Monday, February 11, 2013

Musings from a Museum

In his book, Windows of the Soul, Ken Gire talks of how the most ordinary circumstances and the most mundane experiences can become extraordinary if we are paying attention. I had such an experience last Saturday, when I visited one of our local art museums with my wife, two sons and grandson. Following are some random musings:
  • I have been to many of the finest museums in the world, and still find myself in awe of the fact that I really am looking at the original painting, or the real object, that was created by hands just like mine hundreds or even thousands of years ago. This time I was marveling at some of the masters from the Dutch Golden Age, including the master himself, Rembrandt van Rijn. What struck me in particular was their uncanny understanding of light; it's as if they were able to capture in time something so ethereal and transient (perhaps evasive is a better word) that it's like stardust. The reproduction above does next to nothing to convey the astounding depiction of light in van Steenwijk's Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. And hardly a brushstroke to be seen. One thing that also sets the Dutch Masters apart from other Renaissance and Baroque painters is their portrayal of ordinary scenes and people, shedding the obligation to paint Biblical scenes or portraits of monarchs and nobles. This is likely due to the Protestant Reformation, having firmly taken root in the Netherlands, which taught the sanctity of all aspects of life, not only what is deemed religious. (The flip side of this is that Protestant churches were stripped of countless priceless works of art under the austere interpretation of the Calvinists.)
  • I love to people watch at museums. Some snapshots that caught my eye: a young father and his barely-teenage son remarking on the art, the son sharing some of what he had learned in school about the techniques used here; a 40-ish man joining an elderly gentleman (easily 80 by my estimation) for a morning at the museum. There was an obvious bond of friendship between the two men, and it reminded me that souls need not know the limitations of age difference. I am fortunate enough to foster deep friendships between people much older and much younger than I, and believe we are only enriched by transgenerational relationships.
  • The innovative work of Camille Utterback was a source of wonder for all of us, including my almost-two-year-old grandson. Her use of interactive technology, combined with whimsical creativity, is not only entertaining but a reminder that we are constantly interacting with our surroundings.
I came away feeling a rich man, probably because I was awake enough to be paying attention -- which, I must confess, is not always the case.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Fools Rush In

I've been in Bosnia for the last couple of weeks.

Not in person, but vicariously through author Bill Carter. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know that I was in Serbia last summer as a speaker at the Sozo Festival. One of my reasons for going was to get better educated on the Balkan conflict, which ultimately dates back centuries, not decades. I was moved by many things -- most of all by the resilience and warmth of the people I met, keen to move forward in peace and prosperity. 

Most of us who have not known war up close and personal tend to think that the lines drawn in war are clear: this side against that, this tribe against that, this ethnicity against that. It is almost always more nuanced. For example, my interpreter, a gentle man with a noble heart named Bože (pron. bozheh), is half Serbian and half Bosnian. Yet, as a Serbian citizen, he was expected to join in the collective nationalist sentiment of the Balkans of the 1990's. Yes, the Serbs did commit atrocities during the war, for which their ring leaders were prosecuted for war crimes at the International Court in The Hague; but the people of today's Serbia (i.e. the ones I met) are eager to put the past behind.

No conflict is one-sided, but Carter's first-hand account of the siege of Sarajevo is a heartbreaking tale of a proud, sophisticated city brought to its knees as experienced by many of the city's artists and other creatives, as well as ordinary citizens caught in a prison for no crime they committed. For three endless years, the Sarajevans had to carefully plot the simplest errand for fear of being taken out by a Serbian sniper in the surrounding hills. Fuel, electricity, food and other life staples quickly became a scarcity as faces thinned and eyes became hollow. Yet the city lived on -- that is, all but the estimated 12,000 who were either killed or went missing during the longest siege in a capital city in the history of modern warfare.

Driven by grief over the tragic loss of his girlfriend, Carter ends up in the former Yugoslavia and joins up with a ragtag group of humanitarian aid workers who do anything but play by the rules -- bureaucratic UN rules that can be so complex as to defeat the purpose of relieving the suffering altogether. Carter befriends a number of artists and other culture shapers in this avant-garde city, and his life is forever changed by them. The narrative of the Sarajevo siege is almost completely lost on the outside world until Bill Carter has an idea. Fools Rush In chronicles a series of unlikely but true events that culminate in the band U2 streaming Carter and his Bosnian friends' testimonies live to their European concerts attended by 50,000+ per night. The band ultimately arranges to do a concert in Sarajevo once the fighting is over (1997), and the well know song, Miss Sarajevo, deservedly if belatedly brings the plight of the city to the world's attention.

Fools Rush In is not for the faint of heart. It is raw and very real. But if you feel a need to be shaken out of a comfortable slumber -- or simply need to better understand a dark period in our recent history -- you'll be impacted by your trip to Bosnia, just as I was.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Cleaning Up Sandy's Mess

First thing tomorrow morning, my wife Becky and I leave for Ocean City, New Jersey, where we will participate in the cleanup and recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I am a trained reservist with Hope Force International, and this will be my first deployment.

I am letting you know not so you will think we are some kind of heroes for giving up our Thanksgiving -- we are incredibly spoiled by the fact that all three of our sons, our two daughters-in-law and our grandson all live within ten minutes. We are doing our best not to take this for granted, as we know this season will probably not last forever. It is not as if we had family coming in from the four corners to be with us on Thanksgiving. We treasure every time our immediately family is able to be together. 

I am letting you know because I'm sure a number of you are interested to know what conditions on the ground really are like in the wake of this disaster. While we had a flooded basement after the 2010 flood in Nashville and had to replace several appliances, that pales in comparison with the plight of more than 30,000 people in parts of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut who have been left homeless in Sandy's wake.

Since I'm not at all sure I'll be able to blog about our observations while we're there, I'll most likely be posting occasional updates on Facebook -- so please feel free to follow me there. I'm sure it will be a Thanksgiving we won't soon forget.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

This Day in 1517...

On this date in 1517, history changed forever.

It was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The resulting uproar can be felt to this day. From what we know, Luther  never intended to formally sever his ties with the Catholic Church. In fact, he denounced the peasant revolt that his writings sparked and sided with the nobles. He simply felt compelled to speak out against the corruption and heretical practices of his day. Little did he know that armies would march against each other in his name. Little did he know that, because of his gesture, kings would extricate themselves from the Roman Catholic church and forever change the course of their nations' history. Little did he know that the Wittenberg door would come to symbolize one of the greatest schisms in history.

Luther was no saint. He is believed to have held strong anti-Semitic beliefs. But his passion to see man in direct communication and relationship with God led him to translate the Scriptures into the language of the people, defying the exclusivity of Latin as the language of the Church.

And you thought October 31 was just Halloween.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The (Lost) Land of Civility

A recent article in The Economist struck a chord that was already resounding more and more loudly. I read The Economist for a number of reasons: being a British publication, it gives the badly needed perspective of an outside observer on US issues. Its global scope also covers international issues many American periodicals ignore. 

The writer (anonymous, an Economist trademark), put his or her finger on yet another paradox of life in these United States. Lexington, as said writer is called, has lived in a number of world capitals, including London, Beijing, Brussels, and Washington, DC. Only in Washington, however was the newly arrived Lexington met with such friendly neighbors as to offer home-cooked food and invitations to backyard softball. Such civility is actually documented by the OECD (Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development), which states that "Americans are far likelier than its average citizen to have helped a stranger in the previous month...and twice as generous when volunteering their time."

The paradox is that such a civil country is engaging in more and more UNcivil politics. Lexington observes that, although both presidential candidates talk a lot about the future, their campaigns are actually nostalgic attempts to recover the mythical power of the American dream. What the two campaigns have in common -- and the camps they represent -- is that each side blames the other for the economic woes of our time. "Seeking to blame each other for economic shifts that are bigger than either party," Democrats and Republicans openly accuse each other of sabotaging the American ethos. It has suddenly become more about being on the right side than being an American. Period.

This polarization can have devastating consequences over the long term. As partisans become increasingly inflamed by the righteousness of their relatively short-term cause, each election leaves the nation licking its progressively deeper, self-inflicted wounds. The result: a weak and introverted society incapable of confronting the challenges of being a world leader with any sort of united front. As Lexington remarks, American "trust and generosity cannot forever survive a widespread sense that they are being abused."

Friday, August 3, 2012

Lessons from Serbia

I just returned a few days ago from Novi Sad, Serbia, where the Sozo Festival was held for the first time. The purpose of the festival, founded 14 years ago by my good friend Randall Morgan, is to promote national and ethnic reconciliation among the peoples of strife-ridden Eastern Europe, primarily in the Balkan region. Over a dozen nations were represented, including Hungary, where the festival has been held 10 times in past years.

Many years ago in Switzerland, I learned a lesson from a student of mine. Born and raised in the French-speaking part of the country, she harbored a bit of an attitude towards her German-speaking countrymen. She was certainly not alone. There is an invisible barrier between the two regions that is ancient and undeniable. My student, named Catherine, recognized this unhealthy attitude in herself and decided to do something about it by finding a one-year position in Zurich, the largest city in the country -- specifically so she could get to know the German-Swiss up close. She came back with a completely different outlook on her compatriots, as well as some lasting friendships.

Although my attitude towards the Serbs was not nearly as pronounced, I realized I still looked at them primarily as the aggressors in the Balkan Wars of the 1990's. Thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians were raped and killed at the hands of Serbian soldiers, while much of the world, including most Americans, remained ignorant of the situation. I knew it was not a one-sided conflict (it rarely is), and I knew I needed to get to know some Serbs up close and personal.

I'm so glad I did. I discovered a proud but warm-hearted people, eager to show hospitality and to put the wounds of war behind them. Although I knew it academically, it came home to me that the atrocities committed in the wars were largely due to a handful of individuals, with Slobodan Milosevic as the ring leader. (He died in his prison cell in the Hague in 2006 while on trial for war crimes.) Today's generation of Serbs desires peace and relationship with the rest of the world. Pictured at right is my interpreter, Boža, and wife Sylvia. Boža was not only an excellent translator, but a remarkable human being. We had many meaningful conversations about our respective cultures and how much we can learn from each other.

At left is Darijo (pron. 'dario'), the local organizer for the festival. Darijo has attended numerous Sozo Festivals in the past and was ecstatic to be able to bring this great event to his native Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia on the banks of the Danube. His passion for his own nation was contagious, as he brought lessons learned abroad back to his home soil.

In the seminar I taught, I invited each of the participants, from 8-10 different nations, to look inside and identify the cultural traits they have inherited, as well as those they have chosen. We all have choices when it comes to our culture, and our lives are waiting to be enriched as we learn to reject the negative aspects of our culture and embrace the beautiful things -- of our own as well as other cultures.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Old Country

Some people might wonder why World to the Wise cultural tours have been exclusively to European destinations (so far).  The 2010 tour took us to England, France and the Netherlands, and this year’s tour saw us in Italy, France and England. While there are many, many other destinations that hold our interest (and perhaps yours as well), there are a number of reasons we have chosen to focus initially and primarily on Europe.

As Caucasian Americans, my wife and I both recognize that our roots lie almost entirely in Europe. By blood, I am actually not a Durham; my father, whose surname was originally Oatis, was adopted by an aunt who had married a man named Durham. Still, there are strong Anglo-Saxon lines in my family, as well as German. My mother’s maiden name was Knox, as in John Knox, the great Scottish church reformer. When I am in Europe, I feel a sense of connectedness, as if I were visiting grandparents I never knew. Although cultural differences abound -– both between American and European cultures and among European cultures themselves –- many “aha moments” are waiting for Americans who seek to understand their own culture better.

It also doesn’t hurt that I have lived in Europe for a total of twelve years, have friendships and contacts there from the last 30 years, and that all the languages I speak are European languages. This greatly facilitates the tours, as I’m sure any of the participants will attest. As I said earlier, there are countless other places on this planet of ours we would like to discover and/or take others to see -- for example, we hope to organize a third-world experience for Americans in the not-too-distant future (Haiti, perhaps?) –- but much of my heart, as well as much understanding of where we have come from as a culture, lies in what for many of us is The Old Country.

Tell us about your experiences visiting the land(s) of your ancestors.