Saturday, April 30, 2016

Another Adventure Has Moved!

Finally! After a long time waiting in the shadows, I've finally made the switch over to Wordpress. And all the content is still there! Visit my new site at melaniemaryblog.wordpress.com

Friday, April 15, 2016

Adventures at Home: Meeting an Angel in the Woods

It's easy to lose that sense of wonder and delight if you're like me and you get depressed easily or if you feel like you've exhausted all possibilities of excitement within a thirty mile radius. Earlier today I was talking with someone about how I love to write about my experiences but that lately I've felt like I haven't had many exciting experiences to write about. His response: "write about the unexciting ones." 

I consider that a real challenge. I shall attempt. However, in the mean time, I think the following story is still pretty exciting. And it happened to me a few weeks ago:

I attempted mountain biking for the first time without any prior experience. I ended up walking most of the trail, dragging my muddy bike along side me, because I had no idea what I was doing, until I came to a deep ditch full of water. This ditch stared at me, and I at it, for what felt like an eternity. All at once a blue blur of a mountain biker zipped through at high speed, leaving me and my self-doubt behind. Suddenly I heard a voice. "Do you need help crossing that ditch?" The blue blur had stopped. I hesitated, looking around nervously, and shook my head. "Uhh, no, I'm alright," I stammered in response.  Of course I wasn't, but I didn't want to tell her that.

But she ignored my obvious lie, turned around and biked back down the hill to where I stood, my weight shifting awkwardly to one side. She zipped past me, splashed easily through the ditch, and came up on the other side. She dismounted. "Don't look at it," she said to me. "That's the key. Whatever the obstacle is, whether it's a pond or a log or whatever, don't look at it. Look ahead of it. And just keep pedaling." I nodded, listening intently to her instructions, debating my options as she spoke. I could just turn around and climb back up the hill, I thought to myself, but that might be awkward. This woman had stopped what she was doing to help me. She was the first mountain biker I had met that day to have done so. I had no choice. I had to go through with it.

"Go back a little ways so you can gather enough speed," she instructed. She was being extremely detailed and thorough. She spoke with confidence. I trusted her advice. "Aim for my bike tracks and look up here." She raised her hand to her shoulder. Ignoring all signs of impending disaster, I mounted my bike and started pedaling, gathering speed as I rushed down the hill on two wheels, my confidence disappearing like the wind. I looked up at her hand and kept pedaling. The wheels moved like air, without any pressure or resistance. The front wheel dipped down--zippp--and whoosh. Suddenly, I was up on the other side. 

"Yeaaaaaah!" I heard behind me. I stopped and turned around. My spontaneous coach was cheering me on with a big grin on her face. "Whatever the obstacle is, just look ahead of it and keep pedaling," she reiterated through her grin. I was speechless. I couldn't believe that had worked! "Th...thank you!!" I stammered. She gave me a hearty thumbs up. I turned away and just kept pedaling.

The "Tour de Wolf" Trail, Shelby Farms, Memphis, Tennessee




Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Wonder of Angkor

Today I am disappearing into pictures from Cambodia. It's cold today, and Memphis finally got some snow (very dusty, powdery stuff). As I reminisce, I realize that I never wrote a post about the Angkor Temples. For something so wondrous, and vast, and well-known, it surprises me that I didn't blog about this part of my trip. I want to improve my reporting skills, going back in time to report events that already occurred, instead of only writing things down as they happen. I have a lot to learn and improve upon. In Cambodia, and in my processing of experience in Cambodia, I caught myself up in the recent history, the tragedy of genocide, the hatred and the bloodshed. 

Journalist Joel Brinkley attributed a lot of Cambodia's current, utterly corrupt state of affairs to part of an ancient culture of tribute made to kings, lords, rulers and so on down the line of power. Those in the king's favor won land, titles and wealth, mostly in the form of commodities like grain, which was always in high demand. Mr. Brinkley argues that this was how Pol Pot (the genocidal leader of the Khmer Rouge party) and his cronies, and how the current leadership "gangs" still function today. He makes a very convincing argument.  But there's more to ancient Khmer culture than just warlords and cronies. There is magic that exists today, still painstakingly preserved, in northern Cambodia.

 Something major is missing from the current political structure, aside from humane treatment of constituents and fair voting processes. Little regard is left for ancient cultural and religious traditions--at least in the government halls--that helped to grow the Khmer empire into the most expansive kingdom in southeast Asia long ago. The beauty is lost, but thanks to extensive restoration and preservation efforts by the colonial French, the Angkor Temples tower over the Cambodian countryside today, testifying to the sacred wonder of a glorious bygone era.


 Angkor Wat
View of the main temple complex from the lily-padded lake.
























Angkor Wat is the most famous of all the Angkor Temples. Its renown and majesty is comparable to El Castillo, the famous Mayan pyramid, if you're familiar with Mexican heritage. But Angkor Wat was built to honor a Hindu god. When the empire later converted to Buddhism, new statues were built to honor these gods. If you ever go to Angkor, get a guide for Angkor Wat. The other temple structures are less detailed and far more open, leaving you free to wander at your own leisure. But the stories that are packed into every stone of Angkor Wat demand that you understand them to appreciate the temple's full worth. There are usually English-speaking guides standing outside the main entrance to the temple, and they wear beige shirts and carry books of photographs. (And if my memory serves me correctly, my guide wore a name badge around his neck as well.) These men are well trained and extremely knowledgeable. You can negotiate a price, but I believe I paid mine $10. He will also take you all the way up to the top of the temple, which allows you to see for miles around and stories below, a breathtaking sight. 

Bayon Temple
Do you see what I see? These sweetly serene faces are carved into the peaks at Bayon temple.



Bayon temple, a little ways away from Angkor Wat, is much 
more open and ruinous. In fact, I think we just wandered in to this one. Bayon has not been as neatly preserved, but that makes for much of the fun. You cN wander in between the half-open hallways and climb up and up until you come to the rooftop. These smiling faces greet you, but don't let the photo fool you; each one stands several hundred feet high. 

Bayon is part of a long strip of open, ruinous temples where you can wander. Many are just as grand in structure and purpose as Angkor Wat, but not nearly as protected. 

When you hire a tuk-tuk driver, as you must (because the temples are located some 20 km outside of town), ask him to take you to Bayon temple and to wait for you. Take your time, and don't allow yourself to feel rushed. As a thank you, you can buy him lunch at one of the conveniently located tourist restaurants erected in the fields across the way :-)

Ta Prohm, aka "The Tomb Raider Temple"








This was my personal favorite. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie (so did everyone else, probably). Ta Prohm temple's level of preservation falls below Angkor and Bayon, and for good reason. No where else in the world have I seen nature attack man-made structures so violently and remain such a powerful presence. The root structures of Siemp Riep's trees have split the bricks of temples during centuries of abandonment, creating a space so magical and other-worldly, you can't believe your own feelings. Just take a look at some of the effects of mother nature having her way:









Exploring these magnanimous temples, I felt eight years old again, as if I were wandering through the woods behind my house, feet muddy, streams trickling behind me, everything quiet save the crunch of twigs beneath my shoes. Nothing compares to that feeling. If I could, I would spend a week just sitting in these temples, breathing in the ancient mystery, pretending I'm on a quest for a hidden treasure. Who knows, there very well could still be some buried underneath these giant trees, waiting to be unearthed :)

References and Further Reading:
https://sacredsites.com/asia/cambodia/angkor_wat.html
http://www.amazon.com/Cambodias-Curse-Modern-History-Troubled/dp/1610391837

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sticking (Or Playing With Words)

We stick together like glue,
We, who don't know what to do.
We wander, or dance, in dimly lit halls,
Entranced in mirrors
Looking askance
articulating
expressionism
Acutely certain of myself.

Don't think too hard--you'll hurt yourself--
When you smile until your face cracks.
Forget the facts;
stretched like rubber bands,
truth dances on wire.
we stand, arms erect,
with fishing nets
below.

(Just let it fall
until you find
what you are looking for.)

To walk through the door
like we did before
when we were young
takes a monster's courage.

Picture taken in the Angkor ruins, Siem Riep, Cambodia

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas In Vietnam


Typical motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.
Photo credit:Noemi Agagianian

I'm really sucking at Christmas this year.

Most people in my neighborhood have already finished their Christmas shopping, sent cards and letters, hosted parties, strung lights and cozied up by the fire place at least thrice. I, on the other hand, bought a handful a presents last week that I forgot to wrap, haven't written a single Christmas card and have forgotten that Christmas lights are a "thing." But it's not my fault, I swear.

Last year, I spent Christmas in Vietnam.

While most folks at home were baking pies and watching Christmas specials, I was buying plane tickets and booking hostels, reading up on sites to see and haggling for discounted bus tickets. 

View from the former South Vietnam's HQ.
After a twelve hour overnight bus from Siem Riep to Bangkok , I flew again from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon. And yes, I refrained from singing "One Night in Bangkok" the whole time!) on December 22, 2014. We arrived late at night and took a taxi-van to our hostel. I had already noted the few Catholic churches in my guidebook, because I like to go to Church on Christmas eve. We passed a few on our way downtown, brightly decorated with blue Christmas lights and little nativity scenes. Maybe Ho Chi Minh city would be a nice place to spend Christmas, after all, I thought!

We spent the next two days touring the city, visiting the War Museum (formerly, and aptly, called the "Museum of American War Crimes"), the former president of South Vietnam's headquarters, a densely packed textile market, the Cu Chi war tunnels, a few islands in the Mekong Delta, and quite a few coffee shops. Ho Chi Minh city is bustling and couture mix of French architecture, sundry shops, restaurants, opera houses, and markets, all sandwiched in between thousands of motor bikes whizzing around pedestrians and traffic stops.

Typical traffic outside the Cathedral
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian
On Christmas Eve day, we wandered around the city, drank coffee and took lots of pictures. Like most cities I've visited, we ended up walking in circles for several hours until it finally got dark and we got hungry. I was craving Western food, perhaps because of a timely longing for home, so we found a cute little "Italian" shop (though it was Vietnamese owned) that sold everything from curry to pizza to gelato. I ordered a caprese salad, which turned out to be cheddar cheese, basil, sliced tomato and olives, and a pasta dish. My friends ordered curry and a burger. Ho Chi Minh is cosmopolitan that way!

With my capricious caprese salad (forgive the pun..)
After eating our fill, we headed down to the Church for the Christmas Eve service. But we didn't get far before we started pressing ourselves against the crowds of local residents gathered in the Church courtyard. They weren't really concerned that a service was happening inside; a sea of red and white Santa costumes in sweaty bodies swam and danced around. Young people laughed, took selfies, and sprayed each other with snow-in-a-can. Snow-in-a-can. It was a big shock. Yet as shocking as all the Santa costumes and snow-in-a-can were to me, I still imagine the sight of three tall American girls was even more shocking to everyone else. People screamed, laughed, took pictures, and sprayed us with lots of fake snow.

One of many little boys out for Christmas Eve
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian
I was surprised at how many families were out so late at night. In my mind, Christmas means spending time with family in the home, cozied up on the couch, braving the winter weather. Obviously, you don't need to brave winter weather in a tropical country. Babies, little boys and girls, moms and dads all posed for "groupies" by their motorbikes, laughed, chatted, celebrated.

That Christmas Eve was certainly memorable. I lost my friends, found the Chapel, and got covered in lots of wet foam. But I learned something important: Christmas, and every other American holiday, is not the same anywhere else. In my home in Memphis, Christmas is a big deal. In my family, Christmas has religious significance; it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. But somehow, that message has gotten lost in translation. The message of Christmas that managed to make it to Vietnam was not so much the birth of Jesus Christ or the quiet peace of "Silent Night," but the red and white costumes, the snow, the jingle bells, and Santa Claus. It was difficult for me to spend my Christmas in a part of that whirlwind; those things were never part of my Christmas. 

Looking back, I see now that spending Christmas in Vietnam taught me to cherish what I hold to be true about Christmas: Christ was born to save the world. Family matters. Peace on Earth cannot be lip service. I understand not everyone feels that way, and that's fine with me, because as Ani DiFranco said, "I know there is strength in the differences between us." There is strength in difference, and there is value in celebrations. We become stronger when we can celebrate our own holidays differently. It means we accept that there is more to a day then the presents, or the food, or the way we hold our services.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy Holidays. May you and yours be blessed and joyful, wherever you are in the world and however you decide to celebrate.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Memphis Time: On Slowing Down (A picture book)

I took a walk on the Mississippi River and saw a fisherman in his boat.  I watched him circling around the river, directing his floating chariot, unaware of passersby or stalkers like me, content to float downstream.

Memphis, Tennessee

I thought of the fisherman in Myanmar fishing, alone for hours. The water might not be as blue here, but I suppose fishing in Myanmar has the same basic objective as fishing in Memphis: to catch a fish. 

I sat by the Mississippi, letting the wind kiss my face and creep up my shirt. It took me back to boating on the Inle Lake and the wind ripping through our hair. We spent hours on that boat, getting sunburned, watching the chorus of fisherman dance their way downstream, casting nets with the grace of ballerinas.  

Inle, Myanmar
The scenery is certainly different in Memphis; it's very flat. But the company is more consistent. Maybe because of that, life feels tangibly slower. It's definitely more predictable, which I always thought I would hate, but I'm starting to see the wisdom in a slower way of living. It's not nearly as stressful because you know what to expect. You get a lot of time to snuggle with these:





It's difficult to stop planning my next move. But who knows, it may come sooner than I expect. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Are Christians resigned to wander?

"'They straightway left their nets and followed Him' (Mathew 4:20). The Apostles did not grudge leaving their nets for the Lord's sake, although they were perhaps their only property...we, likewise, for the Lord's sake, ought to leave everything that hinders our following Him...all the many and various nets in which the enemy entangles us in life.'"
St. John of Kronstadt

Are Christians bound to wander?

I heard this a lot growing up. "Christians are just...different. Being a Christian means you are different from the world." I never really liked that feeling. I didn't want to be different from anyone else at school, awkwardly saying prayers before lunch, skipping half days to go to Church on Great Feasts, not eating pepperoni pizza at a friend's birthday party because it was a fast day. Perhaps that was too much for me, too many rules for a little wandering soul to understand and pray about.

Even though I fought the Church inside, and I warred with it for many years, I never stopped being different. Orthodox Christianity stopped being how I differentiated myself from others, but other things replaced that "label" or frame of mind: my love of theatre, my being "Mediterranean," my being from Boston, et cetera, ad infinitum. It never stopped, because I never stopped intentionally separating myself from a group.

Thinking about it now, it actually seems like I looked for any excuse to drive a wedge between myself and others. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Maybe it was just me having unrealistically high expectations for my life.

But this isn't what the Church actually teaches us. It teaches us to bind ourselves to Christ, and by so doing, loose ourselves of whatever else is standing in the way--tools of the enemy. But it doesn't say to demonize those things or those people, because we can only "worry about the log in your own eye."

Worrying about twigs up North.
Yet when I turn my gaze inward at the giant log in my eye, I feel the urge to run again. Not from God, but from everything around me that is casting me in a fishing net into the sea. I thought somehow that, by coming back to Memphis, by linking myself to one physical space, I would seamlessly melt into the fabric of this city, of Church life, of family and relationships. But that isn't really happening. And I wonder if this has a little to do with the distinctions between Orthodoxy and other denominations of Christianity. Now please understand I am not a theologist or an apologist or any kind of "ist." But it just seems to me that in the Orthodox Church there is a constant emphasis on the ephemerality of our current life, almost on a daily basis. The whole Church calendar goes from birth (Nativity) to death (Crucifixion) to eternal life (Resurrection and Ascension) and beyond in the course of one calendar year. And we celebrate those transitions every single year. So every single year, we are born, we die, and we come back into life with the Church feasts, the fasts and songs and celebrations. It's so beautiful, but at the same time...it's shaking. Because when you connect the fasts and feasts to the meaning behind them and the constant reminder that "there is a war for our souls" going on, it's very, very easy to feel afraid and shaken.

I know in my head and a corner of my heart that those things are overcome, but still, life is a war for our soul,  a journey towards Heaven. And yet at the same time the world starts whispering little things about family and assets and job security. Now, those are wonderful blessings, which I pray that I might actually have one day if I live that long. But right now I feel slammed by voices that are telling me that I don't belong, and I'm listening too much. Because, what am I trying to belong to? Christ, or the world? And does the former require me to stay in one physical space?

I wonder if any of my Orthodox Christian friends, whatever age or phase of life, feel that same shakiness and urge to run, because, in the end, that's not what life is really about.

Or maybe I really am just that different.

Or, perhaps, we are made exactly as God intended us to be, unique and "quirky" and constantly asking too many questions.