Thursday, September 21, 2017

Travel

Lydia Delgado, artists, Ghana, West Africa, Art of Living Water Projects, India, Rom Levy, Sean Yoro, Hula, power of water, women and water, Hurricane Harvey, Teas, Labor Day, U.S., 1937 Fundy Bay tragedy, Bay of Fundy, Sea Caves, hydro-electricity, Arica Hilton, Multiverse, the artist who lights up the sky, Hilton Asmus, Artsy.net, Chicago

A young mother bathes her children in it every night. Lydia Delgado, my favorite watercolor artist, uses it to create layers of colorful florals with masterful brushstrokes.

When it falls onto the tongue of a young boy’s open mouth, he smiles joyfully as it melts. But when untamed, it frightens a mother who watches it rise with the fear she feels for her family’s safety. This is the power of water. In its many forms, it sustains us and threatens us, but we are lost without it. Artists from around the world remind us of water’s life-giving qualities and the divine role of women in relation to it.

Lydia Delgado, artists, Ghana, West Africa, Art of Living Water Projects, India, Rom Levy, Sean Yoro, Hula, power of water, women and water, Hurricane Harvey, Teas, Labor Day, U.S., 1937 Fundy Bay tragedy, Bay of Fundy, Sea Caves, hydro-electricity, Arica Hilton, Multiverse, the artist who lights up the sky, Hilton Asmus, Artsy.net, ChicagoWater has always been a symbol of life and strength. In Ghanaian culture, women are purveyors of water. They travel miles to bring water to their homes, carrying heavy jars of it on their heads. On the west coast of Africa in northern Ghana, most homes do not have running water. Women go to boreholes (like these women walking to wells) or lakes so they have enough water to drink and use for household chores like cooking and bathing.

But during the dry season, water from most lakes has disappeared and any that does exist is contaminated. Because it is so desperately needed, women spend a large part of their day, time and energy retrieving it.

Lately, shortages are also an issue for India, a country experiencing its worst water crisis in 40 years. The riverbeds in the south have run dry for many of reasons, including over-exploited groundwater to unplanned urbanization. But an organization called the Art of Living Water Projects is working to help empower women by providing better knowledge and ways to help them.

Community training sessions and other related program initiatives in India teach women how to partner with governments to build canals and rejuvenate riverbeds. The focus is on strengthening youth and women leadership in India so women can take charge of their circumstances and prevent younger girls from missing school to fetch water.  For more information or to consider donating, please visit their website.

Lydia Delgado, artists, Ghana, West Africa, Art of Living Water Projects, India, Rom Levy, Sean Yoro, Hula, power of water, women and water, Hurricane Harvey, Teas, Labor Day, U.S., 1937 Fundy Bay tragedy, Bay of Fundy, Sea Caves, hydro-electricity, Arica Hilton, Multiverse, the artist who lights up the sky, Hilton Asmus, Artsy.net, Chicago

Helping women rise above threatening waters is literally the work of one artist, Sean Yoro aka Hula. I saw his work a few years ago in StreetArtNews.net. This online publication by Rom Levy promotes underground artists. His series, Women Rise Up From the Water, was created to draw attention to social problems like ugly abandoned buildings in Hawaii and the melting polar caps (see the cover photo).  

Sean is a NYC-based artist who grabbed his surfboard and acrylic paints to produce stunning paintings of women. He understands the powerful significance of using women as the central theme in his graphics. They are the givers of life, as mothers and providers of family. So when Sean’s women sink into the melted ice caps or disappear from the old building lots, he shows the resulting imbalance. Scientists suggest the violent cycle of earth’s storms will likely increase.

Lydia Delgado, artists, Ghana, West Africa, Art of Living Water Projects, India, Rom Levy, Sean Yoro, Hula, power of water, women and water, Hurricane Harvey, Teas, Labor Day, U.S., 1937 Fundy Bay tragedy, Bay of Fundy, Sea Caves, hydro-electricity, Arica Hilton, Multiverse, the artist who lights up the sky, Hilton Asmus, Artsy.net, Chicago

Sean’s female-centered posters have a sense of urgency about rising sea levels, climate change and beautification. But using images of women in art is nothing new. Mother Earth Laid Bare, a 1936 painting by Alexander Hogue, uses barren plots of land in the shape of a woman to show the suffering of Mother Nature. The photo – on display in the Art Institute of Chicago a few years back – sits next to other works by realist painters like Edward Hopper, and shows how defenseless we are against drought, winds and eroding soil.

The severity of mother nature’s power is certainly underscored by the recent events of Hurricane Harvey in the United States. Hurricanes wreak havoc as millions of people in Houston and other parts of Texas recently experienced. Harvey has forced tens of thousands of people into emergency shelters, hoping they’ll be able to salvage some of their belongings as emergency personnel and government workers prepare for years of cleanup and economic recovery.

Destructive storms like Harvey will always loom over us, like the Bhola cyclone that struck East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) and India’s West Bengal region on November 12th, 1970.   More than half a million people lost their lives in what was one of the deadliest natural disasters of all time. People are helpless in the face of powerful storm or even tides of water like those in the Bay of Fundy.

The tides are the highest in the world, reaching up to a five story building, and the reversing tide section of Fundy Bay (see the photo below) claimed the lives of 19 people in a mass 1837 tragedy when 25 members of several families went berry picking. I saw the powerful evidence of eroding soil and rock along the cliffs of the bay, where tourists can walk among sea caves during low tide, before the high waters come in and flood the entire area. It is a solemn reminder of water’s power.

Lydia Delgado, artists, Ghana, West Africa, Art of Living Water Projects, India, Rom Levy, Sean Yoro, Hula, power of water, women and water, Hurricane Harvey, Teas, Labor Day, U.S., 1937 Fundy Bay tragedy, Bay of Fundy, Sea Caves, hydro-electricity, Arica Hilton, Multiverse, the artist who lights up the sky, Hilton Asmus, Artsy.net, Chicago

Over the years, we have learned to harness the power of water for a huge variety of needs from hydro-electricity to stately fountains and water parks.Whether water is used by Indians who bathe in the Ganges or Arabs in the Middle East who depend on the desalination of water for its vital life properties, water is to be cherished and revered. The earth is roughly two-thirds water but “by 2025, 1.8 billion people will experience absolute water scarcity, and 2/3 of the world will be living under water-stressed conditions.”

Lydia Delgado, artists, Ghana, West Africa, Art of Living Water Projects, India, Rom Levy, Sean Yoro, Hula, power of water, women and water, Hurricane Harvey, Teas, Labor Day, U.S., 1937 Fundy Bay tragedy, Bay of Fundy, Sea Caves, hydro-electricity, Arica Hilton, Multiverse, the artist who lights up the sky, Hilton Asmus, Artsy.net, Chicago

As we celebrate Labor Day in North America over the September holiday weekend, I am reminded of the many women and men who have labored to service our communities, and emergency personnel who have dedicated their lives to helping those threatened by water.

This labor of love is also reflected in the artists of our time, who inspire us to higher standards and loftier goals for ourselves and each other. Artists like Arica Hilton remind us that nature is a gift and water is a powerful friend. In her one of her latest series, Multiverse, Arica prompts us to consider water conservation within the larger context of sustainable living. Her use of recycled and crushed plastic water bottles within the rich canvases of color, texture and design, help us to see and embrace water’s ubiquitous and free-flowing form.

Lydia Delgado, artists, Ghana, West Africa, Art of Living Water Projects, India, Rom Levy, Sean Yoro, Hula, power of water, women and water, Hurricane Harvey, Teas, Labor Day, U.S., 1937 Fundy Bay tragedy, Bay of Fundy, Sea Caves, hydro-electricity, Arica Hilton, Multiverse, the artist who lights up the sky, Hilton Asmus, Artsy.net, Chicago
Lydia Delgado, artists, Ghana, West Africa, Art of Living Water Projects, India, Rom Levy, Sean Yoro, Hula, power of water, women and water, Hurricane Harvey, Teas, Labor Day, U.S., 1937 Fundy Bay tragedy, Bay of Fundy, Sea Caves, hydro-electricity, Arica Hilton, Multiverse, the artist who lights up the sky, Hilton Asmus, Artsy.net, Chicago

I encourage readers to learn more about Arica by visiting WomanScape’s The Artist Who Lights Up the Sky, or to enjoy her work online at Hilton Asmus or at Artsy.net. Arica is a visionary living and working in the heart of Chicago’s art district and part of her philosophy for life, written below, inspires us to be our best selves.

I believe in free will, that we can choose our path the way we want to design it.

I believe in the power of vision, perhaps that’s why I am an artist.

Milky Way. Silhouette of a standing woman practicing yoga on the mountain near the pond with sky reflection in water. Landscape with meditating girl on the hill. Night starry sky and milky way

It’s no secret that tens of thousands of books have been written about happiness.

happiness, enlightenment, Maura Soshin O'Halloran, Buddha, Marian Broderick, Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History, Connollys Book Store, Dublin, Ireland, Zen, Japan, Toyko, Trinity college, County Wicklow, Toshoji Temple, meditation, chanting, Oisin, Soshin, Gaelic, mu, monks, Bangkok, Thailand, Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind, saint, Lion's roar, Hangover 2, Chao Phraya River, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, purpose driven lifeThe number of self-help gurus and Oprah-style lessons on meditation and paths to enlightenment are exhaustive. Like most people, I live merrily until there is some unrest or tragedy: a marriage ends, someone dies, a cancer diagnosis, or a life-altering events reminds us of our mortality.

Enter the history of the world and Marian Broderick’s Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History. The wealth of lessons from remarkable lives lived is an attractive proposition. I stumbled upon this gem of a book in Dublin’s oldest and arguably most radical bookstore near Trinity Square, Connolly’s .

The proposition of learning from wild women who broke the rules in unapologetic and pioneering ways is promising. Like Broderick, I “limp with an Irish background” with my muddied ancestral roots. But within the covers of this seventy-plus list of short biographies, I am moved by the story of Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran. She was a young woman who moved to Japan and achieved a Zen state of enlightenment at the ripe old age of only twenty-six.

happiness, enlightenment, Maura Soshin O'Halloran, Buddha, Marian Broderick, Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History, Connollys Book Store, Dublin, Ireland, Zen, Japan, Toyko, Trinity college, County Wicklow, Toshoji Temple, meditation, chanting, Oisin, Soshin, Gaelic, mu, monks, Bangkok, Thailand, Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind, saint, Lion's roar, Hangover 2, Chao Phraya River, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, purpose driven lifeBut serious questions came to mind: how does an Irish Catholic move to Japan and master enlightenment in one year and, better yet, why? Broderick takes us through a brief history of Maura’s roots: born in Boston to the O’Hallorans, moved with the family to Dublin where Maura is educated in Loretto convent schools, academic scholarship to Trinity College and graduates college with a degree in mathematical statistics and sociology. (The photo above is taken in a special meeting of two rivers, north of Dublin in County Wicklow. St. Patrick said that a dream had brought him to this sacred place.)

happiness, enlightenment, Maura Soshin O'Halloran, Buddha, Marian Broderick, Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History, Connollys Book Store, Dublin, Ireland, Zen, Japan, Toyko, Trinity college, County Wicklow, Toshoji Temple, meditation, chanting, Oisin, Soshin, Gaelic, mu, monks, Bangkok, Thailand, Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind, saint, Lion's roar, Hangover 2, Chao Phraya River, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, purpose driven lifeThis seems an unlikely path to Buddha, but Maura’s desire to help others and a love of travel take her to volunteer posts in parts of the United States, Canada and Peru after graduation. Naturally a spiritual person, Maura decides to travel to the Toshoji Temple in Tokyo. There she asks to train as a monk and becomes the only woman and the only foreigner to be accepted.

The training is extreme and involves daily observances like meditation, chanting, menial work and begging with minimal sleep and food. Broderick notes that Maura is given the name Soshin, meaning enlightened, warm heart; which makes Maura very happy since Soshin rhymes with Oisin, the Gaelic word meaning “little dear” and the namesake of an Irish poet and warrior legend.

happiness, enlightenment, Maura Soshin O'Halloran, Buddha, Marian Broderick, Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History, Connollys Book Store, Dublin, Ireland, Zen, Japan, Toyko, Trinity college, County Wicklow, Toshoji Temple, meditation, chanting, Oisin, Soshin, Gaelic, mu, monks, Bangkok, Thailand, Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind, saint, Lion's roar, Hangover 2, Chao Phraya River, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, purpose driven lifeMaura’s deep love for her fellow Japanese monks and her disciplined study impress the Dogen Zen Master so much that she graduates in only a year as a Tenzo monk and named second in command. While this achievement might be a prescription for finding Zen, it goes completely awry when Maura is suddenly killed in a bus accident. At 27 years of age, she intended to do a short tour of Southeast Asia but died in Bangkok, Thailand.

Maura’s journals came to be called Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind , with many people believing she had become a sort of Zen saint. Her words provide a fascinating insight into her path towards enlightenment, and the joy she hoped to bring to Ireland by founding a temple and teaching Zen.

happiness, enlightenment, Maura Soshin O'Halloran, Buddha, Marian Broderick, Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History, Connollys Book Store, Dublin, Ireland, Zen, Japan, Toyko, Trinity college, County Wicklow, Toshoji Temple, meditation, chanting, Oisin, Soshin, Gaelic, mu, monks, Bangkok, Thailand, Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind, saint, Lion's roar, Hangover 2, Chao Phraya River, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, purpose driven lifeIn 1994, Lion’s Roar – a Buddhist magazine – shared some of Maura’s reflections about life behind temple walls. What surprised me was her candid thoughts about gender (which were never an issue) and the unconditional acceptance she felt among her fellow monks. But when I think about her quest to attain “mu” (to embody a completely blank mind and to erase all worldly concerns), I can’t imagine anyone ever  achieving this kind of detachment from our beautiful world.

Having visited Bangkok several years ago, I remember sensing something greater than myself. Entering several Buddhist temples and traveling into the countryside, I saw dozens of golden statues. Each was unique and massive in scale – whether it was a lying Buddha, reclining Buddha, or sitting Buddha. To my surprise, each seemed to elicit a strange spiritual calm even though my mind wrestled with the Catholic doctrines also initially shared by Maura.

happiness, enlightenment, Maura Soshin O'Halloran, Buddha, Marian Broderick, Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History, Connollys Book Store, Dublin, Ireland, Zen, Japan, Toyko, Trinity college, County Wicklow, Toshoji Temple, meditation, chanting, Oisin, Soshin, Gaelic, mu, monks, Bangkok, Thailand, Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind, saint, Lion's roar, Hangover 2, Chao Phraya River, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, purpose driven lifeTraveling through the streets and touring along the Chao Phraya River, I considered two worlds: the modern conveniences of cars and a luxurious shopping mall commingled with the solemn but industrious movement of brightly clad monks and their young charges. I wondered what it must be like to live behind tall iron gates and if I could ever relinquish all worldly possessions.

Bangkok is filled with incredible architecture and royal lifestyles, like my stay at the Lebua Tower. The hotel service was exceptional and super affordable, with rooms costing the same as those of two or three star hotel in America. The vanishing edge pool and Lebua sky-bar, perched some 820 feet above the city, boosts one of the best views in the world.

No wonder one of the scenes from the movie Hangover-part 2 was filmed there. It could easily be mistaken for a Las Vegas hotel. The photo taken from the balcony of my room shows how developed Bangkok is despite the massive poverty and simple vehicles used to get around; tuk-tuk mini-buses and rickshaw bikes were a popular sight.

happiness, enlightenment, Maura Soshin O'Halloran, Buddha, Marian Broderick, Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History, Connollys Book Store, Dublin, Ireland, Zen, Japan, Toyko, Trinity college, County Wicklow, Toshoji Temple, meditation, chanting, Oisin, Soshin, Gaelic, mu, monks, Bangkok, Thailand, Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind, saint, Lion's roar, Hangover 2, Chao Phraya River, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, purpose driven life

happiness, enlightenment, Maura Soshin O'Halloran, Buddha, Marian Broderick, Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History, Connollys Book Store, Dublin, Ireland, Zen, Japan, Toyko, Trinity college, County Wicklow, Toshoji Temple, meditation, chanting, Oisin, Soshin, Gaelic, mu, monks, Bangkok, Thailand, Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind, saint, Lion's roar, Hangover 2, Chao Phraya River, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, purpose driven life
happiness, enlightenment, Maura Soshin O'Halloran, Buddha, Marian Broderick, Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History, Connollys Book Store, Dublin, Ireland, Zen, Japan, Toyko, Trinity college, County Wicklow, Toshoji Temple, meditation, chanting, Oisin, Soshin, Gaelic, mu, monks, Bangkok, Thailand, Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind, saint, Lion's roar, Hangover 2, Chao Phraya River, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, purpose driven life

Only now, looking back at this experience and the roads that I have traveled throughout my life, do I realize that enlightenment is not found in books, temples or churches. While these can provide valuable knowledge and guidance for living a contemplative life, they are not enough.

The inter-religious dialogue that Maura Soshin O’Halloran pursued was personal and purpose-driven but incomplete. There is no one way to happiness and enlightenment except through the convergent paths we share with one another and the awareness that comes from the everlasting pursuit of being more conscious.

happiness, enlightenment, Maura Soshin O'Halloran, Buddha, Marian Broderick, Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History, Connollys Book Store, Dublin, Ireland, Zen, Japan, Toyko, Trinity college, County Wicklow, Toshoji Temple, meditation, chanting, Oisin, Soshin, Gaelic, mu, monks, Bangkok, Thailand, Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind, saint, Lion's roar, Hangover 2, Chao Phraya River, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, purpose driven lifeIt’s simple to say we need to understand our interconnections. This is particularly challenging if we see it as a burden. What I do know is that the more open I am to the world and the more I reflect without judgment on those who come into my life, the more happiness and understanding seem to follow.

While researching this article, I found a startling journal entry by Maura. The source looks like a Buddhist blog – if such a thing can exist – and the entry is written by someone named Terebess . Maura is preparing to leave the temple

and tour Southeast Asia. She knows her life has been purposeful and satisfied, and eerily portends her death. The challenge for each of us is to ask ourselves how satisfied we are with life as we know it.

“I’m twenty-six and I feel as If I’ve lived my life. Strange sensation, almost as if I’m close to death. Any desires, ambitions, hopes I may have had have either been fulfilled or spontaneously dissipated. I’m totally content. Of course I want to get deeper, see clearer, but even if I could only have this paltry, shallow awakening, I’d be quite satisfied…. So in a sense I feel I’ve died. For myself there is nothing else to strive after, nothing more to make my life worthwhile or to justify it. At twenty-six, a living corpse and such a life! … If I have another fifty or sixty years (who knows?) of time, I want to live it for other people. What else is there to do with it? … So I must go deeper and deeper and work hard, no longer for me, but for everyone I can help.”

happiness, enlightenment, Maura Soshin O'Halloran, Buddha, Marian Broderick, Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History, Connollys Book Store, Dublin, Ireland, Zen, Japan, Toyko, Trinity college, County Wicklow, Toshoji Temple, meditation, chanting, Oisin, Soshin, Gaelic, mu, monks, Bangkok, Thailand, Of Pure Heart and Enlightened Mind, saint, Lion's roar, Hangover 2, Chao Phraya River, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, purpose driven life

Solar eclipse, total eclipse of the heart, Bonnie Tyler, Great American Eclipse, 3 billion eclipses, doomsday prophecy, White House tension, socio-economic divides, fear, the eyes, Jay DeFeo, Whitney Museum, New York City, Bran Stark, Game of Thrones, Philip Lamantia, The Rose, duality of existence, evil eye, third eye blind, Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Horus, Re, Sun God, Quoran, superstitious, Yogis, chakra, seat of the soul, René Descartes, atman, psyche, eyes to the soul, Ellsworth Kelly, Red, White and Blue, Democrats and Republicans, Joe Jonus

What do you see when you look up to the stars? Make sure it’s not the sun on August 21, 2017, unless you’re wearing protective eye wear. This solar eclipse, dubbed the Great American Eclipse, will travel from coast to coast across the U.S., darkening the sky and revealing the stars as it startles animals and nature.

Even though people in North America and parts of South America, Africa and Europe will see at least a partial solar eclipse, this eclipse feels different.

This is strange because solar eclipses are nothing new. There are more than 3 billion eclipses on record, with the last total eclipse in America occurring in 1918. So maybe it’s a confluence of stresses and anxiety around the globe that makes this eclipse feel like a metaphorical doomsday prophecy?

Could it be America’s daily newsreel of White House tensions and the growing chasm of racial and socio-economic divisions are driving us crazy?

European countries are struggling with issues like immigration and millions of displaced citizens, not to mention economic uncertainties from the growing dissolution of the European Union. As if that’s not enough, we are constantly bombarded by escalating tensions in North Korea, border control disputes in India and China, and war and food scarcity in the Middle East and Africa seems to be spiraling out of control.

No wonder we are afraid. The world is mad. The eclipse will pass but the fear over the state of the world lingers. Fear is powerful enough to eclipse hope, purpose and meaning, unless we have the courage and wisdom to reframe our understanding. When we turn our eyes and our attention to the sky, we look to higher values and existential questions about why we are here. This is where the image of the eye gets really interesting.  

Solar eclipse, total eclipse of the heart, Bonnie Tyler, Great American Eclipse, 3 billion eclipses, doomsday prophecy, White House tension, socio-economic divides, fear, the eyes, Jay DeFeo, Whitney Museum, New York City, Bran Stark, Game of Thrones, Philip Lamantia, The Rose, duality of existence, evil eye, third eye blind, Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Horus, Re, Sun God, Quoran, superstitious, Yogis, chakra, seat of the soul, René Descartes, atman, psyche, eyes to the soul, Ellsworth Kelly, Red, White and Blue, Democrats and Republicans, Joe JonusA 1958 sketch called The Eyes by Jay DeFeo hangs in the Whitney Museum in New York City.  The large drawing was inspired by the artist’s own physical eyes, and she uses her canvas to question what it means to see. It’s appropriate to zoom in on DeFeo’s work given her study of art as its relationship to the cosmos. A large group of people stood around DeFeo’s work, studying the lines on the canvas and differences in each eye. The right eye appears hollow and white like a full moon, reminding me of television characters like Bran Stark, from HBO’s Game of Thrones. Bran has the gift of prophecy despite his crippled body.

DeFeo’s eye on the left side is noticeably different, with cracks in the pupil and a complex series of geometric lines. The eye seems to have more movement and unrest, and I imagined the wrinkles around this eye to be string-like tentacles that looked like a series of hydro poles. The effect is mesmerizing and you are drawn in, hoping to discover hidden pictures and patterns.

The wall plaque next to the sketch mentions an inscription on the back of DeFeo’s work. It’s written by her but taken from a poem by Philip Lamantia that says, “Tell him I have eyes only for Heaven, as I look to you Queen Mirror of the Heavenly Court.”  This surprised me even though I could feel the spiritual longing in the layered shades of black. Critics suggest that DeFeo used her art to examine a growing interest in themes surrounding symbolic versus physical vision. The dichotomy of heaven and earth and a thirst for God’s mercy are certainly obvious in DeFeo’s work when you consider the inscription.

Solar eclipse, total eclipse of the heart, Bonnie Tyler, Great American Eclipse, 3 billion eclipses, doomsday prophecy, White House tension, socio-economic divides, fear, the eyes, Jay DeFeo, Whitney Museum, New York City, Bran Stark, Game of Thrones, Philip Lamantia, The Rose, duality of existence, evil eye, third eye blind, Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Horus, Re, Sun God, Quoran, superstitious, Yogis, chakra, seat of the soul, René Descartes, atman, psyche, eyes to the soul, Ellsworth Kelly, Red, White and Blue, Democrats and Republicans, Joe JonusDeFeo’s work is visually beautiful. It carries me back to the paradox of our world and the struggle between the intuitive and rational processes we all possess. DeFeo took eight years to complete this later work (pictured to the left), The Rose, which weighs a whopping 1,850 pounds. Here, DeFeo is both seer and realist, looking for comfort in the future while trying to understand the present. Her message is her art, and it is both beautiful and comforting. It feels divinely inspired but grounded in earthly materials as it leaps off the canvas and asserts her transcendental power.

I remember seeing this three-dimensional canvas at the Whitney in 2015, thinking it looked like an exploding flower rising from the ground. Critics describe it as the place “where linearity and circularity, precision and coarseness, stasis and movement, and other such dualities coexist in harmony and with force.”

Solar eclipse, total eclipse of the heart, Bonnie Tyler, Great American Eclipse, 3 billion eclipses, doomsday prophecy, White House tension, socio-economic divides, fear, the eyes, Jay DeFeo, Whitney Museum, New York City, Bran Stark, Game of Thrones, Philip Lamantia, The Rose, duality of existence, evil eye, third eye blind, Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Horus, Re, Sun God, Quoran, superstitious, Yogis, chakra, seat of the soul, René Descartes, atman, psyche, eyes to the soul, Ellsworth Kelly, Red, White and Blue, Democrats and Republicans, Joe Jonus

History is filled with centuries of curious art created with a view to the eyes and perspectives that have evolved across cultures, religions, ideologies and geography.

The Egyptians and Ancient Greeks were especially interested in the eye, believing it able to cast a curse.

The evil eye was a glare that could cause misfortune or injury. It could be stopped with the help of a protective talisman or careful preparations of the heart. Hanging a chain of small blue beads or wearing an amulet with the eye of Horus (the sky god and son of the sun god, Re) warded off evil. The eye makeup photo below by artist KelleyOnTheBeat illustrates a modern take on the eye of Horus symbol.

This notion of the evil eye is widespread in many Mediterranean countries, including the Arabic culture. Someone with envy or jealousy in their heart (described in the Arab world as having hassad or hasid) has an evil eye. The evil is believed to be like an arrow shot from the soul and if the intended victim is prepared, the hassad will have no effect. Reading a certain chapter from the Quran each day offers protection.

Solar eclipse, total eclipse of the heart, Bonnie Tyler, Great American Eclipse, 3 billion eclipses, doomsday prophecy, White House tension, socio-economic divides, fear, the eyes, Jay DeFeo, Whitney Museum, New York City, Bran Stark, Game of Thrones, Philip Lamantia, The Rose, duality of existence, evil eye, third eye blind, Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Horus, Re, Sun God, Quoran, superstitious, Yogis, chakra, seat of the soul, René Descartes, atman, psyche, eyes to the soul, Ellsworth Kelly, Red, White and Blue, Democrats and Republicans, Joe JonusMany people remain superstitious and believe crystals like agate and gemstones like black onyx ward off evil spirits and negative energy. It’s no surprise some of the terms linking bad events with the eye are still used; for example, the worst part of a hurricane is the eye of the storm or the biblical justice of “an eye for an eye.”  

In contrast to the evil eye, people who are Third Eye Blind have clairvoyant abilities and can see the future. Having this extra or third eye is a powerful gift. My Irish father used to tease me about his all-seeing-eye in the back of his head. Of course, I knew as a child this was a lark, seeing no evidence of a gift on the back of his smooth bald head. To the contrary, I understood his teasing way of suggesting he was a father with all-seeing power.

Yogis and mystics believe we all have a third eye centered between our eyebrows. The colorful graphic below, is one of many artistic versions of this all-seeing-eye. Its mystic origin has been studied for more than 5,000 years years in the ancient world, with modern-day doctors and philosophers like René Descartes (1596–1650) explaining its powerful energy. Our chakra describes the place of wisdom and divine intuition where the third eye resides and can be awakened. Ancient Indians called this eye the atman and the Greeks, and the Romans said it was our psyche and the place of our human soul.

Solar eclipse, total eclipse of the heart, Bonnie Tyler, Great American Eclipse, 3 billion eclipses, doomsday prophecy, White House tension, socio-economic divides, fear, the eyes, Jay DeFeo, Whitney Museum, New York City, Bran Stark, Game of Thrones, Philip Lamantia, The Rose, duality of existence, evil eye, third eye blind, Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Horus, Re, Sun God, Quoran, superstitious, Yogis, chakra, seat of the soul, René Descartes, atman, psyche, eyes to the soul, Ellsworth Kelly, Red, White and Blue, Democrats and Republicans, Joe JonusIn today’s world, the custom of looking a person in the eye when you shake their hand provides  a glimpse inside “these eyes to the soul” . It suggests a measure of the person’s character or their level of honesty is somehow manifest in their eyes. In this same way, we know a person from their smile and we know the eyes can forgive without the use of words.

Solar eclipse, total eclipse of the heart, Bonnie Tyler, Great American Eclipse, 3 billion eclipses, doomsday prophecy, White House tension, socio-economic divides, fear, the eyes, Jay DeFeo, Whitney Museum, New York City, Bran Stark, Game of Thrones, Philip Lamantia, The Rose, duality of existence, evil eye, third eye blind, Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Horus, Re, Sun God, Quoran,  superstitious, Yogis, chakra, seat of the soul, René Descartes, atman, psyche, eyes to the soul, Ellsworth Kelly, Red, White and Blue, Democrats and Republicans, Joe JonusRemember the WomanScape story of performance artist Marina Abramovic? She sat across from her ex-husband and thousands of adoring fans at the Modern Museum of Art,  speaking only with her eyes and the tears that rolled down them.

There’s great comfort in knowing artists will continue to challenge the way we see the world, stimulating dialogue and pricking our conscience. Ellsworth Kelly, a Abstract artist whose work spanned seven decades, continued to dialogue about his American experience and view of our political system.

His Red, White and Blue painting (1961) hanging in the Whitney gives us a bird’s eye view of his political reality. In 2017, this painting on the right might be fracture into more pieces, with even more white white space dividing the Democrats and Republicans.

But what remains constant in this abstract work is the considered reflection of our party politics and our relation to them in the universe. Thankfully, artists continue to push and even protest, using and sharing their voices to wake up the world. The photo at the end of this article illustrates some of this art hanging as a retrospective exhibit in the Whitney Museum.

How we see this placement is very personal and we have the power to frame it under the banner of fear or enlightenment. As the shadow of the eclipse races across the earth, I will not be looking up at the sky. I didn’t buy protective eyewear and will instead play British singer Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 hit song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on Pandora.

Bonnie is scheduled to be on the Royal Caribbean cruise in the Atlantic and will perform her song during the exact time of the eclipse alongside Joe Jonus. While I’ll sing Bonnie’s catchy tune, which speaks of love lost and the eclipse of darkness in her heart, I’ll rest on ancient words from the bible remind us that faith is the evidence of what we cannot see.

(Last stanza of Eclipse of the Heart)

Once upon a time I was falling in love

But now I’m only falling apart

There’s nothing I can do

A total eclipse of the heart

Once upon a time there was light in my life

But now there’s only love in the dark

Nothing I can say

A total eclipse of the heart

Solar eclipse, total eclipse of the heart, Bonnie Tyler, Great American Eclipse, 3 billion eclipses, doomsday prophecy, White House tension, socio-economic divides, fear, the eyes, Jay DeFeo, Whitney Museum, New York City, Bran Stark, Game of Thrones, Philip Lamantia, The Rose, duality of existence, evil eye, third eye blind, Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Horus, Re, Sun God, Quoran, superstitious, Yogis, chakra, seat of the soul, René Descartes, atman, psyche, eyes to the soul, Ellsworth Kelly, Red, White and Blue, Democrats and Republicans, Joe Jonus

A Cinderella Night in the Liechtenstein Palace

For one night in Vienna, I was a royal. During my Cinderella moment, I dined like a queen and caught an insider’s glimpse of royal life.

The dinner event was the culmination of a beautifully orchestrated business trip to Vienna, Austria. And, as I stepped from my pumpkin coach (it was actually a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van) humming the Royals song by Lorde (no lie), I tried to exude a kind of “I do this all the time” air. But stepping back in time and into the Liechtenstein Palace was anything but ordinary.

A Cinderella Night in the Liechtenstein Palace

The city of Vienna is exceptionally cool. I know a royal might not describe it this way but the city’s old world charm is magnetic, from its cobble-stoned streets to the many historic sights. Yet, Vienna is also a bustling and convenient European hub for travelers. Modern art museums, inventive cuisine, edgy fashion and a mix of architectural styles sit comfortably next to Baroque style buildings and churches; some erected on ancient Roman sites dating back to the 4th century. Even the famed Vienna Opera House has incorporated a modern flair, as people are invited to sit on benches outside of the theater to watch live performances for free. Culture is accessible and flashes of fanciful nouveau art like giant, brightly-painted modern sculptures, remind people that art is a living form.

Vienna, Liechtenstein Palace, Austria, His Serence Highness Prince Hans Adam, Princess Marie of Liechtenstein, Rococo, Baroque, Danube River, Blue Danube, Royals, Lorde, Vienna Opera House, Schoenbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace, Viennese coffe, Edelweiss, Johann Strauss, Swiss Alps, Austria, feminine, frivolous, #Princelymatters, Rubens, Rembrandt, Beidermeier furniture, neo-classic furniture, German furniture, art deco style, Grace Farms, WomanScape, Cinderella, Viennese waltz, King of Waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, Tomas Hercog, Gute Nacht, Wein,

After a week touring some of Vienna’s most beautiful sights, I saw grotto’s from the middle ages and tasted 12th century wines. I felt the sun on my face as we cruised the dreamy Danube River (photo above from the cruise). I studied the royal lives and storied past of the Hofburg and Schoenbrunn Palaces. These winter and summer palaces are grand glimpses into the dynastic lifestyles of the rich and the royal, inhabited for more than three centuries. But dressing in a long evening gown and experiencing the luxuries of life as a royal, felt entirely different than I expected. Here’s why.

Vienna, Liechtenstein Palace, Austria, His Serence Highness Prince Hans Adam, Princess Marie of Liechtenstein, Rococo, Baroque, Danube River, Blue Danube, Royals, Lorde, Vienna Opera House, Schoenbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace, Viennese coffe, Edelweiss, Johann Strauss, Swiss Alps, Austria, feminine, frivolous, #Princelymatters, Rubens, Rembrandt, Beidermeier furniture, neo-classic furniture, German furniture, art deco style, Grace Farms, WomanScape, Cinderella, Viennese waltz, King of Waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, Tomas Hercog, Gute Nacht, Wein, Two smiling gentlemen waved us into the Liechtenstein Palace, directing us towards the elegant gold-and-red-trimmed runner to the right of the magnificent stone archway. My eyelids fluttered under the weight of overly zealous clumps of mascara and the brilliant white light bouncing off the marble steps and glacier white Rococo sculptures. The newly renovated palace gleamed under its stucco ceilings giving the entire entrance and hallways a heavenly glow.

As we climbed the grand stairway to the second floor landing, I spied a massive gold and crystal chandelier in the room ahead. Without time to refuse, and not that I would have, a crisp glass of bubbly was thrust into my hand and someone said, “You better get ready for this Rose. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

Vienna, Liechtenstein Palace, Austria, His Serence Highness Prince Hans Adam, Princess Marie of Liechtenstein, Rococo, Baroque, Danube River, Blue Danube, Royals, Lorde, Vienna Opera House, Schoenbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace, Viennese coffe, Edelweiss, Johann Strauss, Swiss Alps, Austria, feminine, frivolous, #Princelymatters, Rubens, Rembrandt, Beidermeier furniture, neo-classic furniture, German furniture, art deco style, Grace Farms, WomanScape, Cinderella, Viennese waltz, King of Waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, Tomas Hercog, Gute Nacht, Wein, So forget Viennese coffee, fluffy, cream-filled pastries drowning in vanilla sauce and the Edelweiss song.

The trumpets sounded and the clouds parted as if Johann Strauss himself was welcoming me into one of the most beautiful ballrooms I have ever seen. But before I can pick my slack jaw off the floor, I do a North American quickstep, catching my heel on the bottom of my dress.

Thankfully, I stopped short of falling onto the waiter who, moments before, had handed me the delightful glass of champagne. I hoped to avoid another Bridget Jones moment as I took in the gold gilded walls and ceiling, and the giant cherubs with a more balanced eye.

A few things about Liechtenstein help explain the detailed wall decor and gold and crystal accents. Liechtenstein is the fourth smallest state in Europe and the sixth smallest country in the world, yet His Serene Highness Prince Hans Adam II (the current ruler of Liechtenstein) is the wealthiest monarch in Europe. With a nest egg of 5 billion dollars, Liechtenstein is only second in wealth to Monaco and boasts hundreds of millionaires. Prince Hans Adam himself has one of the world’s finest art collections, some of which are housed in the Liechtenstein Palace!

Nestled in the centre of the Alps and situated between Switzerland and Austria, Prince Hans Adam rules as a Monarch on a hereditary throne. The Liechtenstein economy is based on Swiss currency and the country is a tax haven that attracts more businesses than there are people. There are many unique things about Liechtenstein (like the railway track cutting across the land despite no any actual train system) but the strangest was that women could not vote until 1984.

This irony is not lost as the interior design of the Palace is considered to be quite feminine. The Rococo era followed the Baroque style, and is known for its feminine curves and intricate designs.

When you look up at the walls and ballroom entryway – from the golden chandeliers to the fanciful crystal accents – the “frivolous detail” is arresting. It’s interesting that designers call these architectural lines feminine as well as frivolous. The shapes actually come from nature, like puffy clouds and sea shells.

I don’t know what Princess Marie, Hans Adam’s wife, thinks of them or the “frivolous” design label. I do know that she was born in Prague, to the daughter of a Count and a Countess. She was a graphic artist before she married, and the royal family that includes four children still maintain family quarters in the Palace. To learn more about the architecture or to book a tour at the Palace, visit: https://www.palaisliechtenstein.com/en/home.html

As you can see from the beautiful details in the stunning professional pictures* throughout the article, it would be easy to get used to the royal treatment and the appetizers before dinner. The presentation of the food and attention to detail was breathtaking. The table settling cutlery, florals, and presentation of the plated food was spectacular. The ultimate was the main entree of asparagus, beef and a potato type grit. With orchestral music playing in the background, the wait staff walked into the dining room and timed the sequence of lifting huge silver domed tops off the warmed plates. It was completely grand!

Vienna, Liechtenstein Palace, Austria, His Serence Highness Prince Hans Adam, Princess Marie of Liechtenstein, Rococo, Baroque, Danube River, Blue Danube, Royals, Lorde, Vienna Opera House, Schoenbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace, Viennese coffe, Edelweiss, Johann Strauss, Swiss Alps, Austria, feminine, frivolous, #Princelymatters, Rubens, Rembrandt, Beidermeier furniture, neo-classic furniture, German furniture, art deco style, Grace Farms, WomanScape, Cinderella, Viennese waltz, King of Waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, Tomas Hercog, Gute Nacht, Wein,

Vienna, Liechtenstein Palace, Austria, His Serence Highness Prince Hans Adam, Princess Marie of Liechtenstein, Rococo, Baroque, Danube River, Blue Danube, Royals, Lorde, Vienna Opera House, Schoenbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace, Viennese coffe, Edelweiss, Johann Strauss, Swiss Alps, Austria, feminine, frivolous, #Princelymatters, Rubens, Rembrandt, Beidermeier furniture, neo-classic furniture, German furniture, art deco style, Grace Farms, WomanScape, Cinderella, Viennese waltz, King of Waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, Tomas Hercog, Gute Nacht, Wein,

As I relaxed into the small group setting and the tour of the castle apartments before dinner, our guide explained that important Viennese art from the Neo-classic and Biedermeier eras existed throughout the palace. Old masters like Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt weren’t available for us to see, of course, but the new style of art and architecture changed the mood in Vienna during the 19th century.

Industrialism and a growing appreciation of art by the middle class shaped the emerging German style of furniture-making that was more simplified. The more decorative French designs and interiors found in the summer and winter palaces were replaced in the Liechtenstein Palace by reliable, local woods and a more romantic style that would go on to influence the art deco period.

It’s virtually impossible to equate this so-called simplified interior design to our modern-day German furniture. Today’s sleek styles can be seen around the globe, with some even featured in WomanScape’s article about Grace Farms and the Japanese architecture. When the room filled with the sound of music ( an appropo choice of words to describe Viennese song), it brought the Cinderella feeling to life.

Vienna, Liechtenstein Palace, Austria, His Serence Highness Prince Hans Adam, Princess Marie of Liechtenstein, Rococo, Baroque, Danube River, Blue Danube, Royals, Lorde, Vienna Opera House, Schoenbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace, Viennese coffe, Edelweiss, Johann Strauss, Swiss Alps, Austria, feminine, frivolous, #Princelymatters, Rubens, Rembrandt, Beidermeier furniture, neo-classic furniture, German furniture, art deco style, Grace Farms, WomanScape, Cinderella, Viennese waltz, King of Waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, Tomas Hercog, Gute Nacht, Wein,

The small group of string musicians who played throughout dinner, disappeared for a few moments while a tantalizing dessert of fresh sorbet, berries, and pastry-like cheesecake, replete with an edible floral sprig, was served. Before anyone got up from the table, a sudden burst of quick paced, upbeat music rang out. Four elegantly-costumed couples took to the floor in swirling motions, twirling around our long table of seated guests.

They performed a series of traditional Viennese dances that included a waltz, tango, foxtrot and quickstep. Having raised daughters who Irish danced, I learned a little about the various genres of traditional dances. The footwork in a Viennese waltz includes a sort of three step rhythm that follows a simple box step; see http://www.wikihow.com/Dance-the-Waltz for additional information.

Vienna, Liechtenstein Palace, Austria, His Serence Highness Prince Hans Adam, Princess Marie of Liechtenstein, Rococo, Baroque, Danube River, Blue Danube, Royals, Lorde, Vienna Opera House, Schoenbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace, Viennese coffe, Edelweiss, Johann Strauss, Swiss Alps, Austria, feminine, frivolous, #Princelymatters, Rubens, Rembrandt, Beidermeier furniture, neo-classic furniture, German furniture, art deco style, Grace Farms, WomanScape, Cinderella, Viennese waltz, King of Waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, Tomas Hercog, Gute Nacht, Wein,
Vienna, Liechtenstein Palace, Austria, His Serence Highness Prince Hans Adam, Princess Marie of Liechtenstein, Rococo, Baroque, Danube River, Blue Danube, Royals, Lorde, Vienna Opera House, Schoenbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace, Viennese coffe, Edelweiss, Johann Strauss, Swiss Alps, Austria, feminine, frivolous, #Princelymatters, Rubens, Rembrandt, Beidermeier furniture, neo-classic furniture, German furniture, art deco style, Grace Farms, WomanScape, Cinderella, Viennese waltz, King of Waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, Tomas Hercog, Gute Nacht, Wein,

I don’t know that I’ll ever get the chance to relive this kind of dreamy experience. Living like a royal certainly isn’t a Viennese Waltz every night, but every time I hear the music of Johann Strauss – Austria’s undisputed Waltz King and most famous composer – I’ll remember my Cinderella time and the unique travels that filled my adventure with song and dance.

Thanks to Tomas Hercog for allowing me to use his amazing professional photographs, including the last one below; it captures the excitement of my husband and I as the night kicks off. I encourage readers to check out Tomas’ photography and video collection at: http://www.tomashercog.com For now, Gute Nacht, Wien!

And to learn more about Liechtenstein, visit https://tourismus.li/en/our-country/about-liechtenstein/

Vienna, Liechtenstein Palace, Austria, His Serence Highness Prince Hans Adam, Princess Marie of Liechtenstein, Rococo, Baroque, Danube River, Blue Danube, Royals, Lorde, Vienna Opera House, Schoenbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace, Viennese coffe, Edelweiss, Johann Strauss, Swiss Alps, Austria, feminine, frivolous, #Princelymatters, Rubens, Rembrandt, Beidermeier furniture, neo-classic furniture, German furniture, art deco style, Grace Farms, WomanScape, Cinderella, Viennese waltz, King of Waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, Tomas Hercog, Gute Nacht, Wein,

She gave birth to sixteen children in nineteen years – a formidable feat for any woman hoping to create a large family. Even though in more recent history Mother’s Day dates back to the 1600’s, I doubt this mother had much time for celebrating in 1737. She gave birth to her first child when she was just 20 years of age with an entire Habsburg Empire cheering her on.

As the daughter of Emperor Charles VI and Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina wed Franz Stephan of Lorraine to save the Habsburg royal family. The couple were in love, which was unusual since royal marriages were forged to preserve or expand political alliances and royal bloodlines. However, Maria Theresa was anything but usual.

Maria Theresa was the only woman to ever rule the Habsburg dominions and reigned as empress for 40 years. It was assumed her husband would take the lead as King, but this 2017 commemorates the 300th anniversary of Maria Theresa’s birth and Vienna is throwing a party in honor of her unexpectant and successful rule. Life as an empress and mother of a large personal family was certainly more demanding than anything most women will ever experience.

My tenure as mother is much less dramatic, serving as referee to children squabbling over toys and teenage girls navigating dating, clothes and growing up. My family dynasty never needed to mount a defense against German cousins and allied French and Bavarian troops. When Prussian King Frederick the Great challenged Maria Theresa’s reign after her father’s sudden death in 1740, she endured eight years of war to preserve her Austrian Succession.

Unlike Maria Theresa who centralized her government while ushering in administrative and civil reforms for Austrian and her Bohemian lands in 1750, my biggest legislative feats were fortifying family values and ensuring my children understood compassion, justice and kindness. My ability to change diapers with lightening speed in tight spaces while juggling loads of laundry, grading English papers and cooking dinner in a crunch hardly compares.  But, like Maria Theresa, I dreamed of a better life for my children, hoping they would grow to be healthy and enjoy the riches of faith, purpose and love. These territories are common terrain for all mothers.

Like Maria Theresa’s marriage to Franz Stephan, I too am blessed with a happy marriage and anticipate the joys of grandchildren. I have felt the grief of losing a child but this pales in comparison to Maria Theresa; ten of Maria’s sixteen children survived into adulthood but she lost three children (two daughters and a son to smallpox) and another two daughters during childbirth. The death of a fifth daughter who passed away in infancy was devastating as was the sudden death of her husband in 1765. After his passing, Maria Theresa spent the remainder of her life in mourning and dedicated to fulfilling her royal duties.

Like all families, Maria Theresa experienced the joys of motherhood and tumultuous challenges in life. Of the ten children who survived her, Maria’s eldest son Joseph became the Crown Prince and next Emperor. Several daughters went on to rule or marry Dukes, but the most famous of Maria’s daughters, Marie Antoinette, became Queen of France before meeting the guillotine during the French Revolution. Maria Theresa died three years before Marie Antoinette met her fate in 1783, but many mothers share similar though less grandiose struggles. Motherhood is a very personal path for every woman that transcends time because we influence our children in more ways than we could ever know; whether or not we outlive them, or maintain a constant or happy relationship with them. 

I was reminded of this profound influence before I traveled to Vienna and retraced the history of Maria Theresa’s life. Whether it was traversing the same cobbled streets, adoring the city’s monuments to her, sailing down the spectacular Danube River or visiting the summer Schönbrunn Palace where Maria Theresa loved to be, I tried to imagine how my life intersected with hers.

Last fall, I spent 10 minutes with an airline agent who reminded me of a mother’s influencewhen she processed my youngest daughter ‘s airline bag. My daughter had spent the weekend with me in Toronto; a stay that was two parts Toronto Maple Leafs (attending the hockey game with my husband and middle daughter), and one part obligatory hello to mom.

We were at Toronto’s Island Airport, Billy Bishop Airport, and I struck up a casual conversation with the airline agent at the ticket counter as Kelley checked a bag for her trip back home to Chicago.

A smiling, freckled faced agent was so casually dressed that I looked over at the agent beside her to see if this was a typical uniform. The relaxed Canadian demeanor and sharp wit were something we were used to, having grown up in Toronto, but the very personal story she shared about her mother surprised us.

“So, are you both flying to Chicago?” she asked.

I responded, “No, it’s just my daughter, Kelley. She’s anxious to get back home.”

The agent took her time tagging the bag as Kelley tapped her foot.

“What is so important back home?”

“She misses her dog Timmy, and of course, there’s the boyfriend who’s been all alone while she’s been away.” I think I shuffled my feet too, sensing Kelley’s impatience and her “here goes my mother babbling on with every stranger she meets” look.

The agent grinned, tilting her head sideways for a moment before turning to put Kelley’s bag on the conveyor belt behind her.  She stopped to check the label and left the bag balanced on the metal edge preventing it from moving along as she replied,

“They can wait, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you rather be with your mom?”

Kelley rolled her eyes laughing politely, “Yes but I’m on school break. It’ll be good to get home.”

“But won’t you miss your mom?”

Kelley tapped my shoulder with hers, the way she does when she’s teasing me into buying her something she really wants.

“Oh, my mom’s a world traveler so I’m used to missing her.”

“But you just never know. Take it from me,” she said still smiling, “Spend as much time as you can with her.  My mom was my best friend and not a day goes by that I don’t ask for her advice. I’ve made peace with her leaving me but we still go shopping every Saturday.”

I could read the light go on in Kelley’s face, “What the heck? How could she go shopping every Saturday still? Impossible.”

The agent’s profound connection to her mother was the stuff great love stories … the rare bond of love between a mother and a daughter.

I never did learn the agent’s name so let’s call her Lily; a flower symbolizing devotion. Lily told us she was an only child and that every Saturday, from the time she was 5 years old until the week her mother passed away, Lily and her mother went shopping. Shopping was their thing even when Lily’s mother had to travel for her work. If they were separated on a Saturday, her mother snap a picture of herself next to a landmark so Lily knew she was thinking of her. She always promised they’d have a chance to go back there to shop when Lily was old enough.  

Lily grew up cherishing their real and future shopping adventures. Pictures of her mom standing by the Eiffel Tower or next to the London Bridge were part of a mother-daughter tradition to explore and enjoy the world. Saturdays were special and Lily never felt lonely.

But they never had the chance to travel to many of these places before Lily’s mother passed away. We didn’t learn how she died but Lily said she is still very much alive.  Lily honors her mother’s memory by shopping every Saturday and Lily even traveled to all of the places her mother had been so she could take the same photos of herself in the same spot where her mother once stood.

Lily has amassed an entire shoebox of pictures celebrating her mother’s legacy, which has taken her round the world from Las Vegas to Rome. So I couldn’t resist asking her if she felt her mom’s presence when she took all of these pictures.”

“My mother still sends me signs so I know she’s with me,” Lily said. “Crazy thing is she was all about feathers, and I can’t begin to tell you about the number of truly incredible incidents I’ve had with birds and feathers flying down out of nowhere. I know she’s watching over me.”

Lily’s smile stretched over the counter and past the career that likely took her taken on this quest for peace. Kelley and I stood for a moment, transfixed. As a mother, I wondered if I could ever inspire this kind of love and passion. Lily’s story was generous and flew in the face of rational logic like a prayer lifted up to the heavens. It hung in the air long enough for me to add my own.

I pray for all mothers everywhere, and for all the daughters who will someday be mothers. I celebrate my mother and mother-in-law because they grace this good earth with their unconditional love, strength and selflessness. I promise to slow down and savor the gift of motherhood, never taking it for granted and making an effort to be a better mother with each passing year. And I bow in respect for all mothers, whose journey may be as great as the adventures of Maria Theresa or as humble as the one that I enjoy. As mothers we move mountains with the promise of our children’s happiness and, for this, I am eternally blessed.

Our heads smack against the inside roof of the black 4×4 Land Rover like kernels of  popcorn. We scream so loudly that when I glance sideways to see my husband’s face it’s purple. The setting sun and our perilous speed make it impossible to know if it’s just the light or if he’s having a heart attack. I breath deeply to slow my pulse just in case we need to make the hospital our next stop!

This is the start of my Arabian adventure – giant sprays of white sand swooshing underneath the tires. It is terrifying and exhilarating, and not what I expected when I asked the hotel concierge about Bedouins and a desert tour. I pictured a less dramatic tour retracing the history and lifestyle of ancient desert caravans.

But I should know better. In Dubai, people expect the unexpected and this tour is grand like the Palace Hotel we’re staying at in downtown Dubai. The Palace is surrounded by lush gardens and spectacular views of the Dubai fountain, nestled in front of Dubai’s world renown shopping complex. Visitors inhale exotic floral scents as they enter the lobby and feast on jewel-colored interiors.

Our tour of the desert started when guides arrived in luxury all-terrain vehicles to chauffeur five parties of six people to the desert conservation area less than an hour from the city center of Dubai. The promise of a falcon demonstration and tented campground dinner with music and festivities under the setting sun was a dream come true for me.  I had been to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) once before but it had been to Abu Dhabi, one of the seven UAE states that definitely felt culturally more conservative than Dubai.

My desire to see the desert stemmed from memories sitting with my father and watching American spaghetti westerns and the Oscar winning Lawrence of Arabia movie. Long flowing robes and headscarves were as foreign as my grasp of British colonial history and the state of the Arab world during the First World War.

So when Werner Herzog’s “The Queen of the Desert” was released early in 2017, I felt that same allure watching Nicole Kidman play the female version of Lawrence of Arabia in her portrayal of Gertrude Bell. I remembered highlights of my touristy Dubai desert adventure as I watched Kidman’s performance; of course, my experience paled in comparison to the 30 years Bell spent roaming vast desert lands in the Middle East.

Born into 1868 Victorian England, Gertrude Bell’s education was unusual. She was the first woman to graduate Oxford with a degree in modern history and her personality was considered “too academic” to attract marriage offers, despite her family’s significant wealth. So when her father encouraged her to visit her uncle, a diplomat stationed in Iran in 1892, Bell fell in love with the Middle East. The wanted to make a life for herself writing and documenting her desert travels so she taught herself how to speak Persian and Arabic. Bell’s archeological and academic interests became a love affair that lasted a lifetime.

During this time Britain was struggling to maintain its Imperial Rule and Bell’s knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and her travels throughout present-day regions, that include Palestine, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq, became a valuable asset to the government. Bell helped to stop the expansion of the Turkish Empire with her knowledge and the unorthodox relationships she had forged roaming freely and meeting with Sheiks and Bedouin communities. Her geopolitical knowledge of borders surrounding Iraq and Jordan were critical in helping the British negotiate diplomatic settlements at the end of World War I.

There’s a scene in the “Desert Queen” where Kidman poses for a picture with Winston Churchill, just as Bell did at the 1921 Conference in Cairo, Egypt. She was the only woman delegate in the group and were it not for her trusted relationship with the Arabs, Churchill’s diplomatic efforts and relations with these Arab countries would likely have turned out quite differently.

Obviously much has changed since Bell’s time and her legacy helping to build the Museum of Antiquities in Iraq and her preservation of desert history. Her  passing in 1926 marked the end of her adventures long before the United States bombed her beloved Baghdad in 2003. Camels that once transported Bedouin tribes and foreigners like Bell who rode through the desert are now used in other ways, like camel racing for sport. Mechanical robots have replaced traditional child jockeys who used to ride on top (thanks to protective United Nations child labor laws) and robotic whips are used to lead a camel to victory while a lead truck races alongside the camel.

Riding a camel in Dubai was as thrilling as I thought it would be after our stomach churning Land Rover drive dropped us at the Desert Conservation Reserve. It was daunting to mount a camel, as they are huge animals who need to bow the front of their bodies so low in order for you to straddle their bumps. You then have to trust your body to lean way back in order for the camel to uncurl its long front legs allowing it to stand. But my nerves were buoyed by the smells of roasted meats, spicy scents and thick coffee smells permeating our campsite; a stark contrast to Bell’s lifestyle, where her desert survival depended on the hospitality of Arab tribes visited and personal rations of food and water needed to survive the grueling desert conditions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seated in tented areas and regaled with stories about the nomadic existence, I learned about the Arab’s falcon traditions. Professional falconers demonstrated the hawking skills of these majestic birds of prey used for scouting and hunting food, until a sudden sand storm had our group running back to the cars for cover. It’s not unusual for this to happen and the sands are like shards of glass that sting your face and fill your eyes and nose.

I can still taste the grit between my teeth as we reach the campsite replete with portable bathrooms, until I think of the whirling belly dancers who entertained us and the magnificent dining feast at this final stop. Tucked in the starry heavens overhead was a sky filled with centuries of history that will forever beckon me back. I can remember standing out in the open air and walking back to the car thinking about my infinitesimal place in the world and the deep connection I felt to the desert.

Bell’s legacy as a gentlewoman of the desert –  a Khatun in the Arab culture – is wrapped in that same dark sky that I see when I look up at the night wherever I am. It’s a place where her legacy as a queen of the desert lives forever.

Bell wrote a series of letters collected into a number of publications that I hope to read one day. They can be found in the New York City Public Library or one of the many libraries around the world that house copies of these letters. Her words in the preface of one book, “Amurath to Amurath”, remind us of our place in the world:  “We wither away but they wane not, the stars that above us rise; the mountains remain after us, and the strong towers when we are gone.”

Note: You can read more about Gertrude Bell in, Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia

 

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