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?

Day 2: Time travel

Buskers on Istiklal Street playing percussion, something like a sitar, and of course a didgeridoo.

Dreadlocked buskers on Istiklal Street playing percussion, something like a sitar, and of course some didgeridoos

From the ancient buildings of the Sultanahmet area, we traveled across the inlet called the Golden Horn to the so-called New District. If you recall the protests that rocked Turkey a few years ago, you probably remember that Taksim Square was the site of demonstrations and police crackdowns. That square is at the end of Istiklal Street, where we took our tour of modern Istanbul.

Not actually taken on Istiklal Street, but this is a fair representation of its crowdedness.

Not actually taken on Istiklal Street, but this is a fair representation of its crowdedness.

Looking down Istiklal Street from the comparatively quiet square, we saw a river of people. This river only grew denser as the day progressed, reaching flooding point after dark. Occasionally, a trolley would part the crowd, but usually pedestrians packed the entire street. Clearly, Istiklal Street is the place to be on a Saturday. With the exception of a sartorial detour to a silk shop where I ended up with a green shawl, our walk primarily gravitated toward sweet shops, including Haci Bekir, which has apparently been in business for as long as the US has been a nation. There, we sampled pastries and stocked up on mini pizzas and, more importantly, Turkish delight.

Now, I haven’t always harbored much love for this cubic dessert, which has a chewy, gummy texture and traditionally features double-roasted pistachios. But there ain’t nothing like the real thing, and the stuff we get stateside is a mere shadow of actual Turkish Turkish delight, which the Turks call “lokum.”

Choosing lokum at the renowned Haci Bekir patisserie

Choosing lokum at the renowned Haci Bekir patisserie

After that, we tried Turkish ice cream, made with goat milk and some orchid product that is probably the same that goes into salep. Then we sampled almond paste and rose-flavored hard candy. Then we had to go to the dentist (kidding!).

Our healthy lunch completed, we finished Istiklal Street and walked further to see Galata Tower, which was constructed by Genoese merchants to assert their tower-building powers. Finally, we ended up beside the Golden Horn, where fishermen flicked their lines in and out of the dusky water.

Fishing on the New District side of the Golden Horn

Fishing on the New District side of the Golden Horn

The next day, we were able to get to know these waters even better.

A Rainbow

A morning rainbow

A morning rainbow

Mornings are hard.  Back in my single life, I used to struggle to force myself out of bed.  You would think that marriage would somehow make Sergey and me into the sort of mature, efficient people who just spring out of bed at the first ring of the alarm.  Not so.  If anything, it made us even lazier, as we enabled each other to snooze later and later.  Finally, frustrated with my lethargy and lack of punctuality in the mornings, I told Sergey to start physically pushing me out of bed–and after much resistance (“How can I push a woman?”), he complied.  Now we are more on time, but the struggle remains.

I say all that as a preface, because the struggle of the morning contrasts so intensely with the often splendid seascapes outside our windows shortly after dawn.  This week, I saw one of the most beautiful–a sunrise rainbow!  As rain sprinkled the Mediterranean, the rainbow shone forth.  After stumbling into the kitchen to make our coffee, my groggy eyes caught sight of it, and I ran into the bedroom to tell Sergey to look.

Sometimes natural beauty is hard to appreciate.  For example, I find the beauty of Israel challenging–it can be hard to find anything wild in the paved, packed city, where the hot dust settles on everything.  The Bahá’í gardens are, of course, spectacular, but I crave something less manicured, something moist and verdant–basically, the leafy luster of the northern states of the US.  The tender evanescence of springtime, the green opulence of summertime, the jewel tones of autumn, even the silent blankness of winter (although I don’t miss that season as much!).

My natural environment, the green world.

Basking in my natural environment, the green world, during our honeymoon.

Spending some time on the land of the B&B where Sergey and I honeymooned reminded me that this terrain, this flora and fauna are planted in my heart.  In Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, the title character enjoys the solitary barrenness of the desert; on the contrary, his lover Katharine yearns for the moisture and verdure of rainy English gardens where hedgehogs roam.  I sympathize with Katharine, though I have seen hedgehogs in Israel.

But sometimes, it is patently easy to see the beauty of nature, when it stretches itself out right in front of you. Closer

Tranquility

…is something I wish I had these days.

One month until the wedding, and two weeks until Sergey and I hop on a plane to the U.S. of A.  Honestly, I’m not nervous about getting hitched.  Wedding planning is a bit stressful, but I know everything will come together.  It’s the physical trip home that concerns me most right now.  I think my cortisol levels will drop off as soon as I step into the Madison airport with Sergey.

I can’t help noticing that the country where I’m living seems to be at war.  Now, I’ve been a little paranoid about living in Israel since I arrived.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget my friend Seyy’s farewell to me in the common room of MacGregor res hall at Mount Holyoke: “I’m so scared for you.”  After coming, like many new arrivals, I was initially freaked out by the multiple explosions I heard at sunset, which turned out to be fireworks.  On our “Haifa Walk” during orientation, the guide made a point of showing us the pockmarks in a building damaged by shrapnel from the attacks in 2006.   Since then, I’ve been on the alert for sirens, my anxiety not helped by the fact that synagogues use ceremonial sirens to commemorate various events.  Or that the sounds of my downstairs neighbor vacuuming remind me of the blare of tornado sirens back home.  One Saturday morning I was so alarmed by this “air raid siren” that I bolted out of bed into the safe space of the hallway and called Sergey, who inquired what threat vacuum cleaning posed to national security.

Well, my over-consciousness of Israel’s tense position in the Middle East seems to be reaching fruition.  This morning at 3:30 A.M. I heard the real siren for the first time, and, following my vacuum cleaner emergency training, bolted out of bed suddenly wide awake, adrenaline coursing through my veins.  The siren’s mournful wail didn’t last long, and by the time it ended I still hadn’t made up my mind about where exactly to hide.  Fortunately, I’ll probably get more practice with this in the next few weeks.

This all makes me appreciative of the peaceful life I lived back in the States.  Back there, war was always fought across oceans and seas.  The closest I got to experiencing war was through historical novels.  It’s not that life in the U.S. is perfectly safe.  In fact, I bet statistics would show that I am in greater danger of getting shot by a homegrown terrorist from the suburbs with a legally-purchased submachine gun there than I am of getting hit by a Hamas or Hezbollah launched missile here.  And I should note that life in Haifa is actually still quite tranquil.  Long-time residents are, I’m sure, used to situations like this, and people just go on with their lives with a few demonstrations here and there.

Anyway, I’ve asked President Netanyahu and Hamas to hold off on getting too intense until we’re out of here…

Commuter

Warning: Not designed for twenty-somethings.

Warning: Not designed for twenty-somethings.

Once again, I have forgotten the cardinal rule of life without a car: gradual grocery shopping. I find myself expanded to twice my normal width, with my two reusable shopping bags (one of them features Big Bird’s grinning face) hanging off my shoulders, clutching a 32-pack of toilet paper.  I think it’s the toilet paper that convinces me I will never be a cool urbanite.  No one else on the bus which I’ve just waddled onto has so much toilet paper, or actually any at all.  Nor do the Israelis seem to bring a carryon bag stuffed with dirty laundry as I do every two weeks.

It is at times like this when I, the plodding commuter, feel like the most mundane creature in the world.

But then, as I shlep my laundry toward the machines, I look up and see the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, majestic white columns shooting upward, or I look ahead to see the dome of the Shrine, or I look across the bright blue bay toward Akko.  And it’s so dissonant: my mundane self, this holy place.

I think it’s time for some etymology.  You all know how I love my words.  Once an English major, always an English major.*

When it comes to describing the daily grind, mundane, pedestrian, and prosaic are close contenders.  “Mundane,” from the Latin mundus or world, in its astrological sense means of the earthly world rather than the heavenly one, more than applicable to my situation.  “Prosaic”–I usually dwell in a house of prose, infrequently one of poetry.  “Pedestrian” as an adjective evokes its noun counterpart, the unglamorous person in T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers waiting at the crosswalk.  And it’s fun to be a pedestrian pedestrian.  For the word-snobs among us, “quotidian” works as well, stemming from the same root as the Spanish cotidiana, meaning everyday.  Funny, all these terms are latinate.  A professor renowned as the strictest faculty member in the English Department taught me that English is a bifurcated language, pulling its vocabulary both from the sophisticated palate of Latin and from the earthy mouth of Germanic.   It would seem better to go Germanic to express the commonplace.

Even “commuter” finds its roots in Latin: com=together + mute=change.  Changing together.

Nice, isn’t it?  Six days a week, I change along with my fellow passengers.  Now that’s poetical.

*Thank your lucky stars that since graduating from Mount Holyoke I no longer have access to the Oxford English Dictionary online, or this post would be thrice as long.

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.

Stairway

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.

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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.