Crossroads.Spring.2012.Dispatch

Like a meteor shower, it arose out of the darkness without warning, invaded the beam of our headlights, and engulfed the view though the windshield of our Land Rover. It was a Yak.

Caroline was the first to see it from where she sat with me in the back seat. I saw nothing—too busy reading or writing in my journal and not fully awake yet. We had a long drive ahead of us, so we had risen hours before the sun did. On the sidewalk and under a streetlight, we ate a quick breakfast of veggie mo-mos and milk-tea, then started driving south.

We were returning to Nepal from Tibet. Kathmandu was only 80km (50 miles) away, but we were told to start early because the road in Nepal was in bad shape and it would take us all day to get there. No surprise in that. We had never seen a road in Nepal that wasn’t in bad shape, but still we thought that the gloomy projections must be an exaggeration—it just wasn’t that far. As it turned out, however, they were right.

Before we even crossed the China-Nepal border, we had to get over Guntang La pass, with an elevation of more than 17,000 feet. The mountain pass was on the Chinese side, so that portion of highway was better maintained than in Nepal, where the very idea of pavement was usually an exercise in wishful thinking. The road itself was smooth, but it undulated like a coiled snake, folding back and forth on itself in a cartoonish fashion, like we were characters driving through a picture book by Dr Seuss. We played chicken with huge trucks laboring up or careening down the steep inclines, competing for space on the thin ribbon of asphalt that separated the vertical mountain face on one side from the dark void on the other. The fog parted enough for us to see that the road had no shoulder and only an occasional token guardrail to protect us from the abyss. Into all that mix of obstacles were added free-range, wandering yaks.

When the yak materialized in front of us, like an apparition, the only thing about Kelsang La that mattered were his reflexes. 1999_nepal_slides_042Carol cried, “Watch Out!”, and he immediately veered left just in time for us to pass between two large beasts as they casually lumbered across the highway, oblivious to how close they had come to annihilation. It was over almost before it started—like an avalanche—and we drove on in stunned silence.

Yaks are a common road hazard in Tibet. Our guide, Lobsang, tried to protect his eyes by constantly wearing sunglasses (even at meals or in the darkest monasteries) because of an injury to them he suffered as a child. What had happened was had run his motorcycle into a yak.  

When the yak materialized in front of us, like an apparition, the only thing about Kelsang La that mattered were his reflexes. Carol cried, “Watch Out!”, and he immediately veered left just in time for us to pass between two large beasts as they casually lumbered across the highway, oblivious to how close they had come to annihilation. It was over almost before it started—like an avalanche—and we drove on in stunned silence.

Kelsang La buying mushrooms for supper

Crossroads: Each of Us

There are moments in life when everything can pivot one direction or another. In truth, many points in life are that way, but few of mine (or the yak’s) have been as stark and dramatic as that near miss on a faraway mountainside.

Our lives are created out of these pivots, these crossroads. They are moments of truth—times when it all turns on a dime—and they determine our destiny. Sometimes they appear out of nowhere and seem beyond our control; sometimes it’s a decision point of our own making. Either way, they are branch-points where the one life we do have takes leave of all the lives we could have had. We’ll never know the exact misfortunes we’ve avoided by going down this street and not that one, nor the unbidden graces of our mistakes and brokenness. If we remember that every event, forced or chosen, make us who we are, then our lived lives don’t have to become a protracted regret for the lives we will never live.

We rarely anticipate our moments of truth and don’t plan for them. One of mine appeared out of nowhere in the form of a yak. Kelsang La steered away without ever stepping on the brake pedal—he didn’t have time. In so doing, he chose our future for us. Our location was so remote and inaccessible that any of the other potential futures could only have been catastrophic. Sometimes we see disaster looming but are helpless to do anything to stop it—like the initial moments of a bicycle wreck—and then other times, like that one, are when we are out of danger before we even knew we were in it.


Road Trip

The remainder of the drive was no less eventful, but in a different way. Once we crossed into Nepal, we joined a new driver and two other passengers and drove on a rickety import that matched the degraded condition of the new highway. The rugged topography and rough terrain were something out of a different era, as if we were pioneers slogging across inhospitable terrain in a covered wagon. We left any paved surface behind us in China, and in some places the earthen roadbed was canyoned with ruts so deep that it became a miniature version of the surrounding landscape of mountain ridges and gorges. It was as if we had entered a monster truck rally driving a decrepit import.

The Himalayan rain shadow happens when the monsoon weather systems from the south ride the tectonic uplift of the mountains to reach the higher elevations. The thinner atmosphere causes them to deplete themselves of moisture and dump torrential rains on the south slopes while leaving the Tibetan plateau to the north arid and devoid of vegetation.

From the Chinese border station we descended into a verdant river valley lined by towering cliffs and thick pine forests with a lush understory of ferns and flowers. The vertical, green slopes were laced with spectacular waterfalls that plunged into a raging torrent of whitewater that would have been packed with kayakers had it been in the States. Small villages clung to ridiculous locations on the terraced walls of the canyon and the leafy overgrowth was so dense and tangled that we might have been on a location for an episode of LOST.

In places the valley took on a magical, Shangri-la quality, like it was enchanted.  There was mist threading through the trees and a rainbow on every corner, and the gorge was also said to be haunted by the spirit of Milarepa, a Buddhist yogi and sorcerer, whose meditation cave rested in a narrow cleft in a side canyon. 

It takes a long time to cross the Himalayas in a world-weary hatchback so we had plenty of opportunity to take it all in as we watched outside the window of our vehicle. We missed Lobsang and our wide-ranging conversations. While driving in Tibet, our talks included his explanations of the sites along the way or Tibetan history, observations of the land and the creatures we encountered, discussions of current events and politics, and inquiries of the deeper meaning beneath it all.  Lobsang once told us, “I don’t like all this karma stuff. It’s so harsh and lonely, with nobody to appeal to.” Lobsang was both a teacher and a student, eager for information about the world, but with little access to it from inside a repressive regime. He once told us, “It would be helpful if you would share some of your knowledge and wisdom with me”.

But I think he was the wise one. Lobsang, a nomad from the windswept steppes of the high plateau, who grew up in a tent and learned to ride a horse at the same age as he learned to walk, once said that the many monasteries in Tibet were built in places that were beautiful, but that, in truth, humans are unable to add anything to what nature and God have already created.   


After ten hours and fifty grueling miles, darkness closed in and it began to rain. The lights of Kathmandu came into view and the traffic picked up exponentially. That was when our driver really came into his own.  

Driving the busy streets of Nepal can be a combination of extreme sport and art form, where success and survival require great skill and raw courage. To pass or not to pass was always the burning question, and when we did, it might have been on either side—left or right—of the vehicle in front of us. Passing lanes were as make-believe as Neverland and timing was everything. We passed with abandon, our driver not deterred by curves in the highway where we couldn’t see the oncoming traffic. From a total blindspot, he abruptly darted into the other lane where, miraculously, another car was not barreling toward us. Other times, utilizing some type of sixth sense, he chose not to go for it and suddenly retreated back into position just in time to avoid a head-on collision. I never saw the truck coming towards us, but somehow he knew it was there.

We finally reached the Ring-Road and the bumper-to-bumper traffic with which we were very familiar. The streets of Kathmandu carry the lifeblood of the city, but they are clogged arteries that flow only fitfully. The spine-chilling portion of the drive was over,img_0147 but now we were locked in the embrace of multitudes, as if being crammed into a Japanese subway car. We crept along at a snail’s pace, but when we passed the back side of the Monkey Temple, we were on familiar territory, and I began to think the day wouldn’t actually go on forever.  That was, however, until I glanced at the dashboard, where the gas gage’s “E” was flashing ominously. 

We did not run out of gas. On fumes and a prayer—and against all odds—we arrived at the Yak and Yeti Hotel.  

    The Nepalis don’t customarily shake hands unless it’s to placate westerners. Neither do they typically say thank you, holding the belief that it’s better to express thanks through their actions and do something in return. By that time, Caroline and I were numb; any residual emotion from the grueling day had been left behind us on the road. Yet we felt genuine gratitude for our safe arrival and thanked our driver profusely. Privately, Caroline said she couldn’t decide if he deserved a medal or a traffic ticket.


Crossroads: All of Us

Crossroads are places where “what-is” and “what-might-have-been” forever part ways. Branch points happen to each of us at various times in our lives, and sometimes they occur to all of us at the same time—like during a pandemic. Last year, the whole world collided with a virus.  Nothing is the same; some things never will be. 

It’s too early to tell, but 2020 might rival 1941 as a year that will live in infamy.  In the arenas of public health and politics, it’s as if we have crossed a threshold and there is no turning back.

We can’t always control what happens, but when change and choice converge—for both people or nations—it’s what we choose to do next that matters.


Q. How are we to treat others?

A. There are no others.

        Ramana Maharashi

It would be nice if we chose to get along with each other. This whole thing started with the refrain “We’re all in this together,” but it hasn’t always felt that way.  Societal and scientific issues have created divisions that seem like unfordable chasms and on which side we stand is what distinguishes us from the “others.” 86E0E645-2461-4A34-AA88-06142A6F4D70_1_105_cWe choose our in-groups and don’t trust those outside of them, even while our true identity runs deeper than the labels we assign. It’s hard to break out of that thought process, as ingrained as it is, because it runs deep, probably from childhood. We never really do manage to recover fully from whatever first wounds us, and we are all looking for a home, a place to feel safe. 

Many people hold their opinions in the way that Yeats described as  “full of passionate intensity,” but that makes it hard to find any common ground or for the center to hold. It’s fine to have the courage of your convictions, but maybe not about everything. A little perspective is in order. If it’s not life or death, it’s not “life or death.” 8176182e-c821-4750-a4c2-7aea30d5cd78-9648-000009f64c4b55ebWhen I listen to strident people express their opinions, I am reminded of the saying, “often in error, but never in doubt,” and I wish that the ability to change your mind was considered a value, not a weakness.7c2d3f7d-31f3-4517-9bd5-b6c3a20aac32-9648-000009f9cf4c1498

 The opposite of something that appears obvious usually deserves full consideration and a “know-it-all” can’t learn anything. “Are you sure?”, the Vietnamese monk and teacher, Thich Nat Han, would ask. Then he would follow with, “Even if you are sure, check again.” He was saying that perceptions are not always reality. Look at a star that is light years away- it might have actually gone dim years ago. A hot glass of water and a cold one look much the same but the experience of drinking them is much different. 

There’s a Hopi saying that “One finger cannot lift a pebble.”  Usually we accomplish more if we work together. In the movie Independence Day, the nations of the world finally came together when threatened by aliens from outer space. People can unite when they are faced with a common enemy and it could have been that way for us if we had set our differences aside confront the shared threat of a rampant virus.  We have seen glimpses of that, but not enough of them, I think. 

Still, as I stand at this crossroad, I’m grateful for those who have put their fear and anger aside long enough to acknowledge that we’ve got a problem and that we truly are in it together, for all those who have worked hard to deal with the gravity of the situation, and for those who have stood up for science in the face of uninformed opposition.


Living with the Earth, not just on it


We can feel depleted when we reflect on all that’s been laid bare over the past year and wonder how we are to move beyond it.img_2782

   I can guess what Lobsang would advise. He would say to have what Buddhists call “beginners mind,” which is when we “empty our cup” of preconceptions and avoid the “tyranny of hidden presuppositions.” Jesus, in his own terms, said the same—to “change and become like little children” (Matt 18:3). When we do, we make ready to learn anew.

    img_0761Our time is one of disquieting change, and it cries out for alternative ways of seeing, sensing, and engaging with each other and with the world. Thoreau pointed out that “all men lead lives of quiet desperation” but he also said that one solution was to “live deliberately.”

I have found that it helps to be outdoors. When I am deliberately present in a natural setting, I can find a firmer footing. When I put my strategic mind to rest and  inhabit the silence, it allows room for experiential wisdom. When I try to create an opening, even a tiny one, I can feel utterly entwined with the breathing, embodied essence of the Earth.

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   By purposely engaging with wilder things, as if everyone is animate and aware of me, I can unhinge myself from entrenched habits of thought and become unsettled in a way that, at times, lifts the veil that separates me from the  yearnings, memories, and kinship of all wild things. 

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The serenade of the oriole or plaintive lament of the mourning dove; the discs of ice jockeying  down the river like bumper cars; the Jack-in-the-Pulpit that returns each spring to the same spot that only I know; the sun’s seasonal traverse back and forth along the skyline at sunrise, like a celestial metronome; the mature oak and sycamore trees along the trail I frequent, grandparents to the other forest creatures; the blue butterflies, called azures, flitting up from their secret places, floating past me in their denim dresses, not recognizing me as anything different from the leaves on the trees, as if I belong. 

With deep and deliberate attention, and from a state of wonder, I notice what is below the horizon of my usual perception and feel more rooted in the deeper reality and what is true and enduring.



Journeys We Take By Ourselves.Autumn.2020.Dispatch

Dahlia photos are by Caroline

“I meant to do my work today, but a brown bird sang in the apple tree, a butterfly flitted across the field, and all the golden leaves were calling me.”


Memory

“If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on,or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?”

Karen Blixen

The Ngong Hills

I can’t form a memory of my mother without there being flowers in the background.

Some of my earliest memories are of looking for wildflowers in the spring as we wandered together in the woods behind our house. She died recently, wearing a favorite blouse with a bright floral pattern, listening to a recording of the songs of humpback whales.

Mom typically favored white and blue flowers in her gardens, and daffodils were always one of her favorites. In her last days, she developed a special fondness for sunflowers, saying they were “optimistic.” All that cheery yellow, I suppose. She found joy in whatever was blooming and once told me, “I don’t have an unfavorite flower.”

My mom’s granddaughter with daffodils

There was a tree in my mother’s yard that she loved. It was a particular variety of magnolia that is not commonly planted this far north. There were many seasons when a late freeze would keep the tree from blooming, but when it did bloom, it was magnificent.

   When my mom died, I received a gift from some friends. They knew nothing of my mom’s old tree, but as a memorial to my mother, coincidentally chose the same type of magnolia. When I arrived home, I saw the tree and immediately recognized it.  It was as if my mom had given it to me herself. 

Some people say that coincidences don’t exist. I’m not one of those people. I think they do, but I also think there are times when there is more going on than just random chance. I hope there is.

Thanks for the tree, Mom



The Transit

   In a dark corner of the mind of each of us is a voice. The voice says, “One day, I am going to die.” We rarely listen to that voice, but there are times it speaks to us clearly and emphatically, and we have to listen. We hear the voice when we are sick, when we narrowly escape harm, or when a loved one dies. I’ve been hearing that voice lately. 

   As we age and our bodies fail, we hear the voice more clearly, reminding us that we are like everyone else who has ever lived— mortal. How we react to the voice determines how we live. 

______

   In our country we don’t like to think or talk about death. We find ways to talk around it or call it something else. Try to find a sympathy card that uses the word “death” in any part of the message. You won’t. 

    When we do think about death, most people think, “It’s something bad and I don’t want it to happen to me.”  That’s a natural way to look at it—the fear of death being the flip side of the will to live—and some see nobility in fighting death for as long as possible.  As the poet Dylan Thomas pleaded to his father to do, they “rage against the dying of the light.”

______

  My mother didn’t exactly rage, but she had her moments. Not long ago she read something about ways to stave off dementia, like reading books and magazines, working on puzzles, watching the birds in her feeders, or eating certain foods. She told  me the article said she should eat walnuts.  

   I said, “Okay, do you want me to buy some walnuts the next time I go to the store for you?” 

   She said, “Get me some pistachios.”

   “Pistachios? I thought you said you’re supposed to eat walnuts?” 

   “I don’t like walnuts.”

Caroline photo
The spot where Vincent Van Gogh took his life

   Death is one thing all of us have in common, and our awareness of it is the fundamental dilemma of human existence. Death is not just an event that ends our lives; it is the horizon against which our entire existence unfolds, the backdrop to whatever else we are doing or thinking, always in the back of our minds on some level. The author Don Delillo called the knowledge of our own death the “white noise” that we only hear when everything else gets quiet. If we actually do that- get quiet and hear death’s white noise- our lives can come into better focus. 52461D8B-C117-4AE8-9F64-F1C619084B21We might make more of an effort to be aware and engaged in our relationships, to connect to something outside of ourselves, or to work for some greater good. We might choose to reset priorities or warm to nature as if we are seeing it for the first time.

   Whatever it looks like for others, I want to use this time as a reminder to see life from a different perspective, my goal to be less afraid, to get myself to a peaceful place, and to let go.

Death is our life’s final portal to enter and threshold to cross. It is our last and greatest journey; a journey we must take by ourselves, but if we do it right, not alone.

Caroline photo
Caroline photo

A Story About My Mom

Mom graduated from Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas before it became famous as a center of racial integration in the 1950s.

In high school she made the controversial decision to join a sorority. Mom was a shy child. She saw herself as lacking in self-confidence and hoped the sorority would help her develop social skills and make friends. Unfortunately, the school administrators saw the sorority as elitist and divisive to the student body and actively discouraged her participation. They told her that if she joined, they would not help her with college admission or financial aid.

My mom’s mom agreed with the school administration. My grandmother didn’t want her to join the sorority either yet never told Mom that she couldn’t, preferring to allow her to make her own decision and live with the consequences. Against everyone’s advice, Mom joined the sorority and was its president her senior year.

So began in her the curious blend of traditional values mixed with nonconformity. She was a strange confluence of compliance and rebelliousness, as if Lawrence Welk and Janis Joplin had birthed a child together.

Mom was taught to be that way. She was raised to respect authority and the dictates of propriety, but she also had a rebellious streak and a lifetime commitment to independent thought. As a child, she never missed church on Sunday, but once a month my grandma took her to attend services at one of the black churches in town. Sometimes they would visit inmates at the prison near their house. Grandma was trying to open Mom’s eyes to other people’s life situation.

Mom was expected to wear white gloves to church and in all things to keep standards high. She made her bed every morning of her life (until she was physically unable to make it, and then she made sure I did). On the other hand, she didn’t allow herself to be confined by tradition or propriety. She was eighty-three when she got a tattoo on her arm, and she sported a bright blue streak in her crown of white hair.

My grandma’s dream for Mom was that she go to Barnard College. How she came up with Barnard is not clear. Grandma had no personal experience with the Ivy League or Seven Sisters schools but had read about Barnard and knew it was one of the best girls’ schools in the country. Mom was a good student in high school and Grandma believed in shooting for the stars, so why not?

The high school administrators were true to their word and did not help Mom apply to college or seek financial aid. Without it, Barnard was out of reach, but Grandma told Mom that Washington University in St Louis was a good school and offered to somehow find a way to pay for her to go there. That’s what they eventually did, but not without a lot of effort and hardship.

Grandma told Mom she should go Wash U, so that’s what she did. She applied, interviewed with an alumnus in Little Rock, and was accepted. Until she arrived for classes, she never visited the university nor set eyes on the campus, which at that time consisted mostly of the quadrangle and fraternity row. Mom boarded a train in Little Rock and got off at Union Station in St Louis without knowing anyone. She didn’t recall exactly how she got from the train to her room at the women’s dorm, but somehow she arrived on campus and got a college education. She was homesick at first, but loved college and went home seldom after that.

She enjoyed all of her classes in the liberal arts, but not surprisingly, majored in Botany. She considered medical school, but women weren’t really doing that back then. When she met and fell in love with my dad, home and family became her focus. Occasionally, she would ponder the “what -ifs”, but not very often. She was wise enough to not second-guess herself.

______

I sometimes wonder how my mother and father got together in the first place. They had some similarities, but in many ways were very different from each other. Opposites often attract, I guess, and people are complicated—nobody is only one way or another. I’m the by-product of each of them, of course. From my mother I received a love for plants and poetry. From my father I learned to hear the call to adventure. From both of them I inherited an innate curiosity and a desire to follow the road less traveled.

Mom liked to collect and send greeting cards. Her children and grandchildren would receive them for all occasions, sometimes when there was no occasion at all. One of her favorites showed a little guy walking down a path in the woods and facing a sign placed at the fork in the road. The sign had an arrow pointing one direction that read “Your life” and another arrow pointing the opposite direction that read “No Longer An Option.”


Memories

My mother died at eighty-nine, not of cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. She died of being eighty-nine. It turns out that being old is just as much a disease as the rest of them. She stopped eating and she stopped moving, and her body shriveled, like when a grape becomes a raisin. She kept getting smaller and smaller until, eventually, she just faded away.

Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes it is, but I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it clouds a truer one. Beneath it is a deeper, more complex image made from my memories. I see a shy little girl, walking though a garden with her mother or favorite uncle; a cerebral college student, ahead of her time, dreaming of both career and family and having to choose only one; a smiling young mother, pushing her children out the door, even though her heart was breaking as they left; a learned woman, always reading a book or teaching a class; a beloved grandma, looking for seashells with her grandchildren or teaching them the wonders of a feather or caterpillar.

I can see, for a moment, all that at once, the spirit shining though all the years. The author Ursula le Guin said, “That must be what the great artists see and paint.” She thought that Rembrandt’s portraits are admired because he painted more than just the tired, aged faces of his subjects. Using paint on canvas, he captured that inner spirit and showed us that “beauty is not skin-deep, but life deep.”


Saying Good bye

Mom’s parting was gentle and I’m grateful for that. Even so, I feel the loss every day. Her absence is like the sky, it covers everything.

Many of the cards my sisters and I received mention her smile, but Mom wasn’t always smiling on the inside. There was more to her than flowers and my relationship with her was not coated in sugar. Still, it is hard to say good bye and I miss her, maybe more than I thought I would.

Not my photo

That’s how it works. We must gaze into the heart of loss and know the preciousness of what we are losing, and not look away. Saying goodbye is an opportunity for kindness, for forgiveness, for intimacy, and ultimately for acceptance of life as it is instead of what we may have wanted it to be.

_____

Mom was a traveler and an explorer. Some of her adventures were in person and she had many others while sitting in a chair in her living room. She loved to read about women who went out on exploits alongside the men, or sometimes in front of them: women like Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, Jane Goodall, Rosalind Carr. Karin Blixen, whose pen name was Isaak Denison, was one of her favorites.

Nepal 1960s

There is a scene in the movie Out of Africa where Karin leads a caravan from Nairobi into the bush in order to bring supplies to her husband and others who are fighting for the British in World War One. Each day, her faithful Somali headman, Farah, goes ahead of the main group in order to find and prepare a place to stop for the night. As the days fold in and darkness gathers, Farah builds a large bonfire that signals to the caravan how to reach the campsite and a safe spot to rest for the night.

Virunga Mountains of East Africa

Later in the movie, Karin has to leave Africa for good. Saying farewell to Farah is one of the hardest things she ever does. They say good bye with these words:

Farah asks, “Msabu, how can it be now.”

Karin replies, “With me or yourself? You will have money. Enough, I think.”

“I do not speak of money,” says Farah.

Karin, “Do you remember how it was on safari? In the afternoons I’d send you ahead to look for a camp and you would wait for me.”

“And you could see the fire and come to this place.”

“Yes. Well, it will be like that. Only this time, I will go ahead and wait for you.”

“Is it far, where you are going?”

“Yes.”

“Then you must make a very big fire, so I can find you.”

——-

Mystery

After a long journey, my mother has arrived at last.

I don’t know what happens after we die; nobody does for sure. Mystery is an integral part it. About death, there are two fundamental truths. That it will happen. That we don’t know when. In the television series “Game of Thrones”, the master swordsman Syrio Fotel says to his pupil Arya, “There is only one thing we say to Death: ‘Not today.'”

I like to think that my mom, after she reached a peaceful place (like Farah’s campsite), set off again to some territory ahead. I like to think that my mom is out there somewhere, making a very big fire, waiting for me to join her someday.

“Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from,

Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done,

But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me,

I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

     Iris Dement


The Summer of Our Discontent.2020.Dispatch

AD69B07A-A218-4B16-8CB6-7EB2A43DA7B5 Photo by Caroline

AloneDF13360E-EAD9-4BAA-A6ED-1CBB937E54A7_1_201_aThe guides told us to stop thinking and just listen. They said the spot for our solo should choose us, rather than the other way around.

7B5CA495-BD96-4665-A98D-D57DCDFEC5D8_1_201_a Solo spot, 2/3 way up on left

I am in the desert of Southern California, on a vision quest that culminates with four days of fasting and a three-day solo. I gazed up at this mountainside yesterday, enticed by a mysterious energy, a feeling that I didn’t understand but could not dismiss. I listened in the way that I had been taught, with my whole body and all my senses. I employed the rituals passed down to us from those who came before. There is a ritual for finding a solo spot, as there is for most everything on this quest. Ceremony, the elders say, is a way “to remember to remember” and that makes me wonder if there is some primal part of me that was attracted to this spot because, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to be a great place to spend three days alone.

My thinking mind would have chosen a tranquil, streamside location like the one I spotted yesterday as I wandered the land. Some other part of me allowed myself to be led to this remote place high on the side of a mountain south of our base camp.

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To get to here, I bushwhacked through a dry wash, climbing over boulders the size of pickup trucks when I could find no way around them. There are no trails to follow, except the faint lines etched in the sand by the other-than-human creatures who wander these slopes. The saguaro cacti look like a troupe of court jesters loitering about, their arms outstretched as if frantically trying to point me in the right direction. One tall cactus gestures in a way that reminds me of one of those crazy, blowup characters the car dealerships use to draw attention to their latest sale.  I take a side canyon and then veer left to ascend the mountain’s eastern slope, thinking it might provide more protection from the relentless winds. It appears less battered than the valley’s sun-baked western side. These higher reaches are steeper than the slopes below, but I come across an improbably level platform halfway up the mountain.

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The level place

It is the perfect size for my tent, but there is something that doesn’t feel right about it so I move higher and make my camp in a jagged niche cut into the mountain’s face.

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My pack is too heavy. I carry no food, only the bare essentials that I need to make camp, but I am also hauling three gallons of water. The creek where I draw my drinking water is in the valley far below me now, but I need to stay well hydrated at this elevation and in this arid environment.

It’s a good thing that I didn’t settle for one of the other campsites. The spots lower down were easier to get to but more exposed to the weather systems that roll through the canyon. The first night of solo there is an epic storm that puts my tent stakes to the test. My tent and I are like Dorothy and her little house when the tornado comes. If I had camped at one of the places that were closer but more exposed, I might have awakened in Oz myself. As it turned out, we held fast and I stayed dry.

My tent is my hero.

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My tent

The weather system passes and the final night of the solo is calm. It’s cold, but there is no wind at all. I get up several times, including at the stroke of midnight, to go outside, do my ceremonies and have a conversation with the darkness. The night is completely calm, no wind at all, as quiet as a tomb and as still as midnight on Christmas Eve. Not a creature, nor anything else, is stirring. The stars above are magnificent, as if someone had spilled a box of white glitter across the inky dome of the sky. The new moon wears a wry smile above the ridge across from me. I stand up and turn to the east. In a cloak of darkness I speak out, full voice, to my people back home, thanking them for being here with me. It feels as though they are.

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Tibet.2019.Dispatch.5

Caroline and Lobsang

The beginning of the kora

——-

The Kora

Waterfalls cascading from impossible heights into rivers of crystal-clear water. Reflections from the water’s surface like thousands of dancing Tinkerbells.

 

Little nomad girls wearing pigtails or dirty taffeta skirts, the front stoop of their mother’s tea house their only playground.

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Tibet.2019.Dispatch.4

We are on the backside of the Potala Palace, the one thousand room edifice that sits atop a huge natural rock pedestal in the middle of otherwise perfectly level Lhasa, Tibet. It makes for dramatic scenery, as iconic as the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.

It is dark. Lhasa is on Beijing time even though it is located far to the west of it so everything seems off; sunrise and sunset happen later than we expect. We got up for a morning walk at the usual time but it might as well be midnight. The few Tibetan pilgrims walking with us are mere shadows moving through the night. We pass one who is slowly prostrating his way down the stone walkway. Another is working the long line of prayer wheels, a clockwise spin to each one, softly murmuring a mantra to himself.

We are circambulating (a Kora) the Potala Palace and it is immense; begun in the 7th century and consisting of two main sections, the lower white section that was used for government and the upper white section that was the Dalai Lama’s residence. The white palace is an imposing expanse spanning our entire range of view. Off to the left I see the morning star, all alone, glimmering in the dark sky, and on the opposite side the last sliver of crescent moon, like a Tibetan singing bowl suspended from above by invisible strings.

I see another solitary light shining from a window of the white palace, a small but conspicuous illumination against the otherwise dim wall of stone, like a searchlight on a distant hilltop. Somebody probably forgot to turn off a light after the tours yesterday were complete, but I like to imagine a monk who had trouble sleeping sitting by the window reading.

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Tibet.2019.Dispatch.3

—-

Rubi’s Story

Rubi at preschool, 2009

Rubi and Nissa first encounter

Reading “The Hungry Caterpillar”

In 2008 Caroline and I stepped out of the relative tranquility of the Kathmandu Guest House and into the pandemonium of Thamel, the famous expatriate neighborhood that is the traditional haunt of mountain climbers, trekkers, hippies, and counterculturists of all stripes.

Thamel in early morning, before it all begins

As soon as we hit the pavement, we encountered Rubi, a four-year-old wearing a red dress and an attitude that belied her small size. She was little, but her energy level was a fair match for her environs. Rubi was in constant motion, darting about like a mosquito, seemingly everywhere at once. Just by noticing her we attracted her attention and she latched onto us. We fell into a conversation, or what might pass for one between two people who spoke only English and a three year old who didn’t. Despite the language barrier, Rubi talked incessantly and led us to her mother, Nissa, who made a living selling souvenirs to tourists. Nissa’s place of business was the sidewalk and her wares were spread out on the ground, just out of the way of the street traffic. One thing led to another and we soon established a routine of spending a little time with Rubi and Nissa before we left Thamel for the day and when we returned in the afternoon.

Anyone who wanders through Thamel can’t help but notice that there are a lot of unaccompanied children. At that time, only half the children of Nepal went to school, the rest were left to their own devices and the expectation of future life of poverty and hardship.

One day I was working at the hospital and got a call from Caroline. She had decided to approach Nissa and offer some money so that Rubi could start preschool. As it turned out, Nissa had already enrolled her daughter in school and was spending half her monthly income to pay for it.

Caroline went with Nissa to Everest School, spoke with the principal, and arranged for us to sponsor Rubi’s schooling for that year. We have stayed in touch with Nissa ever since that day have sponsored Rubi’s education.

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Tibet.2019.Dispatch.2

(Caroline photo)

Nepal is colorful in the same way that Mt. Everest is tall.

The Nepali Crayola Crayon box:

Sari Red

Incense White

Street Market Green

Lapis Blue

Flame Gold

Roof Tile Brick

Wood Carving Brown

Cauliflower Yellow

Temple Grey

Marigold Orange

——–

The Butterfly

I’m walking down the street in the photo above. It is a typical Kathmandu street, though not every thoroughfare is as frantic with activity or so chock full of stuff. I could find anything here; anything a Nepali would ever need. It’s a riot of commerce and a bee hive of human activity. Thrown into the mix are the usual animals: stray dogs, chickens, an occasional goat, a meandering cow.

What I don’t expect to see, but do, is a butterfly. I look up and meet an intrepid little insect fluttering about, making her way up the street on four black wings and a prayer.

What is she doing here? It’s not a very hospitable environment for a butterfly. Is she lost? Does anyone else notice her? Doubtful, but I’m so mesmerized that I stop dead in my tracks to watch. I completely lose track of Caroline and her friend, Prashna, who keep on walking.

In this moment there must be some life lesson. What is it, I wonder? I think it would have something to do with courage, or determination, or optimism, or “high hopes”, like with that ant from the song about moving the rubber tree plant. There is also probably a dash of foolishness in the story somewhere. Whatever, I just know that it is lovely to see a butterfly in this place, of all places.

“Hello, butterfly. Thank you for showing yourself to me. Good travels!”

 

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Tibet.2019.Dispatch.1

Ceremony

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    I step into the rock circle and look down the canyon into the valley below. I’m on a small platform that is the only place on this steep mountainside level enough for me to arrange my stones in the formation I was told to construct. This will be my “Purpose Circle,” and its purpose is ceremony.  I am on a vision quest. It is the second day of my solo in the wilderness; the third day of my four-day fast. Ceremony is what we do here. Ritual is more or less a part of everything.

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  I am in the desert, and it is a fierce environment; a stark landscape that is beautiful in its barrenness, where plants and animals cling to life as they wait for the next rain to fall on the sand and the stones. Yet it does rain. At least in January it does. And it’s colorful, not painted only in tones of brown. The stones lying about are so varied in shade and pattern that I could be walking through a child’s box of marbles rather than the high desert of Southern California. In this, the wet season, the desert springs to life and blossoms like an English garden. I couldn’t be surrounded by more colors if I were dropped into the inner workings of a giant kaleidoscope.

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NYC.May.2018.Dispatch.Jackson Browne

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“You can dream

But you can never go back the way you came.”

      You Love The Thunder

   “He doesn’t age,” Caroline exclaimed, as he walked onto the stage at the Beacon Theater in NYC. We weren’t seeing him up close but it seemed true enough. She had seen Jackson Browne in concert more than once in the past, starting in the 70s. He had the same hairstyle and physique, but now he wore eyeglasses, something we never saw in those early album covers. I guess, these days, he needs them as much as I do to see what he is doing.

   For most of us-usually when we are teenagers-there is a musician that makes a lasting impact in our lives. Caroline’s was Jackson Browne. She has told me of how she used to “sit in my room with the door closed, listening to his music for hours, while I contemplated how my 17-year-old self would navigate the world and figure out who I was.” I guess Jackson Browne helped her out with that.

  So there we were, tapping into some of Caroline’s memories; my anniversary gift to her.

 

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Home.Autumn.2017.Dispatch.3

 

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  A man is taking a walk. He comes to a wooden fence with a chalk circle and in the very center of the circle is an arrow. He looks further and sees several more–similar arrows right inside the “bulls-eye.”

   He asks several people who walk by who is this remarkable archer, but no one admits to it– until he asks a young girl.

   “Sure, that’s me doing it”, she says.

   “Remarkable” exclaims the man, “Could you demonstrate?”

    She shrugs her shoulders and says, “Sure.”

    The girl takes up the bow and arrow, shoots the arrow into the fence, then walks up and draws a circle around it.   

——-

Koans 2: Thinking and Not Thinking

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  Sometimes we think something is mysterious when it needn’t be-and wouldn’t be-with a little more information.

   A koan is a question without an obvious answer, a paradox meant to jolt you out of logical patterns of thought. Sometimes the koan is an enigma in your mind but not inanyone else’s. For a long time I had a personal koan going on. It went something like this: “Why is the logo for the active-clothing company “Under Armour” the capital letter H?” There’s no H in “Under Armour”!

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  That koan was a koan only to me. I never got around to asking anyone else the question and I’m glad I didn’t. Most people would have known the answer without giving it much thought, but my thought-stream can take me to some strange places sometimes.

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