Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Children of Damascus

The beautiful babies and children, wrapped in their white shrouds, laid in a row in the street in front of a mosque, while a voice on a loudspeaker asks people to come forward and identify the bodies.  They seem to be sleeping, but they were choked to death with poison gas.  Their lives had barely begun when they were cut short...After seeing those photos in every newspaper today, it's impossible to think about, or write about, anything else.

I keep remembering the day, seven years ago, when I entered the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, worried by the anti-American slogans I'd seen in the marketplace, and found nothing but welcoming faces,  families playing and worshipping and just hanging out together peacefully.  And the proud parents who asked me to take photographs of them with their children--even though there was no way I could send them the photos.  And in the courtyard outside, the gaggle of young women who insisted on posing for me.  The little boy playing with his miniature car, and the little girl in a pink "Barbie" outfit.
I wonder where they are today--in a refugee camp or wrapped in a white shroud, lying in the street?

Remembering the children, I'm re-posting again the photos I took when their country was not enveloped in war. 

Scenes from Damascus

The first and only time I saw Damascus --March 3, 2006--I was fascinated with the capital and vowed to go back. The oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus is a mind-boggling mixture of Roman ruins, living Bible history and Muslim mosques.

I came as part of a group of about ten on a shore excursion from a small cruise ship.  Our guide took us to the old center of the city to see the Umayyad Mosque—one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world, and the fourth-holiest place in Islam.
 We walked through the covered bazaar to get there, but most of the shops were closed because it was a Friday.  I was getting a little nervous because I was told that the banners hanging overhead were full of anti-American rhetoric.
 Here is a photograph that shows the mixture of Roman ruins and one of the three minarets of the Mosque-- all in the same place.
 Before entering, the women in the group had to put on “special clothes”—a very unappealing heavy gray djellaba (Well, that’s what they call it in Morocco.)  I’m the one on the left in the sun glasses.  You can see that the man in the red shirt didn’t have to change into more solemn clothing.
 The Umayyad Mosque is unbelievably large and rich in its mosaics and tiles and gilded decorations.  Everything that looks gold is gold, we learned.   In the time of its full glory, the mosque had the largest golden mosaic in the world.
 We entered the immense outer courtyard and found the families inside just hanging out-- children playing, old men sleeping, people washing their hands before prayers.
 Everyone regarded us with friendly curiosity, despite the anti-American slogans in the marketplace.  This man asked me to take a photo of him and his three children.
 Then we entered the vast covered prayer hall, and again, everything was casual.  A small white chapel with green windows is in the center, reportedly holding the head of John the Baptist. In the fourth century, after it housed a Roman temple to Jupiter, this site held a church to John the Baptist and was an important pilgrimage destination for Christians in the Byzantine era. Then the building was shared by Muslim and Christians alike.  But when the present mosque was built between 706 and 715, the church was demolished.
 But now, at the little chapel with the green windows, I was surprised to see Muslims praying and slipping money into it, presumably to honor John the Baptist.  (And one of the minarets in the Umayyad Mosque is called the  Minaret of Jesus because of a Muslim tradition that, on the day of judgment, this is where Jesus will appear.)
After we admired the golden mosaics in the interior, we moved on to a smaller outdoor courtyard with fountains where families were enjoying the fine weather. 
 These young women came over and asked me to photograph them, and of course I did, although we had no language in common and I had no way of sending the photos back to them.
This little boy was playing with his miniature car on the cover of a well.
And I was amused to see that the little girl with these black-clad women was dressed in a pink  outfit covered with the word "Barbie".
Now, when I read the reports nearly every day of massacres, suicide bombs, streets lined with the dead in Syria, including in Damascus—thousands killed so far and so many of them children—I remember the families I saw in the Mosque, all so hopeful and proud of their children, and I pray that the current bloodshed can be stopped before it claims any more innocent lives.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Writing Your Own Obituary?

You probably saw, as I did, the obituary of Seattle author Jane Catharine Lotter, who died of cancer on July 18 at the age of 60.  When her obituary was published on July 28 in the Seattle Times, it quickly went viral, presumably because it was so eloquent, witty, wise and moving, and because she wrote it herself.

 Jane had written a weekly humor column called “Jane Explains” as well as a comic novel “The Bette Davis Club”.  A number of journalists and bloggers discussed Jane’s unusual obituary, most of them quoting the first sentence: “One of the few advantages of dying from Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer…is that you have time to write your own obituary.”

I printed out and saved it, because I’ve always intended to write my own obituary, (my kids asked me to—I guess so THEY wouldn’t have to do it) and since I’m now 72, that’s on my “To Do Sometime” list.  But I never, until now, considered writing it in the first person, like a letter.

Here is my favorite part of Jane’s obit, near the end: 

“Bobby M., I love you up to the sky.  Thank you for all the laughter and the love and for standing by me at the end.  Tessa and Riley, I love you so much, and I’m so proud of you.  I wish you such good things.  May you, every day, connect with the brilliance of your own spirit.  And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.

“I believe we are each of us connected to every person and everything on this Earth, that we are in fact one divine organism having an infinite spiritual existence.  Of course, we may not always comprehend that.  And really, that’s a discussion for another time.  So let’s cut to the chase.

“I was given the gift of life, and now I have to give it back.  This is hard. But I was a lucky woman, who led a lucky existence, and for this I am grateful.  I first got sick in January 2010.  When the cancer recurred last year and was terminal, I decided to be joyful about having had a full life, rather than sad about having to die.  Amazingly, this outlook worked for me.  (Well, you know, most of the time.) Meditation and the study of Buddhist philosophy also helped me accept what I could not change. At any rate, I am at peace.  And on that upbeat note, I take my mortal leave of this rollicking, revolving world—this sun, that moon, that walk around Green Lake, that stroll through the Pike Place Market, the memory of a child’s hand in mine.”

No wonder that obituary went viral, I thought, Jane Catherine Lotter was a brilliant writer. 

Then, yesterday, I was reading old newspapers because I had been out of the country during July, and in the weekly “Grafton News”, published in my tiny New England village, I found another obituary written in the first person—this one by a  nurse named Laura Jean Bassett Toomey Whiting, who also died of cancer at age 60 and wrote an obituary that was as eloquent and moving as Jane Lotter’s.  (The obit was also printed in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.)  To my amazement, Laura died on July 19-- one day after Jane Lotter-- so her obit couldn’t have been inspired by Jane’s, as I first assumed. Both the obituaries were published in late July.

Unlike Jane, Laura Whiting did not say she was at peace with dying: 

“It is with great sadness that I leave you…Although my cancer is incompatible with life, I am not prepared or ready to go. There is still so much I want to do.  I want to grow old with my best friend and husband, Larry…I want to watch my children and grandchildren grow up…But I am so happy to have lived to help plan my daughter’s wedding on July 20, 2013 [the day after Laura died—and they did go through with it.] I am amazed that my desire to participate in this wonderful celebration somehow gave me the strength to do so.”

Laura writes that, in 1970, when she was in nursing school, she contracted  Hodgkin’s Disease but was cured.

“Being cured of cancer also allowed me my greatest achievement:  to have five beautiful, wonderful and healthy children.”

At the end, having  recounted her life, Laura says: “I am a 43-year survivor of cancer, not a victim.  Despite the fact that I again have cancer, my long survival is miraculous.  Cancer certainly challenges a person, their family and their friends…but it also gives us a chance to think about what is important…It allows you to say ‘I love you’ to a wider circle of friends, and to say ‘I love you’ more often to family.  Many friends and family have gone to great effort to gather to celebrate life with me…What a gift!...Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.  Thank you for those moments, those gifts.  I love you.

“I have chosen to donate my body to the University of Massachusetts Medical School in recognition of the importance of studying the human body in the education of medical students, with the expectation that they will use what they learn from me to help relieve human suffering.”

Reading Laura’s obituary inspired many Massachusetts readers who did not know her to sign into her on-line guest book, saying what a remarkable woman she must have been.  And here is a comment from Joyce Leoleis, who did know her:

“I am lucky to be one of the Memorial Hospital screeners who got to see and enjoy Laura almost every day... Her incredible approach to life, both before and during her illness, will always be an inspiration to us all. A wise woman once told me that a mother’s job when her children are young is to teach them how to live. When they are older, a mother’s job is to teach her children how to die. Laura did both with a quiet dignity and grace that will never be forgotten.”

I’ve added Laura’s obituary to my file of inspiration for the day when I sit down to write my own obituary—a task I have to stop putting off.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Amalia Discovers Athens and the Grande Bretagne

 Amalia had only two days at the end of her trip to Greece to enjoy Athens, but staying at the Grande Bretagne Hotel, (friends call it “the GB”) put her right in the heart of the city with a balcony overlooking Constitution Square…

… and a perfect view of the tourists gathering to photograph the Evzone soldiers stationed in front of the Parliament building.

Amalia was greeted with “Welcome” gifts from the GB, including flowers and this arrangement of chocolates.  Even the lady caryatid, who looks like the columns holding up the Erectheum on the Acropolis, was made out of white chocolate, but she was too pretty to eat.

Breakfast at the GB happens on the roof, and with your Herald Tribune and fresh squeezed orange juice,....
 you get this view of the Parthenon.

 Amalia’s first priority was to check out the  pool, also atop the building. (There’s also an Olympic-sized pool in the spa in the basement.)
 Bathing suit, check.  Sunglasses, check.  Nemo water wings, check.  Dora the Explorer hat, check.  Amalia was ready to hit the pool.

She tried to get Papou to go into the pool with her, but he had meetings scheduled.

Amalia decided she didn’t want to go any further than the first step down…

…despite Mommy’s efforts to coax her into the water.  (In the distance you can see Mount Lycabettos, with the Church of St. George on top.)

When she spied the fountains in the corner, Amalia decided that was much more her idea of water play.   

Later Mommy took Amalia in her stroller to explore the National Gardens nearby, which were originally the Royal Gardens for Amalia, the first queen of modern Greece.  But now they’re for everyone, including her small namesake.

The animal cages were empty--no doubt one more result of Greece’s economic crisis—but there was a pond full of turtles,
Some baby turtles rode on their Mommy’s back.

There were pieces of ancient columns to pose on

And swings to share with Yiayia Nenny

And a sandbox where this boy had some really cool sand toys and a dump truck he was filling with sand…

…But a bigger boy named Socrates took away the dump truck and the little boy cried and Socrates’ Mommy gave him a lecture, while Amalia was riveted by the drama.
Walking back to the hotel, Amalia wanted a close-up view of the Evzones doing their  goose-stepping dance in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Barricades had been put up to protect the Parliament building from the  anti-austerity demonstrations which often take place here, but the pigeons and the tourists managed to get in easily.
Mommy pushed the stroller so Amalia got a really close view.

As the sun began to set, everyone gathered on our balcony to enjoy the “Welcome” bottle of wine  and watch the sunset.

The last dinner, on the roof of the hotel, included lobster and another dramatic view of the Acropolis, but by now Amalia was sound asleep, gathering her strength for the ten-hour plane trip to New York’s JFK airport, during which she would watch two movies, eat a lot, explore the airplane from one end to another and drive her Mommy and her Yiayia Joanie to distraction.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Stories Behind Two Infamous Photos Documenting the Evils of Slavery

Today the New York Times on line--The Opinionator--published another essay of mine about  Civil War photography--this one telling the stories behind two iconic photographs of horribly abused slaves.  These photographs were reproduced and sold by Abolitionists to arouse public opposition to the institution of slavery.  (My previous essay for The Times "Disunion" section was about Elizabeth Keckley, the dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln, who bought freedom from slavery for herself and her son.)  If you would like to read the complete story behind these photographs, here is the link:

Icons of Cruelty

Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.
Two iconic photographs of former slaves documenting the torture inflicted on them by their owners were widely circulated during the Civil War as anti-slavery propaganda, and both appear in the current exhibit “Photography and the American Civil War” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although the images were extensively reproduced and helped to turn public opinion against slavery, the stories of the two men in these shocking photographs are little known today.
International Center of Photography“Gordon, a Runaway Mississippi Slave, or ‘The Scourged Back,’” 1863, attributed to McPherson & Oliver.

Private Collection, Courtesy William L. Schaeffer“Wilson. Branded Slave from New Orleans,” 1863, taken by Charles Praxson.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Are You Happiest at Age 23 and 69 and Gloomiest at 55?

Yesterday in the local paper I read an essay by syndicated columnist Tom Purcell saying that a study published by the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, as reported in the Daily Mail, had determined that happiness among humans peaks at age 23, tanks at 55 and then peaks again at 69.

Purcell said, “The findings make sense to me”, because “at 23 you are…confident your future includes great riches and fame, a lovely wife and a perfect family and home.  As you move along, though, it doesn’t take long for the disappointments to begin piling up.”

Purcell mulled on each of the decades he had passed, as reality and expectations clashed.  “And then you are 50.  Good God, a half century?…Your mistakes and regrets come into sharp focus…You worry about the future more than you ever have.” 

I learned, at the end of his essay, that Purcell is about 51. “I still have four years to reach my peak crankiness,” he concluded.

I mentioned the study’s findings to daughter Eleni, who is presently 38, and she disputed the idea that  23 is one of the happiest ages, pointing out that it’s when life can be most challenging—you’re looking for a job, a career, a life partner. Everything is up in the air and you’re suddenly faced with all sorts of worries and responsibilities you didn’t have before.

I  searched to find out more about the study, which I learned was conducted on 23,161 Germans between the ages of 17 and 85, and led by Princeton researcher Hannes Schwandt for the London School of Economics.   He cited  “unmet aspirations which are painfully felt in midlife but beneficially abandoned later in life.”  But at around age 60, he learned, happiness began to steadily increase as people move beyond past regrets and onto a level of acceptance.

The study did find, however, that after age 70, happiness again starts to decline.

Personally, I remember age 23, just out of graduate school and working at my first job, as being stressful and pretty depressing.  At thirty I was newly wed and I spent the next decade having babies and moving overseas, which means that I pretty much missed the 1970’s.

To tell you the truth, I can’t remember being 55—that was in 1996—but I think it was a pretty good time of life. 

Not long ago I was asked to contribute an essay for a book which is being published in the fall called “70 Things to Do When You Turn 70”. 

I titled my contribution “Musing on the Joys of Cronehood” (naturally!) and said in part: “I used to think the best time of life was when your children are young and future triumphs are still possible.  But now I think that, if you’re a woman and lucky enough to remain in good health, your cronehood – after 60—is the best era, free of the drama, responsibilities, worries and the insecurities of youth….When women reach that milestone, they often channel the creative energy they spent on home, children and jobs into some long-hidden passion….They allow themselves to try the things they’d always dreamed of but never had time to do.”

So yes, I’d say that right now, age 72, is one of the happiest times of my life—enjoying travel and some “bucket list” experiences (which of course I record here as they happen).  High among them is the joy of hanging out with a 2-year-old first grandchild who is showing me how to look at everything with awe, as if for the first time.

Of course being healthy is critical to being happy at this age. Every day I say a prayer of thanks that I can still climb stairs and carry my own suitcase--though not as easily as before—because many of my friends are not so lucky.  But I think even those who are weathering hip and knee replacements and all the other hard knocks that old age has in store would still rate their happiness level as pretty high, because by now we’ve made peace with the disappointments and unrealized dreams of our younger selves.