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The streets are hung with lights, the stores are decorated with red and green, tinsel and sparkle are everywhere, and Christmas dominates the airwaves with songs about the spirit of the season and the glories of gifts. We fast-forward our days stressing over making lists and checking them twice, racing to find the perfect gift, the perfect tree, decorating the house and matching our table settings with perfect color coordination. We bake goods, exchange gifts, pass out tasty treats, and we relish in the bounty of our tables. Christmas is about traditions that are uniquely yours and uniquely mine. It’s about moments and memories that make no sense to anyone else but our own individual families. But within all family gatherings, there is not a soul on earth who doesn’t have a mental vision of an empty chair where once sat a loved one.
I close my eyes. I see the world we are living in. I can feel the beating of a thousand desperate hearts. I can hear the cries of mothers who are losing their children each day. I can see the fear for tomorrow in the faces of people. I can feel the heartache for those who have lost loved ones due to wars. I can feel the pain of loss intensified, the weight of tragedies, divorces, diseases, divided families, depression, and disaster. I breathe in. I breathe out. I am moved beyond the limits of my humanity. While I do believe in the joy of Christmas gatherings, Christmas shopping, Christmas recitals, Christmas outreach events and Christmas charities, this year in particular, I don’t want to lose sight of those whose table of life has an empty chair. I want this Christmas to be the one where we assume the empty chair not just in our lives but also in the lives of others.
The empty chair symbolizes what plagues our world today as we consider all the empty chairs in our lives. We don’t need to experience a personal physical loss to assume the empty chair. We all know someone who needs to be fed; someone who needs a listening ear or a shoulder to rest on; someone who needs shelter, a hug, a smile. We see violence, suffering and injustice happening in and around our world. Sometimes we are silent; sometimes we speak out and take action. But most of the time, we are rapt in the competitive chaos of making things perfect for our tables. And after a while we become numb to the repeats of tragedy and loss. The problems of the world are beyond us, we say. We tut-tut, shake our heads and go on with the want for Christmas to be the picture-perfect day. And somewhere in the frazzle dazzle, we lose the context of Christmas, found in the simplicity of a manger.
Our empty chairs are not necessarily those of wars or misfortunes in foreign lands, far from sight and far from reach. They’re close to home and in our own backyard. Is there someone going through Christmas dinner and seeing the empty chair of a loved one for the first time? Is there a mother who needs to be consoled? A father who needs to be contacted? A child who needs to be brought home off the streets? Is there an elderly in need of company? A friend with a disability? A family who has lost a home? Is there anybody who needs to be brought back to that table of life? It takes courage to assume the chairs at the table of our lives. It takes courage to assume the chair after feeling destitude by life circumstances. Could you be the one, who is big enough to call these people, write to them, visit them, talk to them, listen to them and reignite their appetite for life? Could you be the one to bring them back to the table of life with your care and love?
This Christmas, the love and wisdom of God incarnate found in the simplicity of a manger compels me to put down the cookie cutters, and step away from matching gift-wrap. I will use homemade ornaments and find joy in crooked trees and mismatched dinnerware. My house may not smell like fresh-baked goods and my tree may not sparkle, but I will relish at my table of life full with affection and fraternity from one end to the other, overflowing with room for the empty chairs in our lives and us.
It will be perfect. Merry Christmas!
There is no substitute for family. Family is those with whom I grew up and created a bond from my beginning years. Family is those whom I talk to or reminisce about in my adult years. It is those whom I will seek in my ending years.
But what I seek most these days are the simple moments when family comes together for a cup of coffee, a quick bite, or a peek-a-boo hello on any given day. There is magic in those simple moments. Inevitably, the conversations tend to turn toward the past and a revival of a family heritage of stories. Stories they told while preparing for festive occasions, bustling in and out of doorways, darting between children, and setting tables to serve a family of over 50 people. Each with a personality or funny quirk of his/her own added to the shared heritage that bound us with unconditional love. At the time, we didn’t know we were gathering memories as we heard family members tell their stories that were to become the most distilled and meaningful truth in our lives…learning that in the end, when the trappings of life dissolve, all that is left is the love we return to in family. As children, when we listened to the elders tell their stories, we learned how to finish their sentences, and the laughter that ensued created new anecdotes. We repeated their stories from memory passed down from the oldest to the youngest, and we often interwove them with our own stories formed through our own created families…with siblings, spouses, in-laws, children, grandchildren, friends, and the list grows endless. Our family gatherings are time tested. The repeated anecdotes have become our own family heritage. They bear a language all their own and bring out an acoustical signature of laughter; and when everyone laughs, I laugh the loudest.
The families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through our choosing of friends. No matter in which of these families we are gathered, the visceral combination of sight, sound, and powerful emotions is part of the shared heritage of stories that binds members of the family together. It endures as a rich, nearly tangible memory within our minds, a place remote in time and space but instantly accessible to any one of us at the mere utterance of a simple catchphrase or a “remember when…”. It is in a glorious place to be, surrounded by these moments. A single word or phrase — said with the correct inflection can make us all diffuse into hysterical laughter, until someone finally catches his/her breath to retell the original story of the special event and how it gained significance as a tangible memory in our family.
One such family is the family of friends my husband shares with his high school mates. Back then, on the small island of Cyprus, there was not any part of their memory or existence in which they did not exist separate from one another. Today, whenever their entire family of classmates, school mates and teachers gather, regardless of the distance of time and space, they always laugh aloud and share the same stories about growing up and being in the boarding school. They repeat stories about neighbors and neighborhoods, stories about teachers they all had in school, stories about unfairly getting in trouble and who was really responsible for breaking the rules, stories of love, of competitions won and lost, of couples, of mischief, of nicknames and of a special unparrarel bond. The anecdotes are never ending. They carry a language all their own. All of these inside jokes and stories slowly become my stories. Here too, the laughter among friends has its own acoustical signature, and when everyone laughs and jokes, I laugh the loudest.
Over the years I realize that when family gathers for any occasion small or big, the conversations tend to braid our past and present stories with humor and love, making them beautiful and unique in their own way. I wonder if all those stories are some kind of a reminder for us about how much of our past inhabits our world and how family (born into, created or chosen) is the only safe haven of unconditional love.
This Thanksgiving, make your home a safe haven for unconditional family love. Fill it with endless laughter as you retell heritage stories that resonate from the heart and live in your memory. You will laugh the loudest. Happy Thanksgiving.
(The precise aroma of falling rain is known as petrichor. It was coined petrichor by Isabel Joy Bear and Richard Grenfeld Thomas, two Australian mineralogists who blended the Greek words petra, rock, and ichor, the essence that flowed through the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.)
Smell. It is one of the strongest sense that connects us to a world of our past; powerful enough to bring with it long forgotten memories. From freshly baked bread to frying onions, or cinnamon to pear drops, from gunpowder to smoldering ash, or diesel fuel to rotten eggs, a tiny whiff is capable of bringing memories of old flooding back. And our brain allows us to distinguish between different smells and decide whether they are pleasant or nasty.
Walking through a shopping mall in the heart of a city, I kept a steady stride looking left and right, up and around, absorbing as best I could the sights and sounds of a busy metropolis. Suddenly a familiar earthy aroma of lush soil, fresh and green yet musky reached my nostrils. It was an elemental smell that I knew deep within me… a smell that I had missed over the long hot dry summer. It smelled of sweet petrichor, the scent of first rain that moistens the dry soil…piquant, mixed with a whiff of jasmine. It emanated from the fragrance boutique in front of which I stood. “Do you like it?” asked the man holding a spray bottle. “It’s their new fragrance…a hint of jasmine with a strong mix of the smell of wet earth.” No wonder it had arrested me. I have a special attachment to the smell that rises from the earth after the first rains. It evokes such memories of different places and different stages of my life. I asked to sniff other scents mixed with earth’s perfume, and the subjective memory of my nose behind the sniff, took me to different parts of the world.
I inhaled the aroma of summer rain falling on a long hot day in Budapest. It smelled sweet, like grass and the wind carried with it the scent of fir and willow. Definitely pleasing to the senses, yet it was different from the familiar scent of rain that fell on the red soils of Lebanon. There the earth carried with it the rich powerfully evocative aroma of pine, tree sap and bark. Petrichor! It is so emotive, stirring memories, sometimes of an apple orchard in bloom summoning recollections of a childhood run through my great uncle’s orchard; at other times a distinct petrol smell reminiscent of the baking sands that whispered secrets of the past as I’d roll down the towering dunes of dry Kuwaiti desert. In Utah, it was the scent of juniper. That scent was different from rain cooling a hot sidewalk in New York City, where the steamy asphalt and dusty smell rose from the concrete pavement to meet me. In Rome, it was the smell of limestone clay with an acidic – almost sweaty – hint. In the fields between Prague and Bratislava, petrichor hinted of wet hay and livestock. Whereas in Greece, the briny smell mixed with dry rock was almost a reminder of my connection to the salty earth.
How I love the smell of first rain on dry land! The Indians call it “Mitti Attar,” Earth’s Perfume, and knowing that it is linked with memory and the emotional side of our brain, they’ve been bottling it successfully since 1911 to mix with other scents. Perhaps that is why the perfume industry has been developing fragrances that seek to convey a vast array of emotions and feelings; from desire to power, vitality to relaxation, purity to wildness, delicate to overpowering. Scents that can make us salivate, attract us to a mate, change our heart rate, and provide umpteen sensory experiences.
I sniffed another. Nostalgia overtook my senses. “You really like this one,” he observed. “Yes, it’s like an ancient memory that I was already born with. I feel it. It’s in my genes,” I said. It had an oaky, wild pear bouquet, reminiscent of a forest. I thought of Jermuk, Armenia. There, the autumn breeze carries with it the scent of fallen leaves, and as the humidity shifts ahead of the first rain to loosen the metallic materials from the earth’s rich and fungal pores, it sends its pungency adrift. I felt it deeply. Perhaps just like my ancestors did as they breathed in the ripe air with the nectar of healing minerals …ethereal fluid, essence that flowed through the veins of my ancestors.
Next time, step outside after the first storm following a dry spell. The sweet, fresh, powerfully evocative smell of fresh rain will invariably hit you. You will relish the scent. Think of it as a cultural imprint, derived from your ancestors. Unconsciously, the scent with its magical aroma will conjure an ancient promise of plenty, of expectations and growth, of fruitful abundance, of change and positivity, of hope.
I long to breathe it deeply.
(photo of pine trees across the hills of Lebanon, courtesy of Vahe Barsoum)
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?
“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.
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!”