Sunday, February 26, 2017

Qatar: Parables in the Desert

In the Zekreet area of Qatar where there are amazing rock formations, a tranquil, emerald sea, and endless sands in all directions. You feel far from the world, and almost expect a caravan of travelers to ask for water from your oasis.

And yes, you can find a fellow traveler (his sheep in the background) that brings you back hundreds of years....

After the rainy seasons in parts of the Middle East, you can find a flower called the Cistanche Tubulosa. It has been used for medicinal purposes for about 1800 years. We found them all over the desert yesterday. With no roots, the flower emerges out of the sand in the springtime. Such a glorious wonder of beauty that grows out of the hot sand.

Sometimes there are stories you hear or read that make a mark on you, that change you. You are never quite the same after hearing them. They continue to unravel in your mind, creating images and analogies for years that awaken resolve and will to trudge on--go forward when things get confusing or murky. Long ago in my early 20's I heard this story that I can say honestly changed some trajectories in my life. I think I would be a different person if I had never read it. It happened when I was asked to work in a refugee camp in Thailand while I was living in Taiwan. Now that I live in the desert, I refer to it often in my mind. Yesterday on our "desert adventure" to find flowers after the heavy rains in Qatar, I found myself musing on this tale by F. Burton Howard--that has mentored me all these years:

At a recent campout that my husband and son went on in Zekreet, Qatar

In a desert region one day, a number of travelers set out on a trip. It was hot and the journey was long. They had little in common except their shared desire to arrive at a distant city. Each carried provisions and water expecting to replenish their supplies along the way. Not long after leaving their homes, a great storm arose. Dust clouds darkened the sun, and the wind brought swirling sands which quickly filled the low places in the road. What at first had seemed a pleasant outing suddenly became a hazardous undertaking. The travelers soon realized that the question was not merely when they would arrive at the city, but whether they would arrive at all.

Sunset in Qatar, making the view hazy and dim. When the sand blows in, you can't see ten feet in front of you. Sandstorms are alarmingly dark. You might as well be in a blizzard. No one can see anything, and the sand nuzzles everywhere--in eyes, ears, and gritted teeth. 

Confusion and doubt affected the company. Some sought shelter, while others attempted to turn back. A few moved onward through the storm. The end of the first day found them scattered, with inadequate provisions, wanting water, and lost in the desert. A new day brought hunger, thirst, and despair. The storm still raged. Hope was in short supply. Familiar landmarks were gone. The road, which had been narrow and hard to find, at best, was hidden by silt and debris. No one knew where to go to find it. Many claimed to know the way, but as they could not agree, each traveler wandered in his own way in search of water or the shelter of a settlement.
At the end of yet another day, two of the group, half-blinded by dust and with their strength nearly gone, came unexpectedly, with something more than good fortune, upon an inn and way station. There in the sanctuary of walls and roof, they refreshed themselves and counted their blessings. There they replenished their stores and contemplated the remaining portion of their journey. The weather remained unsettled. The wind continued to blow. The poorly marked road wound ahead through hills where the sand piled deep and where it was said that robbers sometimes preyed upon unsuspecting travelers.

Keep your fire burning bright on the journey.

One of the two was anxious to reach his destination. He had important business in the city. He gathered his supplies and water and paid his account. Early in the morning he set out in haste in an attempt to cross the hill country by nightfall. But the windblown sand had blocked the road. He was forced to dig and detour. When night came, he was far from the city, exhausted and alone. When he fell asleep, thieves found him, took his supplies, and left him without strength and without water to face almost certain death.
The second traveler was also desirous of reaching his destination. But he remembered the others in the desert behind him. They were lost and would soon perish without water and without hope. He alone knew where they were. He alone knew their condition and their need. He likewise arose early and paid his account. He glanced at the hills with their promise of the city beyond, and then turned back down the road whence he had come. The sky was a little lighter now. He recognized some of the landmarks. He knew about where he had left his traveling companions. He called out to them by name, for he knew them. After hours of patient searching, he found many of them. He shared with them life-giving water from his own containers. He told them he knew the way. He spoke as if he had authority, so they followed him, and he brought them to the way station with him. There they rested and regained their strength. They were given directions regarding how to reach the city. They renewed their provisions, filled their water containers, and went out again to face the storm.

The journey was still difficult. The wind still blew and clouds obscured the sun. The road still wound through the sometimes deep sand, and thieves were still in the hills. But this time the traveler was not alone. The group was large. When sand blocked the way, work parties were organized to remove it. When some faltered, the strong shouldered the burdens of the weak. When night came, there were watchmen to man the watch. After many days, the second man and his friends arrived safely at their destination.

Footsteps to the Persian Gulf in Qatar--going from a wilderness to a paradise....
When they arrived there, those who had been rescued and given water gathered around the second traveler and said, “We could not have come to this place without you. We shall ever be grateful to you for searching for us, for finding us, for sharing your water and your bread. We know that you put aside your own journey and submitted to the hardships of the desert in order to help us when we were lost. What can we do to repay you?”

Conversing on a mountain of sand....

And the second man replied, “Thank me not, for by no power of my own did I find the way station. The water there would have been bitter had I not shared it with you. I know that I could not have arrived at the city without you. Your strength and encouragement enabled me to continue on. Your presence prevented robbers from attacking. I have come to realize that in order to save my own life, I had to save yours as well. I know now that it is not so much the haste of one’s journey but rather what he does along the way which determines whether he will arrive at his destination. Thank me not,” he said. “In truth, I have not brought you to this place, we have brought one another.”  

The desert reminds me: In our quest for self-actualization and checking off bucket lists (to get somewhere and fulfill our own desires), the most authentic and pure joy is to lighten the packs of others along the way. Pleasures and excitement are thrilling to be sure, but there is no replacement for the knowledge that you tried to help someone on their path. And then there is the humble realization that you would not have kept on the path without their light, provisions, and friendship. If I am honest with myself, any time I have tried to help someone else, they have only brought me to a better place than I would otherwise travelled. As we always say about our son/brother who has autism, "He saves us from ourselves." Any delay on route is worth it....

I have learned so much in the desert: packing and preparing your previsions for a journey, trying to find an oasis in the expansive desert, remembering the wilderness comes before the promised land, carrying your own water to replenish in the heat, you need a fellow sojourner to protect you from some obstacles along the way, and sometimes you have to trust a stranger on route. But more than anything I have relearned here in Qatar that trekking on your own path is never enough. When you try to assist others on the journey or in the sandstorm, you only save yourself. Other people, strangers and loves ones alike, save us from our petty, isolating concerns. The purest joy is to arrive together.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

How many love languages do you speak?

Joakim, Karolina, and their amazing 11 year old triplets. How I love them!
Anyone who knows me is aware that I am very proud of my Icelandic heritage. Blog on Icelandic Family Bonds One of my cherished joys is to meet and learn more about my relatives who still live in Iceland. Although we share a distant relative, a great-great grandfather, Eggert Vatnsdal, generations in time dissolve when we gather. Chapters of time fall away, and our stories, laughter, and interests intersect. We are family--no matter what side of the Atlantic Ocean we were born on.

One of my Icelandic relatives, Karolina, who currently lives in Sweden, her husband, Joakim, and their triplets came to visit us in the Middle East last fall. I took away many lessons from their visit. One of them was a fascination of how both of them effortlessly speak different languages (Joakim speaks five, and Karolina speaks six). Learning languages is a way of life--the way they show their love for one another and others they meet. In fact, they have spoken four languages to each other, in various chapters of their relationship.

Playing on the beach in Qatar

Joakim, who is from Stockholm, and Karolina, who is from Reykjavik, met in their early 20's in Munich, Germany. Each of them was there for one of their first jobs, away from home and familiarities. Both were learning German at the time. They met through friends, and continued to speak German together in the first phase of their relationship. When they got married and moved to the United States for graduate school and more employment, they spoke English to one another.

Fast forward some more years. They decided they wanted to move closer to family so both of them found a job in Reykjavik--Karolina's hometown.  Most people would be intimidated to learn to speak Icelandic, but not Joakim. After all, Icelandic is a North Germanic language, and he wanted to communicate with Karolina's Icelandic family and friends. When people spoke to him in English, instead of Icelandic, he showed his resolution to learn Icelandic. They lived and worked in Reykjavik for about ten years. While living in Iceland, Karolina gave birth to triplets--two girls and a boy (yep, she is amazing).... The children learned Icelandic at home and school, and then Swedish from their father.

Joakim with the triplets on the seashore in Qatar
When the triplets were about six years old, Karolina and Joakim decided it was time for them to move to Stockholm to be nearer to Joakim's famly. That meant that Karolina would have to learn Swedish. Although Swedish is also a North German language, it coincides more with Danish and Norwegian--not Icelandic. But just like her husband, Karolina was not daunted to learn her new country's language. They enrolled the kids in the ESL language at their their school, and Karolina and the triplets began to speak fluent Swedish with Joakim.

Recently she said to me after a business trip to Brussels, "I just love people." As I thought about her love of languages, there is a deep connection of a love for people--especially for Joakim--who was her friend, boyfriend, and now husband and father of her children. Nothing was too difficult to speak to her beloved. To be with a couple who have spoken four languages to one another, and seamlessly interweave four languages in their conversations, is nothing but remarkable. It is evident that the love they have for one another runs deep. Neither has balked at the inconvenience or challenge. Learning a language for the other is just adding another layer of love--a beautiful history that connects many chapters and periods of their lives.

Getting ready with Joakim, Karolina, and the triplets of our annual ice skating party. The triplets are, of course, learning English, to speak with their family in Qatar!
                     Lessons of Learning a Language:

1) There is an underlying friendship shown when another attempts to speak (even a few words) in someone else's mother tongue.  When I worked in refugee camps in Southeast Asia, sometimes I would call out words in Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, English, Chinese, or Tagalog. Smiles erupted. Bonds of friendship were connected. Maybe not every word was pronounced absolutely correctly. But the effort was appreciated.

2) I have noticed that people who speak different languages or at least attempt to try to speak with others whose language is not their own are risk takers. The weight of fear is tossed away. The learner prefers to try to have a connection or friendship--than to be precisely, absolutely correct.

3) Learning a language is like a pleasant series of fireworks going on in the brain. Sometimes the light of learning a new word can illuminate a whole sky. As Jhumpa Lahiri says in her book, In Other Words, "What does a word mean? And a life? In the end, it seems to me, the same thing. Just as a word can have many dimensions, many nuances, great complexity, so, too, can a person, a life. Language is the mirror, the principal metaphor. Because ultimately the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable." 

4) Keep a notebook of expressions or vocabulary. When I would pull out of my brain a very fitting chengyu (or Chinese saying) when I lived in Taiwan or China, I would see people take a new glance at me, as if they were saying, "Ah, now I know you not only get my language, but my culture, my history, my humor. Nuances are important to you." As Lahiri states, "A notebook contains all my enthusiasm for the language. All the effort. A space where I can wander, learn, forget, fail. Where I can hope." 

5) Never let go of that rope of hope. Don't let it strangle you or don't let anyone else repress that desire to learn a language. It will open new friendships, new worlds, new connections. For those of us who are from the United States, it erases misconceptions that we do not learn languages. It gives cause for another to smile, to bond. 

6) Sooner or later, learning a language is about friendship--desperately wanting to speak to someone who you find interesting, someone you want to inspire or to laugh with. Ultimately, learning a language is about love. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Switzerland: Building Your House in the Sun


On top of the Simplon pass, going into Milan, where Hannibal crossed over with elephants to surprise the Romans. There were very few houses or hamlets, for that matter so high. But we did see a few that gave me some comfort if anything happened on a stormy day. Another post about light:  You can see I am fascinated by light....

How glorious a greeting that the sun gives to the mountains! --John Muir

An old home and hotel on the top of the Simplon pass, in case anybody needed rescuing....
One of my dear friends grew up in a little village in Interkerken, Switzerland--not far from Mieringen (where meringue was supposedly invented). As a child, the looming Alps cradled their village, hugging it tight, as if to keep it remote and unknown to the outside world. In between the crag-edged cliffs, there is a small valley with fields, farms, scattered houses, a few stores, and of course, a steepled church. The mountains, she thought, were always there to keep her safe and protected. But she later told me, those majestic cliffs also delayed the sunlight from coming overhead to the valley. The Alps are so close together on that pass, clinging to the narrow valley, that it sees little sunlight. Every sun ray is precious. It's like you want to capture it in a bottle and seal it up.

When I recently went to see my daughter who lives in the French speaking part of Switzerland, we hiked, tromped, and drove along the steep mountain passes--with the mighty Alps beside us. If you drive in Switzerland, plan on going through dozens of tunnels and winding around steep descents. The expansive terrain of sun and sand that I am used to now in the Middle East seemed far away. There are no vertical drop offs in Qatar. I am accustomed to an ever present sun that explodes every morning, and shoots out its rays all day until it droops off the horizon. No need to bottle up sun here in the Middle East; it is seemingly ever present.

In the Sion/Sierre valley of Switzerland. You can see the "Toblerone"mountains in the distance.
My daughter pointed to the villages on our walks, almost hidden between the crevices of the Alps. She said, "Some houses are almost always situated in the fog or mist. But see how those people build their houses in the sun. Look at the villages nestled up there, and how they catch every possible sunlight." I then noticed that most every house plot was chosen purposefully--selected with meticulous forethought and care. Finding the right location meant receiving the maximum sunlight--in every direction. The house owner had strategically planned where they built their home so that on the dark, cloudy days there would still be some shrouded sun--maybe even a rainbow. She told me that in some villages the real estate is much more expensive because the sun shines more on one valley than the other.

Being in Switzerland reminded me of how we all need to cling to light--in our fogs and clouds. Engineers can build tunnels and nifty trains that carry cars through long, dark passageways. However, ultimately, it is critical to choose a sunny, cheery place to perch your spot. And when the storms inevitably appear, we would have soaked up enough light to survive any tumble. Mists gather on all mountains so we need to be like a prism in a sun drenched room. With every sway or touch, the crystal catches colorful rays that lights up our surroundings. Switzerland taught me to build my house in the sun that scoops up all the light in every direction--no matter what valley or mountain I have chosen.

A painting I found in a restaurant that captures the desired spots on the mountain to catch all the sun rays.

Another perfectly situated house, with orchards around it.

A house built on the right side of the valley to get as much sun as possible.
More homes that are strategically placed in the Sierre/Sion Valley