A year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, targeting civilians indiscriminately. Many people fled and had to start their life over again elsewhere. Almost a year later, a devastating earthquake hits Turkey and Syria. A child is born under the rubble and starts life without its mother. It’s been a year since I left the NorthWest and arrived in Taos NM to start a new life. People fight for their lives against all odds; people have an amazing capacity for starting over again.
I wanted a simpler life, fewer material possessions, less stuff to keep track of; more time for what matters to me at this stage of life. This morning, instead of streaming JPR morning edition, I turned to the local NM station and listened to a discussion on water rights and water shortage in the South West. Changing listening stations has been slow in coming. JPR as my morning companion, with the familiar voices of local broadcasters and weather announcers, kept me tethered to a familiar past. A past that comforts me in a brand-new, foreign feeling environment. What stations do refugees listen to? How does a newborn without a mother, find comfort?
A New World
When I arrived in Taos, it felt as if I had entered a foreign, developing country; a mix of races, native, Hispanic and white, made me feel I was in Mexico. A haphazard array of adobe buildings, some a thousand years old, narrow alleys, and streets that went nowhere reminded me of India, and Morocco. The towering, often snow-clad Sangre de Cristo mountains wrapping their arms around a vast and open mesa reminded me of the Himalayas and the high Sierras; and - as far as the mesa was concerned - when I walked in the wide open, sagebrush landscape, it reminded me of my native Holland’s wide dunes covered with dune roses. The difference is, a distant levy doesn’t mean the sea is on the other side, because there’s just more fields and more mesa stretching into infinity. A mesa falling off into the enormous crack in the earth called the Rio Grande Gorge, where the Rio Grande river moves its water from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. For me, this land holds the places I have lived and found inspiration both physically and spiritually. Will the Ukrainian refugees, the Afghan asylum seekers, find comfort in a new land? Will the trapped Syrians find familiarity amid the rubble?
The Aging Train
At that crucial time in life, when you realize aging is a slow moving, but unstoppable train you’ve boarded; when you know, you may need immediate family into the not-so-distant future to help you navigate daily life, I made the life changing decision to give up the familiar and set out for a change that could support me and my desires for the unforeseeable future. I made the leap while I still had my capacities and functioned independently. It was exciting, terrifying and challenging. I had a choice; I have means. Imagine being ejected against your will from the familiar into a strange culture, language, and climate, having to depend on handouts.
Taos offered me immediate challenges. A very slow moving bureaucracy and long outdated, poorly funded County government system makes getting through escrow a torturing long wait. The house I bought had been 4 months in escrow when I arrived in Taos, but I had to wait another 3 months before we signed the papers and I could move in and set about making my new home into “home”. Those months of waiting offered my 75-year-old slowing cognitive abilities a chance to get to know my new environment, figure out traffic patterns, dead-end streets - often not marked or in the right location on GPS - find the agencies and medical providers I needed and slowly learn to navigate this rural town of 7000 people. I found it exhausting and after a day of venturing out, I relished and thanked my benefactor and friend for renting her second home to me and giving me a comfortable place to end my day, watch a magnificent sunset, retreat in media and books. The challenges the displaced and the refugees face are a hundred times more challenging. They sit in the freezing cold in a tent if they’re lucky. No glorious sunset on their rubble doorstep.
An Unfinished Project
Life was simple since I didn't have a home move into and make livable. I had brought an unfinished project from the West Coast: finish hiking the PCT, a 3-week journey over rocky terrain, difficult passes, a few fast-flowing rivers, among immense beauty, and sleeping in a tent. My outdoor journey had little in common with the dangers of asylum seekers crossing borders, deserts and swamps. I had time to train and ready myself to tackle the 240 miles of California. Most of the border crossers start when danger becomes too great.
I walked my temporary mesa neighborhood; I picked a new trail each week and hiked in the mountains and mesa. I learned what spring weather was, intense sun, fierce winds, and unexpected snow. Under my hiking shoes, I discovered mud season with slick, clod filled soles. I met people as I walked and hiked and before I knew it, I had a set of hiking friends who not only hiked with me but introduced me to good places to eat, and galleries to visit; they invited me to join in local crafts workshops. I made my first basket with the new spring growth of willow. The displaced travel in groups; they find comfort with others who share their journey. They arrive with others who compete for the same resources.
A Spiritual Home
On non-walking days, I immersed myself in the varied and rich local spiritual culture. I visited the Hanuman temple and shared free Sunday noon meals where I met transients and locals; I chanted at a Tibetan stupa, meditated with a meditation group and connected to their Sangha. On arrival, I returned to a vegetarian diet I had followed 20 years ago. It felt right for the planet, right for me, to simplify my food intake. A year later, it still feels right. I continue my meditation practice with local teachers and students of Vipassana. My hopes for spiritual connection in daily life have become a reality. The spiritual community has welcomed me and I don’t feel the spiritual loneliness that had descended on me in the North West. After years of doing my “own” thing, on and off the trail, walking meditation, sitting meditation, self retreats, I’m ready to fill in the blanks of not knowing and get out of my comfort zone with intensified practice. Will the displaced be so lucky and find spiritual comfort in countries that may or may not tolerate their “otherness”?
Simple and Complex
My not-so-simple life of before has become simpler in some ways and more complex in others. There is simplicity of daily living, in my compact, comfortable home with views of the mountains while I write, read or watch the fire in the kiva; with radiant floor heat when it’s cold outside and with sun streaming in through the windows most days. My little spot of mesa is waiting for spring when I can develop a small garden. It’s quiet here, I have a xeriscaped yard, so there’s very little maintenance. Pebble paths meander on the 1/3 acre for doing walking meditation.
Life is more complex in study, and with more immediate family relations, which I both wanted. The routine of walking and hiking year round keeps me healthy and energetic. I’m intent on using the energy left to me, in a more focused way. For refugees with few belongings, life will be distressful in its simplicity, its lack of opportunities. Their waiting time isn’t filled with enticing new things, but with painful uncertainty.
Being an elder, I have a choice to either fritter away my time left, or to enhance the time by simplifying daily living and creating room for delving deeper into whatever I’m still passionate about. I see elder survivors who have lost their family, their entire village; lost the simple home they’ve known their whole lives. Downsizing and moving has offered me simplicity and depth. Destruction of what they knew, is offering displaced elderly entry into an unwanted world. I get it, that they want to sit among the bombed-out houses on the street they know, the only thing they know.
An Aching Heart
For me, my new environment isn’t overwhelming anymore. The stress of uprooting and letting go of the familiar is gone. I sleep long and deep most nights. People reach out and guide me wherever I want to go. Trust in following my instincts has grown. I wait for instructions on what’s next, and don’t mind not knowing. Less feels better.
I ache for those who are not so lucky; those waiting for news of loved ones, news of a possible return. My heart aches for those who can only sleep from exhaustion, jarred by every noise that reminds them of what was, and will never come back.