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Archive for February, 2010

Mr. Fujita (on the right!) and friend in 1922

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Weekly greetings, dear ones! We sort of have a “special guest writer” this week, too.* Roushy read the story below during our devotions this morning, and I’ve been thinking about it all day long. When I sat down in front of the computer this evening to write my weekly blog posting, I played with a few different topics, but nothing really felt right…and my mind kept returning to this story. It’s an excerpt from Nathan Rutstein’s beautiful book He Loved and Served: The Story of Curtis Kelsey. The passage below, however, is not about Mr. Kelsey, but about a dear friend of his named Fujita…

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Fujita, who came from a prominent Japanese family, heard of the Faith in San Francisco from Mrs Helen Goodall. Before becoming a Bahá’í, he was a notorious party hopper, associating with theater people. Learning that Fujita had become a Bahá’í, the Master [one of the titles of ‘Abdul-Bahá, though He only ever referred to himself as “Servant”] wrote him a tablet, praising him for the step he had taken and for the wonderful person he was. ‘The person He’s writing about,’ Fujita thought, ‘couldn’t be me.’ So he didn’t take the letter seriously.

After the third letter from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Fujita wrote the Master asking what he could do to best serve the Faith. ‘Go back to school,’ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá advised. Fujita went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to study.

In 1912, Fujta met the Master, who urged him to complete his schooling. Upon graduation, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá promised, He would have him come to the World Center to work. Fujita went to Chicago to complete his engineering studies. He spent seven years, living with Mrs. Corinne True and her family. Afterward, he went to Haifa, but never got close to a drafting table. He found himself working as a servant in the Western Pilgrim House, certainly not putting into practice what he had studied at the university.

This disturbed him; being in Haifa, he convinced himself, was a mistake, and he decided to go back to America. While packing his clothes, Ruhi Afnan appeared, stating that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wanted to see him immediately. Fujita ran to the Master’s house. As he entered ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s room, the Master said, ‘What is the matter, Fujita?’

‘You told me to study certain things, and I’m not doing them here.’

‘Fujita,’ the Master said, ‘if I wanted a mechanic or engineer I could have gotten one easily. The work you are doing for me is what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wishes you to do.’

The Master’s love dispelled every trace of self-pity and Fujita replied, ‘If I must shine the Master’s shoes that would be fine for me.’ Fujita had gained understanding: he was a servant of the Servant of Glory. What greater honor could there be? For there was no greater station in this life than that of servitude.

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*I should probably be honest with you, and confess that the real reason for the “special guest writer” is that I simply won’t be able to write (or get a decent night’s sleep) til I’m released from the clutches (or fangs?) of the Twilight books, which have consumed my late-night hours this week. But I’m on the final book of the series now, so unless Stephanie Meyer releases a surprise fifth installment between now and next Thursday, I’ll be yammering away at you again in the next posting. But this Fujita story is certainly not just a space filler…it really touched my heart, as I hope it does yours.



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Dust

A volcanic eruption on the island of Montserrat has caused the airport to be closed.

*Special post this week by guest writer Bill Weiler

On February 11, 2010, a volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat decided it was time to let off a little steam.  A plume of ash set sail 9,000 feet into the air, enough to cause the cancelling of all flights to and from the many Lesser Antilles Caribbean countries.

On the morning of February 13, we wiped a sheen of volcanic dust from a coffee table on a porch near the town of Calibshie in the island nation of Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic)!  All over Dominica we have been told about the dust that has settled on everything and has even taken away the normal glistening green of the island’s dominant natural hue.

We must be wearing Oz-colored glasses because we just haven’t noticed the dust.  Between the azure and turquoise blue of the sea and the carpet of tropical forest still covering most of the island, our eyes have been dazzled, and our hearts set aglow by the unexpected kindness shown by the Dominican people.

Yesterday on our walk to the Soufriere Sulfur Springs Park we had briefly chatted with a gentleman only to meet him again outside his home upon our return.  With a twinkle in his eyes and signaling for us to wait, he dashed into his home and returned with three fresh grapefruits and a smile as a big as the island.

Our kindly proprietor of the first place we stayed on the island related to us the hard times he has been facing, and yet when we mentioned in passing that we were headed back to the airport to pick up a rental car, he immediately offered to drive us there despite his sadness and frenetic schedule.

Where else on the planet do the people greet you with a “Are you all right?” and then show true satisfaction if you answer, “Yes, we are well.”

Is it possible we have stumbled upon a lost tribe of people who simply wish to be helpful? In only four short days of visiting, many people we have met have gone out of their way to greet and welcome us and to offer their assistance.

Yet, this might not be enough.

Dominica is one of the smallest nations on Earth.  Being an island, it has the luxury of developing a unique set of attributes which, to its credit, — it has – including what can’t be found on the island such as no malls, no international airport, no resorts nor large hotels, no fast food restaurants…whoops, we did notice one KFC.  There is a progressive identity of being the “nature island” and the country probably has conserved a greater percentage of its land base than any other nation.

Despite all of the positives, Dominica appears to have not yet forged a path of unified direction.  Despite so many individual’s willingness to serve others, it is hard to see any pattern of national community service.  The two-day national holiday of Carnival brings people together for two days a year; church is one Sunday per week.

What magnanimous cause will bring Dominicans together in a common purpose: environmental protection, education for all, embracing and enhancing native Kalinago culture?

As there is no single dust particle, volcanic ash moves through the air as one entity.  Each speck bonds together and settles like a blanket over the land.  Similarly, all of the helpful individuals we met in Dominica may need to have something to link them together, to lift up their collective souls, resulting in a power of unity that can illumine the whole earth.

As we walk down the streets the friendly Dominicans call out to us with a caring “Walk well.” My hope is that the people of this newly independent country find a way to walk well together as one.

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A cooking lesson

“The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.” ~Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

“Eat ye, O People, of the good things which God hath allowed you, and deprive not yourself from His wondrous bounties. Render thanks and praise unto Him, and be of them that are thankful.” ~Bahá’u’lláh

The Purpose: Teach “the white girls” how to make a traditional Dominican meal: Figue and Saltfish (by the way, I’ve learned since my last posting about bananas that what I was calling “figs” are actually spelled “figues.” That looks a little more sophisticated, doesn’t it?)

The Place: The woodfire kitchen next to the yellow house on the curve of the road in Gaulette River (remember, we don’t have conventional addresses here)

The Professors: Yvette, age 18, and Minkila, age 10, her assistant

The Pupils: Roushy and Denali, who have never before felt so laughably inept in a kitchen

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This posting is about a cooking lesson.

But first, please permit me to share a sweet little aside, which I’m reminded of from the quote above, “Eat ye, O people…” This passage exhorts us to, if I’m understanding it correctly, eat good food, and give good thanks for it. Yet, it doesn’t seem like “saying Grace” is really part of the Bahá’í culture. We pray in the morning, we pray at night, we pray at the beginning and end of every gathering (shoot, some of even pray for divine assistance before beginning a crossword puzzle)… but, as a collective, at least, we don’t seem to pray before meals—except maybe during the Fast. Why is this, I wonder?

Well, inspired by the example of 13-year-old Rampakash, I’ve been making an effort to—at the very least—take a moment to appreciate “God’s wondrous bounties” on my plate, before stuffing my face with them…even if the wondrous bounties happen to be stale bread with a smear of corned beef. This is what was served during the social portion of the last Nineteen-Day Feast. Now, at this particular Feast, we had really prayed it up. And when it came time for the social portion, our voices were hoarse from so much prayerful singing. Plus, most of us hadn’t had dinner, and we were hungry! One of the dear friends began to serve the bread and corned beef, and we all started chowing down. Rampakash looked around in confusion, and leaned over to me. “Aren’t we going to give thanks before eating?” he asked. I reminded him that we had already said a considerable amount of prayers, and suggested he eat up. “Well,” he responded thoughtfully, “I think I’ll still pray.” And he bowed his head over his paper napkin of food, and murmured a quiet prayer of gratitude.

The sight of him there, that tough junior youth with the dragon tattoo on his bicep, offering prayerful thanks for a slice of stale bread with corned beef, melted my heart. And, of course, after witnessing that, I couldn’t eat another bite without closing my eyes and giving thanks too. The first words that came to me were those of my Great-Grandpa Mort, who offered the same marvelous prayer before every meal: “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat.”

So, dear reader, let us eat. Well, let us talk about eating, at least. But, in order to get to the eating part, we have to begin with:

Step 1: Chopping the wood.

Most families in Gaulette River have both a gas stove and a woodfire kitchen…but almost everyone seems to prefer the latter. It’s a little more work, but, they say, gives the food a special flavor (extra effort and extra satisfaction usually seem to go hand-in-hand, don’t they?). Yvette, our neighbor and cooking instructor, was determined to coach us through every step of the lunch-making process, and she was such a thorough and patient teacher. Now, having grown up with a woodstove, I’ve had a bit of experience starting fires, but cutting kindling with a cutlass is another story. Roushy and I provoked endless giggles from our cooking instructors as we feebly tried to chop small pieces of wood. After many repeated attempts, we finally managed to amass a small pile of sticks (narrowly avoiding slicing off our thumbs in the process!), and felt quite proud of ourselves.

Step 2: Peeling the figues.


Unripe bananas are sticky things, and peeling them can leave your hands feeling like they’ve been dipped in a vat of superglue. The trick for avoiding this, Yvette explained, is rubbing your hands and arms with cooking oil first. It deflects the stickiness nicely (but just be careful of the figues slipping out of your hands!). The best way to peel them, we learned, is to slice them vertically down the outside with a sharp knife. You gotta be sure not to cut to deeply into the banana—as I kept doing—or else it will fall apart. Just insert the knife deep enough to penetrate the peel, and then slice downwards. From just one slice, the peel will come off with relative ease. (This pile of figue peels became lunch for the two pigs in the backyard, as did the saltfish broth. Nothing went to waste; everything had its special purpose).

Step 3: Starting the fire.


Once we’d peeled all the figues, we put them in a large pot of water, to boil over the fire. But first we had to start the fire. Yvette showed us how to make a little tee-pee out of the kindling, and how to help get the fire going by lighting a plastic bag and holding it over the wood.

Step 4: Washing the hands (with coconut fiber).


Again, everything had its special purpose—even the fiber from a coconut casing. It may be hard to see in this little picture, but the coconut fiber is the material under the blue soap, and it makes the perfect natural sponge. We thoroughly washed the fig and oil residue from our hands, and rinsed them in a bowl made from a hollowed out gourd. Many of the materials utilized in the preparation of this meal came from “the bush.”

Step 5: Making the salad.


Guided by Minkila, we made a simple salad by chopping carrots and cabbage, and garnishing it with sprigs of parsley. Minkila showed us the most efficient way to peel a carrot—just scrape the outside of it with a knife, which takes off only the very outer layer (using a peeler tends to take off thicker slices).

Step 6: Greasing the (good) pot.


Yvette explained that most families here have two pots: the old one, and the good one. The old one usually looks like the pot in the third picture—it’s great for boiling figues and things, but you wouldn’t wanna serve saltfish from it…especially, Yvette said, if you have company.  They way to preserve the good pot from becoming blackened and old-looking, we learned, is to pour oil over it, and let it soak up the oil for a period of time before putting it over the fire. This layer of oil acts as a protective coating, and keeps the pot nice and shiny.

Step 7: Making the sauce.


The saltfish was to be seasoned with celery, onion, parsley, and garlic. I have been chopped a fair amount of onions over the years, but had never learned a way to slice them without the onion falling apart in my hands. The secret, Yvette showed us, is to cut the onion in half, without cutting off the ends. You then begin slicing from the middle (the wider part) down, and the onion remains intact, resulting in nice circular curls of onion.

Step 8: Slicing the garlic.


An easy way to chop the garlic, without needing a cutting board, is—after peeling it—to slice it in a criss-cross pattern almost all the way down to the end of the clove, and then chop it horizontally. Hmmm…this may be hard to explain without a diagram. But most people already know this chopping technique, I think. The garlic peels were to serve their special purpose as well: Minkila tossed them over the fire, to infuse the kitchen with a nice garlicky aroma.

Step 9: Spicing it up.


This is the spice we used. It not only added some nice flavor, but gave the saltfish a deep orange hue (which made me very happy. I love it when food is colorful).

Step 10: De-salting, de-scaling, and de-boning the saltfish.


This was the most exciting part—we were finally gonna learn to make the the saltfish that Harry Bellafonte sang about in the “Sounds of laughter everywhere” song!!! Saltfish is, as its name indicates, rather salty. So we first had to boil it (in the old pot) to get some of the salt out. We then drained it, and poured cold water over the fish so as not to scald our hands while de-boning and de-scaling. There were a lot of little bones in there, but with 8 hands working, I think we managed to get them all out. We then mashed up the fish in bite-size morsels, and scrubbed our hands with more coconut fiber and a slice of lime.

Step 11: Mixing it all together.


It was now the good pot’s moment of glory. We carefully placed it over the fire, and filled it with the saltfish and veggies. We gave it some good stirs, and let it cook for 20 minutes or so, while we went out side to drink some jellies.

Step 12: Jelly break (and Cutlass Wielding 101).


Jellies, as I may have explained in an earlier posting, are young coconuts, filled with very little flesh, but a whole lot of water. Delicious, slightly sweet, nutrient filled water…and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything more refreshing. The good people of Gaulette River regularly bestow upon us gifts of jellies (sometimes we come home after a long, hot day to find a pile of them on our front porch)…but we usually run next door to ask Titus or Dante to open them for us. Yvette, however, was determined for us to learn to do this on our own. As you can imagine, more giggles ensued. We were ridiculously clumsy with the cutlass…mainly, I think, out of fear of slicing off our fingers. Finally, Yvette took over, and effortlessly sliced open the jellies for us. She made us promise, though, that we would continue to practice.

Step 13: The art of orange peeling.


I wish I could say I produced this beautiful spiral of an orange peel. This handiwork, though, is Yvette’s. Isn’t it pretty? This is something else I need to practice: slicing an orange in one long peel. The key, Yvette showed me, is turning the orange as you cut, rather than moving the knife. I’ll keep working on it.

Step 14: Juice making.


Once the oranges were peeled (these were special “Bosco” oranges, slightly tangy, from the tree in Yvette’s backyard), we squeezed them into a pitcher to make juice. Just add water and a bit of brown sugar.

Step 15: Eating up (and giving thanks)!

And culminating moment….three hours later. But what joyous, learning filled hours they were! This Figue and Saltfish ranked among my top five meals of all time, partly, I think, due to the sweetness of the preparation. We filled our plates, filled our cups, situated ourselves under the coconut tree in the yard, and feasted. And, of course, gave thanks.

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https://i2.wp.com/www.craftsuperstore.co.uk/Gallery/product/Crayola/play%20dohProduct.jpg

“That day will the Cause spread like wildfire when its spirit and teachings are presented on the stage or in art and literature as a whole. Art can better awaken such noble sentiments than cold rationalizing, especially among the mass of the people.” Shoghi Effendi

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This week, I would like to share with you an idea for a fireside.

Now, a fireside is basically a heart-to-heart conversation about the Bahá’í Faith between two or more individuals. But whether or not you’re a Bahá’í, I think this will still be relevant for you because a) you can, most certainly, give a fireside without being a Bahá’í, and b) I think this format could be adapted to share pretty much anything. The formula is pretty simple: Person with something special to share + objects that engage the senses + person(s) willing to listen and learn and interact with said objects. From the limited experience I’ve had with this model, it seems to touch people’s hearts. Well, art does that, doesn’t it? And what I’m suggesting here is a type of art that anyone (ANYone!) can create. All you have to do is be able to taste, feel, hear, smell, and see.  It is simple, and fun, and I encourage you to try it out.

My first experience with this type of presentation was in graduate school, when I had the opportunity to design–in an “Education in Community Settings” course–a museum exhibit on the Bahá’í Faith to present to my classmates. It was then that I realized how enriching (for all involved, I think) it can be to teach through objects. In the three months I spent at home, before coming to Dominica, my siblings and I experimented with this model in a couple of firesides…and, earlier this week, Roushy and I shared a version of it with our friend Merlyn, her mother, and her Uncle Claudinus. It could even be done in a large or small group setting, or even one-on-one… and I was reminded this week of how responsive, in general, people seem to be to it.

There are so many different ways you can do this. I will give an example of a way I’ve done it, but the model lends itself to endless variations. Basically, you start by identifying the main concepts you want to be sure to convey. You then think of different objects that can represent those concepts, trying—if possible—to choose objects that will engage the different senses. You then decide on the sequence of the presentation, and think about how you can make it interactive and balanced.

In preparing for our “object fireside” this week, Roushy and I used what Bahá’ís call “Anna’s Presentation” as the blueprint. It’s taken from an example of a conversation between two friends, Anna and Emilia, about the fundamental tenets of the Bahá’í Faith, and has now been made into a little flipbook, which Bahá’ís sometimes use as a visual aid when sharing the Faith with others. The first five concepts discussed in “Anna’s Presentation” are as follows:

  • What is the Bahá’í Faith
  • Humanity’s relationship with our Creator
  • Progressive Revelation/The Eternal Covenant
  • The Aim of the Bahá’í Faith: To Unify Mankind
  • Who is Bahá’u’lláh—His suffering and influence

These were the five main ideas we decided to focus on for the fireside, although we easily could have selected just one (I mean, just think of all the interesting objects one could bring in to represent elements of Bahá’u’lláh’s life! As I’ve mentioned, this model conduces to a million different adaptations).  We also thought we should include a brief discussion of the four “core activities” that Bahá’ís—and many of their friends—are currently engaged in. What follows is an explanation of what we shared…but remember that this is just one example. Oceans of other possibilities abound.

OBEJECTS USED: grapefruit seeds, ukulele (though it could have been any instrument, or just the human voice), red play-doh, mirrors, chapter book, paper and crayons, lighted candle.

Grapefruit seeds: When we did this at home, we used acorns…but you gotta work with what’s available! To introduce the Bahá’í Faith, we first sang the “Tiny Seed” prayer (accompanied by the uke), which includes the verse, “I am, O my God, but a tiny seed which Thou hast sown in the soil of Thy love.” After explaining that the Bahá’í Faith is a world religion whose purpose is to unite all people in one universal cause, one common faith, and that Bahá’ís are followers of Bahá’u’lláh, Who we believe to be the Promised One of all the ages, we handed each person a grapefruit seed. We asked them if, had they never seen a grapefruit tree before, they’d be able to believe that from this tiny, feeble looking little seed, a majestic tree could spring forth, bearing delicious fruits. It’s really quite extraordinary, when you think about it. We explained that the seed is a symbol of potential: that which exists in each human soul, and in humanity as a collective. The magnitude of the individual and collective transformation Bahá’ís are striving to bring about could seem overwhelming…until we remember the story of the seed.

Play-doh: It doesn’t have to be red, of course…but it is nice when it’s a bright color. And the recipe is so simple: one cup of salt, one cup of flour, half a cup of water, and a few drops of food coloring. To help explain the nature of our relationship with our Maker (known by folks here as “Jah,” or “The Most High.” The Bahá’í Writings refer to Him as “The Unknowable Essence”), we gave each person a ball of play-doh, and asked them to sculpt something they loved. Claudinus made a piece of bread, Merlyn made a person, Rhea made a flower. We asked them if they thought their little creations were able to know and understand their makers (of course not—‘cause that which is created cannot understand its creator. Especially if the creation is made out of play-doh). We shared the passage, from the Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, “From the clay of love I molded thee, and within thee have I placed the essence of My light…”

Mirrors, Candle and Book: So, if we were created out of love, how do we receive this love and guidance, if we cannot know God directly? Most of you are probably familiar with the analogy of the mirror…but it’s much more effective when you have actual mirrors to demonstrate! We set out several mirrors, of varying sizes and designs. We then lit the candle, and held up the first mirror to it. “What do you see in the mirror?” we asked our friends. “The light of the candle,” they responded. We then repeated the exercise with the other mirrors, and all agreed that they saw the same light in each, evn though the mirrors were different. Such is the case with the Manifestations of God—holy beings who are like perfectly pure mirrors, reflecting the light of God. Sometimes, though, we get so attached to the mirror, that we forget about the light. The book is perhaps not necessary, but it helps expand on this metaphor: Bahá’ís view religious revelation to be continually unfolding, like the chapters of a book: the Book of God. We used Twilight (which, I have to admit, I couldn’t put down. Talk about a page-turner—I now see what all the Middle School hype is about) as an example. “Imagine,” we joked, “What you’d be depriving yourself of if you only read to Chapter Three!”

Paper and Crayons: The aim of the Bahá’í Faith is no less that the unification of the entire human race. We have a bit of a long way to go, don’t we? (I think we’re still in the seed stage of the grapefruit tree…but I believe that it’s starting to sprout). This unity, though, is not to be confused with uniformity. We used the garden analogy to illustrate this point—but an interactive version of it. We gave each person a piece of blank paper, and one grey or beige crayon. To one person, however, we gave the entire box of crayons. We instructed the group that they had three minutes to draw a garden with the crayons they’d been given (we sang some children’s class songs about unity while people colored). We set the paper gardens on the floor, and took a look at them. Obviously, the one with many different colors was a whole lot prettier. (I am reminded of a Dizzy Gillespie quote: “Bahá’ís believe in unity…but with diversity, to make it prettier.”) This is such a simple, seemingly juvenile activity, but it illustrates a profound spiritual truth! Plus, it’s good for adults to get silly every once in a while, and draw little flowers with crayons.

Candle: We utilized the candle already, in the mirror example, but it’s main purpose is to help us better understand the life of Bahá’u’lláh. After sharing a bit about His early years, and his exiles and imprisonments, we directed people’s attention to the candle, and asked what was happening to it as it gave its light (the wax was dripping itself away). We explained that the lives of all the Manifestations of God are characterized by great suffering, and great influence over the hearts of the people. They are like candles: they “weep away their lives drop by drop, in order to give forth their flame of light.” We ended the presentation by singing “Kindle the Fire of Love.”

And then there were questions, and discussion, and some more singing. Always more singing.

You might have noticed that we left out two of the senses this time—taste, and smell. When my sister and I shared a similar fireside at home, we gave out candied dates and tea when discussing the sweetness of prayer. And when we talked about the beauty of unity in diversity, using ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s analogy of humanity as a flower garden, we anointed each person with a drop of rose water. But you don’t have to get fancy like that. A simpler alternative (and a more realistic one for the Caribbean, at least) is picking a bouquet of wildflowers, and passing it around for people to admire and smell. And to symbolize divine sweetness—well, few delicacies are sweeter than a slice of ripe mango.

I think I’ll end here for today. It’s nice to finish with the word “mango.”

(This is just an aside, since this posting has already officially ended. 😉 I would love to hear about the different variations of “teaching through objects” that people come up with! And please do send along any suggestions—to denali9@gmail.com —since Roushy and I hope to share this type of fireside with many more people here, and know that it can be improved a little each time.)

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