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Archive for July, 2010

Accompany

Dearest friends, I would like to introduce you to a special little somebody. She is the newest (and, quite possibly, the cutest) member of the Caribbean Initiative, Dominica Contingent, and her name is Accompany. “Awa!” exclaimed one of the junior youth, when she met the pup. “Why do you two give your animals such strange names?” (Most of the dogs here are named Whitey, Blackie, or Scooby).

Well, ours are pioneer dogs. They are community-building dogs. And their names ought to reflect that. Accompany—who is Shaloop’s daughter, the runt of the litter—was named after this paragraph in the 2010 Ridvan Message from the Universal House of Justice:

This evolution in collective consciousness is discernable in the growing frequency with which the word “accompany” appears in conversations among the friends, a word that is being endowed with new meaning as it is integrated into the common vocabulary of the Bahá’í community. It signals the significant strengthening of a culture in which learning is the mode of operation…

We love her very much…and know that her accompaniment in our few remaining months here (only eight left) will increase the sounds of laughter in our home and community.

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From Chapter VII of The Dawnbreakers, “The Báb’s Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina”:

There came to Him…the vision of those holy men, those pioneers and martyrs of the Faith, who had fallen gloriously on the field of battle, and who, with their life-blood, had sealed the triumph of the Cause of God. Their sacred dust seemed as if reanimated by the gentle tread of His feet.

…They seemed to be addressing to Him this fervent plea:
“Repair not unto Thy native land, we beseech Thee, O Thou Beloved of our hearts! Abide Thou in our midst, for here, far from the tumult of Thine enemies who are lying in wait for Thee, Thou shalt be safe and secure. We are fearful for Thee…”

“Fear not,” The Báb’s indomitable spirit replied, “I am come into this world to bear witness to the glory of sacrifice.”

*****

The Martyrdom of the Báb, the Forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh and the Herald of the dawn of a New Day, took place at noon on 9 July A.D. 1850, in a barracks square in Tabriz, Iran. Exactly 160 years later, on the island of Dominica, the Bahá’í community of the Carib Territory commemorated this Holy Day.

For Roushanac, Liz (author of an earlier blog posting “A Woman’s Work,” who is serving here for the month of July) and I, the day began by reading the above excerpt from The Dawnbreakers, a historical account of the earliest days of the Bábi Revelation, the precursor to the Bahá’í Faith. Tears streamed from our eyes as we sat on the front porch in the early morning light, and read these stories of heroism, of sacrifice, of a love so great that—as described by Nabil-i-Azám, author of The Dawnbreakers:

If the branches of every tree were turned into pens, and all the seas into ink, and earth and heaven rolled into one parchment, the immensity of that love would still remain unexplored, and the depths of that devotion unfathomed.

In an earlier chapter of this book, we learned that the first gift sent from Bahá’u’lláh to the Báb was a loaf of Russian sugar. The day before the Holy Day, I, too, had received a gift of sugar (in a slightly different form) in a care package from my dear friend Tamara. The package contained a canister of Godiva cocoa, and an enormous bag of Tootsie Rolls. Both of these sugary gifts factored prominently in our Holy Day commemoration.

Marvis came over as we finished our morning reading, and—toting colorful fabrics, scented candles, and that bag of Tootsie Rolls—the four of us headed down the Carib Territory road to the one-roomed Bahá’í Centre in St. Cyr. There, under the direction of Marvis and Liz, and joined by Briana and Dillon (ages 9 and 6, respectively), we set about beautifying the Centre for the Holy Day. We covered the table with a turquoise scarf, and draped the remaining fabrics over the wooden cabinets. Marvis found two glass coke bottles, and converted them into beautiful vases with the help of colored tissue paper and ribbon. The children picked flowers from Granny’s garden to fill the vases and adorn the tops of the cabinets. We poured the Tootsie Rolls into a basket, which we placed on the table next to the prayer books and candles. Someone swept the floor, someone dusted the shelves, someone else straightened the benches and the Centre was—to use a favorite phrase of Francillia’s—“Bon pou alé.” Good to go.

Typically, this Holy Day is commemorated right at noon, the hour of the Báb’s martyrdom. Although there is never a formula for how Bahá’í Holy Days should be carried out, there is a special prayer—the Tablet of Visitation—that is recited on the anniversaries of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. The prayer is several pages long, and is usually read or chanted by one person, while everyone else stands. Again, though, there are no formulas…and we forget this, sometimes. Liz, however, does not forget this, and she suggested that we try offering this prayer in a more dynamic and participatory manner. We—along with Francillia and the children and youth with whom we were planning the Holy Day—wrote out verses from the prayer on pieces of pale green cardstock, which we then decorated with crayons. Each person then chose a card—some ahead of time, some during the commemoration itself—and shared the verse in whatever way their heart moved them: singing, chanting, repeating a powerful line over and over and over. This resulted in a rich tapestry of voices, weaving in and out of one another, and ringing out from the Bahá’í Centre at the hour of noon. The eye of Creation hath never gazed upon one wronged like Thee!

After the prayer, songs were sung, the story of the Báb’s martyrdom was shared and reflected upon, and lunch—lovingly prepared by Francillia and her family—was served. The prayerbooks, candles, and turquoise blue scarf on the table were replaced by platters of food, nearly all of which came from Francillia’s backyard. We feasted on saltfish in coconut broth, thick slices of roasted breadfruit, cucumber-garlic salad, and extra-strong ginger beer. And, of course, Tootsie Rolls.

We wanted to spend the whole day in one another’s company….so when the meal was finished, and the Centre was cleaned, some of us took a trip to the sea. We were nine altogether: Natarshar, Vern, Marvis, Kira, Dillon (the sole male representative), Briana, Liz, Roushanac, and I. The hike down to the ocean took about 45 minutes, and we sang for much of the way. The sun was shining benignly as we meandered down the steep green mountainside, but when we emerged from the foliage and reached the rocky shoreline, the sea before us was anything but mild. I think I’ve mentioned in previous blog postings that the Carib Territory is situated on the Atlantic side of the island, where the waters are usually pretty rough. Today, however, they were raging. Although the sky was still blue (for the time), the ocean was a frothy purplish-grey, and the thrashing waves pounded against the rocks like thunder. We beheld the scene with nervous excitement. Those waves were formidable, yes…but not quite formidable enough to keep us from going in.

It is good to be humbled by Mother Nature, and to be reminded that we are totally at her mercy. Painful, sometimes, but good. Natarshar and Roushy—who had already experienced the ferocity of the waves that day—offered a warning, which I glibly brushed aside. Nothing was gonna stop me from submerging myself in that sea. But I had barely dipped my toes in when the mother-of-all-waves descended upon me. CRASH!!!! Scrape! Gurgle! Ouch. I’d been flipped over and flung against a boulder like a floundering piece of driftwood, and my right knee was quickly turning a stormy shade of purple. Of course, my comrades on the shore were cracking up. “We warned you!” they hooted. I had to laugh, too…and resigned myself to spending the rest of the afternoon a safe distance from those waves.

We stayed there for a couple more hours, telling stories, playing cards, and napping on the flat, table-like rocks. We would have happily stayed ‘til nightfall, but when the sun abruptly disappeared, and the sky turned an ominous shade of gray, we realized it might be wise to head home. We hurriedly assembled our belongings, and scampered along the rocky path back to St. Cyr, racing against the rain. Yet again, Mother Nature was the unequivocal victor. About halfway between the sea and the Bahá’í Centre, the clouds began to rumble…and then they tore open, accompanied by dramatic cracks of lightning. We were drenched within an instant, and not even the widest-leafed banana tree could provide shelter against this tempest. In situations such as this, where any attempt to stay dry is rendered utterly futile, all you can really do is just enjoy it. And we did. The storm seemed to intensify with every step, but we were grinning as we marched. And though the raindrops were relentless, they were warm.

It was fitting that this day should be characterized by such a storm. In another excerpt from The Dawnbreakers, we read of the storm that took place on July 9th, 1850, immediately following the Báb’s martyrdom:

The very moment the shots were fired, a gale of exceptional severity arose and swept over the whole city. A whirlwind of dust of incredible density obscured the light of the sun and blinded the eyes of the people. The entire city remained enveloped in that darkness from noon till night.

It was nearly sundown when we finally reached home, soaked to the bone, but exhilarated. We bundled ourselves up in socks and sweatshirts, and—as the storm continued to rage around us—sat on the porch and sipped our hot chocolate, savoring the sweetness of the day.

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A Special Place


“There’s a place for us
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us somewhere”
West Side Story

“The first way to answer the questions in the song is by asking them.
But lots of people have to first find the wind.”
Bob Dylan, as quoted on the sleeve of the “Blowin’ in the Wind” Album

Musonda goes to a special place when she wants to be alone and think about things. It is near the river. Under the shade of a tall mango tree, there is a big, flat rock. Musonda climbs up the rock. She lies down on her back and looks up at the leaves and branches of the tree, and the blue sky between them. She listens to the birds and the soft-flowing water of the river. It is a beautiful place, and Musonda always feels calm and happy when she is there.

I think it was “way back” in December when we read this chapter of Breezes of Confirmation—one of the texts in the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program— with the St. Cyr Junior Youth Group. I remember it leading to a discussion of our own “special places,” and I was so happy to learn that each of the youth had a place, several of which were similar to Musonda’s (this is, after all, the land of many rivers…and many mango trees).

We need them, these special places.

They offer us a respite from the hum and whirr of our lives, and give us the space to pause and to breathe. Deeply. These places possess a quality—“specialness,” perhaps—that is hard to articulate, but you know it when you feel it.  It’s like they occupy a different dimension, one from which you can peer down on the world and your life, and marvel at the tininess of it all.

I have had many Special Places. At home, in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, my Place was “the top of the hill”—a sloping field of golden grass. In every season, that hill was warm and sweet smelling….and when I’d lie down along its gentle contours, I could see nothing but sky and clouds and undulating blades of grass, moving with the wind. In college, my Special Place was the fire escape of the old but majestic brownstone at 191 Bay State Road. I shared a fourth floor room with my dearly loved friend Lauren, and our window provided direct access to that fire escape. We’d often come home very late, after a long day of classes and restaurant work, and climb out to our Special Place with a cup of tea and maybe a clove cigarette.  We’d watch the lights of Cambridge dance on the Charles River, and let the stresses of the day be carried away by the cool night breeze. I even had a Special Place in Manhattan. I lived in a high-rise dormitory on 125th street during my first year of graduate school, and there was very little about that place I found redeeming…except its access to the roof. I discovered this just a few days after my arrival, I think, and it became my saving grace. You’d take the elevator to the topmost floor, ascend a flight of stairs, climb out a window that was—mercifully—always left unlocked, and you’d be on the roof…high, high above the clamor and the chaos and the noise. Yes, New York City was silent from up there. Silent, and soft. I visited that Special Place a lot that year.

Here, too, Roushanac and I have a very special Special Place. We only visit it every so often, as getting there is a bit of a trek…but every time we do, it breathes a new life into us. Our place is on the side of a mountain, and from up there, you can see the entire world (well, at least the stretch of world from St. Cyr to Sineku). In case you’d like to visit this Special Place one day, I will tell you how to get there…but in the land of no addresses or street numbers, we have to rely heavily on landmarks.

As always, you start out on the Carib Territory Road. If you’re headed south, the turn-off (onto what they call “the Feeder Road”) will be on your right hand side. Across from it is a little rum shop and an almond tree. A slab of cement on the side of the road is painted bright blue, and proclaims: “We Voting Claudius!” (a remnant of last December’s election. Claudius didn’t end up winning, but that sign still cheers him on). Walk straight up the feeder road, past the big Calabash tree on your right (with a goat or two grazing underneath). You’ll soon notice a Pomorak tree on your left, followed by a yardful of squealing pigs. Keep going. The road gets steeper. Be on the lookout for a large, wide-trunked Mango tree on your left, with a little wooden bench underneath it. Directly across from it is the path leading to our Special Place. The path is nearly vertical, but the Place is so worth the climb. Besides, there are plenty of vines along the sides to lend a helping hand. At the top of the path, you’re almost, almost there. There may be two or three cows with very big horns blocking your path, but pay them no mind. They will stare you down and try to intimidate you, but they generally can’t be bothered to lift a hoof and chase you. Give them a fairly wide berth and you’ll be fine (we think). Just try not to fall down the side of the mountain in the process, and stay to the right. Once you’ve passed the cows, you’ll reach a thick tangle of bushes and trees. Just claw your way through—you are so close!

When you emerge from the bushes, a new world opens up before you. You realize that you’ve suspended your humanness for a moment, and are now a bird, soaring high above the earth. The view is rapturous from up here. The Atlantic Ocean unfurls like an infinite turquoise carpet, and the jagged green mountains, so towering and tremendous from down below, are now mere ripples. You are higher than they are…or at least you appear to be.

Oh look, there’s Emelda’s blue roof! There’s Ms. Wilma and her goats—they all look like little toys! Wow, those towering coconut palms in Ms. Petra’s yard seem like twigs from up here!

I brought Marvis and Vern, two of my closest friends here, to the Special Place earlier this week. I’d arrived at their home to find 14-year-old Marvis and 17-year-old Vern brushing mud from their hands, eyes heavy with tears. They had just finished burying Marvis’ three baby kittens—Piper, Penny, and Patches—who had been born a few days before. It had been a rough week for Marvis, but those kittens were a bright spot of light. Their mother ran off the moment she gave birth, so Marvis arranged a little shoe-box bed for the kittens, and awoke several times a night to feed them milk from a bottle.  When things seemed to be falling apart around her, it felt so good to have something to nurture, something to shower with love. But this world is not an easy place for small creatures, and the tiny bodies of those kittens were soon invaded by worms. Desperate to end their suffering, Marvis and her cousin Vern could think of no other option than to bury the kittens alive, rather than allow their flesh to be slowly eaten away. It sounds horrendous, yet it was an act of mercy. But, as one can imagine, hearing the kittens’ cries rise from the earth was agonizing.

We had to get out of there. Taking a long walk on the road was an option, but the girls didn’t want everyone in the village seeing them cry. So we hiked up the feeder road, made a right at the mango tree, pushed through the brambles and vines, and arrived at the Special Place. There, the tears could flow freely. We prayed. We held each other’s hands. We cried some more. We let the breeze caress our arms and faces. We looked down at the world below and it didn’t seem so overwhelming from up here. After a while, the tears dried up, and I saw that Marvis had a slight smile on her face. “It’s nice up here,” she said. “It reminds me of my poem.” And she began to recite a poem she’d composed in primary school, called “Heights.” The wind blew stronger, and swirled around us, and a Cat Stevens song started playing in my mind:

“I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul/Where I’ll end up, well I think only God really knows…”

The wind of our soul. Yes. If we breathe deeply, and really listen, this is what our Special Places allow us to hear. As I pondered this, I realized the thread that connected all of my assorted Special Places, from that rooftop in Manhattan to the side of a mountain in Gaulette River: they are all places where I felt close to the wind.

In the end of Section 9 of Breezes of Confirmation, as Musonda is leaving her Special Place, she, too, feels a “strong gust of wind”…

It blows some leaves into the air. Among the leaves Musonda sees a small yellow bird. After the wind dies down, the leaves all fall into the water, but the bird continues flying. As she watches the bird, a thought comes to her mind. The wind has given the little bird a push, and now it is flying higher and higher.

Of course, we can’t stay up there forever; we must eventually leave our Special Place and re-enter the world. But as we walk back down that mountain, we do so with lighter steps, and a fortified spirit. Our vision is clearer, our hearts are more buoyant…and we move forward with a renewed assurance that the wind is moving with us.

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The Sperm Whale

Roushanac and I took a real day off this week. We rode a tiny white van into town as usual, but this time the day wasn’t filled with errands and photocopying and trying to cram a week’s worth of correspondence into two hours at an internet café. Instead, we—at the encouragement of our dear friend Counselor Debbie Kirton, who visited us this week from Barbados—spent the day on the balcony of the Anchorage Hotel on the outskirts of Roseau. There, we plopped down our backpacks, ordered glasses of starfruit juice, watched pelicans dive for fish in the azure waters of the Caribbean, and read. All day long. It was blissful.

The book I brought with me was The Crying Tree, by Naseem Rakha, which my dad sent me in a recent care package. It is a beautiful book, and features a death row inmate named Daniel, who once went whale watching. He recalls the experience in the book’s final pages, and remembers that, as he looked into the eye of the whale, it seemed to contain all the wisdom and all the sadness in the world.

I read that book, and I cried and cried.

In search of a bathroom where I could clean up my tear-stained face, I ventured down off the balcony to the lower level of the hotel, following a painted sign that said “Washroom” with a big yellow arrow. But something caught my eye before I reached that washroom. Along the far wall of the room, spanning perhaps fifty feet from nose to tail, was the skeleton of a sperm whale.

The Anchorage Hotel, as it turns out, is also a center for deep sea diving and whale watching…and Dominica, I learned, is considered the “Whale Watching Capital of the Caribbean.” It is the only island in the region with a year-round residential pod of sperm whales. I had no idea.

That whale skeleton, despite its colossal size, had an endearing delicateness about it, and I found myself wanting to kiss those shell-like bones (I didn’t, since people were watching…but I did brush my fingers over the ribcage). Surrounding the skeleton were informational displays filled with photographs and FAQs, and—since I’d finished my book—I spent the rest of the afternoon there, learning everything I could about these gentle behemoths.

As I read, I was struck by how very human-like the sperm whales are.

Maybe this is all common knowledge for folks who grew up with televisions, but my experience with whales had been limited to a trip to Sea World at age three. And my main memory from that day was that my Grandma bought me cotton candy. Thus, I was enthralled by everything I learned from those informational panels at the Anchorage Hotel, and want to share a little bit of it here. Hey, if it serves to increase even one reader’s sense of wonder at the beauty and intricacy of our world, it’ll have been worth imparting. 😉

Did you know, for example, that Sperm Whales are true world citizens? Just as we humans can adapt to the extremes of seasons and climate zones, so too can the Sperm Whale survive in the frigid waters of the Arctic and the tepid seas of the Tropics. The largest of the toothed whales, the Sperm Whale can reach up to 60 feet and weigh as much as 125,000 pounds. The life span of these creatures is similar to ours—around 70 years (if we’re lucky). The females reach maturity around age 12, and tend to have one baby every four years (which they breastfeed for about 24 months), and go through menopause sometime in their forties. Interestingly, the male whales reach their sexual maturity at age 15, but don’t reach their social maturity (when they’re ready to be a father) ‘til age 27. They usually leave “home” around age 8, to seek out colder waters and, I guess, learn how to be a grown up. They return at the age of social maturity, to mate.

But here’s the best part. The Sperm Whales, especially the females, are all about community. They reside in “social units,” which often last a lifetime, and consist of groups of 6-8 whales, some of which are matrilineally related (ie a granny, a mama, a daughter…but the group might also include cousins and friends). From time to time, the social units interact in larger groups called—get this, Bahá’í friends—clusters, in which the whales feed and hang out at the surface together (perhaps during this time they also reflect, consult, and share learnings).

And the Sperm Whales rely on one another. In order to feed on deep-water squid, the whales dive two miles below the surface, which can take a couple of hours round-trip. This presents a challenge for the mama whales, whose babies need to remain closer to the service. But since the whales operate within communities of support, mama whale knows she can leave her little one with a trusted member of the social unit while she’s away. Yes, the Sperm Whales actually have babysitters, who guard and protect the baby while the mother is off on business. Isn’t this wonderful?

So now, of course, all I can think about is going whale watching. It’s not really within our budget, but I’m sure—by the end of the year, at least—we’ll find a way. And when we do, maybe we’ll even get close enough to look in her eyes. I hope so. Because if those eyes really do contain all the wisdom and all the sadness in the world, they must also contain all the beauty. And all the joy.

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