Thursday, March 30, 2017

Egypt: Finding treasures in your backyard

Meet Hannah, who lives in "my backyard"--about eight villas down in the compound. Hannah's family comes from Egypt, a place of endless intrigue and fascination. How grateful and astonished we both were when we met one another last week. Hannah is an aspiring physician who is also an artist, She wants to combine art and medicine together with therapy and healing. I am passionate about how art can unravel and enfold creativity in people--especially people with special needs, in refugee camps, hospitals....  I am launching a non profit foundation called #art4every1. Hannah and I could not cease talking about our passion of how art can heal and bond. And to think we had been living just down the street from one another for two and a half years. #miraclefind
This month in a nondescript slum neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt a colossal eight meter, three ton statue was found sticking out of some water and mud. I am not sure if it was an ear or elbow that was seen first. But a huge precious Egyptian antiquity was found--deep in a murky puddle. When I heard this announcement, it confirmed to me what I have always known: there are so many treasures, invaluable gems, right under our feet. Sometimes the sought after treasure is buried so close to the surface where we ordinarily walk every day. Our footprints do not detect the trove of riches underneath us. Abundant treasure chests are so near, even beckoning, but we do not always see the possibilities in our own backyard and neighborhood. We just rush by.

Wherever you go in Egypt, you sense there is a chance you could discover something under some blowing sand too. Statues, Obelisks, tombs, hieroglyphics, and buildings beckon to other worlds and long gone dynasties. In 391 AD the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I closed the "pagan temples", and for 1500 years hieroglyphics became undecipherable. It wasn't until 1820 when Jean-Francois Champollion, with the help of the Rosetta stone, opened the door to the long-lost Egyptian culture. Hieroglyphics were known in ancient times as "the words of God" and were mainly assessable to the priests. But Champollion finally unearthed hidden knowledge that had been swirling in mystery for many centuries.

When I went to the Valley of the Kings (where all the tombs have been discovered), in my mind's eye, I imagined Howard Carter camping out intermittently on that sandy hill from 1891 to about 1925. Howard, the archeologist who discovered the intact tomb of King Tutankhamun on November 4, 1922, had been searching, digging, and scraping sand away for several decades before he finally found the treasure of King Tut's tomb. When he found it, he exclaimed, " my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold--everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment--an eternity must have seemed to the others standing by, I was struck with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon (who was with him) was unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words, "Yes, wonderful things." Sometimes treasures are excavated after much painstaking work. Other times the treasure chests are just spontaneously found. Undoubtedly in our lives, we usually experience both.

One of my big take away lessons from Egypt was that under seemingly typical, even in repugnant or unpleasant conditions, marvelous beauty can be unearthed--sublime treasures. The lesson can be most applied to people. People who are wrinkled and old--maybe they don't see, hear, or walk as well anymore. People who look different from what our sensitivities are accustomed to. Children who may seem wild, loud, uncontrollable. Sick people who show scars from diseases that have ravaged their bodies. People who speak, pray, or eat differently than you or I are used to. Often times I wonder now, do I dig deep enough to unearth the goodness and talents of people? Or is there maybe a little more excavation needed?

I love the rejoicing words of Howard Carter on the incredible day when he found King Tut's tomb--the moment he had been aspiring to for decades, "We were astonished by the beauty, and refinement of the art displayed by the objects--surpassing all we could have imagined. The impression was overwhelming." However,  I have found the same elation when, under my own feet, I meet people who astound me--sometimes so very close I could touch them. Often I am surprised by the happenstance of intersecting paths, but mostly the treasure is found because I took the time to dig a little more.

Joseph meeting the bishop of Luxor of the Coptic church at the airport

Trying to become amateur Egyptologists--unearthing and understanding the messages behind the messages from long ago.

Enjoying the seeming infinite number of statues and carvings in Luxor.... When there is a continuous flow of treasures, it is important to not become sensitive, jaded, or disinterested around you. Not to just walk by because of the all the surrounding treasures.

There is always another spice or herb to discover in the Old Bazaar in Cairo.

The excavated tombs that required so much digging.

My boys in a mosque, looking on as others read their Qurans. It is always good to pause, and drink a little deeper.

Enjoying a few moments of friendship in the Old Bazaar.

The Cairo Museum--an endless array of treasures that were found by excavators....

One of my favorite minarets in the Old Bazaar--about 600 years old. Whenever we leave the Middle East, I always miss the punctuated rhythms of hearing the call to prayer five times a day. 

Always the fascination of looking a little deeper, trying to understand a little more, brings joy in the seemingly ordinary.
The entrance to the Sphnix, a portal where people prepared for death.
Other blogposts on Egypt:
Time and Immortality:…/egypt-time-and-immortality.h…
Enchanting Egypt
Experiencing Eid in Qatar and Egypt
Embracing the Dates:

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Seeking "Thin Places"

Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofya in Istanbul, Turkey. I wasn't expecting to cry when I entered this mosque that was formally a Byzantine church. But I did. The Chora, the little sister of the Aya Sophia overwhelmed me too. I lost my composure there, and had to exit for a few minutes so I wouldn't embarrass myself around the Japanese tourists. The Byzantine frescos and mosaics were sublime--truly a "thin place."

The ancient pagan Celts, and later the Christians, used a term called "thin places" to describe spaces and places that take us, even for a moment, to another world. They believed that heaven and earth are really only three feet apart, but in "thin places" the distance is even shorter. A"thin place" for them was the isle of Iona (now in Scotland)--a wind swept isle that brought them closer to a spiritual world--a place where they were transformed. I guess the ancient Celts understood they became better humans by going there. "Thin places" are where we are inspired, stirred, feel a tug and get a glimpse from another place. People all over the world seek "thin places" to enlighten them. Sometimes our daily world is so "thick" with confusion and murkiness. We all need to sojourn to "thin places"--whether it is faraway or even in our own home.

In a New York Times article, Eric Weiner writes of his travels and wanderings to "thin places." These are not usually high traffic touristy places. Or at least they do not have to be. With humor, Weiner states, "It is, admittedly, an odd term. One could be forgiven for thinking that thin places describe skinny nations (see Chile) or perhaps cities populated by thin people (see Los Angeles). No, thin places are much deeper than that. They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we're able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent. . . ." If we are as Alfred Lord Tennyson penned, "part of all the places I (we) have met," then it is important to find and linger in "thin places" as much as possible.

I have been to many "thin places" in this world. Many times I have been overcome by feelings or impressions, that this is indeed a light-filled place. Sometimes the stirrings come because of certain people who are with me. Other times I hear whispers of divinity in high rocky cliffs, aspen tress, expansive seas or deserts. Occasionally, it has been a place that I have sought to go to--like a temple or other places of faith. I am sure I have been in some "thin places" that have eluded me too--not realizing the illumination that resides there. And in times of grief or sadness, a "thin place" has added a layer of joy and light when clouds gathered in.

A "thin place" can be sought after, such as a person going on a pilgrimage. But also we can serendipitously bump into a "thin place"--sensing that it is a corner or pocket in the world where we need to be at that moment. They are sacred occasions, even if they last a moment. My husband, a physician, has related to me many times about being in a "thin place" in a hospital room. Virginia Hinkley Pearce explains, "A 'thin place' is ... where we experience a deep sense of God's presence in our everyday world. A 'thin place' is where, for a moment, the spiritual and natural world intersect."

Since my husband and I will celebrate our 33rd anniversary this month, I was reminded of when he invited me to a family reunion at a beach house in Balboa Island before we were dating--a "thin place" for us. I had been friends with him for a long time, but he was determinedly trying to change my mind. He wanted to be more than friends. As I walked in the gate of the outdoor patio that afternoon in Balboa Beach, I was unprepared for what was before me. His father, a WW2 veteran who had landed on D-Day and was blinded six weeks later, was playing the harmonica to his granddaughter, Christine. She sat there in her wheelchair, with a tender smile on her angelic face. I had never met Christine, but I had heard that she had cerebral palsy due to the umbilical cord that was wrapped around her neck at birth. The doctor had not realized there was another child when he delivered her twin minutes earlier.

Joseph and his dad playing music together long ago.
I remember coming to a halting stop when I entered the patio that day. There was a swelling love that was real and palpable in that space. I wiped a tear away. The tides of light were that strong. It seemed irreverent to proceed further so I just stood there and watched a blind grandfather who had never seen his granddaughter or any of his grandchildren or children, for that matter, play music to someone he loved. Upon hearing the music, Christine was calmed and happy. A serene peace filled the air in that "thin place." Perhaps it was in that moment my heart opened to my future husband. It is a sacred moment to me that transformed my life. I am glad the spirit of the music was not lost on me on that patio long ago.

Happy Anniversary! I am so glad I listened to the music on the patio that day....
Blogposts about home:
I believe the ancient Celts were right: we all crave a "thin place" or holy space to tarry for awhile. And perhaps, our home is the easiest place to start. That brief interlude or intersection of time in a "thin place" can jolt us into new awakenings that can transform us. Never underestimate an ordinary place, like a patio....

Here are a few "thin places" I have loved. What are yours?

The Teton Valley in Idaho, US--an endless place of beauty and revelation for me....  Post about the Teton Valley:

On a visit to India, my friend, Ashok, with his sister before her marriage. He gathered with his parents and sister to remember the last time as a family of four before his sister brought another person to the family. With all the rituals and traditions associated with Indian weddings, there are many moments of light. 

A favorite painting by Brian Kershisnik called The Sound of Books
Thoughts, ideas, words call out in "thin places." They bring sparks to our minds that make us more alive.

Jerusalem, one of my favorite "thin places."

My parents dancing at my father's 80th birthday party while their nine children and spouses looked on. Do they have grandkids? Just 55, that's all.... A blog that is a tribute to my parents:
The Prove Temple in Provo, Utah where my daughter was married last fall. So much love within those walls....  The Provo Temple was previously the Provo Tabernacle, built by Mormon pioneers. A fire destroyed much of the inside a few years ago, but with new construction, paintings, and stained glass windows, it has become a new sacred spot. 

Being with my family in Reykjavik, Iceland. Knowing that my ancestors fished and rowed those waters was like coming home to me.... Blogposts about Iceland:

Flatey Island, Iceland where my great grandfather was born. When I stepped on the small island that is only about a mile wide, I felt earth and heaven loosen its grip. Places where our ancestors lived are "thin places."
Music always brings us to "thin places."
Blog about music at home:
Elias lighting a candle at the Duomo Cathedral in Milan, Italy. The Duomo, the fifth largest cathedral in the world has the most statues and gargoyles. Six hundred years in the making, with 78 architects, it is an undoubtedly thin place. John Taylor once remarked when going in a cathedral in England, "If the Dark Ages were so dark, take me to them. I see so much light there."

On a recent trip to Milan, I was finally able to view the Last Supper. It was done by Leonardo Da Vinci from 14904-1498 in the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Gracie. Each person's personality and character shone through on the beloved fresco. Art has brought me to many "thin places" in my life with artists such as Michelangelo, Monet, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Gerrit von Honthurst, Pissarro, Durer, Rembrandt....
Blog about Italian art:

While in Milan, I was able to view Michelangelo's third pieta--one is in Rome, the other in Florence, and this one is in Milan. The master sculptor worked on this pieta for about 30 years, even in the final days of his life. When I walked in the room with this sculpture in the middle of the room, there were only hushed tones. The sculpture evoked a reverent mood to those who entered. Although his pieta in Rome was finished when he was 25, catapulting him to fame, this one he continually chiseled at in the last decades of his life. It was never finished. It made me think that in older years, we realize that the fast tempo of youth cannot be sustained. Although his vision for this pieta was never fully realized, it shows his constant bravado to shape it and bring it to life. I like the fact that Michelangelo never gave up his dream to have Mary hold up the standing Christ .

One of my tender times is watching my son with autism paint. It is a "thin place" where autism washes away, and creativity and joy enter his space. He is making aspen tree trunks.

Meet Miriam who I met yesterday at the Picasso exhibit here in Doha. Miriam has not been able to walk for seven years, but through her painting she still has so much cheer. Although she spoke little English, I was brought to a "thin place" yesterday meeting her. Her dogged determination to bring color to those around her with her personality and paintings inspired me. We were instant friends.
Last summer painting in my favorite barn with people who uplift and inspire me. Tresa, in the middle, would die of cancer a few months later. We all innately knew our time of "thin places" was ending with our dear friend. Thus, every moment was cherished. And now we know she will compress those spaces between heaven and earth just a little more often.  Blog about Tresa:     #creatingopenshearts

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Sion Valley, Switzerland: Immersing yourself in a village....

"You need a village. . . . Your own village of you and the people and the plants and the soil, that even when you are not there, it awaits to welcome you back again."    --Cesare Pavese
My daughter and her husband at a yodeling festival near the Lausanne Valley

My daughter and I are both expats. I live in Doha, Qatar, and she resides in a small French speaking Swiss village with her husband. My new home comprises dozens of languages, dialects, cultures, and traditions here in the Middle East. Wafts of pungent spices and seeing people pray five times a day are my rhythm of life now. I meet people from Yemen, Tunisia, all parts of Africa, Morocco, India, Bangladesh, Nepal every day. Last night a man from Comoros (I responded, "Where?" when he told me his country--learning yet another place I have never known) visited my house. Conversely, my daughter, a non-French speaker (learning to speak French), is living in a charming village where people have inhabited for centuries--tucked next to the French Alps. Everyone speaks French--a place where chocolate and cheese reign. The Swiss French culture dominates every sliver of life. Her valley is a lifestyle that requires you to immerse yourself in one culture and language. Whereas, my life is a mosaic of many colored tiles from remote and faraway places. 

As her mother looking on, I am proud of my doggedly determined, yet fun loving daughter who is embracing a new language, life, and village. I tried to give her that village when she lived under our roof. But now she is submerging herself into a rich culture that is beckoning new friendships and mentors. I tell her it will be worth it--to leave the unfamiliarities, the solid ground. The only way to absorb a new place, a new home, is to walk out to the deep water. and then plunge in. That's right--just dive in with unabashed pride that you can do it--even when you make an embarrassing faux pas learning French. You gotta leave the shore to learn to be a part of a village. No dangling toes on the shoreline.

Being in a village is learning the traditions and customs that never die there. It's talking to the shop owners, and asking them what cut of meat would be good for a recipe you are making. In her case, it is learning about all the cheeses of the valley, and why every cheese is delectably different. It's being stopped on the street to see how your family or dog are faring. It's going to a village play or concert and see your friends and fellow villagers perform--just because you want to support them. That's what new friends do for one another. It's about admiring someone's flowers, beehives, orchards--and then telling them so. And when we see the beauty of our new village, it becomes more lovely to us--more a part of us. Because it is our own village now.

Thank you Sion Valley for letting a new villager into your home. Everyone needs a sense of place. As Wendall Berry, one of my favorite poets reminds us, "You don't know where you are until you know who you are." But I will offer that villages and beloved places help us become who we were meant to be. And when someone new comes in trying to learn your language and culture, invite them through the gate....

On a delightful walk through Sierre where there was a path opening to everyone's personal orchards and vineyards
Everyone has their personal vineyard and orchard here--often times with beehives and gardens.
Looking down into the village of Sierre on a walk down the mountain

If you go to the Sion Valley, of course you must go to a chocolate factory. We went to the Cailler Chocolate Factory in Vevey, Switzerland. Here is a German family learning about the nuances of making chocolate. It takes more training than you think to be a chocolatier. This is Margarite. She had been a pastry chef for about 15  years, and then decided to be chocolatier, which required a few more years of training. She speaks French, Italian, German, and English. Our class was combined of several nationalities. She could speak to all of us in the class, except the tourists from Hong Kong (Luckily, they spoke English). Margarite told me that her father had been a pastry chef, and that "chocolate just ran in her veins." She then added, "I mean, Who doesn't like chocolate? I get to make people happy all day here. Chocolate is the endorphins of life." It's worth going to Vevey--even to smell the chocolate aroma that encircles the town.

Making our own chocolate bars in the class at the Cailler Chocolate Factory.

The quaint medieval village of Greyeres, Switzerland, the town where gueyere cheese is made and produced. Every village is proud of their own distinctive cheese.

Since I play the cello, I was fascinated to be able to go into a luthier shop where there were three men being taught by a master luthier named Dietre Hllewaere. Go visit him. His shop is on a windy cobbled road in Sierre, Switzerland. People come from far distances once a week to be taught by him. It takes about one year to make a violin. The man in the picture above is retired, and makes the round trip from Zurich once a week to learn to make a violin. He told me when he finishes it, he will give it to a lucky musician in Bolivia where there is a youth orchestra, and they cannot afford to buy or rent violins. Needless to say, I was impressed by his talent and generosity of spirit. 

Dietre helping another man make a guitar for his son. Here is a link of a beautiful video of  a luthier's thoughts on making violins: Violin maker and video

Every village has not only their typical, flavorful cheese that is unique to them, but also every village has a certain shape and size of bells for their beloved cows. At the end of the summer, you can hear the bells chiming from different villages as they walk down the mountains, ready to come home for the winter. Each fall there is "cow fighting"--a long tradition that shows which cow is dominant. The winner is called the Queen of the Cows.

In the market in Sion heating up the raclette cheese to put over potatoes or bread--a traditional food of Switzerland
At the Chateau de Villa restaurant you can taste five different kinds of cheese for your raclette dinner. They give you a map of the villages in the region before the dinner. And then you can see which villages's cheese you are eating from. They are both subtly and uniquely different--depending on the village's soil and grass that the cows eat.

A crew of special needs adults who were trimming an orchard in Sierre.
My own son who has autism shaking hands with the "professor" or teacher of the group. We all became friends very quickly, although we speak little French. I was impressed with this group of hard working individuals who were able to work and contribute in the community village.

It seems that a well groomed, tidy woodpile is an important part of being Swiss. 

In early February in the Sion Valley, the weather was uncommonly warm this year. But as we climbed higher up the mountain, we could make a snowman. These are the paths that people run up all year long to get ready for the skiing season.
Maranda skiing in Saas-Fee, Switzerland Ski Resort   Skiing is the alpine way of life there.  
One way my daughter is learning French and the culture is knitting in a rest home with some of the older people. They are teaching her how to speak French and about their village as they click the needles together. An amazing yarn shop in Interlachen, Switzerland