Dipping my feet in Americana waters

“What is the purpose of your visit? And how long are you staying?” are the routine questions I hear from US Customs and Border control upon arrival. I have quite the collection of memories from these annual interviews. Waiting in line for my turn, trying to decide which customs guy looks the friendliest, preparing my answers… I even have a list of my preferred airports to arrive in (Minneapolis, Portland) and my least favorite (Los Angeles, New York)

This time I traveled through Chicago and it was a late night arrival. I think the officer was ready to go home and not interested in long chats. “Where are you going?” was all he asked and stamped my passport. Surely he saw how many US stamps there are already. I hesitated when the customs guy asked if I have any food items to declare but decided that Latvian chocolate bars I was bringing as gifts did not count. Chocolate is not food, right?

I have never stayed longer than three months and have never lived in the United States. Besides visiting family and friends and speaking engagements, there are many reasons to enjoy it. America (even the US part of it) is just so big. I have lost count of the places visited but the wish list keeps getting longer and longer. I have yet to see the wilderness of Alaska, the mountains of Colorado, the museums of Washington D.C., the Grand Canyon of Arizona, the Statue of Liberty (if I don’t count seeing it from the airplane) and the list goes on.

It is no secret that Europeans and Americans often differ in their views. I would describe our relationship as mutual ‘I really like you but you frustrate me. And at times annoy’. It is sometimes complicated but, no doubt, we care about each other’s opinion. How can we possibly avoid it when so much of American gene is of European descent?! My American friends ask me what Europeans think about their international image, policies and politics. My European friends ask me what is going on in America. Especially after this summer trip I am expecting a lot of questions.

When there are things that frustrate me about the US culture, I start countering it with the things I like. Frustrating ones first? This is a big nation and very self-sufficient. It annoys me how many Americans still do not realize how interconnected and interdependent the world is. For better or worse. Americans can be individualistic to the extreme. It annoys me when so many who have the means and money to travel, have no desire to visit other countries and learn about other cultures. It annoys me when people here complain about first-world problems and many think they are poor. I challenge their definition of ‘poverty’.

It annoys me when Americans talk about their government (as dysfunctional as it often seems) as tyrannical and authoritarian. Again I want to challenge this definition of ‘tyranny’ and ‘authoritative regime’. I was born in a tyrannical and authoritative system (the USSR) and I know the difference. Of course, there is abuse of power and corruption and deep rooted injustices but which embassies people line up to? Where do they expect to find liberty and opportunity and choice and free expression of themselves? For sure, the US is still at the top of the list where people want to immigrate.

And my list of positives? The number one is the acceptance and welcome of the immigrant and foreigner. Yes, it is not perfect but human beings are not perfect. Still, this land is beautiful because of its diversity of race, culture, religion, ethnicity, political opinion and ancestors. Few weeks ago there was an International Festival in Burnsville, Minnesota and it was great. Music, dances, cultural performances, food, kids activities. Cambodian, Indian, Thai, Pakistani, Somalian, Nigerian, Brazilian, Mexican… you name it. The last performers was a Latino band which got the whole crown dancing. And Latinos can dance! Just like Africans, their bodies just know how to sway with the rhythm.

Besides the beauty of the land, the diversity of its landscapes and its interesting history, I like the energy of this place. There are so many interesting ideas floating  in the air and people like to dream. I like the entrepreneur spirit and the innovations. I like the arts, music, books… I even like the optimism of Americans and the attitude of “why not?”, instead of “why?”

And going back to the freedom issue… I remember the first time I landed in the US and walked outside the airport in Seattle, Washington. I breathed in the air and it felt very different from what I had experienced growing up. It was not just a physical feeling of freedom, it was something deeper. I felt like I am appreciated just the way I am and I can express myself any way I want. And the policeman walking outside was actually a public servant and on my side.

One day I would like to read this poem on the Statue of Liberty with my own eyes:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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Irish way of turning Darkness into Light

For those who noticed that I took a little break from writing… there are times when you just have to give full attention to the people you are with, seize the moment and enjoy it. So, I had put the computer away. And who wants to be on computer when you are visiting the beautifully green and ancient land of Ireland?

Now back in Riga I reflect on my favorite thing to see in Dublin – the Book of Kells. Probably the most beautiful book I have ever seen is Ireland’s most precious cultural treasure. It continues to amaze every time I visit the exhibition at Trinity College Dublin. This handwritten copy of the four Gospels of the life of Jesus Christ which was completed around 800 AD is so beautifully decorated and hand painted that it continues to inspire artists and scientists on how the authors actually did it. Many of the illustrations are so microscopic and intricate.

Most academics believe that this ancient Latin manuscript was written in a monastery founded around 561 by St Colum Cille on Iona, an island off Mull in western Scotland. It became the principal house of a large monastic confederation. In 806, following a Viking raid on the island, the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath, Ireland. Most likely they brought the manuscript with them or produced parts of it in Kells.

The famous paintings include symbols of the evangelists Matthew as the Man, Mark as the Lion, Luke as the Calf and John as the Eagle, the opening words of the Gospels, the Virgin and Child and a portrait of Christ. The Chi Rho page which introduces Matthew’s account of the nativity is simply stunning and widely considered the most famous page in medieval art.

Some years ago I read a book “How The Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill. His main thesis was that the tradition of monasteries, including Saint Columba  and the monks on the island of Iona where ancient manuscripts were gathered, copied and cared for, helped to preserve the cultural treasures of Europe and other parts of the world. I know one thing for sure – there was much more happening in the Middle Ages than what we were told in  school. When I was growing up in Latvia, we were still taught the Soviet/communist version of the world history. Of course, no mention of monks, monasteries or any positive contribution of religion to our cultures.

I am glad that the term ‘Dark Ages’ is not used anymore… because there is Light and Darkness in all ages. People and communities make choices and respond to the times they live in. Some choose to take what is not theirs and destroy what they have not built. But other choose to give away what they have received and build for the future generations to be blessed and to enjoy.

Hopefully we don’t have to save civilizations anymore but we do know that the choice between the Light and the Darkness is always with us… Thank you, the Irish, for reminding us of these timeless truths!

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Chi Rho page (photos from internet)

Latvian:

Vispirms sveicieni tiem, kuri ievēroja, ka es pāris nedēļas ‘atpūtos’ no rakstīšanas… jā, ir reizes, kad vajag veltīt visu savu uzmanību mīļiem cilvēkiem, nepalaist garām kaut ko īpašu un to izbaudīt. Un kurš tad grib sēdēt pie datora, ciemojoties tik skaisti zaļajā un senatnīgajā Īrijā?

Tagad atpakaļ Rīgā es pārdomāju vienu no lietām, ko ir tiešām vērts redzēt Dublinā – Kellu grāmata (saukta arī Ķeltu vai Kēlu grāmata). Uzdrīkstos apgalvot, ka šis Īrijas nacionālais kultūras dārgums ir visskaistākā grāmata, ko esmu jebkad redzējusi. Tā glabājas Trinitijas koledžā pašā Dublinas centrā. Ar roku rakstītais manuskripts satur četrus Jaunās Derības evanģēlijus par Jēzus Kristus dzīvi un ir krāšņi un meistarīgi izrotāts ar miniatūrām un viduslaiku ornamentiem. Tas turpina iedvesmot māksliniekus un zinātniekus, kuri pēta, kā to vispār varēja tik smalki un mikroskopiski izveidot un uzzīmēt.

Kellu grāmatu datē ap 800. gadu, un tā ir rakstīta latīņu valodā. Lielākā daļa pētnieku uzskata, ka tā ir sarakstīta klosterī, kuru 6. gadsimtā Aijonas (Iona) salā, Skotijas rietumu piekrastē, nodibināja Sv. Kolumbs. 806.gadā salai kārtējo reizi uzbruka vikingi, un daudzi mūki tika nogalināti. Pārējie atrada aptvērumu Īrijā, jaunā klosterī Kellas ciemā. Visticamāk mūki šo manuskriptu atveda sev līdzi no Aijonas, vai arī tas tika pabeigts Kellā.

Slavenās ilustrācijas attēlo četru evnģēlistu simbolus. Matejs simbolizēts kā Cilvēks, Marks kā Lauva, Lūka kā Jērs un Jānis kā Ērglis. Katra evanģēlija ievadā ir skaisti zīmējumi. Gan Kristus portrets, gan Jaunava ar Bērnu ir ievērojami mākslas darbi. Viena no slavenākajām un visskaistāk ilustrētajām lappusēm skaitās Mateja evanģēlija ievads par Jezus piedzimšanu. Patiess viduslaiku šedevrs!

Pirms dažiem gadiem es lasīju Tomasa Keihila grāmatu “Kā īri izglāba civilizāciju” (How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill). Viņa galvenā tēze bija, ka viduslaiku klosteru un mūku tradīcija, tai skaitā Sv. Kolumbs un kopiena Aijonas salā, kur tika savākti, glabāti un pārkopēti neskaitāmi senlaiku manuskripti, palīdzēja izglābt šos Eiropas un Tuvo Austrumu kultūras dārgumus. Katrā ziņā viduslaikos bija daudz vairāk Gaismas, kā Apgaismība mums apgalvo. Un daudz vairāk Gaismas, kā man tika mācīts skolā Padomju Latvijā, kur par mūkiem, klosteriem un vispār par reliģijas pozitīvo ietekmi uz Eiropas kultūras attīstību netika minēts nekas. Jo tā laika vēstures versija uzsvēra, ka reliģija ir ‘tumsonība, varaskāre, vardarbība un turklāt meli, kuros dzīvo dumjās masas’.

Tas ir labi, ka vairs nav populāri lietot apzīmējumu ‘Tumšie viduslaiki’… jo visos laikos un laikmetos ir bijusi gan Gaisma, gan Tumsa. Cilvēki, kopienas un tautas izdara izvēles. Vieni izvēlas ņemt to, kas viņiem nepieder, un iznīcināt to, ko paši nav cēluši. Otri izvēlas dot citiem to labo, ko ir mantojuši un saņēmuši, un celt tālāk, lai nākamās paaudzes var dzīvot labāku dzīvi.

Cerams, ka mūsu paaaudzei nav jācīnās par civilizāciju saglabāšanu, tacu mēs zinām, ka izvēle starp Gaismu un Tumsu ir vienmēr mūsu priekšā… Paldies viduslaiku mūkiem Īrijā, ka viņi mums atgādina par šīm nemainīgajām patiesībām!

What I learned from pilgrimage of trust in Rīga

Hope is on my mind. Hope is different from simple optimism or positive thinking because hope is living both in the reality of “now and here” and in “not yet and not there yet”. It all depends on the ultimate truth and purpose of life you believe in.

Few weeks ago the capital of Latvia was infused with lots of hope for Europe. ‘Invaded’ by 15,000 young Europeans who came on a pilgrimage. I don’t know what your idea of a pilgrimage is but this is a very unique one. Taizé, an ecumenical Christian community in southern France, has organized these annual New Year’s gatherings for 39 years. They called it “Pilgrimage of trust on earth in Rīga”

It was hard to miss it. The groups of young people everywhere; speaking in all kinds of languages; holding their Rīga maps and looking for venues to attend prayer events, seminars and worship gatherings. The Old Town was packed and the afternoon prayers in the churches were so popular that not everyone could get in.

If you read articles and countless Facebook posts, obviously this was one of the most amazing and unforgettable hospitality experiences for Latvians. To host these thousands in people’s homes is very unusual for our culture. Latvians are known for being reserved and not quick to trust strangers. Home is for family and close friends. I think we blew our own expectations and perceptions and realized that we are actually much more happy to open our homes and lives than “they” say.

This is one of Taizé communities main goals and visions – to be peace builders through helping people to connect across cultural, social and religious lines. At a time when everyone is concerned and talking about European disunity, challenges and possible disintegration, this gathering was a strong reminder that there are good and unifying things within everyone’s reach. You just have to be willing to go or to welcome. Portugal and Latvia will not seem distant anymore. Protestants and Catholics will not seem closed-minded and exclusive anymore.

I am privileged to work in a very international environment and also I am grateful to have friends from many different church backgrounds – protestant, catholic, orthodox, pentecostal, evangelical… whatever the label. Realizing that for many people this was a first time praying and worshiping together with other church traditions, I appreciate the vision and effort even more.

I was reminded of important truths. For example, the crucial thing of simplicity. We discussed how to “simplify our lives in order to share”. Whether concerned about environment, poverty, social injustice and conflicts around the world, we all need to learn to live in greater harmony with ourselves and the creation. The prayer booklet said: “Simplicity implies transparency of heart. Although it is not gullible, it refuses to mistrust. It is the opposite of duplicity. It enables us to enter into dialogue, without fear, with everyone we meet.”

What a beautiful way to celebrate New Year, new beginnings, new friends and new revelations! You can sit in front of your TV or computer or iPhone or iPad and get all anxious, mad and hopeless about the state of Europe, charismatic populists, powerful bullies, extreme nationalists or anyone else of this world or you can make (and keep) commitment to simple, generous and peaceful lifestyle… and you will discover a multitude of people on your side!

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Photos from  Taizé website

 

 

 

Bubbles and simple beauty of joy

London is one of my favorite places in the whole world. I have visited many times but have never lived there. So, I am allowed to keep my “honeymoon” feeling 🙂 It is a city of stories. On every turn you feel like there is an interesting and important story. Buildings, bridges, parks, statues, paintings, museums, theaters, train stations, markets, underground.

But my favorite thing to do is people watching. Believe me if you have never visited London; it is one of the best places to do it. The world is here. Literary. And for that reason I love walking along the river Thames. The view of the city does not change but every time it feels different because of the people. The story of London has a new chapter each day.

This last time I experienced a chapter about joy. The art of bringing joy. How little it costs but how much it does.

Who does not like soap bubbles? Children and adults alike are mesmerized by them. How they form, how they start floating in the air, how they change shapes and how far they fly. Some we catch, some get in our eyes or mouth and some get away. I love the colours and the rainbow reflection and I try to catch a glimpse of our world looking through a soap bubble.

There was a guy making large amounts of soap bubbles. Hoping to make some money but also enjoying it. And so was everyone walking by. The children forgot about their tantrums and wishes for sweets or rides or toys. They just wanted to play and catch and wait for that incredible moment when out of nothing (well, some soapy water) comes something as incredible as these simple objects of beauty.

Joy is bursting out as these bubbles burst out. I realize that I experience something that is fleeting. We describe it as “having fun”. The bubbles burst or float away and disappear. The children walk away and after 10 min they can be unhappy about something. The adults take the photos and then promptly forget about it. But this is a small glimpse into something bigger, more beautiful and lasting.

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”, said poet John Keats.

Famous German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote on theology of joy. “Joy is enduring and puts its mark on one’s attitude to living. Fun is short-term and serves amusement. True joy is only possible with one’s whole heart, whole soul and all one’s energies. The feeling about life which underlies the party-making fun-society is, I suspect, more boredom with life than true joy. True joy opens the soul, is a flow of spirits, giving our existence a certain easiness. We may have fun, but we are in joy. In true joy the ecstatic nature of human existence comes to expression. We are created for joy. We are born for joy.”

For me, the simple fun with soap bubbles is like a door that opens for a short time to make us all stop and behold and then reflect why our heart so instinctively responds to it.

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Along the Thames (photos from personal archive)

 

The perks of being curious

Sitting between two total strangers, I am always grateful for being a small person. Especially on a budget airline with very small seats.

This time on my right was an American middle aged guy who was dressed for a business trip and on my left was a young Asian guy who was obviously a Buddhist monk. We were flying from Boston to Minneapolis and I was determined to get some sleep. It had been a very long day and my third flight already. While getting settled in our seats, I was the only one who was not on the phone checking messages and Facebook and I took it as a ‘good sign’ that nobody is interested in talking.

I glanced at the young monk with his iPhone and thought about the changing times and changing paradigms.  Talk about breaking stereotypes…

Suddenly the American man asked me some polite questions. Meanwhile I was curious about the monk and finally asked him about his red robe. It was a different colour then the ones in Thailand and he explained the Mahayana school which is mostly practiced by Tibetan Buddhists. He was from Taiwan, living in India and traveling to Minnesota to do some translation work.

So, here we were ‘united nations’ from Latvia, Taiwan and USA. Crammed together in a very small space, sharing all the conveniences and inconveniences of inexpensive air travel. The American became very thoughtful and then asked us both, “What do people around the world think about America now?”

Such a broad and vague question but I knew what he wanted to know. He did not want to know what people think about American clothes, hairstyles, history, holidays, work habits or movies. Between the lines, he wanted to know what ‘outsiders’ think about American foreign policies. He looked concerned and also puzzled.

Actually my answer was as vague and general as his question because during the conversation I realized that he was not a good listener. He would jump from question to question and then sigh and become uninterested. The Taiwanese monk, on the other hand, gave a very enthusiastic answer, explaining the geopolitical issues and how the US and Japan are the best and closest allies for Taiwan.

Also, the monk started talking about the values of respect and honor and how his Buddhist religious garments were made by a Muslim tailor. He said that there are good and bad people everywhere but there is much more good in the world than the bad. I could not have said it any better.

I noticed that the American passenger’s curiosity had limits. He admitted he had not traveled outside the US and had never been to Europe or Asia. He also did not seem interested in going even though he had the means.

So, here is an observation. I think that one of the big problems is that we think of international relations as “foreign” and “policies”. It is ‘us’ dealing with ‘them’ and ‘our politics’ versus ‘their politics’. “Foreign” often sounds strange and distant. And it will stay foreign and distant to this man unless he is willing to be much more curious about the world and actually go to other countries and meet more people face to face. Certainly the privilege of his passport allows it.

Much better question to ask is –  how are we, Americans, relating to you? The same as I need to ask – how are we, Latvians, relating to you? A friend of mine, Jeff Fountain, writes that “nations can find meaning in being rightly related to other nations, just as is true for us as individual persons.”

Let’s be very curious about each other…

International Airport Departures Board

Places to go and people to meet…

Latviski:

Iespiesta starp diviem svešiniekiem, priecājos, ka esmu tik maziņa. Īpaši izmantojot lētu aviokompāniju ar maziem sēdekļiem.

Man pa labi apsēdās amerikānis pusmūža gados, kas atgriezās mājās no biznesa brauciena. Pa kreisi iekārtojās jauns džeks ar aziātiskiem sejas vaibstiem, ģērbies kā budistu mūks. Lidojām no Bostonas uz Mineapoli, un man ļoti gribējās gulēt. Kā nekā, jau trešais lidojums vienā dienā. Iekārtojoties lidmašīnā, mani blakussēdētāji bija pārāk aizņemti ar saviem tālruņiem, un es to uztvēru kā ‘labu zīmi’, ka neviens negribēs sarunāties.

Pašķielēju uz jaunā džeka pusi, un pasmaidīju par mainīgo pasauli un mainīgajiem uzskatiem. Budistu mūks ar iPhone…

Pēkšņi amerikānis nolēma būt pieklājīgs amerikāņu gaumē un uzdeva dažus jautājumus. Mani tomēr vairāk interesēja tas mūks, un beidzot saņēmos pajautāt, kādas krāsas mantija viņam mugurā. Zināju, ka Taizemes mūki velk oranžas mantijas, bet viņam bija tumši sarkana ar zilu apmalīti. Puisis sāka skaidrot, ka seko Tibetas skolai, kas ir Mahajāna budisma novirziens. Viņš pats bija no Taivānas, dzīvo Indijā, bet atbraucis uz ASV kā tulks.

Te nu mēs bijām kopā ‘apvienotās nācijas’ no Latvijas, Taivānas un ASV. Iespiesti mazajās sēdvietās un izbaudot lēto lidojumu ērtības un neērtības. Amerikānis palika tāds domīgs un tad jautāja mums abiem, ko šobrīd cilvēki pasaulē sakot par ASV?

Tik izplūdis jautājums, bet es sapratu, ko viņš grib zināt. Viņam neinteresēja, ko cilvēki domā par amerikāņu modi, frizūrām, vēsturi, svētkiem, darba tikumu vai filmām. Pat neprecizējot bija skaidrs, ka viņš jautā par Amerikas ārlietu politiku. Ar tādu norūpējušos skatienu.

Mana atbilde bija tikpat izplūdusi, kā viņa jautājums, jo es novēroju, ka viņš neprot klausīties. Viņam jautājumi lēkāja uz visām pusēm, un tajā pašā laikā viņš ātri zaudēja interesi, ja nebija ‘gaidītā’ atbilde. Puisis no Taivānas gan atbildēja ļoti dedzīgi, un izskaidroja, ka ģeopolitisko un vēsturisko iemeslu dēļ ASV un Japāna ir galvenie un svarīgākie Taivānas sabiedrotie.

Vēl mūks sāka runāt par to, ka mums vajag vairāk cienīt vienam otru, ieskaitot cilvēku reliģiskos uzskatus. Kā piemēru viņs minēja savu drēbnieku, kas šujot viņa klostera budistu mūkiem mantijas, lai gan pats esot musulmanis. Visur ir labi un slikti cilvēki, bet labais un skaistais pasaulē ir vairākumā. Man atlika vienīgi piekrist.

Es sapratu, ka amerikāņa ‘ziņkārībai’ ir robežas. Viņš atzinās, ka neesot ceļojis ārpus valsts, un neesot bijis ne Eiropā, ne Āzijā. Izklausījās, ka viņam nav pat vēlēšanās ceļot. Kaut gan viņa pase, un drošvien arī ienākumi dod šīs privilēģijas un iespējas.

Pēc sarunas man radās secinājums par vienu no mūsu visu problēmām. Ja mēs runājam nevis par starpvalstu attiecībām, bet par “ārlietām”, tad arī bieži paliekam šajās kategorijās – “ārējās” un “lietas”. Tad nostiprinās “mēs” un “viņi” un “mūsu politika” pret “viņu politiku”. “Ārējais” izklausās kā kaut kas svešs un tāls. Un starp mums ir jākārto kaut kādas “lietas”.

Šim vīrietim tas viss arī paliks tāls un svešs, ja viņš nekļūs vēl vairāk zinātkārs, un mazliet nepabraukās pa pasauli, lai satiktu citus aci pret aci. Ja idejas paliks ideju līmenī, bet bez cilvēka sejas.

Daudz labāk būtu uzdot šādus jautājumus – kā mēs, amerikāņi, pret jums izturamies? Kādas mums ir attiecības? Tāpat kā man ir jājautā – kā mēs, latvieši, pret jums izturamies? Man pazīstams vēsturnieks Džefs Fountans raksta, ka “nācijas iegūst savu patieso jēgu pareizās attiecībās ar citām nācijām, tāpat kā tas notiek mūsu personīgajās dzīvēs.”

Tāpēc būsim daudz ziņkārīgāki…