Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Places That Terrify

When I was a little girl I loved nothing more than to lie on my cot beside the tiny attic window and look out into the night sky. I didn’t imagine what was out there I knew that the heavens were filled with heavenly bodies and if I listened real close I would hear what secrets they had to tell. It was safe there in that attic room. I read once that if you want to live an exciting life then you will spend half of it terrified. I have learned how really true that is.

It doesn’t take much to terrify us –of course, we are creatures of habit. Once we begin to expand our boundaries further out into our own personal galaxy we often are terrified. For many the very thought of change is terrifying in itself. But change is a part of life. Recently I had been through some difficulties and when I asked someone in a similar situation how they were doing she answered me by saying after watching you I decided to lay low and keep my head down. We can do that. We can lay low, keep our head down and try to avoid those places that terrify us or we can face them squarely and realize that if we move into the place of terror we will find that it is a mere shadow and the more light we bring to it lessens its power to terrify us.

I remember a time I was terrified but I don’t remember if it was the first time or not; but, it could very well have been.  My grandmother took me to see the Wizard of Oz. We rode the bus into the city and stood in line at the movie theater. I was very excited to be in the city with my grandmother and a trip to the movies  It was a treat which she and I did sometimes. I was very very young and had such a vivid imagination. Inside the theater I felt very small sitting in that huge seat and the theater was so dark. Perhaps it was the huge screen that made the movie seem so real. And, then there was that little girl with her dog, Toto, calling for her Auntie Em.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Mystical Nature of Trees

    I have been thinking a lot about trees lately and my relationship to them. As I sit here looking out into the top of a very large tree, almost close enough to touch, I can sense a connection. It is as if I can understand the language of trees—as if I can hear them whispering. I know that probably sounds a little strange so I will attempt to make things a bit more clear or understandable to the human ear. Every since I was a child I have loved trees. I climbed them, sat under them, hugged them, leaned against them, cried to them and studied the many colors I can discover in the bark. They seem to me to be living breathing creatures. When my children were young I taught them to climb trees… to sit among their branches, to listen to the wind rustle through the leaves and on a cold winter’s night to hear the cracking and popping as they expand in the freezing temperatures.

    One of my favorite trees is the birch tree with its shinny white bark glowing in the moonlight. My grandmother use to tell me stories of how when as a child she would ride the birch trees. She said they were bigger and taller then and the snow was much much deeper. She explained that the birch tree is so flexible that when it snowed and the snow lay heavily upon its branches, the tree bent over and touched the ground. My grandmother and her siblings and friends would grab hold of the top of the tree… shake off the snow and then they would hang on so tight as the tree would very slowly lift them off the ground and drop them to the other side. I was never brave enough to attempt to ride the birches in the wintertime.

    My uncle Ray often explained how the native people would peel the bark and use it for their paper, and prayer baskets, pouches and carrying bags. Out of the wood they created the finest canoes. He said one needed to be very careful about removing the bark because there was only a special time of the year when peeling the bark would not kill the tree. He said the birch tree was also considered the “way shower” because the white bark shined and glistened in the moonlight lighting the way. In Lapland and Siberia it’s called Sky ladder. During trance the shamans would imagine themselves climbing the birch tree to enter the sky world. When my children were growing up I taught them to climb trees there is nothing better than to sit among the branches of a huge tree. There was always a tree nearby with branches just right for climbing.

    There are many folk tales about trees and one I heard some time ago is about a daughter who married and moved far from her family to a distant village to live with her husband and his family. The young woman was very unhappy there and when her mother came to visit her daughter she saw how unhappy her daughter was. This made the mother very concerned so she suggested to her daughter that they go for a walk in the forest. They walked for some time talking about the daughter’s troubles. Eventually they stopped and rested in the shade of an ancient weeping willow tree. The mother said to her daughter, I cannot be here all the time to help you with your unhappiness… but this tree has seen many people pass this way and so weeps with understanding for the troubles of humans. I want you to come once a week to this tree and to lean your head upon the tree and tell the tree all of your sadness. She said to her daughter I want you to give the tree your tears. The daughter agreed to this and every week as her mother requested she visited the tree.

    For the next year every week the daughter returned to the tree to lean against the bark and to cry her unhappiness. After the year passed the mother returned to visit her daughter. She said, “Daughter, you look so wonderful.” The daughter told her that as she spoke to the tree she began to change and as she changed her life changed and she began to see things differently. The mother suggested they walk into the forest and visit the tree to offer their thanks to the tree. Eventually they came to the tree but the tree was crumbling and decaying. They knew that the tree had absorbed all the pain and sorrow that the daughter left behind. The daughter and the mother were sad for the tree but thankful for the daughter’s new life. As they began to leave the mother said, “Look.” A branch had fallen from the tree and from the decaying branch sprung new life. They then understood that as the daughter grew in her new life the tree also put forth new life. As her mother was leaving she made her daughter promise to visit the old dying tree and to share her gratefulness with the new life that sprung from it.

    I remember a time when I was visiting a friend in Virginia. I was going through a difficult time and needed to take a break so I could decide what to do. My friend lived on the river in the watershed area of Virginia. She and her husband had a beautiful home and the window by the bed in the room that I stayed looked out on a very large beautiful tree. I don’t remember what kind of a tree it was but when I laid down I could see this tree just outside the window. The night before I was to leave I laid there looking out at the tree still having no idea what I was going to do when I got home… As I stared at this magnificent tree I heard these words, “You will know exactly what to do.” A peaceful calm fell over me and I drifted to sleep. When I arrived home the next day I did know exactly what I was going to do… an answer presented itself, the situation had been resolved and I moved easily into the next phase of my life.

    Recently I have had another struggle. As a volunteer in a foreign country I found myself without a place to live. I moved 6 times in 5 weeks. Strange and unusual situations were behind every move and I had one foot out the door in the direction of the airport. As a last resort I was shown a small one room flat with a balcony that looked out at the tops of trees. Confused by my situation, homesick, for my daughters and family I couldn’t decide what to do. Over the next week all I could think about were those trees. The image of those trees appeared to be calling to me. When I would see those trees in my mind’s eye I would feel safe. I was waiting for sign to leave instead I was given a sign of peace and safety among the trees. Even as I type this, doves are resting on the branches so close I can almost touch them. I feel like I am living in a tree house. So I remain here among the birds and trees and wait for the next sign post, the next cairn, to guide me on my way. I am still missing home and family and friends. My dean, friend and mentor from the seminary, said “fish, cut bait and go home.” I am still fishing and when I have reached the place where I am given the sign to leave I will cut bait and go home. In the meantime I will watch the change of seasons reflected in the branches of these stately old trees.

Earliest findings written on Birch Bark

Monday, August 2, 2010

Summers Long Long Ago

I have been thinking a lot lately about my Uncle Ray. Surrounded right now by small backyard farms and gardens, my thoughts have gone to the time when I was a child living with my grandparents and my aunts and uncles. There was one uncle in particular that comes into my thoughts these days and that is my Uncle Ray. I believed he lived only to mingle with nature. On any given day he could be seen in the garden tending his exotic chickens, fancy pheasants, quail, and game birds of all sizes, shapes and colors. Growing up I always had a goat, rabbits or some animal to call my pet for while. I was on the back of a pony before I could walk. It was a small plot of land but filled to the brim with growing vegetables and funky looking fowl.

My mother being only 15 years old when I was born added to the magic of my childhood by making me the youngest in this close knit family. My grandparents had more time to give to me so I heard all the stories and family history they dared tell. I remember Ray going off at night with his gang of buddies… coon dogs howling in the distance. Course if they were lucky and the dogs chased a raccoon into a tree he would always make sure there wasn’t a den of babies nearby and if by chance they took a parent away from the young he would bring the young home to my grandmother and she would nurse them day and night to keep them alive then he would set them free.

Ray was the oldest boy and the only one that seemed to know of the family’s Native American connection. If there ever was a trapper trader reincarnate it was my Uncle Ray. He talked incessantly about the wagon trains that gathered to head west, even at my very young age he would insist I sit and watch the television series Death Valley Days with him. Most of them gave me nightmares over the struggles people endured but he would insist I watch it while he would go on and on about the adventures of the settling of the west. He would take me along on his walks through the woods and he’d point out the mounds of earth and he would say “if we dug there we would find arrow heads and other things but we won’t disturb it because it’s an old Indian grave.” He knew where all the Indian graves were. You could often find him wandering along the banks of the Merrimac River exploring what he called old native campsites. He would take his boat out and tend the wild rice patches that most people didn’t even know existed.

I was told he was instrumental in cleaning up the river as well as planting black walnut trees that were almost extinct but native to the town forest. I thought he was like Johnny Appleseed who wandered the countryside spreading apple seeds. When the blueberries were ripe and ready for picking we would wander to his favorite places where the blueberries, wild blueberries, hung from the bushes like grapes. We had to make a lot of noise to scare away the bears that might not want us stealing their blueberries. We filled buckets of berries. When we got back my grandmother would turn them into blueberry slump.

It is days like this when I can smell the corn roasting and imagine the lobster pot boiling away… fresh vegetables from the garden tossed into a salad and the whole family gathered together. It was a simpler time… a slower time… a quieter and it seems now a more peace full time. When night fall would come I would lie on the grass and listen to wonderful stories of how the stars and planets came to be. Hunting stories—stories of the hunting camps all the while waiting for just the right moment when the Northern lights, aurora borealis, flashed a rainbow of colors high in the night sky.

Maybe it was just the magic of hot blueberry slump with vanilla ice cream. Blueberry slump made from scratch…. We would gather together and wash and clean fresh picked blueberries… no less than a quart and 2 quarts and even more is better. Place in a large pan, which has a tight fitting lid, and cover with water and if you like add a couple of spoons of sugar. When it comes to a rolling boil lower the heat to a simmer and then drop spoonfuls yellow cake batter like dumplings into the blueberry mix. Cover tightly and let gently simmer for 15 or 20 minutes. No peeking into the pan until it’s done.

Nanny’s yellow cake mix: cream together 1/3 cup butter, ½ cup sugar then add 1 egg and some vanilla. Mix ¾ cup flour and ¼ teaspoon of baking powder. Combine all together using ½ cup of milk.

I can smell it cooking even now… No summer is complete without lobster and blueberry slump.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Spent a good part of the day with my favorite young adults, now as the night folds around me I am filled with bittersweet thoughts. I have done all the packing I can do for the moment. Soon I will make final decision on the items I really can’t live without and then do what I must... leave them behind. Twenty seven months is a very long time to be away from family and friends so instead I say to everyone “barring any unforeseen life events I might be gone one month or 27 months.” It feels better said that way. At lunch we talked of life and its ability to drag us into an unknown future kicking and screaming or, if we are willing, life lifts us gently up and into the unknown landscape of our future. Lift off into the unknown for me happens on Monday at 6am, inshallah, when I enter into training for service in Eastern Europe with the Peace Corps.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Following Divine Hints

Every now and again people that have left an imprint on my spiritual journey wander through my mind. Over the years Doctor Gabriel Masry has come into my mind. He has wandered through my mind many times over the years and through the years I have wondered what happened to him. I remember he always had time to laugh and talk about life. Once I remember he actually got down on his knees to show me how a prayer could be a wonderful exercise. I didn’t realize at the time how that incident would fit into my personal spiritual journey—but what he showed me was the full body prayer performed by those who belong to the Islamic faith.

I have always believed that if I feel drawn to say something to someone then I need to follow through. It is not just feeling drawn to say something because I often don’t even know what I am going to say—instead it is this haunting urge deep inside that doesn’t leave.—an urge that says go here, call this person, or as with Doctor Masry I needed to find him. So on many occasions when he would wander into my mind, I would type his name into Google without yielding any results. On this day, however, when he wandered through my mind once again, I typed his name into Google and suddenly up popped several links. So I followed them… like cairns or signposts there they were—the perfect path. There it was my divine hint and I knew that I couldn’t ignore it. There was an address.

Trying desperately to do the math, I thought to myself—this must be an old address because I think he graduated from medical school in 1947 and wouldn’t that mean he must be in his nineties. I sent an email asking if I could be connected with someone who could direct me to where I could pay my respects. The answer back was “he still lives here.” Now I was sure that God had put this before me and I needed to follow through. I mailed a card. This is some of what I said:

“Dear Doctor Masry:
I am writing to you because you have been on my mind quite a bit lately and I always think when that happens it is a divine hint which should be followed. So when your name popped right up on the computer when I did a search I decided that I should write.

I was your patient for several years. I became your patient when you put my nose back together after an automobile accident. Every office visit you would say to me “let me see that nose.”

Life carried me away over rocky terrain and through green valleys, and down some slippery slopes as life can do and then one day when I called your office it was closed. Off and on over the years I have thought of you and hoped that life had treated you well. For some reason you have a special place in my heart and I truly believe that when we feel something we should not be afraid to express it. You were a wonderful doctor and a special person and if I could have afforded an office visit every week I probably would have been in your office every week.

I have been invited to serve in the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe. I will be leaving the end of March and I didn’t want to leave without telling you how important you were to me and how important I imagine you were to so many people.     Asalaam Alakium- Peace Be Unto You.”

Two or three days went by and then I received a phone call from a friend of his and an invitation to visit. I accepted. His friend said he was 90 years old, having some health problems, and didn’t think anyone had remembered him.

It was a clear warm spring-like day when I pulled my blazer into the driveway of a large country home.  He waved from the edge of the driveway where he had been watching for me. Inside we sat on a white brocade sofa in front of a sunny window that looked out over the countryside. We laughed, shared life stories, listened to Arabic music while he recited the Qur'an and shared hot tea and mamoul cookies he had recently made. He reminisced about growing up in Lebanon, his Jewish faith, his belief in God and the motto he lived by… Live in mercy, live humbly, and walk always with your God. He talked of his practice of medicine, his service in the Navy, and the death of his wife. Until recently he played tennis three times a week, lectured to surgeons at a hospital in the city once a week and tended to the business of living life--now due to some sudden health issues he spoke of having outlived his usefulness.

Doctor Masry speaks, reads and writes seven languages. He is fluent in all Arabic dialects. He said when he was 70 he offered himself as a translator to the FBI and said he was willing to go to Iraq… He said he was told “go home old man.” They have no idea what they missed. 

As I drove away that day I thought--what  an honor to have known such a beautiful soul. I don’t know why God sent me there that day or why I felt such a desperate need to find him or to write that letter and I don’t need to know. When I receive God’s divine hint there is no turning away and I don’t need to analyze it or wonder why—it just is what it is.

For your enjoyment:
Mamoul – a Middle Eastern cookie often served on holidays. And so good… but be sure to let them cool before eating.

Date filling: pitted dates about 11oz. add about 5 tbsp of water. And simmer on low until jam like texture… spread to cool on a surface such as a plate.
Dough: 2 cups all purpose flour, about 1 and ½ sticks of butter cut into the flour such as making pie crust. Old recipes call for rose water but this isn’t necessary. Add 4 tbsp of milk and mix well using hands or a food processor.
Preheat oven to 350. Use a wooden mould if you have one but if not you can just form the dough into small balls of about 20 to 25. Use your thumb to make a hole in the center so it looks like a cup. Add a spoon of cooled date filling and pinch the top closed. Place on parchment paper and flatten slightly. Bake for 10-15 minutes making sure they do not turn brown… when done dust with powdered sugar.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. – Gandhiji

More about catching the Divine Hint visit: Mysticsaint blog

Saturday, February 27, 2010

When did hurricane and tornadoes become just "Winter Wind Storms?"

Snow falls gently outside, the aftermath of a winter wind storm that shortened my visit with my friend, Judy. We have been friends since the first grade and we had so much planned for our last weekend before I leave for parts yet unknown, but the storm had other ideas and toppled trees, rolled back roof tops, snapped power lines, and closed roads. With power not to be restored for 3 days she went off to stay at her daughter’s and I went back home. Now I’m down to the last few weeks before a new adventure begins and there is much to do that I couldn’t do before. There are things to pack and put into storage, financial matters, insurance issues and finally donating the car before I take to the road again.