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December 2009

PAL – Arriving in Haifa, sick and well

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

One thing I like about being sick is that it decreases my capacity for fret and worry. Granted, it also decreases my capacity for just about everything else, as well, but there were times at the beginning of our trip (during the times I wasn’t vomitting) that I was actually thankful for the focus that my sickness offered.

After Doug and I were well, someone jokingly referred to our sickness as a pre-pilgrimage “cleansing”, and I had actually thought of that to a certain degree. Not only was I not able to rely on comfort eating to deal with my anxiety about travelling in a foreign country, I wasn’t able to rely on most of what I count on – physical strength, clear thinking, a home I can easily get to with phone access to doctors, familiar pharmacists who can recommend medicine, probiotics and soy yogurt from Trader Joe’s to help repopulate the good bacteria in my intestinal tract, Emergen-C drink, sports drinks for renewing electrolytes – none of that was available, at least not without expending much more time and effort than Doug or I could afford.

So without any of those fallback comforters, it was easy to remember God’s role as Comforter. And without physical strength to draw on, it was easier to remember that I have spiritual strengths as well, and to tell myself this was a good opportunity to use them. Patience, faith, love, persistence, determination, appreciation of beauty, and probably many others came into play as I moved my body along when I had to, sat when I could, and silently said the “remover of difficulties” prayer when I needed to. Remembering regular prayer and meditation has been a challenge for me in my daily life, but here I had been given an opportunity to give my outer life a break while the inside life got its workout. That was a blessing.

At the Haifa train station, there were hardly any folks besides me and Doug, maybe because they had all moved to the main lobby much more quickly than we were able to. As we shuffled our way out the front door, we saw a group of dark-haired men talking and standing near a series of about four small white cars. One of the men nodded to the others and came up to me and Doug as I sat on the stairs to catch my breath. “Taxi?” he said. Doug’s face looked pained. I had figured out from the map that we were not very far from our hotel, and under other circumstances we probably would have walked.

“How much?”

“Where are you going?”

“Haddad House.”

“I know that place. Forty shekels.” The man gave a side-nod of the head, his arms out in a brief gesture that seemed to imply he was giving us a deal. His stance showed us he was ready to either grab our bags or walk away.

Doug looked at me, I shrugged, and Doug turned back to the man. “Okay.”

Once in the cab we went through the familiar, “Where are you from?” bit, but this time with a twist. Doug told the driver we were from Seattle, to which the driver replied, “Seattle Super Sonics!” Doug’s face lit up and fell at the same time, a smile and mock-mourning sharing time on his face. “Oh,” said Doug. “Not anymore.” The two of them talked NBA for the rest of the trip, which, predictably, was not very long, though longer, we later discovered, than warranted by what was essentially a 5-block distance. It didn’t matter, though. We were glad for the transportation.

Haddad House is on the main road leading from the Haifa harbor up to the base of Mount Carmel. From there, the terraces of the shrine of the Bab take over, nine long and beautifully landscaped terraces leading up to the shrine, which is known for its beautiful and distinctive gold dome, different from a mosque, but just as inspirational of worship. As Doug and the cab driver took our luggage out of the trunk of the taxi, I let my gaze wander up Ben Gurion Avenue to the mountain, and I was surprised. “Doug! Look at the shrine!”

Doug looked up to see. What should have been a gold dome not too far in the distance was just a large mystery object wrapped up in light beige cloth – another pilgrim later compared it to a gigantic lampshade. We found out later that the gold tiles of the dome were being replaced one by one and that the whole project would take three years. I loved it, though I couldn’t describe why. Maybe it was because the wrapped up dome reminded me of a Christo art piece. But now, after I’m home, it seems like it was another sign to pay more attention to the draw of the spiritual than the flash of the physical.

PAL – Child soldiers

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Having the end-of-the-line bus station next to the train station is very handy, and doubles one’s people-watching pleasure.

I felt lucky, as we walked to the ticket booth and then to the stairs down to the train platform to be surrounded by Israeli soldiers. It was a welcome distraction from nausea to absorb the sight of hundreds of young people in khaki green uniforms milling around. I had forgotten that Israeli citizens are required to serve in the armed forces. From what Doug and I could tell, they must be conscripted right out of high school, because they all looked so young.

“Children with guns,” Doug commented later. Only a few of them actually carried large plasticky-looking guns, a shade darker green than the uniforms. At first Doug and I had the brief impression of the guns being toys, but we were pretty sure they were real assault rifles. Doug remembered that Uzis are made in Israel (a very guy thing to know) and he wondered if that’s what we were seeing. I only saw young men, no women, carrying these weapons, slung cross-ways over their shoulders, often with one hand touching the rifle casually as the other hand gestured toward a fellow khaki-wearing soldier.

It was one of these soldiers who pointed out to Doug a level below us where we should wait for the train to Haifa. Amidst the casual bustle of a pleasant afternoon, Doug headed down the stairs as I stopped and caught my breath. A non-soldier young man spoke to me in Hebrew and pointed behind me to some elevator doors. I smiled some thanks, maybe even said “Todah” (thanks in Hebrew), but decided to follow Doug, who was way ahead of me and out of earshot, so that he wouldn’t be worried about where I was.

What a warm day it was, so different from what we had left at home. We settled in a sunny spot on a black mesh-metal bench, one of many on the long concrete platform. I lay down, my head on Doug’s lap, and soaked in the sunshine, letting it heal me as I watched a group of women soldiers gather on and around the bench next to us. Some of them wore kelly green rimless soft caps, but more often the caps seemed to be tucked into a little shoulder strap, adding a splash of color to their outfit, like a cheerful, oddly-placed boutonniere.

Once on the train, Doug and I sat across from each other, Doug next to a gentleman who spoke a little bit of English, asking us, “Where you are?” Brief confusion resolved in an understanding that he wanted to know where we (obvious foreigners) came from.

“Seattle. Washington. United States.” “Ah,” he said with a head nod. And soon we and all of the passengers filling every seat of the car, felt the rythmic vibrations of moving along on a train. Some people talked, some people fell asleep, and I finally felt useful as I perused the maps I had gathered and figured out which of the three Haifa stops would be closest to our hotel. I could understand better than Doug the prerecorded woman’s voice coming over the speakers, announcing each stop. So I listened for her voice and alternately watched passengers and scenery as the train lulled me into a comfortable semi-doze. In about an hour, we were in Haifa.

PAL – Phase one

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

And now we come to the “At Least It Makes For a Good Story” portion of our program. An illness turns Doug’s and my boring plans of exploring Tel Aviv into An Adventure In Trying Not to Puke.

I really thought Doug was being a wimp when he started complaining of nausea. I didn’t tell him that, of course, trying to be a supportive wife and all. I thought maybe he had just tired himself out.

As soon as we had gotten to our room in the Center Hotel in Tel Aviv, I had plopped down on the bed and promptly fallen asleep. Five hours on a plane, a seven hour layover, and ten more hours on a plane had taken its toll on me. I pride myself on being able to fall asleep anywhere and under any circumstance, but for some reason, plane slumber had eluded me. It might have had something to do with the pull of the personal movie screen in front of me and a large selection of movies to choose from (including Bollywood! Woo Hoo!) But whatever the reason, I was so tired that by the time I had access to an actual bed, there was no stopping the coma-like somnolence that ensued.

Doug, however, had spent a few hours walking around our temporary neighborhood instead of sleeping. A few hours after he finally came to bed, Doug was puking loudly in the toilet. I was embarrassed at how loud Doug vomits. I’m not saying it’s a character flaw, but I was sure he was waking the neighbors.

That morning, between his digestive tract convulsions, Doug would rest, and I would lament the fact that he wasn’t able to come do things with me. I was feeling very intimidated by the foreignness of everything. Doug did manage to come with me to the breakfast provided for us at the Cinema Hotel, just steps away from our place. He barely took in some coffee and water while I feasted on cucumber/tomato salad, some kind of purpley pickley fish, and some spinach-filled pastries, washed down with orange juice and topped off with coffee. Doug kept holding his head in his hands, elbows on the table, hardly being sociable at all, finally saying that he really needed to get back to our room. Once there he immediately vomitted in the toilet. The bathroom was so small that Doug’s bottom half stuck out into the room – thus leaving no way to close off the thunderous noise.

I was feeling even less sympathetic when I decided to go out and exchange money. I went down to the front desk, a compact affair on a level next to and slightly above the waiting area where two couches faced each other and were surrounded by clear plastic chairs. I asked the man at the desk where the post office was, and he smiled in humorous pity, because it was directly across the street, its red and white sign fully visible through the completely glass front of the hotel lobby. Of course the sign was in HEBREW, and I had no idea what it said.

I walked over the to building, which soon revealed its postal workings through large glass windows. As I stepped inside, a series of numbered booths and waiting pull-numbers and a screen with Hebrew directions and people speaking things I couldn’t understand intimidated me so thoroughly and quickly that I stepped right back out the door and back across the street to our hotel.

As soon as Doug started feeling a little more settled, it was mine turn to get sick. I’m happy to tell you that MY vomitting is not embarrassingly loud, but is instead quite dainty and feminine. (Yeah, right.)

Anyway, hotel checkout was noon, but Doug asked the front desk for one more hour. Though both of us were weak, we headed down to the lobby at 1:00, and Doug both impressed and humilated me by having a very easy and enjoyable time exchanging money at the post office, having figured out the instruction screen and the number waiting system with no problem.

When we found out that a taxi ride to Haifa was going to cost 500 shekels (100 dollars = 371 shekels, so 500 shekels = too much), we decided to take the 5ish shekel per person bus ride to catch the 26 shekels per person train to Haifa instead.

But the going was slow. Standing up was an exercise in stength, and Doug and I had to walk about 3 blocks to a bus stop, each of us carrying a backpack and a wheely bag. It was definitely not comfortable. And once we were on the bus, it took me a few blocks’ worth to decide that I really needed to get off the bus. At the next stop, it took us longer than the bus driver appreciated for us to gather all of our stuff together, and he started driving off after the quicker passengers had left. But he did stop, a little past where we finally pulled all of our stuff together on a bench, just in time for me to hurry toward a little tree behind a fence, where I puked and puked until I finally no longer felt the compulsion to do so. Then I wiped my mouth a little, lamented the terrible taste , and joined Doug to wait for the next bus.

“Pilgrim at Large” Begins

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

I have been wondering where to begin my writings about pilgrimage. And amidst all of the images and ideas in my mind, it finally occured to me to write about the application process, since that is where pilgrimage begins.

It is enjoined on all Baha’is, of which there are 5 million (and counting) worldwide, to go on pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. To do this, they must request permission, and that request is put on a waiting list that lasts years.

At this point I can’t remember how I requested a pilgrimage. What did I say? Did I begin with, “Dear Universal House of Justice” or “To Whom it May Concern”? Or did I just start right in with a direct request: “I would like to be considered for pilgrimage”? Or maybe I even decided to flower it up a bit and ask to be considered “for the blessing and opportunity” or the “grace and privelage” to be able to go on pilgrimage”?

However I said it, I’m pretty sure it was through snail mail, since my first request was in 1994, and I was a few years from having an e-mail address at that point. In fact, I didn’t have internet access at all. I think my friend Roger had e-mail, but that was a college student thing, and far from common, at least in my world. Actually, it was Roger who first encouraged me to sign up for pilgrimage. I was single then, unaware of the huge changes that marriage and children would soon bring to my life.

So I mailed a letter, however it was worded, and on December 18th, 1994, I recieved a letter from the Universal House of Justice, “Baha’i World Centre”, that said my name had been placed on a waiting list and that it would take “one to one and a half years” for my name to reach the top of the list.

In July of 1995, I married Doug. In 1996, we had a baby and moved. In 1998 we had another baby, and Doug became a Baha’i. In 2000 we moved. In 2004 we moved again. In the course of those years, I didn’t keep a record of all of my pilgrimage correspondence, in part because it was mostly through e-mails (my husband became very techno-savvy over the years), that became lost due to various computer changes and/or malfunctions.

Since I don’t have good records of that time, I’m not sure when I came to the top of the list that first time. I know once Doug and I waited for 6 years, one time for 4 years, and there was at least one or two more waiting periods. Each time I or Doug and I had to defer pilgrimage due to our kids being too young, our lives being too busy or our pockets being too empty.

In March of 2008, we received a letter saying we had reached the top of the pilgrimage list once more, and this time Doug and I decided to do it. We knew we couldn’t afford it, but a friend of ours said we would be doing our patriotic duty by running up our credit card debt. Just in case we might pull it off, we prioritized, by number twelve different dates from June 8, 2009 to January 18, 2010, with December 7, 2009 beoing our number 1. We decided that we probably wouldn’t be taking the kids, but we kept the option open, in case something miraculous happened (such as coming into the posession of millions of dollars and being able to afford extra plane tickets and an amazing nanny). Who knew? A lot could change in a year and a half.

What is a “Pilgrim at Large”?

Friday, December 25th, 2009

As previously mentioned, I’ve been thinking about elaborating on my pilgrimage experience in blog form. Part of me wishes I had been more diligent in recording my observances and experiences as they were actually happening in Israel. But another part of me understands that I need time to process things, and that my immediate recording of pilgrimage was bound to be a rough-draft note-taking and not a full elaboration of my experience.

One idea I’ve had is to write about pilgrimage for ten minutes a day, inspired by a “scene” from memory, a passage from my journal, or perhaps a quote or idea I’ve researched (such as comparisons between Baha’i pilgrimage and how other religions view and practice pilgrimage). Ideally, these blog entries could engender comments that may even inspire more blog entries, or would at least bring up new things to think about and/or discuss. However, due to some technological snag, my blog does not accomodate comments. This needs to change. But technology-related change happens very slowly in my world. Still, I must move forward!

I like the idea of a ten-minutes-a-day discipline. And I dislike my tendency to procrastinate. So here goes the first entry in my Pilgrim at Large portion of this blog. Topic to discuss: Why the title, Pilgrim at Large? (I’m going to set the microwave timer for 10 minutes and see how far my riffing takes me.)

Being a pilgrim is an isolated experience, with its quiet removal from the noise of daily concerns. Pilgrimage is enclosing and protective, like a family or meditation or a womb, and it is meant to be temporary. However, I believe that, like a family or meditation or a womb, the effects of such nurturing enclosure are meant to be lasting. After the experience of pilgrimage, a person is changed and is sent out into the world, on the loose, “at large”.

The value of being at large struck me when I pondered the lives of the Baha’is working at the Baha’i World Center (Haifa/Akka). Baha’is are not allowed to teach the Baha’i Faith in Israel, and there is no official Baha’i community in Israel. No Feasts* are held, there are no local spiritual assemblies, no firesides* or outward-reaching study circles*. Baha’is who work in Haifa and at the holy places in and around Akka are in a sort of shell, a gestation zone in which they can hold Ruhi classes*, study the writings, pray at the shrines, etc., but they cannot practice outwardly among non-Baha’is. It’s out of respect for an agreement between Abdul-Baha and the Israeli government that the situation exists. And I’m not saying that I want it to change. But I was thinking, while in Israel, that I might get tired of that after awhile.

It’s like exercising in a gym without going anywhere. I have done gym aerobics and benefited from it, but I enjoy exercise much more when it has an interactive purpose. When I move, I like going places, like walking somewhere outside, with sun singeing my pale skin, or cold pinching my cheeks and nose. It’s nice to be warm in a heated location, wearing leggings and a t-shirt, walking in front of a stationary television. But not nice enough for me. It’s boring. Somnorific.

Could I ever insinuate that a life serving in Haifa would be boring? Not really. As a matter of fact, just living in another culture would be exhilirating, and the opportunities to study Baha’i writings and to pray in the shrines would be wonderful. But it would also be like book learning without a practice element.

So now that I am home in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A., at large in the “real world”, I wonder how I have been changed. And what will I do with the changed person that I am?

During one of our first evenings in Haifa, Dr. Penny Walker, a member of the International Teaching Committee*, gave a talk to the pilgrims. In it, she talked about the change that pilgrims go through. In my journal, I wrote down, right after “Ridvan* 2008 – reread 1st paragraph” (though I don’t know if that’s where the following comes from):
“1) Transform ourselves
2) Help transform society”

I want to do both of those things.

Note: Items marked with an asterisk (*) may be unfamiliar to those who are not Baha’is. I will try to define and elaborate on some of these terms in later blog entries.

Pilgrim Thoughts

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

I am back from Israel. Doug and I spent approximately two weeks abroad, sans children, for the purpose of Baha’i Pilgrimage. Before going, I had the idea that I would write in my journal semi-constantly, or at least consistently, capturing the experience as it happened. But with illness and jet lag and busy schedule, I barely touched the surface of what I saw and heard and did and felt. I guess I could have written more on the plane, considering the trip was about 15 hours each way, but I spent most of that being uncomfortable, tired, and watching on-flight movies on the personal screen in the back of the seat in front of me.

One of the movies I watched was Julie and Julia, about a woman, Julie, who is a writer otherwise employed and who decides to blog about cooking her way through Julia Child’s first cookbook. It was a simple, feel-good movie, but I ended up crying for much of it – the I-recognize-a-truth-here kind of crying. I identified with both Julie and Julia in their quests to do something they love, something that inspires them and makes them better and ends up inspiring others. It was the culmination of all of my “What do I do now, God?” prayers to watch these women struggle and work and overcome as I flew back home to the real world and the prospect of needing to find a job, despite my writing aspirations.

The pilgrimage experience sat with me, somewhere deep, while I applied for jobs online (Early Head Start teacher, Dietary Clerk, Kitchen Aide), unpacked, and readjusted. I thought maybe my comments on the experience were used up, that maybe I had absorbed everything and didn’t have much to say about it. Then I saw my therapist, and he asked me how my trip was. Once I started talking, I had trouble stopping. I was surprised, but not that much. I know enough about myself to realize that sometimes all I need to get words out is an opportunity. I would like to give myself that opportunity. Inspired by the J&J movie, I have decided to write a blog inspired by my pilgrimage. I’m thinking of calling it “Pilgrim At Large”. It’s more of an idea than a solid decision at this point, since I have some details to work out. But if I write 10 minutes