The whistlepig and the hermit

Ah, beautiful autumn palette!

Ah, beautiful autumn palette!

Every time I emerge from my hermitage, wan and disoriented from hours and days of reading and writing for my seminars, I find my neighborhood increasingly colorful. Fall in central Pennsylvania has turned the landscape into a moving painting in hues of red, yellow, orange, and brown–sometimes all those colors in a single leaf. Along with the leaves that come pinwheeling down, glinting like gold, seedpods and acorns plummet earthward. The squirrels grow increasingly squirrelly; whenever I cross paths with one, it glares at me accusatively, as if I had demanded it relinquish a precious acorn.

Even the groundhogs are active, their lumpen brown bodies reminding me of the hyraxes I saw in northern Israel. I spotted one foraging in the vacant field next to my apartment complex, visible as a bump in the grass in the above photo. While it didn’t seem to notice when I watched it trundling around, once I brought my camera, it proved to be shy and headed for cover. I looked up “groundhog” and found that besides the synonym woodchuck, they are also called whistlepigs, which is a pretty great name.

And he lollops off toward cover.

The camera-shy whistlepig lollops toward cover.

My classes have been intellectually stimulating, but in terms of emotional sustenance in these lonesome Sergeyless months, I have been blessed with several visitors. First, Deanna, my friend and former flatmate, and her sister, Debby, made the long road trip to State College. We explored the area together, from downtown and campus, to a lake-filled cave. On campus, we paid a visit to the Palmer Art Museum, which has a diverse collection of paintings and sculptures. I was especially tickled by an ancient Chinese camel statue that appears to have ferocious fangs–perhaps China was plagued by vampire camels in olden times? Outside of State College, we drove through the bucolic countryside to Penn’s Cave, where we took a boat tour of the cavern, replete with your usual cave décor–stalagmites, stalactites, flows, drippings, exhaust fumes, etc. Since I’m a poor swimmer, I was nervous about sitting trapped underground in a boat weighted down by a score of other people. The guide pointed out the lifesaver and assured us she had never needed to use it. Because of the dark, the water looked bottomless. I had a mini panic attack when I thought the guide said it was 30-60 feet deep–that’s a long way to sink!–but then realized she said inches. Ok, I could handle wading if we capsized.

Spelunking around.

Spelunking around.

About a month later, Jasmine came to visit, inspiring me to once again depart my desk and explore the area. Unfortunately, early October unleashed its worst possible weather upon her arrival, with the entire weekend dismally wet and cold. But we didn’t let that keep us confined–no, we decided to climb Mount Nittany in the drizzle. Mount Nittany seems to have a similar relationship with Penn State as Mount Holyoke does with Mount Holyoke College, although as far as I’m aware, there is no Mountain Day at Penn State when classes are cancelled and students climb the mountain to eat ice cream at the peak. Oh well, not all universities can sound like fairy tales! What I meant to be a brief hike turned into a several hour long sojourn on the mountain thanks to a wrong turn. On the descent, over rather slippery, sharp rocks, I finally did capsize, but righted myself with Jasmine’s assistance. We were filled with relief to return to the car.

One of our discoveries on Mount Nittany: a slug moth larva, resplendently leaf-like. Someday it will metamorphose into a rather boring moth. Photo credit: Jasmine

One of our discoveries on Mount Nittany: a slug moth larva, resplendently leaf-like. Someday it will metamorphose into a rather boring moth. Photo credit: Jasmine.

After a day of recovery, we went on a jaunt to historical Bellefonte, which boasts a variety of Victorian buildings, some dilapidated, looking ready to serve as haunted houses for Halloween, others sprightly and brightly painted. From the small downtown, we walked to the central park, which is charmingly duck-infested. Somewhere around there, a historical railroad operates a few times a year, providing a quaint ride through the colorful hills in fall–on my Centre County bucket list for sure. We continued our wandering, down streets lined with big Victorians and old trees, and then we went for a literal Sunday drive through the picturesque hills, near little towns with names like Snowshoe and Yarnell, and past lanes like Swamp Poodle Road. I kid you not! In some places, we drove above valleys where mist hung, a romantic Pennsylvanian panorama.

Well, it is time for me to hit the books again, or more precisely, to let the books hit me. Next time you hear from me, I’ll probably have grown a long beard and found a gnarled walking stick, real hermit style.

Sluggish ekphrasis

Recently, Sergey and I visited the Tikotin Museum, which is quite possibly the only Japanese art museum in Israel. We were practically the only visitors and enjoyed having the place to ourselves, from Zen ink paintings to netsuke to imaginative woodblock prints.

Speaking of Zen ink painting, the concept is to not plan out the painting–to let it come naturally, to accomplish it with just a few quick strokes of the brush. In high school painting class, we were supposed to make this kind of painting. Just a brush, ink, and a single paper board–no sketching. I recall I was dissatisfied with my first painting of birds lined up on a branch and did a second one as well, defeating the Zen point. Oh well.

In any event, the Zen paintings at the museum ranged from scribbles and blobs to fully formed scenes involved cheerful little gods and skinny monks. But one struck my fancy (hehe, fancy) in particular, and it inspired the following ekphrastic poem.

Slug fan

 

A gray slug pulls its sticky trail

across the undulating folds:

an ink painting on paper fan.

 

What fingers waved this fan?

 

Did a courtesan twirl it

to cool her swan neck,

painted white to the nape?

 

Or a Zen monk under the red sun

oxygenating his contemplation

of the non-essence (the nonsense)

that flows through the universe?

 

Or a ruddy, readied warrior

bristling with weapons like a sea urchin

prepared to impale whatever soggy ghosts

emerge from the lace-winged waves?

 

Or a virtuous woman

idling upon her coastal balcony

and swatting the mosquitoes from the air

as she waits patiently for her warrior to return?

 

What floating world

was stirred by the delicate indelicacy

of a slug-painted fan?

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!

The carnivore

I just killed a fly.

See, with insects and really all creatures, I usually follow an ideology close to the Jain tenet of non-violence.  I remember hearing about how Jain priests sweep the ground in front of them as they walk so they won’t harm any little animals in the dirt.  Ok, so I’m probably guilty of accidentally crushing a few ants as I walk, but there was a time when I couldn’t even bring myself to slap the mosquito indulging in my O-negative.

Those days are over.  I grab a pack of baby wipes, which is the best flyswatter I can locate in our kitchen, and smack that fly hard.  The fly gives up the ghost and falls into a pan soaking in the sink.  After staring at the floating corpse and muttering “ew” repeatedly, I fish it out and dispose of it sans eulogy.  I’m just not cool cohabiting with flies.  Besides their dirty little feet, I’ve heard too many horror stories here about maggots found growing in jars of Nutella.  The Haifa climate is a great nursery for all sorts of bug babies.

This willingness to murder flies must be connected to my recent forays into the world of meat.  While I’m not a vegetarian, I usually eat meat only a few times a week, and almost never beef.  I read Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats when I was eighteen, and that turned me off to the meat industry.

Plus, I’ve been warned about the chicken here, which reportedly has preternatural powers to expand one’s waistline.  “Stay away from the chicken,” they say.  “My sister came here, and she gained 25 kilos in a year.  It was the chicken.”  Apparently Israel pumps their birds full of hormones.  I shrug, a little insulted that Israel is trying to outdo the States in unethical meat practices.

Love handles?

Love handles?

Yet chicken is the only raw meat I’ve brought myself to cook.  I’m still terrified I’ll poison whoever I’m feeding by thawing or cooking it wrong.  Honestly, I don’t think I’d ever fully observed chicken being cooked before I attended an Indian cooking class here.

Now I find myself preparing  butter chicken for eight guests, wondering if eight departments will find themselves one staff member short tomorrow morning.

Butter chicken

 

Please note that not only did the chicken turn out to be non-poisonous but also delicious.  Can you see the almost-tadik on the right side?

Maybe I should learn to cook tofu–or better yet, seitan.  I like seitan, I think, despite it consisting of “high protein wheat gluten,” which sounds like “nutritional yeast” and other weird vegan products I’m not alt enough to touch.  The word is Japanese, and I don’t really know how to pronounce it, so I call it “satan.”   As in, “I bought satan today.  I put satan in the freezer, and later, I will cook satan.  Have you tried satan before?”  Well, have you?

Office star

Dear rock stars of the world,

While you might feel pretty cool shredding your guitars onstage, I’m rocking out admin style, shredding these papers…like Jagger?

Love,

Layli

Actually, when it comes to office tasks, I’m anything but a star.  A simple trip to the shredder reminds me that while my Mount Holyoke BA covered everything from the epidemiological paradox to sestinas, it failed to educate me on the finer points of office supplies.  So I find myself once again repeatedly jamming the shredder with an overload of documents.  The shredder chokes for the fifth time in the past four minutes.

I kneel down and tell it, “Hey, you should know I’m not such a dunce–I graduated summa cum laude, alright?”

The shredder considers, wondering how my fancy diploma would taste, and how it would look digested into strips of Latin.

A colleague asked me how I was doing with my new duties.  I hesitated, considering how much time I had spent struggling to fix a stapler or to coerce the photocopier into submitting to my will.  (It won.)  Or how difficult it had been to find that room where according to legend there would be stacks and stacks of bond paper.  After wandering around one building, asking everyone I encountered about “the room with lots of paper,” I found one sympathetic soul who joined me for my quest.  Up the elevator, down the stairs, I got my first thorough tour of this building.  It was an actual paper chase.

Does anyone know where I can find the big boxes of bond paper?

“Enough with this Socratic nonsense.  Does anyone here know where I can get ten reams of bond paper?”

There are these simple tasks that aren’t so simple for a newbie.  And then there are the bug traps–or, as Catchmaster calls them, “adhesive pest control products”–and the unfortunate lizards that stroll inside.  I saved that first one, yes, and a few more.  One of them I only partially saved, as in his eagerness to escape me, he abandoned his tail, which flailed around on the ground in front of me until I tossed it into the bushes.  But there are those tragedies when I’m too late.  Or the ancient bug traps I’ve found when I explore the creepier passages of my building, that were set out years ago and have been collecting diverse little bodies since.  I enacted the story of Pandora’s box with one such trap.  I just had to know its contents, so I unfolded the box cautiously and found a desiccated gecko and what I swear was a fossilized tarantula.  Shiver.

Oh, Pandora...

Oh, Pandora…

But these brushes with kingdom animalia have endowed me with a certain prestige in the office.  One day I was doing something administrative, possibly wrestling with some staples, when I heard a cry for help: “Is anyone here not afraid of lizards?”  Already excited, I stood up: “I’m not!”  My colleague led me into the ladies’ washroom where a tiny lizard was hiding behind the toilet.  I got down on the floor and after a little graceless scrambling around caught it by its tail and, cradling it in my palm, took it out to the garden to release it.  When I returned, the women I had rescued greeted me as a hero.  Literally, “You’re so brave!  You’re our hero!”

Really, folks, it’s nothing.  All in a day’s work.

Oily lizard

One of my tasks is checking bug traps to assess the building’s number of silverfish, which eat anything with protein, including the glue used in book bindings and paper sizing. On my patrol, I discovered creatures of the six- and eight-legged varieties and one (four-legged) lizard.

That’s right, a small lizard, stuck in the peanut butter scented glue.

At first I took the poor fellow for dead. Every part of him was stuck fast, his little fingers splayed at odd angles. But then I noticed a flickering at his abdomen. Breathing! He was still alive!

I rushed to grab the cooking oil that my predecessor had showed me, labeled “for rescuing lizards.” Outside, I doused him, then carefully pulled up his tail–he started wriggling–then his head, and those delicate digits. Finally, after a second oil-dousing, he was free. I caught the dazed creature and carried him into the shade underneath a bush.

And that is how I accidentally fulfilled my goal of catching a lizard.

Lost in translation

The world is governed by competing forces. There is the force of construction and there is the force of destruction. And then there is the force of confusion.

I. Constructive force

Annie is lying unconscious on the ground, and I’m supposed to revive her. First I call her name, then I squeeze her shoulders. No response. I unfasten her shirt and start chest compressions, counting to thirty. Then it is time for the breath. I pause from my frantic work to unwrap my mouth shield. Once secured over Annie’s inert features, I tilt her head back to extend her windpipe, hold her nostrils shut, and breathe. Nothing happens. Adjustments are made. I’m not squeezing the nose properly. I try again; still her lungs fail to fill with my air. I blow harder. Nope. I tilt her head back more, surprised at the flexibility of her vertebrae. Finally her chest rises, once, twice.

This is my first CPR training, and although both the dummies and the instructors are admirably patient with me, I can’t help but think that multiple redo’s would be less than desirable with a real victim. I picture myself pausing in the midst of a rescue to try to remember the mnemonic, DR CAB, or asking  Annie to just hang on, I’ll get the breaths right this time around.

Maybe someday I will be in a position to save someone’s life. I hope not.

2. Destructive force

Do you remember the gentle animal lover who has been making posts on this blog? She’s gone.

The transformation happened on the third day that, while standing shod in my flip-flops at the kitchen sink, I felt a tickle pass over my toe. Then another. Ants were once again exploring my feet, and they were also mapping the entire kitchen floor. Now, I have allowed all sorts of bugs to crawl on me. I remember one summer day, reclining on the swing in the backyard, I watched with fascination as a honeybee landed on my elevated foot and wove its body between my toes, perhaps assessing the crevices’ resemblance to a honeycomb. Then I went inside and wrote a poem about it. Spiders, roly-polys, gnats, ladybugs, lightning bugs, the rare butterfly–all have been my playmates. Darwin practiced entomology as a hobby, and I like to think that I do too.

Yet I find myself spraying some K1000 poison onto these ants, feeling little remorse. The ants are discomfited by the chemical shower, but generally scatter and survive. It’s the wrong kind of poison, of course, but the intention was there, and I will not be thwarted. I sweep, then I mop with a cleaning fluid that supposedly kills cockroaches. I am hoping it also works for ants.

That former animal lover is still here, don’t worry. I observe a pigeon outside the window and coo at it in the way Dianne showed me. It cocks its head. I coo again, then set some chunks of stale bread on the windowsill, an offering to the animal kingdom at large.

3. Confustive farce

Maybe I have that disorder Chuck Close has where he can’t recognize people’s faces. Except unlike him, I haven’t been making any brilliant art lately. I found out that I’ve been calling one coworker by the wrong name for a week now. I was calling him Jamal…perhaps he simply dismissed my mistake as a flattering nickname, as Jamal means beauty. In any case, he didn’t correct me. Yesterday I encountered an acquaintance on the staircase, smiled at him, and said, “Hey Jake.” Except it wasn’t Jake; it was a stranger who bemusedly smiled back. At least I’ve gotten assertive when it comes to my own name. No longer will I accept “Layla,” “Lali,” or other variations. My soft (mumbly) voice makes things difficult, though–upon first introduction, I become Haile or most recently Nelly, anglicized beyond repair.

Then, once introductions are past, there is the actual conversation. The wonderful diversity at the World Center means that English is spoken with every imaginable accent. In theory, I believe that responsibility for communication lies with both the (nonnative English) speaker and the (native English) listener. The latter needs to learn to recognize unfamiliar inflections and pronunciations and understand nonstandard constructions, just as the former learns the new language. In practice, I’m decent at understanding most accents, but add in a noisy background or multiple speakers, and I become an echo: What? Sorry, what? What?

It’s lunchtime, and this guy is telling me about some upcoming plans to go to the American consulate. I’m not entirely sure what happens at a consulate…maybe passports? Consuling? I ask him why he’s going, but don’t understand his answer. “So, where is the consulate?” “It’s in Tel Aviv,” he says. Eventually I discover that he’s going to “a metal concert,” where I’m sure he’ll get his passport issue worked out.

Even my friend the written word poses problems. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m surrounded by two alphabets I can’t read, Hebrew and Farsi. So I joined a Farsi class as a latecomer. I studied a few letters on my own beforehand. After the other students had settled in, I realized they spoke at least basic Farsi. It would seem the teacher took me as a charity case into a class intended to teach Farsi speakers how to write. As I struggled to sound out words, my head felt a little cold, like it wanted a dunce cap. I needed to remind myself that it had been many years since I had last learned a new alphabet (the English one), and that was back when my brain was young and agile. So please, if you say anything in Farsi, don’t be surprised when I respond invariably with “Esme man Layli ast” (My name is Layli).

Baklava & Coffee

Synagogue

If I were to make a soundtrack for Haifa, it would include the Muslim call to prayer and the Jewish songs that spill through the windows of the apartment. There is a synagogue that I can see from the living room. Adherents in long black robes and big furry black caps come in and out. Yesterday it broadcast a soulful choral song, presumably during the Shabbat service. While I cannot understand the words to either the call to prayer or the Jewish music, it’s pretty special that people here observe their religion so audibly. Although the Bahá’ís don’t sing prayers over loudspeakers, I think the Shrine and gardens play a comparable role as a visible, artistic manifestation of our faith.

My orientation group took a walking tour of Haifa yesterday. We walked from the Bahá’í property down to the German colony, the old pilgrim houses, the resting place of Ruhiyyih Khanum, the House of the Master, and then to Wadi Nisnas, the Hadar, and Carmel Center. These districts offer distinct shopping experiences, with the Hadar and Carmel Center offering a more typically Western experience with stores resembling Forever 21 and restaurants like McDonalds, whereas Wadi Nisnas boasts the limestone architecture and colorful marketplace of Old Haifa. This is where the Arab Christian community lives.

IMG_1177

I enjoyed walking down the narrow streets of Wadi Nisnas, looking at the rainbow of fresh produce. There is a bakery that sells mountains of baklava in every imaginable shape. I couldn’t resist buying a box—anyone want to help me eat it? I also invested in some Arabic coffee, which is brewed on the stovetop. It smells delicious, with bits of cardamom sprinkled around the fine powder.

Food

True to form, I must write a little about the wildlife of the city. Yesterday I made a new friend: a teeny yet burly yellow jumping spider who sat politely on my laptop for half an hour. I swear he was watching my screen, reading an online article along with me. Or maybe he mistook my cursor for a yummy ant.

Orientation

There is a single ant running in circles between my arms right now. No wait, he’s crazily scrambling across my keyboard…now exploring my power cord… A small contingent of ants recently left the kitchen to reconnoiter my room. Maybe this one is monitoring my computer habits.

Orientation is nearly over. I’m not sure that I can call myself oriented, at least in the geographical sense, considering that today as the bus sped down an unfamiliar street I assured my friends that this was merely a shortcut (it was not). For that matter, I got lost yesterday too when I went on a mission to see the Shrine of the Báb at sunset. Thank goodness for my map.

IMG_1151

(It was totally worth getting lost! And we spotted a jackal going down a staircase in the gardens, so cool! I have yet to see the wild boars that apparently roam around…)

There are now two ants scurrying across my laptop. Time to invest in some traps.

I had lunch with my supervisor today, and afterwards got a glimpse at the office where I’ll work. There it was–my desk, resplendent, in a room with windows! I can’t wait to decorate it with paperclip necklaces and pictures of my kids…or whatever adults usually do.