Back to Basics in Japan.

Many a woman has had this fantasy—you come in after a long exhausting day and to your delight find that the man of the house has drawn you a hot bath and put on the kettle.  After a peaceful soak, red faced, wrapped in a bathrobe you come down the stairs to find that the man has not just made you a cup of tea but has also left you a generous slice of cake. Oh, this is a man who really knows you, right? Except he doesn’t, at least not in my case.  When my fantasy finally came true I was sitting in nothing more than loungewear in a stranger’s living room, shoveling his cake into my mouth, unable to ask him about so much as his day because of the aforementioned cake mouth situation but also because I do not speak a lick of Japanese.

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Such is my life as a henro, one of the pilgrims who walk the contours of Shikoku Island, visiting 88 Buddhist temples whose histories are linked, sometimes only in legend with Kōbō Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Thousands of henro undertake the 1200 km journey every year, often staying in family-run inns called minshiku along the trail, which is how I ended up soaking in a stranger’s bathtub.

Though this was already the third minshiku that I had stayed in, it was the first one where I had a wash. Before you gasp in horror, let me explain.  On my first day of walking I had to pass through six temples, performing a series of rituals that were completely unknown to me. More than that, I had to figure out which of these felt right to me, which left me baffled more than enlightened and so had to be abandoned and which ones I could afford. Purchasing incense and candles was out. The Heart Sutra was in, but seeing as to how the sound of my own voice pronouncing Japanese syllables traumatized me I switched to reciting it in English.  Ladling a cup of spring water into my hands was appealing, though by the sixth temple my freezing hands protested.  My favorite part became filling out a bookmark-sized piece of paper stamped with the image of Kōbō Daishi, writing my name, the date and where I come from on the front and a wish on the back. I believe the personal details are safety guard against wishes that you wouldn’t want traced back to you.

By the end of that first day, after saying the Heart Sutra thirteen times, once at each of the Main Halls, once at each of the smaller Daishi Halls, and once at an administrative building that I mistook for the Daishi Hall, I was templed out. Arriving at my first minshiku I wished for nothing more than to maintain the little body heat I was still producing and to take a nap.  The elderly woman who ran the inn had other ideas.

“Bath?”

“Yes, sure“ I lied and nodded my head.  I had about as much desire to strip off my clothes as I did to listen to a recording of myself reciting the Heart Sutra in its original. As planned, I took a nap instead, waking up to a phone call from downstairs for dinner.

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For a newcomer to Japanese cuisine suppertime might be difficult, especially I imagine for the newbie who has never held a pair of chopsticks. Somewhere in hell there is a group of Western tyrants sitting around a lavish table, cursed with an eternal ravaging hunger and chopsticks taped to their hands. My New York upbringing has given me a lot to be thankful for (a high tolerance for smells after years spent waiting for trains on subway platforms, for one) and the ability to eat raw fish with a pair of wooden sticks, eyeballing just the right-sized smear of wasabi to swirl around in the soy sauce.  Equally handy at dinnertime is my Russian upbringing, which has trained my palate to enjoy all things fermented and pickled.  Whether it’s octopus and yellow fin tuna sashimi, sour cabbage, tart, salty fruits or fermented soybeans, I will happily partake in its consumption.

What I wasn’t so happy about was dinner being an intricate ploy to get me clean.

Bath?” The owner asked hopefully while I sucked down a pile of noodles.

“Too cold, “ I pleaded, wrapping my arms around my shoulders and shivering. Dramatically.

“Later?” she pleaded.

I smiled noncommittally, as though in addition to Japanese I no longer spoke English and went back to my soup. Before she could corner me again, I snuck upstairs and still fully clothed, was unconscious by the time my body hit the floor mattress.

My second time staying at a minshiku I didn’t have a wash because I had no idea where the washing place was.  In fact, I didn’t exactly know where I was either. After being turned away at the 12th temple where I had hoped to stay, I passed on sleeping on a bench outside of a Shinto shrine and kept walking despite it getting dusky in the mountains.  A village neatly arranged along one street hugging the curves of the valley looked fast asleep by the time I reached it minutes before sunset. The wooden window shutters and sliding doors of the squat houses let no light in and projected no signs of life out. Near the bus stop bathroom where I was now thinking of letting myself freeze that night, an old man in a dark blue woolen hat was standing near his car. “Something, something Japanese” he said. In reply I put my palms in sideways prayer and rested my icy cheek on them. “Sleep! I desperately want somewhere warm to sleep!” I’d hoped the gesture would convey. “Something else and one more thing in Japanese?”  I smiled, as he looked me over. He then made a gesture with his cupped hand, that after eight months of travel I learned could mean on of two things depending on the country— “Shoo, shoo, go away” or “come, come, right this way!” Not knowing if the person you’re speaking to wants you to depart immediately or come closer is about as much social anxiety as anyone can take.

Whether or not he intended me to, I followed the capped man down a driveway and into a warm house. He opened a door and pointing at a toilet, clarified by saying the only word I understood so far—“toilet” and then led me up the stairs to a room with bunk beds and a neat stack of blankets, said something else that I imagine was “bedroom,” and then departed. Given that it wasn’t my house, and that unlike my previous hosts this one was not keen on getting me into a tub of water, I decided to not raise the issue and settled for using the washing machine in the hallway or doing “laundry,” as my host called it.

By the time I was neck deep in a bath on the third night where this story began, I regretted declining the first offer so insistently and not being insistent enough the second time around.  There is just no feeling better than having your tired limbs submerged in water that’s at a temperature just shy of scorching in a bath where even a tall girl such as myself can have her knees and shoulders submerged.  Japanese bathtubs make American ones seem like ambitious kiddie pools.

In every accommodation, from the cheapest minshiku to the spa hotel I stayed in two weeks ago there are always two things waiting for me in my room—a wraparound robe, called a yukata and a porcelain tea set.  The robe sometimes comes with a very alluring flannel vest made for a man of Santa’s stature. To my delight, this post bath outfit is completely appropriate dinner attire, even if you have not shaved your legs in a desperate attempt to grow an additional layer of protection against the elements.

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What’s even better than wearing pajamas to dinner? Still wearing them at breakfast the next morning, of course! Though I must admit, my furry vested self is not as enthusiastic about the first meal of the day. My Americanized Russian stomach fails me when it is asked to eat bowl of rice and tiny translucent fish, their glistening eyes filled with horror before I’ve had a coffee.  I crave bacon. Or cheese. Or preferably both together with a fried egg on a bagel, with a touch of Heinz ketchup.  I think that if I were to end up at a table in hell, my punishment would be starting the day with a plate of seaweed while a breakfast sandwich lies just out of reach.

Does it sound like I’m complaining? If so, I have a confession to make—I’m actually reveling in the unconventional breakfast and the lack of language and the confusion about bath time.  After two decades of travel, I’ve all but lost that feeling of complete newness and unfamiliarity that is one of travel’s greatest gifts.  I’ve been incredibly lucky to see as much as I have, but with the exception of India (oh, India) everywhere I go I experience a flicker of recognition, even as I try my best to retain a sense of wonder.

I remember what it felt like to be on my own in Barcelona at the age of nineteen, learning to operate in a new world of tapas and siestas or how victorious I felt when I finally figured out how to order a cup of creamy coffee in France that isn’t just a shot of espresso with a side of milk. I clearly remember the relief I felt when finally, after some terrible drawings of a turtle and a stop at his English-studying daughter’s office our Mongolian taxi driver understood that my husband and I wanted to go Turtle Rock.

Enter Japan, where I am slowly making sense of the puzzle, one piece at a time. I now recognize some Japanese characters when I look at names of places, though only the ones that remind me of something—a robot, a TV stand, a window and a smiley face. I think I now know when someone is asking me where I’m from— “something something deska?” or maybe not, and I’m just the weird girl who only ever says “New York!” to every Japanese person who tries to talk to her. I’ve also found out that the bathtub I so happily jump into is a communal one, making it imperative to shower before getting in and to trust that the person before you has done the same. I’ve heard enough people reciting all of the mantras that I can imitate the melody and the rhythm of the shortest one and have successfully gotten it stuck in my head so that all day the inside of my head sounds like this: “On Abokya Beiroshanō Makabodara Mani Handoma Jinbara Harabaritaya Un” You didn’t even try reading that, did you. I understand, but trust me, it’s an improvement on what was I was singing on a loop before—“ Dōmo arigatō, Mr. Roboto.” Slippers still pose a challenge, as there are three pairs, one for the toilet, one for shared spaces, one for your room, but not on the bamboo matting.  Given that just today I face planted on a highway after tripping over my shoelaces, you won’t be surprised when I tell you I’ve ended up in bed still wearing my toilet slippers.

I know what you’re thinking— have I not heard of Google? Couldn’t I have just prepared myself more thoroughly? My answer is an emphatic yes. Absolutely, I could have done a whole lot more research and downloaded all the apps, and maybe asked more questions of my Japanese friends. I’ll let you in on another secret—I avoided doing all of that on purpose. I feel like I’m a new traveler again, the traveler I was before I took a punch in the face on a street in Paris, before the hospital stay in Hong Kong, before haggling with tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand, Cambodia and India. In Japan I get to be the slightly awkward, excited traveler I watch fumble at the MetroCard vending machine at Rockefeller Center, both disoriented and ecstatic at figuring out how to do the simplest of tasks.  Like opening a door, for example, which in addition to the anxiety provoking push or pull options, has the delightful sliding possibility in Japan.  I am a fumbling mess of faux pas like fashioning my yukata in a way that is customary to do only for the dearly departed.  But I am gleeful and grateful for the chance to see the world as brand new again, lighting up with recognition, one tiny sliver at a time.

 

 

 

 

Requiem For A Heart

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This website is my safe haven from everything that is hurtful and destabilizing and polarizing. My main objective when I write here is to make those who visit me feel inspired, deserving and connected. Or at least get you to chuckle at my expense.

Under almost all circumstances, to talk politics here would be sacrilegious, as I can’t think of anything that is less inspiring, more polarizing or destabilizing to one’s mental health than a political rant. Me doing that to you would be a betrayal, like if I promised you kittens and then dropped you into a snake pit. Also, I imagine you would stop coming to see me and then I’d just be talking to myself.

I promise to always stay clear of snake-infested territory, but I do need to address what has been consuming me for the last three days—the murder of the Russian politician (and former governor of the city where I was born) Boris Nemtsov. But this is not a post about politics. This, as always is about heart.

Until the 28th of February, when I found myself sitting on the forest floor, surrounded by vibrant ferns and dusty, blue-stemmed bamboo trees weeping into a salad, which miraculously even in my grief I was able to manage with a pair of chopsticks, I had never cried over the death of a politician. And here I was, lost both physically (texting and hiking don’t mix), and emotionally, trying to understand why this death, as horrific as it was ached so differently, so much more familiarly than all the other equally horrific deaths I read about in the news.

Yes, I agree with many of his political views. Yes, I agree with his belief that “to come to power in Russia, without the institution of elections, is only possible with a revolution. But I have to tell you something unpleasant: I am an opponent of revolution. I don’t want blood.” I agree with him that lasting change, change that doesn’t eat away at your soul takes the “sacrifice of time” and has to happen slowly, from within. Yes, it’s possible that without him the future of Russia is bleaker. Yes, it’s possible, as some fear that this is the beginning of the end for any semblance of a functioning society in Russia. But none of this, not my fears about what might come to pass, not my own sympathies with his outlook, nor any speculations about the toll his death will take on the future explained why I mourned him as fully as I did that day in the woods. As I still do in a hotel room in Kochi.

The answer came to me yesterday, after a day spent walking in the rain, and repeating the Heart Sutra, Buddha’s ten rules for wholesome conduct, and a prayer that I may remember that we are all one, and not apart.  His loss to me is not political or patriotic. I mourn him because he is one of the few people I can name who was fearless in the way that is most meaningful to me—not because he wasn’t afraid to die (he was, admittedly) or even because he fought for what he believed in despite death threats.  He was fearless in the way most of us, including myself, are cowards—he was able to look at himself in the mirror, without dimming the lights or taking off his glasses to blur out the cracks and blemishes reflected back at him. And he accepted the truth of what he saw. There is little that you or any of his opponents could say about him that he hadn’t already joyfully, publically and with colorful language confessed to. He knew his faults and unlike so many of us (again, including myself) he didn’t spend a nauseating amount of time trying to convince anyone of their nonexistance. He just went back to work.  You can see that same level of comfort with the truth in the writing that’s now being penned by those who worked with him. Nothing of what his friends have written puts him on a pedestal or idolizes him. They are all warm, sincere and honest accounts of a man who was blood and bones and who lived with all of the complexities that come with that fleshy human costume.  His friends will still, even postmortem call things as they see them, without glossing over the unpleasant bits, just like Nemtsov did himself. And in the end, I think because he never let his darkness overshadow his light, in the words of Nina Zvereva, “he was impossible not to love.”

The ability to find yourself worthy of life even as you acknowledge your demons inevitably affects how you see other people. The more compassion you have for yourself, the more compassion you will find for others. That is what I mourn about this man. Nemtsov seemed to be able to see into people and squeeze out humanity in places where others only see a drought, without compromising his own truth or his convictions. That is rare anywhere and almost unheard of in politics.  He even managed to find some scraps of humanness in a man who many, whether rightfully or not, hold accountable for his death, a task some might consider on par with looking for an invisible needle in the world’s biggest haystack. Here is an excerpt from his interview with journalist Ilya Azar where Nemtsov tries to explain, using that colorful language I mentioned earlier how Putin got his head so far up his own rear end.

 

Boris Nemtsov: There is not one person around him [Putin] who will oppose him on any issue.  For example let’s take you—are you married?

Ilya Azar: No

Boris Nemtsov: What about a girlfriend? Or are you…

Ilya Azar: I have a girlfriend.

Boris Nemtsov: Imagine that your morning begins like this “Ilya! Good Morning! You are a genius. I look at other journalists, and f**k, they are idiots, imbeciles, worthless nobodies! But you, you son of a bitch, are a genius. Like yesterday, you interviewed Nemtsov. Obviously it must have been boring as f**k to talk to that guy. I mean, who is he? But, what you f*****g wrote—it’s impossible to put down. You’ll definitely win an award for the best interview of the year.”

Now imagine that your girlfriend keeps telling you this for fifteen years and others keep encouraging her. You’re a normal guy, with adequate critical thinking abilities, but unwillingly you’ll start thinking “F**k, maybe I really am that good?”  And that’s it, this **** person [Putin] thinks just like that.

 

There is a note tucked in among the sea of flowers now lining the bridge where Boris Nemtsov was gunned down that says “thank you for your example of honor and courage,” and that is what I am now consciously choosing to focus on when I look in the mirror—the gratitude for his life, even as I acknowledge the anger I feel over his death in my own reflection.

 

Full disclosure: Translation is my own, including the untranslatable richness of the Russian profanity used by Nemtsov. Full article in Russian here: https://meduza.io/feature/2014/11/21/gertsen-nam-by-ne-prostil

 

 

 

A Few Words About Cappadocia.

I hesitate to finish this sentence, but here goes– Cappadocia is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. At least it seemed that way after weeks of the smoke- and traffic-filled streets of Istanbul.  Did you ever see the video of a herd of cows being let out to pasture for the first time after a winter spent indoors? They practically somersault onto the grass, probably squirting milk into the air from sheer excitement. Minus any leakage, that was how I felt when I arrived in Cappadocia.  I got to climb mountains, poke around in cave dwellings and early Christian churches carved into rock, follow paths through cavernous valleys, wander onto private property, with the occasional vineyard completely accidentally and eat grapes that don’t belong to me, also completely accidentally. At night I sat at a restaurant overlooking it all and drank a glass of wine, probably made from an earlier reincarnation of the grapes I had been filling my mouth with all day.

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The region is made up of a network of valleys that got their distinctive look thanks to three terribly active volcanoes, which expelled lava, ash and all kinds of sediment across hundreds of miles.   After millions of years of wind and water erosion, what’s left is a landscape of meringue-shaped ranges, ripples of soft rock that look like confectioner’s sugar, freestanding pillars, cones and chimneys that served as homes as recently as the 20th century.

 

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The town of Göreme is at the center of Cappadocia’s most sought after sites and hiking trails. What used to be a small village is now home to more than 100 hotels and seemingly as many tour companies, souvenir shops and cafés.  I chose my own perch well—high above the town center, Mithra Cave Hotel leans into the side of a cliff, shying away from the calls to buy, eat and drink below.

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It’s quiet up here, with spectacular sunrises and several terraces from which to watch them, curled up in a rocking chair with a coffee, though the sun is not really why anyone’s getting up at dawn.  Every morning dozens of hot air balloons take over the sky and I think it’s fair to say that if you find yourself in Göreme at six in the morning you are either one of the hundreds of people suspended above the town or like me, one of the six people who chose to stay on the ground in their pajamas.

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From up here, the city of Uçhisar, with the two crumbling castles at its highest point, looks like an anthill and autumnal trees weave a fiery path through the valley below.

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The infamous Love Valley! Because no matter your age, education level, or highbrow-ness, no one can resist looking at giant, towering rock penises.

 

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The Rose Valley is blushing, perhaps due to its proximity to the Love Valley.  See above.

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As far back as the 4th century, Christian churches were carved into the rocks. The altars, pillars, frescoes and even graves that made up these spiritual burrows are still here. There is no greater joy than to be able to run around climbing, exploring and touching all of the above.  Easiest way to shave thirty years of that old soul of yours.

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This mountain was gutted into a maze of stairs, rooms and tunnels that can lead to literal dead ends if you’re not careful.

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There is a quality to Cappadocia that has left me unsuccessful in finding the right word for it. The valleys seem timeless, having withstood millions of years of nature’s abuse, and surrounded by them I feel timeless too. Maybe that stoic solitude is what’s left when everything else is gone? Maybe that is why it leaves me speechless, because it’s what remains when even language disappears.

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Pilgrimage to Konya

I stepped off the bus in Konya, one of the most conservative cities in Turkey with my pants falling down. I had bought them the night before in a rush and without trying them on. When I realized, first to my delight and then to my horror that I had underestimated how much weight I’d lost in four months of walking, I was already late for my date with a dead Persian poet in small city in Anatolia.

Fighting a losing battle to keep my butt covered up, I walked from the bus station to my hotel and gave myself a silent talking to. “Why can’t you just get off a bus and walk to a hotel like a normal person? Why does everything in your life have to be an audition for a comedy sketch?” Then I thought about the joy my friends will feel when I tell them this story, a joy similar to what they felt when I told them that I showed up to my job at one of the world’s top fashion magazines wearing one brown and one black boot. My self-shaming took a surprising turn as I began to see what a gift it is that in my life, even the most ordinary act such as getting dressed in the morning, turns into a story worth telling.  Thanks to my inability to just wake up and start my day “like a normal person,” an otherwise unmemorable walk down a wet, grey street in Turkey was now etched in my mind, much like the occasionally visible lace of my underwear is now permanently etched in the memory of the pious citizens of the town where Rumi created his magnificent poetry. I think the Sufi mystic would have been proud of my journey from self-chastising to self-awareness.

“Who could be so lucky? Who comes to a lake for water and sees the reflection of the moon.” 

Konya is said to have been quite a sight during the 13th century, when Rumi lived here, though now his legacy is all that colors an otherwise monotonous landscape of boxy apartment buildings, souvenir shops and expressionless hotels. Luckily, I had ignored the accommodation recommendations of well-meaning travelers and instead followed my heart to a small two-story house with an ornate gate and a garden where an eager black cat let me stroke its soft fur, even as rain fell on us both.

While I waited for my room to be ready, I wandered around the garden photographing dried up sunflowers, the scroll-like curled petals of zinnias and the velvet fringe of marigolds with no real aim except to acknowledge and capture the moment in the same way a much less poetic struggle to hold on to my pants had captured my arrival in Konya.

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In the days leading up to my pilgrimage I was constantly drawn to flowers. I bought a pink scarf tipped with red, blue and peach blooms, a top with swirls and pale carnations and a notebook with a reproduction of Mignon’s painted tulips, bearded irises and red currants. I even packed a bottle of rose oil into my backpack before leaving. Flowers have been an important part of my life ever since I got my first job as a florist at eighteen. They have always been my escape. While writing is more risky and demanding because there is more of me at stake, flowers are my creative refuge, a world where I wholeheartedly embrace myself as an artist, without judgment and let myself play without any policing. They connect me with my past as the appearance of tiny clusters of grape hyacinths remind me of the time I fell in love early one spring. They also put me squarely in the present, as I smell the first paperwhite narcissus flower in November. Flowers remind me of both how fragile and prone to withering life is and how confidently and brilliantly it always comes back.

“The words that make the rose bloom were also said to me.
The instructions whispered to the jasmine.
And whatever was said to the sugarcane to make it sweet.
And to the pomegranate flowers to make them blush. 
The same thing is being said to me.” 

Between Gwyneth Paltrow quoting him on Oprah and his poetry, which can be playfully naughty and includes references to sex outside of marriage, it’s easy to forget that Mevlâna as he is known in Turkey was a dedicated Muslim, given the name Muhammad at birth and who exalted the Quran in many of his poems.  I can’t think of any other man whose words have burrowed into the hearts of Hollywood actresses, lovesick teenagers, veiled women and literary college students alike. Everyone loves Rumi—the Pope, atheists, intellectuals, and even a very smart and sweet woman I met in the hotel who believes we come from a different planet entirely.

“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river,each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged” 

In the kitchen of the hotel a tall, pencil-straight, grey-haired woman, who was clearly a guest was grating cooked quince.

“What are you making?”

“I’m trying to make my grandmother’s dessert, but I think I’m failing.”

Having been given the rare gift of watching someone other than me crash and burn, I decided to stick around and get to know this lady. Her name was Muriel and she was a French ex-pat living in England who adored the owners of the hotel and has known them for years, which explained her taking command of the kitchen.  She is an expert on Rumi, lecturing and writing about the Sufi mystic and his poetry.

“I wrote a book called ‘Rumi’s Daughter,’ maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s been translated into nine languages.”

I wanted to say “ But can you do this!” and do a back flip off the counter except I remembered that I don’t know how and instead offered to take over the grating for a bit. Despite our efforts, the quince did not resemble the smooth paste Muriel remembered from her childhood so we called it quits and went to the tomb of the teacher we had traveled here to see.

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When Rumi’s father died in 1231 the Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad offered his rose garden as place to bury the well-respected mystic and scholar. Forty years later, after celebrating his “wedding night” as he had asked his death be referred to, Rumi was laid to rest in the same place. Though the rose garden is still there, it blooms in the shadow of a marble and tile complex that has developed around father and son over the centuries.  At first, a sea green, rippled conical tower was built over the two graves. Then the Mevlevī Sufi, an order of Rumi’s followers built a Dervish Lodge where the members of the order lived, studied and prayed. Suleiman the Magnificent built an adjacent mosque in the 16th century and eventually more than forty people, including members of Rumi’s family and prominent dervishes (followers) of the Order were buried in the Mausoleum.

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Muriel and I were approaching the Mevlâna Museum when we heard the first notes of a nearby mosque’s call to prayer. A second muezzin began just behind the first, and then a third, a fourth and on and on until the echoing voices were impossible to separate from each other and the words of praise to Allah became an indiscernible, passionate, pulsating cry that overtook the sound of traffic, tourists and even the endless stream of my thoughts. What is it about this Sufi man that gathers everything that’s magic around him and the nearer you get to him the more magic your own life becomes? Or maybe it’s that he inspires you to see the magic that’s already there?

“You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck.” 

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The quiet space for reflection that I expected his grave to be was crowded with a stampede of people who were probably seeking the same solitude. While a recording of a mournful ney melody played on a loop over the loudspeaker, Japanese tourists took photos, despite the protests of the guards. A clean-shaven man in a suit prayed quietly next to them and an older Turkish woman turned away her tear-stained face when I accidentally caught her eye.  Muriel sat on her heels in a corner with her eyes closed, meditating. Rumi’s tomb shrouded in black and gold was the only grave I’ve ever been to where I felt like the person was actually still there, hovering and observing. I wonder what he would think of all this, given that he had wanted to be buried under an open sky. I wonder how he’d feel about a million people coming to see him every year.

“Either give me more wine or leave me alone.” 

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When we came out of the mausoleum, the sky was bruised with rain clouds except for one patch, through which a ray of light reached out towards the Mevlâna Museum, singling out the Master as the lucky recipient of its warmth. Despite the cold and the promise of rain, Muriel and I strolled to the Alaeddin Mosque, an ancient place surrounded by a park with views out into the plains beyond the city line. Rumi had attended prayers here, in what I imagine was then a majestic mosque, but was now dusty and worn. In the courtyard we found the grave of the same Sultan who had offered up a patch of his rose garden centuries ago to Rumi’s father. We wandered among the cream and orange dahlias and blue irises  just outside and talked about Rumi.

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“I’ve been thinking a lot about Rumi’s poem that begins ‘Come, come, whoever you are,” I started.

“You know there’s a good chance that it’s not actually Rumi’s poem?” Muriel stopped me.

“Don’t tell me that, it’s one of my favorites!”

“There is a theory that it was written later,” said the Rumi scholar.

“But it’s even in the Rumi book that I have,” I pleaded.

“Who is the translator?”

“Coleman Barks”

“You know that he doesn’t actually translate the books, since he doesn’t speak Persian?”  Seeing the shock on my face, she quickly added “But he’s not without his purpose, he adds some value to the translations, some interpretation.”

“My favorite poem of my favorite poet was not written by him and my favorite Rumi translator didn’t actually translate Rumi. Fantastic.”

“But that’s the essence of Rumi—he confuses you, he makes you lose yourself so then you find your own way back. You have to decide for yourself.”

I understood what Muriel meant.  Rumi isn’t the bones and dust lying below a slate of marble. Rumi isn’t the warm, fleshy thing those bones used to cling to.  Rumi is the inspiration, the love and the poetry that I feel when I read the words. Who wrote and who translated them has no importance.

“In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you,
but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.” 

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In fact, Rumi might never have become Rumi,  the man that draws more than a million people to a small town in Turkey were it not for a fateful meeting with a basket weaver in 1244. Shams Tabrīzī had been traveling from town to town hoping to meet his spiritual equal, the one person who could understand him fully and his search ended here, in Konya. The two became the closest of friends and that friendship opened up some new divine place in both of them. Though Shams was almost thirty years older than Rumi, it seems their relationship was more teacher and teacher than teacher and student.

Hurry and get out of this wind, for the weather is bad.
And when you’ve left this storm, you will come to a fountain;
You’ll find a Friend there who will always nourish your soul.
And with your soul always green, you’ll grow into a tall tree”

Rumi’s disciples and his sons, jealous and distrustful became weary of Shams and his influence over Rumi. Legend has it, that one night while the two friends sat in Rumi’s home someone knocked on the door and called out for Shams. Shams went to see who it was, disappearing out of view. Rumi heard his friend cry out and ran to the door but found only a drop of blood in the snow. Or so one story goes. Shams was never heard from again and Rumi’s grief was endless. He wrote volumes of poetry dedicated to his Shams. He even said that the poetry was not his, but his friend working through him.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

On the way back to our hotel, Muriel pointed down a narrow street filled with souvenir shops and jewelry stores, “There is a mosque over there that’s supposed to be where Shams is buried, but I don’t think so.” Officially his tomb is in Khoy, Iran. There is another one in Pakistan. The legend of Shams has spread far and wide, it seems.

That night I dreamt that a sorcerer kept sending wild animals to attack me. Every time I’d fight one off, another one would appear. Exhausted and angry I pleaded with the sorcerer “Why are you doing this to me? Why do you hate me?”

“Don’t you know that I am doing it because I love you most? I am sacrificing these animals so that you can practice fighting. That way, when you have to face the biggest battle of your life you will be sure to win.”

Given how close the hotel was to Rumi’s grave, I am inclined to think that the mystic’s ghost is predisposed to sleepwalking and making poetry of people’s dreams.

The next morning while I loaded up my plate with cheese and olives and cucumber slices, I told the owner of the hotel about my dream.

“What were the animals you were fighting off?” he asked.

“I think they were wild boars.”

“Hmm,” he examined me for a second and walked away.

Alarmed, I looked up the symbolic meaning of boars.  I found that they could mean battle (usually to the death), needing to face a conflict head on and the odd man out—really passionate sex. I am hoping that the dream was not a prophecy of a life spent killing every opportunity for great sex.  Considering that I am on a quest, making my way around the world in search of answers, looking my fears squarely in their serpent-like faces, it’s easy for me to believe that there are more challenges ahead and with them more answers and more beauty. That the battles of today are preparing me for those of tomorrow seems logical, but who is this magician who is training me to fight? Who cares! Did you not hear the part where he said he loved me most? Except for that particular bit that most probably came from my egomaniacal subconscious, I honestly think  the voice of the magician is the same voice that told me to go walking around the world and the same one that told me to not leave the house for three days and write this all down.

“Learn the alchemy true human beings know.
The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given the door will open.”

On the whole spectrum of my life, there are pockets of time that I fall into once in a while that are filled with such perfectly orchestrated magic, that I begin to think I’ve fallen off the spectrum completely. If you haven’t guessed it, this trip to Konya was one of them.

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Before getting on a bus again I went back to the Mevlâna to say goodbye. It was sunny now and I sat in the rose garden with a volume of poetry translated by someone who doesn’t speak the language it was was written in and read my favorite words from the poet who probably didn’t write them.

“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again , come , come.”

And he was right—it didn’t matter.

 

 

 

 

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