We had a beautiful rain Saturday night, a rain that I caught just at its hinted beginning while on my bike, a rain that I felt even while safe on the balcony. The rain cooled the earth, soaked into the soil, and was then gone from the sky, moving across vast oceans.
The following morning I was delighted by some new shoots from the seeds that I planted last week. I watered them, noting how the plants closest to the edge of the balcony were still a tiny bit damp from the rain. After a trip to the nursery for fertilizer and potting soil I cleaned up some dead leaves, planted new seeds, and basked in being part of the cycle of life.
I used to get upset when my plants dropped leaves, used to ask what I was doing wrong. But I have learned a good deal over three years with this little garden of potted herbs and leafy, occasionally flowering plants. I have learned through the experience of people who have brought plants to life for much longer than I, and I know now that plants are hardy and wise. It is a pleasure to watch as older leaves fall to make room for new ones and to know that when herbs go to seed, they grow again.
Sometimes the plants need more water or more space, but sometimes it is less water and bit of coaxing. They have taught me to be patient, to watch, to listen, and to look. These are active processes. Plants require that we care and cultivate and nourish. These are verbs. Verbs are actions.
And I wonder: If we cared as much for people as we do for our plants, if we cared as much for the Earth herself, what kind of world could we build?
These are the reflections brought to my mind on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that comes ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, on the Jewish calendar. This new year is one that needs us to take action, to care, cultivate and nourish, to love. Many of us need to heal, need this year to be better than the last.
What if we gave more to the people in our lives than we took? What if we expanded this awareness to acquaintances, or people we know only by sight, or simply the people we pass by in our daily routines?
Do we dare go further?
Could we act with awareness of people we’ve never met in places we’ll never see, people who have names we’ve never heard and speak languages we didn’t know existed?
And further still, to the Earth herself?
A new year can be seen as an opportunity for deep introspection of who we are, who we want to become, and the world we want to create. My dreams for this world are simple in the sense that they exist in color and are textured with wind and water, mountains and stars. Any child could draw this, and then might add the people that I see smiling and holding and loving.
But these dreams are impossible if I’m dreaming alone.
The solemnity of the Jewish calendar at this time of year, the emphasis on the collective and on one’s responsibility within it, reminds me that every time we water a new seed, smile at a stranger, hug a loved one, or share food with others, every time we partake in creating a better world, we are no longer dreaming alone.
Tonight is Erev Rosh Hashanah, the eve of the Jewish new year. We are celebrating 5781 journeys around the sun. These are 5781 journeys of love and loss, peace and war, fear and joy, hopelessness and solace.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve had such a strange six months that I’m not feeling the familiar ache to be with my family that I usually experience around the High Holy Days. I felt that ache acutely for weeks and weeks and perhaps I’m just accustomed to it now. I think the unprecedented life we’ve all been living is what has actually left me quite calm about my plans to welcome the new year quietly and with reflection rather than attending socially distant religious services in a normally communal environment.
Given everything, it seems fitting to begin a new year taking explicit action at making the world a better place – the world needs it. This is why I decided to go to the blood bank right after school. The queue both inside and at the door indicated that I was not the only one feeling the need to act and it was heartening to be in the company of so many strangers.
As I walked slowly home from the bus stop, I felt the strength of my heartbeat and I felt it working hard. The world needs us to work hard – it will not heal on its own.
As this year flows into the next my wish is, as always, for peace. Peace among friends, among strangers, with the earth, water, and air. And my commitment is to take actions to achieve it. I welcome all to join me.
Bratislava marked the end of my winter adventure through Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia (with a brief stop in Italy). By the time I got there, I was used to the cold and the short daylight hours and I was also very glad to meet up with a friend the day after I arrived.
One of the important things I learned on this trip is that driving in Europe requires a vignette, basically a road pricing sticker that includes road tax and can vary based on roads driven and distance. The cost of a vignette is quite reasonable but the fine for not having one is rather steep. Turns out I’d been pretty lucky because I didn’t learn this until I’d been driving around for five days. After buying an online vignette for Slovakia, one of the few countries that allows this, I took back roads out of Maribor back into Austria. As I drove through a vineyard on a road with one and a half lanes, a border official waved and that was it. I do very much like this about Europe. Shortly afterwards, I stopped to look around.
The winding, twisting, narrow roads led into small towns with winery after winery, each clearly visible on the surrounding hills. Thinking of the lives that had been built here gave me pause.
Getting to Bratislava was simple but getting into Bratislava was a little more complicated and I marvelled at how people had navigated before technology. I was more than happy to park the car and leave it for the next two days. Getting around Bratislava on foot is very easy and there’s extensive public transportation.
I was staying across the street from Bratislava Castle, the grounds of which are open at all times. I walked through it that afternoon and again the following morning.
Bratislava Castle was first built in the ninth century but the current version was rebuilt beginning in the 1950s. Today, there are museums that are open to the public, as well. I was more interested in the garden . . .
. . . and the churches and other buildings located just down the hill. There were real signs of life and ideas here, which I always enjoy seeing.
I took a quick walk through town to get my bearings, surprised at how very few people were around. I was also surprised at the number of hipster establishments that didn’t seem to match the atmosphere. The streets were really quiet and the sky, no longer the bright blue of Slovenia, gave the city a feel of being tucked into winter. Although I couldn’t tell you why, I got the impression that Bratislava could be a very stark place and it did not feel like anywhere I’d been before.
The UFO bridge certainly added to that impression.
But then I stepped inside a brewery (and then another one . . . and then another two the next day) and I found all the people. They were laughing and talking and joking and almost no one was looking at their phones. This was very, very different from what I see in Asia and I felt suddenly warmer for being around people who were interacting with each other and the space around them.
The following day was one of walking and wandering. I met up with a friend and it was great to have the company and to share this new experience. We walked through the old town and quarters of grand buildings . . .
. . . through the city to visit the Blue Church . . .
. . . and took a short walk from the Blue Church to the site of Bratislava’s only remaining synagogue.
Earlier that day, right next to St. Martin’s Cathedral in the old town, we’d seen an exhibit on the street about the synagogue of Bratislava that, despite protests by the community, had been torn down in the 1960s to build the UFO bridge. Bratislava has a long and extensive Jewish history and there were historical markers about it around the city, including a museum dedicated to Jewish culture.
We also walked across the Danube River . . .
. . . and found ourselves in a park that must have been a relic of Bratislava’s communist history. Imagine the stories these benches and trees could tell! Or the last people to sit here. Who are they? Where are they?
Just across the street from the Presidential Palace, we saw another relic of communism – a fountain that had once clearly been a showpiece but was also in disrepair.
Another notable element of walking around Bratislava was the graffiti tagging everywhere. I felt a real lack of reverence and desire to be heard and I liked that attitude very much. Things that have been needn’t always be. And Bratislava was a little bit of everything.
The next morning, it was time to go but I really wasn’t ready to leave just yet. Instead, the last day having a car made it possible to visit Devín Castle, a stone castle located 10km from Bratislava. It was built in the thirteenth century and was then destroyed by Napoleon’s army in the early 1800s. The sun had come out again but the wind was really strong. It was easy to see why this castle had been built up on a windy hill at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers.
Thanks to a photo exhibition, I learned that the Iron Curtain had run directly in front of the castle to separate Bratislava from Austria across the river. I knew that the Velvet Revolution, the history of which Bratislava is very proud, had toppled communism here but I didn’t know that the Iron Curtain was a physical structure. In school, we’d talked about it as a concept, not as something tangible. Learning about that was really powerful and reminded me again of how much I don’t know.
After the cold wind, the obvious choice was to stop for some hot wine once more before the last part of the journey, which would again follow Austrian wine roads because they’re so much prettier than the highway.
And then all too soon, the car was dropped off and I had far too much time to kill at the airport. As is my habit, I drank a hot chocolate and reflected on the roads travelled. I had seen parts of the world that I’d never really imagined seeing and I honestly felt the growth in myself as a person. When I moved to Malaysia in 2014, I never would have known how to go about a trip like this. And here I was with all clothing in my pack worn twice like it was nothing. It has been a long road to get to this point and that I cannot forget.
Sometimes the world feels right to me and over the last few weeks it had. There is solace in that feeling. There is solace in knowing there are places out there where the world feels okay. Thank you, world.
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place