the stranger

When we met, she was sitting on the curb in a parking lot, surrounded by bags of groceries. Her lined face was a story of decades, her hands curled up. The unrelieved black of her dress framed eyes that had stories in them, and the barrier between us of few common words prevents me from saying too much more about her.

She made the noises of machine guns to indicate her home country, and said that she cleaned homes, that her sister was trying to teach her to speak English but it was hard. She laughed a lot, and so did I. She reminded me of the women I would see sitting on park benches in Israel, staring into the past or talking to each other.

The Mississippi

I don’t know her name. But I think about her several months later, after I delivered her and her groceries to a small apartment where she invited me in for tea but I couldn’t stay. I think about how we don’t interact in any meaningful way with strangers, that I have begun craving that connection with people I barely know, if only for a few moments.

Ascension of Baha’u’llah

One year ago.

We walked in the darkness, the glow of lights far away.  The mosquitoes attacked if we sat too long, and so we walked.  The night was damp, the seats surrounding Bahji covered in dew, the rocks less dusty than usual.

We walked up the stairs and down again, we bowed our heads at the threshhold and let tears fall down our faces.

I stood in the room where the Blessed Beauty was freed from this mortal life, and felt the universe revolve around that spot.

We stood at the top of marble columns and looked out over the world, and we stared into the warm summer night, in surprise and awe at this wonderful luck. How were we here at this moment, in this place?

We told stories, whispers that carried through to hearts, and we looked up at a full sky of stars, down at our feet that carried us down the silent paths, and at the light that reflected off our eyes and souls.

Let not your hearts be perturbed, O people, when the glory of My Presence is withdrawn, and the ocean of My utterance is stilled. In My presence amongst you there is a wisdom, and in My absence there is yet another, inscrutable to all but God, the Incomparable, the All-Knowing. Verily, We behold you from Our realm of glory, and shall aid whosoever will arise for the triumph of Our Cause with the hosts of the Concourse on high and a company of Our favored angels.

(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 139)

Frog prince

We went for a walk on Sunday near the river, and I found my frog prince (ok, he is a toad, but the principle applies).  Unfortunately, he did not change into a human being.

Mr. Toad was quite adorable, however.  Just look at him!

One Day

One day was filled with the white clouds the size of universes as we walked up (down) the hills.  One day was seawater, digging toes in sand and smooth stones, not knowing how to speak to you.  One day was the infinite day of jasmine, roses, and smiles in sunlight.  One day was colder than any other, when she finally realized, on the eve of her birthday, that her eyes and smile were the most dangerous weapons she had.  The amount of power in that realization nearly brought her to her knees, scared her so badly that she sought refuge in being alone.

One day was solitude by a pond with the midsummer prairie breeze tangling her hair, bench slats pressed hard against her back as she cried to the squirrel who sat nearby, looking confused. [humans are so strange]

One day was actually five days worth of looking into eyes across café tables (lunch tables/empty living room spaces/only 2 feet between us), trying to read soul sentences that blurred and skipped [“no one should be allowed to play the record of me like you did”, she thought, half in anger, half in joy].

One day she was the sweet child she once was, and the next she was standing tall in a pair of shoes that made her body look much too wonderful, and she hid behind her clumsy silliness and sharp remarks, and smiled her deadly smile and looked around with her deadly eyes and brought life and love back to 1/3 of the inhabitants of the room (the rest of them refused to meet her gaze).

One day was photographs on blank walls, captured stories in still frames.

One day was a woman in yellow galoshes as she deliberately stepped into a giant puddle, ripples moving out and she smiled as the water flowed around her.

An afternoon in Haifa

One day in February, a few friends decided to take a walk after lunch.   Two young men and three young women took the stairs down the mountain, with no particular goal in mind.  February in Haifa is warm during the day and cooler at night, and this day was an average one.  They wandered down the twisting, cat-infested streets with the aimlessness of an empty afternoon ahead.

Upon finding trees in a park, one of them climbed an olive tree.  The others gathered around.  They all watched some dogs run by, it was such a normal thing on this wonderful little afternoon.  An old man sat on a park bench, as old men have always done and will hopefully always do.

Next to the park was a playground.  Grandmothers encouraged children to play, and watchful mothers gossiped together.  As the young people tested the playground equipment and took pictures, the adults watched, a bit mistrustfully.  Why would such young people with no apparent purpose be up to good?

Some of the streets were ones that they had never traveled, even after months and years in this city.  Some were familiar and had too many memories attached.  And as the sun went down they began to realize how hungry they were.  The consensus was that they should buy meat from the best butcher shop in the city, take it to the apartment with the large balcony, and feast into the evening.  They stopped at the bazaar to buy tomatoes, potatoes, and onions.

Walking up the mountain was harder than walking down…especially since their stomachs were starting to complain.  They arrived at their destination, immediately dividing tasks.  The young men started the grill and began to barbeque while the young women made fries in the wok and chatted in the kitchen.  They gathered around the table, placed the food in the middle, and like a proper, odd sort of family, ate one of the best meals they had ever had.

At the end, there was the important matter of dessert.  Spiced hot chocolate was made and the lights dimmed as they welcomed the evening into their lives.

the five dollar seat

Angela and Mike met on the train tonight. Mike was tall, with sunglasses shading his eyes at 1:00 am, his skin even darker against a ripped white t-shirt. Angela had sat down on the last empty seat. She had short blond hair (not her natural color) and glasses that were firmly set in place on her face.

Mike swayed with the movement on the train, his skinny body not able to stand straight. As soon as he got on the train, he was confused, and Angela said, “Honey, where are you trying to go?” They both misheard each other as they started talking, but did not seem to mind that they were not in the same conversation.

“Angela, I will pay you five dollars for your seat. My key broke.” Mike showed everyone within three feet the pieces of his key in his hand.

“Honey, you take my seat. You go on ahead. Keep your five dollars, I think you need it more than I do.” Angela smiled at him, a woman from New York in her mid-thirties, sure of herself and place in life.

They chatted with the rattling of the train punctuating their conversation. They involved a pair of club promoters (wearing the latest 80s fashion reborn), who then exchanged information with Mike.

When Angela got off at her stop with a friendly goodbye, Mike spent 10 minutes trying to put his key back together. When he finally gave up, he shoved the pieces in his pockets, sighed, and stepped out through the open doors.

memory boxes: 3

Georgia in the springtime
Magnolia trees
Bell the hound dog
Southern charm and art galleries
Tennis and the swimming pool

Bell was a bad-tempered dog.  I mean, we grew up together, in some ways, so she wasn’t too mean to me, or maybe she sensed that in my innocence, I would pamper her.  She always ran ahead when Granddaddy took us for walks, and would loops back around, nearly knocking me over and scaring me half to death in the dark woods.

My southern accent disappeared, but it struggles to come out from hiding when I am with these relatives.  Natives of Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia, half of the family still has the Southern roots strongly grounded in the soil…atheistic roots, for the most part, which made things interesting at times.

Granddaddy and Grandmommy met in art school after World War II, and they made a living on their art throughout their lives.  Granddaddy did illustrations and portraits, Grandmommy painted landscapes.  Our home is filled with their paintings and drawings.

The creek and trees behind their house used to be a dark, cool place full of mystery, but housing developers turned that magical place into a sad stand of pine trees as I grew older.  We caught crawfish and threw them back, and I will never forget my awe at a tire wrapped around a big old tree.

Everything in their house has been in the same place for the last 40 years.  I can still remember where the phone books are, the cereal, the board games, and the cookie drawer.  The furniture is in mostly the same configuration in their ranch home on the top of the hill.

We would play with the neighbor’s kids, and in the summers go to the neighborhood pool, where Grandmommy swam and Granddaddy played tennis.  They did this into their 80s.  They had their 50th Anniversary in the clubhouse there.

Dinner table discussions could almost be guaranteed to turn into a minor debate or intellectual discussion of some kind.  I mostly learned to hold my own, but have never gotten over my dislike of contention, and so did not enjoy them as much as others may have.

I can’t draw.  A cousin recently told me, “This monkey does NOT look like a monkey.”  Hey, best I could do, kid.  I didn’t inherit the ability to capture life on canvas.  My uncle taught me to whistle through my teeth and quack like a duck…thanks for passing on those skills, they’ve been quite handy.

Great-uncle and great-aunt had a wonderful house near a swamp, with a small barn and horses.  Great-aunt would let us ride the horses around the field, and I always felt so loved in their home.  When they passed away, I mourned them in quiet silence.

Grandmommy painted in the basement, and sometimes I would sneak down the long stairs to sneak looks at unfinished paintings, the bright oil paints smeared on painting boards and brushes, and the pile of animal skulls in the corner that my uncle collected in college.

We always came into the house through the kitchen door.  The front door hadn’t been used in so long that there were giant cobwebs around it.  Everything was always casual…I don’t remember any sort of formality in all the years we visited.

memory boxes: 2

Minnesota

I was born in a hospital on the Mississippi River…but I don’t remember that part of my Minnesota story.  When I was one year old, we left this state, but it has always been a second home, on account of my Persian family members living here.

There was a thunderstorm one night that shook the walls of my grandparent’s apartment.  We all gathered in the hallway, and I remember being scared but strangely exhilarated.

Persian food.  Always a table nearly bending under the weight of platters of rice, khoresht (stew), and the dozen or so side items that go along with such a feast.  The women of my family really know how to cook.  Food is the central activity that makes a family go round.  Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all in a friendly chaotic shuffle around the extended tables, taking turns in different homes.

We are a mixed family…at least 4 different countries are represented in the 24 individuals that comprise this group.  I love it.  The half-English, half-Persian language that is created in the stories and translations is so normal and comforting.   The generations of the Baha’i Faith within our family go back to the mid-1800s, and also began in the present day.  The extended family has more than 200 members.

Babajoon has a lot of random sayings and advice, and most of my enduring memories of him are of him sitting in a corner with a thick book and his glasses low on his nose.  He would make up songs about putting our seatbelts on in the car, and he is the person from whom I have inherited my social personality.  He knows everyone.

We picked fresh grape leaves in the park, and Mamanjoon taught us to make dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves), her hands deftly wrapping the edges around and neatly placing them in the pot.  Mine still don’t look like hers.  Maybe I will be able to do it in 50 years…I just need practice.  She taught us how to sew, starting with sewing buttons on pieces of scrap cloth.

I learned how to dance (Persian style) in the living rooms of my aunts’ homes.  I learned how to cook in my mother’s kitchen, and how to make kabob koobideh (ground meat on a skewer) from a few different relatives over the years.

My cousins and I were bundled into coats so thick that we could barely move, and told to play in the snow by the swing set.  The swing set is gone now…it was a hazard even when I was young.  In the summers we would be pushed around in the go-cart my cousins built, or take walks around the neighborhood.

memory boxes: 1

my childhood is split into memories of many places

early: South Carolina
wrapped in memories of the ocean
trees and hills
playing in the red clay with lizards and toads
Baha’i Feast with just two families (homefront pioneers)
wrapped in Persian rugs
“Mommy, look, we did our makeup!”
Black and white and color was not something I knew

Billy Joe fell in love with me in kindergarten. He was a small, skinny boy with a mullet, and I was a fastiduous little girl with dark brown hair and big eyes. He said that he and his brother lived in a tree house. He always had fantastic stories, but I did not like him back. He insisted that we should get married. I told him that we should bury the symbol of his love at the base of the pine tree on the playground so that no one would know. (I still feel a little bad about that.)

There was a girl in my class with long nails, painted red. I did not know of any other first-grader who had such long nails. And she chewed on them ferociously, the paint flaking off and so the nail color was never unbroken and complete.

Theresa had a wonderful back yard. There was a seesaw, a forest, and best of all, a rope swing hidden in the trees. We spent hours balanced on the board, pushing each other, telling stories and whispering of the future.

My sister and I had our own language. We made up names for the parts of the “forest” (our back yard). There was the “Haunted” section, which is where squirrels went to die. We found out later that the neighbor was poisoning them. There was the Toad Cemetery, where toads were buried in the jewelry boxes that my mother donated to our cause. And then we had our House, which was only created when we took sheets or pieces of cloth to the saplings there and draped them, making a secret fort in the leaves.

When I would get angry, my small legs would carry me to my swingset, where I would fly in the air until slowed by gravity, and incrementally come to a stop. I needed to be alone for a few moments.

My sister and I caught toads for our birthday party. Ten little girls in party dresses ran screaming when we proudly pulled them out for display. I remember my father and uncle bent over double, laughing uncontrollably. That may have been when I decided that boys were more fun to play with than girls.

Fire ants. As a barefoot child, fire ants are the bane of any intrepid little explorer, and I don’t remember how many times I ran screaming to my parents. They had an impressive collection of first aid gear, with good reason.

I stepped on nails, fell from trees, fell everywhere, bruises and cuts a constant companion. Sliced open my forehead on a kitchen cabinet. I can’t forget the terror in my mother’s eyes as she placed me on the bathroom counter and held a towel to my head while she called my father.

More pages will be devoted to other places, soon.

Forever days

The stinging, spicy aftermath of the largest salad she had ever eaten lingered on her lips and tongue. Blank pages stare at her hungrily.

look around.

One in the corner, with a calendar on her lap, the eraser end of her pencil lodged between her teeth and short dark hair swept to the side, dark eyes intent as she shuffles things around.

Slouched sideways, only the top of his hair peeks out over the book he reads, through the noise of the coffee grinder and ambient café music. Occasionally his beard appears from hiding, his hand reaches out and he drinks his frozen mocha, still immersed.

Next in line, her face is lit by the glow of her laptop. “Pictures!” she exclaims, and stares into the depths of the screen, smiling in response to something…or nothing. Her green eyes glow from within.

Across the table, he writes almost as fast as she does, their pens nearly colliding. Dim lights make blond hair only glow, not shine, and when he looks up, he meets the eyes of the girl with the calendar.

They are an awkward and comfortable rectangle with five corners.

Empty water glasses litter the table. They discuss the internet, language, anger, music, communication, and death. The natural rhythm of conversation dips down, climbs up, and plateaus, and all heads bend back down over their projects.

Darker it grows inside and out, the volume of noise rises in the café as the evening shift starts. They are silent. These are the forever days, in which no pictures are taken, but the familiar faces with familiar expressions have knowledge beyond words.

This is life.