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Sara Elizabeth Ivanhoe

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Fire and Ice(land)

Posted: 05/18/10 06:45 PM ET

Holy Eyjafjallajokull Batman! There's been a volcano eruption - again.

Just when you think you know what's going to happen next, you get volcano-ed. I'll spare you my personal story of being stranded in Toulouse, France, last month because it's pretty hard to drum up sympathy for such a thing. But with the latest eruption and current standstill at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports, I can't help but put a few things into perspective...

"If you've ever thought that you were too small to make a difference, you've never been in bed with a mosquito."

I think that this quote belongs to Mahatma Gandhi, and I know that I am paraphrasing. But the message is clear. The particles of ash that stopped a continent are microscopic, so small that they cannot even be seen, yet together they can stop a jet plane. For a week, they brought Europe to a halt. These tiny, insignificant pieces of ash cost the airlines millions of dollars and stranded travelers to sleep on the floors of airports. No matter how powerful one might be, the ash was stronger. President Obama had to cancel his trip to the funeral of the Polish President Lech Kaczynski. With all of our modern technology, fancy equipment, and fierce military, we the mighty were powerless against the meek. Very humbling - and informative.

As a newly humbled American, I began to realize how oblivious to the rest of the world I am most of the time. Being in Europe during the crisis made me aware of Iceland for only the second time in my life. It was hard to escape Iceland last year with the collapse of their banking industry. The joke going around France was that after its banking explosion, Iceland's last wish was to spread its ashes across Europe. Another favorite joke was "Iceland declares bankruptcy and then sets itself on fire - this has insurance scam written all over it."

A crisis shows us who we are, and although Europe tries to create a united front, it is an amalgamation of very strong identities. As if they were deliberately living up to their stereotypes, during the pandemonium last month, each country seemed to react exactly out of their own parody. The Italians played it up for all it was worth, bringing out cots and air-beds to the stranded travelers. However dramatic, the Italians are a warm, understanding bunch who postponed a rail strike that was under way until air traffic resumed.

The French are never known for their bedside manner, and this was certainly the case for the SNCF, the French Rail Network. It was on strike during the ash cloud disruptions. My mother, who stood on lines at the Toulouse train station for hours each day, can testify that trains were scheduled, tickets were purchased, bags were packed - and trains didn't leave the station. Some of them would depart, but you would never know which ones were actually going to go and if they did, they were never on time. Total chaos. Of course, as soon as the flights resumed, the strike ended. Um... au revoir.

The Greeks jumped on board and had a strike of their own. Hard to say if this had anything to do with their own economic collapse that happened in the ensuing weeks, but nonetheless an odd coincidence. The British dispatched a fleet, Scotland hired a ferry - and my favorite (being of Russian decent), in Moscow and St. Petersburg a black market in transportation tickets, many of them forged, sprang up.

But in actuality, as many crises do, Eyjafjallajokull brought people together. There was a wonderful story of the Italians stuck in Victoria Station. They found each other, hired a van and drove home. By the time it occurred to me that I might drive my mother and myself to Paris to meet my father, all the cars were rented. We were actually stranded. We asked around to see if anyone was driving but it appeared that the thought of being stuck in a car with two Americans didn't appeal to the locals. They just didn't count on the fact that my mother, a Jewish woman from Brooklyn, was able to fight her way through the throngs of Toulousians and obtain two precious tickets to the only running train getting us safely to our destination. Go Mom.

As my friend Krishna Das would say, "I was born Jewish on my parents' side." It is who I am, but not what I practice. I started doing yoga when I was fourteen, found that it was my path, and have been teaching it for the last fifteen years. One of the aspects of yoga I have become most interested in is the study of the ancient scriptures and some of the Hindu traditions. My favorite is the homa, or fire ceremony. A very complicated ritual, a homa involves throwing into the fire that which is to be sacrificed. No animals or humans harmed! It is mostly meant as a metaphor to burn off that which no longer serves us, a way to burn off the past. The product of the homa is called vibhuti, or "sacred ash." The ash from a homa is considered so precious, that it is given to the sick to eat as a method of healing. To the Hindus, ash is actually considered medicine.

Vibhuti is said to contain all the elements in one small bit of ash. It is the earth element that gets burned. Whatever is being burned (usually coconuts) has some sort of water in it that gets vaporized. (In the case of Iceland's glacial volcano, it was reported that there were chunks of ice flying through the air that were the size of houses - wow.) Obviously it is the element of fire that burns all other elements into ash, and after the fire, the ash particles fly through the fourth element, air. In this tradition, there are actually five elements, and the fifth element, ether, or sky, contains the ash. It certainly did in the case of Eyjafjallajokull. While witnessing the characteristic European responses to the crisis, I couldn't help but smile at the Hindu interpretation of ash. It is sacred. In containing all of the elements in one microscopic particle, it is a microcosm for the whole planet. To the Hindus, ash is a reminder of everything that is - and what we will all become.

Whether it's microscopic ash from a volcano eruption that causes a transportation conundrum, or a mosquito in your bed, little things can make a big difference. In fact, small is huge.

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