Thursday, November 13, 2014

RE-ISSUE OF BOOK EVOKES MEMORIES

This morning, Victoria Sullivan, publisher of Border Press, and I were discussing a re-issue of my first book entitled Iran In A Persian Market. I began to reminisce about the flight to Tehran from London that my daughters and I made when we joined my husband who worked as a petroleum engineer with the National Iranian Oil Company in Ahwaz, Iran.

"I don't think things were as volatile in the 70's as they are in the Mideast now," I said, "but I do remember being herded off the plane in Tel Aviv, daughters in tow. We were greeted by soldiers holding machine guns and were placed in stalls where we were thoroughly searched. Later, someone on the plane who had previously traveled the route said that the so-called search for a bomb on the plane was only a cover-up for sales at the duty-free shops in the airport." Here's an excerpt from Sophie's Sojourn in Persia, a young adult novel I wrote, documenting this incident:

"We were supposed to be on the ground twenty minutes, and Mother told us we could stay on the plane. The captain's voice boomed over the intercom. 'All passengers must clear the plane. Take the buses to the terminal and wait for further instructions. Please clear the plane quickly. Carry all hand luggage with you...'

"As we walked down the steps toward a long bus resembling a trolley car, my mother gasped. Six soldiers wearing khaki uniforms stood in front of the bus, machine guns resting in their hands. They glared at us. The sun beat down on them, and great wet spots spread from their underarms. It was very hot....

"'It's only a checkpoint of some kind, I'm sure,' Mother reassured us. An old woman wearing a felt hat grabbed my mother's free arm and held on. 'Are we going to be shot?' she asked. Her voice quavered with fear... 'Of course not,' my mother said. 'They're probably checking the plane to see if it needs repairs or something...'

"Inside the terminal, dark-skinned women dressed exactly like the men soldiers herded us into a back room. It was filled with stalls that had dirty white curtains for doors. A woman motioned for the three of us to go into a stall. 'All of you can go in together,' she said to my mother. 'When you get inside, strip down to underclothes. Leave your bags with me...' She went over to my mother and felt her underclothing all over. My mother turned red and said pleadingly, 'You don't have to search the children that way.' The woman smiled. 'It's my job to search for weapons. My name is Leah...'

"The woman had put our bags in a corner of the stall and began to go through them. When she opened Suzy's bag (Suzy was a fictitious name for my youngest daughter) and pulled out a rubber octopus, she let out a piercing scream. The octopus dangled from a dirty string that Leah held in her hand as she ran from the room screaming and giggling...Leah and several other women ran from stall to stall, dangling the rubber animal for all to see. ...Finally, the woman took the octopus to the guard at the entrance to the room. He unbuttoned his shirt and took out a knife. Holding the octopus in the air with one hand, he slashed it three or four times in the head, then dropped it into Leah's hands. 'No explosive here,' Leah said, throwing the octopus to Mother...

"The old woman in the felt hat came over and patted Suzy on the top of her head. 'There, there,' she said. 'I just talked to Mrs. Seton.' She gestured toward a woman with bright red hair and a sharp nose sitting nearby. 'She says there was talk of a bomb threat, and that's why we had to clear the plane. They had to take out all the seats and search thoroughly. We should be leaving in thirty minutes...'

"Suzy stopped crying, but my mother's face got this tight look, and a bluish ring appeared around her mouth. 'Bombs? Who would do such a thing?' she asked. 'We aren't Arab spies!'
Mrs. Seton spoke up. 'Most of us are going somewhere in the Mideast to work or to be with husbands who work there. I don't think there was a real threat. Do you notice how many people bought gifts at the duty-free shops? I think it was a trick to get us to buy their wares...

"We boarded the plane and took off... It was evening, but the sky was blue, blue, with hardly any clouds in it. I looked down at the soldiers still standing on the airfield with their hands on the machine guns and wondered if we'd get the same kind of welcome in Tehran..."

At the time of the incident I accepted that explanation for being herded off the plane because the Israelis wanted us to shop at the duty-free stores; it was a reassuring thought for me and my young daughters, and this morning I continued to relate the experience as if all had been well during the time we spent in the airport. A few hours later, when I researched the Israeli-Palestinian situation of 1973-74, I was shocked to discover that in September of 1974, fifteen months after our encounter in Tel Aviv, a TWA jet with 88 passengers traveling from Tel Aviv to Athens, crashed into the Ionian Sea after Palestinian militants detonated a bomb hidden in the luggage compartment. The crash killed all the passengers and crew members aboard!! 

Forty-one years later, I stand guilty of "ignorance is bliss," since heretofore I believed that the investigation of the plane was a ploy to stimulate interest in duty-free goods. In any case, during the first three months in Iran when I experienced cultural shock, I avoided reading or talking about political incidents that resulted in severe consequences anywhere in the Mideast and buried the memory until I returned Stateside. I then recorded the cause of the Tel Aviv incident the way a fellow passenger had explained it when we finally resumed the journey to Tehran. The delay in Tel Aviv caused us to arrive at midnight at Mehrabad Airport and to experience another uneasy introduction to our sojourn in the Mideast.


However, I did overcome cultural shock and have written three books about our two-year stay in Iran, the last one being The Holy Present and Farda, a book of poetry recording the more fascinating aspects of this Mideastern culture and its history.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

THE ANSWER TO THE WORLD'S PROBLEMS

And having written that arresting title, I hesitate to continue writing as the reader may be anticipating a new or different approach to the problems that surround us every day.

Recently, we were traveling back to New Iberia following a few days' stay in central Florida, and on the 14-hour trek, we turned on a Daily Evolver podcast by Jeff Salzman of Integral Life. It was a brief broadcast, and the speaker concluded with a few words that most major religions talk about: the answer to healing the hole in the heart of humanity is love. He expressed his ideas much as the French Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin had—in a provisional, experimental, and post-modern form which is open-ended and creative, and he touted a theology of healing and reconciliation centered on the act of love.

This sounds like an oversimplification, I know, but I nodded my head in agreement as I had just preached a sermon at St. Mary's Convent church two weeks preceding our trip to Florida in which I cited an example of how babies are helping to change the world and foster love through an amazing program called "Roots of Empathy." In the November issue of Science of Mind, the author wrote an article entitled "Changing the World Child by Child," reporting how Canadian and American babies are involved in a program that has a mission of building caring, peaceful, and civil societies though the development of empathy in children. In the program, mothers bring their babies into classrooms nine times over the course of a school year so students can learn to sense the emotions babies are feeling.

The children also observe the loving relationship between parent and baby and see how the parent responds to the baby's needs. This attachment between a baby and a parent is an ideal model of love and empathy. In short, children who have participated in the program are kinder, more cooperative, and inclusive of others and are less likely to bully (a common problem in contemporary schools), compared to children who don't participate in the program. The ethic here? The ethic here is that the heart is the true center of human life.

As I said, love as an answer to healing humanity's problems isn't a new concept—it's just an irrefutable law that says we need to take the neighbor we are sent and love him/her. As George MacDonald, the mentor of C.S. Lewis, says: "We mope and mow, striking sparks, and rubbing phosphorescences out of the walls, and blowing our own breath in our own nostrils instead of issuing it to the fair sunlight of God, the sweet winds of the universe..."

I don't often publish excerpts from sermons or belabor the idea of love as a burning fire that cleanses and reconciles, but the podcast I heard caused a lot of musing about "this funny thing called love." And the speaker's ideas advocating a respect for our neighbor seem to be a part of every major enduring religion and ethical system—a system that calls for its followers to develop integrity, accountability, responsibility, steadfastness, fairness, and loving service. Our unity is as important as our individuality.  


The photograph above is of my great-grandson as an infant, one of those babies getting his share of empathy in a private lesson from his great-grandmother. Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A SITE ON "THE RETURN LIST"

From Martin's Quest by Billy Ledet
inside St. Martin de Tours
When I return to New Iberia, Louisiana every year following a sojourn on The Mountain in Sewanee, Tennessee, I usually have a mental list of places I want to re-visit while I'm in Cajun country. Yesterday, after I received the news about a friend's daughter being seriously injured in an automobile accident, I thought immediately about St. Martin de Tours Church in St. Martinville, Louisiana, a few miles down the road from me. Although I'm not Roman Catholic, I've made many short pilgrimages to the beautiful, historic church on the Square to light candles for family and loved ones. I'm always consoled while sitting in a pew of the old church, and when I return home I find that small miracles have occurred.

One of the oldest Roman Catholic churches in the U.S. and the third oldest in Louisiana, St. Martin de Tours was established in 1765 when Acadian exiles who had been driven out of their homes in Nova Scotia landed in Acadiana. A Capuchin missionary priest named Jean Francois helped establish the church and by 1814, it had become incorporated. The church that stands on the Square today was built by lottery funds in 1836 and dedicated in 1844. As I said, I'm not Roman Catholic, but I like to think that when I sit in one of the church pews, I'm sitting near one of my ancestors, an Acadian exile named Pierre Vincent who must have been a member of the predominantly Roman Catholic congregation at St. Martin de Tours.

Inside St. Martin de Tours are gated pews, remnants of a time when congregants were assigned pews according to their donations to the church. Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and a blue ceiling with stars overhangs the altar. The space inside is large and has the ambience of a country church, and brilliant light fills the interior. For me, it is one of those "thin places," so designated because the space between God and the people is thin... and the connection with God is easily made. I've been in a few thin places and experienced this connectedness—near the red buttes of Sedona, Arizona; at St. Mary's Convent church on the bluff at Sewanee, Tennessee; in a small church named Church of the Holy Spirit in Graham, Texas; and in the Garden of Evangelism in Tehran, Iran. On my bucket list of thin places is the Isle of Iona as I've read and heard that it is the thinnest of thin places where spiritual experiences frequently occur.

St. Martin de Tours is mentioned several times in my young adult book, Martin's Quest, and a pencil drawing by Billy Ledet depicts Martin, the hero of the story who is a traiteur, lighting candles in the old church. Martin's grandmother explains to him that the Church "is only against traiteurs trying to cure someone if they leave God out. When the prayers are said, God isn't left out. The Church today believes in the gift of healing, just as in Jesus' day. But the priests don't like superstitious practices," she added.


In St. Martin de Tours
I have lit many candles in the small blue crystal holders on a stand near the side door by the gray-walled Grotto at the left of the altar. The Grotto is a copy of the famous Grotto at Lourdes in France where miracles still occur and was created of mud and green moss by a black man named Paul Martinez. On my return trip to St. Martin de Tours, I'll petition for the complete recovery of my daughter and for the healing of the young woman who was seriously injured in the auto accident. For those who wish to add your petitions, the names are Stephanie and Glenae.