The Ugly Caterpillar

She didn’t know what to believe anymore. Serena hadn’t been serene for a long time, so long in fact she had lost track of when she had been truly peaceful. Somewhere in her childhood – that, she had fond memories of, and they kept surfacing like drops of oil in a sea of too deep sorrow.

The sorrow puzzled her at times, especially when she tried to get to the bottom of it and understand. There seemed to be no understanding, no logic to the blockages in her life. She had trusted so much, she had given so much, she had been so lively and bold and honest… and one after one, people had betrayed her, turned around after getting her help, even stabbed her on the back. Situations weren’t better either. Blockages everywhere. Why?

She prayed for an answer. It was all that was left to pray for. And of course, health and a path to God’s way for her children. She didn’t know how to get rid of the sorrow and the anger and all the negative feelings which were dragging her down to the pit, and which were not allowing her to resurface. Every time she tried, another blow. Every little drop of courage and faith got dried up by invisible forces too overwhelming to fight. And she had been a fighter! Oh, the days…

A few days ago, she had looked in the mirror to realize that despite the smile, her shining beauty was gone. She looked not old, but worn out. Where had the glow vanished? She tried to imagine herself in a successful posture at this moment in life. Well, if life had been different, if people had been different, if she had known… she would have been happy now. Maybe. But then would she trade that everything for happiness? Elusive concept, happiness. Trade the real for an imaginary “what-might-have-been”. No. If anything, her children and their lives she’d never trade.

Change me, God – she had read it in a book once. Trade me for another me. Now. Not in the past, not in the future. Now.

She went to bed with same old tears in her eyes, her constant companions. At times, she had been sick of crying – lately, it seemed to be the normal comforting state. I’m still sick of crying, though – she thought. It would be nice if I could miraculously figure out how not to be so sad. She opened the Bible at a random page. Among other passages, she came across the one when Jesus was telling the apostles that anything will be forgiven to people, except for being and speaking against the Holy Spirit. She put down the book and wondered why that passage. She fell asleep and dreamt, as always, of nasty stuff.

The morning came and she could not remember the moment when it struck her. She had sinned against the Holy Spirit. All her depression, all the sinking without resistance, all the giving up the fight were part of the blasphemy. If one did not take care of the Spirit inside themselves, it was an unforgivable sin. A capital one, lack of faith. The biggest tears of her life engulfed her unworthiness and she fell to the ground hoping that God would somehow rewrite that unrewritable passage. Please forgive me. I have no words to ask for this kind of forgiveness, I only have this dirty soul. I have nearly destroyed Your Spirit in me. With whatever is left of it, impure as it is, I’m begging for pardon. Thy will be done.

She did not feel at all like a caterpillar being transformed into a beautiful butterfly – as a friend had wished her the previous day, trying some encouragement. She opened the email inbox and read a message from a coaching counselor she had written to, and who reminded her the results of a test she had done some years ago. Among your top 5 strengths, you have Command and that makes you instantly unique in my eyes – the counselor wrote. It is very seldom that command is among those top strengths in someone and that means you are truly a natural. Command can be easily misunderstood if overused and you may come across as way too bold and frightening to people who don’t get you.

Serena looked over the laptop. I have been swallowed by a flock of ducks. And I let them sink me. I had stopped fighting, I had accepted their “logic”, I believed when they told me I was too angry to succeed and that I need to do something to fit, preferably calm down.

There is no way to fit. I am no duck. I am a commanding swan, darn it! I let them kill my Spirit. And now I must forgive them all, if I want my Spirit back. The ironic economy of things. God’s, not mine. Right.

There was peace and freedom in that realization. Anger was nowhere in sight. Sadness was gone too. It felt strange. She didn’t know what to believe anymore. She didn’t understand fully but she understood enough. That her life had true meaning, even if still hidden. That she was perfect the way she was, though this was not quite clear either. That she could have repairs and another chance at things. And she could only go up from here.

Advertisements

The Kingdom

King Michael I of Romania died on December 5th. I found out a week later when the secretariat of the Romanian Embassy sent our diaspora a message which announced this, along with the news of opening a condolences book for signing. I wanted to, but haven’t made it to the embassy. I haven’t followed the events in Romania since I have no Facebook account, no Instagram, no Tweeter, no tv and whenever I listened to the radio, the news focused more on our current doll prime-minister. There was nothing posted on LinkedIn – well, for a rather good reason: “king” is not among the positions popular these days; “former king” even less so.

A friend from back home sent me an emotional email saying how many tears shed, how many people at the palace gates (in Bucharest?), how sad the king’s death, how disheartening the politics of the present government, how this and how that. I wrote back with a note about how much better it would have been for the very people crying at the gates if they had taken the stance to put the king back on the throne while still alive. Too cynical? Oh well.

On a related note, a commoner died on December 9th. I was preparing for our annual concert of carols that day when I heard the ding of a message: Grandma has died. She was not my grandma, though we all called her that. The mother of our good friend, my daughter’s godfather, she had her own three grandchildren whom she raised with homemade meals and hourly care. She was an excellent cook and a dear conversationalist. Her little laugh was warm and sweet. Whoever went to their house and sat at their table was pampered by Grandma. Bunica. In Romanian, the good one, a pretty literal translation.

I swallowed my unshed tears and focused on the concert that evening. I sang for her, miraculously managing not to let emotion creep in. I found out afterwards that she had said her last confession on the day our king died and had taken her last communion the following day on St Nicholas – peace was the saint’s last gift to her, apparently.

One week later, we travel to Montreal for her funeral. A bit of rainbow traveled ahead of us, ahead of the Sun itself, like the Star of Christmas. How did that rainbow came about in the dry crisp December sky is not a matter of explanation.

It all continued into a luminous day, despite the long funeral service, the burial, the commemoration meal. A day filled with divine presence that whispered prepare, prepare, do not delay, it is all part of the daily exercise and yes, it’s hard, but so much more precious with every right step you manage and all the stumbling which you raise from. There were good people at that table for Bunica. She would have loved the company. I am quite sure she somehow did.

We left before sunset and traveled west this time. Into the night and towards the Sun, which had decided to shoot a column of light straight up into the clouds.

Apologies, I probably should have left it to your imagination. The pictures don’t do It justice, the Light we saw throughout this day. It was a presence, not an atmospheric phenomenon. It was a connection of horizontal and vertical, of all dimensions we know and those we know not. It was the light of heavy crosses carried on royal shoulders and simple backs alike, both elegant and strangely gracious in their demeanor. It was quite the literal description of heaven on earth, that which we so often imagine so differently. There were no words spoken in the car and little unseen tears of fright, longing, isolation, terrible loneliness.

That was only yesterday. I cried a lot before communion today, as I read through all the setup prayers, many of which I should, oh yes, have read last night – oh no, I am not well prepared, nor disciplined, nor good. My only gift to God today was my subdued will. Among the last, I went to the altar and when I opened my mouth to receive Christ’s body and blood, true peace came over me, but it was not this which re-established the connection. It was the hope, which took form again – a hope so long lost, it had looked like a ghost at times. A hope of conquering vicissitudes, of victorious (chosen?) battles, of flying flags and starry rainbows, built on the architecture of inexplicably luminous columns. I felt light. And for that little bit of kingdom, there are no words to express gratitude. Just imagine it.

Math Expression

Friday mind stretch!

Apologies for not posting anything in this category for FOUR months (my mind was simply stretched in other directions! 🙂

First, the answer I owe you for the last challenge, the Quickest Descent: the cycloidal path is the quickest descent as the ball reaches a high speed earlier and uses it to race ahead of the other balls on the shorter paths.

Now, the next challenge is to reduce a mathematical expression to its simplest form. I took it from a book filled with such exercises, a book well-known to Romanians growing up in 20th century Romania. The exercises were made by Grigore Gheba, one of the great mathematical minds in a long line of Romanian professors. The book belonged to my grandfather, himself a fantastic math teacher who taught many students, myself included.

This expression is one of the easy ones and it has a neat answer. Check it out next week! Here’s the exercise:

Happy Friday mind stretch!

Tradition

St Nicholas has come to our house for about 20 years, always on the morning of his feast day, December 6. Before that, he came to my parents house, even in the communist times – then, it was quite a treat to find oranges and bananas in our boots which had been nicely polished and placed by the door the previous evening. Chocolate was rare, candies even more so. My mom baked cakes but not gingerbread.

I learned though, the gingerbread craft, I taught myself. After my first one was born, I came across a magazine which had what looked like a good recipe, along with instructions on how to make a gingerbread house. The first was rather simple and it managed to produce some sort of effect.

The many others which followed were variations on the theme during the years our first batch of kids – as we like to call them affectionately – were small enough to believe the old saint brought the treat. And then I stopped making the house, and only baked gingerbread cookies. The dough though I’ve made every year since December 2000.

When the daughter of the second batch arrived, the older children said: so you’re gonna do a house again, right? Nooo, I groaned, too complicated. What? – they said – there’s no way you’re going to deprive our sis of the experience! So I was forced back into the game somewhat. 

And then I got mad. Well, to put it mildly, it wasn’t the best time of my life – in order to fight depression, I took up watercolour and drawing again, learned relaxation techniques, and generally started to take care of myself, more or less. The afore-mentioned madness was specifically about starting to make gingerbread models of actual architectural buildings. A few years ago I did a small development of three one-and-a-half story houses, as a memento of managing to finish my doctoral thesis on Canadian postwar housing. Another year I chose the Vanna Venturi house – now that was quite ridiculous, it took me ages to make. Last year, I did row housing in Amsterdam, since we had visited the city the previous year and absolutely loved it.

And this year, it is a “Painted Lady” of the San Francisco, CA. The first batch had accompanied me on a West coast tour in August and I had many photos to choose from. But before I load the finished look, allow me to explain the process.

I start with making scaled sketches of the facades. This time when I cut them to assemble into a rough model, I realized the house would possibly be too big for the amount of dough I had, so I scaled the facades down on my photocopier.

I cut the papers and laid them into the baking trays to figure out how they’d fit – efficiency is key, trust me on this. Then I rolled the dough directly onto the parchment paper (outside the tray, duh…), placed the papers on top and cut on the perimeter of each shape.

Not a good idea to cut the openings (windows, doors) as during baking the dough puffs up a bit and, if completely cut, the holes would become smaller. Mark them with the knife before baking, so they show when the pieces are taken out of the oven. Work quickly to cut the openings and remove shortly after baking, while gingerbread is still warm – as soon as it cools down, it becomes very hard and breaks easily.

Now the fun part: decorate pieces! Get out all the hundreds and thousands and stick them with a “glue” made of icing sugar and lemon juice. Not only terrribly sturdy, but also gives gingerbread a very yummy final taste.

Perform a bit of archaeological work and dig the contour of the house in the gingerbread base, so the walls would be stuck into it and will thus have more stability when glued.

And… voila! Finished re-creation of an architectural heritage piece.

That was two days ago. 

This morning: back to square one 17 years later. The baby in the first photo is all grown up and shows that photo to the present “baby” of the family. As for the house… you must know that earthquakes are quite likely in the San Francisco bay area. Well, today was one of those days, damaged heritage. 

Tradition is good. Tradition grounds you. It inspires in the good days, it comforts in the down times. Tradition is the stone upon which kids are raised to believe that miracles do happen, even when you are likely to stop believing because, well, it’s hard in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get world. Tradition is about passing on skills, loving your folks and land, cherish your good memories. Tradition is about the important stuff in life.

Tradition is good. Make yourself at least one if you don’t have it – and start now!

Mechanics

A man said to me once:

“I’d give anything to know what makes you tick.”

I was playing enchantress, but that wasn’t the reason for which I asked back:

“Why?”

“Because I don’t get you” he replied.

“But wouldn’t that kill the passion, knowing me so intimately.”

“I don’t think so. Your spirit seems to be capable of carrying on the entertainment.” He smiled.

I was left with that smile. He was one of the kindest man I’ve met in my life, a true gentleman. Never laid a finger on me. We had very beautiful conversations together.

Every now and then I come back to his question. In my darkest hours, in the melancholic pursuit of memories, even in the (nowadays rather rare) explorations of future possibilities. What makes me tick? What is there that wouldn’t let go when I feel like I’ve exhausted all ideas, all tries? What is hiding under the deepest layer of my breadth, in that inner chamber I’m not even sure I know where it is, never mind not having visited it, ever? Who am I and why was I born for other than carrying pain which isn’t mine. It would be nice to know. 

I miss having beautiful conversations. There’s so much talk and opinions around. I’m sometimes sucked into the whirl of politics and economics and the “fairness” of things, and I just want to scream 

“YOU’RE SO FAKE!”

so inelegant, so silly, so dumb, so selfish… and I get caught up in the game! It’s unforgivable, this waste of time and energy.

I was born to love. I was born to be with like minded people, courageous and real. I was born for conversations and dance and music and the art of life. And I have allowed others to control my being, my dreams, to tell me what I should say and, more importantly, what I shouldn’t, how I should behave, even how I should feel. Did you know that ‘should’ is not real? Did you know it is the root of all evil and doubt?

I have decided. Love makes me tick. Love for people and things and places. Love for me. Love for God. God is love. God makes me tick. I like that.

A Perfect Day

Back to school today, right? Yes, for some. Not for me any more. 

I used to love school when I was a kid, there was something magical in learning about words and numbers, places and histories (hint: school was a solid institution those days). It also made me feel more likeable: in the culture I grew up in, getting an education was the only way you could stand up for yourself against class equality (no, I have not mis-spelled it). And if you were smart enough, parents would be proud(er) of you – so one was pretty much psychologically bullied into getting a degree of sorts. 

Many years and a few degrees later, I started to teach – I quite enjoyed it. It gave me purpose, it felt like I was contributing my knowledge to the betterment of the young. Alas, the young were less and less interested to learn… anything. Last year, I had four students who cheated on technical drawings (!!!) – basically copied them from one another which qualifies as plagiarism, while nearly a whole class of others failed to attend presentations of out-of-town professional guests who I had personally invited. Guess who was guilty in the end for students’ inability to properly perform? That’s right, me!

I fully realized it about two weeks ago. As I was just starting a trip on my own along the Columbia river gorge in Oregon, I hear my phone ding! An email from the coordinator of the program announcing dryly that there are no teaching assignments for me this fall and no winter course in drawing. It was the easiest thing to get mad – yet I looked straight at the Vista House and I forced myself to marvel at its magnificent location on top of a cliff overlooking the entire valley. The automobile enthusiasts in the 1920s had chosen well this spot for a journey halt.

The morning was simply splendid. I went on the top terrace and I slowly glanced from left to right. The picture below doesn’t even begin to describe the landscape, but what can one ask of a cell phone camera? Frankly, I think it did quite admirably at capturing some of the grandeur.

“Lord, help me to enjoy this day and this trip.” I made a mental promise to myself to let nothing spoil the joy. I let my eyes linger on the colours and my lungs get filled with the fresh air. My head was full of negative thoughts, trying to convince me how inept I had always been at making myself pleasing to the bosses, how terrible a teacher I was, what a failure of a mother I am as my children had chosen to spend their day browsing shops in downtown Portland…

“Stop!” I cried aloud. I closed my eyes tight with anger and then I looked up in the faint hope I might be able to release that. It didn’t exactly work instantly. So I looked up in the air at my imaginary (?) enemy and I said with a smile: “you shall not win today.”

With this determination in mind, I drove further into the woods and I stopped at a few of the waterfalls which make the travelers’ delight on the Historic Route 30. Sad as I kinda was, I didn’t expect the magnitude of beauty which gradually engulfed me with every stop I made.

Latourell Falls looked slim and elegant like a lady all dressed up to celebrate:

I found the Bridal Veil hidden behind tall rocks at the end of a descending trail:

Further down the road, Wahkeena Falls does justice to its Native name as the “most beautiful”:

… By now, my negativity had pretty much melted and had been carried away in the waters. From the base of Wahkeena, I decided to take the Perdition trail up to the Fairy Falls. Little did I know it would take me a good hour of rather strenuous climbing. The first half of the climb was on an asphalt trail – how the heck did they pave that and why, it really makes one wonder.

Then the Perdition lived up to its name as it did not seem to end… Not only that, but in due time I entered a strange domain looking much like Tolkien’s Rivendell.

The trail went up and up. There were only a few daring others following me or descending (and those had encouraging words of “just a few more turns and you’ll see it”). Finally, when I had almost lost hope, the Fairy Falls came into full view. Smaller than I had imagined it. But the closer I drew to it, the more fascinating and mysterious it grew to be. It had a symmetry about it which defied laws of merely physical nature. Indeed, later on that evening when I browsed the photos I had taken, I noticed a round face right in the middle of the falls… spooky!

I drank some water from the river.  People looked at me in a strange way. One said: “I wouldn’t do that.” I thought to myself: “too bad, city girl, you don’t know what clear fresh water you’re missing on – but hey, who am I to teach you anything.” I began my descent. My heart was beating fully alive with the overpouring beauty. There are no words to describe the poetry of the moment. ‘Blessed’ is the closest I can find.

The afternoon was leaving way to the evening when I made it to Multnomah. It is the second highest falls in the U.S. and it is truly magnificent.

As I stood on that bridge separating the two parts of the waterfall, I thanked God for my loneliness that day. I thanked Him for walking with me in the conscientious discovery of pure joy. And I was glad beyond all words and worlds that my own will had not let some stupid small-minded folk spoil the magnitude of the discovery which was to come.

I’ll leave you with this for tonight. Do not forget: if you want to find joy, you will. Sometimes it is a mighty fight against your own judgement – but boy, is it worth it!

As for the beginning of school today… well, it feels to me like time for a change.

A city of patches

There are quite a few cities which I’ve visited in my travels and I certainly cannot make definitive statements. But it may be safe to say that Calgary is one post-modernist city par excellence

I’ve been here a week. I went out with friends in various parts of the city and I’ve spent the day walking the streets of its downtown today (remember, today is Tuesday and on Tuesdays we go out, right? Right.) Man, is this a patchwork! You can literally tell that people working at the municipality have friends and family working either in the oil industries or real estate. Apart from the Plus 15 (an extensive network of pedestrian skywalks suspended at 15 feet above street level, which link the main buildings downtown so one doesn’t have to go outside in the harsh winter), there’s nothing which provides urban coherence. Bits and pieces everywhere. Historical references without much substance (I honestly wonder if those who implemented them did so conscientiously, that’s how random most things look). Mismatched colours, opulent materials, decrepit houses next to conserved heritage. This is the epitome of postmodernism, without the slightest doubt.

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say – so I’m thinking what better essay than a visual one, see below. Enjoy!

Olympic plaza

Yes, those are colourful plastic squirrels sticking their heads out of the walls. Creepy.

Former headquarters of Alberta businesses on Stephen street.

A mechanic horse – after all, this is the country of ranchers (yeah, sorry, forgot to mention that besides the oil business.  I know, unforgivable.)

The Bow tower: opened windows in curtain wall, only in Alberta. 

The stenographer: a facade detail on Stephen street

Core Shopping Centre – Cultures bowls: all Made in China…

…and the good taste of Britain – an oxymoron at Eau Claire Market

More of Eau Claire’s… love the spatial and cultural associations

The “no minors beyond this point” sign is a real killer in the context, don’t ya think?

We’re talking technology here, you dumb robots!

The Card Cave – yep, still at Eau Claire … And…

… REALLY fancy oils and vinegar. Like really! Who would have thought?

Any respectable market has a psychic reader – at least in Calgary they do.

And an information board which has the aesthetics of the “Do and Don’t” propaganda panels in communist Romania (that’s pour les connoisseurs)

Speaking of communism – best mural in the city, in my humble opinion. At Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre.

Howdy Starbucks!

Howdy Casino! (Street ad)

Howdy cars! (City transit ads)

Howdy opera house! (Heritage Park Museum)

Wire art in a wireless city…

… And happy Giacometti (who the heck was that?)

Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule tower meet Goldberg’s Marina City. Modernism at its best, though not in a combination.

What, you thought the oilers and ranchers wouldn’t promote shipping container architecture? Think again:

(Open selectively, for the true hipsters out west)

Po-mo popular housing design – yep, it made it to Calgary!

Last but not least: Chinook centre, the po-mo masterpiece. I guess.

When you can’t get to NYC, pray to the lucky scarabee to bring the MET to you. After all, we’re all Egyptian, more or less… ’cause otherwise, the (multicultural) connotations beat me.

And for those of you familiar with turn-of-the-century Chicago and the story of Marshall having carriages waiting for the new middle-class customers to the train station to bring them to the store… well, Chinook centre has its shuttles! No kidding. From the train station two blocks away. 

….

I’ll say just this in the end: worth a visit, this Calgary. Now is the time and this is a place to first hand experience what a Middle-Age city on the brink of heavy industrialization might have looked like – if there ever were such a thing. No, really.