Don’t Dream It’s Over

The suitcases are back down in the storage locker, the laundry is folded and tucked away. The photos have been filed and the promise to have our favorites made into a Shutterfly book is written on that long ‘to do’ list.

fullsizeoutput_ccfIt’s like a dream. The only reason why I know for certain I was there is because of the sense of familiarity that welled inside when I saw images of the protests that occurred in Kerala in early January. A wall of women stretched the length of the place I had just been and deep in my soul I could feel the heat and hear the traffic and smell the layered perfumes of India.

I’ll be honest. I don’t want to be writing this. The deeper my last post about the backwaters of Kerala sinks into this blog’s history, the further away I am from that magical land. That’s how wonderful those ten days were.

I know plenty of people who look forward to their two-week holiday every year. Friends, students and private clients let me know they’ll be missing class or canceling appointments. They organize the cat sitter, hold the mail and stop the daily delivery of the New York Times. The kids are piled into the family van for a road trip or a race to the airport for a bargain priced flight to parts unknown.

glglq8tkrey3i1gqy+kx2aOur ten days in Kerala were a first for Ben and me. Over the past five years we’ve enjoyed time spent with family back east and long weekend breaks to Half Moon Bay and Arcata, but we’ve never had an extended holiday all to ourselves. Even worse, there’s never been a time when we’ve taken a so-called break and didn’t take work along as if it were a third traveling companion. (And if I’m being totally honest, on my first day in Bangalore, while Ben was finishing his business meeting, I worked on Samyama’s monthly newsletter, Prana Pulse).

I’ve always been a little weak in the self-care department and until December I didn’t understand the point of vacations. Time away from work for me usually means I’m attending an IAYT conference or taking another training. But to just sit still? Until December this was impossible. Which is pretty funny considering how often I encourage clients to be kind to themselves. I guess it’s sort of a ‘do as I say and not as I do’ situation.

Besides its gentle beauty, the biggest blessing of Kerala were the blissful two days without wifi.

fullsizeoutput_aa6For those two days my brain turned the volume down on the endless chatter, my body relaxed in a way I didn’t think was possible, and Ben and I had a chance to bask in the love we share. We engaged with life, with the world around us and with each other. During those two days I was fully immersed in the life around me – the colors, the textures, the sounds and even the silence. I engaged with life, not with a computer. 

I was very lucky to be able to travel to the other side of the world and I don’t know when I’ll have that opportunity again. No matter. Ben and I plan on taking another vacation this year. It might not be extreme or exotic or even that expensive. But after this experience, after really feeling what it means to renew and recharge, our next vacation will be designed with kindness and self-care in mind.


The Backwaters of Kerala

fullsizeoutput_a24Winding our way down from Munnar to sea level the sky gradually shifts from blue to milk white. Not white like creamy full fat milk – more like the water-downed milk I remember from childhood. The milk I drank at Mrs. Dietrich’s kitchen table when I was a kid was so fresh and warm from the cow that she served it to her daughter and me on ice. As the ice melted the milk became thin and pale. That’s the color of the sky as we descend from Munnar.

Birdsong has disappeared. In its place are the blaring horns that sound like a million trumpets searching for the right key. Bass notes rumble from trucks and busses while the staccato sputter of three-wheeled auto-rickshaws adds rhythm. It’s a discordant lullaby for Ben, who easily falls asleep in the back seat. I can’t sleep. There’s too much color and life and I want to see it all.

+AVbGiiOQmW564wlhaw8PgWomen wrapped in colorful sarees ride side-saddle on scooters while on the road’s shoulder ancient men wrapped in lungis tucked in above their knees push carts balanced on bicycle wheels and piled high with wares.

In India, driving is a skill left to the fearless. An art form only for the brave. There are no discernible lanes on the roads and when by chance there is a stretch painted with a thin white line that line is largely ignored.  Traffic flows only with the overtaking of slower vehicles. Drivers pass one another on curves, hills and in defiance of any vehicle, no matter how large, racing toward them from the opposite direction. Negotiating small villages requires dodging pedestrians and the gentle street dogs that roam in small packs. Vehicles braid their way through intersections without stopping. 

And somehow, for the most part, it all kind of works. 

It would be easy to believe drivers who overtake on curves or don’t stop at intersections have a careless and cavalier attitude toward life. But I don’t believe that. I believe the one single rule of the road that informs Indian traffic is a healthy attitude toward death. The acceptance of what we don’t know – the time or place of our demise – is a freeing thing. 

We’re on our way to the backwaters of Kerala, to a place called Alleppey. From there we’ll spend a day and one night aboard a houseboat on Lake Vembanad.

IszyrQtvTTG7%%7VjZ+TGAThe four hour drive from Munnar to Alleppey is long and hot and bumpy but when we arrive at the houseboat all of that is forgotten. For the rest of the afternoon and into the first part of the next morning we’ll be on the longest lake in Kerala. We’re in a traditional houseboat. It moves almost without sound. I can hear the lapping of water and once again the sound of birds calling to one another. There’s an immense variety of bird life here – brahminy kites that look like bald eagles, kingfishers, parrots, flycatchers, darters, cormorants, egrets and herons all greet us as we move through the waters. 

IMG_3209The lake is life and livelihood for the people who live along its edge. Children are ferried home from school in wooden boats. Women wash clothes while their kids play in its waters. At sunrise lone fishermen, silhouetted in their small canoes by the red dawn, make their way to where they hope will be the day’s best catch.

I feel like an intruder. My Western sensibilities can not imagine what life is like for the people who live on the lake. Life means something different here, something I can’t define or experience. I’m a visitor – welcome or unwelcome – who will soon return to central heating, paved roads and hot water on demand. 4X+kzKIoSgGHjv7CeQx7zw

But I am swallowed up in the beauty of it all. I envy their connection to the water and the land. As I continue to watch and steal photos of people’s lives I consider how we all love and hate, live and die, work and rest, smile and mourn. Maybe the woman pounding wet clothes on cement and I have something the same inside. Different hopes but still hope. Different fears but still fear.


Kerala

From the air, if you’re high enough, the green carpet of trees could be anywhere. It could even be home. But as the plane descends the coconut trees begin to distinguish themselves. The river cuts into the earth in a way that is different to what you’ve known. Banana plantations define themselves in stiff squares of land. The roofs of homes are not the familiar red clay tiles you remember but are instead the bright blue color of tarps stretched across cinder blocks and corrugated tin. Yet, in the distance, an ornate and sparkling church calls the eye.

This is not home. This is unlike any place I’ve ever been. This is Kerala.

Kochi

The sunlight in Kochi is diffused by heavy, moist air. The December heat keeps my skin sticky and my ankles puffed. But it’s a beautiful light – intense and muted at the same time. It brightens colors and softens the edges of the Chinese fishermen nets that, since the 14th century, have pulled fish from Kochi’s harbour. The nets are fascinating structures built from teak and bamboo. They’re cantilevered and require nothing more than the weight of a man to lower themselves into the water.

Along the embankment men dressed in lungis, their heads wrapped in wet and frayed cloth as protection against the sun, prepare to sell the fish whose gills still move, desperate to find water. Interspersed between the fishmongers are stalls filled with wares available to purchase for the tourists fresh off cruise ships in port from Mumbai and Singapore. Follow the cobbled path from the nets to the jetty and you’ll find fish for your supper, leather belts, straw hats, toy tuk-tuks for the kids at home, plastic pasta makers and hand-held sewing machines the size of a stapler.

Nearby is a respite. The Church of Saint Francis is a short walk from the jetty. Built in 1503 and the original burial place of Vasco de Gama, it is a beautiful but unassuming building.

Its stone interior, lined with dark wooden pews, is cooled with a mechanism built of rope, pulleys and embroidered fabric attached to poles that run the length of the nave. The poles are lowered and when they swing the congregation is fanned by the movement of the fabric.

 

 

Munnar

The first two close calls were flukes. It was only after I saw my life pass before my eyes for the third time that I began to question our sanity. By the time we were in our fifth hour of winding switchbacks on a road so narrow we frequently stopped to accomodate traffic barreling down the steep grade toward us I knew we were doomed. We were headed toward a former hill station in Munnar now named Windermere Estate.

Just before we arrive at our destination we cross a one-lane bridge. The river is a good thirty feet below and calm. It’s difficult to believe that four months previous the same river turned violent and rose high enough to cover the span. Munnar was devastated in the floods that killed over one hundred and fifty people last August. Windermere Estate was cut off by landslides for fourteen days. There is still evidence of the landslides but with the exception of road damage evidenced on the long climb life has returned to normal.

It’s beautiful here. The air is warm but fresh and we awoke this morning to the song of the red whiskered bulbul and not the noise of car horns. From a vantage point reached by climbing a set of stairs cut into stone we have a view of mist covered tea plantations, deep valleys and a rugged mountain ridge on which, we’re told, wild elephants sometimes roam into view.

Our one day at Windermere is a day of rest. The grounds of the estate are too beautiful to contemplate leaving. With the exception of one short walk to a small village just below the estate grounds, we are content to watch the world go by from the little porch attached to our room.

Tomorrow we’ll make our way back down the mountain to Alleppey.


Keeping Promises

IMG_2207I promised myself Hawk Mountain when I forced myself to book my airline tickets. I was going back to Breinigsville to visit my mother for a week in spring.

She didn’t like the idea of my going to the mountain. She felt slighted. A bit abandoned.

But if I was being inconsiderate, I didn’t care. I had to give myself a few short hours to visit a place I loved as a girl, when I was desperate to find a refuge from a violent home. Hawk Mountain spoke to my heart decades ago when I was a child. All these years later I still long for its beauty. To deny my heart time on the mountain would have broken it.

The place I love is part of the Appalachian Trail in eastern Pennsylvania. Opened as a bird sanctuary in 1934, its trails skirt the edge of the Blue Ridge and are situated beneath a major migratory path for raptors and other soaring winged wonders.

The climb to North Lookout was easier than I remembered.  The trail was wide and clean with rough-hewn benches every hundred yards or so.  The limestone outcrop my high school friends and I huddled beneath on chilly Saturdays during our senior year was now fenced off and deemed too dangerous to climb.  Stairs to the lookout helped those who could not manage the boulders I scrambled over at sixteen.  But the view from the lookout was untouched and stretched in front of me as it had for generations  I could follow the course of the Schuylkill River and the train tracks from Kempton.  I could see Bake Oven Knob in the distance and below me the bare plowed earth.

I climbed the rocks and searched the skies.  I breathed the late spring air made damp by rain clouds moving in from the next town over.  I crawled beneath boulders to photograph the stalks and spores of spawning green moss and then knelt next to the grey lichen clinging to glacial debris ten thousand years old.

During my morning on the mountain I opened to the space around me.  I pushed against the wind and felt the wind push back.  I stretched into the sky and curled under rocks.  Hard granite pressed against my bones and when the sky finally opened the rain washed my skin.

IMG_2221


There was new life on that mountain. The new growth of a warm spring. I was new life on that mountain, too. I returned home to visit a mother I don’t know, to learn about a family who are strangers to me. On that grey morning, the morning I gave to myself as a gift, I listened to what the mountain had to teach me about memories and moving on.

And as I drove away from Hawk Mountain through the slashing rain, I knew I was ready at last to hear the stories my mother needed to tell.

IMG_2265

 As part of an assignment for the class Psychology of the Body, I was asked to write about my relationship with the land.  We all have a landscape we hold in our soul.  A place we love and return to if not with our bodies then in spirit.  I feel so lucky to have had the chance to walk Hawk Mountain once again.


What About the Space Between ‘Here’ and ‘There’?

English: Wall sculptures at Ellora Caves. A sc...

Image via Wikipedia

In between Downward Dogs my client Bob told me that to celebrate his 70th birthday this autumn he and his wife were going to take a trip around the world.

A trip around the entire world!

I immediately thought of all the places I’d like to see:  the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Grand Viaduc du Millau designed by Norman Foster, the South Island of New Zealand, Uluru (Ayers Rock), Petra, Prague and thanks to recent photographs posted by a friend the Ellora Caves in India.  Closer to home I’d like to visit the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the state of Maine and Montana, too…

We moved from Downward Dog to Child’s Pose and I asked Bob where he planned to go.  He rattled off a few places:  Shanghai, London and Paris. The way he named cities seemed strangely nonchalant. I handed him a bolster and we moved into a supported Fish Pose.

“Aren’t you missing a pretty big chunk of the world?”

Bob laughed and explained,

“It’s not about where we’re going, Mimm, it’s about how we’re getting there.”

My client is a plane geek.  Bob will celebrate his 70th birthday by taking a seat in all the aircraft he’s every wanted to fly in, including the new Airbus A380.  And he wants to use his Frequent Flyer Miles, too.  We laughed and I asked Bob to take a reclining twist.  He complained, of course (“You want me to do what?“), and then we laughed again.

The twist was released and we held our knees to our chests.  Quiet at last,  I thought about what Bob said:

It’s not about where we’re going; it’s about how we’re getting there.

Maybe life is really all about the space between here and there.


Follow the Signs: Reconsidering the Resolution

There was a time I was the Queen of Setting Goals.  I had rigid lists, sub-lists and categories:  goals for writing, goals for yoga, goals for saving money.  A five-year-plan and – always – the goal to lose ten pounds.  A complex map for my life.  A set of instructions to follow.

That’s how this year began.  With a list of detailed plans.  Such plans.  All typed neatly, printed on bright white paper, color coded and taped to my linen closet door.  I reviewed them each day and charted my progress: word counts, workouts, submissions and queries. I knew where I had been and where I was headed.  Didn’t I?  Of course I did – it was right there in black and white on my linen closet door.

That lasted about six weeks.  I stopped looking at my linen closet door around the beginning of February.  By late spring they were history.

I thought I had failed.  The truth is I hadn’t learned the lesson.

 

Yesterday I was in Sunnyvale, headed back to Palo Alto.  It was the morning of the day after Christmas.  Traffic

A historical marker situated along El Camino Real.

was light and I drove north on El Camino Real.  I was content to let my CRV stroll the six miles back home, even if I hit every red light.  Until I reached the intersection of Highway 237. On a whim, I turned right.

For those of you who know the area this is no big deal.  Unless you also know me.  When I’m driving I don’t do “whims.”  The car doesn’t move unless I know where I’m going.  I need to see that the path ahead is clear.  Last September the suggestion that I should drive an unfamiliar car, on an unfamiliar freeway following an unknown route was enough to turn me into a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  So turning right on 237 was a very big deal indeed.

And guess what happened?

I followed the signs, avoided heading toward Milpitas and sure enough, after taking the Middlefield exit and turning left on Ferguson I found Central Expressway – a faster, easier way to my home.

I know.  It was a simple thing, turning right on 237 instead of driving straight ahead.  But it revealed a big truth.  Narrowing our focus to a list of resolutions taped to a closet door has nothing to do with life.

There will be no list this year.  This year I have only one resolution.

This year I’m going to follow the signs and find my way home.


Constellations

About a year ago a friend gave me one ridiculously comfortable green leather chair, a set of cobalt blue dishes, the 1971 set of Encyclopedia Britannia including the Year in Review and a box of maps.

Early last month I was digging through the maps looking for inspiring collage material when I found a Hammond Traditional Map of the United States. I decided to tape it to my kitchen wall.

When I was Miss Kuntz’s fourth grade class at Northwestern Elementary in New Tripoli, Pennsylvania I sat next to my friend Debbie.  For two nine-year-old girls, Debbie and I had big dreams.  If we weren’t going to be President of the United States, then we at least wanted to be the first women astronauts.  Failing that, I wanted to draw maps.

It was a short-lived phase. By the time I was twelve I dreamed of folk singing stardom and by high school I was going to be a history teacher or maybe even a doctor.

At eighteen I married Bob instead. I studied art and secondary education, which seemed more suitable choices for a mid-western housewife.  But the marriage lasted less than a moment.  On my twentieth birthday I boarded a bus in McCook, Nebraska and headed four hours east. Alone.

Maps still fascinate me. I love looking at the names of towns and wondering about the people who live there.  I love tracing my finger over the places I’ve been and wondering if I’ll ever return.

Last week I stood back and began to connect the dots.  From Fairbanks, Alaska to Killeen, Texas to Lynnport, Pennsylvania.  My eyes followed a trail to all the places I’ve lived.

I couldn’t stop.  I found string and used it to create a geographic cats cradle – my very own constellation.  An energetic imprint of over half a century of experience.

What does your constellation look like?