Current Events

Equality Is Fact. Now What?

“Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God.”

So wrote Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, some 150 years ago. If you believe, as I do, that He was delivering the directions God wants us to follow for the next thousand years or so (more like 850, as of now), then that statement is a spiritual reality.

Anything that varies from that statement isn’t true and never has been. The notion that women were or are inferior is indicative of human failings, period. That doesn’t mean that women and men are the same. Each has different strengths and tendencies, both positive and negative. But in capacity, capability, and station, we are equal.

In fact, according to additional material from Bahá’u’lláh and explained by His son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, any perceived inequity between men and women is largely due to unequal education and subsequent opportunity over time. (Which is one reason why Bahá’u’lláh calls for the equal education of sons and daughters. And if that’s not possible, He calls for the education of daughters.)

So, looking at the current world situation, what would happen if we changed our lens?

How would things be different if we didn’t look at equality as an aspiration, but a fact?

What if, at this moment, every human being recognized that equality has been true from time immemorial and will be true to time immemorial?

I have a feeling many people point to the eradication of wage gaps, more equitable leadership representation, more favorable prosecution of gender-based crime, etc. And I agree.

And … what about the elimination of preference for mothers in custody cases? What about the expectation of equal responsibility for actions in all circumstances? What about an equal requirement to register for the draft (already in place in some countries, but not in the U.S.)?

I realize this will not be a popular point to make, but I think it’s important for us to consider that the recognition of the reality of equality does not translate to men changing or giving things up while women remain the same or get things.

Instead, it requires a wholehearted and universal shift in our comprehension of our roles, behavior, and expectations as men and women.

Give it a go! Leave a comment to let me know how you think things would change, whether you like them or not. I’m curious to see your ideas!

Requiem for an Age

Defender of the little ones. Since the passing of Senator John McCain on Saturday, that snippet of a prayer has been rattling around in my head.

I don't do politics. Period. I place my bet ... I mean, cast my vote ... based on what I can gather about a candidate's character, through all of the garbage with which our system of elections and government is cluttered and clogged up.

There is, after all, a responsibility that comes with the decision to accept or seek out public office. It's supposed to be a sacrifice, not an aspiration.

I couldn't give a flying fig what party, platform, or talking points someone espouses. I only care whether, in daily decisions or when all hell breaks loose, I think I can have some faith that the individual will make morally driven and spiritually guided choices, even if those choices may lead to that person's complete political ruin.

What prayers the person says don't matter to me. But if, in a given situation, that person believes that the best course of action is to bomb something into a parking lot, for example, I'd like to think that the decision involved some consultation with a power greater than him- or herself. 

Senator McCain gave that impression. He was a politician and owned up in many interviews to having chosen expediency or popularity in the interest of vote-getting, despite compromising his personal values in the process. He also owned up to knowing that he hadn't made the right choice in those cases.

And he was a dominant presence in our nation's leadership from the time I was about 9 onward. One of the last relics of an age when character and integrity were still qualities we expected to see worn on someone's sleeve, or written on their forehead, even when they waded into the quicksand of politics.

Case in point: For all that the senator was known as a supporter of the military and an outspoken patriot, as a former prisoner of war and survivor of torture, as a man who stood up for his political opponent, and as a statesman who worked for what he thought was right, regardless of the party affiliation from whence an idea came ... he was also a staunch believer in the need to protect basic freedoms and opportunities for people around the world. 

"Human rights exist above the state and beyond history," he wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year. "They cannot be rescinded by one government any more than they can be granted by another. They inhabit the human heart, and from there, though they may be abridged, they can never be extinguished."

As just one way of living that ideal, Senator McCain was among the most steadfast voices speaking out for the well-being of the Baha'is in Iran. He was also aware, even before most American Baha'is become aware, that our coreligionists were under threat beyond Iran's borders. 

In video from an event in Arizona in 2010, a member of the audience thanked the senator for his cosponsorship of senate resolutions condemning the persecution of the Baha'is in Iran and asking him to continue his support.

"I know that many of you are more familiar with the Baha'i religion than I am, but I know something about it. And I know it's the gentlest of religions," Senator McCain responded. "How anyone could believe that people of the Baha'i Faith could pose a threat to anybody, given the tenets of their faith, is something that I have never been able to comprehend. So, I understand that the persecution of Baha'i people is not only the case in Iran, but it's also the case in some other countries, as well."

Which brings me back to defender of the little ones.

It's part of the praise offered to God at the end of a prayer written by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in his rooms in Akka, now at the northern edge of Israel, in a 1917 tablet addressed to the Baha'is living in the western United States. In context, it follows a supplication for God to support the reader, who is "single, alone and lowly," in offering service and Divine wisdom.

There must have been something in the water in Arizona, Senator McCain. Thank you for your service. Thank you for defending the little ones. 

Pa and Ma and Me

I probably shouldn't start this with, "What is revisionist history?" or, "Whose 'truth' is more true?" or, "Does deleting all mention of something mean it didn't happen?"

These are just some of the questions that have been passing through my mind over the past 48 hours or so, since I learned that the Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, has renamed the 64-year-old Wilder Medal. It shall henceforth be called the Children's Literature Legacy Award. 

Now, let me be clear about something. Until Monday, I couldn't have told you there was a Wilder Medal. I don't have kids, nor siblings, nor nieces or nephews. I do come from a family full of readers and I have an aunt who somewhat recently retired from a career as a librarian. Needless to say, my own childhood bookshelves were filled with loads of European and American classics. And I still have some of them.

Among those are most of the tomes from the series of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books. Every Christmas season, I revisit the arrival of Pa and Mr. Edwards with the sticks of candy and small sugar cakes and the shiny tin cups and the pennies and the tale spun about meeting Santa Claus. Cap Garland is still, in my mind's eye, the handsomest town rescuer there ever was. Handsomer, even, than Almanzo Wilder. 

I vaguely remember that there was some interaction with the original residents of the Plains, but I couldn't have told you off the top of my head what the author's lexicon was in those scenes. I could tell you that my recollection was that the appearance of the locals made the Ingalls characters feel either curious or scared, and ultimately turned out to be fairly benign. I pictured it as somewhat akin to my feeling that there might be folks around the corners during my family's long-ago visits to gold-rush and silver-rush ghost towns.

My parents (christened "Pa" and "Ma" around the same time we read the Little House series) and I spent lots of times at historic sites and in the woods and at museums learning "stuff" when I was a kid. I wasn't reading the books in a vacuum that assumed they were my only exposure to "frontier" history or to history in general. Which, I think, is likely why the specific terminology Wilder used only added to my picture of a complex interaction among people. Over time, I would learn about the nuances of those interactions and the actual historical context for Wilder's mostly autobiographical work of fiction.

It also helped that I was raised as a Baha'i, so Ma and Pa worked hard to be sure that I understood that all people are one. That viewpoint is central, but not unique, to Baha'is and it certainly colored how I absorbed information about different cultural groups, including stories, from a very young age. 

All of that being said, when I initially saw the Wilder Award name change announcement, I was annoyed. That is, in part, because the ALSC also awards the Carnegie Medal. Wilder's name was removed from her medal because the language she used in a work about her family's experiences is no longer considered acceptable in literature. Shouldn't Carnegie's name be removed from his medal because his company manufactured something like 90 percent of the steel rails that facilitated the rapid and total disenfranchisement of the very people Wilder described?

But that won't happen. Because Carnegie was male. And rich. And because when he'd used every possible robber-baron trick in the book to gain more money than he could spend in a lifetime, he endowed libraries. So that people could read about the people who no longer lived where his rails ran, I imagine.

In other words, seek a reason why someone's work is inadequate and ye shall find.

After I calmed down, I remembered a conversation I had last summer with the education director of one of the pre-eminent native culture museums in the country. He was hard at work with a team of brilliant specialists developing a completely revamped way of incorporating a balanced history of the continent's indigenous population and European interactions into school curriculum. The concern he raised about the status quo is that American Indian children, both on reservations and integrated into the general population, learn from the same curriculum, use the same library books, and observe the same stereotypes as every other American kid. 

What does that mean? Well, for one, it means that the narrative typically relates how hostile indigenous groups for no reason at all attacked nice white folks who were just minding their own business and building this fort, or house, or what-have-you on this prime stretch of river. Flip the script and you have this nice group of indigenous residents who went out to the grocery store, came back to find an armed gang piling up a bunch of logs in their living room, and took steps to remove the gang forthwith. Both behaved in ways that made sense from their own perspective. But the group with the written language got to perpetuate their side of the story.

Can you imagine? Generations of kids being told in classrooms that Columbus discovered America ...

"But we were already here."

"No, you weren't. I mean, you were. But you didn't matter."

"What?"

Or, you know, what do you do when the cowboys always win in the movies and the Indians have to be stoic? Yes, I am citing Smoke Signals

So, doing my best to look at the situation from that perspective, I considered how Wilder's words might strike the impressionable mind of a young Osage kid. If Laura and her family were on the prairie, then I imagine the Osage on whose land they were illegally living probably had a family, too. (Now that would be a fascinating book.) Despite the nuances that I may find in Wilder's depictions, because of my own background and exposure to critical sources, I get the problem. 

Then I read up on the longstanding concerns about this literary classic (yes) also being considered a historically accurate record (no). 

Still, though, something about changing the award name irritated me. So I went to see what the ALSC had to say. I found the wording of the newly renamed award's criteria suspect. It sounded a bit too au courant to have been in place when the award was first presented to Wilder (and named after her) in 1954. So I read into the organization's task force recommendation regarding the name change.

And I was right. The criteria statement was amended when the name was changed, to reflect the organization's values in 2018, as opposed to its values in 1954 when it created the original award. What I find interesting about this is that the ALSC, by changing the name, condemns the author for deviating from the ALSC's current norms ... but by changing the criteria, avoids drawing attention to itself for having held those norms. In other words, if Wilder's work contains "racist" and "derogatory" language (which, it does, by today's standards of speech) and the ALSC awarded it the medal in 1954, then the ALSC by its own definition was racist in 1954.

Needless to say, I have a problem with the picking and choosing and revising of the past. Apparently, the ALSC had to decide between renaming the Wilder Medal or ending it and introducing a new award in its place. In my opinion, they made the wrong choice because, by renaming it and changing the criteria, the organization makes it appear that Wilder never deserved the award for her work. By ending the award and creating a new one, the organization could have taken responsibility for its own role in mid-century America's racial and ethnic struggles, while recognizing its evolving knowledge.

Welcoming a New Day

The young woman waiting on our private party knelt down next to my chair, her brown hair and eyes catching the flickering light of the candles on the table. "What are you all celebrating?"

I could only imagine what she'd been watching all evening. A table of close to 20 friends with accents and skin tones across the spectrum, in a range of ages spanning more than 40 years. Heads thrown back. Eyes sparkling. Voices chattering away, first one way and then the other. 

We'd wrapped her up in the good cheer and good manners. She'd heard a part of our prayer. And between the vases of roses on the table and the decorated cakes waiting in the kitchen, she knew she was part of something special.

"We're members of the Baha'i Faith." I though best to start at the beginning.

"It's a religion like Christianity or Judaism or Islam. You can check it out online if you want, just go to bahai.org. We believe that religions are like chapters in a book, and that this is the newest one, with teachings that are especially intended for the world right now." She leaned closer, intent on learning something new.

"Our new year begins on the first day of spring. We call it Naw-Ruz, which is a Persian ... Iranian ... word for new day. So, the first new day of the year, on the first new day of spring. For the 19 days leading up to this, the last month of the Baha'i year, we fast from sunrise to sunset, so when we break the fast at Naw-Ruz, we often get together to share a meal. And that's what we're doing today, since the fast ended last night."

She smiled, testing the new words. "Baha'i ... Naw-Ruz ... new day. That's so beautiful!"

A few minutes later, as our hostess for the evening was trying to figure out how to get everyone in frame so she could snap a photo with her tablet, the waitress walked over to her. "You should be in the picture! I can take this!"

And, when we'd all shuffled into place, from behind the silver block she held up to face us and, as if she'd been saying the words all her life, she called out, "Happy Naw-Ruz!!" 

Her words and the surprised grins they sparked put the icing on the cake made up of these last few days.

After all, Mr. Khanjani and his colleague, Mr. Tizfahm, were released from prison over the weekend. That dear man whom I've come to know vicariously has (I understand) finally been able to offer prayers at the grave of his extraordinary wife, some eight years after her funeral, which he was not allowed to attend.

As for me, I am determined this year, as I said a year or so ago, that I will honor the holy days on which Baha'is are supposed to suspend work, because it is the smallest bit of solidarity I can show with my coreligionists who are punished for stopping work on these days. And of course, because I am sticking to this, this week has turned out to be exceptionally busy.

My best solution was to put my computer on my desk, my phone in my pocket, and my email on stun. Just before sunset last night, I took myself to the nearest Moe's and ordered a Homewrecker, chips, and queso, which I took home to enjoy along with the 2009 version of Emma on Amazon Prime. Upon checking my email one last time, I discovered a message that made my night. And when I woke this morning, I dawdled over a book before joining a rarely visited friend for a mid-day snack and an afternoon-long, wide-ranging conversation, before heading off to dinner.

On both the major and minor fronts, it does seem to be a bright new day. 

Some Words on Love

We've hit the point in the winter when my full attention is split between the seemingly endless list of big things I need to accomplish on every front, immediately if not sooner, and the awareness that the current layer of ice is likely to hang around until April. We've also hit Valentine's Day, a holiday with which I have a highly adversarial relationship. 

So, in light of that, my Valentine's Day gift to you comes in the form of just a few great words on love ... from people other than me.

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.
They're in each other all along.”
― Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi

“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

"I met in the street a very poor young man who was in love. His hat was old, his coat was threadbare—there were holes at his elbows; the water passed through his shoes and the stars through his soul." — Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

"If I love you, I need not continually speak of my love—you will know without any words. On the other hand if I love you not, that also will you know—and you would not believe me, were I to tell you in a thousand words, that I loved you." ― Abdu'l-Bahá

“If nature has made you for a giver, your hands are born open, and so is your heart; and though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full, and you can give things out of that—warm things, kind things, sweet things—help and comfort and laughter ...” ― Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess

“As you wish ...” ― William Goldman, The Princess Bride

The Responsible One

"Oh, she's the one who never ran away." I was standing in a hospital waiting room last winter when a childhood pal I hadn't seen in years walked in, surprised to see me. The mutual friend with her offered the brief explanation.

In a way, it's true. And in another, it's not.

Unlike nearly everyone I know (notable exceptions excluded), I've moved about 22 times in my life, both nearby and cross-country, starting when I was just a little kid. And, although my family stayed in one place while I was in high school, I did run away the very first chance I got. With my choice of universities ready to invite me in, I only bothered applying to four. I was waitlisted at my first choice, received an insufficient financial offer from my second, and ruled out the fourth.

That left me with my third choice. The University of Houston was recruiting hard in academics in the early and mid-'90s, in part because several years of NCAA sanctions had done a number on its sports programs. That was after the days when UH's "cougar keepers" prowled the football sidelines with a live mountain lion on a chain, so the chance of mauling wasn't even available to liven up the weekly trouncing at the hands of Texas A&M (with their barking German Shepherd), University of Texas (with their rumored-to-be-drugged-up steer) and a host of other high-performing teams throughout the region. 

As a 17-year-old West Coast/desert transplant in the comparatively sedate Northeast, I was clamoring for a way out of the bubble as high school ended. I was susceptible to the UH admissions office spiel, lunch with the dean of the honors college, visits with the marching band and percussion directors, and general amusement of the big Gulf Coast oil city. The zoo! The giant Boot Barn! Papacito's! That festival we drove through on Montrose! 

However, in all of the warm, sunny, humid, shiny (also sparkly, painted, leathered, and feathered, at least on Montrose) whiz-bangs that weekend, what I disregarded was one very direct comment. I was meeting with one of the journalism professors, a man whom I expected to be my advisor when I eventually enrolled. He had seen my transcripts and knew the region from which I was visiting.  And he asked, "Why the hell would you come here?"

Clearly, my mother and I thought, he must be having a bad day. Or he was one of the many who saw that I was first in my class, planned to study journalism, and lived three hours outside New York City ... so immediately assumed that I would apply to and attend Columbia. (One of the guidance counselors at my high school made that assumption. I told him I was considering truck driving school. Not sure he ever knew whether I was kidding or not.)

So, in late August, my father drove me and a carload of stuff down through the Appalachians and the flatlands of Arkansas and Louisiana and East Texas. I lasted from mid-August to just after Christmas break.

By mid-January, I and all of my gear had returned to the Northeast. The spring semester saw me keeping up on courses at the local community college and the next three years found me finishing my bachelor's degree at Fairfield University on the southwestern coast of Connecticut. A responsible choice. A fine Jesuit institution of higher education with stone and brick buildings, tasteful amounts of ivy, and a close proximity to many wealthy families in need of babysitters. I walked one of my charges and his family's black Lab right past Martha Stewart's house on our afternoon constitutionals.

Since then, with very few exceptions (one or two each in the career, financial, and relationship fields, in fact), I've stuck to the responsible path. For the most part, that's meant working. To pay off that education. To eradicate credit card debt from keeping up with older friends and a decade of pipe band travel. To gain skills for later. To earn recognition for what I was already doing. To give myself opportunities to travel. To buy my freedom from the white collar grind.

When I started my MFA and began working for myself a little over two years ago, I kept up that streak. I didn't do either until I'd gotten completely out of debt and put a few months of living expenses aside. And although I wanted to find a new place to live, with hopes of reinvention, I promised myself I'd stay put, where I knew my expenses and local resources well, until I finished my degree. 

This summer, when I packed up my gear and stowed it away, I envisioned finding a whole new place to unpack it. In fact, by a complete travel fluke, I wound up somewhere worth exploring. Threading the needle between the expense of the southern California coast and the temporary insanity of eclipse-generated inflation, avoiding the dizzying High Sierra passes of my childhood, I chose Tehachapi and desert driving to bring me back toward the east. On the way, I spent a week in the aptly named Land of Enchantment. 

Over the last couple of months, since I returned to the Northeast, I've changed tracks so many times I've gotten dizzy. Ultimately, though, the options narrow in two directions. Bearing southwest appeals most, with the four reasonable seasons, substantially lower cost of living, friendly faces, and new experiences. The giant hurdle of cost getting there, with 41 years of collected "stuff" and the crime rate requiring careful neighborhood vetting make the move itself more challenging. Bearing due east flips the challenges. The cost of getting over to the charming coast isn't so much, even with all the stuff, and the crime rate is negligible. But once there, the cost of living is high, the population more segmented, the experiences and companions harder to find, and the seasons divided into cold and the remainder of the year. 

Neither path is without major potholes at this very moment. So I find myself, once again, making the responsible choice. Surrounded by boxes and materials, with work projects lining up for the next few weeks, I sit in a small duplex less than five miles from my last abode. My task over the next year or so, in addition to all of the work- and book-associated projects, is to purge the things I don't really need in order to get to those that I can justify for a long-distance move. 

Sometimes, as I learned long ago, the value isn't in the running away. It's in taking the steps that make it possible to run toward something, unencumbered and able to seize the new day.   

PS: I'm totally using both The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and The Little Book of Hygge to make this whole purging thing work without hitting austerity and misery. Despite the KonMari Method sounding like a bunch of hooey, objectively, it makes a ton of sense for someone like me, who is holding onto things that reflect past emotions rather than current practicalities, and without regard for the positive or negative tenor of those emotions.

My 2017 Thankfuls

The scents of bittersweet chocolate, pumpkin and spices, and bursting blueberries are all mixed up in the kitchen this morning. It's the day before Thanksgiving, which means I'm in full pie-baking mode. This is the joy of the road-tripping family member: To bake, to drive, to share, to return to a clean kitchen without the prospect of days of turkey-based meals!

As you know if you've been with me for a while, this is also the day dear friends of mine opened their home for a longstanding Veggie Thanksgiving celebration. Last year was the first without that warm and wacky gathering. And this year is the first without one-half of its hosting team. My treasured friend John Rafalak, the husband and father of more treasured friends, passed beyond this mortal plain back in February.

Today, I can't help but think of his towering frame stooping into a series of hugs, his favorite form of greeting, as the door opened time after time. I can hear his delighted chuckle ringing out at the presence of so many bright and witty friends. He'd be kicked back in his faded blue recliner with the worn arms, fiddling with an iPad on which he'd loaded the latest music-creation app. He'd play a few bars of one thing or another, insist that the other musicians in the room give it a try, then turn the camera on the guests sprawled on couches and the floor, chattering away. He'd make sure to get at least one panorama shot, doing his best to capture each face in the crowd. When it came time for the sharing of "thankfuls," he'd pull up FaceTime or Skype and connect friends spending the holidays far away (or simply stuck at work), placing them in the circle as surely as if they were in the room.  

There are so many ways we can keep with us those who've gone ahead. For John, it seems that one of the most fitting personal tributes is to keep on with this tradition he enjoyed so much. So here goes.

I'm thankful for travelsIt's been a crazy year, with a week in New York City in January, work trips back to the city and to DC in the spring, a week in Halifax in May, three months truly on the road (whether the interstate system or the backroads), and six weeks or so back and forth between New Hampshire and New York. Every mile of the way, I've had the opportunity to see new places, visit people I love, meet a wide variety of people with shining eyes, remind myself what a bubble we find ourselves in when we're in one place for too long (especially, I think, in the Northeast), and consider where I'd like to go again.

I'm thankful for friendsIn such a wonderfully disjointed year, my friends have been the source of joy, humor, and support. I am not one to ask for help often (even when it's necessary). But whether through encouraging Facebook posts, eager catch-ups over dinner, 20-years-overdue giggle fits, the lending of spare rooms, the loading of furniture, or strings of texted emojis (from a kid I've known since she was born), the sense of community and affection is strong.  

I'm thankful for healthThe year started on an up note thanks to a fantastic trainer and the success of building strength and endurance. Although my nutrition and exercise regimen has suffered severely during the latter half of the year's travels, I'm looking forward to getting back to it. My eyes are fixed on things I want to do, and those things aren't necessarily easy! Why do I want to do them? Just to prove I can

I'm thankful for familyFor the first time in years, my Southeastern aunt will be joining the Northeastern Thanksgiving celebrations. Of course, one of my Northeastern cousins will be in Canada, celebrating what our northern neighbors call "Thursday." My parents were kind enough to give me a place to land for a few weeks while I determined what to do next. It's just something we do in our family, but it's still very welcome. And then, of course, there is my spirit family, as I've come to think of both my dear friends (one of whom totally forced me to buy a flying cow in Seattle) and of the wonderful hearts who have been helping me learn about Mr. Khanjani. From his former cellmates and friends, to students he helped, to his daughter and brother, every one of them has been eager to help me understand this gentle, fierce prisoner. 

I'm thankful for freedomMy own, of course, in that not everywhere in the world would it be safe, or even possible, for a woman to undertake the things I have in the last couple of years. And living where I live means that I can write freely about a topic that, in the land where events are taking place, is considered something of a taboo. More than that, though, I'm thankful for the recent release of Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi, two of the seven former Baha'i leaders in Iran (including Mr. Khanjani) who are completing their tenth year of incarceration. Freedom sometimes means hope

I'm thankful for stabilityAs much as I had grand plans to pull all my worldly goods from storage, load the kayak atop the car, and resettle wherever I pleased at the end of this year's trip, I am grateful for the option to make more thorough preparations. The fact is, running hell-bent for leather toward someplace new and different is a hard urge to resist. But holding still, getting organized, and then perhaps approaching that run with a certain amount of clearheadedness is responsible. Thanks to my clients, friends, and family, I can choose stability for the moment, knowing there's excitement ahead.

I'm thankful for luminarias and green chilesYep, you read that right. Luminarias are the celebratory brown-paper-bag lanterns weighted with sand and flickering with candlelight that adorn paths, porches, and rooflines in New Mexico during the Christmas season and sometimes for other festivities. And green chiles (Hatch, please) are a food group all of their very own. Both of them inhabit a place I'm very happy to have found this year. Just knowing they're out there makes me smile. 

9 Years Behind Bars

Over this coming weekend, Mr. Khanjani will mark the ninth anniversary of his arrest, along with his colleagues. This week, I ask you to do something for them, so that maybe the atoms that surround us all will carry echoes of you into the halls of Rajai Shahr and Evin and, perhaps, they'll know they are not forgotten. 

Here are some ideas:

  • If you're a U.S. citizen, take five minutes this Friday, May 12 to call your Representative and your Senators in their Washington, D.C., offices. Ask them to support Iran’s Bahá’ís by cosponsoring House Resolution 274 or Senate Resolution 139 if they haven't already done so (or thank them, if they have). To learn about the resolutions and how to reach your elected officials, visit the Office of Public Affairs website for the Bahá’ís of the United States. Share with your friends and hashtag it: #ReleaseBahai7Now
  • If you're a writer, write a blog post about the important things that you've done in the last nine years and what you would have missed if you'd been put in prison for believing whatever you believe. Explain why you're posting it now. Hashtag it: #ReleaseBahai7Now
  • If you're a musician, spend five minutes listening to "Forgotten" by Grant Hinden Miller and let it inspire you to write or compose or perform your own message of encouragement. Share it around and tell people why you're doing it. Hashtag it: #ReleaseBahai7Now
  • If you pray to a higher power or meditate in a more humanist approach, add Iran’s Bahá’ís to your prayers or your heart's intentions. Light a candle. Write a prayer request.
  • If you have two minutes free in your day, wherever you are, step out into the open air, feel the sun and breeze against your skin, turn toward Iran, and speak their names with love and hope: Mahvash. Fariba. Vahid. Afif. Saeid. Behrouz. Jamal.

You may not think they can hear you. That behind prison walls, they'll never know your heart is beating in time with theirs. But they will. It's amazing how far a little bit of love can reach.

Mr. Khanjani (Jamal) taught me that a long time ago. And he doesn't even know it. 

I Have No Haft-Sin

No, the correct response to that title is not gesundheit. Bear with me and I'll explain. Sunset on Sunday evening marked the end of the 19-day fast and the coming of Naw-Ruz. In Persian, that means "new day," but it's actually the start of a new year. Lots of Baha'is and friends from around my area, just like our counterparts all over the world, got together to celebrate, break the fast together, and enjoy good company.

I'm always a little amused by Naw-Ruz. The celebration dates back to Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion. Over a couple thousand years, in Iran, it's become largely a secular, cultural event. Then, a little shy of two centuries ago, Baha'u'llah reinvested the holiday with spiritual significance. In fact, the Baha'i calendar used worldwide marks the new year according to the spring equinox in Tehran. (This makes perfect sense to those of us in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, it means that the new year starts at the beginning of fall.)

It's no wonder that folks get discombobulated. I've been especially aware of that this year. Given the social climate in the United States, many people are showing a renewed interest in learning about different countries and cultures, with Iran at or near the top of the list. For the last week or two, my social feeds have been inundated with articles and videos describing the Persian cultural holiday and its Zoroastrian roots, from the fire-jumping a few days in advance to cleanse away the old year, to the traditional herb-laden foods, to the visiting of relatives and friends.

And then there is the haft-sin, a charming, but ultra-specific, cultural tradition. If you speak Persian, then it all makes sense: a tabletop display of seven items, all beginning with the Persian letter sin, that represent characteristics and wishes associated with the new year. Sprouts growing in a dish for rebirth. Wheat germ pudding for fertility. Dried olives for love or coins for wealth. Garlic for health. Apple for beauty. Sumac for sunrise or hyacinth for spring. Vinegar for patience. Thank you, Wikipedia and NPR.

But that's not all. Oh no. Depending on your preferences, you might add to the display. A holy book of your choice. A book of Persian poetry. Goldfish (for life; just keep swimming). A mirror (for creation). Fire or a lamp. Candles or photos of loved ones or ancestors to remember. Cypress or pine. Painted eggs. Pomegranate. Wheat (in or out of bread). Water (possibly housing the goldfish). Sweets (could be nuts, could be candy, could be double-chocolate cupcakes with sprinkles ... I'm just saying ...).

Martha Stewart and her ilk have nothing on Persians constructing a haft-sin. Multi-level. Rustic. Refined. Colorful. Muted. Minimalist. Extravagant. These are annual works of art, days or weeks in the planning.

As far as the Baha'i celebration of Naw-Ruz goes, the spiritual one that we all celebrate, all over the world? None of the above applies. By design, the Baha'i Faith is free of rituals and ingrained traditions. The closest things we have to "rituals," in my opinion, are a marriage vow, a prayer for the dead, postures associated with daily obligatory prayers, and two attitudes of respect at the shrines in the Holy Land. All of those can easily be practiced, regardless of culture. I can hear you now: Really? Yes, really. But my Persian friends who are Baha'is... Did you hear what you just said?

Of course Baha'is who are Persian often bring their cultural traditions to Naw-Ruz celebrations. I eagerly waited for a dear friend to post photos of her haft-sin this year, since she always designs something inventive, beautiful, and multidimensional. Like most of my friends who create their own displays, there is often a twist that reflects her Baha'i identity as much as her Persian roots. The seven central items are the same. But the holy book might be the Kitab-i-Aqdas or the Hidden Words, or a simple prayer book. The book of poetry is as likely to be by Tahirih, or by Mahvash Sabet, as it is by Hafez. The photos might be of Abdu'l-Baha or Mirza Mihdi. 

Baha'is who are not Persian? Not so much with the Naw-Ruz revels. Instead, other cultural traditions turn up at different times of the year. Making and frosting cookies or gingerbread structures at Ayyam-i-Ha. Or, as my mother does, leaving up white twinkly lights to enjoy during the early mornings of the Fast. People celebrate in ways that are true both to their faith and their culture or personal preferences.

So. I have no haft-sin. But I do wish you and yours a very happy Naw-Ruz! May all good things come your way in the new year!

The Season of Restraint

The shaker bottle of berry-scented green sludge next to my desk just caught a flash of sunlight. That's one sight I won't see for the next 19 days. The light on food, I mean. The green sludge will still be around.

At sunset tonight, the nineteenth and last month of the Bahá’í year begins. This is when we fast from sunrise to sunset each day, abstaining from both food and drink. Instead, we turn our attention to prayer, meditation, and the love of God. Then, at the end of the Fast, we celebrate the coming of the new year, which corresponds to the beginning of spring.

Fasting isn't always easy. And there are plenty of exemptions for people who should not fast for one reason or another, ranging from travel, age, and manual labor, to illness and pregnancy, among others. The point of the Fast isn't to punish yourself or make yourself sick. It's about reflecting a spiritual reality in the physical world.

There's something really beautiful about waking up in the half-light before sunrise to fix and eat breakfast and drink plenty of water. In my neighborhood, that means being up and moving around 5:30 a.m. for the first half of the Fast, and then around 6:30 a.m. for the second half, after daylight savings time starts. I tend to eat breakfast while leaning against the kitchen counter, so it may not be the most relaxing morning routine, but it's still thoughtful and dreamy.

Sunsets are more beautiful, too. Some days, that's because hunger has taken hold with a vengeance. Most days, though, it's because I have a greater awareness of the quality of the light and the gentle slide into darkness than I do at any other time of the year. It's pretty common for me to reach sunset and be past the point of hunger, so I don't care if I eat right way. 

For a long time, this has been one of my favorite times of the year. It started because it's incredibly clear that I'm a Bahá’í during the Fast, since I have to plan around social conventions in a way I don't, normally. Lunch meetings? Not so much. Early dinner with friends? Nope. Chat over coffee? No thanks. Then it was because I had a gang of friends nearby who were all fasting and would arrange to meet up and break the fast together with potluck dinners and prayers on Fridays or Saturdays.

Ten years ago, I spent the Fast overflowing with fragile, happy anticipation, dazzled and surprised. The events of that Fast, and that spring, set off a chain of events that continues today, from apartment and travel experiments to career opportunities and financial choices. 

Five years ago, as part of that chain, I spent the last half of the Fast on pilgrimage to the Bahá’í shrines in northern Israel. Pilgrims don't fast, which felt very odd. Instead, I spent a lot of time praying and wandering around the gardens. I let my mind and heart wander, considered who else had walked the same paths, and came back lighter and more focused. Within weeks of my return to the U.S., I was flying back and forth to San Francisco every few months for work and catching up with friends and family out west. After a little more than a year, I changed jobs and opened more doors for myself. A little more than two years after that, I went freelance, started my MFA, and started researching and writing the book. 

Which brings me to now. I'm thinking ahead again. Maybe "feeling" ahead is a better expression. It's time for focus. And prayer. And intuition. And action. 

My 2016 'Thankfuls'

I can't believe it's been a year since I last wrote about the tradition of "thankfuls" at my friends' Veggie Thanksgiving. In fact, on Tuesday afternoon, I was sitting at my desk, watching the sun slide down behind the snowy pines across the street, when it struck me that I had not yet achieved the right mindset for my favorite holiday.

Even though my pals' pre-Thanksgiving bash didn't happen this year (for good reason, with people traveling and small children sleeping and life happening), I still wanted to fill my head with the best kinds of thoughts before I started baking pies for my family's own gathering. Here's my list: 

I'm thankful for health. My fantastic surgeon did an extraordinary job resolving (fingers crossed) issues that have long been problematic. Which has allowed me to spend two sessions a week getting my tail kicked by a terrific personal trainer (seriously, the day before Thanksgiving, and I got to do 40-minutes of eight-exercise, full-body circuits). Which provided the push I needed to get back into regular visits with a great chiropractor. Energy up. Pounds, inches, and sizes down. Legs returned to the same length.  

I'm thankful for work. This may seem like an odd thing to say, but when you're self-employed, it's not something you take for granted. I am very fortunate to have great relationships with former colleagues and friends who have scattered far and wide. I have not yet had to make cold approaches to organizations; everything I've done this year has come from people I know well enough to ask about their families by name. I am so grateful for that, since I've determined that I can only manage two out of these three things at the same time (new client acquisition, paid work, and/or MFA deadlines).

I'm thankful for opportunities. From January onward, I've had so much support from so many people. My amazing King's faculty thoughtfully scheduling me to speak with an incredibly helpful publishing contact in Toronto who provided much-needed insight about pitching my book, specifically. My cousins very generously offering to help me fly to the far side of the country, if needed, to arrange more research interviews. The random people in random places (the receptionist at the car dealership, patrons at the library, medical folk, etc.) who've asked what I'm writing and, when I've told them, immediately embraced the project, providing unexpected validation.

I'm thankful for courageIt's funny, but when I think of my own courage this year, I immediately think of one specific email I sent, after talking myself out of it for months. I don't think of my really uncertain surgery, first steps into a training studio, wacky first freelance year, or work toward a terminal degree. Are my priorities are arranged a little oddly? Perhaps. Or perhaps they're exactly as they should be.  In any case, when I talk about courage, I'm thinking of Mr. Khánjání, and the owners of that toy shop in Qaemshahr, and the neighbors of the Bahá’í in Yazd who caught and held his murderers until police arrived. The kind of courage that inspires.

I'm thankful for mountains. Anyone who knows me knows that I choose oceans over mountains nearly every time. But that's real life, and this is a metaphor. This year, I'm really glad I've had the challenges I have, in all of the areas above. The fact is, mountains make me stronger. They also help me realize what I have to offer the world. And that's pretty darn empowering! 

Pray for America, Act for the World

Today's post is pointed. Not just because it's November and I'm up to my eyeballs in end-of-term assignments and end-of-year work projects. Nope. It's also the day of the presidential election here in the United States, and it's unlikely that most Americans (or, I understand, a sizable number of individuals around the globe) have anything other than that event on their minds. 

A year ago, I wrote about why I practice political noninvolvement. Today was a general election, though, so I could vote. Still, for me, the day isn't about who "wins" or "loses," or about parties, policies, platforms, or popularity contests. It's about a deep and heartfelt concern that our country has lost its compass someplace along the way.

The U.S. is older than the Bahá’í Faith. So it shouldn't be any surprise that there were tablets and letters written specifically about this country. And in fact, the son of the Faith's founder visited the U.S. and Canada a little more than 100 years ago, traveling from coast to coast and back, meeting with people from all walks of life.

At an event in Chicago in 1912, while on that trip, 'Abdu'l-Bahá spoke the following words, which strike me as just as relevant today as they were then. (A heads-up: "just government," in this context, means a duly constituted government; it doesn't have to do with the carriage of justice.) At first glance, this might seem a celebration of our national accomplishments, but a deeper look reveals the places we need to do some work. So, if you're looking for a prayer, this one is there for you:

O Thou kind Lord! This gathering is turning to Thee. These hearts are radiant with Thy love. These minds and spirits are exhilarated by the message of Thy glad-tidings. O God! Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world. O God! This American nation is worthy of Thy favors and is deserving of Thy mercy. Make it precious and near to Thee through Thy bounty and bestowal.

I have one more thought today, and it goes back to that lost compass I mentioned. This is the first election I can remember where our country's relations with other nations didn't make the domestic news (or even make it into the national discussion) in any meaningful way. That seems to me further indication of the compass either going missing or pulling a Captain Jack Sparrow on us, simply swinging wildly about depending upon who's holding it. Neither seems like a positive option.

And that brings me to the other quote I've been thinking about, drawn from a reply 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote to some Bahá’í women who had contacted him with news of goings-on around them in that same 1911 or 1912 timeframe. The whole letter hangs above my desk, because it's relevant to the work I'm doing. But this part ... this part gives me hope that we can look beyond our borders and live as part of a global society, if not as a nation, then one person at a time, compass by compass:

Each one must sacrifice his life and possessions to the other and each person be loving to all the inhabitants of the world, rending asunder the curtain of foreignness and consorting with all the people with union and accord. They must be faithful to the traitors and benevolent to the tyrant. They must recognize the enemies as friends, the unknown as known. ... consort with all the people with the utmost joy and happiness ... Become ye not sad on account of any calamity, neither be ye broken-hearted by any trials. Be ye firm and steadfast...

It's Been One Week Since You Looked at Me

It's actually been two weeks. But if I'm sampling Barenaked Ladies, I better do it right. In the last two weeks, I have been reminded that when people ask, "How are you feeling?" or "Are you feeling better?" they want me to respond as if there is absolutely nothing that could be better in my world. 

"I'm awesome," they want me to say. "Never better! Back to workschoolifestuff pronto! All surgical things are magical and I have no side effects!"

They do not want me to say that I was in surgery for 4 hours. Nor that coming out from general anesthesia, the recovery nurse had to page the nurse anesthetist to bring her breathing kit because I felt like I was suffocating. They'd be very happy if I skipped my 3 hours in Stage 1 recovery, where, every time the nurses thought I was awake, I'd drop off again. And the 1 hour in Stage 2 recovery just seems fluffy.

"So you went home the same day?" they ask, eagerly. "It's the tiny incisions?"

I think to myself, yes, but so not the point. I ponder that through three "tiny" incisions, my doctor saved both ovaries, removing the cysts and cyst walls from both. She removed the entirety of both tubes, which, in a post-op report to my mother, she twice called "NONfunctional." She cut apart a bunch of adhesions, details of which have not yet been forthcoming. Then, through the magic of the hysteroscope, she removed 75 percent of the submucosal fibroid, which will now require ongoing monitoring. To go farther, she said, would break the first rule: do no harm.

People don't want to hear about the temperature spikes that make no sense, the night sweats and crying jags as my ovaries and their crucial hormones attempt to stake out territory in wacky town. The ongoing personal digestive flume ride, too, wasn't on the list of considerations before surgery. It now defines my schedule for leaving the house, accepting visitors, and determining what I may be able to eat. Waking every three hours each night ensures that rest and recovery aren't exactly happening, either. And then there's the belly button incision, which may or may not be growing mushrooms.

I'll see the doctor tomorrow. Get the scoop. Hope she has some solutions for the temperature, flume ride, and 'shrooms.

Because really, I'd like to be able to say everything's hunky dory. But it's been two weeks since I looked at my computer.

Deadlines and Dreamtimes

Last Tuesday, I flopped down on my bed and started reading Everything Rustles, a collection of personal essays by Jane Silcott. I'm reading it for an MFA assignment, but I'm reading it because I have shared mischievous glances and entertaining chatter with Jane during residencies. She is a mentor in my program, although she works with the opposite cohort of students.

The third essay, "The Goddess of Light & Dark," had me grabbing my phone and messaging Jane to tell her that I was laughing. And boy, did I need that laugh right then. I was just home from Halifax, and that meant there was no longer any distraction to keep me from focusing on the next major date on my schedule.

"Women's" Medical Stuff
I've thought about this quite a bit. There are certain conditions we just don't talk about in polite company. If we did, though, perhaps I would have persisted in getting a diagnosis for myself sooner. So, I know I will end up writing an article later and shopping it around (that's what we writers do, after all). There's no reason not to share the basics with you here.

If you're squeamish or want to keep the Barbie/Ken version of anatomy in your mind, stop reading now. I don't have that luxury, so here goes ...

When I was a child and I had a cold and a sore throat, I didn't complain much. By the time a doctor removed my tonsils when I was 10, he said the back side extended halfway down my throat and "looked like cottage cheese" from all the scar tissue. We can only judge pain by what we've experienced. My 3 on the scale might be your 8, or vice versa.

So, for many years, I listened to doctors tell me that all women have problems during their periods. Pain problems. "Flow" issues. Primary care folks, gynecologists, they said the same thing. I suppose that's because I didn't arrive in their offices screaming. Personality-wise, that's just not me. 

Following all the doctors' advice, I took more ibuprofen and tried to function, but eventually reached the point where I was spending a quarter of each month hiding out in my house. Even at that point, I kind of just pulled up my big girl britches and dealt. A few colleagues knew why I'd turn white and suddenly have to go home occasionally, or why I'd rather take calls than meetings sometimes. 

Finally, after I went freelance last year, I started taking time to actually notice my body again. To stop thinking of it as the lump of flesh that got my brain (the only part of me that mattered, work-wise) from place to place. I changed the way I ate, at least at home, and with the exception of ice cream. I changed primary care doctors. And in April, I saw a well-respected gynecologist who listened to my symptoms and told me what I already knew: They weren't normal.

It was evident from the very first set of images that I have endometriosis, quite possibly stage IV, the most invasive level of the disorder. No birth control pill or hormone-modifying treatment would change this. Surgery was the prescribed fix from the very beginning. Repeated imaging added to the list of organs and tissues that need attention. My left arm would just recover from the bruise before another blood test was ordered. There was a cancer scare in May, later relieved. I had to start taking liquid iron supplements to raise my ferritin level (an indicator of the body's iron stores) out of the basement. It's been a heck of a summer.

I've learned what a low-residue diet is. In fact, it's what I've eaten all day yesterday and today. Tomorrow, I get to drink clear liquids all day, pop a couple of Reglan, and chug more clear liquids mixed with a bottle of Miralax. Boy howdy, that sounds like fun. 

Thursday Is Surgery Day
Dark and early on Thursday morning, my mother will drive me to the hospital. If all goes according to plan, I'll be home before evening, sleeping off the after-effects of general anesthesia in my very own bed. That's because I'm scheduled to have laparoscopic (minimally invasive) and hysteroscopic ("noninvasive," performed through the cervix) procedures. Within a week or two, I should be back to some kind of "normal," whatever that looks like.

There is always the chance, though, that the doctor might have to convert to a laparotomy (open surgery, with a large incision) while I'm on the table. If that happens, I'll be in the hospital for a few days and recovering at home for weeks.

I won't know until I wake up and see the bandages.

What's Happening
Whether the procedures go according to plan or not, the ramifications are the same:

  • Ovaries. Both of them now appear about the size of baseballs, distorted by blood-filled cysts called endometriomas that have infiltrated them and taken over. The goal is to drain each one and gently, carefully, remove each cyst wall to discourage recurrence, then close the ovaries and let them heal and shrink back to their normal almond/walnut size. In reality, I will be very lucky if I keep them both. It's more likely that my doctor will fix one and have to remove the other. 
  • Tubes. Both of my fallopian tubes appear to be blocked, which means they may actually be stuck to the ovaries with endometrial adhesions, like sticky scar tissue. Each one appears to have developed a hydrosalpinx. That means the fluid that would normally flow through the tubes is backed up inside them, turning them into sausage-shaped cysts of their own. Fixing them isn't advised. So my doctor will likely have to remove them both.
  • Uterus. This has become the easy part. My doctor will remove the submucosal fibroid that's taken up residence inside, using a special system to shave it down to the level of the uterine wall.
  • Everything else. Endometriosis doesn't play zone. It tends to be more opportunistic. So while my doctor and her tiny tools are messing about in my insides, she'll look for and remove adhesions and implants that may be on my abdominal wall, bowel, bladder, ureters, and whatever else.

The most important goal is to get the missing quarter of my life back. Next is preserving normal hormone function for as long as possible. Last is preserving any fertility options at all ... or rather, the only one that seems to exist anyway, which is IVF. On the off-chance that long overdue meet-cute happens in the not-so-distant future.

How I Feel
I frequently operate according to logic. It's armor. It works. I am actually an acutely sensitive person, but lately I've wondered if I even have the ability to tap into true emotion anymore. Is it a muscle you lose without exercise? Would I pull a Calypso, as in the third Pirates of the Caribbean, and fall to pieces in spectacular fashion? This, I do not know. 

Through everything so far, I've read the medical journals. I've understood the options, what few there are, and the risks, of which there are several. Ultimately, though, this is not where I ever expected to find myself. I thought I'd be married, with kids, long ago. Facing this situation under those conditions would be simple. No particular loss, as long as the hormones kept flowing. Forget this fertility stuff. But I'm not married. There are no kids. 

There's just me. And hope. And plenty of normal things that need doing after Thursday. I don't really know how to feel about that.

Time Flies With Friends

"I need to show you my new blog header!" My friend took a last bite of her mac and cheese, snagged her laptop out of her backpack, and scooted a chair around the corner of the table.

We were sitting in the pub at the Dalhousie University Club with a few classmates and one faculty member, talking New York City, dogs, and inappropriate, self-serving reasons to marry a man. My friend cited money. I cited the need for a quadrilingual interpreter. Our program director called foul, since he perceived that my self-serving reason was actually strategic.

While the evening might sound like a bust, educationally speaking, it was, in fact, an integral part of the residency experience. Let's break it down.

  • My friend is a 20-something from Toronto whose professional writing experience has centered around theater scripts and lifestyle blogging. I'm a 30-something from the States (too many of them to list) and a professional writer of the article, marketing, business variety. We never would have met, let alone become pals, nor exchanged ideas of any kind, had we not met during our first residency last summer.
  • The basement pub in the Dal Club is the go-to venue for evening hangouts among the two years of MFA students in session for these short residency weeks, as well as our faculty, mentors, and publisher-sponsored writer and editor in residence. Book titles are hashed out over beers (or in my case, the ginger soda I dream about the rest of the year). Research plans sort themselves out across the tables. And author platforms begin to gel, blog headers and all.
  • For the most part, students from both classes, faculty, and mentors mingle freely throughout the residency, so fresh perspectives and new friendships develop here in Halifax and carry on through the year on Facebook, through emails, at writing groups formed by students living in close proximity, and at the remaining residencies in the program.
  • Each class only intersects with the one ahead twice and the one behind twice. There are only so many opportunities to make connections, share knowledge, get the scoop on past events, learn about one another's projects, and discover ways to help one another later.
  • Everyone wants to know the details of the winter NYC publishing residency. Before the wrap-up session on Saturday. Because travel. And money. (Also because NYC, except for me because it is my least-favorite city and it only takes me 3 hours to get there from home, anyway.)

In a few short days, we'll leave here, scattering to the far corners of the upper half of North America with nothing but ourselves, blank screens, and the memory of these two weeks to power us through the fall.

If we're sharp, we're soaking in everything we can from the people around us and the ambience of this place, so some day in late November, when we're really feeling the strain, we can close our eyes and put ourselves right back in the pub, on a warm summer night, with the laughter and chatter of friends around us. And we can remember that we're not really alone.

Yes, I Already Started Packing

Perhaps it's my reality as a no-two-days-the-same freelancer. Perhaps it's the events of this year. Perhaps it's the nature of the work I'm doing. Or maybe it's the insanity of this summer both in my life and the surrounding world. But holy jeepers and gee-whillikers, Batman, my second and final year of the King's MFA begins in less than two weeks! 

I am super excited to see my friends after nearly eight months in our own little worlds. I want to hear about everyone's travels, for fun or research, or potentially for purposes of totally changing their book topic. I'll be missing the class that graduated in the spring (it contained some characters), but I'm curious and happy to see who is in the incoming group (likely character-filled, too).

Our two weeks together in Halifax is like a cosmic reset button kicking off our next round of efforts. After this brief residency, we'll see one another just one more time as a class, for a week in New York City in January. Some of us will connect at graduation in May, but it's unlikely everyone will attend. Then, we're well and truly on our own, unless we're able to meet for tea on our way through each another's environs by chance someday.

For the moment, I am just barely containing my desire to get back to the city wherein sits my university, even though I will only be there for a fortnight. For an American driving northeast, the trek up and around the coast and down onto the peninsula can be broken into chunks, each with its own distinct character:

  • Southern Maine, with the crazy Boston drivers and beach people.
  • Mid-coastal Maine, where there is a much-needed Starbucks at a rest stop on I-95.
  • Bangor to Calais, the inland run where truckers try to kill you and if they don't succeed, the post-washboard state of the two-lane highway just might.
  • The Border, where you must abandon all fruits and vegetables and convince the nice guards that you are not staying long enough to take away any Canadian jobs (or, on the reverse trip, that you have not been away long enough to acquire any contraband of any sort).
  • St. Stephen to St. John, where your clock and your GPS units of distance are both confused, you spend most of your time looking for a gas station, and you stand a real danger of driving off the freeway because the views of the Bay of Fundy are just that stunning.
  • St. John to Sackville, where you amuse yourself by trying to decipher New Brunswick's tourist route icons, counting Tim Hortons signs, and wondering if you're there yet. 
  • Amherst, where, from miles away, you can see a small rise in the farmland whereupon a tiny windmill, a high-flying Canadian flag, and a row of equally soaring and flapping white-and-blue provincial standards welcome you to Nova Scotia. Coffee, bathrooms, gift shop, tourist brochures, and the nicest greeting ladies in North America are all at your service.
  • The road to Truro, where you can find an A&W and ponder the potential merits of rerouting to Antigonish and "Cay'Breton."
  • Truro Heights to Dartmouth, where you can't believe how slowly the kilometers are clicking over and you may change the playlist to some old-school Rawlins Cross, the Rankin Family, the Barra MacNeils, or MacKeel just to give yourself hope.
  • The MacKay Bridge into Halifax, where you take a deep breath, flip the playlist to Joel Plaskett (starting with "Harbour Boys"), set forth on a cruise through the North End and down the leafy tree-lined length of Connaught Avenue, and maybe skip your destination altogether in favor of a stop at Point Pleasant Park to make sure the ocean is still where you left it.

Who wouldn't have started packing two months ago?

I'll Trade You a Tourist

One Wednesday evening about a month ago, I was cruising north on the freeway after an entertaining lesson with this year's wee drummer dude. Music boomed from the speakers, my hair blew free around my face, and I mused that I had just weeks to go before the drive would take on its summertime identity as a gauntlet of Lexi (Lexuses?) and Mercedes(es?) northbound from Westchester and New Jersey at me-me-me speeds. It's the sacrifice for living where other people go on their summer vacations. About the time I cleared the bridges that separate city from country, my phone, clamped into its convenient holder, lit up with a familiar face. I raised the windows and tapped the speaker icon.

My Aunt Mary's voice, so much like my grandmother's, filled the car. My dad's tones reflect a melange of Northeast and West Coast. My South-based Aunt Anne has a Connecticut-meets-Confederacy accent. My Aunt Mary, though, is Nutmegger through and through. The entertainment at many a family event has centered around whether the word is pronounced kwohrter or kwahter, for example. Daniel Webster's Connecticut provenance has been invoked on repeated occasions, by those on both sides of the argument.

For all the affection and laughter that my small East Coast extended family shares when we are together, it's rare that we actually are together. There are kids. There have been health problems. So a phone call out of the blue always triggers a tiny moment of alarm and the hope that all is well with everyone. Then, more often than not, we learn that Relative A has called Relative B in search of the lyrics of a novelty song circa 1955, family lore from three generations back, confirmation of an obscure fact, or a pun that's so bad it must be shared.

Sidenote: I once stopped a business dinner cold by bringing up the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. I blame genetics. Together with all four of my cousins (Aunt Mary's kids), I grew up knowing that, when in doubt, one should call Aunt Anne, because she knows everything. Aunt Anne is a reference librarian. If she doesn't actually know everything, she certainly knows where to look it up.

In any case, this time, my delightfully impetuous Aunt Mary was calling to tell me that she'd read my post about fun day trips and things to do. And, her birthday having passed by just recently, she had been trying to drum up some company for an afternoon at Harkness Memorial State Park, which I just happened to have mentioned.

I think my cousins and I were all brought up with the stories of our parents' youthful birthday adventures. My grandparents, raising three young children on working-class salaries in the 1950s and 1960s, always allowed each child to choose where they'd go for their birthday. Requests for visits to the shore or one of the many state parks were common. Harkness was my Aunt Mary's perennial choice, she reminded me.

So, she wondered, would I be up for an impromptu jaunt down to the coast? In the way typical of most of my family, she'd already checked potential dates, confirmed that my eldest cousin was up for some fun, and considered how the travel timing and meals might sync up.

My Aunt Mary has a reputation for being someone who makes things happen. However, she's also been known to climb onto my dad's motorcycle and mug for the camera with a wicked twinkle in her eye. I have watched her sit down on a stool at a coffee shop counter in rural New York and, in 60 seconds flat, strike up a laughter-filled, meal-long chatter with the anonymous, aging farmer to her left. And, not too many years ago, she, my cousin Rosemary, and I found ourselves standing in front of one of the exhibits at Fort Ticonderoga, calling up my grandmother on speakerphone as we collectively tried to recall one historical tidbit or another.

There was, obviously, only one answer to her question: You bet. Name the day! Everybody pack a lunch! Maybe we'll eat dinner out! Let's go! 

So here's the deal, Connecticut. I'll trade you a tourist for a day. You can have the gauntlet of Lexi. It's all yours. I'll go soak up some sun on the Sound with my family.

One More Drummer Done

With the end of the school year comes the end of the pipe band "off-season." That's not entirely true. Bands have gigs all year, with a bunch grouped around St. Patrick's Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day. Competitions, at least in the northeastern U.S., run from early May through late September. Still, for bands with beginner programs running on a rough school-year schedule, this is the time when kids find out what comes next.

I'm not playing with a band at the moment and, although I wouldn't rule it out in the future, I don't have plans to play again anytime soon. These days, my focus is on my MFA, my book, and this whole freelance, life reboot adventure. However, I spent a long time instructing drummers and drum corps when I was playing actively. Then I took a long break. And when I got back into "the scene" a few years ago, I started teaching again with a terrific juvenile program that I was fortunate enough to help shape years ago.

I may not be on the field or the street these days, but I do get to be in what may be my favorite spot as a musician. That's sitting across a cafeteria table from brand new drummers on Wednesday evenings. I particularly like my current gig, which is working mostly with what we call our "baby beginners," or the kids who are about 5 to 9 years old and starting with no previous musical experience. I also get to work a bit with the next group up, at the top end of the same age range, who have been in the program for a year or two and are starting to transition from classes to a very novice-level band. 

The fact is, pipe bands are weird. A novice-level band full of kids competes against novice-level bands full of adults. There's a lot of crossover friendships between kids, teenagers, and adults who share the same musical interests. And the musicianship and decorum of a teenager who makes it into a mixed age band is expected to equal or exceed that of the adult standing next to her (or him).

It's no wonder, then, that plenty of kids wash out between the time they start lessons and the time they make it into their first band. There are usually three reasons we lose drummers in these early days. They have a poor innate sense of rhythm, so they get frustrated quickly. They have behavioral difficulties beyond what we can address in a group setting. Or their parents, once they realize the time commitment required by pipe band life, decide this isn't the right choice for their family.

If I do my job right, these kids and their parents still leave with a great feeling about the music, about the band, and about themselves. What remains every year is a tight core of kiddos who, year after year, show themselves to be really talented, hard-working, pleasant human beings who, each on their own schedule, ramp up into excellent musicians. Some take a little longer than others. And some race ahead.

This year, due to an unusually rapid washout of newbies last fall, I was lucky enough to work one-on-one almost all year with a 9-year-old boy who has become a very bright spot in my Wednesday evenings. This slender, serious, blond kid went from never holding sticks in October to potentially being on the field with the novice band by the end of this summer. That's practically unheard of, as I remind him when he is convinced that he is, in fact, "terrible," because he hasn't mastered a complex rudiment on the first try. 

I like all of the kids I work with (and all of those in the bands, for whom I'm more friend than instructor), but certain ones leave a particular impression. This boy is one of them. Together, we have laughed a lot over The Big Bang Theory and his need for a t-shirt bearing the mantra I've coined for his lesson time: Less Drama, More Drumming. Best of all, I've been treated to excited displays of his latest artwork and descriptions of his entry into his elementary school band. 

Now, I get to work with this very cool kid and three more of my former students, as well as one of the most exceptional teenagers I know (with whom I share conversations about things like internships and international human rights efforts). It's a blast to watch them gel into a little corps, suddenly seeing how all of the pieces they've learned fit together. Each one steps up a little bit, trying harder, encouraging the kid beside him (or her) to try again, and beginning to hear the whole instead of the parts.

I have only about six more weeks with this gang, and then we'll gear up for the fall. They will all move on to new music and, most likely, a different instructor. And I will likely be sitting in front of a new gaggle of mini-drummers, ready to start again.

Memorial Day Memories

The pool, set beneath tall pines, was freezing. But it was Memorial Day, and we were going in. I was about 16 and my friend a year older. He was going in to show off, and I was going in to prove that anything he could do, I could do better ... or at least with equal lack of foresight. He reminded me of a marble statue when his winter-pale chest and shoulders froze in ropey, muscular form as the shock of the water stopped his breath and instantly perfected his posture.

That's the kind of memory I have from Memorial Days past. As a musician, I spent most of my teens and 20s racketing around small cities and villages, from parade to parade, ceremony to ceremony, stopping off for ice cream at a dairy bar between gigs or a picnic (and early season swim) at a bandmate's home after a morning parade. 

Memorial Day was the start of the summer parade season and, for a time, the marker of summer freedom. From that point through mid-September, weekends and evenings often involved a lakeshore, a downtown stroll, my favorite friends/crushes (after all, I was a girl spending all my time surrounded by kind, bright, funny, handsome guys), and great music blasting out the windows of pickup trucks and sports cars.  

I know the words to Amazing Grace. I recite In Flanders Fields with fervor. I think about the service members who have sacrificed their lives throughout my country's history. Given the part of the country I live in, I think about those who gave their lives on both sides of two wars, each thinking that their side held the moral (if not literal) high ground.

These days, though, I'm more likely to see the holiday fireworks on TV, from DC following the National Memorial Day Concert, than I am to go see the display near my house. Not because it's my desire, but because I am generally unmoored from a social crew that embarks on holiday adventures. I'm picky about parades, too, having taken part in so many of them myself and having little patience left for eight towns' worth of emergency vehicles in lieu of music and pageantry. Besides, going to community activities alone always seems a little weird.

This year, I'm happy to have company for the weekend and a graduate's celebration to attend. The freezing pool, though? Nope. Don't miss that.

8 Years for the Yaran

This time of year is always poignant. That's because May 14, 2008, was the day when the informal leaders of Iran's Bahá’í community were rounded up on false charges during dawn raids and bundled off to prison, where they remain today. Each year, there is an international public awareness campaign designed in equal measure to highlight the injustice and to remind Iranian government leaders that their actions, though conducted in the dark, will not stay in the dark.

Yesterday marked a related anniversary for me. Last year, I had just been accepted into my MFA program. In my application, I'd offered two or three true stories that I might use as the focus of the nonfiction book I'd be writing as the core work of my graduate career (and, with luck, my entry into the publishing world). In a call with the faculty director for the class of 2017, it became apparent that the faculty committee was particularly interested in my proposal to write about the persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran. But, Stephen advised, his voice jovial and encouraging even from a time zone away, the story would be so much richer if I could identify someone whose experiences I could use as a narrative through-line for the book. 

I was well into that enormous task when the 2015 awareness campaign started, with each day for a week spotlighting one of the two imprisoned women and five imprisoned men who had made up the Yaran ("friends"), the informal leaders who tended the basic needs of Iran's Bahá’í community. It's worth noting that all of the formal Bahá’í leadership structures that exist in most of the rest of the world were outlawed in Iran in 1983. Many Baha'is around the globe hosted gatherings for prayers in honor of one of the prisoners that week. I chose the Saturday and teamed prayers with a picnic. As I set to work selecting music and readings for the event, I also started trying to learn as much as I could about the man who was being spotlighted that day: Jamálu’d-Dín Khánjání, the eldest of the prisoners at about 83. The program I selected was this:

The more I learned about Mr. Khánjání, the more I realized that there was no better subject for my book. Despite having only scraps of information available, I was enchanted by the bits of information I gleaned about his character, his generosity, and his steadfastness in the face of a lifetime of adversity.

Now, nearly half of the first (and dare I say, very rough) draft of the book is written and sitting with the Office of Public Affairs, one of the offices of the U.S. Baha'i National Center, for a mandatory review. To most writers, that might seem like censorship. It's not. The fact is, because I'm a Bahá’í, some of the people I interview share lots of information that makes for a great story here in the land of the free and the home of the brave ... but it could cause a lot of harm to individual Bahá’ís in Iran without me having a clue. The Office of Public Affairs review is essentially a security check on their behalf, and I'm grateful for it. 

The lag time caused by those reviews, however, makes it difficult to share work in progress. In honor of this anniversary, though, I hope you'll enjoy this carefully selected (and slightly edited) excerpt.

From what is currently Chapter 11/Prison ("Kamiar" is Dr. Kamiar Alaei, a world-renowned HIV/AIDS public health expert who was arrested for his work and imprisoned in the same cell unit with three of the Bahá’í men for several months in 2009):

A week or so before my visit with Kamiar, I stopped in to see Ferida in her rambling farmhouse on the Maine coast, intending to ask her about her father’s condition and what he had to say about Rajai Shahr. She sipped breakfast tea and munched on toast first thing on a Saturday morning, a red-and-black buffalo plaid flannel shirt half-buttoned over her white t-shirt and black jeans, looking like any working mother whose elementary school daughter had been on break all week. After peeling a hard-boiled egg and then addressing me with “avocado … onion,” which I took to be other things someone might peel, Mei bopped out to the living room—a happy kid in search of her Legos and books, warm and cozy in thick grey tights, a turtleneck, and a corduroy jumper. 

“About the conditions he’s in,” Ferida began. In the early stages, at Evin and when her father first arrived at Rajai Shahr, she worried about his physical condition and that of the men with him. Some people told her the prisons were cold, others said they were fine. From China, she tried to send a set of long johns, but her family said her dad was okay. She called her sister, wondering if her father’s cell had a window. “My brother-in-law was overhearing. He was in prison two or three times actually himself … and he was behind her, saying ‘Yes, tell her when they went in, [the guards] asked them if they wanted the mountain view or the ocean view.’” Ferida erupted in belly laughs and I couldn’t help but join her. She gasped for air as she thought of her own question. “So he said, ‘Ferida, it's a prison, not a hotel.’ I learned later, they had a window high on the wall that let light in.”

By the time of our chat, Ferida explained, she knew the men could go out into the prison yard for two hours each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, although those allowances changed all the time. “You can see the yard where they are. I Googled it.” As she often did, Ferida veered sideways in her story. “The son of Mr. Naeimi—he came to China with very bad back problems. He couldn’t walk and was in bed for three months, and then apparently his dad and my dad, in prison, decided for him to come to China [so I could treat him].” She gave in to more laughter as she rolled her eyes about the way this all made perfect sense to the dads. “He showed me the yard on Google.”

Directly, Ferida didn’t receive much information from her father. “He never complains. Even they go to the prison and my father is saying, ‘The condition we are in, it’s okay. What can you expect? It’s not a hotel!’” Ferida repeated herself. “He never complains, but you can see the pictures online, of the corridor and basically stalls.” There were two people housed in each cell, and Jamál and Behrouz were sharing. They had access to a bathroom and shower, although Ferida wasn’t sure how many people the facilities accommodated—whether it was the six or eight who shared meals together, or more.

A week later, when I mentioned my conversation with Ferida to Kamiar, he nodded. “It’s good from one side they are together. They are more comfortable. On the other side, it’s not good because they used to have greater access to the general population, which could remove a lot of misunderstandings and beliefs about Bahá’ís.”

Kamiar’s voice and face both dropped. “I can’t forget the time that I was with him. So I always pray if he and his group…” His words caught in his throat and he collected himself. “Even in that situation, they tried to help other prisoners even while they were suffering the same way. A lot of people, when they get to prison, get selfish. ‘Why should I care about others?’ But for them to first, overcome this feeling, and second, serve other people as their neighbors, even if [those people] didn’t know them, respect them, or appreciate their religion, is amazing.”

As I stood up to leave his office, Kamiar thanked me for my work, giving a slight courtly bow from the waist with his hand to his heart, a gesture so familiar to me from my Persian friends, yet always a reminder of the formality lacking in my everyday life. His words were humbling. I am just telling the story, I mused. It was almost as though he heard the thought. “I hope he gets out so you can get the last part of the story from him.” Kamiar’s sunny smile returned. “And I’d like to give him a hug.”