Friday, July 3, 2009

Coming home

I walked out of the hospital after a busy day. From the hilltop overlooking the Potomac toward Virginia the sky lay like a landscape on the tops of the trees. It was that time of the evening when the light balances the dark. Long past sunset the crescent moon was a solid ball of gray cupped in a hand of bright flesh. It caught me and I stopped to look at it for a moment and take a big breath. The waning of the light and the mystery of the visible/invisible moon made me think of how we were slipping from one life into another.

After having returned home from our long journey, it has taken some time to get used to the now unfamiliar routine of things. Work, home, family, friends, and church, pets, houseplants, mail and dishes were all things we left behind when we went away. Now they are once again a part of our everyday existence. The things closest to our hearts and our everyday life were for a time far away from us. We ventured away from our home, our center, our life, creating a new one as we went. The time and energy we had focused on mundane tasks like opening the mail and washing dishes we spent on new tasks. Daily questions like, "What should we have for dinner?" changed to "What will happen today?" The first question presumed so much - a routine and a familiarity unnoticed until we left it. The answer to, "What will happen today?" depended on the time, the place, and our purpose in being where we were at the time. Dinner in Africa was cooked by the wonderful Matron Nancy and was brought to us, a surprise every day much like the rest of our visit there. Returning to England from the raw newness of Ghana, we were grateful when our friends fed us because it felt like Thanksgiving dinner every time - familiar, comfortable, and delicious. We rented a flat for some periods and so the dinner question like the place we stayed became familiar, the only new thing was locating the local grocery store. For the rest of the trip, we ate by a combination of necessity, chance and planning, following tips from waiters, fellow travelers, hotel owners and guide books with the inevitable failures and occasional memorable successes.

Daily life was dictated by our ever-changing circumstances. The heat or the cold, the room three stories up or the one on the ground floor, a place with a kitchen or a place with no refrigerator, a car or no car - all of these strongly influenced what we did and how we did it. It changed our life of habit to a life of infinite variety that demanded constant attention and adaptation. In the end we longed for sameness and habit, returning to the same Kofte shop in Istanbul 3 times just because it was familiar. The waiters knew us and laughed when they saw us coming, ushering us to a white marble table where we ordered the same simple thing every time - Kofte, white bean salad, and Ayran, a drink like buttermilk.

Doing things differently every day for 4+ months shed new light on the life we had left behind. We began to wonder, "Why, in fact, do we do things the same way every day, anyway?" Coming back, I am afraid I will forget important things and not act on perceptions that we had. I worry that the lessons we learned on sabbatical will be overshadowed by the demands of the life to which we return. Then I realize we can't un-see things truly seen or un-learn them if we truly learned them. We did not really leave a life behind but took our life with us in a new direction. And even if memories fade, like the moon at the balance of day and night, there will be times in the lulls between things when we can remember clearly. And then there are all the pictures....

Friday, June 5, 2009

Canterbury Cathedral

This visit had more than its share of serendipity, enough to make us feel blessed and satisfied that we had made an fitting end to a wonderful voyage. Serendipity might not go far enough actually, but I leave that for others to ponder.

To begin with, there was the meeting in Hatchard's bookstore in Piccadilly Circle in London. While I stayed on at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Craig left, making a bee line for the bookstore. Browsing in a bookstore for a couple of hours was his idea of heaven on earth. Evidently Bishop Lee of Virginia had the same idea. As Craig was hunting for a title on the ground floor of the bookstore, he spotted our soon to be retired Diocesan Bishop coming up the stairs. In the course of their conversation they discovered they were both headed for Canterbury Cathedral that Sunday.

We stayed on the grounds of the Cathedral in the Lodge, a stone and wood Romanesque looking structure next to the Cathedral with lovely rooms facing on a courtyard. The courtyard was filled with green lawn and white roses following a flagstone pathway to a gate. As we walked back out of the courtyard toward the car to get our bags, Craig noticed a small oval plaque on the inner wall of the gate which thanked the Diocese of Virginia for supplying the funds to build the courtyard.

Then we kind of forgot that Sunday was Pentecost. So when Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury processed down the aisle to a packed cathedral including Bishop Lee and Mrs. Lee in the front row and the new Lord Mayor of Canterbury and his cabinet and their families, it was pretty wonderful. More wonderful since we had a great seat which we got because Craig convinced me to unpack his clergy shirt.

Craig had to work to convince me (the queen of packing) that maybe it was a good idea to wear his clergy shirt to Canterbury Cathedral. I needed a lot of convincing because the shirt was (tightly) packed on the bottom of the (biggest) suitcase (separate from its collar of course) in the car in the parking lot in the dark. (Look, I'm not saying I was being appropriately organized here - I was just focused on getting HOME.)

The next morning we came into the Cathedral crossing by a side door next to the lodge. We noticed that all of the seats in the front were reserved. Becoming more and more disappointed, I kept looking further and further back in the nave for a seat. But because Craig was wearing his clergy shirt, an usher seated him 15 feet from the altar in the front chair of the choir. There was not a stick of furniture or a person between Craig and the primate for the whole Eucharist. Craig said it made it hard to think. He just couldn't believe he was there.

Then Bishop Lee disappeared in the middle of the service. But that was alright because he shortly reappeared, processing up the aisle with a smile on his face during the offertory. He was bringing a gift from an organization called the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral of which he is president.

While being at Canterbury, the center of the Anglican universe, seemed overwhelming, seeing Bishop Lee walking down the aisle made it seem a little like home. It bound up the familiar and the unfamiliar, the grand and the comfortable - reminding us of what was shared by everyone in that cathedral - a history, a communion, and a liturgy found around the world. But we share more than that.

Thomas a Becket was murdered a few feet from the present day altar of Canterbury Cathedral. Three thick black wrought iron swords pointing ominously at a single spot hang suspended over the spot where he was killed. The sculptor captured the evil in the deed. The swords made me shudder. I felt hollow. I felt a grief for the man, but also I grieved for the loss of innocence. The murder of a priest in a holy place mocks the very idea of innocence. Thinking of all the conflict in the world, I mourned that we all shared that capacity for evil, too- if not directly, then by complicity. In my dark turn of mind, I thought, "This cannot be all we share." As I walked around the choir of this church that has stood for centuries, the rawness abated. I had time to think about where I was and what that meant. Canterbury is a vibrant and welcoming place. For generations, it has been a beacon of what was best in the world. With a thankful heart I thought, we all share this, too. We share in the love of God, and we share grace."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Santorini: A little time with Andrew

We took a week to do nothing. Santorini in the Cyclades Islands north of Crete sounded like a good place to do it. Plus Craig had been talking about it for 30 years. High on a ridge overlooking a harbor where cruise ships looked like ships and not land masses, we opened our door every morning to whitewashed villages strung along the spine of the C - Shaped island. On the inner side of the ridge, villages with cobble stairs instead of streets spilled down the hillside clinging stubbornly to the rocky cliff underneath. They bubbled with barrel vaulted white washed houses and hotels built one on top of the other. On the other side of the ridge the sloping mountainside fell away into terraced farmland. The land gave way to small black sand beaches before it slipped into the salt water.

Legend has it that Santorini (or Thira as it is called) was the lost world of Atlantis. After erupting thousands of years ago, the center of the volcano is now 500 meters underwater on the floor of the sea. Lava has bubbled up slowly over millenia forming islands in the harbor. Occassional puffs of steam came out of the ground and rolled down the hillside until they disappeared. One person told me there was a tremor on the island at least once a week.

Thira was a thriving part of the Mycenean world whose
center was on Crete. The Myceneans were the fathers and mothers of the the Greeks to whom Western cultures especially owe so much. This was the world of Homer's Odysseus. It was sort of like putting words to music to read The Odyssey on this island. After having traveled around the Aegean, I recognized the names of Kings and kingdoms as I read them. What was once a world away and unfamiliar became real - so real that the three of us vied for the one copy we purchased. Andrew got first dibs, of course, and he couldn't put it down. I don't know why I was surprised. High drama, a son coming of age, adventure, action, loyalty, treachery and love, it was all there all the time, I just didn't see it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Cave of the Apocalypse

May 12, Patmos

We leave for Kos tomorrow on the afternoon ferry. We've been on Patmos for 3 days now, and it has made us realize how tired we were. We found a place to retreat overlooking one of the bays of the island and it is enough to simply sit and be. At least for a little while.

We visited a tiny convent. After winding our way along cobbled alleyways through canyons of whitewashed walls and blue and green doors, we arrived at a small courtyard and a gate. The sign on the side of the gate instructed us to ring the bell. We wondered if they meant that big brass church bell hanging over the gate. After pausing to gather our courage, we tentatively pulled the rope, rocking the bell until the it made a sound. Our loud summons was answered by the arrival of a black habited sister with the keys to the church. She let us in, sweeping aside curtains and giving explanations in Greek when she saw us puzzling over the identity of a saint.

One morning we drove toward a high hill topped by high crenelated walls. We found a monastery and church full of the wonderful frescoes in a town called Chora. Far below on the hillside was the "Cave of the Apocalypse" where St. John the Theologian was exiled and was said to have written the Book of Revelation.

"Cave of the Apocalypse" sounds so ..well..apocalyptic. There is no human scale to this phrase. I am just self centered enough to want something I can identify with in any story or image. That is how I connect and understand. The cave had a shrine-like quality, untouchable - from the small silver framed recesses of the cave where John is said to have laid his head to the church built into and around the cave. A guard stood watching our every move. No pictures were allowed. We walked around the silent church, the low undulating roof line of the cave on the right side gave way to the left, a stone addition made to enclose the cave. Windows were built into the wall looking over the island, into the fields and and beyond them, the sea. I sat in the window seat and just looked out over the valley. It occurred to me that if John sat in his cave he would have seen this very same thing. I thought that was good because now when I read the book of Revelation, I will have that image in my mind and I will know that when his mind was on human things, that is what John saw.

Craig left and went back in wanting quiet and a place for himself. At the doorway there was a basin of sand and a wooden rack of tall thin honey colored candles. We lit one saying a prayer for St. Peter's and our friends back home.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Disappearing clouds

May 10th

We left the tourist town of Kusadasi, Turkey this morning on a boat for Samos, an island in the Greek Dodecanese. We're plying toward Patmos, the island in the Aegean Sea where John is said to have written the book of Revelation. I'm sitting on the top deck of an aged orange and white Greek ferry boat named the Nisos Kalymnos. Followed by dolphins, the boat is throwing white froth in its wake on a clear blue day in a topaz sea. We're sharing the ferry with a cement truck which is making the boat list heavily to port, but no one cares

After circumnavigating the Aegean Sea from West to East we have finally ventured into it. It seems like it has taken a long time to get here. The blues of the water and the blue of the sky tranquilize me like a drug. As we sit looking at the water, I notice two wispy white clouds. Dwarfed against the great open sky they float in the blueness. As I watch they disappear. The two clouds are the vanguard of a bank of weather that hovers just out of view over the Turkish mainland. As one solid white sentinel after another is blown over the sea, each one melts into the blue sky like cotton candy dissolving in your mouth - there and then not there. Like magic.

The magic of the disappearing clouds seems like the magic of the sun and sea on our fatigue. After weeks of rain and mud, neither the clouds nor our fatigue can stand against the perfect beauty of the turquoise sea or the sun. If Patmos is like this, I'm not sure I will be able to do anything except sit and look at it.

Paul in Ephesus and Philippi

Ancient ruins and stone columns on their sides don't usually excite me, but as we walked the great wide marble streets of Ephesus together with hundreds of tourists, I got a sense of what it must have been like being home to hundreds of thousands of people. Ephesus is set between two hills. A broad marble street leads downhill past elaborate fountains and mosaic floored hill houses to a great lighted marble street (one of only 3 or 4 in the ancient world) leading grandly down to the port. As we walked we got a sense that the stuff of daily life here wasn't so different from our own and that Paul, the man who walked these streets preaching a new faith to a tough crowd (who owed their allegiance to Artemis) must have been more convincing than even the most skilled present day salesman. He did get in a bit of hot water by dissing Artemis and threatening the livelihoods of those involved in her worship, causing a riot to begin. Only the calming voice of a city official cooled the flames and foiled the lynching that surely would have proceeded had he not intervened.

In contrast to the narrow focused setting of Ephesus, Philippi's great open square lay in a valley where the distant hillsides surrounded it on all sides. The city seemed to ramble on and spread out forever. About 20 Km from the sea, Philippi seemed like home to normal people. Not so lucky in Philippi, Paul ended up in jail. There are various theories as to where, exactly Paul was held prisoner. Some contend he would have been in the area of the main square. I on the other hand thought he would have been held out of sight and out of mind over nearer the theater.

The remains of a large Byzantine church towered over the agora. Roofless, its shadows fell long across the stones in the encroaching evening. The characteristic terracotta and stone courses reminded me that one civilization builds on another. Craig's recollections of the site were formed long ago when far less had been excavated. I could see him reconciling his remembrance with the present and both marveling at their progress and mourning the gates and ropes, guards and admission booths that had not been there before.

Just the distances involved were impressive to me. Philippi, on the north shore of the Aegean in northern Greece was about 2 hours east of Thessaloniki or 6 or 8 hours west of Istanbul by car. Ephesus was about 6 or 8 hours south of Istanbul on the east coast of the Aegean in Turkey. Imagining the life Paul must have led traveling so far and wide selflessly proclaiming the Gospel made me read his letters in a new light. His trade - a worker with canvas and wood - seeming not so important when reading his letters without a context - seems crucial now as we imagined how he must have survived, living in and among the townspeople as a teacher and a craftsman. The real stones and structures begged the image of a real life.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Catching the Wave

It was such a little thing, but it made me gasp. We were driving back from the Ihlara Valley south of Cappadocia across a broad and treeless green valley covered with the short green grass of early summer. Through the raking late afternoon sunlight we barreled down the two lane road that was meant to get city drivers from point A to point B without having to fiddle with the local dirt roads. At an intersection an oncoming dump truck, its front seat crammed with 2 or 3 men and 2 women, turned in front of us. We slowed to let them lumber across our path and as the passenger window came into view, I saw the weathered face of a woman, her headscarf tied in a traditional manner. Next to her sat another woman, similarly dressed. She waved. Then her friend at the window did the same. As the truck turned and accelerated on its way, I saw a blue tarp covering the back. Half standing, half sitting on top of the tarp were 5 or 6 women dressed in what for them were work clothes, but to my eyes the skirts, blouses, and scarves seemed beautiful and exotic. I must have been waving because they all - one by one - caught the wave and in the end all of us were waving with both arms. I felt that if I stopped waving the slender thread of that moment would break and then it would be over. Both they and I waved as if we were long lost friends soon to be separated forever.

I have missed the company of women on this trip. Particularly in places and cultures where we are unlikely to meet "normal people" and especially in cultures where women are still sheltered and sometimes patronized, I haven't had a chance to talk to many women. I have a shadowy awareness that the way I look at life is uniquely my own and that it is different from a Turkish woman (read Ghanaian, Greek or British)(or Turkish, Ghanaian, Greek or British man) But being an American woman makes it improbable that I will never fully understand the generation and perpetuation of a life that is not mine.

When I lack a way to communicate with other women in words or in real time I have looked for alternatives to words and conversations. As I looked at the textiles made in Turkey I realized I was most likely looking at the work of the hands and sometimes the heart of a a Turkish woman. I am sometimes dazzled by their beauty and their skill. I never fail to appreciate the time and energy taken to create what amounts to a national product, but sometimes - especially in the older pieces woven in hopes of a home and family, in the spontaneous and sometimes quirky design of a horse blanket or a cradle, the voices of the women I will never meet speak to me. They speak of family pride, the dangers of jealousy, the hope for happiness and children, the strength of love - the weaving itself a language written with the hand passing over and through the wool or cotton or silk threads for many hours every day.

I think that's what made me gasp. The recognition that I had finally seen the woman that made the weaving. Women who are living a kind of life that is handmade; a kind of life that is passing away. These were the women who work for their families with the same hopes and concerns, loyalties and pride as the weavers I would never meet. And they waved at me with smiles on their faces and excitement. For once I was not a tourist but maybe someone like them.