Unpacking Egypt’s Gifts
With a thump, a rush of speed, a sudden stillness as engines cut, we are in New York. JFK Airport is a different kind of shock, like a dowsing in cold water. Part of me still feels the embrace of Egypt’s warm air, an atmosphere already moving into memory, into mythic time. Here amidst the jostling for position at the luggage carrels, then the locking of trolley wheels, the search for the customs exits, everything feels out of place, out of time, wrong. I am beside Ellyn when a woman in the uniform of security staff rudely orders her to hurry along. I see the look of shock on Ellyn’s face, realize she will not let this pass.
“We are human beings,” Ellyn says with quiet strength. She holds the woman’s gaze, but there is only bored insolence in those official eyes. I whisper calming words to Ellyn, hurrying her past the woman, seeing in memory the security guard in the Cairo Museum who gave me a thumbs up, a joyous smile. In this instant I know the impossibility of bringing our Egyptian experience back into a culture that hasn’t time for courtesy.
Somehow despite exhaustion, despite having flown backwards several hours in time, despite the culture shock of our arrival, our group manages to make its slow, ragged, luggage-burdened way to the transportation area. In the last light of afternoon, we find the bus that will return us to Garrison already waiting. The driver takes our luggage, stows it in the underbelly bins.
There is a quick headcount, each of us asked to look around, to be sure there is no one missing, and we are on our way. I close my eyes, lean against the headrest, try to sleep, grateful that we shall have time at Garrison to recollect the wonders of Egypt.
Though the journey can’t have been much more than an hour, the early darkness of late November is already enveloping the grounds and buildings of our beloved “Hogwarts” by the time we arrive. There is just enough light to see that the trees, radiant in autumn colours when we left, are now almost bare. But there is no evidence yet of snow, and the faint glint of light remaining on the surface of the Hudson River far below us shows that it has not yet frozen.
Inside, we check the list for our room assignments. Seasoned travellers that we now are, we stow our heavier luggage near the coat racks in the hallway, carry up to our rooms only a small bag with what we need for two nights. I have just made up my bed
with the crisp cotton sheets provided, hung my long cotton coat in the closet, and am making my way towards the washroom when I hear the gong announcing supper.
The long polished wood buffet table offers up a thick creamy mushroom soup, a salad of mixed greens, a steaming hot veggie lasagna. There is, as ever, a basket of homemade bread and wheat rolls, a plate of butter squares, a pitcher of iced peppermint tea. Beside the bread and rolls I see a dessert plate of chocolate brownies.
I call upon just enough energy to serve my plate, take a napkin and cutlery, and seek a place at one of the long wooden dining tables. I slide in along the polished bench
beside Kathleen, across from Ellyn and Rosemary. In a few minutes, Suzanne joins us. Suzanne can at least summon a smile, and say “the sounds of silence.” It’s true, I realize. Our whole group is here now in the dining room, and there is barely enough sound to vibrate the air. I see in my companions’ faces that we are all in a state of non-feeling, tiredness, the shock of arrival.
Slowly, as we are warmed and nourished by the food, life returns. Kathleen asks the question that has been on my mind as well. “What do you suppose we’ll be discussing when we gather with Jean and Peg?”
“I think we’ll need to have some sort of decompression exercise, like the astronauts,” Ellyn says. “A chance to speak about what we’ve learned and experienced.”
“Right now, I don’t think I could form a sentence, let alone say anything profound,” Rosemary says.
Suzanne and I are both agreeing when a voice says, “You won’t need to.” We look up to see Peg beside our table. “Jean is telling the groups at the other tables that it would be best to go to bed and have a good night’s sleep. We’ll gather at nine-thirty, immediately after breakfast.”
That night I fall into a deep sleep, after a brief ragged prayer that I might awaken with a feeling of gratitude. In a dream, I am with my travelling companions, all of us asleep in a sort of dormitory of narrow cots, with our belongings stowed under our beds. Jean wakens us, singing, “We are all made of stardust . . .” When the others have gotten up and gone to take showers, Jean hands me a huge ancient-looking iron key, like something out of a fairy tale.
“Have you written about this?” she asks me.
“You mean, made up a story?” I ask, uncertain.
“NO,” Jean responds with a fierceness that would not shame a fairy tale potentate. “I don’t want TALES. Write about your life as it weaves around this.”
When I do truly awaken, just after sunrise, it is to a world transformed. The light coming into my room from the direction of the Hudson River holds a memory . . . “Snow!” I must have said it out loud, climbing out of bed, moving to the window. Not stardust, but snow dust, a magic carpet, laid with exquisite care over tree and rock, river and roadway. The one magic that Egypt cannot create has fallen as we slept.
“Welcome home,” it whispers. And gratitude swells within me.
The level of sound at breakfast assures me that my companions have slept well. Not pomegranate seeds, but steaming porridge awaits us. I find Kathleen, wanting to share my dream.
“Why a key?” I ask her, “and write about WHAT???” But even as I ask, I think I know the answer.
Kathleen is thinking deeply. This is her milieu, her homeplace, the in-between place of dreams and words in the night, the subtle energies that weave in, around and between our lives. “Keys unlock things. Did Egypt unlock something in your life for you?”
“Yes,” I say, unwilling, unready to say more.
Kathleen smiles, her eyes telling me that she is hearing the more. “Then that’s what you need to write about.”