November 30, 2012

Snippets from Guyana 2012

Well, I've just returned (and am still a bit jet-lagged) from what was my third trip to the South American country of Guyana. My last visit was 4 years ago and I found it very interesting to see how things have developed down there in such a short amount of time. While it is still a mostly poor country, there are a lot of construction projects dotting the landscape and quite a few new buildings and houses to be found.

The thing that I love most about Guyana is the simple, unadorned lives that its people lead. I've been seriously considering becoming a permanent resident of the country after I retire from my job at Stony Brook University (still at least 15 years away). For me, in many ways, I see life there being as it should be. For example, Guyanese people eat very healthy foods and put a lot of care and effort into the cooking process. Preparing a meal is a family affair with everyone getting involved. The adults can be found peeling and chopping the vegetables while the kids make bicycle trips to get ingredients. Everyone gathers around the fireside as the pots sizzle and steam. It's a beautiful sight; far and away superior to the fast-food culture that I am used to in the United States. Their markets are the best that I've ever seen. I love walking through aisles and aisles of the freshest fish, meats, and vegetables. Being that I am somewhat of a seafood enthusiast, I really liked trying all of the different kinds of fish that I found down there -- Gilbaca, Curass, Bangamari, Hassa. I also got to try cashew fruit (sorta like an apple with a very mild flavor). Of course, there's nothing quite as refreshing as sipping coconut water out of a husk that has just been hacked open by a vendor with a machete. None of the foods in Guyana are ever processed, refined, or pumped with growth hormones and preservatives for the sake of profit. Chicken in Guyana tastes quite different from chicken in the United States. It's fresher. Better. More natural. In America, these foods would be labelled "organic" and marked up to a ridiculous price. In Guyana, it's simply food. Exactly as it should be.

Of course, I didn't get to plan this trip ahead of time; I had to fly down quickly to attend the funeral services for my father-in-law. Before I talk anymore about this, I want to explain something -- in the United States, I would never think about taking pictures at someone's funeral. If I showed up at an American wake with camera in hand and started snapping photos of a deceased loved one and grieving family members, I would probably get punched in the eye for being rude. I think it would have something to do with the capturing a person in a moment of vulnerability and it being perceived as an exposing of weakness. Guyanese people are more open and don't view such things as being disrespectful at all. In fact, I was asked to take lots of pictures and make them into a DVD slideshow to share with everyone. Still, with regards to this blog entry, I hope that the few pictures that I will post below aren't too shocking for some. Anyway, on the morning of the funeral, everyone gathered at the house dressed in their finest. One of my cousins bought a beautiful, white Indian kurta for me to wear and I must say that I really loved the way it looked. After some devotional music and inspiring words by the pandit, everyone took off in a procession of cars to the cremation grounds. It was here that I experienced a sight that was absolutely surreal to my American eyes. My father-in-law's body was placed atop a pyre, the wood was sprinkled with some herbs and oils, and the whole thing was lit up. Flames engulfed it within minutes. It was a vision that left me shaken. The following morning, a few of us returned to the cremation site to remove the bone fragments from the still-smouldering ashes. These were transferred to a cotton cloth, ground into a dust, and taken down to the riverside where they were scattered into the water. While all of these events were very unusual to me at first, I also found them beautiful. I think it's always good to see how things are done in other cultures. Rest in peace, Cyril. Love & light...

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin."

~Psalm 51:1-2


November 22, 2012

"What Is Thanksgiving?"

Happy Thanksgiving! On this beautiful day, I wish you a world full of serenity and joy! A year ago at this time, I had a friend from Australia ask me about what Thanksgiving Day means in America. The following is the answer that I gave:

Thanksgiving celebrations date back as far as the early 1600s. The story goes that the impoverished Pilgrims, after sailing aboard the Mayflower to the New World from Plymouth, England, faced an unspeakably harsh winter in which more than half of their numbers succumbed to disease, starvation, and despair. Those remaining were able to survive through help from the local natives who gave food and supplies to overcome the bitter cold and shared their knowledge of cultivation. By the following summer, fields of maize were in place that yielded bountiful crops. It is said that the very first Thanksgiving celebration had Pilgrims and the Wompanoag feasting side by side and included such historical names as Myles Standish, Squanto, Samoset, and William Bradford. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed officially that the last Thursday of every November would be a day set aside for thanksgiving and praise to God. American families traditionally celebrate it with a big feast of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries, and pumpkin pies. Thanksgiving morning is known for the Macy's Parade in Manhattan (which is huge) and then an afternoon of football games. It is also thought of as the beginning of the holiday season. It's a great day. I absolute love it!

Normally on a Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving and the biggest shopping day of the year), I would make a turkey sandwich and a cup of hot cocoa, put on some holiday music, and spend the day setting up the Christmas Tree. However, I unfortunately saw the death of a family member this week and tomorrow I'll be hopping aboard an airplane to South America for the funeral ceremonies. This year will be a little bit different; I'll be spending Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday in a tropical environment. I'm sure I will have more to tell about Guyana when I return. It is a fascinating place. Anyway, knowing that I would be out of the country after Thanksgiving, I decided to put up the Christmas Tree early. Here it is! Cheers!!!

"Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.

For the Lord is the great God,
the great King above all gods.

In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.

The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.

Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker."

~Psalm 95:1-6


November 15, 2012

Flavors of the Week

Wow, it's kinda hard for me to believe that Thanksgiving Day is just one week away. Last Sunday, I got the chance to go to a bunch of stores and finish up on the majority of my Christmas shopping (including my annual bag of Toys 4 Tots), but I must say that the holidays have crept up on me this year. I have to believe that it is all because of the disruptions caused by Hurricane Sandy. The focus up until now has definitely been elsewhere. I was thinking that this holiday season might be a bit subdued because of all the things that people have gone through recently, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Quite to the contrary, it seems that people are looking to the holidays to put a little much needed joy in their hearts. I'm already sensing a lot of Christmas spirit in the air and I'm happy to see it. No, I don't mean Christmas spirit as in malls being decorated and sales being advertised; I'm talking about goodwill. At work, some people have started gathering funds to buy presents for kids from families that are going through hardships. I think it's terrific!

This week, I'm looking forward to writing up my grocery list and making a few trips to the market to get the food for the feast. I found a recipe for a pumpkin roll that I want to try out. I think that Thanksgiving Day is one of the most beautiful days on the calendar. It kicks off the happiest season of the year and it's a day so full of promise. Love & light...

"And now abideth
faith, hope, charity, these three;
but the greatest of these
is charity."

~1 Corinthians 13:13


November 10, 2012

The Lawnmower Parable

On a warm summer day, you are outside in your front yard watering plants and enjoying the peace and serenity of the beautiful afternoon. Suddenly, your neighbor pulls in front of his house with a big box tied into the trunk of his car. He unloads his package and you can see by the writing on the cardboard that he has just purchased a new lawn mower. As he is ripping into the box, another neighbor who lives directly across from him also drives up with an identical box in the back of his pick up truck. When the two men notice that they are both new owners of the same model of lawnmower, they regard each other with a crooked half-smile. Soon, both cartons are opened and lawn mower parts and tools are spread across their driveways. As Neighbor A starts to assemble his new machine, Neighbor B yells over to him: "You know you're supposed to thread the pull cord through the handle before attaching it, right? Take a look at Figure 3.36 in the Owner's Manual!" About three minutes later, Neighbor A cites something about proper spark plug installation from Section 5 of the Owner's Manual to which Neighbor B replies: "Yeah, I already knew that." At this point, both men are still smiling, but you begin to hear a touch of resentment in each of their voices. For the hour that follows, you get a front row seat to your neighbors trading jabs and bickering about item after item from the Owner's Manual. They get so wrapped up in being didactic and outdoing each other that they don't even notice that you have gotten annoyed by it all and gone inside. 

Two weeks later, your neighbors are still out there everyday finding new ways to contradict each other about things that are written in the Owner's Manual. By this time, they've memorized all of the diagrams and they can even recite verbatim the Spanish and French versions of the text, their voices now raised to a disrespectful tone. However, when you look at their houses, you can see that the weeds on their lawns have grown to over a foot high. While each of these men claims to know more than the other about his lawn mower, neither one of them has actually ever turned it on to use it.

Had this been a true story, I think you'd agree that it would be pretty silly. However, if you're keen on metaphors, think of the front yard as one's everyday life, the lawn mower as one's spirit, and the Owner's Manual as the Holy Bible. When looking at it that way, I'm sure you can see how the scenario I drew can unfortunately be 100% accurate. It is a terrible irony that some people get so consumed by trying to be right in their opinions about the Bible that they lose sight of the fact that they aren't acting in accord with its precepts. Colossians 3:12: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

The moral of the story: DON'T BE HOLIER-THAN-THOU! God did not give us the Owner's Manual for the purpose of having us behave like Biblical know-it-alls -- belligerent, condescending, sanctimonious, and arrogant; He expects each of us to cut the grass.

"But the wisdom that comes from heaven
is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive,
full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere."

~James 3:17


November 6, 2012

Volunteers & Electioneers

Today, I'll have just about enough gas in my car to take me to work and then back home again. After that, my fuel gauge needle will be hovering around "E." I'll look around for a fueling station this afternoon, but, gathering from what I've seen and heard, I realize that I could be looking at some unintentional time off until more gas becomes available. If that be the case, I'd really like to devote some of my time to the storm relief efforts, perhaps volunteer (if I can find someplace local), and go shopping for supplies and nonperishable food items to give to the cause. I'd also like to remind everyone that $10.00 contributions can be made to the Salvation Army by texting the word "STORM" to 80888 and to the Red Cross by texting "REDCROSS" to 90999. These donations will appear on the phone bill and can be given up to three times. There are a lot of people out there who have lost everything in this storm and we should all be ready to reach out a helping hand in some way. This is the time for charity, generosity, and kindness. I will make only one other stop while on my way home from work today and that will be at the polling site to exercise my right to vote. Happy Election Day, America! Cheers!!

"And do not forget to do good
and to share with others, for with such sacrifices
God is pleased."

~Hebrews 13:16


November 3, 2012

Unplugged (The Pioneer Days)

Well, after 5 days, the electricity in my neighborhood has finally been restored. I must say, Hurricane Sandy was every bit the impressive superstorm that it was foreordained to be. It was definitely one for the ages. The winds were intense. Walking around the streets the morning after with all of the downed trees and snapped power lines was a surreal experience. I was dumbfounded by what I was seeing. I won't relay any catastrophe stories here as I'm sure everyone has heard plenty of those already, but I will say that my thoughts and prayers definitely go out to all of those people whose lives have been disrupted in the wake of the storm. It has been very uplifting to hear stories of how people act selflessly and help others in times of need. Removing broken tree limbs. Making simple repairs. Sharing food and supplies. Offering shelter to displaced families. That's a beautiful thing.

Of course, on the flip side of that coin, I've seen and heard about quite a bit of evil as well -- opportunistic price-gougers, "me-first" drivers racing through darkened intersections and causing accidents, robbers stalking powerless developments, fist fights breaking out and guns being drawn on crowded gas lines. Under regular circumstances, I would never glorify egoists by talking about them on my blog; I only mention them here and now so that I may denounce them while their stories are still pertinent. Such glaring acts of desperation are the mere folly of the godless. After all, anyone can be perceived as "kind" under favorable conditions, it takes depth of character to remain a good person when the entire world appears to be crumbling.

Anyway, at my house, the damage wasn't too bad and we've been able to make the most of our time without electricity. I admit, the unplugged pioneer life kinda suits me. I like roughing it. I've found that I can live quite comfortably without all of the electronic devices -- the cellphone, the computer, the BluRay, the Wii, the iPod. Instead, my family and I have been spending our nights playing card games and telling ghost stories by candlelight. We've had barbecues with friends and marshmallow roasts around the campfire. During those nights when I would normally sit in front of the TV, I've gotten the chance to practice my mandolin and focus on composing some music. I've got two new tunes. The aftermath of a devastating storm has made my life slow down for the moment and that has given me the chance to reevaluate things. It's been rather enlightening. Though, the biggest drawback for me in all of this was the ice cold showers. I can definitely pass on those. Other than that, I was really in no rush to get back to "normal." Love & light...

"Rejoice in hope,
be patient in tribulation,
be constant in prayer."

~Romans 12:12