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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, July 29, 2011

Thoughts on friendship, tolerance, gratitude, and justice

"The divine friends must be attracted to and enamored of each other and ever be ready and willing to sacrifice their own lives for each other. Should one soul from amongst the believers meet another, it must be as though a thirsty one with parched lips has reached to the fountain of the water of life, or a lover has met his true beloved." ~Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith, p. 426

"Consider the flowers of the rose garden. Although they are of different kinds, various colors and diverse forms and appearances, yet as they drink from one water, are swayed by one breeze and grow by the warmth and light of one sun, this variation and this difference cause each to enhance the beauty and splendor of the others. The differences in manners, in customs, in habits, in thoughts, opinions and in temperaments is the cause of the adornment of the world of mankind. This is praiseworthy. Likewise this difference and this variation, like the difference and variation of the parts and members of the human body, are the cause of the appearance of beauty and perfection. As these different parts and members are under the control of the dominant spirit, and the spirit permeates all the organs and members, and rules all the arteries and veins, this difference and this variation strengthen love and harmony and this multiplicity is the greatest aid to unity." ~Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith, p. 295

I am sitting here typing this while I listen to a CD made for me by my dear friend, artist and musician, Louise Mould. The CD is one she made for my birthday. It just arrived in the mail last night. I have bugged her about making a CD of her songs for the past few years, and for the past few years she would just shake her head and walk away, so I did not actually think she would ever make a CD, but apparently my nagging must have actually had some positive impact because here I am, two years after I last asked about it, listening to Louise's beautiful voice and guitar playing. The songs on her CD are from a tape she made of her songs while living in Africa when she was a few years younger than I am now. In English, French and an African language that Louise will most certainly name in the comments section below this post, they are uplifting and resonate deeply, and I smile, imagining Louise in the Congo strumming away on her guitar in the strong, brilliant African sunlight.

I am not sure what I did to deserve such incredible friends. They are a constant source of inspiration, joy and encouragement to me. Like everyone, I have gone through ups and downs, but no matter what else is going on in my life, I have always been surrounded by incredible friends. Louise is probably going to have some strong words for me about sharing the following photograph of her with you, but I will deal with that when it happens ;-) I love this photo, taken by a friend of Louise's many years ago. It captures her calm, deep, gentle and wise spirit. There is an even more gorgeous photo on the cover of the CD she just sent me, but unfortunately I do not have a digital copy of that one. Perhaps Louise will rectify this ;-)

On Wednesday I drove down to Los Angeles with my mom's best friend, Cheryl. It is a seven hour drive through endless monoculture fruit and nut groves, cattle lots, and potato and pepper fields. As we looked out of the car to the west, caramel-coloured, arid mountains rose up out of the flat valley, velvet covered, undulating malleable contours. We climbed up through the grapevine pass, and then wound our way down into the mass of congestion that is L.A. Chery's home is a tiny, airy little place high on a hilltop in Redondo Beach. She has lived in the same house since I was a baby, and although I rarely get to visit, there is something grounding about being able to return to a place that is familiar -- such a contrast to my family's homes, which change every couple of years. The breeze from the ocean comes right up the hill and through her house, which is cool and light-filled. After a short rest, Cheryl and I headed down to the beach for a walk along the boardwalk. A Christian youth group sat in a cluster on the sand, singing praise songs; long-legged young girls roller-bladed up and down the boardwalk; joggers, walkers, and cyclists slid past, and groups of golden-skinned youth played beach volleyball on the sand. After our walk, we settled on the beach to watch the deep, blood-orange sun sink into the horizon line of the Pacific Ocean.

Yesterday Cheryl and paid a visit to the Museum of Tolerance. The museum's focus is to help educate people about prejudice, its horrific effects if left unchecked, and to help people to see that overcoming prejudice is a personal responsibility that ordinary people like you and I must be conscious of in our everyday lives. The Museum of Tolerance is a Jewish museum, and a good portion of the exhibits focus on the Holocaust, and how we can do things differently in the future to avoid repeating such horrors, but the museum also has a general tolerance section, which addresses past and current instances of injustice all over the world.

Upon entering the museum we walked down a walkway that spiraled its way all the way to the lower level. The wall along the right side of the walkway was painted white, and had black and white photographs of Holocaust Survivors, along with a short story about each individual, displayed one after the other all the way down to the beginning of the formal exhibits. There is something extremely powerful about seeing face after face of ordinary human beings who I could easily run into in the supermarket, as I walk downtown, or at the bus stop, and know that these seemingly ordinary peoples' lives have spanned multiple continents, are marked by profound loss and pain, and at the same time by a tremendous amount of hope and will to survive. Cheryl and I spent the first hour listening to a talk given by a Holocaust Survivor from Poland who lost his parents and two of his three sisters when he was just a young boy. The strength and resourcefulness that children who lived through the horrors of WWII have has always left me speechless, but hearing this man's account, as he stood two feet in front of me was intensely moving, and highlighted for me the complete chaos that shaped the lives of so many children who lived through the Holocaust.

After the talk, Cheryl and I perused a small section of the museum dedicated to objects that had belonged to children that did not survive the Holocaust. Some of Anne Frank's letters; a striped prison shirt; a journal. The item that I found most moving was a letter written by a young woman to a male friend who she had not been able to say goodbye to before the Nazis arrested her and her family. I am not sure where she wrote the letter, but she carefully folded it, pressing a photograph of herself into the pages, slid it into an envelope, and addressed it, probably hoping to be able to mail it at some point. She never did get to mail it. Her last act of dignity and independence was pushing the letter through the cattle bars of a transport vehicle that was carrying her to her death at one of Europe's many concentration camps. What amazes me is that someone actually found her letter on the ground and made sure that it got delivered to the address on the envelope in the middle of such a seemingly grim and hopeless war. It is these tiny gestures of faith and humanity in the face of so much hatred and pain that touch me deeply.

From there, Cheryl and I moved on to the Holocaust exhibit. It is an exhibit designed to enable visitors to actually feel as though they have been plunged into Europe in the 1930s and 40s. The museum has done an incredible job of it. One detail that helped me to connect to the experience was that we were given small cards that had photos of children living in Europe during the war on them at the beginning of the exhibit. We slid the cards into machines, a screen lighting up and telling us who this child was, where they were from, and what their situation was at the beginning of the war. Throughout the exhibit there were places to insert the cards that told us what was happening to the children at specific periods of time throughout the war, and then at the end we each received a printout of our child's story, telling us whether or not he or she survived the Holocaust.

There were many parts of the exhibit that will be hard to forget. One was the section where I had to pass through a tunnel labeled men or women and children, which led me into a replica of the gas chambers, where I watched a video of what happened in the chambers. Terror is an understatement of how I would have felt if I had been stripped naked and led into such a dark, cement room with my child, never to see the light of day again. The inhumanity made me weep as I sat there watching the video clip.

Another section that influenced me deeply was the liberation of Europe, and the images of few Jews that had survived to see freedom again emerging from the concentration camps like ghosts. A woman down on her knees kissing the hands of a US soldier was powerful -- I tried to imagine what it must feel like after so much torture and death and loss to have someone come give you a glimpse of hope again. I could not imagine it. I have never, and I hope will never experience anything even remotely like this in my life.

The exhibit highlighted the role that ordinary people played in the massacre of the Jews. Yes, Hitler led them, but his extermination program would not have been possible without the collaboration of thousands of ordinary citizens. The whole point, of course, being that situations like those that arose in Europe back in the 1930s and 40s arise all the time, but that they cannot and will not turn into the global human disaster that WWII did without the support of the general population.

We were about to leave the museum when we realized we had forgotten to visit a small exhibit of photographs of Muslim families in Albania that took Jews into their homes during the war. Apparently Albania ended up with the largest percentage of Jews that had been in the country prior to the war after WWII of any country in Europe. The reason for this is that the Muslim community refused to collaborate with the Nazis, risking their lives to save their Jewish friends and neighbours. When asked why they were inspired to save the lives of the Jews, the Albanian Muslims explained that they base their lives on something called Besa, which means faith and honour. As one of them explained: "For us there are no foreigners. There are locals and there are our guests. You do not kill your guests." Another woman put it perfectly when she said: "Our home belongs first to God, then to our guests, and finally to our family." The black and white photographs are uplifting, the photographer aiming to capture the spirit of the Albanians through their eyes. Many of them have managed to keep in touch with the Jews who stayed in their homes, despite the fact that many of these families ultimately left Albania and settled in Israel. Looking at the photographs, and reading the individual stories of people banding together and standing up for the Jews amongst them despite having different belief systems was a dramatic contrast from the images that I had just seen in the Holocaust exhibit. Again, the question that came to me was what would I do faced with such a situation. I imagine, of course, that I would take in as many people as I could. The Albanian Muslims have a lot to teach the world about tolerance and unity of belief and action. And the arts are such a great way to share the importance that individual choice makes in the world.

Yesterday evening I headed to L.A. international airport. I was supposed to be meeting friends of mine from Prince Edward Island who were heading to Australia to see their son Elliott, his sweet wife Della, and their first child, Haydar. Their itinerary had given them a seven hour layover in L.A., which was the reason I had made the trip down to the city for the day. Yes, I travel two days to hang out with friends in an airport for seven hours. I know. So I'm a little nuts. A little more nuts than I had intended, it turned out yesterday, as my friends ended up missing their connection to L.A., and by the time they arrived, they only had an hour and a half before they had to catch their flight to Sydney. Still, we made the most of it, and I have to say I am still glad I made the trip down there. For an hour and a half I felt like I was home for the first time in a year. At home in a fast food joint we had dinner at in the airport. It reminded me how important community and deep friendships are to creating a feeling of being at home in the world.

It is a sunny, blue skies Friday afternoon in Sacramento. It has been a week filled with much to be grateful for. Good friends. Reminders of the importance of justice and standing up for it even when doing so may mean sacrificing my own life. Beautiful landscapes. And more to come. Tomorrow I head out to the coast again with more friends and my parents to explore the coastline north of San Francisco.

I wish you a superb weekend. May you be surrounded by friends who make you feel you are at home!

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