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The days in social isolation have a rhythm of their own. A rhythm determined by the body, the weather and the immediate environment. Similar to when I trek in the mountains and my body, the weather, and the terrain determine my movement. Now that it’s May, the days are long and sunny from sunrise to sunset in my part of the world. Nature is showing itself in all its glory.
I have a garden that needs tending, a few hours each day. The first harvest of artichokes and lettuce, spinach and greens adorn my kitchen counter. A May turnip offers its taste of sweet white flesh inside its purple skin, a delight for the palate. Cooking with these fresh delicacies brings forth new recipes. Today it’s sourdough pizza with greens, artichoke hearts and the pesto left over in the freezer. Each day something new grabs my attention. Today I wanted to make pizza and build a squash-plant bin, a wire tube filled with compost, manure and a drip line to water the contents. The plants will grow long tentacles outside the bin as the ingredients decompose inside and feed the squash’s roots. Life changes I can see right under my eyes, nudged by my hands. I can’t wait to see how big they’ll get and all the different winter squashes that will appear!
Life is happening right here, right now. My weeks are no longer scheduled full. I make up the day’s doings as my mood requests, and my basic needs demand. As the weeks go by, the world news has become a hum in the background; a litany of data and uncontrollable changes in peoples lives. It’s as if I live on an island ruled by a far away government that decides over my living circumstances. The strife between maintaining a lockdown and opening the world up again with all the contingent risks is not my struggle. As a privileged elder living on a pension, I’m not waiting for the outside world to move my life along.
Living in isolation reminds me of hiking solo on the long trail. Cut off from the buzz of news and media, surrounded by nature and tuning in to a body that walks, eats, sleeps and rests. As I’ve mentioned in some of my hiking blogs, hiking lets me experience life at 2 miles an hour. A pace that allow my senses to take in and process the environment. A pace my brain can absorb. Life in lock-down effects the brain in a similar way. Life is slower, not so jam-packed; there are no places to go; no-one to entertain. Zoom get-togethers lose their charm quickly. So it’s me and the daily routine, determined by my bodily needs and nature’s offerings. Each time I think up a project and what it entails, I soon realize that only essential stores are open, so I have to improvise, make my own, or go without. When I eventually do go to an essential store, I find most of what I need. The times of having what you want at the click of a button — now! — are a thing of the past. I don’t know if I want that time back again. I like this simple living. Each day my awareness expands a little more. I take time to sit, think, observe and be. I hear a bird singing at sunset and I am listening, even if it may take me three days to learn its name.
My birthday balloon, a mark of the beginning of the lock-down - still half-inflated after 8 weeks - the air/gas contained in flowered plastic, dances lower in the breeze from the ceiling fan. How long will it be before it is totally deflated? How long will things last when re-supplies aren’t coming? We may run out of pork on the grocery shelves, I hear. I can be a vegetarian. We may run out of toilet paper, I can create a bidet. Water is still flowing, rain will come again, wind and water can drive our turbines to make electricity. And haven’t I lived without electricity before when I was on the trail? I feel like a child again; a child who doesn’t know yet what can be had, and entertains herself with what is within reach.
This may be a year-long journey, a trek into the unknown. I look forward to what I will discover about life. For now, the change feels expansive. The unseasonal heat of this day is winding down. While the pizza is baking, there’s weeding to do in the shady part of the garden.
It’s quiet in my house. Ordered to be on lock-down as we are, I don’t expect anyone to stop by for a visit. The sun is sending its rays to the garden where new life is sprouting. The garden has been on lock-down for the winter, but life was happening underground and the daffodils and tulip heads bursting into bloom attest to that. Frozen little bunches of green are expanding and growing as the weather warms. I even see a few seed heads sprouting: summer and a cycle of seed making isn’t far away. Our society’s lock-down is in sharp contrast with the budding spring forces.
When the world is busying itself with production, travel, and entertainment, few think about the power of being quiet, the restorative value of retreat. The pandemic has forced the world into retreat, and societies are given an opportunity to rest, review and gather forces for a new season. Will it be a new season? Or will we hurry back to a world as we knew it? A world of "more is better”, a world of "survival of the richest”, a world where "alternative facts” are truths?
Things will be different after all this is over, they say. Like with most retreats, insight and experience will fuel a different way of operating. More people will work from home, if they still have a job. Schools may change and add a home-school component to let children be home more. Families may value each other and wish for more time at home with one another, working and learning. More gardens may produce home-grown fare. Seed companies have experienced a run on seeds this spring! We may vote for a better prepared health-system, health coverage for all. There will be changes. But will this forced retreat change people?
Do people value the power of quiet, do they retain the new insights fostered by rest? I watch a young boy outside my window jumping up and down on a trampoline. He isn’t looking for rest and quiet!
Is it in our nature to be on the ‘go’ until we collapse with fatigue? Are the pygmies who ‘work’ only three days a week to gather food and create shelter an anomaly? Did people want the long factory work hours during the industrial revolution that drove up production, or was it what a few greedy industrialists saw as an opportunity for extravagant wealth? The story that everyone benefits from economic progress is in question. We have time to question. When is enough, enough?
Will the billionaires give up their privileged status and start sharing their wealth? I don’t think so, the ones who do have been doing it already. Will big pharma and insurance companies give up their profits and allow for universal health care? I doubt it. Will our government make them?
In 1835 while discussing the American political system(1), Alexis de Tocqueville said: “There are certain epochs in which the changes that take place in the social and political constitution of nations are so slow and imperceptible that [people] imagine they have reached a final state; and the human mind, believing itself to be firmly based upon sure foundations, does not extend its researches beyond a certain horizon.”
There will be a shift when we get through this pandemic. There will be a reset of how we do business, how we value each other. But unless this virus opens the eyes of evangelicals, corporations, power grabbers, the die-hard individualist hanging on to their constitutional rights, the ones who believe in a system of small government, every-man-for-himself and trust-in-god, the system that produced America will still be there. The people will vote against their own interests because the beliefs they adhere to will explain away the cause and mistakes made during the pandemic. They will go back to business as usual.
Except for a few. Millennials who have dropped out of the American dream to live a simpler life with their loved ones in a rural small town, will feel confirmed in their views that a slower life is a "good life”. The teachers, who have had a chance to experiment with novel forms of education, will not want to return to large classrooms with standard testing. Small business owners who’ve had to re-create their business to survive may become like craftsmen and shopkeepers of long ago, who wove the fabric of the communities they lived in. We can support them if we value our communities.
And then the children. What will they remember of this time? Will they have a long breath out - time to think, watch the flowers come into bloom, find snails and salamanders on neighborhood walks? Will they learn the pace of keeping house and playing together, and refuse to be shuttled from activity to activity?
I hope so. Because these children will be the adults who will change the system. A system that has failed them.
1. Democracy In America, from a new translation by Arthur Goldhammer, published by Library of America 2004
Last month, when I wrote my blog about the value of laying fallow, I must have had a foreboding. Life has been turned upside down. The coronavirus — and for me a back injury— has made us hermits. Normally I am an active person, but this back injury has laid me low, very low. I’m sitting on the hard floor, legs stretched out and back slightly forward; it’s the only way I can be comfortable while typing. Thank god for my adjustable laptop computer stand. Walking sends searing nerve pain down my leg, and the doctor’s advice is to avoid bike riding to let my sacrum stabilize for a few days.
The pain in my leg has brought up tears and I’ve relegated them to the pain the world is experiencing right now. it feels good to cry for the helpless masses that are at the mercy of their elected leaders. Your political stance and source of information can come to bite you bad at this time. Thank you to the governors who are daring to take the crisis into their own hands and aren’t waiting for direction from the White House. Thank you, Kate Brown of Oregon for putting us on lock-down.
This morning I didn’t remember what day of the week it was. Not because I’m in cognitive decline, but because the days have been rolling by with no significant difference caused by events, meetings and activities. Each day is a blank slate, and, as long as there’s food in the fridge, there’s nothing I have to do, or show up for. I don’t have to dress for anyone but myself, so sweats and a top to match the weather it is. No decision but to pull it on in the morning after checking if it’s time for a clean pair. Life is so simple, and it reminds me of being on a long-distance hike, when I’ve made clothing decisions before I leave and I wear the same thing, day in, day out. Such freedom. This is my current state of affairs of sheltering at home. A toddler’s life without the flexibility of a toddler’s body. It’s funny, because I injured myself while doing the yoga pose my little grandson was showing me. I’m 73, not 4 yo. But hey! I’ve come this far, this long, without ever injuring myself like this. Aging is humbling. My mind is still not ready for it.
As with any retreat, forced or not, you can fight it, flight it or use it to your advantage. Fighting the Corona lock-down, ignoring it, will put others and yourself at more risk. Not a good idea, but many take the #mefirst attitude as the Florida and Italian beach scenes demonstrated. ‘Flighting’ from the Corona lock-down means drowning yourself in home distractions. We have internet, streaming and an endless supply of movies, shows and music videos. Often these activities are paired with snacking and comfort foods and we can anticipate the ballooning of people who practice ‘flighting’. As Rilke warned: “how we squander our hours of pain.”
I’ve never been one to fight or flight with a vengeance, so I’m using this lockdown time to my advantage. My self-imposed schedule and my entertainment needs are light, and I have time to explore new avenues. I read more books from my to-read stack. I use the internet (what a blessing!) for exploration as I scroll through blogs and articles on topics that interest me and find new ways to do things — even how to deal with my back issue. I just figured out how to set up a better backdrop for an online presentation I’m doing! I haven’t tried touring museums online, but it’s there if I want it. The outdoors is my backyard; I’m not working in it but I enjoy the spring flowers and am thankful for all that this garden gives me. As this blog shows, I'm getting some writing work done as well.
When we come to rest, and slow down, we can find a fresh attitude, new activities, creative endeavors, and Zoom-in for virtual visits with loved ones. Life can still be transformative, even if you can’t travel.
If you read this and work as medical personnel, first responder, or as someone who risks his or her life to keep the basics in our society running, THANK YOU!
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"Science is a powerful, exquisite tool for grasping an external reality. But within that rubric, within that understanding, everything else is the human species contemplating itself, grasping what it needs to carry on, and telling a story that reverberates into the darkness, a story carved of sound and etched into silence, a story that, at its best, stirs the soul."
Brian Greene, Until the end of Time: Mind, Matter and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
I’ve been a traveller most of my adult life, but when people ask me, “Where are you going next?”, I have no answer. There is no next. I’m here for now, and it’s a freeing feeling. No need to plan complicated travel schedules to take me to adventurous places, no need to train my body for changes in altitude, and tough hiking schedules. All’s quiet in my world. I’m paying attention to my needs: how much movement do I want and need to feel good; how much wildness do I crave in my day-to-day doings; how much time do I want to putter? My days have an uncanny emptiness. Few need my help. I only go places when I chose to do so. Even the commitments I made to do presentations are far enough away that I don’t have to feel pressured to produce.
The dust gathering on my window-blinds in the sun don’t compel me to a cleaning frenzy. I’m just watching the soft down lie there with its crinkly tiny white hairs hanging on a sloping surface. Someone is singing a melodious song on the radio, titillating small waves of feeling in my chest, making my body sway while my brain is finding words to write this piece. The new ring on my finger holds a stone, found on a faraway Tibetan plateau where I went to experience the outer edges of self.
These days I’m looking inward and am exploring the inner edges of myself. One way is no better than the other; one may be cheaper than the other, but money doesn’t hamper or determine my travel. What then holds me in this moment, this place, without great plans to explore the world?
They say the universe turns in on itself. The ever-expanding cosmos collapses into a black hole, and the whole thing starts over again. I guess a winter of hibernation wasn’t enough of a turning-in. I know to listen and watch the surrounding forces influence me, and right now they don’t pull me outward except for a short jaunt into the mountains around my home now and then. Last summer I let my vegetable garden lay fallow, I only put in cover crops to enrich the soil, while I was traveling. Maybe now is my fallow time, uncultivated, inactive, not producing. We know the importance of letting the land lay fallow, to allow the soil to rebuild its microbial structure. Not that we adhere to it in our current production-oriented society; we add fertilizers to make up for the exhaustion the soil is experiencing. So it goes with our bodies and minds: we drink coffee or red bull to give us energy, we peruse the get-away offerings to stimulate our tired minds. More money can be made by offering a product to enhance our exhausted selves than just plain rest. You may remember the days when a bout of the flu was a week of being sick and a week of lying around, aka healing? I remember my mother sending me out for a walk in the watery spring sunshine when I was recovering from the flu. How strange it felt to go for a leisure walk by myself while everyone else was in school or at work.
The roots of who we become are generated in our youth. I was born a wanderer. My baby wanderings took place out from under my blankets in frigid temperatures and out of my clothes as I stood naked on the tray of my highchair, my arms stretched out like the leafless winter tree outside the window with its branches reaching. As a result, my parents tied me in my bed at night so I would stay warm, tied me in my highchair so I would be safe.
At three years of age I went in search of frogs my brother had told me about. We were living on the outskirts of a medieval town in the southwest of Holland. A bulwark and a moat surrounded the original town, with sixteenth-century city gates and bridges to allow entrance into the town. A police officer found me, as I was standing on the edge of one of those bridges peering into the dark water in the moat. After that incident, I was staked out in the backyard like a goat, rope around my waist, rope connected to a pin in the ground. I saw a picture of myself, leaning my face into my four-year-old boy cousin’s ear. Was I whispering something about pulling up stakes together and exploring the world?
I became a walker, an explorer of the world. There was so much to love about life and living in all these different places. But being tied down every now and then, I also learned about being in one place. I came home last fall from the Himalayas with a renewed love for life and I’m loving the living daylight out of my days right here for now. If the microbes of lying fallow do their work, a healthy base for producing new ideas, a new story will come about.
Roses and Romance
I was 62 when my lover friend sent me 12 red roses for Valentine’s. It was the first time in my life I received this token of romance. It also was the last time. This lover friend developed Alzheimer’s and spent his last years locked in an institution. In my romantic younger years Valentine’s day didn’t exist, but flowers came my way in the form of corsages. I spent several years going to fraternity parties with my boyfriend; the gentleman that he was he did what we considered romantic in those years. When a Marxist group in the late sixties radicalized our thinking, we considered corsages from then on a bourgeois excess.
The flower-power years followed and anything that reeked of commercialism was taboo; certainly bunched red roses flown in from South America. A bunch of field-picked wild flowers was the closest to a romantic flower gift then.
Love and the Heart
When long-term love and marriage entered my life, we cut paper hearts with the children and pasted them on construction paper for a multitude of “friendship” cards. Some chocolate to go with it all, was the extent of our Valentine’s gift.
No romantic dinner’s, no surprise get-aways for that one day in February when everyone expresses their love. Gold-dipped chocolate roses arrived for my teenage daughter but not for me. My husband and I loved each other and wasn’t that enough? I found a card in my card recycle box the other day with a sweet, meaningful message for one of those not-so-Valentine’s days. I smiled and remembered our love, still in my heart even though he is no longer in the body.
Ahh yes, love! The elusive, yet real feeling. Can we experience love when we don’t have a lover? Love produces longing when we don’t feel it. Yet love, according to some, becomes pervasive when we are close to death. Rilke wrote: “Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” When we feel the moments slipping away and each moment we still have becomes precious and radiant, many people report experiencing a state of love. Can we feel romantic when we don’t receive red roses? Can love just arise out of nowhere?
I say yes! Love arises when I sit in meditation long enough; love arises when I surround myself with the beauty of nature; love comes up spontaneously when I slow down, straighten up from bending over a garden bed and take in the beginnings of spring. So instead of rushing around to find a gift for someone you love, be the gift of slowing down and be present for a friend, yourself, or your loved ones. Make Valentine’s day a slow day and see how you feel. Get up slowly. Drink your tea or coffee slowly; chew your food slowly and eat less; walk slowly, drive slow. Gaze out the window, stop and look at a tree, a bird, a river. Feel. Look everyone in the eye, stop to listen, be with whoever is asking for your attention. Breathe. Love for all-that-is will rise inside you, and who needs roses when you feel that kind of love?
An icon of the New Age world of the sixties and seventies has passed on December 22, 2019. I learned about Ram Dass on a bus in Afghanistan in 1971 when someone handed me his book, BE HERE NOW. A hippie book full of drawings that expose our human suffering, acknowledge our lustful thoughts, hand drawn text to help us get out of the cycle of suffering and be in bliss, it brought the story of a Harvard psychology professor who went to India to meet a famous guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Now you’d think a Harvard scientist studying mind and consciousness will make short work of an Indian Guru in a blanket, sitting in the Himalayas. The opposite happened: Neem Karoli made short work of Richard Alpert and turned him into Ram Dass. Alpert has gone through life as Ram Dass working on his inner transformation ever since and passed away with a large following of friends who will mourn his passing and carry on spreading his message of love.
I met Ram Dass in November 1971; it was a shock when I realized I shared a hotel rooftop balcony in Delhi with a famous man. I was a seeker of answers about living and he was a student of Mahara-ji, as Neem Karoli was called by his devotees. I didn’t know then that Mahara-ji would have a lasting effect on me. A year of traveling around India and Nepal brought me eventually at the master’s feet under the pressure of another traveler. I was thoroughly fed up with the whole guru scene among westerners and skeptical of yet another guru. I spent 10 days around the ashram; Mahara-ji did his mysterious work with me, changed my name and sent me off into the world to do “my work”. Mahara-ji passed on to another world the next year and I didn’t visit the ashram again until 2005.
I heard Ram Dass speak a few times in my life in the US. He inspired me and others to sit and listen to our heart and love everyone. I’m sure many members of the New Age Community have done that. We lived the seventies hoping love would change the world and bring peace. In 2020 that notion deserves question marks. Yet love is an essential ingredient for survival and well-being.
My upcoming memoir: “When Love is not Enough” will tell you my story of a slow awakening to the truth of living: love is essential, but love doesn’t fix the worldly problems. Ram Dass lived a life of loving kindness, but he couldn’t fix climate change; he too had to lose people, had to deal with physical limitations and demise, and could only serve others when the opportunity arose.
We can learn from an inspiring man’s life that he can bloom and inspire; he can move others to do the same, but in the end he dies. If lucky someone else will carry his message despite ongoing war and treachery, despite short sightedness and misuse of power, despite climate change, hunger and overpopulation.
Ram Dass inspired peaceful living and loving kindness; we can carry on doing the same. We live in an era when teenagers are fighting for the survival of the planet, when child soldiers are taught to kill, when children still starve from hunger although 40% of the food produced in the US goes to waste and is thrown away. What’s happened since the late sixties is a shift. A shift in how people suffer and where people suffer. Suffering still happens. Love doesn’t take away suffering, love soothes.
The big take-away from my encounter with Ram Dass and Mahara-ji has been that we each have our work to do to reduce our own suffering and help others to do the same. Once you have experienced the state of bliss - of non-suffering - you will still find yourself in a body and you still, as Ram Das said in Be Here Now, have to chop wood and carry water. You can honor Ram Dass by living the ordinary life without getting swept away by it, without drowning in it, and find the quiet moments that remind you that peace lives inside you.
The year, or as the case is the decade, in review gives us pause. Does it do any good? Do we learn from our history? This last year I took a trip to retrace my steps of former years, a review of sorts. You can never go back they say. But I did; I went back to the places that have been significant in my life, my country of birth and the Himalayas in India, Nepal, Tibet. Everything has changed, I expected that, but I wanted to see how I have changed.
The Netherlands, my native country formed me. The Himalayas have been my place of spiritual seeking, my place of finding myself. I don’t know why I chose the Himalayas, probably combining seventies rebelliousness - an anti-establishment act - and a deep longing for a different belonging than my Dutch-Calvinistic upbringing and environment offered. I wasn’t an exception: 35,000 young people were on the road to India on any day in the late sixties and early seventies. I wasn’t original, nor was I an outlier.
From my first year-long journey around India and Nepal I brought back notions of spirituality, new ways of improving myself (the Calvinistic need of bettering oneself in the eye of God ran deep), and a thirst for living in community with people who weren’t afraid to be innovative.
Upon my return Holland felt stifling, small. I wanted something different. I emigrated to the West Coast of America and joined the back-to-the-land movement of the seventies. My explorations into alternate realities, alternative medicine, food styles, and living arrangements gave me community, a new family. I practiced skills and habits that promoted an emotionally healthier life than the restricted formality I had experienced growing up, I thought. The New Age paradigm had me in its grips.
Life unfolded and despite the newfangled notions of personal reality, unconditional love, and spiritual materialism, our family settled down on the predictable path of educated, middle class, privileged white people. We bought a home, a safe place to live and raise children, we accumulated modest wealth, comfort and opportunity for implementing new ideas on a small scale. My life didn’t look so different from my parent’s life; morals and values hadn’t changed. Had I changed considering what I was seeking earlier in life? Was I happier? More enlightened?
Then the next predictable life thing happened: misfortune and illness. Meditation doesn’t stop chronic illness; Love doesn’t heal dementia; alternative medicine in China doesn’t turn the tide of decline.
In 2005 I went back to the Himalayas to escape the misfortune, the illness and figure out a new direction. I found what I was made of: physically strong stock, a mind comfortable with emptiness, a body and mind that can walk itself into happiness. New Sarum Press will publish my memoir of that journey in 2020.
Life and loss taught me I create my happiness; it taught me belonging is a state of mind that changes like the tide of the ocean, the season, or the time of day.
Back in the Himalayas this year, I walked, I watched, I embraced community. At my slow travel pace, I found the stories of the places I re-visited. The places have changed: prosperity is entering people’s life like a glacier moving forward burying everything known in its path, while the real glaciers have receded and the lack of water will drive people from their homes. Global migration is real and unstoppable, both in Europe and Asia. I found that the search for spirituality is trading places with hungry commercialism. Addiction to cellphones is replacing the need for community even in roadless nomad areas.
And I? How have I changed? I no longer run away from my roots, I accept my not so exotic earthy sturdiness that came with my Dutch upbringing. I question the form of the ancient Eastern teachings, but I have absorbed the quiet stillness that comes with being present in the moment. I no longer need to find answers in foreign places, to look for teachers elsewhere. I am my own teacher. I can find answers on a trail in my own backyard, or on my meditation cushion.
At the end of this journey of traveling with strangers, being fed, and cared for by nomads and innkeepers alike, I feel more love for humanity, even the ones who are making a mess of this world. You could say that after finding my thirst for inner clarity in India in the seventies, and reclaiming my self-belonging in 2005, this year upon my return to the Himalayas I’ve found a home inside myself.
Like many people migrating the globe, I traveled around the world to find where home is.
I discovered hope for the future in the heartfelt effort of a Ladakhi nomad teenager who walks 4 hours daily to school and back to better his future.
I felt sadness over the belief of the faithful as the religious commerce at the temple of Swyambu in Nepal and the monasteries of Tibet sell them salvation.
I looked the end of my time on earth into the eye at base-camp Mt Everest as the misty snowy clouds shrouded my vision and my slowed breathing made me feel I could dissolve into the clouds.
I found that life at 72 can start anew after climbing over 18,000 ft Dolma-la pass at the base of Mt Kailash in Tibet.
The story of my journey is archetypical, a story of loss and renewal. Many years and many miles later I have arrived at the feeling of being at home within myself. It could have happened in one place, in a town on an island. For me it happened, one foot in front of the other, one journey after the other, even a re-tracing of my steps to know that home is where the trail ends.
Postscript: As this blog goes to press, the news of Baba Ram Dass' passing into the great yonder gives more poignancy to my journey. A journey I shared with him as we learned from our guru, Neem Karoli Baba; a journey that has come to a close for him. May he rest in the light.
by Dami Roelse
Long ago, when I began my quest into the why’s and how’s of this world, I had a face-to-face with Mt Everest. It was accidental; I hadn’t felt the allure of the highest mountains, not then. Humbled I stood there, surrounded by the giants of the world, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. I took in the notion that I stood on a very high place on the planet, Kala Patar, 18,200 ft above sea level. Oxygen deprived, I could only climb a few steps at a time. I couldn’t foresee what this experience would mean in my life. I absorbed the experience and descended to the Everest glacier. After walking off the glacier, I flew back from Lukla to a life of wants and desires, a life of searching for answers that would satisfy, a life with a purpose. I never gave summitting Kala Patar much thought, I was young and strong, but I wasn’t a mountain climber; I was a tag-along in a relationship with a climber, a relationship that didn’t last.
Much, much later in life I became a long distance hiker. I walked away my grief over the loss of my partner; I walked myself whole; I walked myself into belonging. Doing so I climbed to heights above tree line, I yelled at the skies; I marveled at the light showing itself over the craggy peaks and passes at dawn,and let go of being the center of the world as the light disappeared at sunset. The world continued as day turned to night, night to day, no matter the upsets, the problems, the joys and lost relationships. When it was dark I rested, when it was light I turned toward that light with each step and found my belonging in the empty heights of the tallest mountains. One day when I stood on top of a 14,000 ft pass in the Sierra Nevada in California, I heard the voice. It said: “Go now while you can; go to Tibet and Mt Everest.”
A year later I stood on Pangla pass, at 17,224 ft in Tibet with a view of the Himalayas, a view of Mt Everest (Chomolungma in Tibetan), Lhotse and Makala far away, but visible. The next day I made my way to the Mt Everest base camp monument at 18,300 ft elevation, one slow step after the other. It was snowing, and the clouds shrouded the mountain. I passed Rombuk monastery and saw a field of cairns stretching out toward expedition base camp. Cairns are stacks of rocks, one rock balancing on top of the other showing a tenuous and temporary relationship; they’re placed to mark a trail, to draw attention to a view, a place of significance. When I saw this field of cairns leading up to base camp, I felt the urge to make my own ritual cairn. While picking up rocks that would be suitable and called out to me, I came to a rope with small flags strung across the landscape, a barrier to keep people from entering the base camp terrain, closed off for the public to allow clean-up. To get closer to the mountain, I stepped over the line. Then I saw a rock suitable as a base to build my pile. The pile became a symbol of me, my life energy, as I had struggled to breathe and carry to this point. Minuscule Edelweiss surrounded the base. Even here in this rugged, desolate terrain flowers can exist, I thought. The pile grew as I placed rocks I found nearby, naming them one by one and letting them become representative of the loved ones in my life. When I looked up toward the mountain, misty clouds moved through, surrounding me and leaving me feeling alone in the landscape. I felt I could disappear in the snow, mist and fog. This is what dying will be like, I thought. Tears welled up, my body sobbed with a gut wrenching sadness I didn’t know lived inside me. I saw my life-ending as a disappearance into an invisible world so much bigger than I, a place of ‘ever-rest’. I cried not because I feared dying, but I knew that the hardest thing about dying would be the saying goodbye to those I love. As I placed the rocks, I offered my life and loved ones to the mountain. I had returned to Everest, or Chomolungma meaning “Mother Goddess of the world” for a deeper understanding. Not knowing myself and my life when I first met her in 1972, this time she moved me to understand what ever-rest will be:not just a mountain named after an Englishman but a place that reminds me how I will disappear when the time comes.
by Dami Roelse
The current unrest in Hong Kong where students and young people are clamoring for democracy, take me back to images of other demonstrations that called out to Free Tibet. When we see the images, what can we learn about the Chinese regime? An authoritarian regime that doesn’t allow dissent, doesn’t allow free speech, and uses violence to stay in control.
I had this image of the Chinese regime when I set out for Tibet this summer. As a foreigner you cannot freely travel around in Tibet. To visit you have to join a tour, so that the authorities can control and monitor your movement and your exposure to what Tibet is. The regime likes to keep track of everyone’s whereabouts. Considering the size of the country and the wide open spaces in Tibet, it would be easy for an adventurous person to disappear in the Hinterland and do some research about life in China. I didn’t have that opportunity; I had to learn about Tibet from a touring van with pre-arranged stops and visiting sites. 15 Days to get an impression and see the famous sites: Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Drepung monastery, Sera monastery.
While we visited the religious sites in rapid succession I learned about the three Tibetan Buddhist sects, the three Buddhas of the past, present and future, the three ways one can be buried in Tibet depending on your religious or non-religious status. I learned that those scary looking devils are actually protecting you from evil, that the black horseman Buddha protects children when a monk puts a black smudge on their forehead. I learned that Tibetans have many ways to prepare for a better next life: walking or doing prostrations around a holy site (which keeps everyone very limber), doing innumerable prostrations in a temple, the more the better; “paying” respect to favored lamas and teachers, by leaving money and/or donating butter to the many butter lamps in the monasteries. (see images below) Like buying your way into heaven which Catholics promoted by coercing donations to erase sins, Tibetans buy and exercise their way to a better next life.
The monks in the monasteries were busy putting on the Tibetan art of debate shows, dressing for celebratory religious dancing, or chanting traditional chants in the lavishly decorated halls of the monasteries. Religious tradition, yes, but spirituality?
When the Chinese entered Tibet, they did horrendous damage to age-old cultural and religious sites. It seems the Chinese authorities have had a change of mind and instead of trying to stamp out religion they’ve embraced the cultural icons, rebuild the monasteries and taken control of initiating monks and appointing the religious leaders. The Dalai Lama escaped, and he is still a most revered leader among practicing Tibetan Buddhists. What you can’t have you idolize. And so a movement to Free Tibet was born. What would a free Tibet do on the world stage at this point? Join the many underdeveloped countries in holding up their hand for donations from the West? Have a religious leader direct economic growth, develop mining of Tibet's raw materials?
In 1959 Tibet and its inhabitants were living in the middle ages, poverty, superstition, violence and religious dominance reigned. Now 60 years later the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) or Xizang Autonomous Region (XAR) is a prosperous, modern, wired, part of China. Poverty is almost eradicated. Even the nomads have houses, jeeps and cellphones. The monasteries are doing a brisk business with tourists (many Chinese) and Tibetan pilgrims. The regime has rebuilt the important monasteries, the monks are on salary and the next generation is getting free education. China is a secular regime and I believe that the regime counts on the power of education, which will in time eradicate traditional religion. And so the monks rake or sweep the constant flow of bills left by pilgrims and devoted Tibetans around the holy statues. The believers are paying to keep the monasteries intact. Resistance has been stymied by controlling the people’s wishes.
Is this all bad? Or is it a good thing that an authoritarian regime moved a large population out of poverty, by educating the people with modern ideas and advanced science, and providing housing, infrastructure and stability? The people at the bottom enjoy getting their basic needs met; they enjoy running a small business, have enough food and a warm place to sleep at night. As long as they put a Red Flag on their roof and are loyal to the regime, they can have these basics.
The totalitarian regime works great for moving a society along toward prosperity. The trouble begins when bellies are full and educated people want to have their say in how things are run. Hong Kong has been affluent long enough that the people don’t want to bow to the regime.
Will the Chinese regime bend and respond to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? (for a refresher on what this is, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs). The Chinese gave the Tibetans their monasteries back. They have shown flexibility in allowing Capitalistic Socialism on their way to the goal of total Communism. Does the Chinese regime know that rigidity will break them? Just as the monks exchanged spiritual practice for religious commerce and a steady income, will the Chinese regime lose its ideals and fall for the allure of property and ownership? Judging from events in Hong Kong, and observing the throng of wealthy, well- dressed Chinese and Tibetans driving a BMW, the people are making their choices.
by Dami Roelse
What if you were born to be poor? Your status in life was predetermined by cast?
I've just left Ladakh, a predominant Buddhist part of India, where there are many poor people. My trekking guide came from such a poor family. He was handed over to a monastery at age eight so he'd get fed and educated. He left the monastery at age 34, married and developed a business. He's no longer poor; his children have a university education, his wife has a steady job at a hospital. In Ladakh you can work your way out of poverty - religion and societal status don't keep you poor.
In Nepal I'm staying at a B&B in a small merchant town, populated by Newaris. The Newaris are traders from way back, the little town was a trading center on the route from India to Kathmandu. As the Prithvi highway eliminated their trading monopoly, the Newaris turned from goods to tourists and created an old-world ambiance with modern amenities to attract their clientele. The Newaris do well for themselves; it's obvious in the wellfed happy children walking to school and the chubby men and women running their small businesses.
But there is another side to this story: the B&B has partnered with a Scottish Rotary club and uses the profits of the business to help children of a nearby village to get an education. The Bhujel who live here are of a lower cast, most likely Dalit, untouchables. The men drink, the women make bamboo products for sale; not enough to make a living. Living in a fertile, land rich area the Bhujels miss the skills to be farmers and most likely were never allowed to own land. They live in predetermined poverty.
Our young guide Roshan tells us that at the end of the civil war in 2005 between rebel Maoists and Nepali royalists, the cast system was abolished as a condition for a constitutional Nepali government. "Everyone now has the same opportunities, we can marry across cast", he says, confident that the change is real. When a group of Nepali tourists introduce themselves to me that night as Brahmin (the superior cast), I'm not so sure I can share his optimism. Just as with the abolishment of slavery in the US, the attitudes and prejudice do not get stamped out with the passing of a law.
The Newaris in Bandipur exude confidence; they know they can avoid poverty if they work hard. The Brahmins draw their confidence from privilege; what we call 'white privilege' in the US.
Roshan worked in Qatar for a few years. The money sent home from Qatar is 20% of Nepal's GDP. Many of the Nepali migrant workers are the new slaves of the modern world as they work in construction for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. They are indentured servants; often don't get paid for months and owe a debilitating recruitment sum. Roshan was lucky, he's not a Dalit; he could get back to the shelter of family with improved English language skills and have a new start in the tourism industry.
Will western thinking and secularisation change the cycle of poverty? Probably, slowly, it will. Maybe, just maybe, my travel and presence here shifts the balance a bit more to opportunity for all. I tell a young Newari woman, named Jun-ko after the first Japanese woman to summit Mt Everest, to go climb a mountain. I tell her that I'm going to Mt Everest next. She looks at me and asks my age. I tell her, "I'm 72". I can see the glimmer of possibility in her eye. She thinks, if you can, I can too! Dream Jun-ko, you live in a country of magical mountains. Go make 'em your own.