Back to school

I have now been in State College for a few weeks. The first week was a whirl of getting the apartment stocked and shopping for furniture. I also ventured onto campus for the first time; my previous tour had been a virtual one online while I was in Israel. Penn State’s campus forms a large rectangle; at its south end is the downtown. Campus has two major attractions: Old Main and the Nittany Lion Shrine. The Shrine is apparently the second most photographed place in Pennsylvania, after the Liberty Bell. I have yet to pay homage to the Nittany Lion, but I have nearly circumambulated Old Main, which is a handsome replica of the university’s first building. A lawn stretches from Old Main to downtown, and I found that a flock of ducks likes to dawdle on the very edge of campus, near people waiting at the bus stop. (One day I was sitting at the bus stop and a lame duck—yes, a literal lame duck, not a congressperson—was quacking behind me. I wish I had a crutch to give it, but I’m no doctor, just a quack.) I would add a third attraction, which is the popular Berkey Creamery, serving locally produced ice cream and dairy products.

Week two was orientation, which involved the fearful task of meeting new people and trying to make friends. I did try to push myself in that regard. I have attended a grand total of four grad events requiring mingling, at which I’ve been able to show off both my lack of mingling prowess and my teetotalism. The first event was bowling night. It had probably been over a decade since I last stepped foot in a bowling alley. While I remembered the important aspects of the game—pick up ball, release ball, knock down pins—putting it into practice proved difficult. I was invited to join a team (alas, unfortunate team to recruit me). On my first few turns I managed to knock down nothing besides my self-esteem, but eventually, by developing my own method of tossing the ball, I managed to knock down a decent number. I think I might have even gotten a spare! While initially, I was thinking that it was unfortunate for the older grad students’ first impression of me to be my terrible hand-eye coordination, I realized the next evening that bowling had given me the opportunity to engage in short conversations with fellow bowlers with the option of watching the action when we reached a lull.

At dinner the next evening, there were no distractions. People broke into groups, impenetrable to a shy person, so I found myself frequently pouring myself cups of Coke to look like I was occupied. And I missed out on an apparently popular conversation topic sparked by the presence of lots of bottles of wine and beer, namely, alcohol. One acquaintance asked me what drink I would recommend…well, soda, of course. I have made one friend in the program thus far, and afterward, she told me I look very elegant even when standing alone awkwardly. (She didn’t say “awkwardly,” but it’s the truth.)

As an act of divine mercy, I was struck with a cold that weekend, which excused me from yet another mingling event, a party involving pizza and…a keg. The invitation said to bring your own drink if you didn’t want beer, and so I had anxious visions of myself clinging to my water bottle and hiding in a corner, the only sober partygoer. Instead, I had a quiet evening alone with my box of tissues.

This weekend, I again confronted my distaste for alcohol-centered events. My friend invited me to join the cohort (the group of first-year English MA students, of which there are seventeen) at a bar—we could get soda. And soda we did get, ginger ale in fact, in a very noisy bar where I could only hear the person next to me speak. My friend, who is from Taiwan, asked why people in America enjoy going to bars. “You are asking the wrong person!” I replied.

Finally, I attended a gathering of English MA students. This involved a brief bout of horseshoe throwing (before I gave up) and several hours of attempted mingling. Also, I made the mistake of assuming dinner would be ready when I arrived and showing up hungry. It was ready about two hours later, so in the meantime, I dominated a bowl of kale chips that happened to be in front of me.

Besides stabs at socializing with grad students, I have actually started grad school! While Mount Holyoke prepared me well for the academics, I’m still getting used to having all my classes in the three-hour, once per week seminar format, and spacing out the heaps of reading properly. Plus trying to learn Russian on the side in preparation for Cold War 2 (jk, just trying to get in touch with my husband’s roots).

The following is somewhat representative of the transition to life as a commuter grad student. One of my classes runs from 6:30-9:30, so around 5:45, I went to wait for the bus. As I was heading out, I heard some thunder, so I grabbed my umbrella. Then I was waiting by the bus stop…and waiting…the air was growing thick and hazy with the expectation of rain. And then it started to sprinkle. And then the heavens emptied themselves! I ran under a tree with my umbrella, but my legs and feet were immediately soaked, as was my poor backpack. I thought I saw my bus in the distance, but then I looked back, and it was gone. At this point I figured it would be difficult to attend class in my drowned rat condition, so I ran back to my apartment, changed, zipped up my raincoat, ran to my car, tried to figure out the windshield wipers, which I have never used in this car, and then drove downtown through the deluge to a parking garage, from whence I walked to campus as fast as I could. Somehow I made it only about a minute late! I think I disappointed my professor by my timeliness, because I had emailed an apology for being late after my bus fiasco. He actually arrived a few minutes after I did, and when he saw me, he said, “You’re here! I saw your email and I thought ‘good, I won’t be the latest one to class because of the rain.’”

Next time, I shall stick to my word and be late!

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 Festival

Dressed up for the Holy Day commemoration

Dressed up for the Holy Day commemoration

Today is the last day of the Festival of Ridván, a twelve-day celebration commemorating the Declaration of Bahá’u’lláh in 1863. Ridván has given us the gift of some free time with two days off, and we’ve used that time to get re-acquainted with nature.

At Bahjí, we’ve been observing the peculiar behavior of some spur-winged lapwings. These birds are usually goofy and noisy with their long-legged prancing and squeaky squawks, but lately we noticed them acting more settled, sitting still beneath olive trees. We learned that they nest on the ground, so this was their location of choice for raising their new families. The female birds tranquilly incubated while the males squeaked threateningly at other birds that wandered too close, like the oblivious cattle egret whose itinerant grazing aroused the wrath of one ferocious daddy bird. The poor egret clearly just wanted to eat in peace, not to bother anyone’s chicks. After a few weeks, we saw that the baby birds had hatched. While we didn’t get too close so as not to disturb the brood or provoke the father’s sharp-spurred ire, we enjoyed watching the little dots of fuzz bob around their mother on their stilt-like legs and then scoot beneath her. (I don’t have any presentable photos, but I suggest searching “spur-winged lapwing chick” if you want your heart to melt!)

On the first day of Ridván, we headed up the mountain to hike around Carmel Forest. It was my first time visiting on a weekday, and it was beautifully unpeopled. We were practically the only visitors besides a man in an ice cream truck who seemed to have pulled into the park just to take a nap, since the first sign of him that we saw was his bare feet against the windshield.

The wildflowers were in bloom, from the red poppies to white Queen Anne’s Lace to a host of purple, yellow, and pink flowers I can’t name. We spent a pleasant hour hiking the paths of Little Switzerland.

Vibrant wild poppies in Carmel Forest

Vibrant wild poppies in Carmel Forest

Then, last weekend, we went on a stroll to Stella Maris, a promontory with a monastic history overlooking the sea, and discovered that the cable car from there down to the beach was working—a surprise since it was Shabbat. So, in a moment of spontaneity, we bought tickets and hopped aboard an orange bubble that wafted down the steep slope. After a walk along the windy seashore that compelled me to deploy my hood to avoid my hair blowing away, we located the Cave of Elijah (closed due to Shabbat).

We returned up the mountain in the funicular and decided to do a bit more exploring. A few hours earlier, we had seen an acquaintance walk down a path behind a parking lot, so we wanted to see what his destination was. The path led to a picturesque meadow with wild grasses and windblown trees, and further along, a small round white chapel that used to be a windmill.

The picturesque windmill-cum-chapel

The picturesque Holy Family Chapel

What a surprise to discover a wild place in the middle of the city, just a short walk down from the bustle of Stella Maris’s restaurant scene. Standing on the edge of Carmel on a small platform housing a single bench, we stretched out our arms in the strong wind and felt ready to take off.

Springing!

Spring is in the air–quite literally, as birds migrate and trees lift their blossoms.

Tree in bloom at Bahjí

Tree in bloom at Bahjí

Spring has brought both excitement and challenges.

There was, of course, the pre-spring challenge of the Fast. This year, my colleagues upped the ante of “mutual support” during these nineteen days. When we passed through usual morning teatime or entered the afternoon slump, they would dispatch group emails with goading subject lines like “Help yourself!” filled with photos of delicious banquets, caffeinated beverages, and mouthwatering desserts. One colleague, remaining in the office past the usual start of her lunchtime break, explained that she was assembling an email to send later, replete with tempting dishes, now that she had figured out how to insert photos directly into the emails. It was kind of adorable. These emails were always met with sighs from me, and from others, either wistful yearning–“I would choose the marzipan!”–or gentle teasing–“Oh, is this what you’re cooking for us tonight?”

I chose the final day of the Fast, the spring equinox and “new year’s eve” for Bahá’ís, to make that very consequential decision about graduate school–in other words, picking where Sergey and I will settle for the next six years. The journey leading to that decision had taken me from my senior thesis in which I explored the field of composition and rhetoric, through grueling GRE studies and work on the applications…and finally ended rewarding me with acceptance letters and offers. It was a relief for us to finally choose Penn State, where, besides the studying and teaching, I look forward to strolling through autumn leaves hand-in-hand with Sergey and a cup of hot cider.

Pansies after rain

Pansies after rain

On Naw-Rúz, we were invited to dinner with some Ukranian pilgrims. While I was expecting them to be a bit subdued from the chaos their country is undergoing, they surprised me with their joviality, greeting the host and us by bursting into a hearty song. As the sole non-Russophone in attendance, I relied on Sergey to interpret for me throughout the evening. Thankfully, what did not need interpretation was that they liked the German chocolate cake I had made. The funny thing is that several of the women asked if the cake was “from an American concentration.” I started to say no, not entirely understanding their wording, but then realized that yes, the cake was indeed from a box of Betty Crocker cake mix!

***

Several weeks ago, as we were preparing to leave our flat, I sidled up to the window and noticed the sky peppered with birds. These were white storks, returning north from their summer homes in Africa. Israel serves as a crossroads for many species that migrate between Africa and Europe, explaining why for that one weekend, we spotted hundreds of storks silently cruising above us. There was something fascinating about the way they seemed to float as if weightless, holding their long curved wings still, making no sound. Just floating. We saw them again flying over Junayn Garden in Nahariyya, and over Bahjí.

Of course, sometimes the birds come to our offices–or the Arc, actually. The kingfisher has been teasing me by prolonging his poses on statuary in the gardens, seeming to mock me when my phone completely fails to capture his stunning looks. In fact, I’ve become something of a stalker with him. If only my phone came with a mini telephoto lens, then I would have some photos to show you other than the clusters of pixels I’ve managed to gather thus far.

Vision test: can you spot the kingfishers?

Vision test: can you spot the kingfishers? (Hint: on the right, it is above the statue, perched in the tree.)

***

We had a visit to the Ridván Garden a few weeks ago. The scent of orange blossoms, heady and sweet, surrounded us, and we were entranced by the splashing fountain that I’m sure figures in many Bahá’ís’ visions of paradise.

Ridván Garden

Ridván Garden, replete with snapdragons.

The garden’s custodians told a story about how the gardener in the time of Bahá’u’lláh had been horrified to see a plague of locusts descend upon the garden, and ran to Him to ask for help. He replied along the lines of “let the locusts eat, they must have their food too.” I must have absorbed this story into my bloodstream, because by the time our visit ended, I had assembled at least fifteen itchy bites from letting the mosquitoes eat. I looked like I’d developed a sudden bout of chicken pox centered primarily on my right leg. I was rather embarrassed by it and regretted not thinking ahead enough to pack backup stockings. Ah, the pain of vanity!

***

My Christmas cactus is in bloom. It budded around Naw-Rúz and is now bursting with flowers. I’ve been enjoying gazing at it whenever I can–I love the waving arms of the cactus with their petaled, bright hands.

Cactus

PS: This is my 75th post!

Day 3: Boating down the Bosphorus

Turkish women wait at a dock.

Turkish women wait at a dock.

Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia, with the Bosphorus Strait splitting the European side, which has most of the tourist attractions and commerce, from the Asian side, which is largely residential. We decided to devote a day to seeing more of this important strait, which offers the nations around the Black Sea their sole path of entry and exit to the Mediterranean via the Marmara and Aegean Seas—crucial for trade and navies.

We boarded the ferryboat that would take us on a 1.5 hour journey from the old city up the strait, past the bankside sprawl of Istanbul, to a fishing village called Anadolu Kavağı situated near the mouth of the Black Sea. After claiming seats on the topmost level where we could enjoy the warm sun and chilly wind, we peered down into the waters of the inlet, where cormorants plunged into the depths, and impassive, translucent jellyfish wobbled through the water, almost indistinguishable from the plastic debris that floated on the surface. Seagulls silently swooped above us.

I have way too many photos of seagulls!

I have way too many photos of seagulls…

The boat was docked near the bridge across the Golden Horn, over which the tram passes back and forth to the New District. Below the traffic on the lower, pedestrian level of the bridge, there is a row of seafood restaurants. At 10:00 AM their staff were just starting to clean and prepare for a day of customers, and we watched in amusement as they hauled up water from the strait below to swab the decks of their outdoor seating. In that act, I was reminded of how provident the sea and its estuaries are to coastal cities. Little wonder then that successive empires made this area the focus of their empires, surrounded as it is by a natural moat of generous and protective waters.

The bridge looks like it is buoyed by restaurants.

The bridge with its undergirding of restaurants.

After some time, the engine started purring and the boat pulled away from the dock. As we moved along, we followed the tour in our guidebook, spotting such sights as the European wannabe Dolmabahce Palace and its nearby mosque and clocktower, the Rumelian fortress dating from the 15th century, and several towering bridges across the strait, one for city traffic and one for “intercontinental transit.”

Eventually, the crowded urban area thinned out into areas of mansions with tall trees. In one such tree we saw a cormorant worshipping the sun, wings outstretched.

Sunbathing cormorant

Sunbathing cormorant on the bank of the Asian side.

When we would approach the shore to pick up more passengers, flocks of seagulls would attach as if magnetically to our boat and hover around. Perhaps the wake of the boat stirred up small creatures for their lunch, or maybe they hoped we would jettison our own food—in any case, Jasmine encouraged me to get some action shots of these birds. There were, in fact, several species of seagulls, ranging from a long-winged pterodactylesque breed with harsh eyes to a chubbier, smaller variety with the charm of a flying porpoise.

Magnetic seagulls that orbited our boat.

Magnetic seagulls that orbited our boat.

Now that I’ve started on seagulls, I must digress to another scene. Seagulls were not only present above the Bosphorus, but also all over the Sultanahmet. They careened past the eaves of our hotel as we ate breakfast on the enclosed terrace. More hauntingly, one night as we strolled around the park between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, we observed scores of gulls weaving like ghosts above the domes—like moths tethered to lights.

It's hard to see, but the white specks above the dome of the Blue Mosque are seagulls.

The white specks above the dome of the Blue Mosque (which looks like a yellow mosque at night) are seagulls.

Back on the strait, we arrived at the village. As we approached, we noticed two things: the ruins of Yoros Castle, our destination, on the peak of a hill, and the black-and-white clad waiters standing in front of their seafood restaurants flagging us down. As none of us care for seafood, we skipped the daily catch in favor of the village’s other specialty, lokma, which are syrupy balls made of a light dough deep-fried to golden perfection and sprinkled with cinnamon.

Deep-fried deliciousness.

Sticky and sweet deliciousness.

“Mmmm!” was our unanimous reaction to lokma. Yet this treat soon met a tragic end: as we walked away from the bevy of restaurants and hawkers in pursuit of the castle, I flung out my arm to point at a sign saying “Yoros,” just as Sergey was proffering the container of lokma to me. In the ensuing collision, the lokma scattered over the street like sticky marbles. I felt quite crushed by my role in this accident—as crushed as the lokma were soon to become under the tires of passing cars—but luckily, we were still close to the stand and purchased a refill.

Yoros Castle in Andalu Kavagi

The remains of Yoros Castle.

Up the steep hill we hiked, passing by a military zone protected by a high fence, higher and higher until we reached the surprisingly commercialized ruins of the Byzantine castle. We had to pass by another bevy of restaurants to reach our destination. While the castle was admittedly dull since we could not enter (unless we defied the law and scaled its crumbling walls, which some boys did), the summit of the hill did afford a striking view toward the Black Sea.

“Can you see Moldova from here?” I asked Sergey.

We are posing in front of the mouth of the Black Sea. If you look super hard and use your imagination, you can even spot Sergey's hometown of Chisinau (Kishinev)!

We are posing in front of the mouth of the Black Sea. If you look hard and use your imagination even harder, you can spot Sergey’s hometown of Chisinau (Kishinev) behind us!

Soon enough, our time on the Asian side was over, and we re-boarded our boat, which felt tranquil after our return hike through the surprisingly traffic-congested lanes of the village. We chose indoor seats and spent most of the return voyage in a half-stupor.

Maiden's Tower seen on the right.

Maiden’s Tower seen on the right.

Towards the end, though, I decided I had to go to the top so I could finally photograph one of Istanbul’s well known sights, Maiden’s Tower, which sits upon a small island. As we neared the European side, the setting sun set the cityscape aglow, smears of saffron light upon the minarets of countless mosques…and neon light upon the signs of countless seafood eateries.

Cityscape centered on Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Cityscape centered on the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.

Animal Farm

One weekend, Sergey and I were invited to accompany some colleagues to a place called Hamat Gader. This destination boasts stinky hot springs that fill a giant bathing pool. Now, marinating myself along with flocks of sweaty strangers is not my usual cup of tea, but we figured this was a good chance to see some of the Galilee region.

We were right. The winter rains had turned the hills and valleys of Galilee a vibrant green, shining like an emerald in the morning light. En route to our destination, we stopped at the most scenic gas station I’ve encountered. The station overlooked a field where cows grazed peacefully beside white cattle egrets. Occasionally this pastoral scene was interrupted by groups of bikers who zoomed down a path through the field, startling the cattle.

Cows and bikers

Back on the road, after driving along the border with Jordan, we arrived at Hamat Gader. Sergey and I set off to explore the flora and fauna of the park. We found the predecessor of today’s pool, the ruin of a Roman bath.

Roman bath

After documenting the ancient bath, I was distracted by a flock of birds: white-spectacled bulbuls twittering upon some trees near the ruin. Beyond them, I could just make out the shape of a mysterious green parrot, gazing impassively into the surrounding hills.

Bulbul

Then came the unmelodic squawk of an itinerant peacock. We gave chase. Above the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, we stalked him in pursuit of the perfect photo. He was not particularly interested, and gave us a final look of disdain before disappearing over the crest of the hill.

Peacock

After our nature experience, we had a decidedly unnatural visit to the park’s “zoo,” which seemed more like a hapless mess of cramped terrariums and odd combinations of chickens and gazelles. Actually, perhaps that mysterious green parrot I saw was an escapee of the zoo’s tacky attraction, a parrot show. Sergey and I sat among hordes of tired parrots—I mean parents—and their shrieking children to watch parrots, macaws, and cockatiels perform tricks like pedaling a bicycle across a tightrope.

And a parrot biking across a tightrope.

But the weirdest part was yet to come: the Alligator Farm. The farm consists of a series of enclosures tightly packed with alligators, crocodiles, caimans, and, strangest of all, gharials.

Pretty guy

These thin-snouted creatures look like something out of Dr. Seuss (especially the males, which sport a “sexy” bulb on the tip of their noses), but actually, they come from India, where they are extremely endangered. While at first their slender jaws seem like an evolutionary mistake, apparently the shape enables them to effectively hunt fish, and even to stun them with underwater jaw claps.

Rivaling the crocodilians in strangeness were our fellow visitors, who, clothed in bathrobes and flip-flops, apparently had emerged from the hot pool to cool down by strolling through the farm. I wonder what the crocs think of these oddly clad bipeds. Would he look good as a handbag?

Bathrobes

Soaking in the pool was…sulfuric. I was disappointed that afterwards my skin failed to sprout yellow crystals. What I will remember from this day are these comical snapshots of human-animal coexistence: spandexed bikers shepherding cows aside, and pink-skinned bathers walking between some of Earth’s oldest predators.

The tamarins of Tel Aviv

Rhea!

Blue sky, warm sun.  The burbling hum of hundreds of excited children, the pungent musk of animals.

This is the second zoo I’ve been to in Israel.  The other is in Haifa.  My clearest memory of it is the single honey badger pacing furiously in its small enclosure, swinging its head back and forth, all in an eternal oscillating search for an exit.  Oh, and the hobo kittens living with the otters.  Then there were the pop songs pumping over speakers, because apparently listening to the sounds of the animals would be much too boring for zoo patrons.  Needless to say, I wasn’t overly impressed, and I left feeling guilty about all those trapped creatures.

The Tel Aviv zoo, Ramat Gan Safari, however, provided a far happier vista.  It boasts the largest collection of animals in the Middle East, a Noah’s ark in the midst of an urban sea.

To enter the zoo, we first drove through an expansive park where herds of African savannah animals roam–zebras, antelopes, elands, wildebeest, scimitar horned oryx, hippos, and rhinos, among others, including the greedy ostriches that poked their bald heads toward the drivers’ windows of the passing cars.  It was pretty neat to watch a whole herd of hippopotami nap standing up like boulders in the sun.

Sleeping in, hippo style

Sleeping in, hippo style

The most impressive scene was, of course, the lions, which played, stalking and ambushing each other, even leaping over one another, in an exhilarating game of big cat tag.

Within the zoo, the most striking exhibit was Israeli family life.  The paths were flooded with children and their parents to the point that I was concerned about moving too fast for fear of accidentally trampling a toddler.  Then there were the frequent stroller traffic jams.  I felt a bit out of place without a child, or at least a stroller, in tow.

The kids...haha, pun!

The kids…haha, pun!

Besides the impressive collection of homo sapiens cubs, there were the monkeys–so many primates!  Tamarins, baboons, capuchins, orangutans, gorillas, lemurs, colobus, monkey A, monkey B, monkey see, monkey do…  One orangutan sat still on the edge of his enclosure’s moat with a hand outstretched as if waiting for a long overdue gift.  On the whole, they were better behaved than the children.

Hand it over…

It was an apt time for me to visit a zoo, having finally finished an excellent book my mom recommended to me years ago called The Zookeeper’s Wife.  The prose in this vividly written history was so delicious, I wanted to slurp it up.  The story, on the other hand, is one of sorrow and struggle, as it follows the true story of a zookeeping couple in Warsaw through World War II as they survive the destruction of their city at the hands of the Nazis and help to hide Jews on the grounds of their zoo.  I shan’t say more, because you should really just read it yourself, but Diane Ackermann’s painstaking research introduced me to the complex politics of zoos.  For instance, even this Ramat Gan Safari has some involvement in the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.  After a Palestinian zoo in the West Bank, Kalkilya Zoo, lost three of its zebras to violence, Safari gave it several animals in a gesture of peacemaking.  Animals are not spared in war, but their return can, it seems, help to rejuvenate a nation.

The Birds of Bahjí

Speaking of birds, here’s a poem I wrote last month.

Gardens at Bahjí

I want to know all your names
for if I can pin your species
maybe I’ll evolve wings like you
to ascend on this sacred air.
 
Some I know:
the crows who skulk and swoop heavily
the gilt peacocks and stone eagles
            perched steadfastly
the parrots, the hummingbirds,
and a Nightingale—
                        this is Paradise—
 
But you long-legged careless ones
that squawk and hop across the lawn
and you, bird of prey, dagger eyes.
            You have to be a peregrine falcon,
            A pilgrim like me.
 
Give me all your names,
            you birds of Bahjí,
            and let me collect your brilliant feathers
            here, in the kingdom of my heart.

When birds need passports

When I walk across the arc around 6:00, there are dozens of crows feeding on the pristine lawns.  One friend compared this daily descent to a scene from The Birds.  So far, though, these birds don’t seem as bent on world domination as Hitchcock’s were.   I watch one sip from an irrigation pipe, and another carry a piece of gravel in his beak.  I wanted to see what he was going to do with it, but then I got self-conscious about my very public birdwatching and continued on my way.

Animals are a frequent subject in break time conversation.  That, and food.  (Recent topics: the healthiness of peanut butter, the popularity of Nutella in the US, and how the effects of eating pomegranate vary by your blood type.)   But let’s stick with animals.

The other day, one of my colleagues was telling us about a talk ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave in California to the Materialists Club.  According to the dictionary, the philosophy of materialism holds that “nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.”  Or, that “consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency.”  Basically, to my understanding, it denies spirituality.  So, ‘Abdu’l-Baha joked with these materialists that while they had spent decades thinking and studying and researching to arrive at the conclusion that there’s only a material world, cows know this from birth.  To paraphrase, “The cow is superior!”  He recommended that a cow be brought to give the club a lecture. The audience roared with laughter.

Then the break time conversation turned to birds and the freedom they represent.  While human mobility is limited by national borders and natural boundaries, birds can transcend that all.

Or can they?  I had to be a contrarian on this point and relate a story I heard from an Israeli zoologist, Avinoam Lourie, when he gave a talk in Madison.  There has been an effort to reintroduce vultures into the wild in Israel.  The challenges to this project abound.  For instance, farmers will lace the carcasses of livestock with poison to kill the predators that attack their flocks.  Vultures, as they eat carrion, find these carcasses, consume this poison, and die.  The zoologists track these birds with little computers strapped to their bodies.  Now, as has been pointed out, birds don’t respect national borders, and these vultures have a habit of exiting Israel and entering neighboring countries.  I don’t have to tell you about the less than friendly relationship between Israel and its neighbors.

So, some vultures, winging their way into diplomatic history, flew into Lebanon, where their suspicious-looking tracking devices were spotted.  The Lebanese assumed these birds were spies for Israel, taking aerial footage, and shot them down.

So do we smuggle ourselves through customs, or what?

“So do we smuggle ourselves through customs, or what?”

 

It’s a reminder of how pervasive our system of borders has become.  The walls, the security forces, the bureaucratic obstacle course to crossing–well, don’t get me started.  But someday–yes, someday, vultures won’t need passports to take a trip north, and bovines will earn tenure in philosophy departments.

A whirr of iridescence

You know, that last post was supposed to be about the dinner I attended this week.  Perhaps you’ve noticed my writing strategy: I start with an anecdote, then transition to my bigger point.  The formula I’ve advocated to many applicants to grad programs in the humanities struggling to hack out a personal statement, in fact.  Occasionally, however, that anecdote drives me to distraction.  (Hm, I wonder if I could take a sherut there?)

Here goes.  After lunch, I step out of the building into the bright heat of noontime, and spot a glimmer before me.  It’s a whirr of iridescence: a hummingbird, purple and green, dipping its beak, then settling on a branch only to ascend once again, frenetic, gorgeous.  If I had my camera, I would have stood there snapping away like I did upon finding a veritable flock of colibrís on Cerro Santa Lucia in Santiago.

But I don’t, so I just stop and stare.  It’s just the two of us for this moment.  Then a group comes out behind me, loud and gregarious.  I start, then depart.  I can hear them exclaiming at the hummingbird–oh, look!–and also wishing they had their cameras.

This may come as a shock to you, but I’m not much of a socialite.  Put me in a room where I’m expected to mingle with a bunch of acquaintances and strangers, and I will keep an eye fixed on the nearest exit.  Even slightly formal dinner gatherings pose a series of challenges, particularly the threat of mistakenly feeding my lap instead of my mouth.

But even I couldn’t help but get a little excited at an invitation to dine with a large group of colleagues.

So, after descending the terrace stairs down to Ben Gurion street (which perturbed my leg muscles, making them tremble in protest), with a sheen of perspiration over the makeup I’d applied eleven hours earlier, I found myself in a tastefully appointed flat in the company of about thirty coworkers.

After we finished eating with plates delicately balanced upon our knees (I am proud to say that the only food that escaped me was a shred of spinach that jumped onto my foot), it was proposed that we go around and introduce ourselves, and say how our position contributed to our common mission of preservation.

I listened to the professional, expansive responses of a few veteran staff members, racking my brain as to how to shape my sundry jobs into a coherent statement. I came up with a simple response, and several days later, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly it is I do!