Merry Christmas & Happy New Year – 2017

Rather than send you a Christmas card in the mail this year, challenging for me even when I’m home in Colorado, I am sending a “card” via my blog. I hope you enjoy it.

This year has been full of changes and firsts for Joni and I as well as for Hannah and Megan. We are fortunate in that, though change has it’s challenges, these changes have been welcomed and invited.

Our year – 2017

As Joni and I were making plans to come to Nepal (in 2016), we got the news that Megan and Adam were going to get married. We were very happy to hear this as we like Adam very much but we were concerned that the date might not work with our August departure. We didn’t have to wait long before Megan announced June for the wedding and we began calculating how we would weave the wedding and connections with other friends and family into our journey.

With the inspiration for travel in the air, we sat down with our calendar and charted the months remaining before our August departure for Nepal. The idea of going to Nepal and being gone for many months made us more aware of the people we were leaving behind. We knew we would return, but we would be leaving our familiar orbit and loved ones. With that thought, we wanted to take time to see as many family and friends as we could.

Looking toward spring, we decided that a trip to the Utah desert was a must. Fortunately we were able to arrange a trip with our friends Paula and Frank and their daughter, Savannah, husband  Brandon and 4 year old daughter Avi. We always enjoy staying at their friends Yurt in Castle Valley where we can enjoy their company along with a few conveniences. Being with Brandon, Savannah and Avi is like being with our own kids and grandchildren. Another big bonus is enjoying the serenade of Frank’s guitar and vocals. I tested a new microphone on my camera and took the opportunity to record Frank playing in one of the Canyons (see YouTube below).

Soon after our March trip to the desert we were off to Sparta, Wisconsin to see our friends, Andrea Hansen and Curtis Miller. They were in the middle planning a May wedding for their daughter Chloe. We’ve know them since our days in Wyoming when we were newly weds. As our soul-mates in Rawlins, Wyoming, they were the first friends to hold our new baby Hannah. Curtis also performed Hannah’s wedding ceremony in 2010. Since we knew we couldn’t make Chloe’s wedding in May, so close to Megan’s wedding, we decided to visit them in April. We enjoyed our time catching up on life’s news as we toured around Sparta and the surrounding area. It was fun to see their house, visit Andrea’s mother and meet some of their friends in and around Sparta. We even had an evening of music in a colorful little tavern in the area.

Spring passed quickly as we worked on the house, recycled, sold and donated as many of our possessions as was practical. Once I got started, I became enthusiastic about discarding things. In the normal course of living, things build up and gets stuffed away. The “stuff” is layered and diverse; from old files and photos, electronics, furniture, kitchenware, knick-knacks, magazines, and on and on. We think, “Oh, I may need that.” or “This brings such wonderful memories”. While all this might be true, we probably will just continue to keep it in a box never to be seen or appreciated. I recommend purging your possessions if you are so inclined. The funny thing is that, in the process, you find things that you thought were lost and are really are worth keeping.

June, the wedding month, came very quickly as we were still busy with our jobs while putting the house in order. On our way to Walla Walla, Washington (where Megan and Adam live) we stopped halfway, in Salt Lake City. Once again we got to see Savannah, Brandon and Avi briefly. They graciously gave us a place to rest our heads for the night.

It just so happened that before the wedding we had the opportunity to see Megan graduate with her Master’s degree in Social Work. This was also an opportunity to spend time with Adam’s parents and discuss wedding plans before all the people arrived.

The wedding was wonderful (of course); with all the emotion, activity, confusion and beauty you’d expect. While the wedding was a do-it-yourself affair, it was very elegant though down to earth. The ceremony was held at Tranche Winery, among the fields of grapes. Megan and Adam worked tirelessly on the details and invested the help of family and friends as they arrived. This made it an opportunity for families to get to know each other while working side by side. Joni found a house where most of our family could stay together and enjoy more time. It was a joy to see my brother Rob and Joni’s sisters under one roof.

Wedding Album

With the wedding complete, Joni and I returned to Glenwood Springs to finish the house details. Our goal was to get some things stored, clean the house and turn the house over to our friends, Ben and Namrata by July 22nd. With 3 weeks left this seemed realistic. This schedule would allowed us to drive to Missouri to see my Mom, drive to Mississippi to see Hannah, Kyle, Lilly and Charlie, return to Missouri, and finally fly out of St. Louis for parts east on August 16th. The good news is that all of this worked as planned. Even better, my mom agreed to travel with us to Mississippi so she could see Hannah’s new house and bask in the glow of her great-grandchildren.

That’s right, while we were busy preparing to leave, Hannah and family made the leap from Lafayette, Louisiana to Starkville, Mississippi. As we got news of the wedding and plotted our travels, we got news that Hannah and Kyle were taking jobs in the Starkville area and would be buying a new house. As the Matron of Honor in the wedding, Hannah was determined to get it all done and make it to the wedding on time. With her usual determination she continued her “move” in the midst of the wedding festivities, working on the closing of her home loan. By the time Joni and I got to Mississippi in August, they had moved in and (short of a few boxes) made it HOME.

Our visit to Missouri and Mississippi were an opportunity to decompress from all the packing, moving and travel planning. Nice to have some distance from the gravity of all our attachments and work in Colorado. With this distance it became evident that we were actually leaving the country.

While in Missouri, we enjoyed visiting my brothers and sisters-in-law and a few of my nephews and nieces. In Mississippi we got to explore brand new territory; Hannah’s neighborhood (and the beautiful lake), Mississippi State University, Hannah’s workplace, and of course the shops and restaurants. Best of all I enjoyed watching my family together – Mom and Joni hanging out with the kids and the adults catching up with each others lives.

So, there you have it. Most of the story of 2017. Joni and I are truly blessed to have our health and the resources to travel and spend time with the great people in our life. We hope that you and your family members are also healthy and blessed with similar gifts. In our day to day routines, under the barrage of news and information that has become common, it is easy to forget our blessings. I pray that you can enjoy the energy and beauty of this life and that your joy showers your friends, family, strangers, and even your “enemies”. It is time that we push back the negativity of selfish individuals and agendas.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy New Year!

If you’re interested, here are more pictures of events for the year 2017.

Rafting with Jim Eason and the Conner’s

Rockies Baseball with High School Friends

Necessity – the Mother

It is Thursday morning at 5:30am. I am standing over the long bathroom sink staring into a bucket of cold water. I carefully pour the soap so that it isn’t too thick and sink a select bunch of clothes into the mix. It is 43 degrees outside. Given we have no heat, I assume it is the same temperature in the bathroom. The first cold dive is the shocker. I can’t believe how much colder the water is than the last time I did my wash (just last week). But after 5-10 minutes of clothes “agitation”, I relax, look into the mirror, and concede that this isn’t so bad after all. In fact, I realize that this is easier than it could be. It is easier than doing it on the street as many locals do in Kathmandu. Not only that, I realize that this and the other challenges here, are gifts, helpful lessons. I hope I will remember them when I jump back in the Western fast lane.

I realize that choosing to go backward from convenience is not everyone’s idea of meaningful. My mother has told me that she would never want to go back to the old ways on the farm, without modern washing machines, refrigeration, and stoves. I appreciate that. At the same time, I think she appreciates her conveniences much more because she has experienced the absence of them. Growing up in a world of convenience didn’t give me perspective or an appreciation for them. My Nepal experience does.

Another difference is that my mother didn’t choose to live without convenience but I did. While I couldn’t have anticipated all the challenges, I knew full well that I would be doing without and that I would be uncomfortable at times. This idea of “planned abstinence” is very familiar to me. Since my days of working with kids in outdoors, I’ve realized that doing without is a good learning experience. That said, I find it difficult to give things up in my regular day-to-day living environment. I’m not that disciplined. So, I choose to put myself into situations where I have to swim or sink; where there is no easy escape to the comfortable. Where I have to invent, adapt and settle into the experience.

Just 2 days ago I wasn’t waxing so philosophical about the beauty of challenge. I don’t remember all the circumstances but the final blow was the destruction of my precious coffee press. Picking it up off my bedroom table, the already fragile glass, slipped out of it’s sleeve and shattered on the floor. It was the first time I’ve shouted profanities since I’ve been here (I may have mumbled a few). After sweeping my room I resigned to return to instant coffee for a while. Shit happens.

It all boils down to our state of mind right? The longer I live, the more my aches and pains increase and the more I enjoy life’s sensual treats; the sight of natural beauty, the sound of music and children, the smell and taste of good food, the touch of my grandchildren on my lap. Through it all I realize that my perception is the key. My emotions and my thoughts – the way I interpret my experience is key. Granted there are times when conditions converge and I am overwhelmed by the situation. At these moments my awareness is pushed into confusion and I forget to breath., forget to listen to my heart. Fortunately, most of the time, my practice helps me see these situations for what they; the movement and gathering of clouds, that come and go.

The main point is that we have a choice. Not everyone would choose to sleep on the ground or go to Nepal. You don’t have to go to that extreme. Some people are born into more difficult circumstances. But all of us face unexpected circumstances no matter what our age, gender, or social status. The difference is that some don’t realize (or deny) their part in the play. I choose to believe that my choices AND my interpretation of events bring happiness and or suffering to myself and others. I choose happiness. Thanks to my teachers, I also know it takes regular practice to remember this.

It is days later now. It is getting colder. I have a cold. I am homesick at times. Clouds come and go…

Here is a collection of photographs that I have shared on Instagram and Facebook. I want to share them here for my non social-media friends. Someone on Facebook commented that one of the photos appears unreal. I must admit that some of these photos were created in HDR (high-dynamic-range) process. What this means is that I took 3-5 photos of varying exposures and combined them into one. This allows me to capture what I am seeing (the range of highlights and shadows) more accurately than would be possible with a single exposure. I have tried to maintain the actual ambience of the place and scene and avoid a contrived, psychedelic look. I hope you enjoy them.

Immigration

This week marks the end of 3 months here in Nepal. I know this primarily because I had to renew my VISA yesterday at the Department of Immigration. You would think that this process would be pretty straightforward. They provide a website where you can complete the details of who you are, passport information, and how much longer you wish to stay. Filling it out successfully yields a bar code page that allows them to access this information. Take the barcode form into the Immigration Office, pay the fee and continue to enjoy the people and places of Nepal. Simple right? Not!

As with many things here in Nepal, one must rely on local friends and fellow travelers for advice and help. First of all, the online form requires a current address. Problem is, it’s difficult to determine your address. One person told me, “Just enter some random information. They don’t really care where you live.” That would be easy except for the second point; they don’t just ask for a street and number. There is a whole string of information they require, with no explanation of what the fields represent.

Thankfully, one of our kind administrators at TGL, Dolkar, provided me with a reasonable answer for each box.

Now, I’m no stranger to long forms on the Internet. For 14 years I filled out a 20 or 30 page Federal eRate application for my school district. I’d have to say that this one page Immigration form was more daunting.

I won’t go into specific problems or the technical details of why it sucked so bad but I entered my information 5 or 6 times (I really lost track in the midst of my frustration). Each time I was rejected and required to re-enter the information with very little feedback as to what was wrong. Finally I gave up – or delayed my frustration really (the opposite of delayed gratification) for another day.

Pressed up against a November 22nd deadline, Joni and I began asking people for the secret method for overcoming this hurdle. Fortunately we were at a teaching with Chokyi Nyima Rimpoche (Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s brother) in Boudha where hundreds of “immigrants” just like us were being blessed by his wisdom. The best advice and assistance came from a young lady who had learned that it is best to use a phone rather than a computer for the form. Skeptical but thankful for her help, I used her phone and relied on her advice and persistence to get a positive return – the precious bar code. The end result was a form that didn’t have accurate information but it did have all the required boxes filled in to the satisfaction of the computer database that accepted it.

Guardedly relieved by our success, Joni and I managed to get to the Immigration Office over an hour before their advertized closing but were told they had closed 5 minutes before we got there. After making a sarcastic remark to the guard about “Nepali time”, we exchanged smiles and I went on my way.

The following day, I got another exciting motor scooter ride, from a TGL staff member Kechok, to the Immigration office in Kathmandu where our magic barcodes were accepted – but not without some cajoling in Nepali by Kechok. Following him, I moved from window to window listening to negotiations on the details with various bureaucrats. It was only through his determination and experience with Immigration that I was able to get Joni’s form accepted without her present and get their final stamp of approval. The irony is that Kechok is a 29 year old Tibetan who, because of his heritage and age, has no national identity whatsoever. He can’t vote, isn’t a “citizen”, and has no papers for travel abroad. Despite his national limbo he was my hero for the day.

VISAs in hand, Kechok treated me to a ride back to TGL, with a stop at his home in the Tibetan Refugee Camp. This was my second time at the Camp. Last time he showed me the small school and home for the elderly in the camp.

This time, he gave me a tour of the weaving and spinning business that supports the people and services in the Camp. As you can see from the pictures, there isn’t much room for them to work but this doesn’t prevent them from putting in long hours contributing to their community. All the proceeds of their work support the school, the elderly home and the people and services of the community. The temperature in the weaving building was very pleasant yesterday but, the number of looms and the number of fans on the ceiling indicate that it is probably stifling in the summer.

Our time here in Kathmandu is going fast now. We have spent quite a bit of time in the city lately. We stayed in Thamel in the company of friends from the US  one weekend. This gave us some time to shop, eat good food and relax in the comfort of our hotel. We walked to Kathmandu Durbar Square, one of the largest of the Durbars in Kathmandu. The walk was interesting with scenes of commerce and tourists packed into the narrow streets (that feel like alleys). It was a treat to show our friends where we live as we returned home for work on Monday.

As I mentioned, last weekend we attended the teachings of Chokyi Nyima Rimpoche. He is the oldest of the 4 sons of Tulku Urgyen Rimpoche, one of the greatest meditation masters of our time. His brothers include Tsoknyi Rinpoche (my teacher), Mingyur Rinpoche, and Tsikey Chokling Rimpoche. This coming weekend we will attend a teaching with Mingyur Rimpoche.

In 2 days you will all be enjoying Thankgiving dinner. I hope that you have a wonderful holiday with friends and family. We all have much to be thankful for don’t we.

 

Caring Community

Many of the stories I have posted describe the difficulties and challenges of living here in Nepal. These aren’t fabrications by any means but they don’t tell the whole story of this place or the people. I share them because they are so out of the ordinary of my experience at home. Nepal (and our home here at TGL) is by no means run “by the book” through planning, schedules or rationale. You could call it “bottom up” rather than “top down” organization.

Challenges aside, I want to convey the caring and the respect that has been extended to Joni and I during our visit. Many people have taken care of us and provided assistance and material support along the way. You might say this is a credit to “bottom up”, spontaneous compassion. Here are a few examples:

Fionnuala Shenpen is the Director of Tsoknyi Gechak School. She “hired” us for the job, manages the operations of the school and oversees instruction for the young Anis. Since we’ve been here she has done everything that she can to provide us with a comfortable room, food, special treats, directions, water, warm blankets and showers (at her house), plus special events that make us feel at home. The list is goes on and on. While she also expects us to be self-reliant (a requirement of the job) she cares for us like a parent would her children. Before we came to Nepal she kept us up-to-date with what was ahead in the schedule, how to reach her and what to bring. She has done everything she can to help us settle into our teaching routine. On top of all this she has help set our teaching schedule and discusses methods that can be beneficial to the children and respectful of the teachers.

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Fionnuala while sipping tea at her house or hanging out with her and her mates in Kathmandu. She is an Irish gem and dynamo of energy. Her passion never wanes for the Anis, their education and their welfare.

Anis of Tsoknyi Gechak Ling – The Anis span the age range from 4 years to the 60 something (I’m guessing here). As such they have many different roles and responsibilities. The adult Shedra and Trasang nuns share the “Shedra” building with us. Each of us inhabit a different floor of the building and follow different routines, so we cross paths during different activities.

Both the Trasang and Shedra nuns take turns sweeping and mopping the all the floors of the Shedra building at 6:30am. The Trasang nuns bring us food and other accoutrements for living. The Shedra nuns spend most of their time in study and can be found all over the building studying, memorizing Sutras and chanting into the night. They are in serious preparations to be practitioners and teachers of the Dharma, wherever they may go. We have just begun having Sunday night tea and English Language meetings with them and have shared a few celebration events with them. Our lessons will have to take a back seat as they are prepare for exams that will commence this month. Despite or perhaps because of their serious study, they always greet us with a warm smile. They are eager to know us and learn our language despite their busy schedule.

Most of the nuns are very shy (as are we) so it has taken some time to break the ice and have eye-eye interactions. Add to this the challenge of recognizing their unique faces. Only slowly have I been able to recognize differences and build relationships so that I can address them with true recognition of past encounters. Living in the halo of all the senior Anis is a blessing and helps me through every day.

Regardless of barriers of language and social convention, I always feel respected and watched over by the Anis. From the little Anis at school to the most senior, we are valued. I seldom sit on the floor without being offered a cushion (their cushion) to sit on. The children greet us with smiles and cheerie voice, “How are you sir?”. Recently when I returned to school from a brief illness, they crowded around me to ask how I was feeling. No matter what age, the Anis oooh and aaah over photos of our grandchildren. While the children are not in a position of caring for our physical needs, it is evident that they do care about us.

As I reflect the care and concern shown us, I realize that this behavior is endemic to this place; grounded in the teachings of the Buddha, cooked by the demands of living in a small space of very familiar faces. They eat, work, study, sleep, pray, play and socialize almost exclusively within these walls. There are certainly opportunities for the older nuns to interact with the larger community but by and large they are self contained and dependent on one another. This clearly puts them into a natural awareness of working together.

The last time I experienced this level of cooperation was almost 40 years ago when I worked at Passport for Adventure; taking children into the backcountry. Weathering snowstorms, rain, heat, illness, hunger and physical stress together, in a small group, is a sure fire incentive to cooperation. Greater suffering or death are the alternative. Our program was intentionally designed to foster interdependence and the lessons that naturally flow from it. It was the most impactful therapeutic experience I’ve ever encountered.

While there are countless examples of cooperation and support within our American culture, we are all too aware of the rifts and polarization that exists on the macro level of our society. Without belaboring the point, we are more likely to cooperate within small groups or communities AGAINST other groups within our society, except when some common enemy from outside our borders threatens us. Perhaps this is Democracy at work. While this diversity is the backbone of our society, I hope that we can keep our common goals foremost in our hearts and minds in the knowledge that we are in the same, shrinking, boat. We need to care for the vulnerable and lift up the potential of all. We don’t need outside enemies to make this evident to us.

On a lighter note, please enjoy these photos of our field trip to the zoo. Going outside the gates is a rare opportunity for the school Anis as I said. We had a great time!

Road to Muktinath and Gargon Ling – Photo Albums

As promised I have prepared a collection of the photos from our trip to the Mustang Region; through Tatopani, Jomsom, to Rani Pauwa (where we stayed), hiking up to Muktinath and the trails above it. For the more visual “reader”, feel free to skip to the links of this post to check out photos.

The drive (Road to Muktinath) included sections of roads that would rival the unpaved, high mountain roads through Colorado. The difference is that these welcomed motorcycles, “hikers”, mountain bikes, small vehicles the size of a mini cooper, transport trucks, Landcruisers (and other 4 wheel drive varieties) and many, many buses. The pictures tell most of the story. What may not be evident in the photos is the variety of transport we had to take to get to our destination.

Two thirds of the way, our Landcruiser’s steering came apart. I’m not a mechanic but it appeared to be the front steering arm. One of you gear heads will be able to tell by looking at the picture. This breakdown fortunately happened in a stream bed (mostly dry) that spanned at least 100 yards across the valley. Our driver lost all control of the steering wheel but glided to a stop, almost off the road. With some help of fellow travelers, our vehicle was pushed to the side to clear the jam that was forming in both directions. As you will see in the photos, there are many less hospitable locations where the loss of steering might have been a tragic breakdown. In this case, it only cost us a few hours during which time our driver and wrangler found a alternative vehicle that, though cramped, moved us up the road. We were then transferred to a third vehicle (after dark) and taken up the last incline to our Hotel in Rani Pauwa. Another Nepali adventure!

Muktinath is home to 108 fountains of water, streaming through bull headed spouts streaming down from the Himalayas. It sits higher than Gargon Ling Nunnery where we attended the Puja. I was told that, of the major pilgrimage sites for Hindus, it is the most important for them to visit before they pass away. This became evident to us as we watched a steady stream of elderly people transported by sometimes unruly Mustang horses up the slope from Rani Pauwa to Muktinath. Faithful people (both Hindu and Buddhist) bathe in a pool and make their way around the 3 walls of streaming fountains. It is a festive and joyful place.

Some of the pictures (Gargon Ling Puja) show the Puja and some show our hike with a Tibetan woman, Tsering, from Seattle who joined us at the Puja. She was a very free spirit with an infectious laugh and a good grasp of English, Tibetan and Nepali. I can’t thank her enough for the insight she gave us, not to mention the many laughs. The photos show us hiking above Muktinath to visit Padmasambhava’s kitchen. I don’t know the whole story of this place but know that Padmasambhava (also know as Guru Rimpoche) was a great Indian Mahasiddha who visited this valley on his way to Tibet in the 8th century. There are many places here and in other parts of Nepal where he lived and practiced. He is acknowledged as the man who tamed the wild Tibetan temperament and environment and forged a relationship with King Trisong Deutsen. They, along with other Mahasiddha’s brought Buddhism to from India to Tibet. You can read more in a book, “The Lotus-Born, The Life Story of Padmasambhava, by Yeshe Tsogyal, translated by Eric Pema Kunsang.”

It is over 2 weeks now since we journeyed to Muktinath. While life here is pretty slow and measured with few activities, we seem to keep pretty busy. The crash of my computer certainly required some time. We have been teaching, taking short trips, and helped organize and attended a teaching given by Rinpoche here at the nunnery. On top of this are the daily chores that take more attention than they might at home; gathering water, washing clothes, taking a “shower”, among them. And then there are the interesting mysteries like, “Who took my sheets off the line today?” and “How can I get them back?” Mysteries that are complicated by a lack of common language. More on that in the days to come.

I hope you are all well.