Strawberry moon and summer solstice

 photo credit

The sky was lightening at 5 am as I hurried to the river’s edge, worried I’d miss the special moment: sunrise on summer solstice. I was warm in shorts and t-shirt as I came to the Ottawa River and stopped short.

There it was! A strawberry moon! Perhaps a little more peach than pink, but oh…. huge, close to the horizon, bright in the morning sky and reflecting on the grey water.

We haven’t had a full moon on the same day as summer solstice since 1967. Today sunrise was at 5:14 am and sunset will be 8:50 pm. It’s a long day for those who are observing Ramadan- 15 1/2 hours without food, water or cigarettes. “Strawberry” refers to June- time to start picking- but also to the colour of the moon, caused by the great distance between the earth and the moon today.

I enjoy exploring the extreme edges of this day. Usually I stay awake all night, awed by how short it is. Tonight as the sun sets, that great pink moon will flood us with light. If it is cloudless, the sky may not darken at all.

I revel in the light, loll about in the warmth, leave sunglasses in the car. My sunrise appreciation was simple- throwing out thanks to the sky listing the many blessings in my life. Then just doing Qigong in the peace – you might think it was quiet, but oh, the quacking ducks, the chorus of birds and my exploding heart…. it was a noisy celebration.

Happy solstice! Light be upon you.

Newroz and the Haft-seen table

Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant celebrates Newroz.

Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant celebrates Newroz.

Oh happy day: the day we first feel spring in the air. The first day that shoes replace boots- the light feet, the utter joy. That’s the Canadian’s late March experience, but in Mediterranean countries, they are seeing spring blooms by now, discarding jackets, eating the first local greens.

Newroz celebrates the arrival of spring and is usually celebrated around March 20, coinciding with the Northward Equinox. It has been celebrated for centuries in Iranian, Armenian, Azerbaijanian and Kurdish cultures; it was first mentioned in Kurdish poetry in the 16th century.

In Northern Kurdistan (East Turkey), Newroz is almost always celebrated with a picnic. When I visited family there, we lugged a hibatchi-type BBQ out to the woods by a stream, played hide and seek games among the trees, sang songs and feasted on tomato salad, flat bread and chicken (killed in the backyard that morning). Sometimes whole communities celebrate together with dancing and music.

In The Word Not Spoken, Ahmet uses Newroz to divert Leigh’s fears when he tells her on their wedding night that he is a freedom fighter, part of the PKK:

Ahmet hesitated. “We tell tourists and journalists about the human rights abuse and the democracy problem here.”

Leigh was relieved. “You just talk to people?”

“Yes. We are non-violent group.”

“What do you do?”

“I go to meeting every month. Right now we are planning Newroz celebrations and demonstrations.”

Ahmet explained that Newroz was celebrated on the first day of spring in Kurdistan, comparable to a New Year’s celebration in the west. It had never been celebrated by Turks, and so, over the past decades, Newroz had become an opportunity to assert Kurdish culture and identity. Only three years previous, a crowd dancing in a village square in Mersin had been fired upon by watching Turkish tanks.

“Ahmet, you don’t go to the Newroz celebration do you?”

“No. I plan it just, but I cannot be there.”

Leigh gets more information later in the story. By this time, she has met Kurdish refugees dying in tents, and she has started to write their story. Here Ahmet is telling her about his cell’s meeting the night before and what they discussed:

“We are planning Newroz. It is very important, a very strong day for my people.”

March 21st was only a couple of weeks away. Ahmet explained that this would be, as always, a celebration of spring and the new year for the people of East Turkey and parts of Syria, Iraq and Iran. The anti-government groups sought to protect the Kurdish people so that they could dress in traditional costume and dance in village squares without the army harassing them.

“Write this,” dictated Ahmet. “Ahmet says, ‘Freedom is not cheap. It is better for a Kurd to die dancing than in a burning house.’”

“Like that. With his finger in the air,” said Leigh, writing.

Newroz would happen no matter what, Ahmet pointed out. The people would be out. The only variable was what the army’s reaction would be. Some cities planned massive peaceful demonstrations. Others planned simple celebrations. Ahmet said the important thing was the Kurdish people would be seen asserting their identity and culture. The truth was Newroz had become a propaganda vehicle. It was an assertion of Kurdish identity, encouraged by pro-Kurdish groups. Ahmet said the largest demonstrations were organized in cities with weak Kurdish undergrounds. This would occupy M.I.T.’s (the secret police) attention. As well, none of the important leaders would attend. The goal was complete safety for the demonstrators.

“What else did you talk about?” asked Leigh.

This was my reality when I lived in Turkey in the mid-90s. Newroz was a time of fear and supreme courage. I preferred delightful family picnics to public gatherings; I hated the feeling of ducking my head, checking my back, walking in front of soldiers with guns in hand.

I cannot adequately share my shock when during later visits to Turkey I learned that the Turkish government had done an about-face and declared Newroz to be a Turkish holiday! If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I guess.

“The Turkish government suddenly announced that the Kurdish new year’s holiday Newroz, was in fact a Turkish holiday commemorating the day the Turks first left their ancestral Asian homeland, Ergenekon. The day was renamed Nevruz since the letter ‘w’ was not in the Turkish alphabet.” (Nationalisms and Politics in Turkey by Casier & Jongerden)

In Iran, a table called Haft-seen is displayed at Newroz. Haft-seen means 7S because seven items beginning with the letter ‘s’ must be on the table along with other more personal items. The seven items are: “Sumac (crushed spice of berries) to symbolize the sunrise and the spice of life, Senjed (sweet dry fruit of the lotus tree) for love and affection,Serkeh (vinegar) for patience and age, Seeb (apples) for health and beauty, Sir(garlic) for good health, Samanu (wheat pudding) for fertility and the sweetness of life, and Sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass) for rebirth and renewal of nature.” Huffpost Religion

Personal additions to the Haft-seen table may include poetry, books, a mirror (reflection on the past year), a bowl of real goldfish (new life), colored eggs (fertility), coins (prosperity), flowers (spring), and candles (light and happiness).

I photographed this Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant, 462 Rideau St., Ottawa. The owner was so pleased with my interest that she explained every item on the table to me.

Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant celebrates Newroz.

Haft-seen table at Saffron Restaurant celebrates Newroz.

Happy Spring! Happy Newroz!

Refugee 613

I was teaching “housing” to a literacy class one morning, and I passed around a pile of photos. The photos were of places I have lived: a tiny Japanese apartment with tatami mat floors, a windowless room in Kathmandu, a cave in Turkey, the Canadian bungalow I grew up in. I had photos of residences I have visited: a villa in Istanbul, Windsor Palace, an orphanage in Bhaktapur, a yacht in the Mediterranean, a hut in Kerala… a floor-less tent in Kurdistan.

Kurdish refugee tent, March 1996, Kurdistan

Kurdish refugee tent, March 1996, Kurdistan, photo: Laurie Fraser

A shout rose, “Laurie, my house! My house same!”

Other students joined in- “Yes, same my house! Refugee camp!”

A number of the students were refugees from Bhutan who fled to Nepal 2 decades ago. I was shocked at the recognition- this tent, this shocking poverty- was getting grins of recognition.

Photos credit

I suppose refugees’ homes are similar whether they are great groups of tents (more than 35,000 lived in the Nepali refugee camps at their peak) or 54 people in 3 tents on a great plain (the Kurdish refugees that I met in 1996). Some camps are big enough to attract aid; some are isolated and without aid. But home is home and even in refugee camps I hear of pets, sickness, births, friends, jobs, domestic abuse, alcoholism and weddings.

Bhutanese refugees banner.jpg

Lately I’ve been hearing a good many refugee stories- at fundraisers for Syrians, on the radio and in the newspapers. I heard a Vietnamese refugee speak of her experience as a “Boat Person” in 1978: piracy on the open sea, arrival at Malaysia who turned them away (“We’re full”) and the heroic captain who took his over-filled boat of 300 desperate, sick and twice-robbed passengers back to the Malaysian coast in the middle of night and destroyed the floor of the boat so that it would sink forcing them all to swim ashore where the Malaysians had no choice but to accept them as refugees. And then finding a way out of there and on to Canada, learning English, settling and integrating.

A refugee from Iran told of sitting on her couch ducking as the bombs whistled overhead, yearning to go to school and then the bombing of her school. Just 10 years old and haunted by the school superintendent who had lived there with his family- all were killed as she sat her couch. Now she is a successful professional in Canada- a physician, a mother who sometimes doesn’t want to sleep and see that family in her nightmares.

A young man from Congo who was captured and forced to be a soldier at age 11. He escaped and ran through the jungle for three days. He is a student now at an Ottawa university. He apologized: “My story is short because my age is short.”

And this week a CBC Radio interviewer will come to my school to interview refugees and broadcast their stories. Well, there’s no shortage of stories at my school of 166 students, a third of them refugees. We have a Syrian family already: the mother and father in English class, a preschooler in the childcare. I met the woman in September. “From Syria?” I asked. “Yes”, she understood. “Welcome,” I said, “I am happy you got here.”

The stories are similar. They are of loss and fear and desperation. There is terrible grief for the people left behind. The refugees are similar too, in that they are all wounded. (We have a student who lost her eye when her neighbour’s house was bombed in Baghdad- she considers herself lucky. We have students with bullets in their bodies, students who limp….) They are wounded emotionally and mentally- sometimes they cry and tell the teachers they are like their mother, their sister who died, only because we give them kindness and attention. They can’t focus when they first arrive at school, often still in shock at the changes in their lives.

What do they say about Canada? “I love Canada because Canada is safe.” “Canada is peace. I miss my country but no peace in my country.”

I will never forget a woman who came to school one morning absolutely ecstatic: “My husband go jail! Police come! My husband hitting, hitting. Neighbour telephone 911. Neighbour! I don’t know neighbour- she call police! She help me! My country no one help me. Everyone know refugee camp- my husband hitting, hitting, me crying, crying. No one help me. Canada help everything. I love Canada. I love Canada people.”

I was teaching opposites one day: hot- cold, tall-short, rich-poor. I asked my student, “Are you rich or poor?”. This refugee with a spouse and 2 children receives about $2,000/month from social assistance. Her rent is $1,200. It doesn’t include utilities.

“I am rich,” she answered, smiling.

“Really?” I asked. “Little money, little shopping, small apartment- one bedroom.”

“Yes, rich. Thank you Canada.”

To help the Syrian refugees coming to Ottawa please contact Refugee 613.

Past Lives (Energy healing by Laurie Fraser.)

A shorter version of this article was published in Tone Magazine, July/August 2015:

We carry energy from our past lives. Sometimes it affects our circumstances in this life.

When I was younger, I refused to wear turtlenecks or necklaces; I was born with a birthmark on my neck; I freaked when a friend jokingly put her hands around my throat. Recently I learned about a past life where I was choked to death. I was a male who was attacked from behind in the dark. (Boston, 1818)

I am able to communicate with energy by using muscle testing & clairvoyance.  When performing a healing, I sometimes clear old energy from past lives that is stored or stuck in organs or chakras. When I remove it, the body has one less thing to carry. Also it decreases the likelihood of repeating the same patterns. (Old energy can attract more of the same.)

I worked on a preschooler who sometimes wouldn’t eat, often expressing worry about whether it was “the last one”. He saved his Hallowe’en candy. He wouldn’t finish a box of cereal, insisting it be saved, even when his parents assured him there was more at the store.

His energy led me to a lifetime he spent on the western coast of South America. He was the mother of many children living in abject poverty. The husband had died and she had few recourses. I cleared “fear of lack” from his root chakra. He is still careful boy, but he left the obsession behind.

A toddler who woke with night terrors, shouting “Leave me alone!” when his parents tried to comfort him, had been killed in his last life. He was a woman who’d been raped and murdered in her bed. I cleared that, and the night terrors stopped immediately.

More commonly I work on adults:

A women’s anger led to 4 lifetimes ago in Kazakhstan: A woman born in 1642, died from a bladder infection at age 45. She’d been “pissed off” about her irresponsible husband.

A cat’s aggressiveness led to 5 lifetimes ago: She was a cat then too, tortured by her owner.

A man’s impotence led to 2 lifetimes ago in China: Helplessness and grief about his son’s death.

A woman’s infection led to her last life in the States: She died from infection 10 days after giving birth. The child who she didn’t live to raise became her sister today. The old energy was removed from her spleen.

A woman’s grief about her divorce led to 7 lifetimes ago: Her ex-husband in her current life was her brother then. They lived where the north of Iran is now. She adored her older brother who left on a spiritual journey with a holy man; she suffered terribly when he left. Although he assured her that he would return, he never did. She never got over it. The block was in her heart chakra. Removing the old heartbreak made it easier to cope with today’s loss.

A child, afraid of her Epi-pen: 3 lifetimes ago she was an indigenous man who was shot.

Me, reticent to take a leap of faith: in the 1500s, I was a male spiritual leader in South India who felt deserted by God when a devastating flood killed hundreds of his followers.

For me, the most mind-blowing part of this work has been understanding that sometimes we are at the mercy of our energy. Even centuries-old energy! Until it is removed, that is.

review: Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure by Sarah MacDonald

Australian Sarah MacDonald records her two-year adventure in India in the oddest ways. At times, especially at the end of the book, she is personal and shares her reasons for wanting spirituality in her life, but it’s a long wait for that. It seems more of a lark for most of the book- she visits religious festivals, temples, schools and synagogues in the most superficial way possible. Is it possible to sincerely examine 10 religions in two years? MacDonald demonstrates- it is not.

I was offended by someone spending a week in Srinagar, talking to a few Muslims and then announcing “Islam taught me about submission.” Is she joking? Islam is far far more than that and she personally submitted to nothing in Kashmir unless one wants to count houseboat rides. So that’s the kind of thing that got under my skin- a quick look at a religion, a glib summary and on to the next. MacDonald just doesn’t seem sincere in her quest- perhaps it’s the tone that verges on arrogant:

“I’ve always thought it hilarious that Indian people chose the most boring, domesticated, compliant and stupid animal on earth to adore.” (She means Hindus, not Indians, and she is refering to the cow.)

MacDonald doesn’t get into the depths of any of these “religious” experiences. She announces she is an atheist and then seems to poke fun at some practices, yet she sporadically participates: dunks herself in the Ganges and gets sick; spends ten days in silence.; has an interesting conversation with a rabbi.

That aside, I love India and it was wonderful to armchair travel to places both previously visited and not. The descriptions of Pondicherry,  Dharamsala, Vipassana, and Allahabad’s festival, Sai Baba’s ashram, and Amritsar’s Golden Temple, are full of fascinating detail. I was especially interested in the descriptions of the Parsi and Jewish communities.

The descriptions of living with Indian servant in New Delhi were fun: the iron that was stolen, the need to accommodate two cultures in one house, the dance lessons.

The writing at times tries too hard and distracts one from the story: “Perhaps Christianity has got something to give the world apart from Easter eggs, the Osmonds and guilt. For the first time, I see the faith, divinity and goodness in the faith of my forefathers.” That sentence structure (a comma’ed list of descriptors) is her favourite, sometimes used 4 or 5 times in a row!

I think MacDonald failed to consider beforehand just how personal she would get in this account and so that aspect is annoyingly uneven. She worries about her boyfriend sometimes (he is a reporter covering regional tragedies including a trip to Afghanistan just days after 9/11), but because she covers their wedding in a paragraph and never shares much about this relationship, the reader doesn’t care about this faceless character.

I often put the book down. In the time it took me to read it, I read two others which I heartily recommend: The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah and The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. MacDonald could learn something from these humble thoughtful authors.

Look, if you’re going to write something personal, you have to get personal- doing it self-consciously half-way is not satisfying to readers. Bare your soul or write a documentary.

Tourists detained in Malaysia for causing an earthquake? Not exactly.

A worker cleans an Islamic plaque of calligraphy saying ''Mohammad'' on the morning of Eid al-Fitr in a mosque in Kota Bharu, in Malaysia's northeastern state of Kelantan in this January 8, 2000 file photo. REUTERS/Staff/Files photo details

Out today at my neighbourhood diner for breakfast and my weekly exposure to a television. Reading the CBC news-feed, I learned that 2 Canadian tourists have been detained for causing an earthquake in Malaysia that killed 13 people. The CBC offered this reason: superstition. In Malaysia, it is believed that the tourists (clearly too dumb to be travellers, well, unless they’re drunken 20-year-old travellers) “disrespected the mountain by removing their clothes and taking photos”.

I smile ruefully and dig into fruit salad reflecting on the workplace discussions to take place tomorrow: judging Malaysians to be backward superstitious people, and the tourists to be unfairly detained.

In fact, the tourists flagrantly broke the laws of this Islamic country. The Canadian government warns us when we pick up our passports- you are subject to the laws of the country you travel to.

If you go to an Islamic country, be well-versed in Islamic law. It is unlawful to strip nude in a public place, and depending on the country, it may be unlawful to wear shorts or short sleeves. These tourists disrespected the country, the law and the culture. I wonder if they did some research before they went- as recently as a month ago, Malaysia’s movement toward harsher Islamic laws (stonings, amputations) was news-worthy.

The charge against the Canadians (and friends) is not disrespecting the mountain. They have been “barred from leaving the country on the offence of gross indecency”. (CTV News)

Sure, it’s hard for a Canadian to think and behave as if they have no rights- we almost can’t think without our rights. I had this problem in Turkey. The following excerpt from The Word Not Spoken illustrates:

(Leigh has just returned to Goreme, Turkey to see Ahmet, her new love.)

Ahmet and Leigh lugged her bags up the great hill that was Goreme. Then they climbed many icy stone steps to a patio. They dropped the bags at the door of Kaya Pension and sagged against it, catching their breath. Ahmet chipped away at the ice on the door with his keys, trying to open it.

“Why are we here?”

“We will stay here until my pension is open,” he said. “I am working every day to open it.”

“Your pension is closed?” This was news to Leigh.

“The gendarme locked the door. Even my clothes are locked in there.”

“But why?”

“The mayor of this village will not give me a license because I am Kurdish. He doesn’t want Kurdish business in his village. But I will not go.” He stabbed at the ice and chips flew all over them.

“But that’s no reason to not give you a license.” She crossed her arms.

“I tried to buy one, but he will not give it to me.”

“But what is his reason? He must give a reason, like there aren’t enough windows or enough toilets, or some rule like that?”

“What are you talking about? Did you listen? He told me the reason. It is because we are Kurdish.” He yanked on the door but it didn’t open.

“But that’s discrimination!”

Ahmet gave up on the door for the moment and turned to her. “Come here, Leigh.” He held her cold dry hands in his cold wet hands. “You are in Turkey now. We are not protected by any laws. The government is prejudiced. The court is prejudiced. The mayor can do whatever he wants.”

“Oh.” Leigh felt ridiculous. Her human rights were so basic; it was hard to think without them.

“A German journalist was here, and I told her my story. She took a picture of the pension and the sign I put on the door. It said, ‘This Kurdish business closed by Turkish government without reason.’ She put it in a German newspaper.”


Book Club Love

Book clubs are enormously popular in Canada- many can be found online, but most seem to be “just the neighbours” or “we used to work together.” They range from 6 friends drinking wine and talking very little about the suggested book (partly because not everyone read it) to committed readers interested in deep discussion. Most clubs allow members to take turns recommending books, and from what I see, the majority of book clubs are women-only.

One club that I visited read The Importance of Being Earnest the month after reading The Word Not Spoken. They read the play aloud- each member chose a character, and they read with much merriment. In fact, they dressed in period costume, and the meeting lasted well into the night.

Random House of Canada has an annual contest for book clubs. In 2013, “Book Friends ’72” in Ottawa won after 40 years of regular meetings re: 360 books!

I was only a child when I studied the “Book Club Selections” pages of magazines. Do you remember the stamps that could be torn out and pasted on the order card? I imagined a stamp about my book, and all the people who would pick that stamp.

Writers talk about the “the book club circuit”. Finding the clubs are the first challenge and then getting them to read your book is the next. From there, word of mouth travels. It is really grass roots for a book to become known through book clubs. Fifty Shades of Grey owes its success entirely to book clubs- let’s face it, it is poorly written, the last 2 books embarrassingly so, but as a book club selection, it was perfect fodder for interesting conversation. (Of course, there was nothing grass roots about Oprah’s Book Club- being recommended by her equaled overnight success.)

I’ve been to five book clubs now as a guest author. It’s an all-around win to attend such an evening: the immediacy of the discussion, the personal details, the readers’ feedback.

Mainly, book clubs want to know:

-How much is true?

-What happened to Jess in real life?

-How long did it take to write; the writing process/publishing process.

-Am I currently in touch with the family: How are they now? Did Shana marry Memo?

-How do Kurdish and Turkish readers respond to the book?

Mainly, I want to know:

-Did you notice the themes: the animals and water and colours?

-Was the number of deaths too hard on you? How did you feel about the ending?

-How sympathetic did you feel toward Ahmet? The Kurdish situation at the time?

-Did you notice the clues that Ahmet has taken over the story?

-Did you see the “beadwork” in the first and last scenes? The repeated images and words in different contexts?

Some book clubs are into wine and salty hors d’oeuvres; some serve tea in china and homemade cherry tarts. In my experience, they’ve been pleasant groups of women aged 30+ who are travelled, educated and vitally interested in the world around them. I always leave feeling incredibly validated- the “word” is spreading; my promise has been kept.

To release the book, to stop writing and polishing it, was very sad for me. After all, it had been in my pocket for 18 years, and I had spent many holidays, weekends and nights with this friend. It was the place I most loved to go. When I gave up the writing, I feared I’d lost this place, this escape. It has been a relief to learn that I haven’t lost it. In fact, I have only shared it. When I go to that place now, I find others there who love it too and who want to talk about it. To spend an evening talking to people who know who Abla is, who can talk about Ahmet’s mental state and Leigh’s choices, is enormously comforting to me.

In appreciation, I give free e-books to book club members. I bring photos, more personal than the pics on this website. I talk about the healing and personal aspects of my writing journey. But mostly, for me, it is the joy of sharing this story that makes visiting a book club an absolute high.

photo credit

rue Mont Royal

Easter Sunday.

Mont Royal metro station

Mont Royal metro station

Spring sun opens my eyes-

white curtains, lime walls

church bells chime.

Spring sun hits sidewalk.

Many feet hit rue Mont Royal-

some of them furry.

Some stop at the Metro-

$2.00 maple taffy

from a tray of sweet snow.

Spring sun sings with me,

a fiddle, a guitar and an accordion.

I don’t know how long I will dance here,

who will speak to me,

where the flow of feet will lead me