

 My parents and I wanted to see two art exhibits that were showing: An exhibit of post-impressionists that was showing at the De Young Museum, and a life retrospective of Henri Cartier Bresson's photography, which was showing at the MOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). We decided to make a day of it, and immerse ourselves in San Francisco for the day.

We started our day with lunch at De Young. The De Young is set in the middle of Golden Gate park, a lush green, intricately embroidered park that covers over 1,000 acres in north-western San Francisco. If you are in San Francisco, and happen to be in Golden Gate park, there are many sights worth seeing. I will not go into these in detail in this entry, but if you are interested in checking them out, a few of them worth checking out are: the Japanese Tea Garden, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, and the Academy of Sciences.

In order to get to the exhibit, we had to weave our way down paths that meandered beneath enormous redwoods, climb down steep stone staircases that were still damp from the recent rain storms that have descended upon northern California lately. We passed a large deep green pond alive with ducks, geese, and tourists in paddle boats, lazily gliding across the water's surface. Across the water, a Japanese gazebo rose gracefully out of the bulrushes growing at the water's edge. 

The exhibit we were interested in was an exhibit of post-impressionist paintings from the Musee d'Orsay. The paintings included work by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Bernard, Laval, Serusier, and Khnopff, among others. They were wide-ranging in their subject matter, from still lives to portraits to sweeping land and seascapes. The colours were rich, landscapes alive, fabrics luminous. Because there are no windows in the exhibit halls, I felt as though I was looking through the windows of time at the landscapes of the south of France, the ornate dance halls of Europe, the beaches and tropical jungles Tahiti, and the golden hay fields of Holland and France. My favourite paintings were Madeleine in the Bois D'amour, by Emile Bernard, The Harvest, by Emile Bernard, The Terrace, by Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Marie Monnom, or Miss M.M., by Fernand Khnopff.

The exhibit was far more extensive than I had imaged, and although I thoroughly enjoyed the exquisite art, I felt rather overwhelmed by the crowds that were packed into each room. If I were to do it again, I would go at a less busy time.

After leaving the museum, we headed out into an open piazza of sorts that separates the De Young from the Academy of Sciences, to enjoy the fountains, the grove of mossy trees, and the sea gulls that were playing in the pools of water. We filled our lungs with fresh air, and then got back into the car to make our way across the city to MOMA. By the time we arrived, the last light was fading. Carolers filled the streets with Christmas music, and shoppers were out doing last minute shopping. We were all getting hungry, so we decided to stop and have tea and a snack at Samovar, a tea lounge conveniently located in Yerba Buena, just across the street from MOMA.

Samovar, a tea lounge created by Jesse Jacobs in 2001, is, according to the company's website, "in the business of true, deep, positive human connection, aka Love." Samovar has three locations in San Francisco. The Yerba Buena location is, thus far, the only location that I have been fortunate enough to visit. The company's website describes itself as "a garden oasis, resting above an urban waterfall in the heart of the city...Nested beneath the city’s skyscrapers..." In order to reach Samovar Yerba Buena, we had to climb up a ramp that climbed upwards around a lit curtain of waterfalls behind which was a wall of illuminated quotes by Martin Luther King. Skyscrapers rose up all around us, an endless sea of towers glimmering with light. The entire front of Samovar is glass, which provided us with a fantastic view of the city while we enjoyed our tea. A warm light radiated out through the front windows, giving off a welcoming air that drew us inside. We were immediately welcomed and directed to a table near the front windows. Our waitress gave us menus and then proceeded to tell us the specials. We had not planned to eat a full meal there, but they did have a diverse and intriguing menu that I intend to explore further the next time I am in the city.

My parents both ordered Chai, and yes, I did taste it, and yes, it was delicious. Richly flavoured, with a creamy smooth consistency, with just enough sweetness to complement the spicy notes without undermining them. A rich, substantial drink. They ordered a plate of cookies, which Samovar calls "tea sweets." You can see an honest rendering of what their plate looked like here, but unfortunately they do not have a complete list of all of their sweets on their website.

I ordered one of their special teas of the day: Qingxing Oolong, which had notes of orchid, lily, apricot, wild rose, toasted grains and roasted sweet potato. It may be obvious, having read the previous sentence, why I ordered this tea, but let me tell you, just in case you did not fully appreciate the notes that play through this tea: I ordered it because it sounded like a poem, and being a poet, the idea that I could drink, as well as write poetry, was profoundly appealing!  I also love teas that have stories, and although I would have liked to have been told where this tea was grown, by whom, and what the precise landscapes in which it was grown, picked and processed look like, I nevertheless felt a story rising up out of this tea even before it was even delivered to our table by our obliging waitress (she hand-wrote the ingredients out for me before I left).

My tea came on a long, rectangular tray. The hot water was in the pot, the tea was in a small cup covered by a miniature ceramic saucer, and at the end closest to me sat the empty cup that I was to drink it from. Our waitress explained to me that I was to pour hot water into the "brewing cup," wait 30 seconds, and then pour the tea from the "brewing cup" into the cup I was to drink from, holding the miniature saucer over it to prevent the tea leaves from getting into my cup. I waited the advised 30 seconds and then attempted to pour my first cup of tea (never has 30 seconds felt so long!)...the result was not terribly successful. Holding to saucer over the "brewing cup" caused quite a lot of tea to spill on the table. I got better at maneuvering the cup and saucer, but I think they would do well to come up with a better setup at some point. Maybe they are already working on it. Once my cup was full, I re-filled the "brewing cup," and picked up my cup to inhale the aroma rising from the cup. The perfume was similar to what I might smell if I were to walk through a botanical garden on an early summer's day. It was lightly nutty and earthy, with a weightless sweetness to it that reminded me of nectar. The flavour of the notes in the tea were very subtle. I would not have been able to distinguish them if I had not been told beforehand what they were, but I did find that inhaling and sipping at the same time seemed to help integrate the sweetness with the more earthy taste of the tea. The first few cups tasted the best -- I was told that I could keep re-brewing the leaves, which I did, but I found that the later cups were rather bitter tasting. Would I recommend this tea? Absolutely. I would have liked it if the flavours that I could smell were slightly more evident in the flavour, but I felt pampered and well-loved by the time I had finished my cup of tea.

Although we had gone to Samovar for tea, my experience of the tea lounge was coloured by the "tea sweet" that I enjoyed with my luxurious tea. I ordered a plate of thick, creamy rose-water infused Greek yoghurt that was sprinkled with finely chopped fresh mint, dribbled with coconut syrup, and accompanied by toasted walnuts, fresh apple, and dates. Are you drooling yet? This "tea sweet" was one of the best desserts I have ever had, and that is no exaggeration. The flavours and textures complemented each other perfectly, and it felt as though someone was setting off fireworks in the vicinity of my taste buds (and in case you are wondering, this is a very good thing!)...If you ever happen to visit Samovar, order this dish! I promise that you will not regret it. The only drawback to eating something this good is that everything you taste for days afterward will seem bland and uninteresting.

The atmosphere in Samovar is laid back. Ethnic, rhythmic music played in the background: a combination of Mexican music and Middle Eastern tunes. I recognized a few of the songs on the soundtrack from the film Frida Kahlo, at one point. It seems like a great place to unwind after a long day of work or sightseeing in the city.

We left Samovar feeling pampered, happy, and, well...loved! I fully intend to visit one of their other locations the next time I am in San Francisco. The one drawback would have to be the price. You definitely pay for the experience. We did go all out, and my specialty tea was more than twice the price of the chai...my parents' teas were far more reasonably priced, but the total cost for the experience was approaching the cost of an average priced full meal for two people rather than just tea and snacks. Still, I have to say that for me the experience was worth it. I would definitely go back, and will be recommending the place to friends.

After our dreamy experience in Samovar, we felt completely refreshed, and were ready to tackle another gallery. We headed off to MOMA, and managed to skip the incredibly long line outside because my parents are, thankfully, members. Between the front door of the museum and the staircase leading up to the exhibits is a large atrium. I was standing, waiting for my parents, when a spotlight suddenly switched on right above me. Surprised, I stepped to the right to escape the attention and smiles that I was getting from the other museum visitors. The light followed me. I walked across the room, and again the light followed me. People were laughing now. Realizing that it was part of the experience, I finally stood still and fully embraced my moment in the spotlight! After a few minutes the light switched off, and went in search of another unsuspecting star.

The Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit was truly spectacular, and there were far fewer people taking in the exhibit than had been at the De Young exhibit, so it was much easier to fully enjoy the experience. The images begin in the 1930s and continue throughout his career as a photographer and photojournalist. It is an impressive and diverse range of photographs taken in Mexico, the United States, France, Spain, China, Russia, among other places. His photographs capture the personal stories and human suffering behind the political and social upheavals that have shaped the life experiences of every human being on the planet to some degree. His images are simple, and in their simplicity, they reflect the essence of what it means to be human. I especially enjoyed his images of the Chinese building a new economy and social movement, the suffering of the Russians as they became increasingly impoverished, the hauntingly defiant, penetrating gaze of prostitutes in Mexico, and the precise and powerful portraits of some of the world's most famous artists and writers. We left this exhibit buzzing with thoughts and reflections about the images that were playing through our minds. I would love to see more of Henri Cartier-Bresson's photography in the future.

We left the lights of San Francisco behind us and headed into Berkeley for supper at my parents' favourite restaurant, Pomegranate, a Mediterranean fusion restaurant. Unfortunately, much to my parents' dismay, we arrived to find that the restaurant had closed down, and been replaced by an Indian restaurant. We did not feel like curry, so we drove around for a while, and ended up eating at Sweet Basil, a Thai restaurant. I love Thai food, and the atmosphere and staff were both pleasant, but the food was just mediocre. It was an enjoyable meal, but I do not think that I would eat there again.

We drove home feeling sleepy, but very happy. Our gallery experiences, and our refreshing and rejuvenating tea time at Samovar were well worth the drive down to San Francisco. We felt inspired and invigorated. Definitely a day filled with food for the soul -- creative and culinary!