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.

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 


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.


PS: This is my 75th post!

The halfway point

The first Holy Day I attended here was the Martyrdom of the Báb, which in 2013 happened in early July.  Currently, it shifts each year according to the lunar calendar, so this year, it happened yesterday.  It seemed to mark my first year here coming full circle as I reach the halfway point in my service.

I recall my earlier wonderment at the crowd of commemorators filling the garden in front of the Haifa Pilgrim House, my surprise at the parasols–coming from the States, I thought people used them only decoratively and to preserve particularly porcelain complexions.  And the heat.  My seat last year, while initially in the shade, was soon overtaken by the noonday sun, making me itch for the circumambulation when I could finally move out of its harsh gaze.

The heat was just as oppressive this year, hitting a high of 95 degrees.  By now, though, I was used to the seating arrangement of rows on rows of pilgrims, visitors, and staff, and knew the wisdom of the parasols and the folding fans.  And we were careful to pick a spot completely in the shade of the pillar-like palm in front of us.  In this place, bits of pollen confetti sprinkled down on us from the trees overhead, burrowing into our hair.

My first year is drawing to its conclusion, and this is the season of farewells, as many of my friends are leaving.  My friend Tahirih de la Republica Dominicana flew home a few days ago.  Shania, who was a senior at Mount Holyoke when I was a meek firstie, is going home.  And half of my orientation group–eighteen staff–depart in the coming days and weeks, including my friends Diana and Todd.  They are all off to new journeys.

Due to all the departures, this has been a week of farewells.  One was quiet and devotional, another was energetic and noisy, but my favorite was last night’s.  It was initially supposed to be a reunion of those in my orientation group who had lived in the faraway land of Leon Blum when we first arrived, but it ended up as a game night between Sergey, Diana, Todd, and me.

First came Scrabble, where I proved the usefulness of that English major.  My winning at Scrabble is how the universe achieves balance with my athletic ineptitude.

Then came Risk–and not just any Risk, but Star Wars Risk. Now, I confess I had never actually played the game before.  I thought I had, but that turned out to be my vague memory of playing Axis and Allies in tenth grade history class.

We cued the dramatic Star Wars soundtrack and then proceeded into a 3.5-hour long battle to conquer the galaxy.  The game works by trying to take over as many planets as possible, and Todd acted like an extraterrestrial real estate agent, describing the notable features of each planet (“Tatooine is kind of like Akka…sandy.”)  I assumed I’d lose since I didn’t have any concept of strategy, but the dice was kind to Sergey and me, and our Rebel Alliance ended up ruling the universe.  Ok, just the galaxy, but still.

I guess I assume I’m going to see all these friends again.  If life here has taught me one thing, it’s that the Bahá’í World is very small–for instance, two youth I knew from Louhelen, where my family lived fourteen years ago by my count, are coming to serve here.  The last time I saw them they were yea tall, and now they’re full-fledged young adults.

In such an oddly tight-knit community, I think it’s inevitable that our paths will cross again.

Season’s greetings

Dearly beloved, we are gathered today to mourn the loss of my 52-month old MacBook Pro, upon whose recent demise I shall blame my prolonged absence from the blogosphere.

But guys, the craziest thing happened.  The season changed, seemingly overnight, from summer to winter.  I suppose there were a few brief weeks of “fall,” when I could look super cool in my pleather jacket.  Then suddenly the rains came and soaked us for a fortnight, dropping the temperatures outside and, more noticeably, indoors.

Yes, this is the season of chocolate, I’ve decided.  For evolutionary reasons, once the damp cold seeps into my bones, I begin to crave cocoa in all its forms.  This has happened before, during my sojourn in the Chilean winter. Similar to Israel, the winter there is short but vicious, turning everything damp and gloomy.  The buildings, designed for a summery clime, lack insulation and central heating.

Speaking of which, did I ever tell you about the time I almost killed my host mother?  No?  Well, mi’ija, in Chile, estufas are the space heaters of choice.  These clunky heaters run on big natural gas canisters.  To light one, you turn on the gas and hold a match to the grate.

One day, I came down to eat an early lunch before heading to the university.  I turned on the estufa in the dining room.  Nothing happened when I tried to light it.  Late for work, I scarfed down my meal and headed out.  Once I arrived in the English pedagogy building, I realized my error.  A sick feeling sunk through me–I remember gazing helplessly at the dark paneled walls of the corridor as I foresaw my sad future, the headline scrolling across CNN–“American intern murders elderly Chilean host mother with gas poisoning/explosion.”  Would I be extradited?  Would Mount Holyoke disown me?

Desperately, I dialed Isabel’s number, and said something along the lines of, “ARE YOU ALIVE?  I left the gas on!  Please don’t light any matches or turn on any lights!”  Except in mangled, breathless Spanish.

She was alive, and told me the gas canister had been empty–therefore the lack of flame.  And that is how I nearly killed my Chilean host mother.

Anyways, chocolate.  In Chile, Isabel would buy me giant milk chocolate bars, and I also spent many of my own pesos on them.  I would carry around these embarrassingly huge bars in my purse, constantly nibbling.  It turns out that chocolate is a great accompaniment to anything, be it a cup of thick Nespresso, flank steak, or a lesson on Henrik Ibsen.  (Although macaroons suit the latter best.)

Let’s face it, I lack personal insulation, and my body wants me to pack on some blubber to get through the chilly months.  So I find myself bending over the oven on a Saturday night, the heater cranked to 30 degrees Celsius (I think the average high on Mercury), making the chocolatiest double chocolate zucchini bread ever (Betty Crocker does it again), or dreaming of a steaming mug of hot chocolate paired with a toasty s’more.  I should go have dinner…

My body’s scheme is working.  I think I have a tummy!  If I keep chowing down on the sweet stuff, maybe I’ll even be able to feel my fingers again.

Dust in the wind

Now that I’ve concluded my day-trips for the season, I’m back to quotidian life–the office, some volunteering, study groups, laundry, cooking, cleaning, collecting houseplants, the regular.  But even the routine is not quite routine here.

Part of it is just that living adultly is still new to me.  I’m doing all sorts of things on my own, hey!  And so what if mopping sometimes results in breaking the shower, or dusting in a sore hamstring.  This week, I cooked rice for a study group.  It didn’t turn out as fluffy as I wanted, yet for the first time my tadik was unscorched.  “Hm,” I thought.  “Well, tadik’s not very good as leftovers.  And I’m the only one around.”  Standing by the kitchen sink looking up the mountain toward the Dan Carmel, eating a bowl full of fresh tadik, I realized the joy of independence.

But a lot of it is my environment.  The air is different, for one.  Hamseen has arrived.  While it’s not as if I can see motes floating in front of me, looking out to sea, the horizon is obscured by a thick haze.  Apparently this dust has traveled up to Israel from the Egyptian desert in a climatological Exodus.  Maybe the hovering dust is the Middle Eastern equivalent of Midwestern leaves falling in autumn?

Even the simple act of walking is different here.  You know, being on a mountain, everything is steep.  Plus, in the Bahá’í gardens, most of the paths are gravel.  I have two pairs of shoes that I wear to the office: my flats and my heels.  They are both practical shoes, unobtrusive black leather with plenteous arch support.  Even so, walking in heels on gravel poses a challenge–I mean, walking in heels is a challenge, period.  So I do an ungraceful slow march.  It’s rather like trying to walk on snow with a veneer of ice–I need to dig in my heels but also keep moving.  I thought I was doing a pretty good job until the other day when not one but two people, after watching me, commented sympathetically on the difficulty of walking with heels here.  “It’s such a challenge!  Your poor heels!”  And then someone pointed out to me that one heel is actually broken, causing a distinctive “clip-clop” whenever I walk on hard floors.  She recommended a cobbler.  My experience with cobblers is limited to the shoemaker and the elves.

Fruit.  Let’s talk about fruit.  The Persian coworkers at my office are wonderful people for all sorts of reasons, and one reason is that they always bring fresh fruit to break time.  (I, on the other hand, contribute the occasional sugary, buttery baked good.)  Mango, pomegranate, oranges, grapes, apple, pear, peach, nectarines… and recently, we’ve entered fruit territory that is foreign to me.  There’s lychee–inside the bumpy red skin is white flesh with a subtle fragrant taste.  Figs are delicious in dried, jam, or Newton form.  In natural form, however, they are just weird, mushy and seedy.  And guava.  I tried it because I thought it was a strange seedy pear.  No–with its overripe scent and nearly salty flavor, it is definitely not to be compared with pears.  There is pomelo, a huge citrus (actually, citrus grandis) with a super thick rind that needs to be practically sawed off and a bitter membrane around the flesh that also needs to be peeled off.  It’s not for the lazy fructarian!   It tastes like a tentative grapefruit and looks like it belongs among the many balls from gym class that always threatened me, maybe a yellow medicine ball or the enlarged tennis ball that smacked me in the face.  “Ok, guys, today we’re going to play pomelo.”

Monsoon, monlater

On the walk to lunch, I felt it: raindrops!  Just a few tentative beads falling from an ambivalent sunny-cloudy sky, barely tangible.  I stretch out my arms and stop for a moment, turning to my friend–“This is the first rain I’ve felt in three months!”  Reportedly, it’s been raining in Akka and two weeks ago for a few minutes in Haifa, but I missed it.

After lunch, I step outside and it’s raining in earnest, fat drops and the fragrance of ozone.  I hesitate under the overhang, considering taking the tunnel back to my office.  But I choose to be impractical and to take a walk through the garden in the rain.  It’s deserted, and I appreciate my solitary stroll, pretending that my skin is like the soil thirstily drinking up the rain.  By the time I get to my building, my shirt is dappled and my hair has curled into messy ringlets.  I might work indoors all day, but that doesn’t mean my existence must be hermetic in either sense of the word.

Navel-gazing, but arboreally.

Navel-gazing, arboreally.  It’s only natural.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about awkward interactions, hasn’t it?  I’m sure they’re still happening to me (or more aptly I’m happening to them).  Maybe I’m just acclimated and no longer even notice.   Maybe I’ve finally broken out of my chrysalis of shyness into a gorgeously non-awkward social butterfly (lolz, yeah right).  Or maybe I’m getting too contemplative–goodness, I keep writing about lying in the grass and soaking up the rain, even though the majority of my time is spent in the land of Excel spreadsheets!


I was told that on Yom Kippur, the streets would be absolutely desolate.  The Day of Atonement is a very solemn Holy Day for Jews, who keep a 25 hour fast.  Yet, a few cars pass by.  Kids shriek as they play on their bikes and toy cars.  And there are a lot of firecrackers.  When I first arrived, I was unsure what to make of the sounds of explosions that punctuated the evening.  I mean, it didn’t exactly reassure me about the security situation here.  It turns out that the people here use a lot of fireworks to celebrate engagements, which, given how many fireworks get set off, means that there must be hordes of fiances filling this city.  But Yom Kippur and fireworks don’t go together so well.  Two theories were circulating about why the day was so noisy.  (1) The Arabs were trying to annoy the Jews or (2) the Jews were celebrating their atonement.  Somehow I find the latter a bit less likely…


Even though I spend most of my time under fluorescent lights in an air conditioned office, I can tell the air is changing.  I no longer fully thaw out on my walk home.  The highs are only in the low eighties.  Yesterday, some clouds hung over Mount Carmel, promising rain with their gray underbellies.  Nothing yet.  When I was walking across the Arc at sunset, I paused to take in the thunderheads poised above the bay, edged with pink.  I wasn’t the only one impressed; I passed two others who pulled out their camera phones to record the sky.  I gave up on using the camera in my phone as it blurs everything, so I try to capture the vista in my mind.

Yesterday I stood on grass for the first time in a while.  It was a small patch of lawn in front of an apartment building.  I rarely have the opportunity to leave the pavement or the gravel paths I take through the gardens to my office.  I need to find a quiet city park and just lie in the grass for a while like I sometimes do, close to the dirt and the bugs and the earth.  Humility, from humus, soil.  Getting close to the soil.  Walt Whitman knew the sanctity of those leaves underfoot:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic…
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