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Archive for December, 2009

Why else do we live?

The St. Cyr Junior Youth Group, minus Kimberly, Gino, and Marvis

________

In Ruhi Book 6, Teaching the Cause, a course studied around the world by many Bahá´ís and their friends, the first few pages pose the age-old question:  What does it mean to be human? To assist in our reflection, the text encourages us to consider things whose very existence requires them to give of themselves: a flame, a fountain, rain clouds, perfume…

“Can a flame choose not to give forth light and yet be called a flame?” we are asked. “Can a fountain choose not to flow and still be a fountain?”

And then: “Would you agree that the nature of a human being is to give ceaselessly—to give of one’s possessions, time, energy, and knowledge?”

I remember that the first time I studied this book, I highlighted this question with an orange marker. Starred, it, underlined it, wrote the word “YES” in block letters on the margin. I was sure I agreed. It’s remarkable, though, how easy it is to agree with something in theory, but not really internalize it…and I came to the disturbing realization last week, that, in fact, I don’t agree with the above statement. Well, no, let’s edit that a bit: I agree with it, but I haven’t fully believed in it. Not yet at least. But thanks to the St. Cyr Junior Youth Group, I am beginning to see the light.

One of the aims of the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program, to which we are devoting much of our efforts in Dominica, is developing skills for service. With this in mind, by the second meeting of our group, the youth began to identify needs in their community and ways they could help address those needs. Several of the participants had the idea of visiting the elderly (“the lonely ones, to keep them company”), while others suggested cleaning homes for people who were unable to do so themselves. The mother of one of the participants had a friend who worked for an organization that combined these two services: visiting elderly and/or bedridden community members, and cooking and cleaning for them. We invited her in to talk with the group the following week, and she was thrilled with the idea of the junior youth’s assistance, as there were not nearly enough workers to reach all the homes in need. We made plans to visit a woman named Harriet the following Wednesday morning, and agreed to meet for breakfast together first, to fuel ourselves for a long day of walking and cleaning.

After walking south on the Carib Territory Road for 45 minutes or so, we reached the village of Sineku, and climbed a steep, muddy hill to reach Harriet’s home. Harriet greeted us in Creole, and the Junior Youth translated for Roushanac and me: “She says she’s happy to see us. She hasn’t received the pension funds the government had promised her, and since her cooking gas ran out yesterday, she hasn’t had anything to eat.”

Many participants in Bahá’í children’s classes are familiar with a story about Lua Getsinger, an early American Bahá’í, who goes to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Akka, and begs Him to let her be of service in whatever way is needed. He asks her to visit the home of a sick, impoverished man, and to clean for him, cook for him, and bring joy to his heart. Lua rushes off, eager to carry out ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s wish. When she arrives at the man’s house, however, Lua is horrified. The stench is unbearable, let alone the foul condition of the home and the man himself. Surely, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wouldn’t want to subject her to such filth and disease…would He?

When we first arrived at Harriet’s home, I felt a little like Lua must’ve felt that day in Akka. It would be so much easier if all forms of service were fragrant and tidy. If we never had to acknowledge that the human body produces substances that don’t always smell like febreeze, and that most of our brothers and sisters aren’t afforded the luxury of pretending such substances don’t exist. And the thing is, sometimes service does involve cool glasses of lemonade and sprigs of lavender. It doesn’t, by nature, require that we get our hands dirty. But other times we, and Lua Getsinger, find ourselves face-to-face with a big, smelly mess…and a mop is leaning against the doorway.

Returning to the Lua story: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is deeply saddened by her hasty return. “I visit this gentlemen, and others like him, every day,” He tells her. “And you feel incapable of doing this just once? If the man’s home is dirty, clean it. If he is hungry, prepare him something to eat. If he is filthy, bathe him.” These are not ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s exact words, but, basically, He tells Lua that if her desire to serve is sincere, she must pick up that mop, and do what needs to be done. End of story.

And in Harriet’s house, that little hut on the muddy hill, this is what the junior youth did. What needed to be done. While I bumbled around, trying to find a way to make myself useful that wouldn’t accelerate the turning of my tummy, the junior youth—without hesitation, or needing to be told what to do—simply surveyed the situation, and rolled up their sleeves. Two of them got to work making a fire over which to brew a pot of tea: one gathered firewood from the jungle, while the other used his machete to cut small pieces of kindling. Others in the group grated nutmeg for the tea, made a broom out of dried branches and swept the floor and front walkway, ran down the road to buy some bread, washed dishes with a barrel of rainwater, collected garbage in large banana leaves, scrubbed the walls of the home with an old tattered tee-shirt, and trimmed the grass and slashed the weeds in the yard (also with the oh-so-versatile cutlass).

Though I sort of assisted the collecting-trash-in-banana-leaves process, I mainly just watched the junior youth in wonder. There were two things I noticed, in particular, about their service. The first was the range and quantity of skills they utilized. I am twice the age of most of these youth, and have a Masters degree, yet couldn’t begin to wield a machete (indeed, I have to call one of the neighbors over every time I want to split open a coconut). Nor have I cultivated the ability to haul a jug of water without half of it sloshing overboard, to identify the proper leaves to brew a pot of bush tea, to convert a discarded tin can into a nutmeg grater, to make a broom—for heaven’s sake—out of sticks and reeds. All of this the junior youth did…with grace, precision, and excellence.

Of even greater significance, though, was the spirit with which they carried out their service. It was, as far as I could perceive, entirely free of ceremony or production. There was none of the “look-at-me” behavior, no aura of self-satisfaction…just good hard work, and smiles, and an occasional joke or two.

Meanwhile, I was becoming aware of the cheerleader in my head…and beginning, thanks to the example of the junior youth, to tire of her. When I had finally psyched myself up enough to collect a few pieces of trash, she began her routine. Maybe you’re familiar with this cheerleader: she’s also known as “the insistent self,” and is the one who reminds you (while shaking her pom-poms), that You are Serving! (with a capital Y and a capital S). “Rah-rah!” she shouts. “Good for you! This task is sooooo gross, and you’re totally rising above your nausea in the name of altruism! Three cheers for Y-O-U!” And so on, until you start to feel pretty darn pleased with yourself.

Of course, it’s great to feel pleased with the work you’ve done. But what’s not-so-great is when the emphasis is placed on you rather than the work. The Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, cautious us against “the pitfalls of attachment to one’s own service.” Ruhi Book 5, Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth, warns us to beware of service becoming an arena in which the self finds ascendancy. Yet, if we understand service to be the purpose for which we were created, a requirement of our spiritual existence, it ceases to become this big production and is simply life. What we do. A habit. Like when we breathe for example—we don’t even think about it. The insistent self is silent, not remarking “Wow—good for you, Denali. What a nice breath that was. Make sure people know you’re breathing. Maybe, if you’re lucky, someone will even take a video of you doing so, and post it on Facebook, and then people will admire you for the way in which you inhale and exhale. Gosh, you deserve a pat on the back.”

Now, that would just be silly, wouldn’t it?

Just as surely as I can’t hold my breath for more than 30 seconds without turning blue in the face, a flame cannot choose to withhold its light, and still be called a flame.

 

***

A book that has deeply touched my heart is Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. Sadly, I rarely remember details of the books I’ve read—all that usually remains with me is how the book made me feel. Yet, five words from Cry, the Beloved Country have been forever etched in my memory. I can’t recall what exactly is taking place in the scene, but a man is expressing his gratitude to a woman who has helped him. “Thank you,” he tells her. “Truly, you are a mother to me.” And her perfect response, containing the answer to the questions asked in Ruhi Book 6, and the truth that is echoed in every human heartbeat:

“Why else do we live?”

_

 

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Mrs. Cooles’ flatbread

Well. I realize that I promised two postings for this week, but since the last one was so long, maybe I can get away with something short and sweet…actually, salty. It’s a bread recipe, one that has become a part of our evening routine. And sometimes our afternoon routine. Yesterday, it was a part of our morning routine as well.  It is just that good.

…or maybe it isn’t. We enjoy it to no end, but those of you for whom warm, flaky croissants are available on every street corner might have a slightly different standard. A large part of this recipe’s beauty, I think, lies in its simplicity: all you need is a handful of flower, a pinch of salt, a few spoonfuls of water, and a frying pan.

Mrs. Sandra Cooles, a longtime pioneer in Dominica, introduced Roushy and me to this recipe when we visited her several weeks ago, on one of our trips to “town” (Roseau). We were amazed at how easy it was—and even more amazed at how sublime it tasted, especially after being slathered with marmalade and honey (neither of which is available in the Carib Territory. We could splurge every once in a while and buy them in town, but are trying to just to stick to the basics. Besides, it is my firm belief that nothing can take the place of melted butter. Mmmmm, melted butter). On that day, I think we ate about four flatbreads each (I convinced myself that, purely in the name of scientific research, I had to sample one with each of the spreads on the table).

Here’s how you make it:

Scoop a handful of flour into a mixing bowl, or even a plate. Add water, little by little. Add salt (to liven things up, we also sometimes add dried basil, and Adobo seasoning). Keep adding water and flour til the dough is solid enough to knead. Since there’s no yeast, the kneading isn’t really necessary, but it’s fun. Knead to your heart’s content. Then flatten it out with the palm of your hand (or a rolling pin), til you have a round piece of dough, about half and inch thick, roughly the size of a small tortilla. In fact, what we’re making is pretty much a tortilla.

Heat a skillet on the pan with no oil or grease or anything. Just get it nice and hot, and plop the flatbread on it. Let it cook for a minute or so, and then flip it over, til both sides are light brown, with darker brown speckles. Smother with butter. Enjoy, and repeat, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

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I’m so sorry, dear friends–no stories this week. I mean, I have plenty of stories, but none in written form yet. The plan was to share a video instead, but due to some technical glitches, it doesn’t look like that’s gonna happen either. I will try posting it on Facebook, instead. I had so wanted to maintain the routine of a new story every week, but, well, some weeks allow for writing time more readily than others, I suppose. So, I will do my best to write down TWO stories to share next Thursday. I have, however, updated the “Things I’ve read/heard said in Dominica that have made me smile” list. See below! 🙂

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The Glass of Water

During the Caribbean Initiative training in Trinidad, Continental Counselor Ganesh Ramsahai (“Uncle Bobby”) told us a story:

There was a bricklayer. He was soaked in self-pity, and perspiration. The sun was burning his back, his muscles ached, and it seemed as if the work would never finish. With each brick, his misery deepened.

There was another bricklayer working alongside him, radiant. With each brick, his joy increased, and he thought to himself: “I can’t wait to see the temple we’re building.”

“Strive,” Uncle Bobby exhorted us, “to find the joy.”

* * * * * * * * *

We met two dignified gentlemen along the road earlier this week, Frank and Israel Joseph (“The man of two holy names!” Frank pointed out). They were walking the long stretch of Carib Territory Road from Atkinson, where they work on construction projects, to their village of Sineku, at the southern tip of the Territory, roughly a 2-hour walk. I made some comment about how tiring it must be to make that trek twice a day in the hot sun. Frank just smiled and shook his head. “Once you become accustomed to it,” he said, “it’s like pouring a glass of water.”

Ahhh, yes, the glass of water. Is it half empty, or half full? Do we lament the heaviness of the bricks and the heat of the sun, or envision the grandeur of the completed temple?

Yesterday, I experienced moments of both. It was an important day for me…not because the events that took place were particularly earth-shaking—in fact, when considering the state of the world and magnitude of human suffering, they probably wouldn’t even fall under the most liberal definition of “tests and difficulties”—but because, when reflecting on the day, an understanding began to open up for me: I can choose my narrative. Here is the first one.

Narrative 1: My alarm goes off at 5am, as usual. I stumble sleepily out of bed and into a warm puddle of puppy urine. Nice way to start the morning. I reach for the light switch, only to discover that our power is out yet again. I grumble as I clean up the pee in the darkness, and grumble residue hovers over my morning prayers. We have to catch an early ride, so I make the oatmeal quickly, and in my haste, drop our glass sugar container, which shatters on the ground. Great—now the ant and cockroach brigade that has overtaken our counter will send more vile troops to the floor.

Uh-oh, we are late for the van. Gulp down oatmeal and coffee (burning tongue in process), and step on Capacity’s tail (yeeeeeeeeelp!!!) on the way out. Rush up to the “bus stop” (a little wooden bench under an almond tree) and wait. The sun is rising higher, bringing the island’s temperature along with it. Sweat begins to trickle down the back of my neck. There are little creepy-crawlies all over the bench, and the bolder ones are now venturing onto my arms. There is a chicken in the almond tree, squawking and flapping its wings noisily and threatening to land on our heads. Waitwait. Itchitch. Sweatsweat. Squawkflap. Finally we get a call from Kimberly, who informs us that Roger (who drives the only van that goes in the direction of Marigot, where we’re headed to pick up a long-awaited package from home) left earlier today, and we’ll have to start walking. We sigh (well, I sigh) and start heading north. A woman on the road—who, apparently, has been breakfasting on a bottle of rum—beckons us over to tell us she’s going to hypnotize us. We tell her thanks but no thanks, and walk on, past a group of young men who hiss at us as if we’re all a ridiculous bunch of snakes (we’ve decided not to dignify parseltongue with a response).

We reach St. Cyr and pick up Kimberly, who’ll accompany us to the Marigot Post Office, as we’ve never been there before (and, knowing my sense of direction, would probably end up in Bermuda. Yes, I recognize that would require traversing an expanse of ocean. Even so). She is optimistic that someone will give us a ride, but suggests that we keep walking in the meantime. So we walk.

No one stops for us. We pass Salybia, Crayfish River…still no ride. The sky and ocean turn black, and it starts raining. For a minute, we feel cooled off, but then we just feel soggy. We keep walking. Slosh, slosh. We walk for an hour. Blisters begin to erupt on my toes. We walk for another hour—up hills. The sun re-emerges, and I can’t tell which is burning more fiercely: the sun on my face or the throbbing of my muscles. We walk for a third hour, and now every bone in my body has turned to jelly. The sky and ocean blacken yet again, but they are no match for the darkness of my mood. Wait—is that a vehicle stopping to pick us up? Can it be? We muster up our last drop of energy to board the van, only to be dropped off at our destination, the Marigot Post Office, two minutes later. Go figure. We walk for three hours, and the bus comes when we’re a stone’s throw away.

In the post office, we are informed that no parcels can be picked up until the Customs Officer arrives. Thus, more waiting. When the Customs Officer finally makes and appearance, he takes me into a little room in the back of the post office, knife in hand (I wish I were kidding). He sizes me up suspiciously, and proceeds to slash open my package from home with said knife. He rips into some of its contents in the process, including the precious bag of coffee, and the grounds spill out onto the linoleum table. He inspects every square millimeter of the package, reads the card, even reads part of the classified ads surrounding the crossword puzzles. When he’s satisfied that the box contains nothing subversive, explosive, narcotic, or illegal (I suppose “illegal” woulda sufficed), he hands me back the desecrated parcel, and sends me on my way.

When we arrive home, it is late in the day. Still too early to sleep, perhaps, but all I can think about is collapsing onto my bed. But wait, what is that all over my sheets? Oh, sweet Lord, please don’t tell me those are spider eggs.

Indeed, they are spider eggs.

The mammoth of a spider (whose picture can be found in an earlier posting) had been stationed on the beam above my bed the past few days, producing what looked like an egg sack…and it appears to have burst. On my bed. Did I mention that it burst on my bed? And that my bed is now infested with spider eggs? Ok, forget about sleep. Now I just wanna throw a tantrum. Instead, Roushanac and I decide to scrub the house from top to bottom, starting with the sheets, which I wash and disinfect until my hands are raw. We try to mop the floor, but Capacity and Shaloup keep running inside with their muddy paws and dirtying it up again.

And now the sun is down. The mosquitoes emerge (from wherever it is they keep themselves during the day…do they have a little nest somewhere, or what?), eager for another thrilling night of outsmarting Denali’s mosquito net and feasting on her blood. I miss my mosquito-less, egg-less bed at home. I miss my family and friends. I miss almond lattes and the Mass Transit System and a myriad other comforts. Something is crawling on my toe.

What a day. What a day, whataday.

Hmmm. “What a day,” is an interesting statement, isn’t it? All it really points out is that today was A Day. A sunrise, and a sunset. A parcel of 24 hours in which to breathe and live and stretch and grow. And here’s the thing about these little parcels: we aren’t given very many of them. A “mere handful,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says. We can’t, of course, always choose the content of our days (Lord knows, I certainly didn’t choose the spider eggs)…but we can choose our response. We can choose our Narrative. It’s kind of like those Choose Your Own Adventure stories, which so enthralled me as a child. Except this “story” is our life…our humble little handful of days. So let’s try out another narrative, shall we?

Narrative #2: Ooops. Maybe I should have written this one first, as I now find myself impatient to get to the end of this posting. Focusing on the negative is exhausting! So, sparing you my usual excess of adjectives and asides, let me simply list a few of the joys and bounties this day held for me:

• Waking up to a pink and purple sunrise, a fragrant tropical breeze wafting through my window, a soft golden puppy to hold in my arms, and a steaming mug of coffee.

• Good company. The best company, in fact. What a blessing it is to be living and serving alongside such a beautiful soul as Roushanac. And the accompaniment of Kimberly on our walk today was such a gift. She made the time fly by cracking jokes, singing Dominican gospel songs, pointing out places of interest along the way. So many of our interactions with her are in the context of the Baha’i work, and it was really nice to have the chance to just talk and walk and be silly. Today’s journey definitely deepened our bonds of friendship.

• The walk itself. Yes, it was long…and alternated between thunderstorms and scalding sunshine, but it feels good to move one’s legs, doesn’t it? The bus we ride to town every week takes us south, and we had never before walked the northern stretch of the Carib Territory Road. What wonders awaited us! I didn’t think the sea could be bluer, the mountains more majestic, the flowers more vibrant than those of Gaulette River, but I found that the northern reaches of the Carib Reserve offer a beauty that borders on surreal. The tourist websites that speak of Dominica as “An Earthly Paradise,” are using no poetic license or hyperbole. Come see for yourself!

• The people we met along the way. Have I mentioned, yet, how warm-hearted the people are here? How no one is a stranger, and how every man, woman, and child you pass along the way will greet you as if you’re their best friend? So, we met a lot of new best friends along the way. We saw some old friends, too—in particular a beautiful family of 7th Day Adventists who’d invited us into their church for lunch the previous week when we were standing outside talking to their son about the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program. They beamed when they saw us walking down the road, hugged us, and exclaimed “How nice that you now know where we live! We can have lunch over here next time, then. Please come over soon so we can fix a special meal for you.”

• The Post Office’s schedule. As it turned out (which I didn’t mention in narrative one, cuz I was focusing on the woe-is-me stuff), the P.O. is only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 10am and 12pm. And we arrived at 9:58. Had we gotten a ride earlier, as we’d hoped, we would have been waiting on the post office steps from 7am. Kimberly pointed this out, and added, “God always knows what He’s doing.” As a handmade sign we later passed along the road affirmed, “Jah run things.”

• The package! Thank you, my dearest parents. That cardboard box was brimming with so many good things (the coffee spillage was really quite minimal). And those granola bars were the perfect fuel for the walk home!

• The spider eggs. Yeah, they were kinda gross, but what a wonderful excuse to give our home a much-needed deep cleaning. It felt great to scrub that place ‘til it shined. And the muddy doggie footprints on the floor made a cute little pattern, almost as if we’d designed it that way.

• Perspective. Enough said, I think.

So.

Both narratives are entirely true. They simply have different areas of focus. Which one did I choose, in the end? Or, rather, which one do I choose each day? I admit that my ego is more inclined to the first, as it relishes in the role of the victim, and loves a good soap opera. But answer me this, ego: of the two bricklayers, who is happier? Sure, they’re probably both suffering a bit—I don’t think the second fellow is unaware that the sun is hot, and I’m sure his muscles are aching just as much as the first guy’s…but he’s not stuck in his suffering. Instead of fixating on it, he’s rising above it. And the view from up there is a whole lot wider. I bet he can even see the ocean.

* * * * * * * * *

Another story comes to mind. It was told to me by beautiful soul in Brazil, and I wish I could tell it as she did. It is an account of several early Bahá’ís, probably around the turn of the century, but I don’t remember any of the names or exact details. The essence of it, though, is this:

There was a very old Bahá’í man who suffered greatly. Persecuted for his Faith, he experienced every hardship known to man. He lost his home, his livelihood, his loved ones. He was imprisoned, ridiculed, and tortured. When he was released from prison at an advanced age, he could scarcely walk.

There was another Bahá’í man, a young man, who was also suffering…and found himself unable to emerge from the depths of his pain. Some friends of his told him about the trials and woes of the first gentleman, and suggested that he seek the old man’s counsel. “No one has suffered more than he has,” they told the young man. “Surely, hearing about his difficulties will give you some perspective on your own.”

Thus, the young man sought out the old man, and with streaming tears beseeched his assistance. “I have heard about your great sufferings,” the young man said. “And I beg you, tell me how you manage to carry on?”

The old man smiled kindly. “My dear friend,” he said, “you must be mistaking me for someone else… for I have known only the joy.”

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The Nature Island

“…if you care to listen, I will tell you everything I know about the color blue. Blue is the color of the ocean. It is the air we breathe. Blue is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs… Thank you, God, for giving us the color blue. Blue also has magical powers…you watch a reef and tell me if I am lying. Blue crashes onto a reef and what color does it release? It releases white! Now, now how does it do that?” ~Mr. Pip

“There’s so much humanity in a love of trees, so much nostalgia for our first sense of wonder, so much power in just feeling our own insignificance when we are surrounded by nature…I suddenly felt my spirit expand, for I was capable of grasping the utter beauty of trees.” ~The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Our friends Briana and Dillon pass by our home every day on the way back from school to give us hugs, pet the puppy, and share with us what they learned in class that day (Briana is in third grade, Dillon is in kindergarden). The third graders have been studying Dominican history, and have had to learn how to draw the flag, explain the significance of the coat of arms, and memorize the National Anthem. As I listened to Briana study for her exam, my admiration for this tiny island nation grew deeper with each piece of information she recounted… and by the time she was finished with Dominica 101, I was ready to tattoo the flag on my left forearm, the coat of arms on my right, and learn the National Anthem so well that I could recite it backwards and in my sleep. I know, I’m being silly. I also acknowledge that I become enamored very quickly of each new place I call home, and am much more prone to romanticize than critique. But here’s the thing: nowhere that I’ve lived have I encountered such a profound and ubiquitous reverence for nature (a quality I believe to be deeply spiritual). Dominica’s flag and coat of arms are most befitting emblems for a place that proudly calls itself “The Nature Island.” Look up “Commonwealth of Dominica Flag” on google images and what do you find? A brightly colored parrot, in a sea of green. A bird on a national flag! The coat of arms bears the motto: Apres bondie, c’est la ter: After God, Land. And here is a verse from the National Anthem (notice the lack of bombs bursting in air, and the like. I love America—I truly do—but wouldn’t it be nice if we could sing about the wonders of nature instead of blowing people up?):

Isle of beauty, isle of splendour,
Isle to all so sweet and fair,
All must surely gaze in wonder
At thy gifts so rich and rare
Rivers, valleys, hills and mountains,
All these gifts we do extol.
Healthy land, so like all fountains,
Giving cheer that warms the soul.

Dominica, God hath blest thee
With a clime benign and bright,
Pastures green and flowers of beauty
Filling all with pure delight,
And a people strong and healthy,
Full of godly, rev’rent fear.
May we ever seek to praise Thee
For these gifts so rich and rare.

My neighbor, Titus, said to me the other day: “I know people in other places are concerned about money. They think we should go to the city, get a good job, buy a lot of things…accumulate wealth, you know? Sometimes I think they might be right…but then I look around me. I see the avocado trees, the coconut palms, the crystal-clear rivers, the blue ocean, and I am reminded: this is true wealth.”

About the ocean. We can’t really reach it. Most of the Carib Reserve is situated on a side of a mountain, and a visit to the shore means doing battle with dense jungle, rocky cliffs, and a nearly vertical descent. We tried it once, and returned with impressive bruises, scraped knees, and a mountain’s worth of dirt caked under our fingernails (Roushanac and I, that is. For the four children who accompanied us, it was a walk in the park). So, we can’t really reach the ocean. But we can hear the crash of its waves from anywhere on the reserve. And we can behold it. Ohhh, if I were a poet like my sister, or a non-fiction writer like Liz, or a playwright like Jess, I might be able to begin to describe the feeling of praying by the sea. A mere glance at the ocean is a form of prayer for me. So the act of offering a prayer, the most intimate communion with our Maker and with all of creation, while fixing my gaze upon the sea, and breathing it in, is….well…light upon light. I don’t know another way to describe it. ee cummings does, though:

whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

I wonder how many times the words “Ocean” and “Tree” (or “Forest”) are used in the Bahá’í Holy Writings? Has anyone ever counted? 😉 An “ocean and trees” prayer that has kept me company lately is “…whereas before they were as brooks, they became as seas, through Thy bestowal and Thy mercy. They became, through Thy most great favor, stars shining on the horizon of guidance, birds singing in the rose gardens of immortality, lions roaring in the forests of knowledge and wisdom, and whales swimming in the oceans of life.”

Thank you, God, for giving us the color blue. And for the utter beauty of trees.

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“It’s ok, though…because friends are the best toys.” ~A profound bit of wisdom from Ricardo, our 8-year-old friend. He missed school on the day when the children received Christmas gifts, but was philosophical about it…since friends are the best toys.

“Me and me neighbour, we voting for Labour!” ~Campaign Song Refrain. Labour won by a landslide on December 18th, due partly–I’m sure–to the catchiness of this song!

“AJ, if you don’t wait for me I’ll put on Michael Jackson for you!” ~Lovette, to her 3-year-old nephew, who is terrified of Michael Jackson music. Upon hearing this threat, he immediately froze, and waited obediently for his auntie.

“There are no reindeer in my country/He’ll have to borrow a little donkey” ~Refrain from another popular Christmas song, “How Will Santa Get In?” which has been playing on the radio almost as frequently as the “Me and Me Neighbor” one.

“We wish you a reggae Christmas and a reggae New Year.” ~Chorus of another popular holiday song 

“Bananas.” ~The wonderful and totally sincere response from a participant in a “Reflections on the Life of the Spirit” study circle, when–trying to use a food analogy to explore a spiritual concept–I asked him what his MOST favorite food is, like something you’d eat on a special occasion. Manda, I hope you’re reading this.

“She’s my Great, Great, Great, Great—uh, five greats—Auntie. I think. Or second cousin. Well, anyway, we family.” ~Lovette again, trying to explain to me how she’s related to the woman we just said hello to. Everyone here is family. Or treats each other as family, whether or not they have actual blood ties. Oh, that the whole world were this way. Soon….soon.

“Mabrika.” ~The single word I’ve learned in the Kalinago language. It means “welcome.”

“Von, come out, come out, wherever you be!” ~The kids from our children’s class, while searching for their neighbor.

“Noooo! You will make the rain fall.” ~Kira, when I suggested we sing during our looooooong walk to Concord yesterday. She explained that it’s common knowledge that poor singing will darken the sky and bring on the rain. I sang anyway, much to her dismay. 🙂

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“Adam and Eve were daaaaaaark brown, and they had nice, Carib-ish hair.” ~Kira, age 13, giving me what is probably a very accurate history lesson

“Jah is my co-pilot.” ~Bumper sticker on a van in Roseau

“Your blood is so dirty that soon it will be like strings of black pudding running through your body.” ~Excruciatingly effective radio ad for a cleansing tonic

“For true, man.” ~The most commonly used affirmation. As in: “Hey, the sun is HOT today!” “For true, man.”

A little disclaimer about the next three quotes: they weren’t uttered in a mean-spirited way, but rather stated matter-of-factly, as if observing an objective truth, like “The leaves of a mango tree are green.” No offense intended, none taken. Three cheers for directness! 😉

“I surely will laugh.” ~Kira, when Roushanac explained that she’s been falling a lot (the terrain here is rough! And slippery!), and asked the junior youth group, playfully, not to laugh at her if they ever saw her stumble

“Ayyyy, Denali, don’t you have any nice music, man?” ~Kimberly, co-animator of the St. Syr Junior Youth group, when I innocently tried to play some folk songs during a group art project. I learned my lesson quick!

“Yes, but my coloring is far better than yours.” ~Lovette, children’s-class-teacher-in-training, responding to a child who said “Teacher, isn’t my coloring pretty?”

“Block building situated on right hand side of main road, next to Veronica Durand’s shop, in the flat area of Gaulette River, before meeting stand pipe.” ~Our official address. Who needs numbers and street names?

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We have begun teaching, with the assistance of several youth and junior youth in the community, two spiritual education classes for children, rooted in the belief that each child is a noble being, a “mine rich in gems of inestimable value.” Each class focuses on a different “gem,” or spiritual quality (“fruits of the spirit,” as our friend Craig calls them), and helps to “polish” the gem through stories, quotes from the Bahá’í Writings, art, songs, and cooperative games. A few pictures from our first classes are below. Some of the youth on the reserve, who participated in children’s classes when they were smaller, still remember every word of the songs. Their favorite, which they were belting out today as we hiked up a steep hillside, is from the lesson about sharing, and preferring others before ourselves. The chorus goes:

It is a blessing to prefer your brother
This is a way to show you care
It is a blessing to prefer your sister
You are richer the more you share

As I listened to them sing, undaunted by strenuousness of the climb or the scorching sun on their foreheads, I reflected on how brightly this particular gem—call it generosity, call it sharing, or call it pure kindness—shines from the hearts of those who inhabit this land. It is humbling, to say the least, to teach a lesson on generosity to a child whose tummy is rumbling because he gave most of his lunch to his classmate who came to school with nothing. A child whose parents won’t let you leave their home without filling your arms with fruit. A child whose grandmother will use her last precious teaspoon of sugar to make sure your tea is pleasing to the taste. These, I believe, are the people of Bahá, whether or not they call themselves Bahá’ís. These are the people who are now my neighbors, my community, my living examples of the truth contained in that simple children’s song: we are, indeed, ever so much richer the more we share.

Take this morning, for example. As we were preparing to leave for the day’s activities, someone called from the front porch: “Good morning!” We didn’t answer right away, as we weren’t sure we had time for a visitor (oh, what an ugly line! May I never write it again). But the call came once more, louder this time, and we opened the door to find our dear friend Emmanuel, who we’d begun studying “Reflections on the Life of the Spirit” with the day before. He bore a wide grin, and two heavy bags over his shoulder. “I brought you some gifts from nature,” he said, as he opened the bags on our porch. What treasures lay inside! There were ripe coconuts and young coconuts (“jellies,” as they call them here), stalks of sugar cane, breadfruit, a pumpkin, several passion fruits, golden apples, and a large sack of bush tea. Tears sprung to my eyes, which I tried mightily to fight back…but if I was unsuccessful, at least it was evident how deeply my heart was touched by this beautiful act of giving, both on the part of our kind friend, and of Mother Nature, who so rarely gets any of the credit. (There’s a children’s class song about her, too, in the lesson on Humility: “See the tree/it’s so humble/the more its fruits abound/it bows closer to the ground…”).

Our entire morning, in fact, became an enactment of the “Magic Penny” song (of the hotpink songbook fame): giving and receiving and giving a little more and receiving so much in return that it literally rolls all over the floor (I’m not kidding! At my feet are five coconuts, an enormous yam, and a bag of oranges. There’s no more room on the table). We headed down the Carib Territory Road (there is only one street that runs through the reserve, and I so appreciate the straight-forwardness of its name) to our morning study circle, and were greeted by “Pa Dell,” known as the community grandfather. He beckoned us to come over to his humble kitchen, a simple structure consisting of little more than a wooden bench and a firepit, where he handed us what had probably been meant to be his breakfast: a steaming bowl of roasted bread nuts (known as pepipanes in other parts of the world—kind of like little potatoes). We brought it to the Bahá’í Center, where another of the friends produced a thermos of coffee, and we all enjoyed a delicious mid-morning snack. Later on came that aforementioned hike up the hill, to visit the parents of a junior youth. The gentleman we spoke with was wary of any group not affiliated with the Christian Church and made it quite clear that his daughter would not be permitted to participate in our junior youth group…but as the conversation progressed, we found more and more common ground, and before we headed back down the steep hill, he handed us two pink grapefruits. On the walk back, we gave one to Pa Dell. And now it’s evening: December 1st, and a full moon above the ocean. Arriving home, we found ourselves with a pile of coconuts but no way to open them. Our neighbor, however, had a machete—and after a slash here, a slash there, we were all happily slurping coconut water under the moonlight (while Capacity chewed on the husks). We then roasted up our “gift of nature” pumpkin, coated it with hotsauce and mayonnaise contributed by Dinnees and Dante from next door, and dinner was complete.

“How nice it is,” Dinnees mused, “to have neighbors.” My sentiments exactly. How rich we all are.

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