First Thoughts At The Monastery

Yesterday around 5 PM we arrived at the Sacred Monastery of Timios Prodromos on Mt. Menoikeion. We took taxis from our hotel in Thessaloniki to the Makedonia bus depot. From there we had an hour and a half bus ride to Serres, during which I drew a small pen portrait of Kanye, don’t ask me why, I’ll post a pic later. Then we had about a 20 minute cab ride from the Serres bus station to the monastery. Cab ride to a monastery? If you’re surprised by that, so was I, but despite being tucked away up in these really remarkably beautiful green mountains, the monastery really isn’t that far out of the way of “civilization.” Honestly, I expected to be roughing it way more, but these are some really luxurious digs. I won’t go into detail now because it’s almost 1 AM and we have to be up for breakfast at 8 then optional liturgy. Also, the five other ladies I’m sharing a large room (normally used for sewing) with are all trying to sleep and I’m a really aggressive typist.

But here are my initial impressions in my first 24 hours here (I made it over 24 hours without internet but I really wanted to write a blog post–though I have not and will not check Twitter).

  • Monastic life is kind of like summer camp–everyone has to do their part to keep the grounds in top shape; you eat together in a dining hall for all three meals; there are strict rules, a daily schedule, and rituals. I should probably say that summer camp is kind of like a monastery since the latter obviously came first. And I guess it’s also the same with military life. I suppose the order imposed by these lifestyles breeds personal growth and discipline.
  • It’s so clean. It might be the cleanest place I’ve ever been.
  • Rich Americans would pay thousands of dollars per week to do what we’re doing and call it a “retreat.”
  • I can’t get Kanye’s voice saying “I am a god” out of my head and I’m pretty sure that’s very sacrilegious.
  • There are no mirrors here. Which is refreshing. But I caught my reflection in a window a couple times.
  • I feel oppressed…in that I feel like there are a lot of rules that I don’t know about so I’m constantly anxious I’m breaking them. Is this how it feels to be religious?
  • People in any culture use the weather as small talk when the conversation falls flat.

I really wanted to write these all down now because a group of us just chatted with the Abbess and at first I was super intimidated/anxious because I didn’t know what would be appropriate to ask and she only speaks Greek, but what she said was so universally understandable that I began to feel more comfortable very quickly, and I anticipate my thoughts on the monastery to change and grow by the end of our week here. Here are some things the Abbess said (translated, and then paraphrased) tonight that I think will resonate with a lot of us :

  • Everyone has their own struggle. We all have the same magnitude of struggle, just towards different goals. The nuns’ struggle is spiritual.
  • If they kept everyone who came to the monastery wanting to be a nun, they would have over 500 (they have ~30). It’s similar to getting into university. The candidates have to be of sound mind and spirit. They can’t have any mental issues or be on any mental illness-related drugs.
  • The details such as what language a candidate speaks (there are two sisters here who came not knowing any Greek. One is from Texas), are superficial. What matters is the soundness of their spirit, and they more seasoned nuns can just tell.
  • Humility is the most important quality they look for in a candidate and for potential leaders

I really want to find out one of the sisters’ life stories and write about it. Would you buy that book? But like how do you just dive in like that? I guess you don’t. I actually found myself wishing I had already taken my ethnography class for Anthro. Will update later!

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REPORT: White Man Not Thrown Off Airplane For Suspicious Behavior

LONDON, U.K.–A spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic Airlines, Ltd. confirmed this morning that a white man who was acting suspiciously during transatlantic Flight 10 from John F. Kennedy Airport to London Heathrow Airport was not escorted off the Airbus 330 red-eye.

Eyewitnesses report that the man, whose identity was not disclosed, began acting erratically soon after he boarded the aircraft. “He started slapping his hands on his thighs really fast and loudly while he was listening to music from the in-flight entertainment system before the plane took off,” said Tamara Atkins, a native New Yorker who was traveling to London on business. “When I saw that I thought, maybe I should say something about it to one of the crew.” When questioned further, Ms. Atkins said that she watched The Sessions on her seat-back TV and slept instead, but she was nervous the whole time.

“It was really bizarre,” confirmed a college student who said she sat across the aisle two rows behind the man. She also reported that exchanging quizzical glances and nervous laughter in response to the passenger’s strange behavior helped break the ice between her and the stoic eastern European woman sitting in the window seat next to her.

The man, whom passengers described as 5’10, very thin, pale, and with long brown hair and a scraggly beard, reportedly unbuckled his seatbelt while the fasten seatbelt sign was still on and made an alarming gesture while listening to a Bob Marley album on the in-flight entertainment system shortly after taking off.

“He raised both his hands and looked up, as if gesturing to some sort of god,” said Phil Watson, who was seated behind the man. Mr. Watson, who was returning home to London after attending his cousin’s wedding in the Hamptons, stated that he made an effort to ensure his and his fellow passengers’ safety by craning his neck to stare intently at the man from his seat as the suspicious passenger walked at an alarming clip up and down the aisle several times over the course of the seven-hour flight. Mr. Watson said that he took extra precaution by tapping the shoulder of his friend seated across the aisle from him while the strangely behaved man was out of his seat and stating solemnly, “We should at least mention it to [the flight attendants].”

While no Virgin Atlantic flight attendants responded to requests for comment, other concerned passengers seated in the vicinity said that Mr. Watson did not take such action.

Other passengers reported feeling nervous as they watched the man take his jacket off and put it back on at least four times during the flight and leap out of his seat and walk alarmingly fast to the front of the plane as soon as the fasten seatbelt sign turned off after landing at London Heathrow.

Passengers’ conjectures on who the man was differed. “I thought he might have been, you know, special needs,” said Phyllis Hawthorne in a lowered voice, who sat in the center aisle with her young grandson and the strange passenger. Others credited the man’s atypical behavior and thin figure to possible drug use. All passengers interviewed, however, agreed that if the man’s complexion had been about four shades darker, the airplane would have made an emergency landing almost immediately.

¡¡¡Impending Adventure!!!

Tomorrow around 10 PM, I’ll be flying out of JFK to London, then to Athens, and then to Thessaloniki. Then I’m going to live in a monastery on a mountain with around 30 nuns for a week. Then I’m going to Kastoria, another city in Greece, to explore. Then back to Thessaloniki for a night, then London for four days with a transfer in Munich. I’m looking forward to a lot of adventure packed into just 16 days! And instead of packing right now, which seemed to ease the butterflies in my stomach when I tried it for five minutes just now, I’m sitting on my bed writing this because I have a procrastination problem and I want to chronicle this trip from start to finish.

I’m going on what’s called the Mt. Menoikeion Summer Seminar, which is an eight-day seminar for undergraduate and graduate students sponsored by the Hellenic Studies Program. No one I’ve talked to about it has ever heard of it, and neither had I until I got an e-mail about it on the Mathey College listserv, but this will be its eleventh year! It all started out with a grad student from Greece who started an academic relationship with the nuns in the Hagios Ioannis Prodromos (St. John the Baptist) monastery (they call it a monastery still because it was historically one, I think). And Princeton students and professors, numbering 17 in total, have been going there to live in the monastery ever since. When my friends and family ask me what the class is for, I usually just say something like, “to hang out with nuns…and learn…about…Byzantine stuff…and eat Greek food.” I’m partly joking but I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re out there to do. People tend to be surprised when I tell them it’s just eight days, and it’s not for credit. “It’s just, like, for learning.” And I’m really excited about it. Last summer, I went to France for six weeks with a 17-student Anthropology class that I can’t even begin to describe here, but this is the first time I’ll be going on a trip that’s so loosely structured and not for an academic credit. There’s no one to pick me up from the airport, I booked my own hotel room for the first few days when we’re in Thessaloniki, and found my own flights (OK not really…my mom helped me because I had to book my flights around Dean’s Date and was stressed…thanks Mom! Not that she reads this!). I’ve never been to Greece before, and this will be my first time in a country where I don’t speak or read the language in three years. This is totally new. Ok that’s not that long, and I’ve been told that “everyone in Greece speaks English.” I’m just in the habit of psyching myself out.

 

I’ve traveled abroad many a time alone before, but there’s no getting rid of that full-chest, sour-stomach feeling of nervousness that hits me every time a day before I depart. Eating dinner outside tonight with my parents, I even started to feel a little homesick already. Don’t even get me started on waiting on the security line–I can’t remember if my mom stood there until I got through security last summer when I went to France, but I remember the first time I traveled alone–also to France, as it happens–after sophomore year of high school. My mom waited and we waved every time we came back into each other’s lines of sight as I snaked through the rope maze of a line. I totally teared up, and I remember getting through the x-rays into the terminal and thinking, “holy shit, this is it. I’m going.”

A lot of people complain about airports, and maybe I’ll be taking back what I’m about to say when I’m there tomorrow, but I love them. I’m lucky enough to have had experiences that make me think of Newark or JFK as places that symbolize either the anticipation of an adventure or the anticipation of coming home. The stuff that happens in between takes care of itself, but the getting there–that’s the most exciting part. Ok gonna go pack now because if not I feel like I will stress vomit. Which has never happened before, but I always feel like it will.

The Tragedy About Tragedy

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Note: Again, I originally drafted this post a while ago and am only publishing it now after revisiting it several times, adding and subtracting content. The majority of this post was written on April 19, 2013. 

In my whole life, there’s only one day for which I can tell you exactly what I had for lunch. The memory recall is instant. September 11, 2001. Chicken patty sandwich. Lettuce, tomato, mustard, mayonnaise, swiss cheese, half sub roll. It was going to be delicious. It’s waiting for me on my plate as I carry it back through the warm, dusky dining hall to my assigned lunch table. I am eight. I am wearing a light blue uniform jumper. But before I can sit down to eat it, I’m called out by the lower school head from the microphone at the podium. It’s a girl in my grade’s ninth birthday. The plan is to wish her a happy birthday from that same podium at the end of lunch, like we do for everyone’s birthday.

Instead, Mrs. Sharma, a very nice Indian lady with a British accent, tells me that my mother is here to pick me up. I am annoyed, because I must abandon my lunch.

My mother tells me that we have to go home. I don’t see any other parents there, and I wonder why, but I’m not worried. Next I remember, I’m back home. My dad is there, too, and I only realize now how strange it was for him to be home at noon on a weekday.

I am in the TV room, standing. It is a long, rectangular box of a room, so that when you enter you look down the length of it to the TV, a heavy, black clunker by today’s standards, squatting in the middle of the back wall. On the TV, the Twin Towers are bleeding charcoal smoke from a hole a quarter of the way down one of them. The same smoke is chasing people down the street. Men in business suits are running. People are covered in yellow dust. I ask what is happening, but my parents don’t answer. It doesn’t even occur to me that my sister has just begun her first year of college in New York City two weeks before. I think they are trying to call her.

Nine years later, when I am a senior in high school, I take an English class called “Trauma.” We read Freud’s Beyond The Pleasure Principle and we watch Silver Lake Life, a documentary that forces us to watch a man die of HIV/AIDS. On the first day of class, in September, we revisit the topic of 9/11. We talk about the new memorial. Our teacher pulls up an image of a plush toy made to look like the Twin Towers on the projector. It is an art project. The stuffed, anthropomorphized towers are holding hands, and each of them has a plane sticking out of its “head.” One of them has its eyelids drooping and its tongue sticking out. The other is looking at the plane sticking out of its head, surprised.

That day I learn for the first time that people jumped out of windows to escape the burning buildings, and we watch videos of them falling through the air. Zoomed in and grainy, all you can see are black silhouettes swimming against bright, uninterrupted blue sky. It’s shocking for me and disturbing. I think about what it must have been like to make that decision–which way to die. It angers me that I never knew this. I felt like there must have been some sort of cover up.

But, in fact, many people at the time knew about this. I was just too young for them to want to tell me, and for me to want to find out.

To me it feels as if the trauma that tragedies like 9/11 and more recently, what seems to feel like the constant onslaught of mass killings, incurs on me–the depth to which I feel it–grows, deepens, and expands with each new incident. My emotional and intellectual response when I find out about these things intensifies with each tragedy.

In December, when the news broke about the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I had just come home for winter break. I went upstairs to my bedroom and read tweets about the shooting as the details unfolded. Each new piece of information was worse than the next. I read that over 20 small children were shot and killed and that one girl, the only survivor in her classroom, had to pretend to be dead like her classmates. What could that have been like? I wondered, as I lay on top of my covers and cried.

Last week, I sat in my biology class while my professor spoke. A girl who always wears her hair in a high bun interrupted, “Oh my god.” Our professor thought she had offended her because we were talking about some somewhat controversial sex-related topic, but the girl went on to explain, “A bomb just went off at the Boston Marathon.”

I spent the rest of that class checking news outlets and live feeds for updates. One website I found had already created a .gif image of the first bomb detonating. One of the runners near the blast falls, quickly gets up, and keeps running in the opposite direction. I watched the bomb explode and the man fall for a few loops until I had to look away. I felt like I was seeing something I shouldn’t. Soon, photos appeared of pools of blood on the sidewalk and a man in a wheelchair with one of his legs gone. After class, I went to the student center, where CNN was playing on a big TV and people were watching but not saying anything. At a meeting around two hours after the explosions, I watched as two friends from the Boston area, usually vocal and rambunctious, sat silently next to each other in a corner of the room and paled as they scanned the news on their laptops.

For a few days after both Newtown and the Boston marathon, I had the same tearful reaction when I thought about the people who died, the people who were injured, the families who lost them or who were afraid they had, the unanticipated bills they must now face, the families of the bombers, what went wrong in the bombers’ lives that made them want to do this, the fresh fear instilled in all who read the news…all the components that, when put together, make up a tragedy.

And each time, I was a little surprised. I had never felt this much after high-profile tragedies like this before. Not after Virginia Tech, not after Aurora. Could it have been that the majority of the victims of Newtown were children? Was it that I had, through real-time updates, watched helplessly as the news poured in and as each “incident” unfolded into a “tragedy”?

I think it’s all of these things. But at the heart of it, I think it was that as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize how many parts of life traumatic events like these rob everyone affected of. Could I, eight years old and hungry without lunch, have imagined even a fraction of the terror felt by the people running for their lives? I couldn’t even think to imagine what it was like to be my sister, then 18, in her second week of college classes when a terrorist attack struck just a few miles away from her. Only with the passage of time was I able to realize the fear that she must have felt when she wasn’t able to call our parents, stranded on an island full of 8 million people just as scared as she was. In 2007, when the Virginia Tech “massacre,” as it is so gruesomely known, occurred, I was 14. Most of the victims were in their 20s and 30s. How could I empathize with what it was like to lose your chance at starting your adult life, when I was years from even thinking about starting mine?

Growing older inevitably means that you share more experiences with more people. At age 19, I had had twelve years’ worth of experiences that the children who died in the Newtown shooting wouldn’t have. I could think back on the parts of my life that I remember because they were typically “important”–that first kiss; that first day of high school; that college letter. Or the parts that are really just memories because they are scars–finding out that I’d never meet one of my grandfathers; enduring cruel, purposeful isolation in middle school; that tearful, embarrassing first breakup; coming home and not having my dog there for the first time ever. And of course the parts that I wish I could relive again and again–standing in the depths of a prehistoric cave, looking up at a 14,000 year-old painting three feet above me on the ceiling and watching it flicker to life in the light; playing mahjong with my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents as the smell of my grandmother’s cooking wafts through the cement-walled Beijing apartment that has since been demolished; lifting my sister’s veil at her wedding; leaning out of the sun roof of a Land Rover and watching the sun rise over the Serengeti plains.

I can’t help but think about the experiences I’ve been afforded simply because I’ve been there, and how tragedies like the ones I’ve mentioned rob its victims of the opportunity to have similarly unforgettable, lasting ones of their own.

It’s totally obvious when I say it like this, but I didn’t know what it was like to be any of the places I had yet to go, to feel any of the happiness or sadness that I had yet to feel, to know any of the people I had yet to meet, to read any of the books that had yet to be written, until I did. And because I know now what I didn’t know then, even if it’s just a mere 20 years’ worth, I realize how much was taken away from the kids in Newtown, the victims of 9/11, and every other mass tragedy. And it’s not just the victims–the number people affected by such traumas is innumerable.

Like most things I write, I can’t tell if other people feel this way, or if what I’ve just said is totally obvious to everyone else out there, or if it’s selfish for me to frame such immense topics, especially others’ deaths, with my own experiences. I’m not really sure how else to try to understand it, though.

Initially, when I began this post two months before its publication, I wanted to write it to parse out how I felt about ownership of tragedy. I couldn’t figure out why, when I felt so sad after the Boston bombings, I felt like I had no right to feel as affected as I did. I wasn’t from Boston. No one I knew got hurt or was even near the marathon. My friends’ families were OK. But I didn’t realize that these were not the connections I ought to be grasping for in order to explain the degree of my feelings in response to a shared trauma.

What connects us as humans are not the tangible, surface connections that you could trace with degrees of separation or a route on a map from your home to the site of the tragedy. Instead, it’s the inevitable reality that someone who has or could have shared something that you yourself know well–an experience, a feeling, a thought, a revelation, a mistake–can no longer look back on that “something,” whether it’s fondly or with a cringe of regret. And if that experience, feeling, though, revelation, or mistake was ahead of them, they’ll never have the chance to enjoy it, learn from it, grow from it. The tragedy I’m newly realizing about tragedies is that they rob us of people with whom to share the parts of life that make it such a gift. And it’s long been said that the best part about having something wonderful is sharing it with others.