Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Happy Winter Solstice!

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Happy Solstice to All and to All a Long Peaceful Night!
December 21, 2018.

May the increasing light be the light of wisdom. May the world expand in its understanding, empathy and caring. May people respond with compassion and action to the decimation of the planet, to bigotry, to violence and war, to the general insanity around us.

Chris and I made the last minute decision to witness the Winter Solstice sunset at the Ohlone Solstice Stones in the Santa Cruz Mountains off Skyline Blvd. The weather was promising in Santa Cruz but deteriorated as we climbed the steep and winding Highway 9. The cloud cover became dense. Eventually we entered the clouds and were enveloped in a foggy wet haze. Light rain occasionally fell. We wouldn’t see the sunset tonight but we would go anyway, stand at the sacred rocks and say a few prayers and blessings for a troubled world.

The Ohlone Solstice stones (I’ve written about them before) include a rock with a deep “V” and a large round flat rock. The V lines up with the setting solstice sun as it sinks silently into the sea. The other rock, “turtle rock,” is said to be the origin of the Ohlone people.

A few cars were parked at the trailhead, but not many. We walked up alone, the woods and the views disappearing into silence and white space. We joined several others already at the sight. People were chatting in pairs and small groups, maybe 11 in all. I said to a women near me that we must be the “hardcore solstice people.” When the weather is clear, there can be sizable crowd. Sometimes a ranger is present.

The view looks west over several ridges to the Pacific Ocean. Tonight we gazed only into a murky void, maybe 50 yards of visibility at best. I’ve been there when the weather is worse, raining hard, blowing and frigid. So this wasn’t too bad. We would just have to imagine the sunset and check our watches for the timing.

About 5 minutes before the sun set, the group naturally fell into silence, just standing quietly, peaceably, together around the stones facing west. Just at the time of sunset, at the farthest edge of what we could see, a buck walked slowing out of the tree cover and crossed the grassy meadow on the slope below. Then a second buck followed him. Both carried handsome, impressive sets of antlers. They disappeared into the fog.

Eventually people began moving around, preparing for the short hike to the cars. Chris and I did our silent blessings, offering gratitude and a little tobacco to the spirits.

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com

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My TGA: When Memory Becomes Unmoored

Below is an essay I wrote last year about a unique experience I had. A little different from my usual photos and commentary posts. Perhaps you know someone who had a TGA. I had never heard of it until I landed in the hospital.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Several people are crouching close by. They speak deliberately to each other and to me. I respond to their questions but I have no sense of what I am saying. We’re in a very small space. I am lying down. Is this room moving, is this a vehicle? Why am I here? The scene quickly fades like a darkening theater. A silent void remains.

I’m on a moving bed. A woman is having trouble maneuvering it. Then, in conversation with another woman, she realizes it has a motor and turns it on. We glide through brightly lit narrow hallways. Where am I? Quickly an enveloping shadow overtakes the light.

Another small bright white space. How did I get here? I am in a small bed. I see Chris, my life partner, sitting back quietly in a chair. J, a friend, is closer, leaning toward me. I am covered in a crumpled white sheet. What has happened? Was I in an accident? If I was, I remember nothing. I search my body for clues and discover no pain and no discomfort other than befuddlement. I can’t quite make sense of my surroundings but I do feel cocooned by caring people. I am not afraid.

One “wall” of the cubicle is only a sliding curtain and it opens to a hallway of brisk activity. People also sit at a counter. It looks like a bar but they stare into computer screens instead of drinks. Sounds crowd my head, louder than my thoughts. People chattering, the clanging of carts and equipment. Orders being shouted. A woman nearby screams unabated. Her wailing voice reeks of uncontrolled fear and pain beyond limits. I wonder what has happened to her. I know she is in the right place and I wish her comfort and quick relief. I hope she is not alone.

A man walks in and introduces himself. He talks about what is happening to me but I cannot remember what it is. Information disappears like water down a drain, flushing out to sea, impossible to bring back.

Where am I? How did I get here? J must have brought me. Where am I exactly? Clearly I am in a medical facility; I see people in scrubs. There are intricate machines, electronic monitors, tubes and wires decorating the room. The crisp smell of cleanser and rubbing alcohol is in the air. I know something serious has happened to me. But what could it be? Is it a stroke? I search for anything to explain my circumstances.

People continue to ask me questions. I can’t seem to find the answers. I am stumped. I know I should know but I can’t recall no matter how hard I try. I scrunch up my face in deep thought, make an effort to recover the correct response, give up, chuckle and say, “Now, that’s a good question!” I do not know the year, month or day, where I am or why.

I am in another room; I don’t remember being brought here. Medical devices beep and tubes dangle from my right arm. Only Chris is in the room. I wiggle my feet; I am wearing bright yellow hospital traction socks. I have on a blue print hospital gown and, surprisingly, my own black pants. Other people come and go.

Chris explains to me what has gone wrong but I can’t remember what he says. What disturbs me most is I cannot recall where I had been before. What had I been doing? What had happened to bring me here? How could I not know? Something terrible must have happened. I plumb the depths of my mind; there is little there to reveal my recent life. The previous hours, days, weeks, are now muddled, elusive. I am told that I am in Dominican Hospital. I have visited friends here but this is my first time as a patient.

I begin to remember more about forgetting. I watch and recall how everything in the moment seems clear but then fades like a train disappearing down a dark tunnel. Two nurses check my body for lesions and wounds – a necessary protocol, I assume, for anyone who might be in the hospital for an indeterminate amount of time. There are no sores. I remember that I was clear when they were here, we chatted as they looked me over. But now it has become dreamlike, distant and vague. I know it happened just a few minutes ago but the details are gone, the image smudged, dim. I tell the nurse that I am losing memories; she nods with understanding.

People reassure me; they say I will recover soon. From what? I am repeatedly tested for stroke. “Squeeze my fingers.” “Lift your legs.” I pass each time.

Chris asks me if I remember J. Yes, I recall she had been with us. Had she brought me here? This must have been hard for J. Just a few months ago she had been in this hospital to remove a cancerous tumor from her brain. This is probably the last place she wants to be. But I am lucky, her natural concern and her experience navigating the local health care system has come in handy. Chris hates anything to do with doctors and medicine. This must be difficult for him too.

Finding memories feels arduous. I reach inside but only discover empty, silent space as though my own mind is shunning me, refusing to respond to my entreaties. Someone again asks me what year it is. Such a simple question. 2013 comes to mind as an image, lighted numbers on a black background. The date is followed by several blank spaces as

if they are waiting to be filled. Interpreting the mind image, I think it must be later than 2013. But what year can it be? How many years later? I do not know.

How can the circumstances of my life slip away like this? I know I had had other plans, important plans, for the day but I do not know what they were. I announce, as a kind of joke, “I didn’t schedule this. This wasn’t in my appointment book!” It is important to acknowledge to others the shock of my situation, to acknowledge the uncertainty of my life.

Some memories of recent weeks are returning but the previous five days are still out of reach. Chris interviews me while making a video. He prods me to recollect, to find and gather the memory fragments that have fluttered away.

“What did you do on Thursday?”
I pause. “Uh . . . I don’t know.”
“It’s something you like to do.”
I contemplate this. Then an image of the seashore comes to mind. “I went to the beach! I thought I dreamed that.”

“And what did you find?”
I pause. “I don’t know.” Chris waits.
An image of a small container appears in my mind; I look in.
“Sea glass! . . . I thought it had been a dream!” I smile at the pleasant recollection.

My ability to think is slow and thick like old honey that is too congealed to flow. When I am asked a question, there is initially no inner response, nothing evoked, nothing triggered, nothing known. Then gradually, out of the darkness an image approaches. The words and meaning come a few seconds later, if at all. Probably in ordinary consciousness the process of shifting from image to words is so fast it seems to happen simultaneously. But for now I get to watch the brain work in slow motion.

New memories are beginning to stick. A little while ago, only feelings and mental impressions lingered; I couldn’t retain detailed information. Now, for longer and longer periods, new memories, instead of sinking out of sight into murky water, float nearby, available when I need them.

I think I have already been told, but I ask Chris, “Where was I? What happened there?”

“You were teaching a daylong meditation retreat with M. At the lunch break, you couldn’t remember the morning. You were confused and J drove you to urgent care. M called me immediately.”

“Oh my god! I don’t remember it! M was here from Boston?” I had a vague feeling that M and I had discussed this possibility when I saw him over the Holidays, weeks – or was it months? – earlier.

“I left M on his own? Is he okay? I need to talk to him, check in with him.” I felt some guilt. I must have arranged for us to teach together and now I left him to fend for himself in a strange city.

Chris responds quickly, dismissing my need to be concerned. “Don’t worry about M. He’s fine; he finished the afternoon. He told the group that you had to leave because of a ‘bug’.”

 

I’m amused by this. Yes, some kind of bug alright, but not a cold or flu, more like a insidious computer virus infecting my brain.

I am stunned and disturbed to realize I had lost all memory of being with M earlier today. At the workshop I would have been sitting in front of a large group. I would have been speaking, giving instructions, answering questions. Did I behave normally or oddly? There would have been people there I knew, like J, but they had all been erased from my memory. Chris says that M and I met the day before to plan our workshop. I don’t remember that either.

“Did people know there was something wrong with me?”

“Mostly not. But J thought there was something off at the end of the morning session. She talked to you for awhile and decided to bring you in to be examined. You had a CT scan and a EKG. An ambulance took you from urgent care to the hospital.”

I have no memory of the tests or the trip.

I dredge my memory banks for any images from this morning or the last few days. I realize the few mental pictures I do have, all have the same flavor. I can’t tell if I have dreamed, imagined or actually experience what I recall. This is startling. They are all equally dreamlike, difficult to retrieve, devoid of detail. Like a dream, they are familiar but they don’t seem to pertain to this waking world but rather to some other reality I haven’t really lived. I had assumed most of what I saw in my mind were dreams; especially since I feel like I have been asleep, totally absent, for days. I start asking Chris if specific events I recall are real or imagined.

 

The man in the white jacket I has met earlier returns. He tells me that he is a neurologist.

He asks, “How are you doing?”

I shrug my shoulders and raise my hands palm up, shake my head and smile, meaning, I don’t really know how the hell am I doing! Do you?

But Chris adds, “She is doing much better. She’s starting to remember things.”

The doctor explains, “You have Transient Global Amnesia. We don’t really know what causes it. Over the next few hours, you should regain most of your recent memories and your ability to make new ones. But you may never remember this morning. By tomorrow you’ll be fine. This probably won’t happen again. But we want to keep you overnight for observation.”

That’s okay with me. My body aches, a foggy confusion clogs my thoughts and I am tired, so tired. I am relieved to be surrounded by trained medical staff for the night and machines that monitor my well-being.

I ask Chris for my smartphone so I can look up Transient Global Amnesia (TGA.) My eyes burn and tire as I try to focus on the small glowing screen. After a few minutes I quit. But I first discover a few facts.

TGA is a rare neurological event. When it strikes, you lose the ability to make short term memories. Most people also temporarily forget the recent past, from days to months. You know who you, family and friends are. You still have what’s called “procedural memory”, you can do those things that you do by habit, like talking, getting dressed, even driving (although you might not remember where you are going.) Your personality, ability to interact socially, and even your sense of humor remain intact. Although basic memory returns, some people have cognitive and memory loss symptoms that linger for weeks and even months. The doctor didn’t mention this.

One of the most peculiar symptoms of TGA is the repetition of the same questions ever few minutes. It is like a video recording being replayed, with the exact same words, gestures and affect. Chris tells me I had done exactly this. Where am I? How did I get here? Again and again, forgetting that moments earlier I had been given the answer.

It’s most common in people between 50 and 75; the median age is 62. I am 62. There are many “precipitating events” common to people with TGA’s – hard exercise, sex, jumping into cold water, stress, a recent medical procedure – but it is not known why these experiences trigger the disruption in short-term memory. I had had a colonoscopy several days before. People who have a history of migraines are also more likely to have a TGA. I’ve had migraines since I was twelve. Occurrence is slightly higher in Scandinavians. I am of Norwegian descent.

It’s been 9 hours since I lost my memory. I now know the date, month, year. I know where I am and how I got here.

After Chris goes home for the night, I turn on the TV to entertain my stagnant mind and to enliven the stark impersonality of the hospital room. “The Matrix” is on. I am pleased and amused. Here is a tale that intermixes physical reality and mind-created worlds; it is an inquiry into what is real and what is not. Just up my alley tonight. Other movies come to mind that remind me of my situation, “50 First Dates”, “Memento”, “Groundhog Day.”

The new night nurse checks in on me.
As we chat, he asks, “Are you on the hospital staff?”
“No, why?” I am surprised by the question. Do I look like a doctor?
“Well, I heard you were teaching a workshop on medication this morning.”
I chuckle. “No, it was a meditation workshop!” I add, “Sometimes meditation can be as helpful as medication.”
After twenty minutes, I am weary of the movie and I retreat into the muffled quiet of the night-time hospital, the rhythmic beeping of machines, the murmuring of nurses, the soft rumbling of supply carts rolling by. It is hot in the room and the nurse opens a window. The courtyard fountain gurgles, adding a welcome soothing sound.

 

I am exhausted yet sleep seems unlikely with the headache, back pain, mild nausea and general malaise I feel. My heart and my spirit are heavy and fragile. It occurs to me that I could die tonight. Maybe I will slip into the darkness, that empty place of not-knowing and not return. Maybe death is like this not remembering, the same silent blackness into which my memories fade. If death is like losing my memory, then it’s not so bad, just a painless disappearing. A tender sense of fear and sadness arises as I recall my life and those I love. I know that someday, if not tonight, I will pass into that mystery.

It’s morning and I didn’t die. Despite feeling as though I hadn’t really slept, the night passed quickly, if uncomfortably. Chris has returned and we wait, a bit impatiently, for

me to get discharged. He’s at lunch in the hospital cafeteria, when the neurologist finally checks in on me and says I can go home. The doctor is confident that I will be fine. There is no follow-up treatment except to check in with my PCP. He repeats that the cause is unknown but speculates my incident might be related to my colonoscopy.

As I wait for Chris to return, I turn on the TV one more time. “50 First Dates” is on. I am delighted by the synchronicity. The Drew Barrymore character, like me, lost her short- term memory. Her cycle was one day; she would wake up each morning believing it to be the day before her head injury, every repeated new day after that lost. My short term memory, in the depth of the TGA, only lasted 1-2 minutes.

Relieved to be home, no longer a hospital inmate, I stretch out on the couch and watch the afternoon light stream through the silent redwood trees. All I want now is a warm shower and some sleep. All I want is to return to being someone who remembers.

Please do not reprint without permission. Contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com.

 

Don’t Hurt the Mushrooms!

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I walk through the forest for exercise and the feeling of aliveness in my body, to breathe in the refreshing exhalations of the trees, and to see what might reveal itself to me. After the rains begin in the fall, I also look for mushrooms and related fungi. Hiking in the Pine Flats area of Henry Cowell State Park last November, I wandered down a side trail encouraged by some mushrooms I spotted near the path’s beginning. However, I soon discovered that someone had recently stomped on every mushroom that grew on the side of the trail. The only people I saw were a man and his perhaps 10-year-old son. Were they the mushroom mashers?

Sadly, this is not uncommon.

I recall as a child being with other children who had been told that mushrooms were “bad” and should be destroyed. This was unfathomable and disturbing to me. I suspect this is still being taught. Mushrooms are associated with death and decay. A few are, of course, poisonous and can kill, others cause illness and hallucinations. But these are rare and easy to avoid. Cars kill and houseplants can poison; do we stamp those out? Mycophobia is the fear of fungus and, like all irrational fears, is based on what is perceived as unknown, out of our control and vaguely threatening. But mushrooms and the fungal world are truly our friends; they keep the world in balance.

My grandfather shared his love of mushrooms, teaching his grandchildren how to make spore prints to help with identification. He had books about mushrooms and a collection of his own photographs. Although I like being able to accurately identify mushrooms (and wildflowers and birds, etc.), I am actually most excited by the treasure hunt of finding them. The reward is in the surprise, the beauty and the unearned gift of witnessing an ephemeral wild thing.

I rarely pick mushrooms anymore and usually do so only if I plan to consume it. There are several species that are hard to get wrong and are reliably good to eat. But mostly I leave the prize edibles, the uniquely beautiful mushrooms and the commonplace ones alone, sometimes creating a record of our encounter through photography.

The true living organism of the fungi – the mycelium: all those white threads found throughout healthy soil – are the veins, lungs and nervous system of the forest. (The mushrooms are the fruiting body like an apple on a much larger tree.) There is generous exchange between the trees that create sugars from photosynthesis and the mycelium that transport minerals and fluids. They provide inter-plant communication and distribute the wealth of resources. This intricate web of tiny fungal fibers is so extensive that in a cubic inch of soil there can be eight miles of these cells. It’s called the “Wood Wide Web.” Listen to Radiolab, “From Tree to Shining Tree”
http://www.radiolab.org/story/from-tree-to-shining-tree/

Did you know that fungi are more closely related genetically to animals than plants? Once considered part of the plant world (which is what I was taught in school) they now have their own separate kingdom.
Watch this TED talk, “Six Ways that Mushrooms Can Save the World.”
https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_stamets_on_6_ways_mushrooms_can_save_the_world#t-150788

So please do not harm the mushrooms. If not for the mushroom’s sake in its attempt to reproduce, then for the nature lovers who share these trails with you. Each time a mushroom is spotted, respect its essential role in the forest and its rare appearance like an exquisite wildflower.

All mushroom photographs were taken in the Santa Cruz Mountains in Santa Cruz County, CA between November 2016 and March 2017. Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: brennan.carla@gmail.com. You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones): https://www.etsy.com/shop/stonesandbones

This gallery contains 49 photos


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The Big Trip Has Come to an End

October 4, 2013

The Big Trip has come to an end.

Just as it was hard to believe during the few weeks before starting our trip that we were actually going to leave home, it has been hard to believe over the past few weeks that we were going to be home again. We ended The Big Trip the same way we began it. Our first and last nights were with Chris’s sister in Menlo Park and our next and previous nights were at Mercey Hot Springs. This symmetry seemed fitting for re-entry.

Although I have written mostly about the outer journey – places and events – it is the inner journey that has been most important. I will continue to complete a record of our travels through stories and photographs, but my big job now will be to understand and integrate what has shifted inwardly. I do not know yet how much of that process I will put on my blog. It may take months, if not longer, to fully survey this new inner landscape.

During the past two week I noted that many of the tasks we had done so many times we were doing for the LAST time. The last time washing my hair under difficult conditions, the last grocery shopping in an unfamiliar supermarket, the last withdrawal from an ATM machine, the last time collecting quarters for a laundromat, the last trip photograph and, of course, the last supper. Some of these I am happy to leave behind, but others I will quickly miss. Endings, change, transitions, all hallmarks of impermanence. But beginnings and birth are also part of impermanence and I will be starting life afresh in Santa Cruz.

I had many reasons for going on this extended “drive-about”. To restore myself after a few too many years of demanding work. To re-evaluate, re-assess and re-vision my role as a Buddhist teacher. To clarify my deepest intentions for what I have left of this life. To give freer rein to the “wandering monk” within. To step out of routine and schedules and into immediacy and spontaneity. To be awed everyday by the natural world. To create space for my writer’s voice to speak. These were all fulfilled to varying degrees.

A deep bow of gratitude to the many wonderful people who supported this sabbatical year of travel and introspection. May the rewards of this trip be worthy of your faith in me. And thank you to those who spent time reading this blog; it helped me feel that the effort was worthwhile!

Chris said philosophically the other day, “The trip will continue once we’re home, it will just change.” Yes, we will still be on a journey, the mysterious trip of the unfolding present.

I will continue to be a student of Nature: inner nature, true nature and wild nature. And I will always be a student of wonder.


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The Beginning of Part III of The Big Trip

(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.

THE BOMBINGS
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.

THE BIRTHDAY
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 RETREAT
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.

MY FAVORITE SEASON
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.

THE HOME IMPROVEMENT
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.

PART III
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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DAYS 59-65 Dechen Ling, The Retreat – Part 2

November 23 – December 3, 2012
Tonopah, AZ

THE LABYRINTH

“Round and round you go . . . where you stop  . . . nobody knows . . . “

I sometimes half-jokingly say that future historians will call this century, “The Golden Age of the Labyrinth”. All styles of labyrinths are appearing everywhere, at least in the U.S., at churches of every denomination, retreat centers, schools, parks, homes. If humans suddenly disappeared and alien archeologists landed, they might believe that labyrinths are the core of our spiritual life.

Although labyrinths are visually appealing and an attractive addition to any garden or large indoor space, I have felt rather neutral about their use in spiritual practice. Having done many hours of walking meditation – maybe weeks if all totaled – ambulating to deepen spiritual insight is very familiar to me. Walking meditation can be practiced indoors or out, in a back and forth path, around in circles or in a straight line, fast or slow. You can do it anywhere. Its purpose is to collect the heart and mind in the present, to disengage awareness from the mental chatter and connect with a deeper way of knowing and of being. Labyrinths have seemed superfluous to that purpose.

Of course, a labyrinth is an ancient form of sacred circle, mandala, and medicine wheel. They hold a special energy. They are symbols of the divine feminine. So, despite my indifference, I figure, you can’t really have too many of them.

I thought I might warm up to labyrinths if I used one repeatedly. I didn’t want to miss out on what they might have to offer. Here, at Dechen Ling, was my opportunity.

The path of the labyrinth at Dechen Ling is defined by small stones. The design weaves the trail in and out, getting you closer and then farther away from the elusive center, until you finally reach the end of your journey at the heart of the spiral. This is a lovely symbol for the way our spiritual path usually unfolds. We seemingly get closer to our deepest aspirations, to our true nature, and then we lose track, get diverted, distracted and appear to be going in the wrong direction. We forget where we are or become overwhelmed. The labyrinth shows you that, ultimately, every step you take with intention, leads you, eventually, to the completion of your journey.

As I walked this labyrinth for the first time in warm mid-day sun, I thought of other places that offered structured walking practice. For example, when I had a massive vegetable garden in Massachusetts, first thing in the morning and when I returned from work, I would saunter up and down the rows, just to witness the life growing there and to see “what was new”. Fresh sprouts, leaves, buds, new flowers or fruits, ripenings or rottings, vegetables stolen or damaged by the local critters who wanted some of the bounty. It was really an exercise in being present, in connecting, in leaving behind the detritus of a burdened mind.

So like the garden, a labyrinth is a device, an excuse, an attraction, that invites meditative walking, makes it easy to begin and end, and to do repeatedly. We humans are a forgetful bunch and are easily dissuaded from doing what we know to be most important and true. Anything that reminds us to pause and wake up amidst the bustle and distractions of ordinary life is of enormous help.

Each day I slowly paced the inward course of the labyrinth. At the center, the place of completion, I performed the 11-directions ceremony, a ritual based on practices from around the world. Best known are the medicine wheel rituals of Native Americans. This labyrinth was laid out on an east-west axis, making it easy to align with the compass points. I offered a pinch of tobacco (a substance sacred to Native Americans across the continent) to each direction in a gesture of gratitude after I had given thanks to the benefactors of the quality represented by each direction. I asked for guidance and protection. And I clearly set my intentions and dedicated myself to be “a voice for the earth and all life”.  You learn that spiritual qualities dwell both within oneself and in the natural landscape. The 11-directions ceremony, like the labyrinth itself, offers a structure to return us to what is essential.

After doing this for several days, I appreciated the metaphors imbedded in the labyrinth’s form. It reminds us that we are on a meaningful journey. Many people’s lives are adrift, without purpose, and they miss the potentiality inherent in being human. They miss the opportunity to walk a path of transformation, a path not about transforming into someone better or different, but in transforming into someone who knows who you really are, able to see past the superficiality of ordinary views and delve into deeper truths. The journey of the labyrinth symbolically takes you to the innermost center, the source, the still point.

Sometimes the words labyrinth and maze are used interchangeably. However, this type of labyrinth is the opposite of a maze. Mazes are meant to confuse and they foster getting lost.  Walking a labyrinth, you are guided, step by step, to where you need to go. The choice is not about which way to go but whether to surrender to a process that is greater than oneself, to follow the mystery to its end. There is an inevitability built into a labyrinth.

Traditionally, the labyrinth is described as a journey of shedding worldly concerns on the inward course to the sacred center, and then returning outward to the world again, renewed. This was not exactly my experience. The inward track felt like a focusing, an intensifying of intention. The center, a complete stopping, the moment of simple Beingness. The walking outward was the shedding of all separation and becoming more inclusive until nothing is left out.
The Labyrinth

DAY 12 – Route 32, along Deer Creek, CA

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012
After an evening staying with friends in Corning, we headed to Chico to resupply and do errands. We were still refining the organization of the camper and figuring out what we needed. It is a slow process finding stores and moving about an unfamiliar town. We needed to get used to this. GPS helped a lot but compared to doing routine errands at home, the day seemed long and cumbersome. We stopped at “Morning Thunder” restaurant for brunch and had enormous, tasty meals. Chris and I stared at each other, overwhelmed by the noise and activity. Was this place really, really loud or had we become extremely sensitized by our quiet stays in nature? Probably both.

By late afternoon we were both fried and Chris wanted to GET OUT; he insisted on driving up Route 32 toward Lassen National Forest for the night. We planned to go to the closest forest service campground but when we got there it was closed for the season. Continuing up the road we found a dirt drive that, after a short steep climb, led to a flat area. Clearly, this is a parking place for people fishing. It was located in a bowl surrounded by low mountains and lava formations. We could hear, but not see, the Deer Creek down the sloping hillside. There was only time for dinner and bed.

We were in active black bear country; there was bear scat near our camp and the next day I would see more in the forest. None of it was very old. It was almost entirely comprised of berry seeds and looked like, as described in a source about track and sign, like it had been extruded from an frozen orange juice can.

Two years ago we spent a week in Lassen National Park. It is the homeland of Ishi, who, some of you know, is considered to be the last Native American to have lived, as his ancestors had done for thousands of years, “in the wild”. Alone – his family and tribe gone – and starving, he walked out of the mountains in 1911. Eventually, he was befriended, looked after and helped by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and lived his remaining years in San Francisco. Ishi died in 1916, as many Native Americans did, of one of the diseases of civilization, tuberculosis. As we traveled, we listen to an audio version of the book, “Ishi in Two Worlds”. We drove down Route 32 which follows the descent of Deer Creek while listening to the audio. Synchronistically, with views of Deer Creek from the car, the book described Ishi’s life along this stream. Since then I’ve wanted to return.

All night I kept waking up waiting for morning so I could visit where Ishi lived. It felt like waiting for Christmas morning as a child. The next day, I made two trips to the creek before we left in early afternoon.

This creek is typical of mountain streams in California, full of big boulders and water cascading into small and occasionally large pools. Cold, clear, clean. I imagine Ishi and his family living, hunting and fishing here and I offer a short ceremony of apologies for their loss of land and life.

I hope to return again and spend a few more days and possibly meet the ghosts that inhabit the place.

REFLECTION
Why am I so affected by Ishi and his story? At the risk of sounding overly romanticizing and idealizing, I will explain. Ishi’s story represents the end of many things to me. Certainly, the end of the way of life and the freedom for America’s original people. And with that the loss of languages, knowledge, skills and history. It also represents, if not the beginning, the escalation of the modern era of over-development, expansionism, industrialization and overpopulation. It represents the loss of many lives from colonization and the loss of Native American’s ability to survive in the face of ranchers, developers, prospectors, and especially capitalism and American policy. It represents the violence and destruction following the wave of European settlement of the Americas.

Native peoples, of course, share the same range of human characteristics as all humankind, from peaceful to warlike, from sensitive to callous. However, indigenous cultures in their original state most often have the following traits: a deep spirituality related to the forces and mystery of nature; respect for the interdependence of life; rituals of gratitude for what one has and for the gifts of nature; a reliance on the beauty of story and myth, song and music; necessary and exceptional skill at crafts, whether it is pottery, beadwork or tools; a sensitive understanding of the land, animals and plants with which one lives; a life outdoors in sync with the movements of season, sun, moon, migrations.

I have a deep affinity to all of these traits and I try to introduce them into my life in small ways. I seek to live in balance and harmony with the way things actually are, with the way the Universe actually works, and with finding happiness where it can actually be found.

And I have a deep antipathy for many of the predominant values of 21st century Western culture. The obvious ones include: unchecked growth, a spirit of accumulation and greed, thoughtless exploitation of natural resources and peoples, and glorified self-interest. Even in day-to-day life we are surrounded by habits of busyness and distraction and by behavior driven by unexamined neurosis and subliminal fear. Both the source and the result of these traits is a culture of profound disconnection. We become separated from our inner world, each other and nature.

When I reflect on Ishi’s story I feel heartbreak and melancholy. There is a poignancy that is hard to bear and a longing for a lifestyle, community and society that embraces values of open-heartedness, interconnection and presence. I want to go to Ishi’s homeland along Deer Creek to attune and atone. Attune to a world of beauty and atone for the destruction inflicted by our European ancestors.

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