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.

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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

The Huntington

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I had visited Southern California once as a teenager and a few times in my early 20’s but it really wasn’t a place that called me. It is too populated and large and the glamour of Hollywood really wasn’t my thing. But now that Alexandra lives in Santa Monica, trips to California will be a regular part of my life. When I mentioned I was on my way to LA, everyone asked if I was going to Disney or Universal, I’m saving those places to enjoy when I have grandchildren but that is many years from now, I’d say around 2032. So in the meantime, I went searching for a place to feed my soul now. I’m happy to say I found a little piece of heaven on earth in the middle of the enormous urban sprawl.

Huntington Gardens and Library combines all my favorite things in one spectacularly magical place: extensive gardens, huge library, art galleries and a beautiful mansion. Really, everything in one amazing package. It was a clear, cool day in March and my precious girl was with me, the day was going to be perfect.

We started along the path and meandered by the buildings to the Shakespeare garden that was in full bloom with purple and white delphiniums. The tall flowers had every conceivable version of purple, lavender and white with a touch of blue. Alexandra’s favorite part was a vast lawn with tall classical statues lining the edges with a final view of the stunning mountains.

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Next to the delphiniums was the rose garden in full bloom, with its intoxicating smell. The large beds featuring hundreds of different breeds of roses with their fun names and unique colors, every color of the rainbow was there and some colors I didn’t know existed.

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We passed through the arches of climbing roses into the next level of heaven, the Japanese garden. The path wound past the Spirit House with a big bell and down into a small koi pond with a classic Japanese curved bridge. We walked up to the walled garden containing dozens of bonsai, miniature trees I had no idea could be miniaturized. The path lead to the Chinese garden with pagodas surrounding a peaceful lake.

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Our hearts and minds were full but it was lunch time and we wanted to see the library rested and fueled up. The library has a large room filled with rare manuscripts, from a Gutenberg Bible and Chaucer to Thoreau and Twain. It is so exciting to see the writing of people who changed the world with their words, ideas and stories.

The large mansion has an extensive European art collection. The most famous paintings are Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Lawrence’s Pinkie. These large paintings are on either end of a gallery of other large portraits, each one a masterpiece. On to the next building with the American art. I loved the Mary Cassatt of the mother and rosy-cheeked daughter cuddling on the bed, and the Hopper of the sailboat peacefully sailing along the shore.

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Alexandra and I had the time and energy for one more garden, so off to the desert garden, a world we had never entered before. We didn’t know if we were on another planet or had entered a Dr. Seuss book. The plants had unique shapes, colors and patterns, none of the leafy, flowery abundance of our world but a strange beauty of odd confined shapes and prickles. A few acres of this alien world satisfied our curiosity and we headed to the ice cream shop to share a gelato

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I plan on many more visits to the Huntington Gardens, each trip will have new things to see and memories to enjoy, but most of all, I will be with my precious girl soaking up the beauty of our amazing world full of flowers, trees, art and words.

http://www.huntington.org

Wildflowers

This is a guest post by my friend Valarie Budayr at http://www.jumpintoabook.com and http://www.audreypress.com , author of A Year in the Secret Garden The Fox Diaries and The Ultimate Guide to Charlie and the Chocolate Factor.  Last week we took a hike together and I wanted to share with you our wildflower pilgrimage close to home.

We took a little adventure a couple of days ago and discovered a Secret Garden right in the middle of the forest. We were hiking in the Smoky Mountains, everyone around here knows that the wildflowers bloom over a few weeks and many of us get out to see the forest and mountain sides bloom out in color.

We took a side path and walked ourselves into an ancient moss covered forest. Surrounded completely by mountains we walked deep into the enclosed valley to discover the most enchanted vision I’ve ever seen in nature.

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The forest floor was completely covered in blooming phlox, may apples and another little tiny white flower I don’t know the name of. Moss one inch thick covered fallen trees and branches as well as the trunks of living trees.

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We were all alone here in this ancient wood. The only sounds were that of a water fall off in the distance, the cacophony of birds and the buzzing of bees.

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One of the most important things missing from these photos is the smell. I’ve never smelled anything as this blooming forest. It made us heady with delight. We spent over an hour in this forest soaking it all in. Soon other wildflower enthusiasts joined us and it was nice to meet people who shared in this moment of Secret Garden bliss.

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I learned a big lesson on this hike, that a Secret Garden doesn’t have to be behind a wall locked away with a key but can be found in our daily wanderings.

This week I challenge you to find a secret garden near you. It might be behind a wall, it might be under a big tree, it might be in the forest near your home, or behind a log that’s drifted in from the ocean. Wherever it is, go and find it! Cherish those hidden moments in nature’s Secret Gardens!

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Egypt in The Big Apple

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Blue Lotus Pond at The Frick Collection

New York City was my final destination on my mother/daughters odyssey trip in August.  Alexandra is spending this semester studying and interning in Manhattan sponsored by her college.   So with our loaded van, I braved New York traffic.   As beautiful as I found Washington, DC, I found NYC overwhelming.   I had been there briefly a few times but always with my sister.  This time I was on my own to negotiate such an intense city.

We got through the Lincoln Tunnel and found a parking place for the weekend.  My sister offered me her adorable apartment in Chelsea on a charming street.   I managed to get our luggage to the fifth floor in the tiny elevator.  All is so different from my small town life where there is no traffic and ample parking.

Moving day was four days away so we had time for some sightseeing.  I don’t have a big agenda for NYC, I’m not a shopper and a lot of the restaurants and theaters are above my budget.    It is noisy, crowded, enormous and not particularly pretty.    So I went in search of things I love and I found one of my greatest loves in The Big Apple;   Egypt.

The first place I found Egypt was in the Frick Collection, in a spectacular home on 5th Ave which houses a world class art collection.  Just recently, I learned about Henry Frick from watching “The Men Who Built America”.  Frick made his fortune in the steel industry at the great expense of the workers.   Much hated in Pittsburg, he went to New York to spend his money on art and redeem his reputation.   I enjoyed the beautiful rooms and masterpieces but my time with Egypt came at the end when I was leaving.  Hidden in a closed off courtyard were the Blue Lotus which I’ve written about before.   They were essential to the Egyptian religion but have been lost to Egypt for 2000 years.   I gasped when I saw my beautiful flower friends peacefully floating in the pond.

The next day Alexandra and I headed to our most anticipated place in NYC, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.    She wanted to see her all time favorite painting by Ingres and I wanted to see the Temple.   In a large glass room is a small Egyptian temple rescued from being flooded by the Aswan Dam.   On the far wall are four Sekhmet statues from the Temple of Mut.   I could sit there all day by this small but powerful piece of Ancient Egypt.   There is also a room of statues of Queen Hatshepsut from Deir el-Bahari, whose successors tried to wipe her from history but where she has an honored place.     I won’t make it to Egypt this year but I got my Egypt fix.

Uninitiated in the mysteries of street parking in New York, I parked in an unmarked no parking zone.  But before going to post bond on my car at the police impound lot, I went to see Cleopatra’s Needle, an obelisk from Heliopolis.  Cleopatra’s Needle is one of three related obelisks found outside of Egypt.  One of the other two is in London near Victoria Embankment Gardens and another at Paris’ Place de la Concorde and now I have seen all three.   Much older than Queen Cleopatra, the obelisk is tucked away behind The Met in Central Park.   The inscriptions have been mostly worn away after 5000 years but there is an interpretation on the railings surrounding it.    I wanted to jump the railings and touch it but with my car already on the wrong side of the law, I decided I had better behave.  So instead I just happily sat in the shadow of this magnificent piece of Egypt.

So like me, if you get tired of the intensities of modern life and cities,  just find a piece of Ancient Egypt and sit and soak up the wisdom of this special land.   And please say a prayer for modern Egypt that it will find peace once again and that the wonders of Ancient Egypt will be secure and the people will be happy and free.

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Smelling the Blue Lotus      Sekhmet Statues from the Temple of Mut

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The Temple of Dendur       Cleopatra’s Needle, Central Park

Peru

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Something strange happen when I become involved with Egypt, Peru started to call me too. How could a country on the other side of the world have anything to do with Egypt? I’m not the only one that gets called to these two totally different places. There are many things about those two civilizations that are connected such as the megalithic building sites and their many Temples to the Sun.

I was excited to add South America to my bucket list and happily headed off to Peru with Amaru Li, a Peruvian Shaman and several of my friends who were with me in Egypt during the Revolution. Funny that this little group would go to Peru together but we were so bonded by our shared experiences in Egypt that it seemed natural, almost necessary, to meet up again on the other side of the world.

Just like my Egypt trips, everyday of the trip seemed to be a lifetime. Ollantaytombo, Sacsayhuaman, Caral, Machu Picchu, were some of the most awe-inspiring places I have ever been. I enjoyed the markets and brought home lots of treasures. I loved the children in traditional clothes with their baby llamas. I ate wonderful wood-oven pizza and traditional Peruvian food. We stayed in hotels that were better than anything I’m use to in the US.

I will always have the special memories of Machu Picchu on the Equinox but it was the seeming ordinary experiences that also enchanted me. On the train to Machu Picchu we made a short stop along side of the river. Out of nowhere a tiny old lady and young mother with a baby tied to her back came up beside the train waving bouquets of flowers for us to enjoy and in return asking for a few coins. We opened the windows and dropped coins to them, a happy exchange for the beauty of those flowers.

The evening before going to Machu Picchu we were just ordering our pizza and the electricity went out in the entire valley. The waiter calmly got out candles and the pizza soon arrived. As we walked back up the mountain to our hotel, the quiet and the sparkle of the candles in the restaurants and the intense stars over the ancient mountains was an experience that was magical and romantic. At the hotel desk we were handed candles and headed up to our rooms. No light pollution, no noise from televisions or generators, just the purity of that holy land. Still no electricity in the morning but hot coffee and eggs were waiting thanks to a gas stove. I carried that stillness all day as I explored Machu Picchu, absorbing every rock, plant and llama wandering that sacred mountain. The everyday world receded and only sparkling purity remained.

Two days later we were headed back to Cusco after dark. When we got to the highest point on the road and away from light pollution we stopped to see the stars. Being below the equator, this was a sky we were not familiar with. The Milky Way was a sparkling river through the sky and thanks to an Iphone app we could identify some of the most prominent stars in an ocean of stars on the thick dark velvet sky.

The extraordinary was mixed up with the ordinary and the ordinary combined with the extraordinary, making everything at every moment sacred.

Tours to Peru with Amaru Li   www.theshamanpath.com

Return of the Light

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Blue Lotus, Egypt, Winter Solstice 2012

What a wonderful day. This long anticipated date has arrived with new energies and new opportunities. My husband and I went to my favorite place to see the sunrise over the Great Smoky Mountains. The cloud cover was low and only a sliver of pink let us know that the sun was above the horizon, the layers of these ancient mountains barely visible.

The new Light of the solstice sun is connecting the sacred lands around the world, from my ancient mountains here in Tennessee to the Andes in Peru, Himalayans in Tibet, and Mt Sinai in Egypt, awakening the ancient wisdom of these places and our ancestors.

Today is a wonderful day because for the first time in 2000 years the sacred Blue Lotus has returned to Egypt, gently floating in sacred Nile water. In every temple are hieroglyphs of this magnificent ancient flower. The Blue Lotus is one of the missing keys to the spiritual knowledge of ancient Egypt. When the Greeks took over Egypt 2000 years ago they systematically destroyed the lotus, and the power of the Egyptian religion. Now the Blue Lotus is back hold the vibration of the new Light in the world.

It is a wonderful day for the Spirit of Osiris has returned to Egypt. I was with my beloved teacher Page on Wednesday and she said twenty years ago her spirit guide told her that the “Spirit of Osiris” would return. She expected it to be a man, maybe the new president but that doesn’t seem to be the case. As she was talking we both realized it was the Blue Lotus that holds the Spirit of Osiris, life, death, resurrection and re-membering. Osiris is about resurrection as Isis “re-membered” him by finding his body all over Egypt and putting him back together so they could create the golden child Horus.

At winter solstice we are celebrating the birth of the golden Christ Child. In a few months near the spring equinox we will be celebrating the resurrection of that same Golden Child. This theme of birth and resurrection is critical to the evolution of humanity returning to the Golden Age. The Blue Lotus holds this energy of birth and resurrection and remembering.

The people responsible for bringing the Blue Lotus back to Egypt have had their own experiences of birth, crucifixion and resurrection in the process of re-membering the energies of Egypt. Modern incarnations of the ancient priests and priestesses, they nurtured the Blue Lotus against great odds so the vibration can once again ring through the land. On this day the Sacred Blue Lotus sings “I am back in Egypt and I Remember”.

This is a very special and symbolic day on our planet. The Light has returned, and the Blue Lotus is once again singing the song of Love.

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Lotus Choir,  Winter Solstice 2012