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And now it is September

I guess it is finally time to write a closing entry for Sounds of Laughter.

I should have written it the Thursday before leaving, I know. That would have been the 21st of April…and, somehow, it is now September. I had been planning my final entry for over a month. It was to be my masterpiece, a heart-penetrating and soul-inspiring summation of everything Dominica taught me (comprehensive, yet concise). It would synthesize everything I learned, laughed over, struggled with, and was dazzled by during those 18 months in the Carib Territory. I would weep as I wrote it (and my readers would weep as they read it), and when it was done–of course I would wrap it all up with the perfectly selected quote or poem–we would all feel a sense of beautiful completion. A bittersweet yet tremendously gratifying closing of the chapter.

Yeah.

That didn’t happen, did it?

I could list all the different attempts I made (I must’ve constructed well over a dozen opening paragraphs), but a conclusion eluded me. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the task; perhaps I worried that I didn’t, in the end, learn anything at all (and that an attempt to synthesize my learnings would publicly reveal the lack thereof); perhaps I was so focused on the next chapter that I couldn’t properly tend to the one that was closing. Mostly, though, it was just too hard. My heart rebelled against the idea, and refused to provide a single adequate word.

So now it is September. Four and a half months have elapsed since my last entry–and within those months everything has changed…outwardly, at least. Luke and I got married. We moved to Queens, New York (could any place on earth be less like Gaulette River, I wonder?). And I began work as a first-grade Special Education teacher. School began the second Thursday in September…and by 9am, I was ready to quit. I wanted nothing more than to be back in Dominica (with Luke, this time, of course), sitting under a coconut tree and listening to crash of the waves. And for the first time in over four months, I opened “Sounds of Laughter.”

I was curious, in particular, about what I’d written exactly one year ago–the entry of the second Thursday in September, 2010. “Everything was so easy then,” I thought, and expected to find a story of rollicking laughter, abundant victories, and fresh papaya for breakfast. Instead, I found this. September 9, 2010: “The changing of seasons, the shedding of tears,” written at what was probably the lowest, most despairing point of my service in Dominica. As I read, the memory of that day came flowing back to me. While sitting under that romanticized coconut tree, listening to the crash of the waves, I wanted to be anywhere but there. I felt defeated, miserable, and inadequate. Exactly as I felt on the first day of school this past Thursday.

I couldn’t help but laugh as I read over that entry. Dominica wasn’t easy! Nothing worthwhile in life is! But what made it infinitely easier was the opportunity, every Thursday, to write about my struggles. To know that there were people out there, even if only a handful, who read my stories, and laughed along with me, and cried along with me, and reached out through cyberspace and held my hand. To each one of you: I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You have no idea how much you helped me.

Like my experience in the Carib Territory, this year will also not be easy. But if I learned only one thing from Dominica, it is that laughter is an ever present balm…and when we find it, and share it, it can sustain us. Thus, beloved friends and family, I am going to endeavor to find the laughter this year, and share it with you. My new blog will be called “Now We Are Six” (title explained in the “about” section, which I haven’t exactly written yet, but I plan to!). The address is nowweare6.wordpress.com, and the hope is to post an entry every Sunday.

I would like to add that Roushy is back in Dominica this week, having returned exactly one year after she left. Much has come full circle. The guavas will be in season there now, and the precious children of the Carib Territory will be braiding their hair, ironing their pleated skirts or navy blue trousers, and going Back to School.

*

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn,
and a time to dance…

Ecclesiastes 3

The secret is that every day a new world is born.
Dorothy Baker

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While the children are yet in their infancy feed them from the breast of heavenly grace, foster them in the cradle of all excellence, rear them in the embrace of bounty. Give them the advantage of every useful kind of knowledge. Let them share in every new and rare and wondrous craft and art. Bring them up to work and strive, and accustom them to hardship.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá

 

A mother and I are preparing lunch. As we boil the lentils and peel the green figs, with the late morning sunlight gushing through the kitchen window, we discuss what the Bahá’í writings deem our most sacred duty: the carrying forward of an ever-advancing civilization—in other words, the raising of children.Six months pregnant with her second child, the mother I’m conversing withis eager to impart her wisdom, and I am eager to listen…particularly beacuse of the qualities I’ve observed in her junior-youth-aged son: unhesitating generosity, a sense of discipline, and, above all, a spirit of service. The children of the Carib Territory seem to be instilled with this spirit of service from birth….yet I suspect it has less to do with genetic inheritance than it does with how they are raised. Here, they are brought up with the understanding that hard work and helping out are basic elements of life on planet earth…and no one is exempt. If you are big enough to walk, you are big enough to peel a clove of garlic.

*

Less than one month remains of my period of service in Dominica; on April 24th, I will be headed north again. While I won’t use this particular entry to explore the (varied and powerful) emotions associated with this transition, I have begun to reflect on what this year and a half in the Carib Territory has taught me. The process of internalizing and sharing these learnings will, no doubt, be a gradual one, and I feel that some of the most significant growth and understanding of these past eighteen months still resides in the mystical, harder-to-articulate realm. There are, though, some Lessons Learned that have been quite straightforward. And one of them, which I’ve alluded to throughout many of these postings (beginning, I think with Why else do we live in November 2010), is the importance ofbringing up children to work and strive. As parents, as community members, as part of the “global village” that is raising the children of the world, this is—according to the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith—our fundamental obligation, and the noblest of all deeds. Why, then, especially in the “developed” world, do we tend to safeguard our children from hard work? Are we protecting them… or are we disempowering them, and cutting them off from a fundamental and deeply satisfying human activity? The friends here shake their heads and chuckle in disbelief when I tell them that many American teenagers go off to college without knowing how to wash their socks or fry an egg. “For true?” they ask, just to make sure I’m being serious. “But…why?” The only response I can think of is that sometimes we do very strange things in the name of love.

*

The mother in my kitchen loves her son Dante very much. But love, for her, doesn’t mean permissiveness, or coddling. It means teaching her child, from a very young age, the beauty of contributing—both to his own well being, and that of his family and community. As our lentils begin to boil rapidly on the stove, the mother reaches for a clove of garlic. “You know,” she tells me, “I started teaching Dante to cook around the time he learned to talk. Of course, he couldn’t do much at first, but I found that his tiny hands were just the right size for peeling garlic…and he could do a much better job of it than I could, once I cut off the tips for him. So, that was his main responsibility at first—peeling the garlic. Gradually, as the months and years passed, we moved on to slicing cucumbers, boiling provisions, cleaning and frying fish…” The mother adds a dash of seasoning salt to the lentils, and recounts with smile, “Now, at age 11, he invents his own recipes. A few nights ago I came home from work exhausted, and found Dante in the kitchen, preparing a meal for me of stewed chicken, vegetables, and rice. Mmmm… that really tasted nice.”

*

When I pass by the stand pipe on the Gaulette River bend of the Carib Territory Road, I often see Lydia there, in her pigtails and blue flip-flops, filling a gallon jug with water to carry down the hill to her home. Lydia is four—and that gallon jug is nearly half her size. Her mother is able to carry an entire pail in one arm, and Lydia’s baby brother in another…but when the mother is busy making baskets, or preparing lunch, or gathering firewood, she sends Lydia to fetch the water. I have never observed Lydia without a smile as she carries out this important household task. The walk up the hill strengthens the girl’s legs, and hauling the gallon jug strengthens her arms. Her mother will use this water to bathe the children, or to make cacao tea—and because each cupful involves effort and time, not a drop of water is ever wasted. Lydia and her family are soon moving to a home with indoor plumbing, which will make their life easier in many ways. But Lydia was blessed, I feel, to have learned in her formative years the value of conservation, and the joy of exerting effort.

*

Noticing that storm clouds have covered the sun (the skies change on a dime here), Dante’s mother and I interrupt our meal preparation to retreive my clothes from the line. As we spread the still-damp tee shirts and shorts on the sofa and arm chair, the mother explains to me the double benefit to children washing their own clothes. There’s the obvious importance of learning this basic life skill (and saving their parents time and energy, especially as clothes washing here involves a trip to the river and lots of knuckle grease). Additionally, though—according to this mother—if children wash their own clothes, they will take more care to keep them clean. She notes with pride that when Dante arrives home from school, his white uniform is usually spotless. And when it isn’t…well, he knows he’ll have to devote extra time to scrubbing out those spots.

*

During the December holdidays, nine-year-old Briana spent a week and a half at my home. It was a really special time. We said prayers together every morning and evening, invented all sorts of fun games, cooked meals together, and watched some good cartoons. And at the end of each day, Briana did the dishes. I tried to dissuade her at first—partly beacuse she was already helping out so much with the cooking and cleaning (after morning prayers, the first thing she’d do was sweep the porch, even before drinking her hot chocolate), and partly because I actually take great pleasure in doing the dishes, and had no intention of letting anyone usurp my favorite chore. I soon realized, though, that Briana delighted in doing the dishes, maybe even more than I did. And she carried out this job with a greater degree of excellence—leaving not a trace of soap residue or carrot peel, not even on the tricky-to-clean grater. I’d peek in from the living room, sometimes, and watch the child at work. I noticed how when she finished, she’d survey her work (inspecting every last fork and bowl), and—if it passed inspection—give a satisfied little nod to signal the completion of a job well done.

*

One of the children who has most impacted me in my life is four-year-old Reynaldo, who I met in a small village in Bolivia. I share his story over and over, and am reminded of this child every time I eat an orange. This extraordinary young boy spent his days peeling potatoes with his mother, caring for his baby sister Sofia, watching over the family’s small herd of goats, grinding corn for tamales, and learning his alphabet in the village pre-school. He sang and hummed and giggled as he worked. I’d brought his family a basket of oranges from the city—a precious commodity, as fresh fruit was hard to come by in the drier regions of the Andes. Every night Reynaldo would remove one of the oranges and peel it, slowly and meticulously. He would then offer half to me, dividing the other half between his mother, father, baby sister, and himself. I protested at first, but Reynaldo wouldn’t even take a bite until I’d eaten my share. Dante is much like Reynaldo. He knows that if he comes to school with a whole sandwich, and his classmate has nothing to eat, then half, or less, will be plenty. Besides, even if he has to go without lunch entirely, he can prepare himself some stewed chicken and rice when he gets home…as long as he first sets aside a portion for his mother.

*

It has been said that the work of children is to play. Out of curiosity, I looked up the definitions for both “work” and “play” on the computer’s dictionary, and this is what I found:

Work (verb): Engage in physical or mental activity in order to achieve a purpose or result

Play(verb): Engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose

These definitions are unsatisfactory for me…and I feel that, as we’re striving to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization, we can also advance in our understanding of concepts, leading perhaps to the creation of new, more evolved definitions of words. From what I have witnessed in the children of the Carib Territory, I’d venture to redefine Work (verb) as: Engage in an enjoyable, recreational, and learning-filled activity, that also happens to serve a practical purpose.

When viewed in this light, work isn’t deprivation or punishment—it is service, it is joy, it is contributing… it is not waiting ‘til you’re old enough to vote before you can be useful in your household, in your community, in the world. After all, if our sons and daughters are able to peel garlic by age two, just imagine what they might be capable of by age three. 🙂

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Thou hast endowed every hour of these days with a special virtue,
inscrutable to all except Thee, Whose knowledge
embraceth all created things.
Bahá’u’lláh

Today is Naw Ruz*. Meaning “New Day” in Persian, it is the first day of the first month (“Bahá”, or “Glory”) in the Bahá’í Calendar, ushering in the 168th year of the Bahá’í Era. In some parts of the world, it is the first day of spring. It’s a time of renewal, rejoicing, and reflection. And for me, today, it is a day characterized by profound gratitude.

The annual 19-day Fast ended last night. This means that I’m drinking a cup of coffee—in broad daylight—as I type this posting. As much as I am (thoroughly) enjoying this coffee, being able to now eat and drink while the sun is up is not what evokes this feeling of gratitude in me…rather, it’s the abundant blessings conferred by this year’s period of fasting. Bahá’u’lláh has proclaimed that every hour of these 19 days—surely the richest and most treasured days of the year—is endowed with a special virtue, that these hours excel every other hour. Thus, as today is a day of reflection and giving thanks, in the process of recounting the blessings of these past 19 days, I have selected 19 of their choicest hours…each of which was the bearer of enduring bounty.

[It’s a good practice, isn’t it, to call to mind that for which we are grateful. Yesterday, some of the youth showed me a You Tube clip of a man with no arms and no legs who can’t stop smiling, because he has so much to be thankful for.]

So friends, while I’d delight in sharing the story of each of this Fast’s 456 hours, the period of fasting is meant to assist us in the cultivation of restraint…so I will limit myself to 19. 🙂

HOUR 1: Requesting consent
March 1st, 11pm (the Bahá’í day commences at sunset, so “officially” the Fast had just begun)

The wonders of modern technology connect our computer in Martinique to computers and phones in Moose Jaw, North Battleford, and Lyle…and, via skype, Luke and I ask our parents for consent to be married. After a merciless practical joke played on one set of the parents (they knew we were calling that night with an “important question,” but just to make them squirm we pretended that the purpose of our call was to consult with them about the possibility of our purchasing land in Guatemala to become goat farmers, and spend the remainder of our days making delicious cheese. Of course, they had answered the skype call wearing mullet wigs, so the clowning came from both sides). Gloriously, our request for consent was granted…and, giddy with elation, we (drumroll, please) changed our facebook statuses to ENGAGED.

 

HOUR 2: The forging of our wedding bands
March 2, 9am

It just so happens that the family Luke stays with in Martinique are jewelers…and dear Patrice devotes the entire day to making the rings with us. Well, he does most of the work, but we get to lend assistance here and there, and observe every step of the process with fascination. As Patrice fires the simple gold bands with a blow-torch, he recites the words of Bahá’u’lláh: “With fire we test our gold, and with gold we test our servants.”

HOUR 4: Pre-dawn prayers with Luke
Every morning, 5am

 

On the 9th day of Luke’s visit to Dominica, the day the veil is lifted and the luminous possibility of a life of service together appears before us, we sit under a tree in a little park by the Roseau bayfront, and make a prayer pact. We will, we decide, rise every morning at 5am and offer two special prayers for guidance, which we select that afternoon. We begin carrying out our pact the day after Luke’s boat departs across the channel. As the mornings pass, although we are on separate islands, this shared prayer time feels like true reunion…like our spirits are meeting somewhere in the middle of the patch of ocean that separates Dominica from Martinique, and are communing with one another, as we commune with our Creator.  These 5am prayer sessions become the most treasured hour of the day. So, imagine the blissful joy that is ours when, during the first week of the Fast, we are able to offer our pre-dawn prayers together (in person)…united not only in the spiritual realm, but seated side by side.

 

HOUR 4: An airport visit with Holly
March 4, 6:00am

What an unexpected gift this was. Counselor Holly Woodard—the dearly loved coordinator of the Caribbean Initiatiave and wellspring of support, guidance, and inspiration for the Bahá’ís of this region—passes briefly through Martinique on her way to French Guiana. Which means we are able to see her! And pray with her! And hug her! We sit on a bench in the Aimé Césaire International airport in the early hours of Friday morning, Holly, Luke, and I, and though the minutes are fleeting, the visit fills and warms our hearts.

 

HOUR 5: Breaking the Fast with butter bread
March 4, 6:15pm

Few fast-breaking dinners have tasted as sweet as Josette’s “pain au buerre”—butter bread—dipped in thick hot chocolate. Josette, Patrice’s wife and the CEO of their jewelry business (he insists women should always be in charge), works magic in the kitchen. During that week in Martinique, mine was the privilege of sampling her mouth-watering tortes, cakes, quiches, pies…but the crème-de-la-crème was that butter bread. Imagine the richest, butteriest, flakiest croissaint you’ve ever tasted, but in bread form (so there’s more of it!). Then imagine it dipped into creamy, peanut-buttery chocolate. Yeah, it pretty much transports you to heaven. Josette disclosed her secret family recipe to Luke and me, but swore us to confidentiality…or else I’d happily share it with you here. But if you come visit us—wherever on earth we land in the coming year (still a big question mark)—we will make some for you. It won’t hold a candle to Josette’s, I’m sure, but I guess you won’t know the difference. 🙂

HOUR 6: Dinner with Lydia and Rahim
March 6, 6:15pm

Lydia and Rahim are newlyweds, and have begun their life of service together in Martinique. They have found a colorful, cozy home in the center of Riviere-Salee, but as it’s currently experiencing some, er, challenges with the plumbing system, the couple is staying with us tonight, in the home of Patrice and Josette. In my newly inspired efforts to be a student of marital unity, I learn much through observing Lydia and Rahim, and am grateful for the time I spend in their company. I notice their attentiveness to one another, their gestures of affection, and see in their eyes the deep respect each holds for the other. This evening, they have expressed that they want to be of service to us by cooking dinner, and doing all the cleanup afterwards, so that Luke and I can have more time to study our marriage book and consult about life plans. From the living room, I steal glances into the kitchen every so often, and watch the two of them boiling rice, slicing tomatoes, setting the table. It is a beautiful sight, those two—one so tall, one so tiny—at work in the kitchen, operating almost as one body, carrying out each task with harmony and grace. As I watch them, I think to myself, “What a wondrous thing marriage can be.”

HOUR 7: Breakfast in Brooklyn
March 9, 5:30am

I awoke yesterday morning in Martinique…and now, suddenly, I am in Flatbush Brooklyn. Life can be funny, eh? I suppose I don’t need to go into all the details of how I ended up here, but suffice it to say that an 11-th hour surge of inspiration, and prayerful cosultation with Luke, resulted in my booking a next-day flight to the Big Apple for a job interview with the New York City Teaching Fellows. I will spend roughly 24 hours in the city, but what a bountiful day it will prove to be. And it begins with breakfast in the company of Kate, Bruce, and Bahiyyih…three of my most favorite people. The sun has not yet begun to rise over Flatbush, but the Digby-Grover kitchen is infused with light. We gather around the table and partake of berry smoothies, toast with almond butter, porridge with raisins and sliced apple. We fill our bellies, we smile at each other, we pray together—Bahiyyih is barely two, and can already recite “Blessed is the Spot” by heart—and the first rays of morning sun appear at the window, to greet us.

HOUR 8: Raiding the neighbors’ closet
March 9, 9am

There is something very special about this particular pocket of Flatbush. Directly across the street from Kate, Bruce, and Bahiyyih is an apartment previously inhabited by Caity and Luke Bolton (read about their experience in Egypt and Kenya here and here), who are subletting the place to three wonderful siblings: Martha, Stephany, and Jorge Martínez. Now. Please remember that I arrived in wintertime New York City directly from a tropical island, my suitcase filled with the typical Caribbean attire of shorts and flip-flops. Who knew that I’d end up needing a winter coat and interview clothes? Thankfully, Luke had lent me his jacket, but it wasn’t quite enough for the frigid commute from the JFK airport to Flatbush the night before…so I padded myself with several layers of tee-shirts, pajama pants under my jeans, and two pairs of socks with my flip flops. What a sight I must’ve been….but at least I stayed warm(ish). This getup, however, will not exactly suffice for a job interview. So I call Martha, who graciously invites me across the street to raid her closet. We select a lovely interview ensemble, and Kate tops it off with a colorful scarf, a wool coat, and a very warm hat. Jorge hands me a parcel of homemade cookies with which to break the Fast later. If I get this job, it will be thanks, in part, to the loving care of these dear friends. If I don’t get the job…well, perhaps the powers that be have a different destination in store for Luke and me next year. It will be interesting to see what unfolds.

HOUR 9: 48 West 10th Street
March 9, 1:30pm

A New York City pilgrimage site. It is the home (well, the one-time home) of Juliet Thompson, the early American Bahá’í, whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá loved for her sincerity and freedom of spirit. It was here, at this very address, that Juliet painted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s portrait, here where He received visitors such as Kahlil Gibran, and—most significantly—here where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá proclaimed Himself to be the Center of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant, and gave New York the blessed distinction of “City of the Covenant.” When I lived in New York, I’d often stop at this sacred site to pray—situating myself on a stoop across the street so as not to disturb the current reseidents of 48 West 10th. One day, inshallah, this home will become a Bahá’í property once again, and friends will come from East and West, and North and South…and will offer prayers in tribute to Juliet, to Lua Getsinger, to all the holy souls who passed through this door, and to the City itself, whose destiny is, undoubtedly, most glorious.

HOUR 10: 53 East 11th Street, and a visit with Aunty Clyde
March 9st, 2pm

Yet another Manhattan pilgrimage site, just a few blocks from Juliet Thompson’s house: The New York City Bahá’í Center–site of Sunday devotional gatherings, open mike poetry readings, performances of the Children’s Theatre Company, meeting place of the Local Spiritual Assembly, and myriad other gatherings open to all, and for the upliftment of the entire neighborhood. It is also the workplace of my beloved Aunty Clyde, and my heart spills over with tenderness and joy as I ascend the stairs to her office. During the two years that I lived in New York City, some of my most cherished moments were spent with Aunty Clyde. I would often do my work at the Center, and in between phone calls and faxing and folding letters, the two of us would share prayers, stories, heirloom tomatoes from the Farmer’s market, bowls of her homemade soup…and, of course, laughter and tears.  There will be no homemade soup today, as we are fasting, but we partake of an even richer feast: collective prayer. I wish I could spend the entire afternoon here, praying with her…but it is time for my interview. As I’m putting on my (well, Kate’s) hat and coat, Aunty Clyde reminds me that I have nothing to be nervous about—because if my getting this job is God’s will, it’ll happen…and if not, well, how wonderful…because something else awaits. “Whatever God hath willed hath been,” she recites, quoting the words of The Báb, “and that which He hath not willed shall not be.”

HOUR 11: Sleepy-eyed prayers in Bed-Sty
March 10, 2am

Liz, in yet another sacrificial act of true friendship and sisterhood, has—despite just finishing up her midterm exams and basically running on fumes (well, fumes and prayer) for the past week—takes a Chinatown bus up to New York from Virgina, so that the two of us can have a couple hours of shared prayer time during the Fast. Everyone should have a friend like this. And now, to add light upon light, we “accidentally” (though I wonder how much in life is really accidental) encounter our dear brother Mokay, who is just about to leave for Sierra Leone, at a Starbucks’ in Union Square. After soul-filling conversation, and several peppermint lattes, we part ways with Mokay and head back over to Kate and Bruce’s to pack up my suitcase, return my interview clothes, and hug our friends goodbye (I’m really hoping it’s a mere “see you soon” and not a goodbye…though I guess every parting is, in the end, a “see you soon”). It is now nearing 1am, but there will be no sleep for us tonight (well, I wasn’t planning on sleeping), as I have to be back at JFK by 4:30. So we head across Brooklyn to Bed-Sty, where our dearly loved friends Parisa and Jason (fellow members of the Caribbean Initiative) now live. What a beautiful devotional gathering they host for us in their living room. They feed us bowls of homemade chili, and steaming cups of tea, and the four of us then settle onto the sofa for some 2am prayers. I am able to murmer maybe three words of gratitude before I lose the battle with my eyelids, and sink into sleep. But it is a sleep that is blanketed by prayer, for on either side of me, these precious friends are offering devotions on my behalf. Liz and Parisa recite marriage prayers for me and Luke, prayers for guidance, prayers of thanks. Around 4am, the taxi honks, the call of the horn mingling with the chanted prayers…and I open my eyes. It is time to head South.

***Quick interruption. Friends, I feel this entry is becoming too long, and I’m getting antsy to just post it already. Less really can be more…most of the time, in fact…and I feel that these entries are so much sweeter when I can keep them concise. I can’t very well stop at Hour 11, though, but what I can do is use a different medium for the next 8 hours. The photographs (with the aid of the titles) can do the sharing. 🙂

HOUR 12: Touching back down on the Nature Island, on a tiny runway nestled between clusters of verdant mountains…and knowing, of a certainty, that Dominica will ever be one of the homes of my heart.
March 10, 3:45pm


HOUR 13: Holding “Lara’s” healthy, beautiful baby boy in my arms for the first time since welcoming him into the world two days before I left for Martinique
March 10, 6pm


 

HOUR 14: With our special guest from Barbados, Siila (an honorary member of the Carib Territory Bahá’í Community), the study of the illuminating 28 December Message from the Universal House of Justice
March 12, beginning at 9am


HOUR 15: Breakfasting (BreakFEASTING) with Siila: think piles of pancakes, corn on the cob, pork sausage, tater tots, slices of papaya, omelettes, coffee, and 2 litres of water, all before the sun comes up
Any morning between March 12-17, 5am


HOUR 16: Beholding the “Hummingbird tree” in full bloom, for the first time since last year’s Fast, and pressing its brilliant pink blossoms between the pages of my prayer book.
March 18, dusk


HOUR 17: Planting flowers and prayers at the dear baby’s gravesite with the girl’s mother, father, sister, and cousin, followed by a bath in the sea.
March 19, dawn


 

HOUR 18: The Supermoon (or “the moon that came fat,” as they say in Dominica)—the closest it’s been to Earth in the last 18 years.
March 19, 3pm (though the photo must’ve been taken sometime in the evening)


HOUR 19: Celebrating Naw Ruz at the St Cyr Bahá’í Centre, breaking our Fast with pink cupcakes and song
March 20, sunset

 


This is the hour, O my Lord, which Thou hast caused to excel every other hour,
and hast related to the choicest among Thy creatures. I beseech Thee, O my God,
by Thy Self and by them, to ordain in the course of this year what shall exalt Thy loved ones. Do Thou, moreover, decree within this year what will enable the Daystar of Thy power to shine brightly above the horizon of Thy glory, and to illuminate by Thy sovereign might, the whole world.

Bahá’u’lláh

*Well, “today” is now March 22nd the day after Naw Ruz. But when I wrote the first half of this posting, it was still March 21st. 🙂

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…which is the Bahá’í New Year.

Am trying to hold to my promise of bi-weekly postings, but this entry won’t be fully formed ’til the 19-Day Fast is complete.

In the meantime, here is a poem I woke up to on Day 12 of the Fast, written by Mary Oliver and sent via email as a gift from my Dad.

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchery—

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light—
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.  ~

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The word…

And so dear friends…What a joyous opportunity it will be to get to review the events and confirmations of the past two months! So we first met in Trinidad in May 2010, but at this time we were not destined to entertain longer than a brief 5 minute conversation, and even this conversation was not one on one. But the seed must somehow have been sown, and the process it needed to germinate over the following months took its course. One beautiful [warm] December afternoon I arrived in Dominica; heedless, I might add of what was soon to transpire, as my only intention for coming to Dominica was to meet with the friends of the Carib Territory and learn to appreciate their ways, traditions, to learn of their spirit of community life and God-willing in exchange for all of this offer some sort of service to this wonderful People. So when I asked Denali about this possibility of visiting the friends there, she had this deep intuitive feeling that it was very important that I come to Dominica. The reason she said was veiled to her but she said to me that she felt that my presence as a young male Baha’i would have an edifying influence on the young Baha’i men there and also their friends. And so we decided this must be the reason.

By the bounty of Baha’u’llah we were blessed to get to serve together quite intensely for the first 9 days of this 10 day visit. During the first 8 days both of us were clueless about what Baha’u’llah was planning for the 9th day. So what happened on the 9th day…wouldn’t you all like to know….ahh time for a coffee break….oh wait…we’re fasting….well alright then, fair enough. So along with a very special and radiant youth from the community, Denali and I had taken the bus to town [ Roseau ] to visit this youth’s mother in the hospital. Her mom needed blood for an upcoming surgery. Despite having donated blood to another of the friends a few weeks ago, Denali tried to see how she could avoid saying this directly to the nurses because they have a 90 day policy between donations and she really wanted to give blood to her friend. Unfortunately, and fortunately, the Dominican hospital staff keep good records and Denali was Denied her benevolent wish.

But two donors were needed. So after the lady’s husband gave blood, it was my turn. So they drew the blood. They require you to rest for 30mins after giving blood so they can observe your recovery. While I was lying there, sipping Vita Malt, Denali had the wonderful idea of reading me some stories from the teaching adventures of Jenabe Caldwell. We picked stories at random and as she read, we set foot into and entered these glorious tales. This experience was so tender and inspiring. And now friends, some of you may already know this about Denali or I but for those who don’t it is important to know we each had strong conviction and nearly a sense of duty that as Baha’is we should be pioneering the global movement toward inter-racial marriage….this to the extent that we were very closed to the idea of investigating the potentiality of marriage with anyone who was of white skin. So it is in this context that one should view the first 8 days of our time serving together in Dominica. While during this time we did come to recognize character qualities that were very attractive, we didn’t make the connection to the possibility of marriage. In the same way as we may appreciate a beautiful work of art, that we know we have no intention of purchasing, we simply praised the Divine Hand which painted the other. It was not until that morning in the hospital, and the reading of those poignant stories that we each began to feel the veil before being lifted…and this moment was really the breaking of the dawn of our relation. What followed was a constant stream of confirmations which have not stopped but simply carried us along and guided us down this path of investigation, discovery and delight. While these confirmations have carried us steadily these past two months, from realization, to investigation, to consent, [ just yesterday we made our wedding rings ] the process has not felt in the least bit rushed. Everything about this journey including its timing has felt so natural, and organic, as though we are sitting peacefully in garden observing the growth of this plant through its various stages and beholding with wonderment the tender care of Divine Gardener as he waters us, and prunes us and leads us on our upward climb.

Wedding details

Location: The Land; Lyle, Washington

Date: 21 May 2011

We will send more wedding information later through email.

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Learning to Sew

A special occasion* is coming up, for which I’ll need a dress.

Up ‘til now, when circumstances have called for a pretty dress, I have simply gone out and bought one (or, when unable to quickly find something that meets my three requisites of 1. Colorful; 2. Inexpensive; and 3. Comfortable, I’ve borrowed dresses from friends, or from my sister). This time, though, I am learning to sew.

Making a dress, I’ve come to learn, is not nearly as quick and easy as buying one, nor as economical as borrowing. In fact, it is time and resource-intensive, tedious, and physically uncomfortable. It cramps your neck, strains your vision, and makes your fingers ache. It also gives you a newfound appreciation (bordering on reverence) for the ease of online shopping.

But it is also deeply, deeply satisfying.

The dresses I’ve bought and borrowed over the years have had perfectly straight hems, flawless stitching, creases and zippers and clasps in all the right places. This dress—well, the parts of it that I’ve worked on myself**—has crooked seams, frayed edges, and visible pencil marks. But I think it will be the most beautiful garment I’ve ever worn. What sets this dress apart form any other is, in part, the nature of the occasion for which it is being created. But it’s also different in that when I behold it, I don’t just notice the color, and the shape, and the shimmer of the silk. I see the big carboard box awaiting me at the Roseau General Post Office, filled with orange-toned silk chiffon my mother selected, lovingly and painstakingly, from a fabric store in Portland, and express-mailed to me in Dominica. I see the livingroom full of friends gathered around our makeshift sewing table, taking turns threading the needle, pinning the fabric, snipping the loose strings. I see our six young neighbors crowded at the window, chewing on stalks of sugar cane, watching us pin and cut the fabric on my bedroom floor. I feel the crink in my neck, the stiffness in my fingers, the surge of excitement when I first put my foot to the sewing pedal. I hear the whir of the machine, the lilt of Francillia’s laughter as she expertly stitches the bodice to the skirt, the reassurance of Christine’s voice telling me that every mistake has a remedy. I smell the vanilla cake Marvis and Dillon baked to nourish the hungry sewers, and the styling grease Kimberly used to plait our hair during sewing breaks. This dress will ever be an invoker of memory.

It’s the difference, I guess, in the view from a mountaintop when you’ve ridden up there in a cable car…or when you’ve climbed.

Beauty resides not only in the view, but in the process. And this dress-making process, I’ve come to realize, is sort of a microcosm of my experience in Dominica, or perhaps that of any Pioneer…or even, I’d venture to guess, that of any endeavor that involves process, creation, innovation. There will never seem to be enough time, or enough resources, and you may find yourself attempting—literally or metaphorically—to make a dress in less than ideal sewing conditions (think frequent power outages, a faulty sewing machine, bat droppings falling from the rafters, the neighborhood kids running towards the silk chiffon with mango juice dripping from their chins and fingers, etc). Adjustments are necessary and inevitable. A sense of humor is crucial. And patience, flexibility and humility must be the watchwords, if any progress is to be made.

Speaking of humility. I have been forced to acknowledge that sewing is a skill that does not come easy to me. I sort of thought it might—that my ability to write calligraphy and cut paper neatly would transfer to the sewing table. But I quickly learned that cutting silk is nothing like cutting construction paper, and a sewing machine is slightly more complex than an ink pen. But the nice thing about being flagrantly inept at something is that you have nowhere to go but forward…and the process of learning and gradually strengthening your skill is so very rewarding.

Aside from baking banana bread and (a very recent development) shelling almonds with a cutlass, I possess lamentably few practical skills. The experience of living in a community where hands are put to excellent use (cooking callaloo, weaving baskets, peeling yams, building houses, plaiting straw, catching crayfish, chopping firewood, carving calabash) has created in me a strong yearning to increase my skill set. I’d been considering the idea of learning to sew for a while now, but would likely have never gotten around to it were it not for the encouragement of a dear friend (who will also be participating in the upcoming special occasion). And it just so happens that I am currently sharing a home with an exceptionally good seamstress, who was thrilled with the idea of teaching me to sew, and making a dress in the process. Thus far, she has been the most wonderful instructor: gentle and encouraging, willing to explain and re-explain every step of the process, calm when I sew the wrong pieces of fabric together, or spill coffee on the silk lining, or break the thread for the eighty-third time. Thank you, Christine, for this dress, and for this experience.

I will post some pictures of this work-in-progress now…but my hope is that you’ll get to see the finished product in “real life” (which is, of course, also a work-in-progress). And when you do get the chance to see the dress, I trust you’ll pay no heed to the irregular stitching, and lopsided seams.

________

*I plan on sharing with you a little more about this special occasion in next week’s posting, or maybe the week after.

**Francillia and Christine, both accomplished seamstresses, have done all the trickier parts…and those stitches are flawless.

My bedroom floor is our sewing table

Trying (unsuccessfully) to cut a straight line

Emelda tries on the lining

The bodice is beginning to take shape

The neighbors watching us work from the window

Francillia sews while Christine studies the pattern

First time at the machine (concentrating REALLY intently!)

Marvis and Dillon baked banana cake for everyone

Roushy joined us for the sewing party via skype!

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A tale of two Mothers

Verily, in Thee will we find comfort and strength…
*

With your permission, dear reader, I am about to share with you another story of a mother who lost her child.

As I did in the previous entry, I’ll change the names of those featured in this posting, too, because the subject matter is once again sensitive…and I want to treat it with reverence. I wonder, sometimes, if I should even post these stories…but, as I prayerfully consider what to write, and what to share with you, I am reminded that it’s these most “sensitive” subjects that are the real stuff of life—the stuff that brings us to our knees, and the stuff that stirs our spirits to rise, phoenix-like, from the depths of our despair. The stuff that makes us weep, and the stuff that makes our hearts sing with joy.

Of what else can one write?

I have another hesitation in sharing these stories, though…and that is that I won’t do them justice. That I won’t capture the language that befittingly conveys their poignancy, and heartache, and beauty. Hand of the Cause of God Abu’l-Kazim Faizi has asked, “How can seas of emotion be contained in chalices of words, though they be of gold?” The poets are those, I suppose, who possess the chalices of gold—limited, still, in their ability to contain, but endowed with the power to make that cupful of sea shimmer.

Mine is, I think, a chalice of copper. Unlike the poets, I don’t know how make language become luminous. But—in my very limited knowldege of metal—something I understand about copper is that, though it doesn’t possess the luster of gold, it has the ability to conduct heat. And this, I think, is why I feel compelled to write. While I cannot hope to convey they poetry of these experiences in Dominica—in life—I can strive to impart an ember of their warmth.

(Thanks for allowing me that preface. I will now pour another cup of tea, and try tell you about the mother…well, the two mothers. And with Ruby’s mother, who I wrote about last month, they are three.)

*

Lara is a 23-year-old mother of two beautiful sons. She is the pre-school teacher for the southern hamlets of the Carib Territory, and has recently begun serving as a Junior Youth Animator. She loves to read, and she loves to eat Milky Way candy bars—but both are luxuries she’s rarely able to indulge in. Lara is also 8 months pregnant, with a third son. She went in for a scan two weeks ago, and the doctors told her that, as the baby she carried was severely underweight, she’d have to remain in the Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH…a place that has become quite familiar to me these past two months) for the duration of her pregnancy.

This is a very challenging situation for Lara. Her two boys are young—ages 2 and 4—and though the children are in the loving care of their grandmother while Lara is away, she misses them desperately. And she worries. Is the two year old getting enough milk? Is the four-year-old practicing his alphabet every day? Do they know how much their mommy wishes she could hold them?

Her sleep has been troubled, Lara told us, partly because the hospital bed is stiff, and she’s unaccustomed to being in a room by herself. Mostly, though, what keeps her awake is the uncertainty of how she will ever manage to pay off her hospital bill. PMH charges 50 Eastern Caribbean Dollars per night, which means that, after a month in the hospital (plus the delivery fee, and other inevitable costs) her total bill could amount to more than her annual salary.

Her first week in the hospital, Lara said, was one of unbearable loneliness. But on the seventh day, Mary arrived.

Mary is a banisher of loneliness. In her presence, one feels an immediate surge of warmth, of friendship. She looks you straight in the eye when she talks to you, and when she asks “How are you?” it is not social convention, but a genuine inquiry as to the state of your inner condition. And she is not merely seeking to know if you are fine, but to discover how she might be able to be of service to you. Fittingly, Mary works as a coordinator of a public service program that provides in-home early childhood education, and coaching for their parents. She is also the mother of three sparkly-eyed children, and a facilitator of various community activities.

Mary joined Lara in the maternity ward of the Princess Margaret Hospital beacuse, in the sixth month of her pregnancy, she went into labor…and after an emergency Caesarean section, baby Grace was born into the world. Before Mary had a chance to hold her, the child was placed into an incubator and connected to tubes and machines. Mother and daughter would not be returning to the Carib Territory that night… and for the seven days that followed, the Princess Margaret Hospital became their home.

Mary slept very little that week. As often as the nurses would allow—and ignoring the searing pain in her abdomen from the operation—she’d sit beside the incubator that was her daughter’s crib, reaching her hand through the opening to touch Grace’s feather-soft cheeks, listening to the beep of the heart moniter, whispering prayers. Mary would have spent every moment there, but even nurseries have visiting hours…so when she couldn’t be by her daughter’s side, Mary would shuffle down to the pre-natal ward, in her slippers and purple nightgown, and visit Lara.

To pass the long hours of waiting, of nervous anticipation, the two young women gave each other manicures and pedicures. They combed one another’s hair, told stories, made each other laugh. They ate their plates of hospital food side by side, took turns calling friends in the Carib Territory for news from home, prayed for one another’s babies.

The two mothers called us Wednesday night, knowing we’d be in town the following day, asking that we bring them mangoes, and a camera…Mary hadn’t yet taken a photograph of baby Grace. They’d both seemed in high spirits during the phone call. But when we arrived at the maternity ward the next day, there was a heaviness in the air, and in the mothers’ eyes. Baby Grace, we learned, was struggling. She’d held strong until earlier that day, and was even breathing on her own for a little while, but had needed a blood transfusion…and it seemed her body was having a difficult time adjusting to the foreign platelettes. Grace’s lungs had stopped breathing on their own, Mary told us, and the baby had to be reconnected the oxygen machine.

“Pray,” Mary asked us. “Please pray. I don’t know what else we can do.”

We had brought with us a special prayer book for women, “Wings of Prayer,” and we gave it to Mary, along with a compilation of Bahá’í Writings, called “Fire and Gold,” on finding strength and blessings in life’s struggles. We prayed together, seated on that stiff hospital bed. And then Mary returned to the nursery, camera in hand, to take some photographs of her baby girl.

In the middle of the night, my phone rang. It was Lara, crying. She didn’t have to say a word.

By the time we reached the Princess Margaret Hospital the following morning, Mary and her husband had already gone. We met them at their home later in the afternoon, a home—I realized—that I hadn’t visited enough this year, but from which I’d always perceived the fragrances of unity, of collaboration. Mary’s husband was at the stove frying fish; one of the daughters was holding her little brother; the other daughter was seated beside the bed where her mother lay resting. Mary sat up to greet us as we approached. Her countenance was calm, her gaze steady. As we knelt beside her, and held her hands, she told us about her last moments with her baby daughter. They had been precious moments, sacred moments….moments, Mary said, that will remain with her always. There, beside the glowing incubator, Mary had sung to her child. She’d repeated the prayer “O Lord, Help Thou this daughter of the Kingdom to be exalted in both worlds…” over and over, as she stroked Grace’s tiny hand. Back in her room, she read passages from “Fire and Gold,” and felt, she said, oceans of strength coarsing over her, through her. She knew, then, that she and her daughter, and all the mothers and all the daughters, were being held by the Greater Hand.

It has been a week, now, since Grace’s passing. During these past seven days, Christine and I have visited Mary often. Every time we come, she updates us about Lara. Mary has called her every morning and evening, just to check in, just so she won’t be lonely, or discouraged. “You must keep your spirits up,” Mary tells her. And she tells us that we must pray for this baby, for Lara’s strength. Mary has been advised to remain in bed for the time, as her stitches have not yet healed, and the wound is still so painful that she’s unable to pick up her one-year-old son. But from that bed, Mary is reaching out to her sister Lara. From that bed, she is serving.

Yesterday, she put together a care package for us to bring to Lara in the hospital. In it, she placed some bars of chocolate, some romance novels, a newspaper, nailpolish. And then she asked me to remove a large blue bag from the shelf. She instructed me to open it, and that everything deemed suitable for a boy was to be added to Lara’s care package. I realized, as I removed the tiny socks, the pastel booties, the cotton blankets, that these precious garments were to have been Grace’s. We folded each of them neatly, setting the pinks aside, but placing the blues and greens and soft yellows in the package for Lara…for Lara’s son. Mary added several packets of diapers to the box. “These were given to me by Ruby’s mother last month,” she told me, “after Ruby died. Grace only used a few of them…so let’s give the rest to Lara’s baby.”

I battled against tears as I helped Mary assemble that package, and wondered at how her eyes remained dry. “I’ve done my crying,” she said. “Now it’s time to be of use.” I began to understand, as we folded the last article of clothing and placed it in the box, that Mary wasn’t supressing her grief, or ignoring it…she was channeling into service, into acts of love.

As we beheld Lara’s care package, brimming over with gifts, Mary motioned to the items in the box. “We can think of these as my blessings,” she said. “I have been given so many in life. How can I not share them with my sister?”
_________

* Lara is still in the hospital, with an estimated due date of February 28th. She is progressing in her study of Ruhi Book 5, “Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth,” and has been memorizing prayers. We’re also trying to keep her supplied with novels and Milky Way candy bars. Mary, in the midst of planning a funeral from her bed, still calls Lara every morning and evening.  She is reading “A Thief in the Night,” and is already planning a community devotional. Baby Grace’s funeral will be held tomorrow. Please keep these heroic women, and their children, in your prayers.


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