A loss of perspective

These days, I am an infrequent blogger, so when I do blog, you know it’s because I really want to. We just returned from a 10-day road-trip vacation to Chicago and Missouri, and I am fairly brimming o’er with inspiration. The primary purpose of travel was attending the ISNA Convention. Before you roll your eyes at “another academic event,” note that I attended not a single session or panel at the Convention, and my three goals there were a) seeing friends b) shopping in the bazar c) sneaking off to Tahoora on Devon Street. Still, I find that the Qur’anic verse above strikes a chord with me right now, referring as it does, at least on the surface, to travel and sightseeing:

Do they not travel through the land, so that their hearts (and minds) may thus learn wisdom and their ears may thus learn to hear? Truly it is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts which are in their breasts.

My first awakening was on the first day of driving, when we took an exit to get a quick dinner. Finding ourselves quite unexpectedly amidst an apocalyptic scene of blocks upon blocks of collapsed homes and businesses, with furniture crushed underneath, we realized we were in Joplin, MO – the scene of the tornado on May 22, 2011. Struck quite dumb, we drove between leveled buildings. In that area, bare knobbly trees stuck out at odd angles in the horizontal landscape, as if civilization had lost its hold on the city, and the elements had resumed their hold on the land. We were trying, also, to track a Chinese restaurant, fearful that we would eventually find it amidst the rubble. It turned out to be completely intact, next door to a building, housing a technology business, that had fallen apart.

The news and images from Joplin, MO had shaken our confidence in the predictability of life, but our physical presence amidst the scenes of disaster changed our hearts. I watched stragglers around Joplin and wondered how many had been rendered homeless, how many uninsured families had lost everything, and how they would fare henceforth. I wondered how that one day in May had changed Joplin. Even Raihana, my 5-year old (when we explained the scene in simple terms), prayed for the citizens of Joplin to find their feet and to resume normal lives.

The skyscrapers and lights of Chicago wiped this remembrance from our minds entirely, and now we rejoiced in the beauty and the majesty of the human endeavor. Museums and theaters of all kinds dotted the landscape, so many that you would need weeks to enjoy them all. And nicely hemming the city with blue, Lake Michigan spread its skirts out for families and individuals to enjoy. On an architectural cruise on the lake and the river (overpriced, like almost everything else) I learned to look at buildings with new eyes for both utility and beauty, and also heard about the Dave Matthews incident and the great fire that destroyed Chicago in 1871. We frugally sampled some of the delights of Chicago, and experienced all over again the headaches of parking in a big city.

On our way back from Chicago to Oklahoma, we stopped in St Louis. I was reminded all over again of how parenthood changes our lives. Here we were, in a big city at night, and fairly dazzled by the beauty of the city, in a way that – thanks to early bedtimes – we have rarely been since Raihana’s birth in 2006. She was a trooper over the vacation, despite  late bedtimes and long hours of occupying a carseat, but these late bedtimes, though delightful for her, led to several inevitable meltdowns and total exhaustion (not to mention parental guilt).

Svend suggested we stop for Meramec Caverns, so after a surprisingly affordable night in the local Marriott (thanks to a slow week-day), we drove over to Meramec. The caverns are privately owned, but the land and Meramec River adjoins state-owned park land and water. The sight of people zip-lining over the river greeted our eyes as we drove in, and we had to contain our excitement and forego the pleasure: Raihana was too young to zip-line, and the price was too steep for us, after a week-long vacation. A gentle green river rippled near the campgrounds, and families with babies and toddlers camped and fished nearby.

If you visit Meramec Caverns in Stanton, MO, remember to take a layer of clothing along with you. Despite the heat of the day, we found ourselves cold inside the dark depths under the mountain. I wondered at just how cold it must be in the winter, but the guide reminded me that the temperature remained stable here at about 60 degrees. Native Americans used it as a summer shelter though (according to the informational display in the caverns) there were few “major” tribes in the region, and whites and Indians co-existed relatively peacefully until Indians left “voluntarily” to “avoid” white migration.

In the 1890s, people used it as a summer resort, almost, and square-danced in one huge room inside the cave. Saltpeter, or potassium nitrate was discovered in the cave, and used for gunpowder. The caves are famed as hideout for Jesse James, as the outlaws Jesse and Frank James may have hidden out in the cave: the cave owner Lester Dill discovered, to his great good fortune, a set of artifacts belonging to Jesse James, in the cave. It’s a good story anyway and lends itself well to the sale of outlaw artifacts in the tourist shop.

But the natural limestone rock formations in the caverns are its most prized features. Stalactites, stalagmites and pillars (which is what is born when stalactites meet stalagmites) in amazing formations follow your trail in the dark depths of the cave, and a river of mirror-like clarity (Mirror River) lies on either side, reflecting the rocks above.

Naturally, part of the charm of a cave experience is the fear and awe inspired by the utter darkness. I walked ahead a little, before the guide turned on the lights, just to plunge myself into that total darkness. Most of our lives, we urban folk never truly experience darkness uncontaminated by light, and a good deal of a nature trip is molded and dented by human commercialism, into just the right shape to earn your dollars. My few seconds of darkness helped me get a tiny glimpse of why seekers throughout the ages, such as our Prophet Muhammad (peace on him), occupied cave spaces far away from human settlements in search of ultimate answers.

In a large room (named the ‘theater’) there is a 70-foot high, 60 feet wide and 35 feet thick ‘curtain’ or ‘frozen waterfall’ of mineral deposit, about 70 millions years old, possibly the largest cave formation in the world. The ‘wine-table’ is a rare  formation in a room of popcorn mineral formations, and “onyx mountain” – a mountain of onyx, literally – is about 500 feet around, 200 feet thick and 33 feet high, and still growing on one side.

It was my utter inability to imagine 70 million years, but my extreme awe before this ages-old natural formation that jolted me from my mundane sense of the everyday. This onyx mountain and this curtain of rock had been here, under the earth, undisturbed for the most part, for longer than I can even imagine. As my little five-year old sprinted and danced in an attempt to stay warm, and a baby shrieked like a bat in the darkness, I was struck fairly dumb by amazement by the sight and smell of millions of years around me.

When on earth as opposed to under it, I am usually preoccupied by the quest for my little victories – personal and professional – that bring me enjoyment, profit, and security. I am engrossed in my challenges as I ascend the stairways that my fellow humans have created around me. I think in terms of me, my claims on my environment, my family, my child, my parents, my relatives, my friends, my career, my home, my country. Very often, in fact, I struggle with how little empathy I really can squeeze out for the suffering of those not connected with me, and how quickly I forget the earthquake in Azad Kashmir and the tornado in Joplin, as I relax on the beach in Chicago and stare at the fish flitting in the water. A prisoner of my own perspective, I cannot get out of my point of view. Eons may as well not have happened, as far as my own forty years are concerned. Compared to the birth of Raihana in 2006, 70 million years are naught. Below the surface of the earth, onyx mountain and the curtain of rock have been happening, untouched by my disasters and my tragedies. It is both profoundly disturbing and immensely reassuring to know that Being and the universe are so unimaginably greater than myself that my own views and perspective do not even graze the surface of it all.

For a few seconds, and a few millimeters deep into my heart, I lost my sense of perspective. I lost my sense of being at the center of everything, and knew that I could never in this lifetime know Reality truly and properly. In being entirely shaken in my confidence, I was comforted.

Tired as he climbed the stairs to the ‘theater,’ Svend carried a shivering Raihana in his arms. In love, we lose perspective. At least a little bit, in parenting, we lose our sense of self, and are able to open ourselves to a fraction of the eons and the enormous events and the Being that lie beyond our smallness. In traveling, too, we lose a bit of that perspective, and educate our eyes to take in more than they usually do.

As a Sufi fable goes, during a terrible famine, a seeker, on listening in to a couple of vultures, heard them blessing the days that brought them abundance of food. Experiencing a multiplicity of perspectives, what we imagine to be good or bad events lose their certain colors and become definable in a multitude of ways. What is good for the beef-eater is not good for the cow; what is good for the sheep may be bad for the shepherd; what is great fun for Raihana is usually an hour of cleaning for me.

I lament the events that bring me loss and rejoice in profit, unable to imagine a perspective that is inclusive of all. Not being God, I will never be able to have a God’s eye view, but in my questions about why bad things happen, I can know, for a split second at least, this one truth: I do not know what is bad and what is good. Knowledge is power: but to acknowledge one’s ignorance in the face of awe – is freedom.

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