Callanish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tree shaped by the stone circle–Kilmartin

The Snow Leopard

photo by Bernard Landgraf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wabi Sabi

My Wabi Sabi laundry room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of my favorite books on Wabi Sabi

Living Wabi Sabi by Taro Gold

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

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

by Richard R Powell

Bird plates used for Easter dinner.

Bayon Temple, Cambodia

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cairns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All photos by D Beals  www.davidbealsphotography.com

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

Vistadome Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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