We Are All Star Children

Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset once pointed out, by walking, you assume the attitude of the hunter, the seeker, the eternal problem solver—the “alert man”—for whom “the solution might spring from the least foreseeable spot on the great rotundity of the horizon.” 

P1070726I’ve returned from a three-week hike in the High Sierras, and am enjoying the luxuries of home: washing my hands with soap and a clean towel to dry them, a comfy chair to sit in, stuff I can leave lying around without it blowing away or getting eaten by critters. The images of bending over a clear, cool lake to wash my hands is still with me, so is the knowledge that not having a chair for three weeks left me limber, flexible and strong.  While the fire season was spreading smoke the length of California and Southern Oregon, I was getting my oxygen above the smoke at 12,000 ft altitude with a blue sky overhead.

IMG_2680As I breathed the fresh forest air on my hike, it heightened my senses. I noticed the bark of Ponderosa pine smells like butterscotch. The needles of the Great Western Spruce smell like air-freshener. The rocks along the trail gave off a summer sun-dried sand smell that reminded me of beach vacations. Tall towering granite rock faces don’t smell, but my thoughts bounced off of them. Thoughts of harsh winters, howling winds and unforgiving temperatures. Granite rock faces lifted my eyes up to the clouds, the white billowy ones making dreamy images, the black ones waiting to unload the pelting rain or hail. I talked to the clouds, made deals such as, “I’ll put my rain-gear on if you don’t dump on me.” It worked, just a few sprinkles to dampen the ground, not enough to make for miserable camp conditions, or keep me pinned to the ground waiting out electrical touch-downs around trees or rocks hoping they will miss me. I depended on these deals for my survival, my comfort.  What is it that makes man personalize the greater forces around him or her? I don’t believe in God, and I know that my talk with the weather didn’t change the weather. And yet, I find myself talk to greater forces around me when I’m out in the wilderness.

My DNA holds the building blocks of life, and all living things around me. It is obvious when I hike that my life moves with the same electron pattern as the rocks, the trees, the water, the stars above me.  I relate to all of it as a living world and lend the inanimate a personhood like primitive cultures have done through the ages. When I feel the deep silence of the granite spires around me, the core of myself melts, my chest widens, my breathing slows. In this place I lose the “doing” force that drives my daily actions.

Despite all the preparations I had done to be safe and comfortable on this hike, fear and anxiety didn’t leave me. The anxiety however, didn’t stop me from moving forward on the journey. I became the “hunter”, the “seeker” as Jose Ortega y Gasset says about people who walk. Not knowing what lay ahead, I became alert and ready to solve problems that sprung up on the way. Should I ford this river and let my shoes get wet, or will I challenge my balance and cross on the log? Will I set up camp in a grove of trees or out in the open? What will happen if lightning strikes? Where is the moon tonight to guide me or keep me awake?

P1070630It took about a week before I adapted enough to my environment and trusted that I could manage. The anxiety disappeared. The alertness stayed. Intermittently my thoughts were about things from the life I had left at home. Mostly my thoughts were about what was in front of me, the trail; the rocky, sandy, or duff trail. My legs became appendages of a machine, a breathing, pumping machine. And they moved effortlessly, moved me forward, upward on switchbacks to new vistas, and downward into sheltered valleys, along the banks of a river spewing its snowmelt in an unstoppable force.

P1070560I lived life at a minimum. My nomadic routine had me wake up, eat, break camp, walk/climb to the next place, eat when hungry, rest when tired, set up camp, wait for night fall, sleep. No need to hunt for food, I carried it in my pack, no need to build my shelter from natural resources, I had my lightweight gear. To find what the trail could offer, to feel the pattern of living, was simple and yet hard. As I walked, I was a bundle of electrons, star-dust, doing what it knows to do, move forward, move through the big, open spaces with breath-taking slowness, thoughts halting and disappearing in the sky. The building blocks of life fell out of that sky at one point and formed life, gave me a body that can experience its origin, from millions of years ago. I re-discovered that I’m a star child. We all are.

I walked and found the essence of myself. I am back home and pick up where I left off, transformed.

A Battery Charge without Technology

hike #27 of 52, May 2018, 42 miles, the Wild and Scenic Rogue River,OregonIMG_2135

When hiking a #1-beautiful nature trail for 3 days you expect to learn something from nature. Every day the carpet of flowers under the freshly leafed-out tan-oaks and twisting Madrone trees stretches out in its pattern of yellow, purple and white: 42 miles of blooming yellow and purpleWood Iris, 42 miles of sunny yellow tar-weed, pink Lewisia, delicate yellow Henderson’s Triteleia, patches of white popcorn flower, tiny blue-eyed Susans, and endless fields of blue Brodiaea. I think about the flowers while I walk, their abundance, their species relations. Are the purple Wood Iris the same as the yellow ones, just growing in a different soil? Are they different species? Is there racism among flowers? How can we love flower diversity and yet have racism among people? My questions remain unanswered since I can’t Google or phone from the trail. This is a digital no-man’s-land. My flower app on my phone is unavailable since I forgot my charging cord and have only one charge on my phone for the duration of the trip. Reading my kindle app at night or looking at flower pictures during the day are my choice.P1070229

The trail map is in my car at the trailhead (a no-no, always have a paper map!). Luckily I know the trail like the back of my hand and since this trail doesn’t have side trails, this leaves 42 miles of following the path ahead. I have to rely on my memory for names of the side creeks, the points of interest along the way, and the names of flowers. P1070210

This is turning into a no-tech hike; a reminder how people used to hike. A foray into the recesses of my brain. I have to rely on myself and trust in my navigation and memory abilities. I feel silly as a guide as I’m taking a newbie on this trail. On day threeI realize that I can do this, I can show that self reliance trumps technology. I learn to find answers to things I can double check later, but for now I trust my instincts around how nature works. (When I checked the local species upon my return my musings were correct, there was cross pollination and there were several species).

As my legs move through the miles and my brain empties its daily clutter, I remember the names of places along the way, I still know the special waterfalls, the camp spots from a year ago. I see the changes in the riverbank. I still know the place and can share it with someone else. My hiking buddy finds new confidence in her abilities, leaves her fears behind in her footprints on the path, and opens to life with new possibilities. P1070214

I hike this trail yearly during nature’s most abundant blooming time. My eyes bathe in beauty, my ears fill up with the rushing sound of the river that runs its winter water to the Pacific Ocean. Life ever continuing. This hike gives me hope when the daily news is disheartening. This hike fills me with a river of aliveness despite my increasing wrinkles. The wrinkles of my skin are like the ripples of the river: a rippled surface for a deep current. I fall into a deep sleep along its banks at the end of a day of hiking, barely able to read a few words on my kindle before my eyes fall shut. I never use up the one charge on my phone. My life battery is recharged the natural way. 

A Week of Nomadic Living

Hike #16 of 52

3/6 -3/11 2018: 40 miles, Saghro Plateau, and Merzouga Dunes, Morocco, day temp varying from 69F – 89F, average elevation gain: 500 – 1500 feet

IMG_1826“To be situated in place is to be engaged in a reciprocity where survival, both physical and spiritual, depends on our understanding of gestures.”

from “The Hour of Land,” by Terry Tempest Williams

I went for a hike in the Moroccan desert. I’m a tourist. Tourism is one of Morocco’s main contributors to the economy (18.6% of GDP, compared to 2.7% in USA, 7.6% in France). People visiting Morocco means post-colonial progress as the people coming from elsewhere now pay for being in the country. The tourist industry can be seen as a get-back for past colonial plunder and suppression. I understand and don’t take offense when a taxi driver charges me double rate on a rainy evening ride from the airport. I’m paying the ancestral debt, small price for privilege.

To get away from the tourist scene in the big cities I have booked an 8-day guided hike on the Saghro plateau and in the Sahara dunes. The Saghro plateau in Morocco has a biblical feel, a landscape I envisioned when I was a child in Sunday school and heard about the Israelites roaming the desert with Moses as a leader: a barren, dry, difficult, exposed land; qualities of such a land represent my aging skin and body. It seems fitting to explore the desert at this stage of my life.   

P1060774For five days we hike like nomads, driving beasts, carrying loads and sleeping in tents. Five days let me feel, smell and breathe the place; let me see the rocky, craggy landscape. I see occasional small stone dwellings, built from rocks and dirt in the landscape, that blend with the sandy, beige environment. Small plots of wheat and an almond tree orchard here and there add temporary brightness of color while sucking up what little water there is near a spring or small creek. When the temperatures on the Saghro plateau soar to122F in summer, the heat will dry up the water and force the people to move north to the Atlas mountains with their goat herds.

I see young girls and boys tending the herds, roaming alone all day, greeting an occasional passer-by. I watch a girl climb the spires to rescue a goat stuck on an outcropping, risking a 300 feet fall into the canyon below. There is no-one to rescue her if that happens.P1060837Our days are regulated by the sun and moon, and by a prayer routine our guide and muleteers share with the non-nomadic Moroccans. After their evening prayer, the muleteers joke when they serve our meal using their arabic tongue to pronounce the guttural sounds of my native Dutch. We laugh and learn a few arabic words in return. They wait until we are done eating before they have their meal; honoring us as guests, or a remnant of servitude?

I think about my status as tourist-nomad. When I hike here, do I become an invader? I may not take over the land, but by hiking in this nomad land I change life for the people that live here. My money allows for incremental changes in their life style. The local handicrafts go home with me, the carpets will cover the floors in my home. I ask my guide why he chose to become a trekking guide. When he gives me his answer, I find that we share a love for walking and roaming in nature, a love for getting to know people of other cultures. Our sameness erases the guilt I have felt about entering his world with my money.

The first humans were nomads. Nomad existence is in our DNA. The extremes of the desert bring me face to face with my reason for existing, teach me how small I am against the largesse of nature. The towering Pleistocene rock formations offer shade, a place for my animal body to hide from the burning sun. A brilliant star-lit sky on a wide open stretch of undulating sand dunes tells me that I’m just a speck of sand. These extremes enhance my aliveness, my appreciation of my surroundings. A hike in the desert fills me with wonder.P1070055

I’m home again sitting in a comfortable chair, with running water to make my cup of tea, with a small garden plot that gives me greens for my supper, and a hearth to warm me when the temperatures dip low. As the season changes, I’ll answer the call of my nomadic DNA to roam and find what feeds my aliveness: the emptiness of a place, the sameness of a people.

A Hike to Nowhere

hike#9 of 52, 40 miles in 10 days, walking in circles; 150 feet elevation gain; Dhamma Manda Meditation Center, Cobb, CA.

NCVC out gates

There was a small walking path in the woods, a circuit that took 3 minutes to complete, with a 150 feet elevation gain. I walked about 50 of them a day for 10 days. The walking path was at a meditation center in the woods of Northern California, where I had chosen to retreat from the world and do an internal hike of the mind, observing a Buddhist monastic code for living, which meant no killing, no speech, no food after 12:00 PM, no reading, no phone, no, no.… 

My small room was no bigger than the standard prison cells we assigned to young inmates I worked with during my professional career, when they misbehaved. A cot, a mattress, blanket and pillow, a small side table with a lamp, some hooks on the wall. Misbehaving inmates don’t get lamps they can dismantle and do dangerous things with, no hooks to hang themselves off, no shelf to use as a weapon, but otherwise…,not much different. A place to be, pace and sit, meals provided, lights out at 10:00 PM, wake up gong at 4:00 AM. Daylight entered through a window which I could open, not so for misbehaving inmates. I had daily opportunity for solo recreation in the outdoors several times a day. I went in this cell voluntarily, inmates don’t. Or do they? 

I remembered conversations I had with them during mental health check-ups, about turning their isolation into something productive, and told them about people who chose isolation to improve their life, to know themselves better. The inmate would look at me wondering, considering. Then he would turn his attention to the one book allowed, to escape the reality of the cell.

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I sat on my cushion to observe my monkey-mind for 10 days, 10 hours a day. I followed my mind meandering through the past. For variety my mind would switch to planning my next trip, my next hike, the future. Seldom did I find my mind at rest, attentive to the sensations in my body at that moment. 

How can something so simple, be so hard? How come, after having sat 17 or 18 of these retreats in my lifetime, am I still subject to the same repetitions, the same stupid useless mental detailing of events? “The path toward liberation is a very long path”, the teacher says in his evening discourses. No kidding.

With the lack of talking, the reduced visual stimulation, it gets better. At times, my mind stays focused for a minute or two, the restlessness in the body subsides, I sit with no need to change my posture every 15 minutes, I can be with the sensations of the moment. I still walk briskly during breaks in a small wooded area, grabbing on to the normalcy of daily movement, watching my breath move in and out at a different speed as the path climbs and descends, counting steps, how many to each breath? How many breaths in a day? How many breaths/steps in an hour? 

On day 4 the technique switches. I scan the whole body, and all hell breaks lose. If hiking up a mountain at 16,000 feet is a hard, mind-numbing task of putting one foot in front of the other until you get to the top, this task of scanning is no different, except I have no app that tells me how far I’ve come, tells me the distance I still need to cover before I get there. I’ve learned from sitting past retreats that, “this too will pass”. When and how, who knows. As I direct my wandering attention to observing of what’s going on in my body, like dragging one foot after the other up the mountain to the elusive 360℉ view of the world, my mind rolls out its paranoia: “This is a cult, why did I never see that?” What if this is all baloney and I’m wasting my time sitting here? I could be out hiking, at least I’d enjoy the fresh air, the views!” “Get a hold of yourself, this is just your monkey mind talking!” And then the real tricky stuff starts. My body produces sensations I’ve never felt before, my body is swaying. It’s like a drug. There is pleasure to be had. The technique teaches to ignore, to stay with observing, to keep the body still. Eventually, the druglike sensations pass; a deep, stuck piece of grief releases; my body and mind let go. By day 9, I can sit, centered on what is happening at the moment, no urge to leave, get up, plan the future, regurgitate the past. I’ve arrived.

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On day 10 semi-normal living resumes with a day of meeting and talking with fellow meditators, a few hours of meditation, still no access to our phones and the outside world, but there are smiles all around. The retreat is over; I have to return to ordinary life. This sit is just another hike in a string of hikes. 

I’m home again. I climbed the mountain to nowhere. I have no pictures to show you; I can only tell you my story to encourage you to take the hike. 

Fear, the backside of Joy

hike #5, Pilot Rock Summit Elevation: 5908ft, 1000 Ft elevation gain over 2 miles from the trailhead. Thursday Dec 14, 2017

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The trailhead hides in the shadows of the trees on the North-West side of Pilot Rock, a snowy/icy entrance. My car sits lonely in the empty parking lot. Even though it’s only mid-day, because of the shadowy light, low in its slant, it already feels like the end of the afternoon. I hike the incline, happy to be out, smell the pine trees, and feel the air and sun, thin as it is. A burst of joy erupts in my chest, as my body warms to the trail, and my senses take in the smells and colors of nature. I call it “happiness in my heart”. It’s a predictable happiness when I go out solo and surrender to the laws of nature.

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Dry trail follows an icy, snowy section, then more snow, melted and refrozen, a small meadow with dried grasses struggling to keep their bowed heads above the snow. It’s time for micro-spikes. As I struggle with muddy boots, and messy hands, I say to myself, why didn’t I put them on right away? But, no use crying over spilled milk. Fighting my wobbly stance, I get them on though, and feel more secure as the spikes crunch into the icy crust. Perfect tool for the job!

The trail keeps climbing. Onward and upward, rocks and ice, I wonder if my spikes will wear down on the rocks, so I step in the icy spots to avoid hitting the rock. I don’t want to trouble with taking the spikes off since I’ll need them on the way back down. The trees sway above me in agreement, letting light through from the South, showing a sunlit valley in the distance. I feel vulnerable with the sun not here to warm me, the cold air waiting in the shadows. This is December, not hot July.

With my senses on alert from finding my footing, my breathing sped up as I exert myself while climbing, the accompanying adrenaline releases a wild fear. What if I slip, what if I break my ankle, what if ….None of it is likely to happen, I know the trail well, I have a GPS device to call for help and yet, I’m here by myself, I am the one to take care of me. This is what animals must feel as they roam, always on alert for danger, even if part of a herd or pod.

I reach the top of the trail, stand at the bottom of the chute that leads up to the top of the rock. A top I can’t reach today. The last time I climbed to the top was with my husband many years ago when he gave me a boost to pull myself up through the chute. I tried it last year on a warm spring day, but couldn’t get up by myself, my legs not long enough to reach. With snow and ice on the rocky ledge, it’s foolish to try. My husband’s death anniversary just days ago still rummaging around in my mind, I realize I may never again stand on top of Pilot Rock. I call out in my mind why aren’t you here to give me a boost? To go with me on the trail?

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Since solo is my mode of living now, surrounded by friends and family but not tied to them, I go out in nature to feel connected, to feel joy. On this hike I know the fear that’s the other side of that connectedness: the quick turn life can take, an afternoon with a wrong step, the chill of a cold wind. I look out along the rock wall to the hazy, far away valley far below and know, it’s time to find my way back to the safe hollow of my house, like the shelter every animal finds when night falls, a hiding place from the danger of prey, a respite from the continuous search for food and water, when the senses can come to rest. I use my spikes and poles for support as I descend, retracing my steps, finding comfort in the momentary familiarity of the trail’s markings. Despite the fear lurking in the back of my mind, I am at home here. I carry that at-home-ness in my heart, next to the joy that burst out earlier. Later I drive in the late sunlight on the snow covered dirt road. This is my place. The gifts of nature will nurture me until the next time.

Travel to a room of one’s own

Virginia Woolf

I have a room of my own in my head. Like Virginia Woolf said, in her diary, just before her book “A room of one’s own” came out,”These October days are to me a little strained and surrounded with silence. What I mean by this last word I don’t quite know, since I have never stopped “seeing” people… No, it’s not physical silence; it’s some inner loneliness.“the impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,”
In the tunnel of silence Virginia talks about how she touches on her reality, a world more real than often the outer world, a world where ‘is-ness’, surfaces and needs help to be expressed. This world is the source of her creative work. As Virginia says: “and when I wake early I say to myself Fight, fight. If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world…”
I often wake early and a thought, words from an inner world where things get created, a library of thought, arises and wakes me up to the reality of things.
This morning that thought was “I have a room of my own in my head”. This room is a reality I can’t share and need for myself, a source of inspiration in the literal sense of the word. Where I breathe IN, fill up with a new view on reality, however small sometimes. I need that room even though it has caused me agony, given me an existential experience of loneliness that no intimacy can shatter.  As a stranger living in a foreign land I used my foreignness as reason for the existence of the room, for the feeling of separateness. Now I know better, the room is my own, no matter where I am.
It doesn’t matter if I am family, or with friends, I feel the separateness. To touch reality, I don’t have to escape these people, I don’t have to go to far countries to belong. I  was the child who sat in the corner reading a book, near the rest of the family playing cards together. The book was more ‘reality’ for me then than the circle I belonged to. Living among people let me discover my belonging has a chamber, a bubble of my own in it.
As Virginia Woolf pointed out, original thoughts surface as the source of reality in a room of one’s own contrasts with the reality of living. I need both to find those thoughts, thoughts that color my actions, drive me forward in life. As a human I need the connection with other humans, the deep belonging. As a human I also need the separateness to infuse life with new thought, new inspiration to live creatively. A room of my own leads me to, as the Buddhists call it, “the sound of one hand clapping”, a deeper, more intimate understanding of the reality of things.

Toward a better 2016

Microsoft Word - The Paradox of our Age.docx
We know all these things the Dalai Lama mentions in the text on the picture, but do we live better because of it? Can you make a commitment to change just one of these facts in your life in the next year?
The statement that jumps out for me is, “We have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor”. This year I finally got the poetry box up at my house, it took me a year and a half to manifest the thing. The idea for it came on my travels, but getting it done was a process of finding the post,finding the just right moment to put the post in the ground, and finding the friend who wanted to build the box to put on the post. It could all have been done faster. I could have hired someone to put in the post, I could have ordered a three hundred dollar poetry box online and have some person for hire put it up for me. That is not how I felt about the project. This was a project of sharing, using materials I have laying around, utilizing relationships in my community to build the box, this was a project to bring people together, to slow things down, allow someone to stop, read and ponder, to say hello and ask questions, to let neighbors participate and share their poems.
The idea I had is working: people stop and read, people bring their poems to share, people now think about what they can do at their house to make contact with the strangers that walk by. I took the window of my room to the edge of the street. I share what I read in my room, what I think about and what I love. I am communicating with the people in my neighborhood through my poetry box. People have to walk a few steps to receive it, healthy steps. Poems are without judgment but full of awareness. Poems don’t take much time to read, but linger inside you, and infuse the next moment in a person’s life.
What if all you readers, shared this blog with one or two other people and these people shared it with one or two others and so on? Wouldn’t we have a pyramid of power that could change our world? Will you take one line of the Dalai Lama’s text and change it in the next year? The world in 2016 will be better for it.