Callanish

My latest adventure had been over a year in the planning and many years in my dreams. Finally the day came to leave for my Mysteries of Scotland tour. I visited Scotland with Hamilton in 2009 but it was a short visit and I had a few important places still to visit. So my friend Val set up a tour and we gathered some friends to join us on a mystical pilgrimage to the holy land of Scotland. There were three great mysteries we all wanted to experience: standing stones, nature spirits and Celtic Christianity. All three weave together in a unique way in this enchanted land far away on remote islands in the north Atlantic.

I want to start with ancient standing stones. The world is very familiar with the iconic and immortal Stonehenge and maybe even Avebury in England. But our ancestors left many more of these monuments to the cosmos. There were five stone circles on the itinerary for our pilgrimage so come along with me as we explore these magnificent sacred sites.

The first stone circle and the smallest on the journey was Croft Moraig. This 5000 year-old double circle is just by the side of a narrow road in a sheep field in Perthshire, an hour north of Edinburgh. We silently approached and each person took the time and space to experience the deep knowing of land and stone. We had the circle to ourselves and were able to really experience what was for many people their first time inside an open cathedral to the Universe. Although stone circles still have many great stories to tell, we do know they are places of ceremony for our ancestors, aligned to the sun and stars as observatories and serve as acupuncture points for the energy meridians of the Earth. Most of all, these mighty stones hold the memory of place and time and therefore become the timeless watchers of the land.

Our first stone circle fed our souls and after lunch we went to see the 5000 year-old Yew tree just up the road and another set of stones nearby. On our entire trip this was our only stop in the rain: otherwise the weather was perfection. But we all agreed that the rain was part of Scotland and felt nurtured by liquid sunshine that couldn’t dampen our joy.

The next day we met the third set of standing stones, very different from the first. Clava Cairns is just east of Inverness and very close the famous battlefield of Culloden. We drove right past this place of suffering and went to the peaceful stones and the ancient burial mounds. Clava Cairns is now more popular because of the Outlander series but, on the day I was there, it was cool and clear with a light breeze and just a few other people visiting. As usual I just quietly wandered around and entered the big burial cairns and touched the stones in the circle. The trees surrounding the site are beautiful and add to the gentleness of the place.

The following day we made the long drive to the most important of the stone circles in Scotland and a place I have long desired to visit— Callanish. You can’t get there from here. It takes some serious effort but I was determined and like all pilgrimages the journey and anticipation is just as important as the arrival. We drove to the little port town of Ullapool on the upper peninsula of the Highlands then took a 3 hour ferry ride across The Minch, the body of water separating the islands from the mainland. Fortunately, the water was calm that day and we finally arriving at the town of Stornaway on the island of Lewis which is northern-most island of the Outer Hebrides. The bus was the first to leave the ferry and we were off down narrow, one-way roads with just pull-outs for passing. The final 45 minutes of the trip is through increasingly barren and windswept land. Then there it was, Callanish. The stones rose over the horizon where they have stood for millennia. There was nothing to block the view, no trees or buildings, just the stones standing strong in such a harshly beautiful environment.

The bus pulled into the parking lot and we all made our way up the steep path to Callanish. There were a few other visitors there admiring the stones. I felt like I was at the ends of the earth and these stones were the last outpost. I took my time and skirted around the edge for I wanted to work my way slowly into the center. I walked to the furthest point which are two stones that began the ceremonial entrance to the main stone. I walked up the avenue that narrowed as I got closer. It felt like entering the great temples of Egypt by walking up the avenues lined with sphinx. The circle has four spokes coming from the center and I went to each one and looked out over the land to the nearby lake and then distant hills. What did the stones witness? What did they know? I eventually made my way in to the center and just enjoyed my moment at this beautiful place. Our guide Tracy pointed out the solstice alignment and I took pictures of my fellow pilgrims. Others started wandering back to the visitor’s center for a cup of tea and postcards but I moved off to the side and found a low stone to sit on. I just looked at this majestic monument and listened to some music and took in every part of the moment: the smell, sight, feel, sound. I bathed in the ancientness. It was finally time to leave but I had my moment in time in the timeless. I will be back.

The final stone circle on the tour was also the last stop before returning to Edinburgh to say our goodbyes. I had visited Kilmartin before in 2009 and never forgot it and was happy to be returning. I remember on the first visit when I touched the stones it felt like they were touching back. This visit held the same sensation and I felt very welcome to be back in their presence. It felt like the perfect closing, a benediction for my remarkable days in enchanted Scotland, where the mysteries are there to be touched and experienced without barriers, physical or spiritual. Just me and the stones together on the earth.

 

Tree shaped by the stone circle–Kilmartin

The Snow Leopard

photo by Bernard Landgraf

Last week Hamilton and I took my mom to see the movie Born in China. She loves nature shows on TV and it was a nice outing for all of us. So after dinner out we headed to the theater where we were the only three watching the movie. I’m so glad we saw it on the big screen because it was spectacularly beautiful with pandas, monkeys, cranes and my favorite, snow leopards. The narrator had charming and engaging story-lines about each animal mother and child. We watched rolly-polly baby pandas tumble down the mountain followed by young monkeys jumping around their forest home. In the introduction and ending are cranes flying across mountains, lakes and a giant setting sun. I really don’t think I’ve seen a more beautiful movie. But what I wanted to see the most were the snow leopards, the rare and elusive big cat that lives in the high and uninhabitable Himalayas.

I first learned about snow leopards many years ago when I read a book in book club called The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The book was written in the 1970’s about Peter’s expedition into the deep Himalayas. His companion was in search of rutting sheep but Peter was in search of himself and a rare glimpse of the snow leopard. He had lost his young wife to cancer the year before and used this journey to look deeply at his life and grieve. The two hiked for weeks through high and difficult terrain with a rag-tag group of porters to reach the sheep. During the long days of hard walking Peter reflected on his personal and spiritual life. He never did see a snow leopard for at that time less than a handful of people had ever glimpsed this elusive cat.

The first time I read this book I understood absolutely nothing. Yep, I couldn’t comprehend anything Peter was talking about. I was young and I had no context for his experience. But interestingly enough I never forgot the book for somehow I sensed that it was important and so is the snow leopard. Over the years photographers captured a few distant images of the snow leopard in the wild but now this movie gives us a look at their elusive life.

I was inspired to read The Snow Leopard again after seeing this exquisite mama and babies try to survive in such a harshly beautiful environment. Hamilton had his copy high on a shelf so I got a ladder and pulled down the small paperback. The pages were old, discolored and rough. I started to read it for the first time in 25 years. This time I understood every word. Time had given me context for this beautiful pilgrimage into a harsh land and a grieving heart. Peter is a Buddhist and now all the words and stories about the Buddha made sense and after having a long walking pilgrimage myself I now understood his journey and deep need for a quest into the unknown. I had finally grown into the book.

At the same time I was revisiting another book I read over 20 years ago, The Ecstatic Journey by Sophy Burnham about mystical experiences. This is another book I didn’t understand on the first read but yet never forgot. These two books came into my life when the words were as elusive to me as the snow leopard. My life experience had no context for the story. But time changed that, for I persevered and built the vocabulary and experience to revisit these spiritual classics and now every word is like a tonic and a blessing. Like the new and amazing images of the snow leopard these books now can be part of my heart for I can see them now, when before they were so hidden with my lack of experience.

What books and movies do you need to revisit? What is waiting to for you to read with new eyes now that you have grown and learned? When time and experience combines with learning and wisdom we build new path ways to new mountain tops and are able to finally glimpse the snow leopard.

Persy on her snow leopard blanket.  It makes her feel exotic and mysterious.

Wabi Sabi

My Wabi Sabi laundry room.

A good friend once said to me “you are either traveling or at home, nothing in between”. She was so right for as much as I’m love to be on an adventure in my heart I’m really a homebody and like to keep a balance between the two. You won’t see fashion and gossip magazines in my house; it is all home magazines especially my favorite English Home which features charming country homes full of antiques, fraying upholstery, uneven slate floors, hunting dogs and wobbly Christmas trees. It is a far cry from the perfectionism of House Beautiful and Traditional Home. The truth is I like things a bit Wabi Sabi.

‘Wabi’ means simple/humble and ‘Sabi’ means “the bloom of time”. This is finding beauty in imperfection; slow, simple, natural and uncluttered which is the essence of this Zen way of living. This is the appreciation for everyday objects, used and loved, chipped and scratched, embracing imperfection as a beautiful way of life.

I wasn’t always like this. I had a deep streak of perfectionism but the beauty of children is they teach you a new way to live. Specifically, my creative Caroline taught me that a slightly messy house was part of the process of living and to get over myself and stop cleaning all the time. She is my little Zen master!

Four years ago I moved into a very Wabi Sabi home. The patina of age and grace infuses every room. My family has owned the home for over 60 years and, at the time they moved in the house was already past its hundredth birthday. Handmade brick, well-worn floors and slightly shabby upholstery make my home alive with history and the echo of family life. Over the last few years I have changed some things to make it my space and more liveable but the Wabi Sabi essence is still there.

It is all a work in progress. My project of the week was to remove the ancient carpet on the stairs to the basement—I couldn’t take it any longer. Underneath the carpet are oak treads, dirty and worn with a few old paint drippings. I swept them and then washed them twice with the Murphy’s oil soap which gives them the smell of clean wood. These old steps are so Wabi Sabi and I was happy to discover their true nature after being covered for so long. Because I don’t enter my home through the grand front door but through the garage carrying groceries up these hardworking stairs. I want my welcome home to be tidy, clean and practical.

As I have married my love of minimalism with the natural world of Wabi Sabi, I find that there is a greater ease and grace to life. Ok, I’m not giving up my nine sets of dishes (yes 9, thanks to my mother-in-law and yes, I have used them all)  anytime soon but everything has a place and a joy and a reason. There is no perfect place of arrival in the pilgrimage of life just the wonderfully perfect imperfection of each day.

I draw water  I carry wood  This is my magic-—-Zen poem

Some of my favorite books on Wabi Sabi

Living Wabi Sabi by Taro Gold

Simply Imperfect:  Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House  by Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Wabi Sabi Simple;  Create Beauty. Value imperfection. Live deeply

by Richard R Powell

Bird plates used for Easter dinner.

The Sleeping Beauty

A couple of weeks after my trip to Southeast Asia I found myself yet again in a very different world and a very different experience. Alexandra wanted to meet up on NYC for a mother/daughter arts weekend—how could I say no to that. My sweet girl and art—never a better combination.

For both of us it was a pilgrimage for we were going to see the New York City Ballet perform The Sleeping Beauty. I have loved ballet since I was a small girl but it wasn’t available to me because of religious restrictions. When I became a mother and removed those artificial restrictions I put my daughters in ballet class the moment they were old enough. I was too old to begin ballet but could live vicariously through them—-I’m so glad it worked out for all of us. Alexandra became passionate about ballet and it was her life all through school and beyond. She still takes class regularly and informs me that it is essential for her life and mental wellbeing. She is six feet tall and professional dancing isn’t her career path but instead she just gets to find the joy with none of the pressure.

Over the last few years she has become passionate about the New York City Ballet and follows them like others follow football. She knows the players, the moves, the opponents, the dramas and the choreography. So in February NYCB was performing her number one ballet The Sleeping Beauty. This ballet contains the quintessential elements of ballet in its highest form. The music, costumes, story, dancers, orchestra and audience all come together to experience art at its most refined and inspired.

Tchaikovsky wrote the music to The Sleeping Beauty in 1889 and was first performed in 1890. It has been a touchstone for classical ballet ever since. Along with The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty will forever remain a popular and perfect ballet as it is at once pure beauty and mythic story that touches our hearts.  For in the classic fairytale we are reminded that true unconditional love awakens us from our unconscious lives. The NYCB production is choreographed by Peter Martins and is very much in the school of George Balanchine who founded the company. It is this perfect combination of the magnificent score by Tchaikovsky and the unique and truly American style of Balanchine that makes this work iconic and universal. Yet it was over 100 years in the making. Balanchine, a half a century after Tchaikovsky, pioneered a style and technique that matches the music like never before and elevated the art to a new level. It is a unique art form that can change and grow but yet still convey the essence of the original story and music.

Ballet is art expressed with the human body in time and space and this is the essence of this pilgrimage but makes it so different from visiting sacred sites. This is a pilgrimage of Time and ephemeral beauty. It is Time that brings the music and movement together in a refined state. Only in Time does this experience exist, the music and movement are only in the Now, fleeting and yet eternal in the effect on all who participate; dancers, musicians and audience. Alexandra and I were enraptured by the experience and what human beings are able to create. Each perfect movement to the perfect note is a transcendent moment.

Alexandra is the poster child for October 2017 Knoxville Symphony.   This picture from 2011 is just pure joy.

Bayon Temple, Cambodia

After our magnificent morning at Angkor Wat we had breakfast and a nice rest before heading out to the afternoon temples. I was glad to catch my breath from the morning because the afternoon was just as incredible. It would take a month to see everything here so I’m glad we decided to spend two days here. Next time I’m going to stay a week.

The first stop was Ta Prohm which is still mostly ruins unlike the temple of Angkor Wat which has been largely restored. There were still piles of carved stones everywhere and I would have felt like Indiana Jones finding an ancient secret temple if it hadn’t been for the crowds—but I can fantasize. I was definitely in an exotic world where dreams and reality collide. Now, in this massive tumble of stone are new gods— giant 400 year old trees overtaking the temple walls. Instead of a temple to Buddha it is a temple where nature and stone are the Divine. The dappled sunlight and green lichen made it all feel ancient and wise.

 

On to Bayon Temple just down the road where there was no doubt who was in charge of the Universe. For on every side of every tower are a total of 216 giant faces of the all-knowing Brahma. I was reminded at every turn of the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity. I just loved it! We wandered around the stone temple where heaven and earth are blending together and God is made visible. Like the Sistine Chapel where God touches Adam, at Bayon temple Brahma is amongst us intertwining with our every moment.

In the center is the shrine to Buddha in a deep dark alcove. I took off my sandals and stepped on the smooth, cool stones worn and polished by the devotees. Just inside the dark was a tiny old woman with incense and flowers. I made my donation and stepped deeper into the holiest part of the temple. It was overwhelming to be kneeling with my insignificant offering and without the traditional words so all my mind and heart could find was gratitude.

The next morning we headed out to see more temples. Hamilton had accidentally washed his pass and there was just the vital information still visible. It did provide all the ticket checkers a good laugh. I pride myself in being able to remember temple names but I didn’t do such a good job this day. So I will have to just give descriptions. First was a pink sandstone temple with delicate and elaborate carvings of the Hindu gods. The second temple had a long bridge where one side had a dozen or so gods on one side and demons on the other. The entire temple was built around the duality of light and dark, gods and demons. There was beautiful two story library which had books made of palm leaves, now lost to time. Another temple has eight big elephants, one at each corner of the two levels. There was a hospital temple and a temple for water blessing and we finished with a temple used as a crematorium. None of these temples have active shrines and are much smaller and therefore fell like beautiful archeological sites rather than holy ground.

Somewhere in the middle of the day we stopped for a bit of lunch in a local open-air restaurant and I got a bit of shopping done. It is hot in Cambodia, think Tennessee in August, and we walked and climbed a lot so I was happy with an afternoon swim and Hamilton caught up on the latest issue of the Wall Street Journal. Our time in Cambodia was all we had hoped for and more. I was so sorry to leave the next day but I will be back for more adventures.

I’m so happy to have this visa in my passport.

A bit about Cambodia: Cambodia is the poorest country I have visited and is still far from recovered from the atrocities of the 1970’s where 1/3 of the population was murdered. I found the people to be courageous and resilient in trying to make a life for their families with so few resources. Their plight really reminded me how privileged we are in the West. Cambodia might not be at the top of most peoples’ vacation destination list but it is one of the most life-changing places I have ever been.

A couple of weeks after I got home I was watching a wonderful series on Netflix called The Kindness Diaries. Leon rides a motorcycle around the world with no money, only relying on the kindness of strangers. In episode 10 and 11 he is in Thailand and Cambodia and really highlights the plight of these counties. I highly recommend this show and Leon’s beautiful experience.

The Gods Drink Whiskey by Stephen Asma. I read this book on the trip and it is a well done commentary on life in Thailand and Cambodia and Theravada Buddhism. Dr. Asma is a very insightful and entertaining writer.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Hamilton and I each had things we wanted to do and see in Thailand but we both had a deep desire to go to Cambodia and visit Angkor Wat. When we would talk about visiting Southeast Asia it was always traveling to both Thailand and Cambodia. When he was a boy living in Thailand it was not safe to visit Cambodia. Just say “largest temple complex in the world” to me and Angkor Wat goes straight to the top of my must-visit list.

Angkor Wat is in the northern part of Cambodia next to the city of Siem Reap, just a couple of hours south of the Thai border. The largest religious monument in the world, it covers over 400 acres with with dozens of individual temples. The most important and best preserved is the temple of Angkor Wat. The temples were built starting in the early 1100’s and were active until the 1700’s. During that time it changed between Hindu and Buddhist many times depending on what king was in power but is now Buddhist.

After our bus tour we had made arrangements to go to Cambodia. It seemed like a good idea at the time just to drive down to Siem Reap as we were relatively close to the border. Well, it was a bit more complicated and challenging than we expected and included dragging our suitcases through the long and congested border gray zone and surrendering our passports to a man on a motorcycle along with bribes for visas. There were moments I was pretty sure that I was going to be featured on next season’s Lock Up Abroad.  Eventually we made it to our beautiful hotel and finished the day with a sunset boat ride on a large lake with floating villages. We flew back to Thailand a few days later—a wise decision. I love a good adventure but that border crossing was almost a bit too much adventure.

The next morning started bright and early because I wanted my first glimpse of Angkor Wat to be at sunrise. Our guide picked us up in the dark and we went and purchased our tickets and walked through the night across ancient paths and bridges to a pond with a dark silhouette of the temple on the other side. The stars were bright and Venus was hanging low with the moon. We stood with quite a large crowd waiting to see this remarkable holy site be illuminated by the morning sun. Eventually the sun peaked over the tall towers and reflected on the pond in front of us. As the temple reflection mingled with the water lilies, it almost too much to bear, with the pink, blues, purples of the flowers and morning sun illuminating this glorious shrine to the gods.

 

We walked across the bridge, through doorways, up and down steps until we reached the center of that holy place. It was still early so there was a cool breeze and the larger crowds hadn’t yet arrived. It is as awe inspiring as the great cathedrals of Europe, the monumental temples of Luxor, the crystal city of Machu Picchu and the magnificent Grand Canyon. It is a humbling expression of man’s insignificance before the Divine.

On the bottom level are four pools with four more pools on the level above. Every bit of the walls inside and out were covered with fine, detailed carvings depicting the epic stories of the Hindu gods as well as celestial dancers celebrating life. We climbed the narrow and very steep steps to the upper level to see the second set of pools and look out at the deep green countryside. Along the walls were headless Buddhas in mediation. Some had gold sashes reminding visitors that this is still a very holy place. As with all of the great temples built by our ancestors, it is breathtaking in the current expression. I can’t imagine how amazing it was with ponds full of lilies, the walls painted and the Buddhas whole.

The shrine to Buddha is back on the main level. Although Angkor Wat was mostly lost in time, for 300 years the main temple was always tended by monks so the energy never left this special place. Two monks were sitting by the shrine giving blessings to those who were ready to receive. I lit incense before the golden Buddha and then knelt in front of the monk for my blessing. First he put a pink cord on my left wrist and the took a whisk dipped in holy water and shook the water on my head as he chanted prayers.

It was hard for me to leave, I had dreamed of that morning for a long time and I didn’t want my visit to be over but it was getting warmer and we hadn’t had breakfast. So I said my good-byes knowing that I would be back. Like so many of the most holy places on earth, it is so overwhelming that I can’t take it in on the first visit. As I write this I’m listening to the music that I chose for my pilgrimage and my powerful memories entwine with the notes. I will go back.

Vishnu

Ayutthaya, Thailand

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After a few lovely days wandering Bangkok, it was time to explore the countryside of Thailand. We boarded the bus and drove out of town and into the suburban sprawl of modern civilization. Eventually we were out in the jungle and our first stop at an elephant camp where I fed the baby elephant and some of my fellow travelers took a ride through the jungle. Next on the agenda was some shopping at a floating market. Small narrow boats devoid of most safety precautions and with very sputtery engines sped us up the narrow canals to lunch and treasures for sale. I happily parted with my money for silk scarves for friends and a Buddha for my altar. After that we came to the River Kwai, made famous by the novel Bridge On The River Kwai about the labor camps during WWII. The movie of the same name won an Oscar for best picture in 1958. The river runs peacefully under a modern railroad bridge and past a very tall statue of Quan Yin. Some little girls entertained us with renditions of American tunes on their toy guitars, not quite ready for Nashville but charming none-the-less. That night we stayed in individual huts surrounded by the exotic jungle accessible only by narrow boats.

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The next day Hamilton went off with the group to explore more WWII sites while I enjoyed the pool and jungle and watched the river go by. We left the next morning by boat along the river cliffs, the morning fog made our ride very beautiful and it really felt like a land far from home.

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The next major stop was Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand from 1350-1767. It was eventually raided by the Burmese and the Thai government fled to what is now Bangkok. For hundreds of years the temples fell into the hands of time and nature until it became a World Heritage Site. It is this combination of former glories and decay than make it so beautiful to me.

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That perfect day in Thailand we visited 3 temples. The first one, Wat Cahi Watthanaram, has a beautiful central prang or tower surrounded by 4 smaller towers. All along the walls were Buddhas, not the shinning gold ones of Bangkok, but Buddhas that had been ravished by time and vandals. Two beautiful Buddhas are on tall pedestals were whole and serene. I stood and breathed in the history and elegant architecture of this place that has stood for 400 years.

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After lunch the next stop is probably the most famous of the Ayutthaya temples, Wat Mahathat, where there is the Buddha in a banyan tree. As nature took over the abandoned land, one serene image was entwined in nature and became even more beautiful. Even in neglect the peacefulness shines. I wandered around the site listening to chants on my ipod and admiring each Buddha in its own experience of decay. Some of the Buddhas were just feet or maybe even legs and a hand and occasionally a whole Buddha. But no matter what the current condition, each is honored.

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The third temple on our visit was Wat Si Sanphet, considered the most important of the temples. Three restored stupas stand in the center and are the models for the later temples built in Bangkok. I walked around and admired each stupa individually and then as a group. The deep, blue sky was the perfect backdrop to these markers of sacred space. I was hot by the time we finished and I was happy to climb back on the cool bus to the hotel for the night. But each temple, and there were many more we missed, was a special experience, each with a distinct style and purpose but all the temples working in harmony to honor the enlightened path of Buddha.

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