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.

Anniversary #1

Spot the bunny!

Spot the bunny!

Today marks one year since Sergey and I started our journey as a married couple together! We celebrated yesterday by taking a stroll around the House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, the location of our wedding, utilizing Janine’s iPhone so he could be there virtually. On the stroll, we saw a special one-eared baby bunny happily munching on blossoms in a flowerbed, which I’m sure is a good omen for our coming years of connubial life. My mom also found a special omen there: a quartz heart-shaped fragment embedded in a concrete panel in the new visitor’s center.

And now spot the quartz heart!

And now spot the quartz heart!

Speaking of the visitor’s center, it was my first visit to the House of Worship where we didn’t head downstairs beneath the main auditorium to go to the bookstore and visit the cornerstone placed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá over a century ago. This time, from the parking lot, we entered the low, prairie-style building. Inside, the top floor affords a view of the majestic white dome of the Mother Temple of the West and opens onto a quiet courtyard. Browsing through the informational signs posted on the walls, I learned a few new things about the construction of the temple, which was a great decades-long undertaking by the young American Bahá’í community. For example, Louis Bourgeois, the architect, had for years dreamt of building a temple to the Truth—and then he became Bahá’í, enabling him to wed his personal ambition to the Bahá’í community’s goal of building a Mashriqu’l-Adhkár. When he designed the complex motifs that cover the temple, he laid out 70-foot long sheets of paper on his studio floor and drew them full size. Pretty impressive!

View of the visitor's center from the courtyard

View of the visitor’s center from the courtyard


Our second year of marriage now begins with setting up a household. Let me say, I have reviewed roughly several thousand comforter options, several hundred shower curtain and dinnerware possibilities, and dozens of towel and sheet color permutations. I even spent some time considering shower curtain hooks. (For the first months, there might only be two fully outfitted rooms in the apartment: the bathrooms. After all, the furniture in there is already installed.) Sergey has done his part helping me choose these goods and others, among them a coffeemaker, which provoked much soul-searching about what exactly we want from our coffee. All in all, I am hoping that our careful research will ensure our goods last for many years so we don’t have to go shopping again for a long time!

It is hard to believe a full year has gone by since the day we said our vows—but time flies by when you are having fun!

Fish love:

Fish love: “kissing” koi at the Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford, Illinois


My grandfather, Grandpa Bob, passed away on September 23, 2014.  Born on the eve of the Great Depression and raised Bahá’í, he joined the US military toward the close of World War II, served for a year, then returned home.  He married my grandmother, Bernita, and studied accounting through correspondence courses, which led to him starting his own accounting business, Amerson Tax Service, which is still in the family.  With Grandma Bea, he raised five children, including my father, his namesake and youngest son.  Grandpa was a staunch Bahá’í who served on the Local Spiritual Assembly for 40 years, using his accounting skills as treasurer.  To his last days, although physically weak, he found the spiritual energy to teach the Faith.

Amerson family on pilgrimage in 2005.

Three generations of Amersons on pilgrimage in 2005.

I picture Grandpa standing outside his apartment at the end of the long, red-carpeted hall, waiting for my family.  When we visited Grandpa and Grandma at their home in Waukesha, we would buzz up to them to unlock the front door, and then he would come out to wait, smiling at us as we approached.  We would be greeted with one of Grandpa’s dependable remarks, something like, “Look who it is!” or “Hey, kiddo!” and then take turns hugging before going inside the apartment.

Well, poetry gives me a way to express my love for a man who was a constant in my life for over 23 years–and who will continue to be, only in a different realm.  Reading this prayer of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá might help clarify some of the allusions.  I find the evocative mystical landscapes rendered in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s prayers for the departed comforting, as they help me to imagine the unimaginable next world, the Abhá Kingdom.

Elegy for Grandpa

For Robert B. Amerson (1929-2014)

It is strange to mourn when a loved one

takes joyous sail on the boat of eternity

bound for that sea of light.


But still I do.


What better to remind me

of my own humanity

than the throb of grief

I feel for you?


I know not what seas and rivers

lie before your prow,

through which valleys they flow,

waiting for your journeying,

so for the mystery of what’s to come

and for my constraints of time and space

I trace a map of the mystic rivers

with these rivulets down my face.


To release with grace,

to suffer a temporary separation

and trust in an immortal elation:

these lessons form your final legacy.


Remember my parting words:

“We will see each other again”—

not among the ashes and clay,

but immersed in brilliant rivers and seas

when I join you on my fated day.

Gettin’ hitched, part 3

One of the classic flying machines that frequents the Leonardo da Vinci airport, I assume.

After a day of travels and a stop in the da Vinci airport in Rome, where we breakfasted on the finest pizza and cappuccinos of Italy, Sergey and I arrived in America.

It was remarkable to see the Wisconsin countryside veined with creeks and rivers stretching out beneath our plane in undulating hills of green–so much green after the scrubbiness of Israel!  How was this luxuriance possible?  For Sergey, the landscape reminded him of Moldova.  For me, the amount of space and the cleanliness took some getting used to.  It wasn’t quite reverse culture shock, more like terrain shock.  Why weren’t there any strays using these wide streets as litter boxes?  And there are birds besides sparrows, crows, and pigeons?  Was Target always so super huge?

We had a week and a half to spend with my family in Hometown U.S.A. before heading down to the Chicago area.  While we had a few allocated “fun periods,” much of our time was consumed with final preparations for the wedding.  There were so many important decisions to be made.  For example, after our contact person for our reception location revealed that they had only black tablecloths to offer, which would have been great for a funeral-themed wedding, we had to add that to our Party City list.  It took a surprising amount of effort to settle on the purple tablecloths, probably because Mommy and Sergey spent half the time convincing me that sparkly confetti was an unnecessary addition to our decor.  But…but…sparkles?

Thankfully, the key aspect of our decor, the centerpieces, was decided on before we returned.  I recall back in May feverishly considering various centerpiece options as I scanned records in the office.  Birdcages or feathers to go with the bird theme?  How about feather-coated birdcages holding live singing doves?

Luckily we decided on a more classy alternative: three-tiered stands covered with colorful cupcakes and topped with a spray of flowers, which my uncle generously arranged.  After finding a cute Wilmette bakery called Lawrence Deans online during my initial investigations, I spent the next few months contemplating which flavors of their selection I wanted at the wedding (all of them).  Especially the rose-pistachio ones.  In the end, we ordered a mere 132 cupcakes in 11 flavors, chosen both for their deliciousness and their colors.  You can see the results below.

A dream realized.

A dream realized.

Farewell, puppy

Shadow Amerson, 2004-2014

Shadow Amerson, 2004-2014

My family’s dog of a decade passed away.

I’m not even sure where to start with writing what I guess is an obituary for her.  Ten years is a long time, at least for a 22-year-old.   I’m not sure how people manage to condense a human life into a newspaper column, because I really struggle to write this.

We got Shadow directly from a breeder.  I remember this lady as rather brusque and slightly racist, which are perhaps common features for someone with such passion for purebreds.  If I recall, Shadow’s father was an actual German German Shepard.  I’m sure she had a proud lineage, and in fact, her family tree is probably better mapped than mine.  But as German Shepards go, she was of the longhair variety, considered inferior and inadequate for a show dog, which made her affordable.

Shadow as a puppy

Unfortunately, her pedigree didn’t serve her health.  Even in puppyhood, she was a sickly dog.  I won’t go into the details–in fact, I can’t even remember all her various sicknesses and emergencies.  Suffice it to say that her cone became a frequent accessory.

I have some memories of puppy behavior class at PetSmart.  Mainly I recall one gentleman who, to our distress, insisted on ruffling her ears.  Growing ears should be handled with utmost delicacy so they grow erect and regal, but she had one ear that insisted on flopping over.  As the years went on, she acquired more physical eccentricities.  The extraction of a broken canine left her long, mole-specked tongue lolling out of one side of her mouth.  An affliction in her eyes made them droopy and bloodshot.  But she was a beautiful dog, weighing in at 100 pounds, massive for a female.

Shadow in the snow

Shadow in the snow

Oh yes, remember that behavior class?  Well, she didn’t either.  As Shadow grew bigger and stronger, it became difficult for Jasmine and me to walk her.  Any understanding she had of the command “heel” dissolved at a sighting of a squirrel or passerby.  Our walks reached their inevitable culmination when, one day, walking her in the prairie behind our house, a jogger stepped out from behind a bend and Shadow, surprised, lunged.  I was pulled to my knees and hung on with all my might (which wasn’t much) as she pulled me along in her pursuit of the jogger.  It was rather like water skiing if the boat were a dog and the water was grass and no skis were involved.  Finally we got her under control, and I got up, my knees grass-stained and shaky.  Really, big dogs should come with brakes installed.  From then on, it was choke collar–which didn’t do much with her thick fur–or the halter.

She was the ultimate family dog, protecting us with spit-flinging barking fits from any delivery person who dared ring the doorbell, or worse, friend who dared to step into her territory, and entering panic mode when we were absent.  One thing you need to know about Shadow was that, underneath the stoicism (instead of seeking affection, she seemed to resign herself to my insistence on petting and baby-talking her) and the fierceness was a profound sensitivity.  


Shadow: “Stop…touching…me.”

(I write that, and then I think about her lifelong greeting: goosing me.  Well, sensitivity takes many forms.)

As a puppy, she was once outdoors taking a bathroom break during a storm when an enormous clap of thunder scared her nearly to death.  From then on, she retained a phobia of thunder and similar booms like fireworks–we cursed Hometown Days with its lengthy grand finales that made our dog tremble and whine piteously–and later on any remotely bass sound.  The grumbling motor of the garbage truck terrified her, turning Mondays into the Day of Whimpering.  When she was young, we would sometimes spend the day in Waukesha with our grandparents, leaving her in the basement tornado shelter as a makeshift kennel.  One of these times, a storm passed over Verona.  Driving home through the puddled streets, we had no way of anticipating the mess we’d find in the shelter.  Great bloody streaks ran down the door with bits of fur embedded from when she had tried to claw her way out.  It was like something from a horror movie entitled “Separation Anxiety.”

Shadow had her quirks, her phobias, and her ailments, yes.  Her eccentricity was only rivaled by the lead character in Marley and Me (go read it!).  Nevertheless, my fondest memories of her are relatively normal: playing in our backyard.  She had a big red ball that we would roll across the grass and she would chase and even dribble it with gusto, tripping over it with her big paws.

A rare slightly athletic member of the Amerson clan

A rare slightly athletic member of the Amerson clan

In the winter she bounced through the snow, ignoring the ice-balls that would gather between her toe pads, leaping, diving, chomping up snowballs. I remember her eagerness, waiting for a ball to be tossed, her body poised and taut in anticipation, sometimes uttering a yip if we made her wait too long.  Even in her dreams she would play–or at least that’s what I imagine she experienced as her legs twitched and she emitted adorable sleep-woofs.  Later on her dream life progressed to scratching at the floor as she dozed, and sometimes I would wake up to the sound of her scratching downstairs.  I wonder what she was digging up.

When I said goodbye to her this summer, I knew there was a good possibility I wouldn’t see her again.  But still the loss stings.  How strange to imagine my house without all the sundry arrangements we made for her–the water dish in the downstairs shower with the curtain hemmed high enough to let her under, the toddler gates, the doghouse in the kitchen.  The strange emptiness there must be without her sounds, her scent, her doggy presence.


Shadow, girlie, I will remember the smell of your ears, that waxy sweet fragrance hidden in the soft fuzz and sticky skin of those keen, twitching sensors, the way I still remember the dusty, salty scent that clung to the feathers of Skippy, my parakeet.  I will remember kissing your dry, rough nose.  I will remember burying my hands in the warm, luxurious fur around your scruff.  I will remember your canine language of woofs, whines, whimpers, growls, groans, and barks.  I love you.  Like so many pets, you helped teach your humans new ways to love.

A caravan of three

Crusader "signatures" in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Crusader “signatures” in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

It is 5:45 in the morning and Haifa is still darkly asleep.  This is a time I rarely see–only during the Fast, really.  But today, we are on our way to Jerusalem, a caravan of three travelers.

We take a bus and then another bus, and have a layover at the central station in Jerusalem, which is full of young soldiers, fresh-faced in their fatigues.

“DONUTS!”  I haven’t seen donuts in six months and I’m pretty excited that this huge bus station sells them.  (Now I know where to go when craving hits, and it’s a mere three hours of buses away!)  Jasmine and I share a big one with sprinkles that stain my lips while Sergey drinks some coffee sludge.  Finally we make our way to a tram that takes us near to one of the gates of the Old City.

I have a plan of attack.  First the Church, then the Wall, then the Dome, then the Mount.  En route to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we pass by several Stations of the Cross, and pause to touch the spot believed to bear the handprint of Christ.

“I touched this before,” I comment, showing off my worldliness.  “Yes, I’ve touched everything in Jerusalem.”

“No wonder you’re sick,” Sergey replies.  Indeed, I wasn’t the classiest travel companion, what with my wad of tissues and plugged ears.

When we get to the Church, we go through the various sites—the anointing stone, Calvary, the Armenian chapel with the Crusader imprints on the walls, that subterranean chamber… I try to recount the fragments of history I remember.  Something about Saint Helen and Constantine.

Next stop: the Western Wall.  The female side proves less interesting than the male section, where a number of simultaneous bar mitzvahs are happening.  Lots of Torah scrolls, boys in yarmulkes, and tossed candy give the place a jubilant spirit.  We climb onto unwieldy plastic chairs that seem placed there for the express purpose of letting female visitors ogle the masculine goings-on.  I’m pretty sure I ended up in at least one lad’s bar mitzvah video.


Bar mitzvah(s)

Bar mitzvah(s)

But the stop I’ve been eagerly awaiting is not the Church or the Wall—it is the Dome.  If I learned anything from the documentary that eased Jasmine into dreamland, it is that the Temple Mount is super important historically.  I hadn’t gotten to see the Dome of the Rock on my last visit because its hours are so limited, but this time, I was ready.

After a long wait in line, we walk up a sheltered bridge to the mount, where we find ourselves in a large open space with a long mosque to our right, the al-Aqsda.  Like moths to a flame, we are drawn up some wide stairs to the Dome itself, resplendent with delicately painted greenish blue walls and its shining gold dome.  Inside (off-limits to non-Muslims) is the rock from which it is believed Muhammad ascended to Heaven during His mystical night journey; apparently His footprint remains.

We wander around the huge plaza, which dates to the time of King David.  The area is surprisingly casual—some young women in hijabs study in a circle on the ground, while boys kick around a soccer ball.  Four young boys, munching on their lunch in an alcove of the wall, beg Jasmine to photograph them, then come to assess the result.  “Facebook!” they demand happily.

Facebook! WordPress!

Facebook! WordPress!

After lunch, we headed to the Mount of Olives to visit Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations…or the Agony, I’m not sure what its proper name is.  It is quite a different experience from last time, when it was thronged and someone came over the loudspeaker repeatedly to instruct “Silence”; this time, I feel at peace sitting in a pew, looking at the nighttime garden scenes on the huge mosaics around the walls.

It is sunset by the time we entered the Valley of the Dead, which is between the Mount of Olives and the Old City.  A funeral unfolds with Jewish men swaying in black robes; the muezzin pipes a call to prayer.

Eventually, exhausted, we got on the bus back home and realized with sighs of relief that the most comfortable seats had been reserved for us: the floor.  Yes, apparently it’s a-ok in Israel to allow people to stand for two hours on the highway.  After about 15 minutes of swaying over an IDF soldier and watching another passenger giggle at cat videos, I succumb to gravity and wedge myself and my backpack down into the narrow aisle, with my cohort following suit.  Soon, at my offer, two sleepy heads loll against me.  In a weird way, it was cozy, the three of us snugly squeezed onto the floor with views of people’s shoes, the lights through the windshield, and the diminishing kilometers to Haifa.

Guess who’s back?

Thus I return shamefacedly to the blogosphere after a truly prolonged one-month absence.  It has been far too long, my friends.  I know you’ve all been biting your nails to the quick, desperate for news of my life.  Has she been wandering in the desert of Israel?  Dallying with her hordes of suitors?  Or working in an office by day and doing more Bahá’í activities by night?

Ok, all three have been a little true, but mostly the latter.  But I did have a very important break from my routine: Jazzy came!

That’s right, and I’m just now recovering.  As of a few days ago, no longer does putting on my jacket chafe my elbow wound excruciatingly.  No longer am I partially deaf.  Just kidding, Jasmine, it was precious to be with you and suffer multiple physical privations together, one of them the cold that you brought for me (imported from the good ole U.S. of A.!).

The elbow–ah, yes.  When I knew that Jasmine was coming, several months ago, I started planning our itinerary.  She would volunteer while I was in the office, and then when out of the office, we would go to the Bahá’í Shrines and then explore Haifa and Israel with my boundless energy.  Seriously, this was the most amazing, compulsive itinerary, with a full spectrum of color codings.

Jasmine gets a taste of Israel

Jasmine gets a taste of Israel

One of my goals was to have Jasmine visit the Dead Sea.  It was such a strange, otherworldly experience for me to float upon the water and look across the sea to the mountains of Jordan.  So Jasmine would float there too.  Thing is, it’s rather far from Haifa–three hours one-way–and I’m too dangerous a driver to rent a car here.  So I organized a ten-person sherut trip.

I had been the concerned about the temperature.  I mean, “beach in January” sounds rather unappealing, unless you’re a penguin.  But thankfully, the temperature was as cooperative as possible.  The real problem was the wind, which stirred up waves–not whitecaps or anything, but still, steadily rolling, hyper-saline waves.

As we walked down to the beach, we passed two other members of our group.

“How was it?” I asked.

“I would not recommend going in,” one replied.  “I got water in my eye.”

After that ringing endorsement, we went in.  I think we managed to get at least a few moments of calm floating in, although the waves made me nervous.  Jasmine glommed onto me and we floated side-by-side like a human raft.

We were actually moving quickly away from our point of departure, pushed by the waves.  “Let’s try and get back to the shore,” we decided.  So we “swam” Dead Sea style, doing a slow, splash-less backstroke.

Five minutes later, my friend Reggie, who was accompanying us, said, “Hey, remember when we said ‘let’s get back to the shore?’  We’re actually farther out now…”

And now I was tired.  Thankfully he offered us a lift back, grabbed my leg, and pulled me (with Jasmine in tow) back to the shallows, where I managed to get water in my mouth and eye.  We at last hefted ourselves out.

My other friend joined us onshore.  “You’re bleeding,” he pointed out.

“Oh, interesting,” I said.  There was a scratch on my back, scrapes on my elbow, and little scratches on my forearms from a run-in with a salty rock formation.  And poor Jasmine’s feet were wounded, which was not helped by the extremely painful barefoot journey across the sharp stones of the shore back to our things.  I clenched my teeth and pretended I was one of those silly people who test their resolve by walking across hot coals.  Actually, hot coals might have been preferable.

Eventually, two freezing public showers later, we got back in the sherut.  I examined my wounds.  “Souvenirs,” I concluded.

“Well, I’m glad I got to see the Dead Sea,” Jasmine said, “because now I know I don’t need to go back there.”

I smiled, dabbing some dried salt off her cheek.  That’s my girl.