Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

The Beginning of Part III of The Big Trip

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(Apologies to those who already read this, I am posting this again for technical reasons I won’t go into.)

After a five week stay, Chris and I left the Boston area on Tuesday, May 21st. As we waved good-bye to my sister, we felt the fatigue from working hard to complete everything before we departed. Now we’re on the road again, back in the saddle and down the trail.

(P.S. I still have blog entries to complete and post about our month in Florida, but I wanted to begin this blog anew with more current events.)

As we return to our camping, meandering lifestyle, it feels like we are beginning a new trip rather than continuing the old. We have about four months left before our expected return to Santa Cruz. A long stretch by ordinary vacation standards – longer than most people will ever take (between college and retirement) – but we are painfully aware that our initial 365 days of vagabonding freedom have greatly diminished. Eight months have slipped through our fingers becoming nothing more than memories, stories, and photographs. Time is the ultimate illusion and a trickster.

Our hiatus in Boston – what I am calling Part II – was an unplanned part of our journey but not an entirely unexpected possibility. I was called to Boston after my 91-year-old mother broke her arm. She lives in an assisted living facility near my sister west of Boston. The facility offers some care assistance but my mother’s new incapacity meant she needed extra help they could not provide. My sister oversees my mother’s care and was now overburdened by the additional demands. We also needed to make decisions about moving her to a smaller (i.e. safer) apartment and arranging for more long term daily care. During my stay, my sister and I alternated nights sleeping in my mom’s apartment. We felt she was particularly vulnerable to falling again then.

After considering a variety of options including other eldercare facilities, we settled on moving my mother to a smaller apartment in the same place she’s been living and bringing in a private care person every morning to help her get started for the day. This meant doing a significant downsizing of her possessions once again; it was the fourth move and fourth down-size since my parents left their large cluttered home in Pittsburgh in 2004. Our decision was not the perfect solution but it seems to be the best one for right now.

Two days after I arrived, the Boston Marathon Bombing saga began on April 15th. The violence of the attacks felt surprisingly personal. So many other disasters that have occurred in my lifetime have been in places far away or unfamiliar to me. Or they have happened while I was on a silent meditation retreat, so that my knowledge of the events was delayed and I missed the resulting media firestorms. On September 11, 2001, for example, I was into the third week of a four week solo wilderness retreat in the Sangre de Christo mountains near Crestone, CO. The Marathon bombings, in contrast, were nearby and events unfolded at places and streets I knew well. I had watched the Boston Marathon the year before with my mother and sister along the route in Natick, MA.

Local TV stations broadcast non-stop coverage without commercials for days. The “lockdown” order (which instructed everyone in certain communities to stay at home) was not issued for where I was (the town of Wayland) but it was enforced nearby. My brother-in-law stayed home from his workplace in Waltham while the manhunt was on for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Stories quickly emerged about people who had been near the finish line or had left shortly before the explosions, just barely being spared. Other tales circulated about people who knew the suspected bombers or knew someone who knew them. On that Friday of the final manhunt my sister went to the nearly large Natick Mall. In a shoe store, she discovered a sales clerk there knew Dzhokhar because her boyfriend was his roommate at UMass Darmouth. The boyfriend was being detained and questioned by the FBI.

The week’s events were surreal, dramatic, sad, incomprehensible and disturbing. It is hard now to imagine that they happened only six weeks ago. The magnitude of the dismay makes it seem like another time, not part of the continuum of recent life.

On May 8th I turned 60. Hmmm, such a big number, don’t you think? Now I have to get used to my age staring with a big fat 6. I was just starting to feel comfortable with 5s.

Because I was in Massachusetts instead of on the road, I was able to enjoy the warmth and generosity of family and friends for this momentous birthday. A group of old compadres gathered in Amherst, MA, on the 7th for an evening of shared food and reflections on aging. Some I had known since my 20‘s. Each friend offered a personal story, poem or quote about the mysterious process of getting older.

One brought a basket filled with folded paper slips with quotes inside and then, one-by-one, we each read our random selection. I started the round with the famous quote by Robert Browning, “Come grow old with me, the best is yet to be.” The perfect sentiment with which to embrace friends with whom I had already grown considerable older.

Is the best yet to be? My time at my mother’s assisted living facility recently, did not paint an attractive picture for one’s most elderly years. Certainly by 60 the best of my body’s attractiveness, energy and strength is gone and the best of my ability to remember details and to have access to my lifetime storehouse of knowledge is past. Of course, the only best moment of life there can ever be is happening right now, otherwise we are just living in memory and imagination.

I think if you are on a dedicated path toward greater presence and open-heartedness, then the bests yet to come in old age are limitless. Admittedly, some pretty big painful, scary worsts are probably in store, too. Fortunately, the worsts can sometimes become wake-up calls to understand what is truly most important, to seek who we are at the deepest levels, to discover where freedom and peace actually are and to forego the rest. My future bests might be: a heart completely relieved of the weight of judgement, worry and expectation; more awestruck moments connecting intimately with the breath-taking mystery and wonder of life; stepping into a profound acceptance of myself, of those around me and of this crazy, incredible place we’ve found ourselves; and finally, relaxing fully into the quiet joy and unflappable contentment that comes with the surrender into the here and now. I could go on . . . why not come grow old with me?

Astrologically speaking, 60 is the start of becoming an elder. It is the end of the second Saturn Cycle, one of the great sweeps of repeating cosmic time. Saturn returns to the position it had at one’s birth about every 29 years, marking a new stage and a new beginning. Going on The Big Trip during my 2nd Saturn Cycle has been the perfect way to explore the inner journey demanded by the Return. Old routines have been shaken up or thrown out the window. There is time to ask questions about my purpose and direction. Am I living in alignment with the deepest rumblings of my heart? Chris and I are the same age so we are traveling this astrological trajectory together. Below are some quotes by astrologers about the second Saturn Cycle:

“The Saturn Return brings about endings and new beginnings.  The universe will unveil unhealthy and incongruent living and working conditions that can no longer be tolerated.  This recognition can bring about enormous change . . .”

“As the body ages, depression and fatigue inevitably arise, yet as the body becomes less an object of vanity it’s a chance for the Spirit to rise . . . The hallmark of the second Saturn Return is that if you deal maturely with the old pockets of unfinished business you gain the gift that will last till the end—the gift of wisdom. You become an Elder.”

“At the second Saturn return (usually between 58-60, you are asked ‘Do you want to be a wise elder – or just older?’ You begin to realize that you only have a certain amount of time left to do what you came to do. You realize that you aren’t going to be around forever, that what you do now has consequences. What did I come here to do, and how am I doing with that? What have I left undone, where am I out of integrity with myself and others?”

The timing of my stay in Massachusetts fortunately allowed me to attend a weekend retreat with Lama John Makransky and Julie Forsythe. It was for the meditation teachers with the Foundation of Active Compassion (of which I am one). I was relieved to have the restorative break, to reconnect with old friends and teachers, and to get a “booster shot” of Dzogchen. (Dzogchen is considered to be the most subtle and profound teachings of the Tibetan Buddhist Ningyma tradition.)

The retreat was held at Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield NH, the lovely retreat center for the Natural Dharma Fellowship, the sangha led by Lama Willa Miller. I had been there before for a previous FAC teacher weekend and another time to help lead an outdoor retreat with Bob Morrison and Lama Willa. That latter weekend in October 2010 was memorable for the six inches of snow that fell!

The weather in early May was beautiful, the silence delicious, the views over mountains and sky soothing. A short walk down the dirt road brought me to blooming trout lilies, bellworts, and red trilliums. A yellow-bellied sapsucker flew from tree to tree. Usually these weekends focus on issues of being a teacher and are partially interactive. This one was silent. Lama John focused on the expansive teachings of Dzogchen and highlighted the approach of Tsoknyi Rinpoche, another teacher of mine.

At the very end of the retreat, after silence was broken, lunch was eaten and people were beginning to disperse, a birthday cake with candles appeared before me and a round of Happy Birthday was sung. This was a complete surprise since only one person at the retreat had known my birthday was near. Fortunately, I had recently become lax on my gluten-free diet of several years and I heartily ate two large pieces of the moist chocolate with peanut butter icing dessert!

If you are interested in knowing more about Dzogchen, there are many books available. One recommendation is Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s, Open Heart, Open Mind. John Makransky’s book is, Awakening Through Love.

The time I spent in Massachusetts spanned the most magical mini-season of the year. When I arrived mid-April, few plants were green and the trees were bare. Only small buds hinted at what was to come. Some of the earliest spring flowers were visible –  crocuses and forsythia – but they were sparse, separated by barren-looking earth.

By the time I left five weeks later, bright greenery had burst forth in every imaginable place. A rainbow of flowers decorated the landscape. It was as if the forest, once naked and exposed, became modest and drew a green curtain over itself while the trees fully dressed themselves in foliage. The intimate inner sanctum of the woods, once visible from the edges, became opaque to the outside observer. Roads that had opened to the sky were now tunnels of green arms reaching overhead.

Our fresh beginning has been enhanced by the major home renovation project Chris undertook in my sister’s driveway. He added a three-way (propane, 12 volt, 120) refrigerator, the installation of which necessitated taking apart and redesigning the entire kitchenette/appliance side of the camper. I knew I would like having a fridge but after a few days with it on the road, I am ecstatically reminded that refrigeration is one of the truly great inventions of the 20th century. No more tripping over the cooler, buying ice, pulling soggy items from chilled water and keeping food at not-quite-cold enough temperatures. We even have a freezer that freezes. It’s changed the kind of food we can buy and therefore eat.

Our fresh start also began in a new part of the country. Part I ended in Florida and Part III began in New England. During Part I we gradually headed East. Now we are pointed West. Sometimes I think we are just starting to get the hang of this vagabond life. We will probably really know what we are doing, and why, about the time we return to Santa Cruz in October. Although the plan is to stop then, will I want to?

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