fiction

I’ve been thinking about writing fiction.  I love a good story.

But so far, it’s just not happening.

It could be because I’m busy right now.                                                                            (Busy isn’t really the right word, but it will have to do.)

It could be because my head is full of the talk of my children, the planning of the next meal, the next row to hoe, the next place to move the goats, and so on.goat

It could be because my bar is set really really high, like up there with JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett. So I don’t have time to create an entire language or cosmology at the moment.

And it could be that reality is just so hard to beat.

It’s hard to be more tragic or comic, more kind or brutal, more magical or intense, than the world we live in right now.

Last weekend, I had some blessed moments sitting in the shade with friends, listening to stories from a recent trip to the Hawaiian Islands. It brought back a fantastic memory, as large as life. Like this…mountains

I had been in Tibet, in the winter. It was grueling to be there, in the dusty cold high elevation, and the work we were there to do was even harder than the climate.

My heart was turned inside out. The reality of the Chinese takeover is evident in the health of the Tibetan people. Their hearts are broken, their country is broken, and their bodies follow suit. Some genocides don’t happen all at once. But their beautiful spirit still shines through.  They wrapped me in their love, and outside the cities I was fed by the indomitable vastness of the land.  We drove half way across the province, down roads that seemed to barely exist on the edge of sheer plummets to beautiful hard valley floors. Icy switch backs that culminated in mountain passes, covered in prayer flags, with nothing to see but snow covered mountains, without end, amen. Icy rivers of green water, churning around dramatically shaped stones a the foot of the mountain.  We set up medical clinics in the villages we visited, screening for tuberculosis and rickets.  People walked for miles to come fetch the paper packet of pain killers that we could offer them. They gathered at the windows of whatever building we set up in, watching quiet, curious, hopeful.  By the time I left I was full to the brim with beauty, tragedy, and sweetness, and at the same time crushed by the feeling of being in a heavily occupied territory, the sense of surveillance, everywhere. It is difficult to explain how tangible that feeling was and the effect it has day after day. There are so many things that I learned to not say. So many things I knew no one could ever ask out loud – especially in the presence of the men in long dark coats who sat in the corner of every restaurant, not eating, but definitely listening.valley view

When our work session ended, I went to Nepal, where my soul breathed a little easier in the air of religious freedom and philosophical curiosity.  But I was not ready to return to the mainland US, and I knew it. So I took a flight to the Hawaiian Islands. I worked at a beautiful ginger farm on Molokai for a bit, which was perfect. Molokai is pretty much like being in another country. There were more people with brown skin than with white, and I had grown very comfortable with being a minority. But being young and still more than a little restless, I moved on to visit a friend on Kauai, the Garden Isle.

At first I thought I had made a grievous error. The privileged white kids (myself included) shunning their roots, living on the beach, trying to buck “the system” – it drove me nuts. But not nearly as nuts as the wealthy people in the huge SUVs on the manicured golf courses overlooking the ocean. Food that didn’t fall from a tree cost more money than I imagined food could ever cost. I was deep in culture shock.

Fortunately, my friend had enough experience with the island to set me on my way up the Kalalau Trail. I took a day pack and stayed for a week.

The trail itself is nothing short of breathtaking. I hiked alone, letting my thoughts wind away over the ocean or into the forest until I didn’t really need to think any more. It was enough to breathe, and walk. The few other hikers I met seemed to be content in their solitude as well. I basked in the warm wet sunlit air, so different from the cold, dry air of the Himalayas.

I slept the first night out on a high overlook. I was tired from the hike and went to sleep easily. I dreamed of the Chinese military, bombing those beautiful blue green purple mountains, the dust falling into the villages and rivers, the people scattering and mourning. When I woke I could still hear the bombs – they were the waves crashing on the cliffs below the campsite. I was so grateful to wake and feast my eyes on the beautiful view of the vast Pacific ocean.   A whale, headed north into the deep blue, breached, one, twice, seven times, on its way out of sight. I packed up and started back down the trail.

Rainbows spilled down the mountains into the ocean. The landscape changed and changed again. The hills became dry and open and the trail gravelly and rough. I began to feel as though I was on another planet. I began to wonder if the valley at the end of this trail was as green as my friend had promised.

But just over another rise, there it was. It was more than green.  Layers of trees in a lush living jungle tumbling down from the steep heights – a waterfall in the distance. Breathtaking. And still a ways off.

The trail had helped clear my head and heart. I felt good and ready for whatever was to come from being in this place.

At the end of the trail was the beginning of a more formalized campground. There was an unoccupied ranger’s hut and a helipad. There was another stunning beach and a small waterfall. There was a tree with a young man sitting underneath it. I knew where he was from. There was no mistake in my mind. I walked up to him, dusty and covered in sweat, fresh from the trail and fairly amazed at the sight of him. He looked up from his book, smiled, and extended his hand. He said, “Hello! My name is Ugyen Wangchuck, and I am from Bhutan.”people

It was as if the whole world just grabbed me in a hug. I had traveled out from the high mountains, a quarter of the way around the world to the blue ocean, to meet a citizen of the high mountains once again. It was as if the trail had been laid out before me and I had no idea I was following it. I couldn’t explain to Ugyen, but was so grateful to be his friend in what was surely just as strange and wonderful a place for him as it was for me.

If I was writing a piece of fiction about a young woman’s travels into the far-flung places in the world, could I have made that up?  Maybe. It’s a wonderful twist.  But I don’t know that I could have created the integrity of his innocence, his bright smile.  His gun-toting sponsor with the grand plan to bottle Bhutanese spring water and sell it to Americans?  Wow.  I don’t need to make it up, because it’s real.

I chatted with Ugyen and his friend under that tree for some leisurely moments before a kid in ragged cut offs ran by yelling something about rangers checking camping permits. My friend never told me anything about camping permits. I looked once more at the comfortable flat campsite by the beach, turned around, and headed for the woods.

I guess I’m still there.  Or here, rather, in these woods now, exploring this far-flung piece of our planet. When I can conceive a piece of fiction fine enough to make a parallel to this slice of reality, I’ll tell you all about it. kids

a hat story

Once upon a time, I visited the Roof of the World.  It was a long flight.  The airplane flew all the way up, then seemed to come only half way down, and there we were, in Lhasa.landscape

This time of year, I think about Tibet often.  It was this time of year, something like thirteen years ago, that I was there.  On years when it’s really balmy here I don’t remember so much, but when there are sustained cold snaps and dry snows, it all comes rushing back to me.

It is very cold and dry up there, just the opposite of my native land.  I was ill-prepared for the cold, and immediately began to observe the native methods of keeping warm.  First observation: almost everyone has something to wear on their heads, when the need arises.

notice the nice hat, and great boots, too.

notice the nice hat, and great boots, too.

I love hats.  I’ve worn many different kinds, literally and figuratively, in my life.  I enjoy the element of “dress up”, and since I have hair that flattens into nothing, I like hats that I can keep wearing for fun and good looks, too (to hide my hat-head).

Tibetan hats are diverse.  There are basic knit toques and scarf-like textiles, sometimes worn in an unusual way, just folded over and laid on the crown of the head.  And then there hats distinct to each region.  Walking around Lhasa, I saw so many shapes, sizes, and styles of hats.  It was mind boggling.  One day, a co-worker and I followed a man who had an entire fox skin wrapped around his head, just to get a better look.  It was a pretty unusual hat.  I wasn’t particularly interested in wearing a fox skin around my head, but I wanted to see how he had done it.  Before we knew it, there were a dozen tall Tibetan men, holding out fox skins in various stages of hat-readiness, for our perusal.  We maintained cordiality and quickly extracted ourselves from that alley of the market.12-12-~3

I had a good hat for that trip.  And I still wear it to this day.  It’s all wool and very colorful, but as I traveled and looked around, I found the native Tibetan hat that looked best for me.  Not too tall or stiff.  Practical and even versatile.  When the fur is turned down, it’s like a very warm sunbonnet.  I set my sights to buy one before I returned to the US. It took longer than I thought.

There are lots of shops in Lhasa.  Around the main drag of the old city there are an abundance of tailors making beautiful brocades, heavy coats, and chubas, fancy dress shops, and innumerable stalls and closets of everyday wares sold by Tibetans and Chinese merchants, all eager for your business.  I could find my hat NOWHERE.  Turns out, it comes from the wilds of Eastern Tibet, an area populated by folks who tend to be nomadic.  These folks don’t live in Lhasa.  They come once a year on pilgrimage and trade missions.  They don’t set up shop.

So, I needed a different plan, if I wanted my hat.  I couldn’t just shop for it.  Our work was nearly done, visas about to expire, and I didn’t have time to commission one from the tailor my boss liked.

Tibetans are, by and large, lovely, open, and expressive people.  I was pleasantly surprised by how many conversations I had with local folks without sharing much more than a couple words in a common tongue.  Of course, the peddlers in the market stalls tend to know a little more English than the average nomad.  I was going to have to strike up one of those more creative “conversations” to accomplish my goal.sweet little old woman to share a stroll with.  notice her fine hat...

sweet little old woman to share a stroll with. notice her fine hat…

Since I couldn’t buy one of these in a store, I had no idea how much to offer for one of these hats.  I hit the streets with a nice amount of cash in hand, looking for THE hat.  I was beginning to think that the entire population of Eastern Tibet had heard about some weather moving in and decided to head for home when I saw a nomadic woman shopping for shoes with her family at a Chinese stall just beyond the Barkhor Square.  She was wearing one of the hats.  I approached her, greeted her politely, and tried to indicate with hand motions and frequent references to the cash in my fingers, that I would like to trade the cash for her hat.  Evidently, I wasn’t doing a very good job, because she was just staring at me with a perplexed look.  She seemed to wonder what was wrong with this funny white girl who kept waving money around.

The man trying to sell her shoes understood what I was up to and was glad to help.  He explained to her, with great volume and gesticulation, that I wanted to give her money for her hat.  She looked at the cash in my hand, gasped, laughed, and fairly threw her hat at me.  She took the money and we bowed to each other, giggling.  I wore the hat for her, just for a moment, and then we were both on our way.

My co-workers were quick to point out that I could easily add all kinds of new and strange fauna to my scalp by wearing a nomad’s hat, so I wrapped my new treasure in a couple ubiquitous plastic bags and tucked it into my duffel.  It stayed there as I traveled to Nepal, Moloka’i, Kaua’i, and San Francisco. 

It was Spring when I returned to Tennessee.  The woman at the local dry cleaning shop gave me about as strange a look as the Tibetan woman when I handed her my hat for a thorough cleaning.hat 2

My hat may be overkill here in the Southern United States.  It is made of heavy fabric, lined with a rather rough piece of sheepskin, not unlike what I’ve seen around my  friend’s pastures.  But, it is the warmest hat I have ever had, and probably ever will.  Hopefully, if they have inherited my sense of fashion-risk, my children will wear it when I am done.  It seems made to last.lulah and my hat

I like to think of that Tibetan woman.  I like to imagine her in a yak hair tent, children now grown but still nearby, maybe holding a grandchild on her knee, telling that chubby-cheeked child about the funny white lady who gave her so much money for her old hat that she bought shoes, socks, and new hats for the whole family.  I hope she tells the story from her side with the same joy and relish that I feel on mine.

When the fur is folded back, the hat looks like an interesting variation on a Santa hat.  It may be the most realistic and functional Santa hat I’ve ever seen.  When I think of it that way, it stands to reason that our favorite Saint of the season may be a Tibetan.  I can imagine that it could be a simple linguistic misunderstanding, mixing up the North Pole and the Roof of the World. Of course, flying yaks are a bit more of a stretch.

My sense of reality stretches and bends when I think of those tall mountains and long high plateaus.  The stories I carry from that place need no contortions to be as colorful as my cap.  And with this fuzzy hat on the roof of my head, this winter is a cozy companion, not a formidable foe.hat 1

so much

It’s that time of year.  The heat is on, the rain seems to be slowing in pace and intensity.  We may soon be able to churn up those great thick cover crop roots, and if the soil won’t dry enough in time, we’ll just plant right into them.  It’s time to mow, and turn ground, plant, weed, wash, hoe, mow again, feed chicks, feed people, wash dishes, pull more weeds, plant more seeds, and mow some more.  It’s the rush.  There’s so much to do and think.

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If we thought we were busy before, we were wrong.  We’re really busy now, and humbled to know that we could be busier still.  We could be hotter, colder, richer, poorer, healthier, or punier than we are.  We are humbled, grateful, and busy.

Nevertheless, this weekend, we’re taking a day away.  We bought the tickets back in January, feeling relaxed with the winter schedule.  We thought, “yes, of course we can do that – we’re reasonable people who can take time for ourselves to have a family outing and do things that are important to us AWAY from the garden, even in MAY.”  We’ll stand by those words now, but it’s a good thing we got the tickets early.  If we had choose to buy tickets this week, we probably wouldn’t.  All four of us have seats at the Dalai Lama’s public address in Louisville.

We have two baby turkeys and another broody turkey hen who need daily tending.  There are still seedlings kicking around in the too hot greenhouse.  There are weeds taking up too much space in the onion bed, more weeds that we can’t see sprouting underground, and the corn hasn’t been planted yet.  I need to drum up business for my yoga classes, make an outline for a talk I’m giving soon, and round up a couple more veggie shares.

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How on earth can I think about the Dalai Lama right now?

As soon I the thought enters my mind I know that right now is exactly the right time to think about the Dalai Lama, and spend the day traveling to hear him speak.

If you don’t know much about the Dalai Lama, I recommend you learn more.  No matter what religious or non-religious affiliation you claim, he has something for you.  He’s a person with a special message for humanity, at large – all of us.

dalai_lama

I had the opportunity to hear him speak three years ago.  It was crazy busy here but the ticket was available and Paul knew it was a great Mother’s Day gift ever.  I was pregnant with Levon, and Lulah was big enough to stay home and hold down the fort with Paul.  I loved every minute of it and took notes.

Since Levon will be in my lap, I doubt I’ll do so good with note taking this time.

There are millions of Tibetan people still residing in Tibet who still regard His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) as their temporal and spiritual leader.  Even though it is a criminal offense, many continue to carry his photo.  Their dedication is heartfelt and unflagging.  I met many such people in my travels, and was moved by their faith and basic goodness in the face of adversity (the beautiful Roof of the World is in pretty rough shape).  It was a wonder to me, as I sat in the auditorium at Bloomington three years ago, that I would have the opportunity to hear their leader in person, and they probably wouldn’t.  I quietly dedicated that time to them.

It’s a conundrum of sorts.  Had there been no Cultural Revolution in China, resulting in the absorption of Tibet (now the Tibetan Autonomous Region) in to the People’s Republic of China, HHDL would most likely still be holding court in Lhasa, the old capital of Tibet.  However, due to the Chinese takeover, this amazing leader and a flood of his people, have come out into the world, into exile, and into public consciousness.  The message they carry is powerful.

Here’s the gist: Attention Love and Compassion.  Really.  That’s it.  It’s as simple as a baby’s smile, and more powerful than money and firearms.

I need every reminder I can get.

From my notes three years ago:

“All of us humans are basically the same.  We have the same potential for good-ness and bad-ness.  We all have special capacities for intelligence, vision, and memory, and what we all want is to have a happy life. ”

” All human activities of science, technology, government, money, etc. can be used for the benefit of all beings IF a strong moral ethic is first in place and strongly upheld.”

“To gain full knowledge of reality our mind must be calm.  Then, we can make a realistic approach to our goals.”

What does this have to do with transplanting lettuce, turkey chicks, or corn?

So much.  If my attention is whiz banging around, and I am jumping from one chore to the next with frenzied, harried intensity and exhaustion (it’s not hard to do things this way), then ultimately, what am I accomplishing?  Focusing my attention with care, doing each task effectively, will create a much healthier and more satisfying effect, in the garden, in my family, in business and life in general.  Focusing that way is a challenge in and of itself, AND focused attention by itself is no great boon.  Without love and compassion, a life of great focused attention can still be pretty unhappy.

“For there are these three things that endure: Faith, Hope, and Love, but the Greatest of these is Love.”

First Corinthians 13:13

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So, with Love and Compassion, to ourselves and emanating out from us, our works (there will always be work) bear greater fruit than just heads of lettuce, eggs, or great watermelons.  With love, compassion, and focused attention, our children do more than make good grades and behave well.  They thrive and grow into people who improve the world around them with their presence.  Our neighborhoods become communities where people trust and respect one another.  Our faiths and philosophies become intelligent, real, working aspects of our lives.

When we have so much to do, we can do our work with so much loving attention.

So much the better.