Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A strange day in January:

     We have certainly been having a strange winter in Wisconsin. Of course, we are so used to hard winters that all this mild weather makes us all ask when is the snow bomb going to drop?
     Today it will be in the high 40s. The sun is shining and the wind is blowing as though it is a late March day. These are the strange days that Wisconsin young people put on shorts and head outside for activities. If the golf course will let people on them (ie if the ground is dry enough) people go and play golf. Me, I just get an urge to go for a walk outside.
     But this morning that urge still hadn't arisen, and I was sitting in my bedroom chair reading a book that I am enamored with, entitled Walking the Bible, by Bruce Feiler. The author and several guides and helpmates endeavor to travel to places in this world, ie in the Middle East that were important in the Bible Old Testament story. I am still early in the book, but so far he has traveled to the foot of Mount Ararat where supposedly Noah's Ark came to rest, to Harran, Turkey where Abraham traveled when he first left the land of Ur. Now the small group is in Israel, well, really the West Bank, having visited Shechem where Abraham first entered Canaan, and now Bethel which plays a large role in Biblical history where among other things, Jacob saw the mythical ladder. Bethel is now a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. So now that city name so often repeated in the Bible is one of the points of great political controversy between the Palestinians and Israel.
    These passages in this book recall some of the feelings that I get when I visit Israel. Because whether Jew or Christian, we know this history, these stories from the distant past (maybe the 2nd millenium BCE). I always find myself thinking about what could have happened on the spot that I am standing in Israel. This is what people mean by talking about the Holy Land. They get a sense of belonging, a sense of ancestry, of connection with God or some higher force when walking this land. Even though I call myself an agnostic, still when ever I have stood on the Mount of Olives and gazed over the old City of Jerusalem, I have a sense of connection. Jerusalem has been a Capitol of humanity for 5000 years. You can't help but feel this history. And of course the strength of your religion adds an additional measure to this mix of feelings. I will keep you updated as my reading continues in this book.
     As I am sitting in this chair in my bedroom, as I often do since we live on Lake Michigan, I glance up at the lake. I have been hearing the geese this morning. There is a huge flock of maybe 60-70 birds that has been flying noisily over our house again and again. Now I get up and go to the window to figure out what is going on.  This flock is again flying out over the lake, heading to shore for the third time. They can't seem to decide where they want to go. It is windy and maybe that is making the leaders veer off course or have trouble deciding where to land to rest. Or perhaps the warm temperature has stirred something in their brains and is urging them to go north or south or somewhere else. Perhaps they feel a stirring like spring, an urge to get somewhere and start their yearly nesting cycle. Whatever is going on in their group mind, it is not what normally happens in January. These are of course Canada geese of the giant race which do not migrate but just move around to find open water. But on a normal January day, even this race of geese is hunkered down on some open water somewhere with their heads tucked under their wing trying to retain some body warmth. Not so on this January day.
     As I am watching the geese, I look upward and see the contrails of two jets outlined against the cirrus clouds above them. These are not the trails of commercial airlines, flat and steady. These are the courses of perhaps military jets. One is climbing acutely to the northwest, higher in the sky than the other, which is climbing sharply to the southwest. As they climb, their jet trails cross at a right angle and form a gigantic X in the sky. I watch the contrails for a while as they slowly widen and gradually disappear in the white of the clouds above them. X marks the spot -- the spot of what? It raises the question of why we humans of the Western world look up when we think of God -- we think of a personified deity in some heaven up there somewhere. Yet when we pray, we usually bow our head and close our eyes. We talk to that personified God by closing in on ourselves. Some people I suppose would say this posture is to show humility before our God and to represent prostrating ourselves before Him/Her. But I think the prayer posture is an attempt to look inward where some people feel we can really find God.
      So where am I going with this? How do flocks of confused geese and jets making an X with their contrails, how I feel when I am in Israel, and when I am reading a book about places that are Biblical all combine to produce this feeling of exultation. Well, there is one very simple explanation. There is one way to exist in both humility, looking inside ourselves and in exultation looking at the whole wide world outside ourselves, seeing that these "places" are all one.  That is --We must live in the moment. We must be open to every glorious moment of living life which is such a gift. Every major religion and every ancient and modern written text of great import such as the Bible, such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, such as the Koran, such as the poems of Rumi, such even as the tales of Gilgamesh and a multitude of others has one major requirement. Jesus taught this, it is a basic belief of Buddhism, the mysticism of Judaism hides this tenet as well.  That is -- to live with awareness -- to try to transcend mundane daily matters and appreciate every moment because every moment is a gift. X marks the spot. It is here, and right now. My wish is for all of you good readers is that you proceed with that knowledge. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Mystery Photo 15: Yes, it is Bran Castle

     Bran Castle is located in the small village of Bran, Romania, but near the larger northern resort city of Brasov, Romania. The castle is known to tourists as Dracula's Castle, but like so many juxtapositions of history and fiction, there really is little connection between the fictional character  Dracula and this castle.
     As you may know, Dracula, the vampire, is the fictional creation of the Dubliner Irish novelist, Abraham "Bram" Stoker (1847-1912). Stoker was a fairly prolific writer, and wrote his novel, Dracula, in 1897. As far as we know, Stoker was never in Transylvania and had no contact or visit to Bran Castle. Perhaps he was influenced by a vampire novel that preceded his, Camilla, written in 1871, by Sheridan La Fanu in which a lesbian vampire terrorizes the story's characters. It is known that he researched Transylvanian and Eastern European folklore for 7 years before writing Dracula.  He was known to read William Wilkinson's book, Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia with Political Observations Relative to Them (London, 1820) several times, checking it out from the Whitby, Ireland museum.
     There is no knowledge that Stoker knew of the supposed namesake of Dracula, Vlad III, the Impaler. The family name of Vlad III was Dracul which means dragon. In Romanian dialects, Dracula means son of the dragon. Vlad III's father, Vlad II ruler of Wallachia, had taken the name "Dracul" after being invested in the Order of the Dragon in 1431, a group that was founded to protect Christendom in Romania. Later and in modern Romanian the word dracul came to be used synonymously with 'the devil."  The history of Vlad III is quite gory. He was known as Vlad III Tepes, the Impaler because he was touted to have killed  10s of thousands of civilians and also as many Ottoman Turks in his fight to protect Wallachia from the Ottoman Turk empire. The method Vlad III used to kill all these people was by mounting them on a sharp pole that was fixed in the ground. He ruled as Vivolde of Wallachia from 1456 to 1462. His father had sold out to the Ottoman Turks and sent his two sons, one of them Vlad to be held hostage by the Ottoman ruler. There both boys were probably abused but Vlad was supposedly much harder to control, so he received the most abuse. This probably explains his vicious hatred for the Ottomans and his desire to resist them no matter what as they attempted to conquer the Balkan states. Though Vlad III is most remembered for his brutality, in fact he founded schools, monasteries, churches and tried to help the plight of the peasants. He killed many of the wealthy landowners who opposed him and promoted peasants to their titles. He did develop laws which were exceedingly strict but that applied equally to both peasant and noble. As far as we know, Bram Stoker did not know anything about Vlad the Impaler. Certainly Vlad was not a very handsome man by modern criteria. In fact I purchased a couple T shirts for children with Vlad's representation on them, but decided not to give them to our grandson because I thought they would be frightening. Here is a copy of his likeness. You can see why I chose not to give these T shirts.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mystery Photo 15

What famous Castle is this one?  Hint: We visited it on our trip to Eastern Europe? Let me see some answers/guesses this time!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Another favorite antique toy!

     2012. What a wonderful symmetrical year. Doesn't it look nice in printing? I am choosing to totally ignore all the ballyhoo about the end of the Mayan calendar. The Mayans just ran out of rock to write it on, that's all. Now with our computers, we can go on forever.

     This January 2nd morning, I am looking out over Lake Michigan. It is deceptively sunny. But the ornamental grass stands in our neighbor's border proclaim the 50 mile per hour winds roaring out of the northwest. A light layer of snow has blanketed our patio overnight. The Rose Bowl Parade is airing on TV. Just got a view of our Wisconsin Badger Marching Band going by while Al Roper is lauding the weather in Pasadena -- 72 degrees there. He is still bitterly complaining about last year's weather. "It was freezing last year! It must have been 40 degrees." I wonder if he realizes how this statement makes us Wisconsinites laugh. This year not only are our Badgers playing in the Rose Bowl against the Oregon Ducks, but our fabulous Green Bay Packers have home field advantage in the playoffs. I would love to see Al Roper covering those games at Lambeau. Although with our recent high temperatures, who knows whether the "frozen tundra" of Lambeau Field will be frozen or not. We defeated the Detroit Lions yesterday with our backup quarterback, Matt Flynn. I am very happy for him. His performance will probably gain him a football team of his own. Though we as Packer Fans will hate to lose him, he will no doubt command a team of his own when his waivers come up next year. Go Badgers and Go Packers!!

     I was trying to decide with what topic to inaugurate this New Year. I decided to delve into my toy room again. I haven't done that for some time. Here is a description of one of my favorite toys which belonged to my mother.

     Hit Read More for a look at an interesting ANTIQUE TOY!