About theperpetualpilgrim

Come and share my past journeys and join me in my future adventures both in my mind and heart and in the world.

Virginia Creeper Trail

Several years back, I decided that I wanted to travel outside the US at least once a year. But in 2015, my life was overtaken by the needs of my elderly parents and I needed to stay close to home. Those next 18 months I blogged about the wonderful rural sacred sites of America, places that my life serendipitously lead me to.  Five years later, life once again has me visiting the world close to home and I’m enjoying delightful places that I would not have prioritized in the past. Just like hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, I want to take you along with me on a few of my local adventures.  Here is a chance for me to share some of the wonderful and charming parts of Appalachia so that you might also enjoy a land that is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. I want to paint you a beautiful new picture of this remarkable region full of beauty and culture.

Alexandra’s birthday is early in October, so we planned an overnight trip to celebrate. I suggested the Virginia Creeper Trail just a few hours’ drive across the border in Virginia. This trail is an old railroad right-of-way from the 1880’s that runs through the rolling hills and low mountains of southern Virginia and is bisected by the Appalachian Trail which runs north and south.  The trains stopped running in the 1970’s and the Forest Service secured the land for a recreation trail.  It is now a 34-mile hiking, horse and bike trail from Whitetop Mountain to Abingdon, Virginia. But it is mostly used as a biking trail with outfitters who rent bikes and take riders to the end of the trail for a mostly down-hill ride back to the town and car. I’m not much of a biker so this was perfect for me.

The adventure started the night before when all four of us drove to the little town of Mountain City, Tennessee, to an Airbnb, stopping in Johnson City for some gourmet pizza for dinner. The next morning, we had a picnic breakfast and Alexandra opened some birthday gifts. We headed toward our next destination along a winding road beside a creek. The trees were just beginning to change colors and a few leaves were accumulating on the road. The narrow gorge is dotted with tidy farms highlighted with crisp white farmhouses and weathered barns. This was just the beginning of the perfectly picturesque “hills and hollers” of the gently rolling Appalachia.  We wandered a bit around the tiny trail town of Damascus. There are outfitters and hostels to meet the needs of the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. We had coffee and loaded our backpacks with water and snacks, got our rented bikes loaded on the outfitter’s trailer and climbed in the van for the 30 minute drive to the top of Whitetop Mountain.  As the van climbed the narrow curvy road, the terrain transformed to steeper hillsides with perfect rows of tiny Christmas tress beginning a decade of growth before harvesting for their intended Christmas home.

The first few miles on the trail were a bit wobbly for me—it had been awhile since I was on a bike. The trail was wide and slightly down-hill through a rich canopy of yellowing leaves. The air was crisp and the smell of the dry fall air that is such a relief after the humid hot summer.  It was a little too crisp for Alexandra’s hands and she fashioned mittens out of shirtsleeves and socks and I gave her my jacket. We crossed tall trestles and stopped to look down the rocky gorges.  There are well over a dozen trestle/bridges to cross on the trail. We took a short break where one side of the trail had several men in a field loading pumpkins on a truck and the other side was a steep incline of Christmas trees—it was like being on a movie set of idealized American holidays.  The next short rest was by a hillside full of goats protected by a Great Pyrenees dog. It was my childhood dream of being Heidi in Switzerland.  Fortunately, a bit later there was a sign for coffee and gloves—Alexandra was saved. The sock fix wasn’t quite good enough and we quickly purchased gloves and hats from the small outfitter across a little bridge.  Warmed by coffee and a wood stove inside the old hut gave a renewed spirit of pleasure for the amazing scenery. 

We pedaled/coasted on for awhile until we came upon a little café with picnic tables for the tired and hungry bikers. A delightful menu of hot dogs, grill cheese and tater tots was perfect to feed us body and soul for the last third of the trail.  Over more bridges until the trail flattened out just before Damascus and our car, 17 miles from the mountain top and the half-way point of the trail.  We loved every minute but the last bit found us saddle-sore and rubber-legged. It was good to turn in our bikes and climb into the car for the ride home.  There was a quick stop for chicken sandwiches and iced tea in Abingdon and then just a few more hours home to hot showers and comfy beds.  I wanted to bottle up that day and save every breath, leaf and tree to store away for hard times. I wondered at the land, my family and the simple joys of fresh air and knew I had a moment of rest to enjoy life even if it was just for a day.

The Great Smoky Mountains

Rainbow over the Great Smoky Mountains

About a century ago—in January 2020–I planned to visit Ireland in September and Alexandra had reservations for Japan.  We all know what happened next: plans changed, life took a detour and staycations became the new way of life.  Fortunately, one of the major tourist destinations in the United States is in my own back yard so to speak.  Every time I drive to town, I’m treated to a perfect view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Daily, I get to see these ancient mountains in all their glory.  Many days they are clear with gradations from deep purple to lavender.  Then there is the winter with snow and clouds turning purple to pure white. Many days the clouds reflect the name “Smoky” and a misty haze covers the horizon.  I don’t often make the hour drive to the park itself but, when I do, I love the rocky stream beside the road, the dense tree-cover overhead and the sweet wet smell of the moss and ferns.  The Smokies really don’t have many vistas; it is more like being in a massive Zen garden where Nature herself has curated every inch to be perfect.  In the autumn, the Smokies put on a magnificent show when the trees are ablaze, and the air is cool and dry and the sky is bright blue.  I am so happy to have a staycation in this magical place.

When Alexandra was little girl, we would go play in the cold mountain stream on hot summer days but never hiked.  But ever since we walked the Camino in 2014, hiking has become such a joy and a priority. And we are very compatible hiking pals. We are also wanting to make the most of her extended time in East Tennessee since she will be working from home until at least next year.  We are using this time-out-of-time to make the most of our lives here and now. So let me tell you about our September adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains.

For our first hike, I chose “The Chimneys”.  This is a well-known trail that isn’t very long but very steep with hundreds of stairs up to a rock outcropping and a beautiful overlook.  The path starts flat and has several bridges over a wide, rushing stream that tumbles down massive boulders.  If we had just stopped there, it was worth the hour and a half drive. But then the trail starts the assent which means at least it is downhill coming back. Fortunately, we have a trail on the farm with a steep hill and so I’m use to the incline but it was still a big challenge.  Everywhere you look is a feast for the eyes—deep green moss, dark tree trunks, rock outcroppings and leafy canopy. The fresh air and rushing water fills in what the eyes miss for a full body experience.  We were tired at the end, but I was glad to get to mark that trail off in my hiking book as a trail well done.

Sunshine illuminating the path

As we were driving to the hike, Alexandra mentioned she would love to pet a deer as we love seeing the deer on our lawn feeding at dawn and dusk.  I had her google petting zoos and amazingly, there was a deer park and exotic petting zoo just 30 minutes from the trail in the next town over.  You know we had to go right then! Instant manifestation of desired deer petting, and did we have fun.  The Smoky Mountain Deer Farm and Exotic Petting Zoo is full of goats, deer, horses of all kinds, ostrich and emus and beautiful reindeer.  Most of the animals you could feed either a corn mix or apple slices.  We started in a big pen of Fallow deer. They loved the food and we were quickly surrounded. If you weren’t careful some of the deer would give a light nip from the rear so they could get some too—I must say a bit overwhelming but fun. We enjoyed the pen of goats with docile babies that love being held,  I loved cuddling their warm furry bodies. But our favorites were the Sitka deer and reindeer—so gentle and beautiful.  We were dirty and tired by the end of our day but so happy with our mini vacation. Plans are already being made to return to the deer park, maybe with some outlet shopping first.

Sitka Deer

Fallow Deer

A few weeks later I chose a hike on the famed Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine, over 2000 miles. We did a four-mile section to a point called Charlie’s Bunion, an outcropping of rock with a magnificent view. This is the part of the trail that starts on the North Carolina/Tennessee line and is at 5000 ft elevation.  The trail is rocky and the rainy remains of a hurricane made the trail like a small stream.  I definitely had to be careful not to turn an ankle. This higher elevation had a special feel with dense moss and hemlock trees which smelled like Christmas, so we chattered on about this year’s Christmas plans. Unfortunately, the beautiful vista was a pure white cloud, so we hungrily ate our PB and J sandwich and headed back down. I did slip on the way back, my legs were getting like rubber by then, but fortunately there was another hiker right behind me who took hold of my arm which softened the fall so I wasn’t hurt.  We were happy to see our car and the vista from the parking lot. Some ibuprofen and a latte got us home to hot showers and beef stew in the crockpot. The hike was 8 miles of rough trail but I felt like I had a big accomplishment and a magnificent adventure in our beautiful world.

 

 

 

 

Peacocks

Brunhilde, Figaro and Mimi

I’ve always loved peacocks. There is something about their iridescent blue-green color and magnificent tails that calls to mind the exotic and extravagant.  Over the years I would be drawn to journals, pillows and clothes with peacock images.  I didn’t overdo it. I wasn’t a crazy peacock lady, just a reminder here and there of this beautiful bird. I also imagined having peacocks on the farm, wandering around the yard and making their haunting calls—it would be so beautiful. I worried about predators so I never investigated owning peacocks and peacocks remained a dream.  But things changed this year. I stopped traveling and Alexandra came home to ride out the pandemic. Suddenly, there was time and space for new opportunities I would not have otherwise and the dream of owning peacocks became a reality.

The end of June, I showed Alexandra a video of baby peacocks on my favorite YouTube channel, The Chateau Diaries.  She started to research peacock care and look for breeders and the next thing I knew we had reserved three baby peacocks to be picked up a few days later in the next county.  We already had plenty of space for them to roam and a shed that would make the perfect roost to keep them safe at night. It seemed like destiny, all with the help of Alexandra’s persistence and love of animals. We finally succumbed to the lure of farm animals, albeit vanity farm animals whose sole purpose is beauty and to make us happy.

Since Alexandra and I both love opera as well as birds, she thought it would be fitting that our babies have very distinguished names from our favorite opera composers.  We have hatch-mates, Figaro, a male and Brunhilde, a sweet dove-colored female.  Figaro is already turning green and struts around like he is in charge.  The third baby is Mimi, a white peacock, beautiful if a bit neurotic, so we are forever pleading “no no Mimi”. Caroline is the official bird wrangler and likes to hold and cuddle them. Alexandra has become a farmer with pitchfork and straw to clean their roost.  Every night, I fix them a lovely supper of lettuce and white bread. In a few weeks, they will be old enough to start exploring the yard and the bread helps lure them back into the safety of the roost at night.  We can’t imagine life without our peacocks.

The challenges of 2020 are bound together with the changes we make this year that become this iridescent experience as the highs and lows are seen from different perspectives.  For me, the loss and sadness has been inextricably bound with gain and joy. I mourn the loss of how life use to be when we could gather with friends and be in the world. But there has also been gain with time as a family and deepening connection with farm and home. I’ve been reading Life is in the Transitions by Bruce Feiler, a book that came out at the beginning of the global transition to an unknown future.  The book is a guide through the transitions in life that come more quickly and last longer than we would probably like.  Sometime, the big shifts in life come voluntarily, but most of the time, it is involuntary, and it is these big changes that make up the fabric of our lives. This year, I’m glad to add peacocks to my life tapestry and the lore of my family. We have also a new tradition born from our transition. Every Saturday evening, we gather on the patio for “aperitif” (also inspired by The Chateau Diaries). We have a glass of pink wine and some “sexy cheese” or other special foods and enjoy the end of the week.  We enjoy the planning as much as the eating, a mini-celebration of life and joy which has been the highlight of our summer and will sure to continue on for many years. Peacocks and aperitif are part of the new colors of our life that we will remember as part of life in transition.

 

 

Remembrance

This certainly has been the strangest year most of us have ever experienced. The unexpected has become the norm and seems like we are having to adjust daily to the unknown. Trying to find life’s joy isn’t easy with the constant grim news that comes flashing up on notifications. Not since wartime has there been a daily body count, the number of people who have lost their lives to the virus.

Death has been present in my life this year. My mother-in-law, Dusty, passed away in February after 17 years of Alzheimer’s. The family was able to be with her during her final hours and we are grateful for that would not have been the case just a few weeks later. Dusty’s ashes remain in our home awaiting burial that has already been postponed once. My beloved mentor Rachael died in the March and her memorial is delayed indefinitely.  This last weekend Hamilton and I attended a memorial for a cousin now buried with parents and grandparents under the shade of a tree.

The last few weeks, I’ve been working on projects around the house. Like so many Americans, with our lives restricted, we turn to our home to nurture us and, in turn, we are nurturing our homes.  I’ve been deep cleaning many of the rooms of my house that were neglected while I was in school the last few years.  It is hard work that must be done to keep my beloved home looking its best. In each room, I systematically wash all the woodwork, oil the furniture, clean the windows and wash the curtains. While I scrub and polish, I keep my mind occupied with an endless stream of podcasts, usually one just running into the next so that I’m not sure what I will be listening to for the next bit of work.

The last on the project list has been the library.  We are all addicted to reading and the library tends to overflow with read and to-be-read books as well as art projects and memorabilia from family members.  It is definitely the hardest room to clean. I needed to repair some of the paint and clean behind bookshelves that hadn’t been moved in several decades. As I worked, the podcast that started was an interview with Dr. Cedrus Monte who recently published a book about the death of her mother. The book launch was delayed so Cedrus was reading excepts as a virtual launch. The poignant words flowed over me as I worked and allowed me to reflect on my own losses. At one point, Cedrus speaks of the fear of disappearing into the unknown as death moves in and I experienced those words as the fear of being forgotten.  It doesn’t take but a couple of generation for our lives to fade and become a handful of unidentified photographs.

But in my library is a special place of remembrance, a secret compartment where the memory of a stranger continues on in my world.  I have a small antique writing desk that Dusty bought as a lovely end table for the library. A few years ago, I opened it and was investigating the nooks and crannies when I lifted a compartment that held a hidden space.  To my surprise it was full of papers of the former owner, Robert Lennie, a teacher at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, Scotland. With these receipts, letters and cherished papers, I am able to piece together a snapshot of Robert’s life in 1920’s and ‘30’s Scotland. He was not married and was a lay preacher. But my favorite paper is a short poem written in pencil on a blue piece of paper by his students who obviously really loved Professor Lennie.

They’ve an excellent teacher, (his name’s Mr. Lennie).

He doesn’t have foes, and friends, he has many…

I have a picture with no names on the back so I can’t be sure it is Robert. But I cherish these hidden snippets of his life. This total stranger from another land and time has a place of honor in my home linking me to a magical land that I love. Robert isn’t forgotten and continues to live on in a way he could have never imagined, in a home far away from Scotland.

We too can’t imagine where our lives are going or what legacy we will leave.  The winds of fate seem to have much to do with that and our current whirlwind of life is sweeping us to an unknown world. The best I know to do is live life well and to the fullest, nurturing people and cherishing place. Hopefully that will be enough legacy for me to be remembered and leave a bit of love and kindness in my wake.

Mexico City

The Sun Stone

My blog posts got a bit derail by the pandemic but I wanted to tell you about our adventures in Mexico City last November, a chance for some vicarious travel.

After our time in Teotihuacan, we took two cars back to Mexico City, about an hour away.  Bowens are very tall people and we couldn’t fit into just one regular car.  Within an hour, we arrived at our beautiful Airbnb in Roma Norte. Alexandra’s earlier trip to Mexico City helped us locate the part of the city that we really wanted to explore.  After an ATM stop, groceries and a bit of gawking at the beautiful architecture, we took a rest, got some dinner and settled in for some Netflix. I suggested the girls watch Frida since we were going to Frida Kahlo’s home the next day.

I have known Frida Kahlo’s enigmatic self-portraits for many years but last summer several of her paintings were on exhibit in Nashville along with paintings of her husband Diego Rivera.  There is great energy in these glimpses into Frida’s fractured soul. Her pain and intensity shine through each painting like nothing else in that gallery or museum. I learned more about her life and was pleased to glimpse into her creative world. I made reservations a month in advanced and was able to skip the long line of people waiting for their turn in the small house/museum. Fortunately, her home is preserved as she left it and this shrine to a remarkable soul remains available to inspire me.  I have not known the physical pain that Frida endured but through her home and work I could touch the creative spirit that came through despite her difficult life. Frida was totally and completely herself in art and in life.  The beautiful, lush courtyard was painted a brilliant blue, an oasis in a bustling city. Everywhere you can still experience her creativity and personal style be it nature, art, clothes, furniture and books.  We wandered for an hour or so, soaking in the sunlight, imagining Frida’s life, both beautiful and painful.

Next on the agenda was the SUN STONE.  I had no idea it was in Mexico City in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia.  The Aztec sun stone was discovered in 1790. It has many interpretations including the one I was familiar with, the 2012 Mayan calendar predictions.  In the early 2000’s the sun stone was the center of the December 21, 2012 end of the Mayan Long Count calendar.  There was much speculation about the meaning.  Would the world end? Would we enter a new spiritual era?  I read a lot of books on the possible meaning of the 2012 date. I don’t participate in apocalyptic theories but I did find it all interesting and I liked the history of the Mayan people.  The sun stone was a major focus for many years.

The museum is big and beautiful with different rooms for each epoch surrounding a central courtyard with a big fountain.  Each room leads to a beautiful garden.  I could have stayed all day but I wanted to see the sun stone.  It is prominently displayed as the central artifact in the largest room.  I had no idea it was so enormous and breath-taking.  I savored all the artifacts and slowly wound my way to the stone I read about for so many years. But as much as I loved the sun stone the museum had another surprise for me. My friend Karen-who lived in Mexico City-told me that everyone she took to that museum had a mystical experience but the triggering object was always a surprise.  As much as I loved the sun stone it was not my trigger.  My experience came a couple of rooms later.  Hamilton went to sit on a bench in the courtyard and I went on alone and came face to face with the Olmec head, a giant human face carved from a basalt boulder. I can’t really describe my experience but it was intense and there was something about this Olmec head that rocked my world for that moment. There are 17 of these heads around central America and date from at least 900 BC. They definitely remind me of the Easter Island Moai statues and the faces of Brahman in Cambodia.  Sun stones, Olmec heads, pyramids to the gods—so much we don’t know but I love the mystery. I revel in the mystery.

Olmec Head

Sunday I wanted to see the cathedrals. You know I have to see the cathedrals. But travel always has surprises, especially when you don’t speak the language. The Mexico City Metropolitan cathedral is in the center of the city next to the National Palace.  The traffic was intense and the Uber driver said something to us and we just acted like we understood.  What he was probably telling us –giant political rally for the presidential elections.  We could not get anywhere near the cathedral. Instead were thousands and thousands of people, hundreds and hundreds of police all around giant screens projecting the loud speeches.  We had a long walk to get where we could get another Uber.  Finally, we headed to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.  More crowds lead the way up to the packed Basilica in the middle of one of several Masses that day.  It was the first day of Advent and close to Our Lady of Guadalupe feast day.  We watched a bit of the Mass and saw a group of young girls in white awaiting their first communion.  I didn’t see the relic or the rest of the Basilica but I experienced something special- the Mexican people’s devotion to their saint.  That day wasn’t about me visiting cathedrals but about experiencing life being lived with enthusiasm and devotion. Political rallies, venerating saints—it was real life in Mexico, so different from my world but so inspiring.

There was also good food, margaritas, craft markets and above all, family time.  We all loved our experience in Mexico and came away with wonderful memories and a deep appreciation for the rich culture and kind people of Mexico.

Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

 

 

 

Dreaming the Future

New footbridge on the farm.

I’m a planner.  I like to think about what is next, what is in the future.  I like to organize, sifting through all the possibilities, and come up with the perfect agenda, menu or most efficient method. Then I expect it all to go perfectly—because it is all so perfectly planned.  But, I don’t know if you noticed, lately things don’t always go as planned.  I had three perfectly planned trips this spring.  One by one I clicked the cancel button on the reservations. As the days of spring rolled on, I would sometimes think, “I’m supposed to be in Taos for my birthday”, or “today I was going to be in Santa Barbara graduating”.  But strangely it was all OK.  I missed what I had planned but I also was enjoying what I was already doing. I was enjoying the unexpected, the serendipity of life.

Although we all know that life is unsure and the unexpected can always happen, in our modern world we have come to make assumptions about what life will be like in the future. I assume that things will go along as I planned and how I wanted them to go. I think we are all learning that we can no longer make assumptions about our future but can only live/lean into the future.  I don’t think my planning ways are going to change anytime soon but I will be more open to the variables that life brings and let go of my plans more easily.

Strangely the best things in my life are things I didn’t plan, wasn’t looking for, or didn’t want.  The best things have come when I was just following a hunch or synchronicity.  I think the most important part of pilgrimaging into the future is to hold life loosely and allow dreams you didn’t know how to dream to move in and let life surprise you, delight and move you in a direction outside of your plans.

Our modern world loves to plan: a 5-year plan, a career plan, a family plan, a retirement plan.  All of that is good until our soul decides it doesn’t like that plan and begins its own agenda. We have to set aside our desires and open to that bigger agenda. For the next bit of life—and we can’t even begin to plan what that will be—we can let our souls guide our pilgrimage to the heart and where we need to go. Our old plans are gone, and space has opened for something new.  So, for the time being I will indulge in some planning but know that my soul might dream of something else and serendipity will guide the way. Hopefully with that agenda gone I will notice the little things, the taste of warm cherries, the smell of fresh laundry, the waxy feel of a magnolia blossom and know those simple joys are as important as exotic travel.

For the next bit of time, however long that is, choose something to explore deeply, an idea, writer, composer, moment of history, or the natural world. Pilgrimage to the heart of that place/space/thought and let it take over your mind and heart. See where you go and let the soul be the guide.  For the quality of today’s step determines where our future steps go.

I’m featured on a podcast about life during the pandemic.  Here is the link for Profile in Quarantine with host Mary Gilbert.

 

Noticing

A couple of weeks ago, Alexandra was ready to have a trip to town.  Since she was working from home she had not been anywhere in a couple of weeks and was hungry for a Dairy Queen vanilla cone. I needed some plumbing parts from Home Depot to fix a leaky faucet.  The ice cream was just what she wanted and we headed home through the countryside to our small rural town.  About halfway home she saw some cows in a field, including several calves. I promise, she has seen baby cows before, but even though she is closing in on 30, any baby animal brings a delight usually reserved for toddlers.  She made me turn around so she could admire the babies. We found a driveway to pull in to and had a perfect view of a mama giving her baby a bath.  The little one stood patiently as mama’s rough tongue cleaned under its chin, each lick making the baby lift up a bit, yet the bath happily continued for several minutes.  It was a mini-magical moment for Alexandra and me.  In the background, were the purple silhouettes of the Great Smokey Mountains. The rolling spring-green field contrasted with the dark angular bodies of the Black Angus cows. It was a simple, bucolic moment but yet one of perfect contentment for the mama and baby and me and my sweet girl.  At that moment, all was right with the world because Alexandra had noticed.  She noticed the simple beauty of babies in a field and wanted to savor that moment.

Noticing. This is how we pilgrimage to the present. This isn’t remembering the past or anticipating the future but finding those little moments of everyday life as special and beautiful. Currently our physical worlds are reduced in size as we tend to the business of life and health. But our internal world is infinite when we take time to notice the beauty of life. It is in connecting with nature and the amazingly creative human mind and spirit that we find those timeless moments that feed our soul.  It is so easy to get caught in the negative and the difficult and forget to see, to notice the abundance all around, the opportunities to enrich our minds and souls.  I’ve enjoyed the operas, ballets, gardens and museums that are online for us to enjoy in a way I haven’t before.  I’ve had time to read and tend my house, cook and take a daily walk to enjoy the spring flowers and budding trees.

My sweet friend Becky was reading a passage in my book about pilgrimages to your own back yard. She took that idea to heart and noticed that her own backyard needed some tending and decided to build a “pretty little garden” where she could put her hands in the dirt and find refuge from her busy “on-line” life. Every day she would pilgrimage a few short steps to her little place on earth and found healing and peace.  She shared her special space on Instagram.  It is up to each of us to find and nurture that space of time and place to pilgrimage; we just have to stop and notice.

 

Noticing, observing– brings gratitude for the details of your surroundings, the little things that are often ignored but actually hold the essence of life.  Notice the taste of simple food, the earthy smell of a cat, the softness of worn sheets, the heaviness of a hardbound book, the tattered edges of a warm rug, the brilliant purple of the tiny violets in the grass. Notice the bird songs in the early morning, the whipporwill’s call at dusk, the croaking frogs after a rain.  Each of these things and an infinite amount of other little things in our world become a moment of pilgrimage to our life as we live right here, right now.

My dear cosmic mother Rachael passed away last month. She was in very poor health, the perfect target for Covid-19.  As I mourn her loss, I think about something she would often say, “we are in the glory now”.   By noticing, we experience Now in each glorious moment.

Rachael Salley   1942-2020

Pilgrimage to the Past

Trout Lily, Spring 2020

Historically, pilgrimages were taken by people in all social, economic and cultural levels since sacred travel was about the call of the spirit to seek soul in the world. In our modern times, pilgrimages can seem to be for the privileged few that can afford the time, money of an exotic pilgrimage. Many have physical limitations that make a long pilgrimage impossible. I’ve always worried that my blog and book on pilgrimage have over emphasized international pilgrimages at the expense of the true nature of a spiritual journey.  As my tag line indicates—pilgrimage is about making every step of life sacred, a journey of the soul. Yes, pilgrimage is about physically going out into the world, discovering your inner world as you discover the world around you. But I also see pilgrimage as a perspective, a way of viewing life as a sacred journey.

Even as we are still early in 2020, our entire planet has been turned upside down as we pause life to tend to health and safety. Daily, even hourly, life is shifting with plans and routines which have disintegrated into the unknown. We are all on an untried path for a while before a new normal arrives. Although most of my family already work from home, Alexandra is here in Tennessee, a refugee from her micro-apartment in California.  My elderly mother is in quarantine in her retirement home–all appointments cancelled and no lunches out for the foreseeable future.  Our introvert natures are happy to be home with the cats and a stocked pantry.

Travel is going to be interrupted for quite awhile and maybe even make us rethink some of our far-flung vacations. It is unnerving when a much-anticipated trip is interrupted by the unexpected but that is part of a pilgrimage. Nine years ago, I was caught in the Egyptian Revolution and sequestered in a hotel before British Air sent an empty plane to rescue travelers. We expect our plans to go well—and most of the time they do—but part of the nature of a pilgrimage is a test of inner strength in the light of outer events.

Pilgrimage can always be part of our life no matter what the circumstances of the physical world. Thanks to the remarkable nature of our consciousness with the help of our five senses we can pilgrimage anytime and anyplace: past, present or future. Let’s start with pilgrimages to the past.

Our past experiences remain available to us through our memories.  Although memories are not usually perfect recordings of the event, our own imagination and the perspective of time can remake an experience in the past into a meaningful experience in the present.  For example, I bet you could walk around your childhood home in your mind or visit your grandparents house with a full sensory experience.

I can feel myself walk up my grandparent’s sidewalk on to their back porch and see the details of my grandfather’s shaving kit on the porch sink and hear the door slam shut behind me.  Now I can go into the tiny kitchen and smell the fried chicken and open the cupboard where my grandmother kept Juicy Fruit gum. I continue on into the living room where my grandmother sits in her pink velveteen chair and I sit down by her feet and watch the nightly news as my grandfather sleeps on his green couch beside us.  These memories are so vivid forty-five years later.  I can remember those ordinary moments of my childhood and re-imagine them as the cherished experiences of my personal story.  What childhood experience joyful or difficult are part of your personal history?  Can you pilgrimage to these sentinel moments and greet them, thank them for participating in your life?

Our senses make these memories come alive.  Our bodies remember our lives through the senses and we can use these memories to travel to the past and remember our lives in detail. Last year, I was at a concert listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and I was unexpectedly back in my childhood home with my family by the fire listening to this monumental music on a scratchy record.  I was surprised by the vividness of the memory and realized how this calm family experience was so important to my introverted soul.  In the summer, the smell of warm pine trees takes me back to a summer vacation in Estes Park Colorado. The taste of raspberries are the reminder happy moments of summertime in Minnesota.

As well as cherished memories of our childhood, think about pilgrimages you have taken in the past.  Think about how they have affected your life now many years later for we need a lifetime to process these profound moments.  During a conversation with a fellow plane passenger, I asked her if she had a special trip that she could now see was a pilgrimage.  She recounted going to Brazil with a friend, and as part the tour, the group held a ceremony by the ocean to honor her ancestors that had crossed the ocean on slave ships. She teared up thinking about how meaningful that moment was for her.  She now remembers that trip as a powerful and life-changing pilgrimage, not just a casual trip with a friend.  Sometimes our most powerful experiences come not from intention but from the unexpected.  Often, we can’t see this until many years or decades later.  Go back through your photos and find a trip that was meaningful and take the time to remember. Maybe make a photo album of that trip or get out mementos and build a little shrine to that experience that changed you.  While we experience this moment of “global time-out” we gain the space to experience time differently and meld past and present together.

 

 

Teotihuacan

One of the wonderful things about having grown children is how they expand my life through their adventures and accomplishments.  It almost makes up for them leaving me with an empty nest-not quite but almost. In 2018 Alexandra and a friend climbed the tallest mountain in Mexico, Pico de Orizaba (18,491 ft). She finished out her vacation at Teotihuacan, a place that had been calling me for over ten years. Since she didn’t summit the first time, she wanted another attempt, I wanted to meet her in Teotihuacan so we made plans for the whole family to go to Mexico City for Thanksgiving.

Teotihuacan is just 25 or so miles northeast of Mexico City and at the top of my must-see list. This enormous archeological site has three main pyramids along with dozens of smaller structures all along the 1.5-mile Avenue of the Dead. This enormous Mesoamerican city was constructed over 2000 years ago but not much is known about the original builders. The Aztecs later moved in and named it Teotihuacan, “place where gods are born”.  The Pyramid of the Sun is the third tallest pyramid in the world and the equally impressive Pyramid of the Moon is surrounded by platforms and smaller pyramids.  At the far end of the Avenue of the Dead is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. We stayed in a charming hotel that was on the archaeological site where The Pyramid of the Sun was my constant reminder I was on sacred ground.

The first morning we rose early to have our first full experience of Teotihuacan, floating gently, silently over the pyramids in a hot air balloon bathed in the early morning light. The terrain and gentle steady winds make it an ideal place for hot-air balloons. I can’t think of a more magical way to experience this magnificent place. This was my first balloon ride and I was ready for the adventure. Over the course of about a half hour, twenty colorful balloons launched into the pink haze of sunrise to drifted over the Pyramid of the Sun.  Silently, the balloon’s shadow crossed over the ancient stones and down the Avenue of the Dead.  This eagle-eye’s view of the entire site, well before the day’s visitors, was a gift from the gods. There I was, floating above this ancient world that was still so powerful that the awe of the gods was palpable.  We continued to float over the town for another hour, past the churches and schools, until we were expertly landed in a nearby field. After a traditional champagne toast and hearty buffet breakfast we had a nap before heading to climb the pyramids.

I planned two full days at Teotihuacan and was glad not to be rushed by just a day trip. After lunch, we set out from our hotel for the 15-minute walk to the main entrance. I suggested we walk all the way to the Pyramid of the Moon and then slowly make our way back. The Avenue of the Dead goes up and down stairs, in and out of what remains of the glories of this impressive city. We took our time to enjoy the walk while avoiding the endless sellers of puma calls and woven blankets.  Lots of school groups were easily absorbed in the vastness of the complex and we felt we had the place mostly to ourselves.  A climb to the top of the platform of the Pyramid of the Moon was first on the agenda.  It wasn’t a long or hard climb, but the altitude (7000 ft) made me a bit winded but the view was worth the effort. Hot and thirsty, we wandered back to the hotel to sit by the pool and were surprised by Alexandra’s early arrival.  She realized she was not up to the intensity of the summit and so just enjoyed the climb and extra time with her family.

After breakfast the next day, all four of us headed to the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. We wanted to beat the heat and visit what we saved from the day before.  Hamilton climbed the Pyramid of the Sun while I sat nearby listening to music and soaking in the sun on Thanksgiving Day. I was so thankful to be with my family and visit this remarkable and sacred place. Hamilton and I visited the museum and were impressed by the pottery and sculptures that had once decorated the pyramids.  In the heat of the afternoon, Hamilton read, and the ladies indulged in massages but our time a Teotihuacan had one more delight.

The glories of the ancient world collided with the wonders of the modern world with a Sound and Light show on the Pyramid of the Sun. As we walked into the darkened site we were treated to the crescent moon and sparkling Venus, a celestial light show.  The show first started with a walk up the Avenue of the Dead toward the Pyramid of the Moon beautifully illuminated with changing colors. Without the distractions in the daylight, I became part of the site and felt transported by the experience. We each had a smartphone that gave a detailed history and showed what the site looked like throughout history.  Next, we sat on cushions in front of the Pyramid to the Sun. Thanks to virtual reality I was able to glimpse into a probable past of the history of Teotihuacan. For a brief time, this great pyramid was once again decorated with color and sculptures to the great gods. All too soon, the lights faded, and the pyramids receded back to their stony silence. But, even though the ages have taken their toll and our view of the gods have evolved, this magnificent place still holds the power to transform and remains a place where “man became gods”.

Pyramid of the Moon

 

 

 

Frost Flowers and Books

Frost Flower January 21, 2020

January in Tennessee is chilly, wet, and calm after the delights of the holiday season. The decorations are put back in the basement, rooms are tidied, and I turn my attention to some neglected projects around the house. I hate to see the glitter of Christmas fade but I also enjoy the stillness of January and a return to quiet mornings and simple food.  Tennessee winters are wet and gray with the occasional “shirt-sleeve” day alternating with a cold snap that might bring a dusting of snow. Last year, on her daily walk, Caroline noticed some Styrofoam peanuts on the ground but on closer investigation it turned out to be frost flowers. This phenomenon happens in very specific winter weather conditions where freezing air and warm wet ground forces sap to expand rapidly and extrude out of thin cracks on the stems of specific plants (ironweed). This sap freezes on contact with the air and forms beautiful swirls around the stem. The latest deep freeze produced a “super bloom” of frost flowers along the dirt road on the farm.  We bundled up to enjoy dozens of these beautiful flowers as they don’t last long once the air gets above freezing. I’m always amazed at the beauty every season offers.

January is also a great time to talk, think and write about books. Recently I was at the post office getting yet another book delivery. When the postman commented on the number of book shaped packages in our mail, I had to confess that we have a book problem in our house. We don’t just have one library but “his” and “her” libraries that dominate several rooms and overflow into every other room of the house. It is a problem that we have no intention of fixing. So, I wanted to talk about a few books I really loved this past year.

I didn’t finish school until September of last year so much of my reading was academic and often difficult but I grew a new vocabulary that has opened my reading world.  I enjoyed Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story by Jody Gentian Bower. This lovely and very readable book looks at the heroine’s journey in classic literature as a template for women’s empowerment and how it is very different from the classic male hero’s journey. Women’s lives aren’t just a version of men’s but fundamentally different in their needs for finding authentic and fulfilled lives. This book is based on Jungian psychology but fully explains the ideas in a way that is understandable and helpful.

After two years of academic writing I needed to mentally shift back to my more personal style.  I took several months off any kind of writing to take a big break and just settle into life without deadlines and word counts. The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft and Creativity by Louise DeSalvo was exactly the right book at the right time. I savored every chapter by slowly reading two of the short chapters every day. Louise gently guided me though the difficulties and joys of the writing life. I needed her encouragement to let me know I’m not alone in the solitary act of writing.

Because I can’t house all the books I want to read and I like a variety of books when I travel, I keep my Kindle app full of easy reading material and take advantage of the free Amazon Prime e-books and magazines. I particularly liked Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence by Anne D. LeClaire.  This was another book in which I slowly savored every word.  For many years, Anne would take two days a month to be in silence.  She chronicles the difficulties, joys and changes from her silence practice. I also enjoy a lot of silence and although I don’t have specific parameters, I try to spend time with just the bird songs and rustle of trees as often as I can.  Silence is soothing in our noisy, overstimulated world and this book quiets the over-connected soul.

August 2019 was a difficult confluence of final exams and health challenges for my elderly mother. I was constantly stressed about one or the other which, of course, gave me a terrible flare-up of TMJ (jaw pain), something I have had trouble with for several years.  The pain is cyclical but, when I’m in the middle of an episode, it is miserable and exhausting.  I do seek treatment but I needed to really get to the root of my particular problem so I ordered every book on the subject I could find. Help came from Taking Control of TMJ by Robert O. Uppgaard. I literally had forgotten the correct placement of my jaws because I was compensating for the pain and grimacing.  Just the simple readjustment of my position- plus being aware I was clinching from stress- helped me relax and start to find some relief.  It has taken several months but I’m much better now.  Thank-you Dr. Uppgarrd.

For some reason, I’m just not a novel reader. I wish I was, but I just can’t keep characters straight. Fortunately, I enjoy listening to novels which helps me overcome my name deficiency problems. During a drive to Florida, putting up Christmas trees and making dinner, I listened to Circe by Madeline Miller. This beautiful re-imagining of the story of the Greek goddess Circe brings the Greek myths to life in a new and fresh version. I just love Greek mythology  (or any mythology for that matter).

Other books I’ve really enjoyed:

Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole

Betty Crocker’s Lost Recipes (vintage recipes I loved as a child, yum!)

Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter

How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency by Akiko Busch

Digital Minimalism and Deep Work by Cal Newport

Bonus:  Three books for book lovers.

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel.  Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Nancy Goldstone. Howard’s End in on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill