Awe-inspiring In-betweeneness: The Hagia Sophia

There she was, Mary, looking down on us through two sublime prayers from the Koran, in-between. Reverence, resplendence, and a knowingness from two great faiths gazed upon on all who came to see how the sharing of such a majestic place could be, where co-presence created an alternate and transcendent reality.

I learned of the Hagia Sophia while traveling with a friend deep in the Andean mountains of Peru.  “It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen,” she told me, a lady who, to date, has been one of the most epic seekers I have ever met.  I knew I had to get there.

And so, five years later, here I was, looking up to Mary protecting with Mohammed’s prayers in a space so regal yet so simple.

The building itself impresses and some-what imposes.  Built as a church using collections of materials from many different locations (Egyptian quarry stones, Thessalonian green marble slabs, Bosporian black rocks, and Syrian yellow stones), its original construction employed over ten thousand people.  A slight rundown of history goes something like this: Originally an Eastern Orthodox cathedral (537–1204) converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral (1204–1261) back to an Eastern Orthodox cathedral (1261–1453) transformed to an Imperial mosque (1453–1931) and finally made its way to becoming one of Istanbul’s most famous museums (1935–present).

The story of this place is a good read, spanning many rulers, many earthquakes, renovations, pillages, conversions, murder and mayhem, and divinity and consecration.  It was in the mid 1800s that murals and symbols representing both Christian and Muslim faiths were uncovered, cleaned, or placed up fresh, with the space still officially used as a mosque.

But it is not simply the architecture, materials, or historical presence that bestow such an awe-inspiring character. Instead, this place is known for its peculiar in-between nature, where people can come and feel completely present with two symbols of faiths often split down the center in the modern world. Inside the Hagia Sophia, they are together, holding this space of connection and respect side by side.

If only we could find this space more often, where the most beautiful and dignified aspects come together, each holding its own, yet finding intensity in how they fit together.  This creation of such a sacred space is uniquely understood through two combined into one.

These spaces sitting in-between walls of politics, love, hate, faith, and inspiration embolden the possibility of co-existence, creating a truly magnificent place that attracts over 3 million people a year to witness such a powerful co-presence.

Here no one holds import.  Instead these colors on walls, these sacred symbols of two faiths often at odds, synchronize and remind us what can be experienced from the grace of the in-between.

Have you ever been to these awe-inspiring spaces in-between?

Image Credit: Natasha Majewski

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Walking the Labyrinth

One foot, one foot, one foot in front of the other.  Walk in a line.  Walk zig-zaggy.  Walk side to side. Dance and do yoga.  Just keep moving, one foot, one foot, one foot in front of the other.  Because inside the labyrinth, you are walking yourself to center, however that needs to be.

Labyrinths cross through many cultures as a space that exists within itself.  It is a place to walk through you, a temporary moment to stop what you know and meditate meanderings of your feet, heart, head, and soul to whatever it is you are asking a question about to your own inner space. It is an ancient symbol of wholeness and wandering.  Unlike a maze, a labyrinth only moves in one direction.

It is a place to lose oneself without getting lost.

I often walk the labyrinth in one of my favorite parks in my city.  Hidden from most, it is a place of quietness.  Leading up to its entrance paves a pathway lined with bricks sketched with names of people who lead the way.  Names whose presence alone makes you slow down as you enter.

Sometimes I walk slowly, and sometimes I dance through the labyrinth.  Sometimes it is early morning, midday, and on rare occasion, in the light of a full moon.  Every once in a while, I’ll stop midway and do some yoga.  Other times I’ll twist and twirl. Sometimes I hear nothing, sometimes I hear the whistles of bystander birds, and sometimes the mood is set by an amazing Joanna Newsom song.

Often I am alone in this special place, and when I get to the middle, I often have a chance to pray and make wishes from the center of the labyrinth.  Not everyone knows this trick, but if I ever find someone in the center with me, I share this tidbit. Once a small boy about six walked it behind me, and when he made it to the circle where I was sitting, I told him this secret.  His wish was that everyone could breathe in space.  Totally an idea I can get behind.

We can all make these wishes in these in-between spaces of healing and movement leading oneself to one’s own inside.  Cultures around the world use labyrinths for prayer, mediation, and healing.  It is as if once you step inside, everything moves alongside your walking prayer.

What is it about these spaces that intersect our normality and allow us to literally step inside them for a moment, disconnecting from who it was we were supposed to be and allowing ourselves to surrender to who we are?  Walking the labyrinth allows for just this kind of jump in-between.

Have you walked somewhere in-between today?

Image Credit: “Duomo Lucca cathedrale Lucques labyrinthe” by Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – g

In-Betweeny Geographers

The power of in-between places has been studied by many earth explorers.  Here are a few that really delve into those abstract identities of what makes a place a place.

John Kirtland Wright: In the 1940s, John Kirtland Wright pioneered concepts of human perception as an important factor to geographical understanding, writing about how the feel of a place was as important as the actual material composition. Wright called to fellow geographers to embrace rather than disregard their perceptions of the world, allowing their own siren call of the imagination to lead them, and their aesthetic subjectivity, with creativity as its guide, to direct world discoveries (Wright, 1947).

Wright, J. K. (1947). Terrae incognitae: The place of the imagination in geography. Annals for the Association of American Geographers, 37(1), 1-15. 

Edward Casey:  Humanistic and philosophical geographer Edward Casey explores multiple concepts of place, with perception as an important part of the process of understanding the world around us, to which he called us placelings.  Casey writes:

“Minimally places gather things in their midst — where “things connote various animate and inanimate entities. Places also gather experiences and histories, even languages and thoughts. Think only of what it means to go back to a place you know, finding it full of memories and expectations, old things and new things, the familiar and the strange, and much more besides…(this) power belongs to place itself, and it is a power of gathering.” (1996, p. 24-25)

Casey, E. S. (1996). How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time: Phenomenological prolegomena. In S. a. B. Feld, K.H. (Ed.), Senses of place (pp. 13-52). Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press. 

Keith Basso:  An anthropologist by training, Keith Basso’s work incorporates a philosophical search for place meaning beyond Western thought. In his investigation of Apache people’s connections to landscape, Basso concludes that “sense of place” is experienced in both the “heart and mind” (1996, p. 54). Basso scribes an elder’s poetic expression of his homeland, inspiring the title of his 1996 work Wisdom Sits in Places:

“Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you? Well you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it.” (A passage told by Apache elder Dudley Patterson, p. 70).

Basso, K. H. (1996). Wisdom sits in places:Notes of a Western Apache landscape. In S. B. Feld, K.H. (Ed.), Senses of place (pp. 53-90). Santa Fe, New Mexico School of American Research Press. 

Yi-Fu Tuan:  A paramount figure in the formation of humanistic geography, Yi-Fu Tuan explored phenomenology and existentialism in the landscape, delving into ideas of sense and feeling of place, including how we bond to our environments emotionally. Tuan relates the fundamental importance of connecting an individual’s intimate  relationships to places, writing:

“The feel of the pavement, the smell of the evening air, and the color of autumn foliage become, through long acquaintance, extensions of ourselves-not just a stage but supporting actors in the human drama” (1974, p. 452). 

Tuan, Y.-F. (1974). Topophilia: A study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values (Morningside Edition 1990 ed.). New York: Colombia University Press. rs.

Doreen Massey:  Social geographer Doreen Massey investigates construction of place, arguing that human activity plays a large role in the constant shifting expression of place identity. Massey focuses on the complexities making-up individual identities which transfer to place-making identities  writing  ” conflict between interests and views of what the area is and what it ought to become.” (1991, p. 276).  Massey writes:

“Localities are constructions out of the intersections and interactions of concrete social relations and social processes in a situation of copresence…It is people, not places in themselves, which arereactionary or progressive. (1991, p. 278)

Massey, D. (1991). The political place of locality studies. Environment and Planning A, 23(2), 267-281. 

Who are your favorite in-betweenies?

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Were You Born to Travel?

Did your first savings account have a country you wanted to visit in the title?  Do you dream in multiple languages?  Do you feel safest and strongest and most in your skin on the road with a backpack holding most everything you need in life?

Were you born to travel?

Do you feel more anxiety from the time between destinations than from not knowing if you’ll eat/sleep/get to where you’re going?  Does moving to Africa with a month’s notice sound better than most other things?  Do you cook things you learned in random places while listening to music you found in other random places while drinking wine you tasted in other random places?  Do you know, really know how, to hitchhike/train hop/ walk through mountains?

Were you born to travel?

Have you ever mimed or used animal sounds to obtain something simple like an egg or a Q-tip because you didn’t know the word in the dialect of the country you were in?  Do you have friends from countries most people don’t even know exist?  Do you really know the value of a good travel towel and hiking boots?

Were you born to travel?

Can you sing songs you learned in Andean mountain villages?  Have you ever lived with shamans in the jungle?  Do you know how to navigate through borderlands with no money and no map?

Were you born to travel?

Do you dream of making random ethnic cuisines in other parts of the planet?  Have you seen the stars from different hemispheres?  Do you know the calmness of being lulled to sleep by the movement of the train under you?

Were you born to travel?

Can you fall in love in languages you can’t speak?  Do you know intimate histories of off-the-beaten-track places because the old man in the village told you their stories?  Have you ever danced fire on the streets and sold bracelets to get enough money for a bus ticket?

Were you born to travel?

Do you have at least three maps on the walls of your home?  Do you know the words to silly pop songs because you danced to them in Central European discotheques?  Have you seen the sun rise, standing all alone, on the highest mountain on La Isla del Sol?

Were you born to travel?

Will you remember where your feet have taken you?  Will you know that the stories of places you have walked through make you who you are today?  Will you smile at the memories of epic days filled with too much rain, too little money, being lost in a language you don’t understand, and still being excited to do it the next day?

Perhaps you were born to travel.

Tell me, how do you know you were born to travel.

Image credit: Carolyn Van Lydegraf

The Inside of a Small Home

I saw the inside of a small home today, a home built by four hands with dreams and passions and nails.  A home made to house future imaginings.  A home built for two made into one.

The builder talked about the way they had stained the wooden doorway piece to keep it resistant to rain and to create the start of a beautiful threshold.

He showed me the old tin lining they had collected from an antique store and painted, scratched, and painted again.

He talked about how they had found weathered pieces of wood from a torn-up barn waiting on the side of the road to be reused for something just like this.

He showed me the little hidden places underneath the bench, a bench that had just the right dimensions that had been sketched and resketched.

He told me how they had cut the ladder and painted it, and it had turned green, like it had been left outside for days.

He showed me how the wood turned colors form termites that had eaten away the inside of a tree, leaving an indigo swan song.

He showed me the pop up space in the bathroom for a hairbrush, popping it up and mimicking its use.

He pointed to the earthen paint and the small drawers to hide things away, and he told me of the utmost importance to have a large kitchen to have room for many guests with many dinners.

They had made it from nothing into something that two people could create.  A place to rest, to dream, to build, to create, to love.  And as I sat on top of the loft with the skylight built in for last glimpses at evening stars to send them off into the dream state, I saw how every place, every corner, held this intention.  The intention of creating a home.

I also saw how this home was never going to be as it had been imagined.  That this home was going to change and evolve into new dreams, new faces on pillows, new builds, new flowers in vases on counters, new books to fill a half-filled shelf, new laughter, new tears, new dirty feet, new mouths for new cups of tea, new snuggles, new life stories and processes, and new worlds colliding, contracting, and expanding.

This home this man had built.  This home this woman had built.  This home they had built together.

We build our dream houses, and we build them beautiful.  That is the only way.  And sometimes, their beauty only rests its head for a moment in the way we envision.  Sometimes we put our hearts, our heads, our blisters, our sweat, our nails, our designs, and our imaginings into spaces that materialize different than they are conceptualized.  But we build these spaces beautiful anyways.  It’s really the only way we know how to build our dreams, even though we know this man’s house, this woman’s house, this beautiful house, is always changing.

What are the stories in the walls of your home?

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A Small, Still Moment

It was early morning and the old Jeffersonian quad was quiet.  I was walking, slightly hastily as usual, to my 9:00 Saturday morning class when a strange sound slowly started to pull on my ears.  It was the sound of a violin softly singing into the air.  I slowed and saw her, a young girl standing behind one of the many trees playing.  As I walked past her, I slowed for a moment, but then carried on.

It was only when I could barely hear the sound anymore that I stopped to listen to it, really listen and register in my destination monkey-brain what was transpiring.  Here I was, in my normal routine, and here she was to break it.

I turned around and started slowly walking back toward her, this time fully looking up at the scenario around me and here’s what I had missed: The soft sun of a quiet morning sifting down through 100-year-old giant trees blotting shimmying leaves against a lightened blue sky.  The visceral reaction of a melody of strings moving through the ears, through the skin, and into the heart (strings are my favorite).  The sounds of birds, many different kind of birds singing many different tunes across the branches.  I had somehow missed this scene on my way through the first time.  I had only seen the long sidewalk I had to cross to get to where I was destined to be and that I was on the other side of where I was going.

I stopped and watched her for a while.  I was still aware that I needed to be somewhere.  But for just a moment I was enraptured in this morning gift, this space presented to me to remember that the spaces I walk through on my way to where I’m going fully exist in their own right.  That these spaces are always existing and perhaps I would connect more deeply into the world around me if only I opened my eyes and truly listened to it.

We so often are on track to our destination, that we forget to feel the breeze touching our ears or hear the conversations of birds over breakfast.  I am a definite culprit of living somewhere ahead of myself or somewhere behind, both places that do not actually exist.  This is not to say that that we should forget to put one foot in front of the other to get from here to there, but it is important to remember that the entire path is exactly that-a path, full of its own beautiful surprises and deviations.  Sometimes when we stop and listen, we can remember a bit more of who and where  we are in every moment.

I stayed listening until I needed to leave to make it to class exactly on time.  But it changed my entire day, that small, still moment.  A girl in a park playing violin for no one in particular and for everyone passing through who would stop and listen.

What still moments have you listened to lately?

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Why I Walk Through Mountains

The mountains are calling and I must go.  John Muir

I walk through mountains to feel my feet touch ground as they step up.

I walk through mountains to follow steps of ancient people’s paths.

I walk through mountains to remember, I’ll go high and I’ll go low, and it’s all the same mountain land.

I walk through mountains to listen to songs in languages that only mountain birds speak.

I walk through mountains to visit lakes in ancient craters.

I walk through mountains to sing to trees and birds and rocks.

I walk through mountains to view down below from up above.

I walk through mountains so they can tell me secrets nowhere else tells me.

I walk through mountains to know that I am part of everything.

I walk through mountains to see that I am a girl who walks, always, one foot in front of the other.

I walk through mountains to remind myself that when I reach up high I am only there for a moment, for soon again I will be low, then flat, then twisty, then high again.

I walk through mountains because it helps me remember that I must always be in process, that I am always fluid, that I am not a construct of a “good” student or a “good” girlfriend or a “good” daughter.  These are tents I sleep in, but they are only on the journey, never who I am.

I walk through mountains because they help me remember there is always a climb, and I am always getting stronger even when I feel weak.

I walk through mountains to reteach myself that them nor I are superior.  These mountains that rise so high will one day fall, but will grow and grow and grow in the process.  They are never still, they are never finished, they are never permanent, and we are the same.

I walk through mountains to remind myself that my footsteps move my heart which moves my blood circulating throughout, changing me every day with every step.

I walk through mountains because the movement reminds me that I am still alive and there is still so much more path to go and that all that I have learned will help me when I come across bears or high rivers or rattlesnakes.

I walk through mountains to show myself that I am always walking in my power, sometimes it is uphill, sometimes it is down.

I walk through mountains to retrain my brain to remember that my school or job or relationship or person doesn’t exist here, and yet I am me here, totally and completely, with all of these thoughts and learnings in my head.

I walk through mountains to remember that character, in part, is the effort to make yourself strong in your mind and your heart and the balance between the two.

Do you hear the mountains calling you?

Image credit: Carolyn VanLydegraf