Transitions

Each time I come back from traveling, I need a few weeks to make the transition.  I don’t mean I need to overcome jet lag.  A few days will take care of that. I can curve around the clock, chipping away an hour’s difference each night, until I’m sleeping and waking at more or less the same time as my family.

More than sleep, I need time for my soul to catch up. A story says it best: Some travelers in a land rover were crossing the Sahara.  They came to an oasis where they found a man sitting under a tree.  He was alone. When they learned he was going in their direction and seeing that he had no camel or vehicle, they invited him to ride with them.  He declined.  “But you’re on foot,” they exclaimed, “and it’s miles away.”  “I’m waiting,” he responded.  “What for?” they asked.  “I’ve left my home; I’m waiting for my soul to catch up,” he answered.

On short trips I don’t need to wait for my soul to catch up.  It goes with me on my occasional weekends away, but on longer trips, thousands of miles over the sea, the plane, like an arrow, flies swiftly, directly to its destination, and I am left bereft even though I am going to places that are like home to me: Italy and Israel.  On these trips I must seclude myself for a few days before I can go out into public where I will immerse myself in another language, another work, other friends and family, other geography, where I will go to different doctors, use different transportation, breathe different air.

When I return to the U.S., it’s the same.  I must hide away for a while; my soul can’t get back in the time of a plane ride.

Part of what I do in those solitary weeks waiting for my soul to catch up is to remember/fantasize about where I’ve been.  I’m in that no man’s land of comparing places and people.  I’m full of stories about family and friends, situations in the other place, realities that don’t exist where I am. I’m a merchant, carrying foreign goods, standing in one place with my hands full of another.

Over the course of the days, as my soul reaches its new place, I deplete those stories, those fantasies, and can feel my soul fitting back into my body like a hand slowly sliding into its glove. I begin to recognize my surroundings, to be where I am.  I let one language go for another.

We are encouraged to live in the moment, to be aware of what’s around us, even, for those who meditate, to feel the different temperatures of the air as we inhale and exhale.  It is good for us to know where we stand, otherwise we can get lost permanently in fantasies of elsewhere, that imagined better place where we are sure we would be happier, or more comfortable, or richer.

But the more I travel, the more our souls seem to me like elephants, giant and thick, lumbering across the savannah, moving with steady pace toward their feeding grounds, or like whales that ride a winding current across the broad expanse of sea searching for their next sustenance.

Another Side of Israel

 

When I finally overcame  jet lag, my husband and I went to see the movie “Philomena”.  A journalist, Martin, and the main character, Philomena, are traveling together seeking her son, who was taken from her and adopted out by nuns a few years after the baby’s birth. As Martin and Philomena are driving along, she asks Martin if he believes in God.  He answers that it’s a complex question and would require a complicated response that would take a long time to answer.  He turns and asks her if she believes in God.  “Yes,” she replies without hesistating.

Besides being a land of technology and innovation, Israel is a land of many faiths.  It is a Jewish State in which, by law, there is freedom of religion.  Officially, the State recognizes five religions:  Judaism, Christianity (10 separate sects), Islam, Druzeism, and Bahai, and unrecognized religions are also free to practice.  Percentage wise this breaks down to 75.4 percent of the over 7 million people in Israel are Jewish, 20.3 percent are Muslim, and the other 4.3 percent are the other groups.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs assists all the affiliations and contributes to the repair and preservation of holy shrines.  All holy shrines are protected by the government and all are accessible to pilgrims,and religious institutions get State support and funding.

Most of the people of faith with whom I come into contact are Jewish.  When I think of people of faith I know, three stories stand out.. The first is about a man with whom I work.  He is an energetic, jovial man in his 50s, who loves people, laughter, and conversation. He and I were talking and complaining about taxes one day when an announcement came over the radio about someone winning a million shekels.  I asked him what he would do if he won.  With no hesistation, he answered, “I would buy a Torah for my synagogue.”

It seems simple, but in the days after that short conversation, I realized what I had heard.  With a windfall of a million shekels (about $289,000), the first thing this man thought of was to buy a holy book for his community.  He would be fulfilling a traditional, but hard to fulfill commandment.  Buying a Torah scroll is not a modest purchase:  the scroll, the first five books of the Jewish bible, is written by hand on parchment.  It takes a year to write and costs around 103,926 shekels ($30,000).  That would be nearly half the winnings.

Another story came not directly to me, but through a friend.  A woman he knew on a kibbutz near the Jordan River had come with her husband from Europe to live in Israel.  In Europe they had tried for years and years to have children, to no avail.  A friend told them to move to Israel and they would have children.  They took the advice, moved to Israel, leaving a whole life behind, and before long were parents of two sons.

In the third story, a Jewish visitor to Israel needs to go to the police station on some business.  When she finishes, the police captain tells her that every time she comes to Israel it is a fullfillment of a commandment, so she should not only come, but she should move to Israel.  She tells him she can’t because of her son’s serious illness.  The policeman says “Bring him to Israel and he will be healed.”

These anecdotes deal with three of our most serious concerns:  money, birth, death.  It would be possible to collect similar anecdotes from any of the religions in Israel; Israel is a holy land to all of them.  Sometimes the stories would amount to simple statements of faith, sometimes they would point to action resulting in what appeared to be miracles, and sometimes perhaps they would raise questions of belief and how to carry out those beliefs.

Besides the scientific and technological innovations in Israel, and all the media coverage of politics and problems, there exists this other vital side:  mosques scattered throughout the country, Jerusalem’s many churches, the international center of the Bahai faith in Haifa . . . People of dozens of languages, faiths and beliefs, all stirring the universe for answers.

 

Israel 3

I have seven things to tell about Israel this time, and I can personally recommend them all.  (I’ve been very busy when I’ve been off the base. )  I’ll begin with En Gedi, a nature reserve at the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, on the shore of the Dead Sea.  The reserve covers about 3500 acres and there are two valleys running through it fed by sweet water springs.  Imagine it like one of the adventure films you saw when you were little:  you’re trekking across the dry desert, parched and, turning up into the hills, suddenly you hear water and you look up to see jujube trees and acacias, balsam, and cordia. Down below you, at the edge of the stream are ibex and if you walk slowly the rock hyrax will sit still and watch you ascend toward the falls.  Tristam’s grackles fly overhead. You think maybe you are in paradise. You’re not, but you are in En Gedi.  If you could be there at night, you might see the rare leopard, or an Afghan fox, or a wolf.  More likely you’ll be there in the day, hiking upward toward one of the falls where you can jump in and cool down.  Go ahead.  People have been doing it for 5000 years.

From En Gedi, we drove north and stopped at Qumran National Park, another, like En Gedi, of the 65 national parks in Israel.  Like En Gedi, Qumran has long had a Jewish population.  It was settled around the 8th century BCE, but that’s not what made it famous.  Around the 2nd century BCE, the Essenes, a break-away sect, made a community there and except for a 25 year hiatus after an earthquake, stayed until 68 CE when the Romans drove them out.  While they lived at Qumran, the Essenes made scrolls in their scriptorium, including books of the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and some of the sect’s own works. When the sect was threatened, as it was ultimately by the Romans, the members tucked their scrolls, what we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls, in clay jars and hid them in the caves that dot the surrounding hills.  The jars sat there for 2000 years, well preserved because of the dry desert air, waiting to be discovered by Bedouins shepherds in 1947.

Last night I had dinner with a family of Iraqi Jews. The grandparents came to Israel in the 1950s, soon after Independence.  There were about 20 people at the dinner, but they told me this was a small group because usually the whole family came.  Being with them reminded me of my year and a half  in Afghanistan.  We talked and ate and laughed and ate more and then talked more and then ate more.  In this tiny but cosmopolitan country, it is exciting to think that from the northern border to the southern border there are Iraqi, Afghan, American, Canadian, German, South American, Nepalese, African, Italian, French, Czech, Austrian, Dutch ….orthodox, conservative, reform, and secular Jews all sitting down to Shabbat dinner every Friday night.

Before that fine dinner last night, I spent the day at Zikron Yakov with a group of students from the IDC in Herzlyia, a private international university with top scholars on faculty.  The first thing we did when we arrived in Zikron was plant trees.  Why?  Because next week is Tu b’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, and hundreds of people plants trees for the holiday, making the desert bloom even more than it already is.  Once we’d rinsed our hands and put the shovels away, we went down to the winery, one of 200 in Israel.  This particular one was developed in the late 19th century by the Rothchilds.  The town is situated on high hills back from the sea, and originally, the settlers had hoped to raise vegetables and fruits there, but the soil was not right.  It was right though, Rothchild knew, for grapes, and thus the winery and it’s now gold-medal studded welcome room.

I have a little necklace I wear. It’s ceramic, a turquoise circle with a red center.  I wear it on a green cord, and it’s one of my favorite things.  I bought it from a young woman in Jerusalem several years ago.  She was making money for her schooling and had learned jewelry through one of the program of  Yad Sarah, the largest charity organization in Israel.  Yad Sarah has 16 sorts of support services, but they are most known for lending medical equipment, and on no small scale.  They save the Israeli economy about $400 million every year in medical costs, and at the same time help Arabs, Christians and Jews in need of medical equipment but without the means to pay for it.  My necklace reminds of what big things can come from a simple idea.

Back to volunteer work tomorrow.  I’m ready to sleep now and I’m going to put on my favorite song of the Yemenite Moroccan singer, Eyal Golan.  His rich golden voice will carry me into yet another aspect of Israeli culture.

 

Israel-2

Lately I’ve been thinking about another volunteer, a man I met formerly during a Sar-el program and with whom I just worked again on another session of Sar-el.  His name is Zvi Gellis.  Professor Gellis is director of the Penn Center for Mental Health and Aging, director of the Ann Nolan Reese Penn Aging Concentration, a Hartford National Faculty Scholar/Research Mentor, and an expert in mental health services research concerned with older patients.  I talked with him after work hours one day, standing in the sun outside our quarters.  He is an intense, trim young man of good spirit and ready laugh.  For a few minutes, we reminisced about other places in Israel where we had volunteered, and then I asked him about his work.

Gellis  is on sabbatical this year.  As well as volunteering, he has met with staff of one of the Israeli hospitals with hopes of creating a pilot program, here in Israel, for the use of telehealth.  Telehealth is a distance monitoring program for chronically ill older patients  (65 and older) who struggle with heart disease, diabetes, COPD etc.

In the telehealth project, with which Gellis works in the States, there exists a central monitoring station run by nurses and social workers.  I asked him why social workers, and he explained that chronic diseases and depression are often twins, so the program treats the complete phenomenon of the illness. The central station is connected electronically with the patients’ homes and thus, the patients, who have their own monitors, can be anywhere, near or far from the main station. Once a day, the patients simply get online and are monitored by the nurses/social workers. If there are problems, the nurse can teleconference with the patient, to determine what needs to be done.

The system is cost effective — something we all need in our health care system — and as I listened to Gellis talk, I thought that it also has the added benefit of allowing patients to work along with the medical staff rather than being passive receptors of care.

Israel exports more life-saving medical technology per capita than any other country.  Surely part of the reason is Israel’s lively relationships and technical and experimental exchange with professionals of other nations, like Gellis and the other men and women who work for the benefit of us all.

 

Israel

It’s soon the beginning of the second week of volunteering in Israel.   The group of volunteers of which I am a part is an eclectic bunch.  We’re a melange of men and women, young and old, from Switzerland, the U.S., the Netherlands, Canada, France, Spain, and the Czech Republic.  We speak a variety of languages and come from a variety of backgrounds.  One man was an engineer on a ship that brought displaced persons to Israel in the 1940s, one woman is a former member of a diplomatic corps, another young woman is volunteering while she considers joining the Israeli Defense Forces.  One man was in business in Africa for decades and is volunteering during retirement.

I’m working with medical supplies this time.  Medical staffs from Israel have been fast on the scene of world disasters, most recently in the Philippines, and I like to imagine that my very small work makes a difference to people who need help.  Last blog I mentioned some of the discoveries/advancements Israeli companies have made in medicine and other fields.  I think I forgot the ReWalk, the first commercially viable upright walking assistance tool, which enables paraplegics to stand, walk, and climbs stairs.

I always feel a sense of excitement here because Israel is still so new compared to other countries.  Even the infrastructure is still being created.  Railroads and new roads are being built, people are moving south and north away from the center to start new communities.  This makes for a sense of motion.  Part of this sensation is created by the social freedom one finds here.  Gender equality is enshrined in Israeli law.  Women pursue all occupations, and are the majority in higher education. On the issue of gay rights, Israel’s laws are more progressive than most other countries in the world, including the U.S.   Outside of any issues there is the the population itself:  it comes from all over the world, in a stream of colors and languages and cultural practices.

Back to work tomorrow.

 

 

 

Traveling Again

Traveling Again

A busy week.  Hanukkah begins Wednesday night; Thanksgiving is on Thursday, and then only a weekend before I leave for Israel.  Every trip, I promise myself I’ll be ready early, and every trip there’s chaos before I go: buying presents, running to the bank, packing.

Once I’m in Israel, I can relax and concentrate on the volunteer work with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that keeps me busy five days a week.  On weekends I visit friends and family, travel a little, walk the beach, and eat great food in friends’ houses and in an eclectic assortment of ethnic restaurants. I just get a good dose of being in one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world.

The volunteer work I do is important to me.  I want to help in a real way, in a country that does so much good in the world.

As I write this, 150 Israeli doctors and nurses from the IDF Home Front Command are at a field hospital in the small agricultural town of Bogo on Cebu Island, Phillipines.  They are delivering babies, restoring sight to people blinded, treating diarrhea, fever, and respiratory problems in people suffering after the disaster of Typhoon Haiyan.

Like many other countries all over the world, Israelis send aid/personnel where it’s needed in times of disaster.  They were among the first in Haiti, they were in Turkey after the earthquake, sent food during the drought in Ethiopia–the list goes on.

At home, the Israelis are making changes by leaps and bounds in the world of medicine. “Save a Child’s Heart” performs free open-heart surgery for underprivileged children from around the world, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.  Forty-nine percent of these patients are from Palestinian communities, Jordan, Iraq, and Morocco.

Israelis developed an AIDS treatment that targets and destroys 40 percent of HIV-infected cells without affecting healthy cells.  Dr. Avram Hershko and Dr. Aaron Ciechanover won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for research on the regulatory protein ubiquitin.  There work will lead to finding new treatments and cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well as genetic disorders.  An Israeli company, Given Imaging, pioneered capsule endoscopy, now the gold standard for small bowel visualization. The PillCam is an ingestible video camera that allows pain-free, noninvasive visualization of the small intestine and esophagus to detect disease. There are many many other advances in the field of medicine in Israel; simply put, Israel exports more life-saving medical technology per capita than any other country.

Next time from Israel, I’ll be talking about gay rights, gender equality and other aspects of Israeli life, and after that, some interviews with other volunteers from countries around the world.

A Perpetual Journey 2

A Perpetual Journey, 2

Lately I’ve been rereading works by authors of the American West.  One particularly intriguing author is David Kranes.  I met Kranes some years ago when he invited me as a guest artist at the Sundance Institute; he’s written a good deal since then. This past week, I’ve been re-reading his collection of short stories set in Idaho, The Legend’s Daughter, published by Torrey House Press.

Kranes is a writer and playwright whose work has won the Pushcart as well as other prizes and whose plays have been performed throughout the United States and abroad.  For 14 years, he was artistic director at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, where he served as dramaturg and mentored to such fine playwrights as Tony Kushner and Robert Schenkkan. His novel, The National Tree, was adapted for television.

The list of Kranes’s accomplishments is long and varied and intriguing. (He’s an expert at casino design, an award-winning teacher, and from personal experience I know he is an astute and gracious critic, who knows how to improve with no wounds.

The important thing is to read his work. His writing will intrigue, and at times, scare you, and if you are interested in language/fiction, it will send you scrambling to figure out how he does what he does with words and characters.  You’ll think, “This can’t be,” and then you’ll see that it can.

On the initial reading of The Legend’s Daughter, I was so taken by the tight dialogue, by the unexpected juxtaposition of characters, and by the surprises at the turns of the narrative, that I could have missed Kranes’s generous humanity.  His world seems at first to be unlike the world of most of us; a world of sudden shifts of circumstances, of the almost magical appearance of strangers; it’s a world where characters are compulsive. Not like us.  But reading, following the characters, you remember yourself and think Wait! This is like my world. These fears and failings, this grace and cruelty, these impetuous acts are all mine as well. Kranes’s situations, sometimes gentle, sometimes threatening, dangerous or not, plunge ahead, into unknown territory, physical or emotional, and ultimately into some understanding—or not.  Just like us.

For me one of the most compelling stories in the book is “Idaho”.  A man who is looking for peace after the last in a string of failed long-distance relationships decides to drive to Idaho, where it is “wet and gemlike and powerful” and “far enough away for love to happen”. By surreal circumstances he is enticed—in one of the most gripping passages in the book—into an ice cave.  What happens there will make you think hard, about love, about yourself, and about how powerful the urge to tell stories.

 

 

 

A Perpetual Journey

In part 46 of Song of Myself, Walt Whitman wrote “I tramp a perpetual journey.”  I’ve borrowed part of Whitman’s phrase for the title of this blog. We all live a perpetual journey in some way; for me it has been a literal journey that hasn’t yet found an end:  traveling, living, and working through the American Midwest, West Africa, Afghanistan, Israel, Europe, and the American West.  As I think about life, it seems to me that I live in a great “muchness.”  This is to say I live in a mélange of memories: people and places that populate my mind and that I still see or yearn for and wonder about as I walk the Bonneville Trail, stand on the Ponte delle Guglie, or bag sand on the Lebanon border:  writers in Utah and Oregon, painters and authors in Israel, Venetian artists and craftmen, Tuscan revelers, comedians, soldiers, laborers, professors, cancer patients . . . dozens of lives unreeling in the mind. Thinking of them, and of Whitman again in the same part of Song of Myself,  “I know I have the best of time and space and was never/measured and never will be measured” and so I want to write here what, because of circumstances, no one else can write: this particular gathering of people and places I’ve been fortunate to know.

For an introduction, I’ll begin with a piece I published in Stories to Gather All Those Lost.  It’s a short commentary about learning the surprise a place can give you, even though you thought you knew it well.

It is 8 p.m. and I have decided to go for a walk.  I will find out tomorrow that the winds tonight are 65 mph and, with the wind-chill factor, the temperature is -80 degrees.  But I do not know this yet, and I think only of the walk.  I dig my jacket with the coyote-fur hood out of the closet.  It is an old military jacket I was given when I was a visiting poet in a prison in the Midwest.  It embarrasses me to have it; every time I wear it, I think of all the jackets like it and all the coyotes that were killed in order to make them: thousands of coyotes, all slaughtered for the Air Force.  Still, I keep it. It reminds me of the young prisoners and me, immured in the sloping stubble fields of central Iowa, all huddling in our khaki green jackets crossing the barren prison grounds to the classroom building.

When I step off the back porch, away from the protection of the garage, someone punches me in the chest.  I suck air. It is the wind. I pull the hood as far forward as it will go, creating a six-inch, fur-circled tunnel around my face.  It could be perfect.  I am warm from the waist up and around my head, but I have forgotten to wear long underwear, and my jeans are too thin:  only a minute out and my thighs hurt.

But I will not go back.  I am alone with the wind, the way I want to be.

I turn left, skirt the golf course on the north, and head toward Lundstrom Park, where, on a night last summer, I lay in the grass next to the canal and watched the Perseid meteor showers.  Now the park is cold and barren, the wind slapping against the ball diamond backstops.  The road and walks are clogged with drifts.

Tonight the wind is in a wild dance with the snow, and the wind is the stronger partner.  It howls across the surface of the streets and yards, ripping away the fine top layer of the drifts, incited to a cold stinging fog that swarms over the drifts and scuffles along a frozen gutter.  Bearing the snow, the wind shifts and dodges along the ground, stops suddenly, then leaps again, lashing my feet and legs.  Across from Lundstrom, I turn west, toward the dirt hills.  The wind is behind me now, plummeting down from the Bear River Range.  This wind wants me to do something wild.

I cut off the street into the dirt hills.  The street is too safe I’ve decided.  How far do I need to go for wilderness?

Fifty yards in, the drifts are suddenly waist high and hard.  It is as if I stood still and they crept in around me.  I start over them, slip, regain balance just before I fall, and then slip again.  I can’t get a grip on the sanded snow.  The drifts undulate in front of me.  Sucking air, I make my way.  One strong gust and I am blown down, rolling as I fall to the bottom.

Things are getting serious.  This isn’t suburbia; this isn’t Maple Drive, winding gently through one of the older developments of the town.

A friend, Kim, once told me, “Know your place.”  I think of him.  My place is a brick house behind a row of maple trees.  Secure in that warm house, I make stew and the watch the snow pile against the juniper bushes.

Tonight, only blocks away, I find another of my places.  I have walked here dozens of times before, and I know now I never knew this place; I am only beginning to understand.  This wind-torn barren field, scarred by backhoes, disfigured by the encroachment of ranch houses, is keeping itself.  The wind slaps me in the face, and I pay attention.

I push myself to my knees, dig in the steel toes of my boots, and heave myself upward, leaning hard into the wind.  My hands ache, my thighs sting.

I begin to run; I am only on the edge of being frightened.  Mostly, I am cold.  I run in a jerky, uneven motion.  My boots grip one step and slip the net, one step slides and the next sinks, waist deep.  I stumble, fall, and grope my way toward the road, head into a wind too painful to breathe.

My friend’s mother died in a drift at the end of her street.  She wanted to die there.  She planned it that way, and she went there on purpose to freeze to death.  She was only yards from a house.

This story I’m telling is small.  It is just one of the many of a season when I learned to let the snow take me.  To let it gather me in with all those lost.

 

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