Snake Appreciation Day

My first sighting, finally, after years of running in the New Mexico desert. A sunny day turned suddenly cool and cloudy, which must be what made this normally nocturnal creature stir.* I slowed down to let the snake cross the trail and go wherever it was going. What an amazing design. Such graceful motion. It was plain gray, not a speckle (or a rattle) to decorate its slender form. Perfectly silent, it disappeared under a bush with its gentle undulations. I crept past the bush, sneaking a look under it. No snake. I didn’t expect it would have stayed. They’re shy, after all.

As I resumed my run, I marveled at the snakeness of the snake, its directness and simplicity. There I was with how many bones in each foot, moving from one set of tarsals, metatarsals and phalanges to the other, using how many muscles in each leg and hip, with hinge joints and ball-and-socket joints in motion, postural muscles at work … I had to ask myself …

Whose locomotion shows more art?

I have so many moving parts.

But Snake can get along just fine

While being nothing but a spine.

*****

*I looked it up and concluded it was a ringneck snake. They are colored like a gray suit with a bow-tie and are rarely seen during the day. Wikipedia describes them as “dainty and inoffensive.”

 

 

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Flowering of the Heart

Never can I write of Damascus

without my fingers becoming

a trellis for her jasmine.

Nor can my mouth speak that name

without savoring the juices of her apricot,

pomegranate, mulberry and quince.

Poem by Nizar Qabbani.

Translated by students in the Iraqi Student Project

Never Can I Write of Damascus: When Syria Became our Home, by Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck is a memoir of the couple’s years with the Iraqi Student Project, preparing Iraqi refugees in Syria in to attend college in the U.S. Huck and Kubasak chose the work of creating educational opportunities for Iraqi young adults as their way of compensating in some small way for the damage done to Iraq by the U.S. invasion. They chose Syria because it had welcomed such large numbers of Iraqi refugees. Little did they know that in seven years they would be leaving Syria themselves, and that this country they came to love would be flooding the world with its own desperate refugees.

If I were not about to retire from education, I might use this book in a first-year seminar, teaching college students how to explore intellectually, do critical thinking, engage in civil discourse, and appreciate learning, language and culture for their own sake. The model of highly motivated learning in the ISP groups is fascinating, as they discovered world literature and poetry in discussion groups and worked together in writing workshops, to a large extent self-directed with guidance from Kubasak.

Through this book, I’ve learned more about Syria than I have ever learned from the news. I got a clear feeling for what it must be like to leave your home and your possessions because your life is in danger and your country at war within itself, and also for how Syria made room for refugees, first from Iraq and then from its own disrupted society. Though they make occasional references to politics, most of all Huck and Kubasak have written a love letter to Damascus: its language, its architecture, its food, its artisans, its spirituality, and its people. Damascus as it was. The city in this memoir is full of music, dancing, fresh fruit juices, family, prayers, creativity, and most of all friendliness and generosity.

The authors use excerpts from student writings, interviews with local residents, and quotations from books and poetry to illustrate the themes of each chapter. One moving story is from an Iraqi refugee. She tells about stopping in Mosul on a cold night as one of many escaping to Syria, taking shelter in a mosque. The travelers didn’t know each other, but little by little they drew closer to each other for conversation and for warmth, and thus they spent the night, comforted by each other’s human presence and warmth. They were Shia, Sunni and Christian in that group, and it no longer mattered at all.

My final meeting with my Virginia book club was special. It’s the only time we’ve had the author of the book we read join us. Two of us in the club know Theresa Kubasak as our yoga student, and we invited her to talk with us and share the in-depth stories behind her memoir.

As our guest, she did something quintessentially Syrian. Eager to share Syrian culture with us, she brought food: fresh hummus seasoned with garlic and sumac, freekah (cracked wheat with slivered almonds), figs and dates stuffed with walnuts, and the wonderful soft flatbread that she describes in her book as something people often carry home on their heads. The generosity and sociability of the Syrian people is the life force that animates the book. She embodied that spirit. In addition to cooking for us, she brought two of the books of the poems and essays written by the Iraqi refugee students she and her husband worked with, and a long white curtain inscribed by a number of the students with the best lines from their essays about spiritual life. For a while, it hung over a door in my apartment, words written by young people in Damascus. There was something moving about its presence, a scene from their lives carried into ours, bearing their words in their handwriting. One of the writers, Mustafa, had signed his name over a sketched bank of fluffy clouds. A book club member who volunteers helping Syrians resettle here was so entranced by the small volume of the student writings that she read some of the poems over and over and then had to share them aloud with us.

Another member of the club asked Kubasak what was difficult or different in returning to the U.S. after seven years in Damascus. She described a day during their readjustment to New York, where they had been living before they took on the Iraqi Student Project, including this anecdote as part of her answer: After going to various institutions and businesses on errands, she looked at her husband and remarked, “We’ve been to five places today, and no one has offered us tea.”

Not all book clubs will be so fortunate as to be able to invite the author, but if you’re in a club and need something important, moving and different to read, I recommend this. Have some Syrian food as you discuss it, and apricot or pomegranate juice and tea.

The Fascination of What’s Difficult

I memorized this poem years ago when I was working in theater and also pursuing a degree in a new field. It struck me as the perfect fit when I used it as the introduction to a research paper on stress and  health. To me, it describes the reaction of the human spirit to the demands of work—work we once chose with idealism and commitment but which now consumes us. William Butler Yeats, no doubt, rewrote the poem many times to achieve such simplicity and strength, yet the words seem to rush out in a flow of passion.

My father was my role model in many ways, the kind of person I aspire to be, with his gentleness, humor, open-mindedness, warmth, community engagement and enjoyment of the arts. He retired early from his management job to run his own small business selling specialized supplies to bird watchers. In many ways he was a cautious person, but he had the courage to risk a change when it was time. People tell me I’ve been glowing since I decided to retire early. Revisiting this poem after I’ve acted on the need it expresses, I get more out of it than ever.

How does it speak to you?

 

The Fascination of What’s Difficult

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt

That must, as if it had not holy blood

Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud

Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt

as though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays

That have to be set up in fifty ways,

On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,

Theater business, management of men.

I swear before the dawn comes round again

I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

Old and Gray: Joy Grows Deeper Day by Day

 

During my Southeast months, I teach yoga for a fitness and recreation program called “Fifty and Wiser.”  The name has always struck me as comical. At fifty and older, I hope we’re wiser than at twenty or thirty, but that’s not why there’s a whole set of exercise programs for that age group. Apparently it was not good marketing to say fifty and older, though.

In one of my online writing groups, a member asked for feedback on her new web site. Most people talked about the design and content in comparison to her old one. One person, however, addressed her sunny, smiling, middle-aged picture. He was adamant that an author should not post a picture unless he or she looked like a professional model, and said he wasn’t about to post his own picture, because he didn’t want his readers to know he was old but to think he was as young as the characters he writes about.

In honor of that comment, I’m updating my picture. In the one I’ve been using, taken indoors in black and white, my salt-and pepper hair looks only half gray. In bright sunlight, the gray shines and it looks totally silver. I like it—I’m like a little bitty silver-back gorilla. In humans, females get that honor as well as the males.IMG_7667

At the present progress of the Mae Martin Series, she hasn’t turned thirty yet. Starting with a young character allows me to keep the series going for decades if I choose, and the tumult and challenge of that stage of life make for good stories, but at that age I didn’t have either the patience or the perspective to write them.

Yeats published this poem in 1893, a young man imagining his beloved’s aging.

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

 

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with a love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

 

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

 ***

 When he was old, he wrote The Apparitions.

(I’m only including the final verse; you can read the rest at http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/william-butler-yeats/the-apparitions/ )

When a man grows old his joy

Grows more deep day after day,

His empty heart is full at length

But he has need of all that strength

Because of the increasing Night

That opens her mystery and fright.

Fifteen apparitions have I seen;

The worst a coat upon a coat hanger.

 

***

Who will we become when our empty coat is left behind? Aging. The heart grows full, while the hair grows hollow, light passing through it like a halo.