Duality

I walked into an old church in Eastern Europe admiring the beauty of the gothic architecture. The woodwork, the gold intertwined with marble and extensive use of stained glass filled it with light and color. Carvings of stone that resembled laced embroidery adorned the walls and internal steeples. My eyes instinctively darted to the ornate ceilings. The intricate patterns and the colorful murals that stretched from the altar to the highest domed ceilings made me crane my neck to view its grandeur in its entirety; a celestial canopy of diverse colors representing the glorious hereafter. Then, a child among the crowd tugged at his mother’s skirt and observed loudly, “Look momma, the floor is like a large chess board.”

True to his observation, the floor of this majestic church leading to the altar and other sacred areas of the church was checkered black and white, in complete contrast to the walls, stained glass and ceiling. A mental flashback took me to the old churches I’d visited on my travels. I recalled most of them had checkerboard flooring of either red or black and white marble at their entrance, or close to the area leading up to the altar or leading to an extremely holy corner within the church itself. It made me wonder. More than simply decorative, the mosaic pavement or flooring must bear a special meaning. Could it be that the pavement or ground, the area on which people walk and come forward toward an altar is emblematic of the duality of human life, checkered with good and evil?

Could it be purposely made to represent earth, the material world, contrasting with the ceiling, made to represent heaven and the spiritual world?

White and black. Light and dark. Reflection of all colors and the absence of color. They are opposites. They offer a high contrast widely used to depict the dichotomy in life and the duality in everything. Whereas white has been a symbol of innocence, virginity, virtue and the holy, black is the symbol for death, mourning, sin, evil, the strange, the unexplained. They appear everywhere. In literature they often define the hero and the villain either in their dwelling, surroundings or clothing. (The Iliad, Paradise Lost, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.). In mythology, they appear as Hades, God of the underworld, a place of darkness contrasting with the celestial realm of the gods. In religion, God separates light from darkness in Genesis. The Bible associates light with God, truth and virtue, darkness with sin and the devil.

When thinking of the idea of duality, and the concept of good and evil, white and black, sacred and profane, positive and negative, joy and sorrow, bitter and sweet, I can’t help pairing them to neutralize or balance the intensity of each. The one is the reverse of the other. Yet these forces, though they appear to be opposites, may in fact be complementary. They do not cancel each other out; they simply balance each other. But in order to fully grasp one side of the dual nature of something, I realize that I need to experience or feel the other side to compare and fully understand the opposing side.

How can I know what “up” is if I don’t know what “down” is? Or what sweet and sour, hot and cold, young and old, good and evil are to one another if I am in the absence of either one? If there is no opposing counterpart, then it can’t have any value to you or me. Which means we need to expand our consciousness and recognize that duality is necessary for us to learn to make a choice in white or black. Understanding duality is a good starting point.

I asked the little boy if he knew how to play chess. He said yes and that he always chose the white pieces. I asked why. He answered, “The rule is that white starts the game, and white takes the advantage of winning the game.” I gave him a puzzled look. “It’s in the statistics,” he said. “But it must be played well to win,” he added smugly. “Is there ever a draw?” I asked. “Well, yes if you have two grandmasters at the game!”(British grandmaster Nigel Short wrote…. “With perfect play, God versus God…chess is a draw.”)

Such is the debate over black and white, light and dark. Is there ever a perfect game in the duality of light and dark, white and black to achieve the celestial canopy of colors?

 

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How Are You?

“How are you?” he asked in Arabic, his native tongue.

“Busy,” I relied with a quick smile.

“No,” he said. “I didn’t ask you what you are. I asked you ‘How is yourself.’ I want to know how is your internal self, your condition, your state of being. ‘Keif halik?’”

It occurred to me at that point that I was so used to the vagueness that surrounded this simple question (How are you?), and the ease with which it rolled off the tongue, it had become habitual for the one asking and the one answering to hide one’s self in its vagueness.

How are you? Three little words and a question mark. It’s a question we use all the time when we run into someone in the grocery store, in the office, in hallways, at social gatherings, in meetings etc. The question hangs in the air, waiting, but not really. We often ask without expecting much of an answer just like at the grocery store where the cashier asks “Did you find everything you needed?” without looking up and expecting none other than a positive “Yes”. But what are we really asking? Are we really asking because we want to know or are we asking out of trained politeness? Do we really care what the other person says? Do we actually expect them to answer the question? Do we expect them to answer truthfully or give the standard, “Busy,” or “Fine” or “Good! How’re you?” A quick nod and a smile, and then we each go our respective ways.

“How are you?” has become a ritualized greeting; just another way of saying “hello.” And because we live in an age where there is such stigma attached to failure and misfortune, we have to appear to be happy on cue. We are trained to put on a happy face, to answer with “great,” “busy,” or “you know, the usual,” regardless of how much pain or struggling we are going through. We have to remove that stigma so that those struggling, whether they are famous or not, are able to come forward when they are in a dark place, without fear that it will ruin their career or paint them as someone who is broken, crazy and just not trying hard enough.

But how did it all start for us to not answer truthfully? And is it the same in all cultures? I’m not quite sure it’s only an American optimism that easily embraces the automatic “fine.” The Armenians answer with “vochinch,” meaning “nothing,” or “neither good nor bad,” which is probably a remnant of years of Russian oppression when wretchedness was impermissible. Even Shakespeare, as far back as 1604, revealed the reluctance of his hero Othello to answer the question truthfully. Desdemona asks her husband, “How is’t with you, my lord?” and Othello replies “Well, my good lady.”… Even though he is half-mad with jealousy and only a few scenes away from murdering her.

Many of us are private and reluctant to tell others about the issues that disturb us. Even when we go to the doctor, we often minimize or fail to mention problems we are having. But why? Are we afraid to be helped? Are we afraid to admit that we have problems or do we have a lack of trust in old friends and new ones believing that no one really cares about what we say? The truth is that with an ever growing sense of depersonalization, we will never really know what’s going on in someone’s life behind his or her front of ‘happiness’ unless we are truly willing to listen to the response that goes into the depths of their state, their self.

He asked again, “Keif Halik?”

Asking questions isn’t only about the asking; it’s as much about listening and absorbing what the other person is telling you. He didn’t walk by with just a wave. He stopped to hear the answer. He listened to the tone of my voice and acknowledged my state of being. He was mindful. He was authentic. Plainspoken. Genuine.

It was my turn to give value to the question.

We talked.

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Lady Liberty

statue-of-liberty-new-york-usa-travel-critic
As the plane left La Guardia airport, it circled around the familiar robed woman wearing a crown of seven spikes. She holds a torch above her head with her right hand. In her left hand she carries a tablet. A broken chain lies at her feet. She is an icon of freedom and of the United States….a welcoming sight for those arriving from abroad and seeking refuge.

I thought back to 43 years ago when, as a young girl, I landed in New York on a temporary visa, frightened yet anxious to carve out a new life. The voices of thousands of women, children and men who had come before me on boats (or planes) followed me through my journey while their courage challenged me and their dignity reminded me that citizenship is not found in a piece of paper. It is found in the integrity of character.
Somehow, today in America, we are being led falsely to assume that those who differ from our norms are wrong. That those who come from countries less fortunate are not welcome. Yet it is people from diverse roots who have come here as dreamers who mirror the spirit of tolerance, kinship, and nationalism. People like you and me who celebrate the values, traditions and history of our ancestry while embodying the values of the American way of life.
As Americans we have to do better than trying to demonstrate our strength internationally by antagonizing peace talks, competing in nuclear explosive powers, selling weapons of war, associating with tyrants, and being oblivious to environmental issues. To demonstrate our worth and strength, it is our obligation now more than ever to infuse the moral and ethical values of this great nation into the processes of governing. Because without morality we will soon lose our influence around the world. I firmly believe that as a nation we can be humble instead of arrogant and flagrant. As a nation we can assist others without the need to dominate. As a nation we know to feed the hungry and deprived because we have nurtured our way out of the depths of our own starvations. As a nation we can be rooted in sensitivity, and show an understanding of life that is filled with compassion, kindness, and a deep concern for all refugees and immigrants seeking the same freedoms we have. As a nation that sees innocence before guilt and dignity before lowliness we can be strong and influential by clinging to principles that form the foundation on which our lives are fashioned.
Events and comments that smear and harm the press remind me that these are usually the first freedoms to be attacked by oppressors and dictators. Events and comments that misconstrue our understanding of freedom of speech and divide us remind me of irrational prejudice and discrimination that stem from a lack of respect for human rights for all humans.
Our Lady of Liberty that welcomes all into her harbor makes no boast of color, race, religion or class. On the contrary, she accepts each of us into this country, as a displaced person. I came from abroad, as did thousands before and after me. There is not one person living in this great nation (except for the Native American, also displaced in this their homeland) who is not a descendant of a displaced person. I am the reclaimed remains of another land, and today I am an American of a proud nation. I may not look like a “real” American, but there actually is no guide as to what a real American should look like. Americans are made up of so many different races and ethnicities, that the American culture or identity would not be what it is today without all these different derivations. The common denominator is our hunger for freedom. Whether we came here driven by economic, political, or religious oppression, or to successfully start anew, we did so believing in the fundamental certainty of our human rights and in the upheld dignity of man.
At the airport, I wondered, could America have become who she is now if the founding fathers had used the concept of building walls that divide and separate instead of a system of government that places a person’s inalienable right to be free from coercion at the center of its concerns? I wondered.
On the 4th of July, I hope we can all turn to the deeper symbolism of this celebration. As you hold your flags up high, remember the true meaning of America which lies in the soul of all those yearning for freedom… engraved at the base of our Lady Liberty on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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Measure of a Man

To fathers who love, who pray, who shed a tear
As they lay down their lives, in the big ways
And sometimes the harder small ways, for our families
At home, in our communities and across borders—
I salute you.
The measure of a man is not in your brute strength
But in the lessons we learned about hard work,
Faith, service, friendship, and respect for others taught by your example.
To fathers who sacrifice without self-pity, who defy stereotypes and who encourage us
To be faith driven and to look forward in life,
I salute you.
I salute you…
Because
The measure of a man is not the car in which he drives through life, but the size of the hole left behind when he leaves it.

Happy Father’s Day to dads on earth and in our hearts.

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Silence Is Never Really Silent


I ask, “Where shall we go for dinner?” while my husband searches for a favorite bottle of wine from the wine cooler. But the question is only a formality. We each know we will choose the usual restaurant a mile down the street from our home. We’ve been there before…many times. We like the food, the noisy clientele, the atmosphere. We take the short drive to the restaurant overflowing with early diners engaged in loud conversation. We catch the eye of the bartender and immediately find two seats at the bar. It has become a ritual. He asks if he should open the bottle for us. Yes, of course. He hands us the menu knowing full well that we don’t need it. But I read it from appetizers all the way through the desserts listed, just for fun. I choose the same thing as always. My husband opts for his traditional choice of platter which we both share. We toast to gratitude as we take our first sip of wine. We nod in approval. The vineyard and vintage has been tried and tested by our palates over the years. It is full bodied, with a spicy bouquet and rich in tears that cling to the side of the glass. It is hearty and intense, with a finish that is dry yet smooth, all at once. The first glass of wine goes down quickly among talk of work and events that transpire through the day. My husband pours more wine into the glasses. The conversation shifts from our individual day to a song I heard on the radio. We talk of nostalgia, of past and present. We talk of our children and families. We talk of science, life on other planets and the future of humanity. We discuss the struggle between science and religion. Do people realize the presence of God in the lives they lead? We talk of miracles. We talk of faith. We talk of love. We talk. And then, we pause. We know the deeply felt significance of the unspoken. We understand its profound power. We sit in silence. It’s the way it has always been for the past 42 years.

Forty two years ago we met in college. There were no expectations or pressure to become someone other than who we were. We came together and it just fit. There was a sense of physical and emotional intensity – heart pounding, eyes lighting up, dizzying skyrockets and roller coaster rides – drawing strength from each other. We spent hours over a cup of coffee which turned into a glass of wine as we watched the moon take over from day into night. We talked of future, of values and families. Children to be born, challenges to overcome and ladders to climb. And though we were young we were not as reticent as wine that holds back its bouquet. We quickly discovered that allowing a pause, an aeration if you will, would round out and soften any conversation like wine that is allowed to breathe. In such pauses, we felt the power and persuasion of silence. There was such authority in those moments that the act of saying nothing spoke louder than words ever could.

Now that I’m married I consider each day what it takes to stay married and in love for 42 years. I may not have the extravagant spontaneity of last-minute weekend trips or witty conversation over champagne brunches. I believe more in the sacred of the ordinary. I believe in love that is sustained by deliberate silence and the choice to see the profundity of the silence as testaments of love and commitment rather than indicators of a spark that has died—of love communicated each time we sit at a meal together, of loud, full bodied conversations that add spice to the thoughts; sometimes rich in tears of joy or sorrow. They are hearty; they are intense with a finish that is smooth. This picture of love is decidedly real, and in its own way more romantic because of the bold weight of its reality.

I trust silence. I trust its longing for wholeness, its desire to close the breach, its passion to unite what is out of reach. Think of silence in music, the pause—that empty moment, the “rest” that connects what came before and what is to come. Consider the pause that gives poetry its rhythm, or the pause in speech that throws you into the depth of what is to come next. A moment of awareness of the present, with a nod to the past and an ear turned to the future. So too, our lives need silence—amid the bright and tangy blend of vineyards that soften the intensity of ripened nuances—the predictable eloquence of pregnant pauses shakes us to our core. It feels like home without any rationale; the love that is like a storm and like the quiet calm of the night after.

Once again we raise our glasses. In the small silences of our predictable day, I choose him, and I choose love, all over again.

“Silence is never really silent.” (John Cage, composer)

 

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Mayr Im, Mother

   To all mothers who have left the light on with their unconditional love, this day belongs to you. Mother’s Day is a word that reminds us of hope, of life, of stability and belonging, of creation and procreation, symbolized by and encompassed in the word Mother. Mother earth, Mother Nature, motherland, mother church, mother tongue, mother ship, mother board, mother of all inventions, mother of all living things…mother. Women are the keepers of the balance of humanity, the conscience of nations, the flame that lights the hearth of countries, and rise up the next generations.

To the women who lead and to those who follow. To the women who teach and to those who learn. To women young, middle or aged, with or without child, working at home or out of the home, married, single or divorced, with money or without, who use their strength and their powers to become mothers of all living things, I salute you.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY.

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Victors Write History

Triumphant victors write history. And more often than not the triumphant are the more powerful past– the male. But just as history contains many times and many truths, it also contains many people—half of them women. The recent “velvet revolution” in Armenia, regardless of its final outcome, is one which will be written by her equally triumphant victor – the female.

Women’s involvement in the creation and reformation of democratic societies from past to present day has been essential to the peaceful process of change.

As I contemplate the role of women in social, cultural, and economic history, I realize ways in which the field of change has slowly evolved. Over the periods of different historical movements, women reformers directed their activities into areas, which were merely an extension of their domestic and traditional roles. They taught school, cared for the young, the poor, the sick, and the aged. They tended to the home. They conducted their lives according to a value system indoctrinated and defined by male dominated society. As their awareness expanded, they began to turn their attention toward the needs of others, namely women. They began to take a stand for female higher education; they spoke of prostitution, of moderation, and organized women for abolition of slavery. But it wasn’t until much later that their awareness grew to recognize the need to raise their subordinate place in society. Perhaps it was the restrains of their male counterparts and the oppressive “rule” of patriarchal society that gave way to the women’s rights struggle and the winning of suffrage and the institutional and organizational history of women’s movements. Whatever the cause, a movement becomes a revolution when someone feels the pain. And it is usually those who are subjected to subordination, who are marginalized, who are least able to bear it who hurt the most. It starts with one person. Eventually that single one person becomes two and three and then multiplies to become a large percentage of the populace. Soon, everyone begins to feel it, and the outrage of the people is loud enough to rock a nation.

I am reminded that it is the quality of great leaders and the ability to solve problems, that enable a people to live peacefully with faith and hope for their children and their grandchildren. Theirs is the desire to live in a fairer society, where citizens live with dignity and where nepotism and corruption do not lead to extremes of social income inequality and poverty. Per official statistics, over one third of Armenians live in poverty and the country’s population has declined below 3 million due to both emigration and a shrinking birth rate. After two decades of discontent and anger in a morally bankrupt kleptocracy, could the nation have held onto another year of the same? No!

I have the greatest respect and admiration for the women who stood in frontlines and next to and behind the people of a nation that felt the pain and the need to implement a more democratic and just system of governance; a system which recognizes and respects the rule of law and the human rights of Armenia’s citizens. People took to the streets and squares in Yerevan, Gyumri, Vanadzor, and smaller towns and villages throughout the country. There was kindness, tolerance and courtesy in their unwavering determination for change. More and more women, young people, and disabled people, became involved in the protests. I marveled at how their patriotism was manifest by each of their talents, gifts or abilities. Some took to the streets with their musical talent, others with their gift of dance, some with voices that rose as sweet as the Gregorian chants, while others who were disabled and served within their homes took to clanking pots and pans to participate in the rally to take action. This civil awakening of a nation systematically and smoothly proved that strength is in solidarity. The bravery of both women and men who courageously stood up to protect a nation’s survival is self-preservation at its best. It’s Patriotism.

Women activists have a history of not always being welcome in public offices and key decision-making forums. We have seen that all too often. But women are no longer the oppressed and vulnerable. Their actions and voices speak with and for an entire nation.

How will historians record this movement, this “velvet revolution”?Simply put, to overlook or minimize women’s role in the making of a robust, healthy, prosperous nation would be unpatriotic. We must all become triumphant victors…in a Nation of Equity.

 

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