Thursday, March 31, 2011

Life In a Room With a Loom

Robert Hirschfield shares his living quarters with a sacred instrument.

In Jerusalem, I lived in a room with a loom used by the woman of the house to weave garments for the Temple priests. A room that smelled to me of time travel. But to the weaver, the garments, the priests, and the Temple were all objects of the eternal, meaning they were not objects at all. They were thoughts in the mind of God, written down precisely, and in luminous detail, in Leviticus.

I am part of a group dedicated to rebuilding the Temple, she said matter-of-factly. She could as easily have been saying, I am part of a book club.

I didnt know what to say. As a friend of a friend of her husband, I was given the room for free. I never actually saw the priests garments she wove. I never asked to see them.

dome of the rock, jerusalem

Photo: mockstar

To rebuild the Temple, you will have to raze the Dome of The Rock and Al Aksa, I wanted to warn her. Our sunlit room in Katamon would have burst into holy war, an old-fashioned Biblical brawl with bile and burning camels. By destroying the second Temple, the Romans made it indestructible in the Jewish psyche.

Jewish prayers lamented it; pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem to weep for it; couples still smash glasses underfoot at their weddings to remember it; Orthodox Jews wait for the Messiah to come and rebuild it. Jews like the weaver, emboldened by Israels re-conquest of Jerusalems Old City after the Six Day War in 1967, decided to take matters into their own hands.

In a way, they are like tra! velers a t a station who have been waiting two thousand years for their train. The day came when they could wait no longer. They would build their own train.

dome of the rock, jerusalem

Photo: upyernoz

In the West, a Temple fixation is hard to imagine. Maybe the closest you would come is the image of a mass of people sleeping outside a computer store for seven days and seven nights to purchase the latest software gadgetry. Maybe.

Every day, I would return home from interviewing Palestinians to this place where holiness was being cooked on a loom. On the floor, there were always new scraps of thread I hadnt seen before. Exiles like myself. Sparks that didnt quite make it into flame.

Id be sitting there reading Joseph Goldstein, Jewish Buddhist, with his tame reminders about following the breath, returning home to the heart. We were like two mice at the foot of something enormous, mountainous, only flat. In the next room Id hear her breaking open an orange with her impatient thumbs.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Cats in the Temple

Mary Sojourner takes us on a guided tour of her dresser.

Americans are obsessed with the notion of control. The control is just an illusion. ~ Lee Barnes, writer

BEAN, THE 10-MONTH OLD gray tabby, is possessed to leap up on the old dresser that serves as the center for my faith in what little I know of Tibetan Buddhism, and all I am learning about the nature of impermanence a knowledge both unwelcome and irresistible. The dresser top is, more accurately, an altar, a flat-topped block used as the focus for a religious ritual, esp. for making sacrifices or offerings to a deity, my dictionary says.

Bean, the cat

Bean, the cat

There is no demanding god here. There is no religion. There is only the sacrifice of most of what I once believed was permanent. There are offerings, not to be consumed in flame or carried away on a river, but objects and images to remind me of what matters. Each reminder has its own place, its own proximity to another.

There is a book of Tibetan photos and words. Behind it, a picture leans against the mirror: two Chinese soldiers walk away from the body of Kelsan Namtso, the Tibetan Buddhist nun that they have just murdered. She lies in the snow. The only color in the picture is her saffron robe. All else is the snow, gray boulders, and the black figures of the soldiers.

There is a postcard of Tibetan Buddhist monks singing. A Black Hat dancer wears a ceremonial apron embroidered with the terrible and gracious visage of Mahakala, the deity who eats that which is in the way of joy if you regard joy as k! nowing y ou will most certainly die and, therefore, this moment is the best in your life.

Two books of collaborative art and poetry (made by poet Gail Wade, his students, and me) lie on top of a photo of the black and white crippled cat, Stretch. He is not the only ghost cat on the dresser. There are tatters of brindle fur that once belonged to my good cat Harold, seized by a coyote in early summer.

Dark cave

Photo: JuditK

A collection of Rumi poems, the Witches Almanac, and my journal are stacked in front of the collaborations. Beneath them is the 1948 edition of the Classics Illustrated Arabian Nights, the comic book that opened my way out of dark cave after cave after cave; below it lie more photos of my beloved dead.

A gray, pyramidal rock with a black dot in one side, and a Northwest Raven medallion hold the Tibetan book of photos open. Todays reading from Sogyal Rinpoche:

Why, if we are as pragmatic as we claim, dont we begin to ask ourselves seriously: where does our real future lie?

There is more on the dresser: a baby spoon, a broken heart-shaped dish my late mom gave me, a lace agate shaped exactly like a womans yoni, and a tape of chanting by the Gaden Shatse monks. There is the wristwatch that stopped on 9/11/01. There is the grooved rock in which I put a chunk of cookie for Mahakala when I ask his help in ripping out my hard heart.

Mr. Toad from Wind in the Willows sits on top of the mirror. He wears a red-striped fr! ock coat , blue pants, and a blue bow tie. My velvet prayer beads bag hangs below him. It contains the string of twenty bone beads on which I count my morning prayers for the furthering of all sentient beings and the protection of earth, air, and water.

I murmur the prayer as Bean mounts his ninth assault on the dresser. He tries to capture Toad. I go toward the dresser. Bean leaps off. As soon as I settle back to my prayers, he leaps in my lap and grabs the beads.

We both hang on. In that instant, I imagine a temple altar. The monks or priestesses or rabbis or imams responsible for the altar believe that in order for the Holy to be present, the sacred objects must be placed and aligned with absolute precision. The work of tidying and arranging the altar has just been finished. All is ready.

A mouse races across the shining tiles of the temple floor. One of the temple cats is within paws reach. The mouse scurries up on the altar. The cat follows.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Notes On Not Dealing With Death

Christine Garvin makes an admission: she doesnt know how to deal with death.

[Editor's note: This post was published in its original form here.]

THERE ARE WELL-DEFINED STEPS to dealing with the grief of death, which you can process through at weekly therapy sessions or in a local group that meets in the basement of a church on Tuesday nights. We cry longingly in private; we show only a glimpse of the tear in the heart tissues at some work retreat that forces a bonding moment. Steps are well-defined because:

  • grief takes such a seemingly insurmountable toll, and
  • death is common. Any one of us might experience the death of dozens of people during our lifetime.
  • For me, Ive personally known a half-dozen people who have died. Im here to admit I dont really know how to deal with it.

    I know the pain of relationships romantic and platonic ending. Ive been in car accidents that tore my leg open, broke my kneecap, damaged my back permanently, as the guy who rammed into my car from behind took off in the lane beside me. Ive watched friends lose parents and celebrated the anniversaries of those deaths with them.

    It seems like I feel the anguish more in those moments than when I experience the death of someone I know myself.

    Scant Memories

    I almost got to the corner of the street that dead-ended at Matt Edmisters house. Whether I was coming or going, I do! nt know, but I remember stopping and stepping my feet down on either side of the middle bar. Mike was in front of me and wrapped his arms around me, gently asking how I was doing as I pushed my face up against his chest.

    I knew, at age 14, I was supposed to be devastated, in shock, or feeling some other common emotional reaction since I had just found out Jerry died late the night before after smashing himself and Gayle and his car into a tree out in the country. But all I could feel was enjoyment that Mike was being attentive and nurturing and guilt for only feeling enjoyment that Mike was being attentive and nurturing. For a girl who could cry at the Folgers commercial where the son surprises his family by coming home early Christmas morning ten years after they started airing it, why couldnt I summon a tear for the death of a close friend?

    Years later, after making the decision to go through sorority rush, I got a phone call from my dad. His mom my grandmother had fallen to the floor in their pink bathroom that smelled of rose and Noxzema, a stroke removing her ability to stand but not to move her eyes. She passed a day later in the hospital, my grandfather sitting next to her. I flew up to meet them in Dubuque a couple of days later.

    It was odd to hold my grandfathers arm as we walked toward the open casket; he seemed small, and with my 51 frame, I held him up and enabled him to move his legs. I held a man I had barely known as he faced the puffed fake face of a woman he had been married to for over 55 years, a woman I had also hardly known. Again, I felt mostly guilt for not feeling more.

    Do I not know how to properly deal with death?

    Getting the Message

    I get a monotone message from my mom a day after she ! left it while Im driving home from dance class. Your grandmother passed away. Ill be going to Germany sometime in the next couple of days. Just wanted to let you know.

    Is it a wonder I cant connect? Is it a wonder I want to cut any sort of cord that exists?

    From the outside, I would say this to myself: Of course this affects you in some way. You just dont know which way yet. But when I talk to my mom on the phone the day before she leaves for Germany and I ask, Would you liked to have seen her body? and she says yes that shes curious what she looked like weighing only 60 pounds, but that it mostly wasnt a big deal and that cremation is easiest and best and bodies always look weird and strange filled with chemicals to make them hint at what real life looked like and that to imagine this woman sitting in her own piss and shit for days as Rolf refused to put diapers on her but rather just took off in his car to god knows where (certainly not the doctor like hed been saying) and her blind, osteoporosis-induced body refused to drink any more water because she knew shed have to sleep in it is it a wonder I cant connect? Is it a wonder I want to cut any sort of cord that exists?

    I try my best to get my mom in touch with her own sadness. Its been a long time coming, she says. Shes definitely better off. Im left to ponder when, and which one, will hit me the most.

    Community Connection

    Death is part of the cycle of life, yet its a taboo subject in our culture. We think its important to talk about it openly. If you have anything to share on the subject, wed love to hear it.

    Thursday, March 24, 2011

    Wednesday, March 23, 2011

    Who Knew Airport Hotels Gave You Anything Other Than Restless Nights?

    What Does Travel Mean to You? (or, My Evolution as a Traveler)

    Carlo Alcos at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

    Author atop Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico / All photos by author

    In which I attempt to capture my progression as a traveler, both physically and spiritually.

    I JOINED THE TRAVEL CIRCUIT late in the game. I went on my first real travels abroad when I was 28 a one-month Eurail tour of Western Europe. I followed that up with multi-month stints driving around Europe in a campervan, then traveling through Russia, Mongolia, China, and Vietnam, before settling for a couple years in Melbourne.

    My last travels had me cycling in Cuba and Mexico, and before I came to Nelson, BC, I spent time on the East Coast in New York, Toronto, Montreal, and Nova Scotia.

    Replanting rice in Thailand

    Replanting rice in Thailand

    As I get older and wiser my thoughts on travel changes. The most important aspect of it, I think, is the broadening of ones perspective, the opening of the narrow mind. You really cant know anything of the world unless you go out into it. Relying on other peoples accounts of whats going on out there isnt quite the same as experiencing it.

    This isnt to say that its wrong to not know anything of the world. Plenty of people are happy without ever leaving their hometowns. This is not a judgment call; I dont feel a need to convince anyone to travel.

    For me, though, thi! s produc t of travel doesnt have a linear growth. My mind doesnt continue to expand at the same rate it used to when Im in a foreign place. It was like there was an explosion when I first set out; my mind was literally blown. I started to look at life differently. I started asking more questions. Questions about things that we take for granted, that we couldnt imagine otherwise. This is the gift that travel has given me.

    The physical act of moving around has lost its novelty. Or maybe its just that I feel like sitting still for a while. To plant myself, insert myself into a community, and establish more solid connections. On the other hand and this is something that travel has played a part in me realizing Ive also come to understand that things change all the time, and can change in an instant, when you least expect it.

    So although Im feeling like this right now, Im open to the idea that life can take an unexpected turn at any moment. My travel these days has become an inner journey, a process in learning what life is about. A process in learning the art of vulnerability, of becoming happy within myself. Any physical act of travel nowadays becomes a method for me to learn more about myself.

    Cycling in Cuba

    On a beach in Cuba

    I dont know how selfish this sounds. ME. Thinking about myself. I feel, though, that when I am happy when I love myself that this is when I can better positively affect those around me. And in turn how that can affect others indirectly. Like a ripple that radiates from a rain drop.

    ! So altho ugh the landscape has changed from the Mongolian steppe and the skyscrapers of New York, to the rocky and tumultuous (and often times precipitous) topography of my mind, the journey continues. And it always will.

    Community Connection

    Your turn. How has travel evolved for you over the years?

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    Monday, March 21, 2011

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    An Islamic Intervention in Zagazig

    The only thing at stake was the soul of an infidel, my soul, and Sheikh Mohammed an expert at converting foreigners to Islam was determined to save it.

    WITH A HEAD FULL OF WHITE, slicked-back hair, freshly pressed slacks, collared-shirt, and corduroy blazer, this religious advisor had a professional air about him.

    So, Islam interests you? asked the Sheikh in perfect English. The family mama, papa, and Ahmeds younger brother looked at us expectantly.

    Yes, it does, I answered. The family nodded their heads as Kristina shook hers. An Islamic intervention in Zagazig was not what she signed up for. Exchanging puzzled looks, our hosts shifted in the Liberace-styled thrones of the family parlor. With a big smile and fresh haircut, Ahmed returned to join us.


    Ahmed was a student of mine at the American University of Cairo who had invited me and Kristina (my fiance at the time) to his familys home in Zagazig for a meet and greet a chance to experience Arab hospitality. I was touched by such a welcoming invite and accepted without hesitation.

    As the Nile whizzed by at 140 km/h and as we nearly broadsided a donkey-cart combo, Ahmed told us about another special guest for the evening at his parents home, a renowned author and spiritual advisor, Sheikh Mohammed.

    The Sheikh who was fluent in English and well-versed in the monotheistic religions would address all the questions I had about Islam that Ahmed hadnt been able to answer himself. I glanced at Kri! stina in the back seat. Whether it was the drive or the news of what we were doing, she looked uneasy.

    By the grace of God (or was it Allah?) we arrived frazzled but safe in Zagazig. After brief family introductions, Ahmed excused himself to get a haircut, saying hed be right back. We wouldnt see him again for three hours.

    His mother a stout, round woman, veiled and gowned smiled at us. I interpreted her look to say, My poor heathen brethren. With Ahmed (who was our translator and the only person we knew there) gone, Kristina and I felt vulnerable.

    His father, a slight shadow of a man in the matriarchs immense presence, shuffled about, indicating that we should take a seat in the garish, overwrought divans that looked more like theyd been picked up at a Liberace yard sale than at a furniture store.

    As requested, we sat, smiling awkwardly at each other. I tried my best not to look at the mark in the middle of his forehead. As the mother scuttled off to the kitchen, a servant girl trailed close behind her to help ready the feast prepared in our and the Sheiks honor.

    Arabic writing

    Photo: daveparker

    The minutes ticked by in painful silence. If only we had paid more attention in Arabic class.

    Hours into dinner, the doorbell rang. Its the Sheikh! we shrieked. Mama and papa exchanged a surprised look before welcoming him. Taking advantage of the distraction, Kristina and I excused ourselves from the banquet table. We were relieved.

    He sat at the dining room table and acknowledged us with a friendly smile. Shoving a piece of deep-fried liver into his mouth, he chewed it openly. Kristina winced. Then with a mouth full of pigeon, the Sheikh engaged us in small talk. Hes si zing us up, I thought. We answered his questions politely, trying not to stare.

    Then, going over the sequence of events that got me here to this time and place, it dawned on me.


    After telling an Egyptian colleague at the university that my student, Ahmed, had invited me to meet his family in Zagazig after Id asked questions about Islam, a knowing look had come over his face. I must have looked confused because my colleague chuckled and without explaining why, gave me a list of instructions: take notes, keep an open mind, eat everything they put in front of you, and enjoy.

    Most travelers dont get this kind of opportunity. It seemed like good advice for any cross-cultural situation so I took it to heart and brought a pen and my little notebook with me.

    Ahmed and my colleague to some degree had set us up. It seemed that the thought of me his new-found friend, English teacher, and non-Muslim burning in a hellfire of eternal damnation on the Day of Reckoning was unconscionable for him. It was Ahmeds sacred duty to save my heathen soul. Several of my Muslim friends later confirmed my suspicions.

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    Thursday, March 17, 2011

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    Japans Resolve Is Found In Its Language

    Happier times

    Happier times. The author with his parents and his Japanese host family. This photo and feature photo by Richard Patterson.

    Tim Patterson distills Japans cultural response to the current disaster in three Japanese words and phrases.

    THIS MORNING I EXCHANGED a few e-mails with my ex-girlfriend, Rika, who lives in Tokyo. She confirmed reports of shortages of food and fuel in the Tokyo metropolitan region, and sent a photo of herself wearing a bicycle helmet to bed. Overall, though, Rika seemed remarkably sanguine about the disaster that continues to unfold. Im used to the feeling of camping, she wrote. Im not stressed out.

    Big smile

    Rika writes in Japanese, and as I translated her notes, I was struck by three recurrent words and phrases that capture a particularly Japanese cultural response to crisis.

    These words dont have easy English equivalents, but go a long way towards explaining why Rika isnt worried, and why I have faith in Japans ability to recover from the horrific devastation of earthquake, tsunami, and slow-motion nuclear catastrophe.

    1. Shoga Nai

    There are some things that people can control, and other things that cant be helped. In my experience, making the distinction between those two categories can be a key to happiness. The phrase shoga nai means something like it cant be helped and is used to dismiss ! anything thats beyond ones capacity to influence or prevent.

    Shit happens. Shoga nai. The earthquake and tsunami were devastating. Shoga nai.

    For someone like Rika, living in Tokyo, the nuclear threat is impossible to mitigate shoga nai. Why stress? Better to keep plugging away, doing your best and making a difference where you can.

    Heres what Rika wrote:

    Tim, youre probably most worried about the radioactivity, right? Thats something that cant be helped (shoga nai). We dealt with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so we can deal with it again.

    2. Ganbatte

    If you go to a sporting event in Japan, youll hear fans yelling Ganbatte! to encourage the athletes on the field. Ganbatte is an exhortation to go for it; to do ones best; to strive.

    The workers who are struggling to prevent a meltdown at the nuclear plant in Fukushima are saying Ganbatte to each other. So are family members and politicians. All of the people of Japan are encouraging each other. If you are writing to a friend in Japan, put Ganbatte in the subject line of your e-mail. They will appreciate the sentiment.

    3. Gaman
    Flying carp

    Flying carp flags=perseverance / Photo: tiseb

    Every spring, Japanese families fly flags in the shape of carp, a fish that swims upstream like a salmon and symbolizes determination in the face of all obstacles.

    For Japanese, the carp exemplifies the spirit of gaman to struggle and persist in an endeavor without complaining, despite seemingly insurmountable challenges.

    Many a schoolchild has been told to gaman while struggling over algebra homework. Businessmen gaman through their daily commutes. People in their fifties and sixties gaman as the! y care f or elderly parents.

    Japan will gaman through this disaster. Our support will help. Ganbatte, Japan.

    Community Connection

    Find out How the US Military is Helping Earthquake and Tsunami Survivors in Japan.

    Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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    What, Exactly, Is a Meltdown and Is Fukushima the Next Chernobyl?

    The word is easily tossed around, but what does it mean? Is it imminent in Japan? And is this Chernobyl re-visited? So many questions.

    As I sit here and watch the news coverage of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and see terrifying YouTube videos like these, I wonder what could possibly happen if the situation with the Fukushima nuclear power plant gets worse. Whats going on there? Is this comparable to Chernobyl? Just how bad was Chernobyl? And what, exactly, is a nuclear meltdown?

    I did some digging around and thought Id share some of what I learned here, if youre wondering the same things as me.

    1. What happened in Fukushima?

    As soon as the magnitude 8.9 earthquake struck, 11 of Japans nuclear reactors were automatically shut down. These included reactors 1, 2, and 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant (4, 5, and 6 were not operating as they were under maintenance).

    Due to the quake, the plant lost power from the electricity grid and, to make matters worse, the emergency diesel-powered backup generators for the reactors failed (its been speculated that this was due to the tsunami arriving about an hour later). Even though the reactors were shut down (which reduced heat by more than 92%), the decay of the radioactive material created enough heat to evaporate the coolant that was no longer being circulated due to the pump failures.

    All this led to the eventual explosion of reactor 1, seen here. Working with what information could be obtained from officials at the plant, its reported that the release of pressure (intentional venting) expelled hydrogen, which reacted with the air to cause the explosion. It was also confirmed that the concrete building surrounding the steel containment casing collapsed, but the primary casing was undamaged.

    Sea water, mixed with boron (an element that controls nuclear reactions) was and is being pumped into reactor 1 to cool it. As events unfolded, sea water is also pumped into the other reactors as more cooling mechanisms failed. Using sea water is a last-ditch emergency effort; the reactors will become unusable. Early Monday morning, a second explosion this time at reactor 3 occurred:

    According to The Telegraph, another explosion at reactor 2 later in the day made it the third one since the disaster began. The evacuation radius now reaches 20 km around the Daiichi plant, and 10 km radius of the Daini plant, totaling around 200,000 people to leave the area. The two plants are seven miles apart.

    2. So what, exactly, is a meltdown, and is this likely to happen in Fukushima?

    In a nutshell, a meltdown occurs when there is inadequate cooling of the reactor core. With the heat not being carried away by the normally circulating coolant, the nuclear material reaches temperatures where it literally melts (so it really is what it sounds like).

    In Fukushima, when the coolant pumps failed, the water in the system evaporated due to the increased heat. Because of that, the uranium rods became partially exposed. This caused the temperatures to rise quickly and the rod casing to crack and begin to melt before they were able to cool them down again. This is a partial meltdown, ! not a fu ll one.

    Unless normal cooling methods are restored, they will have to continue to pump sea water continuously for weeks.

    In the case of a full meltdown (which is not yet the case), the rod casing completely melts and drops the uranium pellets to the floor, where they melt and pool into a lava. This could potentially compromise the containment unit, and release radioactive material to the outside world. According to the NY Times, unless normal cooling methods are restored, they will have to continue to pump sea water continuously for weeks.

    Professor Barry Brook of Brave New Climate claims that the plant is safe and will continue to be safe. He gives an easy-to-understand and detailed explanation of exactly what has happened here. On the other hand, as I research and type this, information is continually being updated, and much of it points to worsening conditions at the plant. Its been reported at Gawker that the steel containment vessel in reactor 2 was damaged in the latest explosion.

    So, at this stage it seems safe to say that there is no general agreement of what will happen.

    3. And Chernobyl? Is Fukushima even comparable?

    Chernobyl is the worlds worst nuclear disaster, and most well-known. So the obvious question is, how does Fukushima compare to that? According to Yukio Amano, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it is highly unlikely that this will develop into a similar situation.

    Chernobyl explosion

    Photo: Chernobyl / Photo: stahlmandesign

    Whereas the Chernobyl plant was poorly-designed and the incident caused by human-error, the plant in Fukushima was designed with more safety features (e.g. containment vessel). In addition, the automatic shutdown of the reactors after the earthquake stopped the nuclear chain reaction.

    Popular Mechanics is also on the same page, stating that the biggest difference between the two situations is how the nuclear reactions were moderated. Fukushima uses water for this while Chernobyl used volatile graphite, which burned when the reactor exploded and sent up plumes of radioactive material to be dispersed into the air.

    Even if a full meltdown occurred at Fukushima, it is more likely that it will be contained and not spread. To give an idea of the scale of the Chernobyl disaster, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that the radiation released was 200 times more than from the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

    In Chernobyl, there were 30 deaths related directly to the incident, either immediately or within a few months. The Ukrainian Radiological Institute claims that over 2500 deaths resulted from the disaster. Radiation levels in Scotland were measured at 10,000 times the normal amounts. Only time will tell how things unfold in Fukushima.

    Community Connection

    If youre not sure how you can help, read How to Help the Earthquake and Tsunami Victims in Japan.