The St. Petersburg Phenomenon

Six years ago, right about this time of year, buffeted by wind and approaching rain, I shivered in the cold while waiting in a queue outside St. Petersburg’s renowned State Hermitage Museum. Unlike most visitors, who checked their coats and bags in the cloakroom, I piled my gear into my backpack, then bypassed the people milling about in the large entrance foyer and made a beeline for the galleries.

Like a kid entering a gigantesque candy store, I was bowled over by the visual feast that greeted me; the sheer immensity, grandeur and lush colors were cotton candy to my eyes. The exquisite silence that echoed in each room, hanging in the folds of heavy window drapes, gave me a taste of what it might have been like to live inside these quarters centuries ago. Even the elderly docent, her purple-tinted hair coiffed just so, tip-toed beside me, as if wary of making a sound.

Then the shuffling of rubber soles and click-clack of approaching high heels brought me back to reality, reminding me that tourists were on the loose nearby. Like a herd of horses, they came barreling into the gallery. I stood back from the hordes, anticipating mayhem – and blocked views of the paintings.

But I needn’t have worried. These ‘check-list’ tourists, digital camera ready in hand, were short on time – and long on lenses. Literally. Lenses of all kinds dangling from their bags, shoulders and backpacks.

One by one, they would stop – more like skid – in front of a painting, long enough only to read the title and determine whether the artwork was created by a ‘famous artist.’ If so, they would call out to their co-tourist friends, snap a shot of the painting in question and in seconds, scurry off to the next piece. The painting had barely registered a blip on their eyeball – and already they were off.. to the races. Renoir! Matisse! Oh look here! They dashed between one painting to the next, from one gallery to the other, capturing in the space of a nano-second viewing, nothing more than a photographic record of the paintings that hung on the wall.

It was an astonishing sight. What was the point?

I was reminded of that bizarre experience in wind-swept Russia just the other day when I went to see the World Press Photo exhibit in Old Montreal. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the exquisite moments of life, war, death, birth and the human experience that photographers around the world have captured over the past year. The images never fail to enlighten, surprise, inform, sadden, and amaze me. I can stand in front of a single photograph for fifteen minutes (if it were possible to do so), or circle back to it later; observing, imagining, trying to recreate the bigger story of what happened just before – or possibly right after, the image was taken.

The photos drip with joy, agony, ecstasy, terror and love. How can one not be frozen in place, at the very least for a few moments, captivated by the single slice of human emotion or landscape?

When I entered the large hall in the Marché Bonsecours, the place was abuzz. A quick glance around confirmed that a school field trip was underway; a large gaggle of uniformed private-school teenage girls were huddling, chatting, squealing and generally acting like teenagers do.

But then I noticed the St Petersburg Phenomenon – with a twist. Instead of digital cameras at the ready, each one of these girls had their smartphones in hand. And, as if they were on a school photography assignment (which, perhaps, they were), they snapped away.. one photograph or detail or label after the other. They didn’t look up – or at – the IMG_3201photograph itself, but only at the image they were trying to capture through their phone.

I stood back and watched the girls for awhile, both amused and stumped.

And then I remembered how, when I was a little girl and my sisters and I would visit a museum, it was a quiet affair. No sounds of digital doodads, no photographs being taken of photographs, no selfies, no Instagrams. We just walked around, stopped and looked at the art. What remained was that which was etched into our brains and visual memories… not onto our memory cards.

Waltzing With a Caterpillar

It was not yet the middle of the week when I felt the first pangs of a meltdown or serious burnout in the works. I planned to take a break in the middle of the week, head out for the day, a few errands, a day in the sun, away from emails and phone calls, and all the flotsam and jetsam bobbing in the murky waters surrounding me.

It was early Wednesday when my intuition coaxed my fingers into dialing a friend’s number and postponing our appointment that morning. I had no good reason at the moment, but I simply sensed that I had to clear the deck that day. My bag was packed, I’d nearly left when my intuition again urged me to open my email, just to scan what had landed in my inbox during my absence.

Among the two dozen or so unread messages, I spotted an email from one of my oldest friends. My friendship with RT goes back to our first year of high school. Though RT’s lived (and raised kids) in the US for eons and we’re infrequently in touch, we nevertheless make a point of touching base for each others’ birthdays. Which is why I wasn’t surprised to see an email from her. I opened it only to check if she might be in town visiting her partner.

It took me a few moments to register the meaning of RT’s message. She was indeed in town, but writing from a hospital bed, after suffering a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage two days earlier… that nearly killed her. My mind went bIMG_3198lank. Then it went into a tailspin. I called the hospital, confirmed that she was in ICU, grabbed a precious stone (recently gifted to me by a healer) and asked for a lift to the hospital.

The next couple of hours are still somewhat of a blur; she was upright, walking the corridor, being asked to balance herself with eyes closed. We hadn’t seen each other in years. Now we were reuniting in a hospital room. Comparing notes. I was wrapping her up in a blanket, helped her into bed, then gave her an old black & white high school photo I’d stumbled upon a few days earlier.

By the time I hugged her gently and left the ward, I knew exactly what was in order: a big dose of fresh air, trees and grass… I was craving nature.

It was a sunny day. I headed straight to one of my favorite parks, in a neighborhood that boasts some of the quaintest cafes, boutiques and vibes in the city (at least in my humble opinion). A group of teenagers were kicking a soccer ball around nearby, while mothers strolled with infants and an elderly couple sat on a bench, each one covered with a large sunhat, their eyes trained on their respective e-readers.

I unfolded a blanket, spread magazines, papers, markers and scissors around and lay down on my back squinting upwards, shifting my gaze to avoid the sun’s direct glare. Squirrels leaped between branches, creating bushy wisps of silhouettes brushing against the sky.

Lucky to be alive. RT had heard the same words from the mouths of doctors as I once had. I wondered if it would sink into every cell of her body as it had mine; if it would continue to echo in her ears for years after this incident, perhaps for the rest of the her life. Would RT ever come to believe in her guardian angels – as I had in mine?

Before slipping into a tearful state, I flipped onto my stomach, intending to write and cut and draw and squeeze out as much creative juice from my addled brain as I possibly could. But as I was flipping through the National Geographic magazine, something bright caught my attention out of the corner of my eye.

IMG_3233It was a fuzzy yellow caterpillar, a few black stripes and spikes protruding from its spine – the likes of which I’d never laid eyes on before. It was maneuvering itself from the grass onto the blanket, then proceeded to slink towards me. I waited and watched. Watched and waited.

Sensing that it likely would prefer to be back on home ground (i.e. grass), I nudged it onto a thin branch and (ok, uninIMG_3232tentionally but perhaps a little too quickly) unleashed it a few feet away. It curled up immediately, and I observed in angst until it began to unfurl itself again.

I returned once again to the magazine. But there he (she?) was again, clambering up onto the blanket,IMG_3215 heading towards me. I moved aside slowly, imagining that it simply wanted to cross the blanket to get to the other side. But it grounded to a halt as soon as I inched over. I stood up and the little creature swerved in my direction, as if it were intentionally seeking me out.

I scooped the caterpillar onto a leaf and placed it a few feet away in another direction. Still it came back, shuffling up the sidIMG_3226es of my sandals, weaving through the straps and over the buckles, then sliding back down into the grass.

Thus it continued for the rest of the afternoon.He wiggled his way over magazines, paper, scissors – all unfamiliar territory. But he kept coming back for more.

IMG_3217I danced with that caterpillar, or should I say that he tried desperately to dance with me. I’d invited him into my space, or should I say that he invited me into his world, of grass, sticks and stones… and there I was brushing him off. What a very reticent dance partner I was.. when he merely wanted to sniff around, enjoy the new textures and waltz!IMG_3225

The yellow caterpillar eventually gave up on me and found a dried leaf nearby where he found refuge – or tasty bugs.

There was a subtle meaning to this whole waltzing episode and it wasn’t lost on me. Like dogs and other creatures of the animal world are known to do (and I’ve been at the receiving end countless times), this fuzzy yellow caterpillar was there to keep watch over me. He wasn’t going to let me out of his sight.

IMG_3220Even if I did blow him off a few times…

The veteran and the labradoodle: How a service dog helped a TEDActive attendee step back out into the world


A beautiful and inspiring story about a man and his dog & how they’ve helped each other heal. On a more personal note, this story also serves as a reminder that PTSD – and all that comes with it (memories of falling from heightsl…) – is an invisible condition/disability.

Originally posted on TED Blog:

Lon Hodge and his service dog, Gander, go everywhere together. After decades of living with debilitating PTSD, Gander is helping Hodge step back into the world. Photo: Courtesy of Lon Hodge

Lon Hodge and his service dog, Gander, go everywhere together. After decades of living with debilitating PTSD, Gander is helping Hodge step back into the world. Photo: Courtesy of Lon Hodge

Lon Hodge and his labradoodle, Gander, are at a McDonald’s near the Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois, a quick stop for a bite as they travel across the United States. “He never leaves my side,” Hodge explains to a curious woman, patting Gander on the flank. “He’s special.”

Hodge and Gander are on the road interviewing the families of US veterans who committed suicide; the result will be a book, Fetch, which he aims to self-publish early next year. Hodge, a TEDActive attendee, is a veteran and one of the 5.2 million adults in the US who have post-traumatic stress disorder. Gander, also a friendly face at TEDActive, is the service dog who saved his life.

Hodge served…

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Nowhere To Run To

Nowhere Torunto picThis morning, I saw a woman wearing this shirt. My initial reaction was: huh?

I assumed it to be one of the billions of defective clothing pieces manufactured in Asian sweatshops (oops, letter-press-man misread the English phrase!) that are dumped en masse into vast shopping complexes – much like the Black Market on the outskirts of Ulan Baatar, Mongolia.

But then, I took a second look, read it more carefully and was struck by the phrase, understanding its meaning on many levels. I also realized it spoke to my own predicament.

Nowhere To Run To.

I’d spent the past week (a little more) in Toronto, buried under more piles of paper than I could bear; squatting and shifting through meetings; sifting through more legal jargon than I’ve seen since my law school days. Becoming ever more disillusioned, disappointed, disheartened as the week passed. I was feeling progressively buried under the sheer weight of the matter(s) at hand, the solitude of sorting out the essence from the footnotes. I (seemingly) had no choice; I’m in so deep that I had to dig in and paddle hard. There was nowhere to run.. to.

Or so it would have seemed. But how wrong I was.

Nearly every day, blessed as I am, I had someone to ‘run’ to.

I had my sister’s family the first few days – until they went out of town for the long weekend.

I had A, the very first friend I made when I moved to the city a decade ago. She brought stories galore.

I had F, who brought news of her (third) pregnancy, a healthy appetite and photos of her little boys.

I had S., who one day fed me gluten-free freshly baked bread; then serenaded me another day by ukelele.

I had A, who dropped by with her two-year old daughter, who despite her sunny disposition, who tantrumed about a xylophone that was out of reach, finally making do with the trampoline, markers and a bowl of raspberries.

I had I., a former colleague who regaled me with stories about lightning, flooding and camping during her family’s beach vacation this summer.

I had S & D, both competitive rowers who, though hailing from distinctly disparate eras of my life in this city, bonded over burgers, sports, sacred places and pilgrimage.

I had all of them and more; seeking refuge from my legal maelstrom, I dove into their (our) stories of families, of illness and dysfunction, of joy, death, sadness, work challenges, financial struggles, marital strife and harmony and child-rearing. We discussed food, travel, love, film and labyrinths.

The other side of mayhem had all the makings of sanctuary: I napped, tried out the ukelele, munched on flax bagel, lox & cream cheese; I walked and practiced yoga; I ate well, watched The Blind Side (again!)… and wept.

I was in Toronto, fortunate and grateful to have where – many wheres – To Run To.


Echoes of Iyengar

IyengarIt’s perhaps an odd and humbling confession to make, but it turns out that, without even having ever met this belated noneganarian, and without realizing it, this man named Iyengar had gotten under my skin. Iyengar, as in BKS, the guru of yoga who died last week.

And by under my skin, I mean that the impact of his practice – passed onto me through his teachers – had touched me deeply, in ways I’d either ignored or couldn’t have fathomed.

It was a tumultuous time, fraught with too much noise (drilling through concrete and brick); technicians passing through for maintenance or repair; the overwhelming prospect of (yet more) de-cluttering ad nauseum; too many languages and too many lawyers, accountants, doctors and unsavory characters to keep track of. My mind was swirling with uncertainty, a plethora of items sweeping through the floodgates of my mind, each requiring ‘immediate attention,’ an asterisk needing to be affixed to its scribble on my ever-growing To-Do List.

My body and soul must have felt a pressing need to find peace amidst all the chaos. How else to explain why, despite the havoc, I nevertheless awoke for the three nights following Iyengar’s death with his name manifesting clearly in my mind. As if I was being guided by an unseen spirit, it took no effort at all for me to toss off the duvet cover, gather my hair up into a bun and unroll the mat.

It felt perfectly normal to be doing warrior, tree and pigeon poses at 3 o’clock in the morning. Three nights in a row.

It also felt perfectly normal to be lying on my back in corpse pose, breathing deeply on a nubby mat – rather than in my warm bed a few feet away.

It felt more than normal, it felt like I was reaching towards the center of the universe, the center of all things that can bear me and hold me still, stable, sure and safe.

After 20-30 minutes of twisting and bending my body, elongating my spine, focusing on my posture, and breathing out loudly enough to hear the air exiting my nostrils, I crawled back into bed, rolled over and fell asleep.

I could almost swear that I heard the muscles in my upper arms sigh in relief and gratitude.

The last night of three that I was nudged closer into the echo of Iyengar’s still-departing soul, I mused about my stealth:

If a body does tree pose without anyone observing, does it make a difference?

Clearly so. Iyengar’s lifetime legacy of giving life to, nourishing and nurturing our bodies, lives on, even if in nocturnal delirium, and even when nobody else is present.

Scenes From A Train

It was a week ago today that I traveled by train through the central part of Israel.

Young men, boys really, are asleep while white-winged snakes watch over them from shoulder lapels.

Their shock-proof watches are manufactured for durability in extreme conditions and synchronized with those of their peers, high-ranking officers and top military brass.IMG_3045

Olive green duffel bags with red ribbons tied on to ward off evil eyes. Berets are neatly tucked in, under buttoned lapels. Gargantuan backpacks that ought to be used for travel rather than a holding vessel for yet more clothes in a solid shade of olive green. Before leaving home, they were washed, crisply ironed, buttoned and folded. With love.

The dreaded phrase is Tzav shmoneh. Military call-up under emergency circumstances. Nothing to do but pack and leave. Perhaps throw in an appointment with the barber and a night out with the boys – just in case.

The rifle brigade is at it again.

I see a young woman, a teenager really, in rusty-red colored boots. We’re not in Oz. This is a man’s world, made up of elite paratroopers; females, an anomaly in their midst.

In the next row, the only word I hear in a phone conversation is raketot. Rockets. Are they still raining down from the other side? He says one fell in front of him. He hasn’t slept all night. Now he’s en route to the frontlines.

A young couple enters the carrIMG_3047iage, the cleanly-shaven guy decked out in full military regalia, his girlfriend dolled up in tank top, short shorts, brand-name purse, flip-flops and pedicure. She laughs and teases him, as if she’s sending him off to school instead of into a tank.

The businessman, long retired from military duty, ties up his spiffy electric bike to the railing, crosses one knee over the other and pulls a paper out of his buttery brown leather briefcase. He buries his nose into the stock market pages.

Before the train pulls out of the station, a young girl walks to the front of the carriage. She faces the wall, closes her eyes, opens the book and her whole body wobbles forward and backward in a post that exaggerates her prayer. When she returns to her seat, she remains standing, remains in prayer pose; but her shaking is so agitated, that perhaps her intention is to jiggle the region into peace andIMG_3076 quiet.

The doors close and the train heads towards the sea.

The little boy down the line turns to his father and asks, what happens if we hear a siren? His father is on the phone talking about raketot.

How does the grass still grow green, the fields grow wheat, the cows yield dairy, when a country is at war?

The name of this train station is Hagana. The Hebrew for defense. It’s a hub, a gateway to all points south. Today, it’s also a sea of olive green, khaki and beige. Especially on Platform #3.

As I read about my recent train journey, it suddenly feels so impossibly distant – not just because I’m now in another part of the world…