Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The things we take for granted

I am on a great adventure here in Asia. I’ve stood on the Great Wall of China on a bitter cold December day and watched my breath float across the frozen hillside. I’ve seen the sunrise turn the towers of the ancient Angkor Watt temple from purple, to pink, to orange, to brilliant yellow. I’ve savored coffee-drenched pineapple tarts on a crumbling rooftop in Malaysia. I’ve sat under palm trees and watched Bali’s famous surf lick the sand. I’ve lain under a mosquito net in a beach- shack on stilts in Indonesia, letting the ocean’s lullaby rock me to sleep. I’ve danced under a full moon and sent a sky lantern sailing into the starry night abyss in Thailand. I’ve been transported back in time to my childhood innocence as I marveled at fire flies dancing in Bodhi trees. I’ve spent hours wandering the main streets and hidden back alleyways of Singapore sampling a fare share of crispy roti prata and spicy Laksa along the way.

Not to mention a couple years ago, I licked a gooey coconut gelato cone under the Leaning Tower of Pisa, washed my face in a crystal clear mountain stream in Scotland, marveled at the awe-inspiring Colosseum as it cast its afternoon shadow over Rome, shared footing with Stonehenge on a grassy, dew covered plain, stared breathlessly at original Picasso's in Barcelona, and listened to Big Ben chime at mid-night. And these are only a sampling of the wonderful opportunities I’ve been given and experiences I’ve had in my short 23 years.

Yet, in these last few weeks, as I face with my family one of the more difficult times in our lives, and as I ponder, as is human nature to do during times of trial, my most treasured memories, it is not these extraordinary, fleeting moments that top the list. They, of course, will always have a place in my heart. But instead, it is the more subtle, every day moments, that we seem to so unfortunately take for granted, which first come to mind when I am reminiscing.

Every year around Thanksgiving time, Parker Knox used to (I’m not sure if he still does) write a column for the Capitol Journal about things for which he was thankful. I don’t remember if he listed 25 or 50 things, I don’t remember exactly what he said he was thankful for, I don’t remember for sure what day it was printed in the paper, and I definitely don’t remember what section it was in. What I do remember, though, is that it always listed things that we see everyday but take for granted. (Things like the fact that Mom used to cut that article out for me, even when I moved away to college, and leave it on my bed until I got home for the Thanksgiving holiday just because she knew I liked it and it would make me happy.)

In the article, Knox would mention things like how the first snow coats the capitol building in white fluff so creamy and pure that it looks like it was iced by a professional cake decorator. He talked about the way children’s laughter echoes off the back of Hilger’s Gulch when they are whisked down on a sled in an icy blur, and the way Mom’s hot chocolate with extra marshmallows melts the chill from your veins after you spend just a little too long out on that hill. He mentioned the way the sunset casts a sherbet orange glow across the river in the long, warm summer evenings and the way the familiar smell of a good book that you are reading for the 17th time feels like coming home.

Millions of tiny moments, beautifully average and touchingly subtle, happen during our short lifetimes. Many of them are simply that, moments forgotten, untouched, left stored in the dusty, moth ball covered attics of our memories. Yet, these simple, everyday things, the one's which we so often take for granted at the time, are the things that really matter most in life. So, in light of my new found appreciation of the "small stuff" and as a reminder to myself not to take things for granted, the remainder of this blog entry will be a list, a tribute of sorts to my family, Parker Knox style, of a small but incredibly meaningful memory, which I have with each of my nearest and dearest family members. Of course, every family member could have many, many of these moments beside his or her name, but these are the ones which I have discovered first as I have sorted through and dusted off the old boxes in my memory's attic.

Grandma Arlie: Many of my memories with you are in the kitchen, of course. My mother and father tell me I must have gotten my love for all things culinary from you. Particularly, I remember the way in which you would cut my crust off the toast that we would eat with oatmeal in the mornings. You didn't like crust either. Every time I taste apple pie and cranberry-orange muffins, I think of you, and I make cranberry-orange scones for that very reason.

Uncle Vinnie: When I was little I truly idolized you. I remember feeling so proud to be sitting on your team's bench at your softball games, your most loyal fan and cheerleader -- besides maybe Grandma in her high heels, but, then again, she was sometimes a player.

Aunt Darci: One time we had a girl's night just you and me, and we put on face masks. We tried our hardest not to move our face and risk "cracking" the masks. This of course failed miserably as, for one reason or another, we couldn't stop laughing. I also remember watching a "So you think you can Dance?" marathon and eating fried zucchini the summer I stayed with you while I went to dance camp in Rapid City. Where was Jeff for all this? Hiding, I'm sure.

Dayna: I remember your high school graduation party better than I remember my own. You had so many friends and family members wishing you luck and congratulating you on all your successes. I remember hoping to have such a wonderful high school graduation celebration when it came time for me to go off to college. I also remember feeling so cool the weekend I got to come stay with you in Brookings and just hang out.

Shelly: You used to "borrow" me for Disney movies, and I most clearly remember seeing "The Lion King" with you. I felt so special when you let me announce to the family that you were pregnant with Jordyn. All your e-mails from home, are the perfect home-sickness cure in Singapore, and I am truly excited when I receive one of those e-mail family updates.

Uncle Ed: Before my family had a video camera, you used to faithfully record my dance recitals every year. Even if there were some pretty funny minor malfunctions, I was always so happy to watch the recordings. It was so special to have you at my recitals every year.

Uncle Tim: I have mentioned this in a previous blog, but one of my favorite childhood memories is spending a few weeks in Iowa with you and Dee. I most clearly remember picking raspberries from the bush in the back to put on our cereal in the morning or ice cream at night, watching for Nicodemous on the patio, and catching fire flies for night lights. You and Dee have really become like a second set of parents to me over the years, especially after the summer I spent living with you while working at KDLT.

Dee: When I lived with you for the summer in 2008, some of my favorite memories stem from the fact that you became the best combination of a mother and a friend. I particularly remember eating dinner and sipping wine while watching American Idol and gossiping a bit when Tim was out of town one time.

Grandpa Knutson: Your grandchildren are so lucky to have grandparents who are so involved in their lives. I have so many memories of you from my childhood/adolescents/early adulthood as you and Grandma have always been constant figures in my life. But the memory, which stood out most to me as I was thinking back on them all, is a more recent one. I remember dancing with you at your 50th anniversary. I may have more formal dance training, but you and Grandma can still dance me under the table.

Jordyn: When you were born, I was so excited to finally have a playmate...though much to my surprise and dismay, you couldn't play Barbies with me right away. But, I always felt so mature in my 7-years-of-age when your Mom and Dad would let me sit on the couch with a pillow under my elbow and hold you.

Nikki: I don't know if you will remember this or not, but one summer I babysat you and Jordyn. I loved taking you in my truck to the beach where we would build sandcastles. I also remember cooking you macaroni and cheese and practically forcing Jordyn to eat while you would gladly ask for seconds.

Grandma Knutson: I do not even know where to start. As I'm thinking of all the wonderful memories I have with you, your box in my memory's attic is overflowing. The first things that come to mind, though, are decorating many cakes and the crazy, mission-like Black Friday shopping trips to Rapid City. I also remember a particularly long and intense Rummikub tournament with you, Grandpa, and Elizabeth and playing King's in the Corner (I think that is what it is called) when I was little and would stay with you guys.

Chad, Anita, and Shelby: Going to the races with you guys is one of my favorite memories from the summer of 2008. Shelby, I also particularly enjoyed hanging out with you and your friend at the swimming pool.

Cynthy, Fran, Connie, Galen, and Halley: I will always treasure the meals, laughter, and tears we shared in Palm Desert, California on one of the most fun vacations I have ever had (and that includes Beijing, London, Rome, and all the other wonderful places I've been to). Fran, I also remember the strange and lovely coincidence with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" for Grandma's funeral. Cynthy, one of many of my favorite memories at your cabin is learning how to make white-sauce for green beans (and many other things) with you and my mom.

Dad: Of course for you, Mom, and Elizabeth there are more memories than can possibly ever ever be listed, so I decided to go with the most subtle of all. After my senior dance recital, you told me how proud you were of me and all I had accomplished. I know you are proud, but hearing it at that one particular moment in my life and knowing you would support me in what I hoped to do in the future is a moment that has always stayed with me.

Mom: You have always been such a loving, kind, and constant mother and friend that it is hard to distinguish one moment from another. They seem to blur together in the kind of way a child's finger-paint artwork will, mixing, swirling, blending, until it is simply a lovely little creation from the heart of a child manifest through his/her fingers on a page. One small, but significant, of many moments I remember is seeing you at the airport when I first arrived home from London. There is nothing like seeing your mother, so full of love that is so readily given, when it has been far too long. I cannot wait to see you again soon in Singapore.

Elizabeth: A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves-- a special kind of double. Elizabeth, I have so many fond memories with you, probably more than with anyone else on this list, and I know you have been made aware recently of many of them. One thing you always do, and I appreciate more than you know, is you always tell me you love me before we hang up the phone, and you are always the first to say it especially when it seems I might forget. I love you too.

With love, TIA,

Friday, April 9, 2010

Easter renewal

John 13: 14-17: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

In these words, in these actions, and especially in the actions in the days that follow this Passover meal, Jesus gives us a lesson, a gift, of profound humility, grace, and human equality that are at the very core of the Easter renewal season. Shouldn’t this story, then, be a beautiful, gentle reminder of our responsibility to treat all of our fellow human beings with kindness and respect? Shouldn’t we remember, in the season of rebirth both as spring envelopes the Earth, tucking winter away in its warm embrace, and as the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead manifests itself in Christian churches the world over, our own chance to start anew, to take up the cloth and wash one another’s feet?

What a strange, beautiful, surprising coincidence, then, that I was to be reminded of this lesson, of this gift, on a remote beach in northern Indonesia by a Bahasa Indonesian-speaking Muslim man on a day none-other than, Holy Saturday. I suppose, though, that God has a way of appearing in the most unlikely of places.

I was wandering, in my dazed cloud of euphoric happiness, making my way along the deserted beach at sunrise, and filling my lungs with the fresh, salty, renewing air when I unintentionally wandered my way into a pile of tar…the tar waste from a ship passing through in the night that had found itself onto my untouched white-sand beach. How rude.

Of course, this black, sticky, thick substance is not exactly the kind of material that fits easily into one’s meditative sunrise bliss. Thus, my bubble was burst. And I found myself standing in the middle of paradise…cursing the ship, the low tide, the palm tree, the tar, my meditative bliss that got me into this in the first place, and just about every other inanimate object this little paradise had to offer. Not exactly the renewal and grace Jesus had in mind.

But at this point my “humanness” took over, and I was no longer silently contemplating God’s sweet, salty air or His sun’s red-orange rays playing hopscotch on the water. No, all I was thinking about now were two steps: first, get this crap off my feet and second, swim out to the offending ship and proceed to sink it. Again, not exactly the renewal and grace God’s Son had planned out for me this weekend.

So first thing’s first: scrub the tar off my feet.

A fact I did not know about beach tar: the more you scrub, the more it spreads, the more it spreads, the more you scrub, and the more it spreads. You get the picture. Step two was momentarily, luckily for the ship, put on hold while I angrily scrubbed at my poor feet with water, sand, hand, foot, stick, shell, and, at one point, a brief contemplation of the crab sitting on the mud flat in front of me. Lucky for him (or maybe for me), he disappeared down his dirt hole just in time. So, just as I was about to skip step one in favor of the far more realistic and plausible step two…

… my Bahasa Indonesian-speaking Muslim friend appeared, carting along, what else, but a small asymmetrical rag and a square container of some sort of special tar-removing miracle fluid.

Without a word of English, this man managed to tell me to hold still, give him my foot, and, with a bit of “tut, tut, tutting”, scold me like a mother scolds a toddler for stepping in the stuff in the first place. Smiling and scolding all the while, the graying Indonesian Muslim man, who could have been 25 judging by the way he agilely squatted and gracefully leaned to and fro, to and fro as he scrubbed, but whose taut, wrinkled, tanned, leathery skin gave him about 40 more years, cleaned my feet with his gasoline-scented miracle fluid until all the tar was gone.

Then, just as quickly as he had come, he stood smoothly to his full height of about five feet even, smiled, “tutted” one last time, and moved quickly away in search of others who had suffered the same tar-feet fate.

Now I am not being in the least bit theatrical when I say that as he walked away, and the realization of the connection between the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and the fact that it was indeed Holy Saturday settled into my bones, tears began to well in my eyes. Not the kind of tears that pool until they over flow and fall raindrop-like to the ground. But instead these tears momentarily clouded my vision and then, as I looked back toward the sunrise, disappeared as quickly as my feet-washing friend.

And as I stood there, once again returning to absolute meditative bliss and trying to recall what I had been thinking about before (something about sinking a ship…how silly), I had another of those surreal moments that only Asia can provide: I, a fairly moderate to liberal Christian, just saw Jesus in a Muslim man who washed tar off my feet with gasoline on a deserted white-sand beach in Indonesia at sunrise. TIA.

Needless-to-say, my Holy Week was a bit different this year than it has ever been before.

It all began with a Seder meal hosted by my Jewish, Hebrew-speaking, American friend, Joe, at the home of a Catholic PiAer, attended by several of my other American friends who are all Christians in varying senses of the word. Not only were those in attendance a bit “mutt-like”, but our Passover food was as well. In place of the matzah, or flat bread, we had Thosai, Indian pancake-like bread. Replacing the maror, bitter herbs, was the Korean kimchi, rather than the Charoses mixture traditionally consisting of apples, nuts and cinnamon, we had rojak, a Singaporean favorite sweet-sauced fruit mixture, and instead of a lamb shank bone, there was a roasted chicken leg from the local grocery store.

Despite the substitutions, some practices remained true to tradition. Joe read much of the meal service in Hebrew (offering English translations, of course), we all enjoyed the typical four glasses of wine, and we learned a great deal about the symbolism of the foods.

A very quick and very inadequate run-down: Matzah is unleavened bread meant to remind us of the haste in which the Israelites fled Egypt. The bitter Maror symbolizes the bitterness of slavery while the sweet, sticky Charoses is meant to represent the mortar used by the Jews in the construction of buildings as slaves. A boiled egg sits on the plate as a symbol of life (note the importance of eggs to many people of different religions during this renewal season). An herb, like parsley, is dipped in salt water to help us remember the tears shed during the escape from Egypt. Finally, the lamb bone represents the paschal sacrificial offering made by the Jews in order to paint their door frames with lambs’ blood and to be passed over by the angel of death.

My Holy Week continued in a blur of those activities that I never expected to be a part of my life when I signed up to be a teacher in Asia. I took an Oral Communications course, taught a group of 30, 13-year-olds a swing dance in preparation for International Friendship Day, played MC at my school’s Games Day, and had a long lunch with a group of my Singaporean colleagues in a bistro owned by a Long Island native which boasted “traditional American fare.”

Stephanie and I left on the ferry for our Indonesian shanty shack on Thursday evening. We arrived just in time to use the squat toilet and collapse into our king-sized, mosquito-net-covered bed, before the generator blew and the electricity went out.

We spent the rest of the long weekend waking for sunrise before enjoying a long, lazy breakfast of fried rice and an over-easy egg prepared by a friend of the owner and sitting at an uneven picnic table. We would then waste away the days by walking (occasionally trekking on seaside rocks) along the beach, meeting only the occasional fisherman or Indonesian couple stealing away for some alone time in an empty cove. I finished two novels and a magazine and took several palm-tree-shaded naps during those long hours when the day stretched on into beautiful nothingness. What else can you do when the nearest ATM is over an hour’s drive and the next nearest restaurant a good mile or so up the road? We spent our evenings playing poker, gin rummy, and speed at the same rickety, lopsided picnic table at which we ate breakfast and lunch before settling in for a 9 o’clock bedtime…a perfect way to find renewal in the Easter season.

When we arrived home Sunday evening, Stephanie and I partook in yet another Easter tradition…Easter egg dying.

The influence of spring rites and renewal is what makes the egg special during Easter. Almost all ancient cultures held eggs as a symbol of life. An old Latin proverb encompasses this belief: “omne vivum ex ovo”or“all life comes from an egg.”

Eggs are symbols of life for Jewish Seder meals. Christians also view the egg as representative of new life.

Eggs may have gained particular significance to Christianity’s Easter season in Medieval Europe when they were forbidden during Lent. It was traditional to use up all the eggs in the household before Lent. Thus the Pancake Day tradition, which is still practiced in the U.K., Ireland, and Australia, arose and pancakes are eaten on Fat Tuesday. Eggs were again eaten on Easter, were a mainstay in Easter meals, and were a prized gift for children as they are today. The egg itself is a symbol of the Resurrection – while dormant, it contains a new life within. The art of decorating these eggs dates back to the Roman, Greek, and Egyptian celebrations of spring.

Renewed and enlightened I returned to school this week. Though busy, I enjoyed my students’ creativity while they worked to complete their Greek gods and goddess projects during which they wrote a proposal to Zeus as one of the other gods or goddesses asking for a new power, reviewing swing dancing in preparation for next week's Friendship Day celebration, choreographing and finally teaching some of the dances for the musical, teaching a few review lessons in preparation for the mid-year exams coming up in a few weeks, and another Oral Communications course.

The weekend has arrived after a long and busy week, and I am looking forward to a bit more renewal, though probably not as much in over-stimulated Singapore as I experienced in Bintan.

I am also looking forward to attending another school’s musical Saturday evening with my mentor, finishing a bit of work, attending some yoga classes, and even fewer days to check off until my family arrives for their visit in June.

Happy Easter Season, Cheers, and TIA,


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter weekend get-away

Stephanie and I spent Easter weekend at a shack on the beach in Bintan, Indonesia. Follow our adventures in photos here: