Summer comes swiftly

It seems a pair of swifts have moved in with us. They apparently found a hole in the area where our window blinds roll up, and so their shrieks emanate from a corner of our kitchen. Swifts are from the same bird order as hummingbirds, called “apodiformes,” “apod” meaning “footless.” True to the name, I have never seen a swift’s feet, since they never perch–they seem to spend their days in constant flight, and even zoom directly into their nest at full speed. While at first their screeches, which are comparable to a coach’s whistle, annoyed me, I’ve grown accustomed to the daylight-dictated rhythm of their days, with most noise coming at sunset when they bunk down, and occasional squawks afterwards–perhaps sleep-talking?

Speaking of noise, Sergey and I had a cacophonous weekend recently. We went to Saturday dawn prayers at Bahjí, something we rarely do since I depend on the weekends to catch up on sleep, and as we sat in the Shrine, a noisy motor sound filled the air, as if an aircraft was heading directly for us. This was, as it turned out, quite nearly the case, except the aircraft was not the plane I had pictured–it was a flock of what was described as “Go-Karts with parachutes and fans.” But I think a photo would best demonstrate these contraptions:

Flying Go-Kart

Flying Go-Kart

There must have been about 15 of these noisy machines taking an aerial tour of the gardens. While it must have been a beautiful ride as they gazed down at the perfection of the paths radiating around bright flowers and trees–and the curious earthbound Bahá’ís snapping photos of them–their coincidence with the usually quiet and reverent dawn prayers was rather ironic.

Later, in Akka, we were visiting one of the Bahá’í Holy Places where Bahá’u’lláh lived, which is near the heart of the crowded old city. It seemed we were bound to have our meditations disturbed that day. What had seemed to be merely a boisterous fair outside one end of the house soon turned into a procession of marching bands that filed directly under the windows, the drums and horns banishing all hope of focusing. If this was a test of my concentration, I think I failed–after the visit, we ended up joining the throngs below to watch the uniformed youth play their stirring songs.

Celebrating something or other!

Akka schoolchildren 

The Pilgrims

Courtyard of building at Junayn Garden in Nahariyya, Israel

Courtyard of building at Junayn Garden in Nahariyya, Israel

As I sit here writing, wind buffets the windowpanes, driving rain against our building. It howls like a banshee. It gusts, it moans, it wails, it whines. This is the second night of this storm. This morning, after a night of half-sleeping to the thudding sounds of the wind banging against our windows, we awoke to find Haifa coated in dirt, apparently the result of a marriage between a rainstorm and dust storm. Now it continues to rain, but just water without the dirt. This long-lived storm reminds me of the one that made our Pilgrimage so memorable.

A few days into our nine-day Pilgrimage, a strong thunderstorm drove sheets of rain down so hard that our windows leaked, inspiring us to batten down the hatches—or in this case, to lower our plastic shutters over the glass, partially to block out the water, partially because we feared the wind would smash our windows. This was the first time my mom and sister got to experience the full volume of a storm as heard from our flat. It sounded like the world was ending, as thunder coupled with the thudding of wind on windowpane. With the storm came the insidious damp cold that seeps into every pore. The storm started in the evening and was still going strong in the morning, when we went to visit some of the sites in Akká associated with Bahá’u’lláh.

Akká boasts a vast and varied history, oscillating between glory and ruin depending on the ruler, which we had learned about the previous weekend on our visit to the underground crusader city. Yet, by the time of Bahá’u’lláh in the 19th century, it had become a penal colony of the ailing Ottoman Empire. Along with His family and some followers, He was banished there from the previous place of exile in Adrianople (today’s Edirne, Turkey).

The nasty weather was an appropriate reminder that the Akká of that time was a far cry from the bustling touristy city we see today. Wrapped in many layers and carrying umbrellas like lances to battle the storm, we stepped off our bus into the gray day and walked through the old city gate to the prison cells where Bahá’u’lláh’s family lived after their arrival. Chilled to the bone even within the stone walls of the prison citadel, it was hard to imagine surviving for two years in these barren quarters. Outside the windows, the sea crashed against the city ramparts, foaming angrily.

I had the same feeling in the next house the family occupied. Although surely an improvement over the desolate prison, the house still bore an aura of oppression about it. Looking out the window of a room upstairs upon the block of cold stone houses and the leaden sky above, with nary a tree or creature in sight to relieve the harsh view, I could begin to imagine the pain of living as a prisoner.

That was the dark part of Pilgrimage, which helped us appreciate its lighter times: our time spent together, and the eventual return of the sun for our visits to Bahjí, Junayn Garden, and Holy Places in Haifa.

Light moments had to include a trip to the big baklava mountain, where the nutty pastry naturally accumulates in waist-high drifts.

Light moments had to include a trip to the big baklava mountain, where the nutty pastry naturally accumulates in waist-high drifts.

NB: Bahá’í pilgrimage consists of nine days during which pilgrims visit the Holy Places in Akká, Haifa, and Nahariyya associated with the history of the Faith in the Holy Land—and most importantly pray at the Shrines built at the resting-places of our Central Figures: Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. If a Bahá’í has the financial resources, he is supposed to make pilgrimage at least once in his life as a means of spiritual deepening.

Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh at Bahjí, the most holy place on earth for Bahá'ís

Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahjí, the most holy place on earth for Bahá’ís

So shiny

We’re on the roof of a building in the Abdullah Pasha compound in ‘Akká.  It’s 7:00 PM and the sun is setting over the Mediterranean, painting sky and sea.  Viewed through the chain link fence bordering the roof, it becomes a gleaming mosaic.   A mosaic in a Mosaic land.  If I had brought my camera, I would have indulged in some shutterbugging, but I try to take “photos with my brain” instead.  Although I could really use a better memory card.

At least someone remembered their camera!

At least someone remembered their camera!

So we’re on the roof for our weekly reflection program, a change of habitat from our usual multipurpose room.  The group is singing the song we always sing, “Unite the hearts,” when the call to prayer rings out from the nearby mosque.  I find myself wishing church bells would start tolling and the worshippers at a synagogue would start harmonizing in an interfaith mashup.

The previous week, a member of the Universal House of Justice talked with our group about the spiritual prerequisites for success.  I had the (nerve-wracking) honor of introducing him (I cut the word “prerequisite” out of my intro after its multiple R’s proved hostile to my pronunciation) and sitting beside him for the duration.  The scent of his attar of rose permeated the air.

I made a card to thank him for joining us.  It was the first time I’ve painted in quite a while, and losing myself in the watercolors for a few hours reminded me why I love making art.  The line written in the lower left corner comes from the 28 December 2010 message of the UHJ to the Continental Board of Counsellors, which discusses upholding Bahá’í values and nurturing good habits of thought:

May every one of them [youth] come to know the bounties of a life adorned with purity and learn to draw on the powers that flow through pure channels.


I can’t help but notice a resemblance to an earlier painting…

Watercolor - Forest Meditation

Five years have elapsed, and my muse remains the same.

The sea wall


It started as a Wisconsinite reunion, because there are five of us here.  We met up at Bahjí, the most holy place for Bahá’ís, and afterwards three of us traveled into Akko.  That brief journey was complicated by missing our stop on the sherut, which resulted in us hiking toward the old city through an apparent construction zone covered with sand and the occasional concrete amalgamation.  But the important thing is that we got there and counted forty waves.

At the end of Bahá’u’lláh’s Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, there’s a passage in which Bahá’u’lláh quotes proverbs about Akko attributed to Muhammad, including:

The Apostle of God—may the blessings of God and His salutations be upon Him—hath also said: “He that looketh upon the sea at eventide, and saith: ‘God is Most Great!’ at sunset, God will forgive his sins, though they be heaped as piles of sand. And he that counteth forty waves, while repeating: ‘God is Most Great!’—exalted be He—God will forgive his sins, both past and future.”

So we clambered up a steep path to the top of the sea wall, hoping to have our sins forgiven, and counted the forty waves.  Waves are more difficult to count than I anticipated–judging when they’ve broken is pretty subjective.  Maybe if I had paid more attention in Oceanography class sophomore year…

Walking back along the sea wall, I appreciated the occasional sea breeze that would rush in through an opening.  Under the oppressive sun, it wasn’t so hard to imagine how suffocating the city must have been when the Holy Family arrived.


Today, I was talking to someone about journaling.  “It’s easy to keep up a daily journal when you’re in a new place, a new situation,” I said, “but once you get into a routine, it’s harder to find something to write. ‘Today I did the same as yesterday.'”  She contemplated, and said, “That’s an interesting question–how to make every day special?”

I don’t know that every day can be special–special cannot be the norm, can it?–but I try to appreciate the small experiences of each day, whether that means a lizard rescue (this one escaped but left behind his tail), a scoop of cardamom ice cream, fuchsia bougainvillea arching overhead, or the haunting song of my Peruvian friend, intoning in Arabic as she wipes down the banisters of a staircase I happen to enter.

Not every day will find me praying at the seaside, but there will always be windows in the wall offering fresh breezes.

Steppin’ out

I’m walking home on Hana Senech, one of the few streets here that’s fairly level. Sometimes I like to walk home in the evening, when the sun’s rays are getting lower and the air could be described as “balmy.” (Nevertheless, about five minutes into the uphill hike, I’ve usually sweated through my dress clothes, losing whatever veneer of dignity business formal endows. Some of my more hardy coworkers walk to work in the steamy morning; I couldn’t help but feel a secret camaraderie with one such colleague who came in with epaulets of sweat on his shirt from his backpack.) Usually my eyes are trained on the sidewalk, which offers the pedestrian an array of potholes, bumps, and urban detritus. But today, I’m examining the neighborhood. In my area, tall, pale apartment buildings tower like desert palms. There doesn’t seem to be much else besides flat upon flat upon flat (I’m still getting used to the British lingo used over here). The city is maxed out, every inch of level earth developed, paved and built up. For my Wisconsin readers, Haifa and Madison have about the same population, but Haifa occupies less than a third of the space that Madison does. The tightness of everything makes me miss the suburbs, the big yards and wide streets of Midwestern sprawl. Hey, I’ve never been a city girl.

While most of my life here occurs either in my office or my flat, I do occasionally step out.

A few days ago, I visited the House of ‘Abdu’lláh Páshá in Akko. I was there on pilgrimage seven years ago, but my memory of it had eroded to the striking geometry of the staircase. Long before Led Zeppelin, early pilgrims talked of these steps as the stairway to heaven, for at the top would be ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.


Today’s pilgrims walk up that same staircase to the rooms occupied by the Holy Family over a century ago. It is said that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá could watch the progress on the mausoleum of the Báb from this house, and indeed, looking out a window I could faintly see the golden dome across the bay, suspended like a medallion on a ribbon of green, the terraces.

After the visit, I followed some acquaintances into Old Akko. I know in olden times this was a dreaded prison city, but for my touristic sensibilities, this district’s dusty stone archways and minarets seemed romantic, like the backdrop for an orientalist painting by Gerome.  We passed one bazaar and entered another where belly dancing skirts hung above fresh fish.




At the end of the day, I’m still an incurable homebody. There’s no excursion better than arriving on floor 13 and entering that bit of territory I can call my own.