Thursday, May 28, 2015

"I might not have sight, but I have insight...."

President Harry Truman sharing a laugh with my father-in-law, H. Smith Shumway, in 1947 while giving him an award. After landing on D-Day on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, he was blinded at age 22. He had been fighting though the hedgerows of France in the push to Paris when a landmine hit him..

On May 8 this month, the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, the ending of World War II in Europe. On September 2, 2015 we will remember that final ending of the war that brutally dragged on a few more months in the Far East. Since I am going to be in Normandy, France next week for the 71st anniversary of D-Day, my thoughts drift to those brave souls who never came home to their families. And also those who left the Normandy shores with scars that would last a lifetime. My son and I will be there in proxy for my father-in-law who died four years at age 89. He came home blind, and would cheerfully, purposefully live the next almost seventy years in darkness. 

Although our world passed through unspeakable pain, death, and loss during the World War II years, I believe people rose to the occasion to do very difficult feats in those times. In many countries, they showed their mettle and courage--their strength of character. Maybe they did things they did not think they could ever do, but with sheer grit and dogged determination, they did it anyways. I salute them. But may it never happen again. May we remember those who have battled for us--by aspiring and living for peace.

In the internationally acclaimed book about WW2 in Germany, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the narrator, who happens to be Death, states at the end: "I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race--that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words so damning and brilliant. ...I am haunted by humans." Yes, humans constantly evade my predictions and estimations too. We humans are remarkable in our power to do inestimable good, and unfortunately, immense evil too.

This next week when I am in Normandy, I will remember the fallen (the average age of the soldiers who landed on D-Day was 22), and all those who battled for what they believed in. As individuals and as a group, I am grateful for their service 71 years ago. However, in 1996 when I walked the beach of Normandy beach with my father-in-law on a breezy springtime day in May, he pointed up to the cliffs, and said, "It is so quiet here now, just listening to the seagulls and the ocean. I remember when I climbed to the top of those cliffs. As I mounted to the top of the cliff and looked back at the sea with all the ships, planes, jeeps, and parachutes, I thought to myself, 'If only Roosevelt, Churchill, and Hitler could have seen this view with me below, they never would have asked us to do it. '" As he gazed down the cliffs at the death that surrounded him, my father-in-law did not cower and cave to his responsibilities. He trudged on, like he would do for the rest of his life.

Grandpa, I will be thinking of you--not only how you lived your life in battle, but how you tried to heal yourself and others after the war too. After spending two years in rehabilitation, and nurses saying they had never seen so much shrapnel in a body or being told you would never see again, you, instead, choose to live not only with dignity and independence, but with compassion and cheer. I can still see you with a twinkle of playfulness in your glass eyes when you would say, "I might not have sight, but I have insight." Love you, Grandpa--all the way to heaven and back!

Grandpa is on the stand behind President Obama with the other Normandy veterans. He has his red cap on that has a patch with the Big Red One patch on it. 

Smith with his sister before he was blinded--just before he went to war. He aimed to be a doctor, but when he was blinded he got a master's degree in counseling. He would later became a national figure for the blind , advocating for inclusion in the classroom--long before it was an accepted norm. His aim to contribute and help never left him.

When he left his parents to go to war, some of his last words to them were: "I will come home swinging both my arms and legs." It did not occur to him that he would  never see their faces again.
He married his college sweetheart, Sarah, after proving to her parents that he could support her as a counselor for the blind.
Smith and Sarah would raise seven girls, and one token boy--my husband.  Smith never shied away from changing diapers/nappies. Lucky for Sarah, he could always change them in the dark....

On the Jersey shore with Sarah--always sharing a joke or a laugh.
His beloved Sarah passed away from cancer not long after this picture. He lived the next 19 years without her. Again, with profound loss, he continued to live with humor and cheer. He could out pun anyone on the planet.
Grandpa Shumway, as everyone called him, lived with our family for almost seven years when our kids were growing up. Living with a blind grandpa has lots of bonuses: wrestling on the floor with a University of Wyoming wrestling champ, accompanying him as he played the violin and harmonica, getting him to speak for World War II Days at school in the community, having him show you his glass and plastic eyes, giving "professional like" magic shows for birthday parties and Cub Scout events, playing a competitive game of Rook, and being your cheerleader. He would always say when given a choice to do something fun or go home (and a few people were tired and it was late), "Don't be a party pooper." Sometimes he told me, "With your voice, you should be on the radio." How could you not love him?

A picture at the last family reunion. He had 41 grandchildren, and the ability to make everyone of them feel significant and important. They all knew he was one of their biggest fans.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Jordan (part 2) Our year following Moses (It was much less than 40)

On top of Mt. Nebo, with Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and the Jordan Valley behind us.
On our recent trip to Jordan, my most stirring moment was to stand on top of Mt. Nebo, the mountain where Moses gazed out to see the Promised Land. Looking out onto the wide valley below, it felt like an end of a chapter because we, like Moses, were not allowed to go much further since we were on the border of two countries. From the view on top of the mountain, you can see the Dead Sea to the south, the rich Jordan Valley, the ancient/ modern cities of Jericho and Hebron, and the mountains on the other side with Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Jerusalem in silhouette. (Deuteronomy 34: 1-4)

As I stood alone on the mountain with my family, I felt like I knew Moses a little better, a would be Egyptian prince who reluctantly, meekly took on the challenge of bringing his people across the Red Sea to the Promised Land. He unknowingly began a journey that would last 40 years in remote, arid deserts. Mt. Nebo would be his final steps, before he would bid farewell to the people he had mentored and led across innumerable deserts and valleys.

As I looked at the view behind us and imagined the 40 years of toil, hardship, and hopefully some merriment in those paths, I was struck with his imponderable courage and faith. The wilderness behind me showed no signs of water supplies, and the thought of leading a thirsty, famished, exhausted, and sometimes cantankerous group of people (a few million strong) defies my imagination. Furthermore, Moses clearly knew his shortcomings and weaknesses, and I am certain he often doubted his abilities, but he maintained his belief and the remembrance of  God's promise to him:

"And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. And the Lord said unto him, 'Who hast made man's mouth? Or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind, have not I the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth and teach thee what thou shalt say.'" (Exodus 4:10-12)

Despite the seemingly impossible, Moses tackled the job anyways. And for this reason, three major religions of the world esteem and revere him as a mighty prophet who performed miracles and brought about much good and deliverance--in a barren, forsaken place. Although he never entered the Promised Land, he rescued and shepherded many peoples so they could flourish someday. He nourished the belief that he was making others' lives better--even though he would never come down Mt. Nebo to cross the River Jordan.

As I looked across to Jerusalem, a place where I have visited and lived, my heart yearned for the peace of this land, this vast region of the world that has enveloped my heart for decades. Several times while in Jordan, I heard Jordanians call people on the other side of the border in Palestine, their "cousins." In the Quran, it states about Moses, "He told the Israelites that he had been chosen as the messenger; God had said unto him, Oh Moses! I have chosen you in preference to others, and have entrusted you with the mission to convey my words as contained in my revelations to all the people.... " (Quran 7:144)

Coming  to Jordan reminded me of a favorite scripture from Psalms 122:6, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee." It is interesting that Jerusalem means a place of peace, 'Shalom' means peace in Hebrew, and 'Salam' also means peace in Arabic. I do not think it is any coincidence. As I looked out on the windy crest of the mountain, I felt "the geography of hope," a term that Wallace Stegner, the American author, coined--meaning that a terrain of land can inspire hope and promise. I believe that eventually all the cousins will live in peace. I am sure Moses, the great prophet of the three main religions in Jerusalem, loved them all.

A few lessons of my year following Moses:

1) Take the first step into the unknown, and keep walking. Miracles will happen, and people, known and unknown, will come to your rescue. But just keep walking, even if the waters get deep. You will get to the other side of the shore.

2) As individuals, we are unique, and therefore, can never be duplicated. However, our jobs and purposes are not indispensable. Other people can be delegated to do the things we cannot do. There will be people like Joshua, who will come after us. We are all born into a story, a cast of characters, and the story will continue, going forward. We must prepare for the people in our story who are ahead of us--making their lives more enriched, safe, and happy.

3) Moses overcame his feelings of inadequacy and disbelief that he could accomplish difficult feats. He remembered his faith, the people who had mentored and taught him, and then trudged on. 

4) I am sure Moses climbed a mountain periodically to have a retreat from all the recalcitrant people he was leading. It was a hefty load to hear all those pleas and needs. But I am sure he loved them anyways or he would have left the trail 39 years earlier....

Following the footsteps of Moses this year with our family--from Egypt, on the shores of the Red Sea, to the wilderness in Jordan (I have been up to Mt. Sinai when I was 20), to Mt. Nebo:

Last October on the shores of the Red Sea in Egypt

I took this picture of my three boys last October in the Red Sea. You could faintly see the Sinai in the background that day as they walked, swam toward it. The wide expansiveness of the Red Sea on that day reminded us of Moses' great miracle of separating the waters so the Israelites could get to safety.

On the shores of the Egyptian side of the Red Sea.
On top of Mt. Nebo

The valley that is located near Madaba, Jordan--before ascending to Mt. Nebo.
A scene from behind the mountain, where Bedouin shepherds herded their sheep in Jordan.
Peter having a reflective moment on top of Mt. Nebo, looking out from Hebron to the Jordan Valley.
Some pilgrims from India on top of Mt. Nebo who are about to begin mass. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Jordan (part 1) Street Life

We fled the Arabian Gulf of Qatar to go north last week--to the land of Lawrence of Arabia, Petra, crusader castles, the Dead Sea, Roman ruins, and Biblical sites. Jordan, a country about the size of the state of Maine, USA, is almost a landlocked country. But the borders luckily include the port of Aqaba in the Red Sea in the south. It is surrounded by Palestine/Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Amman, the capital, was once named Philadelphia or "The City of Brotherly Love." True to it's ancient name, it is a vibrant, embracing city of hospitality--showing off gleaming skyscrapers, along with a well preserved Roman amphitheater in the center of the city. Stony, pocked stairs can lead to old ruins, and even caves underneath the city. Jordan has a sense of place, a confidence that it can mix the old and the new.

Above all, Jordan is a place where people are optimistic, hospitable, and peaceful. We found new friends who tenderly loved their families, and welcomed us into their own homes. Jordan felt like home in just a few days because of the warm Arabic hospitality. Here are some views of a beautiful, verdant land that artfully blends the modern and ancient--a place where olive orchards, agricultural fields, and wild flowers lure the visitor to want to linger for a long time:

A grandmother smiling proudly at her grandchildren. The boy in the green clothes had just lovingly led her down the steps.

A spread of collected nuts for sale on the street.

A food truck, Jordan style, on Rainbow Street in Amman.
  1. Here is the owner of the shop called WeRollUFill. They wrap a thin Hungarian pastry on a rolling pin, with large pin, like a skewer through it. When I told him I would put him in my blog, he invited all to come to taste this delectable East European pastry. You can fill it with eggs and spinach or something sweet, like nutella.  Salimann's shop is on Rainbow Street in Amman, Jordan. He is waiting for you.

Five guitarists jamming on a corner in Amman, Jordan.

A storeowner making falaffels.

The streets were filled with a festive weekend air.

If you go to Amman, you must go to a restaurant called Zorba's. Why? Because there is a cave, tombs, and artifacts that were randomly discovered under the premises about 20 years ago during a renovation. Clay vessels, tablets, and various sculptures were found on the shelves in the cave. 
This is a picture of a tomb that was found under the restaurant.

Small shops and markets are perched around many corners of the road. They are convenience stores for any potential passerbyers.   

Early in the morning the farmers were bringing their harvest to sell at this stall on the side of the road.

Sometimes there is no stall, but people just sell their fruit and vegetables from their trucks.
A baker rolling the bread dough, and preparing to bake it in the ovens.

Bakers making the large flat Arabic bread that is eaten with cheese, olives, and tomatoes.

Abu, our friend, who just bought some bread for us.

Chickens for sale next to the bakery

A typical street scene in Amman, with a mineret pointed to the sky.

Pictures of King Abdullah II in his various roles cover Jordan. He has been known to canvas his country incognito, with a fake wig and beard to really see the country that he reigns. After visiting hospitals, markets, and schools, he said, "I fear being isolated and not knowing what is really going on so I must visit my country in disguise." After his ascension to the throne, modernization and sprawling urbanization has taken place. 

Sweet varieties of Arabic pastries.

A large bakery with gelato, pastries, and candies for the willing customer

A young man making sugar cane juice at his stall. 

Some Bedouin woman selling their wares on the street. 

The storefront of a perfume store with a father and son.
As we drove by, we saw many Syrian refugees waiting in lines for documents. At this time, Jordan provides a home for refugees from neighboring Iraq and Syria. It is difficult to say the exact number, but there are 1.5 to 3 million refugees in Jordan. 

Young girls walking to school at about 7:30 in the morning in Madaba, Jordan. Orchards of olive trees hugged the roads, with seas of wheat fields intermingled n the trees.

Young boys walking to school with heavy backpacks. The government of Jordan heavily funds education to a tune of 20%.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Spilling Love

I just had my first Mother's Day in Qatar, and I have to admit it's been wonderful to hear the Mother's Day wishes from around the world. One young man from Cameroon sweetly said to me, "Happy Mothering Day." I don't think he meant a play on words, but the phrase caught my attention. I know I am inordinately blessed to have birthed some amazing children who have given me more joy than I thought possible. I have loved my children completely, unabashedly, fiercely, and each has brought me on a unique journey of love--learning how to give and love in all different ways and emotions. But I have also found joy in loving others who may have another mother. I believe that we as humans underestimate how much we need a community--even if we are not related.

I have been "mothered" or taken care of by so many people who have stepped up  to welcome, invite, and love me--in many stages and ages of my life. I am sure sometimes it was inconvenient for them, but their words, notes, embraces still live on with me. One of the many "mothers" who I remember growing up was Josephine Kirkman, an elderly woman in our church. We even called her Grandma. She was a captivating storyteller and could laugh and joke with a child. But she imprinted herself on my young heart forever at my grandfather's funeral. Everyone else seemed to be engaged or disconsolate. Yet she spotted me with a tear dripping to the ground, and picked me up, hugging me to her bosom. I felt her big heart beat next to mine. I smelled her faint lavender perfume as I sobbed into her enveloping dress. She pulled me in tighter, and just held me until the tears did not flow anymore. If I close my eyes for a minute, I can still feel all that love she spilled on me that day.

Being a mother and "mothering" others, meaning being another layer of kindness and attentiveness to another person, is "that kind of love that de-centers the self, and learning that your true riches are in another," says David Brooks, the NYT columnist. Although you may have never birthed a child, we can all reach down and scoop some love that is spilling over--waiting to be lapped up by someone who needs some cheer, comfort, and community. I know because I have raised six children, and I could have never have done it alone-ever. The villages I have lived in with my children in New York City, Beijing, Los Angeles, Baltimore, St. Louis, and now Doha have been more wonderful because there were people who cared and spilled the love. Sure, sometimes it got lonely a few times, but I had grown up in a loving community as a child, and I knew with some plotting and effort, it could work anywhere.

I have loved being a mother to my children, but I have taken immense joy in loving and cheering others' children too.  I miss all the children, many who are now adults, who were in my villages. This time of year when there are graduations, I think of them. I am proud of their achievements and who they are becoming. I may not be their mother, but I have loved being a part of their village--wherever that is in the world. Here is a youtube from my son's friends three years ago when we went on a one day trip. Making this video was how they amused themselves on the trip. Watching it makes me remember the good times we had together, and all the kids who have taught me so much.

These are part of my "tennis kids" who I teach every week. A tear came to my eye (glad I had on my sunglasses) when these kids decided to give me a Mother's Day party at our tennis class. One of them said to me, "We are your tennis kids, and we love you." One of them just learned how to serve with a topspin. So proud! Another post about my "tennis kids":

The cake my tennis girls made for me for Mother's Day

Being a part of this new Doha village has affirmed to me once again that it is possible to create and build a village anywhere--even in a compound with expats from all over the world living together. Anjoli Joshi, a new mother, wrote this about finding a community: "I refuse to shed tears in solitude. I will find a shoulder. I refuse to settle with smiles and looks. I will strike up a conversation, and learn about you and your children. I refuse to raise my son alone. I will be your eyes and ears, and you'll be mine. I refuse to experience the greatest joy of my life without another mother to share it with. I will rejoice in the sound of your baby's laughter and take pride in her accomplishments. I refuse to collapse in exhaustion each night. I will be more than a helping hand. I will be a voice of reassurance in moments of uncertainty, and a warm embrace in moments of loneliness. I refuse to walk alone. I will rediscover that lost village."

I believe there is always enough love to spill, an ample supply in all of us--to nurture, affirm, and support our other fellow villagers. Maybe sometimes we have to excavate and dig deeper to get more love, but it will always be there if we look for it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Our Picasso's Art Exhibition

 "I close my eyes in order to see," said Paul Gaugin, the French Impressionist painter. Sometimes preconceived opinions and judgments need to be just closed, erased--making them completely disappear--never again to lift their ugly, monster heads. As a mother with a child with autism, I have to constantly check and monitor myself. Are there any biases I need to reconstruct or change as I try to view my son with more clarity and light?  Can he do more than I am think he can? Am I "opening my sky" and perspective--so he can "open his sky"?

My dear friend, Annagreth Bailey, who has a daughter with Down's Syndrome expresses it best: "I catch myself sometimes thinking that she can't do something, but then I have to tell myself, of course, she CAN!" She then continues, "As a mother, I have to work on that. I can only imagine how others limit her after looking at her.... I admit, it is hard work; it is so much easier to say 'you poor little thing,' and then sit back and please them at every corner.  It takes a lot of effort and dedication to help them reach their potential."

When Elias's art teacher asked early in the year if he could meet with him once a week after school for an hour, I never would have imagined the affect it would have on my son. His teacher wrote to me about his enthusiasm for Elias's work,"I am officially blown away by Elias's compete immersion in the moment and uninhibited creativity. He could really do something with his approach to abstraction, and who knows what else? Today in class he was calmer and more self-reliant than I have ever seen him." His art teacher sees exactly the way Gaugin described; Mr. Deerman closes his eyes so that he can see better visions of what his paintings and students can become. Now Elias also imagines himself as an artist who can produce beautiful paintings. There are people who even want to buy some of them.

Going to see Elias's exhibition at the museum

After a few months, Elias was asked with six other students at his school to display his paintings in an exhibition here in Doha at the Arab Modern Museum of Art.
 Last weekend we went to the student exhibition (which was ironically named Looking In) at the museum where many children were celebrated from different schools around Doha, Qatar. To see all of their bright eyes and lit up countenances was worth the trip alone. Being able to creatively express oneself is one of life's most stirring joys. It makes us feel more alive, more connected with the world.

I take Gaugin's admonition very seriously of "closing our eyes in order to see" or "looking in," the name of the exhibition this year. I know because my blind father-in-law lived with us for almost seven years. After being blinded at age 22 a few weeks after D-Day in France, he said at the end of his life (almost 70 years in darkness), "I might not have sight, but I have insight." He would then smile, with that characteristic twinkle in his glass eyes, and I knew he really saw me--maybe not the color of my eyes or hair. But he saw me and everybody else he knew.

Therefore, I too will close my eyes more frequently to really see and "look in"--to the person, the process, the view in front of me. Having a child with autism is like a window, I tell people. He has helped me to wash my windows more frequently so that I can view others with more clarity and compassion. Who would have ever known he would be featured in an art exhibition, let alone in Doha, Qatar? Sometimes we all just need to close our eyes so we can imagine and see things as they really are--casting away all those labels and assessments most everyone automatically presumes. Go make the world more beautiful, Elias!

This is what Elias said about the preparation of his paintings, "When I was making the prints,  I was pressing the design hard with my fingers. I wanted to make something beautiful. I saw cold and warm colors mixed together. Some of the colors were spicy, like Indian food."

This is summary of what he saw in his print, "There were mountains and a forest. It was like a world map. with green grass and brown trees--even a desert, some snow, and an ocean. It reminded me of the Mississippi River where I used to go boating and see the cliffs. It looks like when you look down from an airplane, and see the world. I felt like I was THE best painter ever."

The invitation for the art exhibition