Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Friday, September 30, 2016

Beautiful Memories of Aleppo, Syria Before the Insanity

I was in Aleppo, Syria twelve years ago. I was there when the view from the impressive citadel wasn't one of devastation but of gorgeous kids playing football in the streets; of two million people living peacefully in the ancient city with the white roofs and the beautiful mosques.

I loved, loved, loved Syria and Aleppo. They crept under my skin and stayed there for more than a decade as memories, humor, scent - a sudden explosion of jasmine, olives, saffron. I was crazy about the cafes in the shade with their huge selection of water pipes, the dusty alleys, even the moody donkeys that would stare you down.

"Welcome," most Syrians would greet you from sweet shops, street corners, and mosques, including the odd five year old. They were warm, friendly, cordial, and eager to help. Now the people of Aleppo have been reduced to victims and front pages that drip with the blood of Muslims and Christians. Aleppo has become a symbol of the insanity we humans create with our intolerance, perverted belief systems, and our lust for power. It's not just Assad, Putin and ISIS that are hovering over Aleppo but our collective darkness with its need for retaliation that we pass on through our DNA, our stories, and the imprints on our souls.

One of the places in Aleppo that made the biggest impression on me in 2004 was the 13th century insane asylum close to the suq, but now all of Syria has become an insane asylum where today's inmates are treated worse than in the medieval ward. Thousands of people are dying of hunger; hospitals are satanically bombed while the world watches the genocide in the most dangerous city in the world.

But one day Aleppo will rise again. One day all of Syria will reincarnate into peace and prosperity because in the long run hell never wins, even though it may be hard to believe in the middle of this insanity - an insanity that wasn't created by religion or God but by the human ego.

You can help the Syrians in need by donating money to organizations like Doctors Without Borders (Medicines Sans Frontieres, Læger uden grænser) or The White Helmets, who have rescued 62,000 Syrians from the genocide in Aleppo.

All photos by Peter H. Fogtdal, except number two of the Arghun Al-Kāmilī hospital in Aleppo by Nasim Hasan Naqvi and the above picture of the boy and his cat (unknown)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

'Faster', 'Quicker', and 'More' Are Assassins of the Soul (Thoughts After a Teen's Tragic Death in Portland)

A 15-year-old girl was killed outside one of my favorite cafes in Portland a few weeks back. She crossed Hawthorne Boulevard in the cross walk and was hit by a reckless driver who drove off while she was bleeding to death in the street.

The following day I talked to a young barista in my cafe who had witnessed the crash. "It's the most gruesome thing I'd ever seen in my life," she said, "I'll never forget it, but we have a good community here. People are really coming together."

A few hours after the girl's death, hundreds of flowers were gathered on the sidewalk. The middle lane was occupied by protesters and a sign read, LANE CLOSED UNTIL THE KILLING STOPS. People brought candles, teddy bears, and cards. A few people even camped out. The dead teen from Franklin high school had been in a chorus, and the chorus sang where their friend had died.

The reason why I witnessed some of this is strange. I had attended a medium class in the back room of the cafe where we receive messages from those who have passed. And no, I don't claim to be in touch with her soul, but I know this with 100% certainty: There are no coincidences when it comes to death, and something extremely important will come out of the tragic crash.

First of all, thousands of people have been touched by what happened, and every single of us received a gift: Once more we're reminded of the insane way we live - how dangerous our own impatience is; how easily we get caught up in our self-absorbed problems, and how we forget to appreciate the love and the abundance everywhere: the invaluable gift of a gorgeous dawn, a child or a cat sleeping on our lap, the way the light falls through the window.

There is so much beauty in this world, but we don't see that because we're too busy texting, shouting at the mailman or blaming politicians for the ills of our society. 'Faster', 'quicker', and 'more' are assassins of the soul. Is it really that important we're ten minutes late?  Do we hate our fellow man so much we think we have the right to drive 70 miles down a busy street and take our anger out on the world that hasn't given us what we think we need?  For Christ's sake, let's all slow down, breathe in the sun set, and be human beings first and zombies second.

So yes, fifteen year old Fallon's death was unbelievably tragic, but it wasn't meaningless. Pedestrian safety will improve on the busy street, and her awful demise touched the soul of thousands of people in Portland. Death always serves a larger purpose. We're all here to help each other, and sometimes we become teachers by sacrificing our life through a tragic traffic accident.

None of us know why it's meant to be like that, or why Fallon had to leave her family and friends, but at first any tragedy seems senseless and will be a challenge and a wake up call to a community. So what do we do when the shock and the understandable anger pass?  Do we continue to see life as unfair and brutal (which it definitely is at times), or do we understand that the only way we can honor the dead is by living  more compassionate lives ourselves?

Luckily, the barista who witnessed the fatal crash understood the latter, and even though I don't know her, I got a strong sense that the scar on her soul will make her an even more compassionate soul than she is already.

PS.  Let's all send loving thoughts and prayers to Fallon from Franklin high school and to her grieving family and friends. If this post can help anyone please be kind enough to share!