Cairns

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Rocks are an integral part of spiritual life. They represent the solid, eternal part of our world as ancient bearers of knowledge and time and the very ground we walk on. Scientists use rocks to date and study earth’s history. Industry uses microscopic pieces of silicone-rock to run the technology of the modern world. Egyptians and Sumerians wrote in stone so we still have their wisdom. The Druids used stone circles as ceremonial sites and observatories. The Incas built magnificent stone cities that have withstood the ravishes of invasions and earthquakes. We worship in stone cathedrals and walk up stone mountains. The combination of rock and water give us magnificent waterfalls. We wear precious stones. We skip them for pleasure and throw them in anger. We use them to mark our path.

Through out history people have been using rocks to show the way, to mark the next turn and to memorialize our world. Cairn is a Gaelic word for pile of stones. These man-made piles of rock have been traditionally used as waymarkers. In the desert, a stack of rocks are used to mark a trail. Cairns have also have been used as memorials such as on graves. When I was walking the Camino, one of the highlights for the journey was the Cruz de Ferro, a giant cross surrounded by an enormous cairn made out of rocks brought by pilgrims to memorialize the burdens they carry and then release. I, too, brought rocks from home for this deeply personal moment.

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But let’s get even more personal. What can a cairn bring to your life? What can they mark or memorialize? We all need to take the time to see where we have been and where we want to go. During this traditionally reflective time of year take a moment to remember of the sad parts of your life so you can move on. A cairn can also be a beacon before you showing you the next step on your journey. This isn’t a big road map with everything set out but a small reminder that you are going in the right direction.

A friend of mine went to the woods on December 31 as a deeply personal experience to lay to rest a very sad year. During the walk she took time to build three cairns. Lovingly and carefully balancing rocks became a meditation and a physical manifestation of renewed balance in her life in the year to come. These personal cairns symbolize the precarious and ephemeral nature of life on earth because they are so easily knocked over but in this precarious balance is the strength and eternalness of stone.

As physical beings in a physical world, the act of building a cairn reflects the transient but yet eternal nature of our soul’s journey. Mountains, boulders, rocks, stones, pebbles, sand……

Rocks and water are words of God, and so are men. We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love.—-John Muir

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All photos by D Beals  www.davidbealsphotography.com

Graduation

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A couple of years ago I wrote about my Caroline and her unique journey through life. Last week we had the big day, one we had both anticipated for a long time—graduation. You will have to forgive me as my parental ego goes a little out of control for a moment. It was a happy day for it meant a culmination of years of hard, challenging work. Caroline’s time in school is like an epic quest, the heroine’s journey.

My other daughter Alexandra, by contrast. had perfect college career. If her time in college was like a journey, it could be characterized as a gentle sail around the Caribbean. She had her trip planned perfectly and she sailed from island to island gaining experiences and friends. She had blissful summers in Europe, perfect internships in LA and NYC and gently sailed into harbor of graduation on time with her dream job awaiting her. She worked hard and made the most of every minute of her education—-ahh, bliss.

Caroline’s college career would be like an early circumnavigation of the globe. Nobody quite knew where she was going or if she would fall off the edge of the world. First she spent some years in the small seas getting her bearings as a wandering art student in a community college. She then decided she was ready for open ocean at the University of Tennessee. There, she was met with the greater challenges of a large university, rough waves and sea monsters around every corner; she had a lot to navigate. Then she got caught in a doozy of a storm (literally) and changed course choosing the hardest route possible, math and physics. She had the piece of paper saying she was smart enough but would she have the emotional stamina to conquer years of difficult classes? She hung in there through thick and thin, around and through classes with names us mere mortals can’t even pronounce, much less read the text books in an alien language. Each challenge made her more passionate about math and science and more determined to make it to home port with the golden sheepskin. Even the last few months, the sharp coral reefs of lost friends and beloved professor threatened to sink her ship but she stayed strong and made it into the harbor victorious. She arrived battered and beaten but had discovered new worlds and her life was forever changed.

So what is next for my brave explorer? Well, as usual she is charting her own course through life. She is combining her love of math, science and art into one unique and delightful path. Caroline is creating works of art out of math functions to display the beauty of the language of our Universe. Stay tuned for new discoveries of previously unknown universes. She shares a birthday with Galileo, how fitting.

You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within.—-   Galileo Galilei

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PhysCon 2016

Questions

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It all started with a question. How will I feed my reading addiction when I’m walking the Camino? I could only carry about 17 pounds so a couple of books would make me way over the weight limit. Some people even suggested that there wouldn’t be time to read but they had no idea of the extent of my problem. I can get the shakes if I go more than few hours without reading. So, I bought a Kindle. Up until then I preferred books and fed my addiction at the used bookstore and with penny books on Amazon.

I took to my new electronic reader right away which is surprising because I’m actually what is termed a “slow adapter”, which mostly means I’m too frugal to buy new technology until the price comes down. Nothing wrong with old technology, in my world, the main source of entertainment here on the farm is sitting around a fire drinking coffee.

I looked around to find books to put on my new-fangled device that would be pilgrimage appropriate. I’m not much of a novel reader—can’t keep characters straight. I didn’t want anything densely philosophical or overly religious. I needed something to gently ground me after a long day’s walk, so Buddhism fit the requirements perfectly. I like the gentleness and simplicity of modern Zen writing and it was a good way to balance life on a Christian pilgrimage.

I decided to read Paradise in Plain Sight by Karen Maezen Miller. I had read Hand Wash Cold and liked her style of writing. Karen is a Zen Buddhist priest living on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It looked like a good fit and someone I could relate too; mother, American, Buddhist, gardener. I downloaded the book and a couple of others on yoga two days before I flew to Spain hoping that would sustain me on my walk.

Everyday after our long walk and a hot shower Alexandra would take a nap and I would find some place to read because if I napped I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Each day I would read the next chapter in Paradise in Plain Sight. I always like to savor books like this and just read one chapter a day. Every chapter is centered around a part of Karen’s Zen garden that she was lovingly restoring to its original beauty after many years of neglect. It was a big project to take on but Karen knew she was the next caretaker for this special little paradise.

Each day I enjoyed learning something new about the garden and Zen. It was the perfect way to unwind after our daily 12 mile walk. That was until chapter 16, Weeds. Then everything changed. There was one tiny sentence that changed the entire perspective of my pilgrimage:

In Zen, we don’t find the answers: we lose the questions.

What?!? The whole point of the walk was to work through any lingering problems, sort through old memories, make future goals and generally come out of the experience full of ambition, accomplishment and deep personal insight. It seems that Zen had just turned that upside down and inside out. I put aside my western mind and moved into a wonderfully Zen place. In that moment I lost the questions.

The next three weeks of the journey took on a new light. Each day was just a walk in the world in great joy. I was freed from trying to figure life out and instead I was left the with the incredible lightness of being. Don’t tell anyone but I wrote the saying on a rock in hope that another pilgrim would also lose the need to find answers.

I am deeply changed by my walk, not in a dramatic “change everything about my life” type of change but a quiet, gentle way of seeing the world. I don’t need to have things figured out or know why things happen or what the future will be. All these questions will figure themselves out in time. My work is to be in this world and breath in life. I can definitely do that.

The Secret Garden

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As much as I love a grand adventure to a foreign land, sometimes a gentle adventure close to home is exactly what my soul needs. On a perfect October day with bright blue sky and the brilliant colored trees, I went to a new sacred site in my home town of Knoxville, a secret garden.

The Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum is 47 acres of trees, flowers and old stone walls, originally a land grant from George Washington to David Howell for his service in the Revolutionary War. Before the land was part of the state of Tennessee the Howell family were planting trees and building stone fences. Past magnificent century-old cedars from Lebanon, there is a secret garden tucked in a corner along one of these old stone walls.

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This secret garden maybe new but the inspiration for the garden started many years ago in Knoxville with the celebrated children’s author Frances Hodgson Burnett. Originally from England, Frances came to Knoxville in 1865 and fell in love with Dr. Swan Burnett. She started writing novels for children. Among her most famous works are The Secret Garden, A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy. I loved all these books as a child and my copy of The Secret Garden was tattered and taped. I related to lonely Mary who just wanted “a bit of earth” and wished I had a friend like Dickon who always had a baby animal with him. I wanted a robin to show me a magical walled garden where I could have my own secret world.

Two years ago my friend Val wrote a book, A Year In the Secret Garden, about bringing the magic of the original story into everyday life with activities, stories and recipes. It is a charming and beautifully illustrated book that just happened to be published right at the 150th anniversary of Frances’ move to Knoxville. A few months ago Val was asked to be on a team to help design a secret garden for the children of Knoxville in memory of Andie Ray who loved the book so much that she had named her clothing store Vagabondia after Frances’ Knoxville home. Andie’s parents wanted a special place to honor their daughter’s memory and reflect her love of life and beauty. In the story the garden is a place of healing for the lonely Mary and her invalid cousin Colin and I know this garden is a great healing for Andie’s loved ones and a place for everyone to renew enchantment with life. The secret world of your heart can blossom and grown in this special, beautiful garden.

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So on this beautiful October afternoon Val and I, her daughter and friend had a picnic and then entered the secret garden. A curved wooden door welcomes you and draws you into this magic space but don’t forget the key that unlocks this world of wonder; it is right next to the door. The path meanders along a scent garden to add to the beauty of the flowers in large pots that change with the season. If you look carefully, you will find a fox hiding in the bushes. Further down the path you see a giant nest and as you come around the corner you see a robin’s egg made of blue granite. There are large rocks in a circle, the perfect place for storytelling or to sit with a good book. There is more to come as the garden matures and becomes a beloved place to visit in every season.

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Photo by V. Budayr

If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden—-

Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden (1993)   If you love Downton Abbey you will love the film version of the book.  Maggie Smith plays the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock.

Secret Garden designed by Sara Hedstrom  and Rachel Beasley

Machu Picchu

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Today was the grand finale, the day we arrived a Machu Picchu one of the 7 wonders of the modern world. We ate a big breakfast and took our luggage to be stored until the train that night. Our guide Valdimir met us and we went to buy bus tickets to the top of the mountain. Alexandra and Anne decided that they needed more trekking so they took the stair trail to the top, 157 flights of stairs. I was happy with the bus that winds around up the mountain on dirt roads without guardrails.

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Vladimir gave us a wonderful guided tour and the girls found us about half way through. We had perfect weather, warm but not hot, blue sky and cool breeze. I was in heaven. The green mountains, blue sky and spectacular ruins —it is like walking in a dream. Nothing could possibly be that perfectly beautiful.


We all wanted to walk to the Sun Gate, a three mile round trip. This is where the Inca trail ends and the trekkers get their first glimpse of this magic city. We sat up on a ruin for a long time trying to soak up every inch of beauty. A man asked Anne if she could take a video. He was actually proposing and she recorded the whole thing. We cheered for the happy couple and her ring sparkled in the intense sun. Melissa and I did a little ceremony for our father who died last year. We miss him so much and he was our inspiration for an active and exuberant life. He loved to walk and so do we. He would have loved the trek and we knew he was with us. I told a story about how he used the Incan writing system of knots in string as part of a Sunday school lesson when I was a child.

 

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We headed back down to the terraces and just laid in the sun. Lisa, who is a yoga teacher, did peacock pose for her obligatory yoga pose at beautiful places. I wanted to walk the whole thing one more time now that it wasn’t so crowded. We just quietly walked through the site taking it all in one more time in our own way without words.
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We were hot, thirsty and exhausted from 9 miles of walking around the site and to the Sun Gate. So we caught the bus down to the town, found a restaurant. Pizza and beer never tasted so good.

A bit of last minute shopping and we headed to the train station just as the porter arrived with our bags. The train took an hour and a half but unfortunately it was dark so no spectacular scenery. A driver met us at our stop and we headed up the mountain back to Cusco, another two hour drive. It was cloudy so we couldn’t see any stars but the full moon lightly covered with cloud was the perfect finale to the perfect day in paradise at the lost city of the Incas.

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I was so happy for a shower and bed. Washed just enough clothes to get us home and fell asleep. I was so dehydrated that I woke up every few hours to drink and then would fall immediately back to sleep.

All total I walked 30 miles above 8000 feet. Our highest point was 15,000. The trip has been a lifetime of memories. All 6 of us where excellent travelers—no complaints, go with the flow and delighted in each new challenge and experience. We were so lucky that there we no injuries or illnesses. Yes a few blisters, sore muscles and a touch of altitude sickness but nothing more. Our time off the beaten path in the perfection of the Pachamama —mother earth—-has made all of our lives richer and more joyous. We are all changed and our lives empowered.

Vistadome Train

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I woke up about 5:15. The sun was up although it was overcast. There was no lying around and snoozing; my body had enough of the tent and every part of me was dried out. I sat on a bench used for the soccer games and just enjoyed the morning air and rehydrated. Soon the cook was up and I wandered up to the lodge for some hot cocoa and trail mix. One by one, the rest joined me and we relived the glories of the day before. We had fava bean porridge, omelets and a fried crispy bread with either cheese or chocolate sauce. Nico also baked and decorated a cake for a farewell. We thanked our support staff, Richard, Nico and Pablito for their great care and packed up to leave for Ollantaytambo.

As we were packing up Lisa started making a fuss. Seems that a friendly tarantula found her shirt warm and inviting. Lisa apparently wasn’t up to sharing and shook him out onto the ground. Poor thing just wandered off to liven up someone else’s day.

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A large bus came and the kitchen equipment was put on top and the rest of us inside plus an Australian couple, the only other people on the trail. Pablito rounded up the horses and started his trek the 15 miles back over the mountain to his home.

We dropped off Richard and Nico to head back to Cusco and picked up some people headed our way. In Ollantaytambo we found a restaurant to park our gear and ordered pizzas made in a wood-fired oven and set off to explore the town. We had already seen the ruins a few days before and there wasn’t much time so we peeked into the shops and bought a drink. Soon I had a text from Alexandra. She had found kittens so we played with the babies until lunch. It has always been our mission to find and hold kittens, lambs and puppies wherever we go

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It was time for the train to Auges Calientes the town at Machu Picchu. Our coach was a Vistadome with big windows, even overhead, because we were headed down the Urubamba gorge a long, spectacular raging river. This is one of the world’s great train rides.

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It ended too soon and we were met by a porter to take us to our hotel (El MaPi). There are no cars allowed in the town and it is all built on the side of a mountain. The porter loaded his cart with our bags and we followed him through the narrow streets. Quickly checked in, we got to our beautiful modern rooms. Each room had a quote on the wall. Mine was from Isaac Newton, “Nature is truly coherent and comfortable with itself”. Yep, Pachamama knows what she is doing. As much as I loved sleeping in the mountains I was ready for a shower and Wi-Fi. I had worn the same clothes for 4 days and was feeling a bit dirty.

We headed out to explore the town and do some shopping. There is never a lack of shopping even while we were on the isolated trek. There was always some one with a blanket covered in hats or scarves or a boy with woven brackets.

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Dinner and a pisco sour, the local drink something like a margarita, were included. So we headed to the bar to celebrate our victory and the glories of Peru. The dinner was wonderful with quinoa, lamb, pasta and salad. After a visit it was time for bed. Clean sheets and a fluffy comforter were pure luxury and I was tired so it wasn’t long until I was fast asleep

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Pachamama

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The morning started early, around 5:30, when Nico brought us steaming mugs of coca tea. This not only warmed us up but woke us up, too. Coca tea tastes a lot like an herbal tea but definitely gets you going and helps with the altitude. Contacts in, yesterday’s clothes back on and a shuffle out of the tent and into my shoes and I was good to go, We all brought minimal stuff for the trail, a change of clothes, rain jacket, coat, hat and gloves, sleeping bag and walking poles—that was about it. What we didn’t carry went on the horse and that was limited to 12 pounds, everything else was stored at the Cusco hotel.

We also met the family that lives in the home, mother, father Pablito, two sons and two daughters and two grandchildren. The youngest is just two months old—Daisy Karen—and we doted over that precious baby all wrapped up and ready to go on her mother’s back. We spoke the universal language of baby admiration—aaahhhhhhh!!!! The little boy–Kevin– was not left out. He got treats and Alexandra picked him up and played with him. He informed her in quechua, “You are not my mother”. The ladies spread out Peruvian goods for us to purchase. We were happy to buy socks, hats and beautiful hand woven bags to carry coca leaves. We so appreciated their hospitality and enjoyed the intimate look at their lives so different from ours. Yet, at our core, humans have the same needs, food, shelter and love.

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Nico cooked us a wonderful breakfast: first, quinoa porridge, then pancakes with strawberries, coffee and hot chocolate. All of our meals where cooked on his two burner stove on the ground connected to a propane tank. A few battered pots and pans, a knife and a cutting board on Nico’s lap completed the kitchen. It was amazing what he could cook for us, it was as delicious and complicated as any fine restaurant. So, everyone, no more excuses about lack of counter space or small stove.

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The horses were saddled with our tents and supplies. We said goodbye and started walking, first up a steep hill then on to flatter ground. The barren land is beautiful and wild with high snow-capped mountains coming down to a gray-green valley. Well above the tree line we wouldn’t see a tree again until after lunch. There are no roads or power lines. The only signs of the inhabitants were low stone walls and an occasional thatched hut organically woven into the landscape. As we walked along children would appear beside the trail. I delighted in stopping and giving them treats. They were so gentle and beautiful. As quickly as they would appear they then would disappear back into the land to tend the sheep and alpacas.

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The trail started to get steeper and Melissa handed out coca leaves from her new bag. Normally my drug of choice is half-caf coffee with cream. Sometimes, I go wild and have a Starbucks tall latte but 14,000 feet called for something a bit stronger. Just a few coca leaves in the side of my mouth were just what I needed for the altitude. It is everything you would imagine about having leaves and twigs in your cheek; bitter, earthy and not very comfortable. But it does work, I never had a headache and I was expecting a raging headache. Coca leaves also help with thirst, hunger and nausea which is a good thing because breathing pretty much took up all the emotional and mental space.

It rained some and then there was small hail. Melanie was struggling so one of the horses came back to get her up the mountain. The rest of us pushed on from one steep slope to the next. Eventually Lisa and I started to play the “rock game”. Choose a rock 15 feet ahead, slowly walk to it, stop and try to catch your breath. When you can almost breath again, choose another one, walk to it, stop and try to catch your breath. Three long steep slopes and we made it to the top, 15,000 feet! We were defiantly on top of the world and it was stunningly beautiful. Everywhere I looked was magnificent. Down below on the other side of the pass was a pristine mountain lake.

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After a very short stop to breath, take in the view, eat some cookies and enjoy our victory we headed down the mountain. It was very cold at the top and we still had a long ways to go. Breathing is defiantly easier going down but the new challenge was making sure I didn’t twist an ankle on the large shifting stones. I walked carefully, stopping often to look at the lake and just wonder at the rugged beauty: I couldn’t believe I was there. Past the lake was another stunning mountain lake and this beautiful fence in the shape of a heart.

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I was defiantly in the heart and arms of the Pachamama, the earth mother. This day was not about something humans had built like the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral. This was about walking with the Pachamama and the glories of our beautiful world. This was the special pilgrim moment I had come for, just this pristine, rugged beauty and the openness of my own heart. I had challenged myself to my physical limit which breaks down the barrier between the heart, mind and body. I had no choice but to become one with the Pachamama, the giver of life. I was on the road less traveled in the world and in my heart.

The kitchen tent was already set up by a wide swiftly running stream. There Nico was working his magic and lunch would be served shortly. Richard and Pablito were following Nico’s orders running back and forth to the stream for water and washing the pots. Most of us trekkers laid down on the tarp for a much needed rest except for me. If I got down I wasn’t sure I was getting back up so I sat on a camp stool by the water. Of course there was a lady selling treasures and so Alexandra bought some clean gloves and socks. The lady’s little girl was tending a lamb and quickly caught it so Alexandra could have an extended lamb fix. The lamb didn’t have a knit hat but Alexandra didn’t seem to care. She held that lamb until it totally objected. Alexandra is already planning her quarter-life crisis where she runs off to New Zealand and tends sheep for a year.

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After a lunch of soup, chicken and vegetables it was more down-hill walking to get to the campsite for the night. I continued to be slow so Richard held back with me to make sure I didn’t get lost. We were finally down to the tree-line in a very narrow valley with a roaring stream. I trudged along on the slippery rocks. My legs were already wobbly from the climb so I had to be careful. I eventually got a blister on the side of my foot from the uneven rocks.

It was just getting dark when we arrived at camp. The tents were set up on a soccer field and the horses where munching on the grass nearby. The big excitement was a flush-toilet outhouse with tarp walls. Dinner was served in a rustic lodge next to the soccer field. There were tables and chairs and some drinks for sale thanks to the owners living next door. We bought three big bottles of water because we were very dehydrated and the stove was being used for cooking with no time to boil water.

Nico cooked us a special farewell dinner for our last night. Each dish that was served had some fancy garnish made from vegetables, including little hard boiled egg mice and tomato flowers. The final dish was a roast guinea pig splayed out with his feet dangling off the platter, complete with pepper in his mouth. I was hoping he wasn’t part of the choir from the night before, it was best if I didn’t know. Anne was brave and had several pieces and said it tasted a bit like duck. Melissa and Lisa tasted a bit too. The rest of us tried not to watch and focused on the pasta instead. Strange meat and snakes are somewhere long past my boundaries for adventure. I plan on tackling those challenges in another lifetime.

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Time to crawl into our sleeping bags. 15 miles, 15,000 feet altitude and roast guinea pig—it had been a long but completely fulfilling day. Every moment was challenging and thrilling all at the same time. Our bodies were exhausted but our hearts and minds were filled with the love of the Pachamama.