Thursday, August 25, 2016

Negative News Leads to Positive Change

Although the following article is a repost from 2014, I believe it's still pertinent today. Especially with the upcoming election and all of the negative press that we are subjected to on a daily basis. The choice to "turn off" is yours, my friends. Positive change is a click away. 

I'm a reformed news addict. In the days, months, and even years following 9/11, my obsession spun out of control. I'd shoot up the Evening News for dinner, and sneak puffs of talk-radio during the day. Hellbent on discovering where people were “coming from,” I sought viewpoints that differed from mine. On the right, or the left, whether lamestream or mainstream, I tried to give each side fair play. There were times when my anger seethed and my blood pressure soared, but I couldn't turn off the dial. Powerless to enact change in my life, I drank from the poisonous cup. I'd wake up with a hangover, then repeat the cycle like a two-bit street corner junkie.

And then I embarked upon a trek in Nepal.

As I followed my bliss over three Himalayan passes, the events of the world trickled by. The most horrendous of them, the Boston Marathon bombings, occurred a few days before our trek's end. A stranger from Canada approached us with the details as we dusted ourselves off from the trail. “Did you hear what happened in Boston?” he asked, poised to reveal the news. As I learned of the tragedy, my heart deflated, the reality overshadowing my joy. But the message rang out loud and clear: terrible injustices occur everyday, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it. I soon came to realize that the antidote to my addiction lies in how I process the never-ending barrage. I can either dwell on the details – suffer the anger, frustration, and fear – or I can gently let it all go.

Twenty-four hours after returning home from Nepal, the solution stared me in the eye. “Stop tuning in,” it beckoned to me. “Don't you dare touch that dial!” I rose to the challenge, astonished to discover that tuning out was easier than ever imagined. It opened my heart to a world of new possibilities and left me with a sense of well-being. Compassion and love come naturally now, replacing frustration and anger. Anxiety and negativity, I cast them aside, making way for inspiration and change.

Of course, the skeptics abound. “I like to be informed,” people say. “You can't bury your head in the sand.”

Believe me, it's impossible not to be informed these days, unless of course you live in a cave. Wars, border feuds, uprisings, and domestic disputes – it's impossible to block out the noise. The difference is that today, a year-and-a-half since turning off the dial, I enjoy the benefits of my simple action. I've learned to let go of the things that I cannot control, and to focus on positive change. This can be as simple as smiling at a stranger I've passed on the street, or as ambitious as setting my sights on raising money for a cause. At the high school where I work with students who speak English as a second language, this means encouraging a sixteen-year-old girl to believe in herself, or telling a young man that he can make a difference, too.

I don't need to watch the heart-wrenching details to acknowledge the suffering. I'll never convince the political machine that working together toward the common good is far more preferable than wrangling against one another. I can't change the dynamics of poverty or shift ideologies. But I can step out my front door each day, touch a life, and make a difference.

I may not be listening to the news anymore, but I haven't stopped listening to the world.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Last Long Day

In my award-winning "We Said Go Travel" essay, I describe my
experience of trekking the Three Passes in the Everest Region.
The full-length memoir, Footsteps of Gopal,
can be found on
Day fourteen of trekking in Nepal. We've just arrived in Gokyo where an enormous frozen lake dominates the landscape. My husband Tom, our long-time friend Marcus, and I hope to complete the Three Passes Trek, circumnavigating the valley where Mount Everest reigns supreme. We’re in the company of a wonderful guide and two porters who are transporting the bulk of our gear. Since April 2nd when we landed at the World's Most Dangerous Airport in Lukla, it's been non-stop adventure. We’ve spent ten of fourteen days hiking in altitudes over 15,000 feet, exceeding 18,000 feet on our first pass, Kongma La. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle our third and final pass, 17,680 foot Renjo La. To my relief, it will be our last long day.
The truth is, I’ve reached my breaking point. Not only am I bone tired, but I'm anxious about the weather. There's speculation about an approaching heavy snowstorm, and if predictions pan out, Renjo La will be impassable. After lunch, Tom and I cozy up beneath four luxuriously thick velour blankets, savoring the warmth of our shared body heat. As I rest, snug in our cocoon, windblown sleet pelts the window. I peer outside, and on the ridge above our teahouse, amid the swirling snow, seven ghostly figures wend their way to Gokyo.
Will that be us tomorrow?
“I don’t need to be a hero,” I confess at dinner. And because an alternate trail exists via Machherma down the valley, I propose that we split up. I’ll enlist one of the porters to act as my guide, and in four days, we'll reunite. It’s optimal; I can bow out gracefully while everyone else completes the trek.
Three sets of eyes meet mine with searing disapproval.
First to respond is Gopal. “You’re very strong, Ma’am,” he asserts. “Very strong.”
I know I am, but . . .
“You can't give up now,” Marcus says.
But, I’m so tired . . .
“Everyone's tired,” Tom concludes, “but we're just a day away . . . .”
From completing the Three Passes. Where everyday, someone is either airlifted out or carried down the mountain. All talk of heroics aside, I must complete this trek; there is no other option.
Pass day: 6:30 a.m. I shuffle in my boots against the cold. Tom powers up the video camera. “How cold is it?” he asks. His exhalations condense and then vanish in the low-moisture alpine air.
“Siberian cold,” I answer. “Colder than a witch's tit cold.”
A translucent veil of clouds dilutes the sun. We skirt the edge of the frozen lake and begin to climb the trail. Rock hopping across a stream, I pause to catch my breath. And that's when Gopal points out the first leg of the pass. A stairway of switchbacks zigzags straight up the nose. Way the heck up there, seemingly clinging to the rocks, a party of trekkers progresses like a pack of sloths.
I break down. My lower lip trembles, tears cloud my vision, and for a fleeting moment I'm filled with despair. But there’s no turning back. When I first stepped out our teahouse and entered the chill of a new dawn, my fate was sealed. I must surmount the insurmountable, digging deeper than I've ever dug before. No matter how badly my hands ache or how exhausted I've become, if ever there were a time to ignite the flagging strength within me, the time is now.
This is our last long day.
Fast forward to 5:00 p.m. We’re gathered 'round a yak dung fire, cradling cups of sugared tea. Exhilarated, I retrace every step. The rewarding views of Everest from atop the dreaded switchbacks. The silent, snow-laden landscape before the last pitch of our climb. The welcome sight of prayer flags fluttering on the summit. The expressions of our porters, jubilant from ear to ear. When I close my eyes I can visualize our final push to the top, the congratulatory pats on the back and high fives all around. Gratitude, in the purest sense imaginable, courses through me; a wellspring of hope and inspiration that will endure until my trekking days are over.
Suddenly, Gopal is speaking. He waits until this moment to reveal the details of his own personal achievement, and his face lights up with pride. After two failed attempts in twenty years to guide a successful Three Passes Trek, I can't believe . . . ours is his first!
"Did he just say what I think he said?" astonished, I ask Tom.
He nods.
I'm soaring higher than Mount Everest on the great wings of my joy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Two Bolts

Tom and I dangle eighty feet
    from the base of Big Bad Wolf
       like flies tangled in a spiderweb

From our perch above
    Red Rock Canyon
       sandstone metamorphosed
by season upon season of
    sun, wind, and rain
       undulates across the desert landscape
I try not to think about my aching toes
    and cramping feet
       balanced, as I am, on a
          three-inch protrusion of rock
Some people say that
    because I climb I am amazing
       but I don't think so

Sure, I can swallow my fear
    when suspended from
       two shiny bolts bored into the rock
Bolts that could give way
    bolts that might amount to the difference
       between this life and the next
But this does not make me amazing

Life on earth is a delicate balance
    tenuous, like this rope I'm hanging on,
       with the love of my life by my side

Tears well up
    and spill down my cheeks
       like precious drops of rain

Breathe, says Tom.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Om Mani Padme Hum

Om Mani Padme Hum Inscribed on a Trail Side Boulder

About a year and a half ago, I appeared on a radio show hosted by writer and yogini, Sarah Vogel, of Laguna Beach, California. Sarah's show "Out On A Limb," explored the eightfold path of yoga known as Ashtanga, a path that incorporates sensible guidelines for living a purposeful life. I jumped at Sarah's invitation to be interviewed, for I was eager to discuss my newly released memoir Footsteps of Gopal from the perspective of how my yoga practice contributed to and enhanced the experience of my 2013 trek in Nepal.

One of Sarah's questions involved my interpretation of the Buddhist prayer, Om Mani Padme Hum, which literally translates as The Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus. To my understanding, Om Mani Padme (pronounced Pay-May in Tibetan) Hum is a declaration of being, a testimony of existence, which equates to the concept of I Am. The compassionate prayer set my pace on many an uphill climb as I focused on placing one foot and then the next firmly upon solid earth.

The truth is, some things are nearly impossible to verbally express in words. Om Mani Padme Hum is one such phenomenon, better perceived than described. When Sarah mentioned the chant, I anticipated her next question and began mulling through my brain with the speed of a computer hard drive to formulate my layperson's explanation.

Om I described as the "infinite," a component essential to all meditation. I have been told Om encompasses the space between heartbeats or the pause between breaths. "Om is all sound and silence throughout time." So says Peter Matthiessen in his book, The Snow Leopard. He goes on to explain that Om is, ". . . the roar of eternity and also the great stillness of pure being."
Om rock
The Sanskrit "OM" is prevalent on rocks throughout Buddhist Himalaya

Mani is the jewel, which I described as the "infinite void." Mani represents an indestructible essence that exceeds the bounds of time.

Padme, I related to the material world: I could have further quantified my explanation to include rocks, plants, trees, rivers, clouds; in short, the essence of all things that can be touched or experienced by the senses. Padme translates as "lotus" in Tibetan, a beautiful metaphor for blossoming, unfolding, self-discovery, and change.

Hum I failed to explain altogether, in part because I recalled Peter Matthiessen's words: "Hum has no literal meaning, and is variously interpreted (as is all of this great mantra about which whole volumes have been written)."

Throughout Buddhist Himalaya, Om Mani Padme Hum is inscribed on rocks, prayer wheels, and prayer flags fluttering salutations to the Universe. It invokes the compassion of Avalokiteshvara, a Bodhisattva representing The Divine Within. A repetition of this mantra imparts health, prosperity, and benevolence to the land and all of its inhabitants.

Om Mani Padme Hum is a "place" where I can go. When I focus on the mantra, the six-syllables transport me directly to Nepal where I can visualize the great stupa at Boudhnath as it sits resplendent in the sun. Or I can situate myself once again upon the broad mountainside of Gokyo Ri, high above the Ngozumpa Glacier, where space and time converge above this great arena we call Earth.

Om Mani Padme Hum takes me to the Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus, even when I'm seated on my bedroom floor. It's a place where I can close my eyes, still my breath, and simply be.

Friday, June 3, 2016

On Rocks and Being Brave

                        Joshua Tree ~ Sunset ablaze on a late September day.

There isn't a rock climber on the planet who can deny the deep-seated fear of falling. What scares the hell out of climbers is often more challenging than the physical realities of the climb. But while accounts of unfortunate accidents and climber deaths are sobering reminders of the sport's inherent dangers, ascending a route is nothing less than exhilarating. If the precipitous granite wall is the knife, then fear is the blade. A climber's ability to focus beyond its razor's-edge demands intense mental fortitude and resolve. It's the number one reason why, in spite of myself, I continue to return to the rock.

My climbing debut ended almost as soon as it began. Thirty years ago, while attempting a route on Idyllwild's Suicide Rock, my belayer called down: “Don't move! I need to unclip you for a minute.” There I was: clinging to a two-foot wide ledge, a hundred feet up, on the side of a mountain. One minute I was content to gaze over the sweeping pine-forested valley below, and the next minute those trees swooned and swirled. Panic, as cold and palpable as the morning breeze, paralyzed me. “Hey,” I shouted up to my friend, “I need to get off this ledge!” When he gave me the word I scrambled to the top, hoisted myself over the edge, untied my belay rope, and declared I'd never go climbing again.

Not long afterward, when marriage vows, careers, and child-rearing dominated our lives, my husband, Tom, stopped climbing, too.

But life's twists and turns sometimes lead us to revisit places we imagine we'll never see again. Two years ago, Tom and I and our former climbing partner Marcus, a friend we never lost touch with, started working out at a climbing gym. Soon the unmistakable lure of Joshua Tree summoned us back to the rock. Renowned for its jumbled outcroppings and hundreds of climbable crags, Joshua Tree's routes bear quirky names like Poodles are People Too, Cryptic, and Walk on the Wild Side. Happy to watch the guys reclaim their “glory days,” I went along for the ride, inventing all sorts of excuses as to why I could have cared less about climbing.

“I prefer to enjoy the scenery,” I said.

“The view's better from the top,” Marcus replied.

“I don't want to get scraped up.”

“Those are badges of honor,” Tom said.

I don't. I can't. I . . . I—

I continued to work out at our climbing gym; the more I practiced, the stronger I became until one spring day, while camping at Joshua Tree, the guys pointed to a climb. “There's your project,” they insisted, referring to an angled flake topped by a narrowed vertical crack imparting this route with its name: Toe Jam. In order to ascend the sixty foot route, I would have to execute a lay back move on the flake, then jam my toe into the crack and rely upon the strength in my legs to propel myself to the top.

I spent the whole evening and a good portion of the next morning surveying the features of the climb. With my stomach in knots, palms sweaty, I agreed to give it a go. I chalked up my hands—a meditative precursor to the opening move—then toed the first knobby edge. Searching for a handhold I balanced, and progressed a notch on the rock. And then another notch after that. And then another. Until—

No one could have been more surprised than I was when I levitated to the top.

Toe Jam was just the beginning. Today I'm stronger than ever, more confident and brave, and learning how to cope with my fear. Rather than letting it shut me down, I've discovered a place where I can shelve it. Over the last year and a half, we've made a dozen or more sojourns to the land of the twisted tree, not only in search of the challenge, but to gape at full moons on the rise; to swap stories with like-minded climbers; and to bathe in the fire-orange splendor of sunsets ablaze across the amphitheater of wide desert sky.

I originally wrote this piece in May 2014. Two years later, I've logged over 50 outdoor climbs and have succeeded up three multi-pitch, my highest topping out at over 650 feet. The best is yet to come!