I Wrote a Book

 

I wrote a book!  Pilgrimage: A Modern Seeker’s Guide was launched on May 18 and is now available on Amazon. Over the last 5 years I’ve written about my adventures traveling in the world and at home in my everyday life. This is a guide book to help you find your own pilgrimage in the world and the path to your heart.

The first part is a guide for the physical journey, either around the world or close to home. I answer the questions of why take a pilgrimage and what is a sacred site. Then I created a step by step guide to help you take a pilgrimage from the first whisperings of a Call, preparing, the journey and integration of your experience into your life.

The second half of the book is 40 days of reflections to help find meaning in your journey and discovering your authentic self. Each day is written to take you into your heart and then unfold your new experiences and knowledge to bring you to a new understanding of yourself and the world.

This small book is an accessible and practical guide to make your journey a discovery of our beautiful world and yourself.

You can find my book here:  www.amazon.com

And here:  http://www.audreypress.com

I would love for you to write an Amazon review to help others find my book.

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photo by C. Savage

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Taipei, Taiwan

Sometimes the Call to a pilgrimage has nothing to do with a travel bucket list but is instead an opportunity too good to pass up. The unexpected destination with no personal agenda can turn into an experience of great delight. It is just such a Call that sent me to Taiwan in January. Eighteen months ago my dearest friend since 4th grade, Melynie and her family moved to Taiwan to teach English and business at a small private academy in central Taiwan. Melynie has an adventuresome spirit and an intense wanderlust. Her husband spent his teenage years in Uganda. The ex-pat life was calling and they had the perfect temperaments and life situation to accept the challenge.

Since I was going to be in California in February why not just swing by Taiwan first—much closer and cheaper ($500) than from Tennessee and Melynie had time off for Chinese New Year. I loved Thailand and Cambodia so much last year that I will take any excuse to go back to Asia.

So after 4 movies, 3 marginal meals and a sleeping pill, I landed in Taipei. Melynie met me at the airport and we took the metro to the central station where I had booked an adjacent hotel (Caesar Park Taipei). I was tired but there was lots of catching up chatter before the lost night caught up with me. When we are together we are school girls again remembering happy times and beloved family and friends.

Taiwan doesn’t have a Great Wall or Taj Mahal, which keeps it off of most tourism lists. This is unfortunate for Taiwan but a delight for me. There was no lack of subtle and not so subtle delights without the crush of tourists which meant I had a very authentic experience instead of pre-package agenda for tourists. Taiwan has worked hard to include signage in English for all transportation and popular sites which made getting around on our own very manageable with my non-existent Mandarin. Taiwan is prosperous, very tidy, organized and friendly. There are lines taped on the floor in front of the metro doors so travelers will lineup in an orderly manor to let passengers leave the train first before loading into the immaculate and quiet trains. In short, Taiwan is easy to love but at the same time exotic and foreign.

The first day we took a train north to Jiufen and the coast and enjoyed a golden waterfall colored by the local gold mine and sandstone formations worn beautiful by the sea. Of course shopping and lunch are high on the agenda and the traditional market was delightful. The tiny shops have awnings over the narrow street keeping most of the frequent rains off the shoppers. Trinket shops and food stalls alternate along the way. I spent time writing with a traditional hair brush, choosing a stamp for my name and finding painted cats for gifts. Vegetarian Melynie and former-vegetarian me, made sure we chose our food carefully: fresh dumplings, fried rice and tofu were perfectly identifiable. Some mochi covered strawberries and ice cream wrapped in peanuts and crepes made a perfect dessert.

 

The next stop was Shinfen to launch traditional paper lanterns. This little town has built an industry around these rice paper and bamboo hot air balloons. We choose the color of our balloon to correspond with our wish for the New Year and then wrote these wishes on each of the four sides. The vendor wrapped the metal ties at the bottom with fuel soaked paper. He lit the paper as we held the sides. Quickly the balloon left our grasp and gently floated to the gods along with dozens of other balloons. A beautiful sight.

Back in Taipei we visited the largest night market, Shinlin, for more shopping and supper. Amongst the whole roasted pig, octopus tentcles on a stick, mystery meat sausages and “eight clawed octopus burned”, we found waffles with crème filling and delicious grilled cheese sandwiches which suited our less adventurous tastes just fine.

The second day we spent time seeing Taipei. First we went to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial to see the changing of the guards. This big complex has two large auditoriums and a memorial surrounded by traditional gardens. Chaing Kai-shek is the founder of modern democratic Taiwan and is honored with a large statue reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Every hour on the hour is an elaborately choreographed changing of the guard. Then the two new guards stand perfectly still for an hour until the next ceremony. Very impressive. We visited an art exhibit and signed our names to the guest book which looked so out of place amongst the graceful characters of the Chinese signatures.

The next stop was to the 8th tallest building in the world, Taipei 101. The architecture is meant to look like growing bamboo and has an elaborate fireworks display every New Year’s Eve. The first five floors have an extensive food court and upscale mall. But the main attraction for me was the world’s fasted elevator—84 floors in 37 seconds—3000 ft per minute. The return ride takes 45 seconds. That was fun! The observation deck theoretically has stunning views but that day I got to see the inside of a cloud instead. The inner workings of the tower are also on display—a large damper to offset the sway of the building. By then it was lunch time and of course I was ready for more amazing fresh dumplings. We visited a couple of temples but the best temples were yet to come. It was time to head to Melynie’s home two hours south of Taipei so we boarded the high speed train (280 km per hour) and then a local bus and arrived in time for dinner with her family.

Chickadee

Photo by Christopher L. Wood

Every morning I look out my kitchen window into my herb garden where I have my bird feeders and watch my darling birds flit and land, throw seeds on the ground and have little spats. Nothing could make me happier for in my world my birds, specifically chickadees, are “A” list celebraties. Forget seeing humans parade on a red carpet, it is these adorable birds that turn me into a screaming adolescent girl– “OMG there is a chickadee.”

Just like the opossum, I have always had the chickadee as a totem animal. There are so many characteristics of animals that play out in our lives and its common to have more than one totem animal. But over the years chickadees and opossums have played a prominent role in the lore of my life. According to Animal-Speak by Ted Andrews, the bible of animal totem information, the black cap of the chickadees indicates the depths of the mysteries of the mind and the search for Truth. There are seven types of chickadees that indicate the alignment with the seven chakras, seven stages of alchemy and ancient mysteries. All of that wrapped up in this charming little bird that demonstrates that Truth doesn’t always have to be hard but sometime comes to bring joy and cheer to life. I’m all for that.

The other day I saw a little post on Facebook that brings new meaning to the chickadee totem. According to Audubon News, chickadees have the remarkable capacity to swap old brain cells for new ones allowing them to keep track of the hundreds of new places they store seeds. Sign me up chickadees! I want some of that. As I head deeper into the second half of life I’m taking on chickadee medicine as I am actively swapping old brain cells for new and building new neuron paths. Remember last year I went to the Joseph Campbell Library in California? Well on that fateful day I picked up a catalog of degrees offered a Pacifica Graduate Institute. One program caught my eye and wouldn’t leave me alone, Depth Psychology: Jungian and Archetypal Studies. I tried to resist with lots of good reasons including a previous vow never to go back to school. But it seemed to be the next step on my pilgrim’s path—the road deep into the infinite universe of the mind and the mysteries of life. I started classes last month and although a challenge, it is a good challenge and with the help of my chickadee pals I’m going to grow some new paths into the mysteries of the mind. Thanks for being my adorable companions on this magical journey.

This month marks my 5th blogaversary! When I tentatively pushed that ‘publish’ button that day I had no idea where my pilgrim’s path would take me but it sure wasn’t across a country or to graduate school. But there you have it. Tell the universe “I’ll go” and you never know where you will be headed next but it will be well worth the journey.

Chickadee World

Fairies

The second thread of my journey was to enter the magical world of the fairies. Nature spirits are integral to the stories and land of enchanted Scotland. It doesn’t take much imagination to see and feel the magic all around. The landscape lends itself to the dream state and entry to other worlds. The pristine beauty of the land with streams through yellow-flower meadows, ancient stone walls, ferns and dark hemlock forests is the backdrop for our fairy tales, our childhood stories come to life. So let me tell you some tales and visit the places of our dreams.

The first visit to the land of the fairies began my second day in Scotland. I arrived early to get over jet lag and visit some long lost friends in the Borderlands just south of Edinburgh. In this part of Scotland is the location for the wonderful tale of Thomas the Rhymer. Thomas was a 13th century laird who went with the Queen of Faeries to her world for 7 years. When he returned he had the gift of prophecy and it is said that he eventually left again with the Queen and was never heard from again. So off I went to find the stone that marked his encounter with the Queen. Up a narrow road near the town of Melrose, famous for its ruined Abbey, is a small marker with the story. Just a bit further on foot is the stone where Thomas first encountered the Queen of the Faeries and a nearby marker for the place where Thomas gave his prophesies. If only I could find this same magic and meet the Queen. I looked out over the lovely landscape and knew the fairy world was very close. I had tea just down the road by the last bit of Thomas’ house—the Rhymer Tower. Sir Walter Scott elaborated on this story in poem and Washington Irving used Thomas’ tale to inspire his story of Rip Van Winkle.

Marker for Thomas’ encounter with the Faerie Queen

13th century Rhymer Tower

My next encounter with the fairy worlds of Scotland was a few days later at Blair Castle just north of Edinburgh in Perthshire. This beautiful white castle was first started in 1269 and has over the centuries become an iconic part of Highland landscape and culture. In fact the day I was there the Atholl clan was having their annual highland games which meant lots of handsome men in kilts, a joy not lost on a bus full of women. Several centuries ago the nature spirits of the land came to the Atholl brothers and requested that they plant trees. So the brothers not only planted trees all over their extensive lands but planted a forest of exotic trees next to the castle. Oh My!!! This enchanted forest of giants was alive and powerful. When I entered their world I left my own and walked into another realm. The sound, feel, smell, sight of these beings was overwhelming. I wandered down the path amongst ancient trees so much taller than in the part of the world where I live. The cool breeze whispering in the trees perfectly conveyed the songs of happy birds mixed with the melody of the babbling brook. I really need some new words—magic and enchantment just aren’t good enough anymore. Definitely on the “return to soon” list. Oh and there is also a walled garden with ponds and bridges, nesting swans and cygnets—-ahhhh.

 

The fairy world reigns supreme on the Isle of Skye. I was still in total bliss from my time at Callanish when I took the ferry to the Isle of Skye and soon arrived at the Faerie Glen. The land contours form a miniature world of green mounds, tiny lake and low stone walls. If you can’t find your way to the nether world here you haven’t tried. I followed a mother sheep and her twins over the top of a small hill down to a saddle where I found an enchanted playground. Humans have built cairns and labyrinths into the landscape to form an interactive garden with nature spirits. Time stood still as I walked a labyrinth on the side of the hill and added a stone to a cairn. I chased lambs and just stood in awe of the subtle beauty of the green grass covering gentle hills rolling down to a pristine lake. I left fulfilled and joyful for my time in the land of the Faerie Glen.

Just a bit farther down the road on Skye is Dunvegan Castle, the 13th century home of the McLeod clan. Around 1500, a Fairy Tower was added to look over the inlet of Loch Dunvegan and the small islands with seal colonies. On the day I was there the sun was shining and the islands were fully illuminated with the warm, bright light. I kept looking out the windows of the castle to the seal islands and thought how lucky I was to be there at that particular moment, to be part of this history and see what the lairds saw for centuries. On the wall in the castle is The Fairy Flag, a mysterious flag of silk that was said to originally to be a gift from the fairies to guard the infant children of the castle. The fairy flag is said to lose its powers if unfurled more than three times, so far it has been used twice to enlist the fairy world to save the castle. I wandered the informal gardens that were in full bloom. The enchanted land has a waterfall and paths leading down to the loch where you can get a boat to go see the seals close up.

Looking out to the seal islands from Dunvegan Castle

After we left Dunvegan Castle we made one final fairy stop at the Fairy Bridge where often a phantom piper can be heard playing mournful tunes. I walked down the side of the bridge to the little stream the trickled through flower meadow and over small rocks. It didn’t take any imagination to see where fairies could hide along the soft bank. I didn’t cross the bridge because there is a chance you can enter the realm of the fairies and I was on my way to the Holy Isle of Iona and I had things to do—maybe next time.

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

Graduation

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

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

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

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

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

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PhysCon 2016

Abbey of Gethsemani

Trappist, KY

A few weeks ago Hamilton set out early in the morning to visit friends in Gravel Switch, Kentucky, to do whatever grown men do that is legal and moral. I find it usually involves metal objects that have letters and numbers instead of names and is in a language totally unrecognizable in my world. But that morning I decided tag along because the next stop on my sacred tour of rural America was just 45 minutes up the road in Trappist, Kentucky, just south of Bardstown. We met up with another couple outside of Danville, putting the men in one car and the ladies in another to go on our separate adventures. Barbara is a native of the area but hadn’t been to Trappist in many years. So we headed down the empty, winding roads through the beautiful back country of central Kentucky.

Tucked into a corner of the rolling country side is a Trappist monastery, Abbey of Gethemani, officially known as Cistercians. I don’t know about you but rural Kentucky is not the place I would go looking for monks; Pentecostals, tiny non-denominational churches, maybe even snake handlers but not Cistercian Monks who live in silence and prayer. Apparently Bardstown was settled by Catholics in 1808 in a very non-Catholic region of the world. Seeing as how the Catholics don’t have a ban on alcohol like the other local Protestant religions, Bardstown became the seat of the bourbon industry so the local landscape has enclaves of bourbon warehouses next to a half a dozen local distilleries. It is a strange but charming combination of religion, ‘demon rum’ and southern history with My Old Kentucky Home presiding over it all.

The Abbey of Gethsemani was established in 1848 and on a cold day in late December the monks began singing the Liturgy of the Hours seven times a day and haven’t stopped since, 168 years of devotion to prayers for the world without ceasing. The prayers start at 3:15 am with Vigils and continue at intervals throughout the day until Compline at 7:30 pm. In the morning between prayers the monks work. In the past there was farming but now they produce bourbon fudge and fruitcakes to support the monastery. In the afternoon, there is time for reading, prayer and contemplation. Although they are not vowed to silence, silence is part of their way of living.

I first heard of the Abbey of Gethsemani many years ago because there is a large guest house open to anyone of all faiths for silent retreats. The simple and tidy rooms are attached to the church. There is a library and extensive grounds for long walks. There are no classes or events, just time and space to go on an inner journey of silence and healing on this holy ground devoted to prayer.

I arrived about 10, on an overcast and very humid August day. I spent sometime in the welcome center where there is a movie that highlights the history and an average day at Gethsemani. Next door is a lovely gift store with local pottery, spiritual books, handicrafts from other monasteries and of course the bourbon fudge and bourbon fruitcake made on the grounds. I bought a sample of each to bring home. Nothing makes me happier the sugar blessed by monks.

The most important part of the visit was at 12:15, Sext, the prayers just before lunch. I sat outside under the trees waiting for the appointed time, the breeze helping with the humidity a bit. The peacefulness of the land and nearby cemetery gave me time and space to find my own inner quiet. Visitors are allowed at any of the services but must sit in the narthex under a small balcony. There is a barrier and then the long thin modern sanctuary stretches out to a distant altar. The bell tolled and about three dozen monks started to enter one by one from several doors and took their appointed places. They each wore a long white tunic with a brown scapular cinched at the waist with a brown belt except the three novices who had white scapulars. Under the narrow stained glass windows, they sat in the choir divided in two by the aisle facing each other with a small organ in the middle of the right wall.

The bell tolled again and the organ played and the monks began their prayers. Nothing was spoken only sung and the words of those noon prayers echoed that day as they had over 60,000 times since the monastery opened so long ago. About 20 minutes later, the prayers were finished and the bell tolled again and the monks filed out to their next duty. The other 20 or so visitors quietly left to go back to their own prayers and retreat. No one wanted to break the beautiful silence of that moment. As I walked back to my car in the heat of the noonday, I felt blessed by those beautiful prayers and so thankful that these men had devoted their lives to God and for the blessing of all the world.

http://www.monks.org