Sunday, October 24, 2010

East isn't always in the Middle, and West is ...

I was watching the film "Cairo Time" and encountered one of those stop and think moments. There's a line in the dialogue that's spoken by an American who refers to Egypt as being in the Middle East. An Egyptian companion, confused, responds, "What is this Middle East?" It got me thinking. He's right, for someone in Egypt, Egypt isn't east of anywhere, it's the center of everything. The Middle East is only the Middle East for someone who lives west of the region, and for whom Egypt looks to be in the middle of the world's geography. When an entire global organizations start referring to places as the "Far East" or the "Middle East," then you start to understand the influence of the governments in the western hemisphere, which is only the western hemisphere if you're...

You see what I'm saying? Food for thought.

Popular Travel

Think of this as an invitation to travel, where the people in far-flung places are the first items on the itinerary, and their famous places are the second. I don't mean necessarily that we should go and knock on a stranger's door as soon as we arrive in Paris or Casablanca and introduce ourselves. What I do mean is that we travel to places and enter cultures with a people-centered perspective. If doing that means changing our attitude about travel, we'll be dazzled by the change.

Let's think about every place we've dreamed of going, near or far, of where we'd go and what we'd do. The sights, the sounds, the aromas. Now remove from that image all the residents of that place. Focus on what remains. When you do, I would venture to bet a lot of round trip air fares that the daydream goes muddy.

Unless your destination is a national park or a UNESCO World Heritage site, then you'll soon realize as I did, that your favorite destinations lose their color and life at the thought of absented people. Venice for example, the city beloved for its water-locked beauty, it mysterious serpentine streets, the Doge's Palace, the canals, and magical architecture. Delete the Venetians, who live and work in and around the city. Delete any contact with them, all appreciation for the Italian language and the lyrical Venetian dialect, their knowledge and memory of life there, their skills, their personal and regional histories, their way of preparing and eating food, their greetings as you walk their streets. And just like that, our magical city becomes an international theme park with some beautiful museums and gorgeous blown glass. A slow ride in a water taxi along the Grand Canal without a friendly, chatty pilot from Mestre suddenly isn't any grander than a ride in an ersatz gondola at a hotel in Vegas.

Recapturing the dream doesn't require drastic action. You're not obliged to learn the local language, although certainly a few phrases would be thoughtful. And as a linguist, I can't emphasize enough the joys of communication; but, what's most necessary is a dash of an explorer's sense of wonder, and an open heart that's given a few moments of recollection to let the words, the lessons, and the lives around it touch and sink into the openings. Then, and only then, will the miracle perform. Everyone from our Venice, Paris, Casablanca or Khartoum will be able to fit inside us, as soon as we set foot on their soil. The grand and unknown will shrink and recognize. Venice's name might change to "Giuseppe from the gallery" or "Marco the super friendly water taxi pilot" or "Gigina who lived across the calle from us."

Our places becomes people, and we carry them home. They live on with a kind of bilocation, there where they are, and here in us.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Practical Prayer for Haiti

Dear God,

As you help the people of Haiti survive and rebuild after the earthquake, please inspire someone to donate and install desalination equipment and a water delivery system as soon as possible, so that these desperate people can live a life with clean water. The island is surrounded by seawater, and desalination of that seawater is an easy way to get the people water. Countries around the world do it all the time. If Haiti is to survive, let alone recover, its people need a basic infrastructure that sustains life: clean water, food, safety. Clean water, food, safety.

Please inspire the latest presidential candidates and relief agents to act in this with courage and commitment. How in good conscience will any president of Haiti serve otherwise? To claim the honor of president while the people are forced to live lives worse than animals? Has corruption inured the Haitian government to the humanity it governs?

Please strengthen the people of Haiti, strengthen those who have gone to their aid. For yours will be the Grace that steps into the breach of this disaster and sews seeds of hope, of peace. ~ Amen.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shadow Play

corrono lungo il bordo grande davanti al sole.
Attira il crepuscolo le risatine scherzose.

I sogni le scortano alla culla del canyon.
Il Colorado canticchia una ninnananna del deserto...

run along the rim ahead of the sun. Twilight captures the playful laughter. Dreams escort them to the cradle of the canyon.
The Colorado hums a desert lullaby.

Sunset; Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon, AZ
June 2010
photo and verse by k.a.luz

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Enchanted Forest

Last night I escaped to a world where owls speak to humans, water lilies shoot arrows, dragons prowl and eyeballs float; a realm where tree branches don scarlet and indigo bunting, and sounds foreign and veery ethereal fill the forest air. Transported not in dreams but in canoe, I drifted into a world within a world; familiar yet impenetrable if not for my guide and interpreter. It was neither Narnia, nor Rivendell…but a sunset canoe trip in Audubon of Topsfield, Massachusetts.

The world of the deciduous forest canopy is a surprisingly exotic culture, where the local dialects are so foreign to the ear they sound more like music than language. Croaks, twitters, arpeggios, and a curious sound akin to a marble rolling around inside a hula hoop fill the air. But what do they mean? All these creatures, the canopy "locals" are chattering away to each other, what are they saying? What a gift, a privilege it would be to share in the conversation. To be able to ask a beaver for building advice; to be able to ask the birds how they build such strong, symmetrical, sheltered nests, or how they fly through the woods without hitting the branches. What does it feel like to fly on the wings of a hawk? How do swallows see the bugs they nab in flight? Are diurnal animals afraid of the dark? What's their take on global warming, border disputers, car traffic? Do they think of bird watchers as stalkers?

No way to get those answers tonight, but I am curious about an ethereal sound wafting in the background. As we hike the pond trail, Scott, a naturalist at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary tells me it's a veery. It is a visually unremarkable bird, and one seldom seen by people, but its voice joins the company of angels. The first note soars high from a double-chambered voice box, then spirals into a reedy, mystical song that swoops around the soul and launches it heavenward. I'm transfixed by the sound.

Scott's voice recalls me to earth, and I leave the veery to join a conversation about owls. Tonight with Scott's help we'll be learning our first phrase in owlese. Hiking along a sanctuary trail before the night goes pitch, he explains that barred owls become active in the dying light, and often vocalize among the treetops. At this time of the season, the chatter will be about property lines. Tonight, we're going to ring a few doorbells and say, "Who Goes There?" owl style. Scott does a spot-on impersonation of a barred owl. Fittingly enough, it sounds like the English phrase, "Who, who, who-who are YOU all?"

In the quickly fading light, at the hour the French refer to as "entre le chien et le loup," when you can't distinguish between a dog and a wolf, we gather in a little group at the junction of two paths. As we stand and swat noiselessly at ravenous mosquitoes, Scott hoots an impressive greeting. Silence. He calls again, and we wait, like a foreign delegation in a royal antechamber. Silence. Again he calls. And then, from the treetops above, maybe an eighth of a mile away, an owl replies, in a voice that echoes Scott's. The collective gasp that erupts among us banishes bugs and stops time. Man calls again, and Owl replies. Man calls again, and a winged shadow swoops into view very close overhead, calling as it flies. We've been received at court. I hope my goosebumps aren't showing.

Up in the forest canopy, the owl's courtiers call out to each other from their arboreal balconies, granting us a wary audience, and a display of their vivid plumage. A normally reclusive tanager flashes the hems of a gorgeous scarlet cloak on its ascent to a nest. An indigo bunting looking perfectly regal in all that delicious blue, and twitters a complex exchange. Is it a greeting for us, or a call to send the kids to bed? Words, music, or both? It's like listening to Italian. Even when you don't understand a word, the very sound of it is lyrical and beautiful.

Every royal court has a jester, and that title fits the turkey we spot perched high in the branches of a dead tree overhanging the pond. I have great respect for turkeys, but this comical specimen looks about as comfortable up there as a Sumo wrestler on a high wire. The scene reminds me of news stories of cows deposited on rooftops by capricious tornadoes.

Down below in the water, there's a more formidable scene. Armed water lilies, dragons and eyes everywhere. Actually, it's all show. Some water lilies send up leaves that break the water's surface like spiked arrow heads. When the coast is clear, they unfurl and float face up on the pond, their verdant anchor lines trailing to the mud below. The prowling dragons are quite real but equally harmless - unless of course you happen to be a mosquito. Dragon flies and their damsels skim the air for tasty morsels. Floating eyeballs bob like disembodied ghouls, but on closer inspection, they're firmly attached to the heads of submerged green frogs. They're on aquatic reconnaissance, periscoping nosy nature lovers (tolerated) and hungry herons (a threat to life and legs). And if a fly happens by during the watch, well, heck, a frog's gotta eat.

A bull frog belches, but Steve tells me it's not a bull frog. My mistake. It's a green frog. Who knew there were two kinds of portly croakers? The green frog is a grass green baritone whose call hits the air in a sudden quick burst, like a bark meeting a loud burp. The bull frog is your dark pine bass, digging deep to summon that familiar two-syllable reverberation that always makes me think it's gargling golf balls. I sometimes wonder if Tolkien had that in mind when he created the character Gollum... And there are no cow frogs, by the way, in case you're wondering. Bull frogs can be male and female.

The remaining cast of characters in this story of enchantment are numerous. They are the heralds and nobles in the owl's realm; tree frogs, Eastern pewees, beavers, river otters...Please come and make their acquaintance; no passport required. Just don't tell the lilies you know the arrows are all show. To walk or paddle where the wild things are:

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Different Kind of Foreign Tour

Foreign travel evokes different emotions in all of us. The vacation of a lifetime...a monthly business trip...a trip home to see family and friends...a creative retreat...a college semester or year abroad...

...Slavery - Human trafficking.

I've wanted to write about this one for a while. Now I am. I realized that if I'm going to write about culture, confess my love for it, study the complexity of it, and share my small experience, then I can't be quiet about the lowest grade of international travel. One of the very worst examples of international and intercultural relations. It rings the top bell at the carnival midway, along with its hideous relatives, genocide.

Believe it...2010...a human being, child or adult, robbed of identity papers, misled, betrayed or kidnapped, threatened, probably beaten, raped, and/or drugged, and then purchased like so much livestock or other freight, transported like illegal contraband to a city or region of their own country, or maybe a foreign country...cut off from family, friends, language, safety, security, independence, compensation...rights...and forced to do whatever the "owners" order done. The job description? The limits of your imagination might have difficulty encompassing the depravity and injustice of it. The usual suspects first...prostitution...domestic servitude...sexual servitude...drug transportation...theft entertainment...forced labor...pornography...sweat shops...It happens everywhere, in every country; yours and mine.

Imagine Italy through the prism of slavery. Ah, the streets of Rome, or Milan on a spring a prostitute slave. The waters of the Trevi Fountain are suddenly not so playful. There's a tarnish on the romantic glow.

Globally, millions of human beings, are forced into work, bereft of freedom and life and placed at the mercy of human traffickers. Human Trafficking, an odd coupling of words. Isn't it an oxymoron? The term should be Inhuman Trafficking. It's trafficking in us, people like you and me. It's happening in just about every nation in the world.

The United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking or UNGIFT at is helping me learn more. Join me.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Lady Venice and I

I've been told that Venetians consider their city to be a most noble lady, worthy of her name, "La Serenissima." Some will go so far as to say that an outsider's impressions of Venice are directly proportional to her impression of the visitor. The Lady sizes you up, and if she likes what she sees, she will enchant. If she finds you lacking, she will rebuff. It's a romantic notion, as befits a city redolent with romance and the memory of stupendous political and social power. It's a notion that makes perfect sense to me.

My first trip to Venice came in 1985, during my junior year abroad at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. The Lady Venice cracked the door open to me then, considering me from a reserved distance and offering a glimpse at what I would enjoy most about her in future; her mystery, her silence, her indescribable power to overwhelm the senses. I explored the city as many foreign students do, multi-city tour on spring vacation, traveling light, putting up in an inexpensive pensione, dining prix-fixe at trattorias, a guide book and phrase book in each hand. I discovered her mystery and silence in early evening walks. I lost myself safely among the warren of small and still smaller streets unpeopled by tourists, angling off and randomly ending at lagoons, stony dead ends, or in a campo's blaze of sunlight, color, and sound. The streets took me unawares, herding me in disorienting directions. Navigating the random twists, cut-offs, and shadowed alcoves, I remember thinking that espionage must have taken a delicious evolutionary turn in the days of Venice's domination of the Adriatic. Still, somehow, either naively or presciently, I wasn't afraid. I liked the silent wandering. It allowed me to listen to Venice, even if for only a few minutes. Listen to the past, to the present, hoping to return and listen in its future.

Preparing to leave two days later, I paused at the steps of the train station. Looking over my shoulder, I caught the Lady's face reflected in the canal, a knowing gaze from a palazzo's half-shuttered window. I turned, hoping to someday meet her face to face.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Mission Venice

I made my way to Venice last year to settle a score. With the city, with the past. My last visit there some seventeen years ago was a thoroughly disheartening experience.

I was a postulant in an order of religious at the time, herded one September day on a forced march through the city carrying an expedition back pack full to the zipper pulls with packages of boxed juices. Everywhere we went, we rushed. Touring Venice was a steeple chase training run. Only a person with a photographic memory could have captured the glory of St. Mark's facade and interior within the microsecond I had to see it. My optic synapses had barely the time to fire. Rods and cones missed it entirely. Ditto at the Doge's Palace. No time to sip from a juice box. Race-walking my way in Birkenstocks along the Riva degli Schiavoni and past the ornate Bridge of Sighs, I heard one of my fellow religious plebes mutter, and I translate from the Italian, "If we had time to actually stop and look at the bridge, we'd leave a few sighs of our own...just like the prisoners once did..." My experience of La Serenissima was Hobbesian - nasty, brutish, and short. Not surprisingly, my religious vocation took the same trajectory.

With that memory of 1992 in mind, I was heading back to Venice, but things were different. I was different, too. I was heading there in good company with friends, faith, breathing space, fluent Italian, no backpacks, no juice boxes, and no planned agenda. I was on a mission to savor Venice without an itinerary. I would wander aimfully at an unhurried pace. Listen. Observe. Interact. Connect with the faces before me, the voices, sounds, aromas around me, and with the stones beneath my feet.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Boston, Buenos Aires, Abrazos - Tango!

I've just started Argentine Tango lessons in Boston, and am enthralled. Tango's music is intoxicating, its soul is old, its appeal is global. As proof, it was a recent conversation with friends from Venice, Italy that rekindled my desire to learn. Grazie, Giuseppe Ferlito.

As a linguist, I see this tango style as an intimate conversation to be danced rather than spoken. It begins with an invitation, progresses to an abrazo or embrace, and continues like a deep, strolling conversation for two. The steps are the fruit of engaged and unbroken communication. They are the whispers, giggles, hesitations, debates and parries the partners improvise and exchange. Each conversation varies according to the music heard, the movement of nearby dancers, and the private responses the two partners give each other. The press of a hand, a gentle pivot, a close embrace, an invisible weight shift, a spirited swirl; and nary a word is spoken.

By its nature, the Argentine tango expresses and encourages individual expression. There are no rules, only respectful conventions, all of which make it a highly democratic art. Perhaps that is one reason repressive governments in Argentina's past banned the dance.

Like every other form of dance, it's harder than it looks. At first glance you think, "I'm walking forward and backward, how hard can it be?" But it's a walk with purpose, grace, and feeling. It feels as if I'm learning to walk like a patient, stalking lioness, weight forward, slow, on light-footed tiptoe. Of course I lose by balance and often feel more like a woozy lioness recovering from dart gun injection, but, the little epiphanies encourage.

The dance takes my brain and muscles to a completely different place. I love that, and I'm becoming more comfortable with, well, being completely out of my comfort zone. Being awkward and off balance, and accepting that as a necessity to learning, is just so freeing. Who knew!! Even more freeing is allowing myself to feel that way while learning with another person who is, gasp, a stranger! This is after all, a partner dance, and I'm flying solo in a group class. Such a metaphor for life, for trust, for interactions between men and women.

Methinks I'll be learning as much about myself as I will the tango.

For more information, go to

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Old Friend in Assisi

...We drive northeast into Umbria, past Perugia to Assisi. Seeing the town from the autostrada, rising from the plain ahead of us and perched on its throne of pale pink limestone, I am struck with a familiar and undeniable sense of homecoming. The town has that effect on people. A particular grace, peaceful and palpable resides within its fortified walls, like the safety and warmth you feel in the arms of one who accepts you unconditionally. It doesn't smother. Assisi's is a peace you can accept and pursue, or choose instead to let it waft around around you and away. And I believe it is the doing of one of the town's very own, Francesco Bernadone, St Francis of Assisi.

He lived in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, dedicating himself to a life of radical love and poverty in imitation of Jesus of Nazareth. His motto was "Pace e Bene", "Peace and All Good," and before his death he asked God to bless his town, all those in it, and all those who would come, with the gift of peace. I'm here to get my share.

It is said in Catholic circles that we do not choose the saints as patrons, but rather they who choose us. I’m a believer in that, though at a loss to explain the hows and whys of it all. I can only say that in the most spiritually trying times of my adult life, when body, mind, and soul have cried out to God for help, a Franciscan friar has appeared, unbidden, with words of counsel and God’s compassionate grace. When my spiritual life and faith dangled by a thread in 1994, decimated by a two-year psychological battle for survival, St. Francis stepped in as a herald from Heaven, his brown-hooded woolen habit a veritable banner of salvation. I’ve clung to it ever since, and planted it deep in the ground for others to find. Next to Bethlehem, Assisi is the capital of my holy homeland. So I am here, to visit my friend, a friend who chose me.

Francis' tomb is a warm and intimate setting for me. It’s so…him. Simple, holy, deep in the earth, ever accessible and welcoming. Standing in the center of a small grotto chapel under the Basilica, the tomb is sealed in rough stone, initially to curb medieval thieves seeking relics, and enclosed in open grating allowing pilgrims, petitioners, and the curious to extend a hand to the saint whose greatest joy was to serve God, the Love that is not loved. Francis’ closest friends lie here too, the first band of friars minor, encircling him like buddies around a campfire. I am here to join them in prayer, in a moment that bridges nine centuries and the distance between heaven and earth.

I kneel and slide my hand between the grate to lay my palm flat against the stone, joining my hand, my silent prayer, to all those that preceded it, and to those that will follow. I pray for several minutes in thanksgiving, in greeting, and private petition. Then I make the circle, stopping to pray at each of the other friars’ tombs. There really should be a campfire here, a buddy fire, songs of praise and deep, joyful prayer. Batty perhaps, to be thinking this while venerating a tomb, but that’s how close I feel to this group. They’re spiritual giants whose souls and lives surpass mine by colossal leaps and bounds, and yet they welcome me. Batty, paradoxical, but then again, that’s the quintessence of St. Francis, the troubadour who lived as a fool for God.

Cynthia, Trish, and Priscilla have also been praying here; Francis and his friends eagerly listening and sharing their intercession before God’s holy altar in Heaven. Coming around the other side of the chapel, I notice a basket of tall white pillar candles. When their turn comes, they will burn on the altar in front of the saint’s tomb. I make an offering and place two candles in the basket, one for my intentions, and one for my godson David, Cynthia’s youngest son. I return to the tomb for David, smiling at Priscilla’s whispered words, “You’re his godmother, get over there and pray!” I do, and feel a wave of warm air envelop me. Peace and All Good. Amen.