Justin and Geoff had gone on a long run/hike for the day, leaving my introverted self some much needed alone time. I headed out with my journal and my camera and a dog-eared copy of a book I was reading for the fourth time, no specific destination in mind…Read More
I had big plans for today's post. It was all prettied up and scheduled in and ready to go, and I was all sorts of excited about it. But sometimes projects that we care about take longer than we anticipate, whether that's because the words we are looking for are struggling to come forward, or because the logistics are more complicated than we realized.
I'm a one-woman show over here and that means that I wear a whole bunch of sometimes rather odd hats. This week, one of those hats has been "web coder" which, as it turns out, I have no idea how to do! So there is learning involved, and frustration, and things take time...and more time...and maybe a bit more time after that.
And that is okay.
I want to serve you in my work and with what I share here. I want to connect in real ways to all the things we have in common, the things we all struggle with daily. I never wanted any of my online spaces to look like a "highlight reel" that hides the work and the discomfort and- dare I say it- the failures. Because failure and frustration are inevitable bedfellows of risk and reward. They just are.
And, as it turns out, they also tend to be our most powerful teachers. It's easy to scribble into my journal all the ways that I vow to pause and find the spaces and the small beauties in my mundane daily life, the ways I will pause long enough to ask myself if what I'm getting worked up about is really worth the energy and anger. It's a whole OTHER thing to be staring down a deadline, jacked up on my ninth cup of coffee, trying to figure out WHAT THE HELL I just entered that made all the text shift from vertical to horizontal and I haven't even started on the actual writing yet...ahhhhh!!!
These are the moments that teach us how to notice, how to find the tiny spaces to take a breath and find perspective. This is the training ground where we learn to put into actual, meaningful practice the noticing that comes easier when life feels peaceful. This is where what we learn in our yoga practices or on our meditation cushions or in our journaling comes to matter in our "real" lives. This is "noticing" at work on the ground.
So here I am, unable to deliver what I'd intended for you today. But I will get it to you, and the work done will be properly (if not perfectly) done. Look for an extra post from me later this week...it will be short and sweet, but will contain the details of my very first giveaway here! (How have I never had a fun giveaway before?!?!?)
Thank you all for being here, not just for the highlights and the "wins" but also for the imperfections and the "fails." You guys are such a source of daily inspiration to me.
This week I plan to dig deep into the practice of gratitude. Not a trite platitude for things which I know I should be grateful for, but to let the real truth of the beauty in my life sink deep into my bones and to fully and unabashedly acknowledge the gifts I've been given.
I begin today. I begin with the overwhelming gratitude that I feel for the basic fact of my very existence. I am a survivor of cancer, of violence at the hand of another, of heartbreak, and of my own poor decisions. But I am here. And I am whole. And I am enough.
And that is enough.
And for that I am so, so, so grateful.
I have a weakness for airport bookstores. It's a problem. Really. Not only do I tend to impulse buy far more titles than I can actually get through on a single trip, but I then have to lug them around all over the world in my carry-ons!
While waiting for a delayed flight as I returned home from a shoot in Canada earlier this year, I picked up an anthology called The Best Women's Travel Writing, Volume 9. I'm inclined toward anthologies during busy periods in my life, finding the short stand-alone stories offer a sense of completion and undeserved accomplishment when I can't seem to focus long enough to follow a more involved plot. This one was a perfect companion as I jumped from Canada to El Salvador to Belize and the stories balanced the humor and insight and discovered truths inherent in travel.
After I spent one afternoon in Belize laying in a hammock frantically scribbling into my journal about a riveting encounter I'd had that morning with 91-year-old Vivanna Logan, I discovered that perhaps I had a story worth sharing and thought of the anthology sitting on the nightstand by my bed. When I eventually took those scribblings and turned them into a more coherent piece, I sent it along to Traveler's Tales, my anthology's publisher, to see if perhaps they might be interested in it. As it turns out, they were.
There is an app available that comes with a free trial issue…check it out!
The 25x45 square foot courtyard was lined with low-slung plaster and concrete buildings designed in the way of government buildings everywhere, drab, just a little dowdy, and smacking of red tape and delay. When we arrived in the courtyard, spare passport photos and ten rupee notes in hand, there were approximately 15 people already there waiting, pressed along the shady edges to avoid the warm midday sun. Each offered a brief acknowledgement with a smile and nod as we took a place against a wall, knowing that we had another hour before the office issuing passes to foreigners for tomorrow's teaching with the Dalai Lama would open.
We'd been in McCleodganj, home to the exiled Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama in India, for a week at this point. We'd already grown to love its muddy streets tucked into the Himalayan foothills and the incongruous sight of red-robed monks with iconic white earbuds protruding from their ears or gathered around a computer screen in a small coffee shop. We loved the mix of Indian and Tibetan culture and the dreadlocked, backpacking travelers who came to pray or meditate or learn yoga or simply be in this fascinating (and extremely inexpensive!) place. We loved watching the stray dogs sleep against murals and get their heads patted by passing nuns or small morsels tossed to them by pink-cheeked shop owners. We even loved how there were constant intermittent power outages and how we could be in the middle of dinner at a restaurant, the power would go out, and someone would simply go around and light the candles on the tables while no one, diner or server alike, blinked for even a moment.
Mostly, we loved that every day brought someone new into our life with a captivating story of how they came to be there. We met more than one Tibetan exile with a story of fear and Chinese oppression and beloved family left behind in a homeland forever lost to them. We met an Indian couple who gave up their rather glamorous life in Delhi to open a restaurant there in the mountains, searching for quiet and peace and a different rhythm to their days there in the thinner air. We met an art student from the American middle west living in an adjacent town studying the ancient art of thangka painting under a master.
On this morning, we'd walked into our favorite coffee shop (with the best banana cake and masala chai) only to find it full. After scanning the room, we found a booth with only one man at the table and made our way over to join him. After a quick hello, he went back to his journaling and we ordered our tea, discussing our plans for these last days before beginning our journey home. As our teacups emptied, the man closed his journal and asked where we were from in a British accent and this is how our acquaintance with Mr. Julian Bound began. Toward the end of what would be the first of many good conversations with him, he asked if we were planning to attend the Dalai Lama's teaching the next day. We corrected him…the teaching wasn't for another few days and we were devastated to know that we'd miss the experience by so little time. Julian corrected us in turn, informing us that, no, indeed, the teachings began tomorrow and he knew that because he had a press pass and would be photographing it. As we absorbed this news, Julian went on to walk us through the process of getting passes and told us where to go, assuring us that we still had time.
So here we were, awaiting the office issuing passes to open and giddy with excitement and anticipation. As the minutes passed, the courtyard filling and then crowding, that giddiness faded a bit and we began to look around at the people waiting alongside us. There was one other American that we noticed, a girl in her early twenties with a Farm League trucker hat looped to her backpack. Otherwise, the crowd around us was formed by a few Israelis, a couple of Australians, a girl from Argentina and her companion from Uruguay. There was a girl from Hong Kong and a guy from Chile along with the small girl from France that I found myself nose-to-nose with as the crowd grew ever more pressing. This little group immediately surrounding us was all young travelers, none of whom seemed to be older than about 22. English was the language that they all had in common, so their accents mixed as they discussed where they were from, where they'd been traveling, and where they might be heading next. To a person, they were all on epic travel adventures, most of them having been on the move for 6-8 months at that point and most having made their way to India from Asia, usually Thailand or Cambodia or Laos. They were backpackers, traveling as cheaply as possible- staying in hostels, eating cheap street food, hitching rides- more interested in who they could meet and what they could experience than five-star cuisine or high thread count sheets and concierge service.
Eavesdropping on their conversation was more than fascinating, it was bolstering. They were open and inquisitive and interested. They grilled each other, not in competition, but in genuine curiosity and enthusiasm. As the hour that the office was scheduled to open came and went with no sign of action, their patience and conversation was unwavering. The French girl (whose nose I had the very bizarre urge to kiss), I learned, had been traveling for just over 7 months, came to India via Cambodia, had just retained the services of a local monk to teach her Tibetan, and planned to just hang out in McCleodganj until she learned it. When I asked what other languages she spoke, she rattled off nine others. NINE languages. She was 20 years old.
Eventually, after almost three hours of being packed into that courtyard like cattle, the office finally opened its doors. We expected chaos to ensue since there was nothing even remotely resembling a line and the press of people was suffocating. But it was nothing like that. There was calm and courteous consideration almost uniformly shown as people who had arrived later graciously made room for those who had arrived earlier to go ahead with a smile. It was perhaps the most shocking experience we had during our travels, this display of patience and community despite the heat and wait and the office administrator's tardiness and brusqueness. We walked away from the office a mere 15 minutes after the doors opened with our passes in hand and our hearts soaring from the entire experience.
The next morning we made our way to the temple and joined the throngs of people waiting to hear the words of one of the world's great teachers. Justin prodded my side and pointed out where, about 30 yards from where we'd placed our own cushions, the group of travelers from the courtyard were all seated together, smiling and laughing as they waited. As the Dalai Lama entered the temple, passing within feet of where we stood, it truly felt as if a wave of love that was tangible and material passed over us, and we listened over the next hours as he spoke on the topic of compassion, of seeing commonalities instead of differences. I couldn't help but glance over at the group of early twenty-somethings who, despite various and distinct backgrounds, had so immediately connected, had so quickly supported and encouraged one another.
As the monks came around the crowd offering tea, Julian found his way over to where we were seated and we shared in his excitement over his first (of many!) experiences photographing such an exceptional event. He snapped a shot of the two of us and then went back to work, his warmth leaving us smiling.
Over the next few days, we began the journey home, one that included more than 40 hours of combined taxis, overnight trains, oddly timed layovers, and seemingly endless flights. But despite weariness and the grime of train stations and airports clinging to us, we made our way toward home with the lightness of the best of what travel can gift us with. We felt unspeakably connected, not just to the people we'd met and had conversations with, but to all people, everywhere. We walked through airports and squeezed into tuk tuks and ambled down packed streets and waited in lines and all the while felt a kinship with everyone we passed. With the words of the Dalai Lama ringing in our ears and the curiosity and enthusiasm of everyone we'd met singing in our hearts, we squeezed one another's hands and smiled broadly.
THIS is why we travel.
In the front yard of our house on West Moreland Road, the first address that I consciously learned as a child and can still recall to this day, there was a small dogwood tree. Its pink and white blooms meant that spring had truly arrived in our small corner of eastern Pennsylvania, that April had pushed winter back once again to make way for life to thrive once more. The tree, though seemingly enormous in memory, was quite diminutive in stature, but it's pale branches jutted from the sturdy trunk at exactly the right angles for our small arms and legs to climb. And climb we did.
We invented a game that was played only in those branches, a version of tag that we called "Diabetes Monster" in reference to adult conversations overheard but not understood. Somehow it was always more fun when Mat was "it" so Karissa and I would climb as high as we could and then scream and giggle hysterically when Mat, imitating the most fearsome animal he'd recently become obsessed with from the Discovery Channel, huffed or growled or roared and chased after us on the all-fours of a gangly six-year-old boy.
In the final spring before we moved away from that little white house with the black shutters and Pennsylvania and all of the ties of family and home that were rooted there, we discovered a small bird's nest tucked in among the blossoms of that dogwood tree. Forbidden to climb while the nest was there, it was the first place we ran after dropping schoolbags at the door each afternoon. The three of us would stand staring up at the tiny nest, discussing all of the possible bird species in our very limited knowledge, quite convinced that we had a bald eagle's nest in our very own front yard and that, any day now, we would be witness to one of these majestic creatures raising its family in our beloved dogwood tree.
After a week or two, or perhaps a lifetime, we went running out to peer at our nest only to find it gone. Mysteriously vanished, much to our worry and dismay. Over after-school snacks of peanut butter and apples, our Mom reassured us that this was sometimes how nature worked, that a predator may have reached the nest or perhaps a strong wind, and that it was okay to be a little bit sad, but that there were other nests in other trees and all would be well. Bolstered by her explanation and still consumed with the idea of nests and baby birds, we commandeered an old bed sheet from the basement and went back to our tree, excited to once again be able to climb its limbs.
As the oldest, my job was simple: I was responsible for the structural integrity of our endeavor. So I carefully knotted the faded orange and green floral patterned sheet around the branches we'd selected, double knotting where possible but careful to leave enough slack to form a cozy little sack suspended above the ground. Karissa, not only the youngest, but also the most effective charmer with her little chubby four-year-old legs and earnest intentions, was sent inside to request crackers from our mom, a rather strict quartermaster. Meanwhile, Mat made his way into the hanging bed sheet, carefully positioning himself in the most realistic baby bird posture we could collectively imagine and sat with mouth open wide awaiting Karissa's return. When she did return, it was with popcorn instead of crackers and we were delighted with the turn of events as she and I sat perched on our branch beside our "nest" and tossed kernel after kernel into Mat's gaping mouth, giggling all the while at his perfect impression.
That April afternoon under the pink and white dogwood blossoms is the last clear memory I have of my brother, sister, and me truly playing together. I was approaching pre-adolescence and would soon begin to reject playing as too childish while simultaneously craving its freedom. In the months following that day, we would move to Virginia and it would be the first of many moves taking us further and further from where our family began. As each of us grew into the people we'd become, our interests and personalities drew us in different directions and we became separated by time and distance and perceived hurts.
But around this time each year, on those days when the temperature rides the line between warm and cool and the scent of new budding daffodils and fervent life pushing out of thawing ground wafts over the breeze, I can see it all like it was yesterday. Mat's goofy grin between popcorn kernels and the way he said Karissa's name, mispronouncing the "r" in his little boy voice as he urged her to throw another piece. Karissa, blonde pigtails and big brown eyes, seated next to me on the tree branch, her warm little body pressed against mine and the green plastic bowl of popcorn balanced between us.
Nests sometimes fall from trees, but life moves forward regardless. On that April day long ago, we, unwillingly, were forced to set aside our expectations of all that fragile little nest promised and the potential it held. In it's place, we created something unexpected, built a nest of our own and fulfilled a potential we hadn't imagined until it was suddenly before us. Winter comes and spring always follows, no matter how cold or dark or laden with snow. The blossoms eventually burst into pink and white before yielding to the press of leaves and maturity, all the more precious for their fleeting and fragile nature.